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Myth Happens

Date: 2016-08-24 13:43
Subject: What kind of a foreign interpreter looks like that?
Security: Public
Music:Gwen Verdon & Stephen Douglass, "Two Lost Souls"

Like many then-viewers of Doctor Who, I ended up liking the writing of the Eleventh Doctor much less than his casting, but I still thought for six years that Matt Smith must have been an amazing Korovyev/Fagott in David Rudkin's The Master and Margarita (2004). I finally found visual confirmation:


He's missing the half-cracked pince-nez, but all of his plaids clash with one another. I'll take it. I have the diabolic on my mind because I dreamed last night about a black-and-white film of Damn Yankees which still starred Gwen Verdon—the irreplaceable Lola—but was otherwise much more Val Lewton than Broadway. I'm not sure it had any music. It might actually have been an adaptation of Douglass Wallop's The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant (1954). It's the first dream whose particulars I've remembered in months.

7 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-23 23:48
Subject: I want to know, I want to go, I'm all alone
Security: Public
Music:Dinosaur Jr., "Tiny"

It's dangerous. The sky shifted weight last night from summer; the air tastes like autumn again. Today I wore a jacket, walking around with a computer bag over my shoulder. I live by myself in a two-room apartment in a brick building less than ten minutes' walk from the campus of a major university; I cut through academic yards to get where I'm going. I keep being asked for my student ID. I haven't owned one since 2008. It's more out of date than my driver's license. Fall is always a ghost season, but it's especially acute where I am right now. I did not have cats in New Haven. Autolycus is grooming himself on the chair next to me and it doesn't matter if the quality of electric light on off-white walls is the same; I didn't have this purring ten years ago.

7 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-23 04:45
Subject: Are the girls in Phoenix that bad?
Security: Public
Music:Squirrel Nut Zippers, "My Drag"

After seeing Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945) last week, I think I believe even less in the conventional identification of the femme fatale. On the other hand, remember how after Double Indemnity (1944) and Criss Cross (1949) I wanted a third example of the unreliable, irresponsible male narrator? Let's hear from Al Roberts, drifting down the margins of one more nighttime highway like the albatross of Tom Joad: "Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." Got him.

In a genre which contains some very weird films indeed, Detour is quite possibly the weirdest noir I've seen to date. It's almost certainly the pulpiest, a seamy little one-way street of a movie, 68 minutes tops, shot on a broken shoestring of a budget, with a washed-out mise-en-scène of down-and-out American signifiers; it has a curiously opaque, outsider quality, like it was made by someone who knew that a film noir contains dangerous women, loser men, cinematographic style, and angst, but wasn't sure what else, if anything, was supposed to go in the mix. It isn't true—though most of his career was spent in B-movies, Ulmer was a studio insider who started with Murnau and directed the box-office hit The Black Cat (1934) for Universal—but then I have very little explanation for the movie as it stands. The plot has the thinness of an anecdote and the grip of a nightmare and all but the first and last few minutes take place in flashback, narrated like a radio drama in a pervasive tone of hardboiled pessimism; when he runs out of past, the protagonist tells his own future. Tom Neal's Al Roberts is quite literally the author of his own misfortunes. In the universe of his narration, he's fate's pinball, the victim who never gets the breaks, an ordinary joe who through no fault of his own slipped and stumbled into a skid-row nightmare. "Did you ever want to forget anything?" he asks the audience shortly after his introduction, a bleak-eyed vagrant who almost gets himself thrown out of a roadside diner in Reno for starting a fight over another customer's taste in music. "You can't, you know, no matter how hard you try. You can change the scenery, but sooner or later you'll get a whiff of perfume or somebody will say a certain phrase or maybe hum something; then you're licked again!" Always at the mercy of external forces. Always doing his best and always overmatched. What the viewer can't tell about the film at this point is whether it agrees with Al's determinedly hapless description of the world. Spoiler alert: not in a universe that contains Ann Savage's Vera.

As in Criss Cross, there are warning signs from the start. Even in his supposedly sunnier days as a working musician in New York City with a torch-singing girlfriend (Claudia Drake) who performs "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" like she means it, Al as we observe him is downbeat and dissatisfied, a classically trained pianist who practices Chopin after hours at the Break o' Dawn and cynically shuts down his girlfriend's praise with the claim that the only way he'll see Carnegie Hall is from behind a janitor's mop. He calls their relationship "an ordinary healthy romance," but when she scotches his casual assumptions of marriage with the news that she's heading to Hollywood to break into the big time, he takes it with such bad grace that he can't even kiss her a proper goodbye. Nonetheless, some months later when a drunken patron tips him a ten-spot for his fancy playing—a jazzed-up fantasia on Brahms, dubbed like the rest of Al's musicianship by the film's composer Leo Erdody—despite initially and rather hilariously dismissing the bill as "a piece of paper crawling with germs . . . it couldn't buy anything I wanted," he blows it all on a coast-to-coast call and learns that Sue's bid for stardom has left her a disillusioned hash slinger, waiting for the next round of auditions and trying to keep her chin up. Coming to her rescue gives him instant purpose and confidence: he comforts her, tells her to hang on, promises to come straight out to L.A. as fast as he can get there. "Don't try to stop me, just expect me." Unfortunately, his finances are the one place he's not exaggerating his woes, and even after hocking all his worldly goods except a change of clothes he's still left hitching his way across America, efficiently represented by a road map with a pushpin star for NYC and a dustily trudging montage for everything west. There's no glamour in these highways, not even the stark iconography of the Depression. For every empty flatbed or solitary coupe that slows to give sweating, stubbled Al a lift, there's another three or four that blow on by an inhospitable roadside of scrub brush and cacti. But it's not horror until Arizona, where Al gets into an amiable stranger's Lincoln Continental and comes out the other side of the state with another man's clothes on his back and another man's money in his pocket, driving the other man's very nice car. As he muses bitterly in the ubiquitous voiceover, "You know, Emily Post ought to write a book for guys thumbing rides." Call me behind the times, but I don't remember anything about the disposal of bodies in Post's Etiquette.

