Friday, October 30, 2020

Don't Look Now (1973)

UK / Italy, 110 minutes
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Writers: Daphne Du Maurier, Allan Scott, Chris Bryant
Photography: Anthony B. Richmond
Music: Pino Donaggio
Editor: Graeme Clifford
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Massimo Serato, Adelina Poerio, Renato Scarpa

The Daphne Du Maurier story on which this Nicolas Roeg picture is based was published originally in Ladies' Home Journal, which seems strangely appropriate to this enigmatic piece of gothic horror. Du Maurier, author of the novel Rebecca and the short story "The Birds" (Alfred Hitchcock obviously a long-time fan), as well as the peculiar time travel science fiction novel The House on the Strand (in which the journeys are induced with chemicals), remains her own intriguing problem. But glossy women's magazine fiction is just right for this deceptively low-key picture, set in Venice, where a sad young bourgeois couple repairs to recover from the unexpected death of their daughter Christine, who may or may not have died for their sins.

In tone, Don't Look Now veers from half-generic travelogue piece to soft-core pornography—persistent rumors claim that a tender scene of John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) making love actually involved Sutherland and Christie having sex on the set. Sounds right anyway for the early '70s, for director Nicola Roeg, for the soapy score by Pino Donaggio, and for all involved. John and Laura are also art historian restoration experts and it is ostensibly their work that takes them to Venice. John is bringing an ancient church back to glory. But Venice is more than just a convenience for making your movie look classy. Anytime you want a story that suggests drowning in repressed emotion, experts agree you should set it in Venice. See also the long story "The Aspern Papers" by Henry James, or Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr.Ripley, or many other examples.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

"The Lottery" (1948)

At this point, Shirley Jackson's story is your basic stone classic—of horror, of short stories, of midcentury literature. For spoiler-phobes who haven't read it, I'm talking about everything here. According to legend (and Wikipedia), no story or article published by The New Yorker has ever received as much mail from readers—some concerned the story was factual reporting, some thinking it was reporting and wanting to know where they could go watch. But most, quite reasonably, inquiring into just what in the hell was going on around here. By the methodology used at Make Lists, Not War, "The Lottery" is the highest-ranked short story of all time, tied with D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner" (which, in case anyone was wondering, is the Lawrence story misplaced in The Dark Descent). It's not hard to see the reason for the brouhaha. The story is crisp, straightforward, and quick to the point, yet bottomlessly mysterious, with no explanations. In fact, a good many of those letters to The New Yorker and/or Jackson were exactly requests for explanations. To me, its popularity (or notoriety) is equally surprising and mysterious, emerging sideways out of the horror genre (The New Yorker known for many things but horror not one of them), banked as it is with such superhot stores of blind cruel rage they are practically explanatory in themselves. I get a similar charge from the more current Purge franchise of movies, which also rely on a similar outrageous yet believable enough ritual. Further enlightenment on what this story unleashes may also be found in the end of director Peter Jackson's movie from the '90s, Heavenly Creatures.

The explanation, which ironically satisfies no one, is catharsis. Let's think about that one because it's one of those things that always seems fuzzy, even at dictionary level. Merriam-Webster, for example, puts "catharsis" squarely in the realm of art, with its 1-a definition—"purification or purgation of the emotions (such as pity and fear) primarily through art"—but I think the Oxford spin actually applies more directly here: "the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions." That seems to be an explanation, at least for the lottery within Jackson's story. But I'm not sure it explains the story "The Lottery" itself, why it exists in the world or its effect on us. As with The Purge—and resembling Scott McCloud's space between the panels in comic book narrative—a lot of the power of "The Lottery" is derived from trying to imagine how we got from here to there. Why June 27, for example? What does that commemorate? We can guess Jackson's intent as the writer, using the solstice associations of that time of year with ancient rituals, sacrifices, and festivals. The "purge" in the movies is set similarly on the spring equinox, the night of March 21. Both imply surging life and bloody rites of spring. But how, within the story of "The Lottery," did this shockingly barbaric ritual—stoning!—come to pass? No explanation. Why do they do it at all? No explanation. The Purge movies offer some extreme right-wing Christian patriot mumbo-jumbo justifications, which may not weaken them as a whole but plainly is where they depart from "The Lottery."

