Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Law & Order, s7 (1996-1997)

Law & Order was well-primed for the mid-'90s surge of interest in true-crime, with the OJ Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey cases occurring bang-bang even as DNA and other forensic technology burgeoned. All of a sudden cases were being solved that had never been solved, innocents freed from prison, and everyone seemed to have detailed opinions about any given case. The show played to the interest simply by sticking resolutely to the formula that got it there, focusing on police and court roles in complicated cases more than characters, willy-nilly removing another mainstay the previous season in ADA Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy)—killing her off, in fact, which ended her tenure absolutely as this is one show that does not do flashbacks. She was replaced by ADA Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell), unfortunately introducing a bad habit of making that role a series of highly attractive women. ADA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) annoyingly beds them all, or so we may surmise because at least the show tends to be reasonably subtle about it. To be sure, there are character arcs happening all over the peripheries: Detective Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt) is a self-righteous religious conservative going through a separation from his wife. Detective Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) had an alcoholic relapse at the end of the previous season and now there's concern about his sobriety. Ross is divorced from her former law partner, a high-flying defense attorney who plays head games with her over custody of their daughter. One of the best episodes in this season is the finale, in which DA Adam Schiff (Steven Hill) has to decide whether to pull the plug on his dying wife. But the primary focus remains the twisting, turning cases that confront the principals and viewers with each episode. There's usually a murder in the first scene before the titles but it can go anywhere from there. A number of episodes are more about legal principles than guilt or innocence in the specific cases at hand. I thought the prosecutors seemed to lose more often, or at best come up with mixed results, more so than I think would be the case later in the series, when they were regular winners, the New York Yankees of New York City jurisprudence. It's actually nice to see McCoy lose a few. This season does have perhaps the nadir of the whole franchise in a three-part arc that takes the crew to Los Angeles—not a very interesting case, and little point forcing in the West Coast setting, especially across the interminable, padded-out three episodes. To be scrupulously fair, as nadirs go it's still better than the high points of many other series. As always, the show attracted a good many obvious but unfamiliar talents from within the New York theatrical world, one of its great secrets. Various up-and-comers with later careers can also be spotted here, such as Edie Falco as a defense attorney, but there didn't seem to be as many in this season. The most tantalizing who-is-that-anyway for me was Reiko Aylesworth, whose face kept bothering me for a whole episode until I later recalled through the miracle of IMDb that she was Michelle Dessler on 24. In its seventh season Law & Order is all product, a juggernaut coming into its own ratings-wise with the dread spinoffs not many years away now. As product, it is A-1.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Relic (2020)

This Australian picture is good at setting a mood and sustaining it but unfortunately can't make up its mind about two separate directions: a sensitive movie about aging and dementia on the one hand and a big ol' scary horror show on the other. Most of us already know one way or another—it's intuitive—that aging is its own horror show (like so many aspects of living as the better alternative to dying). Michael Haneke seemed almost gauche when he noticed this about aging with his gimlet eye in Amour. Relic starts with the disappearance of Edna (Robyn Nevin), who has been missing for days. People turn out to search the woods for her. She's a woman in her 80s who has been forgetful lately and it doesn't look good. Then one day after a week or so she's back again, with no explanations about where she was—won't even talk about it. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) traveled to be in on the search and now they decide to stick around. All relationships are wary, tentative, and distant, but the bonds plainly run deep too. They're not really a happy family but we know their unhappiness. And now at long last is the old lady losing it? Well, possibly, these things happen, but then instead the movie develops a fascination with the house. Noises are heard beyond the walls—literally things that go bump in the night. More and more Relic becomes a story about the irrational space inside that house—that's where Edna went, apparently, and Sam spends some time there too. There's some mumbo-jumbo backstory about an older house on the property that was destroyed but its windows kept for the present house. A mistake, possibly. Portals, in short, maybe. After a few cycles of that we land again on the angst and unease of aging and constant peekaboo about dementia—is Edna losing it or isn't she? How sad if she is! Inquiring minds want to know but Edna wants inquiring minds to leave her alone. I think, out of this elegantly mounted mess, the better movie is the one about aging and dementia, but even the horror story would be better without the aging and dementia notes. So Relic for me was not really a win-win.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn," Ernest Hemingway said in 1935 (wrote, actually, in The Green Hills of Africa). Hemingway went on to undercut his case by saying everything in the ostensible boy's book can be disregarded after "the [N-word] Jim is stolen from the boys." If I understand what Hemingway is complaining about here I agree with him, but I see the problem starting earlier than that, including at the start in the early chapters. Hemingway also, in a typically clod-footed way, inadvertently raises another issue, perhaps the single biggest at this point in the 21st century—the wanton use of the N-word, a much less serious problem in 1935 or 1884. It's clod-footed because, in the first place, "[N-word] Jim" is 100% Hemingway's locution. Twain never uses the term, even as first-person narrator Huck Finn. While it is possible to make a case that Twain on balance means well, and a more strained one that he is not a "real" racist, the N-word is used liberally all through this highly regarded classic of American literature. At the price of one wince per use it gets to be a pretty expensive book to read. The introduction in my Delphi kindle version says Twain's novel "is regarded as a scathing look at entrenched attitudes toward racism." Well, maybe—certainly mocking racist attitudes is part of it, though maybe more nuanced than we would like now. Huck, for example, can't believe in one scene that Tom Sawyer would sink so low as to help a runaway slave. It is gentle satire, you see, and Huck has already shown his regard for Jim (and thought poorly of himself too for helping a runaway slave). Normalized racism can come along at any time and even dominates the story. Huck is seen playing heartless tricks on Jim, taking advantage of Jim's ignorance. He means Jim no harm, perhaps, but he's quick to use his racist social advantages. Overall Twain is plainly loath to condemn racism as such, willing only to mock it when it is convenient to do so. He doesn't want to offend, and that is disheartening. The only good parts of this book as far as I'm concerned are when Huck and Jim are alone on the raft on the river together. All the rest of it is foolishness and gentle satire, sliding back and forth at its convenience across the borders of toxic racism. The first appearance of the con men "king and duke" signals the end of what's worth reading beyond historical interest. You also have to wade through some chapters in the beginning before you get to Huck and Jim on the river. Maybe a third of Huckleberry Finn is thus worth the wincing. Admittedly it's good stuff—the beauties and wonder of wilderness as only a few American writers can do (and American writers do it best), including Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jack London, and others (many problematic themselves one way or another, usually). The good stuff here is right up there with the best, you just have to pick your way through a lot of crap getting in and out of it. I'm still enamored of Twain's steady-rolling voice—and Huck Finn is more likable and closer to Twain's heart than Tom Sawyer—plus the narrative predicaments here can be clever business. But content warnings to one and all are sadly now in order for Huckleberry Finn.

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

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Clear (1969)

An early expedition into fractured fickle completism on my part ended here—as I recall, I bought Clear as a used record the same day I bought the first Spirit album (also used), and I effectively bailed on Spirit here, their third album and the last produced by Lou Adler. I never got to know Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, an album I often see hailed as a high point of Spirit's catalog. OK fine, there are still some Spooky Tooth and Wishbone Ash albums I'm hoping to get to too. I finally gave Twelve Dreams a listen a few days ago and didn't find it much better than Clear, so now as then this is my proximate stopping point with Spirit. Maybe I should have tried harder. In fact, I don't think I listened to Clear much at all even back then, because it was mostly unfamiliar to me when I got to it whereas I recognized the first two quite readily—used to play them a lot. To get to the point, Clear strikes me as very generic 1969 rock. It might be better than the first three Grand Funk Railroad records but sadly not by that much. Another touchpoint might be the Savoy Brown album Looking In (which might overall be better). I like a lot of this stuff but even so these are not high compliments, and so it must be said about Spirit and Clear. It kicks off with "Dark-eyed woman on a hot summer's night" accompanied by heavy riffing and that's about where it stops too. The songwriting is just not there. It's uninspired and feels labored and obvious. They're hacking up lungs trying to pull it together. "Ground Hog," especially when it gets into its "old man winter" jive, is verging on Spinal Tap for ludicrous self-parody. "I'm Truckin'" speaks for itself. For once the extras deliver up the prize: a 1969 radio ad for the album tacked on to the end of the track "Coral." It starts with an eerily prescient (I admit) voice montage of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Then the hip doleful voice guy enters: "Many sounds don't make sense," he intones. "But one thing is clear: Spirit." Sound of belabored rock song stirring to half-life. This message approved, no doubt, by Lou Adler.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Things to Come (1936)

UK, 100 minutes
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Writer: H.G. Wells
Photography: Georges Perinal
Music: Arthur Bliss
Editors: Charles Crichton, Francis D. Lyon
Cast: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke, Sophie Stewart, Derrick de Marney, John Clements, George Sanders

From the distance of nearly a century, the 1930s looks like a period of constant historical reckoning. Two of the most interesting movies in 1936 and one in 1937—Modern Times, Things to Come, and Make Way for Tomorrow—thought very hard about where things were going after most of a decade in a persistent economic depression and with fascism strutting around and acting ever more aggressive. None of them really "got it right" about the future (Make Way for Tomorrow comes closest by keeping its ambition in check), but getting it right happens so rarely in futuristic tales that we can't stop talking about it when they do. Consider Network. And remember there were still phonebooths in 2001: A Space Odyssey (just as there were in 2001, though they were gone by 2010, nor have we seen anything remotely like commercial space travel, the Musk & Bezos clown shows notwithstanding).

