sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
On the one hand, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is my least favorite Powell and Pressburger. It's a superlative afterlife fantasy in the tradition of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), which is the problem: it's the Archers doing, excellently, a kind of story other people do. I don't hate it. I like the premise, which flips the opening glitch of Jordan so that instead of snatching a man untimely into the afterlife, a psychopomp lets his assigned soul slip away into the world; I love its filming of Earth in color and the "Other World" in black and white, whence Wim Wenders and his Berlin angels; I really love its double-tracking of the plot in both mystical and medical registers and the way it refuses to resolve one over the other, eventually, rightly merging the two. I have always suspected that after the credits roll, somewhere among the stars Marius Goring's Conductor 71 and Edward Everett Horton's Messenger 7013 are gloomily comparing notes on their respective balls-ups and wondering if Alan Rickman's Metatron was right that angels can't get drunk. It has one of the great escalators of cinema. It's objectively good and I know it's widely loved. But it's easily the least weird thing the Archers ever committed to celluloid. I can't tell if its otherworld is deliberately dry or if my ideas of the numinous just for once parted ways with the filmmakers', but I found more resonance in the real-world scenes with their odd touches like a naked goatherd piping on an English beach, the camera obscura through which Roger Livesey's Dr. Reeves watches the town around him, or the mechanicals within mechanicals of an amateur rehearsal of A Midsummer Night's Dream, than I did in the monumental administration of heaven and the courts of the assembled dead. I watched it in the first rush of discovery following A Canterbury Tale (1944) and as many other films by Powell and Pressburger as I could lay my hands on; I was disappointed. It didn't work for me even as well as Black Narcissus (1948), which I want to see again now that I'm not expecting real India. On the same hand, the Brattle is showing a 4K DCP rather than a print, which means that I'd be settling for an approximation of the pearly Technicolor monochrome of the Other World, which is still astonishing enough in digital transfer that I really want to know what it looked like on the original 35 mm, and the same goes for the rest of Jack Cardiff's cinematography.

On the other hand, the screening will be introduced by Thelma Schoonmaker and this is how Andrew Moor in Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces (2012) writes about David Niven as Squadron Leader Peter David Carter, the pilot hero of A Matter of Life and Death (look out, textbrick, for once it's not me):

Never an actor of great range, Niven came instead to embody and to articulate a rather out-of-date ideal: gentlemanliness – or 'noblesse oblige'. His light tenor and gamin beauty are those of the nobility: he reveals, if provoked, the upright steeliness of a man with backbone, but this grit often shades over into a likeable, smiling insolence. Though we knew he could be naughty (and the actor was a noted practical joker), it was the forgivable naughtiness of a well-liked schoolboy It is usually his graceful amusement that impresses, rather than his physicality or intellect (to talk of 'grace' might seem antiquated, but old-fashioned words like that seem to fit). He could be the younger son of a minor aristocrat, at times silly but always charming, and in the last instance gallant, gazing upwards with a sparkle in his eyes, a light comedian who, through sensing the necessity of nonsense, is perfect as Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Anderson, 1956, US). He is fittingly dashing in The Elusive Pimpernel (Powell and Pressburger, 1950), where as Sir Percy Blakeney he embraces foppishness with gusto. His 'airy' quality is winning, and his poetic virtues shine in AMOLAD. He may be well-mannered and eloquent but, as charmers go, his 'classiness' sits easily . . . He is undoubtedly an affectionate figure. Unkindness is not in him, and he is important in our gallery of heroes. But he is never like John Mills, the democratic 1940s ' Everyman'. Mills is the boy next door to everybody and, while that is a nice neighborhood, we really aspire to live next door to Niven. Is it a question of class? We suppose Niven to be a good host of better parties. Mills is like us; Niven is exotic. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and during the war Niven stood for some of the most valued of principles, but his quality (or was it just his prettiness?) seemed the stuff of a previous, and probably mythical, time. Niven himself was a Sandhurst-trained army man, who joined the Highland Light Infantry in 1928 and served in Malta for two years before drifting towards America and into film acting. In 1939, when he left Hollywood for the army, he was a star, and managed to complete two propaganda films during the war while also serving in the Rifle Brigade . . . In the opening sequence of AMOLAD, it is hard to think of another actor who could mouth Powell and Pressburger's airborne script so convincingly. Bravely putting his house in order, saying his farewells and leaping from his burning plane, he is ridiculously, tearfully beautiful. Notably, it is his voice, travelling to Earth in radio waves, which first attracts the young American girl June, not his looks, and later it is his mind which is damaged, not his body. It is difficult, in fact, to think of the slender Niven in terms of his body at all. We remember the face, and a moustache even more precise and dapper than Anton Walbrook's (which was hiding something). Like Michael Redgrave in The Way to the Stars, he is the most celebrated man of war – the pilot who belongs in the clouds.

So I'm thinking about it.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
I have just learned that Stanislav Petrov died in May and I feel this is a bad year to lose a man who knew how not to blow up the world.
sovay: (Otachi: Pacific Rim)
Plans to spend the day outside were somewhat revised on account of incoming holidays and I have the kind of headache that is barely a light sensitivity off from a migraine, but I can totally recommend the experience of baking ten honeycakes (and eighteen honeycupcakes) for Rosh Hashanah and then lying on a couch to finish reading the second half of Ruthanna Emrys' Winter Tide (2017). It's good at ocean, good at alienness, good at different ways of being human; it braids different threads of Lovecraft's universe without feeling like a monster mash, although the nature of monstrosity is one of its front-and-center concerns; it has a queer romance around the edges that I'm delighted is canonical. Technically I suppose I could have timed it to fall during the Days of Awe, but that might have been too on the nose. Also, I would have had to wait.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
I spent most of yesterday out of the house and not at doctor's appointments, which was a much better ratio than most of the rest of this week; despite an almost total failure to sleep at night, I am about to endeavor to do the same today. Two writing things, one not.

1. Yesterday's mail brought my contributor's copy of Not One of Us #58, containing my poems "The House Always Wins" and "Dive" along with fiction by Patricia Russo, Rose Keating, and Mike Allen and poetry by Mat Joiner and Holly Day, among others. The theme of the issue is fall. Not One of Us is one of the longest-running, most stubborn black-and-white ink-and-paper 'zines in existence and I am deeply fond of it, with its inclusive themes of otherness and alienation; it is where I published my first short story sixteen years ago this month. If you have the fiver to spare, I recommend picking up a copy. The editor and his family have a cat to support.

2. I am very pleased to announce that my novelette "The Boatman's Cure," heretofore available only in my collection Ghost Signs (2015), will be reprinted in a future issue of Lightspeed. If you have not read it and want an advance idea of what it's like, it was reviewed by Amal El-Mohtar when the collection came out. It has ghosts and the sea and personal history and classical myth and periodically I wonder if it counts as a haunted house story, although it was not written as one. It carries a lot of significance for me. Rest assured that I will link when it goes live.

3. I was not so pleased to hear that Harry Dean Stanton has died. As one can do with character actors, I seem to have conceived an incredible fondness for him over the years despite never seeing him in any of his really famous roles; I have good memories of him from Dillinger (1973), Alien (1979), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). I probably have Paris, Texas (1984) or Repo Man (1984) in my future. I had not realized he was 91. He was a sort of weatherbeaten middle age for so long, I just figured it was his natural, permanent state.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I met my father this afternoon for a matinée of Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton (2007) at the Brattle Theatre. I had not seen the film since it was released and it really holds up. It's a character study interlocked into a tight ensemble drama; it has classic bones and no guarantees. I can't say it's the best acting George Clooney has ever done only because I love so much his perfect '30's leading-man turn in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), but he's human-sized here, bruised and ambiguous, a man whose finesse with dirty deals and laundry has never made him more than a "janitor" to the swanky law firm that declines to offer his blue collar a partnership, no matter how sharp his suits or sealed his lips. Tilda Swinton almost certainly deserved her Oscar just for ruthlessly suppressing her natural air of the numinous, substituting flop sweat and a queasy determination that would be admirable if it weren't in service of corporate exploitation that can't even be written off as cartoonish, it's so routine and successful. I first noticed Tom Wilkinson in this movie, having a spectacular version of Clooney's own moral jolt: a glittering manic break in the middle of a tricky class-action suit, precipitated by an inconvenient access of conscience, also going off his meds. Other character actors have made themselves visible in the decade since, each sketching in some angle of the title character's world and the aggression, anxiety, weariness, and anger that principally define it (hello, Denis O'Hare, Sean Cullen, Sydney Pollack, Bill Raymond, oh, good God, Ken Howard, that was you). Other ways of living swing elliptically through the story. Good luck getting hold of one of them.

