Saturday, October 5, 2019

A Source of Innocent Merriment

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In the song "A More Humane Mikado," from the operetta The Mikado by Gilbert & Sullivan, that character, the Mikado, a Japanese emperor, believes himself, and proclaims himself, to be entirely sympathetic, unquestionably so, while going on to list all the different ways he will suitably punish the various criminal types whose fates fall within the scope of his rule. The Mikado being light opera, many of the punishments are rather silly, though, crucially, not all ("The advertising quack who wearies/with tales of countless cures/his teeth, I've enacted, to be extracted/by terrified amateurs"); moreover, the crimes for which many of these citizens are being punished are hardly crimes at all -- women who dye their hair, "idiots" who write on train windows, bad singers. Add on top of this the Mikado's insistence on his own humane nature and essential goodness, and not only that, but that his pursuit of these questionable punishments is actually evidence of his basic human decency ("A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist/To nobody second I'm certainly reckoned a true philanthropist/It is my very humane endeavor to make, to some extent/each evil liver a running river/of harmless merriment) and the audience for this 1885 musical can't help but conclude that this man positively exhales great clouds of disingenuousness.

Jump ahead 134 years. Todd Phillips, our modern W.S. Gilbert, and previously the director of the scam documentary Frat House, such decent but disposable comedies as Old School, and such empty, insulting shock-banality comedies as The Hangover Part 2 (the first Hangover film having begun, if one is being generous, in the "decent but disposable" category before being spaghettified by the black hole of its successor; both of them have since collapsed into The Hangover Part 3 which may not exist) has now, Todd Phillips has, won the Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival. The Venice Film Festival is no joke, as these things go, and the Golden Lion is its equivalent of the Palme d'Or. Past winners include Agnes Varda's Vagabond and Eric Rohmer's The Green Ray. Phillips won it for Joker, about the evil clown villain who is Batman's archnemesis. I myself am a great fan of the Batman character, as well as the Joker. Well, I'm not a fan of the Joker, but he's a great character -- at his best he's weird, and funny, and actually frightening, a hyper-verbal genius who has somehow turned Vaudeville into violence, and who will do anything. The Joker has changed over the years, becoming more grim and nihilistic since Batman himself shed his 60s goofball frivolity and reclaimed his noir-ish freakshow roots in the 1970s. The Joker has followed suit to become a figure of true evil in the comics and in his various cinematic incarnations, most notably in Christopher Nolan's 2008 film The Dark Knight, in which Heath Ledger gave a tremendous performance as a twitchy, mysterious, vile, murderous comedian who, we're told in arguably the film's most famous line, "just wants to watch the world burn." So that's where we were basically with the Joker when Todd Phillips got his grubby mitts on the character and thought "Well I'm the most cynical asshole on the planet, let's see what this gets me." Hello, Golden Lion!

The phenomenon of Joker is something that...well, listen, I can't be a hypocrite about this. I've engaged in the online hullaballoo, and have made my doubts about Phillips's movie, sight unseen, very clear. I've also made very clear that critics who run through the streets like Kevin McCarthy, begging anyone within earshot to heed their warnings about the violence movies like Joker will without a doubt inspire its dunderpated audiences to commit (it used to be conservatives who did this, which meant it was paranoid and authoritarian; now its liberals, which means it's fine) are condescending fear-mongering, sniveling, cowardly little shits. But having now seen the film, I want to make it even more clear that it has become impossible for me to engage in the discourse about Joker any longer because it doesn't deserve even the stupid fucking arguments people have been having about it. Joker has absolutely zero going on in it, it is thoughtless, frequently dull, silly, anticlimactic, a waste; it's thieving, insincere, stupid, carpetbagging nonsense. With a couple of good shots that as far as I know Todd Phillips came up with all by himself.

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The film stars Joaquin Phoenix, one of our great actors, as Arthur Fleck, a sort of, I don't know, clown for hire? Who works for a sort of clown subcontractor, hiring guys like Fleck out to dress up in clown gear and hold signs outside of their stores, or perform at children's hospitals. You know, a clown subcontractor. From frame one of Joker, we know that Arthur Fleck is mentally ill. We will eventually learn some specifics, such as that he has a condition which, in moments of extreme stress, causes him to laugh uncontrollably, despite laughter being at odds with his mood. He has a laminated card he hands to people who might be startled by this. He lives with his mom (Frances Conroy) in a scummy little apartment in the middle of Gotham City. They're very fond of each other, but his mom can't stop bringing up local billionaire Thomas Wayne, to whom she frequently writes letter, but from whom she never gets a response. At night, the two of them, otherwise lonely, bond over a late night talk show, hosted by the Johnny Carson-esque -- or rather, the Jerry Langford-esque (but actually resembling neither) -- Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Franklin is Fleck's hero. Fleck is an aspiring stand-up comic, in addition to being a clown. But unlike any other character in the history of cinema, Fleck's dreams of comedy success are badly hindered by his mental illness. He regularly sees a social worker (Sharon Washington), but funding's about to be cut, and Fleck won't be able to get his pills anymore. And he keeps getting beat up. Then again, he seems to have made a connection with a neighbor in his apartment building (Zazie Beetz). But on the other hand he keeps getting beaten up. One night, after being fired from his children's hospital gig for carrying a gun, he's on the subway when three of those Wall Street Guys, you know the type, start making fun of a woman and throw what appear to be Cheetos at her. Arthur starts acting weird, so the Rich Fellows decide "Let's destroy this guy" and they start harassing Arthur, but then Arthur pulls that gun he had and shoots them all to death.

I'll try to speed through the rest of the relevant plot summary. This triple murder, committed by a clown against three Rich Fellows (aka Wall Street Guys) somehow instantly inspires the creation of a massive city-wide protest, with citizens dressed as clowns holding signs that say "Resist" (held upside down! How punk!) and "We Are All Clowns", which is doubtlessly true. But I'm not kidding, this happens overnight. If Todd Phillips's aesthetic approach was (God forgive me) "gritty realism," then shouldn't some of this make any sense at all? There's no build up to any of this. After maybe 40 minutes of boredom involving Fleck's sad inactivity, Joker leaps into full-on "Gotham is ablaze!" mode. The same can be said for Fleck's relationship with Zazie Beetz's Sophie, although that bit has a twist to it, which might seem obvious. But the fact that what is revealed about their relationship plays as a twist (and here's the twist: they're not in a relationship, Fleck imagined it all, and it turns out Sophie is frightened by him) means that Phillips, that fucking numbnuts, thought that the two of them being in love, as he presented it, somehow worked, that it played, even though Sophie is a normal person raising a child by herself, and Arthur is never depicted as anything other than, at best, a genial psycho, and that when he pulls back the curtain, by which I mean, when he steals from M. Night Shyamalan, he thinks we should be thinking "well what the fuck I thought they'd spend eternity together."


Speaking of stealing. Before he "left" comedy (about which more in a bit), and in between Hangsover, Todd Phillips released Due Date, a film that is a naked rip-off of John Hughes's Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Evidently pleased by how that all worked out for him, Phillips decided his narrative and aesthetic approach to Joker (which he co-wrote, as well as directed) should be to graft large chunks of classic Martin Scorsese films onto the two ideas he had (those two ideas being Arthur Fleck's laughing disorder, and to sometimes have Fleck walk into a room, point the camera up at him from the floor, and move it around a bit), and then sort of just shove it in front of an audience. Because, I mean, that Zazie Beetz stuff is just a bad version of the De Niro and Diahnne Abbott material from Scorsese's King of Comedy, a film which is also the source of all the talk show stuff in Joker. And the PTSD/violent retribution stuff from Taxi Driver, etc. Everybody knows this before they even see Joker. It's shameless, and because the marketing has led with this, it's not even interesting. You can't even say "Aha, you brigand" because, smirking cynic that he is, Phillips got ahead of it. He gets to "be" Scorsese (he won the Golden Lion!) by being the opposite of Scorsese, by innovating nothing, by adding nothing. Phillips's shield is that he roped Scorsese in to help him line up Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Scorsese's producing partner, to work on the film. Had John Hughes not already been dead when Phillips was making Due Date, a similar arrangement would have surely been made.

