Friday, November 30, 2012

Crayons and Knickerbockers

I decided for my term paper comparing H.P. Lovecraft and Washington Irving that I really needed to read the entire Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, the series of essays and stories among which "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" originally appeared. Geoffrey Crayon is a persona Irving adopts in order to write essays about fictional circumstances--I'm six pieces in and while the two most famous stories are definitely superior to the others I've read so far, Crayon's voice is extremely charming--ostensibly highly moralistic with each piece containing a conscious lesson about life but with a subtle self-mockery, presenting Crayon as being almost but not quite the authority on human nature he presents himself as. The sentimental piece on the divine nature of housewives, "The Wife", is subtly undercut by "Rip Van Winkle" immediately following with a tale of Rip being most pleased by his long sleep when he learns his tyrannical wife had died during his slumber, described as bursting a blood vessel while yelling at a salesman.

Aside from the generally humorous tone, I'm finding more in common between Irving and Lovecraft than I'd originally suspected. Irving's tale of William Roscoe, an English writer forced to sell his vast library due to financial difficulties couldn't fail to remind me of Lovecraft's real life descent from a comfortable living situation in his youth to poverty, prompting a nostalgia for youth so often romanticised in his books in loving descriptions of libraries and individuals attempting to reclaim their childhood.

And, of course, both authors are raging anglophiles, which I feel somehow is appropriate for two authors used to write a paper on the nature of American literature. I wish I could take my time with The Sketch Book, it has such a relaxing charm, but considering the other materials I want to read for this paper, I'll probably want to finish the book this weekend. I really am putting way too much work into something only my American Lit teacher's going to see. I guess I'll probably post it here, too.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Small Things that Accumulate

So you want to be a cinephile. Okay, I got a movie for you about farmers on a small island, a movie with no dialogue and for most of it we just watch the farmers going about their daily routines, tending crops. Sound like something you want to see? No? You are not ready. In fact, 1960's The Naked Island (裸の島) not only beats The Naked Spur in terms of films most severely to disappoint audiences attending in the hopes of seeing nudity, it's also an incredibly good film, a film that successfully evokes the desperation in day to day living for these isolated subsistence farmers.

A woman, her husband, and two boys make up this family who for some reason have ended up supporting themselves this way rather than attempting to find other employment on the nearby, more populated island. The parents' daily ferry the elder of the two little boys to the other island for school, perhaps in the hopes that he'll break a cycle of living that's likely gone on for generations.

We never learn the names of any of the characters--as I said, the movie has no dialogue. It's not a silent film--there's the sound of wind on the hillside, water sloshing out of the buckets they carry up the hill, grunts, the children laughing. It's not so much that they don't talk as that director Kaneto Shindo has made the conscious decision to show only portions of these people's lives in between when they speak, and this turns out to be tremendously effective in conveying a sort of raw truth about their existence.

The first thirty minutes or so are spent watching the man and woman going to the larger island, ladling water from a rice field into two buckets each, taking them by rowboat back to their island to carefully carry the buckets up the hill.

There's a surprising amount of drama in watching them do this. Shindo and his cinematographer never cease to find new and interesting shots, shots that emphasise how treacherous the footing is on the hill and how obviously precious this water is.

If there's a central character, it's the wife, played by Nobuko Otowa, whose facial expressions are more often cut to, displaying a broader range of emotion than her more stoic husband. One assumes he grew up on the island and was raised in this life and just as I was wondering how he ever met Otowa in the first place, the movie got to a point where I actually had to rely on some of the Japanese I learned earlier this year;

It says "autumn" and it precedes a scene of a harvest festival. The family joins in with dancing and singing with farmers on the nearby island in addition, presumably, to trading. It's the one part of the year these people appear to have any fun.

In the latter portion of the film, something bad happens to them that causes them to grieve, but there is precious little time for it and we see Otowa lose her mind for a moment as the hideousness of life's monotony continues in spite of what's happened. And then her tears are quieted by the continuance of life. Shortly afterwards is the conclusion of this simple and strikingly effective film.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Numbers Barring the Words

So the sun really is setting earlier, in case you were wondering. I've had to take photos and answer questions about it for about a month for a paper I'm turning in to-day. I'm writing now at the tech mall at school which is extraordinarily crowded with students using computers for study and some, I guess, using them to register for classes. I registered for spring myself yesterday--only British Literature II. I'd planned on getting a math class, too, but I still need to take the math assessment. I guess I've lagged on studying for it, but I don't think I could've done much more to make myself feel ready to get any useful result on the test. I have been studying. Mainly I find myself just cursing math, my ancient foe. Aside from British Literature II, the only other class I need now for my associates degree is a math class for which, without the assessment, I may need to take two other math classes to get into. Hopefully I can find time over the next few months to bring myself up to pace.

I am looking forward to British Literature II. There are plenty of great American authors but the British just have so much more delightful weirdness. Wuthering Heights is much weirder, for example, than Little Women. Alcott's story is about a family and a young woman in that family becoming a writer. Bronte's has ghosts, delusions, reincarnation--and it's not even strictly gothic or romantic. And there's so much in British Literature of the time the playfully bucks expectations of genre. I'm reminded of how Peter Straub once described Jane Eyre as a great horror novel.

Twitter Sonnet #451

Softened injustice stymies for some time.
Broiled police absorb all the basil.
Mushroom clouds conceal nuclear mime.
Nose motions gone through are sharply nasal.
Blue vomit streams along the carbon barre.
Elongated toes pinion slats of wheat.
Weary Willie clouds took drops just so far.
Ice eggs give nuclei an inverse heat.
Toady ploughs affirm the successful grain.
Skies shot by crazy ships know what's real now.
Violet eyes swing at the tips of the mane.
Voices fade behind collagen men's row.
Rainy horses assemble on a track.
Undead earthworms plot a crochet attack.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Pterodactyl, the Mummy, and the Woman who Dealt with Them

I'm tempted to say that if it had really believed in itself, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (Les Aventures extraordinaires d'Adèle Blanc-Sec) could have been a pretty great film. But I think the motives and sense of humour that made the film are simply very different from what I think is the most worthwhile way of spending an hour and forty-five minutes telling the story of a sexy adventuress in 1912. It's not a bad movie, but it's not quite as good as "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", the recent Doctor Who episode, though tonally it's somewhat similar and oddly enough seems more like something produced on the budget of a television series.