Looking at the film now, I am not surprised that I fell in love with it ten years ago, because it is, in addition to a kind of chamber corporate thriller, an essentially noir narrative. Its chief concerns are people's prices and limits, how far they'll go and for whose sake, whether there is such a thing as redemption or whether some stains go too deep or whether it even matters so long as just here, just now, just a little, the damage stops. It assumes institutional corruption and personal complicity without making them anyone's excuse. It asks real ethical questions and proffers no pat answers. I've never seen it counted among modern neo-noir and I'm wondering if people miss it because it eschews the style: there are no cigarette contrails or Venetian blinds, but all the philosophy is there, the starkness with which the void can suddenly open beneath you. It's never didactic; it would be dead in the water if it preached. The longest speeches belong to Wilkinson and as his character says shruggingly, "I'm crazy, right?" But it makes its audience notice the inequalities, how being useful is not the same as belonging, how suffering in aggregate can be business as usual until a face turns it into personal crisis, how the woman in the boardroom is the one out on the branch that can be sawn off at need (which does not absolve her of the actions she takes to cling there), and without playing games with audience satisfaction it ends with a move into the appropriate total unknown. It's not grimdark, because good noir isn't. It just doesn't promise anyone they'll make it out—even metaphorically—alive.

I am being evasive about the plot because it's good: it knows that a car bomb and a photocopy can be equally explosive, but the renunciation of empathy is more killing than any chemical. I didn't realize the writer-director had also written four of the Bourne movies, although I feel I should have been able to guess from the scene with Clive Owen in The Bourne Identity (2002), or that he co-wrote the script for Rogue One (2016), which is less immediately obvious to me. I can't remember if I knew that cinematographer Robert Elswit had previously worked with Clooney on Good Night and Good Luck (2005), where I discovered David Strathairn, Frank Langella, Ray Wise, and Dianne Reeves, started to notice Robert Downey, Jr., and finally differentiated Jeff Daniels from Jeff Bridges; he gets some beautiful shots out of ordinary things and some horrifying ones out of the same, like a glossily deserted, fluorescent-lit office building late at night that seems to be waiting for J.G. Ballard. I wish Clooney had won the Best Actor he was nominated for; I don't still randomly think about Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood a decade later. I think the best compliment I can pay this movie is that even if I think of it as noir, I don't think it would have been better filmed in 1949 with John Garfield or Dan Duryea. This memo brought to you by my valuable backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
[personal profile] ashlyme, I have seen your Pan of the brownfields. He was in Derek Jarman's The Last of England (1987), a bare-chested, leather-jacketed heroin punk atop a mound of ruined brick, the post-synched soundtrack playing a delicate melody in the midst of burning warehouses, fascist soldiers, forty-year-old home movies, Thatcherite apocalypse. He has a round-chinned face, an Elvis-black kiss-curl, tattoos on his arms; in the credits he is named "Spring." He shoots up, smokes, smashes things, has sex with a life-sized copy of Caravaggio's Amor Vincit Omnia while the cinematographer's shadow, maybe Jarman's own shadow, lies across them both. His scenes are all filmed in the slow-blurred, smokily tinted Super 8 grain of The Angelic Conversation (1987), of which he might be the darkening reflection: the angel in the fallen world, with no last trump to liberate him into the arms of his beloved. Everything in this film is apocalyptic, but very little of it is revelation. Maybe Tilda Swinton at the very end, rending with scissors and even biting her wedding gown to pieces as a pyre streams behind her on the sunset riverbank; she whirls in bridal ruins, fire and grief, I think of Shiva Nataraja, I have no idea if Jarman did. He wrote a book of the film, which is currently available under the title Kicking the Pricks (1987). I don't have it. I have this headful of images like stained glass windows, smashed and burning. Or channel-surfing on William Blake's MTV.

I was five minutes late to the theater, which I count as an achievement since at Downtown Crossing the Red Line had decided that it would prefer not to; [personal profile] rushthatspeaks and [personal profile] nineweaving had saved me a seat and I came in just as Nigel Terry doing his best BBC switched from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." (My memory is that this produced the line "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed not with a bang but with a whimper," but I don't actually think that happened.) It's even more of a cut-up film than Jubilee (1977), working with many of the same furious themes but even more abstracted here. It plays aggressively with time, slowing, skipping, echoing, blackout and shell-shock and dream. (We ran out of time when we ran out of history, here at the willed, sadistically avoidable end of things. If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.) It flickers between scenes until the screen becomes its own double-exposure kinematoscope. Many of Jarman's movies are painterly; this one is staticky. It's like looking at a sparkler. And indeed, different characters carry these fizzing torches, white magnesium fire burning off the screen; they ward and threaten and signify, perhaps, at the last, hope. Of Jarman's work that I've seen, which at this point includes all the feature films except Sebastiane (1976), The Garden (1990), and Blue (1993), The Last of England reminds me most of the short The Art of Mirrors (1973) and the music videos he directed for the Smiths and for Marianne Faithfull, who appears via the soundtrack, singing the beginning of the "Skye Boat Song" over and over in her cracked bell of a voice as refugees or deportees huddle on the wharves of London, patrolled by balaclava'd soldiers with black boots and black guns and the confident stride of nationalists: there were white cliffs in Ford Madox Brown's painting, but here there's not even a boat. The other thing this film reminds me of is a nightmare. It contains the most frightening cauliflower I have ever seen. It contains a moon-crowned dancing androgyne, a wedding where the bridesmaids are pantomime dames and the baby is present in a pram full of tabloids, an execution in real time. A pair of soldiers waltz in a tire-littered alley, lit by a trash fire. The globe of the world spins as if out of control, between the hands of an actress who looks like (but I don't think is) Sycorax from The Tempest (1979). Its painted countries are probably out of date anyway. "Land of Hope and Glory" sails out over shots of the Albert Memorial and home footage of Empire-shadowed Pakistan from Jarman's childhood, but the violence of soldiers who are not on parade—the grandsons of Kipling's "sons o' the Widow," with all the latest overcompensating gear—stutters like bullet-flashes throughout. New York is a frenetic hallucination, a remembrance wreath the height of hypocrisy when exchanged for a submachine gun. Hitler's on the soundtrack, too.

I don't know why this movie isn't depressing. It should leave you feeling absolutely bludgeoned; I think it's so angry it's exhilarating. It mourns the loss of England that was or should have been, but it isn't conservative. In one of two scenes I had seen excerpted in photographs from the film—the other being Swinton between fire and water—a posh boy and a soldier fuck on top of a gigantic Union Jack, the former balls naked, the latter booted-gloved-masked to anonymity, in such a welter of cigarettes and empty wine bottles that you're amazed either of them is up for it, and maybe they aren't. It's vicious, but I also think it's funny. I'm not sure either the establishment or the jackboots got what they wanted out of that one. Elsewhere Jarman himself sits at his real desk, writing in his real journals, the nuclear power station at Dungeness overlooks Prospect Cottage to this day and the industrial desolation of London is a document as well as a vision. (Eyeless tower blocks, rag-and-bone quaysides, houses behind barbed wire. Nowhere is home here. Where are they setting out, that monkish, magician's boat at the end? All that's left is away.) The filmmaker's family appear as themselves thanks to at least two generations of home movies. The whole thing feels like something you could stumble across in the middle of the night but not discover in a museum. It feels more like the inside of another person's head than some self-portraits I've seen. Afterward, in the restroom, a total stranger with a German accent turned to me at the stall door and asked, "Did you just see the film? Did you like it?" Then she asked if I was German. I have to believe M. John Harrison saw this film.

