Friday, November 30, 2018

When the Books Read You and the Doors Unlock the Keys

I read the new Sirenia Digest to-day, which featured the above very appropriate image from Frederic Leighton and a Caitlin R. Kiernan story from 2009. Not new but I hadn't read it; "The Key to the Castleblakeney Key". A very good story; in addition to the usual influence of H.P. Lovecraft I also felt there was something of Mark Z Danielewski's House of Leaves. Caitlin's story, like that novel, uses the language of analysis and correspondence to weave a tale consisting of reviews and letters revolving around a mysterious object, an apparently mummified hand. And like Danielewski's book, I love how it picks up on the story that exists within analysis, the narrative made up of the personalities people assert over the supposed subject seemingly without realising it.

I've heard a deconstructionist dismiss the idea that the consciously asserted agenda of theory is intended to assert a dominant narrative over the original story but I think we can say for sure now that's not true. We just need to look at Natalie Portman expressing retrospective horror that she participated in Garden State because it featured her as a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl". I've never seen Garden State but I'd ask her, if the concept was so bad, what drew her to it in the first place?

Anyway, this stuff is ripe for ghost stories of haunted heads--such stories were rare because such analysis always seemed so fringe. But now it seems to be mainstream, at least in some version of reality crafted by the internet, so maybe subversions of it can gain some prominence, too. "The Key to the Castleblakeney Key" is also a bittersweet story of two of the people corresponding, or failing to correspond, and features a beautifully eerie dream sequence that's simultaneously a nice reference to Lovecraft and the mythos Caitlin created for her novels.

Twitter Sonnet #1180

A single bean was spotted 'mongst the waves.
A mind compared to blending drops afloat.
The smiling boat's discerning whom it saves.
The sinking screen was far from couch remote.
A fifty cherry system sated none.
For lunch a scavenged fruit availed the serf.
A grid of candied thread adorned the bun.
Your waitress, Venus, waits within the surf.
The citrus core ignites the flooded thought.
In time for ads the rushing candy stuck.
For bursting bites, the stars were cheaply bought.
The fillings fell for gum and taffy muck.
The days were counted seventeen and two.
Subtraction brought the sun to rise for you.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Secretary with Benefits

Expend some sympathy, if you will, for the poor man who's spent his life devoted to making love to beautiful women who then finds Brigitte Bardot is contractually obligated to have sex with him in between taking dictation for his new novel. Such is the sad fate of a man named Jerome in 1969's Les Femmes, a simultaneously kinkier and less interesting version of Paris When it Sizzles.

Jerome (Maurice Ronet) is an author famous for writing about his romantic affairs but, now in debt, he finds himself frustrated by writer's block because he's tired of women. His publisher devises a solution--hire a woman to be both secretary and prostitute for Jerome.

Clara (Bardot) answers the wanted ad but doesn't hear about the sex part until she's in the publisher's office. In what will be a nonsensical running gag, she's shocked, she's offended, she asks how dare he ask her such a thing and, yes, she absolutely agrees to do it.

In the screenplay, this is nowhere near substantial enough of a reason to give as to why Clara's different from Jerome's other lovers. But much as Audrey Hepburn's Audrey Hepburn-ishness made her character work in Paris When it Sizzles, it's entirely Brigitte Bardot's Brigitte Bardot-ishness that sells the premise of this picture.

The highlight of the film is a long scene where Jerome chases Clara through a train. Why is she running? Why is he chasing? It's not entirely clear but it's goofy and fun. The novel he dictates to her consists of flashbacks to his other lovers, who get a lot more naked than Bardot, of course, but none can truly compete.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Letters for Krabappel

I wouldn't describe Bart Simpson's behaviour as generally virtuous. This might seem like an obvious statement but I've been watching third season episodes of The Simpsons lately and marvelling at how different it is from animated comedy to-day, even other shows from Matt Groening. There's plenty of examples of kids being cruel on new shows but there's generally a sense that the only difference between the kids and adults is physical height--I feel like writers have generally abandoned the attempt to realistically render kids in contrast to adults. Certainly, adults can be ridiculous, too, or flawed or immature. But there's a difference and you can see it in the 1992 episode "Bart the Lover".

