Sunday, November 24, 2019

"The Turkey Season" (1980)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 22, 2019

On the Waterfront (1954)

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

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

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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

"The Testament of Magdalen Blair" (1913)

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

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

Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Impostor" (1953)

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

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Attention Merchants (2016)

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

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

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 08, 2019

All About Eve (1950)

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

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

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

Thursday, November 07, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 03, 2019

I, Claudius (1934)

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

In case it's not at the library.