Thursday, December 31, 2020

"The Demon King" (1931)

This story by J.B. Priestley is theatrical, funny, and hugely entertaining. With the setting of a traditional holiday performance in a remote shire of England—I kept thinking of community theater in the US—it is thoroughly steeped in backstage friction and show-must-go-on bravura. Bickering and long-simmering feuds mark relations among the players and crew as well as a spirit of camaraderie. For this Boxing Day evening performance, the man playing the Demon King in the supernatural bits cannot be found. He is a journeyman professional hired for the occasion, with a reputation for "lifting the elbow" and thought to be likely drunk somewhere again. But he cannot be found. An impromptu understudy, woefully unprepared, is pressed into service, but at the last minute the actor shows up, in full costume and makeup. "He looked superb.... The face had a greenish phosphorescent glow, and its eyes flashed between glittering lids." During the show, he struts around scaring everybody and gives a great performance. Other players perform better than they ever have—for one it is a lifetime's dream come true. My favorite detail might be that the village audience, typically taciturn and withdrawn, suspicious of paying money for entertainment, erupts in ovations that go on and on. "The stage manager looked at his watch, 'It's holding up the show, that's certain.... If they're going to behave like this every night, we'll have to cut an hour out of it.'" My other favorite detail might be that this is all a production of the Jack & Jill nursery rhyme, with a Fairy Queen and Demon King and supernatural bits. Apparently it's how they did things. For his part, Priestley is cryptic: "[T]hose people who are puzzled to know what demons have to do with Jack and Jill, those innocent water-fetchers, should pay a visit to the nearest pantomime, which will teach them a lot they did not know about fairy tales." The only explanation for the night is when the troupe gets word that the actor hired to play the Demon King, the one they worried about "lifting the elbow," had been detained "knocked down in Boar Lane by a car, but he'll be all right tomorrow." The rest is for us and those in the story to decide, with the help of clonking details such as a smell of sulfur in the theater. It's all a big show, of course, but it works. I like the humor of it, with this evident demon waylaying the other actor and then showing up to goad a big performance and ovation out of the small village for his own entertainment. I love how it just sticks Jack & Jill into the middle of it. It's a Christmas show—shouldn't there be more holiday theme to it? No explanation. Priestley, more of a mainstream novelist and playwright, didn't do much horror and this one feels like he's just having fun. It's infectious.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Story not available online.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

"The Bishop" (1902)

This late story by Anton Chekhov, written two years before his death at 44, is perhaps not surprisingly full of the foreboding of death. Chekhov had been battling, as we say, tuberculosis for some time. It does not feel much self-pitying but is instead artful and quiet, with a series of great moments, like the movie Wild Strawberries. It's Holy Week and Easter on the way and the bishop is dying. At the Palm Sunday service he is surprised to see his mother—a mother of nine and grandmother of 40 by now. It feels dreamlike. He has not seen her in nine years. Her behavior toward him has become more like a parishioner's, intimidated by his stature and fearful, and he feels sad and distant from her. The memories well forth: "Why did it, that long-past time that could never return, why did it seem brighter, fuller, and more festive than it had really been?" Why indeed. This story is a stark reminder that Chekhov was still getting better. Even in the face of eternity it's little details that tell, perhaps even more so in memory. The bishop may be sad for the distance he feels from his mother, but he is brave and stoic as he faces death and ruminates over his life. It's no crisis of faith, exactly. He continues with his rituals and their meanings. His most evocative memories have little to do with death or afterlife and everything to do with life, telltale moments of existence. I like the detail of electric lights first being installed in the town in some of these scenes. The times they are a-changing. People gather around to watch and look at the lights. In many ways this story feels like all encounters of parents and grown children—awkward, affectionate, strange. Are bishops generally middle-aged like Chekhov? This one feels older. He shows courage and dignity facing death but is peevish about his routines. The diagnosis of typhus appears to be news but he doesn't seem surprised, as if it only confirms what he has suspected. He dies and is replaced. Life just goes on. In the end his mother is seen saying "that she had a son, a bishop, and this she says very timidly, afraid that she may not be believed.... And, indeed, there are some who do not believe her."

