Monday, July 24, 2017

Baby Driver (2017)

Despite its relative star power—Jamie, Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Kevin Spacey, along with handfuls of familiar who's-thats—Baby Driver is all car chases and lovingly crafted soundtrack. It's the new movie from director and writer Edgar Wright, director and cowriter of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which I love, Shaun of the Dead, which I like, and Hot Fuzz, meh. Before we go any further, let's linger a moment on the best point, the soundtrack: the Beach Boys, "Let's Go Away for Awhile" ... Bob & Earl, "Harlem Shuffle" (the Foundation, "Harlem Shuffle") ... the Commodores, "Easy" (Sky Ferreira, "Easy") ... the Damned, "Neat Neat Neat" ... Focus, "Hocus Pocus" ... Golden Earring, "Radar Love" ... Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "Bellbottoms" ... Barbara Lewis, "Baby I'm Yours" ... Carla Thomas, "B-A-B-Y"—kind of a theme song for obvious reasons. That's a fraction, it's all great stuff, and it's pretty much nonstop, though too often it slips into the background. The story is a bunch of gangster cliches about a getaway driver named Baby. He's young but has tinnitus so he plays music constantly through earbuds to help handle the condition. While the technology of interest in Baby Driver is mainly the old-fashioned screeching and skidding internal combustion engine on wheels, the homely old iPod gets its share of the glory too. Baby carries around a bunch of them because he has so many songs (and most look like Classics too, because he's just that kind of guy). The tunes chill him out and help him focus when he's ditching the scene of the crime with carfuls of henchmen and often the cops in pursuit. Which brings us to the carbon-spewing main feature of this attraction. There is some mighty fine stunt driving on display here, if perhaps a bit too heavy in the sound design on a certain stuttering, chattering skid noise (reminiscent of a Hanna-Barbera sound effect from the '50s and '60s). Oh lordy, that Baby cuts around those Atlanta streets like nobody's business. These scenes may not be up to parts of the Mad Max / Road Warrior franchise or certain Asian action pictures (thinking of some Jackie Chan scenes), but if it's not too old school to say, they're at least as exciting as Bullitt, The French Connection, and Vanishing Point, all of which thrilled me. But that was circa 1971 and this is 2017 and I'm sorry to say the massive carbon loads of these scenes brought me down, notwithstanding that some of the best action is actually on foot. The story is studiously stock boy meets girl desperation hit the road heat and flash stuff, often dependent on wincing coincidence to move it along. The leads—Ansel Elgort as Baby and Lily James as Debora—are adequate, young and attractive and fitted out with strange and unbelievable backstories. The movie is not really about them, however, and they and the rest of the cast rarely get in the way of what the movie is actually about, which as I said is car chases and the soundtrack. When that's pumped up good, which it often is, this movie rides a soaring wave, as long as you don't mind seeing figurative plumes of carbon billowing off the digital screen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

"Paste" (1899)

In case you ever start to worry about Henry James's humanity—which you shouldn't, but it's understandable if you do—this story may provide a tonic. A young man with an interesting name, Arthur Prime, has recently lost his father, and then, only a few months later, his stepmother. His cousin Charlotte is with him to help with things—she grieves her aunt too. Arthur asks Charlotte to help him sort a last box he found wedged into a corner of a closet, out of sight and nearly inaccessible. In it are paste jewelry (as in title) and other souvenirs of her past as an actress. As the second wife of a (widowed, of course) clergyman, Arthur's stepmother forever left and disavowed her theatrical past, an occupation that is scandalous enough even in her past. Charlotte expects the pearls she finds there, at least, are real. But Arthur furiously denies it. He appears to hate even the idea of this part of his stepmother's life. He felt closer to her even than to his own mother, lost to him young. He's so adamant about it that Charlotte accepts its truth without question, but asks if she can keep them and the rest of the contents of the box as a keepsake of her aunt's. Arthur obviously thinks that's crazy, but assents, glad to be rid of it all. You can maybe guess where this is going, especially if you know a story by Guy de Maupassant called "The Necklace." A friend of Charlotte's clues her in later and swears the pearls are real. It's the story's resolution that's surprisingly warm and insightful, turning the whole thing into a sharply observed character portrait. It frankly surprised me, given all the artificialities of the last I'd read by him (The Awkward Age) still ringing in my ears. "Paste" is anything but artificial. The title is just an interesting play on the themes. Of course, this has its sources in James's interest in the theater and theater life (not to mention Guy de Maupassant). But I'm struck even more here by his interest in character studies and portrait painting. He dismissed Impressionism as a fraud, and at least two of his characters extol the virtues of portraiture as the one true art. I have some sympathy for the view, though I think it holds more interest in photography than painting (at least until the selfie era). "Paste" is a character study illustrated in words, and a really nice story too.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 17 pages

