Monday, September 18, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 6

9/15/17 – 9/18/17

I have seen mother!, and I am disheartened. Not by the film, but by, let’s say, ancillary matters. To begin with, the absurd choice made by Paramount to open this film as though it had any hope of being a box office champ has led many people to complain that this new provocation from Darren Aronofsky, marketed as a horror film only to end up being a kind of horror film that most people don’t like, or even see in the first place, thereby obscuring what mother! actually is. As a matter of fact, this is sort of the whole problem in a nutshell. For about maybe half of its length, mother! is a sort of horror film, one that could have been made by Polanski at one time (and sort of was, Aronofsky’s nods to Rosemary’s Baby being frequent and clear), until the film eventually begins to take shape by almost literally exploding. It’s finally an absurdist, intentionally comic, still horrifying, satire in the form of a Bunuelian nightmare, or a nightmare in the form of a Bunuelian satire (oh take it easy, a film doesn’t need to be As Good As to be In the Spirit Of). In response to the film’s extreme and had-to-be-expected divisiveness, I said elsewhere that if mother! had been made in the 1970s and had gone mostly unseen since then until it turned up tucked away in a “Polish New Wave” Eclipse box set, all the naysayers would be kissing the hem of its maternity dress. I thought that was pretty good at the time, though admittedly as arguments go, it suffers from existing entirely within the boundaries of that “If” and that “.” You can’t expand on the point. It’s not provable. mother! was not made in the 1970s and is not tucked away in any box set (not yet, anyway); it’s playing, remarkably, inexplicably, on multiplex theaters across the country.
All of this has shaped the conversation about Aronofsky’s boldest (which isn’t to say best) film yet in a way that makes mother! sound like some sort of goofy mistake, if you don’t like the film, and if you do, well…I mean, I do. But I’m very put off by a couple of things, one of which is that the film is, when all is said and done, a horrifying religious satire, one that damns the concept of believing in a God who, it often seems, can be pretty cruel. This al9ne is fine, but that the religious imagery and narrative manipulated here is that of the New Testament is, first off, interesting as mother! follows Noah (I almost wrote noah!) in Aronofsky’s filmography, the latter an intensely ambitious, sensitive, and moving Old Testament epic from a director who is an outspoken atheist. That some people (including Jennifer Lawrence, the film’s star) almost gleeful in their anticipation of the offended howls they hope to hear from the faithful is not so much “interesting” as “fucking typical.” And that a film like mother! can be made only because it chooses which major world religion it wants to drag through the mud very cannily, and very safely, is, well, I guess “fucking typical” applies here, too. There’s the whiff of chickenshit about all this.
Yet the film itself is pretty terrific, maybe even brilliant. It’s just that the conversation makes me tired (hypocritically – I’ve engaged in it as much as anyone. Why? No one’s been begging to hear my side of this). This experience reminds me that living quietly with one’s own opinion of and thoughts about a work of art can be (always is?) much more satisfying and enriching than, you know, sharing them with anybody else. Who needs that kind of hassle? Maybe I’m having a bad week. Or weeks. Whatever’s going on, from here on out I think I’d rather think of mother! as something that belongs only to me, and I can do with it as I please.
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I watched some other stuff, but if you don’t mind I’ll blow through it and keep this one short. On Saturday I watched It Comes at Night, Trey Edward Shults follow-up to his terrific “bad Thanksgiving” drama Krisha. Speaking of films that may or not belong to the horror genre, this is another one of those! And I liked it a great deal. Along with really responding to, as I did with Krisha, responding to Shults’s brooding style which slowly builds the everyday experiences of its characters into a kind of unexpected and ruinous bonfire, I appreciated that It Comes at Night plays not like a novel stuffed into 90 minutes, as so many movies do, but rather as a spare and powerful short story. Where it goes is bleak and inevitable. Also, I think Joel Edgerton is a hell of an actor.
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Finally, in my quest to see every movie Arch Oboler ever made, I finally got a chance to check out The Bubble, from 1966. This would turn out to be Oboler’s penultimate work as a film director, but it feels like the kind of thing that would have launched him. It’s about a husband and his pregnant wife who are being flown(?) to the hospital by a private pilot they hired like he was a cabbie or something, and what with one thing or another, they all end up stranded in a bizarre town that resembles a studio backlot (that’s their take on it) populated almost solely by figures who appear to be real people but behave like animatronic robots. Eventually they discover that this town is enclosed by a thick, clear plastic bubble that goes who knows how high into the sky, and who knows how deep into the ground.
It’s a good idea, but I was bugged by how casually our heroes initially shrug off all the strange behavior of the townspeople – it’s as though Oboler didn’t want them to react to it until he was ready for it. Plus the ending is an anticlimactic whiff. I see Oboler as a poor man’s Rod Serling, and boy what Serling might have done with this idea. It might not have been very good, but it would have gone somewhere.
But I liked The Bubble despite all that. It’s goofy and charming, sometimes eerie. It’s no Five, but it’s fine. How’s that for an anticlimax??

