sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
I am home from Arisia. I'll lobby-con tomorrow if I have the energy, but I am done with my programming. All of it was fun and as far as I can tell it all went well, although I especially enjoyed the memorial for Le Guin, the Yiddish singing, and the Tolkien. I wound up reading new fiction mixed with selections from a borrowed e-book of Forget the Sleepless Shores, since I had sold all the print copies I'd brought with me. The Boston Park Plaza has its problems as a con hotel, but I must say I enjoyed being able to walk two blocks and find restaurants instead of wasteland. The hanging out with [personal profile] ashnistrike, [personal profile] choco_frosh, [personal profile] nineweaving, [personal profile] awhyzip, and some people not on Dreamwidth was very good.

Against all my expectations, my first-generation Sacagawea gold dollar coin has returned to me. It was in the outer back pocket of my computer bag where I don't keep anything. I think it must have slipped out of my coat pocket and into the computer bag. I found it when I was looking for last-ditch cough drops. There it was, brass-gold and a little tarnished, with the familiar face glancing over her shoulder, from 2000. I am keeping it now in an inside pocket of my leather jacket which snaps shut. I don't think I can count on being so lucky again.

As if it was charmed by sympathy out of the overcast, the lunar eclipse is just still visible from our front windows, an ice-white brilliant circle with a distinct dark bite. I have been asking the cats which one of them is eating the moon. [personal profile] spatch says it'll be the one that bleps light.

ETA: Despina Durand reviewed Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2016) and she says wonderful things about "All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts":

Sonya Taaffe is easily one of the best contemporary writers of Weird fiction. Her work is often heavy with history—not "heavy," as in cumbersome or excessively dense, but "heavy" in the way anything worth holding sits in the hand.

All that and a blood moon and a talisman returned. I am happy.
sovay: (Renfield)
Arisia has begun. Tonight in Dramatic Readings from the Ig Nobel Prizes, I performed selections from Paul G. Becher et al.'s "The scent of the fly" (Journal of Chemical Ecology, 2018) and Lindie H. Liang et al.'s "Righting a wrong: Retaliation on a voodoo doll symbolizing an abusive supervisor restores justice" (The Leadership Quarterly 2018). The latter paper confirms that it makes downtrodden workers feel better to torment effigies of their horrible bosses; the former determined that a fly can be detected in a glass of wine by taste provided it is a female of the species Drosophila melanogaster whose volatile pheromone Z4-11Al consequently makes the wine taste, quote, technical term, "off." I also joined a chantey chorus supplementing a dramatic reading of William McGonagall's "The Tay Bridge Disaster" with a filk on the subject by Marc Abrahams. I feel I've done my bit for the arts this weekend.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
Somehow I have lost my first-generation Sacagawea gold dollar coin which I carried like a talisman in my coat pocket for approaching twenty years. I have no idea what happened to it. I would have thought I'd hear or see if it went flying when I pulled out my wallet or keys, but this afternoon at the post office was the first time I noticed it missing. It must have happened within the last day. The coin was a touchstone; I curled my fingers around it. I know I attach unwarranted significance to objects in that if they are at all important to me their loss feels like just more proof of entropy (nothing lasts, nothing stays, you get to keep nothing, you destroy anything you touch), but I am upset. And I do not want one of the newer issues: I like the panoply of Native history on the reverses, but in D.C. in December the Metro gave me a handful of the newer kind as change and it was immediately apparent how much thinner and lighter they were than mine. Plus it didn't visit multiple states and at least one other country with me. I am consoling myself that if it happened at Temple Israel in Boston where I saw a movie last night with my parents, it will probably count as accidental tzedakah and I'm sure the synagogue can use it, but I would still have preferred to do it consciously, with ordinary money. Today has really not been the greatest of days. I like this macro and otherwise I wish I had not been obliged to get out of bed.
sovay: (Default)
My schedule for this year's Arisia is compact and somewhat memorial:

Dramatic Readings from the Ig Nobel Prizes
Friday 10 PM
Marc Abrahams (m), Michelle Liguori, James Bredt

Highlights from Ig Nobel prize-winning studies and patents, presented in dramatic mini-readings by luminaries and experts (in some field). The audience will have an opportunity to ask questions about the research presented—answers will be based on the expertise of the presenters, who may have a different expertise than the researchers.

[In previous years I have read "The Number 13 as a Castration Fantasy" and "The highest-ranking rooster has priority to announce the break of dawn." Come discover with me what abomination of science I will have to explain this time.]

Harlan Ellison: In Memoriam
Saturday 1 PM
Michael A. Burstein (m), Robert B. Finegold M.D., John Trimble, Lisa Hertel, Sonya Taaffe

Harlan Ellison was one of the great short story writers of all time, and one of the field's larger-than-life figures. He was also someone whose bad behavior often undercut his achievements and even the good deeds he attempted to do. We'll discuss both his literary legacy and his personal one. Note that this panel will likely discuss topics that are uncomfortable for some people.

Ursula K. Le Guin: In Memoriam
Saturday 2:30 PM
Trisha J. Wooldridge (m.), Mark W. Richards, Sarah Smith, A.J. Odasso, Sonya Taaffe

SFWA Grand Master Ursula K. Le Guin passed away early last year at the age of 88. Best known for her Earthsea series, as well as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Disposessed, Le Guin consistently pushed themes of identity and social structure in her narratives. Join our panelists as they remember her life and works, and share what Le Guin meant to us all, as well as her influence on the genre as a whole.

Nightstand Readings
Saturday 7 PM
Timothy Goyette, Kel Bachus, Sonya Taaffe

Come find the next title to set on your nightstand for your bedtime reading routine, with authors reading to you from their own original works of fiction.

[I may read from either Forget the Sleepless Shores or new fiction. Come find out!]

Sing-along: Yiddish Songs
Sunday 11:30 AM
Anabel Graetz (m.), Sonya Taaffe, Marnen Laibow-Koser

There is a rich tradition of song from Jewish communities in Russia and Eastern Europe. Come sing along with some of these. Songs of work and play will be featured; no liturgical songs will be included. (Participatory sing-along with words provided.)

What We DIDN'T Steal from Tolkien
Sunday 5:30 PM
Kristin Janz (m.), James Hailer, Bekah Maren Anderson, Ken Gale, Sonya Taaffe

Tolkien, for all his flaws, did things in his work that revolutionized the literary landscape, yet so much of the deep, interesting, and nuanced aspects of his writing get overlooked in favor of the things at the surface level—the things that became trope-namers or cliches of the genre, the ways he influenced authors who came after. But what parts of Tolkien have been overlooked? What did he do that was worthwhile, yet which modern fantasy authors haven't emulated?

And Monday is [personal profile] spatch's birthday, so this works out nicely. Who can I expect to see there?
sovay: (Rotwang)
I don't get up at aaagh o'clock for everybody, just partisan songs, Yiddish theater, and the dead.

There were twenty-one dead of the molasses flood, wrecked by the shrapnel of the tank's burst brittle steel or the debris cresting its sticky, stiffening wave or suffocated outright in what Stephen Puleo in his definitive account called the dark tide; it splintered buildings, tossed cars, flattened streetlights, crumpled the tracks and trestles of the Atlantic Avenue Elevated. Photographs of the time show an almost absurd devastation of matchsticked houses and warehouses, sheared-off roofs decorated with buckled girders and dismembered wheels, livelihoods and lives all wiped across the smeary plain of what's now Langone Park. Everything glistens balefully. A hundred and fifty injured were recorded in addition to the dead. I assume the numbers come from the landmark class-action suit successfully brought against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, parent company of Purity Distilling which had built the tank in 1915 and maintained it so poorly from the start that local families were accustomed to collect their own molasses from the constant leak. It is not true that on hot days in the North End you can still smell molasses, although it is apparently true that for weeks after the disaster Boston itself was generally sticky.

