January 07, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell

Yes, it's true, I haven't been posting here at all, lately. However, I've been reading and watching films and things at the same clip as ever. I'll definitely update soon.

Meanwhile, I confess that I do enjoy some Malcom Gladwell. Just got a copy of Blink for Christmas and plowed right through it in a day or two. The man has a very identifiable style, which is beautifully satirized in this lovely web snippet:

I Dream in Malcolm Gladwell

Really fun to read. Don't miss it, if you're the kind of person who likes to peruse a copy of the New Yorker or listen to Radiolab now and then.

October 06, 2008

Depression Viewing

"Uncertain economic times" is putting it mildly. "The fundamentals of our economy are strong" is nearly laughable. I'm no doomsayer, but if we are really heading into something akin to the Great Depression, it can't hurt to know how it was portrayed in popular film the first time around, right? Maybe there someone will have a good 1930s movie on their hamsterwheel-powered ipod and I can watch it over their shoulder while we are both waiting in the breadline.

With that in mind, I posted to Mick LaSalle's blog as I do from time to time, and got a lot of great responses, from movies that dealt directly with the depression, to those that were mostly escapist entertainment at the time, and lots in between. I've only seen a handful of these, so I'm linking to their IMDB pages for reference. Thanks to all the regulars of that blog for the ideas.

If you have additions to the list, please post in the comments and I will update the list. I'd especially love to include more films from the early years of the great depression. Anyway, on to the list:

1931 The Champ imdb
1932 Shanghai Express imdb
1932 I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang imdb
1933 Lady for a Day imdb
1933 Golddiggers of 1933 imdb
1933 Duck Soup imdb
1933 Hallelujah I'm a Bum imdb
1934 It Happened One Night imdb
1934 The Thin Man imdb
1934 Stand Up and Cheer imdb
1935 The Bride of Frankenstein imdb
1935 David Copperfield imdb
1935 Les Miserables imdb
1936 My Man Godfrey imdb
1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town imdb
1937 Big City imdb
1937 Dead End imdb
1938 Boy's Town imdb
1938 You Can't Take It With You imdb
1939 Gone With the Wind imdb
1939 Of Mice and Men imdb
1940 The Grapes of Wrath imdb
1941 Sullivan's Travels imdb
various films by the Three Stooges, Boris Karloff, Shirley Temple

July 09, 2008

Fade to Clear

Fade to Clear
Leonard Chang, 2004

This is my favorite of Chang's series of three Allen Choice detective novels. Like other great exemplars of the mystery genre, Fade to Clear is about truth and in many ways about literature. Someone's no doubt already written a dissertation on the special power of genre fiction to comment on itself and on fiction in general. Pretty much all my favorite detective stories play with this in some way, though not often as overtly as this one does.

Because this book surely wears its philosophy on its sleeve, positing a hero who (to grossly oversimplify) fights crime by day and reads Kierkegaard by night. The two earlier books in the series grapple with similar issues, but here it's laid out plainly: a detective's investigation and philosophical inquiry are two sides of the same coin. In particular, the detective Allen Choice attempts to understand human relationships and what they mean, his investigation and his reading of Kierkegaard moving along in parallel at first, then dovetailing quite elegantly near the end of the book. It's relatively rare in genre fiction to see a character evolve morally, and Chang accomplishes that here without dumbing down the character in any way.

Maybe I've overemphasized the philosophical angle too much ... this is also a very intense crime novel. Lots of action, romance, plot twists, harrowing situations, obsessions, betrayal. In particular, the mental and emotional stress of the main character leap right off the page, felt in his actions and dialogue as much as in the more reflective sections of prose. This makes him easy to identify with - sometimes so much so that my heart pounds hard in my chest as I read, something that rarely happens to me. The author keeps things tightly paced throughout, and it's surprising how easily the text flows from gun battles to domestic arguments to reflective passages like this:

The contours of grief are textured and serrated, and if you run your fingers over them, Braille-like to read the trajectory of sadness, you find the ridges rising and falling with small snags and depressions. They are never smooth; they cut your fingertips. You will leave a thin trace of blood.

