sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
So, yes, obviously I ended up voting. I know they say eighty percent of success is just showing up, but this is ridiculous.

It has been a long but worthwhile day. The drive to Worcester took about an hour; there was not a lot of traffic and some deer in a hayfield. We got to the DCU Center around nine-fifteen in the morning and [personal profile] choco_frosh went off to climb Mount Wachusett while I participated in representative democracy. The initial protocols were much like a science fiction convention: I wandered through crowds of people who already had their nametags until I found the registration tables with their alphabetical signs, showed ID and spelled my last name for good measure, and was given my turquoise-blue alternate delegate's pass, which I then proceeded to carry around in my jacket pocket and flash at security like a badge since registration had run out of lanyards. The convention center itself was a cavernous space reminding me of high school science fairs, only with more in the way of stadium-sized video screens and inappropriate flashbacks to The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Seating for delegates and alternates was divided by district and I wasted five minutes scanning for people I knew in the wrong quadrant of the audience just because it had a sign reading "Second Middlesex." (Turns out that "Second Middlesex & Norfolk" is not the same thing at all.) I found my ward chair and one of [personal profile] spatch's radio drama colleagues and someone I hadn't seen since high school. The convention itself started around ten with the presentation of colors, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the National Anthem, which was more patriotic ritual in one place than I had seen probably also since high school. I still appear to be the only person within earshot who omits "under God," but I learned the pledge from my mother who learned it before the religion was inserted in 1954 and I am pretty sure what matters more than anything right now is "liberty and justice for all." People were constantly passing around slips of paper with proposed amendments to the state party platform and clipboards gathering signatures for other proposals. As an alternate rather than an actual delegate, I couldn't sign my name to any of the petitions, but no one stopped me from collecting amendment slips. I forgot to take notes. I was enjoying the show. And because I was wearing earplugs as usual in crowds and situations involving sound systems, I think it took me longer than it should have to realize around quarter of noon that the people all around me were suddenly shouting my name. The teller with her book of records (we had to register twice, once by QR code and once by three-ring binder) was looking for me. One of the delegates from my ward was a no-show. I was the first alternate. I had gotten a field promotion.

So I called several people enthusiastically and then I paid attention. There were very good speeches given by Setti Warren, Bob Massie, Jason Kander, Maura Healey, Elizabeth Warren ("Silence is no longer an option. Hairsplitting is no longer an option . . . It is time for real courage in this country"), and Ed Markey. There was nothing wrong with Joe Curtatone's speech ("Massachusetts needs to stick its thumb in the eye of the President's harsher, crueller vision") except that it came late in the afternoon at a point when whole districts of delegates had started hollering "Vote! Vote! Vote!" like the world's most politically responsible fraternity. I am amazed and honestly delighted that the real, adult, world-changing political process involves—at least at the Massachusetts state level—a lot of shouting and leaping to one's feet. Initial votes were taken by shouts of "Aye" or "Nay," after which it went to a standing vote and a headcount if there was not an obvious winner by decibels. Two or three times we had to vote whether to suspend the rules of the convention in order to vote on a proposed amendment that fell outside the scope of the state platform and once we had to vote on whether we should reconsider a prior motion in order to vote on whether to suspend the rules of the convention in order to vote on the proposed amendment, "which the chair does not recommend," the relevant official said dryly. It pleases me that I got to vote not just to adopt the state party platform as it was developed over the series of statewide hearings held this spring (of which I attended the nearest in April), but on some specific issues important to me: refugees, gender and race, disability, criminal justice reform, mental health, student debt, climate justice, the Safe Communities Act. I started fading during the charter amendments due to the whole seven-in-the-morning-hour-of-sleep thing, but Rob's colleague almost certainly kept me functional until then by getting me a roast beef wrap and a second bottle of water during Warren's speech. It helped that I found in the crowd someone I hadn't seen since the local caucus in March when I got elected as an alternate in the first place. I made it to the closing arguments and fled. Many of my fellow delegates were doing the same. I hadn't expected to acquire quite so much swag in the process of doing my civic duty: I have three more buttons on my computer bag than I left the house with this morning. (My favorite came courtesy of the Worcester Democratic City Committee and reads "Get Off Your [Democratic logo].") I even finished the day with a lanyard, courtesy of a passer-by who'd ended up with an extra. Choco Frosh really capped the experience: on returning from Wachusett, he had contrived to park directly behind a car displaying, I have no idea why, but I rejoice in it forever, an artichoke bumper sticker.

We went to Mamaleh's for dinner. I got home to find the new shirt I had hoped to wear to the convention had arrived sometime during it. My plans at the moment involve either starting the second serial of Sapphire & Steel or passing out.

I really think I should see how far I can take this career of accidentally backing into public office. I recognize that the nightmare endpoint of walking off the street and into government is our present administration, but if the Twilight Zone happened tomorrow and I got catapulted into some kind of Claudius setup, I am almost confident that the worst I could be is incompetent and working overtime to learn on the job, not complacently and opportunistically evil. Just as I was finishing this post, I got word of 45's exquisitely sensitive response to the terrorist attack in London. Really, I promise, it's not that hard to express sympathy. You know who could do it? All of the people I heard speak today. Everyone in the audience. My cats. Me. An artichoke. I can't believe I'm developing political ambitions out of spite. Well, it works for writing.

So that was the Democratic State Convention. I am so very glad I didn't sleep through it. On to 2018.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Well, it's morning. I slept about an hour. The cats are unfairly bright-eyed, though not bushy-tailed. I am . . . at least not in bed, since [personal profile] choco_frosh shows up in fifteen minutes.

