Monday, April 27, 2015

Where Shall I Go When I Go Where I Go?

Back in 2001, a massive volume that had been first published in the UK the year before was put out by the now defunct Talk Miramax books. Coming in at around 1,200 pages, the book was The Letters of Kingsley Amis, edited by Zachary Leader. As I remember it, the reaction to this book was a mixture of "How interesting" and "What?" Though certainly a different situation could probably, possibly, be seen in England, in the US, in 2006, Leader seemed to want to double up on this bemusement by publishing The Life of Kingsley Amis, his 900-page biography of the erstwhile Booker Prize-winning British comic novelist, major cultural figure, grump, drinker, father of Martin Amis, political drifter from Left to Right, one of the Angry Young Men school of English artists (though not self-designated as such and not happily a member of that club), poker of wounds, who died in 1995 and whose last novel that by 2006 had been deemed eligible for continued significance, which is not the same thing as readership but anyway, was The Old Devils, the one that won the Booker, in 1986. Major cultural figure Amis had indeed once been, but not for many years prior to his death. Not having the politics that an artist in the 1990s was meant to have, and certain books, especially Stanley and the Women, that were perceived as being bitter and sexist, seem to have done him in, not physically, but as a Writer Of Note. Therefore in the US -- and honestly probably in the UK too, Amis being better known and so logically more disliked -- that "Why him?" response to Leader's apparent refusal to let Amis sink out of memory prevailed. Listen, Lucky Jim is still in print. That should be enough.

Well, not for me. I've been reading Kingsley Amis for a very long time now, and for a pretty long time then, and while my personal history with his work needn't concern us here I will say that at no point during those many years did Amis ever fall out of favor with me, other than having read so many of his books that I've also read some of the bad ones. And so when in his favorable review of The Letters of Kingsley Amis for The Washington Post, Michael Dirda expressed surprise that one letter in particular, one in which Amis said he disliked people who were "racialist, intolerant of homosexuality, anti-British, members of the New Left" indicated that Amis was "a gentler and more compassionate soul than the splenetic, bibulous monster of publishing legend," my thought was if Dirda, a critic I admire very much and who seems at times to have literally read everything, knew Amis's novels better than he knew the legend, he'd know that books such as The Folks That Live on the Hill had already revealed this several times over. In truth, Amis' conservatism was always cut with an urge to shed what he considered useless old restraints, be they sexual, as they often were in his books, or otherwise, as they also often were. It's just that he didn't want those restraints being replaced by something just as bad or worse. His conservatism, which was used to so thoughtlessly reduce his reputation and his talent, was hardly careless or unfeeling. That Amis' ability to root out and thoroughly obliterate the hypocrisy of pretty much every type of person, including his own type, was unerring and frequently deployed may not have helped. I don't know.

But Zachary Leader may be having the last laugh that I've decided must have been his goal all along because for the last few years NYRB Classics has been reissuing Amis' novels. Not just the classics like Lucky Jim and The Old Devils but also titles from deep in the catalogue, like Girl, 20 and One Fat Englishman (as is the custom with this sort of thing, each volume also boasts a new introduction written by an Amis admirer or expert, and hey what's this, Michael Dirda wrote the introduction for Amis' uniquely Amis-ian horror novel The Green Man). On Tuesday they're adding to the list one his earliest novels, Take a Girl Like You from 1960 and 1974's Ending Up, one of those not-quite-forgotten minor classics that has long seemed about to slip back into print, and now finally has. It's an interesting pairing, one dictated entirely by rights availability for all I know, but as it happens, and as disparate as the two novels seem, the former being about young people in their 20s in the early 1960s and taking as its subject sex, both ostensibly and in fact, and the latter being about elderly people in the early 1970s and ostensibly definitely not being about sex, they actually link up in inescapable and unsettling ways.

Ending Up takes place entirely in a country house in which live five old people: Bernard Bastable, former military, slightly disgraced, divorced with a son he hasn't seen in decades; Bernard's ex-lover (this led to the slight disgrace), the libido of each man having waned on top of never having been terribly strong at the best of times, but still his more-or-less companion Derrick "Shorty" Shortell, a good-natured drunk; George Zeyer, the brother of Bernard's late wife and a professor now hopelessly laid up with a stroke and dependent on his housemates for just about everything, his legs useless now and also suffering from a form of aphasia; Bernard's sister Adela, a physically unattractive woman who has never enjoyed any sort of romantic experience and whose overall kindness leads her to run the house and not mind that her brother is, in Amis's words, a "shit"; and Marigold Pyke, the egotistical life-long friend of Adela, and the only one of them who has a family in any sort of traditional sense -- part of the plot of Ending Up revolves around a Christmas visit from her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The bleakness of all of this, or the bleakness that is apart from that which might already be inferred from the above description, comes from the pending, currently happening, or reasonably guessed-at physical dissolution of the characters, and from the fact that to some degree they all dislike each other, or all annoy each other, even the ones who are nice.

