Sunday, September 29, 2019

"A Distant Episode" (1947)

[possible spoilers] This short story by Paul Bowles is shocking enough that it probably warrants some sort of trigger warning. I'm also wary of the way he uses the generic greater Arabia as the seat of all human mystery and cruelty, particularly the latter. Much the same is also seen in Bowles's novel The Sheltering Sky. They are nonetheless thrilling experiences to read. In this story the main character, known only as "the Professor," travels to a small village as part of his study of linguistics. From the references, per Wikipedia, the region is likely Morocco or Algeria in the Western Sahara. The Professor is European and his facility with local languages alone shows he is not a typical tourist. Yet in many ways he has the typical problems, a mixture of arrogance, condescension, and sheer naivete that is famous for getting travelers into trouble. The Professor wants to look up a casual old native acquaintance in the village but finds the man has died. Mostly in an attempt to make a new acquaintance, he presses the man who knew the fate of his old friend for certain goods, "camel-udder boxes." The man says they aren't for sale in town but he can help the Professor get them. I didn't have the impression these camel-udder boxes were black market goods so much as something made by a clan that was not on good terms with the clan in the village. Very quickly, they are taking off on foot into the evening on a journey that does not look that promising for the Professor. Yet he pushes on, following the man and taking it as a kind of adventure. Like many travelers to risky areas, he thinks the worst he might find can be handled by a cooperative manner and a willingness to give up cash. At a certain point beyond the village, the Professor's guide leaves him. "The path begins here," he says. "The rock is white and the moon is strong. So you can see well." To our inevitable question, What could possibly go wrong? Bowles has a fiendish answer. And not only that but a calmly vivid and elaborate way of playing it out. The events are there to be discovered in this immaculate tale of human cruelty. Trigger warnings. Trigger warnings. It's deadly swift too, hurling you before you know it into a kind of numbed shock. I'm doing you a favor by raising your expectations so high because maybe then it won't hurt so much. Also, as a word from the PC police, again, I'm not entirely comfortable with the way Bowles uses the alien Arab world as an excuse for the stuff he dreams up. Other horror writers do similar things with Haiti. I didn't look that hard, but I couldn't find any basis in historical accounts connected to Arabs for the things that happen here. As a shocking story, however, with perhaps deeper things to say about alienation, colonialism, and human psychology, it's practically magnificent.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998)

France, 267 minutes, documentary
Director / writer / editor / narrator: Jean-Luc Godard
Photography: Pierre Binggeli, Hervé Duhamel
With: Alain Cuny, Sabine Azema, Serge Daney, Julie Delpy, Juliette Binoche

Probably the first thing to decide about director / everything Jean-Luc Godard's epic and deeply personal TV miniseries documentary is how you're going to look at it. It's another long one in total—four and a half hours. The first of eight parts is 52 minutes and was broadcast in 1988. The second is 42 minutes, broadcast in 1989. The next two parts, under 30 minutes each, were broadcast in 1997, and the last four in 1998. All of those are also under 30 minutes, except the eighth and last, which is 38 minutes. I don't recommend taking 10 years to look at it, to replicate the original. In fact, the way I did it the first time, a few years ago, now seems better: stick the first of two discs in the machine one day, hit "Play All," and let it roll for over two hours. Do it again the next day with the second disc. That way it's more trippy, undulating, and immersive. I could never even pick apart the individual episodes. Thinking that was somehow wrong, I wanted to be a little more rigorous for this write-up. I tried to get some sense of the integrity (or even specific point) of each episode, noted the titles and confusing numbering system, and avoided "Play All," spreading the eight pieces across three days.

