sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
It is very satisfying to me to see that the contemporary resistance has noticed Leslie Howard's Pimpernel Smith (1941). The final soliloquy is as good as everyone remembers: haunting, numinous, spoken as prophecy in a year in which the outcome of World War II was far from assured. A thin-faced professor in the shadows of a railway station, unarmed at gunpoint, his eyes glinting like a cat's in the dark. An anti-Nazi picture made by a Jewish man during the Blitz, his quintessential Englishness carefully learned, deeply felt. He would not live to see the winning of the war which his character so confidently predicts: he vanished into history like the last word into a curl of cigarette smoke and stories spiraled up around his disappearance. He left the silver salt ghosts of a life on film, a curious foretelling of his own death in the fight against fascism. He was right.

"May a dead man say a few words to you, General, for your enlightenment? You will never rule the world, because you are doomed. All of you who have demoralized and corrupted a nation are doomed. Tonight you will take the first step along a dark road from which there is no turning back. You will have to go on and on, from one madness to another, leaving behind you a wilderness of misery and hatred, and still you will have to go on—because you will find no horizon, and see no dawn, until at last you are lost and destroyed. You are doomed, captain of murderers, and one day, sooner or later, you will remember my words."

I prefer the original British title, but I agree that the American poster is striking. If it brings more people to the movie even now, it's doing what it's supposed to. That ghost speaking out of the dark still has something to say.

sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
We did not see the dentist today. It was no go even on an emergency basis. [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel has an appointment at the end of the week and I understand that having one's name on a cancellation list only helps if another patient actually cancels, but neither of us is thrilled. I celebrated International Women's Day by wearing one of the three red items of clothing I own—my T-shirt for Octavian's Legio VI Victrix, a gift from [livejournal.com profile] rushthatspeaks—and performing a lot of emotional labor. This does not feel especially fair to me, although possibly emblematic. After dark, we got out of the house for about an hour, walking almost to Sullivan and then home by way of Union Square. My flat cap needs repairing again; I will have to go into Jamaica Plain for it. I had wanted to make a post about female characters, but what with one thing and another I did not get the chance. Autolycus spent most of the evening on my lap. He's here now, as a matter of fact. Hestia is sleeping beside Rob, as she has been for the last two or three hours; it is a well-known fact that the proximity of a small ferocious black cat who melts into belly-petting mode before reverting to her natural Venus flytrap encourages the immune system and the healing process. They are very good cats.

I am back to having the kind of political nightmares where I don't feel safe putting them on the internet. Last night's was especially bad. It is probably the reason I am still awake at this hour despite having slept a cumulative total of maybe six hours so far this week.

I wanted today to be a much better day.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
So today was slightly more exciting than planned, by which I mean that I had expected to spend the morning running an errand with [livejournal.com profile] gaudior (we got bagels; Fox was cranky and not falling asleep until I sang them "Oy dortn, dortn" and as much of "Irene, Goodnight," "Waltzing with Bears," and "Famous Blue Raincoat" as Gaudior and I could remember together and they went out like a light) and the afternoon and evening celebrating my mother's seventy-first birthday observed (my father made her a peach and nectarine cake with a custard layer and candles that burned like sparklers; she loved the books and the little salt-glazed vase with a motif of flames or orange leaves around the outside and springing up the inner lip), but nobody had expected to spend an hour at the ER tonight after one of [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel's teeth decided to disintegrate. At least we have reliably helpful and friendly experiences at the Mount Auburn ER. He is doing better now. We are getting up very early tomorrow to call the dentist. But we had to fill his prescription at the all-night CVS in Porter Square, which meant that we might as well get some late-night shopping done at the Star Market, and I really hope the person the two girls in the checkout lane shouted "You look dapper!" at was me. I was the only person I saw within earshot who wasn't the cashier, but maybe they were a really dapper cashier.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
I did not know that cube steak is called chicken-fried or country-fried when you dredge it in beaten egg and seasoned flour and fry it in a skillet, but that's what we made for dinner tonight. I'm not disputing the name: it's exactly the preparation my family uses for chicken breasts pounded thin, although those tend to get served with lemon. I had just never encountered it in the wild, which I suspect just means I have never eaten a meal in Texas. [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel made cheese grits to go on the side and his family's pepper gravy to go on top and I confirmed for myself that our apartment's fire alarm works. Autolycus confirmed that he will attempt to eat anything that contains milk, even if it also contains cayenne.

I am very glad that we made it to the town hall with Attorney General Maura Healey. Much of what she was doing was reassuring her constituency that her office is both responding to the daily onslaught of national-level horror coming out of the White House ("You name it, day after day, it's been disheartening and distressing") and keeping on track with its own state agenda (opioid crisis, student debt, healthcare, gun safety, consumer protection, the environment), but she was an entertaining and responsive speaker and I did find myself reassured, so I would say she's good at the public-facing part of her job as well as the part that involves getting sued twice by the NRA and most recently—and unsuccessfully—by Exxon. She was in Logan Airport the night of the first travel ban and she finds the revised version no less unconstitutional, disingenuous, and dangerous. She called 45 a "chaos president" and reminded the audience that she did not believe that his election reflected the true American majority: "And I'm not even going to get into the popular vote." She stressed the efficacy of small daily actions as well as big crowd rallies, the kind of steady pressure on elected officials that has already produced results like the Arizona legislature backing down on its bill to criminalize nonviolent protest; she spoke multiple times of the importance of reaching out to the people who are already being hurt, who are marginalized or marginalized differently from you, the importance of showing love, compassion, and solidarity. The state hotline to report hate crimes or bias incidents—experienced or witnessed—is (800) 994-3228. Topics from the audience included the legal status of sanctuary cities, gun violence, affordable housing and minimum wage, the urgency of Massachusetts' opioid epidemic, clean energy and climate change, the best ways to combat potential ICE action in Somerville and Cambridge, trans rights and Healey's disappointment in Jeff Sessions, the importance of not forgetting people actually using drugs in the focus on prevention and recovery, and the closing big-picture question of what the attorneys general across different states are doing to fight a presidential administration that seems bent on exploiting and exhausting its citizens, for which Healey's answer was "Take your vitamins, drink a lot of water, get up, and go!" and the encouragement that, indeed, state AGs wake up every morning, read the news, and immediately ask themselves "Do we have grounds to sue?" Earlier she had taken a question from an audience member concerned about Baker's budget cuts and her office's ability to handle so many different issues; now she closed with a verbal air-punch, "We got this!" I had not heard her speak before; I am not surprised that she has a huge popular following. She gave the impression of tenacity, energy, and humor without naiveté; she never offered a slick answer to a complicated question without qualifying it, which I appreciated especially given her flair for pithy lines. The thing where she is an out and proud queer woman in politics is also pretty sweet. It was slightly startling and wonderful that the thin silvery man who asked about climate change was Fred Small, beloved folksinger of my childhood, these days Minister for Climate Justice at the Arlington Street Church. [livejournal.com profile] teenybuffalo sat in front of us and almost certainly took better notes than I did.

I am also pleased that my hunt for a birthday book for my mother in the basement of the Harvard Book Store bore fruit, but I am taking it as a wholly undeserved reward from the universe that their mystery section contained a remaindered paperback of Elliott Chaze's obscure pulp classic Black Wings Has My Angel (1953) and New Orleans Noir (2007) edited by Julie Smith, complete with Benjamin January story. It opens with a perfectly reasonable incredulous question: "Kentucky Williams owns a Bible?" Hannibal is referencing autochthonous Athenian kings by the bottom of the page, so I expect to enjoy it.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
Three things make a very tired post.

1. My poem "And All the Brothers Too" has been accepted by Polu Texni. It was written for [livejournal.com profile] nineweaving in June, on a coastal train between New London and New Haven and in [livejournal.com profile] ladymondegreen's office at work; it involves family history, ghosts, WWII submarines, and Twelfth Night.

