Sunday, March 31, 2019

"The Birthplace" (1903)

This late Henry James story is lauded on Wikipedia as witty and hilarious, warm words from the typically staid crowdsourced online encyclopedia. Well, maybe it's witty and hilarious. It's intended primarily as a send-up of tourist Shakespeare worship. The principal characters, Mr. and Mrs. Gedge, once again hail from the over-refined and underpaid refuge of the upper classes, whom James admired. The Gedges, who are in circumstances, take positions as guides and managers of the original Shakespeare home, where the Bard was actually raised. James appreciated the work of Shakespeare even as he doubted the authorship. Like James, Mr. Gedge subscribes to a theory other than single authorship and now his half-hearted guide patter is starting to bum the people out. This in turn is causing Mrs. Gedge nervous complaints, especially when the big boss shows up to set her husband straight. In the end, Mr. Gedge gets the Shakespeare religion, extols the legend enthusiastically, earns a raise, and Mrs. Gedge is happy again. Droll, very droll. I have no dog in any fight about Shakespeare so a key aspect of the premise already falls a little flat for me. And then it's also typical of James's later stuff, which requires patience and parsing. I was short on the former, as he might say, and so my interest in carrying on with the latter, nay my very ability, was perforce diminished. On top of that, the proofreading in the electronic version can be off. Many confusing commas, or lacks thereof, I'll put it that way. I like the electronic version because I often need help in the first place with vocabulary and untranslated foreign terms. Folks, this is why I'm sold on e-books. These days, when I read a printed book, I sorely miss being able to look up words in context as I go (and lugging out the dictionary is inconvenient), which is practically a necessity with many Henry James passages. Also, Delphi editions let you buy everything an author ever wrote, including letters and criticism, all in one giant product. I call them shelf products. Amazing, wonderful, convenient. I love them except for glitches like the proofreading or occasional botched navigation (see, or rather don't see, the Balzac edition). This Henry James story is not that perfect, though I might like it better in another mood. Sorry about the testimonial for e-books. I had to say it somewhere.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 55 pages

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

Friday, March 29, 2019

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

El laberinto del fauno, Spain / Mexico / USA, 118 minutes
Director / writer: Guillermo del Toro
Photography: Guillermo Navarro
Music: Javier Navarrete
Editor: Bernat Vilaplana
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdu, Sergi Lopez, Alex Angulo, Ariadna Gil, Doug Jones

Pan's Labyrinth is a very different movie from The Spirit of the Beehive (which by coincidence I was writing about a few weeks ago) but the similarities are striking. Both focus on the perceptions and experience of a young girl, both involve fevered imagination states and possibly magic (or certainly "magic"), and both are set in Spain in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, isolated in remote regions but with World War II still raging beyond the horizons. It's even possible to say that Pan's Labyrinth is equally preoccupied with the same two questions that haunt Beehive: Why did the monster kill the girl? Why did the people kill the monster?

But where Beehive is quiet and locates its motivating conflicts at the margins, Pan's Labyrinth is pulpy and rich with glittering special effects and showy clashes. They are both fairy tales, after a fashion, with raw brutalities. Another picture Pan's Labyrinth bears comparison with is Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, also comfortable with magic and inhumanity. In terms of the way it looks, however, the special effects puts Pan's Labyrinth more in the company of movies like Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars 23, Harry Potter, able to soar on its visual conceits even if you are never fooled that what you are looking at is anything but movie special effects. For that reason, perhaps, I usually end up a little underwhelmed by Pan's Labyrinth. Instead of fairies and a magical faun I tend to see a really impressive movie budget. Pan's Labyrinth rings with the dulcet tones of allocated capital. Some spoilers.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Cold War (2018)

