Sunday, June 23, 2019

Solved! (1987)

Richard Glyn Jones is a busy anthologist who might be best known for "Mammoth Book" collections: The Mammoth Book of True Murder, The Mammoth Book of Killer Women, and The Mammoth Book of Women Who Kill are three of his. I don't know them—the only place it seemed like I ever saw those Mammoth Books was at Half Price Books and I haven't been there in a while. I found out about Solved! in Bill James's book on true-crime literature. It's a sequel of sorts to another Jones collection (Unsolved!, natch). The idea is famous writers writing about famous crime cases, with or without conjecture about whodunit. It's a bit misleading that way—the last piece here, for example, is Harlan Ellison's short story about Jack the Ripper set in the future. Jack the Ripper is not a solved case and we don't know that he was transported to the future. Still, for the most part they are interesting cases, interesting treatments, or both. In his introduction Jones says the collection is built around the three longest pieces, by Arthur Conan Doyle, Damon Runyon, and Erle Stanley Gardner: "the tripartite core of this collection and [showing] the writer as detective, reporter and judge." Again, yes and no. Doyle's piece does more to clarify the gap between mystery fiction writers and crime investigation. He might have guessed right about the solution to an open case, but he doesn't seem that credible and the police ignored him completely, though at least that was likely self-serving. Doyle's piece is best at showing how police have been self-serving for a long time. Damon Runyon's series of newspaper reports on a sensational murder of the 1920s has some intrinsic interest, but reads like someone typing in a hurry. Erle Stanley Gardner's treatment of Argosy magazine's so-called "Court of Last Resort"—a kind of early Innocence Project—is good stuff, though the case itself doesn't hold that much interest, alas. Robert Graves writes about the poisoning of the Roman emperor Claudius. Other writers appearing here include Ellery Queen, John D. MacDonald, and Edgar Wallace. Jones shows up with excited headnotes for some of the pieces, not all. The book has more than its share of typos and other printing errors. The result is that it feels like a hurry-up job rushed to market. A lot like those Mammoth Books at Half Price Books always looked, in fact. But I like the scope of this and its literary ambitions, however misplaced. And as true-crime, it's perfectly adequate for the most part. As each writer settles into relating the facts of a case, or most of them, I soon feel the reveries of reading true-crime overcome me. Not bad.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fundamental (2006)

Fundamental exists at a certain point for me of perfect indifference toward the Pet Shop Boys, a lost album between when I started seriously losing interest with Release and before my retrospective interest revived  in a second-chapter kind of way with Yes. I couldn't connect with the 2005 Battleship Potemkin project for a long time—I think now it's a worthy if somewhat anemic effort, anemic perhaps by design or necessity as a formal soundtrack—and then I had instinctive animus against the pointless, witless "Sodom and Gomorrah Show" and "I'm With Stupid," which seemed to me much worse than any of the others might have been good enough, making the album not even worth hearing (my problems with the skip button are an issue for another time). I haven't changed my position there much. Note to b-side naysayers: all of Alternative is better than either. They are real all-career lows, stupid songs that act as if we are as stupid as they are pretending to be, so to speak. The album opener, "Psychological," is pro forma. "I Made My Excuses and Left" is one of their typically great titles but the song is only overdone recycled effects. "Minimal" is a reasonable rouser, though it sags some. The Diane Warren song "Numb," big and purple as it is, may be the best song here. Indulging their penchant for theatrical drama (albeit growing alarmingly sentimental), with Neil Tennant in the spotlight putting it all out there (yet also keyword "numb"), it is easier to forgive given how affecting this song somehow is on its face. That means I just plain like it, though I may not understand why, as with the original "MacArthur Park"—something so ineffably sad about that cake. The shorty "God Willing" and "Luna Park," more of a two-part suite, follow in a similar vein with more certain syrupy attractions. "Casanova in Hell" is even more of same, in an acoustic vein, but now it's not working, "Twentieth Century" is back to more like it, with a groove, a hypnotic melody, and the sweet hope of love. "Sometimes the solution is worse than the problem" speaks to its big ambitious title as well as its intimate romantic comedy lyric. "Indefinite Leave to Remain" feels recycled but more or less lives up to the nice title—another torchy one for Tennant. And "Integral" finishes the way the album starts—pro forma. A perfectly professional product, delivered approximately on time. It's Fundamental.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

USA, 138 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, Jerry Belson, John Hill, Matthew Robbins
Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey, J. Allen Hynek

Director Steven Spielberg's first (and best) movie about aliens from outer space is a curious mixture of the arty and the boffo. A good argument can be made that it's a movie about religion, faith, and/or obsession (sort of like Ordet). As with many visionary art films first the middle is too long and then the ending is way too long. But Close Encounters also has a global perspective right out of Hollywood pictures like Casablanca, traveling (or pretending to travel) to such far-flung exotic points as the Sonora Desert in Mexico, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, Dharmsala in Northern India, and Alabama as Indiana, looking expensive for the sake of a few intriguing narrative details. Plus the special effects, of course. And it's juiced constantly with theatrical movie alarm and/or juvenile humor. Bob Balaban as an interpreter is given regular freak-out scenes as things develop, and at one of the headiest moments in the formal encounter with the aliens a man is shown running desperately for the porta-potty. Diarrhea, I presume. Or maybe cognitive dissonance.

Close Encounters has long been a favorite of mine, for good reasons and weird (where the RUCK are those aliens?! we really need them now). It's one of those movies I've seen enough that I can recite lines as they are coming. In fact, in some cases ("Don't you think I'm taking this really well?" ... "Who are you people?") I'm down to working on specific intonations. I said a lot of what I have to say about this fascination affair several years ago in a rundown of favorite movies I did with Phil Dellio and Steven Rubio—about the suburbs, the obsessions, the higher truths out there. Now I feel like I'm starting to just burnish the same points. Let’s say I'm being overly completist about getting to all those titles from the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Although, at the same time, it is interesting how Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a real mouthful of a title!) continues to reveal itself even at this level of familiarity.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

"The Monkey's Paw" (1902)

Proceeding now to the unassailable classics, spoilers blazing, this story by W.W. Jacobs is rightly considered one of the best horror short stories. It has been widely anthologized to the point where it is generally groaned over in places like Amazon reviews as an obvious choice when it shows up in another collection. The prolific Jacobs was more of a humorist by inclination, and perhaps even more a spinner of seagoing yarns. He only wrote a dozen or two horror stories and the others I've looked at are more rote, straining for effects they can't quite muster, or that other stories by other writers did much better. In a way, that makes Jacobs an example, for me anyway, of a writer who wrote only one spectacular story.

Among other things "The Monkey's Paw" is one of the best uses of the "three wishes" device, which dates back of course at least to the Arabian Nights into antiquity out of folk fairy tales. This story, in fact, is ridiculously simple in structure. It feels 19th-century in the language and the way it is divided into chapters—indeed, it's often compared to Dickens—but it's a model of compression compared to much 19th-century horror, which often prefers to pile detail teeteringly high in monolithic paragraphs (a mode that continued with H.P. Lovecraft and continues still). In many ways the publication date of "The Monkey's Paw" in the early 20th century feels auspicious.

