sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
Rabbit, rabbit! Forget the Sleepless Shores made the 2018 Locus Recommended Reading List! It looks as though this makes the collection eligible for voting in the Locus Awards, so, you know, if you liked it, go tell the magazine.

I slept very little and very badly: from about midnight until sometime around four o'clock when I woke up coughing and fever-sweating and stayed that way. I have a doctor's appointment this afternoon.

I greatly enjoyed this Twitter thread of U.S. presidents as snack foods.
sovay: (Renfield)
I wanted to do a lot of things with this week that did not happen. Yesterday I stayed on the couch and coughed and lost the rest of my voice and drank infinite mugs of hot water with honey and watched TV. Autolycus snuggled himself into the blankets beside me and sometimes watched with me and sometimes dozed. I ate soup dumplings. It was an entirely unimproving thing to dedicate my afternoon and evening to, but it was probably good for me. I couldn't even leave the house. I wouldn't have left the house today if the library hadn't told me it had successfully interlibrary-loaned me something rare, but then it turned out the library was wrong. That was awkward. And very cold. I have done nothing but make dinner with [personal profile] spatch since.

1. The problem with saying that Iron Fist (2017–18) reminds me of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–08) is that it sounds as though the point of comparison is the magical martial arts when it's actually the character growth, especially the processes of failing better and finding family, which is sometimes people you're related to and sometimes hella not. The other thing it reminds me of, actually, is The Wolf Man (1941): the plot twists and even some of the first principles are from Mars, but the people are all real people and the emotional resonances are all in the right places and the results, for me, balance out on the side of idtastic and complexly touching. And then sometimes ninja fights just happen. The second season is better than the first, but I didn't feel I was overall gritting my teeth to get to the good stuff. (There are exceptions. Never depict a psychiatric hospital again, MCU, jeez.) I just wanted something to stare at while I fell over; I was impressed. I would watch a third season if it existed.

2. Miki Berenyi of Lush has a new band: Piroshka. The only available song right now seems to be "Everlastingly Yours," but I love the shoegaze guitar-gauze drift of lyrics like "I'm not afraid to reach down inside to something within me / That gives me the power to fight / To rip out his heart and shatter his bones with a smile."

3. I should remind everyone in the New York area that around this time next week I will be reading with Carrie Laben, Zin E. Rocklyn, Fiona Maeve Geist, and Farah Rose Smith at McNally Jackson Williamsburg. Come hear me! I should be capable of speech by then. If not, I'll do something exciting, like mime.

I still feel like I can't think. I'm going back to curling up on the couch, movie cat optional but preferred. Next month had better contain fewer colds.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
God damn it, I am even sicker today. My head is crushingly congested. I've lost part of my voice. I stay awake coughing all night. [edit: And all afternoon!] I have had maybe six days since October when I wasn't sick and they were mostly Arisia. People said lovely things about how I sounded last night. I have so much practice impressing people when I am ill or in pain or otherwise impaired, I feel I should come off like a superhero when I'm healthy. I'd love the chance to find out.

I wanted to write about movies. And see a movie this evening. Or do anything that utilized my brain at all. I am going to lie on this couch and watch more Iron Fist (2017–18).
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
Burns Supper at the Burren: despite the unwanted presence of hell-cold V.20, a success. We saw [personal profile] nineweaving and [personal profile] teenybuffalo and [personal profile] choco_frosh and multiple people not on DW. My throat has not even faintly stopped hurting, but my voice held up for "John Barleycorn" and various choruses, including a plangent "Loch Lomond" by someone whose name I never get even though he reminds me each year of Odysseus in the Iliad, unprepossessing until he opens his mouth. [personal profile] spatch and I went out in drizzling sleet and it was worth it. Now we are home and I am under an electric blanket and I feel this is the right place to be. P.S. There was haggis.
sovay: (Sydney Carton)
I am still sick and achy and sore-throated and the buses are still running on a schedule whose utility is known only to the dark gods of gentrification, but I had a very useful appointment in the evening and got pizza for dinner from Mortadella Head, recently named one of the Globe's 37 best new restaurants of Boston. I split it with [personal profile] spatch in the mezzanine of the Somerville.

1. I love the stretch of track between Sullivan and Community College. It runs in parallel with and partly underneath I-93, through a post-industrial landscape of concrete pillars, school buses, and cement mixers. I love the rusted truss bridge which Rob believes belongs to the Lowell Line of the MBTA; I love the sidetracked spray-tagged old cars of the Boston & Maine. Tonight there was a scorching apricot sunset in the west with faint clear lines of evening-blue above. It was still lingering at the horizon, smoked down to pink, by the time I got to MGH.

2. I have received word from my mother that the cyclamen which was melodramatically dying in her living room—all stems and blossoms drooping over the sides of the pot with the visual effect of a down-swooping slide whistle—has perked up since I watered it last night and now looks reasonably cared-for and slightly smug.

3. In the first chapter of Patricia C. Wrede's Mairelon the Magician (1991), the protagonist Kim keeps track of time on a job of breaking and entering by mentally singing her way through "Darlin' Jenny," a ballad whose lyrics are never specified in the text but which has at least eight verses and an equivalent number of choruses. From starting to peel the apples to putting the pie in the oven, preparing an apple pie appears to take me the length of George Mackay Brown's "John Barleycorn," "Chicken on a Raft," "Randy Dandy-O," "Rolling Sea," "The Bonny Ship the Diamond," and "Lukey's Boat," plus a couple of verses from the beginning and end of "Captain Kidd." I don't think I left anything out. Occasionally I had to take a moment to shoo away cats.

Tomorrow night I will be at the Greater Boston Community Burns Supper at the Burren in Davis Square, where I hope to have enough voice to sing. If not, at least I'll have haggis.
sovay: (Otachi: Pacific Rim)
Yoon Ha Lee has written me a story: "Cheris and the Sea." It is a late birthday present: seven interludes in the life of a mathematician and an element, on different planets, in different times.

I feel physically awful.

Emotionally, I'm pretty great right now.

The transient calligraphy strokes of fish flashed beneath the water, sometimes dark, sometimes silver-bright.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
I am sick again! I really resent it! [personal profile] spatch started coughing and then I started coughing and then it hurt too much to swallow all night. I was really looking forward to being able to sing without congestion again. Maybe it will be a bug of brief duration. I had an immune system once that mostly attacked things that weren't me.

I dreamed I went to see a movie set during the American Revolution and spent most of it internally screaming because there were ballistae at the Siege of Boston and the field of battle was the contemporary landfill of Dorchester Heights as opposed to the eighteenth-century peninsula. This must be how medievalists feel all the time.