The movie begins well. The pterodactyl hatching in a museum, learning to fly from looking at a painting, and exhibiting a psychic connexion to the necromancer across town who re-imbued the egg with life--shown flapping his arms around his flat as the pterodactyl takes flight--is all very charming. That the pterodactyl attacks a government official in a cab with a chorus girl from the Moulin Rouge has a deliciously morbid comedy about it.

Also, the meanwhile in Egypt plot, which introduces us to Mademoiselle Blanc-Sec, is nicely Indiana Jones-ish despite some corny jokes (or maybe partly because of them) where she tries to get her camel to move by yelling at it in Arabic.

And in spite of the incredibly cheap and unconvincing mummy's tomb, the sort of shooting and set design reminiscent of another of director Luc Besson's films, The Fifth Element, oddly giving the scene a very small feel.

Largely the scene works because Louise Bourgoin, in the role of Blanc-Sec, adopts the intelligent and commanding mien that believably intimidates the misogynist male adventurers with her. Her antics to escape from her story's resident Belloq are cartoonish in an Uncle Scrooge Adventures way and pleasantly lead to the first instance of her catch phrase--"Quickly, into my arms!" when an absurd circumstance forces her to embrace a mummy.

It's when the movie brings Adele to Paris that the problems begin as a very nice, character driven adventure tale is sabotaged by exceptionally ineffective low brow humour. We see Adele repeatedly thrown out of a prison in different disguises as she attempts to spring the necromancer, who was arrested and put on death row because the cops saw the pterodactyl tear up his apartment and apparently decided he was somehow responsible for the pterodactyl's existence and crimes. Blanc-Sec is never arrested for attempting to spring a man from death row, and in her last attempt to break him out, she finds a new man occupies the necromancer's cell, and this man suggests she ask the president of France to pardon the necromancer. So she immediately goes to see the president and, it turns out, the two are old friends which makes us wonder why she didn't try this in the first place--possibly it was because the film wished to avoid dwelling on the dubious reasons for the necromancer's imminent execution.

Blanc-Sec needs him in order to resurrect the mummy she brought back from Egypt, a mummy she believes is a doctor possessing advanced medical knowledge lost to antiquity. She needs his help to revive her beloved sister, who had been comatose since her brain was impelled with a hat pin during a tennis match, another lovely morbid moment.

The last portion the film is pretty good--the cgi looks cheap but it's lovingly and effectively animated. There's also some nice, playful sexuality you don't tend to see in American children's films when Adele strips for the mummy.

If the last portion of the movie didn't also contain a dopey subplot about a big game hunter pursuing the pterodactyl, it would have almost made up for the dumb business in the middle of the movie.

Anyway, if, by some miracle, this film actually gets a sequel, I can see something truly good coming of it, there's already enough good elements to work with here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Darkness and the Tree

The cat who was the darkness.

It's my sister's cat, Saffy, resting with her nose on a Christmas light, actually.

I spent about four hours last night finishing the extraordinary amount of reading assigned for class this week--and I'd read some of it for two hours each night beginning on Friday. I am a very slow reader, it's true. Though I suspect the issue is more that most people read too fast.

Assigned were Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller writing about Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Louisa May Alcott's short story "My Contraband". The theme here is pretty obvious. I think of all of them, Douglass impressed me the most. I honestly think the guy was an ubermensch. Who but someone who's risen above both master and slave mentality could humanise his oppressors so, as he's able to discuss how the institution perverted the heart of what he believed would otherwise have been a kind woman in one of his owners? I was also very impressed by a bit where he advanced his education by challenging white kids on the street, saying he could read just as well as them, then receiving lessons in the form of their gloatingly proving him wrong. As a slave, he describes the situation as being an intense, continual sting to his pride, yet he was able to strategically set that aside to manipulate the kids for his ultimate benefit.

Anyway, despite all the material we're supposed to cover this week, we spent the whole class period to-day discussing Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiography I'd already read for British Literature I--his text appears in both the Norton Anthology of British Literature and the Norton Anthology of American Literature. I feel he belongs more in the former simply for the style of his writing, which seems to reflect the greater sensuality of English literature at the time as compared to American. The discussion in class to-day focused on it as a work of propaganda, as apparently many of the facts are fabricated, most notably his place of birth, in order to create an emotional appeal in the interest of abolitionism. And indeed, of the pieces assigned for this week, Equiano's is the worst written, with broad emotional ploys, little characterisation or complexity, stuff which gave Douglass' work a much greater impact. I can't for the life of me understand why we needed to spend a whole class period on Equiano--the teacher seemed a little peeved even when I tried to steer the conversation at one point to Douglass.

We finally got to talking about James Frey, the excerpt from whose book had been assigned early in the semester. The idea was to talk about the value of emotional truth versus literal truth. The conversation was somewhat awkward for me as I think Equiano was only partially successful and James Frey thoroughly failed with respect to this emotional truth. It occurred to me the outrage about James Frey was misdirected self-loathing. Oprah, and the members of her book club, forced themselves to respond emotionally to something their humanity must have at some level recognised as an incredibly inept piece of writing because they had faith in the supremacy of the "truth". When they found out they were supposed to judge Frey's work entirely on its quality after all, they were outraged by the energy they'd lost to their own shallowness, probably without understanding it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

There's More to Women than Santa Claus Dreams

I love Ida Lupino, but I think I underestimated her 1953 film The Bigamist, which she directed and starred in. Maybe because of the title and subject matter I was expecting something more soap operatic, but instead the movie isn't only a rather delightful subversion of contemporary sexual prejudices, it's a nuanced and effective set of character portraits, and a film noir for its portrayal of a guilty character with an internal sense of decency that tortures him on his path of inevitable ruin.

