Courtesy of moon_custafer
: Esther Ralston and Dorothy Arzner on the set of Fashions for Women (1927)
Ralston is the star, on the left with the camera; Arzner is the director, on the right with the butch hair and the coat I envy. I just really like this photograph. The one at the top of this article
is also pretty great.
Pleasant surprise of the evening: Dwight Frye in an otherwise undistinguished B-movie I was watching for the curiosity value. teenybuffalo
, take note.
Although I recognize that they sound from their titles as though they should feature turbo-charged cars, splendidly diverse casts, and slash potential that goes up to eleven, Fast Company
(1938), Fast and Loose
(1939), and Fast and Furious
(1939) are a weird little trio of light mysteries that exist for a reason so bizarrely specific, I waited a week of interlibrary loan just to see what they were like: they were made by MGM explicitly to provide a fix of married, witty amateur detectives during the three-year hiatus between the second and third Thin Man
pictures. Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice star as Joel and Garda Sloane, married rare book dealers who run a sideline in recovering stolen rare books for insurance agencies.1
They're no William Powell and Myrna Loy, which they must have known, but to be fair their material's not exactly Dashiell Hammett. Their bantering chemistry works about half the time—they seem to get a charge out of playing boss and secretary, including in front of a visibly uncomfortable insurance investigator—but the remainder gets closer to sniping than I enjoy, even when repeatedly assured by the script that the characters love one another to distraction. The plot revolves around the murder of Otto Brockler (George Zucco), a miserly but prominent dealer who almost certainly framed his daughter's suitor for theft two years earlier; newly released from jail, Ned Morgan (Shepperd Strudwick) is the obvious suspect, but the dead man's daughter believes in his innocence and so does Joel Sloane, who sets out to clear his friend's name by finding first the real murderer and secondly the supposedly stolen books. Glamorous secretary Julia Thorne (Claire Dodd) plainly knows more than she's saying, deflecting Joel's questions with cool shutdowns like "Pardon me, do you take dope?" Smooth-talking, well-tailored Eli Bannerman (Louis Calhern) has a broad, confident smile and no qualms about cheating one of his criminal associates, setting up the man up for murder, and then killing him anyway. The police are exasperated by the constantly teasing Sloanes, but seem to need them for leads; Ned's lawyer doesn't believe his story of drunkenly stumbling onto the murder scene and then bolting in a panic; a pair of thugs are hired to take Joel out of the picture and Garda envies the latest fashions. There are some nice one-liners and some surprisingly suggestive exchanges, but further developments are best described as "machinations." This film runs less than an hour and a half and I was wondering by the fifty-minute mark how it even lasted that long.
Fortunately for my attention span, Fast Company
supplies one real redeeming feature in the presence of Dwight Frye as one of the supporting criminals, a counterfeiter of rare books who is justifiably proud of his first-edition Leaves of Grass
. With his octagonal glasses and his sideways-falling hair, Sidney Wheeler has a clerkish, geeky look, but he cleans up nicely to threaten his contemptuous partner with a gun he wasn't supposed to be carrying ("Put down that bottle and get your hands up—quick! Sit down. Rest yourself. Why don't you hit me now?") and take a girl out on the town with a wallet of stolen money, knocking back his nth shot of the night while the wide-eyed blonde breathes admiringly, "Boy, can you take it!" Especially in light of Frye's horror-maniac typecasting, it's fun to see him in a role that only calls for ordinarily bad judgment, like getting into the rare book racket with sharks like Bannerman and Brockler. Sidney is high-strung but not hysterical, happiest when disheveled and underslept, showing off his handiwork at the end of a long night; he grips the unfamiliar gun so tightly that his hand jitters, but at point-blank range it won't matter. He takes a fall like pantomime, toppling out of shot for seconds before he drops. I'm not sure he looks good in a bowtie, but it's cute on him. He gets four scenes before the plot catches up with him and I am profoundly grateful he was in the picture at all; Frye wasn't credited on the back of the box or in the opening titles, so it wasn't until the dramatis personae that I realized I had him to look forward to. I might well have bailed otherwise. Not surprisingly, I lost interest somewhat after he exited the script. Douglas and Rice are trying their best, but the failure mode of sparkling wit is a vague feeling of embarrassment for all concerned. Claire Dodd fares better by virtue of being the bad girl; her cold-blooded calculation makes her one of the more intelligent figures in the plot, since she at least can plan for the future. I suppose it's unfair to Shepperd Strudwick that I expected
him to turn out crooked in some kind of twist. The selection of films in which I have previously seen Louis Calhern is peculiar.
So I had three quite good movies to write about, including the silent war epic I saw on Sunday, but I seem to have devoted this space instead to a 75-minute oddity created with only the most mercenary motives in mind. I may even subject myself to the sequels, although I do not expect them to contain surprise Dwight Frye.2
This distraction sponsored by my indulgent backers at Patreon
1. In future outings, the characters will be played first by Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell, then by Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern, which is one of the reasons these films have fascinated me since I ran across mention of them. The writer in all three cases is the same, Harry Kurnitz, who had also written the original novel Fast Company under the name of Marco Page. The directors vary again, however, with the last being Busby Berkeley. I freely admit I want to know how that went down.
2. They don't. I checked IMDb. Alas. I would be tremendously entertained by a series of movies in which Dwight Frye appeared in small roles and met a different bad end each time.
My poem "The Lost Aphrodite" has been accepted by The Cascadia Subduction Zone
. In July, rose_lemberg
asked me for a poem about stones; I wrote this one the next day on the commuter train to Salem. It's not the perspective from which I usually write about the ancient world.
I did take a nap yesterday, right after posting. That did not stop me from failing to get more than another hour and a half of sleep last night. So far I have stayed awake through a morning meeting (online) with my fellow editors at Strange Horizons
, an afternoon showing of Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
(1921) at the Somerville Theatre, cat-feeding errands with derspatchel
, housecleaning with rushthatspeaks
, and then some more Steven Universe
. I think it has actually been a reasonably productive day. I'd just like to feel less like I'm running some comparative experiment in sleep deprivation. I have movies to write about. Not to mention poems. Someday. It might be fun.
Have some gryphons from the Black Sea
So our internet stopped working shortly before I left the house last night, which was irrelevant for the next several hours because I was participating in the previously mentioned poetry reading
at the Sloane Merrill Gallery. I think it went very well. The gallery itself is a lovely small space with brick walls and three levels; we started out reading directly in the storefront, but after one round reoriented more into the gallery so that the half-dozen chairs and the stairs on which everyone else was sitting formed a semicircle. (Good call, April
!) We read by turns in alphabetical order, starting with Gillian
and ending with me, two or three poems at a time. I heard some really terrific pieces from everyone, especially new work. I read a mixed selection from Ghost Signs
and uncollected poems, opening with "Clear
" and closing with "After the Red Sea
." Afterward I received a real compliment from one of Gillian's friends: she said I made the ancient world immediate and vivid, not distant or dry. That is the sort of thing I take very seriously and am honored to hear. Also this way I don't have to feel bad about the impromptu lectures I can remember giving about the motif of mourning sirens and the loss of Carthaginian literature. Thank you to AJ
for proposing this event in the spring and Ali
for letting us have the space! It was a lot of fun.