That first time I saw Histoire(s) du cinéma I was surprised and delighted by the saturation of classic film clips, with memorable scenes from The Searchers, The Night of the Hunter, Bicycle Thieves, Nosferatu, etc., including a few from Godard's own pictures. They are recognizable, and often recognizable as wonderful, even as they may also be lost in the gloomy welter of other images, a muttering voiceover, floating words, clacking typewriter sounds, and editing effects such as flashing dissolves. In fact, the profusion of clips is all I remembered about it the first time. I thought that's what it mostly was. This second time I was more aware what a churning internal cerebral explosion it is, a kind of stroke event, personal and thus incoherent. I came away with the sense there was little point in even trying to separate the episodes, and this time the clips felt drowned in the rest, which actively resists understanding, a cacophony of words, literally words, and images, photographs, film clips, and some shots of Godard at work. Toward the end of Histoire(s) du cinéma, in the eighth part, Godard articulates his aesthetic in a throwaway line. It has actually been a constant across much of his career: "This is what I like about cinema, generally speaking," he grumbles like Henry Kissinger. "A saturation of wonderful signs, that swim in the light of their lack of explanation."

Thursday, September 26, 2019

"The Room in the Tower" (1912)

E.F. Benson is not to be confused with A.C. Benson or R.H. Benson, his brothers who also wrote horror fiction, though not as prolifically or as well. E.F. Benson is one of the best horror story writers of his time. This story is based on dreams, the kind you have in your sleep, which is a perilous device if you don't know what you're doing. Fortunately, he does know what he's doing. It's not a long story but proceeds leisurely, with an unnamed first-person narrator establishing common traits of dreaming and pooh-poohing any reading too much into them. Then he relates the details of a recurring dream he's had for 15 years. In it he is attending tea with strangers at a house where he will be staying, always the same house. No one speaks. The hostess, a Mrs. Stone, says to him, "Jack will show you to your room: I have given you the room in the tower." The tower is a separate building from the house, three stories high and an older structure. Mrs. Stone's words fill the narrator with dread and anxiety. Her son Jack (a boy the narrator knew slightly in school and never saw since) leads him to the room. At this point the narrator wakes up, "in a spasm of terror." Benson goes on with more details about the dream and its small variations, using repetition to establish a tempo and emphasize certain points. Benson is good at making it feel like a dream, with the strange ways a dream moves, and he's also good at making this one unnerving. The scene at the house, the strange silence, the words Mrs. Stone always uses, which never change, the unaccounted dread. Then he is invited by a friend, John, to visit him at a rental his family has taken for the summer and it's the house with the tower from his dreams. Benson slips back into reality without missing a beat. It's the same house but the scene is different from the dream. The people are talkative and friendly. There is no dread, at least not until John's mother stands and says, "Jack will show you to your room: I have given you the room in the tower," and the rendezvous that has been arriving for the narrator for 15 years is upon him. Again, Benson is so good at what he's doing. The finish may be overdone, notably the last paragraph, which felt like a compulsive flourish to a somewhat pat conclusion. Benson is known for some extremities, notably a fascination with giant worms, though this story is not about giant worms. Still, "The Room in the Tower" is often effective, breeding a constant delicate sense of unease out of an easygoing anecdotal tone. The hook is in the intimate way the narrator speaks of dreaming, a common experience to all, and the story is artful, subtle, and scary, without pounding hard on anything (at least, not until the end).

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

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Penultimate Truth (1964)

I circled back to this Philip K. Dick novel when I saw it on an Esquire list, early in the present political regime, of "essential books to prepare you for what's next," which included the usual suspects by George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Sinclair Lewis, etc. There's a lot of Dickian muddle to the tale in this novel, whose picture does not immediately come clear. By pieces, we understand we are in a post-apocalyptic Earth after a nuclear war Cold War nightmare style has made the planet surface uninhabitable. Underneath, billions live in so-called ant tanks—the "ant" is for antiseptic, though it obviously recalls the ant farm toys popular circa 1964. The underground people work on the war effort, waiting for the day those above signal it's safe to return. But on the surface there is actually no war, only a complicated ongoing propaganda campaign to keep most people working and living underground and afraid to come to the surface. Inevitably some do. They are captured and herded into crowded apartment complexes. The surface is controlled by wealthy people who live on giant private estate parks, called "demesnes," a term that goes back to the origins of feudalism. As an allegory, the three classes are thus physically arrayed: the working class laboring underground, the middle class huddled into urban states that cannot be escaped, and the upper class living great lives of pleasure on country estates. There actually was a World War III, but it didn't last long and left most of the surface habitable. Obviously Cold War dynamics motivated the underground living, a logical extension of fallout shelters. So that's the context into which Dick injects his usual cast of bumbling, confused everymen and everywomen. The tale is good at illustrating basic home truths, most notably how easy it is to maintain a huge fraud once it is in place. One thinks now, after these past 40 years, of how pernicious and persistent the "common sense" wisdom of the free market remains, for example, trickle-down economics as merely an unexamined article of faith. It's like spinning plates on top of sticks. Once you get it started you can keep it going if you're skillful enough, and deceitful enough. And then the applause. Good one for Dick binges.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Top 40