"The Lottery" makes you answer those questions for yourself, or give up and write them down and mail them to The New Yorker or Jackson (who died in 1965 at the age of 48). The story is full of great effects, mostly working like some sunny day afternoon John Cheever story. This so-called village could as well have been named Any Town Suburb USA, it is intended to be so white-majority generic, with its families named Watson and Martin and Delacroix and Hutchinson. The people are brave and everyone is kind. The ritual has been deeply impressed into the fabric of their lives. It simply exists without question. As with public exhibitions of lynchings and executions in the US past, a number of sadists may be seen nibbling at the edges, there for the sick kicks. Mostly it seems to be ordinary people on a busy weekend but the details can be telling. Much is revealed in small actions by these people, e.g., Mrs. Delacroix, who lifts "a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands." After the victim has been selected, in a murky process, the official in charge lets the townspeople loose with a word: "All right, folks. Let's finish quickly." It is a nearly perfect balance between a suburban daydream and a sickeningly barbaric violation. Stoning is perfect. Hanging would not be enough. Crucifixion would be too much. Jackson's precision is amazing at every point of this story. We are shocked, benumbed, that its events are even happening at all, so swiftly do they come.

Shirley Jackson, Novels and Stories (Library of America)
Read story online.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

"A Doctor's Visit" (1898)

In many ways this story by Anton Chekhov is another that speaks to the gathering social unrest in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. The doctor of the title, a young man still in the early part of his career, is called to the house of a factory owner to attend the family's only daughter, who is 20 and showing symptoms of heart problems. The family patriarch is dead, but the estate is vast, with the factory itself and accommodations for the workers as well as the family mansion, which now houses only the widow, the daughter, and a governess. The story has a good deal of social awareness, as the doctor observes the poor living conditions of the workers, the constant din of the factory, how much the governess enjoys the fine dining and living conditions and how it contrasts with the lives of everyone else there. But the story seems most alive when it involves the doctor's interactions with the young heiress, Liza. It appears the heart malady is more the result of anxiety, with some suggestion that she is suffering from the disparity of her wealthy life contrasted with all around her (the social focus again, with Communist revolution less than 20 years away, though Chekhov did not know it). There seems to be a connection, perhaps even love, between the doctor and Liza, though it is noted the doctor has a family waiting for him at home. The story could be the beginning of a novel about their romance, so likely does it feel. At first the doctor dismisses Liza (and her mother) as hysterical, but then a second impression of Liza overtakes that: "He saw a soft, suffering expression which was intelligent and touching: she seemed to him altogether graceful, feminine, and simple; and he longed to soothe her, not with drugs, not with advice, but with simple, kindly words." This happens early and immediately charges the story with a tension that is at odds with the subtle critique of income distribution. These two elements continually pull at one another even as Liza and the doctor make their tentative connections. The doctor is implored to stay overnight even though it is inconvenient for him. I have the impression it's his budding interest in Liza that ultimately convinces him to stay. As he broods and frets about her and the troubling factory scene, unable to sleep, the essential tension always remains central: "One is shy of asking men under sentence what they have been sentenced for," he thinks; "and in the same way it is awkward to ask very rich people what they want so much money for, why they make such a poor use of their wealth, why they don't give it up, even when they see in it their unhappiness." For a story that doesn't appear to have that much going on, there is a fair amount going on here.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Friday, October 23, 2020

The Graduate (1967)

USA, 106 minutes
Director: Mike Nichols
Writers: Calder Willingham, Buck Henry, Charles Webb
Photography: Robert Surtees
Music: Simon & Garfunkel
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross, William Daniels, Murray Hamilton, Buck Henry, Norman Fell, Alice Ghostley, Richard Dreyfuss, Mike Farrell, Elaine May

The Graduate was a hit movie everyone conspired to designate a symbol of its unique times, released at Christmas following the Summer of Love and heading into 1968. But for a movie that appeared to have a lot of "relevance," that prized quality of the '60s, The Graduate makes a lot of basic mistakes. It casts Dustin Hoffman as a California kid but he barely has a speck of California in him. Vietnam and a civil rights struggle do not exist in this movie, though the sexual revolution is covered quite adequately (a religious relative of mine, in California no less, once turned off the TV in outrage because this movie was playing). And the basic premise—a young man falls in love with the daughter of the married woman who gives him his sexual awakening—is fairly distasteful when looked at it in isolation, like some inverted, degraded version of a classical Greek drama. It's not tragic, it's tawdry.

