Sunday, August 30, 2020

"Ionitch" (1898)

It's possible that my favorite part of this wry story of love and courtship by Anton Chekhov is that the girl's father is an early but recognizable version of a Dad jokester. "Bongjour," he appears prone to say in greeting. "Not badsome," he assesses things. Chekhov writes, "He knew a number of anecdotes, charades, proverbs, and was fond of being humorous and witty, and he always wore an expression from which it was impossible to tell whether he was joking or in earnest." He's the father of Ekaterina Ivanovna, called Kitten, the girl / woman love interest out there in the isolated hinterlands, where Ionitch has arrived as the village doctor. The story cuts pretty close to the bone on vagaries of love. At first, for no discernible reason other than her family is charming and Kitten is attractive and of age, Ionitch (not to be confused with "bee-yotch," as the father might say in the 21st century) is nutty for her. He's in hot pursuit, steals kisses when he can, and presses her to marry him. As a doctor he is a good prospect. But Kitten is only 18 and desperate to leave the village and study music. She turns him down. Ionitch never saw it coming. Four years later, things are different. Ionitch has discovered he likes his bachelorhood and Kitten has learned she is not an exceptional talent. Now Ionitch looks good to her, but alas her chances with him are not what they were. In fact, he treats her as a bullet dodged, and avoids her after she declares herself. There is an interesting and familiar complexity to this. In many ways it's classic Chekhov because in many ways it's classic human psychology. I have the impression Ionitch is not spiteful about his rejection, though he is unfeeling toward her, which could well be spite. On balance it seems more like he has just realized he doesn't want to be in a relationship. Kitten's declaration is full of humility and pathos. Ionitch's fear of intimacy is palpable. Isn't it thus, perhaps, the better idea for him to live out his days as a single man? Maybe. That's part of what makes this a good story. At the end Ionitch seems to be denying that he ever even knew Kitten's family, which is pathetic, if not pathological. So maybe he is only a weak man after all. Kitten also lives out her life single, with her parents. Sad day when they die! A lot packed into this one.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Thursday, August 27, 2020

"Up Under the Roof" (1938)

I wanted to think a little about duds in short story collections. Somehow they are inevitable. I've never seen a collection without at least one. In fact, any collection with only a few is generally a very good one. I've never figured out if that's the law of averages, or a matter of my mood from story to story (or day to day), or something about commercial factors. Perhaps some stories are so good they make their neighbors look bad. To be clear, I wouldn't call this story by Manly Wade Wellman and his ridiculous name and Southern heritage a dud, but I wouldn't call it a horror story either. It comes from an early '90s collection (itself a compilation of three earlier collections) edited by Dennis Etchison, Masters of Darkness, which is somehow itself a big dud. Etchison the story writer is a separate issue. I'll be getting to him in time. But Etchison the editor seems to come with some baggage, maybe? It's not laziness. The premise is that the story choices are made by the writers themselves. This seems like a pretty good idea at first. Writers were even at liberty to revise or undo edits they didn't like in earlier publication of the stories if they wanted. As usual, I had hopes for overlooked gems but then was reminded who writers are, or what the publishing industry is, as many of their picks turn out to be tales they had a hard time selling in the first place, or didn't sell, for whatever reasons. Writers, at least by this evidence, are not very good at making these selections. Ray Bradbury's "The Dead Man," for example, could well be the worst Bradbury story I've ever read, and I'm a fan. There must be an art to editing anthologies after all!

At any rate, as I say, I would not call Wellman's "Up Under the Roof" a dud—it's pretty good, aching with a surprising sincerity and candid details given from a child's point of view in memory. But it feels much more like an anecdote from a memoir. Indeed, Wellman's afterword confirms that it's basically a recounting of real-life incidents. It's about a 12-year-old boy confronting his fear of living in a haunted house. It's an unusual situation in the first place in that he is the only kid in a home setting among adults who berate and ridicule him regularly. They want to have grownup conversations and can't tolerate his childishness. It's summer. He's forced to be by himself a lot. At night he hears strange noises from the space in the house under the roof above his bed. He finally banishes his anxiety by forcing himself to enter the space. After seeing for himself there is nothing there the noises cease. This story almost moves past memoir and into self-help, reminding me of good advice I once got about recurring nightmares, a kind of lucid dreaming trick. In these dreams, confronting and literally attacking the sources of distress often ends them for good. My brand of nightmare at the time tended to be mocking, taunting bullies and the remedy was literally to scream back at them and punch them in the face if I had to. Not recommended for waking life, of course. The violent scenes woke me promptly and the nightmares then tended to end.