The rest of the night involved driving nineweaving
home with gaudior
, acquiring a surprisingly successful Brussels sprout sandwich from the Clover
in Inman Square, meeting derspatchel
for about an hour in Davis while I ran an errand, and watching more seaQuest
, which I am genuinely enjoying even as the worldbuilding continues to throw itself at the wall and see what sticks, which is generally nothing from week to week. The Titanic
-ish ghost story was unexpected, but nicely done. I don't have much to say about most of the guest stars, but Udo Kier makes a great guilt-haunted geneticist. I really keep meaning to watch his turns as Frankenstein and Dracula.
And then this morning I got up a little before nine o'clock to wait for the RCN technicians on an hour and a half of sleep—trust me, I'm trying—and therefore they arrived inevitably a little before noon. The problem was either a loose connection of the cable in the basement or a splice in the tangle of cables in the box on the side of the house or some interacting quality of the two; no matter what, they fixed it. I got my hammer out of the closet and a bunch of nails from Gaudior's tookit and finally hung my calendar on the wall next to my desk, so that I can keep track of my life without fishing it out of the green basket chair every time. The wall over
the desk now holds the necklace ladymondegreen
sent me in October: it is made of braided leather and the shells of sea-snails and tiny ark clams and sea-amber; it looks like Neolithic jewelry. I cannot imagine wearing it safely, but I am happy to look at it every time I glance up from my screen.
Have some things I would have linked sooner:
1. Courtesy of strange_selkie
: butch Kate Winslet
. She should wear ties more often.
2. There are a lot of demons in Jewish folklore, but Carol K. Howell's "The Demon's Debut
" is a perspective I haven't seen before. It reminds me slightly of Steve Stern's "Yiddish Twilight," except how it's exactly the opposite. The family's name is a nice touch.
3. Various actors including Ruth Wilson, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Sheen, and Maxine Peake read the Guardian
's poems on climate change
. I linked a few of these in the spring, but here's the entire collection with voices. James Franco appears to be the non-Brit in the bunch and I am not sure how that happened.
4. Serpent-footed Scythian goddess
5. Still relevant: the United States Holocaust Museum makes a statement
about the Syrian refugees. I am sorry not to have known about it until now, but I am glad to read that last night in front of the Massachusetts state house there was a rally
I am seriously considering taking a nap.
There are two ghosts on my mother's side of the family about whom I will never know more than the stories I am about to tell; the people who could have told me the rest died in other countries long ago.
One is the eldest child of my great-great-grandfather, who changed his name from Kaufman to Goldberg when he came to this country with his wife and four daughters in 1900. I am named for the youngest of them, my grandmother's mother Sofy. My cousin
's great-grandmother was Anna, the oldest of the four. No one can tell me anything about the fifth child, the half-sibling, who may not even have lived. That sounds like a riddle, but it isn't meant to: at the age of sixteen, my great-great-grandfather was married in a hurry to a girl whose mother was so legendarily terrifying, an entire shtetl called her "the Cossack." The reason? He had gotten a local—Christian—girl pregnant. His new mother-in-law would keep him in line. And she may well have done, since I never heard that he was unfaithful to my great-great-grandmother, but neither did I hear what happened to the other girl. If she kept the child, if she bore it as a bastard, if she was married off just as hastily as her erstwhile boyfriend, if no one ever knew, if everyone knew, if she aborted or miscarried, if there are still descendants today: I don't know. All this is supposed to have taken place in Bessarabia, whose history has not exactly been untroubled since then. I am left to imagine, but almost nothing I can imagine ends happily. I would like history to prove me wrong. I know it's not often so obliging.
The second ghost is an alternate history. My other great-grandmother, my grandfather's mother, came to America with a friend in 1912. Her name was Ida Friedman; depending on the story, he is her lover, her boyfriend, her fiancé. They came from Vishnevets, in what was then Poland and is now Ukraine. He was of military age. They walked all night through the mountains to cross the border, I was always told: at dawn their guide pointed down into Austria-Hungary, out of reach of the Tsar's army. Together they took the trains to Holland and a ship to America and at Ellis Island he was sent back, because of his health. She never saw him again. She met my grandfather's father in New York City, they ran a general store on the corner of Broadway and Hooper in Brooklyn near the elevated station and the trolley stop, their two children were born in the building and their son fell in love with the movies. For their descendants, her lover's story ends in a maze of railings and benches. He is faceless to me; he looks like a photograph, with chalkmarks on his coat and a suitcase in his hand and even that is imagination. When they say sent back
, I don't know where he went to. I have always wanted to know his name.
I am thinking about these stories, obviously, because I am thinking about people caught between definitions and borders and I feel some things should have changed in a hundred years.
Apparently the country I am living in is now simultaneously belligerent and
isolationist. It's a pretty terrible combination. Tonight my mother and I were discussing the Syrian refugee crisis
and her desire to write a letter to the Boston Globe
—which I encouraged—expressing her disappointment in Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, who recently declared himself, along with twenty-nine other governors of the United States, "not interested in accepting refugees from Syria
." I'm sure everyone has invoked Emma Lazarus vs. hypocrisy in this discussion already, so I've gone with a slightly later Jewish poet.Copper-plated, nailed together, buffeted by ocean weather
Stands the queen of exiles and our mother she may be
Hollow-breasted, broken-hearted, watching for her dear departed
For her children cast upon the sea
At her back, the great idyllic land of justice for exilic
Peoples ponders making justice private property
Darling, never dream another woman might have been your mother
Someday you may be a refugee
—Tony Kushner, "An Undoing World
 Courtesy of rushthatspeaks
: an online petition from Massachusetts voters to Governor Baker
I am really not sleeping. I can't tell if I'm sick or not. I am exhausted to the point of staring throughout my day, but I don't fall asleep until I've spent useless hours in bed and the light comes in around the windows, no matter how little sleep I got the night before. It takes forever for me to put sentences together and then I don't like the results, but I don't like absence, either. Things about which I have been too tired to write recently:
On Monday night, gaudior
and B. and I saw Nobuhiko Obayashi's Hausu
(1977) at the HFA with the director in attendance. Correctly divining that this event would sell out in advance, we arrived an hour and a half early and—after some place-holding switching around of feeding meters and picking up foodstuffs—ate dinner on line without incurring anyone's wrath and got perfectly reasonable seats while the house filled up around us and we waved at teenybuffalo
. I hadn't realized we were getting a short before the feature: Emotion
(1966), a forty-minute avant-garde curiosity which plays like an art-house melodrama run through a Cuisinart until about five minutes from the end, when the director muses wistfully on his plans to make a movie about Dracula someday and then does so in the time remaining. (Obayashi's Dracula has greasepaint Lugosi eyebrows and drinks from his victims demurely, through a soda straw. I suspect it's charming even if you haven't just seen the real thing
was as gonzo and weirdly adorable as I remembered it, full of camera tricks and deadpan sendups that somehow combine into a real ghost story, albeit the kind with bananas as well as bakeneko. Obayashi himself turned out to be a delightful interview subject, especially since he was visibly trolling his interviewer: asked to speak about his relationship with 8 mm film, he told a story about being three years old and mistaking a 35 mm projector for a "choo-choo train," from which he expanded on his history with both trains and cinema, complete with sound effects—his train coming through the mountains is worthy of Pete Seeger and he does a great Tarzan yell—and at no point actually answered the question. We could not stay until the end, but the evening was very much worth all its logistics. I am not sure why Hausu
should register as a comfort film when it contains an unstoppable haunting and a cast of characters being devoured in surrealistically freaky ways, but it really does.
