sovay: (I Claudius)
And today, massive insomnia and being woken rather jarringly by the property manager knocking on the door to ask if now was a good time for her to fix the fan in the bathroom (it was not). My brain has felt like a cloudy chalkboard ever since. I really hope this fifth-century electrum stater from Kyzikos does portray Odysseus sacrificing a ram as part of the ritual of drawing up the dead in Book 11 of the Odyssey. I will never be able to own it, but its existence in the world will delight me.

Stater
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
My husband just sent me a beautiful thing: the restored recording of the world's first computer-generated music. Unsurprisingly, Alan Turing was involved. Starting in 1948, he used the tones generated by the Manchester Mark I and later Mark II to keep track of the computer's internal processes—"one note for 'job finished', others for 'digits overflowing in memory', 'error when transferring data from the magnetic drum', and so on"—meaning you can probably blame him in some distant ancestral sense for the Quacks, Sosumis, and Wild Eeps of the classic Apple Macintosh and that synthesized major chord I believe most of them still make when they boot up. In 1951, Christopher Strachey programmed the Mark II to play "God Save the King." The BBC recorded it and two other short musical programs later that year. From the severe frequency shifts of that recording, Jack Copeland and Jason Long calculated the correct speed at which the acetate disc needed to be played in order to reproduce the pitches actually generated by the Mark II, then digitally cleaned up some of the noise and stuck the whole two-minute recording online. It sounds a bit like a seasick cello. If you have perfect or even decent relative pitch, you will wince. The Mark II had a terrible ear. All three recorded melodies will sound—accurately—more or less out of tune to a human who can carry one with or without a bucket. I don't care. It makes me happy. I will buy a copy of the publication which contains Copeland and Long's full article when it's out. In the meantime, I have played a piercingly flat (and sometimes sharp) version of "God Save the King," "Baa Baa Black Sheep," and "In the Mood" five times in a row. Science is such a wonderful thing.
sovay: (Sydney Carton)
Autolycus purrs on my lap as I type, compactly curled into a black fur croissant. Hestia has claimed the basket chair for her own, partly snuggled under the green weighted blanket that usually lies on the bed. It has been not quite raining since this afternoon when I walked out to City Hall and the post office in Union Square, returning by way of Hub Comics. I made baked beans with hamburger for dinner and read some more Alistair MacLean at the kitchen table. Otherwise I have mostly been working and it is not very interesting. I hope to watch a movie tonight.

I was just sent an appeal from Kirk Douglas, who hopes to celebrate his hundredth birthday in December while still being proud to be an American. That is a lot of history to live through, and I don't think alarmist to remember.

On the importance of names, the acknowledgement of humanity in the individual as well as the incomprehensively collective, and the burial of the dead as more than symbols: Maaze Mengiste, "The Act of Naming."

I am tired and the most fun I've had today involved walking up and down hills in incipient rain, but I don't feel awful. We have ordered our Rosh Hashanah challah from Mamaleh's.
sovay: (Default)
1. I took my mother to Mamaleh's this afternoon. I had wanted to ever since it was such a hit last week with my father (and me: their Reuben is competitive with the Deluxe Town Diner, my previous local benchmark. Maybe with a slight edge. Their corned beef is amazing even before they pile Russian dressing and cole slaw—I prefer it to sauerkraut—on it. All their deli meats are in-house). She loved it. We ordered sable, a fish she had not had since she visited relatives or her godmother in New York City; unless I'd encountered it under a different name as sushi, I'd never had it. She was very encouraging that I should. It came smoked, delicately edged with what looked like paprika, with a ringed arrangement of cucumber and tomato slices, red onion, capers, and cream cheese. It was expensive, the same price as the smoked sturgeon. It was worth it. A rich, silky, melting fish, exactly as good as my mother had remembered for decades. I ate a cold tongue sandwich—I really like this thing where I can now get tongue on marble rye at Mamaleh's and in corn tortillas at La Victoria in Arlington—and still saved the last bite of sable for the end of the meal. My mother loved her 50/50, which was approximately the size of a city bus. She drank some of my chocolate egg cream and then ordered one of her own. (Is a pretzel rod in an egg cream a regional thing? I have never encountered it before, either in Boston or New York. Do I just order my egg creams in the wrong boroughs for it? Philadelphia?) Then we found out that their bagels are good. Like, insanely, four-in-the-morning-in-Manhattan good. We took home a dozen. I spent the rest of the evening in Lexington, helping clean the house in preparation for incoming relatives with an hour off for a stunned nap, from which I woke up starving and ate a bagel covered with whitefish salad. The block of halva we also took home did not survive the night. I am so happy about this restaurant. I'd been hoping about it since the owners were interviewed in the Globe in the spring, but first it wasn't open and then it wasn't open for dinner. Given its name, I am especially glad that it serves food that makes my mother happy. She wants to order the chicken livers next time; she thinks I may have eaten them as a small child in Portland, when my grandmother would have made them. I'm up for it.

2. The stove in the new apartment isn't dead, but it's mostly dead: two burners on a good day and no oven period. The property manager came to look at it early this afternoon while I was at my PT appointment, before [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel left for work. She suggested we try lighting the other burners by hand to see if we could burn off some of the rust and crud and if that didn't work, she'd bring the appliance guy to check it out. She must have rethought her position, because later in the afternoon she called me back to say that she had brought the appliance guy and he had all but taken his hat off while somewhere a stove-sized bugle played taps. So next week we're getting a new stove. I know not to feel jubilant until it's actually installed and isn't an electric range or anything else godforsaken, but this is already such a change from the landlord with whom we had the five-month fight just to acknowledge that the oven was defunct and the broiler had had small animals living inside it, I'm quite impressed.

3. I like having the two versions for comparison, but I really love the first, which is the more faithful: Angela Leighton translates Leonardo Sciascia's "Hic et Nunc."

Tomorrow I need to mail a whole bunch of bills, make several phone calls, and work an inordinate amount of catch-up for all the hours I missed yesterday and today. I feel very cautious about being in a good mood given this last year's baseline of violent self-damaging depression into which I am sure I will crash back at any minute, but the change is really nice.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
I spent most of my day out of the house on a dentist's appointment and surrounding errands, but I managed to purchase a dish drain and a heavy-duty extension cord so that I can now dry dishes without wasting paper towels or worrying about cat prints and actually use the indefatigable toaster oven of Leonard Street. Both of these factors significantly improve my relationship with the new kitchen. [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel inaugurated the toaster oven by making grilled cheese with English muffins and ham. I'm thinking it is nearly corn pudding time again.

The mail brought three bills and my contributor's copy of Not One of Us #56. I am very pleased that my poem "Ghost Ships of the Middlesex Canal" appears almost as a postscript to Mat Joiner's canal-haunting "The Drowned Carnival," alongside ghostly, bloody, mythic and futuristic work by Tim L. Williams, Jennifer Crow, Erik Amundsen, Beth Cato, David Ebenbach, Alexandra Seidel, and Patricia Russo, among others. It's the thirtieth anniversary issue. The back cover features a memorial portrait of Sheeba, the editor's beloved black-and-white cat whom I was lucky enough to meet in 2004, and the opening Reisepass ends with an appeal acutely relevant in this political season: Resist othering.

Speaking of: some of the new neighbors watch Donald Trump on TV. This was before the debate started. Rob took his laptop into the kitchen so as not to hear it through the windows (which the neighbors leave open while blasting the volume; I can't identify any of the shows they follow, but they are so shouty that I don't want to watch any of them). I hope they're doing it for purposes of disapproval. The idea of any real equivalency between him and Hillary Clinton would be funny in literature, is frightening in real life. Reading the media expectations for tonight's debate was an illustration in two different kinds of grading on a curve. Clinton had to present a coherent intellectual and political argument while presenting within a narrow definition of sympathetic femininity, simultaneously consistent and complete. Trump had to refrain from obvious racist slurs and not pick his nose on camera. (And even if he did that, I am sure he has supporters who would praise his alpha-male disregard for the prissy restraints of so-called civility, like not shooting people who disagree with you.) My mother does report that she thought Clinton did well. My father wanted her to be more ferocious with Trump. I need to change my voter registration this week, having moved within Somerville since the last time I sent in my form. I have no idea if my vote will make a difference, but this is not a year to sit the election out.
sovay: (I Claudius)
In keeping with the recent theme of ancient Near Eastern civilizations, Orientalism, and Jewish representation, this afternoon I saw Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956) for the first time in my life. The Somerville was screening a 35 mm IB Technicolor print, so I figured it was now or never.

