Thursday, July 30, 2020

"The Black Stone" (1931)

Robert E. Howard is likely more famous now as the creator and original author of Kull and Conan the Barbarian tales, though he missed out on the action figure market by several decades, dying in 1936. Sword and sorcery (for which Howard is arguably responsible) is too pulpy for me but Howard was also a devotee of and correspondent with H.P. Lovecraft, an early result of which is this tale set squarely in the Cthulhu universe. Howard has his own interesting biography as a lonely Texan, detailed in the indie movie The Whole Wide World with Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger. I haven't seen it since it was new in 1996, but remember liking it in a kind of pastoral indie way, while mixing up Howard in my mind with Lovecraft (who hailed from Rhode Island, not Texas, for one thing). Howard can be an awkward writer, making mistakes like confusing "gleam" and "glean," even as he strains after the dense Lovecraft poetics. The line between fan fiction and its sources can be thin in these circles. With "The Black Stone" (published in Weird Tales so arguably not fan fiction at all), Howard chipped in a mythical text that quickly became Cthulhu canon, along with Lovecraft's Necronomicon by the "Mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred. Howard named the author of his book Friedrich von Junzt and the book Nameless Cults (or "the Black Book"). Leave it to Lovecraft to later apply the German (appropriately, of course) for an altogether better and more ominous title (because German), Unaussprechlichen Kulten. "The Black Stone" is based on a familiar Sherlock Holmes type of investigator figure, the unnamed first-person narrator, who depends less on observation and deduction and more on library research and good luck. Indeed, conducting investigation in the field (a remote Eastern Europe setting), he is at once extraordinarily unprepared and lucky. In other words, "coincidence be thy name, plot development." For example, this guy knows things happen on Midsummer Night but somehow he forgets that he is traveling at that time of the year. How fortunate, come the night in question! Despite its quasi-Transylvania setting, the story feels very much like American horror, like Washington Irving or Nathaniel Hawthorne, with its shock troops of devil worshipers in the moonlit wilderness. One nice detail is that even though there is a horde of them, they are silent. A sacrifice is nearly as vivid as one in the movie Midsommar, and pumping mist all over it as ghostly and unreal and dreamlike somehow only makes it more disturbing. And then there is one of those Lovecraftian reveals of stupendously enormous scale as the Black Stone, the giant obelisk in the wilderness that draws forth the ghosts to worship on Midsummer Night, is revealed as ... well, I would let you find that out. For me "The Black Stone" is fan fiction, but for all that it's not a bad romp.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

"Peasants" (1897)

This bracing long story by Anton Chekhov was a sensational controversy on first being published. Even Leo Tolstoy thought it was too much, a "crime against the people." Russian censors disapproved its bleak portrait and the report by one (a V. Sokolov), per Wikipedia, makes as good a case as any for the importance of the story, even though he was arguing for cuts and changes:

In the first part of the April volume of Russkaya Mysl there is a story by A.P. Chekhov called "Peasants" which demands special attention. In it the life of peasants in villages is depicted in exceedingly grim tones. Throughout summer they toil in fields from morning till late at night along with members of their families, and yet are unable to store bread even for half a year. Nearly dying of hunger because of that, almost all of them, nevertheless, are engaged in excessive drinking. For this they are ready to part with everything, even their last piece of clothes... Their helplessness is aggravated by the immense burden of taxes which for peasants' families are unbearable. The real curse for these peasants, or rather their families, is indeed their total ignorance. The majority of the muzhiks, if the author is to be believed, do not believe in God and are deaf to religion. Peasants long for light and knowledge but are unable to find the way to them on their own because very few of them can read or write at all. Most of them are seemingly unaware of the concept of literacy as such.

