Wednesday, March 31, 2021

"We Came From Outer Space" (1993)


At this point, flying out of the relentless stomp of "KDX 125" it is likely not inappropriate to turn to the argot of the hallucinogen family as this, the shortest track in the set (though still over five minutes), may perhaps occur ideally as a peak subsides. As its title suggests, it bears vast space dotted by planets, suns, galaxies, done in keyboard figures, with approximations of celestial choir in due time. More specifically, and literally, it asks the ponderous question, "Do you know the difference between two genders?" And answers, "It came from outer space." Slot that into your headspace and figure it out. There's muttering underneath if you want to roam around in that (per internet, "With the police? / Yes, all / We're, we're just here / What is this? What is that? / – complication high of it –," etc.). The beats are tapered back, more relaxed, even as the mood elevates with the melodies and shifts. The feeling of free-floating zero gravity never entirely goes away. The question and answer and question and answer fade back. It's a good time to rest against the wall and have a drink of water. Staying hydrated is important. It may perhaps deserve to be the shortest song in this set, as it seems uncertain what it wants to do next (though that is also analogous to most immediate post-peak experience). It is somewhat cartoonish with its "outer space" title and rubbery vibe, yet in crowd and party scenes I happen to know the question/answer rarely failed to get attention, for its imponderability as much as anything else. Do you know the difference between two genders? It came from outer space. I knew someone who swore it was evidence of hidden knowledge, though I never quite understood his point. Do you know the difference between two genders? It came from outer space. Drink of water.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

"What's in Alaska?" (1972)

This story by Raymond Carver is an interesting and peculiar period piece. Written in 1972, it features an evening get-together pot party with two young couples, one with children. It surprised me because I haven't seen this kind of thing attempted often in literature. It does feel a bit like the depictions on the '60s Dragnet TV show, especially when it reminds us one couple has children (though they don't appear to be accidentally drowned in the bathtub as in the Jack Webb episode). It also trades in cliches that are cliches because so true, e.g., the ravenous appetite for snacks, the empty laughter, the disconnected conversation. Carver is as specific on the treats as he is accurate—corn chips, popsicles, cream soda, etc.—and there's also a "new" water pipe, a hookah. The only name used for what they're smoking is "stuff," which is probably wise because the attempt to choose one usually reflects more about the writer, whether it's cannabis, marijuana, grass, pot, weed, reefer, flower, or whatever. There are also strange intimations of infidelity across the couples, which felt jarring and out of place in a way, as if this unusual Carver story had been intruded upon by more typical Carver stories. So I'm not sure, overall, how well it works. But I appreciate the attempt, not least because I haven't seen it much, or at least not working so well on the social dynamics. Others such as Norman Mailer and Thomas Pynchon have addressed the issue one way or another but they haven't been as convincing on the level of social manners. There must be much more out there. For that matter, the pot party is not the only thing going on in this story, which is also about infidelity, alienation, loneliness—Carver's constants. But smoking dope is the main point in the foreground and likely what most people would say the story is about. So that's what I focus on, as the rest seems pro forma, there for the reflexive gravitas. Carver captures well the aimlessness of smoking-up conversation, quite sharply in a couple places. He's good with the constant giggling self-conscious laughter, which can break for hysterics for no apparent reason, often based on nothing or very little that is actually funny. He's obviously been in the situation and noticed things. But overall the story also misses as least as often as it hits.

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

Monday, March 22, 2021

Tiger (2021)

