Sunday, December 31, 2017

Beneath This Sea is Sea: The Books of 2017

I feel like no matter how long my fallow periods in the writing of this blog last, this one, my annual list of The Best Books What I Did Read, will always draw me back. I’ll spend most of one day at the end of every year writing it.

Anyway, if I ever don’t, it won’t be on a year such as this one, in which I almost doubled the number of books read in my previous best reading year, and almost tripled what I would guess my average to be. Because of this, while much of what’s to follow should be familiar to anyone who has read these lists of mine in the past – these books are not necessarily listed in an order of preference, until the last few, which I do consider the third, second, and first best books I read this year, etc. – you will find a whole new second thing here: the entire list of books I read in 2017. I include this entirely and only out of boastfulness; you’ll notice that I include no indication, outside of the main list of separated “best” books, what I thought of any of these, so other than saying to you “Lookit all these books I read,” what possible purpose could it serve? It should go without saying that not every book I liked can make the list of “best” books, so many of the uncommented-upon titles I liked very much, indeed. Others I hated down to my bones. I’ll let you guess which are which! And if you see a book on there that you count as one of your favorites, just assume that I despise it, and you, and all you represent.

All right, let’s get this fucking nonsense rolling! I’d like to be finished by dinner-time.

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King – For many years, after Cell, I was out of the habit of reading Stephen King, and this had been a habit I’d maintained as avidly as a smoker for many, many years. A few years back I decided to take it back up again on a limited basis, and it has provided me with limited, but real, enjoyment. This book, which I skipped even during my more passionate years due to my callow assumption that it would be dull, has by far been the most rewarding. The title character tells the entire story, the book written as though she were speaking to the cops who have arrested her for the murder of the old woman she worked for, and King finds greater success with this conceit than I expected. Dolores is a full person, her life and story equally so, with all the suspense and rural Gothic you could want from a book like this. That it’s sister novel is the nebulously, mysteriously, but unmistakably, and thematically, linked Gerald’s Game, also published in 1992, just makes the whole thing more powerful.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally – This year was supposed to be my big Keneally year, but this, also the first book I read in 2017, is the only one I got to. Based on the true story of aborigine in 19th century Australia who after years of being treated unjustly by white Australians, suddenly embarks on a rampage of violence. Harrowing and at times genuinely shocking, Keneally doesn’t make the mistake of glorifying what Blacksmith does. He’s simply saying, if one must simplify this complex novel, that that led to this.

Cops and Robbers by Donald E. Westlake – I wrote about it, briefly, here.

The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath – One of several novels I read this year that actually came out in 2017, and one of several by writers I rank as favorites, McGrath’s unusual pseudo-ghost story about a woman dealing with the death of her actor husband, a few years after the end of World War II, and some alarming revelations that follow, may suffer from an ending that, while perfectly fine as far as what actually happens goes, feels so rushed that I wondered if McGrath’s manuscript was due later that afternoon. But that’s ultimately no big deal, because the rest of the novel is so sad, and so unnerving, and so full of little bits about the English theater at that time, the environment, and bombed out London. I think it’s McGrath’s best in years.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill – The story of a marriage teetering on the point of collapse, told in a meticulously assembled series of incidents and digressions and thoughts on whatever subject happens to seem relevant to the protagonist, even if she’s  unable to articulate why all this makes sense together. I don’t think I could articulate why this all works together myself, but it does. It’s like being inside the head of a sane person: everybody’s head is a jumble, even when it all makes sense.

Othello by William Shakespeare – It’s good! Also, I think Othello being a Moor might actually be relevant.

Dearest by Peter Loughran – Sort of like The Collector by John Fowles, but less ponderous, and written in a way that evokes actual life as it’s lived by some. It’s all the more disturbing for it. Relegated to the genre bin and therefore “disposable.”

