Thursday, January 30, 2020

"The Book" (1930)

Margaret Irwin was primarily a historical novelist but also wrote a couple of fantasy novels and a handful of spooky stories. This is less of a ghost story, as it's usually classified, and more along the lines of demonic possession, with some surprising and effective details. The Corbetts, the featured family—father and mother, two daughters, son, and dog—are like something from a Noel Coward setup. They banter wittily with one another, even the young children, at their ease over breakfast. They are a family of readers. They have a bookcase downstairs jammed with a motley assortment, including some ancient volumes inherited from an uncle. One of them becomes an object of fascination to the head of the household, Mr. Corbett, after a bout of insomnia. The book is written in Latin—hand-printed, in fact, in a precise hand. Mr. Corbett fortifies with his young boy's Latin dictionary and dives in. Groping translation fragments meaning but the text seems to be about matters such as the "trial of a German midwife in 1620 for the murder and dissection of 783 children"—a very large number! As his studies proceed Mr. Corbett, by profession a lawyer, grows aloof and distant from his family. When he notices new text being added to the blank pages at the end of the book, we can see much better than Mr. Corbett that it has taken control of him somehow. Dark thoughts begin to cloud his mind. He finds his children inadequate and dismisses them coldly. He detests his colleagues, relishing the investment tips yielded by the book that suddenly make him rich and successful beyond them. Then the book begins to make strange requests of him, "of a meaningless, childish, yet revolting character, such as might be invented by a decadent imbecile." He soon learns that not doing them, not following these instructions, leads alarmingly quickly to sickening downturns in his fortunes. So he does them. Soon enough it wants him to kill the dog, which has not been reacting well to him lately anyway. Then it wants him to kill one of his children. Obviously, this is not going to end well.

My favorite details here are subtle points, such as the way Mr. Corbett's thinking and attitude shift in small but steady ways, from boisterous and cracking jokes to something darker and more foul. Making a book the haunted object, or possessed by a demon, has many antecedents elsewhere. Lovecraft was working much the same territory at this time with his various holy and unholy texts. It's seen vividly in the Evil Dead movies where the Necronomicon (an invention itself of Lovecraft's) has a rubbery disquieting life all its own. Throw it on the fire! Certain other hallmarks of demonic possession appear in this story too. I've seen them elsewhere but mainly in stories. It's a certain kind of forcing against the will, particularly with text involving religious matters. In this story, for example, when Mr. Corbett attempts to pray, he finds the words coming out in reverse order and he's unable to say them right. In W.F. Harvey's 1928 story "The Beast With Five Fingers," we see a man whose writing hand is capable of recording notes and instructions from the demon for others. In perhaps the most formal version I've seen, Ramsey Campbell's 1976 story "The Words That Count," the first-person narrator makes the first word in every paragraph the Lord's Prayer in reverse word order, starting the story on "Amen to that." It's gimmickry, a pure stunt, and not surprisingly much of it is strained. But seeing the words so arranged, seeing the owner of the hand unmindful of its busy activities, and seeing Mr. Corbett struggle to say his prayers right—somehow it's quite effective.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer

Sunday, January 26, 2020

"Vanka" (1886)

