Saturday, December 21, 2013

Film Review: The Avengers, Season 2, Episode 1: "Mr. Teddy Bear"

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1960s British TV series The Avengers is one of the most notable examples of spy-fi--the genre of science-fiction-oriented espionage adventure launched by the success of the James Bond films. The series stands out thanks to its breaking so completely with the machismo elements of not only Bond, but virtually every other pop-adventure effort of its day. The male hero, John Steed (Patrick Macnee) was, like Bond, an operative for British intelligence. But with his trademark bowler, umbrella, and impeccably tailored suits, he was also an effete dandy. His female partners, most famously Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), were anything but damsels in distress. They were smart, assertive, and more than capable of handling themselves in dangerous situations. They also weren’t the least bit ingratiating towards Steed, and for all his superciliousness, he clearly regarded them as equals.

The series took some time to find its way. Steed’s partner in the opening season was male, and the second season saw him in three pairings: another male operative, a young female novice played by Julie Stevens, and Blackman’s Cathy Gale. Gale was the one who took. She was Steed’s partner in 17 of the second season’s 26 episodes, and then the entire third season. She was replaced in the fourth season by Diana Rigg's Emma Peel.

“Mr. Teddy Bear” (1962) was the second season’s debut episode, and the first aired that featured Blackman. (Some accounts say it was the fourth with her to be filmed.) The plot is fairly simple: Steed and Gale set out to capture an assassin known by little other than his nickname (the story’s title) and his flamboyant methods. The low-budget production values make the episode seem a little quaint. That said, one can’t help but admire the imagination given to the assassin’s gadgetry, such as the tiny mechanical poison bombs he hides in medication capsules, or the talking teddy bear he uses to communicate with clients. The latter is the sort of deliriously surreal bit for which the series became known.

One can’t take one’s eyes off Honor Blackman. The no-nonsense edge she gives Gale plays well off the smirky Steed, and she looks ultra-chic in the (tasteful) black-leather ensemble she wears in the later scenes. Steed’s smug manner makes him the sort of hero whom one enjoys seeing upstaged. It's particularly enjoyable to see him shown up by a less experienced colleague. That and Blackman’s charisma make the episode’s climax, in which Gale’s speed and wits turn the tables on the assassin, a good deal of fun to watch. “Mr. Teddy Bear” is not especially intense, and like most series TV of the day, it’s certainly not profound. But its cleverness and manner are charming, and it leaves one wanting to see more of what the series has to offer.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Short Take: The Impossible

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Impossible, directed by J. A. Bayona from a script credited to Sergio G. Sánchez, is an earnest disaster-genre melodrama. The setting is Thailand in December 2004, when a massive tsunami swamped the Indian Ocean coastline in several countries. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as a vacationing British couple who were caught in the flooding with their three young sons (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergrast). The production values are first-rate, and Bayona does a fine job of staging the action and pacing the film. The scenes featuring Watts and Holland (who plays the oldest son) trying to make their way through the flooded landscape are especially gripping. The depiction of the tsunami as it strikes the resort where the family is staying is also quite impressive. But the script isn’t very imaginative. It simply follows the family members as they become (repeatedly) separated and reunited. One wishes the filmmakers had put together a more substantial story. One may also be put off by the use of WASP characters to dramatize a catastrophe whose victims (over 200,000 killed) were almost entirely South Asian. Watts and McGregor give good performances in rather banal roles. The most compelling member of the cast is Tom Holland, who completely catches the viewer up in the travails of a child forced to rise to the physical and emotional challenges of the situation. The film is based on the account of María Belón, a Spanish woman whose family survived the tsunami. The fine cinematography is by Óscar Faura.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Short Take: Personal Best

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

With films such as Chinatown, Shampoo, and The Last Detail to his credit, Robert Towne is rightly considered one of the finest screenwriters in Hollywood history. But with Personal Best, his engaging 1982 directorial debut, he handled the project as a director’s film. He doesn’t appear to have started with a fleshed-out screenplay. The film’s story--the relationship of two track-and-field athletes (Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly) over the four years they spend training for the 1980 Summer Olympics--is rather slight. There’s an offhand, casual feel to the dialogue, and the only notable suspense comes from the question of how Towne will handle the anticlimactic ending. (The United States and several other countries boycotted the Moscow-hosted 1980 games, so the athletes trained for a goal they were not allowed to realize.) Towne’s approach to the film was to use the script as a bare-bones foundation; he seems to have discovered the film in the shooting and shaped it in the editing. The picture has a loose, improvisatory feel. Towne is also enamored with the physicality of the athletes. He builds whole scenes out of the drama of their exertions and repose. He also doesn't hide his admiration for their physical beauty. The admiration is platonic, though; there’s nothing prurient about his tone. His tastefulness extends to his handling of the relationship of the Hemingway and Donnelly characters, who are romantically involved for most of the film. The film was unusual for its time; Towne treats lesbianism as no big deal. He isn’t judgmental, and he doesn’t congratulate himself on the enlightenment of his portrayal. Romantic inclinations are depicted as just another aspect of the women’s characters. Overall, the film is a fresh and lively effort. It holds up quite well over three decades after its release. Scott Glenn co-stars as the women's coach. The cinematography is by Michael Chapman.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Short Take: Les Bonnes femmes

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Les Bonnes femmes, French director Claude Chabrol’s fourth feature, is a gem. It embodies the spirit of French New Wave filmmaking as much as the best early efforts of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. There’s not much in the way of plot. The film is an episodic, slice-of-life portrayal of four young women who work at a small Paris appliance store. They are a compelling bunch. Ginette (Stéphane Audran) is an aspiring singer who is terrified of being judged for her ambitions. Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) is engaged, and her upper-class fiancé is anxious about how well she’ll fit in with his family. Jane (Bernadette Lafont) is a bored party girl who often gets in over her head with men. Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) is a shy romantic whose poor judgment with the opposite sex ends in tragedy. Chabrol’s approach in this picture is very different from the tightly controlled, even bloodless style he became known for. The picture embraces spontaneity. It is energetic and freewheeling, and one is completely caught up in the personalities of the four women. The jazzy ambience carries one through the most mundane scenes, such as a lunchtime visit to the zoo, as well as the unfortunately pulpy climax. All four actresses give strong performances, but if there’s a standout, it’s probably Stéphane Audran. The scenes of her facing her fears about singing onstage are probably the most urgent in the film. The screenplay is credited to Chabrol and Paul Gégauff. Henri Decaë provided the handsome documentary-style cinematography.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Short Take: "The Doom That Came to Sarnath," H. P. Lovecraft

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Story illustration by Brad Rigney

H. P. Lovecraft's early short story “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” is derived from the portraits of Troy in Homer and Virgil's epic poetry. The piece is largely a descriptive writing exercise presented in the context of a faux-legend. The ancient city of the title is referred to as “[t]he wonder of the world and the pride of all mankind.” Lovecraft revels in describing the glories of its architecture and the luxuries enjoyed by those within its walls. Both are recounted in extensive detail. As for the story's ersatz-legend aspects, well, like Troy, Sarnath comes to a terrible, catastrophic end. However, the cause of its destruction is not, as with Troy, the pride of kings. The city is destroyed as part of a what-goes-around-comes-around scenario that is rooted in the distant past. Sarnath is located on the site of an even more ancient city. The earlier city had been populated by a race of alien beings who may have descended to earth from the moon. The founders of Sarnath slaughtered those beings, demolished their city, and built a new one in its stead. Centuries later, Sarnath is leveled in what appears to be the aliens’ revenge. Lovecraft’s treatment of this material is completely lacking in suspense. The story is all exposition, there are no developed characters, and there is no dramatic momentum. The only conspicuously crafted effect is the ironic coda. An object that is a trope for the undying pride of the aliens--the one thing they would not allow Sarnath’s founders to keep as a trophy--becomes the only thing that survives either city. Overall, the piece is a very minor effort on Lovecraft’s part. The story lacks resonance, and several hallmarks of Lovecraft’s material, such as the desolate landscapes and the notion of humanity having no inherent claim to earth, aren’t presented in a fresh way. The story was first published in the June 1920 issue of The Scot.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Short Take: The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer-winning adventure novel, is an imaginative and thrilling effort. The story is set in the North Korea of the recently deceased dictator Kim Jong-Il. The country is described as “a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them.” It’s a ramshackle, fun-house-mirror Potemkin village ruled entirely by the self-aggrandizing and often bizarre whims of its Dear Leader. One’s identity is decided for one, and even that can change from day to day. One can be an enemy of the state in the evening, and a national hero come morning. One may even become yesterday’s national hero today, and replace that person among their family and friends. That’s the experience of Pak Jun Do, the book’s protagonist. He careens from role to role: a non-orphan who is nonetheless treated as an orphan; a state-sanctioned kidnapper of Japanese citizens; a fishing-boat radio operator who spies on other countries’ transmissions; a member of a diplomatic delegation to the U. S.; an ostensible traitor condemned to hard labor in the mines; the official substitute for a national celebrity; and finally a genuine hero who sacrifices all for love in successful defiance of the country's despot. Johnson has crafted a compelling, suspenseful black farce out of Pak Jun Do’s travails, and the conflicts between state-declared reality and the truth of the various circumstances are by turns disturbing and hilarious. The comic high points are Johnson’s treatments of the absurdly fanciful propaganda missives that tell what happens as Dear Leader wishes it to be. They are so over-the-top in their flattery of his twerpy albeit megalomaniacal vanities that a reader often cannot help but laugh out loud. Johnson’s handling of the story’s adventure and humor elements are first-rate, but what really sets the book apart is his evocation of the tragedy of the North Korean people, who endure horrible oppression and poverty in the wake of their ruler’s often lunatic egotism. It’s a terrific novel: hard to put down while one is reading it, and harder to forget once one is finished.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Short Take: Killer Joe