We are off to the Massachusetts Democratic State Convention. I don't expect to have to vote, being an alternate delegate, but the last time I didn't expect to do anything at a political meeting I got elected.

Forward the ethical artichoke!
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
I keep feeling I should say something about the political news, but there is enough incoherent screaming in the world already that I don't just want to add to it. I feel a little presumptuous handing 45 the prize for worst American president when a historical overview of the office can feel like a race to the bottom (both Andrews, Reagan, W alone) and the violent rightward trend of the country leaves me cautious of tempting fate, but then I don't know how you rate a president who'd rather kill a planet than actually read the terms of the global agreement he just pulled his country out of to no one's benefit but a bunch of robber baron wannabes who could easily be confused with villains from '80's children's cartoons. I don't care so much about the American century because city-on-a-hill rhetoric has always made me twitchy, but I do care about being able to breathe. The idea of my niece and my cousins' child inheriting the kind of scorched earth that should belong to science fiction makes me feel physically furious in ways I am not even sure how to direct at present. I am heartened by reactions like Pittsburgh rejecting 45's attempt to claim it as an industrial heartland. I was just sent the news of Bloomberg promising to make up the U.S. shortfall with his own $15 million to the UNFCCC, which at least demonstrates that some people with ludicrous amounts of money know what to do with it. Tomorrow is the Massachusetts Democratic State Convention and I'll be there as an alternate delegate for my ward, although I may have to skip sleeping if I want to be in Worcester and conscious at ten in the morning. But I can't think of real solutions that won't take years if not decades to implement and in the meantime the world is full of people who really would rather see it all burn down than have to acknowledge that they are not the supremely entitled center of the universe after all. It does not make me feel charitable. Lately I dream of literally fighting for my life; I dream of discovering that members of my family were Nazis. I lived for a long time with the feeling that my life had been knocked off its track into an alternate course where everything I had thought I would be was gone. It doesn't feel any better when it generalizes to the rest of the world. I know there's no going back: I just want to be reassured that forward is a direction that still exists.

[edit] At least this month I get to send a nice letter to Governor Baker: "A day after President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, Governor Charlie Baker . . . joined the governors of New York, California, and Washington state to form the 'United States Climate Alliance,' which they said would strive to stick to the nation's commitments in the Paris accord."
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
Rabbit, rabbit! The primary event of today was celebrating the birthday of my best cousin [personal profile] gaudior by attending the monthly vigil in support of Black Lives Matter at First Baptist Church JP with [personal profile] rax and [personal profile] rushthatspeaks and activist baby Fox (who can now sit in a high chair at a restaurant and kick people, e.g. me, under the table) and then going for dinner at Kamado Super Fusion, where the sushi is very good and the deep-fried coconut milk is ridiculous. In their honor, here are some things that are great:

1. The pioneering comics art of Matt Baker, "a damn good-looking black man who made his living drawing damn good-looking white women at a time when talking to one could have gotten him killed." I'd seen his splendid illustration of Julie d'Aubigny, but knew nothing about the man behind it. Black, queer, spectacularly talented, and indeed damn fine-looking. I can't reproduce the best photo, so read the article by Ian McDowell and check it out.

2. Courtesy of [personal profile] handful_ofdust: I am as disappointed as the rest of you that these mermaids come from some kind of neo-noir comedy called The Nice Guys (2016) and not a full-scale lesbian mermaid romance we could all be watching right now, but for all that they are very nice mermaids. Anyway, at least that explains the tan lines.

3. The latest issue of Poetry is a centennial tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks.

4. This is a three-thousand-year-old Near Eastern pot with feet. It looks very confident in itself.


5. "Keep misbehaving, small cats."
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
My sleep schedule has gone so far off the rails, I'm not even sure what time zone I'm in anymore, but I don't think it's the one I live in.

Yesterday I tried to take a sort of mental health break, finishing my work in the afternoon and then spending the rest of the day reading Henry Green's Back (1946) and watching John Cromwell's Caged (1950) and a serial and a half of Sapphire & Steel (1979–82) with an interlude of returning books to the library and making rice pudding. I would like to write about all of these things; they were differently great. I may just stare at more Sapphire & Steel instead.

I have decided that my personal best mode of dealing with white supremacists going around invoking Odin as a hate symbol and generally misunderstanding the Vikings is to go around invoking Loki as a queer symbol and talking a lot more about seiðr.

Courtesy of [personal profile] moon_custafer: I may be in the wrong country to catch a theatrical screening of Leslie Howard: The Man Who Gave a Damn (2016) tomorrow night (watching movies for people's yahrzeits is just as valid as for their birthdays), but it looks like it will be coming to TCM. Hurrah.

P.S. Has anybody on this friendlist seen the 1977–78 ITV adaptation of Joan Aiken's Midnight Is a Place (1976)? I just discovered it exists; I like its setting of "Denzil's Song" and it's got David Collings, but I can't tell anything else about it except that it seems to have aged up Anna-Marie.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Today has been very social, though not at all unpleasant. My brother's godparents are visiting from the Southwest, so we spent the afternoon with my family and then a sort of pre-Memorial Day dinner, which turned out surf-and-turf. There was way too much zucchini. There was not too much key lime pie. My three-year-old niece has discovered a pair of small stuffed animal rabbits which originally belonged to me and my brother—Bunnicula and Butterscotch—and is carrying them everywhere, even to dinner. She has decided that she wants a goat as a pet. (Suggestions that she ask for a pony instead were met with blank disdain.) I am no help to her parents in this argument. I think a goat in the family would be a great idea.

