Sunday, February 23, 2020

"The Kiss" (1887)

This story by Anton Chekhov is lighthearted in its premise, almost sitcom material in a way, yet the yearning for connection, pathetic or otherwise, is where it somehow finds a strange fascination. It focuses on a small event that is improbable but not unlikely. A lot of us might have stories like it. A traveling brigade of soldiers puts up in a small village and the local land baron invites them to tea. It's mostly a matter of social obligation on both sides. The retired General von Rabbek is entertaining others as well at the same time and his hospitality is perfunctory. The officers briefly meet the general and his wife and then they are on their own. Ryabovitch, our hero, is young, shy, and inexperienced. He can't stand the crowd and follows some others to the billiard-room, where he is ignored. It is still some time before supper will be served, so he wanders off, exploring the mansion. He enters a room so dark he can't see. Then he realizes someone else is there. It's a woman. "At last!" she says, embracing and kissing him. Then she realizes her mistake, shrieks, and Ryabovitch leaves the room. He never sees her face or dress or anything that can identify her. He remembers everything about the moment—the lotion she wore, a drop of peppermint oil on his cheek, the sense of her presence. He will live on this experience for weeks, though he has no idea who she is and knows well she was in the room to meet someone else. Yet he spins out a life of happiness and marriage with her. It is a boost of confidence to a very shy man. He fights with his rational self for the meaning of the incident. In the end, when he returns weeks or months later to the village, his rational side appears to have won. But we also know how hard it is to vanquish the irrational. I like how Chekhov isolates the desire in such a hopeless situation. Not only does Ryabovitch have no idea who she is, but he already knows she's likely a philanderer. But he remembers her in his arms, kissing him, the lotion and the peppermint oil. In spite of everything it augurs hope and promise.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Friday, February 21, 2020

What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)

USA, 118 minutes
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Writer: Peter Hedges
Photography: Sven Nykvist
Music: Bjorn Isfalt, Alan Parker
Editor: Andrew Mondshein
Cast: Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Darlene Cates, Juliette Lewis, Mary Steenburgen, Laura Harrington, Mary Kate Schellhardt, Crispin Glover, Kevin Tighe, John C. Reilly

At the time What's Eating Gilbert Grape came out late in 1993 I thought the best part of it was Leonardo DiCaprio's performance as a developmentally disabled teen. DiCaprio was not even 18 then—the same age as his character—and it's still pretty remarkable, a pastiche of honking voice, spastic gestures, and the bold willingness to do it. In fact, this picture (and another released earlier that year, This Boy's Life) convinced me DiCaprio had a remarkable career ahead of him. I'm not sure that's what ended up happening, though I suspect others would disagree, but in any event he's had at least one good performance as an adult, in The Revenant, among way too many more "nice try" turns. Has he ever again thrown himself into a role so un-self-consciously the way he does here?

Seeing Gilbert Grape again recently, I was more impressed by what a strange beast the movie is—a feel-good tale in its approach (note the constant soundtrack cues) but dragged down by an assault of bleak plot points. It's a little depressing even in summary: Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) is a 20something systematically buried by life circumstances in his isolated and dying small hometown of Endora, Iowa. He works as a delivery boy in a grocery store that is losing ground to a corporate enterprise on the outskirts of town, "Foodland." His brother Arnie (DiCaprio) is developmentally disabled and requires constant care and supervision. His mother is morbidly obese and hasn't left the house in years (she is evidently the reference in the crashingly tasteless title). His two sisters are already gray, faded, and trampled themselves—we learn in passing that an older brother somehow got away. There's no question mark in the title because the movie is here to answer the question. This dim occluded life is eating Gilbert Grape alive.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

"Mrs. Amworth" (1922)

