Last night I dreamed I discovered a previously unknown and probably nonexistent biography of Ralph Richardson. I also dreamed my front teeth fell out like popsicle sticks. One of these dreams was better than the other.
This afternoon derspatchel
and I met sairaali
and M. at the A.R.T. for The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville
, starring Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac. It was lovely. It's more or less what it sounds like: a relationship after the end of the world, described and explored strictly through gesture, mime, and music. Songs utilized include a post-apocalyptic update of Eddie Lawrence's "Old Philosopher," the best cover I have ever heard of the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York," and a subversively straight reading of "Another National Anthem" from Assassins
. I grew up on Patinkin's singing (and Spanish accent), but I had never seen him in person before; he plays the older, dourer, more damaged of the pair, a tattered hermit who may or may not have been born in a trunk, but is living ferally in one when Mac's impish baggy-pantser rows a junk-cluttered lifeboat up to his shore. Mac turns out to remind me sharply of Donald O'Connor circa Singin' in the Rain
, at least with a bowler hat on, a sprightly knack for physical comedy, and a mercurial talent for extracting everything from a picnic supper to a fifth of gin from the remote regions of judy's
trousers. I have discovered that I am no longer the target audience for strobe lights—I didn't get a migraine, but I watched the storm sequences with one hand over my eyes. Eighty minutes with no intermission. If you can snag the tickets, it's worth your time.
So I have this relationship with the film of Stargate
(1994), where I know it's a total brain-optional chariots-of-the-gods B-picture with almost certainly a white savior problem and in the days when I lived in a house with a television, I watched it every time it came around, because there are very few movies where a dork with a knowledge of dead languages saves the day. (To this day, even after Crash
(2002), and Age of Ultron
(2015), I am always faintly surprised when James Spader is not playing a sweet-natured nerd. Also, Jaye Davidson as Ra is ridiculously beautiful, even if the bass reverb voice processing is kind of unnecessary.) I knew about the television sequel and its multiple spinoffs; I never paid any attention to them because I couldn't see the point. People who watch more genre television than I do: are
any of them any good? This question brought to you by vague curiosity upon realizing I lived through an entire sci-fi franchise without interacting with it almost at all. I mean, I've only seen the pilot of Farscape
, but I've seen
|Tanith Lee has died
. She was a year younger than my mother. That is not reasonable.
I can't calculate her importance to me as a writer. I encountered her very young, almost glancingly; I remembered her short story "Ceres, Passing" for years without knowing who had written it (I had it associated with Diana Wynne Jones, who was the editor) and Black Unicorn
(1991) permanently affected the way I think about the mythical beast, as well as the moon (the furry peeve, rapturous, plaintive, and passive-aggressive: "Moon
"). Then there was a lacuna of some years during which I didn't think about her much, and then in my senior year of high school I borrowed through interlibrary loan and read in two days all four Secret Books of Paradys
, mostly straight through, enthralled, on my parents' couch, and that same year The Silver Metal Lover
(1981) and the omnibus edition of Don't Bite the Sun
(1976) and Drinking Sapphire Wine
(1979) came back into print and I would never have her out of my head after that. I spent most of my spare time in college trawling used book stores for her back catalogue. There was a lot of it.
Even now I haven't read her complete oeuvre. She was insanely prolific; she wrote so many stories that wired themselves instantly into my brain that even the rare bounces like Heart-Beast
(1992) or Vivia
(1995) or White As Snow
(2000) did little to alter my opinion of her, except for teaching me that the failure mode of decadence is boredom. If I start listing favorites, I'll be here all afternoon. The Book of the Damned
(1988) rewrote the ways in which I thought about language and gender; in later years I realized she might be more binary than I'd thought, but that smoky, feverish triptych of jewels and transgression told me liminality was possible. I still haven't seen Blake's 7
(1978–81), but knowing Kill the Dead
(1980) came into the world as a sideways kind of fanfic for the series has always made me want to. (I've suspected for years that Sung in Shadow
(1983) is retelling Romeo and Juliet
by way of Zeffirelli more than straight Shakespeare, but I've never blamed her for it—I imprinted on John McEnery's Mercutio, too.) Faces Under Water
(1998) gave me a cranky heroic Jewish alchemist and The Gods Are Thirsty
(1996) gave me Camille Desmoulins, whom Lee would clearly have invented if she couldn't find him in history (and kind of did anyway). I find almost everything about Piratica: Being a Daring Tale of a Singular Girl's Adventures Upon the High Seas
(2004) absurdly heartwarming and I never want to see it made into a movie; it needs a stage. The Gorgon and Other Beastly Tales
(1985) lives on the nightstand in semi-permanent rotation, mostly because I love the story "Sirriamnis" so much. I saw FKA twigs' "Two Weeks
" in December and thought of The Birthgrave
(1975) and Anackire
(1983). I still don't own most of her short story collections, probably because they don't fetch up in used book stores as often as Death's Master
(1979) or Dark Dance
(In her own heavily fetishizing, almost always partly alternate way, she was one of the best writers I've ever read about the ancient world. The kingdom of Akhemony is a fictitious, tragedy-bent blend of archaic Greece and pharaonic Egypt, but as a novel Mortal Suns
(2003) conveys more strongly than anything except perhaps Samuel R. Delany's Phallos
(2004) the ways in which classical antiquity does not think like the present. Her novella "Into Gold," which I own only in Donald A. Wollheim's 1987 Annual World's Best SF
, is the best post-Roman Arthurian-Demophoon fusion I never knew I wanted. There is very often a classical allusion moving underneath the surface of her stories, whether it's appropriate or not. I can sympathize with that. I expect there's some of her in "ζῆ καὶ βασιλεύει
." She was one of my models for historical fantasy in every century. Occasionally a negative one, but still: when I went to Paris with the rest of my high school's concert choir in 1999, I recognized the rooftops from Paradys.)