This HBO documentary is a fair summation of all we know about Tiger Woods to this point, a remarkable roller-coaster ride worth reviewing every step of the way—or at least it was a fair summation until his auto accident last month, on which news is trickling in slowly. Still, this documentary filled in a lot of gaps for me, notably about his father Earl and the demise of Woods's marriage (not to mention the pharmaceuticals episode in 2017). As fully packed as it is Tiger is arguably premature even on golf, as Woods is still only 45. Jack Nicklaus won his last major at 46 and Tom Watson seriously contended for one at 59. At the same time, Tiger makes clear enough the possibility that Woods has used up a lot of his body once and for all. I did not know quite what a prodigy he was—he had an amazing swing at age 2, which somehow ended up on a TV show with Bob Hope. The evidence is here. His father Earl was a harsh master but the dream was not just athletic domination in an unlikely realm, but then using that as a springboard to becoming a "chosen one" historical figure the size of Mahatma Gandhi. Heavy burden, especially when you have the athletic talent for the first step. I remember Woods always seemed to be in the peripheral vision of ESPN through the early '90s but he really busted out for me, as with much of the world, with the 1997 Masters win, which was utterly convincing of the road ahead and the way he lived it out as a professional golfer. The documentary spends all suitable time on his greatest wins, that '97 Masters and the 2000 and 2008 U.S. Opens, plus, of course, the little wonderful miracle of the 2019 Masters, on which the documentary ends with an upbeat note. Tiger is not exactly authorized. There are many friends of the family interviewed, with a good deal of evident insight, but there are no family members, not his mother or ex-wife Elin, let alone Woods himself. Understandable. In many ways the distance is useful. This story may be told best by others. For me, it was the brutal downfall that had the most gaps, as after a while I couldn't bear to look anymore in real-time. So finally I have a better idea, for example, of what happened that Thanksgiving night in 2009 with the bizarre auto accident. And some better idea of the potential sex addiction driving him—which sounds real and disturbingly intense. A word that comes up a lot in regard to Woods in this documentary is "compartmentalization"—his ability for it not only rivals his ability for golf, it's practically the reason for his achievement. And it is everywhere in his life and sometimes doesn't seem far from "disassociation." He's a sad figure in many ways, for all the joy and pleasure he has wrought. He's one that celebrity may have swallowed whole. But the story is not done yet either. Meanwhile, this will get you pretty much up to speed.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Innocents Abroad (1869)

According to Wikipedia, this early travel book by Mark Twain, his second book after a collection of stories, was his bestselling book during his lifetime and is still one of the bestselling travel books of all time. Certainly it established Twain's basic approach to the form: lighthearted, irreverent, anecdotal, and reasonably thorough as travelogue. This one details a long trip of several months, starting from and returning to New York. It ranges across Europe, into Russia, and then through the Middle East, which he calls "the Holy Land." He's skeptical and mocking of much that is European, much of that based on romantic literature. He's more long-faced and pious in the Holy Land, but his skepticism never disappears entirely. I was often struck by how old this book is now. Louis Napoleon was still emperor of France at the time. Jerusalem's population was 14,000 (today it is 874,000). We are closer in time to Twain than he was to the Crusades but they still feel fresh to Twain. His biases against Muslims are right on the surface and often unpleasant, while the European Christian Crusaders are lauded continually. Part of his problem with Muslims is the problem they have with Christians but I wouldn't say Twain is making himself part of any solution here—more like pandering to an audience. Still the book is interesting enough, packed with literary sketches of one sort or another, lots of short chapters and variation. The sights he sees and places he visits are worth it for seeing them from more than 150 years ago. In many ways Twain was a typical mixed-up American. He is reflexively antimonarchical yet also seems to believe aristocrats could well be superior, and not just for their advantages. It ends up as a strange mix of mocking and almost toadying—immature. It gets even worse in the Holy Land, although, in fact, it remains interesting to see the storied places of the Bible as they were in the mid-19th century—impoverished, Christian-minority, dry, featureless, unattractive. Again Twain is skeptical about some of the claims he encounters such as all the pieces he sees in churches of the "true cross," but he is also overcome by the sight of Calvary, or so he says. It's altogether an odd but often interesting enough travel journal.

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

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Porcupine (1983)