Inspired by a living situation that Amis and, in fairness, four other people, including his then-wife Elizabeth Jane Howard, had been suffering through for some time, the theme of Ending Up that Amis and Zachary Leader, as well as Craig Brown, who wrote the introduction to the NYRB edition, say defines the novel is "irritation." That is, irritating and being irritated by others. Brown rightly points out that this is something that long ruled over Amis' fiction in the way that being male seemed to somewhat preoccupy Norman Mailer. "Throughout his oeuvre," Brown writes, "irritation plays on the Amis landscape like sun on sea." And it's true: both the best of Amis' humor and many of his most insightful passages, or even simply the moments that make the reader think "Yes, I've experienced that too, and it's like that" were borne from irritation. Such as this exchange between Adela and Bernard, late in Ending Up:
'I must be off,' said Adela on the Friday morning of that week. 'They said the sooner I take the car into the garage the sooner they'll be finished with it. 
'It sounds logical,' said Bernard. 'When will you be back? In case anyone comes or anything.' 
'As soon as they've finished with the car I'll start for home.' 
'When will you be back?' 
'They've got to change all the oil, do you see, and make sure the tyres are all right, and clean things in the engine and so on. 
'Yes, and so forth into the bargain I shouldn't wonder. For the love of God, when will you be back?'
Bernard, meanwhile, has made it his mission to be as irritating and as destructive -- though all the while hiding that he's doing any of it, or at least any of it on purpose, while also, it should be noted, never actually hiding his disdain for anybody -- as possible. George, perhaps the character the reader most wants to protect (though not himself without his irritating side) has a dog, Mr. Pastry. He has nothing else, he has no children, his wife has died (and, we're told, in her last moments she apologized to her husband for not producing any offspring) but he's not embittered, he's ridiculously grateful to be carried downstairs which nobody had thought to do until one of Marigold's grandchildren suggested it, all he has is this dog, and one of Bernard's plots is to convince everyone else in the house that it's time to have Mr. Pastry put to sleep. Bernard wants to do this simply because it's the kind of thing he'd want to do.

Bernard is the worst of them, though Marigold isn't much better. Along with her unearned arrogance she has certain maddening linguistic tendencies -- calling rabbits "bunnie-wunnies" and drinks "drinkle-pinkles" and the like -- and an impulse to dominate conversation that is perhaps simultaneously both conscious and unconscious. In one scene, during a pre-Christmas visit from Marigold's grandson Trevor and his wife Tracy, Tracy (who in his typical fashion Amis sketches out as humanly flawed, therefore both easily irritated and irritating) tries to become part of a dinner conversation:
'I met a girl from New Zealand a little while ago,' said Tracy just as an outsize forkful of capon was entering Marigold's mouth. 'She told me -- ' 
The intervention was fractionally too soon. Marigold snatched the forkful out again and said...
As Marigold again grabs the conversation by the throat, Tracy waits:
Tracy did not want to have it thought...that she considered her having met a girl from New Zealand a little while ago to be in itself a worthwhile offering. She waited until Marigold had started chewing before she said, 'This New Zealand girl -- " 
She was fractionally too late: Marigold did a mighty swallow.
And again Marigold takes over. Finally:
There was another brief silence. Tracy did not break it. Now in the apparent position of being obsessed with the New Zealand Girl, she would not run the risk of seeming clinically insane on the subject.
Ending Up was published when Amis was 52 years old, at least a good twenty years younger than any of five main characters who populate the novel, but both old enough to have given the subject of annoyance some serious consideration, and also certainly old enough to have let the novel's other subject, aging and death, almost consume him. It's a good thing to not be consumed by if you can possibly avoid it, but it turns up in Amis' work over and over again; furthermore, Amis not being someone who ever took comfort in religious faith, when dealing with the subject he often expressed anger and frustration as much as, if not more than, fear. Along with several of his novels, see also his poetry, such as "A.E.H." with its famous line "What the fact of wounds must mean," or the furious "To a Baby Born Without Limbs" (itself contained in a novel called The Anti-Death League), or "A Peep Round the Twist," the ghostly last chapter of his Memoirs. In Ending Up, Amis seems to some extent to have thrown up his hands in surrender. At one point, Marigold's grandchildren confer on what it must be like to be at an age when death is so near:
'If you live with something [one says] you may end up with it not meaning as much to you as if it only turned up now and then. You know, like background noise.'

The other disagrees:
'...Pretty noisy sort of noise at their time of life...More like foreground noise. Aircraft noise when you're living twenty yards from Heathrow only moving closer.'

Eventually in this particular novel, Amis' attitude resembles one of gleeful malice, as if to say "Since it has to happen to all of us you might as well enjoy watching it happen to others first." But Ending Up really isn't as callous as all that. There are certain touches near the end that do have an air of almost malicious irony about them, but that irony is at the same time inherently sad. "It shouldn't be like this," you can't help thinking, and as outrageous as the novel becomes, if you separate the individual pieces you know that things have gone like this for many someones many times over. Plus, the novel being as short as it is, it's easy to think back to the beginning, and Adela, who regards living in this house of miserable people as the happiest time of her life, and thinking that the house itself, and its surroundings, "what with the quiet, the nearby woods and all their wild life...was not such a bad place to end up."