Seven years ago, [personal profile] spatch and I joked about baking molasses cookies for the centenary and eating them on Copp's Hill. Instead we joined a memorial organized by the City of Boston Archaeology Program and the Boston Parks Department. January 15, 1919 was unseasonably warm; it was one of the contributing factors to the perfect sugarstorm that was the Great Boston Molasses Flood. January 15, 2019 was bright and biting, the sky and the harbor the same pale streaked floe-blue and my fingers numb by the time we'd walked up Commercial Street from North Station. With the rest of the small crowd which included [personal profile] a_reasonable_man, we stood in a ninety-foot circle following the remains of the molasses tank, whose location and perimeter had been recently mapped by UMass Boston's Fiske Center. Boston Archaeologist Joe Bagley spoke briefly about the occasion before yielding home plate to Boston Parks Commissioner Chris Cook, who read the names of the dead and held a moment of silence. Together with Representative Aaron Michlewitz they laid a wreath of white roses at the center of the tank. And then everything broke up very quickly, because everyone was very cold. Probably due to our position against the third-base fence, we do not really show up in any of the coverage I've seen, but there were cameras everywhere, so if you see one person in a black hoodie and a green canvas coat and another in a leather jacket and a sort of fur-lined-looking hat, hello.

Afterward we wandered up the granite steps and switchbacks of Copp's Hill Terrace and then down into the North End, where we did not eat at Antico Forno because they opened half an hour later than we could stand to wait around in the cold; we walked to the Boston Public Market, where we had respectively shakalatkes, a bagel, and ramen, and collectively a nice conversation with the vacationing couple from Maine sitting across the table from us. Then it took me and Rob forever to get home because the new schedule of the 89 is awful; it has stripped out easily half the buses; they no longer run on the twenty-minute or even half-hour schedule that allowed us to get to Sullivan or Davis on a reasonable timetable rather than much too early or slightly too late or just not at all. That, too, is Boston. I guess.

I'm very tired, but I am glad we got up for this ceremony. It was the kind of magic that needed a critical mass to work: enough participants to form the circle, to map the space that failed and killed and to remember why we need regulations as well as heroes. I liked the commissioner's promise that the park would always stay open and safe for children, the best way he could think of to redeem it from tragedy. It was a good thing to be part of.

Someone had left a jar of molasses on the wall.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I leave this image as a sort of placeholder for The Beast of the City (1932), which I will have to write about some night when I don't have to get up early for a molasses flood commemoration. I was just watching it for Jean Harlow, but then there was the ending. I knew I liked Wallace Ford from Freaks (1932) and various older appearances as a character actor, but he appears to have joined the ranks of nicely weird-looking people I could watch all night. I haven't seen a body count like that since Tarantino.

sovay: (Sydney Carton)
Yesterday was primarily characterized by grocery shopping while having slept forty-five minutes the previous night. Today I have a glass bottle of goat's milk in my refrigerator and my bootlace that isn't already knotted just broke. Both of these circumstances have perfectly ordinary twenty-first-century explanations and yet. Have some recently accumulated links.

1. Courtesy of [personal profile] umadoshi: I was glad to see this follow-up article of differing perspectives—millennial and otherwise—on burnout.

2. I like how this article on "Why We Need to Keep Searching for Lost Silent Films" answers its own question with its subtitle: "Early motion pictures give us an important window into our collective past." I'd heard of Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898). I'd never heard of Diplomatic Henry (1915).

3. Courtesy of [personal profile] handful_ofdust: I love this appreciation of medieval bog body fashion, but I have to say the reconstruction of Bockstensmannen looks a bit done with the whole thing.

(While we're talking about things under water and earth, I was reminded by a recent exchange with [personal profile] strange_complex that I've never understood why I don't see Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard (1974) included in more discussions of folk horror. It was published in the '70's and revolves around the fire sacrifice of a year-king to the old gods of the land. I thought of it the first time I saw The Wicker Man (1973). Maybe the Child ballad confuses people.)

4. [personal profile] moon_custafer has been making text posts from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

5. Over the weekend I was having one of those moments of wondering what I have ever done worthwhile with my life when [personal profile] spatch showed me this tweet. About the only time I want the capacity to interact with Twitter is to say thank you for something like that.

I will be at Arisia this weekend, because some of the people who stepped up to put out the fires are people I trust. I'll post my schedule soon.
sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
Francesca Forrest's The Inconvenient God (2018) starts like a bureaucratic joke. Venerable Nando University is decommissioning its least consequential and most embarrassing god, a dropout divinity by the name of Ohin whose deadbeat devotees leave him offerings of bongs, bottles, and lingerie; toward this end it has summoned Decommissioner 37 from the Polity's Ministry of Divinities and scheduled the ceremony between campus construction jobs, as if expecting it to take nothing more than a scattering of incense and a few minutes' trance to finalize the natural decline of a god no one but slackers and stoners honestly, half-ironically believes in anymore. It's a usual thing. The official religious program of the Polity promotes abstract expressions of the divine over localized deities with names and personalities, who are gradually folded into the relevant Abstraction over time; the apple-goddess Amaya of the Northwest is one of the holdouts, but even she will soon be worshipped in the capital as just one more emanation of Abundance. Perhaps there are edges on this joke. There are certainly depths, as the decommissioner begins to discover when the god that manifests in response to her ritual is exactly as louche and lazy as she was led to expect from her Ministry briefing, but also something that absolutely no one prepared her for: once human. But who deifies a dropout? And why should the region's ancient apple-goddess care if they did? And if he's a usual thing, why can't she get a straight answer from anyone about the circumstances that led to his elevation? The longer she stays in Nando City, the clearer it becomes to Decommissioner 37 that Ohin's inconvenience is more than a matter of a condom-littered shrine; he threatens to expose fault lines in the university's history, the history of the Northwest, the region's relationship with the Polity as a whole. Even a god's memory is malleable, so easily lost—or altered. By the time the narrative is exploring questions of imperialism and assimilation, how much can be lost with a language and how much can be recovered with the right story, without losing an ounce of humor or compassion or numinousness the matter of Ohin has ceased to be a joke at all.

I love this novella. It is probably obvious that the mystery of Ohin resolves at ground zero of a number of issues I care about (I picked up my copy of this book on my way home from chorus rehearsal in my relearned familial endangered language), but the story is more than the sum of its ideas. The style is a graceful, often funny first person that catches the reader up on the shape of the world without lecturing or mistaking its narrator for an unbiased lens; the multi-ethnic, technologically contemporary Polity is not presented as a dystopia, but there's a chill to the distinction drawn between delinquency and sedition or a casual mention of the national language chased with the qualification "There are regional dialects, of course, and in isolated areas or recently incorporated territories, people may speak other tongues." That said, I would cheerfully read further novellas or even a novel featuring Decommissioner 37, the government official who has to find a humane and perhaps literally unorthodox way out of a dilemma as old as imperium and never shares her name on assignment, even with an ally, offering a childhood nickname in place of her impersonal title. I have a thoroughly unsurprising soft spot for Mr. Haksola, the high-strung university administrator who knows more than he's telling; he resembles "an anxious heron" and can't lie without spilling tea all over himself, guaranteeing my affection even when he was doing his best abstract expression of obstructive paper-pushing. The gods are richly evoked and not human even when they used to be and we are dropped some fascinating hints about their mutable natures ("Other decommissioned gods tell me that living as mortals is quite relaxing"). Even minor human characters are drawn clearly and generously, whether they have names or no. I was reminded not unpleasantly of Le Guin, in particular her novel The Telling (2000) and in general her habit of not drawing her secondary worlds from late antique to early modern Europe. The cover art by Likhain is even more beautiful and resonant with knowledge of the story, but even in isolation is the sort of thing you might want as a poster. I was left wondering where around here I could get persimmon wine.

