Sunday, March 19, 2017

More Capsule Reviews? Indeed, Yes.

The Lovers on the Bridge (d. Leos Carax) - When discussing reclusive, meticulous, and relatively unprolific film directors, like Terence Malick (nine, possibly ten features in 44 years) and Stanley Kubrick (13 features in 46 years), one doesn't often find Leos Carax thrown into the mix. He's made five films since 1984, and his name is a pseudonym! What's he trying to hide, and so forth. The fact is, each of Carax's films since Boy Meets Girl, his first, has been in some way more opulent or radical, culminating thus far in 2012's completely bonkers Holy Motors, and his most financially excessive and difficult movie, in practical terms, turned out also to be his most successful. That would be this one, The Lovers on the Bridge, for a long time the most difficult of Carax's films to get ones hands on, until last Tuesday, when Kino Lorber put it out on Blu-ray.

The film, from 1991, stars Juliette Binoche as Michele, a mysterious woman who is discovered sleeping in the spot on Paris's Pont Neuf (a bridge that in the film has been closed to the public for repair and restoration, but during filming had not been, forcing Carax to recreate portions of the Pont Neuf and its surroundings as a set) favored by Alex. Alex is played by Denis Lavant, an actor who was destined to meet Carax, and an actor whom Carax was destined to meet. Anyway, they're homeless, as is Hans (Klaus-Michael Gruber). Michele is an artist who is losing her eyesight, but where exactly she came from, and why she's now homeless is unclear. Alex, falling instantly in love with her, shamelessly paws through her belongings which, however meager, offer several leads (including a loaded gun) that point towards an unhappy romance in her past, and perhaps a quest for revenge.

Which ain't the half of it. There's mystery and betrayal and cruelty and violent death and intense romantic flourishes. In the most famous sequence from Mauvais Sang, his film previous to this, Carax shows us Lavant dancing madly down the street at night, to the tune of David Bowie's "Modern Love". Carax sort of recreates that here, but goes bigger with everything: instead of one piece of music, it's several; instead of one person, it's too; instead of a street at night, it's a bridge at night; instead of nothing in the sky, it's fireworks. The sequence is astonishing, as is much of the rest of the film. The Lovers on the Bridge is gripping, and wild, and completely unpredictable. In the end, though, Carax is romanticizing something that I don't find romantic. To such a degree that I wonder if Carax even meant to romanticize it (all I'll say is, Michele could do better). If he didn't, then he's at odds with the film he made. Then again, if Carax hadn't made it, no one else would have, and that would be too bad.

The V.I.P.s (d. Anthony Asquith) - This is one of those damn movies in which Orson Welles wears one of his stupid discolored fake noses. The other two I know about (and I'm thinking specifically of the color films, so the hue of the nose stands out; Welles wore many fake noses in black and white movies) are Claude Chabrol's Ten Days' Wonder from 1971, and Welles's own The Immortal Story from 1968. This one, The V.I.P.s, which stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a fiery married couple coming apart in Heathrow airport, hit theaters in 1963, so we're spanning a near decade here. The nose seems somehow most fitting in this picture, since his whole role is a put-on of sorts. He plays Max Buda, a Hungarian film producer who needs to get out of London with a ditzy actress (Gloria Gritti) by midnight to avoid a hit on his taxes. He's a cartoon, and in This is Orson Welles he has little good to say about it, other than to say that Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith are "tremendous" in it, and that director Asquith shouldn't be judged solely on The V.I.P.s as the project, from a director's point of view, was hopeless, it being obviously controlled by the Burton-Taylors from the start.

But the movie ain't that bad! Written by playwright Terence Rattigan (best known through the film adaptations of Asquith's own The Browning Version and David Mamet's badly underrated The Winslow Boy) The V.I.P.s is very much an "it is what it is" kind of movie, in that it probably was never going to be that good, but so what? It follows several stories of various VIPs stranded by fog in Heathrow: the previously described story about Burton and Taylor, which also features Louis Jordan as the man stealing Taylor away; another about a Duchess (Margaret Rutherford) who is in danger of losing her home; the Welles one; and finally, the one with Smith and Taylor. And Welles is right, they're tremendous. Taylor, allowed to speaking with his native Australian accent, plays the young owner of a tractor company, who is about to lose it all in a takeover, and possibly go to prison, because he put his faith in the wrong person. Unless, that is, a very large amount of money can find its way into his bank account by tomorrow morning. The thing is, nobody seemed to actually care all that much about the Rutherford or Welles stories (regarding the latter, least of all Welles himself, I'm assuming), so it's really a movie of two halves (which at a certain point converge). And I liked both. Burton, Taylor, and Jordan, all give exactly the performances they need to give in order to put across their bit -- Burton might be said to be giving more than is necessary, but one also senses that this film might've hit a bit close to home for him in certain ways.

Anyhow, it's Taylor and Smith who are the show. Maggie Smith plays Taylor's personal secretary, who is also in love with him, and it's all one massive Thing Which We've All Seen Before, but the two actors, and Rattigan's very professional script, made me feel quite wrapped up in it all. I started watching the film, thinking I'd probably hate it. The sons of bitches fooled me.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Capsule Reviews: More of Them

45 Years (d. Andrew Haigh) - This remarkable 2015 film, writer-director Andrew Haigh's third feature, based on a story by David Constantine, and newly released on home video by Criterion, stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a married couple who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Just a few minutes after the film begins, Geoff, Courtenay's character, receives a letter informing him that the body of Katya, his girlfriend whom he was going to marry until she died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1962, has been found. This causes Geoff to, he believes naturally and quietly and his wife fears obsessively, think back on those days, and his youth, and the sad death of a young woman. For Rampling's Kate, this is terrifying evidence that perhaps her nearly fifty years of marriage to a man she loves was, for him, merely a kind of second-rate consolation after he lost the one woman he truly loved.

