Thursday, March 29, 2018

Yams


A Girl (d. Simon Black) – Near the beginning of his review of a theater piece of some sort by performance artist Karen Finley, critic John Heilpern, by way of context, said of Finley “She has also been known to shove yams up her ass. I don’t know how I feel about that. As a good friend of mine asks: ‘Why yams?’” It’s a good question, and one whose broader philosophical implications occurred to me as I watched A Girl. This “film,” which was “developed” by director Black and star (and virtually the only actor in the thing) Hannah Short, lasts about an hour, is filled with a kind of ambient industrial score that early on evokes Tom Waits if Tom Waits never developed anything, is decidedly not filled with dialogue, and seems more than anything to want to pretend there is some sort of disconnect between the outwardly prim public face of Short’s character, and the wild, disturbing, solo sexual shenanigans she gets up to behind closed doors. If that really was the idea, Short and Black may have wanted to up the prim quotient by, for example, removing her nose ring. If that wasn’t the idea, then I don’t know what the idea was.

There’s nothing like a plot to be found here (though at one point she finds a briefcase); it’s just a series of I guess you’d call them “self-contained” set-pieces featuring Short in various stages of undress, doing any number of odd things, culminating in a very long sequence in which Short is absolutely as naked as one could possibly be, in a room where one would much rather be clothed, crawling about and messing around with a raw chicken. “Why yams?” Though honestly, given the level of subtext that Black and Short are willing to reach for here, the answer to “Why a raw chicken?” seems clear enough.

A Girl has just been released by Kino, as part of a series called “Satanic Sluts.” I’m well aware that I have no one to blame but myself.


The Teenage Prostitution Racket (d. Carlo Lizzani) – I realize that pairing these two films is just asking anyone reading this post to wonder what my deal is. I refuse to apologize, but I will say that the screener game can be unpredictable. This 1975 film, one of dozens made by the late Carlo Lizzani (who among other things worked as a writer on Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero) has quite a bit more going for it than A Girl by simply being a watchable film. It also has an interesting structure: the film is comprised of a series of short stories, each about a different teenage girl (played by young women like Cinzia Membretti and Cristina Moranzoni, neither of whom appeared in another film after this) who is tricked or forced into becoming prostitutes. Lizzani and his co-screenwriter Mino Giarda find a surprising variety within this basic storyline, and each method used by the vile and unscrupulous to send these girls down a path they would reject if they saw any way to do so rings true. Even the most dubious, which involves a party in which the women are urged to strip naked and have their pictures taken as a sort of game, which ultimately leads to the youngest woman there being blackmailed, is obviously based on reality to some degree.

The problem with the film is how one views the motivation behind its creation in the first place. Though it pitches itself as a kind of expose of a specific kind of white slavery, and a warning to parents throughout Europe, it’s still full of female nudity. With a premise like this, how could it not be? Yes, but must it leer? At any rate, it does, quite often. This makes The Teenage Prostitution Racket no different from any number of Italian genre films of the era – and whatever else it may be, this is a crime film, of a sort – and I won’t pretend that I usually object to this. But as the title suggests, these women do seem awfully young, and even setting that aside, being acutely aware of the hypocrisy inherent in the film you’re currently watching doesn’t often pave the way towards a favorable opinion. Or so the well-known saying goes. At best, The Teenage Prostitution Racket, now out on home video from Raro Video, is a curiosity.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Dining on Vultures


The Middle Eastern god Baal, who I only knew as a vaguely sinister deity when referenced in various works of genre fiction I’ve read over the years, is, I recently learned, primarily a fertility god. And not fundamentally sinister, either, from what I can tell, but anyway, a fertility god who controlled, among other things, rain and dew, which of course are needed for the growth of crops.

Baal, the character portrayed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Volker Schlondorff’s 1970 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s first play (just released by Criterion), may not be a god of fertility, but he is fertile, bedding various women over the course of the film, and impregnating one of them. And Baal the film is curiously wet – not only is Vaseline (apparently, anyway) coating the rim of Schlondorff’s camera lens, but the Germany through which these characters stumble and drink and fight seems to perpetually drenched by a thin, depressing autumn drizzle.

However, there’s another Baal, spawned (if you will) from the fertility god, but now a prince of Hell, according to some occult literature. As Baal, the abusive, drunken, hateful, and prolific poet in Schlondorff’s film, a misanthropic asshole who blurts his poems between strippers at a seedy nightclub, Fassbinder does seem powerful, able to control the pathetic group of people who are sucked into his orbit inside one of those strange European bars that’s all blank walls and giant tables of unvarnished wood. This might be the Hell of which he is a prince. He does rule here, and takes what he wants, especially from the two women played by Irmgard Paulis and Margarethe von Trotta, both of whom are discarded, one of whom, because she fell under Baal’s spell, is doomed. Though in fairness, both may be doomed.

Like all gods – and maybe that’s what Brecht/Schlondorff/Fassbinder’s Baal is, after all – this Baal tells his own story. The film begins with Fassbinder walking down a path through a field, while Klaus Doldinger’s quite frankly nuts pop/jazz(?) score plays underneath a voice telling the story of Baal. The story is bleak and abstract, the imagery wild and violent, the voice sounding warped, too high somehow. It reminded me of David Bennent’s voice in Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum when Oskar shrieks “The gasman!!!”, if that voice achieved the same effect while somehow remaining calm. But later in the film, we see Baal reciting his own poetry, and that’s when I realized that the voice heard at the beginning of the film, as a sort of narration – and many more times throughout the course of Baal, always accompanied by Doldinger’s music – was in fact Fassbinder’s own. I’m not sure why it took so long for this to hit me, but the slightly disorienting effect this all had on me seems to me to be right in line with everything else in the film.

Baal is shot in a style that seems to want to evoke both gutter realism and stagey artificiality (at one point, during a scene featuring Baal among a group of lumberjacks, I honestly thought for a second Baal was going to turn into a musical). A handheld camera tilts up to look at birds overhead, as anyone walking through a field might do, but that Vaseline on the lens reminds us there is a lens. Fassbinder’s performance is skeevily naturalistic, while Sigie Graue (as Ekart, one of Baal’s circle who will eventually crack under the pressure of Baal’s unending shittiness) seems to have wandered over from a Bresson film. All of this is one way, I suppose, of tackling Brecht on film.

In addition to that gutter realism and stagey artificiality, Baal also emanates apocalyptic mysticism. That Vaseline does the additional work of evoking fantasy, or dreams, or a step from The Real World into that of A Story Being Told, Baal tells the story of Baal, he looks down on his creation. He is God and he is Man. The end of the film takes place in the woods, with our omniscient narrator/poet/deity watching himself die. It’s not a quiet death, but a spasmodic one, and it is directly preceded by a group of men making it very clear that they do not care. As Baal walks us through his death, his tone, and his words, suggest that neither does he.

The other day, after I finished watching Baal, I didn’t think I liked it very much. I’ve thought about it a lot since then.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

Oscars: The Whole Bit

Just for something to do, I’ve decided to write brief thoughts, or maybe sometimes longer than brief, we’ll see how it goes, about all of the films nominated for major Oscars this year. The ceremony is tonight, after all, and maybe this shit can go viral and finally make me as famous as I unquestionably do not deserve to be. I’m going to go in alphabetical order, because I think that will keep me fresh, keep me fuckin’ juiced, so I can make it to the end.