Harry, played by Edmond O'Brien, is the central character of the film, being the bigamist of the title, but Lupino's character, Phyllis, comes off as the most interesting despite not having the featured moral conflict. Harry is married to both her and Joan Fontaine's character Eve--I didn't dislike Eve. She's more fragile seeming than Phyllis, despite apparently running most of Harry's sales business.

Her obsession with this business is what creates an emotional need in pair-bondy Harry; he's filled with what he describes as an unbearable loneliness that he can't satisfy with loose women or prostitutes, and so he decides he'll flirt aggressively with Phyllis when he's on a business trip to Los Angeles.

This is one of the best scenes in the film and a great example of how a director's interpretation of the screenplay can drastically affect its meaning. As written by Lupino's ex-husband Collier Young, the scene where Harry meets Phyllis on a bus tour of celebrity homes could have been a pretty standard meet-cute as he tries to chat her up about movies and she rebuffs him with a few cold replies but is forced to accept his light twice for her cigarette. Standard movie language here would be--this is the fella not giving up and the lady finally falling under his virility.

Instead, O'Brien comes off as awkward and oafish--a moment where he forces himself over to the other side of the bus to sit beside her could have been downplayed, but Lupino arranges it to look like the rather shocking intrusion on her personal space that it is. Her reaction in tolerating him begins the story of how they end up together--the nicest thing she says to him on the bus is, "I'm not afraid of you," and you can tell she means it, despite what he'd just done. His behaviour is more significant to her for its thoughtlessness than its violence. Lupino, as usual, comes off as a remarkably intelligent person and one can see in her eyes she has a far better acquaintance with human nature than he does.

It makes deeper sense of a later line she has, telling him that she's been in love before and has been hurt before. Without the actors directly saying anything to indicate it, we see that she feels safe with him, in spite of her reluctance to enter into a relationship, because he seems dumb.

She doesn't dream of how dumb, though. Instead of a sociopathic womaniser, Harry's a guy addicted to receiving emotional validation from women through his genuine empathy for them. Lupino's character goes the smart route in subverting stereotype--she's the strong one, but she still has human vulnerability in not being able to see all ends.

Edmund Gwenn, Santa Claus himself from Miracle on 34th Street, is in the film as an investigator for an adoption agency, checking out Harry when he and Eve see go to see about adopting a child. Though he obviously can't approve the adoption, he finds a man in Harry who defies both the naughty and nice columns on his list. As he says essentially this to Harry, he functions as someone giving voice to the reaction of the audience. As Gwenn says, we despise Harry, but we can't say exactly that he's a bad man.

Harry's a weak man, and interestingly weak in precisely the way women are portrayed as being in films at the time. The shoe's on the other foot here as it's the lack of emotional fortitude in the man that causes all the problems rather than what was generally considered to be a lack of emotional fortitude fundamentally characteristic of women.

I love that the movie doesn't solve the problem. We don't see which woman Harry ends up with, if either of them, but we see also that they both still feel affection for him. Any move in any direction would have been rather dull, and reduced the story. It's nice the movie leaves us with the troubling question of what happens next.

Twitter Sonnet #450

Dominant metabolisms linger.
Grey dust stretches in a chalk galaxy.
Velvet void twists into a thin finger.
The dimming star sighs as a meek proxy.
Incalculable yellow cacti crack.
Brittle needles drain of their wet colour.
Cucumber soaked threads thicken to attack;
Cakey stucco crumbles at their valour.
Insubstantial muscles squish under foot.
Dehydrated gates of membrane tremble.
Marble bowels waste away in pink soot.
Tendon stilts leave dryad trees a symbol.
Distracting stellar liverwursts intrude.
Screaming kidneys nocturnally collude.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Craft Love

To those interested in the craft of writing, it's difficult to explain the difference between "writing for yourself" and a narcissistic self absorption. The former is very important, the latter is almost inevitably detrimental. A good demonstration of both concepts is H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a novel which I really don't fault Lovecraft for not particularly wanting to publish in his lifetime.

The Wikipedia entry quotes Lovecraft as calling it a "cumbrous, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism." This finely describes the first two thirds of the book, which spends a great deal more time than necessary with the story of Charles Dexter Ward's obsession with his family's history and with pre-Revolutionary America, making him seem an obvious avatar for Lovecraft himself, and his resurrection of his wizard ancestor Joseph Curwen and an attendant attention to ancient tales of the man feel much like wish fulfilment for Lovecraft. Why doesn't this stuff connect with the reader?

Much of Curwen's history is presented in a dry, formal style, like a real historical account and collection of historical researches. Oddly, so is Charles Dexter Ward.

One must look back at Charles Ward's earlier life as at something belonging as much to the past as the antiquities he loved so keenly. In the autumn of 1918, and with a considerable show of zest in the military training of the period, he had begun his junior year at the Moses Brown School, which lies very near his home. The old main building, erected in 1819, had always charmed his youthful antiquarian sense; and the spacious park in which the academy is set appealed to his sharp eye for landscape. His social activities were few; and his hours were spent mainly at home, in rambling walks, in his classes and drills, and in pursuit of antiquarian and genealogical data at the City Hall, the State House, the Public Library, the Athenaeum, the Historical Society, the John Carter Brown and John Hay Libraries of Brown University, and the newly opened Shepley Library in Benefit Street. One may picture him yet as he was in those days; tall, slim, and blond, with studious eyes and a slight droop, dressed somewhat carelessly, and giving a dominant impression of harmless awkwardness rather than attractiveness.

