Sunday, October 13, 2019

Darkness at Noon (1940)

Although it was taught in my high school and I've heard about it all my life, I'd never read Arthur Koestler's classic of dystopia literature until recently. "Dystopia" might be the wrong word. It's not set in the future and now it seems a little like a relic of the Cold War. In fact, I had it pegged in my mind as a '50s novel, but it was published when Hitler and Stalin were both in power and at war. In many ways it reads like a categorical rejection of communism but I don't think it's exactly that simple. It has more in common with Jim Jones than any of Joseph McCarthy's bogeys, a melancholy study of how ideals metastasize with power and grow mindless and deadly. The narrative arc follows the obtainment of a false confession from a once high-ranking Communist Party official, Rubashov. We hear about little physical torture, but the threat is pervasive. We see more the psychological side, with interview sessions conducted under painfully bright lights all through the day and night. Sleep deprivation is a key point though rarely discussed as such. There are various clumsy points that might be worth acknowledging—hard to believe, for example, that prisoners can communicate so easily and even eloquently with a tapping system through the walls. But what is profoundly believable is the ability of humans to turn true and sincere belief into unanticipated chambers of horror. As a species, are we ever going to figure it out? I despair sometimes. Rubashov may have more perspective on communist ideals as self-delusion, seeing it in his younger comrades as an older man, the generation which followed the Revolution. One of the ways Rubashov justifies his false confession to himself is that it is good for the Party. He knows he has committed his own sins of excess and zeal, and feels he is being punished for them indirectly. He still believes in all the Marxist concepts of history, logic, and inevitability. We know now that the USSR was doomed, even in 1940, to eventually implode into its own oblivion. But I don't think the news would cheer Rubashov. It might make him even more suicidal. It may be hard from the historical context to separate the anticommunist cant from the human tragedy but it's generally worth the effort.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Inland Empire (2006)

France / Poland / USA, 180 minutes
Director / writer / photography / editor: David Lynch
Music: David Lynch, Krzysztof Penderecki, Marek Zebrowski
Cast: Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons, Justin Therous, Harry Dean Stanton, Karolina Gruszka, Peter J. Lucas, Krzysztof Majchrzak, Julia Ormond, Grace Zabriskie

The reluctant reviewer: I kept meaning to pick up a copy of this some years ago when I noticed the price drop below $10, but then I kept putting it off for the same reason I dreaded looking at it again recently. It wasn't much fun the first time. Now that it's out of print in DVD and inevitably commanding collector prices, it turned out to be Netflix DVD, of all places, that foiled my attempt to skip it—no waiting and the disc played fine. As projects by director David Lynch go (in this case, he's also the writer, cinematographer, and editor, plus provides music), it's an extreme example of the discontinuity inserted at the end of Mulholland Dr. and the middle of Lost Highway, with a tantalizing if hard to follow thriller giving way to a somewhat senseless explosion of semi-related images and scenes. Even dreams are more organized than Inland Empire. The part that almost makes sense is one hour. The rest is two hours.

My expectations were low so I ended up liking it more the second time and/or I had more patience for it. Lynch's films are always funny but I noticed and enjoyed it more this time. He's also expert at ratcheting tension out of very little. In the first 15 minutes there's an extremely worrisome conversation between Laura Dern and Grace Zabriskie. I forgo giving character names. Why even try? Dern is credited on IMDb as playing two characters but at least one of them is an actress playing other roles. In many ways Inland Empire defies time and gravity and exists as a map of Laura Dern's face. I found it useful, when my mind began to wander, to think of the picture as a kind of extended John Coltrane solo and Laura Dern as David Lynch's instrument.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

"The Haunted Dolls' House" (1923)

I haven't entirely connected with M.R. James so far, and I'd really like to ever since I found out Mark E. Smith of the Fall was a fan. I still haven't got to all his best regarded stories but consensus seems to lean toward "Casting the Runes" as very best and it didn't do much for me (the Tourneur movie Curse of the Demon is faithful, not bad, and about as good). This later story is not that impressive either—haunted dollhouse with tiny ghostly figures reenacting murders in an intricate tableau every night at 1 a.m., what's to be done? Still, I was struck by the glowing imagery of the dollhouse in its overnight convulsions. I thought the story ought to be an ideal candidate and good bet for a movie adaptation, particularly in the silent era it comes from. It's probably a little old-fashioned now but I imagine, say, director Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg, Tales From the Gimli Hospital) could do something with it. The detail I like is the sight of the dollhouse at night: " ... though there was no light at all in the room, the Dolls' House ... stood out with complete clearness.... The effect was that of a bright harvest moon shining full on the front of a big white stone mansion—a quarter of a mile away it might be, and yet every detail was photographically sharp." I like the image of our hero, Mr. Dillet, sitting up in bed in a dark room in the middle of the night and seeing that. Even silent movie technology in 1923 should have been able to handle it. Think of the French epic from 1923 La roue, or the 1924 version of Peter Pan, or certain effects in Metropolis that reduce actors to the size of dolls. Mr. Dillet is entirely rapt by his hobby of collecting antiques and especially dollhouses. When he brings home this one (it's not his first) he spends hours lovingly setting it up, arranging figures, furniture, and other accessories. That makes him likable even if he is moneyed and haughty, but it's also beside the point. As for the difficulties posed (mainly interrupted sleep) it appears you can do what Mr. Dillet finally does, put it in another room, and problem solved basically. It never seems to be threatening, only a nuisance at worst. Well, it might make you depressed to be reminded every night that some murders of innocents went apparently unpunished. That should never happen. But the magic, such as it is, is in the dollhouse and its ability to cast a campfire mood of comfort and thrilling strangeness.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Read story online.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Henry James: A Life (1953-1985)

Does it say something about the tendency of Henry James toward prolixity that even the condensed version of his biography comes in over 700 pages? It might have more to do with making his three score and ten in a productive career, but that's still a big book, cut down from Leon Edel's original five volumes published between 1953 and 1972. It's enjoyable for anyone with more than passing interest in James and who can stomach people routinely calling him "The Master." Yes and yes for me, though just barely on the latter point. I learned a lot of interesting things. He knew Flaubert and Zola as a young man. He became close friends with Ivan Turgenev. His flirtation with theater was a humiliating disaster. Beginning midway through composing What Maisie Knew in the mid-1890s, he dictated to typists and revised from there. In fact, his personal life in the 1890s—acquiring a typewriter and having electricity installed in his flat—vividly place him in the far past. I should know, because typewriters did not become available until 1874, but it still blows my mind that James and all the others submitted manuscripts in longhand. No wonder he developed some kind of repetitive strain injury, which prompted the move to dictation. Maybe that's all beside the point. Edel is an assiduous biographer, meticulously chasing down points of detail via letters, diary entries, and any way he can find evidence. By his view, James was celibate all his life, and there's a strong sense he was probably gay in an era that would not countenance that. James saw what happened to a much younger man, Oscar Wilde (whose work he didn't think much of anyway, though I still suspect Dorian Gray had something to do with James's The Sacred Fount, doubtless unconsciously). Edel's insights can be striking and illuminating, notably in that 1890s period, when James's greatest personal failure was followed by some of his greatest work, through which Edel traces an ingenious restorative process. Edel lauds the last three novels above all others, as do most students of James, but his personal favorites appear to be the short novel The Aspern Papers and the long story "The Beast in the Jungle"—excellent choices. Along the way, James has interesting friendships with Edith Wharton, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and the public at large, which has always been a little dubious about James, the wise course. For the rest of us, this is a great one-stop account of his life.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 714 pages

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

"The Moonlit Road" (1907)

I've been finding out Ambrose Bierce was a much better and more influential horror story writer than I knew. His stories are versatile and always succinct and somehow find surprising ways to get in the path of 20th-century currents. This story, for example—which comes to function, if you think about it enough, like the view of infinity seen sidewise in opposing mirrors—ultimately provided the source for the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon. The movie is technically based on the story "In a Grove" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (incidentally revered as the father of the Japanese short story). It also includes some details from another Akutagawa story of the same name as the movie, "Rashomon." But "In a Grove" is the story that uses a single incident to probe at truth and perception from different points of view. Akutagawa was directly inspired by "The Moonlit Road," lifting its approach, structure, and key details nearly whole from this provocative and weirdly unyielding Bierce story.

