Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fantômas (1911) by Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre

Fantômas



































Book Review
Fantômas (1911)
by Marcel Allain & Pierre Souvestre

  Yeah well I'm not going to hold a book review of a pulp book about a sociopathic French serial killer until 2014.  Some books are so nerdy that this blog is the only place where I bring them up, Fantômas, a French pulp fiction series that was just in time to be adopted by the film industry and spread world wide, is an anti-hero, endlessly hunted by a well-meaning Parisian detective.  The original was published in 1911 and translated in 1915.  Fantômas never really took off in the English speaking world, but it is easy to see his influence in the world of comic books and super heroes, since he ran around in a mask and had an almost supernatural ability to disguise himself.

  It is worth mentioning that the criminal activity of Fantômas is extremely gory- the first number includes him ripping the throat of a noble woman for ear to ear, and the denouement involves an innocent man being guillotined in place of the guilty criminal.  This book is also notable because it carries the "influenced the early Surrealist/Dadaists."  Unintentionally, I'm sure, it's hard to read Fantômas as a particularly inspired early edition of the true crime/detective genre, with an anti-hero as the recurring protagonist instead of a hero/detective.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Unconscious and 20th Century Art



  I think if I had to pick a single theme to differentiate art from the 19th vs. art from the 20th century it would be the development of the unconscious as an artistic theme at the beginning of the 20th century.    This shift was really brought to the foreground by the theories of Sigmund Freud, who essentially made "scientific" what had been a non-scientific/philosophical subject in the late 19th century.  Prior to Freud you can see an interest in the philosophical side of the unconscious in the works of Henry James, but it isn't until after Freud that the 20th century would see a full flowering of interest in the role of unconscious in our day-to-day conscious life.

 The unconscious was present as a theme in the art of the Romantics as early as the late 18th century- the poetry of Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge for example.  However, in the context of Romanticism there was no interest in understanding the unconscious.  Rather, the dream state/state of unconsciousness served as a proxy/substitute for ideas of CONSCIOUSNESS that derive from Christianity- state of grace, etc.

 An interest in understanding the role of the unconscious in art is traceable to the work of William James, who published his landmark, pre-Freudian, Principles of Psychology, in 1890.  An interest in this subject first manifested in literature in terms of experiments with the presentation of the consciousness of the narrator within a novel.  Here, the later works of Henry James are illustrative:  You can think of the narrator of The Ambassadors- where nothing outside his scope of vision is presented the reader.  What Maisie Knew (1897) similarly restricted the omnipresence of the narrator.  However, for Henry James it was more about restricting information than exploring meanings and the interior landscape of emotion.

  In the 1910s-1920s, important steps where made both by novelists like D.H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein as well as by visual Artists who would be dubbed "Surrealists" by critics and academics.  It was the explosion of Surrealism in the 1920s that would really put the unconscious in the foreground of artistic thought for the next hundred years.   Even Artists who could not ever be described as Surrealists were influenced by the Surrealists obsessions with the unconscious, dreams and symbols.

 This influence was magnified by the development of "art film" in the 1920s, by Carl Th. Dreyer in his landmark The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and by the German Expressionist Films of the 1920s: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920),  Metropolis (1927) and The Last Laugh (1924), among others.   By the dawn of the 1930s, the unconscious was the pre-eminent consideration for "serious" Artists, and this pre-occupation in turn influenced arts  in the more capitalistic/market influenced spheres that were also developing at the same time: mass market advertising, mass market media to name two.

  This influence continues today, unabated, a century later, so taken for granted that it almost goes without mention.  "We are want we think, except when we are influenced by what we don't think."  It is a paradox at the hear of the modern condition, and well worth spending time and intellectual energy investigating.

  Happy New Year everyone- it's all pre written posts between now and the second week of January, so feel free to tune out until then if you don't totally dig the Criterion Collection and early 20th century Literature, because that is all I have left.  I appreciate my regular readers! There are only maybe of 50 of you guys- thank you for reading this blog!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Three Lives (1909) by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein, literary modernist.

Book Review
Three Lives (1909)
by Gertrude Stein

  If Henry James is the originator of literary modernism, typified by an approach that plays with narrative convention and the established forms of the novel, Gertrude Stein is one of the first disciples.  Three Lives was her first novel, and the publication history should resonate with anyone who plies their art form in the "indie world."  Published as a kind of favor with little prospect for popular success, "Let me get this straight Gertrude, you want to publish a novel that consists of three semi-stream of consciousness narratives about working class women in a small southern town, and one of the women is Black?  This is not what people want to read about!"  Three Lives was aggressively promoted by Stein herself, and found favor with what would be known in the 20th century as the "avant-garde."  Stein herself is like a charter member of the 20th century avant-garde, what with her being a Lesbian, American who lived in Paris and translated Gustave Flaubert.   Flaubert and Henry James are all over Three Lives in terms of being a recognizable influence

  Stein would get more and more modernist and increasingly abstract as her career progressed, making Three Lives the Stein equivalent of Henry James Portrait of a Lady.  But in the difference in subject matter: James with his trad literary take on the marriage plot, and Stein with a radical subject choice of working class women in 19th century America, you can see all the difference between the time James was writing and the time Stein was writing.

 What Stein was doing was not radical for a French novel (in terms of subject matter) and not particularly radical in terms of the English language narrative innovations brought about by James, but the combination of the two strands in this accessible book is itself notable.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) d. Andrzej Wajda

Zbigniew Cybulski turns in an iconic performance as the cynical soldier/killer in Andrzej Wajda's 1958 film Ashes and Diamonds.

