sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
I am also having an unsatisfactory government experience, where by "unsatisfactory" I mean "smug and inhumane" and by "government experience" I mean "two hundred and seventeen assclowns celebrating their decision to kill millions of their supposedly fellow Americans plus one assclown-in-chief signing disingenuous self-righteousness into law in an embarrassment to assclowns everywhere." I am aware that the Senate has not yet voted on the so-called American Health Care Act of 2017 and I hope their phone lines are burning up. As for the representatives who voted yes on this travesty, whether it passes in the Senate or not, I hope their jobs are already burning. The voting breakdown is available. I'm sure the twenty Republicans who voted no did not all have altruistic motives, but I hope someone sends them flowers anyway, since apparently deciding not to be a cartoonishly gleeful sociopath is something we have to reward people for now.

So that's difficult. Here are some non-government-related things.

1. Marc Svetov's "Strangers in Purgatory: On the 'Jewish Experience,' Film Noir, and Émigré Actors Fritz Kortner and Ernst Deutsch" is about half review of a book I can probably skip and half study of character actors of the kind I really enjoy. I think I have seen Kortner only in Pandora's Box (1929), but I've been trying to see The Hands of Orlac (1923) for years—admittedly, for Conrad Veidt—and Svetov has just sold me on Somewhere in the Night (1946). I was just looking up Deutsch a few weeks ago after seeing him in The Golem, How He Came into the World (1920); I can see now that I'll have to track down Pabst's The Trial (1948), though at the moment I'd rather rewatch The Third Man (1949).

2. I was talking about L.M. Montgomery with [personal profile] osprey_archer when I realized that Barney Snaith in The Blue Castle (1926) is very much like a version of Dean Priest from Emily of New Moon (1923), Emily Climbs (1925), and Emily's Quest (1927) who isn't fourteen years older than the heroine and eventually terrible about boundaries; otherwise they are strikingly the same mode of attractive outsider-dreamer-kindred-spirit, right down to the tawny hair, the whimsical, sensitive mouth, the world traveling, the touch of cynicism, and the bitter laugh. I am left wondering if Montgomery had a type or if she was just working out alternatives in parallel. (I need to find out if the publication dates of the books correspond at all to the dates of writing—if she actually wrote The Blue Castle in between Emily Climbs and Emily's Quest, that makes it feel especially like a kind of self-AU.) I know almost nothing about her life except that there was a lot more chronic illness and depression in it than I knew as a child. I don't know if she had a life model for Dean and Barney; I think I hope not. Leaving aside Dean's disability and Barney's family history, the major difference between them really is each character's viability as a romantic match for the heroine of his book. And their eyes, of course. Barney's are Emily-violet. Dean's are Priest-green.

3. Courtesy of [personal profile] rushthatspeaks: clipping., "Air 'Em Out." Daveed Diggs plus shout-outs to Octavia E. Butler, M. John Harrison, and Ursula K. Le Guin among other science fiction and a really catchy hook. I may have to look into the rest of this album. [edit] Splendor & Misery (2016). Highly recommended.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
So I mentioned having an unsatisfactory film experience: it happened over the weekend and I find it frustrating. I can't tell if it's the film or me. I am usually very good at seeing the film that's there, not the film I wanted or the film I was expecting. But either I saw the beginning of this one wrong or it fails one of its characters badly or I just tripped over the Production Code and need to ice my disbelief. Whichever way, argh.

The film in question is Ramrod (1947), a Western noir directed by Andre de Toth and starring Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea. I got it out of James Ursini's "Noir Westerns" (Film Noir Reader 4 ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini, 2004), which made it sound like my sort of genre-bending thing; I think it would be, except that as I wrote to [personal profile] kore, I have trouble with a movie which castigates its lead female character for her "greed and ambition" when her primary motive for striking out as an independent rancher was to escape her violent stalker of a would-be husband, especially when the script initially seemed sympathetic to her situation. The night that bullying cattle baron Frank Ivey (Preston Foster) runs off his latest competitor in love and business is the night Connie Dickason (Lake) finally decides she's done with trying to play the stacked deck of a good woman's proper place in the West. Her toadying father was no protection against Ivey, pushing her to accept his boss' attentions and then blaming her for the bloodshed that threatened when she refused; she's never been able to find a suitor strong enough to stand up to Ivey's intimidation. "They'd break any man I wanted. They'd find a reason. Like they made sheep the reason for breaking Walt. But I'll never turn to Frank Ivey. A little money of my own—enough to buy some cattle and hire a crew—they won't break anybody when I get through with them." She's the new mistress of the Circle 66, Walt having thoughtfully signed over the land to her before skedaddling ignominiously out of town. The day she takes possession, Ivey has her new home burned to the ground. Counseled to keep on the clean side of the law ("The sheriff's our blue chip. Anything we do against Ivey's got to be legal"), Connie eventually decides that she can't wait until Ivey escalates the already murderous range war any further and makes an unethical move of her own. Rocks immediately start to fall. More than one person will die. And it is not that I disagree either that it was a poor decision or that she should at least not have lied to her "ramrod"—her ranch foreman—about it, but it's one thing to watch a character draw herself down the road to hell with the best intentions, as happens in many a noir, and another to be abruptly asked to reconsider her as a heartless troublemaker from the start, deserving of whatever consequences her cavalier treatment of others can visit on her.