Thus, in Things to Come, a worthy science fiction heir of Metropolis, the coming war with fascism was seen quite clearly, and it starts in 1940, which is pretty dang accurate for a UK film although maybe not that hard to predict in 1936. Director William Cameron Menzies and writer H.G. Wells work it up as a 30-year grinding death-fest that makes the Great War look like a picnic with Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo. Pay attention, class! The war in Things to Come ends in the late '60s and is followed by an epidemic of "the wandering sickness," which weirdly looks like zombies without all the scabs or gore. It's certainly some kind of prescience. From that point it all becomes a figment of H.G. Wells's imagination, which was prodigious but also a little unfocused and wrong. The movie ends circa 2036 (so as yet still in the future for us) with the coming of space exploration that looks nothing like space exploration as we know it.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

"Seaton's Aunt" (1922)

Walter de la Mare has been something of an acquired taste for me—this story might be the place where I acquired it. It's good enough I'm going to go back and look at some of the others again. Nothing overtly supernatural happens, nor anything cruel beyond a certain cold haughtiness, yet it is charged with uncanny tension and malevolence. It feels in many ways like a dry run for Robert Aickman's later style of "strange" story. It halfway feels like a dream much of the time, the kind where you can't remember all the parts or how things changed. Arthur Seaton is a classmate of the first-person narrator, both of them in early adolescence at the beginning and for much of the story. Seaton is a sickly outcast at school, vaguely ethnic. The racial note is another point of unease. He is orphaned as well, and in line when he comes of age to acquire the mansion his aunt now inhabits (and has all her life). The narrator befriends Seaton out of pity as much as anything. When Seaton invites him home on a break from school he accepts for no apparent reason. Things like that just seem to happen in "strange" stories. Seaton's aunt is a woman of great appetite and poise, with a very large head and imperious manner. She needles everyone in her orbit, including our narrator the hapless houseguest, whose name she can never get right. It's Withers, which is provocative itself in this context, but she more often calls him Wither or Smithers. The story is often funny in a way but the aunt is also casually monstrous. She's terrible but it's never personal. She is like some greater being dwelling among us—amused by us. She might be using up and/or killing people but it's hard to say. There's no evidence, beyond her vaguely sinister manner and oversize head. People are dying, as they do, but it's not clear she has anything to do with it. It just feels like she does. Lots of poetical turns in the language and unsettling asides along the way, which is typical of de la Mare, who can be allusive almost unto vaporous, but here every sentence, every word practically, is effective and it leaves a chill.

The Dark Descent, ed. David G. Hartwell
Read story online.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Love's Forever Changes (2003)

Andrew Hultkrans's 33-1/3 book is only the second in the entire series, which is presently up to some 157 titles, so among other things it must be regarded as a pioneering effort. Hultkrans, a Brooklyn-based writer at large and one-time editor of Bookforum, focuses more on the context of Arthur Lee and Love's classic album in tumultuous late-'60s Los Angeles, basically all library-style research—lots of quotes from books, virtually none from original interviews. It's one way to do it and not a bad way either. But too often this one reads like an industrious term paper, although at least we are spared the heavy footnoting of other 33-1/3 volumes. The Love album is a famously tough nut to crack. My experience with it is much like Hultkrans: drawn to it (late) by its reputation, underwhelmed, until finally finding a way in, when it becomes indelible. Hultkrans says the only other album he's had a similar experience with is Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. That insight comes early and the good news and bad news is that it's one of the most original in the whole thing. There is definitely some kind of psychic connection between those two albums. Anyway, most of the book is focused on California in the late '60s, mostly Los Angeles, and don't think we're going to get out of this without hearing about Charles Manson. It only makes sense, even beyond time and place, because it appears someone with a glancing involvement with Love was later associated with Manson. Joan Didion naturally gets some attention too, as the reigning Los Angeles essay poet of dread, but the person Hultkrans turns to most often is political activist Todd Gitlin. I think we may have the perspective now to see that the overly familiar and much ballyhooed underside of the hippie experience—Charles Manson and Altamont, with a side dish of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago—has been grossly exaggerated as equal to the values of peace, love, civil rights, and respect for the environment. Yes, stuff like the Weathermen happened. And actually a book about Forever Changes is not a bad place to bring it all up again and air it out. Even so, Arthur Lee was alive in 2003 and we miss hearing from him here, understanding that he was an exceedingly tough interview to get. It's hard to say whether that would have improved the book but it might have helped put the focus more where it belongs. It is more intensely trained on context, and in many ways unfortunately the band and the album too are relegated to the background. You can't blame Hultkrans because Forever Changes is a notoriously difficult album to nail down properly anyway. But the result in this 33-1/3 entry is a bit like the joke about losing your keys in the alley but looking for them under the streetlight because the light is better there.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Family That Plays Together (1968)

The second album by Spirit is actually the first one I purchased (circa 1971, used from the Wax Museum on Lake Street in Minneapolis for $1.90) so it's the one album of theirs that still has the most sentimental attractions for me. It also has their one and only top 40 hit in the album opener, "I Got a Line on You," which made it to #25 in March 1969. I don't remember ever hearing it on the radio, but among other things it's a big showcase for guitarist Randy California and the ongoing purity of his tone, describing the abstracted geometrical two-dimensional line they got on you. It's probably their best song. I understand now that California's instantly identifiable tone may have been an effect of double-tracking. Streaming does a disservice to the first four songs on the album, which connected seamlessly on the original vinyl but are separated on streaming like ordinary tracks with brief silences, which destroys the effect. Spirit fans should not feel singled out because even the second-side suite of Abbey Road suffers the same problem. These first four songs—"I Got a Line on You," "It Shall Be," "Poor Richard," and "Silky Sam"—seem intended to show off their musical range across a fancy 13-minute suite, with '60s three-minute pop, jazz, and "hard rock" too. Lou Adler is producing again. "Poor Richard" and "Silky Sam" are closer to precious whimsy, recalling songs (the Beatles again) like "Mean Mr. Mustard" and "Rocky Raccoon." In fairness to Spirit, The Family That Plays Together came out well before Abbey Road and was coincident with the White Album. The title comes from the peculiar setup of the band—drummer Ed Cassidy (45 in 1968 and way past the legal hippie age limit of 30) was Randy California's stepfather. No word on allowance or disciplinary arrangements. The band also mostly lived together family style in a shared house in Topanga Canyon with Dr. Demento, who produced their first demos. Two other members of the original Spirit lineup—singer Jay Ferguson and bassist Mark Andes—are also significant because they broke away in the early '70s to form Jo Jo Gunne, which was more of a straightforward rock act with intimations of glam and looking forward to the coming of pub-rock. In terms of songwriting, lead singer Ferguson was always fully coequal with California, both of them writing separately with contributions on some songs from other members. Although I have my nostalgic attachments to it there is some dreadful stuff on this album, like "Drunkard," which appears to be their "Eleanor Rigby" bid (again the Beatles), and "Darlin' If," which may be prescient but only for doleful rock balladry by way of John Sebastian, not really a great development. "Jewish" is so weird I don't even know what to say about it. I don't think you can call it klezmer but it does have recognizable Jewish musical stylings. It was written by California who was Jewish. I'm not sure whether he's keeping the faith or reaching for exotic novelty sounds (perhaps under influence of Demento) but it's certainly off the beaten track.

