Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Akhnilo" (1981)

Story by James Salter not available online.

James Salter's very short and very strange story operates much like a poem, with seductively beautiful language that invites, if not requires, close parsing. The first point to note is that the title is a made-up word not used in the story, which helps almost not at all, beyond perhaps reminding us that all fiction is "made up" (Saki shows how it's properly done in "Sredni Vashtar," where the made-up words are given meaning). The main character, Fenn, is wakened by noises in the night that might be an intruder. He gets out of bed to investigate. It's hard to know exactly what's going on—which among other things makes it annoying if you're not in the right mood—but the supposition that it's an intruder gradually shifts to the thought that it is some sort of animal activity. Fenn is a carpenter age 34 (so note that he has outlived Jesus by a year), with a degree from Dartmouth in history. By those markers he is both privileged and humble. Having eliminated intruders and animals, he next seems to decide it's some kind of divine sign. He is being called. He leaves the house by leaping out of a second-floor window—well, it's much more cautious than leaping, but it's still unnecessarily dramatic when there are probably stairs in the house. Now Fenn begins to remember his past alcoholism and rehab and he decides this is all about redemption. And maybe it is. But I think it's mostly overdone. It's the kind of story that's written by someone who is very good at writing, but not as good at constructing narrative. And already it feels dated—the privileged white man who became an alcoholic, then a carpenter, cultivating a hobby of carving birds from wood. It's a story that might seem better after an hour or two of chewing it over in a college English class, or writing a paper about it. I might like it more after I finish writing this. But the basic elements—privileged white guy, alcoholic, carpenter—just seem so tired even in conception. Less so in 1981, perhaps. Wikipedia contributes to my dimming sense of this story with points like "widely regarded as one of the most artistic writers of modern American fiction" or quoting Richard Ford: "It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today." I won't dispute the poetic vigor of the language, but I'm really not sure it adds up to anything very impressive.

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

Thursday, December 28, 2017

"Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" (1948)

Story by J.D. Salinger not available online.

Technically, this story by J.D. Salinger belongs with his Glass family stories, though it's a bit of a stretch. The Glass family member making an appearance is Walt, who is dead during the action of this story, and the Glass family name never appears. Instead, it's a type of story we're more used to seeing from John Cheever or John Updike, exploring midcentury Eastern seaboard suburban malaise. For that matter, the word "Connecticut" never appears either, except in the title. So the insights seem a little paltry—you know, like, suburban life and values are so lame, man. Well, at least the insights have the virtue of being mostly true. As for the rest, it's great. It sparkles with Salinger's usual insanely engaging language. I understand that might be a generational, class, or otherwise narrow view, but it does work for me. The story is about one college friend visiting another. They are grown now and in their 30s and this seems to be a recurring if infrequent event. Mary Jane gets lost trying to fine Eloise's place and then they spend the afternoon getting drunk, while the maid minds Eloise's girl, who makes an appearance to charm Mary Jane and we the readers. Salinger might be at his best with children—real children, not adolescents and adults who won't grow up, though he's pretty good with them too. He just seems to understand what makes kids tick, and how we spend the rest of our lives failing to live up to that. It also means, for better or worse, that he goes to some cloying places as well. Their charms may be too precious, and certainly the idealization of them as perfect innocents is overdone. Yet it's also exactly this sense of innocence that he's especially good at—the naturally occurring and amazing kind in real children. It's also a somewhat trite war story. These days the lethal factor would probably be more like an auto accident for the same effect, but in 1948 it was still easiest just to resort to the war. The picture of ennui at the center of plenty may or may not have been radical then, but certainly the view is now mainstream, so there's some tedium to the story in that regard. But it's also Salinger in his prime, so I'm not about to steer anyone away from it.