Go Tell It On the Mountain  by James Baldwin – One of three books written by James Baldwin I read this year (as with Keneally, it was supposed to be more), along with If Beale Street Could Talk and The Fire Next Time. This novel, Baldwin’s first, stands out for me in the way it tells the story of John Grimes, a young boy living in Harlem, by telling the story of his mother, his father, and his step-father, each of whom lives completely here, and each of whom lives to create this heartbreaking little kid. Some knowledge of Baldwin’s life will help tell part of the story that the censors wouldn’t allow Baldwin to tell in 1953, though certain dots are probably not that hard to connect anyway.

Dead Air by Matthew M. Bartlett – I wrote about it briefly here.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher – An epistolary novel comprised entirely of letters (and e-mails, etc.) of recommendation written by one crushed-by-life English professor would seem to promise nothing but repetition, but Schumacher’s novel, which won awards and everything, is one of the funniest I’ve read in years. That the bitterness of Jason Fitger, the central academic, is predictable, because there is a tradition of such novels in English literature, means nothing because his bitterness is so pointed and eloquently nasty. I think the ending takes a too-sharp turn into the realm of “emotional weight” and so forth, but that’s fine. It’s one of the most satisfying and entertaining novels I read this year.

Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai – Conspiracy, death, animal cruelty, vast emptiness, endless alcohol, loneliness. It’s sort of a comedy. Hungary as the end of the world.

Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case – A true crime comic book about Jensen’s father, the lead detective in the hunt for Gary Ridgway, and the decades of his life he gave to finding a monster. The climactic moment between Tom Jensen and Ridgway is more frightening than any cinematic serial killer you could name.

At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien’s famously askance, let’s say, look at the Irish spirit, as well as Irish myth and stories, is very odd, and very funny, but at the end it suddenly put me in mind of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in the most unexpected way. A dark cloud persists when I think of it now.

Ill Will by Dan Chaon – The thriller of the year, as far as I’m concerned. Wrote about it here.

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge – Speaking of post-war English theater, this novel, perhaps Bainbridge’s best-known outside of her masterpiece The Bottle Factory Outing, approaches that world with a touch more warmth than McGrath did in The Wardrobe Mistress. But just a touch. Once again, Bainbridge strikes a tone of skepticism regarding people and the way they go about things, and by the end that skepticism is proved to have been warranted. It’s good, and fun, until it’s not.

The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob – One of the key works of early French surrealism, Schwob’s 1892 collection of stories also shows how inherently linked that movement is with weird horror fiction. Not that that’s what Schwob was writing by another name, but he sure did write it sometimes, and helped mark a path. The title story seems clearly influenced by Poe, elsewhere there’s devil worship and horrible violence, and there is no story here that isn’t imbued with the terrible unease felt when nothing feels right, or when everything is certain to go wrong.

Poor George by Paula Fox – Fox’s first novel is about a miserably unhappy teacher who meets a troubled kid when that kid breaks into the teacher’s home. The teacher then, against his wife’s objections, hopes to take the kid under his wing. Less a comedy of errors than a full-on disaster, and less a satire than the state of things delivered with a sad, heavy sigh.

The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard – Wrote about it briefly here.

Point Omega by Don DeLillo – One of four DeLillo novels I read this year, an easily my (unexpected) favorite. This very short novel is political in its inspiration, but the power of the story – about a scholar with government connections being interviewed in the desert by a documentary filmmaker, about the scholar’s daughter who visits, and what happens then – is in its ultimate inexplicability. What’s unsettling isn’t what’s immediate about it, but what’s timeless.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf – More true crime, more serial killers, more comic books. This approach to the subject is truly unusual, though: Backderf went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, and hung out with him, and saw the budding psychopath without realizing what he was seeing. This perspective allows for an element of the everyday that accounts of the lives of serial killers often lack – it’s all nightmare, all horror, either inflicted on the killer as a child, or inflicted by the killer as an adult on others. Which isn’t to suggest that My Friend Dahmer isn’t chilling, because it is. It’s just that for once we, who will hopefully never face something or someone like this in our lives, are forcefully reminded that these things happen in the same world we wake up to every morning.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – The first of VanderMeer’s Souther Reach trilogy, this short novel is about an expedition of women (not irrelevant) scientists, both hard and social, sent to explore a section of America that has been transformed, mysteriously and lethally. What they discover there is frightening and mystifying, otherworldly but somehow, seemingly, rooted inside this very planet. Though I have enough faith in VanderMeer to expect the trilogy to end well (I’ve also read the second book, Authority, which I liked, though not as much), I think Annihilation could have stood alone, brilliantly.