I suppose one of the problems here is that I want to see Connie succeed. A woman who wants control of her own life in the face of men who would treat her with less consideration than their cattle: what's not to sympathize? The film even seems to encourage it. Frank Ivey is a sneering, domineering heavy, not quite a mustache-twirler, but he might try tying a girl to a track if the railroad would only come through town. Her fiancé folds without a fight; her father blusters like he wasn't bought years ago. Only Connie is icy and fearless, a small woman carrying herself with the adamant and defiant pride of space she has a right to. She's not fighting fair, but she's not on a level playing field. When Ivey orders one of her men beaten in front of her to teach her a lesson, she can't even defend him: alone and unarmed, she's easily caught and restrained by Ivey himself, his big hands around her wrists and at least the lewd smirk startled off his face when she followed up the heroine's traditional slap with a cold, contemptuous pummeling. Her anger is clear and understandable. But the film's recognition of it doesn't last. As the ramifications of her decision begin to ricochet through the valley, the script decides that her fearlessness is foolhardy arrogance, her desire for independence merely the willful and inappropriate bucking of the proper authorities—and when it lets her win the range war, she's righteously condemned for it by the hero as he walks away into the arms of another woman, leaving her with the feminine Pyrrhic victory of all the power she ever dreamed of and none of the man. The third act does not fall quite as far as a humiliation conga, but no character seems to pass up the opportunity to pass judgment on Connie and nothing in their presentation suggests that we the audience are not assumed to agree. I suppose we can if we judge her strictly on her behavior in the second half of the film, after the personality transplant. Her last, plaintive line is hardly recognizable as belonging to the woman who originally declared her intent to make a life without relying on the lenience of men. Hold that thought.

It is especially frustrating because I like so much of the rest of the film. McCrea is understated and effective as Dave Nash, the slow-dawning hero who's barely got himself in shape in time for the plot to start. He's sober now, but he was on a hell of a drunk when he arrived in town; it got him a reputation that dogs him into the bar and offers Ivey's men easy pickings to taunt him with and he only came out of it with the practical assistance of the town's aging sheriff (Donald Crisp) and the low-key sympathy of dressmaker Rose Leland (Arleen Whelan) and her sometime swain, the cheerful hell-raiser Bill Schell (Don DeFore). "Took me a week to rope that hangover," he answers when the sheriff gently sounds out his steadiness. He buys the older man a drink in thanks, but perhaps also to prove that he can walk into the Special and not have to be scraped off the floor at the end of the night. He relates the tragedy that started him drinking so directly and simply that it doesn't sound like necessary backstory, just one of the terrible, inexplicable things that happen in the world sometimes. Once hired by Connie as her ramrod, he insists on honest dealing not just out of pragmatism or native decency, but because he spun out of control once before and didn't like it; he is a curiously tentative protagonist, not so much easily led as unsure of the limits within which he can be trusted now. Meanwhile, DeFore is acres of magnitude more interesting as a charming, haphazardly principled drifter than he was as the avenging moral majority in Byron Haskin's Too Late for Tears (1949), where I could have swapped him without noticing for any number of sturdy second leads—Bill's loyal to his friends and quick in defense of them, but he'll cut corners on his ethics without hesitating if he thinks it'll get results. His relationship with Rose is informal but affectionate. I am aware that his relationship with Connie is framed as though she's seducing him to her own ends, but since the film has already established that he can do moral ambiguity on his own dime and he'll never say no to a willing girl, I can't buy it: it plays much more like a hookup of convenience on both sides. It's a good film to look at. Russell Harlan's cinematography treats daylight scenes with a flat, almost overexposed objectivity that washes out even violent actions into a kind of indifferent glare, while night scenes are dense and dramatic. Fires happen at night; so do showdowns, ambushes, and stampedes. Deaths happen by day and there is nothing expressionistic about them. Ramrod handles its violence unusually for the time—a fistfight in a bar is quick, scuffling, and messy, with blood on both men's shirts and faces by the time it's broken up, while the brutality of a fatal beating is conveyed by the camera's steady focus on the face of a man who is coolly and professionally, with short, hard, bare-knuckled blows, reducing another man's face to the blinded pulp he'll die of. (We never see his handiwork, but the doctor brought vainly to treat the dying man asks after a look, "Was he dragged by a horse?") There is little gunplay in the film and it doesn't follow the expected rhythms. A snipers' game of cat-and-mouse on a brushy canyonside drags on all night until someone gets shot in the back. The climactic shootout ends with a shotgun blast. I thought Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952) was ahead of the curve on demolishing the romance of the West, but de Toth obviously got here first.

And yet. I last saw Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942), a movie I loved and totally failed to write about a year ago. Essentially it's a wartime spy story that turns into film noir by making its protagonist, instead of the sterling cop pursuing the sticky threads of industrial and international espionage through more than one murder and the kidnapping of his girlfriend, the double-crossed hitman who's in possession of a vital chemical secret but only wants to get back at the boss who set him up; even when the rest of the movie behaves like action-comics pulp around him, he and his relationship with the heroine are complex and ambivalent and unpredictable enough to pull the other genre through. Alan Ladd plays the hitman and seeing this movie after Jean-Pierre Melville's Le samouraï (1967) was actively disorienting, because I hadn't realized until then what a pure homage Alain Delon's Jef Costello is to Ladd's Raven, who loves cats and cares nothing about people and lives in an apartment so sparsely furnished he might as well not exist between jobs.1 Lake plays a professional magician freshly recruited by the U.S. government to spy on new employer Laird Cregar, who just so happens to be the hitman's double-crossing boss. She is tiny, beautiful, radium-blonde. Ladd is equally tiny, equally beautiful, dark-haired in this role so that they make a strange matched pair; together they feel simultaneously more real and more fairytale than anything else happening in the movie, deadly Hansel and duplicitous Gretel in the nightclubs and railyards and factories of Los Angeles. Robert Preston plays the cop who loves Lake, but he was always better at slippery than sterling and he doesn't have a chance against the leads' chemistry. At one point Lake wears skintight black vinyl and slinky hip waders to perform a fishing-themed nightclub number. And strictly speaking, she betrays all three of the leading men in the picture. Cregar's Willard Gates may be taken for granted, but it is less traditionally forgivable that she should at different points work with or against the policeman or the hitman depending on which one will get her closer to solving the mystery of the secrets Nitro Chemical may be selling—and yet she remains sympathetic, heroic, and generates such a charge with Ladd that I'm not surprised they were reteamed for three more films. She is not punished for her betrayal of Preston's Detective Lieutenant Michael Crane by losing his love and she is not punished for her betrayal of Raven by losing his respect. Daniel M. Hodges in "The Rise and Fall of the War Noir" (also Film Noir Reader 4, I am so glad to have discovered this book) considers it a unique feature of wartime noirs that they include women as equals, allies, and protagonists in their own right—either way, not obstacles or rewards—and while I feel this may be slightly overstating the case, it is true that if I look at Lake in This Gun for Hire and Lake in Ramrod and consider them at all representative of their respective eras, it does look bad for 1947.