But I'm not sure these filmmakers, notably director Mike Nichols, really made mistakes because, after all, it's a comedy they set out to make here. It's absurd like comedy in fundamental ways. Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) may be going through coming-of-age rites of passage but he never seems to learn the first name of his paramour (Anne Bancroft), calling her "Mrs. Robinson" right through to the end, even when they are in bed together. His parents' idea of a gift for his 21st birthday is a scuba diving outfit ... to use in the swimming pool. And Ben is not even capable of getting a room at a hotel without going through ridiculous slapstick-level gyrations. His luggage is in the car but he doesn't need a porter. It's only a toothbrush. My guess is it's primarily the Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack that confuses people.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1819)

Washington Irving's chestnut came out the year after Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was first published. That's some bona fides. It's old and it prefigures many things. I was exposed to it somewhere along the line—maybe I read it in junior high or saw TV productions or heard readings. Something. Whatever, I feel like I've always known it even if I don't always remember the details. This American brand of horror—Nathaniel Hawthorne provides more examples, though Edgar Allan Poe does not entirely fit the profile—is rooted in Puritanism, of course. In 1819, Puritanism might have been two centuries old, but it was still callow in comparison to the millennium-plus age of Europe's Roman Catholic Church, whose ancient corruption alone is a much better underpinning for ghosts, blasted spiritual lives, violence, and/or remorse. Let's not forget the druids and barbarian tribes and such either. Horror is one case where I generally favor the Europeans. Maybe because I was raised on it, or in it, American horror stories like this one too often feel close to yippee ki-yay tall tales folklore and myth, campfire ghost stories that rely too much on some cheap shock gimmick like the teller whispering and then standing up suddenly and howling. Who wouldn't get a jolt of adrenaline? But that's not really the point, is it? Here the one thing, the only thing, is headlessness (as opposed to heedlessness, though that is arguably part of the point too). "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" manages a few effective paragraphs near the end, with the Headless Horseman seemingly in hot pursuit of the hapless Ichabod Crane. But otherwise it is mostly endless setup and description at deadly plodding pace. The ending is terrible, and distinctly American as well. In fact, Irving often looks forward to Mark Twain here in the gentle notes of deadpan skepticism. But "Sleepy Hollow"—it was all a practical joke? Everything of weird interest is drained by that. Plus you hate to see a bully win (reminding me once again, as compulsive aside, that Donald Trump is a very old American story). Irving's language is antiquated too, as long as I'm complaining—I object to the frequency of "peradventure." Is this story really beloved by children? Is it beloved by anyone? It's not particularly beloved by me. I know it's a certain icon of American Halloween imagery and ritual but what does that mean? Irving's "Tom Walker and the Devil" is much better in every way, as I recall, though it is also dogged by problems of American horror. "Sleepy Hollow" is less overtly Puritan, set in the times following the American Revolutionary War, when the general project at hand was to build out the structures of a democratic society, in which case superstition necessarily needs to be treated skeptically. But the story often seems to have something less than moral clarity, with its implicit suggestion that bullies gain favor and power and then, in the natural order of things, banish intellectuals and teachers. Or maybe just, in my contrarian way, I don't like the story because everyone else seems to, especially at this time of year.

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

Monday, October 19, 2020

Shirley (2020)

All the grains of salt: I don't know much about Shirley Jackson beyond reading a few of her stories, and I know even less about director Josephine Decker. Decker's fifth or so feature (she's also done documentaries, shorts, and collaborations) felt to me like classic edgy middlebrow film festival fare, which instantly made me nostalgic for film festivals even though it's only (!) been seven months. Elisabeth Moss is excellent, as she often is, lacerating and scary as a vision of Jackson as an alternating cringing agoraphobe and literary monster (think Dorothy Parker with no filter or social skills). In a way, Jackson is depicted as living inside the story "The Yellow Wallpaper." In another way she is Luella Miller, draining everyone around her. Well, maybe—I know she was a faculty wife. I haven't read the biography by Ruth Franklin nor the novel on which this movie is based by Susan Scarf Merrell. Shirley the movie seemed more to conform to a stereotype of the thunderingly anguished artist typified by Van Gogh sawing off his own ear. And possibly it is so re: Jackson. My favorite part of the movie is the first sequence, when the young woman principal reads "The Lottery" and gets so hot she lures her husband into having sex with her on the train. The young couple is on their way to live with Jackson (Moss) and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlberg), a pompous literary academic at Bennington College. The young couple needs a place to stay and, as it turns out, Shirley is somewhat in need of being cared for. The house needs cleaning too and they could use a cook. Thus our young reader on the train, Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), is transformed into a kind of housemaid with privileges as events transpire. Meanwhile, her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) is trying to make it as a grad student assistant to Stanley. I love that name Fred for this guy. Others have compared Shirley to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and there is indeed some of that here. It reminded me more of High Art, with Rose in the Radha Mitchell role. What it doesn't remind me of is very much that I've read by or know about Shirley Jackson, except in general ways. Perhaps she was a difficult person. The person in this movie certainly is very difficult, and unpleasant. Shirley is set as early as the late '40s and as late as 1964—vaguely, postwar midcentury. Everyone is uptight and stylish in the way of Todd Haynes's 2015 Carol or his 2002 Far From Heaven or the Mad Men TV series. Watching it at home on my computer felt like I'd taken a shot at a film festival film and was liking parts of it but the whole thing was turning out to be a disappointment but in a way that made me wonder if seeing it again, or talking it over with someone, might help me like it better, and hoping the picture I was looking at later that day would be better. I miss film festivals already.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Real Punks Don't Wear Black (2006)

