Saturday, May 26, 2018

Revival (2015)

Disclaimer: These days I subscribe to a streaming service and often miss out on formerly one of my favorite things about albums, the cover art. I wanted to write about recovering child star Selena Gomez for reasons not related to the cover, I promise you—or at least not directly related, because I didn't know it. The image does fit with her in-construction persona, as sexy but vulnerable, knowing but naïve, bold but tentative, child in a woman's body, all that. I did know her role in Spring Breakers, as the good Christian girl yearning to be free and terrified at the same time of her own impulses, an awkwardly fascinating turn which also fits. And then I liked her song "Same Old Love," her biggest hit yet with "Good for You" (also on Revival). I've noted divergence about "best" Selena Gomez songs (among those who even deem it worth considering)—preferences for "Bad Liar," or her collaboration with Kygo, "It Ain't Me," or others. But I liked the achy exasperation and soulful strutting of "Same Old Love." She's fed up and so committed to it she allows herself a little swear word. That led me sideways to the album, by which time I was ready for some of the testy touchy prizes, such as they are, "Sober" and the two "Me &" songs. "Sober" takes dead aim at the persona and hits the mark square. "You don't know how to love me when you're sober," she heaves up (followed immediately by a Girl Scout troop shouting "Hey!"). She goes on, "I know I should leave, I know I should, should, should / But your love's too good, your love's too good, good, good."

It's probably worth noting that Gomez only receives partial songwriting credit on some of these songs. This is an album by other songwriters, and by various production teams too. "Sober" is the only song here by Chloe Angelides, who has also written for Jason Derulo, Ciara, and others. The Norwegian production team Stargate worked on that one. The Swedish Mattman & Robin handled "Me & the Rhythm." The American Rock Mafia did "Me & My Girls." The producers also get songwriting credit, sometimes primary. Most of these songs have four or five songwriters and some more than that, so it's really a jumble figuring out who's in charge around here. Maybe that's why it feels like there's a lack of unity across the album. Selena Gomez herself does a lot to hold it together, but there's also a sense she's not really in control—the persona again, which even so often feels too constructed and hollow for comfort. My favorites veer toward electronica-driven grooves inflected by new wave pop melodies. "Me & the Rhythm" makes me jump around. "Me & My Girls" puts me in mind of Kid Creole doing a spaghetti western soundtrack for a girl power movie—specific! I never get tired of the way they sing "Hey!" on "Sober." I'm not saying it doesn't mean anything that two of the four best songs here start with the word "Me"—the child star syndrome again or something. Nor can I claim some of these experiments in style and form don't go flat on their faces. The album's opening seconds almost torpedo the whole thing. And there are other problems. The self-pity is never far and sometimes all the way up to your chin ("Camouflage," say, which still has its merits, like another swear word). At this point she sometimes seems dangerously close to the Katy Perry treatment. Yet there is still something about her I like quite a bit.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Red Shoes (1948)

UK, 134 minutes
Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Writers: Hans Christian Andersen, Emeric Pressburger, Keith Winter, Michael Powell
Photography: Jack Cardiff
Music: Brian Easdale
Editor: Reginald Mills
Cast: Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann, Albert Bassermann, Leonide Massine, Ludmilla Tcherina, Esmond Knight

I love the swooning romantic pulse of The Red Shoes by the Archers (codirectors and cowriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger). It's magical, of course—a technicolor movie full of special effects based on a ballet based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale—but it bears a dark and keen edge as well. While the narrative frets over questions of art, love, and sacrifice, perhaps its most germane features are that it was designed by a painter, cast with professional ballet dancers, and dreamily hops about Europe, from London to Paris to Monte Carlo, like there had never just been two great wars and a major economic depression. Mostly it stays indoors within the world of theater and make-believe.

The gist of the fairy tale is that the red shoes are tools of Satan, the color being the giveaway by which he may be known. They tempt a young girl with their handsome fashionable charm and then, once she puts them on, cause her to dance without surcease until she falls down dead (no obvious relation to They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). The Japanese horror version from 2005 is more true to the Andersen story, which does not include even one artist but rather mostly just goodly humble church people. In turn, there are none of those here. Or, if there are, their house of worship is more like the backstage rehearsal space and the holy sacrament of art, Art, ART. In fact, the real star of The Red Shoes is not the young girl, but a character Andersen never conceived at all: the svengali impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), who is the veritable Jesus, Buddha, and Rasputin of art.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969)

The fifth Martin Beck novel in the Story of Crime series by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö uses a fairly spectacular crime as its focus, though much of the narrative is spent developing the sideline characters supporting police investigator Beck. Lennart Kollberg, in particular, gets a lot of attention here, as well as Gunvald Larsson. Both are large men with tempers, often unlikable (especially Kollberg). But they are still good at their jobs. The case at hand involves an arson of a fourplex apartment building that results in three deaths. I thought the crime was unnecessarily busy with detail—among other things, one of the victims actually committed suicide the night of the arson, which complicates the picture. In fact, the fire is not even considered arson at first, and there's some business about authorities going to a misreported address on the night of the blaze. It all hangs together more or less by story's end but by that point also seems extraneous. Typically enough, for reasons of its fiction market or maybe the times, it can mire down some with obligatory-feeling subplots of the ongoing sexual liberation of the time and place, Sweden in the '60s. The dry straightforward style occasionally verges on the merely uninteresting. And it's not always clear what these characters are doing as they work the case. Who is this Kollberg and why does he rage so much and make himself so unpleasant? It's useful to remember, again, that this is classic police procedural storytelling written in the '60s by a poet and a journalist who are involved with one another. While it doesn't really explain the attraction to police and crime fiction in the first place, it does explain much else: the precision of the language (even in translation), the continuing reliance on irreducible facts, and the way sex, love, and social pressures complicate and drive crime—indeed most human behavior. In the larger series, with The Fire Engine That Disappeared, an increasingly critical eye is turned on police bureaucracy and politics even as '60s turmoil seems to increase exponentially with each passing year. With its episodic focus on crime and law enforcement in Stockholm, The Story of Crime will turn out to be even more the story of an era.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Laughing Policeman (1968)

Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction for this novel in 2009, declaring it his favorite in the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Franzen says he likes the bad weather of Stockholm in descending winter and he also enjoys detective Beck's chronic cold. Beck is also grouchier than we have seen him before. The crime at hand is again sensational, this time a mass murder. Someone got on a bus and mowed down eight passengers and the driver with a submachine gun. There are not many helpful clues, but among the dead is one of their own, detective Ake Stenstrom. No one has any idea what he was doing on that bus. There are again signs of Ed McBain's influence in the approach the police take to solving the crime, based on a theory that there was one intended victim and the rest were killed to cover that up, making it look like the work of a madman. This unlikely hunch was also the basis of McBain's Lady, Lady I Did It. Maybe such things happen in cases of mass murder, but I suspect not often. Also, the character of Stenstrom has a lot in common with the 87th Precinct detective Bert Kling—they are both young and capable, but still trying to prove themselves, and they are both also particularly good at trailing people. Of course, Stenstrom dies whereas Kling loses girlfriends consecutively, a critical difference. I read all this as sincere respect for McBain even though Sjöwall and Wahlöö are the better and more interesting writers. The theory of the camouflaged victim is not pursued by all the Swedish investigators. Many have their own pet theories they are chasing down. The crime is reminiscent of the movie Speed or a bus accident that actually happened in Seattle in the late '90s. It's sensational again, but already across the series there's a sense of deliberation about the cases: a sex murder (Roseanna), a notorious celebrity (The Man Who Went Up in Smoke), a serial killer (The Man on the Balcony), and now a mass murder. Sjöwall and Wahlöö obviously understood the necessity for the lurid in crime fiction—it's in practically every one of their books—yet they always feel fully in control of the material (unlike McBain and way too many others) and use it to make specific points about justice, society, and other large themes. Martin Beck is also being slowly developed into a fully rounded and complex character, but again this is in the service of larger themes. Beck's marriage has never been good and he has many problems with militaristic police attitudes and bureaucracy. There's a sense of things moving forward and coming together in the larger series.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Man on the Balcony (1967)

