Sunday, December 29, 2019

"Floating Bridge" (2000)

Having slept on it, I've decided to take Alice Munro's story as a dream sequence. There's even enough information to support specific points of context, though I understand I'm making leaps here. The dreamer is Jinny, the main character (and probably the narrator), but the dream is from a later time, after surviving the cancer that is described here. She survived it but her life, however grateful she may be, is inevitably fractured. In the dream (in my version), she is in a scene following a visit to the doctor where he told her her condition has begun to go into remission. Her husband Neal is making it impossible to talk to him. He is a strange and unsettling presence in this story—her husband, but as disconnected from her as it is possible to be. He drives her back from the doctor's appointment but won't interact with her directly, only talks at her and uses others as distraction. Especially in light of their age difference—she is 42 and he is 58—he behaves bizarrely. He has hired an entirely inappropriate home care assistant, Helen, a teen who is in the legal system. Everything he does in this story is more to accommodate Helen than Jinny. There's even a sense Neal is flirting with Helen. The detours they take on the way home from the doctor are weird and time-consuming. All the places this remarkable story goes are charged with shocking behavior, decisions, words said aloud. This floating bridge—how is it anything but a dream product? What's most vivid about the story is Jinny's will to live. She is right at death in every way, still in chemotherapy, still in the shock of the diagnosis. She knows it is close and seems to be considering resigning herself to it, but she resists too. The appearance of the adolescent Ricky brings a sexual charge, which jolts Jinny from merely wanting to resist death to finding the strength and reason to do it. Or that's how I read it. There's a crackling discomfort to this story that gnaws away at the reader, especially as we start to piece together the action and Jinny herself. People persist in not behaving naturally but only slightly out of key. Something always feels wrong though that might be a matter of witnessing the shabby way Jinny is treated, or dreams she was treated. It also seems a little too shabby. The story ends on a high note: "What she felt was a lighthearted compassion, almost like laughter. A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given." In my version that's her waking up.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

USA, 129 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Nunnally Johnson, John Steinbeck
Photography: Gregg Toland
Music: Alfred Newman
Editor: Robert L. Simpson
Cast: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Zeffie Tilbury, Dorris Bowdon, Eddie Quillan, Russell Simpson, O.Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Ward Bond

The Grapes of Wrath was remarkably successful as both a novel and then a movie, one of those instant outsize media successes we like to produce in this country when we can. John Steinbeck's novel was published in 1939 and quickly became emblematic of the Dust Bowl environmental disaster of the Great Depression, accompanied by the arrival of big agribusiness capitalism and a massive migration West. It's a kind of small-bore version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, intersecting history right in the moment. It was banned and burned and yapped about on rightwing talk radio, but it also won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer, and it was the work most often mentioned when Steinbeck won his Nobel in 1962. Almost immediately upon publication Darryl F. Zanuck paid a princely sum for the movie rights and then this John Ford version came out the following year, ultimately winning Oscars for director Ford and for Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, with five more nominations to spark the evening, including Best Picture. It all happened in just a couple of years, during the high hysterical times as the Depression moderated and a world war loomed, 1939 to 1942, Hollywood's most characteristic years.

The book and movie now appear regularly on long-faced lists of important great things, and the truth is they both are great, or capable of it, though arguably dogged by some slight odor of sanctimony. I was surprised to find a contemporary Time review, by Whittaker Chambers of all people (via Wikipedia), which declared the movie "possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book"—surprised because if anything I see it the other way. The movie version of The Grapes of Wrath, as impressive as it is, is finally merely another case of a movie not being as good as the book. If it's only going to be one, read the book. This is for specific reasons, notably the treatment of the ending. Yet even falling short of this extraordinary novel can still mean the movie is pretty good and deserves its accolades too.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Dreaming the Beatles (2017)

Rob Sheffield takes possession of the Beatles in a deceptively effortless way. He's a little defensive on some of his points, forcefully turning his 1966 birthdate into an advantage rather than disadvantage (a little like me arguing for possession of Louis Jordan, but OK). His starting point, much like Greil Marcus's for Elvis Presley in Dead Elvis, is that the Beatles never stopped growing and being important just because the band broke up. His most persuasive argument for me was simply pointing out that the album 1, released in 2000—a collection of the Beatles' 27 #1 hits, which everybody who cared had to own by then—has been the best-selling album for most of this century so far (it's now #2 after Adele's 21, which only overtook it this year). Sheffield covers all the familiar ground here: Ed Sullivan, the movies, Bob Dylan, Rubber Soul and Revolver, Jesus, the White Album, etc. He is particularly good on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, with one of the best analyses of that album and its place I've seen. Then, without so much as a speed bump, he carries on talking about the solo careers in the '70s and early nostalgia products such as the Red Album and Blue Album. This was the most surprising and even refreshing view for me—every time he casually zigged and zagged between '60s Beatles and '70s Beatles I had to reorient a little. I like many of the solo Beatles albums (and I like Double Fantasy a good deal more than he does) but I have always seen a bright line between the Beatles and what came after. But I'm convinced now he's right. The Beatles were unimaginably huge in their time. We've seen nothing like it since in popular culture. Yet they have become even bigger since. By the one obvious measure, for most of the 21st century, which started 30 years after they broke up and one of them dead, they owned the #1 album. Getting down to cases with this book—which is a pleasure to read—I find myself closer to Sheffield than I would have imagined, but often with strong disagreements too. He's a John Lennon / Rubber Soul partisan whereas I had made him for Paul McCartney / White Album. He actually went down the anti-Paul road with the rest of us, turning it around finally (as the new majority coalition coalesced) in the '90s (I was a little slower). I like George more than he does and he likes Ringo more than I do. He is vastly more versed on the lore, the bootlegs, and YouTube videos. There was a lot for me to learn here. I had already learned, maybe with Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head (on which Sheffield sounds a little dubious), that there's always more to learn with the Beatles, and infinitely more variation in taste on specific cases. Ultimately I think Dreaming the Beatles is a bit of an odd duck—I worry that like 1991's Dead Elvis it is actually heralding the beginning of the end—but it definitely belongs in the canon of Beatles literature.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

"The Crown Derby Plate" (1933)

Marjorie Bowen's story is another ghost story set in the boggy foggy countryside of England at Christmastime. Its single best feature is caught in the opening line: "Martha Pym said that she had never seen a ghost and that she would very much like to do so, 'particularly at Christmas, for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost.'" Yes, laugh as you like, Christmas is the time for scary ghost stories. Andy Williams sings it in "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Charles Dickens understood it, and filmmakers from Ingmar Bergman (Fanny and Alexander) to Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas), though Bob Clark (original mastermind of Black Christmas) may not exactly be getting it. This is an admirably moody story, reminiscent of the stylish Woman in Black movies. Martha Pym, collector of fine china and proprietor of an antique store in London, is on her annual holiday visit to her cousins when she learns an abandoned mansion in the area is now occupied. The previous owner had died there decades before—at the estate sale that followed, Miss Pym had found a nearly complete set of Crown Derby china. It is now her hope that the present resident, whoever it is, may have found the missing plate. Her journey to the mansion and her encounter with the eccentric who lives there is a nicely done set piece of atmosphere. It's not hard to see where it's going but it's still a bit jarring when we get there. Bowen, who is perfectly genteel—the story is really more of a cozy—strikes the creepy note late, with intimations of "that smell," leaving us with a distinct if fleeting sense of the clammy and unpleasant in that mansion. But one reason a Christmas setting can be so effective is that things like "that smell" can just be left to lie there, as the spirit of the gaudy cheerful season presses all forward, jingle bells ringing. It's the contrast, at Christmas. Bowen doesn't even need to mention things like extremes of darkness. Even in 1933 she knows we bring all our own baggage to the story one way or another at this time of year. Merry Christmas all!