Cold War by director and cowriter Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida) reminded me of classic early-'60s art films, but I hope by saying that I'm not damning with faint praise. This desperate love story, shot in luminous black and white, set in midcentury Eastern Europe and Western Europe, starring bohemians, is a quiet smoldering piece of fine work, often stunningly beautiful. It starts in Poland, with a movement toward authentic folk music that goes on to became a tool of Soviet propaganda. Impresario Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, looking like a Daniel Day-Lewis stunt double) is doing the Alan Lomax thing in Poland, combing the countryside for folk music, singers, and musicians, where he encounters Zula (Joanna Kulig), a singer with talent and a mysterious background. Almost instantly no surprise it's a case of Katie shut the front door: love, lust, pounding chests, heart signs on eyeballs, etc. Wiktor and Zula both have the talent to bond over making it professionally but their backgrounds bring them into personal conflict. He's well educated and middle-class, she is Russian, or lived in Russia, from the peasant class. We learn she had to fend her father off with a knife at some point and run away. She has the hard shell of a survivor. We never hear how it went for them in the war. Instead, Cold War starts in 1949 when they meet and we follow the journey as Wiktor escapes to the West but Zula stands him up on that and they are separated practically from then on. Wiktor mewls a lot about "the love of my life" as he prowls the spectacular nighttime city streets of Europe and gets hustled around by sinister agents. Wiktor and Zula still see one another all the time, across the years, and then it's hot chemistry baby what is this thing, but they are going their separate ways too, growing apart. He has lovers and she is jealous, at one point she marries, then later she is married again to an unpleasant fellow we saw early, and they have a baby. Always there is music, good jazz in Paris, ravishing "folk" productions approximately as authentic as Riverdance say, torch songs in nightclubs, even, in 1955, a somewhat hackneyed grope for "Rock Around the Clock" at a discotheque which is nonetheless effective in the moment. Cold War might err on the side of being slight but it's really put together well.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

U.S.A. (1930-1936)

John Dos Passos's masterpiece is billed as a trilogy—consisting of the novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936), published separately—but it was intended and is best taken as a single work, though any one of the novels gives the basic idea. The same eccentric structure is used in them all. Sections called Newsreel string together headlines, snippets of song lyrics, and other flotsam of popular culture. Sections called The Camera Eye take interior, stream-of-consciousness views and are often difficult to parse. Still other sections offer poetically compressed biographies of key historical figures: Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, Eugene Debs, Thorstein Veblen, many others. But the great majority of U.S.A. consists of the stories of a sprawling cast of characters, who appear in one novel and reappear in another, or maybe disappear altogether, and often intersect with one another. It's a clinic in social realism. Altogether it is the story of the US in the first 30 years of the 20th century: the tail end of the Gilded Age meeting the headwinds of Progressivism, followed by war and other financial insanities. It's big, it's ambitious, and it works. It should be included in all discussions of great American novels, as it could well be the very best. There isn't enough about the women's movement of the time, specifically suffrage, nor about the 1918 flu pandemic, which did away with an estimated 3% to 5% of the world's population, but now I'm quibbling. U.S.A. is mostly focused on the struggle between capital and labor, as big as anything in that time. It tracks the rise of the modern public relations business and its use as propaganda. None of its characters is entirely innocent and no one is entirely guilty. Most of them drink too much, show loose morals, can't keep it together. "It's a good life if you don't weaken" they say to one another. But of course we all weaken and we all know we do too. Writing in the depths of the Depression in the 1930s, Dos Passos seemed sanguine about the fate of the struggle. The '30s were not good times for bankers either, many of them set back on their heels good and hard. And Russia could still be taken as a bright light, though it was beginning to dim with Stalin. You can never be optimistic about capital and labor, not least because the conflict has run for centuries, but Dos Passos might have felt generous toward the at least temporarily vanquished forces of conservatism. That overconfidence did not serve his values well in the long run, as the rise of Reagan happened 10 years after Dos Passos's death, but the equanimity does provide a nice balancing element that benefits this work a good deal. The capitalists in U.S.A. have human sides, and labor is not without its flaws. Mostly, this is one of the most American things I know. Essential.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Compliance (2012)

USA, 90 minutes
Director / writer: Craig Zobel
Photography: Adam Stone
Music: Heather McIntosh
Editor: Jane Rizzo
Cast: Ann Dowd, Pat Healy, Dreama Walker, Bill Camp, Ashlie Atkinson, Philip Ettinger, James McCaffrey

