So at the end of June I began my introduction to Sam Peckinpah with Ride the High Country
(1962) and this month I've continued the project with The Wild Bunch
(1969), Straw Dogs
(1971), and The Getaway
(1972) and I am returning to the Somerville
this Wednesday for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
(1974) because I really want to know what kind of movie belongs to that title, but I am not talking about any of these movies tonight because I don't have the time. I am sleeping very little and I miss the sea so much that I'm reading and listening to maritime things to make myself feel better. Hence Miranda
I don't know what it was about 1948 that produced two mermaid movies within four months of each other, but you can find them on either side of the Atlantic: Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid
in the U.S. and Miranda
in the UK. Both feature married men whose fishing vacations entangle them with alluring mermaids and suspicious wives, although my memories of the American film suggest that the similarities end there: Ann Blyth's wordless, childlike Lenore is a figure of fantasy in William Powell's midlife crisis, while Glynis Johns as the eponymous Miranda is quite real, outspoken, and decidedly adult. She is a magnificent siren. None of the men in the story stand a chance. Viewers of various genders may feel likewise.
The premise of the film is straightforward: on a fishing holiday in Cornwall, good-looking doctor Paul Martin (Griffith Jones) finds himself the catch instead, pulled overboard into the cave of a mermaid who agrees to let him return to London only if he brings her with him. He disguises her as a wealthy young invalid and installs her in his apartment, explaining away the eccentricities of her behavior and her diet with the necessities of an invented rest cure, but his wife Clare (Googie Withers) is no fool; she doesn't make the leap from metaphorical to literal siren at once, but eventually somebody's going to notice that the ornamental fish are disappearing from the aquarium in the parlor while every heterosexual male within earshot of Miranda falls all over himself to attract her attention. The casual mix of folklore and light comedy is one of the film's delights. We learn quite early on that Miranda's last name is Trewella; half a movie later, it's offhandedly confirmed that her great-grandmother was the Mermaid of Zennor
. She's always cool to the touch. She sleeps in a cold salted bath with seaweed for comfort and shells she brought from her native waters. Taken to the zoo for the day, she steals a fish meant for the seal exhibit—the last silvery edge of tail disappearing into Miranda's mouth is a worthy forerunner of Madison biting through the back of the lobster in Splash
(1984)—and exchanges a volley of barky insults with the offended pinniped; she delights a cockle vendor by standing the crowd a round of bivalves and then singlehandedly cleaning him out, leaving nothing but a litter of shells. The tail effects are sparing but effective. Out of the water, her fins are always restlessly flickering, curling with contentment in a curious catlike motion; swimming, she has the dolphin-backed curve of a dive down cold; underwater, she moves with an easy sleek ripple and the floating clouds of her hair hide the details of her nudity, not the fact of it. Equally refreshing is her frank nonhumanness, which is not the same thing as naïveté. In her sea-cave in Cornwall, she reads water-wrinkled issues of Vogue
and theater magazines that she's stolen from boats and beaches; her trip to London is full of wonders, but she wants more than anything to see an opera at Covent Garden, where the people might sing almost as well as mermaids. She doesn't have the longing of Andersen's mermaid for the land, but she plans to enjoy it while she has the chance.
And otherwise the film behaves very much like a bedroom farce where three men are interested in the same woman and three women have their suspicions without being able to prove anything and the woman at the center of the controversy is cheerfully and unconcernedly sincere in her desire for all three of her lovers, because why shouldn't she be? Paul was the first man she caught and kept, but lovestruck chauffeur Charles (David Tomlinson) blushes so endearingly when Miranda purrs over the size of his ears, while bohemian artist Nigel (John McCallum) irresistibly insists on painting her. The question is which one she'll choose to give her what she wants: a child fathered by the land. True to the folklore of merrows, Miranda finds sea-men unappealing and is set on netting a more handsome mate. Not that any of them imagine that she wants them for so practical and disposable a purpose, of course. Like a spell, she asks them to repeat her name and they fall into her sea-cold arms, murmuring, Miranda, Miranda
; they preen like bowerbirds for the right to carry her around in their arms instead of pushing her properly in her bath-chair; each of them fancies himself the only man remarkable enough to attract the attention of such an enchanting creature as Miss Trewella. I appreciate, though, that none of her enchantment is coyness or conventional flirtation; she doesn't need it. Humans are the ones who tangle themselves up with morality and modesty and awkward, indirect, counterproductive courting behaviors. Miranda's approaches are direct and bracing as the slap of a wave and Johns' rough cat's tongue of a voice makes her immediately persuasive without falling back on coquetry. I know less about the British Board of Film Censors than about the Motion Picture Production Code, but I'm fairly certainly the film's ending wouldn't have passed in this country. Good for Miranda
Having imprinted on Splash
as a very young child, I am always looking for good mermaid movies; this is one. Peter Blackmore adapted the script from his own stage play and I keep meaning to track the original down and read it. (He also authored a much later sequel called Mad About Men
(1954), but all signs point to it not being as good, so I've decided I don't need to see it.) I should mention before I try to pass out for the night that if you have fond memories of David Lean's Blithe Spirit
(1945), the redoubtable Margaret Rutherford very nearly co-stars here as Nurse Carey, who is overjoyed to discover that her new charge is a real mermaid; she and Miranda bond instantly and I would have cheerfully watched the two of them take in the sights of London from a sea-slanted perspective for another hour. Oh, and if you like fish, don't watch this movie without some on hand. At least, 80 minutes of a character who eats nothing but raw oysters and fish sandwiches and seaweed made me want sushi like nothing on earth. This seaside excursion sponsored by my sympathetic backers at Patreon
All right: this review is overdue by nearly two weeks and I have only slept less since then, but I'm running out of July and skygiants
has assured me that so long as my writeup says something more coherent than "HOOKS FOR HANDS!!
" I'll be all right. I can guarantee that. Unlike the novel unfairly referenced above, William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives
(1946) was terrific.
I must credit Mark Harris' Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Seond World War
(2014) for getting me interested in William Wyler. Prior to this spring, I could have told you that I'd seen about half a dozen of his movies and liked several of them, but I didn't know a thing about him personally except that his original choice for Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights
(1939) was Robert Newton and I thought that showed good taste. He was Jewish, a Swiss citizen from then-German Alsace-Lorraine; he came to Hollywood as a distant cousin of Carl Laemmle and quickly worked his way up from stage hand to Universal's youngest director, where his painstaking directing style got him nicknamed either "Forty-" or "Fifty-Take Wyler" depending on which actor you asked and how recently they'd worked with him; I was charmed to learn that for years he commuted to work on a motorcycle. Of the five directors whom Harris tracks through the war, Wyler was the only Jew; the only one with family in danger in Europe.1
He enlisted with the Signal Corps eleven days after Pearl Harbor, thirty-nine years old and a married father of two. In order to get the footage for the film that later became The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress
(1944), he flew five missions over Germany and occupied France with different B-17 crews of the 91st Bomb Group, including two after he was formally grounded. He shot 16-millimeter footage through the ball turret of the Memphis Belle
, a crazy stunt even by the standards of combat pilots. He blacked out once aboard the Our Gang
while concentrating so intently on getting good aerial shots that he failed to notice until after the fact that he'd disconnected his oxygen. While in uniform, he punched out an anti-Semitic doorman and accepted an official reprimand rather than lose time defending himself in a court-martial. And most pertinently to this story, following the documentary realist success of The Memphis Belle
, Wyler reviewed the unmanned camera footage taken from the P-47 Thunderbolts that were the subject of his next project and agreed with his co-director John Sturges that none of it was usable, even as "atmosphere shots." Just as he had done with the Memphis Belle
and the other B-17s, he took a camera—a 35-millimeter Eyemo this time—aboard a low-flying B-25 and shot footage of the coast of Italy through the open windows of the plane. And he lost his hearing. He was permanently grounded. He was discharged from military service at once. His career as a filmmaker for the War Department was over; what he didn't know was whether, as a deaf director, he could ever make films for anyone
The happy ending of this story is that, as shattered, disoriented, and despairing as Wyler was when he returned to the U.S. in 1945, his career was not over. He never regained more than a fraction of the hearing in his left ear; for the rest of his life, he would listen to scenes as they were filmed through a feed from the on-set microphones. But if classics like The Heiress
(1949), Roman Holiday
(1959), and The Collector
(1965) are anything to judge by, it worked out all right. And all of this means that what we have in The Best Years of Our Lives
—Wyler's first post-war film—is something extraordinary for its time: a commercial Hollywood A-picture made by a disabled veteran with combat experience. I wanted to see it at once.2
We were still worried going in. Despite its instant-classic reputation for handling themes of healing, disability, and disillusionment with sensitivity and restraint, by modern standards the film could still have come off as maudlin, simplistic, or condescending. 1946 was a prime Production Code year. We weren't sure how much realism either Wyler or his screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood3
would have been able to put onscreen. Instead, even if the middle-aged couple thoroughly enjoying an active sex life after twenty years of marriage are still shown sleeping in separate beds and the isolationist who gets punched in the face in a satisfying echo of Wyler's doorman dust-up spouts only veiled racism about "a bunch of radicals in Washington," the film is surprisingly even-handed about the chances of its three protagonists, which means that is neither unrelentingly downbeat nor breezily dismissive of the difficulties all three face in their strange new postwar existence, trying to reintegrate into peacetime society with their different experiences and their different kinds of damage.
