Sunday, December 31, 2017

Books and Movies for 2017

Here’s a list of all the movies I saw and books I finished in 2017 (links will take you to quotes or reviews):

Books: Fiction
  1. One Fat Englishman - Kingsley Amis
  2. The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes
  3. 18 Stories - Heinrich Boll
  4. The Baby Doll Murders - James O. Causey
  5. Fire on the Mountain - Anita Desai
  6. Human Voices - Penelope Fitzgerald
  7. The Quiet American - Graham Greene
  8. The Way Some People Die - Ross Macdonald
  9. Casanova’s Homecoming - Arthur Schnitzler
  10. The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Books: Non-Fiction
  1. Notes of a Native Son - James Baldwin
  2. Personal Impressions - Isaiah Berlin
  3. Frames of War - Judith Butler
  4. The Old Regime and the French Revolution - Alexis de Tocqueville
  5. Experience and Education - John Dewey
  6. Slouching Towards Bethlehem - Joan Didion
  7. Hollywood in Crisis, or: The Collapse of the Real - Wheeler Dixon
  8. The Immense Journey - Loren Eiseley
  9. Between Them - Richard Ford
  10. Letters, vol. 1 - Gustave Flaubert
  11. Our Love Affair With Germany - Hans Habe
  12. The Wounded Land: Journey in a Divided America - Hans Habe
  13. Play All - Clive James
  14. The Propensity of Things - Francois Jullien
  15. Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs - August Kleinzahler
  16. Madame de Pompadour - Nancy Mitford
  17. Occasional Prose - Mary McCarthy
  18. The Development of the Modern State - Gianfranco Poggi
  19. The Frontiers of Meaning - Charles Rosen
  20. Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews - George Scialabba
  21. Lost Profiles - Philippe Soupault
  22. A Philosophy of Loneliness - Lars Svendsen
  23. In Praise of Shadows - Junichiro Tanizaki
  24. Warner Bros - David Thomson
  25. Trouble in Paradise - Slavoj Zizek

Unfinished Books: I didn’t read these all the way through, but I did manage to get posts out of them: 
  1. Designed for Hi-Fi Living - Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder
  2. Man of the Year: A Memoir - Lou Cove
  3. Film Noir - Paul Duncan and Jürgen Müller
  4. Main Currents in Marxism - Leszek Kolakowski

  1. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her
  2. 45 Years
  3. A Few Good Men
  4. A Life at Stake
  5. A Perfect Couple
  6. Almost Famous
  7. Another Part of the Forest
  8. Arrival
  9. As Good As It Gets
  10. Babette’s Feast
  11. Back to the Future
  12. Barcelona
  13. Blackmail
  14. Blue Jasmine
  15. Bridge of Spies
  16. Cape Fear (1962)
  17. Captain America: Civil War
  18. Captain Fantastic
  19. Carrington
  20. Cause for Alarm!
  21. Central Intelligence
  22. City of Fear
  23. Diabolically Yours
  24. Drugstore Cowboy
  25. Easy
  26. Fallen Angels
  27. Florence Foster Jenkins
  28. Foreign Correspondent
  29. The Founder
  30. Furious 7
  31. Genius
  32. Gosford Park
  33. Hannah Arendt
  34. Heartburn
  35. I Heart Huckabees
  36. Jackie
  37. Keeping Up With the Joneses
  38. La La Land
  39. Let Yourself Go
  40. Love and Bullets (2017)
  41. Manon 70
  42. MASH
  43. Match
  44. Metropolitan
  45. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
  46. Mr. Holmes
  47. Naples ‘44
  48. No Regrets for Our Youth
  49. Please Murder Me
  50. Prelude to a Kiss
  51. Pushover
  52. Ride the Whirlwind
  53. Russian Ark
  54. Samsara
  55. Secret Honor
  56. Stand by Me
  57. Star Wars: Rogue One
  58. Stolen Kisses
  59. Sully
  60. The Accountant
  61. The Comedian
  62. The Day Time Ended
  63. The Great Beauty
  64. The Imitation Game
  65. The Last Days of Disco
  66. The Last Metro
  67. The Lego Batman Movie
  68. The Long Goodbye
  69. The Mayor of Hell
  70. The Men who Stare at Goats
  71. The Nice Guys
  72. The Shawshank Redemption 
  73. The Story of a Cheat
  74. The War of the Yokels
  75. Un Choc
  76. Up in the Air
  77. Vincent & Theo
  78. War Dogs
  79. When Harry Met Sally
  80. Where Danger Lives
  81. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
  82. Wife & Husband
  83. Wild at Heart
  84. Wings of Desire
  85. Xanadu