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 5

9/12/17 – 9/14/17

My wife and I saw Randy Newman in concert last night. I must confess to not being much of a concert guy – they make me nervous, I don’t like crowds, I’m always concerned that despite the money I’ve spent I’m going have either a bad or an indifferent time. But most of my favorite musicians are dead or old or rarely tour, so now when the opportunity arises I tend to go for it (for example, I saw John Prine last year). Newman checked all the boxes.
On the way over, we acted like nerds by listening to Dark Matter, Newman’s new album. My wife hadn’t heard it before. It’s a really terrific piece of work. I’d been disappointed that his previous album, Harps & Angels, was far more blunt in its satire than I’m used to from Newman. Politically, he and I differ a bit, but his political art has always been sharper, more incisive, funnier, and self-aware than that of just about any other artist, of any medium, tilling similar ground in the 20th century. So I was pleased that “The Great Debate,” which opens Dark Matter, contains one of the most knowing comments on satire itself I’ve ever encountered. The album goes on from there to contain some of his most gorgeous tunes in years – “Lost Without You,” “She Chose Me,” and “Wandering Boy.” Plus other great shit. One song, “Brothers,” he played in concert, saying first that this would be the first time he’d ever played it in concert. As he said, it’s about Jack and Bobby Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, “the racial policies of the Washington Redskins,” and Celia Cruz. After he sang it, he said “I think that’s the best song on that topic.”
So the concert was great. We had great seats. It was scheduled to begin at 8:00 PM, and at 8:01 Randy Newman walked out to his piano – no accompanying musicians, and no opening act – sat down, and began playing “It’s Money That I Love.” He played for two hours (including intermission), and he covered everything, from the songs you’d expect (“Short People,” “Louisiana 1927”) to really deep cuts (“Jolly Coppers on Parade,” “Bad News from Home”) to some of his movie songs. Of the latter, he played “I Love to See You Smile” and “You Got a Friend in Me,” both of which I believe he performed out of a sense of obligation. If I remember correctly, he came out of “I Love to See You Smile” and said “If only they were all so friendly. This one’s about a murderer,” and then played “In Germany Before the War.”  
All wonderful. What fucking sucked was all the shitheads who showed up after he started playing. I swear to Christ, I’ve seen audiences pay more respect to movie trailers than some concert-going pricks show to live performing humans on stage. At the John Prine concert, there were so many pockets of ill-behaved monsters that there was almost a riot – I know this because despite boiling quietly in my own blood, I almost started one. At the Newman concert, my wife and I, and our good and pure seat-neighbors, had to stand up at least three times after the show began to make way for latecomers, one of whom stayed off to the side and talked at full volume with the usher during “Birmingham.” The big phrase I took away from that exchange was “I’LL WAIT UNTIL THE SONG’S OVER!!!!!” That fucker, who ended up maybe five seats down from me, was very shortly thereafter busted for trying to record the concert. He wasn’t thrown out, but had representative of the venue asked me, I’d have done it. A lady in front of me crinkled the paper wrapping of a big pretzel. I suppose I should blame the venue for selling it to her, but I blame her for not controlling her desire for a snack.
Another latecomer made everybody get up again during intermission, which I suppose I’ll have to excuse, but as he passed everyone he said “Pardon pardon pardon pardon pardon,” very fast, because you see he’s funny, and as though he hadn’t done the same damn thing during an actual live performance by one of the great songwriting geniuses of our time. Doesn’t this guy know this experience is unrepeatable? Even if you see Newman live another time? I said to my wife that I was certain that in everyday life, this man is a breathtaking asshole. That’s the odor he gave off.
Otherwise, good concert .
*      *     *     *
The only other thing I have to report on is Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth, which I finished earlier today. A funny, sharp jab with a stick at Gaelic self-romanticisation and the tendency to mythologize hardship and misery, especially when the upshot is that one believes one is unique, The Poor Mouth, which was written in Gaelic after O’Brien had published At Swim-Two-Birds, strikes me as also particularly esoteric. I mean, this thing is Irish. Anyway, it’s good stuff, with one joke – our/their “likes will never be there again” being said by the narrator about virtually everything from people to rock formations that will literally be “there” forever – being used over and over again, yet it only becomes funnier as the book goes along.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 4

9/8/17 – 9/11/17

On Friday night I tried to poke at my newfound dislike of watching movies at home – poke it so that it might die, you see – by once again watching something light, hopefully fun, more than likely inconsequential. I landed on the horror comedy Little Evil, made by the guy who made another horror comedy, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, which I’d enjoyed somewhat, at least until it found a roundabout way of betraying its premise. But Taylor Labine and Alan Tudyk were funny in that movie, and this new one stars the indispensable Adam Scott. I didn’t laugh once.