Those differences are a major factor in the film's realism. There's no such thing as a normative war narrative in The Best Years of Our Lives
—if anything, civilian expectations of war experience are consistently, sometimes uncomfortably refuted. Fictional Boone City may be a Midwestern Anytown, but none of the protagonists is standing in for the "typical" soldier. Army Air Forces Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a soda jerk before the war; he's returning a decorated bombadier with recurring nightmares and a glamorous wife he knew for barely a month before going overseas. His father and stepmother are affectionate and supportive and live in a two-room tenement behind a railyard. None of his medals translate into a marketable skill set. His nightclub-going wife married a dashing flyboy with a four-hundred-dollar paycheck and doesn't know what to do with an uncertain, unemployed civilian in a secondhand suit. By contrast, Army Sergeant Al Johnson (Fredric March) comes home to the American dream of a loving wife and two children and the "nice fat job at a nice fat bank" that earned them a swanky apartment, but his children are grown and strange to him and there's a sting in the tail of the promotion he can't refuse—as an authentic veteran in charge of loans to ex-servicemen, Al is effectively the bank's plausible deniability for all the requests he's expected to turn down. Domesticity makes him so twitchy that on his first night home, he drags his wife and daughter on a bar crawl that finishes in blackout. No matter where he is, he drinks too much. And Seabee Homer Parrish (non-actor Harold Russell) is missing both of his hands. He served in the South Pacific and never saw any of the islands he's asked about, always being belowdecks: "When we were sunk, all I know is there was a lot of fire and explosions." He's dexterous with his prostheses—a pair of steel split hooks—and he has a quick deflection for every one of the well-intentioned, cringeworthy remarks with which able-bodied strangers try to cover their shock, but his parents' efforts at acceptance only read to him as pity and he can't believe that his childhood sweetheart-next-door finds his new, disabled state anything but repulsive.
You could make a melodrama out of these elements. The Best Years of Our Lives
doesn't. It's the film's other strength. ( Other things may have changed, but that hasn"t.Collapse )
There are no quick fixes in The Best Years of Our Lives
. The film admits plainly that some things cannot be fixed at all: so you go on with what you've got, even when that's yourself. Sometimes love helps and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes nothing helps except
going on. That's a degree of nuance and maturity I did not expect from a film from 1946, which I think means only that I underestimated William Wyler. Oh, God, it's dawn again. I haven't even mentioned how much I love Gregg Toland's deep-focus cinematography. This divagation sponsored by my considerate backers at Patreon
1. Wyler's parents were already in the U.S.; they had followed their son to Hollywood in the '20's. Starting as early as 1936, he tried to get other relatives out: sent money, negotiated endlessly with the State Department to sponsor their emigration. In 1945, he returned for the first time in more than twenty years to his newly liberated birthplace of Mülhausen/Mulhouse. His family and childhood friends were nowhere to be found. He never found them, or what had happened to them, beyond the obvious. The Jews of Mulhouse were gone.
2. I am eliding most of the story of how I ended up at Skygiants' house two Fridays ago with two DVDs of The Best Years of Our Lives, although I remain amused that the library sent me home with both of their apparently identical copies because one of them might be scratched and the librarian wasn't sure which. In fact, we got halfway through the first copy and the disc seized up. We watched the rest of the movie on the other copy.
3. Sherwood was working from MacKinlay Kantor's blank-verse novel Glory for Me (1945), which I have not read; Harris details some of the differences in Five Came Back. I don't think I disagree with Wyler's belief that a spastic character would have been unplayable by a non-disabled actor. Once he rewrote the part for a double amputee, he insisted on finding a disabled actor to play it.
4. Homer's uncle Butch is played by Hoagy Carmichael and he is marvelous, a lanky, laid-back pianist-cum-publican who teaches his nephew to play the piano in a scene I will not spoil and reasures him with the long view: "Your folks'll get used to you and you'll get used to them. Then everything will settle down nicely—unless we have another war. Then none of us have to worry because we'll all be blown to bits on the first day. So cheer up!" And after that I had Tom Lehrer stuck in my head.
It is nauseatingly hot outside. I mean that literally. Running a half-hour errand on foot has made me feel physically sick. I have drunk water, eaten salt, and am sitting in front of a fan. This is not the weather I operate best in.
1. I really wish I were at Bard College
right now. I had heard of Ethel Smyth's The Wreckers
(1906), because the subject matter is germane to my interests and because it kept coming up in discussion of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes
(1945), sort of simultaneously as a forerunner of Britten's work and a point against the notion that English opera sat around looking at its fingernails for the couple of centuries between Purcell and Britten; I had heard of Smyth herself because she was a mostly lesbian suffragist as well as a composer and one of the models for Hilda Tablet. I cannot make either of the remaining performances. Anyone who lives in upstate New York and wants to tell me how it worked out, please go!
2. If these poems are representative, I need to read a lot more by Niall Campbell: "The House by the Sea, Eriskay
" and "The Letter Always Arrives at its Destination
3. Courtesy of rose_lemberg
: all available evidence indicates Alyssa's father has been fishing in a hell dimension
Even more than watching an opera about wrecking, I wish I were by the sea. I've been meaning to post this picture
for months: it always looks like a summoning to me. I wish I had an offering that worked as well.
While I'm here at this address, however, I just opened a large package from yhlee
and not only does it contain two year's best anthologies, a complete paperback set of Geraldine Harris' Seven Citadels
(1982–83), and a splendidly cracky-looking manga by the name of MYth: A Promise
(2007–2013), but there is also an assortment of Magic
and Legend of the Five Rings
cards tailored to my interests. I now have an Ancient Carp
! (It's iridescent.) The flavor text makes me associate it unfairly with Leviathan
. Thank you.
So I have a theological question.
I am re-reading Elizabeth Goudge's The Valley of Song (1951) for the nth time. It's one of the books where I notice different things with each reading; that's part of the reason it's her best book, although others include the beauty of the writing and the numinous generally busting out all over. This time, a line in the scene in which the protagonist is waiting outside the door to the Valley of Song (only children may enter this country which is called by mortals "Fairyland, or the Garden of Eden, or Arcadia, or the Earthly Paradise, or the Elysian Fields, or some such ridiculous name. We just call it the Workshop," so in order to let someone else go in, Tabitha has taken on some of their years as her own and is now too old herself to be allowed inside) sprang out at me:
Andrew turned to Tabitha, his face radiant. "I may go in!" he said, and he gripped her hand. "Come on, Tabitha."
Tabitha pulled her hand away and leaned against the wall, hiding her face, and the same misery that had overwhelmed her when Julie went in without her came over her again. This dreadful shut-out and cast-away feeling! She had never felt so wretched. She had not known one could feel so miserable. Her voice came to Andrew from behind her hands, muffled and forlorn. "I can't go in with you. I'm too old."
"Too old? You can't be!" said Andrew, and he pulled her hands away from her face.
"Five years too old!" sobbed Tabitha. "I'm fifteen. I can't go in."
