June 2010

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Decision at Sundown (1957), directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, is one of a series of trim little noir Westerns the two men made together. Scott's character rides into the town of Sundown to confront the man who took his wife, then drove her to suicide. What he won't acknowledge is that the woman he still is mourning years later was routinely unfaithful with other men as well, was no wife to him. His approach awakes the town out of its moral torpor--it is dominated by the man he wants to kill. The movie avoids the classic noir ending in which everyone kills everyone, but deflects away from the classic Western ending of a satisfying shootout in the dusty main street. Instead, the prostitute who loves the villain wings him with a shotgun, then takes him away, and Scott rides out of town alone, even more bereft than he was before he came in.

Cadillac Records (2008), directed bY Darnell Martin, is a fairly good but formulaic music world bio-pic about Leonard Chess, the man who introduced Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters to the music mainstream. It has fine performances and is filled with great music; but you know going in that some of the characters will sink and some will float, that there will be drugs and infidelity and music. The movie delivers it all very well, however.

The last two movies of Samurai Trilogy (1955-1956), directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, gradually squandered the interest the first one had commanded. The inferiority of the productions become more evident; the sword fighting is less persuasive, with actors feigning death who had been visibly missed, or only lightly touched, by a sword; the color in some scenes completely failed to match in the print I saw, so that in a scene set on a beach we seem to switch back and forth between a vey red dusk, and a bright, blue midday ocean. I don't know whether the three movies are faithful to the novel they are based on, but they are far removed from the life of the historical figure they are drawn from. Finally, the moral code of the samurai, so poignant and persuasive in movies like Samurai Rebellion, is less interesting when the protagonist routinely seeks people out, and kills them, for no reason other than to prove he is the better swordsman.

The Weight of Water (2000), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is a lesser work of one of the best American film-makers. Based on an Anita Shreve novel, we follow a modern day woman photographer investigating murders committed in some remote New Hampshire islands in the late nineteenth century. Obscurely, the lives of the photographer and the farm wife who was the real (but undisclosed) killer converge with one another. The problem is that it is hard to care about either the nineteenth century characters, who are rigid and stilted, or the modern ones, who are entitled, self pitying artists and bad boys. Sean Penn in particular turns in his patented performance, this time as a Pulitzer-winning poet haunted by the memory of a teenage girl he killed in a car accident. At the end, a storm comes up, with rather predictable results. Bigelow does a competent job presenting a rather lackluster story.

Gene Wolfe's long-awaited third novel in the "Soldier of the Mists" series is Soldier of Sidon (2006), in which he sends Latro, his amnesiac warrior, to Egypt. Wolfe's command of the archaic world is near-perfect, from its gods to its swords, relationships and food. So is his invention, which has not flagged across the decades; one of the characters is a wax statue of a woman, who stirs to life from love every time Latro is around. A new Wolfe novel is a big event, but this one disappointed me a little because it felt like a new departure rather than a true sequel. The Greek gods and politics in which Latro was immersed in the first two books are all gone, as are the wife and most of the friends he found. Nor does he make much progress towards recovering his memory or finding his city of origin (which by internal clues we know to be Rome). This is not a trilogy, nor possibly even a set of five books Wolfe favors, but an ongoing series like "Conan the Barbarian". I would have liked this book better if Wolfe was willing to start wrapping up his story.

It seems unfair to me that anyone should be both a professional musician and an accomplished novelist, but Willy Vlautin pulls it off. The Motel Life (2006) is not the usual doggerel blitherings of a rock star, but a really strong story about two brothers circling the drain after the death of their single mom. What makes this picaresque novel unusually good is that these are not the usual selfish, brutal, alcoholic Bukowski characters, but two young men capable of love and of altruism, who have sunk down due to what Flaubert called a lack of "droiture" at the end of "Sentimental Education". In particular, there is a scene where the narrator takes time out from his own personal hell to rescue a teenage boy he finds freezing in the woods, feed him a meal and put him on a bus home, effectively saving his life. At the end, there is a lovely small uptick of possible redemption, in the midst of tragedy. Highly recommended.

