Thursday, December 31, 2020

"The Demon King" (1931)

This story by J.B. Priestley is theatrical, funny, and hugely entertaining. With the setting of a traditional holiday performance in a remote shire of England—I kept thinking of community theater in the US—it is thoroughly steeped in backstage friction and show-must-go-on bravura. Bickering and long-simmering feuds mark relations among the players and crew as well as a spirit of camaraderie. For this Boxing Day evening performance, the man playing the Demon King in the supernatural bits cannot be found. He is a journeyman professional hired for the occasion, with a reputation for "lifting the elbow" and thought to be likely drunk somewhere again. But he cannot be found. An impromptu understudy, woefully unprepared, is pressed into service, but at the last minute the actor shows up, in full costume and makeup. "He looked superb.... The face had a greenish phosphorescent glow, and its eyes flashed between glittering lids." During the show, he struts around scaring everybody and gives a great performance. Other players perform better than they ever have—for one it is a lifetime's dream come true. My favorite detail might be that the village audience, typically taciturn and withdrawn, suspicious of paying money for entertainment, erupts in ovations that go on and on. "The stage manager looked at his watch, 'It's holding up the show, that's certain.... If they're going to behave like this every night, we'll have to cut an hour out of it.'" My other favorite detail might be that this is all a production of the Jack & Jill nursery rhyme, with a Fairy Queen and Demon King and supernatural bits. Apparently it's how they did things. For his part, Priestley is cryptic: "[T]hose people who are puzzled to know what demons have to do with Jack and Jill, those innocent water-fetchers, should pay a visit to the nearest pantomime, which will teach them a lot they did not know about fairy tales." The only explanation for the night is when the troupe gets word that the actor hired to play the Demon King, the one they worried about "lifting the elbow," had been detained "knocked down in Boar Lane by a car, but he'll be all right tomorrow." The rest is for us and those in the story to decide, with the help of clonking details such as a smell of sulfur in the theater. It's all a big show, of course, but it works. I like the humor of it, with this evident demon waylaying the other actor and then showing up to goad a big performance and ovation out of the small village for his own entertainment. I love how it just sticks Jack & Jill into the middle of it. It's a Christmas show—shouldn't there be more holiday theme to it? No explanation. Priestley, more of a mainstream novelist and playwright, didn't do much horror and this one feels like he's just having fun. It's infectious.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Story not available online.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

"The Bishop" (1902)

This late story by Anton Chekhov, written two years before his death at 44, is perhaps not surprisingly full of the foreboding of death. Chekhov had been battling, as we say, tuberculosis for some time. It does not feel much self-pitying but is instead artful and quiet, with a series of great moments, like the movie Wild Strawberries. It's Holy Week and Easter on the way and the bishop is dying. At the Palm Sunday service he is surprised to see his mother—a mother of nine and grandmother of 40 by now. It feels dreamlike. He has not seen her in nine years. Her behavior toward him has become more like a parishioner's, intimidated by his stature and fearful, and he feels sad and distant from her. The memories well forth: "Why did it, that long-past time that could never return, why did it seem brighter, fuller, and more festive than it had really been?" Why indeed. This story is a stark reminder that Chekhov was still getting better. Even in the face of eternity it's little details that tell, perhaps even more so in memory. The bishop may be sad for the distance he feels from his mother, but he is brave and stoic as he faces death and ruminates over his life. It's no crisis of faith, exactly. He continues with his rituals and their meanings. His most evocative memories have little to do with death or afterlife and everything to do with life, telltale moments of existence. I like the detail of electric lights first being installed in the town in some of these scenes. The times they are a-changing. People gather around to watch and look at the lights. In many ways this story feels like all encounters of parents and grown children—awkward, affectionate, strange. Are bishops generally middle-aged like Chekhov? This one feels older. He shows courage and dignity facing death but is peevish about his routines. The diagnosis of typhus appears to be news but he doesn't seem surprised, as if it only confirms what he has suspected. He dies and is replaced. Life just goes on. In the end his mother is seen saying "that she had a son, a bishop, and this she says very timidly, afraid that she may not be believed.... And, indeed, there are some who do not believe her."

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Queen's Gambit (2020)

The Queen's Gambit, released late in October, is so good it reminded me that November was a sweeps month on TV, when the industry puts its best foot forward to goose up numbers for advertising rates. Is that still a thing? Anyway, the Netflix miniseries is long, at seven hours, but sectioned off nicely into seven episodes and with a hard finish (I very much hope). It's based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote the source novels for The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Color of Money. I would classify The Queen's Gambit as a sports type of picture but it has lots of satisfying girl power and nerd power as well. It's based on a novel but often feels eerily real, set in the '50s and '60s. Beth Harmon (a remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy and nearly as good Isla Johnston as the young Beth) is an orphan in Lexington, Kentucky, the daughter of a mentally ill woman and a man she had an affair with. In the orphanage for girls, with the help of a janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), Beth learns to play chess and it is immediately obvious she is a prodigy. At the same time, the orphanage gives the girls tranquilizers every day and Beth becomes addicted—the drug is good for her game in interesting ways but naturally bad for her soul. The series tracks her rise to prominence after she is adopted as she takes the chess world by storm in her teens. Along the way she has to knock off the Kentucky state champion and then the US champion before facing the dread Soviet Russians, masters of the chess universe in this world. The Queen's Gambit is full of great characters—Beth herself, young and older, Mr. Shaibel, the woman who adopts her, Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), and the men she vanquishes at the board, Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and others. The mysterious Soviet monolith Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski) is her most terrifying opponent, an iceberg who plays with precision and intimidating authority. I don't know chess that well, and never was any good at it, but the excitement around the game can be like the excitement of hackers doing amazing things because they can, and the picture is further powered by the sheer competitive spirit of the tournaments. There are some pretty good spelling bee movies that work this way too. There's enough technical jargon on chess to fool me anyway and I love Beth's absorption, confidence, and ability to demolish opponents. As a miniseries set in the '60s it is full of musical interludes. I thought they went to that well perhaps a bit too much, especially as the series proceeds, but there are some very fine pop music moments along the way here. The Queen's Gambit is fun, fast, and full of surprises. Don't miss it if you can.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Interrupting My Train of Thought (2014)

Phil Dellio is a friend, so I better start there. He has also taken a route of self-publishing and as such been a bit of a role model for me, though he is more the age of Grant Hart and I am more the age of Elvis Costello. His '90s zine Radio On inspired me to do one of my own back then. I was thrilled to join him and Steven Rubio in 2011 for a Facebook countdown exercise of our 50 favorite movies. And this self-published collection of Phil's pieces culled from his online writing inspired me again to do something like it. Interrupting My Train of Thought is organized thematically—Phil has written about pop music, movies, baseball, American politics, the year 1972, and more. Among other things he works well within the bounds of the personal essay. His own life is suffused through everything he writes. He is never mawkish, only self-deprecating, and his insights and opinions are sharp and clear. He is soon impatient with fools, in his unassuming patient way—his day job for years was as a grade-school teacher. A lot of the pieces here came originally from postings on the ILX forum and Facebook. As he stitches the pieces together, he has a wonderfully discursive style that circles and approaches his subjects from different angles, often taking vaguely skeptical positions but capable of devotional flights, sometimes wandering well afield, but invariably pulling it together convincingly. In a way it's like a tightrope act—a literary form made out of fragments of culture and the glue of himself. At the same time, his quiet confidence makes him feel more authoritative as you go. His obsessive regard for Neil Young (and Richard Nixon, and Coppola movies) has also made him something of a useful scholar. In 2007 he whipped up a definitive and impressive catalog of Young covers by other artists to date, published in Stylus (available here). It's so straightforwardly thorough and comprehensive you can't be anything but impressed. It often feels like Phil writes with a great deal of intuition—that's a key part of the pleasure in this collection—but his instincts are true. He is no acquired taste. All you have to do is read his stuff. I encourage everyone to start immediately.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

In a Sentimental Mood (1989)