This isn't an obituary. I slept very badly and had disjointed, familial dreams that I almost remember for the first time in weeks. If I want to figure out how Lee's use of color, rhythm, simile, and idiosyncratic verb choice affected mine, I'll be here even longer than the afternoon. If I want to write a chronological appreciation of her work, call back next month. She didn't drop wholly off my radar in recent years, but a combination of reduced budget and small press meant that I'm pretty sure the last new book of hers I read was the somewhat disappointing Disturbed by Her Song
(2010). Short fiction fared better; see Mike Allen's remembrance
for her presence in Clockwork Phoenix
. I managed to appear in an anthology
with her once in 2009, which blew my mind a little whenever I thought about it. I was always curious what she was doing, even if I couldn't afford to read it. I didn't expect to lose her this year.
Her language changed me.Soon wonderful shops began to open in the buildings. She saw shelves of cakes like jewels and trays of jewels like flowers and sheaves of flowers like lances and, in an armorer's, lances like nothing but themselves.
I feel like I've found the sequel to U.A. Fanthorpe's "Rising Damp
": Marianna Burton, "The River Flowing Under the Bank of England Dreams of Power
I am listening to shipwreck songs from ladymondegreen
. Looking up the history behind James Taylor's "The Frozen Man
" led me to Sheenagh Pugh's "Envying Owen Beattie
" and thence to the poem above. Jo Bell's "Doggerland
" engages in a similar way with time (and water), which is one of the reasons I like it best of the recent climate change series. It reminds me of Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways
My mental state reverted to terrible around two o'clock in the morning, but I have had cats asleep on my lap for most of the afternoon, which is worth something.
And then today I got up on two hours of sleep and spent the day at Canobie Lake Park
, M., M's brother C., rushthatspeaks
, and B. It was wonderful.
I was last there as a small child in the '80's; I recognized the miniature sports cars and the narrow gauge railway, but the Kosmojets and the Matterhorn are gone. The mirror maze looked familiar. I remembered the red-and-white skyway that makes a circuit over some of the family rides once I was on it. Everything else was new to me.
I rode three coasters: Untamed, the Yankee Cannonball (twice), and the Canobie Corkscrew (twice, the last time to close out the day; it is a small coaster and it does one thing, but it does that one thing extremely well). The Xtreme Frisbee looked like a close cousin to the Big E's Fireball, which I love and find exhilarating, but it actually blurred my sense of balance in a way I hadn't experienced before, so I didn't give it another chance. The
Giant Sky Wheel got two rides, the second at sunset right before the midway started to light up. So did the Mine of Lost Souls, a gonzo dark ride that starts like a tour of a haunted mine and then falls sideways into a different genre. We rode the Caterpillar and the sky ride of my childhood and the swing carousel called Da Vinci's Dream. I avoided the Policy Pond Log Flume and the other water rides because I was already freezing; the day was bright and nippy and I spent all of my time in my jacket, mostly with my hair stuffed down the back to keep it out of the wind. I also stayed away from the Psychodrome, because the idea of a scrambler ride with loud music and strobe lights was a migraine waiting to happen. The half-hour cruise around Canobie Lake was lovely. Half of my food intake for the day seems to have been ice cream in the form of Dippin' Dots and butterscotch-dipped vanilla soft-serve and the other half was some surprisingly tasty pulled pork and the bowl of clam chowder I ate as soon as I got home (after feeding the cats, who otherwise seemed to think the chowder was a special present for them). I appear to have a sunburn across my cheekbones despite putting on sunscreen. We missed the antique carousel, but that just leaves something to go back for.
Saira had made a road trip playlist, from which I learned that Heather Dale went through a phase of recording songs about shipwrecks; I suspect I need them.
I am physically very tired. However temporarily, I'm happy.
So I'm not talking much about my life outside of movies because right now it's very difficult and things are very uncertain and I don't know how next month is going to work at all. I will not be at Wiscon this weekend. With any luck, I will be with friends and family at Canobie Lake Park.
1. Courtesy of moon_custafer
: an ideal Lord Peter Wimsey
. This continues to delight me.
2. Courtesy of strange_selkie
: Crassus' moray
sent me a care package containing, among other things, a children's graphic novel about Houdini
and a DVD of the Lloyd Alexander documentary
4. I really like this poem: Paula Meehan, "The Solace of Artemis
5. I didn't manage to post about it last night, but I have now seen the first episode of the BBC's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
(2015) and to my great surprise and relief, it was very good. My make-or-break moment was the first appearance of the gentleman with thistle-down hair, here played by Marc Warren; I am delighted to report that I wouldn't have put leaves on his coat, but he is otherwise excellently otherworldly, menacing without apparent awareness of intimidation and capricious without camp. His hair is not only the right color, but the right shape for a thistle-head; he has silver-winged eyebrows and his ears are not pointed. His fingernails are opaque, white as teeth. (A touch I don't remember from the novel, but it's much more unsettling than it should be, like a photograph with the eyes put back in upside-down.) He has inhuman cadences in his voice; there is some post-production effect that whispers and hisses in the lower range, but clears suddenly when his voice rises in a tone of clarion carelessness, so either is equally uneasy to listen to. The adaptation sadly omits his initial address to Norrell in effusive Latin, but I understand there's a specialized audience for that joke (antiquarians and other people who study dead languages but don't expect to have to use them conversationally). It is probably inevitable that he should slightly recall David Bowie's Jareth, but I've never been sure that Labyrinth
(1986) didn't get into the DNA of the original novel, so that's all right.