I am reliably informed that the genesis of this novella can be traced to a six-year-old post in which I discussed the Roman concept of exauguratio, which facetiously makes me feel good about being pedantic at people and more seriously feels appropriate to the theme of keeping ancient knowledge alive. In the interests of local memory, I point out that the City of Boston Archaeology Program will be holding a ceremony for the dead of the Great Molasses Flood on Tuesday morning and the Boston Globe just gave an obituary to Durgin-Park.

The goddess smiled, and the gold that clad her became an apple-blossom-scented radiance that enveloped me, then spread outward, thinning and fading.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Anthony Mann's The Black Book (1949) is one of the best arguments I know for noir as a mode, not a genre. I doubt I recognized it as such in 2011 when I caught the first ten minutes on TCM, but I knew I'd seen something special; eventually I tracked down the other seventy-nine minutes on YouTube and jumped at the chance to watch a less jittery, fuzzy version when it came back around on TCM this week. I love this movie and I don't think beyond its deserts. It is sometimes shown under the alternate title Reign of Terror. It's French Revolution noir.

It's not that I haven't seen noir hybrids before, but very few are as fearlessly full-tilt with their conceit as The Black Book. While its plot retells the Thermidorian Reaction as zestily as any costume drama, everything from its dark, dramatic lighting to its hard-boiled dialogue to its cynical nerve is noir, right down to the damaged hero and his ambiguously faithful old flame. Give him a century and a half and he might be a G-man among gangsters, but on July 26, 1794, Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings) is a Lafayette loyalist gone undercover as a notoriously bloodthirsty prosecutor in order to get close to Robespierre (Richard Basehart), who has just denounced Danton and stands ready to declare himself dictator of France. Charged with recovering the missing "black book" of the title—Robespierre's private hit list, fatally incriminating if its contents were known—D'Aubigny hopes instead to turn it over to Robespierre's rivals, but his only contact with the underground is the scornfully patriotic Madelon (Arlene Dahl) from whom he parted some years previously under mutually embittering circumstances and in any case, in the last paranoid thrashings of the Terror, trust can get you killed faster than actual treachery. Please make no attempt to anticipate the twists and double-crosses of the forty-eight-hour roller coaster; you'll put yourself in a neck brace. All you need to know is that the results are darkly funny, pulpily violent, and compulsively watchable, if only to see what sometimes literally cloak-and-dagger craziness this mashup of contemporary style and historical subject will throw at the national mythos next.

Like most B-noirs and especially Mann's, The Black Book turns its lack of budget into an occasion for atmosphere: William Cameron Menzies' production design and John Alton's cinematography have to create their revolutionary Paris mostly through small rooms and shadows and they succeed with baroque claustrophobia. Close-ups are lit every way but directly, angled to fragmentation or tight enough to choke. Characters are framed by quills, doorways, muskets, stalls, draperies, rain-slicked, torch-lit cobbled streets receding like blind alleys. Real prison bars are almost honest enough to be refreshing. Someone is always looking over the characters' shoulders, even if it's just the audience. You never know who's listening and you never know what they'll do with the information. [personal profile] handful_ofdust once memorably described this aesthetic as "Stalinist Russia with hoop-skirts"; the McCarthy echoes are unavoidable, but the film's more interested in thrills than a treatise. There are horse chases, coach chases, a murder conducted like spirit photography in a darkened mirror which moments later holds in its depths an even more unwelcome recognition scene. People burst out of bakery windows, swim like microbes in the Convention's engorging eye. When wine seeps from underneath a bookcase to give a secret room away, it pools and glistens like blood, a leftover crime. All mounted riders race against the same dawn-streaked cyclotron sky. I'd love to see it on film, velvety and baleful. Co-scripted by Aeneas MacKenzie and Philip Yordan, the screenplay does its Black Mask best to keep up. "Anarchy—misery—murder—arson—fear—these are the weapons of dictatorship!" a newsreel narrator barks before running us through a quick rogue's gallery of relevant parties from Robespierre to Tallien; then we're flung among the revolutionaries and conspirators themselves, some of whom say things like "We didn't storm the Bastille to make any man dictator" and others "Don't call me Max!" It's tough, cagey, demotic without overcooking into gumshoe parody. Estranged lovers and uncertain allies flirt with the same fencing dares. The heroes appeal to liberty like the God the Revolution is supposed to have abolished—the villains wield it like a protection racket. Best of all, at no point is the slightest effort made by the all-American cast to sound French or even English, Hollywood's cachet of historical class. I happen to prefer this approach in general, but it adds an especially anti-prestige kick to the liberty caps and powdered wigs. Lots of cities have a Brooklyn.

I have a better idea of what the movie is doing with D'Aubigny now that I've seen more of Mann's noir; as in T-Men (1947) and Border Incident (1949), the director is interested in the moral wear of undercover work, especially when it involves convincing as the kind of sadistic ideologue who only burnishes his laurels when he confesses deprecatingly, "The real pleasure of my work went out with the guillotine. It's all over too fast now . . . What this country needs is an elegant slow death. Give a man four hours to die. It's worth watching." I still feel Cummings could give us a better sense of D'Aubigny himself, the secret agent heartbroken into bitter recklessness; he adopts the role of the "Terror of Strasbourg" almost as soon as he appears, but there's still room for nuance in between the faces he shows the men whose confidence he must gain, the woman he won't admit never lost his heart. With her beauty mark and her muff pistol, Dahl is very good in her early, mistrustful, provocative scenes, but her Madelon fades into the plot the more it aligns her romantically with D'Aubigny. She may be one of the few female characters where I don't feel it's cheap of the narrative to have her arrested and even tortured, however: it's the risk all her cell agreed to run when they allied themselves with the impersonator of Citizen Duval, who they knew might have to blow a fellow-agent or two in order not to blow his cover ("A few lives won't matter, but Robespierre must never become dictator"), and she neither breaks nor betrays anyone. Norman Lloyd has a nice turn as trigger-happy Tallien, who almost shoots D'Aubigny just for talking to a member of the Committee of Public Safety; Richard Hart's Barras is a tricky crusader; Beulah Bondi makes an indomitable peasant grandmother. Charles McGraw even shows up as a brutal sergeant, albeit with his rocky charisma somewhat muted by facial hair. The film still really belongs to its villains. They're world-historical; they're the ones everyone from Stanisława Przybyszewska through Hilary Mantel and Tanith Lee has a different angle on. Basehart's Robespierre is an icy fanatic with ambitions of despotism who styles himself the incarnation of the people's will and genuinely seems to believe it, which makes him scarier than Jess Barker's smoothly sinister and unusually heterosexual Saint-Just. "We're living in a perpetual state of violence," he observes to a disguised D'Aubigny, without judgment or regret. "Each day this monster must drink its quota. There's only one man who can control this beast and that man must be dictator of France." Incorruptible to the last, he doesn't even attempt suicide; he's shot in the mouth—a startling gore-spatter—to silence his unadorned, spellbinding words, seconds away from regaining control of the violent crowd. Arnold Moss as Citizen Fouché enters the picture at the six-minute mark and steals every scene he's in, one of those reprehensible charmers whose eye for the main chance is as genial as it is ruthless. I love his deep, amused voice; it's as confiding and trustworthy as his character is not. You'd think he was a hero if you heard him in the dark. Instead he sits in Robespierre's own chair with his feet on Directoire marble, a saturnine man with an ironic smile and contemptuous cat-eyes, and ticks off his secret policeman's virtues on his fingertips with a dancing quill: "Where in all Paris would you find anybody as disloyal, unscrupulous, scheming, treacherous, cunning, or deceitful as I? Oh, you'd have to do some tall looking, Max." He gets the last word, a deliberate historical stinger. It's much more ambiguous than the celebratory fireworks suggest.