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

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Walden (1854)

It didn't take me long to remember why I had never been able to make it all the way through Walden before—it's an odd book, with a strange premise, and many boring digressions. "Boring"—there I said it. Henry David Thoreau is arguably America's first hippie, with as many evident connections to Kwai Chang Caine as to the Jacks Kerouac and London, not to mention Ralph Waldo Emerson and Unitarianism. To me Thoreau is one of our most sensible writers, with an important point of view. People should read him. He is eminently quotable, in particular, and without doubt Walden bears most of the best of these nuggets (remembering that Thoreau died young, at 44). Yet a certain sad tale is told by the highlighting in the free kindle version I slogged through recently. Early on, in the first chapter, I saw that 2,707 people had highlighted "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." On the same page, I saw that 1,938 people had highlighted: "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to love. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." After that, however, all these many hundreds of people stopped highlighting. Knowing as I do better now how deadly soporific that first chapter is, I suspect the obvious. They stopped reading. As it happens, my own highlighting was fixated on things like the word "flute." At one point, for example, we find Thoreau reminiscing by the side of Walden Pond: "When I was four years old, as I well remember, I was brought from Boston to my native town, through these very woods and this field, to the pond. It is one of the oldest scenes stamped on my memory. And now to-night my flute has waked the echoes over that very water." Yes, so he's sitting there playing a flute. Have you seen episodes of the old Kung Fu TV show lately? I find I have seized on the flute, and some notion of going about barefoot much of the time, as certain hippie totems. But of course there's much more going on beyond the caricatures in Walden. Thoreau's most potent influence—his best idea—was in his profound rejection of the conventional, which in the US has always meant more generally the commercial. Thoreau may be as close as European Americans have had to a soul walking the earth, uncommonly practical, enraptured with capital-N Nature on many levels, and a stone geek on sundry intellectual matters such as biology or Hinduism. His experiment involved many conditions that barely obtain today or that were obscured for the sake of the experiment (some interesting perspective in this New Yorker story from earlier this year). But he was obviously smart, resourceful, and humanitarian. There are many gems of passages in Walden too, though I estimate the proportion at about 30% to the rest. Plan to be patient.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Carlito's Way (1993)

USA, 144 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Edwin Torres, David Koepp
Photography: Stephen H. Burum
Music: Patrick Doyle, Brian De Palma Pop Hit Mix
Editors: Kristina Boden, Bill Pankow
Cast: Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, John Leguizamo, Ingrid Rogers, Luis Guzman, James Rebhorn, Viggo Mortenson, Paul Mazursky, John Ortiz, Joseph Siravo

Yeah, I thought too late, I probably should have taken another look at director Brian De Palma's Scarface while I was at it, which I have somehow not been able to do since seeing it new. I know its reputation has seen considerable rehabilitation since then. And between putting Al Pacino front and center, coming in long, and working self-consciously within the gangster movie frame, they have a lot in common. If it's ridiculous for Pacino to bury his Marielito head in a pile of cocaine on a desktop in Scarface it's probably equally ridiculous to make him a Puerto Rican gangbanger trying to go straight in Carlito's Way.

But here we are. I've grown fond of Carlito's Way since first seeing it some 10 years ago. It's an exemplary instance of De Palma's ability to craft operatic narrative that is genuinely affecting. It's romantic, absorbing, moving, and often beautiful, even if it is all in the service of overfamiliar clichés. At least Scarface was pushing hard on its limitations, amirite? I'll have to make a point to get to it. We probably shouldn't leave Goodfellas out of this discussion either, as Carlito's Way also adapts some of that movie's surging pseudo-documentary verve. Carlito Brigante (Pacino) narrates in voiceover and the story unfolds with a lot of episodic energy, taking its time to explain certain points fully. It also has a predilection for matching intense scenes with rock songs: "Oye Como Va" by Santana, "You Should Be Dancing" by the Bee Gees, "Lady Marmalade" by Labelle. But the sense of classic tragedy, of noble life and fatal flaws and destiny—that's all De Palma.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

"Sredni Vashtar" (1911)

Read story by Saki online.

