Sunday, March 18, 2018

Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man (1995)

When you think about it, it's not surprising that, if Norman Mailer were going to write a book about art, it would be about Picasso. He always preferred his giants to be 20th-century egomaniacs—perhaps something about the reflection in the mirror. To some degree I'm on board with that myself, at least a little. There was a lot I didn't know about Picasso, so among other things I have to count Mailer's "interpretive biography" as informative. "Interpretive biography" means very little original research (even Marilyn had some), but rather a survey of select existing literature, major biographies and some criticism, along with his own take on Picasso and his work. Mailer's main idea here is that all of Picasso's innovations were done by the time he was 35, in 1916, effectively discounting one of the most prolific careers in art history. Mailer sees an incident involving the Louvre and stolen pieces of art (including da Vinci's Mona Lisa) as the point where something in Picasso broke. It's a tumultuous time in his life—a breakup of a long-term relationship, the death by cancer a few years later of his next girlfriend, and the coming of World War I are all equal contributors, along with plain old aging. I'm not even sure there was such a drop-off. A few samples of Picasso's art after 1916 in this book are pretty impressive. In fact, all the pictures, including color plates, are among the best reasons to dawdle along with Mailer through the Picasso story. I hadn't known what a prodigy Picasso was as a child. I didn't know how the Blue Period, Rose Period, and Cubism fit, exactly. I suspect someone with more background might get more out of this, but I'm not sure how much they'd like it—that's the pugnacious Mailer problem. Mailer notes early that Picasso was a project he'd been giving thought to since 1962, when he was close to a book deal. He has an interesting eye and his discussions of the art are often lucid. It didn't entirely surprise me, given his versatility as a writer, but I hadn't expected him to be so good in the realm of art, a pleasant surprise. He is dismissive of Gertrude Stein but I enjoyed the discussion of her, and again, this was my first exposure to so many details and so much context about Picasso's life, work, and art. Weirdly, perhaps, Picasso in this telling reminded me a lot of Andy Warhol—maybe it's the combination of celebrity and work ethic. Picasso's art speaks for itself, and if I have any complaint here it's that there's not more art. Mailer generally stays out of his own way.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

France, 16 minutes
Director/editor: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel
Photography: Albert Duverger, Jimmy Berliet
Cast: Simone Mareuil, Pierre Batcheff, Jaume Miravitlles, Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel

This landmark of Surrealist art, a collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali on the precipice of worldwide economic collapse, is short but it stays with you. Director Buñuel and cowriter Dali famously worked to extrude anything of particular meaning that could be taken from it. "No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted," Buñuel wrote. "Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything." Quite right, and nothing adds up except, intuitively and in flashes, on certain Freudian levels. But some things can be rationally laid at its doorstep. It packs a punch because it saves its best for first—a brief scene in which, through the magic of montage (or editing, or cutting), a woman's eyeball appears to be sliced through by a razor. Among other things it prefigured a common strategy of action and horror pictures, which is to insert a spectacular set piece right up front (Saving Private Ryan, say). In psychological terms, you are thus softened. Shock and numbness soon have hold. In Un Chien Andalou, why a man (it's Buñuel, by the way) would be slicing a woman's eyeball at all is not even a question that occurs to anyone after witnessing it. For many first-time viewers, the remaining minutes of the picture pass in a kind of desperate muddled delirium. What did I just see what? In fact, the eyeball scene, just a matter of seconds, still has the power to make me want to look away and to flinch if I don't. It's the very idea, of course, so naturalistically rendered, that does the work. But the image, however brief, is also viscerally detailed. Even in the few seconds it's onscreen it's readily apparent that it's the eyeball of a dead animal, not the woman, but you do have to be looking at the screen to see it. There are more shocking images that follow, though they tend to pale by comparison: ants crawling in and out of a hole in the palm of a hand, two dead donkeys on a couple of grand pianos, a groping scene that now can seem the most disturbing element in it if you're past the initial shock (this also applies to most of the stuff with animals, for that matter, who were evidently harmed in the making of this picture). These strange images wheel in front of our numbed sensibility and unsliced eyeballs, filling our heads with what? Men dressed in nun's habits (oh that again, Luis), a severed hand making the rounds in a striped box, a butterfly with a marking that might look like a human skull, a mouth wiped right off the face of a man and turned into a woman's armpit hair. "Dream logic"—I suppose that's one way to conceive it. Within the year the world was more worried about things like fascism and a cratered economy, but Un Chien Andalou lives on fresh as ever—fresh, and exceedingly weird.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"You Could Look It Up" (1941)

Read story by James Thurber online.