2. I missed the first forty-five minutes of this morning's Rise Up! rally for trans and queer students, but I made it just in time for the march from Boston Common to Post Office Square. I met up with [livejournal.com profile] schreibergasse at the beginning and ran into [livejournal.com profile] dpolicar at the end; in between I discovered [personal profile] skygiants and [personal profile] genarti and was very kindly donated a cough drop by [personal profile] shati, who was carrying the excellent sign "High School Sucks Enough Without Transphobia." There were some very good signs at this rally; because we were in the middle of the march, I didn't even see some of the best until the crowd had filled up Post Office Square and become a rally again. The banner at the head of the march was lettered in a beautiful green-and-black calligraphy and vivid red block capitals on pale gold:

from Standing Rock to Stonewall . . .
UNITE & RESIST
Againt Racism, Police Brutality, Gentrification, Islamophobia, Rape Culture & War!


with three clenched fists of different colors in solidarity encouraging the reader to "Fight Back." There were people wearing pride flags and trans flags. There were pussy hats in the original hot pink, but also in bisexual, asexual, agender, trans, and genderqueer colors. I saw at least one navy-blue baseball cap with gold lettering that I assumed belonged to a sports team until I got close enough to read "Make America Gay Again." There were several multi-person signs, including one carried by teachers supporting trans students and a "Black Trans Lives Matter" bearing six of the seven women's names I had heard on Thursday. (The speeches I had missed included a remembrance of all of them, with ASL interpretation.) I liked the four-striped trans flag with a different affirmation on each stripe—"You're Beautiful, You're Needed, You're Loved, You Matter"—and the politics of "Let's Help Trump Transition . . . Out of the White House" and "Keep Bathrooms Safe—Ban Trump." Some expressions of protest and support were personal: "We Are Human," "Sisters Not Cis-Ters," "Here to Fight for My Trans Daughter's Rights." Some were just good sense: "I Stand with Trans Youth Because I Am Not a Sentient Loaf of Ignorant White Bread, Donald." I think the spirit of the event was perhaps best expressed by the blue-haired person whose sign read "Too Mad for Just One Sign" on one side and "Free Gay Hugs" on the other, although the silky-haired Irish setter wearing "I Can Pee Anywhere, Why Can't Trans People?" had a point. I had neither a sign nor a camera, but at least this time I had a voice for the chants, which tended to roll back through the march so that we were always slightly out of synch with somebody, but the rippling wavelike cheers were pretty neat. There was an open megaphone again in Post Office Square; the trans teenager who introduced himself for the very first time as "Andy" got a roaring applause, as did the trans woman who was celebrating her birthday by marching. There were a number of non-binary students talking about progress or difficulty at their schools—more of the former than the latter, which was really nice to hear. The school administrator who got up to speak in support of her trans students also got a well-deserved hand. I don't know the numbers of the crowd; anyone who has an estimate should please point me in its direction. More than the impromptu march of late February, fewer by far than the numbers of the women's march. I keep wanting to see that turnout again for causes that people may think are less universal, that are no less essential. I have hopes for the March for Science. I still want thousands on thousands of people in a city to believe that trans kids and black lives are worth taking to the streets for.

It was blastingly cold. I left the house worried that T-shirt, overshirt, sweater, and coat was winter-layer overkill and came aboveground at Downtown Crossing confident that I had made the right decision. For this reason I am somehow not surprised that I spent more time outdoors today than I had in weeks, having lunch with Schreibergasse at Mamaleh's (I may be on a personal mission to introduce all of my friends to this restaurant) and then running an errand for my mother at the Prudential Barnes & Noble (which we overshot on the Green Line by three stops and had to walk back to along Huntington Avenue, with a shortcut past the winter-drained pool of the Christian Science Center) and then working my way out to Lexington by bus (including a horrifying interlude in the upper busway of Harvard Square, which for some unforeseen reason—the cold or a problem with the ventilation—had turned into an acrid tunnel of smog as the shuttle buses between Harvard and Alewife rattled constantly through; people had pulled their shirts over their faces to breathe and were coughing anyway) and back again. I got home and shared a smoked salmon collar with two enthralled little cats. [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel has half rights to the bagels, which survived being toted all over Boston and disentegrating their original paper bag. I didn't get more than three hours of sleep again, but the rally was worth it.

3. Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] moon_custafer mentioning it, I read Eleanor Farjeon's The Silver Curlew (1953) last night and it gave me the weirdest déjà vu. Normally I recognize books when I read them again, even after decades; I remember their language as well as elements of plot or character. Nothing about Farjeon's prose was familiar to me. I had no memory of any of the songs. I guessed the identity of a mysterious character almost at once, but I am good at that sort of thing—mythically significant names, pattern-recognition, years of Diana Wynne Jones. I can't even use the ending of the story as a gauge, since it depended on a fairytale which I came in knowing and a nursery rhyme whose turn I could see coming. But exactly one character-based bit of business was hauntingly familar and scratched at the back of my brain every time it went by and I can't tell now whether I read The Silver Curlew so long ago that somehow nothing else about it went into memory—which would be a near-first for me—or if it's shared with another story by Farjeon or some other author or what on earth, but it made for one of the strangest reading experiences I have had in some time. In any case, I recommend the book. It's the third of hers I've read after Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard (1921) and its sequel Martin Pippin in the Daisy Field (1937); it reminded me a little of Elizabeth Goudge and a little of Greer Gilman. I found out after finishing it that it began life as a Christmas play for children and I'd love to read the original script for comparison, but I can see it in the story's mix of silly comedy and shimmering numinous. It has a clever, prickly heroine and a couple of characters who end up more real than when they started. One strand of it is exactly the sort of thing I would have imprinted on very hard if I'd read it at its intended age, which is part of the reason I keep thinking I must not have. Since I read it as an adult, however, I am afraid the character in question mentally cast himself as Edward Petherbridge and whoever actually played him will have to live up to that.

Charlee Loon, who caught the flounders Mother Codling liked for her dinner, lived in a little shack on the sea-shore. It was black and smelt of tar and salt and seaweed, and when I say Charlee lived in it I only mean that it was his shack, but he himself was seldom inside it. He was oftener to be found in his boat, mooning on the sea when it was calm and tossing when it was stormy. Sometimes he caught things and sometimes he didn't. Sometimes he went out to fish without his nets, and sometimes he forgot where he had set his lobster-pots. But other times he came back with his nets full of slippery silvery herrings or flat white flounders. When he had beached his boat, he usually forgot that he had a shack to sleep in, and lay on his face on the shingle looking for amber, or on his back on the sand staring at the stars. If anybody came along for fish, they could help themselves. It was all one to Charlee. But as like as not, even if there was fish in the boat, they would find him sliding the herring one after another back into the sea, or laying out the flounders in rows on the wet sand, where the next incoming wave would curl over and foam them away. You never knew with Charlee, any more than you knew what his age was. Sometimes he looked one thing, sometimes another; and people were as likely to ask, "Seen old Charlee lately?" as to say, "Saw young Charlee this maarnin', pipin' to them puffins."
sovay: (Rotwang)
I can't remember what I dreamed last night, but then I only slept two hours. I spent most of the afternoon on a major shopping run with [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and fried myself a steak for dinner after he left for work. I have spent most of the evening staring vaguely at things, some on the internet, some off. The news remains outrageous, both in the sense of inspiring outrage and in the sense of WTF,

I wish I had managed to write down the previous night's dreams. I slept ten or eleven hours and distinctly remember waking enough to think that they would make a great seed for a story, but it was nine in the morning and bitterly cold (having had April in February, I see we are proceeding to have February in March) and I was pinned in place by two cats and instead I fell back asleep, actually overslept my alarm, and had a late-starting but very nice day with [livejournal.com profile] rushthatspeaks, Fox, a recipe for vadouvan-spiced vegetable fritters where we ended up making the vadouvan from scratch, and eventually [livejournal.com profile] gaudior. What's left of the dream is themes and images more than plot: a seaside tourist town in New England, off-season when the summer people have gone and the clam-shack-and-lobster-roll restaurant on the boardwalk has fastened down its storm windows for the winter; their chowder is at its best at this time of year, but nobody knows because the food writers don't come when there's ice glazing the beach and the sunset goes out very fast, like a flare behind the dunes before the stars come up out of the sea. I remember docks and lobster buoys and nets drying, children running past me—a scrabbly thumping on the weather-greyed planks like the cats bursting across the living room in the middle of the night—with their shirts off and sand on the bottoms of their bare feet even though there had been snow in the parking lot a week ago. I have the memory of great affection for a character with some supernatural importance in the town, but I can remember almost nothing of them except a kind of generous, rakish cynicism and very old shame, something they had promised and failed to do, something they had done and regretted, I didn't ask. I thought they were older than they looked, but I was getting the same idea about the town. It wasn't pulling a Brigadoon or an Innsmouth; the calendar year was the year I went to sleep in; almost everyone I met had a newer and smarter phone than me. But something about time was strange in it and it doesn't help that I have so few coherent memories of the place left, sliding around the edges where I want to say there was a fight or a performance, a whale watch or the rising of the Deep Ones, something important happening out on the water and I was not invited to it, I just saw who came back afterward. There was a community out on the wharves where the old commercial buildings had been broken up into residential spaces and small businesses and studios alongside fish markets and floating bars and it should have felt like death by gentrification, but I came to believe it was the oldest and best-preserved part of the town. I remember a stall hung with shells like a bottle tree, some of them far too tropical to have come out of the bay even in these days of global warming. There were flags of dried fishskin which clattered in the wind. We were talking a long walk around the curve of the harbor and I am worried that the subject of our conversations, which I cannot remember, was the substance of the plot.

