Sunday, January 31, 2021

"The Student's Wife" (1964)

Although this is a fairly early story for Raymond Carver, published when he was about 26, his elliptical and fragmented approach is already apparent. You keep getting the feeling there are things we're not being told, forgotten by the narrator in his rush to tell it, whatever exactly "it" is. The student in this story might actually be a student but we get little indication of that beyond the title. He is the husband and his wife appears to be a housewife. She has insomnia and comes off as insanely needy. Women might well see it another way. Her husband, it appears, reads poetry to her every night before bed to help her sleep (perhaps the only sign he is a student). But it's not helping her this night, and after a certain point the guy just wants to sleep. She wants him to stay awake until she falls asleep but he can't. She finally gets up and looks at magazines all night. It's a pretty good sketch of insomnia—all the random things you do, thoughts you have, the almost sleeping and then waking, the preoccupation with sleep that is finally preventing it. Her distress grows worse and worse. She experiences the bleakest sunrise of her life, and at the end of the story is seen on her knees beseeching God to "help us" even as her husband "looked desperate in his heavy sleep, his arms flung out across her side of the bed, his jaws clenched." It's quite a crescendo for nothing evidently going on. Something obviously is. This husband and wife may not know any better than us. It could well be their marriage is coming apart, a popular midcentury theme. But we really don't know. Why can't she sleep? Why doesn't her husband care (and why is "jaws" plural)? How bad is it? The story is haunted by a sense of unnamed and perhaps unnamable dread, which also seems about right for its time. It was originally published in the Carolina Quarterly, an academic journal, but it also feels like it could have gone somewhere more commercial, even a women's magazine. Or almost—it might be a bit arty. Even with the gaps and missing information there is always something that feels authentic to me about Carver at these feverish pitches he can reach. With "The Student's Wife" it's like he's exploding the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf dynamic from the inside. These people are too repressed for knockdown battles. Yet at the end of the story they are both clearly knocked down—not by each other but on their own, on separate paths. Carver is good at this even this early.

Note: I started on reading Carver's stories with Where I'm Calling From, the late best-of collection and the last one he had any hand in before he died. That was for convenience because I already had a copy. I still was only dimly aware of the issue of Gordon Lish's editing, but know better now that it most severely altered what is perhaps Carver's most regarded collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The issue of Lish's editing is complicated, but in Where I'm Calling From we see Carver reclaiming and/or reworking himself some of those pieces. The Library of America collection has both versions of What We Talk About—the edited version that was published along with the version submitted by Carver under the title Beginners. I'm going to get to some of that as I go, looking at versions of those stories side by side. For now, I feel pretty good about Where I'm Calling From. It has what we can call Carver's final word on some of the stories from What We Talk About, plus a handful of stories unpublished before 1988 and a solid best-of from the whole of his career. If you don't know him it is probably the best place to start. I'll be using the titles and most of the versions from there.

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

Friday, January 29, 2021

Cyrus (2010)

USA, 91 minutes
Directors/writers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Photography: Jas Shelton
Music: Michael Andrews
Editor: Jay Deuby
Cast: Jonah Hill, John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh

People who like to cringe should not miss this Sundance hit by codirectors and cowriters Jay and Mark Duplass. The ever-escalating intent of Cyrus is quite clearly to make us uncomfortable about the needs of human beings and laugh at their pathologies. The overall effect is so unclassifiable that I had to double-check IMDb's genre designations—"comedy, drama, romance," in that order (maybe it's alphabetical?)—to get my bearings and gauge whether it was more appropriate to horse-laugh or feel heartened by human resilience. To tell you the truth, I'm still not 100% sure on the point. But the cast and their performances are so good I'm willing to overlook any potential priority of the Duplass brothers solely to make us squirm.