My favorite part of Frank Kogan's artfully constructed book (I'm still wondering how it comes so relatively late and remains his only one) was the second section, which is more in a memoir vein, and especially the chapter on junior high, which is the truest thing I've ever read—or truest to my own experience anyway—about the terrifying rite of suburban adolescent passage. He treats it by writing about fear. He's also really great on Bob Dylan, notably Dylan's imperial phase 1964-1966, working up a nice lather for example on the typical Dylan zen koan, from Highway 61 Revisited, "The sun's not yellow it's chicken." Kogan's treatment of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago is another high point of the book. I've always had an uneasy relationship with Kogan's writing and a little paradoxical. I have a high level of trust for his taste in music, but I often glaze over on his dives into the rabbit holes that preoccupy him, such as the meaning of "meaning." I like his social-mapping ideas and believe with him that social context is more involved in musical (and all) taste than most people give credit. But then, though he talks about social mapping, he doesn't seem to do much of it. At one point he lists out familiar and semi-familiar terms—jocks, socs, nerds, stoners, etc.—but assumes they're understood. I was stopped, reading this 2006 book about the early 1970s in 2019, by the term "greaser." I have some idea what it might mean, but it covers a wide range of possibilities, some of them overlapping and some exclusionary to others (Latinos? motorheads? Elvis clones?). Speaking of meaning, perhaps the most baffling, frustrating, and illuminating part of the book is his discussion of "Superwords," which Kogan says are words whose definitions people fight about in social terms, often categories of music, e.g., punk, hip-hop, rock 'n' roll, etc. Nearest and dearest to Kogan's evident heart he put in the title of the book, along with an example of the problem, i.e., "Real [Superword] means this / doesn't mean that." This is eminently worth looking at but it leads Kogan down a narrow hole when Wittgenstein rings the doorbell. It's good at suggesting the difficulty of the problem (the meaning of meaning, more or less) but it also reads a little like he's still annoyed with some college instructor who wrote something on one of his papers he didn't like. It's not the only reason his most obvious antecedent as a rock critic is Richard Meltzer.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Purple Mountains (2019)

Three of the four best songs on Purple Mountains by Purple Mountains were released ahead of the album last year as singles, attempting to generate some buzz and sales, in part because main man David Berman was hoping to get out from under some debt he'd racked up since his time with the Silver Jews (an act I don't know well). The titles tell their own story, which you can see are likely somewhat short on typical commercial appeal: "All My Happiness Is Gone," "Darkness and Cold," and "Margaritas at the Mall." The fourth has a much brighter title in "I Loved Being My Mother's Son," but the past tense puts it back more in range of the rest. In fact, the song is plainly part of Berman dealing with the loss of his mother in 2014, and in fact, Berman, 52, committed suicide a few weeks after this album's release last summer. It's thus tempting to file it under cry for help but for me it's a lot more than that. It's the best album of 2020, in terms of speaking to 2020, even if it came out last year and the auteur never saw a day of 2020. As an album it is ready for the end. At its best, in "All My Happiness Is Gone," it gets to the isolated places Big Star reached in Third, where self-pity and grief are nearly indistinguishable and feel overwhelmingly inescapable and so an unlikely heroic tone takes hold. Purple Mountains may not be a great album—it has ups and downs, some shallow patches and things I'm still not sure about—but it certainly has great songs. "All My Happiness Is Gone" by itself sets the tone as an over-the-top broadside, which Berman himself appears to have recognized in b-side remixes called "All My Happiness Is Wrong" and "All My Happiness Is Long."