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, December 15, 2019

Faceless Killers (1991)

[False start here.]

Full disclosure, my blog is littered with abandoned projects. One I've been gnawing at for some time is the police procedural, mainly in fiction but some on TV and at the movies too. Early on, because 10 years ago they were everywhere you looked, I flailed at Nordic noir in the form of Stieg Larsson's so-called (so-translated) Girl With the Dragon Tattoo novels (the first two, never made it to the third), and then the false start at Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels. Wallander is a police detective in a small city in southern Sweden, his stories set mostly in the '90s. Then an Amazon deal opened up most of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series to me in a convenient way. When I remembered the influence McBain had on Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the path to Nordic noir became more clear. As a curious aside, I saw an interview with Maj Sjöwall from about 2014 (as I recall), in which she stated flatly that she found Henning Mankell boring. I worried about that, circling back to Faceless Killers again to consider going through Mankell's 11 or so Kurt Wallander tomes. But I did not find it boring at all—in fact, it was even more interesting with its themes of immigrant tensions and hostilities. It features vigilante white nationalist groups killing immigrants, especially immigrants of color, for the sake of terror. It seemed far away and imaginary when I wrote my 2012 review and so much more starkly real now. Faceless Killers might be the one to read if you only read one. So my plan now is on to the rest of them. As a meandering point of interest, other police procedural-related items I would like to get to from there include finishing the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and its TV and movie productions, continuing with the Law & Order seasons, maybe Hill Street Blues, and eventually the Jack Webb empire, including especially Adam-12. We'll see how far I get.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

USA, 100 minutes
Director: John Huston
Writers: John Huston, Dashiell Hammett
Photography: Arthur Edeson
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Editor: Thomas Richards
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr., Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan

If I could find some way to rank my favorite movies based on the number of times I've seen them (which seems like a reasonable metric), The Maltese Falcon would likely make the top 10. I discovered it when I was still a teen, watched it many times on TV and in retro theaters, rediscovered it in my 20s and then in my 30s. It seems to be good for practically any occasion. The parts intended to be most powerful—for example, those speeches at the end about love and betrayal between Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade and Mary Astor as a scandalous woman of many aliases—have actually worked on me once or twice (I do love the image near the end of Mary Astor in an elevator, behind bars, going down). More often now I appreciate seeing a bunch of professionals busy on some of their best work, starting with Dashiell Hammett who wrote the original novel, one of his best.

In fact, the credits seem a little confused about who matters among these professionals. Gladys George as the widow of Spade's partner is featured with Bogart, Astor, and Peter Lorre in the opening titles, though she barely makes an impression (not George's fault—it's the way the role was written for the picture). Sydney Greenstreet makes the second plateful of names, but there's no mention of Elisha Cook Jr. until the closing credits. It's a commercial film, but The Maltese Falcon is no Hollywood glamour romp of movie stars—instead, it's more like a parade of character actors, starting with Bogart, and working all the way down to the ubiquitous Ward Bond (the Kevin Bacon of his era), James Burke, John Hamilton, and Walter Huston—hey-that-guys one and all. Out of curiosity I decided to keep track of how long it took to get to the main ones.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

"The Four-Fifteen Express" (1866)

English novelist Amelia B. Edwards's most famous ghost story is called "The Phantom Coach," a corker in the mode of Washington Irving and pretty good. But this is the one I found in the massive, uneven, yet always promising Realms of Darkness collection edited by Mary Danby. This story is not bad either, with a somber December mood, but proceeds more like a crime case with no resolution, built on the evidence and an investigation. In many ways it's closer to a cozy, or perhaps even detective fiction, than horror. A man, the one telling the story, gets on a train to visit a friend and his family in the English countryside at Christmas. He's upper-class, a diplomat or legal figure of some sort. He looks forward to his visit, to a break from his work, and to traveling alone, but just as the train starts another man joins him in his compartment. He is a slight acquaintance and mutual friend of the people he is traveling to visit. This late-arriving man is "loquacious, self-important, full of his pet project," and is soon droning along like the clacking train tracks themselves. Our man is bored and keeps drowsing off. The late-arriving man is offended because he considers himself and his story so interesting. Suddenly he has business elsewhere and gets off the train, vanishing entirely from the platform, as if in a puff. Our man, having arrived at his destination, relates the encounter to his hosts, which makes them extraordinarily uncomfortable. Three months earlier, the late-arriving talker had embezzled a large sum of money and disappeared. Our man's story thus makes no sense, but he also has concrete evidence it happened. The police are interested, and the company that was embezzled is interested. But they are also skeptical of the story, except our man has this irrefutable piece of evidence that no one can explain. In the end, almost as a throwaway, it is explained, leaving him completely baffled by the experience. And so are we, as readers, though it doesn't have the same urgency for us—it's merely mysterious, rarely uncanny. An unsolved mystery, as Robert Stack might say in his furry unmistakable voice. But it does work away on you a little. Did it even happen? Could our man the narrator somehow be simply mistaken? Or deluded? Most people dismiss it as a dream he had on the train ride, and perhaps it was. It's almost perfectly open-ended.

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.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Top 40

1. Sons of Kemet, "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman" (5:38)
2. Mac DeMarco, "On the Square" (3:29)
3. Tove Lo, "Glad He's Gone" (3:16)
4. Denzel Curry, "Ricky" (2:28)
5. Post Malone, "Goodbyes" (2:55)
6. Lizzo, "Truth Hurts" (2:53)
7. Anderson .Paak feat. Smokey Robinson, "Make It Better" (3:39)
8. Buzzy Bragg, "Rappin Duke & Friends (Extended Mix)" (6:10, 1986)
9. Jackie Brenston, "Rocket 88" (2:51, 1951)
10. Cecil Gant, "We're Gonna Rock" (2:16, 1950)
11. Bill Haley & His Comets, "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man in Town)" (2:52, 1954)
12. Bevis Frond, "Lights Are Changing" (4:55, 1988)
13. Elvis Presley, "The Girl of My Best Friend" (2:28, 1960)
14. Leadbelly, "Pick a Bale of Cotton" (2:59, 1940)
15. Pat Boone, "I'll Be Home" (3:00, 1956)
16. Jack Scott, "Goodbye Baby" (2:13, 1958)
17. Billy Fury, "Wondrous Place" (2:24, 1960)
18. Turbans, "When You Dance" (2:57, 1956)
19. Paul Anka, "Crazy Love" (2:26, 1958)
20. Steve Lawrence, "Footsteps" (2:13, 1960)
21. Honeycombs, "Eyes" (3:27, 1964)
22. Crystals, "No One Ever Tells You" (2:19, 1962)
23. Cookies, "I Never Dreamed" (2:37, 1964)
24. Peter and Gordon, "A World Without Love" (2:41, 1964)
25. Billy J. Kramer With the Dakotas, "Bad to Me" (2:18, 1963)
26. Beatles, "I'll Be Back" (2:24, 1964)
27. Searchers, "When You Walk in the Room" (2:22, 1964)
28. Them, "Mystic Eyes" (2:43, 1965)
29. Gene Pitney, "That Girl Belongs to Yesterday" (2:45, 1964)
30. Barbara Lewis, "Hello Stranger" (2:44, 1963)
31. Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone" (6:11, 1965)
32. Scott Walker, "Montague Terrace (In Blue)" (3:31, 1967)
33. Lovin' Spoonful, "Rain on the Roof" (2:11, 1966)
34. Gary Lewis & the Playboys, "She's Just My Style" (3:11, 1965)
35. Barbara McNair, "Baby A Go-Go" (2:49, 1965)
36. Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations" (3:36, 1966)
37. Rolling Stones, "Lady Jane" (3:08, 1966)
38. 4 Seasons, "Walk Like a Man" (2:17, 1963)
39. Beach Boys, "Girls on the Beach" (2:27, 1964)
40. Megan Thee Stallion feat. Nicki Minaj & Ty Dolla $ign, "Hot Girl Summer" (3:19)