Haigh's film moves along at a pace as gentle and natural as the country house and land where Kate and Geoff live. And the performances by Rampling and Courtenay are impeccable. I frankly can't imagine two actors better suited for this film, who could possibly appear on screen and immediately inhabit their roles. Rampling's performance is a slow trip from soft to brittle; she is constantly, inwardly fighting against the fears that she hopes are irrational. Meanwhile, Courtenay's Geoff embodies a kind of intelligent obliviousness: if it turns out that he's been pulling the wool over Kate's eyes for the last half century, he's been doing the same to himself. Otherwise, he'd be better equipped to deal with the news about Katya without shoving it (again, gently) in Kate's face.

One thing about 45 Years that I haven't stopped thinking about since I saw the film is an aspect of the film's plot, such as it is, that I supposed I'd better not spoil. All I'll say is, at first I thought this small but crucial revelation was, and I'll put this word in quotes to highlight the fact that I now believe my reaction was foolish, "unrealistic." The fact is, however, that the thought process, or lack thereof, which led to the moment I'm not telling you about is one that millions of people constantly engage in. Until one day the penny drops. Or doesn't. Usually, when and if it does, the impact is not so great as it is here. At any rate, it's just another example of the dozens of ways that Andrew Haigh captures simple humanity throughout this film.

Her Husband's Affairs (d. S. Sylvan Simon) - So, Bill Weldon (Franchot Tone) works in advertising, writing slogans. He turns to his new wife Margaret (Lucille Ball) for opinions on the slogans he comes up with, but all he really wants from her -- and he openly admits to this -- is her approval. Which she gives. However, after coming up with a top-notch slogan for a new straw hat, Bill's achievement takes a backseat to the praise his bosses (Edward Everett Horton and Gene Lockhart) heap on Margaret, who tricks the mayor into endorsing said straw hat. A bit rankled at first, Bill soon forgets when his friend, the eccentric inventor and professor Emil Glinka (Mikhail Rasumny) comes over and says in effect "Hey Bill and Margaret, will you invest in my life's work: an embalming fluid that turns corpses into glass statues, shaped in a pose of your choosing?" No, they tell him. Well, he continues, if you need a shave, this jar is full of a byproduct of my new embalming fluid that I don't even care about, but if you rub it on your face it gets rid of all your stubble. No more shaving, no more razors. Seeing dollar signs, Bill takes the cream to his bosses, who also flip, though after all the important contracts and et cetera have been signed, it is learned that this cream has a disastrous side effect, which perhaps you can guess. In any case, the person who figures out a way to turn Bill's lemons into lemonade is Margaret.

Which brings us to maybe the half hour mark of this screwball comedy which will eventually take the audience all the way to the courthouse. This loony-toon of a movie, written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer in full-on "fuck it" mode, is a delight. Directed by S. Sylvan Simon is perhaps best-known for The Fuller Brush Man, a Red Skelton vehicle written by Frank Tashlin, Simon would later produce The Fuller Brush Girl, also written by Tashlin and starring Lucille Ball. Sylvan was dead, at just 41, by the time Tashlin started his own career as a director of feature films, but though he wasn't involved in the film, it's not hard to imagine Her Husband's Affairs as one of Tashlin's own wildly Technicolored movies. Simon may not have had Tashlin's visual invention, but the two men seemed to share a sense of the absurd. Simon doesn't ever wink: the plot of this film is so nuts, and it's a no-question screwball comedy, but the characters regard the lunacy as no more or less than another catastrophe that might become an opportunity. Bill is kind of a prick, but I think the film knows that, and it's only because it sorta kinda has to that Hecht, Lederer, and Simon end the film the way they do. There's a more logical ending, and better, ending we'll just have to imagine. Either way, Tone isn't the star, Ball is, and she's terrific. Deathless stardom was right around the corner for her, and you can see why.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Thoughts on Silence

Good evening. Well, enough of that. Over on Paul Clark's blog, which tallies and records the winners and runners-up and other odds and ends for his annual Muriel Awards, I wrote in the neighborhood of 1200 words on what I consider the best film of 2016, and then some, Martin Scorsese's Silence. Please for to go over there and read them!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Chabrol's Inferno

One of the better, by which I mean both "perfect" and "inevitable", author-director pairings I've encountered is that of Ruth Rendell and Claude Chabrol. Rendell, the late British writer of exquisitely diabolical and bleak tales of human catastrophe may not have been adapted by Chabrol, the late French director of either an individual's moral collapse or the blossoming of that same individual's immorality, depending on how you look at it, all that often (there are only two: Chabrol adapted Rendell's The Bridesmaid in 2004, and her masterpiece A Judgment in Stone as Le Ceremonie in 1995), but the degree to which the two artists seemed to be on the same page is akin to the psychological twinship of David Cronenberg and J.G. Ballard. Cronenberg has thus far only adapted Ballard once, but when Ballard died it's a little surprising that Cronenberg didn't himself pitch over face down in the garden, mysteriously. 

All of which is to say that, just as it's impossible for me to watch certain Cronenberg films such as Shivers and eXistenZ that are not adaptations of Ballard (and in the case of the former was written in complete ignorance of Ballard's work) without nevertheless thinking of Ballard almost constantly, it is similarly pointless for me to bother trying to resist, any time I watch a Chabrol film, the specter of Ruth Rendell hovering over the proceedings. And even though Rendell was a writer of suspense and mystery novels, this juxtaposition occurs in my head even when the Chabrol film I'm watching is not of a similar genre. Which brings me to the Chabrol films collected together in a new Blu-ray set by Cohen Media. This trio of 90s films from the extremely prolific director did not follow one after the other -- in fact they're broken up by first The Eye of Vichy, his 1993 documentary about Nazi-occupied France, and the aforementioned La Ceremonie -- but as a package both harmonize with each other and feed into my Rendell thoughts, and break off sharply, leaving me stranded as someone who may have overstated his case. But in any event, enough about Rendell, would probably be the wise philosophy hereafter, and more of Chabrol.

