Sunday, June 28, 2020

An Anonymous Story (1893)

The title of this long story by Anton Chekhov seems to be translated more often as "The Story of an Unknown Man," but I'm sticking with Constance Garnett, who has it this way, "An Anonymous Story." Her work is also why I keep pushing the Delphi kindle product, as I haven't seen any better translations, but perhaps because her versions of Chekhov are in the public domain now they are less available. This is a really great story—pure Chekhov in certain ways, an almost Dostoevskian departure in others, with an unusual premise that brings an element of exotic intrigue. The narrator is a spy of some kind, who takes work as a footman with a cynical and worldly minor government bureaucrat. The narrator's mission, never really made clear, has something to do with this functionary's father, a much more powerful political figure. The narrator describes his footman duties and the household in detail. The bureaucrat, Orlov, is a dedicated bachelor, and has three close friends who gather on Thursdays to snigger at the world and play cards. All four are great characters, odd and callous eccentrics, drawn well. Then, one day, one of Orlov's mistresses appears, announcing she has left her husband and is moving in. She appears to be genuinely smitten with Orlov. For Orlov and his friends she is an impossible problem. The friends' only counsel to Orlov is to end it and the sooner the better. Orlov cannot confront her, however, and instead starts to tell her he is going on business trips when he is really staying in town with one of his friends. Orlov cannot even stand to be around her at all before long. Meanwhile, our footman narrator's mysterious mission comes to an end and he prepares to bug out. But first he must unburden himself of all his contempt for Orlov in a letter. The letter is a very Dostoevskian passage, and almost infects the story from that point on, as the narrator also feels he must unburden himself and come clean with the mistress about her situation, Orlov's deceptions, and his (the narrator's) part in all of it. Then the mistress, finally convinced of the truth, declares she wants to be part of the narrator's revolutionary movement. The narrator is all for that but really what he wants—in a perfect Chekhov twist—is for the mistress to fall in love with him. But she doesn't. She is fond of him, and nurses him when he is sick with pleurisy, but she's there for the revolution. Complications, tragic and perhaps inevitable, ensue. For all its zigs and zags this story has a wrenching yet gratifying finish. Really good one.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Blue Valentine (2010)

USA, 112 minutes
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Writers: Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, Cami Delavigne
Photography: Andrij Parekh
Music: Grizzly Bear, Penny & the Quarters
Editors: Jim Helton, Ron Patane
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Faith Wladyka, John Doman, Mike Vogel, Maryann Plunkett, Ben Shenkman

I remembered Blue Valentine earlier this year when I was looking at Marriage Story. They're both heartbreaking tales of 30something splits, with young kid, they're both set in New York City—I had forgotten that about Blue Valentine—and they're both honest to a fault on relationships breaking down. The biggest difference may be in the class positions of their principals. Marriage Story takes place in Manhattan (and Los Angeles) and features a MacArthur Fellowship recipient whereas Blue Valentine is set in Brooklyn, and not really the trendy gentrified Brooklyn of the past 15 years, but a deeper layer, where alcoholism and domestic violence are hardly uncommon and not everybody finishes high school but can always get by at day labor.

Michelle Williams as Cindy and Ryan Gosling as Dean are the real strength of Blue Valentine—it's literally their vehicle as they've even got skin in among the phalanx of executive producers. They're much more accomplished and simply better than Scarlett Johansson (who is nonetheless very good in Marriage Story) and Adam Driver. Blue Valentine director and cowriter Derek Gianfrance may not have the resume or filmmaking skills of Marriage Story director Noah Baumbach but he can stay out of the way of his formidable stars. Baumbach may have made a better film, as such, but Gianfrance has made the more memorable one, taking pages out of the John Cassavettes style, with actors so deeply committed to their roles that therapy seems a likely result of the trauma of making the picture. Blue Valentine has little nudity or violence but is so intensely bleak it earned an NC-17 rating the first time around.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"The Listener" (1907)