I should make some kind of effort toward sleep. I have to get up just as early tomorrow: I am attending the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition's Rise Up! With Trans and Queer Students and the current forecast is bright, sunny, and below freezing all day. I may not be able to wear my genderqueer mer-person T-shirt after all. At the very least it might have to be under a sweater.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
1. Tonight was the monthly vigil in support of Black Lives Matter at First Baptist Church JP. I attended with [livejournal.com profile] gaudior and Fox, who is becoming a regular protest baby; Gaudior's phone routed us to the UU church on the corner of Centre and Eliot instead, but they kindly let us change Fox in their nursery and only looked a little blank when we mentioned the vigil and we walked down Centre Street and arrived just in time for the reading of names, which this month was a call-and-response and included the names of the first seven black trans women murdered in 2017. Having twice held signs from the church's communal stack for the twenty-minute silence of the vigil (this one in memory of Philando Castile), I think I will have to make a sign of my own if I plan to keep coming back, which I do. I am also hoping that as the weather warms and the winds calm down it will be easier to bring candles. My hands got painfully cold; I forgot the glove liners after all. We met up briefly with [livejournal.com profile] teenybuffalo. I ordered an ice cream flavor from FōMū which had a sadly higher ratio of crunchy toffee chunk to salted caramel ice cream than I was really looking for. (Butter-pie fail.). There were not five hundred people at the vigil tonight, but there were not fifteen or fifty either. I hope the numbers stay high until they are not needed. I would like that to be in my lifetime.

2. Fourteen years late to the party, I have gotten sucked into British Sea Power's The Decline of British Sea Power (2003) thanks to the improving influence of [livejournal.com profile] ashlyme. For some reason the band had never really gotten on my radar before. I was given one of their songs on a mix CD in 2005, but it made less impression on me at the time than the tracks by Electrelane, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian, Of Montreal, Joanna Newsom, Le Tigre, and John Cale. "Carrion" flipped the switch and I have been listening to the debut album it came from almost nonstop since Sunday. I think it's the combination of neck-jolting noise and pastoral deep time. I say that and it becomes very difficult not to describe British Sea Power as the punk Powell and Pressburger, even if I think that is technically Derek Jarman's The Last of England (1988). "Apologies to Insect Life" is one of the most angular, shreddiest pieces of post-punk I have heard since Mission of Burma. "Lately" is a gently questioning fourteen-minute historical panorama that ends when the singer breaks down screaming "Do you like my megalithic rock?" I thought that only happened in Alan Garner. Their choruses are killer; they have the ability to make very simple sentences ("Oh, remember me / Will you remember me?", "As you black out / Look out again, my love," "Oh, bring it in and let us see it / Oh, let us see it") sound incredibly charged and significant. They have the absurdist quality I associate with a lot of good punk, too—yelping a key line from a skiffle classic over and over until it is both semantically meaningless and you can't hear it over the guitar noise anyway. I've acquired their soundtracks for Man of Aran (1934/2009) and From the Sea to the Land Beyond (2013) and I think they'll be good writing music, but the other stuff is weird. It's amazing how much of an artistic criterion that turned out to be.

3. Film noir every Sunday morning? Sign me up, TCM. I approve of three out of their four starting choices. I know nothing about the fourth. I'll report back.

Having gotten up this morning for a work-related meeting on two or three hours of sleep, I think I am going to look into falling over.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
I am under no illusions that X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) was a good movie. I didn't think it was at the time. But every time I am reminded it exists, I wish it had been better, because Liev Schreiber with retractile claws was great.

sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
Rabbit, rabbit!

1. My poem "Twenty Seventy-One" has been accepted by Uncanny Magazine. It was written in late January, the night [livejournal.com profile] gwynnega linked an article about the spiking sales of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The next morning the details of 45's anti-Muslim executive order were leaked and three days later it was signed into effect and that weekend I was protesting in Copley Square. Julia Rios, when she accepted the poem, said she had hoped "it would magically stop being relevant." It is among other things a ghost poem for George Orwell.

2. My poem "The Warm Past" is now online at Mythic Delirium. There are notes included with this one, but it's a science poem and a ghost poem and a poem for my niece and deep time. The title comes from a pair of earrings by [personal profile] elisem. I am thinking of sending a copy to the National Museum of Natural History, to tell them how much their ancient seas meant to me.

3. I spent most of last night in a state of extreme emotional upset due to nothing obvious except the general state of the nation, so I tried to make note of non-upsetting things when I found them. This is a debate over pastry that takes a hard right turn into Wittgenstein and gender. This is a Tumblr full of very sweet, mostly two-panel comics that remind me of Sandra Boynton. And this is a wonderful article about genetics and human variability. After the "another species" tag line, I said to [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel, "It sounds like it should be about yeti, of course, but it isn't going to be," and then it kind of was. I love these very old echoes, alive in people to this day. Neanderthals. Denisovans. Unknown archaic populations. Other ways of being human.

The weather outside is mild, grey, and springlike. At least we're technically in the right month for it now.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Yesterday I made a concerted effort to get out of the house for something that was not a doctor's appointment or a political event, though I have several of the latter on my calendar. I met Dean at the Harvard Business School in Allston and he showed me some of the small arts and treasures scattered throughout the campus: the sun clock outside the Class of 1959 Chapel and the water garden inside, containing the first ornamental carp I have ever met that did not boil up out of the water at me in hopes of snacks; the eight-sided mosaic of Tethys from Roman Antioch, set into the atrium floor of Morgan Hall and surrounded by spilling water, the goddess herself circled by fish and dolphins; the oak-and-brass horseshoe trading post of the Old New York Stock Exchange in the basement of Baker Library; the marriage-like bronze frieze of "Credit: Man's Confidence in Man," originally displayed at the 1939 World's Fair and now residing in one of the tunnels that link the buildings of the Business School and wider Harvard. We came aboveground into an exhibit on Edwin H. Land and Polaroid Corporation that I would like to revisit, assuming they'll let me back in when unaccompanied by someone with library privileges. I finished John le Carré's The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016) on the way over and returned home with a copy of David A. Moss' Democracy: A Case Study (2017) and a signature from Dean who helped prepare a number of the cases. The flourless halva brownies from Tatte's are impressively dense and sticky and should probably not be eaten by people in the act of walking to catch a train, but here we are. For dinner [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I made Totally Inauthentic Dalcha (tamarind pulp yes, curry leaves no, substituted Aleppo pepper for red chili powder and as God is my witness I thought we had turmeric) with the lentils we had soaked since last night and the lamb chop in the freezer. I had some idea of watching a movie, but instead I wrote about one while the internet intermittently went out. Today has been mostly work and the news being mostly bad. Autolycus has decided that the best place in the apartment is sprawled across the keyboard while my hands are attempting to use it; he purrs at a pitch of extreme emotional blackmail, grooms my hands in hopeful distraction, and I fear has discovered that the volume on my computer changes when he steps on the function keys. He is a very good cat.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
In which I attempt to make some dent in the backlog of unmentioned movies which accrues from being sick three out of the four weeks of an already short month. Not helped by the internet cutting out for a couple of hours tonight. RCN, we left Verizon for you. Don't make anybody regret it.

It should go without saying that when a film turns up on TCM with a circus setting and Ben Lyon in the cast, [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I need no further enticement to watch it, though in this case the one-line summary "A romantic triangle involving a hypnotist and two trapeze artists threatens to destroy a circus" was admittedly pretty attractive. I am pleased to report that it rewarded our benefit of the doubt: John Harlow's The Dark Tower (1943) is a neat little B-picture that gets an agreeable quotient of thrills and chills out of its modest budget and even managed to surprise both of us by the finale. Plus now I know that William Hartnell was shockingly beautiful when he was my age and I wasn't expecting that.