The overwhelming point of this amusing baseball anecdote by James Thurber is the dialect, which is almost as charming as it is thick. Some of my favorite locutions here include "the iron eye," "finely," and "all Bethlehem broke loose." I got used to it ("finely") but it was slow going at first. This story was published in 1941 and 10 years later was acted out in reality by St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck, who signed small person Eddie Gaedel (3 feet 7 inches) for a one-time appearance as a pinch hitter. You could look it up. Not surprisingly, Gaedel—and the wonderfully named Pearl du Monville in this story—are walked on four consecutive pitches. Well, that's not exactly the way it goes down in this story, but I'll let you get to the details on your own. Veeck claims he was unaware of the story, or at least he said, in conversation with New York Giants manager John McGraw, that he'd had the idea before 1941. This suggests to me that the premise was already part of the oral lore of baseball. Thurber turned it into this story. Veeck made it a one-time stunt in a ballgame. In both instances it was hilariously cited as making a mockery of the game, which is rich. Me, I like baseball anecdotes quite a bit. This is a little more formal, even with the dialect, but still has an appealing air of yarn spinning. It might even be fun to hear it read aloud by someone who can do it justice, although as always the risks for flopping would be great. Oral storytelling necessarily requires some theatrical skill, especially when dialect is involved, which can lead to wincing. If anything, this story might be too long for just an anecdote. The best ones are quick. Joaquin Andujar on how he would pitch to himself: "Fastball down the middle. What do you think, I'd try to get myself out?" Or Don Drysdale's view that an intentional walk was a waste of three pitches. The anecdote of the small pinch hitter here is easily told just by stating the premise, so the story feels a little bloated, and might be annoying if you are not a baseball fan or don't enjoy reading dialect. I have my problems in the latter area, but Thurber's pretty good at it and also at telling a story. Plus it's a classic, you know.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Top 40

1. Treponem Pal, "Planet Claire"
2. Kesha, "Praying"
3. Wolf Alice, "Don't Delete the Kisses"
4. Kesha, "Woman"
5. St. Vincent, "New York"
6. JAY-Z, "The Story of O.J."
7. Suicide Commandos, "Try Again"
8. Calvin Harris, "Feels"
9. Sevyn Streeter, "Before I Do"
10. Te Vaka, "Lakalaka"
11. Post Malone feat. 21 Savage, "Rockstar"
12. Big Sean, "Bounce Back"
13. Paloma Faith, "Crybaby"
14. Christian Nodal, "Probablemente"
15. Toni Braxton, "Deadwood"
16. GoldLink, "Crew REMIX"
17. Playboi Carti, "Wokeuplikethis*"
18. Ed Sheeran, "Perfect"
19. Nadia Rose, "Big Woman"
20. Spoon, "Do I Have to Talk You Into It"
21. SZA, "Normal Girl"
22. Slowdive, "Star Roving"
23. Brockhampton, "Gummy"
24. War on Drugs, "Thinking of a Place"
25. LCD Soundsystem, "Tonite"
26. Perfume Genius, "Slip Away"
27. Lil Uzi Vert, "XO TOUR Llif3"
28. The xx, "I Dare You"
29. Sheer Mag, "Expect the Bayonet"
30. Killers, "Run for Cover"
31. Johnny Jewel, "Windswept (Reprise)"
32. Jens Lekman, "What's That Perfume You Wear?"
33. Billie Eilish, "Bellyache"
34. Vince Staples, "BagBak"
35. Ibeyi, "Deathless"
36. Algiers, "The Underside of Power"
37. Yaeji, "Raingurl"
38. Kali Uchis feat. Jorja Smith, "Tyrant"
39. Dua Lipa feat. Miguel, "Lost in Your Light"
40. Sir Rosevelt, "Robert Baker"

