Sunday, April 21, 2019

Orphans of the Sky (1941)

Robert Heinlein uses two long stories, "Universe" and "Common Sense," to think about one of the most difficult ethical problems of long-term space travel. If it's going to take multiple generations of time to get to another solar system, which is the best we can hope for from technology then and now still, that means the people setting out originally are the only ones with the choice of being there or not. Literature is full of stories of intergenerational conflict. Start with Oedipus—or Cain. That's probably not going to change just because you think you're on the adventure of a lifetime across the galaxy. That conflict is basically at the center of the two stories that make up Orphans of the Sky, with some ingenious twists. One is that, even though the original mission was intended to take only two or three generations at most, a mutiny, followed by religiously based ignorance, has left the sojourners believing the ship itself is the entirety of the universe. There is no anywhere else. It's a big ship but I'm sure you see the problem. Also, radiation has produced mutant strains who are ostracized and whose existence fuels a lot of the religious jingoism. Heinlein may be cynical but he's even more shrewd about human psychology. He gets away with the cynicism, in many ways like Mark Twain, because of the sunny disposition of his storytelling. Heinlein lives on a wonderful midcentury American attitude of can-do. His best characters are all about getting things done. This leads to various unbelievable points, such as the finish, but the well-scrubbed straight-shooter air nonetheless buoys it. I don't always agree with the main viewpoints in lots of Heinlein's work—he's way too militarist and capital-friendly for my tastes generally and the racial and sexual ideas can stray into the rancid. But it's easy to blame some of it on "the times" and rock along with his voice. Among other things he's about the work of imagining utopias, and his particular vision is one I can't help finding attractive, built on the urgency of our longing to know more and to explore. Heinlein obviously thought long and hard about the problems of multiple-generation space exploration. He's clearly not sure it's even feasible. But the resolve to do it is felt.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Lives of Others (2006)

Das Leben der Anderen, Germany, 137 minutes
Director / writer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Photography: Hagen Bogdanski
Music: Stephane Moucha, Gabriel Yared
Editor: Patricia Rommel
Cast: Ulrich Muhe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Volkmar Kleinert, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Charly Hubner, Herbert Knaup

The Lives of Others is set in 1984, which is an interesting choice for a movie made in 2006. Because the picture resonates with the totalitarian surveillance-state themes of George Orwell's 1984 novel, it feels futuristic, technocratic, and dystopian. Yet because the events occur in East Germany, a country that no longer even exists, it reminds us 1984 is in the past, inevitably casting a kind of insinuating nostalgic mist over it, even in the TV style setups it often uses, moving like a quiet BBC miniseries with lots of interior scenes. The casual propaganda-tinged statements about what's good or not good for socialism feel quaint and naïve. Yet more than anything The Lives of Others exists in the here and now of its own time, in this case the late period of the Bush/Cheney administration and its extensive rollout of a surveillance state (under which we, meaning basically the whole world, still live), reminding us that events like these are neither future nor past but vividly pressing issues of the moment.

Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a true believer and agent of Stasi, East Germany's intelligence and secret police, which the film notifies us early numbered some 100,000 direct employees and 200,000 paid informants. Its greatest preoccupation appears to be with people defecting to the West. Wiesler is so good at his work that he also teaches at university and the first thing we see is his classroom instruction on interrogation techniques, including long interviews, lie detection, sleep deprivation, deception and threats, etc. Like many in law enforcement roles, Wiesler has a mental frame that tends toward seeing criminals and criminal activity everywhere he looks. Just so, he's got a hunch that the celebrated East German writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is not the state-loving boy scout everyone thinks he is. If Wiesler can get something on him it will be good for Wiesler's boss, Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), so he's given the latitude to open a full investigation—and we get a good view of what a full investigation in East Germany looked like.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)

I wanted to talk about the similarities of Booth Tarkington's novel to The Great Gatsby, starting with the title, but I see I already covered it when I wrote about the Orson Welles movie. As it turns out, the movie (such as it is) is quite faithful to the book, in detail and in spirit. It's much like a standard novel of manners—it moves a lot like one of Jane Austen's—which morphs into a genuine American tragedy in the last third. George Amberson Minafer is a great American character—to paraphrase someone on someone else, born on third base but thinks he hit a triple. Actually, that's more and more true of the American moneyed class at large, or certainly their kids (see Kochs, Trumps, Bushes, Romneys). And that's exactly the point. There's an American pattern being exposed here in this great story. The first generation of Americans, hardworking and thrifty (and immigrants, note), makes a fortune by their ingenuity, work, and goodwill. The second generation appreciates the work but is more interested in appreciating the money. The third generation thinks work is beneath them. Georgie Minafer's ambition, in the movie as in the book, is to be a yachtsman. One slight advantage the movie might have on the novel is Tim Holt, who seems vividly apt as Georgie—his petulance, his stupidity, his ability to exert his will. At least I think that's the case, but because I saw the movie first it shaped my sense of these characters and I may never know for sure. Certainly I also now see Joseph Cotten for Eugene Morgan. All credit to Tarkington for the narrative. The complexities of these relationships are all his, nicely transposed to the film, especially the delicious tangle of Georgie falling for Morgan's daughter Lucy, even as Morgan and Georgie's widowed mother Isabel renew a connection from their youth. This is where it most reminded me of Jane Austen—the ways people live their lives and make mistakes and regret them. The foolish things people do and the wise things too. One aspect that comes out even more in the novel is the animal strength of Georgie. He's spoiled rotten but he's strong like a bull. The sense of his living honorably, by his own code, however demented, is also developed more in the book. His ultimate fate is somewhat ambiguous but he is shown as plainly willing to make sacrifices in order to live by what he believes is right. This takes some of the sheen off his nearly perfect despicability—makes him more sympathetic right at the last moment. It is famously a story about him receiving his comeuppance. And so he does, in large doses. It's a neat trick Tarkington leaves you with, a kind of wistful sadness about the whole affair.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

I Often Dream of Trains (1984)

When you hear all about the superiorities of analog versus digital recording, how the sound of analog is warmer, deeper, fuller, best heard on vinyl, I still don't put much credence in it. But somehow I suspect it might help explain Robyn Hitchcock's gem of a Freudian catharsis, a solo album in the Todd Rundgren and Prince sense, meaning that it's mostly just Hitchcock multi-tracking piano, acoustic guitar, and vocals. I'm skeptical about the analog/vinyl theory because, for example, I've been listening to I Often Dream of Trains on CD and other digital formats since the '90s, when my turntable went by the wayside. It always sounds warm, deep, and full. It's an album for winter, late night, a fire, a tab of acid, cocoa. The icy dignity of Hitchcock's piano chording and his high holy vocal harmonies—"Trams of Old London" so beautiful—are punctured by his typically loony word porridge, which is often less charming goofball free association and more slightly distressing vomitus from the unconscious. But wait, it's a joke, right? The uncertainty makes it work. Take "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus," an impressive gospel-grounded number that works the same anti-irony approach musically as the Velvet Underground's "Jesus," posing on the one hand as a plaintive cry to God's mercy for your future hymnal consideration. But there's something off about the words: "Dyin' of starvation in the gutter ... / Or alcoholic poisoning, in the toilet of my choice ... / Fried to death in seconds by the Russians." Eventually it works up to: "If you believe in nothing, honey, it believes in you." This rage is not exactly the anti-irony approach to gospel of the Velvets.