My favorite album by Echo & the Bunnymen arguably tends more toward the cerebral side of psychedelia, full of trippy climax and those thrumming string contributions from L. Shankar. But in memory it remains a soundtrack for bleary mind-groping post-midnight party scenes, playing very loud. It's head trip music that fills your head up and is heady too, these woozy dim images playing from wake-up movies, tarted up with exotic Eastern elements and a dense and sludgy production that bursts at will into clarity. The trademark dread of the Bunnymen lurks constantly. They're afraid of something. What is it? A fair argument points out the album attacks with its best, the two singles, "The Cutter" and "The Back of Love," and steps down from there song by song. Maybe—but the mood is consistent, stirring, dramatic, mysterious, infinitely exciting from moment to moment, about to turn another corner. All my favorite adjectives apply. And why not put your best out front? "The Cutter" enters already on a high point like exhausted caravansary entertainment at the encore, functioning on automatic yet with precision and impact, writhing string figures, sharp guitar chord on the upbeat, whammy bar touch, the song wandering yet building, until at 1:45 when it opens like glorious landscape and soars. It was their biggest hit. "The Back of Love" follows with nervous tempo and martial pounding on the drumkit. It seems to be scoffing at love and it never lets up, elevating after the chorus like a jet taking off, until finally it goes flying into colorful cloud-like scenes of meditation and yelping in a certain David Byrne mode. "The White Devil" involves John Webster and follows in a minor key, with thrilling xylophone. The title song (porcupine WTF) turns a great wisdom of the hallucinogen into magnificent soporific chant: "There is no comparison / Between things about to have been." Which translates approximately to "the past looks different in the future." Or perhaps not—proposed as another discussion point for the wee comedown hours. "Heads Will Roll" starts with a Love quote on acoustic guitar, shortly to be intruded upon by Bunnymen anxiety and Shankar's amazing strings again. The 2003 CD tacks on bonus tracks that run the whole thing close to 80 minutes, mostly alternate versions mostly unnecessary. The original is still the best. Put it on after midnight at your very next party. I mean, after the pandemic is over. I don't give parties or go to them much anymore myself.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Toni Erdmann (2016)

Germany / Austria / Monaco / Romania / France / Switzerland, 162 minutes
Director/writer: Maren Ade
Photography: Patrick Orth
Music: Whitney Houston karaoke, The Cure
Editor: Heike Parplies
Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller, Thomas Loibl, Ingrid Bisu, Michael Wittenborn, Trystan Putter, Lucy Russell, Hadewych Minis, Vlad Ivanov

With money flowing in to finance it from six separate EU countries (even little Monaco by the sea), it's arguable that the point of Toni Erdmann is as an examination of the emptiness of neoliberalism. That's some rich irony there, but really the movie's strength is more on family issues, with another convincing heartache show (albeit black comedy too) about the difficulties parents and their grown children can have. Peter Simonischek is Winfried Conradi, a retired (and aging) father with a broad streak of dad humor, and Sandra Huller is his daughter Ines, a corporate creature in her 30s working formally as a consultant, a master of Microsoft Project and Microsoft Excel systematically working her way up by the book. Her dream is a position in Singapore.

Winfried is actually funny at least as often as he is annoying, and he can be quite annoying. He and Ines are locked in a long-term feedback loop of passive-aggressive hostility which escalates, eventually to absurd extremes, across the length of this rather long movie. Their rocky relations are intense, sometimes feeling closer to hatred, but also like normal family with all the frustrations of love and loved ones. When they are alone they can say terrible things to each other and deliberately misunderstand things. "Do you have any plans in life other than slipping fart cushions under people?" Ines asks him at one point. "I don't have a fart cushion," he says. Later, we see that he has acquired one and is using it in public to distract her.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

"The Daemon Lover" (1949)

This Shirley Jackson story works so subtly as horror that it almost isn't. If you insist, it isn't. And yet, its most uncanny detail is also its best: the door which no one will ever answer, though voices can be heard from behind it. Down here on the natural plane, the story especially in 1949 is every woman's nightmare (and a lot of men's too). It takes some time catching us up on the whole situation but the scope of devastation is also large. We see our unnamed main character seized by nervous but happy anxiety and Jackson doesn't make us wonder long why, as she sits down to write a note to her sister: "Dearest Anne, by the time you get this I will be married. Doesn't it sound funny? I can hardly believe it myself, but when I tell you how it happened, you'll see it's even stranger than that...." Then she tears it up and throws it away. Over the course of the story the contents of the letter will grow a little haunting: you'll see it's even stranger than that. We follow her actions and learn much about her. What a hard time she has selecting her outfit. The fact that she lied on the marriage license and said she was 30 instead of 34. The story chugs on a kinda-cute rom-com neurosis Annie Hall style as she remakes the bed with clean linen, changes her underwear, and checks the groceries she has bought for breakfast the next morning. But when the appointed hour arrives and her beau does not, we start to feel sick with her. In a way Jackson plays cruelly with her and with us. The woman is flawed and pathetic in many ways but she is sincere and deserves her dignity, even as it gradually slips all the way away. Everyone she meets and questions about him in her search on that day—the people in his apartment building, the newsstand man, the florist, the shoeshine guy—all smirk at her as if they are mocking her right down to her most vulnerable parts thinking she was going to be married. Until finally we arrive at that door behind which are those voices and likely, perhaps, her lover, Mr. James "Jamie" Harris. But no one ever responds to her knock—at story's end, we are weeks out.