Movie Review
Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
 d. Andrzej Wajda
Criterion Collection #285

   Why not post a movie review on Christmas?  It's not like I'm actually writing this post the night before Christmas.  Ashes and Diamonds is a pretty cool Polish picture about the aftermath of World War II in Poland, when the Polish resistance continued to resist against the new Soviet backed Communist regime by assassinating officials and so forth.  Bear in mind that this movie came out in 1958, while Poland was (obviously) a Communist state.

  The main character, Maciek Chelmicki, played by Zbigniew Cybulski is a disillusioned veteran of the resistance, called upon to do "one last job" by assassinating sympathetic government official who has recently returned from war time exile in Russia.  The job goes wrong initially, leading to two unnecessary deaths,  and Chelmicki is forced to skulk around the Hotel where the target is staying for a local banquet honoring the local Mayor, who is on the verge of becoming a minister.

 While he waits for his moment, he woos the comely barmaid Krystyna, who shows him enough for him to decide that he is tired of the fighting life.... but first... he must finish this one last job.  Other than Cybulski's iconic turn as Chelmicki: A cool anti-hero with all the charm of a James Dean or Steven McQueen, Ashes and Diamonds is fairly unremarkable save for the fact that it is a Polish film from 1958 operating at a high level of "Hollywood" style professionalism.

  Ashes and Diamonds is not particularly riveting, particularly during the courtship sequences, but it is overall a work of high caliber and certainly an unexpected surprise.  The films from Eastern Europe/Soviet Union may be the biggest delight for me out of the entire collection.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tono-Bungay (1908) d. H.G. Wells


Book Review
Tono-Bungay (1908)
d. H.G. Wells

  It is commonly observed that Tono-Bungay is H.G. Wells most "artistic" novel.  Unfortunately, the statement is always made by someone who wouldn't call War of the Worlds "artistic," so I don't personally think that (Tono-Bunday is H.G. Wells most "artistic" novel.)  It is, however, NOT a science fiction book, rather a coming of age story adapted for "modern" times.  The main character is Well-sian if not Wells himself.  The protagonist is George Ponderevo, a young man on the hustle (but with consider scientific adeptness and a college level education) who is persuaded to help manufacture a patent medicine (Tono-Bungay) with his ne'er do-well Uncle Edward.

 The two achieve major success based on what we would today call "savvy marketing."  After success is achieved George Ponderevo retreats to the country to romance a fair lady and experiment with aircraft design in what can loosely be described as "in the style of the Wright brothers."  After his Uncle Edward suffers financial reversals, George takes a boat to the coast of Africa to find an expensive radioactive substance called "Quap" which he hopes to sell.  The expedition meets with disaster and Ponderevo ends the novel, in somewhat ominous fashion, building "destroyers" for a private company.

 I think probably the best analogy for Tono-Bungay is in terms of Ayn Rand.   Wells' "George Ponderevo" character is a kind of Nietzschian super man who questions god, society and the laws of nature themselves.  Tono-Bungay is also a kind of precursor to the pop-philosophical novels of the 60s, like those by Herman Hesse, for example.  At the same time, Tono-Bungay is impressive in terms of idea, not in terms of craft.  Wells was writing well into the post-Henry James period of literary modernism but he clearly either didn't get it, or didn't want to get it.

  The coming of age narrative model is a step back in time to the mid 19th century, but the modernity of the ideas expressed by Ponderevo compensates for the lack of formal innovation.
   

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Show Review: Holograms (Captured Tracks) & TV Ghost (In the Red) @ Soda Bar



Show Review:
Holograms (Captured Tracks)
 & TV Ghost (In the Red)
@ Soda Bar  San Diego, CA.

  I found myself at the Soda Bar last night, looking at Instagram photos of the label head of Captured Tracks, Mike Sniper, hanging out in NYC with my partners in Zoo Music, watching one of his bands play, a band from Sweden, thinking about the recent glut of Bergman films I've watched in the last few weeks, and the fact that I had August Strindberg's By The Open Sea waiting to be completed upon my return home.   It's all...interconnected.

 Parked over at the formerly The Void parking lot-  The Void is definitely closed- next time I'll check the front door to see if a formal announcement has been posted.  Soooo mysterious- want to hear what happened?

  Opening band TV Ghost is from Indiana and on In The Red- another Revolver/Midheaven distributed label.  They have an LP out that didn't quite make it to Pitchfork (track review, but no album review.)  TV Ghost performed as a five piece and had a trad goth-rock sound:  keyboards/synths and howling, stylized vocals on top of a basic rock line up.  Considering they come from Indiana I'd say they've done pretty well- and the crowd was into it, but they are a bit to clunky for my taste- particularly the drumming, which needs an upgrade.  They'll never be Pitchfork darlings and the five piece look is daunting, but they aren't wasting their time.

  Watching Holograms to see why Captured Tracks locked them up so fast, I could see it.  Personally- and I say this as someone who released a 7" from a UK band last year and is releasing a 7" from a Danish band next year, and as someone who produced and distributed an LP in EU/UK only this year, I have my issues with bands from the EU.  The US is SUCH a huge market, and it is SUCH a stretch for a UK/EU indie band to make any sort of impression in the US.  You almost need to have a major label backing you to make the leap- add in the lack of a booking agent or prior touring experience and the hurdles can seem overwhelming.

 Holograms fight those issues with an appealing goth pop sound that recalls, who else, Joy Division. Although their PR narrative typically involves a discussion of the privation they've experienced growing up on the rough streets of Stockholm, Sweden, they looks to be healthy and happy, with equipment befitting a touring band in the US.  I don't know if Captured Tracks is supporting them on the road, but they were hardly the clad in rags waifs you would expect if you've read anything about them online.