This very short story by Anton Chekhov packs an emotional punch, which is likely as intended, published on Christmas Day in 1886. It's a letter written on Christmas Eve by a 9-year-old boy to his grandfather. The boy, an orphan, has been apprenticed to a shoemaker in Moscow, who may or may not be cruel but certainly he is a disciplinarian and impatient with foolishness. The boy is miserable. He wants out. He wants it so badly you can feel it through the page. As his circumstances and backstory are sketched in, it's evident that won't happen, and also his situation might not be as bad as he thinks. But that won't help him in the weeks and months ahead, because we already know something he doesn't. By addressing it only "To grandfather in the village, Konstantin Makaritch," the letter will never make it to his grandfather. All his hopes enclosed in that letter are in vain, we know even on this Christmas Eve, but the boy will suffer through diminishing hope and a sense of abandonment all winter. It's poignant and well done, and in Russia, according to Wikipedia, it even contributed a figure of speech: "the village, to grandfather" refers to mail sent in such a way that it will never be received. I'm not sure why I have such confidence that the boy will be all right with the shoemaker. A fair number of 19th-century storylines involve the ill treatment of orphaned apprentices. By the boy's account he's not treated that well by the master, but it reads more like junior-high teachers I remember getting impatient with me or others and snapping. A 9-year-old is still a handful. And I feel for this boy. The story reminded me of going to summer camp when I was 11 or 12, which was bad enough, being away from home for nearly two weeks. But then we went on a miserable canoe trip, in the sweltering dog days of August, with portages and other outrageous creature discomforts. I found myself utterly desolate one late night at about 4 a.m., huddled up in a stuffy pup tent with two others. They were sleeping but I could not, had not been able to all night. I crawled out of the humid canvas space thinking I might find relief at last from a nagging constipation, only to find instead a creepy orange-light vibe and all the stall doors removed in the outbuilding bathroom facilities. I felt like I was in hell. The bugs were really bad too and I was afraid of seeing someone at that hour. That's the kind of misery I feel coming from this boy, and I sympathize. But I also know I was back home within days and things were back to normal. For this boy, however that's not what's going to happen. Great story, all done in the boy's voice.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Friday, January 24, 2020

Margaret (2011)

USA, 187 minutes
Director / writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Photography: Ryszard Lenczewski
Music: Nico Muhly
Editors: Mike Fay, Anne McCabe
Cast: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Kenneth Lonergan, Jeannie Berlin, Mark Ruffalo, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matt Damon, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin

Margaret is more than just another chapter in the strange and wide-ranging career of precocious Anna Paquin though it's all of that, perhaps her best performance ever, appearing years late in what became one of those legendary cursed and lost movie projects. Paquin previously showed up as a 10-year-old in The Piano, a fraught tween in Fly Away Home, a jaded college student in her experimental phase in The Squid and the Whale, and Rogue of the X-Men, a superhero who siphons away the powers of others. She always seemed to be playing a lost soul who feels like a mutant outsider, and she is deployed well here at the head of a remarkable class of players collected by director and writer Kenneth Lonergan. The casting, indeed, is one of the strong points in Margaret, a movie with many of them.

Lonergan hasn't made a movie yet that is less than extraordinary, though there are only three of them, with You Can Count on Me (still his best) and Manchester by the Sea. It's not clear exactly why Margaret became one of Hollywood's great lost projects. Mostly shot in 2005, it languished for years in post-production. Lonergan had rights to the final cut, reportedly, but the studio would take nothing over 150 minutes and Lonergan could not get it under three hours. Eventually relations became acrimonious and then there were lawsuits, with the film released in 2011 as a bitter afterthought and to meet legal obligations. It had a brief theatrical run in truncated form (149 minutes, which can still be seen for four bucks on Amazon) and then a bare-bones "extended cut" DVD, bearing the burden of its expectations—and meeting them. But the delays and PR disaster took their toll. Few seem to know that Margaret is actually one of the best American movies of this century so far.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Watchmen, s1 (2019)