THANKS: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, social media ... 9-11, 13-39, Bob Stanley, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

Sunday, December 08, 2019

The Good Soldier (1915)

I'm happy the Modern Library list of best 20th-century novels put this Ford Madox Ford in my way (just as I'm slightly annoyed the list also includes another Ford title, Parade’s End, which is actually four novels). I like Englishman Ford’s intention to write "the finest French novel in the English language" (later he would compare it to Ulysses as examples of European in English). The refractions and circumlocutions are always on point, though that also makes it a little demanding, plus it features an early example of the unreliable narrator. That's John Dowell but his name is only mentioned a few times in the narrative—he's thus close to being an early example of the unnamed narrator too. Not knowing much about Ford or this novel I had always assumed it was some sort of war story. Ford wanted to call it The Saddest Story, which suits the story, the tone, and the narrator much better and is the title I wish they would use now. But World War I was going on and the publisher didn't want to hear from people with much sadder stories. I suppose it is a war story, in a way, but it's marital warfare rather than military. It's literary, distanced, and ironic, a story of two marriages and all the entanglements of the four principals. One couple is American and the other British. Edward Ashburnham, the Englishman, is a former soldier and now a philanderer of a certain type, that is, the type who falls lugubriously in love with his serial paramours. One of his lovers is our narrator's own wife, an affair of which the narrator claims ignorance. What feels most French to me about The Good Soldier is the way it unmoors itself from linear time, as Dowell broods and ruminates over his sad story. In time, all of Edward's affairs are detailed (as the nominal "good soldier"), along with his wife Leonora's strategies for coping with her strange beastly tormented husband, who is otherwise all kindness. The great strengths of this novel are the structure and the language. It may feel discursive and rambling at points but it tells a story that has a deceptive complexity, almost losing itself down the byways, but always coming back right again, maintaining an astonishing poise. As for the language, Dowell's voice is engaging and charming, using repetitions and ingenious comparisons that are unexpected, surprisingly apt, and often delightful, e.g., "two noble natures, drifting down life like fireships afloat on a lagoon," or eyes "as blue as the sides of a certain type of box of matches," or something that "glimmered under the tall trees of the dark park like a phosphorescent fish in a cupboard." It's a great novel, immersive for its brevity but also still quite strange and fascinating.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

USA, 45 minutes
Director: Buster Keaton
Writers: Jean C. Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman
Photography: Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley
Editors: Roy B. Yokelson, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Ward Crane, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly

Buster Keaton's parody of both detective fiction and romance movies of the era finds him in good form. What is this Buster Keaton thing? Something about his very face and posture is somehow funny over and over—the stoic fool who never gives up hope. His strings are pulled by the movie magician stunt man who will try anything: fake mustaches everywhere you look, a banana peel gag (likely old even in 1924), poolroom trick shots in the service of proto-Hitchcockian suspense. He makes us think a doorway is a mirror and then that a doorway is a vault (a portrait of George Washington looks askance at the deception). He leaps through a window and into a dress and shortly after that he leaps through the body of his accomplice and a wall behind. It's impossible, don't you see, a special effect. He does these things because he can. His character, Sherlock Jr., is pure confidence in the breach, absurdly swaggering in top hat and tails. That confidence may bend but it is never broken. He is a nitwit, of course. Our man is actually a film projector who only dreams of becoming a detective. Most of the movie takes place as a movie-within-a-movie dream, which features him stepping in and out of the screen of the romance movie Hearts and Pearls, or The Lounge Lizard's Lost Love, which is playing at the movie theater where he works. Our point of view is from the seats in the audience (Woody Allen lifted and paid homage to it 60 years later in The Purple Rose of Cairo). At first, because the gag is about all the places he keeps finding himself with the cuts in the movie-within-a-movie, the movie-within-a-movie briefly no longer makes sense, roaming for no apparent reason from cliffsides to African jungle with lions and so forth. Soon enough it remembers itself. The dry and gently acerbic tone of the whole thing is captured in an intertitle: "By the next day the mastermind had completely solved the mystery—with the exception of locating the pearls and finding the thief." The best is saved for last, as Buster Keaton was a filmmaker who always knew what he was doing, and more so in his prime. A spectacular and often very funny chase scene with a motorcycle and cars and many stunts is set in motion by a signature grand stunt, vaulting off a second-story rooftop into a moving automobile using a railroad crossing guard (somehow the driver never notices). No doubt Keaton really did it and lots of other stuff here too—he spent months learning the pool shots, for example. He was like that. That stone face tells everything and nothing.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Norman Mailer: A Double Life (2013)

There were already at least four biographies of Norman Mailer when J. Michael Lennon's brick was published in 2013. I'm not sure why it's the one I grabbed but generally by the reviews I seem to have made the right choice. It is detailed and exhaustive, covering every step of Mailer's professional development, from The Naked and the Dead in 1948 to The Castle in the Forest in 2007. Lennon was a friend and colleague of Mailer and his huge family, which probably makes him the "authorized" biographer. He is more kind, or politic, than I would be on some of Mailer's work (notably The Prisoner of Sex and maybe Ancient Evenings). But he also attempts to imbibe the Mailer spirit and let the chips fall where they may on some of the ugliest chapters, such as Mailer stabbing his second wife (a crime that would have sent many to prison) or his judgment vouching for the parole of Jack Abbott. Mostly I appreciated getting the stories more or less straight. I feel confident I could pass a test now on who each of his six wives were, though I'm probably still muddled on which of the nine kids belongs to whom. I'm envious of his support too—his greatest fan, from inside the womb, was his doting mother. It's such an improbable life in many ways. He studied engineering in college but already wanted to be a great American novelist. He tried to get out of being drafted but decided war experience would be good for his literary career—and it was. Mailer and James Jones are generally credited with writing the "great" American novels about World War II—conventional in many ways, but big and sprawling and ambitious. Jones never tinkered much with his impulses to churn out massive pulpy narratives, but Mailer went around the bend a few different ways, eventually arriving, 30 years later, with The Executioner's Song, back at writing very big books—but now with virtually all the pulp extruded. Jones never came close to the place. Lennon's title means all kinds of things—the double portion of vitality Mailer seemed to have, his lifetime of philandering (well detailed here, speaking of delicious pulp—he had sex with Gloria Steinem!), and his theology / cosmology in which he believes every person bears two conflicting persons at war in a single body. Beyond that an intriguing vision that God is not omnipotent and is engaged in a deadly war with Satan. Mailer's case for faith is thus that God needs all the help he can get. On the other hand it does make some intuitive sense and explains a lot about what we can see in the world and church. I think one of Lennon's ambitions is to restore that side of Mailer's work to credibility. It was often ignored, or laughed at and treated as a joke. Lennon's biography is so thorough and answers so many questions about Mailer, he's entitled to advocate for what he likes. If you have any interest in Mailer it's also fun to read.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