  They pulled a very good crowd- I was expecting low turn out but it was crowded at the Soda Bar- who almost seemed caught by surprise by the turn out (only had one bartender working.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Wise Blood (1979) d. John Houston

Harry Dean Stanton in John Houston's 1979 film Wise Blood

Movie Review
Wise Blood (1979)
 d. John Houston
Criterion Collection #470

  Yeah I mean I've lived my whole life and I just found out that "Southern Gothic" is a literary genre, that Flannery O'Connor is emblematic of the Southern Gothic literary genre, that Wise Blood was Flannery O'Connor's first novel and that it was published in 1956, and that this film version- WHICH IS AMAZING- was made by John Houston in 1979, and set in the 1970s.  I watched Wise Blood simply because it is on my Hulu Plus quesue and close to the bottom- and is an actual Criterion Collection title vs. those Eclipse titles they try to pawn off as legit Criterion Collection titles.

  Wise Blood is like a constituent element of what we would today call "Lynchian" though it also dove-tails with contemporary film makers like Harmony Korine, as well as the American independent films of the 60s and 70s.  That Lynchian aspect is emphasized by the sepulchral presence of Harry Dean Stanton as a "blind" preacher.  All of the performances are creepy and distinctly "southern" in tone.  Presumably, Houston made a conscious choice to transport the late 50s time of the book to a late 70s reality.

  If you are a fan of the Jarmusch/Lynch/Van Sant wing of the Indie Film Museum- don't miss Wise Blood- it is a  MUST.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Inferno (1908) by Henri Barbusse


Book Review
The Inferno (1908)
by Henri Barbusse

   The Inferno (L'enfer) is a proto existentialist work about an unnamed protagonist who finds a hole in the wall of his boarding house room, allowing him to spy on his neighbors in a variety of "shocking" behaviors: adultery and homosexuality included.  This might be the least popular Novel on the 1001 Books List. The Inferno only has a "stub" Wikipedia page.

  Considering the racy subject matter, seems like a property ripe for a revisiting but until we get the movie version, the fact that the original is brief and an early trip to the play fields of 20th century existentialism is about all that needs to be said.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Show Review: INC. @ Soda Bar ALSO: THE VOID IS CLOSED

Formerly bar Eleven, the Void appears to have shut for renovations: The Void 2013-2013


































Show Review:
INC. @ Soda Bar
ALSO: THE VOID IS CLOSED

  I went to see INC. last night at Soda Bar, but I parked in the Void parking lot to see what was up because they have officially zero shows booked for the rest of time.  To recall, my initial announcement of the Void being in existence was published on January 13th, 2013.  As of last night, I infer that the Void is now closed and being remodeled. I don't know if the name is being kept or what, but as of 10 PM last night there was construction equipment in the parking lot and the front door was closed.  Those observations, combined with the lack of upcoming events of any kind, cause me to surmise that something is amiss, or that it is something more than an update of the present Void- because why wouldn't any shows be booked for the future?

 If it turns out the Void is, in fact, done, just wanted to say that I thought it brought some fresh energy to San Diego, and while I don't think "it will be missed" is strictly speaking, accurate, it was appreciated while it existed.

 As for INC. they fit squarely- squarely- into the new genre of pbr&b where young people re-create the sounds of 70s/80s/90s r&b with home computer emulators, sampling, and in the case of INC., and actual six string bass.  I could maybe hear why 4AD signed this band, but I certainly couldn't see it.  It is a positive flood of bands in 2013 that came through with electronic inspired music and failed to make an actual impression on a live audience.  Shades of the Witch House trend of 2010-2011, and Lo Fi before that 2006-2008.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Song Writing Technique for Top 40 Songs: Getting Into the Chorus Quickly/Having a Chorus



  It is common for art critics to flatly assert a variation of the refrain that the general audience for art commerce has "no" taste.  This argument is derived from the long discredited distinction between "high" vs. "low" art, and is as antiquated as the later distinction (between high/low art.)  In fact, the large popular Audience for art does have a specific taste in terms of song construction.  There are techniques that cut across genre, artist and international markets to unite the Artists who write songs that appear on Top 40 playlists.

  The single most wide ranging song writing technique that Top 40 compositions share in common is that there is a quick opening verse- often it is only a refrain or couplet- followed by the full weight of the chorus.



  Story of My Life by One Direction is #6.  The chorus for Story of My Life comes in at just over a minute, ends at 1:50- through a four minute song- meaning that the chorus occupies half of the first half of the composition.



  In this Luke Bryan country/hip hop/rocker, the full chorus drops a little over 40 seconds into the 3:30 run time.  That's My Kind of Night is up to number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.



  Timber actually OPENS with the chorus, a technique increasingly prominent in the genres of EDM and hip hop.  It is #2 right now on the Billboard Hot 100.

  So like every time I watch a shitty rock band play a club I ask myself the question, "Why the fuck does it take you so long to get into your chorus OR Why don't you have choruses/Why do your choruses suck.  Show you can adhere to established artistic conventions before you go off trying to reinvent the wheel. After all, if you want to perform your compositions live there must be some desire to actually PLEASE your Audience, so why not become aware of what actually pleases an Audience in practice, even if it is an Audience you despise.



  Burn by Ellie Goulding hit #16 on the Billboard 100- chorus comes a minute in.


   

A Room With A View (1908) by E.M. Forster

Helena Bonham Carter starring as Lucy Honeychurch in the 1985 Merchant-Ivory production of the 1908 novel by E.M. Forster.