Another thematic element is the sound of early-'70s John Lennon ("Flavour of Night" all but a Plastic Ono Band outtake) and it can also feel like Al Stewart's id on the loose. Hitchcock's weird words must be taken as surreal. I think there's a good deal of humor to them as well but the point where they turn from jokes into something more serious, those things out of the unconscious that surrealists are forever exploring, the lines are gray and blurred. Consider "Uncorrected Personality Traits," the terrible earworm and song you are likely doomed to live with inside your head for the rest of your life, along with the 1-877-Kars4Kids radio ad. It's just Hitchcock's voice, the insanely catchy nursery rhyme melody, and Freud truisms: "Lack of involvement with the father, or over-involvement with the mother / Can result in lack of ability to relate to sexual fears, and in homosexual / ... If you give in to them / Every time they cry / They will become little tyrants / But they won't remember why / ... The spoiled baby grows into / The escapist teenager who's / The adult alcoholic who's / The middle-aged suicide (oy)." And all together one more time: "Uncorrected personality traits that seem whimsical in a child may prove to / Be ugly in a fully grown adult." I love this song and hate it and grudgingly respect it and think it's brilliant all at the same time. Some of Hitchcock's riffs on sexuality, notably transsexuals ("even Marilyn Monroe was a man"), feel at least a little problematic now, if presciently open. This also applies to "Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl" (why the wish? "so I could ROOT myself in the shower," though the lyric sheet says "wreck" rather than "root" ... actually I don't know what it means either way but calling attention to pretty girls in the shower for no particular reason is I guess what's worrying me). There was always a sense with Hitchcock then, which I am still willing to extend to him now, that he's more like another daffy rolling wordsmith in debt to Bob Dylan and essentially harmless. But these songs don't always feel harmless, and that's one of the album's enduring strong points.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Scarlet Street (1945)

USA, 102 minutes
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Georges de La Fouchardiere, Andre Mouezy-Eon, Dudley Nichols
Photography: Milton R. Krasner
Music: Hans J. Salter
Editor: Arthur Hilton
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, Rosalind Ivan, Arthur Loft, Samuel S. Hinds, Jess Barker

Scarlet Street is just as much a dream state film noir as The Woman in the Window, but everything is a little more frayed at the edges, beat down, wretched, and pointless. Edward G. Robinson is once again the middle-aged patsy for Joan Bennett, but instead of Richard Wanley, a professor who belongs to a private walnut-paneled club in Manhattan, he plays Christopher Cross, a humble henpecked minor clerk who thinks he's a painter. The Joan Bennett character is the same, but a few rungs down the ladder. In The Woman in the Window she was Alice Reed, a woman with no visible income. In Scarlet Street there's no question that Kitty (Bennett) is a prostitute. And she's in love ("love") with her pimp—Johnny (Dan Duryea). Duryea slaps Bennett around like last time, even more actually, but this time she's crazy mad for the guy. The most haunting line in the whole movie might be, "Jeepers, I love you, Johnny."

There's a lot of crossover between the two movies but perhaps the most intriguing is the theme of painting. In The Woman in the Window it's a painting that draws Wanley to Reed, but here painting and the world of art are much more enmeshed with everything. Cross, it turns out, is not a wannabe but actually an undiscovered genius, whose talent is unveiled within hours when Johnny lifts a few samples of his work and takes them down to Washington Square to see what he can get for them. Johnny had the impression he could get more, a lot more, but we can see what really counts is that the Most Important Art Critic in New York simply must know who this artist is (he happened to walk by Washington Square, apparently). So Johnny tells him it's Kitty. What could possibly go wrong? Spoilers, of course.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Law & Order, s5 (1994-1995)

In 1994, before cable and then streaming sent it all sprawling (disruption, baby, it's a virtue now), it was still critically important for any TV series to reach a fifth season because that opened the door to rerun syndication Valhalla, extending into perpetuity (The Simpsons, for example, is still going and so is its rerun industry, post-10th-season naysayers notwithstanding). That year, 1994, was also important in the annals of broadcast crime and true-crime because in June O.J. Simpson allegedly committed the double homicide for which he was acquitted, and the whole riveting debacle—from the slow-motion police chase on live TV to the reading of the verdict 16 months later—radically changed lots of things about crime and broadcast and celebrity. The coming of DNA evidence as indisputable arbiter was another big part of the change, resulting in a resurgence in the popular appetite for crime fare, especially true-crime fare, propelled on a daily basis in large part by the ongoing O.J. case (and then into the maw of the JonBenet Ramsey mystery, where it appears to have consumed itself in a way, though leaving an entire true-crime industry behind still visible on multiple cable channels). Law & Order was well positioned to take advantage of these currents, even as it receded some next to the flood of documentaries in the Bill Kurtis style. But that didn't matter much because now Law & Order reruns were always there waiting for you on the A&E channel when you were done with the cold-case files or whatnot.

With the arrival of Sam Waterston as ADA Jack McCoy, who would never leave the show from that point on, Law & Order took more of a cautious running-in-place kind of approach. There are still episodes in the "ripped from the headlines" mode (and always would be, at varying degrees of intensity season to season), but a couple of other themes are starting to creep more into prominence. One is a familiar conventional safe approach to a TV series, focusing on the ensemble nature of the cast and devoting time to personal character development. For example, there's an episode this season where Captain Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) shoots and kills an assailant off-hours and finds herself in deep dutch when the evidence doesn't match her story. Or, almost immediately, McCoy begins an affair with his assistant Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy). This affair is particularly weak sauce in the flagship show (though stuff like it would be more like the staple in the spinoffs), but at least it never dominates. In fact, the affair between McCoy and Kincaid was virtually invisible to me as I first encountered the show and watched it for years mostly in reruns, and it was only when I was going through this season systematically that I saw the subtle hints of chumminess between them for what they are. So lawyerly, so professional, so icky now.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000)

Dave Eggers's specialty might be setting up shop in the gray areas of literature and then living there as if he were a natural. Maybe he is. His first book is a reasonably straightforward memoir, written and published in his late 20s. That's pretty young for a memoir, but Eggers already had a daunting life story to tell—both his parents died of cancer in the same year, when he was 21 and his youngest brother Toph was 8. Dave, Toph, and their sister Beth (with help from the eldest of the four siblings, Bill) moved to California and raised Toph while attempting to carry on their own young adult lives. But it probably wasn't the harrowing story that made Eggers and his book so popular in 2000. That likely had more to do with a natural talent for telling a story, filtered through a Gen X sensibility. In fact, it might be fair to call this a classic of Gen X literature, along with anything you'd care to name by Douglas Coupland, author of the term. Ironical self-consciousness is a primary feature confronting the reader. It starts with the title. Then there are elaborate instructions for how to read the book, along with sections of the book that were taken out presented with no context. Then it's on to the Acknowledgments, another lengthy section riffing on its own self-awareness and abusing book structure tics, e.g., "The author would like to acknowledge that he does not look good in red." After nearly a hundred pages, the text proper of the memoir finally begins. Two things enable Eggers to get away with all this, at least as much as he does. He doesn't always. But he is a good writer and his story has a sobering gravity that keeps it compelling. Both elements are necessary but in the end I'm more impressed with his writing. He is somehow warm and generous even as he is cold and calculating, willing to test his sincerity in the crucible of your skepticism as much as it takes. Perhaps because he is literally the first to doubt his own sincerity. He is a weird combination of genuinely modest and raging egotist. I was sad to hear his troubles did not end with those recounted in the book. A year or two after it was published his sister killed herself. He hasn't written much about his family since. The book does not live up to the title, of course, but it's good enough to pal around with the idea.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 05, 2019

The Woman in the Window (1944)

USA, 107 minutes
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Nunnally Johnson, J.H. Wallis
Photography: Milton R. Krasner
Music: Arthur Lange, Hugo Friedhofer, Bruno Mason, Charles Maxwell
Editors: Marjorie Fowler, Gene Fowler Jr., Thomas Pratt
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Raymond Massey, Edmund Breon, Arthur Loft, Spanky McFarland, Robert Blake

The ending of The Woman in the Window was a personal brainchild of director Fritz Lang and not forced on him by any grasping or monolithic studio head. I'm about to give it away wholesale right off the bat so here's your spoiler alert, 75 years late. The ending has produced groans and derision as flawed, improbable, clichéd, whatever. It was all a dream. None of it ever happened. In DC Comics parlance, it's "An Imaginary Tale!" Sure, it's corny, especially the sitcom way it plays out in the last minutes, complete with goofy music, once Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) wakes and realizes he has somehow won a redemption, scurrying away like a reprieved rat. But my view is closer to the Halliwell's film guide, which takes it with equanimity, saying the ending "can now be seen as a decorative extra to a story which had already ended satisfactorily."

