Sunday, September 27, 2020

Little Trilogy (1898)

"The Man in a Case" / "Gooseberries" / "About Love"

It's tempting to make a joke about the efficiencies of Anton Chekhov writing a trilogy of short stories rather than novels. You can read this trilogy in an hour or less. He did intend the stories to be linked but for me it's more of an excuse to read three instead of just one, particularly as they are from one of his strongest periods. It is not one of those accidental trilogies, yoking together three unrelated things later under some semi-fabricated conceptual umbrella (e.g., random William Burroughs novels, Bugs Bunny cartoons, or Roman Polanski movies set in apartments). Chekhov wrote these stories consecutively, they are linked by continuing characters, and they are unified by a theme of people's tendency toward self-delusion (admittedly a theme in a lot of Chekhov). The frame is two sportsmen hiking the Russian countryside on a hunting trip, the younger schoolteacher Burkin and the elder veterinarian Ivan Ivanovitch, who are familiar companions. In "The Man in a Case," Burkin tells a story of another teacher, Byelikov, a social misfit who has an opportunity for marriage which he blows. Burkin sees the man as someone trembling forever inside a protective shell but Ivan Ivanovitch thinks he may not be so different from anyone else. "Isn't our living in town, airless and crowded, our writing useless papers, our playing vint—isn't that all a sort of case for us?" he says. It reminds him of another story, which he tells the next day in "Gooseberries." Now they are sheltering from rain in the country home of a third, Alehin. The story involves Ivan Ivanovitch's brother, a civil servant in a lifeless clerk's existence who dreams of a farm with gooseberry bushes, which he finally obtains through various unscrupulous means. He proudly serves the berries to Ivan Ivanovitch on his first visit at the farm. The berries are bitter, but Ivan Ivanovitch's brother cannot stop snacking on them and commenting how good they are. In "About Love," Alehin gets a chance to tell a story, with full membership now in this trilogy. It's the story of his own thwarted love affair with a neighbor who is married with children. It went on for years, until she and her family finally moved away for reasons unrelated. The affair was one of those cow-eyed unconsummated things, felt on both sides. The two often spent time together on walks and such but never came close to acknowledging their feelings until the very end. In fact, over the years it became so curdled that they had periods of being unpleasant to one another. Yet they always felt a bond of attachment. Alehin quite evidently still does, even as he tells the story years since her departure. After Alehin's story the rain finally stops and they can step outside and enjoy the fresh air and the view. All three stories, separately but even more so together, are a great example of the way Chekhov tells just enough to suggest vast interior worlds lost inside the equally vast exterior of the Russian countryside. He is always so quiet about being so remarkably good.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Thursday, September 24, 2020

"Luella Miller" (1902)

This story by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman is bland and sneaky-good. It's just one woman telling the story of another in a folksy kind of low-key way. The storyteller might have some animus toward Luella Miller, but it's to be expected in the circumstances. All the details don't sink in right away. The monstrousness is so diffused you almost, perhaps, have to go through a period of denial, which lingers. I mean, is it really so monstrous here? Luella Miller may be some kind of demon, or merely an extremely manipulative person ... and that might not be much difference. One of the story's strengths is that it never really labels her, only reports events as they happened. It's not even certain Luella Miller has anything directly to do with the deaths. She's a kind of princess, self-possessed in her sense of her own privilege. She expects to be cared for and looked after. She's even a bit helpless. She doesn't do much herself. Somehow others around her rally and pitch in and do the chores—scrubbing the floor and dusting, washing the laundry, cooking, and so forth. She expects it as her due and she is not unduly ungrateful. People want to help her. Then they die—generally of mysterious wasting-away episodes, which might make her a vampire. The story is mostly told by her neighbor across the way in a small village in New England, who saw Luella Miller move into the house and steal her man. She helps Luella Miller and dies like all the others. This ability of Luella Miller to manipulate is a given. We never see how she does it, only that people fall in line. It's almost not uncanny at all, but a little frustrating, the way it is to watch people who don't deserve it getting their way over and over. She feels more oblivious about exercising her will than calculating. We've known people like this. Donald Trump often looks like it. She simply expects to be served and many volunteer. She can force the issue. She is seen fussing a few times when she is inconvenienced, which reminds me that the story also passes the Bechdel test. Freeman was self-consciously a feminist writer, weaving the themes into her mainstream novels, her works for children, and her supernatural stories too. This story is effective with its litany of deaths like a steady drumbeat and Luella Miller's perverse refusal to give in to drudgery (an echo of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," which has always felt a little uncanny). Freeman manages to stay within the lanes of Puritan credibility, with a nice steady rolling tale of some kind of insidious life-sucking horror that's hard to know what to call.

