sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Today's major achievement: writing to the Department of the Interior about the ongoing national monument review, which could (and feels designed to) result in the rescinding of federal protection from more than two dozen established national monuments. Rather obviously, I do not believe this is a wise idea.

We live already in a world where it is far too uncertain whether our grandchildren will be able to enjoy the land and the seas as we knew them. )

If you wish to send a letter or submit a comment of your own, the deadline regarding Bears Ears National Monument is the end of this week, May 26th; the deadline for all other monuments is July 10th. Some of the land in question is sacred; some of it is merely irreplaceable. Thanks to [personal profile] truepenny for the heads-up.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
I have no idea why the car double-parked directly beneath my office window is blasting classical guitar at half past midnight, but I'm honestly really enjoying it. Usually the music people blast from their cars is much more bass-heavy. This is remarkably soothing. [edit] And someone from the next house over called the cops on it. Dammit.

(There is not much to report about today: it was the kind of unromantically exhausted, brain-AWOL sick day where mostly I coughed a lot and stared into space and did very little of practical use, which I hate, although I did manage to bake a loaf of banana bread and unpack four more boxes of books. We have a pot of basil on the back porch now, which I am hoping not to kill.)
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Today I got to have my yearly physical in the middle of this extremely unpleasant cold (I came home immediately afterward to cats and air conditioning), so here are a couple of things off the internet.

1. I am sure this guy cannot be cosplaying Strider if only because the machinery against which he's leaning looks too industrial for Tolkien's Middle-Earth, but that's what my brain told me I was looking at and so that's where we are:



2. Jason Shulman's Photographs of Films catches entire movie in single frames. Some of them work for me as freestanding images, some don't. I like how much Dr. Strangelove (1964) looks like spirit photography—the same with Blue Velvet (1986), only in color. If they return to particular sets and angles, you can see it; you get an idea of shot length. You wind up with these ghosts of the director's eye.

3. This is a very good article about the mythology of Robert E. Lee, occasioned by the removal of his monument from New Orleans.

4. This is a beautiful little short film courtesy of StoryCorps and It Gets Better.

5. Hestia when she does not feel like being petted basically pulls a Mordecai.

6. I am not sure if David Cairns is just going through his favorite character actors at The Chiseler, but after Edna May Oliver and Eric Blore he can keep it up indefinitely as far as I'm concerned. "I’m pretty sure a head like that could encircle the globe, if you laid it end to end a sufficient number of times." [edit] He appreciates Aline MacMahon! Good call. How could you not?

7. I really hope the new world's hottest chili pepper wins its flower show next week.

And because I just checked the news, I guess I'll have to watch an open hearing of the Senate intelligence committee sometime after Memorial Day, because I am certainly curious about what Comey is going to say.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Overnight the weather has gone subtropical: I fell asleep after it was light out and even then we lay sweating on top of the covers while the air came in like heat-shimmer through the window fan and the cats tried to melt themselves into the hardwood. I have the blinds drawn; I'm drinking cold water even though it makes my teeth hurt. We need to get our air conditioner out of the storage unit and fast.

The twenty-four-hour news cycle has become more like twenty-four frames per second. Yesterday 45 claimed that "no politician in history has been treated more unfairly" (to which I found myself responding on Facebook, "Definitely not any of the asssassinated Presidents of the United States") while today he invokes witch hunts, of which again there has never been a greater victim than himself. I saw a macro of Joan of Arc last night: "Bitch, please." [edit] Points to the representative from Salem.

Here's what I hope: that Robert Mueller is honest, and good at his job, and has security who are the same.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
The astonishing Holocaust novel I mentioned earlier was Emeric Pressburger's The Glass Pearls (1966), which I read last night on either side of seeing To Be or Not to Be (1942). I cannot possibly do justice to it, but I'm trying not to let everything slip past just because I feel like someone replaced my sinuses with damp cheesecloth.

The Glass Pearls was Pressburger's second published novel. His first was the critically and commercially acclaimed Killing a Mouse on Sunday (1961), probably better known nowadays in its Gregory Peck-starring film incarnation, Fred Zinneman's Behold a Pale Horse (1964). Its follow-up was not acclaimed. Hollywood did not come calling. It garnered one brutally dismissive review and no second printing—critically, commercially, it disappeared without a trace. Caitlin McDonald, who writes the second of this edition's two useful introductions, not unjustly likens it to Michael Powell's career-killing Peeping Tom (1960), with which it shares an uncomfortably sympathetic protagonist and an effortless inhabitation of mindsets and behaviors a "normal" person is not supposed to be able to get inside of. Powell put himself literally into Peeping Tom, drawing a disquieting link between the work of a film director and a serial killer. When Pressburger performs a similar trick with The Glass Pearls, it is especially striking because his protagonist is a Nazi.

In the spring of 1965, Karl Braun is a slight, solitary, middle-aged piano tuner who lives and works in West London. For recreation, he attends classical concerts on the discount tickets he gets from one of his fellow-lodgers and sometimes has dinner with another, both of them immigrants like himself; he thinks often of his wife and child who died more than twenty years ago in the air-raids of Hamburg, but has recently found himself pursuing a not quite romantic relationship with a young woman he met at the estate agency. She takes him to her favorite Chinese restaurant. He introduces her to Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Strauss. (She introduces him to a screamingly crowded beatnik dance club and he has a panic attack and passes out.) She finds him charming in an old-world sort of way, with his discreetly rakish stories of affairs and narrow escapes in Paris before the war. What she does not know, what no one in this scenario knows except the reader and the man who has for the last twenty years gone by the name of Karl Braun: he is a wanted war criminal, keeping an increasingly anxious weather eye on the news coming out of Ludwigsberg. It was bad enough when a former comrade actually made contact with him in England—now any time a stranger asks after him at the piano factory or one of his places of work, he gets so paranoid that he has to remind himself that "the natural function of a logical mind was to reduce mountains to molehills, not the other way round." His relationship with Helen Taylor progresses; so does his conviction that he is being followed, spied upon, elaborately set up to give himself away. Both plots come to a head during a trip to France, where Braun has promised to show Helen the real-life sites of every one of his Parisian adventures and, while she visits friends in the south of France, nip over the border to Zürich where he has business of an unspecified nature. Three, two, one, nothing in life ends as simply as it does in the movies, but there are things that are real and that no amount of retelling can magic away.