I tend to think of Algernon Blackwood more as savant of the ineffably extra-dimensional beyond our ken (see "The Willows," see "The Winnebago Wendigo," etc.), but this story and many others demonstrate how good he could be even at the ghost story, that root basic unit of horror. "The Listener" takes on the form of diary entries, a classic not to say overplayed device, and then in many ways proceeds as vividly as Hanns Heinz Ewers's "The Spider." Blackwood's anonymous urban creature is more of a Londoner, as opposed to Ewers's Parisian. He's a freelance writer who finds rooms that are dirt-cheap and close to the newspaper offices where he pitches stories. You can guess the reason those rooms are cheap, though Blackwood's typical light touch slips it by. He's remarkably good at working variations on the conventions. It's always a ghost that's bothering our freelancer, though the one clumsy element of the story is a visit our man pays to a lecture about death that basically explains fine points of the story's conceit, a good old ghost bit that runs from Sheridan Le Fanu's "The Familiar" to the Paranormal Activity movie franchise, with a ghost attaching itself to an individual. The way the plot point is inserted via the public lecture is what's clumsy, not the concept or the language: Suicides, he learns, "cannot shirk their responsibilities so easily. They must return to take up life exactly where they laid it so violently down, but with the added pain and punishment of their weakness. Many of them wander the earth in unspeakable misery till they can reclothe themselves in the body of someone else—generally a lunatic, or weak-minded person, who cannot resist the hideous obsession. This is their only means of escape."

A freelance writer is clearly an example of a lunatic or weak-minded person, so we quickly grasp the sense of his danger. He also mentions in his diary that he has had problems with sleepwalking in the past—not good! He is obviously ripe for a reclothing exercise on the part of some suicide still residing in the Phantom Zone of his rooms. Blackwood inserts passing examples of our man's mind being preyed on even as he is writing out his diary entries in real-time, such as one where he is talking about his exasperation with the housemaid who cleans his rooms and misplaces his things: "Sometimes I feel inclined to throw the inkstand at her, just to bring an expression into her watery eyes and a squeak from those colorless lips. Dear me! What violent expressions I am making use of! How very foolish of me!" One obvious point in such stream of (double) consciousness foreshadowing is how much H.P. Lovecraft was influenced by Blackwood, whose best is better than anything Lovecraft touched for all his considerable influence himself. Even the misplaced things is done insidiously well here—it could be the help, it could be the addled freelancer, or it could be the ghost, which systematically works on him on different sensual levels: sounds and smells long before sight of anything, and at one point he feels the arm of another person in a dark room. "Like small doses of morphine often repeated," he writes, "she has finally a cumulative effect." But we know it's not the housemaid.

When the ghost is finally named, as "the Listener," it brings sharp focus to the strange events and perceptions swirling around our man and/or merely in his mind. He is plainly haunted now, by something that feels more and more predatory: "Last night I was again troubled by most oppressive dreams. Someone seemed to be moving in the night up and down my room, sometimes passing into the front room, and then returning to stand beside the bed and stare intently down upon me. I was being watched by this person all night long. I never actually awoke, though I was often very near it." The lines between annoyance and dread and danger are passed successively in order but almost imperceptibly. Blackwood always works well at his peak operatic moments. Part of his skill is the way he raises the temperature so high even as we barely notice. Suddenly things are dire and how did we get here? The final payoff and explanations are a bit pat and a lot antiquated and insensitive, but certainly grotesque so (on one level) why not? The least you can say about Blackwood is that he's a certifiable master of horror.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (2019)

I better start by acknowledging a lifelong blind spot for Linda Ronstadt. As it happens, this amazing documentary does little to change that, but it helps me see how much I missed about her and more generally how wrong I've been, what a fully rich and rewarding career she has had. It reminded me how much I like what I do like from her pop and rock period, such as the early hit with the Stone Poneys, "Different Drum." It helped me make my peace with "Long Long Time," an aching hit ballad I never cared for until I saw it here (in fact, I hated it so much I regularly changed the station on it when I was 15). And it pointed out the obvious about "You're No Good," which is that the production turns it into a type of late Beatles rave-up. Somehow I never noticed that and I have always liked the song a lot. I was particularly struck by how The Sound of My Voice didn't even mention my favorite song by her, a cover of Karla Bonoff's "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me" (and Bonoff is one of those interviewed here). Of course, it salutes her primary sin by my lights, all those terrible covers from the '70s ("When Will I Be Loved," "That'll Be the Day," "It's So Easy"), including Elvis Costello material. Costello complained about her covers and ended up looking a little like Jonathan Franzen 20 years later complaining about Oprah Winfrey, but I still agree with him to the extent that I don't think she brought that much to his songs (beyond beefed-up royalties, which, let's face it). But Elvis Costello is not mentioned either. My key associations with Linda Ronstadt turn out to be footnotes or not important at all. The Sound of My Voice sails past them with barely a note, which I take as one measure of how out of step with Ronstadt's career and talent I have been. 