Book Review
A Room With A View (1908)
by E.M. Forster

  I'm sure I'm not the only person who associates the books of E.M. Forster with the films of Merchant-Ivory Productions.  In fact, A Room With A View is perhaps the best known of E.M. Forster's books as well as the quintessential movie version of the book.  Released in 1985, the movie version stars Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch, the familiar young female protagonist familiar to readers of any novels at all written before 1908.  The movie version also paired Dame Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett with Dame Judi Dench as the novelist/ troublemaker Eleanor Lavish.  A sterling and iconic cast to be sure, casting being a particular strong point of all of the Merchant-Ivory/Forster adaptations.

 It is impossible to discuss the Novel itself without referring to the relationship between Henry James and  E.M. Forster, which from my perspective looks like the relationship between a master and a student picked up early on.  A Room With A View shows a concern with fashion and style- in the same way that Patrick Bateman's monologue about Huey Lewis and the News functions in the American Psycho novel.  Lucy's prediliction for playing Beethoven on the piano is a central metaphor/plot point, and the idea of Italy as a stylish place for young English heroines to go is developed more like a Henry James novel than any other examples that come before it (Standard English Novel marriage plots taking place in Italy.)

  Forster shows several narrative/stylistic techniques in A Room With A View that are arguably "better" or "more sophisticated" than the techniques of Henry James himself.  For example the A Room With A View starts in what I would call "in situ" by which I mean that all of the pieces have been arranged without any reference in the novel itself.  Forster knows that his Audience knows "how this starts."  You compare that with any James novel and it's clear that Forster has advanced, because omitting the first 40-50 pages of exposition creates a more visceral connection with the reader.

  It also produces a length that is close to the novel equivalent of the three minute formula for a pop song.  You can sit down and read A Room With A View in a sitting if you dig the plot.  You CAN NOT say that for the other novels that were being published around that time.  Even Henry James himself.  From that "in situ" start it is easy to see why A Room With A View  would make a good film adaptation-  Forster saves the adapter the difficulty of pairing down Lucy's back story, a familiar component of similar novels at that time and before.

 I haven't actually watched the movie version but looking at the pictures of Helena Bonham Carter on Google Image Search I'm going to search for it now.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hits from 1908: Fig Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin




Hits from 1908: Fig Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin

  What were the cool kids listening to in 1908?  RAG TIME PIANO MUSIC. I am all about 1908, as should be some-what clear by now.

Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) d. Ingmar Bergman


Movie Review
Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)
 d. Ingmar Bergman
Criterion Collection #412

  Understanding the career of Ingmar Bergman requires understanding his initial "break out" from the European film scene into the American/UK markets.  Ingmar Bergman started directing films in the 1940s.  By the time The Seventh Seal was released, February 16th, 1957, he had been making films for a decade.  As this Google Ngram showing the popularity of Bergman in the English language clearly demonstrates, 1957-1958 was a break out year for him in terms of audience size:



  You can see that between 1950 and 1960, Berman experience a 500% rise in popularity.  The release of back-to-back masterpieces: The Seventh Seal in February AND Wild Strawberries at Christmas in the same year, clearly led to a dramatic uptake among English language movie fans.  This rise in popularity continued until 1975, when Bergman reached his peak, likely as a result of Bergman influenced American film makers (Woody Allen, most notably) reaching their peak.



  Thus, whatever one may think of Bergman's pre 1957 out put, it's important to recognize that any appreciation is essentially in the nature of a revival.  Films like Summer with Monika and Sawdust and Tinsel were, at best, novelties, and did not have the break out quality of The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.  What you see in these earlier filims is a working-out of what was to become the Bergman signature style of combining dry humor with trenchant meditations on subjects like death and loneliness.


Harriet Andersson in Sawdust and Tinsel.


 In Sawdust and Tinsel, the story is a more conventional melodrama, though with obvious Bergman signature like an explicit acknolwedgement of human sexuality as well as actress Harriet Andersson playing her lusty peasant girl character to the hilt.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Summer with Monika (1953) d. Ingmar Bergman

Harriet Andersson stares frankly at the camera in Bergman's Summer with Monika (1953) This film pre-figured French New Wave and anticipated many of the techniques used by those film makers.

Movie Review
Summer with Monika (1953)
d. Ingmar Bergman
Criterion Collection #614

  Bergman didn't really have an international hit before The Seventh Seal in 1957.  Distribution for the films prior to that The Seventh Seal was uneven.  For example, in the New York Times article that I'm not linking to because of the NYT pay wall, the writer notes that in 1953, Summer with Monika was purchased for an American run by a distributor who emphasized the film in terms of its sexual explicitness. It was shown in the pre-art house grindhouse circuit, and largely ignored by the American critical Audience.

 However the reception in France was different, and Summer with Monika would later be cited by the Auteurs of the French New Wave as a primary influence in terms of the kind of filmed intimacy they sought in their early films.  The same New York Times article points out that Summer with Monika is a more well developed version of his 1951 film, Summer Interlude.  I would second that observation, especially since I watched Summer Interlude two months ago and still have it in mind.

  It is hard not to fall in love with a young Harriet Andersson playing Monika.  Summer with Monika about a young, working class couple who fall into and out of love within the hour and a half run time of the film. The calm, steady camera work emphasizes Andersson's natural beauty at the same time her character displays personality traits that are anything but beautiful.  The contrast is a quintessentially Bergman-esque theme.

 The last third of Summer with Monika is the familiar "hell is other (married) people" thesis that Bergman explores so successfully in his more mature work.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London

Jack London, bloody Socialist.


Book Review
Iron Heel (1908)
by Jack London

  A very clear trend in the 20th century portion of the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list is the sheer proliferation of Novels.  For example, Iron Heel was published in 1908.  It joins five other books from the same year:  The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson, The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett, A Room With A View by E.M. Forster, The Inferno by Henri Barbusse and Tono-Bungay by H.G. Wells:  All published in 1908.