As police procedurals go, I tend to be more attracted to the routine and mundane—I still think Adam-12 is one of the best. But for obvious commercial reasons, and perhaps because police famously "see everything," they're often at least as lurid as true-crime. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Swedish writing partners behind the Martin Beck series, were hardly immune. The first novel featured a sexualized serial killer. This third is essentially the same, except the victims are young girls around 10 years old. So even more lurid. At the same time, the cast of characters around Beck and the context of his job are starting to deepen and grow larger. And the one thing you can say about Sjöwall and Wahlöö is that their language is never sensational. It is flat nearly to a fault—flatter than Hemingway, though perhaps not Jack Webb. I suppose it could be partly the translation. But they respect rules of the genre scrupulously—it feels like the way police who are serious go about investigating and solving crimes. The Man on the Balcony was written before the Zodiac killer started up in California, though quite soon after the Boston Strangler, and it is good at painting a portrait of a large city, Stockholm in this case, seized by panic as an invisible monster roams among them. There are nods and winks to Ed McBain, such as an alliterated pair of patrolmen partners, Kristiansson and Kvant (different police roles but same narrative purpose as McBain's Monoghan and Monroe). But there's much more gravity to these Martin Beck stories. It's partly the loss of McBain's sunny optimistic American voice as opposed to the more sophisticated and dour European judgments of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Remember, pretty much all McBain did—as McBain, Evan Hunter, and under other aliases (none of them his actual name, Salvatore Lombino)—was write popular fiction and screenplays. Per Wahlöö was a journalist and wrote other novels of his own. Maj Sjöwall was a translator and poet. They were also life partners for 13 years and self-declared Marxists. Not surprisingly, they represent an interesting wrinkle on the form. As usual, the police are presented as at least well-meaning and generally competent, but here they are also specifically functionaries of the state—the beneficent but not always competent state. The ambivalent attitude toward the police even as the work of some of them is valorized is a pretty neat trick. The Man on the Balcony is very sharply done, quick and to the point, yet thorough. It's just I could just do with a little less child rapist. They get better.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

The second Martin Beck novel takes a different tack from the first, in terms of the character of the victim. It's still based on established investigative technique, etc. But whereas the victim in Roseanna was a perhaps troubled but fundamentally innocent person, here it's someone who is a bit of a rat, a drunkard, a womanizer, and worse, as we come to find out. Alf Mattson is also a talented journalist. When he disappears on assignment in Hungary, Beck is called in to work the case unofficially. I'm not sure I understand this "unofficial" point. Hungary was rather different in 1966. The Cold War was on and it was in the Soviet sphere—maybe that explains it. At any rate, Beck goes there and pokes around a bit, accomplishing nothing. When he finally contacts the Budapest police, at first unwillingly, then the case slowly starts to crack open. Mattson had traveled to Hungary on assignment. He'd reported from there before, but this time he disappeared almost as soon as he arrived and nothing was heard from him since. This case gets a bit complicated as both the crime and investigation require a lot of subterfuge, with passport and visa manipulation, black market activities, and generally a high level of paranoia. Authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were not as good at spy stories, so this suffers a little in that regard. But it's police technique that solves it: a close analysis of descriptions of the victim's clothes compared with what was found in his abandoned traveling case and his closet at home in Stockholm. The most interesting point is the description of Budapest and Hungarian life, which of course in many ways is no different from Swedish life. I'm sure that was much of the intended point then, but it's lost a little in these post-Cold War times when it's harder to remember how real the divisions were. Only 10 years before publication of this novel Soviet tanks had rolled through Hungary asserting Soviet authority. Martin Beck's dour yet dogged personality is developed further, and we start to see a little more of the complex and interesting characters around him, such as Lennart Kollberg. As in Roseanna, Beck befriends a police investigator beyond Stockholm, who similarly just wants to use established technique to haul in the bad guys. It's a short novel too, perfect for an easy day.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Roseanna (1965)

According to the introduction by Henning Mankell for the 2006 reprint of the first novel in the Martin Beck police procedural series The Story of Crime, authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were heavily influenced by Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels. I actually hadn't known that when I set out to read through them again, beyond a general understanding that McBain is a milestone figure in the subgenre, perhaps even second only to Jack Webb. The Martin Beck novels—there are only 10, compared to 55 87th Precinct books—are better in nearly every way, more literate, more circumspect, and more carefully written (which is obvious even in translation from Swedish). More classy, as McBain might say. Or maybe that's the European glow to an American rube such as myself, but let me point out some facts about Sjöwall and Wahlöö. They were a couple during the collaboration, which ended with Wahlöö's death in 1975, and they also wrote and published separately. Wahlöö was a journalist with a bent toward social justice. Sjöwall was a poet and translator. These elements were alchemically blended to produce a foundation for what is called "Nordic noir," a kind of procedural tradition veering decidedly toward the dark, which includes Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and a raft of other books and movies too. This first novel, Roseanna, is very basic police procedural fundamentals, as if establishing bona fides. The nude body of a dead young woman is dredged from a Swedish resort lake. She hasn't been dead long, but no one matching her description has been reported missing. Investigating police detective Martin Beck and his colleagues have almost nothing to go on. They must put together the case painstakingly, one minuscule piece at a time. They use police routines, to quote Ed McBain, "based on established investigative technique." Certain familiar elements of those routines are carefully injected: the casual brutality of crime, detectives who become personally invested in solving crimes, the ways resources are deployed to track down detail. Written in the '60s, at the dawn of the imperial age of serial killers in pop culture, it's either well-researched on the behavior of serial killers or has spectacularly good instincts. It doesn't try to do any more than it has to. It's compact and dense with a momentum all its own. Don't hesitate. Start here.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

"The Wedding" (1982)

Story by Joy Williams not available online.

This Joy Williams story left me a little cold. It seemed too typical of a certain post-Carver mold, both in terms of its focus on vaguely underclass losers and its self-conscious minimalist aesthetics. The two characters who marry in this story, Elizabeth and Sam, are full-grown adults with previous failed relationships. She is 30 and has a 5-year-old daughter. He seems a little older, in his 40s, married three times. He's also likely an alcoholic. It feels like a marriage they are both settling for, don't exactly want, though Elizabeth campaigns for it and Sam goes along, popping the question not long after his third divorce has become final. Formally the story is on the order of a shattered narrative, with line breaks and new scenes every few paragraphs. The narrator is third-person mostly omniscient, mostly looking from Elizabeth's view. It seems to be about exercising the quixotic nature of the search for love as it existed in the early '80s. Except for certain details of ambience (such as prevailing technology) it could happen 100 years ago or 100 years from now. What seems unique might only be the itinerant nature of so many people's love lives, set free within this still relatively new liberated era of marrying for love and pleasure. In that context, in many ways the story focuses on the trauma of divorce. Both Elizabeth and Sam actively want to be married. That's the primary objective—that sense of security that comes from being cocooned with someone, fortified against the world somehow. But it seems unlikely this marriage will last either. They don't seem to know each other very well. Obviously neither means any harm. They are just two confused people, with a 5-year-old in tow. They feel hollow, without centers. I suspect that's the point. And it might have felt fresh or compelling in the early '80s, but now feels like we've been over the ground a few thousand times, like Vietnam.