At the intermission I staggered out and said to [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel, "I feel like I've been clubbed with a Sunday-school primer."

After it was over, my mother (who had not come with me) asked what I thought and I said, "Well, I don't think it's going to change how I lead next year's Seder."

I am not sorry to have seen the movie. It's full of great actors, it's gorgeously filmed, it's a cultural touchstone and a truly monumental spectacle and I got to see it larger than life, which I think is the only way to treat DeMille's pyramids and Heston's beard. Everything about Yul Brynner's Rameses is terrific, from the amounts of clothing he is not wearing (but a lot of jewelry in which he looks very good) to the fact that he is actually giving a performance as well as pageantry: a beautiful, commanding man wasting his energies on envy and insecurity and cruelty he doesn't need to resort to; he breaks himself on the God of Moses as surely as Pentheus on Dionysos' smile. The matte-painted parting of the Red Sea stands up to its reputation, but I was really impressed by the simple practical effect of the commandments writing themselves in fire on the red granite of Sinai, sparking and roaring like a cutting torch of Paleo-Hebrew.1 A lot of the smaller theatrical touches worked very well for me: the recognition token of the white-and-black-striped red Levite cloth that serves first as Moses' tell-tale swaddling, then as the ironic livery of his exile, and finally as the fulfilled reclamation of his heritage; the game of hounds and jackals between Cedric Hardwicke's Pharaoh Sethi and Anne Baxter's "throne princess" (because apparently you can't get away with depicting dynastic incest even in a movie with as impressive a third-act orgy as the Golden Calf) Nefretiri that ends when the ebony head of one of Sethi's jackals snaps off and skitters across the floor to be picked up by Rameses as he enters, unconsciously providing the final word in a discussion of birthright and inheritance; a scale balanced with silver weights and mud bricks with which Rameses maliciously underscores his charges of treachery against his cousin and Moses defends himself to his Pharaoh. When the Nile turns to blood, Rameses defiantly pours out water in a blessing upon it and the clear stream thickens and reddens mid-flow. DeMille's staging of the Exodus includes Moses' adoptive mother binding her fate to her son's and the mummy of Joseph borne on a palm-decorated bier, going home to be buried in long-lost Canaan. A lot of the bigger theatrical gestures did not work for me, especially once Heston shifts into really declamatory mode. The luminous green mist fissuring the sky and pouring in a smoke of pestilence through the streets, ankle-high, grave-deep, is a terrifying interpretation of the tenth plague, but I could not take seriously the passage of the Angel of Death over the house of Aaron and Miriam once it turned on the spot into the first Seder, complete with youngest child piping up innocently, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" Hearing a crowd of extras repeatedly shout "The Lord is our God! The Lord is one!" in English is really disorienting if you have ever said the Sh'ma on a regular basis. I appreciated the rabbi credited up front as one of the film's consultants along with archaeologists and scholars from the Oriental Institute and the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, but the overall effect of the movie is still a Jewish story being told for a Christian audience, through a Christian lens. To be fair to DeMille, I didn't go in expecting anything else. It was nearly four hours long and brilliantly colored and very loud. Edward G. Robinson looked like he was having a lot of fun. Any more intellectual analysis is going to have to wait until I feel less like a very intricately painted obelisk fell on me.

The Somerville was also screening Ben-Hur (1959) as the second half of what David the projectionist called the Charlton Heston Jewish Film Festival, but especially after seeing Spartacus (1960) last night,2 I was pretty much epic'd out. I sort of reeled home and fed the cats and wrote a job application, which was exhausting. I don't know if I would feel differently toward The Ten Commandments if I had grown up on it as an Easter tradition, the same way we always watched A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987) and the Alastair Sim Scrooge/A Christmas Carol (1951) for Christmas and Lights (1984) for Hanukkah; I never had a default version of the Exodus story other than the one my family told every year, which changed a little every year. I didn't even see The Prince of Egypt (1998) until well into college. At the moment I can't imagine how The Ten Commandments would even work on a small screen, when I think much of the effect it had on me was the cast-of-thousands enormity of the production and the friezelike, painterly compositions, as if the whole thing were a moving progression by Alma-Tadema or some other pre-Raphaelite artist specializing in the ancient world.3 I was delighted to come home and discover Arnold Friberg's concept art and costume design for the film, which look, and I mean this in the best possible way, as though they should be decorating the walls of a library à la John Singer Sargent. And now I kind of want to read something with Jewish characters written by actual Jews, which shouldn't be at all hard to find. Who knew that eating at Mamaleh's yesterday would suddenly feel like a cultural victory? This awareness brought to you by my epic backers at Patreon.



1. The only T-shirt I own with Paleo-Hebrew on it is the one [livejournal.com profile] ladymondegreen sent me from the Archaeological Seminars Institute in Israel. I wore it for the occasion.

2. I still think Kirk Douglas would have knocked it out of the park as Judah Ben-Hur. So did he—being turned down for the part by either William Wyler or MGM seems to have been one of his major impetus for making Spartacus. I can't say that was a bad idea, especially considering what Spartacus did for Dalton Trumbo and the breaking of the blacklist, but Douglas would have brought the requisite intensity to the role, plus he was fit as hell and actually Jewish. It would have been fun.

3. I can't imagine how long it must run with commercial breaks, either. My reaction to the latter parts of the film was rather like a road trip version of "Dayenu": all right, the Lord has hurled horse and rider into the sea, are we done yet? All right, Moses has brought down the laws from Sinai, are we done yet? All right, Moses has destroyed the Golden Calf and divided the faithful from the idolators, are we done yet? All right, the people have wandered in the wilderness for forty years, are we done yet? All right, Moses is on Mount Nebo, are we done yet? Cecil B. DeMille, it would have been enough!
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
The saga of the cat in the morning glories continues!

Following my last post, I did not see the cat in the morning glories or anywhere else. I observed that the food I put down always disappeared overnight and someone was neatly drinking the water, but I worried. I knew he had survived for weeks without me, but having gone to the trouble of setting up a plan with Charles River Alleycats and the property manager, I did not want irony to step in at the last minute. This afternoon I woke up late, dressed quickly, took a can of catfood and my copy of HMS Ulysses (1955) and went downstairs: I figured I'd put out the food and wait a while on the steps, just to see. I'd met him in the afternoon before. Theoretically we had an appointment with Huron Veterinary Hospital, but that depended on my ability to furnish a cat. The food was gone again and there was no cat in sight.

This is where magical thinking comes into the narrative: I hadn't seen him in the back garden before, but I wanted to be thorough. I rounded the driveway with Alistair MacLean and a can of Science Diet in my hand and the cat was curled up in a white plastic lawn chair with a pile of canvas in it, looking as tigery and green-eyed as ever. He uncurled when he saw me. He blinked. He thrummed. He butted his head up into my palm and slipped down off the chair and tried to twine my shins. "Hey, mow mow," I said. "Hey, beauty. Oh, sweet sweet," which is an endearment I use with my own cats. I did not have enough free hands. I led him back around to the front of the house (with a pit stop for EMERGENCY BELLY PETTING in the driveway: he played the game of bite-and-lick, tussling with my arm and then grooming it) and into the foyer and fed him there with all doors closed before running upstairs for the large blue carrier I had borrowed from Dean last night with a somewhat frazzled towel of mine inside. Despite recognizing immediately what the carrier was for, he went into it much more easily than either of my cats: I scruffed him gently, backed him toward the carrier, and tipped him in. He began to complain at once, but not as loudly as Autolycus (the gong of the Siamese with a grievance) or Hestia (our little dragon, who produces the death hiss of fiery doom). I told him that I sympathized; this was the part that sucked. The property manager picked us up and we went to Huron Vet.

