sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
My poem "A Gun and a Boy (Le Cercle Rouge)" is now online at inkscrawl. The issue's theme is "Living Bodies in Motion," guest-edited once again by Bogi Takács; contributors include MJ Cunniff, S. Qiouyi Lu, Mary Alexandra Agner, Naru Dames Sundar, Holly Day, Sheree Renée Thomas, Na'amen Gobert Tilahun, and all sorts of other moving wordsmiths. My poem was inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 film of the same name, which I saw around this time last year at the HFA. The title adapts Jean-Luc Godard's possibly apocryphal dictum, "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl."

Far too much of today was spent between the dentist's office and packing boxes, but at least the evening went toward [ profile] rushthatspeaks' birthday party. They screened Ulrike Ottinger's Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia (1989) in the Somerville Theatre's Microcinema and provided dangerously chocolate cake at intermission. I brought them a small jar of white sturgeon caviar because no one should have to listen to the transcendent spiel about zakuski delivered by Peter Kern's Mickey Katz without having at least a little of the same on hand. I like that movie so much. The last time I saw it was in 2009 and while I had remembered accurately most of the shamanism, romance, and register-shifting, I had forgotten just how much of the first half could be tagged "I Love Everybody in This Queer Yiddish Theater Party." I wish there were a recording of the soundtrack in all its languages.

Tomorrow, moving.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
Happy birthday, [ profile] rushthatspeaks, my blue-haired love! Did you know that there is now a documentary about Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the then-thirteen-year-old Mongolian Kazakh female eagle hunter whose photographs quite understandably went viral in 2014? It's called The Eagle Huntress. I thought you should know.

sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
Three separate people have now sent me links to this photoset, but since it documents the transformation of a black dress, a replica of the costume worn by Hanna Rovina when she played Leye in An-sky's The Dybbuk (1920), suspended for three months in the thick salt waters of the Dead Sea until it emerged stiff and glittering, salt-crusted wedding-white as a spirit gathering flesh to itself, grief transformed into union, I don't think any of them were wrong: Sigalit Landau, "Salt Bride."

sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
So [personal profile] skygiants wrote about Gilda (1946), which we saw at the Brattle on Tuesday, and it is exactly as queer and gonzo as she describes. Thinking about queerness in film noir started me thinking generally about sexuality in film noir, which started me thinking about Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo (1955), a movie I really want to see again. I glossed it briefly three years ago:

I cannot decide whether The Big Combo (1955) suffers from its tendency to treat women as plot counters more than it benefits from its deep, shadowy, atmospheric cinematography or the performances of Cornel Wilde and Richard Conte as a hero it's difficult to root for and a heavy with a strange sympathetic streak, but I do appreciate how all of these elements come together in the finale: the merciless glare of headlights hunting a man who has dominated his lover past her limits, controlling even the music she listens to, the colors he prefers her to wear—half-blinded, staggering in the fog, whichever way he turns now she has the lights on him, as relentlessly trapped and exposed as he made her feel all those years. It's not complete repayment for how much of the rest of the film she spends crying, questioned and prodded by men who keep saying they love her, but I'll take it. The level of sexuality slipped under the radar is noteworthy, as is the director's evocatively synesthetic approach to violence. Dear scriptwriters: if you take a pair of inseparable hoods named Fante and Mingo who sleep in the same bedroom and make plans to run away together and then give them lines like "I can't swallow any more salami" and "The police'll be looking for us in every closet in town," I hope you were tweaking the Production Code deliberately, because a twenty-first-century audience can't take it with a straight face. The big-band brass of the title theme is great.

Trying to work out why it is that even now I harbor a soft spot for Richard Conte's smoothly ruthless Mr. Brown while I cut no such slack for Cornel Wilde's dogged Lieutenant Leonard Diamond of the 93rd Precinct, I realized that my feelings rest heavily on the sexual implications of a brief, at least historically startling scene between Conte and Jean Wallace. A little background before the smut.

The plot of The Big Combo is the kind of murky audience misdirection in which noir specializes: a study of a sexual obsession disguised as a moral crusade. The city is probably Los Angeles, but it's ninety-five percent studio interiors and backlot streets and day shots are few and far between; even efficiency apartments and hospital rooms are as spookily shadowed as stakeouts at midnight. We meet one major character fleeing through the tile-and-concrete warren of a boxing arena after dark, another pulling self-imposed graveyard shift at the precinct, another delivering a genial, chilling lecture on hate in a low-lit locker room. The finale will pull all of them away into the fog-swirling night. In this especially dark city, Diamond is our sole steady representative of the law. His name should signal his clarity and integrity, but in his very first scene he's shown to be obsessed and unreliable, his mixed motives obvious to everyone but himself—defending the $18,000-plus of departmental budget he blew on a fruitless six-month investigation of the seemingly squeaky-clean Mr. Brown, he mounts an eloquent denunciation of the corrupting influence of Brown's "combo," but the precinct captain cuts through his righteousness by reminding him that for the same six months he stalked "Brown's girl," the beautiful, damaged ex-socialite Susan Lowell (Wallace), and on his own dime no less. "She went to Vegas, you went to Vegas. She flew to Cuba, you flew to Cuba. You can't bear to think of her in the arms of this hood . . . She's been with Brown three and a half years. That's a lot of days—and nights." Diamond sticks to the story that she's just his best lead on the slippery, seamless syndicate boss, but there are all sorts of uncomfortable overtones when he races off to question her while she recovers in the city hospital following an overdose of pills. She lies against the pillows like l'Inconnue de la Seine, he takes her in his arms as if to give her the kiss of life, and then he badgers her about the woman's name—"Alicia"—she whispered deliriously on her way into the ER. She struggles against him feebly, begs him to leave her alone. He holds her down on the bed and threatens to arrest her for attempted suicide if she doesn't talk to him. If there was ever any genuine social concern in Diamond's hunt for Brown, it's long since foundered on his chaotic feelings for Susan. He wants to save her, he wants to possess her, he has really not thought through how sending up her lover for life is supposed to win a woman's heart. (He's obviously never seen The Third Man (1949).) In the meantime, living out of his office, shaving and eating at his desk, recording case notes to himself like a homicide detective—which he's not—he looks about one wall of string-linked magazine clippings away from a conspiracy nut. A movie which wanted its audience to view Diamond more heroically might set him up like a loose cannon in order to give him the satisfaction of being proven right. Here, we know from the start that Brown's a crook—Diamond's a cop, so what? It's not why he's doing what he's doing, just how.1