  Compare the time span for six books on the same list from the 18th century.  You can start with The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox published in 1752 and get all the way to The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, published in 1765, for a span of 13 years.  If you take a similar approach in the 19th century, you are liable to go 5 years for the same number of titles.  In other words, a great many more "classics" were written in the 20th century.

  Fortunately the increase in the number of titles is matched by a corresponding decrease in the average length of each book.  Iron Heel is only 300 or so pages.  Like everyone else, I equate Jack London with stories about outdoor adventures, and before I started Iron Heel I assumed it was the name of a steam ship or a she wolf or something of that nature.  Instead, Iron Heel is a work of socialist/dystopian sci fiction/fantasy with a heavy emphasis on lengthy exposition.  In fact, Iron Heel is little BUT exposition, to the point where it reads more like a work of political science futurism than a novel.

  Iron Heel actually reminded me most of a Criterion Collection title, the Alexander Korda/H.G. Wells collabo Things To Come.  Both books work within the sci fi/socialist cross over that was itself firmly within the category of Utopian/Dystopian Fiction. In these works, the Author typically tries to describe the functioning of the alternate society.  Here, Wells leaves out the happy ending and focuses on a protracted civil war between the Oligarchic "Iron Heel" which is basically a term for the industrial/capitalist elite of the late 19th century in collaboration with the Government and the Judiciary and the Socialist, from whose perspective the "manuscript" is written.

  The purported author of the manuscript that is "discovered" in the distant future and whose transcription is the entire book itself is a kind of Sarah Connor figure- the wife of the leader of the Socialist Revolution, who is actually named "Ernest."  Although the prose could favorably- favorably- be described as "turgid,"  Iron Heel remains shocking in terms of the pessimistic and bloody future that London lays out half a decade before the First World War.

  It is clear from Iron Heel that were London alive today he would be saying "I told you so" about the Wikileaks/Snowden revelations about the National Security State apparatus. Before reading Iron Heel I knew that London was a leftist but I had no idea about the depth of his pessimism and his capacity to anticipate the totalitarianism of the 20th century.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Knife in the Water (1962) d. Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Tate was murdered by the Manson Family.

Movie Review
Knife in the Water (1962)
d. Roman Polanski
Criterion Collection #215

  Another movie review getting run on a book review day because the Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy is actually a hellacious monster.  I am done with one out of three volumes after a week of dogged, determined reading- including multiple e reading devices (computer, two phones, kindle) and reading in Court instead of playing Candy Crush, but it is just a terrible slog.

  Knife in the Water is Polanski's first feature film, made while he was still in Poland (Knife in the Water is actually in Polish.)  His talent, ambition and technical are all fully on display. I'm not familiar with his career path to know how quickly he moved West, but even a casual viewer can tell that they are in the presence of an Auteur level talent.

 Considering that the movie features only three actors and is almost entirely set on a small boat, Polanski runs through a cavalcade of differently framed shots that often feature multiple focii points in a manner that would have been considered sophisticated at a Hollywood level.  The story of Knife in the Water, about a couple that randomly decides to take a hitchhiker for an over night trip out on... the Baltic Sea?  Is packed with tension and humor.  His portrait of the troubled marriage of the two lead characters is concise and insightful.  At 93 minutes, the film clips along with Hollywood level pacing and editing and you barely have a moment to be distracted.

  I'm a huge fan of Polanski- child sex abuse or no child sex abuse- and at the same time I understand why American doesn't want him here.  I think it's a loss, and that what he did was forgivable, especially at the time and place when/where it happened.  Polanski's Chinatown is probably my favorite movie of all time.  The fact that a Polish filmmaker made the greatest California Noir and did it in the 70s is quite an accomplishment, and his other films aren't bad either.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Old Wives Tale (1908) by Arnold Bennett

This paperback edition is 600 pages, people.  600 pages! The Forsyte Saga is 900 pages! That is 1500 pages.


Old Wives Tale (1908)
 by Arnold Bennett

   Man these Edwardian era English novels give no ground to the lengthy style of 19th century fiction.  I suppose there is nothing particularly amiss about The Forsyte Saga clocking in at 912 pages in print because, after all, it is a trilogy of books, making each book roughly 300 pages.  But then to go from The 900 page Forsyte Saga directly into Arnold Bennett's Old Wives Tale.  Well, Old Wives Tale is itself 624 pages in print.  The fact that I read both books in Kindle is critical because seriously, am I going to actually pay for 1500 pages of social-realist-esque fiction published in England in the first decade of the 20th century?  Never.  It would NEVER happen.  They won't teach these novels in English literature class because they are too expensive.  So if it weren't for the free, public domain editions available through Amazon, I would have never read either book.

 The Old Wives Tale tells the entire lives of two mid-late Victorian sisters: Sophia and Constance, who are raised the daughter of an infirm shopkeeper and his younger wife.  Sophia runs off to Paris with a travelling salesman, while Constance marries the help.  The book is structured in four parts.  Part one is their childhood. Part 2 is the married life of Constance.  Part 3 is Sophia's life in Paris and then Part 4 is their reconciliation and eventual death.

 The part to focus on is Sophia's Parisian "adventure."  She is quickly abandoned by her proliferate husband after he blows through a ten thousand pound inheritance.  Sophie ends up running a French boarding house that will ring bells for anyone familiar with Eugenie Grandet, La Pere Goirot, Lost Illusions, Therese Raquin, Drunkard, Nana or Bel Ami.  In other words, Bennett depicts the world of the Parisian boarding house.  I'm not sure if he is the first novelist to do this in the English language, but it sure feels like it.  The easy resemblance between Bennett's description and, say, the way Zola wrote about Paris in Nana (published 1880) makes me wonder about Bennett's own reading habits.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Show Review: 91x Wrex The Halls w/ Vampire Weekend, Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys & Alt-J

Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig sports Babar jacket.