In the evening I met [personal profile] rushthatspeaks for a sold-out showing of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) at the Brattle Theatre: I thought it was great. It's more overtly supernatural than the series overall—it's focused on the most overtly supernatural strand—but it's also decisively grounded by Sheryl Lee's performance, with Laura Palmer's very realistic anger, damage, and agency (it was not clear in the show that her final status was a choice rather than an inevitable consequence or a weird side effect of the manner of her death; the film offers her no good options, but she absolutely opts for the best of them, which makes it strangely difficult for me to classify the film as horror, even though content-wise I don't know what else it should be) interlocking across registers with the characters who live in the soapier layers of the plot. I was glad to see Harry Dean Stanton turn up in the supporting cast, because he feels existentially like someone who should inhabit a David Lynch universe. Now we just need to finish watching the remaining half of Season Two and figure out what to do about the third-season revival.

A later interlude of placidly watching candymaking videos by Public Displays of Confection with [personal profile] spatch was interrupted by Autolycus violently throwing up all over a box of hardcover Le Guin and Tanith Lee, but fortunately the box had a lid on it, the books have been transplanted to a high shelf, and a very shaken small cat was comforted after we emergency-mopped the floor. (There was much anxious purring. We reassured him that we know he does not throw up maliciously. He never looks like he enjoys it.)

Unless it gets a National Theatre-style broadcast, I don't have a hope of seeing the Crucible's Julius Caesar on account of it being in Sheffield and me being on the other side of an ocean, but it's being done with a diverse, gender-equal cast and I wish I could see it, because Zoë Waites has a hell of a lean and hungry look:


We are talking about seeing Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967) tomorrow. I haven't seen the movie since 2010, when it was also on film at the Brattle and I loved it. I should get to bed.
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
Today was cold and grey and generally sucked and the first three restaurants I thought to check for borscht didn't have it on the menu at the moment (and the fourth was two states away), but we walked out to Inman despite the drizzling rain and I had a bowl of borscht with sour cream at the S&S and it was extremely satisfying.

1. I am very glad to read that the revised travel ban continues to be ruled unconstitutional.

2. This is a very sweetly drawn comic about bisexuality.

3. Courtesy of [personal profile] gaudior: an appreciation of the Mahler's 6th mallet. I feel someone should point Hurra Torpedo at this symphony.

In conclusion: borscht.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
I want my country to figure out a way of being angry that its political system has been externally manipulated without becoming any more nationalistic than it already has, since that's being a disaster.

My mother showed me a one-panel comic with one of those hot dog carts on a sidewalk and two passers-by looking on. The cart's umbrella advertises it as "Vlad's Treats"; the menu is "Borscht—Caviar—Unchecked Power." One of the passers-by is saying to the other, "It's an acquired taste." It is very obviously a Putin reference, but it still rang off-key for me. I don't want to move back into an era where we have ideological purity food wars. It was embarrassing enough when French fries were briefly and xenophobically renamed in 2003. No one in my family has been Russian for more than a century (and Russia might have disputed whether they counted in the first place, being Jews), but my grandmother made borscht. I don't make it with anything like the frequency I make chicken soup with kneydlekh, but that's partly because kneydlekh will not make your kitchen look like you axe-murdered somebody in it. I order it every chance I get. For my mother's seventieth birthday, my father took her to a Russian restaurant especially for the caviar. It can't be much of an acquired taste if as a toddler I had to be stopped from happily eating the entire can my grandparents had been sent as a present.

And let's face it, if I get this twitchy (and vaguely sad that at four-thirty in the morning there's nowhere I can get borscht in Boston), I assume the dogwhistles are much louder for people for whom Russia is closer than their great-grandparents. Can we not do McCarthyism 2.0? Especially since we sort of have been for some years now and it's, see above, not so much working out?
sovay: (I Claudius)
Tonight in unexpected numismatics: identifying two kinds of coins in five different writing systems for my mother. The former had classical-looking pomegranates on the obverse and were obviously Israeli because they said so in Hebrew, English, and Arabic; they turned out to be Israeli pounds or lirot issued between 1967 and 1980 and the design of a triple branch of budding pomegranates looked familiar to me because it was patterned after the shekels issued in the first year of the First Jewish Revolt (66–67 CE). My grandparents almost certainly brought them home from their visit to Israel in the mid-1980's. The latter were very worn, thin copper or brass cash and I thought Chinese, which meant the latest they could have been issued was 1911; they turned out to have been struck in Guangdong in the reign of the Guangxu Emperor, specifically between 1890 and 1908, and the script I didn't recognize on the reverse was Manchu. We have no idea where they came from. I really appreciate the role the internet played in allowing me to stare at images of different kinds of cash until I recognized enough characters to narrow my search parameters, because I don't actually read either Chinese or Manchu. I mean, I know now that the Manchu for "coin" is boo and it looks like this and the Chinese inscription on the obverse of that issue is 光緒通寶 which simply means "Guangxu currency" (Guāngxù tōng bǎo) and the reason it took me forever to track down two of those characters turns out to be the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese, but seriously, without the internet, that would have just been a lot of interesting metal to me.

