Thursday, June 24, 2021

"They Bite" (1943)

Anthony Boucher's moody classic WWII-era horror / Western story has a desert setting and unsettling spy overtones. It's fast and effective with lots of surprises, but I think what I like best is its working knowledge of terrifying true-crime cases, such as the Bender family in Kansas circa the early 1870s. These fiends set up as an inn for westering pioneers and murdered an unknown number but at least 11. The motive was robbery but they were notable butchers. Boucher even throws in a preening name-check of William Roughead and one of his classic case write-ups about a 16th-century murder by poisoning within the royal family of Scotland, nothing to do with anything here but fun to see. The Benders were human beings in real life but not exactly in this story, which says they moved west and become the Carkers, long slender brown weird immortal monsters that strike swift and sure. Interesting theory. Yes, they bite. They're never seen except in reaches of peripheral vision, fleetingly. "They Bite" takes place in a desert town in the West called Oasis. Our hero is a regular white guy but also a spy for Axis powers. He's there checking out the doings at a nearby military airfield. He has an old friend who blackmails him when he figures out what's going on. Our hero is not a good man. Outside of town are abandoned adobe dwellings where no one lives anymore, except the Carkers. Carkers is a good word—you sort of have to clear your throat or bark like an animal to get it out. Boucher's descriptions are more dancing and allusive about them than concrete for most of the story, a nice use of misdirection until we finally come face to face with one. There's also a mysterious grizzled old miner guy who won't say any more about them than the title of the story. The reader is allowed to imagine them and then compare notes with the shuddering reality at the end, as the story explodes to its inevitable conclusion. This subtle approach to exposing monsters as such is reminiscent of the original 1942 Cat People and other movie productions where the viewer is asked to do a lot of the work of imagining the menace. "They Bite" does not particularly rise to the level of jolting fear but instead is better, much better, at gnawing tension, with a nice blast at the end. Considering that our good guy is actually a bad guy—you'll see more about why—you might say it's a happy ending. Either way a stone classic.

Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Read story online.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Clock Winder (1972)

I want to call Anne Tyler's fourth novel a gothic. There's an unkempt mansion, deaths and suicide, mental illness, and generally some sharp edges. It's her first to use Baltimore as a key setting, though it's not the only setting here. Tyler's college town of Raleigh, North Carolina, is important too. It might be the first actual Anne Tyler novel, the end of a long four-novel formative period—she sounds a little embarrassed by the early ones now. The Clock Winder is uneven and has some gaps arguably, but I like the grotesque Emerson family. The novel's main character is Elizabeth, the handyman to whom the Emersons offer a home. She is competent where they are not, and a certain type of hippie lost soul. The family matriarch, Mrs. Emerson, is the other important character here, a woman capable of deep commitment to her shallowness. She can't understand why her seven children have turned out the way they have (eight if you count an early death). As the novel begins Mrs. Emerson has recently become a widow. Elizabeth walks by and offers to help her move some furniture she is struggling with, and just like that, Anne Tyler style, they fall together. Elizabeth moves in as the house handyman and though she is disaffected and remote she soon enough bears emotional responsibility for these oddballs. In a way I like these earlier grotesques from Tyler, before she learned to sand off some of the edges for warmer, more quirky characters. I like how you can see her feeling her way toward that even as her sense of the world is more stark. Some of the Emersons are better than others, and the worst can be very bad, positively dangerous. They're not really such harmless kooks—I like that. I like Elizabeth a lot too, the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a shallow wife. Elizabeth is a reflexive truth seeker. She connects and disconnects very easily. She's super-competent in a low-key way in the context of the Emersons, but believes she is otherwise a perennial screw-up, awkwardly wrecking everything she touches. The feeling of competence the Emersons give her is what attracts Elizabeth to them. I can understand calling The Clock Winder flawed, but I also thought it was interesting and unpredictable all the way through. Tyler is obviously a good storyteller before she is anything else. And I like her own fondness for grotesques, who try her patience as much as they charm her. They are an essential part of life to her.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

Gram Parsons spent six months with the Byrds before moving on, but he left a big mark with this short album—11 tracks, 32 minutes. Ambitious Roger McGuinn intended it originally as a double-LP survey of American popular music across the 20th century, following the heady psychedelic Notorious Byrd Brothers. But under Parsons's messy influence they decided to make it country. Indeed, it's considered the first country-rock album by many although I've never quite figured out how "rock" figures into much of it. It sounds like country tinged with folk to me mostly, and in the wrong mood I can hear it as a parade of creaking cliches. At least they're good enough they never sound like wannabes, which is impressive and likely more the result of the Nashville session cats they rounded up. It was a hectic time for these folks. Look at the tight timelines in 1968: January, The Notorious Byrd Brothers is released; February, Parsons joins the band; March, recording of Sweetheart of the Rodeo begins; August, it's released and Parsons has already left the band. Part of his short time was further clouded by the prospect of a lawsuit from his former label (headed by Lee Hazlewood), which contended he was still under contract to them. Talk about rolling stones: on to the Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and iconic death at the age of 26. Sweetheart of the Rodeo reflects some of Parsons's, McGuinn's, and the band's (not to mention the world's) turmoil, mostly in the roiling murder ballad and tormented soul undertones of the material, in the dim forlorn sadness of these old songs themselves, accorded utmost respect but with some inevitable roughing up here and there. The range of songwriters is impressive: Bob Dylan of course, the band's brand, but also the Louvin brothers, William Bell (!), Woody Guthrie, and Merle Haggard, plus a couple of originals by Parsons. It's not a typical Byrds album by any means but it's the one I seem to return to the most—bearing in mind I've got mostly a lifelong blind spot for the band and I'm pretty weak on country too. In the late '90s a friend was excited about Wilco and had an idea he was digging country-rock and was curious about Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a name-check in the write-ups. Good thing it's so short! Playing it for him confirmed my notion there's virtually no "rock" to this album at all. He was clearly turned off and seemed to be looking for a way to leave the room. Rock was absolutely dominating in Wilco, needless to say, with country waving a begging bowl. It was a comical episode but clarified for me that Sweetheart of the Rodeo 1) is not really a rock LP, 2) is not really a Byrds LP (or a Gram Parsons, for that matter), and 3) can easily be taken as a citadel of country cliches. The more I listen the more I think what I'm attracted to is the combination of those Nashville session players (notably pedal steel guitar players Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness) and the inspired taste of the Byrds principals in their song choices. Also, they can sing. This is one really everyone needs to hear at least once—for my friend back in the '90s, I helped him get his out of the way.

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

UK, 163 minutes
Directors/writers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Photography: Georges Perinal
Music: Allan Gray
Editor: John Seabourne Sr.
Cast: Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, Deborah Kerr, Roland Culver, James McKechnie, Albert Lieven, Arthur Wonter, A.E. Matthews, David Hutcheson, Ursula Jeans, John Laurie, Harry Welchman, Ian Fleming

Things I didn't know: "Colonel Blimp" was a British political cartoon that began in the 1930s. The character was an ancient harrumphing military veteran with a walrus mustache, potbelly, and reliably fatuous opinions on issues of the day, which he brayed from the comfort of Turkish baths. So that explains why this UK Archers production has no one named Blimp in it (I don't believe the word or name even occurs across this lengthy picture). What's more, the character who is obviously set up as his type, Clive Candy (Roger Livesey with literally a stiff upper lip—you'll learn why, and also why the mustache), is still in good health at the end of the movie and quite alive.

This epic, lively, and colorful picture came out in the depths of World War II. The death it seems to be talking about is more of a Colonel Blimp-like idea: faith in German honor. A lot of people had a hard time shaking that off. It's one reason the Nazis were so effective. Only a few years before, French director Jean Renoir was celebrating the class solidarity of aristocrats across national lines in La Grande Illusion, showing the respect and decent treatment officers accorded one another even in P.O.W. camps. That's the world Colonel Blimp knew, and it's the world Clive Candy knows too, a veteran of the Boer Wars and the Great War and in the present day with duties in the Home Guard, protecting against the air raids of 1940. His best friend in all the world is the German Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), who Candy must face in a duel of honor before they find their way to fast friendship.