All those things I really hated, which came in the '80s and later, look different in the context of her entire career. First there's the turn to Gilbert & Sullivan operetta—I have never been a G&S fan, even casually. Then there is the American songbook move, recording Tin Pan Alley standards arranged by Nelson Riddle. She might have been the first rock star to do it and I remember, in the mid-'80s, finding it particularly repulsive. But I have softened since then, perhaps partly by the lesser attempts of Rod Stewart and especially Bob Dylan in comparison, and partly by a lifetime's parade of Woody Allen movies finally insinuating a taste for such stuff in me. What we see here of those sessions is absolutely stunning, truly. Great material, sensitively performed. But Linda Ronstadt was not done yet. Next she hooked up with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris and what we see here of that is equally stunning. But there's more. Then she turned to doing traditional Mexican mariachi music, and that stuff was just as flattening as what came before. I mean, I'm telling you, this documentary is amazing. Dolly Parton has a great quote in this where she talks about Ronstadt's voice and her ability to use it as a serious instrument, crafting it into many different shapes and guises with a perfectionism that's bracing. That is Ronstadt's great talent, her genius, and it's what's on display in this amazing show. You really don't have to be a fan—or even become one—to appreciate that. It makes the tragedy of losing her voice to Parkinson's all the more poignant and devastating. This is that rare biographical picture that turned me around completely on its subject even if it didn't have that much specific effect on my taste. Even if you don't like '70s arena rock, covers of standards (Tin Pan Alley or rock era), country harmonies, or mariachi music—none of which has been a major cup of tea for me—you're still likely to come out of this amazed that one person could do them all so convincingly. She's a pretty cool person too. I'm just going to go ahead and say this is essential.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll (1997)

My sense from rock critic Chuck Eddy's fans is that this treatise is a favorite in terms of either a kind of freewheeling zine aesthetic of come-what-may bricolage popular culture interpretation, or a unified field theory of pop music, or both. Or a man going mad. At its best the big think piece is a penetrating meditation on songcraft and all the incidental fragments that go into it. The subtitle, A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music, clarifies that the scope extends beyond the rock era as well as astride it. In places it reminded me of Charlie Gillett, whose Sound of the City may still be the best breakdown of '50s rock 'n' roll, and in other places it reminded me of Nik Cohn's Rock From the Beginning, which thrilled me when I was 15. More often it reminded me of Richard Meltzer's Aesthetics of Rock, which mystifies almost as much as annoys. I like the idea of iconoclastic debunkeration and the puncturing of conventional wisdom as much as the next guy, but inevitably some of the accompanying contempt for norms can splash around too much. In this case, the index (a work of art in itself, I must say) enables quick ways to them, e.g., Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Bruce Springsteen. I have some sense where the animus is coming from but it's wearing. Even when I'm on his side in terms of taste—his spirited defense of disco, notably, which really needed it in 1997—I'm not always comfortable with the regular dismissals of people as dorks, morons, and nitwits. He's still got the Moe thing going but it might not be as funny as it was in Stairway to Hell. Sometimes it works—I like "incomprehensible French discourse doofus Michel Foucault." But more often it chafes, especially when it's your objects of love. I know, it's just a joke, don't take it personally. 

