VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Good Morning Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys


Book Review
Good Morning Midnight (1939)
by Jean Rhys

  "As depressing as a Jean Rhys novel" should be a metaphor. Like the other Rhys title that has shown up during the 1001 Books project (Quartet (1929)), Good Morning Midnight is about a woman at loose ends.  Rhys' train wreck protagonists are half proto feminist icons and half Edwardian "fallen woman" existing in the grey area between mistress and prostitute.  In fact, they had a phrase for it "demi monde."  Quartet was explicitly a roman a clef (thinly veiled fictional account of biographical material) about her lengthy affair with Modernist Author and Editor Ford Madox Ford.  

  Neither Good Morning Midnight or Quartet are explicitly biographical, but it's hard not connect the dots.  Quartet is a portrait of the author as a young woman, and Good Morning Midnight is a portrait of that same woman as a drunken, suicidal, penniless wreck, shifting between horrific flashbacks involving a life on the margins and an equally horrific present, where she aimlessly wanders the streets or Paris, spending a monthly stipend left by an unnamed benefactor from her past- enough to survive but not enough to live.

  The end of Quartet involves her being raped- or maybe it's just an attempted rape- and robbed by a gigolo.  Good Morning Midnight is sad in a thoroughly modern way.  The great sadness and loneliness at the heart of the "liberation" brought by modernism to men and women around the globe is itself one of the great themes of 20th century literature, and Rhys is one of the earliest practitioners of the sad science of individualism.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

After the Death of Don Juan (1939) by Sylvia Warner


Book Review
After the Death of Don Juan(1939)
 by Sylvia Warner

   Talk about your minor classics, After the Death of Don Juan by Sylvia Warner doesn't even have it's own Wikipedia page! Sylvia Warner is included in the 1001 Books project because she is an early LGBT author, and a Communist to boot, thought After the Death of Don Juan has zero LGBT themes.  After the Death of Don Juan is supposedly a parable about the rise of Franco in Spain, though I would have been hard pressed to identify it had I not read it separately on the internet.  The Don Juan in question is "the" Don Juan, or at least "a" Don Juan, one of the line of legendary lotharios who have inspired authors for centuries.  Warner doesn't identify the time of the events in her book, but the manner and speech of the characters seems to place After the Death of Don Juan in the early 20th century.

  In the opening pages, Don Juan disappears after murdering the father of one of his would-be conquests.  The only witness to his disappearance is his valet/man servant, who testifies that Juan was literally pulled down into hell by demons.  This explanation is accepted by most everyone except Juan's long-suffering father, who is doubtful in a "modern" way.  Juan then reappears, claiming that he disappeared because of an outbreak of an embarrassing skin condition, and that he told his valet to make up whatever story he wanted.

  Juan's reappearance causes a rebellion amongst the long suffering peasants of the region, who have been exploited by Juan's father to pay for his prolfigateness(sp?) and there is a rebellion, ruthlessly suppressed by local soldiers.  Soooo... not exactly sure how you get from here to the Franco dictatorship.  Like many of the minor classics in the 1001 Books project, After the Death of Don Juan was genuinely surprising to read in the sense of "What is going to happen next?"  The combination of an exotic setting and a familiar main character makes for a diverting read.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) d. Jacques Demy

Catherine Deneuve plays a winsome 17 in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), directed by Jacques Demy

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
 d. Jacques Demy
Criterion Collection #716

The Essential Jacques Demy
Criterion Collection #713

   Criterion Collection released The Essential Jacques Demy boxed set last July.  Many, if not all of those films are now up on the Criterion Collection Hulu channel.  One thing I've noticed about the Criterion Collection Hulu channel is that it doesn't get new movies all that often, so when it happens, it is distinctly a cause for celebration.   Jacques Demy is terra incognita for me.  I have a vague memory of a revival of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg garnering limiting publicity when I was in college. 