I feel dutybound to note that this latest take on the Watchmen comic book franchise continues to screw an original creator, writer Alan Moore, who was promised in the mid-'80s that the rights to it would revert to him when it went out of print. But it turned out to be too successful and never went out of print. DC Comics, honoring the letter rather than the spirit of the agreement, licensed it first about 10 years ago (against Moore's wishes) to a bloated film project headed by director Zack Snyder, who predictably took it way over the top. And DC remains free now to license it again to Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) for this HBO production. Lindelof has obviously been given free range to do whatever he likes with it. Alan Moore has nothing to say and has already washed his hands of it, though his collaborator, illustrator Dave Gibbons, is involved as a producer and consultant. It's no adaptation but starts its first formal season much closer to fan fiction, riffing on the fundamentals and concepts of the original. I'm OK with that in theory because Lindelof brings a lot of obvious affection and some interesting ideas to it, plus he's established as a certain level of TV savant who can do this kind of story. I worry he is in over his head with the heavy racial themes. He has recast at least this first season as a racial drama set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, rooting the story in the historical events of the 1921 Black Wall Street Massacre, nearly a century ago, one of the most violent race riots in US history and an incident still largely whitewashed from general knowledge. I'm worried it will turn out to be more woke puzzle-box than insightful but we'll see. In a general way I was convinced by these episodes when not distracted by sympathies for Moore. It's decades after the original story, more or less in the present time, and, while lots of familiar characters, heroes, and ideas from the graphic novel show up like so much flotsam and easter egg debris, this first season seems to be mainly about rules of the road. The big kahuna as usual remains Dr. Manhattan, the only figure in the whole thing with actual superpowers, who has a strange fate that will obviously play large in the next season and probably across the whole thing. This Watchmen also has a lot of preoccupations with masks and police abuse—police in certain regions (such as Oklahoma) wear masks "for their protection," which seems metaphorically strained to me in the same way that firemen in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 burn books instead of putting out fires. I'm not convinced the arguments in Lindelof's Watchmen for policemen wearing masks make any sense at all or are particularly believable, but they work the point by brute force of how scary it looks actually in operation. With the race themes alone, this Watchmen clearly intends to make itself relevant to present political currents, nor is it oblivious to Donald Trump and Trumpism. Lindelof is capable of good TV and the show could find some good places to go for the next several years or whatever he has in mind. I appreciate some of the high points here—some neat plot twists and a bunch of good performances—but I suspect it's fatally misconceived as a TV series. And, for the record, come what may, I still think Alan Moore deserves better.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

"Paycheck" (1953)

This long story by Philip K. Dick has a kind of fairy tale D&D aspect of quests, where the main character Jennings has multiple tasks to do, puzzles to solve, and dilemmas to resolve. Jennings is an engineer who works on projects so top secret that he must undergo memory wiping after each one. At the end of the latest, following the memory wipe, he finds that he has formally and legally declined payment in favor of an envelope full of trinkets, as he calls them—a code key, a ticket stub, a parcel receipt, etc. Before long he is in trouble with the police for his work on the project. But he can't remember anything about it and they've never heard of memory wiping. Then the trinkets start to come in handy, one at a time. By story's end we're learning of a machine that can see the future, which is how Jennings is ultimately able to save himself. In 2003, John Woo made a movie of it with the same name. It starred Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman, and typically Woo makes the stakes higher. In the movie Jennings is saving the world, has a beautiful faithful girlfriend, and the envelope contains 20 trinkets—or knickknacks, as he calls them in the movie. Don't ask me why that change was made. The movie got terrible reviews but I like John Woo in a general way and the picture is reasonably faithful to the story. The story is just less Phildickian enough that it can work as John Woo. The best effect in the story, the reveal of the device called a time scoop, is missing in the movie, where the concept is based on optics, explained early, with a lens that can see around the curve of the universe into the future (kind of like the way it's always tomorrow in Australia). It might even make sense, but I miss the nice way the story ends. Otherwise it's all about constructing set pieces around random everyday objects, such as a single paperclip in the movie. Woo and Dick are both good at set pieces but Woo might have the edge here. It certainly has some of that thing you find in puzzle movies (and stories all the way back to Sherlock Holmes at least) where convenience is remarkably persistent. Whereas one abstract clue—that paperclip, say—could suggest multiple potential uses our hero somehow always lands unerringly on the right one at the right time. Remarkable! It's arguable that it's not that bad in this case because the person providing Jennings with the clues after all is Jennings himself, who should know how he thinks. It was enough explanation for me to enjoy the action, but my complaint is that it is merely action. In the end neither story nor movie may be that good as Dick or Woo, respectively, but there's worse. Scanners and Impostor are much worse adaptations of Dick. You can pick your own poison with Woo. How about Broken Arrow?

