Thursday, October 29, 2015

Rather a Hard Life

Daniel Handler once pointed out that among the strangest things to be found in Michael Tolkin's hugely strange 2003 novel Under Radar was that it "has a witch in the first sentence who never shows up again." Similarly, maybe two-thirds of the way through Barbara Comyns' second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths from 1950, a ghost appears for a few sentences and is then gone and forgotten. I would be inclined to dismiss this visitation as the dream of our narrator, Sophia Fairclough, except that the ghost is seen and remarked upon by a second person. At least according to Sophia, who I'm inclined to believe, as she'd seemed pretty honest up to that point.

Otherwise, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is essentially a realist novel, though one which makes room for character names like Peregrine Narrow and Bumble Blunderbore. Though the novel is far from soaked in such flourishy character names -- those are, I believe, the only two -- I believe the reference to Dickens is clear. When reading the name "Bumble Blunderbore," let's not forget Mr. Bumble from Oliver Twist, though the two would seem to serve different purposes. But anyhow, the story of Sophia Fairclough's life is a story of poverty, heartbreak, sadness, and tragedy, and so Comyns seems to me to be nodding back in the direction of Britain's, and perhaps history's, foremost chronicler of the terribleness of life. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is not otherwise Dickensian, however -- apart from its considerable brevity, the title itself suggests this is a novel which is not only picking up almost directly where Dickens left off (Dickens having died in 1870, Woolworths having been founded in 1878) but one that has a wryness to it with which Dickens, though himself a writer possessed of a rich sense of irony, may not have recognized. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths isn't a funny novel, and it's not nakedly striving for social reform through satire. Its wryness, and Comyns', comes from simply having been around the block a few times.

The novel, which has just been reissued by NYRB Classics, begins like this:

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.

This is being said to us by Sophia Fairclough, our narrator, as I've said, many years after the main action of the novel, which comprise the worst years of her life up to that point, have occurred. Sophia is consciously, even self-consciously, telling us her story. In the first stretch of the book, there are several, I don't know if you'd call them post-modern exactly, but anyway references to the fact that first person narrators must be telling us all of this stuff somehow. The most explicit of these comes when chapter nine begins like this:

This book does not seem to be growing very large although I have got to Chapter Nine. I think this is partly because there isn't any conversation. I could just fill pages like this:

'I am sure it is true,' said Phyllida.

'I cannot agree with you,' answered Norman.

'Oh, but I know I am right,' she replied.

'I beg to differ,' said Norman sternly. That is the kind of stuff that appears in real people's books. I know this will never be a real book that business men in trains will read, the kind of business men that wear stiff hats with curly brims and little breathing holes let in the side. I wish I knew more about words. Also I wish so much I had learnt my lessons at school. I never did, and have found this such a disadvantage ever since. All the same, I am going on writing this book even if business men scorn it.

Perhaps you've detected a certain frustration in that passage, from Comyns no less than Fairclough. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is considerably autobiographical. In the novel, Sophia marries Charles Fairclough, an aspiring painter from a broken but not unwealthy family. Sophia has two siblings, a brother and a sister, but the rest of her family is gone "for one reason or another." In life, Comyns' first marriage was to John Pemberton. Pemberton was an artist, and Comyns an art student at the Heatherley School of Fine Art. The marriage was brief, but it brought Comyns into the world of people like Dylan Thomas. Even though Comyns herself claimed that "The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty" (that's on the copyright page) it's easy to regard that claim as disingenuous. The monstrous laziness and selfishness displayed by Charles in the novel may or may not correspond to John Pemberton, but the artistic ambition of the fictional couple must correspond on some level with that of the real one. Then again, who cares? What matters is, in the first chunk of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths Sophia and Charles Fairclough fight to be allowed by Charles' divorced parents to get married, and when this is achieved their lives immediately begin to disintegrate.

It's worth noting that it's true, as Chapter Nine indicates, that there is very little in the way of dialogue in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and such dialogue as there is is contained within paragraphs, as opposed to being separated out (which would beef up the page count, as Sophia implied). That doesn't mean that Comyns' novel resembles something written by, say, Thomas Bernhard, but it does mean that the story is written in a style that doesn't focus on individual scenes of drama, or is a story even much interested in progression. Sophia's life, like history, is just one damn thing after another, so that major events (deaths, marriages, ghost) are often presented with the same level of significance as more minor ones (being taken out to lunch, getting a pet, getting a part-time job). It's all one life. There's no build, as such. She's telling it to us, and it's in the past for her.

Given the above, it's difficult to describe Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in terms of plot. Most of the story is a chronicle of struggling with poverty, the blame for which must fall pretty much entirely on Charles, who sits at home and paints and paints and paints, and who we're told is not without talent, but who also lazily and obliviously eats the small, poor birthday cake that Sophia made for their child, Sandro, before Sandro ever even laid eyes on it. This drives Sophia to actually strike Charles, but this reaction is rare. Mostly she's ashamed. Mostly, she feels disgraced. Everyone else, however shitty they may be, is rather comfortable with the fact that they are correct. Sophia enjoys no such confidence. During the years of poverty, this is as good as things get:

As the year went on our poverty got worse and worse. Charles just painted away and didn't notice unless there was no money for cigarettes. Then he would borrow a few shillings from Francis to buy some and he would be happy again. I was out working so much he had to look after Sandro nearly every day, but he was more reconciled to him now.

Please note the word "reconciled" to describe a father's relationship with his infant. There is much in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths about pregnancy and childbirth, and the fear of pregnancy and the dangers of it. Much of it, of course -- most of it -- is also about poverty. Having nothing, living with nothing, being happy to get a break on milk. Comyns is never ostentatious about this (as Dickens would have been, which I do not in any way hold against Dickens). Add a baby, or babies, to the poverty, yet remove any gilded language that you might expect from such material, and you have Our Spoons Came from Woolworths:

After Christmas things became grim again. No more book jackets came Charles's way and my model work was irregular and poorly paid, and the expenses were heavier now Sandro was weaned. We seldom had a fire and the light got cut off because we had not paid the bill, so we bought a little lamp for two-shillings-and-elevenpence and it gave quite a pretty light. We went to the electric light people and asked for the money we had given for a deposit back. It was nice to think they owed us money instead of it being the other way round. They gave us the deposit money less what we owed them and it paid for our food for a week. These days we lived on vegetable soup and bread. Sandro had milk and an occasional egg as well.