  "Delightful" is the word that you most often see used to described The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  All of the dialogue is "sung" in the sing songy way that most Americans associate with the work of Steven Sondheim ("Anyone can sing in a Sondheim play you just have to goooo like thiiiissss.")  The story is a conventional drama about a virginal young woman (Denueve in her breakthrough role), living with her Mom, who runs an Umbrella shop in a town which is not Paris, but in France.  Dad is not around, but my guess would be he is dead

   Denueve falls in love with a handsome mechanic, and he is promptly shipped off to fight in Algeria, leaving Deneuve pregnant and alone.  Enter a wealthy jewelry merchant, who is willing to take on Denueve, other man's baby and all.  Mechanic returns from the war, is sad, and finds love with another.  Other than the sung lyrics, the visual, Technicolor style of Demy is what give The Umbrellas of Cherbourg its lasting appeal.  The mise en scene is nothing so much as a visual feast, and if you aren't staring at Deneuve, you are staring at whatever is behind her.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck

Dorothea Lange snapped this iconic image of the Great Depression while on assigned with John Steinbeck- his observations would form a large part of The Grapes of Wrath.

Book Review
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
by John Steinbeck

  Hits don't come bigger than The Grapes of Wrath.  On the basis of Of Mice and Men and Tortilla Flats, Steinbeck had already made his bones, if not achieved the kind of everlasting canonical status which The Grapes of Wrath gave him.  Steinbeck did journalism and non-fiction throughout his career, and so it came to be that he toured the depression era California central valley with photographer Dorothea Lange.  She is the woman who snapped that iconic portrait above- an image which came to define the Depression for generations. 

  Steinbeck's story of the Joad family isn't exactly fashionable.  As the Depression era population has passed, the relevance of the experience of the so-called "Okies," economic migrants who came from the Oklahoma panhandle and environs to the agricultural areas of the central valley, is less apparent.  Today, the more culturally relevant agricultural migrants are those that come from Mexico.

 You could say that the shift in perspective and interest among subsequent generations of readers combined with Steinbeck's decidedly non avant-literary style makes The Grapes of Wrath less necessary, but then you have to deal with the fact that he won The Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Grapes of Wrath is his biggest hit.  Steinbeck's prose is a mixture of Hemingway and Zola, with similarities to earlier and contemporary West Coast writers like Frank Norris and Jack London.  Frank Norris and The Octopus- written very early in the 20th century, seems to be a kind of template for the combination of mid 19th century European realism and 20th century rural California locations.

   Mexican farm workers, which are the only California central valley agricultural laborers I've ever learned about, are no where to be seen.  It isn't a stretch to think that the very popularity of The Grapes of Wrath was one of the causes of the phasing out of native farm workers after World War II.  In spite of my better, more refined instincts I found myself chuckling at the idea that native born Americans would be working the central valley bringing in the crops.

  Steinbeck also embeds a more or less socialist critique to the situation the Joads and their Okies were fleeing from: The Dust Bowl, The Great Depression and the resulting take-over of large swaths of agricultural land by the banks in the Midwest and South.  The first third of the book is particularly heavy with interstitial chapters that simply contain portentous statements about "the land" and "the people."  Thankfully, once the Joads make it to California the critique becomes embedded in the plot itself, and the characters are able to speak on their own behalf.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Book Review: Farewell, My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler



Book Review:
 Farewell, My Lovely (1940)
by Raymond Chandler

   Wow, I slipped right into the DM's of 1940s literature without even knowing it.  It seems like just yesterday I was finishing up the 1920s.  Some of the temporal confusion is a result of listening or reading major works well after they would occur under some kind of loose chronological order.  Looking at decades of literature in the twentieth century, 1900-1910 is basically a continuation of the Victorian/Edwardian continuum. 1910-1920 is dominated by the experience of World War I, and the impact of that experience on "serious" fiction.  Both the 1920s and 1930s are alike, with literary trends from the 1910-1920 period continuing through to the end of the 1930s, and presumably up until World War II, with another radical fissure after that, similar to the disruption caused by World War I in literature.