A good hint of what's to come can be found right at the beginning, in the opening credits font. It's a kind of old-fashioned curlicue which I think might be meant to evoke Vaudeville but actually, to me anyway, brought to mind fairy tales, but in any case is "ironic" in the "oh that font is fun, but that guy just got beat up while I was enjoying the font" sense. This is more or less the cinematographic philosophy throughout. The two good shots are the one from that early poster, the one of Joaquin Phoenix in his Joker makeup, enveloped by that municipal green paint and boiler room-lighting, arms up, appearing to be caught in a moment of almost religious grace (this is one of those shot-from-below bits I mentioned earlier, and it does pay off, however briefly). The other comes late in the film, after the Joker commits an act of violence which cannot be hidden. Again he's in full makeup, and in his full purple suit (the Joker look designed for this film is a good one, I'll admit that much), now with blood on his face. That's a cliché, but the shot is almost of Phoenix's profile -- he's smiling and trembling at once. It's the trembling that makes it all work. Phoenix seems to be actually shaking in the adrenal aftermath of a life- and mind-changing explosion. It's Phoenix's best moment, from a performance that is otherwise fine, but a pale shadow of his work in films that ask much more of him. I would, for instance, defy anyone to point to a role and performance that is anything like what he was asked to do, and did, in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. In comparison, Phillips seems to have said "Okay, be crazy, but quiet. And...action!"



Which is another thing: why make a Joker film, and make the character so inarticulate? In the comics, and in the various Batman films in which the character has appeared, The Joker is a chatterbox, gleefully, maliciously, verbal. That's a big part of the idea -- the guy makes a lot of jokes! In Joker, Arthur Fleck is, to borrow a line from a film made by one of Phillips's "key" "inspirations," a mumbling, stuttering prick. He can barely finish telling a joke. We see him do stand-up once, after he's gone off his meds and is just a total mess. If we're going to have The Joker explained to us, then maybe make his interest in comedy a little bit more a part of it all. Better a little bit, than nothing. Anyway, a video of that stand-up performance, which is disastrous, makes its way to Murray Franklin, who plays it on his show, which leads to the film's climax. Which is very violent, and rides the wave of that sudden revolutionary impulse among Gothamites that Joker's random train murders began, and which includes a surprising amount of Batman lore. All of which I found utterly ridiculous. "Is that fucking Alfred???" I asked myself at one point. And then at the end I got to watch Phillips pilfer Frank Miller. It's all nonsense, the film so obviously believes it's above comic books and comic book films, yet relies on them for its big boost at the end.

I mean, if you refuse to show The Joker making jokes (with all his shots of Phoenix all decked out in purple walking in slow-motion while Gary Glitter(!) plays, or etc., Phillips seems more interested in making him look cool), to show him being funny while he's being vicious, then why is any of this even happening? But of course, Todd Phillips is serious now. In a recent interview, Phillips said that he stopped making comedies because what with "wokeness" and "cancel culture," it's impossible to be funny anymore. I'm fairly conflicted about this, because I don't tend to like the kind of comedy that Phillips argues has been ruined by the current political climate, but, on the other hand, I sometimes do, and I think those who wish to do away with it are breathtakingly hypocritical, lacking in self-awareness to such a degree that they might literally fade into nothing. But also a bullshit hypocrite is Phillips. Early in the film there's a scene where Arthur goes to a comedy club, as part of the audience. Performing that night is Gary Gulman, an actual stand-up, and playing himself, in a sense, because he's doing one of his own routines, a bit that, if you keep up with current stand-up at all, is pretty well-known. It's an extended piece, ostensibly about the sexual role play Gulman and his wife engage in, involving a male professor and a female student, but which very quickly becomes an extended complicated story about the difficulties of  being a professor dealing with a difficult student, a story that almost instantly sheds any and all sexual connotations. It's very funny, and very clean. It's absurd, and is guaranteed to offend not a single person on earth. So if Phillips thinks comedy is impossible now, why is he aware of, and why does he approve of, Gary Gulman? And approve of his comedy so much that he puts Gulman in his film doing one of his own bits??

Probably because, as others have said, Phillips doesn't believe a goddamn word he says. "Meaning what I say" isn't part of the plan. "Saying it" is enough. This goes for the sympathy his film pretends we're supposed to feel for Arthur Fleck. That sympathy, or the idea of it, is what's caused the film to become such a controversial piece ever since Warner Brothers released the first trailer. But it's all a hoax. It's a scam. Why everybody at the Venice Film Festival bought into it, I don't know, but I guess Don't Look Now, The Comfort of Strangers, and Robert Aickman were right. But when you create (using that word loosely) a character who is mentally ill, and have him kill only people the audience is meant to hate, and who have done him, this poor fellow, wrong, and pretend, then, as Phillips has done, that the audience isn't meant to (this doesn't mean they will) approve of this behavior, at least as a piece of entertainment, then you're having it both ways, or trying to, which means you're lying. And again, I think the critics predicting violence in the wake of Joker's release are behaving reprehensibly (the only group I'm aware of who has reacted to the film with frothing positivity are the critics who saw it in Venice). But, Phillips will insist, do not criticize me, for I have behaved nobly. My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time, to let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the crime. And make each prisoner pent, unwillingly represent, a source of innocent merriment, of innocent merriment.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Oh, This is Terrible: New Capsule Reviews

I've been sorta kinda easing back into writing reviews, and my website of choice, for some bizarre reason, has been Letterboxd, not my own. I'm probably going that route because I know at least some people will see them there, whether they want to or not, just by scrolling through their activity feeds, but it's rather perverse to let my own blog lie fallow while I do that, especially since I like to think there are people who still check this blog who don't follow me on any other website. So I'm going to try and perk this place up by bringing over the relatively-speaking "best of" reviews from over there and post them here. I'm going with the four longest ones, because they also happen to be the ones most worth reading (again, relatively speaking), but the result of this is that I'm including reviews of Lethals Weapon 2 and 3, but not 4 or the original. I watched all four over the course of about a week and a half, and wrote something about all of them, but there's not much going on in those other two "reviews." So they're out! Okay, preamble over. Enjoy, or don't!

Living in Oblivion (d. Tom DiCillo) - It's probably emblematic of something or other that at the height of the 1990s American Independent Cinema boom, a subgenre was spawned within the movement of films about how hard it was to make American independent films. There was Living in Oblivion, In the Soup, My Life's in Turnaround...so that's three right there. You might call this little corner of 90s film "insular," perhaps, or "Ouroborosian," and you might wonder why the filmmakers behind them couldn't have maybe waited a few pictures into their careers before ceasing to look beyond their own noses.

Well, my feeling is, tomorrow is not guaranteed, and as a writer or filmmaker or any other kind of artist, you have to follow whatever idea has its hooks into you at the moment. Besides, in the case of Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion, the film he made previous to it came out four years before. Making movies is hard, and beginning to make a movie is probably harder.

I have to say, I don't buy DiCillo's claim that the character played by James LeGros in this movie is not based on Brad Pitt, the star of DiCillo's Johnny Suede -- not because LeGros's Chad Palomino jibes with what I know about Pitt (if pressed, I might be forced to admit that fundamentally I don't know anything about Brad Pitt) but because, well...Brad/Chad. "Pitt" and "Palomino" both start with a P. Blonde hair. That sort of thing. The only really strong argument against it that I can see is that when DiCillo and Pitt were making Johnny Suede, Pitt was nothing like the movie star he would become (Thelma & Louise came out the same year), and the state of movie stardom is intrinsic to the character of Chad and his behavior. And not just, I don't think, of the "I'm going to BECOME a movie star, so you might as well treat me like one now" variety. But what do I know.