This E.F. Benson story is fairly conventional vampire stuff, but it does feature Benson's sly way of telling a story and has some nice effects too. He eases into it the way he often does, starting with a description of an ancient isolated village in England and proceeding at his own pace. The narrator is an affable lifelong resident. His neighbor, educated at Cambridge, is a native who has returned. He's something of a crank, with a keen interest in the occult—the rational man of science who wants to believe, retired into his studies. Into this tiny society along comes Mrs. Amworth, "widow of an Indian civil servant." Now in her 40s, she has deep roots in the village herself, with graves of ancestors in the churchyard. "Big and energetic, her vigorous and genial personality speedily woke" the village. Everybody likes her. The narrator enjoys dropping by her place in the evening to play piquet, a card game. She also plays the piano and grows a lovely garden. Everyone adores her except the academic from Cambridge, though he is at least "vastly interested" in her. I like the way Benson sprinkles his clues cunningly and relentlessly but I admit I'm confused again by vampire rules. In a way, Mrs. Amworth is sunshine itself—she certainly has no problems with daylight. On the other hand, more conventionally, she is visibly refreshed and more youthful after drinking up, and she can also sink into the earth back into a grave. These aren't necessarily the good effects here but they're not bad. To set the mood there's a lot of lore to sort out but it's interesting mostly. It seems there had been vampire activity reported back at the Amworths' post in India, as, indeed, there had been in the distant past of the English village. Hmm, makes a person think. Benson is actually quite artful at this. He knows when he is showing you his cards, though he always seems to be holding back another. And he delivers some nice surprises. But I'm still working on the basics around here, as I understand that vampires and zombies are both undead creatures but on different paths? (Let's leave witches out of it for now. I haven't seen enough of those stories yet.) Perhaps film director F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu is the last point where the species resemblance between vampires and zombies remains. Interestingly, Nosferatu (released the same year "Mrs. Amworth" was published) was based on Bram Stoker's Dracula. The Universal Pictures adaptation of 1931 with Bela Lugosi has presently, of course, become the more famous enduring vision of the undead blood-sucker—suave, debonair, European, pointing down the road to Count Chocula. With that in mind, perhaps what we have is a spectrum of perception, with "undead" at one end and at the other "immortal," which seems to better fit the tenor of these charming and dashing but ultimately deadly creatures (leaving fairies out of it too for now). The ability to charm may be Mrs. Amworth's strongest trait, but she has some other interesting tricks up her sleeve as well.

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

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Irishman (2019)

Important facts to keep in mind when approaching director Martin Scorsese's lengthy end-of-career midcentury gangster epic and usual jukebox bacchanalia: Scorsese is 77. Robert De Niro, the star, titular Irishman, and practically in every scene, is 76. Al Pacino, who plays Jimmy Hoffa, is 79. Joe Pesci is 76. Harvey Keitel, whose appearances are so brief they practically qualify as cameos, is 80. Ray Romano and Bobby Cannavale are the spring chickens around here, 62 and 49, respectively, and they're not even in the picture that much. De Niro and Pacino dominate, with strong support from Pesci. Cannavale looks like a tween in this context. It's little surprise that The Irishman rocks along like a summertime porch scene and garrulous old men swapping stories they've all told and heard a million times. The stories are not bad, in fact, and they are often told well, though by now they are familiar. The Irishman is practically a nostalgia project by design and who can begrudge these various giants? Scorsese seems to be reaching here for the energy and sizzle of Goodfellas and Casino more than the strange poetry of Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, or Raging Bull (let alone any of those wandering in the desert but always interesting experiments such as The Age of Innocence, Kundun, or Bringing Out the Dead). It's sad when the panache is decidedly thirdhand—the rapid-fire cuts and swoops, the voiceovers, the brash flourishes like freeze-frames or random career biographies displayed as titles ("Angelo Bruno—shot in the head sitting in his car outside his house, 1980"), and all that midcentury music ("In the Still of the Nite," "Delicado," etc.). We've seen it before, and better. At the same time Scorsese remains a natural at these loose, freewheeling narratives so there's a certain amount of comfort to the movie that is unmistakable. It's like climbing into a barcalounger with a cigar and a glass of wine. You probably won't doze off. The rewards are here, notably for students of 20th-century gangster movies, even if you have to set aside the requisite amount of time—The Irishman is seven minutes longer than The Godfather: Part II. Speaking of The Godfather: Part II, the point for me where The Irishman slips over from interesting and into mere nostalgia is in the decision to cast the young Frank Sheeran with the same old Robert De Niro. He's supposed to be absolutely no older than 35 in some of these scenes but he never looks younger than 54 on a good day. De Niro, if you recall, was cast to play the younger Vito Corleone in Godfather II, partly because of contract hang-ups with Marlon Brando, but mainly because Brando, who was about 50 at the time, was plainly too old to play the part. No, in case you're wondering, the CGI in The Irishman doesn't come close to cutting it. If Orson Welles demonstrated in Citizen Kane that a young man can play on old one (actually a dubious proposition), then De Niro demonstrates here that an old man cannot play a young one. In theory, I don't have that much of a problem with handing the whole schlimoozle over to De Niro—he and Scorsese go way back, and they both deserve the retirement party. But it certainly takes down the ambitions of this movie a number of notches.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Aesthetics of Rock (1970)