Chuck Eddy and I came up the same way at the same time, college paper rock critics in the early '80s, though I'm a few years older and he's much better (full disclosure, he contributed to my zine in the '90s). We were privy to sizable stores of free record company dross for many years and a lot of it was better than you'd think, though quite spotty. The center of gravity of the industry remains the star system, however (Beatles, Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift, etc.), and you can't fight City Hall. One interview with Beyonce is worth 27 erudite record reviews, even if the tunes are kooky irresistible fun and you'd be surprised. But Chuck is here to fight City Hall. In many ways his tastes run to a certain mainstream themselves, John Cougar Mellencamp and Axl Rose and country music, but the deconstruction / reinvention project at hand here involves hyphenated adjectival parts of speech and the approximations of music representing them, such as "-punk-," "-bubble-," "-country-," and of course "-disco-." Square that up in your mind, remembering they are often treated as somewhat interchangeable, and there is a big four-dimensional cube to fill of cross-section categories like "country-bubble-pop" and such. Chuck Eddy the force of nature and encyclopedic sponge of just-miss pop music goes to work connecting the dots of B product. It's an impressive high-wire act. I'm not sure it succeeds, but kudos to him for getting up there and doing it. He can work up some pretty funny bits with this material and make some surprising connections, though too many of the referents were unfortunately unknown to me. Apparently our 40 acres of obscure promos didn't have that much intersection. Accidental Evolution goes trailing down some weird byways of pop music. I believe there are still bins of dollar vinyl albums out there. You could do worse than this as a guide.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Weezer (2019)

I wandered into Weezer's so-called Black Album the way I usually wander into newish albums these days, backing in as one attractive track has led to multiples on my streaming playlist—which doesn't happen as often as I'd like to be frank. Re: Weezer I'm old enough to remember when the Blue Album was just their first album and people didn't know what to make of it across the din of the Roman pillars of grunge. I never hated them and was inclined to defend them. I remember the first couple albums as lightweight but winning in a general way, and sort of kept an eye on them for a while. But it's been so long I entirely missed all the new century's colors albums (starting with Green in 2001, Red in 2008, White in 2016, and Teal last year along with Black) plus whatever dramas of artistic development they have portended. Napster in its infinite wisdom classes Weezer as "Modern Power Pop" and that's good enough for me as I am always inclined to excuse myself instantly from any discussion of power pop, especially definitional. My first love affair here was with "High as a Kite," which is not actually what it seems. Sonically, it does sound like a lush ode to cannabis in the era of legalization but actually they are quite clear from the start: "I think I'm going parasailing / Miles above, it's so serene." Whether this is parasailing in a hazy afternoon Brian Wilson room of the mind is much harder to say, of course. The day outing may not cost that much, after all, but to indulge the seaside adventure you do need to live near a seaside offering it. What I like is someone making "high as a kite" sound so beautifully serene. I like to spend afternoons inside this song. And, like a classic two-sided hit, it also delivered a companion piece in "Living in L.A.," which it's obvious even from the title is about agonies of urban life and possibly shallow celebrity. The chorus goes "This girl I like / I'm talking 'bout this girl I like" but I forever persist in hearing "town" for "girl" somehow—and so, with such subtle negations, rank clichés ("We sacrifice our lives for rock and roll"), and other ambiguities, the words abstract into neutral focus and let the surging open electric guitar chords and charging rhythm drive it. Play loud in cars with shades on. Drive fast. The last draw came later, when "The Prince Who Wanted Everything" somehow made it onto the playlist with its ecstatic drone, thrumming guitar chords, and delicious "do do do do." So I checked out the album and found even a few more winners: "Byzantine," "Can't Knock the Hustle," "Too Many Thoughts in My Head" (as well as a real dog, wrecked by the words, in "California Snow"). Peyton Thomas, in a somewhat baffling review at Pitchfork, argued against the Black Album, assigning it a 5.7 rating and writing, "A sense of tonal whiplash ensues, and the album's highlights are best enjoyed in isolation." Happily, in my case, that's pretty much exactly how it happened, but I would rate it more like 7.8.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

USA, 129 minutes
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Sidney Buchman, Lewis R. Foster, Myles Connolly
Photography: Joseph Walker
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editors: Al Clark, Gene Havlick
Cast: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Arnold, Eugene Pallette, Harry Carey, Guy Kibbee, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Astrid Allwyn, Ruth Donnelly, Charles Lane, Porter Hall, William Demarest, Jack Carson