Monday, March 12, 2018

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

I'm sure it speaks to my semi-isolated US-centric view of things that I spent most of Call Me by Your Name waiting for something bad to happen. Spoiler alert I'm happy to say nothing does—mostly only good things, though it can be a little painful getting to some of them. I might have known, because it's a coming-of-age movie, which are generally more tender affairs, and because the screenplay was written by James Ivory, the long-time collaborator with Ismail Merchant, who together created a genteel upholstered cinema empire in the '80s and '90s (A Room With a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, etc.). Director Luca Guadigno was responsible for 2009's I Am Love, a sumptuous Tilda Swinton vehicle that honestly left me underwhelmed—a beautiful but empty vessel. Guadigno also directed A Bigger Splash in 2015, which I don't know. Those two are the first parts of a trilogy that this movie finishes. Call Me by Your Name is not nearly as stylized as I recall I Am Love being, but it's equally fixated on the ways of the sensuous heart. Set in the summer of 1983 in northern Italy, the story involves Oliver (Armie Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), a young graduate student who is coming to work for six weeks with a distinguished professor of Greek and Roman cultures. Oliver stays with the professor and his family in their villa. Oliver and the family's 17-year-old son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) find they have an instant rapport. It's not without some personality friction, but eventually things get hot between them. I wouldn't say Call Me by Your Name is a fantasy for how accepting everyone in their orbit is of their relationship—it remains clandestine, but Elio gets real and unconditional support from his family and even a quasi-girlfriend. So it's pretty close to a fantasy (at least from my US-centric view). But it certainly feels good to see people treating each other so well. Hammer and Chalamet have a lot to do with making this movie work. The chemistry feels authentic, the intimacy awkward and wonderful by turns, the dilemma posed by what they are doing intimidating. There are no bad people in this movie, which I'm sure is only one reason it got a 10-minute standing ovation at the New York Film Festival last year. The note it ends on, the final image, made me want to stand on my chair clapping for a few minutes too. Well done.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Ambassadors (1903)

A marriage usually looms large in Henry James's tales, which is the case in The Ambassadors, the second of his late three masterpieces. This novel also sees further returns to his themes around relations between the New World and the Old. Our hero, Lambert Strether, has been dispatched from Woollett, Massachusetts, to Paris, France, to collect the lone male heir of the Newsome family, who is wanted to run the family industry. The woman who sent him, Mrs. Newsome, is a widow Strether is interested in marrying for her money. The lone male heir is her nephew, Chad Newsome (compare Christopher Newman). Chad is 30 and presently having an affair with a married woman, Madame Marie de Vionnet. It's quite a pickle and the complications only start there. There are more characters, more intrigue, and more, many more, words. The language as always takes patience, but I'm happy to find The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove are both a cut above some of his novels of the previous 20 years. I'm still a little resentful of all the parsing and unpacking required, but the rewards are there. Strether, who is 55, is so charmed by Chad and Madame de Vionnet that ultimately he fails at his ambassadorial mission. The daughter of Mrs. Newsome, Chad's sister Sarah Pocock, is then dispatched to follow on and close the deal. Thus the plural of the title—first Strether and then Mrs. Pocock. This second team of diplomats, the Pocock entourage, is comical and a little horrifying, an early version of ugly American. In retrospect, perhaps, Mrs. Pocock is the one of them all that keeps her eye on the prize and maintains perspective. When I put myself in her place, and imagine a brother committed to a woman he can never marry—Madame de Vionnet is already married and also a bit older than Chad—I see the point. On the other hand, Chad's easy life and the gentle ways of European society near its best—well, I can see the appeal for Chad too. Mostly what surprises me is how well James keeps such a microscopic story of typical human foible interesting and even mysterious. The strange characters who populate this novel don't entirely make sense. I'm not sure what they're all doing here. But nonetheless something about it is so inspired it is positively a pleasure to battle through. And probably worth going back to as well.

"interlocutor" count = 6 / 518 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Various Positions (1984)

It occurred to me that Leonard Cohen's seventh album came out within a couple of months of VU, the Velvet Underground's surprise release of its remarkable collection of previously unreleased material. I thought I might be able to make something of that, 1960s New York City icons at the crossroads or some such, but I don't remember anyone thinking of both albums together at the time, and really they're very different from one another. VU is pure blast from the past. That's why it's so great. Whereas the Cohen—coming after a five-year hiatus, his longest to that point—is more tentative about entering the future, or at least keeping up with the present. So we get synthesizer keyboards, for example, in the opener, "Dance Me to the End of Love." For all that, it's still Cohen's same plodding tempo and doleful air, occasionally pierced by unexpected words. It's comfortable like an old armchair but I'm not necessarily trying to convert anyone to his cause. As always, he is something of a prickly pear—the poet bona fides often feel more like a kind of con, or joke, though his words can ring, as I say (the aforementioned "dance me to the end of love"). But I didn't go for Various Positions much in its time, or Leonard Cohen either for quite some time. So I was actually a little surprised coming back to find it's the home of "Hallelujah." That song has long struck me as a kind of miracle, not to push too hard on the religious note. I came to it, probably like a lot of people, by way of Jeff Buckley's remarkable cover many years after this album. I know there's a label for it—"secular hymn"—but I say it belongs with real hymns, e.g., "In the Garden" or, especially, "Amazing Grace," which is close to being my single favorite song of all time full stop. Some may consider it trite, maybe as a matter of overexposure, although I can't fathom that myself because I have never been tired of or unmoved by the song and I love to sing it too. It feels right. "Hallelujah" is in that ballpark. Unspeakably beautiful—Cohen's version, Buckley's version, Kate McKinnon's version of Hillary Clinton's version, my version, croaking along. Transcendent. The rest of the album is thus unfortunately left in an embarrassing position, sounding aimless and too casual by comparison. Some songs, like "The Captain," "Hunter's Lullaby," and "Heart With No Companion," are weaker when you notice the words, even wince-worthy. Some, like "If It Be Your Will" and "Hallelujah," make me straight off want to have a conversation with whoever coined the term "secular hymn." (Well, no, never mind, I actually hate those conversations.) I understand Cohen is attempting to have it both ways through the use of ironic distance, but no. No. You can't have it both ways. All you need is "Hallelujah."