How all of this relates to the plight of Jenny Bunn, the twenty-year-old stunning beauty at the heart of Amis's 1960 novel Take a Girl Like You may not be immediately apparent, but will in time. Jenny is a schoolteacher, recently moved from a small town in Northern England to a roughly more cosmopolitan town in Southern England, one that is near-ish to London. Jenny is so lovely that many people at first believe she must be French. In fact a man believes this very thing about her at the beginning of the novel, and he thinks it out loud.
'Well, I'm not,' Jenny said positively, 'I'm English.' She said it positively because thinking she was French (or Italian, or Spanish, or -- once each -- Greek or Portuguese) on the evidence of the way she looked had evidently been enough to get quite a number of new acquaintances to start trying it on with her straight away. There had been that time in Market Square at home when a man had accosted her and, on finding she was not a tart after all, had apologized by saying: 'I'm awfully sorry, I thought you were French.' What could it be like to actually live in France?
The man she responded to positively is Patrick Standish, an instructor at the local boys' school. Patrick is older, in his late 20s, and rather preoccupied with sex, of which he manages to get a lot, being, as Jenny puts it, "smashing" as he is, but at once this preoccupation focuses to a laser point on Jenny. And while it is in Jenny's nature to accept a simple life (for now anyway) spent either at the school or in the boarding house where she lives with one other tenant, an actual French person and ex of Patrick's named Anna, and her landlord Dick Thompson, a foolish, seemingly doddering before his time, Communist whom Patrick loathes and enjoys tormenting and Dick's subtly angry and possibly suspicious wife Martha, when Patrick does ask her out she readily and happily says yes. The problem, as Patrick sees it, though not as Jenny sees it, or not from the same angle, is that Jenny is a virgin who plans on saving herself until marriage, so the last part of their first date is spent fending him off -- not entirely, as Jenny isn't a robot, but fending off what she's not comfortable letting happen. This is not something that Jenny is unused to:
Before long Patrick slipped his left hand under her dress in the non-important places: back, shoulders, upper arms. It was rather like one of the kids at school getting out of his seat to borrow a pencil-sharpener or pick up a writing-book when you knew that what he really wanted to do was run around the room yelling.
Eventually this all leads to an argument which will set the course for the rest of the novel. Though not especially religious, waiting until marriage was not only how Jenny was brought up, but it's what she believes as an adult as well as what she wants. Patrick argues that since they both want to do it, which Jenny has admitted she does, they should do it, that this is what life is, and what being human is, and that his approach to all this is realistic and practical while Jenny's is inherited and unexamined. Crucially, Jenny holds her own in this debate -- more than that, I'd say. Not only is it crucial for the novel to be any good, but that Jenny's arguments are smart and well-made is a crucial thing coming from Amis in particular.

Kingsley Amis was married twice, though with the reputation he had you'd expect the number to be much higher. He was serially unfaithful, and his opinions about sex would likely have more closely resembled Patrick's (up to a point) than Jenny's. When he wrote the novel, Amis still with his first wife, Hillary Ann "Hilly" Bardwell, though by this time the kind of husband he was was plain to her. She read the manuscript when he finished, telling Amis "I think Patrick's an absolute shit," adding many years later when confiding to Leader "I often felt like saying 'And you're an absolute shit yourself.'"

In Leader's biography of Amis, at the end of the first of two photograph sections, there is, somewhat alarmingly, a picture of Amis in 1963, asleep on a beach with his back facing the camera. Hilly has written on his back, in lipstick: "1 FAT ENGLISHMAN. I FUCK ANYTHING."

And indeed, in Take a Girl Like You it's not merely that Patrick tries to pressure Jenny into having sex, but that when the two of them do finally settle into an apparently very happy and romantic courtship, he's unfaithful, and that inappropriateness is compounded by the inappropriateness of his choice of women, or girls as the case may be, to be unfaithful with. At least as late as 1975, fifteen years after the novel was published, Amis was saying that Standish was "the most unpleasant person I've written about." Though it hardly excuses his behavior -- and in fact Amis was also fully aware of the nastily human impulse to absolve oneself because at least one knows and feels bad that one is a shit, this being an attitude he skewered more than once -- it's not difficult to see in Take a Girl Like You Amis looking at the things he'd done and trying to figure out what was wrong with him, or to own up to them. Not in a way that did Hilly much good, or his second wife, Elizabeth Jane Howard, but no one said he should let him off the hook. Even so, at times the novel, and it's sequel (about which a bit more later) Difficulties with Girls from 1988 read like full-fledged self-takedowns. What Martin Amis dubbed his father's "mild" anti-Semitism (in Martin Amis's memoir Experience, Martin quotes his father when asked what being mildly anti-Semitic feels like: "Very mild, as you say. If I'm watching the end of some new arts programme I might notice the Jewish names in the credits and think, Ah, there's another one. Or: Oh I see. There's another one") even turns up, and is lampooned, in the figure of Jenny's father.

Elsewhere in the novel, Amis is happy to spread his attack outward. Jenny is, in fact, the only character to not have some form of foolishness or hypocrisy witheringly exposed. Or anyway she nearly makes it; Amis does believe she's naive to some extent, and her lack of culture, and receiving of life advice from columnists in a magazine called Women's Domain comes in for some ribbing, though of a comparatively gentle sort. Others, like Patrick and Anna are nearly devastated. In her first long conversation with Anna, the French tenant she would like to make friends with, Jenny is nervous about revealing what her father does for a living. Anna is quite culturally sophisticated, or would like to be seen that way, and has taken some pains in demystifying artists as a way, of course, of making her, Anna, appear to have lived a life that has made her so used to being around the kind of people Jenny has only read about. Anyway, Anna says artists are normal people, Jenny finally admits:
'Oh, he's a hearse-driver.' 
'A hers? A her...?'
 'He drive a hearse, a funeral car. For when people are being buried. He works for a very big firm in...'
With a peal of foreign laughter, Anna collapsed on the striped travelling-rug that covered her bed and drew up her slightly bulky knees. Jenny watched her with a half-smile...For a moment she thought back to what Anna had said about modes of life and artists, and wondered why hearse-drivers were not normal when artists were.
Much later, Jenny wonders about her attitudes towards sex versus Patrick's:.
...[N]o doubt a rule-and-routine thing with kissing and so on had a lot wrong with it. She knew how much. On the other hand, the non-rule idea seemed by all accounts to have even more wrong with it. She could see the point of sex being frank, free, and open, as Patrick had unwisely put it to her once and as she had put it back to him again a couple of dozen times since. What was meant by the expression in practice was a frank, free, and open (and immediate and often repeated) scuttle into bed with some man; to tell them all to drop dead, however frankly, freely, and openly, did not count as that. After dwelling on the frank, free, and open enjoyment that would follow arrival in bed the story tended to fade away rather.
What Amis achieves through this kind of prose, apart from being funny, is to use his opponent's, or his character's opponent's, undeveloped and/or circular logic against them. That "tended to fade away rather" is a beautifully sharp way of showing that the other, less popular and much sneered-at opinion, one which Amis himself didn't necessarily agree with, could be argued from the same structure of thought that had earlier come from the other direction, so at the very least if you're going to make your point against someone like Jenny, you'd better do a better job than that, and don't let your prejudices lead you to underestimate her.