There was a long and anguished silence, while Andrew struggled to make up his mind about something, then he took a deep breath. "Then I'm not going in either," he said. "If you're shut out, I'll be shut out too."
Tabitha liked to hear him say that. It was almost worth being shut out to hear him say that. The door swung wide and a great breath of life-giving air blew through it.
"Come in, both of you," said the splendid voice, and there was almost a note of celestial impatience in its splendour. "Little girl, you carried that burden well, but long enough for a child. Come in and be with him. He'll need firm handling. Boy, you were ready to be exiled with her, and the readiness is all. Am I to be until the Last Trump holding this door open?"
Those of you who have read Mary Renault may be nodding already, because this is a concept I learned first from The King Must Die (1958):
"Horses go blindly to the sacrifice, but the gods give knowledge to men. When the King was dedicated, he knew his moira. In three years, or seven, or nine, or whenever the custom was, his term would end and the god would call him. And he went consenting, or else he was no king, and power would not fall on him to lead the people. When they came to choose among the Royal Kin, this was his sign: that he chose short life with glory, and to walk with the god, rather than live long, unknown like the stall-fed ox. And the custom changes, Theseus, but this token never. Remember, even if you do not understand . . . It is not the sacrifice, whether it comes in youth or age, or the god remits it; it is not the bloodletting that calls down power. It is the consenting, Theseus. The readiness is all."
Where does this idea originate? Is it as simple as going back to the Binding of Isaac: that it was enough for Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his son? Is there a more complicated aetiology I don't know about, or a particularly Christian significance that would have been important to Goudge? I happen to believe it, just as I believe that an unconsenting sacrifice has no power (see Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (1968): "Real magic can never be made by offering someone up else's liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know that"), and I think it is not an uncommon belief. But I don't know where it comes from, if it doesn't come from the story I thought of first, and I'm curious.
And today I appear to be sick. I refuse to regard it as payback for the pleasure of the last two days. I'm still not thrilled about it.
1. My poem "Keep the Home Fires Burning" has been accepted by Not One of Us
. I wrote it last November in a state of slightly hallucinating exhaustion because ashlyme
had written this post
. It features the return of Charon's bee-stamped obol
, which should be a title of its own.
2. Have a Roman glass fish flask
. Because it is very beautiful and also looks like a fish.
is a pretty great condensation of a hilarious episode from Herodotos. While we're talking about classical beauty, I cannot argue with this observation about Idris Elba
4. I love this portrait
. It looks like a frame from a slightly skewed film. The model's own photography is surrealist and great
5. Last night I re-read Sheryl Jordan's The Raging Quiet
(1999) for the first time since college. Now I'm trying to figure out why its setting still doesn't quite work for me when Orsinian Tales
(1976) is probably my favorite book by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Background, in case you have not read the latter: Orsinian Tales
is a collection of short stories set in a small country in Central Europe that is fantastic only by virtue of being fictional. It shares historical events with Hungary, the now Czech Republic, Poland; its language reminds me of Romanian. It is none of them and takes its name ultimately from its creator. It was her earliest secondary world. But it is shaped by the events of this one, as reflected in the stories—they are recurringly political and personal, the one against the backdrop of the other. The earliest takes place in the mid-twelfth century, the latest in the original collection in 1965; the title story of Unlocking the Air and Other Stories
(1996) later extended that timeline to 1989 and something very like the Velvet Revolution, after which I have seen no more Orsinian tales. (The Compass Rose
(1982) contains one other Orsinian story and a science fiction piece that shares some ambiguous references—I wouldn't count it, but Le Guin herself notes that one of the protagonists has an Orsinian name.) All together, they make a mosaic of an imaginary country that seems to exist, like Jan Morris' Hav, in the interstices of very real ones. I do not feel the same way toward Le Guin's Malafrena
(1979), an ambitious attempt at a nineteenth-century novel which is not quite believable as Orsinian metafiction, but I recommend the collection to everyone I can get to hold still long enough to listen to me about it. "Brothers and Sisters" is one of the stories I keep coming back to. I was two years older than Stefan Fabbre when the keystone was knocked out of my arch. The Raging Quiet
's setting is one of the reasons I have trouble getting a fix on it. Nothing about the plot demands a secondary world. The protagonist is a sixteen-year-old widow accused of witchcraft in the small fishing village where her much older husband brought her, abused her, and shortly thereafter died; her closest friend is a deaf boy mistaken for a madman and beaten to drive out his devils; their only ally is the village's priest, who still cannot save her from being tried for witchcraft. The names are more or less Irish, except when—in the case of the landed gentry—they're more or less English. The author explains in an afterword that the characters and their story came to her "so vivid and complete that I found I could not force it into a particular time or place in history, for fear of distorting what I had been given. So I left their tale in the freer atmosphere of myth, and simply wrote a fantasy set in an ancient time." I have trouble taking the setting as either ancient or mythical; the coastal village of Torcurra and the manor house of Fernleigh have an eighteenth-century feel except for the outcroppings of medievalism, like some of the information we are given about men's clothes and the persistence of trial by ordeal, all of which I could accept as
fantasy except that Christianity is a huge force in the novel, explicitly. And that anchors the story for me quite firmly in our world sometime, because unlike C.S. Lewis I do not believe that Christ just happens across the multiverse. As a result, it's impossible for me to accept the setting as purely otherwhere—like Greer Gilman's Cloud, which has witches and manors and a religious system which never even heard of monotheism—and I keep trying to evaluate it by the standards of historical fiction, against the author's wishes. I genuinely don't know why she didn't set the novel in historical Ireland. It already has characteristic speech patterns, weather, geology; there's peat-cutting, for crying out loud. There are stone circles and passage tombs. I knew much less about history in high school and I remember finding the half-fictionalization jarring even then. This time around, it really jumped out at me.
And I don't know if this is unfair of me, because Orsinia has a Karst like Slovenia and Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantium is blatantly remixed Byzantine history with more magic and if we want to be really brutal about it, Lloyd Alexander's Prydain isn't Wales, but you could have fooled me from the way people go around being named things like Gwydion. I don't know why I find it harder to accept Jordan's early modern not quite Ireland, unless it's the reasons thrown out above: it's neither close enough to real history to read without apparent anachronism nor sufficiently marked as some other genre (alt-history, high fantasy) to forestall comparisons; and it tells me something about Jordan that she didn't think of Christianity as a marker of our history. Or maybe I'm missing the point entirely. Has anyone else read this novel? It's YA, it deals with difference and disability, and I still like best the character I liked when first I read it, because some things about me haven't changed in sixteen years and character preferences, unless I do something boneheaded like forget Owen Davies
, are one of them. I still wish it had been a historical novel. Given all the elements that are necessary for the story, I don't see how a real time and place would have damaged it.
P.S. Ashlyme sent me this just now and it's fantastic: Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange's "The Dreams: Sea
" (1964), from a series of soundscapes built around people describing their dreams. I always die on the land. The land at the bottom of the sea.
As I left the house for a job this afternoon, I saw a package in our mailbox; I took it with me to open on the train. Actually I opened it while I was walking down the street, and then I immediately called derspatchel
Inside were two copies of Viktor Koen's Bestiary: Bizarre Myths and Chimerical Fancies
, edited by Ellen Datlow. This is the catalogue which accompanies Koen's exhibition of the same name
, collecting the short prose and poetry of twenty-four authors each commissioned to write about one of the fabulous monsters of the bestiary. Contributors
include Maria Dahvana Headley writing about Empousa, Theodora Goss on Medusa, Nathan Ballingrud on the Kraken, Anna Tambour on Satyrs, Michael Cisco on Erigone, Alisa Kwitney on Teiresias; it's the kind of table of contents I'm honored just to be part of. I'd never read any of the other pieces. I hadn't seen most of the prints. They're all really, really good.
I wrote about Argos Panoptes, described by Jack Ketchum in the Introduction as "the 'all-seeing eye,' his head a single mass of cameras, lenses, flashes, strobes. A jumbled, confused machine of modern sight." You can see him here
if you click through to "Prints."
I have a signed print of him now, carefully included in the envelope. I will buy a frame tomorrow and hang him on my wall. He can watch from under glass as people look at him
. It only seems fair.
