Friday, December 30, 2011

Best Books of 2011, Which Were Read By Me

Oh, hello. I haven't been around much lately, and for that I apologize. It is my hope -- though I will stop short of calling it a resolution -- that next year will find me in higher spirits and in the throes of a mighty creativity, which will exalt this blog into the cosmos, in the sense that I will write more and hopefully some of it will be pretty good. Right now, though, that's all beside the point. The one post that has pulled me away from my slouching inactivity is my annual list of the best books that I read in 2011. Please note the distinction: these are not necessarily the best books published in 2011, but rather the best books that I read. I don't read much new fiction in a given year, because I mean Ready Player One?? Like I don't get enough '80s nostalgia dogshit on a daily basis that now I have to go read a whole book about it? Also, to the best of my knowledge, Ready Player One is the only book to come out this year, so I was sort of handcuffed. But, as the saying goes, anyway. Enough of that. On to the list! Which, once again, is in no particular order until you get maybe into the top three or so. Everything prior to that is viewed by me on a more or less equal plane of quality. Roughly. Mainly, I don't want to do the work of ranking too much of this, because I think that's boring, to do, if not to read. But I'd rather not be bored than be bored, so there it is. Regardless, you can safely regard the book in my #1 spot as my favorite book of the year. The Sour Lemon Score by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) - It was between this and The Black Ice Score, a slightly curious entry into Westlake's (writing as Stark) series of Parker novels. Black Ice has one of the iciest bits of violence Westlake ever wrote, and the time spent on it, and what it reveals about those who perpetrate the violence, is somehow all the more effective as Parker is nowhere to be seen at the time, and the killers are one-offs, present in that book, and that book only. But The Sour Lemon Score almost has that tone throughout. Sour Lemon is almost absurdist, as it finds Parker driving up and down the Eastern seaboard again and again, tracking one-time accomplice, turned violent betrayer, George Uhl, as well as the money Uhl stole from Parker (who stole it himself, of course, but whatever). Parker has been nastier in other novels, and there are mildly worrying signs of a softening to the character (I'm told the next four books in the series, starting with Deadly Edge, return to some awfully dark territory), but The Sour Lemon Score remains entirely satisfying, with some beautiful sketchwork of the secondary characters, not just Uhl -- who's an awful, awful man -- but Matt Rosenstein, who, at least as far as I've read, must be the most evil man in the series. The chapter devoted to him and his psychology is a masterpiece, and the novel ends with a great stinger of a last line. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells - – I wrote about this book in October for my “The Kind of Face You Slash” series, and I think I’ll let that stand as is. But I have to admit, and with some amount of chagrin, how surprised I was by the richness of this slender little novel. What I wanted was animal men wrecking shit, and I got that, but I was concerned about Wells’s tendency towards loony-bird social philosophy. That’s there, too, except not so loony-bird. The whole thing is pretty brilliant. Gilligan's Wake by Tom Carson - This is a book you have to read to understand. This probably goes without saying, because so is Hop on Pop, but to describe Gilligan's Wake in flat terms is to do it an injustice. The idea is, basically, the history of the second half of the 20th century, starting at about World War II, as told through the eyes of characters from Gilligan's Island. I know, but wait. The amazing thing about the book is that Carson can place the Skipper, John F. Kennedy, and McHale from McHale's Navy in the same scene -- all of them being PT boat captains during the war -- and make you say "Sure, why not?" This integration of the historical and the very lowest of our modern culture is done with very few winks. It's a very funny book (and occasionally very disturbing: the chapter about the Professor is a grotesque, pansexual -- which doesn't even cover it -- paranoid nightmare), but it's not mocking. Or maybe it's more accurate to say there's no snark. Carson can throw in anything, from Sinatra to Bettie Page to Roy Cohn to Daisy Buchanan to Un Chien Andalou to pornography to Mary-Ann having an affair with Jean-Luc Godard, and somehow make it all play. This is the sort of novel that gets called "rollicking," and for good reason, but the tenderness is almost alarming. Your heart goes out to Lovie. How is that even possible? Ask Tom Carson, because I don't know. Now's where I have to offer up the whole "in the interest of full disclosure" deal. I know, and am friends with, Tom Carson. I did consider leaving Gilligan's Wake off this list because of that. But I'm not getting paid for this, and so I believe that all I'm required to do in cases like this is acknowledge the fact. Otherwise, I can praise whatever I want to praise, as long as I do so sincerely. I am being very sincere. The Cook by Harry Kressing - This is another one I wrote about this past October, and I think there's very little I can add to that. Suffice it to say, The Cook, possibly the only novel ever written by "Harry Kressing", depending on who that name is a pseudonym for, was the great find of this year's "The Kind of Face You Slash" posts. Weird, precise, disturbing, funny, and totally original, it's a novel you have to hunt for, as prices for used copies can run pretty steep. Some publisher who specializes in these kinds of forgotten classics, like Europa or NYRB, should jump all over this. It's a great book. The Black Mass of Brother Springer by Charles Willeford - This early Willeford novel is, like so many of his books, not a crime novel, until it is. Sam Springer is, when we meet him, a writer, a published novelist, who fails to capitalize on that minor success. Since writing, in and of itself, means nothing to him, he takes whatever money-making scheme sounds good to him, such as that of a preacher of a black Southern church. And then things sort of spiral out of control, because when it comes to morality, Springer just doesn't seem to get it. The novel could be considered comic in a general sense, but you get to a point where Springer's disinterest in the wellfare of others becomes horrifying. The fact that the full consequences of some of his actions are never known cements the feeling that you are completely in Springer's head. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki - Yet a third novel that I did, in fact, write about earlier in the year, in this case in conjunction with the Criterion DVD release of Kon Ichikawa's film adaptation. A quietly devastating portrait of a family being dragged slowly away from their roots in Japanese tradition. Sam the Cat and Other Stories by Matthew Klam - Klam's collection of short fiction made a bit of a splash back in 2000; curiously, and unfortunately, he's published no books since. A short story here and there, but no collections, and this is a real shame. Sam the Cat is everything that contemporary American fiction is often claimed to be, but rarely is, which is funny, honest, painful, and, within the realm of actual, day-to-day life, imaginative. The title story is a hilarious first-person account of a guy who is stopped dead by the fact that he mistakes an effeminate man for an attractive woman. His fumbling, bizarre attempts to make contact with this man are so awkward that you sort of curl up into yourself -- the suspense of the impending humor is an interesting effect, I think, and hard to pull off on the page, but Klam does it over and over. Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath - Looked at broadly, Patrick McGrath's novels could be seen as a bit repetitive -- they pretty much all focus on a man or woman, a first person narrator, who tells a story about other people, family or friends or associates, often soaked in some sort of Gothic, but somehow still reined in, sleaze. Sex, murder, and the like. And the narrator, you come to learn, is not to be trusted. But McGrath does this so well so often that to complain about this will only get you a hearty "Oh why don't you just shut up" from yours truly. I haven't read Martha Peake, generally considered his weakest novel, and for my money Trauma, his most recent effort, is his one major stumble. But at his best, Asylum, Dr. Haggard's Disease, Spider and Port Mungo are all brilliant and chilling. Port Mungo takes place, in part, in a sweaty, swampy Central American port village, a change-up from McGrath's favored towering New York City and green English countrysides, but the reader, the appalled observer, still bears witness to the horror selfishness can inflict. Here, incest, booze, and criminal neglect reduces a putatively fine artist to something less than a bug, one under glass as befits McGrath's clinical, even Cronenbergian (those two were, and are, a good match) style. Swag by Elmore Leonard - Looking back on my past “Books of the Year” posts, a practice meant to remind myself what I’m supposed to do, I noticed that Elmore Leonard has yet to make any of my lists. This despite the fact that I consider myself a fan, and I read at least a couple of his books every year. Well, bad Elmore Leonard books exist (Touch and Maximum Bob) and there’s a whole lot that’s middlin’. Now is probably not the time to break down Leonard’s strengths and weaknesses, so I’ll let it stand that I think he’s a very fine writer who nevertheless frustrates me with some regularity. Even so, every fifth book or so that I read tends to strike me as some kind of masterpiece, and this year Swag knocked me out. Most Leonard novels are relatively simple in their core idea – in this case, the story focuses on two no-goodniks who find, within each other, the inspiration to commit various robberies. One of the men turns out to be a bit reckless, while the other, Stick, sort of just wants enough money to take it easy. He’s like a laid-back, non-violent, humane Parker, in fact. But violence arrives whether he likes it or not, and the tension of Swag comes from watching Stick, the smart one, try and remove himself from this horrid tangle of deadly stupidity he’s gotten himself into. It’s a great story, filled with choice writing and Leonard’s wonderful dialogue. It’s also interesting, and hugely refreshing, in the way it upends the standard cops and robbers narrative. Since Stick’s a good guy, basically, it should follow that the cop hunting him should be a prick (this is the case only in stories where the criminal is the focus, and a nice person). That’s how these things are done! Not so here, where the cop is simply a good cop with a job to do, one that we, as the law-abiding public would wish him to do regardless of how likable Stick is. All of which leads up to probably the best ending of Leonard’s long career. A Meaningful Life by L. J. Davis- It just occurred to me that L. J. Davis's A Meaningful Life bears some similarity to the novels of Charles Willeford, in that it's a very funny novel, of a fairly despairing sort, until the point where it isn't anymore. Well, depending who you ask. There's a certain point late in the novel where the laughter catches pretty securely in one's throat, although I'm aware of one or two people who managed to force it out anyway. Regardless, this story of a man, no prize himself, caught in a hopeless marriage and stuck in a hopeless job, seeks salvation through the purchase and renovation of a Brooklyn brownstone. The place is a money pit, though, and shit hits the fan with some force. Then the fan explodes, and the blades go whizzing towards you. Brilliant, and brilliantly dark. Davis passed away earlier this year, with very little in the way of respectful notification the author of a book this good deserves. Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov - This early Nabokov novel is the first book I read in 2011. It was a good start. Nabokov's writing is beyond reproach -- he is, as far as I can tell, the greatest writer of prose in the 20th Century. In English, I mean, even though it was his second language, and he translated, or co-translated, all of his early Russian-language works, of which this is one. So I kind of think, fuck that guy. Reading Nabokov can frustrate me to the point of hopelessness, but he's too magnificent to stay angry at for long. Laughter in the Dark finds Nabokov in his gleefully black, almost genre-tinted mode. It begins: Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; he was not loved; and his life ended in disaster. A fair summation. Nabokov's writing is such that even a novel so packed with disaster can be read joyously. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - I read fewer books in 2011 than any year in recent memory. David Foster Wallace's massive, rat-crusher of a novel is the reason why. I read it for a long time, and struggled more than once with its amazingly dense digressions on science, pharmacology, tennis, Quebec, assassins, death, mental illness, and pleasure at any cost. But Wallace's fierce intelligence, wicked humor, and intense, all-encompassing humanity (considered phony by some bullshit idiot losers) make Infinite Jest a reading experience like no other. It's a testament to something-or-other, or an indicator of same, that the moment where Infinite Jest lifted up to the level of genius was the ending. The peculiar focus, by which I mean the, for lack of another word, anecdote Wallace chose to close this 1,100 page behemoth, is so bizarre and grotesque and obliquely enlightening, that I was just floored. Among many other things, ending this book this way took enormous guts and self-confidence. Plus, early on, there's this: My silent response to the expectant silence begins to affect the air of the room, the bits of dust and sportcoat-lint stirred around by the AC's vents dancing jaggedly in the slanted plane of windowlight, the air over the table like the sparkling space just above a fresh-poured seltzer. I live for that kind of writing. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell - This, my favorite novel of the year, comes from an unexpected source. A couple of years ago, I read Mitchell's novel Ghostwritten, and I sort of kind of hated it. It struck me as the work of a smug, self-satisfied kid, the kind who would think that simply telling many stories in one novel, alternating characters and globe-trotting with the settings and whatnot, is in and of itself a pretty big deal, never mind the contents of those stories, or the actual writing. I was about set to turn my back on David Mitchell, but rave reviews and curiosity led me to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and it's a goddamn barn-burner. What I love about it, or the first thing I love about it, is that it's a good old-fashioned novel, in the classical sense (well, modern classical sense). It's a historical novel that explores the weird, even counter-intuitive, relationship, mainly through trade, between Denmark and Japan in the late 18th century. Jacob de Zoet is the reader's surrogate for this almost surreal clash, and Mitchell fills him out, as well as the various other Danish and, especially, Japanese characters with such fluidity that it's quite easy to love the heroes, and absolutely fucking despise the villains. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a grand old story, one that gripped me early -- it's exciting, funny, moving, disturbing, sweet, sad, and everything else you could want. Mitchell's greatest achievement here is how his plot goes bonkers so quietly -- it reaches levels of almost pulp, even grindhouse, hysteria, without ever being hysterical. It's monumental and wonderful and everyone should read it. Anyway, happy New Year, all you sons'a bitches!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Very Brief Thoughts on Straw Dogs (2011)