Two things to know before beginning: I haven’t seen everything, especially in the documentary, animated, and foreign film categories, and most importantly I have not seen Call Me by Your Name, which is a big blindspot in a situation like this, but there’s nothing to be done about it now. Anyway, if the movie isn’t talked about here, I haven’t seen it yet. Also, I’m going to slyly work in three capsule reviews of movies for which I have recently received screeners. Let’s see if you can spot them!
Ababcus: Small Enough to Jail (d. Steve James) – At one point in this documentary, which is about Abacus, a small, family-owned bank catering to New York’s Chinatown community, and the only bank to be prosecuted for fraud after the 2008 banking crisis, during the trial that is the spine of the whole thing, a recorded telephone call is played. On screen, as we hear the voices, a sort of audio bar graph of the sounds appears, as well as subtitles of everything said, should they be too garbled to be easily understood by the audience. Except that these subtitles lower, one word at a time, as each one is spoken, from the graph above it. This makes reading them actually kind of a pain in the ass. Watching the film I thought “What rinky-dink first-time documentary school jackass made this? This is the only ‘cinematic’ idea he or she had and it’s stupid.” I was a bit shocked to learn the director was, in fact, Steve James. This movie feels bored.

The Big Sick (d. Michael Showalter) – There was a time once when this movie would have been greeted with praise of the “Hey that was pretty good!” variety. And it would have even been deserved. Now, one gets the sense that this is the sort of movie that if you don’t get behind it a thousand per cent, then you, my good sir, do not understand cinema. It’s been nominated for best screenplay, I guess because in contrast to most modern comedies, it only feels kind of bloated, and because on some level it is about the Plight of the Comedian, which is of course the most dangerous and noble profession on Earth. I might also complain that star and co-screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani doesn’t seem to ever catch on to the disconnect when he portrays white racists as vile (fair enough) but portrays Pakistani racists with a “hey that’s just my family!” shrug. But I’m not going to do that! (Plus the film, and I  suppose life before it, puts Nanjiani in an impossible situation, makes his girlfriend completely unsympathetic towards his plight, and apparently expects us to side with her.) Ray Romano and Holly Hunter are terrific.

The Boss Baby (d. Tom McGrath) – This quite honestly could have been worse; it is nevertheless still bad. Apart from all the run-of-the-mill objectionable bits – fart jokes, counting children and babies disco dancing and smirking as a joke, what appeared to be an actual blowjob joke so that the “adults” in the audience could be secure that there’s something in this one for them, too – the movie itself doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on. The premise, ostensibly, is that there’s this seven-year-old boy with a very active imagination – he imagines his parents’ jobs at a pet toy/food/etc. company to be glamorous, jet-setting, almost spy-like, and so on – is told that he’s going to be a brother. He’s having a great time as an only kid, so he objects, and then when the baby arrives, the baby is a suit-wearing domineering, manipulative jerk who thinks he’s king shit and takes all the parents’ love for himself. So the action of the film will be very heightened in the kid’s head, and what the audience will see as wild improbable adventure is in reality just mundane growing up stuff. Visually, the movie even points us there once: during a barbecue, a bunch of babies get into a chase/fight with the older kid backyard, one that includes explosions and swinging on shit and whatever, but at one point there’s a cut to a couple of parents looking from the house into the backyard and they see an extremely scaled-down version of the crazy adventure we’ve just seen. So it is all in the older kid’s head! Except that when this sequence is over, the parents find the aftermath, and everything we were shown seems to have actually occurred, including the explosion. So what the fuck was that cut to the parents for? What, to paraphrase David Mamet, was that in aid of? Furthermore, the parents can also see that the baby is in a suit. Is the baby in a suit? There are a couple of decent jokes here and there (Alec Baldwin as the suited baby, upon learning that the special formula that allows him to act like an adult corporate executive, will soon be unavailable: “Without it I turn back into a real baby: goo goo, ga ga, the whole bit!”) which is a couple more than I was expecting, but overall this movie is an idiot.

Coco (d. Lee Unkrich) – With every new Pixar movie, more and more one-time fans seem to announce themselves as sick of the whole thing, so that not only are your Cars 3s and The Good Dinosaurs swept up in it, but so are the ones which are, to me, excellent. Now, mind you, Pixar is doing fine, I bet, and this negative reaction is a whisper next to the yawp of positivity the company’s films otherwise enjoy. But it sort of makes me not want to even bother talking about them, and instead just quietly enjoy the movies, and be emotionally broken by them, and damn all else (more on this sort of reaction later!). The upshot of all this is that I thought Coco was excellent – visually, it’s not just inventive, but it’s inventive in ways that are new to Pixar. Look at the character design, and colors used, for the fantastical creatures in the Land of the Dead. And yes, I cried quite a lot. One small thing I loved about Coco is that it’s named after a character who is barely in it. This choice has what they call resonance.

Darkest Hour (d. Joe Wright) – I’m having a hard time accepting that a movie like this can still be made and taken seriously. No offense to those who liked it, of course! But what Darkest Hour makes me think of, at least as far as Lady Oscar goes, is the 1967 Best Picture race, the nominees of which, as Mark Harris expertly illustrated in his book Pictures at a Revolution, are the perfect time capsule of an artform and culture in transitional uproar, something it would be conceivable to argue we’re going through again. If, say, this year’s equivalent to The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde are, I don’t know, Call Me by Your Name (I’m assuming) and Get Out, then Darkest Hour is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Doctor Doolittle all smashed up together. I sort of wouldn’t mind pointing out that if I had a vote in 1967, the Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn movies would be shown the door right along with the Stanley Kramer and Richard Fleischer pictures. Of those available to me, I guess I’d have gone with In the Heat of the Night. Which this year is, I guess, The Post? This doesn’t mean if I had a ballot I’d be voting for The Post. Anyway, I love Gary Oldman as a rule, but this shit is complete nonsense. When Neville Chamberlain takes out his handkerchief at the end, Signifying Something Important, and telling the audience that now would be the time to cheer, I audibly sighed.

The Disaster Artist (d. James Franco) – A reasonably fun movie that I have decided is actually not very good. As a piece of filmmaking, The Room is both more entertaining and more interesting. The section at the beginning of Franco’s movie, with all the celebrities telling an audience (which Franco was probably hoping is largely comprised of people who have never seen The Room because otherwise his own film would sink to the bottom of the ocean without a trace (I guess it worked out okay)) what The Room even is, plus also why we should care, and additionally, too, why it’s actually a great  movie that matters more than other movies, is, this section I mean, frankly embarrassing.  Look at how Tim Burton accomplished with Ed Wood more or less what Franco was aiming for here, but with infinitely more ease, grace, artistry, and respect for his audience. It has some good laughs, though!

Dunkirk (d. Christopher Nolan) – See Coco. The only part of the release of a new Nolan film that I hate, even dread, is the wave of critics and film fans who feel compelled to insist that the director is a fake who literally has no idea what he’s doing. Now, we all have our opinions, and my guess is that I have done something similar in the past. But these people are just so fucking wrong, and countering them has been exhausting me for too many years now. Suffice it to say, Dunkirk is tremendous as far as I’m concerned, a loud, classically made (if not classically structured) war film, which disorients with its chaos, yet makes as clear as it can what being on those beaches, one of several thousand helpless targets, was like. It’s somehow both cold and emotional. Nolan’s focus on the pieces makes the ultimate heroism and relief all the more exhilarating, and melancholy. It’s probably his masterpiece.

Faces Places (d. JR and Agnes Varda) – A small, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may documentary placing the oddest, most charming pair of artists at its center. Young photographer JR and 89-year-old New Wave pioneer Varda travel through the French countryside, meeting all sorts of people who do all sorts of jobs, finding beauty, kindness, and humanity everywhere they go. Faces Places is completely free of the kind of condescension most American filmmakers would bring along to this material like a trail of slime. Absolutely wonderful.