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

Monday, September 21, 2020

I'll Be Gone in the Dark (2020)

The HBO miniseries about the Golden State Killer turns out to be a tender love story at least as much as true-crime grit even as it focuses on one of the most prolific and depraved serial killers in history. The Golden State Killer operated in the '70s and '80s, known as the Visalia Ransacker in the mid-'70s, the East Area Rapist around Sacramento in the late '70s, and the Original Night Stalker in the '80s in Southern California. It actually took a while for people to figure out they were all the same guy, which was part of the problem with running him down. He was also very good at what he did. His last murder was 1986 and he was never caught until 2018, when he was 72 and retired. In the intervening period there was a Cold Case Files episode that featured the case. I saw it and remember vividly the sinister, ferocious details, which lit me up like a Christmas tree (or, the requisite mantra in true-crime lore, made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck). Michelle McNamara also saw it and her hairs stood up too, but she took the extra step of going online to find out more, a famous rabbit hole for amateur sleuths then and now. By 2013 she had a blog that focused on it and other unsolved crimes—in fact, she's responsible for the nickname that has stuck, the Golden State Killer—and shortly after that she got her well-deserved book deal. Before she could finish writing it, however, she died from complications of drug use (on the same day as Prince). She was married to the comedian Patton Oswalt, which is where the love story comes in. Their marriage is wrapped as tightly into this miniseries as the GSK and his victims. Was that a good idea? I don't know. It's often a moving story as it develops. McNamara's allies and assistants on the book joined forces with Oswalt to finish it after she died, and it was published just two months before Joseph James DeAngelo was apprehended in the Sacramento area, where he lived most of his life. I'm really not sure how well the book or miniseries harmonize with the GSK story, which is a doozy of human cruelty and mystery. But like everyone else, I can't help liking McNamara. Her personal story is part of both the book and the miniseries and it is a great and sad story in itself. She was a good writer and it's a good book. But I was happiest, in both, for the GSK information, which multiplied what I had learned from Cold Case Files by magnitudes. And I still want to know more, but I'm not sure how much DeAngelo is talking. They threw the book at him after his arrest (most of the rapes beyond the statute of limitations) and this past June he pleaded guilty to some 26 charges. He is going to prison until he dies—at 74 and a sexual offender, that likely won't be long. I still have a few more questions, but really, this miniseries is basically adequate to them. It tells a great story about the crimes and victims—it is excellent on the victims—and a great story about McNamara. Maybe six hours is a bit much, three or four probably could have done it, but even the padding in this miniseries often feels compelling. Recommended for anyone who can stomach hearing the graphic details. There are more heroes in this one than you could imagine.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine (1958)