The one extant review of The Glass Pearls devotes way too much of its short wordcount to criticizing the author's choice of a Nazi as the main character and his failure to treat this fact as a shocking plot twist, when in reality the book would not work at all if the audience were not clued in from the outset. (The reviewer also calls the character of Helen "boring and stupid," which is the kind of book report I would expect from a last-minute sixth-grader, not the TLS.) For much of its runtime, it functions as a study in the banality of evil—still a new concept when Pressburger was writing—and the efficacy of compartmentalization, neither romanticizing nor demonizing Braun past the judgment of his own actions. He deeply misses his wife and child, with whom he knows he would have died in the British bombing raid if his work hadn't called him away on the night; he forms a friendship with a Jewish neighbor and listens seriously and sympathetically to the man's story of escaping occupied Prague by doctoring his name from "Kohn" to "Kolm." The stories he relates to an always interested Helen show him in a variety of lights from prankish lover to terrified exile, sometimes jaunty, sometimes petty, sometimes just getting along. It is not special pleading, however Braun's tight third-person perspective justifies itself. With the Eichmann trial in recent memory, Pressburger seems to have felt confident assuming his audience would take it as read that National Socialism was not a good thing, therefore he could push the terrible, relatable ordinariness of his protagonist further than the purely circumstantial sympathy of 49th Parallel (1941). In the first introduction to this edition, Kevin Macdonald notes that his grandfather "bizarrely . . . went so far as to imbue the Braun character with certain traits of his own; such that, to some degree, Braun is a self-portrait." This statement is true enough, but also conceals the novel's most resonant and devastating twist, which I am afraid I have to talk about if I want to explain why it affected me as strongly as it did.

It was the first party in the new flat in the Rue Quentin-Bochart. )

There are other reasons to take it seriously as a Holocaust novel—the differing perspectives offered by Braun's flatmates Leslie Strohmayer and Jaroslav Kolm, the evidence that people were already worrying about the failure of historical memory barely twenty years after the war. "Perhaps nowadays they treated such cases as routine. The war, the Nazis, the camps, War Criminals were old hat. To everybody under thirty, the whole period must appear as mythical as the Boer War." (Did I mention we had neo-Nazis in Boston over the weekend? They held a rally on the Common. It was apparently a fairly pathetic rally, which I am not sorry to hear, but they brought their Kriegsmarine cosplay and their internet memes and trust me, this stuff is not old hat to me right now. To be honest, it wasn't even before we had quite so many homegrown fascists in the news.) It is also simply a very good novel, in terms of character study and in terms of prose. English may have been Pressburger's fifth or sixth language, but he puts it together beautifully, plain-spoken and poetic by the turns it needs. I haven't re-read it with an eye to his scripts, but I am sure it would reward consideration in that direction. At the moment, I am going to shower and see what I can do about getting over this cold. I can't do anything about getting over the haunting, except remember, and make sure it's tribute, not theft.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
I get that Beth Hamedrash Hagodol had ceased to exist as a congregation a full ten years ago and I am disappointed that the historic building was left to fall into increasing disrepair rather than being preserved as a landmark, but that doesn't make me feel any better about the fact that the oldest Eastern European synagogue in the United States was just burnt down.

(I especially don't appreciate finding out while attempting to write about a piece of astonishing Holocaust literature. Which is almost certainly not going to happen this afternoon because I am still running a fever and sneezing my head off and I fell over after walking to the library to return a book, but the timing was just unnecessary.)
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
The first ice cream truck of the season just drove slowly down our street, playing "Turkey in the Straw" and looking slightly lost. Hestia watched it intently from the front window. She has since turned her attention to the delicious, noisily chirping birds.

Today I feel like crawling back into bed and staying there until I don't have to blow my nose anymore and can swallow without feeling that I encountered a porcupine on the way down, but we have tickets for Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942) at the Coolidge tonight; it is being presented in 35 mm for its seventy-fifth anniversary as part of the National Center for Jewish Film's annual festival and there will be a scholarly Q & A afterward, so I am just planning not to shake hands with anyone and hopefully not sneeze at any moment where it would break the comedy. I haven't seen the movie in years and never on a big screen. I believe my mother showed it to me, after we caught the 1983 Mel Brooks remake on TV; it was my introduction to Jack Benny and quite possibly Carole Lombard. My grandparents were still alive. They'd seen it first-run. Films against fascism were not supposed to come around to being relevant again. All the more reason to go pay attention to this one.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
Frank Borzage's Strange Cargo (1940) lives up to its name. It's like a prison break directed by Elizabeth Goudge. I know I enjoyed it, but what on earth.

It begins like an adventure film, complete with scene-setting titles: "Deep in the Guianas . . . a penal colony for men set aside to be forgotten by the world, to whom the present, the future and the past are one—for men without hope . . ." Clark Gable's Verne is one such man, a tough thief with a history of failed escapes and punishing stints in solitary; he emerges from the latest wincing but unbroken, retorting to the warden who counsels him to serve out his brief remaining time quietly, "I'm a thief by profession, not a convict. There's nothing worth stealing around here except freedom—and I'm after some of that." Detailed to longshoreman's work on the wharves, he meets Joan Crawford's Julie, a Marseilles prostitute fetched up as a bar girl on the island for reasons as murky as Verne's own past. They have a stinging anti-chemistry that pays off in a kiss like a mutual insult later that night when Verne evades the guards for just long enough to sneak into Julie's quarters. She turns him in. He's returned to the general population, where he discovers an old enemy planning to break out with anyone who can pony up the cash for a share in the boat waiting up the coast. She's ordered off the island, though without enough money for her own passage she's forced to rely on the dubious chivalry of strangers rather than accept the price-tagged attentions of the prison informant played with circumspect sleaziness by Peter Lorre, known to all as "M'sieu Pig." By the time their paths cross again in the jungle, though neither of them knows it yet, both Julie and Verne are already entangled in something a little stranger than your average jailbreak, increasingly presided over—though not apparently controlled—by the most enigmatic of the escaped convicts, the easygoing, compassionate, almost certainly supernatural Cambreau. He's played by Ian Hunter, who got my attention for life in John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940) and is fully as good here in a role that sounds frankly stupid when baldly described. By the second act I started wondering if he was the Angel of Death. I finished the picture pretty sure he was an avatar of God.