"All My Happiness Is Gone" is an over-the-top broadside, wallowing in wallowing, but with a certain balm that droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. It bombs in already flying high with a thrusting rock band floating a wheedling mellotron figure out front, all of which only elevates at the chorus and bridge back to the verses. The verses are litanies of everyday ruminations—nothing specific, all blandly evocative: "Feels like something really wrong has happened / And I confess I'm barely hanging on." Berman's voice is deep and resonant, almost croaking, and it's glum, depressed, absolutely, yet I hear it as life-affirming (however "ironical") in the way it so shamelessly soars over the heartbeat rhythm section which powers it. It is often wrenching when it comes up randomly, unexpectedly. The next-best song, "I Loved Being My Mother's Son," this impossibly open-hearted thing, makes me think of my own mother and her death nearly 40 years ago. I didn't have the kind of relationship with her Berman describes in this song. In a way I feel like I should envy him, but somehow instead his song opens me more to her own best qualities in memory. I may not have loved being my mother's son at the most conscious level in my 20s, but this song helps me see that actually I did and still do. I'm only sorry she couldn't live to see me come all the way around. And I'm sorry Berman couldn't live to carry on. I wish he wouldn't have done it. The pleasures of "Margaritas at the Mall" and especially "Darkness and Cold" are his obvious self-awareness on a level that he was being a bit, well, you know, "dark." Drinking at the mall may not be the best way to cope, but it's coping. As for "Darkness and Cold," with its lonesome hobo harmonica and sobbing female backing vocal, I hear it as a somewhat humorous deadpan self-lampoon of his tendency toward evoking the abyss on a regular basis. Well, there it is again, folks. The abyss. On the other hand it might be the actual cry for help, and that makes me uneasy. But the band plays warm and affectionate all through this album—there's a lot of love in this music.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

"A Rose for Emily" (1930)

To be clear, my opinion is that the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB) basically has it right about this William Faulkner story, which appears in The Dark Descent and is a pretty good Faulkner story. ISFDB, however, classifies it as "non-genre," noting somewhat snippily, "This gothic story has nothing supernatural in it, but has appeared in so many genre anthologies that we want to index its appearance for the purposes of this database." You can feel the skepticism. I'm in sympathy to the extent that I worry editors of horror anthologies too often reach self-consciously for literary credibility. Thank God for Edgar Allan Poe, the go-to win-win (we can talk about the high levels of trash another time). On the other hand, I don't think a horror story has to have something supernatural in it. But it does get to be tricky business out here at the fine edges of sorting and ranking. I'll say I also have my arguments with ISFDB from the other direction. The database for example largely excludes Patricia Highsmith, whose formal specialty is more the crime or mystery genre, that's true. But if your idea of horror does not include the Ripley novels then I am not buying your idea of horror. To be blunt, "A Rose for Emily" is not even remotely my idea of horror. Yet there it is in The Dark Descent along with stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and even D.H. Lawrence for crying out loud. Editor David G. Hartwell really did not need to go to most of these places because he otherwise has impeccable taste in stories that can only be called horror. The Dark Descent is one of the best collections I've come across yet.

In a roundabout way that brings us to the topic of "gothic," ISFDB's term which I probably need to understand better. Starting with the dictionary definition, the third sense in Merriam-Webster gives us "a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents." Sounds like Wuthering Heights! But we are starting to split hairs fine here as that definition in many ways applies equally to horror. Specific circumstances in "A Rose for Emily" reminded me of the Dickens novel Great Expectations and its scenes with Miss Havisham (perhaps as Faulkner intended?), another reason ISFDB's "gothic" seems right. "A Rose for Emily" tells a gruesomely horrific story, if I'm getting the picture right from the usual Faulknerian fragments: Miss Emily Grierson's father would not let her marry, she was 30 by the time he died and her prospects were limited by then, a Northern laborer was beneath her but even he wouldn't have her so she murdered him and slept next to the moldering corpse for many years.

Again, there's a good deal of overlap between horror and grotesque cruelty, mental aberration, and/or crime, so the argument may be fair that "A Rose for Emily" belongs or fits as horror. But something is missing here that I always find in horror, some sense of the uncanny or mystery of an unknowable beyond. In many ways this story reads like merely straightforward degradation of Miss Emily Grierson, with misogyny supplying some of the energy but much more a kind of resentment from the author, an understandable one too, toward the perversions of the Old South, here made absolutely and quite cynically concrete. To stretch it a bit, Faulkner does indulge one of H.P. Lovecraft's ploys, with an insistence on a penetrating noisome smell, but it doesn't feel derived from Lovecraft, and incidentally makes me wonder if Faulkner was even aware of him, though they were roughly contemporaries. Lovecraft was a little older but only by a few years. My main takeaway from "A Rose for Emily" is that the literary values of horror are best left to sort themselves out. Editors of horror anthologies don't need to drag morbid literary stars into the picture to shore up mainstream credibility (beyond Poe of course). Perhaps because it is a reliable commercial cash cow, perhaps for other reasons, horror will never get mainstream credibility and probably shouldn't. Let Faulkner be Faulkner. Let horror be horror.