Susan's relationship with Brown at first looks like much the same thing. No one has a real history in this picture, although Brown has the most with his seven-year rise from prison guard to arch-criminal, but we learn early on that she threw away a promising career as a classical pianist to become the kept woman of a high-class hood; she still displays a careful, educated voice, a "classy" manner even in the extremity of despair. Brown likes to accentuate these aspects of her. He doesn't like her to drink, because it recalls his wife the "lush" who drunkenly humiliated him; he likes her to dress in white, as if curating an image of purity; he dislikes her listening to classical music, the kind she used to play, perhaps because it is inaccessible to him or because it reminds her that she once had another world, one she might yet return to, without Mr. Brown. She is running away from him in her introductory scene—not permanently, but she didn't want to attend the boxing match in the first place; Mr. Brown insisted. Mr. Brown insists a lot. It is warping Susan out of shape, crushing her like an abyssal sea. So, obviously, why does she stay? Is it the violence? The nearness to power? She came from a society family; the wealth itself can't attract or impress her. Diamond can't figure it out.

I live in a maze, Mr. Diamond. )

Brown is not a good guy. He's possessive, destructive, sadistic, a casual taker and ruiner of lives, and he unsettles even in amicable conversation because he goes about so much of his blood-money business without any overt expression of anger. He smiles and smiles and is a villain. His micromanagement of his lover's life without any regard for her preferences or boundaries is a main factor in her suicide attempt and he never gets it, not even at the end when she has him pinned in the lights and the expression on his face as he squints out through the blinding fog is the same strange, pained bewilderment, never understanding that it was not in his power to give her what she wanted most. But the film suggests that he was trying. It gives him the benefit of the doubt where his lover's pleasure is concerned. I can't say the same about Diamond. Even in the scene where he stumblingly admits his feelings for Susan, one of the few moments in the movie in which he looks sympathetic, vulnerable, less than fanatically sure of himself, he can't stop himself from trying to hurt her into helping him, jerking the mink coat from her lap and gruesomely describing its pelts as the "skins of human beings . . . people who've been beaten, sold, robbed, doped, murdered by Mr. Brown," as if she never knew where the money came from. He can't stop trying to use her. Wilde and Wallace were married for thirty years in real life; they made seven movies together, eight if you count the one he directed without appearing in; it interests me that in neither of the two I've seen so far are they cast as ideal lovers, or possibly even people who should be involved with one another at all. Perhaps I'm overgeneralizing, but I have trouble reading Diamond as anything other than a very conventional, heteronormative lover—if he knows what really turns his beau ideal on, it's probably something he thinks a woman who has the right kind of man shouldn't need. The final configuration of the three principals is ambiguous, but if Susan really has thrown in her lot with the gender conformity of her decade, it's hard for me not to feel that she's lost something. Maybe she'll find it again after the film ends with someone who isn't Lieutenant Diamond. This TMI brought to you by my attentive backers at Patreon.

1. All the while he's carrying on his white-knight, Madonna-whore complex about Susan, Diamond maintains a mostly off-again relationship with Helene Stanton's Rita, a dark-haired stripper who greets him after his six-month absence with a well-deserved "You've certainly got a nerve!" She really cares about him despite her scorn for his job and her frustration with his distance; she warns him when the word on the street turns nasty in his direction. He goes to her for sex and emotional support and not much more. She's not his fallen angel who needs a hand back on her pedestal again. Only after she's taken eleven bullets in his place does Diamond recognize what a heel he was to her, crumbling into tears as he berates himself, "I treated her like a pair of gloves. When I was cold, I called her up." I am glad that he is shown to be capable of remorse, because the audience noticed the glove thing long before he did. But I admit it affects my assessment of his feelings for Susan.

2. Gustav Machatý's Ecstasy (Extase, 1933) has a twenty-year lead on The Big Combo, but it's Czech. And unless things have changed much since I saw This Film Is Not Yet Rated in 2006, Hollywood is still way behind any reasonable times in depicting female pleasure, especially if it does not involve dick.

3. Including Massachusetts! Thanks, Puritans.

4. Because my life is my life, I know much more about classical Roman attitudes toward cunnilingus, i.e., it's even more degrading and unmanly for a man to perform than fellatio. If you get face-fucked by a dude, at least it is a dude you're submitting to; if you're getting face-fucked by a woman, game over, man, game over. Also, everyone knows it's just gross. You can really insult a Roman man by calling him a cunnilingus, even more than if you called him a fellator (cocksucker) or a cinaedus (effeminate, penetrable, gender-non-conforming man). Martial wrote way too many epigrams on the subject. There's also some relevant graffiti. I am comforted by the existence of Pompeiian graffiti indicating that male prostitutes offered cunnilingus to their female clients, and not just in a your-mom-for-five-bucks kind of way. But the literary record at least is overwhelmingly negative and the culture I live in inherited not a little of it, alas. In any case, these are all masculinity-related hangups about which Mr. Brown does not appear to give a fuck.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Like many then-viewers of Doctor Who, I ended up liking the writing of the Eleventh Doctor much less than his casting, but I still thought for six years that Matt Smith must have been an amazing Korovyev/Fagott in David Rudkin's The Master and Margarita (2004). I finally found visual confirmation:


He's missing the half-cracked pince-nez, but all of his plaids clash with one another. I'll take it. I have the diabolic on my mind because I dreamed last night about a black-and-white film of Damn Yankees which still starred Gwen Verdon—the irreplaceable Lola—but was otherwise much more Val Lewton than Broadway. I'm not sure it had any music. It might actually have been an adaptation of Douglass Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (1954). It's the first dream whose particulars I've remembered in months.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
It's dangerous. The sky shifted weight last night from summer; the air tastes like autumn again. Today I wore a jacket, walking around with a computer bag over my shoulder. I live by myself in a two-room apartment in a brick building less than ten minutes' walk from the campus of a major university; I cut through academic yards to get where I'm going. I keep being asked for my student ID. I haven't owned one since 2008. It's more out of date than my driver's license. Fall is always a ghost season, but it's especially acute where I am right now. I did not have cats in New Haven. Autolycus is grooming himself on the chair next to me and it doesn't matter if the quality of electric light on off-white walls is the same; I didn't have this purring ten years ago.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
After seeing Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945) last week, I think I believe even less in the conventional identification of the femme fatale. On the other hand, remember how after Double Indemnity (1944) and Criss Cross (1949) I wanted a third example of the unreliable, irresponsible male narrator? Let's hear from Al Roberts, drifting down the margins of one more nighttime highway like the albatross of Tom Joad: "Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." Got him.

In a genre which contains some very weird films indeed, Detour is quite possibly the weirdest noir I've seen to date. It's almost certainly the pulpiest, a seamy little one-way street of a movie, 68 minutes tops, shot on a broken shoestring of a budget, with a washed-out mise-en-scène of down-and-out American signifiers; it has a curiously opaque, outsider quality, like it was made by someone who knew that a film noir contains dangerous women, loser men, cinematographic style, and angst, but wasn't sure what else, if anything, was supposed to go in the mix. It isn't true—though most of his career was spent in B-movies, Ulmer was a studio insider who started with Murnau and directed the box-office hit The Black Cat (1934) for Universal—but then I have very little explanation for the movie as it stands. The plot has the thinness of an anecdote and the grip of a nightmare and all but the first and last few minutes take place in flashback, narrated like a radio drama in a pervasive tone of hardboiled pessimism; when he runs out of past, the protagonist tells his own future. Tom Neal's Al Roberts is quite literally the author of his own misfortunes. In the universe of his narration, he's fate's pinball, the victim who never gets the breaks, an ordinary joe who through no fault of his own slipped and stumbled into a skid-row nightmare. "Did you ever want to forget anything?" he asks the audience shortly after his introduction, a bleak-eyed vagrant who almost gets himself thrown out of a roadside diner in Reno for starting a fight over another customer's taste in music. "You can't, you know, no matter how hard you try. You can change the scenery, but sooner or later you'll get a whiff of perfume or somebody will say a certain phrase or maybe hum something; then you're licked again!" Always at the mercy of external forces. Always doing his best and always overmatched. What the viewer can't tell about the film at this point is whether it agrees with Al's determinedly hapless description of the world. Spoiler alert: not in a universe that contains Ann Savage's Vera.

As in Criss Cross, there are warning signs from the start. Even in his supposedly sunnier days as a working musician in New York City with a torch-singing girlfriend (Claudia Drake) who performs "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" like she means it, Al as we observe him is downbeat and dissatisfied, a classically trained pianist who practices Chopin after hours at the Break o' Dawn and cynically shuts down his girlfriend's praise with the claim that the only way he'll see Carnegie Hall is from behind a janitor's mop. He calls their relationship "an ordinary healthy romance," but when she scotches his casual assumptions of marriage with the news that she's heading to Hollywood to break into the big time, he takes it with such bad grace that he can't even kiss her a proper goodbye. Nonetheless, some months later when a drunken patron tips him a ten-spot for his fancy playing—a jazzed-up fantasia on Brahms, dubbed like the rest of Al's musicianship by the film's composer Leo Erdody—despite initially and rather hilariously dismissing the bill as "a piece of paper crawling with germs . . . it couldn't buy anything I wanted," he blows it all on a coast-to-coast call and learns that Sue's bid for stardom has left her a disillusioned hash slinger, waiting for the next round of auditions and trying to keep her chin up. Coming to her rescue gives him instant purpose and confidence: he comforts her, tells her to hang on, promises to come straight out to L.A. as fast as he can get there. "Don't try to stop me, just expect me." Unfortunately, his finances are the one place he's not exaggerating his woes, and even after hocking all his worldly goods except a change of clothes he's still left hitching his way across America, efficiently represented by a road map with a pushpin star for NYC and a dustily trudging montage for everything west. There's no glamour in these highways, not even the stark iconography of the Depression. For every empty flatbed or solitary coupe that slows to give sweating, stubbled Al a lift, there's another three or four that blow on by an inhospitable roadside of scrub brush and cacti. But it's not horror until Arizona, where Al gets into an amiable stranger's Lincoln Continental and comes out the other side of the state with another man's clothes on his back and another man's money in his pocket, driving the other man's very nice car. As he muses bitterly in the ubiquitous voiceover, "You know, Emily Post ought to write a book for guys thumbing rides." Call me behind the times, but I don't remember anything about the disposal of bodies in Post's Etiquette.