Like much 19th-century horror, "The Moonlit Road" is largely built out of documentary texts, in this case more or less legal depositions. But these documents don't jibe, they differ in small critical ways and don't illuminate so much as confuse the open issues further. A man disappears whose wife has been murdered. It's not clear whether the murder is ever solved. It's not even clear they're talking about the same case. The story is short, divided into three sections, each one a separate individual's statement. The incidents they recount harmonize in some ways but diverge in others. It seems like the same case yet the parts don't fit. The first statement comes from Joel Hetman Jr., the son of the man who disappeared and woman who was murdered, and it's about as straightforward as this story gets, laying out the basic elements of the incident, with nary a ghost or mention of dreaming in sight. The second statement, disjointed and defiant, is from "Caspar Grattan" (he says the name is an alias), a man about to be executed for the murder of his wife. His case sounds just like Hetman's in the details, with shifts in perception arising out of the suggestion of shifts in motive. Yet even as he finishes his account Grattan begins to talk about it as if it were all only a dream he had. As if it never really happened, even though he has described it vividly.

The third section has the most obvious tie to the Kurosawa movie, with a statement from the woman who was murdered obtained by way of a spiritual medium. I always took this part of the movie to be reflecting something unique to Japan's past, allowing this type of testimony in a legal proceeding, and here it turns out to be something dreamed up by a writer in San Francisco, California! The medium, by the way, is identified as "Bayrolles," who also appears as the medium obtaining information in at least one more story by Bierce, "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (along the way inventing Carcosa, a lost ancient city that would later figure in the work of Robert W. Chambers, H.P. Lovecraft, and many others).

So who killed this poor woman and why? An intruder who escaped in the night or her jealous husband enraged to discover her infidelity (or appearance of infidelity)? And why did the husband run away—because seeing her ghost on a moonlit road filled him with unbearable guilt? And what does Caspar Grattan have to do with it? Alas, we never learn. Each account affirms some elements from the others, but each also has perfectly unexplained elements too. The woman didn't see her killer and can't say with certainty who it was. "The sum of what we knew at death is the measure of what we know afterward," is the way she explains her lack of afterlife omniscience. There are certain eerie parallels in this story with Bierce's life too. He divorced his wife in 1904 after discovering her infidelity. And he famously disappeared himself in 1913 and no one knows what became of him, though he's presumed murdered. Perhaps the way Kurosawa's Rashomon is most faithful to Bierce's "Moonlit Road" is that there appears to be no getting to the bottom of it, no matter how many layers you peel back.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

"A Distant Episode" (1947)

[possible spoilers] This short story by Paul Bowles is shocking enough that it probably warrants some sort of trigger warning. I'm also wary of the way he uses the generic greater Arabia as the seat of all human mystery and cruelty, particularly the latter. Much the same is also seen in Bowles's novel The Sheltering Sky. They are nonetheless thrilling experiences to read. In this story the main character, known only as "the Professor," travels to a small village as part of his study of linguistics. From the references, per Wikipedia, the region is likely Morocco or Algeria in the Western Sahara. The Professor is European and his facility with local languages alone shows he is not a typical tourist. Yet in many ways he has the typical problems, a mixture of arrogance, condescension, and sheer naivete that is famous for getting travelers into trouble. The Professor wants to look up a casual old native acquaintance in the village but finds the man has died. Mostly in an attempt to make a new acquaintance, he presses the man who knew the fate of his old friend for certain goods, "camel-udder boxes." The man says they aren't for sale in town but he can help the Professor get them. I didn't have the impression these camel-udder boxes were black market goods so much as something made by a clan that was not on good terms with the clan in the village. Very quickly, they are taking off on foot into the evening on a journey that does not look that promising for the Professor. Yet he pushes on, following the man and taking it as a kind of adventure. Like many travelers to risky areas, he thinks the worst he might find can be handled by a cooperative manner and a willingness to give up cash. At a certain point beyond the village, the Professor's guide leaves him. "The path begins here," he says. "The rock is white and the moon is strong. So you can see well." To our inevitable question, What could possibly go wrong? Bowles has a fiendish answer. And not only that but a calmly vivid and elaborate way of playing it out. The events are there to be discovered in this immaculate tale of human cruelty. Trigger warnings. Trigger warnings. It's deadly swift too, hurling you before you know it into a kind of numbed shock. I'm doing you a favor by raising your expectations so high because maybe then it won't hurt so much. Also, as a word from the PC police, again, I'm not entirely comfortable with the way Bowles uses the alien Arab world as an excuse for the stuff he dreams up. Other horror writers do similar things with Haiti. I didn't look that hard, but I couldn't find any basis in historical accounts connected to Arabs for the things that happen here. As a shocking story, however, with perhaps deeper things to say about alienation, colonialism, and human psychology, it's practically magnificent.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998)

France, 267 minutes, documentary
Director / writer / editor / narrator: Jean-Luc Godard
Photography: Pierre Binggeli, Hervé Duhamel
With: Alain Cuny, Sabine Azema, Serge Daney, Julie Delpy, Juliette Binoche

Probably the first thing to decide about director / everything Jean-Luc Godard's epic and deeply personal TV miniseries documentary is how you're going to look at it. It's another long one in total—four and a half hours. The first of eight parts is 52 minutes and was broadcast in 1988. The second is 42 minutes, broadcast in 1989. The next two parts, under 30 minutes each, were broadcast in 1997, and the last four in 1998. All of those are also under 30 minutes, except the eighth and last, which is 38 minutes. I don't recommend taking 10 years to look at it, to replicate the original. In fact, the way I did it the first time, a few years ago, now seems better: stick the first of two discs in the machine one day, hit "Play All," and let it roll for over two hours. Do it again the next day with the second disc. That way it's more trippy, undulating, and immersive. I could never even pick apart the individual episodes. Thinking that was somehow wrong, I wanted to be a little more rigorous for this write-up. I tried to get some sense of the integrity (or even specific point) of each episode, noted the titles and confusing numbering system, and avoided "Play All," spreading the eight pieces across three days.

That first time I saw Histoire(s) du cinéma I was surprised and delighted by the saturation of classic film clips, with memorable scenes from The Searchers, The Night of the Hunter, Bicycle Thieves, Nosferatu, etc., including a few from Godard's own pictures. They are recognizable, and often recognizable as wonderful, even as they may also be lost in the gloomy welter of other images, a muttering voiceover, floating words, clacking typewriter sounds, and editing effects such as flashing dissolves. In fact, the profusion of clips is all I remembered about it the first time. I thought that's what it mostly was. This second time I was more aware what a churning internal cerebral explosion it is, a kind of stroke event, personal and thus incoherent. I came away with the sense there was little point in even trying to separate the episodes, and this time the clips felt drowned in the rest, which actively resists understanding, a cacophony of words, literally words, and images, photographs, film clips, and some shots of Godard at work. Toward the end of Histoire(s) du cinéma, in the eighth part, Godard articulates his aesthetic in a throwaway line. It has actually been a constant across much of his career: "This is what I like about cinema, generally speaking," he grumbles like Henry Kissinger. "A saturation of wonderful signs, that swim in the light of their lack of explanation."

Thursday, September 26, 2019

"The Room in the Tower" (1912)

E.F. Benson is not to be confused with A.C. Benson or R.H. Benson, his brothers who also wrote horror fiction, though not as prolifically or as well. E.F. Benson is one of the best horror story writers of his time. This story is based on dreams, the kind you have in your sleep, which is a perilous device if you don't know what you're doing. Fortunately, he does know what he's doing. It's not a long story but proceeds leisurely, with an unnamed first-person narrator establishing common traits of dreaming and pooh-poohing any reading too much into them. Then he relates the details of a recurring dream he's had for 15 years. In it he is attending tea with strangers at a house where he will be staying, always the same house. No one speaks. The hostess, a Mrs. Stone, says to him, "Jack will show you to your room: I have given you the room in the tower." The tower is a separate building from the house, three stories high and an older structure. Mrs. Stone's words fill the narrator with dread and anxiety. Her son Jack (a boy the narrator knew slightly in school and never saw since) leads him to the room. At this point the narrator wakes up, "in a spasm of terror." Benson goes on with more details about the dream and its small variations, using repetition to establish a tempo and emphasize certain points. Benson is good at making it feel like a dream, with the strange ways a dream moves, and he's also good at making this one unnerving. The scene at the house, the strange silence, the words Mrs. Stone always uses, which never change, the unaccounted dread. Then he is invited by a friend, John, to visit him at a rental his family has taken for the summer and it's the house with the tower from his dreams. Benson slips back into reality without missing a beat. It's the same house but the scene is different from the dream. The people are talkative and friendly. There is no dread, at least not until John's mother stands and says, "Jack will show you to your room: I have given you the room in the tower," and the rendezvous that has been arriving for the narrator for 15 years is upon him. Again, Benson is so good at what he's doing. The finish may be overdone, notably the last paragraph, which felt like a compulsive flourish to a somewhat pat conclusion. Benson is known for some extremities, notably a fascination with giant worms, though this story is not about giant worms. Still, "The Room in the Tower" is often effective, breeding a constant delicate sense of unease out of an easygoing anecdotal tone. The hook is in the intimate way the narrator speaks of dreaming, a common experience to all, and the story is artful, subtle, and scary, without pounding hard on anything (at least, not until the end).