Holidays from Hell by Reggie Oliver – This, Oliver’s most recent collection of stories, would be a great place to start for anyone new to his brand of classic, yet nevertheless unique, horror fiction. Oliver is able to take premises that, if you think long enough about them, seem unsupportable, as he does here in the title story, which is about mysterious visitors at a seaside inn (that’s all I’ll say) and infuse the proceedings with puns before casting a genuine pall over the reader. Which isn’t to say this is his only mode, but rather an example of what he can do. My favorite horror book of the year.

Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser – Wrote about it here.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion – Life in California as existential nightmare spiral. Which was my guess, anyway.

Quake by Rudolph Wurlitzer – Speaking of California, nightmares, spirals, and so on, Wurlitzer’s novel about a massive earthquake turning Los Angeles into a fast-evolving Apocalypse really is just one damn thing after another, told with a lack of affect that seems, well, telling.

The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas – My first Thomas novel, and it’s a blast. It’s curious to me how this novel, about the kind of men who hunted Nazis immediately after the war ended, and what the rest of the world did about that (not that I think this is a work of reportage, mind you) comes in at under 300 pages, whereas a similar novel written today would easily crack 500. I’m also interested in the fact that the title character is literally a dwarf but there really aren’t many jokes about that fact, nor is he, to be honest, the main character. I’m also interested in books like this which characters the author chooses to kill off and which he spares. There is much here to be interested in and amused by.

An Artist of the Floating World  by Kazuo Ishiguro – Lots of post-war shit in my 2017 reading, apparently. This, Ishiguro’s second novel, and one of the last two of his books I needed to read (I have The Unconsoled on deck, finally, for 2018), is about a Japanese artist and illustrator who, in the years following his country’s defeat, has to reckon with – or choose not to reckon with – his place in the war effort. It’s a bracing, complicated, and damning novel.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns – Comyns takes the titular fairy tale and turns it into a story of class, love, friendship, and freak tragedy. Comyns was a genius, seemingly without effort.

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass – “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass’s novella about violence, numbing cold, and a particularly grim sort of freedom, is as good as you’ve heard, and is without question the centerpiece of this 1968 collection. But everything his is exhilarating in its way – though Gass’s prose is often very dense, certain passages have a striking clarity, like this from “Icicles”, about a realtor’s crisis (look, I have to describe it somehow, and I ain’t got all day):  

So he’d hear Pearson preach the power of imagination: Fender! think what you’re selling! happiness is is our commodity! you want to dream for them – dream! But Fender remembered how a Baby Ruth wrapper had ruined a sale, it had gone through their dreams like a brick…

Everything is worthwhile, including the preface, which is long, and reads like a writer’s autobiography.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – Yeah, it’s not bad. I’m not sure what I can add, other than to say it is, or should be, the model of moral fiction that neither condemns nor glorifies, and of fiction that creates an entire community of not just people but buildings, houses, trees. It has also instilled in me what I expect will be a lifelong distrust of apothecaries.

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis – A mad, romping smear of a kind of autobiographical something, soaked along the way with a bathtub-full of mortal dread. It’s a very odd book, in other words, and the comedy may not always lay easy upon it, but God is it absorbing.