Richard Meltzer's notorious first book, a stone classic in the rock critic canon, is not particularly easy to read, marked as it is by a semi-lampoon of academic writing (division of philosophy, no less), which is actually often quite funny. But the book eschews most typical gestures of textual relief such as organization into sections and chapters. It's one long blurt. It could have been typed on the blank side of the manuscript roll Jack Kerouac used for On the Road. It's slippery and maddening even as it verges on exhilarating. It grinds against immovable objects and then it darts down rabbit holes that are baffling, such as a discussion of "tongue," a quality of music Meltzer identifies, knows for a certainty when he hears it, yet struggles to define with any clarity. He admits it is hard for people to recognize tongue even when he sits with them as songs play and he points it out. Getting it across this way was never going to be easy. Mostly The Aesthetics of Rock reads to me like someone who has read a lot and now his head is exploding, which fits what we know of how it was put together, written when he was in college as an undergraduate and graduate student (in philosophy), and published after he left school. You could probably form a reading group and spend months and years going through it page by page. That has probably already happened, in fact, and those groups may not even have reached the Epilogue yet (never mind, spoiler alert, it's just a bunch of transcribed notebook writing, mostly about the Byrds). I was struck by a similarity between Aesthetics and Nik Cohn's Rock From the Beginning, at least in terms of their age because they are very different books. But both teeter on irrelevance now simply by being so far behind. In neither book have the Beatles even broken up yet, let alone Malcolm McLaren dubbed John Lydon Rotten. Meltzer is deeply conversant with '60s pop music development, and can discuss the Trashmen, Lou Christie, and the 4 Seasons with as much authority as he can't, say, Iggy Pop, because Iggy Pop is still in this book's unknown future. In many ways Meltzer hangs it all on "Surfin' Bird," which admittedly is a pretty good place on which to hang it all. Greil Marcus points out in a late-'80s introduction to the Da Capo edition that Meltzer is a certified Beatles maniac. It's a little surprising because, from the attitude Meltzer evinces, his heart would appear to lie more in the precincts of the Stones and proto-punk revanchists. Here again, though, all informed discussion ends at approximately Magical Mystery Tour and maybe a few glancing mentions of songs from the White Album. No Abbey Road. No Let It Be. No Macca. Strange, and on some level plainly a deliberate choice as the book was not published until 1970 and the Da Capo edition followed after almost 20 years. I suppose everyone with rock critic ambitions should look at it. I think this was my third try and finally a winner. Take it as art. Let me know if you figure out the tongue thing.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Diamond Life (1984)