Very Brief Thought #1: From what I can tell, Rod Lurie walked away from Sam Peckinpah's controversial 1971 film Straw Dogs with the sole thought that Peckinpah must have really had some pretty significant beefs with rural England, a position, while oddly specific and seemingly incongruous when coming from a very Old West-focused man from Fresno, CA, that was not unlike Lurie's own sniffing, self-righteous disdain for the American South. That's my guess anyway, because in Lurie's remake of the Peckinpah film the whole idea seems to be that the South is pretty fucked up, and has it coming. What Lurie seems to have failed to notice about the original movie is that Peckinpah's English village of Cornwall isn't overly specific -- Peckinpah includes what you might expect, such as pubs and pints and some hunting and little details of small-time life, but there is nothing there to imply that anyone is meant to think "This is what all those places are like." Lurie's South in his Straw Dogs, however, includes, yes, hunting, and also high school football and revered ex-coaches and church before football, and of course religious hypocrisy, casual racism -- in short, everything people who aren't from the South think are the only things Southerners do or have or talk about. And Lurie wants you to know he's not afraid of it. Or not anymore.

Very Brief Thought #2: James Marsden plays David Sumner in the remake, smarty-pants city boy who has moved from Liberal City with his wife, back to her backwoods hometown in search of peace and quiet. This time around, David is still an intellectual, but in keeping with our theme of Hollywood self-absorption, he's not a mathematician -- because writing about math is sort of hard -- but a Hollywood screenwriter. He's writing a film about the Battle of Stalingrad, so that's pretty intellectual I guess. This leads to some of my favorite moments, such as the idea that the battle took place in 1943, but ignorant people think it was 1944 (actually the bulk of it took place in 1942, but never mind). Even better is when David looks up at Amy (Kate Bosworth) and happily announces "I've figured out how to get Khruszchev in on the action. He's going to be Yuri's friend." Yuri, presumably, is the hero of his screenplay. So his big idea to make Khruszchev a part of his film is to just make him the main dude's friend. And how long did it take him to come up with that? Regardless, I smell Oscar.

Very Brief Thought #3: Speaking of religion, and Russia, at one point, Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), who is the main villain here, the former beau of Amy and head of the roofing crew David hires to patch up their barn, asks David if he doesn't think that God had something to do with helping the Soviets win the Battle of Stalingrad. David wonders at the absurdity of God helping an atheist country. This is about as far as Lurie's theological thought is able to take him. And following Lurie's metaphor to its logical conclusion, if David is the far-Left atheist under siege, then Southerners are Nazis.

Very Brief Thought #4: I happen to like James Marsden. If a good remake of Straw Dogs could have been made, or if Straw Dogs had never been made in 1971 and it was being made, and made well, for the first time now, I would see no reason not to cast him in the lead. Based on seeing Lurie's film, I still think that. And I used to think I liked James Woods, too, but after watching this film I'm not so sure about that anymore.

Very Brief Thought #5: It had been my assumption, going into this remake, that Rod Lurie would skitter, like a tiny kitten startled by a wind-blown leaf, away from all of the original film's highly uncomfortable elements. Peckinpah's film is one of the few films genuinely built to work on an audience's beliefs like they were a bundle of raw nerves. Any time you think you can comfortably find your spot within the film's morality, Peckinpah rubs your nose in the part of the mess you forgot you had to contend with. My confidence in Lurie's cowardice is based on having seen Lurie's 2000 film The Contender, which is one of the most snivelling, weak-willed pieces of self-righteous horseshit I've ever seen. You can practically see The Contender nervously straightening its tie as it tries to figure out how to get away from all the things it's said that it now wants to take back. It's so cowardly that it bleats on about how a vice presidential candidate's college sexual experiences are immaterial to their ability to serve in that office, and then assures the audience at the end that, don't worry, we thought all that sex stuff was pretty gross too, don't worry, she didn't really do that. If she had, she should still be vice president, but isn't it better to know she didn't? We can congratulate ourselves for not caring one way or the other, but at the same time we don't have to picture it.

So. But much to my dismay, in Straw Dogs Lurie does not entirely flee from what Peckinpah hath wrought. He flees from it enough to make a difference, but, for instance, David is still kind of an asshole. He's still in denial about his own fear. Lurie does recreate the rape scene, and if you squint hard enough it might make you uncomfortable in the same way Peckinpah's did, sort of, almost. Jeremy (Dominic Purcell), the mentally handicapped man who is ordered to stay away from young girls, does actually, accidentally, kill the young girl, which sets up the whole ending siege. One notable exception in all this is the complete rounding off of Amy. The rape makes her angry, and David still doesn't know about it, but her anger and fear doesn't lead her to want to chuck the handicapped guy out to the wolves. The furthest Lurie is willing to go by way of making Amy somewhat prickly and human is to have her ask David why he won't give Jeremy over to the rednecks. He tells her why, and she says okay. The tension between David and Amy during the siege, which in Peckinpah's film has the effect of separating David from everybody, including those he's trying to protect, is completely gone. Lurie portrays a household defending itself, instead of Peckinpah's one man scratching and clawing and clubbing everything he sees and once believed in. So in Rod Lurie's movie, a lot of the same things happen. But who gives a damn?