So I completely approve of this kid and I like him too, and I liked the lesson and message and most things about the story, aside from the pinched Southern setting, which is only because I don't like the pinched Old South. Wellman is fine at establishing it. "Up Under the Roof" considerably softens my take on Wellman who has not otherwise impressed me much yet, though he is a "Master of Darkness" and has a story in The Dark Descent too and I will likely be seeing more of him. This story appeared originally in the venerable Weird Tales, which surprised me a little as it's much more preachy than weird. On the other hand, the creature the boy imagines from the noises does reasonably suit the weird mode, a kind of giant creeping sloshing amoeba. Honestly, for me, the self-help tone is refreshing. The reality of the noises is never shrunk from—indeed, Wellman insists on it—but the point of the story is dealing with fear. Could be helpful to some!

Complete Masters of Darkness, ed. Dennis Etchison
Read story online.

Monday, August 24, 2020

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Director and screenwriter Lynne Ramsay's movies tend to be intense affairs, even as they come spaced years apart (Morvern Callar from 2002, We Need to Talk About Kevin from 2011). In terms of the intensity, much the same can be said about Joaquin Phoenix, who is plainly seeking challenges: Joker, The Master, I'm Still Here (a controversial mockumentary about Phoenix's supposed turn to hip-hop whose title may or may not have anything to do with this one), and even reaching way back to Walk the Line and Clay Pigeons. Phoenix often does a convincing dance with baffled rage. Between Ramsay and Phoenix, there's a certain amount of promise going into You Were Never Really Here even before you get to the premise. Phoenix plays Joe, a paranoid loner and righteous freelance security expert who lives with his mother and specializes in rescuing girls from underground sex trafficking rings and other problems. He works outside of the law and he's known for being competent, efficient, and brutal. In 2017, Jeffrey Epstein was not quite the true-crime media lodestar he has become since last year in his well-deserved disgrace and problematic death (with the story continuing this summer as his sidekick and Dump's fond wish Ghislaine Maxwell has been arrested and is now more or less officially on a national death watch). In that way maybe you can even argue tor the prescience of You Were Never Really Here. I have to say there is a lot of Martin Scorsese all over it. Joe is plainly a version of Travis Bickle. He has semi-suicidal impulses based on childhood trauma, information about which comes to us in fragments. When he wraps his head in plastic for as long as can stand the troubled breathing it reminded me of Harvey Keitel's Charlie in Mean Streets, idly holding his hands over open flames as long as he could, imagining the afterlife. The whole situation of rescuing a young girl from the life, using all violence necessary, is straight out of Taxi Driver. It even makes eerie, excellent, but Scorsese-like use of the song "Angel Baby" by Rosie & the Originals, which was also used in Scorsese's After Hours, Dennis Hopper's Colors, and Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day (and a handful of others too, it's popular!). Ramsay's picture also reminded me a little of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive from several years back and also of Claire Denis's White Material. Tough stuff. You Were Never Really Here may not be as original as Ramsay's others (notably Kevin) but it is harrowing good stuff, a rocking thriller ride made out of a fierce combination of editing, performance, and dark vision. It goes over the top at will—two exhausted hitmen lying on a kitchen floor, one dying, mumble-sing together the chorus of Charlene's treacly '70s hit, "I've Never Been to Me," which happens to be playing nearby. I mean, come on! Yet somehow this picture can even make that work. Worth tracking down if you missed it like me.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Rock and Roll Always Forgets (2011)