"...and it gave quite a pretty light." That perhaps offers a nutshell-account of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths better than anything else could. It's not so much that Sophia is naive or passive, or even optimistic, although at various times she's both. It's that she's young, and wants things to be nice, although she's no Pollyanna. How could she be, when her poverty and loneliness, in a life that includes a husband and children and a love affair, is so relentless? I was surprised while reading Our Spoons Came from Woolworths to be reminded of post-apocalyptic novels like Cormac McCarthy's The Road (and even horror/survival novels like Scott Smith's The Ruins). I realized the connection between such books, where in one a free lunch at a restaurant by an admirer or a kindness given by a landlord, and in another the divvying up of a single tuna fish sandwich among a half-dozen starving people, or sudden discovery of a fully-stocked bomb shelter by a father and son who've lived for many days on nothing, is pretty much unshakable, and as a regular reader of books that fall into all these categories I should have picked up on them before. And it's not the parts where the characters have nothing that grind you down -- it's the brief periods where the smallest things seem like decadence in comparison. The power of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is that that one day was the best day he could have hoped for.

Barbara Comyns was a great writer. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the third by her I've read, following The Vet's Daughter and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, each of which made my "Best Books" list in respective years (in which I read them, that is). Yes, she's forgotten, but there's no reason she should be. She's coming back in print, slowly but surely. Give her a look.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Capsule Reviews Again, But Short Ones This Time

Please see below.

The Deadly Bees (d. Freddie Francis) - The other day on Social Media, I was moved to remark that over the course of his career, Freddie Francis directed many films for Hammer Studios, such as Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and films for Amicus like Torture Garden, as well as interesting yet unaffiliated horror-ish one-offs like an adaptation by Ronald Harwood of the previously unproduced Dylan Thomas script about Burke and Hare, The Doctor and the Devils. In addition, Francis was perhaps an even more accomplished cinematographer, with DP credits on Scorsese's Cape Fear, Lynch's The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, and, most fascinatingly, Edward Zwick's 1989 Oscar contender Glory (my favorite film for a period of time in my youth). That is an interesting and varied career, fellows and ladies.

All that being said, what can one, finally, say about The Deadly Bees? This is a film that Francis directed in 1966, from a script by Anthony Marriott and, more notably, Robert Bloch, from a novel by H. F. Heard. I'll confess that I came to it first via the episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that showcased it, but amusing as I've always found that episode I have often wondered if, removed from that context, the film was really that bad. Well, Olive Films has provided me, and all of us, the opportunity to find out with their release of The Deadly Bees on Blu-ray. And of course, no, it's not that bad. Yes, there's some goofiness early on involving Britain's groovy music scene, from which our heroine Vicki Robbins (Suzanna Leigh) needs a break. But once she's sent, at the behest of her manager, to a rural English village to enjoy some peace as the tenant of a prominent local beekeeper Ralph Hargrove (Guy Doleman) and his wife Mary (Catherine Finn), it's really not that bad. We know, from a subplot involving a police investigation, that someone from that village has been sending letters to the cops threatening to unleash a deadly bee attack, and so the question is, is the culprit Hargrove, or his rival beekeeper H. W. Manfred (Frank Finlay)? All signs point to Hargrove, and Vicki teams up with Manfred to bring him down.

I think Hargrove and Finn are both pretty terrific. Theirs is an awful marriage, Hargrove is a cold bastard, Mary is understandably embittered, and both actors play the day-to-day reality of such a relationship quite well, without ever going into hysterics. Finlay is also really good -- I love the sympathetic yet thoughtful way he says "Poor little dog," regarding an early victim of the bees -- and in general the environment of the village is well sketched. The film is tripped up by Leigh, who simply doesn't seem like an actress here, to be honest, and the special effects -- you'd expect killer bee effects to not be at their peak in 1966, and you'd be right. But otherwise, it's, you know, it's fine. There are worse films. There are probably worse films about bees. I will say, however, that The Deadly Bees ends with one of the strangest and most unintentionally funny non-sequiturs I've seen in a film that's not really all that bad.

A Black Veil for Lisa (d. Massimo Dallamano) - Also just released on Blu-ray by Olive Films from which, when I threw it on last night, I didn't know what to expect, is this Italian thriller from 1968. I thought it was going to be what we in the movie-watching business, and also Italians of all sorts, call a giallo, but it isn't really. It's a cop movie, about the hunt by Inspector Franz Bulon (John Mills) for a mysterious drug dealer, a well as the hitman that drug dealer has hired to kill anyone who is about to give information to the cops. That hitman, named Max Lindt, we actually meet early. He's played by Robert Hoffmann, and when Bulon hunts him down the film gets flipped on its ear because Bulon hires Lindt to kill his, Bulon's, wife. Her name is Lisa (Luciana Paluzzi), and Bulon's love for her is intense to the point of obsession. So when he learns that she's been unfaithful, he snaps.