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Penultimate Truth (1964)

I circled back to this Philip K. Dick novel when I saw it on an Esquire list, early in the present political regime, of "essential books to prepare you for what's next," which included the usual suspects by George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Sinclair Lewis, etc. There's a lot of Dickian muddle to the tale in this novel, whose picture does not immediately come clear. By pieces, we understand we are in a post-apocalyptic Earth after a nuclear war Cold War nightmare style has made the planet surface uninhabitable. Underneath, billions live in so-called ant tanks—the "ant" is for antiseptic, though it obviously recalls the ant farm toys popular circa 1964. The underground people work on the war effort, waiting for the day those above signal it's safe to return. But on the surface there is actually no war, only a complicated ongoing propaganda campaign to keep most people working and living underground and afraid to come to the surface. Inevitably some do. They are captured and herded into crowded apartment complexes. The surface is controlled by wealthy people who live on giant private estate parks, called "demesnes," a term that goes back to the origins of feudalism. As an allegory, the three classes are thus physically arrayed: the working class laboring underground, the middle class huddled into urban states that cannot be escaped, and the upper class living great lives of pleasure on country estates. There actually was a World War III, but it didn't last long and left most of the surface habitable. Obviously Cold War dynamics motivated the underground living, a logical extension of fallout shelters. So that's the context into which Dick injects his usual cast of bumbling, confused everymen and everywomen. The tale is good at illustrating basic home truths, most notably how easy it is to maintain a huge fraud once it is in place. One thinks now, after these past 40 years, of how pernicious and persistent the "common sense" wisdom of the free market remains, for example, trickle-down economics as merely an unexamined article of faith. It's like spinning plates on top of sticks. Once you get it started you can keep it going if you're skillful enough, and deceitful enough. And then the applause. Good one for Dick binges.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Top 40

1. Sons of Kemet, "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman" (5:38)
2. Unperfect, "Gots to Give the Girl" (4:05)
3. Tame Impala, "Patience" (4:52)
4. Ciara, "Thinkin Bout You" (3:48)
5. Billie Eilish, "Bad Guy" (3:14)
6. Kevin Rudolf, "I Will Not Break" (3:28)
7. Mac DeMarco, "Nobody" (3:32)
8. cupcakKe, "Squidward Nose" (3:10)
9. Vampire Weekend, "This Life" (4:28)
10. Charles Bradley, "Lonely as You Are" (4:10)
11. Japanese Breakfast, "Essentially" (3:16)
12. Teenage Fanclub, "Baby Lee" (4:23, 2010)
13. Belle & Sebastian, "The Blues Are Still Blue" (4:08, 2006)
14. Aimee Mann, "Real Bad News" (3:53, 2002)
15. Smashing Pumpkins, "Cherub Rock" (4:59, 1993)
16. La's, "There She Goes" (2:42, 1990)
17. They Might Be Giants, "Ana Ng" (3:23, 1988)
18. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "Beyond Belief" (2:34, 1982)
19. Rolling Stone, "Waiting on a Friend" (4:34, 1981)
20. Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue" (5:41, 1975)
21. John Lennon, "#9 Dream" (4:46, 1974)
22. Roxy Music, "Do the Strand" (4:03, 1973)
23. Yes, "And You and I" (10:08, 1972)
24. Cat Stevens, "Wild World" (3:20, 1970)
25. Sandpipers, "Come Saturday Morning" (3:06, 1969)
26. Shocking Blue, "Venus" (3:07, 1969)
27. Desmond Dekker & the Aces, "Israelites" (2:36, 1968)
28. Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Manic Depression" (3:42, 1967)
29. Roger Miller, "King of the Road" (2:28, 1965)
30. Dale Hawkins, "Susie Q" (2:20, 1957)
31. Wire, "Map Ref. 41° N 93° W" (3:40, 1979)
32. Mac DeMarco, "On the Square" (3:29)
33. Kelis, "Caught Out There" (4:51, 1999)
34. Halsey, "Nightmare" (3:52)
35. 21 Savage, "A Lot" (4:48)
36. Carsie Blanton, "Jacket" (2:29)
37. Lonnie Holley, "I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America" (5:34)
38. Sleaford Mods, "Kebab Spider" (3:40)
39. Sam Smith & Normani, "Dancing With a Stranger" (2:51)
40. Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello, "Senorita" (3:11)

THANK YOU'S: Billboard, Skip D. Expense, Spin, social media at random, also I forget (apologies to the OPs!) ... 12-31, Scott Miller, Music: What Happened? ... 33, Frank Kogan, Real Punks Don't Wear Black

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)

James Baldwin's first novel is thinly disguised autobiography that ultimately reads more like a personal excoriation of fundamentalist Christianity, laying bare its hypocrisies and general foolishness in acid terms. It's a short novel but full of backstories and the complexities of blended and extended families. Set in Harlem, the preacher Gabriel Grimes and his family undergo convulsions of grief when the second son is killed stabbed in the throat. It's Gabriel's second marriage. His first was in the South and produced no children. In fact, the family history is so complex, and so central to all the themes, that exposition often feels like it's running breathlessly to keep pace with the narrative of Roy's death. The novel is full of Bible stories and biblical language, starting with the reason-for-the-season Christmas carol in the title. For teenage John Grimes, the novel is more about climbing the mountain than it is about saying something, and the climb is not easy, which makes the joyfulness of the carol referenced a little weirdly distracting. Much of the narrative comes directly from Baldwin's life—same kind of father, same kind of relationship, same turn to Jesus at 14, etc. For all the artfulness of Go Tell It on the Mountain—and there is plenty—it feels more like something Baldwin needed to get out of his system. Its freewheeling structure and experimental passages produce isolated remarkable fragments, such as a night-long conversion experience, but it's uneven. My favorite character is Gabriel's sister Florence with her lifelong seething resentment of Gabriel. I think a better novel might be the same story written from Florence's point of view by a woman. Obviously that is not the novel we have. Gabriel, for his part, is just too easy to judge and dispense with. As Florence points out, he is too often the cause of problems in the lives of others. I didn't think anyone in that family should want to have anything to do with him. That's my judgment, but the result was I got quickly tired of him and his catalog of sins. Florence is the only one who sees him clearly in this novel, and she does exactly what I would—puts him behind her, moving to the North. When he shows up there 20 years later, after he has caused a lot more grief down home, there's little she can do. Of course he causes more in the North, all of it predictable. There's a lot that's good and even great in this novel, but it's hard for me to agree it's the best thing Baldwin ever did, let alone one of the great novels of the 20th century.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Why We Fight (1942-1945)

Prelude to War (1942); The Nazis Strike (1943); Divide and Conquer (1943); The Battle of Britain (1943); The Battle of Russia (1943); The Battle of China (1944); War Comes to America (1945), USA, 422 minutes, documentary
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, Anthony Veiller
Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Anthony Veiller, Robert Heller, Williband Hentschel, Adolf Hitler, Eric Knight, S.K. Lauren, Anatole Litvak, John Sanford, Confucius, Emma Lazarus
Photography: Robert J. Flaherty
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin, Hugo Friedhofer, Leigh Harline, Arthur Lange, Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman, David Raksin, Anthony Collins, Louis Gruenberg, John Leipold, Roy Webb, William Lava, Howard Jackson, Max Steiner
Editors: William Hornbeck, William A. Lyon
With: Walter Huston, Anthony Veiller, John Litel, Frieda Inescourt, Lloyd Nolan, Elliot Lewis, Harry von Zell

At the moment, it's not hard to understand the monumental task of the United States and the democratic nations in 1942 converting the Greatest Generation into the original Antifa. It took some prodding. As we are currently living through a period of nearly perfect amnesia about fascism it's instructive to see, as documented in this series of instructional films, that Madison Square Garden could be filled in the late 1930s with Nuremberg-style rallies for American Nazis, swastikas blazing and thuggish beat-downs for anyone raising objections to the usual toxic swill. Sad (and obvious) to say, the only difference in today's "Lock her up" "Send her back" rallies is that they are shot in color, and they're not yet so brazen with the swastikas (though they think it's funny to say "Hail Trump").