I didn't see this movie (or In the Soup or My Life's in Turnaround) when it came out, which strikes me as odd now. The '90s is when my cinephilia blossomed, as it did for so many other people of my generation, may God have mercy on us all, so you'd think in my youthful myopia, movies about movies would be a thing I'd be drawn to, like booze and pictures of naked women. But somehow, no. Of that clutch of films, Living in Oblivion is without question the one that has lingered longest in the minds of the kind of people who would have seen it in 1995, and was, I think, the most successful at the time. So I'd probably heard of the dwarf dream sequence bit, and I'd like to think my take was that it was a hack joke, and this was enough, Steve Buscemi or no Steve Buscemi (who of course by then I already loved), to drive me away. The problem has turned out to be that while I'm not entirely sure if DiCillo knew that a dwarf dream sequence is a hack joke, his approach to it, and Peter Dinklage's performance, make it better than the idea deserves. It turns out to actually be funny.

As is James LeGros, come to think of it, and several other people in the cast. Much to my dismay, this film, which could not be more stuck in its time, actually works, and is funny, and even kind of interesting here and there. And boy do I still love Steve Buscemi.


Lethal Weapon 2 (d. Richard Donner) - In case you've forgotten, this is the one that begins with the Warner Brothers logo coming up with the Loony Tunes theme playing behind it, and then turns out to be about Apartheid. You'd think in that case that Murtaugh would be foregrounded, but no: Riggs has to have a second woman he loves get murdered before he can get over the death of the first one. He does, though, and he and Murtaugh also get over the deaths of, like, eight of their cop buddies. These murders are intercut with Murtaugh goofing around with Joe Pesci, and Riggs having sex with Patsy Kensit while making jokes about his dick. So tonally, Lethal Weapon 2 is a bit of a goon show.

The scene where Murtaugh is stuck on a toilet because if he stands up a bomb will explode him is actually pretty good, with good, touching friendship business between him and Riggs. On the other hand, at one point in that scene, Murtaugh says his toilet reading was the new issue of "Saltwater Sportsman" and Riggs says "Is that the one with the article about deep sea fishing?" Wouldn't every issue of "Saltwater Sportsman" have an article like that in it? And Riggs wasn't being a smart aleck, either, because when he says "Is that the one with the article about deep sea fishing?" Murtaugh says "Yeah." Come on, guys.

I also like the scene where Riggs tells Darlene Love about the night his wife died. It's a nice little moment, and I like how close Riggs is with the whole Murtaugh family. It's moving! And overall I think of Lethal Weapon 2 rather fondly, even though it includes one of my most hated film cliches: a guy picks up his TV remote, turns the TV on, and begins laughing immediately at whatever show is on. That's what aliens or psychopaths who've never laughed do when they've incompletely absorbed the visual information of normal humans laughing at TV comedy shows, and now want to assimilate. For what reason, we cannot know.


Lethal Weapon 3 (d. Richard Donner) - Back in the 80s and 90s (and maybe still to this day), there was a particularly bothersome movie trope wherein, lacking either a villain or figure of mockery, Hollywood filmmakers would give that job to a character who, in reality, would be appreciated for their hard work in a thankless job. The most egregious example of this I can think of is the flight doctor played by Christian Clemenson in Apollo 13, whose concern for the physical health of the astronauts is meant -- because he's getting in the way of our good time and is just generally a drag -- to instill in the audience a boundless fury, leading us to scream "HE'S NOT GONNA GET THE FLU YOU FUCKING SON OF A BITCH!" at our screens.

The Lethal Weapon series of films carried on this tradition with the character Dr. Stephanie Woods, a police therapist working for the LAPD, played by Mary Ellen Trainor. In the first film, she's actually sort of taken seriously, in that she at least provides the grade-school psychiatric exposition to explain to us, the laymen, what kind of mind can be behind the wild eyes of Detective Martin Riggs. By Lethal Weapon 2, the attitude towards Dr. Woods is closer to "Go read your books, egghead, Riggs gets the job done!" and by Lethal Weapon 3 she's an oblivious clown who actually thinks she can help Murtaugh through the trauma of having to gun down an armed teenager. Jesus fucking Christ, lady, you're embarrassing yourself, Murtaugh is fine!

Otherwise, I found Lethal Weapon 3 somewhat less tedious than I'd remembered, although for about the first hour it piles on the cartoon bullshit like mad. Riggs and Murtaugh are busted down to uniformed beat cops after causing a building to explode, and Riggs threatens to murder a jaywalker before tearing after trigger happy bank robbers, within the first ten minutes. This is all played for a goof, but this being a Lethal Weapon movie, the tone has to at some point jump out of an airplane without a parachute and hope everything works out, so eventually we end up on Murtaugh's boat while Riggs tries to scream Murtaugh out of his post-shooting drinking binge.

That bit occurs sometime between the two scenes that were ripped off wholesale from, of all movies, Jaws. There's no beach, the plot doesn't revolve around sharks in any way (the plot's about an evil ex-cop who's building a house, I think), but let's randomly lift two of the most iconic scenes from one of the most famous films ever made. Nobody even says the word "jaws" in this thing.

Finally, given the two films that preceded it, it would have been really funny if Rene Russo's character had died.


Mikey and Nicky (d. Elaine May) - As I mess around with the idea of regularly writing reviews again, one of my objectives is to keep things short. The problem is that in the case of Mikey and Nicky, the most unlikely film Elaine May ever had anything to do with (a statement which may be nothing more than proof that I don't know the first thing about May, which is certainly a defensible position) is that there's almost too much to say.

If I wanted to limit my scope, and I do, I might home in on the scene where Falk as Mikey and Cassavetes as Nicky go see a woman (Carol Grace) who may have a mental problems, and who Nicky regularly has sex with. He gives her money, but tells Mikey she's not a prostitute, you have to tell her the money is a gift. Nicky has sex with her while Falk waits in the kitchen. Then when Mikey tries to make his move, she rebukes him, biting his lip during a kiss he forces on her. From here, the two men -- who, it becomes easy to forget, are gangsters -- fall easily into abuse, slapping her (Mikey) and chastising her as though she were a child (Nicky). Then, when they leave her apartment, they act as though nothing has happened, and May's camera falls in line. Or at least, nothing happened to her. The incident blows the two men's friendship apart, but their fight could have been about anything, money, a job, for all the woman exists for them as a living human still in her apartment, experiencing her own aftermath. This scene anticipates one in Terry Gilliam's not-entirely-dissimilar Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when the true danger and vile natures of Dr. Gonzo and Raoul Duke are revealed in a scene where Gonzo menaces a waitress played by Ellen Barkin, in front of an indifferent Duke.

And see later, too, when Nicky visits his wife (Joyce Van Patten), and from her body language it's clear that, while he doesn't hit her now, he's hit her before. Or when Mikey goes home to his wife (Rose Arrick), who, during their long talk, frequently shifts her conversational gears, placating and apologizing to keep her husband's temper in check, even though she hasn't done anything to raise it. It's morning, and she has a day to get through just like everybody else; why let it begin like this if she can possibly help it? Well, she ain't seen nothin' yet, of course.

I believe Mikey and Nicky would face rough sledding were it to come out today, because it depicts two pigs, not so much without judgment, but with its judgment concealed beneath an almost shocking amount of sincere empathy. These scenes of misogyny are surrounded by a film about the humanity of these two pigs. And somehow, May doesn't sneer. She could, and she'd be justified, but she doesn't. Nowadays, you'll get bashed for seeing the humanity inside those we have every reason to despise. So thank God Mikey and Nicky was made when it was, at the only time it could be.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Tally Up My Victims: The Best Books I Read in 2018

Hello. Yes, it's been quite a while since I posted, but a lot of things have been going on in my life that unfortunately forced this blog to drop several notches on my priorities list (mainly, I realized that writing sucks). Nevertheless, I couldn't let 2018 (recently voted "The World's Best Year") wheeze out its death rattle without posting my annual list of the best books I read since last January. Like last year, I read several more books than was my average up until 2017, though in this regard 2018 pales next to 2017. Still, I read a bunch, so, because I have so little to brag about, I am again going to list everything I read.