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Social Dilemma (2020)

Overall I liked this documentary—it's alarmist about social media in a way that may feel overdone, yet I don't think it is. Social media, as innocuous as it seems from day to day, very likely represents a grave threat to the social order. We have seen plenty of evidence of that in the past 10 years or so and it is not getting better. The Social Dilemma also suggests the solutions are within reach, such as a point one of these Silicon Valley talking head experts makes about the heavy regulation of Saturday morning television, a known time period dominated by children watching. With the move to online social media, however, there was no parallel regulation. The example used is YouTube Kids, a Google site that promises all kinds of parental controls. But in many of these cases the reality is that the kids are way more savvy than their parents, plus on a general note it's never been a good idea to ask corporations to regulate themselves. The fact that there is no political will to push through these necessary regulatory controls is where I think the alarmism of this picture is most well-placed. I always want to point to Reagan retiring the FCC Fairness Doctrine in the '80s as the start of most of our current political problems. Probably I just need to point to Reagan himself and the modern Republican Party, which are forces that social media, notably Facebook, is actively aiding and abetting because doing so is making them billionaires. The experts assembled are knowledgeable, many having basically invented social media in the first place, and they are worried. One of the most interesting factoids here is that most of them strictly control the exposure of social media to their own children. Unfortunately, the picture—still worth seeing and by everyone—undermines itself too often by turning to the tools of docudrama, with trite little illustrative reenactments and skits that are too condescending. I got used to reenactments in true-crime TV, where they are common, but they are always a little awkward and with an air of phoniness. They remind me of the skit in Woody Allen's Love and Death that was presented to soldiers on the eve of battle in the Napoleonic Wars, warning about the dangers of syphilis. I admit one continuing skit here—with AI personified as three people discussing what to present a specific user next in a feed—was actually helpful to me in understanding the concept, which I have a very hard time getting my head around, of someone like me being the product that is sold to others in the social media chain of being ("if you're not paying for the product you are the product"). The skits still felt a little dumb, unconvincing, and overplayed. That might be just my experience but it isn't, as a discussion earlier this year among Phil Dellio, Steven Rubio, and Scott Woods makes clear. But I still think everyone needs to take a look at The Social Dilemma. And then DELETE ALL YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS. I say this as a rank hypocrite who spends too much time on Twitter every day, and Next Door some days, but please, do as I say. Look at this documentary.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Before the Frost (2002)

Definitely some new wrinkles to the Kurt Wallander story in this later Henning Mankell novel—most notably that it features Wallander's daughter Linda, who has become a police officer after spending her 20s figuring things out. In fact, it's more her novel than Kurt's, intended as the first of a trilogy. It was never finished because Mankell was too distraught after the actress playing her in a TV production committed suicide. This reminds me I should check in with some of the Wallander TV and movie versions one of these times. Kenneth Branagh plays him in one. As always, Mankell's plotting is solid, but Before the Frost still feels a little underbaked somehow. Mankell scheduled the climax of the action here for September 8, 2001—yeah, he generally has his stories all charted out on timelines. Then he appeared to feel the need to acknowledge 9/11. His bad people this time around are radicalized Christians—including a survivor of Jonestown, in an audacious stroke typical of Mankell. This guy is the mastermind, utilizing all the lessons he learned from Jim Jones. Using radicalized Christians as a plot point might have felt awkward for Mankell in the immediate aftermath of a new level of radicalized Muslim strikes. But I'm glad he stayed the course. Radicalized Christians are at least as much trouble. Part of the feeling of lack of development in this one is likely due to the planned trilogy never being finished. These events all take place just before Linda starts her police career, and there's also a new love interest for her (reportedly from another non-Wallander novel by the busy Mankell). Before the Frost more seems to be exploring the relationship between Kurt and Linda, parent and grown child, complicated further because Linda is an only child of divorced parents. The fights between Kurt and Linda are abrupt and absurdly brutal. Also, at least one character, Ann-Britt Hoglund, is suddenly almost unrecognizable. She's remarkably cold to Linda. What happened here? I thought Hoglund was one of the most interesting side characters in the Kurt Wallander series. Other detectives seem slightly different too, but it's more in line with Linda's point of view. Another weak element is that one of Linda's closest childhood friends is a pathological liar and this comes as news to Linda. You'd think she'd have noticed by now. Interesting curiosity in the Wallander series anyway.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

"A Case of Eavesdropping" (1900)

Here's another good ghost story by Algernon Blackwood, an early one. I'm starting to think I like his ghost stories even more than the ineffable weird stuff like "The Willows," which is the usual story designated to represent him in anthologies. With the ghost story so much is already given yet there are so many variations and Blackwood was canny about working them. This is more like a haunted house tale, set in an empty rooming-house in exotic New York City. Note that traveling Englishman Blackwood is good at many things but a New York dialect does not seem to be among them. Or maybe that's really how flinty Yankee landladies talked at the turn of the 20th century. It's bizarre. The rooming-house is empty because it's haunted but our man, Jim Shorthouse, doesn't know that when he takes the room. He's an itinerant ne'er-do-well working the nightshift as a reporter. Think Weegee even if Weegee is a later era. Shorthouse, by the way, would be seen contending with another haunted house in another Blackwood story six years later, "The Empty House." What's particularly good in this one are the special effects, even though even then they were likely well-known: heavy footsteps on the stairs, pounding on the door, voices heard from another room in tense exchange. All this is in the middle of the night, of course, which is approximately when you should be reading it. Simple things like footsteps stopping outside the door just completely give me the willies here. Blackwood holds it there for several beats before the knocking starts. Scary! It's not actually our man's door, as it turns out, but the door of an adjoining room with a flimsy partition between. This is what enables Shorthouse to overhear the strange, confusing, and terrible exchange between a father and son. Another nice effect, later, toward the end, is when Shorthouse feels himself sickening in his bed and weakening, unable to move, as he hears the voices next door speaking quite clearly. The landlady knows the place is haunted and she's used to it. She just wishes these tenants passing through would get used to it too and stay. Somehow she makes it all worse—maybe it's the alien dialect too but she is a wonderful element. Staying is not in the cards for Shorthouse, however. He is bound to bug out, if he can, shortly after the impressive crescendo scene. Great ghost story—it works on me every time.

Read story online.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

A Complete Lowlife (2001)

Writer and illustrator Ed Brubaker has gone on to bigger things with DC Comics and Marvel since this interesting little indie project. Full disclosure, I don't know any of that but I picked up on this back then as a partisan of Harvey Pekar, R. Crumb, Joe Matt, and all their comics-as-autobiography followers. So this "complete" Lowlife amounts to a handful of stories that appeared across a series of five comic books with two publishers. They are plainly in the vein of Pekar—Brubaker acknowledges him in an introduction—telling true stories of youth, petty crime, boredom, drug use, and immature relationships. My poor old tired eyes had some problems with some of the tiny hand printing, but most of these stories were entertaining and full of pathos. The characters are the usual motley assortment of obsessive fan types, celebrating cool but kind of nerdy. There's a great anecdote in one story about a job he takes at a collectors' bookstore, where he learns about the trade, sees others ripping the owner off, and starts ripping him off too. He feels shame about it but is defensive too, and then his feelings are hurt when he learns the owner knew about it all the time and now scorns him. At one time I might have liked the girlfriend stories best but now they just make me sad. Brubaker's stories might suffer a little because he is withholding detail, but there's a pretty fine balance when it comes to lacerating self-confession. Brubaker has some reasonably ugly stories to tell about himself, but even across the space of this series, which started and ended in the '90s, he seems to have turned out all right. One thing you can't miss is that eventually he abandoned the memoir mode and went more or less directly to superheroes. He's won a lot of awards too so he must be pretty good. He's a writer now almost exclusively and his interests are in the noir style and hard-boiled detective fiction. Just in 2019 he won an Eisner Award for "Best Graphic Album – New" for a project called My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies, which is apparently a rehab story. It's not that hard to see how he got there from here. But my heart is closer to here—closer to these obsessive semi-narcissistic nerds working out their personal problems as they grow up, more often than not ineptly. I think Brubaker is also a pretty good illustrator, though on the simple and primitive side. I can see why he chose to work with others later but I like the unadorned style of this whole project.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, June 04, 2021

Phantom Thread (2017)

USA / UK, 130 minutes
Director/writer/photography: Paul Thomas Anderson
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Phantom Thread is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie about a very fine dressmaker and fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is living, working, and fussing in postwar midcentury London with his sister and manager, Cyril (Lesley Manville). It's a quiet, elegant picture, and boomers particularly are likely to find ecstasies of nostalgia in the period work, though much of it is interiors and costumes, with some cars, servants, and the usual exquisite manners. I took it in 2017, and in many ways still, as artifact of the same Anglophile impulse that has made people big fans of Downton Abbey, The Crown, and other such productions adoring of all things British. I admit I didn't give Phantom Thread much of a chance.