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Killer Joe has some impressive behind-the-scenes credentials: an Oscar-winning director in William Friedkin, and Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracy Letts as screenwriter. The film, though, is a piece of misanthropic pulp that congratulates itself on the depths of its nastiness. The title character, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a Dallas police detective with a sideline as a hitman. He’s hired by a young, ne’er-do-well drug dealer (Emile Hirsch) and the dealer’s father (Thomas Haden Church). They want him to take out the dealer’s mother so they can collect on the insurance policy. They are unable to pay his fee up front, so he offers to let them pay a "retainer": the sexual favors of the dealer’s somewhat addled younger sister (Juno Temple). The dealer and his family, which includes Gina Gershon as his stepmother, are probably the most amoral, indecent, and stupidest examples of working-poor whites in the history of American movies. Friedkin and Letts have quite a time chortling at them. The class bigotry on display is almost enough to make one look back longingly on the hipster-snob sneering of the Coen brothers. The dealer and his family cannot do anything right, which ultimately results in a vicious reprisal from the detective once he realizes he will never be paid. This comeuppance takes up the film’s final act, and the scene is about as vile as they come. (The treatment of the Gershon character is especially despicable.) It’s hard to say who is more demeaned by this finale: the characters or the audience. McConaughey is the only good reason to see the picture. He has an eerie calm as the psychopathic detective, and what is most frightening is how methodical the character’s violence is once it explodes. He is compelling in his quieter scenes as well. His character’s seduction of the dealer’s sister is a particular standout. Caleb Deschanel provided the excellent cinematography. Letts based the script on his 1991 play of the same name.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Short Take: Anna Karenina

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The English director Joe Wright has often treated dramatizing his material as a secondary concern. He often seems more interested in using the script as a springboard for directorial showmanship. He has never before taken this to the extravagant lengths he does in Anna Karenina, and this time it leaves one applauding. Any effort to realize Leo Tolstoy’s enormous 1877 novel as a feature-length film cannot help but be a diminution. Wright treats this stumbling block as beside the point, and he ends up doing the book more justice than a more conservative approach ever could. This Anna Karenina is a series of grandly executed set pieces that illustrate the story far more than they retell it. The basic plot is still there: screenwriter Tom Stoppard follows the general outline of the book and distills it into concise scenes. Anna (Keira Knightley), the wife of a high-ranking Russian official (Jude Law) falls in love with a dashing young military officer (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She cannot let go of him, and in turn lets go of her marriage and societal position instead. As a piece of storytelling, the film feels like a summary of Tolstoy's novel. Wright, though, realizes every moment in the most flamboyant and theatrical terms. He seems to relish making the artifice as conspicuous as he can. The sets call attention to themselves as sets--the film deliberately looks as if much of it is being presented on a theater stage--and the action in the scenes is as boldly choreographed as a ballet. The spectacular staging and camera movement are complemented by the gorgeous work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Sarah Greenwood, composer Dario Marianelli, and costumer Jacqueline Durran--the film is a feast for the senses from beginning to end. Keira Knightley is a vivid, compelling Anna, and a few of the scenes are quite well-realized in dramatic terms. A particular standout is the dance when Anna and the officer fall in love, much to the chagrin of Kitty (Alicia Vikander), and unmarried hopeful also at the ball. The film isn’t for every taste, but if one can enjoy unbridled cinematic bravura for its own sake, it’s a treat.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Short Take: Django Unchained

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino has become easier to pigeonhole as time has gone by. He’s essentially a 21st-century hipster version of Mel Brooks. He also has a fondness for 1970s blaxploitation tropes, a remarkably tasteless approach to historical subject matter, and a penchant for bloodletting that makes Sam Peckinpah look squeamish. Brooks went from one movie genre to another with his free-for-all spoofs, and so does Tarantino with his absurdist bloodbaths. He tackles the Western with Django Unchained, and, well, I much preferred Blazing Saddles. For starters, it was a lot shorter. (Django Unchained runs two hours and 46 minutes.) Jamie Foxx stars as the title character, a freed slave who is partners with a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) in the late 1850s. The first half follows their adventures hunting down criminals and collecting rewards. The second half is a convoluted melodrama in which the two conspire to free Django’s wife (Kerry Washington) from her current owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). He is a Mississippi plantation owner who is an enthusiast of “mandingo” fighting, an ahistorical sport that has two male slaves fight until one beats the other to death. I suppose Tarantino is trying to portray the dehumanizing horrors of slavery with this and other depictions. Among other things, the viewer is treated to whippings, brandings, and a runaway slave being torn apart by dogs. But Tarantino doesn’t use these for anything more than shock value, and the absurdist context--almost every scene has an oddball spin--makes their inclusion seem especially inappropriate. Tarantino isn’t in particularly good form outside of these moments, either. The dialogue is some of the flattest he’s ever written, and most of the scenes are poorly shaped and meandering. The action scenes are so violently over-the-top that they quickly become tiresome. One sits there marking time until the blood explosions end. Christoph Waltz is one of the film’s few saving graces. He has exquisite comic timing, and he plays his character’s impeccable manners off the barbarous environment hilariously. The other actors are nowhere as interesting. Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington are stolid bores, while Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the plantation’s chief house slave, take turns chowing down the scenery. Their cartoonishness is of a piece with the rest of the film tastelessness. Robert Richardson provided the handsome cinematography.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Short Take: Les Misérables

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Les Misérables, the screen adaptation of the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel, is a whirlwind treatment of the material. That is not a compliment. Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, the reformed convict who, rather than see an innocent man condemned in his place, gives up almost everything for the life of a fugitive. The commitment he will not abandon is the upbringing of Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, and Amanda Seyfried as a young woman). It's a promise he made to her mother (Anne Hathaway) on the woman’s deathbed. His initial challenge is to stay out of the clutches of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a dogged lawman who fervently believes in the law but has no understanding of justice. Years later, a greater challenge comes: accepting Cosette’s love for the young bourgeois revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and allowing her to become the fellow’s wife. Everything comes to a head during France’s 1832 June Rebellion. Director Tom Hooper bit off a lot more than he could chew. He had three challenges: mounting the large-scale production, bringing off the musical set pieces, and effectively dramatizing the sprawling story. He succeeds almost completely at the first, and intermittently at the second. With the third, he fails: the audience is rushed from plot point to plot point, and the narrative cannot build momentum. The drama only comes to life with a few of the musical numbers. The best of these are “I Dreamed a Dream,” heartbreakingly performed by Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne’s rendition of “Empty Tables and Empty Chairs,” his character’s reflections on the rebellion and lost friends. “On My Own,” performed by Samantha Barks, also deserves mention. Hugh Jackman is perhaps the finest musical-theater actor in the world today, and he is quite compelling as Valjean, but his singing is of mixed quality. He’s a baritone being required to sing tenor, and while one can see his considerable skill, one can also see the strain. Russell Crowe would probably be a fine Javert in a non-musical production, but he’s hopeless here: his flat crooning completely locks one out of the character. The work of the film’s artisans, including cinematographer Danny Cohen, costumer Paco Delgado, and production designers Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson, is first-rate. The screenplay is credited to William Nicholson, adapted from Hugo’s novel and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s stage play. The English-language lyrics are by Herbert Kretzmer.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Short Take: Beasts of the Southern Wild