So what A Black Veil for Lisa turns out to be is Vertigo by way of James M. Cain. John Mills was no Jimmy Stewart, but he was John Mills, and there's something about the silence of his pain and anger that is both moving and unnerving. I wasn't shocked that he hired someone to kill his wife. But while Massimo Dallamano is Massimo Dallamano (I believe the only other film I've seen that he directed is the fairly ridiculous What Have You Done to Solange?), he's certainly no Alfred Hitchcock. I don't know, I just think that if your influence, or source, is going to be so obvious, maybe goose things up a little bit. There's not a whole lot going on here visually, but it's a good enough way to pass the time. It's certainly competent, and I'd wager the storytelling and Mills will be enough to get you through.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Kind of Face You Slash: Thinking Won't Get You Anywhere

The first time I learned the name William Sloane was in 1988, when in the introduction to Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's seminal Horror: 100 Best Books (and yes, I bring this book up a lot, there's a reason for that) it was pointed out that Harlan Ellison (yes, I bring him up a lot too, leave me alone), was originally going to contribute a piece about Sloane's 1939 novel The Edge of Running Water, but, according to Jones and Newman, Ellison reread the novel, one he'd loved in his youth, and found it to be rotten. The essay Ellison ended up writing to the book was about Clark Ashton Smith, and one can hardly question that choice, but why did Sloane slide into the gutter for him? Having read Sloane now, I'll be honest: I don't know.

The opportunity to familiarize myself with Sloane was afforded to me through the release by NYRB of The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. This volume, originally published in 1964, collects the only two novels that Sloane, mainly a publisher and editor by trade, ever wrote. These are To Walk the Night from 1937, and the aforementioned The Edge of Running Water. He also wrote a number of plays, and, according to Stephen King, in the typically chatty and rather interesting introduction he wrote for the NYRB edition, at least one short story that anybody has been able to track down, but as far as prose fiction goes, that story, called "Let Nothing You Dismay," and these two novels are it. This would make more immediate sense if Sloane had fallen off a bridge in 1940 or so, but he lived until 1974. I'm not going to speculate, but there is an interesting, though by no means off-putting, similarity between the two stories. Though I said I wasn't going to do this, it's possible to wonder if he believed he'd written one book twice. I would argue that he didn't, or that both novels are good enough that it doesn't matter, but why keep barking up this tree that may well not even be the one I'm looking for? But it's interesting. In some ways, you could even say the later novel, The Edge of Running Water, picks up where the earlier To Walk the Night leaves off.

The easiest way to get a sense of what Sloane was up to in a short period of time is to watch The Devil Commands, the adaptation of The Edge of Running Water starring Boris Karloff and directed by Edward Dmytryk that came out in 1941. That film isn't the subject of this post, but even though it whittles a 240-some page novel down to a 65-minute film, it's surprisingly faithful, and the gist, more or less, of that film and of Sloane's fiction is the mad scientist who is driven by either good intentions or understandable emotional turmoil. Sloane's doomed characters are the clear descendants of Victor von Frankenstein..

However, in Sloane's first novel To Walk the Night, the one full-blown scientist is dead, or nearly dead, and soon fully dead, when we first meet him. In fact, we know about all of the deaths in To Walk the Night within about the first twenty pages. The main characters are our narrator, Berkeley Jones and his best friend Jerry Lister, who we learn rather quickly has committed suicide. As the novel begins, Berkeley, nicknamed Bark, is travelling to visit Jerry's father, who knows of his son's suicide, but not the details. Bark is terrified by the prospect of telling him the full truth, but eventually he realizes that he must; perhaps in doing so he and Dr. Lister can figure out what it all means. But that, of course, is what terrifies Bark. The horror began, as even Dr. Lister knows, when the two friends were back at their alma mater, some years previously, for a football game. While there, they decided to visit Professor LeNormand, Jerry's one-time astrophysicist mentor. But they find the man dead, his body bent into an insane posture, and on fire, yet when extinguished strangely cool. When they learn from the authorities that LeNormand was married, Jerry is shocked -- the controversial scientist who'd made enemies with his article "A Fundamental Critique of the Einstein Space-Time Continuum" cared only for his work. But soon the young men meet LeNormand's wife, a stunning woman named Selena who behaves strangely and doesn't seem, in Bark's estimation, to have any idea how to dress, and after a while -- but not long enough, many believe -- Jerry begins romancing her. Along the way, Selena exhibits surprising powers of prediction, continues to behave as though everyday situations are new and confusing to her, and to generally strike Bark as rather frightening, if not quite malevolent. The plot of the novel by this point has shifted all the major characters back to New York City (of which Sloane seems rather fond, which is fine, if this didn't often contrast with a not-quite-but-close sneering attitude towards places that aren't New York City), but there will be two major geographical shifts: one back to the college town where we began, and where the chief of police has summoned Bark because he's made no headway in the death of LeNormand, and wants to share a bizarre theory about connections between Selena (whose alibi at the time of her husband's death is obviously water-tight) and a young mentally handicapped woman who went missing some time ago; and the other to a small town in Arizona, where Jerry and his eventual wife Selena move so he can carry on LeNormand's work, and where he finally commits suicide.

That last bit may sound like I've given away too much, but this is all revealed in Bark's initial conversation with Dr. Lister. The fact that the reader is naturally anticipating the suicide yet Sloane is still able to make it shocking is, I'd say, impressive, but I think I know how he did it. This will sound like an insult, but I don't mean it to be: the suicide is one of the very few visceral moments in the novel. The mystery of To Walk at Night is intriguing, and Sloane's willingness to spend time on things like parties and night's out, and on Bark's reckless, alcoholic behavior as his nameless panic over his Jerry's relationship with Selena, is unusual for writers in this genre, even back in the 1930s. To Walk the Night is by no means a long book, but once he's set everything up, Sloane is in no hurry to cut to the chase. Furthermore, Bark isn't merely a personality-free tube through which Sloane funnels his plot. He's weirder and more obviously troubled than Jerry, I'd say. His mother's weird too -- I won't get into all of that, I have another book to get to, but notice the bit where Bark admits to feeling "unfilial" towards her. And ask yourself, is the effect achieved here what Sloane was going for? And if so, what a weird thing to plunk down in the middle of this particular novel.