I recognize that in our current golden age of remix culture, historical noir is a no-brainer—it's hard to avoid, even, in some eras of history—but I have difficulty thinking of other first-generation examples beyond the previously identified subgenre of the noir Western and Mann's The Tall Target (1951), a nineteenth-century American assassination thriller that's less gonzo than The Black Book but just as visually and thematically noir. It works so well, I wish it hadn't taken the rest of the moviemaking world decades to catch up to him. At least we got this eighteenth-century dark city. I regret only that no one in it plays Camille Desmoulins. This state brought to you by my elegant backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Tonight in flânerie: I was obliged to seek out the FedEx on Summer Street, which both [personal profile] spatch and I assumed was in Fort Point until we looked it up and it turned out to be in South Boston, catty-corner to the pink chimneys of the former Edison Power Plant and right across the street from the gantry cranes of the Conley Terminal. So on the one hand I waited for a lot of buses on a bitter-black wind-chill night, desperately wishing FedEx had actually delivered my new work computer like the stickers on my door claimed to have tried and strongly suspecting they had just rung the wrong doorbells, since the UPS delivery this morning woke me no problem. On the other, I have discovered the location of New England's sole full-service container terminal. I knew it was in Boston: it's the reason the harbor-dredging is important. I had somehow not assimilated its name. I'd like to revisit it by day now that I know where it is, even though by night it was full of rippling black water and sodium-orange reflections and the T-square silhouettes of container cranes. I got a lot of night-reflections of the harbor walking from Fort Point to South Station, even more catching the 7 bus from South Station to City Point—at one point I saw fine squares of dusk-smoky light under the Congress Street Bridge and thought they were some skyscraper's many-windowed reflection until I realized they were the channel itself reflecting through the wooden grid of the pilings, rough-textured and translucent as ancient glass. I had to look up the name of the waterway that divides Fort Point from City Point; it turns out to be the Reserved Channel and as artificially created as anything between Dorchester Heights and Castle Island. "This city is ridiculous!" I find myself shouting to Rob. "We really are just Venice with more buses!" We walked by Durgin-Park, but could never have gotten a table: they were full up with a wait list encompassing old locals and students and families with kids. I hope they go out on a high and I hope their corporate owner regrets it for the rest of his natural life. In the meantime I am home, under some blankets on the couch, obsessively listening to Weakened Friends' "Blue Again." The frontwoman reminds me of Throwing Muses and Buffy Sainte-Marie. We're coming up on the centenary of the molasses flood. Even the dead glitter of the Seaport couldn't block out the haze-curve of the crescent moon. In an ideal world I would have stayed in this evening, but I like how this city I live in is full of things I didn't know.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
I got home to discover the mail had brought my contributor's copy of Else, the latest annual not-Not One of Us publication. It contains my poem "Epic Cycle," written on and for the centenary of the cease-fire of World War I. It came from thinking about myth, about remembrance, about how easy it is to make something beautiful when no one is left to say otherwise; one cataclysm of the twentieth century concludes its period of mourning and the twenty-first steams straight ahead with its own apocalypses; here we are, here we are, here we are again. Other contributors of strangeness include Zane Mankowski, Caspian Gray, and Victoria Nordland. You can purchase this publication; you can submit work for the next issue; I recommend doing both. Not One of Us is one of the last true print 'zines I regularly interact with and I treasure it. It has always given my work a good home.

Otherwise my day has mostly consisted of late buses, rain, and a book I ordered not yet arriving, but I made it to my doctor's appointment (I have a sinus infection; at least it's my first in more than a year; I've got antibiotics) and I got to see a beautiful sunset of shale-blue and grill-orange, one of those startling combinations that looks artificial except it happens all the time, while waiting for the bus home. It's a really nice planet, even if the weather is rather badly off-kilter. I wish people cared more about not wrecking it for the rest of us.

(Yesterday was for all extents and purposes nonexistent, but the day before that I met [personal profile] a_reasonable_man and his wife for the recent restoration of Andrei Rublev (1966) at the Coolidge and not only did I love the movie, I had a very nice dinner at Ganko Ittetsu Ramen beforehand and discovered a cheap and well-preserved paperback of Barbara Hambly's A Free Man of Color (1997) downstairs at the Brookline Booksmith. I had brought my copy of Graveyard Dust (1999) to read on the buses, so it felt fortuitous. And went well with gankara miso ramen.)

Courtesy of [personal profile] moon_custafer: Sheila Sim in A Canterbury Tale (1944). I have very few singular favorite things, but that is definitely my favorite movie by Powell and Pressburger and I could call it my favorite movie without lying. I keep coming back to writing about it. I love that it was Pressburger's, not Powell's, darling.

Dr. Autolycus says I should not leave this couch any time soon.
sovay: (Default)
I spent about twenty-five years in the fifteenth century last night: I saw Andrei Rublev (1966) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

At the moment I am having difficulty thinking of a movie it would make less sense to write about, but I loved this one, so let's dance about architecture. Andrei Rublev was directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, co-written with Andrei Konchalovsky, and its current 183-minute version comes to us courtesy of a complicated history of cuts, censorship, and director's oft-elided preference; in its brief first life it was titled The Passion According to Andrei, but I like the plainer title partly because it forces the audience to think about why a movie that behaves so little like a conventional biography is named after a figure who is not even always onscreen. Beyond his paintings and a handful of names and dates, not much is known about the historical Rublev. Even less may be required for this film: it's not an explanation or an interrogation of the great icon painter so much as an exploration of the interaction between an artist and their world, staged like a cross between a documentary and a dream and shot almost perversely in an elemental black and white that renders milk and smoke the same pale swirl, the same dark spillage lead and blood. Time is seen to pass like a succession of icons, each scene given a title and a year—"The Jester, 1400," "The Holiday, 1408," "The Bell, 1423"—and then permitted to run anywhere from the length of a conversation to most of the wheel of a year. Some of the events we witness are conventionally dramatic, recognizably life-changing; some are just the record of time in a place of birch forests and wild ducks, monks chopping wood and pagans lighting fires for St. John's Eve, artisans blinded before they can make better work for their employer's rival and cities sacked out of brotherly envy. A traveling joker with a drum entertains a stableful of peasants with a scurrilous satire on boyars and priests and the next minute soldiers are dragging him away. The artist refuses to terrify the faithful with an iconostasis of the Last Judgment, but the invading Tatars—by invitation of a Russian ally—burn the feast of peace and love he paints instead. He takes a vow of silence, forswears his art, and it changes precisely nothing. What is the use of making art in such a world of brutal, uncontrollable violence and cruelty, the film sometimes seems to be asking, and then, at other times, what is the use in such a world of not making art? The medieval aeronaut of the mysterious prologue crashes to earth once his hot-air balloon of ropes and animal skins runs out of lift, but does that mean he was wrong to take that leap of faith from the church tower, that sickening, soaring swing out above a landscape seen for one vertiginous moment as completely as a frieze before we too fall and can't escape the world? We never see anything in this story with such clear distance again, not the politics, the geography, or the people. Why should we? We don't live in the big picture. We're the ploughman in that Bruegel painting, not God.