Of course, Al in extremity is as sourly self-justifying as ever. "I know what you're going to hand me even before you open your mouths," he accuses the audience through the fourth wall, the imaginary jury inside his head. "You're going to tell me that you don't believe my story about how Haskell died and give me that don't-make-me-laugh expression on your smug faces." Personally this member of the jury had no difficulty with the death of Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), the pill-popping bookie who talked up his plans for Santa Anita and sported raw new gouges on his hand from "fighting with the most dangerous animal in the world—a woman," an incident which he related to Al with the simultaneous relish of a big game hunter and the indignation of a thwarted predator: "Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don't you? What kind of dames thumb rides, Sunday school teachers?" My potential skepticism, however, is nothing compared to the reaction of the hitchhiker whom Al picks up the next morning in a gesture of magnanimity, furtively enjoying his new persona as a big spender behind the wheel of a big car. In his one stroke of genuine bad luck as opposed to bad decisions, the tousle-haired, flint-faced girl (Savage) in a knee-flashing skirt and an even more tightly pinned sweater who strides coolly over at Al's call is the same "Tarzan's mate" who ripped up Haskell for trying to take liberties. She introduces herself indifferently: "You can call me Vera if you like." And as if he's conjured her from his protestations of innocence, she's as untrusting and accusatory as his most frantic, persecuted fears: "You're not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That's not you, mister . . . What makes you so sure I'll shut up about this?" The time they will spend together is quite short, but it feels like an endless sickening fall: the bottom dropping out and out until there's nothing left underfoot but oblivion.

Tom Neal had a decent B-movie career, but I don't think I've seen anything else from it: he's more famous for beating Franchot Tone into a concussion over the affections of Barbara Payton and shooting his third wife under circumstances that were eventually ruled involuntary manslaughter. Personal life aside, he has a great face for a sad sack with grimier impulses than his plaintive self-presentation would like to admit, alertly boyish in long shot, petulant and truculent up close. He spends most of the film with a five o'clock shadow and a hunted air, a man who looks over his shoulder even when he's staring resolutely straight ahead. (He should know the Furies are following; he rang them himself.) Ann Savage as Vera is simply phenomenal. I would have seen her last year in My Winnipeg (2007) if I had gotten to the HFA's Guy Maddin retrospective, but since it looks as though Vera is her most famous role, I'm just as happy to have started here. The character is young—the thirtyish Al rates her no more than twenty-four, which matches the actress' age—but she's already harder than nails, her face set in a sullen suspicion, her voice a staccato sneer. While she dozes in his car, Al thinks that she has a "natural beauty, a beauty that's almost homely because it's so real" even when she looks, her hair stiff from lack of washing and her face shiny from days on the road, like she was recently "thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world," but the illusion lasts only until she slews around to face him, spitting out her lines as if the necessity of conversation is itself beneath contempt. She's dying of consumption, but she rejects either sympathy or explanation, crushing with especial scorn Al's typically self-pitying notion that the dying have it easier because "they know they're done for—they don't have to sweat blood wondering." Many of her lines would be flirtatious if delivered with a little more softness, archness, sexual invitation, but she really means the anger and the apathy with which she snarls at Al, "After we sell the car, you can go to blazes for all I care, but not until then!" She has no history before Shreveport, where she says Haskell picked her up; we never even know if Vera is her real name. She's wounded, resentful, rapacious, unapologetic, not even interested in making herself likeable. She makes enough passes at Al to signal a healthy sexual appetite, but it doesn't seem to have much to do with him personally: he's available, that's all, and it miffs her more than a little than she can browbeat him into everything but bed.1 The voiceover indulges a terrific moment of metafiction at the close of their first day together:

If this were fiction, I would fall in love with Vera, marry her and make a respectable woman of her. Or else she'd make some supreme class-A sacrifice for me and die; Sue and I would bawl a little over her grave and make some crack about there's good in all of us. But Vera, unfortunately, was just as rotten in the morning as she'd been the night before.

And she really is, and I love it. The audience can find her sympathetic because she's a person who exists and because she's clawing to make the most of her gutter-level life with the time she has left, even when her tools are unethical and her goals small change, but that doesn't make her even faintly nice. That he behaves increasingly less like a prize himself, though, is something Al Roberts will never understand. Which is where we came in.

I was not surprised to read that the source novel by Martin Goldsmith, who co-wrote the screenplay, was published in 1939. The cars and the clothes and the music belong to the 1940's, but Al himself, in his stone-broke shame-swallowing frustration and especially in his ultimate role as eternal drifter, haunter of truck stops and all-night diners and other transient spaces of America, could pass without challenge for one of FDR's forgotten men. The DIY production values don't hurt the story's mingled sense of claustrophobia and desolation; Ulmer was directing for the echt-Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation and while it is not apparently the case that he shot Detour in less than a week for less than $20K, he had little enough film that some shots are flipped to maintain continuity and New York City is played by a sound stage of swirling fog and street signs. Outside of some highway and gas station shots in the Californian desert, all travel scenes are rear projection. Los Angeles is a hotel room with the blinds drawn. Nowhere the characters go, from roadside motels to used car lots, has any substance or safety. Al Roberts takes Horace Greeley's advice as much to heart as any young man before him, but the dream of the American West as a strike-it-rich land of wide-open opportunity and reinvention is even more viciously debunked in Detour than it is in The Prowler (1951). His westward trajectory is a hell-spiral; on finally arriving in L.A., he acknowledges in a rare moment of consensus reality that "far from being at the end of the trip," with a hot car, a dead man's ID, and a spiteful blackmailer in tow "there was a greater distance between Sue and me than when I started out."2 The print I saw at the Brattle was almost as road-worn as its hitchhikers; the film crackled and spidered and skipped so many frames that we lost half-sentences out of the dialogue and at points the background noise of the soundtrack went wub wub wub like an unhappy fan belt. I am sure that if given half a chance the Film Noir Foundation will produce a 35 mm restoration which this film absolutely deserves, but I feel there is something to be said for seeing a hopeless little fable of self-deluding amorality in an appropriately grindhouse atmosphere. This anti-odyssey brought to you by my well-traveled backers at Patreon.