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

Monday, May 14, 2018

Ready Player One (2018)

There may be enough to like on the surface of Steven Spielberg's immersive foray into video and role-play gaming to make it a good movie, but mostly it felt empty to me, though it's always likable and often entertaining and even spirited. It is high science fiction concept, set in a bleak dystopic future, and majority visual attack, roaring at you with swirling, bobbing CGI that makes your head spin. It features a commodified virtual gaming reality that offers a Matrix-like escape for citizens of the post-apocalyptic world of 2045 (exact nature of apocalypse unspecified). The structure of the movie, naturally, mimics the structure of a video game. Fire up the gear, enter the game, and take a challenge to win a key which unlocks a clue to the next challenge, delivering another key, clue, and challenge. In this particular game (backstory provided), three keys will make you rich beyond your dreams. So rich that an evil corporation has thrown heavy resources and dirty tricks experts into winning, putting their evil corporate thumb on the scales to disadvantage our scrappy Scooby-Doo heroes jacking in from these future slums, which look like auto graveyards. Ready Player One riffs not just on the pell-mell boom and crash of fast-moving animated action—what do you think those challenges are about?—but it's also decked out with the frippery of a dense and constant stream of pop culture references: Rush posters, Back to the Future music, the Iron Giant itself, Freddy Krueger, Alien biology tropes, King Kong and Pong and the Batmobile and topics in the history of video gaming. That's approximately 0.1% of what you will experience in brief flashes. It had to be a licensing nightmare getting it all straightened out. And you're going to need a remote to pause some of these images and study the detail—hang on, that home product has to be almost here by now. It all feels more like a series of stunts than anything thought through very far. For example, one thing that definitely drags it down is the supersaturated nostalgia pop soundtrack, which always feels obvious no matter how much I might like the song (and I don't even like them all): "Jump" by Van Halen, "Take on Me" by a-ha, "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees, "You Make My Dreams" by Hall & Oates, "Blue Monday" by New Order, and so on. They feel shoved in mechanically, with little sense for making the music connect and work with the narrative or visuals. It may be surprising, but Spielberg has spent most of his career working with John Williams. He doesn't show the least pop music soundtracking skill here. It's almost shocking since he is otherwise such a captain of pop culture. There's a reasonably inspired sequence in which the action enters the movie The Shining—the sets and locations and characters from that movie—which gives another opportunity (with A.I. Artificial Intelligence) to witness and ponder the unusual affinity between Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. Like the weather everywhere, if you don't like what's going on in this movie wait a few minutes. Maybe you'll like the next place it frenetically zaps to. I was hoping for a little more, probably because it's Spielberg, but the best video game movie I've seen so far is still Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Golden Bowl (1904)

Henry James's last novel is one of those books I suspect many people read (or don't but say they did) for the sake of saying they have. I know I might have! It is an often overwhelming thicket of delicate nuance, most often dwelling inside its characters and their complex relations. Maggie Verver has married the Prince, a charming Italian fellow. She is the only daughter of her widowed father, the industrial baron and art collector Adam Verver (not to be confused with Adam West). Something about the family that verves together—swerves together? Lerves together? Adam and Maggie (now the Princess) are close, but she knows her marriage threatens their intimacy, and she fears he will be sad and alone now, like the father at the end of Late Spring. So she works with a woman improbably named Fanny Assingham to find him someone. That turns out to be an American woman of about the Princess's age named Charlotte Stang. By amazing coincidence, or not, Charlotte has a history with the Prince, which is rekindled after Charlotte's marriage to Adam. It's quite a predicament when the Princess figures out what is going on. But stop for a second to consider the situation in terms of James's familiar themes. Here, starkly, are European elites preying on American naifs. But it's not quite so simple. The Ververs are not that naif. They hold the cards of wealth and know it, and the Prince knows it too, and they know he does. Within these interior machinations, it's often a matter of what each one thinks or believes, which of course James keeps ambiguous (now a valued corporate trait). There's also the matter of the cloudy areas of who knows what and when do they know it. But it's all so cunningly conceived for balance you almost feel like you could put The Golden Bowl on top of a garden stake and it would just sit there spinning. If the Prince and Charlotte behave licentiously—and they do, think about it—I'm not sure the Ververs end up that much ahead of them morally. No one is talking about incest, only a kind of American clannishness that is not hard to recognize. For all the difficulty of James's language, and it often requires patience, it seems in the service of something subtle but real. The best scenes are when combinations of the four interact. The title conceit, a real object in a pawnshop, is obtuse, and as a plot device jarring, a blaring circus in the middle of all these restrained beiges and grays. But he had to call the book something. For the dedicated only, as you may have suspected.

"interlocutor" count = 6 / 518 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Soft Bulletin (1999)

If Wikipedia is to be believed, this ninth album from the Flaming Lips is their masterpiece. Dig a little deeper and you find the people making the claim are Amazon verified purchasers, but whatever. That's Wikipedia for you! The Soft Bulletin and the album that followed were also the high point of the trio's fame, for those inclined to embrace or reject on that basis. That puts them basically on the rise here. But I wish someone would make a case for this album, which always seems to come up short for me. Actually, I'll say that one song at a time listened to closely can be rewarding—that makes it workable anyway in a multi-CD shuffle type of mode. (Maybe in that regard it merits the comparisons to Pet Sounds, which I sometimes suspect have more to do with the theremin.) The moody brood of "What Is the Light?" and the soothing swamp of "The Observer." The plangent tender sadness of "The Spiderbite Song." The screaming glories of "The Gash." The aching throb of "Race for the Prize," the album opener and one of the two singles. The Peter Mokran mix of the other single, "Waitin' for a Superman," which hums with a bracing natural sweetness. Natural sweetness, in fact, is one of the band's enduring and greatest strengths. All this points to what I love most about the album that came next and my favorite by them, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a one-of-a-kind that proceeds out of children's fantasies but remarkably with almost no cloying sentimentalities. Just the weirdness and the goodness—and so beautiful. I think my problem with the Flaming Lips might be that they're good at things which don't naturally coexist. They have a penchant for psychedelicized studio wonkery, with harsh edges that scrape at your head, which famously produced Zaireeka, a 4-CD album in which all four discs are intended to be played simultaneously. They have a reputation as a great live act—I'm sorry I never saw them in the '90s. They're not afraid of noise. And yet they can write the sweetest pop confections. In the songwriting they appear to act as a unit as all songs are credited equally to the band's three principles, Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, and Michael Ivins. Or maybe my problem is that drummer Drozd's playing is so intrusive, too loud and ornate and too often into the middle of everything. Obviously this is as intended—a feature not a bug. So I'll take my bad with my good. Maybe it bolsters the rock bona fides to have all that random booming and stamping going on, or something, but it's wearying. I'm sticking with Yoshimi.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Blow-Up (1966)

UK / Italy / USA, 111 minutes
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Julio Cortazar, Tonino Guerra, Edward Bond
Photography: Carlo Di Palma
Music: Herbie Hancock, Yardbirds, Lovin' Spoonful
Editor: Frank Clarke
Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, John Castle, Veruschka von Lehndorff, Sarah Miles, Yardbirds

Somehow it always seems to slip my mind that Blow-Up—the front end of a great double feature with Blow Out—is a movie by director Michelangelo Antonioni. All the evidence is there in the strange way it moves and refrains from meaning, of course, notably at the ending, yet Blow-Up is so steeped in the "Swinging London" version of the day-glo '60s that it seems qualitatively set apart from his earlier monochrome exercises such as L'Avventura and L'Eclisse. In fact, Blow-Up would pair equally with any movie that takes on the '60s as we understand them now—Midnight Cowboy, for example, or Repulsion. The Yardbirds famously show up in a can't-miss cameo, even if they are only called on to ape the Who.

But the maddening elusive ambiguities, along with the wondrously strange and beautiful imagery, are there as they always are in an Antonioni picture. In Blow-Up, as one example of his meticulous aesthetic, Antonioni relied on a strict color palette that required some repainting—including of roadways— to get things to the right shades and hues. Between Blow-Up and L'Avventura, the most obvious trait in common is Antonioni's misleading approach to mystery. His ideas about mystery are more on the lines of philosophy—e.g., what is the meaning of this existence we are in?—and less about whodunits and capers. Yet both pictures focus on crimes (or at least a reasonable likelihood of crimes) which by intent are then never resolved. If that's your thing, come and get it.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

"Train" (1972)

Story by Joy Williams not available online.