Not Christ, though, which is one of the reasons Strange Cargo interests rather than repels me. Whatever process of regeneration the film is chronicling, it's not as direct or as obvious as a Second Coming—it can't be or the story's peculiar grace would collapse into that particularly nauseating brand of portentous syrup that characterizes so much Production Code Christianity. If it once winked at its audience, if it yielded to special effects or declamation or, God forbid, whimsy, it would be unwatchable. Cambreau works because whatever else he may prove to be, he's mortal. He has a sense of humor; he gets tired, thirsty, looks like hell after a week of trekking the jungle and becalmed drifting. He looks like Ian Hunter, which means that he's got a pleasant enough face, but nothing head-turning, certainly nothing that suggests a hotline to the otherworld. He seems to know things, but none of them individually is beyond human ken for a perceptive watcher of people and the weather—only in aggregate does the reliability of his guidance start to feel spooky, to the point where one of his fellow-convicts accuses him of being the Devil. (That's a different jailbreak movie.) He never pushes his authority or even his opinions, never takes part in the macho jockeying that preoccupies Verne and his comrades. He says everything as though it means exactly what it sounds like. Even when you're sure he's double-speaking, you'll never prove it from his manner, which is both seriously interested in everyone and everything around him and not taking anything too dramatically. He appears out of a flat white afternoon in the prison yard, taking Verne's place as the thirty-sixth man1 to return from the wharfside work detail; when the guard shouts at him to hurry up, he replies absently, "I must have fallen behind. There's so much to do out there." What we chiefly see him do over the course of the escape is help the other prisoners, variously taken out by snakes, heat, sharks, each other, through their dying: their anger, their shame, their regrets and their hopes and their terror that it's too late for any of it to mean anything. He takes up the same conversations with the living, if they want them. Some of it is philosophy, some of it is theology, a lot of it seems to work like therapy. He asks people the kinds of questions they ask themselves. He rarely gives them answers they couldn't work out eventually, either, but it makes a difference to hear it from someone else. Even his climactic argument with Verne—explicitly over his own life, implicitly over the other man's soul—doesn't sound like a psychomachia; it sounds like the classic are we going to talk about it or are we going to do it. "Or does it take something to kill me you haven't got?" And indeed, after Verne has risked death himself diving over the side of the storm-tossed boat to save the man he angrily roundhoused into a raging sea, half-drowned Cambreau looks up at his attempted murderer-rescuer, who is trying to pretend with tears in his eyes that he did not just give the muttered, telltale eulogy "You're an awful sucker to do things like that for rats like me," and he smiles. It's not patronizing, it's not victorious, it's not even beatific, it's just pure, exhausted, shared happiness and a little as if he is gently teasing Verne: guess it takes one sucker to recognize another, hey?

Only in the last few seconds does the film overplay its hand, as the fisherman watching Cambreau disappear into the rain-glinting, net-hung darkness at the back of his boat makes the reverent sign of the cross over his heart. I guess MGM couldn't let it go without a little syrup. It's annoying. We don't need the shorthand; we have already witnessed the thing itself. But the fact that I can say this about a movie in which there are no miracles and very little preaching is fascinating to me. The most prominent uses of a Bible in Strange Cargo, beyond a graveside reading of the bit about "the temple of God" from 1 Corinthians (which provokes the derisive remark from Verne quoted in the title of this post), are the transmission of a map carefully copied onto its flyleaf and the most passive-aggressive application of the Song of Songs I have ever encountered, sarcastically addressed to a weary, bedraggled Julie by Verne on their first night alone in the jungle (it makes her cry anyway, imagining a life in which someone could compare her to pomegranates and honey and mean it). The script itself mocks the idea that Cambreau will be some kind of charismatic Bible-belter: "Well, why don't you start reading out of that book and I'll jump off the boat? Don't give me any of that sister-come-to-salvation look, I'm not buying any! I know the routine. It starts out with a prayer and ends up with a Bible in one hand and me in the other." Later in the doldrums of the voyage, Julie will snag her fingers into the raggedy leg of his canvas trousers and pull him down beside her so that she can talk to him, slantwise, about all the things she's not talking about with the person she most wants to: "You'd know I could want a lot of things if Verne were around. But he'd have to want them, too." This time when she weeps, Cambreau will stroke her hair, as gently and carefully as a cat that has just begun to trust him, and because he means nothing more than comfort by it she'll let him. It is not an extraordinary gesture, just a reasonable human one. I don't happen to believe in Cambreau as a version of God, but if you must have them in your worldview, the kind with a sense of humor and a good understanding of boundaries seems like a good start to me. He doesn't redeem any of the characters, subject-verb-object. He gives them the space to change themselves. Whether they take or leave it is their call.