More about that book in a minute. When I said that The Edge of Running Water picks up where To Walk the Night leaves off, I meant that the later book takes the work of the mad scientist further, and gives it a definite purpose, which the essential unknowability of To Walk the Night doesn't allow for. That this purpose is taken from Mary Shelley is neither here nor there -- she gave Fankenstein a pretty huge goal to pursue, and it's only natural that other scientists would be driven that way, too. I'm talking about death, of course, and the defeat of death. In The Edge of Running Water, we again have a narrator, less strange than Bark though not quite an everyman, named Richard Sayles. Sayles was once good friends with, and (once again) the student of an eminent professor and scientist named Julian Blair. Once a beloved figure with a great mind, the sudden death of Blair's wife Helen sent him into a spiral that led him to move to a small town in New England called Barsham Harbor. There, five years after last seeing him, Sayles finds him, having been summoned to visit and lend assistance on a mysterious project Blair is deep into, living in a big house with his late wife's young sister, Anne, and a large, suspicious, unpleasant woman named Mrs. Walters. You should know that Sayles was also in love with Helen but he never got in the way of her relationship with Julian Blair, and Anne, when last he saw her, was fifteen, so now she's twenty. You can probably see where that's heading.

A bit more plot-driven than To Walk the Night, though not aggressively so, The Edge of Running Water has an ambling way about lining up and following the paths of its various mysterious. It's not hard to guess what Blair is trying to do before we're told outright. Obviously, he wants to communicate with the dead, and possibly destroy the barrier between life and death. Blair, looking terribly worn down, thin and unhealthy, when Sayles finally lays eyes on him, is more determined than ever to do this, and he claims to be making strides. This is something Sayles can't believe, but Blair refuses to show him any evidence yet. When Sayles learns that Mrs. Walters is a spirit medium, he's even more appalled. Then, all of a sudden -- or not "all of a sudden"; like To Walk the Night, the fates of various characters are told to us early on, and it's our job to find out why they end up the way they do -- The Edge of Running Water turns into a whodunnit. Or rather, a how'dithappen. Blair's lovable housekeeper, Mrs. Marcy, dies, suddenly, apparently from a fall down the stairs. But Sayles and Anne, who were outside when it happened, heard a terrible noise, one both Anne and Mrs. Marcy had heard before. Both Sayles and Anne are positive in this case it wasn't thunder, though a storm was boiling up at the time:

It happened as we passed the maple tree under which we had been lying earlier in the afternoon. Between one step and the next I found myself stopped, as if I had run into a wall, or come to the edge of an unexpected cliff and halted instinctively. For a second I did not understand why I had brought up short, and then I knew. It was the thing Anne and Mrs. Marcy had tried to describe to me. By the time I was fully aware of it, the noise had stopped, but the echo of it was still in my ears...From ahead of us somewhere -- I felt certain that it was from the house itself -- had come such a sound as I have never heard in any other place. It was a deep and indescribable thing, as single and yet as multiple as the noise of a tempest or the roar of a rock slide. An instant after it had reach us there was a sharp rush of wind and a stinging splatter of rain across my naked back, so that I checked my stride only momentarily and was running again toward the blurred loom of the house ahead in the same second, perhaps, that I had paused.

When he and Anne reach the house, they see Mrs. Marcy at the bottom of the stares, with Blair and Mrs. Walters standing over her. It should be noted that the read is fully aware by now that Mrs. Marcy will die, but she's not officially declared dead for several pages yet, which in terms of suspense is a strange move. But then again, this is a strange book, as was To Walk the Night before it. It's a better novel, too (apart from Sloane's seeming hatred of small-town people, which gets a workout here) -- the title The Edge of Running Water turns out to be a great one. Not only does it simply sound good (better than To Walk the Night, a title I was constantly forgetting as I read it), but it ultimately has a meaning that is sad, poetic, and eerie, all at once. Still, I think it's the curious nature of the plot progressions that I'll eventually find so memorable. It's almost like a straightforward mystery story (and with an inquest scene that goes on forever, though this didn't bother me, I have to say) in many ways, but with this cloud of otherworldly terror hanging over everything. 

And of course it's that terror which is the whole point, right? What is going on with Selena, and what was LeNormand doing that Jerry was trying to finish before killing himself in Arizona? And has Julian Blair found a way to end the separation between life and death? Of course, it was H. P. Lovecraft who wrote "And with strange aeons, even death may die," but in context, this wasn't exactly something he hoped for. Neither does Sloane. ("Death is good," said Val Lewton.) NYRB calls To Walk the Night and The Edge of Running Water "Tales of Cosmic Horror," cosmic horror being the subgenre of horror that is most directly associated with Lovecraft. He pretty much started it all, didn't he, with his Old Ones, the horrible gods who live in outer space (roughly speaking), and he did it before Sloane had written a word. Lovecraft in fact died the same year that To Walk the Night was published. 

Stephen King notes the connection between Sloane and Lovecraft in his introduction for NYRB, but only in passing. He brings it up mainly so that he can mark the difference in the two writers' prose styles. King has always given off the air of being somewhat skeptical of Lovecraft's greatness, because of his prose. He says that Sloane is closer to Chandler. I'd say he's not that close, but the examples King pulls from Sloane (such as this from To Walk the Night: "Maybe the Italians can live happily on the slopes of Vesuvius, but I am not that sort of person") do sound more like The Long Goodbye than "The Dunwich Horror."

This is no small thing, though horror fans, I must say, do seem to devalue good prose. They can get behind good purple prose, maybe (and I like that stuff myself, and when Lovecraft was at his best, that's what he wrote, better than a lot of writers), but good clean prose tends to get lumped in with the garbage. Sloane was very good, and he actually provided fewer answers to the questions raised by his horrors than Lovecraft did. Sure, Yog-Sothoth is a kind of metaphor, but Sloane doesn't even give his readers that much. There is something above us that is dangerous. There is something beyond us that is terrible. We don't know what it looks like or what it's called or what it wants or even if it hates us. Perhaps killing us is just an inevitable side effect of its perpetual motion. That's what Sloane is willing to send us off to bed thinking about.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

You Think Capsule Reviews Are Dead In Our Time? Well Listen Up, Chump!