I read a few books from the Danny Dunn series by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams when I was the appropriate age, say 9, 10, or 11. They were all right but not that great—not as exciting as Nancy Drew, not as intriguing as Edward Eager, not as thrilling as mystery, science fiction, and horror stories. But a couple of things about this one have stuck with me and finally brought me back. First, the book was an early source of interest for me in computers. They sounded pretty cool. Now it's weird to get the munge of '50s computer technology and pure fantasy. The computer here takes up a significant portion of a room, but Professor Bullfinch has also casually pioneered some kind of voice recognition interface. Remarkable! The second and really the main thing that stuck was the moral object lesson, which is along the lines of, "There's no such thing as a shortcut, so do the work." The precocious Danny Dunn wants to get out of homework by having the computer do it for him, somehow never noticing that he has to learn it all anyway in order to program the computer (most related processes also a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to go along with the voice recognition). This lesson can be generalized in any direction. For example, getting out of having to go to a job every day may be an attractive reason to try becoming a criminal, but most people would pay for that with unusual and severe stress. Danny's basic problem in perception shows up when his friend Joe mentions they have to study two books. "We don't really have to study them," Danny says. "We just have to read them enough to understand what's in them." Joe and Irene, Danny's other friend, don't understand the difference, and of course neither do any of the rest of us. Danny Dunn was intended as a model of the virtues of a questioning and problem-solving mind. It's also interesting to me that Danny's father has died, his mother is a widow and single mother, and they room with the kindly Professor Bullfinch. This midcentury focus on fractured families living together on the margins is curious. See also '60s TV stretching to the horizon: My Three Sons, Andy Griffith, Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, etc., etc. There's also the usual weird problems of gender roles in anything this old. I think by today's YA standards I grew up in somewhat of a paltry era, but what do you do? It was kind of a nostalgic kick going through Homework Machine again. The used copy I found came out after my time, recently enough that blurbs on the cover note how remarkable it is that there was even a world at all before personal computers. It's from a school library. I can't imagine what a kid would make of it now.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (at these prices, wait for the library to reopen)

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Joshua Tree (1987)

I was pretty much fed up with U2 by 1987, and thus largely missed out on this album beyond the inescapable, which is to say I actively avoided it. It's kind of strange when I put together the pieces. I had been quite enamored with the band just a few years earlier, especially after seeing them live in 1983 (though an arena appearance two years later on basically the same material was much more anemic). Coproducers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are two I happen to trust on sight by brand, in spite of the many known problems associated with either and both. And I am nutty for the Pet Shop Boys cover of "Where the Streets Have No Name." I have heard it hundreds of times more than the U2 original. Recently I saw someone on the internet claim that The Joshua Tree has the best three-song opening sequence on an album in history—"best three-song opening sequence on an album" could only be an internet exercise but somehow that sent me back finally to attempt some assessment of U2's monster mega album, which ultimately moved some 25 million units. Others can argue for it being their greatest; All That You Can't Leave Behind (also produced by Eno and Lanois btw) is still my perhaps eccentric answer to that question. I will give it up to the original internet poster for the first three songs on The Joshua Tree. Pretty damn good 1-2-3 all right. I always liked "Streets," as I said (and who cares if it takes more than a minute for the first song on the album to properly kick in?). More recently "With or Without You" and especially "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" have started to hit with some force.

Wordy wordy titles! Let me get that out of my system—especially for a band that goes by two conjoined characters. Then let me just admit "Still Haven't Found" works on me in a way somewhat beyond my understanding, let alone my ability to control. Sure, you can read it as moon-spoon-June treacle on a level: "Woe is me I just want a girlfriend / better job / new car / whatever," the mewling singer might be wailing on casual listens (casual listens turning into forced auditions in the spring of 1987 when it became a #1 hit). Like, maybe he needs to get his credit rating up? But if you've ever had the feeling you still haven't found what you're looking for, and have had it for years, then you will know what this song is about. Not sunglasses. It's coming from an emo place comparable to the one that produced R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts," for example (and too many plain phony power ballads). It is just more artful and on-the-nose about it.