This review was originally published at Pol Culture.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, the début feature of director Benh Zeitlin, is an exuberant, uncategorizable, and marvelous film. It mixes up magic-realist allegory, slice-of-life parent-child drama, documentary-style local-color social realism, and probably a few other story genres and modes that I’m forgetting. The central character is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a 6-year-old girl who lives with her father (Dwight Henry) in an isolated Louisiana bayou community. They and their neighbors want nothing to do with the rest of the world. Their only goal is to live and let live, and they fill their days with fishing, scavenging, and carousing. What would look like squalor to most is idyllic for them. But all things come to an end, and their way of life is threatened by a hurricane that floods the area. That threat is deepened by the authorities' insistence that they evacuate and be relocated. Hushpuppy has her own challenges, particularly her tempestuous relationship with her often manic father, and their realization that he is dying. But I’m making the picture sound dreary, and it’s anything but. Zeitlin captures the vigorous, indomitable spirit of the people the film portrays. His ace in the hole is the sometimes fierce, sometimes soulful, and always charming performance by Wallis in the lead. She seems like a force of nature at times, and she commands the screen with an ease almost any adult actor would envy. Wallis leads the viewer gladly through even Zeitlin's most outré passages, including the eerie, dreamlike quest for the girl's long-lost mother, and the goofy poetic fantasy of her belief that ancient boar-monsters are coming to reclaim the bayou. Dwight Henry, who is both savagely intense and deeply moving as her father, gives almost as impressive a performance. The gritty, lyrical cinematography is by Ben Richardson. Zeitlin and Dan Romer are responsible for the rich musical score. The screenplay is credited to Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar. It is based on Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Short Take: Life of Pi (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi cements his place as his generation's answer to David Lean. Lee is undoubtedly the current king of literate spectacle filmmaking. The film’s screenplay, credited to David Magee, stays close to the story outline of the book. A middle-aged Hindu Canadian (Irrfan Khan) relates the story of his life before coming to North America in his late teens. We see his life growing up in the Indian city of Pondicherry, including his experiences at his father’s zoo, the story of how he came by the name “Pi,” and his explorations of religion. As a teenager (played by Suraj Sharma), his family decides to move to Canada, and this sets the stage for the story’s centerpiece. The cargo ship on which the family is crossing the Pacific sinks at sea. Pi is the sole human survivor. He finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with the family zoo’s adult Bengal tiger. For several months, the two are lost at sea together, and Pi is committed to seeing that both of them survive. He gradually learns to coexist with the animal, and their journey opens him up to the magic of nature and a more profound connection with God. Ang Lee, cinematographer Claudio Miranda, and visual-effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer use their considerable talents for all the pictorial grandeur they can muster. By any standard, the film works well as an intelligent, exciting survival story. But the depth of one’s admiration most likely hinges on one’s reaction to the epic visuals. Many will undoubtedly get caught up with the awe of nature the film is seeking to evoke. Others, though, may find the imagery too blandly pretty, pristine, and self-consciously monumental to give over to it. The film also doesn’t come close to the book's existential philosophical richness; the efforts at transposing those aspects of the novel are rather shallow. Ang Lee, like David Lean before him, often mistakes lavishness for artistry, but he’s a fine storyteller nonetheless.

Short Take: "Queen of the Black Coast," Robert E. Howard

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“Queen of the Black Coast,” first published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales (cover image at right), isn’t the most accomplished of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories. But it may be the definitive one. At the very least, it probably best captures the indomitable, fast-living man-of-action quality Howard sought to give Conan in his stories of the character as a young man. Conan’s motto in the story is, “Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exaltation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content.” Characterization and irony are present only in the story’s first half. As it begins, Conan is fleeing the authorities. He refused to give up a friend who murdered a guardsman, and he killed a judge while making his escape from the court. He takes refuge on a merchant ship, only to see its entire crew killed when it encounters pirates. It seems honor is only important to Conan as long as there isn’t anything to be otherwise gained. He loses all interest in avenging the crew when he encounters the pirates’ leader, a beautiful woman named Bêlit. The two are immediately smitten with each other, and he joins her and her men in their privateering. The story after that is just solidly executed fantasy-adventure action in which Conan demonstrates his fighting prowess. In the face of the deadliest challenges, he will inevitably prove the last man standing. The most striking aspect of the story is Howard’s fairly brazen handling of sex: he has Bêlit seduce Conan on her ship's deck in full view of her men. One notes that Howard’s prose in this outing is especially purple. The use of adjectives is extravagant, and the metaphors and similes are often gratuitous. The tropes are also frequently heavy-handed, such as the description of a ruby necklace as “a line of crimson clots that shone like blood in the gray light.” In addition to being perhaps the definitive Conan story, the tale may well exemplify the style of pulp prose.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Short Take: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1965 film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, directed and produced by Martin Ritt, is a workmanlike, no-frills, and effective effort. Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, a British intelligence field officer during the Cold War. As the film begins, he watches as the service’s Berlin operation, which he oversees, collapses. He then returns to civilian life, and appears unable to adjust. The truth is he is marking himself as a target for defection by East German operatives in Britain, His ultimate aim is to manipulate the upper echelon of the Communist country’s intelligence corps. As the scheme progresses, he discovers the full extent of how he and the woman he loves (Claire Bloom) are pawns in the double-dealings of intelligence officials in both countries. The script, credited to Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, does a capable job of adapting le Carré’s novel. However, one may wish it had followed the book’s lead of letting the audience discover the specifics of Leamas’s mission instead of explaining it up front. But Ritt and the screenwriters maintain the book’s uncompromising view of the dirtiness and amorality of espionage work. One might wish Ritt were a more imaginative filmmaker, but he keeps the story tense and clear. The main reason to see the film is Burton’s fine performance. He foregoes his usual dramatic ostentation, and his restraint makes him all the more forceful. He superbly conveys the character’s misanthropy, and the nuance he shows in the character's more manipulative moments is remarkable. There is also no doubting his cold fury when the caring for others he thought behind him is used as a devious weapon. Burton is ably supported by the warmth and sympathy Bloom brings her role, and Oskar Werner is quite compelling as the protagonist’s principal German interlocutor. Oswald Morris’ gritty black-and-white cinematography serves the material well.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Short Take: The Good Earth, Pearl Buck

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, is a compelling portrait of a rural Chinese patriarch in what appears to be the early decades of the twentieth century. When the story begins, he is a poor farmer on his wedding day. He is apparently somewhere in his twenties. His bride, whom he has never before met, is a slave in the kitchen of a local wealthy family. The novel ends with him wealthy and close to death, with his adult sons making plans for the family estate. At first, Buck seems to be using the farmer and his wife as a celebratory illustration of Protestant-work-ethic values--the ideal of hard work, and so on--but her perspective proves far more ambivalent. Hard work means nothing in the face of famine and flooding, and one’s safety from crime is pointedly shown to be arbitrary. The work-ethic values can even prove destructive; one story thread implicitly asks if pride at not begging or stealing is worth the cost to one’s children. The farmer and his wife are hardly paragons of virtue, either. The seeds of their later wealth come from a mugging and burglary, and the farmer certainly has his callous, hedonistic side--he thinks nothing of his wife’s feelings when he purchases a concubine and brings her into their home. The book also explores other consequences of building a better life, including the complications and conflicts that result from the bourgeois values that become instilled in the couple’s sons. Buck is fond of platitudes about the fulfillment found in working the land, but the virtue the book promotes is a rather cynical one: one must make the most of opportunities, and corrupt ones are acceptable. In this, the story is very similar to the Biblical tale of Jacob, whose dedication to hard work and lack of principle is quite similar to Buck’s protagonist. Buck’s prose recalls scripture as well. It’s straightforward third-person narrative that uses homiletic repetitions to both render the protagonist’s mindset and anchor the scenes. The repetitions come close to functioning like a recitative at times, and they help make the novel a fast, engaging read. Buck is in the august company of authors who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the book does not rise to the level that honor promises. It is not especially profound, much less innovative or poetic. However, it is a very satisfying piece of popular fiction, and that cannot be discounted.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," H. P. Lovecraft

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The H. P. Lovecraft short story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” was first published in the October 1919 issue of Pine Cones, and then reprinted in the March 1938 issue of Weird Tales (cover at left). It’s a striking effort: trapped in cliché and pulp absurdity at times, particularly in the narrative’s framing, but the imagination at play within that frame is often quite remarkable.