Show Review: 91x Wrex The Halls:
 w/ Vampire Weekend, Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys & Alt-J
@ Valley View Casino Center (i.e. the San Diego Sports Arena)

  First things first kudos to 91x for putting together a legitimately watchable alt rock holiday radio show.  I've actually never been to an event, period, at the Sports Arena/I Pay One Arena/Valley View Casino Center, besides Kobey's Swap Meet (which is outside in the parking lot.)  It's not that I consciously avoid arena rock concerts, but actually, yes I do consciously avoid arena rock concerts.

 This show, however, was different, notably because the tickets were free, and because I had backstage passes and an invitation to hang out in Vampire Weekend's dressing room.  These freebies were NOT provided by 91x, thank you very much, but they were certainly appreciated.  I was really looking forward to seeing both the bands and the crowd, and a pre show drink at the Chili's in the parking lot only got me more excited.

 Bands started early but my companion wasn't interested before Alt-J so that was the first band I saw.  I skipped Alt-J at the Casbah last time through even though I knew it was "catch them at the small venue while you can" situation.  Live in concert, in front of a capacity (16,000?) crowd, Alt-J made it perfectly clear why they have vaulted to prominence: They play a non-derivative brand of easy listening alt rock performed by four talented singer/musicians who seemed focused entirely on the music.  Particularly notable were their multi-part vocals and harmonies, which reminded me of bands like Fleet Foxes, as well as Gregorian chants.  The crowd very much dug it, singing along to even non single album cuts and enthusiastically "rocking out" to music which is arguably not "appropriate" to rock out to.

 Arctic Monkey played next. Not a huge fan historically but the new record has been growing on me.  Frontman/singer/guitarist Alex Turner was in robust form, playing to the crowd in a way the resembled the capering of a Top 40 Artist, while the band competently rocked behind him.  The short-ish set was laden with songs from the new record as well as greatest hits, and I was duly impressed, if not converted.

 Skipped Cage the Elephant to hang out in the Vampire Weekend dressing room.where Rostam and Chris B casually discussed topics ranging from recent PBS documentaries on Narco-Culture, to the fan-made Barbar embroidered denim jacket that singer Ezra Koenig would be wearing that night, to the history of Mexican cinema, to the capacity of Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal FC, to Echo Park real estate prices, to A&R pitches, all within the span of the Cage The Elephant set.

    Further proof that the band members of Vampire Weekend are smart guys, period, no qualifications. The members present also seemed normal and well adjusted.  Most unusual for musicians in my experience.  They certainly fully deserve their success.  I'm not someone who gets particularly star struck, but I do pride myself on being able to conduct an intelligent conversation with other intelligent people, and it was easy to see the intelligence on display.  Considering how often intelligence actually works AGAINST success in the cultural industries their success is all the more remarkable.

 Their set was warmly received by the Audience and it unspooled with clockwork precision. I don't see how you can fail to be won over by Vampire Weekend.

 Putative headliner Queens of the Stone Age had a harder task, filling the cavernous venue with a multitude of guitars.  Without the softening sounds of keyboards and samples, their well designed trad alt rock felt a tad stale next to the cultural vibrancy of the Vampire Weekend set but seriously who gives a fuck. Crowd loved it, sold out, good job 91x.  Consider Dum Dum Girls for 2014?  Broken Bells? Just a couple suggestions.

The Atomic Submarine (1959) d. Spencer G. Bennet

Literally a one eyed monster, The Atomic Submarine creature couldn't be a bigger phallic symbol


Movie Review
The Atomic Submarine (1959)
d. Spencer G. Bennet
Criterion Collection #366

Part of Monsters & Madmen Boxed Set
Criterion Collection #364

 There are some Criterion Collection titles where you kind of scratch your head and think, "OK, I guess you know what you're doing, Criterion Collection.  Then you read the critical essay and your like, "Ummmm...ok, not so sure about this title, but I trust you."  Then you watch the film and your like, "Ummmmmm... maybe you guys are wrong about this one?"

  I'm not saying The Atomic Submarine doesn't deserve Criterion Collections status.  One of the primary goals of the Criterion Collection seems to be to bring obscure movies wider recognition, and a host of these films are found within the B-Movie genre pictures of the 1950s and 1960s.  Generally speaking, Criterion Collection picks weirder, lesser known films.

 So I can see where The Atomic Submarine fits in but it isn't that weird, and it isn't that fun.  It's no Carnival of Souls, to name a similar type of film with the Criterion Collection universe.  I will admit that the creepy one eyed alien that lives at the center of an alien ship the military insists on calling "the cyclops" did give me the phallic symbol giggles, and the acting is classic b movie bad acting, which is itself an art form at this point, independent of "good" acting (see 80s indie films by John Waters and the Eating Raoul guy.)
  

Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Role of Novelty in Cultural Production



  Novelty is an aesthetic value.  In Classical aesthetics, it was seen as a negative, because novelty represented divergence from a universal artistic "ideal." Romantic aesthetics embraced novelty as a value as a by-product of other, more important artistic values like creativity.  The difference between novelty and creativity as aesthetic values is grounded on the reception of a specific work by the Audience for that work.  Novelty is the perception by the Audience that the work is "new" or "different" than the art products they are presently consuming. This perception may itself be "false" in that something that is perceived as novel can be completely unoriginal/creative in that it can be utterly derivative of some work that has come before.

  This distinction is important one for career Artists to grasp, whatever field they may inhabit. Artists are often obsessed with creativity and look down on novelty (if they even have an opinion on the subject of desirable aesthetic values.)  But, in fact and in truth, creativity is essentially unimportant while maintaining novelty is perhaps THE crucial value for survival in the market for cultural products among the general population.  In the context of popular music, novelty can be introduced into a body of work by a variety of different methods.