On a second look, it seems more remarkably eccentric, with a strangely perverse love story, a bit like Punch-Drunk Love. The rowdy Adam Sandler has been replaced by the suave consummate Laurence Olivier of our very own era. I'm not sure that works either but it's more interesting than I originally gave the movie credit for. Emily Watson and Vicky Krieps play similarly robotic, vaguely alien yet lovely creatures, which probably tells us more about PTA than about either story. I'm taking the title of Phantom Thread to mean the tenuous connections between people more than anything about sewing and needles, and I'm starting to think Anderson is more like a novelist taking it directly to film.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Blow the Man Down (2019)

Problems of categorizing: I picked this movie more or less out of a hat from a list of "movies to see" I cobbled together late last year out of best-of lists and recommendations on social media. The list is full of movies about which I know nothing or very little until I go to look at them. Sometimes I go in entirely blind, sometimes I check IMDb or even a review or two. In this case, I noted that IMDb classes Blow the Man Down as "comedy, drama, mystery" (again, I ask, is this alphabetical?) with an aggregate ranking of 6.4 (that's too low btw so I gave it a 7). Later, after I'd seen it, I looked up Glenn Kenny's review on RogerEbert.com where he mentions the comic aspects of the picture too. Look, yes, Blow the Man Down has some bits that are funny, but they are mostly there for the relief from a nicely constructed thriller, and welcome at that. The picture also asserts eccentric indie cred with a perversely effective Greek chorus of New England fishermen who jump in and start singing sea shanties (like the title song, which I used to associate only with Popeye but has definitely been growing on me for some time now). It's mainly a predicament movie, in which characters get themselves into one and it only seems to keep getting worse, the kind of movie you talk to in the privacy of your home. "That body is never going to fit into that cooler," I said at one point, for example. Or, at another: "Stop wasting time now. Go get that knife or there's going to be trouble with it later." Or: "Are you kidding me? You should not believe a word this person is saying." And, of course: "Oh, noo!" And so forth. I consider the impulse (which I would never indulge in a theater or with company, of course) a mark of a pretty good suspense film, so add that please to the categories for Blow the Man Down along with thriller. It's set in Maine—the New England accents may be variously strained or nonexistent from character to character, but that's all right. Two young women, barely of age, have lost their mother and the picture starts on the day of her funeral. The younger girl, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), deals with her grief and hatred of the small town by going out that night, getting drunk, and finding herself in a royal predicament. You'll have your own words of advice for her. I had mine. She didn't listen, of course, and she probably won't listen to you either. Things do not get better from there, as various unsavory secrets of the town start to emerge while Mary Beth and her older and more mature sister Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) are busy trying to get out of the predicament. I think the secret of Blow the Man Down (aside from the singing fishermen and worrisome predicament) is casting the older characters well. The town madam Enid, for example, is a first-rate turn from Margo Martindale, a ubiquitous figure of TV (The Americans, Dexter, The Good Wife, Justified, Mrs. America, and many others). She is quite terrifying here. Or Susie (June Squibb), a bawdy but kindly old lady who's been around the block. Squibb has too, in places like Alexander Payne pictures (Nebraska, About Schmidt). Blow the Man Down is not perfect but it's good enough to get me talking out loud with some urgency to the screen. And I have to think codirectors and cowriters Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy are two to keep an eye on.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

"They're Not Your Husband" (1973)

This is one of Raymond Carver's stories that Robert Altman adapted for the Short Cuts movie. It's quite recognizable as the couple, Earl and Doreen, are played memorably by Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin. The movie characters had some details that came from elsewhere, not necessarily Carver, but this is the one where Earl sees his wife, working as a waitress, being ogled and commented on by men who don't know he's her husband. The moment is more poignant in the movie the way Waits plays it with Buck Henry and Huey Lewis, and in the story Doreen is more grotesquely ugly. The story is full of great Carver touches—the waitressing work, Earl's unemployment, the uneasy marriage—but it's also a little harsh and verges on unpleasant in Earl's treatment of Doreen, which is not really comical at all except in sardonic ways. Earl is "between jobs" and has a couple of interviews in this story, which don't seem to pan out (but you never know). His days are empty. His pushy insistence that Doreen lose weight, buying a scale and making blunt remarks to her, and his obvious shame about her appearance, are not in the movie as much and it makes the story edgy and nervous. In a later scene Earl is more of a creep at the restaurant, trying to egg remarks about Doreen out of a man who's not inclined to talk to him. With another waitress he acts like he doesn't know Doreen. The final scene is a moment of withering humiliation. On balance Earl and Doreen seem largely benign but I get some sense Carver has it in for them somehow, Doreen for her looks (much like Earl, in fact) and Earl as a pathetic nebbish. In Carol Sklenicka's excellent biography, Raymond Carver, there's a great comment from one fellow writer and/or student along the way. He says Carver is writing about working-class characters but really they're all graduate students—that's what Carver knew. I see some of that here in Earl, scrounging for generic work, chronically poor, depending on a partner to support him, but capable of attacking a problem like weight loss systematically, buying the scale, keeping track of the numbers, and analyzing and mulling them over—and doing it all to right a very minor perceived wrong. This one sports another great story title too.

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

Thursday, May 27, 2021

"Sweets to the Sweet" (1947)

How do you solve a problem like Robert Bloch (sung to the tune of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" from The Sound of Music)? I mean, he has all the bona fides: corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft as a teen when he first started publishing, wrote the literary property behind Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, grew up in Milwaukee, published hundreds of stories in all the right places (from Weird Tales to Playboy), wrote scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and many others, and won enough awards to melt down and build a tank, if he were so inclined. The My Favorite Horror Story anthology, published in 2000, asked leading horror lights of the day to name and write an intro about [the title]. Bloch and Lovecraft were the only writers with two stories, and this story by Bloch was the choice of Stephen King. How can I argue with that? I can't. "Sweets to the Sweet" is not a bad story and even very good of a type. The main feature is its twist ending, which is hard to see coming because Bloch uses misdirection well (the misdirection is child abuse but apparently we are letting that pass because 1947 or something). But "Sweets to the Sweet" is also entirely typical of the problems of Bloch's stories, which is that if he can't scare you at least maybe he can make you laugh or if not that force a groan with some terrible pun. I’m addicted to brake fluid, but it’s OK because I can stop at any time. Let's not forget the jokey undercurrents about mothers in Psycho (Norman Bates: "Well, a boy's best friend is his mother")—that's Bloch as well as Hitchcock. "Sweets to the sweet"—well, you'll have to read this one to get that because I'm not going to give too much away. You may as well enjoy Bloch at about the best I've seen him while I complain about everything else. Instead, I'll give away "Catnip," a minor effort from the following year published in Weird Tales. Like a lot of his stuff, it feels like a hurry-up first draft never looked at again. All you really need to know about it is its dependence on hatred and fear of black cats and the old figure of speech, "Cat got your tongue?" to understand the arc and get the joke of this story about an unlikely bully and a witch. In Playboy in the early '60s, for another example, Bloch published a story called "The Traveling Salesman," which features the alleged actual traveling salesman from all the jokes I'm pretty sure nobody tells anymore, now more or less relics from the Johnny Carson era. This guy's life is hell because he has to go and act out every new traveling salesman joke that comes along. Hyuk-hyuk. It's not horror, it's a gag. In a lot of his stories Bloch comes across like a stand-up comic teetering on the verge of a bad flop sweat episode. He evokes the elements of horror—gore, mayhem, grotesqueries—but they're more like shtick on the way to the punchline. And if that don't work: What did one eye say to the other? Just between you and me, something smells. I understand the impulse to laugh at the whole horror game because, yes, it's all pretty silly when it comes down to it. These are just make-believe stories, of course! But uh the wise-guy routine sort of spoils the mood, and even if Bloch did hit a few twist endings pretty well—no small feat, I admit—I can't help feeling just a little bit taken by most of his stuff.