I wanted to like The Pinball theory of Apocalypse by Jonathan Selwood (2007), better than I did. It is an attempt at a cosmic vaudeville, set in an earth-quake ravaged LA with a confused female artist protagonist. The novel simply wasn't funny or original enough to capture my love or stay in my memory. Cosmic vaudevilles are very hard to pull off; it is possible Thomas Pynchon retired that jersey fifty years ago. Remember the advice the aliens gave Woody Allen in "Stardust Memories"? "Tell funnier jokes."

Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper (2009) is a bravura entry in a very narrow genre, the comic, dark, over-the-top thriller. His protagonist is a former mob hitman, now a doctor at a Bellevue-like hospital, whose past returns to confront him just as he tries to stay awake without hallucinating and, Gregory House-like, solve some challenging medical mysteries. I thoroughly enjoyed this and look forward to others in the series.

The Necropolis Railway(2007), by Andrew Martin, is a dense, rather slow-moving but ultimately gripping mystery set in the world of British steam railways in the early 19th century. It is so richly detailed you do best if you don't try to understand the vocabulary of train engines and functions, but just let it wash over you the way we do certain passages of Shakespeare or Joyce. The character development, independent feminist love interest and solution to the mystery are all very satisfying.

Grey Gardens (1975), by the Maysles Brothers, is a brilliant but distasteful portrait of two famous eccentrics, a mother and daughter, "Big" and "Little" Edie Beale. In their scenes together, fifty something Little Edie, revealed to have been stunningly beautiful as a girl, is presented as the flakey one, while her mom sculpts a calm, wise persona; you have to watch for a while to notice that whenever Little Edie is filmed anywhere but her mom's bedroom, you can hear Big Edie shrilly screaming for her to come. It is finally a heartbreaking portrait of a child whose life was ended by her mom's demands; but the two subjects are so unaware they are bizarre, that you wish that the Maysles had had the ethics never to point a camera at them at all.

The Devil's Doorway (1950), directed by Anthony Mann, is a unique Western with a sympathetic Indian hero (played by a white man, of course). Lance Poole is entirely Europeanized, and has served in the Civil War with distinction, when he returns to the 50,000 acre ranch owned by his Shoshone father, to discover that Wyoming has become a territory, Indians are not allowed to own land, and his property is open to being homesteaded by any white man who wants it. There is an evil, greedy, manipulative lawyer who hates Lance--but no other villains, just good people who aren't good enough to resist an evil law, or have dire conflicting needs of their own, like the sheepherders whose sheep are dying of thirst. The town marshall is a friend of Lance's, but ultimately dies fighting to evict him, because that's the law. At the end, Lance is killed opposing a sympathetic US cavalryman, who also must arrest or kill Lance because that's his job. Another wonderful feature is the strong woman lawyer who is the only one willing to defend Lance, but who is also ultimately ineffectual. She falls in love with him, but their lips cannot quite touch at the last encounter. "This must not be forgotten," she says , when Lance has died.

Anne Tyler's Amateur Marriage(2006) is a bit different from her usual, as it covers a fifty year period in the life, and aftermath, of a marriage. Two young people meet during World War II; decades later they discover, or at least the man does, that they are incompatible, and they separate and divorce. there are no easy pay-offs or happy endings here; the wife never remarries, though she has some near misses and doesn't seem to want to badly enough. There is no gross evidence they couldn't have made it; he seems to display a lack of endurance more than anything else. The most poignant and memorable part of the story is the daughter who vanishes into Haight Ashbury in the 1960's, emerges long enough to present them with a small grandchild and vanishes again, then comes home for good when he is almost an adult. They weren't terrible parents; bad things, as Tyler says in an interview about the bok, sometimes happen to good people. In the end, it is a soft and rather unsatisfying book; her protagonists lack the pure quirkiness, and the love of life, of most of her people.