But I'll be damned if Betty, the first film chronologically in the set, doesn't remind me of Rendell. At least as far as the psychology of the characters is concerned. In Chabrol's film, based on a novel by Georges Simenon, the titular Betty is played by Marie Trintignant with a wild mix of despair, depression, innocence, aimlessness, coquettishness, and, as it transpires, more. When we first meet her, Betty is horribly drunk, with the aim of becoming even drunker. A man claiming to be a doctor (and maybe he is, but it turns out he's also a junkie) is happy to oblige her, and take from her later whatever payment he deems fitting, one presumes, until Mario (Jean-Francois Garreaud), the owner of the bar to which the doctor has taken Betty, and Laure (Stpehane Audran), Mario's lover and a retired nurse who lives in a nearby luxury hotel, save her, with Laure almost instantly taking the younger woman under her wing. Laure rents a room, adjacent to her own, at the hotel for Betty, and helps Betty arrange to have her clothes and other personal items picked up from her former home, where her estranged husband, the son of a prominent military figure, and their two children still live. This all leads to Betty explaining to Laure how she ended up in this lowly alcoholic haze of a life (though Laure herself can drink, herself), most of which we learn in a series of flashbacks. Chabrol gives these scenes a while to take a full shape -- how and why did Betty disgrace herself in the eyes of her husband and her in-laws? what did Betty sell, as a way of buying her way out of the family and a future of public scandal, a decision that fills Betty with shame and seems to fuel her drinking? -- until finally a clear, or clear-ish picture of this tortured young woman reveals itself.

And yet. I can't go too much further without robbing Betty of too much of its considerable power. Though not a suspense film, Betty has within it a considerable amount of quiet suspense, and, more importantly, though not a mystery film, the force of its final impact is due to an accumulation of story and character information, and of performance. Chabrol, who up until the point that everything we need to know has been learned has been as invisible as ever, steps out of the shadows and kicks you, and everyone, in the stomach. At no point in Betty is a crime committed, yet by the end it's understood that the world the characters inhabit is an amoral one, and maintaining one's honor, and expecting others to do the same, is a sure way to bring Rendell-ian doom down upon one's head.

More terrifying still is L'Enfer, from 1994. Originally conceived and written by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the film was begun but left unfinished by Clouzot in 1964 (footage of the aborted project is used in Serge Bromberg's documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno). Thirty years later, Chabrol adapted the original script, and cast Emmanuelle Beart and long-time collaborator Francois Cluzet as a young married couple who run a lakeside hotel. Initially they seem quite happy, but after a while Paul (Cluzet) begins to suspect Nelly (Beart) of being unfaithful with one of the hotel's regular guests, Martineau (Marc Lavoine, a kind of French version of Everett McGill). Even before Paul makes his suspicions known (first to the audience, eventually to Nelly), the viewer is clued into something being off in their relationship by Chabrol's use of a few frames of pitch black to separate some scenes. At first jarring, then perhaps merely an experiment in visually representing jumps in time, this technique achieves its full, if mild, note of disorientation when at one point it seems to cut off Nelly in mid-sentence.

When Nelly first learns of Paul's suspicions, she's touched, because she takes it as evidence of his love for her. But soon his jealousy becomes more aggressive, and, further, it becomes impossible to persuade him that he's wrong. Chabrol makes it fairly clear, I think, that Paul's accusations are baseless, but the precise reason Paul is so certain is less so (though I suspect casting Emmanuelle Beart as Nelly was not done arbitrarily). This fits, as his behavior, and finally his violence, become, one hopes, impossible to understand, and Paul shifts from a man one might find it possible to empathize with to a man one hopes to see hit by a bus. Both Beart and Cluzet are superb, but Cluzet in particular feels frighteningly authentic. Watching L'Enfer, as Cluzet's Paul begins to really spin off into a storm of choking rage and paranoia, I thought "This seems like exactly the kind of man, or one of the type of men, who murders his wife." I was reminded less of Rendell, I'll confess, than of another Chabrol film, his more naturalistic (in L'Enfer, Chabrol sometimes employs Dutch angles and back-projected shadows to highlight the irreality of Paul's thought process) Pleasure Party from 1975, which, along with Fosse's Star 80, strike me as the most depressingly believable depictions of murder, and murderers, I've seen on film. Anyway, with Cluzet, Chabrol again reaches those same heights of unease and menace, and with Beart that same heartbreaking confusion and fear, as the marriage she thought was happy becomes a prison of terror and abuse. She woke up one morning and found herself in Hell.

It's a curious irony that the last film in the set, 1997's The Swindle, is a light-hearted con artist thriller that also includes, of the three, the bloodiest moment of violence. But at a certain point, as is the tradition in this sort of light thriller, the stakes must be, or often are, raised. Chabrol, directing from his own original script, does so effectively, but up to that point The Swindle is simply great fun. It's about an at first glance mismatched pair of con artists -- Isabelle Huppert as Betty and Michel Serraut as Victor, the age difference pronounced, but other than business partners what are they? Their relationship doesn't appear to be romantic. In any case, the plot takes them to Sils Maria in Switzerland, where a local hotel is hosting a dentist's convention, which Victor believes offers many opportunities to rip off rich orthodontists. Betty precedes him there and when Victor arrives he finds out that she's already found a mark, but not one associated with a convention. The man, Maurice (Cluzet again), is hauling around an attache case stuffed with five million Francs, which he has to deliver for, etc. Victor and Betty begin palling around with Maurice, laying the groundwork to snatch the money, while, gradually, the question arises, as it often does in these situations, who is conning who? And who is conning that person?