I don't plan on making a habit of this, but I was back at the Amazon review salt mines to help get a bead on this Dr. John album from the late '80s. As an early version of a bona fide rock star taking on the Tin Pan Alley American songbook, with some reverence (I guess Willie Nelson was first? and then Linda Ronstadt?), this album has always basically won me over, ups, downs, and all. But I see I am out of step with many of the Amazon reviewers, who tend to single out the opening-track duet with Rickie Lee Jones, "Makin' Whoopee." The song later appeared in the movie Sleepless in Seattle, which even I can't believe I still haven't seen. But, in a word: No. For me, it's one of the bigger sequencing mistakes in album history, up there with Bruce Springsteen starting Born in the U.S.A. with that album's worst song. That case might be slightly worse because it's also the title song. But "Makin' Whoopee" is close, a cloying tribute to hammy 1920s innuendo that is approximately 90% cringe. Yes, OK, sentimental mood means nostalgia, and December is a good month for indulging sentimental music, but "Makin' Whoopee" is a rubicon I can't quite cross. You might feel the same here about, for example, "My Buddy" (like "Makin' Whoopee" a collaboration between songwriters Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson), a tender ballad that reliably works on me, especially when I think about cats and dogs I've known. I hope the point where we can all agree is in the mostly instrumental workups of "Love for Sale" and especially the title song, which remind us that the piano was Dr. John's main instrument when all is said and done, a student of Professor Longhair and master in his own right. He bangs it with finesse, restrained power, and joy, carrying the tracks to winning crescendos. The Duke Ellington collaboration "In a Sentimental Mood" is simply gorgeous, featuring the orchestral arrangements that dominate these tracks. I've always been more agnostic on strings than some of the naysayers of the '60s era—ultimately I was OK with B.B. King's turn to them, for example—but I note the pervasive presence on this album as it may be a deal breaker for many. Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," by contrast, has more of the uptempo boogie-woogie feel, which suits the song and Dr. John's bumptious play. The surging horn charts by Marty Paich on the bridge remind me weirdly of something I can't quite put my finger on from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It might be "More Than a Woman" or some other song, but I think it's David Shire's "Manhattan Skyline." At least it's a good excuse to point to that oft-overlooked silky high point of the soundtrack album, and while I'm at it to encourage everyone sometime to get to Shire's masterpiece movie soundtrack, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, one of the best in the '70s and a pretty good gritty New York City crime movie too. Dr. John, In a Sentimental Mood—oh yes, where was I? Pretty good album if you can take the sucrose levels. High points, low points. This one's got it all. Enjoy with wine.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

USA, 111 minutes
Director: Arthur Penn
Writers: David Newman, Robert Benton, Robert Towne
Photography: Burnett Guffey
Music: Charles Strouse
Editor: Dede Allen
Cast: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle, Gene Wilder, Evans Evans

The ending of Bonnie and Clyde is about as iconic to the '60s as the shower scene in Psycho, and equally short in terms of running time—a scant few minutes (with many, many cuts in the edit). Bonnie and Clyde, coming much further into the decade, may have been in the better position to self-consciously attempt a statement about the times, with its outlaw heroes, desperate little guys, gang violence, police power and corruption, etc. Plus its star, Warren Beatty, looks like a Kennedy, similarly assassinated by gunfire, though the Zapruder film has no cuts. Bonnie and Clyde is a strange beast, living among other strange beasts of 1967 Hollywood. Mark Harris's well-regarded Pictures at a Revolution looked closely at the five Best Picture Oscar nominees of that year, a motley assortment with various heavy significations, looking in all directions at once seemingly: Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night.

Bonnie and Clyde is plainly the New Hollywood art film of the class (though In the Heat of the Night has some pretensions in that direction too). But it also has unusual bifurcations. It's an art film full of naturalistic violence and banjo music. The crime capers are both farce and tragedy. It's a period piece that is more about the period in which it was made (as they always are). The star of the movie, Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow, was also the producer, but not the director. In fact, generally speaking, one of the most amazing things about Bonnie and Clyde is the sheer tonnage of talent assembled, working less collaboratively but more side by side, like artisans at a crafts mall.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

"Horror: A True Tale" (1861)

The title and date of publication make it clear this Christmassy horror story by John Berwick Harwood will lean toward the antiquated. Super-popular Charles Dickens in many ways was responsible for yoking together Christmas and spooky stories, not just with the much beloved A Christmas Carol but in many other stories and in his novels as well. Harwood chips in a classic with this one. He published it and many of his ghost stories as by "Anonymous," and it is still often published that way, presumably to make it more convincing as true, which it is not of course, and likely also because of the enduring disreputability of horror. As with much of Dickens (I understand), it may be best enjoyed by listening to someone read it aloud. But you'd better make sure you've got an hour because it does take its time getting to its points, proceeding with the slow-burn approach of ratcheting tension. You have a feeling you know where you are headed and it is also agony getting there. Yes, this story is often overdone, sometimes in comical ways, but it's certainly good for spooky story time around Christmas if anyone is still doing that and has the patience for 19th-century rhythms—indeed, the tradition is part of this story just as the story is part of it. It's a young woman's story told by her as an old woman, recalling the experience that changed her life. It is heavy with setup, foreshadowing, and angst, but eventually pays off well. She was 19. It turned her hair white overnight and made her old and withered. Hair turning white from a bad scare is a detail I remember well from being told ghost stories myself when I was a kid. The story takes place in a mansion, on Christmas Eve, in a house crowded with guests, on a stormy night. There's a family matriarch, the narrator's godmother, whom they want to please. She has had some longstanding grudge against the young woman's family, over something that happened at the narrator's christening. It was the last anyone in the family had seen of her until this Christmas Eve. She also might have paranormal powers but she's more inscrutable than anything. After an evening spent swapping ghost stories, the narrator is exiled off to an isolated chamber next to the lumber room for the night as part of making accommodations for all the guests, and then, well, ghost. And/or possibly an escaped lunatic—this proposed rational explanation actually seems more unlikely than a ghost, but either way the young woman turns 75 overnight. I take it as a ghost, one of those corporeal types, which reliably get right to me, and this is a good version, presented as a kind of silent ravening beast and predator. If I were her, I would have taken her sisters up on their invitation to bunk with them for the night. Now look what's happened. And listen to her story. At Christmastime.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Chillers for Christmas, ed. Richard Dalby (out of print)
Listen to story online (note: I'm not convinced this is a good reading but I'm also not a connoisseur of spoken-word recording).

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Fifth Woman (1996)

I'm calling the sixth Kurt Wallander mystery by Henning Mankell one of the best in the series. As always, it's totally engrossing nearly from start to finish. And, also once again, there's more evidence for what a master of plot Mankell is. Some of the elements may rankle a little. The brutality of the crimes is first on that list—so grotesque here they finally begin to verge on parody. Especially when they start to eat at Wallander from the inside out, as they often do. As they would anyone, obviously, including many readers. Mankell does not exactly "play fair" in this one, tipping us early to who the killer is. We see some scenes from the killer's view, which also gives us information, but the specific identity of this culprit is not that important. If Wallander is a link between Martin Beck and Stieg Larsson's trilogy, and he might be, here is where the theme of misogyny and its various fruits first really shows up. For once I don't want to give too much away as the details of this one are there to be discovered. But the primary focus here is specifically on many of the ill ways men treat women, and they are never isolated cases. We should know it's going on constantly, as police officers are likely to know well themselves. In a way, Wallander represents a type of social complacency, a police detective who can still be shocked and deeply disturbed by what he witnesses, and yet is unable to generalize it somehow and so is never quite hardened to his job. He remains an interesting character for all his flaws and the increasing use of him as a superhero (the girl with the dragon tattoo herself, Lisbeth Salander, practically arrives as a superhero). This novel also includes significant developments in Wallander's life, which can be affecting even though more and more I think that kind of stuff only clutters up some of these narratives. Another thing I noticed here is how good Mankell is on time passing. We get a nice sense that we are seeing the life of a man as he passes through his 40s. This kind of keeping faith with real time is tricky business in any continuing series and among other things Mankell is doing much better at that than many others.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Jezebel (1938)

USA, 104 minutes
Director: William Wyler
Writers: Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Owen Davis, Robert Buckner, Louis F. Edelman
Photography: Ernest Haller
Music: Max Steiner
Editor: Warren Low
Cast: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Margaret Lindsay, Richard Cromwell, Spring Byington, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Theresa Harris

Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind was published in 1936, became an immediate sensation, and has basically remained so since. I haven't read it myself but it has never been out of print in nearly 100 years. Even so, it was practically overshadowed by the movie version three years later, a sort of massive 1-2 knockout punch only seen in the annals of media culture perhaps once a decade (compare the Beatles owning the Billboard top 5 for one week in 1964 ... the Beatles have also never gone out of print). Word is that Bette Davis was given the lead in Jezebel as compensation for not getting the Scarlett O'Hara role. Indeed, sympathy may have run so deep it accounts for her Best Actress Oscar for this picture too, although Davis was plainly one of the best players of her generation, and well-liked, with 10 nominations and two wins for Best Actress between 1934 and 1944. Jezebel, based on a play that was successful in 1933, similarly goes down South for a good old slavery times story—this one set in 1850s Louisiana during a yellow fever epidemic, with racial tensions of a different kind, abolitionist, as thick in the air as 2020.