To summarize the evolving situation, the cat has an ID chip. He is a neutered male about four years old, his name sounded like "Taz," and he is registered to an address apparently near Assembly Square and an owner whose name is not the same as the former tenant's. He looks to the staff of Huron Vet like a Maine Coon or at least a healthy percentage of one. He was wearing a flea and tick collar, but it was old enough for the material to have started to shrink and crack and he had, in fact, fleas. (I have been assured by both Huron and Porter Square Vets that it is really not possible for me to have caught cat fleas in the amount of time I handled him, especially since I stripped and bagged my clothes as soon as I got home due to the property manager being a heavy smoker and me being allergic to cigarette smoke.) So now we're not sure if he got lost from his original owner and the former tenant took him in or what, but a message has been left at the phone number associated with the chip and Huron Vet will board him for the next three days, leaving further messages if there is no response. At the end of three days, if the cat has not been claimed, he will go to the MSPCA for adoption. Or he'll go home with one of the staff of Huron Vet, because they were all but fighting over him by the time we left. Even with fleas and heinous mats in his fur, he is a charmer: chill, purry, gorgeous, intensely interested in people. I am hoping this is the kind of situation where his original person will be overjoyed to find out that he's alive and well and Odyssean (if he really came from Assembly Square, I count the crossing of 93 as equivalent to ten years at sea, give or take a Cyclops) and will come and retrieve him posthaste. But if it isn't, he will still end up with people who treasure him. And in the meantime he is being taken care of and made much of and de-flea'd and with any luck someone will clip the mats out of his fur, because they interfere with a sleek belly-petting experience. I expect so. Everyone I have dealt with at both Charles River Alleycats and Huron Veterinary Hospital has been amazing. I regret only that I did not take my camera so that I could have some further pictures of him charming everyone's socks off.

Personally I must say he doesn't look like a Taz to me. But then I would probably have called him the Return of Martin Guerre or something equally difficult to fit on an adoption form.
sovay: (Rotwang)
A couple of nights ago I re-read E. Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet (1906) for the first time in decades. Of the three Psammead books, it's the one we didn't own, so I can't actually remember reading it more than once—which was all right, because for years what I mostly remembered about it was the sudden outcropping of anti-Semitic stereotypes in the chapter with the Queen of Babylon in London. I must have been quite small, but having a bunch of sharp-dealing stockbrokers with "beautiful long, curved noses" and names like Levinstein and Rosenbaum and Hirsh and Cohen express horror at the waste of good food which is the Queen wishing that London's hungry poor "may have in their hands this moment their full of their favourite meat and drink" before being bloodily cut down by her Babylonian guards still managed to leave an impression. I did not feel better even when the massacre was undone with a quick wish into dream: "I think I have explained before that business men do not like it to be known that they have been dreaming in business hours. Especially mad dreams including such dreadful things as hungry people getting dinners, and the destruction of the Stock Exchange." As an adult reader, I get that the intended target of Nesbit's satire was capitalism; I just wish she'd had the kind of first readers or editors who could have told her it works better if you don't drag Yiddishkeit into it. She didn't and I didn't re-read it for years. But then I was thinking about C. S. Lewis and the ancient Near East and the inevitable convergence of these two subjects is The Story of the Amulet, so I decided to give it another try.

I don't think it holds up for me. I feel bad about it. By all rights it's the Nesbit I should have loved best, with the time travel and the magical ancient world; a plot summary sounds like solid gold. With their father on assignment in Manchuria and their mother recuperating from illness in Madeira with their baby brother the Lamb, the four older children of Five Children and It (1902) and The Phœnix and the Carpet (1904) are staying with their old nurse at her house in Fitzrovia when they unexpectedly have to rescue their old acquaintance the Psammead from a sketchy pet shop; since he can no longer grant them wishes, in thanks he points them toward a charm in a similarly sketchy curio shop which he promises "can give you your heart's desire." It turns out to be half of an ancient Egyptian amulet with "the power to take you anywhere you like to look for the other half," with which it must be reunited before it can work its wonders. Guided by the divine voice which speaks through the Amulet and the cranky advice of the Psammead, Robert, Anthea, Cyril, and Jane careen through time in search of the missing portion of the charm, in the process learning a lot about the civilizations around the ancient Mediterranean and facilitating the perfect union of two imperfect souls. There are some stunningly numinous scenes and an intriguing undercurrent of mysticism that comes out at the climax. But even without the random jags of casual British anti-Semitism,1 too much of the book reads to me as a sort of Edwardian whimsy of the ancient world, and I don't think it was meant to.

The scholarship is not the problem. As far as I can tell, Nesbit wrote the book because she fell in love with the ancient Near East and possibly a little with E. A. Wallis Budge of the British Museum, who provided her with accurate hieroglyphics and translations and historically attested names; I think she really did her research. Some of it has since been superseded by new evidence or less Orientalist/racist interpretations,2 but in terms of material culture her ancient settings are terrifically described. There is a well-woven element of social critique to the narrative, as the flaws or virtues of past civilizations show up comparable or contrasting failings in contemporary English culture—some of them extremely scathing, as when the Queen of Babylon observes that giving the vote to the lower classes is a brilliant way of maintaining the status quo while promoting the illusion of choice. The trip forward in time to a Wellsian utopia reads as didactically as Wells' own The Shape of Things to Come (1933), but in terms of the quest it's a reasonable consequence of the children wondering if they can just find out from their future selves how they did it; their succeeding visit to the nearer future actually does set up a time loop, since a piece of information they learn there furthers the climactic recovery of the unbroken Amulet. And I am interested in all the ancient places Nesbit has the children visit—Babylon, Tyre, Iron Age Britain, Predynastic Egypt; Atlantis, why not, it's the past counterpart to the future utopia. But they're not strange enough to be themselves. Part of it is the tone, I think. Some of the episodes are obviously tongue-in-cheek, as when the children's attempts to put Julius Caesar off the invasion of Britain instead intrigue him so much that he decides to conquer the island after all ("if only to find out what Britain is really like") or their twopenny bribery of an Egyptian guard leads to the invention of coinage in Late Dynastic Egypt. "You will not believe this, I daresay," Nesbit allows, "but really, if you believe the rest of this story, I don't see why you shouldn't believe this as well." But even some of the dramatic chapters scramble their ratio of Elfland to Poughkeepsie in ways I find difficult to read. The writing of the scene in which the captain and crew of a Phoenician merchantman decide to wreck their ship rather than betray the secret location of the Tin Islands suggests that the reader should view them romantically: "the brave gentlemen-adventurers who went to their death singing, for the sake of the city they loved." What they are singing as they row for the rocks is "Tyre, Tyre for ever! It's Tyre that rules the waves!" at which point my disbelief collapses because I can't stop my brain from trying to make that scan to "Rule, Britannia!" It should go without saying that almost nobody in Nesbit's ancient world sounds like they actually hail from it. That's not necessarily a bug, if what you're talking about is register or idiom or style. Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History (2000) famously has fifteenth-century Burgundian mercenaries and Carthaginian legionaries using modern profanity; the classical Athenian narrator of Tom Holt's Goatsong (1989) sounds like the guy who just sat down beside you in the pub. They can get away with it because their characters' habits of mind are not modern: however much they sound like the present, they think like the past. Almost none of Nesbit's historical characters do. They're very English, or they're not-English in the expected ways. She gets the best contrast with the Queen of Babylon, who sounds like a flirty, gossipy society lady but behaves with imperious carelessness toward any of the social norms or moral codes of her twentieth-century visitors and the England they come from; elsewhere the effect is cozy. It cuts down on the reality of the past. It's fancy dress rather than the alien up close.

I find this especially frustrating because Nesbit can do strange. It's the reason I love The Enchanted Castle (1907) so much. The numinous in The Story of the Amulet is magnificent when she lets it out to play. For this was not like the things that had happened in the country when the Psammead had given them their wishes. That had been funny somehow, and this was not. It was something like Arabian Nights magic, and something like being in church. No one cared to speak. ) It's beautiful, powerful stuff, but first there's the rest of the book.

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw. I understand that most authors cannot sustain an entire novel at a pitch of theophany; I don't even expect it from most books. I am capable of enjoying many forms of art which have been visited by the sexism, racism, or sometimes just plain whatthehell fairy. Some people whose tastes I trust rate The Story of the Amulet pretty highly and I believe its general reputation is the same. I may just not be its target audience after all: I appreciate more of this book in the abstract than in the actuality. I finished it and I re-read the three Roman stories from Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and the two American ones from Rewards and Fairies (1910). C. S. Lewis may have ripped off the Queen in London for The Magician's Nephew (1955), but I like the version with Jadis better. I like Jimmy and Rekh-Marā and the power behind the Amulet and Nisroch. Maybe I'd like the rest of the book better if so much of the narration were not Nesbit talking to the reader, because she keeps saying things like "in all their adventures the muddle-headed inventions which we call foreign languages never bothered [the children] in the least." At least she didn't take them to Carthage.