Thus the results to date, in 1897 (if the author is to be believed!), of the liberation of the Russian serfs in 1861, nearly 40 years on. That makes the story important politically and historically, but it also has the usual high polish of Chekhov, if decidedly in the brutal naturalist style, taking a page from Zola and even upping the ante. Chekhov's observant eye and ear are trained on squalor and degraded living conditions. It feels true because it goes so far so unflinchingly. It's not hard to see why people objected and resisted giving it credence—much the way police brutality is treated in the US nowadays. But, as they say, that doesn't make it any less true, and we know now that Chekhov's story is closer to journalism than fiction. But it is fiction, a good story, and as if to prove the point it comes with a tender and bittersweet resolution. Bittersweet with all emphasis on the bitter. The sweetness lies only in futile hope.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Sullivan's Travels (1941)

USA, 90 minutes
Director / writer: Preston Sturges
Photography: John F. Seitz
Music: Charles Bradshaw, Leo Shuken
Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Eric Blore, Robert Greig, Torben Meyer, Jimmy Conlin, Margaret Hayes, Ray Milland, Preston Sturges

At the point we meet John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), at the start of Sullivan's Travels, he is a successful can't-go-wrong Hollywood wunderkind director of comedies (for example, Hey, Hey, in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939). Maybe a kind of Roy Del Ruth or Lloyd Bacon? Now he wants to make an earnestly serious picture about social suffering and so forth. Mogully producers love Sullivan for his commercial touch of comedy gold, but they don't want to muck that up with some dour exercise that won't sell tickets. This is actually a familiar pattern even in later eras, where comic players of varying ability often appear to believe drama is more exalted than comedy, something they consider more like their day job. Because I am a Boomer, Woody Allen (Interiors, etc.) and Bill Murray (The Razor's Edge, etc.) spring quickly to mind.

I usually forget that the earnestly serious movie John L. Sullivan is determined to make is called O Brother, Where Are Thou? so it usually comes as a pleasant surprise. The Coen brothers redeemed it as a good joke nearly 60 years later. One of the bottomless supply of character actors attending director and writer Preston Sturges (speaking of the commercial comedy touch of gold, which for him was approximately across the midcentury war years) points out to Sullivan that he's not qualified to make a movie about social troubles, having never experienced any himself. That makes Sullivan determined to go to Wardrobe, get himself a hobo costume, and bum the rails around the country, searching for just that experience. And so here we are. 

Monday, July 20, 2020

Dead Set (2008)

Admissions made freely: I have never seen the Big Brother reality TV show (let alone the UK version) nor have I explored the zombie genre extensively. But I know how they work and this short British five-part miniseries, which clocks in under two and a half hours in total, has a lot of fun with both. I believe 2008 is still a little early for streaming, if not entirely for peak TV. Dead Set was broadcast on five consecutive nights in late October 2008. It almost feels chopped apart with an axe, with little in the way of credits before or after each commercial sitcom-sized episode (at least as they're available on Netflix) and only the most basic jagged stop and start points. It's made to binge even if it wasn't possible then. And these days does less than three hours even count as binging? As a zombie exercise, Dead Set aligns itself formally more with the 28 franchise style of fast zombies, and there's lots that we know here: the breakdowns of social norms, all human weakness related to the seven deadly sins vividly at work, the heartbreak and shock of seeing loved ones die and then turn, and don't forget you have to get these things in the head. As usual, it's not the coronavirus zombies, it's the humans who can't handle reality. And what better place to look for people who can't handle reality than on the set of a reality TV show? That's the genius of this one, along with its impossibly fast-cut tumbling stomping zombie attacks, a minute or two at a time. There's a reflexive love story for the usual sake of raising the stakes or whatever but mostly these characters are reality TV show types—starved for celebrity, seeing all things worthwhile in fame and attention, drawn like moths even in a pandemic zombie apocalypse. Dead Set is an early and workmanlike effort by Black Mirror writer Charlie Brooker. It fits well with the aesthetics of 2000s zombies, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, and Shaun of the Dead. It's harrowing, often gross, and funny in a kind of brutal way. Jaime Winstone's Kelly is the heroine, and a number of these reality TV contestants are memorable (notably Kathleen McDermott's Pippa, something of a straight man, a cheesecake in a slinky gown who can only helplessly squeak "I don't like it" as events unfold). The actual hero is porn-mustachioed Andy Nyman as the TV show producer and one of entertainment's great pigs—in a Brooker story, in a zombie picture, in cinema at large. He gleefully steals this show and takes it over the top like Krusty the Clown with bubonic plague. He's the worst monster here and you hate him until he becomes iconic in his death. You've heard of chewing the scenery? You've seen nothing. Definitely worth a look.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