The Dark Descent, ed. David G. Hartwell

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Sidetracked (1995)

In the Kurt Wallander series so far, the good news for me has been how good Henning Mankell was at creating complicated plots that fall together. In terms of genre, he still seems to me closer to thriller than police procedural. That has been a little disappointing because thrillers generally aren't that thrilling for me—lots of action and movement but inevitably they seem to reach a point where all focus is on some orchestrated Big Event in a big scene. That said, Mankell is tremendously skilled at it. In Sidetracked he reveals very early who the bad guy is, which creates a nice tension when Wallander and/or members of his team are physically in his presence, unknowing. It's a 14-year-old boy with a Native American fixation who is kinda sorta a serial killer. An FBI analyst is on hand consulting with Wallander on the case—a profiler, more or less, still a new idea in the '90s, so I take it this is fairly well grounded in research. Still, this kid is not my idea of a serial killer. He has too much of a concrete motivation, even if it is lunatic. It's lunatic in a rational way, like the Unabomber. He's also over-accomplished, capable of amazing feats, like a superhero or supervillain (looking forward again to Stieg Larsson). Wallander is tormented as usual by social issues within what he considers a decaying social democracy (Sweden), and his personal relations are strained with his father, daughter, and love interest, who first appeared in an earlier novel in the series (The Dogs of Riga) and has lingered on the sidelines since. One of the main themes in Sidetracked is human trafficking and the unscrupulous rich people who enable it (e.g., Donald Trump, Alan Dershowitz, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton). I like a lot of the elements in this one and it's an absorbing and quick-paced read. It's competently done—above average, really, like all the blurbers say—so I think my quibbles about thrillers are more likely straining at genre limitations. It's just not the kind of Adam-12 police procedural that's generally my preference, but it's sober about the real world, which is also a preference. Mankell may not always be for me, in other words, but so far he's always been good at the things he does.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, October 09, 2020

American Honey (2016)

UK / USA, 163 minutes
Director / writer: Andrea Arnold
Photography: Robbie Ryan
Music: Rihanna, E-40, Juicy J, Rae Sremmurd, Carnage, etc.
Editor: Joe Bini
Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Crystal Ice, Johnny Pierce II, Shawna Rae Mosely

By its length, by its title, by its timing, director and writer Andrea Arnold's American Honey arrived boldly insisting it has something monumental to say about the way we live now in this country and oh, er, maybe "Obama's America" in an election year. It's one of those pictures that feels like an event more than just another day at the movies. It tells an ambitious story of booze, drugs, sex, and money, putting naïve teens and 20somethings on a road trip that wanders across the Great Plains and never ends. American Honey starts in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and travels through Kansas City, into Iowa, across the badlands of North Dakota, and through a giant blasting thunderstorm, among other points of Midwestern interest. These kids are not searching for themselves or America. This is not Easy Rider. They're out there conning white suburbanites into buying magazine subscriptions and, like a degraded version of the already degraded privileged kids in Risky Business, they just want to make money. A lot of money.

American Honey focuses on three characters: Star (Sasha Lane), an 18-year-old of mixed racial origins escaping her nowhere life going nowhere in Muskogee, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a lothario from Bakersfield and the best seller on the crew, and Krystal (Riley Keough), who poses as a chippy ice goddess Southern beauty. Krystal is the corporate road manager assigned to running this show on the road, by name "Crew 071." But the crew itself is a brilliant fourth character, like a Greek chorus counterpoint, this scruffy half-drunken bunch of down-and-outers. They are like a traveling 24/7 party, heaving riotous fun wherever they go at kegger levels of loose. It's so mysterious, so revelatory, seeing them from a distance carrying on in parking lots like a circus gang. They are all hot and a little dirty, from all parts of the US like an old-fashioned World War II Army platoon. American Honey manages to have it both ways. It is and is not Simon & Garfunkel, all gone to look for America.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

"White Rabbits" (1941)

Leonora Carrington is better known as a Surrealist painter but she also wrote stories and novels. She was born in Britain in 1917, tossed around by European political currents and her own rebellious behavior, and finally landed in Mexico in the early '40s. This very short gem from The Weird speaks to the itinerant traveling lifestyle, told first-person by someone who has just arrived in New York City, living at "40 Pest Street" across the way from an odd house. "This is not the way I had imagined New York," she writes in dry understatement. The narrator is never specified by gender but feels like the voice and life of a woman. Her view of New York is a little unusual but has some of the atmosphere of Charles Addams or Edgar Allan Poe, taking careful note of the light, which is dim and hazy. She can see into the house across the way through the living room window but no one ever seems to be at home. "I finally took to undressing quite freely before my open window and doing my breathing exercises optimistically in the thick Pest Street air." After some time she sees a woman at the other house on the balcony, who calls to her, "Do you happen to have any bad meat over there that you don't need?" The story creates mounting unease by the paragraph, with swift strokes. Out of curiosity, the narrator buys "a large lump of meat" and sets it out to rot a few days. There may be some exaggeration about the smell but the story moves quickly, as next the narrator is seen bearing the reeking prize across the way. Now the story hits its stride. Everything is turned upside down and insane and weird and ghostly inside the house, whose entrance, to start, is difficult to find. "It turned out to be hidden under a cascade of something, giving the impression that nobody had been either in or out of this house in years." I particularly love that "hidden under a cascade of something." Carrington writes vividly but she also knows where to apply the eraser and rub out details. The white rabbits, to get to that detail (stars of Lewis Carroll and Jefferson Airplane before and after), are shiny white and hopping about like bunnies, but they are also carnivores, which immediately sets us off balance. The bad meat is for them; they are not just carnivores but carrion-eaters, like vultures. Any immediate danger in this story is easily escaped, but that offers little solace in this terrifying universe. We see the rabbits, we learn more about the strange occupants of the house—more than we want to know. The story takes comforting things like bunny rabbits and sparkling textures and casually makes them hideously wrong.