New movies! New movies! Capsule reviews! Capsule reviews of new movies! Callooh! Callay!

The Martian (d. Ridley Scott) - I had thought, at one point, and bizarrely, that there was a period in his career during which Ridley Scott wasn't especially productive. That there were like four or five year gaps between films. This is not the case, as my five seconds of "research" reveals to me. I guess I thought this because there's a kind of dead zone in his filmography that even some folks like myself, an enthusiastic born-again fan, haven't bothered exploring. I'm thinking about 1492: Conquest of Paradise and White Squall and G.I. Jane. That kind of stuff. And later Body of Lies and A Good Year. He's made several films I've never seen, and I feel like they almost don't even exist. Or count, somehow (maybe they're very good, I obviously don't know). But he's always worked steadily, and the fact that Ridley Scott has made four films in the last four years isn't actually all that unusual. What might count as noteworthy, at least, is the fact that the first three of those four -- Prometheus, The Counselor, and Exodus: Gods and Kings -- have more or less been critically reviled. Prometheus is a film that seemingly the whole world was excited to see, and the whole world was disappointed by. The Counselor, which boasted an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, a great writer who, I suspect, is beloved by more people than have actually read him, was said by one major critic to be the worst film ever made. Both of those films have their pockets of defenders, but even those people seemed to back away from Exodus: Gods and Kings. No one liked that one.

Well, I liked it. I also loved Prometheus (review here) and The Counselor (review, plus anger, here), both of which I consider among the best films Scott has ever made, up there with Alien and Blade Runner and Black Hawk Down, and among the best films of the decade. Given my feelings for his recent work, you must understand how satisfying it is for me that Scott's newest film, The Martian, is shaping up to be one of the most beloved films of the year. Which, I'll grant you, The Counselor, with its "your choices have created a literal Hell on Earth, now look at it" ethos was never going to be. So The Martian, a big old crowd-pleaser, might be somewhat calculated on Scott's part. Or maybe he's just eclectic. He always has been before, why stop now?

The Martian is based on a blockbuster science-fiction novel by Andy Weir -- it's a novel I started and stopped pretty quickly, because Weir's prose gave me the shakes, though the premise, when thought of in the context of what I know Scott is capable of, was very exciting to me. It's basically this: sometime in the future, there's a manned NASA mission to Mars. The crew is all out on the surface of the planet doing their work when a storm they thought was several hours away, and weak, suddenly proves to be much closer and quite strong. In the rush to get back, in the midst of the storm, one astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist, is hit by debris and lost to the maelstrom. His spacesuit is punctured, too, which means he's basically dead. So with great reluctance, the rest of the crew, led by Michelle Lewis (Jessica Chastain), leaves him, boards their ship, and launches towards home. But through a type of luck as freakishly good as the bad kind that almost killed him, Watney survives. The storm passes, and he finds himself alive, though injured, and with the base he and the rest of his now-departed crew had previously occupied intact. He's alone, but there's some food, and some water, and equipment. In addition, he's a botanist, and he has some potatoes, some Martian soil, and some human shit. He starts growing potatoes. Then, through one thing or another, he and NASA begin communicating with each other.

I can't detail how all of this comes about, but this isn't a One Man Alone film. I mean, he is alone, but about half of the film takes place on Earth, and there's a big cast. There's Jeff Daniels as the director of NASA, there's Kristen Wiig as the head of NASA's public relations (which is getting a workout under the circumstances), Sean Bean as the earthbound flight commander for Ares III (the mission in question), Benedict Wong as the head of Jet Propulsion Labs, Donald Glover as the awkwardly ingenious astrodynamicist who figures out some important shit, and plus, the rest of the Ares III crew, who eventually become rather important, such as Michael Pena, Kate Mara, and no offense to the rest of them, but etc. You get the idea, I think, of the kind of cast at work here (it's a very racially diverse one, too, which I think is an unmistakable theme here: "Wouldn't it be great if we could get here one day"). I knew the gist of the film, so this was all expected. What I didn't expect was that The Martian would be close to a remake of Ron Howard's 1995 film Apollo 13. Now how do I summarize all of this, because I have two more of these to write.

Well, to begin with, if this is even where I should begin, Scott, or screenwriter Drew Goddard, or possibly original novelist Andy Weir, saw the similarities to Apollo 13 (film and historical incident) and decided to lean into it, because at least one line (possibly two) from the earlier film is quoted in The Martian: such-and-such is a "steely-eyed missile man." This is pretty much necessary, I think, because the similarities are unavoidable. But once past that, how does The Martian hold up? Fairly well, I'd say. It has its problems, and its goofy stuff. There's a bit where Ejiofor's character realizes something important and says, while in the depths of NASA headquarters, "I need a map." Of Mars, he means, so he and another NASA person played by Mackenzie Davis rush to the cafeteria to grab a map of the surface of Mars off the wall. I feel like two NASA employees in NASA headquarters whose work is entirely focused on Mars missions would probably have images of Mars' surface close to hand and wouldn't have to think "Hey is there one in the cafeteria, maybe?" But I understand the idea behind the scene. Rather than showing two people sitting at a table doing math, let's show them being resourceful off the cuff, and let's add the color of a cafeteria, and so forth. I get it, but it's an impulse whose employment can shred the naturalism it's meant to build up. There are a few moments like this in The Martian.

But, in the end, so what? As powerless as I am in the face of Apollo 13, for all its many faults (and they are, indeed, many), so too am I powerless before The Martian. And The Martian doesn't insult its audience by manufacturing a villain, as Howard did with his ridiculous depiction of that film's flight doctor as some sort of stick-up-the-ass dickhead who everyone hated, because hey, this is a movie, there's gotta be a villain, even if the villain is only trying to do his job well. The Martian doesn't have that. There's no villain. Characters disagree -- Bean and Daniels have some good stuff in this regard -- but it's not a case of one of them is wrong and the other is right and the audience has a rooting interest. It's easy to understand both of them, but the point is that everybody is trying to work together for the best result, and the best result is, how many people can we save? This is irresistible. Hence the large and recognizable cast. It's wonderful, and fun, and even exhilarating, if you're in the mood for it, to watch all of this play out.