Saki was a Scottish writer, also known as H.H. Munro, who died in battle at the age of 45 in World War I. His literary specialty involved very short stories, usually involving children and animals. They might be classed as horror, because they were often macabre, with surprising cruelties, and many had supernatural elements as well. "Sredni Vashtar" is one of his best known and most widely collected, though perhaps a little short on the entirely fantastic. Conradin is the main character, a boy of 10 with a fatal disease who will die within five years. He is in the legal care of Mrs. De Ropp, his cousin. No word on the whereabouts of his parents (abandoned children are another recurring feature of Saki's stories). Conradin is lonely with only Mrs. De Ropp hovering over him. Consigned to the garden in the backyard, he finds a neglected toolshed in a far corner, and in that shed a hen and a caged polecat-ferret. He dubs the mammal hybrid "Sredni Vashtar" and worships it as a god. The hen he treats as a pet, and loves. Eventually Mrs. De Ropp investigates the toolshed. She misses the polecat-ferret but removes the hen, "sold and taken away overnight." Conradin's sadness is so profound we feel it ourselves. He knows now it's just a matter of time before she gets to the other animal. This is strange stuff, but normal for Saki. Mrs. De Ropp is not wantonly punishing—she may be insensitive but she feels a responsibility for the boy's care. Meanwhile the worship of Sredni Vashtar is only vaguely plausible but wholly typical of Saki. The feverishness of it (along with the brevity of the story) helps make us believe too, if only for as long as we read. Conradin's supplications take a new and darker tone after the hen is gone. "Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar," is his repeated prayer. "The thing was not specified," Saki writes as an aside. "As Sredni Vashtar was a god he must be supposed to know." And so it comes to pass that one day Mrs. De Ropp investigates the toolshed further. I'm sure you can guess the twist ending—once you've read enough Saki they're not hard to guess. The real surprise is that he did this stuff at all, thought of crazy monstrous ways to end his stories, and then actually did them. On one level, it's unbelievable cheek—so it's a joke? Yes and no. The ending also speaks unmistakably to Conradin's rage, at the loss of his hen, at the imminent loss of his life, at the emptiness of his life awaiting death. The story is highly implausible like a joke, but the character plight is real and carries all the portent and gravity of this remarkable story.

Sredni Vashtar and Other Stories by Saki

Monday, December 18, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Here's one that comes with a lot of buzz—I've been hearing about it all year, and it's just thick with stars and familiar faces: Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, Lucas Hedges, Sam Rockwell, and more, but above all Frances McDormand, with a very big role as Mildred Hayes of Ebbing, Missouri, whose daughter was raped and killed seven months before the action of this movie. The case is still open, the perpetrator still at large, and Mildred suspects the police are not really working it. She takes matters into her own hands and finds a way to buy advertising space on [the title], taunting the chief of police by name for the lack of results. The town, especially the police, do not react well. Three Billboards was written and directed by Martin McDonagh, who also wrote and directed In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Like the first (I haven't seen the second), Three Billboards comes with a low-grade if somewhat smoother Guy Ritchie affect. Tension is heavy around here. The confrontations are harsh, the violence unexpected and shocking, and plenty of people are just plain reprehensible. You can't always make out what they're saying either, the backwoods accents are so thick. I believe this movie has its heart in the right place, much like Paul Haggis's Crash 13 years ago, but it's unfortunately nearly as simple and easy about dispensing redemption like lotion from a tube. The plot has many unlikely turns, and if it's trying to be a movie for the Trump era—a quick internet search did not turn up when it was actually written and filmed—it's trying too hard. Or it doesn't know what it's talking about. Or both. A lot of these scenes and setups betray only a certain loathing for the caricatures populating the small, rural, impoverished Missouri town—loathing for red-state America, not to put too fine a point on it. Mildred and her ex-husband (Hawkes) are rushed sketches of the economically left-behind white working class who now work on opioid problems and vote DJT, if they vote. The police, especially Dixon (Rockwell), are barely above the level of brutes—real knuckle-draggers. I suspect this movie is infuriating people in Missouri, but in fairness, the people in Missouri have also been infuriating the rest of us for a few years, between Todd Akin and Michael Brown. Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) is the exception—a good old boy but worldly and wise like Yoda, and apparently with definite opinions about Oscar Wilde. So what we end up with is a feel-good movie about American bigotry and divided America that nonetheless is packed with some very sharp scenes and performances. Worth seeing—you might even find it adding up more than me.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Harlot's Ghost (1991)