Pity poor Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams. Trapped in 19th-century egalitarian society, burdened by his ancestry, pursuing an immoderately modest career as a historian and teacher. His autobiography (far more heavy than mere memoir) is considered one of the greatest in American literature. Yet it never mentions that he was married (let alone the tragedy of it)—I spent a lot of the book idly wondering if he were gay. Though it tells many details of his life it is more on the order of a think piece on history and historical patterns. His ideas about the Virgin Mary representing the primary motivating force of the 12th century (yes, the 12th, it's all explained), and the electric dynamo that of the 20th century, get a lot of gloomy oxygen here. He worries a lot about science, fully aware of Darwin and evolution. The reason I say we should pity him is in how he was just a little early for the things that would really get to him. If the trend in human affairs is alarmingly away from order and toward chaos, then relativity and especially quantum mechanics would have unnerved him badly. Though he considered himself a failure as historian and teacher, no one else did, and his sweeping historical perspective is often impressive. His approach is allusive and indirect—he expects you to know as much as him, though likely very few do, then or now. And not me—sometimes, especially toward the end when he tries to pull together all the pieces into a unified field theory of history, I glazed over, I must admit. Adams is at once deeply American and yet deeply elitist. His one reference to Mark Twain is mocking, he admires Henry James but brother William James more, and his best friends were even more accomplished than he was. He was in London as a young man for the duration of the Civil War, working with his father who was the ambassador to Britain. That's probably the best part in terms of history, event, and detail, with a wonderful view of Britain and the European powers during the time. But this morning I keep coming back to the fact that I had to go to Wikipedia to find out not only that he was married, but that his wife was mentally ill and killed herself. Talk about compartmentalization. That's some strange stuff to leave out of an autobiography. It certainly fits with the constant of Adams's doleful tone, etched with small sparks of venom. I don't come away from it feeling I know that much about Henry Adams except as something like the brooding spirit of American history. It's a stiff jolt of American character, not always recognizably human, perhaps the intent.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Sports (1983)

Some years ago I was reading along in the 2006 installment of the Da Capo Best Music Writing series, with selections in that volume by guest editor Mary Gaitskill, when I first encountered Katy St. Clair's remarkable story for SF Weekly, "A Very Special Concert." As the deck on the original piece suggests, it's about "the enduring bond between Huey Lewis [& the News] and the developmentally disabled," a sensitive consideration of an unusual, somewhat surprising, and cheering phenomenon. St. Clair writes, "Whatever the reason—the catchy tunes, the goofball charisma, or maybe those slapstick videos—developmentally disabled people see something significant and tender in Huey Lewis. He makes them happy." The piece goes on to detail how they have made him their own rock star, with the same kind of uncanny abilities to charm and weave spells that Tom Jones, Morrissey, Bruce Springsteen and many other superstars have for others.

