Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Secret Agent (1907)

For some time now I've been poking at the 1998 Modern Library list of the 100 Best 20th-Century Novels (see the Novels tab). I have a number of complaints about it, as I have about practically every institutionalized attempt at such honorifics, from the Baseball Hall of Fame to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Oscars, Grammys, and Miss America pageant. It's a flawed list, in short. I have felt free to go picking and choosing—I will never read Finnegans Wake (#77), I can say with some certainty. As further tonic, I paired it with Larry McCaffery's list of the 20th Century's Greatest Hits, another pack of 100 novels, with approximately 30% overlap. McCaffery's list leans more toward currents of the second half of the century. I will probably read even fewer of them in the long run, as it includes not only Finnegans Wake (at #10) but also Gertrude Stein's Making of Americans (at #7) and other such phonebook-sized blasts of dense non-narrative language. I like the cheek of McCaffery to make his #1 not Ulysses but Pale Fire—inspired choice. Then he makes Ulysses his #2. I guess some things you just can't get away from (not that I'm carping about something I don't know—I'm looking forward to finally getting to it). Gravity's Rainbow is #3, and so forth.

I've made my peace with the Modern Library list, even for all its flaws, as I keep finding books I love on it. I've already been aware of most of them, but not all, and some of the finds have been very fine indeed. But Joseph Conrad happens to be an example of one of the list's greatest flaws, so a ritual airing of grievances must now briefly proceed. My main problem with the list may be expressed as a bad case of Usual-Suspectivitis, combined with a kind of willful blindness toward such writers as Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, and many others. To make matters worse, the one problem exacerbates the other. The list is the result of polling the 10 members of the Modern Library editorial board at the time (names I know include A.S. Byatt, Shelby Foote, William Styron, and Gore Vidal), which is a fairly small and doubtless insular sample in the first place. It would be interesting to see the titles that fell 101-200, because then we might get a sense of how the list would change if the simple limitation of one title per author were imposed. Not that I'm necessarily in favor of it—I know it's arbitrary and precludes a certain perspective of how relatively dominating single figures might be—but I'm really not in favor of the clustered-up redundancies in the final list either.

Friday, January 11, 2019

La Jetee (1962)

France, 28 minutes
Director / writer: Chris Marker
Photography: Jean Chiabaut, Chris Marker
Music: Trevor Duncan
Editor: Jean Ravel
Cast: Helene Chatelain, Davos Hanich, Jacques Ledoux, James Kirk

I prefer the version of La Jetee with the voiceover by James Kirk in English because, between the images and words and the high concept of the narrative, it feels easier to absorb by watching and listening rather than by reading and trying to watch. La Jetee is not much longer than an episode of The Twilight Zone, with which it has many affinities, including the black and white photography, the science fiction themes, and something like a twist ending (in this case the twist serves more to give the whole thing a densely constructed poetic integrity rather than to shock, but it's still a surprise). In other ways it's even more primitive than earliest cinema, let alone '60s commercial TV, composed visually entirely of still photos and a few title cards. Very occasionally, the camera pans across a photo, or tracks or zooms in or out of one, and many transitions are dissolves rather than pure cuts. But it's basically a slide show, perhaps the best edited one you will ever see. The approach may not be surprising, given that director and writer Chris Marker like Stanley Kubrick started his career as a professional photographer, but it's still bold, even now. I saw La Jetee first in the mid-'90s, after Terry Gilliam's "inspired by" remake Twelve Monkeys came out, which is four times as long and not even a quarter as effective. I liked La Jetee for its eccentric aesthetic but it took a while for the full implications of the story to register. It's almost too short—perhaps behind Gilliam's impulse to blow it up big and make it operatic. And the conflation of early-'60s art cinema with science fiction is disorienting and distracting as ever. See also Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, which more strays across the line into ridiculous. Time travel in La Jetee appears to be accomplished by some kind of hospital procedure involving injections, which is different from most SF explanations to say the least. It took DVD extras to finally hep me to how deeply inspired the picture is by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. La Jetee has narrative points and visual shots, such as the one at the top of this review, specifically mimicking Hitchcock's strangest and perhaps best movie. The time traveler (Davos Hanich) and the woman he falls for because something feels so familiar about her (Helene Chatelain) have a similar kind of troubling, circling, stalking relationship as Scottie Ferguson and Madeleine Elster (and/or Judy Barton) in Vertigo, though note that no extreme makeovers occur in La Jetee. Once you see that connection a lot of the scenes start to fall in place. At its most fundamental, La Jetee has all the beats of a romance, which is one of its secrets for getting away with the science fiction (not just time travel but also World War III and virtual human extinction). As odd as it is, there is something almost perfect about this small picture. And it's probably not overstating the case to say it's beloved—I've seen it at the top of all-time lists of films more than once, with its fierce partisans ready to fight. I don't think I'm quite there but there's a lot to admire in La Jetee. Rod Serling never came close.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