Like first sentences, single-word titles are a bit of an art form in their own right. In this series, we've seen a few different ways to do it: "Akhnilo" (made-up word), "Cathedral" (portentous image), "Charles" (character), "Departures" (poignant image), "Helping" (multifaceted), "Moonwalk" (historical specific), and so on. Joy Williams's choice, for the last story in the collection edited by Tobias Wolff, is pretty good, more or less in the multifaceted vein. In the first place, the events in this story take place on a train ride from D.C. to Florida. In the second place, adults are modeling behavior for children to learn from. The two main characters are 10-year-old girls, Danica and Jane. Danica has spent the summer with Jane and Jane's family while Danica's mother takes the time to sell her house and prepare for a second marriage. It's September now and the train is bearing them all home—Danica, Jane, and Jane's parents. Danica and Jane are at a stage where they are a little tired of one another, while each still recognizes the other is all she has. The summer is ending and both have trepidations about the immediate future. Meanwhile, Jane's parents are your basic awful couple, full of sarcasm and bile toward one another, which they cheerfully broadcast at will to both girls. Late in the story Danica asks Jane's father, "Do you think Jane and I will be friends forever?" He responds, "Definitely not. Jane will not have friends. Jane will have husbands, enemies, and lawyers." He then goes on, "I'm glad you enjoyed your summer, Dan, and I hope you're enjoying your childhood. When you grow up, a shadow falls. Everything's sunny and then this big goddamn wing or something passes overhead." Note the momentary lapse into Salinger in this key passage, perhaps the most important in the story. Jane's father is probably right about Jane's future, as this story is particularly good at etching the characters of the two girls. As for the bickering adult couple, their fighting seemed more comical than sad. Their putdowns are too often too witty, and so is much of their behavior—they have to be entertaining each other at least a little. When Jane's mother passes a note to Danica for Jane's father, for example, he eats it without reading it. They just don't seem that embittered. There's not the feeling of two people clawing each other apart, as seen in fractured family tales elsewhere. I'm saying that like it's a bad thing, I know. It actually feels like relief that there might be some hope for this relationship. I'm just not sure that's what was intended—which maybe dates it some.

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

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Violence (1992)

Richard Bausch's fifth novel has a slightly misleading title and is flawed in many small ways, yet it's also haunting and hard to put down. Charles Connally is married and his wife Carol is pregnant. It's her first child, but her second marriage, though both are in their 20s. Charles is still an undergraduate in college, a late starter, and they have problems related to anxiety about the baby and money. On a trip to Chicago to visit Charles's mother—Carol is meeting her for the first time, prompted by the pregnancy—they fight and worry. Charles's mother's apartment is not big enough so they are staying in a motel. One night, after quarreling with Carol, Charles goes out for a walk and wanders into a convenience store that becomes the scene of an out-of-control armed robbery. Four people die. Charles survives, helps save one person in the incident, and becomes a media hero. This is the only overt violence in the novel, but Carol and especially Charles also have violence lurking in their pasts. I think Bausch is attempting to portray violence as intrinsic to life in small ways and large. People not treating each other well is a kind of violence. So is a baby, in a way, intruding on the life of its parents. A lot of the details here struck me as overdetermined—Carol's background and the strange life of her parents, Carol's own history, even some of the people involved in the robbery. Yet Bausch's aging college student and struggling young marriage also feel on the mark, etched from experience, which makes the story absorbing and affecting. I don't exactly like many of these characters yet at the same time I kind of love them. I don't actually have this feeling of love often for fictional characters, so I hold Violence in a certain regard. Both times I've read it I've come away thinking it's got something, though it's distractingly easy to recognize and note the flaws—the self-involvement, the many small points that register wrong, the unnecessarily provocative title. The last time we saw Richard Bausch he was cutting down an 800-page novel to the size of a short story. There's no question of what he's able to do with sentences and paragraphs. Even when it maunders on in self-pity I think Violence remains insanely readable. I love it.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

"Daddy Garbage" (1981)

Story by John Edgar Wideman not available online.

John Edgar Wideman's story has a few tricks up its sleeve. It's not clear who the third-person narrator is or what he's up to exactly. He starts with a street scene in hot summer with a woman buying sweet ices for her kids. Then it becomes a kind of reminiscence, which is yet aware of the present. The first trick is Daddy Garbage himself—he's a dog, dead in the story's present, who belonged to Lemuel Strayhorn, the purveyor of ices. In the reminiscence, the dog finds a box in a garbage can. It's the dead of winter. You think this story is going to be about the dog. But inside the box is the corpse of a baby. The story is mostly about what Strayhorn does, which is not that extraordinary. He finds a friend to help him, who analyzes the situation: "If you go to the police they find some reason to put you in jail. Hospital got no room for the sick let alone the dead. Undertaker, he's gon want money from somebody before he touch it. The church. Them church peoples got troubles enough of they own to cry about. And they be asking as many questions as the police." They decide to bury it in a nearby potter's field, and out of respect they decide to bury it six feet deep. With the ground frozen and only a short shovel, it's a lot of work. They spend much of the night at it, and when it's done one of them says some words over the grave. Daddy Garbage hardly figures in the story at all, but perhaps because we know he's dead now he casts a long shadow over these events somehow. I like how simple and straightforward this story seems to be, with its poignant details. I like how so much is supported by these details, such as the dog's name. Or the presumption no one will ever claim the body—that speaks volumes. The lighthearted tone enables enough distance from the events to make them almost bearable. These characters never descend into hysteria, even though we as readers might be tempted to do so because the elements of the story are so painful. In fact, their stoic acceptance of what they encounter almost makes it worse. It conveys what they know, what they live with, and what they do about it in starkest terms. The easygoing banter becomes one of the warmest aspects of the whole thing—a relief. Remarkable story.

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

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb (1849)

Above and beyond being mere chronicles, many of the slave narratives in the collection I've been reading also seem to have greater points, or lessons. I'm sure that has as much to do with why they were published in the 18th and 19th centuries as with being picked for a collection. The earlier narratives, for example, often seemed to go out of their way to lavish praise on Christianity, an attitude that notably soured with the march of time. Henry Bibb, unlike William Brown and Frederick Douglass, considers himself a Christian and has no great problem with it. His problem is with how difficult slavery makes it to live a moral life. All Bibb wants is freedom for himself and his family. He runs away repeatedly and then is captured when he returns for his wife and daughter. It reads, in fact, much more like an adventure story. Bibb is athletic, cunning, and smart. He escapes, survives on the road and in the woods, and plots to recover his family. Once he makes it all the way to Canada. The brutal split-up of families is another common theme in these narratives. It was done for practical reasons, because families could not always be sold as a unit, but also for vengeful and punitive reasons too. Perhaps the slave owner wants a woman for himself and it is easier with the husband out of the way ("sold down the river"). Bibb is delicate on the matter, but clear. He also has contempt for the whole system—if anything, he has even more experience than we've seen yet so far with slave traders, bounty hunters, and such. I will now issue a mild spoiler alert because the ultimate fate of his wife surprised me. First there is a scene, a final parting, after which, he tells us, he never sees her again. This was the principal shock for me. I had too easily slipped into the rhythms of the adventure story, where things like a primary relationship usually turn out. In that way, Bibb is something of a cunning writer too, able to set up expectations and switch on them. That scene wasn't the end of his efforts to rescue or reunite with her, but those efforts never proved successful. After several years he drifts into abolitionist work, and a few years on from there he finally marries again. There is more on the first wife—no more on the daughter—but it is unbearable. On a certain level it's depressing to see the incrementalism at work so long ago—approaching two centuries in this case. Yes, we're getting there. But even today it feels like we have so far to go. These narratives help us see how far we've come, but it's not far enough.