1. At least within the purview of the Production Code. In their every other interaction, as they settle into the perverse domesticity of a shared hotel suite with a deck of cards and a bottle of booze, Vera shows unmistakably who's on top: "In case there's any doubt in your mind, I'll take the bedroom." She says where and when and what next. Her voice drops to its softest and huskiest to inform him, hands on her hips from smoothing down her sweater, "I'm first in the bathtub."

2. There are some sideways fashions in which Detour resembles an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, liminal ending and killer ironies included—or maybe an even more downbeat version of Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), with no last-minute Peter Lorre on tap to free the protagonist from his self-imposed conviction of guilt. I really don't want to make it sound too in keeping with the rest of its genre, though; it's not.
sovay: (Default)
While downloading a bunch of pictures off my camera tonight, I found some photos taken a little over a week ago by [ profile] derspatchel when we had to visit the health insurance office in the North End. We're across the street from Haymarket. That's part of the Greenway behind me, apparently the part with . . . lavender? I don't actually know what I'm standing in front of. I can tell you that I am desperately overheating because the mercury was in the high nineties that afternoon and felt like a hundred-plus. I drank a lot of switchel from the Boston Public Market on our way back. I still like the picture. That is vanishingly rare these days since I don't like my reflection, so I'm making a note of it.

sovay: (I Claudius)
I didn't mean to drop off the internet quite as dramatically as I did last week: I was spending most of my days out of the house and my sleep went down to an average of two to three hours a night with the result that my spare waking hours were going toward work and the rest toward feeling that my brain had converted itself into slurry. Last night I bought a second light-blocking curtain for the north-facing window and read myself to sleep with National Geographic's "The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History" and Hestia curled against my hip, kneading and purring; I checked out around Darius I, having first skipped forward to Hannibal (and been really entertained that Scipio Africanus featured as a sidebar player with the epithet "Hannibal's Bane," which suddenly made the whole thing sound like P.C. Hodgell or Tolkien), and woke this morning around eleven o'clock instead of six. Autolycus still tried to get me out of bed by climbing onto my chest, washing my face, and biting lightly at my wrists, but unlike every morning of the last two weeks then gave me up for lost, settled onto the pillow next to my head, and fell back asleep for nearly another hour during which I dozed and had dreams I can't remember, except that they were not nightmares. For lunch I made myself the fried sardines with tomato sauce I had been wanting for about forty-eight hours solid. A lot of neat things happened this week which I have not written up, including movies, theater, and cooking lamb curry with [ profile] schreibergasse. Let's see how much I can sleep tonight.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Today has been surprisingly strange and hectic. I made it to the Brattle's second and last showing of Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945), which I hope to write about, because it is a genuinely weird little film and way more like some of the pulp novels I've been reading than many noir movies with similar origins, and [ profile] derspatchel came over afterward and we made omelets for dinner. I wrote a poem in the afternoon. Otherwise the major events of my day involved slogging out and back to the MassHealth office in Chelsea for the second day in a row, this time for reasons it was logistically impossible for me to discover were unnecessary until I got there; finding out that a dear friend of mine has had a stroke, which is especially eerie because I was thinking of him this afternoon; and needing to call the building super shortly after midnight because the igniters in the stovetop spontaneously started striking and wouldn't stop, meaning the refrigerator had to be moved and the stove unplugged before it blew the apartment out its own windows. Also we went to Target.

I wished I'd had a camera with me on the way to Chelsea: crossing the Alford Street Bridge over the Mystic, I saw a red-and-black cargo ship drawn up alongside what looked like an enormous pile of scrap metal. The name lettered on her stern was the White Pearl and her home port looked like Nassau; I thought she was taking on a load of scrap, but then I second-guessed myself because I don't know that area of Everett at all and while I could tell that it was industrial and full of cranes and loading docks in ways that reminded me of the Portland waterfront of my childhood, I had no actual idea what I was looking at. She was indeed the White Pearl from Nassau and she is currently moored in Boston, specifically at the metals recycling yard, port, and regional office of Schnitzer Steel in Everett. I am delighted.

So my brush with commercial shipping and the movie and dinner and the fact that I have finally purchased a light-blocking curtain on a spring-tension rod so that I am no longer woken every day at dawn by an irradiating blast of sunlight from the east-facing window were all good things and I need to remember them. But everything else about today, what the hell.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
The Portsmouth Brewery has started brewing beer out of kelp.

I may have to try drinking beer.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
My short story "When Can a Broken Glass Mend?" has been accepted for reprint by Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year's Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, edited by A.M. Dellamonica and Steve Berman (Lethe Press, Fall 2016). This is the one I refer to as my queer kinky Jewish demon love story; it was originally published in Not One of Us #53 and is almost certainly in dialogue with Isaac Bashevis Singer, because it was from him that I first learned on which side of the mirror demons can be found. It is quite short and I am delighted that it will have a wider audience. As befits something full of fragments, it is studded with bits of autobiography, though it is not otherwise about me. The title comes from a line in Frank London's A Night in the Old Marketplace (2007), which I got from [ profile] rose_lemberg. It has to do with Kabbalah.
sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
This thing where I missed out on most of the Western canon in school turns up in the weirdest places. After knowing the song for at least fifteen years, I just learned this morning that the Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Wash Jones" was inspired by—or at least shares a name with—a character in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936), which I have never read. I always just thought of it as a great American trickster song. I was talking to an oak tree when a cypress butted in. Out of car parts, a raven made a nest inside my skin. To understand me better, you all ought to follow me home. I make a wish, I clean the fish, Lord, that's why they call me Wash Jones. It was the first song I heard by the group, even before their legendary "Hell," and it guaranteed I would look for the rest of their music, which did seem to come from some time-slipped, hot-jazz, hallucinogenic South; I like it even in its earlier version. I suppose I should read more Faulkner one of these days.