On Tuesday, I met Matthew
and we browsed their used book shelves while talking about other books. I bought three Magic cards from a box of lands and artifacts, all selling for fifty cents to three dollars: Brushland
, Adarkar Wastes
, and Urborg
; I always liked them when they were under glass at Hit and Run Games. I did not buy for a dollar a card I remember retailing for much, much more in 1995; I didn't like it that much then. Afterward I stopped by Rodney's
, where I found a copy of Elizabeth Goudge's The Joy of the Snow
(1974) for rushthatspeaks
and a well-read hardcover of The Theatrical World of Angus McBean
for myself. I have a book of his portraits
already, but these are mostly a mix of selections from photo calls, designs for posters and programs, and portraits of actors in character. Right at the start of the non-Shakespeare section was a shot of Pamela Brown, Richard Burton, and John Gielgud in the 1949 Globe Theatre run of The Lady's Not for Burning
, after which everything else was a bonus. Elsa Lanchester as Peter Pan in 1936, poised in the window with her eyes on top-hatted John: that production must have been nightmare fuel.
Sparked by a conversation with fleurdelis28
, I have started watching seaQuest DSV
(1993–1996). It's on Netflix and not only did I miss it when it was on TV, I wasn't aware it had even existed. At this point I would not say that it's a good
show, but it's flawed in ways that incline me to keep watching until it either bores or annoys me too much to continue. I am fascinated by the worldbuilding of the first season. By 2018, the sea is the source of all natural resources because humanity has wrecked the land, so there are aquaculture stations and mining operations on the deep seabed, slowly growing into colonies and communities jealously guarded, patrolled, and sometimes raided by submarines from neighboring confederations while the seaQuest
itself serves as an enormous one-sub peacekeeping force—it's like the militarized bizarro version of Arthur C. Clarke's The Deep Range
(1957). There are video calls, holograms, dolphin-to-human speech translation software. The seaQuest
's hull appears to make use of a squidlike organic tech and the boat's weapons include plasma torpedoes, which I take as one of the reasons Fleur-de-Lis described the show as "Star Trek
set underwater." Otherwise it looks and sounds incredibly of its year, right down to the feathery undercut hair on the cocky genius teenage hacker and his grunge-style flannel overshirts. The diversity mix is not brilliant, but for 1993 it's not terrible. The scripts are some of the clunkiest dialogue I have ever heard professionally produced. People don't have motivations so much as they explain them. Information flies out of left field and then vanishes without a ripple. You would really
expect some aspects of this future to work differently given the things we learn, but not as far as I can tell. I have become unsurprisingly attached to the communications offer, an angle-faced polyglot in round-rimmed glasses: he's "fluent in six languages, okay in a dozen more," susceptible to claustrophobia in a way that doesn't seem to have screened him out of serving on the seaQuest
, and intermittently telepathic with the resident dolphin, at which point I realized that my ideas of worldbuilding and the show's are not the same. Is telepathy normal in this future? Is it normal that it works across species? Did anyone know this was a thing about the communications officer? Did anyone know that dolphins in this future are not just intelligent, but sentient? Who knows! Nobody says a thing! Personally I am now assuming until proven otherwise that Lieutenant JG Tim O'Neill is intermittently telepathic with everyone and it's just been camouflaged for years as an uncanny gift for languages, but I fully expect the show never to return to this subject again. (I am also a little nonplussed that the character is apparently Catholic, considering how much Ted Raimi looks and sounds like many fine nerdy Jewish guys I have known, but that's probably more me than the show.) Anyway, I've seen the pilot and three episodes so far and seem to have gotten into a routine where I watch an episode, complain to Rush-That-Speaks about the plotting, the dialogue, and the science fiction, and then watch another one. I guess that means it's working out.
Today is Wednesday, although I'm having trouble with the concept. As of last night, thanks to the generosity of desireearmfeldt
and Jan, derspatchel
and our cats have returned to Somerville. I plan to see them tonight. I have found it useful to learn about new bus routes these last few months, but I admit I'm looking forward to being able just to walk twenty-five minutes.
I had a really nice day meeting skygiants
at the MFA at noon for a screening of Peter Miller's Projections of America
(2015) on the last day of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, curling up on the couch in the afternoon to read Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown
(2015)—highly recommended—and then making dinner with rushthatspeaks
in time to eat with gaudior
and B., but I have slept three to four hours a night since Thursday and the part of my brain that generates critical response appears to have temporarily closed down. It's not that I can't think of anything to say: I think it's going to take me hours to say it. On that level of sentience, I should finish my work and sleep instead.Zingerman's
report of the day: goat's milk gouda plus moutarde violette equals a ridiculously tasty sandwich. I don't know why people eat mustard that isn't made with grape must
. If it's got horseradish in it, that's different. Otherwise I think I have a new favorite condiment.
I have had a very long day, but it involved cats, useful conversation, and dinner for the second night in a row with rushthatspeaks
, and B., although not the terrible movie we keep planning to watch.
1. My gift package from Zingerman's
arrived, meaning that the kitchen now contains: garum colatura di alici, moutarde violette, fennel paté, half a pound of pecorino romano, half a pound of goat's milk gouda, and baobab jelly. So far I have tasted only the last two items (not together—although, as I write it out, it's tempting) and they are delicious. Some of these I am looking forward to cooking with. Some are just going to vanish very rapidly. Thank you, yhlee
2. While on various forms of public transit this morning and evening, I read Davis Grubb's The Night of the Hunter
(1953). It's great. The language is dense and poetic, changing tense and perspective mid-sentence if it needs to; the story is so many seamless parts fairy tale, murder ballad, melodrama, and social message that it feels like its own independent genre of Southern Gothic. It does a great child's voice and a great serial killer's. It's not supernatural, it's mythic. Laughton's film is a startlingly faithful version. There are some differences in the ending that I recall, and the character of murderous, self-styled "Preacher" Harry Powell gets a sexiness upgrade of several hundred percent when played by heavy-lidded Robert Mitchum, but there are entire passages that I recognized at once on the page, dialogue and visual allusions included. I'm glad it's been reprinted; I have the impression it's been neglected in favor of the movie, which itself was rehabilitated only relatively recently. If I say it reminded me of both Caitlín R. Kiernan and Henry Roth, I don't know if that helps anyone except me.
3. Matthew Timmins has self-published his first novel, The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows
. I read this book in draft form in 2012 and loved it at once. I wrote at the time:It's a hard book to synopsize, not because nothing that happens in it matters, but because so much of what happens in it matters on a level that is barely perceptible to its harried protagonist. Late in the year 1869 of a Victorian century that somewhat resembles our own, or perhaps early in the same 1870—the calendar is not the only bewildered authority in this story—the task of delivering a mysterious box to its equally murky owner devolves on Robin Sparrows, the long-suffering clerk of the wickedest law firm in Claudon. He is supposed to return it to a prisoner by the apt name of Tarnish, the man who over twenty years ago embroiled Albion in the disastrous Crocodile War and broke it from an imperial power to something the sun is quite definitely setting on. It is a story known by every schoolchild in Albion, the shame and tragedy of the Empire; it is these bright painted colors of heroes and villains and patriotism and myth that Robin finds himself raking up and reevaluating as he traces the ghosts of the Crocodile War from Minister's Tower to the slums of Scurwell—and he scarcely has time to notice, overtaken as he is by misadventure after misadventure as he tries gamely and rather hopelessly to fulfill his commission. It's very funny, with a strong component of the absurd and the grotesque; it can shift gears instantly into real, three-dimensional consequences or poignancy and even now and then a touch of the numinous. The city is a character. So are the islands of Crocodon. The elevator pitch would probably be, "A bit like
Bleak House if one of the original Jarndyces had started the Trojan War. Also, Kafka." And although the book is titled after Robin, it cannot help but feel significant that the one character who really understood everything that happened those long, legend-burnished years ago is the person with whom Robin cannot communicate at all.
