Sunday, May 31, 2020

"Rothschild's Fiddle" (1894)

It's short and even obvious in some ways, but Anton Chekhov loaded a tremendous amount into this story. Yukov, the main character—Rothschild is important too, but in a supporting role—is a 70-year-old coffin maker who is self-centered and profoundly unhappy with his lot. He is full of regrets for all the things he wishes he had done, such as working harder and saving more money, but they are also things he still doesn't want to do. In addition, he's a detestable anti-Semite. Rothschild is one of his particular targets for abuse and hatred. Rothschild plays the flute in a mostly Jewish orchestra. When the orchestra needs a violin player, Yukov is invited. He takes the work for the money but he is unpleasant company so he is not asked often. Yukov is worse to his wife of 52 years—he has even forgotten they had a child who died as a baby. He is never kind to her and often abusive. In the story she takes sick and dies, and then, of course, Yukov begins to see the error of his ways and find himself full of more regrets. It's hard to feel much sympathy for him, but Chekhov stays close to him, faithfully grinding through his feelings and revelations. Somehow Yukov's epiphany—even as his own death suddenly closes on him—becomes quite moving and believable. He has thoughts like, "If it were not for hatred and malice people would get immense benefit from one another," and somehow they are convincing. Perhaps more so to the other characters in the story, such as Rothschild, than the reader. But Rothschild gets to hear the music Yukov makes in this redemptive state (his only response: "Vachhh!" and tears), and he also receives the violin as a gift after Yukov's death. Chekhov was in his mid-30s when he wrote this, but his approximation of an embittered man passing into his old age and facing death seems uncanny and on the nose. Is it partly because he made Yukov so unlikable? Possibly. His poor wife never gets to see a lot of these fruits (after 52 years!), as it's her death which sets them in motion. And Yukov does not get so many of them himself, as he dies shortly after her. It sounds like a matter of weeks, if not days. I don't think we're intended to learn a lesson here about letting go of our own regrets and their causes before it's too late. Ultimately it's just a story of a sad old man coming to his sad old end, full of surprising pathos and beauty.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

USA / Canada / UK / France / Hungary / Belgium, 115 minutes
Director: Brady Corbet
Writers: Mona Fastvold, Jean-Paul Sartre, Brady Corbet
Photography: Lol Crawley
Music: Scott Walker
Editor: David Jancso
Cast: Tom Sweet, Berenice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Robert Pattinson, Stacy Martin, Yolande Moreau, Rebecca Dayan, Jacques Boudet

The first time I caught up with The Childhood of a Leader, last summer, I was so impressed with the opening montage (or "Overture") that I was grateful to find it on YouTube in its entirety. I have been playing it ever since. It strikes me as a nearly perfect way to start a movie, a certain clinic even, expertly setting mood and sketching the details of its setting with swift sure strokes: historical antiquated footage from Europe during the negotiations that concluded World War I, accompanied by a surging orchestral score by Scott Walker that is practically the star of this show. The five-minute clip worked on me not like a music video really, let alone a typical favored movie sequence, but more like a song I can't stop playing over and over because everything that is surprising and great about it just keeps giving me irresistible thrills. Walker's score is notably excellent and The Childhood of a Leader has an interesting premise that is well executed.

Director and cowriter Brady Corbet makes it a version of The White Ribbon, examining the European generation born at the turn of the 20th century who became ardent fascists in enough numbers to take over countries and cause a lot of trouble. It's as if he is looking for patterns to figure out why (the original story is by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Hannah Arendt is formally acknowledged as a source of inspiration) when really what he wants to do is make a horror picture. It sets up as one specifically in the evil spawn vein—comparable to, say, The Omen in the same way that The White Ribbon echoes the 1960 picture Village of the Damned. Tweener Prescott (Tom Sweet) is the brutally willful evil kid. His father (Liam Cunningham) is a ranking American diplomat working on the Treaty of Versailles, League of Nations, and such. His mother (Berenice Bejo) is much younger than his father, a cosmopolitan German national who suffered agonies giving birth. It's plain things here will not end any better than the Treaty of Versailles. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