Ramrod was adapted from a 1943 novel of the same name by Luke Short, which I have not read; it is possible that it went weird in translation. Since it is not reasonable to interpret a film strictly according to its source material, however, that doesn't help much with the fact that Connie as introduced and Connie by the finale feel like two closely related but actually different characters, with little to explain the transition between them unless it turns out that I misread the degree to which the film intended me to find her sympathetic in the first place or I accept that it is impossible for a woman to exercise power without misusing it and/or needing a man to share it with. In which case I think it's not me, it's the film, and I should definitely put some ice on that disbelief. For the record, Lake does a bang-up job with her fractured character. I just wish the entire film thought she was as amazing as I did. This irritation brought to you by my headstrong backers at Patreon.

1. I find it very thoughtful of the Brattle to double-feature This Gun for Hire and Le samouraï at the end of this month. I'll be there.
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
I was browsing tonight in the basement of the Harvard Book Store ([personal profile] spatch was buying seltzer in the CVS) when a girl came down the stairs. I registered that she had earbuds in and a backpack and I think a jacket over her arm, so chances are good that she was a student. Mostly I noticed that she thought she was alone in the basement—she had not been looking in my direction when I saw her and then there were shelves in between us—and she started singing. So come to me—come to me now—lay your arms around me— She was doubling the vocal line of the Decemberists' "This Is Why We Fight." After the song proper ended, she started doubling the vocal line of the folksy scrap of field-recording that takes up the rest of the track, a woman's voice accompanied by banjo and harmonica singing about a dog in a field with burrs in his toes; when she didn't know the words, she vocalised them. She had a thin, true voice, not much resonance but expressive. I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that she sang in a chorus, but I wouldn't expect more. She was singing the way people sing in the shower. I didn't even want to pick up the tune from her in case she heard me and stopped. I waited until she was down at the other end of the basement from me and then took my copy of Dorothy Baker's Young Man with a Horn (1938) and moved quickly up the stairs. She had gone on to something wordless I didn't recognize, I assume the next track on the iPod. I hope nobody disturbed her.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
My poem "Twenty Seventy-One" is now online at Uncanny Magazine. It is among other things a ghost poem for George Orwell.

Late in January of this year, [personal profile] gwynnega linked an article about the spiking sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) with the comment "Meanwhile, Zombie George Orwell has risen from his grave and is rampaging through the streets." I responded that I thought he was probably on a bar crawl, being incredibly depressed by how closely a real-life American president of the twenty-first century was hewing to his fictional playbook of twentieth-century totalitarianism. She said there was a story or a poem in that image. As usual, it was not entirely the one I thought it would be. I finished it very late at night; by the time I got up the next morning, the president in question had signed an executive order to build his wall against Mexico and the details of the first Muslim ban had been leaked to the press before being signed into law three days later and last weekend I was marching for science against the lie of facts having alternatives; here we are still. When Julia Rios accepted the poem, she said she had been hoping "it would magically stop being relevant." All of us and the ghost of George Orwell, too.

I am back to exhaustion, having (pleasantly!) overexerted myself this weekend: I made it out to Brookline Booksmith last night to hear Jeff VanderMeer read from Borne (2017), but bailed on dinner afterward and had a hellacious time getting home in the not quite rain and the aftermath of a game at Fenway that all piled onto the train at Kenmore. TCM had Bells Are Ringing (1960), so I showed it to [personal profile] spatch and he remarked astutely on how much Judy Holliday reminded him of Madeline Kahn, unfortunately right down to the dying of cancer at an unreasonable age. I hadn't seen the movie in decades. I never think about it being directed by Vincente Minnelli because I saw it for the first time before I had any idea who he was; I never think about the hero being Dean Martin ditto. I almost certainly saw Frank Gorshin's Marlon Brando impression before I saw Brando himself in any of his Method roles. Holliday is wonderful, goofy, quick-change, beautiful—anything for a laugh, but the joke is never on her—and it should not have been her last film. Her real-life partner Gerry Mulligan has a small role as part of a blind date that goes so badly, it literally goes down in flames; it made their physical comedy adorable in hindsight. I have so many things to catch up on. How did sleep become one of them again?
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
Rabbit, rabbit! No doubt we would have gotten back to Boston sooner if we had not accidentally driven through Windsor, Connecticut on our way back from New York, but since we spent our time in the city on Prospect Park, dinner at Terroir, and the late show of Vanessa Gould's Obit. (2016) at the Film Forum, I am calling this road trip with [personal profile] rushthatspeaks a success. I am also going as soon as I possibly can to sleep. In the immortal words of Grunkle Stan: worth it.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
There is a flowering lilac tree off the back porch. I think technically it may be in the neighbors' yard, but since I get the benefit of it from the kitchen window, I don't care.