It reminded me of a dilemma I faced early in my so-called career as a rock critic, perhaps for the first time, which is the matter of trusting your gut. We know now how overrated it is as a quality for the US Commander in Chief, but it comes in pretty handy for critics. In fact, it's one of their most important qualities, if they have it—an ability to step back and judge, not exactly impartially but with clarity or honesty and a willingness to stand by their responses. I never got the hang of it and, in fairness to me, it's not an uncommon problem. Revisiting most newspaper and other reviews from years gone by, distinguished by being written in the heat of the moment, often uncovers views of conventional wisdom that no longer make sense, viz., Led Zeppelin is terrible commercial hokum, Yoko Ono wrecked the Beatles, David Bowie is poncy, disco sucks, punk-rock is anti-life. Those are just from the '70s and incomplete. There's much more. Most people are convinced that critics are terrible idiots and in many ways they are right.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

"The Trapdoor" (1936)

There's not a lot I can tell you about C.D. Heriot, the author of this somewhat obscure story. Wikipedia is silent on him (at least I believe it's a him) and the invaluable Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB) is sketchy: he was British and published three stories, including this one, which I found in Mary Danby's Realms of Darkness collection. Two are from the '30s and one from the '50s. It probably makes more sense to align him with ghost story writers like E.F. Benson, F. Marion Crawford, or M.R. James (I understand the penchant for initials is artifact of the disreputability of horror or, in some cases, like E. Nesbit, because they wanted to conceal they were women). But in a way "The Trapdoor" can also be likened to Italian giallo horror movies like Lucia Fulci's The Beyond. An H.P. Lovecraft story, "The Dreams in the Witch-House," has specific similarities too and could well have had some influence, even on the movie. Things happen in The Beyond, as in "The Trapdoor," that make no sense. They just happen. You can't figure it out. They are not there to be understood. In turn, in brief flashes, they can point to dread of widening-gyre chaos loosed upon the world. In either case, the plot breakdowns may equally be matters of ineptitude. But still they have their ways to get to you. In this story, for me, it's a few paragraphs in the middle, fleetingly. The premise and setup are otherwise lame and the payoff lamer. John Staines is under doctor's orders to rest on weekends and finds a place to stay he likes in a village in the country, an "isolated beer house." Almost immediately he finds himself in tense relations with the sour landlady, Mrs. Palethorpe. To be fair, Staines has developed a fixation on a trapdoor in the hall outside his room, which leads to a loft. Anyone in Mrs. Palethorpe's position would likely be annoyed. Think about the greater likelihood that Staines is wrong and there is nothing sinister. Mrs. Palethorpe tells him the loft is empty and unused. But Staines notices the trapdoor has been sabotaged to be difficult to open. Or, alternatively, it has rusted shut because no one uses it. Staines has many questions. One night he is awakened by a knocking from above. It can only be coming from the loft. For a few minutes in the utter silence of the middle of the night in a strange place in the country he's not sure whether he's imagining it, and neither are we. For this brief and very nice passage we are right there with him in every strange room we've stayed in ourselves as he tries to decide what's real and what's not, and can't. Then the story moves into its more florid Fulci-like paces and things happen or don't happen that can't happen in the world we understand. Like Fulci, it gets progressively more silly. In the end Staines realizes he's getting the opposite of the rest that was prescribed and he quits the premises forthwith. An explanatory letter of sorts from Mrs. Palethorpe follows some weeks later, sounding nothing like the character we met earlier. Now she is "Alice." But it's too late and altogether the wrong impulse for explanations. Still, it was good while it lasted.

Story not available online, but this piece by Tom Mullen, circa 2003, talks about it with a story by M.R. James and is worth a look. 

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Dead Elvis (1991)