Festivids has generated a magnificent, as yet anonymous vid for Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit (2016), called simply "Ninefox." It's a wonderful visual poem of the novel, complete with geese and green onions and faction symbolism and jeng-zhai. I want to see some of the source media and I want to see a good adaptation of these books. I kind of fancast Jedao once already.

I didn't know Albania had a Jewish museum before [personal profile] shewhomust linked about it. I like knowing.

Today is for laundry and groceries, I think.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Reunion in France (1942) is not a great movie. I'm not even sure it's a good movie. It was directed by Jules Dassin and it's not his fault; I don't think even Michael Curtiz could have saved Joan Crawford as France. The conceit of a frivolously apolitical socialite awakened to her strength of patriotism after the fall of France makes for an unusually ambivalent version of the heroine as national symbol, but the American production draws most of the bite and risks condescension instead while the love triangle takes on cheesily allegorical overtones when it requires Crawford to decide between sticking safely with sophisticated fiancé Philip Dorn, his industrial designs now indispensable to the Nazis, and risking her life to aid aw-shucks American John Wayne of the Eagle Squadron of the RAF. "You told me once I reminded you of France because I was selfish and spoiled. I'm not anymore and neither is she. Whatever she is now, I am too." I think this sort of thing works better in opera. I'm skeptical about the swastika-shaped dinner arrangements in any genre beyond Mel Brooks. The actually quite nice supporting cast includes John Carradine, Howard Da Silva, and Ava Gardner and they all do their best to distract the audience from the total absence of chemistry between Crawford and her co-stars, but it was with entirely unironic relief that I finally texted [personal profile] spatch, "Oh, thank God, Ernst Deutsch had a drunken breakdown and got punched, elevating the dramatic quality of this movie on the spot."

I wasn't expecting to see him again so soon, but since his scenes are the reason I do not regret having watched this movie, I'm not complaining. I was happy to see him even when it was not obvious that his German captain would be a character as opposed to a sigil of occupied Paris, like the swastika flag flying over the train station as Crawford's Michele de la Becque returns wearily but still haughtily from what was intended to be a carefree summer in Biarritz. He's the officer in charge of the coal-allotment bureau that used to be her townhouse, a crisply characterless type—silvering hair brushed straight back, uniform as neat as if it were pressed on him—who allows that she has the right to one room for her personal use with exactly the same dry precision with which he reprimanded his subordinate for not shooting her when she burst into his office; he gets one clipped deadpan line about his war wound being a bite from a Belgian sheepdog ("We found them infinitely better equipped than the soldiers") and otherwise seems like background color, field-grey. He's credited only as "Captain." I was not surprised that Deutsch, like so many German-accented refugees in wartime Hollywood, had found himself playing the people he had fled from; I was just a little sorry the film hadn't given him more to do. And then he barged back into the third act in an electrifying state of inebriation and I almost forgave Reunion in France for trying to make me believe such pieces of whimsy from Wayne's Pat Talbot as "I fly very low and very slow, like a duck." The captain wants to talk to Michele, though he's drunk to the point where you aren't confident he'd remember if he did; he hardly resembles the featureless martinet of his earlier scene with his swaying gestures and his stickily tousled hair, sweating in his half-buttoned uniform. The smile we'd never seen before fell off his face as soon as he registered the tall young stranger in the Frenchwoman's room. His Nazi insignia isn't what makes him look dangerous; it's his vulnerability, because if sufficiently humiliated he might have someone shot over it. It's a near thing after he insults the American "student" and Pat lays him out like Captain America Comics #1. Michele diplomatically steers the captain outside; he steers her into a corner of the gatehouse. "If it's air you want, you can breathe it here just as well—and I can stand and look at you." There's something in his dry voice that's not just the expected play of power. He might actually, awkwardly be trying to seduce her when he insists that she's "not the enemy, you never were, you and your kind. You know what it means to be the masters . . . Everything you've had, you'll have again." She dares him to be magnanimous; he pulls her roughly close, as if calling her bluff. He kisses her. Boom.

At first it looks like ordinary drunken belligerence—when Michele asked what he'd come to see her about, he escalated in defensiveness at once. "Why must it be about something? It's not an unusual request. People talk to each other all over the world!" Actually the captain is having a one-man The Moon Is Down, cracking up over his inability to be treated as a person rather than part of a genocidal machine, and it breaks out of him with all the intensity of the actor's Expressionist years. "You let me kiss you as if it were some sort of penance," he recognizes, harshly grinding the words out; he doesn't sound drunk at all, except that he wouldn't be saying any of these things sober. "I've met others like you before. They looked at me as you did just now . . . As if I were something to be suffered through, like a disease—patient, knowing that someday I would pass and that they would be well again. As if I were an animal. As if I were anything but a human being like themselves!" It is a wrenching honesty and all he wants is for it to be answered in kind and Michele won't give him even that much, double-speaking with one eye on the street where her underground contact was supposed to appear: "Isn't it my first duty to do as I'm told?" He's not a fool, this captain, for all that at the moment he's a mess. He knows—not about Pat's mission or Michele's plan to get him out of Paris, but that she's only let an officer of the German army walk her outside and stand her up against a wall and put his hands on her because she's buying someone else's safety; even when she murmurs his own words back at him, echoing too her ex-lover's conscience-soothing fascist soft sell, he knows he can't trust her to mean it. But she's the one making the forceful first move this time, she kisses him fiercely and he takes it, accepting for just a moment the illusion of human desire, and behind his back Pat and the young man from the underground get away safe down the street. Michele turns the captain loose, doesn't take her eyes off him. Low-voiced to her enemy, she says, "Don't let anyone ever tell you you're not human."

It might be the best line in the picture; it's certainly Crawford's best delivery. It's as honest as her kiss. It's the right form of words to encourage a man and she says it as if she's cursing him, even a little triumphantly. Be human, because you can be lonely. Be human, because you can be weak. Be human, because you can fool yourself; be human, because you can be defeated. For his moment off guard, the captain's caught in his compromising state by a superior officer, dressed down in untranslated German, left to listen to Michele's laughter as she moves on to a "bigger tiger." His last gesture onscreen is rebuttoning his tunic, putting himself back in order, his mouth pulled dryly down. He got nothing from her and she made him give everything away. And the movie had forty minutes to go of increasingly convoluted plot and counterplot, the mounting interest of the Gestapo, the late-breaking uncertainty as to the motives of Dorn's Robert Cortot, and I couldn't care as much as I did for those five minutes with Ernst Deutsch. There's nothing else like it in Reunion in France—nothing as realpolitik, nothing, I'm sorry, as sexy. It's not just the unibrow. Crawford has chemistry with Deutsch. It's the sort of twisty power differential there are entire tags for on AO3, but it's more fun to watch than Crawford repeating softly to Wayne, "I told you I wasn't mad" or protesting to Dorn, "But I'm not at war with anyone—I'm in love!" It's the only time the film remembers that life in an occupied country means more than vulgar Nazi wives taking over the fashion houses of Paris. I have no idea if at any point in its production the script had more grit to it or whether it was always high-gloss propaganda, but despite the importance of a third-act departure for Lisbon, let's just say it's no Casablanca (1942), all right?