Very Brief Thought #6: The part where Rod Lurie actually has poor James Marsden use, and explain, the phrase "straw dogs" is one of the shit-stupidest things I've ever seen.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On History

“History is like a big bowl of soup. What kind of soup? Well, that’s where this analogy gets interesting. You see…” Abraham Lincoln spoke these words to Major Henry Rathbone on April 11, 1865, but before he could finish the thought, John Wilkes Booth shot him in the eye with a crossbow, and escaped from Ford’s Theater on a zipline, never to be heard from again. As “The Grand Inquisitor”, as Lincoln was known across the globe, lay dying, Rathbone grabbed him by the lapels and shook him furiously, shrieking “What kind of soup??? WHAT KIND OF SOUP!?!?!?” Alas, the arrow had destroyed the talking part of Lincoln’s brain, so that his last great speech was lost to the mists of Heaven.

Nevertheless, Lincoln’s point, however unfinished it may be, was well-made. What, finally, is history? Zachary Taylor once claimed “History is not unlike my wife's gingham dress, in that the dress, much like history, as often as not, though by no means continuously, and perhaps not even sporadically, now that I think about it, but essentially my point, which I do believe remains valid despite these newly considered reservations, is that my wife’s gingham dress and history share in common the fact that they both…ACK!” The light shed by Taylor’s brave words may be dim, but I think it is quite clear that both of these great men proved beyond all argument that history is very like a great many things, and it is in the comparing of history to these other things that knowledge, which is precious, is, indeed, gained.

History, as an idea, was invented by the Greeks, or the Romans, one of those. Back then, the belief had been that all the things you remembered happening, including past rulers, wars, economic upheaval, natural disasters, societal change, and scientific advancement, didn’t actually happen, and what you thought had happened were all false memories implanted by sea sprites that lived in your hair so that each soul that was born anew at the rising of the sun every morning would have things to talk about, and so that everyone could pretend to be smart, instead of waking up, looking around and saying “What the fuck???”, after which they would just wander around being scared of dogs and water and throwing sticks at each other. How they could believe this and believe the false memories is unclear, but this paradox is likely the catalyst that led one of them to realize this was all bullshit. Sea sprites living in your hair? Shouldn’t they live in the sea? Get out of here with that nonsense.

This new theory, that things actually happened and if they were big enough they added up to history, was presented one day to Caligula, who wiped his mouth, put down the horned wooden dildo, and demanded that someone bring him whatever paper was back then, and probably also a pot of infant blood, so he could begin writing down all these things, all this…history. When the senate read what Caligula had written, they all looked at each other and scratched the backs of their necks, whistled, and made “Hoo, man” sounds. Some announced that they had a thing they had to be at, while others pretended they couldn’t read. Those who remained tore up Caligula’s pages and went about writing their own history, saying Caligula would never notice because they still had to explain to him what apples were, and they were getting ready to poison him anyway. The resulting work, called the Historica Von Tabular, is the basis of all human knowledge.

It is because of the Historica Von Tabular – or HistVoT’bular, as several centuries’ worth of hip and savvy teens have dubbed it – that we have any kind of recorded history, or, for that matter, know that Archimedes had a penis “the mass of which could shatter Olympus itself.” Along the vast amplitude of time, the HistVoT’bular has been updated and expanded with such diligence that any history book you might have seen is not merely a chapter of the HistVoT’bular, extracted for study of a specific topic, but an abridgement of a chapter. The actual, physical HistVoT’bular is now so enormous that noted Norwegian historian Arnkjell Skarstadhagen, one of the few living scholars to have seen the book, said “the book could shatter Valhalla itself. It is very much like Archimedes’ penis in that way.” Currently, it is stored inside a dead volcano, on some secluded and mysterious Asian island. The vault – or bunker, really – where it’s kept is made of an indestructible metal that came from space, and might, some have speculated, actually be sentient. Regardless, Cilia Sumo, the seven-foot-tall Japanese fashion model, nuclear physicist, arms dealer, and, as of last Tuesday, possessor of all the world’s gold, has assured world leaders that the “laughing walls”, which the few contractors who built the vault and survived to tell of it, have spoken of, claiming that the sound of the “alien cackling” that vibrated from the metal slabs melted the insides of many of their colleagues, is just a lot of “silly shenanigans. What’s not so silly is world poverty.” And how can you deny that? Poverty is pretty bad.

So thank you, Cilia Sumo. Without you, the great “soup” of history might forever be nothing but scattered ingredients, hidden on the highest shelves of the universe’s kitchen, the strong fiber of its “gingham” absent from the “dress” that would, without your watchful eye, fall in tatters to the floor of Hades, around the ankles of Ignorance. And so the question remains: What kind of soup is history? The answer is: Delicious.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Beast Needs Beast

Criterion's release of Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower earlier this year caused at least two instances of confusion that I'm aware of, having to do with the belief that Pale Flower, from 1964, would be something like the crime films Seijun Suzuki would become famous for later that decade. I think the source of this confusion was the use, by Criterion, of the word "jazzy" to describe Shinoda's film. That word does not really evoke Pale Flower, apart from its score, but does put one in mind, or did me and at least one other person, of the fractured New Wave mania of films like Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. As it happens, my own affinities are closer to what Pale Flower actually turned out to be, and I think that is a pretty terrific movie, so there was no disappointment at play in my case. It did make me think a bit about Suzuki, though, who I don't have a great deal of experience with, as New Wave pop abstract genre hoo-ha is often not my thing. So much so that even Godard's Breathless, as well as even Godard's Band of Outsiders, leave me listless. Crime films once removed, I call them, and it's here that Godard and I begin to part ways. My interests would simply appear to lie elsewhere.