"John Charrington's Wedding" (1891)

Here's another good one by E. Nesbit, who can really pack a lot into her stories. M. Grant Kellermeyer, proprietor of the useful Classic Horror Blog, helps clarify some of the fine points in a typically insightful analysis. I was puzzled at first, for example, by May Forster's bland change of heart after repeatedly laughing in John Charrington's face for his marriage proposals. Charrington himself chalks it up to "perseverance—and the best luck a man ever had in this world." Later, the narrator happens to find Charrington and May in an ambiguous tryst in a churchyard. Charrington is overheard saying, "My dear, my dear, I believe I should come back from the dead if you wanted me!" It doesn't exactly sound like the Charrington we've come to know, and Kellermeyer suggests he may actually be a demon whose intention is to abduct May into the underworld. He says the implication of May's hasty reversal may be that she is pregnant. The meeting in the graveyard may thus not be so ambiguous. Indeed, that brief scene has a charge of the uncanny any way it's read. Nesbit carries this off well. In a way we are as seduced as May by Charrington. His name already implies destruction by fire but he's mild-mannered, seemingly straightforward, and well behaved. Charrington dies suddenly and mysteriously, hours before the wedding, but appears at the ceremony in disheveled state to take his vows. The witnesses cluck at the disgrace of what they assume is drunkenness before learning of his strange fate. Even at the end, on my first reading, he felt like a sad victim of some kind, his appearance at the ceremony a reflection of desire and fidelity from beyond the grave. Instead, much more insidiously as our view of these ambiguous deeds and statements shifts and refocuses, we may be seeing the destruction of a woman's life and soul. Yet it's still hard to make out the actual reprobate and victimizer even with the clues. Women might pick this up as obvious. I suspect my semi-blindness here has something to do with being male. There is a good deal of formidable power behind the work of E. Nesbit. Some of the shorter horror stories of others work because they keep you moving past the odd points and discrepancies. Nesbit's seem to work when you go back to worry over them. There's a lot to unpack in the fragments, such as the overheard conversation in the graveyard.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Black Mirror, s5 (2019)

It was good to catch up on the Channel 4 / Netflix series Black Mirror—not surprisingly, it's thumb's-up pandemic viewing. I skipped the opening pig-fuck episode of the first season, as I did not need to see it again for all its eye-popping bravado, and made my way forward into the third and fourth seasons that until recently had been out of my reach behind the paywall. Some of the seams show across the length of its brief seasons, where six episodes makes a marathon, and things tail off some toward the end of the fourth. The 2018 attempt at an interactive movie, Bandersnatch, was even weaker, a novelty at best—it has pieces of the experience of Black Mirror the way action figures have pieces of the experience of a movie. So I was happy to see the fifth season back to approximately full strength, albeit also back to the original dispensation of only three episodes. Charlie Brooker writes or cowrites all the scripts and remains one of the constants on a show that specializes in cryptic spooky one-offs, Outer Limits style. It's alterna-reality horror stories in a near-future SF mode, brilliantly constructed but somehow not easy to binge, because each one takes some time to put a dense attack of concept, characters, and situation in place. Almost always near the 20-minute or 25-minute mark I was liable to find myself impatient and ready to bug out for a wallow in news headlines or something. Give it 10 minutes more, and I was usually fully hooked. Not that there is a formula to Black Mirror, but the high techno gadget concepts do require some 'splainin' as we go, usually paying off as the rainbow of directors (and Brooker's scripts) obviously know how to put together winning suspense splats. "Striking Vipers" is a parody of the Street Fighter video game that takes on issues of cybersex, which appear to be as thorny as ever if this one is to be believed (though the ending is muddled). "Smithereens" is a tense actioner, a kidnapping and extortion plot with Topher Grace getting a shot at doing Mark Zuckerberg. Is this going to be like the way major actors take turns playing the U.S. president? Does it really have to be Zuckerberg? This one is funny and tragic both, as Black Mirror can do. The big finish to the season, "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too," is a sendup of celebrity and fan dynamics coupled with one of Brooker's favorite themes, in which copying the algorithms of a human personality into an AI device also tends to bring the conscious sense of self along with it. The episode makes great use of Miley Cyrus, doing a kinda sorta version of her own Hannah Montana story, accented by one of the cruelest stage mothers in all fiction (proxy for Disney? inquiring minds want to know), followed by a harrowing escape and transition to sweet liberation. Cue the band: Miley and crew rave it up in a tiny rock club covering "Head Like a Hole" with a monster act in a bracing, glorious version. Demonstrating, as always, the way life could/should? be in our strange modern world.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Divine Invasions (1989)