Of course, Al in extremity is as sourly self-justifying as ever. "I know what you're going to hand me even before you open your mouths," he accuses the audience through the fourth wall, the imaginary jury inside his head. "You're going to tell me that you don't believe my story about how Haskell died and give me that don't-make-me-laugh expression on your smug faces." Personally this member of the jury had no difficulty with the death of Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), the pill-popping bookie who talked up his plans for Santa Anita and sported raw new gouges on his hand from "fighting with the most dangerous animal in the world—a woman," an incident which he related to Al with the simultaneous relish of a big game hunter and the indignation of a thwarted predator: "Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don't you? What kind of dames thumb rides, Sunday school teachers?" My potential skepticism, however, is nothing compared to the reaction of the hitchhiker whom Al picks up the next morning in a gesture of magnanimity, furtively enjoying his new persona as a big spender behind the wheel of a big car. In his one stroke of genuine bad luck as opposed to bad decisions, the tousle-haired, flint-faced girl (Savage) in a knee-flashing skirt and an even more tightly pinned sweater who strides coolly over at Al's call is the same "Tarzan's mate" who ripped up Haskell for trying to take liberties. She introduces herself indifferently: "You can call me Vera if you like." And as if he's conjured her from his protestations of innocence, she's as untrusting and accusatory as his most frantic, persecuted fears: "You're not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That's not you, mister . . . What makes you so sure I'll shut up about this?" The time they will spend together is quite short, but it feels like an endless sickening fall: the bottom dropping out and out until there's nothing left underfoot but oblivion.

Tom Neal had a decent B-movie career, but I don't think I've seen anything else from it: he's more famous for beating Franchot Tone into a concussion over the affections of Barbara Payton and shooting his third wife under circumstances that were eventually ruled involuntary manslaughter. Personal life aside, he has a great face for a sad sack with grimier impulses than his plaintive self-presentation would like to admit, alertly boyish in long shot, petulant and truculent up close. He spends most of the film with a five o'clock shadow and a hunted air, a man who looks over his shoulder even when he's staring resolutely straight ahead. (He should know the Furies are following; he rang them himself.) Ann Savage as Vera is simply phenomenal. I would have seen her last year in My Winnipeg (2007) if I had gotten to the HFA's Guy Maddin retrospective, but since it looks as though Vera is her most famous role, I'm just as happy to have started here. The character is young—the thirtyish Al rates her no more than twenty-four, which matches the actress' age—but she's already harder than nails, her face set in a sullen suspicion, her voice a staccato sneer. While she dozes in his car, Al thinks that she has a "natural beauty, a beauty that's almost homely because it's so real" even when she looks, her hair stiff from lack of washing and her face shiny from days on the road, like she was recently "thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world," but the illusion lasts only until she slews around to face him, spitting out her lines as if the necessity of conversation is itself beneath contempt. She's dying of consumption, but she rejects either sympathy or explanation, crushing with especial scorn Al's typically self-pitying notion that the dying have it easier because "they know they're done for—they don't have to sweat blood wondering." Many of her lines would be flirtatious if delivered with a little more softness, archness, sexual invitation, but she really means the anger and the apathy with which she snarls at Al, "After we sell the car, you can go to blazes for all I care, but not until then!" She has no history before Shreveport, where she says Haskell picked her up; we never even know if Vera is her real name. She's wounded, resentful, rapacious, unapologetic, not even interested in making herself likeable. She makes enough passes at Al to signal a healthy sexual appetite, but it doesn't seem to have much to do with him personally: he's available, that's all, and it miffs her more than a little than she can browbeat him into everything but bed.1 The voiceover indulges a terrific moment of metafiction at the close of their first day together:

If this were fiction, I would fall in love with Vera, marry her and make a respectable woman of her. Or else she'd make some supreme class-A sacrifice for me and die; Sue and I would bawl a little over her grave and make some crack about there's good in all of us. But Vera, unfortunately, was just as rotten in the morning as she'd been the night before.

And she really is, and I love it. The audience can find her sympathetic because she's a person who exists and because she's clawing to make the most of her gutter-level life with the time she has left, even when her tools are unethical and her goals small change, but that doesn't make her even faintly nice. That he behaves increasingly less like a prize himself, though, is something Al Roberts will never understand. Which is where we came in.