The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Story not available online.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Suspiria (2018)

I know I have a bias against sequels, remakes, and reboots, but this one, in retrospect—or "homage," the term fatally preferred by director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name, I Am Love)—was just always doomed to fail in comparison with Dario Argento's spectacular 1977 original. As I rediscovered, going a lap to prep for the homage, Argento's arguable masterpiece is close to a perfect movie in its way. In fact, the single best thing about Guadagnino's remake for me turned out to be exactly the trip back to the Argento (and am now further inspired to entertain trying to squeeze in an Argento retrospective). Guadagnino's new version is 40 minutes longer and doesn't even try to compete on the two greatest strengths of the original, the vivid color palette and the soundtrack by Goblin. That was probably wise but the result is too often dreary and slow, another reminder of why perhaps this project should never have been taken on in the first place. Its attempt to draw the Black Swan vibe into the orbit of Suspiria—not a bad idea—is completely torpedoed by also leaning so hard into an incoherent subplot involving the Baader-Meinhof era of European terrorism. The new Suspiria is merely operatic as opposed to Argento's operatic strained through prog-rock. If you like Coppola's Dracula or The Silence of the Lambs (especially if you go for the sequel), then you're probably way ahead of me and have already seen the 2018 Suspiria (I'm still doing a little pandemic catchup myself these days). A taste for Guadagnino's sumptuous swirling style would also be helpful—I'm not sure it does much for me. I think I liked Call Me By Your Name more in spite of it. There's also the matter of Tilda Swinton taking multiple roles, which makes me think there's a good Bernie Sanders meme somewhere in here, viz., "I am once again appearing in a movie in multiple roles." Swinton is good, of course, but more and more she's starting to feel gimmicky, maybe overexposed, single-handedly signifying Art (indie movie style). I understand the 2018 Suspiria is one of those movies people are somewhat polarized on, either loving or hating it. Sadly, I'm closer to the latter. "Suspiria" is Latin for "sighing," which is what I found myself heaving in disappointment within the first hour of this long tiresome exercise.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Tropic of Cancer (1934)

I tried reading this Henry Miller novel in my 20s. It seemed to be considered his best, or at least most notorious, but I soon abandoned it as ridiculously rambling and pointless. I was mystified. I picked it up again more recently and finished it this time—still found it rambling, but now somehow it had become an advantage. Or at least a serviceable platform for the language, which is so vital and exuberant. If it's "about" anything, it's about Miller's survival in Paris in the early 1930s, including his sources of shelter, food, income, and sex and how he acquires and loses them. It's thoroughly bohemian, practically a novel-length definition of bohemianism. Karl Shapiro's early-'60s introduction (shortly after the book finally became free of censorship problems in the US and elsewhere and thus "legal") asserts upfront that Miller is not a poet. "I do not call him a poet because he has never written a poem; he even dislikes poetry, I think," Shapiro writes. Well, maybe, because Shapiro then goes on to make the key connection of Miller with Walt Whitman. Which, indeed, Miller himself makes in this so-called novel, loudly extolling the great American poet's virtues. Miller's language appears rambling, but his word choice can be remarkably precise, and he has a vocabulary. His sentences can be long but his sense of rhythm rarely fails. The whole thing rushes pell-mell ... to nowhere ... and yet it's easy to hitch along for this ride, even for someone like me who resents a little the labor of the nonnarrative literary arts (including most especially poetry). Miller's world is one of much boozing and whoring in Tropic of Cancer, deeply and bluntly sexist in many places, but the bracing honesty redeems it—really. Or something does. I want to say it's the language winning me over, which is often sublime, but more than that I think it's the sense of a soul just behind the words, a real soul. This soul is stuck here like mine is (or there, in Paris), making the best of things. Raging against the futilities and stupidities of civilization at large, yet crucially able to let go of rage for the sake of having a good time—restorative to all souls. Giving up rage, resentments, depression is one of the most profoundly positive and even subversive actions we can take in a way, when we can. Tropic of Cancer is a kind of undirected how-to manual, filled with implicit case studies. As someone who may (or may not) allow himself to let go and have a good time often enough, I appreciate the practical advice here. Miller feels like someone I might be able to keep going back to.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, October 02, 2020