Jackson has offered a further rabbit hole, for those so inclined, in this Harris fellow. In fact, the subtitle of The Lottery, the only collection by Jackson published in her lifetime, which includes this story, is The Adventures of James Harris. The subtitle was subsequently often dropped by publishers apparently unaware she intended the collection more as a cycle of connected stories, with Harris as a recurring character. You can take it even a step further (thanks to this discussion by Anne M. Pillsworth and Ruthanna Emrys at as there is also a James Harris, who is also a daemon lover, in a certain 17th-century Scottish ballad. This is not a coincidence. The story in that ballad is somewhat different from the Jackson story at hand. In the ballad the lover visits her again when she has married another and had a child and entices her away at that point. That would be a kind of embarrassment of riches for the woman in "The Daemon Lover," who for all we know is still climbing those stairs on her way home from work and knocking again at that door, from behind which are voices, but no one ever answers.

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

Sunday, March 14, 2021

James Brown's Live at the Apollo (2004)

I enjoyed this title by Douglas Wolk in the 33-1/3 series—it almost effortlessly shows the openings for creative avenue in the tidy one album / one author / 33,000 words format. I have to admit first I've always been slightly underwhelmed by this particular album, often pitched as the greatest live album of all time. That's partly because it took me so long to get to it and by then its reputation had preceded it and I had other James Brown priorities. But Wolk is a fan, a close listener, and a solid researcher. One of his prevailing conceits is noting that the performance was recorded across several days while the Cuban Missile Crisis was happening, an unusually charged historical moment. Wolk finds other intriguing things going on at the same time, including John Cage's 4:33 recording of silence, which Wolk really hopes was at the same exact moment of a peculiar silence in James Brown's Apollo show. I hope so too! Wolk artfully breaks down James Brown's career as the sequential details of the album are encountered in linear fashion. It mimics the album in many small ways. The chapters can be as short as a paragraph or a line, with evocative titles—Sweat, Amateur Night, Yvonne Fair—running down the album that came of a multiple-night stand. It's a good evenhanded take on JB, aware of all his flaws (usually result of unbridled ego) and all his many strengths. Wolk's little book is also a great treatment of how a product comes together, the album as artifact. I like how Wolk seems to notice everything, like the way the album has come with so many variations to its name. He settles on Live at the Apollo and I'm good with that, but the range of variation is remarkable. That's typical of Brown, who always seemed to be working with grooves and their variations. Mashed Potato was a groove. Popcorn was a groove. Cold Sweat, New Bag, Sex Machine—they just kept coming. It feels like Wolk covers it all, and it's full of sharp insight, surprising details, and always an abiding love and awe of JB, a true force of nature, we can see now. One of my favorite things I learned here was that at the height of the album's popularity people were calling in to request it on radio stations—the whole thing: both sides. And the radio stations accommodated them, packing in the ads in the empty patches of the 10-minute "Lost Someone." Hence the beginnings of its reputation. Wolk's treatment of "Lost Someone" is superb, full of information and finding a great way to approximate its imposing length in words and text. I really love it when these 33-1/3 books are good. This is one of the best.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Crocodiles (1980)