Hell Hound by Ken Greenhall – Finally back in print, thanks to the good people at Valancourt Books, I’ve wanted to read this book for ages. It doesn’t disappoint. About a chillingly smart pit bull named Baxter that enters a suburban neighborhood and takes what it wants. Which is not all Hell Hound is. This novel is ultimately more disturbing, even sleazy, then I’d expected, but never dumb or pandering or cheap. It left me feeling very uncomfortable.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – Robinson may be the finest writer of prose currently alive in America. As all such proclamations are, this is arguable. But Gilead, about a minister named John Ames as he nears the end of his life and reflects on his faith, his family, his neighbors, war, the land, life, and death, written as a long message written by Ames to his young son, is more full of exquisite language and imagery than any other five contemporary novels you might choose to squish together into one volume and throw into the pit with it.

Last Look by Charles Burns – Another comic book (oh yeah, that’s another difference in the list this year: this one has some comics in it), and possibly my favorite one. In Black Holes, Burns used horror as both metaphor and as literal presence in the world of the story. With Last Look he doesn’t something different, and harder to pin down. Last Look may seem smaller than Black Holes, but like his magnum opus it is entirely impossible to shake months, and I suspect years, after putting it down.

The North Water by Ian McGuire – Wrote about it a little bit here. Suffice it to say, comparing it (in incident if not in language) to Cormac McCarthy at his most violent wouldn’t be inaccurate. Truly blood-drenched and horrifying. It’s a good book!

Nutshell by Ian McEwan – With this strange take Hamlet, McEwan has written his liveliest, most vivid prose in ages. In terms of tone and content, it’s like a throwback to his more genre-ish early work, but with the spark of a great writer who has found new life. Terrific fiction.

Indignation by Philip Roth – This novel, in addition to being a real honest to God novel, is an argument. A moral and political argument, more specifically, and, this being Philip Roth, it’s so mad it spits. The conclusion it ultimately comes to after considering the events of the novel is not the one I came to as a reader, and I feel confident that if we ever met, Philip Roth wouldn’t like me. But rarely, if ever, have I read the side of an argument I myself would have represented expressed as clearly and as intelligently and as eloquently by someone who rejects it utterly. Philip Roth is a great writer, and Indignation is a great novel.

Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson – When Johnson died unexpectedly earlier this year, this is the novel I immediately wanted to read. Johnson seemed able to write anything, and seemed to want to. This is his post-Apocalyptic novel, and is the most believable, authentic-seeming novel of this kind I’ve ever read. In Fiskadoro Johnson imagines a world that is far away from what we currently know, but understandable in its primitive struggles toward something familiar. It is as sad and as beautiful as anything Johnson ever wrote.

Some Came Running by James Jones – Wrote about it here. And while it may not be the best book I read in 2017, it is certainly the one I lived with the longest, and will continue to live with probably forever, and the one I know best. I know it like it’s alive inside my house. (Just don’t, you know, quiz me about it or anything.)

In the Money by William Carlos Williams – The second, after White Mule, in Williams’s trilogy of novels about the Stecher family and their rise (so far) to relative affluence. Set during the early 20th century, In the Money is ostensibly about how the Stecher patriarch, Joe, launches his own printing business after snatching from his former employers a major contract to print money orders for the government (FDR has a cameo!). But as a novelist, Williams was primarily concerned, as in his famous poem “This is Just to Say”, with the things that make up someone’s day. Especially if that someone is a child. No writer I can think of has a better eye or ear for the way children are, what frustrates and frightens them. One chapter, all about the two young Stecher girls going to the park with their mother, includes a moment so heartbreaking that I don’t like to think about it. And though Joe Stecher’s climb towards success may be difficult, and his wife Gurlie’s attitude towards it all may seem uncomfortably mercenary, what I’ll remember most about In the Money, what matters most, is the chapter about the youngest Stecher, Flossie, and what it’s like, and why it’s so awful, for a baby to be alone in a dark bedroom.