The film was a transatlantic co-production of the generation that followed quota quickies, produced by Warner Brothers at Teddington Studios with an American star and an otherwise British cast; theoretically adapted from the short-lived stage play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott,1 it has pleasingly more in common with the pulp fiction of its time, tracking the seedy but not hopeless atmosphere of a traveling circus in tough straits and the unglamorous but not uninteresting lives of the performers going on around the edges of the plot. Brothers Phil (Lyon) and Tom (David Farrar) Danton are co-owners of Danton's Empire Circus, the former being the American-accented "guvnor" in charge of the practicalities while his more dashing younger brother works the high wire with longtime love interest Mary (Anne Crawford), but in wartime the crowds are thin and the takings thinner and the "feast of equine dexterity and acrobatic marvels" which opens the movie ends with Phil forced to admit to the company that the money's run out. He's taking a vote on whether they'd rather disband now and get it over with or soldier on to the next town when their fortunes are unexpectedly saved by the appearance of Stephen Torg (Herbert Lom), a penniless drifter whose dark eyes and deep, cold voice are the outward show of an extraordinary magnetism: he calms a fractious lion with nothing more than an unblinking gaze and a few masterful gestures. "What a good fellow is Pasha," he croons to the subdued big cat, before explaining coolly to his human audience, "It's very simple. I make them obey my eyes—I make them like my voice—and then they do what I want them to do." The suggestion that he hire the stranger as the new lion trainer gives Phil a brainwave. Could Torg repeat the same trick with a person rather than an animal—Mary, perhaps? Under hypnotic control, might she be serene and sure enough to perform a high-wire act without any of the customary props used for balance? If Mary's willing, of course. Mary is indeed willing, even a little intrigued by this shabby, saturnine young man whose reticence about his origins does not conceal his arrogance about his skills. The test run is encouraging. The act is a smash success. With the spellbinding assistance of the now-"Dr." Torg, Mary can perform the most death-defying of stunts without tremble or hesitation, the kind of nail-biting that really packs an audience in. Once word gets out, it's all the way to the Winter Palace with Danton's Empire Circus: except that Torg is rapidly alienating his new family with his work-shirking, his fancy spending, and his bruising disdain for every other act under the tent, and while everyone from the abrasive sharpshooter to the enthusiastic publicist can see for themselves that Mary and Torg are spending more and more time together, it's increasingly and upsettingly unclear if it's love or mesmerism. The night that Tom falls during a trapeze act with Mary and avoids death only by a narrow margin of broken bones, it's impossible for Phil to escape the conclusion that Torg had something to do with it, but he can't see or prove how. He can't even get rid of the man without endangering the entire circus—the hypnotist is a bigger attraction now than the trick riders, the ice skaters, the low-wire clown. "I'll go," Torg promises darkly, after Phil's misgivings boil over into a physical altercation at the center of the after-hours ring, "but in my own time." And when he leaves the big top, obediently, Mary follows.

The opening titles contain the marvelous credit "Circus staged by Reco Brothers" and while I can't find much about this circus online beyond some mentions in Billboard, it is their participation which lends The Dark Tower its part-documentary feel, as the majority of the action takes place under the big top—performances and rehearsals—or in the ring of wagons where we observe the circus folk out of the spotlight, mending costumes, doing dishes, chatting with their neighbors, being entertained and slightly weirded out by the waxwork novelty their publicist brought home. When we watch the circus on the move or the big top being raised, I'm pretty sure it's just footage of Reco Brothers on the road for the season. The acts are good, too. There are precision cyclists, a standing bareback rider. The trio of ice skaters are astonishing: on a square of ice that can't be more than ten feet by ten, they perform high-speed, multiple-person spins, lifts, and spirals, a dizzying testament to the power of centripetal force. The best as far as I was concerned was the low-wire burlesque of Mary's act performed by Reco himself, a bald-pated tramp clown with a genius for entangling himself in the very tightrope he's trying to walk. He wears a mime's white gloves right up until the point where he steps on them while holding a pose more normally assumed by pretzels. I respect beyond words the degree of balance and grace it takes to wobble and flail that wildly while never actually falling. At the finale, of course, he looks the whole six feet down and panics and topples, Coyote over cartoon air. This ordinary realism is part of what keeps the story grounded even after it shifts gears into a kind of mystery-horror. It helps, too, that the stakes are never higher than the survival of the circus and Mary's health and happiness—which is plenty high for an invested viewer—and that Torg at his worst is never megalomaniacal or diabolical, just ambitious, frustrated, and unethical. At times he resembles a devil's bargain, appearing from nowhere with an offer too good to refuse, but despite his accent he's no Svengali.2 He was a bullied boy who came from nothing; now he's a man who has to have the best of everything if only so that he can rub it in other people's faces, whether that means a swanky car in a community that lives out of caravans, a girl whom everyone knew was in love with another man, or a controlling interest in a circus he despises. "It's a great thing, power. It makes you feel a king, especially if all your life you've been made to feel a beggar." Just once, he looks as young as he really is and not so sure of himself, confessing his love to Mary, but as soon as she gently rebuffs him, his face cools again. Anyone who knows Lom only as Peter Sellers' increasingly unhinged boss in the Pink Panther movies should check out Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1956), but they should see him in this movie, too. It was his fourth English-language role and the star-making one.

And the rest of the cast look like they're having fun. Despite his top billing, Lyon is more of a high-profile supporting part than a lead in his next-to-last screen role (he didn't die, he just moved into radio), but at this point I'd enjoy him if he read me a want ad for soap flakes and the important thing is that he convinces as the kind of circus director who's sharp and generous enough to have earned the trust of his company even when no one's getting paid, but just slightly too much of a nice guy to believe that things are going to get as bad as they've gotten already; Josephine Wilson has to supply the cynicism he lacks as the tart-spoken, chain-smoking sharpshooter with a soft spot for her "guvnor" and no love for the mysterious Stephen Torg. I had good memories of Crawford as the snobbish but not stupid factory girl striking sparks with Eric Portman's working-class foreman in Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder's Millions Like Us (1943) and she certainly couldn't be replaced by a blender here, but she suffers from the usual problem with spending half a movie in a hypnotic state—Mary is most interesting in the early scenes when she's fully herself, her eagerness to run the experiment of the "Slide for Life" suggesting both a scientific curiosity in and an erotic response to Torg's powers. With his thick dark hair and his long jawline, Farrar makes a rugged, credibly acrobatic romantic lead in the first half of the film, then puts his physical weakness to bitterly sensitive use in the second half as his body knits itself back together while his heart takes its time; it is not the actor's fault that I don't find him at his most beautiful, having been introduced to him at a pitch of outrageous sexiness in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947). Besides, I'm still trying to figure out how Hartnell—still credited here as "Bill"—got typed as cops and sergeants and other hard men when he's adorable as Jimmy Powers, the floppy-haired publicist with an excitable stammer that doesn't stop him talking a mile a minute when he wants to pitch an idea. He has one of those high-boned, clean-lined faces with very dark, very soft eyelashes and brows to match, a quick-cornered smile and sleek fair hair that keeps coming out of its brilliantine while he runs around the fairground like an eager art student in his pullovers and flat cap. I couldn't tell if it was saying something about his sexuality or just accurately reflecting carny talk in the wild, but he provides one of the few examples I've heard of pre-Round the Horne Polari when he calls a blustering but ineffectual ringmaster "a pompous pot-bellied palone." He has some plot significance, but his stammer doesn't.

I'm a little sorry there isn't a pulp novel of this film, really, because then Hard Case Crime could reprint it and I could shelve it next to Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders (1941). Also then maybe Warners would bring it out on DVD and I would not have to refer you to the questionable internet if you want to watch it between its periodic appearances on TCM. I never know why most of these movies are obscure. Director Harlow was unknown to me, but cinematographer Otto Heller would go on to do distinctive work on films as diverse as Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1949), Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), and Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965),3 and the editor was just some guy named Terence Fisher. The title is absolutely meaningless to the finished film. Now I want to rewatch Millions Like Us and see if I can track down more films from William Hartnell's adorable period. This feat brought to you by my mesmerizing backers at Patreon.

1. As far as I can tell, the film retains only the title, the sense of romantic threat, and the key concept of an artist performing in an altered state of mind. What interests me most about this setup is that Warner Bros. had already filmed a more faithful adaptation in the U.S., about a year after the play's 57-performance Broadway run, under the title The Man with Two Faces (1934). It starred Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor and I will almost certainly try to check it out sometime just for the cast and the comparison. I would love to know why the studio chose to sort-of-not-really remake it almost a decade later.

2. Herbert Lom was born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru in Prague in the next-to-last year that city could be located in Austria-Hungary and I actually like that while his accent suggests not one of us, the script itself makes no effort to mark him out as foreign, any more than it attempts to explain why one of the Danton brothers has a British accent and the other is American as the day is long, in slang as well as sound: "All the time you thought she was high-hatting you. That wasn't Mary—that was a dummy and Torg was her vent!"