My Favorite Horror Story, ed. Mike Baker & Martin B. Greenberg (out of print)
When Evil Wakes, ed. August Derleth (out of print)
Listen to story online.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

"Forever in Love" (1993)

[listen]

Big whooshy boojie-boy energy heralds the shift from onset and spinning head into love sweet love, no big step in these circumstances. The tempo continues strong with brisk lagging off-kilter stumblebum beats and the mood is sweetened somewhat. It snaps to attention when the anonymous associate director on set with the megaphone calls "Take it from the top" at 2:34. If this is the Chris Lowe album my CD metadata says it is, certainly Neil Tennant is on hand to lend support, vocals, perhaps even words and melodies, heard well here. Except for "One Thing Leads to Another" this might be the most typical Tennant in the Relentless set. Inspirational, recurring verse: "Forever in love / Were you ever in love?" Words to put in your head and ponder as the song swirls forward, falls back, swoops and dives, a whirlwind of beat and emotion (check the moaning dancer: "I feel it, I feel it, I feel it, I feel it, I feel it") making its way back to the question at hand. It's good to dance. Were you ever in love? This is not the only time they will do this, with the questions; gender studies are ahead in the next song but one. But stay in the moment, contemplate this one, simple enough. Were you ever in love? Work it through. Were you ever in love? Grok this. Really it's just more scenery to preoccupy the mind and spinning head in this gentle fantasy of an all-night dance rave, equivalent in meaning to the siren-like sound that elevates it and elevates again. Thoughts are there purely for your entertainment.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Old Wives' Tale (1908)

Here we have another novel and author from the Modern Library list I had never heard of—Arnold Bennett, who was both British and prolific. The Old Wives' Tale is pretty big, over 600 pages, and your basic pleasure, essentially a bourgeois family's multigenerational history, comparable to Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, focusing on two sisters close in age but with very different fates. Or very different middles, as their fates are similar once they reunite. Their lives are ordinary. There are virtually no historical events here, beyond the grind toward the modern in technology and the capitalist economics that accompanied the 19th century into the 20th. Bennett is one of those writers who can create memorable characters and then let their lives spool out naturally. In a preface, he outlines his intention to tell the life stories of the anonymous middle-aged women all around him (and us). In a way focusing on ordinary women puts him way ahead of the curve. In another way he's just another white man taking advantage of his privilege to tell a story that belongs to others to tell. We have been learning since at least 1908 that people tell their own stories better. Yet even so Bennett is very good at the novel of social manners, once past a certain winding-up in the early going. The structure is a bit awkward, telling the parallel stories of the two sisters, who were separated late in adolescence, in separate sections. Bennett's heart seems closer to Constance, the elder, who is less beautiful, more conventional, and stayed where she was born in rural England. Sophia makes a bad marriage and ends up with a bad life on her own in Paris. Obviously it's the more adventurous and romantic of the two stories, but it goes second and often feels rushed. The reunion when they are both middle-aged, in the last quarter of the novel, is often poignant but also often feels mechanical. Bennett surprises with his insight and compassion, and then surprises again when he seems impatient and hurries through episodes. This is more a problem of the second half. The tempo of the first half, by contrast, especially the Constance chapters, feels almost perfect, stopping to dwell on significant events and then accelerating through time again. No one seemed to be talking about Arnold Bennett when I was in school, or if they were I didn't notice. In a way I can see why he faded, but for once I'm happy about the fuddy-duddy ways of the Modern Library list for putting this one in my way. Recommended for Jane Austen readers.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Heat (1995)

USA, 170 minutes
Director/writer: Michael Mann
Photography: Dante Spinotti
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Editors: Pasquale Buba, William Goldenberg, Dov Hoenig, Tom Rolf
Cast: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Wes Studi, Natalie Portman, Dennis Haysbert, Hank Azaria, Danny Trejo, Henry Rollins, Tone Loc

I wasn't too surprised when Heat fell flat for me the last time I looked. I've always had mixed feelings about all its main points—jumbo-sized heist movie starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, written and directed by Michael Mann. De Niro and Pacino are great players, of course, even when they're not trying very hard, but they're better when they're trying. Are they trying here? Not in the good way. Several reviewers have noted that Pacino is shouting a lot again. De Niro retires into his soft-spoken cerebral manner like the accountant with funny glasses in Casino. We never forget his explosiveness but that's because we've seen it in all those other movies.

For his part, director and writer Michael Mann is as committed to the visuals as ever, with twinkling Los Angeles vistas providing magnificent backdrop for this tired old story of cops and robbers and how they are more alike than different, etc. The robbers, headed by De Niro, take down Big Scores that require meticulous planning. The cops, headed by Pacino, work a special detail dedicated to chasing down those who would commit Big Scores (with the budget to support the effort). It's all kind of like a Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV episode with extraordinarily impressive production values. Cinematic crimes like this require a lot of showing and much less telling, particularly in the planning stages. Mann's team of four editors, and no doubt Mann himself riding along with them, work out a lot of ways to cut these capers as they go down. They are often kinetically vivid and propulsive with spasms of violence and lots of shoot-'em-ups. But in this movie, which might have also have been called Long, they start to look alike by the time we arrive at the third hour.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

It's one thing to tell big immersive stories, but comic book narratives for decades now and increasingly TV shows too inevitably run into continuity problems. You want to have your cake and eat it too. You want the drama and gravitas of killing off an important character, for example, but you don't want to lose the character forever. And you don't have to! Haven't all the major DC and Marvel comic book franchises "erased their work and started over" numerous times now? Silver age DC used to solve this with the "Imaginary Tale" (and Marvel eventually followed with its "What If" series) but nobody liked this solution. Lately the vast reaches of outer space and potentially infinite "other" dimensions have offered another possibility. This Spider-Man treatment takes a page from the Green Lantern plot, in which it was eventually revealed that Hal Jordan is not the only Green Lantern, there is a virtual army of them across the universe, patrolling home planets and vulnerable to the color yellow (which—isn't green an amalgamation of yellow and blue?). Now we learn, in this dazzling animated feature of a few years ago, that Peter Parker is not the only Spider-Man but there is an army of Spider-Beings across parallel dimensions (full disclosure, I can't speak to any sources in comic books because I don't follow any comic book anymore, not even Spider-Man, an old favorite but from a long time ago). Into the Spider-Verse is here to yuk it up over an existential crisis across a widening dimensional gyre portal opened up thanks to the Kingpin (so massive his head appears to be mysteriously located on his sternum). There's a host of fancy web-slingin' and some nice coming-of-age notes too as a Black kid from Brooklyn, a new Spider-Man in an alternate dimension, assumes the mantle and learns the ropes, so to speak. It's quite entertaining, bursting at will into impossibly fast pinging comic book action, and also capable of some impressive psychedelic effects to suggest interdimensionality and such. There's also approximately one metric fuck-ton of wisecracking, random comic book graphic devices such as splashy sound effects words, a Stan Lee cameo (albeit animated and note not "reanimated" as he was still alive at the time this movie was made), and some ingenious reimagining of Spider-Things, including Great Depression noir, anime, and Warner Brothers cartoon versions. Example of wisecracking: Spider-Ham (the WB version, which attacks with a giant wooden mallet), near the end: "That's all, folks." Peter B. Parker: "Is he allowed to say that? Legally?" Ha-ha-ha. On the nose again! Sometimes I think the entire Marvel universe was derived from one performance by Robert Downey Jr., but let's not get started on the MCU. I'm not even sure exactly what I'm doing here. Everyone else has no doubt already made up their minds about this picture and the MCU franchise at large, not to mention specifically Spider-Man. You don't need me telling you Into the Spider-Verse is worth a look even if the continuity is obviously too much for newbies to fathom. It's like dropping into an episode in the middle of a TV series. Everything may seem intensely great but you obviously don't understand everything; much is over your head because you haven't done your hours and hours and hours of TV-watching homework. I say never mind how this one fits into the Spider-Man universe. Enjoy the psychedelics and another good nod to Black culture.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

One of the great problems of reading Mark Twain now is his casual use of the N-word and, by extension and even worse, his depictions of racism both explicit and implicit. I want to say this is a "boy's book," perhaps even YA in the parlance, but sadly I think it takes a bit of maturity to take it for what it is. I know in a way criticizing Twain is killing the messenger, but nonetheless he is delivering the message—racism exists—and delivering it in ways designed to normalize it from the 19th century on. I believe people still defend this book. Twain was born and raised in the slavery state of Missouri, and fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War (and deserted though likely not for reasons of conscience), so he comes by it honestly, but still. He was alarmingly racist himself—or benighted, if you like—and it is seen all over his writing. Sure, he may have been more enlightened in general than a majority of his peers. And he didn't hold white people in such high regard either. But certainly he can seem less enlightened to us now. There's some residual snips / snails / puppy dog tails charm to the boy's life stories in Tom Sawyer, Twain's first novel on his own. And I admit I felt a bit of a rock star presence in the first appearance of Huckleberry Finn, even if his novel, which is much better, is similarly aggravated by racism. Another objection, perhaps a stodgy one, is the kind of code of corruption by which Tom Sawyer lives. It's comical enough but at the moment looks too much like the way you get to you-know-who and his gang of 75 million. They're out there whitewashing harder than ever, as a matter of fact. Of course, perhaps the real problem here above all others is that the novel is clunky and obvious. Even the beloved whitewashing episode, which comes early, involves way too much explanation. Twain the writer is not always able to stay out of the way of the story. Even as this delivers us a number of wry observations and witty bon mots, it often leaves the story puttering in place. There are some nice ideas here, such as Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral out of curiosity. But then you have a noxious character like "Injun Joe" and a lot of unpleasant passages that are quite painfully ignorant about Native Americans. Twain's racism was hardly confined to Black Americans. In fact, except for all the N-words, that type of racism is mostly out of sight here—mostly. Unfortunately, Twain comes with the racism and the racism is in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. For that reason, it's neither fish nor fowl. Too crude for children, and otherwise too lightweight, childish, dated, and/or offensive for everyone else. Alas.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Come On In (1998)