The Philip K. Dick Reader

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Stage Fright (1970)

As an oldest brother myself, I might have missed out on more of the older-brother influence in music than many, though I did have friends with older brothers who made their impacts (as I doubtless made my own ... certainly I tried!). Stage Fright, the Band's third album and widely considered a drop-off from the first two, is one example. The Band has to stand as classic older-brother music. The critics in Rolling Stone went apeshit for them, which sounded to me, after I heard them, like merely falling for the pretensions of a rock band that called itself "the Band" or, more likely, falling for the broader legend of Bob Dylan even after 1966. As it happens, I seem to be mostly immune to the collaboration—I certainly don't consider the 1974 double-live Before the Flood even that good, for example, let alone one of the greatest live albums ever made, and Greil Marcus's chapter about them in Mystery Train seems more embarrassingly insistent to me now than insightful. Dare I say, re: the Band, OK boomer? No, I better not. I'm aware Stage Fright is the wrong Band album to like best, but it's the one I heard the most at the time, with my friend's older brother often blasting the second side from behind his closed door (alternating with either side or all of Bridge Over Troubled Water). It probably makes more sense when you count in that I don't really like the Band that much. Stage Fright came out just before I started 10th grade and high school and I had a kind of gut response to the title song, buried toward the back of side 2 but played on hippie radio, as it spoke to my feelings in that moment about what lay ahead. See the man, gathering up all his might. First verse: "Deep in the heart of a suffering kid / Who suffered so much for what he did / They gave this plowboy his fortune and fame / Since that day he ain't been the same." Those first two lines speak directly to my life experience and the next two directly to my problem with the Band. Like, plowboy? Who's a plowboy? It's possible Robbie Robertson, who wrote the song, may have met plowboys but I don't think he ever was one. It reads to me as more of the Band's bent toward co-opting older American country and folk music, admittedly often in surprisingly resonant ways. Neil Young, another Canadian (four of the five members of the Band are Canadian), can also be really good at it. On songs like "Stage Fright" or "Katie's Been Gone" on The Basement Tapes the Band are capable of big warm emotional moments. I understand their first two albums are better as American folk music in many ways, and I've come to appreciate them in moderation. But Stage Fright is what I like to play—with highlights beyond the title song that include "The Shape I'm In," "Time to Kill," and that lovely organ bit on "All La Glory"—for those unusual occasions when I'm in the mood for the Band. Oh hell, these days I can just put together a playlist. D'oh!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

"The Eyes of the Panther" (1897)

Ambrose Bierce had a way of getting in the grill of things to come in the 20th century. Here he's paying his respects to the werewolf strain of 19th-century horror (strictly speaking, the werecat, or more specifically the werepanther), acquitting himself competently as usual with ingenious twists of perception and expectation. In 1930 Val Lewton wrote a story inspired by it, "The Bagheeta," and a decade later produced the movie Cat People, which feels much like this story. A man wants to marry a woman but she won't have him because she says she is insane and it wouldn't be fair to him. She explains herself with a story about the accidental death of her older sister, smothered by her mother who was in a panic because of a panther stalking them from an open window. Nobody, including we the readers, understand why this makes her insane, but that's the story. Later, in the formal twist (heads up, spoiler-phobes), the man is menaced by a panther, or the eyes of a panther, in his window. Exercising his Second Amendment rights, he riddles it with bullets to death. Actually, he only fires once. It turns out to be the woman. The way I read the story first, blissfully unaware and unthinking of the "were" implications, I took her as insane to think she was insane. Stuff like that happens. People think weird ways, especially in horror stories. Then I thought, OK, well maybe the insanity is some paranoid compulsion thing that has turned her into a kind of stalker. I did catch all the foreshadowing of feline attributes, notably the glowing eyes, but took it literally, as descriptive. And it can be read that way! This is the real connection with Cat People. We don't know in either case that these haunted women actually turn into panthers (the specific feline in the movie too). They might just think they do, prowling the night as insomniacs. A further twist has been articulated by the critic S.T. Joshi, arguing the man knows it's her when he fires his gun. He kills her for spurning him. Hey, that works too. And don't forget it also works as a mystical story of a werepanther (as does the movie). There's something deceptively slight about Bierce, but the more you read him the more you can feel him operating at these deeper multiple levels with a good deal of skill. He was willing to be heartless (some called him "Bitter Bierce") and he often worked within the disciplines of the twist ending, which tempt gimmickry. But don't be fooled by the horror gewgaws. There's usually a lot more going on in Bierce.

