Thursday, February 28, 2019

"Auto-da-Fe" (1967)

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

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, February 24, 2019

"The Story in It" (1902)

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

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 18 pages

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

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Novo Rock (2009)

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

Friday, February 22, 2019

Melancholia (2011)

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 21, 2019

"Carcinoma Angels" (1967)

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

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Man Who Sold the Moon (1939-1950)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Experimenter (2015)

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

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

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

Thursday, February 14, 2019

"Test to Destruction" (1967)

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

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Portnoy's Complaint (1969)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Piano (1993)

New Zealand / Australia / France, 121 minutes
Director / writer: Jane Campion
Photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Music: Michael Nyman
Editor: Veronika Jenet
Cast: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, Anna Paquin, Kerry Walker, Genevieve Lemon, Tungia Baker, Ian Mune

The Piano is as close as director and writer Jane Campion has ever got to the mainstream, with the possible exception of her adaptation of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. It boasts a cast of bona fide Hollywood Oscar hunters, with three actual Oscars won plus nominations for five others, and a decent box office performance for an art film. And make no mistake, The Piano is an art film, with extraordinarily beautiful cinematography, rich with unexpected color and shadows, expert framing, blocking, and camera setups, and a story that feels like a fairy tale parable in its details and like a hallucinatory nightmare in its twists and turns. The Piano looks in one direction to movies such as Nicolas Roeg's mysterious Walkabout, also set Down Under and plumbing the spiritual depths and agonies of a world of empire and aborigines. It looks in another direction to pictures about surviving the isolated wilderness, to Aguirre, the Wrath of God and McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Revenant, and no stinting on the rain, mud, and general misery.

Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is a young Scotswoman who has been mute since the age of 6, as she relates to us early in voiceover: "The voice you hear is not my speaking voice—but my mind's voice. I have not spoken since I was 6 years old. No one knows why—not even me." In other words, please accept this premise on its face. Fortunately, the voiceover device is used sparingly, only at the beginning and end of the picture, and we are otherwise quickly swept up into events that distract us from problems of believability. Hunter's fiercely imagined passion of Ada for music and playing her piano is startling, both in its extremes and in its ability to convince. It's the mid-19th century, and Ada has been promised in marriage by her father to Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), a pioneer in the New World of New Zealand who wants a helpmeet on his frontier adventures—someone normal, we can tell instantly. What could possibly go wrong?

Thursday, February 07, 2019

"Judas" (1967)

By the title of John Brunner's story it's apparent it's another from the Dangerous Visions collection edited by Harlan Ellison that looks to religion for its dangerousness (as opposed to just danger). It also works a familiar Pygmalion theme. Humans build robots that are superior in every way and go on to declare themselves gods. Humans respond by worshiping them. TV's Battlestar Galactica had a lot of this. Take the robotics out and the story even looks forward a little to The Planet of the Apes. Brunner is a transitional British science fiction writer, starting up in the '50s with Golden Age influences but slipping into New Wave themes in the '60s. His beat was more or less environmental dystopia, and he also had a literary bent. Ellison mentions Brunner's "straight novels" and Wikipedia talks about the influence of John Dos Passos. So "Judas" is well-written, that devastating insult. But it doesn't feel very inspired. But let's look again for a minute at the impulse to religiosity. It might be easy to forget that my distance from it puts me in a tiny minority in the world even today. Most people on this planet believe strongly in higher powers intervening regularly in all our daily affairs. I would not classify myself as outright nonbeliever, but at best I'm tepid. So maybe the insistence on religion by all these science fiction writers in 1967 is more on the order of a warning from them to us, a reminder to their natural audience that religion is an element of danger, if not the danger itself. I'm more open to that idea now, in this day and age, 50 years on. I'm not always so sure of the insights but I appreciate they could be signaling through flames. Brunner's vision of a robot-worshiping religion most obviously apes Christianity. In fact, I thought it was Christianity at first, but the details are off. Instead of a cross, for example, the primary iconic symbol is a wheel. That subtly nagging disharmony with Christianity is probably the best element about this story, which involves a confrontation between a human and robot god and which is so overdetermined it has no space to breathe. As well-written as it is, it's equally suffocating.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Revolution in the Head (1994)

It's no exaggeration to call Ian MacDonald's work here monumental, cataloging practically every Beatles recording that matters while arguing persuasively for the profound consequence of both the '60s and the Beatles. The argument is first sounded in the overture and frame of the opening essay, "Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade," claiming a distinct Before & After in terms of the Beatles, the '60s, and—well, MacDonald wants to make it big—so let's say world history ... make that human evolution. MacDonald is not sure how big it is, he still can't see all the edges, but he knows it's big. Yet he keeps it grounded in the concrete at the same time—the Beatles were revolutionary for the chords and chord changes they used in their music, for their innovations in verse-chorus-bridge song structures, for finding ways (usually with George Martin) to bend a sound studio (usually Abbey Road) to their will. MacDonald skillfully shapes his many judgments and arguments, and it's fun to walk down memory lane with him too, song by song. He reminded me how earthshakingly good "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was in 1964. I have always been partial to 1965 in the Beatles trajectory, especially the US version of Rubber Soul, but I see better now how Revolver—UK version, please—is the real pinnacle. MacDonald redeemed "Penny Lane" for me. He incidentally affirmed my sense that "She's Leaving Home" ranks with the best of a certain type of '60s sad pop song, with Glen Campbell's "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife" and Mary Hopkin's "Those Were the Days." He even redeemed Sgt. Pepper a little for me, though I still think it's a weak album. But in terms of what might have been! MacDonald casually mentions the industry convention in 1967 that singles already released were considered a cheat to include on new albums. Thus, in my speculations, if Sgt. Pepper could have been conceived to include "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" it might have been as great an album as Revolver. MacDonald is also very busy, in the original 1994 edition of this book and the two that followed, one of them posthumous, about the work of restoring Paul McCartney's standing in the project, especially vis a vis John Lennon. Sometimes MacDonald comes down a little too overcompensatingly partisan for me—I don't like "Honey Pie" or "Martha My Dear" or "The Long and Winding Road" nearly as much as he does. But it's still a useful corrective to the long-term Lennon overvaluations, which I suspect mainly came of cementing in views with the grief at the time of his death. MacDonald may have made me like one of my favorites, Abbey Road, a little less, because the circumstances of its recording are so sad and disturbing. Small price to pay. Bravo to this book, excellent in every way.

In case it's not at the library.