If there's such a thing as a genre of movies based on social psychology experiments (which this IMDb list would suggest is so), then I guess I am a fan. Or let's say the ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to its newsletter. Certainly Compliance fits the bill, along with 2015's Experimenter and a German picture from 2001, Das Experiment. To be sure, Compliance gets carried away with itself and drifts toward pornography before finally finishing on a ridiculously self-righteous note of true-crime documentary. I have to wonder if the movie isn't intended to be a comedy after all. And why not? The human comedy! The picture is "inspired by true events," which only may or may not have gone to the excesses shown here. As if justifying or apologizing for its extremities, the last image of Compliance before the closing credits is a title card, black letters on lighthouse-blinding white: "Over 70 similar incidents were reported in 30 U.S. states."

Director and writer Craig Zobel owns up in the DVD extras to a fascination with social psychologist Stanley Milgram—Milgram and, of course, his obedience experiment. Obedience to authority is obviously what was at work in the true events behind Compliance, a case Wikipedia calls the "strip search  phone call scam." In these strange and amazing incidents, which took place from 1992 until 2004, a prank caller phoned into fast food restaurants or grocery stores, usually at their busiest times of day, claimed to be a police officer, said one of the employees had robbed someone, and recruited managers into conducting strip searches of employees. In some cases the caller would claim to have a corporate executive standing by. As with phishing types of fraud, just a few nuggets of factual information, such as the name of an executive, can open the door to complete cooperation. It's textbook Milgram, with the caller (Pat Healy, in Compliance) repeatedly asserting his authority and saying all responsibility rests with him.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

"Adjustment Team" (1954)

This story by Philip K. Dick works from a premise that is essentially chaos theory, though it didn't have the name yet in 1954. The famous example is the butterfly in Brazil that causes a hurricane in Texas through a chain of random cause-and-effect events. In Dick's story there are figures behind the scenes, pulling the strings to keep things on track according to some master plan—basically, making sure the butterfly is where it's supposed to be and that it's flapping its wings. Obviously these folks have extraordinary powers, as supernatural or divine or at least superior beings. In the way that things happen in stories by Philip Dick, a random person named Ed Fletcher is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Somebody on the "adjustment team" botched their assignment. And Fletcher sees things he shouldn't have seen. What he sees is the great strength of this story, an inspired vision of gray dust. The rest of it is little more than pro forma plotting for the sake of a beginning and end. More than 50 years later, in 2011, it was made into a thriller style movie starring Matt Damon, The Adjustment Bureau. Damon plays David Norris, the renamed Ed Fletcher character, and more new glitzy details have been heaped on—Norris is a high-flying New York politician, he falls in love with a woman played by Emily Blunt he is "not supposed to be with," and the "adjustment bureau" hunting him includes John Slattery and Terence Stamp, looking like auditions for The Matrix. The movie does a pretty good job of maintaining a Dickian air, but it also should be mentioned that in some ways "Adjustment Team" is an early sign of Dick's religious bent, as what else are these technocrats of reality but some kind of angel or perhaps demon working for higher powers? Also, note again Dick's ability to suss things out of the air when they're about to break big, in this case chaos theory. But the best part of either story or movie is Dick's stark vision of the gray "real" reality behind the one we live in. The movie does attempt one scene like it, briefly, in a conference room, but can't match or even come close to Dick's vision and was wise to stop there. In more general terms the story feels a little too long and padded out, as if Dick needed to hit a certain word count. It's not one of his best, but serves notice that even not his best can have really strong things to recommend.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Top 40