I do not mean to sound dismissive with those glibly phrased questions. The Swindle really is a delight, Serraut in particular is wonderful (he's closer to being the star than he is to sharing the main stage with Huppert), and part of that delight comes from recognizing the structure but not knowing what exactly that structure is supporting this time. And there are just lots of little details, like Cluzet, somewhat more likable here than he was in L'Enfer, a little bit drunk, raving that cheese fondue "gives [him], personally, a taste sensation like no other." Chabrol seems to be on vacation a little bit here, and more power to him. It's fun to go along with him.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Books I Read in 2016

Sorry about the absence of anything like a "blog post" lately. But things have been, you know, whatever. Anyhow, I'm back with this, my annual list of The Best Books I Read This Year. As always, these books more likely than not were originally published in years other than 2016 (although there are three 2016 books this time around, which may be some kind of record). Of all the books I read this year, of whatever type and of whatever vintage, these are my favorites. No particular order, except for the last two, which are my two favorites of the year.

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley - This thriller was something of a sensation in the UK, but somewhat less so here. Who can say why, though its fairly reserved pace might have something to do with it. Hurley's story is about a church's annual trip to a gray and windswept UK island nicknamed the Loney. The previous year, something happened on that trip which haunted the then parish priest until his death. The new priest, rather less strict and more easy-going than his late predecessor, wants this year's trip to be somewhere more light-hearted, but he bows to pressure, and off to the Loney they go. While there, the mystery of the island is solved, in a manner of speaking, and the truth is genuinely disturbing.

For some reason, I was resistant to The Loney at first, but it wasn't long before Hurley's simmering, moody novel got hold of me. Previously, he'd published two collections of short fiction, which I'll be looking into soon.

Herovit's World by Barry N. Malzberg - One of at least two novels by deeply respected yet nevertheless cult science fiction writer Malzberg in which his subject, or target, is science fiction itself (for the record, the other one is Galaxies).  Published in 1973, when SF was still in the throes of its New Wave boom, Malzberg's short novel is about Herovit, an SF writer whose heyday was several years earlier, and who now barely survives regurgitating what he and other Golden Age writers had already hammered to death before the 60s had even begun. As his marriage fails, and a smugly comfortable sell-out compatriot insists that Herovit is incapable of more than what he's doing now, Herovit begins to break down. Not so much a science fiction novel as a feverish psychodrama, Herovit's World is one of the most damning genre examinations ever written.

Silence by Shusaku Endo - A novel of such intense moral and spiritual complexity that I hardly know what to say about it in this space, Endo's 17th Century-set classic is about two Portuguese Catholic missionaries who travel undercover to Japan to give comfort to persecuted Japanese Catholics, and to find Father Ferreira, another missionary who, it's been said, denounced his faith under torture by the Japanese authorities. Silence is a novel of great brutality, the suffering of the innocent is relentless. How is it possible to hold onto one's faith when your cries of mercy are met with silence? This, of course, is the central question, not just of the novel but of religious faith, and Endo -- himself a Catholic -- attacks it with a clarity, and a determination to not fall for a simplified version of either the question or the answer, that is pretty much unheard of now.

Mr. Fox by Barbara Comyns - For what I'm pretty sure is the fourth year in a row, Comyns has made this list (a status much desired by deceased British writers all over). Comyns's fiction is occasionally bizarre (see The Vet's Daughter for example), but other times, as in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Mr. Fox, it depicts the simple complexities faced by characters who are struggling through the days, weeks, months, and years of their lives. Here, Caroline Seymour, a young single mother (her husband decided one day to leave) meets and sort of befriends a shady businessman named Mr. Fox. They soon decide, for the sake of financial expediency, to live together (platonically), and for several years their lives intertwine and separate: Mr. Fox goes back to London while Caroline takes a demeaning job as a live-in housekeeper for a rude, demanding woman and her brat of a daughter; Caroline moves back in with Mr. Fox when he buys a building and becomes a landlord (though much of the actual work is done by Caroline). Mr. Fox devises a scheme to buy used pianos and sell them for a profit. Much of this goes on during World War II, so in the midst of this they have to worry about German bombing raids.

Mr. Fox was Comyns's penultimate novel, but I could detect no slip in her talents. If anything, while I don't consider this her best, necessarily, her skills here are as fine-tuned as they ever were. The humor and the tragedy are delivered in the same tone, and this story about domestic tension and the dramas of employment, somehow moves at a headlong pace. And regarding that domestic tension, most of that comes from how Caroline views Mr. Fox, how the reader views him, how the reader is meant to view him, and how we take it all by the end. It's handled exquisitely, because the reader never sees it being handled.

Dispatches by Michael Herr - Herr's book, one of the seminal pieces of 20th Century war journalism, has sort of had everything said about it that could possibly be said at this point. All I can tell you is that I've never felt the ungodly stress and fear of the Vietnam War, to the extent that only reading about it can make me feel anything of the sort, as I felt within the first ten pages of Dispatches. It's like you're breathing it in, while wondering how any of the men you're reading about, journalists as well as soldiers, could have ever survived twenty minutes, let alone months and years. This book has an incredible, undeniable texture to it. Even if it was just spoken words, I'd still feel like I could hold it in my hands.

Cigarettes by Harry Mathews - Considered by more than a few people to be Harry Mathews's masterpiece, my expectation was that Cigarettes would be a stylistically dense piece that, however rewarding, I would have to pull myself through. And indeed it is dense, but not in terms of language, which is quite straightforward. Where Cigarettes is dense, and maybe the word here is rich, is in its incidents and characters, the former of which span decades (and slip in and out of the worlds of finance, horse ownership, and art, with sex being the main thread connecting them all) as do some of the latter, who cross paths with each other, or are related to each other, or sleep with or betray or steal from each other. Though it could be described as a class satire, which I suppose it can't not be on some level, the novel is just too unusual to be merely that. The story itself is rambunctious, but somehow in the telling of it, Mathews himself refuses to be, which lends to the novel an air of biography. Which is perhaps the key to the satire.