The last words in Norman Mailer's massive CIA novel are "to be continued." In many ways Harlot's Ghost does feel like just half the tale, covering activities in "the Company" from 1955 to 1963. The main focus is the Kennedy administration, primarily Cuba, the Bay of Pigs, and its aftermath. The Kennedy assassination is a convenient milestone on which to end it. But the career of the young narrator—Herrick Hubbard, though he goes by many different names—is just starting as the novel ends. Mailer had certainly figured out big tome dynamics with The Executioner's Song, and Harlot's Ghost is actually a remarkably quick and easy read. It patiently develops the skills of spying, called tradecraft, by showing Hubbard's education and work in action. Slowly, the novel turns and points into history, as the cast grows to include all manner of real people: E. Howard Hunt, Allen Dulles, J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe, "Jack" Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Fidel Castro, William Harvey. All and more have speaking parts (if only, some of them, gleaned via surveillance transcripts). Hunt probably even qualifies as a semi-major character. By the time they show up, Mailer has established a level of authorial credibility and we accept them as all else. Hubbard goes to school, and then on to assignments in D.C., Berlin, Uruguay for several years, and ultimately (in terms of the novel) Miami and Cuba. The account of the Bay of Pigs mission is detailed and vivid, though from an unexpectedly insulated point of view. In many ways it's fair to call the novel epistolary, built primarily on correspondence and documents. Hubbard is always the author and never pretends to knowing more than he can provide evidence for. But he has lots of evidence to provide. He's often in the right place at the right time (or wrong, depending on your view), but again, Mailer establishes the ground early and well. There's a corny romance and ham-handed philosophical conceits woven inextricably into the narrative, the usual we've come to expect from Mailer in those realms. I don't know how far he made it with a second volume, if anywhere at all, but I wanted to read it right away after I finished Harlot's Ghost. That's a measure of the kind of spell he is able to cast with this great novel.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 15, 2017

On the Town (1949)

USA, 98 minutes
Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Writers: Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Jerome Robbins
Photography: Harold Rosson
Music: Leonard Bernstein, Roger Edens, Conrad Salinger
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Alice Pearce, Florence Bates, Tom Dugan, Judy Holliday

With my ongoing Movie of the Year project now drifting into the '40s (and the '30s, and yes eventually even into the '20s), I'm finding myself with more catch-up to do—hence the longer periods between write-ups—and also some interesting and even surprising shifts in taste. A lot of movies were made everywhere then, especially in Hollywood, where these are the glory years. Yet except for a designated golden few from each year they are generally harder to track down and see. Netflix—whose DVD service has begun to fail in recent years anyway, and now appears to be shifting into attrition mode as subscribers shrink to minuscule numbers (they've never had anything like the DVD archive on streaming)—simply won't serve any longer as a single primary source. And YouTube may yet emerge as a reliable online repository. I've also developed other new sources such as Amazon Video and Warner Archive.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the last year has been a newfound taste for musicals—and film noir, and woman's pictures, and pirate movies, and others. But the biggest change is musicals. I haven't seen that many because in times past I couldn't turn away from them fast enough on TV and it was rare when anyone could talk me into looking at one all the way through. Of course, everyone knows Singin' in the Rain by now, currently the #12 greatest movie of all time according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? and safely one of the designated goldens for 1952. Maybe they also know On the Town (and even Take Me Out to the Ball Game, also from 1949). But they're new to me and I still can't resist the absurd comical heights they reach with their calculated fits of joy and tap dancing, these flights of pure physical pleasure. When people talk about the difference between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as the former being more athletic, the latter more suave, that's true enough. But that difference is also more directly a function of emotional engagement. While Fred Astaire stays busy brushing lint from his tux, making dry witty remarks, and chuckling uneasily, Gene Kelly made a career out of wearing his stupid old American heart on his sleeve.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

"The Conversion of the Jews" (1958)

Story by Philip Roth not available online.