The story includes a familiar figure of all eras of horror, the worried man of authority, in this case a British Army veteran who served in India, where he acquired the foul object of the story's title. Sergeant-Major Morris is paying a visit to the Whites, an elderly couple with a grown son, Herbert, who still lives with them. They are a ridiculously happy and complacent family. After a few drinks the grizzled veteran tells them the story of the monkey's paw, setting off one of the most artful pieces of the story. Everyone always talks about the knocking in this story, and we'll get to that, but I think this is the really important piece of it.

Monday, June 17, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)

If you go by IMDb ratings, the movies in the John Wick franchise just keep getting better and better, with scores of 7.4 for the first one, 7.9 for the second, and early returns showing an even 8.0 for this new one. I wouldn't actually know because, as much as I liked the first one, I have a policy about sequels so I never saw the second. Then people seemed to like this new one and I found myself in the mood for it. The popcorn guy told me he'd heard it was the greatest action movie ever made of all time, and thought I should have seen the second one because something happens in it (he didn't want to give it away) that is important in this one. Yeah, right, I think I can guess—something about a dog and/or hit man Wick (Keanu Reeves) getting out of line with this crazy Assassins Bureau thing. Look, really, plot is the least thing you need to be worried about in Parabellum (which comes from the Latin phrase Si vis pacem, para bellum, "if you want peace, prepare for war," and is also a brand name for a semiautomatic pistol or machine gun). What's important are the fights and the techno music, though there may not be enough techno music in this one. They're brutal, and some can be grotesque, though actually there's not much gore or torture. Instead, most are more like choreography, real popping slopping things of beauty in kinetic motion and coordination, ranging across wide fields of hand-to-hand combat disciplines with or without an equally wide variety of deadly instruments. In fact, as a conceit, the comparison is made explicitly here with ballet. As with the best action pictures, a lot depends on the setups and execution. In this movie the narrative setups may be lame but the execution is excellent. The action can be positively witty. For example, an early fight takes place in a knife store. Hey, why not? Smash the cases as you go, then rapidly hurl knives, what could go wrong? One guy dies with about seven of them stuck in his skull. Then there's one more thing with an ax. In another fight, in a room of all glass, Wick sets a land speed record for smashing through cases, and every burst of shattering glass, no matter how unlikely, is explosive and satisfying. My favorite might be another early one, with Wick on horseback in Manhattan. Horseback! The movie has a waxy metallic kind of look, with super-saturated nighttime colors and a kind of high-contrast glowing texture that's a little off-putting. Is that a film stock choice or something required for high-speed shooting at night? Too often it looks like a Guy Ritchie picture. I'm no expert on action movies but I will say Parabellum had a lot of the look and feel of the Raid movies. Maybe most action movies do now? Popcorn guy sources notwithstanding, I would still put them a little ahead of the two John Wicks I have seen (the third, or rather second, is on its way to me now from Netflix). Keanu Reeves is starting to show his age a little, 55 this year, but that doesn't matter much either. He's going to be doing this for a long time. Consider Liam Neeson. Meanwhile, Parabellum: for when you're in a kinetic mood.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

The first novel by James Joyce took over 10 years to write. Published when Joyce was 34, it's not a big book. The time was occupied with poverty, drinking, revising, and drafting, not necessarily in that order. At one point it was giant. I read it in my 20s and reread it recently and both times I loved the first half and then felt this autobiographical artist-coming-of-age tale bog down as the main character Stephen Dedalus reaches his mid-teens, when religion swamps his education and fuels a provocative resentment. My favorite sections might be the transcriptions of their lessons on hell, which are vivid and just a little sick: "The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls." The lesson goes on like that for quite some time. Joyce's language all through is singing, vibrant, and concrete, not just on hell, but the narrative is often elliptical, forcing us to construct context and setting from clues. It lands hard on specific points in time, but then skips ahead with little warning beyond new chapters and line breaks. In a general way I share Joyce's resentments about the church, but I certainly don't share his experience. That's mainly what mires me down in the second half, as religion marks and distorts every aspect of his life and especially his education. No wonder he's so pissed off. I would also like to register another complaint about the Modern Library list, which ranks this as third-best novel in the 20th century behind only Ulysses and The Great Gatsby. In other words, two of the top three on the list are by Joyce. As it happens, Joyce is one of the few writers on this list who I think deserves two titles, as opposed to, say, Joseph Conrad (4), Evelyn Waugh (3), Ford Madox Ford (2), and other lapses. For that matter, Joyce doesn't deserve the three he gets—down at #77 we find Finnegans Wake of all things. Did all the voters really reread it to make sure it was as good as they remembered? That position, about #77, is where I think Portrait should go, a worthy and valuable book but not nearly as good as many it's ranked over (The Sound and the Fury, Catch-22, and The Grapes of Wrath, to name three in the top 10). Well, file all that under the agony of making lists. The religion aspect of Portrait might make it less interesting to me—in terms of liberating oneself from that particular morass I think Samuel Butler's Way of All Flesh is the better novel (or memoir), if decidedly 19th-century and not modern. But Joyce is such a good writer, and so modern, he can obscure things like that.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

USA, 108 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville, Gordon McDonell
Photography: Joseph A. Valentine
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editor: Milton Carruth
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Hume Cronyn, Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford, Edna May Wonacott

In my attempts to make the case that Fritz Lang's M is flawed and overrated, too much a propaganda exercise pushing for return of a death penalty in Germany in the early '30s—hey, we all have our blind spots—I used to counter claims it was the best serial killer movie of all time by calling attention to Shadow of a Doubt, director Alfred Hitchcock's first movie set exclusively in the US and also reportedly his own favorite of all the movies he made. In 1986, Henry made the whole argument moot, of course (though not all fans of M see it that way), and in hindsight I would have to say that Hitchcock's conception of a serial killer and his society is nearly as romanticized and off-key as M, though both movies also have many things right about the curious brutal phenomenon of modern life.

M focuses on the sexual perversion, general skulking pathetic qualities, and the heinousness of the crimes, preying on children, whereas Shadow of a Doubt makes Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, typically great even in an unusual role for him) more of a preening Nietzschean superman type, openly, almost compulsively scornful of social institutions such as banks and churches. A soul of darkness. He's the one you'd think more likely to send postcards to newspapers and police. But Uncle Charlie is actually a good deal more circumspect and ultimately perhaps rational, going to great pains to hide his identity and in many ways committing his crimes for the money. He's closer to Patricia Highsmith's Mr. Ripley than Jack the Ripper. The genius here is to set this serial killer down in the middle of California small-town Leave it to Beaver land.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Top 40