I hope it's this sunny in New York. If not, we'll find something to do where it doesn't matter. But since I'm awake, it's nice light to have streaming into my office.

I spent yesterday more or less completely wiped out from my pleasant exertions of the days before and I had an unsatisfactory movie experience, but I'll deal with all of that when we get back. (There are worse things than unsatisfactory movie experiences. Anyway, I have been reading some very enjoyable books.)

Generally the theme here is: hey! Spring.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
I have had a wonderful day.

Not very much happened in it. I woke up late. It was beautifully sunny outside and it smelled like late spring, not premature August. I called [personal profile] rushthatspeaks to find out if they wanted to take the baby for a walk and found that they had already had the inspiration; I changed my keys and wallet out of my coat pockets into the one purse I own (I am pretty sure I have had it since high school: it started out moss-green and has bleached and abraded to army green over the years; the string has been broken since something like 2015, but I temporarily repaired it using the twist-tie off a bag of bread, which made me feel like a successful tool-using creature) and got dressed in the lightest shirt I've had occassion to wear all year and stepped out in the beautiful sunlight and met Rush and Fox at the corner of Highland and Crocker. The trees are flowering and uncurling green. Davis Square was full of people who had all clearly had the same idea to emerge blinking from their winter caves and soak up as much sun as possible before the weather did something irresponsible like flash-forward through summer or start snowing again. I had a frustrating interaction regarding my health insurance at the pharmacy, but it does not seem to have left the dominant note on the afternoon; Dave's Fresh Pasta had restocked its supply of switchel since last night. We took the bus back from Davis, in the course of which Fox charmed the woman sitting to my left and later engaged in extensive dialogue with the four- or five-year-old who took her place (along with her mother and a vaguely Fox-aged sibling in a stroller) despite the fact that she spoke both English and Spanish and Fox mostly speaks glossolalia and drool. They held on to the pole like a regular commuter, but we had to dissuade them from starting to chew on it. Rush handed me the first volume of Kore Yamazuki's The Ancient Magus' Bride (2013–) when we got back to their house and I had finished it by the time we got back from picking up [personal profile] gaudior after work; I have made a huge tactical error in not borrowing the second volume while I had the chance, because it has great Faerie, great stealth weird, and reminds me for some reason of Diana Wynne Jones. I was going to nap as soon as I got home because I was yawning all the way in the car, but then Autolycus presented me with such a fluffy belly and such an appealing look that I have in fact just been petting the cat for about an hour now while he purrs and grooms my arm, which is very relaxing for both of us. A mysterious benefactor off the internet sent me a copy of Andrew Moor's Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces (2012), which looks wonderful; the author has already observed something about A Canterbury Tale (1944) that I've noticed a lot of reviewers miss, so I feel I can trust him to have seen more or less the same movies I have. [personal profile] spatch just let me know that the lobby-level bathroom of the Somerville Theatre is now gender-neutral. I am tired and should probably take it easy tomorrow, since Rush and I are planning a day trip to New York on Sunday and I don't want to burn out, but I think I am definitely on the mend. There was a gorgeous smoky slate-and-peach sunset over the commuter rail tracks as I walked home, cut across with one white-reflecting line of jet contrail.

I like days like this.
sovay: (Rotwang)
[personal profile] spatch sent me this tweet from the artist of My Life as a Background Slytherin which basically describes my relationship to the news at the moment. I have nevetheless a couple of items that I like:

DNA analysis of horse sacrifices from Scythian burial mounds proves that in addition to being serious riders, archers, metalworkers and tattoo artists, the Scythians were serious horse breeders. "Many, although not all, of the horses possessed genes associated with racing speed that are found in today's thoroughbreds. The genes also showed a variety of colorings—cream, black, spotted, bay and chestnut." It is notable that the Scythian horses were not at all inbred; somehow despite reading an inordinate amount of Marguerite Henry as a child, I had missed the degree to which modern horses are. I look forward to the follow-up paper on genetic diversity.

DNA analysis of bone and teeth fragments from the disastrous Franklin expedition suggests that some of the crew of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were genetically female, "which is surprising since the crew was reported as all male." They might still have been, of course, however they were assigned at birth. Or they might not. Either way, I wish I knew those stories. With any luck, someone will work to write them.

So, yeah. Science.

I spent most of the afternoon cleaning the apartment, in which endeavor I was joined by Rob. For one brief shining moment, not everything is covered in cat hair. (Hestia and Autolycus are already doing their best to reassert the status quo.) We got out of the house in the evening, walked to Davis, had dinner at Punjabi Grill, ran errands, walked circuitously home. I ate ice cream. I am thinking of watching a movie. The fact that I am not already collapsed and/or asleep suggests I might be getting better. Fingers crossed!
sovay: (Claude Rains)
In all of the tributes to Jonathan Demme I've seen so far, nobody compiling the best-of lists has mentioned one of my favorite movies of his. I can't tell if that's because it was a television production or because it's just that obscure or maybe I'm the only person who loves it that much, but either way I'm just going to leave this here: American Playhouse's Who Am I This Time? (1982). Christopher Walken as Harry, Susan Sarandon as Helene, score by John Cale; it's a showcase for its two stars and a beautiful exploration of the way that other people's words can be the truest way to speak for yourself. It's still not streaming anywhere that I can find [edit: it's on Vudu], but it is available from Netflix and libraries on DVD and it's worth tracking down. It goes one better than Vonnegut and I don't say that about many things. I am not pleased that the person who directed it is dead. Some theater around here had better show Stop Making Sense (1984) soon.