I probably should have gotten to Lawrence Sutin's biography of Philip K. Dick sooner, if only to help direct my little reading program. This biography appears to be well-researched and certainly has a good deal of sympathy and understanding for Dick's work. Dick is one of those artists like William Faulkner who was both so prolific and so consistent that no one really agrees on his single best, though a handful of titles show up regularly: The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Martian Time-Slip, Ubik, you-pick, etc. I have been flailing around looking into any Dick titles I see endorsed by anyone, which led me to more arguably minor work, such as Dr. Bloodmoney or The Zap Gun or some of the stories. At the same time, I missed no fewer than four of the 11 titles Sutin says are essential, including VALIS (which I must admit I've foundered on a few times). I'll be trying to get to them eventually. As a biography, Divine Invasions performs the usual service of pinning down data points and clarifying the life and the work. Things I did not know: Dick hated his mother, was married four times, and never took hallucinogens much. In his relationships with women, in fact, he comes across as a creep—a contemptible one even. So it goes. Most biographies reveal feet of clay one way or another. On the other hand, it sounds like Dick was even more of a high-IQ genius than I thought, reading widely in modern and ancient texts, including in Latin and German. I was a little dismayed to find out how religious he was, even more or less conventionally Christian, though it wasn't entirely surprising, except maybe the Christianity. I was less interested in his psychology and ideas anyway, and more in his work strategies. There's plenty of everything in Sutin's biography, and I was particularly happy to extend my reading list as I came to implicitly trust Sutin. Then I went to the wilds of the internet to assay the opinion wilderness. It is particularly rich and confusing when it comes to Dick and not much less so on which of the half-dozen or so biographies are best. Dick had a way of reaching lots of people in lots of different ways. Sutin's book is invaluable at taking a crack at organizing it all and is generally acknowledged as the most encompassing, objective, and accurate. In a way, I'm still trying to figure out what appeals to me about Dick in the first place. I used to think it was the hallucinogenic weirdness and certainly that's part of it. But read enough Dick and that side starts to feel more mechanical, even rote. I found myself landing on The Man in the High Castle as my idea of the best—though it's marred slightly by too-busy weird elements, it's less so than many of his most lauded. The one thing I think everyone agrees on, including Sutin, is that no one has yet got to the bottom of Dick, and no one may ever. He is a moving target forever.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Here Comes the Cowboy (2019)

Mac DeMarco's deceptively lazy style—it's always 4 a.m. on this sweetheart and more like he doesn't want to bother the neighbors—delivered a surprising winner for me on his sixth album. Wait, what, sixth album? I've never heard of the guy. Well, that's to be expected with me. Extravagant comparisons are another weakness. If my first infatuation from Here Comes the Cowboy, "Nobody," is not really some lost track from The Velvet Underground, it still sounds like it might be, if Jimmy Buffett had been sitting in. My next infatuation, "On the Square," is more brooding and poignant, a stately thing moving on a lovely melancholy melody that trudges tenderly across a desert of sand directly to your heart. Thus emboldened by these fortunate finds (thank you again, social media!) I turned to the album and found a third infatuation: "Finally Alone," which is a gorgeous pop confection in the Lindsay Buckingham mode (if Engelbert Humperdinck had been sitting in), working even across the hushed funereal context of this album, with dippy-doopy keyboard flourishes and DeMarco working the power of the aching falsetto. I appreciate the sentiments of the lyrics too, which are about the pleasures of the getaway—by yourself. It's about that moment when you step into the hotel room—as we will again someday—and realize no one can reach you, you are safe and contained, and all the conveniences are at hand. It's time. Let go with that tender falsetto. Now you feel it. Of course, all that's also already there in the title for those of us who know. So with 23% of its 13 songs staked out as verified winners I went ahead and spent more time with the album. There's more to like there, though it turned out I had plumbed the best: there are goofy workups involving little dogs and choo-choo trains, some unexplained Western themes in "Hey Cowgirl" and the title song (contrasted with DeMarco's origins in B.C., Canada, and a habit of wearing ballcaps), more pop details, more aches and tender bruises, nothing absolutely coherent but everything quite affable and low-key and the production values crisp and high. In fact, crisp and high might be the recommended approach and end result of 3 a.m. appointments with this particular keeper.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Paris, Texas (1984)