1. In a book about the splendor and interest of the ancient Near East, too. You want to know who else did that? Nazi Assyriologists! Never do things like a Nazi Assyriologist! Okay, if you want to memorize train schedules like Wolfram von Soden when he ran out of Akkadian vocabulary and morphology, that's cool. Also the thing where his contributions to our understanding of the language are incalculable and still influential today, nice work if you can get it. But he also wrote a fairly infamous paper in 1937 claiming that the epic of Tukulti-Ninurta proved an Indo-Aryan strain in the Assyrians because a Semitic culture could never have come up with something so creative and powerful on its own, so I think my advice generally stands. To be scrupulously, historically fair to von Soden, he was never a card-carrying Nazi: he just belonged to the SA. I just think that at the point where you pull a How to Suppress Women's Writing on the collective Semitic capacity for art, you kind of get your Parteibuch anyway.

2. Seriously, what is with the original inhabitants of Predynastic Egypt being fair-haired and fair-skinned and helplessly overrun by "cruel, dark big-nosed" conquerors who remind the children of "Mr. Jacob Absalom, who had sold them the charm in the shop near Charing Cross"? Did we miss the memo about Nazi Assyriologists?

3. The name on the Amulet is Ur Hekau Setcheh; it is not entirely clear that it is the name of the presence that works wonders through the Amulet, which "can make the corn grow, and the waters flow, and the trees bear fruit, and the little new beautiful babies come . . . can keep off all the things that make people unhappy—jealousy, bad temper, pride, disagreeableness, greediness, selfishness, laziness . . . can give you strength and courage . . . can give you your heart's desire" and speaks in "the sweetest and most terrible voice in the world," likened by Nesbit to "nightingales, and the sea, and the fiddle, and the voice of your mother when you have been a long time away, and she meets you at the door when you get home." If you asked me which of the major Egyptian gods that sounds like, I'd say Hathor first and Isis a close second and the distinction may have been immaterial to Nesbit considering how closely the two were associated/syncretized in later Egyptian religion (and the prominence of Isis in the esotericism of Nesbit's time). If so, I don't think I'm going out on a limb to notice that the children's quest is to restore something that was broken and lost and scattered, or that the "beautiful, terrible voice" performs a similar act of magical union—with souls rather than pieces of jasper or carnelian—through the Amulet once it is healed. It manifests in a green radiance that looks at first "like glow-worms' lamps" and becomes "the light that no man may look on and live . . . a glory and splendour and sweetness unspeakable." You see why this book frustrates me?

4. I believe the name is now rendered as Rekhmire, since Egyptian hieroglyphs, like their Semitic abjad neighbors, generally believed written vowels were for weenies. (Check out the different English renderings of Akhenaten's name sometime. That one's so well-known, it's a plot point in an Amelia Peabody mystery.) I can't tell if Nesbit's character is meant as a riff on the historical person or not.

5. While we're speaking of precedents: when Jimmy reflexively swears "By Jove," Rekh-Marā just as automatically cautions him, "Call not upon the gods . . . lest ye raise greater ones than ye can control." That sounds to me quite a lot like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927)'s "I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you cannot put downe." Is there a really obvious antecedent for both (other than, I suppose, common sense), or should I contemplate the unlikely prospect of H. P. Lovecraft reading E. Nesbit?
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
Happy autumn. I just read that DNA evidence affirms that Indigenous Australians are the most ancient continuous civilization on Earth. I find it equally wonderful that in the same way that all humans of non-African descent contain some percentage of Neanderthal DNA, all humans of Indigenous Australian descent contain about 4% genetic admixture from "an unknown archaic population . . . that is closer to Denisovans but also sharing a common ancestor with Neanderthals," i.e., people on this planet we didn't even know about. On being told this last fact, my mother said promptly that she expected it was the gods. I don't know if the deities of Australian myth are the kind that have children, but I like that she thinks of this sort of thing first.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
Life is unfair when you find a shelf in a used book store containing six novels by Alistair MacLean and not one of them is The Guns of Navarone (1957).

(I got HMS Ulysses (1955). About seven years ago I was trying to write a story that included a fictitious WWII Arctic convoy, so if nothing else I can count it as someday research; also, it looked good. But still.)
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
I have internet that does not come from a wireless hotspot! The Verizon tech arrived to set up the internet almost at eleven o'clock on the dot, left about two hours later, the internet actually turned on at a quarter to five. At first it moved with the sluggishness of non-ironic molasses and I had to spend further time on the phone with tech support, but so long as I am not directly uploading or downloading any files it appears to function at a decent work-and-amusement-enabling speed. (I miss my account with RCN. They do not service the street on which I live. I did not quite realize until I moved to Somerville how weirdly gerrymandered the phone service in this city is.) I slept an hour last night and feel very shaky, but I can stream all the movies from TCM now.

Yesterday was a ridiculously productive day. After staying up all night to write Calormene fic while listening to Bill Laswell and Coil, I fielded a surprise repair visit from the property manager, made my PT appointment, visited the bank, actually remembered to eat lunch for the first time in several days, made a major dry-goods grocery run to Market Basket, retrieved some items from my cousins' place, visited the library, did a full day's worth of Nokia and somehow stayed awake.

Outside of Verizon, today was mostly work and lots of phone and e-mail conversation with the property manager and with cat rescue services because there turns out to be an abandoned cat living in the morning glories by the front steps. (We have a plan in place. In the meantime, I am feeding the cat. He is talkative, affectionate, hungry, lonely, and keeps trying to get back into his former apartment, which is heartbreaking. [livejournal.com profile] rushthatspeaks met him on Saturday night.) There were some very loud leaf blowers. I did manage to get out in the evening to Walgreens and the Winter Hill Bakery, the latter of which furnished me with a loaf of incredibly delicious Portuguese sweet bread and some cookies whose names I don't know, and on my way back ended up in a really neat conversation with a woman about my age and her four-year-old son whom I met while photographing two emergency electrical switch boxes in the back of a brick building. I passed out as if stunned for an hour after dinner and ate some coconut-milk ice cream when I woke. Hestia leapt joyfully into an empty cardboard box in the closet which then overturned on her, trapping her like an extremely grumpy hermit crab. Rescued, she promptly leapt into another box as if to show it who's boss. I still need to write about a whole bunch of things. Have some pictures until then.

Boston Edison and the cat who lives in the morning glories. )
sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
In which I join the majority of the internet who write fic for the Chronicles of Narnia, apparently.

The thing is, I feel quite positively toward lions. But [personal profile] cyphomandra mentioned Assyrian lion hunts and it shook something about Calormene religion loose in my head. Fair warning: I did no research for this story whatsoever. It is almost certainly not canon-compliant; I did not re-read either The Horse and His Boy (1954) or The Last Battle (1956) mostly because I don't have ready access to copies of either, but frankly not having to read the latter again, even for research purposes, very likely made me happier than the alternative. Lewis' Calormen is a mess of Orientalist motifs more than actual cultures, so I took the chance that knowing almost nothing about the Ottoman or Mughal Empires or whatever his original vague models might have been would not totally wreck me. I worked with a heavy fictionalization of Persian history and the Neo-Assyrians instead. Fingers crossed it didn't just turn out terrible in a different direction. I feel as though I have essentially forgotten how fiction works. There are diacritics in all the names because I like them. I'm going to bed for three hours.