I want to go even further and call The Woman in the Window one of the better dream movies we have, certainly for the era, dreams being a narrative form that movies can somehow be particularly good at: specifically, in this case, the absurd nightmare that starts with one small wrong decision. This movie is full of those "now how did this happen?" kind of moments that populate dream states out of control, from ill preparation for critically important tests to nudity on an NBA basketball court to never being able to run away. More importantly, perhaps, after the weak efforts of Lang toward war morale messaging of his two previous movies, Ministry of Fear and Hangmen Also Die!, he shrunk the scale to make a tidy American domestic film noir drama whose ambitions generally do not go beyond causing viewers' nerve ends to shriek with practically every developing scene. The Woman in the Window is good at the dream state, that's my own contention, but everyone agrees it's good at drawing out anxiety. If like me that's your idea of entertainment, come and get it.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Us (2019)

For the third year in a row now an African-American movie has posted surprise breakout box office numbers early in the year. One was Black Panther and the other two are horror movies with extra sauce directed by Jordan Peele. If Get Out played a little safe first by going for laughs (Peele is still probably best known as a comic, after all), and then winding up the final third in all too familiar slasher style horror convention, Us is better, more ambitious, even more committed to its unique premises and piling on the conventions in layers. There are unmistakable racial glosses in both, but they are often more like recognizable universal elements contributing to the general anxiety. We're not that surprised, for example, when police are slow to respond to a 911 call from the family of four in Us (Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong'o, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex). And no, it doesn't matter that they are buppie middle class. In fact, what's more surprising is that there might actually be a reason other than racism for the slow response. Or at least, I know a reason was mentioned. But other things were mentioned that would make it seem unlikely. Us can get to be slow sledding at some points toward the end, encumbered by all its concept and hints of counter-concepts and a desire to impress. That might mean the movie is actually even better on another go. I don't know about that yet. But down on the level of the hoary old horror movie, it has plenty of good things going on, borrowing dread from classic themes of horror, notably the always strangely unnerving doppelganger threat, mixing them shrewdly with not-yet-so-classic themes of home invasion movies like Funny Games (1997 version), The Last House on the Left (2010 version), or The Strangers (2008), along with some seasonings of body horror and paranoia from The Brood and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A big neon sign early in the movie points to C.H.U.D. and there's a hazy sort of kidnapping in there too, as backstory. At a carnival. Plus '80s nostalgia. It finally all sets up a mano a mano throwdown between the family that has spent the first 20 minutes of the movie charming us silly—Us is as good on middle-class complacency as the early scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—versus their strange counterparts in the restrained red jumpsuits, which may or may not be part of a worldwide plague, like the original George Romero zombies. But that's part of the concept and there for you to figure out with loved ones later over pie and coffee. There's only so much you can do with these kinds of mysterious what-is-the-universe-anyway kinds of things. Us does most of them and does them pretty well and it knows how to scare without shock cuts (though of course it has shock cuts). Everyone is good and N'yongo is amazing, especially in the red. See it.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

"The Birthplace" (1903)

This late Henry James story is lauded on Wikipedia as witty and hilarious, warm words from the typically staid crowdsourced online encyclopedia. Well, maybe it's witty and hilarious. It's intended primarily as a send-up of tourist Shakespeare worship. The principal characters, Mr. and Mrs. Gedge, once again hail from the over-refined and underpaid refuge of the upper classes, whom James admired. The Gedges, who are in circumstances, take positions as guides and managers of the original Shakespeare home, where the Bard was actually raised. James appreciated the work of Shakespeare even as he doubted the authorship. Like James, Mr. Gedge subscribes to a theory other than single authorship and now his half-hearted guide patter is starting to bum the people out. This in turn is causing Mrs. Gedge nervous complaints, especially when the big boss shows up to set her husband straight. In the end, Mr. Gedge gets the Shakespeare religion, extols the legend enthusiastically, earns a raise, and Mrs. Gedge is happy again. Droll, very droll. I have no dog in any fight about Shakespeare so a key aspect of the premise already falls a little flat for me. And then it's also typical of James's later stuff, which requires patience and parsing. I was short on the former, as he might say, and so my interest in carrying on with the latter, nay my very ability, was perforce diminished. On top of that, the proofreading in the electronic version can be off. Many confusing commas, or lacks thereof, I'll put it that way. I like the electronic version because I often need help in the first place with vocabulary and untranslated foreign terms. Folks, this is why I'm sold on e-books. These days, when I read a printed book, I sorely miss being able to look up words in context as I go (and lugging out the dictionary is inconvenient), which is practically a necessity with many Henry James passages. Also, Delphi editions let you buy everything an author ever wrote, including letters and criticism, all in one giant product. I call them shelf products. Amazing, wonderful, convenient. I love them except for glitches like the proofreading or occasional botched navigation (see, or rather don't see, the Balzac edition). This Henry James story is not that perfect, though I might like it better in another mood. Sorry about the testimonial for e-books. I had to say it somewhere.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 55 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

El laberinto del fauno, Spain / Mexico / USA, 118 minutes
Director / writer: Guillermo del Toro
Photography: Guillermo Navarro
Music: Javier Navarrete
Editor: Bernat Vilaplana
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdu, Sergi Lopez, Alex Angulo, Ariadna Gil, Doug Jones

Pan's Labyrinth is a very different movie from The Spirit of the Beehive (which by coincidence I was writing about a few weeks ago) but the similarities are striking. Both focus on the perceptions and experience of a young girl, both involve fevered imagination states and possibly magic (or certainly "magic"), and both are set in Spain in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, isolated in remote regions but with World War II still raging beyond the horizons. It's even possible to say that Pan's Labyrinth is equally preoccupied with the same two questions that haunt Beehive: Why did the monster kill the girl? Why did the people kill the monster?

But where Beehive is quiet and locates its motivating conflicts at the margins, Pan's Labyrinth is pulpy and rich with glittering special effects and showy clashes. They are both fairy tales, after a fashion, with raw brutalities. Another picture Pan's Labyrinth bears comparison with is Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, also comfortable with magic and inhumanity. In terms of the way it looks, however, the special effects puts Pan's Labyrinth more in the company of movies like Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars 23, Harry Potter, able to soar on its visual conceits even if you are never fooled that what you are looking at is anything but movie special effects. For that reason, perhaps, I usually end up a little underwhelmed by Pan's Labyrinth. Instead of fairies and a magical faun I tend to see a really impressive movie budget. Pan's Labyrinth rings with the dulcet tones of allocated capital. Some spoilers.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Cold War (2018)

Cold War by director and cowriter Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida) reminded me of classic early-'60s art films, but I hope by saying that I'm not damning with faint praise. This desperate love story, shot in luminous black and white, set in midcentury Eastern Europe and Western Europe, starring bohemians, is a quiet smoldering piece of fine work, often stunningly beautiful. It starts in Poland, with a movement toward authentic folk music that goes on to became a tool of Soviet propaganda. Impresario Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, looking like a Daniel Day-Lewis stunt double) is doing the Alan Lomax thing in Poland, combing the countryside for folk music, singers, and musicians, where he encounters Zula (Joanna Kulig), a singer with talent and a mysterious background. Almost instantly no surprise it's a case of Katie shut the front door: love, lust, pounding chests, heart signs on eyeballs, etc. Wiktor and Zula both have the talent to bond over making it professionally but their backgrounds bring them into personal conflict. He's well educated and middle-class, she is Russian, or lived in Russia, from the peasant class. We learn she had to fend her father off with a knife at some point and run away. She has the hard shell of a survivor. We never hear how it went for them in the war. Instead, Cold War starts in 1949 when they meet and we follow the journey as Wiktor escapes to the West but Zula stands him up on that and they are separated practically from then on. Wiktor mewls a lot about "the love of my life" as he prowls the spectacular nighttime city streets of Europe and gets hustled around by sinister agents. Wiktor and Zula still see one another all the time, across the years, and then it's hot chemistry baby what is this thing, but they are going their separate ways too, growing apart. He has lovers and she is jealous, at one point she marries, then later she is married again to an unpleasant fellow we saw early, and they have a baby. Always there is music, good jazz in Paris, ravishing "folk" productions approximately as authentic as Riverdance say, torch songs in nightclubs, even, in 1955, a somewhat hackneyed grope for "Rock Around the Clock" at a discotheque which is nonetheless effective in the moment. Cold War might err on the side of being slight but it's really put together well.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