West Germany / France / UK, 145 minutes
Director: Wim Wenders
Writers: L.M. Kit Carson, Sam Shepard, Walter Donohue
Photography: Robby Muller
Music: Ry Cooder
Editor: Peter Przygodda
Cast: Harry Dean Staoton, Dean Stockwell, Nastassja Kinski, Aurore Clement, Hunter Carson, Bernhard Wicki, Socorro Valdez, John Lurie

As advertised, this eccentric and lengthy but uneasily absorbing picture is set in Texas. We never actually make it to Paris itself, a small town on the Oklahoma border standing in as a psychological and literal starting point for Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton). He's a man on an incoherent mission. Instead we spend most of the movie in the wide open spaces and rugged terrain of West Texas. With its striking badlands scenery and a score by Ry Cooder, it's easy to think we are entering a Western as the picture begins. And it probably is a Western in some neo-Western sense. Wikipedia calls it a road movie, which is also fair, but to me it feels more like a theatrical domestic narrative, a strange surprising mix of affected dayglo hipster fare, wrenching human drama, and actor improv. Ultimately the cast and story are more important than all the flights of cinema that director Wim Wenders can throw at it—and Wenders throws some considerable ones.

I have to admit I don't know a lot about many of these principals—you could almost reverse-engineer this movie out of what I don't know—and I never got a look at it until the new century anyway. On Wenders, I didn't like Wings of Desire the one time I saw it and Until the End of the World just confused me for the nearly five hours of its director's cut. The American Friend and especially Kings of the Road are more like it and they are better harbingers of this, but I still don't feel like I really have a handle on him. For Harry Dean Stanton, it's the first time he's impressed me as anything more than someone who instinctively knows how to stay out of the way of his own evocative face. I keep wanting to make co-screenwriter Sam Shepard the significant contributor here.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Howards End (1910)

I responded to E.M.Forster's Howards End the way I do to novels of manners in the vein of Jane Austen—certainly our heroine here, Margaret Wilcox (nee Schlegel), is a Jane Austen type, and not just because Emma Thomson plays her in the Merchant-Ivory movie from 1992. But there's a good deal more here about class, feminism, and even, broadly, relations between Britain and Germany. Margaret and her husband Henry—she is at least his second wife and considerably younger than him—are both middle-class, but he is closer to a wealthy tycoon. Margaret, and her younger brother and sister, turn in the other direction, toward bohemianism. They read copiously, attend musical events, and belong to issue-themed discussion societies. Two more critical characters, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Bast, are more properly representative of the working class. So the elements are all in place for social realism, though the mode of action tends toward manners, focused on holding, maintaining, and passing along property, and most importantly on making marriage decisions. Yet it's the background social tensions that give Howards End much of its impressive power. Forster is often paying attention to a divide between Britain and Germany. The Wilcoxes are English. The Schlegels' father was a German national who moved to England. But there's an implication the Schlegels are German by nature. The distinction is that the English are cool, restrained, and a little heartless—capitalists—whereas the Germans are emotional and romantic—artists. It doesn't go unnoticed that both are imperialists, in more ways alike than different, but that's a little underplayed. Still, I was often mindful of the context of the story, set and written only a few years before the giant meltdown explosion of World War I, the pandemic that followed, and all the changes they brought. No one here, not even Forster, was aware of what was to come, though the simmering just under is easily perceived now. Class, quickly followed by feminism, are the issues most top of mind for these characters. But, again, the biggest change and greatest interest for me remained the marriage of Henry and Margaret and all the tensions that attend it. The heart of the novel—and of Forster too, I think—is in the conventional bourgeois ideal of marriage as the ultimate source of comfort and sustenance. Every rat here gets his comeuppance, and everyone with a moral compass set to decency gets her reward too, so it's also altogether highly satisfying too. That may be what reminds me of Jane Austen. This is a very good one.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Australia / USA / South Africa, 120 minutes
Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris
Photography: John Seale
Music: Junkie XL
Editor: Margaret Sixel
Cast: Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Nathan Jones, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Melissa Jaffer