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

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Claudius the God (1935)

Claudius the God is at least as good as its forerunner published the year before, I, Claudius, and they are probably most usefully considered as a single long work. This second historical novel focuses on Claudius's time as a Roman emperor and his ultimate deification. In one way it might be inferior to the first in that it feels like it has one eye cocked on Jesus and the Christians, which were unknown to most Romans in the time of Claudius but likely of greater interest to Robert Graves and his publisher's target market in the 1930s. But the story of Herod Agrippa and Claudius and their friendship is compelling. In fact, generally I enjoyed this even more than the first. Graves feels more comfortable with the material, just rearing back and letting it fly, with broad themes of Claudius's political reforms, his engineering projects, and his taking of Britain, with more backstories of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and others. Claudius is always interesting, realized extraordinarily well by Derek Jacobi in the PBS production. He is intellectually formidable yet physically disabled and the butt of Roman society for most of his life until he became emperor (and even then). Yet the way he wields power is remarkable. He is a transformed character from the first book, with confidence and a fierce sense of justice. Some of his actions are positively alarming. He orders many, many casual executions. But he is also paradoxically a humanitarian with sincere compassion and ideals. At least, that is, until the story of his wife Messalina reaches its conclusions, when he becomes almost unrecognizable. I know Graves is grounding everything in historical fact, but the change is shocking. So is Messalina's behavior. "You can't make this stuff up." The ways of the Romans are deeply human and recognizable, but don't always fit well with our sense of what a civilization is and is not. Are there lessons for our age here? Perhaps—it does feel like extreme times now, but they may have been even more so when Graves wrote, with democracy besieged by fascism and communism. Mostly what I like is the rolling anecdotal way Graves unlocks Claudius and lets him tell his story.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

USA, 102 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde
Photography: Russell Metty
Music: Roy Webb
Editor: George Hively
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, Fritz Feld, Ward Bond

I have never adored this movie the way I think I should, the way people do. Watching it recently I noted all the impressive points again: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, director Howard Hawks, a leopard (make that two leopards), the Tin Pan Alley standard "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby," and screwball comedy itself for crying out loud, that early contribution of sound, a fast-talking freewheeling way to indulge slapstick and improv while letting studio stars play loose and wild as they can. Screwball comedy usually depends on the charisma of its principles. Fortunately for Bringing Up Baby Hepburn and Grant have a considerable amount of that.

Grant always tended to be generally better at comedy, his affable sophisticated persona a little clownish yet somehow more everyman and vulnerable, uniquely suited to baffling sinister problems, such as he encounters here or in North by Northwest or in another screwball comedy by Hawks, the 1952 Monkey Business. Hepburn by contrast was more suited to the intensities of big theatrical drama and sometimes seems overwhelmed by—but always game for—the nonsense unspooling here. Among other things, almost all of Mary Tyler Moore (both 20something and 30something Mary) can be seen in her performance here. The result is often high-spirited, spurred by a joyful feel to the production (the Hawks brand, let's call it, as it's also a main feature of The Big Sleep). But Bringing Up Baby also lapses into flat aimless patches where it becomes merely a 1930s picture. It's a star vehicle first and mainly, and Hawks keeps those stars in front of the cameras as much as possible. It obviously doesn't matter what they do or don't do once there.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Leaving Neverland (2019)