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

USA, 110 minutes
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh, Wes Anderson K-tel Collection
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Cast: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Seymour Cassel, Kumar Pallana, Alec Baldwin

I knew the earlier films Bottle Rocket and Rushmore by director and cowriter Wes Anderson when I first saw The Royal Tenenbaums. I liked Bottle Rocket more than Rushmore but I knew people who were nutty for Rushmore and the soundtrack was notably good so I had nothing in particular against Anderson. But I had a bad reaction on this one—The Royal Tenenbaums hit me as precious and ironic to a fault, with a pointlessly colorful palette and other empty ornate flourishes, way too many trendy stars in the cast, and a ludicrous story about selfishness and redemption in a dysfunctional family I just couldn't buy—any of it. It has since colored my whole attitude toward Anderson pictures. Basically I like only his animated stuff (Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs) although under peer pressure I've ended up checking in with most of the rest.

Seeing The Royal Tenenbaums again finally for a second time and braced for the worst, I thought it was more deftly entertaining than I recalled. I wouldn't say it's motivating me to go back and revisit the catalog, but I am a little more willing to consider it. Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is a New Yorker, a terrible father, and not much of a businessman either—your basic rat. Now he seems to want to make amends with his unusually brilliant family of prodigies: ex-wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston), sons Chas (Ben Stiller) and Richie (Luke Wilson), adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and all their various friends and hangers-on (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, etc.). It's not an ensemble piece so much as everybody, in their colorful outfits, gets a turn being the main also-ran of passing interest.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Wormwood (2017)

For the most part I have been out of step with many fans of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who directed this Netflix miniseries in typical fashion for him. His breakthrough picture for most—The Thin Blue Line (1988)—also happens to be where he lost me, though his previous films (Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida) certainly had their own problems. With The Thin Blue Line, Morris adopted a more sincere, crusading journalist approach even as he indulged various arty cinematic impulses, which have dogged his work (and apparently impressed the critics) ever since. Wormwood is a great example of both. On the journalist side, he takes on the case of Frank Olson, a CIA scientist specializing in biological warfare who died under mysterious, unexplained circumstances in 1953. Morris works with Olson's son Eric, who was a young boy at the time of his father's death and has spent much of his life trying to get to the bottom of it. In many ways Morris even shows up the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who once called the Olsons the most "uncurious" family he'd ever heard of for accepting the CIA's first account of the death, which is that Olson "fell or jumped" from a 10th-floor hotel room in some kind of terrible accident, smashing the window on his way out. Hersh made his observation of the Olsons in 1975, when a second version of the story came out. Now we were told that Olson had been surreptitiously dosed with LSD in a CIA experiment, subsequently suffered a mental breakdown, and now his death was called a suicide. This is the story that a curiously uncurious Hersh believed until circa 2014, when Eric Olson personally challenged him with his own theory that the CIA murdered his father. This had somehow never occurred to Hersh, who checked with a source and within 48 hours could confirm the murder, though he could not give any more detail than that for fear of burning his source. In many ways, Morris the journalist is thus able to paint himself as superior even to Hersh, who does not come across well in this documentary.

On the cinema side, meanwhile, Wormwood is Morris at his best or worst, depending on your view. It's full of art and cinema: slo-mo reenactments with Hollywood stars, brooding layers of text and images, fancy transitions, clips from practically every movie anyone mentions, some pretty good pop music, a whole treatment of Hamlet (from which the title among other things), etc., etc. It took me until the last episode to notice the clock in the room where the lengthy interview with Eric Olson took place is stopped at 2:35—the time his father died in 1953. That's all clever and good, but at four hours this six-part epic miniseries is just way too long, and a lot of it is padding. As a reviewer says on IMDb, there's an excellent 90-minute documentary here lost in the caverns of overproduction. Eric gets to make a pretty good case that his father was killed by the CIA, but Morris's intention seems to be more along the lines of wondering what we can ever really know for sure. Certainly this is one of those cases where it seems likely we will never know the whole story. At least, perhaps, Eric got the chance to argue convincingly for murder, in what has turned out to consume his whole life. He may have got some closure or satisfaction with this version of the story (certainly in regard to Hersh), but sadly, Wormwood is mostly more of a wasted opportunity.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

The News From Paraguay (2004)

I went into this novel by Lily Tuck cold, thinking vaguely about a project involving National Book Award winners, and didn't suspect it was historical fiction until its events started to grow ridiculously improbable and I had to look them up to verify because they are so astonishing. You know, they say, truth is stranger... The News From Paraguay is basically about the disastrous war waged by the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano Lopez on Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in the mid-19th century. Franco is a main character and the other is Ella Lynch, his Irish mistress. He meets Lynch when he is in Europe for education and training with the Napoleonic army. The novel is fragmented and full of vignettes, composed of scenes in Paraguay and Paris intermixed with Lynch's correspondence and diary entries. Everyone involved is extravagantly foolish and many are very cruel. Franco, for example, routinely throws his political enemies and suspects in prison and tortures them. And he's probably more humanitarian than his father, except for that war, which reduced the Paraguayan population by half or more. As barbaric as they may be the events in this novel feel modern because they are objectively so absurd, rendered from such a distance. It's that brutally violent way of conducting politics and wielding power, with all the calculation and abstractions of dissociation. Aborigines are in the mix too, woven into the fabric of Paraguay society (mostly as servants, but with their language preserved). Lynch has five boys by Franco, plus a girl who dies as an infant, and always is regarded merely as his courtesan. His sisters and family won't recognize her or Franco's sons. Tuck's note at the end reminds us that the novel is historical fiction—some of these events more or less happened the way they're told. Others are wholly the invention of Tuck. That's the way it can go with historical fiction and the reason The News From Paraguay is cataloged as a novel. It starts out fine, funny and intriguing and strange, then lost some steam for me in the second half once it arrives at the terrible war. Ella Lynch is by far the most interesting character, though Franco's pathologies bear interest too and so do their children. And there are many wonderful minor characters with indelible little scenes. Definitely worth a look.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Spirit (1968)

Lou Adler was a fixture of 1960s Southern California pop music shading into rock, represented loosely (and only in part) by John Turturro's Joel Milner in the movie Grace of My Heart. He worked as a manager for Jan & Dean before founding the Dunhill label, then became a producer and occasional songwriter for the Grass Roots and the Mamas & the Papas, largely presiding over their runs of hits. In 1967 he sold Dunhill and founded Ode, which is approximately where Spirit enters the picture, along with Carole King (Adler produced Tapestry), Cheech & Chong, Scott McKenzie, and the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. I mention this as context for Spirit's odd appeal. Like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane, it was a band still working basically in the mode of 12 three-minute songs per album and focused on making it into the charts. But also, the times they were a-changin'. Coming in that strange golden period between Revolver and Let It Be a lot of rules were uniformly disregarded, e.g., Make one song real heavy and longer than seven minutes. Think about jazz. Don't forget production stunts. Wail, guitar man, wail! And so on. Albums could do well with no real singles action. Spirit made it to #31 on the Billboard albums chart with virtually no singles support. Five of the 11 tracks on this album are under three minutes, but there's also an 11-minute jazzy "Elijah" to finish it off.

There are actually a lot of moving parts in Spirit, so I'll start with what drew me into what turned out to be one of my first projects as a consumer of used records in the early '70s. The guitar man in this case was a guy who went by the name of Randy California, dubbed thus by Jimi Hendrix. He was playing in New York as part of Hendrix's Jimmy James & the Blue Flames and there was another Randy in the band Hendrix called Randy Texas. Again like the Doors or Jefferson Airplane, or Hendrix, Spirit (and producer Adler) threaded the needle between pop song formalities and gestures of unrestrained hippie bacchanalia. I loved California for the purity of his tone, a clean tubular sound that was probably achieved in some simple technical way, like maybe plugging the guitar directly into the soundboard. His real showcase here for me is the five-minute "Mechanical World," the only single (amazed it wasn't "Fresh Garbage" but maybe taste makers had a problem with that title?). "Mechanical World" is the corollary of course to Hendrix's "White-collared conservative flashing down the street, / Pointing their plastic finger at me." The song has an odd stilted quality, like many Spirit songs, but California's solos in the breaks are simple and effective, consisting largely of holding single beautiful notes for a long time, even as Adler sends coteries of string-players in to sneak behind him and sweeten it up. Good, good stuff. Note that the song was written by singer Jay Ferguson (the band's most prolific songwriter) with bassist Mark Andes. These two would later break away from Spirit and form Jo Jo Gunne.