I circled back to this Greil Marcus cogitation because Rob Sheffield's Dreaming the Beatles reminded me of it. On the surface, both are similarly focused on key figures who came to an ending—Elvis died and the Beatles broke up—which amounted to little more than blips in their continuing careers. They only got bigger. Well, maybe—it's true enough on a certain level. Sheffield's book is much more recent, but more than 25 years later now it's easier to question the premise of Dead Elvis. Is Elvis finally dead now? Well, maybe—it's true enough on a certain level. In retrospect, after the rush to the 10-year anniversary of his death in 1987, Elvis mania was starting to peter out in about 1991. I'm someone who is always late to everything and thus, as evidence, I offer that I promoted my first book in 1993 by hiring two (2) Elvis Presley impersonators to accompany me to a book signing as bodyguards. I admit it was under influence of Dead Elvis. And Marcus still remains a lurking factor in the way I approach and think about cultural issues. His best work is usually about Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, or the Sex Pistols, whatever else he may formally be writing about (which is often simply them, as here). In a way, it feels like he somehow asserts critical propriety over certain artists—Lana Del Rey is shaping up to be his 21st-century project. Much of the heat I encountered my first time through Dead Elvis, when it was new, has cooled considerably. It seems more a product of its time, the late '80s, which may be approximately Peak Elvis. The book's visual exhibits all seem to come from 1988. As always Marcus's ideas are fun to grasp and toss around and he's always a good writer. If some of his insights are closer to weird, others are dead-on. This time I especially appreciated the attempt to take down Albert Goldman's biography. It was already a bestseller, but Marcus does a lot of heavy lifting for why Goldman's exercise is wrong in ways that are harmful to all of us, not just Elvis. Mostly Dead Elvis is a book about other books—on the music of Elvis, Marcus is still best in Mystery Train. But Dead Elvis can be a lot of fun too. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it feels a little more authoritative and thoughtful on Elvis than Dreaming the Beatles does on the Beatles. But they are two rather different projects after all.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Social Network (2010)

USA, 120 minutes
Director: David Fincher
Writers: Aaron Sorkin, Ben Mezrich
Photography: Jeff Cronenweth
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Editors: Kirk Baxter, Angus Wall
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Rooney Mara, Rashida Jones, Aaron Sorkin

Speaking of nerd macho, sometimes I think The Social Network might have something to do with creating the Mark Zuckerberg we have come to know and loathe, the wound-up libertarian incel hero seething with grievance and resentment and here turned unfairly (and wrong-headedly) into a small figure we can pity. He may be brilliant and rich, but he can't get the chicks. No wonder he's pissed off. At the beginning of the picture a woman tells Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), "You're gonna go through life thinking girls don't like you because you're a nerd. I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole." At the end of it another woman, unrelated, tells him, "You're not an asshole, Mark. You're just trying to be." In between those two definitions, cowriter Aaron Sorkin seems to be suggesting, lies the truth. I'd feel a little hemmed in by popular perception too if I were Zuck.

What really had to hurt is that the movie is so darned good. Somehow I had forgotten that. You can't take your eyes off it. It's a dream collaboration between director David Fincher, Sorkin, and Eisenberg, powered by the fusillades of sparkling, cutting banter and confrontation that have made Sorkin famous. The Social Network is fast, barbed, hilarious, and utterly absorbing from its first minute. It lands punches over and over, not just on Zuckerberg. It has massive forward momentum, even though it's built out of biopic clichés, with a framing device of depositions in a law firm's tony conference room while pinballing flashbacks serve up the tech legendry raw in great meaty chunks. Bill Gates shows up at Harvard like Madonna french-kissing Britney Spears and all intentions are toward one goal: become a billionaire (because that's what's more "cool" than a millionaire).

Monday, July 06, 2020

Stranger Things, s3 (2019)