Chuck Eddy's third book—and his fourth for that matter, which came a few years later—is a collection of published pieces from the '80s, '90s, and forward, and finds him in a more professional mood. He has sanded away some of the sharp edges and elbows (there's less name-calling) and he might even feel more confident advocating for the things he likes, like Bob Seger, Kid Rock, Def Leppard, etc. We always knew he was a good writer, prolific with the hot takes and willing to bend a baked pretzel into shape whatever it takes, but he also turned out to be a pretty good journalist as well. I understand he objects to being called contrarian or iconoclastic. Who wouldn't? The implications of his basic argument remain mostly true, consistent from the first two books and articulated better all the time: social forces guide music taste more than we like to admit. He pushes back, by instinct, against all conventional wisdom. That's his thing. He's like a photograph negative. If everyone else sees white, he shows black. He's right too, in a way—his arguments hold up, even when he's off something I like or talking up something I don't. He's not afraid to take a stand. I'm still often not in synch with his taste but that's all right, isn't it? I appreciate at least his appreciation of Eminem—well, the truth is Eddy is a bit of a Detroit and/or Michigan homer, and the truth is also that you could do a lot worse than that for bias. His writing is always straightforward and illuminating, he can spin up a good feature story, and it's possible there is more music that I actually want to chase down in this book than in his first two combined, which means it might be the best at the basic job of music journalist. The next one, Terminated for Reasons of Taste, is a pretty good roundup as well.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. And go get Terminated for Reasons of Taste while you're at it.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Fargo (1996)

USA / UK, 98 minutes
Directors / writers / editors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Photography: Roger Deakins
Music: Carter Burwell
Cast: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Harve Presnell, Kristin Rudrud, John Carroll Lynch, Steve Park, Jose Feliciano, Bruce Campbell, Petra Boden

Pretty much everyone I know likes Fargo, and I do too, but over the years you can't help noting a grumbling undercurrent or even animus from some quarters toward the Coen brothers, the directors, writers, and editors of the picture. At least into the 21st century, naysayers seemed to see everything by them only in terms of adolescent disrespect. It probably doesn't help that the Coens are obvious aesthetes of grotesque violence but the main point seems to be that they are making fun of ordinary normal people all the time in their movies—that, in fact, that's what their movies are about. At least with Fargo, I feel like I'm in a reasonably good position to judge, as I was born and raised in Minnesota and knew both Lundegaards and Gundersons. The point I feel may get lost too often is how good the Coens are at what they do. Before it is anything else, Fargo is superior neo-noir, with a headlong narrative of despair that constantly ratchets tension as greed and human foolishness conspire to ruin multiple lives all at once.

For the most part, I think the Coens get the Scandinavian kitsch of Minnesota pretty much right. Although the movie claims to be based on a true story and isn't, what the Coens are doing is closer to reporting, not mocking. Yes, there is some exaggeration. But not that much. The accents are not always this broad, and the people generally not as stupid as some of those here, such as a policeman who can't figure out basic facts about a crime scene. Or, an even smaller throwaway, a 'cake-and-steak cashier with a certain classic vacuous affect. You can feel the Coens leaning a little extra hard into the white-bread, horrifying evil of Jerry Lundegaard, who works as executive sales manager at an auto dealership owned by his father-in-law and needs a lot of money fast, thinking he can score a big business deal. But leaning into his evil is also a natural element of this story.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Man Who Smiled (1994)