You understand that this is not a review, but I hope you understand also why I had to say something. I love several films by Derek Jarman—Wittgenstein (1993) unreasonably—and when I walked out of the Brattle Theatre tonight I did not expect The Last of England to be one of them, but it may be that I do, not even because it's so beautiful, because often and pointedly it's not, but because it is so much itself. It's fragments against the ruins. It's on fire. (I could and would screen it to follow David Rudkin's Penda's Fen (1974): Jarman himself the ungovernable, dissonant flame.) This explosion brought to you by my visionary backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Courtesy of [personal profile] handful_ofdust: Zeal & Ardor, a Black metal band. That is, a black metal band whose major influence is Black American field hollers and spirituals. Writer-frontman Manuel Gagneux is biracial and started the band in response to racist abuse on 4chan, which may be the best outcome I have ever heard of people being racist on 4chan; the results are shredding and subversive, the perfect Kai Ashante Wilson soundtrack. That the nine songs on their debut album appear to have burst in from some fearful history where the forced Christianity of slavery engendered instead the defiant seeking out of Satan makes it all the sharper that Gagneux's vocals have been mistaken for the Alan Lomax field recordings they quite deliberately sound like. I heard "Blood in the River" first and it's hair-raising. Its author associates it with the Stono Rebellion. I could not help associating it with Orlando Jones' Mr. Nancy. "Devil Is Fine," the band's only official video so far, is a close second. The two projects are not otherwise sonically alike, but the time-rupturing, musically confrontational qualities of Devil Is Fine (2016/2017) reminded me powerfully of clipping.'s Splendor & Misery (2016), which I still wish had won the Hugo. [edit: I am not the only person who thinks so.] In short, they are well worth your listening, although not if you need to concentrate on anything else at all.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Not only is the MBTA today made of pure butt, I don't like their new website, either. The user interface is less intuitive to interact with and the trip planner's ideas of directions are more confusing. I'm impressed, but maybe I'll just stick to paper schedules from now on.

1. I forgot to mention that the podcast in which I participated at NecronomiCon is now free to stream online: The Outer Dark 016: Live from NecronomiCon 2017. Other participants are the excellent Craig Laurance Gidney, Scott R. Jones, Stephen Graham Jones, and Peter Straub, with Scott Nicolay hosting and Anya Martin moderating. I seem to have overestimated how carefully I need to speak for radio, but it was a lot of fun.

2. Anthony Lane not liking The Limehouse Golem (2016) does not deter me from wanting to see it, since he consistently underestimates almost anything that counts as genre, but I am glad at least he appreciates Bill Nighy:

No film in which Bill Nighy appears can ever be discounted. Rakish, dapper, not quite ruined, quavering with half-concealed amusement, courteous toward a fallen world, and somehow both urbane and faintly spectral, he could have stepped straight out of a Sargent portrait. I can imagine him in spats. What a pleasure it is, then, to see him in a frock coat and a spotted necktie, stalking the London streets. In "The Limehouse Golem," set in 1880, he plays Inspector Kildare of Scotland Yard, whose career as a detective has been held back, it is whispered, because he is "not the marrying kind." The role was originally to have been played by Alan Rickman, who died last year—a passing as hard to accept as that of Severus Snape—and Nighy was cast instead. Rickman's Kildare would have been more insidious, perhaps, with a deeper drawl, and more likely to be suspected of the crimes that he was deputed to solve. Nighy, as sensitive as a seismograph, approaches them with a shudder.

3. Courtesy of [profile] strange_selkie: different kinds of manual labor being done really well, which means really beautifully because efficiency generally is. Some of it is performance flair, but some of it is just practical and also ridiculous.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
Today I had back-to-back doctor's appointments on an hour and a half of sleep, so [personal profile] spatch met me after the second and took me out for dinner at Loui Loui in Allston. It was a surprise until we got there. It was wonderful. The walk was slightly longer than expected—and the day much hotter—but we kept to the Esplanade and ducks and sailboats and sunbathers and the breeze off the water until we cut over into BU territory and were abruptly surrounded by students. The restaurant is plain but delicious. The special of the day was the fried catfish basket, which suited Rob, while I got the shrimp boil and did not expect that to mean a solid pound of spicy, garlicky peel-and-eat for which I was thoughtfully presented with gloves so that I did not scald my fingers off. There was coconut-milk ice cream from FōMū afterward, cold-brewed coffee for Rob and peach compote for me. And then the MBTA totally fell over on us and it took us something like two hours to get home, of which the bright spot was encountering a cheap but well-preserved reprint of Chester Himes' The Crazy Kill (1959) in the basement of the Harvard Book Store and the totally unnecessary part was having to walk up the hill from Union Square because the 88 decided it was really an 87 after all. The Mummy Returns (2001) has not yet come in to the library. The sky after sunset was the kind of soaking, luminous blue that looks rich enough to reach into. I really just want to pitch over sideways on the couch. I might just do that.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
Even for a pre-Code comedy, MGM's Speak Easily (1932) is an oddity. It's a talkie starring Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante, for whose sake [personal profile] spatch and I would have watched it even if the cast list hadn't also included Thelma Todd. It has the kind of plot that can be most charitably described as lackadaisical, half fish out of water and half backstage musical and slapstick throughout, with little concern for narrative tension or payoff. Most of its music is stolen from other shows, which at least turns out to be one of the gags. It proves its pre-Code credentials the minute Durante refers to Todd as "big-time sex appeal," which she then confirms by enthusiastically stripping off in Keaton's office to demonstrate her suitability for the chorus line and Keaton falls off a chair as only he can, like a shockwave just hit; later in the plot she will slip into something sufficiently more comfortable that the only opaque parts are the big fur-trimmed sleeves, although the volume of booze knocked back in the same scene would almost certainly have put it beyond the pale in the Breen era anyway. I would not necessarily call Keaton's style of comedy a natural pairing with Durante's and I'm not sure the film managed to convince me that it was. I'm also not sure I cared.

I know the '30's were a bad decade for Keaton, personally, professionally; the studio system was a creative straitjacket, his marriage was breaking up and his drinking was out of control, and a lot of Speak Easily is funny at the level of affectionate smiling rather than open laughter, but the fact remains that as Timoleon Zanders Post, a mild-mannered and literal-minded professor of classics turned loose on an unsuspecting world by a well-meaning porter who just wanted him to live a little, Buster Keaton is adorable. Owlish, serious, and nerdily articulate, on discovering that he has apparently inherited $750,000 from an unknown beneficiary, "Timsy" throws all his worldly belongings into a steamer trunk—or tries to; some of his belongings are things like a coatrack and a chaise longue, which don't pack well—and heads out to experience Life, which he finds in the form of a fifth-rate troupe of vaudevillians who can't even get a hand in the culture-starved whistle-stop of Fish's Switch. Durante's Jimmy dashes back and forth between banging on the upright piano that passes for an orchestra pit and baggy-pantsing his way through jokes that even dad jokes would be embarrassed to know socially. The already thin audience is bailing as the curtain comes down. But Post is enraptured by the sweetly mediocre dancing of Ruth Selwyn's Pansy Peets and flattered by the support of the loudmouthed comic whom he addresses at all times as "James" and before anyone including Post quite knows what is happening, they're all headed to Broadway on the strength of a fictitious inheritance and the professor's very sincere appreciation of an art form which he keeps comparing to Aristophanes. (He is crestfallen to be told that not everything in Greek comedy is suitable for the Great White Way. "But, James, it was done so in Athens!"–"Yeah, they might get away with it in Athens, that's a college town!") He doesn't get mixed up with the gold-digging prima donna that is Todd's Eleanor Espere so much as he gets steamrolled, but the audience knows he'll come out of it eventually, even if he does stagger around initially with lipstick prints like rouge on those beautiful cheekbones of his. The finale in which the straight-faced professor finds himself accidentally salvaging the show with physical comedy isn't quite worthy of Sempitern Walker, but then Keaton's wearing too much clothing for that.