1. Kids See Ghosts, "Reborn" (5:24)
2. Drake, "Nonstop" (3:58)
3. Chloe x Halle, "Happy Without Me" (3:27)
4. Kali Uchis, "Killer" (2:52)
5. Boy Azooga, "Loner Boogie" (2:05)
6. Rosalia, "Malamente" (2:29)
7. Beach House, "Alien" (4:03)
8. Charles Bradley, "Can't Fight the Feeling" (2:48)
9. Health, "Body/Prison" (2:44)
10. Brian Eno, "The Weight of History" (8:52)
11. Cloud Nothings, "So Right So Clean" (3:42)
12. Shawn Mendes & Zedd, "Lost in Japan (Remix)" (3:21)
13. James Bay, "Pink Lemonade" (4:13)
14. Ariana Grande, "Thank U, Next" (3:27)
15. Pointer Sisters, "Going Down Slowly" (7:50, 1975)
16. Specials, "Vote for Me" (5:01)
17. Grimes feat. Hana, "We Appreciate Power" (5:34)
18. Iceage, "Broken Hours" (4:42)
19. Grandaddy, "Bison on the Plains" (5:08)
20. Norah Jones, "Wintertime" (3:48)
21. Sharon Van Etten, "Comeback Kid" (3:02)
22. Toro y Moi, "Freelance" (3:46)
23. Thundercat feat. BadBadNotGood & Flying Lotus, "King of the Hill" (2:55)
24. Yves Tumor, "Noid" (3:29)
25. Bazzi feat. Camila Cabello, "Beautiful" (3:00)
26. Empress Of, "When I'm With Him" (3:14)
27. Diego Redd, "Chemtrail" (4:05)
28. Peggy Gou, "It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)" (6:35)
29. Amber Mark, "Love Me Right" (4:52)
30. Valee, "Womp Womp" (3:47)
31. Rae Sremmurd, "Powerglide" (5:32)
32. Blood Orange, "Charcoal Baby" (4:02)
33. 1975, "Love It If We Made It" (4:13)
34. Lil Wayne, "Uproar" (3:14)
35. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, "Talking Straight" (3:44)
36. Teyana Taylor, "Gonna Love Me" (2:47)
37. Marie Davidson, "Work It" (4:20)
38. John Mayer, "New Light" (3:36)
39. Sophie, "Is It Cold in the Water?" (3:32)
40. Sons of Kemet, "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman" (5:38)

thx: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, Phil Dellio, The Stranger, social media at random, once in a while the radio

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Castle in the Forest (2007)

Norman Mailer's last novel, published the same year he died, is a real doozy—I mean that in all best ways. To start, it's one culmination of a cosmology he had been discussing as asides since at least the '60s. The idea is that God is not entirely omnipotent, and probably not so omniscient or even that beneficent either. But he's the best bet we've got against Satan, who is more or less God's equal, as they are at war, perhaps without end. It's much more detailed here, and in fact the operations of both God and Satan happen to look quite a bit like the day-to-day work of intelligence agencies. There's a constant game of recruitment and betrayal going on. The story is told from the point of view of a demon—a gofer, midlevel at best, perhaps more like a foot soldier one step above a courier. Satan is referred to as "the Maestro" (though that may not be Satan but only a high-level director) (and never mind about that Seinfeld episode!) and God as "D.K.," which stands for dummkopf. The story is Adolf Hitler's childhood and early adolescence. It ends when he has reached the age of 14, and all history is still in front of him. Now this turns out to be a monstrously rich vein for Mailer to work, starting with Hitler's mysterious paternal grandfather, who is unknown. At one point certain rumors indicated he might have been a Jew, but that has been debunked. I checked with Wikipedia regularly for some idea of where history leaves off and Mailer's imagination takes over. Much of this story appears to be factual. The line of thought Mailer is intrigued by—perhaps not surprisingly for him—is the possibility of incest. He suggests some German Nazis may have believed incest purified and strengthened genetic lines, even though it comes with the hazard of grotesquely disabled heirs. I'm not actually sure Nazis believed in incest that way, but things are certainly complicated in that particular corner of Hitler's family. There's enough plausibility for Mailer to make something of it. The Castle in the Forest is otherwise a harrowing story just on the known facts, though not so different from many 19th-century families. Hitler's mother Klara was his father Alois's third wife, and Adolf had two older stepsiblings. Alois was about 15 years older than Klara. Their first three children died before the age of 5, all within months of one another. They had three more—Adolf, a brother Edmund who died as a child, and a sister Paula who was developmentally disabled. Mailer takes every opportunity here to hold forth on demon ways and much is funny, inspired, or both. If the dummkopf nickname is pretty good, calling angels "cudgels" is nearly as good. But mostly I liked this visit to the specter of Adolf Hitler, who remains one of history's most mysterious figures. The novel is based on a ton of research. A bibliography at the back attests to that, though my Wikipedia sessions had already confirmed it in a general way. The Castle in the Forest is definitely one to get to if you're interested in Mailer.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