The omniscient third person never quite connects with a POV character. We feel we're studying creatures in a glass and we're never quite sure why. Lovecraft takes it for granted that we're supposed to want to hear all about this history of made up people. The most engaging character of the book actually turns out to be the protagonist, Dr. Willett, about whom we know relatively little. But he becomes a genuine POV character in what is by far the book's best sequence, occurring roughly three fourths in where Lovecraft finally abandons the tone of a history book and allows himself poetic conceits and sensory detail as Dr. Willett explores Curwen's subterranean lair.

If he had expected a flight of steps to some wide gulf of ultimate abomination, Willett was destined to be disappointed; for amidst that foetor and cracked whining he discerned only the brick-faced top of a cylindrical well perhaps a yard and a half in diameter and devoid of any ladder or other means of descent. As the light shone down, the wailing changed suddenly to a series of horrible yelps; in conjunction with which there came again that sound of blind, futile scrambling and slippery thumping. The explorer trembled, unwilling even to imagine what noxious thing might be lurking in that abyss, but in a moment mustered up the courage to peer over the rough-hewn brink; lying at full length and holding the torch downward at arm's length to see what might lie below. For a second he could distinguish nothing but the slimy, moss-grown brick walls sinking illimitably into that half-tangible miasma of murk and foulness and anguished frenzy; and then he saw that something dark was leaping clumsily and frantically up and down at the bottom of the narrow shaft, which must have been from twenty to twenty-five feet below the stone floor where he lay. The torch shook in his hand, but he looked again to see what manner of living creature might be immured there in the darkness of that unnatural well; left starving by young Ward through all the long month since the doctors had taken him away, and clearly only one of a vast number prisoned in the kindred wells whose pierced stone covers so thickly studded the floor of the great vaulted cavern. Whatever the things were, they could not lie down in their cramped spaces; but must have crouched and whined and waited and feebly leaped all those hideous weeks since their master had abandoned them unheeded.

Lovecraft is a master at the sort of horror created from keeping us from seeing something too directly, but this is assisted immensely in its effectiveness by having it transmitted through the reactions of a character, stringing the information in a sequence that makes sense based on what someone's mind would grasp for in the circumstance. It helps trick the brain into mentally engaging with the situation.

After Willett loses his flashlight, the descriptions of him trying to find his way in the darkness are incredibly good.

. . . he staggered to his feet after a time; lamenting bitterly his fright-lost torch and looking wildly about for any gleam of light in the clutching inkiness of the chilly air. Think he would not; but he strained his eyes in every direction for some faint glint or reflection of the bright illumination he had left in the library. After a while he thought he detected a suspicion of a glow infinitely far away, and toward this he crawled in agonised caution on hands and knees amidst the stench and howling, always feeling ahead lest he collide with the numerous great pillars or stumble into the abominable pit he had uncovered.

Once his shaking fingers touched something which he knew must be the steps leading to the hellish altar, and from this spot he recoiled in loathing. At another time he encountered the pierced slab he had removed, and here his caution became almost pitiful. But he did not come upon the dread aperture after all, nor did anything issue from that aperture to detain him. What had been down there made no sound nor stir. Evidently its crunching of the fallen electric torch had not been good for it. Each time Willett's fingers felt a perforated slab he trembled. His passage over it would sometimes increase the groaning below, but generally it would produce no effect at all, since he moved very noiselessly. Several times during his progress the glow ahead diminished perceptibly, and he realised that the various candles and lamps he had left must be expiring one by one. The thought of being lost in utter darkness without matches amidst this underground world of nightmare labyrinths impelled him to rise to his feet and run, which he could safely do now that he had passed the open pit; for he knew that once the light failed, his only hope of rescue and survival would lie in whatever relief party Mr. Ward might send after missing him for a sufficient period. Presently, however, he emerged from the open space into the narrower corridor and definitely located the glow as coming from a door on his right.

There's a lot of subtle alliteration seemingly reflecting the slippery creature Willett had witnessed; "Once his shaking fingers touched something which he knew must be the steps leading to the hellish altar". It all creates something more beautiful than the bulk of the beginning of the book.

So this is what I would say is the difference between writing for yourself and indulging in self-absorption--the former instance is about satisfying yourself in the crafting of something that conveys what's important to you about your dream, and the latter is about buying yourself a birthday cake. It doesn't communicate anything to anyone, not even you, beyond flattery.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Vagabond Triumvirate

A soft spoken disk jockey, a mild mannered pimp, and a gregarious little Italian man are all wrongly incarcerated under different circumstances and together manage to escape from a New Orleans prison. Everything about this setup is unlikely, but Jim Jarmusch's 1986 film Down by Law, for all the realism of its minimalist, black and white footage shot at locations with a credible grit, isn't really meant to be a realistic story. It's a sort of fairy tale, a delightful rumination on the relationship of three well drawn characters and their journey.

Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni play the DJ, the pimp, and the Italian, respectively. The first fourth of the film shows separately the lives of Waits' and Lurie's characters with only a brief appearance from Benigni's character. This segment feels like the beginning of The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing, an ensemble film noir where we get a look into the lives of the various protagonists down on their luck. The prison segment, particularly the escape, recalls vaguely the likes of I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but there's absolutely no attention paid to how they escape exactly nor is there a particularly suspenseful build-up. The movie allows itself to linger behind bars with the men, the two Americans of whom being reticent to speak at all to each other, and we see how a relationship gradually forms between them through physical fights and verbal pissing matches.

Benigni's character is eager to make friends, though, and his energy supplies enough motivation for all three of them even through a slight language barrier. Taken out of the insufferably sentimental context of his own films, Benigni's warmth is truly delightful contrasted with the other two men.

Waits' physical mannerisms and simultaneously clichéd and bizarre conversational conceits work well here and he exudes the air of an artist completely content in his ability. Lurie, meanwhile, gives very little, functioning as basically the straight man.