U.S.A. (1930-1936)

John Dos Passos's masterpiece is billed as a trilogy—consisting of the novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936), published separately—but it was intended and is best taken as a single work, though any one of the novels gives the basic idea. The same eccentric structure is used in them all. Sections called Newsreel string together headlines, snippets of song lyrics, and other flotsam of popular culture. Sections called The Camera Eye take interior, stream-of-consciousness views and are often difficult to parse. Still other sections offer poetically compressed biographies of key historical figures: Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, Eugene Debs, Thorstein Veblen, many others. But the great majority of U.S.A. consists of the stories of a sprawling cast of characters, who appear in one novel and reappear in another, or maybe disappear altogether, and often intersect with one another. It's a clinic in social realism. Altogether it is the story of the US in the first 30 years of the 20th century: the tail end of the Gilded Age meeting the headwinds of Progressivism, followed by war and other financial insanities. It's big, it's ambitious, and it works. It should be included in all discussions of great American novels, as it could well be the very best. There isn't enough about the women's movement of the time, specifically suffrage, nor about the 1918 flu pandemic, which did away with an estimated 3% to 5% of the world's population, but now I'm quibbling. U.S.A. is mostly focused on the struggle between capital and labor, as big as anything in that time. It tracks the rise of the modern public relations business and its use as propaganda. None of its characters is entirely innocent and no one is entirely guilty. Most of them drink too much, show loose morals, can't keep it together. "It's a good life if you don't weaken" they say to one another. But of course we all weaken and we all know we do too. Writing in the depths of the Depression in the 1930s, Dos Passos seemed sanguine about the fate of the struggle. The '30s were not good times for bankers either, many of them set back on their heels good and hard. And Russia could still be taken as a bright light, though it was beginning to dim with Stalin. You can never be optimistic about capital and labor, not least because the conflict has run for centuries, but Dos Passos might have felt generous toward the at least temporarily vanquished forces of conservatism. That overconfidence did not serve his values well in the long run, as the rise of Reagan happened 10 years after Dos Passos's death, but the equanimity does provide a nice balancing element that benefits this work a good deal. The capitalists in U.S.A. have human sides, and labor is not without its flaws. Mostly, this is one of the most American things I know. Essential.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Compliance (2012)

USA, 90 minutes
Director / writer: Craig Zobel
Photography: Adam Stone
Music: Heather McIntosh
Editor: Jane Rizzo
Cast: Ann Dowd, Pat Healy, Dreama Walker, Bill Camp, Ashlie Atkinson, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey

If there's such a thing as a genre of movies based on social psychology experiments (which this IMDb list would suggest is so), then I guess I am a fan. Or let's say the ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to its newsletter. Certainly Compliance fits the bill, along with 2015's Experimenter and a German picture from 2001, Das Experiment. To be sure, Compliance gets carried away with itself and drifts toward pornography before finally finishing on a ridiculously self-righteous note of true-crime documentary. I have to wonder if the movie isn't intended to be a comedy after all. And why not? The human comedy! The picture is "inspired by true events," which only may or may not have gone to the excesses shown here. As if justifying or apologizing for its extremities, the last image of Compliance before the closing credits is a title card, black letters on lighthouse-blinding white: "Over 70 similar incidents were reported in 30 U.S. states."

Director and writer Craig Zobel owns up in the DVD extras to a fascination with social psychologist Stanley Milgram—Milgram and, of course, his obedience experiment. Obedience to authority is obviously what was at work in the true events behind Compliance, a case Wikipedia calls the "strip search  phone call scam." In these strange and amazing incidents, which took place from 1992 until 2004, a prank caller phoned into fast food restaurants or grocery stores, usually at their busiest times of day, claimed to be a police officer, said one of the employees had robbed someone, and recruited managers into conducting strip searches of employees. In some cases the caller would claim to have a corporate executive standing by. As with phishing types of fraud, just a few nuggets of factual information, such as the name of an executive, can open the door to complete cooperation. It's textbook Milgram, with the caller (Pat Healy, in Compliance) repeatedly asserting his authority and saying all responsibility rests with him.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

"Adjustment Team" (1954)

This story by Philip K. Dick works from a premise that is essentially chaos theory, though it didn't have the name yet in 1954. The famous example is the butterfly in Brazil that causes a hurricane in Texas through a chain of random cause-and-effect events. In Dick's story there are figures behind the scenes, pulling the strings to keep things on track according to some master plan—basically, making sure the butterfly is where it's supposed to be and that it's flapping its wings. Obviously these folks have extraordinary powers, as supernatural or divine or at least superior beings. In the way that things happen in stories by Philip Dick, a random person named Ed Fletcher is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Somebody on the "adjustment team" botched their assignment. And Fletcher sees things he shouldn't have seen. What he sees is the great strength of this story, an inspired vision of gray dust. The rest of it is little more than pro forma plotting for the sake of a beginning and end. More than 50 years later, in 2011, it was made into a thriller style movie starring Matt Damon, The Adjustment Bureau. Damon plays David Norris, the renamed Ed Fletcher character, and more new glitzy details have been heaped on—Norris is a high-flying New York politician, he falls in love with a woman played by Emily Blunt he is "not supposed to be with," and the "adjustment bureau" hunting him includes John Slattery and Terence Stamp, looking like auditions for The Matrix. The movie does a pretty good job of maintaining a Dickian air, but it also should be mentioned that in some ways "Adjustment Team" is an early sign of Dick's religious bent, as what else are these technocrats of reality but some kind of angel or perhaps demon working for higher powers? Also, note again Dick's ability to suss things out of the air when they're about to break big, in this case chaos theory. But the best part of either story or movie is Dick's stark vision of the gray "real" reality behind the one we live in. The movie does attempt one scene like it, briefly, in a conference room, but can't match or even come close to Dick's vision and was wise to stop there. In more general terms the story feels a little too long and padded out, as if Dick needed to hit a certain word count. It's not one of his best, but serves notice that even not his best can have really strong things to recommend.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Top 40

1. Kids See Ghosts, "Reborn" (5:24)
2. Drake, "Nonstop" (3:58)
3. Chloe x Halle, "Happy Without Me" (3:27)
4. Kali Uchis, "Killer" (2:52)
5. Boy Azooga, "Loner Boogie" (2:05)
6. Rosalia, "Malamente" (2:29)
7. Beach House, "Alien" (4:03)
8. Charles Bradley, "Can't Fight the Feeling" (2:48)
9. Health, "Body/Prison" (2:44)
10. Brian Eno, "The Weight of History" (8:52)
11. Cloud Nothings, "So Right So Clean" (3:42)
12. Shawn Mendes & Zedd, "Lost in Japan (Remix)" (3:21)
13. James Bay, "Pink Lemonade" (4:13)
14. Ariana Grande, "Thank U, Next" (3:27)
15. Pointer Sisters, "Going Down Slowly" (7:50, 1975)
16. Specials, "Vote for Me" (5:01)
17. Grimes feat. Hana, "We Appreciate Power" (5:34)
18. Iceage, "Broken Hours" (4:42)
19. Grandaddy, "Bison on the Plains" (5:08)
20. Norah Jones, "Wintertime" (3:48)
21. Sharon Van Etten, "Comeback Kid" (3:02)
22. Toro y Moi, "Freelance" (3:46)
23. Thundercat feat. BadBadNotGood & Flying Lotus, "King of the Hill" (2:55)
24. Yves Tumor, "Noid" (3:29)
25. Bazzi feat. Camila Cabello, "Beautiful" (3:00)
26. Empress Of, "When I'm With Him" (3:14)
27. Diego Redd, "Chemtrail" (4:05)
28. Peggy Gou, "It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)" (6:35)
29. Amber Mark, "Love Me Right" (4:52)
30. Valee, "Womp Womp" (3:47)
31. Rae Sremmurd, "Powerglide" (5:32)
32. Blood Orange, "Charcoal Baby" (4:02)
33. 1975, "Love It If We Made It" (4:13)
34. Lil Wayne, "Uproar" (3:14)
35. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, "Talking Straight" (3:44)
36. Teyana Taylor, "Gonna Love Me" (2:47)
37. Marie Davidson, "Work It" (4:20)
38. John Mayer, "New Light" (3:36)
39. Sophie, "Is It Cold in the Water?" (3:32)
40. Sons of Kemet, "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman" (5:38)

thx: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, Phil Dellio, The Stranger, social media at random, once in a while the radio