Did the pandemic end? This super-popular Netflix series, which I heard about from a number of uncommon sources, promised more of TV's blessed relief from the monotony of COVID-19 conditions. Alas, it did not much deliver for me. And COVID-19 conditions have only grown worse. The show, or the pandemic, is so humdrum it was hard to work myself up even to watch two episodes in a row, and that's no way to pandemic. Stranger Things is a nostalgia exercise set in the '80s with outlandish horror trappings driven by special effects. The most obvious sources are Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, both referenced directly. There's got to be some Steven Spielberg shout-outs on the way (or maybe they can't get the licensing done?) because Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. are even more the starting points of many conceits here. Stranger Things is also notably '80s and Spielbergian in its wanton use of product placement. Eggos is hammered the hardest but at least has some organic charm within the story. The rest are shoved in like Where's Waldo geared down for preliterates: Coca-Cola (as refreshment but also with a discussion of New Coke), Slurpee and 7-Eleven (the main character with the stylized nosebleed is named Eleven but I'm sure that's just a coincidence, though I look forward to her mixing it up sometime with Seven of Nine from Star Trek not to mention that Prisoner chap), Burger King, The Gap, Cadillac, Orange Julius (can I get some money just for mentioning them all in this review? I really like an Orange Julius!), and Marlboro cigarettes, among others. The pack of Marlboros almost made me gasp. I thought that was illegal with tobacco products! No doubt some of it, such as the cigarettes (and the smoking, with all due disclaimers at the start of each episode), can be written off as '80s parody, but talk about having your cake and eating it too. Well, but having its cake and eating it too is the whole broad stroke of this show. It's a little bit Nancy Drew, and a little bit John Carpenter's The Thing, with an ax to grind about nerds. Not nerd macho, the era we have lived in for some time now, but old-fashioned nerds, who can only dream of the dominations of nerd macho in the actual Stranger Things era. Winona Ryder plays it on one note while the kids in the basement are playing D'n'D, speaking of broad strokes. Is D'n'D a product placement or a nerd brand? Somehow, the absurd arc of this continuing narrative about Area 51-type secret government projects, extra-dimensional telepathic monsters, Russian agents operating under a mall in Indiana, and always time for a Coke the pause that refreshes, is actually driven by D'n'D, at least when it's convenient for the special effects crew, who seem to be the ones in charge here after the marketing department. The skills of these kids in math, science, and AV equipment are critically important too, of course. And plus they're all basically woke. What's not to like, if you like thuddingly obvious.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

House (1985)

There's a lot to like about this account of building a house—a specific house, in Amherst, Massachusetts, built from the ground up in six months in 1983. In one way it's like a million conversations we've all had about buying and dealing with real estate, but it goes to another level beyond mortgages and home improvement when the house is built from scratch. Tracy Kidder's great stroke is to focus on something so ordinary we almost take it for granted—the enormous complexity (even in 1983 when technology was simpler) of building a house for a nuclear family of four or so. Anyone who has ever purchased a house knows how insanely complicated it is with negotiation and managing details and cost. Designing and building one is magnitudes more complex and expensive. Kidder traipses along with the architect, owners, and builders for a look at how one house comes together. It's enjoyable to read and became famous as a type of journalism that flourished in the '70s and '80s, led by figures such as John McPhee. It has a friendly personal style, yet is researched and written with rigor, perhaps branching off from New Journalism. It was popular in reading groups. House does feel a little dated these three decades later. The real estate market has changed, though maybe not as much at this level. The people building this house are affluent, educated, and professional—they are still the people building houses today. And the builders, though arguably a dying breed of craftsman, certainly at mass levels, may still be around too, but I suspect in fewer numbers with these aesthetic ambitions. No doubt the difficulty of building a house is at least as imposing. It's a matter of degree. All the problems documented here are likely worse now—perhaps even enough that what we see here is vanishingly rare, and relatively easy. As the blurbers point out, the need for shelter is one of the most common and profound needs we share, even in the somewhat pedestrian context of modern life. Maybe what I'm missing is the element of climate change, which seems so pervasive in everything now and was mostly unknown in 1983 (as with cyberattacks and pandemics). True confession, I find swapping or listening to stories about real estate mostly tiresome. It dragged things down a bit for me here. You may feel differently. But the details of building a house, including the business side, are amply documented in House and often fascinating. It's a good example of this type of journalism, modest yet impressively done.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

UK, 87 minutes, documentary
Director: Banksy
Music: Geoff Barrow, Richard Hawley
Editors: Banksy, Tom Fulford, Chris King
With: Rhys Ifans, Thierry Guetta (aka Mr. Brainwash), Banksy, Invader, Shepard Fairey, Neckface, Swoon

It's not easy to pin down what this entertaining little picture is, exactly, though all the main problems are caught in the basic question, documentary or mockumentary? It's directed by the notorious street graffiti artist / vandal / political activist / prankster / what-have-you Banksy, still his only feature-length picture. Banksy appears in it sitting for interview with his face hidden and voice distorted. Street artist / etc. Shepard Fairey—most famous now for the iconic Barack Obama "Hope" poster from 2008—also has a role in it, and a very big one, according to the people who believe it is all an elaborate put-on. Exit Through the Gift Shop is working on the story of street art as it was inevitably coopted (if that's what you want to call it) by the privileged art world.