Not exactly punchy terse emotionless Hammet prose, is it?

At the climax of the novel, a combination of violence, tragedy, and redemption through love, the action and the soul-searching seem all of a piece. That in itself is immensely gratifying to me as a reader. The Kierkegaard-reading isn't a gimmick (as in Philip Kerr's eye-rollingly lame A Philisophical Investigation), but a key part of a character-driven philosophical novel. Nor is the book archly and self-congratulatory about the mystery genre - it's a detective story because it should be, and the crime-novel medium gives rise to the philosophical inquiry as much as the other way around.

Definitely the best of the three novels in this series so far, though I've enjoyed them all. Read them now, before somebody makes a movie out of them.

Drat, Powell's ain't got it. Check your local library!

June 21, 2008

Death of Cody's

Well crap. Cody's is closing its doors for good. (Read the announcement here.)

When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, Cody's seemed like a miracle - everything a great bookstore should aspire to be. Over the years, I've had many friends who worked there, and I shopped at all four locations that they tried. My dad read poetry there once when I was a kid, even.

I remember when Barnes and Noble opened in Berkeley, everyone thought it was the death knell for the independent stores, but most survived pretty well (Cody's was probably the hardest hit, though, since its business depended on volume and depth). Never selling used books, Cody's kept holding on through the advent of Amazon, taking real estate risks in San Francisco, closing its Telegraph Avenue flagship store, courting new investors, etc.

I'll miss the bookstore a lot. I'll have to do some thinking about all the purchasing links in this blog - expect to see those updated soon.

UPDATE 23 JUNE: I'm happy to announce that I'll be linking to the great Powell's bookstore in Portland from now on.

June 20, 2008

Doc Savage

Doc Savage Omnibus 13
Lester Dent, writing as Kenneth Robeson

When I want to read something breezy and without the darker overtones of hardboiled detective stories (my usual genre fiction of choice), I often reach for a Doc Savage novel. These stories were published in pulp form first, in the 30s and 40s, pretty much all written by one man (as I understand it, he farmed out some of the stories to other authors, but then nearly always re-wrote them himself from scratch anyway). There are close to 200 of them in all, I think.

There are many pleasures to be found in these novels, not the least of which is the evocation of New York and the rest of the world in the 1930s (as sold to pulp-devouring working-class boys and men, at least). There is no doubt whatsoever that science and technology are unalloyed boons to mankind, that New York is the center of the planet, that the human mind and body can be perfected, that women are a nuisance, that "adventurer" is a laudable career choice, that the American way of life is superior to all others, that the world is full of exotic peoples and hidden treasures, etc. Reading a few of the books at a clip (they each take only 2-3 hours to read), you are instilled with an unambiguous set of values. These are surely moral adventures, in the American grain.

One way these books stand out from others of the same genre and time-period is that they place a high value on humor. This is mostly concentrated in the figures of Monk and Ham, two of Doc Savage's team of five highly-skilled adventurers, who insult and play practical jokes on each other at every opportunity. The lighter tone actually helps me treat some of the more difficult elements (misogyny, racism, and forced lobotomies, for example) as joking boyish silliness, making it easier to fogive than it might be otherwise. Plus, it's possible for the author to pull off things like the following, for my money one of the greatest pulp-novel lines ever written: "It was a secret door, in the best secret-door-in-a-cliff tradition." Really what more needs to be said about a book's frame of reference when it contains a line like that?

That line is from "The Green Master," one of the five stories in this omnibus collection, about the descendants of Incans living in an enclave in the Andes, who happen to have the power of mind-control. Naturally, they are no match for our ubermensch. The more notable novel is "Up From Earth's Center," which happens to be the last one Dent wrote, and it literally involves a trip to Hell and back - outlandish even by the Doc Savage standards.