Not a Tame Lion )
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
I aten't dead! I have seen four movies this weekend, three of them as part of the Somerville Theatre's 70 mm & Widescreen Festival and one from the Brattle's Wicked Queer Flashback. I should like to write about all of them, although I have some other things I want to get out of my head first. For the record, Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Tron (1982) are knockouts in 70 mm; the first is much more beautiful and much more self-aware than I remembered or could perceive in elementary school and the second, while it has some very weird script problems, holds together much better than I'd thought from its reputation and still doesn't look like anything in this universe. I really need to see Maleficent (2014). I should also buy some groceries now that I have a pantry again.
sovay: (Rotwang)
I just heard a train whistle go by in the night. I'm glad I can still hear them from my new apartment. I hate moving so much. [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and [livejournal.com profile] schreibergasse and my parents helped heroically. Hestia is back to hissing at her brother to express her displeasure with the chaotic situation, but when it is not three in the morning I will hang pictures and unpack the kitchen and eventually put up my bookcases and my books. Right now there is the photograph of Lyndell's in the kitchen and a B. Kliban ex-pillowcase on the wall as the Banner of the Cat. We just finished hanging the shower curtain. I have to find a way to sleep. I am lousy mental shape right now, but at least I shouldn't have to move for another year.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
I dream of drowned men often; I dreamed of one last night. We were in the wreck of the Terror, which looked in my dreams like the cabin of a much older sailing ship, more than half a reef with flat-bladed kelp and sponges and soft corals, a thick lunar swirl of silt underfoot. The light was glacier-blue. I can't remember feeling cold except inside my lungs, where I was breathing water. If we'd been above sea level, I would have said that he was floating, but eighty feet down he looked like he was sitting cross-legged on the water, watching me. He shouldn't have drowned, if he was one of Franklin's men; he should have died of starvation, scurvy, lead poisoning, exposure. One of his crewmates might have butchered and eaten him. He didn't look like a malnourished corpse; no one had jointed him for his meat or cracked his jaw for his brain. He had a thin-faced winter pallor under a dark scurf of beard and his feet were bare despite the heavy wool of his sailor's jacket, which in the dream told me he was dead more clearly than anything else, because a living man would have had his boots on and all the insulation he could find. He said nothing to me. I didn't expect him to. We were under water. (It made sense at the time.) So many of the dead I dream about are younger than I am and I don't know what that reflects, unless something about historical mortality. The ship around us made sounds like pack ice, creaking, burring, singing. The rest of the dream was something muddy with shouting and stress and I woke with my jaw aching even worse than usual. Nobody in these dreams ever comes with names; they are symbols, composites. I still felt, looking at his face in the silt-falling ice-light, that I should have known it.

I have a smothering headache. Just in time for moving, I may be coming down sick. I spent most of my afternoon at the Somerville Department of Traffic and Parking and then on hold with Eversource and National Grid. I got home, made some more phone calls, ate dinner, felt awful. I am sitting on the carpet square in the summer kitchen, with only the side lights on so as not to attract the vortex of bugs that so badly marred last night; Autolycus has curled himself onto my lap in the computer-displacing way that he seems to find deeply satisfying—of course you love me better than the laptop, which almost certainly is true; I love the information on my laptop and the access, but in a fire I'd go for the cats first of all—and is purring like a drain, occasionally and sleepily licking the inside of my arm. Starboard cat. Hestia settled underneath the bed, just behind me. Port cat. Soon we will have a secure home.
sovay: (Rotwang)
And today in excitement nobody asked for: frightened by the noise of the lawn guys who came to the house this afternoon while I was out at a PT appointment and picking up the keys for the new apartment, Hestia contrived to take refuge behind the refrigerator in the summer kitchen and was still there when [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I got home, although this was not immediately apparent when Autolycus ran to meet us and there was a conspicuous absence of other little cat. By now we are used to her seeming disappearances into thin air, but she was not in any of her known hiding places, not under the blankets on the futon, not behind the piled kindling on the grill, not behind the dismembered tabletop which leans up against the kitchen cabinets. I turned off the fan so that we could listen for noises; she did not mew even in response to our voices or the shaking of treats, but eventually we heard a thin little rustle and Autolycus started nosing around the front of the refrigerator. Rob shifted away some of the boxes and we shone a flashlight into the thin gap to the left-hand side where the cabinets don't quite meet. We saw a little movement, a little black fur like the tip of a tail. It moved away, so we knew she was alive, if silent, but we weren't quite sure how she had gotten in. I had been afraid of her ending up behind the refrigerator ever since we moved in. Specifically, since it's located at a break between counters and there's a visible gap between its back and the wall, I had worried about her recklessly leaping the counters and falling in. As we discovered, she had just wriggled her way beneath the cabinets and then slunk along the low, dusty tunnel formed between the wall, the cabinets, and the piled boxes until she dead-ended behind the refrigerator. I cleared off a countertop and shone the flashlight at an angle behind the appliance and there was a small cat sitting with her tail curled around her front paws, normally black, currently a distressing floury grey with back-of-the-refrigerator shmutz. I blinked at her slowly and she blinked back; then I had to race upstairs and out the front door and ask the lawn guy who was talking to my mother to tell his partner who had just started a leaf blower directly outside the door of the summer kitchen to turn it off, please, because as soon as it started up Hestia had recoiled and flattened herself into the farthest, most disgusting corner of the refrigerator gap. (The lawn guy with the leaf blower, to his credit, turned it off.) We lured her out patiently over about the next forty-five minutes, primarily with a combination of soft talking, jingly feather, and a dish of food placed under the overhang of the cabinets. Autolycus kept trying to eat it despite having a dish of his own. Maybe she took that as an incentive. She came forth covered in cobwebs and dust and paint flakes and nothing you want to think about. We washed her with paper towels in a basin of warm water in the dry sink, dried her off, gave her treats for being a brave cat. I changed my shirt because I had had to hold her carefully, though she never brought out the claws. She only hissed once and it was at her brother. We blocked the entrance to the refrigerator run with different boxes and petted everyone a lot. She's fine now, curled comfortably on the futon while her brother relaxes on the scratch box, but that was completely unnecessary. Have some news.

1. Two years after the discovery of HMS Erebus, a hundred and seventy years after the two ships were trapped in the ice off King William Island, sealing the fate of Sir John Franklin and his disastrous expedition through the Northwest Passage, HMS Terror has been found. You couldn't ask for a better ghost ship—hatches battened, gear stowed, glass still in the windows, resting gently on the seabed of Terror Bay as though it sank straight down, sixty miles south of its last believed location. Kelp swaying rustily in cold currents, pale and red weeds thickening the helm's double wheel. "The ship's bell lies on its side on the deck, close to where the sailor on watch would have swung the clapper to mark time."

2. I never read Peter Ackroyd's Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994), but I just found out there's a film adaptation. According to the Guardian: "We'll get to the juicy and suspenseful murder mystery in a moment, but all discussion about The Limehouse Golem must begin with Bill Nighy. As Scotland Yard detective John Kildare, Nighy and his late Victorian suits seem like they've stepped out of a painting. It's not just the way he looks or talks, but his elegant stride, his mercurial humour as he scrutinises clues and the way he deflects questions or reminders about his station in life. He is a greatly respected man, but one who will likely never get the position he deserves thanks to suspicions of 'not being the marrying kind'." Plus feminism, plus music-hall, plus I should hope some golem folklore, just play this movie in my city already, okay? In the meantime, I guess I'll read the book.