Today has been a good day.
Things on the schedule for today: orthodontist's appointment at eyebleed o'clock. Get soft-serve ice cream afterward. Prepare to live off soup for at least a week.
Things not on the schedule for today: take the commuter rail to Salem. Run across two favorite movies at the Peabody Essex Museum
. See half an open-air youth production of A Midsummer Night's Dream
in a state park. Get rained on. See a rainbow. Fall asleep on a bench waiting for the train home.
Things that occurred today: all of the above.
(I could have done without the transit snafu that got us back to Boston after nine o'clock and home around midnight with dinner in between; it was not fatal, but it's why I'm not asleep already.)
It is overstating the case to say that the PEM's exhibit on Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood
was expressly designed for me, but considering it contains both artwork related to The Long Voyage Home
(1940) and a brief clip from Stand-In
(1937), it came a lot closer than I was expecting from not even recognizing the artist's name. He turns out to be one of the mid-century American artists whose work I have seen here and there over the years without ever attaching a name to it; there was a hardcover edition of Tom Sawyer
on display, for example, whose illustrations looked instantly familiar
to both derspatchel
and me. I didn't recognize any of his murals in specific, but I've been seeing his vividly colored
style since I started paying attention to the '30's. As indicated by the title, the exhibit focuses on Benton's work in Hollywood—not on movies themselves for the most part, but documenting the backstage world of stage hands and set designers, cutters and composers, extras and publicists, as well as the mythos of the whole thing
. Most notably to me, he had a working relationship with John Ford: he did a series of lithographs to advertise The Grapes of Wrath
(1940) that eventually became the foundation of a two-volume limited edition of the novel, and in the same year he was one of nine artists invited onto the set of The Long Voyage Home
to create paintings of the film
. I'd read about the project. Some painted group scenes, others portraits of the characters; eleven paintings resulted, all of which appear to be currently whereabouts unknown. Benton's was entitled "No More Sea for Us
"; it depicts a confrontation near the end of the film, although, in Benton's words, "not . . . as it will appear in the screen drama because I worked at an angle different from that employed by the camera. I worked from behind the set."1
He didn't have anything to do with Stand-In
(1937), but it turned up in a selection of backstage scenes accompanying Benton's sketches of same and I was just so glad to see Leslie Howard blinking awkwardly and adjusting his glasses while covered in fake snow that I didn't care. I kind of want to talk to whoever curated the film side of the exhibit. That's not a movie I expect to see anywhere unless I show it to people. James Cagney also made an appearance in a bootlegging montage from The Roaring Twenties
(1939), which was appropriate to the paintings around it.2
We had run out of time to see anything else in the museum (I made a quick visit to the figurehead
in Maritime Art and History, because she is so much of the sea), so we decided to walk to Winter Island and check out things like the remains of Fort Pickering and the Winter Island Light. There had been a scatter of rain while we were looking at Thomas Hart Benton, but Rob had the apotropaic umbrella in his backpack and we figured it would be worth rain to spend time by the ocean.3
Which it was, entirely, but we didn't realize we would be spending most of that time sitting atop the grass-overgrown remains of a nineteenth-century bunker like a fairy fort while a cast of kids aged what looked like about six to sixteen played out Shakespeare's wood within this wood. When we entered the parking lot, there was a boy with a sign for Rebel Shakespeare
pointing downhill, toward the water; we had never heard of the company, which turns out to be a kind of summer theater camp, but the show was starting in fifteen minutes and the sun was still strong under the rolling clouds and what is the point of not
watching outdoor theater when you run across it without warning? I put my jacket down to sit on and we shared the last of a bottle of orange juice, which undoubtedly looked a lot more louche than it was. We got a great tiny angry Egeus, next-to-youngest of the company in his red coat and his top hat, pigeon-puffing out his chest at to you your father should be as a god
and shaking his fist at fellow-players twice his height; a great Mustardseed, almost certainly youngest of the company, sticking her tongue out at Oberon behind Titania's back; a very good Bottom, straw-hatted and quick-talking—he doubled as the emcee before the start of the play, calling for the audience to be silent as the cast assumed their opening tableau—with Snout the tinker as his fan club of one, excitedly applauding his Ercles and his lion and waving his hand to be picked for the part of Thisbe as soon as Bottom is cast as Pyramus; a fine aggravated Peter Quince, really trying to stage some serious art here; and a Hermia who started out all right, but warmed up to be very fierce indeed. Puck wore glasses and peered at the sleeping Athenians through them, dashed the love-juice into Lysander's eyes with an extra handful of petals to make it stick. We had to bail after the first act: we were desperately sorry to miss their mechanicals' play, but the sky was darkening and we were hearing thunder every five minutes and everyone else had cars in the parking lot, but we were walking back to the train. We got rained on. We had an umbrella. There was a rainbow, arcing partly over the power station and then later more fully over Essex Street. And we got the sea itself, just for a few moments before we bolted: the white-painted lighthouse and a curve of stony beach, the storm-slaty sky rayed at the horizon like a symbolic effect. Rebel Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream
has two casts, on alternating nights; their opening was last night, so tonight was the other opening. I hope the rain did not prevent them. They were a delight.
Then we waited an hour for the train, which was not so fantastic, but I dozed through at least half an hour of it. At least I got dinner before all my teeth started to hate me in chorus. And I should try to get to bed before it's dawn. It has not escaped my notice that I really wake up mentally on days which I do not spend entirely working, which is not helpful at all.
1. I can't find out if a color image of the painting exists: the museum has a black-and-white reproduction, quite possibly of the same photograph I linked. What does seem to have survived is the clay maquette he made of the composition before painting it. The PEM has a 3D-printed replica of another such model, the original now being too fragile to travel.
2. The part of the exhibit that was not in any way designed for me was the gallery of Benton's propaganda art from World War II. When a German, a Japanese, and an Italian soldier are all joining forces with a strafing Axis plane to re-crucify Christ, I get that subtlety is not really the point, but it doesn't work for me as either horror or surrealism: it's just weird and terrible, and not in the admiring way I usually mean those words. There's your standard invasion scenario where an idyllic American farmhouse is overrun by faceless enemy soldiers who slaughter the men and prepare to rape the women; there's an allegorical composition in which American soldiers eviscerate a Japanese-eyed demon whose entrails are chains while a Hitler caricature urges it on with a whip of fire in one hand and a swastika in the other. Like, seven feet high. You just kind of stare at it. I was much more affected by Benton's "Negro Soldier," a cool, rangy, determined figure advancing into battle: he's as sinuously stylized as anyone else in Benton's catalogue, but he's not a racist cartoon. skygiants! Portions of Frank Capra's The Negro Soldier (1944) are also on display in this gallery! Just avoid whatever the hell that other stuff is.
3. On our way, we passed a sign reading "Aquaculture at Cat Cove," which gave me an immediate vision of a feline paradise where fish are bred specifically for the play and feeding of a lucky shoreful of cats. Alas, no cats were to be seen, but there were clouds and herons reflecting in the clear overcast water; it was low tide and at first I thought the circles constantly spreading and breaking were the footprints of water insects. They were tiny fish, leaping out of the water after the insects. I have no idea what kind: sandy, silvery, fingerling. The water was swarming with them. Oh, happy cats who hunt this cove off-hours where the tourists can't see!
LJ crashed earlier this evening, making it impossible for me to record my quote of the day at the time:schreibergasse
, breaking off halfway through an attempt to describe Excalibur
(1981): "God, I did some weird shit at Oxford!"
(Background: he has never seen I, Claudius
(1976). I feel we should remedy this situation as soon as logistically possible. The conversation continued naturally through Patrick Stewart from there. For additional reference, I have never seen Excalibur
I just found out Theodore Bikel has died
I am going to listen to a lot of Yiddish folksongs and then set about finding a copy of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming
It is killingly hot outside and I am having the kind of day where my life feels unrecognizable to me, so this is a short post of things that I think are neat.