When Sade's first album arrived—technically it's a band, a sort of rock band even, named after the lead singer—it seemed to be part of the latest nostalgia product at the time, with something like a return to lounge music and glamour, performed in tails and glittery dresses under lights at keyboards. Candlelight, clinking glasses, smart fashion, murmuring conversation—never a threat to anyone's hearing. It seemed to belong with acts like late Roxy Music, Simply Red, Paul Weller and Style Council, Everything But the Girl etc. Later dubbed "sophisti-pop" and/or "smooth soul" by crews of categorizers (with soupcon of "quiet storm" and "smooth jazz"), intentions of irony were unclear but seemed likely. It felt more like the '80s than the '60s (early or late), more like Ronald Reagan (on this side of the Atlantic) than Stax—a slight put-on. But it is not. The Blue Note vibe of the cover design is true to the intentions, deftly mixing up jazz and melodic elements. Adopting the New Wave convention of a signifying cover song, Sade's choice was Timmy Thomas's 1972 "Why We Can't Live Together," closing the album with a version so faithful it is practically verbatim. That was my original hook, spooky alluring and haunting, and I would sit through the second side to get to it. Eventually the whole thing opened up but it still took some years to get closer to the bottom of it. There's something in this music that churns at deepest levels. It's never cheesy, not even when it names one of its tragic characters "Beans" (actually Vince, I looked it up, but I've always heard Beans). For me, surprisingly enough, Diamond Life turns out to be music about loss, or made for times of loss anyway, when I have found it most useful, soothing, dare I say healing. Eventually it turned into one of my upside-down albums, when I finally flipped it over and found the first side just as good. I mean, how did I miss "Smooth Operator" and "Hang on to Your Love"? To this day Diamond Life properly starts for me on "Cherry Pie" and finishes on "When Am I Going to Make a Living"—perfectly apt as a parting shot as my times of loss have also included loss of employment, which happened too often for too long. Sade knows well the kinds of things we're up against in this cold dirty world—Sade the band, and Sade the singer too, as she has a hand in writing all the songs except the cover. Desolation, bad cops, drug addiction, crashed relationships, abuse. Sade has seen it all. This Diamond Life is more like blood diamond life. But it is always achingly beautiful, no matter what. It's almost as if it's asserting dissonance as the copout. The real strength, the real beauty, is letting your light shine even against the ugliness, even when your light only exposes the unpleasant details of reality. There's so much poignant dignity here.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

"Wake Not the Dead" (1823)

This vampire story is so old and presumably so disreputable that there is some question of its provenance. It's often given on the internet and also in the odd Vampire Tales collection (a quickie but well-stocked kindle product) as written by Johann Ludwig Tieck and published in 1800, but more credible internet sources have it as by Ernst Raupach and published in 1823, noting the error. It's my final guess. The kindle collection is odd partly because its sourcing is so sketchy. While I'm not particularly invested in the vampire mythos, I like how old some of its stories are and yet so fresh (so to speak) with details we know unto the final parodies of breakfast cereal, Sesame Street, and George Hamilton. Walter here is bereft at the untimely death of his young and beautiful wife Brunhilda, slender, haughty, and possessing raven tresses. Even after he remarries (a blonde named Swanhilda) he spends a lot of time mewling around Brunhilda's grave. Finally a sorcerer shows up and asks whether he wants her restored to life. Perhaps his grievous caterwauling has been creating a din in the spiritual realm. Of course Walter wants her restored to life. When the sorcerer expresses caution, basically in the form of the title, Walter starts calling him names ("Dotard!"). It doesn't seem the way to win friends and influence sorcerers, but Walter obviously has an urgent need. So it is done. But she's not the same, in echoes that reverberate forward at least to Stephen King's Pet Sematary—colder, less interested in sex, and with a thirst she finally realizes is for ... human blood. Yes, you heard me. I'm not sure who translated this story or when—more of the sketchy sourcing—but the language is arcane, with lots of thee, thou, thy, and tho forth. Yet the narrative clips along with clarity and it's fairly entertaining. The rebooted Brunhilda has the power to cloud men's minds, perhaps my favorite vampire feature, as it's so unclear itself, in this case apparently putting her victims into sound sleep with fascinating dreams. This reminds me that one of my problems with vampire stories is all the rules and continuity issues. Brunhilda does not care for direct sunlight, for example, at once a variation and a checkbox. She is also a one-woman wrecking crew as she gradually sucks the village dry, children first (she craves youthful blood most of all, plus kids are probably easier to handle, I'm sorry to have to point out). She basically goes after everyone except Walter, including his two children by Swanhilda, who is run off soon after Brunhilda 2.0. Walter finally senses trouble when no one else is alive and he becomes Brunhilda's target. Then he mans up and does what he must (in this case, dagger to the heart plus curse), remarries again, and then there is a surprise ending. The object lesson: I think you know.