You don't need me to tell you what kind of crazy year this has been, and not even half over. But I want to mention that I looked at Mr. Smith Goes to Washington a few months ago during the impeachment and found it much more resonant than I expected. Remember the impeachment? It's hard to believe that even happened this year. Of course, as a movie directed by Frank Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has certain known quantities going in. The last 10 minutes will be a train wreck of happiness. The little guy will always get his say, and the girl too (usually all she's doing is cheering him on). People will generally regard Abraham Lincoln as real swell. And where, in John Ford tableaus, the pilgrims solemnly assemble for a verse of "Shall We Gather at the River," in Capra pictures it's going to be brass bands, patriotic marches, and "Auld Lang Syne." Set your expectations accordingly.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington just has too many solid elements going for it to be spoiled by animus toward Capra. They include the beautiful young James Stewart (though best seen in this period in The Shop Around the Corner), the sturdy Jean Arthur, who never strays far from her slightly wised-up Betty Boop girl-next-door salty leading lady persona but was made for these times of Depression and war (I love her), Claude Rains his typical consummate professional, and the usual impressive assemblage of character actors: Thomas Mitchell (drunk again), goose-voiced Eugene Pallette (I love him too), Harry Carey, Guy Kibbee, Beulah Bondi, etc. They don't call 1939 Hollywood's greatest year for nothin'.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The White Lioness (1993)

I liked a lot of things about this Kurt Wallander story by Henning Mankell, though its scope and size put it more in the range of big-time bestseller thriller than police procedural. We've already seen Mankell's ambitions to transcend genre limitations, not least by giving them such deeply international themes and concerns. The previous novel, The Dogs of Riga, involved the reunification of Germany and the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union. This one involves South Africa at the end of apartheid—in fact, it is about an assassination attempt on Nelson Mandela. I'm not sure I like such high-profile goings-on going on in my tidy little police procedurals, but Mankell was a part-time resident and lifelong student of South Africa, so he comes by it honestly. Mankell demonstrates again, more emphatically than ever, that he is a positive master at orchestrating plot. From the disappearance of a young wife and mother in southern Sweden, and back and forth to the highest echelons of South African power, Mankell puts the police detective Wallander on the case, which includes a disaffected high-level KGB agent, two African assassins with varying spiritual inclinations, a handful of Communist stooges, President F.W. de Klerk himself, brutal white supremacists of course, a Methodist minister, and Wallander's own daughter. There's plenty of mortal danger to go around and the stakes are very high. I never believed we were in South African history, though South Africa itself was quite believable, including de Klerk, often seen burning the midnight oil in the spring of 1992, when this novel takes place. The White Lioness was never published in English until 1998 so it might have already been easy to miss the scorching immediacy of the historical moment and context Mankell worked in—practically a tightrope act. The transition was still ongoing in 1993 and still could have gone wrong even as he was writing. An assassination of Mandela was hardly unlikely—where would Mankell have been then? As I say, the 500 pages of The White Lioness add up to thriller more than anything else. I often thought of Robert Ludlum as I wended along through all these meticulously constructed events. Kurt Wallander is interesting and likable, gruff but ploddingly competent, with inspired intuition and fierce commitment. He's hot-tempered, a little bit foolish, but a lot wise. He's a heroic figure and there are others like him here, who recognize one another. Well, it's genre. The bad people are in the mold of German Nazis. So it works for the most part, and works pretty well, but may lean toward the mechanical and indulgent by size. It will probably keep you up most of the night if you let it.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Stagecoach (1939)

USA, 96 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Ernest Haycox, Dudley Nichols, Ben Hecht
Photography: Bert Glennon
Music: Gerard Carbonara
Editors: Otto Lovering, Dorothy Spencer, Walter Reynolds
Cast: John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, Donald Meek, John Carradine, Berton Churchill, Andy Devine, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Tim Holt, Chris-Pin Martin, William Hopper, Hank Worden

Like The Day the Earth Stood Still would do 12 years later for science fiction, director John Ford's Stagecoach was instrumental in moving the Western from the ranks of genre B movies onto the A list. It's Ford's first picture shot in Monument Valley, John Wayne's first step into the Hollywood limelight, and a star-studded ensemble exercise packed with irresistible characters and friction. It's also one of those happy accidents where so many things fall together well, screenplay, casting, performances, and all kinds of little things. Even though it's black and white the shots of Monument Valley are stunningly beautiful. It's remarkable how entertaining and absorbing Stagecoach is. You might remember it as a little stiff or antiquated but you may be look again and see how sturdy it is in construction and execution.