How Did I Find Myself Here? (2017)

It's honestly amazing to me that a Dream Syndicate album, comeback or otherwise, must now be filed under geezer-rock, especially given that I felt like a bit of a geezer myself already when I first encountered the band in my late 20s. But here we are, decades past the last release. Good luck and Godspeed (from the day late and dollar short). Because it has one song, "80 West," that instantly and reliably evokes everything I love about Dream Syndicate, the album met all my cautious expectations and then some. The loping bass, the thundering guitars and their righteous whine, the film noir drug addict mumble of Steve Wynn through the unruly disarray—it's all there. Play loud. Go do it now. There's a bonus in the longish (6:22) and poignant close to the album, "Kendra's Dream," an ode to former bandmate Kendra Smith that is quite insinuatingly beautiful. I like "Glide" too but in terms of the quality that's where I think How Did I Find Myself Here? starts to slide into the rest of the album, which is more on the order of weaker versions of the best of Dream Syndicate. The title song, evidently intended as a kind of definitive statement, coming in at a stately Coltrane-like 11:13, is ambitious and occasionally interesting—notably when it resorts to figures from the Grateful Dead's classic 1969 performance of "Dark Star"—but more often it is straining for effect. As, I'm afraid, does much of the album. After "80 West" and "Kendra's Dream," approach with caution.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Double Indemnity (1944)

USA, 107 minutes
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain
Photography: John F. Seitz
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Editors: Doane Harrison, Lee Hall
Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Tom Powers, Jean Heather, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Porter Hall, Raymond Chandler

Because the influence of Double Indemnity was instantly and enduringly so pervasive—it's tempting to make the case that it's ground zero for all film noir, The Maltese Falcon notwithstanding—I'm always surprised to learn how hard it was to get made. But we must remember that Double Indemnity is, after all, the tale of an adulteress and a fornicator plotting foul murder. It's downbeat to blackest hell, which makes it an unusual wartime project. And cowriters Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler couldn't stand each other. Chandler didn't understand screenplay writing (the more seasoned Howard Hawks knew all that mattered was getting Chandler's name in the credits, ditto for that matter William Faulkner) and Wilder couldn't write without a partner. In the fray, according to legend, Chandler sent the studio heads an indignant letter complaining that Wilder wore Chandler's hat without permission in writing sessions. Chandler thought he had licked drinking but now he started again. Wilder took his revenge by making his next picture, The Lost Weekend, transparently about Chandler.

Double Indemnity is where we see how Billy Wilder knew how to put together a picture: holding his nose to work with Chandler in order to get those sparkling wonderful weird overblown dialogue interludes ("There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour." "How fast was I going, officer?" "I'd say around ninety." "Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket." "Suppose I let you off with a warning this time." "Suppose it doesn't take." "Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles." "Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder." "Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder." "That tears it"), laboring to build a perfect cast our of nervous all-American pros headed by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, with Edward G. Robinson in a supporting role, letting DP John F. Seitz loose to shoot as dark as he wanted and no stinting on the venetian blind shadows putting the guilty behind bars (which we must also remember were relatively new and are still spectacular in Double Indemnity), picking out the wig and sunglasses for Stanwyck, glad-handing censors on all sides and slipping in the juice with astonishing subtlety, resorting to Hitchcock-like grinding suspense techniques in numerous places (what? the car won't start?!), stripping it all down to essentials so it ends on a knockout punch of an image. Even Miklos Rosza's musical theme is perfect, noble, tragic, used frugally yet nagging like grief.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

"Aye, and Gomorrah" (1967)

