Sunday, September 24, 2017

"My Oedipus Complex" (1950)

Story by Frank O'Connor not available online.

On Wikipedia they are selling this story as "perhaps [Frank O'Connor's] most popular." Published originally in the New Yorker, it bears the unmistakable tang of that magazine's midcentury time—witty, urbane, and often actually funny. It's a reminiscence by a man named Larry of his father's homecoming after serving in World War I. Here's some of that New Yorker tang now: "The war was the most peaceful period of my life." I'm not sure what my snarking is about exactly—one of the best traditions of the New Yorker is some of the greatest writing and writers of its times. And I was entertained by this story. It was just I kept feeling it could have been written by Ring Lardner, J.D. Salinger, or James Thurber. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but a certain sameness to them was revealed here, with the dry distance and overweening wit. I don't otherwise know O'Connor at all, so perhaps I'm not being fair to him either. The story in practical terms is like an illustrative sketch of the Freudian term under consideration. The most peaceful time in Larry's life included rising early and finishing in bed with his mother, having drowsy conversations before breakfast. The reason his mother gives him for sleeping in separate beds and rooms at night is that it's healthier. Larry is thus understandably baffled by his father sleeping with his mother on his return, after a long absence during the war. Larry thinks it's selfish, and even worse, reckless, to sleep with her. He is endangering her. At one point in the story Larry announces to them both that he plans on marrying his mother when he grows up. He is even more confused when they react as if he's told a joke. This story doesn't just remind me generally of Ring Lardner, but even more specifically of a story by Lardner in this same collection edited by Robert Penn Warren. "Liberty Hall" is also carefully, perhaps even intricately, structured, even if the structure turns out to be largely in the form of a joke. The punchline part of "My Oedipus Complex" involves the arrival of a new brother for Larry, Sonny, and the effect it has on the marital bed Larry has long since quitted. An Oedipus complex cuts all different ways, as this story elegantly illustrates, with Larry and his father closing ranks as allies. It's almost touching really, and funny too.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Red (2012)

Taylor Swift is a supremely poised figure of popular culture. We've seen that the least shred of temper or celebrity self-involvement on her part, as in her new single "Look What You Made Me Do," yields barrels of anguish and bickering from fans and celebrity journalists. My first, admittedly snap judgment of her—that is, loathing—was based on a few impressions in the late 2000s, when I couldn't turn away fast enough from her songs on the radio in the car, driving back and forth to work and for groceries and such. In fairness, I couldn't turn away fast enough from most of the songs on the radio. Just on the surface, in the five to 20 seconds it took me to recognize things, there was something putting me off almost reflexively.

It was Swift's smug 2009 #2 hit "You Belong With Me" that was the main culprit for me in terms of her songs, but "Our Song," "Fifteen," and others also accounted for many quick exits from the premises. At a certain point it became her voice itself that provided the cue, but she was hardly the only one. The voice of one of her boyfriends, John Mayer, was often responsible for my changing the station too, along with many others. Indeed, at the time I was certain there was an unusually higher percentage of dreck than usual on pop music radio. Yes, certainly part of that was my own aging, as I was entering my 50s. But it was also exhaustion with a chapter of popular culture thoroughly saturated by then with the rapacious lottery values of the Bush/Cheney era. Hip hop generally remained a bright light, with steadily growing influence, but beyond that was beyond sad. Country music with its patriotic airs and politically correct requirements (respecting all public displays of the Confederate flag) was unlistenable even by 2003. That includes the Dixie Chicks. By 2007, certain strains of pop music were ailing badly as well—the Bush/Cheney values were now filtered through the athletic faux operatics of American Idol, the single worst thing I've seen happen to pop music.

Taylor Swift, who started in country music with a wheedling self-absorbed whimper, neatly straddled a lot of this—as a country singer she already sounded like a pop star, and as a pop singer she sounded country—and she embodied everything that was wrong. These judgments seemed to me verifiable and continually verified from the brief and random car surveys I conducted. I was sure I was living through one of the worst times ever for pop music on the radio. I still consider it a very bad period, but as it hasn't become much better in the years since I have to conclude that my judgments are now well out of step. Where I'm coming from.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Leonard Cohen: Live in London (2009)