Davis is Julie Marsden, a Scarlett-like—and/or Scarlett-lite, depending on your feelings about GWTW—spoiled daughter of wealth. If Scarlett wears black to shock everyone at a dance, Julie wears scarlet. It works out pretty much the same. Julie's on-again off-again beau is Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda, young and on the rise but already with a ramrod up his spine) and the script sends the couple spinning. Julie seems to have a habit of going too far and then seeking atonement and Davis captains up her gyrations with quivering conviction. She's easy to hate in a sort of delicious way. At a key point in the movie, Julie's Aunt Belle says she reminds her "of a woman called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God." Jezebel, you may recall, is a biblical Phoenician character, the wife of Ahab and a general no-goodnik infatuated with power, and a woman besides. Aunt Belle is not wrong here but I will say Julie's road to redemption is far more compelling than Scarlett O'Hara's.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Lovecraft Country, s1 (2020)

This new HBO series worked a lot of PR buzz when it debuted last summer. I don't know the Matt Ruff novel it starts from but was intrigued by the "Lovecraft" and its evident intention to address racism. As the horror and fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft has become nearly as well-known in recent years for his unfortunate racism as for his work, it promised interesting tensions. Alas, though it does address racism, it ends up feeling much more like conventional TV and not very much like Lovecraft, save for some CGI shoggoths that are cartoonish now that we are used to CGI. Lovecraft's most appealing feature, at least in terms of horror, is his treatment of the universe as vast and unfeeling, populated with monsters with their own agendas who do not care about human beings if they are even aware of them. The way we think of insect vermin. He writes about the insoluble problems of anxiety and fear, whereas Lovecraft Country frequently offers perky solutions: stop being racist, the main one. And look to family for sustenance (the reflex for most peak TV: you know the drill, tender moment, I'm not crying, you're crying). Then layer on magic (incantations, secret knowledge, the "language of Adam," which sounds cousin to Klingon). Lovecraft Country does a nice job of turning some things on their head, notably racism, where the show blazes with righteous fury. "Lovecraft country," for example, is Massachusetts like it should be—Lovecraft was a Rhode Islander, but a lot of his stories take place in Massachusetts—yet it has the look and feel of Jim Crow Old South. The sad thing is that this treatment of racism as virulent and everywhere often feels exaggerated, but I bet it's not. I would guess much of it, up to and including the riots and lynchings, are scrupulously rooted in fact. Still, as one more strung-together, padded-out peak TV series, it started to feel like all the others, like Stranger Things only instead of Scooby Doo plucky teenagers it has Scooby Doo plucky people of color. I liked a few episodes pretty well (1, 2, and 6) but felt like things dragged the rest of the way. I admit I haven't followed TV that closely but I also have to say Lovecraft Country looks a lot like everything I have seen: some good ideas, a start that quickly explodes into multiple threads, and then entire multiple episodes devoted to advancing each one simultaneously, with regular injections of family drama for the feels, plus special effects and cliffhanger plots that only lead to further cliffhangers. Put 10 hours in and all they want is for you to can't-wait for the next one.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Tropic of Capricorn (1939)

It's hard to know what to do with Henry Miller. He can be as exhilarating as he can be exasperating, often in the same (very long) paragraph. Caution: this book contains paragraphs that go on for pages. (I know I'm not one to complain about a lack of paragraphing.) Wikipedia calls Tropic of Capricorn "a prequel of sorts" to the more widely lauded Tropic of Cancer. Where Cancer riffs on Miller's life in Paris in the 1930s (his "bohemian novel," a friend calls it), Capricorn dances around his life in New York City in the 1920s, scrabbling to get by and write. These books are called "novels" because that's closer than "memoirs," but really they are something else apart entirely. They make me think most often of poetry, paintings by Picasso, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring—modern, bracing, alive. They are iconoclastic, electrifying the humdrum with holy charges. Miller even name-checks J. Krishnamurti in both—!! I often have no idea what is going on from page to page, but the sentences and vocabulary have their own charming magnetism, and in the confusion there are vivid and concrete moments of joy and desperation. It's fully energized with life, which might sound trite, but Capricorn is no pep talk jive. If Miller is fully engaged with joy he is also fully engaged with despair. One of the recurring themes is the life-sucking soullessness of most full-time jobs and their necessities. I also find the treatment of sex interesting, given the book's history of being banned until 1961. There aren't many sex scenes as such, but sex is a frequent topic of discussion and the language is raw, with animal urgency. It's not pornographic. It's hard to imagine it turns anyone on but I might be wrong about that and/or it's a generational thing? He's as matter-of-fact about getting laid as he is about eating. Both can be sensual delights and to some degree (arguable on sex, I know) both are necessities. So there tends to be a deep everydayness to his treatment of sex and an anecdotal quality to his experiences that makes them as interesting (and necessary too) as good conversation. As for organization, I don't know what to say. There's one chapter-like break, a few line breaks scattered in at random, and lots of the paragraphs go sprawling across pages. Sometimes the copy editor in me stepped forward and idly attempted to break these monsters up. But that is where I discovered how good Miller is. My presumptive exercises only showed how tightly woven together it all is, with everything including transitions packed in there basically the way it should be—the way it must be. Miller blows my mind and amazes the hell out of me sometimes. I wonder which one I should read next, and if I can even take it.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Badlands (1973)

USA, 94 minutes
Director/writer: Terrence Malick
Photography: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn
Music: George Aliceson Tipton, Mickey & Sylvia
Editors: Robert Estrin, Billy Weber
Cast: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint, Gary Littlejohn

I haven't kept up much with director and writer Terrence Malick since The Tree of Life, which was way too muddled, Christianist, and overrated for me. He has been at least as productive in the past 10 years as any other stretch of his career: To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015, about a tarot card I understand), Song to Song (2017, sez "play loud" but the music is buried in the mix with everything else), and A Hidden Life (2019). Song to Song is the one I've seen, just a few weeks ago, and had a bad reaction. If you despaired of the Sean Penn sequences in The Tree of Life, that's basically all Song to Song is for over two hours. Also, in the past year or two, I paid a revisit to the 1978 Days of Heaven and came away decidedly unravished. I think in the '70s I might have even called it better than Badlands, but now I am more inclined to compare Days of Heaven unfavorably with Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff.

So I wasn't sure what I was going to get with a return to Malick's auspicious 1973 debut, the kinda-sorta story of Charlie Starkweather and girlfriend Carol Ann Fugate on a 1958 Midwestern killing spree, Bonnie and Clyde style, Gun Crazy style—one of the 20th century's favorite stories (Raymond Pettibon's version by way of Sonic Youth: "I stole my sister's boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road"—I know, a reference to the Moors murders, but same diff). As it turns out, I should not have worried. Badlands is as lean and effective as I remembered it, a smoldering explosive mood piece, with Martin Sheen preening as Kit, a 25-year-old James Dean lookalike lost in the backwoods sticks of South Dakota, and Sissy Spacek as 15-year-old Holly, whose voiceover narration is full of the profound stillness and wisdom of Carson McCullers characters. In its quiet unassuming way, Badlands is close to perfect.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

"Lucky's Grove" (1940)

This delightfully heavy-handed story by H. Russell Wakefield, a student of M.R. James and English folklore, is about a damned patch of land that sits in the center of a fallow growing field, left untouched. Best avoided, in fact. Our main character, Mr. Braxton, is a self-made man. He grew up on the estate as a servant and now owns it. As a boy he wandered into the grove from time to time, compelled somehow to worship a particular tree. And so he did, and does now that he has returned. The locals, meanwhile, are full of horrible tales about this so-called Lucky's Grove, tales that apparently do not come to the attention of Braxton's estate foreman, who takes the Christmas tree for that year's celebration from there. The oblivious foreman did notice that the roots of the tree were stained red as they came out of the ground. When Mr. Braxton doesn't like it, the foreman assures him he will replant it in the grove again after the holiday. Of course, bad things start to happen right away. The tree branches slap people around, for example, raising welts and wounds that become infected. The foreman grows deathly ill, no one knows why, and takes to his bed. The thermostat goes bonkers and it's always way too hot in the mansion. One of the boys makes a snowman that looks like a hideous reptilian monster. He can't say where he got the idea. All this is going on on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The extended Braxton family carries on the best they can, but things keep getting worse. I was hoping for a little more of the Algernon Blackwood lost-in-the-woods effects—Blackwood an influence with James on Wakefield—but alas no. This is one of the reasons why Wakefield comes after Blackwood and James in the scheme of things. In fact, a very good companion piece for this story is Blackwood's "Ancient Lights," also about a small blighted patch. Wakefield works skillfully within a classic style of English ghost story, from the stained roots of the violated tree to the various cruel payoffs to the existence itself of such a patch of land, respected by all who come near (except that foreman). It's reminiscent in a way of Puritan superstitions about the deep North American forests and the witches and so forth who lived there, but this is an isolated copse in a field everyone just knows to leave alone. I like the implication, never stressed, that Mr. Braxton's unlikely rise in the world has something to do with Lucky's Grove and worshiping that tree. I like the Christmas setting too, though the story veers hard away from the kind of more cozy Dickens-derived spooky stories associated with the time of year. The destruction of Braxton and his family and estate is quite complete. There'll be no plum pudding this year.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Story not available online.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