1. Sons of Kemet, "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman" (5:38)
2. Unperfect, "Gots to Give the Girl" (4:05)
3. Tame Impala, "Patience" (4:52)
4. Ciara, "Thinkin Bout You" (3:48)
5. Billie Eilish, "Bad Guy" (3:14)
6. Kevin Rudolf, "I Will Not Break" (3:28)
7. Mac DeMarco, "Nobody" (3:32)
8. cupcakKe, "Squidward Nose" (3:10)
9. Vampire Weekend, "This Life" (4:28)
10. Charles Bradley, "Lonely as You Are" (4:10)
11. Japanese Breakfast, "Essentially" (3:16)
12. Teenage Fanclub, "Baby Lee" (4:23, 2010)
13. Belle & Sebastian, "The Blues Are Still Blue" (4:08, 2006)
14. Aimee Mann, "Real Bad News" (3:53, 2002)
15. Smashing Pumpkins, "Cherub Rock" (4:59, 1993)
16. La's, "There She Goes" (2:42, 1990)
17. They Might Be Giants, "Ana Ng" (3:23, 1988)
18. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "Beyond Belief" (2:34, 1982)
19. Rolling Stone, "Waiting on a Friend" (4:34, 1981)
20. Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue" (5:41, 1975)
21. John Lennon, "#9 Dream" (4:46, 1974)
22. Roxy Music, "Do the Strand" (4:03, 1973)
23. Yes, "And You and I" (10:08, 1972)
24. Cat Stevens, "Wild World" (3:20, 1970)
25. Sandpipers, "Come Saturday Morning" (3:06, 1969)
26. Shocking Blue, "Venus" (3:07, 1969)
27. Desmond Dekker & the Aces, "Israelites" (2:36, 1968)
28. Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Manic Depression" (3:42, 1967)
29. Roger Miller, "King of the Road" (2:28, 1965)
30. Dale Hawkins, "Susie Q" (2:20, 1957)
31. Wire, "Map Ref. 41° N 93° W" (3:40, 1979)
32. Mac DeMarco, "On the Square" (3:29)
33. Kelis, "Caught Out There" (4:51, 1999)
34. Halsey, "Nightmare" (3:52)
35. 21 Savage, "A Lot" (4:48)
36. Carsie Blanton, "Jacket" (2:29)
37. Lonnie Holley, "I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America" (5:34)
38. Sleaford Mods, "Kebab Spider" (3:40)
39. Sam Smith & Normani, "Dancing With a Stranger" (2:51)
40. Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello, "Senorita" (3:11)

THANK YOU'S: Billboard, Skip D. Expense, Spin, social media at random, also I forget (apologies to the OPs!) ... 12-31, Scott Miller, Music: What Happened? ... 33, Frank Kogan, Real Punks Don't Wear Black

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)