The story’s first half may have one sighing with impatience. Lovecraft can be slavishly derivative of Edgar Allan Poe at times, and he again makes use of Poe’s convention of employing a narrator of rather dubious sanity. The fellow here is an intern receiving his training at a mental institution. At one point, the institution's head doctor prescribes him "a nerve-powder" and sends him on six-month paid vacation to recover from nervous strain, but one will be doubting his psychological health long before then. The intern is fascinated by a backwoodsman who had been committed after gruesomely beating a man to death. The backwoodsman has fits during which he relates hallucinations of “great edifices of light, oceans of space, strange music, and shadowy mountains and valleys.” These hallucinations are especially preoccupied with an adversary described as “some mysterious blazing entity that shook and laughed and mocked at him.” The intern cannot reconcile these spectacular descriptions with the backwoodsman’s illiteracy, and he becomes convinced the man is representative of something beyond normal comprehension. To better understand the man’s visions, the intern hooks the two of them up to--believe it or not--an apparatus that enables a telepathic rapport. One may be a bit taken aback by the goofiness of all this, but what comes next more than redeems it.

In “Dagon,” Lovecraft made use of myth-derived material to set the stage for the story’s more visionary moments, and here he relies on rather junky science fiction. But to a much greater degree than with “Dagon,” Lovecraft plays to the essential appeal of his work. He promises an opportunity described in a line from Poe’s “Eleonora”: to “obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awaking, to find they have been upon the verge of the great secret.” The central passage of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” in which the intern joins the backwoodsman in his hallucinatory journey, lives up to the promise--it approximates the more spectacular sections of Dante’s Paradiso. And in the climax, Lovecraft dispenses with “the verge of the great secret,” and more or less presents it head-on. He plays notes similar to the revelation material in “Dagon,” but in a different key: the supernatural beings do not stand apart from humanity. They are an aspect of it: in part subordinate, and in part transcendent. With “Dagon” and its portent of conflict between humanity and a race of gods, Lovecraft turned the Romantic ideal of unity with the divine on its head. Here, he sets it up straight again, but with a particular spin: humanity and the divine are unified in some respects, but ultimately exist apart.

Lovecraft relies on hackneyed material, but only as a starting point. He uses it in the way a good jazz musician uses a pop standard: as a springboard for his own unique presentation. The dross in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” may take one back a bit, but it’s also the foundation for an imagination that at its best is quite visionary. In art, one is always happy to take the bad as long as the good comes with it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Short Take: Looper

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The virtue of the science-fiction thriller Looper, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is its crackerjack plotting. One will want to talk about it right away with others who have seen it, and with those who haven’t, one’s attitude is the less they know the better. They should just know that after they see it, they will be thankful for the restraint. Without giving too much away, here’s the story’s starting point: The year is 2044. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a “looper,” an assassin who kills mob targets sent from the future for easy disposal. The loopers know they will become mob targets as well, and after one kills his future self, his tour of duty is over. He then gets thirty years to enjoy his retirement. It ends when the mob comes knocking to sign paid in full. The future self of the Gordon-Levitt character, played by Bruce Willis, has other ideas. He comes back to the past to protect the life he’s built, which gets the 2044 mob and his younger self after him. The younger self is on the run from the mob, too, as they intend to use him to take his older self down. This doesn’t begin to describe all the twists and turns the story takes, and if the film has a weakness, it is that beyond the plotting, there isn’t much of interest. But Johnson keeps the movie hurtling along at such a pace that one likely won’t mind. The film is an unpretentious piece of well-executed pulp entertainment. It isn’t trying to be anything more than an exciting couple of hours, and it does a terrific job. One comes away alert, refreshed, and satisfied.

Short Take: "The Scarlet Citadel," Robert E. Howard

This story was originally published on Pol Culture.

Robert E. Howard’s “The Scarlet Citadel,” originally published in the January 1933 issue of Weird Tales (cover at right), is something of a sequel to “The Phoenix on the Sword,” his first story featuring Conan the Barbarian. It takes place during the character’s “King Conan” period, when he is the middle-aged ruler of the city of Aquilonia. The story is not among Howard’s more compelling ones. It is mediocre adventure pulp which follows a very basic formula: the hero is defeated, only to come back and be victorious over his enemies. As with “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Conan is fighting efforts to strip him of his crown, but he’s not dealing with an assassination attempt this time. His enemies here confront him on the battlefield. They still use treachery to draw him out and defeat him--a king he thought an ally calls for his help in what turns out to be an ambush. His enemies are working with a sorcerer, Tsotha-lanti, who gives Conan a choice: renounce his throne and accept exile, or face death in the sorcerer’s dungeon. He chooses the latter. The dungeon sequence, in which Conan faces numerous threats in his efforts to escape, is easily the best part of the story; Howard catches the reader up in the dread of the unknown. But the story never regains its tension after Conan is free. One knows exactly where the story is going at that point: Conan is going to avenge his earlier defeat on his enemies, and he of course does just that. There is little suspense in the tale’s final section; it’s just violent spectacle. The better aspects of other Conan stories, including the use of irony and the portentous hints of the supernatural world, are not much present.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Short Take: Lincoln

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s treatment of the final months of the life of Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), may be a passable history lesson. But it’s a pretty mediocre movie. The picture focuses on the effort in early 1865 to pass the constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery. Apart from some occasionally salty language, it appears intended for middle-school social-studies classes. Spielberg and Kushner seem to have no faith that the audience has even the most basic history under its belt. The film assumes one doesn’t know the amendment will pass, or that the Civil War is about to end. Certain material is cheesily used for suspense purposes, such as the impending arrival of a Confederate peace delegation whose presence could undermine passage. There's also the decision by Lincoln’s son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist. The dialogue is often overstuffed with exposition, and it gets insultingly repetitive at times. By the halfway point, one may want to throw things every time “13th amendment” and “Constitution” are used in the same sentence. Spielberg appears straitjacketed by the material. Most of the scenes occur in darkened rooms, and the staging and camerawork rarely rise above the ordinary. That said, he gets good work from the cast, and the film is handsomely produced. The detailed, disciplined performance by Day-Lewis is the sort of thing one is supposed to admire rather than enjoy--he’s rather remote--but he has humor, and he isn’t dull. Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the fiery abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, is the most engaging of the actors. Stevens is a wild card even if one knows the history, and Jones gives him an outsized theatricality and a hilarious deadpan wit. The other standouts are James Spader, who is quite funny as an uncouth lobbyist, and David Strathairn, who plays Secretary of State William Seward with considerable gravitas. Sally Field does a fine job as Mary Todd Lincoln, the high-strung First Lady, but most of her scenes are extraneous to the main story. They generally slow the picture down. Again, the history lesson, not aesthetics, seems paramount. The film is based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Short Take: "The Vandercook," Alice Mattison

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Alice Mattison’s fine short story “The Vandercook” portrays an unequal marriage. The relationship is dominated by the wife, who is so committed to her personal prerogatives that her husband might as well not exist. The story begins with them relocating from California to the husband’s boyhood home of New Haven, Connecticut. The husband’s father is retiring from running the family-owned print shop, and the wife, looking for a career change, offers to take it over. The husband doesn’t mind relocating--he’s a schoolteacher who is quickly able to find work after the move--and he’s nostalgic for the opportunity to put his (limited) print-shop skills to use. But after they arrive, the husband is so caught up in his own preoccupations that he cannot see his wife’s willfulness is turning the business, particularly his family’s long-term relationship with it, on its head. A key scene comes early on. In bed one night, the wife tells the husband she would be able to kill him. It’s a joke in the context of the moment, but it proves a darker joke in the context of the greater story. While the wife does no literal harm to the husband in the story’s finale, she figuratively murders a bond he had with his childhood. She kills a part of their relationship's bond along with it. Mattison gives this fracturing of the marriage an almost tragic force, and her command of nuance is such that she has no need for histrionics. The story is remarkably understated. The couple’s inability to look each other in the eyes is far more eloquent than any shouting. Mattison also has an impeccable command of structure. Every scene, detail, and trope prepares one for the ending. Looking back on the story, one can see from the start the seeds of the marriage’s downfall in the couple’s personalities. The tale's resonance is in knowing that, for the pair, there is likely no going back.