"The Darling" (1899)

I finally got to Anton Chekhov's version of "The Darling," going about it all ass-backwards and reading the Scott Bradfield demi-homage from 1990 first, a few years back. I like the Chekhov more, perhaps needless to say, though I appreciate Bradfield's stunt work. The stories have parallels but are rather different. Chekhov is more artful and lacerating about the comic aspects of his tale and the main character's strange emptiness. Olenka starts as a young woman whose father, a retired collegiate assessor (whatever that is), is dying. Kukin is a theater manager and impresario who lives at "the lodge" with them. He's always complaining about his business. After her father's death, Olenka falls in love with him and they marry. Olenka discusses the ins and outs of theater business with everyone she meets, and they live happily ever after. Until Kukin dies rather suddenly after a few years. Olenka retires within herself and mourns for several months. Then she meets a lumber merchant, they get along very well, and they marry. Now her conversation is full of remarks like, "Timber gets dearer every year; the price rises twenty per cent." Of course this guy dies too after a few years, equally untimely. And there's another one. On a certain level the psychological realism is remarkably modern, looking forward to Woody Allen's Zelig, Jerzy Kosinki's Chauncy Gardner, and a disorder known as environmental dependency syndrome. Olenka's style is a strange mix of disappearing and consuming. She disappears into her partners yet somehow also seems to be eating them up. Or maybe it's bad luck, or perhaps it's an ironical take. We learn nothing of her mother, which suggests another untimely exit in Olenka's life, another trauma. When we meet her she is losing her father. As a woman alone in the world at the turn of the 20th century, she was dependent on a man for her survival. Women could push against that and did, currents of suffrage and feminism were in the air by then, but the baseline was still dependency on men. Olenka does not seem to push against it—except, perhaps, in a passive-aggressive way—but rather to accept it whole-heartedly. She gives herself entirely to her men. "You darling!" they say. Later in the story, when she is much older and maternal instincts have taken hold, it's a boy. All things must pass, as our strange darling Olenka learns well. The pathos of her emptiness is drawn to a tee.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Vast of Night (2019)

This endearing curiosity, which debuted at Sundance nearly two years ago and is a first effort by director, cowriter, and editor Andrew Patterson, probably needs some disclaimers to set expectations right. It contains plucky teens with a decidedly Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys vibe in a 1950s small town America trying to unravel a mystery involving UFOs. It opens and closes as a parody of The Twilight Zone¬—in the end, I took this odd frame as evidence of Patterson's ambitions to create his own franchise, which by this evidence I can only support. More than Rod Serling, The Vast of Night reminded me of a semi-obscure 2008 movie, Pontypool. They are both almost theatrical, within the relatively confined spaces of isolated radio broadcasting studios and a high-concept mystery from without, but closing in. The Vast of Night breaks rules at will but always seems to work. For example, sometimes, when people are telling stories (telling stories is ultimately the essence of the picture), visuals drop away entirely into a mostly black screen and we are simply listening to a voice in the dark. So intensely are these stories told we almost don't notice—indeed, it's some relief to have no visual distractions, the better to fill in and expand into the stories. At other times the picture shrinks and takes the shape of a TV screen. The images have a blue cast and are staticky and snowy the way TVs in the '50s could be. Though it is a movie of storytelling, like scary stories told around campfires, really there are only two long ones. But they are doozies. One is told by a late-night listener calling in to the radio station. He identifies himself as Billy (Bruce Davis, purely a voice performance). He claims to have participated in secret Area 51 types of government projects. The other is told by an old woman in her home, Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), who appears to be addled. Not exactly to us—we know by that point what kind of movie we're looking at, so we are more willing to give her bizarre story and conclusions more credence. But to the plucky teens hearing her out she is merely deranged. These teens—Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz)—may yet end up as a couple but they are not all the way there yet, and their connection is mostly cerebral but fruitful. They work well together. From The Twilight Zone to H.P. Lovecraft (the title serves as proximate homage) by way of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—which is the last time I saw such a stately awe-inspiring UFO in a movie—and then all the way back again in a tidy hour and a half. It's impressive—worth a look.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Tropic Moon (1933)

My first venture into the work of the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon turned out not to be a detective novel at all, but rather one of his self-described roman durs, or "hard novels." And it is indeed quite hard, in terms of life conditions, with a colonial setting reminiscent by turns of Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, and The Sheltering Sky—arguably even "harder" than any of them, flat, brutal, and so compact it is always directly to the point. The literal translation of Simenon's title, Coup de Lune, is "moon burn" or "moon stroke," which are more apt. Joseph Timar is a young Frenchman, about 23, who travels to Libreville, Gabon, in Africa, on the promise of work through his connected uncle. Once there he finds the job with a logging concern is not available exactly because the man presently holding the position has promised to shoot any replacement who shows up to try to take it away from him. Timar doesn't know what to do about it so he hangs around the hotel drinking a lot and eventually starts having sex with the hotelkeeper's wife. Apparently everyone around there has her on the regular. Then she shoots a native and all the troubles turn in a new direction. In fact, there's no end to troubles in this very short and impressive novel. In his introduction to the 2005 edition (ridiculously overpriced at the moment, sorry to say), Norman Rush discusses how Simenon was more interested in the damaging effects of colonialism on conquering oppressors. All that privilege is turning these whites into monsters, Timar absolutely not excepted, though he causes more the kinds of problems we see from bumbling well-meaning nice guys. Whites are a tiny minority in Libreville. At a certain level they have to stick together. Africans are most often "a black," and just in that way Simenon shows how deeply the dehumanization has hold. Everyone here is pretty much fucked up, much of it racism and other side effects of colonialism, and things proceed from there. I had not realized before how prolific Simenon was, a member of the sparsely populated 500-novel club with Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard (I had actually not realized it about Hubbard either). The structure of Tropic Moon and the way it moves do feel as though written by someone who is comfortable writing novels, however short it might be, well under 200 pages. The composer Joseph Haydn wrote short symphonies too, but he wrote 106 of them, compared to Beethoven's nine long. All the ones I've heard are polished and satisfying. Just so, Simenon mixes and chooses and emphasizes his elements to best effect. Really great—can't wait to try another.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Bells (1979)

[Early cuts here and here.]

More than 40 years later (I happened to pick it up the day it came out), I still can't make up my mind about this curious Lou Reed album, poised before one of his best solo periods. Sometimes it feels like a brilliant experiment I can't quite fathom. Sometimes it feels like outtakes from the previous year's Street Hassle. It carries on with the "binaural" production strategy from that album, with Reed taking the sole formal producer credit this time. But the sound is lumbering and muddy, like someone spilled syrup on it. Too late I learned the supposed way to listen is on headphones, which I don't do anymore and never thought to try with this. Reed's vocals are often pitched at hysterical levels, distractingly weird, and out of step with the lyrics. Lester Bangs in Rolling Stone cobbled together a case for The Bells as a return to Velvet Underground form and Robert Christgau in the Village Voice gave it an amiable B+, but the folks throwing up reviews over at Amazon are closer to my own take for once (though I will say I like the album more than many of them). "Families" drew me in first and most enduringly with its tale of nuclear family heartache but sadly I have about used it up by now. The album kicks off pretty well with "Stupid Man"—neglectful father with regrets—though it is hampered by Reed's vocal, which sounds like a coke jag. "Disco Mystic" follows. It is neither hostile to disco nor actually disco, coming on with a walloping attack, pepper pot sax, and drowned "disco mystic" quasi-chant.