(Me to [personal profile] spatch: "This is ridiculous. If I can read cuneiform, I should be able to read Chinese. I feel incredibly stupid." Rob to me: "You can't call yourself stupid if you're teaching yourself Chinese!")
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
After not sleeping for more than a day and a half, I stayed asleep for nearly twelve hours last night. I dreamed of walking out in the rain to watch cartoons at a historic theater in New York that could be reached by walking into Harvard Square. I almost left my bathrobe at the theater. Sometimes you get complex, imagistic dreams full of narrative significance; sometimes this happens.

I saw the news of Manchester yesterday morning. I was in the process of posting about a nearly sixty-year-old movie in which a terrorist bombing figures prominently. It would have been nice for that aspect of the film to have dated as badly as its Cold War politics, but even the Cold War politics have become popular again these days. I don't want to speak for a city that isn't mine: I wish everyone strength and safety. Title of this post from H.D.'s Blitz poem The Walls Do Not Fall (1944).

(I am not pleased that just because the man in the White House does not understand security, privacy, or boundaries, apparently whole swathes of the U.S. intelligence community have decided to follow suit.)

Some things from the internet—

1. It is not true that I had no idea any of these events were actually photographed, which is my problem with clickbait titles in general (seriously, the one with Tesla has been making the rounds of the internet for a decade), but this is nonetheless an incredibly interesting collection of historical photos. The one of a beardless van Gogh is great. The records of the Armenian genocide, the Wounded Knee Massacre, and Hitler in full-color Nazi splendor are instructive. I am way more amused than I should be that thirty-one-year-old Edison really looks like a nineteenth-century tech bro.

2. Courtesy of [personal profile] moon_custafer: "ZEUS NO." I am reminded of one of my favorite pieces of Latin trivia, which I learned from Craig A. Williams' Roman Homosexuality (1999/2010): that Q. Fabius Maximus who was consul in 116 BCE got his cognomen Eburnus because of the ivory fairness of his complexion, but he got his nickname pullus Iovis—"Jupiter's chick," pullus being slang for the younger boyfriend of an older man—after he was hit by lightning in the ass.

3. Courtesy of [personal profile] drinkingcocoa: "James Ivory and the Making of a Historic Gay Love Story." I saw Maurice (1987) for the first time last fall, fifteen years after reading the novel, and loved it. I should write about it. I should write about a lot of movies. I need to sleep more.

4. All of the songs in this post are worth hearing, but I have Mohamed Karzo's "C'est La Vie" on repeat. You can hear him on another track from the same session—covering one of his uncle's songs, his uncle being the major Tuareg musician-activist Abdallah Ag Oumbadougou—here.

5. Well, I want to see all of this woman's movies now. Like, starting immediately: "Sister of the sword: Wu Tsang, the trans artist retelling history with lesbian kung fu."
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I knew I would have trouble with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Quiet American (1958). I had known about it for years: it was the bad movie version of a book my parents liked. When a more faithful adaptation was released in 2002, directed by Philip Noyce and starring Michael Caine, it was received with such relief by my mother that I got her the DVD as soon as it came out. When a Mankiewicz retrospective came through the HFA a few years ago, we saw People Will Talk (1951) and Escape (1948) and 5 Fingers (1952) instead. I had already guessed there was no way that a close version of Graham Greene's 1955 novel—a prescient indictment of American involvement in Vietnam—could have made it unscathed through the Hollywood machine in the days of the Red Scare, not to mention imminent U.S. escalation in Vietnam. But it came around a few nights ago on TCM and I thought, all right, let's see how bad this gets.

In its favor, the film is beautifully photographed and cleverly cast. Otherwise it is a deliberate and insulting inversion of Greene's novel and a criminal fucking waste of Michael Redgrave. Spoilers everywhere because otherwise I'll just keep on swearing where the cats can hear me.

I'm a reporter. I'm not involved. )

But of course what Mankiewicz didn't have was the cultural or political permission to film a definitive adaptation of The Quiet American in the late 1950's. Trying to find out what the hell besides McCarthyism had happened to a director I had always considered basically lefty, I ran into the stranger-than-fiction fact that Lansdale—you know, the guy who ran General Thế for the CIA, so popularly if incorrectly associated with the character of Alden Pyle that his authorized biography was titled The Unquiet American (1988)—actually consulted on the film, where by "consulted" I mean "among other input sent Mankiewicz a three-page letter detailing the true history of the bombings at the Place Garnier and encouraging the writer-director to disregard it completely and blame the Communists." Okay, then. The end credits are dedicated "To the people of the Republic of Vietnam—to their chosen President and administrators—our appreciation for their help and kindness," which I doubt Mankiewicz as producer would have been able to secure without assurance of a positive spin on the present state of South Vietnam, five years in the film's future. Both Greene and his novel were banned by Diệm's government. Allen Dulles signed off on the script treatment. I have no idea if I can or should recommend this film to anyone. Certainly it is historically significant, attractive to look at, and it is a truth at least semi-universally acknowledged that Michael Redgrave distraught and disheveled is pretty hot, but as I shouted to [personal profile] spatch, "No amount of hot Michael Redgrave is worth intellectual dishonesty!" Your mileage, I guess. This betrayal brought to you by my engagé backers at Patreon.

1. Murphy had starred as himself in the 1955 screen adaptation of his 1949 autobiography, To Hell and Back.

2. I'd love to be able read her gesture postcolonially, as independent Vietnam rejecting both naïve America and paternal Empire, but I am pretty sure it's just your standard Code-mandated reminder that only heroes get the girl in the end. Either way, casting Phuong's relationship with the American in the light of tragically lost true love romanticizes and retroactively legitimizes his complete failure to see her as a person rather than a symbolic object to be saved.