But a monumental task was met with a monumental propaganda film project, appropriately preserved now in stained, scratched, and iffy prints, cheaply available in libraries, on YouTube, cable-TV channels, Amazon Prime, DVD, even VHS (though no longer cheap in that format). Why We Fight set out to be our Triumph of the Will. Even today it remains as stirring, entertaining, and inspiring as a seven-hour seven-part movie can be. Sometimes, as in the studious prologue of the first episode, Prelude to War, it can be dull with didactic explanation. We're still a little bored with Manchuria going down in 1931 and Shanghai and Nanking in 1937, even with the Japanese altogether (other than Pearl Harbor and the A-bombs). These anonymous filmmakers expertly manage our expectations. They know it's German Nazis we want and it is German Nazis we will get. They just make us sit through some instruction first. As they put it, at the end of every episode, with words it is good to remember now (their italics, but my emphasis too): "The victory of the democracies can only be complete with the utter defeat of the war machines of Germany and Japan."

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Sand-Man" (1816)

"Mr. Sandman" was the most popular song Pat Ballard ever wrote, publishing the sheet music in 1954 and seeing it promptly recorded by Vaughn Monroe & His Orchestra, the Four Aces, the Chordettes, and many others. (The music industry was different then.) The taffy-sweet pitty-pat Chordettes version was the hit and the one I like best, soaring on old-fashioned acapella close harmonies, propelled by a vibraphone, grounded by a waggling sax, and full of bobby-soxer high spirits. The dream they long for has lots of wavy hair like Liberace and the Sandman was there to deliver it all. It went to #1 for seven weeks. In memory, I heard the strange bedtime thing first, but I could well have heard the song as an infant, before memory. The story my mother told was that the Sandman came to sprinkle sand on my eyelids to make them heavy so I would fall asleep. This never made sense, partly because I have a phobia about things like grit near my eyeballs, though recently it occurred to me that the beach activity of burying oneself in warm sand might be conducive to comfortable napping, more or less. Grownups tells kids a lot of weird things they spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out.

Moving forward nearly 40 years, we find Metallica with a spectacularly successful fifth album in 1991, named Metallica but known as the Black Album and slated to join Carole King's Tapestry and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon for commercial persistence over the years. A generation of kids all agreed on something again. Metallica opened the proceedings with the five-minute track "Enter Sandman" and this is quite a different view of the nighttime bedroom sleep artist. It steals in like bad weather and grows into an ominous cathedral of dread, pounding and thrashing in the Roman style, with libretto as follows, in part: "Sleep with one eye open / Gripping your pillow tight / Exit light / Enter night." Goodness, I don't recognize this Sandman. What in the world has happened? And what does any of it have to do with the 19th-century German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann and his long, antiquated, disjointed tale? Yeah, I'm getting to that.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Hopeful Monsters (1990)

I didn't know much about this novel or its author, only that it was recommended urgently by blogger and RogerEbert.com contributor Sheila O'Malley. It's dense and fairly long, written by the son of British fascist Oswald Mosley, which may account in part for its general obscurity. Nicholas Mosley obviously has little sympathy for fascists himself, but perhaps more equanimity about their existence than we might like. The story covers a 20-year period between the world wars, following the lives of and relationship between a young German woman and British man. Both are intellectuals and lifelong students of science. Physics, biology, and the ideas explored in those fields—notably evolution and quantum mechanics—are major themes. Implications of the dual nature of light and the origins of mutation are returned to continually, as is the political history of Europe in this period. The rise of fascism figures large. I probably haven't read as much European history as I should (or maybe Hopeful Monsters is as good as I think it is) but I've never seen the rise of Nazis in Germany detailed so vividly before. The significance of the Communist Party and its historical movement figures large as well. The volatile years considered here were a crucible for modern social structure, as monarchical ideas fell to the side once and for all (we hope). The two lovers in this story—Eleanor and Max—want little to do with these strains of history, though Eleanor does spend time as a Communist involved in bombings and other violence. I never understood so well how the conflict between Nazis and Communists played out as constant violent street brawls—with bombs and drive-by machine gun shootings limited only by the ability of activists to get their hands on ordnance. But that's just a piece of this novel, which inevitably drives to its remarkable climax in the Spanish Civil War. Eleanor's mother is Jewish and after the Nazis come to power Eleanor finds it expedient to leave Germany and travel to Africa for anthropological work on a voluntary mission project. While she's gone both her parents disappear and she realizes she can't go back, with laws in Germany dealing so harshly with Jews. At that point the novel turns into a glorious and amazing adventure story, as both Eleanor and Max make their separate ways into Spain. Dense with intellectual currents, Hopeful Monsters seems to have an energy all its own with swift-moving incident and a constant brooding for sense. Definitely worth a look—I'm only scratching the surface of all that's here.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, USA, 121 minutes
Director / writer: George Lucas
Photography: Gilbert Taylor
Music: John Williams
Editors: Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, George Lucas
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, James Earl Jones, David Prowse, Peter Cushing, Phil Brown, Peter Mayhew

[John Williams theme, play continually while reading]

It's tempting, of course, to start by waxing nostalgic about George Lucas's stupendous commercial feat, because I actually did happen to wander into a theater and see it in the first week of its release, some little time before it became the certifiable phenomenon. I was impressed. It was a good day at the movies. The rave-up attack on the Death Star for the big finish was exhilarating, a bonanza of special effects operating in all three dimensions (not just one or two, like car chases). Many of us had imagined scenes like these, notably Stanley Kubrick, but no one had ever seen them before. The nightclub sequence was memorably weird and charming too—cool nervous jazz music! And this thing about "the Force" was almost uplifting in the context of the underdog story. Released late in May, by summer's end all my friends and half the population of the present-day right-here galaxy had seen it (and seen it and seen it and seen it, in some cases), laying the grumbling grounds of my personal contrarian backlash.

Forced by the eternity of hoopla and some peer pressure to see it again, all its poor qualities leapt to the fore—the wooden style, thuddingly dull story, and plodding tempo swamped whatever I still liked, and now the Force made me wince. Close Encounters of the Third Kind had come at the end of 1977 with good special effects too, plus it seemed to understand religion and science fiction better. They almost seemed like the Beatles and Stones of '70s sci-fi, except neither movie is as good as either band.

Another view of this white whale comes via the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, where it presently sits at #115. Gone With the Wind, the only movie that is its superior in the commercial realm, sits six notches higher, at #109 and has actually been as high as #60 in this roundup of critical opinion, which suggests critics on some level are not entirely immune to the siren call of moneymakers (I'm not either evidently, as I've now reviewed six of the top 10 inflation-adjusted all-timers). On the other hand, a few years ago, after Disney and J.J. Abrams rekindled the franchise (third time's the charm!), the original Star Wars never did get the bump I expected to see on this list. Its peak to date came before that, at #100 for two years in a row. The revival apparently didn't budge critical opinion and maybe even dimmed it a little. But let's also remember that, at the moment, aggregated critical consensus still says there are only 114 movies better than Star Wars.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Celestial Navigation (1974)