I start to lose attention with "I Want to Boogie With You," in which boogieing has never sounded so lackluster yet strangely desperate. The star of this album could well be saxophonist Marty Fogel, although on "Boogie" he sounds more like an SNL session guy. "City Lights" is a pleasant ditty that appears to be about the Chaplin movie, or maybe just Chaplin himself, or possibly something else altogether—it's cryptic. (Still, if it inspires anyone to see City Lights it has done its work. I recommend you look into it immediately.) "All Through the Night" reprises the same party background effects (with possibly the same exact recording) as "Kicks" on Coney Island Baby. It's convincing as a portrait of a New York party in the '70s but Jesus Christ Reed himself already did it. Maybe the most apt comparison I found for The Bells was to Iggy Pop's The Idiot, which is similarly out of character for its artist, yet recognizably him, and much adored among a certain slice of the dedicated fans. For me, I've always been a Lust for Life partisan for Iggy in that period, and I like Street Hassle a lot more than The Bells—for the title suite alone, even if the rest of the album veers toward the weak. The problem, as M. Salmestrelli argued it in 2013 on Amazon, and I think I agree, is that it just wasn't a good period for Reed. "Lou Reed was in a very bad state by the tail end of the 70's and his music reflected it," he writes. "Aside from Metal Machine Music, the live Take No Prisoners, Growing Up In Public and Rock N Roll Heart are the worst albums in Lou Reed's career." Of course I don't agree entirely—I'm one who likes MMM and I think 1974's Sally Can't Dance (not to mention Mistrial if we're looking beyond the '70s) belongs with his worst. I will probably be puzzling out The Bells for the rest of my life. To start, why that title?

Friday, November 20, 2020

Mean Streets (1973)

USA, 112 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin
Photography: Kent L. Wakeford
Music: Martin Scorsese's vinyl collection
Editor: Sidney Levin
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson, Richard Romanus, David Proval, Cesare Danova, David Carradine, Robert Carradine

Mean Streets is a landmark film in many ways, big and small—a powerful early picture by director and cowriter Martin Scorsese, a tale of New York street life and low-level gangsters, a sneaky coiling script, and a certain model of early jukebox movie, rolling out yet another way to do it, with The Graduate, Easy Rider, and American Graffiti advancing their own theories on the matter. And it may have been harder for me to see earlier through the welter of noise and violence, but Mean Streets is also the work of a self-conscious student of film, with self-conscious inflections as it barrels along toward the work of Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Francois Truffaut.

Mean Streets opens on a black screen and Harvey Keitel murmuring about sin and salvation (two years later Patti Smith would turn it upside down with "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine" on her cover of "Gloria"). Then the drum hits and kicks from the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" go off and the song blares in all majesty for the titles, playing loud. Turn it up anyway—it's still one of the most inspired and thrilling mashups of song and images ever stitched together, and it's followed not long after with a red-light barroom scene to the tune of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" that's not far behind. There are other pop music high points like these (and some opera too)—for me, notably, "Rubber Biscuit"—but within 10 minutes Mean Streets already felt vastly different from anything I'd seen before.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

"Lazarus" (1906)

The story of Lazarus as told by the Russian writer Leonid Andreyev in the 20th century is great. It asks an obvious question no one ever seems to ask: How did the rest of his life go for Lazarus after Jesus brought him back from the dead? No doubt it was a hand-slapping moment of jubilation for Jesus and his followers and the crowd. But what about the guy stumbling out of the tomb? I think we have always presumed he would be a grateful, joyful disciple in waiting, but this story sees it in a more believable way. He is bewildered and haunted. He still bears the marks of a corpse—his face and hands are "cadaverously" blue, his belly distended ("one sensed the presence of the rank liquid of decomposition"). At gatherings, people always ask him what it's like to be dead but he never answers. He doesn't say very much in general. Before long, he's kind of unpopular, and avoided, though he's also a celebrity or at least a well-known freak. Later in the story, he is sent for by Augustus Caesar and visits Rome. He has something of a strange power, which is that anyone who looks into his eyes is permanently depressed and filled with despair. A newlywed couple he meets, for example, remain in love and stay together but are never happy again in their lives. Accordingly, in the Roman fashion, Augustus has his eyes put out and Lazarus spends the rest of his life blind. His shabby treatment, the shunning and cruelty, are nothing particularly insightful for students of human psychology, but I am stopped by this picture of Lazarus himself. He is disturbingly unforgettable, and raises many questions. Is the afterlife so terrible? What did he see? What does he know? Is it just black nothingness after all? But doesn't his resurrection itself put the lie to that? We feel certain whatever Lazarus experienced explains his psychological collapse, which is contagious as noted. It's not just eye contact. You get a hit of this despair reading the story too. It's remarkable. There's a recurring and virtually cinematic image of him as a dark silhouette against a giant red setting sun on the horizon, which he walks toward every evening. The story follows him all the way to his second death, which is anonymous and obscure. "And it came to pass that once he went out and did not come back"—nice biblical cadence there, at least partly the uncredited translator in my Big Book of Masters product. Everyone knows about the resurrection of Lazarus and no one knows anything about his second death—he disappears from the Book of John after Jesus' big mic drop, and remembering also that John is the most fanciful gospel and the only one with the story. In some ways this story looks forward to and connects quite neatly with Stephen King's novel Pet Sematary and it even looks forward to zombies a little too. Powerful story—a great one.

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

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Roughing It (1872)

I haven't read widely in travel literature but I generally enjoy Mark Twain's forays into it. Though he can bog down in description when he huffs up too hard, he usually redeems himself with anecdotes and an easygoing rambling style—I like the rambling style, on balance. His sentences threaten to turn into mush sometimes with an excess of words, but he maintains a certain dry tone that makes the jokes work, sneaking up on you in the earnestness of their exaggerations: "The simple child of nature, yielding momentarily to sin when sorely tempted, acknowledged his error when calm reflection had shown it to him, and came forward with noble frankness and offered up his grandmother as an atoning sacrifice," and so forth. In Roughing It, Twain takes a stagecoach in about 1861 out of Missouri and into the North American Wild West. He spends a good deal of time traveling and finally lands in Nevada in the midst of mining boom times. Eventually he makes his way to San Francisco and, from there by ship, to Hawaii, then called the Sandwich Islands. In light of renewed activity in recent years, it was interesting to read his reports of Kilauea, reminiscent for how striking across time it is of the account by Lewis and Clark of Mt. St. Helens. But Hawaii is well the dullest part of the book, with long passages of description. Much better are the sections on Nevada, where the economic mania looks a lot like our own booms and busts, built around feverish speculation. The opening sections are also fine—it's startling to see the American West without a railroad and with quite hostile Indians to contend with, and no shortage of white miscreants either. Horses were the only way to make the trip—or walking. Twain also spends some time in Salt Lake City and on Mormons, which is often interesting though his biases color the accounts. His own judgment seems to have been set by the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the story of which he includes in an appendix. His encounters with Native Americans, especially the aboriginals in Hawaii, are a typical 19th-century white man's response of reflexive loathing. He can speak of them in such belittling terms that it is shocking and distracting, which is unfortunate. He's much better on the foolishness of white people, including, often, himself. Good one, mostly.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Top 40

1. Planet 1999, "Party" (2:50)
2. Comet Is Coming, "Blood of the Past" (8:15)
3. YOB, "Our Raw Heart" (14:23, 2018)
4. Mud, "Tiger Feet" (3:50, 1974)
5. Jimmy Reed, "Little Rain" (3:07, 1956)
6. Fountains of Wayne, "Hackensack" (3:00, 2003)
7. Pussy Riot, "Make America Great Again" (3:15, 2016)
8. Rage Against the Machine, "Bulls on Parade" (3:49, 1996)
9. Jessie Ware, "Spotlight (Icarus Remix)" (3:58)
10. Noga Erez, "Views" (2:45)
11. Lil Yachty, "Oprah's Bank Account" (3:25)
12. Run the Jewels feat. Pharrell Williams & Zack de la Rocha, "JU$T" (3:25)
13. Penny & the Quarters, "You and Me" (2:41, ca. early 1970s)
14. Khruangbin, "Time (You and I)" (5:42)
15. H.E.R., "I Can't Breathe" (4:47)
16. Joe Bataan, "Mestizo (12" Mix)" (6:45, 1980)
17. Ryuichi Sakamoto, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" (4:40, 1983)
18. Jay Electronica, "Ghost of Soulja Slim" (4:26)
19. Glen Washington, "One of These Days" (3:21, 2000)
20. Grace Jones, "Do or Die" (6:42, 1978)
21. Surfaces, "Sunday Best" (2:40)
22. Benee, "Supalonely (Clean Version)" (3:43)
23. Lil Mosey, "Blueberry Faygo" (2:42)
24. Pop Smoke, "The Woo" (3:21)
25. Erasure, "Nerves of Steel" (4:13)
26. Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion, "WAP" (3:07)
27. Rolling Stones, "Scarlet" (3:44)
28. Sufjan Stevens, "Video Games" (4:15)
29. Perfume Genius, "Your Body Changes Everything" (4:13)
30. Psychedelic Furs, "The Boy That Invented Rock & Roll" (3:37)
31. Killing Joke, "Requiem" (3:45, 1980)
32. Killing Joke, "Tomorrow's World" (5:28, 1980)
33. Killing Joke, "The Wait" (3:41, 1980)
34. Killing Joke, "Complications" (3:06, 1980)
35. Pharrell Williams feat. Jay-Z, "Entrepreneur" (4:18)
36. Phoenix, "Identical" (3:13)
37. Father John Misty, "To R." (4:26)
38. Lil Wayne, "Funeral" (3:14)
39. Public Enemy, "State of the Union (STFU) (Main)" (2:58)
40. Saweetie, "Tap In" (2:19)

thnx: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, etc. ... 5, Keith Richards, Life ... 38, foolish endorsement notwithstanding