The casting on the whole is very good. I don't have much feeling for Bertie Carvel's Jonathan Strange yet, but Eddie Marsan has the right anti-charisma as Mr Norrell and the right air of dry suspicious irritation with everything outside his orderly library; possibly as a byproduct of casting, he's more immediately sympathetic than Clarke's Norrell, a very shy and didactic man rather than a strictly passionless and secretive one, and I am curious to see how this quality will interact with later chapters when he starts doing really stupid, dangerous things as opposed to just bargaining with fairies for the dead.1
I was surprisingly taken with Edward Hogg's John Segundus: he has a pale, slightly apprehensive face and a sheepish nod after questions he knows are "wrong" and he smiles in pure wonder as the stones of York Minster speak, terrifying nearly every other member of the Society of Magicians. Childermass as played by Enzo Cilenti is a rough-grained, magnetic, mysterious presence, hiding secrets in plain speaking; his Tarot-sharping scene with Paul Kaye's Vinculus is a highlight. We haven't seen much of Stephen, but Ariyon Bakare has a beautiful face and a grave well-turned voice and I am hoping. I have a similar optimism about Charlotte Riley's Arabella and Alice Englert's Emma Pole.
And the mise-en-scène is great
. The interiors are accurately colored, the clothes are lived-in, the wigs are frequently terrible, and the regional accents are themselves. Nobody has been flattered by Georgian costume if it wouldn't have looked good on them to begin with and let's face it, Empire dresses aren't for everyone. People have stubble and wiltingly crimped hair. The 1995 Persuasion
is the only other contemporary piece I've seen put so much time into looking ordinary rather than a showcase for historical design. I don't like the score, but that's mostly because it insists on telling the audience when the magic is going to happen rather than letting it discover them. I'm reserving judgment on the tone until I've seen another episode at least. So far it's more comic than I was expecting—it's not broad, but it gets a lot of pointed mileage out of the disjoint between the confines of respectability and the lawlessness of magic, Mr Norrell's extravagant reputation and his shabby anonymous person, the incongruity of aimless Jonathan Strange finding his calling in magic, which he didn't even believe in before he tried it. My complaints are mostly to do with subtlety, the places I don't feel the script or the direction trusted it. The stones of York Minster are startling, but not especially numinous; the only real charge of strangeness comes with the arrival of the gentleman with thistle-down hair, which is why I was gripping derspatchel
's hand, praying the series wouldn't screw him up. I don't think it did. I hope it can keep it up. My standards for the numinous onscreen are crazily (Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Powell and Pressburger) high. The scene in which Strange performs his first piece of magic works perfectly because it is shot without any unusual emphasis at all.
So, yeah. That was really pleasant. I'm hoping it continues not to suck.
I have work to do now.
1. One of the major reasons the story feels in direct descent from Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). There are not that many modern novels that so clearly associate the two worlds, but it's here straight from the start.
Tonight we made a dish for dinner that was not paprikás, but the sauce had a lot of sour cream and a lot of paprika and some charnushka and a base of mushroom soup because we didn't have any mushrooms in the house and I had to thicken it with flour because it turned out our sour cream was lowfat, but it tasted great over black pepper noodles with caraway-dill sausage. derspatchel
is in a food coma as we speak. Autolycus is asleep on my lap, but I don't know what his excuse is.
I am sleeping very badly; I feel like I'm losing time everywhere.
Last night I saw Mad Max: Fury Road
(2015) with rushthatspeaks
. I would like to write about it at some point; I did not expect a bone-crunching, gear-grinding, guitar-shredding action movie would ever remind me of Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home
(1985). I think it was a combination of the backstory of Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa and the tribe of lesbian separatist biker nomads, most of them over sixty and all completely awesome. This is the only action movie I've ever seen whose heroes are a dozen really interesting women and one and a half men. (The other guy is an antagonist about a quarter of the time and the other quarter confused, which is fair; he grew up in an automotive death cult, which tends to muddle a person's priorities.) It is also probably the most metal movie I have ever seen. I am really enjoying the way it encourages reviewers to outdo one another in hyperbole—I think my favorite attempt so far is the Telegraph
's "Imagine if Cirque du Soleil reenacted a Hieronymus Bosch painting and someone set the theatre on fire." The Guardian
takes a similar tack with "an array of variously hairy stilt-walking, motorbiking, chainsawing crazies, suggesting that a militarised wing of the French circus troupe Archaos has escaped into the desert and gone feral." The worldbuilding is actually more coherent and more thoughtful than either of those quotes makes it sound, but I understand the difficulty of discussing the action sequences. There really is a battle guitarist whose double-necked, electrified instrument shoots flames. He is attacked to his amp stack by bungee cords. A fight on the front of his truck (which comes with its own taiko drummers) is reflected in the soundtrack, because he is playing the film's music. Either you say that with a straight face or you start alluding to the Surrealists.
One really unexpected side effect of watching Fury Road
when I did caught me after the fact: as a movie concerned both with questions of feminism and the world after the end of the world, it made a weird sort of continuity with The Reckless Moment
(1949) and Things to Come
(1936). I don't expect this to happen to most people. I'm not surprised that I'm re-reading Le Guin, though.
This was supposed to be a short note over e-mail, but apparently I have lost the ability to write short notes about movies. I have a strobing headache.
and I watched H.G. Wells and William Cameron Menzies' Things to Come
(1936) because I knew it was a landmark of science fiction and supposed to be very strange. It is indeed both of these things; its visual and temporal scope is stunning, its politics declamatory and confused, and its characters mostly ideological positions, although the middle section actually contains some pretty great post-apocalypse. It is fascinating to see a depiction of both societal collapse and scientific triumph from a pre-atomic perspective. Watching from a present day nearer the film's end than its beginning, you find yourself tracking its timeline like an alternate history. By starting World War II on Christmas 1940, the film misses the actual date by a year; it is also incorrect that chemical warfare would play a huge part in the conflict, although I give it a pass because everyone who had lived through World War I took the future use of poison gas for granted. It was
right about the importance of air combat and the bombing of cities, even if it assumes civilians will be gassed from the air rather than firebombed or nuked. Trench warfare did not recur, but because the film believes it will, we are shown the passage of decades in a grimly evocative dissolve from a dead soldier tangled in the wires to pieces of rotted cloth fluttering on the same barbed snarl. The subterranean future city looks like the missing link between Metropolis
(1927) and the Krell machine. The model work on this film is insanely good.