It very much has the feel of a New Wave film except without perhaps as dedicated an attempt at psychological analysis or social commentary. Particularly after the escape, as the three wander through the woods, the movie feels like watching characters roam about in a contained, anthropological experiment. The pleasure derived, though, isn't the voyeuristic sort of pleasure one might get from watching three people interact unawares--rather, since they each are such strange men, the interactions between them feel dreamlike, the movie mostly feeling like an exercise in creating mood through the contrasts. It feels very cool.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Twitter Sonnet #449

M shaped birds drip across the davenport.
Faded puzzles unwind a dark curved vein.
Butchers step back to the press room resort.
Business shadows decide which nut is sane.
Horseshoe moustache manacles misplace prose.
Animal logos rends pathetic gum.
Turkey nightwalkers bleed into their hose.
Cobless corn concludes in a yellow sum.
Draping gizzards glimmer on the brown cloud.
Raspberry spray pricks the cackling dummies.
Unwholesome limbs slip under a cold shroud.
Pepper runs in molten form on mummies.
Fleshless candles calculate loveless wax.
Beady scales secure a plucked skin pocked tax.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Female Cthulhu

So much of Victorian horror seems involved with what a terribly frightening thing sex is, or at least enjoying sex, which seems to be the case with "The Great God Pan", a deservedly renowned novella by Arthur Machen. Its influence on H.P. Lovecraft in particular is incredibly evident, though perhaps some would say it doesn't endure in popularity like Lovecraft because the unthinkable terror which Machen is dealing with, Pan, is a manifestation of a more spiritual or even religious nature than Lovecraft's terrors tend to be, though I would argue Lovecraft's horror is derived a great deal from touching upon religious or spiritual nerves in the brain.

One might also argue for the existence of sexuality in Lovecraft's work in a psychologically tangential way, but its right at the fore in "The Great God Pan" which has a great deal to do with the horror of women invading the business of men. It begins with a scientist rather brashly asserting his right to conduct medical experiments on a woman because he picked her up of the streets and supported her financially, something I think was intended to be sinister, but only so far as to say that it was folly of man that precipitated events that warped women into an unnaturally masculine--sexually assertive--state. Though Pan is a male figure, we see his more corporeal influence in the work through a female character, who lures both men and women with her wiles to their ruin and doom.

In that she only appears in the story sort of second hand, from characters talking about her rather than having any dialogue of her own, the story shows a keen construction for evoking horror. In allowing her--and Pan--to exist purely through the reactions of characters established as relatively normal English gentlemen helps create the sense that she's something awful, dangerous, and unquantifiable, a nice impression tempered somewhat by knowledge of the Victorian sexual repression that motivates it, something which I think may be more responsible for dampening the work's modern impact relative to Lovecraft's. It's appreciable almost ironically--one actually sort of likes Helen, cavorting with nude nature gods in the woods, seducing innocent young village maidens and smug upper crust society men.

The implication seems to be that, in her sexual assertiveness, Helen is sort of half-man, being not merely an offspring but also a sort of manifestation of Pan, a pagan Christ, probably coming from the Victorian belief in the impossibility of the female orgasm. So, yeah, I like Helen. Someone should write something really fun and revisionist about her, if someone hasn't already.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Now That's Some Bird

I guess I know how Vincent Price handled a duck. But the fact that he spends the entirety of a four minute scene holding a dead duck is just one of the odd things about 1951's His Kind of Woman, erroneously referred to by Wikipedia as a film noir. Really, there's no kind of movie like His Kind of Women, unless perhaps it's another Howard Hughes movie. For although John Farrow's the credited director and Richard Fleischer reshot much of the movie, if there's one recognisable creative voice dominating the movie, it's that of producer Howard Hughes. And this is one of his good ones, the stream of bizarre plot devices, innocently ham-fisted sexuality, and breathtakingly tone deaf humour are all anchored by performances from Price, Robert Mitchum, and Jane Russell.

In fact, the movie could've used a lot more Jane Russell, and I'm not talking about seeing her naked, though that wouldn't have been bad. Her acting ability had improved a great deal since her debut in Hughes' The Outlaw while she had retained the bust that made her a star. With the fact that the movie is called His Kind of Woman, one would expect her to factor in rather prominently, instead of the movie being about a gambler named Milner (Mitchum) being paid 50,000 dollars to go to Mexico as part of an elaborate scheme involving an exiled Italian mob boss's (Raymond Burr) attempt to get back into the states. It's a scheme that involves a Nazi scientist removing Milner's face and grafting it onto the mobster's.

Most of the movie takes place at a large Mexican resort hotel, where the Nazi, two of the mobster's henchmen--one of whom is played by Charles McGraw, who inexplicably provides the film's opening narration--a card sharp, a hot dame named Lenore (Russell), and a famous actor named Mark Cardigan (Price) mingle in a very stagebound parlour room mystery as Milner tries to put the pieces together with lethargically inconsistent motivation that maybe only Robert Mitchum could rope.

At first he accepts the job with no explanation ("I'm not knocking it, man, I'm just trying to understand it"). But it's not long after he gets to Mexico that he's beating guys up trying get answers. What changed his mind? Who knows. One has the sense Mitchum's perspective was based entirely on what he'd had to eat or drink a half hour earlier.

There's none of the twenty tonne steel eyelid SEXUAL INNUENDO alarm winks from The Outlaw, instead the bizarrely corny humour is played absolutely cool by Mitchum and is only sexual in a couple places. My favourite moment is when Milner decides to rescue a young, innocent couple from the machinations of the card sharp, so he joins in the game. When the stakes get high and the sharp puts his leather wallet in the pot, Milner says, "Well if you're betting leather . . . we call," and takes off his shoe and puts it on the table.

The sharp says, "But there's a thousand dollars inside my leather," and in maybe one of the greatest "what the fuck" moments of cinema history, Mitchum coolly responds, "And there's a thousand dollars in my leather," and takes a thousand dollar bill out of his shoe.