Randy California's guitar legend may be most attached now to "Taurus," which he wrote, and which sounds suspiciously enough in part like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" to produce lawsuits against our favorite hapless plagiarists Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. California died in a drowning accident in 1997 but his estate was still pursuing legal action as recently as just last year. I'm agnostic on this one—"Taurus" is more an example to me of Adler's overproduction and over-sweetening here, a mostly uninteresting instrumental (with harpsichord even). But yes, it's not hard to hear the similarity to the Zepp classic, plus Spirit toured with Led Zeppelin so Page and Plant knew the material. Spirit is probably the one album to hear by Spirit as their albums tend toward diminishing returns and even this one has ups and downs. But it has more good songs than any other and there's an interesting tension for me in Adler's pop instincts as they collide with jazzbo rock band instincts in the era of—as Frank Zappa put it—"I will love everyone / ... I will go to a house / That's – that's what I will do / I will go to a house / Where there's a rock and roll band / Because the groups all live together."

Thursday, September 02, 2021

"The Aleph" (1945)

I haven't read that much by Jorge Luis Borges so I don't know how typical "The Aleph" may be, but it's pretty good. Much of the story is spent on the first-person narrator (named "Borges") and his awkward relationship with a mediocre poet who is also the cousin of a woman he (the narrator) loved deeply and ridiculously. She is dead at the time of the story. The narrator gives examples of the poet's work along with the poet's own analyses. He's mocking how the poet dotes on his own work. It does seem mediocre, although of course he is celebrated and beloved by the story's end. The word "Aleph" does not even appear until well into the story. An Aleph is a very strange thing. The poet claims there is one in his basement. By this point the narrator has decided the poet is merely a nut, but he forces the issue on the Aleph and says he's coming over to see it. It's a lot of setup and foreshadowing and while it pays off for me I'm not sure it would for everyone. An Aleph, as Borges describes it, "is one of the points in space that contains all other points." Borges describes its physical presence as little more than an inch in diameter, so about the size of a ping-pong ball. His willingness and ability to attempt describing the sensation of seeing everything in the universe at once is what makes this story, along with all the effortless transitions from the mundane to the exalted and back again. The narrator's precious moments with the Aleph have imposing religious implications—experiences like this are what change lives and start churches. It's comical in a way how little it seems to affect the narrator. He won't even give the poet the satisfaction of admitting he saw it. But he saw it—he can't help but give us, anyway, the satisfaction of a narrative account. He saw it and his life has been changed by it. Borges is not generally considered a genre writer but he has obvious parallels with M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, and other bibliophile types. They are all notably fascinated by obscure texts, old books in libraries, and the study of literature, all the way down to the minutia of scholarship and citations. Borges feels a little sardonic here about the poet's fine points of erudition whereas Lovecraft is generally more focused on pumping up the cosmic wonder. What's really great about this story are the contrasts, from the petty lives of the narrator and his cousin to the trippy ecstasies of the little portal to everything. Borges doesn't tease the Aleph hard at all, beyond the title, but holds it back to the last third, and it's about perfect that way.

The Weird, ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
Read story online.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

"Gazebo" (1980)

A lot of good stuff in this great Raymond Carver story—for once a story from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that was left relatively undisturbed by editor Gordon Lish. I like the setting in a cheap motel with the disintegrating 30something couple who manage it. Yes, shabby motels, drunken daze, and relationships gone bad are certainly familiar, but the way Carver handles them they are vivid and fresh. Holly and Duane are have shut down the front office for the day to hash things out with a bottle in a suite ("we needed a suite"). Holly has found out Duane has "gone outside the marriage" with the motel housekeeper and it's really the end. The story is told first-person by the philandering husband, whose relentless dialogue cues are variations on "go," e.g., "'Don't move to Nevada,' I go. 'You're talking crazy,' I go. 'I'm not talking crazy,' she goes." It is the way people tell stories (or did) but after a while it becomes a distracting tic here. I'm not even sure people talk that way anymore. The story has a strange urgency, perhaps because it is so fragmented. The couple's drunken day is punctuated by motel patrons, presumably with reservations, trying to get their attention outside the room. The story takes place across most of one day, with the single scene of a long, drawn-out talk, set off by numerous line breaks and memories. The gazebo turns up late, an extraordinary image from a memory of better times, a wonderful contrast to the dreary motel argument. Although "Gazebo" features a relationship that is ending, it is really more a study of alcoholism, what it sounds like and looks like in the wild and all the ways it moves. Drinking is what unites this couple even as it has sent their lives all to hell. They take it by the quart. "Gazebo" is so good on alcoholism it triggers me a little, recalling my own drunken episodes or those of others. There is a great tension that comes from their simultaneous final failure at managing the motel, which echoes their personal demise. In many ways this story feels like Carver is headed confidently into his best period of writing.

Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From (Library of America)

Friday, August 27, 2021

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Xiao cheng zhi chun, China, 98 minutes
Director: Mu Fei
Writer: Tianji Li
Photography: Shengwei Li
Music: Yijun Huang
Editors: Chunbao Wei, Ming Xu
Cast: Wei Wei, Yu Shi, Wei Li, Hongmei Zhang

It surprised me when I realized that, according to the critical roundup at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, Spring in a Small Town (presently ranked #161 overall) effectively amounts to the greatest Chinese movie ever made. It's followed on the big list by Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (a very long documentary from 2002, #323), Platform (2000, #376), Yellow Earth (1984, #384), and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (?!, 2000, #391). This is all complicated by the ambiguous status of Hong Kong and Taiwan, which have pictures at #42 (In the Mood for Love, 2000), #118 (Yi Yi, 2000), #124 (A Brighter Summer Day, 1991), #192 (A City of Sadness, 1989), #194 (Chungking Express, 1994), and five more in the 300s before getting to Platform and Crouching Tiger. The latter two are credited to China, Hong Kong, and other countries here in our 21st-century global era.

The Western bias appears to be showing—Spring in a Small Town has a title and date that make it sound more like film noir although it is actually an Ozu-like domestic drama. It was released the year before the Chinese Communist Revolution, a regime that suppressed it as decadent and Western until the 1980s. In this ongoing culture war that favors Hong Kong over China in the West and domestic angst over the sweeping currents of time, it seems curious that the 161st-greatest movie of all time exists in one of the shabbiest prints I've ever had to pay for ($2.99) at Amazon Prime. Someone needs to make up their mind about whether or not this is an important and historical film.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

"The Repairer of Reputations" (1895)

This long confusing story by Robert W. Chambers is much loved and respected, it appears, showing up in anthologies and treatments of horror as a landmark. I've seen arguments for it as the first or at least an early appearance of the unreliable narrator device. Maybe—it has a lot of things going on. There's a science-fiction premise of a near-future New York City (which in this story means 1920). The US is a military power and has won a war with Germany, at least part of it fought in North America. It has legalized suicide, outlawed immigration, expelled all Jews, and relocated African-Americans to reservations, among other interesting and unexplained radical changes, on which the story feels suspiciously neutral. Our main character is Hildred, who is reading a banned play, The King in Yellow. The play also shows up in other stories in a kind of cycle, although many other stories in the original 1895 collection—which as it happens is also called The King in Yellow—are more like romances. Chambers never really wrote horror again. It's all concentrated in a handful of stories within The King in Yellow collection, which often make reference to a banned play called The King in Yellow. I hope you start to see what I mean by confusing. For further confusion, see the first season of the True Detective TV show, which name-checks random details from this story, like the place called Carcosa, which Chambers himself was name-checking from Ambrose Bierce (and H.P. Lovecraft later name-checked too, as I recall). O what tangled webs. Wikipedia discusses this story as an "anti-story," a classification of experimental literature I'm not sure I know well. Given how much I like stories, I'm not sure how much I want to know, certainly if this is the example. It just seemed like so much random nonsense. "The Repairer of Reputations" might be good for reading groups or even classrooms, all studded with bizarre detail begging to be unpacked. Both times I've ground through it I kept stupidly looking for narrative momentum because I forgot again, even when I knew better—also, the first section is energetic and enticing. But there is no momentum here by design. It's meant to confront readers and keep them off balance. And I haven't had the patience to do the unpacking. Let's consider the title. It's the job title for Mr. Wilde (which in the context of the 1890s brings Oscar to my mind, I don't know about you or Chambers) and it's not really clear what is involved in repairing a reputation, but appears to be related to organized crime, some kind of protection racket. Actually, Mr. Wilde seems like a minor character. The story ends with a note that Hildred has died in an asylum for the criminally insane, and basically that is where the trouble with the unreliable narrator business starts, assuming Hildred is the author. Yet why should we assume that? Next question for the weekly reading group. It's going to take a few months to get through this one. I can't wait to see the whiteboard.