Annals of postpunk: I never owned a copy of Crocodiles until a few years ago when I picked up the 2003 CD edition with 10 bonus tracks (for an album that originally had 10 tracks). Echo & the Bunnymen, if you haven't noticed, can be terribly frustrating for completists and/or originalists. The box set Crystal Days: 1979-1999, for example, does not include anywhere on any of its four CDs any version of "Going Up," the opening track on Crocodiles. What, they decided to disown it? Streaming doesn't help either. On Napster, certain tracks from that box are simply not available, nor is Crocodiles at all. Anyway, as if all this fragmentation were not enough (there are also two 1980 versions of Crocodiles but never mind), my first exposure to this album was on a tape somebody made for me. I'm pretty sure I had the whole album on one side of a C-90 and I know individual tracks also appeared on mix tapes people made for me. Listening to the album more systematically I see it's what I would have considered a one-sided album if I'd had it in vinyl—namely, side 2, which kicks off with the single "Rescue" (a long-time favorite) and elevates a notch further with "Villiers Terrace," which pounds with hysterical anxiety you just have to declaim along with in Jim Morrison voice. "Pictures on My Wall," "All That Jazz," and "Happy Death Men" follow along in the afterglow. From the vantage of my old tape collection, Echo & the Bunnymen struck me as a bit of a same-y act—that is, all the songs on their albums sounded like versions of the best song, so it was easy to just let them play. I remember Bram Tchaikovsky, the Pretenders, Gang of Four, XTC, and even Elvis Costello to some degree fit that model. These artists made for good tapes for playing all day. The first side of the original Crocodiles is also not bad, I will add—I might have ended up playing it as an "upside-down" album if I'd had the vinyl, one of those albums I would play side 2 of before side 1 but would play both sides. But side 1 of Crocodiles is definitely more spotty (the hard-to-find "Going Up" is not bad but not great). For that matter, the bonus tracks on the 2003 CD have their points as well. About half are live, and a few are alternate versions in a munge of the two 1980 releases. What a mess these guys have made in a way, but I wouldn't be without "Rescue" and "Villiers Terrace."

Friday, March 12, 2021

Learn From Experience (1937)

Kafuku zempen (pt. I) / Kafuku kohen (pt. II), Japan, 157 minutes
Director: Mikio Naruse
Writers: Fumitaka Iwasaki, Kan Kikuchi
Photography: Mitsuo Miura
Music: Takio Niki
Editor: Toshio Goto
Cast: Takako Irie, Chieko Takehisa, Minoru Takada, Yumeko Aizome

Japanese director Mikio Naruse was a prolific filmmaker who worked on silent films in the early 1930s and continued with sound well into the 1960s. He is generally considered second-tier behind the usual suspects of Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Yasujiro Ozu. Naruse may have been overshadowed most by Ozu, whose themes of domestic life Naruse also tended to pursue. But this domestic sphere is one I happen to like very much and to my mind Naruse is nearly the equal of Ozu (though I have many films still to see by both). The lengthy Learn From Experience is classed as a "woman's film," which probably explains why it was cut into two separate releases, in the manner of Children of Paradise or Kill Bill, even as the story, cast, production crew, and other elements simply continue from one to the next. A movie this long in 1937 needed to be epic in order to be commercially viable, and Learn From Experience is many things but it is not epic. At the same time the complexities of the story are such that not a minute of it is wasted.

A reviewer over at IMDb praises the film but complains about the title—but really, Learn From Experience could practically be the working title for any "woman's film." It's a commercial Hollywood designation as much as anything and the idea is that women would pay to see stories full of romantic heartache and incidentally a feminist critique when it can be slipped in. Learn From Experience mixes in class elements as well to fortify the doom of its doomed relationship. Toyomi (Takako Irie) and Shintaro (Minoru Takada) are young and in love, but Shintaro's father is in debt and needs him to marry a woman who can deliver a dowry, and furthermore he has a particular woman in mind. Shintaro, a gentle but weak man, intends to go home and stand up to his father and so stirring is his declaration that the night before he leaves Toyomi spends the night with him.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Zappa (2020)