There's this mild beat of cool silliness throughout the film that blossoms to full formed goofiness as Price's role gets bigger. Determined to rescue Milner from the mobster's yacht, the actor puts on a cape and takes charge of a cadre of Mexican police, the first genuine Mexicans to show up in the film after the embarrassingly bad Spanish heard at the beginning. They're played for laughs, lazily drawn Keystone Cops, but they're background to Price's excited actor broadly quoting Shakespeare and paraphrasing other great literary works. It's too over the top to work, but one admires the self control Price exhibits as he stands at the prow of a sinking, over-laden rowboat.

Meanwhile, on the yacht, there's a pretty good, deadly serious chase going on between Milner and the mobsters. Mitchum believably plays some clever action business, including when Milner upsets a row boat of gangsters as he's being forced up the ladder to the yacht, and when he later uses his revolver to blow a hole in a steam pipe to create a distraction.

The last forty minutes or so of the movie barely feature Jane Russell after Price locks her in the closet to keep her out of trouble. Which is too bad, because in a strapless shimmering gown she looks like a live action Jessica Rabbit, and looks fantastic holding a big revolver.

Twitter Sonnet #448

Nourishment metastasises ten cents.
Rusty soup subsumes the basil droplet.
Tyrant tomatoes muddy the volt rinse.
Power will yet push the poorer piglet.
Damaged chips of vinyl linger in Rome.
Knowledge jams a heart burnt green tiara.
Acid seeps through the old hourglass dome.
Martian Pez dispenses candy Terra.
Narcotic talisman cots weave evil.
Mammoth carpet bespeaks a stone snuff film.
Caution tallies likeable totes for ill.
Clay breasts born of flame fill out the old kiln.
Twenty percent tomato sauced the mint.
Chocolate pays the intolerable rent.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bonus Public Service Announcement that's Unrelated to Ducks

To the two students I overheard talking at school to-day; yes, quantum physics is a thing. No, it's not a way for you to earn more money, stop smoking, or confirm the existence of an afterlife. The possible existence of alternate realities has little or nothing to do with this reality. And that's a good thing. While it's true there may be a reality where you're a multi-billionaire rock star, it's just as likely there's a you who has sex with children and kitchen appliances, runs a concentration camp, and smokes three times as many packs a day.

Thank you.

Duck Matters

I'm never going to understand the appeal of Agent Coulson. I don't know why articles like this take it as understood that he's the best thing to come out of the Avengers movie. All I can think is that Disney's greased a lot of media palms in order to promote the S.H.I.E.L.D. television series. He still seems like a guy from a cell phone commercial to me.

Replying to my post yesterday, Felis pointed out to me that there are other, better options than Animal Control for the ducks. So I googled and found the page for the San Diego humane society and got up early to-day to check to see if the ducks were still there before I called. When I got down to the river, the ducks were still there and there was a woman tossing them breadcrumbs. I told her about my concerns and she said she'd been raising ducks and geese all her life and had thought of taking the pair home but didn't have room for them. She told me the white ducks had been among the other ducks for about a week--it'd been a while since I'd had time to go down to the river to feed the ducks. She pointed out the white ducks were very young, that they had some fluffy down still, which is true.

They're much bigger than the other ducks, but I guess that could be due to the breed. The woman assured me their clipped wings will grow back and that they were adjusting well.

So I walked away feeling a bit conflicted. I mean, is it weird there was a woman there who was ready to allay all my fears and suspicions? I started to wonder if she was the one who'd released the ducks and was throwing me off track. Maybe I watch too much television.

I finished the third season of The Sopranos last night. It really is a mystery sometimes what makes a TV show good. There's a lot about that show that's inconsistent or just poorly thought out. The penultimate episode of the third season ended with one of Tony's henchmen pulling a gun on his suicidal bipolar girlfriend to tell her to stay away from Tony and his family. This was after it had been established that the whole reason she started going out with Tony and then antagonising him was that she had a death wish. Then we get the business about how her negativity and how she was impossible to please was what attracted Tony to her because it reminded him of his mother. Except she didn't exhibit any of this when he first met her--he seemed into her because she was hot and that was pretty much all. All we know about her in her first couple episodes is that she's attractive and works at a Mercedes dealership. And it's a bit of a leap to say this is a pattern for Tony when his other girlfriend and his wife don't exhibit these qualities.

Carmella, Tony's wife, is possibly the most hazily written character among a group of hazily written characters. Lois Griffin has a more solid foundation. We go from the first season where she says she doesn't "mind the gumars"--Tony's mistresses--because they answer needs he has that she can't to where she's intensely jealous of every phone call from a woman she doesn't know.

We have the rape plot with Tony's psychiatrist that never goes anywhere. We have great inconsistency in how open Tony is about his activities as a mobster with his psychiatrist. Why couldn't he have told her that Ralphie, without mentioning his name, was responsible for the "work related death" he'd been mentioned in an earlier session and that's why he was upset with him?

And yet the show is compulsively watchable. Mostly when it's being pulpy and doesn't pretend to be more than it is. The episode where Paulie Walnuts and Chris are lost in the woods trying to track a Russian commando they were supposed to kill was great. These mob guys who act like they're the shit all the time suddenly faced with a real life or death situation they might not be able to handle--there's a lot of great tension and fundamental comedy to it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Don't Abandon Your Ducks

I saw this pair of white ducks had joined the community at the river to-day. I was pretty delighted at first but as I watched them snatching bread out of my hand without the slightest hint of trepidation I started getting a bad feeling.

I'm no expert on the subject but I'm pretty sure their wings are clipped. They're very clean and much larger than the other ducks. I started to think these were abandoned pets. I tested the theory by reaching out to pet them and found they were completely comfortable with my touch. They did flee from me to the water once I no longer had bread and I made sudden movements.