1. Blood Orange, "Charcoal Baby" (4:02)
2. Sons of Kemet, "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman" (5:38)
3. Wizkid, "Fever" (4:12)
4. Lizzo, "Boys" (2:52)
5. Lil Peep, "Life Is Beautiful" (3:27)
6. Elle Goulding, Diplo & Swae Lee, "Close to Me" (3:02)
7. A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, "Look Back at It" (2:59)
8. Lauren Daigle, "You Say (piano/vocal)" (4:36)
9. Janice and Bill Youngman, "Wings" (6:47, 2017)
10. Gary Clark Jr., "This Land" (5:41)
11. Ariana Grande, "Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored" (3:10)
12. Dean Lewis, "Be Alright" (3:16)
13. Freddie Gibbs, "Bandana" (3:21)
14. Gesaffelstein, "Blast Off" (3:36)
15. Avey Tare, "Taken Boy" (3:41)
16. Deafheaven, "Black Brick" (7:27)
17. Weezer, "High as a Kite" (3:47)
18. Weezer, "Living in L.A." (3:37)
19. Marissa Nadler, "If We Make It Through the Summer" (2:20)
20. Jay Som, "Simple" (3:41)
21. Kera, "Bright Future Ahead" (3:19)
22. Jessie Ware, "Adore You" (3:45)
23. Wye Oak, "Evergreen" (3:47)
24. Pet Shop Boys, "On Social Media" (3:33)
25. Sebastian Hagensen, "Hold Back the River" (2:20)
26. Jonas Brothers, "Sucker" (3:01)
27. Feed Me, "Sleepless" (5:33)
28. Fata Morgana, "La Atlantida" (4:53)
29. Raiki, "No More (Original Mix)" (5:03)
30. Karen O & Danger Mouse, "Turn the Light" (3:19)
31. Dream Syndicate, "Black Light" (4:40)
32. Dave, "Black" (3:48)
33. Nakhane feat. Anohin, "New Brighton" (3:19)
34. Lola Indigo, "Mujer Bruja" (3:23)
35. Unperfect, "Gots to Give the Girl" (4:05)
36. E-40, "Melt" (2:20)
37. Sky Ferreira, "Downhill Lullaby" (5:32)
38. Bad Religion, "Do the Paranoid Style" (1:46)
39. Tame Impala, "Patience" (4:52)
40. Ciara, "Thinkin Bout You" (3:48)

tx: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, The Stranger, The Singles Jukebox, social media at random, hearing the Ariana Grande song on the radio confirmed it for me

Monday, June 10, 2019

Rocketman (2019)

I first saw the preview for this movie at the same time I first saw the preview for Bohemian Rhapsody so the two movies have always seemed a little linked to me. Glad they finally put this one out, timed to coincide with Elton John's farewell (until the next one no doubt) tour. There are other connections, such as the obvious: '70s gay rock star lifestyle writing hits cocaine abuse consequences biopic, etc. The director of Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher, was listed as an executive producer on Bohemian Rhapsody after he stepped in to finish it when director Bryan Singer stepped out. That reminds me of the way Bill Pohlad, who directed the Brian Wilson / Beach Boys picture Love & Mercy, from 2014, has spent most of his career as a producer (Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave). Can producers just not resist the opportunity to direct these behemoth rock star exercises? Or are they that easy? Somehow it makes me think of Jann Wenner writing a record review. The movie that nagged at me most during Rocketman was the Beatles show from 2007, Across the Universe. They both basically combine history, biopic, old-fashioned musical, and newfangled music video modes into swirling demi-psychedelic demi-head-trip jukebox musicals, with valuable trivia. Lots of familiar Elton John faves for one and all are deployed to illustrate phases of his life: "The Bitch Is Back," "Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting)," "Honky Cat," "Your Song," "Tiny Dancer," more. They're not the originals but they're usually close enough (again like Across the Universe). "Crocodile Rock" notably gets a terrific treatment, asserting itself again as one of the great rock 'n' roll songs of the '70s. Never mind it's given as performed at the historic Troubador stand (another feature of Rocketman: all songs all out of sequence). And just when you think they're running out of them, along come "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," or the redoubtable "Bennie and the Jets."

But the other piece about Bohemian Rhapsody that occurred to me with Rocketman was the controversy about biopics and truth. Bohemian Rhapsody had a major whitewasher falsehood that profoundly disrespected Freddie Mercury and what he wanted to be to fans, for the sake of a big rousing finish. That doesn't happen in Rocketman, though obviously there are exaggerations, distortions, and the usual biopic problems related to moviemaker liberties (this one with a sense of history as if ripped to shreds by a slasher). But it does take the emotional travails of Elton John quite seriously, chasing down his issues with his father and his mother, his alcoholism and drug problems, his inability to sustain a relationship, and more than anything the sadness at the center of his life. As a conceit, the frame story is set in a group therapy session at a rehab clinic. Or maybe it was just a plain old AA meeting. Well, not exactly a plain old anything as Elton is in costume for much of it (and of course out of costume at the end of it). But there he is laying it all right out on us. The result is a much more honest picture but somehow with much fewer pure highs of pleasure. I'm wondering if that's really the terms of this trade-off, or maybe it just happened by accident here. It made me think of a spirited defense I read of Bohemian Rhapsody (by Christopher Frizzelle in the Seattle Stranger) which makes the argument that Freddie Mercury didn't want to be remembered as a casualty. He wanted to be remembered as an electrifying performer. I went to Rocketman with high expectations, so that might be part of the problem too. It's tremendous at many points. Elton's friendship with Bernie Taupin is wonderful, an unusual union and very touching. Also interesting to see Elton treated as an early musical prodigy—I hadn't known that. And it's probably honest, right?! Still, I would have appreciated a little higher quotient of electrifying performances in Rocketman. After all, it's what we know Elton John can do.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

What Is the What (2006)

I knew virtually nothing about the Lost Boys of Sudan when I started Dave Eggers's "novel," but after finishing it I not only have a better understanding of that chapter of history, but the details are also impossibly vivid. I use the term novel in scare quotes because that is the book's marketing label and the category in which it won awards and acclaim. What Is the What is closer in form to a memoir—closer even than to biography, because it tells the story of Valentine Achak Deng in the first person. Achak (as he is most often called here) lost his parents and siblings and was forced to flee his Sudanese village on foot after it was overrun by violence and destruction in the long Sudanese civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2005. He was not even 10. Joining with others, he walked nearly 2,000 miles to a refuge in Ethiopia, from which he was ejected by wartime circumstances and forced to make another long trek on foot to Kenya. Eventually, as an adult, he finds his way to the US as an immigrant. What Eggers has done with this story is nothing less than remarkable. It does work like a novel because in many ways it's structured like one—with a 24-hour frame story set in Atlanta, where Achak finally lands, that proceeds with unreeling memories of his life. It works like a memoir because Eggers so completely occupies the point of view of Achak. Eggers already showed his skill for memoir and lost boys in his own tale published six years earlier, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, his first book. It's interesting to see someone so immersed in memoir who also appears to be so egoless, at least in his writing. What Is the What (subtitled The Autobiography of Valentine Achak Deng) works so well because there is so little Eggers and so much Achak. But the telling here counts nearly as much as the tale. By making it a novel, taking the liberties of flashbacks, information artfully withheld, suspense, and other techniques of fiction, it bypasses dry historical accounts and is that much more effective. Once here, Achak has nearly as many problems in the US, and ultimately this story encompasses American experience as much as Sudanese, Ethiopian, and Kenyan. And if Eggers has the human spirit of Achak right, as he seems to, he's even more shrewd about getting out of the way of it. In spite of a life of unimaginable privations and hardships, Achak is a warm light burning bright. You can't help but love him, and this book is the most direct way into that for most of us. I'm really tempted to call it a masterpiece.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

France / Japan, 90 minutes
Director: Alain Resnais
Writer: Marguerite Duras
Photography: Michio Takahashi, Sacha Vierny
Music: Georges Delerue, Giovanni Fusco
Editors: Jasmine Chasney, Henri Colpi, Anne Sarraute
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada

From the title and into the early scenes, Hiroshima mon amour, a collaboration of director Alain Resnais and writer Marguerite Duras, gives the impression it's going to be a radically political type of story about nuclear anxiety and/or nuclear guilt. But that is eventually left behind, as the swirling mists of rampant prolific gray arty style slowly give way to two beautiful people talking, and the picture turns into something like an extended therapy session. Therapy not for us but for Elle (Emmanuelle Riva), who has a devastating and psychologically complex past to live with, many of whose issues she is still acting out. Besides, if it was going to be a political movie it probably would have made more sense to call it Nagasaki mon amour.