James Baldwin's first novel is thinly disguised autobiography that ultimately reads more like a personal excoriation of fundamentalist Christianity, laying bare its hypocrisies and general foolishness in acid terms. It's a short novel but full of backstories and the complexities of blended and extended families. Set in Harlem, the preacher Gabriel Grimes and his family undergo convulsions of grief when the second son is killed stabbed in the throat. It's Gabriel's second marriage. His first was in the South and produced no children. In fact, the family history is so complex, and so central to all the themes, that exposition often feels like it's running breathlessly to keep pace with the narrative of Roy's death. The novel is full of Bible stories and biblical language, starting with the reason-for-the-season Christmas carol in the title. For teenage John Grimes, the novel is more about climbing the mountain than it is about saying something, and the climb is not easy, which makes the joyfulness of the carol referenced a little weirdly distracting. Much of the narrative comes directly from Baldwin's life—same kind of father, same kind of relationship, same turn to Jesus at 14, etc. For all the artfulness of Go Tell It on the Mountain—and there is plenty—it feels more like something Baldwin needed to get out of his system. Its freewheeling structure and experimental passages produce isolated remarkable fragments, such as a night-long conversion experience, but it's uneven. My favorite character is Gabriel's sister Florence with her lifelong seething resentment of Gabriel. I think a better novel might be the same story written from Florence's point of view by a woman. Obviously that is not the novel we have. Gabriel, for his part, is just too easy to judge and dispense with. As Florence points out, he is too often the cause of problems in the lives of others. I didn't think anyone in that family should want to have anything to do with him. That's my judgment, but the result was I got quickly tired of him and his catalog of sins. Florence is the only one who sees him clearly in this novel, and she does exactly what I would—puts him behind her, moving to the North. When he shows up there 20 years later, after he has caused a lot more grief down home, there's little she can do. Of course he causes more in the North, all of it predictable. There's a lot that's good and even great in this novel, but it's hard for me to agree it's the best thing Baldwin ever did, let alone one of the great novels of the 20th century.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Why We Fight (1942-1945)

Prelude to War (1942); The Nazis Strike (1943); Divide and Conquer (1943); The Battle of Britain (1943); The Battle of Russia (1943); The Battle of China (1944); War Comes to America (1945), USA, 422 minutes, documentary
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, Anthony Veiller
Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Anthony Veiller, Robert Heller, Williband Hentschel, Adolf Hitler, Eric Knight, S.K. Lauren, Anatole Litvak, John Sanford, Confucius, Emma Lazarus
Photography: Robert J. Flaherty
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin, Hugo Friedhofer, Leigh Harline, Arthur Lange, Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman, David Raksin, Anthony Collins, Louis Gruenberg, John Leipold, Roy Webb, William Lava, Howard Jackson, Max Steiner
Editors: William Hornbeck, William A. Lyon
With: Walter Huston, Anthony Veiller, John Litel, Frieda Inescourt, Lloyd Nolan, Elliot Lewis, Harry von Zell

At the moment, it's not hard to understand the monumental task of the United States and the democratic nations in 1942 converting the Greatest Generation into the original Antifa. It took some prodding. As we are currently living through a period of nearly perfect amnesia about fascism it's instructive to see, as documented in this series of instructional films, that Madison Square Garden could be filled in the late 1930s with Nuremberg-style rallies for American Nazis, swastikas blazing and thuggish beat-downs for anyone raising objections to the usual toxic swill. Sad (and obvious) to say, the only difference in today's "Lock her up" "Send her back" rallies is that they are shot in color, and they're not yet so brazen with the swastikas (though they think it's funny to say "Hail Trump").

But a monumental task was met with a monumental propaganda film project, appropriately preserved now in stained, scratched, and iffy prints, cheaply available in libraries, on YouTube, cable-TV channels, Amazon Prime, DVD, even VHS (though no longer cheap in that format). Why We Fight set out to be our Triumph of the Will. Even today it remains as stirring, entertaining, and inspiring as a seven-hour seven-part movie can be. Sometimes, as in the studious prologue of the first episode, Prelude to War, it can be dull with didactic explanation. We're still a little bored with Manchuria going down in 1931 and Shanghai and Nanking in 1937, even with the Japanese altogether (other than Pearl Harbor and the A-bombs). These anonymous filmmakers expertly manage our expectations. They know it's German Nazis we want and it is German Nazis we will get. They just make us sit through some instruction first. As they put it, at the end of every episode, with words it is good to remember now (their italics, but my emphasis too): "The victory of the democracies can only be complete with the utter defeat of the war machines of Germany and Japan."