 The most standard strategy is to incorporate new influences into an existing sound or style of music.  This is a simple, obvious, well established, productive way for Artists to prolong their careers in the market for cultural product, but it can be more or less succesful, or not succesful at all.  The cliche is of a mid-career shift in sound and style that calls into question the prior work, such as when a dance rock artist becomes a freak folk artist (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.)  At the other end of the spectrum is an Artist like Nick Cave or Tom Waits, who incorporate new styles in every production cycle so that each product is unexpected.   In the center you have the world of Top 40 where stylistic flourishes and improvements in production technology create a kind of Mannerist sensibility that carefully redesigns the recent past with an eye for the present.

 This places the burden for introducing that novelty on the artist themselves.  Here are some suggestions that I have for musical/stylistic influences:


1.  West African Banjo/Gnawa music:  One of the most important elements of popular music is rhythm.  In the associated worlds of rock and country music, a common element is the "rhythm guitar."  Much Top 40 country music uses an analog: rhythm banjo, which often exists immediately alongside an accompanying guitar, or multiple guitars. Personally, I don't think swiping a country banjo and putting it in a rock/indie tune is a very cool idea, but finding a banjo substitute, which is exactly what you get in Gnawa music.  The Banjo is FROM West Africa, so of course, their music is authentic/good/interesting etc.

2. The Classic Age of Berlin Techno:  It is clear that there is a vast, overlapping critical/popular Audience for electronic dance music.  Whether it be the genre classification for Album Reviews at Pitchfork, or an EDM Artist selling out the Hollywood Bowl in less than an hour, Electronic music is alive on a number of fronts.  At the same time, there literally exists DECADES of electronic music that was indie/fringe/not absorbed by the larger general market, even music of the 90s, like Chemical Brothers or The Prodigy are examples of music that would be perceived as "novel" by an overlapping critical/general Audience- potentially- who knows right?  But along with "big beat" there is a wealth of Berlin Techno that is magnetic and probably easy enough to reproduce with existing technology- a music that would be both futuristic and nostalgic at the same time.

3.  The Cinema of Eastern Europe During the Cold War:  Whether it be Czech New Wave, Russian Cinema, Polish Cinema, the films of Eastern Europe/Russia are "cool" and very under appreciated.  It is easy to see a vogue for them being established in the same way that the French New Wave is periodically revived by contemporary artists. This is something that could be reference simply by something as simple as a song title or even through artist social media.

4. The Cultural Overlap between the Jazz Age in NYC and surrealism in Europe and the US:  Although the beginnings of surrealism stretch back into the 19th and even 18th century, the surrealist "movement" "began in the early 1920s." (Wikipedia)  Although neither the surrealist program NOR the jazz age are particularly viable on their own, or rather, they are already incorporated into the taste of a general or critical audience and thus valueless in terms of novelty, there is potential to combine the two things into an influence that might play well.

The Mother (1907) by Maxim Gorky



The Mother by
 Maxim Gorky
p. 1907

  Russian Literature is a pretty decent sized category on this blog.  17 different works: 8 films and 9 novels/short stories. There are also some unreviewed novels: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment that just haven't made it up yet.  Russian literature is interesting because it is, in a sense, outsider literature and in the way that all outsider literature functions, it reflects brightly on the source material, in this case, the English novel of the 19th century and the European Cinema of the mid 20th century.  But generally I'm interested in literature that moves from the outside to the center.  In terms of the interest level in Russian Literature- several of the review here have more then 100 page views: When The Cranes Are Flying, the 50s Russian Film, has 551 page views.  Anna Karenina has 110 page views. Dead Souls has 113 page views.  Those are decent numbers.  At the other end of the spectrum: The Nose, Virgin Soil, On the Eve, Oblomovka-- all under 50 page views a piece.

  The Mother is notable because it is late- 1907 publication date, and the hey day of the Russian Novel being well over.  There was plenty of real world turmoil in Russia during the beginning of the 20th century that certainly interfered with the production of cultural documents.  The Russian Revolution proper happened in 1917, and The Mother, with it's overtly Revolutionary message, functions as an example of Art in as being vanguard or avant garde.  Despite the revolutionary political message that is overtly part of the narrative, The Mother itself is not particularly avant garde/modernist in terms of narrative structure or development.  Rather, The Mother is a Russian take on the realist/social literature of Emile Zola.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad

Bob Hoskins played Verloc in the most recent film version








































Book Review
The Secret Agent (1907)
by Joseph Conrad

  Don't get me wrong: I've certainly gained a sophisticated appreciation for the marriage/property obsessed Novels of Victorian England, but it isn't really until you get to Joseph Conrad that I start to warm up to a novelist on a personal level.  For me, Conrad is the beginning of my personal interest in the art form, from Conrad, through Orwell, to Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, it is easy enough to trace a direct line from Conrad, and The Secret Agent, Conrad's only(?) "London" novel is an excellent example, and perhaps the first example of what I would call the paranoid tendency in Literature.

 This posture, the idea that the world is a dark place filled with conspiracies and conspirators- none of them benevolent- was not an idea invented by modern Novelists or modernists generally, but it is a posture that contrasts dramatically with the positivist tone of the Victorians.  The plot of The Secret Agent is simple enough: Verloc is an agent in the pay of an unnamed foreign power (Germany I think?)  A change of Ambassador creates a situation where he is forced to justify is status as an agent provocateur by, you know, actually doing something.