It's not all about scoring points, though. I believe that Take a Girl Like You and The Folks That Live on the Hill are the real masterpieces among Amis's novels (neither one makes into Martin's list of his father's writing for which he'll be remembered, and I find this stunning), and like that later novel, Take a Girl Like You exhilarates not just with its comedy or to make great swathes of popular received wisdom look properly foolish, but because it can be so emotionally acute, so terribly moving. There are many characters in the book and next to Jenny the other one with the greatest claim to our sympathy (though honestly, they almost all have their moments) is Graham McClintoch. Patrick's friend and colleague, Graham is an essentially good-natured soul (to some degree he's not unlike Shorty in Ending Up) who, it's made quite clear, is physically quite unattractive, and he knows it. Nevertheless, early on, when things between Jenny and Patrick don't seem to be shaping up, Graham asks Jenny out. She accepts, not out of pity but because she thinks he's nice, and also there is probably some pity involved. Graham asks her because he couldn't not and continue to live his life, but when he makes an advance and is gently rebuffed he immediately backs away knowing that he'll never try it with Jenny again. Then he begins talking, and this, to be honest, begins clumsily, because Amis seems to be writing it as a speech that Graham has prepared. Lots of people do lots of talking in Amis's books but rarely do their words feel as willed into existence as the beginning of Graham's explanation of what it's like to be ugly. Eventually, though, Amis, or Graham, settles into his subject, and Graham ends with this:
'...When I see someone as pretty as you I always start off by thinking that it's going to be different this time, this time she'll have to want me a little because I want her so much. That's the bit I always do fool myself about, at first. Perhaps it isn't normal, all this wanting. But I wouldn't know, would I? I haven't any way of knowing. What's sex all about? How would I know? And not knowing that means not knowing a lot of other things, too. For instance, literature. I used to be a great reader at one time, but not any more. Eternity was in our lips and eyes, bliss in our brows' bent. It's not envy. Simpler than that. What's he talking about?'
This is so painful as to be almost breathtaking. And in a somewhat oblique way, it ties into what drives Patrick's furious, selfish, ultimately shameful pursuit of sex. Graham may pursue it but he can't catch it, and so it can't, or anyway in his case it hasn't, led him to do anything terrible. Patrick can catch it almost whenever he wants to, except with Jenny, and he's not used to that. Early in the novel, we learn something about what generally goes on in his brain. He's walking along the campus of the school where he teaches when:
Terror made him catch his breath; pins and needles surged in his fingers; he stopped and looked up at the sky, but that was worse and he shifted his gaze to an evergreen shrub in a raised oval bed nearby. Some configuration of the leaves under the slight breeze formed, as he watched, a shifting face in profile, the eye blinking slowly with idiotic humour, the mouth gaping as if in the painful enunciation of heavy and foreign syllables. He shut his eyes. Then it passed and he was only retrospectively frightened, soon not even that. Just nerves, he said to himself. Nothing to do with dying. And anyway, men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither, mustn't they? Ah, but then men weren't given the tip in advance about their coming hither, were they? Anyway, nothing to do with dying. Perhaps a little bit to do with going mad. That would be unusual, because he was pretty sound these days on the bonkers question. Meditations on the old last end were giving him a good deal more trouble. Well, thinking about sex as much as possible was the only way to lick that.
Or to put it another way, a pretty noisy sort of noise. More like foreground noise. For the characters in Ending Up, sex stopped being much of a consideration some time ago (for Adela, like Graham, it was never much of one, through no choice of her own), and in its absence, as well as the absence of other things, in some of them a great cruelty takes hold, a desire to destroy, even on small levels, when the desire to do anything else has faded. Patrick has all the desire in the world to do non-destructive things, but the getting of those things can leave a lot in his wake. Yet it's the only way he knows to distract himself from "the old last end," but, though a young man, thoughts of it positively consume him, absolutely freeze him. And so, the pursuit, liebestod and all that. Except that it doesn't stop the cruelty or the selfishness, so that we learn finally that he will stop at nothing to put his mind at rest. His mind. Nobody else's mind, or any other part, matters until whatever he's done is finished and he bothers to reflect on the aftermath. I said before that Patrick's pursuit of sex was ultimately shameful; if anything, that's putting it lightly. Eventually Take a Girl Like You becomes genuinely alarming, and Amis leaves the reader with a gasp. And it may be that, despite all I've blathered on about, all you're really meant to leave with is the understanding, one which would have served Jenny well had she possessed it, that some of the people who seem good are in reality terrible.