Here's the breakdown. Elle is a French actress making a film in Hiroshima about peace. Lui (Eiji Okada) is a Japanese architect and native of Hiroshima who missed the bomb (though his family did not) because he was away fighting the war. Lui (a masculine pronoun) is two years older than Elle (a feminine pronoun). (The names are a convenience via IMDb, never used in the movie. Some sources prefer to call them "She" and "He.") They are in their 30s, beautiful, middle-class, and materially comfortable. During the war, when she was 18 and living in the small French city of Nevers, where she was born and raised, Elle had a German boyfriend. Thus, for whatever reasons, maybe even coincidence, we see Elle as drawn (innocently or otherwise) to her nominal and/or former enemies. I should mention that in many ways Hiroshima mon amour doesn't have that much of a narrative presence, so I might already be dwelling too much on it.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

"The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (1841)

This story by Edgar Allan Poe is at least as difficult as it is strange. Every time I go back to it I find myself losing attention for most of the first half. It's formally presented as a dialogue between two spirits in the afterlife who were lovers or married when they were alive. Monos (Greek masculine form of "one") was the first to die, apparently—he has memories of Una (Latin feminine form of "one") grieving at his funeral ceremonies. Now he seems to be explaining the afterlife to her. Perhaps she has just died. If it's classified as a horror story, and I'm not sure it should be, that's chiefly for two reasons: 1) it was written by Poe, and 2) its vision of the afterlife is bound to be disturbing to many as a version of being buried alive (a familiar Poe motif). I'm not 100% comfortable myself with his vision yet I find it somehow more soothing than unsettling, even exhilarating in a way. To be honest I'm not even sure I'm getting it right. The introduction to the online version I found, for example, characterizes this piece as "Conversations between two Athenians who have experienced life and death several times. They are frustrated because mankind never seems to learn from the past." Actually I'm not at all sure that's it, but given the business model of the website—"a 'G' rated study resource for junior high, high school, college students, teachers and home schoolers"—it may be they don't want to fly right at this one.

As I say, it's not easy to make out. The story is outfitted with multiple foreign languages, including Greek rendered in the Greek alphabet (hence "Athenians," I presume, though I believe Una would then have to be more like Roman). The dialogue between Monos and Una is not easy to follow even when it's in English. It's actually, title notwithstanding, more of a soliloquy by Monos, who can't quite figure out how to say what he wants to say. "Words are vague things," he says in one of the most straightforward declarative sentences in the whole thing. "[A]fter some days there came upon me, as you have said, a breathless and motionless torpor; and this was termed Death by those who stood around me.... I was not unconscious of those movements which displaced you from me, which confined me within the coffin, which deposited me within the hearse, which bore me to the grave, which lowered me within it, which heaped heavily the mould upon me, and which there left me, in blackness and corruption, to my sad and solemn slumbers with the worm." Though this last passage is very close to the end of the story, there's still a good deal more to be revealed by Monos in the last three paragraphs, which it might be fair to call epic revelations, come thou now and hear the word. Certainly this section works on me that way. This is the part of the story that thrills me, which has even led me to inflict it on others in informal reading discussion groups and now to make a home for it in these contemplations of horror short stories. Asking others to look at it is always when I'm suddenly reminded how strange and how difficult the story is, whether or not you call it horror. I don't even know Poe well enough to understand what kind of a story it is for him (it seems a departure from everything else I've read) or how much of an anomaly it might be. But the thing practically floors me every time, extolling its oxymoronic balm of death's sting.

Read story online. (Library of America)

Monday, June 03, 2019

Booksmart (2019)

This coming-of-age teen comedy romp may be implausible and full of holes but it's still a pretty good time and often funny. It's the night before high school graduation—the whole night, actually, so in a way director Olivia Wilde and the four screenwriters are courting American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. But it's quite a bit more loopy and surprising than either of those movies. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) realizes that she and her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have spent all their time at high school with their noses to the grindstone to make the grade to get into good schools. They never had fun like the rest of the kids, on whom they generally look with bemused disdain. But, in turn, they know they are only regarded by them as good-girl drudges and they feel they deserve better. The night follows, with the general aim of finding a party at Nick's aunt's place, wherever that is. Feldstein and Dever have a lot of chemistry and they are going to make this movie work no matter what it takes or what the script tells them they have to do. Molly and Amy have elaborate, weird, and hilarious affirmation rituals they go through when they meet or just before challenges. They are smart, sensitive, geeky, charming, and funny when their inhibitions drop, but high school social pressures being what they are they only rarely drop. There are wonderful characters here. A poor little rich boy, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), who kept reminding me of Jackie Chan. His mysterious sister, or cousin (or something), Gigi (Billie Lourd), who is literally everywhere Molly and Amy go, before they get there, even though they leave her behind in worse condition every time. An encouraging teacher, Mrs. Fine (Jessica Williams), who is. A high school principal (Jason Sudeikis) who drives for Lyft in his spare time. Amy's parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) are cloyingly adorable liberal (I think) Christians who accept that their daughter is a lesbian, and even support it, thinking she is involved with Molly. She isn't. There's also a serial killer who tries to talk sense to them. Early in the evening, on Jared's yacht, when Gigi doses them with some exotic drug they become Barbie dolls for a sequence and undergo other strange changes before regrouping and moving on to the next stop on the way to the party. Of course there are tender moments—it's a milestone of life, after all, high school graduation. But this movie is mostly a lot of laughs with the soundtrack turned up loud. Good stuff all around.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Generation of Swine (1988)