Mad Max: Fury Road defies expectations in a number of ways, but producer, director, and cowriter George Miller has pretty much defied expectations all along with the Mad Max franchise. The first installment, 1979's Mad Max, is arguably the weakest of them all, a rare feat in the annals of movie franchises. It's a fairly conventional rape 'n' vengeance tale with little of the inspired postapocalyptic science fiction trappings that make the best of these movies soar. That best would be the second movie up (in the position usually reserved for "weaker"), 1981's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which feels like a positive revelation and seemed unlikely to be matched in our lifetimes. The third, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, from 1985, took the traditional position of third movies in franchises ("weakest" and/or 3D), a largely empty blustery star vehicle for Tina Turner (and what's-his-name) and an obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity (though it must be noted Beyond Thunderdome is still entertaining enough).

Then followed some 30 years of radio silence. Miller has always been worth checking on in the interval, with interesting attempts at this or that: a pretty good episode in Twilight Zone: The Movie ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"), a decent family drama-of-the-week in Lorenzo's Oil from 1992, and another inspired sequel with 1998's Babe: Pig in the City, which is also arguably better than the first movie in that franchise. Not that I'm making that argument, but Pig in the City is way better than people usually give it credit for and one of the better sequels you're likely to find. But if you want to entertain the notion that Miller is somehow very good at second movies, you'll also have to consider what he's done with Fury Road, which is quite possibly the best fourth movie in a franchise ever made.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

"Thirteen at Table" (1916)

Here is Lord Dunsany doing a ghost story—a pretty good one, typically very short and things out of whack. The usual absurd cruelties work to turn this one into a kind of situation comedy. Never mind about the frame story. On the last day of hunting season the last fox leads the last hunter (and the narrator of this story) on a merry chase all day long and into the gloaming, literally over hill and dale. He never gets it either. Now it's so late he's not going to make it home before dark. He and his assistant and horses must find shelter for the night. Fortunately, their last glimpse of the fox leads them to a strange mansion: "no avenue led up to it or even a path nor were there signs of wheel-marks anywhere." But there's a light in the window so the hunter approaches and knocks. A shabby butler announces him to Sir Richard Arlen, who declines to put him up. The hunter blusters and demands accommodation. Sir Richard politely changes his mind and announces dinner is served at 7:30, in 30 minutes. It's a gloomy scene at the dinner table, "quite in keeping with Sir Richard's first remark to me after he entered the room: 'I must tell you, sir, that I have led a wicked life. O, a very wicked life.'" The dining room is drafty but that's actually ghosts arriving, each one greeted by name by Sir Richard. The hunter decides he must be insane. As dinner is served, it's thus the hunter, Sir Richard, and the ghosts of a group of apparently quarrelsome women seated at table. After the second glass of champagne the hunter decides to humor Sir Richard and pretends to have conversations with the ghosts, who appear to him at best only as shadowy patches of smoky darkness. Eventually he's drunk and raving about the fox he hunted that day. "I was pleased to be able to make the party go off well by means of my conversation, and besides that the lady to whom I was speaking was extremely pretty: I do not mean in a flesh and blood kind of way but there were little shadowy lines about the chair beside me that hinted at an unusually graceful figure when Miss Rosalind Smith was alive." This mostly goes toward convincing us he is drunk, as well as placating his host, but we also know it's a horror story, or at least a ghost story, so these things could be real. Eventually the hunter feels comfortable enough to joke with them, and eventually he somehow insults them all, and they leave the table in a huff. The result is that Sir Richard is freed from his curse and very grateful. The story is neatly done all the way up to and including the Last Supper connotations.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Top 40