1. I keep thinking about this poem: John Dennison, "Psalm
." It's difficult for me to evaluate the Christian framework within which it's analyzed (some of the conclusions feel reaching to me, but might not to someone with a better grounding in the theology), but I like how naturally its narrator transitions from potential threat to awkward but genuine reassurance and I really like the small, oblique hints that the situation may be less ordinary than it looks: that the narrator owns up to being out of their depth is one of the primary reasons we feel we can trust them. Reading through speculative goggles similarly leaves me wondering whether the child is perhaps not quite human ("before you dropped in the undergrowth . . . the small bird, fluttering in your mouth") even when I'm fairly certain the strangeness is meant to be taken as metaphor. It would make a good story. The piece is so colloquially well-written, it took me several days to realize it's terza rima.
2. Norman Lloyd is still alive
! He falls into the category of character actors I feel positively about despite never seeing them in a major part, unless you count his film debut in Hitchcock's Saboteur
(1942); it did make me remember his name. I feel bad about not being able to place him in A Letter for Evie
(1946), because I am fond of that movie; I feel no guilt whatsoever about not remembering him from Spellbound
(1945); I was happy to run across him last fall in The Black Book
(1949). His being in Trainwreck
(2015) doesn't make me want to see it, but I am glad he's working. I seem to be accumulating reasons to check out Chaplin's Limelight
(1952). And I am reminded once again that I have wanted to see a production of Percy Mackaye's The Scarecrow
(1908) for almost ten years now, weird little quasi-poetic folktale-fable that it is. Any local theater companies want to help me out?
3. Key & Peele's "Pirate Chantey
" has been stuck in my head for a day now. I realize this is no record when it comes to me and earworms, but I'm just warning you. I find the entire thing charming.
4. Courtesy of handful_ofdust
: a second-to-first-century limestone stele from the tophet of Carthage
. I should just make myself learn Punic: I have to rely on the British Museum to tell me that the stele is dedicated to Baal, because what I can see on it is the goddess Tanit, depicted at the top of the stele with the sun in her crescent arms and repeated below in slightly more anthropomorphic style. "Dedicated by Gaius Julius Arish, son of Adon-Baal." That should make the inscription the one referred to here
as "Tunisia OU N 7." I would like to know more about this man and his mixed name. "Took on two Latin names to give the impression of a Roman tria nomina
"—my first thought was that he must have been a freedman, Arish his birth name and the rest his owner's inheritance. Time ate whatever else there was.
5. I have thirty backers on Patreon
! Thank you, all of you. I should try to say something intelligent soon.
Brief notes on Ferris Bueller's Day Off
(1987), the midnight showing of which derspatchel
and I just got back from. Matthew Broderick is extraordinarily charming; the film wouldn't function without him. Alan Ruck as Cameron Frye is marvelous and reminded me bizarrely of Joe E. Brown. The fourth-wall-breaking never wears out its welcome.1
I am not the target audience for '80's teen comedies. The jokes that were funniest to me were either the perfectly timed punch lines ("If you say 'Ferris Bueller,' you lose a testicle."–"Oh, you know him?") or the total left field moments, like the parking garage attendants and the Star Wars
music. Whenever the film is focusing on its three teenage protagonists having what they think is an adult and sophisticated day—driving a classy car, eating at a fancy restaurant, visiting an art museum; crashing a parade float—it really works. Ferris' blithe magical realism coexists successfully with Cameron's depressive hypochondria; Mia Sara's Sloan turns out to be as effective a trickster in a tight spot as the boy she loves. Jennifer Grey's Jeannie is sympathetic even before she gets her heel face turn: I can't imagine living with a brother with the apparent power to bend reality to suit his slacking-off, either. Excepting the magnificent Edie McClurg, almost anything involving the adult characters falls cartoonishly flat. It's not really possible for Ferris to be caught and punished in this kind of movie, so the melodramatic suspense is broadly coy rather than clever; the comedy of authority figures running around behaving like buffoons has nowhere to go. The demolition of Rooney eventually started to remind me of how much I hated Home Alone
(1990). So half the film is hilarious; the other half is just kind of there. I know how I would have rewritten the script, but I am not John Hughes and I've known that since I bounced off The Breakfast Club
(1985). I want to rewatch WarGames
1. Ferris is a more benign manipulator, but the frequent addresses to the audience made me want to pair this movie with Ian McKellen's Richard III (1995). In any case, I can see exactly how a Broadway director could have remembered this film and thought of Broderick as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying's J. Pierrepont Finch. It's that curling little cat-smile that is never smug; complacency would have been fatal to the character. His monologues are adorable. He's terrible at philosophy, but he is eighteen years old.
Three things make a post, especially if they're all film-themed. That was lucky.
1. I cannot in good conscience recommend Invisible Invaders
(1959), which derspatchel
and I watched last night at the point where I was so tired that I nearly fell asleep during the anticlimax. It is terrible. It's like some deathly straight version of Plan 9 from Outer Space
(1959)—attracted by humankind's recent experimentation with atomic weapons, invisible aliens from the moon come to Earth and possess the bodies of the dead in order to conquer the living. The budget is minimal. The dialogue is strictly expository, although the filmmakers must have thought it left something to the imagination, because the voiceover not only narrates every moment of downtime between conversations, it overdubs some of the spoken scenes. The internally inconsistent timetable leaves the impression that the entire invasion, occupation, and defense of Earth maybe took place over a long weekend. The characters come in the standard assortment of two scientists, one soldier, and one scientist's beautiful daughter. No prizes for guessing how the romantic triangle resolves. John Carradine makes a memorable cameo as the first of the aliens' hosts, delivering an ultimatum to Earth the day after his burial: "My people will come to your planet and inhabit the bodies of other dead Earthmen. The dead will kill the living and the people of Earth will cease to exist. That is the message you will bring your people." I recognized no one else in the cast, although Rob pointed out John Agar as a stalwart of B-movie sci-fi.
If you care about zombie fiction as a genre, it's almost certainly a valuable early entry. There's one clever scene with a terrified farmer who holds up the protagonists at shotgunpoint on their way to a safe bunker: "You think you're better'n I am, soldier? You think you got a right to live and I ain't? I seen them walking dead things—I seen them! Joe Hannis and his wife drowned two weeks ago. Now they're walking through the fields again, walking and killing! I'll give you three to get out of that car, then I'm shooting." Demonstrating a jaw-dropping failure to understand the concept of a zombie apocalypse, the soldier behind the wheel shoots him instead; a few minutes later, they have one more possessed corpse to deal with. Like the wandering sickness of Things to Come
(1936), this brief scene feels like a direct pointer to later zombie traditions: there's the survival horror, the horror of recognizing mindless versions of familiar faces, the creepy efficiency of an invading force whose defeated enemies become its newest recruits. It goes by in a flash; none of these themes will appear again, being overtaken by the requirement for our heroes to find a way to destroy or at least repel the invaders. The focus is on the intruders from space, not the revenants from the earth. It's also worth noting that the film's undead are not the ravening kind—they are strictly vehicles for their alien inhabitants, no brains or other fuel required to keep running. Mostly we see them engaged in acts of industrial sabotage and radio broadcasting, although a shot of stiff-limbed, sunken-eyed, expressionless (and conservatively dressed) "creatures" converging on the bunker certainly looks like tryouts for Night of the Living Dead
I imagine it is clear by this point that I am not describing a lost classic or even an underrated curio in Invisible Invaders
; it is 67 minutes long and I don't know how they got that much out of it. Nonetheless, it does contain one glorious moment for which I suggest everyone watch this slightly fuzzy online version
. It occurs after a minute and a half and to get the full effect you should watch from the starry credits through the supremely leaden scene-setting. I make no claims except that I burst out laughing so hard I actually scratched up my throat. Nothing else in the film is as good, but it doesn't need to be. This opportunity brought to you by my long-suffering backers at Patreon
2. In better science fiction news, a Kino Blu-Ray of The Monster That Challenged the World
(1957) is the universe's way of telling me that it loves me and wants me to watch more Hans Conried. I caught the film on TCM in 2010 and fell in love; it's set around the Salton Sea, its monsters are giant prehistoric sea snails, and its positively portrayed scientist is Conried's Dr. Jess Rogers, cranky and competent. I don't care that the monsters don't challenge the world so much as they vampirize some unsuspecting swimmers in southern California. It's a monster movie without a total idiot plot and there is some surprisingly decent character work in between the scream scenes. (It's also a nice touch that nobody really cares when the monsters turn out to be radioactive, because it's not as though huge carnivorous non-radioactive sea snails getting into the All-American Canal would be such a good idea, either.) I'd especially like to see it again knowing that Spielberg is supposed to have drawn inspiration from it for Jaws
(1975), a detail I could not have evaluated for myself at the time. Anyway, if you ever wanted to hear Hans Conried deliver a lecture about snails, this is your film. Come for the B-picture, stay for the pedantry. It's always worked for me.