Even in a production that doesn't quite know what to do with him, it's a pleasure to watch Keaton do his thing. He's a silent comedian, a physical actor: he drops flat to the floor to read the inheritance letter, as if afraid it'll get away if he doesn't pin it in place; he has the stuffy, prissy posture of a man who can be identified a mile off by his pince-nez and his umbrella and his undertaker suits until he gets excited about something, at which point he bounces and flails and runs in and out of rooms like he's reenacting Marathon. He falls off trains, couches, catwalks, his own feet. When the calculating Eleanor tries to get the professor shikkered in order to compromise him (okay, I guess the PCA wouldn't have gone for that, either) and Post in the belief that a Tom Collins is a kind of lemonade mixes them both drinks stiff enough to cause spontaneous combustion, the results are one of the silliest drunk scenes I have ever encountered and gorgeously so, as a helium-voiced Todd loopily tries to put the moves on her oblivious prey and Keaton very seriously and very incompetently attempts to put his seductress to bed, at different points accidentally folding her in half and failing the fireman's carry and both of them slithering all over the furniture until Todd dressed in a negligée, a fox stole, and a very fancy hat takes a running faceplant onto one of the twin beds while Keaton who has managed to remove his shirt and his pants but forgotten about his sock garters carefully arranges himself on the other and passes out cold in a position that would give lesser mortals a crick in the ass. When he wakes up and comprehends where he is, he slips backward off the bed and blinks catlike over the rumpled bedclothes, a perfect silent short. If you're curious about Keaton's voice, by the way, it's not just fine, it's good. It's notably middle-American but not flat, with an edge that lends itself well to the meticulous diction and drypoint delivery of a character who absentmindedly hypercorrects "speakeasy" into "speak easily," but he can also sound shy, solicitous, flustered, and defiant, with the occasional Jimmy Stewart-like crack when events—or girls—really overtake him. I remain extremely annoyed that Mayer refused to take a chance on him for the serious, sympathetic role of Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel (1932). He'd have been a revelation.

In the great reckoning of stories of nerds in show business, Stand-In (1937), Speak Easily is not. Probably the best way to consider the movie is as a series of extended sketches on a theme, of which the audience should enjoy whichever appeals to them and disregard the rest. Buster Keaton, even at a very rough patch in his life, remains both ridiculously beautiful and beautiful in motion, kinetic energy with umbrella in hand. I am aware that Jimmy Durante is something of a polarizing phenomenon, but I really enjoy him and his manic energy which never feels like it's gotten away from him. In the middle of the finale, he hauls a piano out in front of the curtain and does one of his nightclub routines and who cares if it makes sense in context, what we've seen of the show-within-a-show Speak Easily has been a sort of scantily clad revue mish-mosh anyway and Durante's sideways sequiturs are charming: "I know I'm not good-looking, but what's my opinion against thousands of others?" The problem with putting him and Keaton in the same routines is that neither of them is really a straight man—they're just different types of zany, Durante brash, Keaton mild—and I'm not sure the studio knew it. Too many of the jokes are set up as though one of them is supposed to hail from planet Earth and really they work best when the characters are operating at cross purposes (Post's inability to understand slang vs. Jimmy's inability to speak anything but) or unexpectedly on the same screwy wavelength. They were assigned two other films together, The Passionate Plumber (1932) and What! No Beer? (1933), and I am considering watching the latter only because it's in the TCM buffer and it's a Prohibition-era comedy about the repeal of Prohibition, which sounds historically intriguing if possibly not very well done. It does not, alas, appear to co-star Todd, who gets one of the best throwaway lines in the picture describing a costume she has in mind for her classically inspired dance: "There's not very much to it, you know, it's just right across here and a few beads—right, left." There's not very much to the film, either, but I regret nothing about giving it a try. The best of it is really funny; the worst of it won't hurt you. This variety brought to you by my Aristophanic backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
By now [personal profile] rushthatspeaks and I have evolved a ritual for our anniversaries: we find a really good restaurant and then we look for the sea. To mark our seventh year together, we returned to SRV, Boston's only Venetian-style bacaro and one of the best restaurants we have ever eaten at together. We were pleased to see they had not only survived their first year, they were jam-packed and humming on a Sunday night and still play their music at a volume that does not impede ordinary conversation, which is like hen's teeth for restaurants around here. Tonight they had the interior doors closed, but the street side of the restaurant open. The painted lion of Saint Mark still looks over the maître d's shoulder, wings out of shot. We started with cocktails: a Bergamot Brass for Rush (like lighter brandied apricots), the Bicycle Thieves for me (I can take or leave neorealism, but I like mezcal). Their nine-course tasting menu, the Arsenale, had amazed us last year. It did not let us down this year, either.

Two of the appetizers made welcome repeat appearances, the world's best bar snacks—pork-and-beef polpette in a red sauce so savory we waited for the bread to arrive just so we could sponge out the last of it—and the baccalà served on crostini ocean-black with squid ink and lightened this year with a dusting of sweet herbs. The soft squares of white polenta topped with shrimp in orange olive oil were new to us, but a keeper, citrus-clean without being oversweet. So were the calzoncini, improbably light little deep-fried packets of sweet cheese glazed with honey and chili flakes. The salad was butterhead lettuce and radicchio with contrasting cubes of peach and ricotta salata. Neither of us especially prefers bluefish, but it was irresistible lightly crisped on one side and poached on the other in a tomato broth with sweet corn and musky chanterelles. We were equally impressed by the brined chicken dressed with figs, green olives, and cucumber, a combination which sounded like an unworkable stunt and resulted in me trying to clean a plate of hot balsamic dressing with a slice of raw cucumber. The pasta was knockout: the pillowy tortelli folded over robiola should have been dairy-heavy and instead played really sweetly with slices of eggplant and shiitake, while the strozzapreti with pork sausage and daubs of spicy pesto were a strong, savory finish that reminded me how much I like cauliflower when it isn't soggy. For dessert, they brought us the improbable-sounding but non-gritty polenta gelato with huckleberries (and decorative strands of corn silk, which Rush and I both accidentally ate before realizing they were not strictly speaking food) and an astonishing panna cotta topped with tiny quartered figs and verjus granita. Rush had one of SRV's after-dinner cocktails, the spice-and-orgeat Tocco di Pera, and I got a glass of the Zucca Rabarbaro, the smoky rhubarb liqueur they had introduced us to last year. They were very good about observing Rush's onion allergy and we left them appreciative notes when we paid our bill.

And then we drove out to the sea, which we found this year on Nahant after forgetting that Point of Pines is resident-permit only. Too much of Nahant also appears to eschew public parking, but as we came up over one tantalizing sea-cliff view we saw a huge copper-red half-moon laying down faint gold on the night-crimped water and exclaimed out loud. Eventually we parked by the causeway, walked out onto the wet sand that must have been the furthest ebb of the tide because it ran out far into Nahant Bay, cobbled with half-shells and tangled strands of seaweed and a living clam which I lifted from the surf to show Rush-That-Speaks, who had never held one before. It was cold and heavy, larger than my fist, the sea's wet, ruffled heart. There were two figures farther down the tide-line from us, mostly glimpsed as silhouettes against the moving water, but I lost track of them before we turned back; they went back to the sea, maybe, while we went back to the car. I love the sea-fog that gathers around the streetlights, the way night water glitters, but a flat strand shines. The moon reflected like a broken spill of gold in the wet agate bands of sand. Low tide never smells unpleasant to me.

And Rush drove me home, and I am listening now to the new music which they sent me, and Hestia tried to persuade me that my husband had never, ever fed her or her brother, not even an hour ago, definitely not, and Autolycus sniffed me solemnly and I said nothing about bluefish or gelato.

Happy anniversary, my night-driver. Many years more.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
It is my seventh anniversary with [personal profile] rushthatspeaks. After returning to Boston late last night, I have spent most of today doing nothing but curling up with cats and reading Mummy fic on AO3 and FFN. In half an hour Rush is picking me up and we are heading for a restaurant we love and the sea. Or at least that's the theory, if Autolycus ever decides to get off my lap again in his life.