USA, 157 minutes, documentary
Director: Edward Sanders

Concert films are a breed of documentary unto themselves and the fact is I just don't look at that many. Maybe I've seen enough live shows that I know a movie of one is always a completely different experience. Or maybe I've seen enough bad shows that I forget (again) the magic of the good ones, which concert films can sometimes capture (rationally you would already assume it's a good show if it's getting the film treatment). The concert movies I like—Stop Making Sense, say—are often structured and filmic and not very much like seeing a concert. If they're rambling like a concert can be—The Last Waltz, say (understanding I'm likely in a minority in my indifference to that movie)—they're often even duller than concerts can be. At least in the movies we're spared the tedium of teardowns and setups. But paradoxically teardowns and setups count among the most common elements of the concert experience. Which only underlines how something essential about the actual physical presence is always missing from movie versions.

In any event, Leonard Cohen: Live in London is not cinematic, at all—the director is no one particularly in the movie business, and while the credits emphasize Roscoe Beck's role as musical director there is not a cinematographer credit on IMDb.com. Repeat: No cinematographer credit. Instead, "camera" is folded in with "electrical department." This product is also, while I'm on the caveats, associated with a CD release. It had no theatrical release of its own. So technically it's not a movie, it's a video, which only makes sense on ridiculous marketing levels. I would love to see it on a big screen. What's most remarkable about this Leonard Cohen performance from the summer of 2008 in London is how generous and satisfying it is. Cohen is the logical place to put the credit.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1953)

Read story by Flannery O'Connor online.

Flannery O'Connor's story is a hard gut punch, certainly the first time. After that you go back to dissect and figure out how it was done. The central problem and conflict are right there in the first paragraph, a fact perhaps as improbable as it is amazing. Even more amazing is the smooth way O'Connor pulls it off. A family's grandmother is an out-of-touch barnacle on the hull. Their ship is sinking, though we don't know why. We only know the mother and father are in a big hurry to travel from Georgia to Florida, although they are pretending it's a family vacation. There are two kids and an infant, the stressed-out parents, and the grandmother, who all things considered would rather be traveling to East Tennessee. She is an exasperating character, a kind of Lucille Ball figure oblivious to the worries of others or the reality around her, and attempting to manipulate all things her way. At the same time she's not wholly an unsympathetic person. If I were in her position I'd want to know more about why they're doing the things they're doing too. She doesn't deserve the fate she inadvertently forces—though even in the worst moments of their ultimate predicament she still doesn't seem to grasp the gravity of the situation, which leaves one less sympathetic. As big-time bad guys go, "The Misfit" is a lulu, starting with the moniker (no relation to the Arthur Miller story, which came later). Once he's squatting down in front of the family holding court, it's his show in every way, and all you want to do is quote him: "I found out the crime don't matter," he says. "You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it." Or: "I call myself the Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment." Or (my favorite): "Lady, there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip." He's the kind of character people make whole books about, when O'Connor is probably the one who has it right: stick him in a short story and overflow it with bitter bilge until it leaves a taste in the mouth. Among other things, a scene of a man putting on a shirt could well be one of the saddest, most pitiful, and horrifying things you have ever seen.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Broken Wings" (1900)

If it feels like we've been here before with Henry James, I think that's because we have: at the crucible of the choice between a life of love, warmth, and happiness, or a life of the solitude of creative work. It's a brooding story with long paragraphs. The heroes are Stuart Straith and Mrs. Harvey. She is an accomplished writer, and he is an accomplished painter. So it goes. They are meeting by random at a social occasion. They share a past—for 10 years they were close to marrying. But, well, the work—hang it all, the work. You really feel James put his heart into these situations, no doubt because as a lifelong bachelor he saw himself in them. People now tend to assume James was gay, or otherwise closeted, but as far as I know there is no Clyde Tolson companion figure shadowing him, let alone a formal life partner. James was at the work. I'm not making light of it. I respect his work ethic. This story is short enough to be a short story, but long enough to break into five sections with Roman numerals, with separate scenes in time and space. The social occasion, a party, is where these two reconnect, tentatively. It's a kind of dance they go through, seem resigned to, of advance and withdraw. They respect one another. They understand one another. In spite of which they must be apart, because—the work. In the third section they are seeing one another, bargaining within themselves as much as with each other. They confide their sideline means of income. Now we start to get the sense they may be accomplished as artists but stretching to make ends meet. Their sympathies for one another go deeper, as do ours for them. They are wonderfully tender and vulnerable with these disclosures. They have their struggles. Stuart's work doesn't seem to sell well, he has such a lot of it around his studio. But Mrs. Harvey pays him the compliment of a visit and abundant admiration for his work. In the fifth and last section, Mrs. Harvey lets Stuart visit her in her home, after some resistance. They are coming to recognize each other, perhaps imperfectly, even as they begin to realize they are alone in the world with their dreams. Who can't identify with that?