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

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Know Your Product (1977-1978)

This package, released in the '90s, is branded as "the best of the Saints," a roaring whining not-to-be-missed '70s punk-rock outfit out of Australia, when really it's just more or less the band's first two albums, which fit snugly together on a single CD. For all I know, that could really be the best of the Saints—'70s punk-rock bands famously shot wads early and fast—but this is all I know of them, except they're still going, with lots of breakups and people in and out since then. I can't even remember how this CD got into my house (garage sale?) but I'm glad it did. For me, all punk-rock starts with the Ramones and thus I'm often most partial to the contemporaries feeling their way to the same ends in the post-glam twilight, for example the Suicide Commandos and the Vibrators. The Saints, who got together originally in 1974, are a pure chip off that fine old block. The sound comes at you like a stuttering wallop of sludge: pogo bass, squalling buzz saw guitars with gentle bolts of feedback, and a gentleman with a hawk of phlegm at the back of his throat who sounds vaguely dissatisfied with all things. But this is not about bludgeoning—the love for pop melody the Saints inherited from glam is still there, in every track (for otherwise it would have no reason to exist). The propulsion turns explosive on modest little killer rockers like "This Perfect Day," "One Way Street," and "Run Down," which can about snap the neck if you're not careful. For more clues, let's go to the covers on the first album, from 1977, (I'm) Stranded (some of them first released on a 1977 EP): "Lipstick on Your Collar," a Connie Francis hit in 1959 ... "River Deep Mountain High," the famous crash and burn of Tina Turner and Phil Spector in 1966 ... "Kissin' Cousins," an Elvis Presley hit in 1964 ... and "Wild About You," by the Missing Links, a '60s Australian garage-rock forebear. I love the title of (I'm) Stranded for the New York Dolls reference almost as much as for the cheek of starting it with a parenthetical. That's so pop! The second album, from 1978, Eternally Yours, is starting to show more shreds of ambition, such as an intermittent horn section or harmonica. There are also changes on the CD, such as "Do the Robot" for "International Robots," which is generally an improvement. The sequencing is different too. Robert Christgau complained in the '70s about the horns and he has a point, but I'm also interested in next steps for punk-rockers: strings, synths, horns, acoustic, African rhythm, etc. Horns represent a certain bent toward soul that I like. But I admit a little of it goes a long way so I'm glad it's sparing here. Know Your Product is like a great live set, with songs and hooks crawling all over each other to make it irresistible. I'm going to just go ahead and call it essential.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

"The Outstation" (1924)

Story by W. Somerset Maugham not available online.

I thought this story by W. Somerset Maugham was pretty good, though unfortunately marred by comparison with an earlier and better story in the collection with similar themes by Joseph Conrad, "An Outpost of Progress." Both are set in British colonies across the globe and involve conflicts encountered by the white men stationed there. Conrad is concerned with the violence and barbarism of colonialism, whereas Maugham appears to have more the portability of the British class system on his mind, with an exotic background that somehow forces the conflict. It's as effective in its way as the Conrad, but not as visceral. Maybe that's what I miss. Maugham's story has the more interesting characters. It's told third-person omniscient, mostly from the point of view of the ranking white man, Mr. Warburton, at a Malaysia station of a private trading company. Warburton is an effete upper-class toady, a carefully defined "snob." His new assistant, Mr. Cooper, is a blustering fellow on the rise from the working class. He is competent in his work, but rejects the dress and manner of Warburton as phony. Cooper knows well on a blunt level the injustice of the class system, but it is Warburton who is more capable of kindness to "inferiors." Cooper beats and mistreats his servants, calls them "niggers," and can't understand Warburton's objections any more than he can understand the requirement to dress for dinner. Warburton is caught by the situation, as Cooper is too good at his job to move him elsewhere and replace him. They modulate from being strained with one another, to hostile, to quarreling, and finally they stop speaking altogether. "Each lived in his own house as though the other did not exist." I don't think I'm giving too much away if I let you know that going from bad to worse is the basic narrative arc here. But here also is where the comparison with Conrad becomes apt again. Maugham continually erects a stiff upper lip British sensibility around the details that leaves things just a little more distanced than I think is called for. These characters are complex and interesting and in vital conflict with one another. I wanted it all more out in the open—or perhaps a better view of the inside—and the result of the disaffection is that the conflict feels slighted a little, as if it were something proposed as a thought experiment of some kind. Or is that just the comparison with the Conrad again?