I was not surprised to read that the source novel by Martin Goldsmith, who co-wrote the screenplay, was published in 1939. The cars and the clothes and the music belong to the 1940's, but Al himself, in his stone-broke shame-swallowing frustration and especially in his ultimate role as eternal drifter, haunter of truck stops and all-night diners and other transient spaces of America, could pass without challenge for one of FDR's forgotten men. The DIY production values don't hurt the story's mingled sense of claustrophobia and desolation; Ulmer was directing for the echt-Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation and while it is not apparently the case that he shot Detour in less than a week for less than $20K, he had little enough film that some shots are flipped to maintain continuity and New York City is played by a sound stage of swirling fog and street signs. Outside of some highway and gas station shots in the Californian desert, all travel scenes are rear projection. Los Angeles is a hotel room with the blinds drawn. Nowhere the characters go, from roadside motels to used car lots, has any substance or safety. Al Roberts takes Horace Greeley's advice as much to heart as any young man before him, but the dream of the American West as a strike-it-rich land of wide-open opportunity and reinvention is even more viciously debunked in Detour than it is in The Prowler (1951). His westward trajectory is a hell-spiral; on finally arriving in L.A., he acknowledges in a rare moment of consensus reality that "far from being at the end of the trip," with a hot car, a dead man's ID, and a spiteful blackmailer in tow "there was a greater distance between Sue and me than when I started out."2 The print I saw at the Brattle was almost as road-worn as its hitchhikers; the film crackled and spidered and skipped so many frames that we lost half-sentences out of the dialogue and at points the background noise of the soundtrack went wub wub wub like an unhappy fan belt. I am sure that if given half a chance the Film Noir Foundation will produce a 35 mm restoration which this film absolutely deserves, but I feel there is something to be said for seeing a hopeless little fable of self-deluding amorality in an appropriately grindhouse atmosphere. This anti-odyssey brought to you by my well-traveled backers at Patreon.


1. At least within the purview of the Production Code. In their every other interaction, as they settle into the perverse domesticity of a shared hotel suite with a deck of cards and a bottle of booze, Vera shows unmistakably who's on top: "In case there's any doubt in your mind, I'll take the bedroom." She says where and when and what next. Her voice drops to its softest and huskiest to inform him, hands on her hips from smoothing down her sweater, "I'm first in the bathtub."

2. There are some sideways fashions in which Detour resembles an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, liminal ending and killer ironies included—or maybe an even more downbeat version of Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), with no last-minute Peter Lorre on tap to free the protagonist from his self-imposed conviction of guilt. I really don't want to make it sound too in keeping with the rest of its genre, though; it's not.

15 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-22 00:32
Subject: If wars were won by feasting or victory by song
Security: Public
Music:Peter Bellamy, Dolly Collins & Ursula Rank, "The Dutch in the Medway"

While downloading a bunch of pictures off my camera tonight, I found some photos taken a little over a week ago by derspatchel when we had to visit the health insurance office in the North End. We're across the street from Haymarket. That's part of the Greenway behind me, apparently the part with . . . lavender? I don't actually know what I'm standing in front of. I can tell you that I am desperately overheating because the mercury was in the high nineties that afternoon and felt like a hundred-plus. I drank a lot of switchel from the Boston Public Market on our way back. I still like the picture. That is vanishingly rare these days since I don't like my reflection, so I'm making a note of it.

14 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-21 15:04
Subject: The elephants, though, functioned as tanks do today
Security: Public
Music:The Entheogens, "IO Pan"

I didn't mean to drop off the internet quite as dramatically as I did last week: I was spending most of my days out of the house and my sleep went down to an average of two to three hours a night with the result that my spare waking hours were going toward work and the rest toward feeling that my brain had converted itself into slurry. Last night I bought a second light-blocking curtain for the north-facing window and read myself to sleep with National Geographic's "The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History" and Hestia curled against my hip, kneading and purring; I checked out around Darius I, having first skipped forward to Hannibal (and been really entertained that Scipio Africanus featured as a sidebar player with the epithet "Hannibal's Bane," which suddenly made the whole thing sound like P.C. Hodgell or Tolkien), and woke this morning around eleven o'clock instead of six. Autolycus still tried to get me out of bed by climbing onto my chest, washing my face, and biting lightly at my wrists, but unlike every morning of the last two weeks then gave me up for lost, settled onto the pillow next to my head, and fell back asleep for nearly another hour during which I dozed and had dreams I can't remember, except that they were not nightmares. For lunch I made myself the fried sardines with tomato sauce I had been wanting for about forty-eight hours solid. A lot of neat things happened this week which I have not written up, including movies, theater, and cooking lamb curry with schreibergasse. Let's see how much I can sleep tonight.

2 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-17 01:49
Subject: What if I said she's down below?
Security: Public
Music:Damon Daunno, Chris Sullivan & Company, "Wait for Me"

Today has been surprisingly strange and hectic. I made it to the Brattle's second and last showing of Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945), which I hope to write about, because it is a genuinely weird little film and way more like some of the pulp novels I've been reading than many noir movies with similar origins, and derspatchel came over afterward and we made omelets for dinner. I wrote a poem in the afternoon. Otherwise the major events of my day involved slogging out and back to the MassHealth office in Chelsea for the second day in a row, this time for reasons it was logistically impossible for me to discover were unnecessary until I got there; finding out that a dear friend of mine has had a stroke, which is especially eerie because I was thinking of him this afternoon; and needing to call the building super shortly after midnight because the igniters in the stovetop spontaneously started striking and wouldn't stop, meaning the refrigerator had to be moved and the stove unplugged before it blew the apartment out its own windows. Also we went to Target.