3. I must visit the library to retrieve a DVD of William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives
(1946), which I plan to watch with skygiants
tonight. This is the direct result of reading Mark Harris' Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
(2014), which I glossed here
and Skygiants reviews much more extensively here
. I have a mental backlog of about three movies for writeup right now, but I really will try to say at least something about this one.
I wish my head did not hurt so much. I've had a much worse headache than usual since the Sunday of Readercon and I am very definitely bored with it by now.
I am very tired. I am sitting on the couch with a little cat on my shoulder. I left the house at six-thirty this morning and got back about twelve hours later. I had a really good day.
I did not expect to: I got up on two hours of sleep for audiometry at Kenmore and then a consult with an ENT and I was terrified that something was going to have gone wrong with my hearing in the year since my last exam. It was instead an immensely reassuring visit. My results are identical to the results of last year's exam are identical to the results of my previous exam ten years ago. Despite all the noise and physical stress, my hearing has not been damaged; it remains substantially better than average, especially for my age. Given how much time I spend wearing earplugs, it's nice to know the damn things are working
. I have also been informed that the white noise and tinnitus generated by the TMJ are neither mechanical nor neural problems; they can annoy me, they can interfere with my ability to enjoy a quiet afternoon, but they cannot cause hearing loss. I was sent home with a copy of the audiogram and some non-prescription advice on the reasons I'd been told to make the appointment in the first place.
So that was all over and done with by eight-thirty in the morning. I was at loose ends in the land of the Citgo sign
and a call to derspatchel
quickly confirmed that neither of the restaurants we'd been talking about were actually open at this hour. We agreed to meet for brunch at Trident Booksellers and Cafe
, which given the disparity between the time it took me to walk there and the time it took Rob to negotiate the MBTA meant that I killed an hour walking up and down Newbury Street in the bright cool sunlight, which made me think of summers with my grandparents in Maine. Text messages from this time include "Dammit, the Roman-style pizza place does not open until 11, either." Eventually I settled at a table at the bookstore, drank herbal chai and read Nicole Kornher-Stace's marvelous post-apocalyptic katabasis Archivist Wasp
(2015), which I had bought at Readercon and completely—this appears to be a recurring theme this year—failed to get signed by the author. Presently Rob arrived, wearing his green roller coaster T-shirt with the logo upside-down. He got the French challah toast, which came stuffed with lemon ricotta and covered with blueberries. I regret nothing about ordering a sandwich called the "Turvocado" except slightly the name and the fact that focaccia is still denser than I can really chew. It was the first thing I'd had to eat all day.
We had talked about walking to a museum, because we had an early enough start for a full day rather than an hour before closing or a late night; we ended up at the Boston Public Library
, because it was right there and we so rarely are. We found dioramas, marionettes, how to request access to the archive of Fred Allen's papers; we walked through galleries with empty shelves and rooms where the architecture was as interesting as the books. There are split-tailed mermaids painted in a niche on the first floor. And simply by following a stairwell, we found the Sargent murals
, which I had never seen before. The way the morning sun slanted in from the skylight, I had to shade my eyes to make out some of the details of the paintings in the vault. Rob took pictures.( I saw my reflection come right off your face.Collapse )
I am not sure how much time we spent in the reading room after that, because I was reading first Helen Berry's The Castrato and His Wife
(2012)—an exploration of the marriage and separation of eighteenth-century operatic celebrity Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci and Dorothea Maunsell; among other things, it's a study of a gender identity which is much less high-profile today—and then the rest of Archivist Wasp
. I recommend both highly.
And the rest of the day we just wandered around Boston. We walked into the Pucker Gallery
because I saw that one of their currently featured artists is Samuel Bak
. (If you have a copy of strange_selkie
's A Verse from Babylon
(2005), you'll recognize his style. If you don't have a copy of A Verse from Babylon
, you're really missing out.) We got iced tea and chocolate mice at the other Burdick's
. We saw ducks and geese and swanboats in the Boston Public Garden. We bought the best pork buns (and one lotus paste bun with preserved egg) from Eldo Cake House
. We never quite got to the North End. We came home by Green Line from Haymarket and the 88 from Lechmere. I promptly made dinner and collapsed on the couch and should have finished this post hours ago, but I got distracted by analyzing the murals. And being extremely tired, since as previously stated I did this entire peripatetic day on near-zero sleep.
It was like having a vacation.
I got up early this morning for a dentist's appointment and just got back from the eye doctor this afternoon. Outcome in both cases was positive. I am being responsible about my health. It's tiring!
(I stopped by Goodwill on the way home. I now own CDs of John Parish and PJ Harvey's Dance Hall at Louse Point
(1996) and the soundtrack to Wim Wenders' The Million Dollar Hotel
(2000). The former was the only album of Harvey's I didn't have already; I'd heard one track from the latter and was curious about the rest. All of my CDs prior to October 2013, like all of my DVDs ditto, are still in boxes. Someday I will have enough shelves for everything, even the books. I wish I knew when that would happen.)
As I attempt to catch up on the world outside of Readercon—
1. Roger Rees has died
. I am sorry. He was an actor I really liked and never wrote about as he deserved. He got my attention in 2006 with a walk-on part in The Prestige
because he had such an interesting face, much more creased and vivid than his rather explanatory role as solicitor and go-between; I hurt myself slightly when I realized I'd seen him years ago as the spoonerism-prone Sheriff of Rottingham in Robin Hood: Men in Tights
(1993). I missed his best-known TV work because I never watched Cheers
(1982–1993) or The West Wing
(1999–2006), but he guest-starred in the single episode of My So-Called Life
(1994)—"The Substitute"—that I can recount from memory. Listening to the original cast recording of A Man of No Importance
(2002) was the closest I got to seeing him in a leading role for years. Now, like everyone else, I associate him first and foremost and most fondly with his performance as the title character in the RSC's Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
(1982). It was a monumental piece of theater and he was onstage for all eight and a half hours of it, a headstrong, true-hearted young hero not getting acted off the stage by the gallery of Dickensian grotesques around him; I only gave him a footnote
when I saw the taped version in 2010, because I had fallen in love with Edward Petherbridge, but I should have gone back for Rees. (Petherbridge did
.) I wish I had seen him onstage. Thanks to Rees immigrating to the U.S. in the 1980's, for once I was in the right country for it. In memory he looks most like Nicholas Nickleby, intensely black-haired and pale-faced as a pen-and-ink sketch, although pictures tell me he aged into a wiry, silvery woodcarving. He is survived by his husband and partner of the last thirty-three years, Rick Elice
. The lights will be dimmed for him on Broadway tomorrow.
! The other red planet
. I didn't know until derspatchel
told me that Clyde Tombaugh
made the flyby with New Horizons
and are headed into the Kuiper belt and then deep space. I wonder if Venetia Burney
would have liked the same thing. The Romans' Pluto was always under her feet.
3. "Most of the nudity in this movie is Tom Hiddleston
": Guillermo del Toro on Crimson Peak
(2015). I am truly looking forward to this movie. On top of the fact that I like all of the principal cast (and if Hiddleston isn't the true inheritor of Peter Cushing's cheekbones
, I don't know who is), I find it very promising when a director I already like cites James Whale and Terence Fisher as his heroes. I mean, that's just sensible.
4. I've mentioned Tanglefoot
before, right? In-progress webcomic starring the inimitable Izzy Perizene, tin-nosed shlimazl of a theatrical manager, part-time taxi dancer, perpetual dodger of creditors, and embodiment of some of the funniest physical comedy I've seen on a page. I've had my fingers crossed for an actual launch since 2013 and it hasn't happened yet, but that's all right, because the concept sketches alone are already generating cosplay
. Bravo that person. Holy blap.