The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes – Each of the three novels about Harlem cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones were absolutely berserk, and, not incidentally, completely wonderful. But nothing I read in 2017 made my jaw hang open like The Real Cool Killers, Himes’s second novel in the series. It begins with an insane knife attack in a night club, the consequences of which spill out into the street and lead to the plot’s central murder, and climaxes – that is, the beginning of the novel climaxes – with Gravedigger Jones fatally shooting a teenager because the kid...well anyway. If I told you, you might decide this is all just too ridiculous. But somehow it isn’t, and somehow Himes is able to maintain this pace, and somehow The Real Cool Killers becomes, by the end, deeply moving, deeply sad and world-weary, and weirdly open-hearted, given a lot of factors you’ll notice and think about and bring into the book when you read it. It’s the crime novel as novel of absurdity. It’s the novel of absurdity as a kind of mourning.
Okay, here's the full list. In reverse chronological order because it would be a pain in the ass to do it any other way.
141. Jizzle by John Wyndham
140. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass
139. Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball
138. Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough 
137. Authority by Jeff VanderMeer 
136. In the Money by William Carlos Williams 
135. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
134. In the Middle of the Night by Robert Cormier 
133. Who is Rich? by Matthew Klam 
132. Matchbox Theater by Michael Frayn
131. Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert
130. The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath
129. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
128. The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns 
127. The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas
126. Nothing by Henry Green
125. The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills
124. Nutshell by Ian McEwan
123. Smile by Roddy Doyle
122. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
121. The Ballad of Typhoid Mary by J.F. Federspiel
120. The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf
119. Fear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook
118. Cops and Robbers by Donald E. Westlake
117. The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons
116. Othello by William Shakespeare
115. Experimental Film by Gemma Files
114. The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer
113. The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
112. The Tragedy of Brady Sims by Ernest J. Gaines
111. Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert
110. You're All Alone by Fritz Leiber
109. Play Things by Peter Prince
108. Dead Air by Matthew M. Bartlett
107. The Poor Mouth by Flann O'Brien
106. The North Water by Ian McGuire
105. The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard
104. Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser
103. Ill Will by Dan Chaon
102. Some Came Running by James Jones
101. Strange Monsters of the Recent Past by Howard Waldrop
100. Lunar Follies by Gilbert Sorrentino
099. Young Adolf by Beryl Bainbridge
098. Poor George by Paula Fox
097. Indignation by Philip Roth
096. You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann
095. Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson
094. Journey of the Dead by Loren D. Estleman
093. The Crazy Kill by Chester Himes
092. Conscience by John Skipp
091. The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales by Angela Slatter
090. Idaho Winter by Tony Burgess
089. An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge
088. The Changeling by Victor LaValle
087. The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty
086. Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman
085. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
084. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
083. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
082. The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob
081. The Happy Man by Eric C. Higgs
080. The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
079. The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata
078. Backflash by Donald E. Westlake
077. Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind by Michael Fessier
076. The Monster Club by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
075. The Silent Gondoliers by William Goldman
074. Pictures of Fidelman by Bernard Malamud
073. Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
072. Kubrick by Michael Herr
071. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle
070. Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson
069. The Pistol by James Jones
068. So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
067. The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
066. The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
065. Players by Don DeLillo
064. Neonomicon by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
063. Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter
062. Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case
061. A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr
060. Stranglehold by Jack Ketchum
059. The Fisherman by John Langan
058. My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
057. Red Lights by Georges Simenon
056. Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
055. Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages by Manuel Puig
054. Devils' Spawn by Charles Birkin
053. Last Look by Charles Burns
052. The Dinner by Herman Koch
051. Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly by John Franklin Bardin
050. Junky by William S. Burroughs
049. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
048. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
047. Hell Hound by Ken Greenhall
046. Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee
045. The Fates by Thomas Tessier
044. Where Furnaces Burn by Joel Lane
043. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
042. I Should Have Stayed Home by Horace McCoy
041. The Hero Pony by David Mamet
040. The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
039. Shadow of a Broken Man by George C. Chesbro 
038. Death Poems by Thomas Ligotti
037. The Sensitive One by C.H.B. Kitchin
036. Quake by Rudolph Wurlitzer
035. Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
034. Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
033. The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels
032. Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin
031. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
030. Project X by Jim Shepard
029. All the Little Animals by Walker Hamilton
028. The Patriot Game by George V. Higgins
027. Ray by Barry Hannah
026. Holidays from Hell by Reggie Oliver
025. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
024. White Mule by William Carlos Williams
023. Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
022. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
021. The Scarf by Robert Bloch
020. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
019. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
018. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
017. The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes
016. A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes
015. The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
014. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
013. Swift to Chase by Laird Barron
012. Dearest by Peter Loughran
011. Street of No Return by David Goodis
010. I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas
009. Dog Eat Dog by Edward Bunker
008. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
007. Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
006. The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
005. Point Omega by Don DeLillo
004. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
003. Hogg by Samuel R. Delany
002. Running Dog by Don DeLillo
001. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Capsule Reviews: What They Grow Beyond