The Dark Descent, ed. David G. Hartwell
Read story online.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

"One in a Million" (1993)

[listen]

Getting close to the finish, things now start to rev up on this track in terms of tempo. "One in a Million" gets up to speed right away in the kickoff and it is real excitement, with a seductive twirling and falling-forward action and a feeling of haunted sadness. The song has roots in Pet Shop Boys material nearly 10 years old. At one time it was considered for a Take That project that never happened. I don't like to say there are weak songs on Very but if there are this would be it (it is absolutely not "Liberation," which I've seen discussed too casually that way). "One in a Million" is safely cloistered in harmless sentimental pop regions, one more gentle empathic song about unrequited love, melting into the Pet Shop Boys coy way of fuzzing up gender. The idea is equal opportunity projection: draw your own conclusions with the fantasy other of your choice. They did this over and over in the '80s and no one seemed to notice. After "To Speak Is a Sin" it's harder for me anyway to hear "One in a Million" as hetero, but their lyrical gender ambiguity stands them in good stead (I admit it took me some time to fully fathom "To Speak Is a Sin"). The focus here is one more poor sap who loves his (her/their) partner more than is returned and that's basically universal. In the days when I played this album constantly "One in a Million" always felt like a brief rest stop between the withering, sophisticated statement of purpose in "Young Offender" and the magnificent "Go West." But stick around if you're trying to save a relationship. This song might speak to you.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Who Killed Little Gregory? (2019)

I went digging around at Netflix and turned up this five-hour French true-crime documentary miniseries about a famous case in France from the 1980s. It's pretty good. The case is a bit of a forerunner to the JonBenet Ramsey murder in the US in the '90s, with a bizarrely ritualized and still formally unsolved murder of a young child, tantalizing clues that point to an inside job, and lots of mistakes on the part of law enforcement and investigators. The Gregory Villemin murder in rural France was preceded by years of anonymous threatening letters and phone calls to the boy's parents, specifically calling out Gregory's father Jean-Marie and promising vengeance for reasons known only to the stalker. This stalker and likely murderer became known in France as "the Crow," associated with the 1943 movie Le Corbeau directed by Henri-Georges Cluozot (a good one—worth seeing!). Gregory was murdered at the age of 4, trussed up and thrown in the local river to drown, with one more letter following to his parents from "the Crow," taking credit. There are a lot of moving parts to this case, including an incompetent judge overseeing the investigation and constant media / paparazzi harassment as the case unfolds. It captured the imagination of France, with an absurd number of people wrongly certain they knew who was guilty and innocent, again much like the Ramsey case in the US. The Gregory case has a number of surprises and strange twists and turns—the lengthy running time is justified and I don't want to give too much away. It reminded me of another title that came up in the same Netflix search, The Staircase, another TV miniseries and also coincidentally a French production, though in that case the crime under examination was committed in the US. I like these forensic procedural cases because they are just so chilling and mysterious, so open to interpretation and uncertainty, often feeling impossible ever to find satisfaction from. At the same time, Who Killed Little Gregory? is quite good at raising emotions. Not so much for me because it's a kid's death—though the photos show him to be extraordinarily adorable and it's hard to think of the way he died—but because the perpetrator feels so provocatively close, likely a member of the extended family. Who Killed Little Gregory? is thus often infuriating, and even desolating, but in that righteous, satisfying true-crime way. Recommended.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Rock From the Beginning (1969)

I'm not going to attempt the convoluted publishing history of Nik Cohn's story of rock 'n' roll and, implicitly—shot from the hip as it is—early and influential essay at the rock critic enterprise. It has been sold under the titles Pop From the Beginning, Rock From the Beginning, and, most evocatively, AWOPBOPALOOBOP ALOPBAMBOOM (for Little Richard, of course). Editorial revisions appear to have gone on with every edition. The little mass market paperback with the illustration of Jimi Hendrix on the cover, called Rock From the Beginning, is the one I read in 1970. Written (mostly) in 1968 when Cohn was a jaded seen-it-all 22-year-old, its assessments are more often wildly wrong, or at least out of step with later rock critical canon (not least because so impossibly early). Nevertheless, it lit me up in the summer when I was 15 and instilled a certain set of long-lived prejudices, a tendency toward instinctive contrarianism that lives on yet, for better or worse (I'm honestly not sure which it is). Certainly Cohn's language no longer seems the freewheeling specimen of New Journalism it once did. But the orientation of swiftly moving fickle taste and self-contradiction set in deep, and I still find a likely source for fundamental preferences here. He singles out Eddie Cochran and Little Richard in the early bunch, for example, makes a lot out of the Coasters, and characterizes the Brill Building approach as "highschool." On the other hand, P.J. Proby gets his own chapter along with the Beatles and Rolling Stones (each), and the chapter on Bob Dylan is spent mostly sniffing at him with a superior air. In the end (remember, 1968) Cohn sees Pete Townshend as the single most important figure going. (There's a great anecdote about Townshend writing "Pinball Wizard" under Cohn's influence—Cohn hadn't liked much of what he heard of Tommy, still in production, and did happen to be a pinball maniac.)

Jeering Amazon reviewers are all over Cohn and this book for being so wrong about so many things. But I recognize and appreciate his skepticism about the evolving conventional wisdom, which was then deifying Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and other now-usual suspects, while artists like Larry Williams and Del Shannon were slipping down the memory hole. I read this book a few times when I was 15 and 16 and absorbed much of it at cellular level. Coming back to it decades later in my 40s it more annoyed me and I was embarrassed not only for it but for myself for ever liking it. Now I've reached a kind of Baby Bear middle. There's no sense to make of Cohn's taste. It is all pure response, contradictions bursting out like time-lapse flowers popping into bloom. One minute the Beatles are brilliant and historical, the next they're not all that, and then back again. He dismisses Rubber Soul and Revolver. He judges Sgt. Pepper's their best. The White Album, Abbey Road, and Let It Be came out later—they were freaking still together when he was writing! Cohn struggles for consistency even as he rails against it, grappling with these strange mysteries—why do some things sound good once and then never again, why do the opinions of others matter so much, why does everybody like something I can't stand, why can't I like it if everybody else does, and other conundrums about life and pop music. Really Cohn might have had it right with the title Pop From the Beginning. The book is not just about pop (from the beginning of the rock era anyway) but it is also '60s-style pop itself in its approach and attitude, caught in the flickering intense ecstasies of right now. And notwithstanding the later marketing ploys of Jimi Hendrix on the cover and appropriation of the word "rock," which by 1969 had achieved ascendancy over rock 'n' roll itself, not to mention pop. As if to prove the point, here is Cohn getting Hendrix wrong but also right in a way, simply by focusing so intently, elliptically, and self-consciously: "[Hendrix] was a conman, a black cliché, but it finally didn't matter much; he freaked out regardless, and he was real excitement." I'm going to start using "real excitement" as praise as soon as I possibly can, because he packs everything into that.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Erpland (1990)

Every now and then I get sentimental and like to recall the origins of this blog in 2006 and 2007, as an "MP3 blog" with dangerous illicit downloads and such. Google delisted me along with all the rest of us and I'm not sure I've ever made it all the way back. But don't worry, that's all behind me now. I pay Napster $10 a month to do it for me (≠ endorsement). Ozric Tentacles was one of the bands I had never heard of until these downloading days, which introduced me to many acts I had never heard of, for example Spock's Beard, 8 Days in April, and Chicken Shack. Most seemed to fall close to prog and/or metal designations, which says something that still surprises me about my taste as filtered by the internet. Many of these strangers were better than I expected, sometimes by a good deal. But mostly I was busy at the time with other priorities so it took me a while to get to them. I still don't really know Ozric Tentacles well. On this early album they are a synthy instrumental British prog unit playing somewhat in the tradition of Genesis (minus the folklore elements). The obvious peers are more from central Europe, notably Mannheim Steamroller and Tangerine Dream. At 73 minutes, Erpland is plainly a product of the optimistic new CD era. With 12 tracks averaging over six minutes each, it's heady and indulgent. At its best it is like a psychedelic Steely Dan without the sneering cynical lyrics (arguably the Dan's best point), or aimless and freewheeling jam fragments like the Todd Rundgren's Utopia album. At its most pablum Erpland is easy listening elevator stuff, a little too close to Mannheim Steamroller for my comfort—actually, I just learned this minute, Mannheim Steamroller is a US act from Nebraska. Don't be fooled like me by the German word. Erpland has been a fun album to finally get to but I must say it's not giving me a lot of incentive to pursue Ozric Tentacles further. I can report I had the same experience with Spock's Beard, which leans more into metal. I'm sorry to report 8 Days in April (krautrock) has never been available on streaming as far as I know—I happen to know it's the best of this bunch. But Chicken Shack is on Napster—I took a couple songs and may be able to report back more later. Meanwhile, this blog turned 15 this month. Happy blogiversary to me!