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

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Love Not Money (1985)

However Everything But the Girl may be regarded now—trip hop electronica, really? and key albums like Walking Wounded credited to Paul Oakenfold on Napster?!—it's probably useful to remember that the husband-and-wife duo has never been easy to pin down exactly. When they emerged in the '80s they bore labels like "smooth jazz," "lounge," and "sophisti-pop." From a distance, they resembled other pop duos of the time such as Yazoo, Eurythmics, and Soft Cell. They sounded like Sade filtered through Katrina & the Waves and seemed made for a world where Paul Weller presided as emperor. One feature of EBTG's career is this slight haze that constantly trails them, blurring precise definition. I didn't really come to Love Not Money until five years after the fact, when I started playing one or the other side of it in the mornings before work. They are both perfect 20-minute soundtracks for the beginning of a workday. Tracey Thorn's clarion voice is flooded with both sunshine and dark corners, despairing yet brimming with confidence—all right, just call it "soulful." The general attack is always snappy and horn charts, as they come along, are upbeat, even when it all goes to the doldrums somehow, as it often does. There's a sturdy depth to it—it became a morning album on and off for me for years. There's more to it than smoov novelty pop, though the songwriting and production tend in that direction—verse, chorus, bridge, along with the principles of melody, mood, arrangement (with many fine small points all over it, for example the bass on "Shoot Me Down"). It's altogether a good tension, a remarkable one. On the issue of the label, I think of Love Not Money as a new wave album and EBTG as a new wave act. I'll take the easy way out as usual on albums in the new wave branch and point to the choice of the one cover—in this case "Kid," the Chrissie Hynde song from the Pretenders' first album. It's a beautiful song, in the hands of either, about the awful, awesome weight and fragility of a new baby. The Pretenders sound nothing but happy about it, which does belie the words a little. Six years later, EBTG dragged it into their gorgeous morass with no further ado, slowing and stripping it down, transforming it almost into a dirge, which nonetheless releases in the most surprising ways, as on "All my sorrow, all my blues, all my sorrow." In the Pretenders version, the love for the kid really seems to transcend those feelings in the singer, but in the EBTG version the singer not only feels them but seems to sense they will only inevitably descend on the kid someday too. It's not as if she's bitter. She keeps a bright face—like you have to when you go to work. EBTG means everyone the best—or, as they say in "Are You Trying to Be Funny?": "May the bad things in life come in two and not threes."

Friday, April 27, 2018

Come and See (1985)

Idi i smotri, USSR, 142 minutes
Director: Elem Klimov
Writers: Ales Adamovich, Elem Klimov
Photography: Aleksei Rodionov
Music: Oleg Yanchenko
Editor: Valeriya Belova
Cast: Aleksey Kravchenko, Olga Mironova, Liubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas, Viktor Lorents

There are at least two ways to approach this monumental World War II movie. First, in terms of ranking greatest war movies—my first sense was that goes by acclamation to Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, but on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? I'm seeing the following movies ahead of the Renoir. They may not all exactly be war movies but close enough: Seven Samurai, Apocalypse Now, Battleship Potemkin, Andrei Rublev, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and Blade Runner. Come and See may be closer to being a greatest World War II movie, but I'd still give The Human Condition the edge there, if only by imposing size.

A second way to look at Come and See is in terms of the pornography of hating Nazis, a theme I look forward to seeing revitalized in coming months and years. I'm sure it's just me but I find it hard to believe any "very fine people" are Nazis. Nazis, by definition, are the bad guys. That's how I was raised. If we need reminders about that, here's a good place to look. Come and See is a serious movie, one of the most serious movies I know. In the US we have spent the better part of a century looking at scenes, sanitized and otherwise, from the Pacific theater of WWII or the western front in Europe. Come and See is about the Russian front and it is not sanitized. The movie's country of origin is given as Soviet Russia, but it is set specifically in Belarus, which borders Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. Come and See details the campaign of terror waged by German armed forces as they swept east, torching hundreds of villages and killing most of the people who lived in them. And when I say it details this campaign, I mean that it is detailed.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

"Why I Live at the P.O." (1941)

Read story by Eudora Welty online.

I struggled some with Eudora Welty's colorful Southern story full of colorful Southern people doing colorful Southern things. Welty was a native of Mississippi so the tone, approach, and subject matter are little surprise. I haven't read much of her—and, I'm sorry to say, I mix her up with Edith Wharton (the initials, no doubt, probably combined with the gender and general "back there" timeframe). This is also one of those stories full of precision Southern dialect. But dialect is often a tough go for me, no matter how precise. Welty was also a photographer and the story in large part is spun out of one of her photos, a picture of a woman ironing in the back of a post office. It's told first-person by a young woman, known as Sister, and the primary plot point, as suggested by the title, is an explanation of why she moved to the post office. The home situation is clannish: there's Stella-Rondo, who is Sister's sister, and Papa-Daddy, their grandfather, and Mama, their mother, and so on. Stella-Rondo has recently moved home again after a short period of being married, and appeared with a 2-year-old no one has ever heard about. Stella-Rondo claims the girl is adopted, but Sister does not believe that. It's a pretty riotous crew all around, with lots of ongoing friction, catcalling, and shenanigans between family members. The weirdest turn for me was when Uncle Rondo, Mama's brother, showed up wearing one of Stella-Rondo's dresses. Everyone thinks it's in poor taste but rolls with it. The story takes place on a 4th of July, underlining the narrator's independence, or something. I understand this is all comical business, but it never seemed very funny. The general dynamic between most family members I would characterize as abusive, but maybe that's just me. I understand it's exaggerated for grotesque effect, but even when you let the air out of it it's still pretty awful. Let's apply good old Occam's razor to Stella-Rondo's situation, given what we know from the story. She probably got pregnant, moved away, and came back two or three years later with a child. The marriage was real enough but short-lived. Now she wants to claim the man she married is not the father. It's ambiguous, but the implications are so rotten it's hard to find much comical about it. I probably need to relax and go with the flow a little bit more on this one.

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

Unsane (2018)

The latest from Steven Soderbergh (wait, I thought he retired?) is something of a stunt movie, shot entirely on an iPhone—shot by Soderbergh, in fact. As with many of his pictures, he not only directed but also shot and edited. The tale this movie has to tell is on the order of a paranoid thriller, shading over into horror, that is so by the numbers it verges on comic. Giving Soderbergh the benefit of the doubt, I think it may be intended to be taken that way, as slightly funny. Nervous young Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is a professional woman who works in an upscale if claustrophobic office as a data analyst. Troubled, seeking psychotherapy, she slips into the hold of a treatment center that is operating a scam on insurance companies. The treatment center's screening process is set up to find pretexts to hold people legally. The therapeutic stay is then extended using every excuse, especially when a victim acts out, and the whole thing keeps going until the insurance money is cut off. Back in the ward, it's a random smorgasbord of drug addicts, other victims, and maybe even some mentally ill. They all have a bed on the ward but there is no evident organization or separation by pathology or even gender. They don't even have privacy curtains around their beds. They are monitored by camera but a lot can happen. So all that is unlikely right there but so was Shock Corridor, whose ghost tepidly haunts the look and feel of some of these scenes. But there's more. On top of that Sawyer has a stalker—it's the reason she moved away from Boston, as we learn when her backstory begins to unfold—and on top of that the stalker is working at the treatment center now. And on top of that—well, you get the idea. Unsane goes on overtopping itself for some time with little regard for likelihood—in general it's best to not think much about these plot developments. Unsane gets started quickly, and moves along at such a good clip, that the gaping plot holes are only marginally distracting. I've got enough of my own paranoia that I can be a sucker for a story like this and I was quickly on Sawyer's side and pulling for her all the way. If you can accept the cat and mouse game at face value, or if you just like the way Soderbergh works, you'll probably get along pretty well with Unsane. Just don't expect to believe a thing you see.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (1998)