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

It's a strange feeling to go back to something so adolescent, by definition, at a time when adolescence is far more memory than reality. It's easy enough to see why I fell in love with this book when I was 15. The language is a torrential force in its own right, that cocky, wheedling, judgmental, insecure fine whine of the teenager in living angst—the invisible, the unheard, yearning to be seen and heard. Holden Caulfield is no one I would like to know anymore (if I ever did—more like I felt I was him) (there's a telling parenthetical). When I see him in public now I go in the other direction as soon as possible. And yet it's impossible not to have at least some affection for the poor guy. Details I never noticed before: how big he is, over six foot two. How often he uses the word "really," like a tic. The book is known for its use of the word "phony" but I'd bet "really" is in there even more. I really would. That singing narrative voice was J.D. Salinger's great gift, I think, and his most famous novel is one of the best examples. I'm almost, not quite, as well-read as Holden Caulfield now, so I caught more of the literary references. The Catcher in the Rye is narrow, in a way, with its Manhattan and East Coast preoccupations. It's a novel about an upper-middle-class prep school kid who's a little high-strung. If I had only his problems I'd be doing a lot better already—it's open to that kind of class-based derision, I can see that better now. Yet it transcends prep school and Manhattan and class. Holden Caulfield gets inside your head as much as any other first-person fictional character, and he's on a profound quest too, looking for significance in a world of phony surface. He reminds us of that adolescent idealism whose momentum, if we are lucky, carries us through middle age, when all the hard realities strike. It's easy to snort over his small problems, particularly the ones he creates himself in his own fatuous stupidity, such as an encounter with a prostitute, or picking a hopeless fight with his dormitory roommate. He is on a hard downward spiral and he's taking us with him. That's the trajectory here. According to Wikipedia, The Catcher in the Rye has sold 65 million copies since its publication in 1951, and is still moving 250,000 a year. Amazing. So it is off its peaks but still widely read. I'm surprised by that, honestly, because it's often dated, especially in its treatment of women and girls. But Holden Caulfield remained compelling on a recent visit, if more cringeworthy more often than I remembered, and it's still attracting new readers too, so it must be doing something right. P.S. When are we going to see the posthumous Salinger manuscripts? Come on lawyers, we're counting on you.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Close-Up (1990)

Nema-ye Nazdik, Iran, 98 minutes
Director/writer/editor: Abbas Kiarostami
Photography: Ali Reza Zarrindast
Cast: Abbas Kiarostami, Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abolfazi Ahankhah, Mehrdad Ahankhah, Monoochehr Ahankhah, Mahrokh Akankhah, Hossain Farazmand, Hooshang Shamaei, Mohammad Ali Barrati, Davood Goodarzi, Haj Ali Reza Ahmadi

I debated about whether or not I should classify this critical favorite by Iranian director, writer, and editor Abbas Kiarostami as a documentary. Wikipedia calls it "docufiction," which is reasonably close to "docudrama," my first inclination. It's based on true events, with real people from the story, but the scenes are mostly (or sometimes) reenactments, cunningly devised to make points about truth and reality. Then I noticed that in the titles Kiarostami credits himself for "screenplay." Somehow, in my mind, that settled it. A screenplay signals fiction for me, whereas a simple "written by" might have still kept it plausibly in play as a documentary. It's a shady line.

And it doesn't help that the documentaries ranking highest on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (and its companion 21st-century version as well) already tend to be unusual versions of the mundane fact-based form we usually think of, even operating at highest levels (say, Frederick Wiseman). You might even want to rule them out altogether for various formal infractions. I mean, look: Man With a Movie Camera (too evangelizing), Shoah (too long), The Gleaners and I (too personal), Tie Xi Qu (also too long), and now Close-Up, which I am tentatively calling too meta or postmodern to be a documentary.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"Shiloh" (1982)

Read story by Bobbie Ann Mason online.

Bobbie Ann Mason reads like another writer in the second half of the 20th century who was influenced by Raymond Carver. She does with her native Western Kentucky much as Carver did with his native Pacific Northwest. "Shiloh" is about the end of the marriage of Leroy and Norma Jean. It's filled with poignant detail and the routines of busy lives attempting not to deal with important issues. Leroy, a long-haul trucker, has recently been laid up by a serious accident on the job. Now he is afraid to drive again, but he doesn't know how to be useful. He takes up an assortment of hobbies while he convalesces, and eventually decides he wants to build a log cabin by hand for his family, almost as if that's just another hobby. Norma Jean is having none of it. She treats him as if he is going through a phase—isn't he? Her mother, Mabel, also thinks it's a ridiculous idea. She was raised in a log cabin. "It's no picnic, let me tell you," she says, trying to steer him away from the idea. Norma Jean works at the cosmetics counter in a drugstore, and spends a lot of her time exercising, trying to tone her arms. Leroy and Norma Jean had a child many years earlier who died of crib death, and no children since. Mabel wants them to visit the Shiloh battlefield nearby. Mabel went there for her honeymoon and perhaps she thinks it will do their marriage good. They finally go there for a heavily freighted and symbolic visit, the time and place Norma Jean chooses to tell Leroy she is planning to leave him. In this civil war, Leroy represents the union, and Norma Jean is seceding. Neither character is unsympathetic, though both have annoying points. The early '80s is about the time divorce was slipping into widespread acceptance, starting to become just what people did, the way staying together used to be. It's a sad scene. Marriages become the mass victims the way the soldiers were at Shiloh. There are no tears or recriminations when Norma Jean makes her announcement there. There's only a depressing sense of finality—depressing, but not consuming, because life goes on. It's too soon to want for death as the way out. There's little sense anyone in this story has changed or will change by the end. Just sad resignation, squaring shoulders, and forward into the future. It's how we live now, still.