Being made in 1942 but set in 1940, this film barely qualifies as a historical, but I'll accept it under January rules. If nothing else, it provided further support for my theory that noticing character actors promptly summons them. I appreciate that when it happens. Even when they're not the best thing in their film. This tribute brought to you by my human backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
Tonight at the Brattle I saw Angela Carter and Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) with [personal profile] rushthatspeaks; it was brilliant and I don't know why I haven't seen more criticism constellating it with Dennis Potter's Dreamchild (1985) and Jim Henson's Labyrinth (1986). Terence Stamp is perfectly cast as the Devil in a white touring car, whose headlights through the forest gloom are the double flash of a beast's eyes. Stephen Rea should play more werewolves. So should Danielle Dax. I wish Carter and Jordan had gotten to make the film of Vampirella/"The Lady of the House of Love" they were discussing when she died; I did not actually expect how closely his visuals would translate her prose style, elaborately artificial and bluntly homespun at once. I'd had dinner earlier with [personal profile] spatch at Sapporo Ramen, where I got tantan-men with three kinds of extra seaweed; Rush and I went to Rosebud American Kitchen & Bar after the movie and I got the apple pie I had been wanting all this week of cold and rain. I came home to discover [personal profile] thisbluespirit had made, as part of their gorgeous series of original and other Elements, fanart for Curium from my story "Assignment 96." I'm still not sure about recovery from Arisia, but I've had a really nice evening.
sovay: (Rotwang)
I wish to thank my past self for buying a jar of borscht, knowing I would feel like eating it some night when it was not feasible to visit a restaurant and/or New York. I had it tonight with sour cream and dill; it was delicious. The cats tried to interpose themselves. I explained that I don't think either of them can digest sour cream. They pointed out that said nothing about beets. They did not win the argument.

After dinner I met [personal profile] teenybuffalo for the late show of The Wolf Man (1941) at the Brattle. It was the last major Universal horror movie I had left to see; I may try to write about it not because it's my favorite but because it really shouldn't have held together—I'm genuinely not sure in what country or century it's even supposed to be taking place—and yet it has all the right resonances under the surface to hit the audience in the id and pull off an ending I actually find devastating, like the twist in the last verse of a murder ballad. I had managed to forget that I'd seen Lon Chaney Jr. before, but he's very good and looks startlingly like his father, which can't have helped. I would watch Claude Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya read their respective phone books and instead they shared a terrific scene.

I am not convinced I have finished recovering from Arisia, but I don't think it hurt that our internet went down for most of Monday and therefore I had nothing to do but curl up on a couch with books and cats. We celebrated [personal profile] spatch's birthday with pho and George Herriman. I am already looking forward to the weekend, when I am seriously contemplating doing nothing at all.
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
I have never seen The Jazz Singer (1927). Periodically I remember that it's a landmark of cinema and then I remember that I still haven't recovered from Wonder Bar (1934). Fortunately, if you're looking for a movie about the negotiation of traditional observance with secular art, the complicated relationship of a religious father and a rebellious son, and the question of what it means to be a Jew on the bimah or onstage, I can now recommend you E.A. Dupont's The Ancient Law (Das alte Gesetz, 1923), recently and exquisitely restored by Deutsche Kinemathek. I saw it last week before Arisia; I loved it. It's timely, heartfelt, intelligently scripted and richly staged, and there's not a mammy number in sight.

It is also historical fiction, continuing this month's accidental theme. Partly inspired by the life of actor Bogumil Dawison and the memoirs of impresario Heinrich Laube, The Ancient Law is subtitled "Ein Film aus den sechziger Jahren"—"A Film from the Sixties." That would be the 1860's, a notable period of Jewish emigration and emancipation within the Austrian Empire; through the parallels of the past, the screenplay by Paul Reno can speak directly to Weimar anxieties about immigration, assimilation, and anti-Semitism, none of which have become exactly irrelevant today. There are always people moving across borders, between definitions. Baruch Mayer (Ernst Deutsch) looks the old-country picture of a rabbi's son, soulful and scholarly, properly frum, already engaged in the formal moves of parentally approved romance with Esther (Margarete Schlegel), the gabbai's daughter who watches him with a kind of bold shyness over the mechitzah of the women's balcony in shul, but when the tall youth impulsively takes a turn in the carnival of a door-to-door Purimspiel, the tin crown and false beard of King Ahauserus reveal something that isn't so heymish: a flair for theater that can't be realized within the rural streets and ritual bounds of his Galician shtetl. "In the world outside," the tinker-like wanderer Ruben Pick (Robert Garrison) attempts to impress on an outraged Rabbi Mayer (Abraham Morewski), "actors are highly esteemed people!" but the rabbi is having none of it. His heir is to keep his eyes on the Talmud, not the infectious nonsense of Shakespeare. They fight bitterly, escalatingly; it ends when Baruch runs away with the clothes on his back, the grieving blessing of his mother (Grete Berger), and a promise to return for Esther once he's made his fortune. The viewer may expect the next few acts to trace his rise from ostjüdisch nobody to darling of the Burgtheater and the romantically generous Archduchess Elisabeth Theresia (Henny Porten), at each step leaving behind a little more of his old, unassimilated life, but one of the beauties of this film is how much this process is neither a binary nor a one-way street. It makes the audience hopeful of Baruch's reconciliation with his family, which he is increasingly shown to desire as much as his glittering Viennese career; it's sufficiently realistic that we don't feel guaranteed of anything. I saw this movie with my parents and we were breathless in the final scene, not knowing which way it would tip off the fine edge of emotion that comedy and tragedy both share.