I liked Anne Tyler's fifth novel, full of all the usual stuff—Baltimore, a repressed man hero, a nurturing extrovert woman for his partner. It's a little experimental in form but solidly constructed. The experimental part is that each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, sometimes first-person, sometimes third-person. Our repressed man hero, Jeremy Pauling, lives in a rooming house his mother operated, taking it over after she dies at the start of the novel. He really is an extreme case, nearly autistic in his affect, much more damaged than the charming eccentrics Tyler would produce later (damaged as they may be). Jeremy's girlfriend Mary moves into his place on the rebound from a rebound relationship following a divorce. She's big and loud and competent and gives birth to six kids in the space of this novel. Jeremy is the father of the last five, but he's such an abstracted figure to them they all call him by his name rather than Dad or even Daddy. Conveniently enough, he's able to make a living as a fine artist—a gallery owner takes him under his wing and Jeremy's work catches on. Most of the pleasure in this is Tyler's language and her usual sharp eye and ear. Small details unexpectedly swim off the page and hit hard. I had my usual trouble always believing the easy way Tyler characters survive and fall together. Her faith in love and relationships can be romantic verging on sentimental. Yet something about the story of Jeremy and Mary tugs hard. Notably, I did not expect it to end the way it did. In fact, the zigging and zagging of the plot is often unexpected, yet never outlandish. Part of this is achieved by her narrative strategy. By shifting the points of view steadily, large events in the story often happen offstage. The story may lurch a little with each new chapter, but the novel is effective and moves with confidence. There's a quick tempo and a steady, grabby momentum. I've been reading my way through the novels from the first half of Tyler's career backward, and it's interesting to see some of the work losing focus in a way. Jeremy is not as sharp as Macon Leary and Mary is not as sharp as Muriel Pritchett, but they are certain foundations for those characters. And Celestial Navigation bears interest on its own merits as definitely one of the good ones.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

"The Willows" (1907)

Algernon Blackwood's beloved classic is a long story that feels a bit like a cross between Jack London and H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, Lovecraft was deeply influenced by it, citing it as his single favorite story. "The Willows" is set in a section of the Danube River that is less like a ballroom waltz and more like a Louisiana bayou, ambling through sandy marshes and swampy shallows. The first-person narrator and his companion, identified as "the Swede," are traveling by canoe, on some intrepid type of camping vacation apparently. They are trawling down the river in a high waters time, which means small sandy islands can wash away and boats lose track of the over-flooding channel and even become trapped in backwaters. Blackwood is good at wilderness and physical description though perhaps not as good as some others, such as London. Blackwood is often equally focused on his genre considerations, distracted from the natural by the supernatural threads in his stories which can be conventional.

Still it's the brooding things of wilderness that ultimately carry this one. Those willows, most obviously, swaying and bending in the high winds, an image returned to again and again. Filmmaker David Lynch has used a similar effect many times, notably in his Twin Peaks episodes, with the camera simply sitting and looking at trees in the wind. The high winds themselves are unsettling—windstorms, especially at night, are the most disturbing storms of all. Ultimately, of course, what we have here is a serious case of Ineffable Evil. But what's great about this story is not its interest in the evil but rather how perfectly strange that evil is. My grasp of it, though the story was written well before commercial radio, is as the sense of something peering back from behind the static between stations. It does not surprise me in a way that Lovecraft honored this piece above all others, as it is both an impressive enough feat of world-building and also such a solid slab of id-sourced weird. The point is that we can't understand it, whatever it is, though we know to our core it's awful. From Blackwood's description, this isolated section of the Danube is a place where two parallel dimensions are scraping against one another and the membrane has grown thin, heralded by the high winds and an ominous sound that recurs only inside the mind. The two men are in great danger. It is like an encounter of a bobcat and a squirrel and they are the squirrel. The hunting style of these superior beings appears to be like the feline style of playing with prey. The landscape is blurred between the physical and the mental. Much of the peril is an implicit threat of madness, literally losing their minds.

"The Willows" is considered Blackwood's best by a good margin though many also note how prolific he was at high levels. There's indeed something open and inviting about his work—I've enjoyed the handful or so stories I've read and intend to read more, but I'd put him closer to my idea of an adventure story writer rather than horror. Probably my own favorite Blackwood so far is the only very short story I've read by him yet, "Ancient Lights," about a man who can't find his way through a small patch of woods. "The Wendigo" appears to be Blackwood's consensus #2 best, but its North American setting wasn't at all convincing to me and I kept thinking of James Fenimore Cooper, not a favorite. "Glamour in the Snow" had an unconvincing supernatural story but was very good on snow and frigid conditions. I can see how "The Willows" is a notch above. The setting is inspired and the turn to an unknowable weird almost aggressive. It's not conventional supernatural, that's for sure.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

"The Most Dangerous Game" (1924)

I recall Richard Connell's chestnut as being taught in high school. I wonder if that wasn't how the Zodiac serial killer was exposed to it, who made oblique references to it in one letter to Bay Area newspapers. Operating just behind the Zodiac in the '70s and '80s, in Alaska, was Robert Hansen, who kidnapped women, raped them, flew them to remote wilderness areas, and hunted them. "The Most Dangerous Game," alas quaint now at best after such true-crime episodes, is further weakened by being full of absurd convenience. A man falls off a yacht in the Caribbean and swims "the blood-warm water" to the nearest island. His name is Sanger Rainsford and he happens to be a big-game hunter. He also happens to be an author. The owner of the island happens to know his work. That owner is General Zaroff, a Czarist loyalist, who I imagine having a scar on the side of his face like Fearless Leader from Bullwinkle. It's a reasonably good idea, this horror of humans formally hunting one another (what next, cannibalism?!), but it's a little too impressed with its awesomeness to work out the details and make it credible. It's still fun to read as a sort of adventure story with a tang of existential dread. It's mostly setup and then the last third is a lot of chasing around the jungle making booby traps and/or avoiding them. It reads like a story that is still a little shell-shocked from the Great War. Indeed, our hero, besides being a big-game hunter and author, also happens to be a veteran of that war. His experience quickly digging trenches comes in handy. The story is haunted by human brutality even as it seems to have little idea how bad it can get. I appreciate the dark spirit but by the time I was reading it in high school movies like Night of the Living Dead and Last House on the Left were more the latest word in human brutality. Interesting that those movies are likely not yet taught in high school, and this Connell story might still be, but the reasons are obvious and understandable. An interesting curiosity but not that much to see here, folks.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Lady Eve (1941)

USA, 94 minutes
Director: Preston Sturges
Writers: Monckton Hoffe, Preston Sturges
Photography: Victor Milner
Music: Phil Boutelje, Charles Bradshaw, Gil Grau, Sigmund Krumgold, John Leipold, Leo Shuken
Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, William Demarest, Eugene Pallette, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, Martha O'Driscoll, Janet Beecher, Robert Greig, Luis Alberni, Jimmy Conlin

In many ways The Lady Eve comes on as a romantic comedy, with two big and beautiful stars in Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. But the instincts of director and cowriter Preston Sturges steer the movie more toward screwball and beyond. We may think of 1941 as a war year, but the Pearl Harbor attack did not occur until the end of the year. And the movies, in the isolationist meantime, were prolific and often seemed more intent on tearing up and rewriting templates. The Lady Eve is a romantic comedy in the same way Hellzapoppin'  is a musical and Citizen Kane is an experimental art film and/or biopic. More than anything, I suppose, The Lady Eve is a Sturges picture, offering up a full orchestra of vaudeville gags, character players, and pratfalls, themselves little symphonies of smashing plates, falling cutlery, and stammered apologies. Sturges never had much sense of cinema formally. But just like he was willing to try anything for a laugh he was also willing to try anything with the technology, as seen in a mirror-driven monologue here. Rampant experimentation appeared to be a regular feature of the movies in 1941. Even a relatively straightforward comedy like the W.C. Fields vehicle Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is full of surrealistic turns.