After breaking a classroom fish tank with a yo-yo, Bart (Nancy Cartwright) is forced to stay after school, alone with his teacher, Mrs. Krabappel (Marcia Wallace). Parts of the episode are shone from Krabappel's point of view and we see her life's depressing, lonely, and difficult. Still, when there's an assembly so the kids can be sold on yo-yos, Krabappel points out to a colleague who questions the educational value of the presentation that it may be one of the few happy memories the kids have in adulthood. Krabappel's point of view may not be positive but she still thinks of what's good for the kids.

This isn't something Bart's old enough to understand. Like many kids his age, he sees his relationship with adults as adversarial. He hasn't accrued the emotional depth to see a bigger picture than the one in which parents and teachers are keeping him from playing outside. So when he finds out Krabappel has been soliciting romantic partners via singles ads, he has no scruple about posing as one and laughing at her as her hopes and affections increase for the fictional "Woodrow" he creates.

This is one of the reasons adults need to be in a position of power over children. I've long suspected many if not most anonymous internet trolls are teenagers, if not younger, posing as adults. Which is a tragedy for them as much as their victims. Bart eventually feels guilty about what he's done--the resolution of the episode is that he grows a little bit emotionally (however little progress he actually makes over the decades long series). But if there's never any consequences, it must be hard for consciences to fight for dominance in peoples' minds as they grow older. I imagine many people feel tied to things they've done and said years ago or have buried it psychologically without confronting what it means.

So much of what made the humour on The Simpsons effective is how sharp it was on human nature. Even the way Lisa (Yeardley Smith) and her friend are awed by the silly yo-yo performance. Kids can be beguiled that easily.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Inevitable Formal Dance

Can you escape the pain of existence by avoiding interpretations of it? Two people make the attempt in 1972's Last Tango in Paris (Ultimo tango a Parigi), a beautiful film by Bernardo Bertolucci, who passed away yesterday.

Paul (Marlon Brando) is a 48 year old man whose wife recently committed suicide and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) is a woman in her early twenties, just about to be married. As Paul and Jeanne begin a sexual relationship, neither tells the other any of this, omitting even their names, at Paul's insistence. Their experiment transpires in an apartment where the two met by chance when both were looking it over, thinking of renting it.

A late product of New Wave filmmaking, Last Tango in Paris is arguably a commentary on New Wave films much as early New Wave films were commentaries on traditional filmmaking. Jeanne's fiancé, Thomas (Jean-Pierre Leaud), is a filmmaker who bears some resemblance to Francois Truffaut, and he ambushes Maria at a train station with a film crew, only then informing her he wants to make a film of her life. She's upset but she goes along with it. In a stark contrast to her relationship with Paul, everything about her and her past is documented for interpretation by Thomas.

As Jeanne takes Thomas and the film crew around her grandmother's property, where she grew up, she explains the surrounding woods were her jungle when she was a child. She immediately becomes upset upon finding a group of boys defecating in the bushes--what a horrible thing to do in "my jungle" she says. It's her interpretation of the place that makes what the boys are doing seem horrible, though the boys likely had no particularly bad intentions.

Paul is dealing with the funeral arrangements for his wife, Rosa, with the help of her mother (Maria Michi) and he becomes angry when she wants a priest involved. Naturally, she explains, she wants the funeral to be religious, but he angrily points out the church doesn't take a kind view of suicide. Of course he's right; even if the priest tactfully avoids saying anything, the interpretation will underlie everything.

Paul doesn't know why Rosa committed suicide and the absence of meaning is clearly tortuous for him. Maybe it's an attempt to stop the compulsive interpretor in his brain that he initiates the experiment with Jeanne.