So, a baroquely written, tragicomic, alt-Victorian (but not steampunk!) semi-mystery which works some clever undercutting of colonialism and imperialism while reading like Charles Dickens and Mervyn Peake. At present it exists only in e-book form, but I hope for a print copy someday. Check it out!
I am spending the day in Malden with my cats, writing this post from derspatchel
's laptop because it seems the local wireless doesn't like Bertie Owen. Hestia is more skittish than the last time I was here and has not yet flopped over for petting, but Autolycus has latched onto my shoulder as usual. They are play-fighting with enough gusto that I am reminded we need to trim their claws. In the meantime, I am making sure no one leaps onto any horizontal surfaces they shouldn't.
I heard about the attacks on Paris last night while at dinner at Sapporo Ramen with rushthatspeaks
, and B. I am grieved at the violence and I am fearful of the consequences. It was not my city, so I do not know what else I can say. I was there once in 1999; I saw it partly through Tanith Lee. I remember what the roofs looked like by night. I hope the city will be all right and everyone in it, meaning everyone.
I am going to watch my cats watch the world through the window.
A writing-related announcement! Relevant to anyone in the Boston area, or who really feels like driving, I suppose:
Next Friday, November 20th, at 7 pm, I will be reading
at the Sloane Merrill Gallery
in Beacon Hill with A.J. Odasso
, Gillian Daniels
, and April Grant
. I expect to read from Ghost Signs
and new work. Come and listen to poetry while surrounded by art! It will be edifying. Also, you know, fun.
I had two very different kinds of nightmare last night and I didn't like either one of them. In the first, I looked out the bedroom window of my parents' house and saw a planet that looked like Saturn hanging in the upper atmosphere, blotting out the moon, but its rings were billowing away into charcoal-colored smoke and out of this rolling tarnished wavefront translucent things were dropping like milkweed floss, graceful and luminous as moon jellies. They did not fall very quickly or with any apparent purpose, but where they landed, the grass blackened, and you could already hear screaming. In the second, I was shopping in the Market Basket near Union Square when a young man made his entrance armed with jars of acid. He didn't hit me; he wasn't after me. He didn't even manage to harm anyone, since at least in dreams the customers of Market Basket are very fast responders to dangerous situations: he wrecked a man's backpack and the contents of a woman's cart before he was wrestled to the ground. But he was shouting the whole time about women and what they owe him and, yes, he was a young white man, he just wasn't carrying a gun. Last night I saw The Martian
(2015) with my parents at the Somerville Theatre, tried unsuccessfully to track down some pre-Code movies on the internet, and then re-read a few chapters of Mary Stewart's The Moon-Spinners
(1962) before bed, so I have no idea what went wrong. Awake, I feel like the first nightmare owes an obvious debt to Pern's Thread, but I haven't re-read those books in years.
1. Courtesy of strange_selkie
: a guy jamming out on a dolphin
, like you do. Thank you, Etruscan red-figure vase painting.
2. I don't know what it says about me that while I love the idea of reading Hitchcock's Vertigo
(1958) through the eyes of its female character
, I really kind of want the fic version, not just the article. Maybe at least a poem?
3. By way of conversation last night with nineweaving
—she showed me George Raft dancing
—I ended up recommending Fritz Lang's You and Me
(1938), his quasi-musical collaboration with Kurt Weill. The HFA screened it last year as part of their Lang retrospective; I loved the hell out of it and then I never said anything about it in print. Raft doesn't dance in it that I remember, but it was the first time I'd seen him play anyone other than a straight-up heavy. Mostly reproduced from e-mail:
It's a really fantastic little social justice romantic comedy with three songs! Sylvia Sidney and George Raft play a pair of ex-cons employed by a department store whose owner runs the business as a kind of halfway house for recent parolees, straight jobs and second chances with no strings attached; they meet and fall in love without knowing about each other's criminal pasts, which presents something of a problem when their marriage violates the terms of Sidney's parole. An embittered Raft gets drawn back into a heist with his old gang, Sidney knows sentiment won't change his mind because it never worked on her . . . Like many films of its decade, it's deeply cynical in a way that is inseparable from its willful idealism; no one in it is acting out of blind faith in humanity, not even the filmmaker. The movie opens with a dazzling montage of consumer goods, luxury products and necessities alike, over which the camera runs its market-pricing eye while a theatrical off-screen baritone cautions like a choir of capitalist angels, "You cannot get something for nothing / And only a chump would try it / Whatever you see that you really want / You may have—provided you buy it." The spoken-word showstopper "Knocking Song
" trades social realism for expressionism as a Christmas gathering of Raft's old colleagues—and cellmates—becomes a spooky, fatalistic ode to the solidarity of the criminal underworld over the fragile ties of respectability; the stark angles and the shadows isolate them all behind bars again, listening down the prison grapevine for the cautionary tale of the "big shot" who tried to "go it alone." Sidney's climactic speech starts with reform-school rhetoric and then tosses it pointedly out the window: "Crime doesn't pay! I don't mean because you get caught by the law and punished, because sometimes you're not. And I don't mean because it kills something inside of you, because a lot of you wouldn't care about that. What I mean is, it doesn't add up in dollars and cents. You can't make any real money stealing!" In a perfectly Brechtian touch, she uses a blackboard and simple arithmetic to demonstrate that the heist wouldn't be worth its expenses: bribes, fences, trucks, lawyers, the boss who takes the biggest cut of the takings; the big shots get rich, yes, but "the big shots aren't little crooks like you. They're politicians." Bertolt Brecht did not actually work on You and Me
, but he is Lang's obvious muse throughout. The criminals themselves are all character faces like George E. Stone and Roscoe Karns, plausible no-goods who can turn on a dime from Dreigroschenoper
to Damon Runyon. I didn't think the film existed on DVD, but TCM seems to have changed that
. Good for them; I resented for years that they never ran it when I was around to see. It is weird and worth experiencing.
This post somewhat delayed by the unexpected (and earsplitting) felling and woodchipping of several trees in the back yard and the fact that I had to clean up twice after the same cat. I am meeting derspatchel
for dinner tonight, which I expect to improve things.
The solders who came home from 1918 are gone, but I bought a paper poppy as I left Wilson Farm from two men who were very much alive and my brother's best friend lives in Vermont. There are soldiers who have not yet come home. Not all of them are among the dead. Not all fronts are western.It is always the same on the road. It is always the same. All these motor cars full of men keep coming along the road—the long road that leads to the war. Sometimes it is hot and there is sunlight and dust on the road, and the smell of petrol is strong; sometimes it is cold and the rain beats down from the sky; sometimes it is night and there is a lantern to wave instead of a flag, and there is the fear of falling asleep. But the road is always the same and the box by the road is always the same, and deep down there is the same truth always.
, The Forbidden Zone
I try not to be that reviewer who swears all the time. I'm not good enough at it. You want primo-grade narrative profanity, read Better Myths
. I am more likely to stick to "Flipping Hades Terwilliger!" as an expression of my amazement (and affection for Daniel Pinkwater) than to attempt a roll call of Anglo-Saxon intensifiers. Nevertheless, when I say that I have just finished watching a movie whose heroic climax involves Edward Everett Horton machine-gunning the oncoming Tartar hordes while wearing more eyeliner than the rest of the cast put together, Marlene Dietrich knock-off included, I hope you will all join me in a resounding chorus of "WHAT THE SHIT."