In the spirit of classic screwballs like My Man Godfrey and Bringing Up Baby, the leads here are as zany as everything else. Stanwyck, who in the first place could do anything, is about at the peak of her powers. Consider her 1941: Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, and You Belong to Me. She's Jean, a conniving con artist and card sharp traveling aboard a passenger ship as the daughter of her mentor, the self-titled Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn, excellent as always). She is self-assurance itself, speaking a mile a minute and flinging off sparks in all directions. "Every Jane in the room is giving him the thermometer," she says in the mirror monologue, sizing up her prey and the competition. Her target is the dweebish and independently wealthy Charles Poncefort Pike (Fonda), a scientist with an interest in snakes who is returning from an exploring expedition in the Amazon. She calls him Hopsie after he tells her it's a family nickname he hates. Working against his already stolid type, Abraham Lincoln Tom Joad Henry Fonda is especially good playing an absent-minded professor harried by a perpetual erection—a notable skill, not often seen in midcentury American movies or done well ever.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sophie's Choice (1979)

It's possible I might have liked Sophie's Choice more in another mood but I wasn't in that mood and so I have these complaints. First, it's an egregious example (or is that a very good example?) of a narrative style I call "peekaboo." In a peekaboo story the storyteller lets you know there's something to know but keeps declining to disclose it even though he (meaning William Styron in this case) has to know it's the reason you're there. So, in a novel that runs to nearly 600 pages, with this title, we do not learn until about the last 50 what Sophie's choice specifically was. We know it is likely horrible, because the setting is Auschwitz during World War II. How could it possibly be good when it involves Nazis? But the first 550 or so pages are spent on weird things: the preoccupations of a budding Southern novelist in postwar New York, a horribly abusive relationship, and other things that seem beside the point. In fairness, Sophie Zawistowska is probably a good portrait of a Holocaust survivor. But I'm not done complaining yet. This peekaboo story is told loop-the-loop fashion—the primary action takes place over five months in 1947 but there are flashbacks all over the place and the main thread is often lost. Which is OK because it's mostly unpleasant. But there you are, still hoping to find out, and soon, what this Sophie's choice thing is. I'm often enchanted with loop-the-loop storytelling (e.g., The Great Gatsby, Frederick Exley's memoir A Fan's Pages, most Philip Roth), but the voice really has to be compelling and the transitions artful and intuitively right. I didn't like this narrator with his Southern literary pretensions. Good grief, his name is "Stingo," and oh, what do you know, he went on to write a novel about Nat Turner (yes, this novel has flash-forwards too, what loop-the-loop story does not?). Frankly, Sophie's boyfriend Nathan should have been abandoned by every one of these characters before page 50. He's an awful person who makes you awful too if you accept his redemption even a little. Maybe it's because he reminded me of someone. Last, on my list of major complaints, is Styron's vocabulary: perdurable, coralline, secreted (can't he see it's one of those distracting self-antonym words, like cleave or oversight?), heliotrope, neurasthenia, viscid, renascence, matutinal, chatelaine, bediademed, unguentary, prothalamic. I really got tired of looking up words that turned out to have perfectly useful, lovely, and well-known synonyms (for example, "matutinal" means "occurring in the morning"). Nor was the level of poetic flight noticeably elevated. I didn't even remember until I'd finished Sophie's Choice that Styron also wrote Lie Down in Darkness, which I read and remember liking very much a long time ago. Somehow I missed even the movie that came of Sophie's Choice, but it's probably just as well. I seriously doubt it's better than this novel and I'm not even sure this novel is that good. Between Nazis and the South, it's a bit much. Thus, finally, my very last little complaint is once again with the weirdly scattershot Modern Library list of the best novels of the 20th century. If Styron belongs on it at all, an arguable point, it should be for Lie Down in Darkness. Or maybe The Confessions of Nat Turner, though my enthusiasm for getting to that one might be on the wane after this.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

"August Heat" (1910)

Because it's convenient for things to have a starting point, and because it makes a good story that way, I'm assigning the beginning of modern horror fiction as we understand it to 1816, when E.T.A. Hoffmann published "The Sand-Man" and when the Shelleys, Mary and Percy Bysshe, gathered in Geneva with Lord Byron and his doctor, John William Polidori, and had a friendly competition to write ghost stories. The result was Frankenstein and "The Vampyre." Nearly a hundred years later, W.F. Harvey's very short story about the dog days of summer depends to a certain degree on familiarity with horror fiction conventions as they had developed. It's more along the lines of a knowing joke, and the punchline is "uncanny." It's not as witty as Saki but has an undertone that dares you to laugh, and then dares you not to laugh. It tells us things that don't make sense as if they do. It captures a little of the insanity that happens when it's still sweltering hot even at night in August. It's not the heat, it's the humidity.

On one of those very hot days an illustrator (who is also the first-person narrator) is seized in the morning with an impulse to sketch a man at trial just as he is sentenced. He thinks the picture is pretty good, if he says so himself. "The feeling that his expression conveyed was not so much one of horror as of utter, absolute collapse." Then the illustrator walks aimlessly for several hours. He finds himself at the shop of a stonemason. On an impulse he enters it. It's the man in his sketch! And he's working on a gravestone. And on that gravestone is the name of the narrator, with his birthdate and today's date (August 20th, 190–),already chiseled in. This work is the result of an impulse on the mason's part. The two don't know one another, have never met, and soon agree it's a strange and dangerous situation. They decide to stay together the rest of that day for mutual safety. Of course this story is short and moves quickly because it's so ridiculously impossible. At the end of the day, between 11 p.m. and midnight, the narrator is recording his account in the mason's workshop while the mason tidies up. The story ends:

The air seems charged with thunder. I am writing this at a shaky table before the open window.
The leg is cracked, and [the mason], who seems a handy man with his tools, is going to mend it as soon as he has finished putting an edge on his chisel.
It is after 11 now. I shall be gone in less than an hour.
But the heat is stifling.
It is enough to send a man mad.

Harvey couldn't resist the broad wink of "I shall be gone in less than an hour," but it is actually hard for me to imagine this complacent scene turning into frenzy and murder within the hour. And maybe it doesn't! We're never told. But that's the idea. The improbability, and the uncertainty, thus keep it more in the realm of merely cerebral, a macabre joke predicated on reader expectations. But it's sparkly and swift and maybe even uncanny if you turn it around in your head enough. It's been done on radio plus in the early '70s DC Comics adapted it for one of their horror titles. Night Gallery should have done it too. That show always did like to make people sweat.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Law & Order, s6 (1995-1996)

Earlier this year the first Law & Order spinoff, Special Victims Unit, was renewed for its 21st season and also broadcast a 457th episode, thus overtaking the 20 seasons and 456 episodes of the original for third place on the list of longest-running TV shows, behind The Simpsons (30/662 and counting) and Gunsmoke (20/535). No doubt producer Dick Wolf ("awhoooo!") is proud and happy to have two titles in that top 5 but I'm less sure we as viewers can count it as a good thing overall. On the other hand, like The Simpsons (and unlike Gunsmoke, Special Victims Unit, or Lassie), Law & Order at least can still stake claim to genuine TV innovation, so there's that.

Yet the one thing readily apparent from the sixth season of Law & Order is a willingness to play it safe and fall back on tried and true strategies of ensemble 'n' episode TV. Even the signature wrinkle of focusing on institutional roles rather than individual characters is starting to feel a little humdrum. The show's original junior detective, Mike Logan (Chris Noth), is suddenly gone, disappeared for an incident briefly shown in the last five minutes of the previous season. He's replaced by Reynaldo Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) and predictably a bunch of episodes track the awkwardness of his jelling with senior detective Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach).

Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Common Room (1954-1987)

More exciting tales of my misspent youth misspent the wrong ways. In the '70s, not quite a college student though old enough, I spent most of one winter and spring haunting the basement of Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota. I was taking a night class in American literature and the rest of the time prowled the library stacks, reading randomly. That's when I encountered Reynolds Price's work. Price was a lifelong professor at Duke University in North Carolina, where he also got his undergraduate degree. He wrote fiction, essays, plays, and poetry. He started teaching in the late '50s and published his first novel in 1962. Wikipedia says he was openly gay, but there's little hint of that in this collection of essays, aside from his unremarked status as a perennial bachelor and, in one piece from the '80s, a surprising candor about transsexuals. Probably, as usual, my gaydar is just off. I read his stories back in the day but his gently insistent and patient voice are very much present in these pieces too. He occupies an unusual place in literature, a son of the New Critics bravely facing the changes of the '60s, '70s, and beyond. At times I found myself irked or less than interested in some of his more conventional positions—openly Christian, a fan of John Milton (especially), Henry James, and Eudora Welty. A Southerner, his views sometimes shade over into the rationalizations of the Confederacy, yet he has an appreciation for Jimmy Carter that is refreshing to see after all the years of Carter's abuse by the organized right. Price was a very careful writer and sometimes these pieces feel one of two revisions overlabored. But he's good too—more than anything I came to respect in this collection his patience in developing and expressing his themes. These pieces are often personal but they always maintain a distance and formality appropriate for an academic. The circumstances of his life also included onset paraplegia when he was in his 50s. I was often disappointed with his opinions—typically for his generation he thinks too much of Hemingway and too little of Faulkner to suit me, for example. Yet his humility and focus make him rewarding to read—still.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 09, 2019