  Farewell, My Lovely was Raymond Chandler's second Phillip Marlowe novel, after the popular and critical success of The Big Sleep.  You can feel the success of The Big Sleep percolating through the text of Farewell, My Lovely.  Where The Big Sleep obscured the literary pretensions of Chandler's "detective fiction," Farewell, My Lovely positively embraces it, with the character of Phillip Marlowe making MULTIPLE Shakespeare references and calling one police officer "Hemingway" because of his terseness.  I think you could make a compelling argument that The Big Sleep is the superior work because it lacks the wry knowingness and Shakespeare references, but for people who grew up on Coen Brothers films like Blood Simple and The Big Lebowski, Farewell, My Lovely is a more appropriate point of reference than The Big Sleep, let alone The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.

  As is the case in almost all detective fiction, the "city"and surrounding locales are often more vibrant than the dialogue of the characters. Los Angeles is as much a star as Phillip Marlowe, specifically pre-World War II Los Angeles, an entirely different place than what would emerge after World War II.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Power and the Glory (1940) by Graham Greene

Book Review
The Power and the Glory (1940)
 by Graham Greene


   The Power and the Glory is the third corner of the triangle of "English authors writing novels about Mexico in the first 50 years of the 20th century."  The other two corners are Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano and D.H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent.  In all three novels "Mexico" itself appears as  a kind of grotesque version of itself, Mexico in a fun-house mirror, if you will.  From the perspective of a colonialist/imperialist literary critique, all three are risible.  All three English novelists based "their" Mexico on scattered travel and as part of a wider trend of Anglo-American engagement with Latin America in the late 19th and early 20th century.

 In light of the rise of Latin American literature in the mid to late 20th century, it's hard to really...take offense.. at the white-guy takes on Mexico.  Surely, we can say that the subsequent success of Latin American authors in English translation mutes any reasonable offense one would take at the presumptions and assumptions of white, English, male authors taking on Mexico.

  Even as I enjoyed each of these books, I felt compelled to wince and mentally apologize for the crude, apish way that many Mexicans are depicted.  This characteristic of the early 20th century "Mexico novel" is common to much colonialist literature, both by those supportive of and critical of the system alike.   Greene, of course, is a "Catholic" author and this Catholicism influence his depiction of the priest persecuting state of Tabasco in Mexico during the 1920s.

  I was generally aware of the history of Mexico and the struggle between the left-leaning government and the Catholic priest, but I actually had to look up the specific episode that the book details: When Catholic priests were declared "traitors" within the state and forced to marry, all the Churches were closed.  Priests who refused to marry were executed or fled.

  The hero priest of the novel- unnamed throughout-  is the last priest standing in Tomas Garrido Canabal's Tabasco state, where he ruled as a dictator between 1920 and 1935.  According to all, Canabal's Tasasco was the "apogee of Mexican revolutionary anti-clericism."  Thus, the plot of The Power and The Glory, about a nameless priest who is hunted like a criminal by police, military and paramilitary "Red Shirts" implicates the excesses of both Communist/Socialist and Fascist dictatorships in the 20th century.

   This depiction of authoritarian fascistic-socialism spans all three books.  In The Plumed Serpent the concern is with creating a "New Mexico" of native, non-Christian elements in a way that clearly anticipates the rise of Nazism.  Under the Volcano has a character who is murdered by right-wing, fascist thugs for being a communist.  And then you've got the nameless priest of The Power and the Glory.   If you want to leave the obvious Colonialist/post-Colonialist critique out of the mix, I quite enjoyed all three books.

  Part of engaging with other cultures and nations involves understanding how our own culture understood other places in the past, and the depiction of early 20th century Mexico is so dark that it seemingly set the tone for popular beliefs about the reality of Mexican existence.  I can see where someone would rather read Latin American authors themselves but when it comes to the 1920s and 30s there is a lack of domestic material to draw from. At least these books are in print and considered classics.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Tartar Steppe (1940) by Dino Buzzati


Book Review
The Tartar Steppe (1940)
by Dino Buzzati

 Surprisingly, the Wikipedia entry for this book and the movie of the same name cite this novel as being influential in developing the "magic realism" genre. (Wikipedia)  This is disclosed in a Wikipedia entry that is called a "stub" where the level of detail is so minimal that the entry is considered a mere placeholder.  Yet I was struck by the reference to the influence of this book on Magic Realism, since that is not something that the introduction to the book mentions.  The Amazon product page for this particular translation, by Stuart C. Hood for Verba Mundi, references The Castle by Franz Kafka.  