This documentary about Frank Zappa by director and writer Alex Winter offers up a pretty good biography, spreading its attentions evenly across most of Zappa's life, which ended in 1993 when he was 52. I learned some things I hadn't known—notably that he lived in New York City for a year or two in 1966 and 1967 and also about his assault on stage in 1971, which put him in a wheelchair for the better part of a year. But mainly it confirmed my sense that Zappa's best period was in the '60s with the original Mothers of Invention. I also appreciated the chance to put a face to Pamela Zarubica's Suzy Creamcheese voice which I know so well from Uncle Meat. The emphasis in Winter's documentary—and it's probably fair—is on Zappa's surly misanthropic perfectionist contrarian personality combined with a lifelong desire to be a composer and rigid dedication to his sense of integrity. Zappa is generally thought of as quintessential Iconoclastic Rock Star, and he was certainly that too—I still put him on the short list of best rock guitarists from the '60s and '70s, working the blues modes. But he considered himself a composer above all else, railed against the mainstream, directed even his rock bands like a conductor, and dreamed of an orchestra at his disposal, which could be adequately rehearsed before concert performance or recording studio. Along with the Velvet Underground, Zappa was an important figure in Soviet-sphere countries such as Czechoslovakia, where the Plastic People of the Universe (named for a song on Absolutely Free) sprang up in his wake. In the West, Zappa sponsored acts as diverse as the GTOs, Captain Beefheart, and Alice Cooper. He is the subject of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." He was also a reasonably straight and square guy—married to the same woman for more than 25 years, with whom he had four children, though he philandered openly on the road. He divided much of his time between working at home in his recording studio, then escaping on the road for tours and the rock star lifestyle, and then escaping from that in turn to go back to the sanctity of his home again. I wish, as the '60s partisan, that the picture spent more time on that period but it wouldn't be fair to the rest of Zappa's career. He's still hard to like, too often the preening egotist for my taste, but certainly I feel for his desire to be a composer, which is about as futile as, say, writing poetry (or blogging, for that matter). It grated on him because, above all else, he was practical about supporting his family and, as he notes here bitterly several times, there is no money certain in composing. It is a cost center, not a profit center. It's sad that someone with so much talent got cancer and died so young—one of the few annoyances of this documentary is that it keeps noticing his cigarette smoking, when it was prostate and not lung cancer that he died of. Still, fair point: hey everybody, don't smoke, especially if you get cancer.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Zuleika Dobson (1911)

British caricaturist and drama critic Max Beerbohm's only novel might be the weirdest title on the whole Modern Library list. It's farce—only farce—yet capable of a certain high pitch of inspiration. I laughed out loud in one place and chuckled often remembering it later, let's put it that way. There is Zuleika Dobson, an orphan, now grown up into her early 20s. She has willed herself into celebrity, "though not strictly beautiful," and makes her living as a somewhat mediocre stage magician—the revelation of her abject lack of talent is where I LOL'd. Having achieved celebrity, she travels to Oxford to meet her grandfather, who accepts her now that she is famous as opposed to an unfortunate orphan. Then there is the Duke of Dorset, a young man attending Oxford. He falls in love with her instantly, as do all undergraduates everywhere. At first Zuleika loves the Duke. Then she doesn't. The Duke remains constant and they seesaw away like this. But the stakes are high. The Duke says he will kill himself if she won't have him, and when she won't have him she insists he keep his promise. He does so, as a murky matter of honor, along with hundreds of other undergraduates in emulation and sympathy, drowning themselves in the river at some kind of boating regatta. I see I've given it all away but I suspect it doesn't matter. If you ever read it I suspect you will see it all coming too, though I was surprised that the mass suicides actually went off. But then they had to, by the logic of the story. All this fin de siècle business feels like ancient history now, because it is. Still, it was a period that in many ways invented the modern celebrity and all its media-saturated features so it bears interest. Beerbohm is also an entertaining writer. Zuleika Dobson is more entertaining than insightful, but it certainly has many things right about celebrity, and incidentally how aristocracy gets muddled into it too. Modern reprisals of a kind may be found in Max Shulman novels and the movie Damsels in Distress. But Zuleika Dobson was intended mostly, I think, to be a slightly snobbish parody of romance literature. That's fair enough—all genre literature arguably deserves the sending up. In a way Beerbohm may have lucked into his prescience—I'm not sure the element of celebrity wasn't intended more simply as a convenient farcical plot element. But he makes good use of it. Worth a peek, maybe. It's definitely odd.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Beau travail (1999)

France, 92 minutes
Director: Claire Denis
Writers: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Herman Melville
Photography: Agnes Godard
Music: Charles Henri de Pierrefeu, Eran Zur, Tarkan, Neil Young, Corona
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Cast: Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Richard Courcet