The brilliant hangdog John C. Reilly is John, a freelance editor who has been divorced for seven years from Jamie (Catherine Keener). It's set in Los Angeles where everyone is rolling with the gig economy. John and Jamie are still close friends with bad boundaries and implicit privileges to call or drop in unexpectedly at any hour, even barging in on work settings. At the beginning of the picture Jamie announces to John that she is engaged, which is not entirely a surprise to him, though depressing. In an attempt to cheer John up and get him back out there on the dating scene, Jamie insists he come to a party with them that weekend. At the party John burns through a few painful attempts at picking up women before launching into a catastrophic party-up dance scene to the Human League's "Don't You Want Me"—so awkward you might be tempted to escape the movie then and there.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

"Charles Ashmore's Trail" (1888)

This is the third installment of Ambrose Bierce's "Mysterious Disappearances" set of three very short stories, all published in October 1888 in the San Francisco Examiner and worth reading together. "Charles Ashmore's Trail" has the most pathos of the three, and really the best spooky effects too. The first to disappear (in "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field") is a slaveholder, the second (in "An Unfinished Race") a drunk who is prone to gambling, though with remarkable physical strength and endurance. In "Charles Ashmore's Trail" it is the only son of a family and the youngest child, 16 years old. They are also scattered geographically: Selma, Alabama; Leamington, Warwickshire, England; and Troy, New York. Charles disappears when he goes for water from the creek behind the house. It's evening and there is a light snow. (Light snow seems to occur often in Bierce stories.) After Charles has been gone too long the family investigates. They find his footprints fresh in the snow. Nice detail: "The last footprints were as conspicuous as any in the line; the very nail-marks were distinctly visible." Yeah but the kid is gone. They look carefully for more footprints all the way to the creek, hoping to find evidence he turned away for some reason. The father even looks up to the sky where the trail of prints ends. It's a clear night and Charles is not floating around up there. The mother can't believe the news and goes out to look for herself. Here's where the good stuff happens. At the point where the trail ends she thinks she can hear his voice, as if from a distance, but she cannot make out or remember the words. At first the family writes that off (gently) as her derangement from grief, but then they start to experience it. It's quite peculiar really: "All declared it unmistakably the voice of Charles Ashmore; all agreed that it seemed to come from a great distance, faintly, yet with entire distinctness of articulation; yet none could determine its direction, nor repeat the words." By the following summer the voice is never heard again. It's full-on supernatural but sneaks up on you. That's partly because it's grouped with the two others and their dry reportorial style. They are less like fiction—I really wonder what the San Francisco newspaper readers made of them in the day—and more like the work of Charles Fort, the paranormal researcher and writer in the early 20th century, or even the Ripley's Believe It or Not! newspaper cartoon. They feel dispassionate and factual even as they describe impossible events, and they leave you half-believing they actually happened.

The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce
Read story online.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

"One Thing Leads to Another" (1993)


After the explosion of dance fury in "Go West" and Relentless, "One Thing Leads to Another" shambles in amiably enough to finish things off, with assurance and tinkling bells set to a walking pace. We know this Pet Shop Boys play: the ubiquitous bland idiom for title, Neil Tennant nattering his mutter-rappy shtick on the verses (see also "West End Girls"), the magnificent turn to wide vista in the chorus. "And oh my God if you have just discovered / The way that one thing can lead to another / Yeah, oh yeah." It's quite a big moment. What's it about? A story told backwards, they say: in the first verse, if you can make it out (try headphones maybe), a man dies. The things that led to it are covered in subsequent verses. "And the job begins to suffer" is a marker point, but the tone remains matter of fact. Full disclosure, in all my years of infatuation with the Very Relentless package I never picked up on this narrative. It was a YouTube comment what hepped me. What I've known are the sonic pleasures, the layers of sound and stoic beat comforting after the foregoing fray. "Yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah" it goes, soothing to sing with even if it loses its way some getting to six minutes. Indeed, we have been seeing earliest glimpses of the Pet Shop Boys as they enter a kind of refurbishing mode, which more and more would dominate their songwriting (though paradoxically with a good deal of range). Here at the end of the feature-length presentation of the combined A and B discs of Very Relentless, "One Thing Leads to Another" works well as a kind of wind-down credits roll. What may be most remarkable of all is arguably beside the point, which is that for once the comments on a YouTube video turned out to be enlightening and interesting.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The House of Mirth (1905)