I hate apartment-hunting, but it is once again my plan for the rest of the day. Autolycus is sacked out on my desk and Hestia has claimed the cool dark space under the bed; they blink at me sleepily as I move around the room. I tell them they have no idea what I do for their sakes. They are good cats, even if you can't trust Autolycus with a yogurt drink.
sovay: (Sydney Carton)
Until my next move, I will not be able to watch TCM on my computer because I am currently using a wireless hotspot for internet and it chokes on any substantive attempt on the bandwidth. I resent this state of affairs not only for the serious reason that it made me miss out on the groundbreaking lineup of race films at the end of July,1 but for the much shallower one that I won't be able to watch King Vidor's H. M. Pulham, Esq. (1941) tomorrow. I am not generally interested in the movie despite the starring presence of Robert Young; it's mostly that the supporting cast features Van Heflin, as pictured below.

It's one of the two movies he made between his breakout role in Santa Fe Trail (1940) and his Oscar win for Johnny Eager (1942); he's fifth-billed and doesn't rate a mention in TCM's article, so he may not have much to do with the plot. I find I don't care. I'd watch a movie for that philosophical asymmetry. I will not have the chance this month. I'm still glad to have run across the photo: if nothing else, though the coat's too good for the character, I think it has given me a definitive image for Kennedy; I never could find a good shot from Johnny Eager. Alas that Robert Young, with or without a copy of True Love Story, doesn't look anything like MacBride.

1. I am consoling myself that the full selection and more just became available on DVD and if I can't afford the box set, maybe one of my local libraries will spring for it. Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920) and Veiled Aristocrats (1932) are currently heading the list, but I want to watch basically everything in there, the singing cowboy musical included.
sovay: (Default)
I walked into Harvard Square tonight to buy some household sundries and ideally a dessert. I didn't see any meteors in the luminous blue sky, but I wish I knew if the bright reddish object above the trees on my right as I passed the Common was Antares or Arcturus or Mars or what. My astronomy has gone all to hell and even that makes it sound better than it is. I could rule out "airplane," but that was about it.

I left a book at Raven that I will almost certainly go back for: Thomas Doherty's Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immortality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934 (1999). Other books on the shelf by the same author included Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (1993) and Hollywood and Hitler, 1933–1939 (2013). He's a professor at Brandeis. He was teaching there when I was an undergraduate. If only I had known then that in about ten years I would really care about his field! I can't beat myself up too badly: I was just starting to care about movies then and I can't imagine when I would have found the time to take any more classes, considering that I was already auditing things like twentieth-century Russian poetry, having maxed out on actual credits. But it would have been neat.

If all the poems in it are like "The War Photographers" and "Mrs G. Watters," I may need Frank Ormsby's latest collection. It's just a bonus that it's called Goat's Milk (2015).

I really don't need the new fiftieth anniversary edition of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, especially when I already own three different editions and one of them is the previous Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, I just really love the cover art. It's by Christopher Conn Askew; it wraps around and the back shows Woland and his retinue setting off through the unsuspecting streets of Moscow, recognizable even in miniature and from behind. He does a great Korovyev, Behemoth, and Azazello. I was even wearing the right T-shirt.

I have one black cat in my window and another in my lap. My father encourages them to talk to him every time he sees them—"I know you're holding out on me!" I will hold him responsible if, like Behemoth, they take up vodka and target practice.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
It's much better than it was in New York, but I still have a hole in my right heel that hurts even when I'm not wearing shoes and bleeds rather disgustingly through any bandage I put on it. I feel like Philoktetes on Lemnos, only no one is going to come and heal me because I'm so important to the war effort. Odysseus is an asshole in that story anyway. [edit] Autolycus has leapt up onto the desk beside my laptop and is looking at me very seriously, with his lime-green eyes. Now he's licking my hand. Maybe he is playing the part of the son of Asklepios. Healing cat.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
1. Yesterday's mail brought my contributor's copy of The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom, edited by Joanne Merriam. It is a terrifically tropetastic and genre-bending anthology and I am delighted that it reprints my flash story "And Black Unfathomable Lakes," originally published in Not One of Us #50. I keep forgetting to dedicate the piece to Peter Cushing and Yvonne Monlaur, but it was directly inspired by a Tumblr post of [ profile] handful_ofdust's in 2013 reminding me how much I loved Terence Fisher's The Brides of Dracula (1960). I believe it was written entirely to Vivian Girls' "I Heard You Say" and "Death." The title comes from the film's spoken prologue.

2. I like all of these poems: Eric Basso's "The Nets," Xanthe McElroy's "The Ghost of the Ticket Seller," Erik Campbell's "Great Caesar's Ghost," and Julian Randall's "The Search for Frank Ocean or a Brief History of Disappearing." The ekphrastic challenge is pretty evocative this month, too.

3. Courtesy of [ profile] moon_custafer: "The Curious Case of Dorothy L. Sayers & The Jew Who Wasn't There." I thought from the title that it would have something to do with John Cournos; it interests me that, according to this article, their breakup had little to do with his Jewishness and more to do with her Christianity.