The movie in question is Roar of the Dragon
(1932), a pre-Code pulp adventure which plays like a bargain-basement cash-in on Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express
(1932). Instead of Dietrich, we get Danish-born Gwili Andre as the mysterious white woman with elegant cheekbones and a murky past; instead of Clive Brook's Army doctor, masculine top billing goes to Richard Dix's hard-drinking riverboat captain; instead of a train captured by Chinese rebels, the close-quarters setting is a hotel besieged by Manchurian bandits. The guests are the usual assortment of colorful characters, including Dudley Digges as the riverboat's blowhard owner, ZaSu Pitts as a fretful Midwestern matron, Arline Judge as a cornet-playing chorus girl, and Horton as the civil engineer turned hotel clerk whose apprehensive stoop and bemused double-takes are recognizable even in long shot. I can't tell if C. Henry Gordon increases or diminishes the Orientalism playing a Russian in charge of a band of Chinese central casting Tartars, but either way he wants revenge on both Andre and Dix—the one fled his bed, the other bit his ear off during a pre-story, evidently no-holds-barred brawl. To no one's surprise but their own, the initially incompatible leads become an item during the course of the siege, to the point where she volunteers to sacrifice herself sexually to save his life. I have no idea of the film's production history, but it is impossible not to view it in some degree as the Asylum mockbuster of its day. But let's return to Edward Everett Horton.
Horton's sexuality is not a vexed question. All biographical sources I've been able to find on him for years indicate that his long-term partner was Gavin Gordon, whom I saw this spring in Mystery of the Wax Museum
(1932). His screen persona, however, was based on a dither of plausible deniability between high-strung ineffectual fussiness and actual effeminacy—in pre-Code films and after, he could be found among the most nervous of nellies, not flaming, but easily flustered, a man whose masculinity was constantly questioned but never definitively debunked. This is the mode Dragon
's mild-mannered Busby begins in, a middle-aged makeshift concierge already spooked by the political situation and rattled by hotel guests' demands for information he doesn't have. He's nominally straight, but terrible at it; his diffident declaration of intent toward Judge's Bridgeport1
("I'm thinking of marrying her") is shot down not only by the girl's preoccupied deflection ("Thinking's awfully bad for people with weak backs"), but by a parting kibitz from Dix's Carson, who has just made a much more confident pass in the same direction ("My, what a rough Daddy you'll
make"). When she's assigned care and feeding of a passel of Chinese war orphans, he's the one who discovers a goat on the premises and insists on reserving the milk for the children alone. It takes him half the film to learn to carry a rifle the right way round. I am not joking about the eyeliner. I can't tell if it's meant to make him look careworn, youthful, emo, or what, but the results are the kind of stylized makeup that would have passed without comment in the silent era and in a sound film cause the viewer to wonder if anyone bothers with subtext anymore. Most of Horton's roles would leave him here, stealing scenes with precision-timed bewilderment. Roar of the Dragon
doesn't, which is the only reason I am writing about it tonight. He's such a reliable comic actor, I genuinely enjoy seeing him get a character arc: it's the standard milquetoast-to-manhood, but assigning it to an actor of Horton's particular strengths produces some fascinating results.
For starters, he never turns square-jawed. Busby can still undercut himself, even in moments of assertiveness: confronting the riverboat owner over an exceptionally low act of theft, he seethes, "I have a strangely vicious desire to cut you in pieces and use you for bait—if I knew how to fish!" Bridgeport has no trouble throwing him off balance, meeting his admiring "You're like a picture on a magazine cover!" with the cheerfully provoking "No, you're wrong. I'm wearing too many clothes." Having bluffed his way into staying behind as a diversion at the finale, he cringes at Carson's apparent rebuke—"So we all go out here together, eh? What a first-class liar you are!"—until some awkward male bonding over cigarettes makes it clear that the newly sober captain is deeply touched and grateful for the clerk's choice. Even at the apex of his bravery, he still glances nervously around the windy walls of the abandoned hotel; he holds a pistol like it's more talisman than weapon. It is an endearing anxiety rather than a strictly comic one, a weirdly realistic touch among all the boy's own boilerplate.2
I find it harder to believe that his transformation is motivated by love, at least for the socially appropriate character. The dialogue insists on his feelings for Bridgeport, but their sweetest and most natural scene together is a moment of found family rather than a torrid clinch: while she wrangles orphans, he offers to play some music. She expresses indifference, he switches on the radio and gets Irving Berlin's "Always"; looks at her uncertainly until she gives him an approving wink, whereupon he cranks up the volume and she puts her tongue out at him, smiling. Cross-legged on the floor—out of sight of the latticed windows through which Voronsky's snipers have been taking potshots—he looks for once relatively at ease, tucking into a bowl of leftover noodles while Bridgeport settles one orphan for a nap and looks around for another. The tragedy that strikes a few moments later impels him toward the machine gun that started me on this whole mishegos, which is fair enough from the standpoint of the siege, but I can't read it as a romantic act. He dies in Richard Dix's arms. Saying something heterosexual, but still. This entire plotline fascinates me. It delivers such mixed messages and I can't tell which to assign to the writing, the acting, or the interaction of the two. I'm not even sure the finished film knows what it's doing. I'd love to know what Horton thought. I would also like to ask his eyeliner, which deserved a supporting credit of its own.3
I really want to be clear that I am not recommending this movie on its own merits. The plot is a pile of Orientalist action clichés, while the script is full of unintentional punch lines, as when Carson tells Natasha, "You better go inside while I explain to everybody just what a tough spot we're in," and we fade directly to Carson indoors, addressing the assembled guests: "You might as well know, we're in a tough spot."4
On a narrative level, I appreciate that Bridgeport is not a natural mother and her first attempt at establishing a "kindergarten" in the besieged hotel is filled with crying toddlers; on an aesthetic level, that was an entire scene full of crying toddlers and it went on forever. Gwili Andre has bone structure comparable to Dietrich's, but that does not mean she shares the same ability to act. Richard Dix plays a less clean-cut character than he did in The Lost Squadron
(1932), which at least gives the audience something to look at that isn't his stalwart jawline, but I still found myself utterly failing to care whether he would get over his alcoholic indifference in time to save his fellow Caucasians. ZaSu Pitts is amusing, but ultimately wasted on her flightily helpless role when I have seen her be just as scatterbrained and much less deadweight in Going Highbrow
(1935). I don't even know what to do with the late scene in which a Jewish shopkeeper, attempting to sneak food to the starving hotel guests, is caught by Voronsky's men, tied to a pole, and set afire while alive—I'm sure I wasn't intended to read it as a one-person pogrom, but I still found the relevant thirty seconds uncomfortable to watch. Please understand that I am delighted that this film exists in the world; I am always glad when more survives of an art form than just the canon, or even the acknowledged counterculture secondary gems. The fact that the Golden Age of Hollywood could produce mediocre to dreadful movies is curiously warming to me. It's both more real and more interesting than the glossier alternative. I will still freely admit that I watched Roar of the Dragon
because I saw Edward Everett Horton's name in the credits and I pretty much endured the rest of the film in between his scenes. I think my curiosity was rewarded. It certainly showed me something I had never imagined onscreen.
Oh, God, how did I write 1900 words about this movie? I am stopping here. I did not sleep almost at all last night and have spent the day with a very small, very active child. (We took her to Drumlin Farm
. The owls and the sheep were especially a hit. Worth it.) This incongruity brought to you by my brave backers at Patreon
1. The character is listed as "Hortense O'Dare" in the credits, but no one ever calls her anything other than her nickname, after her home city. Occasionally she's "Little Bridgeport," which strikes me as more Dickensian than is ideally the case.