“The Vandercook,” by Alice Mattison, was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Ecotone (cover above). It is also featured in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, edited by Laura Furman.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Short Take: "The Cats of Ulthar," H. P. Lovecraft

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Cats of Ulthar” is a modest attempt at a folklore-style piece with horror-fantasy trappings. The village of Ulthar, where the story is set, is presumably a place from a long time ago and far, far away. It is also a place where it is forbidden to kill a cat. The narrator relates the tale of how that came to be. The village used to be a place where no cat was safe. The townspeople loved their cats, but a reclusive couple was known to kill any of the animals that ventured into their grasp. This ended shortly after a band of gypsy-like nomads came to town, and the couple apparently killed the one cat they should have left alone. Magic comes into play, and the feline community has their revenge. It’s a startlingly grisly one. The couple’s horrifying fate carries a sensationalistic jolt, but unfortunately it is the only aspect of the story that's particularly memorable. Lovecraft didn’t structure the piece with much in mind in terms of effect. There's nothing in the way of suspense, irony, or poetic epiphany. The story is all exposition, and it pretty much just lays there. One comes to the end and thinks, Is that all? There’s a good deal of imagination on display, but not much art in presenting it. The story was first published in the November 1920 issue of Tryout. The illustration above is by Nico.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Short Take: Le Jour se lève

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1939 film Le Jour se lève, directed by Marcel Carné, is a strikingly realized romantic melodrama. The scenario, by Jacques Viot, presents a tragic quadrangle in flashback. In the opening scene, a young foundry worker (Jean Gabin) shoots and kills a middle-aged entertainer (Jules Berry) in his apartment. He then barricades himself in the room to forestall capture by the police, all the while thinking back on the events that led up to the murder. He was in love with a young flower delivery girl (Jacqueline Laurent), who had come under the entertainer’s sway. Complicating matters was his fling with the entertainer’s former assistant (Arletty). The men's involvement with the two women boils over in a heady conflict of love and egotism for all four. The plotting is thin, but the story couldn’t have been more richly presented. Carné, with able support from production designer Alexander Trauner, cinematographer Philippe Agostini, and composer Maurice Jaubert, creates an atmospheric and exactingly detailed setting. Combined with the poetic use of props, Jacques Prévert’s sharply written dialogue, and the fine, understated performances of Gabin and the others, it adds up to an extraordinarily vivid and memorable film. Historically, the film is considered one of the preeminent examples of the downbeat “poetic realism” movement in 1930s French filmmaking. It’s not a picture to come to with enormously high expectations; it doesn’t have that level of immediacy or bravura. But if one just goes with the lusciously moody ambience, one will find oneself drinking it in before too long.

Poetry Review: "Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on Dissecting the White Negro, 1851," Natasha Tretheway

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

While reading Natasha Trethewey’s 2011 poem “Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on Dissecting the White Negro, 1851,” one phrase in particular jumps out: “to make of the work of faith/the work of science.” The poem is ostensibly a coroner’s monologue while conducting an autopsy. The cadaver is that of a white derelict, but the doctor regards the man’s shiftlessness as a black man’s trait. He then uses his observations during the dissection to justify this prejudice. Underneath the cadaver’s white skin, everything is the same as a black man’s. The doctor’s article of bigoted faith guides his ostensibly scientific work. The conclusion determines the facts, not the other way around.

The poem's central irony is ingenious. The argument at the heart of anti-racist views is that people are the same underneath the skin; pigmentation is just a biological quirk. What matters is character. Trethewey turns that inside out. For the doctor, pigmentation is also just a biological quirk; what matters for him is character as well. In “strip[ping] from the flesh/the specious skin,” he justifies his bigotry by pointing out that this white man is the same underneath as a black man. If the fellow wasn’t, those “black” traits wouldn’t have defined him in life. For the doctor, it's only an anomaly the man's skin wasn't black.

Trethewey attacks the authority of science’s alleged objectivity through dramatizing the tendentious use of evidence to justify predetermined conclusions. She also effectively dramatizes how the most morally righteous platitudes can be skewed to justify the repugnant views the platitude is designed to challenge. It’s a pointed critique of how basic assumptions can corrupt the authority of the most idealistic language and pursuits.

The poem was originally published in the New England Review, Volume 32, Number 3 (2011). It appears as part of Natasha Trethewey’s 2012 collection Thrall (cover above). It is also featured in The Best American Poetry 2012, edited by Mark Doty and David Lehman.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Short Take: Magic Mike

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The story in Magic Mike, directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script credited to Reid Carolin, is a rather bland letdown. But the incidentals are terrifically entertaining, and they more than make up for other disappointments. Channing Tatum plays the title character, a 30-year-old stripper with talents and ambitions that go far beyond his performances at a Florida strip club. As the film begins, he takes an aimless 19-year-old (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing, introducing the fellow to the sex-drugs-and-party life of him and his fellow dancers. He also meets and falls for the fellow’s straight-arrow sister (Cody Horn), whose reservations about his lifestyle lead him to doubt the path he’s chosen. Soderbergh and the actors capably dramatize this scenario, but they cannot get out from under the pat sanctimony. The picture wakes up from its drearily familiar story in the strip-club dance sequences, choreographed with considerable flair by Alison Faulk. These epitomize the humor and sexed-up charge of burlesque routines, and they are a great deal of fun. They are surpassed only by the supporting performance of Matthew McConaughey, who plays the owner (and an occasional dancer) at the club. McConaughey is a flamboyant delight, capturing in one moment the cocky, witty naughtiness of a seasoned burlesque dancer, and in another the hard-nosed sleaziness of a man driven to earn money under any circumstances. This electrifying performance is perhaps the best of McConaughey’s career, and Soderbergh’s smartest move is to never keep him off-stage for too long. Soderbergh also does excellent work in behind-the-scenes artisan roles. Under the pseudonym of "Mary Ann Bernard," he provided the first-rate editing, and under the nom-de-plume of "Peter Andrews," he was responsible for the elegant cinematography. The cast also includes Olivia Munn and Matt Bomer.

Short Take: "The Tower of the Elephant," Robert E. Howard

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery short story “The Tower of the Elephant,” first published in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales (cover image at left), is a sterling example of pulp adventure fiction. Conan the Cimmerian, Howard’s barbarian-thief antihero, comes to the thieves’ quarter of an unfamiliar city. His curiosity has been piqued by the city’s so-called Elephant’s Tower, a tall, silver temple rimmed with jewels. He learns the temple is home to a fabulous gem known as the Elephant’s Heart, and he resolves to steal it. Of course, this is easier said than done. The task requires scaling the tower wall and entering from the top. And as Conan learns, there are defenses against intruders that are far beyond the threat posed by human guards. Howard does a fine job of crafting the story, and he develops it a good deal beyond Conan defeating challenges in pursuit of a goal. The rather ironic final act, in which Conan shows his heroic side, is imaginatively conceived and very well executed. The major action setpiece, a battle with a giant spider, is almost as impressively handled; Howard’s depiction of the spider’s predatory tactics is both shrewd and quite suspenseful. The story is also admirable in ways that are surprising for Howard. With the alien figure who plays a central role in the story's final section, the treatment isn’t the least bit reactionary; the figure is sympathetic rather than a threat. Howard’s most off-putting characteristic is probably his misogyny, but here those sentiments are restricted to the mouth of a fellow who dies at the business end of Conan’s sword. The odious comments are not what prompt his death, but it’s a relief to see him treated as an antagonist regardless. Overall, the story has all the best aspects of pulp-adventure entertainment, and very few of its weaknesses.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Short Take: Arbitrage

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage is a crisp, tightly wound suspense melodrama. In the week following his 60th birthday, a wealthy financier (Richard Gere) is faced with the prospect of his superficially perfect life coming apart. He is attempting to sell the hedge fund he owns before a massive accounting fraud comes to light, but the buyer is dragging things out for negotiation purposes. His daughter and protégée (Brit Marling) is discovering the extent of his corrupt business practices. Most seriously, he has come in the sights of a police detective (Tim Roth) looking to nail him for fleeing the scene of a fatal car accident. Jarecki presents a world where the ends justify the means, and the ultimate end is maintaining appearances at all costs. His script is terrific: the plotting crackles, every element is thematically of a piece, and each twist brings further insight into the characters. His direction is every bit as strong. The staging and camerawork are sleek and unerringly effective at shaping the scenes. He does an especially fine job of orchestrating the actors. They play off each other beautifully. Gere is particularly superb. He modulates his trademark cockiness into a smooth, understated self-assurance. He is completely convincing as a man who knows from experience that he will invariably come out on top, yet never feels the need to flaunt it. (Viewers may find him especially reminiscent of JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.) The character’s moments of impatience, frustration, and desperation play like traveling cracks on the surface of an ice-covered pond. Gere is nothing short of riveting. The rest of the cast, which includes Susan Sarandon as the Gere character’s wife and Laetitia Casta as his mistress, provides excellent support. Yorick Le Saux provided the elegant, burnished-looking cinematography. The taut electronic score is by Cliff Martinez.