Karen Halttunen's academic study of true-crime literature is admirably long on cogent analysis but woefully short on the crime details that I, for one, long to dwell on. Probably that's actually an admirable aspect of the book too, not to mention part of the point. Halttunen keeps her focus well in the past—starting with execution sermons from the 16th and 17th centuries and continuing on with the Enlightenment and its aftermath. The section titles tell much of the story: The Murderer as Common Sinner, The Birth of Horror, and The Pornography of Violence, followed by sections on domestic and misogynistic violence and a discussion of the concept of legal insanity. She sees legal insanity as Enlightenment adherents clinging to their values and beliefs that human nature is innately good. I recognize myself a little in that, and certainly in the bloodthirsty audience she finds clamoring for the details in all eras. That's covered well in the section on the pornography of violence. She identifies two basic themes in this fascination with crime: horror, and mystery, both of which emerged in the 19th century and have continued strong since. Interestingly, true-crime literature has always been the low-class cousin to finer literary arts. This is true even when it's all fiction, as horror and mystery genres remain generally disreputable, relegated to certain ghettos. Halttunen writes, "Contemporary popular culture is still troubled by the moral implications of its own sensationalism, haunted by the pornographic quality of the endless pursuit of ever more grisly murders. But this relentless barrage of murder stories is due to the inability of any single murder to explain 'how could there be such evil?' True-crime literature is engaged in an endless exploration of a question to which we have no satisfying answer." To be honest, I mostly came to this book looking for titles of true-crime books that might sound worth tracking down. But there is no bibliography, and the titles scattered across the text and 60 pages of notes are mostly old tomes likely available only in a few specific libraries. So foiled again. I think the shared interest in crime verging on obsession (Halttunen is obviously well read in true crime), coupled with a resistance to indulging it, may actually be one of the most interesting aspects of this book, if frustrating. This is good stuff, but set your expectations right.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)

USA, 78 minutes, documentary
Director: Jeff Margolis
Writers: Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney
Photography: Tom Schamp
Editors: Daniel J. Johnson, Ken Johnson, Steve Livingston

I'm filing this under "documentary," which I guess is what you do with concert movies, but I was struck in poring over IMDb.com by how difficult it is to find in Richard Pryor's profile. He's not considered an actor in it—fair enough. Nor is he director or producer (at least of this one). It's there in the jumble under "Self," along with his awards hosting and talk show appearances. The quickest way to it and other similar stand-up documentaries is probably under writer—again, fair enough, but not all of his writing credits are for movies like this, so it's another jumble. I'd like to see a list of all his stand-up comedy movies in one place, please. For that matter, it's not listed at all in the Halliwell's film guide and it's old enough and was popular enough that it should be—at least, that's the way I remember it. In fact, I remember it was considered a kind of watershed milestone for stand-up comedy at the time, because Pryor deals so frankly not just with racial issues, as he always did, but also with the legal and health troubles related to his notorious drug use at the time. What I remember about it most is how funny it was. People talk about "laughing till it hurts" but that was actually my experience. I saw it repeatedly and pretty much always laughed until I couldn't stand it. All these years later, sure, it's dated. How could it not be? I still laugh but now it's more like smiling, and not till it hurts anymore. Some of the material has inevitably gone rancid—the attitudes toward gays and women can notably induce cringing and/or despair. It's no longer the single most amazing object of stand-up comedy I've ever seen, though I'd have to think about what betters it.

Partly because of this milder response, it's actually easier now to pick out how he does it, as it's often still effective. It relies on the dynamics of improv comedy, which is the most immediate and "hottest" type of comedy, where you and a performer feel most in synch. Pryor probably used some kind of "set list" of topics, and had already developed most of it to some extent, but there's a sense he might do anything as each one comes up. His chanting riffing and nervous stage prowling somehow create a world where the most ridiculous things happen vividly—a doleful German Shepherd briefly extends sympathies on a sad occasion before warning he will be on Pryor's ass again the next day, or a man suddenly finds himself caught in an extremely long and slow-moving line for death by way of sex, or demonstrations of racial differences are made by reactions to encountering a snake. Pryor also has a square, instantly recognizable white-guy voice that is good for laughs just in itself, and he knows it. It's still always funny. I loved this movie but full disclosure I never did make it to any of the follow-ups (Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip from 1982, and I thought there were others but I don't recognize them now by title). IMDb accurately but misleadingly calls Richard Pryor: Live in Concert his second filmed stand-up performance. When I tracked down the 1971 nightclub set that preceded it I saw it had actually been commercially released only in 1981, doubtless springboarding off the success of this. If you saw Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and enjoyed it in about 1979 you will probably still have a good deal of affection for it. If you never did, it might be a crapshoot now. I have no idea how it plays. From my view, the case for Richard Pryor as a remarkable original still finds some of its best evidence right here.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Harrison Bergeron" (1961)

Read story by Kurt Vonnegut online.

The premise of Kurt Vonnegut's story is a type of Devastating Wry Dystopic Satire that feels typical to me of its New Frontier times. It riffs on a straw man, an argument I don't think anyone is making or has ever made. Setting that aside, it's a great example of what a sharp and chiseled writer Vonnegut could be. In the future of this story people have gone mad for equality. Society has evolved a counterbalancing system wherein the most gifted are formally handicapped. Strong people are burdened with extra weight. Smart people are fixed with buzzers that sound off in their ears every 20 seconds to interrupt concentration. And so forth. As a view of coming attractions I do think it's unlikely. As a joke, however, Vonnegut has a few good ways to work it. It's a very short story with lots of dialogue, which enables it to establish rhythms that start to work almost musically and can be funny. It's also comical to see such mediocrity as the accepted norm. In this world excellence is an affront of arrogance. George and Hazel Bergeronn are parents of the anti-equality revolutionary Harrison, a Nietzschean superman if ever there was one. George and Hazel are watching a ballet performance on TV. But the dancers are not very good. George and two of the ballerinas have ear buzzers, which are synchronized. George and Hazel have an absent-minded conversation. One of George's best recurring lines is "Um." So the comedy is pretty rich and it's fun to read. But put it down a second and think about it and it starts to be annoying. Perhaps it's the mood I'm in at the moment, but it's hitting me as another privileged indictment of "identity politics." The year this was published the Civil Rights movement was on the rise, and a renewal of feminism just over the horizon. "Harrison Bergeron" can too easily be read as mocking such movements by willfully misunderstanding them. No one who wants to protect civil rights is trying to take anything but unfair opportunity away from anybody. The issue is equality of opportunity and fair treatment, not literal equality. This was originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Make of that what you will. It's still fun to read. Set a timer on a buzzer so you don't have to think about it too long.

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Possessed (2010)

Elif Batuman, raised in New Jersey as a second-generation US daughter of Turkish parents, makes a lot of things sound like fun in her book you wouldn't necessarily think are fun, like learning Russian as an adult in order to study Russian literature. Actually, she doesn't pull any punches there—it sounds really hard. She details her adventures and travels making her way through graduate school. Yes, that's right, graduate school. Her passions are so infectious they transcend the more typically unpleasant hothouse cloisters of academe. She has her eye on the prize always. She loves Don Quixote and Sherlock Holmes—they are critical markers into her fascination with Russian lit. She's skeptical of postmodern literary theory and today's MFA story writers, but she'll use theory in a pinch and her fondest desire is to write a novel, which actually came to fruition—The Idiot, published last year. One interesting and perhaps obvious point she raises is about the camps of division between those who prefer Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky, which I don't think I had thought of as such before but makes perfect sense in a Beatles / Stones sort of way. She declares herself Tolstoyan and has no hesitation. I might be more Dostoevskian—the four sick men of Europe and all that—but I'm less certain. Still, Dostoevsky gets at least as much attention in this story plus the title reference to boot (and then again in her novel, which I don't know). Chekhov gets his too, and Pushkin, Turgenev, practically the whole gang. The subtitle has it about right: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. It's lively and chatty, veering off into memoir territory with a good deal of charm, though it always snaps back to Russian literature again. Batuman is full of provocative ideas, explicating streams of literature, such as the heirs of Don Quixote, conscious and otherwise, and she's read so much it overwhelms me even to think about. It's a great big fun time.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