The Florida Project (d. Sean Baker) – So the ending of The Florida Project, I kept hearing, honestly did not work, and that was too bad as the rest of the film was wonderful. While finally watching this, yes, terrific movie about daily life among the residents of a Disney World-adjacent motel (managed by a peerless Willem Dafoe, every bit as good as everybody says) as seen through the eyes of a little girl, daughter to a young, loving, fuckup of a mother, I was of course bracing myself for the moment when it was all gonna go pear-shaped. But that never happened, because the ending is entirely of a piece with what came before. It’s shot differently because the audience is now entirely in the head of someone who we had previously been following from the normal movie-audience remove. That’s why the last minute feels different: it’s showing us what we’ve already been watching, but didn’t realize it.

Get Out (d. Jordan Peele) – If I’m somewhat skeptical of the seemingly endless blurt of adoration that Peele’s directing debut has been enjoying for almost a full year now, it’s because I’ve seen a few horror films in my time, and yes, this is certainly one of those. Which sounds a bit more dismissive than I actually feel about Get Out, but it’s a film that struck me as being very much part of a long tradition within this genre. The most impressive thing to me about the film – apart from a terrific score by Michael Abels – is the lead performance by Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, the young black man who, as the film begins, is hitting the road with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to meet her family, whose White Liberal bona fides, we will learn, mask something sinister. What Kaluuya does that’s so striking is that before the horror material really kicks in, he made me feel an intense discomfort due to a situation that I’ve never been in and can never be in: the only black guy in a house of white people who, racially-speaking, are acting weird, specifically because I’m there. And he just has to bear it. Viscerally communicating that is not nothing.
                                                              INTERMISSION

Birdman of Alcatraz (d. John Frankenheimer) – I watched this film, newly out on Blu-ray from Olive Films, right after watching Darkest Hour, and the transition from Joe Wright’s horseshit to John Frankenheimer in his prime was, and I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic, not unlike the transition from illness into good health. This biopic about Robert Stroud, a two-time murderer (one was a prison guard) who spent most of his adult life in solitary confinement, along the way caring for, bonding with, and studying what must have been hundreds and hundreds of birds, could conceivably give the viewer whiplash in its turns from clear-eyed brutality to sentimentality, but I think Frankenheimer and star Burt Lancaster (who was never better than here) navigate all of this with quite a bit of elegance, pretty much completely avoiding the worst pitfalls inherent in such a story. The black and white photography by the great Burnett Guffrey is pure 60s social realism starkness, which I mean as a high compliment. It’s a beautiful film, and the Blu-ray looks superb. That the film drops off a bit once Stroud actually gets to Alcatraz is both ironic and not that big a deal, since it comes pretty late in the 150-minute movie. Telly Savalas and Karl Malden are as great as you’d expect.

The Hallelujah Trail (d. John Sturges) – Also just out from Olive Films, and also starring Burt Lancaster, this movie…well, listen. I’m not a big fan of the criticism “That film is dated,” which means, I guess, “That film was made in a year other than this one.” But The Hallelujah Trail is of a type of movie – the epic comedy -- that as far as I can tell nobody makes anymore, and I’m not convinced we as a society have lost anything because of this. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is of course the ne plus ultra of this sort of thing, and The Hallelujah Trail is neither as epic nor as egregious as that one. It’s not much good, though. There is some historical fascination in watching these movies, of the “movies were sometimes like this at one time, and actors like Burt Lancaster and Lee Remick sometimes starred in them” variety, such that I was with this one for about the first hour or so. The problem is that this is, like Birdman of Alcatraz, 150 minutes long, and if your question to me is “Is it possible to get through the last 90 minutes of The Hallelujah Trail?” my answer must be, as John Lennon once sang, “Christ, you know it ain’t easy. You know how hard it can be.” The dividing line between what’s bearable and what’s not is just before the first big action setpiece. This is a Western, by the way, in addition to everything else, and the plot revolves around forty barrels of whiskey, which everybody wants, including Remick’s temperance leader (so she can get rid of them) and the city of Denver, led by Dub Taylor, so that they may drink them, and the Businessman Who Is Unlikable (Brian Keith), whose barrels they are but who is selfish and unreasonable, etc. This last bit counts as the Social Commentary element of the film, an element also found in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and giving as little insight; though I have no idea if it’s true I do wonder if maybe this facet, which includes some nod towards labor rights, got Lancaster involved in what is otherwise a very off-brand film. In any event, the whiskey is also desired by a group of Sioux Indians, who, The Hallelujah Trail being a Good Liberal Hollywood movie, are goofy present-grubbing doofuses who are played by people like Martin Landau and Roy J. Wilke. But anyway, there’s this big shootout between the Cavalry and the Indians. It’s set during a dust storm, and Elmer Bernstein’s score drops away, and so in another Western the stage would have been set for something bleakly violent. Except this is a madcap comedy, so though the mood is foreboding, nobody gets shot, and things like for instance a group of Cavalry shooting, realizing they’re being shot at from behind so one says “Cover your rear!” so they all turn around and now they’re being shot from the front and the back and they say “Cover your rear!” and they all turn around – things such as this, as I was saying, keep happening. And then Lancaster, who wasn’t there for the shootout, shows up and says to the commander who was in charge “You mean to tell me all those bullets were fired and nobody was killed??” This, as I say, was the dividing line between watchability and almost the opposite.

The Orchard End Murder (d. Christian Marnham) – Christian Marnham made very few movies. One of them is this oddball 50-minute short exploitation feature which was apparently often paired as a double feature with Gary Sherman’s Dead & Buried, also a horror film, but one which seems to me to cinematically, conceptually, though maybe not quite philosophically, rather a wholly other thing. I called The Orchard End Murder exploitation, but it is and also isn’t. It’s about a young woman (Tracy Hyde) who one day happens upon the whimsical cottage of a railroad employee (Bill Wallis). She’d like to see his yard ornaments, and he’s happy to oblige, although she treats him with a curious mix of rude distaste and complete openness and trust. It eventually ends up that she was right the first time, and she’s finally killed, not by the railroad employee but instead by the violent meathead idiot who does odd jobs nearby. The rest of the movie is about what the two men do about the body, and what happens after that. It is, as you might guess, all very compact, and in its way queasily effective – the murder, which occurs in a pile of apples, is both awful to watch, and like an image from a fairy tale. In its simplicity and lack of adornment, The Orchard End Murder is one of the bleaker views of humanity I’ve seen.

Incidentally, included on the new Kino Blu-ray is a short 1970 documentary by Marnham called The Showman, about a knife-throwing carnival nudie-show “impresario” (as Kino describes him). This is a fascinating and subtly unnerving look at a vanished form of entertainment. I’m glad Kino included it.
                                                         END OF INTERMISSION

The Insult (d. Ziad Doueiri) – By the end of this political drama/thriller(?) about a seemingly mundane clash between a Lebanese Christian man and a Palestinian construction worker that blows up into a national scandal, Doueiri has forced his audience to consider the matter from an angle he had not previously hinted to them that they might want to think about. For that, I am grateful. For the movie that surrounds that idea, which is an indifferently shot story filled with TV court drama twists and nonsensical trial scenes, I am not.

Lady Bird (d. Greta Gerwig) – A film I kind of wish people would calm down about at the same time I acknowledge that it is very good. It seems that I want it both ways. Gerwig’s debut film, about a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) in Sacramento who can’t help but kick back at her family, who has less money than most of her classmates, and who while all this is going on is heading towards her first sexual experience(s), is funny, sweet, honest – all the things it had dang well better be, in other words. The two things I like best about Lady Bird is that Gerwig was willing to show all the many bad sides of her protagonist, her selfishness, her thoughtlessness, even her stupidity; and the way it deals with the whole concept of liking things, and if you like something that others persist in telling you is bad or, worse, uncool, well, fuck them. Like it anyway.