But the mutually agreed upon interpretations of reality shared by society can't be avoided for long, reaching a state of nature proves an elusive dream again. There are too many discernible signifiers. Paul's an American, which Jeanne frequently brings up. They both inevitably start sharing little stories from their pasts; Paul rebukes her for talking about her grandfather's soldier uniform. Paul represents another side of the New Wave artistic impulse; the subversive prankster instinct that compelled Godard to cut pieces of the score randomly from Vivre sa vie to remind the audience how they're being emotionally manipulated. In the real world, Paul takes Jeanne to a dance hall where there's a tango competition while he mockingly delivers stuffy flirtatious lines in an English accent. The two eventually share an impromptu dance to the outrage of the competitors and spectators. It's too vulgar, too natural.

It has something of the uninhibited sexual relationship the two had in the apartment. So it's not surprising Jeanne is suddenly so afraid of everything that happened before and anything that might happen next.

The end of the movie is in a way similar to Godard's Breathless--outside that apartment, outside that bubble of uninterpreted humanity, the presence of the collective human interpretation is too much for the woman to bear, though Jeanne is much more conflicted about it than Patricia seems to be.

The film is justly lauded for Vittorio Storaro's cinematography and the performances by the two leads. Bertolucci's cinematic voice is obviously the biggest influence, though, and few artists can claim to have made something so simultaneously sensual and contemplative.

Twitter Sonnet #1179

Quartets of lines together mark the eye.
In pointing edges fold the corners dark.
A thinner blanched the walls without a lie.
A back was scratched to strip the tree of bark.
A march of metal feet have shaped the case.
Resounding tones collapse the golden cave.
Beyond the solid, shadows shape the base.
A marble set was all the gods could save.
A destined cup of tea arrived enlarged.
Entire rooms were filled with giant brains.
The halls and porches too were sore surcharged.
Expanding metal rails could take the strains.
A greyish scarf envelops pools to see.
Reflected journeys play on sounding sea.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Leave Troi Alone

When a guy says he has to suck the lifeforce from a woman in order to save millions of people, how do you reply? Captain Picard wasn't having any of it the sixth season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Man of the People". He wanted to arrest the guy without hesitation.

It's an interesting question--it is one of the old "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" questions. Though Picard (Patrick Stewart) might have pointed out, but for some reason didn't, that lots of diplomats do their jobs without harnessing the psychic energies of one beautiful woman at a time, causing them to age prematurely and act like assholes. But according to Memory Alpha, this episode was written by five different people, though it was only credited to Frank Abatemarco, because it was a late and hurriedly conceived episode to fill an unexpected slot. I suppose it's remarkable it holds together as well as it does.

I really feel like Riker (Jonathan Frakes) should've realised sooner something was wrong with Troi (Marina Sirtis). Her getting huffy about Riker's non-jealousy when he walks in on her with that handsome ensign is certainly way out of character. Troi is kind of fun in this episode.

It's too bad this couldn't be her normal wardrobe. The hair is better, too. When TNG was first on the air, I went to a Star Trek convention where Sirtis was guest of honour and I remember her complaining that her normal wig at this point in the series made her look like a country music singer. I couldn't agree more.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Stuart Monarch of the Doctor

Just give me a whole series with Alan Cumming as James I. To-day's new episode of Doctor Who was easily the best of the season with Alan Cumming as King James I almost everything I'd hoped he'd be. I'd have liked it if he'd been more flagrant with his flirtations with Ryan but I wonder if even now the BBC is afraid to directly acknowledge James' sexual preferences on Doctor Who. Certainly casting Cumming in the role, and Cumming's delightful interpretation of it, was a big wink. It was also in one person everything the season has been lacking; fun and complexity.