Vampire Tales: The Big Collection, pub. Dark Chaos
Read story online.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Top 40

1. Fleetwood Mac, "Black Magic Woman" (2:52, 1968)
2. Archies, "Sugar Sugar" (2:50, 1969)
3. Monkees, "A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You" (2:48, 1967)
4. Elton John, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (3:15, 1973)
5. Sly & the Family Stone, "Dance to the Music" (2:57, 1967)
6. Bill Withers, "Use Me" (3:48, 1972)
7. Isley Brothers, "That Lady" (5:34, 1973)
8. Johnny Nash, "Hold Me Tight" (2:43, 1968)
9. Alton Ellis, "Rock Steady" (2:51, 1965)
10. Dobby Dobson, "Loving Pauper" (3:15, 1967)
11. Grateful Dead, "Dark Star (Single Version)" (2:42, 1968)
12. David Bowie, "Sound and Vision" (3:03, 1977)
13. Glitter Band, "Angel Face" (3:05, 1974)
14. Slade, "Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me" (4:29, 1973)
15. Three Degrees, "Year of Decision" (2:38, 1973)
16. David Cassidy, "I Am a Clown" (4:33, 1973)
17. Bay City Rollers, "Shang-a-Lang" (3:05, 1974)
18. ABBA, "Dancing Queen" (3:52, 1976)
19. ABBA, "The Winner Takes It All" (4:53, 1980)
20. ABBA, "The Day Before You Came" (5:49, 1982)
21. Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood, "Sand" (3:44, 1968)
22. Ramones, "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" (2:47, 1977)
23. Dr. Feelgood, "She Does It Right" (3:22, 1975)
24. Lana Del Rey, "How to Disappear" (3:48)
25. Heartbreakers, "Born to Lose" (2:51, 1977)
26. Public Image Ltd., "Public Image" (3:01, 1978)
27. Taylor Swift, "Cruel Summer" (2:58)
28. Damned, "Neat Neat Neat" (2:41, 1977)
29. Stranglers, "Walk on By" (4:24, 1978)
30. New Musik, "Straight Lines" (5:12, 1979)
31. New Musik, "Living by Numbers" (3:28, 1980)
32. Donna Summer, "I Feel Love" (5:55, 1977)
33. Sheila and B. Devotion, "Spacer" (5:54, 1980)
34. Bee Gees, "Massachusetts" (2:26, 1967)
35. Blondie, "Shayla" (3:58, 1979)
36. Ron Grainer, "Doctor Who (Original Theme)" (2:20, 1963)
37. Kraftwerk, "The Model" (3:40, 1978)
38. Grandmaster Flash, "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" (7:12, 1981)
39. Josie Cotton, "Ukrainian Cowboy" (3:32)
40. Visage, "Fade to Grey" (4:03, 1980)

Thanks: Billboard, the person who suggested imagining ABBA songs as sung by rescue animals ... 1-10, 12-23, 25-26, 28-38, 40, Bob Stanley, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

Sunday, February 09, 2020

The Pyramid (1999)