Or do they!? Criterion already released Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill many years ago, but tomorrow they're being re-released, remastered and with gorgeous new covers and so on. Having watched them both (rewatched, in the case of Branded to Kill) I find myself rather stunned. Less so by Tokyo Drifter, I must admit, eye-popping thought it unquestionably is, as you see:

The whole film felt to me like the adaptations of Yukio Mishima's fiction, in all their Brechtian phantasmagoria, within Paul Schrader's Mishima (genre differences aside, Tokyo Drifter must have been a huge influence on Schrader's film). The film's bright, assaultive colors contrast pretty sharply with the black and white of Branded to Kill, which came out three years later, and it's interesting, for me anyway, to consider Suzuki's relationship to the genre in these two films. In his essay for the Criterion re-release Howard Hampton ably notes how little care -- in the sense that it didn't matter to him, by which in turn I mean the absence of its mattering is what interested him, if you follow me -- Suzuki gives to Tokyo Drifter's coherence as a plot, crime or otherwise. But the story, which revolves around Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a former Yakuza who has left that world with his boss, Kurata (Ryuki Kita), to whom he is devoted, and Tetsu's legendary skills as a hitman, which trade he plies his trade in a way he believes is an honorable way to protect Kurata from encroaching Yakuza forces, brings to mind elements of the Coens' Miller's Crossing. Ultimately more bitter than that film -- or maybe clear-eyed, as another former Yakuza will eventually try to right Tetsu's naive ship -- Tokyo Drifter nevertheless almost hides that stuff, the criminal psychology, or pathology, or what have you, under some pretty crazy shit. The ending, a gunfight which takes place in a room of stark white, with maybe big yellow doughnut sculptures, is acrobatic -- that one gun-catching move of Tetsu's is pretty slick -- and bloody and more about all that whiteness and that one big spray of red than it is about much else.

"So what?" you might argue, and fair enough. I'm not here to knock Tokyo Drifter. It's just that boy, did I love Branded to Kill, a film I did not remember as being quite this excellent. And it's interesting how much more reserved it is, visually, than Tokyo Drifter, coming in 1967 when the push for most would have been to pull out even those last few remaining stops and let the style all spill out. Instead, nutty as Branded to Kill is in a lot of ways, here Suzuki seems to find more interest in the actual genre, the trappings of which, like the women and the guns (especially the women, though Hanada's (Joe Shisido) machine pistol gets a fair amount of screen time), become more central to Suzuki's visual design. And the violence, too, which is typically more brutal and fast. It's true, though, that both films share a specific theme about the empty and destructive ambition of the Yakuza. In Tokyo Drifter, that particular absurdity is expressed through the notion of honor and loyalty even being possible (it's not, Suzuki says), and in Branded to Kill the question is, if you're in the Yakuza, what does it mean to be the best at what you do?

Joe Shisido's cold-blooded and efficient hitman is ranked as the Number 3 killer. Number 2 is pretty well know, but who is Number 1? He's never been seen, he's a rumor, you can't get to him. It's worth noting her that Patrick MacGoohan's TV series The Prisoner first hit TV screens in 1967, the same year Branded to Kill was released, and while Shisido's hitman may be Number 3, not Number 6, his quest is still for Number 1, the discovery and defeat of Number 1, and Suzuki, very much not a realist (the course of Hanada's life literally depends on the weight of a butterfly) also has voices blaring at Shisido from intercoms, giving him instructions, threatening him, pointing out the foolhardiness of his quest. Put everybody in funny clothes and throw in a giant menacing bubble, and Branded to Kill could almost be set in The Village. Here, what Suzuki hid, due to lack of interest, under layers of color and even slapstick, he plays up and makes the focus: the death-wish inherent in the criminal life. The mysterious and deeply seductive Misako (Annu Mari) even says she wants to die, almost before she's said anything else, and Hanada is almost willing to help her out with that. The sociopathic elements of this relationship are not entirely unlike those at the center of the, I guess, romance in Pale Flower, actually, but the drive for success is much more feverish in Branded to Kill, and more theatrically abstract. And in Pale Flower, at least you could put your finger on the goal -- it was repulsive, but it was concrete, anyway. In Branded to Kill, you can define it, but you couldn't say what achieving it would mean. Tokyo Drifter's brand of absurdity is all in its visuals; in Branded to Kill, the absurdity is in the motivations.

Tetsu in Tokyo Drifter and Hanada in Branded to Kill really are trying to do the same stupid thing, which is to seek worth, even redemption (however they might define that) through the Yakuza. Both men are also both trailed by a theme song, each sounding like the Japanese equivalent of the "lonely wanderer" brand of American folk ballads, except in this case shot through with the fatalism of gangster life. By the end, though, Tetsu keeps drifting, and Hanada has pulled the trigger again and again until he's hitting empty chambers.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Demons Took Your Gold

Something not unlike what I found myself resisting in Snakes On a Plane is going on in Cowboys and Aliens. Namely, in that earlier film, the one with snakes, the audience was being asked to take a film with an intentionally ridiculous title, one that was perversely literal -- and one which, I admit, I still to this day find genuinely funny -- and apply it to a film that was supposed to be, if not exactly serious, then at least not a joke. In other words, yes, the film is exactly what the title says it's going to be. We're actually kind of not kidding. For myself, I wasn't able or willing to do the kind of work necessary to get past the joke that was that film's central marketing gimmick and accept that it could both be a joke and not a joke. For a film like Snakes On a Plane, that's simply asking too much. Of course, had it been great, that might have been something else entirely, but obviously that was never going to happen.

Cowboys and Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau, is exactly the same thing, only more so. That title puts me in mind of that witheringly exhausting genre of, I don't even know what you'd call it -- wish-fulfillment-fantasy-comedy? -- where one of those geeks that they now have these days says how awesome it would be if robots fought zombies in an underwater kingdom. They're only joking, of course, except are they really? I confess, I've made a joke or two like this in my time, but I hope to find the strength never to do it again, and anyway when I do it I actually am kidding, and don't strive to turn it into a movie that's as straight-faced as Red River, which actually had more laughs, now that I think about it.