I wished I'd had a camera with me on the way to Chelsea: crossing the Alford Street Bridge over the Mystic, I saw a red-and-black cargo ship drawn up alongside what looked like an enormous pile of scrap metal. The name lettered on her stern was the White Pearl and her home port looked like Nassau; I thought she was taking on a load of scrap, but then I second-guessed myself because I don't know that area of Everett at all and while I could tell that it was industrial and full of cranes and loading docks in ways that reminded me of the Portland waterfront of my childhood, I had no actual idea what I was looking at. She was indeed the White Pearl from Nassau and she is currently moored in Boston, specifically at the metals recycling yard, port, and regional office of Schnitzer Steel in Everett. I am delighted.

So my brush with commercial shipping and the movie and dinner and the fact that I have finally purchased a light-blocking curtain on a spring-tension rod so that I am no longer woken every day at dawn by an irradiating blast of sunlight from the east-facing window were all good things and I need to remember them. But everything else about today, what the hell.

9 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-15 02:58
Subject: Oh, that I was where I would be
Security: Public
Music:Sylvia Herold, "Katie Cruel"

The Portsmouth Brewery has started brewing beer out of kelp.

I may have to try drinking beer.

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Date: 2016-08-13 16:50
Subject: Before the world began, there were ten faces
Security: Public
Music:Martha Cluver, Karen Goldfeder, Silvie Jensen et al., "The Ten Faces of G-d"

My short story "When Can a Broken Glass Mend?" has been accepted for reprint by Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year's Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, edited by A.M. Dellamonica and Steve Berman (Lethe Press, Fall 2016). This is the one I refer to as my queer kinky Jewish demon love story; it was originally published in Not One of Us #53 and is almost certainly in dialogue with Isaac Bashevis Singer, because it was from him that I first learned on which side of the mirror demons can be found. It is quite short and I am delighted that it will have a wider audience. As befits something full of fragments, it is studded with bits of autobiography, though it is not otherwise about me. The title comes from a line in Frank London's A Night in the Old Marketplace (2007), which I got from rose_lemberg. It has to do with Kabbalah.

10 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-13 12:25
Subject: I can scream like a cicada, gin the seed right out the boll
Security: Public
Music:The Squirrel Nut Zippers, "Wash Jones"

This thing where I missed out on most of the Western canon in school turns up in the weirdest places. After knowing the song for at least fifteen years, I just learned this morning that the Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Wash Jones" was inspired by—or at least shares a name with—a character in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936), which I have never read. I always just thought of it as a great American trickster song. I was talking to an oak tree when a cypress butted in. Out of car parts, a raven made a nest inside my skin. To understand me better, you all ought to follow me home. I make a wish, I clean the fish, Lord, that's why they call me Wash Jones. It was the first song I heard by the group, even before their legendary "Hell," and it guaranteed I would look for the rest of their music, which did seem to come from some time-slipped, hot-jazz, hallucinogenic South; I like it even in its earlier version. I suppose I should read more Faulkner one of these days.

I hate apartment-hunting, but it is once again my plan for the rest of the day. Autolycus is sacked out on my desk and Hestia has claimed the cool dark space under the bed; they blink at me sleepily as I move around the room. I tell them they have no idea what I do for their sakes. They are good cats, even if you can't trust Autolycus with a yogurt drink.

12 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-10 04:35
Subject: So rehearse with me in mind
Security: Public
Music:Parquet Courts, "It's Gonna Happen"

Until my next move, I will not be able to watch TCM on my computer because I am currently using a wireless hotspot for internet and it chokes on any substantive attempt on the bandwidth. I resent this state of affairs not only for the serious reason that it made me miss out on the groundbreaking lineup of race films at the end of July,1 but for the much shallower one that I won't be able to watch King Vidor's H. M. Pulham, Esq. (1941) tomorrow. I am not generally interested in the movie despite the starring presence of Robert Young; it's mostly that the supporting cast features Van Heflin, as pictured below.

It's one of the two movies he made between his breakout role in Santa Fe Trail (1940) and his Oscar win for Johnny Eager (1942); he's fifth-billed and doesn't rate a mention in TCM's article, so he may not have much to do with the plot. I find I don't care. I'd watch a movie for that philosophical asymmetry. I will not have the chance this month. I'm still glad to have run across the photo: if nothing else, though the coat's too good for the character, I think it has given me a definitive image for Kennedy; I never could find a good shot from Johnny Eager. Alas that Robert Young, with or without a copy of True Love Story, doesn't look anything like MacBride.

1. I am consoling myself that the full selection and more just became available on DVD and if I can't afford the box set, maybe one of my local libraries will spring for it. Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920) and Veiled Aristocrats (1932) are currently heading the list, but I want to watch basically everything in there, the singing cowboy musical included.

2 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-08 22:36
Subject: I ain't afraid to be a fool to be your lover
Security: Public
Music:Parker Millsap, "Pining"

I walked into Harvard Square tonight to buy some household sundries and ideally a dessert. I didn't see any meteors in the luminous blue sky, but I wish I knew if the bright reddish object above the trees on my right as I passed the Common was Antares or Arcturus or Mars or what. My astronomy has gone all to hell and even that makes it sound better than it is. I could rule out "airplane," but that was about it.

