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)


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.

Friday, April 09, 2021

The Master (2012)

USA, 138 minutes
Director/writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Editors: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern, Christopher Evan Welch, Patty McCormack, Rami Malek, Lena Endre, Madisen Beaty

The Master is a great and mystifying movie, hard to say exactly what it is. Last time through I took it as a buddy movie. But such strange buddies, in 1950 USA: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), mustered out of the Navy after World War II and a savant at mixing potions out of booze, paint thinner, and "secrets," and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the master of the title (and commander of a boat, he tells us at one point), who is the leader of a past lives regression cult called The Cause. Odds are good that Master and his movement are based on L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics (later Scientology). But that's just context. Freddie and Master love one another with a strange ardor—wrestling around when they meet, skulking off to drink, forgiving everything always between them. All the cares and responsibilities of the world disappear in the pure presence of each other. Master can't remember when he met Freddie in a past life. The truth is neither one can even remember when they met on this plane, due to alcoholic stupor.

With talent on hand like Phoenix, Hoffman, and director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson (not to mention a very large assortment of excellent supporting players), perhaps you can do anything and get away with it. Among other things The Master is a practical example of that. Roger Ebert wrote a review marveling at the skills on hand but unable to fathom the result. Phoenix plays it almost purely physically, as he so often does. It's as if the energy coursing through Freddie is so gripping it affects his gait and the way he talks and interacts with people. He seems to be most comfortable getting into fights, which populate this picture like sight gags. Freddie is willing to mix it up with anybody who annoys him and he's the kind of person it makes you nervous and irritable just to be around. He makes me kind of nervous just looking at this movie.

Monday, April 05, 2021

The Last Dance (2020)

It was great to get the full-scale blow-by-blow on the career of Michael Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. I lived through it but didn't follow it that closely—I resented Jordan a little as the immovable object standing in the way of my beloved Seattle SuperSonics (some other documentary will have to talk about the 1993 Western Conference playoffs). This 10-part eight-hour epic treatment covers all of Jordan's time with the Bulls but it's formally built around the 1997-1998 season and the quest for a sixth NBA championship and second three-peat within the space of eight years. All you have to know about Jordan's significance to the team is that the two years the Bulls missed the NBA finals are the period when he was mostly out of the game, "retired" and playing baseball. That's covered here as well—everything I could think of was covered here. That 1997-1998 season had already been dubbed "The Last Dance" by coach Phil Jackson, who had been informed in no uncertain terms at the beginning of the year that it would be his last with the Bulls. If there is a bad guy anywhere in this story it is general manager Jerry Krause, who refused to concede Jackson's ability and importance. On the other hand, it was Krause in the first place who eased Doug Collins out in favor of Jackson in the late '80s. Jackson's coaching style was more team-oriented as opposed to Collins's, whose main strategy was to get the ball to Jordan. Sensible enough on its face, but Jackson had vision. Krause made other good decisions too, starting with drafting Jordan, working the trades to get Scottie Pippen, being willing to take a chance on Dennis Rodman (quite possibly the strangest human being I have ever known of), and more. Still, at least the way this documentary tells it, Krause often seemed determined to undermine even his own greatest successes, alienating Jordan, Pippen, Jackson, and others. I had a hard time believing the success of the Bulls myself in real-time, but a lot of people in this story had a hard time understanding Jordan's greatness. Maybe the best parts of all in this documentary are the recaps and broadcast footage of the championship tournaments, when Jordan performed regularly at impossible levels. Of course, with the good comes the bad, and the flaws of a man like Jordan are all in his extreme focus on winning, easily seen in a tender and reflexive hubris. He still hates the Detroit Pistons to this day, except Rodman, and he snorts and shakes his head at lesser players such as Gary Payton or Reggie Miller who dare to compare their skills to his. I'm sure I'd be even more cocky if I were him. I was never a Bulls fan but Jordan was an overwhelming force of nature, and an awesome and beautiful thing to behold as well. This one is definitely worth the time.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Yeah Yeah Yeah (2013)