Andrei Rublev isn't God, either, although the movie almost incidentally makes a good case for him as a saint. As played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, Tarkovsky's discovery and muse until his untimely death between Stalker (1979) and Nostalghia (1983), he could be a martyr in the old sense of a witness—a dreamily beautiful monk with eyes so deep-set and luminous they seem made for drawing in the world, absorbing the texture of wet twigs or the tint of a mad girl's hair like the tools of gold leaf or drying oil. Even with his soft beard scruff, he looks more than a little like one of the androgynous messengers of his own tradition, and he has a habit of appearing in the lives of others with the same seemingly quiet happenstance. But a recording angel would stand apart from this earth and all its frailties and calamities and Andrei the first time we meet him is ankle-deep in mud; later we'll see him scratched by branches, splashed with milk, eventually stained with his own and others' blood. As a young man, he argues a heresy of the Crucifixion so passionately that it unfolds before our eyes in the clothes and the snow and the worn, earthen faces of a peasant's book of hours. A pagan girl confounds him with her nakedness and her calm assertion of the holiness of sensual love, like the leap-fire he stumbled into that sets him briefly, non-metaphorically aflame; he loses one friend to jealousy and almost loses another through his own self-centered mistake; the capricious savagery of his land's rulers angers him to a silly, bitter, blasphemous act. The silence of his vow would make him even more otherworldly except that what he has to offer in the end is not an angel's-eye view. He's not some capital-A Artist, generic, archetypal. For all he's our lens on his century, he's not transparent prose. Nothing in this movie is transparent, except maybe the camera; it's a sticky, tactile, trampled world, like a surface of paint up close. You are always aware of the sweat of summer heat, the fog of winter frost, the ceaseless back-breaking work of pre-industrial daily life—the swarm of it, too, not just architecture and armies but the natural world that is always spilling into the most human-centered of scenes, Tarkovsky's horses rolling in spring grass or flicking their tails in the rain, a decomposing swan's wing prodded by a bored apprentice, the enameled ripple of a snake in a forest stream or the black fur of a cat crying its way among corpses in a burnt-out cathedral. "Nothing is more terrible than snow falling in a temple," Andrei murmurs after the sack of Vladimir, but we have seen stranger sights already in this movie whose cinematography seems to draw no distinction between horror and folly and beauty, all clear-eyed and unjudging. Not impersonal. If Andrei Rublev is a spiritual movie, and I think it is, it's not because it deals with religious art and dedication to God: it's because it's alive in every image, as if a field of flowers and an underpainted wall and the hands of a holy fool on a dead woman's braid are all equally essential, equally immanent. You can't get bored watching this movie unless you get bored with being in the world. If it asserts anything about the biographical Andrei Rublev, it must be that he too knew and lived in the world; he could not otherwise have painted images so out of it.

We do not, for the record, see him paint any of them. I'm not sure we see anyone in this movie engaged in the act of painting, even the preparatory kind that might precede the aesthetic decisions. Mostly we don't even see icons onscreen; they exist but are given no more emphasis than candlelight or river mist or the thick stiff pages of a book. When the film does decide to turn its attention to the work rather than the business of creation, it does so almost on the slant: the last scene before the epilogue is a self-contained narrative starring Nikolai Burlyaev with a high-strung swagger as Boriska, youngest son of a famous bellfounder who bargains his way out of his plague-destroyed village by claiming that he can, using the secret techniques his father passed to him before dying, cast a new bronze bell for the Grand Prince. He has a hill in sight of the city dug up for a casting-pit, spends months searching for the right kind of clay, browbeats the prince's emissaries over the right weight of silver, a slight, fever-spry figure in a tattered sheepskin coat, half the age of the men he's ordering around. It is a miniature epic of engineering and it pays off in astonishing shots like the firing of the mold or the pouring of the metal, a white-hot thunder of hand-built brick furnaces, channels suddenly streaming with scabbed molten light. Andrei watches whenever his errands take him outside the monastery, greying and silent, still witnessing. Only to Andrei will be revealed the secret behind the great bell now booming out across the fields with a somber, shimmering chime, like a cosmic punch line or the mystery of grace, and it will inspire him once again to change his life: "Come on. Let's go together, you and I. You'll cast bells; I'll paint icons." And only then do we see them, in the jewellike colors we have been withheld all film, the real, timeworn, wood-and-tempera articles, at first focused so closely that the screen fills with fragile abstracts of gilding and craquelure, gradually widening to show the faces and the figures, the halos and the feet and the wings, the animals, the robes, the angels sharing one cup like travelers at a table, the luminous face of the Redeemer finally, vast as vision, imperishable. It could have been terribly pretentious and instead it feels ecstatic, transcendent, alien. Tarkovsky is good at alienness; see Stalker, Solaris (1972). Andrei Rublev never makes the mistake of behaving as though its characters are modern, but neither does it behave as though it's looking back at them. They are not museum pieces, these people and their material culture and their habits of mind. They come to us from another time and through no time at all. Whatever we see of them, we can at least see true.

I don't know if Andrei Rublev will be my favorite movie by Tarkovsky. Oddly, it's the one that most reminded me of other things I've seen—Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965), Derek Jarman's Sebastiane (1976). It's somebody's life which doesn't make a moral. It's time out of joint and it's gorgeous. I was given a DVD of a previous version some years ago, but I'm glad I waited to see the movie on a big screen, because even in digital restoration the cinematography by Vadim Yusov and the faces of Solonitsyn, Burlyaev, Nikolai Grinko, Irma Raush, Rolan Bykov, Bolot Beyshenaliyev deserve to be appreciated in as widescreen and wandering a format as originally intended. I don't know how it would scale down. It might end up like a poster of Hieronymus Bosch. Thanks to [personal profile] a_reasonable_man who got me the ticket, I got to fall through a couple of decades instead. This life brought to you by my dedicated backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Otachi: Pacific Rim)
And in the middle of my terrible mood, I discovered that Forget the Sleepless Shores has made one reviewer's shortlist of the best erotica of 2018:

Not erotica per se, yet this ravishing collection of literary stories should be on the to-read list of every erotic writer who claims to care about the beauty of language and the compelling allure of style. Taaffe's stories are seldom "short" in the strictly commercial understanding of the term, they take their time to be told with however many words may be required, and some of them are quite long indeed. The language is not overly dense or difficult, the narrative seldom inaccessible or overly obscure, and yet, the writing is so dazzlingly fecund, so spendthrift in its vivid, varicolored descriptions, that the reader is immersed in wonder, engulfed like a drowning soul in a state of helpless bliss. Images of water and the supernatural permeate all these stories, forming loose relationships, a kind of magnetic coherency or some form of sub-molecular bonding. Water in all its ineffable forms, life-giving or lethal, calm or chaotic, rain, tears, tides, lakes, rivers, oceans, sea brine, blood, sexual fluid . . . Love-sick demons, the ghosts of the drowned, vampires, mer-folk, muses bearing gifts of madness and otherworldly inspiration. Wondrous! Rarefied! Ineffably gorgeous! Read it and weep with joy!