I left a book at Raven that I will almost certainly go back for: Thomas Doherty's Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immortality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934 (1999). Other books on the shelf by the same author included Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (1993) and Hollywood and Hitler, 1933–1939 (2013). He's a professor at Brandeis. He was teaching there when I was an undergraduate. If only I had known then that in about ten years I would really care about his field! I can't beat myself up too badly: I was just starting to care about movies then and I can't imagine when I would have found the time to take any more classes, considering that I was already auditing things like twentieth-century Russian poetry, having maxed out on actual credits. But it would have been neat.

If all the poems in it are like "The War Photographers" and "Mrs G. Watters," I may need Frank Ormsby's latest collection. It's just a bonus that it's called Goat's Milk (2015).

I really don't need the new fiftieth anniversary edition of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, especially when I already own three different editions and one of them is the previous Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, I just really love the cover art. It's by Christopher Conn Askew; it wraps around and the back shows Woland and his retinue setting off through the unsuspecting streets of Moscow, recognizable even in miniature and from behind. He does a great Korovyev, Behemoth, and Azazello. I was even wearing the right T-shirt.

I have one black cat in my window and another in my lap. My father encourages them to talk to him every time he sees them—"I know you're holding out on me!" I will hold him responsible if, like Behemoth, they take up vodka and target practice.

7 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-08 01:49
Subject: παπαῖ, ἀπαππαπαῖ, παπαππαπαππαπαππαπαῖ
Security: Public
Music:Rhyton, "Pannychis"

It's much better than it was in New York, but I still have a hole in my right heel that hurts even when I'm not wearing shoes and bleeds rather disgustingly through any bandage I put on it. I feel like Philoktetes on Lemnos, only no one is going to come and heal me because I'm so important to the war effort. Odysseus is an asshole in that story anyway. [edit] Autolycus has leapt up onto the desk beside my laptop and is looking at me very seriously, with his lime-green eyes. Now he's licking my hand. Maybe he is playing the part of the son of Asklepios. Healing cat.

9 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-07 22:40
Subject: Almost took my breath away
Security: Public
Music:Vivian Girls, "I Heard You Say"

1. Yesterday's mail brought my contributor's copy of The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom, edited by Joanne Merriam. It is a terrifically tropetastic and genre-bending anthology and I am delighted that it reprints my flash story "And Black Unfathomable Lakes," originally published in Not One of Us #50. I keep forgetting to dedicate the piece to Peter Cushing and Yvonne Monlaur, but it was directly inspired by a Tumblr post of handful_ofdust's in 2013 reminding me how much I loved Terence Fisher's The Brides of Dracula (1960). I believe it was written entirely to Vivian Girls' "I Heard You Say" and "Death." The title comes from the film's spoken prologue.

2. I like all of these poems: Eric Basso's "The Nets," Xanthe McElroy's "The Ghost of the Ticket Seller," Erik Campbell's "Great Caesar's Ghost," and Julian Randall's "The Search for Frank Ocean or a Brief History of Disappearing." The ekphrastic challenge is pretty evocative this month, too.

3. Courtesy of moon_custafer: "The Curious Case of Dorothy L. Sayers & The Jew Who Wasn't There." I thought from the title that it would have something to do with John Cournos; it interests me that, according to this article, their breakup had little to do with his Jewishness and more to do with her Christianity.

4. Courtesy of [personal profile] umadoshi: 5 Lesbian Mermaid Comics You Need to Read. I really dislike the prescriptive style of headline that has become so common these days, but I can vouch for the love story with tattoos and this selkie comic.

5. In case I have not yet mentioned it, Theatre@First's production of The Spanish Tragedy goes up later this month in Nathan Tufts (Powderhouse) Park. Come for the shout-outs to Senecan tragedy, stay for the stage blood. I have told derspatchel that I will bring him some really gory-looking flowers for opening night.

I bought a floor lamp for the living room this afternoon. Autolycus is sleeping on my lap. I will have to purchase a curtain rod and some curtains if I don't want to keep waking from the sunlight every morning. I don't object morally to a morning schedule; it just works better if I can get more than two hours of sleep first.

8 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-06 05:13
Subject: You know, you are not a person, Mr. Burns, you are an experience
Security: Public
Music:Rhyton, "D.D. Damage"

The absence of internet from my life for the last five days has, among other issues, made it difficult for me to post about the movies I've seen recently. Let's start with Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns (1965).