Deutsch is almost certainly best known nowadays for The Third Man (1949), where he embodied the ambiguity of Reed's postwar Vienna as much as the deep noir cinematography or the nervy zither score; I last saw him as the rabbi's antiheroic assistant in The Golem, How He Came into the World (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, 1920). With his dark-winged unibrow, his steadily burning eyes, and his sharply cut yet full-mouthed face, he made an ideal young hero of Expressionist stage and screen; he could look both pensive and piercing, dreamy and dangerous, and he sometimes gives the impression, like Conrad Veidt, of hailing from a planet where everyone has better cheekbones and doesn't blink. He's spellbinding and adorable as Baruch, effortlessly graduating from stage-struck yeshiva bokher to his generation's Hamlet. I think it's only sensible of the camera to consider him just as beautiful in his Hasid's yarmulke and black silk bekishe as in the sack coats and checked trousers of a Viennese man-about-town, but it matches the film's approach to assimilation as a spectrum, not a switch. That said, nothing here glosses over the forces that encourage it, ambition included but also anti-Semitism. Baruch's first experience of the theatrical life is the seediest and most satirical sequence in the film, as he falls in with a traveling family who perform what it is probably generous to call provincial theater. Penniless as he is, he's used as groom and gofer instead of actually apprenticed, but he studies his Shakespeare in between harnessing and mucking out and finally gets the chance to show it off when a picnic of Habsburg aristocrats summons the troupe for an evening's entertainment. It's the mechanicals at the court of Theseus: the actors are keyed up for success and patronage, but the audience is hoping for an MST3K-grade travesty and they get it, from a buffoonish middle-aged Mercutio to a canvas balcony that wobbles precariously with every moue of its smirking Juliet, but there's something about this back-country Romeo, acting his heart out as if he's not in a barn with kerosene footlights and an audience half composed of slumming courtiers and flirting peasants, that has the ladies intrigued behind their lorgnettes even as the gentlemen exchange side-eyes. He's even got the Archduchess quietly sobbing as he approaches the climactic love-suicide—and then, in an inspired improvisation of distracted grief, he pulls off the embroidered cap of his costume and his curly dark peyes come springing out. They might as well be horns. "Ein Romeo mit Judenlocken!" The crowd goes up in a guffaw, as if the very concept of Jewish romance is a burlesque. The curtain is hastily rung down. Two swells applaud the fuming director for his innovative casting of the "ghetto Jew" who can turn any drama he touches to comedy gold; a humiliated Baruch, stripped of Montague finery and back in his unmistakably Jewish street clothes, is mockingly saluted as "the Romeo from the Tribe of Asra!" His fortunes change for the better that very night, but it is impossible for the viewer not to recall that laughter and its scalding assumptions when we see him arrive at the Burgtheater in gentile dress, his unruly hair carefully ringleted to camouflage the tell-tale sidecurls. Following his barnstorming audition, they're the only wrong note in the reflection of a new-minted fellow of the Royal and Imperial Court Theater. Now the action reverts to the shtetl, where Esther's father (Fritz Richard) is encouraging her to accept the match he's arranged for her; as they speak, she's polishing the Shabbes candlesticks and he's knotting tzitzis. "Who are you waiting for?" he presses gently. "Baruch? He is lost to us . . ." Her small defiant face and her father's hands on the fringes of the tallis dissolve into Baruch squaring himself before the mirror, the scissors in his hands. The shear of the blades is shocking even without sound. He pulls one severed lock free, then the other; they drop from his fingers like dead things. As we watch him slick and comb his no longer so obviously Jewish frizz into a smart side-parting, we're not sure that her father isn't right after all.

Of course it's not that simple, because people's lives are not that simple, but movies often are, so I love that this one is not. It feels important, for example, that as high as Baruch's star rises in Viennese society, he never changes his name, a more Jewish moniker than which is hard to imagine. I know it's important that he's presented with a direct conflict between his religion and his profession, but I was not expecting the way it resolved. Having impressed an initially unreceptive Laube (Hermann Vallentin) on his own merits and received a further boost in the company's pecking order through the discreet interference of the Archduchess, Baruch is to open a new production of Hamlet in the title role; it's an ambitious but clever match for his intensity, his lyricism, and his gift for irony, not to mention his still unresolved issues with his father, whom we glimpse from time to time with the rest of the shtetl in cutaway vignettes. The catch? Opening night is Erev Yom Kippur. Genuinely distressed, Baruch protests that he can't act on the most important night of the Jewish year, only to be told by the exacting director that there's no more important night in an actor's year than an opening: "If you don't perform the day after tomorrow, you won't perform at all! Adieu!" Evening comes and with it the shtetl's preparations for the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Mayer presiding over a tish before the fast begins, his son's place at the table still conspicuous in its emptiness. The candles are lit in the synagogue with its murals and the white embroidered paroches of the High Holidays, as they are in the great chandelier of the theater with its stalls and draped boxes; the stormy, melancholy look on the star's face as he places the prince's royal chain around his neck is not all Hamlet's, nor merely first-night nerves. As the orchestra tunes up and the spear-carriers take their places, the agitated Baruch retrieves a small book from the pocket of his hung-up coat. He clears a space at his dressing table, closes his eyes, bends over the parted pages. Is he conning his lines last-minute? He's davening, the only observant Jew in the K.K. Hofburgtheater and he will not miss Yom Kippur. The two worlds of the film don't collapse so much as they are shown to exist in superposition all along. The theater audience and the synagogue congregation fill their chosen spaces with the same mix of serious attention and community bustle, dark-striped prayer shawls no stranger to the camera's eye than white-tie evening dress, and the prompter who knocks at Hamlet's door finds him rocking over his book as if in the beys-medrish, utterly heedless of his call time. Whatever the man makes of the visible Hebrew, all he does is, matter-of-factly, his job: "Come on! You're on stage . . ." Startled but not shamed, Baruch with not a minute to lose slips the prayer book inside his fur-trimmed doublet, furls himself in Hamlet's black cloak, and plays one of the greatest roles of Western theater with a machzor over his heart. The cantor is reciting Kol Nidre, the Aramaic formula that preemptively forgives all pledges and promises broken by accident or inability. Without irony on either side, the staging shows a congregation moved to tears by prayer just as strongly as an audience by poetry, the hazzan's voice, the actor's body. Baruch afterward is totally wrung out, absolutely glowing, and the night is crowned when Laube at last shakes the hand of his firebrand Jewish Hamlet. When a note arrives from the Archduchess, inviting him to a ball at the Grand Redoute, he tucks it between the pages of the machzor. The answer to the question he asked Ruben Pick all those months ago is a resounding yes, and he didn't have to stop being a Jew to do it.

The same smart sensitivity characterizes the resolutions of the film's other subplots, chiefly Baruch's relationships with the Archduchess and with his family. It is the spirit of the other world. ) At this point I stop caring whether the optimism of the ending was impelled by the pressures of the times or whether its call for empathy should be considered a failed project in light of the Nazi future through which it is almost impossible not to view a Weimar German Jewish film: with my mixed parentage and my mixed relationships and my marriage which was formalized under a chuppah with a line from American musical theater translated into Hebrew, it is important to me to see stories where the negotiation of identities is not either/or.