I may have to be more awake to explain why any of this reminded me of Elizabeth Goudge. The deep Christian bedrock of the story is part of it, the way a lot of ordinary things happen that are yet concerned with the saving of people's souls—even if the language is never used, just as I can't remember the dialogue ever mentioning Christ—with the ways that people choose to make their lives better, to take responsibility for themselves and care of others, to do the hard things that yield joy instead of the quick gratifying things that feed right back into the same aimless holding patterns that don't need to be a French colonial prison in order to feel like iron bars and hell. There are echoes and flickers of the core myth, no straight re-runs. Cambreau may be the movement of God in the world, but according to him so is the good in anyone. I finished the movie thinking that if Borzage instead of Victor Saville had been handed Green Dolphin Street (1947), it would have turned out a lot weirder and a lot more like its source novel. (Alas, he wasn't and it is not.) The Catholic Legion of Decency apparently fainted in coils and condemned the picture out of hand, which I feel was missing the point; I am pretty sure that most practicing Christians would get more out of it than I did, at least in terms of recognition and reinforcement. It was similarly banned in Boston, ditto. I'll have to see what its reputation is today. I had started to back off Borzage—I loved Moonrise (1948), boggled at Seven Sweethearts (1942), and the best I can say about Hearts Divided (1936) is that Claude Rains makes a really entertaining Napoleon—but Strange Cargo is in all ways a counterintuitive enough film that I am curious about his other work again. It has cinematography to speak of, in the nascent expressionist style that turned noir in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940); it has a good supporting cast, almost all of whom I have wildly overlooked in this appraisal. Gable is himself, but Crawford is smarter and flintier than her archetype calls for and I appreciate it. I hope I haven't exhausted all the really good Ian Hunter. This strange delivery brought to you by my changing backers at Patreon.

1. Borzage was raised Catholic and the spiritual values of Strange Cargo are definitely Christian, but if you tipped this story just a little, I could almost accept Cambreau as a tzaddik.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
Definitely sick. Sore throat, stuffed nose, disturbing sensation that my brain has gently extracted itself and floated off somewhere I can't do much with it, and I seem to have wiped out my energy reserves for the day by walking to Porter Square to pick up my copy of Emeric Pressburger's The Glass Pearls (1966) from Porter Square Books. On the way down we passed a basketball court full of kids playing cricket—the batsman and the bowler were getting trash-talked by their respective opposing sides. The blackened plywood over the doors of the former MBTA substation on School Street had been removed and an enormous spool-like chunk of what must have been a dynamo dragged out onto the weedy grass behind the chain-link, glittering with mica insulation and copper ends. [personal profile] spatch got pictures which I am hoping came out. We have no idea what is being done with the property, but there were abandoned construction gloves on both sides of the fence. They'll probably demolish the mural. I hope Rob got pictures of that, too.

Courtesy of this impressive timesink, I think this may be the single worst photograph of Leslie Howard I have ever seen:

Polo


I am unsurprisingly charmed by it.

Oh, and the ostensible president of this country shared classified information which wasn't ours to share at last week's meeting with Russian officials which American reporters weren't allowed into, all of which may not be technically illegal, but is certainly a great way to endanger sources and jeopardize security and in general look like a complete tool of the Russian government, which I hate that I am even writing because my entire childhood was spent observing the de-escalation of the Cold War and you know, I still don't think it was a bad idea.
sovay: (Default)
For Mother's Day, we made my mother savory crepes with ratatouille and then sweet crepes with confectioner's sugar, strawberries, and whipped cream. My brother's family gave her a tiny crystal cat with a tinier butterfly perched on its nose. It was low-key and nice.

I slept almost eleven hours last night. Unfortunately, it seems to be because I'm coming down sick. That is not so nice.

Autolycus sleeping all night in the small of my back, though: priceless.
sovay: (Rotwang)
I was just informed that there will be a television adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

If the Gethenian characters are not cast with genderqueer actors, I will feel someone is missing the point.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
I had occasion tonight to open up a package of the kind of sturdy rubber gloves commonly worn for washing dishes. It had been stored under the sink since we moved in, never opened; I never remember to wear gloves while washing dishes, so there's not much point in them unless I have to do serious cleaning, which is what happened here.

I did not expect it to be a package of two left-handed gloves. Very definitely not ambidextrous: you can tell by the ribbed texture of the palms and the way the fingers curve and the fact that a left-handed dishwashing glove fits really oddly onto a person's right hand; it stretches the wrong way over the knuckles. I double-checked the package. It did not suggest anywhere that the gloves inside were not the ordinary kind of matched pair. I put them on and did the cleaning anyway.

The real problem is that I cannot say or even type "left-handed gloves" without hearing Chico and Groucho in Animal Crackers (1930): "Left-handed moths ate the painting!" I think it's the rhythm.

I wonder where I could get a package of two right-handed gloves.
sovay: (Otachi: Pacific Rim)
Tonight I got to hear Matthew Timmins give his first author reading at Pandemonium and at long last I have a print copy of his novel The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows (2015). I am very fond of this book. I read it in draft in 2012 and wrote at the time:

It's a hard book to synopsize, not because nothing that happens in it matters, but because so much of what happens in it matters on a level that is barely perceptible to its harried protagonist. Late in the year 1869 of a Victorian century that somewhat resembles our own, or perhaps early in the same 1870—the calendar is not the only bewildered authority in this story—the task of delivering a mysterious box to its equally murky owner devolves on Robin Sparrows, the long-suffering clerk of the wickedest law firm in Claudon. He is supposed to return it to a prisoner by the apt name of Tarnish, the man who over twenty years ago embroiled Albion in the disastrous Crocodile War and broke it from an imperial power to something the sun is quite definitely setting on. It is a story known by every schoolchild in Albion, the shame and tragedy of the Empire; it is these bright painted colors of heroes and villains and patriotism and myth that Robin finds himself raking up and reevaluating as he traces the ghosts of the Crocodile War from Minister's Tower to the slums of Scurwell—and he scarcely has time to notice, overtaken as he is by misadventure after misadventure as he tries gamely and rather hopelessly to fulfill his commission. It's very funny, with a strong component of the absurd and the grotesque; it can shift gears instantly into real, three-dimensional consequences or poignancy and even now and then a touch of the numinous. The city is a character. So are the islands of Crocodon. The elevator pitch would probably be, "A bit like Bleak House if one of the original Jarndyces had started the Trojan War. Also, Kafka." And although the book is titled after Robin, it cannot help but feel significant that the one character who really understood everything that happened those long, legend-burnished years ago is the person with whom Robin cannot communicate at all.