Although the truth of it is that I actually kind of liked Cowboys and Aliens. Kind of. The story is very simple, at least the parts you need to pay attention to: you have a mysterious stranger (Daniel Craig) who is quiet and able to inflict violence but would rather not to, and also is suffering from amnesia; a mean and nasty old man (Harrison Ford) who recognizes Craig as a thief who stole his gold; another mysterious character, a lovely young lady (Olivia Wilde) who knows that Craig and the source of his amnesia is vital to her quest; and various other Western types, such as the unassuming businessman (Sam Rockwell) who finds himself forced to pick up arms against an enemy, a wise and kindly preacher (Clancy Brown) who acts as the conscience of the town; the old man's vile son (Paul Dano); the sheriff (Keith Carradine) who's just trying to do his job, and so on. Then they all get attacked by space aliens.

There's not much more to it. Certain secrets are divulged along the way, and character dynamics shift, or whatever the term for that stuff is, but nothing that distracts from the central theme of cowboys fighting aliens. I personally don't have any serious problem with that as an idea. I like some steampunk stuff, after all, and if this is essentially the same thing. The problem I have is with the having-cake-and-also-eating-it aspect of that title versus the film. I know this is based on a comic, and I don't know the tone of that comic, but just in general why scoff at your own idea if your plan is to handle it in a straightforward manner? Until Walton Goggins shows up as an amusingly naive criminal, I'm not sure there are really any jokes in this thing.

Not to harp on the title too much. The film has other problems, such as its weird lack of imagination. I happen to basically enjoy Jon Favreau's films, and I will vigorously defend Iron Man 2 on the grounds that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. One of the things that film's detractors will point out as a shortcoming is the supposed sluggishness of its action scenes, a complaint I find slightly baffling, but okay. If they wanted to shore up their argument by saying it's a common failing with Favreau and pointing to Cowboys and Aliens as an example, then that would be at least something. I can't help but think about Steven Spielberg, whose name is on this film, but of course, as an executive producer, and I think about The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which is maybe Spielberg's worst film (for the record, I like Always and have never seen Hook) and even that has the terrific setpiece with the camper dangling off a cliff and the broken window and the dinosaurs that eat the shit out of the one guy. Now, Lost World also has that terrible bit in the tall grass where you see a bunch of people fleeing the raptors, and one person gets dragged down from underneath the grass, then the raptor tail goes up. Then another guy goes down, up goes the tail. Then another guy goes down, up goes the tail. That scene was unimaginative. The conflicts between cowboys and aliens in Cowboys and Aliens feel like that scene over and over again. The alien spacecraft fighter jet things strafe the cowboys, who run away until one of them (Daniel Craig) is able to blow one of them up, then they leave.

That is until the end, and the final assault by the cowboys on the alien fortress. Which was fun enough. Favreau pulled out some stops for that, I guess, but the film is still left with a curious absence of, I don't know...verve. It's as if the crazy idea of throwing cowboys and aliens together in the same movie was enough. More than enough, really! Who could ask for more than that? Besides, I liked Sam Rockwell a lot -- I wish he could play the same character in another movie -- and it was an odd but interesting experience watching a new film with Harrison Ford in it. I just refreshed my memory about his recent career, and counting Cowboys and Aliens I've seen exactly four of the films he's appeared in since Air Force One. Before that, I'd seen every feature film, plus the Star Wars Holiday Special he'd made going back to 1977, when he made two, one of which, Heroes, I haven't seen. So yes, if you're asking me if I've seen Force 10 From Navarone and Hanover Street, yes, I have. The result of all this being that now, bizarrely, watching Ford put on funny clothes and caper about on screen no longer feels like a natural thing to be doing.

One other thing I'm reminded of is something I read about Made, Jon Favreau's first film as a director, following Swingers, his breakout as a writer and actor. Some film critic remarked of Made that it was very surprising to discover that Jon Favreau's real ambition this whole time was to be John Cassavetes. Now, again, I generally enjoy Favreau's films, but yeah, that guy was wrong.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Oh, You Old Vampire, You!

It is very tempting, and would not be inaccurate, to say that Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living, which will be released to DVD tomorrow by Criterion, is what the word "effervescent" means. To the film's credit, however, that is only part of the story.

Any time a pre-Code movie is set free once again among the public, those who care tend to get pretty excited by the prospect of seeing classic Hollywood engaging in matters a bit racier than would soon be the norm. I'm not judging, because I get excited, too -- there's an inherent fascination to it all, and anyway I will never forget the first time I saw Tarzan and His Mate. But what's great about it is less the raciness than the bluntness. It's nice to see adult filmmakers making films in which they don't have to pretend to be talking about something they're not, and hide what they're actually talking about. And Design for Living is sort of blunt. It's the story ("freely" adapted, according to the Criterion case, from a Noel Coward play by Ben Hecht. How freely can be judged by you, as Criterion has included another adaptation of the play from 1964) of best friends and starvign artists George Curtis (Gary Cooper), a painter, and Tom Chambers (Frederic March), a playwright, and their mutual love for advertising artist Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins). This all happens in Paris, and what's surprising about the whole set-up is that Gilda can't choose between the two men, and would rather not, as a result, when you get right down to it.

So that's where a lot of the effervescence comes from, the free-spiritedness of it all. But Design for Living goes beyond that by making the love between these three feel like it matters. The initial plan, devised by Gilda, is to exclude sex entirely, but when Tom goes to London to stage his new play (up to that point he was a writer of "unproduced plays, very good, of that kind"), Gilda and George can't help themselves. They try to let Tom down easy, but when he confronts Gilda later, he says that he can excuse, if not forgive, George because George betrayed him for Gilda, something Tom is able to understand. But Gilda betrayed Tom for George -- "An incredible choice," he says, and there's no little pain, and even a touch of malice to that line.