OK, this is a pretty strange one but it has its points. Mississippi native R.L. Burnside, a student (and neighbor) of Mississippi Fred McDowell, had some success as a bluesman earlier in his life but did not really come into his own until he was in his 70s in the 1990s. Though his roots were genuine his playing was primitive. He was treated a bit like a freak show during this heyday, signed by Fat Possum (something of a freak show label itself) and ultimately catching the eye of well-known freak show Jon Spencer in the mid-'90s, who liked the cut of Burnside's jib. Burnside toured with Spencer's Blues Explosion band (generally more loud than bluesy but somehow enthralling) and they recorded an album too, the controversial 1996 set A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which asks the musical questions, is it blues or is it a joke? Are you a traditionalist or an anti-traditionalist? And what is the social purpose of the blues? Burnside's solo career from there continued in much the same vein, staying with Fat Possum until his death in 2005. Come On In is basically the first of many so-called remix albums as his health declined, a kind of formal statement of the strange mix of blues work and studio wonkery that became his legacy. Much of the wonkery was Fat Possum honcho Tom Rothrock, acting as producer himself in the studio as well as farming some of it out to folks like Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot. The result has an effect like steampunk. Burnside's deep blues sensibility and instincts evoke a century of music which is then fragmented and stuffed into electronica beats, repetitions, and assaults. The contributing artists, including Burnside, never heard the final results until they were released. It's dirty. It's electronic. It's weird. Come On In opens with a 1:06 snippet of Burnside's "Been Mistreated" which operates in the context almost like an overture. The title song has three versions, fully a quarter of the album's 12 tracks. The Sopranos TV show made a couple of these tracks even more iconic, providing a useful context for their strange powers trucking with depravity: "It's Bad You Know" with its rumbling locomotive groove, Burnside's persistent laconic declaration ("it's bad you know"), and that smoky keyboard. And the purely constructed "Shuck Dub" is recognizable as a soothing soundtrack to mayhem. And so it goes here. I'm basically of the school that the experience of the blues should be raw and a little dirty, so for my purposes Burnside (and Rothrock) may have been the last real gasp of the vital 20th-century form.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Holiday (1938)

USA, 95 minutes
Director: George Cukor
Writers: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman, Philip Barry
Photography: Franz Planer
Music: Sidney Cutner
Editors: Al Clark, Otto Meyer
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Edward Everett Horton, Lew Ayres, Henry Kolker, Binnie Barnes, Henry Daniell

Annals of screwball comedy: Holiday came out four months after Bringing Up Baby in 1938. They make interesting companion pieces—one obvious stop for double-feature programmers. Both have Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in starring roles with visible chemistry. Sometimes I think Grant brings all the chemistry necessary for anyone he played with because Hepburn is more of a peculiar and specific figure, as the mid-Atlantic accent attests (though it's true Grant sports the accent too). These two movies are distinguished more by the sensibilities of their directors. Bringing Up Baby is a Howard Hawks picture and shot through with his dry cynicism, all romance dialed way down for the sake of clarifying the absurdity, whereas Holiday, directed by George Cukor, is much closer to romantic comedy than screwball comedy perhaps because Cukor, a certain Hollywood titan on Andrew Sarris's "far side of paradise" (Gaslight, My Fair Lady, The Philadelphia Story, etc., etc.), was more of a romantic than a screwball.

To be sure, both the screwball and much of the romantic elements are the weakest parts of Holiday, the better to focus on its quiet confidence in asserting self-fulfillment as our greatest aspiration over making a lot of money. It is completely audacious in its own way, particularly given its home in the Great Depression when making money was a natural concern for most and getting rich easy seemed like an obvious solution, if you could make it happen. In that way Holiday is more of a bohemian movie at its core, about the pursuit of freedom, self-expression, and happiness. It's a little corny for these sophisticates, a little painfully sincere, but it has a lot to do with what makes this strange gem work.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

"The Bishop of Hell" (1925)

Speaking of the conte cruel, Marjorie Bowen was one who trafficked regularly in the supernatural, when she wrote horror, but the stories I've seen always make the human comedy hurt a little too. I wrote previously about her Christmas story, "The Crown Derby Plate," which is practically a cozy, a ghost story to tell the kids in December, but even that has sharp edges. Bowen had a miserable childhood before winning success as a prolific writer of romances, mysteries, historical nonfiction, and more. I love the way the first-person narrator in "The Bishop of Hell" is so unnerved by his own story. "England, 1790," the story opens. "This is the most awful story that I know; I feel constrained to write down the facts as they ever abide with me, praying, as I do so, a merciful God to pardon my small share therein. God have mercy on us all!" Later in the story he mentions he was a lifelong nonbeliever until the events he narrates, but boy is he a believer now. He's inclined to beseech God at the virtual drop of a hat. Bowen tears into her classic horror tales ("Kecksies" and "Scoured Silk" are nearly as good) with acid details. The bishop of hell is one Hector Greatrix, louche, hedonist, and libertine, who lives only for his own pleasures. He enjoys things like borrowing money on the strength of his family name, gambling it all away, and never paying it back. I love that he is actually an ordained clergyman, as the younger son of a younger son. Mostly he is just a despicable villain. He steals the wife of a man who has helped him. They flee from London to the Continent and he keeps her only because she has an income. When that's not enough he turns her out to Italian dandies. She stays with him at first because she loves him and then only in the hope that he will do right by her. God have mercy on us all! He will never marry her because she slept with all those Italians. This cad comes to a wonderfully satisfying bad end (this is how it's done, Jane Rice!)—I mean he comes to a bad end on this plane because obviously, after taking his own life and all the assorted sins, he's going to Hell. Capitalized, a proper noun. God have mercy on us all! The spook show happens only in the very ending, as if to confirm the existence of Hell and Greatrix's consignment to it, but it's as ghastly and effective as the details we learn in the rest of the story. It's cunning of Bowen to make it all come out right morally because it is also license for her to go to town on the depravity, which she pursues almost with ferocious glee. She leaves our first-person narrator, and readers as well, wringing hands and calling to God. Grant us mercy!

Read story online.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Top 40

1. Ten City, "Suspicious" (4:43, 1989)
2. Kills, "I Put a Spell on You" (2:16)
3. Bob Dylan, "Moonshiner" (5:05, 1963)
4. Miley Cyrus, "Midnight Sky" (3:43)
5. John Prine, "I Remember Everything" (2:43)
6. Vagabon, "Water Me Down" (4:32)
7. KC & the Sunshine Band, "Get Down Tonight (Tom Moulton Mix)" (9:08, 1975)
8. Sleep, "Dopesmoker" (1:03:36, 1995)
9. Smashing Pumpkins, "Confessions of a Dopamine Addict" (3:13)
10. AJR, "Bang!" (2:50)
11. Pet Shop Boys, "Hit and Miss" (4:07, 1996)
12. Pet Shop Boys, "Screaming" (4:55, 1999)
13. Pet Shop Boys, "Searching for the Face of Jesus" (3:27, 2002)
14. Pet Shop Boys, "Between Two Islands" (5:11, 2002)
15. Pet Shop Boys, "We're the Pet Shop Boys" (4:55, 2017)
16. Pet Shop Boys, "Transparent" (3:52, 2004)
17. Pet Shop Boys, "The Resurrectionist" (3:09, 2006)
18. Pet Shop Boys, "Girls Don't Cry" (2:34, 2006)
19. Open Mike Eagle, "The Black Mirror Episode" (3:01)
20. Toots & the Maytals, "Just Brutal" (3:35)
21. Viktor Vaughn, "Vaudeville Villain" (2:31, 2003)
22. Robert Fripp, "Music for Quiet Moments 38 - Elegy Pt. I (Hannover, 15 Oct 2009)" (6:10)
23. Julien Baker, "Hardline" (3:51)
24. Tom Morello, Shea Diamond, Dan Reynolds, "Natural's Not in It" (3:18)
25. Gang of Four, "Natural's Not in It" (3:10, 1979)
26. ††† (Crosses), "The Beginning of the End" (4:34)
27. Empire of the Sun, "Walking on a Dream" (3:18, 2008)
28. Frank Zappa, "The Black Page #1" (1:57, 1978)
29. Brian Eno, "Over Fire Island" (1:51, 1975)
30. Miles Davis, "Black Satin" (5:15, 1972)
31. Cardi B, "Up" (2:36)
32. The Weeknd, "Save Your Tears" (3:35)
33. Saweetie feat. Doja Cat, "Best Friend" (2:35)
34. Pooh Shiesty feat. BIG30, "Neighbors" (2:51)
35. Dropkick Murphys, "Middle Finger" (2:35)
36. Gojira, "Born for One Thing" (4:20)
37. Kings of Leon, "Echoing" (3:37)
38. Serj Tankian, "Elasticity" (4:01)
39. Eve 6, "Black Nova" (3:27)
40. Vampire Weekend, "2021 (January 5th, to be exact)" (20:21)

tx: Billboard, Spin, Skip, Dean, random ... 15, cover of My Robot Friend (also available on Spotify but not Napster)