—adding later that what all of this means is a baroquely written, tragicomic, alt-Victorian (but not steampunk) semi-mystery which works some clever changes on the expected colonial-imperial forms while recalling Charles Dickens and Mervyn Peake, which is why I buttonhole people about it and have been trying for years to convince Matthew to write one of his promised sequels. It reads well aloud.

Earlier in the afternoon, I saw Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal (2016) at the Somerville with my father. Having slept about three hours last night, I am not in shape to say much about it, but it gives great sympathetic magic and Anne Hathaway, whom I had never actually seen in a straight dramatic part. Her Gloria is one of the kinds of characters I really like and hardly ever see when they're not male: smart, fucked-up, against the odds but not unsalvageable. The film itself was more complicated than I had expected from knowing only the premise; like Vigalondo's earlier Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes, 2007), it makes its genre elements almost a metaphor, but not quite, because metaphors don't run around with their heads wrapped in pink-tinged bandages or fall full length on buildings half a world away. It was very interesting to see a movie more or less cold, take against one of the characters almost instantly, second-guess whether I was supposed to be cutting them more slack or interpreting them through a lens of forgivable cinematic jerkiness, and then discover, no, actually, I'd been reading the warning signs right. I'm glad Tim Blake Nelson is working. I will be fascinated to see what both Hathaway and Vigalondo do next.

And after the reading, half a dozen of us went out for dinner at Veggie Galaxy, so I even got a coconut-milk chocolate malted to round off the night. The mail appears to have brought me another book from the mysterious internet, this one a Spanish-language study of Powell and Pressburger. (I should be able to read it, so long as I can use a dictionary.) Altogether it has been a pretty decent today.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
I am several weeks' worth of exhausted and in consequence going through a protracted period of feeling too stupid to think critically or even decoratively, but I just got back from seeing Noel Black's Pretty Poison (1968) at the Brattle and I want to say something about it. [personal profile] handful_ofdust, if you have not yet seen this movie I commend it to your attention immediately. It stars Anthony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, some spectacularly bad decisions, and some gloriously sideways dialogue. "Boy, what a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?"

Seriously, where to begin? Monday. Perkins. He's the first reason I wanted to see the film and I might have picked up different resonances in his performance if I had actually managed to see Psycho (1960) by now, but since the art houses of Boston persist in running it only, ironically for Mother's Day and Halloween, I can tell mostly that he's cast to play with type as Dennis Pitt, a recent release from the New England mental institution that has been his home since he was fifteen. Assigned to work in a lumber yard in Lowell and check in with his case officer once a week, he skips town only to resurface a year later in Winslow, Massachusetts (actually Great Barrington—[personal profile] spatch recognized Berkshire County from the autumnal trees and diagnosed a rough location from spotting "Stockbridge" on a green-and-silver highway sign), renting the trailer permanently parked in the side yard of Bronson's Garage and punching the clock at the Sausenfeld Chemical Company where the runoff spills in beautiful vermillion ribbons into the old mill stream. He listens to Russian shortwave on the radio, takes careful, surreptitious pictures of the factory's leaking superstructure and passes his landlady the film to develop under her name, not his. He never walks anywhere when he can run, usually in his shirtsleeves, with a lanky, loping stride that looks more appropriate to a fidgety teenager than a man in his mid-thirties. He vaults over the backs of movie seats rather than sitting down into them; he gets in and out of a convertible without bothering with the doors. Here as in Phaedra (1962), Perkins is slidingly beautiful, with some of the same volatile quality of a person whose emotional, intellectual, and physical ages are all over the map from one another. Being a ward of the state for twenty years teaches you a lot of things, but not necessarily how to grow up. The catch is that he's not crazy. He's a fantasist with a juvie record, but he's not delusional; he says outrageous things with a straight face just to see if people are listening ("I must tell you, Mr. Azenauer, a lumber yard does seem a slight waste of my talents . . . I've been taking a secret course in interplanetary navigation. I had hoped to be appointed to the first Venus rocket") and plays an elaborate spy game with himself to brighten up the humdrum routine of watching little glass bottles full of mysterious red chemical clink down the assembly line while his boss glares over his shoulder and he tries not to dream on the clock. For every real moment of uncertainty or distraction, there's another flick of smart-alecky amusement or an ostensibly apologetic smile offered as pure dodge. "You're going out into a very real, very tough world," his sympathetic case officer warns him in the pre-credits prologue. "It's got no place at all for fantasies." Cut to Dennis perched on a split-rail fence, watching a high school color guard drill to the wholesome piccolo twirls of John Philip Sousa. What's more all-American than a blonde drum majorette in white ankle boots proudly marching with the state flag? What's more fantastic?

Enter Tuesday Weld. I had never seen her before, although Rob identified her for me as a former child actor who broke out playing the primary love among The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959–63); she's dynamite. From the moment her fresh-faced appearance causes Dennis to bang his head on the diner truck's awning in his eagerness to change her a quarter for the pay phone, Sue Ann Stepanek fulfills every cliché of the desirable cheerleader, the prom queen-in-waiting, all slim hips in schoolgirl skirts and sundresses, her golden hair flying, the freckled sculpting of her cheekbones wrinkling back to disclose a milk-toothed giggle and a hungry curiosity for whatever adult excitement this tall dark stranger can let her in on next. Perkins was my age at the time of filming and the audience is given no reason not to assume his character is the same. Weld was twenty-five playing "almost eighteen." The script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. not only acknowledges the age difference, it leans on it till the horn blares. There's a quirky charm in the combination of parody and sincerity with which Dennis involves Sue Ann in his CIA playacting, slipping her a stolen-from-work bottle of "tetra-acetic disaccharinous peregrinate" in a clipped monotone that sounds steely and professional so long as your experience of secret agents is confined to TV spy-fi,1 revealing by snippets his eco-terrorist mission to sabotage the Sausenfeld before it dumps another seventy million gallons of poisonous waste into the waterways ("By next spring there may not be an unmonstrous fish as far south as New York") and bolstering his claims with stonefaced double-talk and a lot of acronyms, of which my favorite is "PAC-NS"—"Plausible Agentry Contract, Non-Salaried." The game becomes queasier when he offers her lozenges of something that might be the power of suggestion or might be a Class B substance and rolls her out the driver's seat of her own car into the moonlit, birch-shadowed meadow of Fall Road, known to the locals as "Makeout Alley." One of the ways we're signaled that Sue Ann's chain-smoking, highball-drinking mother (Beverly Garland) is no good is the bland malice with which she interviews her daughter's new beau, letting him squirm over the obvious white lie that he's the nephew of a family friend while simultaneously evaluating him as dalliance material herself—uncomfortable with every aspect of this situation, Dennis hemming and hawing in an ill-fitting sports jacket looks every inch the hangdog creeper, but Mrs. Stepanek merely sees him out the door after her defiant daughter, cattily content to wait until the cops who shine flashlights down Fall Road bring the rumpled and illicit lovers in.