Things flip around quite a bit as the film goes along, as you'd expect, but the actual pain inherent in their situation never faulters. If George and Tom and Gilda are able to come through it all in the end, it's because the love is genuine, all around. And for my money, while Hopkins and Cooper are both great here, and Cooper in particular was a bit of a revelation as I'd never seen him so energized, it's Frederic March who walks away with the film. He has that "incredible choice" line, and also the terrible change from happiness, as he dictates a letter to George and Gilda regarding the success of his play, to the desperate wilting that follows his receiving of the news that Gilda and George have, for lack of a better term, become exclusive.

Also worth mentioning is Edward Everett Horton as Max Plunkett, a very business-minded fellow whose love for Gilda precedes that of both George and Tom, though in Max's sad case the love is unrequited. Horton is very funny, and so damn natural and smooth with every pompous and self-regarding syllable he's given to utter. Plunkett functions as sort of the villain of the piece, if villain there be, though, actually, there is no villain. Plunkett is an obstacle, but he's less likable than the rest of the main characters only because he's less fun. He's not made to suffer for this, however, and is instead shown than his particular path to happiness lies elsewhere. But his grabbing for Gilda does lead to what must be the most remarkable shot in all of Design for Living, and the one that most betrays the film's pre-Code roots: George and Tom waiting for Gilda in the bedroom she has come to share with Max, both men silently looking down at the couples' bed. Each feels anguish, that's clear, knowing what must have happened in that bed, but both have a tiny bit of light in their eyes, too, based both on their memories of their own time with Gilda, and of the future they plan on bringing about.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Capsule Reviews Which Are Actually Rather Long

The Hunter (d. Buzz Kulik) - What would have been terrific is if Steve McQueen's last film before his death in 1980 at age 50 had been really great. Or that he'd not died in the first place, but keeping our wishes manageable, The Hunter could have been a tense and gripping, stripped down thriller in the The Driver mode, but instead it is, in fact, quite thoroughly bad. Based, I have to think with a great sense of freedom to stray from the known facts, on the career of real-life bounty hunter Ralph "Poppa" Thorson (McQueen, of course), The Hunter feels exactly like the kind of made-for-TV movie that was so common and popular back in those days, and in fact director Buzz Kulik's best-known and easily most enduring work was on the made-for-TV Brian's Song. There's a loose, yet stitched together quality to The Hunter, as it clumsily tries to weave together elements of Thorson's private life -- which includes a former bounty, played by Levar Burton, he let off the hook because the young man is gadget-oriented and can fix things -- as an old-school macho fellow caught up in his modern-day lady's (the ever-delightful Kathryn Harrold) requests to accompany her pregnant self to this new thing they have called "Lamaze classes", and his life as a hardboiled skip tracer.

To underline the disparity, Kulik and his screenwriters (including Peter Hyams who, say what you want, wrote some good shit for Hal Holbrook to say in Capricorn One) toss in a lot of comic relief, mainly of the slapstick variety. The problem is, unlike Paul Newman, McQueen, who at this point was starting to age into Richard Widmark, did not possess a natural gift for comedy, so there's lots of mugging and clownish weariness. Add to that some of the most tedious action scenes, which stem from the weirdly anemic "bounty hunter" portion of our plot, I've ever seen, to the point where a chase through the city made me think "Shit is this still going on?", and you, like me, will soon find yourself feeling sort of depressed.

Hunger (d. Steve McQueen) - There's a -- I don't know what you'd call it, but it's a formula of movie dialogue that involves one character asking another character to explain something, usually a motivation, and the character being asked responds with an anecdote meant to hint at an answer without directly answering. So you'll have somebody say "Why did you become a cop?" and the cop will respond with something that begins "When I was seven years old, my dad got me a dog..." Although I don't doubt that writers I like have used this construction, I nevertheless hate it pretty profoundly. It doesn't have the stones to be stylized, and doesn't have the ear to be naturalistic. It pretends to be the latter, without realizing that nobody speaks in such naked metaphors, nor are they typically able to dredge up wonderfully illustrative childhood anecdotes for any occasion.

Whether I'm alone in hating this or not, I don't know, but I do think it's significant that it turns up in Hunger, a completely different Steve McQueen's 2008 film about Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and the hunger strike that ended his life in 1981 while he was imprisoned by the English government for...well, Hunger doesn't really worry about what for. It's rather more interested in transforming Sands' suffering into something religious -- the wasting away of his body (and what did Michael Fassbender do to himself here!?) takes on the holy aura of thorny crowns and spear wounds in the side. What Sands was in prison for had to do with his work in the Provisional IRA, the most brutal wing of Ireland's Republican terrorists through the late 60s, all of the 70s, and much of the 80s. No actual violent acts were ever pinned to Sands, but many gun charges were, and if anyone thinks that Sands wasn't at least an accomplice to violent terrorist acts, well, they'll probably be walking into an open manhole pretty soon.

None of this much matters, I guess, or according to some, as Hunger is less about politics than it is just a series of mostly quiet emotional imagery that records the build to Sands's decision, and the falling away of his body as he carries through with it. Except that all the clips of Margaret Thatcher speaking, it would seem, coldly about the hunger strike, in what is very nearly a silent film, is clearly about something else again.

Why the suffering on display in Hunger, the very explicit martyrdom, did not ping in the brains of critics as another example of what some of them regarded as crazed masochism in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, I couldn't say, because the religion that was once at the heart of the Troubles, though subsequently got fogged up by centuries' worth of other things, is by no means absent from Hunger. But here there's a political element to the core story, without adding a filmmaker's bias, that is easy for some to hang their hats on. And when a priest (Liam Cunningham) pushes Sands for the basic truth behind his decision to starve himself to death and Sands responds with some creative writing bullshit about a foal he had to put out of its misery, an act of mercy which got him in trouble with a schoolmaster, everything just starts to make sense, doesn't it? Or doesn't it? The problems of Northern Ireland did not get easier as time went on. An easy moral stance changed over the decades so that a noble end was being sought through monstrous acts, and to defend the cause started to feel like you were defending the acts. Meanwhile, Hunger is a film that tries to impose on that time a very ugly clarity.