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Castle in the Forest (2007)

Norman Mailer's last novel, published the same year he died, is a real doozy—I mean that in all best ways. To start, it's one culmination of a cosmology he had been discussing as asides since at least the '60s. The idea is that God is not entirely omnipotent, and probably not so omniscient or even that beneficent either. But he's the best bet we've got against Satan, who is more or less God's equal, as they are at war, perhaps without end. It's much more detailed here, and in fact the operations of both God and Satan happen to look quite a bit like the day-to-day work of intelligence agencies. There's a constant game of recruitment and betrayal going on. The story is told from the point of view of a demon—a gofer, midlevel at best, perhaps more like a foot soldier one step above a courier. Satan is referred to as "the Maestro" (though that may not be Satan but only a high-level director) (and never mind about that Seinfeld episode!) and God as "D.K.," which stands for dummkopf. The story is Adolf Hitler's childhood and early adolescence. It ends when he has reached the age of 14, and all history is still in front of him. Now this turns out to be a monstrously rich vein for Mailer to work, starting with Hitler's mysterious paternal grandfather, who is unknown. At one point certain rumors indicated he might have been a Jew, but that has been debunked. I checked with Wikipedia regularly for some idea of where history leaves off and Mailer's imagination takes over. Much of this story appears to be factual. The line of thought Mailer is intrigued by—perhaps not surprisingly for him—is the possibility of incest. He suggests some German Nazis may have believed incest purified and strengthened genetic lines, even though it comes with the hazard of grotesquely disabled heirs. I'm not actually sure Nazis believed in incest that way, but things are certainly complicated in that particular corner of Hitler's family. There's enough plausibility for Mailer to make something of it. The Castle in the Forest is otherwise a harrowing story just on the known facts, though not so different from many 19th-century families. Hitler's mother Klara was his father Alois's third wife, and Adolf had two older stepsiblings. Alois was about 15 years older than Klara. Their first three children died before the age of 5, all within months of one another. They had three more—Adolf, a brother Edmund who died as a child, and a sister Paula who was developmentally disabled. Mailer takes every opportunity here to hold forth on demon ways and much is funny, inspired, or both. If the dummkopf nickname is pretty good, calling angels "cudgels" is nearly as good. But mostly I liked this visit to the specter of Adolf Hitler, who remains one of history's most mysterious figures. The novel is based on a ton of research. A bibliography at the back attests to that, though my Wikipedia sessions had already confirmed it in a general way. The Castle in the Forest is definitely one to get to if you're interested in Mailer.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

How Did I Find Myself Here? (2017)

It's honestly amazing to me that a Dream Syndicate album, comeback or otherwise, must now be filed under geezer-rock, especially given that I felt like a bit of a geezer myself already when I first encountered the band in my late 20s. But here we are, decades past the last release. Good luck and Godspeed (from the day late and dollar short). Because it has one song, "80 West," that instantly and reliably evokes everything I love about Dream Syndicate, the album met all my cautious expectations and then some. The loping bass, the thundering guitars and their righteous whine, the film noir drug addict mumble of Steve Wynn through the unruly disarray—it's all there. Play loud. Go do it now. There's a bonus in the longish (6:22) and poignant close to the album, "Kendra's Dream," an ode to former bandmate Kendra Smith that is quite insinuatingly beautiful. I like "Glide" too but in terms of the quality that's where I think How Did I Find Myself Here? starts to slide into the rest of the album, which is more on the order of weaker versions of the best of Dream Syndicate. The title song, evidently intended as a kind of definitive statement, coming in at a stately Coltrane-like 11:13, is ambitious and occasionally interesting—notably when it resorts to figures from the Grateful Dead's classic 1969 performance of "Dark Star"—but more often it is straining for effect. As, I'm afraid, does much of the album. After "80 West" and "Kendra's Dream," approach with caution.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Double Indemnity (1944)

USA, 107 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain
Photography: John F. Seitz
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Editors: Doane Harrison, Lee Hall
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Tom Powers, Jean Heather, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Porter Hall, Raymond Chandler

Because the influence of Double Indemnity was instantly and enduringly so pervasive—it's tempting to make the case that it's ground zero for all film noir, The Maltese Falcon notwithstanding—I'm always surprised to learn how hard it was to get made. But we must remember that Double Indemnity is, after all, the tale of an adulteress and a fornicator plotting foul murder. It's downbeat to blackest hell, which makes it an unusual wartime project. And cowriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler couldn't stand each other. Chandler didn't understand screenplay writing (the more seasoned Howard Hawks knew all that mattered was getting Chandler's name in the credits, ditto for that matter William Faulkner) and Wilder couldn't write without a partner. In the fray, according to legend, Chandler sent the studio heads an indignant letter complaining that Wilder wore Chandler's hat without permission in writing sessions. Chandler thought he had licked drinking but now he started again. Wilder took his revenge by making his next picture, The Lost Weekend, transparently about Chandler.

Double Indemnity is where we see how Billy Wilder knew how to put together a picture: holding his nose to work with Chandler in order to get those sparkling wonderful weird overblown dialogue interludes ("There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour." "How fast was I going, officer?" "I'd say around ninety." "Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket." "Suppose I let you off with a warning this time." "Suppose it doesn't take." "Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles." "Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder." "Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder." "That tears it"), laboring to build a perfect cast our of nervous all-American pros headed by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, with Edward G. Robinson in a supporting role, letting DP John F. Seitz loose to shoot as dark as he wanted and no stinting on the venetian blind shadows putting the guilty behind bars (which we must also remember were relatively new and are still spectacular in Double Indemnity), picking out the wig and sunglasses for Stanwyck, glad-handing censors on all sides and slipping in the juice with astonishing subtlety, resorting to Hitchcock-like grinding suspense techniques in numerous places (what? the car won't start?!), stripping it all down to essentials so it ends on a knockout punch of an image. Even Miklos Rosza's musical theme is perfect, noble, tragic, used frugally yet nagging like grief.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

"Aye, and Gomorrah" (1967)

Samuel R. Delany is a unique figure not just in science fiction but more generally in American literature. Born and raised in Harlem, he is among the first to explore the Q in LGBTQ, before there was ever a Q, before there was even LGBT. Harlan Ellison's anthology finds Delany relatively early in his career, in his mid-20s. He had already published several novels but this is his first published short story. In many ways, Ellison back-loaded the end of this collection with ringers to finish strong: younger writers already with some reputation, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny, and, for the very last, Delany. Like many of the stories in this collection, this can feel more like straining for effect than dangerous. And if its ideas don't seem that surprising now, it's still surprising to find them in a science fiction story, a genre that to this point hewed close to red-blooded heterosex when it involved sex at all. In this future time, it has turned out that space travel involves passing through a band of radiation that leaves astronauts sterilized. The result ultimately is that desexualizing medical procedures before puberty are the optimal approach if a person wants that career. "Spacers"—recognizable by the uniforms they wear on visits to Earth—are nonsexual and ambiguously gendered. In turn, in line with Internet Rule 34, spacers become sexually fetishized objects for a segment of Earth's population. These people are known as "frelks," a neologism from their psychological condition, known as "free-fall-sexual-displacement complex." It seems like a stretch in terms of projecting slang and jargon, but projecting slang and jargon is never easy anyway. I like the view that humans are so consumed with their own sexualities that this is the kind of thing we'd be likely to see in the circumstances. Spacers earn extra money by prostituting themselves to frelks, though doing so stigmatizes them among other spacers. What I think Delany pulls off really well here may be a small matter. But a scene involving a female frelk who is obviously uncontrollably turned on in the presence of a spacer is remarkable. You feel the shame of them both behind the dialogue, and the woman is close to lapsing into incoherent moments of something like talking dirty. "Go back to the moon, loose meat," she says, closing her eyes, in a fever of desire because the spacer's price is too high, or he's just playing with her. Ellison talks about including Delany like it was a coup, the story won a Nebula award, and it finishes the anthology on a high note to a wildly uneven ride.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, March 04, 2019