Edith Wharton's novel is the missing link I did not know I was missing between Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It has all of James's surging narrative style with Fitzgerald's impeccable eye for detail. Like song titles of Nirvana songs, "the house of mirth" never does show up in this novel, but unlike the Nirvana songs Wharton's poetic title has some meaning, as approximately the grasping social landscape of parties, looking good, getting rich, and having a fun time. Fitzgerald's world. Lily Bart, for most of The House of Mirth, is not having a fun time. She is beautiful, but pushing 30, and decisions about marriage must be made. She's also, well, not exactly destitute, but not really in the money either. At the beginning of the novel she has decided to marry a rich introvert, but bridles in the clinch, distracted by the man she really loves, who has no financial prospects. Subsequently, partly as a target of vicious rumor, her rich introvert bridles himself when he gets word of Lily's gambling debts. Those debts have been rung up at evenings of bridge. I didn't know bridge was played for money this way. Big debts as usual are what you get for playing with the rich. Wharton captures a late 19th-century portrait of New York City social life, and it's not pretty, but the novel is quite good. Her language moves comfortably through the architecture of the story—originally serialized, it is put together well, with a steady stream of events escalating the impossible tensions. It ends as a tragedy, a certain template for stories of later beauties such as Marilyn Monroe. I thought Lily's aunt was too hard on her but now I'm nitpicking. The House of Mirth was Wharton's second novel and more or less her coming out, considered her best by many (including Larry McCaffery), though perhaps not as many as her Age of Innocence. I'm not sure exactly what my expectations were but The House of Mirth beat them. In my old Riverside Edition paperback the introduction by R.W.B. Lewis, a very interesting piece (copyright 1963) itself, cautions against seeing Wharton as a missing link between James and Fitzgerald. In fact, it might be where I got the idea. But I am ignoring him on the point.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Zelig (1983)

USA, 79 minutes
Director/writer: Woody Allen
Photography: Gordon Willis
Music: Dick Hyman
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Patrick Horgan, John Buckwater, Marvin Chatinover, Stanley Swerdlow, Paul Nevens, Howard Erskine, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow

Zelig is not the world's first mockumentary—given Take the Money and Run, it's not even director and writer Woody Allen's first mockumentary. But with its use of a photo and film manipulation technology that was virtually state-of-the-art for the early '80s, Zelig is a significant inflection point, looking forward to Robert Zemeckis's Forrest Gump tour de force (trite as it may be) as well as to a surge of mockumentaries that accompanied the commercial swelling of legitimate documentaries. This Is Spinal Tap contributed to the momentum the very next year. I've always had mixed feelings about Zelig—I admired the technical ingenuity and general novelty, while at the same time feeling like Allen too often phones in the jokes from about 1958.

In fact, on that "general novelty" point, I hadn't really given the embedded documentary premise itself enough credit. It's fairly insightful and even profound. I finally saw that better when I was reading Chekhov's short story "The Darling," which has much the same premise. Let's call the character trait "impressionable." Or let's call it what today's psychologists call it, "environmental dependency syndrome," "Zelig syndrome," or "Zelig-like syndrome" (per Wikipedia), "a syndrome where the affected individual relies on environmental cues in order to accomplish goals or tasks." Anyone who has ever had to survive office politics (thus, everyone) knows instinctively how this works, adjusting behavior based on what one's superiors and/or peers prefer or demand. We are all a little affected by Zelig syndrome. We are never 100% ourselves in our public lives, only fractions of it, depending on what we know is expected of us. Some of us just have a harder time letting go—let's call that "dissociative." But this simple insight, at its heart, is what makes Zelig almost profound.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Studio 54 (2018)