Two things about that list. Number one is, it's incomplete! The literature forum where I used to keep my list went tits up (RIP Palimpsest) sometime in 2018, sort of out of the blue, so I had to reconstruct the list I'd made up to that point as best I could. I did a pretty good job, but I know the list below is short at least one title. Does this small detail bother me? Yes, intensely, but I can't do shit about it now.

The second thing is, you'll see lots of books on there that are considered "classics" or "very good" or were written by authors of whom many people think "very highly," and yet not all of those books made it to my Best Of list. There are two possible reasons for this: one is that I enjoyed the book, but not as much as those which did make the list; another is that the book is actually trash. I am not going to tell you which it is for any of the books you're wondering about, so don't bother asking.

I guess that's it. Let's start this stupid thing. Oh, also, as ever, the Best Ofs are unranked, until you get to the last three, which are pretty solidly the best three I read in 2018. Okay:


You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas - A slim, weird little crime novel from the late 1930s, this one's about cults, movies, California, and how impossibly difficult it is to kill another person. This book (written by an Englishman named Eric Knight, using a pseudonym) ultimately has a haunting, nearly surreal, and in any case bleakly absurd impact. One character says of California that anyone who enters it goes insane. Another says that California is a dream.


The Stay-Awake Men by Matthew M. Bartlett - Another slim volume (I read a lot of those in 2018, especially towards the end of the year), this collection of horror stories is of a more traditional (relatively speaking) vein than I'm used to from Bartlett. Most of the fiction I'd read by him prior to this revolves around a demonic radio station and its maniacal broadcasts out of Leeds, Massachusetts ("WXXT - If It Bleeds, It's Leeds"); the stories in The Stay-Awake Men, however, show men and women who are capable of finding horror anywhere. Still, Bartlett's brand of dark comedy pushed well past the edge of sanity is on full display. In "Spettrini," my favorite story in the collection, a down-on-his-luck magician named Greyson turns on the TV and watches the beginning of a late night talk show. The hosts launches into his monologue:

"Have you heard this," he asked. "Have you heard this, have you seen this, have you read this in the newspaper; did someone whisper this to you from a darkened doorway, from the hair-clogged shower drain in a condemned motel, from the tiny mouth of an anthill in a parking lot? Did the sultry but affected waitress hand you this on a grease-stained note with your check, did the leering priest mutter this to an indifferent congregation of layabouts, did the wind whisper this through the trees as you drove through the burnt remains of a forest, did a radio host intone this news from an ocean of static..."

Greyson turns off the TV here, "despite having had a desire to see the first guest, a movie star who had just lost his wife and baby daughters to the new and rampant strain of influenza."



Chicago by David Mamet - This, the playwright's first novel in eighteen years, was my most anticipated book of the year, though it must be admitted that Mamet's take on the gangsters is not unlike his take on the outdoors and rural life (The Village) and Judaism and racism (The Old Religion): that is to say, esoteric, digressive, leisurely, only occasionally violent. And the violence is never graphic, though in one crucial instance the brutality is only emphasized by the absence of detail.

Anyway, this is a revenge novel, about a Chicago reporter trying to track down and kill the man who murdered the woman he loved. Along the way, Mamet finds room for a lot of different stuff (at some point, he evidently became interested in female aviators of the era). If you like that, and you like seeing Mametspeak on the page, as opposed to hearing it spoken by an actor, which I hope we can agree are very different things, then read Chicago. If you don't like any of that, then screw off, that's your problem.

The Bell by Iris Murdoch - I'm so intimidated by Murdoch, because her erudition is beyond my own to such an extent that I'd really appreciate it if we could stop talking about it, that I often forget how purely readable, entertaining, and gripping her fiction can be. As a result, The Bell is only my third Murdoch, but it has energized and inspired me to not take too long in getting to my fourth.

The story focuses on Dora Greenfield, whose fractured marriage to an abrasive art historian named Paul she is attempting to mend by joining him at a convent in Gloucestershire, where he is studying old theological manuscripts. The convent is populated by quite an array of characters, including Nick, the sullen twin brother of Catherine, a young novitiate. These two, along with Dora and another resident of the abbey who has a troubled history with Nick, are the crux of the whole thing, and as usual (in my limited experience) with Murdoch, much that is comical, philosophical, and despairing transpires. Based on this, I plan to up my reading of Murdoch to a minimum of one book a year.


The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt - For whatever reason, I was dubious about this one -- possibly because too many people said it was great, which is maybe not the most reasonable motivation to become suspicious of something. Anyway, I finally read it. While I get the comparisons to Cormac McCarthy (it's set in Olden Times and is violent as hell), that's a bit easy. DeWitt's novel is its own thing, a funny, bloody, melancholy picaresque, whose sympathetic narrator is in fact a complete psychopath. DeWitt underplays his own climax (you might argue there are two or three of them, but he underplays them all) which is fitting for a novel of such extremes: the big moments in the novel are no bigger than anything that has come before.


Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler - What can you say? Or rather, who needs to hear me ranting and raving? Not you guys, probably. If I did start ranting, I would probably choose as my topic something along the lines of how the facts of a certain brand of historical totalitarianism would be erased if certain folks had their druthers so that very same totalitarianism could be reinvigorated with fresh eyes, and that this is why books like Darkness at Noon are so very much worth reading. On the other hand, if that was all that made Darkness at Noon worth reading, it wouldn't be on this list.

Koestler's masterpiece predates the publication of 1984 by nine years, and it feels like 1984, if the events of Orwell's novel had literally just happened. Though the ending of this story about Ruboshav, a Communist now imprisoned for treason by his own party, is inevitable, Koestler gets a lot of suspense out of, for example, ideological conversations between Rubashov and his two interrogators, Ivanov and Gletkin, and the dawning realization that of the three men, only Gletkin, the sinister, soulless true believer, is the only one who isn't hopelessly naïve. 


The End of the Road by John Barth - Speaking of philosophy, this, Barth's second novel, seems to be, in part, a condemnation of the very idea of having a philosophy of one's own. This is of course an exaggeration on my part, but everybody in The End of the Road who has a solid philosophical base from which to construct their own behavior and view of the world, is hopelessly fucked. The only one who isn't is Jacob, our hero, who faces the world with a point of view built upon terminal indecision. And that's not a philosophy, it's a psychological condition. (In this sense, The End of the Road pairs nicely with The Floating Opera, Barth's first novel.) 

This is one of those novels that depicts absolutely horrible events in an off-hand sort of way, so that in one case, something happened almost before I realized it had really happened. The effect could be one of stunned progression. Which of course is no way to live your life, but you might not have any choice.


The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton - My first book of 2018, which I'll admit I read in preparation for finally watching Martin Scorsese's 1993 film adaptation. That film turned out to adhere to what Wharton set down in 1920 with surprising fidelity, but why shouldn't it? There is an inescapable logic to the scenes and sequence of events which tell the story of the romance, in heart only, between successful lawyer Newland Archer and disgraced socialite Ellen Olenska. The logic in the storytelling exactly mirrors the logic by which the characters conduct their lives: each has had their path to success and happiness laid out with clear markers. Only Ellen deviates, and so Ellen moves through the parties and weddings in her social circle, or what was once her social circle, like a cloud of pollution. This is why you don't deviate. The Age of Innocence is about not deviating.