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Over the course of the last few days, I watched all or portions of I think maybe three episodes of a British sitcom I stumbled across on Netflix called Fried. It’s about the employees of a fast food fried chicken joint in Croyden. The main and possibly only thing I thought while the images and sounds of Fried washed over and through me was that this is a large world, and very full.

*     *     *     *

While out and about on Saturday, my wife and I listened to almost all of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. It’s very, very, very good. You know this. Bad songwriting is one thing: “My heart is full of desire/I want you to take me higher/Our love is like a burning fire.” I get that. What I don’t get are “Johanna” and “Poor Thing” and “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” and “No Place Like London.”
There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it
And its morals aren’t worth what a pig can spit
And it goes by the name of London
At the top of the hole sit a privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo
Turning beauty to filth and greed…
I too have sailed the world
And seen its wonders,
For the cruelty of men is as wondrous as Peru
But there’s no place like London.
I mean…
*     *     *     *
Hey, I saw It, the new film by Andy Muschietti, who made Mama. I didn’t like Mama, but I liked It. The original Stephen King novel is fairly important to me, though it’s been almost thirty years since I read it. Nostalgia is no doubt playing some part in my positive reaction, but I don’t think that nostalgia would have been tapped if the movie was garbage. It’s far from flawless – Muschietti falls back on loud (really loud) music stings to gin up his big scares like every other dickless horror director out there; as Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard’s dialogue often seems like it’s courtesy of ADR, which robs the character of some of its creepiness; and I couldn’t figure out why Pennywise didn’t simply kill the Losers (the nickname for the group of seven kids who are our heroes) as easily as he kills his other victims. But the seven kids who make up the Losers are pretty wonderful, with MVP honors going to Finn Wolfhard (taking a break from hunting Rob Roy apparently) as Richie Tozier, the smartass, and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh. Wolfhard gets all the good lines but has to be funny saying them, and he is, while Lillis has by far the most heavy lifting of anybody in the cast. She’s so on the money that I thought Lillis must be in her 20s, playing very young, but she’s only fifteen. Sheesh! She’s good.
Anyway, I really enjoyed it, and when Muschietti isn’t telling his string section to give it all they got, he creates some nicely creepy moments and images (pay close attention to the library scene). I was even moved by the film at times. Whether that too can be chalked up to nostalgia, I really couldn’t give a shit.
*     *     *     *
Because Little Evil did not, as it happens, cure me of my issues with watching movies at home, I decided to step up my assault on the problem by watching Decasia, Bill Morrison’s film (a pairing with a symphony of the same name by Michael Gordon, which serves as the film’s score) comprised of clips of old movies shot on celluloid now decayed into abstraction and surrealism.  Themes of birth, death, and ever-present decay (there are images of babies here, but since the actual physical film is falling apart, even these have the whiff of the grave about them: as soon as you’re born, you start etc.) are not hard to eke out of the experimentation, though Decasia is no less powerful for that. Gordon’s music is extraordinary too, mournful and eerie when it’s not being feverishly apocalyptic in a way that reminds me of the score Matti Bye wrote for the silent film The Phantom Carriage at its most intense.
Even so, it’s hard, or was for me, to not get distracted while watching Decasia. Not distracted away from the film, but away from the art, and start wondering about the particulars of the decaying celluloid itself. Every piece of film seems to die in its own way, but a common effect that I noticed here, at least, was that filmed reality, when the film itself deteriorates, often makes that reality look animated. As in, cartoons. A pair of nuns and a group of children approaching them look rotoscoped. The prow of a ship looks like a pencil sketch. It’s an interesting effect, and can help the viewer not think so much about dying.
(I should add for the sake of completion that I also watched Morrison’s Light is Calling, which also uses a decaying film, and is only eight minutes long. I won’t pretend I have anything worthwhile to say about it.)
*     *     *     *
Energized by Decasia (my plan worked!) I decided to finally check out Nocturama, Bertrand Bonello’s much-ballyhooed political thriller about a large group of young terrorists who plant bombs all over Paris (and shoot to death two bank executives, or that’s who I took them to be), and then retreat into a large shopping mall-like department store, where they intend to wait until morning and then escape under cover of, er…sunlight? Anyway, they have a plan.