3. In the 2002 film, she is played by the actually Vietnamese Đỗ Thị Hải Yến and, while she gets very little dialogue compared to her male co-stars, appears to possess an interior life in consonance with the novel, which several times suggests that she sees more than either of the men she lives with. Fowler likens her to a bird, to opium, to her namesake phoenix, to her own country, but he has at least the grace to recognize the existence of her independent self, of which she shares only so much with him: "But even while I made my speech and watched her turn the page . . . I knew I was inventing a character just as much as Pyle was. One never knows another human being; for all I could tell, she was as scared as the rest of us." Quite seriously, if anyone knows of literature or nonfiction revisiting the events of The Quiet American from Phuong's perspective à la Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) or Lauren Wilford's "Possessed: Vertigo Through Her Eyes" (2015), I'd be fascinated.

4. He filmed a similarly liminal Belfast for Reed's Odd Man Out (1947): he had a talent for showing cities as both their documentary selves and their expressionist reflections. I am charmed that his first solo credit as director of photography was Leslie Howard's The Gentle Sex (1943).
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Today's major achievement: writing to the Department of the Interior about the ongoing national monument review, which could (and feels designed to) result in the rescinding of federal protection from more than two dozen established national monuments. Rather obviously, I do not believe this is a wise idea.

We live already in a world where it is far too uncertain whether our grandchildren will be able to enjoy the land and the seas as we knew them. )

If you wish to send a letter or submit a comment of your own, the deadline regarding Bears Ears National Monument is the end of this week, May 26th; the deadline for all other monuments is July 10th. Some of the land in question is sacred; some of it is merely irreplaceable. Thanks to [personal profile] truepenny for the heads-up.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
I have no idea why the car double-parked directly beneath my office window is blasting classical guitar at half past midnight, but I'm honestly really enjoying it. Usually the music people blast from their cars is much more bass-heavy. This is remarkably soothing. [edit] And someone from the next house over called the cops on it. Dammit.

(There is not much to report about today: it was the kind of unromantically exhausted, brain-AWOL sick day where mostly I coughed a lot and stared into space and did very little of practical use, which I hate, although I did manage to bake a loaf of banana bread and unpack four more boxes of books. We have a pot of basil on the back porch now, which I am hoping not to kill.)
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Today I got to have my yearly physical in the middle of this extremely unpleasant cold (I came home immediately afterward to cats and air conditioning), so here are a couple of things off the internet.

1. I am sure this guy cannot be cosplaying Strider if only because the machinery against which he's leaning looks too industrial for Tolkien's Middle-Earth, but that's what my brain told me I was looking at and so that's where we are:

2. Jason Shulman's Photographs of Films catches entire movie in single frames. Some of them work for me as freestanding images, some don't. I like how much Dr. Strangelove (1964) looks like spirit photography—the same with Blue Velvet (1986), only in color. If they return to particular sets and angles, you can see it; you get an idea of shot length. You wind up with these ghosts of the director's eye.

3. This is a very good article about the mythology of Robert E. Lee, occasioned by the removal of his monument from New Orleans.

4. This is a beautiful little short film courtesy of StoryCorps and It Gets Better.

5. Hestia when she does not feel like being petted basically pulls a Mordecai.

6. I am not sure if David Cairns is just going through his favorite character actors at The Chiseler, but after Edna May Oliver and Eric Blore he can keep it up indefinitely as far as I'm concerned. "I’m pretty sure a head like that could encircle the globe, if you laid it end to end a sufficient number of times." [edit] He appreciates Aline MacMahon! Good call. How could you not?

7. I really hope the new world's hottest chili pepper wins its flower show next week.

And because I just checked the news, I guess I'll have to watch an open hearing of the Senate intelligence committee sometime after Memorial Day, because I am certainly curious about what Comey is going to say.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Overnight the weather has gone subtropical: I fell asleep after it was light out and even then we lay sweating on top of the covers while the air came in like heat-shimmer through the window fan and the cats tried to melt themselves into the hardwood. I have the blinds drawn; I'm drinking cold water even though it makes my teeth hurt. We need to get our air conditioner out of the storage unit and fast.

The twenty-four-hour news cycle has become more like twenty-four frames per second. Yesterday 45 claimed that "no politician in history has been treated more unfairly" (to which I found myself responding on Facebook, "Definitely not any of the asssassinated Presidents of the United States") while today he invokes witch hunts, of which again there has never been a greater victim than himself. I saw a macro of Joan of Arc last night: "Bitch, please." [edit] Points to the representative from Salem.

Here's what I hope: that Robert Mueller is honest, and good at his job, and has security who are the same.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
The astonishing Holocaust novel I mentioned earlier was Emeric Pressburger's The Glass Pearls (1966), which I read last night on either side of seeing To Be or Not to Be (1942). I cannot possibly do justice to it, but I'm trying not to let everything slip past just because I feel like someone replaced my sinuses with damp cheesecloth.

The Glass Pearls was Pressburger's second published novel. His first was the critically and commercially acclaimed Killing a Mouse on Sunday (1961), probably better known nowadays in its Gregory Peck-starring film incarnation, Fred Zinneman's Behold a Pale Horse (1964). Its follow-up was not acclaimed. Hollywood did not come calling. It garnered one brutally dismissive review and no second printing—critically, commercially, it disappeared without a trace. Caitlin McDonald, who writes the second of this edition's two useful introductions, not unjustly likens it to Michael Powell's career-killing Peeping Tom (1960), with which it shares an uncomfortably sympathetic protagonist and an effortless inhabitation of mindsets and behaviors a "normal" person is not supposed to be able to get inside of. Powell put himself literally into Peeping Tom, drawing a disquieting link between the work of a film director and a serial killer. When Pressburger performs a similar trick with The Glass Pearls, it is especially striking because his protagonist is a Nazi.