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

From the first I heard of this project, a commissioned restoration of archival World War I footage, I thought director Peter Jackson sounded like a good choice. But that was because much of what we've seen in his career, from Bad Taste to Heavenly Creatures to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has boasted a natural facility for gee-whiz technical stunts, nearly rivaling Robert Zemeckis for bravura in that realm. What I didn't know is that Jackson is a WWI buff—with a nearly complete run of the War Illustrated magazine and a handy collection of authentic uniforms on which his crew could base colorizing decisions. He also has some personal stake in what was first known as the Great War, with a grandfather who fought and an uncle who died in it. They Shall Not Grow Old, no surprise, is impressive. Jackson's restoration focused primarily on correcting small matters that can make its subjects seem more distant and rinky-dink to us now, adjusting film speeds for example to make movement natural, serving up the most subtle and extraordinary colorizing job I've ever seen (though I admit I haven't seen many), adding a lot of original foley and other sound work, and drawing on hundreds of hours of oral history interviews. It plays much like a Ken Burns documentary in that way—we only hear the words of veterans. Among other things, Jackson hired forensic lip-readers to track down what soldiers in the archival footage were saying, rerecorded artillery sounds in battle conditions, and traveled to Belgium to get the color palette right for specific locations. It's fair to call the result painstaking, and rewarding. The narrative approach removes events from historical specificity and instead offers a more generic WWI experience. The break in and out of color happens when we arrive and leave the Western Front, and no man's land. With the first flush of color it occurred to me that Vietnam and movies like Apocalypse Now have set the cinematic terms for the immediacy of color in war scenarios, a disorienting juxtaposition. The fear and tension of the soldiers and everything about their miseries is somehow more visceral in the intensity of this hallucinatory color. We see lots of detail about life in the trenches. We see and hear about horrible conditions, mud pools of decaying human, mule, and horse corpses into which a man could sink and drown. Lice. Rats. Gangrene. Terrible smells. Chemical gas attacks. We see and hear the constant shelling. We see an unnamed battle start to finish. That's where the War Illustrated images turned out to be useful, as no camera ever went near the fiercest battles. We also get an interesting thumbnail sense of the war, through the words of these veterans, as essentially a battle between Britain and Germany. We really come to know the texture and feel of this extraordinary war, one of the greatest and most lethal atrocities in history. Those soldiers, in those conditions, are some of the bravest who ever fought.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Henderson the Rain King (1959)

The first of two Saul Bellow novels on the Modern Library list of the best of the 20th-century offers another occasion for complaining. I like Bellow enough to concede he has a place on the list—but not two. Then the one I like best is down at #81 (The Adventures of Augie March) while Henderson the Rain King is much higher at #21. It's not a novel that has aged well, with the self-infatuated comic hero millionaire Eugene Henderson heading off to Africa to find fulfillment, or something. What the hell, he can afford a first-class midlife crisis, amirite? Most notably its view of a fictional African interior is painfully caricatured, verging dangerously close to racism. This novel needs to see the movie Black Panther immediately. We can write off its goofs as "of the times" and there are reasons to read and enjoy it, but Modern Library's high ranking is misplaced at best. I admit when I first read Henderson, in the '70s, I thought a lot more of it. Bellow has a robust and invigorating voice and he makes wonderful sentences, half jeering Bugs Bunny American bonhomie and half posturing intellectual. It's the latter half where he generally starts to lose me, trying to fit heavyweight philosophizing into slangy conversational style. This tendency would get much worse in the novel that followed, Herzog. If you can rock along to the personal drama and thumping adventure farce, Henderson is reasonably entertaining, especially the first half. But as the profundity quotient is inflated with lions, formal rites of passage, and mystic rituals it gets to be harder going. I don't discount the comic value here. But most of the humor derives from shared midcentury images of Africa out of Tarzan movies and National Geographic photo spreads. I'm old enough that I recognize these sources and "get" the jokes. But Africa is Africa, with its tragic history, and we know better than Johnny Weissmuller movies now. Thus, I grew peevish with the fiction reader's faithful companion, willing suspension of disbelief. Obviously participants in the Modern Library rankings, not to mention personal fans of Henderson the Rain King, are likely to find my complaints unbearably politically correct. Well that's fine too. "[F]irst to knock, first admitted..." I can still laugh at some of those old Warner Brothers cartoons too, but not all of them—can't abide Speedy Gonzalez, for example. Everybody has to draw the line somewhere. Some of Saul Bellow's best sentences are in Henderson but they might be barely worth it. For God's sake, if you're going to read one novel by Bellow, make it Augie March.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 01, 2019

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

El espíritu de la colmena, Spain, 98 minutes
Director: Victor Erice
Writers: Angel Fernandez Santos, Victor Erice
Photography: Luis Cuadrado
Music: Luis de Pablo
Editor: Pablo G. del Amo
Cast: Ana Torrent, Isabel Telleria, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Teresa Gimpera, Juan Margallo, Jose Villasante

The Spirit of the Beehive announces itself almost right away as a fairy tale. "Once upon a time..." says an early title card illustrated by a child's crayon drawing. "Somewhere on the Castilian plain, around 1940," says the next. That puts us in Spain shortly after the Spanish Civil War, so already the extremes of the fairy tale spectrum have been laid out, from a drawing you can put on your refrigerator to the brutalities of midcentury war. In fact, The Spirit of the Beehive has much the feel of a desperate Depression-era novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice minus the sexual charge, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Grapes of Wrath, I Married a Dead Man, The Day of the Locust. But it's one that's told mostly from the point of view of a 7-year-old girl, at knee-high level, like a cartoon about cats and dogs. There is much about the world of grown-ups that is caught only in flashes, at random. Adults are confusing and hard to understand.

Early on, the small religious village, isolated in the country, welcomes the arrival of a new movie with much excitement and interest—the original 1931 Frankenstein, evidently nine years late. The theater is a makeshift venue with folding chairs and the feel of blankets covering windows, but the movie is well attended, including the 7-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) with her older sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria). Isabel is a typical jealous older sibling, devoting too much of her energy to belittling her younger sister. The Spirit of the Beehive actually enters the theater during the show and spends a few minutes letting us watch the scenes from Frankenstein where the monster meets the little girl by the water and discovers the joys of flowers. We also see some of the scenes after the little girl is found dead. Ana can't make sense of it. She asks Isabel the two questions by which The Spirit of the Beehive is essentially defined, or haunted: Why did the monster kill the girl? Why did the people kill the monster?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

"Auto-da-Fe" (1967)

Roger Zelazny was just coming into his own in science fiction around the time of the Dangerous Visions collection, but much about his appearance here feels perfunctory, including the story. Ellison's main point in his introduction to the story is that Zelazny comes last in most alphabetical lists. He's not last in this list for a reason Ellison will explain in his introduction to the last story, which is next. Meanwhile, Zelazny's story is a kind of elaboration on a pun. In this future society, entertainment is provided by bullfighter-like contests between a man known as a "mechador," and what appears to be robotically operated cars. At least no one appears to be driving the cars, which are on the order of Pontiacs and Chevrolets. "Auto-da-fe," you see, is a term from the Spanish Inquisition, bringing it full circle back to Spain. It means a punishment of death by burning. As bullfighting in 1967 was still reasonably popular, I'm not sure how all these dots connect, but there's not much to this anyway. It's a description of a bullfight but the bull is a series of cars. I guess bullfighting involves a series of bulls. Whatever. The fight is described. Something untoward happens to the mechador, but as he is no one of any consequence it's just a shrug at plot. I'm not much impressed with this story, but it doesn't mean I'm ruling out Zelazny. I've been aware of him, believe I even met a partisan somewhere once. But this feels pro forma. Editor of anthology to rising writer: "Like to do a story for my book?" Rising writer: "Sure, why not?" It might be interesting to speculate how much this story from 1967 has to do with J.G. Ballard's novel Crash from 1973, given that Ballard is in the Ellison collection too. Probably not much. Ballard's novel was similarly preoccupied with automobiles, but he took it further and in much more interesting directions. Zelazny's story is entertaining—vivid images all plotted out by the terms of the fight and its resolution in terms of the overriding pun. It's made comical partly because in the future society it's possible to bring people back from death. In fact, this is the mechador's third death. So basically no harm no foul. That's the driving principle. Get it?