Short Take: The Dinner, Herman Koch

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 2009 novel The Dinner, by the Dutch writer Herman Koch, is an intricately crafted and darkly entertaining read. Koch uses a familiar modernist structure. A small, mundane scenario--in this instance, a get-together among two brothers and their wives at an upscale Amsterdam restaurant--is used as a springboard for a series of observations and recollections by the narrator. He is the younger of the two brothers, and his musings at first are quite funny. He takes a sardonic view of the consumerist, appearance-obsessed pretensions of bourgeois urbanites, and his occasionally boorish older brother is his principal target. But the novel’s tone becomes more sinister as the evening continues. All four of the principals are on edge, and the tension occasionally boils over. The dinner turns out not to be a social occasion, and its true purpose gradually comes to light. The teenage sons of both couples are potentially in an enormous amount of trouble, and the parents have to decide what to do. At that point, the stage has been set for a brilliant series of narrative reversals. The narrator’s initially entertaining disaffection is revealed as something quite disturbing, and one’s views of the other characters are turned upside down. With regard to the dilemma concerning the sons, one goes from sympathetic to surprised to horrified at what is done and condoned in the cause of their future. The finale is powerfully ironic: the narrator, so cynically disdainful of bourgeois preoccupations with status, comes to exemplify the depth of evil those values can foster. Koch does a masterful job of orchestrating the shifts in both the story and its tone. The novel goes from a light social satire to a profoundly unsettling one, and it’s quite a roller-coaster ride. The English-language edition was translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Short Take: Flight

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Flight, starring Denzel Washington, is an elaborately produced though ultimately pedestrian melodrama. It’s about a man coming to terms with his alcoholism and other substance-abuse issues. The film’s hook is the irony of his most heroic moment setting the stage for his downfall. Washington’s character is a best-of-the-best airline pilot. During the flight that takes up the film’s first act, he’s both drunk and high from cocaine. A mechanical failure causes the plane to go into an uncontrolled midair dive, but his skill and resourcefulness prevent a crash that would have otherwise killed everyone on board. He’s able to make an emergency landing in a pasture, and nearly all the passengers and crew survive. It’s a miraculous feat that no other pilot could have duplicated. But the subsequent investigation reveals he was intoxicated. He could very well end up going to prison, but the maneuvers of his union’s lawyer (Don Cheadle) ensure that he’s in the clear if he can just hold up through his testimony at a federal inquest hearing. The pressure gets the better of him, and the majority of the film shows his boozing downward spiral. Director Robert Zemeckis does a dazzling job with the opening flight sequence, but the rest of the film feels overscaled relative to the more intimate drama of John Gatins’ script. The script isn’t much, either; it’s mainly just a series of plot complications built around the question of whether Washington’s character will shape up in time for the hearing. Washington gives an earnest, skillful performance, but he never transcends the film’s pat scenario. The only other performance of note is John Goodman’s comic turn as the Washington character’s neighbor and drug dealer. The film is essentially a big-budget, star-vehicle version of a 1970s television movie.

Short Take: "The Eyes," Edith Wharton

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Edith Wharton’s 1910 short story “The Eyes” is effective as both a ghost story and a psychological study. To be perfectly accurate, it’s an intriguing ghost story that turns into an effective psychological study. The protagonist, who narrates the tale within the tale, is wealthy, middle-aged, and in the parlance of Wharton's time, a “confirmed bachelor.” After the meal at a dinner party, he joins the other attendees in relating his experience with ghosts. He has had two such experiences, both with a pair of hideous, aged eyes that stare at him from the foot of his bed and keep him from sleeping. The first haunting occurs during his brief, informal engagement to a young female cousin. The second occurs years later, after he guiltily prolongs his association with an aspiring though talentless writer. Wharton cannily develops the questions of the ghost’s identity and the connection between the hauntings in the reader’s mind. The answer to the riddles is only implied, but once grasped, it says more about the host’s mindset than anything else in the story. The ending is beautifully handled. The host finally appears to realize, after so many years, the truth about the hauntings--and the truth about himself. Additionally, his latest companion recognizes the pattern of the host’s relationships and what’s in store for the two of them. It’s a remarkably subtle and poignant scene. Wharton’s ability to build the story towards these climactic epiphanies, as well as to suggest rather than state their nature, is quite remarkable; her almost unsurpassed command of story craft is on fine display. And, of course, there’s that elegant Wharton prose. The story was first published in the June 1910 issue of Scribner’s Magazine.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Short Take: Zero Dark Thirty

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s riveting portrayal of the CIA manhunt for Osama bin-Laden, scrupulously avoids a cathartic or celebratory tone. Its manner is clinical, non-judgmental, and ostensibly objective. (This aesthetic strategy is at the heart of the controversy about the film among certain liberal political commentators, who clearly would have preferred a simplistic, black-and-white treatment of the story's morally troubling aspects. The complaints about an erroneous historical bit are something of a red herring.) The picture follows the efforts of a young CIA investigator (Jessica Chastain) through years of investigation, blind alleys, and bureaucratic obstacles. The film climaxes with the 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bigelow stages, shoots, and edits the movie with a stoic, methodical efficiency. It’s hard to imagine a more perfectly crafted film. Most impressively, this expertise is in the service of rendering moral ambiguity. An implicit question of the film is whether the success in taking out Osama justified the reprehensible conduct that characterized the investigation. The film is forthright about the torture and brutality the CIA employed, and Jessica Chastain's protagonist is fairly repellent. She is an asocial, quarrelsome monomaniac who is loyal to colleagues only insofar as they support her agenda for the mission. The casting of the delicate-looking, soft-edged Chastain is about the only concession the film makes to audiences. An actress with a more domineering presence all but certainly would have made the character too monstrous for viewers to take. Chastain is compelling throughout, and she’s heartbreaking in the film’s epilogue, in which she, Bigelow, and Boal depict the pathos of the woman’s unrelenting obsession. For her, victory proves a loss of purpose, and she cannot help but grieve. It’s a great scene, and easily the film’s most powerful moment. It’s of a thematic piece with the rest of the picture: the goal is achieved, but there are no winners. Greig Fraser provided the excellent cinematography. (It’s most impressive in the raid sequence, which is all but entirely shown through the green hues of the SEALs’ night-vision goggles.) Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg are credited with the superb editing.

Short Take: "Girl with Gerbil," Don Russ

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Don Russ’ 2011 poem “Girl with Gerbil” has a simple conceit: there are ways a child with a pet is analogous to God. One of the comparisons is fairly benign. Like God with humanity, the girl creates the world and the stars for the animal. But the most interesting aspects of the poem are the implications raised by the emphasis given to the child’s innate narcissism. The girl “dreams herself,” and looking into the mirror, “she sees as much as says/I am that I am.” With that last bit, Russ wittily extends the child’s narcissism to God. "I am that I am" is the meaning of Yahweh, the name God gives for himself to Moses. As the poem continues, Russ invites the reader to see all God’s acts as Creator as fundamentally ones of self-absorption. The duality of tone Russ achieves through his central conceit is quite remarkable. With regard to the girl, it’s charming and rather sweet: these attitudes are steps into responsibility and towards maturity. With regard to God, they’re amusingly subversive and rather chilling. God’s perspective on Himself and His actions is no different than that of a child’s self-view? Russ flirts with blasphemy, and the underhandedness is a key part of the poem’s achievement.