I read a lot of Hunter Thompson in the '70s but that changed in the '80s. He never seemed as effective after the ascent of Ronald Reagan. In fact, a critical turning point is even documented here. As far as the "Gonzo Papers" go, Generation of Swine is not as ambitious or strong as The Great Shark Hunt, but I have a lot of regard for it anyway. It's a collection of syndicated op-ed columns he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner during Reagan's second term. As such, the pieces are of a uniform length, and pretty short—I'd guess a little short of 1,000 words each. What I like is how he manages to compress his persona down to size, preserving his maniac shtick (I know I know, everyone says it was real), but sometimes working almost poetically with the form itself of the newspaper op-ed. The first piece, for example, is covering his assistant ("Maria") getting a tattoo, obviously an exotic activity in the mid-'80s. Even in its short space you're not sure where it's going, until you do, and then it's over, though the headlong momentum lingers. Mostly Thompson is covering politics in these pieces and unfortunately for all of us he's somewhat less than prescient. At one point he predicts the Reagan Revolution would be a dim memory in 2000. Instead it was more virulent than ever—still is, in the demented Bizarro orange form. So some of Thompson's projections, 30 years later, look more like wishing. The usual vocabulary is in place—"savage," "bull fruit" (a prison term I had forgotten), "depravity," "pimps," etc.—as well as the gray area between his joking and reality. He drops Ed Bradley's name quite frequently, but I'm sure Bradley never said most of those things. I feel sad when I read Thompson nowadays. Everything has gotten so much worse than even he seemed able to imagine. The period covered here is a funny little backwater, though it contains at least one key moment, as Thompson charts it, and that is the overnight conversion of Oliver North in 1987. First he was a skulking criminal (there's another Thompson term) about to take the Reagan administration down in scandal and then he became a hero of popular culture, simply by using his testimony to Congress to throw the now-familiar entitled white guy tantrum. See also Brett Kavanaugh. (North and everybody also had some strategic help in the ultimate cover-up of Iran-Contra by none other than Bill Barr, but I digress.) It's even possible to say North invented the tactic in a way. Fox News was not even around then. Better days, better days. But rapidly going bad. Thompson's account of hanging around in a bar watching TV news, as was his wont, seems poignant now when he realizes the yahoo salt-of-the-earths he's sousing with are on North's side. Generation of Swine has about 100 individual bursts of rapid-fire typing and some solid numbers and analysis about the period. But it certainly comes from another time than the one we live in now, and last time through I thought nostalgia was mostly what this book had to offer.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

"The Jolly Corner" (1908)

It's not his last story, but "The Jolly Corner" is a nice end-piece for Henry James. It's a ghost story, like The Turn of the Screw though more wistful, and again reverberates with the tensions of New World and Old—in this case, between a life lived in Europe or the States. Our hero, Spencer Brydon, left for Europe when he was 23. Now he is 56, returning to New York after a Jesus' age to deal with the properties that have supported him, including what he insists on calling "The Jolly Corner," the house in Manhattan where he was raised. He wonders what his life would have been if he'd stayed. He imagines an "alter ego" (James's italics), an ambitious and successful businessman, who seems to become ever more real as we go. In the wonderful (or exasperating) ambiguities of James, in the end it's not clear whether Brydon is alive or dead. It might work either way. It all turns on a nightly tour Brydon takes of his homestead, and a closed door that should be open. On such slender reeds are these things made. James's evasive allusive style is suited to a certain type of horror, where in many cases it's to the narrator's purpose to keep us in the dark, and blind. A lot of time is spent on that door. The path through three adjoining rooms is charted. We come away with a reasonable schematic in our heads for much of that section of the building. The room with the closed door is a strange architectural feature, and the door is the only access to it. Brydon is a man of habit and never shuts doors. Yet the door is shut. He is so filled with dread he cannot bring himself to open it. He takes his leave, then faints and falls, and comes to with his friend Alice Staverton cradling his head in her lap. Is it the afterlife? We'll never know. What's most haunting about "The Jolly Corner," its main charge for me, is the sense of a life that could have been, the road not taken, etc. This sense only increases and grows more complex as we age, growing apart by the vectors we have taken. We are many of us literally haunted by our own alter egos by the time we reach age 56. As it happens, I'm also someone who is a little haunted by the house I grew up in, much more so in fact than Brydon. He may have had it thrust on him, but I share his sense for the power of these physical locations, and not just in memory. They are places where ghosts dwell, and James is great at turning all that into a piece that is equally suggestive, mysterious, and powerful.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 35 pages

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

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Gargoyle (2017)

I'm a little embarrassed but more surprised than anything to realize it's been nearly 20 years and four albums since I checked in with Mark Lanegan. He doesn't sound much different, which might be a little underhanded to observe, but I like what he does and it's easy to make a habit of listening to this album regularly, the way Field Songs worked the last time, or Whiskey for the Holy Ghost or The Winding Sheet before. It's doomy and moody and full of dramatic gesture, modulating sound levels the way grungers always like, granite faces to the powerful north wind, rock band, eternity, etc. Bring in the goats. As always, Lanegan is willing to let it swell up with keyboards, strings, and of course big guitar chords, counterparting with his rumbling whiskey soak vocal. And he does get to emotional moments, affecting ones. The songs are often rich with juicy melody too, as in the epic "Nocturne," with its Joy Division flourishes and surrender to all that is lovely. Gargoyle topics under consideration: death, drinking, mysterious mirrors, midnight encounters, holy love at will, setting the sky on fire, reeling empire, Paul Bowles scenes under a stark tropic moon (or the equivalents as rendered from drug haze). There's much more in the way of keyboards on this album than I recall from Lanegan before, straying toward Ultravox by way of Philip Glass on "Blue Blue Sea," for example. The album is not always hitting on all cylinders and can go flat in places, which only means it's a typical album in a lot of ways. "Nocturne" might be the only song that really sends me, but there are some whompers that can get you one way or another, either with sweet wheedling or blunt force, such as "Emperor" (lifting from Iggy Pop's "The Passenger") and the convincingly bittersweet "Goodbye to Beauty." The finish is "Old Swan," the last and longest song on the album, which sets up a pretty big play, martial rhythms and swirling guitars spiraling higher, higher. "Take me in your arms, let me live again." Yeah, there we go. To the stratosphere and a long fade. Must have something to do with Zeus.

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Quiet Man (1952)

USA, 129 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent, Maurice Walsh, John Ford
Photography: Winton C. Hoch
Music: Victor Young
Editor: Jack Murray
Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields, Eileen Crowe, Sean McClory, Jack MacGowran

The Quiet Man finds director and cowriter John Ford in an unusual marrying mood. His more typical masculinist agenda is pushed well to the side—in the end, perhaps even reading as a kind of self-deprecating comic relief—which may be why it's the one of all his movies I always respond to whole-heartedly. It doesn't hurt that Ford found someone so suitable to his worldview in Maureen O'Hara, playing the "spinster" Mary Kate Danaher (O'Hara was 32 when this movie was made, costar John Wayne 45). O'Hara's persona as a proud hot woman of passionate moral virtue fits Ford's purposes well. It was her second turn with Ford (and with costar Wayne), after Rio Grande two years earlier, and one more was still ahead (The Wings of Eagles). I've seen the first two, not the third, and I think being in color rather than black and white has something to do with why The Quiet Man may be a little better than Rio Grande.