Robin Hood (2010), directed by Ridley Scott, is a dull, phony epic. More a reboot than a remake of the Robin Hood story, the man now is a commoner who impersonates Sir Robin of Locksley, who dies during the crusades. Maid Marian is no longer a maid, but Sir Robin's wife, abandoned a week after their nuptials ten years before, who falls in love with the interloper. All of the most enjoyable parts of the tradition are abandoned--there is no fighting a newcomer with quarterstaffs on a log over the creek. Nottingham looks authentically dirty, in an epic that otherwise lacks any authenticity whatever. The Magna Carta was written not by the barons, but by the false Robin's stonemason father, adopted by the much more stupid nobility as a kind of lay philosopher. Marian, as is traditional in modern day remakes of medieval rmoances, turns out to be an expert archer and swordswoman. Snapped together from politically correct elements, this movie succeeds in creating a bland and generic Middle Ages offensive to history. Two fine actors, Russell Crowe as Robin and Cat Blanchett as Marian, turn in zombified performances. Its hard to act when there is no character provided by the script. While this one is marginally better than the also dull and ridiculous Kevin Costner film, neither movie (nor any other) can come close to the lively Errol Flynn version. The story of Robin Hood did not demand to be remade.

Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1975), directed by Sam Peckinpah, is mid-level work, not on the level of "The Wild Bunch" but much better than "Straw Dogs". Set in a "Wild Bunch"-like world, against the decline of the West, the movie is a meditation on friendship, legends and the things we have to do to maintain both. A reluctant Pat Garrett trails and finally executes Billy the Kid. The movie begins with a red herring, almost a shaggy dog story; we follow a man who is complaining about something which we struggle to understand; but a moment later when he is shot to death, we discover his complaints were irrelevant: Billy apparently killed him by accident while target-shooting at chickens buried up to their necks. (These are probably real chickens really murdered for the film; none of that PETA stuff for Peckinpah.) Bob Dylan amusingly plays a nameless man (called "Alias") who tags along after Billy and has an entertaining encounter with Garrett in a bar. Garrett forces him at gunpoint to read the names of the canned goods ("air tights") on a shelf. Dylan also provides the music to this panaoramic, amoral, "dirty" Western.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, is based on a much-loved and debated novel by Richard Hughes which I haven't read. It probably sits in a mini-genre, about the amorality of children, along with "Lord of the Flies" and little else. A group of British children in Jamaica are sent home by their parents after surviving a storm, in particular because they displayed no emotion at the accidental death of an old family servant. Their ship is captured by pirates, who take them on board; but most opportunities for traditional sentimentality is avoided, as one of the children dies in a fall, and the main character, a small girl who looks no more than eight years old, stabs a British captain to death when he frightens her. The pirate leaders, well played by Anthony Quinn and James Coburn, confront each other violently when Quinn starts making decisions based on the good of the children, rather than of the crew. At the end, the pirates are all executed for the killing the girl committed, and she is unable to save them, in part because she does not understand what is going on, in part because she would have to implicate herself. A scene where a British prosecutor is asking questions, and is met by the blank, uncomprehending and uninterested stares of the children, has a kind of science fiction or horror feel, very "Village of the Damned".

The Man on the Train (2002), directed by Patrice Leconte, is a comic noir with supernatural overtones. Two men meet by accident,a tired fifty-something gangster and a retired teacher in his seventies, each of whom has a barely concealed desire to live a life like the other's. The film is mostly rather delightful conversation; in a scene which made me laugh out loud (a rare thing in movies these days), the teacher decides to confront some thugs who have come into the cafe where he is treating the gangster to lunch. The gangster explains why he himself has endured their disrespect: it is only in the movies that a man his age can take down two or three much younger ones. When the teacher decides to ask the thugs to shut up, instead of beating him, they reveal that he taught them poetry fifteen years before--and they liked him. His destiny: always to be liked, never to do anything consequential. Meanwhile, the gangster, staying in the older man's house, discovers slippers, pipes, piano and tutoring young students. They are both closing in on a fateful Saturday, where the teacher will undergo a triple bypass, and the gangster will hold up the bank the teacher has daydreamed about robbing for the forty years he has had an account there. On Saturday, both men die, and somehow come back again, each living the other's life: the gangster playing his friend's piano, while the teacher rides the train on his way to a heist somewhere.The film has well-sketched characters played by actors with lived-in faces. The most memorable is the get-away car driver, who thinks all morning, says his one sentence of the day at 10 am (always something cryptic), then thinks about what he has said all day.

The Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey is very lovely. While other versions vary from dense prose to haughty verse, there is something common, everyday and grounded about this one which is very delightful:

She faced him, waiting. And Odysseus came
debating inwardly, what he should do:
Embrace this beauty's knees in supplication?
Or stand apart, and using honeyed speech,
Inquire the way to town, and beg some clothing?

You get the idea of a gifted poet who is not an intellectual (not even so much as Shakespeare was), in that he is not mainly concerned with issues of high import, history, morality and the fall of empires, but loves to tell you in minute details what gifts the Achaians gave one another, and what they ate. Homer's description of men getting drunk and behaving with anger and jealousy is as contemporary as any carouse of Falstaff and his men.

Even the archaic elements, like the Dawn coming again and again with her "rosy fingers", are accessible, interesting and delightful. The only moments which make you realize that you are watching men of a different time are a few instances of savagery near the end of the poem, particularly Telemachus hanging twelve unfaithful servant women on a single rope. (Not that we are very different from the Acahians in any fundamental way.)

The story itself is one of the basic human archetypes: There is disorder because something vital is lacking. the vital thing arrives, and order is restored. This basic theme repeats through-out literature in stories as otherwise disssimilar as "King Lear" and "The Secret Garden."

There is a single moment in "The Odyssey" which is post-modern, if you will pardon that over-used adjective. Athena sends hysterical laughter to the suitors moments before Odysseus slays them all, and one of their number, not sharing it, watches the rest with horror and alienation, seeing the death-like nature of their mirth. It is more like a scene from Sartre than from Homer.

I found this book in the "home exchange" area of the Easthampton dump, where I go weekly to find most of the books I read and report on here. I am mentioning it because there is something particularly lonely, human and evocative in a copy of Homer found at the dump, taken home, lovingly read and then cherished, or passed on to another reader. Twenty-eight hundred years ago, Homer would have understood the concept of a dump, and possibly been amused by the idea of a copy of his work turning up in one thirty centuries later (though he probably did not know writing, so might not have understood the idea of a "copy").

I wondered whether I should mention Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2008), directed by Patrick Tatopoulos, in the same breath. Perhaps I should only review books by Goethe, Gibbon and Bronte here, and conceal the fact i also read Stephen King and Elmore Leonard. But it occurs to me that I enjoyed "Lycans" for much the same reason I enjoyed "The Odyssey". Sword fighting--a form of ballet with violence--is interesting on the page and even more so on stage or screen. This movie, in which vampires and werewolves buckle on armor and fight each other, is a minor participant in a tradition that began with "Gilgamesh" and included Homer. Also, due to the decreasing cost and increasing quality of computer generated effects, movies that were desperately cheesy fifty years ago can now be made with some originality and flair. The "Underworld" series, with its largely blue lighting of dim caverns and chambers, is beautifully art directed. This is not a memorable movie but I completely enjoyed it for what it is.

Which reminds me I read Stephen King's Under the Dome (2009) last month and forgot to review it. I heartily dislike Stephen King, but sometimes read him anyway, because he is very good at what he does, and I like to study his tricks. While theft used to be an honored way of making literature--Shakespeare was a terrible thief--King's strength and weakness lies in his unacknowledged but usually masterly use of tropes taken from others. This novel, about an impermeable forcefield that surrounds a Maine town, is very reminiscent of a far superior but much less known science fiction novel by Patricia Anthony, "The Happy Policeman" ( ). A similar idea was used thirty years earlier than that, in the 1950's short story that became a classic Twilight Zone episode, "Its a Good Life!" In that, there was no force field, but a child with telekinetic powers was able to separate his town from the rest of the universe so no one could leave. The villains of "Dome", alien teenagers playing a video game, are laughably trite: this theme was used twice on the original Star Trek series fifty years ago, then echoed on its successor series (Q on "Voyager" was an example of the immature, terribly powerful alien). King's writing has always been extremely sloppy, but is getting worse: this novel is four or five hundred pages too long, and for much of it, nothing happens. His protagonist, as is demanded by a novel this long and with so little action, is very passive. A retired military man who was the town's short order cook, he is appointed by the President from outside the dome as mrtial law commander--then stands by and watches for most of the novel as things go to hell in a handbasket. The only slightly novel element was the environmental implications of the dome, as smog and toxic chemicals accumulate inside it.