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 19 pages ("interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Friday, September 15, 2017

Night and the City (1950)

UK / USA, 96 minutes
Director: Jules Dassin
Writers: Jo Eisinger, Gerald Kersh, Austin Dempster, William E. Watts
Photography: Mutz Greenbaum
Music: Franz Waxman (USA), Benjamin Frankel (UK)
Editors: Nick DeMaggio, Sidney Stone
Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Francis L. Sullivan, Hugh Marlowe, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko

Midcentury was approximately the full ripening of American film noir, that mystifying quasi-genre label that was first applied (obviously) by the French, to Hollywood movies in which black dominates white in the primitive color schema and badness dominates goodness in the narrative. Many noirs are low-budget B-movies, typical for the time, relying on basics of darkened soundstages and often talky two-shot dialogue to keep costs down. The problem now is that this general term "film noir" can be made to fit movies from Citizen Kane to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Maybe the charm is the maddening vaporous attempt to pin it down. Like pornography you know it when you see it. Night and the City, one of the great noirs or certainly one of my favorites, has many of the familiar markers: jazzy soundtrack, crazy-angled shots, black shapes dominating the frames, a preoccupation with lowlifes and crime, and perhaps the key ingredient, desperation as the air the characters breathe. It's classic noir in that the story is packed full of betrayals, treacheries nested inside treacheries. Yes, it's a woman, but Helen Nosseross (Googie Withers) is hardly the usual femme fatale. She ends up impaled on her own betrayals—but she's not the only or even the chief betrayer in all the great gobs of bad faith on trade here.

In other ways, Night and the City is unusual. It's set in London, which despite its famous gloom is a little too tallyho for noir, compared with the Southern California scenes of transplanted Midwesterners we're more used to. Director Jules Dassin, a Connecticut native who ended up in New York City, was a pioneer and prime mover of noir, with The Naked City and others already to his credit. But in 1950 he was blacklisted for belonging to the Communist Party in the 1930s. Night and the City was his last Hollywood film, and even at that he was pulled off after the shooting was finished. He had nothing to do with editing or postproduction. Because of requirements of the US and worldwide markets at the time, the result, weirdly, was more or less two separate movies, with separate soundtracks and numerous differences in editing. Full disclosure: I only know the US version.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"The Things They Carried" (1986)

Read story by Tim O'Brien online.