2. And he does get a few nice lines in, as he graduates from perpetually startled straight man to occasional snarker. When the society matron plaintively blames Busby for her stomachache after the third day on starvation rations—"He gave me some chewing gum and I was so hungry, I swallowed it!"—Horton doesn't protest or even double-take, just mutters wearily, "Keep away from sailors. They chew tobacco."
3. I could find very little information on this film beyond IMDb's claim that the supposed source novel does not seem to exist, but I would love to know anything about how Horton was cast in the part. I keep wondering if it was anything like the process by which Peter Lorre ended up starring as the romantic lead in Three Strangers (1946) instead of David Niven, Robert Montgomery, or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
4. Seriously, isn't that one of Leslie Nielsen's lines in Airplane! (1980)? The script isn't incompetent, but after a while I had to conclude that Howard Estabrook had temporarily lost track of his sense of humor, because every few scenes it seemed to have gotten underfoot. I believe it was the tense nighttime standoff in which Voronsky is trying to make his escape with his former lover held as a hostage at gunpoint that just made me give up: Carson growls with time-honored masculine protectiveness, "What are you going to do to Natasha?" and Voronsky snaps back, "Oh, use your imagination."
Today has been mostly quiet. I am spending the night in Lexington, the better to help my mother with Charlotte-care starting early tomorrow morning. TCM is not showing any of the pre-Code movies I lately desire to see, but on the other hand it is offering some seriously weird objects I am hoping to report back on. Just probably not while I am helping to look after a nearly-two-year-old. I'm expecting a lot of running around.
1. Thanks to a gift card from yhlee
, I have just placed an order with Zingerman's
for several food items I didn't know were available in this country and/or century. rushthatspeaks
and I already have plans for the garum.
2. This playlist is a nice mix of obscure and traditional ballads, with snarky summaries: "I Guess My Corpse Is a Swan Now: A Weird Folk Education
." It's worth reading just for the synopsis of "Tam Lin." The recommended recording of "Sovay" is the first one I ever heard, in high school when it was still possible to find a record store and a bookstore on the same block in Lexington Center instead of banks, banks, and more banks—I didn't buy the CD for the Touchwood
track, but it was my favorite at once. Later I learned the arrangement's sprightly, off-kilter time signature was the bequest of A.L. Lloyd, to whom nineweaving
would introduce me as we traded folk songs in the fall of 2004, about three months before I named this journal. I had been using it as an internet alias since 1998, which I had almost forgotten: my interactions with the internet were otherwise minimal until I left for college, at which point I also acquired an e-mail address I checked regularly. I had to talk about Babylon 5
with people somehow, all right?
3. While recently reading about Tod Browning's Dracula
(1931), it came to my attention that the original 1924 version of the stage play on which the film was based, instead of deleting Quincey Morris like pretty much every adaptation since, genderswapped the character. I know
this is not what Hamilton Deane intended—or created—but if anyone out there wants to write Quincey Morris, Bowie-knife-wielding lesbian American adventuress, I will read it.
Public transit today was terrible. I ended up walking from Park Street to the Boston Public Library
because the station closed while my train was in it. derspatchel
, attempting to meet me for dinner shortly afterward, waited half an hour at Assembly because the snafu with the Green Line caused the Orange Line to fall over. On my way home, cautiously renegotiating my relationship with the Green Line, I waited twenty minutes at North Station for a train to Lechmere.
Within this framework of failed MBTA, however, I renewed my library card at the BPL with no difficulty whatsoever, made arrangements to return and read their non-circulating copy of Leslie Howard's Trivial Fond Records
(1982), walked over to Trident
while Rob was stalled on the Orange Line and read three-quarters of a novel called Wittgenstein Jr
(2014) by Lars Iyer, and successfully met Rob for dinner at Sweet Cheeks Q
. I got home and rushthatspeaks
showed me the next three episodes of Steven Universe
(2013–) including the one with the song that is both a terrific piece of science fiction worldbuilding and a great queer anthem. One of the few Tumblrs I follow just presented me with some nice Greek sphinxes
, a Roman soldier's sidearm
, and another phallic windchime
, this one looking oddly as though it is starring in a children's picture book. Liz Berry's "The Black Delph Bride
" is one of the best poems I've read recently, a Black Country murder ballad, with water.
On balance, it has not been a bad day.
So, that marathon. With rushthatspeaks
, I watched twelve hours of horror film last Saturday at the Somerville. Due to life, it's taken me until today to talk about it. It will not be the most coherent marathon report I have ever written, but some weeks notes are as good as it gets.
We went into West of Zanzibar
(1928) knowing only that it was the rarest of the prints, a famously lurid revenge tragedy and the next-to-last collaboration between Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, who would die in 1930. Actual warning goes here: the title correctly suggested, but did not fully disclose the incredible levels of racism inherent in the African setting. The natives are an unknowable mass of superstitious primitivism with wild-eyed spooky rituals and almost no names; the black character with the most lines is a beautiful man who looks like a Herb Ritter sculpture when oiled and gleaming, but as far as depth of character goes, he's furniture. The dialogue is insultingly simplistic and the Hollywood voodoo is even more nonsensical than the usual run. And in the middle of all the colonialism is Lon Chaney, giving an arguable performance of a lifetime as a one-time music-hall magician consumed by hatred for the rival who left him paralyzed and tempted his wife away to her ruin, an ivory trader played by Lionel Barrymore—not young, he didn't start acting in film until his thirties and that was in 1911, but younger than I've ever seen him—as the kind of genial asshole who finds the catastrophic misfire of a soul-destroying revenge plot the funniest thing since Harry Langdon. Mary Nolan is very good as the girl whom Chaney would use as a pawn, damaged and cynical, morally the cleanest person in the story; Werner Baxter is bland as the dissipated doctor finding his redemption in her arms. There's a brilliant moment when the film uses the silent form against itself, in order to withhold information from the characters as well as the audience. We appreciated very much that the generic Africans are not so gullible as to accept stage magic as the real thing, but it took way too many pseudo-voodoo rituals to get there. If you want a wrenching, nuanced, arresting performance from Lon Chaney, see this film. If you don't want the painfully racist matrix it's embedded in, that's fair enough.
I believe it was at this point that we got Warner Bros.'s Hair-Raising Hare
(1946), with Mel Blanc doing his best Peter Lorre impression and the monster mostly composed of fur, fingernails, and white sneakers that nonetheless reminds me weirdly of Sweetums of the Muppets. A meta joke with shadows in the front row and Bugs Bunny doing his best hairdresser impression: "I'll bet you monsters lead interesting
lives." It was delightful.