About half of Nocturama is, as I’d heard it was, a tense, efficient, expertly constructed thriller, almost free of dialogue, just images and motion. The terrorists are Leftists, and while I can take a stab at guessing Bonello’s own politics and probably turn out to be right, when the bodies fall and the bombs go off, I got so sense that Bonello believed there was any kind of moral gray area: the acts are monstrous, the perpetrators are murderers.

But when we get to the store, it slowly starts to just get dumb, and Bonello’s cinematic ideas become thinner as they grow ostensibly bolder. For example, two of the terrorists don’t make it to the store. Nobody knows what happened, but a reasonable theory about the fate of one of them is floated by a character who was with the missing man. The others question him: is he sure? He’s pretty sure. Then, much later in the film, Bonello flashes back and we see what happened to the missing man, and guess what? The other guy’s theory was spot on! So why’d we go back? To what end? I’ve seen Nocturama compared to Godard, and since with few exceptions my very skin burns like a vampire in church when a Godard film is playing nearby, maybe that’s why choices like that made by Bonello for Nocturama make me pinch the bridge of my nose in agonized exhaustion. Then again, when Bonello starts nodding to Dawn of the Dead (that’s built into the very premise, as the terrorists hide in a symbolic capitalist hub, away from the mini-apocalypse they themselves started) and The Shining, all Bonello seems to want us to take away is that it’s interesting that he’s doing this sort of thing in a movie about terrorism. Which it isn’t, if that’s all it is.
And then, by the end, as everything goes pear-shaped for our anti-heroes, I got the queasy feeling that Bonello was making awful moral equivalence point. I think I was already quit by then, but when that shit started seeping in, I thought, to quote Rick Deckard, “I’m twice as quit now.”
*     *     *     *
It might have been nice if, when Tobe Hooper died, his obituaries didn’t often lead with the belief that Poltergeist, the 80s horror blockbuster he’s credited as having directed for producer/writer Steven Spielberg, was not in fact helmed by him, but rather by Spielberg, for Hooper being Spielberg’s front for legal-or-whatever reasons. This is apparently true – nobody seems to be arguing the point anymore, and another on-set witness came out to say it was Spielberg’s movie all the way just a month or so before Hooper passed. But so what? I don’t think of this as a feather being removed from Hooper’s cap. His best films are miles better than Poltergeist, and quite a few of his second-tier movies are, too. So fuck Poltergeist, let’s not talk about it anymore. Oh, but real quick: I was listening to a podcast recently, and the hosts started talking about Poltergeist. Both hosts talked about when they first saw it, the effect it had on them, and how they each, in their estimation, saw the movie when they were “way too young.” When I was “way too young” I was sneaking downstairs, where my brothers and their friends were watching Day of the Dead so I could watch Rhodes get ripped in half, but these guys were “way too young” to watch a horror movie that was specifically designed to be enjoyed by families. What a couple of wieners.
I bring up Hooper because yesterday I watched Djinn, his last film. Set in the United Arab Emirates and featuring a Middle Eastern cast, Djinn was quite clearly made for zero dollars and zero cents so that the tiny production company could walk away with some beer money. For about twenty minutes, this movie is really rough-sledding, and I wondered if I’d be able to make it through. But as it happens, Hooper and his screenwriter David Tully have a pretty solid little demonic hotel movie up their sleeve. It rips off Rosemary’s Baby, but only in its general idea. Otherwise I found Djinn to be reasonably original and effective in a low-key sort of way. I don’t want to overpraise the film, because quite frankly many people might well hate it. But I think Tobe Hooper’s last film was a good one.
*     *     *     *
Yikes, it’s late! Okay, well, I just finished The North Water by Ian McGuire. Set in the 19th century, mostly on an English whaling ship, this 2016 novel is about a disgraced Irish surgeon who hires onto the Volunteer hoping only to make a little money and gain some distance from his past so that when he returns he can start over, pretty soon he learns that a very mortal, worldly evil is on the boat, and soon The North Water, which reads like a bullet train, is sunk in Cormac McCarthy-esque metaphysical misery and hopelessness, adrift on a sea of endless human cruelty, graphic violence, and bodily disgust. McGuire’s novel is an evil chronicle of total moral repugnance. Run, don’t walk!