Frankly, I'm delighted. I wasn't expecting that.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
Either I never shook the cold that began in November or I caught some other opportunistic bug in the process of recovering, but I am definitely sick. I made it to yesterday's rehearsal and then I came home, made dinner with [personal profile] spatch, and fell asleep on the couch. I had just finished reading one of my holiday presents from [personal profile] rushthatspeaks, the Strugatskys' thoroughly delightful Monday Starts on Saturday (1965). Awake later in the evening, I re-read three out of the first four books of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Death Gate Cycle (1990–94) and unhappily I think it was weird for my mood. I slept badly. Today I have done nothing except work for a couple of hours and feed the cats. I don't even seem able to think about or watch movies.

I am feeling alienated by, of all things, an extremely well-written article on millennial burnout. Despite thinking that I belonged to the generation just above millennials, I fall within the age limits delineated by the article; I recognize many of the attitudes, expectations, and pressures detailed therein. I don't argue that I am drowning in no time, no money, no security, no respite, and that it makes me feel like a failure on deep existential levels when honestly I don't think even someone with my problems should have to worry so much and so constantly about just not going broke month after month after month. But I looked at the article's generalizations of the key features of millennial life and aside from the crushing economic horror and accompanying self-despair they were all about as familiar to me as an Instagram filter (I didn't go to grad school because it was expected of me in the American cursus honorum, I went to grad school because I loved what I was studying and was shocked to receive grief from my department for not being more business-minded about it; I have no emotional attachment to a cool job or a job that fits my self-image, just to a job that makes enough for me to live on and doesn't make my life miserable; I don't have a close relationship with my phone or with mainstream forms of social media and I am allergic to the concept of all-hours availability; I really don't worry about curating my life) and it left me instantly feeling that this article was not written to include or to aid me; it envisions a different kind of person drowning; I won't be seen. Probably all this means is that I should not have clicked on the article in my current mental state, but here we are. The bit about the cognitive load of being poor was new to me, plausible, and upsetting.

I concluded a couple of years ago that a pulp style was definitely one of the things that ended up in my own writing before I even thought about such things; it was the similes. There is a lovely note in this annotated edition of The Big Sleep (1939) that Rob got me, about the American vernacular "tall talk" that Chandler alternately condensed or elaborated into the colorful comparisons he's known for. I'm still not sure what to do with this example from The Little Sister (1949): "She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looked by moonlight."
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
I am hoping the evening will improve when I meet [personal profile] rushthatspeaks for The Bigamist (1953) at the Brattle Theatre, but I've had something of a rocky day so far; then I got home and [personal profile] spatch read me the news that 192-year-old Faneuil Hall landmark Durgin-Park is being shuttered by its corporate masters with barely a week's notice. The FilmStruck deal, restaurant-style. He has some choice (and all-caps) words on Twitter. I am just remembering that the first time I ever ate at Durgin-Park, I found a tiny slipper shell in my oyster stew. I still have it. I bet the rich taste really good with a side of baked beans.

[edit] The Bigamist was great. I am so behind on writing about movies. I wish Ida Lupino had directed a lot more.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
Today I had blocked out for work interspersed with lying on a couch, but then shortly after dinner I discovered that the Brattle was showing Ida Lupino's Not Wanted (1949) which I had not been able to see in New York in November, and so I raced out into the black-ice night to view an incisive and compassionate drama about what may still be called unwed motherhood and it was great; I hope to write about it and I may go back for The Bigamist (1953) tomorrow. Then I got on the bus to come home and despite my loudly broadcast signals of reading this book, not making eye contact, not interacting a man talked to me about his medications, his roommates, what a beautiful girl I was, who were my parents, was I going home to my boyfriend, he has a good memory for faces, he hopes to see me around soon. I kept hoping he would get off the bus before I did so that he would not see even in which neighborhood I lived. He did not. He tried to call my stop for me. So I got home in a rather more elevated state of adrenaline than I had left the theater. But I'm three for three so far on Lupino's filmography and that's nice, Mrs. Lincoln. I am trying to decide if I would call this one, too, a noir.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
My short story "Where the Sky Is Silver and the Earth Is Brass" has been accepted by Machinations and Mesmerism: Tales Inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann, edited by Farah Rose Smith (Ulthar Press, June 2019).

I am extraordinarily pleased by this development and not just because it continues to start the year off right. It is the one piece of original fiction I finished in 2018. I wrote it at the beginning of December; it was supposed to be seasonal crack for [personal profile] selkie, but then history got in the way. It features Jewish queerness and demons. Its protagonist is a partisan after the war. In order not to disappear down my usual rabbit hole, I researched the dates of Hanukkah in 1948—which thanks to the interaction of calendars turned out to be partly the dates of Hanukkah in 1949—and then resolutely stayed away from the internet/books. One name is taken from my family history and everything else is invented, so far as I know. The title comes from misremembering a line in Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Devil's Trick," translated and collected in Zlateh the Goat (1966): "The devil licked his singed tail and ran off with his wife to the land where no people walk, no cattle tread, where the sky is copper and the earth is iron." Once I'd gotten it wrong, I kept it. I like my version better for its context anyway.

I am also pleased because while I don't talk about him as much as some other authors, Hoffmann is one of my literary influences who is embarrassingly obvious to me. When my first collection Singing Innocence and Experience (2005) was reviewed by Publishers Weekly, it was gently faulted for "the presence of a few too many earnest young student-artists and musicians obsessed with love or knowledge" and it's true that I wrote all of the stories in college or grad school, but it's also true that Romantic literature. Technically I was first exposed at the age of six when my god-aunt took me to the New York City Ballet's The Nutcracker and I imprinted on Drosselmeyer, but I really fell into Hoffmann as a sophomore at Brandeis when the syllabus for Andrew Swensen's "Night, Death, and the Devil" (COML 127a) included, among other forays into the fantastic and the grotesque, "The Golden Pot," and it's not even my favorite of his stories, but it sent me looking for the rest on the spot. I can recognize it now as a commonplace of weird fiction and even of other authors I was reading that semester, but I noticed first with him the idea that sitting down under a tree, glancing up at a window, walking into a bar might take you from the ordinary world into the one where you come out dead or mad or shadowless or married to a beautiful blue-eyed snake and living in the bliss of Atlantis, writing poetry. In the case of the story I placed with this anthology, it's mostly a matter of being around mirrors.

Altogether my reaction to receiving the acceptance was an enthusiastic yell. I'm sure 2019 will contain its share of burning garbage, but I'm really enjoying it so far.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
Rabbit, rabbit! Happy New Year! Let's start it off right, with anti-fascism.

My poem "The Watchword" is now online at Uncanny Magazine. It is a ghost poem for Hirsh Glik. I wrote it in July, long before I had any idea I would get to close out the year singing his partisan anthem in memory and summoning of resistance, and I can't even claim it was foreshadowing: I am far from the only person with these ghosts on their mind these days. I would have been glad to sing "Zog nit keyn mol" with A Besere Velt and glad to see this poem in print no matter what. But because of the singing, I think, it means even more than it did when I wrote it. The title comes from a line in the third verse:

ס׳וועט די מאָרגנזון באַגילדן אונדז דעם הײַנט
,און דער נעכטן וועט פֿאַרשווינדן מיט דעם פֿײַנט
—נאָר אויב פֿאַרזאַמען וועט די זון אין דעם קאַיאָר
.ווי אַ פּאַראָל זאָל גיין דאָס ליד פֿון דור צו דור

S'vet di morgnzun bagildn undz dem haynt
un der nekhtn vet farshvindn mitn faynt,
nor oyb farzamen vet di zun in dem kayor—
vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.