Monday, November 09, 2020

Leave No Trace (2018)

Perhaps because it's set in Portland, or more generally the Pacific Northwest, Leave No Trace reminded me a lot of the movies Wendy and Lucy and Lean on Pete. They all look to the economic desperation in the underbelly of modern neoliberal America and take on the corrosive results with small-bore focus. Director and cowriter Debra Granik gave us Winter's Bone 10 years ago and in many ways Leave No Trace makes it a matched set. When we first see them, Will (Ben Foster) and Will's 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are living comfortably in a patch of old-growth forest. We think they are in isolated deep woods as they forage and start campfires with flint and steel, discuss points of tracking and covering tracks. But when they head in to Portland for supplies we see they're not far from a huge freeway system, living in a public park. That's the reason they want to cover their tracks. We learn by pieces that Will is a Bush/Cheney wars veteran suffering from PTSD. He wants to have as little as possible to do with human civilization, as he raises Tom, teaches her to read as well as to possess survival skills. Above all, mainly, he keeps to himself, a brooding and obviously pained if kindly figure. Early in the picture, however, they are discovered by park police and the downward spiral into the system begins. Marshaled in, they find themselves living in government low-income housing, required to meet certain conditions ("I've got some paperwork for you," is a regular refrain from the social worker assigned to them). Will takes a job working on a Christmas tree farm as Tom starts to discover that civilization might not be so bad. But before long Will packs them up and they are gone again. The picture is largely spent watching Will desperately try to get away and find his peace in isolation even as Tom more and more desperately wants to stay put, practically anywhere will do. She looks to the kindness of others, which she sees can be real. Although it's not particularly clear for some time, Leave No Trace is ultimately a coming-of-age story about Tom. For that matter, Wendy and Lucy and Lean on Pete are coming-of-age stories too. And Winter's Bone. If anything, Granik has gotten even better at this.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

The Plague (1947)

I went back to reread Albert Camus's The Plague about a year before the covid-19 pandemic started and it has turned out to be even more eerily accurate than I suspected, down to small details of bizarre behavior. It's so convincing I had to keep checking Wikipedia to make sure there really had not been a bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria, in the 1940s. Camus based The Plague in part on an outbreak of cholera in Oran in 1849 but—no doubt because we seem to be so forgetful as a species about the way epidemics and pandemics work—people have preferred to read into it things like an allegory of the French resistance to Nazi occupation. I guess that makes sense, certainly given our collective amnesia about epidemiology. It also reminded me of the quiet way the stories in the Martin Beck series of police procedurals go down—nothing to see here, just professionals working on solving a public health problem. In a more general way, its tone of glum plodding realism also seemed like a Jean-Pierre Melville movie. The Plague is restrained and polished, letting the details tell the story, for example that the epidemic virtually starts with a sudden and massive die-off of the city's rat population. The main character is Dr. Bernard Rieux, a physician in his 30s. It feels like a police procedural because another main character is the state, which sets curfews, seals borders, maintains quarantine rules, cares for the sick, disposes of the dead. And an epidemic is much like crime—obeying its own rules and patterns, random, cruel, and lethal. Rieux has a small circle of friends he sees during the epidemic. He is separated from his wife because she is sick herself (not with plague) and has lived in a sanatorium since before the epidemic. Rieux is confined to living in the city, which no one is allowed to leave. The Plague is a great novel, straightforward and moving, compressed and to the point—in the category of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I can see now how accurate it is about the ways these ordinary people resist and deny the reality, on the one hand, and can also rise to the occasion on the other. At the time I reread it, these extraordinary circumstances still seemed exotic. It reminded me more than anything of Camus's novel The Stranger and also the work of Paul Bowles. Now I see better there is nothing flashy or overly cerebral about The Plague. It has a terrible story to tell—the one, in fact, we have struggled through most of this year—and it simply tells it. It has statistical proportion. In a metropolitan area of 200,000, where hundreds are dying every week, any single individual's actual exposure to the experience of the worst still feels limited. As now, people feel isolated and distant from the disease until they are plunged right into it. When we finally see a death (after only very quick snapshots of the grotesque, such as the rats) it's powerful and moving. There's something about The Plague that almost feels sacred. At the very least, it's essential 2020 reading.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, November 06, 2020

A Day in the Country (1946)

Partie de campagne, France, 40 minutes
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Jean Renoir, Guy de Maupassant
Photography: Claude Renoir
Music: Joseph Kosma
Editors: Marinette Cadix, Marguerite Renoir
Cast: Sylvia Bataille, Georges D'Arnoux, Jane Marken, Paul Temps, Jean Renoir

Here's another one of those highly touted masterpieces of cinema with a confusing origin story and various uncertainties of provenance. It was shot in 1936, interrupted for unspecified reasons (something to do with the weather is the best I've been able to figure), and then assembled from the parts in 1946 by producer Pierre Braunberger for release in 1950. Sources like Wikipedia and IMDb treat it specifically as unfinished. Director and screenwriter Jean Renoir was working in the US in 1946 and apparently had nothing to do with it at that point, nor seemed to have any objections to its being finished or to the result. I have to say it doesn't feel particularly unfinished to me—maybe that's some happy accident of circumstances. A Day in the Country is based on a short story by Maupassant and it's true that some crucial scenes near the end are not in the film or at best are arguably undeveloped in a picture otherwise faithful to the story. But I'm not sure how much longer you could make this movie from here. A good deal of its charm is its brevity and its high-spirited freedom to dart among the characters, landing on them like butterflies and flying away again, sketching with quick sure strokes. It's the story of a middle-class Parisian shopkeeper who takes his family on a picnic outing to the French countryside on a summer day. His wife is a bit of a flirtatious goose. Their teenage daughter appears wise beyond her years. They meet a couple of men who attempt to seduce them, in a frothy lighthearted French sort of way. Later it turns out to be a moment of shared separate epiphany for the daughter and her beau of that day, one they can never return to, as the daughter by then has made a safe and conventional but likely unpassionate marriage. It's true the picture is a bit abrupt at the finish, where scenes are most felt to be missing, though it can easily be taken as 1930s decorum on sexual matters. Certainly the encounter at the very end is more ridiculously convenient than not. But Maupassant's story is also abrupt and convenient, and it's easy to lay off any complaints on him and his story. The movie thus manages to have it both ways, faithful to the defects in a way yet delivering all the pleasures of a good story well done, with pungent detail, memorable glimpses into characters at crossroads, a sense of peering in at secret lives momentarily revealed, and epiphanies arriving on the regular. I'm not always that sure myself about either Maupassant or Renoir, maybe I have some complex about French culture, but this short piece glows with charm, confidence, humanity, beauty, foolishness, and plain fun. It is itself a little picnic on a summer day.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

"The Familiar" (1872)

This Sheridan Le Fanu story appeared over 20 years earlier in another version called "The Watcher." As the new title, "The Familiar," suggests with perhaps even more force, it's the story of a demon that attaches to and torments a single person, to the death. I've been characterizing stories structured like this one (and others by Le Fanu as well as many others) as inspired by the Sherlock Holmes model, with a rational investigator grounding and explaining fantastic events. But obviously Le Fanu predates Arthur Conan Doyle's tales by decades. This should remind us once again that it was Edgar Allan Poe, with Auguste Dupin in the 1841 story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," who basically invented the rational investigator and detective fiction, though Doyle certainly gets the credit for perfecting it in certain ways. But Le Fanu chipped in his advancements too, working out the details and systematizing many aspects of it in the horror vein. The device works well with horror—H.P. Lovecraft used it all the time—and Le Fanu uses it well. "The Familiar" has predictable problems with antiquated language, and generally is a little too long, but it is often effective (the technical term for "scary"), proceeding like a true-crime account. It starts with an experience that is common. Walking alone at night, you often think you hear footsteps besides your own, as if someone is following or approaching from behind. The next day our man has another strange experience, one of the story's high points, with an anonymous note in the morning's mail. It's in an unfamiliar hand and makes sinister reference to the experience of the night before. Mostly the story follows along from there with the haunted man's attempts to cope, his increasing agitation, and a few more tricks up its sleeve as well. At the end there is some explanation of the demon's grievance—it's not unjustified. This story has fundamental points of horror. This type of harassment by demon is as lively as ever, for example, in the 2007 movie Paranormal Activity, existing somewhere in between demonic possession and ghost or haunted house. It's closest to a ghost story, but this ghost travels with a specific person. Our haunted man eventually sees a diminutive but ferocious figure wearing red, something like the dwarf in the movie Don't Look Now. Daphne du Maurier wrote the long story that movie is based on and almost certainly she was aware of Le Fanu. She came much later, of course, but Le Fanu was fashionable in the 19th century, counting Henry James and M.R. James among his most admiring readers. Even if your name isn't James you might like it too.