Then again, maybe we'd be better off with a simple understanding of Jenny and Patrick as individuals. Take a Girl Like You leaves with plenty of information with which to do that, but to save time, if you want to, you can look to two brief passages from Amis's sequel, Difficulties with Girls. The gist of this book I won't reveal as it would tell you too much about where Take a Girl Like You ends up, and you really would be better off not knowing. Suffice it to say that in Difficulties with Girls the characters you'd expect to be back are back, and early on, in relation to a certain situation she's suffering through, Jenny thinks some things that might seem paranoid, and which she realizes might seem paranoid, but:
...if anybody had tried to tell her she was letting her imagination run away with her, well, all she could say was it had run away further than that in the past and still come a poorish second to what actually took place.
Much later, Patrick is with someone who has just said that something they'd just learned about someone made them feel sad:
'Yes,' said Patrick, looking to and fro among the throng, 'life's full of little bits that aren't what we'd, well, you know, if it was up to us, et cetera, as many have remarked. Let's get a drink.'
So there it is, in a nutshell.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

It Doesn't Think

About, I'd say, a quarter of the way into It Follows, the new movie from writer-director David Robert Mitchell which has so far positioned itself to comfortably be one of the maybe two serious horror films, by which I mean it's not at least 75% intended as a joke and has earned a flood of acclaim, that we are permitted to have each year, as I say, about a quarter of the way into this thing our young heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) has just had sex with her new boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary). Hugh seems like a good guy, he doesn't force her into anything, and though lately he's been acting a little bit funny, the sex was Jay's idea, and so therefore etc. But then afterwards, in the car where the deed was accomplished, Hugh suddenly leaps on her and knocks her out with chloroform. When she awakes, she's tied to a chair in what appears to be an abandoned parking garage. Hugh is there, and he tells her that, listen, I just had sex with you so that I could pass on to you this condition under which I have been burdened wherein the sufferer is followed by a supernatural creature until either A) it catches and kills the pursued, or B) the pursued has sex with someone else, thereby passing, sexually transmitted disease-style, the otherworldly danger to another. Although it should also be noted, Hugh goes on to say, that those who achieve this dissemination aren't entirely off the hook because should the disseminated-to be killed by this creature before they're able to keep the chain going, the thing will then go back to pursuing he who had recently shed himself of this misfortune, i.e., in this case, Hugh. Furthermore, Hugh tells Jay, this deadly being can and will appear as just about any person it chooses, be it a stranger or even one of Jay's loved ones -- whatever it takes, Hugh insists its motive is, that will let it get close to you, that is, Jay. Finally, it moves very slowly, so you can buy yourself some time by driving places, and, again, having sex with someone will shift the responsibility elsewhere, and if everyone keeps giving the next person along this same head's up, everything should be fine. With that done, and with the supernatural creature in the form of a nude woman appearing to helpfully prove Hugh's not making all this up, he drives Jay home where her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist) are on the porch waiting for her. David Robert Mitchell (the director, if you'll recall) films the drop-off by showing Hugh's car pull up to the curb as it would be seen by Kelly and the others. The car stops and Hugh gets out. We don't see Jay. He goes to the rear driver's side door and opens it. He's helping, or pulling, someone out, and he says "Don't let it touch you." Then he gets in the car and drives away, revealing, as the car moves off, Jay, clad only in her underwear, laying, folded up and somehow damaged in the street.

Say what you will about that premise, and I'll admit that as far as good ideas go it does seem a bit hinky to me, it doesn't strike me as unworkable. Before continuing I should also acknowledge that in the world of criticism it's considered either not kosher or not cricket to approach negative criticism with the goal of explaining how things should have been done. At least I think you're not supposed to do that, but maybe I'm mixing it up with something else you're not supposed to do.  But anyway, so listen: what about if David Robert Mitchell had cut all of Hugh's explanation, had cut even the sex scene, such as it currently exists, and simply left in some indication that either Jay or Hugh was going put the moves on the other, and then we cut to the car pulling up, the strange helping of Jay from the car, Hugh's now enigmatic "Don't let it touch you" (which in the film is not enigmatic at all), the car pulling away, and Jay's crumpled body. Had that been done, the audience would now share the point of view of the characters the camera, in this scene, wants us to share, that is Kelly, Yara, and Paul, none of whom heard any of Hugh's "Look, this thing follows sex-havers" speech. Allowing for the fact that yes, a malevolent supernatural creature doing anything for any reason is not comforting, as all of this pertains to films and storytelling, isn't it more effective to show the weird things happening before you explain why they're happening (if you even think it's advisable to explain them at all) than to say, in essence "A bunch of weird things are about to happen and here's what they are" before showing them? My argument is that yes, that first thing is more effective.

But It Follows is not remotely concerned with strangeness or atmosphere or even in sticking to the tiresome rules of the concept that it spent so much time tiresomely laying out. Once that concept has been locked down, the film is structured about how you'd expect: her friends rally around her to try and figure out a way to beat this thing while the possibility of taking Hugh's advice and passing this terrible fate along looms in Jay's mind, her two candidates being Paul, who's in love with her, and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), a classmate who's pretty quick off the stick when faced with supernatural terrors. So now the following should begin, although this thing doesn't so much follow as it does "walk into rooms" or "walk towards your staring face." In any case, remember that Hugh said this thing would take the form of anything that would help it get close to Jay, and so among the first forms it takes is that of a topless woman with smashed out front teeth who is in the middle of pissing herself. Oh, what a crafty plan, because that's Jay's favorite. It makes me uneasy how well this creature understands Jay. If this was a one-off mistake by the creature, like it thought "Oops I thought she liked bloody pissing ladies," that would be one thing, but with possibly one exception there is no reason to believe that Jay would ever let her guard down for any of the forms it takes, and indeed she never does. On top of this, that one exception is completely bungled because not only is the audience only told later why Jay might have been vulnerable to this form, she is not vulnerable to this form. The only reaction an audience member could be expected to have when confronted with information given in this order and accompanied by so little consequence is to think "Oh. Well, it didn't work anyway, so no big whoop."