One feature a lot of the books have is a lack of respect for denouement. Basically, once Doc bests his nemesis in a final confrontation, two or three sentences are enough to wrap things up. This can be frustrating to me at times, but on the other hand, there's really not much more to be said once the dust has settled. Got to leave readers chomping at the bit for the next installment.

June 18, 2008

Summer Heat

Sometimes Whitman says just what I'm thinking...

From sex—From the warp and from the woof;
(To talk to the perfect girl who understands me,
To waft to her these from my own lips—to effuse them from my own body;)
From privacy—from frequent repinings alone;
From plenty of persons near, and yet the right person not near;
From the soft sliding of hands over me, and thrusting of fingers through my hair and
From the long sustain’d kiss upon the mouth or bosom;
From the close pressure that makes me or any man drunk, fainting with excess;
From what the divine husband knows—from the work of fatherhood;
From exultation, victory, and relief—from the bedfellow’s embrace in the night;
From the act-poems of eyes, hands, hips, and bosoms,
From the cling of the trembling arm,
From the bending curve and the clinch,
From side by side, the pliant coverlid off-throwing,
From the one so unwilling to have me leave—and me just as unwilling to leave,
(Yet a moment, O tender waiter, and I return;)
—From the hour of shining stars and dropping dews,
From the night, a moment, I, emerging, flitting out,
Celebrate you, act divine—and you, children prepared for,
And you, stalwart loins.

May 24, 2008

The Song Remains the Same

directed by Otto Preminger, 1944

I've always enjoyed this movie, and I watched it a few days ago for the first time in a couple of years. I fully admit that the music is the main draw for me - David Raksin's score permeates the film thoroughly, and for me it's what answers the questions raised by the action on the screen.

The legend goes that Raksin was having extreme difficulty coming up with a suitable musical theme for the film, and the producer and director had Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" picked out as a substitute. Then, a couple of days before the score was due, Raksin's wife left him, he sat down at the piano, and the theme came out. Romantic story in the extreme, and perhaps deserving of its own Hollywood treatment.

The film is built on a mystery-thriller structure, contains noirish lighting and snappy dialogue, includes the postwar preoccupation with class differences, has a Jungian streak a mile wide, and has some of the most depressing and fatalistic views on love this side of "Sex and the City." It's also a meditation on the psychology of narrative - this is no "just the facts, ma'am" kind of police procedural. In fact, Sturges is using the mystery frame (and the camera, and the music) to probe at the nature of truth throughout.

There are lots of theories about what's going on in the movie, and I've usually fall into the camp that says the movie is divided up into two parts: everything before Dana Andrews falls asleep on the couch is something like objective truth, and everything thereafter is a dream he's having. Very Tao. Very Hammett. Very Faulkner. Very Virginia Woolf. If not for the music in the second half of the film, it would be more of a puzzle to me - the characters seem to go places just a little to much out of keeping with the way they were set up in the first half, the visual style seems to change in subtle ways too (though I'm not adept at picking up the visual clues, so I'm probably not the best judge). The theme music that was mostly diegetic in the first half of the film becomes a lush commentary in the second half, saturating the quiet moments, underpinning the actions and relationships, giving everything a dreamlike quality. Like the movie has crept sideways into a Wagner opera without us noticing.

I think the key to Laura's success is that this self-reflexive filmmaking and meta-commentary on storytelling are layers atop the foundation of a dynamic and rich straightforward mystery narrative. It works quite well taken at face-value, with brilliantly-wrought characters in Clifton Webb's Waldo Leidecker and Vincent Price's Shelby Carpenter. There's a whiz-bang thriller finale, romance galore, long lurid close-ups of Gene Tierney, humorous asides, bad guys losing and good guys winning. It took a second viewing for me to notice things that seemed off-kilter, and the score was what pointed me in interesting directions to try and resolve that unsettling feeling.

Tone is a tricky thing in movies, as I remarked many times in other posts, and when it's put over well it draws me in like nothing else. Preminger and Raksin are at the top of their game here.