Friday, September 8, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 3

9/5/17 – 9/8/17

I raced to the finish of Dan Chaon’s Ill Will, finishing the whole 400-plus page novel in about four days. On Social Media, I said that Ill Will was just about the most desolate ostensibly commercial thriller I’ve ever read. I’m having a hard time coming up with other candidates. It begins with over a dozen murders left unsolved, spread over two cases, and is told from the point of view of a variety of characters who may or may not be but probably are mentally, or emotionally, ill, and almost all of whom have suffered terrible tragedies. Among the tragedies is the death of the protagonist’s wife from cancer, which, as I said a couple of posts ago, is something Chaon himself has endured. Ill Will is not hopeful, it’s not about overcoming anything; if anything, it’s about succumbing after a life of torment. As Dustin Tillman, the protagonist who suffered abuse at the hands of his adopted older brother, whose parents were murdered when he was a child, and who watched his wife wither away, asks of himself, and others out there who may suffer as he has, “Do you ever think somebody up there doesn’t like you?” These emotions all unfold and expand and blacken alongside a thrilling plot.
Earlier this week I was listening to a podcast (which I realize now was my first mistake) in which the guest explained what he believed was the difference between an artist and an entertainer (my second mistake was to not stop listening right there): entertainers want their work to be seen by others, whereas artists, who create only for themselves, are content with shoving their completed work into a drawer somewhere. Apart from dismissing all of the performing arts as “entertainment,” this theory also, among many other head-slappingly dumb things, assumes that anyone writing fiction with the hopes of reaching a large audience (not necessarily with the goal of doing this; there’s a difference) is only an entertainer (in fairness, the person saying all this dumb shit considered himself to be an entertainer). Which, further, means that with Ill Will, a novel that has done quite well, Dan Chaon believed he was deliberately constructing mass entertainment, the kind of suspense novel everyone can enjoy. The fact is, Ill Will is a terrific contemporary example of what genre fiction is capable of, the emotional and aesthetic impact it can have, and that not all bestsellers are cut from the same cheap cloth.

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This week I also finished Voices in the Night, Steven Millhauser’s most collection of Millhauserian short fiction. I’d been reading it off and on for a while, and on Wednesday I pushed through to the end, starting with the last half of the book’s longest story, “The Pleasures and Suffering of Young Guatama” (the longest story here, and one I found to be a bit of a grind, but ultimately worth it), “American Tall Tale,” in which Millhauser says “Fuck it, I’m going to write my own Paul Bunyan story, “Home Run,” which is a few pages long, all one sentence, about a particularly impressive home run, and “The Voice in the Night,” a story that reads as a kind of fictional memoir centered around Millhauser’s atheism, what he thinks about it, his perhaps occasional struggle with it, and ultimate celebration of it. These stories make up a strong last third of a book, but the first two thirds ain’t no slouch, neither.
For years I’ve considered Millhauser to be one of my favorite writers, ever since I read his masterful first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, God knows how many years ago at this point, but until committing to Voices in the Night it had been several years since I’d read anything by him. The stories in this book confirmed that I have great taste. And while there’s not a loser in the bunch, of particular interest to me was the story “A Report on Our Recent Troubles.” The first story by Thomas Ligotti I ever read was “The Red Tower,” and as I read it I remember thinking “This is as if Steven Millhauser had written a horror story.” Well, “A Report on Our Recent Troubles” feels like Millhauser writing not just a horror story, but specifically a Thomas Ligotti story. The title even has the ring of a Ligotti title. It’s good stuff.

*      *     *     *
Also finished this week was The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard. It’s my twenty-first Leonard novel, and his first ever crime novel, written amid the few Westerns he was still cranking out as that market died. It was published in 1969 and holy shit, does it feel timeless. That this thing is almost fifty years old is almost unthinkable. I’m on record as being a Leonard fan, but not a die-hard fan, and I’ve taken issue with any number of his books, or at least chunks of them, but The Big Bounce seems almost perfect. The dialogue was already there (of course, I say “already” but he was in his 40s when this was written), but more pure, free of the tics that sometimes marred his later books; the scenes that other crime writers would leave out but which Leonard was celebrated for are here written with such ease that I could almost forget I was reading a crime novel. Interestingly, The Big Bounce is also one of Leonard’s more traditional noir stories, being, as it is, part of the femme fatale subgenre – a particularly Leonard-esque entry into that subgenre, but still.
Also of note: the character Mr. Majestyk, who not too long after The Big Bounce would star in his own eponymous novel and film, first appears here, in a major supporting role. What I find funny is that while in Mr. Majestyk the character is a guy who has to do some killing and does it, in The Big Bounce he’s just a kind, practical, smart businessman and Justice of the Peace. He’s not in on the action at all, but Leonard still decided to name the character “Mr. Majestyk.” Plus at one point, Majestyk is watching a Western on TV, and as described, the movie sounds an awful lot like The Tall T, the great Budd Boetticher film that’s based on an old Elmore Leonard short story. What this implies about the Elmore Leonard EU is too much for me to wrestle with right now.