Samuel R. Delany is a unique figure not just in science fiction but more generally in American literature. Born and raised in Harlem, he is among the first to explore the Q in LGBTQ, before there was ever a Q, before there was even LGBT. Harlan Ellison's anthology finds Delany relatively early in his career, in his mid-20s. He had already published several novels but this is his first published short story. In many ways, Ellison back-loaded the end of this collection with ringers to finish strong: younger writers already with some reputation, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny, and, for the very last, Delany. Like many of the stories in this collection, this can feel more like straining for effect than dangerous. And if its ideas don't seem that surprising now, it's still surprising to find them in a science fiction story, a genre that to this point hewed close to red-blooded heterosex when it involved sex at all. In this future time, it has turned out that space travel involves passing through a band of radiation that leaves astronauts sterilized. The result ultimately is that desexualizing medical procedures before puberty are the optimal approach if a person wants that career. "Spacers"—recognizable by the uniforms they wear on visits to Earth—are nonsexual and ambiguously gendered. In turn, in line with Internet Rule 34, spacers become sexually fetishized objects for a segment of Earth's population. These people are known as "frelks," a neologism from their psychological condition, known as "free-fall-sexual-displacement complex." It seems like a stretch in terms of projecting slang and jargon, but projecting slang and jargon is never easy anyway. I like the view that humans are so consumed with their own sexualities that this is the kind of thing we'd be likely to see in the circumstances. Spacers earn extra money by prostituting themselves to frelks, though doing so stigmatizes them among other spacers. What I think Delany pulls off really well here may be a small matter. But a scene involving a female frelk who is obviously uncontrollably turned on in the presence of a spacer is remarkable. You feel the shame of them both behind the dialogue, and the woman is close to lapsing into incoherent moments of something like talking dirty. "Go back to the moon, loose meat," she says, closing her eyes, in a fever of desire because the spacer's price is too high, or he's just playing with her. Ellison talks about including Delany like it was a coup, the story won a Nebula award, and it finishes the anthology on a high note to a wildly uneven ride.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

Monday, March 04, 2019

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

From the first I heard of this project, a commissioned restoration of archival World War I footage, I thought director Peter Jackson sounded like a good choice. But that was because much of what we've seen in his career, from Bad Taste to Heavenly Creatures to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has boasted a natural facility for gee-whiz technical stunts, nearly rivaling Robert Zemeckis for bravura in that realm. What I didn't know is that Jackson is a WWI buff—with a nearly complete run of the War Illustrated magazine and a handy collection of authentic uniforms on which his crew could base colorizing decisions. He also has some personal stake in what was first known as the Great War, with a grandfather who fought and an uncle who died in it. They Shall Not Grow Old, no surprise, is impressive. Jackson's restoration focused primarily on correcting small matters that can make its subjects seem more distant and rinky-dink to us now, adjusting film speeds for example to make movement natural, serving up the most subtle and extraordinary colorizing job I've ever seen (though I admit I haven't seen many), adding a lot of original foley and other sound work, and drawing on hundreds of hours of oral history interviews. It plays much like a Ken Burns documentary in that way—we only hear the words of veterans. Among other things, Jackson hired forensic lip-readers to track down what soldiers in the archival footage were saying, rerecorded artillery sounds in battle conditions, and traveled to Belgium to get the color palette right for specific locations. It's fair to call the result painstaking, and rewarding. The narrative approach removes events from historical specificity and instead offers a more generic WWI experience. The break in and out of color happens when we arrive and leave the Western Front, and no man's land. With the first flush of color it occurred to me that Vietnam and movies like Apocalypse Now have set the cinematic terms for the immediacy of color in war scenarios, a disorienting juxtaposition. The fear and tension of the soldiers and everything about their miseries is somehow more visceral in the intensity of this hallucinatory color. We see lots of detail about life in the trenches. We see and hear about horrible conditions, mud pools of decaying human, mule, and horse corpses into which a man could sink and drown. Lice. Rats. Gangrene. Terrible smells. Chemical gas attacks. We see and hear the constant shelling. We see an unnamed battle start to finish. That's where the War Illustrated images turned out to be useful, as no camera ever went near the fiercest battles. We also get an interesting thumbnail sense of the war, through the words of these veterans, as essentially a battle between Britain and Germany. We really come to know the texture and feel of this extraordinary war, one of the greatest and most lethal atrocities in history. Those soldiers, in those conditions, are some of the bravest who ever fought.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Henderson the Rain King (1959)

