I’m down on movies lately. I don’t watch them, except when I do, but when I do I tend to tap out early. I don’t care. Yesterday I watched The Secret of The Whistler, directed by George Sherman, from 1946. Earlier this year, I watched five or so of the Whistler films, based on the radio show, all starring Richard Dix, each time out playing a different character in a different story (always hosted by a silhouette who insists on being called The Whistler). At first it seemed that Dix could play anybody – victim, hero, villain, but then somewhere along the line he was assigned villain duty exclusively. Such was the case with The Secret of The Whistler and this very fun series of hour-long thrillers began to seem dull to me. Oh, movies. What happened?
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For a very long time now I’ve been meaning to dive headlong into the work of Stephen Sondheim. What little of his work I’ve been exposed to – West Side Story, a song here and there taken out of context (most powerfully a performance of “Send in the Clowns” by Judi Dench), Tim Burton’s film of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, of which I remain an unapologetic fan – but only recently have I taken steps in that direction by ordering a bunch of original cast recordings of many of his most significant shows. They arrived yesterday, and almost immediately I put on Company. Quite a good place to start, it seems to me, as even to my novice ears it sounds like Sondheim in his purest form. I’m no good at writing about music, it being something I’ve never written about before, and know nothing about as far as the making of it goes (Sondheim grabbing hold of me first and foremost as a lyricist), so I can only go so far with this, but I quite liked “Sorry-Grateful” and “Getting Married Today” and “Being Alive” and I kind of couldn’t stand “Tick Tock” which may not even count as a thing…well, this could go on. My most damning opinion – damning of me, I mean – is my at best indifference to “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which I gather is rather beloved. There’s something about the super-brassy Broadway Lady song -- a genre which, in the popular shape that allows me to recognize it as such, was I’m guessing invented by Sondheim -- that my body rejects. “The Ladies Who Lunch” being an Elaine Stritch show-stopper, well, I’m a slave to my emotions, what can I tell you.
Not long after I put on Assassins. I have to tell you that, after a long week of work, and being 41 years of age as I am, and sitting in a recliner as I was, I did suddenly find myself napping during this darkest of all Sondheim musicals (it feels like it tops even Sweeney Todd on that count). I fell asleep very early, during “The Ballad of Booth” and woke up in time to hear from “Unworthy of Your Love” on. I thought the latter, and its immediate follow up “The Ballad of Guiteau” to be pretty spectacular, and “Everybody’s Got the Right,” the show’s closer, as well. “The Ballad of Guiteau” must be something to see performed live. It sounds to me like it asks a lot of its singer. I poked around the internet later and saw that Sondheim is in the final stages of getting his newest musical, Bunuel, based on the Spanish surrealist’s films The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Exterminating Angel, into shape, and one of the actors who’s been workshopping it, Matthew Morrison, said in an interview that the songs are so challenging that he had trouble sleeping the nights before he was going to have to perform them. I can imagine. I mean, I can’t, but I can.
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On Sunday morning I learned, as did everyone else, that Walter Becker had died. I knew only a handful of Steely Dan songs, but liked what I knew, mostly anyway. Someone on Twitter said that Steely Dan had put out “at least six perfect albums” or words to that effect, and upon checking my CDs I was surprised to learn that I owned three of them (I thought I only had two). I put on Katy Lied and listened to it straight through. I’m not going to pretend to be able to say anything new or interesting about this band, but off the top of my head I can think of no other rock band that achieved any kind of mass popularity whose sound was as idiosyncratic and unreproducible. They shouldn’t have been popular, but, thankfully, now and again, these things happen.
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Over the past two days, I’ve read 200 pages of Ill Will, Dan Chaon’s newest thriller. More about it when I’m done, but even when I’m choosing something to read with that hope that it will be escapist in some way, the book winds up being incredibly sad, and mortally chilling. Ill Will involves in part the death by cancer of the protagonist’s wife – this horrible experience is something Chaon himself has gone through. This story so far exists side by side, through a structure of jumbled timelines, with a wild serial killer plot, or a maybe serial killer plot. It’s all been incredibly engaging, even if it makes my head droop with existential grief from time to time.
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Tonight I finished reading Some Came Running by James Jones. The novel is 1,266 pages long, and it took me months and months and months to read. Not because it’s a difficult book, but because I know myself, and if I hadn’t supplemented this mammoth with other books I’d never finished it. But now I’ve finished it.
I’d seen the great Vincente Minelli film version years ago, which only peaked over my shoulder from time to time, as a scene from the novel reminded me of its cinematic brother, either because it was similar or because it very much wasn’t. Minelli diverged pretty significantly from Jones’s novel in the last chunk: a character dies in the novel who lives in the film, and a character who dies in the film lives in the book. These are no small things, and change my emotional involvement a lot – not the level of it, but in the type. Jones’s novel is, finally, like all long novels worth a damn, almost a living, breathing experience, rather than merely a book one has read. At times, it felt like the house I slept in. Strengthening this is the feeling I got that as I read I was seeing Jones struggle to hammer this crazy thing into some kind of shape, to try to find his style – which here is full of intentional repetitions and ungrammatical prose, a violent assault of adverbs and, sometimes, some of the cleanest and most moving prose I’ve read all year (see the passage describing the death of the main character’s father).
Jones also seems to be fighting with himself on moral grounds. One thing I remembered clearly from the Minelli film is Ginnie, the character played by Shirley MacLaine, a poor, simple good-time gal who other characters insult mercilessly. At one point, Dean Martin, as ‘Bama, calls her a pig. In the film, Minelli’s love of Ginnie seemed complete, to the point where It almost seemed like he wanted to lift her out of the film and get her away from all these assholes. This is all in the novel too, except that the abuse of Ginnie is more brutal and lasts a lot longer, and, by the end, Jones seems to be losing the battle he’s been waging with himself. He doesn’t want to hate Ginnie, but in the end I think he might.
Some Came Running is also unique in that it ends with an extended epilogue that actually strengthens the book, rather than having a negligible impact on what has come before it, which in my experience is usually the outcome. The epilogue is twinned with the prologue (not so unusual) but also mirrors in some way the novel that Dave, the novel’s protagonist, has spent most of the novel trying to write, and, also, I think, refutes the themes he was trying to get into it. It’s a brilliant six pages, and ends the novel with a shiver.
Anyway. Twin Peaks is about to start.