Philip Roth's comic anecdote came early in his career, published when he was 25, with themes and elements that have appeared in most of his work, notably the spectacle of Jews and Christians attempting to live together in New Jersey. It's skillfully done and a pleasure to read—he would get even better at language that is seductively easy to read, but he's already good here. The main charge of the story, however, strikes me as its most dated element now, which is the humiliation of forcing Jews to pray like Christians. Oscar "Ozzie" Freedman, who is 13 or 14, accomplishes this by threatening to jump to his death. It's all tied up with a poem by Andrew Marvell and biblical prophecy. In fact, if I understand things correctly, the parties most likely to be offended are the Catholics (using the term "in its broadest sense—to include the Protestants"), who might be inclined to see the actions of the Jews as mockery, if not indeed profanity. All of this is occasioned by Ozzie feeling the rabbi won't engage with him intellectually when he starts asking the kinds of questions people are always asking about religions. In this case, after the rabbi scoffs at the notion of a virgin birth, Ozzie wants to know why, if God is all-powerful, He couldn't impregnate a woman if He wanted to. The charge of the story is the profanity of the central event, or maybe I mean blasphemy. Threatening to jump from the synagogue roof, Ozzie forces the Jews witnessing the event, including especially the rabbi who won't take his questions seriously, to get on their knees and pray for the love of Jesus the Son of God. Ironically, the story has probably been losing power ever since it was published. It might have some charge to today's evangelicals, who might take it as some sign of formal End Times. I like to think that's an intellectual minority, but I probably have it exactly wrong. Anyway, I'm pretty sure none of them reads Philip Roth, let alone one of his early short stories. Roth is much more a novelist and I'm not even sure he's written that many short stories. So at best I'm going to have to file this under interesting (and entertaining) curiosity.

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Top 40

1. The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk, "I Feel It Coming"
2. Skillet, "Back From the Dead"
3. Rihanna, "Love On the Brain"
4. Future, "Selfish"
5. Kamasi Washington, "Truth"
6. New Pornographers, "Whiteout Conditions"
7. Kendrick Lamar, "HUMBLE."
8. Romeo Santos, "Heroe Favorito"
9. Luis Fonsi feat. Justin Bieber, "Despacito (Remix)"
10. Kendrick Lamar feat. Zacari, "LOVE."
11. Maxwell, "Gods"
12. Future, "Mask Off"
13. Kevin Ross, "Long Song Away"
14. Keith Urban feat. Carrie Underwood, "The Fighter"
15. Tamar Braxton, "My Man"
16. Portugal. The Man, "Feel It Still"
17. Carl Craig, "Rock'n Latex"
18. Tiga, "Nonstop"
19. Treponem Pal, "Planet Claire"
20. Candi Carpenter, "Burn the Bed"
21. DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller, "Wild Thoughts"
22. Selena Gomez, "Fetish"
23. Miley Cyrus, "Malibu"
24. Childish Gambino, "Redbone"
25. Playboi Carti, "Magnolia"
26. LP, "Up Against You"
27. Joey Bada$$, "For My People"
28. Hailee Steinfeld, "Most Girls"
29. Strand of Oaks, "Hard Love"
30. Real Estate, "Darling"
31. Cardi B, "Bodak Yellow"
32. Lilly Hiatt, "Trinity Lane"
33. War on Drugs, "Up All Night"
34. Waxahatchee, "No Question"
35. Bleachers, "Don't Take the Money"
36. National, "The System Only Dreams in Darkness"
37. Kesha, "Praying"
38. Smiley, "Rara"
39. Wolf Alice, "Don't Delete the Kisses"
40. Kesha, "Woman"

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Nothing But Murder (1946)