"The Turkey Season" (1980)

It's hard to pinpoint what exactly makes this story by Alice Munro so affecting. It's a reminiscence by a grown woman remembering her first job when she was 14. The place is called Turkey Barn—the setting is the remote isolated village of Logan, Ontario, in the '40s. Much as it sounds, Turkey Barn raises, slaughters, and sells turkey meat. The unnamed narrator's job is "gutter," responsible for removing organs and inedibles from carcasses after the pluckers have removed the feathers. The story is set in December, the Turkey Barn's busiest time of year. The work is described in detail, and then all the people who work there. These people are mostly uneducated and lower-class, but they have interesting lives and are amazingly fully rounded for a short story—and there are so many of them, a crew of some six or eight. The narrator's fellow gutters, for example, are a pair of caustic middle-aged women who spend their time gossiping. "Marjorie and Lily talked about marriage," the narrator writes. "They did not have much good to say about it, in spite of their feeling that it was a state nobody should be allowed to stay out of." This feeling—more or less shared by all humanity—is the turning point of the story's plot, as one of the men working there is of marriageable age but single. In fact, he's almost certainly gay, from what we see. Even in 1980 no one talked about it directly much, certainly not in Logan in the ‘40s. The story seems disinclined to deal with it anyway, and in many ways that reticence is what makes the story so fascinating. In this way it expertly recreates the sensation of the world from a 14-year-old's vantage—sometimes treated as an adult with abundancies of personal disclosures, sometimes as a child, figuratively having doors shut in her face. From what we can make out, it's a remarkable situation. Herb, the eligible bachelor, one day shows up living with a much younger man, Brian, and a strange story why. Herb gets Brian a job at the Turkey Barn, but he is lazy and inept. He also seems to be one of those annoying people—again, the reticence expunges the exact details—who sexualizes everything in conversation ("that's what she said," etc.). Most of the people at the Turkey Barn loathe him, though the narrator is relatively OK with him. It sounds like she doesn't see the worst of his behavior, or understand why others find it offensive. It's just a very brief chapter in her life, essentially that one Christmas season, but it has stuck with her. And now it sticks with me.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 22, 2019

On the Waterfront (1954)

USA, 108 minutes
Director: Elia Kazan
Writers: Budd Schulberg, Malcolm Johnson, Robert Siodmak
Photography: Boris Kaufman
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Editor: Gene Milford
Cast: Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Pat Henning, John F. Hamilton, Martin Balsam, Fred Gwynne

On the Waterfront attacks with a jazzy midcentury Leonard Bernstein score, folks working on raising pigeons on tenement roofs, and black and white Method acting draped all over it like sheets over furniture. In many ways it's a perfect picture of American postwar '50s, ripened out of innocence into the knowledge of corruption, with great power. The dockside labor unions of New York are so rife with organized crime it's merely a given. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a boxer who once showed promise, but now he's pushing 30 and on the way to becoming a bum, living the easy life as a mascot for the dockside Mob run by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and Malloy's older brother Charley "the Gent" (Rod Steiger). Edie ("introducing Eva Marie Saint") is the sister of Joey, a friend of Malloy's (fellow pigeon keeper) who Malloy inadvertently set up to be murdered. Father Barry (Karl Malden) counsels love and righteous wrath, smokes cigarettes, drinks beer, and tries to talk sense to these people. He's a sincere man of God but it goes about the way you'd expect.

Something feels so churningly ancient in this story, or biblical—it's so bare-faced and focused on raising the dramatic stakes to the sky. In summary, it's something like the redemption of the love for a good woman in the context of divided loyalties between brothers, seasoned to taste with good and evil. On the Waterfront sees director Elia Kazan at the peak of his powers—the very next year he would amplify these themes of Cain and Abel, mixing them in with tones of Babylon and Oedipus and Freud, in East of Eden. But as good as that is, On the Waterfront is the better picture. It's less about the self-pity of its main player, and more about a universal plight in a world that is not merely uncaring but actively hostile. Terry Malloy thinks he can stand to the side of a social world breaking down around him but he finds out that he can't.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

"The Testament of Magdalen Blair" (1913)

Occultist, drug user, bisexual, and mountaineer Aleister Crowley, who died in 1947, is probably more famous at this point for being famous (if he's famous at all). Purveyor of the ethos "do what thou wilt," after his death he became a kooky countercultural figure, appearing in the mass of faces on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. David Bowie, Anton LaVey, Ozzy Osbourne, and Jimmy Page claimed familiarity with Crowley's work, which mostly trucked in cult religiosity with a satanic edge (L. Ron Hubbard was another student). But Crowley also formally wrote fiction. He even hoped to make a career of it at one point, after Joseph Conrad praised his story "The Stratagem." "The Testament of Magdalen Blair," so aggressively weird it can have the effect of a hammer pounding on an anvil, was the longest in a collection of three published as The Stratagem in the '20s. Unfortunately, Crowley's notoriety was already hampering his ability to sustain conventional careers. He didn't sell many more stories.

"The Testament of Magdalen Blair" exists as a kind of follow-on to Edgar Allan Poe's "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," equally unpleasant, yet perhaps exploring what might have happened within M. Valdemar's being before he was removed from his trance. "Magdalen Blair" is fairly long and spends a lot of time mounting scientific credibility for the telepathy that all its events are dependent upon. These elements of setup and narrative do clang and bluster, laboring under tensions and forces not readily apparent but with the effect of rubbing everything the wrong ways. The first-person narrator is a woman, Magdalen Blair, who never quite feels like a woman—I want to blame that on Crowley's inexperience as a fiction writer, but a more generous interpretation might make him out to be more sophisticated than I know, defiantly undermining gender norms.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Impostor" (1953)