Thursday, December 28, 2017

All of It

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.
 - Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

Monday, December 25, 2017

Noir Christmas

Film Noir on Christmas?  Really?  Is that appropriate?  Couldn’t it wait a day or two?  Did I have to post this review today?  Yes, I did.  I make no apologies.  Frankly, I think the so-called “most wonderful time of the year” could do with a little roughing up.  A shot of noir (straight up, of course) is exactly what we all need to help balance out all the “peace on earth” stuff we’ve been subjected to for the last few stress-filled weeks.  And don’t tell me that some of you haven't sat around that Christmas dinner table and thought about how nice it would be to off a relative or two.  Just throw in a juicy insurance policy of which you’re the sole beneficiary and you’re in noir territory.

Film Noir, edited by Paul Duncan and Jürgen Müller, is a wonderful and lavishly illustrated book celebrating this endlessly fascinating genre/style.  For any relative or friend with an interest in classic noir, or movies in general, it would make a wonderful gift (too late now).  

The first part of the book is a series of essay organized around noir themes: “The Perfect Crime”, “Love on the Run”, “Women in Film Noir”, etc.  The second half is a list of the “Top 50 Noir Movies” with brief essays about each film.  Oh, good, a list.  I love lists; you can always argue and nitpick over them.  This one has the standard noir canon - Detour, The Asphalt Jungle, The Night of the Hunter, etc. - but it has a few movies that simply don’t belong: Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho.  No, no, and no.  These are great films but they are not noir.  They lack the appropriately suffocating sense of doom and entrapment.  The list also includes Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.  Again, no.  That’s neo-noir.  But otherwise the list will do.  It does, though, contain a hilarious typo: the Robert Mitchum-Jane Greer classic Out of the Past is listed as Gout of the Past (no doubt a stirring historical medical drama).

The text for this book is provided by Alain Silver, James Ursini, and others, but I don’t really care about the text.  This is a book you buy for the pictures - in this case 630 pages of them - like the one above from Double Indemnity.  The book also contains a still from that film's alternate ending in which Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) visits Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) while he's in the gas chamber.  

The pictures are magnificent.  Here's a still from The Beast of the City with Jean Harlow.  Released in 1932, the film may not be a noir per se, but the photo certainly is:

Then there's this one of Humphrey Bogart from In a Lonely Place:

And Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce:

And this quasi-pornographic still of Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame from The Big Heat

And this one of Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook, Jr. from Kubrick's The Killing:

And the book has movie posters, too.  Such as this french poster for The Maltese Falcon:

Never mind that it’s Christmas - anytime is noir time.  So when the relatives have left and the kids have gone off to bed, pour yourself a glass of egg nog, dim the lights, and put on your favorite DVD of Gun Crazy, or Night and the City, or Touch of Evil, or, even, if you have it, that cinematic rarity Gout of the Past, and enjoy.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


The instinctive generosity of the Americans is curiously linked with rapacity, their kindliness with cruelty, their violence with fear of disorder.  They are warm-hearted and cold-blooded, their assertive self-confidence is mingled with self-criticism, and their conservatism is the other lobe of an unparalleled recklessness.  Yet the most serious mistake of Europe has always been to misunderstand their romanticism, which is the consequence of having lived a Cinderella story.  It has been repeatedly mistaken for softness, gullibility, decadence.  Their smile is childlike and bland; they affect an innocence and credulity which the European mind has accepted as real.  Yet from Franklin and John Jay on, their negotiators have usually come back not only with all that the adept cynicism of their opponents undertook to take from them by means of a cold deck, but with the scarf pins, cuff links, and pocket watches of the cynical as well.  For the romanticism is the thinnest possible veneer.  There have been no such realists since the Romans and they are the hardest empiricists of the modern world.
 - Bernard DeVoto, “The Century”, (1950)

Monday, December 18, 2017


Some movies stick to you; you see them, like them, and move on, thinking that you’re done.  But you’re not.  The film has put a hook in you, and a week or a month later it’s going to reel you in.  Such is the case for me with Sully, Clint Eastwood’s 2016 drama about Chesley Sullenberger and his dramatic landing of a damaged 747 on the Hudson river in 2009.

I enjoyed the film when I first saw it, but didn’t think it was anything special.  Yet days later I found myself still mulling it over.  Something about the film, it seemed to me, was off - not bad, just off.  Tom Hanks did a fine job in the lead role and Eastwood’s directing was lean and efficient, as usual.  There was nothing wrong with the story.  But something in the film got under my skin and I couldn’t figure out what it was.