This is still an early-ish novel in Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series, fourth or fifth of 12 depending on how you count them. I can see how it might not be considered up to some of the others. It spends a lot of time on Wallander's personal life. He's interesting, but I'm more interested in the police procedures and the social realism. It also has some tendency to drop into action / thriller / suspense modes, which too often start to feel unpleasantly like Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum commercial fare. These kinds of stories don't work so well for me. But it's still a pretty interesting case and one of Mankell's strong suits remains putting together a satisfyingly complex mystery story. He's maybe not as interested in actual police procedures as me, but he knows how to use them to get a plot from one point to the next. That said, The Man Who Smiled has some flaws. The danger in which Wallander and crew find themselves, for example, is sometimes extraordinarily high, as early when Wallander computes there is a bomb in the gas tank of the car he is driving, with only moments to pull over and get far away from it. At the same time these police officers are often just as extraordinarily unconcerned about the dangers. Still, I'd call the miscues more like quibbles. Mankell is good and the novel is enjoyable. As always, he works some social justice into the story—this time Wallander is going after a corporate tycoon. Interestingly, nowadays we accept and even embrace the idea that corporate tycoons are deceitful and manipulative. Our sick president is only an extreme example. But in Sweden in 1994 there is not only the instinctive deference to wealth, but also positive affirmation of its moral good standing, if not superiority. Wallander's immediate supervisor is very troubled that the tycoon is even a suspect. For the rest of us, cynics, we can see clearly how people are cut down everywhere this tycoon goes. It's ultimately little surprise to find out he's operating in the black market for human body parts. Compare the Larry Niven story, "The Jigsaw Man," from Dangerous Visions. Mankell's version is more the way you would expect this type of market to work, from top to bottom. In some ways our villain Alfred Harderberg looks forward to the vast evils of Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo series, though he is little like the sadistic misogynists found there. But he's pretty bad. Something about this series that baffles me: Wallander's father's painting business. He paints exactly the same landscape scene over and over, sometimes with a grouse in the foreground. I know it's a joke, especially that he makes a living from it, but it's so weird. Sweden can't possibly be the kitschiest place on the planet. Can it?

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Sundown (1982)

You may not know it yet, but we've just about come full circle on Rank and File, the so-called cowpunk project of Kinman brothers Chip and Tony (straight outta Carlsbad in San Diego County by way of San Francisco). Before the Kinmans put together Rank and File in Austin, Texas, they were a proto-hardcore act in the '70s called the Dils ("I Hate the Rich," "Class War") and last year the Dils reformed for a couple of performances in Southern California. Rank and File are listed on Wikipedia as active from 1981 to 1987. Sundown is their best, the only album by them I ever connected with. We know now that the secret ingredient may have been Alejandro Escovedo, who cowrote a song ("Rank and File," one of the best on the album), played guitar, and sang, and has never really looked back. But the Kinman brothers make a pretty good show themselves, with their barbed wire rolling tumbleweed western style mixing up instincts for the Everly Brothers, James Burton, and maybe a little Dick Dale. I loved Sundown in 1982 when I pulled it out of an office slush pile. The thing jumped out at me right away. Really the whole first side is terrific. "Amanda Ruth" sets the tone with its buggy-ride tempos and soaring harmonies. "(Glad I'm) Not in Love" delivers some tasty guitar flourishes. "Rank and File" mounts a heroic attack in service to labor (I think) and in any case presents an earworm somehow always welcome when it comes ringing through my head in the shower once again. And "The Conductor Wore Black" deals classic western mythos themes like it's a card game. The flip's not bad either. How the Kinmans get from the Dils to this is not easy to see, but I feel Sundown is more naturally where their hearts are. Nearly 40 years later, well, OK, the album is short and has become a hodge-podge of versions, maybe overall a bit contrived, maybe too sweetened in the production, arguably derivative and maybe even missing its targets entirely, the way people take the movie Nashville as missing the point of country music. Wikipedia files Sundown with the aforementioned "cowpunk" and also "new wave," which is probably accurate. It may have lost some of its allure but I still sit up and pay attention to the high points.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

"Laura" (1914)