I regret to say that Wiig, who I like, is the weak link (surprisingly, she sometimes feels like she's in a very low-key comedy sketch, which, of course, doesn't fit; I'm not sure this is her fault), and that the scene where Glover explains his plan to Daniels aims for comedy and completely bricks it. But Glover, otherwise, isn't bad, and the character-actor wing of this film, which is vast, is generally hugely appealing, with Benedict Wong, as the frustrated but unbending chief of JPL, standing out as the most specific human being in the whole production. If there's one thing a film like The Martian needs, it's naturalistic performances from those actors playing the ground-floor, meat-and-potatoes scientists who're trying to get things done. Wong does that better and more consistently than any other single actor in the film. I loved him. He's perhaps my favorite actor in the film.

Next to Damon, anyway, who is terrific (Wong might still be my favorite, but let's keep moving). Very early on, Damon as Watney has to deal with a serious injury. His training has to kick in, and he has to, essentially, perform surgery on himself. Watching this scene I thought "Well, pretty clearly, Matt Damon isn't in this much pain. But if I didn't know how movies and acting worked, I would believe that he was in agony." I was always thoroughly convinced by Damon, and by Watney's plight. The food issue, the potatoes, the ketchup, the rationing, the Vicodin...I was in there. I loved it, I thought the humor of Damon's performance, which is essential, and the desperation, which is also essential (watch him count potatoes during a storm on Mars), the cracked's great, the detail of it, the sound of it, the humility plus the scientific wherewithal which backs that up...Damon plays it all. It's not quite a one-man show, somehow. Leaving aside all the other characters with whom he can't directly interact -- Scott and Goddard (and Weir probably) set Damon up with an out: he can talk to a camera, which can function as a person, in terms of performance. But that's still acting by yourself, and Damon is great. He's a movie star, but terminally underrated as an actor. It's his movie, and he brings it home.

Love & Mercy (d. Bill Pohlad) - Now a director who has had a pretty significant gap between films is Bill Pohlad. His first film was Old Explorers from 1990. His second is Love & Mercy, which got a wide release this year. In between that, Pohlad did plenty -- he served as a producer on a variety of films, including 12 Years a Slave and Wild, for example -- but I do find this sort of creative career interesting. I have no particular theories about it, mind you, though I suspect it's gratifying for his life as a director to quite suddenly be on the upswing. Who could have expected it, after all? Although the idea of a biopic about The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, starring Paul Dano as the young genius Wilson and John Cusack as the middle-aged, deeply troubled Wilson of legend must inspire some fantasies of being noticed finally, one way or another. You're asking for something, making such a film, and what Pohlad has delivered, the film just described, has been rather widely embraced as if not one of the best films of the year, at least one of the better films of the year.

Among the reasons why Love & Mercy has been so well-received as an off-book biopic is its structure. About half the film takes place in the 1960s, as Paul Dano's Brian Wilson was gearing up for the epochal Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, then extending through that album's release and the mental and creative breakdown that coincided with the writing and orchestrating of Wilson's legendary (almost mythical, if a solid version of it hadn't finally been released) album Smile. The other half of the film is set in the 1980s, after Wilson had become the Howard Hughes-esque oddball who it became somewhat hip to make fun of for a while. He lived in bed, he wrote songs about vegetables, this is what fame does to the arrogant. That was the popular idea for a while, and one of Love & Mercy's not insignificant achievements is to make it clear that Brian Wilson isn't just some dick who went made with excess, but he is in fact a genuinely troubled man who needed help, and finally got it.

On the other hand, among the things that Love & Mercy can't really swing, is being a truly interesting biopic. Yes, structurally it's somewhat unusual, but really, it's not that interesting, and besides the Paul Dano sections are fairly standard-issue. Which is strange, because from what I've gathered it's those sections, the bits where Brian Wilson is in his heyday, the almost otherworldly genius whose sense of sound was (is) so unlike anything else in pop music, that have most earned the film its regard. And yet, in these scenes you have Mike Love (Jake Abel) returning with the rest of the band from a Brian Wilson-less tour of Japan to find the relative craziness of Wilson's plans for Pet Sounds, and thereafter engaging in typical "Brian these songs aren't fun, the Beach Boys are about fun, you have betrayed the band, we shall never succeed, O! desolation!" shenanigans, not to mention the father of the Wilson brothers, Murry (Bill Camp), himself a record producer and unsupportive, at best, of his most talented son, saying "No one will ever remember you, my son, who is the leader of the soon-to-be forgotten music band known as The Beach Boys!" You'll detect a note of sarcasm, and yes I've altered these lines to strengthen my hilarity, but those lines, only with fewer words, exist in Love & Mercy. Is that the worst of it? I'd say no. Later, as Brian Wilson's walls begin to fall, we see Paul Dano sitting on the edge of his pool, having gained some weight, staring at nothing, the voices and musical arrangements taking over his head by now, while his wife (Erin Darke) calls out to him about his infant daughter "Brian, she's smiling! She smiled! She has your smile! You should see her smile!" With all of this having already been done and said, I see no reason why director Bill Pohlad shouldn't have thrown in the line "Your famously troubled masterpiece is called Smile!" at the end there.

It's the Cusack scenes that I find have been critically ignored, or somewhat maligned, but I don't agree. I think this is Love & Mercy at its best. Not necessarily because this is the stuff that turns the biopic on its ear -- Love & Mercy is really just a 160-minute boilerplate biopic with the middle part scooped out -- but because the three central performances are so good. Paul Dano has enjoyed most of the praise so far, but it's Cusack, an actor I've both really liked and been really frustrated by in about equal parts for many years, who really knocked me out. Dano's good, but he's an actor who's still full of tics, whereas Cusack, no stranger to tics, is well into maturity now, and has learned how to do a lot with a little. And remember, he's playing a mentally troubled character, which often brings out the worst in actors. But not in Cusack. The gist of this section of the film is, Brian Wilson has become a shut-in whose career is being managed by his psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who's controlling and exploiting Wilson with pills. Wilson meets a young car saleswoman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks). They fall in love, she sees what Landy is doing to him, and she fights to extract Wilson from this terrible, potentially fatal situation.