This collection came late in the career of the amateur criminalist and essayist William Roughead, who lived and worked in Scotland as an attorney. Scads of his crime case studies were published for entertainment purposes from 1901 until past his death in 1952. This book came shortly after World War II, but the pieces are older, published for the first time in the US here and intended for an American market. Typically enough they're pretty good. Roughead has an interesting taste for crime, though he indulges a macabre aesthetic that can be too wryly cute by half. So it stumbles out of the gate with the silly overture of an imagined congress of notorious criminals judging one another on just such grounds. It's hollow graveyard laughter, attempting distance from the motivations that drive the project (whatever those motivations are exactly ... I can get a bit coy around the point myself). It's better when he gets down to the details of cases because he picks interesting ones. The first is about a group of stowaway boys who were forced to leave the ship and walk barefoot across an ice sheet back to shore. Two drowned in the process. Roughead's basic strategy is to lay out the facts of the case as brought to trial by the police and used by prosecutors, and then go to the trial transcript. Thus it shifts radically and can take some getting used to, but ultimately it makes these proceedings all the more vivid, reading the words of the witnesses. The longest piece here, "Locusta in Scotland," presents a history of poisoning in Scotland, from the 16th century to the 1920s. The cases become monotonous, but more interesting is the history of the crime, from the earliest determinations that it is indeed a crime through the various advances in detection and understanding symptoms. A separate essay details a case of poisoning in 1613 that peels away layer after layer of court intrigue under King James VI and I (the Bible rewrite guy). Frankly I got lost in that one, but it sounded like a lot of dirty business all the way around. Roughead's work is best approached on literary terms, rather than purely informational, because he has an eccentric vocabulary, he can really take his time getting to the point, and he's capable of paragraphs that run longer than a page (or two). I liked the first half of Nothing But Murder more than the second, but I suspect that's a matter of fatigue as much as anything. He's charming and digressive and often a pleasure. It doesn't matter if the crimes are 20th-century vintage or ancient, it's all still crime—that eternal human impulse. It's weirdly comforting in some way to read these pieces, as if the unflappable Roughead has set out to explain the boogie man once and for all. About time someone did.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Sans Soleil (1983)

France, 100 minutes, documentary
Director/writer/photography/music/editor: Chris Marker
With: Alexandra Stewart, Arielle Dombasle, Kim Novak, James Stewart, Deep Purple

I wouldn't exactly call Sans Soleil a difficult picture, but no documentary so preoccupied with memory, veracity, and the general problem of inattentiveness is ever going to be easy. Typically, the documentaries that make it into the top 100 of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? usually seem to have something a little extreme about them. Man With a Movie Camera is extremely exuberant, and Close-Up is extremely weird (and I think we decided it wasn't a documentary anyway). Shoah is extremely long. Sans Soleil is extremely opaque—or make that gnomic, cryptic, elliptical, or make that just personal, deeply. So personal it's hard to parse, as intended. "Sans soleil" is French for "sunless," meaning darkness, like fading memory. It's a one-man show of a veritable stream of consciousness free associating for 100 minutes, and if you can't make out a point, there's your point: sunless.

That doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable. Once past the expectation of narrative (leaping eagerly at scraps and anecdotes for the through thread), once over impatience to get on with it (very important), once you remember (again) you're looking at a movie, then it can be surprising, beautiful, witty, acerbic, very sharp, in small delicious bites. The one man is filmmaker Chris Marker, director, writer, cinematographer, and editor. He even wrote and/or performed much of the soundtrack. Marker traveled the world widely and filmed wherever he went. He had a gifted eye and a formidable intellect. The images are the best part of Sans Soleil, compelling, seductive, random, strained through filters and effects. They almost seem to edit themselves, while the words attempt to keep up. These images include film shot by others, such as a horrific scene of a giraffe being hunted and killed, or scenes from the Alfred Hitchcock movie Vertigo (in fact, Marker's critical treatment of Vertigo is one of the best parts in a movie pebbly full of very good very small parts). In short, Sans Soleil is a compressed history of the eye of Chris Marker, as he recalls it, in parts.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

"Walking Out" (1980)

Read story by David Quammen online.

David Quammen's remarkable story is another fine entry in the man vs. nature type of adventure story. In fact, it reminds me of Jack London's "To Build a Fire" because it's a similar premise: a wintry scene in the woods threatens death if the protagonists aren't both smart and careful. Published much later in the century, Quammen's story also has a father-and-son element that is more typical of post-'60s generation gap dynamics. The main character is the 11-year-old boy David who is visiting his father in Montana. The parents are divorced, somewhat acrimoniously we understand from scattered clues, another familiar postwar element. The story is not attempting to invent anything new. It's just using what it has. So the father, who appears to have reinvented himself as a mountain man after the failed marriage, is pitifully needy for his son's approval, even as he overcompensates trying to impress him with his skills. For his part, the boy has little interest in being an outdoorsman. Off they go on a moose hunt, and it is isolated enough that they have to worry about things like bears and getting lost. On the last day of their brief foray into the woods, bad luck strikes. An unseasonal snowfall makes everything treacherous, and then some bad accidents happen. Now, severely injured and possibly bleeding out, they must get out of the woods and find help. Though the story goes to a basically unbelievable place in the end it is riveting all the way there. It's on the long side for a story, and it starts slow, but it holds interest first as a study of a father and son estranged against their will by circumstances, and then, once the snow falls, as a crackling adventure story. The language describing events as they happen is powerful and straightforward, but it's also good on what the boy is going through, and on what he sees his father going through. The point of view is the boy's, fading to omniscience for the details beyond his understanding. We are never inside the head of the father yet we come to know him well—even understanding him better than the boy, through his words and actions. The ending is a little overdetermined, and frankly hard to believe, with mishandled emphases. But you might disagree, and it hardly means getting there isn't worth the ride. This is a good one.