Spoilers after the screenshot

The 17th century is my favourite century (I have an infrequently updated webcomic set in the 17th century, you know) and I wish the Doctor would visit it more often. The few examples have not been bad--I like the Fifth Doctor serial The Visitation and the few 17th century scenes in the Seventh Doctor's serial, The Silver Nemesis, are good. The last time the Doctor visited it was during the 1650s, in the Twelfth Doctor episode, "The Woman Who Lived", an episode unfortunately with some big historical inaccuracies and little apparent real interest in the period.

"The Witchfinders", to-day's episode, lives up to this season's mission of being more educational with regards to history, and Cumming's performance just barely saves James' relating his complicated backstory to Ryan (Tosin Cole) from being a pure infodump. Cumming could've played him with a broader Scottish accent--James also had a speech impediment and was incontinent but I get why the episode wanted to avoid these things. In this episode I can see the James described by G. M. Trevelyan in his History of England published in 1904;

In the prime of life, over middle height, a good horseman, devoted to the chase, drinking hugely but never overcome by his liquor: he employed a pithy wit and a wealth of homely images and learned conceits in free and familiar discourse with all . . .

As a man, James was one whom it is easy to love or despise, but impossible to hate. Though every inch a pedant, he was human--far more human than his more noble and reserved successor [his son, Charles I]. His instinct to sympathise warmly, except when annoyed or prejudiced, with anyone who spoke to him, led to rapid and unconscious vacillations in his conduct. The more intimate friendships which were a necessity to his life, counteracted yet more disastrously his excellent intentions as a ruler. Choosing his favourites for no other merit but their charm as companions, he was too fond to deny them anything. Their power for evil was the greater, because he himself hated the details of administration, and loved to live in the abstract heights of a general scheme, oblivious of the monstrous distortions to which a plan is liable in action, and the terrible wrongs for which even a love of justice, if it despises diligence, can easily be made the cloak.

Francis Osborne, a17th century essayist, wrote from personal observation of James:

. . . his favourites or minions . . . like burning-glasses, were daily interposed between him and the subject, multiplying the heat of oppressions in the generall opinion, though in his own he thought they screened them from reflecting upon the crowne . . . Now, as no other reason appeared in favour of their choyce but handsomnesse, so the love the king shewed was as amorously convayed, as if he had mistaken their sex, and thought them ladies; which I have seene Sommerset and Buckingham labour to resemble, in the effeminateness of their dressings . . . Nor was his love, or what else posterity will please to call it, (who must be the judges of all that history shall informe,) carried on with a discretion sufficient to cover a lesse scandalous behaviour; for the kings kissing them after so lascivious a mode in publick, and upon the theatre, as it were, of the world, prompted many to imagine some things done in the tyring-house, that exceed my expressions no lesse then they do my experience . . .

Yep, that's the King James of the King James Bible, a book that's been the bedrock for hardcore Protestants for generations. Reference is made to this bible in "The Witchfinders", sadly for the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) to speak with undisguised disdain for the Old Testament and apparent preference to the New Testament. There are plenty of ways in which the Old Testament is more enlightened than the New; Christ essentially forbids divorce in the New Testament, whereas it's allowed in the Old, something Milton discusses at length in his pamphlets on divorce.

Cumming's portrayal is definitely campy in a very good way but his James also turns out to be the first supporting character this season who's more complex than simply being a good guy or a bad guy--which makes it fitting the Doctor gives him a lecture about how people don't really fit into either category. It was a nice moment--I admit, though, it kind of made me realise for the first time how bland Whittaker is.

Cumming's broad wattage may have been overpowering her a bit but I think Capaldi or even Smith could've delivered a better, more glittering side of the back and forth. Oh, well.

The story is in many ways similar to the Eighth Doctor audio play The Witch from the Well, also set in a 17th century English village, also involving an alien menace mistaken for witches by the townsfolk and featuring local gentry with a sinister secret. But obviously "The Witchfinders" has much better cinematography and, of course, the advantage of King Alan Cumming.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Distance to Israel

The location shots in 1960's Exodus are amazing, which is appropriate given it's a story about the importance of location. Otto Preminger's epic film is amazing for its sense of scope particularly considering the sensitive contemporary issues it was dealing with.