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)

The latest from director and screenwriter Sofia Coppola won her a Best Director prize at this year's Cannes. It's a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name directed by Don Siegel—or, at least, it's based on the same literary property, the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. I don't know the novel, or the '71 movie, but obviously this is focused more on the women's point of view. It's a spooky Southern gothic by all the signals, or wants to be, a period piece set in Civil War Virginia full of hysterical women and violent men. I was never strongly persuaded by the story about a wounded Yankee soldier behind enemy lines. He may or may not be deserting from the war, but anyway he is injured and comes to find himself in the care of the seven Southern women and girls left eking out a life (and education) at Martha Farnsworth's boarding school for girls. It's 1864 and the fog of war is banked thick—those still at the school have lost people, or everyone. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is a no-nonsense schoolmarm and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is the last teacher left. For some reason, they don't want to turn the wounded soldier over to their own. They treat his wounds and keep him out of sight. The two single women and five adolescent girls deliver random charges of undirected sexual energy, especially with a handsome, dashing, and vulnerable soldier in the house. They are all drawn to Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in many different ways. Elle Fanning is a sexualized adolescent with a powerful crush and Oona Laurence is an endearingly sincere botany nerd. Miss Farnsworth and Edwina have their own histories and feelings about the situation. Inevitably there's some Virgin Suicides chemistry in the many scenes with the girls in groups, and in the strange group psychologies too, as strained through Tennessee Williams. The presence alone of a man among these women and girls works old-fashioned alchemy on them—they dress up a little more, sneak into the room where he rests to visit, each with her own agenda, and nervous jealous spats erupt among them. McBurney is hard to read, an Irishman recently come to America, and a substitute who accepted money to take the place of a Northerner in the war. He may or may not be a rogue, but he's certainly a man alone with women with nothing to do besides rest, recuperate, and study. He appears to have no particular loyalty, in love or war. Things in The Beguiled are generally going in one direction and then with a single incident suddenly shift to another, opening the picture and momentarily promising to take it to unexpected places. But then it shifts smoothly back to less surprising precincts. That could be a problem with the novel. Or it could be my problem with Tennessee Williams. The performances are hothouse great, with lots of skillful ensemble pieces, but I came away a little underwhelmed. I'm scoring The Beguiled as more of a miss.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Angle of Repose (1971)

Wallace Stegner's novel has a structurally complicated point of view, arcing across time and generations. I wanted to connect that with the title, but as a term "angle of repose" is less about a viewpoint and more about geology and landscape engineering. That's appropriate because the husband of the main character is a self-educated mining engineer (who also works on diversionary waterway construction, such as dams) in the 19th-century American West. The star of this show is Susan Burling Ward, who is based on the historical figure Mary Hallock Foote, an illustrator and writer who followed her civil engineering husband around the West, and sent back reports to the East. This is all news to me. The narrator is the grandson of this couple. He is also a 58-year-old academic historian confined to a wheelchair because he has lost a leg. He is working on a project based on his grandmother's letters. What I like most about Angle of Repose is the way it spins out stories of the Old West. Its particular angle of view is the self-made American man—one thing that eventually holds back Oliver Ward is that he has no formal college education—making things out of the land with his hands. Susan is even more resourceful in her way, especially working within the limitations of being a woman and an artist. The novel was published in 1971, and it's evident in some of the modern-day passages that "Women's Liberation" was still strange and unfamiliar. I didn't get the sense that Susan's role as the main character was in any way intended as a model of feminism—if anything, it's pulling in the other direction, locating her strength in her strong sense of tradition. Stegner might get a little cute with some of his conceits. The narrator is not just researching a book, but this is that book. Toward the end we see the narrator, Lyman Ward, musing over how he will title it "Angle of Repose." Ayup. It ends on a note out of a horror movie, which is as out of place as it is effectively done. I think on the whole I could have done without it. Without a doubt the best parts of the book, and most of it, take place in the distant past. The specificity of the places—Leadville, Mexico, Idaho—is vivid and wonderful. At the same time, the modern mind intrudes often on these scenes, as we are led down the garden path by the narrator into penetrating the interior lives of heroic and larger-than-life characters. The frame doesn't work, but the canvas is pretty impressive.

In case it's not at the library.