3. I am retrospectively impressed with myself for recognizing some likeness between the latter two films in 2010, although it did not apparently then occur to me to check whether they shared any crew.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
So the launch for Caitlín R. Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland was a lot of fun. I had never before interacted with the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council; it turns out that they are both a fantastic tiny bookstore and art shop in the Providence Arcade and the people behind NecronomiCon Providence, the biennial convention of the weird coming up in August. They had set up an open tab for the authors with New Harvest Coffee & Spirits, a lovely and generous idea; I completely failed my free booze check and instead just ordered some ginger-lemon tea with an extra slice of lemon and a ridiculous amount of honey so that I wouldn't lose my voice during the reading. There were people in attendance whom I hadn't seen since last year's Readercon. I read a short selection of poems including "Being Providence" and "An Obedience Experiment" and most of my short story "The Creeping Influences," forthcoming from Shimmer. Caitlín read the first two chapters of Agents of Dreamland and a lengthy, poetic, frequently hilarious excerpt from her novel-in-progress Interstate Love Song. I appreciate her and Spooky dropping me back at the train station afterward, because by that point the weather had gone from misty to gross; I caught the last commuter train out of Providence, finished reading Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed (2016), started reading Grace Lin's When the Sea Turned to Silver (2016), did not commit violence either physical or verbal upon the nearby students who seemed to be engaged in an experiment to determine all possible inflections and volumes of the word "bullshit." [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel met me at South Station and after discovering that the internet was wrong about a restaurant being open (for Boston definitions of) late, we fetched up at jm Curley's for very late dinner and it all worked out fine. Today I am quite tired, but I am also baking bread with my father, which is low-key and going to be tasty, and the excursion to Providence was one of the nicest reasons I've had to get out of the house in months. Seriously, most of the rest have been protests. I would enjoy having a social life that is not 100% activism. I wish that didn't feel irresponsible to say.

1. O bel(le) inconnu(e) who sent me a DVD of Pimpernel Smith (1941) but did not include a card, thank you! If I were the sort of person who used multiple exclamation points in sentences, there would be a lot at the end of that preceding line.

2. I don't know how I spent the last fourteen years unaware of British Sea Power's "Carrion," but [livejournal.com profile] ashlyme has kindly remedied this lack. Can stone and steel and horses' heels ever explain the way you feel? From Scapa Flow to Rotherhithe, I felt the lapping of an ebbing tide. Oh, the heavy water, how it enfolds, the salt, the spray, the gorgeous undertow. Always, always, always the sea.

3. Bill H.97 is dead; long live Bill H.1190. [livejournal.com profile] teenybuffalo did some calling and discovered that this bill, which like its died-in-committee predecessor was drafted by Representative Kay Khan to prohibit the practice of so-called conversion therapies on queer and trans minors in Massachusetts, will get an as yet unscheduled public hearing at which members of the public can speak to its importance and the necessity of getting it passed. If you would like to participate in this process, call your state legislators, contact Representative Khan or her office, express your support for the bill and ask to be notified when its hearing date is set.

4. I took two silly quizzes last night: on Boston slang and political affiliation in 1917 Russia. (The latter is entirely in Russian, but the preceding page provides translations if necessary.) Apparently I am a centrist Social Revolutionary with a 100% command of Boston slang. I'm so confused about both of these.

5. I've been meaning to post this for days: Yoon Ha Lee talks about gender, representation, win conditions, and math.

6. This is also no longer current events, but I found it beautifully and intelligently written: "On the Milo Bus With the Lost Boys of America's New Right," published right as the conservative mainstream was proving with their jettisoning of Yiannopoulos that their former championing of him had nothing to do with the First Amendment and everything to do with normalizing hate speech. "This is not liberalism winning the day. This is the victorious far right purging the brownshirts."

7. Please enjoy these pictures of Eartha Kitt with kittens.

My mother will be watching the Oscars tonight. She has been listening to Hamilton all day and wants to see Lin-Manuel Miranda become the youngest-ever winner of the EGOT. (Or since he has a Pulitzer already, perhaps EGOPT.) I have decided that I would like to see Barry Jenkins' Moonlight win, even though the odds are against it. Failing that, though I did not find it flawless, I think Denis Villeneuve's Arrival. It didn't have stupid science, which almost never happens onscreen.

[edit, shortly after midnight, frenetic recourse to Facebook and Rob's Twitter feed, and a clarifying phone call from my mother who watched the entire ceremony] Good grief, that happened. Mazel tov, Moonlight!
sovay: (Rotwang)
Tonight is the book launch for Caitlín R. Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland; it will be taking place at the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council in Providence and I will be reading beforehand and answering questions with Caitlín afterward. I hope to see some of you there! In the meantime, I should get ready to catch this train.

[edit] This announcement never crossposted because apparently LiveJournal has blocked all Dreamwidth webservers. Well, that explains why nobody commented. Way to go, LJ.

[edit edit] LJ-blocking situation now apparently resolved.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
I had no idea there were Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in attendance at the rally to support trans youth tonight. I think that's fabulous.

At first I didn't see anyone I knew in the crowd. I had mistakenly gotten off the Orange Line at State Street rather than Downtown Crossing, so I was approaching Post Office Square from an unfamiliar and partly conjectural angle and knew I was in the right place mostly because I was suddenly surrounded by signs like "I Stand with Trans Students," "Trans Rights Are Human Rights," "Let My People Go to the Bathroom," and "Donny Knows Dick." There were people wrapped in trans flags and waving them; there were people of every gender presentation, including non-binary and totally indeterminate; the age range spanned queer elders who had evidently been doing this shit for years to parents of school-aged trans children (and trans parents of school-aged children) to toddlers with scribbly, glittery signs. The trees of Post Office Square were lit up purple and there were blue and pink lights in the windows of a building on Pearl Street. I took a blue-and-pink-and-white-striped poster reading "Protect Trans Youth" from a man with a sheaf of them and carried it for the rest of the night. I had a nice exchange with the young trans man next to me and his cis boyfriend who had just bought him some H.G. Wells, as a good boyfriend should; during the portion of the rally when we were encouraged to introduce ourselves to strangers and meet our community, a pink-haired activist from Athens, Georgia and I bonded over our sudden mutual flashback to college orientation. I complimented one protester on his pride flag kippah and another on her trans flag bowtie. (I got compliments on my bisexual unicorn T-shirt.) The executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition expressed his heartfelt appreciation for the couple of hundred people who had shown up on practically no notice to tell the trans youth of Boston and elsewhere that they are not alone; he pointed out the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education on the other side of Congress Street and spoke passionately about intersectionality—making the cogent point that this administration has not just now begun to hurt trans people; trans people who are Black, Muslim, Latinx, and immigrants have already been hurt—and then threw the megaphone open to trans students and teachers, of whom I think my favorite was the tenth-grade trans boy who talked about equality: "We're all human! We're all skeletons!" And then the formal part of the rally broke up into networking and people with signs going off to line both sidewalks of Congress Street, at which point a woman I had met last month at Jewish Voice for Peace came up and greeted me and [personal profile] skygiants, [personal profile] genarti, [personal profile] sandrylene, and [livejournal.com profile] teenybuffalo all wandered by at once. I could not participate very loudly in the communal call-and-response, but it was important for me to say the words: When trans youth are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back. When trans rights are being denied, resistance is justified. We're here, we're trans, no walls and no bans. People honked in support as they drove by, smiled out the window, gave thumbs-up, Doppler-cheered. I was told later that one man shouted "Trump! Trump! Trump!" as he drove past, but since I didn't even hear him over the activist chanting, I don't think he won.

I did not expect the rally to turn into a march. I'm not sure the rally was expecting it. But first there were protesters with signs on either side of the street, then there were protesters with signs in the street, then there were protesters with signs walking down the street with the trans flag out front, and by the time we turned the corner on Franklin Street we were definitely a march. The call-and-response widened to include Whose streets? Our streets! Whose city? Our city! and We all got to pee, so let's get free, which I had not heard before. There was a brief logjam at Downtown Crossing which occasioned the only violence I saw all night—a bunch of kids on the sidewalk who didn't care about trans rights but were happy to shout "Fuck Trump!" got into some kind of altercation with one of the older protesters; he got slapped or otherwise physically infringed on, but I saw people taking care of him after the kids ran off—but on the whole bystanders were either visibly supportive or took out their phones in a neutral to approving fashion. We marched up Winter Street; one of the loudest voices in the chants near me belonged to a woman with a white cane. A number of protesters including the Sandry contingent peeled off at Park Street, but I guessed the core of the march was heading for the Massachusetts State House and followed them, which is why there may yet surface some footage of me standing outside the locked front gates of our state house and talking about Bill H.97, although since I couldn't remember the number I just said it was co-sponsored by Christine Barber and designed to protect minors from so-called conversion therapies and had been sitting in committee for over a year and could our state representatives just agree that torturing children is bad and pass the damn thing already? Other people spoke before me, more angrily, more lovingly, and more eloquently: a non-binary trans femme MIT professor who had to leave to grade papers, but first reminded the audience that trans people have always existed, that gender has never been binary (it's so true); a working-class male-presenting trans person with a kerchief over their face because they did not feel safe revealing their identity, talking about class and safety and the need for networks in Boston to help homeless trans people like they had been last summer; the H.G. Wells-buying boyfriend I had met first, doing a much less awkward job than he thought expressing love and support for his boyfriend who had been kicked out of his parents' house for coming out as trans when he was sixteen. People talked about statistics, suicides, bashings, murders. People said things to each other like "I love you; you're beautiful." People chanted hey, hey, ho, ho, white supremacy has got to go. For a while there was a police car spinning its lights over the crowd, but it left without arresting anyone. (I hadn't been confident it would.) There were local news crews at Post Office Square and the State House, which I managed to miss completely. There are some nice photographs here. Around eight o'clock everything broke up quietly and I took the Red Line to Davis and met [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel for a very late dinner when he got out of work. My knee is hurting again and I think I spoke more than I have in a week, but it was worth it.