In the spring of 1965, Karl Braun is a slight, solitary, middle-aged piano tuner who lives and works in West London. For recreation, he attends classical concerts on the discount tickets he gets from one of his fellow-lodgers and sometimes has dinner with another, both of them immigrants like himself; he thinks often of his wife and child who died more than twenty years ago in the air-raids of Hamburg, but has recently found himself pursuing a not quite romantic relationship with a young woman he met at the estate agency. She takes him to her favorite Chinese restaurant. He introduces her to Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Strauss. (She introduces him to a screamingly crowded beatnik dance club and he has a panic attack and passes out.) She finds him charming in an old-world sort of way, with his discreetly rakish stories of affairs and narrow escapes in Paris before the war. What she does not know, what no one in this scenario knows except the reader and the man who has for the last twenty years gone by the name of Karl Braun: he is a wanted war criminal, keeping an increasingly anxious weather eye on the news coming out of Ludwigsberg. It was bad enough when a former comrade actually made contact with him in England—now any time a stranger asks after him at the piano factory or one of his places of work, he gets so paranoid that he has to remind himself that "the natural function of a logical mind was to reduce mountains to molehills, not the other way round." His relationship with Helen Taylor progresses; so does his conviction that he is being followed, spied upon, elaborately set up to give himself away. Both plots come to a head during a trip to France, where Braun has promised to show Helen the real-life sites of every one of his Parisian adventures and, while she visits friends in the south of France, nip over the border to Zürich where he has business of an unspecified nature. Three, two, one, nothing in life ends as simply as it does in the movies, but there are things that are real and that no amount of retelling can magic away.

The one extant review of The Glass Pearls devotes way too much of its short wordcount to criticizing the author's choice of a Nazi as the main character and his failure to treat this fact as a shocking plot twist, when in reality the book would not work at all if the audience were not clued in from the outset. (The reviewer also calls the character of Helen "boring and stupid," which is the kind of book report I would expect from a last-minute sixth-grader, not the TLS.) For much of its runtime, it functions as a study in the banality of evil—still a new concept when Pressburger was writing—and the efficacy of compartmentalization, neither romanticizing nor demonizing Braun past the judgment of his own actions. He deeply misses his wife and child, with whom he knows he would have died in the British bombing raid if his work hadn't called him away on the night; he forms a friendship with a Jewish neighbor and listens seriously and sympathetically to the man's story of escaping occupied Prague by doctoring his name from "Kohn" to "Kolm." The stories he relates to an always interested Helen show him in a variety of lights from prankish lover to terrified exile, sometimes jaunty, sometimes petty, sometimes just getting along. It is not special pleading, however Braun's tight third-person perspective justifies itself. With the Eichmann trial in recent memory, Pressburger seems to have felt confident assuming his audience would take it as read that National Socialism was not a good thing, therefore he could push the terrible, relatable ordinariness of his protagonist further than the purely circumstantial sympathy of 49th Parallel (1941). In the first introduction to this edition, Kevin Macdonald notes that his grandfather "bizarrely . . . went so far as to imbue the Braun character with certain traits of his own; such that, to some degree, Braun is a self-portrait." This statement is true enough, but also conceals the novel's most resonant and devastating twist, which I am afraid I have to talk about if I want to explain why it affected me as strongly as it did.

It was the first party in the new flat in the Rue Quentin-Bochart. )

There are other reasons to take it seriously as a Holocaust novel—the differing perspectives offered by Braun's flatmates Leslie Strohmayer and Jaroslav Kolm, the evidence that people were already worrying about the failure of historical memory barely twenty years after the war. "Perhaps nowadays they treated such cases as routine. The war, the Nazis, the camps, War Criminals were old hat. To everybody under thirty, the whole period must appear as mythical as the Boer War." (Did I mention we had neo-Nazis in Boston over the weekend? They held a rally on the Common. It was apparently a fairly pathetic rally, which I am not sorry to hear, but they brought their Kriegsmarine cosplay and their internet memes and trust me, this stuff is not old hat to me right now. To be honest, it wasn't even before we had quite so many homegrown fascists in the news.) It is also simply a very good novel, in terms of character study and in terms of prose. English may have been Pressburger's fifth or sixth language, but he puts it together beautifully, plain-spoken and poetic by the turns it needs. I haven't re-read it with an eye to his scripts, but I am sure it would reward consideration in that direction. At the moment, I am going to shower and see what I can do about getting over this cold. I can't do anything about getting over the haunting, except remember, and make sure it's tribute, not theft.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
I get that Beth Hamedrash Hagodol had ceased to exist as a congregation a full ten years ago and I am disappointed that the historic building was left to fall into increasing disrepair rather than being preserved as a landmark, but that doesn't make me feel any better about the fact that the oldest Eastern European synagogue in the United States was just burnt down.

(I especially don't appreciate finding out while attempting to write about a piece of astonishing Holocaust literature. Which is almost certainly not going to happen this afternoon because I am still running a fever and sneezing my head off and I fell over after walking to the library to return a book, but the timing was just unnecessary.)
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
The first ice cream truck of the season just drove slowly down our street, playing "Turkey in the Straw" and looking slightly lost. Hestia watched it intently from the front window. She has since turned her attention to the delicious, noisily chirping birds.