[edit] David Byrne wrote for his memory.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
All right. In hindsight of the continuing exodus from LJ, the third of April feels a bit like an international day of social media mourning, but I regret nothing about my decision to cope on the night by self-medicating with Leslie Howard. [personal profile] skygiants had sent me the link years ago for a propaganda short called From the Four Corners (1941) which I had never gotten around to watching despite it being a grand total of fifteen minutes long. It was directed by Anthony Havelock-Allan and produced by the Ministry of Information; there are no writing credits per se, but we are told that "[t]he incident originated with Leslie Howard and A. G. Macdonell," one of the co-writers of Pimpernel Smith (1941). With a title like that, you might as well brace yourself for Empire, especially when it opens by quoting the title music from the Kordas' The Four Feathers (1939). Like Howard's wartime features, though, it's subtler and stranger than simple flag-waving and it set off a thoroughly unexpected chain reaction in my head.

The story sounds like the set-up for a joke: three soldiers from the Dominions all meet at Nelson's Column, where two of them are looking for a pub and the third is sightseeing. Specifically, he is taking a picture of what he dryly terms "Typical scene of London air-raid panic"—four Londoners on a park bench in different attitudes of total unconcern. Embarrassed by the effusive patriotism of a woman who rushes up to praise them for "coming all those thousands of miles to answer the Motherland's call to arms . . . splendid fellows!" the soldiers are rescued by the drawling interruption of one of the park-bench Londoners, the one who was smoking with his hands in his pockets and his hat knocked over his eyes. He is credited as "A Passer-By"; he is Leslie Howard and he knows where to find a pub.1 Over pints all round, he quizzes the soldiers on their reasons for joining up, each of which furnishes a miniature flashback. Corporal W. Atkinson of the Australian Imperial Force co-owned a bicycle shop in Sydney; he made his decision after catching his business partner in a newsreel, marching to the troopship with the rest of the new recruits. Private J. Johnston of the Black Watch of Canada hails from a farm outside of Vancouver; his father was killed at Vimy Ridge and he not entirely jokes that he ought to finish his job. Private R. Gilbert of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force was a law student in Auckland, finishing up his degree when he wondered suddenly if common law would mean anything in the event of an Axis victory; he walked right out of his exams and into the recruiting office next door. They may be standing in for their respective countries, but they are also real-life servicemen playing versions of themselves, and they bridle when Howard professes himself unsatisfied with their answers. "Kick[ing] Hitler in the pants" may be an admirable goal, but what makes it so? What are they really fighting for? If not the Empire ("That's a lot of hooey!"), what have they left their homes and families to defend?

Like the academic he so often played, Howard takes it on himself to answer his own question. He brings the three soldiers up to the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral—itself already a vivid symbol of national resistance—and gives them a bird's-eye crash tour of London, pointing out its landmarks and sites of interest, tying each to a resonant moment of English history. Kingston, where the coronation stone of the Saxon kings still stands in the market square. Runnymede, the signing of the Magna Carta which formed the heart of all the Commonwealth's laws. For the Canadian Johnston, he points out St. Peter's Church in Petersham where Captain George Vancouver is buried. For Oceanians Gilbert and Atkinson, Greenwich Hospital because "Captain Cook had a job there once." When he shows them Bankside, he stresses that the audiences of Shakespeare's plays would have included far-flung soldiers on leave just like themselves. "And that's where your fathers and my fathers stood when we were threatened with the Armada and invasion," though most of Howard's forefathers in 1588 would have been somewhere quite different from Tilbury.2 Finishing up at the House of Commons allows him to (optimistically, in June 1941) include the Americans among the inheritors and defenders of their shared ideals. "Well, it's all yours," he concludes, "all part of London and part of ourselves . . . Yes, it's all there—British city, Roman city, Saxon, Dane, Norman—English." All the while he was talking, I was thinking that I had heard something very like it before, the visionary, scholarly, slightly laughing and slightly otherworldly voice layering time through itself and rooting it in the present day, spellbinding its listeners and waking them up to their history and inheritance, and the moment I made the connection I was seized with a desperate and conflicted longing because Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944) is the reason I love Eric Portman, but I would love too to know what the movie would have been like with Leslie Howard as Thomas Colpeper, JP.

Let me be clear: I don't think the Archers could even have approached him for the part. He was already under the Bay of Biscay when shooting began in August of 1943, and in any case their first choice for the magistrate of Chillingbourne had been Roger Livesey, whom I will always thank for turning them down. He found the role "off-key." He wasn't wrong. Colpeper is a deeply peculiar character, as difficult to pin down to a single interpretation as his signature wrongheaded act. He has the vision of a poet and the blinders of a missionary, the superiority of a judge and the guilt of a penitent; he gives mesmerizing lectures on local history and keeps breaking the slide projector. He loves his country and its deep, distant past that to him is as immediate and tangible as the warmth of the sun and the smell of wild thyme and he does some very silly, very dangerous things to try to fix history right where it is, not yet understanding that the earthquake of modernity will not erase the echoes of his beloved Kentish village any more than the last two thousand years have washed the Roman road away.3 He's a crank and a trickster, a magician and a fool, and like the other characters he's trapped until he gets his miracle, which comes in the last form he expected and the first he should have known to watch out for. He's not unsympathetic. He's never quite safe. I'm not knocking Livesey as an actor—he made three films with Powell and Pressburger and in all of them he was exactly what the part required, a tragicomic English archetype in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), an unforeseen romantic alternative in I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), and an adroit and skeptical advocate for science and love in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Someday I'll even see him in a film by some other director and I expect he will continue to be very good. But I think he was right to refuse Colpeper: he would not have been weird enough for him. Portman was. And as Howard had proved almost from the start of his stardom, he would have been, too.