1. Bee Gees, "Massachusetts" (2:26. 1967)
2. Petula Clark, "Color My World" (2:51, 1966)
3. Post Malone, "Circles" (3:35)
4. Pet Shop Boys, "My October Symphony" (5:18, 1990)
5. Mr. Fingers, "Can You Feel It (Original Instrumental Mix)" (5:44, 1986)
6. Eric B. & Rakim, "Follow the Leader" (5:34, 1988)
9. DaBaby, "Pop Star" (3:03)
10. EOB, "Santa Teresa" (5:25)
12. Coldplay, "Arabesque" (5:40)
14. Tones and I, "Dance Monkey" (3:29)
15. Arizona Zervas, "Roxanne" (2:43)
16. Juice WRLD, "Legends" (3:11, 2018)
17. Mandy Moore, "When I Wasn't Watching" (3:30)
18. Iggy Pop, "Loves Missing" (4:19)
20. Romeo Void, "Never Say Never" (5:53, 1982)
21. Eddie Money, "Baby Hold On" (3:30, 1978)
22. Suicide, "Mr. Ray" (5:13, 1980)
24. Angel Haze, "Echelon (It's My Way)" (3:34, 2013)
25. Vic Mensa, "Down on My Luck" (3:29, 2015)
26. Big Thief, "Not" (6:07)
27. Clairo, "Bags" (4:20)
29. Michael Kiwanuka, "You Ain't the Problem" (4:09)
30. Jaimie Branch, "Prayer for Amerikkka, pts. 1 & 2" (11:26)
31. Burna Boy, "Gbona" (3:07)
33. Raphael Saadiq, "Rikers Island" (3:40)
35. Ariana Grande & Victoria Monet, "Monopoly" (2:38)
36. Georgia, "About Work the Dancefloor (Locum Remix)" (5:29)
37. Lil Peep & ILoveMakonnen, "I've Been Waiting" (3:53)
38. Justin Bieber, "Yummy" (3:30)
40. Stephen Malkmus, "Xian Man" (4:07)

thanks: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, Phil Dellio, etc ... Jaggerz typo as intended, unfortunately (I still like the song) ,,, 1, 4-8, Bob Stanley, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

Monday, May 04, 2020

Unbelievable (2019)

This Netflix miniseries was not nearly as harrowing as I worried it would be. I'm calling that a good thing. It's all done up in a thoughtful type of slam-bang TV style that kept me glued to it for two days. It might be a little long—five to six hours instead of seven to eight might have toned it up some. Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, The Kids Are All Right) has a producer credit (with Michael Chabon, Katie Couric, and others) and she also directed the first three episodes. Her welcome human touch is felt especially in those early parts, but this one is basically made for outrage. It's also, as a cop story, decidedly post-CSI, so much so that that show is discussed at a few points in this one. Unbelievable is composed of two parallel though out-of-time sequence strands (and naturally based on real-life incidents). One is in the Pacific Northwest circa 2008, and involves Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever, doing much of a 180 from Booksmart, released earlier last year). She's a young woman with a troubled background. The troubles are kept maddeningly vague all the way through but at least we see some examples of her poorer judgment. Then, one night in her apartment, she is raped by a masked intruder. She struggles with the indignities of the forensic exams and police interrogations that follow, recants, goes along with police when they decide she made it up, recants that, recants again. It turns into a real clusterfuck, and gets even worse when the police charge her with filing a false report. Meanwhile, circa 2011 in Colorado, two female detectives are hunting a serial rapist who knows how to play the system from reading police textbooks and watching too much CSI. He's a little super-heroic. He never leaves behind hairs, fluids, DNA, or really any physical evidence, and he strikes Zodiac-style in different police jurisdictions, gambling they won't talk to each other about isolated cases, no matter how bizarre or extreme. It's pure coincidence that brings together the detectives Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette).