This very short Saki story is not scary, but more like a joke, and no, I'm not referring to the fact that it could well hold the record for fewest characters in an author and title combined (rivaling Keith's "98.6" in pop music). Saki's theme was more human malice, with only little strokes of the uncanny. He stood somewhat to the side of horror. He loved ridiculous situations and this story is that and only gets more so. Once again, brevity saves all. It's practically done before you groan once. It starts with Laura telling her friend Amanda that her doctor says she (Laura) has until Tuesday to live. It is Saturday. It comes across like a tea party game we don't understand but then it seems to be the truth. In Laura's belief system, she says, she hasn't been the best person, and thus she will be reincarnated as a lower creature. She imagines an otter. Then she spins it out further: "If I had been a moderately good otter I suppose I should get back into human shape of some sort; probably something rather primitive—a little brown, unclothed Nubian boy, I should think." (A moment now for the benighted, so many of them in all human history, who never understood the tragedy of racism and colonialism. We're done with the worst of it in this story, and yes, I'm disappointed in Saki too. As an anti-bully, though admittedly with mixed loyalties, you would think he'd know better.) Amanda's husband Egbert comes up in this conversation too. Laura can't stand him and has never been able to. It's one of the sins she's taking to the grave with her. She has often tormented Egbert in irksome passive-aggressive ways, for example harassing his prize hens with her dogs. She knew these things were wrong and did them anyway. That's why her reincarnation points down. Laura dies on Monday. Even before the funeral—in a way I like the willful high-handed ridiculous misconstruing of reincarnation, never close to uncanny but making the story more funny—something very much like an otter is getting into Egbert's hens. You see everything coming but it's so briskly executed you almost don't, partly because it is all at once so impossible and so, well, cheap. The animus of Laura toward Egbert grows more funny with every single iteration. It's senseless, like a sitcom device, like Seinfeld and Newman, but carried off on pure instinct.

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Top 40

1. Purple Mountains, "All My Happiness Is Gone" (4:20)
2. Purple Mountains, "I Loved Being My Mother's Son" (4:21)
3. Tower of Power, "Squib Cakes" (7:39, 1974)
4. Strokes, "Bad Decisions" (4:53)
5. Nancy Sinatra, "Sugar Town" (2:26, 1966)
6. Harry Styles, "Adore You" (3:27)
7. Allie X, "Susie Save Your Love" (3:58)
8. Biffy Clyro, "Instant History (Single Version)" (3:18)
9. Avalanches feat. Blood Orange, "We Will Always Love You" (2:52)
10. Marty Robbins, "Don't Worry" (3:15, 1961)
11. Canned Heat, "On the Road Again" (3:26, 1968)
12. Charles Mingus, "Take the A Train" (17:26, 1964)
13. PVRIS, "Dead Weight" (3:27)
14. Killers, "Caution" (4:29)
15. Avalanches, "Running Red Lights" (4:39)
16. Sonic Youth, "I'm Not There" (4:52, 2007)
17. Doja Cat, "Say So" (3:58)
18. Kane Brown, "Homesick" (3:25)
19. Bright Eyes, "Persona Non Grata" (3:32)
20. 1975, "Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America" (4:24)
21. Driver Era, "Flashdrive" (3:33)
22. Saint Motel, "Van Horn" (2:41)
23. Drake, "Tootsie Slide" (4:07)
24. The Weeknd, "Blinding Lights" (3:20)
25. Alison Mosshart, "Rise" (4:11)
26. Pretenders, "I'm a Mother" (5:17, 1994)
27. Lou Reed, "The Day John Kennedy Died" (4:08, 1982)
28. Avril Lavigne, "We Are Warriors" (3:45)
29. Rufus Wainwright, "Alone Time" (4:18)
30. Charli XCX, "Claws" (2:29)
31. Car Seat Headrest, "There Must Be More Than Blood" (7:33)
32. L7 fest. Joan Jett, "Fake Friends" (3:08)
33. Shirley Lites, "Heat You Up (Melt You Down)" (6:59, 1983)
34. Annette Peacock, "Pony" (6:17, 1972)
35. Vladislav Delay, "Rakka" (7:26)
36. 75 Dollar Bill, "I Was Real" (16:55)
37. Planet 1999, "Party" (2:50)
38. Necks, "Vertigo" (43:56, 2015)
39. American Football, "Stay Home" (8:10, 1999)
40. Exploding Hearts, "Throwaway Style" (2:58, 2003)