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Queen's Gambit (2020)

The Queen's Gambit, released late in October, is so good it reminded me that November was a sweeps month on TV, when the industry puts its best foot forward to goose up numbers for advertising rates. Is that still a thing? Anyway, the Netflix miniseries is long, at seven hours, but sectioned off nicely into seven episodes and with a hard finish (I very much hope). It's based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote the source novels for The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Color of Money. I would classify The Queen's Gambit as a sports type of picture but it has lots of satisfying girl power and nerd power as well. It's based on a novel but often feels eerily real, set in the '50s and '60s. Beth Harmon (a remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy and nearly as good Isla Johnston as the young Beth) is an orphan in Lexington, Kentucky, the daughter of a mentally ill woman and a man she had an affair with. In the orphanage for girls, with the help of a janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), Beth learns to play chess and it is immediately obvious she is a prodigy. At the same time, the orphanage gives the girls tranquilizers every day and Beth becomes addicted—the drug is good for her game in interesting ways but naturally bad for her soul. The series tracks her rise to prominence after she is adopted as she takes the chess world by storm in her teens. Along the way she has to knock off the Kentucky state champion and then the US champion before facing the dread Soviet Russians, masters of the chess universe in this world. The Queen's Gambit is full of great characters—Beth herself, young and older, Mr. Shaibel, the woman who adopts her, Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), and the men she vanquishes at the board, Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and others. The mysterious Soviet monolith Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski) is her most terrifying opponent, an iceberg who plays with precision and intimidating authority. I don't know chess that well, and never was any good at it, but the excitement around the game can be like the excitement of hackers doing amazing things because they can, and the picture is further powered by the sheer competitive spirit of the tournaments. There are some pretty good spelling bee movies that work this way too. There's enough technical jargon on chess to fool me anyway and I love Beth's absorption, confidence, and ability to demolish opponents. As a miniseries set in the '60s it is full of musical interludes. I thought they went to that well perhaps a bit too much, especially as the series proceeds, but there are some very fine pop music moments along the way here. The Queen's Gambit is fun, fast, and full of surprises. Don't miss it if you can.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Interrupting My Train of Thought (2014)

Phil Dellio is a friend, so I better start there. He has also taken a route of self-publishing and as such been a bit of a role model for me, though he is more the age of Grant Hart and I am more the age of Elvis Costello. His '90s zine Radio On inspired me to do one of my own back then. I was thrilled to join him and Steven Rubio in 2011 for a Facebook countdown exercise of our 50 favorite movies. And this self-published collection of Phil's pieces culled from his online writing inspired me again to do something like it. Interrupting My Train of Thought is organized thematically—Phil has written about pop music, movies, baseball, American politics, the year 1972, and more. Among other things he works well within the bounds of the personal essay. His own life is suffused through everything he writes. He is never mawkish, only self-deprecating, and his insights and opinions are sharp and clear. He is soon impatient with fools, in his unassuming patient way—his day job for years was as a grade-school teacher. A lot of the pieces here came originally from postings on the ILX forum and Facebook. As he stitches the pieces together, he has a wonderfully discursive style that circles and approaches his subjects from different angles, often taking vaguely skeptical positions but capable of devotional flights, sometimes wandering well afield, but invariably pulling it together convincingly. In a way it's like a tightrope act—a literary form made out of fragments of culture and the glue of himself. At the same time, his quiet confidence makes him feel more authoritative as you go. His obsessive regard for Neil Young (and Richard Nixon, and Coppola movies) has also made him something of a useful scholar. In 2007 he whipped up a definitive and impressive catalog of Young covers by other artists to date, published in Stylus (available here). It's so straightforwardly thorough and comprehensive you can't be anything but impressed. It often feels like Phil writes with a great deal of intuition—that's a key part of the pleasure in this collection—but his instincts are true. He is no acquired taste. All you have to do is read his stuff. I encourage everyone to start immediately.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