4. Courtesy of [personal profile] umadoshi: 5 Lesbian Mermaid Comics You Need to Read. I really dislike the prescriptive style of headline that has become so common these days, but I can vouch for the love story with tattoos and this selkie comic.

5. In case I have not yet mentioned it, Theatre@First's production of The Spanish Tragedy goes up later this month in Nathan Tufts (Powderhouse) Park. Come for the shout-outs to Senecan tragedy, stay for the stage blood. I have told [ profile] derspatchel that I will bring him some really gory-looking flowers for opening night.

I bought a floor lamp for the living room this afternoon. Autolycus is sleeping on my lap. I will have to purchase a curtain rod and some curtains if I don't want to keep waking from the sunlight every morning. I don't object morally to a morning schedule; it just works better if I can get more than two hours of sleep first.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
The absence of internet from my life for the last five days has, among other issues, made it difficult for me to post about the movies I've seen recently. Let's start with Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns (1965).

I've seen this movie three times now; I don't know if I would call it a favorite of mine in the same way that I can point to The Long Voyage Home (1940) or A Canterbury Tale (1944) or Wittgenstein (1993) and see how something in them resonates deeply with me, but I seem to jump at every chance I get to see it and I recommend you at least once do the same. It's a small story, sharply and subtly written; it was adapted by the author from a play I've never seen or read. Jason Robards stars as Murray Burns, a committed iconoclast proudly unemployed after walking out on a three-year stint as head writer for Leo Herman's stultifying kids' show Chuckles the Chipmunk.1 He celebrates invented holidays like Irving R. Feldman's Birthday, which honors "the proprietor of perhaps the most distinguished kosher delicatessen in our neighborhood," and starts each day by addressing the shuttered apartments of his neighbors like an officer at parade, exhorting them to put out "a better class of garbage—more empty champagne bottles and caviar cans!" He has conversations with the public-access weather forecast. His apartment is one of the great clutter collections of the century, proving his oft-repeated point that "you can never have too many eagles." He carries a pair of binoculars for people-watching and takes seriously the project of teaching his twelve-year-old nephew "the subtle, sneaky, important reason he was born a human being and not a chair." He's a charmer, a wiseass, a weirdo, and he has some very good points to make about the soul-killing conformity of consumer society; he is also, the longer the film goes on and the more the audience observes the effect he has on the people around him, a painfully prescient rebuke to the valorization of the American man-child, the hero who's so unconventional and so brilliant that he gets a pass from the universe for all his immature hijinks while the rest of the ordinary people are left to flounder along behind him, picking up after the workaday world. To wit, while Murray's joyous nonconformism may well be saving his beloved Nick (Barry Gordon in a great portrayal of a serious, intelligent child who really is a child, never mind that for most of the runtime he looks like the resigned, responsible one in this partnership; he has one of those elastic crescent faces that fold into their smiles and he does a not bad impression of Peter Lorre, although his Alexander Hamilton impression is even better) from growing up into "a list-maker . . . one of the nice dead people," it's also placed the kid in danger of being removed from his uncle's custody by the New York Bureau of Child Welfare because of his unstable home circumstances. Six months of willful unemployment plus three months of dodging the Welfare Board's letters and phone calls is no recommendation for fit guardianship. Or as Nick puts it in his slightly Runyonesque syntax, "An unemployed person like you are for so many months is bad for you as the person involved and it's definitely bad for me who he lives with in the same house where the rent isn't paid up for months sometimes. And I wish you'd get a job, Murray. Please." We get that line within the first ten minutes of the movie. The other hundred and six minutes determine what dealing or not dealing with it is worth to Murray Burns.

That angle alone is reason enough for me to care about A Thousand Clowns, but there is a very real possibility that I actually love the film for the character of Albert Amundson, the social worker played by William Daniels in a reprise of his 1962 Broadway role.2 I imprinted on Daniels, of course, with 1776's John Adams, and certainly Albert trends toward the "obnoxious and disliked" end of the actor's range. He introduces himself and Barbara Harris' Sandra Markowitz as "a carefully planned balance of social case worker such as myself and psychological social worker such as Miss Markowitz" and if her earnest Freudian concern looks like one negative stereotype of social work, then his punctilious paper-pushing looks like the other—bureaucracy incarnate with the briefcase to prove it, all file folders and the latest model of jargon, a professional cold fish. He has one-piece dark hair, a pale owlish face rendered almost a cartoon by heavy horn-rimmed glasses that leave his eyebrows nowhere to go but up. His clothes are business anonymous, his speech self-consciously depersonalized except when his hasty conferences with Sandra—conducted in mutters in Murray's kitchen alcove, as if there's any privacy in a one-room apartment—slide revealingly into the cracks of their personal as well as professional relationship. "He's really a very nice person when he's not on cases," she'll defend him after the fact, adding with damning sincerity, "Last month I fell asleep on him twice while he was talking." For social courtesies, he has a polite little tic of a smile that the audience quickly identifies as a tell for embarrassment rather than pleasure and is otherwise prone to a curiously compressed expression, not quite as though he has a lemon in his mouth, but as though there might be a lemon in his future any second now.3 Pushed to the limit of his patience, he delivers the psychological assessment "maladjusted" like a professional judgment from God. It does not have its intended effect. Murray flusters him and puts him off his script, distracts, double-talks, and generally demolishes him. He is an authority figure, so he is meant to be defied; he is humorless, so he'll be a fine figure of fun; he is an expert, so he is meant to be confounded. He exits the scene in a discombobulated state of all of the above, leaving behind a laughing, crying, liberated Sandra admitting to Murray that "there is a kind of relief that it's gone—the job, and even Albert . . . and I don't have the vaguest idea who I am." So far, so free-spirited. When her erstwhile partner returns the next morning, both the audience and Murray are prepared for more of the same. At first it is more of the same, as a cautious but hapless Albert finds himself once more playing straight man to Murray's unerring absurdism, saying in all sobriety sentences like "That's a very silly thing for her to be in, that closet" and, a pull quote if I ever heard one, the title of this post. But he also has something very real to say, whether Murray wants to hear it or not, and presently, still talking like a textbook and just as square as Flatland, he fires the first and best shot over the bows of Murray's countercultural complacency.