When I Was Born for the 7th Time (1997)

I'm trying to remember how Cornershop's rare stew of pop music and electronica inside the context of British-South Asian culture made its way into my home. Rock critic Robert Christgau gave it an A so that might be it—I remember I found it in a used record store in Vancouver. When I Was Born for the 7th Time is the band's third album. I tried a couple of others but they didn't nearly hit the same sweet spot for me. Coming back to it many years later I still like it quite a bit, but Christgau's assessment of a void at its center may be true enough, a point I hadn't noticed as much in the earlier throes. I've never been that impressed with the cover of "Norwegian Wood," except as gesture—I'm an originalist on that particular song. But it's interesting, again as Christgau points out, how it has to be taken as a kind of moebius strip reclamation project "for the land of the sitar." Which, to be clear, and strictly speaking, is not the land of Cornershop's nearly last man standing chief singer / songwriter / guitarist Tjinder Singh. He's a British citizen, born in Wolverhampton (I can't speak to whether it was actually for the seventh time). So maybe it's curious then, or maybe no surprise at all, that my favorite track on recent visits has been "Good to Be on the Road Back Home," which I had assumed until this minute was a cover of a country classic but is actually a Singh original. Obviously, on some level, it is working in the shadow of Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" (and Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and others). It's a great song and a great production, but in many ways what makes it is the guest vocalist, Paula Frazer (straight outta alt-country San Francisco), who somehow elevates it to impossible heights. "Make way for a lady," as Singh introduces her. But make no mistake—the album is a heady, nearly dizzying pastiche of styles (in fact, there's not much more country). Let it play and they will come to you. Its real calling card is the song "Brimful of Asha," an ode to the 45 single, which became a #1 hit in the UK after Norman Cook (better known as Fatboy Slim) gave it a remix. It comes on with acoustic chords and rhythm courtesy of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," hunching and lurching with Singh's glottal Indian tones swallowing the mic, and working up to its grand sentiment: "Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow, everybody needs a bosom / Mine's on the 45." Fatboy Slim took it and revved up the tempo, decked it out with more electronica flourishes, and the rest is history. Either version is fine by me but I know the original on the album better. Lots of surprises on this one and still pretty good. Inspirational line (from "What Is Happening?"): "Turkey gravy."

Friday, April 13, 2018

No Country for Old Men (2007)

USA, 122 minutes
Directors/editors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Cormac McCarthy
Photography: Roger Deakins
Music: Carter Burwell
Cast: Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Kelly MacDonald, Tess Harper, Stephen Root, Garret Dillahunt, Beth Grant, Kathy Lamkiri

It's hard to know what to do with the Coen brothers' 14th or so film, except to look at it and peel back layers. Based on a literary property of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, who of course is on the short list of most highly regarded living authors, it seems to throw a wall of unceasing violence in your face practically from start to finish. You may be too shocked from a first viewing ever to look again, but if you do you're likely to see something else entirely. On one of the DVD featurettes, people try to name the genre. Everyone lands on horror but no one thinks the label fits exactly. Other types mentioned include noir, period piece, road movie, crime, chase, western, even comedy. The latter was from Tommy Lee Jones, who didn't look like he believed it himself—maybe it's something about the Coens' popular association with irreverent mockery? Kelly Macdonald probably gets it right when she calls it a Coen brothers film: "They're their own genre."

I'm tempted to throw in superhero, because its remarkable villain Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem with a haircut no one ever forgets) is so vastly bigger than life. But it never gives off the recognizable superhero vibe currently infecting so much entertainment these days—Get Out, for example, or Breaking Bad. It's everywhere right now. Even Chigurh's coin-flipping thing, which I believe is something a Batman villain did in the '30s, is not overplayed here. In fact, No Country for Old Men strikes me as the most Hitchcockian film that codirectors and cowriters Ethan Coen and Joel Coen have made, a story based essentially and almost purely on schlepping the McGuffin around. Once inured to the violence you can see that for what it is, short bursts of set pieces that are actually quite artfully done, and mercifully short. Most of the shock of the violence has to do with the assorted weird ways that Chigurh kills people, along with his chilling efficiency. The arcs and shape of the narrative are almost purely physical, with people on the move and busy doing things. Dialogue is minimal, and there are long periods without it. In terms of Alfred Hitchcock, it reminds me perhaps most of Vertigo, but the trailing action is literally doubled.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

"Dog Heaven" (1989)

Read story by Stephanie Vaughn online.

Stephanie Vaughn's story is more along the lines of a reminiscence, but she makes it work by paradoxical yet resonant language and a fearless use of baldly sentimental figures. It's called "Dog Heaven" because a dog who is dead at the time of writing figures prominently. It's a childhood memory so obviously there are children too. The unnamed first-person narrator remembers 25 years earlier when she was in 7th grade. Her best friend is a boy named Sparky. They learn how to induce fainting as a game. They run for student government positions. It takes place on a military base in the '60s, when nuclear war was a fevered worry. The dog is named Duke and he's a big friendly guy, and smart too. I like the way Vaughn describes his barking, as during one of their fainting games: "Whenever I knocked out, I came to on the grass with the dog barking, yelping, crouching, crying for help. 'Wake up! Wake up!' he seemed to say. 'Do you know your name? Do you know your name? My name is Duke! My name is Duke!'" Vaughn somehow establishes an ironic distance yet indulges things like putting words in the mouths of animals. And somehow it works. My first time reading it I was mostly interested in the dog story, and found the strange locutions more something to push through. "Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again," the story starts. Going back through it again, they became more the points to linger on. We saw in Tess Gallagher's "The Lover of Horses" the idea that destiny chooses us, not the other way round, and there's a similar inside-out take going on here. The narrator is like a dream that her memories have. The memories are real. She is ethereal. Something like that. This works most for me with the dog, where the emotional pull is hardest. But I played a fainting game like she describes when I was in 7th grade too. And I know the sense of chapters in life now disappeared, but whose memories still haunt. I think that's something like what she is getting at here. It's remarkable for me how the story seems to unfold and deepen further every time I go through it.

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

Monday, April 09, 2018

Thoroughbreds (2017)

A film festival favorite last year, Thoroughbreds is a first feature for director and writer Cory Finley. It's a pretty good thriller, a kind of cunning mashup of Mean Girls and the Tuesday Weld movie Pretty Poison, though often just a little too busy being cold, with a slow-developing tempo and confounding mannequin performances. Olivia Cooke as Amanda and Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily are often making do with just youth and portentous lines from the script—Finley's inexperience shows in his ability to do some things much better than others. What he does best is set a doomy romantic desperate suicidal mood. Amanda and Lily are natives of Westchester, Connecticut, daughters of money. One is clinical and claims she has no feelings. The other harbors homicidal rage (somewhat justified). They were friends in grade school, now they are high school age and encountering problems in life. One just got kicked out of Andover. The other slaughtered her horse. The mother of one enlists the other by way of money to reconnect, under the pretense of tutoring. Both of their mothers are sad and fearful women. Amanda and Lily get together, open their books, trade barbs, say portentous things, brush one another off, and then see each other again. Gradually a murder plot develops. Anton Yelchin makes an appearance, his last, and does a lot to propel things along. He plays a low-level drug dealer who is pathetically delusional and soon he is entrapped in the murder scheme. It's good to see him any time we can because he was always so good. But the main weight of this show is carried by Cooke and Taylor-Joy. They're not always entirely believable, but they both evince uniquely effective, and different, ways to make your skin crawl. At just over 90 minutes, Thoroughbreds is organized like a novel, with chapters, and packed with lots of twists and turns and some nicely conceived scenes. The resolution felt random to me, like late rounds of a musical chairs game. It's not entirely clear who is a victim and who is not, or maybe I don't want to believe what the movie presented me. I can't think of a better way to end it myself, so whatever. The thing about thrillers is they are movies whose best parts are usually in the middle, and often not at the end. Thoroughbreds has a pretty good middle.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Invisible Man (1952)