Sunday, August 15, 2021

"The Father-Thing" (1954)

Horror folks and weirdniks want badly to claim Philip K. Dick, and this story is one of their primary items of evidence. Personally, I think "The Hanging Stranger" is his great horror story. But Dick always seems to me a certain epitome of science fiction, even when his stuff is making me nervous, so I'm generally not that interested in the categorizing conversation. Case in point, I found this story in an intriguing anthology published in 2000, My Favorite Horror Story, edited by Mike Baker and Martin H. Greenberg. The premise (which really should be repeated every 10 or 15 years) involves asking contemporary horror writers to pick a favorite short story. The result features a bunch of same-olds but that's OK with me—they're all pretty good or better. This story was the choice of Ed Gorman, who I don't know well. In his introduction, Gorman explicitly denies the obvious connection with Jack Finney's Body Snatchers, the novel that provided the basis for the movie(s) Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But "The Father-Thing" does have a lot of elements in common with the movies and they are likely in Finney's novel too. The novel was serialized the same year "The Father-Thing" was published but I'm taking it more as one of those "in the air" things, which happen. There are more or less aliens from outer space in both, replicating humans evidently, purpose unclear. In the Dick story they might be from another dimension, or they could even be some exotic terrestrial insect, which would put it more squarely in the realm of the weird. Anyway, the story has been so oversold by Gorman and others that perhaps inevitably it disappoints a little. It's a simulacrum story at its core, division of remote-controlled doll. Dick keys it sharply on parents and what they are to children, a mix of gods and monsters, telling it from the point of view of an 8-year-old who believes he has witnessed something that means his father is not what he appears to be. Dick shifts the pronouns for Dad to it/its, a simple way to keep readers nervous, even as we attempt to discount the 8-year-old's ideas. A creepy centipede is featured in the last third, which seems to be an attempt to push it more into the rational and assert its fantastical reality with explanation, but in effect it siphons away energy. To me the critical point is that something so profoundly familiar might actually be something profoundly strange—not a bit comforting if you are 8, and a hard idea to shake once it's in your head. Ray Bradbury's "Mars Is Heaven!" version from 1948 altogether made a better job of that, approaching it from a slightly different direction. But I'm not going to argue with the enthusiasm of Gorman and others. "The Father-Thing" is definitely worth a look—another nice point is that Dick makes a Black kid one of the heroes of the story without making a big deal of it. But hey, don't miss "The Hanging Stranger" while you're at it.

My Favorite Horror Story, ed. Mike Baker & Martin B. Greenberg (out of print)
The Philip K. Dick Reader
Read story online.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Turkey / Bosnia-Herzegovina, 157 minutes
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Writers: Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Photography: Gokhan Tiryaki
Editors: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bora Goksingol
Cast: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Ercan Kesal, Taner Birsel, Firat Tanis, Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan, Murat Kilic, Kubilay Tuncer

I like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia quite a bit—it's possibly my favorite "once upon a time" movie of all time, which is saying something ... another list below—but I'm dutybound to report that the first time I saw this long, slow, mesmerizing movie was at a public theater under unusual circumstances. It was the official closing picture of the 2011 Olympia Film Festival. The house was packed but it was more in anticipation of an after-party event. This crowd in these uncomfortable seats were not necessarily up for a long, slow, mesmerizing movie. In fact, someone just behind me heaved big sighs and muttered on the regular and checked a phone every time the scene shifted to one more very long shot of a long lonely road with cars crawling down it. It was thus harder to enjoy it but I did, and I enjoyed it again the other day when I streamed it at home (though it's probably seen best on the biggest screen possible without any carpers in attendance).

How slow is it? It's over two and a half hours but there are so many long takes and so few cuts that you could probably number them the way people do with some Bela Tarr movies. The action (such as it is) takes place across about an 18-hour period, from dusk to midday the next day, and it often feels like real-time. It's a crime picture, even a kind of police procedural, but we learn very little about the crime. The first hour and a half is spent with various officials—Mr. Prosecutor, a strange doctor, a police chief and his crew, two low-wage "diggers"—roaming in a convoy of three vehicles over the vast and empty countryside. They are looking for something. We don't learn definitively until an hour and a half in that it's a corpse they're looking for.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

"The Night-Doings at 'Deadman's'" (1874)

This story by Ambrose Bierce is only about seven printed pages. But that's long for him and it feels long, partly because it is unusually packed with incident and partly, I suspect, because Bierce was closer to the start of his career, in his early 30s, and not yet entirely comfortable with the genre work. The language is clear and precise as usual in his compressed journalistic style but feels somewhat labored. It's almost clunky, chiefly intended to be humorous in a sardonic way, sending up what were already cliches of stories of the supernatural. The result is something that feels close to the busy-busy style of director Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead movie (also something of a lampoon, remember, even at that point in the franchise). So we have Bierce's dry title along with the subtitle, "A Story That Is Untrue," tipping us off from the start. Deadman's Gulch, the setting, is an alpine region in the depths of winter—the Northern California Cascades, I believe. Shanties and even trestles are buried in snow. It is storming on this night. An isolated mountain man, Hiram Beeson, hears a knock on the door of his tiny cabin late one night. His visitor is a man who says nothing. He might be a hallucination. Beeson begins talking to him. He has a story about a Chinaman who died in the winter when the ground was too frozen to bury him and the corpse had to be stored under the floorboards of the cabin until spring. Beeson says he also cut off the Chinaman's pigtail and attached it to a beam in the ceiling, which he points out to his visitor. There it swings, firmly fastened. Why he cut off the pigtail is not clear and perhaps was a mistake, because "According to the Chinese faith, a man is like a kite: he cannot go to heaven without a tail." There's quite a bit of setup going on here as you might see but the payoff is practically inspired. The corpse under the cabin keeps raising the door in the floor, looking for its opportunity to snag the pigtail. This floorboard business is one of the things that reminds me of The Evil Dead. After Beeson and his silent guest go to bed (the guest with his revolver conspicuously handy) things start to happen. The animated corpse makes its move for the pigtail. A fourth character shows up, with a dramatic sparkling entrance down the chimney out of the fire. "From San Francisco, evidently," Beeson thinks. A brief interlude of mayhem occurs and some explanation follows. It's a little scary but mainly it's funny, as the po-faced absurdities pile high. It's full of nice effects too, a bunch of great scare strategies, but it never quite takes itself all the way seriously. You wonder whether Bierce was maybe struggling with himself about writing horror in this earlier part of his career. Most of his best stuff wouldn't even start for another 15 years or more.

The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce
Read story online.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Top 40

1. Kings of Leon, "Echoing" (3:37)
2. Eve 6, "Black Nova" (3:27)
3. Vampire Weekend, "2021 (January 5th, to be exact)" (20:21)
4. Cheap Trick, "Light Up the Fire" (2:53)
5. Rita Payes, "Nunca vas a comprender" (4:05)
6. Roisin Murphy, "We Got Together" (5:10)
7. Tkay Maidza, "Shook" (2:42)
8. Les Amazones d'Afrique, "Love" (3:23)
9. Frankie Valli, "Can't Take My Eyes off You" (3:23, 1967)
10. Lady Gaga, "911 (Sofi Tukker Remix)" (3:46)
11. Janet Kay, "Silly Games" (3:53, 1979)
12. Audrey Nuna, "damn Right" (2:44)
13. Replacements, "They're Blind" (4:41, 1989)
14. King Crimson, "21st Century Schizoid Man" (7:22, 1969)
15. King Crimson, "Epitaph" (8:46, 2016, Live in Vienna)
16. King Crimson, "Red" (6:15, 1974)
17. King Crimson, "Starless" (12:24, 1974)
18. King Crimson, "Thela Hun Ginjeet" (6:26, 1981)
19. Donovan, "Isle of Islay" (2:23, 1967)
20. R.L. Burnside, "It's Bad You Know" (4:58, 1998)
21. Foals, "In Degrees (Purple Disco Machine Remix)" (6:36)
22. Disclosure, "Energy" (4:53)
23. Idles, "War" (3:07)
24. Stormzy, "Vossi Bop" (3:16)
25. Bob Dylan, "My Own Version of You" (6:41)
26. Fontaines D.C., "A Hero's Death" (4:18)
27. Arturo O'Farrill, "Baby Jack" (7:22)
28. Ranveer Singh, "Asli Hip Hop" (1:40)
29. Garifuna Collective, "Black Catbird" (2:45)
30. Eminem, "Darkness" (5:37)
31. Mike Casey, "No Church in the Wild (Radio Edit)" (7:13)
32. Seshen, "Take It All Away" (3:26)
33. Rita Indiana, "Mandinga Times" (3:31)
34. Sault, "Strong" (6:18)
35. Zhu, "Sky Is Crying" (4:24)
36. Allman Brothers Band, "Mountain Jam" (12:10. Live from Warner Theatre, Erie, PA, 7-19-05)
37. Allman Brothers Band, "Mountain Jam (Reprise)" (9:30. Live from Warner Theatre, Erie, PA, 7-19-05)
38. Cecil Taylor, "Charge 'Em Blues" (11:06, 1956)
39. Cecil Taylor, "Steps" (10:20, 1966)
40. Cecil Taylor, "Rick Kick Shaw" (6:05, 1956)

thx: Billboard, Spin, Skip, Dean, unusual suspects

Monday, August 09, 2021

Dennis and Lois (2019)