Under the Skin (2013)

UK / USA / Switzerland, 108 minutes
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writers: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Faber, Milo Addica
Photography: Daniel Landin
Music: Mica Levi
Editor: Paul Watts
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Kevin McAlinden, Andrew Gorman, Krystof Hadek, Adam Pearson, Scott Dymond

Under the Skin is one of those allusive shape-shifting science fiction horror movies that are not so easy to get a bead on. I didn't like it the first time I saw it. It seemed too charged with wanky mood and not enough explanation. But then I liked it a lot a second time. It put me in mind some of pictures such as The Man Who Fell to Earth, Liquid Sky, or Alien. These aliens are truly alien. They are on missions we don't understand. In Liquid Sky they are comically tiny and feed on human chemicals released during orgasm or opiate use. In Nicolas Roeg's Man Who Fell to Earth, the alien is solo, but humanized as Thomas Jerome Newton, attempting to save his family and dying planet by trading entertainment technology on Earth to amass the resources. In Under the Skin, "The Female" (Scarlett Johansson) remains inscrutable—perfectly alien. It is credited as "The Female" but that's misleading. It is gender-neutral, genderless. We don't understand its gender. It needs something, apparently from human men, and it wears a human costume, posing as a prostitute, to lure them into its trap and get it.

Director and cowriter Jonathan Glazer came up making music videos for '90s acts such as Massive Attack, Blur, and Radiohead. His first feature, Sexy Beast, is standard caper fare but has an amazing performance by Ben Kingsley, more of an actor's piece as a film. I haven't seen Glazer's second feature, 2004's Birth with Nicole Kidman, which got mixed reviews but seemed to be headed more in the direction of Under the Skin, with uncanny elements freely deployed. Under the Skin is the picture Glazer then worked on getting made for eight or nine years, and in fact he hasn't done a lot since, so in some ways we may need to think of it in terms of the work of a lifetime. But surely that's putting too much weight on it. You probably won't like it much the first time either with expectations set like that.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

"The Terrible Old Man" (1921)

This very short H.P. Lovecraft story alas comes with the usual note of xenophobe panic, the insidious feature you are never far from with him. In this case, the specific miscreants are named Angelo Ricci, Joe Czanek, and Manuel Silva, so we know where they're coming from. Never mind how, in 1921, one Italian, one Eastern European, and one Latino—swarthy babbling immigrants all, no doubt—have come to be allied in crime. (Or, as they say on the internet, "Sounds legit!") The story is so short it might be fair to call it a short-short, which is refreshing from the normally prolix Lovecraft, who still manages to be ponderous even in the brief space here. It's actually intended as homage to Lord Dunsany, which is a nice idea, but few, of course, are as good at this kind of thing as the canny Irish aristocrat. The trio of America-destroying immigrants here are determined to rob a grizzled old sea captain who lives in a shack on the outskirts of a small New England town. He is the "Terrible Old Man" (Lovecraft's capitalization), "so old that no one can remember when he was young, and so taciturn that few know his real name." The three are convinced the old creaker's house is full of treasure from the sea and also that he is feeble. They are wrong, however, at least about his being feeble, and the charm of the story is how powerful this Terrible Old Man actually appears to be, in his wonderfully unassuming muttering way, most of it off-stage. It's Lovecraft doing Lord Dunsany, but it's still Lovecraft, so for example there's a lot of unseemly shrieking that goes down in the violation itself. Lovecraft the author wants us to think it's the old man being tortured, but we know better, and sure enough, it's the trio who come to a swift and dreadful end. "Little things make considerable excitement in little towns, which is the reason that Kingsport people talked all that spring about the three unidentifiable bodies, horribly slashed as with many cutlasses, and horribly mangled as by the tread of many cruel bootheels, which the tide washed in." No one, naturally, has noticed that three immigrants went missing, because no one in a Lovecraft story cares about immigrants except to hate them. It would be a better story without the overt bigotry, which is a main thing Lord Dunsany understood better. I appreciate Lovecraft paying respects, even in his limited way, and it's not a bad story if you can get past the sour notes. But you're better off going directly to Lord Dunsany.

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