Logan (d. James Mangold) – I won’t spend too much time on this one. All I’ll say is that back when Darren Aronofsky was set to direct a Wolverine movie, before that fell through, this is pretty much what I was hoping that film would end up looking like. That that same movie ended up being made by James Mangold is not something I could have ever predicted.

Mudbound (d. Dee Rees) – Quite a bit better than I thought it was going to be. Garrett Hedlund and Mary J. Blige are as good as advertised; meanwhile, Jason Mitchell and Rob Morgan, who no one seems to be talking about, kind of quietly walk away with the thing. The last twenty minutes are merciless. After the worst of it, the audience demands something, and they get it, but it is not satisfying. This is certainly the intent.

Phantom Thread (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – Well, I mean. Phantom Thread looms so large in my mind as unquestionably the film of the year – by which I mean, in addition to its obvious greatness, in terms of film history 2017 will always be the year that Phantom Thread came out – that in capsule form, I have even less of an idea where to begin than I ever do with any of these, and believe me, I never have any idea where to begin with a capsule review. At any rate: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, and apparently Daniel Day-Lewis’s last, is an exquisitely unexpected, precise and complete, original work of art. Funny, eerie, suspenseful, graceful, and intense, while watching the film it’s not hard to believe that Paul Thomas Anderson had already imagined everything about the personality and lives of his characters and the world and time in which they live, and filmed the part that is Phantom Thread. It brings to mind what the man once said about sculpting a horse: you take a block of stone and chisel away everything that doesn’t look like a horse.

The Post (d. Steven Spielberg) – For me, this is mid-tier Spielberg, which I will accept happily. That he can go from the decision to turn this script into a movie to its actual release into theaters in a matter of months and still turn out something this slick and professional and even artful, for all its flaws, is really quite something. Seeing this dismissed as hackwork is frankly depressing.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (d. Dan Gilroy) – An imperfect movie that is both not at all what it was marketed as, and much better than its reputation. Denzel Washington plays an activist attorney who spends the film going through a catastrophic moral crisis (as opposed to an activist attorney who spends the film lifting the world up on his admirable shoulders, which is what I was expecting); if the character is written to be a little too much of an oddball, it was a sharp move to cast Washington, who sells it all beautifully. Israel is a unique character in that, while he’s certainly a Movie Type, this particular Movie Type has not existed in this story before, at least not that I’ve seen. I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad Washington got nominated.

The Shape of Water (d. Guillermo del Toro) – One of my favorite directors is probably going to win an Oscar for the worst film he’s ever made. A morally thoughtless wagonload of bullshit that believes it’s a morally superior “fable,” The Shape of Water is often beautiful and engaging, and it features a game and terrific cast, but finally it judges not just its villains but finally the whole world based on how it reacts to del Toro’s pure heroes. Anyone who looks askance at any part of this is not just immoral, but might even actually deserve to die. It’s an ugly movie that has sold itself as a beautiful one. And it’s not that I believe del Toro thinks this way; it’s that I don’t believe del Toro thought at all.

The Square (d. Ruben Ostlund) – It’s, I mean, you know, it’s fine. I liked Elisabeth Moss a lot (I'd actually call hers one of my favorite performances of last year), and I liked the ape man scene. The rest of it passed the time amiably enough, though I’m not sure this is the sort of reaction Ostlund wanted.

Strong Island (d. Yance Ford) – To mostly just repeat what I said about this on social media, because frankly I’m starting to run out of steam here, I have some serious issues with Strong Island which are inherent with the modern state of socio-political documentary filmmaking, in that it presents one version of events which it demands the audience accept without question (for the record, I believe the story of the murder of William Ford and its aftermath as told in this documentary is probably pretty accurate, but I resent the implied moral judgment that would come with wondering if it might be otherwise), as a personal and poetic documentation of grief, Yance Ford’s film is occasionally breathtaking.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (d. Martin McDonagh) – And so we end with the most divisive film on the least. Oh alphabet, how you have betrayed me. My feelings about this pitch-dark crime semi-comic examination of societal what-have-yous is that it’s sort of okay, mostly, though it piles so much shit on its already Big Story about an abrasive mother’s (Frances McDormand) quest for justice for the rape and murder (“Raped While Dying” reads the third of the titular three billboards, a nauseating combination of words that that all by themselves set up writer-director McDonagh with quite a task ahead of him) of her teenage daughter that the absurdity it achieves is probably not always the kind of absurdity McDonagh is after. When Woody Harrelson’s sheriff reveals to pain-in-his-ass McDormand that he’s dying, I thought “Jesus, this damn thing has cancer in it, too??” But on the other hand, during a fraught interview between the two later on, when Harrelson suddenly coughs blood into McDormand’s face, stares at her in horror and shame and says “I didn’t mean…” and McDormand, previously so combative with him, suddenly turns soft and sad and heartbroken and says “I know baby” and tries to help him, I thought that this was all shocking, absurd, and beautiful. Then again, on the other other hand, outside of this scene, at no point does Harrelson seem like a man who, according to the film, has literally only months to live (and his wife, played by Abbie Cornish, absolutely does not act like a woman whose husband is going to die in a few months).
Of course, none of the above is what people talk about, because the controversy is all about Sam Rockwell’s racist, abusive cop character, who by the end achieves, according to some, undeserved redemption, but who, according to others, only achieves the thought that something might be wrong with him. I think the movie is clear that it’s the latter – look at where he’s going at the end of the film, and ask yourself if this is the sort of thing a mentally and morally healthy person would consider redemptive or epiphanic. What makes Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri kind of hard to talk about in this specific regard, or to debate productively, is that what’s actually on screen could not be clearer. What each of us thinks counts as redemption seems to be more central to the argument than anything else. If I liked the movie more, I might feel more inclined to pick a side, but I don’t. Though I do lean faintly towards those who like the film, so if a shooting war breaks out over this I guess I’ll have to march with those guys. There are too many implied, or baldly stated in some cases, insults coming from the other side for my comfort.
What a nice note on which to close out! Happy Oscars, everybody!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Is it You, Muriel?


Hi!

Also, it's time once again for the Muriel Awards, in which bloggers and critics and such vote for and write about the best films, performances, and etc cetera from the previous year. This year, I wrote about my second favorite 2017 film, Olivier Assayas's Personal Shopper. Click here to read what I wrote, and then click around the site to see what everyone else has to say.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Boil Them Alive