The story of Dennis Anderson and Lois Kahlert and their mutual lifelong love affair with live rock music felt almost precious in synopsis and I put off taking a look for months. Now I'm sorry I did so I looked at it two times in a row to make up for that. It's nothing less than thrilling. Between them Dennis and Lois have seen (and have the receipts for) Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, Little Stevie Wonder ("when he was little") and lots of Motown artists, James Brown, the Shirelles—it's quite an amazing and long list. They met in 1975 at a CBGB show with Richard Hell, Talking Heads, and the Ramones. The Ramones was their first mutual love affair—they found they could be helpful by running the merch table for the band, selling t-shirts and memorabilia. The ever-evolving shift in their priorities across their impressive clubbing career (they claim 10,000 shows) is perhaps signaled best by their vanity license plates: first, RAMONES, which were constantly being ripped off and having to be replaced. Then MEKONS, which Jon Langford in interview here wryly notes have never been ripped off. There is an interesting missing piece in the adventures of Dennis and Lois, from about 1965 to 1975, with no mention of the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, or other NYC artists of the period—strange gap. By the 1980s their interests lay squarely in British indie trends, focused especially on Manchester, where they followed Joy Division into New Order into Happy Mondays into the Stone Roses. Happy Mondays wrote a song about them in 1990, "Dennis and Lois"—it's on Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches. By then the couple had inserted themselves into the indie traveling circuit, offering floors of their home in Brooklyn for touring bands and even more often traveling along with them to work the merch tables and see great shows four nights a week or more. This is their life. (Are they independently wealthy? Their house is full of collectible toys, but how they survive is never explained.)

By the 1990s and since then their taste has evolved into shoegaze permutations, some of which I know, barely, e.g., Doves, and much of which I don't know at all, e.g., A Place to Bury Strangers, John Grant, or Fat White Family. All of it heard in the movie sounds wonderful and excellent, although that does remind me of one weak point here, which is there appears to be some licensing problems. The Ramones loom huge in the story of Dennis and Lois, it's their main working preoccupation for more than 10 years starting in 1975. But there is no Ramones music in this doc—there's some Ramones-like generic riffing that accompanies that part of the picture, which I noticed more going through it the second time. But let that be the takeaway: this documentary was literally so thrilling, with so much useful information (the epic story of Frank Sidebottom!), and with such solace and sensitive understanding of the life-affirming powers of live music, that you don't always notice things like Ramones music missing in action. Dennis and Lois was shot and put together before the pandemic—there's a next chapter to be heard from Dennis and Lois, if we ever get to the end of this. Even as is, the two in these scenes from maybe circa 2017 already look like grandparents, which is charming and also weird. No one knows it better than Dennis and Lois themselves but they also know why they are where they are and as such stand as a certain kind of role model for the pursuit of something I abandoned myself in my 50s. Kudos to them. Long may they rock. They stand to the mosh and the crowd surfing and the dancing and all the rest, like they were born to it. They seem to have great taste too. Remarkable stuff.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

An Event in Autumn (2004)

This is by far the shortest Kurt Wallander tale by Henning Mankell outside of the short story collection The Pyramid. An Event in Autumn came six years after the previous Kurt Wallander novel proper (1998's Firewall, followed the year after by the story collection and then a Linda Wallander novel in 2002), a fairly long gap for this series, which came at the rate of one per year in the '90s. It's typical of a Wallander story, complex with dogged police work. Daughter Linda is on hand, a police officer herself now. Many of the police characters are still there, though not all. I missed one in particular, a woman detective, gone without explanation. (There's one more Wallander to go, published five years after this. Maybe she'll show up again.) I didn't feel like Mankell's heart was much in this, though he's always good enough to enjoy reading. The most interesting part of the edition I read was an essay from 2013 called "Mankell on Wallander," in which he wanders through the facets of the series. He probably stopped the series at about the right time—there's something increasingly missing in these last novels. He wrote a lot of other things as well and had a career in theater too. He's definitely out of the groove in this one. The irascible coroner Nyberg is reduced to a stereotype, or even more so, as there was always some of it in his antics. It's a cold case—even the 25-year statute of limitations in Sweden for murder has passed. All they have to work with is the skeleton of a human hand found buried on a piece of property. The case goes back to the chaos of World War II but doesn't feel particularly significant or insightful. Maybe Mankell was not as good at shorter lengths, as the stories in The Pyramid are similarly weaker and unfocused. That said, I still enjoyed An Event in Autumn even if it felt a little like paltry portions—not length so much as development of Mankell's various social-realist themes, about the police, about government, about democracy and society. Sometimes in the series the ambitions can set things askew. The Nelson Mandela one (The White Lioness) felt to me more like a Ludlum type of thriller. But I enjoy Mankell's meticulous plotting always, wrapping his social critiques around police investigation. He touches on much of this in the essay. The original title translates in Swedish to Hand (Handen) because of the starting point for this mystery. It seems weird to me to change it to An Event in Autumn for English. It's set in the autumn, but what's wrong with the author's title (or is it even his?)? Go figure!

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Sunday, August 01, 2021

The Conquest of New Spain (1568)

Translator and editor J.M. Cohen's 1963 treatment of the 16th-century account by Bernal Diaz of Hernando Cortes ("the Killer," per Neil Young) is a highly readable account of how Montezuma and Mexico were brought down. It's unusual militarily, given that Montezuma's empire was populous and Cortes had a force of only about 400 soldiers. Cortes was also slightly on the run from Spanish authorities, setting out before the Spanish crown knew all the circumstances of his mission and the region. But stuff like that—he hurried up the takeoff because he knew they'd stop him otherwise—is how he pulled it all off. Basically he went into the outlying cities and regions under Montezuma's control and made his allies there, then worked his way in until he was in the heart of the city and managed to capture Montezuma himself and hold him hostage. This is no black-and-white moral tale. Cortes was ruthless and brutal, but Mexican culture of the time by this report was rife with human sacrifices to their gods. Cortes and the Spanish empire objected to this, a clear case of pot calling kettle black at best. There is plenty of darkness to go around here. Diaz was a soldier whose adventuring in the region predated Cortes, and he was there for all of the Cortes mission. In his old age Diaz wrote The True History of the Conquest of New Spain as a rebuke to previous accounts he thought were wrong—exaggerated, distorted, confabulated, and just inaccurate. Apparently he went off on some real screeds on the point, as Cohen often steps in to summarize some of these tangents. The result is a pretty good blow-by-blow of how it happened and how Cortes pulled it off. I was notably struck by the way European colonialists operate. They just showed up in these places and acted like they were running them. They pacify the natives with beads, and if that doesn't work they go to the brutality. I was amazed, actually, at how far they could get with beads. It's probably not even necessary to say it's a portrait of a very different world. Even with Cohen's pains at trimming it can get to be a little slog—the final series of battles is endless and verges on tiresome. Still a remarkably fun read overall.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

USA / UK / France, 104 minutes
Directors / writers / editors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Music: Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Alex Karpovsky, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham

Just to get some sense of where I stand here, I did a quick and dirty internet search for lists of "best Coen brothers movies" and then, a little appalled by what I was finding, made my own list (off the cuff, without benefit of systematic review). See below. I know I have been in the minority in not thinking much of this early-'60s Greenwich Village period piece, at least the first time I saw it when it was new, but it turns out there's a fairly wide range of opinion on Coens movies—one list has True Grit last, for example, while another has it at the very top, as the best movie they ever made. Inside Llewyn Davis reliably makes it into the top 10 of these lists, sometimes the top 5, and it was #2 on one list.