3. Courtesy of [livejournal.com profile] asakiyume: the lost songs of St Kilda. I don't want to call them ghost songs, because they were handed down by memory; they are still alive. I still need to see Michael Powell's Edge of the World (1937). I love the book about its making so much.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) is desperately misnamed but incredibly good. Rob and I watched it tonight before he went home; it's almost a slipstream movie, overall closest to a noir but veering quite deliberately between genres in a way that means the audience cannot predict an ending, because the same suspense would resolve differently for a screwball romance than for a Gothic melodrama than for a true film noir. The plot is a constellation of four characters, three of them linked by a traumatic event in their adolescence, two of them more closely than the third suspects or the fourth cares about. Barbara Stanwyck stars as one of the more complexly damaged characters I've seen her play, a steel magnate now dominating the mill town she spent her childhood desperately trying to escape; Kirk Douglas had his film debut as her husband and I am not at all surprised that he turned out a star, because he is not yet thirty, almost impossibly handsome (he's got dimples everywhere), and his self-destructing district attorney is arrestingly unlike his later forceful image; Van Heflin was fresh off his wartime service with the Army Air Corps and has charisma coming out of his ears as a professional gambler who makes an accidental prodigal's return by rubbernecking the sign for his long-left hometown and thereby cracking up his car; and Lizabeth Scott in her second feature is no femme fatale but a sweet, tough kid who's more of an adult despite her criminal record than the power couple ruling Iverstown with all respectability. Lot's wife is a recurring image in both dialogue and action, the danger of being frozen in the past, petrified by it. We'd have called the picture Pillar of Salt, unless that was likely to disappoint crowds who came looking for a Biblical epic. It gets some interesting stuff under the radar and some equally interesting stuff out in the open. Having seen Van Heflin most characteristically in fucked-up roles, I really enjoyed him as a rakish, honest-where-it-counts hero. I may try to write more thoughtfully about it at some future point, but it's unlikely to be this week, since I have to spend Wednesday and Thursday moving and tomorrow getting ready. Toward that end, sleep.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I worry that it's taken me forever to write about Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947) because talking about Elisha Cook, Jr. is such a stereotypical noir-fancying thing to do. I myself called him an "underworld shlimazl extraordinaire" on his first appearance in this Patreon and it's true, but a great part of what interested me about both of these films was the opportunity they afforded Cook to demonstrate a wider range than fall guys with +10 mortal fear. I know I'm overstating even some of his famous roles; Harry Jones in The Big Sleep (1946) may be a "funny little guy" who drinks poison for the sake of a woman who wouldn't have done the same for him, but he knows what he's doing and chooses to protect her anyway and Bogart's Marlowe respects him for it ("You did all right, Jonesy"). I'm still willing to bet that when most people think of him, he looks like the gunsel Wilmer.

I went into The Killing curious about the combination of late noir and early Kubrick, but otherwise knowing almost nothing about the story.1 The title was ambiguous: a big score? A slaughter? Well, yes, but also the funniest movie by Kubrick I've ever seen. I'm including Dr. Strangelove (1964) in that statement. The Killing is not precisely a comedy by genre, although it could be quite credibly double-featured with the endearingly slow-motion trainwreck of Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), but it runs a tight, tense, loopingly nonlinear plot on a steady deadpan diet of the ironies, absurdities, and inevitable crack-ups that occur when reality gets into the gears of a frictionless theory. Straight lines turn into punch lines with foreknowledge. At least one violent act comes out pure slapstick because it's so shocking and so stupid. The narrator may have been a late-stage studio addition, but he subverts his own orderly function—clarifying a timeline that repeatedly re-runs the same span of days through different characters' eyes until the whole exploded jigsaw comes together for the audience as it never does for any of the cast save Sterling Hayden's Johnny Clay, the meticulous overseer of this highly compartmentalized crime—with misinformation and minutiae, announcing with the same breaking-news gravity when one character can't fall sleep or another is running fifteen minutes late. Even when the beautiful Rube Goldberg machine of Johnny's plan begins to go off the rails, its failure doesn't cascade from an inevitable fatal flaw, it goes kablooey in about three different directions at once and none of them foreseeable except in head-smacking hindsight. (Incidentally, I have seen exactly two movies by Quentin Tarantino—Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Hateful Eight (2015)—and even I can tell that he imprinted screamingly on this movie.) The cinematography strikes a smoothly shifting balance between the emphatic shadows of noir and a more realistic, daylit style that is not yet as echoingly codified as Kubrick's later compositions. Jim Thompson wrote the script, so it really is hard-boiled as hell. But it's still essentially a heist film, and a darkly comedic one at that. It takes Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor to turn it into noir.

As George and Sherry Peatty, Cook and Windsor twist the familiar coupling of a pliable husband and a chiseling wife past parody into nightmare—every frame they share looks like the cover of a hardboiled novel, a bad scene that's about to get even worse. He's thin, creased, his face a tragicomic mask of preternatural anxiety and preemptive conciliation, a soft-spoken racetrack cashier abjectly in love with a woman who uses him to practice her contempt like some people take up skeet shooting. Her face is a mask, too, but a carefully painted one, all polished cheekbones and rolled blonde hair and black false eyelashes, her mouth a cartoon heart of invitation, her eyebrows angled to disdain. He can't compete with that greasepaint armor; he's a romantic. In return for the plain-spoken yearning with which he tries to describe the intimacy of an older couple he saw on the train, all he gets is flashy scorn, his wife's big beautiful body sprawled lazily on the bed with an indifference that tells him hands off even more unarguably than the jeering cut of her mouth. She treats his devotion like an embarrassing ailment, his sincerity like the feed line for a standing joke. She has four inches on him in stocking feet and in heels starts to look like a bored Aphrodite with the saddest Anchises in the world. (Windsor, who got Kubrick's attention with her take-no-prisoners performance in The Narrow Margin (1952), is even billed above Cook in the opening credits.) It is impossible to imagine what misalliance of idealization and opportunism stuck them together in the first place, but after five years they're parasitically inseparable, though Sherry has designs to the contrary. Her trouble is that she's not as clever as she is cruel: she knows what she wants, but she shouldn't trust men to get it for her. She would call her boyfriend a handsome brute. The audience sizes him up within two sentences as a meathead and wouldn't hand him a lighter for his own cigarettes, let alone the inside dope on a $2,000,000 heist. Put their sex-fueled double-dealing together with George's skittish desperation and what you've got is a film noir in miniature, the kind of material that could have been a feature of its own and instead goes off like a bomb among the larger coils of the heist plot. I have seen a lot of bad things happen to Elisha Cook, Jr. since my first encounter with The Maltese Falcon (1941), but I am not sure that I had seen him play an honest-to-Aristotle tragic character until The Killing.2 He's good at it—he hurts to watch. For maximum irony, of course, mild-mannered George Peatty who looks as though he'd crumple if he accidentally hurt a fly racks up the highest body count in the film, even more than the professional hired killer whose inability to resist a gratuitous racist crack throws another wrench into the precision timing of the scheme. "You jerk," one of George's teammates berates him early in the film, when his pathetic attempts to laugh off the accusation only confirm that he's given the game away to his treacherous, adored wife—"you clown! Come on, clown, sing us a chorus from Pagliacci!" It's not often that you hear characters so explicitly called out by archetype. Someone really should have remembered how that opera ends.

Like many people who grew up on Hollywood musicals and '50's sci-fi, I saw any number of movies directed by Robert Wise before suddenly taking note of him, in my case a few years ago with The Desert Rats (1953); if that hadn't worked, I can say that Born to Kill would definitely have gotten my attention. It's a pulpy, amorally entertaining B-noir starring Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney as two of the nastiest screen lovers I've seen since Scarlet Street (1945). She's a hot-blooded, cold-hearted divorcée silkily coasting through other people's damage on adopted wealth and pasted-on morality, he's an alpha bruiser with a volcanic temper and the impulse control of a wrecking ball; nobody in this film fights crime. Esther Howard's booze-soaked landlady gives it an extrajudicial try, after Tierney's Sam Wilde leaves his latest girlfriend dead on her kitchen floor for interrupting his territory-staking murder of her other man. Walter Slezak's philosophizing private eye will play on the side of the angels if the price is right, but he's just as happy to extract a bonus fifteen thousand from Trevor's Helen Brent in exchange for a convenient lapse of memory. There are a few innocents on the bewildered verges of this story, but mostly it's a hot, toxic spiral around Helen and Sam and their escalating criminal and sexual one-upsmanship, a game of chicken that can end only in bed and/or the gas chamber. "There's a kind of corruptness inside you," she marvels, her fingers tightening on his back. He gives her the tough guy's ultimate compliment: "You have guts." They murmur breathlessly over the details of a murder scene—his doing, her discovery—until their mouths meet hungrily again. The audience doesn't need the seal of the Production Code to know that their romance will end as badly as it began; the question is just whether they'll be the deaths of one another sequentially or simultaneously and how many of the supporting cast they'll take with them when they go.