What has happened between these two points is the hinge of the film, which is worth not spoiling in detail except to say that I understand how Pretty Poison got its reputation as an early neo-noir and I don't understand why it didn't catapult Tuesday Weld into the first rank of weird and fearless actors appreciated in their time.2 Anyone with half an eye for irony can guess almost to the second when the shine will start peeling off Black's small-town American fantasy like gilt off sour brass, but it just cranks the dissonance up that even at her most conventionally perverse—straddling the slow thrashing of a drowning body like a trick rider, her pink tongue curling out with concentration as she sights down the barrel of a stolen Colt—Sue Ann never looks like anything less than a healthy American teenager of the teenybopper generation, cheerful, eager, a little spacey. "What a nut," she scoffs affectionately at Dennis, who has tentatively offered an embroidery of his own to her daydream of running off to the Bay of Mexico. "Hasta luego, nut!" The truest thing Dennis ever says about her is "I've noticed you do have quite a capacity for loving." The truest thing she ever says about herself is "I feel empty."

Both of these things being true is part of what gives the film its genre-slipping tone, which at this hour of the morning I am still struggling to define. It looks like it's in direct descent from the transgressive lovers-on-the-run tradition of They Live by Night (1949), Gun Crazy (1950), and even the previous year's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but the further the plot slides into noirish questions of breaking and keeping faith, the less it feels like any of its predecessors or even its contemporaries. Pretty Poison does not feel like 1968. It does not feel like an earlier decade, either, noir influence or not—if anything, it reminded me most of Twin Peaks (1990–91) and David Lynch generally, with its colorful soapy surface and something really creepy-crawly in the seams. Its sense of humor is touched with the grotesque and surreal: one scene cuts from Dennis' fed-up boss fuming, "Oh, no, Pitt, I don't doubt you, I just wish I could prove what I don't doubt about you! I'd—I'd—" to the violent sizzle of a raw hamburger smashed down on a short-order grill. Dennis and Sue Ann's day-for-night open-air lovemaking is shot as seriously as a grand passion and accompanied by a delicately romantic theme that turns swoonily inappropriate just from thinking about it. Cool as robotic ice when spieling the tallest of spy tales, Dennis faced with the lethal reality ("Crazy, you're all sweaty when you were the one with the experience in killing people") buckles at the knees and loses his lunch, all six foot two of skinny Perkins collapsed in a staring stick heap. The internet tells me Pretty Poison was the actor's first Hollywood film after seven years in Europe and I guess it didn't reintroduce him to the American mainstream any more than it did Weld, but it should have: he's never less than sympathetic and almost never uncomplicatedly so. When he says, "I do no kidding love you," it sounds like the most eloquent vow in the world.

In short, except for its ending which goes on three to five minutes longer and ties off more neatly than I expected, Pretty Poison is exactly the sort of weird cult artifact I would love to own except the damn thing appears to be available only on Blu-Ray, which given the ancientry of my laptop's disc-playing ability does me no good. [edit: [personal profile] lemon_badgeress found me a not recent, but quite extant DVD.] I hope it benefits someone reading this post and I hope I get the chance to see it on 35 mm rather than DCP one of these days. It was beautifully put together. I can't tell if the central metaphor goes too far in having a literal stream of beautiful poison running through a deceptively idyllic town, but I also can't tell if I care if it does. This very tough fantasy brought to you by my very real backers at Patreon.

1. I can't even figure out how to punctuate his opening speech to her because I think what it really wants is a lot of silent telegram-style STOPs: "Don't say a word act perfectly natural we're under surveillance. Rendezvous tonight bring this object. Spring Street movie house eight p.m. seventh row balcony left side aisle got that? Make your phone call. Don't look after me." He sprints away across the street and up one of the catwalks of the Sausenfeld Chemical Company. She watches him go and then asks the air, quite reasonably, "What?"

2. I get that she has a cult following and I have probably just joined it, but critically this movie seems to have fallen over sideways and disappeared for decades and for Weld's performance alone that should not have happened.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
Okay, everybody remember when I was wondering if Powell or Pressburger had ever seen Leslie Howard's Pimpernel Smith (1941)? Per Macdonald:

As early as March 1941, Emeric and Michael had talked to Leslie Howard about setting up an 'association' of film-makers based on the model of United Artists, which would swing the balance of power away from the 'front-office' to those actually responsible for making the movies. Emeric clearly felt strongly about this issue. As a screenwriter he desired—and felt he deserved—greater recognition and power than was traditionally allotted. But to him this was far more than a personal matter. The war made him want to make films that mattered. He knew what had to be said and he wanted the authority to execute his ideas without interference from above. On 9 March he noted in his diary: 'Went to Denham in the morning. Howard liked the scene and we talked again about a "United Artists" idea.' And again on 2 April: 'Talked to Howard quite a lot, and he is going to show me his picture on Saturday. Dined and slept at Mick's Uxbridge place. Slept again in sleeping bag. The big subject now is the idea of the "association". If we could get a few people it would be marvellous!'