Here's a nice documentary account of the fabled late-'70s disco mecca of New York City—its spectacular rise and fall in a span of time less than three years. I didn't know much more about Studio 54 than what I learned from The Last Days of Disco—hard to get in, quite sparkly on the inside, and thrilling music that plays plays plays. I learned for the first time, for example, that it was designed and built mostly by crews more accustomed to working in Broadway and other theater productions. The club operated, amazingly, without a liquor license for the first six months, getting by on a continuous series of one-day catering permits until finally busted (there's an implication here that much of the club's troubles were due to jealous competitors ratting them out every chance). The club then operated, even more amazingly, without serving liquor at all for the better part of another year, making do on its reputation until it secured the license. The place was still packed and people turned away on the regular, of course. The club welcomed people of all colors and sexual orientations, prizing celebrities above all others, followed by varying inscrutable scales of the fashionable and attractive. The two founders, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, were college friends and remained friends through thick and thin, a touching aspect of this story, where greed ultimately brought everything down. Young and still somewhat naïve about business, and significantly drunk on their own success, Rubell, Schrager, and other principals skimmed an outrageous amount of cash from the nightly takes, stashing it in the basement of the club. As with Al Capone, it was tax evasion that finally brought them down, though they were also vulnerable to drug and other charges. They turned to Roy Cohn and various New York legal heavyweights to mitigate the fallout but could not escape prison. Unlike Capone, Rubell and Schrager as depicted here were more good-hearted, muddling through doing their time and then reinventing themselves as upscale hoteliers. They were as innovative in the hospitality industry as they had been with a New York nightclub. In 1989 Rubell died at age 45 of complications related to AIDS although, sadly, he did his best to suppress public knowledge of his diagnosis. Schrager lives on, giving generous and open interviews here, and in 2017 earned a pardon from President Obama that wiped his record clean. It's a great story, enjoyably told in this documentary. The only thing I would wish for, and I'd say there's plenty of time for it with a running time of 98 minutes, is more music and more archival footage of scenes from inside the club in its heyday.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Gilded Age (1873)

Mark Twain's first novel is also the only one in which he collaborated with another writer, Charles Dudley Warner. It gave the era of the late 19th century its name in the US—an enduring one, as we are now well into the sequel, Gilded Age II, though the latter name has not caught on yet. But as a novel The Gilded Age suffers from many faults. The main one is likely fruit of collaboration, with an unfocused story and too many plot threads that add up to too little. The composing strategy was that Twain wrote the first dozen or so chapters and Warner the next dozen or so (of 63 in total). For the most part they alternated chapters after that, though some are said to be worked on by both. Parts of it feel like the parlor game in which stories are invented by one participant at a time and then passed along to the next. Sometimes one person leaves the other in a predicament, perhaps to see how well he will write his way out of it, if he can. They can't always. I know Twain's writing much better than Warner's and recognize him in places such as the appendix. The story is built out of the post-Civil War go-go American economy, fixed on conquering the West for plunder with railroads and mining. Much of it takes place in Washington, D.C., and focuses on the legislative process, riddled with graft. It's exaggerated, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised to find not by much. It's full of melodramatic flourishes too—sudden death, orphans, a woman done wrong, and at least one blatant con man. But they don't do much with the novel, except broadly name the era and identify a long-familiar American identity, the grasping businessman. I'm tempted to say I read it so you don't have to, and for the most part that's true. But for any Twain completists it's interesting to watch him attempt to adapt his journalistic voice, already well developed, to the much more respected arts of fiction. Or maybe fiction was still disreputable then, but Twain always constructed his persona as the knowing but plainspoken sophisticate gently indulging the rubes, from which he never explicitly excepts himself. Part of his shtick, in fact, is that he admits he is merely a rube himself straining for sophistication. Given how bad the corruption under consideration was at the time (at least equally bad now), part of me resents the joking tone. These things look deceptively buffoonish and silly in the moment, all the lies and bribes and other trickery, but they cause serious and persistent harms and aren't really laughing matters, as we saw earlier this month. Now I'm scolding, and this is from someone who laughed very loudly at 1990s tabloid culture. I have some sense that these long-term pernicious effects of corruption were no small part of Twain's remarkable bitterness toward the end of his life.

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

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mirror Ball (1995)

I like the disco music represented by a mirror ball and I like Neil Young, but I must report that this album has nothing whatever to do with disco or even with mirror balls, except the grungy sepia image on the cover. In fact, that's Pearl Jam backing him for this one, a band that also has nothing to do with disco or mirror balls. The original release was an environmentally sensitive package, but now it comes in jewel boxes like most of them do. Who even buys CDs anymore? Well, in this case, me. I was amazed to find Mirror Ball is not on Napster, though it is on Spotify. The album felt to me then and still feels to me now pretty close to generic Neil Young product, which I know may be something of an oxymoron for the iconoclastic rocker. But it's full of songs that distinguish themselves merely on the fine points, when they distinguish themselves at all, even as it does remain overall satisfyingly lumbering and not without its winning moments of rockin' majesty. After opening with a curious sort of "Blow the Man Down" play in "Song X" it approaches quick liftoff with "Act of Love" followed by "I'm the Ocean," my favorite part of the album in 1995, with an ascendant keyboard pushing against the pounding bottom. That's 12 minutes of goodness right there. "What Happened Yesterday" is a shorty that works at first like the funeral for the Rolling Stones' jaunty "Something Happened to Me Yesterday" nearly 30 years earlier. But it's actually the overture to "Peace and Love," the one collaboration with Eddie Vedder (all the rest are Young songs). "I'm the Ocean" plays for 7:05. "Peace and Love" goes 7:02. "Scenery" is the longest at 8:50. Getting the picture? "Throw Your Hatred Down" (5:45) is there so we know their hearts are in the right place, which we already knew, though it has some very nice guitar. The single was "Downtown" (5:10), which may give some idea of their perspective. Even mediocre Neil Young has its points for fans like me, so I guess I can appreciate the thudding groove of "Downtown," such as it is. But when you're alone and life is making you lonely it's no Petula Clark. Like the rest of the album, the highs here are just not that high.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Jurassic Park (1993)