My poems "Cosmopolitan Bias" and "Dis Genite et Geniture Deos" have been accepted by The Cascadia Subduction Zone. The first was provoked by Stephen Miller's remarks on the Statue of Liberty and kind of turned out a curse; the second is a Dido poem, taking its title from Aeneid 9.641–42. I am very glad that both of them will have homes. Unsurprisingly this year, they are both political.

[personal profile] lesser_celery has announced the table of contents for Not One of Us #58. It has two of my poems in it and I am looking forward to the rest.

Courtesy of [personal profile] choco_frosh: long-lost languages found in palimpsest.

Courtesy of [personal profile] ladymondegreen: byssus in modern times.

I am a terrible person. I must displace a cat.
sovay: (I Claudius)
I did not see Stephen Sommers' The Mummy (1999) when it came out in the spring of my senior year of high school. At that point in my life I watched very few movies and when I did they were mostly social activities or taped off the television in black and white and this one looked big, loud, stupid, and above all not Boris Karloff. My then-boyfriend saw it without me; he reported a lot of computer-generated gore and scarabs. I didn't bother. Flash forward eighteen years and all of a sudden I'm seeing The Mummy and its first sequel namechecked everywhere as paramount examples of heroic female geekery and a het romance that actually works. Yesterday was characterized by exhaustion and eye-crossing headache and I needed a distraction, so I got a slightly scratched DVD out of the library and decided to see what I was missing.

The film is big, and it is loud, and the Orientalism goes up to eleven, but it knows it's not Boris Karloff and I don't think it's stupid. It's adventure pulp made by people who knew Spielberg was never going to come through with the further exploits of Indiana Jones—and must have felt smug when he finally did and they were The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)—and while the generation loss of making a homage to a homage could have left The Mummy insubstantial and ironic, instead it plays with the breezy fast pace and selectively sidestepped tropes of a blockbuster that looks like everyone who made it actually had fun. Rachel Weisz as Evie Carnahan is a one-woman screwball comedy, bespectacled as Cary Grant, chaos-making as Katharine Hepburn; still so young that she's curly-haired and kitten-faced, she's also the most accomplished Egyptologist in the story ("Take that, Bembridge scholars!") and I couldn't help noticing that while the climax does find her in need of rescue from your traditional lost-love resurrection ritual, the bulk of the plot on either side turns directly on her actions, from pursuing a childhood dream of the lost city of Hamunaptra to identifying a crucial hieroglyph by rather shaky description alone while dodging a priesthood's worth of murderous mummies. Opposite her, Brendan Fraser as soldier of fortune Rick O'Connell has to be good in order not to get wiped out of his own top billing and he is—he can do casual rugged heroism with tongue discreetly in cheek, he looks splendid in the Army-cut fashions of the '20's, and it gets funnier every time he reacts to the intimidating roar of something evil by screaming his face off right back at it. They fall in love like all the best adventurers, doing absurdly competent and foolhardy things while looking as though they can't believe their luck that the other person is right there alongside them. Kevin O'Connor is such an unapologetic weasel as Beni, ex-Legionnaire turned mummy's Renfield, that despite the script's explicit warning that "nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance," I was still sorry to see him get his, and John Hannah's Jonathan Carnahan proves that I am incapable of not overthinking even summer blockbuster pulp, because when I see, in 1926, a young-ish Englishman that drunk, that flippant, and that good with firearms, I can't help wondering if his war was the Western Front or the Mesopotamian campaign. I am pretty sure that Odad Fehr's Ardeth Bay survives his heroic self-sacrifice by sheer force of beauty, but with that profile and those tattoos I'll buy it. And Arnold Vosloo makes a surprisingly effective Imhotep who resembles his 1932 incarnation only in his love for a woman three thousand years gone; he spends most of the movie in a partial state of motion capture, but whenever he's more or less human, he is as intense and solemn as if he's starring in a romantic tragedy, not a monster movie, which from his perspective is true enough.

From everyone else's, of course, it is a monster movie, with faces emerging hollow-mouthed from sandstorms and gem-like scarabs slithering under people's skin and skeletal mummies clashing swords like the return of Ray Harryhausen. The plot is the sort of thing you expect when no one in an ancient Egyptian royal court sees the potential blowback of deploying a curse whose object can, if exposed to the right incantations, come back as an immortal sand demon with the power to summon plagues from a different mythology entirely, and no one in the present day believes in the existence of such curses except for the hereditary caste of warriors who have become as mythical as the sand-drowned city they guard. There are seekers of knowledge versus hunters of treasure, the return of the repressed in sun-snuffing style. Everybody gets at least one moment of pure heroism and one moment of pure comedy and sometimes they're the same thing. Refreshingly, for all the prevailing goofiness, the script has few true moments of idiot plot and they are at least doozies when they arrive. (It's a nice gruesome touch when Imhotep begins to supplement his eviscerated body with living organs harvested from the disturbers of his tomb, but then he should spend the rest of the movie bumping into furniture, since those shiny new eyeballs of his came from a man who canonically had trouble finding his way down a hallway after his glasses were knocked off.) The CGI does not hold up, exactly, but for the most part it's not objectionable and even pulls off some nice effects that don't need to look naturalistic, like the spirit of Patricia Velásquez's Anck-su-namun boiling thickly out of a sacred pool with the weird purplish sheen of corona discharge, eddying over her vacant body without ever quite settling into recognizable human shape.

What really does not hold up, and honestly should not have even in 1999, is the racism. There is a redshirt in the form of a corrupt prison warden who accompanies our heroes to Hamunaptra; he is played by Omid Djalili and his purpose is to demonstrate how dangerous it is to go wandering off alone in a city haunted by an undead high priest and his cursed followers, but I feel this could have been accomplished without jokes that would not have been out of place in Girl of the Port (1930). I mean, I appreciate that the script tries to be even-handed with its stereotypes by making the rival team of treasure-hunting Americans a bunch of gung-ho literal cowboys, but the fact remains that trigger-happy Yankees are less flatly offensive than an Arab character hawking and spitting on cue of a British character's disgusted remark about the expectoratory habits of camels. I have less trouble with Beni because he is so generically Eurotrash, like a turbo-charged Peter Lorre caricature; after Erick Avari's indignant introduction, it's nice to discover that his obstructive curator of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities is more than he seemed when he was chewing Evie out for trashing his library before half-destroying Jonathan's tattered, ancient find of a map. I almost wish more had been made of the casual reveal that the Carnahan siblings are, despite their all-British names and received pronunciation, half-Egyptian—"You see, my father was a very, very famous explorer and he loved Egypt so much, he married my mother, who was an Egyptian and quite an adventurer herself"—although that would have raised even more strongly the question of appropriate casting. (Send help, I just pictured Siddig El Fadil as Jonathan and now I am wistful.) There are conventions of adventure pulp that simply no longer need to be observed and I am sorry The Mummy thought its period setting would gloss them. I prefer when it remembers to subvert all of its tropes, as with the fact that Ardeth Bay's Medjai know damn well where the lost city is, they just don't want anybody visiting.

I have been awake since seven o'clock this morning and spent the day traveling and write this review from a motel in Pennsylvania while [personal profile] spatch catches up on the news on the bed behind me; I don't know what else I can say about this movie except that it is on the whole a really adorable adventure with a couple of sour notes I wish it hadn't struck and the people who recommend it for its heroine were right. I don't know if I would have enjoyed it in high school. I had much less experience of pulp in any form and might have bounced off the three-way mash-up of horror, humor, and action, especially since I thought I disliked two of those genres for years. (I thought I disliked alcohol for years. It turned out what I disliked was the kinds of alcohol college students think is a good idea. So too with horror film and action movies.) I suspect I would have enjoyed Evie; nerd heroes are rare and female nerd heroes practically unicorns. I would have been very impressed by Anck-su-namun's costume, which I did not realize was primarily body paint until it smudged under Imhotep's hands. I would have liked Jonathan, but that is predictable: he is light-fingered and almost resolutely irresponsible, but not actually stupid; bashes his way through hieroglyphs decently enough for magic and picks a plot-relevant pocket not once but three times in the film, each time with aplomb. I remember picking up the novelization in the Waldenbooks where I worked in the late '90's and early 2000's, but I don't remember anything about it except one stray line that evidently changed between shooting script and final cut. I haven't been able to get hold of Michael Almereyda's Trance/The Eternal (1998) and I wanted something with mummies even if they didn't come out of a bog. This excavation brought to you by my library-loving backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
Past the publication of "The Creeping Influences" and some of the (positive!) reactions it has provoked on social media, today was actually, unexpectedly awful in ways I can't even make entertaining to read about, but it does make me happy to learn about about Neanderthal glue. I have trip books in the form of John le Carré's A Legacy of Spies (2017), Ruthanna Emrys' Winter Tide (2017), and an omnibus of five early novels by Margaret Millar. I just want to curl up and sleep for a week. Or not have to work for a month and get to write the lesbian pulp I have not been able to research since March. Or even a poem.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
My short story "The Creeping Influences" is now online at Shimmer. This would be the story with the bog body.