And this film looks fantastic doing it. The Ancient Law runs 135 minutes in seven acts and was never technically lost, having existed in various international versions and a black-and-white reconstruction of the German version since 1984, but the original camera negative had long since gone the way of most nitrate and it was not until the film's censorship card surfaced in the '90's that curators could even be confident about the original wording of the intertitles or the rightful order of some of the scenes. Completed in 2017, the current digital restoration incorporates material from five different international prints and I can tell because it was mentioned in the introductory notes, not because there are visible seams. Every now and then a fracture of damage washes across the screen and the rest of the time it looks crisp as a ghost, tinted amber, rose, or blue as the mise-en-scène requires. I should have guessed that cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl would eventually wind up in America, contributing his painterly photography to the nascent noir style, but in the meantime his Purim kreplach are as mouthwatering as his backstage shots of Hamlet are technical and thrilling. When Ruben Pick takes his leave of Baruch at the edge of the shtetl, he disappears down the dust-track of the road into endless grasslands and a wind that seems to fold him away into itself. Baruch and Esther embracing at last are a cameo of pure romance, an oval-masked rebuke to the idea that Jewish love can't take your breath away. Backgrounds as disparate as a rabbi's book-stacked study or a candle-blazing grand salon are all handled by Alfred Junge, without whose later production design for Powell and Pressburger I can't imagine their time-slipped Kent, myth-misted Hebrides, or hothouse artificial India. This film is, incidentally, an extremely #ownvoices production—Dupont and Reno were both Jewish, as was the majority of their cast. I have exactly one complaint about the subtitling and it's the intertitles' own fault for using Osterfest for Pesach in the first place. Since Morewski doubled as the film's technical advisor on matters of Yiddishkeit, that line about "Easter" being celebrated in the ghetto is on him.

I saw this movie at Temple Israel; it was a co-presentation of the Jewish Arts Collective and Boston Jewish Film with live accompaniment by Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin which would, frankly, have been worth the price as a concert. Both the program and discussion afterward pointed out that while Samson Raphaelson's short story "The Day of Atonement" (1922) predates The Ancient Law, the Hollywood talkie it was eventually adapted into—The Jazz Singer—owes an appreciable debt to the German silent, apparently right down to specific scenes. If you'd like to make the comparison for yourself, you can get the Blu-Ray/DVD from Flicker Alley. Svigals and Sosin's nign-like, waltz-time, violin-twined score is included. No jazz, but I'm still sticking with Deutsch, for whom Shakespeare supplements but does not supplant the Talmud. This heart brought to you by my esteemed backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
I am home from Arisia. I'll lobby-con tomorrow if I have the energy, but I am done with my programming. All of it was fun and as far as I can tell it all went well, although I especially enjoyed the memorial for Le Guin, the Yiddish singing, and the Tolkien. I wound up reading new fiction mixed with selections from a borrowed e-book of Forget the Sleepless Shores, since I had sold all the print copies I'd brought with me. The Boston Park Plaza has its problems as a con hotel, but I must say I enjoyed being able to walk two blocks and find restaurants instead of wasteland. The hanging out with [personal profile] ashnistrike, [personal profile] choco_frosh, [personal profile] nineweaving, [personal profile] awhyzip, and some people not on Dreamwidth was very good.

Against all my expectations, my first-generation Sacagawea gold dollar coin has returned to me. It was in the outer back pocket of my computer bag where I don't keep anything. I think it must have slipped out of my coat pocket and into the computer bag. I found it when I was looking for last-ditch cough drops. There it was, brass-gold and a little tarnished, with the familiar face glancing over her shoulder, from 2000. I am keeping it now in an inside pocket of my leather jacket which snaps shut. I don't think I can count on being so lucky again.

As if it was charmed by sympathy out of the overcast, the lunar eclipse is just still visible from our front windows, an ice-white brilliant circle with a distinct dark bite. I have been asking the cats which one of them is eating the moon. [personal profile] spatch says it'll be the one that bleps light.

ETA: Despina Durand reviewed Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2016) and she says wonderful things about "All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts":

Sonya Taaffe is easily one of the best contemporary writers of Weird fiction. Her work is often heavy with history—not "heavy," as in cumbersome or excessively dense, but "heavy" in the way anything worth holding sits in the hand.

All that and a blood moon and a talisman returned. I am happy.
sovay: (Renfield)
Arisia has begun. Tonight in Dramatic Readings from the Ig Nobel Prizes, I performed selections from Paul G. Becher et al.'s "The scent of the fly" (Journal of Chemical Ecology, 2018) and Lindie H. Liang et al.'s "Righting a wrong: Retaliation on a voodoo doll symbolizing an abusive supervisor restores justice" (The Leadership Quarterly 2018). The latter paper confirms that it makes downtrodden workers feel better to torment effigies of their horrible bosses; the former determined that a fly can be detected in a glass of wine by taste provided it is a female of the species Drosophila melanogaster whose volatile pheromone Z4-11Al consequently makes the wine taste, quote, technical term, "off." I also joined a chantey chorus supplementing a dramatic reading of William McGonagall's "The Tay Bridge Disaster" with a filk on the subject by Marc Abrahams. I feel I've done my bit for the arts this weekend.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
Somehow I have lost my first-generation Sacagawea gold dollar coin which I carried like a talisman in my coat pocket for approaching twenty years. I have no idea what happened to it. I would have thought I'd hear or see if it went flying when I pulled out my wallet or keys, but this afternoon at the post office was the first time I noticed it missing. It must have happened within the last day. The coin was a touchstone; I curled my fingers around it. I know I attach unwarranted significance to objects in that if they are at all important to me their loss feels like just more proof of entropy (nothing lasts, nothing stays, you get to keep nothing, you destroy anything you touch), but I am upset. And I do not want one of the newer issues: I like the panoply of Native history on the reverses, but in D.C. in December the Metro gave me a handful of the newer kind as change and it was immediately apparent how much thinner and lighter they were than mine. Plus it didn't visit multiple states and at least one other country with me. I am consoling myself that if it happened at Temple Israel in Boston where I saw a movie last night with my parents, it will probably count as accidental tzedakah and I'm sure the synagogue can use it, but I would still have preferred to do it consciously, with ordinary money. Today has really not been the greatest of days. I like this macro and otherwise I wish I had not been obliged to get out of bed.
sovay: (Default)
My schedule for this year's Arisia is compact and somewhat memorial:

Dramatic Readings from the Ig Nobel Prizes
Friday 10 PM
Marc Abrahams (m), Michelle Liguori, James Bredt

Highlights from Ig Nobel prize-winning studies and patents, presented in dramatic mini-readings by luminaries and experts (in some field). The audience will have an opportunity to ask questions about the research presented—answers will be based on the expertise of the presenters, who may have a different expertise than the researchers.