Oh, and I met a trans woman in the bathroom at Walgreen's on my way over to the rally. The worst thing that happened was we were both in a Walgreen's bathroom.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
So I spent my entire day more or less spot-welded to my computer doing three different jobs and did not get a chance to look at the news until quite late, although I did see the exoplanets when I got up. That was lovely.

Not so lovely was the news that the present administration has withdrawn federal protection from trans students.

In just about about twelve hours, there's a rally in support of trans youth in Post Office Square and unless I wipe out after my doctor's appointment in the afternoon, I will be there. I am no good for shouting slogans at present, but I got rid of the cane as of this morning and should therefore be able to handle boots on ground.

I just have to sleep first.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Sunday night in the ER at Mount Auburn, I was reading John le Carré's The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016) when I ran into the following passage at the beginning of a chapter about Martin Ritt, Richard Burton, and the filming of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965):

I was a serving diplomat of thirty-two and I had never met movie people before. In childhood, like all boys of my time, I had fallen in love with Deanna Durbin, and rolled in the aisles over the Three Stooges. In wartime cinemas, I had shot down German aeroplanes piloted by Eric Portman, and triumphed over the Gestapo with Leslie Howard. (My father was so persuaded that Portman was a Nazi that he said he should be interned.)

At which point I exclaimed out loud to [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel, because the Deanna Durbin and the Three Stooges could be anything, but the Leslie Howard is Pimpernel Smith (1941) and the Eric Portman is Squadron Leader X (1943) and if le Carré really has a memory of the latter rather than just using it as cultural shorthand, I want to ask him what it was like, because it is famously a lost film.1 It was written by Emeric Pressburger and directed by Lance Comfort and I have wanted to see it ever since I discovered the Archers and Eric Portman simultaneously with A Canterbury Tale (1944). Thanks to the good grace of Olive Films, Pimpernel Smith finally does exist on DVD and Blu-Ray and someday when I have money I will purchase a copy, but as regards Squadron Leader X I've been as much out of luck as the BFI. There's pictures and a summary and a reputation. I don't usually think of movies as one of the things that can be lost with the ceaselessly moving window of living memory, but here we are. I wonder if there's anyone alive who remembers London After Midnight (1927).

1. Portman also plays a Nazi in Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel (1941), but there is no shooting down of a German airplane in that movie; there is a stolen Canadian seaplane, but Portman isn't the guy flying it when it crashes in a lake in Manitoba.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
Another President's Day has gone by (marked with protests, I hear) and [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I have observed our sixth 'Thon together. We did not make the full twenty-four hours of science fiction film this year, but then again we had not planned on having to ditch the marathon for an emergency room. I am very ready for my physical health to start putting itself back together any time soon. For obvious reasons, this will be a shorter review than some previous years.

Neither of us had gotten much sleep the night before, so we did not make it for the traditional noon kickoff of Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953) or even the first feature, which in honor of the marathon's forty-second anniversary was Hammer & Tongs' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Fortunately, we got another chance at Sam Rockwell and Alan Rickman with Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest (1999)—we were in fact too late for Alexander's panic attack, but we made it to the balcony just in time to hear Dr. Lazarus swearing to a stricken Thermian that by Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Worvan, he would be avenged, at which point the audience as one correctly erupted in applause. I hadn't seen the film since it was in theaters, which never prevented whole swathes of its dialogue from turning up in my brain at the slightest excuse; I was especially glad to catch any of it on 35 mm, given how much of this year's marathon was digital. It was the rare contemporary movie in its year where I actually recognized more than one member of the cast, mostly thanks to Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, and Tony Shalhoub. I did not realize until the credits rolled that I had spent most of last year seeing earnest, dorky, dolphin-sounding alien leader Mathesar—Enrico Colantoni—as Elias on Person of Interest (2011–16), where he is not even faintly any of the above. I love character actors very much.

It is impossible for me to watch William Alland and Jack Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) now without associating it with Caitlín R. Kiernan's "From Cabinet 34, Drawer 6," to the point where Antonio Moreno levered the fossilized, grasping claw of the Creature's ancestor out of its plaster strata of Devonian shale and I thought Grendelonyx innsmouthensis, but I can remember being in third grade and seeing—not the entire film, I think, because I recognized very little beyond the design of the Gill-man and some underwater footage of him swimming through the silt and weeds of the Black Lagoon, but enough that it went into my head as something haunting and not a little upsetting, accelerated shortly afterward by finding in my elementary school library a lavishly illustrated book about '50's monster movies which summarized the two sequels. I knew already that I felt bad for the monster. I already knew that I wanted gills and retractile claws and webbing between my fingers; I swam open-eyed, underwater in the Atlantic and had to be taught actual human swimming strokes. On that level the movie still resonates with me, even while I'm not actually sure as an adult that it's very good. I love the cosmic opening with its condensing clouds of atmosphere and prehistoric seas; the fossil itself is a great hook, even if it's essentially forgotten once the expedition enters the lagoon; I found it a fascinating touch for 1954 that one of the accumulating villainies of Richard Denning's sleek, competitive, increasingly trigger-happy scientist—the kind who's more concerned with getting his name in the papers than advancing the frontiers of human knowledge, unlike hunky but high-minded Richard Carlson—is the disclosure that he's been taking credit for his female colleague's research while convincing her that she wouldn't even have a job in her field without him. (The audience hissed him for that. Good audience.) The underwater shots of a carefree Julie Adams splashing tantalizingly against the sky while the unseen Gill-man shadows her stroke for stroke so vividly recall the opening shark attack of Jaws (1975) that Spielberg has to have seen this movie. The scene in which the Gill-man mauls and drowns an expedition member foolhardy enough to go after him with a spear gun employs no blood and gets a real predator-prey jolt out of the thrashing braid of bodies half-seen in a churn of bubbles, naked human limbs grappling ineffectually with armoring scales and claws. Just why in the name of Poseidon is the Creature so obsessed with Julie Adams except that the monster carrying off the pretty girl is a trope of horror movies and God forbid that after all the scientific buildup we apply any rationality now? Or, as Rob said succinctly over chicken shawarma at Noor this afternoon, "Tits."

I had not seen Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997) since it was in theaters, either, where it was almost certainly my introduction to all three of its principal actors, although Jude Law was the name I took away with me at the time. I misread the movie's construction of suspense and spent the entire runtime concerned that the hero's 99% fatal heart condition would kill him at some dramatic or ironic moment, including the climactic blastoff into space. On rewatch at least I didn't have that problem, but then I was free to notice how little the film holds up as science fiction. It makes a great parable, but I can't believe a future America premised on eugenics would actually look or behave like Niccol's cool, retro-modern dystopia; I'm not docking it points for the technological minutiae of the all-pervasive DNA-clocking system which Ethan Hawke's Vincent must study and deceive in order to achieve his skyward dream, because nothing dates faster than detailed anticipation of the future, but thanks to the nationwide tidal wave of anti-intellectualism and general irrationality in which we are all living, right now I am much more worried about conceiving in a society that would force me to carry to term a child that would know nothing but incoherent pain in its short life (I'm an Ashkenazi Jew; Tay-Sachs is the first thing I would screen for) than I am about winding up in a world in which the un-engineered are disparagingly known as "faith-births" and "Godchildren," as if religious conviction is the only reason a person doesn't jump wholesale onto the eugenics bandwagon, throwing out potential geniuses left and right just because they might also turn out manic-depressive or asthmatic or obese or bald. The movie treats genetics as an almost inherently evil science, presuming that it's better never to know in advance because any probability would be accepted instantly as written fate. I look at people I know doing disability and autism awareness and I'm not saying we don't have institutional hangovers from people self-servingly misunderstanding Darwin, but I also look at people I know doing IVF and I'm pretty sure they're not the top of that slippery slope to state-encouraged sterilization. About the only place where I agree with Gattaca is its linkage of class and eugenics: while the wealthy can afford top-of-the-line kids with the most designer tweaks, like the back-broken Olympian whose flawless genetic signature Vincent appropriates to sneak him into the exclusive space program where his own applied intelligence and dedication can take him to the stars, Vincent's own working-class parents conceived him hopefully in the back of a Buick Riviera and then, seeing in horror that he turned out short-sighted with a predisposition to attention deficit disorder and a life expectancy in his early thirties, scrimped and saved to upgrade the next pregnancy. (And while I assume it is part of the point of this movie that the protagonist's life-defining "disabilities" still leave him an able-bodied straight white cis man with the looks to pass himself off as a genetically tailored "Valid" and the smarts to teach himself celestial navigation, I still find myself wondering, all right, so what if you're black in this future and you have a learning disability? What if you're brown and autistic? What if you're a woman who isn't Uma Thurman's lanky porcelain blonde? How do you hack this system?) What this really comes down to is that there's a particular strain of science fiction in which science itself is the inevitable enemy of the human heart and I hadn't realized until I saw it again that Gattaca belongs to it. At least I was still impressed by Jude Law.