House of Meetings by Martin Amis - This covers ground similar to Darkness at Noon, so I needn't repeat myself on that count. Instead, I'll let Amis do it, thereby killing two birds with one stone. House of Meetings (which is about, in simplified terms, a love triangle playing out inside a Communist labor camp) was thought of as a misfire when it came out. If it's reputation has improved since then, nobody told me. But it should have, because Amis can still, and could then, write like this:

Something strange was happening the Soviet Union, after the war against fascism: fascism. By which I mean an abnormal emphasis on the folk (the Great Russians), together with an abnormal xenophobia. Pogrom was coming. So there were sensible, indeed cynical reasons for Zoya to look kindly on me. It was one thing to stage conspicuous entanglements with your fellow bohemians, and especially your fellow Jews; it was another thing to be the devoted companion of a tall and handsome war hero, with his medals and his yellow badge, denoting a serious wound. Not much fun to say, all that. But I'm telling you, my dear: this is the meaning, this is the daily and hourly import of state systems.

Grimhaven by Charles Willeford - I don't know if it's cheating, or unfair, to choose a book that exists only in manuscript form, was by some accounts never intended to be published, or even to be good (I don't buy that one) and can only be read if you schedule a date with the manuscript at the particular Florida library wherein it is housed, or if the widely shared pdf finds its way to you, but whatever, I finally read Willeford's "unpublishable" second (and last, I have to assume, had it ever been made it to bookstores) Hoke Moseley novel, and I absolutely loved it. Or something like that. There's a very specific reason why Grimhaven was considered unpublishable, and I knew about it before I started reading, but somehow being completely wrong about where in the story The Big Thing occurs gave reading the words in the full context a fresh shock. I once again marveled that this was Willeford's first response to being pressured by his agent to turn Hoke Moseley, the cop from what he intended to be a one-off novel, Miami Blues, into a series character. Talk about, to paraphrase the title of a song that Robert Altman once wrote, swimming through the ashes of the bridges you have burned. Anyway, Willeford eventually caved and wrote three more novels featuring Moseley (it's interesting, knowing Willeford's attitude about all this, to see how Moseley is used in those books), and I like them, but part of me -- hell, all of me -- wishes Grimhaven had actually made it to print. That would have been something.


The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark - Possibly Spark's most famous work next to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. We are told early in this short novel that Lise, our protagonist, will be murdered by the end. Why? This reminded me unpleasantly of Charles Beaumont's short story "Hunger." I mean this as a compliment to both.


Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn - The first of St. Aubyn's novels about Patrick Melrose, and the only one I've read so far (I meant to read them all this year, but I'm bad about that sort of thing, as Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy can attest). The most striking thing about the novel for me, and for probably most people who've read it, and about which I can't say much, is how after an especially awful thing happens, we get the point of view of the man who did it. Not as a way of making him sympathetic -- oh God no, quite the opposite, in fact (though this section does contain one of the darkest jokes I've ever read, having to do with the character's self-awareness, in which he is not entirely lacking) -- but just as a way of seeing through those eyes. It's not that this has never been done, but I don't believe it's ever been done like that.


Nickel Mountain by John Gardner - This is the first novel by John Gardner, an erstwhile fascination of mine, since college, and I was delighted to discover that I can ditch the "erstwhile" from this sentence and just be straight-up fascinated by him again. It tells the strange (naturally) story of a middle-aged man, Henry Soames, owner of a truckstop diner in upstate New York, who eats too much and has a bad heart (perhaps a too-easy symbolic conflict with the fact that Henry is good-hearted), who one day decides to hire a sixteen-year-old girl, Callie Wells. Then, when she gets pregnant and the father scoots, he marries her. Despite that premise, Nickel Mountain is decidedly un-skeavy, and none of the directions it goes could have been predicted at the start of the novel (if you've read Gardner before, though, it's familiar in its own way). It includes religious fanatics (who Gardner does not dismiss with a sneer), odd deaths, dangerous births, furious arguments about God, and one of the most curious, I don't know what you'd call it...implications of serial murder I've encountered. I'm still not sure what to make of that bit, but I'm glad to have that mystery in my head.


The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge - Some years back, I made the decision two read at least one novel a year by both Beryl Bainbridge and Barbara Comyns. I've stuck to it, and since doing so Barbara Comyns has made this "Best Of" list every year, while Bainbridge, whose books I've largely enjoyed, has only achieved this, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a writer, two or three times. Well, this year things are all topsy-turvy! The Comyns novel I read, The House of Dolls, her last one, is perfectly enjoyable, but is also that most putrid of things: a minor work. Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys, on the other hand, is far and away the best of her novels I've read since The Bottle Factory Outing (surely her masterpiece). It's a historical novel about Robert Scott's catastrophic Arctic expedition, from 1910 to 1913, a topic whose details most writers would use to build a monstrous book from, but which Bainbridge expertly sketches and populates with a handful of distinct main characters who take turns narrating. It may go without saying that the last chapter, told from the point of view of a man who, historical records show, did not survive the ordeal, is the most affecting, but it is, and it allows Bainbridge to close out her novel -- a novel that, like so many of hers, has an emotional reserve underpinning the whole thing -- with her own brand of heartbreak. Which is its own thing, to be sure, but genuine.


A House and its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett - I hope you'll pardon me if it begins to look like I'm running out of steam, but the main thing I want to say about this novel, my first by Compton-Burnett, about a family that loses its matriarch and attempts to welcome a new one, is that the only novel I can think of that rivals it for sheer ice-bloodedness is Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Waugh still takes the prize, but even to be in that race with him is something else.


Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Enard - Like Bainbridge, Enard takes a historical subject that other writers would use to fill up 600 pages, and boils it down to its essence, leaving about 140 pages to deal with Michelangelo's frustrations with the Vatican's tight purse, his rivalry with Da Vinci, his trip to Constantinople to design a bridge for the Sultan, ambiguous sexuality, unrequited love, and political intrigue. Told in a series of vignettes, Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants is completely hypnotic, slender yet somehow not sparse, poetic, perfectly judged and balanced.

Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim - In his introduction to the 2014 reprint edition of this 1993 novel, Jeffrey Eugenides says at one point that, despite everything we come to know about Pete Robinson, and despite everything we suspect might be true about him almost from the very beginning, despite it all, "we like Pete." Well, speak for yourself, Eugenides, because I never did. Throughout Donald Antrim's absurdist "the dystopia is now" satire, Pete shows himself to be at best temporarily thoughtful of others, and then only if he can pat himself on the back about it later (or while he's doing it), and at worst...well, I'll let you get to that part on your own.

Of course, that description might suggest that Antrim writes Robinson as some kind of shrill, obvious caricature, but he doesn't at all. Despite the wildly implausible events -- missiles fired by the town mayor, that same mayor being drawn and quartered, and that's just in the first ten pages -- Antrim keeps the tone matter-of-fact. Pete my find himself frustrated by many of the things that happen in the course of the novel, but it's not like there aren't people all over the country going through the same thing.


The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones - Among all the documentary films I've seen, I tend to favor the ones that seem to be about everything in life, all at once, without ever appearing to try: Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven, the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin's Gimme Shelter, Kristen Johnson's Cameraperson. I found this same feeling of cathartic, mysterious mind-expansion in the title story of Thom Jones's first collection of short stories. "The Pugilist at Rest" is at once a graphic war story, a reflection on art, and knowledge, and desperate push back against encroaching mental illness. The rest of the book is also terrific ("I Want to Live!" was chosen by John Updike as one of the best American short stories of the 20th century), but that title story is a goddamn barn-burner. 


Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift - An English estate is empty, save for two people: the male heir to the family that owns the place, and a female maidservant. The two have just had sex, and are very much in love. They're going to part separately, and after he goes, she wanders around the house, naked, thinking about the family and her life and the man she loves. This man, we're told early on, is right now on his way to die in a car accident. The saddest and most beautiful novel I read this year, expertly and seamlessly built by Swift.


Angel by Elizabeth Taylor - I've been hearing forever how great Elizabeth Taylor is, and when I finally read this one -- the novel of hers most often recommended to me -- I realized it was one of those rare instances where everyone was telling the truth. Angel tells the story of Angelica Deverell, a literary prodigy whose fiction gains her fame and wealth, but somehow also helps (or conspires with wealth and fame) to keep her immature, and unreasonable, and frustrated, throughout her life, a state that keeps her forever at war with her aunt, and drags Angel's best friend down with her. 