The morning sun will gild our today
and yesterday will vanish with its hatred
but if the sun comes slow to dawn—
like a watchword this song must pass from generation to generation.

And it did. It's still sung. It's sung as part of a tradition, and it is sung specifically to remind ourselves and the world that we are here, that we did not walk the last road in 1943 and we are not walking it now—and that we will not let others walk it if we can help it. It's a talisman, a credo, a lookout. It got handed to me and I pass it on.

.מיר זײַנען דאָ
sovay: (Default)
I can't believe 2018 is almost over. It seemed to last twice the length of a normal year and spend most of it on fire. I have this website now where you can find my complete bibliography, not to mention the account I opened on AO3. But I care about traditions and I've kept this one since the earliest years of this journal, so here is my year-end summary for 2018.

Numerically, it was not a banner year for me. I published one piece of new fiction, albeit one that meant a lot to me:

"The Face of the Waters" in Forget the Sleepless Shores, Lethe Press, August 2018.

There was somewhat more new poetry, in a year in which more than one of my mainstay markets disappeared:

"кот древнее и неприкосновенное животное" in Animal Day II (ed. John Benson), January 2018.
"Shadow-Song" in Uncanny Magazine #20, February 2018.
"די ירושה" in Uncanny Magazine #20, April 2018.
"The Great Fire" in Not One of Us #59, April 2018.
"The Women Around Achilles" in Not One of Us #59, April 2018.
"The River Delivers Its Commission" in Not One of Us #60, October 2018.
"Nostalgia/Νέκυια" in Not One of Us #60, October 2018.
"ἄρκτος ἦ Βραυρωνίοις" in Sycorax Journal #1, October 2018.
"Acceptable Documentation" in Sycorax Journal #1, October 2018.
"Ariadne in Queens" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 8.4, November 2018.
"A Vixen When She Went to School" in The Cascadia Subduction Zone 8.4, November 2018.

There was even a reprint:

"Like Milkweed" in Broad Knowledge: 35 Women Up to No Good (ed. Joanne Merriam), November 2018.

And a couple pieces of of fic:

"Assignment Null" (Sapphire & Steel), February 2018.
"Assignment 96" (Sapphire & Steel), July 2018.

And one delightful interview:

"An Interview with Sonya Taaffe, Author, Editor, Durian-Lover" at Jeannelle Writes, August 2018.

Mostly there was Patreon:

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), January 2018.
The Shape of Water (2017), January 2018.
Gun Crazy (1950), January 2018.
Side Street (1949), January 2018.
Small Town Crime (2017), January 2018.
Private Hell 36 (1954), January 2018.
Black Sea (2014), February 2018.
The Heart of New York (1932), February 2018.
Boston Sci-Fi Marathon 43 [Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Time Machine (1960), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Lost World (1925), Marjorie Prime (2017), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dark City (1998), Night of the Living Dead (1968), "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (1963), World Without End (1956), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Yellow Submarine (1968), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Looper (2012)], February 2018.
K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), February 2018.
WarGames (1983), March 2018.
Crossfire (1947), March 2018.
Clash by Night (1952), March 2018.
Suddenly (1954), April 2018.
Manhatta (1921), April 2018.
Hell's Angels (1930), April 2018.
Out of the Fog (1941), April 2018.
Whiplash (1948), May 2018.
A Letter for Evie (1946), May 2018.
Crime Wave (1954), May 2018.
The Clay Pigeon (1949), May 2018.
Victim (1961), June 2018.
Sebastiane (1976), June 2018.
God's Own Country (2017), June 2018.
The Eternal (1998), July 2018.
Mohawk (2017), August 2018.
Persuasion (1995), August 2018.
In the Family (2011), September 2018.
I Don't Want to Be a Man (Ich möchte kein Mann sein, 1918), September 2018.
The Big Heat (1953), September 2018.
Panic in the Streets (1950) and The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), September 2018.
The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), September 2018.
Jennifer's Body (2009), October 2018.
The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1950), October 2018.
Raw Deal (1948) and He Walked by Night (1948), October 2018.
The Hunted (1948), October 2018.
Angel on My Shoulder (1946), October 2018.
Follow Me Quietly (1949), November 2018.
Heat Lightning (1934), November 2018.
Outrage (1950), November 2018.
Kentucky Kernels (1934), November 2018.
The Divorce of Lady X (1938), December 2018.
Peach-O-Reno (1931), December 2018.
Talk About a Stranger (1952), December 2018.
The Holly and the Ivy (1952), December 2018.

But most of all there was my book, my first fiction collection in thirteen years, which I did not set out to make an assertion of queer Jewish (sea-haunted, sometimes dead) identity in this our chaos of 5778/5779, but here we are:

Forget the Sleepless Shores, Lethe Press, August 2018.

And I traveled for it and gave readings and talked about it on the radio and it got some pretty nice reviews. It is the reason I am most glad to have lived to this year.

I don't know what to say about the rest of it. Every year it feels like we wish for a better one and every year it feels like we observe with anger how much higher the tongues of a trash fire can reach. Every year feels more tiring. I see too much of what I didn't do. But I saw and made and read art this year and so did many other people and we will just have to keep it up in 2019, that it may be that better year. Besides, I want to read all of it.

Happy New Year.
sovay: (Sydney Carton)
Most Christmas stories are stories of regeneration: the sun returning, the green boughs in the snow. In this sense George More O'Ferrall's The Holly and the Ivy (1952) is no different from the rest of its genre, but I really appreciate how much holiday stress, awkwardness, and downright dysfunction it packs into its three acts all the while looking like exactly the kind of well-spoken, well-photographed, well-made play the British New Wave was supposed to explode. Instead of a drama of exquisite repression, it's ultimately a story of misrule: how the genteel codes of keeping calm and carrying on can trap a family each in their own separate ice like the ninth circle of Dante and sometimes things need to shatter; someone needs to scream. Christmas is the most inconvenient and the most appropriate time of year for it. Cue the hangover, heartache, and mistletoe.