I've seen this movie three times now; I don't know if I would call it a favorite of mine in the same way that I can point to The Long Voyage Home (1940) or A Canterbury Tale (1944) or Wittgenstein (1993) and see how something in them resonates deeply with me, but I seem to jump at every chance I get to see it and I recommend you at least once do the same. It's a small story, sharply and subtly written; it was adapted by the author from a play I've never seen or read. Jason Robards stars as Murray Burns, a committed iconoclast proudly unemployed after walking out on a three-year stint as head writer for Leo Herman's stultifying kids' show Chuckles the Chipmunk.1 He celebrates invented holidays like Irving R. Feldman's Birthday, which honors "the proprietor of perhaps the most distinguished kosher delicatessen in our neighborhood," and starts each day by addressing the shuttered apartments of his neighbors like an officer at parade, exhorting them to put out "a better class of garbage—more empty champagne bottles and caviar cans!" He has conversations with the public-access weather forecast. His apartment is one of the great clutter collections of the century, proving his oft-repeated point that "you can never have too many eagles." He carries a pair of binoculars for people-watching and takes seriously the project of teaching his twelve-year-old nephew "the subtle, sneaky, important reason he was born a human being and not a chair." He's a charmer, a wiseass, a weirdo, and he has some very good points to make about the soul-killing conformity of consumer society; he is also, the longer the film goes on and the more the audience observes the effect he has on the people around him, a painfully prescient rebuke to the valorization of the American man-child, the hero who's so unconventional and so brilliant that he gets a pass from the universe for all his immature hijinks while the rest of the ordinary people are left to flounder along behind him, picking up after the workaday world. To wit, while Murray's joyous nonconformism may well be saving his beloved Nick (Barry Gordon in a great portrayal of a serious, intelligent child who really is a child, never mind that for most of the runtime he looks like the resigned, responsible one in this partnership; he has one of those elastic crescent faces that fold into their smiles and he does a not bad impression of Peter Lorre, although his Alexander Hamilton impression is even better) from growing up into "a list-maker . . . one of the nice dead people," it's also placed the kid in danger of being removed from his uncle's custody by the New York Bureau of Child Welfare because of his unstable home circumstances. Six months of willful unemployment plus three months of dodging the Welfare Board's letters and phone calls is no recommendation for fit guardianship. Or as Nick puts it in his slightly Runyonesque syntax, "An unemployed person like you are for so many months is bad for you as the person involved and it's definitely bad for me who he lives with in the same house where the rent isn't paid up for months sometimes. And I wish you'd get a job, Murray. Please." We get that line within the first ten minutes of the movie. The other hundred and six minutes determine what dealing or not dealing with it is worth to Murray Burns.

That angle alone is reason enough for me to care about A Thousand Clowns, but there is a very real possibility that I actually love the film for the character of Albert Amundson, the social worker played by William Daniels in a reprise of his 1962 Broadway role.2 I imprinted on Daniels, of course, with 1776's John Adams, and certainly Albert trends toward the "obnoxious and disliked" end of the actor's range. He introduces himself and Barbara Harris' Sandra Markowitz as "a carefully planned balance of social case worker such as myself and psychological social worker such as Miss Markowitz" and if her earnest Freudian concern looks like one negative stereotype of social work, then his punctilious paper-pushing looks like the other—bureaucracy incarnate with the briefcase to prove it, all file folders and the latest model of jargon, a professional cold fish. He has one-piece dark hair, a pale owlish face rendered almost a cartoon by heavy horn-rimmed glasses that leave his eyebrows nowhere to go but up. His clothes are business anonymous, his speech self-consciously depersonalized except when his hasty conferences with Sandra—conducted in mutters in Murray's kitchen alcove, as if there's any privacy in a one-room apartment—slide revealingly into the cracks of their personal as well as professional relationship. "He's really a very nice person when he's not on cases," she'll defend him after the fact, adding with damning sincerity, "Last month I fell asleep on him twice while he was talking." For social courtesies, he has a polite little tic of a smile that the audience quickly identifies as a tell for embarrassment rather than pleasure and is otherwise prone to a curiously compressed expression, not quite as though he has a lemon in his mouth, but as though there might be a lemon in his future any second now.3 Pushed to the limit of his patience, he delivers the psychological assessment "maladjusted" like a professional judgment from God. It does not have its intended effect. Murray flusters him and puts him off his script, distracts, double-talks, and generally demolishes him. He is an authority figure, so he is meant to be defied; he is humorless, so he'll be a fine figure of fun; he is an expert, so he is meant to be confounded. He exits the scene in a discombobulated state of all of the above, leaving behind a laughing, crying, liberated Sandra admitting to Murray that "there is a kind of relief that it's gone—the job, and even Albert . . . and I don't have the vaguest idea who I am." So far, so free-spirited. When her erstwhile partner returns the next morning, both the audience and Murray are prepared for more of the same. At first it is more of the same, as a cautious but hapless Albert finds himself once more playing straight man to Murray's unerring absurdism, saying in all sobriety sentences like "That's a very silly thing for her to be in, that closet" and, a pull quote if I ever heard one, the title of this post. But he also has something very real to say, whether Murray wants to hear it or not, and presently, still talking like a textbook and just as square as Flatland, he fires the first and best shot over the bows of Murray's countercultural complacency.