USA, 127 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Michael Crichton, David Koepp
Photography: Dean Cundey
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferraro, BD Wong, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Samuel L. Jackson, Wayne Knight, Phil Proctor

Say what you may about director Steven Spielberg, he does seem to have a sense for how to construct movie magic (for lack of a better term). Case in point. I always seem to forget how good the original Jurassic Park is, which should not surprise me because it is basically a monster movie about dinosaurs directed by Steven Spielberg and that's close to exactly the kind of thing I can't resist. But Spielberg is particularly good at stripping away clutter and focusing on elements that surprisingly matter a lot: here, notably, a sense of wonder, which he hits on a pure note almost effortlessly in the first hour, spent mostly explaining and detailing the picture's premise. Setting aside a silly plot about corporate malfeasance that is there merely to put the chaos in motion, the fundamental concept is some science mumbo-jumbo laid out in an industrial training film style with a seductive credibility. Why couldn't scientists extract the blood of dinosaurs from mosquitos preserved in amber and then clone them up with the DNA sequencing? Well, why not?

Thus, after a series of helicopter shots and introduction to the exotic jungle setting of an island off the west coast of South America (shades of Darwin! but a lot of this no doubt is also the work of cowriter Michael Crichton, a giant of pop culture in his own right, though I don't know the source novel), and with the John Williams orchestra sawing away sweet, we come to see dinosaurs roaming a pastoral landscape and it is thrilling. Spielberg plainly knows the importance of special effects (as much as copious reaction shots) because these images of dinosaurs are absorbingly believable and likely took up much of the budget (happily, he routinely commands big ones). Spielberg, and/or Crichton, is also not above larding it up with Dickensian touches that work even when you know you know better: the semi-huckster semi-visionary impresario who loves his grandchildren, the young couple sorting out their feelings about children, all those questions about whether humans even have a right, let alone the wisdom, to tamper with nature. Jurassic Park basically gets you coming and going.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

"Mars Is Heaven!" (1948)

Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles is characterized by Wikipedia as a "fixup" novel, a term new to me for a novel made out of revising and stitching together previously published (and formally unrelated) short stories. Hey, William Faulkner and Go Down, Moses! Why not? Well, one reason might be so that there is a single standard version. The one I read in the Everyman's collection has a different last paragraph from the one I found online. The latter may be from The Martian Chronicles although there the story is called "The Third Expedition." The change to the finish is small but significant, throwing a different slant on the ambiguities of the story. But never mind, the basic nut of it, a surreal insidiously unsettling concept, remains just as effective. It's excellent by sections and can be claimed equally for science fiction or horror (and works in comics form too). It's fine as a stand-alone—even better, I think, with the Everyman's ending. The idea of traveling to Mars and finding the 20th-century Midwest is bodacious, especially for Bradbury, who practically owned that time and place as his very own hobbyhorse. What saved him always is that he was so good at setting the extremes of his contrasts. He reminds me in many ways of Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, which also bore overweening sweetness with some very sharp edges, particularly in the early years. Bradbury's usual big bath in nostalgia is somehow even more cunning in this story. He can verge on treacle when he waxes poetic about boyhood, summers, playing ball, and swimming, but the deeper he goes into it here the stranger it becomes. This crew of 16 puts down on Mars in the year 2000 and encounters—an idyllic small town, with lovely green lawns and shade trees and houses with porches and sunshine pouring over everything. This town is a little antiquated, with origins in the mid-19th century. And then, from within these houses, the astronauts begin to discover cherished relatives. Grandparents, brothers and sisters, Moms and Dads, aunts and uncles. Have they gone mad?