thanx: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, etc.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Anthology pictures like this exercise from the Coen brothers are famous for being hit and miss, not to mention stop-and-start as they lurch from climax to fresh start over and over. They seem to come more often as horror (V/H/S, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Kwaidan, Dead of Night) but Buster Scruggs suggests it may be a matter of genre. At least, these stories often feel like genuine 20th-century pulp, dime novel, or comic book fiction in the ways they are put together. For example, in "Near Algodones," a man protects himself from gunfire by draping himself in pots and pans (and tauntingly calling out "Pan-shot!" every time one is hit). The experience of anthology pictures is also a bit like approaching a short story collection—somehow it's often more attractive to fall into a headlong extended tale than to chew off bites of beginning-middle-end. In fact, Buster Scruggs is explicitly built on the conceit of a story collection, with color plates and six tales distributed across a little more than two hours. I've seen ranking lists around the internet, which is another thing you do with anthologies, and of course I have my own ideas about weakest ("All Gold Canyon") and strongest ("The Gal Who Got Rattled"). Interestingly, for what it's worth, those two are the only stories not original with the Coens. "The Mortal Remains," the finisher, has some problems too. But even those two weakest have high points and are done well and completely entertaining. They're all pretty good. The Coens bring their own vivid flourishes of extravagant violence, as they will. It's very funny in the title piece, gleefully turning to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead style of slapstick for one memorable saloon confrontation. It's a bit more tiresome in "Near Algodones." The best of these stories, "The Gal" and "Meal Ticket," have tremendous bolts of pathos and achieve a natural grace and quiet, even in all the tumult. The ghost story of "The Mortal Remains," which moves like Stagecoach and/or the stagecoach section of The Hateful 8, may be trying too hard to leave the picture on a profound note, with a kind of inexplicable cross-up between Amelia Edwards's 19th-century story "The Phantom Coach" and an Emily Dickinson poem. But it has its points. They all do.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

The Wild Palms (1939)

The title William Faulkner originally had for this unusual novel, one of my favorites by him, is If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, but his publishers had other ideas and these days it's seen both ways. I read it first as The Wild Palms and always think of it that way. The experimental aspect is that it is actually two long stories shuffled together in alternating chapters. The first is called The Wild Palms and involves a torrid hothouse love affair as perhaps only Faulkner could imagine it (see also Sanctuary). The other is called Old Man and tells the story of a convict put to humanitarian work in Mississippi during the 1927 floods. What I like is how straightforward, concrete, and vivid these stories are. It's from a few years after Absalom, Absalom!, arguably peak Faulkner (though I tend more to favor 1929 to 1932 as his peak). There's a sense of a writer in frenzy, with so much to tell and explain and so little time, continually forced into eruptions of detail that come in torrents. He commits amazing feats of balance with his long abrupt sentences. Perhaps, also, I like it because it's not elaborating the Yoknapatawpha County history. Both tales have obvious biblical sources—Adam and Eve and Noah's flood, to start. The Wild Palms story is not exactly depraved, but it is fairly wrong. She is married to another in what appears to be a free-love style open relationship. He's a self-destructive underachiever with medical training. I know these events are nearly a hundred years old, and different times, different times, but it felt to me like an alien toxic man-and-woman dynamic. I had a hard time buying it. I can believe the toxicity in a general way but this is nothing like anything I know. I recognized some aspects—Faulkner's descriptions of her fierce creativity rang true, very much, but I could never understand what these two were doing together. Old Man, meanwhile, works often and best like an adventure story with a rich dark vein of humor in it as well. The movements of the waters on the grand scale in a flood situation of the Mississippi River and its tributary system, the whole look and feel of being trapped in a boat in a flood of such scale, is really amazing stuff. When I was poking around for information, I found an interesting list of Faulkner in-betweener narrative pieces, such as "Spotted Horses," a long story that he later incorporated into The Hamlet (the first novel in a trilogy completed 20 years later), "The Bear" (a long story that is arguably a stand-alone and arguably part of what is arguably a novel, Go Down, Moses), and these two long stories, as novel or read separately straight through, which latter I've never done. I like the way Faulkner kept blowing up the very idea of what a novel is. This is one of the best and most rewarding examples.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, August 07, 2020