The Whales of August (d. Lindsay Anderson) – The feature film career of Lindsay Anderson (there were some TV things after, which, though I haven’t seen Is That All There Is? or Glory! Glory!, sound by no means negligible), the man who brought the world such wild and wildly aggressive satires as If…, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, ended in a seemingly unlikely way. The Whales of August, from  1987 and which Kino Lorber has just released on Blu-ray as part of their Kino Studio classics line, was written by David Berry, based on his own play, and is play, almost stereotypically, almost parodically, through and through. It’s about two elderly sisters, one of them blind, who spend their summer together in a seaside cottage that has been in the family forever. During that time, the sisters spar, with the blind one, Sarah, picking away at emotional scabs and unleashing a cruel streak now and then which tests Libby, her gentler sister, who still mourns the loss of her husband in World War II. And all this time, they await the seasonal return of the whales to their part of the sea, a natural phenomenon that has meant much to them ever since they were young.
So it’s about memory and death, plus whales. I have no doubt that Anderson had deeper reasons for wanting to put this not-exactly-electric play on the big screen, but watching it now the big idea seems to have been to give some old Hollywood stars another swing at the ball. Bette Davis plays Sarah, her unique vocal cadence only intensifying with age, and Lillian Gish plays Libby. I like both of them here, though at times Gish’s movements feel practiced. Bette Davis musters all her energy to Bette Davis the hell out of the thing, and I can but tip my cap. Also present are Ann Sothern as a somewhat nosy, but not unfriendly, neighbor, Harry Carey, Jr. as the local handyman, and Vincent Price his own self as a recent widower who the ladies all like.
My instinct is to say that, with all due respect to Anderson and the cast, it plays like a kind of novelty film – check out all these screen legends, now very old, in one movie. Then again, I suspect I feel that way because today no one would make a film populated almost entirely with a cast like this unless the story was about how one of them was dying and he wanted to blow his savings with his old pal at their favorite strip club one last time. But The Whales of August really does kind of just sit there. It feels like boilerplate theater. Even if I was wrong about where exactly this would all end, I feel like that’s only because the writer lightly tweaked things so that it didn’t head directly into the predictable. It’s the difference between turning right and bearing right.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (d. Rian Johnson) – Yesterday I learned of the existence of a petition, drawn up by some numbnuts or other on a popular useless and meaningless petition website, called “Rian Johnson Must Admit That The Last Jedi is Awful.” The thinking behind this, if I understand it correctly, is that Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest film in the popular franchise, is so bad that the man who wrote and directed it, Rian Johnson must stand before the nation and tearfully (one assumes) admit that his particular Star Wars movie is not any good at all, and, I believe it is implied, he knew this all along. I think I have this right. (Furthermore, this petition is seeking 1,000 signatures, a goal it may well have reached by now, so, Rian Johnson, your day of reckoning is at hand.) If I were to dig one layer deeper into this, what I believe I’d discover is that hardcore Star Wars fans are fucking dipshits, a truth that I believe each layer thereafter would only confirm. They are entitled, by and large, and quick to anger; their notions of what a story should be, or even can be, are a sludgy porridge of tiresome and dull theories put forth over and over again by what’s-his-dick who wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces and online screenwriting guides. In their enraged insistence that art must reach what they imagine are their own very high standards, they are in fact anti-art.