We had planned to run out for dinner during the first act of George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and then return in time for Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) because it's one of Rob's favorite movies and Nacho Vigalondo's Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes, 2007) because I had very good ten-year-old memories of its twisty, panicky time-loop co-starring the director as a pleasantly sensible time-machine-inventing scientist, but instead we went to the ER at Mount Auburn where some very nice night staff gave me a nebulizer treatment and the X-ray of my lungs came out clear, of which the doctor had not been confident while listening to my chest and the sounds I made in between the coughing. If medical monitors produce a permanent record that gets stored somewhere in a patient's chart, mine almost certainly looks ridiculous because I got bored and started playing with biofeedback. (It was genuinely reassuring for me to know that I can still hold my breath for two minutes without strain even under lung-straitening circumstances.) I've now got two inhalers which I am supposed to use for the bronchitis and apparently I was sick enough this week that I almost completely forgot to eat; I shouldn't do that again. We got back to the Somerville for the denouement of Don Coscarelli's John Dies at the End (2012), which involved cultists in pig masks, a dimension-conquering biological supercomputer and its shock troops of giant spiders, a heroic dog, two slackers, some evidently extra-strength soy sauce, some cutesy-splattery animation, and Clancy Brown being randomly badass in shades, which I kind of assume is just a thing Clancy Brown does. I am a little sorry to have missed earlier portions of the film including Doug Jones as a helpful alien, but the coda in which our two heroic slackers are summoned to save yet another universe and flat-out blow their prophesied calling off may have recapitulated everything I need to know.

The film I really wanted not to miss was Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven nor Earth (Ni le ciel ni la terre, 2015). I had read positive reviews of it last year when it got a U.S. release and they were all justified: it was the standout of the marathon for me. I liked it so much that I have difficulty describing it. It is and is not a war film, just as it is and is not a horror film, because both of those genre labels raise expectations that the film itself effortlessly frustrates. The plot tracks a squad of French soldiers stationed in the Wakhan in Afghanistan in late 2014; under the command of wiry, blond-bearded Captain Antarès Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier, incredible), the small garrison patrols and oversees a small, rocky, scrubby valley on the border of Pakistan, constantly reporting back and forth from their north and south posts. Sometimes they skirmish with the local band of Taliban, so far without apparent casualties on either side; sometimes they interact, in carefully mannered and mutually incomprehensible ways, with the local villagers whose sheep are always straying into their sector. The ISAF is pulling out of Afghanistan, but until that time their high-tech, high-testosterone, bored to fucking tears surveillance routine is unvarying. Check in, check out. Rotate. E-mail your wife. Spar. Check your weapons, break them down, check them again. Light a candle in the tarp-shadowed corner that is the barracks chapel, a black cross spray-painted on a white piece of board; if you think of Crusaders in the desert of eight centuries ago, you aren't the only one feeling those echoes, even if Antarès himself is resolutely non-observant. Whistle for the camp dog and feel a little sad when nobody can find him. Hang up on your wife when you hear the captain coming. Check in. And then one morning two soldiers don't. They don't respond by radio; their relief arriving at the north post finds no one in the little box of cement and tin siding, pin-ups and graffiti on its walls and blankets on the floor. There were civilians seen on the ridge that night, performing some kind of fire ritual—we see it through two kinds of enhanced night vision, green-and-white ghosts in a shimmer of uncertainty. The captain leaps to the same conclusion as the viewer, enemy action, collaboration, these people whose land they have been occupying and whose interests they have been hypothetically protecting have shown their Taliban sympathies at last. But the villagers can demonstrate that it was only a sheep that was burned (they won't explain why, but nobody in the squad cares; it is enough for them to know that the locals observe some form of Islam, so long as it doesn't radicalize them the soldiers are under orders not to interfere) and Antarès despite reviewing all available footage and communications can prove no link between his missing men and any outside influence. He tightens security protocols, sets more cameras up. The soldiers start to get nervous; one dreams repeatedly of his missing comrades asleep in a cave while another panics and wastes a sheep in the dark. A messenger comes on a motorcycle from Kabul, is sent away with pictures of Tek and Delcourt just in case. And another man disappears. Not in the middle of the night, even: broad daylight at the south post while his mate steps outside for a piss. Quickly now, the simple answers begin to recede—the local Taliban come waving a white flag, demanding the French soldiers give back their missing men. Antarès agrees to a cease-fire on the assumption that he'll get his own men traded back, but the truce with "the Sultan" (Hamid Reza Javdan) and his equally gung-ho, equally spooked men stretches uneasily as neither side finds what they were looking for. The messenger's motorcycle turns up in the village, his one-man camp under the fig trees inexplicably deserted. The apparently purposeless iron stake in the center of the valley has a sheep tied up to it, bleating overnight in a circle of white paint. A fourth soldier disappears. If heaven and earth are accounted for, as the title would have it, then the traditional division of the cosmos leaves only hell, but the boy from the village insists that the valley is "Allah's land" where it is forbidden to sleep on the ground or "Allah takes you back." To the squad's translator Khalil (Sâm Mirhosseini), the Sultan's men begin to speak of "the people of the cave," the Quranic Seven Sleepers to whom God granted refuge, dreaming beneath the earth until the unknown time comes for them to awaken: "Some say there were four, some say there were five . . . Some say there were seven men and a dog." Another soldier connects the disappearances to the Christian Rapture, imagining in terror a world from which God is removing his creations, one at a time, in the reverse order from which he created them. And Antarès, the modern scholar-soldier, a young but hardened commander who has famously "never left a man, a body, or even a vehicle behind," finds himself for the first time in his life feverishly, dangerously in need of answers, even as the land itself seems placidly disinclined to provide them. I was reminded of the films of Werner Herzog, especially the ones where Klaus Kinski goes crazy in a hostile landscape; I was reminded of the fiction of Gemma Files. I am pretty sure there is some postcolonial theory in this movie, but there are also arresting, singular images that don't reduce easily to any one reading, like a soldier dancing alone before a techno-blasting stack of amps, his rolling, tightly muscled shoulders showing a pair of eyes tattooed one on each shoulderblade; he looks like a monster himself in that moment, he looks like a drinking cup with apotropaic eyes, he looks like the owl of Lilith's deserts, he looks possessed. It was the right film to show at three in the morning and I am so glad the digital copy consented to show its subtitles, since I might have been able to hack the soldiers' French if I saw it written, but my Persian is not a thing.

I have such mixed feelings about Christian Nicolson's This Giant Papier-Mâché Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy (2016). It is an obvious labor of love, filmed and produced with the assistance of Kickstarter, family, and friends. The initial amusing but finite concept of three regular joes from Auckland mysteriously sucked into a far-future, low-budget world in which not only the clichés but the production values of old-school space opera hold true pivots in the second act into something a lot more metafictionally interesting and then does not quite pay off in the third, even while the inventiveness of the production design remains shameless and delightful, fashioning ray guns out of eggbeaters and pirate ships out of commodes and consoles of futuristic buttons and levers out of everything you could find literally underneath your kitchen sink. The dialogue has the time of its life sending up infodumpy worldbuilding and tin-eared heroic epithets and whoever was managing the color saturation dialed it up and down convincingly for different eras of space opera. The writer-director is one of the stars and he doesn't even give himself the most triumphantly delivered line, which has to do with the reclamation of once-spurned geekery and occasioned foot-stamping audience applause. I even think the script has a handle on the comedic deployment of profanity, which I am kind of a hard sell on unless you're Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (or Boston's own Unreliable Narrator, whose Planet of the Warrior-Bunnies last October gave our household the plummily accented, rhetorically invaluable "What a clusterfuck, eh?"). I'm just not sure that it takes the fullest advantage of its premises and to a degree that left me thinking back on the plot with more yes, but they could have than awesome, they did. In this respect it is doing no worse than many summer blockbusters with orders of magnitude more budget; I just really enjoy seeing tiny homegrown oddities outdo the big studios on every level, not just the creative repurposing of squeegees and forks.