Among its surprises, Things to Come
contains the earliest onscreen instance I've seen of a zombie pandemic—the "wandering sickness," a biological weapon produced in the last throes of WWII, which here went on for nearly thirty years; its victims stumble blankly through the streets, hands feeling the way in front of them, unresponsive and yet dangerously attracted by the movements of healthy humans—and a local warlord who rises to power by ruthlessly shooting the infected, but has limited leadership capabilities otherwise. (He's played by Ralph Richardson.) Possibly it would not have so stood out for me if I had not spent the last couple of years reading handful_ofdust
, but there you go.
This is the section that works most like a conventional drama rather than a succession of montages bound together by rolling intertitles or stirring speeches: like the rest of Britain and presumably the world, "Everytown" (read: London) has been reduced to a nearly medieval poverty by decades of war and then the disease that outlasted it; a scrounging, rural existence in the bombed-out, grassy ruins of an urban center. In 1966, Richardson's unnamed character was the only man ruthless enough to shoot his infected neighbors as well as strangers who threatened to bring the sickness in; by 1970, he's "The Boss" of his little "combatant state" and it's gone to his head.1
He strides around the walls like he conquered them; he's trying to revive a hangar of antique biplanes in order to make war on the "hillmen" who mine shale and coal, but as his master mechanic points out, they can restore the planes to his heart's content, but they still won't fly without petrol. His consort is a restless, regal young woman named Roxana (Margaretta Scott), her arms covered with reclaimed jewelry and her mass of black hair dressed with feathers and coins; she can see more of the future than he can, in that she knows there's a world outside of the wasteland borders of Everytown and she wants to see it, but she knows she never will in her lifetime, so she might as well take this violent, short-sighted, not unattractive man with all his bluster and his conceit and make the best of it. Then a plane comes down on the outskirts of the settlement—not a relic from the wars, but a new machine, a futuristic design we haven't seen before. The bubble-helmeted figure that emerges like Klaatu come to Washington, D.C. is John Cabal (Raymond Massey), first seen thirty years ago as a gloomy, future-concerned engineer, now an emissary of the benevolent, albeit vaguely totalitarian "Wings Over the World," an organization of scientists based in Basra who have set out to eliminate war and the independence of nation-states that provoke it. The Boss takes him prisoner, is persuaded by his master mechanic to use the stranger as a resource for the rebuilding of aircraft, is doomed to be outcompeted by the new order, like "the Tyrannosaurus and the saber-toothed tiger." There is a great scene with Roxana and the imprisoned Cabal where she doesn't behave at all like the warlord's beautiful mistress toward the hero: she doesn't want to switch her sexual loyalties, she wants to see "the Mediterranean—and Egypt, and Greece, and India" and wants to know if she'll have the chance if she frees Cabal. The cost is her old life, either way. Wings Over the World comes to Everytown. The Boss goes out like a Shakespearean, ranting against Progress as if against Fate as the sleeping gas of the invading airmen blots out his city. The question of the wandering sickness is never again addressed; presumably either it burns itself out (it was successfully eradicated in Everytown) or is cured by the miraculous new medicine of Wings Over the World, which is everywhere making life sleeker, shinier, cleaner, easier, at once more leisurely and more driven toward the ultimate goal of man's conquest of the universe.
Which is a bit where the film falls off a cliff, emotionally speaking, although visually it is a triumph of futurism and practical effects. I have a lot of sympathy for Cabal's great-granddaughter who wants to go to the moon; I think Manifest Destiny in Space! is just as stupid and harmful as manifest destiny anywhere else. From a modern standpoint, it especially doesn't help that Everytown 2036 appears to be populated solely by white people in the same angular, shiny, samurai-shouldered costume, recalling simultaneously William Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum" and Riff Raff and Magenta at the end of The Rocky Horror Picture Show
(1975). A discontented artist who wants to give Progress a break whips the populace into a Luddite frenzy; they run to break up the space gun2
with metal bars, which seemed not very plausible to either of us, and if the entire city feels that ambivalently about space travel, maybe the technocracy should take it into account? Instead we close with a magnificent, panoramic speech as the camera profiles Massey (double-cast as his own descendant, as are several other significant roles) against the stars of deep space, urging humanity on to ever greater victories: "And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning . . . All the universe—or nothing. Which shall it be? Which shall it be?" As much gravity and prophecy as Massey rolls out for these lines, they're a little difficult to take except as a glorious piece of past camp. But they're also a classic pronouncement of science fiction, for better or worse; it's powerful in spite of itself if you think of it in terms of discovery instead of conquest. Most importantly, it feels like the only way for a story this aggressively forward-looking to end. We're a far cry from ominous near-future Christmas.
I wish one of the art houses around here would show it; a good print would be immersive on a big screen. I can't imagine what it must have been like to see it for the first time, when its setpieces were not yet staples of the genre and its streamlined aesthetic was forming ideas of the future, not reflecting a past conception. I suspect the propaganda was just as loud and problematic. Things to Come
was still a totally worthwhile outlay of ninety-seven minutes of my life. Plus now I know what Ralph Richardson looked like when he was my age, which was pretty good. This appreciation sponsored by my tolerant backers at Patreon
1. His uniform is a fantastic collage of scavenged finery: I am especially fond of the enormous fur vest over the high-collared army jacket, which on special occasions he exchanges for a floor-sweeping cloak of furs. Under his decorated tin hat, he's got Napoleon hair going on.
2. There's a space gun. It's H.G. Wells.
I know nobody reads LJ on a Saturday morning, but I just got sucker-punched by a movie and I need to talk about it.