And then it hit me: This is a film about work, not just about a plane crash.  The forced water landing is the story of Sully, but the drama, which is different, lies elsewhere.  It lies in the questioning of a man’s professionalism, not least of all by himself.  Only a middle-aged or elderly man could have made this film.  Its concerns are those of maturity, of a life lived, of what’s at stake at the end of a career.  No wonder it seemed “off” to me; these are not the typical concerns of a Hollywood movie.  Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki have flipped the standard narrative formula: the disaster is not the climax, the resolution of the investigation is. 

Never mind the cheering crowds and adoring media after the crash, the NTSB has entered the picture.  Their computer simulations show that Sully could have returned to LaGuardia with the damaged plane or safely landed it at nearby Teterboro airport in New Jersey.  They’re asserting, in other words, that his decision was wrong.  And they have the power, through their investigation, to ruin him, to effectively nullify his entire career.  But there’s more.  If Sully made a wrong move, then he’s not the consummate professional that we - and he - think he is.  And if that’s the case, everything crumbles.  What he’s facing is a form of humiliation; either becoming a scapegoat or confronting the fact that he’s a man who’s bad at his job.  

The drama of the movie resides in that anxiety and uncertainty, and in Sully’s refusal to accept either outcome.  He prevails, of course - swiftly and deftly demonstrating that the NTSB simulations are wrong.  What makes this film unique is that it is a vindication not only of heroism, bravery, etc. but also of the professionalism of ordinary men and women who work.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Down Into the Dark

Once long ago as a child I can remember removing the cover from an old well.  I was alone at the time and I can still anticipate, with a slight crawling of my scalp, the sight I inadvertently saw as I peered over the brink and followed a shaft of sunlight many feet down into the darkness.  It touched, just touched in passing, a rusty pipe which projected across the well space some twenty feet above the water.  And there, secretive as that very underground whose mystery had lured me into this adventure, I saw, passing surely and unhurriedly into the darkness, a spidery thing of hair and many legs.  I set the rotting cover of boards back into place with a shiver, but that unidentifiable creature of the well has stayed with me to this day.
For the first time I must have realized, I think, the frightening diversity of the living; something that did not love the sun was down there, something that could walk through total darkness upon slender footholds, over evil waters, something that had come down there by preference from above.  It was in this way that the oceanic abyss was entered: by preference from above.  Life did not arise on the bottom; the muds of the deep waters did not compound it.  Instead, with its own pale lanterns or with the delicate strawlike feelers of blindness, it has groped its way down into the dark.
 - Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (1957)

Monday, December 11, 2017

August Kleinzahler

I feel about poetry the way screenwriter Ben Hecht felt about working on the screenplay for Gone With the Wind.  I’ll do it, he told the producers, but only if I never have to read the book.  There’s no doubt in my mind that poetry is the highest form of literature, that it’s the greatest expression of the human condition, and that we English-speakers have access to a reservoir of poetry unmatched for quality in the last seven hundred years.  But I recoil at the prospect of actually reading it.

Allen Ginsberg once described a poet as a man standing in a field waiting to get hit by lightening; and he felt that he’d been struck only twice - once with “Howl”, the second time with “Kadish".  Reading poetry is often like watching that man in the field and waiting waiting waiting for the lightening.  In fact, you need to watch several people in the field and the skies are usually clear for weeks at a time.  It can be very trying.  So many poets, so little lightening.  A guide would be helpful.  

It would be hard to find a better one than August Kleinzahler.  There are three reasons for this.  First, he is himself an outstanding poet.  (All the links in this post will take you to samples of that respective author’s work.)  If you wish to start reading contemporary poets his work is an excellent place to begin.  Second, although he currently lives in San Francisco, he was born and bred in New Jersey (as was I), so his tolerance level for bullshit is much lower than that of the average American.  And, third, he has released a great new book of essays - Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs: Selected Prose, 2000-2016.  It’s very good.  In fact, I couldn’t, as the saying goes, put it down.  How often can that be said of a book of essays on poetry?

Most of these pieces originally appeared in The London Review of Books and now that they are gathered together they paint a portrait of American poetry since World War II.  Some of the writers are well-known: James Schuyler, Allen Ginsburg, Thom Gunn, James Merrill, etc.  Others are not: Christopher Logue, Roy Fisher, Lorine Niedecker, critic Kenneth Cox.  The book could easily have been called Lives of the Poets since the biographies tend to intertwine, the cumulative effect is polyphonic.  Basil Bunting, for instance, pops up as a minor character in a few essays but then gets one all to himself.  Louis Zukofsky, too, stands in the background of many of these pieces before moving to center stage.  