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

USA, 133 minutes
Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, Ken Kesey, Dale Wasserman
Photography: Haskell Wexler
Music: Jack Nitzsche
Editors: Sheldon Kahn, Lynzee Klingman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Scatman Carothers, Sydney Lassick, Michael Berryman

Full disclosure, as a Ken Kesey fanboy I have mostly followed his lead on this movie adaptation of his first novel, though I did see it all the way through when it was new. Kesey was involved in the early stages of making it but reportedly never even looked at it after he left over creative differences. As a result I pushed it to the side and missed how supremely popular it has remained. Its present ranking at #114 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?—the highest it's ever been there, in fact, and the reason I'm writing about it—only begins to suggest the levels of affection that exist for it. A better gauge might be IMDb's always intriguing popularity contest of a best movies list, where The Shawshank Redemption has long ruled all. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest sits at #16 there—pretty high! But the single reason, I'm convinced, for its enduring popularity, was the Oscars sweep, taking the so-called grand slam that year (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best [adapted in this case] Screenplay), the first movie to do so since 1934's It Happened One Night, and one of only three with 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.

Winning a bunch of Oscars is not the reason to like a movie but you know how people are. I will note in passing that I do like It Happened One Night. And getting over myself enough to look again at Cuckoo's Nest reveals a number of outstanding features. It has numerous good and/or interesting performances, not just Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher (though Nicholson and Fletcher are the best), including Brad Dourif and Christopher Lloyd in their first roles, William Redfield, and Danny DeVito apparently with hair. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler's credits include In the Heat of the Night, The Conversation, and Coming Home, and he shot this in rich '70s color and luminous style. But the many grave errors of the picture's narrative are still there, romanticizing mental illness as poetical (note the dancing nut) or, even worse, as a metaphor for politics. It sees individualism as such a virtue that it makes a hero of a preening, self-serving ass who is most believable when he's out for himself alone, and least believable when his lip trembles and he appears to care.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

The History of Love (2005)

The complications in Nicole Krauss's deceptively complicated novel may have become too much for me, in spite of its many admirable qualities. It involves a man who wrote an unpublished novel called The History of Love, his friend who copied the manuscript and took credit for it, and the daughter of a couple who loved the novel and named her for its love interest ("life obsession" is more accurate). All this is mixed up with World War II and the Nazi concentration camps. What I like best is Krauss's voice for Leo Gursky, the original writer and lover, an old man in the present day getting along in New York City. His Yiddish rhythms feel precision-engineered. But his is only one voice among many. I like the 14-year-old Alma pretty well too, but even with her the complications start to get confusing. It's a good love story—the title is not misplaced—but maybe not as good as it thinks it is? Not good enough to support all this action and hold attention. Gursky's son is a famous writer. Alma's mother makes her living translating books. Leo can write a book so good someone can steal it and get it published. It's a little hard to believe, which became something of a distraction even as I tried to parse who was related to whom, and why, and in which timeframe or location. It's a big bunch, sprawling the globe, and many are dead in the present day. I came across The History of Love originally recommended in a kind of readers group newsletter, where people were very positive. It also won awards and was nominated for others. Some of my lukewarm response may be from fatigue with World War II stories, but I put more of it on the complexity here, which felt manufactured for literary effect. I'm not at all sure it's the best way to tell the love story at its heart, or what I think is its heart, the one between Leo and the original Alma. That's a pretty good story in its own right. All love stories have been done by now—it's just a matter of picking a variation and doing it well. But I'm not sure that's what happened here. Maybe the love story is actually better than this novel seems to think it is. It never really gets a chance.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

"The Screaming Skull" (1908)

I can only guess what this F. Marion Crawford story is doing in the Vampire Tales collection because I don't actually detect any vampire elements beyond some loose interpretation of the term "undead," which is never used or even implied here. No ruby red lips, in other words. If anything it's a ghost or haunted house story—specifically, haunted bedroom. But you can see from the big roundup below that it's enormously popular even in my relatively small sample. It's often hailed for its device of the hysterical first-person narrator, though I'm not sure how it can be called an innovation when you consider Edgar Allan Poe's even more widely anthologized "Tell-Tale Heart" from 1843. "The Screaming Skull" is an improvement on that score, and often wonderfully well done, I'll give it that. But this great strength can also become the greatest weakness, in both stories. "The Screaming Skull" is a little long and can drone on implausibly. The first-person narrator is speaking to another person, or believes he is, which leads to awkward constructions just trying to hold the concept together, e.g., "You want to know whether I stayed in the house till daybreak?"

So what exactly is this one-sided Bob Newhart routine all about? As far as I'm concerned, it's the premise that makes this story more than the narrative strategy. There's a skull. And it screams. That's it. Everything else is window dressing. Here's a short passage that has it all, good and bad:

You ask me why I don't throw it into the pond—yes, but please don't call it a "confounded bugbear"—it doesn't like being called names.
There! Lord, what a shriek!

It's so simple, so audacious, so ridiculous, so impossible, so thoroughly hammered home. It's not exactly scary, or even that uncanny, though it's certainly weird. Much of it, the best of it, is almost perfectly vexing, like an I Love Lucy episode. It's closer to the kind of comedy the Evil Dead movies trafficked in. The screaming skull screams even when you talk about it in another room—even when you think about it sometimes. (Perhaps the telepathy is what wins it its vampire wings.) It definitely screams when you try to move it from the cabinet in the master bedroom, and if you leave it there it makes random grumbling noises all night and wakes you every morning at 3:17 a.m. The screaming disturbs the help and makes it impossible to keep the place adequately staffed. If you try to throw it away—you can't throw it away. It's like a booger. There's a macabre backstory driving all this divine foolishness as much as the proof of concept, like what happens when you try to get rid of it. The skull belongs to a woman who is connected to the narrator. In fact, he has inherited the mansion she and her husband once lived in. She was killed by her husband in a notably grotesque manner. My skull would be screaming for all eternity too if I were done that way. The narrator blames himself (and evidently so does the screaming skull) because he suggested the manner of murder in a lighthearted way to the couple at a dinner party. He didn't know the husband was actually going to do it!

It's fair to say "The Screaming Skull" looks forward to H.P. Lovecraft, at least insofar as it pounds the implausible until we relent and believe. It doesn't matter how unlikely it might seem at first, whether screaming skull in the bedroom cabinet (like, where are the vocal cords even?) or writhing octopus head in outer space, they strike the grim and hysterical tone and pile on the hideous detail. Crawford was a bit older and more into ghosts but he was often good with hideous detail—another famous story by him, "The Upper Berth" from 1885, is more conventional in some ways, but uniquely tactile in its effects—the ghost is aboard a ship at sea and can be touched and felt. "The Screaming Skull" may go on a little too long (also like Lovecraft and not like "The Upper Berth") but it's anthologized all over the place for multiple good reasons and counts as essential.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos
The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

"The Open Window" (1911)

Saki is like a cross between Oscar Wilde and O. Henry—mechanical, perhaps, in the way his stories unfold, but the mechanics are self-aware and there in the service of wit. He wrote short (even short-short) stories that often deliver perverse twists at the end, predicated on our own unconscious expectations. Most intriguingly, his stories are also steeped in a familiarity with horror fiction, counting on the reader's own familiarity with it. As he put it himself in "The Music on the Hill," a story about the great god Pan, "It was all nonsense, of course, but ... nonsense [that] seemed able to rear a bastard brood of uneasiness." "The Open Window" involves an unnamed 15-year-old girl and a man with a bad case of nerves, Framton Nuttel. Nuttel is in the country for a rest cure, bearing letters of introduction and paying a visit on his new neighbors, the Sappletons. He has obviously read horror fiction, because when the girl, a niece of the Sappletons, starts up with what is either a ghost story or a tale of deranged family grief to explain why the window in the room is open in October, he believes every word. For that matter, so do we. Because why shouldn't we? Horror fiction makes us gullible and open to manipulation. Formally, "The Open Window" works much like a ghost story, complete with a strange and seemingly unnecessary frame, and there's even a little thrill when we think we see ghosts. Judging the whole effect, it's a good example of how subtle Saki can be, using misdirection. Things are not what they seem, but it's not the open window that's the problem, it's the girl. Yet even as she tells her fantastic story about the open window we're lulled into it quite easily. It makes perfect sense as a ghost story. Mrs. Sappleton's niece is one of Saki's most delicious creations. "The Open Window" ends on her spinning a whole new story to explain Nuttel's abrupt departure: "'I expect it was the spaniel,' said the niece calmly; 'he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him.'" In a way, she's covering for Nuttel. "Romance at short notice was her specialty," Saki concludes about this girl.