5. Apparently sharks can live in active volcanoes
. Please don't tell the SyFy Channel.
Autolycus just started trying to chew the watch off my wrist. I believe this is a subtle indication that I have spent too much time on the internet and not enough on the cat. Excuse me.
I am returned from Readercon
. In point of fact, I have been returned from Readercon for about five hours now, but I spent most of them lying on a couch. I have an enormous headache and a kind of full-body inability to focus on anything; I am not really surprised, since the only night I really slept at the hotel was Thursday. I regret very little. This is not a con report, but I'd like to note some high points before I pass out.
I almost saw enough of handful_ofdust
this year. We had dinner together two nights out of three and I sort of crashed her autograph session, since the next chair was empty—I ended up signing a friend's copy of Lovecraft's Monsters
(2014) with an exhortation for Gemma to write more poems like "Haruspicy
" (and send them to Strange Horizons
) and then totally forgetting to ask Gemma to sign my
copy, which I bought for the express purpose. She has bequeathed me a stack of DVDs, including Night Tide
(1961), Phantom of the Paradise
(1974), Jupiter Ascending
(2015), and the Criterion edition of Fiend Without a Face
(1959). Some of these may yet be reviewed for Patreon
I did not see enough of Michael Cisco
this year, but I had the pleasure of hearing him not only recount the plot of Flesh for Frankenstein
(1973), but perform the Baron's death speech with implied 3-D dangling liver. I am now sold on that film and Blood for Dracula
(1974); I only hope I was able to repay in kind by describing Doctor X
(1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum
(1932). We talked about Aickmann and Tarkovsky. I am seriously thinking of trying to make a day of Necronomicon
I did not intend to invite yhlee
for an evening of watching my mother have her science fiction collection evaluated by a professional book dealer, but that's how today worked out. derspatchel
came out and met us for dinner at Thai E-Sarn
in Arlington Heights, because Thai restaurants are not apparently a thing that exist in Yoon's part of the world. We had previously, with rushthatspeaks
, and schreibergasse
, been part of a Friday night expedition to WooRi
in Arlington Center, because Korean restaurants are not apparently etc. We're back to that thing where all my friends need cheap, reliable teleportation.
At Arisia in January, Jean of Somewhere in Time Books promised
to find me an affordable copy of Joan Aiken's A Necklace of Raindrops
(1968). It wasn't that I didn't believe him: I just wasn't sure he would be able to. He did. I bought it. It is the exact same edition that I remember reading in elementary school, with the silhouette illustrations by Jan Pienkowski. It made me incredibly happy—I read it last night before bed and talked about it on the side of the Win Fairy at this afternoon's panel on re-reading. Weird little deadpan fairytales that they are, the stories have generally held up. "On the station signboard, under DESERT
, the words FOR OASIS
have been added."
Friday's panel on hells and underworlds could have gone on twice as long. I would have appreciated not having to get up for the Saturday morning reading at what Schreiber' calls the ass crack of dawn, but I went back to bed afterward. I am very pleased with the way my half-hour reading went. I was requested afterward to write a particular story; as soon as I get my brain back, I am going to try to.
I participated in the Readercon Miscellany again this year; I sang Lal Waterson's "The Scarecrow" and Peter Bellamy's "We Have Fed Our Sea." I do not know if a recording was made, but someone should please let me know if the answer is yes. It occurred to me on the day that sacrifice to the earth and the ever-hungry sea should go together.
(If recordings exist of the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours
' "Lionheart," someone should also please let me know, because it's been stuck in my head since Saturday night and I can't find the lyrics anywhere.)
I can tell that at some point I misfiled some money slightly between the fold in my wallet for income and the fold for spending cash, because counting the bills in the former tells me I sold eight and a quarter copies of Ghost Signs
, but there are now four copies left of the thirty which I had to sell in January. That kind of blows my mind. Also, it means that for the first year at a convention ever, my book purchases were paid for by my book sales.I did numismatics
I firmly believe that other interesting things happened (I saw asakiyume
for five minutes!), but I have just realized that it's two in the morning and I would like to be asleep. Shockingly, I'm going to see what I can do about that.
It was a really good weekend.
It is the last night of Readercon
. With the help of a reading light, ckd
's iPad, and schreibergasse
as a sounding board and Latin-reading double-check, I just spent approximately an hour identifying a pair of small, corroded Constantinian bronzes for kythryne
. These are a series of Roman bronze coins from the mid-fourth century CE
, belonging to a larger class of small coin called the follis
. They had come in a mixed lot of ancient coins—mostly Chinese—from the dealer's room.
The smaller one was very worn on its faces and ragged around the edges; there was a right-facing profile just visible on the obverse and no text remaining anywhere. I thought at first that I was looking at three stalks of wheat on the reverse, but it turned out to be two soldiers standing to either side of a legionary standard. The size of the coin made it an AE4, the smallest of the Constantinian bronzes; we couldn't narrow down an emperor beyond "Constantine I or any of his three sons and his nephew who were Caesar after him," during all of whose reigns coins of this type were issued, but the presence of one standard rather than two means it must have been minted after the coin was reduced in weight in 330 CE
. It didn't look like such a distinctive type that it would have been possible for us to determine where it came from without a mintmark, however. In any case, I don't know.
The larger one retained much more detail on both faces and some discernible fragments of legends, although it had also developed a tiny hole through one side, less like a piercing than a weird crack. The bust on the obverse was facing right, wearing a diadem with visible fillet-ends. The reverse with a figure standing with a straight line in its left hand and a smudge above its right turned out to be the emperor holding a labarum in one hand and an image of Victory in the other. It was minted in Cyzicus, as we determined from deciphering the mintmark "SMK"—Sacra Moneta Kyzicus
. (It looked most like "SMKK," actually, but we couldn't find that variant attested anywhere online. I don't want to guess at the fourth letter now without the coin to refer to.) The word "RESTITUTOR" was just visible around the left side of the reverse, meaning the blurred letters around the other side were "REIPUBLICAE." We couldn't make out the emperor's name for certain, but the closest matches to the type belonged to the reign of Valentinian I. Size-wise, it was an AE3.
I took one numismatics class in grad school. The material was interesting, but the class did not work out well for me. It's neither an excuse nor the full explanation, but coins did not make sense to me then in the same way as Greek verbs or narrative patterns. This evening went a long way toward making me feel better about my visual acuity and my relationship with classical currency. Also, I was in a room with five to six other people who were enthusiastically discussing amazing-sounding terrible movies (The Return of Captain Invincible
(1983) was described at length, leading inevitably to a discussion of Christopher Lee's metal career) and still thought the archaeology going on in the far corner was cool. Whether this has anything to do with literature or not, it's one of the reasons I love Readercon. I was very worried about the convention this year: I was going into it exhausted, stressed, unhappy, and very concerned it would just wear me out. So far, honestly, it's been better for me than almost any weekend of recent memory. I still expect to sleep for a week when I get back.
tomorrow! I will have copies of Ghost Signs
on me. I am coming into this convention very tired, but it will be good to see people.
2. It delights me that Rejected Princesses
has gotten around to Sonya Golden Hand
. The second photograph in the post looks like the one that inspired the only poem by Marge Piercy I really like: "The thief
3. The trash-picked painting, photographed by derspatchel
I like all the sea-stuff; it's really that one color I'm side-eyeing. (It's even more off-kilter in person.) Come to my reading on Friday and you may hear some of the story that made me take it home.
My poem "Σειρήνοιϊν" is now available in the latest issue of Uncanny Magazine
. The first half of the issue is already live, following the traditional first-Tuesday-of-the-month model; my poem will become freely available in August along with the rest of the second half. If you want to read it before then, subscribe
! It was written for elisem
. The title means "of the two Sirens" in Homeric Greek.
Today's new experience: scavenging art. On my way home from the library plus half-hour detour to visit rushthatspeaks
, who got home about five minutes after I arrived), I found a painting on the curb of Highland Avenue. Its colors were striking and its style looked weirdly like some fictional paintings I have described. I called derspatchel
to get a second opinion on whether its owner would want it back—he didn't think so; it was in the traditional location of colorful discards whose former owners are hoping someone else will have a soft spot for them—and then I carried it home by the hanging wire. It is currently propped in our stairwell while we figure out what to do with it. I have never trash-picked art before.