Though it's a departure, The Quiet Man is a Ford production in many familiar ways, notably the casting, which features a bunch of familiar loyal troupers we've seen before: Wayne, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen. Mildred Natwick and Arthur Shields had been in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon a few years earlier. But The Quiet Man is also different because of its setting, in 1920s rural Ireland, which is as green in the glowing color as Monument Valley is orange and blue in Ford's color Westerns. With the addition of certified Lucky Charms leprechaun Barry Fitzgerald as the village's whiskey-quaffing marriage broker, the blarney that is generally lurking in the background of most Ford movies is shoved up front in a kind of charm offensive. And it works. This movie is almost perfectly charming as it goes through its localized courting paces.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"In the Slaughteryard" (1890)

When I talked about horror lying within an intersection of true-crime, this very strange story with its overwrought title is not actually what I had in mind. It's from Mary Danby's Realms of Darkness collection, but it's not much like any horror story I know, certainly of the era. I'm sure it found a much better home in the collection whose cover is pictured above. Yet in its way the story speaks to the intersection very well—as tawdry, unseemly, lurid, with raw hints of derangement and sadism, as if serial murder itself might be a kind of plague contagion, for victims and killers alike, leading to general bloodlust and society quivering on the verge of the breakdown of all norms. See also The Purge (or "The Lottery," which is altogether more elegant than either). The whole point of this story appears to be to make itself as extremely unpleasant as possible for genteel 1890.

Jack the Ripper, of course, who'd finished his work and disappeared a scant two years before this story appeared, deserves all credit for establishing the serial killer as demented media celebrity, writing taunting letters to police and newspapers, sending along irrefutable proof as the whim moves, and generally conducting entire metropolitan areas into waves of panic and revulsion. He was the first, before Zodiac or Manson or Son of Sam, and in a certain perverse view he might still be the best ever—the Babe Ruth of serial killers. He invented it, aided by the media ecosystem in London. Jack the Ripper's irrefutable proof by mail, for example, was a sample of a victim's kidney. But why go into detail.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Time Out of Joint (1958)

This Philip K. Dick novel follows a familiar Dickian pattern, opening on scenes of hyper-normal California suburban life in the '50s. Small things, very small things, go wrong and characters may seem to overreact but it turns out they are on to something before we are. Things are not what they seem. Except we are on to it pretty quickly, because we know we are reading a novel by Philip K. Dick. And zooming in on our pastoral suburban setting—think The Truman Show now, an obvious heir—there is Ragle Gumm, who makes his living by winning a newspaper puzzle contest most days of the week. He lives with his sister and brother-in-law, Margo and Vic. Vic works in the produce department at the grocery story. The neighbors, Bill and Junie Black, drop in a lot. I'm sure you noticed the strange source of income for Gumm, which is one of the ways Dick does his thing. We know it's weird but no one in the story seems to. Almost right away, we find out the newspaper is collaborating with Gumm to help him keep winning the puzzle contest, which is called "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?" Meanwhile, also early on, Vic goes to the bathroom to get something for his stomach and feels around for a light cord before he remembers they have a wall switch. This disturbs him deeply—much more than the fact that his brother-in-law makes his money winning a daily public newspaper contest (though at least he grumbles about whether that's actually work). So it goes—in typical Dick fashion, and continuing with the movie lingo, it starts on a tight close-up of one reality, and then dollies slowly slowly back to reveal greater realities nesting inside even greater realities. Dick is always good at communicating how miserable it is to be this paranoid. Time Out of Joint teeters on the edge of schizophrenic experience, with TVs and such presumed to be monitoring devices. Indeed, it all kind of blows up in the last chapter, with fragmented reveals that might also be further delusions. Think of that onion, man. Always more layers. This also reminds me of Twilight Zone episodes where people turn out to be living in dollhouses, have become household pets of a giant alien kid, or are in zoos. Two or three fleeting moments hit that chill of paranoia hard enough to make me a little nervous about reality from the comfort of my bed. No one else is quite like Dick. Add to the stack.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

True Grit (1968)

Now over 50 years old, this amazing novel probably deserves to be called a classic and even a masterpiece. I still remember it as new, in the wake of the 1969 movie adaptation with John Wayne and the Oscarsquake that followed. I never had anything to do with either movie until the Coen brothers' version came along in 2010. I liked the Coens movie very much the first time. Later I watched both back to back, the John Wayne for my first time, and then I liked the Coens version less, but still thought they made an interesting pair in terms of comparative strengths and weaknesses. Then I finally got around to reading the novel. Friends, don't make my mistake. Go and read this book immediately before you do anything else. That way you still have time to read it a few more times. I want to start it over again right now. It is more than twice as good as both movies combined. Charles Portis pulls off remarkable feats here without your ever noticing. He writes in the voice of an older woman who recalls scenes from when she was 14. Mattie Ross is a precociously mature 14-year-old, but even she cannot have the insights of the woman full grown who is the narrator. It is a tart judgmental voice. She is proudly Presbyterian, for example—specifically, a certain creed, which she explains and supports with Bible verse. She views some people as "trash." As she broods on her differences with others in various matters, she lays out their case, as at trial, and then follows with, "My answer is this." Her voice is the single best thing about this book, a lively instrument that is fierce, scorching hot, and often very funny. But there is more. The characters are rich and vividly felt: the drunken lawman Rooster Cogburn, the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, even many of the outlaws and incidental characters. No one is all-good, though a few may be all-bad. But they are unique and distinctive and feel intimately known. Even the horse Little Blackie. True Grit also somehow manages the air of a great tall tale of the American West, passed down for generations. Really, don't miss this one.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 10, 2019

King Kong (1933)

USA, 105 minutes
Directors: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Writers: James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, Leon Gordon
Photography: Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker, Kenneth Peach
Music: Max Steiner
Editor: Ted Cheesman
Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, Jim Thorpe

The original King Kong is a strange beast indeed. It's so old that, even though it's officially a talkie in all ways (including a five-minute orchestral overture) and even though plenty of silent pictures had already mounted impressive special effects bonanzas, it still feels like it has a foot in the invention of cinema. Codirectors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack are less like film directors and more like the impresario figure they use as the hero of the picture, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who is notably prone to making giant huckstering statements off the cuff. "It's money and adventure and fame," he tells Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) at a diner in the middle of the night, buying her a burger as he tries to cast the female lead in his picture at the last minute. "It's the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o'clock tomorrow morning."

There's not even a formal director's credit for this picture. The movie titles bill it as a Cooper and Schoedsack production (after David O. Selznick takes an executive producer credit) and leave it at that. At the end of the movie, buzzing the big ape King Kong perched on the Empire State Building, that's Cooper shown flying a biplane with Schoedsack at the machine gun. Top that, Alfred Hitchcock. The structure of the film is equally unconventional, lurching from a dull yakky start to exotic colonial-minded travelogue, until finally we get our first glimpse of Kong almost halfway in, at about 45 minutes. Then it's mostly creatures and screeching. And there's still another lurch toward the end, back to New York. I suspect it's not the way they teach it in screenwriting workshops.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

"The Potter's Art" (1977)

Before I talk about the story by Denys Val Baker, I want to talk about how I got to the story by Denys Val Baker in the first place. It started either five years ago when I was writing about the Beatles album Rubber Soul or more than 50 years ago when I checked out my first Alfred Hitchcock-branded story collection from the library. In fact, to get the anticlimax out of the way, as a horror short story "The Potter's Art" is merely competent. The reason I'm using it as a starting point is more because, thinking about it, its title is so suggestive to me of the horror short story enterprise at large, and even more because it happened to be when I was making notes about the story that, for whatever reason, I started to think about how to approach an extensive look at horror short stories.