In 1958, director Keisuke Kinoshita released his masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama. Set in a Japanese mountain village in the 18th or 19th century (it’s difficult to say), Kinoshita’s film blends emotional realism with blatant kabuki theatrics – so blatant that, though seen only in silhouette, at times the sets can clearly be seen being rearranged, to transfer from one scene to another, as though we were watching a stage piece. Which of course on some level we are, except that usually when a movie wants to call our attention to its artificiality, it will do so in movie terms: the camera pulls back to show the crew, or the director steps into frame to coach an actor, and so on. But in The Ballad of Narayama, Kinoshita underlines the artificiality of an artform other than the one he’s at that moment engaged in. Or is he, etc.  In any case, unusual as it is, The Ballad of Narayama is part of a tradition of using the devices of the theater to enhance whatever it is you happen to feel like enhancing in a film – the most recent (to my knowledge) and probably best-known example of this is Lars von Trier’s Brechtian Dogville, with its chalk-outline floorplans standing in for actual rooms and buildings.
This is all very interesting, to me anyway, though for some reason this device is less often used in films where it would make the most immediate sense; that is, films set in or around the theater world. I would argue that Birdman does this with its long takes, there being no cuts in live theater. It was also done, less grandly, in 1963 by Kinoshita’s more celebrated peer, Kon Ichikawa. His film An Actor’s Revenge, which has just been released on home video by Criterion, and a very odd film it is, is a revenge story starring Kazuo Hasegawa as Yukinojo, a kabuki actor who specializes in playing women. His specialty is such that even off-stage his effeminate on-stage manner persists – whether this is his natural self or a facet of the larger performance of his life, and much of his life is that, is unclear. Yukinojo’s growing fame catches the attention of the three men he has been seeking all of his life. They’re three wealthy rice merchants who, when Yukinojo was a boy in Nagasaki, betrayed and ruined his father, destroying his family and leading to the deaths of both his parents. As Yukinojo ingratiates himself to these men, he draws closest to Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), who, being the most powerful, we can safely assume is the worst of the bunch. While visiting Dobe, he helps the old man’s most cherished concubine, Namiji (Ayako Wakao), overcome a long illness, by the end of which she has fallen in love with him.
Yukinojo’s revenge plot continues to boil, and violence eventually ensues. It is, underneath everything, a rather pulpy affair. The script by Natto Wada, is based on an old Japanese newspaper serial, which must explain the inclusion of a colorful group of thieves led by Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto), who also falls in love with Yukinojo, and Yamitaro, a philosophical, noble, and evidently all-seeing crook also played, just to shake up the gender issues further, by Hasegawa. Neverthless, pulpy as its various pieces are, Lady Snowblood this ain’t. Most of the action scenes occur outdoors, and at night. At these moments, Ichikawa drops all the lights save those that would illuminate the primary actors, so that sword fights often occur against a background of pure black – a theater effect (also from the stage is the device of having the thief Yamitaro talking to the camera/audience). However, the fights themselves are cinematic, though they’re not shot as traditional movie action scenes. In one fight, we hardly see the participants; instead, Ichikawa’s camera focuses on close-ups of the blades clashing together. Other scenes of not just action, but any sort of physical exertion, employ similar shot choices. One scene of Ohatsu throwing a tantrum cuts to her feet pounding the floor. Another scene that shows a character scaling a wall cuts to close-ups of climbing hands, feet, and parts of the wall itself. This is all very Bressonian, in a film that, otherwise, decidedly isn’t.  
This is fitting, as ultimately the components that make up An Actor’s Revenge are both all of a piece and somehow disparate. There is tragedy and regret, and the revenge is of a melancholy sort. The film is practically Victorian in its drama, but reminiscent of American Westerns in its final stoicism -- the film that the ending of An Actor’s Revenge most vividly calls to mind is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which of course it predates by thirty years. It’s pulp with that form’s signature visceral impact largely drained out of it. It’s kabuki released from the stage.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review Round-up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hi. I don't know what I'm doing with this blog anymore, but if I'm going to request screeners, and if I'm going to accept those screeners into my home, I should probably try to earn them. Here are reviews of five of them!


Kameradschaft (d. G.W. Pabst) – From best to worst, is the order I have chosen. This 1931 film, released this week by Criterion, takes a true story about a coal mine collapse that trapped a crew of French miners that occurred in 1906 and transplants it to the then-current day. There’s a great power to this idea, because the miners who survived were rescued by their German peers, thereby turning the story from one of mere heroism to a moving plea for healing between countries. Of course, given what the 1930s had in store for France, Germany, and the world, Pabst’s film is unfortunately imbued now with a deep, bittersweet melancholy. At least the possibility for something different was there.
As for the film itself, I should say, first of all, that the restoration is beautiful. There’s a brief section late in the film that is missing; this is certainly not uncommon with films this old, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lost piece of a movie surrounded by images this impeccable. And of course, it’s a great looking film – check out the scene shortly after the mine explosion, when news of it has made its way to the German miners across the border. The miners are in a massive shower room, their clothes hung above them on wires, their bodies pitch black with coal dust. It looks like some infernal gymnasium, but this is where the plan to save the French miners, with whom the Germans have a somewhat fraught relationship, is hatched. Or the explosion that leads to the collapse, and the very real fire that crawls along the mineshaft ceiling. Films in the 1930s used music far more sparingly, if at all, and its absence here lends that fire a deadly eeriness.
Otherwise, Pabst is surprisingly languid – which isn’t to say dull – in his telling of this story about disaster and rescue. Once the roof has fallen down around everyone’s head, Pabst refuses to panic. Kameradschaft moves purposefully through its scenes of planning and salvation, as determined but casually professional as the Germans lowering themselves down into danger.
The Diabolical Dr. Z (d. Jess Franco) – Somewhat less languid than Kameradschaft is this one, freshly released by Kino Lorber. This 1966 film is part of what as far as I know might well be known as Franco’s Orloff Cycle, though Orloff – played in previous and subsequent films by Howard Vernon – doesn’t appear. He is, instead, mentioned, with a mournful tone, by Dr. Zimmern, who allows that Orloff had his faults, but insists that his work in the field brain surgery experimentation has paved the way to a real breakthrough in the battle to defeat evil. With brain surgery. Before Dr. Zimmern can fulfill his own goals in this realm, after bringing all this up at a medical conference he is, essentially, booed to death. Then his daughter Irma (Mabel Karr), who is somewhat less stable than her dad, decides to use what her father taught her to create murderers out of otherwise more or less reasonable humans so that she can get revenge on the doctors (one of whom is played by Howard Vernon, because why not) who booed him (to death).

There are those who insist that Jess Franco was a great filmmaker, in roughly the same league as Mario Bava and Jean Rollin. Though my early, quite bad, experiences with relatively late-in-his-career Franco have been trumped by my eventual enjoyment of his early thrillers, like this one, I still can’t find anything in his work that deserves that kind of praise. He doesn’t have the visual imagination, either in terms of pure cinema or insane macabre nightmare design, of those guys. He does, though, sometimes get to Rollin’s dreamy eroticism, and Bava’s Gothic starkness. I’d say The Diabolical Dr. Z is fair-to-middlin’ Franco. If he’s your kind of guy already, you’ll have already picked this up anyway.


Old Stone (d. Johnny Ma) – Also this week, Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist films released to home video this 2016 socially-minded thriller, the debut feature from Chinese director Johnny Ma. It stars Chen Gang, who’s excellent, as Lao Shi, a cab driver who gets into an accident caused by his drunken passenger, severely injuring a bicyclist. Finding himself waiting for an ambulance or police who aren’t coming, Lao Shi has to decide to take the injured man to the hospital himself or watch him die in the street. He chooses to take him to the hospital, which, due to some ludicrous Chinese law or other, somehow makes him responsible for the man’s medical bills, barring someone else stepping in to take responsibility. Which, needless to say, no one does. And as the man is in a coma, his medical bills soon begin to crush Lao Shin and his family.
I must say that taking this infuriating situation as the subject of a thriller, rather than a social drama, is a pretty slick idea, even if Ma does play it as a social drama for much of Old Stone’s brief run time. As the bills steadily mount and no one takes the burden from Lao Shin’s shoulders, in what way precisely this is going to turn into a thriller becomes nauseatingly clear. There is great power in that, though reaching that moment is not always engaging. The viewer knows Lao Shin isn’t going to be saved, and watching him continue to not be saved for an hour, without much variety in the scenes, can only grip so hard. But Old Stone does finally deliver the gut punch its set up promises, and what disturbs the most is the complete understanding one has of how it could have come to this.
Vacas and The Red Squirrel (d. Julio Medem) – And so it’s come to this. Listen, I had no axe to grind going into these, Medem’s first two features, which have just been released by Olive Films. All I knew about the guy prior to watching these was that he’d directed Sex and Lucia, thereby springing Paz Vega onto the wider world. So I had nothing but positive feelings, indirect and vague as they may have been, about the man. But I have to tell you that, speaking as a lover of film whose relationship with the artform has become a bit combative, Vacas and The Red Squirrel just about broke me.