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Not finished this week, but continued, is Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest, about the childhood of Adolf Hitler as told by the demon from Hell who got that particular ball rolling, and which would turn out to be his final novel. I’m reading this now because I had intended, or hoped, that it would be part of a reading, and subsequently writing, project involving fiction about Hitler, but I’m starting to think this thing is dead in the water. The problem is my enthusiasm, once robust, has shriveled like an airless balloon. At fault are the first novel I read, Young Adolf by the great Beryl Bainbridge. Or mostly great. That novel is about Hitler in his early 20s, visiting, or imposing himself upon, or invading, family in England. Put forward by some critics as a black comedy, I didn’t find a lot of humor in the book (though Bainbridge’s style of humor tends to be dry as salt), but worse, I couldn’t figure out what was going on in Bainbridge’s head. Now, I hate it when someone complains that a work of art “had no point” – indeed, if I had my way this would be a criminal offense – but I think we can all agree that Hitler as a historical figure looms sufficiently over humanity as it currently exists the world over that if one is going to use him as a fictional character, the reader should be able to understand why this choice was made. And as this all relates to Young Adolf, I was unable to do that. This is maybe my fault, I don’t know. I do know that Bainbridge ends Young Adolf with some bad irony, so even if it turns out that on that first point I am a dumbshit, the second bit is on her.
Anyway, so you add that to how I’m feeling about 200 pages into The Castle in the Forest, and I’m no longer sure this project has legs. I’m going to finish Mailer’s book, though, if for no other reason than after Some Came Running every book seems short. But it’s also a fascinating book, in its own way. If I was unable to figure out what Bainbridge was thinking when she wrote Young Adolf, that hasn’t been a problem so far with The Castle in the Forest. Mailer’s brain is splattered all over every page. His fixations and weirdness and foolishness and childishness are the book – fuck Hitler, he barely enters into it. Well, his anus does. But someone’s anus has featured prominently in each of the three Mailer novels I’ve, I don’t know, experienced. Then again, if the first part of The Castle in the Forest was about anuses, the second part has been about bees. My hopes are high that the third part will be about cardamom. Where this alphabetical journey will go from there, who can say?

Monday, September 4, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 2

9/3/17 – 9/4/17

The series finale (some say season finale, or hope it’s the season finale, but I neither think nor hope it is) of Twin Peaks: The Return was last night. 120 minutes, the last 90 of which played as a brand new David Lynch feature film, having cleared the decks with the comparatively accessible (but even then…) first half hour. I’ll get out of the way right now that I didn’t love every minute of Lynch’s eighteen-hour masterpiece (tipping my hand a bit there, I realize); entire episodes were met by me with mild near-disapprobation, and Freddie, the British guy with the Hulk hand, seemed to be pushing things just a little bit, in a show that seemed capable of pushing anything it wanted anywhere it wanted, as far as it wanted. Nevertheless, the overall feeling Twin Peaks: The Return leaves me with is one of awe, adoration, and terror.
Nothing  bores me more than trying to explain the films of David Lynch, especially those that ostensibly beg most fervently to be put into some sort of order. The impulse to do so can be summed up, it seems to me, that nothing can have any meaning unless I know what it means. It’s a paradox, I’ll grant you, but not one I care to ponder on. The last 90 minutes of Twin Peaks: The Return, which I’ll avoid describing in detail for those who haven’t seen it, is powerful, sad, and frightening precisely because I don’t know quite what to make of it all. Especially those final minutes, which gripped me with tension and nervousness such as I haven’t experienced in quite a long time. It’s very much a work of horror, as well as surrealist noir, and I’m not sorry it’s gone, because now it is complete.

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This morning I continued on with Dan Chaon’s Ill Will, reading only 40 pages, versus yesterday’s 150. I needed a break, apparently, but the novel’s continuously shifting perspectives and Chaon’s fine ear for language continue to be compelling.

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I thought much of my Labor Day was going to be given over to watching this show I found on Netflix called Toast of London. Starring, and co-created and co-written by, Matt Berry, best known to me as Todd Rivers, AKA Dr. Lucien Sanchez from my beloved Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, it’s about Steven Toast (a pretty good joke about awkwardly naming TV characters after the title of the show), an actor currently on the skids because his new play is enormously controversial, and hated. It’s a lot more absurdist than I expected, and undeniably funny (when Toast learns that a woman he’s interested in is the sort of person who throws shopping carts into canals, he says “I want to know everything about you”), I only managed to watch two episodes before finding it necessary to move on with my day. I continue to be unable to focus for very long on any filmed entertainment that isn’t Twin Peaks: The Return or a cooking competition show. Last night’s The Great Food Truck Race was a real corker, by the way.

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I only listened to a little Sondheim today, maybe the first half of the first side of Into the Woods. My understanding of the show is that the first act is a lighthearted fairy tale, and the second act as all about the very dark repercussions, but that song “I Know Things Now” suggests some pretty awful things happened to Little Red Riding Hood, chipper though the song may be on its surface. Anyway, a while back I sort of half watched the recent film version that nobody likes, and I remember when a Big Death occurred in the second half, nobody in the cast could figure out how they should react so they decided not to bother.