"Encounter With a Hick" (1967)

Once again, in Jonathan Brand's story for the Dangerous Visions collection, we see "dangerous" equated to a challenge to religious convention. And once again I am thinking about the "Is God Dead?" cover of Time magazine. Brand is among the most obscure writers in the collection. I can't find much about him on the internet. It sounds like he was some kind of graduate student who wandered into the right science fiction convention at the right time, with this story in hand. They liked it. They really liked it. And it's not bad—lively, fun, and sharply written. It's on the short side and does have the familiar problem of explaining concept while advancing plot. As it comes into focus, it involves terraforming corporations in a far future. A brochure describes the six-day process—you can guess where that's headed. At least it leaves the literary sledgehammer alone for resting on the seventh day. It's a bit unnerving, or "dangerous" (and certainly impressive), for the way it seamlessly yokes a fundamental creation myth with the glad-handing air of corporate sales. Someone in the story—the hick in the title, actually—hears it as we would, through our cultural filter, and of course finds it blasphemous. It's not really necessary, in fact it's overkill, but the encounter is practically the only thing that happens in the story. Everything else is concept. Actually, that's not true. There's another story about the scions of two terraforming companies in competition arranging a marriage of their children to each other, with hopes of future corporate consolidation. That's a pretty good story in itself, but leaves no good way to get the brochure in, which is more or less the point and dangerous part of the story. I find myself slipping dangerously myself now toward second-guessing workshop mode, tempted to kick around alternative ways to make the story work. Maybe the marrying children have a slight Romeo and Juliet thing, and reject their parents in terms of the terraforming work for some reason? Well, it's way too late now for anything like that, of course. But the story, not bad as it is, seems like it could be better somehow. Translating the first book of Genesis into jargon-riddled marketing copy (slightly dated more than 50 years on, but recognizable PR jive) is so inspired—that alone is worth a gold star. It just needs a better place to live.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, January 07, 2019

Free Solo (2018)

Here's a documentary that kind of does it the old-fashioned way, focusing on a monumental human achievement and doing its best to stay close to the subject but out of the way too. The human achievement is the first free solo climb of Yosemite's El Capitan half-dome wall, by Alex Honnold in 2017—"free solo" meaning without ropes or other climbing equipment, a trend in recent decades among a select few rock climbers, most of them prematurely dead. The camera work is so good in this picture that it's often very hard to look at it. What they're doing is dangerous. Like most great athletes Honnold can be a bit of a robot in interviews—someone here refers to him affectionately at one point as "Mr. Spock"—but he's an interesting character study, introspective, articulate in his way, obviously deeply grounded, and honest to a fault. Filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi humanize him by including his girlfriend Sanni McCandless and making their relationship part of what he is doing. It's a good impulse and makes it an even better story. But the best part is just seeing it done—how someone goes about walking up to the base of El Capitan and climbing up the vertical face to the top with just hands and feet. It was first done—with ropes—only in 1958, and since then a number of routes have been charted. Honnold spends a lot of time studying the most intricate parts of the climb, meticulously working out the specific movements required for certain passages, and practicing them. Sometimes he slips. We see a lot of people slipping, saved by ropes. There are other setbacks, including injuries. The movie is continually pushing the danger element. But it is fair and saves the best for last. Honnold makes a first attempt in the fall of 2016, which he calls off early. The following June, he finds a day that is very good for him and makes the climb in less than four hours. It is spectacular, and so hard to watch. The cameras are not intrusive—the operators are friends of Honnold by this time and couldn't bear to distract him (one can't even bear to watch during the most treacherous parts). The cameras are not intrusive but they are omnipresent, offering tight and sharp close-ups of fingertips and shoe edges on bare rock as he executes the most difficult portions. Just really awesome stuff, and often hard to watch. It's an achievement in documentary filmmaking too. This is one for a big screen if you can.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

The Sheltering Sky (1949)