The film begins in the aftermath of World War II, focusing on a refugee camp of European Jews, survivors of the Holocaust, prevented by the British from going to Palestine where they hope to settle as a nation under the name of Israel. The film is mostly told from the point of view of an American nurse, Kitty, played by Eva Marie Saint in not one of her best performances.

In On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan got a good performance from her and she was serviceable as icy for Hitchcock in North by Northwest. Performing opposite Ralph Richardson and Paul Newman in this movie, though, she comes off as a bored tour guide.

The movie subtly and blatantly presents arguments for recognising Israel, one of them being the persistent threat of anti-Semitism--not a difficult argument, one would think, after World War II. But Exodus makes an effort to show shades of anti-Semitism aside from the more blatant examples of Nazis and concentration camps, offering hints as to how this form of bigotry finds fertile soil. A British officer played by Peter Lawford brags about how he can always detect a Jew--amusingly he says this to Newman's character, a Jewish militant posing as a British officer--and everyone assumes Richardson's character, the general in charge of the British forces, is Jewish or has a Jewish relative simply because he's sympathetic to the refugees.

Even Kitty has some bias--when she meets a little girl in the refugee camp with blonde hair, she wants to help her, eventually wanting to take her home to America. She admits with some embarrassment she warmed to the girl because she didn't fit with her preconceptions of a Jew.

Paul Newman gives a much better performance than Marie Saint though his role is arguably simpler. He plays Ari Ben Canaan who leads hundreds of refugees, managing to get them on a cargo ship to Palestine. Filmed on an actual ship, the best sequence in the film involves the tension of a hunger strike effected by the refugees in their attempt to force the British to let them leave the bay in Cyprus.

Sal Mineo is good in a supporting role and Marius Goring has a brief appearance as a mysterious, sinister man I think is a Nazi. The last portion of the film becomes a little muddled, focusing on romance between Newman and Marie Saint's characters and on a conflict with British authority and Muslim locals. Many specific details seem like they were avoided in order to give the film an unambiguously pro-Israel stance--it's really not clear why Ari Ben Canaan decides to help Irgun terrorists escape prison after their bombing of the King David Hotel--a real life event in which 91 people were killed. Family relationships established in the film partly explains Ben Canaan's decision but the tone of the film isn't quite up to an issue this thorny. But for all that, it's a film with amazing visuals and Newman gives some emotional nuance to his character who otherwise might have come across as a very simple hero, obviously justified in wanting to secure a homeland. Exodus is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Twitter Sonnet #1178

A thought for licorice was red and black.
A task reported lists of corded phones.
A million birds can fit inside the sack.
The canvas only keeps the turkey's bones.
A giant mantis musters gangly gusts.
The air advanced to part the clouds of bees.
A fatted yam with grace profoundly busts.
A cleaner breath's obtained above the trees.
For meaning, shoes concealed the marching time.
A little wonder goes so far away.
A kettle's heat reported walls to climb.
The crowd decides to sleep for lunch to-day.
Lapels were soaked in wine before the show.
From planted papers sycamores'll grow.

Friday, November 23, 2018

That Old Summer Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream presents the director or production designer with a lot of potential for imagery. For the 1981 BBC Television Shakespeare version, director Elijah Moshinksy chose classic paintings as an influence, as he did with his other productions for the series, in this case Rembrandt and Rubens, according to Wikipedia. In this shot of Helen Mirren as Titania it's certainly easy to see Rembrandt's "Danae".

Mirren had previously performed in a film adaptation of the play in the role of Hermia for the superior 1968 production with Diana Rigg, Judi Dench, and Ian Holm. But the 1981 version is still very good. In addition to baroque influence for the lighting, Moshinsky's version is an extraordinarily still version of a play that typically has a lot of running around and shouting. The scene at the beginning, where Theseus (Nigel Davenport) hears the dispute between Lysander (Robert Lindsay) and Demetrius (Nicky Henson) for the hand of Helena (Cherith Mellor) looks like a living diorama with the sound of a ticking clock emphasising the low energy.