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, February 24, 2019

"The Story in It" (1902)

Skeptics of modern or postmodern self-consciousness are likely well advised to approach this odd story with caution. It's short but packed tight with Henry James's themes and preoccupations, which seemed to be shading inevitably more and more toward a darker cynicism in these later pieces from the turn of the century. Mrs. Maud Blessingbourne, a widow, is a house guest of Mrs. Dyott. Mrs. Dyott is having an affair with Colonel Voyt, which Maud does not know—we learn of it ourselves only in a comical scene of a few compact sentences. Maud, who likes to read romance novels from France, has a crush on Colonel Voyt, who is married in addition to his dalliance with Mrs. Dyott. When we see the three together, they discuss French novels, comparing them to English or American. Colonel Voyt wants to press the point that a woman making bad decisions is actually the essence of the romance, suggesting he is talking about not just sexual experience, but availability, knowingness, volition. The innocent lamb Maud maintains there is drama and tension in the story of a woman maintaining her virtue. This is how we go with James. The language and presentation are so dense and allusive in this story you have to read it through once just to figure out the basic situation. Then you can go back to start teasing out and unpacking all these subtleties going on. In a sense, that's one thumbnail definition of postmodernism—you can't look at anything just once, yet paradoxically you have to absorb the whole thing all at once, before you can make out the intricate pieces for what they are. And this is a reasonably short story—18 pages, albeit with "chapters." As Maud defends her ideas about romance and the virtuous woman, she is acting it out in her life at the same time. As Mrs. Dyott and Colonel Voyt argue their cases for romance lying in the woman and/or both of the lovers doing wrong, they are doing the same. That makes it an argument everyone gets to win. And in turn that makes this story a very neat trick, well done.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 18 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Novo Rock (2009)

The nagging mysteries of 69 and Novo Rock started for me with "Rock'n Latex," which showed up one day in my Top 40 playlist on Napster (me there squinting in the bright new world of streaming music). I stock the playlist from a number of different sources, plundering blogs, Billboard lists, and social media, usually in a binging kind of way so I often forget what source gave me which songs as I digest them over the weeks and even months by shuffle, an hour or two every day. I thought "Rock'n Latex," which is credited on Napster to Carl Craig with a release date of 2017, came from one of those places. But very occasionally, I go into the wilds of Napster personal playlists, and I think now that's where "Rock'n Latex" must have come from. I loved it right away and kept loving it. The band is called 69, and even though Detroit techno key figure Carl Craig does have a side project called 69, this is not it. This 69 is French and somewhere I got the impression it is just two people—maybe the album cover? The Vimeo video? Information on the internet is scant. The release date appears to be 2009 or 2010, not 2017. Yet though it is incredibly obscure in this day and age (or perhaps because, though I hate to think it) I am sold all the way. It reminds me of when Alan Vega of Suicide took on rockabilly on his first solo album, in 1981, and it also reminds me of another kooky rock 'n' roll novelty project in Music for Parties by the Silicon Teens, and in still other ways it's like Ultravox circa Ha!-Ha!-Ha! You can see from song titles such as "Flexy Body," "Dominatrix," or indeed "Rock'n Latex" that there are kinky sexy-naughty preoccupations harking to sectors of glam such as Lou Reed's Transformer (also note there is an ostentatious letter X in every damn one of their song titles). But the attack of guitar and keyboard is bouncy-brite at the same time, dare I say bubblegum. Inevitably, perhaps because they are French, they sound like Plastic Bertrand and "Ca Plane Pour Moi" to me too, in terms of the primitive rock 'n' roll aesthetic. "Rock'n Latex" remains my favorite, perhaps for sentimental reasons. The guitar chords are clanging muted, the yelpy vocal recorded suffocatingly tight with the highs shaved off, the keyboard bottom insistent, and the whole thing propulsive to the max. There's cowbell and even a guitar solo, light and melodic as it is robotic, before it all goes whirling off into a brief psychedelic episode. Poppers, I'm sure. The basic idea is that the people are dressed in latex. All that in 3:05. The intended hit was more likely the title song, which opens the album and actually has videos on YouTube and elsewhere. This song has more of a stomping Glimmer Twins vibe, prowling and tiptoeing all faux honky-tonk with a geeky staccato approach, until the thing opens up big to the tune of "Chinese Rock"—2:33. How did this ever miss?

Friday, February 22, 2019

Melancholia (2011)


[Original 2011 Movie of the Year ballot here. This review first published May 24, 2013.]

Denmark / Sweden / France / Germany, 136 minutes
Director/writer: Lars von Trier
Photography: Manuel Alberto Claro
Music: Richard Wagner
Editor: Molly Marlene Stensgaard
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexander Skarsgard, Brady Corbet, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Kiefer Sutherland

I stumbled a little over my misgivings about director and writer Lars von Trier and actually needed to see this a couple of times before it clicked. Not that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone, ever, sitting twice through a movie that lasts more than two hours, let alone one by von Trier. But it worked for me. Or maybe I've just been in the mood lately for the end of the world. A friend put it on a DVD for me with more such tales, Last Night (the 1998 Canadian film), Perfect Sense, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, all of which suited my mood as well.

But Melancholia was the class of the bunch. In both Melancholia and his most recent before that, Antichrist, von Trier calculatedly puts a number of similar unlikely elements in juxtaposition: beautiful photography, beautiful music, fantastic and gruesome plot points, and a thick overlay of debilitating depression. And stars, in this case most notably Kirsten Dunst, who takes on not just one of the bravest roles I've seen attempted by her, but by anyone. She puts herself in a special class with this. I'm not talking about the nudity, thought that by itself would qualify for bravery. The depths of depression that she plumbs here feel personal, and deeply authentic, so much so that watching them almost starts to feel like a violation itself.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

"Carcinoma Angels" (1967)

Norman Spinrad appears to be a controversial and anarchic element in science fiction's New Wave of the '60s, which the Dangerous Visions collection edited by Harlan Ellison helped bring to term. I vaguely know Spinrad's name—have never read him, and don't know his reputation even. He appears to enjoy offending the conventional. I thought "Carcinoma Angels" was pretty good. It reminded me of Philip K. Dick more than anyone, in all good ways, though it probably started with the drugs and drug-taking the story features. Our hero, Harrison Wintergreen, is ridiculously successful at everything he tries. He's a gazillionaire by the time he's 25—his route there, starting with cornering parts of the baseball card market, is entertaining and inspired, not to mention prescient. Then he becomes a great humanitarian, and finally a great inventor. At the age of 40 he contracts incurable cancer. Undeterred, he sets out to cure cancer. Once again his route to that is entertaining and inspired. His final step is a drug regimen that effectively imposes total sensory deprivation, plus amphetamines so he can't fall asleep. And morphine, so it doesn't hurt. Once fully isolated within himself, he goes to battle, literally with the disease, represented as a kind of gang of motorcycle-riding outlaws. Spinrad is extraordinarily good at fencing in the sense of thought and thinking that goes on beyond sense input and even language. If it's perhaps too busy with the biker gang it also delivers an ending that is surprising and horrifying. Like Dick, Spinrad is good at getting inside your head, at least in this story, and reminding you he's there. I'm almost afraid to look into his other stuff, which is partly Ellison's strange introduction to Spinrad and the story. Ellison plainly doesn't know what to make of Spinrad. He praises him, but also harshly slags some of his work by name as "unreadable." This is the introduction! It's quite possible Ellison was jealous that Spinrad was competing for the same bad boy corner of science fiction he wanted to dominate. It's also possible, from Ellison's and others' descriptions, that a fair amount of Spinrad's work operates in gray areas bordering pornography. In this story the narrative voice is intimidatingly intelligent, or at least sure of its intelligence. It makes me suspect Nietzschean superman fantasies motivate him. Yet the story is also very effective at all the things it's doing. Some great writing here too: "A thousand false pains and pressures tore at him, as if his whole body had been amputated"—I love that "whole body." One of the best in the collection.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Man Who Sold the Moon (1939-1950)