For those who think it's necessary that a horror film have a subject, the subject of It Follows is obviously sex (it's certainly not following, I can tell you that much). And I don't agree with those detractors who accuse It Follows of Puritanism because sex can lead to all sorts of negative consequences, some of them terrifyingly negative; it's no use warning against them on one hand and pretending they don't exist on the other. So as a metaphor for these things, and more specifically the fear in people they engender, the idea behind the film is fine, but it's little more than that. Beyond it, the film doesn't seem to have a clear thought in its head, about anything. It gestures in a lot of different directions as if David Robert Mitchell understands that he can't go a whole movie without acknowledging certain things, like parents (the characters, by the way, seem to mostly be college students, or anyway of college age, who live at home). Often in the film, Jay can be heard telling her sister "Don't tell Mom." Though she's present as a character, or rather as an ambulatory sentience shaped like actress Debbie Williams, "telling Mom" in the context of this film would probably have the same effect as telling Santa would. Similarly, "going to college" in this case means precisely the same thing as "not going to college," and going to the hospital because you've been shot in the leg by your friend brings down as much heat from the police as having not been shot by anyone at all. Nothing in the film leads to any consequences that Mitchell might have to think through and factor in except sex, so I don't know, maybe the anti-Puritanicals have a point here, but in any event that premise, the sex monster business, is the one thing that Mitchell seems to have expended any effort on at all, but if he'd put enough thought into it, or the right kind of effort, he'd have ended up telling us far less about it.

The ultimate example of the thoughtlessness that simply oozes out of It Follows is the climax, the big showdown scene, which involves a plan developed by one of our heroes which nobody involved, including the audience and David Robert Mitchell, should have any reason to believe will work, but that's okay because what seems to have been the plan, this other plan (not to spoil anything, but this other plan is essentially "What if we shoot it?" which happens to be further complicated by the fact that actually the plan is "What if we shoot it again?"), all of which seems to end one way, but which the characters have apparently decided, despite having been given no evidence whatsoever to support this, ended in a different way. And listen, ambiguity is one thing, but being dumb is also one thing, and from the moment Paul says to Jay "Do you trust me?", It Follows becomes hopelessly dumb; when you consider what came before, that this bit is notably stupid is, well, notable.

There are exactly two moments in It Follows that I thought showed some promise. They're very small moments, but I like small moments. Anyway, the first one is near the beginning. Jay is in her family's above-ground pool in the backyard, and there's a bug on her wrist. Mitchell shows her look at it and then lower her arm into the water, effectively, and intentionally, drowning the insect while using less energy than it would take to open a can of soda. I wondered what this might signify (hint: nothing). The other moment is when Hugh takes Jay to the movies and they're playing a game I won't describe but which involves imagining things about the people in the theater with them. Hugh says to Jay "Are you thinking about her?" Jay asks who and Hugh says "The woman in the yellow dress." Jay doesn't know what he's talking about, she sees no such person. Hugh immediately becomes anxious and asks that they leave the theater. I wondered "Does the supernatural threat in this film appear as a woman in a yellow dress? That's interesting...I wonder what kind of eerie visuals David Robert Mitchell has planned for this." He had zero of them planned, and you might imagine that the truth of his actual idea, that the creature can appear as anything, would at best open up certain possibilities, again, visually speaking, but, again, no. If anything it froze his brain. Nothing goes anywhere or means anything or has an impact or looks or sounds or is interesting. I've seen a lot of horror movies that I liked a good deal less than many people seemed to, but rarely have I been as baffled by the discrepancy between a film's reception and the film I actually saw as I am by my experience with It Follows. And as if all that isn't bad enough, there's a scene late in the film where a character is eating a sandwich, it appears to be tuna salad, a soft, noiseless sandwich, but the chewing sounds looped in would seem to indicate a lot of lettuce, raw onion -- thick, noisy things. What I'm saying is, the foley work does not at all line up with the sandwich I was looking at. I mean for Pete's sake. Who's minding the store here?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Close the Door When I Go

The reputation of British filmmaker Carol Reed, whose career spanned the mid-1930s to the early 70s, seems now to live under two shadows that he cast himself: the one he cast as the director of 1949's The Third Man, one of the handful of unimpeachable masterpieces in English-language cinema, a film of that rare type that is both humbling to watch and deeply, accessibly enjoyable (I am prepared to push my praise of it further than this and would probably meet little resistance if I did, The Third Man being The Third Man and everything, but you know how people can be), and the shadow he cast as the director of 1968's Oliver!, the boisterous Oliver Twist musical which wears its Broadway sensibility either proudly or shamelessly, and which committed what some regard as the unpardonable sin of winning the Oscars that 2001: A Space Odyssey was denied. It's a film that I don't recall thinking was actually bad, but maybe it is. Anyway, once these things take root, they often do so permanently.

There is, of course, more to Reed's career, but at least in the US not a ton of it is readily available. The Third Man was his twenty-second feature and remains his best-known by far, and finding most of what preceded it is not exactly a breeze. The Third Man was in fact the third of three Reed masterpieces in a row, following The Fallen Idol from 1948 (a Graham Greene adaptation, as is The Third Man), and Odd Man Out from 1947. The Third Man and The Fallen Idol were both at one time released on DVD and/or Blu-ray by Criterion, but both have since gone out of print (their release of Reed's Night Train to Munich remains in print). Undaunted, Criterion has just now released Odd Man Out, an adaptation not of Graham Greene but the coincidentally named F. L. Green, to DVD and Blu-ray. Hopefully this one hangs around a while.