The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell - This is how Ruth Rendell begins this, one of her typically skin-crawling novel about a psychopath who mixes his life with those of naive, unsuspecting, every-day nitwits:

Scorpio is metaphysics, putrefaction and death, regeneration, passion, lust and violence, insight and profundity; inheritance, loss, occultism, astrology, borrowing and lending, others' possessions. Scorpians are magicians, astrologers, alchemists, surgeons, bondsmen, and undertakers. The gem for Scorpio is the snakestone, the plant the cactus; eagles and wolves and scorpions are its creatures, its body part is the genitals, its weapon the Obligatory Pain, and its card in the Tarot is Death.

Finn shared his birthday, November 16, with the Emperor Tiberius. He had been told by a soothsayer, who was a friend of his mother's whom she had met in the mental hospital, that he would live to a great age and die by violence.

If that's not the kind of writing you're looking for, then buzz off, friend! Like Barbara Comyns, Ruth Rendell's talent is one that is so expected that it tends to be taken for granted. In truth, we didn't know how good we had it.

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze - My experience with crime fiction this year has mostly been one of reading very bad books by good writers. It's been disheartening, but there have been a few exceptions, the most striking of which is this one. I wrote about it here.

I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton - In this novel, originally published in 1930, a young man with no prospects named James Wrexham answers an ad in the paper looking for someone to catalogue the library of one Jonathan Scrivener, while Scrivener is out of the country. Wrexham gets the job for reasons he can't quite figure out and discovers that Scrivener has already left the country so the two can't meet before Wrexham begins work. Furthermore, he will be living in Scrivener's opulent apartment, and his pay will be extremely generous. Over the course of the next few months, Wrexham will meet several of Scrivener's friends, none of whom knew Scrivener was leaving the country, and none of whom have known the strange man very long. Wrexham is hoping they can tell him something about Scrivener, and Scrivener's friends are hoping Wrexham can do the same.

A fascinating mystery in which much of the evidence gathered is done so through conversation or by making assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true, I Am Jonathan Scrivener is a singular book, a sort of metaphysical suspense novel about the way people choose to live, and whether or not that was ever really a choice.

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - For a long time, I counted this as the Philip Roth Novel I Wanted To Read The Most, and so I did. As you may know, this one's fairly notorious, even infamous, for its graphic and depraved (I feel pretty confident this is the right word for some of the stuff that goes on here) sexual content. Mentioned less often is the emotional wallop that stuff carries when read in context. The novel's about an aging puppeteer named Mickey Sabbath who has betrayed every woman he's ever been with, ever married, and as the novel opens he's become sexually obsessed with his latest mistress, also married, and who dies of cancer. This sends Mickey on an aimless, amoral, rather disgusting journey that left me pitying and hating him in...well, I won't say "in equal measure" because that would be a lie. Anyway, the last line of the novel says everything, and there's a sequence about halfway through where the reader is made to jump back and forth between a footnoted phone sex conversation between Sabbath and his mistress, and, on the top half of the page, a long passage about Sabbath's wife, and the life he's left her to live. Sort of takes the heat out of the phone sex, I'll tell you that.

The Late Breakfasters by Robert Aickman - "Griselda de Reptonville did not know what love was until she joined one of Mrs Hatch's famous house parties at Beams, and there met Leander." So begins the great Robert Aickman's only full length novel (he also wrote a novella called The Model). As far as I'm concerned, Aickman is the greatest horror writer the 20th Century-plus ever produced, so it's somewhat curious, and therefore interesting, that his longest piece of fiction isn't horror at all. Of course, by "at all" I mean "mostly not"-- still, though, there's a ghost, and sinister goings-on in cemeteries. Otherwise, though, The Late Breakfasters is a wonderful, if sometimes deeply off-kilter, English Country Estate novel, full of the kind of sly humor and devastating characterizations you'd expect from the best of that form. Until, you know, the action leaves the country estate, and more than half of the damn thing becomes a different kind of society novel. With further strangeness to come.

"Those, if any, who wish to know more about me should plunge beneath the frivolous surface of The Late Breakfasters." I found nothing frivolous about The Late Breakfasters myself, but I did find that the mystery of Robert Aickman, for me, had deepened.

My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offutt - Offutt's 2016 memoir has at its deeply fascinating center Andrew J. Offutt, Chris's father and one-time mainstream science fiction writer, turned, after a while, full-time pornographer. What's incredible are the details: that his father wrote his pornographic novels openly, regardless of his many pseudonyms, that his wife typed all his many hundreds of manuscripts, that he talked openly around the house about his work in porn, that he was at the same time a serious writer, or anyway considered himself to be (he had a short story published in Harlan Ellison's famous anthology Again, Dangerous Visions), that he gave up a lucrative, if hated, career in insurance in order to write pornography full-time, and that he wrote it all from a house in Appalachian hills of Kentucky. Clearly not a good man in the, er, traditional sense, Andrew J. Offutt (who died in 2013) had an enormous impact on his family, not least on Chris, his writer son, whose task upon his father's death, was to dig through and catalogue the thousands upon thousands of pages his dad had produced over the decades. In doing so, he forges a new relationship with his dad as a fellow writer, something that never happened while he was alive. Chris Offutt becomes Andrew Offutt's most insightful, and possibly most generous, critic, while relating stories of family and childhood that are sometimes funny, but generally awful, humiliating, terrifying. My Father, the Pornographer ends with a revelation that I regarded with horror, but which Chris tries to make the best of. It leaves Andrew Offutt as a figure I'm glad I never met, but also as a man I can't help but pity.