That's the trouble. You believe in miracles. )

This is fantasy casting at its finest. If any practical link existed between Leslie Howard and A Canterbury Tale, given my interest in both of these things I can't imagine I wouldn't have run across it before now. I believe what I'm seeing is a case of parallel evolution, drawing on the same shared resonances of myth and literature and national archetype like a collective unconscious of the country, and I have neither the scope in this post nor the professional credentials to diagnose exactly what that is. I just can't believe I didn't see the fit before. Howard had even worked with the Archers once before, playing one of his disarming intellectuals for 49th Parallel. I'd love to know what either of them thought of Pimpernel Smith, since I stand by my assertion that it comes the closest of any other British war picture to the off-kilter numinous of their work in general and A Canterbury Tale in particular; I've found nothing in the two volumes by Powell that I own. I need to get a biography of Pressburger sometime. To get back to the short that started this whole megillah, From the Four Corners is not A Canterbury Tale or even Pimpernel Smith, but it served admirably as a celebration of Howard's hundred and twenty-fourth birthday and an antidote to a really depressing evening and you can watch it yourself thanks to the good offices of the Imperial War Museum. I apologize about the watermark. I got used to it after a few minutes of dialogue, but it interacts unfortunately with the opening titles. Anyway, it'll take you less time to watch than this post did to write. The version where I actually did all the research I thought about would have gone on for even longer and run the footnotes off the bottom of the screen. At least I didn't pour glue in anyone's hair. This monograph brought to you by my transcendent backers at Patreon.

1. Honestly, in a film of this era, I feel it may be safe to assume that any angular, pipe-smoking person looking especially careless in public is Leslie Howard. If he's wearing an overcoat and has a tendency to lecture about abstractions, that clinches it.

2. Although the character is explicitly identified as the actor himself—glossed for non-British viewers who might not recognize the name by Atkinson's description of the local weather as "too Pygmalion cold"—I found myself thinking of him as Howard's Passer-By, like Dante's Pilgrim. He can say the line about his fathers at Tilbury (our fathers of old) and mean it literally. He's autochthonous.

3. Powell and Pressburger use it for wonder rather than horror, but the way they conceive of history leaving its imprint on time is interestingly close to the idea of residual haunting that Nigel Kneale popularized with The Stone Tape (1972) or the endlessly reenacting myth of Alan Garner's The Owl Service (1967): once a thing has happened in a place, it is always on some level happening there, echoing forever in the land. Where it happened transcends when. "And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme and the broom and the heather, you're only seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds are singing. When you lie flat on your back and rest and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you're so close to those other people that you can hear the thrumming of the hooves of their horses and the sound of the wheels on the road and their laughter and talk and the music of the instruments they carried."

4. It is completely not Howard's fault that I flashed on The Magician's Nephew (1955) when I hit the line "Most of you, I'm sure, will know what I mean when I speak of the curious elation which comes from sharing in a high and mysterious destiny," especially since he meant just about the opposite from Andrew Ketterley by it. It does kind of make me wonder if Lewis heard the broadcast. If so, I guess he wasn't impressed.

5. It took me an absurdly long time to realize that none of the blessings received by the four modern pilgrims of A Canterbury Tale has to do with things changing for the better: each has to do instead with seeing things as they truly are, not as the characters have feared or convinced themselves they were. They are revelations, realizations. They are like archaeology. Nothing of the beloved past has been lost, not a girlfriend, a fiancé, or a vocation; things believed not to exist have come as naturally to light as an old coin in a field, reminders that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. They prove the constancy of time.

6. There is a tangential question here which I am not sure I am qualified to engage with: the degree to which it is possible or useful to read Howard's intellectual heroes as neuroatypical as opposed to merely very smart, knowing there's a significant Venn diagram of the two in popular representations of intelligence. Certainly I feel as though a case could be made for several of the characters discussed here, but I've seen Howard in seventeen movies and IMDb gives him thirty-eight acting credits; I don't think I have enough data. I also feel this study should be conducted by someone with a better idea of what "normal" behavior looks like. When Atterbury Dodd says, "I don't like parties. I don't know what to say to people. I just sit in corners and wish I might go home," I mean, that was me and socializing for years. All that changed was I started getting invited to a better grade of party.

7. I have appreciated for years that Howard, national treasure that he was, never had too much vanity to play against audience sympathy for as long as a script required. Smith may have some cold, abrasive moments on his way to rethinking the primacy of Aphrodite, but Higgins carries scientific detachment to the point of being a stupendous jerk; it is one of the reasons I suspect so many people, myself included, find the ending of the 1938 Pygmalion and its immediate descendant My Fair Lady more satisfying than the impervious curtain of the original play: he gets absolutely kicked in the ass by his own human susceptibility and he never sees it coming. Dodd is never deliberately insensitive, but he has to learn how to see people—including himself—as people, three-dimensional, fallible, worthwhile, not just numbers or functions. Even the narrator of The Gentle Sex, while he understands and appreciates intellectually that women will be part of the war effort, so repeatedly underestimates the extent and the impact of their contributions that by the film's end he's had to give up trying to predict what they'll do next and simply trust that it'll be all right. Alan Squier, let's face it, is a really charming trash fire.
sovay: (Otachi: Pacific Rim)
Still sick. This is so boring. A couple of writing-related things:

1. My poem "The Firebird's Revenge" is now available in the latest issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone. I wrote it last April for Rose Lemberg. It was an angry poem then. It's even more applicable now.