It works because it's so beautiful, inviting you to contemplate it like a painting. The play is set in ancient Greece, but like all the productions from when Jonathan Miller was producer, the costumes are contemporary to Shakespeare.

Pippa Guard plays Hermia, this being a surprisingly rare case where her physical differences from Helena resemble those in referenced in the play, including the running gags about her being taller.


Puppet? why so? ay, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height;
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail'd with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem;
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.


I pray you, though you mock me, gentlemen,
Let her not hurt me: I was never curst;
I have no gift at all in shrewishness;
I am a right maid for my cowardice:
Let her not strike me. You perhaps may think,
Because she is something lower than myself,
That I can match her.


"Lower"? hark, again.

The whole cast is good but aside from Mirren the only other really interesting performance is Brian Glover as Bottom.

The actor and wrestler well known for playing tough guys and criminals (Alien 3, Doctor Who, Kes) he presents an intriguingly dangerous take on the foolish actor. Since we learn the players all have day jobs, one wonders if this Bottom is a gangster. It's an effective interpretation.

The sets alone would be worth watching this one. It's available to rent on Amazon Prime for just under two dollars.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Mac is the Turkey

For many of us, Thanksgiving means Mystery Science Theatre 3000 because of the "Turkey Day" marathons that used to run of the series back in the 90s. Since series creator and original star Joel Hodgson reacquired the rights to the series a few years ago, the marathons have resumed on YouTube. This year, NetFlix also debuted the second season of the series' revival, produced by Hodgson and starring Jonah Ray, on Thanksgiving. I watched the first episode to-day in which Jonah and the Bots watch and riff on the infamous 1988 E.T. rip-off Mac & Me.

They still haven't abandoned the gimmick where Jonah has to relive the experiences detailed in the theme song every episode, something I got tired of two episodes into the first season. Him getting sucked up in a chute at the beginning in the middle of a host segment feels a bit artificial but the revival series generally feels a bit more mechanical. It's very slick and Hodgson assembled a lot of talented people but it lacks the essence of the original series which had more of a sense of a group of funny people hanging out and watching a bad movie yet at the same time committed to the reality of the two puppet robots. The cheapness of the sets and costumes somehow enhanced it.

I don't mind Jonah but Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn are still weak, unremarkable, and needless replacements for Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy. Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt are both very professional as the mad scientists who force them to watch bad movies but the show still feels more like a tribute to the old series than a continuation. The performances feel more consciously stylised, lines are delivered much faster and don't seem as natural, another thing undercutting any possibility of an organic feel like the old series'. But I did laugh at some of the jokes. Their comments on the soundtrack are particularly funny, especially lines about Alan Silvestri's peculiarly enthusiastic score.

I actually saw Mac & Me when it was in theatres, my family and I were tricked into thinking it was a real movie instead of a long commercial for McDonald's and Coke. It didn't take us long to be disabused of this misapprehension. To-day, the movie as a spectacle, an artefact of soulless 80s commercial mediocrity, is more fascinating than any of the jokes from Jonah and the Bots, which actually felt a bit tired. Maybe it was bad timing for me, too, because a couple days ago I saw the McDonald's I went to as a kid was being demolished. The movie consequently took on a more pathetic quality, a glimpse of the glory days of a company whose sales have been declining. The fact that it was always so soulless somehow making it even sadder, like the ghost of Jacob Marley. Jonah quips about the "finishing move" of product placement at the end when the creepy little alien kid is wearing a "McKids" shirt and I was just struck by mild nostalgic nausea. That's right, I remembered, those poor assholes actually pushed a clothing line.

Ronald McDonald won a Razzie for Worst New Star, the film itself won Worst Picture and Worst Director when it came out. So it's been taking a beating for a long time, I'm not sure Jonah and the Bots brought enough new to the table.