The Difference by Charles Willeford - The best way to describe this, crime writer Willeford's lone Western, is that it is exactly the kind of Western you'd expect Willeford to write. This is a compliment. Telling the story of Johnny Shaw, a young man determined to exact revenge on a rich land baron and his sons (and who, when we meet him, has already killed one of them and is on the run) for taking the land Shaw thought was his. Initially portrayed a sympathetic kid with good reason to be outraged, eventually, in classic Willeford style, Shaw is proved to be a pure sociopath. If the men he's feuding with are also villainous, they perhaps at least have human blood in their veins. Shaw doesn't. He doesn't even rise to the level of snake.

Based on a True Story by Norm Macdonald - Labeled a memoir but in fact a novel, Norm Macdonald's Based on a True Story may be the best book ever written by a stand-up comic. Loosely structured around Macdonald's (the character) iffy plan to gamble and win big in Vegas and taking the form of a road novel, Macdonald (the writer and comedian) has used the basic facts of his life to build a hilarious, dead-pan alternate universe in which, for example, yes, he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, but he achieved this primarily by taking advantage of Lorne Michaels's morphine addiction. But this is not at all a linear tale, and Macdonald digresses constantly, talking about his friends in show business (he is sincere and heartfelt when talking about Chris Farley), and dropping the occasional bombshell. For instance, it turns out that, though he was a successful comedian, Rodney Dangerfield was plagued his whole life by the fact that no one ever gave him any respect. Macdonald writes about being told once by Dangerfield that a hooker once said to him "Not tonight, I have a headache." Then Macdonald asks "Can you imagine hearing something like that from a prostitute?"

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe - Perhaps the most intellectually stimulating book I read in 2016 is this one, my first by Nobel laureate Oe. About a writer with an autistic son, much like Oe, whose ambition is to write a book of guidance and definitions for autistic children. Weaved into this is the writer's, and one presumes Oe's, relationship with the poetry of William Blake, whose enormously complicated philosophy, language, and spirituality inspire the writer, and will possibly guide him through his difficult task. Present also is the writer's memories of another writer he once knew, referred to only as M in this book but who is clearly meant to be Yukio Mishima (whom Oe himself knew, and whom Oe had many issues with). And so on. It's both easy and more than likely a mistake to regard Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! as a piece of fictionalized autobiography, but even if it is exactly that, it's no less rich for the fact. I read this back in February, and it still pops into my head from time to time.

Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore - Beginning with a fifty-page story of deceit and murder among what I guess you'd have to call cavemen, written in a syntactically fractured language that, well, takes some getting used to, this book, comic book writer Moore's first novel (his second, the 1,300 page Jerusalem, came out this year. I'll get to it) is a series of short stories that are connected by theme and imagery, and occasional references to what we've seen before, but more than any of those they're connected by geography. Spanning thousands of years (the last story takes place in 1996, the year the novel was published), the whole novel takes place in the stretch of land that would become, and now is, Northampton, where Moore has lived his entire life (and where Jerusalem is also set, by the way). As the title suggests, Voice of the Fire is infernal and apocalyptic, and the imagery is at times terrifying. Individual chapters could be lifted out and work as historical horror stories. It's quite an unnerving piece of work.

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson - As it happens, earlier today I watched, for the first time, Andrei Tarkovsky's film The Sacrifice, which, in simplified terms, is about a group of people living, or visiting, a Swedish country house when the news breaks that a nuclear war is about to begin. Transplant that basic idea (also remove the nuclear weapons and make the danger something closer to the Apocalypse) to a village in the United States and you have The Sundial, Shirley Jackson's fourth novel, from 1958. Another major difference (there are quite a few others, of course) is that of tone: while The Sacrifice is somber (if also occasionally absurdist and fantastical), The Sundial is actually closer to The Late Breakfasters -- sardonic, cutting, funny. If anything, Jackson is more acidic in portraying her characters than Aickman, but then again, Jackson's characters are, by and large, more awful. In essence, The Sundial is about a bunch of passive-aggressive shits waiting for the world to end, an event they're sure they're going to survive. If that doesn't sound like a good book, I don't know what does.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey by Brian Moore - It seems like every year, I read at least one novel about a down-on-his-luck family man trying to find a job so he can support his family, but constantly getting in his own way. Obviously some of these are better than others. The Luck of Ginger Coffey is possibly the best one I've ever read, and maybe the best one it is possible to write. About an Irishman, Ginger Coffey, who moves with his wife and young daughter to Canada, only to find the job prospects that led him there collapsing almost instantly. When I learned early on that the money he'd set aside for the trip back home to Ireland, should Canada not work out, and which Ginger's wife Veronica believed was never in danger, had been almost completely spent, and Ginger still jobless, I think I caught my breath. Ginger has some small victories here and there, and he's not without ambition (he wants to become a reporter), but whatever ground he gains he quickly loses, or gives away, and soon enough he's drinking way too much, there's no ounce of happiness at home, and your heart just breaks. In the early stages of the novel, Ginger believes, perhaps even correctly, that his one friend in the world is a young boy who lives upstairs, who likes to play games with Ginger. How that relationship ends just about destroyed me. And then the ending of this novel actually made my eyes well up. Books never make me cry. Except this one.

Friday, December 9, 2016

You Just Kinda Wasted My Precious Time

Don't Think Twice (d. Mike Birbiglia) - Back in 2012, when writer-director-comedian Mike Birbiglia released his first film, Sleepwalk With Me, which was I think the fourteenth iteration of his collection of stories about how he is a sleepwalker and is a comedian and cheated on his girlfriend, I was not unwilling to give him the benefit of the doubt. I'd enjoyed what I'd heard of his one-man-show version of the piece, and while the existence of the film did make me wonder just how dead one horse could possibly be, I wasn't actively offended. Then again, that film did do the job of blotting out Birbiglia's name from my wife's memory, theretofore a burgeoning fan, and it did make me question whether or not, as the "film" "played out" before me, I had actually been witness to anything at all. Was I dreaming? Was I, in fact, the real somnambulist?