So I know I'm not the target audience for John McTiernan's Predator (1987) because I sat through the first act of lovingly slo-mo South American guerillas being shredded with machine-gun fire or pinwheeled through the air against sheets of rolling orange flame and vine-tangled green hell at the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his elite special forces squad in some kind of action-movie wet-dream do-over of Vietnam ("Makes Cambodia look like Kansas") and when Rob came back from CVS with more seltzer I said, "I have drowned in testosterone." I am not even crazy about the second act in which the commandos are stalked by Kevin Peter Hall's Predator moving like a mirror against the trees, despite the inherent interest of trying to figure out the capabilities and limitations of the hunter-alien from the very little information we have, because the logic of survival horror demands the culling of the herd of characters and I knew Schwarzenegger wasn't going to cop it with his name above the title on the poster and all. I was pleased that the script avoiding killing either of its two main black characters until well after Jesse Ventura's chest had been plasma-exploded. But I did not actually start caring about anything that happened onscreen with more than surface curiosity until the third act dropped straight into the full-bore mythic with Schwarzenegger masked in river mud bending himself a longbow, lighting a torch, and giving voice to a primal scream to alert the Predator to come and get him. Go know. After that I did not watch to see whether the hero would defeat the monster, but how, and what the monster would do about it. I had a general idea of the Predator design from the internet, but had not gathered the amphibious texture of its skin—why should it be mammalian at all—or the intricacy of its mouthparts, which gives it a familiarly doglike look until it unfolds. I was expecting much more explanation at the end than we got. I liked the withholding. I feel I may now wish to try Alien vs. Predator (2004), which both my father and brother enjoyed. They mentioned at the time that it has a black female hero, which I am pretty sure is still rare in genre film or any other kind, really.

I am the target audience for Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer (1991). I have two contradictory memories of discovering the subject material: the timing suggests that I saw the movie first, because I remember seeing it in theaters with my parents, but I also remember purchasing a secondhand copy of Dave Stevens' original comic because the trade paperback had an introduction by Harlan Ellison. In any case, I managed to get enough mental distance between the two versions that I can enjoy the film on its own terms rather than in competition with the comic, which means that I can bask in the performances and the successfully realized retro aesthetic and mostly mind only that the first act is kind of a mess and Jennifer Connelly, though she has many fine qualities which the film duly appreciates, is not Bettie Page. I did not know before this afternoon that Stevens has a brief but memorable cameo as the Nazi rocketeer who blows himself up in the suppressed training film; I keep forgetting that the German propaganda cartoon of rocketmen soaring in black arrows across the Atlantic to bring down the White House in flames and unfurl the Parteiadler in place of the American eagle was directed by Mark Dindal, who has a usually charming and here chilling eye for historical animation styles. I feel it can't merely have been punch-drunk adrenaline that had the audience hollering at every blow of the Nazi-punching climax. I've never seen Billy Campbell as anyone but Cliff Secord, but he has the right hair and the right smile; I have a longstanding fondness for Alan Arkin dating back to The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), but I think he's pretty much perfect as Peevy. Other people I keep forgetting are in this film include Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes ("Congratulations, gentlemen. Thanks to the diligence of the FBI, this particular vacuum cleaner will not fall into the wrong hands"), Paul Sorvino as Eddie Valentine ("I may not make an honest buck, but I'm one hundred percent American—I don't work for no two-bit Nazi"), and Max Grodénchik as the criminal underling Wilmer, which should tell you right there what his chances of surviving this story are going to be. I am not sure I had actually noticed before that William Sanderson plays one of the other stunt pilots at the airfield, which means I have finally seen him as someone other than J.F. Sebastian. I think it is highly likely that The Rocketeer is the first movie in which I saw Timothy Dalton, meaning I may never quite separate him from his Errol Flynn impression. Johnston directs period pieces so well, I wish people would let him do more of it.

And by that point it was nearly eleven in the morning and we had seen a beautiful print of Ron Underwood's Tremors (1990) at the Somerville's noon-to-midnight Halloween marathon four years ago, so we bailed on the DCP and went for lunch at Noor, where we had been planning to eat dinner the previous night before the whole ER situation intervened. It was extremely satisfying. I really like pickled turnips. The cats sang the songs of their disgraceful neglect as soon as we got home, then presented belly for petting and, in the case of Autolycus, tried to stick their faces into my tomato soup some hours later when I made myself dinner on the not-forgetting-to-eat plan. By now it is time for me to remember to go to bed. I am not sure this 'Thon review is all that much shorter than in previous years; it might just be distributed differently. This annual observance brought to you by my stalwart backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
This afternoon my knee was in good enough shape that I actually got out of the house and walked up to the library and back, taking the cane for the ice and general late-winter street sludge. As of tonight, I am not using the cane around the house, which the cats seem to feel is an improvement on the past four days of weird noises and tail endangerment. My father talked to me about Mary Seacole and I have decided that this tweet may be our generation's "I am a lighthouse; your call." I ate some coconut-milk ice cream. Otherwise, today has been terrible. Tomorrow, being full of science fiction film, had better be more fun.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
The funny thing about Eugene Levy in Ron Howard's Splash (1984) is that I barely remember noticing him as a child. He wasn't like John Candy, whom I almost forgot existed until I saw the film again in my early twenties, but his obnoxious, obsessed marine biologist—Walter Kornbluth, whose Muppet-grade eyebrows could be seen even behind his chunky black-framed nerd glasses—did not go into the same indelible memory file as Daryl Hannah's Madison reading antique maps in a sunken galleon or unfurling her fins in a salt-filled bath by night. He was part of the plot. He was the antagonist. I acknowledged his heel face turn in the third act, but by then it was more important that the heroes were trying to get away from sneering Dr. Ross and surprising quantities of the U.S. military.1 The painful physical comedy that was Walter's moral comeuppance was more confusing than anything else. It was only on adult rewatch that he became sympathetic to me, holding his cheap copy of the Star Confidential with its front-page picture of the woman who walked naked out of the sea at the Statue of Liberty, with none of his colleagues willing to look him in the face and Dr. Ross contemptuously cutting him down; it is the kind of redirection that always interests me when it works, because after all the time we have spent watching Kornbluth shout and stalk and shove his way through the script, a bristling, defensive, abrasive man whose dreamer's sense of a sea with more in it than heaven and earth, Horatio, has strangled into a short-sighted fixation on proving the existence of mermaids, it is unexpectedly no pleasure to see him reduced to the picture his colleagues hold of him—a crackpot, a nobody, a know-nothing, a fool—swallowing wordlessly as there go the last rags of his reputation and even his old teacher laments that his best student has turned out a schmuck. He sits afterward with his head in his hands, knowing exactly how he sounds and unable to let his siren song go: "She has legs out of the water, she has fins in the water—you taught me that, Dr. Zidell, don't you remember? You taught me all the legends. You used to bring me into your office. You used to show me charts on the walls of where sailors had claimed they saw mermaids." For the first time we hear something other than short temper and monomania in his voice, the precocious student who became a scientist for the same reasons as many a scholar before him, searching for the mystery off the edges of the map—Heinrich Schliemann wreathing his wife in Helen's gold, Arthur Evans excavating for the Minotaur. Of course, Schliemann blasted down through multiple Troys to get to the one that felt true to him and Evans poured concrete all over his Minoan fantasy. Sea-struck Walter is the hero's tarnished mirror, tangled up in his own issues like drift nets and drag lines. He'll have to flounder out of them before he can help anyone, including the people he hurt in his self-centered quest for vindication, and I suppose it's an occupational hazard of being the quasi-villain in an '80's romantic comedy that he incurs a broken arm, a neck brace, and various bruises and contusions in the process. "Six fun-filled days," Madison answered when asked how long she would be in New York City, how long ashore, "six days . . . and the moon is full." Walter gets beaten up twice by the same angry couple, accidentally Novocaines his own leg, tumbles through a basement window: "What a week I'm having!"

Anyway, this afternoon I saw the same doctor for the second time in three days and was prescribed a steroid inhaler to help with the coughing fits and the fact that I've basically got asthma until the bronchitis clears; then in aggressive self-care [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I went for dinner at Five Horses and I bought the secondhand trade paperback of Cole Haddon's The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde (2011) from Comicazi that I'd been thinking about for the last month or so and all the time I'm walking with a cane, intermittently coughing myself blue, and speaking at a whisper when I can talk at all, and about the third or fourth time I summed up the situation to a stranger with "It's been a terrible week," I realized I was hearing plaintive, aggrieved Eugene Levy. At least none of me is currently in a cast. Don't be ironic, universe.

1. If the hair and the leggings and the incredibly young Tom Hanks didn't signal its decade, Splash is immediately identifiable as American science fiction of the 1980's by the way the third act comes down to a chase scene with the government. The last time I watched this movie in 2010, I had to reassure a five-year-old that the American Museum of Natural History is really not in the habit of snatching people off the streets and experimenting on them, even if they do have fins. The movie remains an unparalleled source for dramatic shots of the old Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, however, and the reason that I along with an entire generation learned how to say "Hey, babe! I got a twelve-inch penis!" in Swedish at an entirely inappropriate age.

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