  The Tartar Steppe also fits within the broad parameters of the early existentialist literature.  Wherever an individual reader locates The Tartar Steppe would likely depend on their point of entry, but generally speaking you can see The Tartar Steppe as a kind of substitute for a high school student having to read The Castle or The Trial: Still European, around the same time, same set of concerns.  The Tartar Steppe is also an easier read than Kafka, and combination of early twentieth century modernism and techniques that would later be associated with Magical Realism.  Most notably, the elastic, fairy-tale like compression of decades of time into a couple hundred laconic pages.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Party Going (1939) by Henry Green


Book Review
Party Going (1939)
by Henry Green


  English author Henry Green placed four titles into the 1001 Books Project:  Blindness (1926), about a blind soldier after World War I.  Living (1929), about the lives of Birmingham factor workers. Loving(1945), about the servants in an Anglo-Irish castle during World War II and Party Going.  The library edition of Party Going is part of a three-in-one Penguin classic's edition along with Loving and Living.  The foreword to this edition is written by John Updike, and if you take Updike's introduction with Living, Party Going and Blindness you have the portrait of an author whose work places him after the Modernists but before the careful character driven fiction of mid to late twentieth century, or 'New Yorker short story fiction" as I think of it.
  This style is a kind of literary miniaturism.  Unlike the high modernists, who deployed the everyday and mundane in the service of grand ideas about life, the universe and everything, Green does not seem to be concerned with the world outside the universe of the particular characters.  These characters are sharply drawn.  Shifts between narrators are accomplished with a  minimum of fuss.  Green is in the business of domesticating the disorienting narrative techniques of the high modernists.

   Party Going takes place entirely in a single afternoon, at a fogged-in train station, with the main characters huddled at a close by hotel while crowds mill about aimlessly outside.  As the two hundred page story spools out, the upper class characters are questioned about infidelity.  Green is a careful, subtle writer, and my thought is that he wrote on multiple levels.  The Wikipedia entry for this book hints at a "symbolic" analysis of Party Going that relies on Greek mythology and the god of Hermes.   I certainly didn't get that, and Updike doesn't mention literary symbolism in his career summarizing foreword

   

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Show Review: Is Kate Tempest the next Eminem? @ The Echo Los Angeles, CA.

Kate Tempest is a 29 year old poet/playwright/musician who made her US musical debut at the Echo last night (March 14th, 2015)


Show Review:
 Is Kate Tempest the next Eminem?
 @ The Echo Los Angeles, CA.

   The week before SXSW is the traditional opening of the season for live music in Southern California.  Bands either start their journey in Los Angeles (many foreign bands) and play here before heading there, or they continue on from Austin to play Southern California after the festival (many bands from the East Coast and Midwest.)  After that happens, the pre-Coachella period begins, where many of the non Coachella artists start touring the West Coast, then Coachella, then post-Coachella, etc, on through the summer.

  For me, this period is typically one of reengagement with music and live music in particular.  Several years running I've hardly done a music related thing between November and mid March, and the traditional period of detachment was brought in to focus by my decision to leave Zoo Music.  I'm currently talking to Alex of Dirty Beaches about working with him on something, but who knows really.  If my relationship with music is meant to be a hobby, then I've had my fun and why not just end it.  If it's something that I can grow into a separate profession alongside lawyering, I'm nowhere close, so either way no rush and why worry.

 It was with those thoughts in mind that I agreed to attend the Kate Tempest show at the Echo last night.  She was sold to me as a published poet and playwright from London who also did music.  Doing no prior research, I expected  a singer songwriter type.  My first inkling that I was hugely mistaken was when my companion, a music industry professional, Id'ed Steve Berman AKA the man who signed Eminem to Interscope and as of 2012 the 96th most powerful man in the music industry according to Billboard Magazine. (BILLBOARD POWER 100: STEVE BERMAN)  He was escorted  by a half dozen healthy looking music industry bros and as I sat there on the patio of the echo watching the gaggle of them kill time waiting for the headlining set to start, I joked, "What, does Steve Berman think that Kate Tempest can be the next Eminem?"