This long documentary sets out to answer once again the key questions regarding Michael Jackson as a pedophile: Was he one, and why does it matter now after his death? At this point, a definitive answer is as futile in its way as deciding how JFK died, but Leaving Neverland is not a useless stop for anyone with lingering curiosity. It hasn't convinced true believers, and it's likely to spoil your mood, as it did mine, but it has its merits. It's one of the quicker four-hour documentaries you'll ever see, engrossing and credible. Perhaps the single most affecting aspect of this sad story, one of the saddest in all popular culture, is not so much the evidence it offers for sex abuse as its clearsighted understanding of the damage done by it, which continues long after the abuse and indeed is quite apparently still going on for the two telling their stories in full for the first time here. These two—Wade Robson, who later became a choreographer for NSYNC and Britney Spears, and James Safechuck—are articulate and believable. Inevitably celebrity and the vast amounts of money at stake cloud the issues. When you are rich and powerful your lies carry outsize weight, as we know from present-day American politics (the Supreme Court refers to it as "freedom of speech"). Safechuck declined to participate in the second round of Jackson's legal troubles in the 2000s, but both supported him the first time in the '90s and Robson testified for him in 2005. Jackson paid a huge sum to the first complainants in the '90s and then won an acquittal in the 2000s case. But over the years, especially now with people like Robson and Safechuck coming forward, it's hard to escape the sense that Jackson was pretty much what he looked like, a pedophile, damaged emotionally in his own youth and indulged for his wealth and celebrity. I always wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt—and for the usual reasons, because I appreciated his music and legacy—but the size of the settlements, the fact that he did settle, his own ever-worsening bizarre behavior, and the pattern of constant credible accusations that followed him for most of his adult life (he died at age 50) perpetually undermined any faith I could put in him. By "credible," I suppose I should say, I mean the internal consistencies of most of these stories, particularly now Robson's and Safechuck's, as well as their consistencies with known behavior of pedophiles. Among the most chilling aspects of Leaving Neverland are the stories of Jackson's grooming behavior, which is sophisticated and about as far from child-like as it's possible to be. The mothers of both Robson and Safechuck also appear with extensive interviews—they have often been hotly assaulted in the public discourse as much and sometimes more than Jackson. Obviously they made huge errors in judgment—they allowed the sleepovers, and they believed their sons when their sons lied to protect Jackson. I have my own issues with these mothers, more related to the seductions of celebrity, but I'm not sure how many people judging them so harshly would have behaved that much differently if they had been in the strange situation. We'll probably never know the absolute truth of Michael Jackson's life and whether or not he did all the things he's accused of. But Leaving Neverland is already an important part of any judgment.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Appointment in Samarra (1934)