I was most taken with the relationship between Angel and her publisher, a kind man, and serious about literature, but who takes a chance on Angel when she's a teenager, despite the fact that many object to the fantastical, unintentionally absurd nature of her fiction. The relationship persists throughout their lives, despite how difficult it becomes even to know Angel, let alone publish her. But it's a unique friendship, and a touching one, even if you always want to throw your drink in Angel's face, and a fascinating look at a particular facet of the literary world.

2666 by Roberto Bolano - Talk about novels that seem to be about everything. In this case, I don't think "seem" ever enters into it. It's about Mexico, it's about South America, it's about America, it's about Europe, it's about World War II, racism, drugs, terminal illness, journalism, women, men, abuse, science fiction, Communism (its dream and its failure), poverty, literature, literary criticism, and serial murder. To name just a few things. An awe-inspiring thing, the kind of book whose very conception is baffling to contemplate. It would be a lie to say that "everything comes together" by the end (split into five sections, 2666 has been published both as one volume and as five, with the assurance that each of the five short individual books can be read on their own; I question that assertion), but at the end two important threads do join together. Not in a way that is clarifying, necessarily, but in a way that is right, that had to be, and that is frightening in ways it is difficult to describe.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson - For a long time, I figured it went without saying that 2666 would top this list. And it's not a matter of reading this, Denis Johnson's final book, after reading 2666 -- I read The Largesse of the Sea Maiden months before. But just recently, and maybe for sentimental reasons more than anything else, I realized that, regardless of the amount of time and mental energy expended (and reimbursed) in the reading of 2666, this story collection is the reading experience I value most from this past year. Johnson wrote two story collections (his other, Jesus' Son from 1992, is a classic), and the fact that this was a long-awaited return to the form is bittersweet, coming, as it did, posthumously. The jack copy says that the book was completed "shortly before his death," which leads me to wonder if Johnson knew his time was up as he was writing. Or it would do, if the stories themselves didn't make it obvious. Johnson ends "Triumph Over the Grave," my favorite of the five long stories collected here, this way:

Then after four or five years Mrs. Exroy and I stopped bumping into each other, because she died too. Oh -- and just a few weeks ago in Marin County my friend Nan, Robert's widow -- if you recall my shocking phone call with Nan at the very top of this account -- took sick and passed away. It doesn't matter. The world keeps turning. It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.

I don't know what more there is to say, beyond the fact that I will never forget that, and I will always imagine Johnson writing it, and thinking about it, and the powerful sadness he brought to me almost a year after his death, but a good sadness, a sadness of the sort that says we're all in this together.


The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton
The Big Gold Dream
by Chester Himes
A Case Of Rape
by Chester Himes
Cry Revenge
by Donald Goines
Darkness At Noon
by Arthur Koestler
Jane: A Murder
by Maggie Nelson
The Red Parts: Autobiography Of A Trial
by Maggie Nelson
Shuttlecock
by Graham Swift
Mothering Sunday
by Graham Swift
Chicago
by David Mamet
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
by Denis Johnson
You Were Never Really Here
by Jonathan Ames
The Vegetarian
by Han Kang
Lady Chatterley's Lover
by D.H. Lawrence
A Brutal Chill In August
by Alan M. Clark
His Last Bow
by Arthur Conan Doyle
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up
by Richard Hallas
Letters to a Young Poet
by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Book of Hours
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Big Bad Love
by Larry Brown
I'm Thinking of Ending Things
by Iain Reid
The Ritual
by Adam Nevill
Beast in View
by Margaret Millar
The End of the Road
by John Barth
The Driver's Seat
by Muriel Spark
Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife
by William H. Gass
Paingod and Other Delusions
by Harlan Ellison
No Doors, No Windows
by Harlan Ellison
Flashfire
by Donald E. Westlake
A Frolic of His Own
by William Gaddis
Mrs. Caliban
by Rachel Ingalls
Spurious
by Lars Iyer
The Dark Dark
by Samantha Hunt
Border Districts
by Gerald Murnane
And Be a Villain
by Rex Stout
The Penitent
by David Mamet
Riding The Rap
by Elmore Leonard
A House and Its Head
by Ivy Compton-Burnett
The Reaping
by Bernard Taylor
Out Of The Woods
by Chris Offutt
The Devil All The Time
by Donald Ray Pollock
The Woods
by David Mamet
Hell And Ohio
by Chris Holbrook
Give Us A Kiss
by Daniel Woodrell
The Rich Pay Late
by Simon Raven
Grimhaven
by Charles Willeford
Little Tales Of Misogyny
by Patricia Highsmith
More Tales Of The Callamo Mountains
by Larry Blamire
The Counterlife
by Philip Roth
Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child
by S. Craig Zahler
Black Helicopters
by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Toplin
by Michael McDowell
The Little Disturbances Of Man
by Grace Paley
Writers
by Barry Gifford
Angel
by Elizabeth Taylor
Wyoming
by Barry Gifford
Rhode Island Red
by Charlotte Carter
Never Mind
by Edward St. Aubyn
Faustus
by David Mamet
How I Conquered Your Planet
by John Swartzwelder
Home Land
by Sam Lipsyte
Sharp Objects
by Gillian Flynn
The House Of Dolls
by Barbara Comyns
The Summer Of Katya
by Trevanian
Understudy For Death
by Charles Willeford
House Of Meetings
by Martin Amis
Meeting Evil
by Thomas Berger
Gateways To Abomination
by Matthew M. Bartlett
The Outsider
by Stephen King
The Pugilist At Rest by Thom Jones
Seduction Of The Innocent
by Max Allan Collins
When The Emperor Was Divine
by Julie Otsuka
The Bell
by Iris Murdoch
A Time Of Changes
by Robert Silverberg
Hold The Dark
by William Giraldi
The Bellarosa Connection
by Saul Bellow
A Theft
by Saul Bellow
The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick DeWitt
Of Thimble And Threat
by Alan M. Clark
Daddy Cool
by Donald Goines
The Boke Of The Divill
by Reggie Oliver
Curios
by Richard March
Hullo Russia, Goodbye England
by Derek Robinson
Wildlife
by Richard Ford
2666
by Roberto Bolano
Sabrina
by Nick Drnaso
The Birthday Boys
by Beryl Bainbridge
We Sold Our Souls
by Grady Hendrix
The Ballad Of Peckham Rye
by Muriel Spark
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers
by Max Porter
Fatale
by Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Stay-Awake Men
by Matthew M. Bartlett
Elect Mr. Robinson For A Better World
by Donald Antrim
Tell Them Of Battles, Kings & Elephants
by Mathias Enard
Whitstable
by Stephen Volk
The Guards
by Ken Bruen
Nickel Mountain
by John Gardner
Nothing But The Night
by John Williams
The House On Mango Street
by Sandra Cisneros

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Not Quite Big Enough



When I was much younger, in some film book or another that one or another member of my family had brought into the house, I saw a still image from Alfred Hitchcock's now little-known 1949 picture Under Capricorn. That image must count now as a pretty massive spoiler, but at the time it only struck me as evidence that this was a film I, always trying to stoke and strengthen my morbid attitude and aesthetic (such as it was then; at least I have better taste now), had to see ASAP. I didn't realize that Under Capricorn was then one of the harder Hitchcock films to get one's hands on, certainly from that period, after he'd become a kind of superstar director. It would be literally decades before I'd finally be able to lay eyes on it (well, it is, or was, on YouTube, but that was a last resort option, one I happily didn't have to take). But I never forgot the image from that book, or the title, which itself had, to me anyway, a kind of sinister tone to it.

The other thing I couldn't have known those many years ago is that had I been able to see Under Capricorn then, I would have hated it. The film, now out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, is a visually and emotionally colorful period melodrama that takes a pretty sharp turn into the Gothic in the final stretch. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock insists, and Truffaut agrees, that this section is one of the film's great weaknesses (it was a financial disaster, which is a big reason why it's been hard to come by for so long), but I must say, I rather liked it. This stands to reason, I guess, since it's from here that the image burned into my head in childhood comes; and on my list of things I like in movies, this part also ticks a box or two. And Hitchcock did know how to handle such material.