I think it's done in acrylics, although I would appreciate an assessment from someone with a better knowledge of paints than myself. It's signed with the initials "EH" or "EN" and the year "04" and it does not look like professional work, but I have no other idea of its provenance. It got my attention by being so heavily sculpted in wave-blues and sea-greens that the paint stands off the canvas in whorls and ridges; there is an outlined bare-bones boat-shape in black with a steamlike white plume above it and two circles underneath. The left-hand one is deep red and looks like a sun, with bits and flares of red breaking off into the sea-colored paint. The right-hand one is the problem; it is approximately the color of Silly Putty and I cannot figure out if it was an intended effect that dramatically failed or an error of judgment that the artist never amended or what even happened. The few lines of mustard-yellow spiraling within it do not help. It's not just that it's a bad color, although it is—it doesn't go with the vibrant rest of the painting at all. I am genuinely considering vandalizing the canvas by repainting it some more congruent shade (although then I'll feel stupid if the original turns out to be the equivalent of a Jackson Pollack at a yard sale).1
I still took the whole thing home and have asked Rob to take a picture tomorrow in good light so that I can post it.
It's not that I'm having the world's most interesting dreams lately, but they are not my usual kind of boring dreams. Last night I dreamed of watching something like Game of Thrones
in that it was a gritty succession struggle with multiple players and no clear winner, but the medieval-ish cultures were visibly Asian-derived and the contested territories were all islands, renamed every time they changed hands. (There were still dragons. That was pretty cool.) The night before that, I dreamed that I was working overtime for an office job, evenings and weekends, exhausted and constantly being handed new assignments, and at the end of the month I was told that the company couldn't afford to employ me any longer—too many people in the office had spent too much money ordering ice cream and I was devastated because I had never once bought ice cream with my coworkers, I brought my own lunches, I couldn't afford anything else. (A situation which bears no resemblance to my waking life, of course.) Before that, I had the very unpleasant experience of dreaming that someone I knew in real life was implicated in the disappearance of a woman in a landscape of bogs and wet forests, and it took me about a day of being awake not to feel awkward toward them. (That was more annoying than anything else.) There was one more I wanted to record, but I can't call it to mind now. It was the same kind of awkwardly mundane. Eventually I will have to start dreaming more normal things again; I always have before. I feel fundamentally better when my dreams have either a weird narrative or monumental architecture.
I really want to be writing a new story, but I feel like I don't think in fiction anymore. shweta_narayan
has been very helpful in reminding me that this is the effect of stress and exhaustion on creativity, but it's still very frustrating. I owe lesser_celery
a story about trees and asakiyume
has recently made me think of crows.
1. Just as I was about to post this entry, I remembered a scene from Susan Cooper's Greenwitch (1974): "'I'm going,' Barney said, moving one step backwards. 'Why green, up in that top corner, though? Why not blue? Or a better kind of green?' He was distressed by a lurid zig-zag of a particularly nasty shade, a yellowy, mustard-like green which drew the eye away from the rest of the picture . . . He said to himself rebelliously, 'But that colour was all wrong.'" Rob asked if I thought the painting had a ghost when I expressed some curiosity that anyone had put it out on the curb, but it didn't occur to me to worry about spells.
And this year was a very busy, but very fun Fourth of July. Including myself and derspatchel
, eleven people showed up to my parents' house for the traditional hand-churning of strawberry ice cream and grilling, if not all, then at least most of the things; a respectable majority of the above plus people who hadn't been able to make the afternoon later reunited to watch the fireworks from Prospect Hill Park. They were an especially nice display this year. I am still coughing from an insect I inhaled while walking up Walnut Street, but at least we weren't rained on. I am extremely tired, however, and so all of these notes are brief.
1. My poem "Firebrands" has been accepted by Through the Gate
. This is the poem that exists because Warlock
(1989) reminded me of my husband's family connection to the Salem witch trials: one of his ancestors was Nicholas Noyes, officiating minister at the trials—and executions—and later an inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne. It has Yiddish in it, because why shouldn't it?
2. I should have posted when the table of contents for Wilde Stories 2015
was revealed, but copies are now on sale and the book itself is forthcoming this month! It reprints my story "The True Alchemist," originally published in Not One of Us #51
and dedicated to ashlyme
3. Earlier this afternoon I saw King Vidor's The Big Parade
(1925) with live music at the Somerville Theatre. John Gilbert had such an interesting face! I'd never seen him before: clean-shaven, not yet thirty years old, he has a lanky, quizzical face that goes along with his springy body; he does a weird, wonderful piece of physical comedy interacting with Renée Adorée while he has a barrel over his head (he's on his way to construct a field shower) that would have earned him my admiration even without the later scene in which chewing gum plays a central role in their courtship. He's good-looking, but I wouldn't have said conventionally so; he has a profile like Lloyd Alexander and he can look as bewildered as a comedian just by raising his brows. I think his mustache must have given him some of the distinction of his time. As with Ronald Colman, I suspect I'll like him better without it.
It's not surprising that the film itself reminded me of Raoul Walsh's What Price Glory?
(1926), because both movies were adapted from source material by Laurence Stallings; the later film is more consistently, cynically comedic and more of a buddy picture than a romance, but they share a determinedly anti-romantic view of warfare, undercutting the flag-waving idealism of "going over" with the horror and humor of the realities. The boys enlist amid the cheers of the crowd and the embraces of patriotic women and the first thing their company does on arriving at their billet in France—the farmhouse in Champillon where Gilbert's Jim and Adorée's Melisande will meet—is literally shovel shit. Army life in the first half of the film is narrated by the recurring refrain of "You're in the Army Now" (the intertitles read "You'll never get rich, / You son-of-a-gun," but the marching soldiers are singing the version that rhymes) and the bored doughboys get themselves in more trouble with the French locals than they look forward to fighting "Fritzie." Once the action shifts to the front, there's a dramatic night scene in no man's land, lit hellishly by exploding shells and mortar fire, but first there's an interminable daytime push through German-occupied woods, sunlit, eerily empty except for the corpses in the grass, slow and fatalistic as a dream. Pinned down in a shell-hole with a young German soldier he shot, our hero gives his last cigarette to the pathetically wounded man—and when his enemy dies after barely a puff, pragmatically retrieves the cigarette from the dead man's mouth and finishes it himself. Isaac Rosenberg would be proud. The entire movie is like this, not so much avoiding all of the conventional beats as making sure to give equal or greater time to the less familiar ones; it's a surprisingly effective defense against melodrama, especially considering the archetypal scope of the plot. (The film runs 141 minutes, which I realized only afterward while trying to figure out where my afternoon had gone.) For every thematically significant, spectacularly filmed moment like the desperate parting of Jim and Melisande in the dust-raising chaos of American troops moving out or Jim's scream of despair and fury in the blasted night of no man's land, there's another where Vidor's camera just appears to be hanging out, looking around while two people with a language barrier flirt via pocket dictionary or two doughboys shower happily butt-naked, unaware of the French farmgirl watching them with amusement. Even moments of sentiment are unusually done—the image of a war-wounded G.I. enfolded in his tearful mother's arms is an invitation to schmaltz, but the memories of his childhood that flash in montage through her mind, the quick, curious, whole child who had no idea what was in store for his youth, are not. I can see how it set the template for both anti-war pictures and war epics to follow. I don't think it can be an ancestor of Jean Renoir's The River
(1951), since that's based on the 1946 novel by Rumer Godden, but some elements of the ending make it feel like it should be.
At this point I should probably look for Gilbert in some of his iconic "Great Lover" roles—he starred several times opposite Greta Garbo, with whom he had legendary chemistry onscreen and off—but I confess I am more interested by his unsuccessful sound films, now that the myth of his unsuitable voice has been comprehensively debunked. Downstairs
(1932) sounds like an amazingly nasty comedy of manners and the three minutes I could find of Fast Workers
(1933) really intrigue me. This resolution sponsored by my supportive backers at Patreon
P.S. Courtesy of strange_selkie
: 1776 gifsets
. Huzzah, John.