  Turns out the Eminem comparison is not wholly unmerited, and certainly more appropriate than other white, English, female artists who were influenced by hip hop(who will not be named here, you know who I'm talking about.)  Kate Tempest fairly commanded the stage in a way that you would expect from an artist who was not making her US musical debut that very night.  She had a great report with the audience and the stage show, which featured a backing female singer, a guy on drums and a producer with backing tracks, was far beyond what I normally see at Echo level venues.

  The idea of Kate Tempest being signed to Interscope is not particularly far fetched.  She is managed by ATC Management.  ATC Management also manages Twin Shadow.  In November, Twin Shadow announced that he was leaving 4AD (after two records) for Universal.  4AD is not known for giving artists two record deals, so Universal either bought him out OR he had negotiated a two record deal with 4AD. 

  I'm not sure what Steve Berman thought of the act.  I left about six or seven songs in and it looked like Berman and his Interscope bros had beat us to the exit.  Personally, I found Tempest revelatory- a voice with authenticity and a well worked out, positive message.  Although it is clear that she developed her delivery in the context of the poetry slam circuit- not really something I'm into- the sophisticated production of her backing tracks added an element of interest for people like myself who have little interest in poetry slams.

  I frankly shudder to think what a major label would do with Tempest- I can imagine her debut single being a duet with Iggy Azalea- I mean that is how the major label system works.    But I wish her all the best, and she seems like she has a clear vision for herself and her art.  Kate Tempest can take care of herself is what I'm saying, and if she wants to sign to Interscope, and Interscope wants to sign her- or some other major label- more power to the both of them.  The world needs more artists like Kate Tempest.

  And if you are shopping for SXSW musts- she is most certainly a must watch to believe.  The recordings don't even give you a sense of her charisma on stage.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Gimmie Shelter (1970) d. David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin


Book Review
Gimmie Shelter (1970)
 d. David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
Criterion Collection #99

  Widely known as "the death of the 60s, on film" Gimmie Shelter is also maybe the best music documentary ever made.  It was also made by Maysles brothers, who are perhaps the world's most well known documentarians.  Their Grey Gardens is another Criterion Collection stalwart and their shorter work Salesmen, about door-to-door Bible salesmen, is also included as a Criterion Collection.

  Other than their extraordinary subjects, the Maysles are best known for their low key filmmaking style, but at the same time they appear as characters in their own films, most often as questioners from behind the camera.  In Gimmie Shelters, David is largely on screen, since they use editing sessions as a framing device for "flashbacks" that recapture the magic at Altamount, which ended with the Hells Angels stabbing multiple fans.

  To recap, at the height of their fame and the 1960s themselves, The Rolling Stones decided they wanted to throw a free concert "for the people of San Francisco" in the spirit of the Summer of Love and Woodstock.  They first reached an agreement with the Sears Point speedway, but that deal fell apart on the eve of the concert itself, ironically at least partially over the question of rights to the anticipated concert film.

  For whatever reason, The Rolling Stones decided to ask the Hells Angels to help with security, and the Angels were stationed around the stage.  During the concert, there was an altercation between the Angels and Meredith Hunter, and 18 year old African American. Hunter was then stabbed to death by an Angel, Alan Passaro, who was charged with murder.  At trial, a critical piece of evidence was film shot by Maysles' which appeared to show Hunter with a gun immediately prior to the stabbing.  Passaro was acquitted on a theory of self defense after the film footage was produced as evidence.

   The movie stops before the criminal case- you can only wonder how amazing Gimmie Shelter would have been if it had followed through to the trial where itself was instrumental in acquitting a man facing a life sentence.  Still, Gimmie Shelter is still amazing without any follow up, and is certainly the best music documentary film ever made on a number of different levels, both in terms of the technique and the subject matter.  The concert footage of the Rolling Stones nearing the height of their fame is priceless.

Blog Archive