This object lesson is made in the person of Thierry Guetta, a French émigré to Los Angeles. Guetta's biography is that first he was the proprietor of a popular (and expensive) LA vintage clothing store, and then an obsessive with a video camera documenting street art around the world. Eventually, as we see practically real-time, he reinvents himself as an Andy Warhol knockoff pop artist, calling himself MBW, for Mr. Brainwash. He appears to be a genuine person as far as I can tell by internet sources, has seen financial windfalls from his work, and is still working. Madonna really commissioned him to do the cover of her album Celebration. As a pop artist he works in the industrial production style Warhol came to use, hiring graphic designers and other artists to execute his ideas. There is an obvious pop inspiration to Guetta's work but a nagging feeling he may be mediocre and we may be dupes. As a somewhat exasperated Banksy puts it, "His art looks quite a bit like everyone else's."

Thursday, July 02, 2020

At the Mountains of Madness (1931)

This very long H.P. Lovecraft story, arguably his masterpiece, bears interest for a number of reasons. The sweeping vision it presents counts as horror, if only because it's creepy and gets squishy, but Theodore Sturgeon reportedly called it "first-water, true-blue science fiction." It works perhaps best as an impressive example of the "lost world" story, like Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, the King Kong movie, or Wakanda. It was written when it was possible to entertain features like an undiscovered mountain range in the Antarctic whose peaks (plural) put "Everest out of the running." It was rejected for publication for five years as too long (indignities of the overlooked genius). Last but not least, it's nearly perfect Lovecraft, grinding away at its premises until they are well fixed in the brain and provide context for adventure, confrontation, and characters losing their minds due to excessive boggling. Strains of Cthulhu, the Necronomicon, and the usual sinister documentation are heard as well. Lovecraft kept up with the science of his day (not to mention the pulp fiction), so his descriptions of this strange land in the Antarctic are informed by a sense of the Earth's history in terms of geology and a scope that breaches epochs. What he describes his small party of two encountering is hundreds of thousands and millions of years old, even as much as a billion, and he knows enough about the theories of planetary development to make it credible enough to fool a rube like me. He's all over plate tectonics, for example. The preservation of the architecture and structure of his massive dead city is another matter but apparently the dry and cold conditions in this Antarctic accommodate that. So, uh, OK, I'll buy that. Never mind the high winds. It's not perfectly preserved. In general, as so often, it's just better to agree to believe. So we get Lovecraft's usual infinitely detailed description done up in scientific drag and dipped in a sauce of art history pseudo-erudition—the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich is name-checked repeatedly in this one—and it's good as always to enter with a modicum of patience. Give him an inch and he will blow your mind a mile, but it's not always an easy inch. The plot, even such as it is, tends toward the busy and a little beside the point, also as usual, with various Antarctic expeditions and two or three alien races and/or supernatural forces, plus some giant friendly penguins. The Cyclopean horrors that drive men mad happen in a big rush at the end, almost too fast. "Too fast" is a strange thing to say about Lovecraft. I estimate At the Mountains of Madness as 85% scene-setting and description and 15% plot execution, which is all right when you remember that the 85% part is what he's best at doing. He always kept a foot planted in the Sherlock Holmes style of first-person investigation too, which brings some odd comfort of familiarity to his tales. I do admire his ability to imagine. At the Mountains of Madness is heady stuff, one of his best, and not a bad place to start on him. If you're really ambitious, read it with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, its spiritual cousin.