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian, Taiwan, 237 minutes
Director: Edward Yang
Writers: Hung Hung, Mingtang Lai, Alex Yang, Edward Yang
Photography: Hui Kung Chang, Longyu Zhang
Music: Hongda Zhang
Editor: Po-Wen Chen
Cast: Chen Chang, Lisa Yang, Kuo-Chu Chang, Elaine Jin, Chuan Wang, Han Chang, Chi-tsan Wang, Lawrence Ko, Chih-Kang Tan, Alex Yang, Hung-Ming Lin

Speaking of Peak Elvis, this much-acclaimed four-hour picture from director and cowriter Edward Yang is haunted by the popular culture ghost of Elvis Presley, even taking its title from an Elvis song popular in its time setting, and incidentally one of his worst, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" The time is 1960 and 1961 and the place is Taiwan, the Chinese bastion of capitalism protected and maintained by the US since World War II. That has been basically for anti-Communist propaganda purposes, though there's a fair case for humanitarian grounds as well. It's a Westernized scene in Taiwan, as Yang has explored deeply in A Brighter Summer Day, which often feels like West Side Story with its complicated but colorful swaggering youth gang juvenile delinquent dynamics. Various individuals are going through various crises of individualism, rugged and otherwise. 

A Brighter Summer Day is also based on a sensational true-crime story from Taiwan of the time, in which a teen boy murdered a teen girl out of misplaced motivations and misogyny. So there is a lot going on here, and four hours may or may not actually be sufficient unto it, particularly given Yang's slow, methodical, and organic approach to staging his scenes and confrontations. I must say, full disclosure (and Martin Scorsese's support notwithstanding), I have never managed to connect with this movie, even if its relatively high placement on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (currently #121) has meant I've now spent about 12 hours trying. I guess everyone has a few movies like that. In fairness, I've never liked West Side Story either.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Therapy (1995)

David Lodge is a prolific British writer and literary critic, born in 1935. In Therapy he is witty, charming, and neurotic as he charts the midlife crisis of a successful 58-year-old TV writer, which seemed kind of old for a midlife crisis. Anyway, I'm sure this short and entertaining novel is not strictly speaking autobiographical, but Lodge was about 58 when he wrote it. Tubby Passmore is a certain ideal of the 20th-century urban nebbish. Woody Allen is an obvious model, though Tubby's physique departs from Allen's. But it's the same shtick. He's a pseudo-intellectual—a successful sitcom writer who becomes obsessed briefly with good old Soren Kierkegaard. He devotes most of his energy to trying to solve the woman problems he actively and repeatedly creates. He is heartbreakingly foolish, but rich enough to keep himself out of real trouble. The title is apt—Tubby not only sees a psychotherapist, he also has regular appointments for acupuncture, aromatherapy, etc. He'll try any therapy once. He has a semi-platonic relationship with a woman in analysis, and in many ways this arc of the story is toward a Freudian approach to identifying and resolving pesky and profound life problems. Therapy may be a bit hackneyed but it's also enjoyable and funny, like Tubby himself. I guess my main takeaway is being impressed again with how many British writers are so good. This is not even major in Lodge's canon—a "Campus Trilogy" seems to be what they all like. But Therapy is all I know by him. It's always competent and often inspired, even with its flaws. He reminds me some of the US writer Richard Russo, who is similarly prolific, witty, and just slightly insubstantial. Philip Roth may be the Cadillac version here. Though their obsessions seem superficial, they are gifted and funny writers, easy to spend whole days reading. In the end Therapy is a kind of foolish romantic fairy tale, but there are worse ways to pass a day. In style it ranges wide with numerous formal experiments. Mostly it presents itself as journal entries (a therapy exercise) but even within that Lodge can spring to surprising strategies, which are never confusing and often ingenious. He breaks the fourth wall a lot. He knows you know it's a novel and he seems interested in your opinion as he goes along. Not bad.