That was about an hour ago. I'm worried about them, but I'm not sure what to do. I called animal control but they're only open Tuesday through Saturday. I considered trying to bring them home but I didn't see how I could get both of them. Once I got one, the other wouldn't likely trust me after the inevitable ruckus. I considered they might be better off with the community of other ducks, too. Really, the one and only reason I'm worried about them out there is the possibility of some psycho teenagers getting ahold of them. But I wonder how likely that really is, at least in the span of a couple days. I'll try animal control again on Tuesday, if they're still around.

There is also the possibility I'm wrong and they're just friendly. Plenty of wild ducks have taken bread out of my hand. But those wings sure don't look right to me.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bright Light, Bright Light

Shots like this are a big stumbling block for me when I watch the Lord of the Rings movies. I can't help feeling like there's a car on the other side of the hill with its headlamps on.

Good thing someone thought to light those lanterns or . . . or something. I know the idea is this is supposed to be moonlight exaggerated so we can see everything--and sometimes the full moon can be pretty bright. But how much creepier would it have been if the Nazgul were barely perceptible howling shapes moving in the darkness?

I also wish there weren't so many close-ups. So much FACE in that movie. There is a reason I keep watching these films, though--mainly I'd say its sets and costumes and most of the actors and of course Tolkien.

I don't have much to say to-day, so here's some bonus metered nonsense I wrote for the regular Winterfell poetry slam;

The Floor

Reclining crashes blink lightning at top.
Dashes of rain like pins sew in fathoms.
Limbs of noodle veins wriggle through a drop.
Bruises crinkle acres of cloud bottoms.
Driftwood disintegrates in graceful arcs.
Unproved ghosts glimmer in still inertia.
Yesterday's galleons, long boats, and barques
Ships of Europe, Africa and Persia.
Bilious zoophytes pilfer lace and gold.
Ephemeral flesh is divvied by tooth.
Carapace counters take tax from each hold.
Traffic untangles without care or ruth.
Wormy lanterns lash the promise from air
And the naked skulls too cold for nightmare.

Pure War and Martini Peace

Paper's burning on the small telescope.
Naked names cross the synapses for help.
Leaves with no digits traverse vows for hope.
Although Shatner's shame is his naked scalp.
Bowls of hair hold the long logic for now.
Crushing the granite nulls the rock quarry.
Cutting comes when the wig slinks down the brow.
Jagged's the edges of crowns of worry.
Stone king seats sag under Schwarzeneggers.
Muscles built for orgasms blind the bone.
Dotty came back to work they say "preggers".
Molten steel soon stops the veins of our home.
Cromwell cast cannon of a pious shell.
But Churchill always had an olive smell.

Twitter Sonnet #447

Hourglass calculations sting the dog.
Frowning moons scream at suns for mistrial.
Misty assembly lines put thumbs in fog.
Innocent surgeons gut with no guile.
Tireless lassos swan over a kite.
Narrow rattles take apart the babies.
Whiney singers sob of Superman's might.
Silent rifles firmly finish rabies.
Dizzy dalmation showers are pointless.
Misdirected petrol tanks the book spine.
White dogs dilute into warming darkness.
Pretty dancers chuckle under the Rhein.
Elongated canines cover cat thoughts.
The quadruped plans have all gone to pots.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Delilah and Some Psycho

So gorgeous, possessed of such an exceedingly alluring air of graceful perversity was Hedy Lamarr in 1949's Samson and Delilah that she easily dominates Cecil B. DeMille's biblical adaptation featuring mass murder, destruction, and real lion wrestling. DeMille greatly expanded the role of Delilah in this tale of Samson and it's not hard to see why. An unashamedly racist and misogynist religious film becomes a gleeful fetishist fantasy thanks to Lamarr with a little support from an admiring George Sanders.

Sanders plays the king of the Philistines, who tax and occasionally beat the Israelites for which God will send Samson in as his agent of holy mass murder. Sanders is so seductive in his smugness, though, that one prefers to feel smug along with him, which DeMille handles by making him seem oddly sympathetic to Samson and seeming to bear a fundamental recognition of the validity of Samson's God and the inevitability of his destruction at Samson's hand, which has the effect of making the whole affair seem like some dark amusement.

Lamarr confidently occupies centre stage of this amusement, casting her spell on lunkhead Victor Mature as Samson who, like a good zealot, never seems to be in on the joke. One might cast aspersions on his intelligence just from the fact that he initially chooses Angela Lansbury over Lamarr, but to be fair, Angela Lansbury was disconcertingly hot at this point.

DeMille's motives are reflective of scary conservative beliefs, wherever Lamarr and Sandars might have taken the final film. But it's kind of nice that, unlike to-day's milksop* libertarians and conservatives, DeMille was at least willing to put his money where his mouth was. There aren't many filmmakers to-day who would have an actor wrestle a live "tame" lion.

I often think of how DeMille, early in his career at the beginning of the twentieth century, was compelled to carry a pistol when shooting outdoors in California to ward off locals who didn't hold with the movie folk and would shoot at film productions from the hills.

Anyway, it's still not as impressive as Hedy Lamarr. I've rarely felt such a strong compulsion to reach through the screen and grab someone.

*As someone who's lactose intolerant, using the term "milksop" to disparage others oddly makes me feel especially superior.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Burger Time

I've just gotten back from city hall where I was part of a group interview for In-N-Out Burger. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the chain, it was the place Walter, Donnie, and the Dude went to eat after confronting the kid who'd stolen the Dude's car in The Big Lebowski. The place is somewhat legendary and for good reason--it's easily the best fast food in the west, and everyone knows it, which is why it's always packed. It also pays damned well--starting at ten dollars an hour. There were two managers with me in the group interview of five applicants--a woman who manages a warehouse and a guy who manages a fast food restaurant called Sonic. He revealed, after years working there, he's still only getting nine dollars an hour.

The other manager said she liked how In-N-Out Burger has scripture on their food and beverage containers. Which is true, and surely a bit creepy, yes--but fuck it, I need money. On the French fry holder is;

Proverbs 24:16—"For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity."

And so the sliced potatoes of Hell shall rain upon the catsup packets of the wicked.