Today I feel like crawling back into bed and staying there until I don't have to blow my nose anymore and can swallow without feeling that I encountered a porcupine on the way down, but we have tickets for Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942) at the Coolidge tonight; it is being presented in 35 mm for its seventy-fifth anniversary as part of the National Center for Jewish Film's annual festival and there will be a scholarly Q & A afterward, so I am just planning not to shake hands with anyone and hopefully not sneeze at any moment where it would break the comedy. I haven't seen the movie in years and never on a big screen. I believe my mother showed it to me, after we caught the 1983 Mel Brooks remake on TV; it was my introduction to Jack Benny and quite possibly Carole Lombard. My grandparents were still alive. They'd seen it first-run. Films against fascism were not supposed to come around to being relevant again. All the more reason to go pay attention to this one.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)
Frank Borzage's Strange Cargo (1940) lives up to its name. It's like a prison break directed by Elizabeth Goudge. I know I enjoyed it, but what on earth.

It begins like an adventure film, complete with scene-setting titles: "Deep in the Guianas . . . a penal colony for men set aside to be forgotten by the world, to whom the present, the future and the past are one—for men without hope . . ." Clark Gable's Verne is one such man, a tough thief with a history of failed escapes and punishing stints in solitary; he emerges from the latest wincing but unbroken, retorting to the warden who counsels him to serve out his brief remaining time quietly, "I'm a thief by profession, not a convict. There's nothing worth stealing around here except freedom—and I'm after some of that." Detailed to longshoreman's work on the wharves, he meets Joan Crawford's Julie, a Marseilles prostitute fetched up as a bar girl on the island for reasons as murky as Verne's own past. They have a stinging anti-chemistry that pays off in a kiss like a mutual insult later that night when Verne evades the guards for just long enough to sneak into Julie's quarters. She turns him in. He's returned to the general population, where he discovers an old enemy planning to break out with anyone who can pony up the cash for a share in the boat waiting up the coast. She's ordered off the island, though without enough money for her own passage she's forced to rely on the dubious chivalry of strangers rather than accept the price-tagged attentions of the prison informant played with circumspect sleaziness by Peter Lorre, known to all as "M'sieu Pig." By the time their paths cross again in the jungle, though neither of them knows it yet, both Julie and Verne are already entangled in something a little stranger than your average jailbreak, increasingly presided over—though not apparently controlled—by the most enigmatic of the escaped convicts, the easygoing, compassionate, almost certainly supernatural Cambreau. He's played by Ian Hunter, who got my attention for life in John Ford's The Long Voyage Home (1940) and is fully as good here in a role that sounds frankly stupid when baldly described. By the second act I started wondering if he was the Angel of Death. I finished the picture pretty sure he was an avatar of God.

Not Christ, though, which is one of the reasons Strange Cargo interests rather than repels me. Whatever process of regeneration the film is chronicling, it's not as direct or as obvious as a Second Coming—it can't be or the story's peculiar grace would collapse into that particularly nauseating brand of portentous syrup that characterizes so much Production Code Christianity. If it once winked at its audience, if it yielded to special effects or declamation or, God forbid, whimsy, it would be unwatchable. Cambreau works because whatever else he may prove to be, he's mortal. He has a sense of humor; he gets tired, thirsty, looks like hell after a week of trekking the jungle and becalmed drifting. He looks like Ian Hunter, which means that he's got a pleasant enough face, but nothing head-turning, certainly nothing that suggests a hotline to the otherworld. He seems to know things, but none of them individually is beyond human ken for a perceptive watcher of people and the weather—only in aggregate does the reliability of his guidance start to feel spooky, to the point where one of his fellow-convicts accuses him of being the Devil. (That's a different jailbreak movie.) He never pushes his authority or even his opinions, never takes part in the macho jockeying that preoccupies Verne and his comrades. He says everything as though it means exactly what it sounds like. Even when you're sure he's double-speaking, you'll never prove it from his manner, which is both seriously interested in everyone and everything around him and not taking anything too dramatically. He appears out of a flat white afternoon in the prison yard, taking Verne's place as the thirty-sixth man1 to return from the wharfside work detail; when the guard shouts at him to hurry up, he replies absently, "I must have fallen behind. There's so much to do out there." What we chiefly see him do over the course of the escape is help the other prisoners, variously taken out by snakes, heat, sharks, each other, through their dying: their anger, their shame, their regrets and their hopes and their terror that it's too late for any of it to mean anything. He takes up the same conversations with the living, if they want them. Some of it is philosophy, some of it is theology, a lot of it seems to work like therapy. He asks people the kinds of questions they ask themselves. He rarely gives them answers they couldn't work out eventually, either, but it makes a difference to hear it from someone else. Even his climactic argument with Verne—explicitly over his own life, implicitly over the other man's soul—doesn't sound like a psychomachia; it sounds like the classic are we going to talk about it or are we going to do it. "Or does it take something to kill me you haven't got?" And indeed, after Verne has risked death himself diving over the side of the storm-tossed boat to save the man he angrily roundhoused into a raging sea, half-drowned Cambreau looks up at his attempted murderer-rescuer, who is trying to pretend with tears in his eyes that he did not just give the muttered, telltale eulogy "You're an awful sucker to do things like that for rats like me," and he smiles. It's not patronizing, it's not victorious, it's not even beatific, it's just pure, exhausted, shared happiness and a little as if he is gently teasing Verne: guess it takes one sucker to recognize another, hey?