Everyone who told me that I would love Dwight Frye's Renfield in Dracula
(1931) was right. His introduction is a wonderful fakeout—a smart young solicitor traveling through Transylvania, guilelessly asking for directions to the Borgo Pass at midnight, should be Jonathan Harker, co-protagonist and therefore immune to the danger of Dracula's brides or the vampire lord himself. Then, as he flounders his way through an arras of spiderweb, we hear Bela Lugosi's solicitous, self-amused instruction, "The blood is the life, Mr. Renfield," and soon enough he's talking to a coffin in the hold of the doomed Vesta
, a wild-eyed maniac whose grin seems to have too many teeth in it for safety. 1931 is still close enough to the silent era that Frye can play with modes of madness: sometimes his Renfield is as staring and theatrical as a refugee from Caligari's asylum, sometimes he's just a nervous man in his shirtsleeves with a weird vocal affect. Every now and then, he's the most normal-sounding person onscreen: "Isn't this a strange conversation for men who aren't crazy?" (I really enjoy the way Renfield just wanders randomly through Seward's house whenever it's plot-convenient. The sanatorium in this movie had the worst security.) I don't know if he's my favorite take on the character, because I really did imprint on Jack Shepherd
, but he was very definitely my favorite thing about the movie, an A+ reason to watch it again. Otherwise Dracula
is easily the least interesting of the three films I've seen by Tod Browning. Once we return to England, the action is staged very stiffly, with little about the cinematography that's as compelling as some of the character framing in West of Zanzibar
or the documentary-expressionist style of Freaks
(1932). I'd love to know how it was understood by audiences unfamiliar with the source material, because there are ways in which it plays like the Cliff's notes of Stoker's novel and then there are ways in which it is missing what I would consider crucial plot points, like the eventual fate of Lucy. Helen Chandler's Mina is at her best when partly vampirized, utilizing the fey demeanor so visible in The Last Flight
(1931) to imply a character whose humanity is starting to drift. David Manners does what he can with the stupidest Harker-Holmwood ever to decide that leaving town with his vampire girlfriend cannot possibly go wrong. I was indifferent to Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing until we got to his verbal throwdown with Dracula ("Should you escape us, Dracula, we know how to save Miss Mina's soul, if not her life."–"If she dies by day . . . but I shall see that she dies by night"), at which point I decided he was no Peter Cushing, but I'd take him. Quincey Morris is nowhere to be seen, but nobody cares. As for Lugosi himself, I can see why his Dracula was instantly iconic to the point of caricature. David calls his portrayal "suave and dead" and it is not as inhuman as I like my vampires, but it is genuinely weird all the same, with gliding movements and oddly timed phrasing, as if spontaneity is something the undead can no longer command. The print was resurrected via digital cleanup from the only remaining original element, a lavender positive from the Library of Congress, and it looked amazing.
I love The Monster That Challenged the World
(1957) very much, all right? I love that it's set around the Salton Sea. I love that the giant prehistoric man-eating snails are radioactive for no other reason than that it's the 1950's. I love that the giant prehistoric man-eating radioactive snails do not in fact resemble snails at all until the second half of the film when someone obviously slapped shells around their globular eyes and clicking mandibles after there were complaints. I have loved Hans Conried since The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
(1953) and therefore I will watch any movie in which he gets actual screen time as opposed to a scene-stealing walk-on and it is only occasionally confusing that his Dr. Jess Rogers does not have a Mitteleuropean or even mid-Atlantic accent and is perfectly competent at his job. He gets a lecture about "common molluscs" that has almost nothing to do with the monsters at issue, but contains several useful points of data about predatory land snails. I am fond of the small bit of business Conried does with a beaker and a stirring rod while talking on the phone. Tim Holt is theoretically the hero, but doesn't even know to grab a fire axe off the wall when a giant prehistoric man-eating radioactive snail is menacing him in a laboratory. All three of us were yelling at him as he went for the fire extinguisher instead. Afterward we found out so was the rest of the theater. Gods of B-movies, of titles that promise too much and heroes who deliver too little, of eccentric character turns and endlessly unsubtle special effects, watch over this picture and make sure it is always playing somewhere at a festival or a marathon or a late-night TV channel if those still exist. It is really not as stupid as it could have been. There are some nice character moments, some nice shocks, the scene in which a girl vanishes while night-swimming with her boyfriend is very good and supposedly influenced Spielberg. There's a lot of location footage of the locks of the All-American Canal. The giant prehistoric et cetera et cetera snails are so not a kraken.
Somewhere around here, the discretion of the projectionist delivered unto us a boatload of horror trailers, mostly Roger Corman's Poe series with a judicious admixture of British horror and sci-fi, of which the classiest was the American trailer for Horror of Dracula
(1958)—I applauded—and the déclassést was Konga
(1961), starring Michael Gough and a terrible gorilla suit. Oh, yes, there was also a trailer for Dinosaurus
! (1960), containing some of the worst stop-motion I have seen committed to 35 mm and the most unexpected caveman. I have no plans to see the movie, but the trailer is one of the great comedies of its decade.
For reasons that have much more to do with circumstances in my life than with the content of the film, I found Seconds
(1966) startlingly upsetting to watch, which did not prevent me from noticing that James Wong Howe's black-and-white cinematography is imaginative, expressionistic, and disorientingly effective, that I wouldn't be surprised if Rock Hudson is better in the role of Tony Wilson than anywhere else in his career, and that John Frankenheimer must have gone through a very paranoid period in his life, because Seconds
and The Manchurian Candidate
(1962) are the only films I've seen by him so far and both depend vividly on a clammy sense of pawnhood, that a game is being played around you and everyone else knows the rules. The ending plays out a little more like a particularly nasty episode of The Twilight Zone
than I had been expecting, but it is fairly foreshadowed. There is an extended sequence set at a literal bacchanalia on the California coast that I really hope was done with permission from the local SCA. Three actors in the cast looked familiar to me without bringing any roles to mind: I did not expect to have seen them respectively in Brother John
(1975), and Babylon 5
At this juncture we had a thirty-minute dinner break. I spent most of it acquiring my food rather than eating it, which offered me the opportunity to remark that I am apparently the kind of person who is fine with eating through a Giger Alien movie. My chicken shawarma from Noor
treated me kindly and did not explode out of my chest at any dramatic moments or at all, really, which I was also fine with.
I am not reasonable when it comes to Lance Henriksen as Bishop in Aliens
(1986). I saw the film for the first time a dozen years ago and can't count how many times I've seen it since. It's one of my comfort movies; it was my introduction to the actor and the role that imprinted me on him—soft-spoken, gaunt-faced, with a disconcertingly direct gaze and a vacuum-dry deadpan. A company android, he prefers to be called an "artificial person"; it sounds like corporation-speak or a PC joke, but it turns out to be a very real assertion. He's not a programmable traitor like Ash of the Nostromo
, but a self-willed, sentient being who just happens not to be flesh and blood, or at least not the born kind. I've just now realized that I associate him slightly with Elio of Diana Wynne Jones' A Tale of Time City
(1987), who "seemed like an ordinary person, only rather smaller and paler than most." Bishop is taller, skinnier, and paler than most. It is impossible to tell his age, if time wore those vertical creases into his face or if they were designed by Weyland-Yutani for maximum personality. He does not ever pass for human, except briefly and accidentally to Ripley: "We always have a synthetic on board." He does "the thing with the knife" when his platoon-mates holler for it, even though it's clearly his embarrassing party trick, and candidly explains his obligation to a variant on Asimov's First Law of Robotics. (It turns out not to be quite true, since if he were utterly incapable of placing human beings in situations where they could come to harm, he would not have been able to leave Newt and Ripley even temporarily alone on the unstable landing platform, but it's a reassuring thing to say.) The subject header of this post is one of his best lines; what I love is the little smile he follows it with, a quick mechanical movement that never reaches his eyes. It could be a glitch in the uncanny valley, like the inhuman speed of the knife trick and the milky blood that gives his artificial nature away, but it doesn't look like one; it looks like an uncertain learned behavior, as if Bishop has learned that joking about his synthetic status can defuse the threat he's sometimes perceived as, but not as reliably as he would like. I like his moments of creepiness, but I also like that the climax of the film essentially proves that these were instances of professional-grade trolling. Also, in this film, there is definitive Sigourney Weaver. I know people keep talking about further Alien
sequels, but I'm just as grateful those don't exist as I am there's no such thing as a live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender
or a movie version of The Dark Is Rising
. We've dodged a lot of bullets over the years, you know?