It is also the story with the non-binary protagonist, the story with the first-person narrator, and my longest piece of historical fiction to date, with many thanks to [personal profile] hawkwing_lb for beta-reading for Ireland. It is something of a big deal to have it finally in print: it took a long time to find a home, including multiple rejections of the species lovely but not for us and one acceptance that fell through under circumstances I hope never to repeat. It took a long time to write, too, and was almost lost early on to one of the periodic deaths of Bertie Owen, my fisher king of a laptop. I was asked about its antecedents for the exclusive material in the digital edition and I should probably respect that, but I don't think it's giving too much away to say that it feels to me like one of the more personal stories I have written and something of an outlier in my own work. It's almost not genre, except that I think it is and I wrote it.

(I mean, someone still has sex with the otherworld, so there's that.)

The title comes from a line by Seamus Heaney. In an organized universe, I would have read P.V. Glob's The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved (Mosefolket: Jernalderens Mennesker bevaret i 2000 År, 1965/1969) before or while writing "The Creeping Influences," since it inspired Heaney's poems of Danish and Irish bog bodies in the first place, but we live in the kind of universe where mostly I looked at maps and photographs and my life fell to pieces again that year. In hindsight it feels like a non-minor victory to have gotten a story out of it. This story, in any year, I would have been glad of.

I am happy to answer questions in comments to the best of my ability. I love the little illustrations of bog plants in the margins of the online edition, like an herbal. The entire issue is worth your time; it is full of ghosts (September is a good month for them, tipping into autumn) and I continue to adore the cover that Sandro Castelli gave it.

This is a good start to a day.

The Creeping Influences
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
I feel slightly as though I have been hammered into the ground: I watched just over twelve hours of vampire film, walked out into the grey morning and slept a couple of hours into the early afternoon. It has rained on and off all day, obfuscating the question of whether the sunlight would do anything exciting to my skin. I'd be surprised—I just ate some free gingersnaps around three in the morning, not any of my fellow audience members—but a movie marathon that programs itself to end with an apocalyptic sunrise wants you to wonder anyway. Let me see what I can say before I pass out again.

Considering its place in genre history as the first vampire movie to treat its subject with sympathy as well as horror, it is probably not inappropriate that I feel really conflicted about Dracula's Daughter (1936). It was conceived as an immediate sequel to Universal's Dracula (1931) incorporating elements of Stoker's "Dracula's Guest" (1914) and Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1872). Its premise is full of innovations that would rapidly become tropes: the bisexual vampire, the vampire who wants to be human, the vampire turning to science for aid; its narrative descendants are as obvious and diverse as Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood (1961), CBS' Forever Knight (1992–96), and Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's What We Do in the Shadows (2014), not to mention the full gamut of angst from Anne Rice to Stephenie Meyer. Gloria Holden as the Countess Marya Zaleska is somber and luminous, her long classical face a haunting and haunted mask. The script even knows there's something witty as well as Freudian in the idea of a vampire visiting a psychoanalyst in order to be cured of her compulsions, for which the language of drug addiction and sexual perversity is equally apropos. And all of this promising material just sort of exists in a not very taut 71-minute plot with a couple of murders and a lot of running back and forth between England and Transylvania and the especially frustrating kind of obligatory het couple where the only moment I believe their relationship is when she prank-calls him in a heavy fake German accent ("Please come right away . . . One of our elephants is seeing pink men!") and even then I dock it points because he's the ladykilling doctor who can't keep from mixing business with pleasure and she's his jealous secretary. It is impossible not to wonder what a director like James Whale could have brought to the material, instead of Lambert Hillyer whose career was mostly B-Westerns and the 1943 serial Batman. The queer content is not confined to the scene excerpted in The Celluloid Closet (1995), where the dark, gliding Countess, having previously solicited a handsome young man off the street, enthralls a beautiful young female model and the camera smashes upward on the girl's screams; on top of the psychoanalytic angle, which includes the Countess' conviction that the lingering spirit of her father compels her perverse lifestyle (following his staking by Van Helsing, she ritually exorcises Dracula's body with salt and fire and exults, "I can lead a normal life now—think normal things, play normal music!" but that night finds her cruising the foggy alleys of London again), it is notable that her final bid for the psychiatrist's attention involves kidnapping his beloved secretary and nearly turning her in a slow, spellbinding lean-in, interrupted right at the moment of the fatal kiss. But either Hillyer didn't know what he had or didn't know how to get it between the lines of the Code as effectively as other directors of transgressive horror, because the results are no Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The film has its own attractions, though, and I am not sorry to have had them looking out of the screen at me with the unblinking gaze of the woman who is a predator: "She was beautiful when she died—a hundred years ago."

I have written about Terence Fisher's Dracula (U.S. Horror of Dracula, 1958) before, in context of The Brides of Dracula (1960), and while I stand by my assertion that it's neither as weird nor as powerful as its sequel or possibly in some conventional senses very good, I don't care, I love it. I love its blithe disregard for its source material beyond a vampire named Dracula, a doctor named Van Helsing, and some people named Holmwood and Harker and Seward. I love what physical actors both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are, with their very different styles of movement and presence which dovetail so beautifully in their sole, justly climactic shared scene. I will never cease to be impressed by Lee's ability to project sexual charisma forty feet off the screen with blood in his teeth. Cushing has a wonderful voice, but I could look at him all day. Some of Lee's Dracula's most charged moments are stillness, but his vampire-hunting nemesis is constantly in motion, showing us more of his restlessness, his nerves and his determination, the cost of his work and its bittersweet payoff through small or sudden movements—the resolute resettling of his hands on a stake, a tired rub of the eyes that the next second flings the professor to his feet as a realization snaps into place—than really exists in the dialogue, from which we learn mostly what Van Helsing knows about vampires. Even the one direct personal statement he makes is by way of correcting another character's misapprehension: "The study of these creatures has been my life's work. I've carried out research with some of the greatest authorities in Europe and yet we've only just scratched the surface." Perhaps we know he's their adversary simply because he's so alive in his skin, even when he's only double-checking and correcting his own dictated notes. And yet he's their mirror, too, as mysterious for all his warmth as the nearly silent Count. We never even learn his first name. We don't need it. He can bring centuries of sunlight crashing into a long-haunted hall and tell a little girl, frightened of the dark and of vampires, that with his fur-trimmed coat snugged round her she looks like a teddy bear. I don't care if that's anachronistic, either.

Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983) shouldn't work. It has dreamy and violent erotic scenes of various sexualities, a science-edged and nearly subliminal take on vampirism, a plot which often appears to operate on correspondences rather than cause and effect, and a visual style which carries lushness to the point of nonlinearity, including symbolic doves and blowing curtains galore—there is an honest-to-God art department credit strictly for "Drapes." It scores its opening incidence of vampirism to a Goth club performance of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead" and employs the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' Lakmé as prelude to two women making love. Its glamorous, eerily depersonalized New York City was mostly played by London. The film should have been, at best, a glossily enjoyable piece of softcore '80's cheese. Instead it's not just a perfectly cromulent revision of the vampire mythos for the age of MTV and nascent AIDS, it actually uses its head-swimming style for substance. The way that time in this film is confusing, for example: either it passes in a vague lacuna that could be hours or weeks or the narrative is intensely aware of the seconds ticking by and in either case it reflects the experience of the nonhuman characters, either the original who hasn't aged an elegant day since she tore out a man's throat in ancient Egypt or her consort whose two hundred years of youthful companionship—the latest in a long, long Tithonos-line—are running out fast. Everything the audience is offered to look at, from the faces of the principal cast to an arc of blood splatter, is meticulously, self-consciously beautiful, which only points out the skull beneath the skin all the more keenly when it starts to show; it is a stroke of cruel brilliance to use David Bowie, rather than any of the film's female actors, as the memento mori specter of beauty overtaken by age and decay. I did not disbelieve Susan Sarandon when she said in The Celluloid Closet that under no circumstances would her character have needed to be drunk to go to bed with Catherine Deneuve (and she got her way in the finished film: most of that glass of sherry goes to a conveniently shirt-removing spill), but I appreciate how ambiguous she herself looks here, distractedly raking one hand through her short red hair exactly as Bowie did. Her boyfriend might as well have been captioned "Emergency Lunch," but I felt for Dan Hedaya's two-scene police lieutenant, who's just in the wrong genre for his street smarts to make a difference. Looking over Scott's filmography, I can't see that he ever directed anything else in which I was even interested, but I'm glad he managed this movie: I could have done with at least a third less blowing curtains and it took me a scene to get used to the strobe-cut flashforwards, but I can see why it's lasted beyond the aesthetic of its time. I am aware it derives from a 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber, but frankly the only way I can imagine it working on the page is if it was written by Tanith Lee. I'm not sure it didn't get into her Scarabae novels as it is. I like that no one in this story, not even Deneuve, has fangs.

I might have stopped Near Dark (1987) a spontaneous combustion or two sooner than Kathryn Bigelow does, but otherwise I had wanted to see this movie for years on the recommendations of [personal profile] lesser_celery and [personal profile] handful_ofdust and it delivered. It can be legitimately described as a vampire Western, right down to the perfect inversion of a high noon showdown; other applicable adjectives might include cowpunk, rockabilly, crime pulp, and whatever peculiarly American genre encompasses outlaw found family, into which our semi-hero unintentionally invites himself when he takes a waifish stranger out for a nighttime spin. Adrian Pasdar's Caleb is not entirely innocent prey, of course: if he hadn't pulled over to cajole a kiss out of Jenny Wright's Mae before dawn, she'd have made it home before her hunger sharpened enough to bite him. But he's soon surrounded by greater and far more casual predators, played by half the cast of Aliens (1986) as feral archetypes that strip the Gothic aristocracy off American vampirism and replace it with the strip malls and roadhouses and trailer parks and oil derricks and bus stations and motels of Reagan's heartland, where it might be a bitter joke that their almost post-apocalyptic levels of hardscrabble rootlessness do not actually attract attention until Lance Henriksen's blade-faced Jesse starts talking wryly about the Civil War ("I fought for the South . . . We lost") or Bill Paxton's Severen, all black leather swagger and chiming boot-spurs, kicks a bartender's throat in. Jenette Goldstein's Diamondback with her two-toned hair and her dance hall girl's bustier unfolds a straight razor for her mate to fill her a beer glass of blood with. Joshua John Miller's Homer is perhaps the oldest and eeriest of them all, perpetually and hatingly twelve years old. They're an extreme realization of the American dream, accountable to no one but their guns and their hunger; they have been abandoned by it and they exact their due in blood. Its violence alternates between the lyrical and the grotesque, nowhere better fused than in the roadhouse sequence where the Cramps' spare, snaky cover of "Fever" shivers off the jukebox while the bodies hit the floor. The danger of a shootout in a motel flips as soon as the audience realizes that the police bullets drilling the daytime walls are temporary inconveniences, but the shafts of light spearing in from their passage are causing the family to smoke. The film is noir, too, in politics as well as time of day—if it wouldn't have sounded like a remake, it could just as accurately have been titled They Live by Night. I wish the ending were better; it would be a stone classic if so. Maybe it still is, flawed as any other nightmare of this country. "Normal folks, they don't spit out bullets when you shoot them, no sir."

I had no idea what to expect from Michael Almereyda's Nadja (1995). I knew it was considered a partial remake of Dracula's Daughter; I had loved Almereyda's Experimenter (2015), but was uncertain how much I could reasonably generalize from a flamboyantly metafictional, self-interrogating biopic of Stanley Milgram. I don't know if I can make this film sound as good, and as haunting, and as fun as it was. Romanian-born Elina Löwensohn stars as Nadja, a stylish, imperious wanderer of the streets and bars of nighttime New York whose "family money" comes from stranger sources than the trust funds of the beautiful, jaded socialites she resembles; an impulsive decision in the wake of her father's death entangles her in the lives of Lucy and Jim (Galaxy Craze and Martin Donovan), the first of whom becomes her lover and inadvertent thrall, the second of whom turns out to have a direct connection to the man who staked Dracula. The family complications thicken with the introduction of Nadja's long-estranged twin Edgar (Jared Harris) and his live-in nurse Cassandra (Suzy Amis), herself another unforeseen relative; the Gothic aspects heighten with the kidnapping of a human character and a flight to the ancestral castle "by the Black Sea, under the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains" where both Nadja and Edgar were born two hundred years ago to the only woman Count Dracula ever loved. So far, so Universal. Now please imagine that everything I have described is filmed in high-contrast, lo-fi black-and-white that abstracts itself into Pixelvision at the most traditionally vampiric moments and played with such serious deadpan by the entire cast that absurdities become poignant and everything else is randomly hilarious. When we meet Van Helsing, he is played by Peter Fonda and he is the kind of tweedy, long-haired, embarrassing burnout uncle who has to be bailed out of jail for confessing to impossible murders and forgets that you can't order vodka in a coffee shop. About half of what he says, about anything, although most of the time he just talks about vampires, is dead on and the other half is totally disconnected: Lucy relaying the news of his arrest to her husband admits that "it didn't make sense, but it didn't sound too surprising, either. You know how he gets." This is the kind of movie that can close with real philosophical questions but also include phrases like "psychic fax" and two incredibly awkward reunions in the same family. Dracula at the end of his life is compared to late-stage Elvis. There's dying and then there's dying for a cigarette. It's not parody; it's irony done right. What with the trends of the last decade, I hadn't realized that I missed irony at all. It works because it's not all a hall of mirrors, even when executive producer David Lynch cameos as a tousle-haired morgue guard nonplussed by the appearance of a black-cloaked Nadja and her solemn, baby-faced Renfield. Music is by Simon Fisher Turner, Portishead, My Bloody Valentine, and Spacehog, which explains why I have just played "In the Meantime" eighteen times in a row. A pixellated lesbian/bi vampire love scene can be extremely hot.