Who writes your material for you, Charles Dickens?Collapse )

It's a rewarding movie to pay attention to. Arthur J. Ornitz's cinematography is gorgeous, a gelatin silver panorama of New York City in the days when my father lived off St. Mark's Place and my mother visited Brooklyn from Bard College; Ralph Rosenblum's editing plays the kinds of tricks with time that you see in good prose, compressing the crowds of rush hour into a sprightly brass chorus of "The Battle Cry of Freedom" or drawing out a moment of confetti and exuberant farewell to an ocean liner into a real consideration of a relationship, examined from all directions like the recurring theme of "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," which can be Murray and Nick's vaudevillian party piece or a quietly strummed meditation, floating through one perfect afternoon: Oh, by the way, oh, by the way, when we meet somebody we'll say . . . The opening credits establish marching band music as the leitmotiv of that "horrible thing . . . people going to work" so that the film can later show Murray making the job-hunting rounds to a loose-jointed ragtime arrangement of "The Stars and Stripes Forever," signaling at once his attitude toward the whole business. Enough references to pastrami go by in the script that I always leave the theater wanting a sandwich and never being anywhere near a deli in time. It's a very New York movie. It's a very New York Jewish movie. Jason Robards was neither, but he makes Murray Burns work, sympathetically and sardonically, where I can easily see the character's determined anarchy simplifying in the hands of a less complicated actor to standard-issue whimsy or just being an asshole.

Of the uniformly excellent cast of A Thousand Clowns, the only one who walked away with an Oscar was Martin Balsam, primarily on the strength of his eleven o'clock scene in which he describes his philosophy of being "the best possible Arnold Burns." It's true that it's a memorable piece of acting, for once giving the last word to a man who has always lived conventionally in his outlandish brother's shadow. I'm not sure that it sticks with me more than Daniels' two scenes, or even just the way Albert Amundson pushes his glasses up his nose with the emotional effect of a rueful shake of the head. Autolycus has spent the last five minutes purringly and insistently trying to climb between my hands and the keyboard, so I should wrap things up before he succeeds. In the course of writing this post, it has become obvious to me that if anyone had wanted to make a movie of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door when it was published in 1973, William Daniels would have made an ideal Mr. Jenkins. This casting brought to you by my complex backers at Patreon.

1. As he soberly explains to a pair of social workers, "Six months ago, a perfectly adult bartender asked me if I wanted an onion in my martini and I said, 'Gosh and gollies, you betcha!' Well, I knew it was time to quit."

2. The entire cast transferred from Broadway with the exception of Larry Haines, who originated the part of Arnold Burns, and Tony-winning female lead Sandy Dennis, who was replaced by Barbara Harris for reasons unknown to me but demonstrably the right ones, since I can't imagine anyone other than Harris in the part. "Miss Markowitz, or, actually, Dr. Markowitz" looks at first like as much of a stock type as her partner, the professional woman who needs to be loosened up by the hero—freed from her clipboard, her checklists, and her engagement to Albert, she turns out to be goofy, warmhearted, and unreservedly disorganized, taking readily to Murray's habits of visiting the city's landmarks like a tourist and waving off cruise ships he doesn't know. Her inability to keep a dispassionate distance from her cases is fervently encouraged by her new partner, who cites it as evidence of her undamaged humanity: "You are a lover of things and of people, so you took up work where you could get at as many of them as possible—and it just turned out there were too many of them and too much that moves you." In keeping with the play's insistence on three dimensions for all of its characters, however, her degree in psychology is more than just a handicap for her awakening sense of eccentricity to overcome. Her second-act parting words to Murray are gently spoken and as piercing as a much longer speech: "I can see why Nick likes it here. I would like it too if I was twelve years old."

3. To be fair to Albert, it's a lemon a minute being on the receiving end of Murray's wit.

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Date: 2016-08-05 17:03
Subject: I left my home and my fond dwelling, my young man, for the sake of you
Security: Public
Music:Rhiannon Giddens, "O Love Is Teasin'"

I have returned to the land of the online. It took longer to set up internet access in my current location than initially predicted. I am here only for the rest of the month, but the cats are with me and the building reminds me positively of New Haven and New York City, so I am trying to enjoy it without getting too attached.

I am pleased to be able to report that my poems "About Building" and "At the Meyerhold Theatre" have been accepted by Through the Gate. The first was loosely inspired by William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and my grandparents' wartime histories; the second comes straight from my favorite photograph of Shostakovich. This is the sort of news that makes checking e-mail worthwhile.

Today is my brother's birthday observed. I have bought him some chocolate mice and elephants from Burdick's to decorate his cake with. They will live in strawberry shortcake harmony until the candles are blown out.

10 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-01 00:22
Subject: You were going to be my life
Security: Public
Music:PJ Harvey, "Legs"

For the hell of it, since I had to pack them all anyway, I decided to catalogue the books I had acquired while living with rushthatspeaks and gaudior, i.e., between the first of October and today. Alphabetized because I had to pack them out of order of acquisition, editions not specified in most cases because it's too much work right now. Contributor's copies linked because even writers who are moving house should support their editors and fellow writers. Obviously this says nothing about library books or books otherwise borrowed, but I never keep track of this sort of thing and I was curious. Some of these I have written about, most I haven't. Shout out if you want to know anything. A hundred and twelve books is only slightly more than a hundred and ten.

Got to ease my aching head.Collapse )

I am deeply depressed by the quantity of clothes I seem to own, though. It's a lot less convenient than I thought.