For a decent amount of its runtime, the story is not obviously leading us in this direction. It's about a cocky young Englishman named Charles (Michael Wilding) who travels to Australia to make his fortune. There he meets, Sam (Joseph Cotten) an Irishman who came to Australia as a convicted murderer but has since paid his debt to society and established himself as a successful landowner. Charles and Sam enter into a business partnership, and a budding friendship, which is strengthened when it turns out that Charles knew Sam's wife Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) when they were younger. But Henrietta is now a moody alcoholic, Sam's own criminal history casts a pall even over his success, and Charles and Henrietta begin to become closer than seems wise.

It all boils slowly, though. Along the way, Under Capricorn distinguishes itself by its bright pastel colors and very sharp camerawork. This was Hitchcock's second Technicolor film, the first being Rope, which directly preceded it. As in that earlier movie, in Under Capricorn Hitchcock messes around with long takes. Rope is a personal favorite of mine, but his use of the long takes ranges from elegant while the camera drifts through the apartment in which that film is set, to clumsy and blunt as the lens pushes into the back of an actor so Hitchcock can cut out of the shot. But Under Capricorn is not laboring under the same conceit as Rope -- Hitchcock isn't trying to make you believe it's all one long take. This frees him up to experiment with the long take, to figure out what it can bring out in terms of style and emotion, and how it can establish an environment. For the latter, look at the shot of Wilding walking down a long hall and through several rooms to get to the office of the governor (his cousin). It's not that long in terms of time, but in any other film in 1949 it would have either involved several cuts, or it wouldn't have bothered with showing him get there at all. Here, though, we understand the kind of building Charles is in, and the kind of powerful connections he has, and how blithely he floats through it all. The best long take is later, at a dinner party thrown by Sam, which packs in so much about the society in which Under Capricorn is set, and runs through so many tones that it transitions the whole film from the somewhat light-hearted air it began with into the more somber, sinister cloud that will follow it the rest of the way.

As you'd imagine, Joseph Cotten is very good, and charming in that odd, Joseph Cotteny way, as is Margaret Leighton as Milly, Sam's housekeeper. Ingrid Bergman, on the other hand, is pretty tremendous -- she's tragic and pathetic, brave, tormented, hopeful, passionate. She does a lot in this role, for a film now mostly forgotten. Less strong for me is Wilding, who seems to me to be punching above his weight. Bergman has a big, show-stopping monologue, the end of which Wilding blunders onto like a big, oblivious dog. But he's rather strong at the end, especially in that bit of the movie that Hitchcock and Truffaut like the least. The very end, which they agree is too pat, I actually found quite moving. And you know what? I'm right. I guess that's why they're two of the greatest film artists who ever lived, and I have my own blog!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

She Needed to Feed You

[BEWARE: I PRETTY MUCH SPOIL EVERYTHING HERE]