Here's a small problem with series of novels, or maybe we should call them franchises because TV, movies, and even short stories can suffer the problem too. The Wikipedia article on Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series notes that this collection of long stories comes first in terms of a chronological order. But that's only by the settings of these stories (so-called), which are "early cases" ranging from as far back as 1969 to just before the action of Faceless Killers, the first Wallander novel. This collection is a reasonably big book and there are only five stories; they're not exactly short stories in any conventional sense. The shortest run around 30 pages and the longest goes some 160. They are more like episodes from novels, with blunted climaxes. So The Pyramid may be the first one to read in terms of a strict timeline. I jumped it ahead of the rest after I learned that. But I don't think it's the way to go. These stories presume more previous knowledge of the series than I had, such as Wallander's relationships with his father, wife, and daughter. They often display what I call Revenge of the Sith syndrome, by which I mean a prequel too concerned by far with continuities, crossing the t's and dotting the i's of known details. The last story here, the title story and longest, actually takes us to the morning of the first day in Faceless Killers. That's way too cute for me. While these stories open some interesting windows into Wallander's character, more often they feel padded out and just a little wearied of the project. "The Pyramid," the long story, is built around an unnecessary scene with his father, which adds little to our understanding of either character and bogs down a crime investigation right in the middle. Not that there is much to these investigations, which are pro forma at best, and uninspired. I admit, at this point, I have reached a certain level of comfort or familiarity with Wallander and Mankell. I like the police detective Wallander, a gruff and impatient investigator with a moral compass and good instincts, a taste for opera, and all the frustrations of modern Western life. In this era when short stories have become virtually antiquated, perhaps Mankell was simply better as a novelist. I would say this should be read in publication order, and it's probably for completists only.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Dazed and Confused (1993)

USA, 102 minutes
Director / writer: Richard Linklater
Photography: Lee Daniel
Music: Classic rock classics (nonstop)
Editor: Sandra Adair
Cast: Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Shawn Andrews, Rory Cochrane, Sasha Jenson, Matthew McConaughey, Marissa Ribisi, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Renee Zellweger

My DVD copy of Dazed and Confused is packaged with Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High so apparently at some point it took on epic proportions as a teen comedy (when the only teen comedy it should be aligned with is American Graffiti—that's a recommendation for a double feature). There's more evidence for the stature of this movie in Quentin Tarantino's including it on his last two ballots in the Sight & Sound poll. As a jukebox musical soundtrack movie it is practically heroic but that's more in terms of the ambitious licensing work—something like 15% of the budget went to securing the rights to the music here, even though Led Zeppelin remained implacable and never yielded the title song. Yet amiable as it is, warm with scattered laughs, Dazed and Confused has always seemed to me more funny-strange than funny-haha.

The first time I saw it, for example, I was not just struck but dumbfounded by the accuracy and fine points of the '70s period detail: girls using pliers to zip up tight jeans, those sphere-like chairs with speakers built in ("egg chairs," per google search), the look and feel of keggers in the woods, the ubiquity of weed. All this amazing detail is the only thing I took away from it then. I was prone to saying things like it was the first time I'd seen my youth ripped off by a movie. And that's not far wrong—Dazed and Confused is formally about the classes of '76 to '79, only a few years past my time. But, on the other hand, the hazing behavior on display here—senior boys terrorizing freshmen boys with a bizarre spanking ritual, and senior girls doing something like it with freshmen girls—is like nothing I ever saw, experienced, or even heard of. I wrote it off as Texas. Now I'm more inclined to take it some kind of flights of fancy by director and writer Richard Linklater, who has produced an impressive body of work. (But it could still be Texas.)