[In previous years I have read "The Number 13 as a Castration Fantasy" and "The highest-ranking rooster has priority to announce the break of dawn." Come discover with me what abomination of science I will have to explain this time.]

Harlan Ellison: In Memoriam
Saturday 1 PM
Michael A. Burstein (m), Robert B. Finegold M.D., John Trimble, Lisa Hertel, Sonya Taaffe

Harlan Ellison was one of the great short story writers of all time, and one of the field's larger-than-life figures. He was also someone whose bad behavior often undercut his achievements and even the good deeds he attempted to do. We'll discuss both his literary legacy and his personal one. Note that this panel will likely discuss topics that are uncomfortable for some people.

Ursula K. Le Guin: In Memoriam
Saturday 2:30 PM
Trisha J. Wooldridge (m.), Mark W. Richards, Sarah Smith, A.J. Odasso, Sonya Taaffe

SFWA Grand Master Ursula K. Le Guin passed away early last year at the age of 88. Best known for her Earthsea series, as well as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Disposessed, Le Guin consistently pushed themes of identity and social structure in her narratives. Join our panelists as they remember her life and works, and share what Le Guin meant to us all, as well as her influence on the genre as a whole.

Nightstand Readings
Saturday 7 PM
Timothy Goyette, Kel Bachus, Sonya Taaffe

Come find the next title to set on your nightstand for your bedtime reading routine, with authors reading to you from their own original works of fiction.

[I may read from either Forget the Sleepless Shores or new fiction. Come find out!]

Sing-along: Yiddish Songs
Sunday 11:30 AM
Anabel Graetz (m.), Sonya Taaffe, Marnen Laibow-Koser

There is a rich tradition of song from Jewish communities in Russia and Eastern Europe. Come sing along with some of these. Songs of work and play will be featured; no liturgical songs will be included. (Participatory sing-along with words provided.)

What We DIDN'T Steal from Tolkien
Sunday 5:30 PM
Kristin Janz (m.), James Hailer, Bekah Maren Anderson, Ken Gale, Sonya Taaffe

Tolkien, for all his flaws, did things in his work that revolutionized the literary landscape, yet so much of the deep, interesting, and nuanced aspects of his writing get overlooked in favor of the things at the surface level—the things that became trope-namers or cliches of the genre, the ways he influenced authors who came after. But what parts of Tolkien have been overlooked? What did he do that was worthwhile, yet which modern fantasy authors haven't emulated?

And Monday is [personal profile] spatch's birthday, so this works out nicely. Who can I expect to see there?
sovay: (Rotwang)
I don't get up at aaagh o'clock for everybody, just partisan songs, Yiddish theater, and the dead.

There were twenty-one dead of the molasses flood, wrecked by the shrapnel of the tank's burst brittle steel or the debris cresting its sticky, stiffening wave or suffocated outright in what Stephen Puleo in his definitive account called the dark tide; it splintered buildings, tossed cars, flattened streetlights, crumpled the tracks and trestles of the Atlantic Avenue Elevated. Photographs of the time show an almost absurd devastation of matchsticked houses and warehouses, sheared-off roofs decorated with buckled girders and dismembered wheels, livelihoods and lives all wiped across the smeary plain of what's now Langone Park. Everything glistens balefully. A hundred and fifty injured were recorded in addition to the dead. I assume the numbers come from the landmark class-action suit successfully brought against the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, parent company of Purity Distilling which had built the tank in 1915 and maintained it so poorly from the start that local families were accustomed to collect their own molasses from the constant leak. It is not true that on hot days in the North End you can still smell molasses, although it is apparently true that for weeks after the disaster Boston itself was generally sticky.

Seven years ago, [personal profile] spatch and I joked about baking molasses cookies for the centenary and eating them on Copp's Hill. Instead we joined a memorial organized by the City of Boston Archaeology Program and the Boston Parks Department. January 15, 1919 was unseasonably warm; it was one of the contributing factors to the perfect sugarstorm that was the Great Boston Molasses Flood. January 15, 2019 was bright and biting, the sky and the harbor the same pale streaked floe-blue and my fingers numb by the time we'd walked up Commercial Street from North Station. With the rest of the small crowd which included [personal profile] a_reasonable_man, we stood in a ninety-foot circle following the remains of the molasses tank, whose location and perimeter had been recently mapped by UMass Boston's Fiske Center. Boston Archaeologist Joe Bagley spoke briefly about the occasion before yielding home plate to Boston Parks Commissioner Chris Cook, who read the names of the dead and held a moment of silence. Together with Representative Aaron Michlewitz they laid a wreath of white roses at the center of the tank. And then everything broke up very quickly, because everyone was very cold. Probably due to our position against the third-base fence, we do not really show up in any of the coverage I've seen, but there were cameras everywhere, so if you see one person in a black hoodie and a green canvas coat and another in a leather jacket and a sort of fur-lined-looking hat, hello.

Afterward we wandered up the granite steps and switchbacks of Copp's Hill Terrace and then down into the North End, where we did not eat at Antico Forno because they opened half an hour later than we could stand to wait around in the cold; we walked to the Boston Public Market, where we had respectively shakalatkes, a bagel, and ramen, and collectively a nice conversation with the vacationing couple from Maine sitting across the table from us. Then it took me and Rob forever to get home because the new schedule of the 89 is awful; it has stripped out easily half the buses; they no longer run on the twenty-minute or even half-hour schedule that allowed us to get to Sullivan or Davis on a reasonable timetable rather than much too early or slightly too late or just not at all. That, too, is Boston. I guess.

I'm very tired, but I am glad we got up for this ceremony. It was the kind of magic that needed a critical mass to work: enough participants to form the circle, to map the space that failed and killed and to remember why we need regulations as well as heroes. I liked the commissioner's promise that the park would always stay open and safe for children, the best way he could think of to redeem it from tragedy. It was a good thing to be part of.

Someone had left a jar of molasses on the wall.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I leave this image as a sort of placeholder for The Beast of the City (1932), which I will have to write about some night when I don't have to get up early for a molasses flood commemoration. I was just watching it for Jean Harlow, but then there was the ending. I knew I liked Wallace Ford from Freaks (1932) and various older appearances as a character actor, but he appears to have joined the ranks of nicely weird-looking people I could watch all night. I haven't seen a body count like that since Tarantino.

sovay: (Sydney Carton)
Yesterday was primarily characterized by grocery shopping while having slept forty-five minutes the previous night. Today I have a glass bottle of goat's milk in my refrigerator and my bootlace that isn't already knotted just broke. Both of these circumstances have perfectly ordinary twenty-first-century explanations and yet. Have some recently accumulated links.