This collection of stories by Robert Heinlein practically amounts to Exhibit 1 in his Future History cycle of stories and novels. The earliest stories were written in 1939 and 1940, and later revised after World War II with updated information about atomic power and weapons. The stories establish new technologies such as solar power, mass transit innovations, and developments in rocketry and imagine how they transform society. One result of Heinlein's ingenious road system, for example, is population gathering along roadways rather than clustering in urban concentrations. I mean, I'm not sure that works for me, but it's one way to move the pieces of the future around. In fact, Heinlein's "hard" science fiction technology is often a matter of bluster and sciency jargon. He's actually equally concerned with how technical advances and social pressures interact specifically in the context of hustling big business American style. Heinlein is all but an unreconstructed capitalist, railing in his midcentury way against taxes and regulation. You can almost smell the cigar smoke. The long title story, more technically a novella, whatever, focuses on the machinations of one D.D. Harriman, industrialist tycoon, to send a man in a rocket to the moon. It's as much about getting deals done in a can-do capitalist system as about the technology or developing it. I thought it was interesting that, in about 1950, Heinlein projected a privately funded scheme reaching the moon in 1978. Sometimes it seems like SF guesses for the future are way too optimistic (jet packs and/or personalized copters, say), but this one turned out to be late by nine years. I've read a bit of Heinlein over the years and always find him instantly engaging. He has a rollicking kind of tone reminiscent of Frank Capra movies, buoyed on pure confidence. The attitude is that anything at all is possible if you're smart and try hard enough. It's tempting to roll your eyes at this sort of pep talk (and it can get tiresome) but then you remember things about Heinlein. He imagined remote manipulator technology, for example, before it was ever invented—in fact, his 1942 story "Waldo" (not in this collection) is what inspired development of it in 1945. So there's something to his fast-talking showmanship too. This is a reasonable place to start with him.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Experimenter (2015)

The Stanley Milgram Story, USA, 98 minutes
Director / writer: Michael Almereyda
Photography: Ryan Samul
Music: Bryan Senti
Editor: Kathryn J. Schubert
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, John Palladino, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, Anton Yelchin, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo, Kellan Lutz, Dennis Haysbert

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram is best-known today for practically the first serious experiment he ever conducted, examining obedience to authority, and especially for the ethical controversy that followed and still dogs the results. Director and writer Michael Almereyda defines his movie almost self-consciously as a biopic, however eccentric, however experimental, but like Milgram himself he is forced to return again and again to the obedience experiment and controversy. Milgram, who died in 1984 at the age of 51, researched far more widely than just that one experiment. One of the pleasures of Experimenter is its depiction and discussion of those experiments, ingenious attempts to uncover the warp and woof of human personality and social interaction: the small-world experiment (which gave us the term and concept "six degrees of separation"), the lost letter experiment, the looking up experiment, the familiar stranger experiment, and others.

But the obedience trials are what Milgram remains known for, and indeed that is likely the most profound and important experiment he ever conceived, if only because the results were so depressingly surprising to everyone. The experiment is a bit complicated, because it involves deception of the test subject (the source of the ethical controversy). Experimenter makes its first order of business a detailed enactment of that test procedure. A subject is told he or she will take the "teacher" role in a learning experiment that involves inducing increasingly more intense electrical shocks to the "learner" when the learner gives a wrong answer to a question. The learner is actually a confederate of the experimenters, sitting in another room out of sight of the teacher, playing a tape recording of himself groaning in pain as the shocks become stronger. When the subject shows reluctance to continue, the authority figure, another confederate of Milgram's pretending to be the learning experiment test administrator, tells the subject that the test must go on and he the administrator will take all responsibility. The subjects, presumably thus relieved of the responsibility, continued administering shocks all the way to the highest levels in 60% to 70% of the trials. Later tests in the 2000s replicated these results.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"Test to Destruction" (1967)

Keith Laumer's long, action-packed, and confusing story features an alien technology that can tune into and manipulate a person's interior thoughts. Our hero, Mallory, is some kind of revolutionary who is run to ground by human agents in the first part of the story. His captors immediately begin torturing him for information. At that point, a passing alien spaceship picks up the activity as their probes detect the strength of Mallory's resistance, which impresses them. The torture device appears to be human in origin. "It creates conditions within the subject's neural system conducive to total recall, and at the same time amplifies the subvocalizations that accompany all highly cerebral activity. The subject is also rendered amenable to verbal cuing," explains the human torture master. The short version is that it induces vivid nightmares with a traumatizing personal edge. So we go through a few nightmares—not bad, they're pretty horrible. Meanwhile the aliens hovering overhead are fascinated by Mallory's resistance. They've never seen anything like it. It's not entirely clear, but appears they actually begin to step in with their own technology to amplify the torture. They want to understand the limits of this strange new phenomenon via "test to destruction"—i.e., increase intensity by degrees and make a note of when and how the mental resistance finally yields. It's all cold and clinical, as the point seems to be that science is an unfeeling thing. That might be fair enough when you consider things like the cold clinical approach taken for animal testing. People say things like "I'd rather save people with cancer than animals in cages." I probably would too, for that matter, but think how it would sound coming from the aliens. So we get a hit of double-bleak in this story: first, as humans, we are still busy with rancorous infighting and torture. And second, the first encounter with intellectually sophisticated aliens from outer space—a momentous occasion in any civilization's history, one would think—turns out to be as hapless subjects in the noble pursuit of higher knowledge. That is some biting bitter cynicism so kudos to Laumer on that score. I also appreciated that for once religion is left out of it. In his introduction to the story, series editor Harlan Ellison praises Laumer for managing his heavy concept within the frame of "the time-honored form of the chase-action-adventure." I'm much less impressed with that side—paradoxically perhaps, the more action, as here, the more boring it tends to be for me—but I like the mordant existential view quite a bit.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Portnoy's Complaint (1969)

For better or worse, Portnoy's Complaint is one more artifact from the 20th century that can trace its existence back in essential ways to Hugh Hefner, with certain strains of sexism—and plain ignorance—that never did find a way to accommodate feminism (let alone LGBTQ). "Portnoy's complaint," presented comically as a medical diagnosis to open the novel, is what we would consider today just one more type of compulsive sexual disorder, among those still considered relatively minor (and so of course comically humiliating) only because they don't usually lead to active criminal behavior, and people don't end up required to register as sex offenders everywhere they go for the rest of their lives. I'm not saying the novel isn't funny—it often is and it's always fun to read—but it is already painfully dated, in many ways: its understanding of masturbation disorders, its cheap and obvious turns to Freud and psychotherapy, its juvenile preoccupation with sex, and its aggressive sexism. Philip Roth's barbaric yawp of a career break is best taken as a ride on a roaring and unhinged ranting voice, held in check only for the sake of clarity, which is scrupulously maintained. It's a bravura performance, if you can get past the conceits. It's formally about sexual frustration but also about the frustration of being culturally uprooted in the world, as a Jew. It's also a formal complaint about the human condition, notably mothers (castrating, of course). "THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTER I'VE MET," is the name of the first chapter, meaning himself, Alexander Portnoy the narrator. (Portnoy's father is pretty unforgettable too, plagued by chronic constipation and his tedious career as an insurance salesman.) Portnoy's Complaint is a pure distillation of Roth's silken, pulsing voice, which only got better, modulated for better effect, as the march of his novels went steadily forward over the decades. It was the flashpoint for his career, and as with other celebrities at the time—the Beatles, say, or Mia Farrow—he struggled for many years to escape his own long shadow. For most of the '70s he was little more than the guy who wrote the sensational book about some schmuck who masturbated all the time. Over at Modern Library, in 1998, they seemed to think it's the best thing he ever did, but actually, persistence paid off for Roth and he went on to write much greater novels than this odd and only semi-charming novelty. So don't believe the hype, start with American Pastoral—in memory, Sabbath's Theater is my favorite, but I still mean to get back to it as I recall it as devastating too—and if you come to Portnoy's Complaint with low expectations you might even have a nice surprise in store.

In case it's not at the library.