Only in the last few seconds does the film overplay its hand, as the fisherman watching Cambreau disappear into the rain-glinting, net-hung darkness at the back of his boat makes the reverent sign of the cross over his heart. I guess MGM couldn't let it go without a little syrup. It's annoying. We don't need the shorthand; we have already witnessed the thing itself. But the fact that I can say this about a movie in which there are no miracles and very little preaching is fascinating to me. The most prominent uses of a Bible in Strange Cargo, beyond a graveside reading of the bit about "the temple of God" from 1 Corinthians (which provokes the derisive remark from Verne quoted in the title of this post), are the transmission of a map carefully copied onto its flyleaf and the most passive-aggressive application of the Song of Songs I have ever encountered, sarcastically addressed to a weary, bedraggled Julie by Verne on their first night alone in the jungle (it makes her cry anyway, imagining a life in which someone could compare her to pomegranates and honey and mean it). The script itself mocks the idea that Cambreau will be some kind of charismatic Bible-belter: "Well, why don't you start reading out of that book and I'll jump off the boat? Don't give me any of that sister-come-to-salvation look, I'm not buying any! I know the routine. It starts out with a prayer and ends up with a Bible in one hand and me in the other." Later in the doldrums of the voyage, Julie will snag her fingers into the raggedy leg of his canvas trousers and pull him down beside her so that she can talk to him, slantwise, about all the things she's not talking about with the person she most wants to: "You'd know I could want a lot of things if Verne were around. But he'd have to want them, too." This time when she weeps, Cambreau will stroke her hair, as gently and carefully as a cat that has just begun to trust him, and because he means nothing more than comfort by it she'll let him. It is not an extraordinary gesture, just a reasonable human one. I don't happen to believe in Cambreau as a version of God, but if you must have them in your worldview, the kind with a sense of humor and a good understanding of boundaries seems like a good start to me. He doesn't redeem any of the characters, subject-verb-object. He gives them the space to change themselves. Whether they take or leave it is their call.

I may have to be more awake to explain why any of this reminded me of Elizabeth Goudge. The deep Christian bedrock of the story is part of it, the way a lot of ordinary things happen that are yet concerned with the saving of people's souls—even if the language is never used, just as I can't remember the dialogue ever mentioning Christ—with the ways that people choose to make their lives better, to take responsibility for themselves and care of others, to do the hard things that yield joy instead of the quick gratifying things that feed right back into the same aimless holding patterns that don't need to be a French colonial prison in order to feel like iron bars and hell. There are echoes and flickers of the core myth, no straight re-runs. Cambreau may be the movement of God in the world, but according to him so is the good in anyone. I finished the movie thinking that if Borzage instead of Victor Saville had been handed Green Dolphin Street (1947), it would have turned out a lot weirder and a lot more like its source novel. (Alas, he wasn't and it is not.) The Catholic Legion of Decency apparently fainted in coils and condemned the picture out of hand, which I feel was missing the point; I am pretty sure that most practicing Christians would get more out of it than I did, at least in terms of recognition and reinforcement. It was similarly banned in Boston, ditto. I'll have to see what its reputation is today. I had started to back off Borzage—I loved Moonrise (1948), boggled at Seven Sweethearts (1942), and the best I can say about Hearts Divided (1936) is that Claude Rains makes a really entertaining Napoleon—but Strange Cargo is in all ways a counterintuitive enough film that I am curious about his other work again. It has cinematography to speak of, in the nascent expressionist style that turned noir in Stranger on the Third Floor (1940); it has a good supporting cast, almost all of whom I have wildly overlooked in this appraisal. Gable is himself, but Crawford is smarter and flintier than her archetype calls for and I appreciate it. I hope I haven't exhausted all the really good Ian Hunter. This strange delivery brought to you by my changing backers at Patreon.

1. Borzage was raised Catholic and the spiritual values of Strange Cargo are definitely Christian, but if you tipped this story just a little, I could almost accept Cambreau as a tzaddik.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
Definitely sick. Sore throat, stuffed nose, disturbing sensation that my brain has gently extracted itself and floated off somewhere I can't do much with it, and I seem to have wiped out my energy reserves for the day by walking to Porter Square to pick up my copy of Emeric Pressburger's The Glass Pearls (1966) from Porter Square Books. On the way down we passed a basketball court full of kids playing cricket—the batsman and the bowler were getting trash-talked by their respective opposing sides. The blackened plywood over the doors of the former MBTA substation on School Street had been removed and an enormous spool-like chunk of what must have been a dynamo dragged out onto the weedy grass behind the chain-link, glittering with mica insulation and copper ends. [personal profile] spatch got pictures which I am hoping came out. We have no idea what is being done with the property, but there were abandoned construction gloves on both sides of the fence. They'll probably demolish the mural. I hope Rob got pictures of that, too.

Courtesy of this impressive timesink, I think this may be the single worst photograph of Leslie Howard I have ever seen:


I am unsurprisingly charmed by it.

Oh, and the ostensible president of this country shared classified information which wasn't ours to share at last week's meeting with Russian officials which American reporters weren't allowed into, all of which may not be technically illegal, but is certainly a great way to endanger sources and jeopardize security and in general look like a complete tool of the Russian government, which I hate that I am even writing because my entire childhood was spent observing the de-escalation of the Cold War and you know, I still don't think it was a bad idea.

June 2017

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