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

Monday, December 04, 2017

Lady Bird (2017)

I admit I've been suspicious of Greta Gerwig's long-trending indie queen popularity. She has appeared in movies I count among my favorites, notably Damsels in Distress, where she acquits herself well. Acquits herself well? She's one of the best parts if not practically carrying it. But she has also appeared in movies I'm less inclined to favor, such as Greenberg or Frances Ha, which already have imposing reputations but mostly looked like mannered indie-level exercises to me. She usually seems to be playing a version of the same character—a person slightly off, the kind people say marches to the beat of another drummer. That personality is still felt acutely in Lady Bird, Gerwig's directing debut and third or fourth screenplay. In fact, in many ways, Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, Brooklyn)—taking the title role as Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson—often seems to be doing a straight-up impersonation of Gerwig to put some of these scenes over. But that's about the end of any carping on my part. This is otherwise a tremendously heartening movie in so many good ways. It's a tender coming-of-age story, with obvious autobiographical details: set in Sacramento, in the early 2000s, Lady Bird's mother is a nurse and her father is a computer programmer struggling to survive in an industry prone to youth movements. Lady Bird, who turns 18 during the six or eight months of this story, is hungry for life and experience, ashamed of her family's modest means, compulsively trying to make it with cool kids, and committing her share of mistakes. At the heart of Lady Bird is a story of a difficult mother/daughter relationship, marked by fierce love and even fiercer alienation. Laurie Metcalf plays her mother, Marion, and she is fine. There's no shortage of quirky situations and hipster affectation on display here—among other things, Gerwig has a rock critic's taste and sense for ironically programming the soundtracks of lives—but what I like best are the scenes between people, between family and friends. They are sharply observed, develop at their own pace, almost always ring true, and they can leave you wrung out more than once in a reasonably short movie. All things considered, this is an exciting directing debut.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Shock Doctrine (2007)

In my typical poky way, it took me awhile to get to Naomi Klein's slashing political / economic analysis of global neoliberalism across the second half of the 20th century, and by the time I did it all might have been obviated anyway by a turn toward nativist (I use the term ironically) authoritarianism in the US, a turn that suddenly makes neoliberalism look not so bad. That's one of their tricks, because neoliberalism is actually pretty bad. At some point in the past 50 years our wealthy friends and neighbors appear to have decided Keynesianism was a problem—probably because it worked, in terms of leveling and providing economic opportunity for more folks. Neoliberalism, in its conception, bases most of its hoodoo on the mystical magical wisdom of "The Market," and makes those folks work a lot harder and longer—generations and centuries—before it does much good, if it ever does. But at least The Shock Doctrine is still a good read, if you don't mind getting mad every day.

Maybe the biggest jolt is how Klein keeps finding ways to light up the word "shock." She goes all the way back to the coming of electroshock therapy (EST) after World War II, a treatment regime designed to atomize one personality and replace it with another (subsequently discredited though EST has been somewhat recredited in recent years, as the understanding of its effects has changed). Klein's poetic riffing on the point might even seem fanciful, at least until she starts to lay out the kinds of systematic torture practiced under Augusto Pinochet and other dictators in South America in the '70s. Partly what's so horrifying is that they were all doing the same things—the levels of centralization suggested by that are chilling and, yes, shocking. And much of it involved electricity.