It is unclear exactly what the 'association' would have been like, but by May Emeric and Michael had decided to form their own independent production company. On 13 May Emeric wrote: 'Mick and I went to discuss the name of our future company. I resent Michael Powell productions.' He clearly felt 'in no way inferior' to his future partner and demanded equal billing. Two months later—after some wrangling with the authorities due to Emeric's status as an alien—a jointly owned private company comprising 100 ordinary shares was incorported under the name of The Archers.


The diaries come from the Pressburger Collection at the British Film Institute and without access to them I can't prove that Pressburger was talking about Pimpernel Smith when he mentioned the "picture on Saturday," but if it was a current project of Howard's I can't see what else it could have been.1 According to Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards' Britain Can Take It: British Cinema in the Second World War (1986/2007):

Howard had from the first planned [Pimpernel Smith] as a commercially backed project, but he found difficulty in getting a backer. Eventually Lewis Jackson of British National agreed to finance it and contracts were signed on 31 October 1940. The film was shot at Denham Studios between January and April 1941 . . . The finished film was released in July 1941.

During this same time, of course, the not-yet-Archers were shooting the interior scenes for 49th Parallel (1941) at Denham Studios and Pressburger was annoyed with Howard for rewriting his lines on set, which may explain why Powell and Pressburger formed a production company of their own without Howard involved. Then again, the diary entry that Macdonald quotes to illustrate his grandfather's annoyance ("They were shooting an entirely unknown text to me from a bit of paper . . . new lines, twisted the wrong way") dates from March 15th, shortly after the first entry cited above, so they had evidently patched some differences up by the beginning of April. Maybe Pressburger was really unimpressed by whatever he saw of Pimpernel Smith. Maybe Powell wasn't crazy about incorporating other people into the partnership. Maybe Howard flaked. None of the above. I don't have enough information. But this is more than I expected.

God damn it, why don't I live near the BFI? Can I at least get a teleporter?

1. Unless it was From the Four Corners (1941), which looks as though it got its initial exhibition in May 1941. I didn't think of it at first because it's a short and it wasn't directed by Howard, but he starred in it and has a screen credit for the idea, in which case this is literally where we came in.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
It has been a long day surprisingly filled with errands. Notes.

1. Because we had recently seen Roger Livesey in Green Grow the Rushes (1951), I showed [personal profile] spatch I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) last night. I hadn't seen it in the ten years since I wrote that post; I had remembered Pamela Brown like a rain-tangled Artemis of the Hebrides and Wendy Hiller's polished cheekbones and finally wild hair, but I had forgotten that I find Livesey more beautiful here than in any other role I have seen, which is fair, since Hiller needs to fall in love with him inside of eight days, knocked sideways by her heart as if by the gales between Mull and Kiloran. He's long-legged and he looks as good in a kilt as the dancers of the pre-war days that old Mrs. Crozier dreamily recalls ("The men—the men are more splendid than the women!") before the cèilidh, but his quizzical face and his sea-sounding voice seal the deal for me. Rob noted how often and unusually the actors are backlit, mixing the theatrical with the natural world. Here as in A Canterbury Tale (1944) the cinematography is Erwin Hillier's and while I can't say for certain that he was the decade's best photographer of landscapes in black and white, he can show you a rainbow against a luminous grey sky and that really impresses me. He got the location footage for the Corryvreckan scenes himself, which is William Wyler levels of committed. It paid off: everything in the film feels at once real and charged beyond the ordinary, whether it's Catriona amid her wolfhounds, Torquil rebuilding an engine, Joan leaning into a ladder to watch the dancing, Bridie waiting at twilight on the jetty's sea-washed stones. A telephone box by a waterfall. What happens when the wind finally drops.

2. In keeping with Powell and Pressburger suddenly falling back into my life, I read that the BBC has commissioned a new adaptation of Rumer Godden's Black Narcissus (1939). I should give the film another chance; I enjoyed it the first time, but the distancing effect of the vividly, deliberately artificial sense of place kept me from connecting with it as much as I think I might have if I had approached it like The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), which isn't interested in realism for a second and doesn't expect its audience to be, either. (To be fair to my hindsight self, I wouldn't see Hoffmann until about two weeks after Black Narcissus and I never did write about it. I never wrote about A Matter of Life and Death (1946), either, but that one actually left me cold. The way Andrew Moor writes about David Niven in that movie is making me think I should reconsider it. I hope he's right.) I have no idea how a more realistic version will work. It will not have Jean Simmons in brownface, which I am fine with, but it will also not have Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, or David Farrar, and that's more difficult.

3. Thank you for the 1940's pressbook for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), BFI. I have not seen that film in ten years, either, and should. A number of Theo's lines have become germane again.