Let's start with Wikipedia, because it's so pithy: "a 1949 novel of post-colonial alienation and existential despair." That's really true, and not just because it involves Arabs from North Africa, like The Stranger by Albert Camus. Paul Bowles, however, is less inclined to illustrate an intellectual precept and more inclined to attempt to steal a part of your soul. The actual main character in The Sheltering Sky—we don't realize it's her until the person we thought it was (or I thought it was because I'm a man) suddenly takes ill and dies halfway along—is named Kit. I kept imagining her as Joan Didion—fragile, slightly hypochondriac, filled with elaborate dread, yet a very tough survivor. She and her husband Port are drifting about the region, transfixed by the Sahara Desert and the cultures clinging to it. Port has some kind of fetish for native prostitutes, which is kept vague. He stays out late. Kit resents it but she's also a loner by nature and appreciates the freedom that the distance in this obviously open relationship affords her. Assorted strange Europeans and other travelers flock about them and fly off again. No one is to be trusted exactly, but loyalty can be purchased. The Arabs are unfathomable. They are described in surface detail, and often their intentions can be gleaned, but they are opaque and mysterious. Bowles made them even more so by obfuscating Arabic words to the point where an internet search on them turns up commentary on his poor understanding of the language. The kindle dictionary and translator were useless as often as not. Still, the sense is often there from the context. This is an extremely dark journey, one that is shocking as events unfold. I love it for this strange power. In many ways The Sheltering Sky veers close to horror. By the way, for what it's worth, a 1998 note by Bowles confirms that all the action here takes place in Algeria, and not Morocco, with which Bowles is more generally associated. He also emphasizes that Kit was not based on his wife Jane, also a story writer of some reputation. The foreignness in The Sheltering Sky is intense and palpable. Bowles's writing is elegant, finicky, and precise (if often wrong on the Arabic). This novel is great and unforgettable.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

"The Happy Breed" (1967)

John T. Sladek's story is full of well-used science fiction tropes: the society dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, the utopia become dystopia, robot overlords, and the paradox that rational ideals are more often delusions (Dangerous Visions editor Harlan Ellison writes in his introduction to the story that it's the second he included without knowing anything about the writer, the other being James Cross's "The Doll-House"). In an unimaginably distant future, the 1980s, computers have evolved into artificial intelligence overseers, with absolute power to care for people. The priority is happiness and safety. The result, perhaps not surprisingly, is emotional retardation and helplessness. Your door locks if you attempt to leave home barefoot. Sedation and other measures are applied if you attempt to drink unpasteurized milk. I admit these are not things I am likely to do or even want to do, but you see the point. Eventually the human population is infantilized and pacified, and Earth resembles a kind of nursery. The tragedy here, such as it is, is that the people seem ignorant of their own intellectual regressions. Mostly they don't care, and anyone who does can expect to encounter behavior modification drills from the machines. By the end of the story the omniscient third-person narrator refers to them with contempt, using baby names. A Dave has become a Davie. There are some parallels here with Brave New World—on the surface, it's hard to make out the horrors exactly. On the other hand, the whole robot overlord "killing them with kindness" thing, taken to one of its furthest extremes for example in the Matrix movies, clearly goes too far, so I'll give the story that. But there is also a familiar idea here that something is problematic or wrong with bliss and utopia. It's possible that's true, but my position is that I'd rather learn it the hard way. Please give me bliss and utopia and I will work on the problems arising therefrom. As for the story, it's a pretty good piece, laying out the situation with a lot of clarity, and deftly teasing out the larger concepts and themes as it goes.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

New Year memo

Happy new year to all. Thanks as always for being part of this brave experiment. I start these annual messages with the intention to say something uniquely insightful, or at least witty, but soon retire behind small talk about the weather, scheduling plans for the coming year, and an odd list of movies. This year will be no different. It's been too rainy and wet so far and looks like it's going to be that kind of winter. I might blog a little less in the coming year—sometimes I feel my stamina flagging—but the general approach will remain Sundays for books, Mondays for newer movies, Thursdays for stories, Fridays for older movies, and Saturdays for albums. All best to everyone in the coming year!

Here are 20 great movies I saw in 2018:

1. I, Tonya (2017)
2. Lean on Pete (2017)
3. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
4. Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
5. First Reformed (2017)
6. Faces Places (2017)
7. Eighth Grade (2018)
8. RBG (2018)
9. Venom (2018)
10. Why We Fight (1942-1944)
11. Courage of Lassie (1946)
12. The Last House on the Left (2009)
13. It Follows (2014)
14. Morning for the Osone Family (1946)
15. This Happy Breed (1944)
16. Johnny in the Clouds (The Way to the Stars) (1945)
17. A Hen in the Wind (1948)
18. From This Day Forward (1946)
19. To Each His Own (1946)
20. The Corn Is Green (1945)