When these long dead and still sorely missed relatives speak, the story becomes even stranger. They know they died on Earth. They know they are on another planet. They are strangely defensive and call it a second chance. The captain of the ship maintains his poise perhaps the longest, desperately sorting through the possibilities. Perhaps, the captain speculates, the crew never left Earth and somehow didn't know it. Perhaps much earlier, secret missions to Mars have populated the planet this way. Perhaps they entered a time rift in space. None of his ideas really make sense. The captain maintains his poise until he sees his brother, who died years ago, an untimely death. He was 26 and still looks the same. He takes the captain to their old home (all the astronauts are finding houses they know) and there his parents are. And here is exactly where our perceptions begin to diverge from his, the last rational man. We still know this is all too good to be true—something is deeply wrong about it. Bradbury subtly stokes our doubts. It is positively alarming when we see the captain enter his own insensible ecstasies of nostalgia. Later, in bed in his old bedroom, he returns to doubt and considers a theoretical scenario that is as close as this story comes to explaining itself, involving native Martians with telepathic powers and no good intentions (or, from their view, defending themselves, fighting back to nip colonialism in the bud). This part of the story is a bit clunky and mechanical but also has one of the best scare effects involving his brother. But from there the story retreats to further ambiguities and veers dangerously close to incoherence, which is not helped by the alternate endings. But I love the way Bradbury so boldly transports his beloved Midwest and plonks it down on the red planet, Mars. It plays to all his greatest strengths and arguably is one of his best.

The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Everyman's)
Read slightly different version online.

Comic book panel, Wally Wood, from Weird Science (EC) #18, 1950

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Music: What Happened? (3rd ed., 2012)

For years, as it waited for me faithfully in my bathroom, I took the title of Scott Miller's history of rock 'n' roll as a playful goof on the Elvis Presley bodyguard tell-all. But reading through it more carefully I realize it's genuinely wistful (and possibly despairing) about the passing of a worldview of pop music rooted in Buddy Holly and the Beatles. Miller was a musician first and recording engineer / producer close second, leader of the bands Game Theory in the '80s and the Loud Family in the '90s, friend to Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey, college roommate of Steve Wynn. Thus he brings a unique and interesting point of view to this rock criticky project of telling the history with annotated lists. Miller goes year by year, from 1957 all the way to 2011 for the third and final edition, listing about a CD's worth of songs for each—they are like personal mix tapes. He has some rules. It's countdown style so his absolute favorites are listed last. The first song is one he feels is somehow emblematic of the year (and he doesn't always like it). And while he complains about rock critics—sometimes with very good points, sometimes not—he more often acts like one, in the stubborn contrarianism of his picks and dimming view of music industry developments. For Miller, it all went bad in the '80s, and while "I Feel Love" shows up on one list it is the various dominations of disco (and then techno) that are his main culprits by name, along with a handful of technical terms such as "DX7." I've heard the complaints about dance music before from other working musicians, but it does make me sad he couldn't hear so much music that I like. On the other hand, he shows an alarming penchant for Broadway show tunes so maybe that makes us even. He also likes R.E.M. a whole lot more than me. But at a certain sweet middle—Beatles, Bowie, Big Star, and This Year's Model—our tastes are well in synch and I see how inspired and acute his picks can be. I was also struck by an idea I've been thinking of as "vectors," the way tastes start at fine points of agreement and then explode into outer space in all directions. For the '50s, '60s, and '70s it's easy to follow along with Miller and I often agree with him emphatically. We part ways at the '80s on disco and R.E.M. and by the 21st-century years I have only some idea what he is talking about. Many of the names I do know—Belle and Sebastian, Guided by Voices, Aimee Mann, the Posies—have been of only marginal interest to me. He loves Tracy Chapman and never mentions the Pet Shop Boys, so whatever. Sometimes I feel quite peevish with him, but I wish he were still around updating. He chose to take his life instead. R.I.P.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic (looks like it might be hard to get at the moment).