Kleinzahler does an admirable and highly entertaining job of depicting the poets and the milieu in which they worked.  Here he is describing the era of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, etc:
For what then seemed a lengthy spell, from the late 1950s well into the 1970s, the stander-bearers of American poetry were a group of manic-depressive exhibitionists working largely, if not exclusively, in traditional meter and rhyme scheme, analysands all, and with self-inflating personae that always reminded me of those giant balloons of Micky Mouse and Pluto associated with Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade….Lowell and Randall Jarrell, roommates at Kenyon College in the 1930s, and to a lesser extent Berryman, too, were big on rating and ranking: the top three poets, the top three oyster houses or second baseman, the three best Ibsen plays - they seemed especially to like the number three.
His love and passion for poetry are infectious, and his assessment of the poets themselves, lively and engaged.  The sparse typography of Lorine Niedecker’s fragile poems serves as “a reminder of the silence from which the poems emerged, by which they were pervaded, and to which they returned.”  After finishing the Selected Poems of Robert Merrill he comments that the experience is like “being trapped in endless rooms full of Ming Dynasty black lacquer furniture…it’s exquisitely fashioned but makes you want to find the sanctuary of a Shaker meeting hall where one might sit on a hard wooden bench and stare at not very much at all.” 

Kleinzahler knew several of these writers personally and his recollections add a vividness and humanity to the book.  He recounts his lunch with Allen Ginsberg, whose life seemed to be an equal combination of the banal and the sordid.  Leonard Michaels, a novelist rather than a poet, comes across as boisterous, obstreperous, irresistible fun.  And I especially enjoyed Kleinzahler’s recounting of the time he spent with Thom Gunn in San Francisco.  Occasionally, the two of them would get together, grab a drink, and go catch a movie matinee.  Once, after seeing Sexy Beast, they have a few too many martinis and get on an obscenity jag.  Soon they’re cavorting around the bay’s public transit system chummily yelling obscenities at each other.  Oh, if only there was a YouTube video of that.
This book could also have been called Life of a Poet.  Interspersed with these essays are pieces of an autobiographical nature - an account of how he became a music critic, diary selections, a memoir of hunting for jobs in Alaska, a road trip with a pesky and obnoxious companion called “the Maestro” (the soubriquet “asshole” would have done, too).  Kleinzahler himself comes across as smart, funny, opinionated, free of any traces of pretension or cant.  When younger writers ask him for advice, he remarks that he always wants to tell them to find a rent-controlled apartment (advice, let me add, which is good for any profession).  

The last essay in the book is an account of his mother's final months and the selling of her house in Fort Lee, NJ after her death.  It's honest, clear-eyed, moving but never sentimental.  We follow Kleinzahler's emotions as the furniture and tchotchkes of his childhood home are sold off or thrown out piece by piece until the house is an empty shell waiting to be occupied by its new tenants, a young Chinese couple.  Along the way, we meet his sister and brother-in-law; the next door neighbor who undertakes to sell the place; Dario, a Colombian friend of the neighbor's who helps him clean the house and remove the bulkier items.  In the midst of separation and grief, Kleinzahler records the life surging around him, the vitality that never stops.  And as in the earlier essays the effect is gripping and, more importantly, true to life as well.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Slick Stupidity of Junior

Even the outdated, inconsistent, self-doubting ideas of the older generation are more open to dialogue than the slick stupidity of Junior.  Even the neurotic oddities and deformities of our elders stand for character, for something humanly achieved, in comparison to pathetic health, infantilism raised to the norm.  One realizes with horror that earlier, opposing one’s parents because they represented the world, one was often secretly the mouthpiece, against a bad world, of one even worse.
 - Theodore Adorno, Minima Moralia (1951)

Monday, December 04, 2017

The Shining - Forward and Backward

On Friday evening I went to the Northwest Film Forum to see Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But it wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill showing, it was a special forward/backward one.  Here’s how it works - they run the film forward and backward at the same time and superimpose the images one over the other.  It sounds crazy, but it is also amazing - at least for this film.  If you’re a Shining fan - and I’m a huge one - you have not lived until you’ve seen this.  And, luckily, you can see it for free online right here.

The Shining is full of mirrors and doubling imagery.  (FYI-There will be many spoilers throughout this post.)  There are the creepy twin girls.  The meaning of “redrum” is revealed in a mirror.  When Wendy brings Jack breakfast in bed the scene is mostly shot in the mirror.  When he's interviewed for the job, the man sitting next to him looks vaguely Nicholson-ish.  When Jack returns to the family apartment after visiting Room 237, his face is reflected in a mirror near the door (when he returns with the axe later, it won’t be).  The first time we see Danny “shine” is when he’s looking in a mirror and talking to his imaginary friend Tony.  And there seem to be two murderous Mr. Gradies - Delbert from the 1920s and Charles from the 1970s.  