I think there's a name for the type of story Philip K. Dick has written here—not exactly doppelganger, and mistaken identity isn't it either. On an Earth at war and under constant attack by aliens from Alpha Centauri, Spence Olham works in some kind of war industry engineering capacity. On his way to work this morning he finds himself arrested as a spy and saboteur, charged with being a robot impersonating the real Olham and armed with an embedded implanted U-bomb (which sounds pretty scary). They take him to the far side of the moon to confess and detonate. But Olham escapes. He wants badly to straighten it all out. The military intelligence that led authorities to Olham indicates the U-bomb is triggered by a spoken phrase. For fly-through readers it's hard to tell how Dick the narrator is playing it. He appears to have no suspicions about the Olham we're traipsing along with. Yet I leaped immediately—perhaps knowing it's a Dick story—to wondering if Olham weren't the robot. Anyway, spoilers, he is, the triggering phrase is "but if that's Olham," and the last line of the story is, "The blast was visible all the way to Alpha Centauri." Nyuk, nyuk, get it? I love the way Dick blows the whole planet to smithereens for the sake of a punchline. In 2001 a movie was made out of it directed by Gary Fleder (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) and starring Gary Sinise, Madeleine Stone, and Vincent D'Onofrio, with a cameo by Rosalind Chao, aka Keiko on Star Trek. As a live action story it's a bit too much to blow up the planet so they don't. D'Onofrio is basically fine-tuning his Law & Order: Criminal Intent shtick, so at least he seems to be having a good time. You get the impression they thought based on a story by Philip K. Dick plus lots of action scenes and doomsday mood would get them over, but sadly no. The movie is not as good as the story, as usual, but this time the story is not even above average. The point of it seems to be as a jokey anecdote but maybe you can't make a movie like that. I do like the story of a robot that doesn't even know it's a robot, that's the type of story I was trying to think of—see also Blade Runner, of course, which I imagine could have been part of the pitch here. Impostor does have some interesting ideas about personalized advertising that were developed much further and better the following year in Minority Report. This story is just minimally a head trip—that's the problem. The Dick brand (so to speak) is so restrained as to be almost invisible. Almost—because there is that nice thing about the sentient robot that doesn't know it's a robot.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Attention Merchants (2016)

Tim Wu is a New Yorker writer so it's not surprising that his history of advertising—or, more properly, the advertising model—was never less than entertaining and informative. He reaches back to the New York Sun in the 1830s for the birth of this economic model, which is confusingly captured in today's conventional wisdom about social media, "if you're not paying for the product then you are the product." That is, the New York Sun took the attention readers focused on the newspaper, and distracted it with messages bought and paid for by advertisers. You bought the newspaper for the news. Advertisers bought your inadvertent attention for their commercial messages. Wu traces this dynamic, through its eventual interaction with propaganda in public spaces, and on into the brave new worlds of commercial capitalist broadcast radio and TV, cable-TV, the internet, and smartphones. I thought I understood the history of broadcast media pretty well but Wu had some details that surprised me. I hadn't grasped what a phenomenon the Amos 'n' Andy radio show was in the late '20s and '30s, for example. Radio and the human voice and then TV and images added more layers of immersion than newsprint and the audience exploded. Wu is good on the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian approaches too, where the attention of large audiences was mandated by force, using in-home speakers, outdoor loudspeakers, neighborhood monitors, and a system of snitches who could rat you out. I'm not sure why the customer / product model in the West confuses me, but it does. Perhaps because I'm so steeped in it. It has ruled and still tries to rule radio and TV. I grew up conditioned to movies on TV being interrupted every 10 or 15 minutes, just like everything else. It used to seem normal.

The government-funded PBS and subscription cable channels like HBO eventually came to compete successfully for new ways of looking at TV, but still, about three or four minutes of content to one minute of advertising remains the rule on lots of TV yet. I have felt for some time that the advertising model fails and continues to fail on the internet. Wu seems to agree with that, pointing to aggressive, invasive, and worse forms of advertising online, which can actually harm computers. At best it is an annoyance that slows computer performance to a crawl. I use an ad-blocker now and skip the sites that scold me for it, though occasionally I relent for the sake of reading something, only to see an instant flood of dismaying clutter that must be cleared away (which isn't always easy). The situation is not getting better. Wu is best on illustrating how things like clickbait and eyeball-counting metrics (for the sake of ad rates) have done a lot to bring out the worst in us. He articulates the experience of going through a social media feed as a process of managing distraction, which helped me get my finger on that problem a little better (agreeable as the problem can be, which is another part of the problem). In the long run it has become very frustrating and obviously others on the internet are frustrated too. In this media world we have created there is always something new and shiny. One more thing to look at, click on, scan, react to, share, and forget, buried in public archives impossible to fathom but open to researchers. It sometimes feels as if we are literally losing our intelligence, our ability to be intelligent. The phenomena might be anything at this point, including something profound about human psychology, but I still want to blame the advertising model, which Wu traces from nearly two centuries back until the publication of his book in 2016. No doubt a good deal has happened even since then, but his book will update you to that point and it's fun to read.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 08, 2019

All About Eve (1950)

USA, 138 minutes
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Mary Orr
Photography: Milton R. Krasner
Music: Alfred Newman
Editor: Barbara McLean
Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Matoff, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Bates, Walter Hampden

All About Eve is a strange romp, an overlong movie that pretends to despise Hollywood but won 14 Oscar nominations for its pains, still the only movie ever to give four women four major nominations (Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for Best Actress and Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress). Very few movies, especially this celebrated, so radically disregard the advantages of cinema, opting instead for dialogue (witty and urbane or not, according to your inclination) and a convoluted script shot in endless drab interior scenes. Going outdoors in this one, even a walk down a city street, tends to involve unconvincing rear-screen projections. Befitting its schizophrenic approach, All About Eve has not one but two voiceover narrators (George Sanders as a theater critic and Celeste Holm as possibly the only human being in the picture), weaving intricate backstories of the mother of all backstage dramas, and then not one but two psychotics.

It's kind of a train wreck, with a hodge-podge cast that ranges from the brilliant (Bette Davis, George Sanders) to the competent (Thelma Ritter, always) to the mundane (I like Hugh Marlowe but he's much more familiar to me as a hey-that-guy science fiction movie and TV player and Gary Merrill and Anne Baxter never even managed that much profile). It plods along in gossipy enjoyable scenes and then in its last act turns into a kind of horror picture of improbable nested blackmail schemes poised in midair, defying gravity. It's done quite neatly but they forgot to make them people. Still, there's no point denying the bitchy fun of this one (not to mention the chance to use the word "bitchy"). I might prefer its de facto companion piece from the same year, Sunset Blvd., or you might prefer Kirk Douglas and company chewing the scenery in The Bad and the Beautiful from a couple years later. It all amounts to the same thing. Those beautiful people in Hollywood making big successes where we can't, they're all miserable depraved slobs anyway. Pony up for the show, folks. Get your ticket.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845)

The first time I read this unpleasant story by Edgar Allan Poe was in a collection my parents gave me for my 12th birthday, along with the Beatles album Rubber Soul. I wrote about it here when I wrote about the album. Later I tracked down the book and found out the only thing I remembered right was it had "The Yellow Wallpaper" and a story by Poe—this story. The collection is called These Will Chill You, edited by Richard G. Sheehan and Lee Wright, who went on to little else. Most of the stories are about as unpleasant as the cover, above. As for Poe, I had previously trudged through "The Purloined Letter" as a kid, but in both cases I was hampered by the archaic language. "The Cask of Amontillado" may be Poe's best for horror generally, at least the way I see it, but his version of body horror here (and in "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" and no doubt elsewhere), is about as bracing as it is prescient. Wikipedia dryly lists Poe's enduring themes as "questions of death, including its physical signs, the effects of decomposition, concerns of premature burial, the reanimation of the dead, and mourning."