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

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Under the Volcano (1947)

I'm aware how appreciated and respected Malcolm Lowry's novel is. It's not only high on the Modern Library list of best 20th-century novels (#11), and Larry McAffery's too (#14), but I've also personally heard good word of mouth on it from friends. But, lord, it's not an easy one for me. I gave up on it early 10 or 15 years ago and then got through it on a second attempt recently. I love the swooning, surging language, and the use of Mexico and the volcanoes is effective too. I'm more ambivalent about the swirling way the plot unfolds. On the whole it requires study aids. For example, it's not only set on a single day but also, according to Wikipedia, a specific date in history—November 2, 1938 (82 years ago tomorrow, for those keeping track)—which I don't believe is ever actually mentioned in the novel, nor particularly means anything of itself, other than being the last day of the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico (and the birthdate of Pat Buchanan). Whoever figured it out had to spend time parsing the clues, for which I'm grateful as it does clear up much of the talk about the Spanish Civil War, Nazis, and so on. I only wish I had checked in with Wikipedia sooner than the 90% point I reached when I did. Under the Volcano is a lot of work, in other words, and I'm not convinced it's worth it, though another reading could well open it up. But, lord, another reading. Geoffrey Firmin is our main man, which is not evident until midway through the second chapter (and these chapters are long). His quasi-estranged wife Yvonne is important too, and his younger brother Hugh. Yvonne has been unfaithful in the past (we glean slowly) but with whom is never entirely clear. Hugh seems likely. Some vivid scenes come swimming up out of this, such as a bullfight and strange incidents on a bus. There is a wonderful miasma of doom over it all. It ranges into Spanish language often and I was grateful for kindle translations. There's also French and German as well (again grateful). In that way it reminded me a little of the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. On one level it's an annoying kind of cosmopolitanism, yet it's also an accurate recounting of experience in a place like Mexico on a day like November 2, 1938. I was often put off by the excessive drinking too, I must admit. In the early chapters Firmin, known as "the Consul" for his minor political position, thinks he is drinking strychnine (shades of the movie The Master!), and all through drinks mescal. In fact, Yvonne, Hugh, and a lot of others are worried about his drinking. Am I giving something away if I mention things never get better for Firmin or anyone? Actually, that's part of the study guide too.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Don't Look Now (1973)

UK / Italy, 110 minutes
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Writers: Daphne Du Maurier, Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
Photography: Anthony B. Richmond
Music: Pino Donaggio
Editor: Graeme Clifford
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Massimo Serato, Adelina Poerio, Renato Scarpa

The Daphne Du Maurier story on which this Nicolas Roeg picture is based was published originally in Ladies' Home Journal, which seems strangely appropriate to this enigmatic piece of gothic horror. Du Maurier, author of the novel Rebecca and the short story "The Birds" (Alfred Hitchcock obviously a long-time fan), as well as the peculiar time travel science fiction novel The House on the Strand (in which the journeys are induced with chemicals), remains her own intriguing problem. But glossy women's magazine fiction is just right for this deceptively low-key picture, set in Venice, where a sad young bourgeois couple repairs to recover from the unexpected death of their daughter Christine, who may or may not have died for their sins.

In tone, Don't Look Now veers from half-generic travelogue piece to soft-core pornography—persistent rumors claim that a tender scene of John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) making love actually involved Sutherland and Christie having sex on the set. Sounds right anyway for the early '70s, for director Nicola Roeg, for the soapy score by Pino Donaggio, and for all involved. John and Laura are also art historian restoration experts and it is ostensibly their work that takes them to Venice. John is bringing an ancient church back to glory. But Venice is more than just a convenience for making your movie look classy. Anytime you want a story that suggests drowning in repressed emotion, experts agree you should set it in Venice. See also the long story "The Aspern Papers" by Henry James, or Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr.Ripley, or many other examples.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

"The Lottery" (1948)

At this point, Shirley Jackson's story is your basic stone classic—of horror, of short stories, of midcentury literature. For spoiler-phobes who haven't read it, I'm talking about everything here. According to legend (and Wikipedia), no story or article published by The New Yorker has ever received as much mail from readers—some concerned the story was factual reporting, some thinking it was reporting and wanting to know where they could go watch. But most, quite reasonably, inquiring into just what in the hell was going on around here. By the methodology used at Make Lists, Not War, "The Lottery" is the highest-ranked short story of all time, tied with D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner" (which, in case anyone was wondering, is the Lawrence story misplaced in The Dark Descent). It's not hard to see the reason for the brouhaha. The story is crisp, straightforward, and quick to the point, yet bottomlessly mysterious, with no explanations. In fact, a good many of those letters to The New Yorker and/or Jackson were exactly requests for explanations. To me, its popularity (or notoriety) is equally surprising and mysterious, emerging sideways out of the horror genre (The New Yorker known for many things but horror not one of them), banked as it is with such superhot stores of blind cruel rage they are practically explanatory in themselves. I get a similar charge from the more current Purge franchise of movies, which also rely on a similar outrageous yet believable enough ritual. Further enlightenment on what this story unleashes may also be found in the end of director Peter Jackson's movie from the '90s, Heavenly Creatures.

The explanation, which ironically satisfies no one, is catharsis. Let's think about that one because it's one of those things that always seems fuzzy, even at dictionary level. Merriam-Webster, for example, puts "catharsis" squarely in the realm of art, with its 1-a definition—"purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art"—but I think the Oxford spin actually applies more directly here: "the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions." That seems to be an explanation, at least for the lottery within Jackson's story. But I'm not sure it explains the story "The Lottery" itself, why it exists in the world or its effect on us. As with The Purge—and resembling Scott McCloud's space between the panels in comic book narrative—a lot of the power of "The Lottery" is derived from trying to imagine how we got from here to there. Why June 27, for example? What does that commemorate? We can guess Jackson's intent as the writer, using the solstice associations of that time of year with ancient rituals, sacrifices, and festivals. The "purge" in the movies is set similarly on the spring equinox, the night of March 21. Both imply surging life and bloody rites of spring. But how, within the story of "The Lottery," did this shockingly barbaric ritual—stoning!—come to pass? No explanation. Why do they do it at all? No explanation. The Purge movies offer some extreme right-wing Christian patriot mumbo-jumbo justifications, which may not weaken them as a whole but plainly is where they depart from "The Lottery."

"The Lottery" makes you answer those questions for yourself, or give up and write them down and mail them to The New Yorker or Jackson (who died in 1965 at the age of 48). The story is full of great effects, mostly working like some sunny day afternoon John Cheever story. This so-called village could as well have been named Any Town Suburb USA, it is intended to be so white-majority generic, with its families named Watson and Martin and Delacroix and Hutchinson. The people are brave and everyone is kind. The ritual has been deeply impressed into the fabric of their lives. It simply exists without question. As with public exhibitions of lynchings and executions in the US past, a number of sadists may be seen nibbling at the edges, there for the sick kicks. Mostly it seems to be ordinary people on a busy weekend but the details can be telling. Much is revealed in small actions by these people, e.g., Mrs. Delacroix, who lifts "a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands." After the victim has been selected, in a murky process, the official in charge lets the townspeople loose with a word: "All right, folks. Let's finish quickly." It is a nearly perfect balance between a suburban daydream and a sickeningly barbaric violation. Stoning is perfect. Hanging would not be enough. Crucifixion would be too much. Jackson's precision is amazing at every point of this story. We are shocked, benumbed, that its events are even happening at all, so swiftly do they come.