Monday, February 03, 2020

Chernobyl (2019)

Sooner or later movie and TV productions swarm all historical events. Everything we see on the news becomes an entertainment event. So there's no surprise that the Soviet nuclear disaster of 1986 gets the treatment—indeed, there have already been several, from the well-regarded 2006 French documentary The Battle of Chernobyl to the schlocky 2012 horror movie of the month Chernobyl Diaries. HBO steps up impressively with this five-hour-plus miniseries docudrama. I'm not sure how much new information it bears, but a lot was new to me—all I knew before is that it was bad. Now I know more about how bad, and why. Across its looping span, loosely built out of on-scene dramatizations and later investigations, the miniseries dives into the details of both the science and Soviet bureaucracy. It takes various liberties along the way, most notably reducing dozens of Soviet scientists to a single fictional character (played with her usual flashing brilliance by Emily Watson). These scientists quietly researched the incident as far from Soviet government eyes as they could, which makes her come off a little unlikely and superheroic, more of a device. In fact, five hours does not feel like enough to tell this whole story—there's too much science for that and too much Soviet bureaucracy too. It's complicated. Thus, various other devices are employed, some more awkward than others, such as making the climax a courtroom drama with fundamental factual distortions—our scientist hero, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), has his big miniseries moment and speech there, though he was not actually at that trial at all. At its best, Chernobyl feels like propulsive science fiction made horror because it is grounded in strange reality. It tells us the clothes worn by the original firefighters on the scene, for example, are secured away to this day because they are still dangerously radioactive. It not only features scenes at the "Bridge of Death," where townsfolk gathered to watch the original fire and marvel at the colors, but it also pushes the urban legend that they all died of radioactive poisoning within months. Chernobyl is always chilling and thrilling to watch. It doesn't miss an opportunity to freak us out with stories like that. In the context, they have a high probability of being true. The miniseries may have some misrepresentations, but as far as I can tell most fall closer to the category of dramatic license. And, at a moment in history when consideration is on the rise for nuclear power as a mitigation for global warming, I think it's good to get an emotional object lesson in the dangers, which hopefully sends us scurrying to review the actual facts and trade-offs. Recommended—HBO or whoever should not wait 33 years to do the Fukushima story. Also, we need a better Deepwater Horizon oil spill movie pronto.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

I really don't know Muriel Spark at all and most of my associations here are with Oscars excitement in the '60s for a movie I never saw. If anything, I had this filed in my mind with the execrable My Fair Lady, a film based on a Bernard Shaw play. But actually this short, bristly novel is pretty good, dense and swift-moving. Miss Jean Brodie is an unconventional teacher at a girls' school. She claims she is in her prime, sophisticated, charming, and civilized as she ages from her 30s into her 40s, a single woman. The narrative is soon unmoored in time, with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and all manner of flash-arounds, plus there are some things to figure out. Miss Brodie cultivates a group of six girls passing into high school age. They are the "Brodie set"—her favorites. Each has a name and one or two distinguishing characteristics, which is not to understate how vivid each one will become. They are an odd group. The strangest may be Mary Macgregor, who is not very bright and ultimately dies in a hotel fire when she is 23. The most detailed (she might secretly be the author) is Sandy Stranger, who has small eyes, rejects Calvinism, and becomes a nun later. It all takes place, or mostly, in Edinburgh in the 1930s. One of Miss Brodie's most unsettling traits is her confident embrace of fascism. In fact, in a way that's what leads to her downfall, as in the arc of this story she is betrayed and loses her career. The people out to bring her down are more worried about her sexual adventuring, which of course is quite mild. She has a crush on one teacher, and a dalliance with another, which ends when he marries someone else. Much is made of these incidents—by the girls, by school authorities, and by Miss Brodie herself, whose real flaw is merely a dose of narcissism and an inclination to talk too much about her world view and personal life. Of course, they're part of the reason the six girls adore her too. I can see myself a little in them, remembering a notably young and glamorous woman who was my sixth-grade teacher. She had no fascist sympathies or love affairs with other teachers I ever heard about, however, though she did drive a VW bug. Honestly, one of the things I like most about this novel is how much Miss Brodie can make my skin crawl. I've met this self-obsessed type elsewhere and I don't like them, even though I recognize the charismatic charms, and even wish there were a way I could meet her for coffee sometime. She's a corker and so is this novel.

In case it's not at the library.