It's set in the wide open spaces of the West but with most of the action confined to eight or 10 players jammed in and around a stagecoach making its way across the desert, thus offering a self-conscious microcosm of 19th-century American society after the Civil War. There's a drunken doctor (Thomas Mitchell), a scarlet woman named Dallas (Claire Trevor), a whiskey peddler everyone mistakes for a preacher (Donald Meek), an Old South reprobate pretending to be a gentleman (John Carradine), a bank president absconding with the church funds (Berton Churchill), the outlaw Ringo Kid (John Wayne), and others. It works like a road movie, when it cuts away to long shots of the stagecoach rolling down the line and the music revs up, and it works like a chamber piece inside the stagecoach and at the various stops.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

"The Masque of the Red Death" (1842)

This short Edgar Allan Poe story reads remarkably well during a pandemic. The disease in this case (or pestilence, or plague) is called the Red Death—purely invented and grotesque, bringing certain death. It's plausible in many ways, less so in others. It raises the blood to the surface of the skin and flushes it forth, as if capillary walls are dissolved. Its course from onset to death is absurdly swift, about 30 minutes. But he's got much more right than wrong here, notably on contagion and, especially, the behavior of the privileged. In the face of plague our hero, such as he is, one Prince Prospero, retires to his remote hideaway with a thousand of his best friends. The bet is herd immunity. It's not really social distancing in the castle but more like the super rich today with their private islands, sending out for test kits to ensure their own safety in the meanwhile. In this case the prince bolts and then welds the doors shut behind him. Minneapolis is burning. No one is getting in or out for the duration. The rest is quite familiar: "The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine." Quarantine party time! And the revels go on 24/7, with food and bored entertainment. Poe wrote horror more with a European twang than American, which to me is his enduring strength, setting many of his stories on the continent and featuring the native aristocracy. Prince Prospero is a nobleman and he acts like one. Think Jared Kushner. Comes the day, some five or six months into the lockdown, when the prince decides to give a masquerade ball. At this point, even though the story is quite short, Poe branches off into one of his description fugues about rooms and suites and color schemes. It's a bit confusing, with corridors and windows and ultimately seven rooms done up in seven colors. It's kind of like a rainbow except the colors are wrong and in the wrong sequence. Red is the death chamber, of course, and its opposite here is blue, which does happen to have uncanny resonance with our present historical moment, right down to a contagious epidemic and the color red representing the death cult. Poe was thinking of blood, of course (as opposed to blood and soil), but by both happy accident and instinctive understanding of epidemic he turned out a remarkable story in spite of the small miscues. I know it's purely circumstantial and maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it feels like it was written for COVID-19 in the 21st century. For that reason, I'm sorry to have to report that the virus wins. Even in a remote mountain keep, you can't get away from it. Spoiler alert.

Monday, June 08, 2020

When They See Us (2019)

Sometimes the way they organize things over at IMDb is a little baffling. The stack of credits for Ava DuVernay, for example, starts with "Miscellaneous Crew," where she is listed on some 99 movies, usually in a publicity or promotional capacity. Her first feature-length picture as a director (found down below 23 movies as producer, 16 as writer, and then 22 as director, so it isn't ordered by numbers) is a documentary from 2008 about Los Angeles hip-hop, This Is the Life. The first picture by her I know is Selma, from 2014, which was excellent, and now this Netflix miniseries docudrama about the notorious Central Park 5 miscarriage of justice. Well, we've all been thinking about miscarriages of justice lately. I mention DuVernay's PR background because it clarified something for me about her heartfelt style—she's here to win you over. She wants to knock you out of your complacency, whether by charm or blunt force. Executive producers on When They See Us include Robert De Niro and Oprah Winfrey, which conveniently denotes a spectrum across this engrossing five-hour production. It breaks your heart with bottomless institutional cruelty and harrowing prison scenes and it uplifts with simple examples of human faith, dignity, and kindness, often tear-dimmed as they go down. When They See Us reminded me of an overlong Law & Order episode. It's set in New York City and draws on much the same theatrical pool to round out the cast—I recognized a few faces specifically from the show—but also because this is a legal case involving both police and courts with major twists and turns. You can't make this stuff up, as they say. In fact, I think people still need to be reminded that the five Harlem kids charged and found guilty of the brutal rape and beating of the Central Park jogger in 1989 were fully exonerated in 2002. They never did it. Yes, there are people like Donald Trump who still believe they are guilty and should be executed. But look at who Donald Trump is. And, among other things, this miniseries debunks their theory of the case, which is that the serial killer who confessed to it and similar crimes from that time, and left a mountain of physical evidence to corroborate the confession, was actually the sixth man involved, with the others and their confused stories somehow leaving no physical trace. DuVernay can't resist the impulse for some score-settling on the point, which is fair enough (given who we know Donald Trump is), but these days the less I see of Fat Bastard the better. DuVernay, who also cowrote, wisely stays closest to the boys most of the time, their families and their experiences. Their stories are all bad, but one, Korey Wise's, is worse than the others. It's hard to watch When They See Us, the injustice is so monstrous. It's hard to see what happened to these five men. But seeing them is ultimately the point of this exercise and it's worth the pain, which is only an echo of theirs. We all need to do more seeing.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Go Down, Moses (1942)