The interviews were conducted at city hall because Santee's location hasn't opened yet. Santee's city hall is near the neighbourhood I grew up in and when I was a kid the place was a little corner store before it was city hall. I used to go up there sometimes with other kids from the neighbourhood. I remember the year the movie Jurassic Park came out the guy who ran the store tried to convince us that the dinosaurs in the movie were real, that the filmmakers had cloned them for the movie and were keeping them on an island. Which brings me back to when cgi was new and seemed so revolutionary--I think a couple of the kids actually bought the story. I remember how wonderful it was thinking that these dinosaurs on screen just looked absolutely real. The funny thing is, they're still a lot more convincing than most cgi nowadays, I think because people cut a lot more corners.

The garden spider in the front yard has been sticking around rather late in the year for his kind. The lesson here; feed honey bees to your spider.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Heaven is a School

It's November 14, and it's another wonderful July day. Well, I guess it has been getting a little colder lately. I may even be able to wear my jacket later to-night.

I guess there's a genre or subgenre of anime/manga now--I don't know what it's called, or if it has a name--but it might be called High School Club. I think it began with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, now it seems like a default way for shows to get students in a typically idealised high school setting together. I think it reflects an increasing sensibility of internalising and reluctance to socialise--in an older series like Ranma 1/2, the characters were a community of the whole school and parts of the city. Now the characters are contained in these clubs with the school as the exterior world. Though keeping the exterior limited to the safe and idealised school may be designed to create a slightly more plausible safe fantasy world for the story.

Anyway, I watched the first episode of the new series Hyouka (氷菓) this morning. In this case, we follow a male protagonist obsessed with "conserving energy", endeavouring to find paths in life that require as little effort from him as possible. He comes off as a cross between a slacker and some sort of secret military tactician, not so much played for laughs--a good avatar I guess for the NEET and/or otaku viewer. The first episode sees him join a club devoted to classic literature, where he meets, of course, a beautiful and guileless girl.

It's not bad as these things go. The animation is great, even for unattractive characters like the janitor. The story seems to focus on investigations of mysteries--again, like Haruhi Suzumiya--and the typical anime framework of each scene being about the character explaining how he knew and/or orchestrated all along what had happened in the previous scene is conducted in the form of layering of these mysteries. In this case, a Ring-ish ghost story which the protagonist deflects by concocting a mystery about a secret club leaving notices on the bulletin boards at the entrance to the school--because the ghost mystery would have them explore the music building and the mystery he concocts would have them go to the entrance of the school where he was planning to go anyway on his way out. Conserving energy.

So there's a nice connexion between plot and character development. It has potential, I'll watch a couple more episodes at least.

Twitter Sonnet #446

Refrigerator refrains release ice.
Nibbles balance the noxiously bright teeth.
Spoiled Jell-O ingests Miami Vice.
Calamine lotion shimmies in its sheath.
Apple paralysis fells the like orange.
Two trips rob pedestrians of stigma.
Rapunzels zero out across the gorge.
No herb overpowers soup with magma.
Frosted awards take toothpicks to the flake.
Horseflies launching at the stones know the bench.
Antennae teeth throw the radio cake.
The puzzle piece hammers reject the wrench.
One leaf is less obtrusive than a score.
Seasons of death are a colossal bore.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Don't Make Him Chop Your Head Off

"Why don't you consent to divorce me like a gentleman?" What a thing for a German noblewoman to say to Henry VIII. But, according to 1933's The Private Life of Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves did. She had converted to Anglicanism for Henry, something not mentioned in the movie, but of course, they actually annulled their brief marriage rather than divorcing. Played by the beautiful Elsa Lanchester, real life wife of Charles Laughton, who played Henry, Anne of Cleves is the only woman portrayed in a truly positive light in this extraordinarily misogynist take on the life of an infamously misogynist king.

The film assembles a number of wonderful British actors--in addition to Laughton and Lanchester, the film features Robert Donat as Thomas Culpeper and Merle Oberon appears briefly at the beginning of the film as Anne Boleyn, not really long enough for us to observe anything about her other than that Oberon was an exceptionally beautiful woman.

Little detail is given of Boleyn and Henry's relationship. Henry is shown callously cavorting with Jane Seymour, portrayed as a consummate bimbo, while Boleyn is prepared for the block, but commoners lining up for the spectacle and the French headsman discussing the delicacy required in beheading a lady are presented at the same time as though to say this was all normal and no-one thought much of it. Boleyn herself is shown to be mostly consumed with her vanity, wondering if her hair will stay in place and remarking on what a pretty little neck she has.

Henry is subsequently shown to be a man who is deeply saddened by the death of Jane Seymour in childbirth and then shown shyly and sweetly courting Catherine Howard and awkwardly handling his marriage to Cleves for political pressures.

It's perhaps in the love triangle of Thomas Culpeper, Catherine Howard, and Henry that the movie most gratuitously turns this into a story about how men are the innocent victims of selfish women. Although some argued that Culpeper and Howard may have been involved before her marriage to Henry, the movie's portrayal of her as a woman who cynically exploits the guileless affections of Henry while simultaneously breaking the heart of the true and decent Culpeper goes to a rather surprising extreme. We see her passions pivoting back towards Culpeper after her marriage to the king, and Culpeper is shown as a noble soul tormented by his loyalty to Henry conflicting with his love for Catherine. It lays it on so thick that we see Henry crying as the lovers are executed, with the movie's message clearly being, "Look what trouble that woman caused."

It's a shame, because Laughton gives a great performance and he really is the spitting image of Henry VIII.

I would really like to see more movies with Elsa Lanchester, I have wanted to since seeing Bride of Frankenstein, but most of them seem to be really hard to find, both on Amazon and on torrent searches. I'd really like to see 1944's Passport to Destiny where she plays a cleaning woman who decides she's going to assassinate Adolf Hitler. How the hell is that unavailable? Who wouldn't want to see that?