Cook's reputation preceding him as it does, he seems like a shoo-in for collateral damage, especially given his closeness to Born to Kill's ground zero. His Mart Waterman is Sam's partner in at the very least crime—he's waiting up in bed with the day's paper when Sam comes home from his unplanned double slaying to the Reno hotel room they share, absently quizzing the bigger man about his day and then looking over ironically when Sam in reply stretches out full-length on the mattress beside him and stonily smokes a cigarette: "If we're going to carry on a conversation, it'd help for you to talk." He could be a fascinated sidekick or a self-protective hanger-on à la Dr. Einstein, but he's the brains of the outfit and no pushover despite his size and his easily worried face. Even if his instructions are couched in plenty of Gaston-strength ego-soothing,3 Mart's still the one with the getaway plan, double-checking that Sam has enough cash for the first train out of town and then staying behind to cover their tracks with the last stern caution, "In the meantime, no dames, understand?" He's dismayed, but not shocked. He's done this before. Sam's violent whims may be the driving factor in their lives, but Mart's wearily practiced quick thinking is the reason they're not behind bars or worse. In a film whose primary relationships are based on deception, convenience, or mutually ruthless chemistry, it's a curiously touching testament not just to Sam's equal-opportunity fatal charms but to simple human affection, the same thing driving Howard's Mrs. Kraft to seek justice for a pretty, promiscuous woman whose murder she knows the police feel no responsibility to solve.

Of course, the thing I love best about Mart is that he's not a nice guy. He just looks like one by comparison with a hair-trigger psychopath. "You can't just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you," he chides Sam. "It's not feasible!" Note that he never says it's wrong. Invited to stay at the townhouse of Helen's wealthy foster-sister, he makes an unexpected but unobtrusive guest who does nothing weird or larcenous at all. He tries to warn Helen about her volatile lover, speaking from five years' experience living with "the sort of guy that punches first and asks questions later"; told icily to butt out of an affair that doesn't concern him, he responds frankly, "You think it doesn't. It concerns me, all right, if it concerns Sam." By this point there are four people involved in the protagonists' poisonous pas de deux and Mart sounds reasonably concerned for all of them. He doesn't want to clear out of San Francisco as precipitously as Reno and he's seen what happens to Sam's girls, not to mention the boys who hang around them. He's not much of a moral compass, but he sounds like the voice of nonviolence at least. Then we get his meeting with Mrs. Kraft. He charms her socks off. Bright-eyed as a door-to-door salesman, ingenuous as the juvenile lead Cook once was, he flirts with her outrageously, in exactly the right key of shared and teasing play to appeal to her sense of humor where a straighter approach would have put up her guard. He calls her "glamour girl," himself a "bad boy," sympathizes enough and cajoles the rest of the way that the gravel-voiced, glass-eyed, beer-swigging matron finds herself agreeing to trade a C-note for a lead on the killer of her late, beloved Laurie Palmer. His parting shot is the final hook, delivered with impossibly transparent coyness: "I'll do this on just one condition . . . that you don't make any passes at me when you get me out there. I'm a very shy kid!" She laughs appreciatively and dirtily, not taken in for a moment but just as delighted as if she had been. Who knew Elisha Cook, Jr. had serious game? Get Mrs. Kraft alone on the dunes, though, and all of a sudden he looks like a plausible serial killer of his own, a disarming Bluebeard with a line in lonely hearts and shallow graves. "You can depend on me, glamour girl," he promises, one hand in his pocket with the flick-knife. It's creepily endearing. Inevitably he's overborne by Tierney's blunt-force apex predator, but then he should have known the rules would be no different for Sam's boys. Helen doesn't take the lesson.

Not surprisingly for an actor who originated the sixteen-year-old hero of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! the year he turned thirty, Cook looked barely old enough to buy his own drinks well into middle age, a trick of physiognomy he could use to pathetic effect, underlining the small-time nature of characters who either don't know or won't admit how out of their depth they are until it's too late—Wilmer is a kid, whatever his calendar age, killing-dangerous but still playing gangster dress-up with his double-breasted trenchcoat and his hidden pistols and his self-penned hard-boiled dialogue, none of which he knows how to use as well as an amused Sam Spade or even an impatient Brigid O'Shaughnessy. One of the reasons I enjoy Mart Waterman so much is that he's an adult who only puts on the boyish look to deceive, playing the nice (or the naughty) young man for the character who's susceptible to it while swapping straight talk with the rest; he's been too many years around the block with Sam Wilde for anything else. George Peatty doesn't work as a character unless he's older than his wife and knocked enough around by his life to think of a fifth-share of a robbery as a long-owed recompense, but an illusion of youth still flickers in and out of his face from unpredictable angles, the naïveté of imagining that he can impress his wife enough to make her love him, maybe, or the phantom of the young man he used to be before the decades of passing lucky strangers their winnings while neither the money nor the luck inclined toward him. I like seeing a character actor given enough screen time to suggest these pasts, whether criminal or simply disappointed, and enough room in the dialogue to take up a person's space rather than just a definitive archetype or an indelible cameo. Not bad for a guy who really did not survive to the ends of most of his movies. I just heard some bells ring for five in the morning and I'm not even sure where the closest church is. This preliminary sketch brought to you by my versatile backers at Patreon.



1. I thought until I started writing this post that I had seen only a couple of Kubrick's films; the ratio actually turned out to be eight out of thirteen features. I have not seen Fear and Desire (1953), Killer's Kiss (1955), Barry Lyndon (1975), Full Metal Jacket (1987), or Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and I've always been under the impression that A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) is considered essentially a Spielberg film. The rest, surprisingly, yes. I think I keep forgetting some of his movies are his. This happened to me with Hitchcock once.

2. Until The Killing, I did not realize either that Elisha Cook, Jr. had beautiful hands. He uses them like a mime and the part of George Peatty really shows them off. His most characteristic pose facing either his co-conspirators or his wife has his chin cupped in his palm, his elbow on the table; sometimes half his face is hidden by his hand or his fingernails tap nervously on his teeth, concentric and self-effacing gestures. They give him away as much as his defenseless face. I was unexpectedly reminded of Edward Petherbridge. I have to remember that Cook started as a stage actor; he may have been Hollywood's "lightest heavy," but he was all sorts of people on Broadway, light comedy and protagonists included.

3. It's not quite as bad as Madame Bovary (1949), but I do have some difficulty not hearing the line "Why, he must've been crazy thinking he stood a chance with a dame after she'd got a load of you!" in LeFou's voice. While we're on the subject: all together, everyone, for Tropical Storm Gaston.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
I slept last night in air conditioning and dreamed of reading a picture book drawn in a two-tone, Robert McCloskey style, a green-and-blue-black descent to the abyssal seafloor with characters of lost sailors and unimpressed sea life, in between rounds of a group exercise which was enacting a kind of allegory of changing rights across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Everyone else in the group was fictional except for Van Heflin, whom I feel I may slightly owe an apology. I actually owe him some movie reviews, which will have to wait.

[livejournal.com profile] rushthatspeaks picked me up around three-thirty in the afternoon. Today was our sixth anniversary. We had a reservation at SRV in the South End. The restaurant's initials stand for Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia; they are Boston's only Venetian-style bacaro and they have a painting of a lion to greet their guests, although Rush pointed out that properly speaking it should have wings. (I said that since it was a head-on view, clearly the wings just didn't fit in the picture. Hershel of Ostropol sells a painting of the crossing of the Red Sea.) First we drove around the South End in search of parking, in the course of which we were reminded that most of Boston is much closer together than a bus transfer and two changes on the subway would lead a person to believe—it was not perceptible to either of us until we'd driven all the way around the Prudential that St. Botolph Street adjacent to NEC was exactly on the other side of the Mass. Ave. T station from where we were trying to eat—also after turning up a side street to look for non-permit parking we were distracted by a beautiful stretch of confusingly car-friendly greenery and wound up in a kind of residential back alley directly behind SRV, so we drove through an apparent dead end into an even tinier cobblestoned alley and back out onto Columbus Avenue, which is definitely the most Italian thing that has ever happened to me in this city. The guy on a smoke break behind the restaurant did not wave his arms at us and tell us to stop. Eventually we stashed the car in a lot on the other side of Mass. Ave. and used the half-hour remaining until our reservation to walk the Southwest Corridor Park to Titus Sparrow Park, which is how we found multiple community gardens, a butterfly garden full of monarchs, and one of the nicest, most successful public spaces I have seen in some time—kids playing with their families, teenagers hanging out, adults hanging out, all ages and all diverse; the dude idling his motorcycle was the most disruptive person we ran into and he probably wasn't disruptive at all to people who don't mind the sound of idling motorcycles. I cannot ever remember having spent time in the South End, but it turns out to be full of rowhouses, brownstones, and the kind of mixed residential-commercial walkups I associate with New York City, frankly. Most of them covered with ivy. Trees all over the place. A wrought-iron fountain in the middle of one street, with a very happy corvid bathing in it. We saw more than one window with a rainbow flag, in one case harmonizing nicely with the stained glass. I glimpsed someone's second-floor bay-window library that called out to me. I probably don't even want to think about the rents, although I will.