Dark of the Sun (d. Jack Cardiff) - On the subject of morality, legendary cinematographer and occasional director Jack Cardiff's Dark of the Sun, adapted from a novel by Wilbur Smith, immerses itself in the very rich moral swamp of mercenary armies. Made in 1968, the film is the kind of "men on a mission" movie that Quentin Tarantino claimed was his inspiration for Inglourious Basterds, even though that's not what that movie turned out to be. As deeply as I love Tarantino's film, there is a part of me, the part that routinely looks gift horses in their mouths, that wishes I could see a film all about the Basterds and their various adventures, because brother, films like Dark of the Sun ain't nothing to sneeze at. Anyway, Tarantino did go so far as to borrow parts of Jacques Loussier's score for his World War II epic, not to mention Dark of the Sun's star, Rod "Brief 'Im" Taylor, who not only costars here with Jim Brown, but reunites with his Time Machine costar Yvette Mimieux. The Taylor/Brown pairing turns out to be more significant, as Taylor's Captain Curry is hired by shady government and business types to ostensibly save a group of Congolese civilians from bands of marauders, but also to maybe grab that bag full of millions of dollars worth of diamonds while you're at it.

As someone who has a particular interest in cinematic violence, I'm fascinated by that curious part of the late 1960s from which Dark of the Sun comes, when an action film might include a shot of someone spraying a crowd of bad guys with a machine gun, each of whom clutch their chest and fall bloodlessly, no more traumatic to audiences than anything you might have seen from post-Code Hollywood, and then one second later show a guy getting stabbed in the face with a burning torch. If the violence in this film settles into anything, it settles into brutality, as was becoming the style at the time. Along with that, of course, must come the moral hand-wringing. On one hand, there's a good reason for that, as Jim Brown's Ruffo, Curry's right-hand-man, actually originally hails from the Congo, and would like their mission to be about something more than making money, and wants his willfully cynical friend to understand that. On the other hand, one of the mercenaries that hitches himself to their mission is actually an ex-Nazi, and when he causes the film to take a tragic turn late in the story, this leads to one of the better examples of someone clouding up and raining all over somebody else I've seen in a while, it also asks me to feel regret after the fact. Which is a little bit disingenuous, actually, and regardless the regret never took hold in me. But even before any of that happened, I wanted to know why in the world the team needed an ex-Nazi who was not just willing, but eager, to murder people with a chainsaw?

Still a good flick, though...

Night Creatures (d. Peter Graham Scott) - I've always been interested in the lesser known horror films from Hammer Studios, and this one certainly counts, despite starring Hammer stalwarts Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed. Reed, for once in his life, doesn't seem like he's about to start foaming from his mouth and smashing whiskey bottles over his head, and in fact plays the romantic lead in this rather curious story about a small English seaside village, during the 18th century, whose peaceful existence is disrupted by government officials, headed by Patrick Allen's Capt. Collier, who believe the village is smuggling hootch. Mix this with a subplot about the Marsh Phantoms, a wholly-unconvincing looking hoard of night-demons, I guess, who reportedly bring the unwary to a marshy grave, and the dishonorable Mr. Ash (Martin Benson), whose willingness to do whatever he needs to do to get what he wants, be it money or Imogene (Yvonne Romain), Reed's fiancee', jeopardizes the whole village. Which is smuggling hootch, by the way, as overseen by Rev. Blyss (Cushing) which is an interesting early revelation, and what's all this about the pirate, Captain Clegg, who is often heard about but never seen?

Certain plot elements function sort of as twists but are not at all hard to see looming, but none of that matters. Night Creatures seems to be about too many disparate things in the beginning, but winds up as entirely entertaining, and even unpredictable, obvious twists notwithstanding. What transpires as a result of those twists is both organic and emotional and somehow unforeseen. The damn thing just comes together. It does not aim as high as the best Hammer films, and what it is, in the end, is a yarn, but it's a damn good yarn, told by a crew of professionals, and boasting that great dusky blue stone look of, say, Brides of Dracula. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (d. Edgar Wright) - Edgar Wright's third film is simultaneously not as good as his previous two, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and miles more ambitious in terms of its visual style and scope. Based on a comic books series, my unfamiliarity with which somehow proves to me that I'm too much of a geek, and not enough of a geek, to really belong anywhere in this crazy, lonely old world, by Bryan Lee O'Malley, it's about Scott Pilgrim's (Michael Cera) love life, the turmoils of which are ordinary at their core, but heightened into the world of superhero comics and video games so that in order to cement his relationship with Ramona Flowers (a, let's face it, completely fetching Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the girl of his dreams, as far as he knows, he has to defeat her seven ex-significant others in Mortal Kombat-style battle. Much of this is quite funny (this may seem like nothing to you, but Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World includes the funniest washing of a character's hands after they've urinated that has ever been put on screen), and the film, not just shot but also set in Toronto, has a nice, unique look that is both snowy in an everyday sort of way, and in the mildly stylized way of a comic panel. Wright really knows what he's doing in terms of transplanting the feel of reading a comic book, moving one's eyes across the panels, to film, with such seemingly simple ideas as using sound effects that you both hear and "see", which arc into the next scene. You'll know what I mean when you see it.

But the film also does sort of wear out its welcome. The "seven exes" thing loses its verve after a couple, or a few, or anyway that verve is scattered, to the point that they arbitrarily and even wearily double up on the exes towards the end. And while some of the humor is delightfully anti-hipster (every character in the film being a member of that species), it is occasionally as tone-deaf as any hipster you might imagine. For instance, ironic Bollywood is never going to be welcome. Still, Michael Cera, whose casting was the cause of some controversy by the comic's fans at the time, was very good. Maybe my ignorance is helping me immeasurably here, but in terms of the movie, it's the movie that counts, right? And anyway, if you think Cera in this film is simply rehashing George Michael from Arrested Development, then you might be losing your ability to tell the difference between two different things.

As a final kudos, I would like to note that Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, with the following exchange from Scott and Ramona's first date, captures male thought patterns about as well as I've ever seen:

Ramona: I think an act of God is as good an excuse for a bad date as any.
Scott: This was a date?
Ramona: Did I say date? It was a slip of the tongue.
Scott: Tongue...