After a second look more recently, I agree top 10 of their 18 or so pictures total seems fair enough. My first reaction was a matter of my own biases, which start with a lifelong indifference to midcentury American folk music, particularly the fruit of early-'60s Greenwich Village. Then the way Llewyn Davis uses Bob Dylan was too much for me, and it is still annoying. He shows up off-camera at the very end as approximately the Inevitable Future of Folk Music (iconic voice of a generation not far behind), which struck me more as cheap pandering than ... well, I'm still not sure what the idea of sticking him in there that way is supposed to be. Mostly it feels like playing cynically to Greenwich Village folkie sentimentalists like Pete Seeger.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

"The Mezzotint" (1904)

This M.R. James story is full of the fussy little complications I'm starting to like about him. The story's setup puts the most fantastic stuff at least at thirdhand account, for example, though you don't particularly notice. He uses such devices to distance and blur, as a kind of misdirection, even as he maintains a lucid if slightly stiff academic tone. The characters are stuffy people who work in libraries and museums along with the dealers they rely on. Our main guy is in charge of procuring topographical drawings and engravings for a university museum. One of his dealers alerts him to a mezzotint, a print using a technique that gives it a distinctive lustrous tone, all in silvers or sepia. The dealer thinks it may be of interest, but it's expensive. Send it over, says our guy. When it arrives, he is disappointed. He doesn't find it remarkable. It is only a lackluster image of a mansion with information about it missing. Later, a visitor likes it more than he does, pointing out the image of the figure entering in the foreground from the side. Hmm, our guy had not noticed that before. Even later, a third person has a strong reaction to it. Now the figure is on the lawn of the estate, creeping on all fours. The drama of the mezzotint proceeds from there, with our guy and his crew checking it regularly and getting a narrative out of what they see. Some minor flaws: at some point I for one would have sat and look at that mezzotint like I was watching TV—our team tries it late but it doesn't seem to change when they're watching. They also construct a big narrative out of the changing scene, as if that's the point, when in this situation I think the simple fact that it is happening would be sufficiently alarming or at least intriguing. Wouldn't we be getting the print into the lab for analysis of the ink and such? The changing picture is the really freaky thing here, not the story it is depicting, as satisfyingly horrible as that is when we learn more about the mansion and its history. Still, I have to admit James can cast a spell and I end up liking how fanciful some of his premises are—they're both playful and uncanny and they often work. The academic setting where art is prized is a nice one too. The mezzotint exists to be beautiful or informative or both, but there is also something disturbingly wrong with it. It's a good tension—good story.

Read story online.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

"Go West" (1993)

[listen]

The idea that Very is the grand unified statement by the Pet Shop Boys of a pro-disco, anti-rock ethos and way of life is obviously reinforced by finishing off the album on the high note of a cover of the Village People. "Go West" is almost certainly not recognizable to the folks who gyrate to the VP at sports events and political rallies. Even this Pet Shop Boys version was a top 10 hit practically everywhere else but the US (which appears to be eternally stuck at the Young Men's Christian Association figuratively speaking until its citizens can come to terms with what the song is about, if they ever can). This "Go West" is large and in charge—iconic, of course, and wry, double of course, and furthermore exuberantly joyful. The ghost of the Village People as the '70s turned to the '80s and AIDS arrived lurks in the background of this song about moving to San Francisco. Indeed, yearning for liberation broods over the entire album. But the Pet Shop Boys have made this song all theirs, respecting the disco drills and thrills but tarting it up with musical flourishes like a lusty men's chorus and various production tricks already familiar from the foregoing 11 tracks (the soul singer Sylvia Mason-James, for example, dialed down to the mush of the mix where somehow she stands out even more). After a brief overture, "Go West" proceeds directly to the business of the dance song, doing what they are all intended to do at base level, which is get you on your feet and moving. Richard Simmons approves this track, I am certain. It moves and it grooves and then finally it hits an exquisite dance club high point at 4:25. I have always wished they rolled with it from there for the full eight minutes the track lasts or more. Instead, it closes down early, followed by two full minutes of silence (enough time too often to forget the album is still on) and then a snippet of a hidden track sung by Chris Lowe. The 1992 12-inch version of "Go West" (available now in the Further Listening package) is closer to an ideal of a seamless transition into the second album Relentless, which is still sadly the limited property only of early purchasers of the UK release, collectors, and/or ardent fans (not available on streaming but YouTube has it in full). Relentless affords another 37 minutes of dance groove on six more tracks, all in the vein or close to it of the high point in "Go West." The video for the 12-inch version is an interesting mash of US and USSR imagery, making New York City the metaphorical endpoint of the move west, with Mason-James standing in as the Statue of Liberty. Between the cartoony show-biz performance style of the Village People and the beautiful fantasies of liberation in the West (dreams of San Francisco still alive in 1993), the album's big finish is an ecstatically blissful climax to the extended formally informal coming out party of Very: disco, gay, sentimental, and capable of great flights.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Saint Maud (2019)

This picture walks a line in the gray area between extreme faith and mental illness, pushing it into the realm of horror where arguably it belongs. It reminded me in some ways of The Rapture, with some willingness to entertain or at least pretend to entertain that there might be something to Christian views of time and space and reality. Morfydd Clark is Maud, a hospice nurse who previously lost a patient (circumstances murky) and subsequently turned to a cultish brand of the Catholic Church. She is presently giving private care to Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a successful dancer and choreographer in her 40s now terminally ill with cancer. Maud, naturally, believes God has delivered them to one another to save Amanda's soul. Accordingly, she tries to control every aspect of Amanda's life but she's not doing a good job of winning her over. Amanda is a cosmopolitan, a genial but firm atheist. Though familiar, it's not a bad setup and the movie effectively seesaws away at this tension inside a dark and gloomy mansion somewhere in England by the sea. Amanda is amused by Maud and feels some affection for her but is often annoyed by her attempts to convert her. CGI special effects are used sparingly but with a good sense for how to play them. There is the usual handful or so of shock cuts but they seem more designed to unsettle Maud than the audience. We can see a lot of them coming. In a way, Saint Maud is a picture for connoisseurs of subtle horror. Director and writer Rose Glass has a good grip on the material and no evident baggage or scores to settle with the church. She just sees a good opportunity there and goes for it. She's interested in questions of faith but tends to use technique to explore that more than any of the inherent theatrical drama in what is essentially a two-hand piece between Maud and Amanda. For example, the ending comes in the form of a certain apocalypse which is predictable enough. Less predictable are the exalted aspects of it, and even less expected is a shot that lasts for maybe one second and may be the most shocking image in the whole picture, a gut punch. There's also a late scene that's quite good and feels almost like an homage to The Exorcist without even trying hard. Definitely worth a look. Abstracted enough that it might be OK for the faint of heart too.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

"So Much Water So Close to Home" (1975)

Here's another classic Raymond Carver story with lots of familiar themes and notes. It's instantly recognizable as one of the stories adapted for the movie Short Cuts. As it happens, it's also one of the more extreme examples of Gordon Lish's editing. Carver's original manuscript version is 20 pages in the Library of America edition whereas the version in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is only seven. In the restored-plus version in Where I'm Calling From it's 25 pages. So that makes three versions of the four suburban husbands on a weekend fishing trip who discover the nude corpse of a young woman who has been murdered and dumped. You recall they tie the corpse to a tree and go on fishing and drinking for another day or two, and therein lie all the problems. It's an ingenious premise, a perfect fictional device. The morally occluded fishermen stay a little longer in the long version, but in both cases leave earlier than they had planned. The wife of one of them is the first-person narrator of this story. I think Carver does OK at the cross-gender voice though it's not perfect—cross-gender voices rarely are. This wife is not taking this situation well and her husband does not understand or anyway is defensive. It's serious enough that it seems to threaten their marriage though the ending is ambiguous. I've done a side-by-side a couple times now and for what it's worth came out both ways. The first time I liked Carver's easygoing storytelling style more, but this last time I thought Lish's editing made the points of the story hit harder. It's unfortunate you can't approach each version in a similarly open way. Who knows? Maybe my different preferences are a matter of which one I read first each time. I don't recall. What a problem! The long version spends more time on the wife and her crisis, externalized when she travels 120 miles to attend the young woman's funeral, and really her crisis is the point of the story along with her husband's oblivion. She has an unsettling experience on the way to the funeral, which is handled better in the long version. I can see Lish has turned it into a sort of half-comic anecdote about witless men and their exasperated wives. But the power of this one in concept still basically transcends the confusion of the myriad versions. My suggestion is stick with Where I'm Calling From. But keeping a copy around of What We Talk About is not a bad idea either. Even lamed Carver is still pretty good fiction.

Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From (Library of America)