“Girl with Gerbil,” by Don Russ, originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of The Cincinnati Review (cover above). It is featured in The Best American Poetry 2012, edited by Mark Doty and David Lehman.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Short Take: "Uncle Rock," Dagoberto Gilb

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“Uncle Rock,” a 2010 short story by Dagoberto Gilb, is a well-crafted portrait of an 11-year-old Mexican-American boy and his ambivalent feelings towards his mother. Tthey are working-class, and his father is absent. But his mother is strikingly beautiful. She repeatedly tries to parlay her attractiveness into finding a new husband and a better life, but it never works out in the end. She drifts from man to man, and since the men are generally her employers, from job to job. The boy makes the best of things, but he knows on some level his mother is demeaning herself, and inside he recoils. His antipathy to this series of men extends to her newest boyfriend, whose nickname gives the story its title. The fellow gladhands him like all the others did, and they have no rapport. But the boy also recognizes that the man genuinely cares for his mother. The implicit question is whether he can give the relationship his respect despite his aversion. Things come to a head at a professional baseball game, whose players the boy idolizes. Circumstances bring him into contact with his heroes, and his mother attracts attention from at least one of them. That makes for a crucible that is entirely in his hands. He has to choose between the men he looks up to, and a man he does not. His mother’s dignity hangs in the balance. Gilb renders the boy’s perspective with admirable sensitivity to nuance. He also crafts the story’s climactic dilemma with a quiet effectiveness. There are no histrionics, but one can feel how the boy is torn every which way. And the climax, in which the boy gives his heroes and his mother their due, plays beautifully and without an extraneous note. The story is an elegantly written and emotionally resonant piece.

“Uncle Rock,” by Dagoberto Gilb, was first published in the May 10, 2010 issue of The New Yorker (cover above). It is also featured in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, edited by Laura Furman.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Fiction Review: "Dagon," H. P. Lovecraft

This review was first published on Pol Culture.

“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence--whether much that is glorious--whether all that is profound--does not spring from disease of thought--from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their grey visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awaking, to find they have been upon the verge of the great secret.”

-- Edgar Allan Poe, “Eleonora”

The short story “Dagon” was H. P. Lovecraft’s second effort as a professional writer. Drafted in 1917, it initially saw print in the November 1919 issue of The Vagrant. It’s a major step up from “The Tomb,” his first effort. Edgar Allan Poe is a conspicuous influence on these stories, and in “The Tomb” Lovecraft let that influence overwhelm him. As ersatz Poe goes, it’s fine, but one may find it not worth much discussion beyond that. “Dagon,” on the other hand, shows him going beyond the Poe influence. The conventions of the earlier writer’s work serve as a springboard into territory that seems much more Lovecraft’s own.

In “Dagon,” Poe’s influence can certainly be seen with the story’s protagonist and framing device. As in “The Black Cat,” “William Wilson,” and other Poe stories, the narrator is a disturbed, paranoid misanthrope. Lovecraft provides plenty of indications that his perspective is not necessarily trustworthy: he’s a morphine addict, he’s prone to waking dreams even without the drug, and the story’s central episode could very well be a memory of a hallucination. Lovecraft also follows Poe’s frequent conceit of having the story be the protagonist’s written account of what has happened.

The most profound debt is stylistic. The success of “Dagon,” as with a good deal of Poe’s work, relies on the reader’s sympathy with the attitude expressed in the epigraph above. The reader has to want to believe in the narrator’s madness--that the narrator’s perspective will take one into uncharted experience, and perhaps to the most sublime epiphanies. Towards that end, both writers employ a headlong, even feverish prose of considerable urgency. One is made to feel the narrator continues in the path he goes because his compulsions give him no choice.

The protagonist of “Dagon” certainly fits into this mold. His tale is presented in the context of a suicide note, and the reason for his self-destructiveness is his inability to put the memories he relates behind him. He was a sailor whose ship was captured by the Germans in the early days of World War I. He escaped the Germans, but he was effectively a castaway: alone on the sea in a small boat with provisions. After many days and perhaps weeks, he awoke one morning to find his boat grounded. It was on an island developing from hardening muck. He assumed it to be an upheaval from the ocean floor, and after a few days he set off on foot in hopes of rescue. During his trek, he came across totems from what appeared to be an underwater civilization. His journey ended after he discovered a horrifying truth about the members of that civilization. That discovery is the memory that dogs him. It’s hard to imagine a tale in which the stakes are higher for the protagonist. He began with a quest for survival, and ends trying to flee horrors he cannot escape.

Lovecraft’s handling of that quest and its climactic epiphany is where he breaks from Poe and moves into his own territory. Poe was a key figure in American Romanticism. With regard to aesthetics, the movement valued the imaginative over the rational, and a key aspect was seeing nature and the other trappings of life in spiritual terms. In Poe’s work, places, objects, and landscapes are often imbued with a sense of the uncanny; they’re sources of awe and wonder, but in a way that frequently translates them into harbingers of portent and fear. But for all of Poe’s flirtations with the supernatural, he rarely took the leap all the way into fantasy. Lovecraft, on the other hand, takes the fear-charged trappings to a new level of intensity. He also makes fantasy a central aspect of his material. One might say he even moves beyond fantasy and into myth.

The landscapes of the island in “Dagon” are just one example of Lovecraft taking Romantic conventions and giving them his own subversive spin. The plains and canyons he describes recall the vast expanses characteristic of a Romantic artist such as Doré. But they only recall the grandeur of that imagery in the most general way. Doré’s grandeur is a trope for the presence of the divine. Lovecraft’s functions as a trope for the unholy and the forsaken. The island is an utterly arid environment, and the sun, so often a symbol of life and hope in Romantic work, is here a pummeling enemy to be shunned. The ground is the stuff of revulsion: slimy, coagulating muck, teeming with rot, and “putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish.” One can only imagine the smell; the only thing that distracts from the stench might be the presence of bile on one’s throat and tongue. Romantic imagery typically promotes a rapport with Nature; Lovecraft’s emphatically evokes alienation.

The most distinct feature of “Dagon” (and one gathers it continued as a central aspect of Lovecraft’s work) is his venturing into mythic material. When one reads a post-classical/pre-modern work such as The Divine Comedy, one cannot help but wonder what happened to the pagan gods of classical literature. Dante has several figures from Greek and Roman legend appear in his poem, but the gods are nowhere to be found. The major Romantic writers and artists might include those figures in their work, but they did so in a way that evaded the question--the gods would be presented in the context of the original material, or in settings contemporaneous with it. In the climax and closing of “Dagon,” Lovecraft addresses the question head on. The god he presents is one he created, but it stands in for all of them. (Lovecraft also indirectly identifies the god with one mentioned in the Old Testament, so it’s not one entirely removed from those in classical literature.) The story doesn’t quite say why the gods disappeared, but it makes clear that while absent, they are still very much out there. And on a strikingly portentous note, the story suggests they are looking to return with less than peaceful intentions. Lovecraft not only turns the Romantic embrace of Nature on its head, he subverts its ideal of unity with the divine as well. The relationship he sees is one of antagonists and conflict.

Lovecraft’s suggestion of gods exiled to a world apart from humanity, and planning to return in the future, is perhaps the most resonant aspect of “Dagon.” It’s a feature the story shares with the fiction of Robert E. Howard, who became a peer and friend to Lovecraft over a decade later. Howard, though, presents the idea in the context of heroic adventure fiction, so one pretty much knows any development he offers is ultimately going to prove reactionary. With Howard, the idea’s fascination is in seeing how Conan the Barbarian or another hero handles a situation in which he’s way over his head. But the conventions of the heroic adventure genre will prevail: the hero will triumph over the less-than-benevolent gods, or if he falls, he will do so ensuring the gods will be permanently contained. Lovecraft offers no such reassurance; the implication of “Dagon” is that an apocalypse is coming. In Lovecraft's hands, the basic idea could well prove a visionary one. He plays on myth in the story, and sets the stage for a powerful fictional mythology of his own.

He also sets the stage for becoming a figure of comparable stature to Poe. With “Dagon,” Lovecraft takes the crucial step of becoming a significant artist in his own right. He confronts a powerful and admired predecessor, begins with the premises of that predecessor’s game, and then finds his own game by changing the rules. Settings charged with fear give way to those that embody alienation and revulsion. Hints of the supernatural are transformed into the presence of an antagonistic divine. I’m not sure I would call “Dagon” a great story, but it’s definitely an example of an author finding and articulating an individual vision. If it isn’t great, it comes very close.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Short Take: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

This review was first published on Pol Culture.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a sparkling cross-cultural ensemble comedy. Seven British retirees--a widowed housewife (Judi Dench), a gay judge (Tom Wilkinson), a would-be Lothario (Ronald Pickup), a perennial husband-hunter (Celia Imrie), an unhappy couple (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), and a former housekeeper (Maggie Smith)--relocate from England to an Indian retirement resort hotel. They are enticed by the picturesque images on the hotel’s website, but when they arrive, they find a dilapidated establishment run by an energetic, well-meaning, but rather inept manager (Dev Patel). But they by and large settle in, and each comes to terms with India--and life--in their own ways. The script, credited to Ol Parker, doesn’t have many surprises, but it gives an entertaining spin to the personal odyssey of each character. The cast does a great deal to give the film its charm. Dench, Wilkinson, and Smith are particular standouts. Patel can seem on the manic side at times, but if one gets used to it, one may look back on him just as fondly. But the real star of the film is director John Madden, whose work is dazzling. The comic scenes crackle, the dramatic ones are beautifully shaped, and there’s an embrace-the-world quality to his staging. The liveliness of the outdoor Indian locations and the intimacy of the indoor ones are both extraordinarily vivid. He captures the chaotic though vibrant experience of India, and keeps the story dancing as he goes. It’s the work of a remarkably skilled and assured craftsman. The lovely, sun-kissed cinematography is by Ben Davis, and Chris Gill provided the perfectly timed editing. The source novel is These Foolish Things, by Deborah Moggach.