The movie in question: The Reckless Moment
(1949), an apparently obscure and devastating feminist film noir starring Joan Bennett and James Mason. Directed by Max Ophüls from the novel by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Blank Wall
(1947). I started watching because I'd never heard of it. I recognized the source material during the title credits because skygiants
had mentioned the book within the last year. I texted derspatchel
afterward: "Actually devastating. Like Brief Encounter
(1945) with more irony and crime. I cried onto my movie cat. I might have to make tea." TCM's technically accurate but completely unhelpful one-line summary did not mention the patriarchy.
The film's relentless focus is Lucia Harper (Bennett), an all-American white suburban housewife whose life goes, like that of so many noir protagonists, from zero to nightmare overnight. It's the week before Christmas in Balboa, California; her engineer husband is overseas in Berlin, her son is a thirteen-year-old dynamo of self-absorption, her retired father-in-law is genially irresponsible, and her daughter is a seventeen-year-old art student carrying on a self-consciously adult affair with a middle-aged sleaze. The film opens cold with Lucia's trip to Los Angeles to confront her daughter's lover, insinuating "ex-art dealer" Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick, a lizard without a lounge), who agrees to stay away from the girl only if her mother makes it worth his while. Predictably, a scornful, mutinous Bea (Geraldine Brooks) does not believe the conversation when it's faithfully reported to her; she keeps her tryst with Darby in the family's boathouse that night, only to bash him over the head with a heavy kitchen flashlight and flee in loathing when he not only admits to the extortion scheme ("As a matter of fact, Bea, I am desperate for money") but pushes her to take advantage of it with him. Stunned and dizzy, he stumbles after her in the sea-wind darkness, collapses through the railing of the weathered boardwalk . . . Up early the next morning after a sleepless night, Lucia wanders down to the water and discovers none other than Darby, open-eyed, quite dead, impaled on the anchor where he fell. She saw the splintered lens of the flashlight last night. She's alone on the beach: it's just after dawn: she has split seconds to think. In her scarf and her sunglasses and her long light tweed coat, she wrestles the body into her family's motorboat—not forgetting the incriminating anchor—and dumps the one in a coastal swamp and the other in Newport Bay. And then she goes home, hoping that's the end of it.
It's not, of course. The next day there's a name she knows in the papers and a man waiting in the living room to see Mrs. Harper. His name is Martin Donnelly (Mason), a tall dark stranger in a black overcoat with a curiously apologetic expression and a tired Irish voice; he's a blackmailer and he wants five thousand dollars for all the love letters Bea wrote to Darby. (Conclusively proving sleazehood of Herculean proportions, Darby put them up as collateral for a loan. Accepting them was a courtesy while he was alive; now that he's the center of a murder investigation, they're really worth something.) Lucia protests honestly that she doesn't have that kind of money and can't raise it with her husband out of town, especially not over Christmas weekend. Martin insists, reluctantly but grimly. He has a partner, Nagle, who usually handles blackmail cases. She really doesn't want to be dealing with Nagle. She can have until Wednesday. She'll get the money somehow. She has her family to think of.
It is impossible to discuss anything that makes this film interesting without further spoilers, so consider yourself warned. ( We"re all involved with each other, one way or another.Collapse )
So on the bright side, I've been reassured that good movies were made during the era of the Production Code.
On the down side, I'm still awake. This exorcism sponsored by my kind backers at Patreon
So I had this package of smoked salmon in my refrigerator. I had vague thoughts of eating it with cream cheese, although not with bagels because I haven't had a chance to get to Brookline. On my way home this evening I stopped by Dave's
to look for sliced mushrooms; I came out with a pound of fresh squid ink pappardelle, matte-black and smelling faintly of the sea. And with thoughts of squid ink and salmon for dinner, I got home and found that all the readily accessible recipes pertaining to this combination called for ingredients I didn't have: capers, lemon juice, crème fraîche, dill, mussels
. . . I was not leaving the house again. I looked at what I had and improvised.Oh No You Don't Kitty Squid Ink Pasta with Smoked Salmon and Kippers
1 pound squid ink pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces smoked salmon
1 tin (≈ 3.5 ounces) kippers
lemon juice if you have it
cream and grated Parmesan as needed
black pepper to taste
Put up a large pot of hot water to boil. Dump in the pasta as soon as the water is boiling; drain the pasta as soon as it's done, in this case about seven minutes since it was fresh. Follow these steps independent of the rest of the recipe; once drained, the pasta can hang out in its pot or strainer until needed, which is exactly what it did.
Finely dice two cloves of garlic. In a medium-sized pot, sauté in olive oil until garlic starts to brown. If you have lemon juice in your kitchen, add a tablespoon or two at this point. (Capers, ditto.) If you don't, remember that the bottom shelf of the refrigerator is currently hosting those chopped artichokes in olive oil and lemon juice that you haven't been able to eat. Pour off about a tablespoon of lemony olive oil onto the garlic and keep stirring until garlic is soft.
Chop cream cheese into rough chunks; this is not aesthetically necessary, but it will melt faster. Slice salmon into small pieces. The kippers will crumble from being stirred, but open tin anyway so that they are right there and ready. Realize this is a terrible mistake when one of the two small cats who have been prowling thoughtfully around the kitchen suddenly breaches vertically like an orca, seizes the kippers off the top of the dead dishwasher which you use as a cutting station, and brings them back down to the linoleum in front of the stove with him. Shout. Grab protesting cat, toss gently but purposefully away across the kitchen. (Do not worry. He lands securely on his feet.) Dive for kippers, breathe sigh of relief on confirming that the tin landed right side up and displays no signs of kitten interference. Clean kipper juice off oven door and surrounding floor, periodically removing cat from area. Prevent other cat from taking this opportunity to sniff out the plate of chopped salmon. Add cream cheese chunks to medium-sized pot, stir until melting; add salmon and kippers and stir until all components have smoothed into a sauce. If too thick and chunky, thin with splashes of cream. Grated Parmesan adds texture and body. You can skip the middle of this stage if you don't have a cat.