In a Sentimental Mood (1989)

I don't plan on making a habit of this, but I was back at the Amazon review salt mines to help get a bead on this Dr. John album from the late '80s. As an early version of a bona fide rock star taking on the Tin Pan Alley American songbook, with some reverence (I guess Willie Nelson was first? and then Linda Ronstadt?), this album has always basically won me over, ups, downs, and all. But I see I am out of step with many of the Amazon reviewers, who tend to single out the opening-track duet with Rickie Lee Jones, "Makin' Whoopee." The song later appeared in the movie Sleepless in Seattle, which even I can't believe I still haven't seen. But, in a word: No. For me, it's one of the bigger sequencing mistakes in album history, up there with Bruce Springsteen starting Born in the U.S.A. with that album's worst song. That case might be slightly worse because it's also the title song. But "Makin' Whoopee" is close, a cloying tribute to hammy 1920s innuendo that is approximately 90% cringe. Yes, OK, sentimental mood means nostalgia, and December is a good month for indulging sentimental music, but "Makin' Whoopee" is a rubicon I can't quite cross. You might feel the same here about, for example, "My Buddy" (like "Makin' Whoopee" a collaboration between songwriters Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson), a tender ballad that reliably works on me, especially when I think about cats and dogs I've known. I hope the point where we can all agree is in the mostly instrumental workups of "Love for Sale" and especially the title song, which remind us that the piano was Dr. John's main instrument when all is said and done, a student of Professor Longhair and master in his own right. He bangs it with finesse, restrained power, and joy, carrying the tracks to winning crescendos. The Duke Ellington collaboration "In a Sentimental Mood" is simply gorgeous, featuring the orchestral arrangements that dominate these tracks. I've always been more agnostic on strings than some of the naysayers of the '60s era—ultimately I was OK with B.B. King's turn to them, for example—but I note the pervasive presence on this album as it may be a deal breaker for many. Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," by contrast, has more of the uptempo boogie-woogie feel, which suits the song and Dr. John's bumptious play. The surging horn charts by Marty Paich on the bridge remind me weirdly of something I can't quite put my finger on from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. It might be "More Than a Woman" or some other song, but I think it's David Shire's "Manhattan Skyline." At least it's a good excuse to point to that oft-overlooked silky high point of the soundtrack album, and while I'm at it to encourage everyone sometime to get to Shire's masterpiece movie soundtrack, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, one of the best in the '70s and a pretty good gritty New York City crime movie too. Dr. John, In a Sentimental Mood—oh yes, where was I? Pretty good album if you can take the sucrose levels. High points, low points. This one's got it all. Enjoy with wine.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

USA, 111 minutes
Director: Arthur Penn
Writers: David Newman, Robert Benton, Robert Towne
Photography: Burnett Guffey
Music: Charles Strouse
Editor: Dede Allen
Cast: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Michael J. Pollard, Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle, Gene Wilder, Evans Evans

The ending of Bonnie and Clyde is about as iconic to the '60s as the shower scene in Psycho, and equally short in terms of running time—a scant few minutes (with many, many cuts in the edit). Bonnie and Clyde, coming much further into the decade, may have been in the better position to self-consciously attempt a statement about the times, with its outlaw heroes, desperate little guys, gang violence, police power and corruption, etc. Plus its star, Warren Beatty, looks like a Kennedy, similarly assassinated by gunfire, though the Zapruder film has no cuts. Bonnie and Clyde is a strange beast, living among other strange beasts of 1967 Hollywood. Mark Harris's well-regarded Pictures at a Revolution looked closely at the five Best Picture Oscar nominees of that year, a motley assortment with various heavy significations, looking in all directions at once seemingly: Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night.