In non-film news, I really resent this administration for firing James Comey in a way I cannot celebrate.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
I dreamed there were people living in our apartment—not displacing us, just camping in the living room and the dining room and my office, two or three groups of them, with mattresses and hot plates. They were strangers, but it didn't seem to matter. One of them, a woman about my own age, took to smoking on the back porch, like my grandmother in my childhood before she quit a six-decade habit cold. She had very dark hair loose around her face, thin cheekbones and her skin a paler brown than it should have been, as if she had been sick for a long time; I remember her wearing a black blouse and a red skirt, stark as a character on a stage. "To be bought for sex isn't a shame," she told me. "To be bought for approval is a sin." I don't think we were speaking English. I thought afterward that I might have translated it endorsement, but then again she might have meant exactly the sense she used. It occurs to me now to wonder if they were refugees, but if so, no one talked about it. I don't remember them arriving. Maybe they were my subconscious' comment on local housing prices. It was obviously a dream because people weren't always fighting over who was taking up the bathroom.
sovay: (Rotwang)
I didn't realize until I was almost home that I had forgotten to take the paper bracelet off my wrist after my doctor's appointment earlier this afternoon. I was distracted by reading Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (1994), which continues to be excellent. Kevin Macdonald writes well about his grandfather, whom he knew only toward the end of his life; he admits the difficulty of recovering the truth of a person as notoriously private as Pressburger, who unlike his partner-in-film left neither autobiographies nor published diaries and apparently not that many letters or interviews, either, and does his best to track his career from the estate his father managed outside Miskolc in Austria-Hungary to the cottage in Suffolk where he would regale his grandsons with stories from his life (but never the story of it). I'm learning all sorts of things about the interwar film industries of Germany, France, England. I don't always agree with Macdonald's assessments of movies or actors, but he's very good at context and history. The book is also a biography of exile, of alienness, of being an immigrant and a refugee. By the time he was my age, Pressburger had lived in six different countries—the first of which he didn't even choose to leave: it fell out from underneath him with the Trianon Treaty of 1920, when Hungarian Temesvár became Romanian Timișoara—and learned more than as many languages to varying degrees. He was sometimes homeless; he was often broke. He was officially stateless from 1926 to 1933. He had three and a half names over the course of his life and Macdonald uses them as an organizing scheme, dividing the phases of his grandfather's life by the countries or cultures he identified himself with, referring to him by chosen name in each. I have just reached the point in 1938 where he Anglicizes from Emmerich to Emeric, having previously Germanized to Emmerich from Imre in 1930 when he started working for Ufa. He's just been hired by Alexander Korda; The Spy in Black (1939) is right around the corner, which means I have all of the Archers to look forward to. I have already learned, however, that I made one great mistake about A Canterbury Tale (1944). I associated it preferentially with Michael Powell because Kent was his home ground. It's the most land-rooted of all the Archers' canon. It was Pressburger's film. He would say of it later that it was "the only one . . . that is entirely mine." Macdonald traveling through Romania in the early '90's in search of the places where his grandfather was born and spent his early life feels himself to be following Colpeper's instructions, walking the same roads as his ancestors in hopes of transcending the time between them. With one brief, difficult exception, Pressburger never returned to the land of his ancestors ("Home was Hungary occupied by Romania and what sort of home is that?"), though he kept his Hungarian accent to the end of his life and he always cooked its food; he rooted himself in England and even there he kept his continuity broken, not passing his story on. His grandson would have to do the archaeology decades later, restoring what fragments he could. But he wrote a film where nothing is really lost, where time gives back everything that it appeared to take away: it seems too simple to say it was wish-fulfillment. It was the thing worth fighting for.

Have a mix of links.

1. In the process of considering and rejecting the recent claim that the official history of the Manhattan Project deliberately misrepresented the science of the atomic bomb so as not to trigger public comparison to the chemical warfare of World War I, Alex Wellerstein says a lot of interesting things about publicity, security, professional bias, and the ways in which people think (or do not think) about information: "The Smyth Report: A chemical weapon coverup?"

2. Real-life noir, Californian and Vietnamese: "The Accidental Get Away Driver."

3. I am deeply disppointed there was not a functioning temple to Mesopotamian gods built in New York City last year. I really don't think it would have necessitated calling the Ghostbusters. The recreation of the arch from the destroyed Temple of Bel in Palmyra is neat, though, and I am sorry I did not see it.

4. There is one survivor of the Hindenburg disaster and one prosecutor of the Nuremburg trials still alive. This comic, too, is living memory.

5. Have a previously unpublished interview with Angela Carter!

6. I meant to link this poem weeks ago: Rodney Gomez, "Rally." What the hell, six things make a post.
sovay: (Sydney Carton)
O mysterious benefactor off the internet who sent me a copy of Kevin Macdonald's Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter (1994), thank you! It arrived this afternoon and I am so far enjoying it immensely. There are several film-related books I have been reading recently and want to talk about, although not tonight because I saw half of John Woo's Face/Off (1997) earlier this evening and my head is still filled with Nicholas Cage and slo-mo and cascading sparks and exploding airplanes and people falling sideways while firing two guns at once and John Travolta being significantly more entertaining than most roles I've seen him in, possibly on account of playing Nicholas Cage. I may even want to see the rest of the movie sometime after my ears have stopped ringing. I am reliably informed there are doves.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I did not have the greatest of days, but Autolycus spent a lot of time on my lap and when [personal profile] spatch got home in the evening we watched a movie called Green Grow the Rushes (1951). It opens with a placid shot of reeds and rippling water and the legend "Any resemblance to living persons or actual events would be more than a coincidence it would be a miracle"; what follows is a gently anarchic English comedy in the Passport to Pimlico tradition, concerning the community of Anderida Marsh and its seven-hundred-year-old charter from Henry III and its total disinclination to let itself be audited by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, especially since its revenue derives almost entirely from smuggling. The stars are somewhat unexpectedly Honor Blackman, Richard Burton, and Roger Livesey, who I did not realize had ever aged into Robert Newton (a sweater, a bowler hat, a five o'clock shadow and a slightly pie-eyed angle to the universe; it looks good on him), plus an assortment of character actors representing the Ministry and various eminences of the village, eventually including Henry III. There's a plucky girl reporter, there's a proto-Ren Faire, there's obfuscating bureaucracy raised to the power of eucatastrophe. For about half the film it feels like it's going pleasantly nowhere and then it turns abruptly, really funny, with a punch line the story may have been written to lead up to (worth it) and a sweet-natured payoff for all the subplots at once. When a cargo of Napoleon brandy appeared in the plot, I was reminded enough of Stan Rogers' "The Wreck of the Athens Queen" to summarize it for Rob, whereupon we got a storm and a shipwreck and I doubt Rogers ever saw the film, but it was still great timing. The director was Derek Twist, who edited The 39 Steps (1935) for Hitchcock and The Edge of the World (1937) for Michael Powell. Bryan Forbes turns up in the supporting cast. The whole thing was, I feel it should almost go without saying, filmed around Romney Marsh. I had never heard of it before tonight and it was almost certainly better for my mood than Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia (1953) would have been, although I am still annoyed that expired from FilmStruck before I could see it. I should go to bed and try to have a better day.

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