In subsequent years, Birbiglia's cult/arthouse star has risen, due to his touring, and hitching that star to fucking Ira Glass of all people, such that his new film as the writer, director, and co-star, Don't Think Twice, arrived as kind of an event, I guess. Or it seemed that way because a lot of people liked it. And even though, as Don't Think Twice collected one hosanna after another, Birbiglia decided to present himself on social media as a latter-day John Cassavetes, savior of independent cinema -- a disingenuous bit of play-acting that is utterly noxious in its Swanbergian aspect -- I was, once again, willing to see what was what. The premise certainly intrigued: there's this improv troupe called The Commune, working out of New York City. The struggling six members -- Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Tami Sagher, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Birbiglia -- spend all their time together, work demoralizing day jobs (though Sagher's family is rich), and wait for another chance at a big break. Which comes along in the form of being looked at by scouts from Weekend Live, that famous sketch show. Two of them actually get auditions, and one of them, Key's Jack Mercer, lands the gig. Meanwhile, the troupe's theater space is shuttering, and what will become of them?

Well, who gives a fuck? The first problem with Don't Think Twice is that it is never funny. It is never funny. Even if Birbiglia's goal is find the pain in comedy, he wants the audience to embrace the comedy of, I don't know, pain? as well. Yet The Commune is murderously unfunny, not only on-stage but off. The film is never more painful than when Birbiglia is trying to depict how a bunch of comedian friends interact with each other, how they're always joking and laughing, life is the ultimate improv really, etc. What this consists of, for example, is one of the troupe, Gethard, showing up to their apartment having missed that night's show. He says "I'm sorry" and the other five start teasing him. What form does this comedic teasing take? All of them say "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" and make clownishly sad faces. In fact, a lot of the troupe's inside jokes consist of gibberish, or repeated words and mugging faces. I'm actually forced to wonder if Birbiglia has any friends. I guess he probably does, but if he doesn't, I get it.

And it's not like he saves the day with his filmmaking. As a piece of direction, Don't Think Twice might be a step up from Sleepwalk With Me, but only because Birbiglia the actor often cedes the floor to better actors than he (though check him out at the end in a scene where he's supposed to be furiously aggressive -- you'll not be reminded of Michael Shannon, let's say, or of anger, the emotion) and because technically I suppose he, Birbiglia, the director, is trying something. The problem is that all he's trying to do, outside of some weird close-ups (check out the scene between Gethard and his character's father outside a club) that achieve an effect that I do not believe was desired (that effect, incidentally, is one that suggests that all Birbiglia could think at the time was that sometimes close-ups are used in movies) is be and look and feel like every other "poignant" indie hand-held-camera DVD-sinkhole-bound sleepy blink of a goddamn movie of which we get upwards of fifty-some titles a year.

I mean, it's not like Birbiglia cares. If you don't believe me, watch the movie, and look for a scene late in the proceedings, featuring Micucci, Sagher, and Gethard. They're backstage (talking about the importance of improv comedy, in case you were wondering), and Sagher hands Gethard a framed picture. When the camera cuts to Gethard holding the picture, talking about what it makes him think about and feel and so on, the back of the frame is facing the camera. He's holding the picture upside down.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Very Positive November Capsule Reviews

These three capsule reviews are very positive!

One-Eyed Jacks (d. Marlon Brando) - I'm not entirely sure when I first saw One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando's singular Western, his one and only film as a director, but I was probably just old enough to appreciate it. The problem has since become that for many, many years it's only official home video release was on VHS. Due to what I have to assume are all sorts of reasons, the rights to the film subsequently fell into the public domain, which means that very few cared about it. But the drive to save, preserve, and restore films of the classic era -- from the silents to I'd have to guess the 60s -- has ramped up in intensity over the last decade or so, and with the help of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, as is the specific case here, the people doing the actual hands-on work have been able to pull many films back from the precipice. Including, I think I hardly need say, Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks, which as of yesterday is out on fucking Blu-ray, from fucking Criterion. Forgive me, but I have been waiting a long time for this.

And watching the film for the first time since the VHS era has been, let's say, rewarding, because while I used to think One-Eyed Jacks was that good, it turns out it's actually this good. In plot terms, this is a fairly basic Western revenge story (based on a novel called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider which itself was inspired by the legend of Billy the Kid, a legend that has no actual bearing on this movie, but anyhow, please ignore me), what ends up happening in One-Eyed Jacks is Brando uses basic genre ideas to, not create, but insist on the power of formulaic myths. That's a compliment. The plot's this: Rio (Brando) and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are bank robbers. After a job with partner Woody Strode, who lasts a few minutes, they get into a serious bind, and the plan is, Dad takes off with the money to buy some a horse to replace the one Rio lost and come back so the two old friends can flee the law together. But for a variety of reasons, Dad doesn't come back, and Rio goes to prison. Then, with new friend Modesto (Larry Duran), Rio escapes from prison, with the single goal of tracking Dad down and killing him. He finds Dad because a couple of bank-robbers led by Ben Johnson want the help of the legendary Rio, and know that he's been asking around about the target of his revenge.

And so one thing leads to another. It's not too very long into the 140-minute film that Brando and Malden meet up again as hunter and prey, and in a scene where Brando, who lies to Malden about what he's been up to for the last five years, shares a glass of tequila with the man who left him behind, but who might actually buy into Brando's "you and me are okay" spiel, it occurred to me that pure cinema is and was achieved when Marlon Brando and Karl Malden were in a scene, any scene, together. Furthermore, later, Karl Malden, during a suspenseful chunk of that One-Eyed Jacks last third, rides along a ridge above a gorgeous VistaVision crashing waves, and it's as languorously beautiful and slow a moment during a period of rather heightened suspense as I can imagine. In an extra on the Criterion disc, Scorsese says Brando waited for those waves a long time. And it works, don't it? Most importantly, though, Brando, as Rio, plays the film hero as a figure of massive physical menace. I'm not sure Brando is as in love with Rio's drive for revenge -- in the face of other things the film is offering to him, anyway -- as, well, I was, and those doubts, my doubts, set in when I saw how ruthlessly Brando was playing it. He has moments when he's past reason, is on the edge of violence. In every instance, I hated -- and I suspect you do or will, too -- the men he's about to hand back a handful of their own brains. This doesn't mean Brando's Rio isn't unnerving in his heroism. Which should not suggest to you that he's not the hero.