I may have to come back to Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001), because I suspect I would have enjoyed it much more if I had had any idea what it was doing. [personal profile] rushthatspeaks (who joined me in time for the second feature) suggests that it may have been examining the different gender expressions of the vampire mythos, but if so I'm not sure why it took the form it did. There is a plot, although at first it looks like driftingly intercut scenes of gruesome murder and banal honeymooning; eventually it emerges that the narrative is tracking two parallel couples, three-quarters of whom were involved some number of years ago in neuroscientific research that went horribly wrong. Brilliant Léo Semenau (Alex Descas) now works as a GP in Paris, his former colleagues aware that he quit higher-profile work to take care of his sick wife; they do not seem to know that the beautiful, wolfish Coré (Béatrice Dalle) has a habit of escaping their house, seducing roadside strangers, and then eating as much of them as she can before her husband wearily tracks her down again, brings her home on his motorcycle, cleans her up, and puts her to bed, although does not ever take her there, however much she croons and reaches for him. Like a maenad or an especially grisly change on Cat People (1942), she cannot be safely aroused. Pharmaceutical rep Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) has flown to Paris with his new wife June (Tricia Vessey), ostensibly for the usual romantic reasons, really to try to reconnect with Léo, whose basement researches—a contemporary mad science homebrew of potted seedlings, pills and test tubes, and refrigerated slices of brain—might hold a feverish hope of quieting whatever Lustmord keeps Shane dreaming of his bride's pixie-like body naked in a bed of blood, eyeing the fragile back of her neck as though at any second he might sink his teeth through it. He watches the chambermaid with an appetite that she mistakes for the familiar roving eye of men away from home; with a soft-eared, new-bought puppy in his arms, he grinds up against an older woman on the Métro while other passengers stare at him in open disgust. "I would never hurt you," he reassures June, then wrenches himself away from her mid-coitus to finish all over the sink while she cries at the door. Maybe this is vampirism (if it is vampirism: by the time you're tearing flesh off with your teeth, I think the metaphor is slightly different) as emotional consumption, the exhaustion and danger of intimacy. Again, then I've seen that dilemma worked out with less cold and graphic nastiness. Coré and Shane are obviously foils, but I don't know what it means—mythologically, philosophically—that her cannibalistic encounters are opportunistic and, once triggered, apparently beyond her control while eventually we watch him knowingly seek out a substitute rape/food object so that he can return to his hotel room, step out of the shower down whose curtains a woman's diluted blood is still rolling, and for the first time embrace his wife without fear. I do not think of myself as having a low tolerance for sexual violence, incidentally, but I would call the rape scene in this film objectively rough, not least because it is so callously initiated. I have to assume it is part of the exercise for the audience to get a good look in both cases so as to determine whether they judge the characters differently, because there's no chance that anyone who has been paying attention to this plot will find Shane's turn to cannibalism shocking. To be honest, I expected the film to end with mutual devouring, but that might actually have closed the circle in a way I could understand. I hate not being able to read a film properly. Maybe I'll just go rewatch Antonia Bird's Ravenous (1999).

There were no short films this year, but trailers screened throughout the night included Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), the glorious double feature of Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Lifeforce (1985), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), and Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride (The Satanic Rites of Dracula, 1973). I had been going to write that I would in all honesty watch all of these except Lifeforce, but then I saw that Lifeforce was a Golan and Globus production, so really, I'd watch all of them.

Park Chan-wook's Thirst (박쥐, 2009) is the most adorable faithless priest vampire romantic comedy I have ever seen. I did not know it was any of those things when it started and definitely not that it was a loose version of Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867), although after the fact I can see it: the illicit lovers, the sickly husband, the overbearing and then incapacitated mother-in-law, the drowning murder, the guilt, the inevitable tragic resolution. Only it turns out that when you add Catholicism, vampirism, and one of the funniest, most awful ghosts I have encountered on film to the love affair of Song Kang-ho's Sang-hyun and Kim Ok-bin's Tae-ju, the whole thing goes pleasantly, operatically sideways, passing through film noir, domestic comedy, several flavors of body horror, and non-anvillicious moral quandaries before concluding on a sea-cliff as the rising sun turns the ocean suitably to blood. I don't remember any of that in Zola and I think it's an improvement. Song is a remarkably beautiful man with his round priest's glasses or without them, reacting so often to the catch-22s of his new life with a kind of silent clown's stoicism that it shocks the story every time he flares with appetite or anger instead. As the stifled young wife, Kim has a slippery, live-wire intensity that twists right around any archetype she might embody, so that she never reduces to a statement about female victims or monsters. Park's version of vampirism is splattery and visceral without losing the capacity for beauty or humor, not infrequently at the same time; the film itself went on at least three twists longer than I was expecting, but see previous about not knowing to expect Thérèse Raquin. If it is at all representative of Park's work, I should see a lot more of him than just The Handmaiden (2016). If it's not representative, it was still the perfect choice to close this marathon.

And then Rush-That-Speaks gave me a ride home and neither of us burst into flame and I had the day previously described, plus work and cats and eating a real meal for the first time since Friday night. Now the dawn is coming around again and I should get back to bed. I like living in a city where the movies run dusk till dawn. This night life brought to you by my immortal backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
I am re-reading Christopher Fry's A Sleep of Prisoners (1951) because I was recently reminded of it and couldn't remember the last time I had. That question was answered when I opened my copy, a little ex-library hardcover with art by Ronald Searle and a price sticker suggesting I bought it from Avenue Victor Hugo of blessed memory, and found tucked into the copyright page my ticket for The Big Broadcast of October 30, 1938. Which isn't totally the reason I am married to [personal profile] spatch, but certainly has a lot to do with it.

What reminded me of the play was a photograph from the original production at St. Thomas' Church, starring Leonard White, Denholm Elliott, Hugh Pryse, and Stanley Baker. Elliott's younger than the icon I have of him, even then playing the character I would gravitate toward: the nervous joker, the one who's no good in a fight, irritating his fellow POWs by hunt-and-peck-playing "Three Blind Mice" on the organ of the church they're locked up in. "Excuse me a minute: this is the difficult bit."

I assume the picture is from later in the play, when the soldiers take on the personae of different Biblical figures, playing out mysteries as they move through one another's dreams. I've never seen it performed. The only Christopher Fry I've ever seen is The Lady's Not for Burning. That had something to do with me getting married, too. I try to use it as a reminder, even now, to stay alive.

I am off to buy tickets for a lot of vampire movies.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
Shelley Berman has died. He was ninety-two, which is fair, but I am sorry because I grew up on Inside Shelley Berman (1959)—and Outside Shelley Berman (1959), for that matter, although I'm not convinced about The Edge of Shelley Berman (1960)—and if you skip to the 14:58 mark on this track you will hear the sketch with which I always associate him, the phone call to the department store. Outside of his record covers, I didn't know what he looked like for years, just that harassed voice on the telephone, calling from the southwest corner, onstage. "Maybe she tried on something and snapped out, I don't know how!" There are worse ways to be remembered.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
It is a quiet, sunny September afternoon and all of a sudden it feels like fall. Last night it was cold enough for an electric blanket and as of today I have transferred my keys into the pockets of my corduroy coat; the color of the light and the clarity of the sky are stone-washed, paling, remote. The leaves are not yet turning that I can see, but I just realized that the tree directly across from my office window may have died. Its branches are split and grey with lichen, its twigs leafless. I wonder if the ash borer got it. It had better not be an omen. Autolycus crouched next to my computer with the afternoon in his green eyes suggests that I should not take it as such.

Tomorrow I plan to meet [personal profile] rushthatspeaks for the HFA's all-night vampire marathon. For most of next week [personal profile] spatch and I will be out of town and traveling because of family business on his side. When we get back, the Brattle will be running a celebration of Tilda Swinton and I will get to see more Derek Jarman on the big screen, including The Last of England (1987), which I have only read about. The HFA is not running a full Wellman retrospective, but selected works with emphasis on his pre-Code and social message pictures. I am glad that someone other than me considers Heroes for Sale (1933) and Wild Boys of the Road (1933) "neglected classics," because they are. Any summary that leaves Dorothy Coonan out of the latter, however, is out of focus.

I keep thinking about Dunkirk (2017). I went to see it again last weekend because I wanted to observe the structure now that I knew how it worked; what I feel I mostly ended up observing was the emotion. It's really not a cold movie. Some characters' arcs leapt out at me this time around, one numinous moment in particular which I may describe if I can recompile my brain. The cinematography still sticks for me. There are moments of great visual beauty, disorientation, immersion, but not everything needs to be quick-cut, adrenaline-flash. You can create astonishing claustrophobia and chaos holding the camera crisp and steady—Sidney Lumet and Oswald Morris did it with The Hill (1965), yet another film I saw this summer and failed to write about. I know Christopher Nolan thought the alternative would be more intuitive. I don't know that he was right.

I wish I were not so tired. I remember being able to think. I liked it.
sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
Rabbit, rabbit! My short story "The Creeping Influences" is now available in the latest issue of Shimmer. I'll say more about it on Tuesday when it goes live on the site, but if you don't want to wait out the long weekend, I'll just point out that it's my first new fiction since last summer and I am very honored to have it the lead story of the issue. Cover art is by Sandro Castelli. I am really pleased by the visual shout-out to Tollund Man. In other news, this story has a bog body.

The Creeping Influences

September 2017

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