I started writing about short stories a few years ago, individually, one at a time, for a mundane practical ("practical") reason. I like to run reading-related pieces on Sundays, but I'm a slow reader and average fewer than four or five books a month. Stories were a way to plug the gap. Then, because I like reading stories, they grew so numerous they needed their own day (so happy Thursday!). As you may recall I cycled through three survey collections of 20th-century literary shorts, plus extras, and then a collection of science fiction stories. But I think, ever since that Rubber Soul write-up, my heart has been with those old horror stories that used to give me the willies, and still can. It might be worth mentioning I had some still undeveloped ideas about albums and songs on the one hand and novels or story collections and individual stories on the other. As it happens I know of people who complain that individual songs are too much lost in discussions of albums, and others who feel similarly that individual stories are lost in the commercial demand for novels, or at least multiple stories for book-length collections. Some people only have one spectacularly good story (or song) in them. What are we supposed to do about them? How many collections by a single author have we seen that speak to exactly that?

Monday, May 06, 2019

Breakthrough (2019)

Here's an example of a movie that is really good at what it does, but I don't like what it's doing. In fact, I saw previews for it some weeks back and immediately noted it as one to avoid—I have a policy. However, when I went to the Tuesday matinee schedule last week, I must have been distracted by the fact that I was witnessing history. Practically every damn screen at one of the two multiplexes in my town was dedicated exclusively to the three-hour Avengers movie. Hard pass. I looked up Breakthrough and saw director Roxann Dawson (also known as Klingon B'Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager) has worked on well-regarded TV, directing episodes of The Americans and House of Cards, and thought it might be fun to go in otherwise blind, having forgotten the preview. Jesus Christ—I have a policy to skip these Christian-oriented movies. No good can come of it. White Christian Americans generally seem to feel persecuted these days and I tend to mock them, so my policy is the right one. Among other things, Breakthrough features an alternative universe of popular culture that is like the Bizarro episode of Seinfeld. But there I was. Breakthrough is the story, based on true events, of an adopted boy living in the suburbs of St. Louis who nearly drowned in ice-cold water but was restored to life and full health. Of course that's going to be emotionally moving, but this thing swings like the hammer of Grabthar. It bludgeons. It cudgels. It staves. It is the bulldozer and you are the tree. It's a great time if you like to cry and wince and cry and wince.

Here's where Dawson's skills come in. In a general way, TV has become very good at going for the emotional throat. Even among the few series I've followed in the past decade or so of the big TV blow-up—Friday Night Lights and The Walking Dead, for two examples—I've seen an uncanny ability to whip up high pitches of emotional response (I'm talking tears streaming down the face). It's remarkable. I know I'm sentimental, but come on. They seem to be able to do it at will, although the best shows know to hold back and deliver when it counts. In Breakthrough, the switch is more like stuck in the on position. After some setup it shrewdly takes the form of a tick-tock, as it moves from the accident (a fall through thin ice into a lake) to the rescue to the hospital to the shrieking Lazarus moment and recovery. Another piece of this picture is Chrissy Metz as Joyce Smith, the iron-willed mama bear. She's going to tear a new one in God if she has to. Metz is a very large woman and this role in this movie has the feel of contributing to the empowerment (which seems to be the word of choice) of very large women. See also Lizzo. And then there is Topher Grace (Eric Forman on That '70s Show) as the hip Pastor Jason Noble. He's from California. He incorporates rock bands and rappers—good ones too, in a Coldplay kind of way—into the services at his church, which has all the earmarks of a megachurch. The services roll like Dr. Phil episodes. Joyce can't stand him, and in fact he's quite rude to her in an early scene, but eventually they realize they're both on team Jesus. There are surprises in Breakthrough, but they are more along the lines of you can't believe they would take it so far. For example, when hundreds of people turn up at the hospital for a parking lot candlelight vigil and professional gospel singing turn. Somehow the sound penetrates the glass of a hospital window (the real miracle here) and a tear falls from the boy still on his deathbed by all reasonable expectations. Hosanna! Glorium! I'm not saying I wasn't crying, just suggesting it was against my will. On the other hand, isn't it nice to hear a mother say, "You have a purpose and you are loved."

Sunday, May 05, 2019

I Will Find You (2016)

The idea for this book, which probably counts as a memoir, is so intriguing that it never occurred to me how much I would dread reading it until it was sitting in my stack waiting for me. Joanna Connors was raped in Cleveland in 1984, shortly after she moved there for a job at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer newspaper. The rapist was caught in days, convicted, and imprisoned within the year. Nearly 20 years later, Connors decides to find and confront her attacker. The title reflects this mission as well as the words he used to attempt to intimidate her into not reporting the crime. What she finds almost immediately is a dead man. He died in prison in 2000. Nonetheless, partly for the sake of what she needs personally, and later because the newspaper is interested in the story, she pursues the story, finding out about his family and friends and looking them up, and visiting the places he lived, including the many prisons where he landed. What she finds is a nightmare of a life, the cycles of abuse spelled out as clearly as they can be. In many ways, he's as much a victim as he made her, the anonymous man of the system, lost in the machinery—not just the victim of a failing society in general terms, but more specifically of a monster father and then more abusive figures, almost certainly in prison. As Connors tells it, she hates what happened to her, but never managed the levels of hate reached by those around her. Her husband, for example, supported by her mother, looked into paying to have the attacker killed, a circumstance that actually had the effect of making the experience worse for Connors. In the end, years after the attacker's death, Connors and the man's grieving older sister seem to be the only ones left on the planet aware he even existed. Connors tracks him down all the way to his pitiful anonymous grave. "Well, Dave," she says, standing over it. "Charlene and I are the only ones who really thought about you after you died." This book, this quest, somehow feels really important for this moment. It's a tough one to get to, but well worth it.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Papers (1903)

This story from late in Henry James's career, which is long enough to qualify as a novella (whatever), bears interest for several reasons. First, it's more readable than usual for this part of his career. But the main attraction for me is that it reads like an early and prescient look at public relations, celebrity culture, and mass media. It feels very modern. The "papers" of the title are the tabloids and broadsheets of the time, published frequently and hawked on the streets, the Fleet Street of just over a century ago. The two main characters—with the usual ridiculous names: Maud Blandy and Howard Bight—are go-getters in their 20s attempting to carve out lives as freelance writers for the papers. They meet in coffee shops, stay up on all the latest news, and share information with one another. They're going to end up married but that's beside the point. The point is making a living in this fast-paced exciting world of eternal news. The story is also interesting because for some reason I sense more than anywhere else how much James relished being a Britisher, practically a European. One person who consumes Maud's and Howard's interest is a mysterious glittering celebrity who manages always to stay in the news and yet elude reporters. He has one of the most ridiculous names yet: Sir A.B.C. Beadel-Muffet K.C.B., M.P. (On the other hand, I just started reading my first Jeeves book by P.G. Wodehouse the other day and now I suspect these kinds of names are more like a British thing—perhaps the very reason this story feels so British to me.) Beadel-Muffet pulls off a cunning stunt of public relations, the kind of self-promotion still being worked by celebrities today. Howard intimates to others that he had something to do with it but that's likely more by way of impressing a client. Impressing clients is also something that feels modern in this story. Not that Beadel-Muffet's promotion is terribly original, as Jack the Ripper had already happened nearly 20 years earlier, a key harbinger of the celebrity and mass media times to come. James obviously has no better idea what to do about this phenomenon than we do now all this time later. Like us, he feels gravely suspicious of it. Also like us, he is fascinated by the way it moves and shines in the light.