Café Society (d. Woody Allen) - So it's fair to say, I guess, that Woody Allen's career since, arguably Bullets Over Broadway in 1994, has been the most contentious period in his nearly fifty years as a filmmaker (it would be exactly fifty if I was counting What's Up, Tiger Lily?, a film I like but which I can't pretend is the work of a director). Since then, some films, like Sweet and Lowdown and Midnight in Paris, have been widely embraced, while others have had at least the good fortune to be divisive, like Deconstructing Harry and Melinda and Melinda, while many others -- Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, Whatever Works, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion -- are basically despised. I myself, a defender of some of the unbeloved Allen films of this period (I like Scoop and think Cassandra's Dream is pretty danged good), made it only thirty minutes into Whatever Works. But I do think, overall, his films since 1994 have been, on average, better than popular opinion would indicate (though even the positive reactions can get iffy: in my view, relatively appreciated entries like Match Point or Blue Jasmine are marginal. It's possible aesthetic opinions are very personal, who among us can say?). We may never know why this has happened.

In any case, as I've said, I think there's lots to admire in this stretch of films, and in fact last year, Allen's Irrational Man, one of his "murder" films (a clutch of movies that I find among his most intriguing) played for me as a deeply clumsy yet fascinating moral investigation. Most people hated it because, from what I could see, they badly misunderstood it. Still, though: clumsy but fascinating is one thing -- what was Allen's last great film? As it happens, I have the answer: 2016's Café Society is the best thing Allen has not only written, but directed, in I don't even know how long. A 1930s Hollywood-set love-triangle that features Jesse Eisenberg as an initially naive (but not entirely likable, as an early sketch-like scene between him and a prostitute played by Anna Camp, indicates) young man trying to find his way into the movie business through his hugely successful producer uncle (Steve Carrell), Café Society suggests, quite strongly, that Allen, who has, it must be said, long ago abandoned any claim to being well-acquainted with modern society (I do not consider this an unforgivable artistic crime) should focus now on period pieces.

It's also one of his better-plotted films in a long time, as well. The center of the love triangle is Kristen Stewart, Carrell's assistant with whom he is cheating on his wife, and with whom Eisenberg falls in love. There's also a gangster subplot involving another of Eisenberg's uncles (one of the great ancillary pleasures of Café Society is its occasional shifts back to Eisenberg's blue collar and/or gangster Jewish family in New York), which begins as a lark but transforms into something else. While remaining within the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, there are a couple moments of surprisingly blunt violence, which in turn help to turn Café Society into something resembling a mix between Crimes and Misdemeanors and Purple Rose of Cairo. On some level, that latter film is the more interesting link (if I do say so myself) to this new film as it's been a very long time since Allen has been able to connect to the kind of average human life depicted there. Cairo and Radio Days are his masterpieces in this respect, and he's not too far off it in Blue Jasmine, in all fairness. But with Café Society, which is mostly concerned with the high-life of Hollywood, manages to quietly show the tension between these different sorts of lives. Which is largely what Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days are also about, while also being utterly gripping and visually beautiful, entertaining movies. As is Café Society. When you make as many movies as Woody Allen, the argument goes, you're not going to be able to tend to each work as closely as you should. But apparently, sometimes you can manage it.

Phenomena (d. Dario Argento) - Though a long-time Argento skeptic -- I love Suspiria, was bored sideways by Opera, have perhaps not chosen entirely wisely when selecting the other half-dozen-or-so Argentos I've seen -- I nevertheless have been genuinely and sincerely excited to see this one, from 1985, for a very long time. The problem has always been that for many years its availability as a home video item has been dicey, and those VHS and DVD releases it's enjoyed have not, I'd gathered as I kept my eye on things, told the full story of Phenomena. A film whose reputation, at least among fans and critics interested in horror, is that of a film which is utterly sui generis, thoroughly insane, and the work of an individual artist who, for good and ill, is following his vision wherever it may lead him. "Off a cliff" is always in the cards.

And yet, no. Before explaining why not, I should probably say that Phenomena is a horror film about a young teenager (Jennifer Connelly, fifteen at the time, and whose admirable refusal to buckle to certain requests kept the film from being a uncomfortably prurient as you might justifiably have feared from Argento), the daughter of an Italian movie star who winds up in a girls' school in Switzerland. That's actually not the problem though. The problem is that someone is serial murdering the students at this school. Homicide detectives have indeed been summoned, including Inspector Geiger (Patrick Brachau). Geiger is hoping the expertise of local entomologist McGregor (Donald Pleasance), who is studying, via maggots, the forensic evidence made available by the previous beheading murder, will, with the help of his chimpanzee best friend....

Hm. Also, Jennifer Connelly's character (named Jennifer, let's not make anything out of that) loves and is worshiped by insects. And my concern is that certain members of its cult love it because they think it's "so bad it's good." To be sure, it is utterly ridiculous. And I absolutely laughed at things Argento may not have wanted me to laugh at. But it's well made, and in its own way Phenomena is no less a jarring look into the brain of a singular filmmaker than Eraserhead. Besides which, it's so much fun. Phenomena ends many times, but each time I realized that one climax was going to droop and then build into another, I didn't sigh impatiently. Instead I thought "Oh good!" And I was never disappointed. Plus there's a chimpanzee who thinks she's people.