But Cusack is outstanding. Really outstanding. So are Banks and Giamatti, for my money -- I think Banks is generally pretty terrific and has a way of instantly communicating whatever will make the audience either hate or sympathize with her. She has a very classic way of sketching these things out -- it's almost broad, but not quite. She'd have been at home in the 1950s while still working just as well in 2015, which is a rare thing, for which she's of course been taken for granted. Giamatti, on the other hand, is I believe a great actor who has very often been miscast (there's no way he belonged in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but then again, other than Andrew Garfield, who I don't fuckin' trust, but never mind about that, who did?) but when he winds up in the right part has an intensity that also seems, like Banks' style, current and a throw-back. Giamatti is an old-fashioned performer, in a way. He can really go big, and that seems to be his inclination a lot of the time, occasionally, though by no means always, to his detriment. Love & Mercy is one of those instances when his instincts line up exactly with how the character should be played. Landy's a monster, a manipulative little shit, and actually one of the best scenes is between Giamatti and Banks. Banks isn't buying his shit, and he knows it, and it's a great stand-off where nobody is saying what they think. There's also a really stupid scene that should have been re-written, where the two have a real showdown, and in which Giamatti is great, let of the leash to be hateful and scream "Slut! SLUT!" at a closed door, but which is ruined by Pohlad's insistence on making the setting "colorful." It's like the cafeteria scene in The Martian, in fact; the scene takes place on the showroom floor of the Cadillac dealership where Banks' character works, and nobody cares or does anything. This might be fine, but after Giamatti storms off, Banks' boss shows up to casually ask "Now what're you gonna do?" I don't know but what you should've done is called the damn cops, bud. It's a weirdly dumb scene that is nevertheless played very well by its two principals.

But anyway, Cusack is the show here. He's outstanding. This is his best performance in years, and I say that because he seems to get across a depiction of a mentally unhealthy genius being controlled through pills by an unscrupulous greed-monkey that feels exactly right. And obviously I don't know how accurate any of this is -- everybody who's ever managed my music career has been pretty cool, thank God -- but what Cusack does here is hugely convincing. There are a number of scenes that worked for me. One is during a double date (of a fairly perverse sort) in which Cusack as Wilson can't stop himself from revealing terrible facts about his childhood while not understanding that this might be viewed by others as inappropriate in a restaurant with another couple nearby, but Cusack plays that social disconnect just right, which is to say, he doesn't play it. He lets the actors around him play it, which they do ably. In another scene, at a barbecue hosted, apparently, by Giamatti's Landy, the problem of what Wilson wants versus what Landy will allow, and the triviality of it all, is made stark to Banks' Melinda, but it's Cusack, trying to both grab what he can't have and then being docile, because of the pills, in the face of a horrifying onslaught from Giamatti, that drives home the problem. Because he does so little, and Banks sees that. She sees that he's not reacting enough. An argument might be made by some that Cusack shouldn't get the credit for this, that Banks and Giamatti should (and they should), but you could only make that case if you didn't watch the scene. What Cusack does is a marvel of, not stillness, as you might expect, but rather of not reacting to the moment as a mentally healthy person would. He should be openly ashamed or embarrassed or angry, but he's none of those. Yes, context plays a part, but context can't act. Cusack can.

Later, in the third scene, Cusack plays full paranoia, which is a more expected route under the circumstances, but which he pulls off with such sweaty desperation -- because Wilson is still with it enough to understand that he might be driving Melinda away -- that I became uncomfortable. To boil it down, I was finally able to appreciate Brian Wilson at his best because Cusack so perfectly played him at his lowest.

The Green Inferno (d. Eli Roth) - Speaking of oddly paced careers! It's like this is a whole theme that only got rolling because I was wrong about Ridley Scott. Well, such is life. So one might be tempted to say about the career of Eli Roth, a filmmaker who for a couple years was being pegged as some sort of leader among American horror filmmakers. Beginning with the horror comedy Cabin Fever in 2002, Roth seemed prepped to light things up with Hostel in 2005, a film that at least boasted an intriguing premise (look it up), but which he, in an act which I think we as a people might now reasonably describe as "typical," chose to follow up with a sequel to same. The interesting thing, depending on your mood or general approach to life, is that Hostel: Part II struck me, and others, as rather better (as it struck still others as rather worse, the term "torture porn" became a thing, etc., let's skip all the way past all that useless nonsense) than the first film. Eli Roth has a director's eye, and a sense of the eerie even in his non-supernatural stories. See, for example, the pool scene in Hostel: Part II, for atmosphere, and see, as well, the scene in Hostel: Part II where the hostel clerk tries to warn our protagonist, during a party, of her potential fate. It's very creepy, and more than that, well-judged. But Eli Roth has a tendency to throw all this stuff away, and not even count them among his achievements: it's the ripped out eye in Hostel and the cut-off dick in Hostel: Part II that he tends to cite as the kind of thing he's doing right. Such business has led me to remark on numerous occasions that Roth is a quiet horror director trapped in a shallow gorehound's body.