Transfer pasta to sauce pot. (Technically speaking, transfer about two-thirds of pasta because of size disparity between pots. Understand that other kitchens will not necessarily have this problem.) Toss until thoroughly coated. Serve hot with a dusting of black pepper. Agree it could have used some dill, but don't feel too bad about it. The dish as it stands is delicious and fishy and salty and the pappardelle have an oceanic darkness that persists without jarring through the cream sauce. Put a lid on the remains as you leave the kitchen. The cats are already starting to investigate.
In 1949, hearing that Ezio Pinza was leaving the original Broadway cast of South Pacific
, George Sanders campaigned heavily to replace him in the part of Emile de Becque. He auditioned for Rodgers and Hammerstein; he won the part. He was engaged to appear for fifteen months. And then he promptly gave himself an anxiety attack over whether he could carry a show for that long, convinced himself he couldn't, and dropped out. I have always considered this a great loss for musical theater. Sanders had a classically trained baritone; it's not especially apparent from the one album he recorded professionally, The George Sanders Touch . . . Songs for the Lovely Lady
but if you've ever seen his elegantly shy foreign minister romanced by Ethel Merman's hostess with the mostest in Call Me Madam
(1953), it's right there in "Marrying for Love
." And if his identification with the archetype of the cad
made him counterintuitive casting for a full-blown romantic lead, emotionally open rather than cynically charming, the role that really got me to notice him as an actor was also against type
; I don't doubt that he could have done it. But he didn't, and I consigned the possibility to the same wistful alt-history as Robert Newton in Wuthering Heights
I just learned from YouTube that there are recordings: "Some Enchanted Evening
" and "This Nearly Was Mine
." I'm guessing they're the two sides of the audition record he mentions in his memoirs; he slightly flubs a lyric at one point, but not his strength of tone. And they're good. I'd hear an audition from someone who sent me that tape. I might want to hear a lot more of them. In more than one show, even.
1. The richness of his voice is displayed to advantage, especially on languorous numbers like "September Song" and "As Time Goes By," but the material is mostly romantic pop standards; it doesn't show off his range or his control the same way.
And last night we broke out the air conditioner for the first time since October because it was too hot for me to sleep otherwise. Heat-stunned and half-coherent, I wandered downstairs at four-thirty in the morning and fortunately derspatchel
was still awake. The cats were puddled on the hardwood, transferring heat as quickly as their fur would let them. Sure, summer, come right in.
Before then, we made scones with my mother and helped her plant a bed of pansies by the front steps and transplant two forsythia bushes from the back to the side yard; we gave her a small clay hedgehog which Rob introduced with a tiny pen-sketch and a line of written Russian: a small bird saying, "Now you have a hedgehog!" It lives indoors now, with the cactic and the succulents.( Ёжик.Collapse )
I did not try to see Psycho
(1960) at the Brattle Theatre and I think I made the right decision.Sydney Padua
is speaking tonight
at Porter Square Books
. I have been reading Lovelace and Babbage
since it existed
. I got my brother a Brunel T-shirt for his birthday in 2010. He still wears it. Guess where I'll be?
Outside of Patreon
reviews, I am not posting a lot right now because the elbow sprains seem to have given me a temporary experience of RSI. Typing for any length of time (among other activities, but this is the one that's interfering with e-mail and online interaction) causes the inside of my forearms to ache in worrying ways and I don't want to turn it into a permanent condition.
Earlier tonight, rushthatspeaks
and I saw Wojciech Jerzy Has' Memoirs of a Sinner
(Osobisty pamietnik grzesznika . . . przez niego samego spisany
, 1986), adapted from James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
(1824). Rush had read the novel; I hadn't, but knew the conceit. Neither of us knew anything about Has as a filmmaker—I'd heard of The Saragossa Manuscript
(1964) and that was it. Memoirs of a Sinner
is simultaneously a great portrayal of mental illness and a great portrayal of demonic possession and a solid historical fiction, meaning the characters think in ways strange to me even before we factor in the Calvinism; it has a witches' sabbat and a terrific Devil and a genuinely unearthly Day of Judgment, a towering processional figure that I thought at first was a demon, but suspected was an angel by the end. At least here, Has' style reminds me more than anyone of Peter Greenaway, especially in the organization of figures into informative tableaux and the long lateral tracking shots, but also slightly of Ken Russell's The Devils
(1971). For a movie with such a strong supernatural component, it refrains strikingly from visual effects. Weird things happen with time in the editing and space in the structure of the sets; the cinematography gets some compelling, uncanny effects out of the contrasts between natural and obviously artificial lighting. Watching it, I thought it had been made about a decade earlier than it was, but at least that explained where the partly electronic score came from. Would recommend to those members of my friendlist who want to watch the post-gallows confession of a plaintive, sociopathic resurrected corpse. You know who you are.
I really resent the Brattle Theatre showing Psycho
(1960) for Mother's Day. I have never seen the movie and I want to see it for the first time on the big screen. I do not want to see it with the kind of audience who will come for the irony of it. I had that happen once with The Birds
(1963), thank you very much, and it made me homicidal. Dammit, Brattle.
William A. Wellman's Night Nurse
(1931) was on TCM a few nights ago, so I got to show it to derspatchel
. I love this movie like comfort food; I saw it for the first time in 2010 when I was discovering pre-Code Hollywood and I don't care that the first half is a social realist picture about the nursing profession and the second half is a crime melodrama with all the stops pulled out from drug addiction to child endangerment, I will watch it whenever it's on and encourage others around me to do the same. It's 77 minutes long and it packs the plot in like dynamite. Where to start?