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Portishead's Dummy (2011)

This entry by R.J. Wheaton in the 33-1/3 series is nearly twice as long as most of them. At first it annoyed me a little because one of the best things about these books is their brevity. Longer than even a long album review they are still short enough to be over before you know it. I don't know much about Wheaton but he felt like a studio hand. That might have been the research, which is deep. He dissects the songs down to the second, calling attention to this at 0:12 and that at 1:21. There's a lot of information about the recording of this album, which was an intricate process, so eventually I made my peace with the length. Wheaton is not exactly prolix but he often seems to be thinking out loud, in sentence fragments, as if orienting himself. Then he sprints into description. But it's a hard album for most to write about—exotic, mysterious, alien, unique. Wheaton has the sense of it as a generational marker and sees himself square in the right place. His older (UK) brothers and sisters listened to The Stone Roses, Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches, and Screamadelica. But perhaps Wheaton's best point about Portishead and Dummy has nothing to do with generations: "It is not music that we hear and say 'I want to be part of that'; instead: 'that music is part of me.'" I was 39 when Dummy came out and that's what I heard too. There's nothing else quite like Portishead. Wheaton's other great insight is what drives most of the book: "the album was built—built, not recorded" (his italics). There's a lot of good detail on the construction and a fair sense of the music, along with more glancing insights that can be surprising in their penetration. "[T]he music is only a pretext for the non-communication, the solitude, and the silence imposed by the sound volume," he writes, discussing the intimacies and alienations of live music. "Loud music makes us strangers to ourselves, intimates to others. It becomes a social lubricant." But I must say I am suspicious when these little books run to 100 or more footnotes and this one pushes toward 300. Goodness. Most of the time, as in this case, a bibliography should take care of it. Perhaps the most interesting fact about the album, and I learned it here, is that it was a big hit commercially, selling some 3.6 million units by 2011. So multiplatinum, yet it also flatters our indie underground impulses—win-win. This book's a good one for fans of the album and/or Portishead.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, May 07, 2021

The Act of Killing (2012)

UK / Denmark / Norway, 122 minutes, documentary
Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Photography: Carlos Arango de Montis, Lars Skree, Anonymous
Editors: Nils Pagh Andersen, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, Ariadna Fatjo-Vilas, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Mariko Montpetit
With: Anwar Congo, Haji Anif, Syamsul Arifin, Sakhyan Asmara

This documentary is based on historical events in 1960s Indonesia, when political convulsions led to an estimated 500,000 to 1 million citizens murdered for real or possible affiliations with the Communist Party. In The Act of Killing, shot mostly from 2005 to 2011, producer/directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn (with a third, anonymous Indonesian producer/director) tracked down the murderers who participated in the genocide, the ones actually doing the killing. Cultivated by rightwing politicos, they are comically egotistical self-styled gangsters. The producer/directors asked them to reenact the murders for the camera. And these murderers, who are as much creatures of 20th-century media as anyone anywhere, are perfectly happy to do so, acting like bigshots on the set as they relive the terrors they inflicted in a jovial "we're makin' a movie!" spirit.

I can't see past that. They speak of their crimes in detail, block them out and run them through, have notes for one another, talk about the influences they see in American films (The Godfather, etc., what did you think?). They do not appear to have spent a day in jail and now they are old, fat, and satisfied. I understand the movie is undermining them publicly, playing on their vanity and tricking them into showing themselves as monsters for the world to see, and I understand it took courage to do it. I could not deny that, and the very large number of "Anonymous" credits in the long roll at the end speaks to the dangers these filmmakers put themselves in. But I still can't make my peace with this movie.

Monday, May 03, 2021

The Lodge (2019)

The Lodge is a busy horror picture stuffed with ideas and tropes. The setting (large isolated building in a snowstorm) is self-consciously reminiscent of The Shining. The stepmother figure Grace (Riley Keough, American Honey—did you know she's Elvis Presley's granddaughter?) may or may not be evil but she was once a member of a Christian cult. The kids (Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh) may or may not be evil but their real mother (Alicia Silverstone, gone before you know it) has abandoned them, and Dad (Richard Armitage) is a clueless nebbish. It's Christmas. This family is wounded, fractured, attempting to heal. But the soundtrack alone tells us things do not bode well. The main source of tension is between the stepmother figure and the kids and tell me where you've heard that one before. But The Lodge does have a number of solid small-bore ideas. These kids barely know Grace and they are of an age (tweenish) to be capable of particular cruelty. Dad has left them alone there together because he has to work, planning to be back in a few days for the holiday. The kids coldly rebuff all Grace's overtures but she seems to understand and doesn't press too hard. That is, until the power goes out, everyone's things are missing, and the snowstorm just got worse. I liked the idea of having all their things stolen because it emphasizes how vulnerable they are, especially with the power outage and snowstorm and who is stealing their stuff and why? Even the refrigerator and cupboards are empty (though soup cans and crackers turn up later, no explanation). It bends the story more in supernatural directions, but unfortunately at this point cowriter Sergio Casci and cowriters/codirectors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz more or less lose the thread, turning obvious and predictable (that's what a dog is doing here, for example). Sometimes Grace and the kids move toward being allies, sometimes the kids appear to be playing a terrible joke, sometimes Grace appears to have gone psychotic. These things don't fit very well and I think maybe they should have picked one and worked it out from there. For a while I was enjoying these irrational aspects as the unexplainable is arguably horror's main stock in trade. Then it got to be too much, seesawing between haunted house ghost story and tale of monstrous children. Unfortunately, again, these things don't really fit. But the ideas as such can be good. Perhaps the best was when the kids decided—based on concrete detailed evidence we see for ourselves—that they have all died and are now in purgatory. They make the case for it, however impossible it may seem, but then more twists and turns undermine that and everything else. So the picture is a little disappointing in the end. You could probably make two or three decent shorts from it. Then you wouldn't have to strain to connect them. But who looks at shorts anymore, except maybe at film festivals? Are film festivals coming back?

Sunday, May 02, 2021

The Big Con (1940)

Although now it is as notable for being outdated as much as anything, David W. Maurer's study of the confidence racket remains as charming and engrossing as when it was published. As a linguistics professor by day, Maurer's fascination started with the lingo of con men. But the intricacies of the con job as such, as it existed during the Great Depression, are at least as fascinating, and down that road Maurer went, letting the rackets take priority over any study of the language. And why not? My copy, with introduction by Luc Sante, is classified as "crime / sociology." It's definitely an odd duck of a book. When I say it's outdated, that's merely in the mechanics of the operations as reported. Certainly the work of these "gentlemen" criminals goes on—consider the well-known African prince email scam. Back then (and perhaps now still), these tricksters were considered the upper crust in the underworld. What's outdated is the technology. One reliable ruse at that time, for example, the so-called "payoff," is built around race results that can be delayed long enough to get bets down in betting parlors on actual known winners. Or, more accurately, it's based on the believability of such a scenario. Maurer makes grifting seem more dignified and civilized than our last president did. He buys into the rationale that is common wisdom among con men, which is that you can't cheat an honest man. A lot of these cons specifically play on the existing avarice of the victim, or "mark" as he was known then (and still might be). I'm not so sure about that, but maybe that's because I'm not so sure my own avarice couldn't be excited into disaster, given the right circumstances. But Maurer is obviously comfortable with and even enjoys the company of these criminals, which enabled him to pump them for lots of interesting and entertaining information. The result is this tremendously readable book, a real page-turner in its way. The Big Con also served as a primary source for the movie The Sting, although Maurer had to take the producers to court to get the recognition. Note that Chapter 9, "The Con Man and His Lingo," is a glossary, because you're going to want to refer to it frequently.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

"The Idol of the Flies" (1942)

I have little conscious memory of it now but I was exposed twice to Jane Rice's unpleasant story when I was a kid reading these things, including the These Will Chill You anthology my folks gave me for my birthday one year along with the Rubber Soul album. I see better now that that whole collection is full of unpleasant stories, as it also has Poe's "Valdemar" and one by George Fielding Eliot called "The Copper Bowl," which I will be getting to down the line. But this Rice story also made it into an Alfred Hitchcock-branded anthology I probably read too. In 7th grade, as it happens, there was a fad in my junior high school that lasted a few weeks for kids to capture flies, remove their wings, and keep them as so-called pets in tins (Sucrets, as I recall). This inspired me to write a jokey how-to piece about having flies for pets in an English class assignment which somehow ended up as officially my first publication anywhere later that year, in the junior high literary annual. Many years after that I showed it, thinking it was funny and maybe even precocious, to a woman I wanted for a girlfriend but she was so horrified by it that it was kind of a bad episode for me. In fact, I don't even have the heart to dig it out of my papers at the moment. The annual had an unusual name, which I wish I could remember.