I like the motivating concept of this arguably science fiction story, with hypnotism temporarily capable of arresting the death process, but I like even more how it was a bit of a prank. It was published in two New York City papers simultaneously with its clinical-sounding title and no indication it's fiction. Apparently people believed it. Maybe they still do, in their coffins with their undying minds. Our hero, M. Valdemar, is dying of tuberculosis and agrees to allow the unnamed first-person narrator, a mesmerist and scientist, to hypnotize him exactly at the moment of death. Through the magic of telling it just this way they manage the unlikely feat. Death appears to steal over Valdemar, his color changes, no breath can be detected. The narrator asks him if he is still asleep and, in a real scary voice, Valdemar says, "Yes; – no; – I have been sleeping – and now – now – I am dead." Leaving him in trance is deemed the prudent course. And so there he lays, with no sign of life yet no sign either of the decomposition of death, for seven months. They check on him regularly but leave him be. Then they decide to wake him, ignoring the advice of Ernst Raupach in Germany, author of the 1823 vampire story "Wake Not the Dead." Result (spoiler): "Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity." THE END Janitor!

There is always a certain desolation when it comes to body decomposition even when it's roadkill. It's distressing and repulsive. It's generally kept out of sight except in most horror movies, which prominently feature it (it's the main visual detail of zombie movies, for example). I don't have the impression Poe injects it in places like this just for macabre effect. It feels more like these things actually horrify him in obsessive ways and he can't stop thinking about them. It reminds me of someone I knew who had an absolute horror of organ transplants. This person took legal steps to ensure that neither a donor nor a recipient would they ever be. The belief was evidently that the self, or soul, literally resides in the body, and discrete pieces of it are distributed in the organs. No word on the limbs. The pantheistic vision of Poe's "Colloquy" similarly sees consciousness (or self, or soul) retained in the body, eventually displaced with decomposition and dispersed into the landscape itself. No word on cremation. In "M. Valdemar" the mind—or something—can hold off putrefaction if the subject is kept in a hypnotic state. Body horror seems right, and quite an early example too. And you have to wonder what the poor guy was thinking about for seven months—there's the real horror.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
These Will Chill You, ed. Lee Wright & Richard G. Sheehan (out of print)

Sunday, November 03, 2019

I, Claudius (1934)

I liked Robert Graves's historical-fiction treatment of Roman times in the era of Augustus Caesar and after, but it does present another point for complaining about the Modern Library list of greatest 20th-century novels, certainly for anyone familiar with the '70s PBS TV miniseries. I, Claudius makes the list but its sequel, Claudius the God—equally source material for the excellent TV show—does not. In others case, such as John Dos Passos's USA trilogy, James Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, and most obviously Anthony Powell's 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, "extra" books are included. I haven't yet read Graves's sequel, but the notices seem to generally regard both together as a long single work, and certainly the TV show did. But never mind that. Do like me and plan to read them both—and don't miss the show either, though I see now it's rather different. In the book, the wit and intelligence of Claudius is much more readily apparent. In the TV series, the garish, entertaining, and appalling decadence of Rome's ruling class is more the point of interest, for better or worse. Both views are worth experiencing. If I have any quibble, it's the one you hear about Russian novels—tracking all these characters who at once have multiple names and similar names. There are numerous people here named Agrippa, Nero, Drusus, Germanicus, and even Claudius. I read a kindle edition of this first one, and for once found the X-Ray feature useful, even indispensable (I bought a paper version of Claudius the God, so we'll see how that goes). Graves was a poet and critic as well as novelist, and considered his Claudius books as commercial work. Yet I, Claudius is entirely convincing as the personal record of a historian. Claudius declares himself forever resisting the temptation of getting into too much detail in certain areas, and sometimes he cannot resist it, so down the rabbit hole we go on specific battles, for example, or the German wars. I don't read history as much as I wish but this has all the things I like about it, especially with its narrative sweep and authoritative voice, and little that I don't like, usually along the lines of deadening uninspired soporific language. I, Claudius can get dense with blizzards of detail, but the threads and connections never feel lost. It's discursive, chatty, and disarmingly fascinating all the way. If it's a bit coy about some transgressions, it's absolutely frank about others. It makes me want to try Suetonius or Tacitus again. I'll have more on Claudius the God when I get to it. But this is one case where I think book and film production are both worth looking into—not one over the other but both equally. And maybe I can get back to that miniseries again myself too.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

"The Eye and the Finger" (1936)

Donald Wandrei's completely ridiculous and excellent story works much like F. Marion Crawford's "Screaming Skull"—by insisting on its premise with a relatively straight face. Indeed, with a quivering distended face of terror. A weary man comes home from his exhausting job in a downtown department store, where the people are rude, the noise constant, the lights too bright, and he stands all day. He trudges up to his 5th-floor apartment to find himself confronting an eyeball sitting on his bureau and a disembodied hand floating in the air, pointing first at him and then at the window. It's almost comical when you reduce it to description and in many ways functions as a forerunner to the Warner Bros. cartoon style of slapstick brutality. Wandrei, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, and a fantasist who ran with H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth et al., keeps the focus on the tactile and sensory in this very short story. The man's first impulse is to go over to the bureau and pick up the eyeball (something of the object's mysterious power is already suggested by the way he even notices it across the room). It's soft and sticky, covered with a moist film, and warm. It's disgusting. Later, when he finds an available psychiatrist to make an evening house call (perhaps my favorite of all the ridiculous details here), his first move is also picking up the eyeball and being disgusted. In fact, he won't have anything more to do with any of it and leaves immediately. Meanwhile, the hand. I love this business of pointing at the man and then at the window. Talk about telegraphing it! Yet Wandrei maintains tone: "Where it should have been attached to an arm, he clearly saw blood, veins, flesh, muscular tissue, and bone. But it did not bleed." The man tries to grab it. In my mind it's a right hand, and shakable. "The hand felt neither living nor dead, neither hot nor cold. The fingers instantly curled around his own, not fiercely, but tugging him along, pulling him towards the window." This thing obviously has priorities. Another great detail Wandrei interjects throughout is the man's hearing, which somehow alternates between acute silence and a mysterious deafening roar. I'm probably not giving away much by reporting the man ends up taking the hint and goes out the window. Heck, what would you do? We know from cartoons and horror fiction you can never get rid of things like that. Capture it, put it in a cage, take a bus to a train to a seaport and put it on a freighter going to Hong Kong. It's still going to be waiting for you when you get back to your place. And it might not be in such a good mood anymore. Again, see also "The Screaming Skull." The thing about this kind of horror—based in Ineffable Evil, let's say—is that it's almost binary, alternating between ridiculous and effective, like that image of a vase and/or two profiles. But whichever this story might be ultimately, it's totally entertaining—the hand gesture, the available psychiatrist, everybody reaching for the eyeball first. I love it.