Bonnie and Clyde is plainly the New Hollywood art film of the class (though In the Heat of the Night has some pretensions in that direction too). But it also has unusual bifurcations. It's an art film full of naturalistic violence and banjo music. The crime capers are both farce and tragedy. It's a period piece that is more about the period in which it was made (as they always are). The star of the movie, Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow, was also the producer, but not the director. In fact, generally speaking, one of the most amazing things about Bonnie and Clyde is the sheer tonnage of talent assembled, working less collaboratively but more side by side, like artisans at a crafts mall.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

"Horror: A True Tale" (1861)

The title and date of publication make it clear this Christmassy horror story by John Berwick Harwood will lean toward the antiquated. Super-popular Charles Dickens in many ways was responsible for yoking together Christmas and spooky stories, not just with the much beloved A Christmas Carol but in many other stories and in his novels as well. Harwood chips in a classic with this one. He published it and many of his ghost stories as by "Anonymous," and it is still often published that way, presumably to make it more convincing as true, which it is not of course, and likely also because of the enduring disreputability of horror. As with much of Dickens (I understand), it may be best enjoyed by listening to someone read it aloud. But you'd better make sure you've got an hour because it does take its time getting to its points, proceeding with the slow-burn approach of ratcheting tension. You have a feeling you know where you are headed and it is also agony getting there. Yes, this story is often overdone, sometimes in comical ways, but it's certainly good for spooky story time around Christmas if anyone is still doing that and has the patience for 19th-century rhythms—indeed, the tradition is part of this story just as the story is part of it. It's a young woman's story told by her as an old woman, recalling the experience that changed her life. It is heavy with setup, foreshadowing, and angst, but eventually pays off well. She was 19. It turned her hair white overnight and made her old and withered. Hair turning white from a bad scare is a detail I remember well from being told ghost stories myself when I was a kid. The story takes place in a mansion, on Christmas Eve, in a house crowded with guests, on a stormy night. There's a family matriarch, the narrator's godmother, whom they want to please. She has had some longstanding grudge against the young woman's family, over something that happened at the narrator's christening. It was the last anyone in the family had seen of her until this Christmas Eve. She also might have paranormal powers but she's more inscrutable than anything. After an evening spent swapping ghost stories, the narrator is exiled off to an isolated chamber next to the lumber room for the night as part of making accommodations for all the guests, and then, well, ghost. And/or possibly an escaped lunatic—this proposed rational explanation actually seems more unlikely than a ghost, but either way the young woman turns 75 overnight. I take it as a ghost, one of those corporeal types, which reliably get right to me, and this is a good version, presented as a kind of silent ravening beast and predator. If I were her, I would have taken her sisters up on their invitation to bunk with them for the night. Now look what's happened. And listen to her story. At Christmastime.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Chillers for Christmas, ed. Richard Dalby (out of print)
Listen to story online (note: I'm not convinced this is a good reading but I'm also not a connoisseur of spoken-word recording).

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Fifth Woman (1996)