Cast, first of all. Twenty-four-year-old Barbara Stanwyck carries the show as Lora Hart, a stone-broke, freshly orphaned high school dropout determined to succeed in the medical profession despite her handicaps of education and upbringing. She's smart, compassionate, tougher than her idealism first suggests and more canny, too. As Lora's fast friend and foil, Joan Blondell's disenchanted, gum-chewing Maloney provides a more jaundiced view of the field: "I was afraid the hospital would burn down before I could get into it. Now I have to watch myself with matches." Well in advance of stardom (and his iconic mustache), Clark Gable does what he can with the film's heavy, a saturnine thug who wears his job description—"Nick the chauffeur"—like an underworld epithet, and Ben Lyon's romantic hero is a Jewish bootlegger.1
Other character actors orbit the action and they are all exactly who they need to be.
I've said often enough that I really enjoy pre-Code movies. I like their pace, their energy, their weird mix of sensationalism and realism; I like how progressive and subversive many of them now appear simply by depicting a world that is more than the strictly delineated sum of middle-American moral approbation. (See discussion with skygiants here
, including thumbnail reviews of two more movies by Wellman.) Not every one is a gem. This year alone we've seen some amazing failures. She Had to Say Yes
(1933) is a guttingly direct indictment of double standards and sexual objectification that blows its kneecaps off at the last minute by trying to wrangle a happy ending out of a choice of two evils. The Purchase Price
(1932) wastes the promising hook of a marriage of convenience falling guardedly in love on a slog of agricultural obstacles. I can't recommend Rio Rita
(1929) for much more than the vaudeville double act of Wheeler and Woolsey, the staging of some musical numbers by Florenz Ziegfeld, and the final reel in two-strip Technicolor. And while it is excruciatingly true that all kinds of representation crashed and burned with the enforcement of the Hays Code, the years before 1934 were not all a paradise of diversity—for every refreshingly radical take on race and gender, there's an equal chance of a casually demeaning ethnic joke or a sexual stereotype taken for granted. I am still fascinated by what these films were trying to do. Or simply the zeitgeist they were running with, unexamined: however it works out, whatever the lines being crossed, many of these films are about transgression.Night Nurse
is no exception. Lora's time as a trainee nurse nearly constitutes an educational film as it follows the daily grind of a teaching hospital from the emergency room to the maternity ward to the operating theater, demystifying without disparaging the profession as it goes. Interns play practical jokes, bedpans need to be emptied, mothers of all ethnicities cradle their children with love, probationers sneak home after curfew on their nights off and criminals need patching up just like regular citizens. Graduating as full-fledged nurses, Lora and Maloney take the Florence Nightingale Pledge
. Note the lines about hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.
The tension between these two promises will form the narrative drive of the film's second half.
Assigned by the hospital to help care for a pair of little girls recently treated for anemia and malnutrition, Lora takes over the night shift in a swanky household and finds herself in a Prohibition-era take on the Gothic novel: the housekeeper (Blanche Friderici) is repressive and frightened, the mother (Charlotte Merriam) is a giddily neglectful socialite who passes her days and nights in a drunken stupor of parties, and the smarmy, twitchy doctor (Ralf Harolde) in charge of the case has either ulterior motives or the worst case of resting dope fiend face I've seen since Mystery of the Wax Museum
(1933). In place of the Byronic hero, we have Gable's Nick, a slicked-back sneerer whose brute-force sexuality briefly misleads the audience into thinking he might be a diamond in the rough (spoiler: he's just rough). And the horrid secret at the core of the house is barely hidden at all: the children aren't getting better at home. They're getting worse. They cry with hunger, they miss their mother, they're frightened of Nick. Lora isn't stupid; she knows at once that "those poor little kids are starving—anyone can see it in their faces! And if somebody doesn't do something, they won't last another month!" and neither a clip on the chin from Nick nor a threat of professional ruin from Dr. Ranger will deter her from reporting it to the authorities. The trouble is that the authorities in this situation are the rest of the medical profession and a charmed circle of courtesy and institutional power protects even a "rotten doctor" like Ranger. He's a big-shot physician with society connections, Lora is an inexperienced nurse on her first case—who does she think his colleagues will side with, if she threatens to embarrass them with her whistle-blowing? She's a nurse, a subordinate. She's supposed to keep her head down, keep her observations to herself, and obey the doctor's orders. But when playing by the rules means consenting to murder, Lora will have to learn to disregard the phony morality of "professional ethics" in favor of the real responsibility of her profession, saving lives.
As for the romance, I promised a heroic bootlegger and Night Nurse
delivers. They meet cute in the ER where she treats him for a gunshot wound and doesn't file a report with the police. By way of thanks, he sends her a bottle of rye before her final exam (assisting at an operation that goes wrong, a gripping little mini-drama in itself) and a congratulatory wreath at her graduation, big as a gangster's funeral. When she runs into him between deliveries at a drugstore, he invites her to share a soda and utterly fails to convince either of them that he's given up the business. We don't even learn his name until their last scene together; until then, he calls her "My Pal" and she calls him "Hey, Bootlegger!" They are last seen driving a car together in happily screwy collaboration: she shifts and he steers. He's no knight in shining armor, but he's smart and he's dependable and he always has her back. Even loyal, streetwise Maloney warns Lora not to rock the boat and kindly administrator Dr. Bell (Charles Winninger in a mostly dramatic role with two nicely timed comic moments) advises her not to go to the police until she can prove malpractice or malice. The career criminal listens to everything Lora tells him, no matter how crazy it sounds, and unhesitatingly does what she asks.
The ending may be the sweetest instance of vigilante justice I've seen on a screen. ( I know a couple of guys.Collapse )
It's a happy ending. It dovetails the subversiveness of both the dramatic and the romantic plots perfectly. Wellman couldn't have gotten away with it three years later. I suspect he couldn't have gotten away with most of the movie.