Who writes your material for you, Charles Dickens? )

It's a rewarding movie to pay attention to. Arthur J. Ornitz's cinematography is gorgeous, a gelatin silver panorama of New York City in the days when my father lived off St. Mark's Place and my mother visited Brooklyn from Bard College; Ralph Rosenblum's editing plays the kinds of tricks with time that you see in good prose, compressing the crowds of rush hour into a sprightly brass chorus of "The Battle Cry of Freedom" or drawing out a moment of confetti and exuberant farewell to an ocean liner into a real consideration of a relationship, examined from all directions like the recurring theme of "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," which can be Murray and Nick's vaudevillian party piece or a quietly strummed meditation, floating through one perfect afternoon: Oh, by the way, oh, by the way, when we meet somebody we'll say . . . The opening credits establish marching band music as the leitmotiv of that "horrible thing . . . people going to work" so that the film can later show Murray making the job-hunting rounds to a loose-jointed ragtime arrangement of "The Stars and Stripes Forever," signaling at once his attitude toward the whole business. Enough references to pastrami go by in the script that I always leave the theater wanting a sandwich and never being anywhere near a deli in time. It's a very New York movie. It's a very New York Jewish movie. Jason Robards was neither, but he makes Murray Burns work, sympathetically and sardonically, where I can easily see the character's determined anarchy simplifying in the hands of a less complicated actor to standard-issue whimsy or just being an asshole.

Of the uniformly excellent cast of A Thousand Clowns, the only one who walked away with an Oscar was Martin Balsam, primarily on the strength of his eleven o'clock scene in which he describes his philosophy of being "the best possible Arnold Burns." It's true that it's a memorable piece of acting, for once giving the last word to a man who has always lived conventionally in his outlandish brother's shadow. I'm not sure that it sticks with me more than Daniels' two scenes, or even just the way Albert Amundson pushes his glasses up his nose with the emotional effect of a rueful shake of the head. Autolycus has spent the last five minutes purringly and insistently trying to climb between my hands and the keyboard, so I should wrap things up before he succeeds. In the course of writing this post, it has become obvious to me that if anyone had wanted to make a movie of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door when it was published in 1973, William Daniels would have made an ideal Mr. Jenkins. This casting brought to you by my complex backers at Patreon.

1. As he soberly explains to a pair of social workers, "Six months ago, a perfectly adult bartender asked me if I wanted an onion in my martini and I said, 'Gosh and gollies, you betcha!' Well, I knew it was time to quit."

2. The entire cast transferred from Broadway with the exception of Larry Haines, who originated the part of Arnold Burns, and Tony-winning female lead Sandy Dennis, who was replaced by Barbara Harris for reasons unknown to me but demonstrably the right ones, since I can't imagine anyone other than Harris in the part. "Miss Markowitz, or, actually, Dr. Markowitz" looks at first like as much of a stock type as her partner, the professional woman who needs to be loosened up by the hero—freed from her clipboard, her checklists, and her engagement to Albert, she turns out to be goofy, warmhearted, and unreservedly disorganized, taking readily to Murray's habits of visiting the city's landmarks like a tourist and waving off cruise ships he doesn't know. Her inability to keep a dispassionate distance from her cases is fervently encouraged by her new partner, who cites it as evidence of her undamaged humanity: "You are a lover of things and of people, so you took up work where you could get at as many of them as possible—and it just turned out there were too many of them and too much that moves you." In keeping with the play's insistence on three dimensions for all of its characters, however, her degree in psychology is more than just a handicap for her awakening sense of eccentricity to overcome. Her second-act parting words to Murray are gently spoken and as piercing as a much longer speech: "I can see why Nick likes it here. I would like it too if I was twelve years old."

3. To be fair to Albert, it's a lemon a minute being on the receiving end of Murray's wit.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
I have returned to the land of the online. It took longer to set up internet access in my current location than initially predicted. I am here only for the rest of the month, but the cats are with me and the building reminds me positively of New Haven and New York City, so I am trying to enjoy it without getting too attached.

I am pleased to be able to report that my poems "About Building" and "At the Meyerhold Theatre" have been accepted by Through the Gate. The first was loosely inspired by William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and my grandparents' wartime histories; the second comes straight from my favorite photograph of Shostakovich. This is the sort of news that makes checking e-mail worthwhile.

Today is my brother's birthday observed. I have bought him some chocolate mice and elephants from Burdick's to decorate his cake with. They will live in strawberry shortcake harmony until the candles are blown out.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
For the hell of it, since I had to pack them all anyway, I decided to catalogue the books I had acquired while living with [ profile] rushthatspeaks and [ profile] gaudior, i.e., between the first of October and today. Alphabetized because I had to pack them out of order of acquisition, editions not specified in most cases because it's too much work right now. Contributor's copies linked because even writers who are moving house should support their editors and fellow writers. Obviously this says nothing about library books or books otherwise borrowed, but I never keep track of this sort of thing and I was curious. Some of these I have written about, most I haven't. Shout out if you want to know anything. A hundred and twelve books is only slightly more than a hundred and ten.

Got to ease my aching head. )

I am deeply depressed by the quantity of clothes I seem to own, though. It's a lot less convenient than I thought.
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