I'm calling the sixth Kurt Wallander mystery by Henning Mankell one of the best in the series. As always, it's totally engrossing nearly from start to finish. And, also once again, there's more evidence for what a master of plot Mankell is. Some of the elements may rankle a little. The brutality of the crimes is first on that list—so grotesque here they finally begin to verge on parody. Especially when they start to eat at Wallander from the inside out, as they often do. As they would anyone, obviously, including many readers. Mankell does not exactly "play fair" in this one, tipping us early to who the killer is. We see some scenes from the killer's view, which also gives us information, but the specific identity of this culprit is not that important. If Wallander is a link between Martin Beck and Stieg Larsson's trilogy, and he might be, here is where the theme of misogyny and its various fruits first really shows up. For once I don't want to give too much away as the details of this one are there to be discovered. But the primary focus here is specifically on many of the ill ways men treat women, and they are never isolated cases. We should know it's going on constantly, as police officers are likely to know well themselves. In a way, Wallander represents a type of social complacency, a police detective who can still be shocked and deeply disturbed by what he witnesses, and yet is unable to generalize it somehow and so is never quite hardened to his job. He remains an interesting character for all his flaws and the increasing use of him as a superhero (the girl with the dragon tattoo herself, Lisbeth Salander, practically arrives as a superhero). This novel also includes significant developments in Wallander's life, which can be affecting even though more and more I think that kind of stuff only clutters up some of these narratives. Another thing I noticed here is how good Mankell is on time passing. We get a nice sense that we are seeing the life of a man as he passes through his 40s. This kind of keeping faith with real time is tricky business in any continuing series and among other things Mankell is doing much better at that than many others.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Jezebel (1938)

USA, 104 minutes
Director: William Wyler
Writers: Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Owen Davis, Robert Buckner, Louis F. Edelman
Photography: Ernest Haller
Music: Max Steiner
Editor: Warren Low
Cast: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Margaret Lindsay, Richard Cromwell, Spring Byington, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Theresa Harris

Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With the Wind was published in 1936, became an immediate sensation, and has basically remained so since. I haven't read it myself but it has never been out of print in nearly 100 years. Even so, it was practically overshadowed by the movie version three years later, a sort of massive 1-2 knockout punch only seen in the annals of media culture perhaps once a decade (compare the Beatles owning the Billboard top 5 for one week in 1964 ... the Beatles have also never gone out of print). Word is that Bette Davis was given the lead in Jezebel as compensation for not getting the Scarlett O'Hara role. Indeed, sympathy may have run so deep it accounts for her Best Actress Oscar for this picture too, although Davis was plainly one of the best players of her generation, and well-liked, with 10 nominations and two wins for Best Actress between 1934 and 1944. Jezebel, based on a play that was successful in 1933, similarly goes down South for a good old slavery times story—this one set in 1850s Louisiana during a yellow fever epidemic, with racial tensions of a different kind, abolitionist, as thick in the air as 2020.

Davis is Julie Marsden, a Scarlett-like—and/or Scarlett-lite, depending on your feelings about GWTW—spoiled daughter of wealth. If Scarlett wears black to shock everyone at a dance, Julie wears scarlet. It works out pretty much the same. Julie's on-again off-again beau is Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda, young and on the rise but already with a ramrod up his spine) and the script sends the couple spinning. Julie seems to have a habit of going too far and then seeking atonement and Davis captains up her gyrations with quivering conviction. She's easy to hate in a sort of delicious way. At a key point in the movie, Julie's Aunt Belle says she reminds her "of a woman called Jezebel, who did evil in the sight of God." Jezebel, you may recall, is a biblical Phoenician character, the wife of Ahab and a general no-goodnik infatuated with power, and a woman besides. Aunt Belle is not wrong here but I will say Julie's road to redemption is far more compelling than Scarlett O'Hara's.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Lovecraft Country, s1 (2020)