So, SRV. It is an airy space, brick-walled, with a trio of doorways through its main interior wall that open the space out rather than chop it up; there were wine bottles on the wall behind us and epiphytes on the facing wall and not so many mirrors that it becomes a dominant part of the design, but the diner still catches the allusion. We had the option of a patio, but stuck with the cool interior, which was even more impressive considering one side of the restaurant was entirely open to the street except for the front door. It made a good surrealist image and I was momentarily sorry I had not brought a camera. The soundtrack opened with Frou Frou's "Let Go" and Beyoncé's "Hold Up" and transitioned into various hip-hop I did not recognize but enjoyed, partly because it never got so loud—even later in the evening when the restaurant was full; we'd ended up with the five-thirty reservation because when I'd called on Wednesday it was all that was left that night—that it was not possible to converse at a normal volume. We each ordered a cocktail, the 63 Fairbanks in my case, the Garibaldi Spritz in Rush's. And here I feel that if I were an actual food blogger, I should have started taking notes, because we ordered the nine-course tasting menu, the Arsenale, and the last time I had food like that was Journeyman. I can remember starting with the classiest cheese sticks either of us had ever encountered, breadcrumb-fried mozzarella with preserved tomato underneath and bonito flakes on top, and equally perfected polpette on wooden toothpicks, little pork-and-beef meatballs, Romano-dusted. We held on to the cup they had come in just to finish off the red sauce. And then we moved straight from "really impressive bar snacks" to "food I have not ever had before" with the meltingly crunchy fried beef tendon powdered with black pepper and Parmesan—as impossible to eat neatly as a good cream puff—and the baccalà on squid ink crostini, which I believe was the point where I started rhapsodizing. "Bread is your quintessential agrarian food, it grows in the earth, we've got myths about it, it's not supposed to bring you the sea"—mussel-black, ocean-sweet, with the umamibomb of the salt cod on top. "If the Italians had invented sushi!" said Rush. I would eat a lot more bread if it were all made with squid ink. I would eat a lot more most things if they were made with squid ink. I believe after that we got the break of a small arugula salad with a clean, lemony dressing and enormous shavings of what was either the world's largest radish or the world's sweetest turnip before being presented with luminously sunset-colored chunks of smoked sea trout over green lentils and, Rush thought, a kind of mostarda, with a mayonnaise-like fizz on top. The lamb belly was rich and deeply savory and served with shaved carrots of all colors, slices of roasted stone fruit, and a yogurt dressing that I mopped up with the sourdough that had arrived two or three plates earlier. New plates and new silverware for the last two courses, the pasta, which was first silky sheets of maltagliati with fava beans, lamb sausage, and dark green bursts of cilantro, then house-made curls of creste di galli with 'nduja and pine nuts, finito. That's nine, right? For dessert, we got as part of the Arsenale menu a jar of Venetian cookies and I added a couple of scoops of gelato, which is how I found out that stracciatella—buttermilk ice cream with shavings of dark chocolate—is a flavor I really like, although the mascarpone with folded-in figs and red wine was also pretty ridiculous. Rush had some after-dinner Amaro Averna and the bar sent us each a small glass of Zucca Rabarbaro, which the server explained to us was made with "toasted rhubarb." I should not be surprised after my feelings about mezcal and peat monster whisky, but I like smoky rhubarb. The waitstaff were unfailingly attentive throughout, never making us feel either overlooked or rushed. We had told them ahead of time that Rush was allergic to onions and that I didn't do great with huge amounts of dairy and the menu accommodated in all respects. We wrote nice things in the moleskine that came with the check and staggered out into the night.

And since the second part of our anniversary for at least the last three years has involved the sea, we sat by the reflecting pool outside the First Church of Christ, Scientist until Rush felt sure about driving, and then we set out to find some. To be honest, I am not entirely sure what went wrong that we worked our way back to 93 easily enough and then wound up facing, instead of the Atlantic, a sudden and unenviable choice between Logan Airport and the Tobin Bridge, but we straightened ourselves out after only one determined reversal of direction and an unnecessary rotary or two and successfully stuck with the Lynnway after that. (We must have mislaid Route 1A. Malden got into the mix somewhere along the line. I have no other explanation for the appearance of the Charles Ro Supply Company. We appreciated the fireworks that seemed to be taking place over the Mystic River, near the Valley of the Things—with no other obvious aetiology in sight, we decided they were for our anniversary.) I am a little sorry that we did not know until we got home again that one of my mother's friends lives in Point of Pines in Revere, because it looked like an ideal night-walking beach except for all of the regularly posted signs declaiming "PRIVATE BEACH" and sternly cautioning us not to park on any of the streets. It was demoralizingly unwelcoming. I think we would both have felt morally buoyed by leaving our un-permitted car in my mother's friend's driveway and loitering on the beach without living there. As it was, we continued up the coast into Lynn, past the causeway for Nahant—our sea-destination of two anniversaries ago—and pulled the car over at the sight of long, white-curling waves breaking on the heads of rocks clustered like seals against a seawall, a streetlit promenade curving out around Nahant Bay. The tide was just beginning to draw out. We had seen a half-moon earlier as we left SRV, but now the sky was clouded over, the charcoal matte of coming rain, so that the ship out at sea in a net of orange lights looked suspended between darknesses, no horizon. Light pollution made the difference, looking across the bay into Swampscott: we sat on a park bench and I rested my head on Rush's shoulder and the central railing of the promenade precisely ran the line of the horizon, so that I had a stripe of night sea and a stripe of night sky to look at. A young man with a yarmulke went by on a hoverboard lit up the same electric blue as Wonderland Station. Twice. From the same direction every time. We figured either he was doing laps or he was a time ghost. A man with a fishing pole greeted us as he walked past. Several dog-walkers, some other couples. Some beachcombers as the tide slid farther and farther out over the silky pleating of sand. The air was deep salt, a faint fog under the streetlights. Afterward we almost went to Nahant again, but instead drove home, talking about vampires and Chris Evans. I feel quite familial toward the Green Tea Chinese Restaurant by now, though I will probably never eat there. Later we determined we had been at Red Rock Park.

Happy anniversary, my night-driver, my Poseidon-haired love. It is still inexcusable that Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner" is not the state song of Massachusetts, so I will just have to consider it one of ours. It is raining lightly. It is time for me to see if I can sleep in the same summer kitchen as some neglected little cats.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
Phooey. Three-quarters of the way through a post about two movies featuring Elisha Cook, Jr., my left arm started up with such painful pins and needles that I think I have to stop typing. It is a weird and unpleasant sensation. I hope I can finish this post tomorrow. I really hope I have not managed to pinch a nerve in my neck after all.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
With the exception of the night I spent at the train marathon, I have slept every night since the first of this month in the summer kitchen with the cats. They don't always turn in with me, but they are invariably in position on the futon when I wake: Autolycus at my shoulder, Hestia at my feet. The night before last, they switched up their usual routine so that I woke to find Hestia yawning and purring on the pillow beside me and Autolycus settled contentedly across my ankles. It has been very soothing even on nights when I feel terrible or when I can't sleep until after dawn. Last night was the first time this program failed. I had come home from physical therapy feeling exhausted and discombobulated, I had to run back out in the evening to vote in my local elections, I didn't have the focus to watch a movie I had been planning on. I showered early and read my way through John Griffiths Pedley's New Light on Ancient Carthage (1980). The air was suffocatingly muggy and the temperature climbed until it was just too hot to sleep under a blanket and Autolycus kept stepping on my face. He was pursuing small insects which were also intermittently keeping me awake. Hestia arranged herself on my feet, but there's only so much one little cat can do against an overheated environment and an enthusiastic bug hunter. At ten in the morning, I staggered upstairs into air conditioning, fell into the bed in Charlotte's room that used to be mine, and slept for three and a half hours of vivid, unlikely, unpleasant dreams. I really want to do something with my brain today. I feel existentially useless.
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