2. My short story "And All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts" has been reviewed along with the rest of Dreams from the Witch House (ed. Lynne Jamneck, 2016) in a recent episode of Steve Rosenstein and Rodney Turner's Microphones of Madness. I am afraid that I did not really work out Punnett squares for my ideas of Innsmouth genetics—my major departure from canon was in treating them as genetics at all when Lovecraft's universe plays by the supernatural one-drop rule—but I am delighted by the podcast's conclusion that there is real cosmic horror in the characters' awareness of the world they cannot live in, because I thought so, but then I've always wanted gills. The comparison to Ruthanna Emrys' "The Litany of Earth" is fair; I held off on reading that particular story until I had finished my own, but I am in no way going to disclaim the tons of other neo-Lovecraftian influence and I am not surprised that the genocide aspects of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" leap out at Jewish readers (I am aware that the opening lines about "the secrecy surrounding the disposal of the prisoners . . . vague statements about disease and concentration camps, and later about dispersal in various naval and military prisons" would not have carried quite the same historical weight when Lovecraft was writing in 1931 as they would acquire in hindsight of the next decade and a half, but I didn't read the story in 1931 or even 1936 and so here we are). Honestly, I wish I could get this story reprinted as an independent pamphlet or something just so I could use "Melancholy" as a blurb.

3. I read a story I really enjoyed—Jenn Grunigen's "Figs, Detached"—and saw afterward that I was name-checked in the Author Spotlight. Which was just a bonus.

I wish I did not feel so terrible. I don't see what the harm would be.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
"I feel less embarrassed about being related to poop-throwing monkeys! Orangutans that masturbate in public! At least bonobos have a concept of sexual consent!"

(I was yelling about politics in the shower. I think [personal profile] spatch was relaying me highlights from 45's AP interview and had just quoted something wildly inaccurate about China, but really, the whole situation deserves it.)
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
I can't wait to stop being sick. I have had whatever this is since last Sunday and not only did it stop my brain in its tracks, it took any leftover stamina with it. I walked out this afternoon to purchase some goat's milk (for me) and some unscented litter (for the cats) and after the first supermarket (Market Basket was out of non-Febreze litter; I had to go on to Stop & Shop) I was dead on my feet. I slept nine or ten hours last night. I could go back to bed as we speak. It's like having mono, only I don't.

[edit] I just learned that the RSC is doing a three-week series in honor of Ovid in October. That is something else I am totally in the wrong country for (or I'd go to some of it for my birthday), but I still approve.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
It was cold and raw and raining and I had slept three hours; it has been an exhausting week. I made it to the Boston March for Science and I am very glad I did. My father and I took the train from Alewife; walking back and forth in front of the fare machines we met a small child carrying "Less Invasions, More Equations!" (my brain yelled, "Fewer!" and I said, "Nice sign," because people who pedantically correct the protest signs of six-year-olds are not the kind of change I want to see in the world) and at Porter a contingent from the grad student employeee union of UMass got on with "Ignorance = √All Evil." Across the car from us a father was trying to explain Tom Lehrer to his daughter, resulting in a spontaneous chorus of "Pollution." When we got off at Park Street, it was a quarter to two and Boston Common was full of protesters and stalls and food trucks and kids' music from the bandstand and then we came up over the crest of the hill by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument and it was nerds with signs as far as the eye could see.

Eventually we worked our way down the mudslide to a point where we could hear the speakers from the main stage without getting blasted by the amplification. My father took pictures. Meeting up with Dean and Lily, I gave directions by the papier-mâché 45-on-a-stick with a separate sign for its speech bubble ("Believe me, climate change is a Chinese hoax! Sad!" while standing in a pants-on-fire flaming barrel of Exxon-Mobil) and held my blue butterfly-patterned umbrella aloft like a torch. I saw [personal profile] gaudior and [personal profile] nineweaving and B. for about fifteen seconds before they disappeared with Fox, whose baby sling was pinned this time with a "Test Tube Baby" flag. We never did find [personal profile] choco_frosh and Peter. We had planned to stay the entire duration of the rally, but around a quarter to four the weather became just too cold to stand around in and we set off down Boylston Street in search of hot drinks, ending up at Patisserie on Newbury and then Trident Booksellers & Café. A great deal of walking later we met my mother in Porter Square.

The signs were great. Lots of variants on "Make America Think Again." Lots of "There Is No Planet B." Several pro-vaccination and medicine, of which my favorite was "Got Plague? Yeah, me neither. Thank a Scientist!" A woman in a Spock sweatshirt carried "The needs of the planet outweigh the greed of the lewd." I have no idea what the relevant research was, but I swear I saw "Plankton Don't Want None Unless You Got Funds, Hon!" On general principle I was rather fond of "The Oceans Are Rising and So Are We," "Think Like a Proton—Always Positive," and the several variations on "I'm with Her," pointing in all cases to Gaia. "The Climate Is Changing—Why Aren't We?" "Science Is Inoculation Against Charlatans." I did not expect to see so many shout-outs to Beaker and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, from paired signs to a person in a full-body Beaker costume whose small plain sign read simply "MEEP!" I saw signs for Alan Turing. I saw signs for Millie Dresselhaus. One of the speakers was a deaf scientist; several were women of color. My father said it reminded him of the be-ins in New York in the 1960's, only with more porto-potties and lab coats. It was definitely a compliment.

And now, as always, not to lose this energy. What next?

sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
I made this mixtape for [personal profile] kore as an antidote to the whole history-overwriting shenanigans of Marvel's Secret Empire, now with an extra side of this mishegos. It's not especially subtle, but with any luck it sounds good. Contributors include British Sea Power, Jawbox, Odetta, Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, Arcade Fire, PJ Harvey, and Marc Blitzstein.

If I could tell you anything. )

I've had a headache on the right side of my face since about two in the afternoon, so I am going to bed.
sovay: (I Claudius)
I know it's been a lot of pictures around here lately and not so much text, but I could not let today pass without this promotional photo for Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), because the poses and arrangement of the cast make it look—now—like the teaser for a season of TV that never was.