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Sand-Man" (1816)

"Mr. Sandman" was the most popular song Pat Ballard ever wrote, publishing the sheet music in 1954 and seeing it promptly recorded by Vaughn Monroe & His Orchestra, the Four Aces, the Chordettes, and many others. (The music industry was different then.) The taffy-sweet pitty-pat Chordettes version was the hit and the one I like best, soaring on old-fashioned acapella close harmonies, propelled by a vibraphone, grounded by a waggling sax, and full of bobby-soxer high spirits. The dream they long for has lots of wavy hair like Liberace and the Sandman was there to deliver it all. It went to #1 for seven weeks. In memory, I heard the strange bedtime thing first, but I could well have heard the song as an infant, before memory. The story my mother told was that the Sandman came to sprinkle sand on my eyelids to make them heavy so I would fall asleep. This never made sense, partly because I have a phobia about things like grit near my eyeballs, though recently it occurred to me that the beach activity of burying oneself in warm sand might be conducive to comfortable napping, more or less. Grownups tells kids a lot of weird things they spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out.

Moving forward nearly 40 years, we find Metallica with a spectacularly successful fifth album in 1991, named Metallica but known as the Black Album and slated to join Carole King's Tapestry and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon for commercial persistence over the years. A generation of kids all agreed on something again. Metallica opened the proceedings with the five-minute track "Enter Sandman" and this is quite a different view of the nighttime bedroom sleep artist. It steals in like bad weather and grows into an ominous cathedral of dread, pounding and thrashing in the Roman style, with libretto as follows, in part: "Sleep with one eye open / Gripping your pillow tight / Exit light / Enter night." Goodness, I don't recognize this Sandman. What in the world has happened? And what does any of it have to do with the 19th-century German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann and his long, antiquated, disjointed tale? Yeah, I'm getting to that.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Hopeful Monsters (1990)

I didn't know much about this novel or its author, only that it was recommended urgently by blogger and RogerEbert.com contributor Sheila O'Malley. It's dense and fairly long, written by the son of British fascist Oswald Mosley, which may account in part for its general obscurity. Nicholas Mosley obviously has little sympathy for fascists himself, but perhaps more equanimity about their existence than we might like. The story covers a 20-year period between the world wars, following the lives of and relationship between a young German woman and British man. Both are intellectuals and lifelong students of science. Physics, biology, and the ideas explored in those fields—notably evolution and quantum mechanics—are major themes. Implications of the dual nature of light and the origins of mutation are returned to continually, as is the political history of Europe in this period. The rise of fascism figures large. I probably haven't read as much European history as I should (or maybe Hopeful Monsters is as good as I think it is) but I've never seen the rise of Nazis in Germany detailed so vividly before. The significance of the Communist Party and its historical movement figures large as well. The volatile years considered here were a crucible for modern social structure, as monarchical ideas fell to the side once and for all (we hope). The two lovers in this story—Eleanor and Max—want little to do with these strains of history, though Eleanor does spend time as a Communist involved in bombings and other violence. I never understood so well how the conflict between Nazis and Communists played out as constant violent street brawls—with bombs and drive-by machine gun shootings limited only by the ability of activists to get their hands on ordnance. But that's just a piece of this novel, which inevitably drives to its remarkable climax in the Spanish Civil War. Eleanor's mother is Jewish and after the Nazis come to power Eleanor finds it expedient to leave Germany and travel to Africa for anthropological work on a voluntary mission project. While she's gone both her parents disappear and she realizes she can't go back, with laws in Germany dealing so harshly with Jews. At that point the novel turns into a glorious and amazing adventure story, as both Eleanor and Max make their separate ways into Spain. Dense with intellectual currents, Hopeful Monsters seems to have an energy all its own with swift-moving incident and a constant brooding for sense. Definitely worth a look—I'm only scratching the surface of all that's here.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, USA, 121 minutes
Director / writer: George Lucas
Photography: Gilbert Taylor
Music: John Williams
Editors: Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, George Lucas
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, James Earl Jones, David Prowse, Peter Cushing, Phil Brown, Peter Mayhew