I’m sure it’s happened dozens if not hundreds of times over the course of my life, but in these modern times which we all so lament having to live through, the first example I can remember of a horror film being advertised as – and even being critically blurbed as such – “the most frightening movie ever made” or “you will ever see” is, of all the things, the 2013 remake of The Evil Dead. “If you must aspire to be the next Alexandre Aja,” I believe our collective reaction to that one went, “please leave us out of it.” Just two years later, The Witch rode a similar wave of rhetoric, and while no film can live up to this sort of thing, that film was plenty all right by me. Not everyone agreed, though, and now look at us. Unfortunately, no one learns a damn thing in this world, and now Hereditary, the debut feature from writer/director Ari Aster has been pushed for months as the scariest movie you will see this year – a little bit more reasonable this time around – or, I saw one guy say, maybe ever. So much for reason.
That Hereditary can’t match the effusiveness of its marketing actually doesn’t have anything whatever to do with the film itself. These are just studio gimmicks – aided by “festival brain,” a condition which I’m pretty sure afflicts some critics – used to lure people into a movie that they’re probably not going to like. I think The Witch is a no-foolin’ great movie, but I’m not surprised that after seeing it many people left the theater frustrated. I suspect a similar fate will be met by Hereditary, but then again, who knows? This damn movie is such a kook-ball soup of the idiosyncratic and the obligatory, the striking and the enervating, that its fate could be just about anything.
The film begins with the funeral of Ellen Leigh. She was the mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette), whose eulogy for her mother is perhaps a bit ambivalent. As are the emotions of Annie's husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff). Reacting with a sadness that might be deemed more typical of the situation is the daughter of the family, young Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a withdrawn girl, who is older than she looks (at one point it's said she's thirteen, but she looks like she's maybe eight), and possessed of many strange habits and interests, including randomly clucking her tongue and creating odd, "outsider art"-like toys. Charlie worries what will happen to her when her mom dies, the fact of mortality having now been driven home for her, not least because she was her grandmother's favorite, and Annie says her dad and brother will take care of her. This seems like cold comfort to Charlie. Added to her bond with her grandmother is her apparent affinity to Annie, whose diorama-like artwork (including a massive one resembling her house and depicting her family and maybe her entire life in miniature, and which she is working on throughout the film) resembles in their obsessiveness Charlie's own drawings and hand-made toys. Meanwhile, apparently masking a deeper grief than she lets on, Annie begins attending grief counseling (under the guise of going to the movies by herself), where she lays out the various horrible tragedies of her mom's life, and how the mother that was left afterwards affected her, Annie. They're quite something, these tragedies, the theme shared by all being mental illness.
So one night, Peter, the son, gets invited to a party. Annie says to Peter, take Charlie. Charlie, who on this day is fresh from apparently seeing her grandmother's ghost surrounded by flames in the woods behind their house, doesn't want to go, but Annie, who has a tendency to be both brusque and slightly manic, insists. For some reason, Peter doesn't find this demand to be all that outrageous, though he also doesn't want to drag his sister along. But he does, and at this Wild Teen Party, Charlie eats a piece of cake that has nuts in it, and she's allergic so her throat starts to close up. Peter grabs her, throws her in the car, and speeds to the hospital. However, on the way, Charlie, just a kid and in a panic, and so unclear about what will and what won't help her breathe again, opens a car window to stick her head out for some fresh air. You know, like dogs do. Speaking of dogs, there's a dead one -- or some sort of dead animal anyway -- in the middle of the road, and Peter, himself in a panic, and speeding, swerves to avoid it. In doing so, he goes off the road, and there's a telephone pole, or anyway some sort of pole, and Charlie, hanging out the window, slams into it, and her head is ripped from her body. In screenwriting guides, this sort of thing is often referred to as "the end of Act One."
We're off to the races now, obviously, and Hereditary begins, or is about to begin to be, a "proper" horror film. This process takes a while, which is no knock on the film. By all means, take your time. It is also from this point on that all the best and the worst of the film occurs. There are tonal problems of which I do not quite know what to make. Immediately following the death of her daughter, Annie is shown weeping furiously in her bedroom. The film then cuts to a shot of the family at Charlie's graveside, with Annie still weeping just as furiously. This sound does not cut between shots, but connects the two. There's obviously a significant time lapse between the two shots, but the weeping is all one sound, as though Annie had been weeping non-stop. Which under the circumstances could be reasonably assumed, I suppose, but as an editing choice it evokes something comical. This edit is a comedy edit, not a dramatic, or melodramatic, or horror edit. It forces the audience to imagine what happened between the two shots, and the unavoidable image is one of Annie weeping like that all the time, in bed, in the shower, on the toilet. It is, in short, a joke. Did Ari Aster recognize it as such? If he did, then it is a joke, and why in the hell would he want that at this point in his movie?
Anyway, so it begins. The remaining family -- Annie, Steve, and Peter -- seem able to more or less get on with their day-to-day business better than I would have expected under circumstances that are not merely terrible but also grotesque, in a lot of different ways (a shot of Charlie's ant-infested decapitated head is included by Aster to prove, I suppose, that he is not fucking around), but the audience doesn't quite know how much time has passed between Charlie's funeral and the next turn of the plot, and I'm not sure how much I should dwell on my belief that these characters aren't grieving the way I think they should. Of more immediate importance is Annie's encounter with Joanie (Ann Dowd) in the parking lot outside the building where Annie goes for grief counseling. The two commiserate, and Joanie offers to be there for Annie whenever she might need a sympathetic ear. More family history is revealed (Annie once almost burned herself and her children alive while sleepwalking; Annie's mother really fucked with her head), until Joanie reveals she's now a psychic who can help Annie contact her dead daughter. She proves this at her own home by contacting her dead grandson. Here, Toni Collette is rather brilliant. In most horror movies, when a character is faced with incontrovertible evidence that the supernatural is real, the actor reacts, or is made to react by the director, in a way that is at best efficient: first indicate shock (or, if time is an issue, surprise), then run! Collette, and Aster, on the other hand, have the imagination to create an authentic response to an inauthentic situation. It's hard to describe what Collette does without simply running through a list of her body movements and facial expressions (she does a lot with just her breathing), but think of all she has to get across: not merely denial, but wholly unconvincing denial, terror, a desperate hope that this is real, total shock, and a mania borne from having just come untethered from the world she knew. Collette has to do all of these things at the same time.
It's a marvelous scene, and Collette is marvelous not only in that scene, but throughout the film. But then Ari Aster starts going all screwy again. Annie, of course, wants to try this with Charlie. To do so, Joanie tells her, she'll need the whole family together, as well as something that was important to Charlie. Annie chooses Charlie's sketchbook, in which she drew crude, not altogether flattering pictures of everyone she met. Annie gets an angry, skeptical Steve and a nervous Peter into the dining room and starts the séance, which begins working. Now, when Annie was going through this with Joanie and her grandson, at one point Annie slowly ducked her head under the table to see if Joanie was up to any shenanigans that would help explain the inexplicable phenomena she was seeing. Aster's camera panned down with Annie's lowering head, and sees when she does that there is nothing going on under the table. When Annie is in control of the séance in her own home, Gabriel Byrne's Steve also ducks down to look under the table. This is understandable. What is less understandable to me is Aster's decision to once again follow a head down to discover nothing under a table. If Steve isn't going to see anything that Annie didn't, why move the camera? It's enough to see him duck out of frame. The choice Aster made feels like the callback to a joke, except there's no joke. Does Aster expect the audience to think that Joanie is on the level, but Annie is pulling a fast one, and the twist is she isn't? 
What doesn't help any of this is the fact that this shot of Steve ducking under a table has to count as one of Gabriel Byrne's big moments. As good as Collette is, you have to almost think in creating Annie, Aster ran out of things to write and had none left for Steve. He just plods along, cooking dinner and getting frustrated that his wife is acting like the decapitation of their daughter was almost like a personal insult or something. I think Steve is supposed to be the one saddest character in the film, because he's the most oblivious, he's the one who sees the least, and therefore understands even less than everyone else how completely his family is being destroyed. The problem is, Aster didn't write any scenes for him, so I'm left trying to guess what he must have wanted.
In fact, in terms of characters that matter, Steve has to come last. After Annie, Peter is really where it's at. As Peter, Alex Wolff is quite good. He goes through a lot in the film, giving a performance that at times seems like it must have been almost as exhausting as Collette's, and by the end Peter is as central to the plot and overall impact of the film as Annie. Not only is the history between mother and son fraught with near-violence, paranoia, and fear (Peter does not believe, says Annie, that she was merely sleepwalking the night she nearly burned them all alive), but it will come to pass that all these supernatural goings-on are as much about and for him as anyone. Which, as always, brings up more problems. So, what's going on is this: Annie's mom Ellen was a Satanist. Annie learns this by noticing that Joanie's apartment's welcome mat looks like the kind of welcome mat her mom used to knit. So after going "hey wait a second," she runs home and starts going through all the boxes of her late mom's stuff. There she finds suspiciously familiar welcome mats, photo albums featuring Ellen and Joanie smiling together at parties, and also huge number of books on the occult and Satanism. "I forgot all about these," Annie never says, but I imagine she must have thought at some point. In one of these books, a sentence about a Hell King or something craving a young male body is underlined ("I'd better underline this because it is very important," Ellen surely thought at the time). This all means that Joanie is no good at all, and the séance ritual she taught Annie is in fact rather more malignant than advertised. If the spirit Annie believed was Charlie is in fact Charlie (and there's evidence that it is), then Charlie's spirit has been corrupted, or maybe always was corrupt. In any case, now it's in Annie, and the sketchbook used to connect to Charlie now cannot be destroyed without destroying Annie. And Annie wants to hurt Peter, except she doesn't.
The last twenty minutes or so are pure horror. The slow-burning fuse has reached the dynamite, and Aster pours every horror idea he has or has borrowed into this stretch of the film. As with everything else in Hereditary, the good pulls the bad along by its hair. One the one hand, there is an image in this section of the movie that is sure to become famous, so effectively unsettling is it. Of course, the image as an image is not innovative. What makes it work is that Aster doesn't demand that you notice it, by which I mean, he doesn't hammer it with music. It's not accompanied by a sting of violins, or any other sound. You'll see it when you find it (and some will of course see it immediately; I didn't) but you won't be told it's there. That Aster displays a light touch when it comes to the score may be the single most refreshing thing about Hereditary.
I found later images even more disturbing, including a reappearance of Charlie's severed head which is quite frankly terrifying. What would make it even more terrifying is if Aster had never told us that this whole story is more or less a twist on Rosemary's Baby (making it, among other things, an even longer con than it already was). I can't help imagining how the last five minutes of the film would have played without any context at all, meaning, the context Annie picked up from those stupid goddamn occult books. As unusual, admirably so, as Hereditary sometimes is, those dumb fucking occult books are no different from the awful scene that gets reproduced in every rinky-dink wisp of a horror movie that comes out in March and October and includes at some point a medicine cabinet being closed to suddenly reveal a grinning wet Victorian in the mirror, which then makes double its modest budget, and then flits up above our heads and crumbles like ash as though it never had been -- that scene, as I say, where Jamey Sheridan or Stephen Tobolowsky or William Fichtner pop up as folklorists and tell the hero in their booklined office or over Skype "That sounds like you're being haunted by the Bothinang, a demon known to haunt Midlothian -- he needs to eat your wife to grow powerful enough to excrete terror" which we all hate but which we just sort of accept in movies whose titles are synonyms for "bad." Hereditary is supposed to be above that sort of thing. I thought it was, anyway, and was just a little bit stunned that it wasn't. The phrase "how could you" may have crossed my mind.
None of which is to say the film isn't any good. It's just that, to quote my friend John Self, it's not many good. And since leaving the theater, I've wondered about it, and thought about what the audience is meant to think about the plot at the end of it all. I thought about the party that Peter is forced by Annie to take Charlie to. Why, I thought, would any parent think it's a good idea for her thirteen year-old daughter to accompany her seventeen year-old brother to such a thing? And then I thought oh, well, I guess this was all fated to happen. Because Annie is her mom's daughter, she's still under Ellen's control to some degree, though she's completely unaware of it. So Charlie had to go to the party so she could die (in fairness, probably from eating the peanuts, not the way it actually happens) so that what happens at the end can happen. But if that's the case, and the powers at work can manipulate entire lives to head in the directions they, the powers, choose, and end when they need them to end, then why even fucking bother? Why all this mousetrap shit? Just pick a day, shove everybody in a room, drop a brick on those that you need bricks to be dropped on, turn whatever spirits you need to be evil into evil spirits, shove them where you need them, and clock the fuck out. You could have saved me forty minutes, at least.

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