By contrast with the Lynnwood police in Washington, Duvall and Rasmussen radiate a flinty swaggering confidence. They are a bit super-heroic themselves, but it's grounded in police procedure and even more in classy measured performances from Wever and Collette. This, I think, is how you do good TV—ensemble style, with good casting (and a hard finish, which is why I still favor miniseries over endless multiple season arcs). Toni Collette seems to be good in everything she does and so she is again here as the hard-bitten cop with a history of dangerous underground work and a taste for adrenaline. Wever is a revelation, perhaps a long time coming for me as I didn't recognize her even though I've seen all four of her "Known For" movies on IMDb: Signs, Marriage Story (which I just saw for crying out loud), Michael Clayton, and fucking Birdman. She almost feels Method in the slow, methodical way she plays her scenes here—the passion of her character is all iced over and focused. There are further interesting points between the two detectives, perhaps a bit cliché but not leaned into too hard. Rasmussen is a mentoring figure for Duvall. Duvall is a Christian and Rasmussen a variation on the madman Vietnam vet and/or biker outlaw figure. Dever (not to be confused with Wever) is good in this too, but her story is where the miniseries felt most flabby and unfocused as it went along. It keeps pinwheeling away as a sideline narrative, starting out as a compelling bad situation but only getting more dismal, and it's never connected with Colorado until nearly the end, even though we know very well how they are connected. As a cross-cutting distraction, her case comes across too often as more monotonously confusing than outrageous, which should not be the way it is for a case that is this outrageous. Altogether Unbelievable is another good one for pandemic viewing. In that way, maybe it's better that it's closer to eight hours than six.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Reading Chekhov (2001)

I actually forgot this book existed when I started on a project of reading stories by Anton Chekhov recently. I wish I would have remembered sooner because Janet Malcolm discusses another dozen or two stories beyond the ones I cherry-picked from internet recommendations. I know I have to get to his plays as well. Malcolm's slim book is based on travels as well as reading. She visits Russia and Ukraine to see the places Chekhov lived and knew. I don't do much of that sort of traveling myself—or any—but it does provide some interesting side details. As with much of the best of Malcolm, she excels at deep dives reaching for connections with an almost clinical precision. The story she returns to repeatedly is "The Lady With the Dog," but she ranges widely across Chekhov's work and brings an assortment of interesting insights to stories that might not have done much for me at first, such as the long "Ward No. 6" and "Peasants." She talks about Chekhov's literary relationship with Dostoevsky, for whom Chekhov claimed not to care much, and traces out points where Dostoevsky's influence is apparent. I still take much of the similarities I've noticed between them—largely, the blunt voice—as artifact of Constance Garnett, the prolific translator who worked extensively on material by both. I can feel the connection with Dostoevsky most in some of Chekhov's stories I don't like as much. I prefer the ones, like "The Lady With the Dog," that are almost pedestrian, yet elliptical and strangely moving, achieving their effects in ways that send me back with the idea of picking them apart to see how they work. That, in many ways, is Malcolm's project here, and she lingers over and returns frequently to a specific handful, including some of the plays. She loves Chekhov profoundly but resents the way he has become a kind of sentimental icon, a reflexive genius attended by platitudes. She focuses a lot on Chekhov's use of suggestive compressions, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) arguing it as his greatest strength. I think I agree—there's something deceptively casual about his best work, almost anecdotal, yet so many of these things stick with you for a long while. With his focus on the short story Chekhov can verge on the poetical. But he's also a consummate social realist, and the melancholy of his short life can subtly or not so subtly suffuse the work. Like Thoreau, like Kafka, like H.P. Lovecraft, like Elvis Presley, Chekhov died in his 40s. I'm happy for the beefed-up list.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.