In his new introduction to F. L. Green's novel, first published in 1945 and which has serendipitously just been reissued by Valancourt Books (I'm afraid I haven't had time to read it yet), Irish crime writer Adrian McKinty briefly charts the influence of the tradition of American crime fiction on Odd Man Out and British fiction in general, an influence, he points out, that is hardly surprising when you consider the number of American troops present during and after the war, and what they might favor in the way of reading material. So it naturally follows that Carol Reed's film version, the script for which was co-written by Green with R. C. Sherriff, would draw upon the still more-or-less new tradition of film noir that is, when you get right down to it, practically unavoidable when telling these sorts of stories. Anyway, speaking of this style, see above, to begin with, and then see below:

And what kind of story is this exactly? Well, actually first, look at this:

From The Third Man, obviously, but notice that how much mileage Reed was able to squeeze of of this sort of framing: a woman who's made up her mind in the middle, a despairing man on the left, the two of them flanked by some kind of orderly, symmetrical structure or landscape. Despite the second shot, most of both films take place at night, though Odd Man Out is even more of the night, if you get me, than The Third Man. In Odd Man Out, James Mason plays Johnny, the leader of something called The Organization, a kind of ideological gang of criminals based in Northern Ireland. So the IRA, in other words, though the politics of any of this, or rather the specific politics, are consciously not dealt with. Because what happens is, Johnny and his gang have planned to rob a local mill, the proceeds from which will fund their cause. But Johnny, who has recently escaped from prison and is, outside of this heist, lying low, reveals to his right-hand man (Robert Beatty) that he's begun to have doubts about using violence to further their goals. In general, there is a dispassion, almost a disorientation, about Johnny as he and his men head out to pull the job, and in the course of it not only is he wounded, but he shoots and kills a mill employee who tries to stop him. Cowardice and indecision lead the men he came with, who include Cyril Cusack and Dan O'Herlihy, to leave Johnny behind. Badly hurt and verging on delirious, Johnny escapes to a row of air-raid shelter where he hides until dark. All around him, the city knows he's on the loose, they know who he is, they know what The Organization is about, and they know he's killed a man.

This sets up the rest of Odd Man Out, which it would be difficult to say is not noir, but it no longer exists as any kind of heist film you've seen before. More than a heist film, or even more than noir, Odd Man Out soon becomes a picaresque: Johnny travels through the city, trying to make it back to his home, his hideout, and to the woman who loves him (Kathleen Ryan), along the way he meets a series of people, some who don't know who he is, but many who do, and they now must decide what course of action would best satisfy their conscience, if that kind of satisfaction even occurs, or appeals, to them. This means that apart from Johnny, the central characters in a major encounter, involving two women who tend to Johnny's wound and the husband of one of them who insists the right thing to do is call the police, are gone from the film once Johnny parts company with them. And so it goes, first in the air-raid shelter, where a young couple retreats for privacy and romance until the young woman nervously, touchingly says "I don't want to"; to the British soldier who believes Johnny is drunk; to the driver of the hansom cab who doesn't even know Johnny's his passenger; to the bizarre, motley trio of fringe-dwellers that include a jittery small-time thief (F. J. McCormick) and an amoral, alcoholic painter (Robert Newton, leaving it all on the table as usual). To most of these people, those who know who he is, Johnny will ask "Did I kill that man?" He only learns the answer to that when he overhears people talking about him in another room.

A crawl of text that opens the film tells the audience that the film isn't about the politics of Northern Ireland, but rather it's about what happens to ordinary citizens when they find themselves face to face with those politics. Shockingly, this doesn't turn out to be a dodge: it really isn't about the centuries-long question of Irish independence, or the changes Michael Collins brought about, or the mess that followed his assassination, or the growing reliance on terrorism by the IRA. None of that is brought up directly, at least, but what is at question is the morality of the situation. After Johnny is wounded, James Mason doesn't have a lot of lines in the film, yet the most pointed question asked by the film is asked only by him, though he doesn't speak the words; instead, the meaning of them become stronger as his strength drains away. The question is this: beyond a certain point, can a man's dreams survive his own aggressive attempts to bring them to life? If some of the citizens Johnny encounters show a yellow streak, and you could easily argue that a bunch of them do, that's because their city has been reduced to collection of fears and suspicions where any moral choice you make could end up ruining your life. Johnny's Organization contributed to that. We know Johnny has become conscious of this because nobody he meets cares as much about the man he killed as he does. And not even Johnny could tell you why that man had to die.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Best of Luck

When Roy Scheider died in 2008, a bunch of us cinephiles or whatever got to reminiscing, as you do, and I said to my friend Greg Ferrara, formerly of Cinema Styles, currently of TCM, that in my view Scheider was a better actor than Dustin Hoffman (I assume one or the other of us had brought up Marathon Man), who had by that point been canonized several times over while Scheider was regarded by most as little more than a highly dependable actor who everybody liked. No small achievement as far as building a reputation goes, I'll grant you, but pretty small beans when set beside his performances in films like All That Jazz, Sorcerer, Jaws, and on and on. Anyway, Greg responded by saying something along the lines of "The fact that I had to stop and think about that tells me you're onto something." So you see, I was right all along. I bring this up because since he died, my belief that Scheider was one of the greats has only strengthened, as has my frustration that outside of the films already mentioned he didn't have a career filled with the kinds of roles that would place him where he truly belonged. By and large, Scheider made the kind of films which would ensure that he'd be thought of as dependable and beloved, and not much more.