When Evil Wakes, ed. August Derleth (out of print)
Read story online.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

"The Beggar Maid" (1977)

Alice Munro's story, complete with a well-chosen 19th-century cultural allusion (the painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid by Edward Burne-Jones), patiently observes a failed relationship, focusing on its doomed origins before hastily following up on the aftermath. I hadn't known it, but Wikipedia reports that King Cophetua represents "a man who falls in love with a woman instantly and proposes marriage immediately." I know the type anyway. Patrick Blatchford is the smitten (as he explains it to himself) and Rose the pursued. The main point about them, made early and often (even by subtracting Rose's last name), is the class difference. She is "poor" and he is "rich." She is attending the college where they meet on a scholarship. She lives with Dr. Henshawe, a donor who takes girls like Rose under her wing ("she liked poor girls, bright girls, but they had to be fairly good-looking girls"). Dr. Henshawe is overbearing and judgmental, projecting her sense of her own superiority and Rose's inferiority. Blatchford is 24 and studying to be a historian. He is a serious graduate student and rejects the crass business success of his family, which owns a chain of department stores in British Columbia. He believes he is fiercely in love with Rose but signs are it's more about rejecting his family. He doesn't seem to understand anything about Rose, who has little affection for him. But she realizes it's an advantageous opportunity. Everyone encourages her because they think Patrick is such a good catch. But he is not. Blatchford and his wonderfully ugly name see Rose as a kind of rescue job, as a "damsel in distress." He obviously believes he is doing her a great favor and she will owe him gratitude even as he proceeds remaking her for the position of his wife. Later he will give up his studies to work in the family business. Rose senses his attachment has nothing to do with her, that he doesn't really love her, and feels more and more repulsed by him. All these problems are seen clearly—by them, by us—on first visits to their respective families, which are nicely drawn disasters. Rose rejects Patrick cruelly. Then she reneges and marries him. Most of the story is spent on the half-sickening courtship, the disaster unfolding. While the characters are distinct enough, they are also carefully calibrated types, and their social-realism situation so typical as to be practically exaggerated for effect. It's a good story, but Munro would get much better.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

USA, 113 minutes
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Writers: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe, Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, William Ludwig, Sarah Y. Mason, Doris Gilver
Photography: George J. Folsey
Music: Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane, Roger Edens, Conrad Salinger
Editor: Albert Akst
Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Tom Drake, Leon Ames, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, June Lockhart, Harry Davenport, Marjorie Main, Joan Carroll, Hugh Marlowe, Robert Sully, Chill Wills

I always think of Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas movie because the song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is such a memorable part of it, but it's actually an all-seasons story playing across a single year, from one summer to the following spring. I also tend to keep thinking of it as a '50s picture because the technicolor is so glowing, warm, and magnificent it feels about 15 years more modern. But there it is, cognitive dissonance or no, all the way back in 1944, taking a sudsy warm bath in nostalgia for 1903. When will it ever end? Nowadays we are nostalgic for the 1980s, when we were nostalgic for the 1940s. I should also mention this picture left me cold when I finally caught up with it for the first time not so long ago. I might have liked it more if I'd seen it first when I was younger. But honestly, it can ooze saccharine like putrescence (e.g., everything about the "You and I" scene).

Lately, seeing more movies from the times and coming to a late appreciation for the MGM musical as such, and Judy Garland specifically, I've made my peace with the relentless corn, which is not actually that relentless, only in isolated spots. If you take this movie for what it is—a wartime cotton candy escapism musical made of costumes and lighting and nostalgia—it's virtually undeniable, with decent to great tunes and dance sequences and a musical family clan like the von Trapps in The Sound of Music (obviously inspired by the children here, notably Margaret O'Brien, who is notable). But I want to talk about Meet Me in St. Louis as my somewhat unlikely pick for a Halloween picture this year (or sharing it with last week's Dead of Night). The bizarre Halloween quarter of Meet Me in St. Louis was reportedly director Vincente Minnelli's favorite part of the movie to work on, and it shows from the opening crane shot on.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

"Man-Size in Marble" (1887)

I first knew of E. Nesbit as a children's author when I was a kid, by way of Edward Eager novels, but I never found any of her books (the E is for Edith) when I looked for them at my public libraries in the '60s. I never knew anything about her. I didn't know she was a woman. I wasn't even sure she was real. I barely understood she also wrote horror fiction though later I remembered her name in anthologies—it rang a bell, that was all. I never made the connection until recently. Her biography suggests her wide-ranging interests and the wild intellectual churn of her life, as she wrote continually for money, cofounded the socialist Fabian Society in England, bore three children and adopted others her husband had by another woman (who also lived with them), and collaborated with others as well as writing her own fiction for children and adults, horror stories, memoirs, and poetry. This story is one of her first and may be her most famous among the horror stories (with "John Charrington's Wedding," which is at least as good). "Man-Size in Marble" is remarkable not so much for its tale, more competent than inspired, but for some of the details and especially for its voice, which is deceptively easygoing yet bracing, seething, almost caustic when read in a feminist frame. She's an obvious source for Shirley Jackson. "Although every word of this story is as true as despair, I do not expect people to believe it," she begins. It's a man's voice—a newlywed, in fact—but the clear-eyed feminist revolutionary writing the story obviously understands the painful ironies of social double standards, signaling from behind over his shoulder. Many Nesbit horror stories feature relationships between men and women but they are rarely this happy. He is a painter and his wife a writer. They are bohemians, for all their youth, bright and sophisticated but unable to afford London. Their requirements for a cottage in the country—sanitary and picturesque—take some work but are finally met in a small village in the marshy southeast of England.

I say the story is uninspired but that's not exactly true. The premise is unusual—it would be interesting to learn Nesbit's genesis of it. There's a church in the village, and in the church are two statues, about which there is an extraordinary All Saints' Eve legend. The couple's housekeeper, Mrs. Dornan, refuses to be there for the occasion, quitting her job if she has to but saying she's happy to return the week after. The narrator is more focused on the inconvenience first and then on his amusement at the way Mrs. Dornan expresses herself. He refers to the statues in the church as "effigies of the knights in armor" but she has another way of putting it: "'I mean them two bodies, drawed out man-size in marble,' she returned, and I had to admit that her description was a thousand times more graphic than mine, to say nothing of a certain weird force and uncanniness about the phrase 'drawed out man-size in marble.'" The narrator also likes, when Mrs. Dornan gets to the legend itself, how she says they "sits up on their slabs, and gets off of them, and then walks down the aisle, in their marble." I like how actively he misses the point (and the danger) and yet how understandable that is—it's classic horror stuff. We know perfectly well this is heavy foreshadowing, that it's a horror story and these things will happen. And as ridiculous as they are, Nesbit finds a new way to drive home the perversity of horror (and her rage) with an ice-cold voice that verges on brutality in the recounting and a strange detail that only unfolds in its terrible implications. In a hand of the dead woman, the narrator's wife, is a finger from one of the statues which is found in the church next day broken overnight. By the evidence, the thing was raping her in its marble. And she fought.