Back in 2011 two film editors and Shining fanatics thought, “Hmm…maybe this film is itself a mirror?”  So they lined up the first shot of one copy with the last shot of another and ran them in opposite directions.  The results are awesome and uncanny.  For instance, the scene in which Wendy brings Jack breakfast in bed and he starts talking about his writer’s block overlaps perfectly with the later scene of him fondly going through his “All work and no play…” manuscript in the Colorado Room (36:49 in the link above).  During the interview at the beginning of the film we see the later Jack running and howling through the maze (5:43).  The iconic “Hello Johnny!” scene overlaps with both the family car ride (and it’s Donner party discussion) and with Wendy’s calm and delusional recounting of Jack’s history of domestic violence (16:30).  And if you thought the scene with the two Grady girls butchered in the hallway couldn’t getter any scarier, go to 50:00 and think again.  The mid-point in the film, by the way, is the scene of Dick Halloran laying on his bed watching TV while Jack is entering Room 237 (1:11:14) - it’s a psychedelic moment and got a big cheer from the audience at the instant of synch up.  That scene is also the only one in the film when all those who can shine (Danny, Halloran, Jack, and the hotel) do so together.   

Is all of this intentional on Kubrick’s part or is it merely coincidence?  We don’t know.  He made some cryptic remarks about how important it is to view films backwards but he never indicated that his films should be viewed so.  If he knew of these sorts of screenings he would probably have objected strongly to them - and then arranged a viewing for himself, and followed that up with edits to heighten the forward/backward experience.  And to rule out coincidence we’d need to do similar projections of other films (The Sound of Music, Police Academy 6, etc.) and see if equally uncanny moments pile up.  

What we do know, though, is that no other film has generated so much demented enthusiasm from its fans as has The Shining.  There are designs for doll/action figures of the characters (way above).  There’s a child’s push-toy based on it (way below).  One artist, Michael Whaite, even reimagined the film’s poster as a The Shining-Pac Man mash-up (right above).  What’s next?  A coloring-book?  A tie with the creepy girls on it?  (I’d so buy that.)  A musical adaptation on Broadway?  The possibilities seem endless.  The fans' passion for this film unabated.

Which is why it’s such a shame that the book Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining: Studies in the Horror Film is now out-of-print.  Published in 2015 by Centipede Press and edited by Danel Olson, it is the definitive book for all things Shining-related.  Copies on Amazon start at about $100 apiece, so fans should look for it in second hand bookstores and at any library savvy enough to have snatched up a copy.  I feel bad about reviewing an out-of-print book but this one is such a gem I can’t resist.  

Olson has done a magnificent job.  Coming in at 750 pages, this book is as thorough and obsessive as any Shining fan could wish.  It’s in three sections.  The first one contains essays (some original and some excerpted from other books) analyzing The Shining - its music, the adaptation, its critical reception, its connection to other films, etc.  Section two is interviews with the actors; section three is interviews with the crew.  Danel, along with Justin Bozung, seems to have interviewed everyone involved in this movie - and I mean everyone.  We get interviews with Kubrick, Nicholson, Duvall, etc., but also with the cinematographer, the editor, the second-unit director, the focus puller, one of the actors who played a bell hop, the actress who had one line (“Goodbye, Mr. Ullman.”).  They talk to Lia Beldam, the beautiful girl in the bathtub.  And there are two interviews with Lisa and Louise Burns the young girls who played the twins.  They’re all grown up now and are two happy, well-adjusted English ladies who just happen to be icons of horror.

And the interviews are fascinating.  For instance, Les Tomkins, the Art Director, recounts the efforts he and Kubrick took to ensure that the designs in the Overlook were accurate yet off-putting.  Even the carpeting in the hallway outside Room 237 was important.  He recalls:
[Stanley] had told me, “The carpet should be the scariest thing that you could imagine.  That’s what America is all about.”  He seemed to have this image in his head of how the carpeting in American hotels always had these ghastly colors and large patterns in them.  The carpeting was made for the film.  We just started putting together various color charts, samples and patterns.  We were putting colors like mustard, pink and brown together and in your heart you knew that they were just horrid…
So if, like me, you’re a somewhat rabid fan of the The Shining - a “shinologist", I suppose, or maybe a “shinoholic” - you'll want to keep an an eye out for this book.