At any rate, Rice's story is quite thoroughly creepy, about a boy named Pruitt who is cruel to servants and animals. It has a "happy ending" which does nothing to mitigate what we witness. Pruitt goes out of his way to humiliate the servants and he kills small animals in grotesque ways, such as running a toad through with a stick. It dies slowly. We would now consider Pruitt prime material to be a serial killer sooner or later, and we might even wonder a little about Rice (perhaps the way that woman did about me). It's a fiendish imagination Rice applies here. I was tempted to lay it off on the publication date, thinking she was British because the story feels so British, and it must be her rage about Nazis fueling this. But no, Rice was born and spent much of her life in the US South, so I'm not sure what to make of that. It's probably not fair to mention that Nazi laws were often based on their close study of the Jim Crow South. But two more points need to be made about Rice and her story here considering the 1942 publication date.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

"KDX 125" (1993)

[listen]

I was today years old when I learned the KDX125 was a Kawasaki scooter manufactured in the '90s and designed for top speeds on the road, which doubtless accounts for the recurring speed racer sound effects here (echoed on "The Man Who Has Everything," the next track but one). I put off looking up the term—note that the Pet Shop Boys added the space between letters and numbers—because I assumed it was musical gear, kin one way or another (by the use of "DX" maybe) to the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, beloved of A-ha, Phil Collins, Brian Eno, Luther Vandross, and a host of others in the '80s (and loathed by Scott Miller and likely an equally large contingent). Is this the purest Chris Lowe track on the album? Perhaps—first define "Chris Lowe." There's not much obvious input from Neil Tennant, that's one point, and it carries on at max revs the disco four-on-the-floor stomp powering things since approximately "Go West," shading out these various implications of "relentless." Here's where they may be trying hardest on this second act of the show. Is that enough to make it Chris Lowe? It's the third track in the second CD and feels like the place where hard dancing has been set up, put in motion, and now has been going on a while. The mission of "KDX 125" appears to be to prolong: the dancing heat, the sound fury, the stark dynamics of melody and beat, mostly emphasizing beat, reducing down at points to only beat, only bass throb, with generous speed racer sound effects reminding those of us with the knowledge over the past 28 years to get the reference. This is not the point where you're going to sit back. Dance hard, my friend, and drive fast. Dance and drive all night.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

"Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes" (1973)

I like the title of this story by Raymond Carver, which feels typically brusque and to the point. It almost looks like a kind of outline for the points he wants the story to cover, a little list to guide the drafting. More affecting is the event that erupts almost accidentally, certainly unexpectedly: a fistfight between two fathers about a conflict between their sons. One man has been trying to quit smoking for two days, so he's already on edge. The other man seems ready to take a swing at anyone who criticizes his boy. The story takes places in some rundown precinct of the American suburban sprawl, where young families in startup homes summon one another to address mutual problems of their children. The provoking incident here is the disappearance of one boy's bicycle. He thinks these two other boys did it and so his mother sends for the parents to straighten it all out. The dialogue with the fathers grows increasingly hostile and suddenly they are moving out to the yard and going at it. The mother hastily postpones any decisions and the meeting ends with the fight. The story has Carver's usual strangely jaunty voice but it stirs deep reactions. The fight, though in retrospect easy to see coming, is still disturbing, as all sudden fights like it are. It reminded me of one time when I saw two guys fighting next to an auto accident as I drove by. It bothered me for days. I still remember the shock and the feeling that nothing was in control. Those feelings are captured well here, especially the way it makes the boys cry after it's all over. Their shame and confusion is palpable, their own sudden sense that nothing is in control. Folding the nicotine addiction into it is inspired. Even in 1973 quitting smoking was becoming an adult rite of passage and it's well known how it frays nerves in the early days. At a stroke it makes this unlikely fight that much more believable. These things happen. You hear about them. Carver's great idea is simply to show it and somehow it is as vivid as if it happened. He has everything just about right here. It's quick, and it lands like a blow.

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

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Tenant (1976)

[Blogathon contribution here.]

Le locataire, France / USA, 126 minutes
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roland Topor, Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski
Photography: Sven Nykvist
Music: Philippe Sarde
Editor: Francoise Bonnot
Cast: Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Shelley Winters, Jo Van Fleet, Bernard Fresson, Lila Kedrova, Rufus, Alain Frerot, Jacques Monod, Claude Dauphin, Dominique Poulange

Director and cowriter Roman Polanski is now likely remembered most, unfortunately, for his sex crime(s). He has always been a good filmmaker and continued to be even when he wandered off into arguably dead-end projects like this. One of his great talents was simply for constructing movies. He recognized and could attract best talents, which probably explains what cinematographer Sven Nykvist (Persona, Fanny and Alexander) is doing here. Polanski's fondness for old Hollywood is even more apparent—in Rosemary's Baby as well—as he casts various icons well past their sell-by dates yet at least as good as you could expect: Melvyn Douglas, for example, a heartthrob leading-man rival of Fredric March and Clark Gable in the '30s, plays a curmudgeonly old landlord in The Tenant. A blowsy bellowing Shelley Winters works well as the concierge of the creepy apartment building. And Jo Van Fleet is decked out in perfect makeup to chew the scenery awhile as a hideous nosy neighbor. The camera itself seems to swoon in her witch-like dizzying presence.

There's a good case, however, that Polanski took a misstep by casting himself as the lead in this strangely toned movie. It turns out he's not bad at being mousy and timid although it never rings entirely true and at about the halfway point the whole project starts to go well off the rails. By the time we're encountering cryptic Egyptology symbols and the cross-dressing starts it kind of falls apart. But I've always been perhaps unnaturally attached to this movie even with all its flaws. It has many amazing small pieces, and if the whole is less than the sum, well, they're still pretty impressive taken on their own.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Bacurau (2019)

Wikipedia labels this curiosity, which competed for the Palme d'Or at Cannes a couple years ago, a "Weird Western" and I guess that's all right by me. It's weird all right, a near-future tale set in the fictional backwoods village of Bacurau, in Brazil, where magic and such appear to be afoot. But something more sinister is going on as well. After the death of a matriarch the village disappears from Google Maps, a wobbly UFO which is actually a drone appears to be monitoring their activities, and people are being shot at and sometimes killed. Strange tourists arrive for no particular reason. The village does have a museum—a comical element in the story, perhaps, or maybe subtle foreshadowing of their mysterious powers—but it's not much of a tourist destination. As things go along it more and more appears the villagers are being systematically hunted by neo-Nazi types whose bloodthirst is absurd and infantile (and enraging, of course, in its privilege). They are smug English-speaking 30somethings, probably US Americans, but the leader (Udo Kier) is older and speaks with a German accent. He claims he's lived in Brazil for more than 40 years. It turns out happily enough, as I say, that the villagers have weapons and are formidable in their own right. Another thread here is that the villagers are being denied water by a corrupt state official, who may or may not be in cahoots with the hunting party. My sense was that he is, and that he has sold out the village to take care of a problem of politics related to water. It's probably all open to interpretation. While Bacurau is dressed up a little in the garb of magic realism, I took it more as like Craig Zobel's movie The Hunt or George Hitchcock's story "An Invitation to the Hunt," in which elites are hunting people for sport and/or to make a political point. It seems like I've been exposed to a lot of that lately so I wasn't entirely on board with it here. Still, codirectors and cowriters Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho bring a lot of zest and energy to it, reminiscent of one of the most original authors of Weird Westerns, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Udo Kier as the grizzled Nazi and Sonia Braga as a village elder who drinks a bit make a good time of it. And there are lots of fun surprises along the way. Worth a look.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Clock Dance (2018)