The film is not ironic about Christmas; it's not out to spike the eggnog of anyone who sincerely enjoys the carols, decorations, crèches, and nativity plays observed over the course of the movie, especially in the prologue—opened out from the original stage play by Wynyard Browne—which seems to promise a sentimental reunion as various members of the far-flung Gregory clan are summoned home in the winter of 1948 for Christmas at the old vicarage in Wyndenham, Norfolk. The widowed aunt on the English side of the family (Margaret Halstan) jubilantly leaves her residential hotel, the spinster aunt on the Irish side (Maureen Delany) reluctantly leaves her cat, the middle-aged cousin (Hugh Williams) leaves his army buddies at the club with the provoking thought that he almost went into the church himself. All are genuinely invested in the homely routine of family Christmas and the screenplay by producer Anatole de Grunwald does not belittle their anticipation; at the same time it is clear-eyed in its recognition that coming home for the holidays can be the least relaxing thing on earth, especially for adult children whose lives have diverged wildly from the tinsel innocence of bygone years. Scapegrace Mick (Denholm Elliott) wangles himself a leave from his national service on compassionate grounds, all demurely transparent apology for his recently widowed father and his sister bravely bearing the weight of the season all alone, but once home and hugged and roped into holly-decorating, he candidly confides, "I can't bear Christmas. I used to like it as a child, but now it's—well, as you say, it's depressing." Perhaps his older sister Margaret (Margaret Leighton) feels the same way, because no one's seen her at family gatherings for years; she exists in a glamorous, distant whirl of London fashion journalism, conspicuous by her disappearing act whenever anyone tries to get hold of her at her office, the shows she covers, or her expensive, untidy flat. And eldest sister Jenny (Celia Johnson) isn't coming home for Christmas because she's always home—the passive, collective weight of family opinion fixed her as the domestic type long ago, so despite her own restlessness and her engineer boyfriend (John Gregson)'s job offer in South America she is keeping house for their father who never remembers where he left his socks or his sermon, looking ever more luminously frayed and enduring almost without a flinch his expressions of grateful reliance, "Oh, Jenny, Jenny, what would I do without you?" They keep their secrets with long practice, individually resigned to the "perpetual pretense" whenever they have to interact with the rest of the family. But when an unexpected Margaret crashes Christmas Eve like the Ghost of Christmas Never, it's too much reality for the holiday to bear; the air that should be full of the hush of snowfall and the pure harmony of carols thickens instead with nerves and resentments and griefs held down too long to be anything but volcanic when they come out. The action adheres to the classical unities, meaning we're spending Christmas with the Gregorys whether we like it or not. Just our luck it's the one where someone passes out on the drawing-room floor.

Since stories where people don't talk to one another tend to drive me to headdesk, I appreciate that The Holly and the Ivy's is not an idiot plot. The Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson, with snow-white hair standing in for the twenty years the role's got on him) is not a monster, not a fundamentalist or a fanatic or even just one of those Victorian patres familias that hung on after the war—with his gentle sense of humor, his academic eccentricity, and the half-lilt of his still-Irish accent, his parishioners might well describe him as a saint or at least a holy fool. He is preparing a sermon on the pagan antecedents of Christmas and shocks his romantic sister-in-law by casually declaring that he hates the modern, commercialized holiday. He may charm the viewer just as readily, interrupting his own research to read out a passage that tickled him: "In the Middle Ages, they had a Feast of Fools at Christmas. It seems they got a bit rowdy at times and in 1444, the cathedral chapter of Saens laid down a regulation that not more than three buckets of water could be thrown over a curate at Vespers." But he has dedicated himself so seriously to his vocation that he's left his family out in the cold, assuming that they would come to him with their problems without ever inviting them to; unsurprisingly they have grown up assuming they can't. It's hard to call it selfishness outright, but it is a kind of complacency, a self-imposed insulation. Martin frets that the great fourteenth-century church that so overawed him when he first came to Wyndenham means less to his flock than "that little tinpot shack of a cinema they've gone to tonight" and can't see until it hits him across the face three times in the same day how his own children have drawn back from him, afraid to find him too unworldly or too uncompromising to sympathize with their ordinary human fuck-ups and tragedies. "A fine caricature I've made of religion if that's how it seems to me own children," he mourns more to himself than to Margaret, with whom he has the most honest, therefore the most wounding conversation of the movie; she is his favorite child, after all, the bitterest and the most elusive, and her mistrust can pierce him where Mick's trembling explosions of temper might be dismissed as mere childishness. As if he's the one receiving the Christmas wake-up, the lightning-strike: "Should be because of religion I have more sympathy and understanding for people. But I have, Margaret, I have! Do I seem like the type of man that'd turn away from the sorrows of his own children?" By his distress, plainly not, but how should she have known? It was never put to the test.

With all their katabasis and catharsis, the other thing Christmas stories tend to be is mythological and The Holly and the Ivy is no exception here either; both plot and dialogue play consciously but never pretentiously with metaphors of winter and Yule, the dark and icy as well as the candlelit. Jenny's love for David is inseparable from her despair over its futility—it is literally fruitless, kisses stolen in the cloakroom of the vicarage as she sinks against his shoulder in a moment of respite equated with death. "I suppose people who fall asleep in the snow feel like this. They know they've got to keep awake, but just for a moment they give up the struggle because the snow's so warm and so cozy." If she freezes for love of David, though, she might find herself in the same position as her sister, of whose brittle flamboyance she demands, "Why must you always crackle like ice? What's happened to make you seem all frozen over inside? You're like someone out of a Hans Andersen story—the frozen queen who went down to the gardens of the dead," as if Demeter harrowed hell for Persephone. But Margaret never will regain her lost child, born to an incorporeal father in dreadful parody of the Nativity; she is not Madonna but Magdalene of the Snows as she confronts her family, pale and stinging in her armor of white furs and reckless indifference, much the worse for drink. "Your gardens of the dead are here tonight with a vengeance, Jenny. It's like walking over the surface of the moon. The snow's too pale—" Considering as I do the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities an essential Christmas movie, I am glad to see a seasonal narrative star a cynical, drunken woman who is not yet beyond all hope and even gladder that self-sacrifice is not what's asked of her. Very little has really changed by the end of this story. Two sisters trade places at the hinge of the year; a brother for once tells the truth; a father for the first time hears it. Nothing is solved overnight. Nothing is even guaranteed. And yet it feels momentous enough to justify Mick's giddy report to a bemused David, who went home early and missed all the anagnorisis: "There's been an atomic explosion since last night. The whole of our lives has been split open, exposed . . . the place is radioactive. I must go"—to meet his family for services, impertinent atheist that he is, having skimmed sixpence for the collection off his future brother-in-law who still doesn't know what hit him. Back in a discussion of the topsy-turvy days around Christmas and the New Year, Martin recalled that the ancients thought of them as "queer sort of days that didn't really exist—days on which anything might happen." Well, look at that. Anything did.

I believe I first read of this movie exactly ten years ago, when Denholm Elliott was suddenly everywhere, and then it got back on my radar four or five years after that, when Ralph Richardson was suddenly everywhere, and then it took until this Christmas to make its debut on TCM where I could see it. It does give very good Elliott and Richardson; the former is as young as I've ever seen him and so slipperily beautiful, he looks one moment like he could do you mischief in the wood and the next like he'd panic, while the latter draws quietly on his knack for the workaday numinous, so that you believe his parson both as a force for absolute good in the world and a parent who really needs to get his act together. Johnson and Leighton share some of the best scenes as sisters who simultaneously covet and can't make sense of each other's lives; doing the washing-up at the sink together, they look like a white owl and a lioness somehow sprung from the same stock. Gregson is playing more of a romantic object than an active character, but he makes an attractive object, Halstan, Delany, and Williams all turn in familiar types who are still not totally predictable people, and an additional handful of character actors turn welcomely up—Roland Culver, Robert Flemyng, William Hartnell in an awful mustache. The cinematography by Edward Scaife is not fancy, but there's one eloquent shot through a Christmas tree that summarizes everything wrong with a relationship. I rather like the music by Malcolm Arnold, since it's all variations on carols I enjoy. In a year in which I felt relatively ambivalent about Christmas, The Holly and the Ivy worked for me: it is thorny without cruelty, hopeful without schmaltz, and contains a bravura monologue about guano. Show me the Hallmark movie that has one of those. This crown brought to you by my sweet backers at Patreon.

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