Friday, January 08, 2021

Amour (2012)

Austria / France / Germany, 127 minutes
Director/writer: Michael Haneke
Photography: Darius Khondji
Music: Franz Schubert
Editors: Nadine Muse, Monika Willi
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert

As the familiar old saw has it, gettin' old ain't for sissies—and neither is Amour, for all its trappings of genteel upper/middle-classmanship. Here we find a family whose bread and butter are meticulous piano recitals of Schubert. Director and writer Michael Haneke often seems to feel most comfortable inside such affluence, with a side order of intellectually cultivated, but perversely he also likes to afflict the comfortable in his pictures with undermining elements of horror: the home invasion thrill killers in Funny Games, a mysterious stalker in Cache (and a premise that rhymes with the first half of David Lynch's Lost Highway), those kids from Village of the Damned appearing as proto-Nazis in The White Ribbon. It seems a bit boorish to bring the implicit screams and gore world of horror even into the kindly realm of Grandma and Grandpa and the end of life, and it's true that Haneke might well be at his absolute coldest in this picture. But that doesn't mean he isn't telling the truth about life and death and aging.

I'm not as sure that stocking it all up with stars from the heroic age of the art film is the best idea. But certainly at least it brings a lot of raw talent and skill to the show along with the mediated distance of art film movie stars. Between them, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant appeared in Hiroshima mon amour (1959), My Night at Maud's (1969), and The Conformist (1970), as well as two pictures in Krysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, plus many others (whole major careers!), though the only picture they made together previously was an obscure Italian portmanteau comedy from 1965, I Kill, You Kill. Isabelle Huppert as their daughter has of course been blazing her own later trail in cinema since the '80s. These players are dazzling in their abilities and courage, notably Riva (who died in 2017), and they were amply rewarded in praise. Amour won enough awards (over 80, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) that even a blind horse would have to squint looking in its direction. Inevitably all that also brings a certain amount of glamorous baggage that is somehow naggingly distracting when you actually go to watch the thing. (Spoilers ahead.)

Monday, January 04, 2021

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)

As a fan of the original Borat, I had high hopes for Sacha Baron Cohen's sequel. Back in 2006 his treatment of a US hollowed out by six years of Bush/Cheney assaults on social and political norms was inspired, the perfect response to what I thought was the worst thing that had ever happened to this country, certainly in my lifetime. But Trump and his accomplices, among other things, have made them all look like church deacons. The essential problem of lampooning the malevolent clown Donald Trump and his henchmen seems to have taken the edge off Cohen as well as most comics in this era. Is it any surprise that lip-synching Trump has become practically the most effective approach? Cohen's pranks are still good—often amazing both by how shockingly coarse they can be and simply by seeing him have the courage to say and do the things he does to the specific people he manages to rope in. The premise for the picture is that the Kazakh media journalist Borat has been in prison since 2006 for crimes against the state but is now released to carry out a special mission: deliver a gift to US VP Michael Pence to win favorable treatment for Kazakhstan by the US. The gift is Johnny the Monkey, a Kazakh porn star (and monkey). But the monkey dies in transit. Plan B then is to present Borat's 15-year-old daughter (Maria Bakalova, who is in her 20s and not Cohen's daughter), who stowed away on the journey. Father and daughter make appearances in Texas, Oklahoma, Washington state (Olympia!), New York City, and elsewhere, zeroing in on Pence and others. They gull low-grade celebrity types such as Instagram influencers and various Christianist grifters, who deserve the humiliation—and also innocent bystanders, such as a clerk at a faxing service place, who don't, but nonetheless serve as interesting barometers of social attitudes—as they work their way up to big stunts like storming the annual CPAC gathering of conservatives and, the one we've heard the most about, conducting an interview with Rudy Giuliani, whose behavior here is actually worse than the previews made it look. He plainly thinks he's about to get lucky with a 15-year-old girl—Bakalova has a convincing teen appearance and manner. The pranks are usually good, and there are some comedy bits that are not bad either (notably one featuring the Stealers Wheel chestnut, "Stuck in the Middle With You"). But too often the film drags with scenes between father and daughter playing on their pose of primitive sexist norms and/or showing innocent affection for one another. They don't work because Borat movies don't get their juice from their storylines, let alone feel-good moments designed to assure us of their good intentions and wholesomeness and that this is all a joke. Borat movies work best when Cohen sets up the pranks so that victims incriminate and embarrass themselves with a minimal amount of help from him. It just does not happen often enough in this one, but maybe in one-third of it scattered across its compact running time the pranks are working and make it worthwhile enough for me, once I got over the general disappointment of not enough and not that good. Cohen's targets always deserve everything they get and kudos to him for getting this out in October, not long before the US election.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Heart of Darkness (1899)