The rest of the album is varying degrees of professional and often compelling wankery. It's not hard to let it play to the end, even if only fragments of hooks distinguish themselves here and there. Eno's presence is felt in various small ways, not always good. The loose-wristed guitar playing of The Edge ("The Edge," Nelson laugh: "Ha Ha") often strays toward a More Songs About Buildings and Food feel. "Running to Stand Still" has slide guitar pasted on like the price sticker on the cover of a book. That reminds me of the themes attempted here, which I think it's appropriate to quote Wikipedia on: "through sociopolitically conscious lyrics embellished with spiritual imagery, it contrasts the group's antipathy for the 'real America' with their fascination with the 'mythical America.'" Yeah, OK, no thanks. Already heard all about it from Greil Marcus on the Band. This pompous bombast haunts it all and not easy to see past it—I'm not even sure how much I'm going to listen to The Joshua Tree ever again (beyond "Still Haven't Found," the new semi-intermittent regular). But it's not a bad album. I can't see why anyone would call it a greatest anything ever, except even my own touch points with it can feel strangely more vital than ever now. That's something.

Friday, September 18, 2020

The Crowd (1928)

USA, 98 minutes
Director: King Vidor
Writers: King Vidor, John V.A. Weaver, Joseph Farnham, Harry Behn
Photography: Henry Sharp
Editor: Hugh Wynn
Cast: James Murray, Eleanor Boardman, Bert Roach, Daniel G. Tomlinson, Dell Hnderson, Lucy Beaumont, Estelle Clark

I've always been confused by the title of this silent feature from director and cowriter King Vidor. On one level it's obvious enough, set in the teeming New York City of the 1920s, with thousands of incidental extras thronging the streets in you-are-there shots documentary style. The picture also throws in homilies along the way about peer pressure and keeping up with the crowd and the problems of getting out of step with the crowd, etc. But if "three's a crowd" then The Crowd is more accurately about "company," as it spends most of its time following the domestic trials of a young couple meeting (antiquated) cute, marrying, and starting out. It's obviously inspired in many ways by Sunrise, which came out the year before, and if The Crowd can't match the inspired heights of F.W. Murnau's stone classic (which not many can) it still has a few nifty tricks up its sleeve.

The most famous might be a complicated model shot that sends us sailing through the window of a skyscraper on a high floor and into an industrialized office-worker space with desks set out in columns and rows like regiments in Triumph of the Will. It's famous because it's so well done, like a magic trick, and thus shows up in any number of nostalgic documentary exercises about silent films and/or the 1920s and/or social realism. Billy Wilder shoplifted elements for some of the most memorable scenes in The Apartment. But The Crowd looks forward much more to The Best Years of Our Lives than Billy Wilder or Leni Riefenstahl, each perhaps equally cynical but in polar opposite ways. The Crowd, by contrast, would not know cynicism if it walked up to it and bit it on the nose.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1865)

Although it's the story that launched Mark Twain, and pretty short too, I've long resisted this little thing, starting with the overlong 19th-century banner title. I recall it was taught in junior high and I resented the difficult and pointless word "Calaveras." As humor I didn't get it. I like it better now, maybe. What's mystifying about teaching it is that what I liked least—its sideways approach to never really telling the story—is exactly the kind of thing a kid can't stand. "It doesn't even make sense!" etc. I have a memory of grownups like my teacher snickering away at it as a classic but it seemed kind of lame to me. It may or may not be aging well now, but it's still one of the most anthologized stories in existence (note the list at Make Lists, Not War). One increasingly outdated aspect of its popularity is as A Colorful Tale of the American West. That's the basic appeal, in fact: a character study of a most peculiar man, the compulsive gambler Jim Smiley, as told by another most peculiar man, Simon Wheeler, as recorded by the first-person narrator (in the frame). The narrator claims to be bored with raconteurs like Wheeler and tired of characters like Smiley. The collision of these three sensibilities basically produces this story. I appreciate the colorful antics, they have a certain charm. The narrator is an exasperated Easterner, an inept dude with a short fuse like Daffy Duck. Smiley is more pathetic, in our era of greater knowledge of compulsive behavior. Sure, it's funny that he will bet on anything, and take either side, or at least funny to a point. In a way it reminds me of a bunch of drunks sitting around remembering the rip-roaring good times, which often come across more like tragically self-humiliating in the details. There is a frog in this story but it's beside the point, another keen disappointment when I read it as a kid. I like the lack of focus more now. Wheeler thinks he has a story to tell but he does not. The narrator walks away from him before he can finish. The narrator washes his hands of the whole thing. It has all been a bothersome episode and he's ready for it to be over. It's an early, raw, rudimentary version of one of Twain's best personas, not quite in focus yet but discernible.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)

