Sunday, June 30, 2019

"The Lumber Room" (1914)

Saki was always so good at using children to set sinister tones in scenes that are really not sinister at all. "The Lumber Room" takes no turns toward violence, let alone the supernatural, yet it seethes with a malevolence that feels almost toxic. Nicholas is staying with his cousins and their aunt. He refuses to acknowledge her as his aunt. She is strict and can be punitive when challenged. On the morning of the story Nicholas claims he can't eat his breakfast because there is a frog in it. The aunt tells him there could not possibly be a frog in his "bread-and-milk." Nicholas describes it in detail and the aunt denies it more. But there is a frog because Nicholas put it there. He has exposed another lazy lying adult. The aunt, angry for his prank, grounds him for the day, barring him a jaunt to the beach with the other children. In addition, he is forbidden to go into the gooseberry garden, which the aunt evidently believes would be the main attraction for a boy confined at home for the day. But it is actually the lumber room that appeals to him, where old furniture, unwanted gifts, and other miscellaneous junk are kept out of sight. The aunt spends the day puttering about the place, ignoring Nicholas as further punishment. After a while she notices she doesn't know where he is, searches for him, and ends up in a predicament in which the tables are turned and she needs his help. It's more a matter of inconvenience than danger, but it's also not entirely clear, which makes the moment when Nicholas must decide what to do unusually fraught with tension. Then he makes his decision—to do the wrong thing. In these scant few paragraphs the tension is high. It's all of youth in conflict with all of age and the vulnerable pathos of Nicholas is remarkable. It's a daring and outrageous act in the moment, much like the lie the little girl will tell in "The Open Window." This tension and pathos is what Saki is good at. Nicholas is at once a typical annoying misbehaving boy and a kind of heroic figure, willfully mistreated by an adult who is supposed to know better. This adult, the aunt, is the one who gets the comeuppance in this story and she's the one who most deserves it, so it's as satisfying as it is entertaining.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Solved! (1987)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fundamental (2006)

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

Friday, June 21, 2019

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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

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

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

Thursday, June 20, 2019

"The Monkey's Paw" (1902)

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

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

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

Monday, June 17, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)

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

Sunday, June 16, 2019

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

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Top 40

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2019

Rocketman (2019)

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

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

Sunday, June 09, 2019

What Is the What (2006)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

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

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

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

Thursday, June 06, 2019

"The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (1841)

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

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

Read story online. (Library of America)

Monday, June 03, 2019

Booksmart (2019)

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

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Generation of Swine (1988)

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

In case it's not at the library.