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Date: 2016-07-31 22:33
Subject: We put a ghost in a box
Security: Public
Music:Endless Noise, "Single Ladies (Motown Tribute)"

As a break from packing, I saw Paul Feig's Ghostbusters (2016) this afternoon with rushthatspeaks, gaudior, sairaali, and M. It was a sold-out matinée. I was seated next to three small girls—nine-to-eleven age range, I think—who frequently cheered. They didn't recognize any of the surviving original cast, but they applauded for Slimer. I approved of the bronze bust of Dr. Egon Spengler at Columbia University. Like everyone else with any appreciation for mad science, of course, I love Kate McKinnon's Holtzmann with her tinted goggles and her utter disregard for normal standards of personal space and workplace safety—why settle for Dr. Frankenstein when you can have Dr. Pretorius? Crossed slightly with Harpo Marx, or at least that's what the flying long coat and fizzing fair hair and cheerful leers reminded me of. Perhaps also the way her presence in any given situation tends it toward explosion. Holtzmann's not a silent character ("I would have used aluminum, but I'm crazy"), but she has the quick-change face for it, and the physical grace. I had never before seen anyone flirt by means of DeBarge's "Rhythm of the Night," two acetylene torches, and a fire extinguisher, but she makes it work; the script gives her the most unambiguously kick-ass action sequence ("You just got Holtzmann'd, baby!") and it is equally believable that she would neglect to mention until it was relevant that she'd effectively installed a pair of nuclear reactors on top of the car in which everyone has been tearing around Manhattan for the last month and change. With a starring cast of four women in this movie, I hoped at least one of them would be weird enough for me and Holtzmann delivers. She not at all phallically licks a gun she built herself. I was also very fond of Leslie Jones' Patty Nolan and her encyclopedic knowledge of New York history, although I couldn't help wondering what would have happened if she'd switched roles with Melissa McCarthy. Chris Hemsworth was very obviously having the time of his life as a man who needs the concept of everything except riding a motorcyle, looking handsome, and eating a sandwich explained to him very slowly in words of one syllable and probably a lot of gestures. He calls a fish tank "a submarine for fish" in a tone of delighted discovery and covers his eyes at loud noises. I could have wished for less action and more character time, but that's how I've felt about all summer blockbusters for the last five or ten years. It was very fun and I think that was what my weekend needed. I don't know the ratio of Boston to New York in the shooting locations, but I was delighted to see the team celebrating their ghostbusting victory at Jacob Wirth's.

We had dinner afterward at Sugidama, where I had a bottle of lychee flavor Ramune. I had never interacted with any flavor of Ramune before. It was totally artificial, but I didn't realize it would come in a Codd-neck bottle; I didn't realize anyone manufactured those anymore. I've taken mine home with me. I'm trying to decide whether to save it for the novelty or smash it for the marble in time-honored nineteenth-century fashion. I kept grinning at it all through dinner.

Back to packing.

9 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-30 00:17
Subject: You're not a well-known figure in our history
Security: Public
Music:Gilmore & Roberts, "Doctor James"

My life lately has been crowded and complicated. I may be scarce on the internet over the next few days as I begin the process of moving house—for a temporary tenancy, alas, but that doesn't mean I don't still have to pack up all of my stuff. The good news is that at the moment my stuff mostly consists of four pieces of furniture, two suitcases and a small dresser's worth of clothing, and a hundred and ten books. I think. There are probably more books. They've been accruing in decorative stacks around this room since October. There are also some CDs and DVDs and a very small selection of fragile objects or art which will need to be packed carefully, but for better or worse the majority of my possessions are still in storage, so this is just the bare bones plus the accumulation of the last ten months. I'm counting a mattress as furniture. The mermaid desk lamp is definitely art. The fascinus is apotropaic magic and will be moved at the same time as my mezuzah. That was an inadvertent religious statement, but probably not a bad one.

I'll have to pack it with the rest of my contributor's copies, but tonight's mail brought me the print version of Spelling the Hours: Poetry Celebrating the Forgotten Others of Science and Technology, edited by Rose Lemberg. The cover features a photograph of Mary Alice McWhinnie, taken in 1962 when she was offshore Antarctica on the USNS Eltanin, studying the cold-water physiology of krill. The contents celebrate marginalized figures in the history of science, from the pioneering surgeon James Barry to the anonymous artists of The Universal History of the Things of New Spain, the astronomy of Paris Pişmiş and the mathematics of Rózsa Péter, the elided discoveries of Lise Meiter, Chien-Shiung Wu, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell—physicists all—and more. My Turing-and-Morcom poem "The Clock House" is reprinted from Stone Telling #7; my poem "Phliasian Investigations" appears here for the first time, addressed to the fourth-century philosopher Axiothea of Phlios. There are notes for all of the poems. I have to say I'd love to see the chapbook become a series: it is barely scratching the surface of scientists, scholars, and inventors who should be better known. By itself, though, Spelling the Hours is a small and powerful book of poems, as brightly burning as the anthology it was a reward for. Check it out and then write about some forgotten figures of your own.

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Date: 2016-07-28 23:25
Subject: I believe in science
Security: Public

I just watched Hillary Clinton accept her party's nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention.

I would definitely prefer to live in that reality.

5 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-07-28 03:36
Subject: I think I know by now what evil really is
Security: Public
Music:Gossip, "Holy Water"

I am evidently not the target audience for Tim Powers' Hide Me Among the Graves (2012), which rushthatspeaks has been reading and describing to me; I think that if one of your central characters is vampire John Polidori, people should always be asking him if he got it from Lord Byron and he should be so tired of having to tell them ("Byron wasn't even a vampire, damn it!") no.

16 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

My Journal
August 2016