There's so much in this film to talk about, I could be here all night. I don't want to spoil too much of the bravura scene in which Lora confronts the children's incapable mother, in the course of which she roundhouses a boozy, grabby hanger-on and sneaks profanity past the censors solely through delivery, but it's another boost to Night Nurse
's insubordinate credentials: motherhood is certainly not sacred and sometimes a girl doesn't need rescuing. You can also tell the film is pre-Code because the script takes every opportunity for Stanwyck and Blondell to undress in front of one another. At one point they snuggle in bed together. Fine by me. The rest you'll have to see for yourself; it's worth it. I have to sleep, which I hope will prove similarly rewarding. This review sponsored by my fantastic backers at Patreon
1. Okay, I cannot prove that he's Jewish, but he's named Mortie and when he needs to get milk in a hurry, he goes to a kosher delicatessen. He also breaks into said delicatessen, but it's the middle of the night and an emergency and he's out of practice with legitimate trade. I am extremely fond of him. I like to think he ended up like Joseph Linsey.
It is probably untrue that a person has not lived until they've seen "Springtime for Hitler" twenty feet high. Nonetheless, I am extremely happy to have gone out tonight with derspatchel
and my mother to a late showing of The Producers
(1968) at the Capitol Theatre. I had never seen the movie on a big screen and I really wanted to. It was a wonderful experience. There were maybe half a dozen other people in the theater with us; I hope more come tomorrow night. From home viewings, I would never have known that one of the showgirls in "Springtime . . ." is wearing Reichsadler
Lo, it is that time of year when my e-mail ceases to work, like the swallows deciding Capistrano isn't so hot after all. Despite being able to confirm the sending of several messages, I haven't received one since a little before midnight (and sending from my end was rocky all evening). With any luck this issue will have resolved by tomorrow morning, but in case it takes a day or so, that's why I haven't answered your e-mail. Dammit.
 My e-mail has come back! (My father persuaded it.) It will take about a day or so for all of the messages to filter in. I will respond as things arrive.
I slept approximately an hour last night. It was a bad time. I dreamed a pair of college-age girls on the subway told me I had to be on Twitter to be a feminist. "What's your feminism?" they'd asked me. I was confused by the question. Like, did I consider myself a third-wave feminist? A fourth-wave? No, they said, it was a hashtag. ("My feminism is . . .") I'm not on Twitter, I explained. But then how could I keep up with the conversation? The discourse was moving so quickly. I was already left behind. "How old do you think I am?" I asked them. "Old enough to be dead!" they chorused, laughing. "Everybody's old enough to be dead," I told them, "that's what being alive means."
I'm not sure my brain should be allowed to philosophize unsupervised.
The mail has brought my contributor's copy of Not One of Us #53
. It's the broken
issue, featuring fiction and poetry by Patricia Russo, Alexandra Seidel, and J.C. Runolfson among others, and extraordinarily fine work in both categories by Mat Joiner. My contributions are the poem "Day, Sun, Night" and short story "When Can a Broken Glass Mend?" Both owe their existence in some way to rose_lemberg
has written kindly
about the former; I will add that it owes a debt as well to Frank O'Hara's "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island
," which I read for the first time around age four when I thought the petulant sun was funny and missed the shout-out to Mayakovsky for years. The latter is a queer kinky Jewish love story with demons; it's very short and the title is a Kabbalistic reference taken from "The Ten Faces of G-d" in Frank London's A Night in the Old Marketplace
(2007). Check it out
! This issue comes with interior illustrations.
I've learned from kore
that Nigel Terry
has died. I cannot remember seeing him outside the films of Derek Jarman, although the internet tells me I should remember him from The Lion in Winter
(1968) and my memory tells me it doesn't want to think about Troy
(2004) any more than it has to. Because it was the first role I saw him in, I suspect he will always look to me like black-browed reflecting Caravaggio, where he is not the violently hottest thing onscreen only because the other two points of his triangle are Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean. I envied his slouch hat then and probably still do. "Deeply attractive and private to the last."
I just got home from seeing Murnau's The Last Laugh
(Der letzte Mann
, 1924) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre with my mother. I don't think we see camera work like that again until the New Wave. While I'm talking about film: my Patreon
has dropped back below $200 a month, which means no
end-of-the-year chapbook of collected reviews; the milestone goal is showing itself unmet again. Anyone who is not already a patron (and if you are, thank you, cat pictures and poetry are forthcoming) want to chip in? Anyone have a friend who wants to be a patron and doesn't know it yet? I
want that chapbook to exist.
My poem "Σειρήνοιϊν" has been accepted by Uncanny Magazine
. It was written in March for elisem
; the title is Homeric Greek for "of the two Sirens." I may reproduce a great many notes and illustrations when it is published. I am very, very glad it will have a home.
So first I had dinner at the Madrona Tree with gaudior
and then we went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron
(2015) at the Capitol Theatre and then I banged one of my already sprained elbows into a bathroom stall door and walked most of the way home holding my arm and talking way too fast at Gaudior because of the adrenaline, so this is not a movie review; I don't have the typing capacity for it. You may consider these notes. I just want to get something down for posterity before my short-term memory shuts down for the night.  As stated in the previous post, my ability to type shut down at the 2100-word mark and I went to bed. Finished this post in the afternoon, after seeing Buster Keaton's The Camerman
(1928) at the Somerville. Total spoilers everywhere, of course. For the Avengers, not Keaton.( But if you put the hammer in an elevator—Collapse )
So those are my scattered thoughts on Avengers: Age of Ultron
. It's not as strong a sequel as The Winter Soldier
or even Thor: The Dark World
(2013), which frustrated me, but I am not sorry to have seen it and it doesn't seem to have set any of the characters in directions that make me scream, although I may revise my opinion based on succeeding movies. I may well see it again to consider further. Maybe I should stop typing now. These 3400 words sponsored by my fine backers at Patreon
So I wanted to write about Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) when I got home tonight.
Slightly past the 2000-word mark, my arms hit a brick wall.
I will finish the post and put it up tomorrow. Expect discussion of structure, voice, and Bruce Banner. I am going to put an ice pack on my elbows and go to bed.