1. Courtesy of [personal profile] umadoshi: I was glad to see this follow-up article of differing perspectives—millennial and otherwise—on burnout.

2. I like how this article on "Why We Need to Keep Searching for Lost Silent Films" answers its own question with its subtitle: "Early motion pictures give us an important window into our collective past." I'd heard of Something Good – Negro Kiss (1898). I'd never heard of Diplomatic Henry (1915).

3. Courtesy of [personal profile] handful_ofdust: I love this appreciation of medieval bog body fashion, but I have to say the reconstruction of Bockstensmannen looks a bit done with the whole thing.

(While we're talking about things under water and earth, I was reminded by a recent exchange with [personal profile] strange_complex that I've never understood why I don't see Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard (1974) included in more discussions of folk horror. It was published in the '70's and revolves around the fire sacrifice of a year-king to the old gods of the land. I thought of it the first time I saw The Wicker Man (1973). Maybe the Child ballad confuses people.)

4. [personal profile] moon_custafer has been making text posts from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

5. Over the weekend I was having one of those moments of wondering what I have ever done worthwhile with my life when [personal profile] spatch showed me this tweet. About the only time I want the capacity to interact with Twitter is to say thank you for something like that.

I will be at Arisia this weekend, because some of the people who stepped up to put out the fires are people I trust. I'll post my schedule soon.
sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
Francesca Forrest's The Inconvenient God (2018) starts like a bureaucratic joke. Venerable Nando University is decommissioning its least consequential and most embarrassing god, a dropout divinity by the name of Ohin whose deadbeat devotees leave him offerings of bongs, bottles, and lingerie; toward this end it has summoned Decommissioner 37 from the Polity's Ministry of Divinities and scheduled the ceremony between campus construction jobs, as if expecting it to take nothing more than a scattering of incense and a few minutes' trance to finalize the natural decline of a god no one but slackers and stoners honestly, half-ironically believes in anymore. It's a usual thing. The official religious program of the Polity promotes abstract expressions of the divine over localized deities with names and personalities, who are gradually folded into the relevant Abstraction over time; the apple-goddess Amaya of the Northwest is one of the holdouts, but even she will soon be worshipped in the capital as just one more emanation of Abundance. Perhaps there are edges on this joke. There are certainly depths, as the decommissioner begins to discover when the god that manifests in response to her ritual is exactly as louche and lazy as she was led to expect from her Ministry briefing, but also something that absolutely no one prepared her for: once human. But who deifies a dropout? And why should the region's ancient apple-goddess care if they did? And if he's a usual thing, why can't she get a straight answer from anyone about the circumstances that led to his elevation? The longer she stays in Nando City, the clearer it becomes to Decommissioner 37 that Ohin's inconvenience is more than a matter of a condom-littered shrine; he threatens to expose fault lines in the university's history, the history of the Northwest, the region's relationship with the Polity as a whole. Even a god's memory is malleable, so easily lost—or altered. By the time the narrative is exploring questions of imperialism and assimilation, how much can be lost with a language and how much can be recovered with the right story, without losing an ounce of humor or compassion or numinousness the matter of Ohin has ceased to be a joke at all.

I love this novella. It is probably obvious that the mystery of Ohin resolves at ground zero of a number of issues I care about (I picked up my copy of this book on my way home from chorus rehearsal in my relearned familial endangered language), but the story is more than the sum of its ideas. The style is a graceful, often funny first person that catches the reader up on the shape of the world without lecturing or mistaking its narrator for an unbiased lens; the multi-ethnic, technologically contemporary Polity is not presented as a dystopia, but there's a chill to the distinction drawn between delinquency and sedition or a casual mention of the national language chased with the qualification "There are regional dialects, of course, and in isolated areas or recently incorporated territories, people may speak other tongues." That said, I would cheerfully read further novellas or even a novel featuring Decommissioner 37, the government official who has to find a humane and perhaps literally unorthodox way out of a dilemma as old as imperium and never shares her name on assignment, even with an ally, offering a childhood nickname in place of her impersonal title. I have a thoroughly unsurprising soft spot for Mr. Haksola, the high-strung university administrator who knows more than he's telling; he resembles "an anxious heron" and can't lie without spilling tea all over himself, guaranteeing my affection even when he was doing his best abstract expression of obstructive paper-pushing. The gods are richly evoked and not human even when they used to be and we are dropped some fascinating hints about their mutable natures ("Other decommissioned gods tell me that living as mortals is quite relaxing"). Even minor human characters are drawn clearly and generously, whether they have names or no. I was reminded not unpleasantly of Le Guin, in particular her novel The Telling (2000) and in general her habit of not drawing her secondary worlds from late antique to early modern Europe. The cover art by Likhain is even more beautiful and resonant with knowledge of the story, but even in isolation is the sort of thing you might want as a poster. I was left wondering where around here I could get persimmon wine.

I am reliably informed that the genesis of this novella can be traced to a six-year-old post in which I discussed the Roman concept of exauguratio, which facetiously makes me feel good about being pedantic at people and more seriously feels appropriate to the theme of keeping ancient knowledge alive. In the interests of local memory, I point out that the City of Boston Archaeology Program will be holding a ceremony for the dead of the Great Molasses Flood on Tuesday morning and the Boston Globe just gave an obituary to Durgin-Park.

The goddess smiled, and the gold that clad her became an apple-blossom-scented radiance that enveloped me, then spread outward, thinning and fading.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Anthony Mann's The Black Book (1949) is one of the best arguments I know for noir as a mode, not a genre. I doubt I recognized it as such in 2011 when I caught the first ten minutes on TCM, but I knew I'd seen something special; eventually I tracked down the other seventy-nine minutes on YouTube and jumped at the chance to watch a less jittery, fuzzy version when it came back around on TCM this week. I love this movie and I don't think beyond its deserts. It is sometimes shown under the alternate title Reign of Terror. It's French Revolution noir.