Thursday, September 10, 2020

"The Whistling Room" (1910)

I liked this story by William Hope Hodgson pretty well, though it wears its mystery story formula on its sleeve. It's part of a series featuring a psychic investigator named Carnacki (not to be confused with Johnny Carson's Carnac the Magnificent). Carnacki is a rational man of science but more willing than Sherlock Holmes to credit the supernatural. He's also not nearly as erudite as H.P. Lovecraft's various library-bound bookworms. Once it gets down to business "The Whistling Room" is full of good effects plus one that goes ridiculously over the top. Without a doubt this is a story about the supernatural. Specifically, a haunted room in a castle, which emits unnerving and sometimes very loud whistling tones at night, "an extraordinary, grotesque parody of human whistling, too gigantic to be human—as if something gargantuan and monstrous made the sounds softly." Carnacki does resort to peppering his pursuit of a solution with Lovecraft-type nonsense syllable words (I suspect a linguist would trace the mumbo-jumbo of both Hodgson and Lovecraft unerringly to English, as they have with Christian "speaking in tongues" episodes), e.g., "the Unknown Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual" (dig those crazy extra As). "The Whistling Room" is a decent ghost story but actually even more skillful as a mystery. At one point midway a red herring makes it appear it might somehow be natural phenomena after all. The weird stuff is weird and gets systematically weirder, though it's decidedly cerebral. Helpful explanations are sprinkled in along the way. I like how parts of it are knowable and other parts are not. Too much is knowable, unfortunately, but it preserves some element of the unknown even as Carnacki is a show-offy know-it-all like Sherlock Holmes, with elementary my dear sir explanations for many things. I love the climaxing image (spoiler)—the room itself is whistling, the wood planking floor animated into lips—but it's also fairly silly in the larger haunted house scheme of things. Still, all's well that ends well for Carnacki and his little band of followers hanging on every word. It is tidy business indeed with the satisfaction of a mystery laid to rest, packed full of incident, moves at good tempo, and manages some nice scares too.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night, ed. Robert Arthur (out of print)
Read story online.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Shoplifters (2018)

Shoplifters kept reminding me of Parasite, which followed it by a year, and I don't think it was a matter of mixing up Asians. Both feature a family living a notch or two above poverty, who are nonetheless a bunch of cheerfully lawless eccentrics. What they do is thieve and grift, and they're pretty good at it. The father in Shoplifters is patiently teaching his son the ins and outs of shoplifting and other low-level smash and grab types of crimes. The mother and grandmother, patiently bemused, have a strangely fraught relationship. They seem to be having an ongoing argument about something. Early on, the family finds a little girl hiding near their home. She has obviously been abused so they adopt her as one of their own, and soon begin training her for crime too, though they worry when they start to see reports on TV about her as a missing child. When the grandmother dies suddenly (but not unexpectedly—she was old) their behavior jumps to another level. It makes no sense, in fact, as they choose to bury her in the basement of the house instead of reporting the death and cremating or burying her properly. In about the last quarter of the movie the reveals and revelations start popping and it is indeed an unusual and disturbing situation. Where Parasite turns the strangeness of its family outward and ultimately into a kind of comic series of exaggerations that work as cerebral social critique of the insane modern world, Shoplifters turns inward, into darker recesses, where even health and family values may just be symptoms of a psychological rot that will never get better. They really are two quite different movies. The revelations of Shoplifters work like depth charges. It's the next day and I'm still trying to make sense of them and even get over them a little. Nothing is what it seems but we knew that from the start. The family is simply too good to be true, and then it turns out they're not that good at all—although even that is not certain, as the brief time these children spend with these two peculiar adults are also arguably the best times in their lives so far. Not sure I'm going to forget this one any time soon.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Studs Lonigan (1932-1935)

Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), Judgment Day (1935)

As trilogies go, it was hard for me to believe the three novels in James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan were actually published separately, especially the first, which is very short and more like a novella or prologue. The whole thing feels like one long novel, but I guess there are lots of ways to do trilogies. And Young Lonigan is actually the first novel Farrell ever published. Studs Lonigan is long but not difficult or too much of a slog. Like a lot of naturalism (think Theodore Dreiser) it's about piling on the details. It's hard to read in another way, however: it's just so bleak. Perhaps the hardest part—certainly what is complained about most nowadays—is the racism and anti-Semitism of Lonigan and most of these characters, rough and tough Irish-Americans making their way in Chicago in the first three decades of the 20th century. No doubt it's an accurate reflection of how people thought and felt at the time about Jews, African Americans, and Eastern Europeans (and still do, this stuff may have diminished but it has hardly gone away). It's so accurate that it's depressing. Compounding that further, Lonigan himself is more reprehensible than sympathetic. He's hard to like—an ignorant fool. I hoped he would do the right thing, but we see soon enough that he won't and never will. At the same time, his comeuppances, when they come, are not satisfying but just more sickening events, so I guess I must have liked him a little. He's also terrible and pathetic with women, no surprise. His idea of being good is doing what the Catholic Church tells him to but even that is hard for him. And Farrell is not giving the Catholic Church a pass. It may have seemed better then than it does now but it doesn't come off well here. I think Farrell fully intended Studs Lonigan to be bleak, an extended study of a spiritual malaise as he understood it, and it's quite convincing that way. But even purposefulness doesn't make it easy to take. Once finished, and taking a step back, it has to be accounted as impressive. Norman Mailer was taken with it in a big way and it's not hard to see why. His own pugilistic instincts are reflected in Studs, a selfish, self-centered git who likes to fantasize about boxing and beating people up. America, this is still your mirror. Enter with a tough skin.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)

Friday, September 04, 2020

Rome, Open City (1945)

Roma città aperta, Italy, 103 minutes
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Writers: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Alberto Consiglio
Photography: Ubaldo Arata
Music: Renzo Rossellini
Editors: Eraldo Da Roma, Jolanda Benvenuti
Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, Maria Michi, Giovanna Galletti, Carla Rovere, Francesco Grandjacquet, Harry Feist, Joop van Hulzen

There's a reasonable argument for a chain of cause and effect that starts with director and cowriter Roberto Rossellini making propaganda films for Italy's Fascist regime in the early '40s. One thing leads to another, giving us Naked City and eventually Jack Webb's hectoring pro-police agitprop media empire in the '60s and '70s and onward to documentaries as we know them today. No one can match the Lumiere brothers for impact on documentary moviemaking, they literally invented it, but Rossellini might be the No. 2 suspect here with his brand of neorealism, an aesthetic that relies on the structurally primitive for credibility and has informed a thousand million pieces of gritty realism as we understand it today: camera in motion, shooting on location rather than soundstage, favoring nonprofessional players over entertainers, and thematically placing the focus on scenes of poverty and social privation. The house is burning down, neorealism says implicitly. Who cares if the film stock matches?

That's pushing it a little, of course. Neorealism didn't just come out of nowhere. It emerged from Italy in the '40s under the care and guidance of Antifa critics and filmmakers such as Luchino Visconti, whose Ossessione—his take on James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice—is considered the first neorealist film. All Rossellini did was manage to put himself in the right place at the right time, wining a big prize at Cannes in a postwar bust-out that launched neorealism, or something like it (looking at you, Dragnet), permanently into popular consciousness. But Rossellini was more than a reformed propagandist who got lucky. He was a sensitive filmmaker and a complex figure relying on instinct, at bottom something of a romantic. He was aware of history but his impulse, for better and worse, was to make sweeping emotional statements out of it.