In both films, Medem employs a kind of bright, consciously and colorfully melodramatic style that put me in mind of Leos Carax, if Carax had no control over his own technique, or taste. This came through especially in The Red Squirrel, Medem’s second film, which finds him asking “What if Carax wondered what it would be like if Hitchcock remade Overboard?” A woman (Emma Suarez, who’s also in Vacas) gets into a motorcycle accident on the very same bridge from which a man (Nancho Novo) was just about to suicidally heave himself. Snapped out of it by the plight of this, so it turns out, beautiful woman, the man follows her to the hospital where he learns she’s lost her memory. So because he’s sad and she’s pretty, he convinces her that they’re married, and then they go camping.
Medem is, I suppose, a little bit more aware of the ethical diciness, to put it mildly, inherent in what this guy’s doing than the makers of the Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn comedy appeared to be, but only just. The whole thing is still finally looked upon as sweet, and between the beginning of their camping trip (at a campground full of other characters and such) and the part where her psychotic ex shows up to commit violence, etc., The Red Squirrel meanders thoughtlessly, with bizarrely misjudged sexuality (Suarez’s teasing relationship with a young boy, for instance; but hey, Europeans, right?) and bad shot choices that seem to exist only because Medem incorrectly believed they would be cool, or because on that day he was bored – see the sudden, worthless cut to an overhead shot of Suarez telling a story to their camping neighbors over dinner. And then the ending is just nonsense, full of the kind of willed strangeness that young filmmakers believe equal a unique artistic stamp.
Vacas is, I guess, a bit better. It shouldn’t be, since Medem made it first, it’s full of that same willed strangeness to which I just referred. And it’s also somehow superhumanly unengaging after the first ten or fifteen minutes. But the film, which is generally about two rural Spanish families who don’t like each other in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, does seem, I suppose, a bit more fully imagined. It swings at a lot, but less wildly than The Red Squirrel, and it does have its moments here and there. A cow’s death late in the film, for example, and early on a log-chopping contest between two men. Then again, twice in Vacas Medem shows that he very specifically does not have a way with battle scenes.  In these scenes, he seems to have deliberately chosen to not tackle the challenge such a complicated sequence presents, and the results are as perfunctory as you might imagine. For such an overheated film, Vacas becomes tepid just when it should be boiling over.
So I’m not a Medem fan, I’m afraid, and I can’t imagine a world in which I suddenly become one.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Beneath This Sea is Sea: The Books of 2017


I feel like no matter how long my fallow periods in the writing of this blog last, this one, my annual list of The Best Books What I Did Read, will always draw me back. I’ll spend most of one day at the end of every year writing it.

Anyway, if I ever don’t, it won’t be on a year such as this one, in which I almost doubled the number of books read in my previous best reading year, and almost tripled what I would guess my average to be. Because of this, while much of what’s to follow should be familiar to anyone who has read these lists of mine in the past – these books are not necessarily listed in an order of preference, until the last few, which I do consider the third, second, and first best books I read this year, etc. – you will find a whole new second thing here: the entire list of books I read in 2017. I include this entirely and only out of boastfulness; you’ll notice that I include no indication, outside of the main list of separated “best” books, what I thought of any of these, so other than saying to you “Lookit all these books I read,” what possible purpose could it serve? It should go without saying that not every book I liked can make the list of “best” books, so many of the uncommented-upon titles I liked very much, indeed. Others I hated down to my bones. I’ll let you guess which are which! And if you see a book on there that you count as one of your favorites, just assume that I despise it, and you, and all you represent.

All right, let’s get this fucking nonsense rolling! I’d like to be finished by dinner-time.


Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King – For many years, after Cell, I was out of the habit of reading Stephen King, and this had been a habit I’d maintained as avidly as a smoker for many, many years. A few years back I decided to take it back up again on a limited basis, and it has provided me with limited, but real, enjoyment. This book, which I skipped even during my more passionate years due to my callow assumption that it would be dull, has by far been the most rewarding. The title character tells the entire story, the book written as though she were speaking to the cops who have arrested her for the murder of the old woman she worked for, and King finds greater success with this conceit than I expected. Dolores is a full person, her life and story equally so, with all the suspense and rural Gothic you could want from a book like this. That it’s sister novel is the nebulously, mysteriously, but unmistakably, and thematically, linked Gerald’s Game, also published in 1992, just makes the whole thing more powerful.


The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally – This year was supposed to be my big Keneally year, but this, also the first book I read in 2017, is the only one I got to. Based on the true story of aborigine in 19th century Australia who after years of being treated unjustly by white Australians, suddenly embarks on a rampage of violence. Harrowing and at times genuinely shocking, Keneally doesn’t make the mistake of glorifying what Blacksmith does. He’s simply saying, if one must simplify this complex novel, that that led to this.

Cops and Robbers by Donald E. Westlake – I wrote about it, briefly, here.

The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath – One of several novels I read this year that actually came out in 2017, and one of several by writers I rank as favorites, McGrath’s unusual pseudo-ghost story about a woman dealing with the death of her actor husband, a few years after the end of World War II, and some alarming revelations that follow, may suffer from an ending that, while perfectly fine as far as what actually happens goes, feels so rushed that I wondered if McGrath’s manuscript was due later that afternoon. But that’s ultimately no big deal, because the rest of the novel is so sad, and so unnerving, and so full of little bits about the English theater at that time, the environment, and bombed out London. I think it’s McGrath’s best in years.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill – The story of a marriage teetering on the point of collapse, told in a meticulously assembled series of incidents and digressions and thoughts on whatever subject happens to seem relevant to the protagonist, even if she’s  unable to articulate why all this makes sense together. I don’t think I could articulate why this all works together myself, but it does. It’s like being inside the head of a sane person: everybody’s head is a jumble, even when it all makes sense.

Othello by William Shakespeare – It’s good! Also, I think Othello being a Moor might actually be relevant.

Dearest by Peter Loughran – Sort of like The Collector by John Fowles, but less ponderous, and written in a way that evokes actual life as it’s lived by some. It’s all the more disturbing for it. Relegated to the genre bin and therefore “disposable.”

Go Tell It On the Mountain  by James Baldwin – One of three books written by James Baldwin I read this year (as with Keneally, it was supposed to be more), along with If Beale Street Could Talk and The Fire Next Time. This novel, Baldwin’s first, stands out for me in the way it tells the story of John Grimes, a young boy living in Harlem, by telling the story of his mother, his father, and his step-father, each of whom lives completely here, and each of whom lives to create this heartbreaking little kid. Some knowledge of Baldwin’s life will help tell part of the story that the censors wouldn’t allow Baldwin to tell in 1953, though certain dots are probably not that hard to connect anyway.



Dead Air by Matthew M. Bartlett – I wrote about it briefly here.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher – An epistolary novel comprised entirely of letters (and e-mails, etc.) of recommendation written by one crushed-by-life English professor would seem to promise nothing but repetition, but Schumacher’s novel, which won awards and everything, is one of the funniest I’ve read in years. That the bitterness of Jason Fitger, the central academic, is predictable, because there is a tradition of such novels in English literature, means nothing because his bitterness is so pointed and eloquently nasty. I think the ending takes a too-sharp turn into the realm of “emotional weight” and so forth, but that’s fine. It’s one of the most satisfying and entertaining novels I read this year.

Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai – Conspiracy, death, animal cruelty, vast emptiness, endless alcohol, loneliness. It’s sort of a comedy. Hungary as the end of the world.


Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case – A true crime comic book about Jensen’s father, the lead detective in the hunt for Gary Ridgway, and the decades of his life he gave to finding a monster. The climactic moment between Tom Jensen and Ridgway is more frightening than any cinematic serial killer you could name.

At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien’s famously askance, let’s say, look at the Irish spirit, as well as Irish myth and stories, is very odd, and very funny, but at the end it suddenly put me in mind of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in the most unexpected way. A dark cloud persists when I think of it now.

Ill Will by Dan Chaon – The thriller of the year, as far as I’m concerned. Wrote about it here.


An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge – Speaking of post-war English theater, this novel, perhaps Bainbridge’s best-known outside of her masterpiece The Bottle Factory Outing, approaches that world with a touch more warmth than McGrath did in The Wardrobe Mistress. But just a touch. Once again, Bainbridge strikes a tone of skepticism regarding people and the way they go about things, and by the end that skepticism is proved to have been warranted. It’s good, and fun, until it’s not.

The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob – One of the key works of early French surrealism, Schwob’s 1892 collection of stories also shows how inherently linked that movement is with weird horror fiction. Not that that’s what Schwob was writing by another name, but he sure did write it sometimes, and helped mark a path. The title story seems clearly influenced by Poe, elsewhere there’s devil worship and horrible violence, and there is no story here that isn’t imbued with the terrible unease felt when nothing feels right, or when everything is certain to go wrong.

Poor George by Paula Fox – Fox’s first novel is about a miserably unhappy teacher who meets a troubled kid when that kid breaks into the teacher’s home. The teacher then, against his wife’s objections, hopes to take the kid under his wing. Less a comedy of errors than a full-on disaster, and less a satire than the state of things delivered with a sad, heavy sigh.

The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard – Wrote about it briefly here.


Point Omega by Don DeLillo – One of four DeLillo novels I read this year, an easily my (unexpected) favorite. This very short novel is political in its inspiration, but the power of the story – about a scholar with government connections being interviewed in the desert by a documentary filmmaker, about the scholar’s daughter who visits, and what happens then – is in its ultimate inexplicability. What’s unsettling isn’t what’s immediate about it, but what’s timeless.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf – More true crime, more serial killers, more comic books. This approach to the subject is truly unusual, though: Backderf went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, and hung out with him, and saw the budding psychopath without realizing what he was seeing. This perspective allows for an element of the everyday that accounts of the lives of serial killers often lack – it’s all nightmare, all horror, either inflicted on the killer as a child, or inflicted by the killer as an adult on others. Which isn’t to suggest that My Friend Dahmer isn’t chilling, because it is. It’s just that for once we, who will hopefully never face something or someone like this in our lives, are forcefully reminded that these things happen in the same world we wake up to every morning.


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – The first of VanderMeer’s Souther Reach trilogy, this short novel is about an expedition of women (not irrelevant) scientists, both hard and social, sent to explore a section of America that has been transformed, mysteriously and lethally. What they discover there is frightening and mystifying, otherworldly but somehow, seemingly, rooted inside this very planet. Though I have enough faith in VanderMeer to expect the trilogy to end well (I’ve also read the second book, Authority, which I liked, though not as much), I think Annihilation could have stood alone, brilliantly.



Holidays from Hell by Reggie Oliver – This, Oliver’s most recent collection of stories, would be a great place to start for anyone new to his brand of classic, yet nevertheless unique, horror fiction. Oliver is able to take premises that, if you think long enough about them, seem unsupportable, as he does here in the title story, which is about mysterious visitors at a seaside inn (that’s all I’ll say) and infuse the proceedings with puns before casting a genuine pall over the reader. Which isn’t to say this is his only mode, but rather an example of what he can do. My favorite horror book of the year.

Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser – Wrote about it here.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion – Life in California as existential nightmare spiral. Which was my guess, anyway.

Quake by Rudolph Wurlitzer – Speaking of California, nightmares, spirals, and so on, Wurlitzer’s novel about a massive earthquake turning Los Angeles into a fast-evolving Apocalypse really is just one damn thing after another, told with a lack of affect that seems, well, telling.

The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas – My first Thomas novel, and it’s a blast. It’s curious to me how this novel, about the kind of men who hunted Nazis immediately after the war ended, and what the rest of the world did about that (not that I think this is a work of reportage, mind you) comes in at under 300 pages, whereas a similar novel written today would easily crack 500. I’m also interested in the fact that the title character is literally a dwarf but there really aren’t many jokes about that fact, nor is he, to be honest, the main character. I’m also interested in books like this which characters the author chooses to kill off and which he spares. There is much here to be interested in and amused by.

An Artist of the Floating World  by Kazuo Ishiguro – Lots of post-war shit in my 2017 reading, apparently. This, Ishiguro’s second novel, and one of the last two of his books I needed to read (I have The Unconsoled on deck, finally, for 2018), is about a Japanese artist and illustrator who, in the years following his country’s defeat, has to reckon with – or choose not to reckon with – his place in the war effort. It’s a bracing, complicated, and damning novel.



The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns – Comyns takes the titular fairy tale and turns it into a story of class, love, friendship, and freak tragedy. Comyns was a genius, seemingly without effort.



In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass – “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass’s novella about violence, numbing cold, and a particularly grim sort of freedom, is as good as you’ve heard, and is without question the centerpiece of this 1968 collection. But everything his is exhilarating in its way – though Gass’s prose is often very dense, certain passages have a striking clarity, like this from “Icicles”, about a realtor’s crisis (look, I have to describe it somehow, and I ain’t got all day):  

So he’d hear Pearson preach the power of imagination: Fender! think what you’re selling! happiness is is our commodity! you want to dream for them – dream! But Fender remembered how a Baby Ruth wrapper had ruined a sale, it had gone through their dreams like a brick…

Everything is worthwhile, including the preface, which is long, and reads like a writer’s autobiography.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – Yeah, it’s not bad. I’m not sure what I can add, other than to say it is, or should be, the model of moral fiction that neither condemns nor glorifies, and of fiction that creates an entire community of not just people but buildings, houses, trees. It has also instilled in me what I expect will be a lifelong distrust of apothecaries.



The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis – A mad, romping smear of a kind of autobiographical something, soaked along the way with a bathtub-full of mortal dread. It’s a very odd book, in other words, and the comedy may not always lay easy upon it, but God is it absorbing.

Hell Hound by Ken Greenhall – Finally back in print, thanks to the good people at Valancourt Books, I’ve wanted to read this book for ages. It doesn’t disappoint. About a chillingly smart pit bull named Baxter that enters a suburban neighborhood and takes what it wants. Which is not all Hell Hound is. This novel is ultimately more disturbing, even sleazy, then I’d expected, but never dumb or pandering or cheap. It left me feeling very uncomfortable.



Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – Robinson may be the finest writer of prose currently alive in America. As all such proclamations are, this is arguable. But Gilead, about a minister named John Ames as he nears the end of his life and reflects on his faith, his family, his neighbors, war, the land, life, and death, written as a long message written by Ames to his young son, is more full of exquisite language and imagery than any other five contemporary novels you might choose to squish together into one volume and throw into the pit with it.

Last Look by Charles Burns – Another comic book (oh yeah, that’s another difference in the list this year: this one has some comics in it), and possibly my favorite one. In Black Holes, Burns used horror as both metaphor and as literal presence in the world of the story. With Last Look he doesn’t something different, and harder to pin down. Last Look may seem smaller than Black Holes, but like his magnum opus it is entirely impossible to shake months, and I suspect years, after putting it down.