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While mowing the lawn, I fired up the old music machine and listened to some songs.
“Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price and “Liars Beware” by Richard Hell and the Voidoids are as good as ever. “I won’t forget your stupid face,” indeed!
I’ve grown to really dislike Tom Waits’s “Day After Tomorrow.” It’s one of his very few overtly political songs, and while the melody is lovely and Waits is in fine voice, the lyrics, from the point of view of an American soldier fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq (it hardly matters which!) who just so happens to agree completely with Tom Waits about the war, whichever one, are so goddamn easy and platitudinous. It stumbles into the most basic pitfall of so much political art by being emptily Left-wing. At least his later “Hell Broke Luce” sounds angry.
Harry Nilsson’s cover of Randy Newman’s “Dayton Ohio, 1903” from the former’s album Nilsson Sings Newman remains beautiful, and, as usual, I’m perplexed by that bit where Nilsson includes his own voice giving a recording studio direction to put in more echo. Given the content of the song, this has always struck me as especially perverse. I checked Alyn Shipton’s Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter to see if there’s anything in there about this decision, but found nothing. More perplexing still is the fact that, as far as I can tell, the song isn’t marred by it.
That’s all. It’s not a very big lawn, and I listened to “Stagger Lee” twice.

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Speaking of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, or at least the people who made the show, one of the horror films I’m most looking forward to in the next year or so, whenever I get to see it, is Possum, written and directed  Matthew Holness (Garth Marenghi himself). I’ve been waiting for something else big from Holness, as his career since Man to Man with Dean Learner has seemed, to me, someone looking at it from across a whole ocean, as one of false starts. If that’s true, my assumption has been that he’s had trouble getting stuff financed – his terrific short film A Gun for George felt like the beginning of something larger which never came to pass. But now there’s going to be Possum! In the lead up to its UK release, Holness has had to field the inevitable question about whether or not his film is a horror comedy. He’s assured everyone that it’s a horror film, full stop. No comedy.
Judging from Holness’s own short story of the same name, found in Sarah Eyre and Ra Page’s anthology The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease, he’s not fucking around. About a mentally ill puppeteer (the degree to which he’s done this work professionally is unclear) who carries around a grotesque dog-shaped, man-faced puppet named Possum, and travels back to his old bleak exurban stomping grounds, where he stays with a creepy old man named Christie, “Possum” is distinctly Ramsey Campbell-ian in tone, if an influence must be pin-pointed, and ultimately fairly skin-crawling. As a story it doesn’t seem quite expansive enough for a traditional horror film, which I hope you understand doesn’t mean I think it shouldn’t be turned into a film. Already excited before reading the story, I’m only more excited now.

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As I wrote this, I’ve been watching Trading Places for the first time in a very long while. It’s not good.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 1

9/2/17 – 9/3/17

I’m down on movies lately. I don’t watch them, except when I do, but when I do I tend to tap out early. I don’t care. Yesterday I watched The Secret of The Whistler, directed by George Sherman, from 1946. Earlier this year, I watched five or so of the Whistler films, based on the radio show, all starring Richard Dix, each time out playing a different character in a different story (always hosted by a silhouette who insists on being called The Whistler). At first it seemed that Dix could play anybody – victim, hero, villain, but then somewhere along the line he was assigned villain duty exclusively. Such was the case with The Secret of The Whistler and this very fun series of hour-long thrillers began to seem dull to me. Oh, movies. What happened?