According to Wikipedia, a cranky John O'Hara late in life denied licensing rights to his stories for anthologies—especially literary collections intended to be taught in college—which may account for his relative obscurity since his death in 1970. Or, anyway, I barely knew him and only read this novel recently. I think I mixed him up with some other writer (for some reason I want to say John Hersey) and thought Appointment in Samarra was some kind of war novel. It is not. It is the kind of novel for which John Updike writes a warm introduction. O'Hara is the kind of writer Fran Lebowitz can call "the real F. Scott Fitzgerald." And Fitzgerald (and Ernest Hemingway too) liked O'Hara or at least this novel real well. I like it a lot too. Not very much happens in it and yet it is almost perfectly mesmerizing. It is set among the country club claque of a small city in Pennsylvania in 1930. The Great Depression has arrived but not yet FDR, and it's still Prohibition. Julian English is the town Cadillac dealer and a drunk. On Christmas Eve he tosses a drink in the face of a man with powerful connections in the town, including its organized crime underworld. It's all in a day's work for the reckless English, who is cynical, embittered, and self-destructive. O'Hara has caught a unique moment in American history here, the widespread economic collapse as seen through the eyes of the wealthy and relatively unaffected. Organized crime is accepted by them as a way to do business. Most people seem to be relatively comfortable acquiring alcohol from the black market, for example. Perhaps the strongest point of the novel is O'Hara's candid and realistic treatment of sexuality in marriages, the natural connubial blisses as well as the philandering. Updike writes that "the Englishes have a heterosexual relationship beside which those in The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms are romantic and insubstantial." I also get some sense of Sherwood Anderson's writing in O'Hara—not just the focus on Midwestern-style grotesques, but the whole approach to writing as a process of corralling happy unconscious accidents. I suspect both O'Hara and Anderson may not have understood how they managed to create their best work. Appointment in Samarra was the first of O'Hara's 17 novels and 13 story collections (he also wrote nonfiction, plays, and screenplays) and it's widely considered his best, published before he was 30. The only one worth reading, according to some. I understood he has some reputation for short stories, a regular in The New Yorker for years, but this novel is the first and only thing by him I know. It is indeed a great and impressive novel, and should be read before anything by Hemingway (and never mind that Updike wrote a foreword and made some good points).

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, January 03, 2020

There Was a Father (1942)

Chichi ariki, Japan, 87 minutes
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Writers: Tadao Ikeda, Yasujiro Ozu, Takao Yanai
Photography: Yuharu Atsuta
Music: Kyoichi Saiki
Editor: Yoshiyasu Hamamura
Cast: Chishu Ryu, Shuji Sano, Haruhiko Tsuda, Mitsuko Mito, Shin Saburi

Criterion editions are often little masterpieces themselves of restoration, but even their print of this picture by director Yasujiro Ozu is badly damaged, suggesting the neglect it may have suffered since its Imperial Japan release date, when it was a modest success. Yet now it's almost as if that were the plan: the abrupt cuts, the missing time (seven missing minutes under the oversight of Douglas MacArthur), and the hissing audio, which sometimes drowns dialogue. They actually work to underline the poignant and affecting themes, which focus on loss, where the heart barely has speech. On one level it's a story of duty and well-meaning (and arguably necessary) neglect, but what is produced is a heartsick kid and man, a vivid and painful unrequited love that an only son feels for his father, who was widowed when the boy was still quite young.

It's like Fred MacMurray and My One Son and profoundly tragic. At the time of the movie the father, Shuhei Horikawa (the always impressive Chishu Ryu, one of Ozu's regular players), has apparently come to terms with his wife's death, but we see him take on even more baggage. As a strict but beloved schoolteacher, dubbed "the Badger" by students, he escorts his students on an annual field trip involving overnights. One year a student, disobeying his admonitions, takes a boat out rowing. It capsizes and the student drowns. Horikawa blames himself and retires from teaching. At first it gives him more time to spend with his son, but he soon realizes they must live apart. His career is now more itinerant and he believes, probably rightly, that stability is what's important for his son. He places the boy in a boarding school when he is not yet even 12. They will never live together again.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

"The Horror at Red Hook" (1927)

By the time I got to this story by H.P. Lovecraft I had accepted that all roads in horror fiction must presently pass through the Bard of Rhode Island. He died at 46, mostly neglected in his life, but is now considered one of the giants in the field—or, putting it another way, he used to be underrated and then he was overrated. Mostly he worked in the '20s and '30s and mostly he only wrote stories (my particular intersection), though some were more like short novels—the size of Heart of Darkness, say. A number of them created mythoses unto themselves (most famously Cthulhu but also the characters Erich Zann and Herbert West, "Fungi From Yuggoth," and an extensive so-called Dream Cycle). Extrapolations have since been assiduously worked by aspiring and established writers alike, and still are. It's certainly a type of influence, but at least in the realm of short stories it's hard for me to take such continuities as a particular strength, especially in horror. Then, in 2011, the Nigerian author Nnedi Okorafor won a World Fantasy Award for her novel Who Fears Death. The award at that time was a bust of Lovecraft and Okorafor went on to detail her mixed feelings, which reminded everyone that Lovecraft was a rank bigot and always had been. The evidence is in many of his stories.