Poetry Review: "Moaning Action at the Gas Pump," Brenda Hillman

This review was first published on Pol Culture.

I’ve rarely had much patience with didacticism in the arts. It doesn’t matter whether I’m sympathetic to the artist’s position or not. The earnestness of the message and the aesthetic demands of good art often seem at odds. In short, I find art is generally not a good pulpit from which to preach.

I was pleasantly surprised by Brenda Hillman’s prose poem “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump,” which is clearly a protest against our complacent societal dependence on oil. Hillman’s impetus is also clear: the devastating 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She combines a series of absurdist effects, historical allusions, and associative identifications with her message to create a devastating and artful whole.

Hillman begins on an absurdist note: “Soon it will be necessary to start a behavior of moaning outdoors when pumping gas.” It creates a bit of a shock for the reader, and keeps one reading while she elaborates. She then presents the identification that alerts the reader that the oil spill is the impetus for the moaning, and by extension, the poem. The phrase “a deep choral moan with cracks up through the body” is juxtaposed with the phrase “the crude through cracks of the sea & earth.” She shifts back to describing the processes of the human body in the moan, but the analogy between the moan and the spill is made. With remarkable economy, the former has been made into a trope for the latter.

And remarkably, Hillman’s transformation of the reader’s understanding of the term “moaning” is not done. She expands its meaning further by highlighting moaning as an outlawed political practice in ancient Greece, but she handles this very deftly. The expansion of the meaning in historical terms is introduced, and then Hillman immediately retreats to the present-tense scenario of driving and filling up one’s car. She reassures the reader that she’s not pushing too hard--“you will merely be embarrassed even if you drive a hybrid.” But this proves just a pretext for doubling down on her message: “Please be embarrassed. Please.” There’s clever footwork in this rhetorical strategy. A word that at first marks retreat is simply a pivot to a different step forward. The wordplay is quite shrewd in its pursuit of effect; it fakes the reader out before striking another way.

The artful rhetorical shifts are just as present in the second paragraph. It also begins with an absurdist note, but the note is not a mundane bit to be expanded on. It’s a wave of horrifying imagery. The most potent symbols of the oil devastation were, of course, the animals trapped and killed by it: pelicans drenched in the sludge, and manatees caught in it. Hillman asks the reader to imagine the creatures trapped inside the gas pump itself. That done, she expands the meaning of “moaning” once again. It’s the sounds of those animals in their misery. Moaning was first a trope for the spill, then one for political subversion, and now it’s one for the suffering the spill inflicted. Hillman’s agility and daring with expanding her meanings is hardly through, either. She then shifts back to the historical associations--she presents history as a series of moanings--and uses this to end on a note of ostensible helplessness. Rhetorically, though, it’s hardly a moment of surrender. It seems more meant to disturb and ultimately shock one into greater awareness and action. Hillman fakes the reader out before striking again.

What makes “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump” work is that while it is didactic, it is not a sermon. Brenda Hillman is a very canny practitioner of the art of words. She’s a keen judge of just how far she can go rhetorically at any given moment. She then uses that boundary as a springboard for a new line of attack. The reader is kept off-balance, and it’s hard not to be impressed at the wit behind her maneuvers. She’s so artful one wants to see what she’ll do next, and that keeps what she says vivid in the reader’s mind. Didacticism is often synonymous with artlessness, but in Hillman’s hands, there’s an art to it after all.

The text of “Moaning Action at the Gas Pump” appeared in the context of a writer’s roundtable featuring Hillman, Nick Flynn, Dorianne Laux, Fred Marchant, Laura Mullen, and Patricia Smith. It was published in the Winter/Spring 2011 issue of the journal Gulf Coast. The poem was reprinted in The Best American Poetry 2012, edited by Mark Doty and David Lehman. (The cover image is above.)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Short Take: Compliance

This review was first published on Pol Culture.

Writer-director Craig Zobel’s Compliance is an intellectually smug piece of softcore torture porn. The film was inspired by a rash of incidents involving prank calls to fast-food restaurants and other retail operations. (Click here for the history.) The caller would pose as a police detective and convince the manager to strip-search a young female employee on suspicion of theft. The specific details of the film are taken from the most notorious of these incidents, which occurred at a Kentucky McDonald’s in 2004. In that instance, the young woman victimized was also subjected to an invasive body search and spanking at the caller’s behest. Even worse, she was coerced into performing a sexual act on the manager’s fiancé, who had been brought in to guard her until the “detective” arrived. The film moves the setting to a fictional Ohio chicken restaurant, but it otherwise follows that case closely. Zobel is a capable filmmaker, and he gets good performances from his cast, particularly Ann Dowd, who plays the restaurant’s middle-aged manager. But the film is little more than an extended wallow in the victimization of the young woman (Dreama Walker). One just sits there waiting for the next dreadful thing to happen to her. It’s hard not to fight the impulse to turn the film off, particularly since it feels as if Zobel is rubbing the viewer's nose in what happened to congratulate himself on his "daring" and "honesty." The implicit point is that good people at the behest of authority will do unspeakable things. But that’s ultimately a rationalization to justify playing voyeur to rape. A 2008 episode of the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit TV series, guest-starring Robin Williams, also used the Kentucky incident as a springboard. It dealt with what happened in a fraction of the film’s running time, and it made the exact same point. The episode also kept its depiction of the victim’s suffering to a minimum. It was a much more effective--and tasteful--treatment of the subject. One notes that the SVU series is perhaps the most lurid in the history of network television. When one feels compelled to praise it for its relative restraint, that might just say something about how offensively explicit Zobel’s handling is.

Short Take: "The God in the Bowl," Robert E. Howard

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Robert E. Howard’s third Conan the Barbarian story, “The God in the Bowl,” is a murder mystery with sword-and-sorcery< trappings. Howard drafted the story in 1932, but it didn’t see print while he was alive. Farnsworth Wright, the editor of the Weird Tales pulp magazine, rejected it. The story was discovered in Howard’s papers after his death. A revised version by L. Sprague de Camp was published in the September 1952 issue of Space Science Fiction (cover above). The original text didn’t see print until 1975, when it appeared in the limited-edition Howard collection The Tower of the Elephant, published by Donald M. Grant. It seems surprising that the story was rejected at the time it was written. It’s an entertaining effort, and one may find it more enjoyable than “The Phoenix on the Sword,” the first Conan story to see print. Howard doesn’t include many of the supernatural allusions that gave the earlier effort its fascination, but the story at hand plays better. The setting is a temple museum. The temple’s owner has been found murdered, and Conan, who was discovered breaking in to the museum to rob it, is the prime suspect. But the authorities on the scene don’t quite accept him as the culprit. Part of the reason is that the details of the crime don’t point to him as the killer. But there’s a strong underlying suggestion--and this gives the story a welcome dash of humor--that the authorities don’t relish the prospect of trying to arrest Conan unless they are absolutely sure of his guilt. His combat skills all but guarantee a pile of corpses if there is any attempt at capture. But he doesn’t try to leave the scene, and the investigation calmly continues. The temple owner’s malevolence comes to light, as does the act that prompted his murder. The real killer is eventually discovered, and this provides some additional humor: Conan is the only character with the courage and fighting acumen to confront him. The story ends on an oblique note that refers to the mysterious supernatural aspects of Conan’s world, and as with “The Phoenix on the Sword," it’s the sort of intriguing bit that hooks the reader into coming back for more with the character. One wants to learn more about the world he lives in. “The God in the Bowl” isn’t a great adventure story, but it’s a good one: rich with description of the exotic locale, and briskly paced. And it certainly holds one’s attention while one explores this enigmatic fictional setting.