This new HBO series worked a lot of PR buzz when it debuted last summer. I don't know the Matt Ruff novel it starts from but was intrigued by the "Lovecraft" and its evident intention to address racism. As the horror and fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft has become nearly as well-known in recent years for his unfortunate racism as for his work, it promised interesting tensions. Alas, though it does address racism, it ends up feeling much more like conventional TV and not very much like Lovecraft, save for some CGI shoggoths that are cartoonish now that we are used to CGI. Lovecraft's most appealing feature, at least in terms of horror, is his treatment of the universe as vast and unfeeling, populated with monsters with their own agendas who do not care about human beings if they are even aware of them. The way we think of insect vermin. He writes about the insoluble problems of anxiety and fear, whereas Lovecraft Country frequently offers perky solutions: stop being racist, the main one. And look to family for sustenance (the reflex for most peak TV: you know the drill, tender moment, I'm not crying, you're crying). Then layer on magic (incantations, secret knowledge, the "language of Adam," which sounds cousin to Klingon). Lovecraft Country does a nice job of turning some things on their head, notably racism, where the show blazes with righteous fury. "Lovecraft country," for example, is Massachusetts like it should be—Lovecraft was a Rhode Islander, but a lot of his stories take place in Massachusetts—yet it has the look and feel of Jim Crow Old South. The sad thing is that this treatment of racism as virulent and everywhere often feels exaggerated, but I bet it's not. I would guess much of it, up to and including the riots and lynchings, are scrupulously rooted in fact. Still, as one more strung-together, padded-out peak TV series, it started to feel like all the others, like Stranger Things only instead of Scooby Doo plucky teenagers it has Scooby Doo plucky people of color. I liked a few episodes pretty well (1, 2, and 6) but felt like things dragged the rest of the way. I admit I haven't followed TV that closely but I also have to say Lovecraft Country looks a lot like everything I have seen: some good ideas, a start that quickly explodes into multiple threads, and then entire multiple episodes devoted to advancing each one simultaneously, with regular injections of family drama for the feels, plus special effects and cliffhanger plots that only lead to further cliffhangers. Put 10 hours in and all they want is for you to can't-wait for the next one.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Tropic of Capricorn (1939)

It's hard to know what to do with Henry Miller. He can be as exhilarating as he can be exasperating, often in the same (very long) paragraph. Caution: this book contains paragraphs that go on for pages. (I know I'm not one to complain about a lack of paragraphing.) Wikipedia calls Tropic of Capricorn "a prequel of sorts" to the more widely lauded Tropic of Cancer. Where Cancer riffs on Miller's life in Paris in the 1930s (his "bohemian novel," a friend calls it), Capricorn dances around his life in New York City in the 1920s, scrabbling to get by and write. These books are called "novels" because that's closer than "memoirs," but really they are something else apart entirely. They make me think most often of poetry, paintings by Picasso, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring—modern, bracing, alive. They are iconoclastic, electrifying the humdrum with holy charges. Miller even name-checks J. Krishnamurti in both—!! I often have no idea what is going on from page to page, but the sentences and vocabulary have their own charming magnetism, and in the confusion there are vivid and concrete moments of joy and desperation. It's fully energized with life, which might sound trite, but Capricorn is no pep talk jive. If Miller is fully engaged with joy he is also fully engaged with despair. One of the recurring themes is the life-sucking soullessness of most full-time jobs and their necessities. I also find the treatment of sex interesting, given the book's history of being banned until 1961. There aren't many sex scenes as such, but sex is a frequent topic of discussion and the language is raw, with animal urgency. It's not pornographic. It's hard to imagine it turns anyone on but I might be wrong about that and/or it's a generational thing? He's as matter-of-fact about getting laid as he is about eating. Both can be sensual delights and to some degree (arguable on sex, I know) both are necessities. So there tends to be a deep everydayness to his treatment of sex and an anecdotal quality to his experiences that makes them as interesting (and necessary too) as good conversation. As for organization, I don't know what to say. There's one chapter-like break, a few line breaks scattered in at random, and lots of the paragraphs go sprawling across pages. Sometimes the copy editor in me stepped forward and idly attempted to break these monsters up. But that is where I discovered how good Miller is. My presumptive exercises only showed how tightly woven together it all is, with everything including transitions packed in there basically the way it should be—the way it must be. Miller blows my mind and amazes the hell out of me sometimes. I wonder which one I should read next, and if I can even take it.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Badlands (1973)

USA, 94 minutes
Director/writer: Terrence Malick
Photography: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn
Music: George Aliceson Tipton, Mickey & Sylvia
Editors: Robert Estrin, Billy Weber
Cast: Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates, Ramon Bieri, Alan Vint, Gary Littlejohn