It's not that I haven't seen noir hybrids before, but very few are as fearlessly full-tilt with their conceit as The Black Book. While its plot retells the Thermidorian Reaction as zestily as any costume drama, everything from its dark, dramatic lighting to its hard-boiled dialogue to its cynical nerve is noir, right down to the damaged hero and his ambiguously faithful old flame. Give him a century and a half and he might be a G-man among gangsters, but on July 26, 1794, Charles D'Aubigny (Robert Cummings) is a Lafayette loyalist gone undercover as a notoriously bloodthirsty prosecutor in order to get close to Robespierre (Richard Basehart), who has just denounced Danton and stands ready to declare himself dictator of France. Charged with recovering the missing "black book" of the title—Robespierre's private hit list, fatally incriminating if its contents were known—D'Aubigny hopes instead to turn it over to Robespierre's rivals, but his only contact with the underground is the scornfully patriotic Madelon (Arlene Dahl) from whom he parted some years previously under mutually embittering circumstances and in any case, in the last paranoid thrashings of the Terror, trust can get you killed faster than actual treachery. Please make no attempt to anticipate the twists and double-crosses of the forty-eight-hour roller coaster; you'll put yourself in a neck brace. All you need to know is that the results are darkly funny, pulpily violent, and compulsively watchable, if only to see what sometimes literally cloak-and-dagger craziness this mashup of contemporary style and historical subject will throw at the national mythos next.

Like most B-noirs and especially Mann's, The Black Book turns its lack of budget into an occasion for atmosphere: William Cameron Menzies' production design and John Alton's cinematography have to create their revolutionary Paris mostly through small rooms and shadows and they succeed with baroque claustrophobia. Close-ups are lit every way but directly, angled to fragmentation or tight enough to choke. Characters are framed by quills, doorways, muskets, stalls, draperies, rain-slicked, torch-lit cobbled streets receding like blind alleys. Real prison bars are almost honest enough to be refreshing. Someone is always looking over the characters' shoulders, even if it's just the audience. You never know who's listening and you never know what they'll do with the information. [personal profile] handful_ofdust once memorably described this aesthetic as "Stalinist Russia with hoop-skirts"; the McCarthy echoes are unavoidable, but the film's more interested in thrills than a treatise. There are horse chases, coach chases, a murder conducted like spirit photography in a darkened mirror which moments later holds in its depths an even more unwelcome recognition scene. People burst out of bakery windows, swim like microbes in the Convention's engorging eye. When wine seeps from underneath a bookcase to give a secret room away, it pools and glistens like blood, a leftover crime. All mounted riders race against the same dawn-streaked cyclotron sky. I'd love to see it on film, velvety and baleful. Co-scripted by Aeneas MacKenzie and Philip Yordan, the screenplay does its Black Mask best to keep up. "Anarchy—misery—murder—arson—fear—these are the weapons of dictatorship!" a newsreel narrator barks before running us through a quick rogue's gallery of relevant parties from Robespierre to Tallien; then we're flung among the revolutionaries and conspirators themselves, some of whom say things like "We didn't storm the Bastille to make any man dictator" and others "Don't call me Max!" It's tough, cagey, demotic without overcooking into gumshoe parody. Estranged lovers and uncertain allies flirt with the same fencing dares. The heroes appeal to liberty like the God the Revolution is supposed to have abolished—the villains wield it like a protection racket. Best of all, at no point is the slightest effort made by the all-American cast to sound French or even English, Hollywood's cachet of historical class. I happen to prefer this approach in general, but it adds an especially anti-prestige kick to the liberty caps and powdered wigs. Lots of cities have a Brooklyn.

I have a better idea of what the movie is doing with D'Aubigny now that I've seen more of Mann's noir; as in T-Men (1947) and Border Incident (1949), the director is interested in the moral wear of undercover work, especially when it involves convincing as the kind of sadistic ideologue who only burnishes his laurels when he confesses deprecatingly, "The real pleasure of my work went out with the guillotine. It's all over too fast now . . . What this country needs is an elegant slow death. Give a man four hours to die. It's worth watching." I still feel Cummings could give us a better sense of D'Aubigny himself, the secret agent heartbroken into bitter recklessness; he adopts the role of the "Terror of Strasbourg" almost as soon as he appears, but there's still room for nuance in between the faces he shows the men whose confidence he must gain, the woman he won't admit never lost his heart. With her beauty mark and her muff pistol, Dahl is very good in her early, mistrustful, provocative scenes, but her Madelon fades into the plot the more it aligns her romantically with D'Aubigny. She may be one of the few female characters where I don't feel it's cheap of the narrative to have her arrested and even tortured, however: it's the risk all her cell agreed to run when they allied themselves with the impersonator of Citizen Duval, who they knew might have to blow a fellow-agent or two in order not to blow his cover ("A few lives won't matter, but Robespierre must never become dictator"), and she neither breaks nor betrays anyone. Norman Lloyd has a nice turn as trigger-happy Tallien, who almost shoots D'Aubigny just for talking to a member of the Committee of Public Safety; Richard Hart's Barras is a tricky crusader; Beulah Bondi makes an indomitable peasant grandmother. Charles McGraw even shows up as a brutal sergeant, albeit with his rocky charisma somewhat muted by facial hair. The film still really belongs to its villains. They're world-historical; they're the ones everyone from Stanisława Przybyszewska through Hilary Mantel and Tanith Lee has a different angle on. Basehart's Robespierre is an icy fanatic with ambitions of despotism who styles himself the incarnation of the people's will and genuinely seems to believe it, which makes him scarier than Jess Barker's smoothly sinister and unusually heterosexual Saint-Just. "We're living in a perpetual state of violence," he observes to a disguised D'Aubigny, without judgment or regret. "Each day this monster must drink its quota. There's only one man who can control this beast and that man must be dictator of France." Incorruptible to the last, he doesn't even attempt suicide; he's shot in the mouth—a startling gore-spatter—to silence his unadorned, spellbinding words, seconds away from regaining control of the violent crowd. Arnold Moss as Citizen Fouché enters the picture at the six-minute mark and steals every scene he's in, one of those reprehensible charmers whose eye for the main chance is as genial as it is ruthless. I love his deep, amused voice; it's as confiding and trustworthy as his character is not. You'd think he was a hero if you heard him in the dark. Instead he sits in Robespierre's own chair with his feet on Directoire marble, a saturnine man with an ironic smile and contemptuous cat-eyes, and ticks off his secret policeman's virtues on his fingertips with a dancing quill: "Where in all Paris would you find anybody as disloyal, unscrupulous, scheming, treacherous, cunning, or deceitful as I? Oh, you'd have to do some tall looking, Max." He gets the last word, a deliberate historical stinger. It's much more ambiguous than the celebratory fireworks suggest.

I recognize that in our current golden age of remix culture, historical noir is a no-brainer—it's hard to avoid, even, in some eras of history—but I have difficulty thinking of other first-generation examples beyond the previously identified subgenre of the noir Western and Mann's The Tall Target (1951), a nineteenth-century American assassination thriller that's less gonzo than The Black Book but just as visually and thematically noir. It works so well, I wish it hadn't taken the rest of the moviemaking world decades to catch up to him. At least we got this eighteenth-century dark city. I regret only that no one in it plays Camille Desmoulins. This state brought to you by my elegant backers at Patreon.

February 2019

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