"interlocutor" count = 2 / 97 pages

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

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Fegmania! (1985)

Robyn Hitchcock's follow-on to I Often Dream of Trains was a kick in the season of Talking Heads' Little Creatures, Danny & Dusty's Lost Weekend, and the Knitters' first. For one thing Hitchcock was playing with a band again—the Egyptians, 60% of which actually used to be Soft Boys, so really kind of back to that, though I think Kimberly Rew must be missed because something is missing. Or, anyway, this gets close to the best of the Soft Boys only infrequently and in short bursts. Compared to Hitchcock's previous solo outing, it feels slightly muddied with rehearsal, collaboration, and group dynamics, erasing much of the sharp edge of Trains. It's still the zany Hitchcock eight-ball stream of conscious blab—note title, a made-up word—zinging out from realms and quarters of where the fuck. The song by which Fegmania! may be best known is "My Wife and My Dead Wife," which you should be able to tell right away is working the surrealism beat again. "My wife and my dead wife / Am I the only one that sees her?" he cries plaintively on the chorus. One theory is that he's in a relationship but haunted by another, so "metaphorical." Another is that he's insane, so "literal." And still another is that it's true and right in an inscrutably personal way, so "poetic." I'm opting for the third as a general safe bet for all best outcomes. The song is also funny because it's sung a bit like a predicament episode of some sitcom, with the feeling somewhere between Lars and the Real Girl and the heartrending episodes of The Walking Dead. But it must be said that it also flirts dangerously with an eerily disaffected misogyny. I thought the best songs were on the second side, the ones I put on tapes—still associate this one with vinyl and cassette tapes and such—"The Man With the Lightbulb Head," "Glass," and "Heaven," which veer from surreal radio theater slapstick horror to elysian fields and cloudy mountaintop spiritual vistas. "Glass" is suffused with sadness because it always breaks and "Heaven" approximates its namesake the best way a rock band can, by playing together so carefully and letting the song carry everything away. In fact, it's one of the better songs named "Heaven."

Friday, April 26, 2019

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

Le notti di Cabiria, Italy / France, 117 minutes
Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Pier Paolo Pasolini
Photography: Aldo Tonti
Music: Nino Rota
Editor: Leo Catozzo
Cast: Giulietta Masina, Francois Perier, Amedeo Nazzari, Franca Marzi, Dorian Gray, Dominique Delouche

It's possible that Giulietta Masina's greatest turn was as the lifelong partner of director and cowriter Federico Fellini. Her face is wonderfully expressive and she has a natural rapport with the camera, a trait common to all the greatest stars. But as an actress her range is limited. In her best roles—here and in Fellini's La Strada—she plays characters so simple and unaffected it sent me to check status of the term "mentally retarded" (the preference now appears to be "intellectually disabled"). She's not that, but the prostitute Cabiria (Masina), in spite of believing herself in the know, is almost pathologically trusting, innocent, easily fooled, always wearing her heart on her sleeve. The role in other hands (and/or written differently, like maybe think Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver) could call for a lot of skill to balance someone as apparently guileless with someone who nonetheless manages to survive—without a pimp, in fact, because the whole idea of one outrages Cabiria's sense of her own independence. It's admirable, but more naïve than anything. You might find yourself wondering how she gets away with it, but watch.

Fellini finds another way to tell the story of such extremities of the life. He torques up the movie magic glitter, even inside the neorealism frame he hadn't abandoned yet, with full support by Nino Rota's perfect score, and focuses on making a clown movie, which can also be seen as a variation on Chaplin's City Lights (with lots of elements from Modern Times as well, such as an evocative reverse shot at a key moment down the long roadway the Tramp and his girl walked, saying, "Buck up, never say die," etc.). Here's Wikipedia's groupthought: "The comedy that clowns perform is usually in the role of a fool whose everyday actions and tasks become extraordinary—and for whom the ridiculous, for a short while, becomes ordinary." Masina's face and manner are custom-built for it, with a dopy infectious grin and tilt of head and a love of physical motion for its own sake that is completely endearing. Like City Lights, like freaking Jerry Lewis once in a while, Nights of Cabiria is episodic, surprisingly gritty, playful and slapstick silly yet capturing indelible emotional moments, and in the end delivers up one of the great movie finishes. It's like a slice of three-layer chocolate cake it's so sweet and well done.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Missing Link (2019)

Director and writer Chris Butler has done a few animated features I liked (Corpse Bride, Coraline, and Paranorman, plus Kubo and the Two Strings, which I still haven't seen but hear is good). Also, the marketing for this one reached me through my kindle—I already knew that clownish feathery Big Bird look of the monster on first sight, so maybe my unconscious was manipulated into the choice. Missing Link is a Bigfoot story, set in the late 1800s, but the twists on the various aura of Sasquatch legends come early and often. This hairy eight-foot-tall monster (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) speaks English and is a sensitive, mild-mannered, timid soul, charming but almost fawning. In the right mood he can roar frighteningly, but more often he's like the polite restless smart kid who's been traveling in the car too long. He reads a lot and wants to join the yeti in the Himalayas he's read about. He's the only one of his kind in the Washington state forests (nice to see Washington!) and he's lonely. So he sends a letter to lure the great explorer and possible crackpot, Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman, having the time of his life). Frost is a bit of a Sherlock Holmes type and a preening egotist who fancies himself the world's unrivaled discoverer of monsters. The first scenes feature an encounter with the Loch Ness monster, for example. He wants to join an exclusive explorers club that won't have him without firm evidence of his claims and even then probably won't have him. He's disreputable by his very interests and beliefs. Bigfoot's letter works, he and Frost strike the deal, and they're off to storied Shangri-La. Along the way they pick up an old flame of Frost's, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), and a would-be assassin, Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant). It's a long way from Washington state to the Himalayas. Frost puts Bigfoot in a ridiculous outfit and names him Mr. Link (evolution is a side issue here). Later Mr. Link chooses Susan for his first name. It's all light-hearted and actually a lot of fun—Galifianakis stealing scenes at will, aided and abetted by animation that harks to a cleaned-up buffed-up Jay Ward style for Frost and Adelina, reminiscent of Snidely Whiplash and Nell, with flat heads, jutting chins, poufy lips, and razor-sharp angular lines. Mr. Susan Link is wonderfully expressive, toothy and bubbly. I liked it best when they were all clowning around at their ease, even in danger, but there's a big action-packed climax too. The whole thing is compact and clever enough that it adds up to a fun time.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Orphans of the Sky (1941)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Lives of Others (2006)

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

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

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

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

I Often Dream of Trains (1984)

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

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