At the moment I am very high on Bob Stanley's massive thunk of a history of pop music. It's one of my favorite kinds of pop music book, telling the curious history of youth music from 1955 on. Nik Cohn did it. Charlie Gillet did it. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll did it. Even I did it, by way of dead rock stars. Scott Miller too! Miller and Stanley cover the greatest amount of sheer metric tonnage of years, taking their histories well into the 21st century. Miller's (and Cohn's) are idiosyncratic and rooted deeply in quirks of taste, whereas Stanley is encyclopedic. And rooted deeply in quirks of taste. Stanley also has a day job as a principal in the (essential) band Saint Etienne, which may help you know where he is coming from. I'm tempted to call Yeah Yeah Yeah the best of the class and the new standard by which all others, etc. For one thing, no book has yielded up so many prizes for me (and so tested the capacities of my streaming service—at least a quarter were too obscure even for its seemingly vast holdings) as I root-hogged down and filled my playlist to capacity for most of a year. Besides Saint Etienne Stanley has also made his way as a music journalist in London, where for years three or four or five papers spent years operating at the level of the Village Voice or Boston Phoenix in the US. He is as opinionated as anyone but somehow more mild-mannered in the expression, which helps reduce friction of any peevish inclination to quarrel with his odder lapses or views. By and large he is impeccable on the history. I learned a lot from reading this, about house and techno and rave culture, and was often impressed by the connections he can make. They were sudden little illuminations about things I've lived with all my life and suddenly saw anew: all of R.E.M. in one song by Them, all of the Ramones in one song by the Bay City Rollers, all of Electric Ladyland in the music of the Impressions. You never agree all the way with anyone, but I was happy to have some of my own eccentricities affirmed: the best album by Todd Rundgren is A Wizard, a True Star, it's impossible to overestimate Joy Division, and Blondie's Parallel Lines is life-changing. Yeah Yeah Yeah was an immersive experience for me, I just read it and I didn't take very good notes. But I think I noticed there was good stuff literally on almost every page, wonderfully thought through and argued delicately, with no doubts whatsoever about his points. Then I spent a year listening to as much of the music he writes about as I could get my hands on—some of it old favorites I knew well, some entirely new to me (e.g., see my February 2020 Top 40). In practical terms, it's a goldmine.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Amadeus (1984)

USA / France / Czechoslovakia / Italy, 160 minutes
Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Peter Shaffer, Zdenek Mahler
Photography: Miroslav Ondricek
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Editors: Michael Chandler, Nena Danevic
Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Simon Callow, Roy Dotrice, Christine Ebersole, Jeffrey Jones, Cynthia Nixon

There is no break or intermission or anything like that in Amadeus—it's longer than 2001: A Space Odyssey, but by 1984 long movies rarely offered breaks anymore and I'd like to know why. But I had to flip my DVD over at about the 1:50 mark and I took the opportunity to make some popcorn and tidy up a little. Note that I watched the theatrical cut, because that's what I had on hand (director Milos Forman's 2002 edit is some 20 minutes longer). I noticed that in the first half of Amadeus Mozart was presented as a rock star more like 1999 Prince, brilliant, child-like, sexual, high on his own genius, and unshakably confident. In the second half, which is literally darker even if you're only talking about the lighting, Mozart has become more like such grizzled veterans just off their peaks as the Stones, Neil Young, David Bowie, or maybe Justin Bieber.

Giving in to these glammy rock star dynamics turns out to be as good a way as any for me into this one. Biopics don't interest me as a general rule, let alone about geniuses of the distant past, but I love Forman as a general rule so those two things balance out. But the focus on opera, while obviously well done and with tons of production value, tends to tilt it the other way for me. Then its obvious source as a stage production plus frankly the bonanza of a lot of Oscar hoopla (11 nominations, eight wins, including Best Picture), with all the follow-on generalized overrating (#84 on the IMDb big list), make me inclined toward suspicion. Tom Hulce as Mozart is unconvincing at best beyond a memorably irritating cackle. He's better in Fearless, possibly because it's a smaller role. But in the end, OK sure, all that genius—Mozart, Forman, Twyla Tharp again on choreography, Cynthia Nixon in a small part—weighs in and eventually you just have to give in. The movie is long but rarely less than entertaining.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

"The Million-Year Picnic" (1946)

Even though this story by Ray Bradbury appears last in The Martian Chronicles it is the first he published of that whole cycle of stories (in all their various permutations), beating the next by two years. "The Million-Year Picnic" has to count as another very early story of nuclear anxiety, published within about a year of the blasts in Japan. It must be noted with Bradbury that his science fiction can be quite soft. As soft as the dew falling in an Indiana cornfield in June, as he might say (or is it Illinois?). He's too glib about the technology and with little sense of the conditions on Mars and all the impossible time and precision required to get there. In fairness, a lot of scientists in the 1940s were in approximately the same boat about Mars. People had mostly given up on the canals idea but not entirely. For all that, Bradbury has a mood down cold here, mulling the profound sadness of our self-destructive species doing all the wrong things as usual. He tells it by showing the father and husband in a family of five (and a half) quietly shepherding them from where they landed on Mars to a safer place. The year is maybe 2026 and people in this story are able to nab rockets on Earth and head out. The man is taking pains to leave no traces behind them, even destroying the rocket they came in on, as nuclear war has virtually wiped out life on Earth but more people may be coming to Mars on these handy if dangerous rockets. This guy has some insight into human psychology but he has also allied with another family in hopes of starting a new civilization, slightly Noah style. The hubris is almost as astonishing as the finality. One of the best tricks in this story—which I've also seen elsewhere but never done quite this poignantly—is taking the idea of "Martians" and applying it to humans now living on the red planet. It's apt, but still has the power to surprise and affect. This story is before the Martian aborigines Bradbury developed for the cycle later and it benefits from that. "Elegiac" is not a term I toss around often as compliment, certainly in genre literature, but Bradbury was capable of it and could be very good at it. This is not a bad example and bears interest as an early canary in the nuclear era.

The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Everyman's)
Read story online.

Illustration, Alexander Leydenfrost, from Planet Stories, Summer 1946