The North Water by Ian McGuire – Wrote about it a little bit here. Suffice it to say, comparing it (in incident if not in language) to Cormac McCarthy at his most violent wouldn’t be inaccurate. Truly blood-drenched and horrifying. It’s a good book!

Nutshell by Ian McEwan – With this strange take Hamlet, McEwan has written his liveliest, most vivid prose in ages. In terms of tone and content, it’s like a throwback to his more genre-ish early work, but with the spark of a great writer who has found new life. Terrific fiction.

Indignation by Philip Roth – This novel, in addition to being a real honest to God novel, is an argument. A moral and political argument, more specifically, and, this being Philip Roth, it’s so mad it spits. The conclusion it ultimately comes to after considering the events of the novel is not the one I came to as a reader, and I feel confident that if we ever met, Philip Roth wouldn’t like me. But rarely, if ever, have I read the side of an argument I myself would have represented expressed as clearly and as intelligently and as eloquently by someone who rejects it utterly. Philip Roth is a great writer, and Indignation is a great novel.

Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson – When Johnson died unexpectedly earlier this year, this is the novel I immediately wanted to read. Johnson seemed able to write anything, and seemed to want to. This is his post-Apocalyptic novel, and is the most believable, authentic-seeming novel of this kind I’ve ever read. In Fiskadoro Johnson imagines a world that is far away from what we currently know, but understandable in its primitive struggles toward something familiar. It is as sad and as beautiful as anything Johnson ever wrote.

Some Came Running by James Jones – Wrote about it here. And while it may not be the best book I read in 2017, it is certainly the one I lived with the longest, and will continue to live with probably forever, and the one I know best. I know it like it’s alive inside my house. (Just don’t, you know, quiz me about it or anything.)

In the Money by William Carlos Williams – The second, after White Mule, in Williams’s trilogy of novels about the Stecher family and their rise (so far) to relative affluence. Set during the early 20th century, In the Money is ostensibly about how the Stecher patriarch, Joe, launches his own printing business after snatching from his former employers a major contract to print money orders for the government (FDR has a cameo!). But as a novelist, Williams was primarily concerned, as in his famous poem “This is Just to Say”, with the things that make up someone’s day. Especially if that someone is a child. No writer I can think of has a better eye or ear for the way children are, what frustrates and frightens them. One chapter, all about the two young Stecher girls going to the park with their mother, includes a moment so heartbreaking that I don’t like to think about it. And though Joe Stecher’s climb towards success may be difficult, and his wife Gurlie’s attitude towards it all may seem uncomfortably mercenary, what I’ll remember most about In the Money, what matters most, is the chapter about the youngest Stecher, Flossie, and what it’s like, and why it’s so awful, for a baby to be alone in a dark bedroom.

The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes – Each of the three novels about Harlem cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones were absolutely berserk, and, not incidentally, completely wonderful. But nothing I read in 2017 made my jaw hang open like The Real Cool Killers, Himes’s second novel in the series. It begins with an insane knife attack in a night club, the consequences of which spill out into the street and lead to the plot’s central murder, and climaxes – that is, the beginning of the novel climaxes – with Gravedigger Jones fatally shooting a teenager because the kid...well anyway. If I told you, you might decide this is all just too ridiculous. But somehow it isn’t, and somehow Himes is able to maintain this pace, and somehow The Real Cool Killers becomes, by the end, deeply moving, deeply sad and world-weary, and weirdly open-hearted, given a lot of factors you’ll notice and think about and bring into the book when you read it. It’s the crime novel as novel of absurdity. It’s the novel of absurdity as a kind of mourning.
Okay, here's the full list. In reverse chronological order because it would be a pain in the ass to do it any other way.
141. Jizzle by John Wyndham
140. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass
139. Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball
138. Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough 
137. Authority by Jeff VanderMeer 
136. In the Money by William Carlos Williams 
135. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
134. In the Middle of the Night by Robert Cormier 
133. Who is Rich? by Matthew Klam 
132. Matchbox Theater by Michael Frayn
131. Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert
130. The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath
129. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
128. The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns 
127. The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas
126. Nothing by Henry Green
125. The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills
124. Nutshell by Ian McEwan
123. Smile by Roddy Doyle
122. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
121. The Ballad of Typhoid Mary by J.F. Federspiel
120. The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf
119. Fear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook
118. Cops and Robbers by Donald E. Westlake
117. The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons
116. Othello by William Shakespeare
115. Experimental Film by Gemma Files
114. The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer
113. The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
112. The Tragedy of Brady Sims by Ernest J. Gaines
111. Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert
110. You're All Alone by Fritz Leiber
109. Play Things by Peter Prince
108. Dead Air by Matthew M. Bartlett
107. The Poor Mouth by Flann O'Brien
106. The North Water by Ian McGuire
105. The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard
104. Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser
103. Ill Will by Dan Chaon
102. Some Came Running by James Jones
101. Strange Monsters of the Recent Past by Howard Waldrop
100. Lunar Follies by Gilbert Sorrentino
099. Young Adolf by Beryl Bainbridge
098. Poor George by Paula Fox
097. Indignation by Philip Roth
096. You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann
095. Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson
094. Journey of the Dead by Loren D. Estleman
093. The Crazy Kill by Chester Himes
092. Conscience by John Skipp
091. The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales by Angela Slatter
090. Idaho Winter by Tony Burgess
089. An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge
088. The Changeling by Victor LaValle
087. The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty
086. Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman
085. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
084. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
083. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
082. The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob
081. The Happy Man by Eric C. Higgs
080. The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
079. The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata
078. Backflash by Donald E. Westlake
077. Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind by Michael Fessier
076. The Monster Club by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
075. The Silent Gondoliers by William Goldman
074. Pictures of Fidelman by Bernard Malamud
073. Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
072. Kubrick by Michael Herr
071. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle
070. Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson
069. The Pistol by James Jones
068. So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
067. The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
066. The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
065. Players by Don DeLillo
064. Neonomicon by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
063. Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter
062. Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case
061. A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr
060. Stranglehold by Jack Ketchum
059. The Fisherman by John Langan
058. My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
057. Red Lights by Georges Simenon
056. Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
055. Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages by Manuel Puig
054. Devils' Spawn by Charles Birkin
053. Last Look by Charles Burns
052. The Dinner by Herman Koch
051. Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly by John Franklin Bardin
050. Junky by William S. Burroughs
049. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
048. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
047. Hell Hound by Ken Greenhall
046. Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee
045. The Fates by Thomas Tessier
044. Where Furnaces Burn by Joel Lane
043. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
042. I Should Have Stayed Home by Horace McCoy
041. The Hero Pony by David Mamet
040. The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
039. Shadow of a Broken Man by George C. Chesbro 
038. Death Poems by Thomas Ligotti
037. The Sensitive One by C.H.B. Kitchin
036. Quake by Rudolph Wurlitzer
035. Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
034. Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
033. The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels
032. Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin
031. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
030. Project X by Jim Shepard
029. All the Little Animals by Walker Hamilton
028. The Patriot Game by George V. Higgins
027. Ray by Barry Hannah
026. Holidays from Hell by Reggie Oliver
025. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
024. White Mule by William Carlos Williams
023. Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
022. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
021. The Scarf by Robert Bloch
020. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
019. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
018. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
017. The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes
016. A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes
015. The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
014. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
013. Swift to Chase by Laird Barron
012. Dearest by Peter Loughran
011. Street of No Return by David Goodis
010. I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas
009. Dog Eat Dog by Edward Bunker
008. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
007. Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
006. The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
005. Point Omega by Don DeLillo
004. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
003. Hogg by Samuel R. Delany
002. Running Dog by Don DeLillo
001. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally 

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