But even so. In my opinion, the Dustin Hoffmans of the world would have done well to mix in more of the type of film that Scheider built a career from. There's something about being able to plug into the small films as well as the big ones, the formulaic and the innovative, that allows for Scheider's brand of breezy, virtuosic, and varied naturalism. He could move from the existential horror of Sorcerer to what I guess you could all the existential joy of All That Jazz without changing himself fundamentally, without accents or makeup, but if that's not range then what is? He played a lot of cops, too, but even within that you have seen-everything tough guys he played in The Seven-Ups and The French Connection, the brave, good-hearted, but in-over-his head police chief in Jaws, as well as, and here we come to the point, the "weary modern cop," which is a certain type, pretty much always a middle-aged guy because part of being wearily modern is seeing everything you felt a connection with fade away. Scheider plays this type in Night Game, a thriller from 1989 written by Spencer Eastman and directed by Peter Masterson. Almost completely forgotten (the cover of the VHS I used to see, but never rent, at Blockbuster way back when recently came back to me in a rush) it was recently revived via a release to Blu-ray by Olive Films, and I gotta say, it's good to have it around.

Scheider plays Mike Seaver, an ex-minor league baseball player and current Houston homicide detective who, when we meet him, is still rebounding professionally from something that happened to him on the job in Dallas. He's also just proposed to Roxy (Karen Young), his much younger girlfriend. A life of regret that is further weighed down by having seen too much on the job (much of this is to be inferred from Scheider's performance and from casting Scheider in the first place) is threatening to brighten up, in other words, except there's a serial killer on the loose. He kills blonde women, at night, and the timing, placement, and pattern of the murders, it's eventually believed, point to a connection to the Astrodome. It's to the film's credit that Seaver doesn't jump unreasonably to this conclusion, which just happens to be true; on the other hand, this film is called Night Game.

If this sounds like a dull, run-of-the-mill '80s cop thriller, well, to some degree it is. The murders, as staged by Masterson, sort of go through the motions of being suspenseful -- a woman sees someone following her, she runs, she trips or whatever, etc. The only time I cringed in sympathy or suspense during one of these scenes was when one of the victims, shoeless so that she might run better, is shown about to step on a nail. Masterson, best known then as now for The Trip to Bountiful, for which Geraldine Page won an Oscar, and the Gene Hackman/Terri Gar romantic comedy Full Moon in Blue Water, which, okay, maybe it's not well known but my brother liked it (it also receives an incongruous post-modern wink in Night Game) clearly doesn't care about that stuff. He also doesn't care that the audience is going to clue in very early that the blonde-haired Roxy fits the victim profile and so she's probably better look over her shoulder. It's not that Masterson doesn't use this -- he does, twice. But the time he puts more effort into the time it doesn't pay off than the time it finally does.

No, what Masterson cares about, and what Scheider makes possible, is all the small stuff. The "character bits" I guess they're called. The subplot about Seaver's relationship to Roxy and her mother won't stun you with its blinding newness, but these are real people whose lives move along even as the bodies pile up, because those are the day-to-day facts. Which is to say that Masterson is "saying" this, or anything else, but the little moments of life are what clearly matter to him, and which Scheider brings off without an ounce of ostentation. He just falls into it. He looks like a guy who's been doing everything that he's ever done for a very long time, but this tiredness is offset by Scheider's physical leanness and overall air of competence which, if you're on the wrong side of him, made him seem dangerous (this is why he's so effective in Marathon Man). Scheider is one of the few actors who could look just as at home clutched in a mortal struggle with a psychopath as dozing in a recliner, a half-empty can of beer nearby. Again, if that's not range...

Night Game also benefits from being set in Houston, rather than New York or Los Angeles, and from a cast that, in addition to Scheider and Young, includes Richard Bradford, Lane Smith, and Paul Gleason. Those last two combined to probably play more assholes than any other two actors during the 1980s, but actors get as much work as they did because they're good and because they're pros, as they show here. The police station, as a result of the casting and the setting, has a real idiosyncratic life to it, not one that is self-consciously quirky, but one that has built up by the real people within it. In this regard, it's a shame that Masterson was hemmed in by what either he or the studio regarded as the constraints of the genre (the myth that everyone believes in) because there's a terrific cop drama buried in here. What we get instead is a solid cop thriller that draws its strength from Scheider. And who better to leach from than a guy who couldn't fake it if you paid him?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A True April's Tale

I am going to be the next Super Man in the next Super Man movie! This is news I just got today and it is TRUE. I am NOT lying. Benm Adflemk is OUT an I am IN! It is my dream come true to play SUPER Man! The movie as you all know is called SUPER MAN: A DREAMS OF JUSTICE and it will star me as Super Man (see picture of me in my costume copyright Universal Sony):

me as Super Man
and my cat Shirley as Ultron the Robot Fiend (see picture of Shirley with special effect eyes courtesy of copyright Universal Sony):

Ultorn the Robot Feind
It is so excited to be a Movie Star. I am a Million Air now and I am going to fly to the finest countries and eat the most delicouis Chicken Meat they have. Fried chicken, other kind of chicken, it doesnt matter to me. I jus want 2 eat it all. And now I can becase I am Superm An, Moive Star of the Ages this Summer in SURPE MAN: JASMINE DAWN. See you at the movei theateers guys! POW! ZIP! BOO!

APRIL'S FOOL YOU STUPID IDIOTS! I am not a super mant! I am sitting hear in a robe! APRIL!