Going into The Lost Boys
(1987), I knew primarily that it was one of the essential vampire films of the 1980's and that it was responsible for establishing certain dynamics in slash fiction that persist to this day. No one had bothered to warn me that it was also hilarious, starting with the fourteen-year-old survivalist vampire hunters who accidentally blow up the plumbing while disposing of a vampire with garlic and holy water (a bathtub full of it, whence perhaps the problem). Not a beat of the '80's is missed, from the inexplicable shirts to the feathered hair to the slow-mo softcore love scenes with plenty of synth. In what other decade could the protagonists attend a mainstream rock concert whose lead singer is a half-naked man in a necklace of steel chain-link playing a saxophone? Pleasantly, besides all the inimitable mise-en-scéne it has an innovative take on vampirism—one to which Buffy the Vampire Slayer
(1997–2003) owes an enormous debt, right down to the visuals—and an assortment of protagonists I actually care about, although the female romantic lead has the same blender problem
as in Fright Night
(1985). Kiefer Sutherland set a trend with his bleach-spiked hair and his black trenchcoat; Rush-That-Speaks and I agreed that while he would have been no less hot when the film was released, he would have been a lot less mainstream about it. I also appreciate their point that hanging out with vampires in this film means doing the exact same dumb shit as normal teenagers, only with more levitation. We suspected the ending halfway through, then the film appeared to debunk it, then we were right after all: well played, screenwriters. Apparently there are some sequels, but not very good ones, which is fine as this film ends with an untoppable punch line. I really need to see Near Dark
And then we went home and Daylight Savings Time fell back on us, so now it gets dark very soon, but that's not generally relevant at quarter to four in the morning at this latitude. I shall attempt sleep. The horror content is debatable, but it was a great twelve-hour marathon and David the projectionist should get more programming blocks to do with as he pleases. This anthology brought to you by my magnificent backers at Patreon
Everybody remembers Tanith Lee's The Book of the Beast
(1988)? The second of the Secret Books of Paradys
, with the rapacious scaled bird-headed demon carried from the Near East to the fort of Par Dis in Roman days? It possessed a centurion, then his son, devouring him into its deadly avatar; then their line was extinguished, except it wasn't? Out of Assyria, an
utuk, having as its own form the body of a man, the head of a bird, but a bird of the beginnings, scaled not feathered, from the fifth day of the earth . . .
Okay, technically that is a Romanized image of Horus
from the first or second century CE
, currently on display at the British Museum as part of a really interesting-sounding exhibit
. In keeping with the traditions of Roman portraiture, it's an impressively realistic attempt to represent a man with a falcon's head, with partial results of modern-day nightmare fuel; the inclusion of human hair and ears
is striking, as is the way the feathers of the throat transition into the scale-mail of the imperial lorica plumata
. The head looks flattened because it is missing
the crown it should have supported. It was acquired by the museum in 1912 and I would love to know if Lee ever saw it. The answer may well be nope
. Writers have imaginations, after all. But I know what it looked like accidental fan art for when I saw it.
(Given the Assyrian origins, I always figured Lee's utuk
looked like a bird
, which if so is unfair to some benevolent guardian spirits. The combination of feathers, scales, and bird-headed human figure just really got my attention here. I am now trying to avoid spinning off into actual fan art, because the last time it took forever
My sleep schedule has deranged again. I fell asleep after six in the morning and had a series of vivid, complex dreams whose plots mostly did not survive the transition to waking. I dreamed of a contemporary version of Bagoas, wearing a necklace of ancient silver coins. One of them had his lover's profile stamped on it. Alexander was immortal, but there was something vampiric in it, like Tanith Lee's Scarabae. I dreamed of flooded catacombs or underground canals, receding into time. The building overhead was a movie theater, showing The Wizard of Oz
(1939). There were boats tied up where the Somerville has the Museum of Bad Art
. I dreamed of reading a novel or a series of novels written contemporaneously with Dorothy L. Sayers, frequently recommended to fans of Wimsey in the same vein as Margery Allingham's Campion, but I can remember nothing about the mysteries or the series detective, just a secondary character standing in a crowded room, looking around at the company with a tight, tensely blank expression on his face. He's just had something unforgivable said to his face; the reader doesn't yet know if it's true, which is a different question from whether it should have come out sneeringly at a party. Afterward one of the other guests referred to him as "poor
Mr. Cornelius," the kind of pitying dismissal that made me feel for the character whether I was supposed to or not. I wish I could remember anything at all about the resolution of the book.
Last night with sairaali
and M. was lovely. Saira had a recipe for sweet potato soup from Cook's Illustrated
and my latest orthodontist's appointment has left me basically living on
soup for the foreseeable future, so we made it with all the toppings—maple sour cream, mirin-sautéed mushrooms, cider-candied bacon, scallions instead of chives—and it was savory and filling and the special tip about soaking the sweet potato for twenty minutes in warm shallot-and-thyme broth did not in any way result in a thinner soup, but it was really delicious purée. Before dinner, I did a handstand with M.'s assistance and Saira's coaching, which marks the first time since elementary school. It was fun. The point at which my inner ear rotated upside down felt exactly like the horizon flip of a looping roller coaster. I would need much better upper body and core strength in order to manage it alone. After dinner, we watched the first two episodes of the third season of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
(2012–), which I enjoyed and am still sorting some of my reactions to, because stylistically it feels like a set of classically elaborate Golden Age mysteries taking place in a world with much more nuanced gender issues than Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh. I like the dynamic between Phryne and Jack, how even if he's not coping very well with her tendency to bang random dudes in the middle of investigations, it doesn't prevent him from working with her and he doesn't try to make her stop
. Their unresolved sexual tension is visible from space. Does anyone here recommend the books? I'm aware of their existence, but have never read any.
Today I am not building a bonfire, because I don't live in the right countries for it. My mother traditionally celebrates Guy Fawkes by watching V for Vendetta
(2005). Have a song about fire: Jill Tracy, "Make It Burn
." I need to do some practical things with my afternoon.
Today, some links.
1. Dean Grodzins
on the importance of Toussaint Louverture
. It's an excellent, timely essay. Some of it is indeed history I hadn't known. "For although Lafayette fought heroically in our War of Independence, and Toussaint never set foot in the United States, it was Toussaint who had the greater impact, direct and indirect, on American history—greater, in fact, than that of any other foreign leader. We exalt the glamorous white aristocrat and forget the brilliant black slave because we fundamentally and willfully misunderstand our own past."
2. Erin Eva Butcher of Maiden Phoenix Theatre Co.
discusses her experience of directing and producing outdoor theater while all-female: it wasn't good
. This was the incredible production of The Winter's Tale
and I saw in Powderhouse Park in August
; we saw the closing night's performance. Knowing now the frequency and intensity of harassment the cast and crew had been dealing with throughout the run just for being women in public unaccompanied by men, I am even more impressed with the strength of the show. That's a far cry from the best of all possible worlds. It's no less true for theater companies than for individual people: it should never be only the woman's responsibility to see that she stays safe.
3. I learned last night that there is an Iraqi food truck
in Boston. We saw it outside of Rob's current residence. This is definitely something I want to visit.
I am off to run a bunch of errands and meet up with sairaali