William Faulkner considered this cycle of seven stories to be a novel and that's good enough for me. Some of them were published separately, but even what is likely the most famous story here—"The Bear"—has a long section that has nothing to do with any bear and everything to do with themes and elements developed in the other stories. The stories are discontinuous but sequential in time, with a shifting cast of main characters. As with much of Faulkner, the themes and elements can be reduced to interbreeding among Old South settlers and natives, including of course slaves. It's the story of the McCaslin family across the generations, but it's not easy to sort out all the relations in this sizable clan, especially the brooding way Faulkner tells it, elliptically, from obtuse angles, occasionally wading deep into minutia of genealogy. I saw a chart once that made reasonably clear what is meant by first, second, and third cousins, and the "removed" business too, but I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it, especially in Faulkner's brusque linear narrative form. To make things worse, the African line of descent is of course kept secret among McCaslins (open secret, not to be discussed aloud) and marked by shame and humiliation. But character traits and physical features can emerge in any part of the clan, and they are all united in some ways. There are lots of lively anecdotes here, and Faulkner often surprises with humor, though much of it is ultimately tragic. The main character—or the unifying character—is Isaac McCaslin, a white man, gifted hunter, and lifelong bachelor who repudiates an inheritance of land and utterly bewilders everyone else here. As readers we can see that he's actually explaining himself fairly clearly, in that strangely stilted language of Faulkner that grows hypnotic. Isaac McCaslin is explaining himself—they just don't want to understand. We can understand better. So it goes. The first story tells of how Isaac's father was tricked into marriage late in life. His name is Theophilus but he's known as Buck. In the later stories Isaac is Uncle Ike and an old man. The centerpiece and best story is "The Bear," a great hunting adventure with nice exaggerations, spending a significant portion of its significant length on Isaac's explanation of himself in a somewhat arch experimental format, which is nonetheless effective. This novel, as slapped together as it feels in a way, is one of my favorites by Faulkner.

Friday, June 05, 2020

Union Pacific (1939)

USA, 135 minutes
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Writers: Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Cunningham, Ernest Haycox, Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, Jeanie Macpherson, Stanley Rauh
Photography: Victor Milner
Music: Sigmund Krumgold, John Leipold, Gerard Carbonara, Leo Shuken, Victor Young
Editor: Anne Bauchens
Cast: Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Henry Kolker, Akim Tamiroff, Lynne Overman, Robert Barrat, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Ridges, Evelyn Keyes, Regis Toomey, Lon Chaney Jr.

I've never entirely understood the term "movie movie" (and the internet is little help on it at the moment) but my sense is that it might apply to this cracking epical Cecil B. DeMille yarn about the building of the railroad from Omaha, Nebraska to Ogden, Utah. It's pulpy, old-fashioned, a little bit long, and thoroughly enjoyable. There's enough fizzy calculated confrontation and tension from scene to scene to keep it constantly interesting. It takes place shortly after the Civil War and plays much like an extended Dudley Do-Right cartoon, complete with a Snidely Whiplash villain (Brian Donlevy, in the screenshot above, who is often seen dunking the sucking end of his cigars into his drink, eww). 

Also on view: buffalo, Indians, Mexicans, gold fever, fancy shooting, gamblers, horses—practically everything Western except Mormons, and they're probably waiting in Ogden. And trains, of course, the ol' Iron Horse, with not one but two spectacular train wrecks. The story is some extended nonsense that is at once about opening the Western frontier and also about the amiable political corruption that drove it. The bad guys don't get everything they want, but as usual in American history they get about 80%, enough to pay for the cigars and fancy suits.