In case it's not at the library. (Read story online.)

Friday, July 26, 2019

Grizzly Man (2005)

USA, 103 minutes, documentary
Director / writer: Werner Herzog
Photography: Timothy Treadwell, Peter Zeitlinger
Music: Richard Thompson
Editor: Joe Bini
With: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Amie Huguenard, Jewel Palovak, Franc G. Fallico, Sven Haakanson Jr.

This documentary by director and writer Werner Herzog focuses on Timothy Treadwell, now famously dead, who by the evidence here deserves all our skepticism for him as an environmentalist. Treadwell, born in 1957, saw himself as "protector of the bears" but we see him as unstable, weird, and a little creepy, recording himself on videotape with full narration and even multiple takes. These many disparate scenes were shot on the annual summer sojourns he made to the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. There we see him as self-styled prancing magic elf of the forest, naming the bears (and the foxes too), playing with them, filming them, and all too often getting dangerously close to them. In the end one bear finally ate him and his girlfriend at the end of a lean summer. The sad reality shown here is that Treadwell did not appear to be right in the head somehow. He probably wasn't helping the bears either. But was he harming them?

That's one of the questions Herzog wrestles with as he attempts to pin down Treadwell's story, which is full of mystery and sadness. In dutiful documentary fashion Herzog produces a battery of science and wilderness experts who are embarrassed for and/or revolted by Treadwell. They argue him as a kind of anthropologist gone native, believing he wanted to be a bear and thought he was in some mystical fashion. In his final years the National Park Service attempted to hem in Treadwell and his activities with rules and policies. But he did survive some 13 summers living with his forest friends. The bears seem to know him and are accustomed to him. They respond to him and seem to temper their aggression. But was he harming them? Why does Herzog care and why should we?

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Clans of the Alphane Moon (1964)

For the most part this Philip K. Dick novel dispenses with the usual distortions of reality via time travel or drugs, though mental illness is prominent. In the future, Earth ("Terra") has expanded civilization to the richly populated Alpha Centauri system four and a half light-years away. Alpha Centauri has many habitable planets and moons, many of them populated by Alphanes, an insect-like breed with license plate numbers for names. But Terrans managed to get a toehold in one moon, Alpha III M2 by name, which they used to house the exiled mentally ill. But then, in the last war, it came under Alphane control, which enabled the Terrans exiled there to live as they choose. The story involves a plot on Earth to take back control of it, a mission headed up by the CIA using simulacrums controlled remotely. Dick imagines that the mentally ill Terrans on Alpha III M2 would organize themselves by diagnosis. The "Pares" are paranoid schizophrenics, "Heebs" hebephrenics (a type of schizophrenia), "Manses" manics, "Deps" depressives, etc. They are not always easy to make out from group label or behavior—the Heebs felt Rastafarian without the patois, for example—and I'm not sure any of this would be likely to ever happen, but all right. My favorite character was Lord Running Clam, a slime mold that is not only sentient but telepathic, and not only telepathic but manipulative. My love for him starts with his name. Another point I liked was a supernatural power of one character, Joan Trieste, to run time backward for up to five minutes. She works for the police department and is detailed to emergency scenes where she is able to bring people back to life if she can get there fast enough. She carries the Dick version of a beeper. Evidently her strange power only works in a localized way. I'm not as sure about certain aspects of Alpha III M2, or the strange relationship at the center of the story between a CIA agent with a moral compass and his wife without one. She's a marriage counsellor—one of the best in the business. Huh?! Inevitably there is also a TV variety show host with an uncertain agenda. Clans of the Alphane Moon probably doesn't stand with Dick's best, but even in the din of the meaningless event it does have some of his sharpest ideas.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"The Blood-Drinking Corpse" (1740)

This very short story by the Chinese writer Pu Songling (pictured above) is even older than the year commonly given, as Pu died 25 years before its first publication in 1740. Wikipedia says most of the nearly 500 so-called "marvel tales" in the collection from which it comes—Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio, though Pu expressed a preference for the title Tales of Ghosts and Foxes—were likely completed by 1679 (there's a Penguin version published in 2006 as Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio that looks pretty good, though it has only a little over a hundred stories and doesn't seem to include this one). So this story is very old, the oldest I've run into yet, and has the additional oddities of translation along with those of old horror stories, such as a tendency to assume that simply evoking the supernatural is enough to do most of the heavy lifting for effects. Yet for all that the story retains some brute power. As may be surmised from the title, it's a vampire tale with a surprising number of vampire features intact: the undead status, the sexualizing, and of course the rejuvenating blood-sucking. The setup, out in the Chinese countryside, is as simple and straightforward as a fairy tale. Three traveling merchants stop for the night at a village where the inn is full. The only accommodation is a ruined barn with a curtain in the back. It's their only choice so they settle down there for the night. One can't sleep. Then he sees the curtain move. Naturally, this worries him. Then a figure emerges, "whose form, hardly distinct, seemed penetrated by shadow.... He, little by little, recognized the silhouette of a female, seen by her short-quilted dress and her long narrow jacket." Next thing you know she's leaning over his sleeping companions. It looks like kissing, but actually she is "drinking in long draughts." And so forth, as it goes whirling on to its compact yet effective finish. It works pretty well as a blunt force instrument. I do understand the complaint with vampire tales as too often matters of bruised-purple romance—cheap Halloween goth, more or less—with all the rules and embellishments just crumbling into tiresome devices of mirrors and sunlight and garlic and vermin and mesmerism and wooden stakes and god knows what not. Perhaps because of its swift brevity, Pu Songling's "Blood-Drinking Corpse" makes a convincing case for this vampire as simple soulless desolate uncanny beast of the night.

Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Loving (1945)

I have my objections to the Modern Library list of the best 20th-century English-language novels, but occasionally it points me to something I might not have got to otherwise. That's the case with this odd British novel by Henry Green. It's an Upstairs, Downstairs type of story set in an Irish country house during the London Blitz attacks of World War II. All the servants and the family too are British. Relations with Ireland and the Irish were tenuous at the time. There's lots of talk against Catholics (called "Romans") and the IRA. But it's a comedy, acerbic and knowing, about how the classes live and abide with one another (or don't). It starts and ends like a fairy tale. The first thing that happens is the head butler dies—one of the funniest death scenes I've ever read, running in the background. The footman who succeeds him, Charley Raunce, is our basic hero, a philandering slippery nogoodnik who appears poised to change for the better, maybe. He's chasing Edith, who is some 20 years his junior, and she appears capable of making him an honest man. Maybe. Meanwhile, the lives of the others grind on, with humdrum petty spats and rancor that is somehow hugely entertaining. You have to work a little at Green's style and approach. It's a 19th-century manners kind of story but told with 20th-century zip: all elliptical concrete details and ear-pure dialogue. Sometimes it's like he's going out of his way to confuse—two boys among the servants are named Albert, for example, and it's easy to mix them up. Others in the household do too. There are episodes of adultery, alcoholism, and other troubles—decoration. The scenes with the unfaithful wife (from upstairs) are funny partly because we know things in these scenes the characters don't. Green is remarkably skillful at setting up and executing scenes like little miniatures. The greatest strength of Loving is that it is so nonjudgmental about all the things it sees. It just shows them to us, with perhaps a hint of a smirk. Can you even believe the things people do? it seems to be saying. Oh look at this now. I liked it quite a bit. I can't explain the title. It's true there's a love story here, but it's mostly unbelievable, in an affable and slightly cheeky sort of way. We have to take it as given. It seems more likely the title was meant to fit with other similar gerund formation titles of Green novels: Living, Party Going, Doting, etc. Not that they're all like that (e.g., Blindness, Caught, Nothing). But they do all have a Pet Shop Boys kind of single-word tang. Loving is good enough I might look into some of them.

In case it's not at the library.