Last time through Joseph Conrad's short but exceedingly dense novel I realized how entwined it can be taken in many ways with horror, doing the kinds of things Algernon Blackwood ("The Willows"), H.P. Lovecraft ("At the Mountains of Madness"), and David Lynch (Blue Velvet) before and after it do in terms of animating and super-charging landscapes and setting. I also realized, as Marlow struggles to get the steamboat up the river, how reminiscent it can be as well of Mark Twain's riverboat tales. It is ultimately a grand adventure tale with a necessarily dismal ending. The scene where the boat is stuck in fog—my favorite part—put me in a King Kong frame of mind, which lingered into the encounters with jungle and natives. Conrad's plodding, stultifying language is easier to take with patience (also required for swaths of 19th-century horror so I've had practice lately). I had to laugh early when even Marlow's listeners in the frame story groaned when they could tell he was about to launch into another one. Heart of Darkness insists that you read it slowly, which might account for why so many consider it a novel rather than the long story it is. All the good parts are embedded in long droning paragraphs but they will come to you if you let them. There are manifest problems with use of the N-word and with racism generally. At the same time, it is essentially a parable about colonialism so I'm willing to give it some license. To be clear, the "heart of darkness" is not anything about skin tone. The worst people here are white, which starts with the madman gone native inside his own head, Kurtz, but also includes the "pilgrims" traveling on the steamer, who enjoy taking potshots at natives from the boat, the way 19th-century Americans fired at buffalo from trains. Fans of Apocalypse Now may or may not like the novel (novella, whatever). I don't have much sense of that. My experience was that the Conrad disappointed me after the high-flying hallucinatory impact of the movie, but as I say I have often struggled with it. It is slow and ponderous yet full of insidiously great concrete detail, such as the heads spiked on the fence around Kurtz's house all facing the house. As the tale winds into the interior it finally casts an inexorable mesmerizing spell.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, January 01, 2021

New Year memo

Happy new year, everybody. I hope you have survived the ongoing disasters and are taking all due precautionary measures. Don't go out if you can help it. Wear a face mask when you do. Get the vaccination when you can. Avoid domestic terrorists. How the fuck did this happen—that is the question. We've never seen anything like it. It's been that kind of year—unprecedented at multiple levels. And, honestly, I don't anticipate 2021 being much better, except I'm hoping for a change in direction, from gradual worsening to gradual improvement. I'm hoping. There is still a lot we don't know about the coronavirus or American politics or racial justice or climate change or or or—somebody stop me. I always think about writing something long and personal for these New Year posts and then my mind goes blank when I sit down to them and they end up short. Maybe that's for the best! My two cats finally became buddies, more or less—a welcome development. Along about June or July I saw an open-ended question on social media somewhere, asking what we were most proud of ourselves for this past year. My first thought was "Kept blogging." There was always a temptation to give up on everything this year, and I struggled a lot with routines of things like exercise, housework, and shopping, but for better or worse I stuck with blogging, which makes me think I will probably keep it up this year as well and into the future. I also wrote a few short stories, but I'll let you know more about that if any of them ever see the light of day. Otherwise pretty much all as usual: book and story reviews on Sundays, albums on Saturdays, classic movies on Fridays, horror stories on Thursdays. Last Sundays this year will go to Raymond Carver. One notable change due to the pandemic is the movie reviews on Mondays, which started five years ago as an exercise to get me out and looking at new releases more. But there was no going out to movies most of this past year and, with the fate of movie theaters still unclear, not for the time being either (at least we don't have to think about Oscars for a while, which have meant less every year for at least 40 years). Streaming options have stepped in instead, and with them more TV shows. That will continue this year, including various catch-up business. I'm also thinking of a track-by-track review of the Pet Shop Boys' Very Relentless, my favorite album by them and one of my favorites of all time—probably a Wednesday project. Thanks for visiting, reading, leaving comments. It's always appreciated as much as you can know.