The above being the reality of the world we all inhabit, Rian Johnson is expected to apologize for what struck me, when I saw the new film the other day, as not especially world-upending tweaks to the universe and characters and themes and “philosophy” thus far established in the previous Star Wars films. In this one, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), here a major character in the series for the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, is kind of a curmudgeon when dealing with Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has sought him out both to help her understand her own powers, and to bring him back from his new life as a hermit to help the new Rebellion, which is losing its war against the new Empire. Luke doesn’t want to, and in fact wants to burn down, literally, the world, beliefs, and history of the Jedi. Following some bad business when attempting to train Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) some years back, Luke became disillusioned, you see.  Some fans are taking serious issue with this portrayal of Luke because it’s only been thirty-four years since Return of the Jedi – nobody changes at all in that amount of time. So the thinking goes, I guess. I can tell you that if I was Luke, I’d have reached his point of grumpy reclusion in half that time, and by the time Rey showed up would have gotten to the point that I’d just throw rocks at her until she went away.
So Luke changed, as people do, but this is no good. Also I’ve gathered that many are upset that Johnson is letting the story’s themes drift away from the Chosen One narrative and into the idea that maybe to defeat evil you might do better with two, even three people. I feel like that’s always sort of been there anyway – Luke may have flourished under the construct of the Chosen One, but in the very first movie he’d have been blown all to shit without Han Solo swooping in like he did. Then, too, is the frustration that with Han Solo having died in the previous film, The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams’s “the same but again” crowd-pleaser, and the sad death of Carrie Fisher rendering any plans for her Leia moot, these new heroes and villains – Rey, Rebel fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), former Storm Trooper turned heroic defector Finn (John Boyega), villainous, deeply conflicted, patricidal Jedi prodigy Kylo Ren – don’t have the oceans of complexity within their souls to carry one more movie. I actually saw someone on Twitter ask those who had the audacity to enjoy The Last Jedi to reflect on what we, the audience, knew about Luke, Han, and Leia at the end of the very first Star Wars movie, and compare that to what we know about Rey, Finn, and Poe. I would say “Go ahead and reflect on that, buddy.” There is a strange delusion among Star Wars true believers that those original, indisputably iconic characters, were somehow something other than mythopoeic rubber stamps. What carried Han, Luke, and Leia beyond that was Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher (and obviously George Lucas). If the complaint, then, is that none of these new young actors have the charisma of Harrison Ford, well, why not just ask for the moon while you’re at it. Ridley, Isaac, and Boyega have proven over the course of these two movies that, in terms of talent, they’re doing more than fine – I think Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are giving the best performances of the entire series of nine movies. No one has been as committed to a Star Wars performance, ever, as those two.
None of which is to say that The Last Jedi is a great film – I don’t even think it’s a great Star Wars film. I think the first hour or so sags under the weight of bad jokes, thin, uninteresting political commentary that it nevertheless seems proud of, and some performances from good actors who seem, in this environment, very uncertain (I’m thinking primarily of Laura Dern here). But at a certain point, Rian Johnson shifts his film into another gear, and one rousing action sequence, performance choice, or image is stacked upon another, so that the ultimately I’ve found it hard to remember what specifically I found so objectionable in the first hour. There’s a lightsaber fight involving Rey and Ren that is visually one of the most stunning things I’ve seen in a while, and emotionally intense and viscerally absorbing, all at once. It has massive, powerful moments for the most important characters in the series, and they work. So what if Benicio del Toro seems to be playing Kramer from Seinfeld, or that a decision made by one character new to the series is so wrong that even though Johnson seems to want the audience to embrace it, it’s clear that he, himself, can’t? So what, in other words, if The Last Jedi isn’t a perfect Star Wars film? If that’s what you want, you haven’t seen one yet anyway, so what’re you complaining about? In ten years, if you suddenly think “Hey The Last Jedi is actually pretty good” keep that shit to yourself, you fucking crybabies.