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

Sunday, October 20, 2019

On Bowie (2016)

I enjoyed Rob Sheffield's long eulogy to David Bowie, or short biography, or letter to the world. It made me think a lot about how much Bowie meant to me and it made me sad again when it came to the part where he dies. Although the book is poetically riddled with lines from Bowie songs in practically every paragraph, Sheffield still manages enough critical distance to judge him on the fine points. I didn't always agree—Sheffield has little use for the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth, or more generally for director Nicolas Roeg, whereas that picture ranks high among the more important inflection points for me, and Roeg has his place too. Sheffield thinks Labyrinth is Bowie's most enduring and significant movie—no. I appreciate that Sheffield acknowledges the long-term enduring Bowie haters as it's such a common experience, for example turning up a quote by Keith Richards from about 2009 ridiculing even the idea of taking Bowie seriously, as a musician or anything. That's a common view I've encountered all my life, from oldest friends to major rock critics. They're wrong, that's all. Sheffield stakes out some bold stances here, such as arguing for the album run from Station to Station to Scary Monsters as one of the all-time greatest. Maybe—it is really great. But so is The Man Who Sold the World to Aladdin Sane, and has the advantage of not including Station to Station. Sheffield's passionate case for the Thin White Duke phase did send me back to Station to Station, where the only song I connect with there remains "Golden Years" (admittedly, I love it) and it reminded me again the thing has only six tracks (a sure sign of bloat). (In fairness, I may be in the minority on the album, as Scott Miller was another vocal champion of it.) Mostly I liked On Bowie because there was something cathartic about reading it. It made me wish there were something like it on Prince—2016 was a tough year for losses of all kinds. Sheffield is just plain a Bowie fan and that's what does the trick. He loved Bowie for all the right reasons. He knows an amazing amount about him, not just the glory years 1970 to 1980 (he pushes that out to 1983 and Let's Dance but I can't agree), but also the fallow time, which he separates into a dreck phase (1984-1995) and a revival from the mid-'90s on. He's harder on the later '80s stuff than me and easier on the 21st-century stuff (except the last two, in a class by themselves as everyone seems to agree). He knows all those albums with one-word titles, like Hours, Heathen, and Reality. So I learned a lot reading On Bowie too, found plenty of tracks and YouTube clips well worth chasing down. Sheffield always feels fair to him—he's well aware, for example, of Bowie's lifelong "laughing gnome" problem (which is exactly where I put Labyrinth, by the way)—and he's fair to David Bowie fans too. In a way, On Bowie feels like a gift, a rare quality.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Dead of Night (1945)

UK, 102 minutes
Directors: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer
Writers: John Baines, Angus MacPhail, T.E.B. Clarke, H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson
Photography: Stanley Pavey, Douglas Slocombe
Music: Georges Auric
Editor: Charles Hasse
Cast: Mervyn Johns, Roland Culver, Frederick Valk, Mary Merrall, Miles Malleson, Sally Ann Howes, Googie Withers, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Michael Redgrave

It may be hard to make out these days, following the advent and then the primacy of TV, but people have never stopped trying to make anthology films work. Just last year the Coen brothers were at it with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and who can forget such efforts as Four Rooms from 1995 or New York Stories from 1989 (which mysteriously elected to include Francis Ford Coppola and exclude Spike Lee). I have the anthology film associated in my mind with epic art cinema—e.g., Boccaccio '70 (1962), Spirits of the Dead (1968), and others—but even more with horror. That brings us to Dead of Night, which may or may not have been the first horror anthology picture but certainly contributed to popularizing the idea, giving evidence it can be made to work. Someone always seems to be giving it another shot: Kwaidan (1964), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), V/H/S (2012), etc.

And Dead of Night does work, very well in some ways. Before I get to the good stuff here, however, I should sound a word of caution as I have run hot and cold on it even in the few times I've seen it. Episode-based TV, which we have been living with coming out of radio for something like 75 years, with its potential for stand-alone shorts—from Twilight Zone to Outer Limits to Black Mirror—brutally exposes the weakest part of anthology films, which is the strained quality of the narrative connective tissue attempting to tie together different work, often by different directors and almost always by different authors. The episode model lets you dispense with that and focus on the merits of each story rather than something phony that is supposed to unify otherwise un-unified stories. That said, the best part of Dead of Night is exactly that connective tissue, for which it is rightly well regarded.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

"The People of the Pit" (1918)

A. Merritt comes from the dawn of pulp magazines, and it's not hard to believe he was an influence on H.P. Lovecraft and other world-builders (worlds lost, Lost, haunted, alien, or otherwise). Merritt's long story is blustery and thick with descriptions of fantastic landscapes, creatures, etc. It's set in unmapped regions of the North Pole and Yukon (compare Lovecraft's longest story, "At the Mountains of Madness," published nearly 20 years later, set in the unmapped Antarctic). The nominal pit is found within sight of Hand Mountain, whose five peaks appear to beckon or warn away, depending on vantage, time of year, weather, and other conditions. It looks like a hand, you see. This pit dwarfs the Grand Canyon (Lovecraft in "Mountains": "Everest out of the running"). A staircase leading down into it has been built on the side of a cliff. If you think it's a long way down, try coming back up.

One night, two explorers prospecting for gold see many strange sights and then happen onto a strange creature who turns out to be a man. He climbed all the way down, found himself trapped at the bottom—caught in some sort of soul and/or slave capture operation by weird creatures—and then somehow escaped by luck and wiles, though the climb out ultimately kills him. Even as he tells his story his limbs keep moving as if he is still crawling up stairs. I like some of this but the story is slow-moving and clunky. A fantastic landscape described in detail is not my idea of horror, but it does seem to be a main article for "weird" fiction, a separate but overlapping category. Indeed, as we've seen, horror overlaps with any number of genre labels: ghost, weird, science fiction, mystery, war, true-crime, and of course fantasy. I think, at some point, you have to quit the categorizing and move on a case-by-case basis, but the impulse often remains and anyway part of what I'm doing here is trying to figure out what "horror" is at all, at least in short stories.

Meanwhile, down in the pit, the cruel creatures that run the place—giant maggots, it appears, great white worms (the illustration above is not really accurate with my reading)—are powerful, telepathic in some way, and unheeding of human comfort. So it's plenty weird, and not surprising that I found it in The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, which prides itself on excluding ghost stories but does shovel a lot of stuff like this. In many ways Lovecraft really is the big kahuna in this realm. Many of the stories in the first quarter of The Weird cover about the first quarter of the 20th century and point directly to Lovecraft. I admit I am coming to appreciate more the ponderous style of these older writers, including Lovecraft, as opposed to the more typical style of 20th-century stories I still tend to prefer, driven by scenes and dialogue, often operating in medias res and with twist endings. They keep the action moving and depend on grasp of concept keeping up. Here it's the other way around, proceeding by description and piling on detail for further opportunity to get the idea. A more mainstream long story that works this way for me is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The action can stop entirely for additional sensory details, usually visual, or further instruction in concept.

Sometimes it's useful to look at these stories through the side-by-side development of other popular media, as horror stories have certainly felt the impacts of movies and TV, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone in the '50s and '60s, or the slasher movies that rose up in the '70s (emphasizing the overlap with sex crimes and serial killers that practically redefined horror for a time). In that way, "The People of the Pit" might be thought of as a kind of silent movie that put all its resources into the sets. D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, for example, which came out two years before this story, approximates the bloat of the exhibition for effect. We are asked to inspect and ponder visual detail in similar ways in both. I would say "The People of the Pit" is not as good as H.P. Lovecraft, or even Algernon Blackwood, but if you love either or both of them it's probably worth a look.

The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.

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.