The first of two Saul Bellow novels on the Modern Library list of the best of the 20th-century offers another occasion for complaining. I like Bellow enough to concede he has a place on the list—but not two. Then the one I like best is down at #81 (The Adventures of Augie March) while Henderson the Rain King is much higher at #21. It's not a novel that has aged well, with the self-infatuated comic hero millionaire Eugene Henderson heading off to Africa to find fulfillment, or something. What the hell, he can afford a first-class midlife crisis, amirite? Most notably its view of a fictional African interior is painfully caricatured, verging dangerously close to racism. This novel needs to see the movie Black Panther immediately. We can write off its goofs as "of the times" and there are reasons to read and enjoy it, but Modern Library's high ranking is misplaced at best. I admit when I first read Henderson, in the '70s, I thought a lot more of it. Bellow has a robust and invigorating voice and he makes wonderful sentences, half jeering Bugs Bunny American bonhomie and half posturing intellectual. It's the latter half where he generally starts to lose me, trying to fit heavyweight philosophizing into slangy conversational style. This tendency would get much worse in the novel that followed, Herzog. If you can rock along to the personal drama and thumping adventure farce, Henderson is reasonably entertaining, especially the first half. But as the profundity quotient is inflated with lions, formal rites of passage, and mystic rituals it gets to be harder going. I don't discount the comic value here. But most of the humor derives from shared midcentury images of Africa out of Tarzan movies and National Geographic photo spreads. I'm old enough that I recognize these sources and "get" the jokes. But Africa is Africa, with its tragic history, and we know better than Johnny Weissmuller movies now. Thus, I grew peevish with the fiction reader's faithful companion, willing suspension of disbelief. Obviously participants in the Modern Library rankings, not to mention personal fans of Henderson the Rain King, are likely to find my complaints unbearably politically correct. Well that's fine too. "[F]irst to knock, first admitted..." I can still laugh at some of those old Warner Brothers cartoons too, but not all of them—can't abide Speedy Gonzalez, for example. Everybody has to draw the line somewhere. Some of Saul Bellow's best sentences are in Henderson but they might be barely worth it. For God's sake, if you're going to read one novel by Bellow, make it Augie March.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 01, 2019

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

El espíritu de la colmena, Spain, 98 minutes
Director: Victor Erice
Writers: Angel Fernandez Santos, Victor Erice
Photography: Luis Cuadrado
Music: Luis de Pablo
Editor: Pablo G. del Amo
Cast: Ana Torrent, Isabel Telleria, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Teresa Gimpera, Juan Margallo, Jose Villasante

The Spirit of the Beehive announces itself almost right away as a fairy tale. "Once upon a time..." says an early title card illustrated by a child's crayon drawing. "Somewhere on the Castilian plain, around 1940," says the next. That puts us in Spain shortly after the Spanish Civil War, so already the extremes of the fairy tale spectrum have been laid out, from a drawing you can put on your refrigerator to the brutalities of midcentury war. In fact, The Spirit of the Beehive has much the feel of a desperate Depression-era novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice minus the sexual charge, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Grapes of Wrath, I Married a Dead Man, The Day of the Locust. But it's one that's told mostly from the point of view of a 7-year-old girl, at knee-high level, like a cartoon about cats and dogs. There is much about the world of grown-ups that is caught only in flashes, at random. Adults are confusing and hard to understand.

Early on, the small religious village, isolated in the country, welcomes the arrival of a new movie with much excitement and interest—the original 1931 Frankenstein, evidently nine years late. The theater is a makeshift venue with folding chairs and the feel of blankets covering windows, but the movie is well attended, including the 7-year-old Ana (Ana Torrent) with her older sister Isabel (Isabel Telleria). Isabel is a typical jealous older sibling, devoting too much of her energy to belittling her younger sister. The Spirit of the Beehive actually enters the theater during the show and spends a few minutes letting us watch the scenes from Frankenstein where the monster meets the little girl by the water and discovers the joys of flowers. We also see some of the scenes after the little girl is found dead. Ana can't make sense of it. She asks Isabel the two questions by which The Spirit of the Beehive is essentially defined, or haunted: Why did the monster kill the girl? Why did the people kill the monster?