This 2017 write-up of "The Horror at Red Hook" includes more details about Okorafor and fallout for the World Fantasy Award, and also spells out main problems with the story. In fact, as a result of articles like it (specifically this one from 2015, part of an invaluable series), I was led to believe that it's his most egregious, set in a Brooklyn well-populated with immigrants and swarthy foreigners. I wasn't reading it for that reason—I found it in the When Evil Wakes collection edited by August Derleth. Later I would come to Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls," which has a black cat with an extremely unfortunate name, and that seemed worse to me (or certainly more repulsively distracting) than anything in this story. The events recounted here are merely ridiculous, with its first scene for example a practical demonstration of a man reduced to abject terror at the sight of three-story brick buildings. Because of this man's extraordinary experience in a Brooklyn tenement, you see, taller brick buildings now apparently not only unnerve him but reduce him to gelatinous blathering insanity, at least until his field of vision can be altered. ("Yeah, right." That's me speaking aloud as I read.) Yet this turned out to be the story where Lovecraft's effects finally went to work on me.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

New Year memo

Happy new year to all etc. etc., hope everyone is doing well. This is your annual chatty update. That's my new cat Sam in the picture. Charlie, who holds the record for appearances in New Year memo pictures (four: 2012, 2014, 2017, and 2019) passed away last January 28. He was a great cat. More milestones for me this past year included reaching over 2,000 posts on this blog. In 10 more days, on January 11, I can mark 10 years of more or less continual blogging about music, books, movies, and this and that. Happy anniversary to me! The blog itself formally had its 13th anniversary in August, but for the first couple of years it was a notorious outlaw mp3 blog followed by a two-year break. I can't explain why I stayed with it after shifting emphases, but here we are just about 10 years and a few cats later, slogging and blogging on. I seriously doubt any of my original readers are still with me. I admit I had high hopes professionally when I buckled down to steady writing in January 2010. I have always been prone to the baseball novel fallacy of "if you build it they will come." Then I was a little disappointed to see blogging itself fade as merely a fad (about when I started in fact, which is typical) and then the wider chase for audience across such platforms as Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Medium, Patreon, and so forth. Now we are living in this brave new narrow constricted world of social media and I'm still on Google Blogger. Well, OK. Blogging always was weird with its forever falling backwards in time structures. It's not really possible to do linear excerpts of anything in multiple posts, for example, and series are awkward. But I settled on it and stayed with it because it was accommodating enough for the discontinuities of writing reviews of old things, which is all I've ever wanted to do. Speaking of shifting expectations, this past year probably saw the fewest album reviews ever from a blog once devoted exclusively to them. The blog was also down by overall number of posts, but I suspect the word count would be about the same. I've stretched on some of the pieces about horror stories. But I don't want to lose track of albums, so I'm committing to one a month this year, possibly making them longer pieces as I've played with previously (see the Great Albums tab). The other place I slipped in the past year was new movie releases. To be honest, there is just less I want to see all the time in the multiplexes that are convenient to me. Because it’s now officially the 2020s I'm going to let TV productions and series seasons stand in there as well (even though I still think of it as the "movie out" category). I still intend to get to The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, for example, two movies I missed this year (among a multitude) for good reasons and bad. But I'm also going to peek in at some of these ongoing greatest-ever TV series forever cropping up in our hallowed golden age of peak TV. Reviews of books, horror stories, and classic movies will keep coming as usual. My blue sky goals here include 4,257 posts and all 1,000 movies on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? So I'm letting you in on the fact I'm not even halfway there yet. Here's to the next decade come what may.