It occurred to me, puzzling once again over this strange little picture and conventional critical wisdom, that Beau travail is likely a key exhibit by those arguing for 1999 as the greatest single year in film history. A Washington Post piece from a few years ago assessed the case for 2018 and listed other candidates as 1939, 1946, 1955, 1974, 1982, 1999, and 2007. There has to be one for every decade, see, yet somehow, breaking the self-evident rule (I want to put 1948 in the mix), they skipped the 1959-1962 period, possibly splitting votes across 1959, 1960, and 1962. For my part, I know I wouldn't put 1999 anywhere near the top of that list. I would probably go with 1946 or maybe 2007 myself and the only reason I flatly don't think 1999 is the weakest is because 1955 somehow found its way in and I don't know.

I also don't know about director and cowriter Claire Denis, frankly. I loved White Material (2009), had a pretty good time with 35 Shots of Rum (2008), and still want to look again at Chocolat (1988) as I remember liking it quite well at the time it came out (note: it is absolutely not to be confused with the 2000 Chocolat, an entirely different movie). More often Denis's physically liquid yet emotionally brittle style is something I have to fight against. I left High Life (2018) early because I just wasn't in the mood. I was indifferent to Friday Night (2002) and Nenette and Boni (1996). And I thought her vampire movie, Trouble Every Day (2001), was wrongheaded and ineffective (which is also where I thought High Life was headed). That brings us finally to Beau travail, at #115 her highest-ranked picture on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (her only other picture presently on that list is The Intruder from 2004, at #823, which I haven't seen).

Thursday, March 04, 2021

"D-Day" (1945)

Robert Trout was a radio newsman most famous for his work as a broadcast anchor during World War II, including coverage of the D-Day Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944. This very short story appears to be Trout's only fiction, as far as the internet is concerned. I don't even see it listed among his papers. But the typically scrupulous ISFDB shows no sign of doubting the authorship. At any rate, "D-Day" is presented as a transcript from a radio broadcast in the early hours of some kind of attack on the US (in "196–"). Little is known about what is happening so the broadcaster is just going with what he sees coming in over the wires. The enemy in this story is entirely unknown. This story was published in 1945, in the Saturday Review of Literature, years before the Soviets had nuclear capability. It could even be aliens from outer space. But a nuclear attack seems most likely. The context sketched in as we go is that by the 1960s the end of warfare has been accepted as a practical imperative. It's still early hours but the attacks on Pittsburgh, New York City, Detroit, and D.C. sound devastating. The basic premise coupled with the terse dramatized you-are-there feel of midcentury media make the story effective, even scary. It has a natural home in a horror anthology. The brevity helps too. Yes, "D-Day" is kind of gimmicky and easy with Robert Trout imagining Robert Trout doing his greatest-hits job like shtick at the end of the world. But not many could put this across as convincingly as the experienced radio broadcaster. I grant it may have been ghostwritten but Trout must have had some hand in it. What's weird to me is that something this well done and this primary and even foundational—credibly channeling the zeitgeist of October 1945 direct—has been buried inside an Alfred Hitchcock-branded collection of short stories from 1961. With the story's publication date less than 90 days after the nuclear blasts that ended WWII, you almost have to take it as an early example of nuclear anxiety, possibly the first of its kind, with a whole generation's worth to follow. In Trout's imagined near-future of the 1960s there is already the familiar theme of all-out war is no longer possible accompanied by the equally familiar theme of there has always been all-out war in human history. In a nutshell (and in a nut's hell!) that is nuclear anxiety. Cynical human nature intrudes as usual to ruin the party with the final familiar note, which is that the idea of ending war is naïve. Case in point: "D-Day," as ultimate destruction appears to be raining down at story's end and the audio finally cuts out. Broadcast over. Trout may not have been best at this game—you can take your pick, from UFO mania to TV's The Day After to Cormac McCarthy's utterly convincing apocalypse in The Road—but Trout was probably first to get right to the point. That counts for a lot in journalism but it also made for a pretty good horror story too as it happens. (Note: H.R. Arnold's 1926 story "The Night Wire" is an earlier example of a tick-tock teletype-based story, as is Orson Welles's 1938 prank version of The War of the Worlds for that matter, but the nuclear payload is missing from both.)

Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night, ed. Robert Arthur (out of print)
Story not available online.