Shirley Jackson, Novels and Stories (Library of America)
Read story online.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

"A Doctor's Visit" (1898)

In many ways this story by Anton Chekhov is another that speaks to the gathering social unrest in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. The doctor of the title, a young man still in the early part of his career, is called to the house of a factory owner to attend the family's only daughter, who is 20 and showing symptoms of heart problems. The family patriarch is dead, but the estate is vast, with the factory itself and accommodations for the workers as well as the family mansion, which now houses only the widow, the daughter, and a governess. The story has a good deal of social awareness, as the doctor observes the poor living conditions of the workers, the constant din of the factory, how much the governess enjoys the fine dining and living conditions and how it contrasts with the lives of everyone else there. But the story seems most alive when it involves the doctor's interactions with the young heiress, Liza. It appears the heart malady is more the result of anxiety, with some suggestion that she is suffering from the disparity of her wealthy life contrasted with all around her (the social focus again, with Communist revolution less than 20 years away, though Chekhov did not know it). There seems to be a connection, perhaps even love, between the doctor and Liza, though it is noted the doctor has a family waiting for him at home. The story could be the beginning of a novel about their romance, so likely does it feel. At first the doctor dismisses Liza (and her mother) as hysterical, but then a second impression of Liza overtakes that: "He saw a soft, suffering expression which was intelligent and touching: she seemed to him altogether graceful, feminine, and simple; and he longed to soothe her, not with drugs, not with advice, but with simple, kindly words." This happens early and immediately charges the story with a tension that is at odds with the subtle critique of income distribution. These two elements continually pull at one another even as Liza and the doctor make their tentative connections. The doctor is implored to stay overnight even though it is inconvenient for him. I have the impression it's his budding interest in Liza that ultimately convinces him to stay. As he broods and frets about her and the troubling factory scene, unable to sleep, the essential tension always remains central: "One is shy of asking men under sentence what they have been sentenced for," he thinks; "and in the same way it is awkward to ask very rich people what they want so much money for, why they make such a poor use of their wealth, why they don't give it up, even when they see in it their unhappiness." For a story that doesn't appear to have that much going on, there is a fair amount going on here.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Friday, October 23, 2020

The Graduate (1967)

USA, 106 minutes
Director: Mike Nichols
Writers: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry, Charles Webb
Photography: Robert Surtees
Music: Simon & Garfunkel
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Buck Henry, Norman Fell, Alice Ghostley, Richard Dreyfuss, Mike Farrell, Elaine May

The Graduate was a hit movie everyone conspired to designate a symbol of its unique times, released at Christmas following the Summer of Love and heading into 1968. But for a movie that appeared to have a lot of "relevance," that prized quality of the '60s, The Graduate makes a lot of basic mistakes. It casts Dustin Hoffman as a California kid but he barely has a speck of California in him. Vietnam and a civil rights struggle do not exist in this movie, though the sexual revolution is covered quite adequately (a religious relative of mine, in California no less, once turned off the TV in outrage because this movie was playing). And the basic premise—a young man falls in love with the daughter of the married woman who gives him his sexual awakening—is fairly distasteful when looked at it in isolation, like some inverted, degraded version of a classical Greek drama. It's not tragic, it's tawdry.

But I'm not sure these filmmakers, notably director Mike Nichols, really made mistakes because, after all, it's a comedy they set out to make here. It's absurd like comedy in fundamental ways. Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) may be going through coming-of-age rites of passage but he never seems to learn the first name of his paramour (Anne Bancroft), calling her "Mrs. Robinson" right through to the end, even when they are in bed together. His parents' idea of a gift for his 21st birthday is a scuba diving outfit ... to use in the swimming pool. And Ben is not even capable of getting a room at a hotel without going through ridiculous slapstick-level gyrations. His luggage is in the car but he doesn't need a porter. It's only a toothbrush. My guess is it's primarily the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack that confuses people.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1819)

Washington Irving's chestnut came out the year after Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was first published. That's some bona fides. It's old and it prefigures many things. I was exposed to it somewhere along the line—maybe I read it in junior high or saw TV productions or heard readings. Something. Whatever, I feel like I've always known it even if I don't always remember the details. This American brand of horror—Nathaniel Hawthorne provides more examples, though Edgar Allan Poe does not entirely fit the profile—is rooted in Puritanism, of course. In 1819, Puritanism might have been two centuries old, but it was still callow in comparison to the millennium-plus age of Europe's Roman Catholic Church, whose ancient corruption alone is a much better underpinning for ghosts, blasted spiritual lives, violence, and/or remorse. Let's not forget the druids and barbarian tribes and such either. Horror is one case where I generally favor the Europeans. Maybe because I was raised on it, or in it, American horror stories like this one too often feel close to yippee ki-yay tall tales folklore and myth, campfire ghost stories that rely too much on some cheap shock gimmick like the teller whispering and then standing up suddenly and howling. Who wouldn't get a jolt of adrenaline? But that's not really the point, is it? Here the one thing, the only thing, is headlessness (as opposed to heedlessness, though that is arguably part of the point too). "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" manages a few effective paragraphs near the end, with the Headless Horseman seemingly in hot pursuit of the hapless Ichabod Crane. But otherwise it is mostly endless setup and description at deadly plodding pace. The ending is terrible, and distinctly American as well. In fact, Irving often looks forward to Mark Twain here in the gentle notes of deadpan skepticism. But "Sleepy Hollow"—it was all a practical joke? Everything of weird interest is drained by that. Plus you hate to see a bully win (reminding me once again, as compulsive aside, that Donald Trump is a very old American story). Irving's language is antiquated too, as long as I'm complaining—I object to the frequency of "peradventure." Is this story really beloved by children? Is it beloved by anyone? It's not particularly beloved by me. I know it's a certain icon of American Halloween imagery and ritual but what does that mean? Irving's "Tom Walker and the Devil" is much better in every way, as I recall, though it is also dogged by problems of American horror. "Sleepy Hollow" is less overtly Puritan, set in the times following the American Revolutionary War, when the general project at hand was to build out the structures of a democratic society, in which case superstition necessarily needs to be treated skeptically. But the story often seems to have something less than moral clarity, with its implicit suggestion that bullies gain favor and power and then, in the natural order of things, banish intellectuals and teachers. Or maybe just, in my contrarian way, I don't like the story because everyone else seems to, especially at this time of year.

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

Monday, October 19, 2020

Shirley (2020)

All the grains of salt: I don't know much about Shirley Jackson beyond reading a few of her stories, and I know even less about director Josephine Decker. Decker's fifth or so feature (she's also done documentaries, shorts, and collaborations) felt to me like classic edgy middlebrow film festival fare, which instantly made me nostalgic for film festivals even though it's only (!) been seven months. Elisabeth Moss is excellent, as she often is, lacerating and scary as a vision of Jackson as an alternating cringing agoraphobe and literary monster (think Dorothy Parker with no filter or social skills). In a way, Jackson is depicted as living inside the story "The Yellow Wallpaper." In another way she is Luella Miller, draining everyone around her. Well, maybe—I know she was a faculty wife. I haven't read the biography by Ruth Franklin nor the novel on which this movie is based by Susan Scarf Merrell. Shirley the movie seemed more to conform to a stereotype of the thunderingly anguished artist typified by Van Gogh sawing off his own ear. And possibly it is so re: Jackson. My favorite part of the movie is the first sequence, when the young woman principal reads "The Lottery" and gets so hot she lures her husband into having sex with her on the train. The young couple is on their way to live with Jackson (Moss) and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlberg), a pompous literary academic at Bennington College. The young couple needs a place to stay and, as it turns out, Shirley is somewhat in need of being cared for. The house needs cleaning too and they could use a cook. Thus our young reader on the train, Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), is transformed into a kind of housemaid with privileges as events transpire. Meanwhile, her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) is trying to make it as a grad student assistant to Stanley. I love that name Fred for this guy. Others have compared Shirley to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and there is indeed some of that here. It reminded me more of High Art, with Rose in the Radha Mitchell role. What it doesn't remind me of is very much that I've read by or know about Shirley Jackson, except in general ways. Perhaps she was a difficult person. The person in this movie certainly is very difficult, and unpleasant. Shirley is set as early as the late '40s and as late as 1964—vaguely, postwar midcentury. Everyone is uptight and stylish in the way of Todd Haynes's 2015 Carol or his 2002 Far From Heaven or the Mad Men TV series. Watching it at home on my computer felt like I'd taken a shot at a film festival film and was liking parts of it but the whole thing was turning out to be a disappointment but in a way that made me wonder if seeing it again, or talking it over with someone, might help me like it better, and hoping the picture I was looking at later that day would be better. I miss film festivals already.