Tim O'Brien's story was evidently conceived as the first story in a cycle of stories going by the same name, The Things They Carried, published in 1990. Wikipedia calls it a novel, but this story reads more like a stand-alone than, for example, Dorothy Allison's "River of Names," which is also from the collection edited by Tobias Wolff. At the same time, O'Brien's story is sounding big themes, suitable for later enlargement. The art of this particular story is that it works pretty well either way—as a story, or as an overture to a novel. Literally the objects of the title are scrutinized. The small outfit of American soldiers on patrol duty in Vietnam is described as carrying rifles, radios, food, camping equipment, and other necessary (and unnecessary) items. They all carry peculiar keepsakes, letters from home and such. As a group, they "carried themselves with poise." And they carry internal burdens. The stand-alone narrative—which might well be developed further in a larger novel—is about a soldier killed by a sniper while the band is on patrol. It is a shocking incident for all, and a crisis for the leader, 24-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. They respond in ways we've been trained to expect by Vietnam War stories, in this case by burning down a village. It's good powerful stuff, delivered with a sure grim tone and a lot of insight into private and personal pains. If they sometimes feel like clichés now, that's not exactly O'Brien's faults. He was among the first to use them with Going After Cacciato in 1978, before they were clichés. O'Brien feels a little in the literary war lineage of Ernest Hemingway and Normal Mailer. Cacciato was ripe with literary conceit, saturated through with O'Brien's remarkable eye for the Vietnam War experience. We know these stories so well now it's easy to miss the precision of the execution. I have a strong hunch, for example—not knowing the full-length Things They Carried—that our Lieutenant Cross is a candidate for fragging. Certainly more than one of the characters we meet in this story, not just the one killed here, will come to a sad wartime end. I'm not averse to reading more. The story is fine. But I find myself orienting the same way I do with any genre literature. On certain obvious levels you're never going to be surprised.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Monday, September 11, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Since approximately Saving Private Ryan, big-name directors taking turns at World War II shows has become a bit of a rite of passage (so make that since the 50th anniversary of D-Day). A partial list would include Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor), Roman Polanski (The Pianist), Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds), and Robert Zemeckis (Allied). Clint Eastwood made two in one year (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima) and even John Woo made one (Windtalkers). Still, it was surprising to me that director and writer Christopher Nolan had any interest in the subject, given the indie / superhero bent of his career. But apparently he has been nursing a screenplay for some 25 years. In many ways it shows. Dunkirk is full of a big bushel basket of ambitious everything—blood, sweat, tears, maybe one or two kitchen sinks—but it's missing one thing: narrative clarity. With all the Dark Knight business he retailed for years it might be easy to forget that Nolan is a British citizen. That's evident here, and he is obviously stirred by the British effort at Dunkirk. He pretty much assumes we care as much as he does, and that's where he's starting from. If you don't know much about Dunkirk the historical event and key battle of World War II—which I didn't, lazybones me, assuming the movie would fill me in—then you might find yourself somewhat at sea like all the imperiled people in the movie. It also doesn't help that Dunkirk is treated like one of those things so big it can only be told with the stories of multiple otherwise unconnected people. I never felt like I 100% grasped everything I was looking at—who these people were, what exactly was happening to them specifically, and what happened to my compassion. The battle scenes are tremendous, yes, particularly the aerial engagements, but tremendous battle scenes are not enough. The deaths can be horrible and there were touching displays of human kindness, but horrible deaths and touching human kindness are also not enough. The notable lack of clarity in Dunkirk, in fact, was unexpected partly because I thought one of the few worthwhile points about the otherwise incoherent mess of Interstellar was Nolan's ability to visually communicate experiences of relativity without getting that confusing. I was dubious about Dunkirk from the start, but when word of mouth got to me that it was Nolan's masterpiece I thought I had to take a look. As far as I'm concerned, The Dark Knight and then Memento are still the ones by him to beat. As World War II movies go, I think I even like Allied better, though it's not nearly as self-serious.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (1772)

Slave narratives seem to vary quite a bit by size. This one is relatively short, less than 40 printed pages, but some can run to hundreds of pages. They also date all the way back to the 18th century (or further?), and North America is only one part of the picture in the larger slave trade. James Albert (as he is usually called in this narrative, a first-person memoir dictated orally) finishes his days in England, the land he dreamed of all his life, or at least after his life changed radically with his kidnapping. A couple of points are hard to miss. First, the condescension of even the kindest white people and the acceptance of blacks only in the lowest social positions. We know now that these are matters of social psychology, self-reinforcing belief systems and so forth, but still it's striking how deeply accepted it is. The good old days! Make America great again! And then, second, all the risk African Americans lived with, day to day. James Albert is carried away from his home in Africa at about the age of 15, and frequently robbed and swindled by shady unscrupulous people from that point on. But he meets many good people as well. This narrative reads as if it were intended chiefly, or at least partly, to carry the word of Jesus. James Albert claims he rejected the faith by which he was raised (in "the sun, moon and stars") even then, before he was kidnapped, choosing instead to believe in a single superior entity. Thus Christianity was a natural fit for him, goes the narrative, and really that's fine. It seems generous on his part—he knows the Bible and has obviously meditated on it and drawn strength from it. I am instinctively averse to the language of redemption through Jesus the Christ and only Jesus the Christ, even from such an unimpeachable source as this, and I had to fight that in myself a little while reading this. His time in North America was spent in the North, so no scenes of antebellum South, for which honestly I was grateful at this early point. Though this slave narrative is cluttered up too much with religion, it's a lucid and interesting story. James Albert is perfectly likable—sunny and optimistic in spite of his many setbacks. He is grateful for and remembers the good that people have done him, and he has been good to others too. It's hard not to like that. He's also sympathetic for the way he is taken advantage of and bounces back. The slave narratives and related pieces I've been reading are mostly in chronological order, so this is the earliest—but it also seems like a nice way to ease into this.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)