[John Williams theme, play continually while reading]

It's tempting, of course, to start by waxing nostalgic about George Lucas's stupendous commercial feat, because I actually did happen to wander into a theater and see it in the first week of its release, some little time before it became the certifiable phenomenon. I was impressed. It was a good day at the movies. The rave-up attack on the Death Star for the big finish was exhilarating, a bonanza of special effects operating in all three dimensions (not just one or two, like car chases). Many of us had imagined scenes like these, notably Stanley Kubrick, but no one had ever seen them before. The nightclub sequence was memorably weird and charming too—cool nervous jazz music! And this thing about "the Force" was almost uplifting in the context of the underdog story. Released late in May, by summer's end all my friends and half the population of the present-day right-here galaxy had seen it (and seen it and seen it and seen it, in some cases), laying the grumbling grounds of my personal contrarian backlash.

Forced by the eternity of hoopla and some peer pressure to see it again, all its poor qualities leapt to the fore—the wooden style, thuddingly dull story, and plodding tempo swamped whatever I still liked, and now the Force made me wince. Close Encounters of the Third Kind had come at the end of 1977 with good special effects too, plus it seemed to understand religion and science fiction better. They almost seemed like the Beatles and Stones of '70s sci-fi, except neither movie is as good as either band.

Another view of this white whale comes via the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, where it presently sits at #115. Gone With the Wind, the only movie that is its superior in the commercial realm, sits six notches higher, at #109 and has actually been as high as #60 in this roundup of critical opinion, which suggests critics on some level are not entirely immune to the siren call of moneymakers (I'm not either evidently, as I've now reviewed six of the top 10 inflation-adjusted all-timers). On the other hand, a few years ago, after Disney and J.J. Abrams rekindled the franchise (third time's the charm!), the original Star Wars never did get the bump I expected to see on this list. Its peak to date came before that, at #100 for two years in a row. The revival apparently didn't budge critical opinion and maybe even dimmed it a little. But let's also remember that, at the moment, aggregated critical consensus still says there are only 114 movies better than Star Wars.

Sunday, September 01, 2019

Celestial Navigation (1974)

I liked Anne Tyler's fifth novel, full of all the usual stuff—Baltimore, a repressed man hero, a nurturing extrovert woman for his partner. It's a little experimental in form but solidly constructed. The experimental part is that each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, sometimes first-person, sometimes third-person. Our repressed man hero, Jeremy Pauling, lives in a rooming house his mother operated, taking it over after she dies at the start of the novel. He really is an extreme case, nearly autistic in his affect, much more damaged than the charming eccentrics Tyler would produce later (damaged as they may be). Jeremy's girlfriend Mary moves into his place on the rebound from a rebound relationship following a divorce. She's big and loud and competent and gives birth to six kids in the space of this novel. Jeremy is the father of the last five, but he's such an abstracted figure to them they all call him by his name rather than Dad or even Daddy. Conveniently enough, he's able to make a living as a fine artist—a gallery owner takes him under his wing and Jeremy's work catches on. Most of the pleasure in this is Tyler's language and her usual sharp eye and ear. Small details unexpectedly swim off the page and hit hard. I had my usual trouble always believing the easy way Tyler characters survive and fall together. Her faith in love and relationships can be romantic verging on sentimental. Yet something about the story of Jeremy and Mary tugs hard. Notably, I did not expect it to end the way it did. In fact, the zigging and zagging of the plot is often unexpected, yet never outlandish. Part of this is achieved by her narrative strategy. By shifting the points of view steadily, large events in the story often happen offstage. The story may lurch a little with each new chapter, but the novel is effective and moves with confidence. There's a quick tempo and a steady, grabby momentum. I've been reading my way through the novels from the first half of Tyler's career backward, and it's interesting to see some of the work losing focus in a way. Jeremy is not as sharp as Macon Leary and Mary is not as sharp as Muriel Pritchett, but they are certain foundations for those characters. And Celestial Navigation bears interest on its own merits as definitely one of the good ones.

In case it's not at the library.