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For a very long time now I’ve been meaning to dive headlong into the work of Stephen Sondheim. What little of his work I’ve been exposed to – West Side Story, a song here and there taken out of context (most powerfully a performance of “Send in the Clowns” by Judi Dench), Tim Burton’s film of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, of which I remain an unapologetic fan – but only recently have I taken steps in that direction by ordering a bunch of original cast recordings of many of his most significant shows. They arrived yesterday, and almost immediately I put on Company. Quite a good place to start, it seems to me, as even to my novice ears it sounds like Sondheim in his purest form. I’m no good at writing about music, it being something I’ve never written about before, and know nothing about as far as the making of it goes (Sondheim grabbing hold of me first and foremost as a lyricist), so I can only go so far with this, but I quite liked “Sorry-Grateful” and “Getting Married Today” and “Being Alive” and I kind of couldn’t stand “Tick Tock” which may not even count as a thing…well, this could go on. My most damning opinion – damning of me, I mean – is my at best indifference to “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which I gather is rather beloved. There’s something about the super-brassy Broadway Lady song -- a genre which, in the popular shape that allows me to recognize it as such, was I’m guessing invented by Sondheim -- that my body rejects. “The Ladies Who Lunch” being an Elaine Stritch show-stopper, well, I’m a slave to my emotions, what can I tell you.
Not long after I put on Assassins. I have to tell you that, after a long week of work, and being 41 years of age as I am, and sitting in a recliner as I was, I did suddenly find myself napping during this darkest of all Sondheim musicals (it feels like it tops even Sweeney Todd on that count). I fell asleep very early, during “The Ballad of Booth” and woke up in time to hear from “Unworthy of Your Love” on. I thought the latter, and its immediate follow up “The Ballad of Guiteau” to be pretty spectacular, and “Everybody’s Got the Right,” the show’s closer, as well. “The Ballad of Guiteau” must be something to see performed live. It sounds to me like it asks a lot of its singer. I poked around the internet later and saw that Sondheim is in the final stages of getting his newest musical, Bunuel, based on the Spanish surrealist’s films The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel, into shape, and one of the actors who’s been workshopping it, Matthew Morrison, said in an interview that the songs are so challenging that he had trouble sleeping the nights before he was going to have to perform them. I can imagine. I mean, I can’t, but I can.

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On Sunday morning I learned, as did everyone else, that Walter Becker had died. I knew only a handful of Steely Dan songs, but liked what I knew, mostly anyway. Someone on Twitter said that Steely Dan had put out “at least six perfect albums” or words to that effect, and upon checking my CDs I was surprised to learn that I owned three of them (I thought I only had two). I put on Katy Lied and listened to it straight through. I’m not going to pretend to be able to say anything new or interesting about this band, but off the top of my head I can think of no other rock band that achieved any kind of mass popularity whose sound was as idiosyncratic and unreproducible. They shouldn’t have been popular, but, thankfully, now and again, these things happen.

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Over the past two days, I’ve read 200 pages of Ill Will, Dan Chaon’s newest thriller. More about it when I’m done, but even when I’m choosing something to read with that hope that it will be escapist in some way, the book winds up being incredibly sad, and mortally chilling. Ill Will involves in part the death by cancer of the protagonist’s wife – this horrible experience is something Chaon himself has gone through. This story so far exists side by side, through a structure of jumbled timelines, with a wild serial killer plot, or a maybe serial killer plot. It’s all been incredibly engaging, even if it makes my head droop with existential grief from time to time.

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Tonight I finished reading Some Came Running by James Jones. The novel is 1,266 pages long, and it took me months and months and months to read. Not because it’s a difficult book, but because I know myself, and if I hadn’t supplemented this mammoth with other books I’d never finished it. But now I’ve finished it.
I’d seen the great Vincente Minelli film version years ago, which only peaked over my shoulder from time to time, as a scene from the novel reminded me of its cinematic brother, either because it was similar or because it very much wasn’t. Minelli diverged pretty significantly from Jones’s novel in the last chunk: a character dies in the novel who lives in the film, and a character who dies in the film lives in the book. These are no small things, and change my emotional involvement a lot – not the level of it, but in the type. Jones’s novel is, finally, like all long novels worth a damn, almost a living, breathing experience, rather than merely a book one has read. At times, it felt like the house I slept in. Strengthening this is the feeling I got that as I read I was seeing Jones struggle to hammer this crazy thing into some kind of shape, to try to find his style – which here is full of intentional repetitions and ungrammatical prose, a violent assault of adverbs and, sometimes, some of the cleanest and most moving prose I’ve read all year (see the passage describing the death of the main character’s father).
Jones also seems to be fighting with himself on moral grounds. One thing I remembered clearly from the Minelli film is Ginnie, the character played by Shirley MacLaine, a poor, simple good-time gal who other characters insult mercilessly. At one point, Dean Martin, as ‘Bama, calls her a pig. In the film, Minelli’s love of Ginnie seemed complete, to the point where It almost seemed like he wanted to lift her out of the film and get her away from all these assholes. This is all in the novel too, except that the abuse of Ginnie is more brutal and lasts a lot longer, and, by the end, Jones seems to be losing the battle he’s been waging with himself. He doesn’t want to hate Ginnie, but in the end I think he might.
Some Came Running is also unique in that it ends with an extended epilogue that actually strengthens the book, rather than having a negligible impact on what has come before it, which in my experience is usually the outcome. The epilogue is twinned with the prologue (not so unusual) but also mirrors in some way the novel that Dave, the novel’s protagonist, has spent most of the novel trying to write, and, also, I think, refutes the themes he was trying to get into it. It’s a brilliant six pages, and ends the novel with a shiver.
Anyway. Twin Peaks is about to start.