This great American novel, the only one Ralph Ellison published while he was alive, is conceived in such scope and detail it's clear he must have argued a lot with himself about the details. Obviously, for example, he decided not to use the definite article ("The") for the title, presumably to universalize the central tenet (or perhaps thinking he could avoid confusion with H.G. Wells's 19th-century horror tale). And he did not insert a comma between the two words, which would have emphasized his motivating idea with a pivot to hipster dialect. As much as anything, the struggle Ellison lays out in the totality of his amazing episodic saga, full of fancies and bold conceits and simply one of the best American novels that exists, is the matter of looking to win the simple respect of being seen. The presidency of Barack Obama and what came after are urgent reminders that the racial problems we refuse to face today we have always refused to face. And until the majority can look at the minority (however you slice and dice, by race, gender, ethnicity, religiosity, sexual orientation) and see them—a prospect that could still be unlikely today, more than 60 years after the publication of this book, which was nearly a hundred years after the Civil War—then the problems we have always had will continue. Some aspects of Invisible Man may seem out of date now, such as the lengthy episodes with the Communist Party, but if they are dated they are nonetheless good history, and certainly illustrative of dynamics still at play. Ellison's panorama is sweeping. It starts in the South, where Negroes are omnipresent but institutionally shackled, and travels to the North, where official policy is to keep blacks out of sight. In either case, the vertiginous sense of invisibility is produced for its objects, who are people. If it feels dated in some places, it still makes its way to moments that feel ripped from today's headlines, such as many of the encounters with police. And it's never less than dazzling, with its clarion language, headlong narrative momentum, and many cunning tricks. It is always operating poetically at multiple levels, with surging power. It's never mired by literary baggage but the baggage is there to be unpacked, on practically every page. The first-person narrator and our epic hero is unnamed, of course. One of his early experiences in the North is a job in a factory that specializes in a paint so bright it seems to glow, called "Optic White." By the general reaction to him of his all white coworkers it's evident he's a token hire. His first task is the final step in the process of making "Optic White" paint: 10 drops, no more and no fewer, of a mysterious liquid black substance. Oh there's black and white all over Invisible Man—it's what it's self-consciously made of. At the same time, in the factory, Ellison is also drawing a portrait of a nearly totalitarian war industry—which indeed prevailed openly in World War II and after, was characterized in 1961 by President Eisenhower as the "military-industrial complex," and is more virulent now than ever. So it's not just race that Ellison is on about, but also American power and corruption, the Communist movement, crony capitalism, and much more. Essential.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

"The Christian Roommates" (1964)

Read story by John Updike online.

John Updike's story is a slice of life out of the Harvard freshmen dormitories of approximately the '50s. It's charming and a pleasure to read—published originally in the New Yorker—but just to be clear, it's a slice of life out of the Harvard freshmen dormitories of approximately the '50s. The two main characters are Orson Ziegler, a premed student from South Dakota, and Harry Palamountain, who goes by Hub. They are called the Christian roommates the way other pairs are called the Jewish roommates, the Negro roommates, the writer roommates, and so on. Not all the labels fit these late adolescents perfectly. Ziegler is a conventional rock-ribbed Republican protestant. Hub is interested in religion and philosophy, but he's hardly hemmed in by any one sect or creed, or even Christianity. He practices something he calls "Yoga," and also meditates, prays, and elaborately attempts to stay open to all things. The story was published before hippies, but Hub is in line with certain strains of Thoreau by way of the beats. There are nearly a dozen characters here and the best part of the story is its strong sense for that age of stepping out on your own. Some of these guys—they are all guys—don't even last the first year. Others stay together as roommates all the way. At the end of the story we get little bios of how things turned out, like the end of American Graffiti: "Fitch returned, made up the lost credits, and eventually graduated magna cum in History and Lit. He now teaches in a Quaker prep school. Silverstein is a biochemist, Koshland is a lawyer," etc. I'm a little surprised I haven't read more Updike—his natural chatty style is the kind of thing that can appeal to me (Salinger, Roth, etc.). But then I look at the privilege on display here and I remember. The only way this works is to accept its class-bound terms. The third-person narrator is basically above it, comfortable in the class that intimidates all these boys one way or another. And yet this narrator has little to say about class formally. That would be gauche, I guess. Even within its narrow constraints—the Harvard freshmen dormitories of approximately the '50s—there is easily recognized human behavior in this story, which works to redeem the patronizing superiority at least a little.

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

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Searching for Caleb (1975)

Anne Tyler's sixth novel tells the story of a very familiar family, though her eye and ear have not yet entirely reached the fine tuning to come. The Pecks are from Baltimore, of course, and at the center of the novel (if not the family) is a married couple of first cousins: Justine, a fortune teller, and Duncan, a ne'er-do-well, though obviously gifted, who has gone out of his way to reject the family. He has moved away from Baltimore, and continued moving his family every two or three years, though never far from Baltimore. Justine and Duncan have a 17-year-old daughter and also a grandfather who lives with them. The grandfather is the one searching for Caleb, who is his brother and the true black sheep of the family. Caleb disappeared in 1912 and has never been heard from since. The story takes place in the summer of 1973. Again, nothing is quite as sharp and distinct as Tyler's characters would become, but many of her best aspects are already apparent. The Pecks are a certain familiar type of alienated clan nonetheless clinging to one another. The chief tension is the paradox of rejecting family without rejecting oneself. Duncan and Caleb are working through how it doesn't really work, or what the trade-offs are. The paradox is that self-knowledge of family weaknesses does not get rid of them in you. One person's self-knowledge is another's benighted existence—there's not much difference. Justine is the one character who seems most capable of balancing the competing forces, but it's not clear even she is doing well at it. Which also depends some on the reader's point of view. I had a hard time taking Justine seriously as a fortune teller—much like most of the Peck family, in fact—yet the narrator's view is ambiguous. We might be intended to believe in her psychic powers, though the tone is generally more along the lines of entertainment than insights. She is a kooky sideshow at church bazaars, for example, and though her gift is on the order of seeing the future there aren't many convincing examples of it, if any. Tyler would do much better elsewhere with all the themes found here. If you're on a jag, go ahead and throw this one on the pile too. Otherwise, never mind.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Dogville (2003)

Netherlands / Denmark / UK / France / Finland / Sweden / Germany / Italy / Norway, 178 minutes
Director/writer: Lars von Trier
Photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Editor: Molly Marlene Stensgaard
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, Jean-Marc Barr, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Udo Kier, Chloe Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgard, John Hurt

Dogville actually represents the first installment in a "USA—Land of Opportunities" trilogy by the infamous bad boy director and screenwriter Lars von Trier, who by reputation so hates the US he has never even visited. The second episode, Manderlay, came two years later but flopped commercially and the third has yet to be made. For what it's worth, the funding for this movie came from no fewer than nine countries, not one of them the US. So perhaps inevitably I was mindful of that hatred while revisiting this lengthy and often annoying picture. Among other things it made me a little defensive about my homeland, even in this day and age when we are sliding into the abyss. At three hours, with heavy-handed aesthetic pretensions and an all-star cast representing many different phases of cinema history—Lauren Bacall! James Caan! Harriet Andersson! Chloe Sevigny! Ben Gazzara!—Dogville is self-evidently a Very Big Movie.

At its core, the premise is more or less an illustrative enactment of some social psychology experiment where people are given the opportunity to make moral choices and fail miserably—the Milgram Experiment, maybe, or the Stanford Prison Experiment. We're talking about human issues here more than American. At the same time, the signifiers make it hard to miss the point. It takes place in a semi-abandoned mining town in Colorado (called Dogville, the implication being that it's barely fit even for dogs), with not one but two characters named Thomas Edison, and placing gangsters, gun violence, and corrupt law enforcement in prominent positions of impregnable power. There's even an elaborate 4th of July celebration. The only thing missing is apple pie and ice cream.