I had some problems with this Anne Tyler novel but on balance liked it quite a bit, as much as anything she's written this century short of her last, Vinegar Girl. Willa is 61. Her life is amply sketched out in the first half, as she finds herself dispatched on an unlikely errand in Baltimore. She lives in Arizona with her semiretired second husband, who enjoys golf and conference calls, but most of the present-day events take place in Baltimore, as usual. Willa's husband is not around for much of it, except in glowering moments punctuating the action. Most of the men in Willa's life—her two husbands and her two sons—are unpleasant, good examples of how Tyler's work can be anything but gentle and quirky, even if her favorite characters tend to be so. The Baltimore neighborhood where Willa lands is full of them, and they are wonderful. But watching Willa come to terms with herself and her life, or start to, is the heart of the story, and it is full of sharp edges. All her loved ones and some of her new friends can be astonishingly callous. These excesses we are trained to forgive, but they hurt (Willa herself is almost pathological about seeking forgiveness, even when she's done nothing wrong). Tyler is here to tell us how they hurt. In a way, Clock Dance is perfectly typical of her—Baltimore, quirky folks, a lovable dog, etc.—but she's really got a potent grasp of Willa's ongoing existential crisis, which is many ways is all of ours. The novel is front-loaded with backstory, which slows the first half, though Tyler's writing is insanely warm and engaging as always. The second half is kind of a miracle of a balancing act, insisting on its unlikely premise and making it work. Much of the very real tension is about how long Willa (not Tyler) can keep things going. Not that long, it turns out—less than three weeks. At which point Tyler herself finally seems to flag, with an ending that leaves us pitched over the edge of momentum. It's a classic literary dodge, ambiguous and swift—the lady or the tiger, which do you choose? The fact that I want so badly to know more is testament to Tyler's skill, which I experienced as keen pleasure being in the company of Willa. She's puzzling, unusual, interesting. I want badly to see that next scene. Today I count that as one of my problems with the novel. Maybe down the line I'll appreciate Tyler's wisdom there too.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

"Pigeons From Hell" (1934)

Robert E. Howard wrote this long story in 1934 but it was not published until 1938, two years after his suicide. It would be interesting to know why it wasn't published. Was it rejected? Was it in the pipeline awaiting publication? Was Howard sitting on it, and if so why? It is far and away the best story I have seen by him, a pure horror jam set in the Old South complete with overtones of Faulkner, yet strikingly modern in the brute force of its imagination. It may not necessarily have appealed to Howard's bread-and-butter fans pumping up his Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conqueror lines of sword and sorcery epics, which made his name in the pulps. Full disclosure, I don't care for any of Howard's stuff in that vein, and this story flat took me by surprise. I had about given up on him. Later I recalled that Stephen King talked up this story in his essential Danse Macabre as one of the best of the 20th century. "Pigeons From Hell" is a moody Southern gothic that turns into a haunted house story and transmutes from there to voodoo and an offshoot zombie monster Howard has invented called a "zuvembie"—cool new word but I don't believe anyone else has picked up on it. I'm actually a little surprised there haven't been more adaptations of this story beyond a 1961 TV show and a couple of comic books. I recently took another look at the 1996 movie with Vincent D'Onofrio as Howard, The Whole Wide World. It's kind of a sudsy bucolic affair, with Renee Zellweger as a somewhat unlikely love interest, but I was struck by the way Howard was shown writing. He has already explained that he reads everything he writes aloud, but when we see him actually at the typewriter he is declaiming even as he types—shouting, ranting, bellowing, and typing.

I liked imagining that with some of the passages in this story, as a couple of pals, on a road trip from New England and far from home, are forced to put up overnight in an ominous abandoned mansion. It's too late even for gathering firewood so they roll out their sleeping bags and go to bed directly for the night. The wild stuff starts around 4 a.m. when Griswell is awakened from what might have been a dream and sees his friend Branner rise and leave, lured away by a whistling sound. When Branner finally returns, I can hear Howard shouting: "... a shriek burst from Griswell's lips. Branner's face was bloodless, corpse-like; gouts of blood dripped darkly down it; his eyes were glassy and set, and blood oozed from the great gash which cleft the crown of his head!" He really lets loose on that last clause as his italics indicate. But this is what I mean about modern: it wasn't really until '80s horror movies churned up on high that something like a person walking around with a grievous axe wound and split skull would be seen. Maybe some of Washington Irving's ghosts (maybe) but they were always ghosts or explicitly figments of imagination. This is our friend Branner, in the violated flesh. Eventually he's dead for real, and eventually explanations come along for the reanimation too, but there's a lot to see and experience along the way: a noble sheriff, slave relations on the old plantation, the haughty survivors of the proud white family who owned it, the ruin of the Civil War, a wise old Black man, secret rooms, and certain mechanics of zuvembies. The zuvembie at hand may or may not be what is left of a proud "mulatto" housemaid whose mistress operated under the brutal "West Indies" persuasion of slave management. Lots of people here have reason to be mad in this story, though reason is generally not the strong suit of any of them. That's the beauty of this story. It's all explained, and it rocks right along, and it somehow makes sense in never making sense. When Howard took hold of a narrative he put everything into it and here he has his hands on a high-voltage current and he's not letting go until it's done. This long story is constantly surprising, with nothing really cheap about it.

Read story online.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Firewall (1998)

This is another solid novel in Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series of thrillers focused around police investigations in southern Sweden, though they are nearing the end now. Mankell's strength remains his ability to concoct complicated stories with very confusing details. Eventually they come into focus in believable rather than outlandish or convenient ways. I don't read enough thrillers to know—maybe this is nothing special. But Mankell seems to be pretty good at it. Usually after the first third or so of one of these, as here, I'm convinced he has painted himself into a corner he cannot get out of, and then he does, usually in style. He pushes some elements for effect, of course, and they don't always add up entirely, but mostly they do. As you might guess from the title this one is about cybercrime. As you might guess from the publication date it almost looks quaint now. But that's only in terms of the state of the technology in the era of Windows 98. At one point, for example, Wallander learns what backdoor access means and thinks to himself he knew computers had windows but not doors. Bada-bing, bada-boom. Tip your waitress. Some of the violence once again is for shock value (literally in the case of one character who is electrocuted at a power plant, causing a widespread blackout) but mostly it's there to confuse us as much as the police, and it does work on us if not, eventually, the police. You have to accept that the villains are prodigiously resourceful comic book figures, but that's not out of reach for a thriller. Most of Mankell's character development has not seemed that inspired in this series, but Wallander's thoughts of dating again come with a gut punch this time. There are some interesting interpersonal work politics developments in Firewall too, but I wish now I remembered more about Martinsson from the earlier books. In general everyone turns on Wallander in this one. The reason is pretty good but the rejection and suspicion of him seem more overplayed. Fortunately, Mankell has many more attractive qualities, from his intricate plotting to his brooding air, with a certain stamp of Nordic noir. OK, sometimes the brooding air is overplayed too, but you can't have everything.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)

I chronically associate the "supergroup" idea with albums featuring long jams by players such as Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. But Wikipedia sez those guys are merely the source of the term when they made an album in 1968 with Stephen Stills called Super Session. The crowd-sourced encyclopedia goes on to list examples of supergroups: Cream, Led Zeppelin (!), Crosby, Stills (him again), Nash & Young, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, etc., etc., all the way unto SSAK3 last year. Fair enough, fair enough. The supergroup that the Traveling Wilburys most resembles to me is Blind Faith, with a consortium of mostly well-established if disparate players and one amazing album. I know the Wilburys have a second album, called Vol. 3 (to baffle the completists, hyuk-hyuk), but stick with me.

My instinctive resistance to supergroup projects was locked in by 1988. From the outside this looked like the usual half-baked collision of over-the-hill celebrity and tender egos and my inclination was to skip it. But at some point I saw it for cheap somewhere and thought I really oughta. The album hit me like the work of supergroups in the other sense of the term (e.g., the Beatles and the Stones) and I have been a partisan ever since. The experience was reminiscent for me, and remains so, speaking of those supergroups, of bringing Beatles albums home for the first time back in the wayback. The first sensation is pure pleasure followed by playing it a lot. In the first days and weeks with these albums you don't even particularly sort out what's good and what's better and why, you just listen to them every day, sometimes multiple times, cramming it all the way down to the brainstem until you can hear the beginnings of the next songs in the endings of the previous. As with the Beatles, you can try picking apart the constituent elements of the Traveling Wilburys but it never seems to help much.