I haven't kept up much with director and writer Terrence Malick since The Tree of Life, which was way too muddled, Christianist, and overrated for me. He has been at least as productive in the past 10 years as any other stretch of his career: To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015, about a tarot card I understand), Song to Song (2017, sez "play loud" but the music is buried in the mix with everything else), and A Hidden Life (2019). Song to Song is the one I've seen, just a few weeks ago, and had a bad reaction. If you despaired of the Sean Penn sequences in The Tree of Life, that's basically all Song to Song is for over two hours. Also, in the past year or two, I paid a revisit to the 1978 Days of Heaven and came away decidedly unravished. I think in the '70s I might have even called it better than Badlands, but now I am more inclined to compare Days of Heaven unfavorably with Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff.

So I wasn't sure what I was going to get with a return to Malick's auspicious 1973 debut, the kinda-sorta story of Charlie Starkweather and girlfriend Carol Ann Fugate on a 1958 Midwestern killing spree, Bonnie and Clyde style, Gun Crazy style—one of the 20th century's favorite stories (Raymond Pettibon's version by way of Sonic Youth: "I stole my sister's boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road"—I know, a reference to the Moors murders, but same diff). As it turns out, I should not have worried. Badlands is as lean and effective as I remembered it, a smoldering explosive mood piece, with Martin Sheen preening as Kit, a 25-year-old James Dean lookalike lost in the backwoods sticks of South Dakota, and Sissy Spacek as 15-year-old Holly, whose voiceover narration is full of the profound stillness and wisdom of Carson McCullers characters. In its quiet unassuming way, Badlands is close to perfect.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

"Lucky's Grove" (1940)

This delightfully heavy-handed story by H. Russell Wakefield, a student of M.R. James and English folklore, is about a damned patch of land that sits in the center of a fallow growing field, left untouched. Best avoided, in fact. Our main character, Mr. Braxton, is a self-made man. He grew up on the estate as a servant and now owns it. As a boy he wandered into the grove from time to time, compelled somehow to worship a particular tree. And so he did, and does now that he has returned. The locals, meanwhile, are full of horrible tales about this so-called Lucky's Grove, tales that apparently do not come to the attention of Braxton's estate foreman, who takes the Christmas tree for that year's celebration from there. The oblivious foreman did notice that the roots of the tree were stained red as they came out of the ground. When Mr. Braxton doesn't like it, the foreman assures him he will replant it in the grove again after the holiday. Of course, bad things start to happen right away. The tree branches slap people around, for example, raising welts and wounds that become infected. The foreman grows deathly ill, no one knows why, and takes to his bed. The thermostat goes bonkers and it's always way too hot in the mansion. One of the boys makes a snowman that looks like a hideous reptilian monster. He can't say where he got the idea. All this is going on on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The extended Braxton family carries on the best they can, but things keep getting worse. I was hoping for a little more of the Algernon Blackwood lost-in-the-woods effects—Blackwood an influence with James on Wakefield—but alas no. This is one of the reasons why Wakefield comes after Blackwood and James in the scheme of things. In fact, a very good companion piece for this story is Blackwood's "Ancient Lights," also about a small blighted patch. Wakefield works skillfully within a classic style of English ghost story, from the stained roots of the violated tree to the various cruel payoffs to the existence itself of such a patch of land, respected by all who come near (except that foreman). It's reminiscent in a way of Puritan superstitions about the deep North American forests and the witches and so forth who lived there, but this is an isolated copse in a field everyone just knows to leave alone. I like the implication, never stressed, that Mr. Braxton's unlikely rise in the world has something to do with Lucky's Grove and worshiping that tree. I like the Christmas setting too, though the story veers hard away from the kind of more cozy Dickens-derived spooky stories associated with the time of year. The destruction of Braxton and his family and estate is quite complete. There'll be no plum pudding this year.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Story not available online.