Friday, March 09, 2018

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

USA, 89 minutes
Director: Anatole Litvak
Writer: Lucille Fletcher
Photography: Sol Polito
Music: Franz Waxman
Editor: Warren Low
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards, Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, Harold Vermilyea, Leif Erickson, William Conrad, Jimmy Hunt

[Spoilers] This nifty Barbara Stanwyck thriller originated as a radio play first broadcast in 1943. As a result it is at least as set-bound as most movies adapted from stage plays. Yet, at its best, it finds ways to take advantage of the great strength of radio theater, which is an uncanny ability to recruit the listener's imagination. It doesn't hurt that the whole premise here is based on mystifying another object of audio, the technology of the telephone—all those mysterious clicks and shifts in sound quality, like you were hanging your ear into outer space. You could dial zero and talk to a human being in 1948. In 1949, Jack Webb recorded himself placing a long-distance phone call for Dragnet, still a radio show at the time. It takes two minutes and gives some sense of the world at your reach from the inside of your telephone when you picked up the receiver then (listen here, h/t Steven Rubio). That's what the best parts of Sorry, Wrong Number sound like.

The prologue sets the tone: "In the tangled networks of a great city, the telephone is the unseen link between a million lives ... It is the servant of our common needs—the confidante of our inmost secrets ... life and happiness wait upon its ring ... and horror ... and loneliness ... and ... death!!!" (yes, three exclamation points). Stanwyck is Leona Stevenson, an invalid woman in her 30s confined to her bed. She is in New York with her husband, who is there on a business trip, He is supposed to be with her that evening to care for her—her usual nurse has the night off. The movie essentially takes place in real-time though much of what we see is flashbacks. As the picture opens, Leona has been frantically calling her husband's office all evening and only getting a busy signal. Shortly before 10 she calls an operator and asks her to place the call. Somehow she is patched into a phone call she can only hear. The men speaking do not hear her when she speaks. Then she notices their conversation sounds like it is about a murder for hire, scheduled to happen at 11:15 that night. Can you guess? Can you guess?

Thursday, March 08, 2018

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939)

Read story by James Thurber online.

This brief story by James Thurber, told third-person but with majority interior dialogue of its title character, is amusing but not that insightful, though it's among Thurber's most famous. The basic idea is that this Walter Mitty, a mild-mannered middle-aged man, has a head full of heroic fantasies about himself. They range from wartime scenarios (interesting given the publication date six months before Hitler entered Poland) to grave medical emergencies to high-stakes courtroom dramas. He appears to have little clue about the realities of medical treatment in the one fantasy, where he is an expert on "streptothricosis," a real skin disease, discussing "obstreosis of the ductal tract," a completely made-up procedure. The sound effect "pocketa-pocketa" recurs across a few of these fantasies, and occasionally reality intrudes on them in strange ways, a bit like waking in the fog of a dream. The outside scene involves Mitty taking his wife on a shopping trip and he does some shopping himself. That's about it. It has a few moments that might get you a smile—for example, I enjoyed the "pocketa-pocketa" sound effect—and as with anything published in the New Yorker it's at least a pleasure to read (except for those times, which come, when you tire of the urbane metropolitan voice). In terms of a look at the dark corners of a human soul, no, it's not that. I mean, you know what goes on in your own head, so you know right away what's missing if you give it any thought. No sex fantasies, no revenge fantasies, no brooding or seething. That's not the kind of guy Walter Mitty is (or, more realistically, that part of him is buried out of reach of this story. If he's that alienated from himself I don't want to think about it). A recent figure he reminded me of is Ken Bone, who was briefly famous during the debate season the other year with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Walter Mitty is just a guy going about his workaday shopping business and imagining himself in heroic roles as he does so. You get the impression he does a lot of this, but so do we all, right? And really, his are the sanitized versions and not much more. But fun to read the story.

Library of America Story of the Week (Library of America)