Though it's interesting to me, and I promise you, not in a shitty way, that Hostel: Part II seems to have sunk his career a little bit. It didn't take, in other words, and he's struggled since then to get another film off the ground. He's worked for other people (see Inglourious Basterds), but he hasn't been able to do much with his own stuff, until in 2013 -- six years after his previous feature as a director -- word got out about an entirely Roth-ish project, one that had actually been written, shot, and edited, called The Green Inferno, a film which would recall for the, well let's not say "discerning," but the, and actually let's not even say "informed," but the horror fan who's watched whatever slid by their face, such appalling horror "classics" as Cannibal Holocaust (I saw that one) and Cannibal Ferox (I haven't bothered, and won't). Among the many things a film like The Green Inferno made in a year like 2013 by a writer/director like Eli Roth might promise, I thought when first I heard of it, was a certain kind of political "hey lookit me!"-ism on the part of the asshat making this shit, which I'd be less aggressive about if I hadn't listened to any part of Roth's solo commentary track on the home video release of Hostel: Part II. You tell me how far you get into that one. Bringing that up would be unfair if The Green Inferno didn't promise to be the angry liberal-activist college student nonsense of that commentary track made flesh. This would all be fine on one level -- Roth certainly wouldn't be the first left-leaning filmmaker to take on horror, and indeed in the current horror climate he's simply toeing the company line. But if he's gonna have that kind of head on him, he'd better know what he's fucking doing. I saw The Green Inferno today, and I am not convinced that he does.

So the story of The Green Inferno is this: a college student named Justine (Lorenza Izzo) attends a class wherein she learns for the first time about female genital mutilation, as practiced in certain African and/or Muslim nations. She's outraged, and wants to help, so through Jonah (Aaron Burns), another student who has a crush on her, she finds her way to an activist group led by Alejandro (Ariel Levy), whose goal, at the time Justine finds them, is to fly down to a segment of the Amazon rain forest, chain themselves to trees, and thereby stop the evil corporations from bulldozing anything. Not quite in the same league as trying to stop female genital mutilation, and I'm undecided on the matter of whether or not this point was lost on Roth. I'll let it go, though. So they fly down, they chain themselves to trees, they're arrested, but that doesn't amount to much. They're ready to fly home. Something happens to the plane. At this point, Roth, who had heretofore approached The Green Inferno as something he didn't need to do anything particular about, decides suddenly to direct, and the plane crash is actually visually unique. Apart from the bits which remind me of the plane crash from Alive, Roth seems to me to have hit on a new way to film a plane crash. It won't knock your eyes out necessarily, but it's dynamic, and watching it I thought something along the lines of "Oh well okay, here we go, this is a movie."

And indeed, from this point forward, The Green Inferno does feel more like the work of someone who had an idea to make a film than it had previously. To what end, though? It's honestly hard to know where to begin; I guess the first point would have to be that Roth's inspiration is being drawn, primarily, from a terrible movie: Cannibal Holocaust. That film is not a filmmaker's film, it's a film made by someone who wants to shock. So the artistic impulse, the creative, formal drive, is dead almost from the beginning. And visually, The Green Inferno is a big nothing, a point-and-shoot exercise that draws whatever visual panache it has from the Amazon jungle setting, the filming and manipulation of which (everybody does that shit, I'm not judging) Roth and his crew were fortunate enough to, I'm guessing, blackmail somebody into paying for.

Beyond that, anything cinematic comes from character design. Those who survive the plane crash -- Justine and Alejandro, to begin with, but there are others -- are captured by a cannibal tribe. If The Green Inferno manages to instill a queasy discomfort in the viewer, my guess is that most viewers would feel it during the scene in which the survivors are herded by red-stained natives out of their boats (there's more to all of this, I'm simplifying it, plus, hey, enjoy the surprises!) into a village filled with people whose culture is quite apart from our own, and what the presence of a cluster of know-nothing college students would mean to such people, and what they'd want to do about it, when they have every ounce of control in their hands, because this is rather terrifying. You can deem someone who has that reaction, or can imagine that reaction, any number of things, but I'd invite you to give it a spin yourself. Anyway, Roth does this part pretty well, but then again he's just aping Ruggero Deodato, who, at least in Cannibal Holocaust, isn't even a good filmmaker.

But I was saying that, visually, character design becomes a highlight in the film, and I think it does. The natives look good, the ones who're meant to be especially scary are especially scary while still seeming to exist in this world, and the terror the remaining characters, who are locked up in a wooden cage, feel seems more or less authentic. This authenticity is probably the result of the film's first major gore scene, which I guess I won't "spoil," but whatever, we know what film we're watching, you can guess what the deal is, and even thought parts of this scene involve digital effects, it's pretty effective. I actually thought, gorehound though I am not, "Well, given what kind of film Roth has announced this will be, with his series of vigorous blurts, I'd have to concede that if The Green Inferno continues down this track, he might actually be on to something." Something that would be nothing like original, of course, but something. I needn't have worried, though, because the only track The Green Inferno continues down is the one that kills off its characters one by one, while at the same time indulging in diarrhea jokes (I'm actually serious -- we're supposed to laugh when a young woman who is terrified that she's about to be horribly murdered gets the shits). Politically it's a mess. I don't think Roth knows what his own politics are in this situation, other than that he doesn't like naive college activists. Well, neither do I, but so what? Plus, when he has the most vile character (this is a guy who jerks off in the cage basically right after another character has died because he says it's important to relieve tension, which means nothing about the character or the politics or the, God save me, "satire," and only reflects back on Roth's desire to be what he considers transgressive, which also just happens to be the same thing that a hyper fifteen-year-old boy would consider transgressive), when he has the most vile character, I say again, say something along the lines of "You don't believe the government knew nothing about 9/11, do you?" it's hard to not think that Roth is actually on board for this. I'm not saying he's on board for all the vile shit this character does, but the weak-ass conspiracy cynicism, yeah...Roth's on board for that. All of which means that by virtue of thinking it's "about" "anything", and by having the ideas ("ideas") it has in its stupid empty head, The Green Inferno adds up to being among the most shallow horror films one might stumble into, which, in 2015, is pretty goddamn shallow.

And that's what I'd say if the movie had ended well. Or not well, but rather, reasonably. But it has a post-credits sequence that made me audibly sigh, because the gist of the plot that's hurled at us in those last seconds is that Eli Roth has turned around, pulled down his pants, and begged us shamelessly to allow him to make an even dumber sequel. Let us join forces and not let him.