I dreamed last night of watching a movie from the late 1950's or early 1960's adapted from a beloved British memoir, the young adult narrator looking back on her wartime childhood. Her father had been commander of a T-class submarine, which I hadn't realized I remembered anything about until I woke and verified they were not an invention of my dreaming brain, unlike the film or in fact all of the actors in it. It was black and white, with kitchen sink cinematography that did not match the accents. I got the book out afterward from the children's room in the Cambridge Public Library that hasn't existed since the renovation in 2009. Curiously, that did not tell me I was asleep, although some of the battlefield humor made me impressed no overprotective adult had tried to get it pulled from the children's shelves.
sovay: (Sydney Carton)
Autolycus was quite right about bedtime: I slept almost ten hours last night and woke with Hestia beside me. I know I had nightmares, but at least I can't remember the details. Minus the time I left the house to mail some bills and see if a DVD I ordered three weeks ago had come in at the library (no; they have no idea what happened to it; this is the same movie that went missing from the other library that believed it had a copy; I am tremendously amused at the same time as I don't want to have to buy the damn thing to see it!), Autolycus has spent most of the afternoon and evening on my lap. I feel less like constantly keeling over sideways than yesterday, but not actually, you know, well. I should make dinner at some point before I run out of energy. Have some more things off the internet.

1. Aside from its immediate relevance to current politics, I am enjoying everything about Alex Wellerstein's Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog. Its Oppenheimer tag alone is a glorious time sink. I wish I'd known about it when I was writing "The Trinitite Golem." Oh, well. I had books.

2. John Crowley reviews what sounds like a terrific biography of Norman Bel Geddes: "Inside Every Utopia Is a Dystopia." Not actually a depressing book review.

3. I keep running across museum exhibits that (a) closed years ago (b) I couldn't have gotten to anyway. This one (courtesy of [personal profile] handful_ofdust) was the photography of Faye Schulman. All links worth exploring.

[edit] [personal profile] spatch just sent me a link to an entire site full of mostly British actors naked with fish. It's magnificent. Some of the pictures are beautiful; some are ridiculous; there's an ecological rationale; I don't understand how it took me until now to find out this was a thing. I don't know if Miriam Margolyes with a John Dory is your thing, but WHY NOT.

Dory
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
Okay, I feel like hell, so here are three things that have improved my evening.

1. A rare photograph of J. Robert Oppenheimer (plus other people) in color. Oppie's the one on the left with the good eyebrows:

Oppenheimer


2. Odetta singing "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." I've heard eight or nine versions of this song over the years—I grew up on Joan Baez's—and while most of them at least play with the idea that the narrator is trying to convince themselves as much as their ex-object of desire, Odetta's is sauntering, breezy, and genuinely could not care less. We never did too much talking anyway, so don't think twice—it's all right.

3. The way this post (courtesy of [personal profile] moon_custafer) provides a great deal of scientific information about the toxins and mechanics of the cone snail while also devolving/ascending into a paean to its apocalyptic glories.

In conclusion, Autolycus thinks it is time for bed and I should probably agree with him.

sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
Whatever bug I have come down with, it comes with a free side of insomnia and exhaustion and my brain is AWOL. Irregularly scheduled content will return when I can sleep and think again. Last night we walked to Ball Square Liquors in order to purchase some red wine so that I could open the door to Elijah and the unknown, break matzah, let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are enslaved be free. I paid taxes this afternoon. That's been it for excitement around here lately. Feh.
sovay: (Rotwang)
So my family made the decision not to hold a seder tomorrow night because my mother is still coughing (I will break matzah, pour wine, and open the door to the stranger, because that is the most important thing) and I think it was just as well because I appear to have come down sick. I was invited out to a movie tonight, but instead I fell over sideways and have alternated the last few hours between staring vaguely into the middle distance while feeling nauseated and sort of sleeping, minus rest and plus whiting out when I tried to stand up. I am not thrilled.

1. Erin Horáková seriously analyzes the popular reception of Captain James T. Kirk in context of the simplifying and not apolitical rewriting of the past: "Freshly Remember'd: Kirk Drift." (I feel some of this same process may explain my feelings toward neo-noir vs. noir, especially where the supposed ubiquity of the femme fatale is concerned. Somebody please remind me to write about the Wachowskis' Bound (1996); I loved that movie and it's been more than half a year.) The statement below flashed out at me:

Heterosexuality has been through the fucking ringer in cultural productions in the last decades due to backlashes against feminism and queer visibility that have transformed portrayals and interpretations alike into dumbshows—crude pantomimes, as before the play. These frantic defenses have done more to render the proposition of men and women loving one another a piece of one-note unsustainable ridiculousness than women's lib and LGBTQ rights ever could.

Boyd McDonald was making much the same frustrated point in the 1980's. I am not pleased that the problem has worsened again since. Also I had not actually realized that not everyone thinks of William Shatner as Jewish.

2. These poems were not published back-to-back, but I read them that way and they resonate interestingly: Robert Peake's "Homesickness" and Dante Di Stefano's "National Poetry Month."

3. I was just trying to run down a reference using Google Books. I ran into a biography of Wilfred Owen. Oh, hey, I thought to myself, I should read one of those sometime. Pat Barker's Regeneration (1991) doesn't count. I began flicking through the randomly available pages and then—

Robert Graves: "Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were homosexuals; though Sassoon tried to think he wasn't. To them, seeing men killed was as horrible as if you or I had to see fields of corpses of women."

JESUS H. MAGDALENE GRAVES.

Seriously, every time I try to parse that, it just gets worse. I feel sufficiently lousy that I would be going to bed right now no matter what, but really, Robert Graves, you're not helping! [edit] The former Archbishop of Canterbury agrees with me! Goodnight.

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