  Verloc tries to destroy the Greenwich observatory, but only succeeds in killing the mentally disabled younger brother of his wife, which leads to his wife murdering him, which leads to one of his cohorts robbing her, which leads to the wife killing herself.  It's a messy, murky web of despair, and you can actually feel the ugliness seep from the page.

 In other words, after literally a hundred years of young girls whining about their marriage prospects, and young upper glass brits worrying about who is going to inherit which property from whose will,  The Secret Agent is a breath of fresh air- as is true of ALL of Conrad's books.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Show Review: Lust for Youth at The Void

Lust For Youth, Sacred Bones, Sweden = Pedigree


Show Review:
 Lust for Youth at The Void


   When a band shows up with a Sacred Bones affiliation and a Nordic back story it is enough to get me out of the house on a Sunday night.  The fact is that I'm interested, pure and simple in bands that have released records on labels like Sacred Bones, Captured Tracks, Hozac, In The Red, Etc. Etc. Etc.  I want to keep up.  I want to go to the show and ask myself, "Would I sign that band to my label?  Would they sell any records?"

  Whether you are a lawyer second chairing a jury trial or a label executive thinking ahead, it's always a good move.  Maybe not such a good move to write a brutally honest review on your blog the next day, but I have nothing bad to say about Lust for Youth.  They may give off the vibe of a minimal techno/synth act, but the actual sound was far from it. IN fact, I found the whole performance captivating, reminiscent of early Cold Cave or the darker side of the Factory Records proto-rave scene.

  Well worth a look see on their current tour, I'm sure they are a band with a future, even if Pitchfork has not gotten on board yet. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Magician (1958) d. Ingmar Bergman

Max Von Sydow as Vogler the magician

Movie Review
The Magician (1958)
d. Ingmar Bergman
Criterion Collection #537

 I was intrigued by The Magician because the included visual essay by Bergman scholar Peter Cowie identified the relationship between Artist and Audience, specifically the hatred of Bergman for his critics, as a primary theme motivating the film.  Bergman's relationship with critics/Audience was formed during his decade long turn at the helm of the Malmo Civic Theater, where he directed plays.  Apparently, he wasn't appreciated quite enough and he took the lack of appreciation to heart.

  It's common to think of great Artists as having a quality that places them above such concerns, but that is a disingenuous fraud, and I'm always interested when Artists confront that relationship in their art.  That being said, The Magician is a bit of what I would call a "parlor drama" filled with characters in old timey costumes standing around inside and talking.  This isn't Bergman's best look, and all of his top line classics have a substantial outdoor component that is missing from The Magician.

  The Magician is also an unusual Bergman film because it has a bona fide happy ending, with The Magician be summoned to perform for the King of Sweden to the shock of all.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Forsyte Saga (1906-1922) by John Galsworthy

Edwardian fashion




































Book Review
The Forsyte Saga (1906-1922)
 by John Galsworthy

  The Forsyte Saga is actually a series of three novels, 1001 Books counts it as a single "book" which seems inconsistent with their practice up to this point.  For example, they don't have every Palliser Novel (there are 6) by Anthony Trollope listed under a single heading, but simply put Phineas Finn (the third of six) on the list and omit the others.  But for that reason it took forever to make it through The Forsyte Saga- two weeks plus.

  Like other English novels of the 19th and 20th century, The Forsyte Saga is a novel about marriage and property, and quite explicitly at that.  The central unhappy marriage, between wealthy lawyer Soames and the younger Irene, influences the semi-incestuous relationships that percolate throughout all three volumes.  Once again, an unhappy literary marriage caused me to reflect on my own recent experience with divorce.

   Something I came to believe about six months into my separation/divorce is that it is unfair to be angry at a woman who makes what you consider an irrational decision to split up, when in fact, it may have been an equal or even greater level of irrationality that caused you to be together in the first place.  Men who have "done nothing wrong" to create a divorce- and here I'm talking about both my own experience and what I've read about in books- in marriage, always take the position that it is the decision to split that is the ultimate evidence of irrationality, but really it's probably the decision to get married that was more irrational, and the decision to break up less.

 In the Forsyte Saga the central motif is the Forsyte men as "possessors of property" whether they be inanimate (houses, stocks) or animate (livestock, women.)  It's clear that Galsworthy writes with a mixture of understanding and satire when he depicts the Galsworthy men. The women are more opaque.  Galsworthy does a better job with older/single women, but when it comes to Irene, the central female figure of all three books, we are left grasping for motivations.  Specifically, there is a decade plus long gap between the initial split between Soames and Irene and their divorce, and Galsworthy provides no insight as to what Irene actually did during that entire period.  She is literally shuffled off to stage right, and I actually imagined the character smoking cigarettes in the wings of the theater while time passed in the book.

 Aside from the frank depiction of happy and unhappy marriage, The Forsyte Saga is notable as a near compete portrait of the post-Victorian Edwardian period.  In my mind, the Edwardian's are like a coda attached to the Victorian, who dwarf the Edwardian's in every way, and who had the good sense to vanish before the onset of modernity.  Here, Galsworthy depicts modernity but in a very Victorian fashion.  There is none of the narrative experimentation that characterizes authors like Henry James (who were writing at the exact same time as Galsworthy.)

 The Forsyte Saga is a throwback to Novels of the prior half century, but seeing as that was absolutely the golden age of the pre-modern novel, it is not a bad place to be.  Please, note this series is very, very long and is to be avoided unless you have a ton of time to read or read very fast.
  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Through A Glass Darkly (1961) d. Ingmar Bergman

Harriet Andersson plays Karin in Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Movie Review
Through A Glass Darkly (1961)
 d. Ingmar Bergman
Criterion Collection #209
Part of A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman (four discs) Criterion Collection #208

  There is A LOT of Bergman to work through within the Criterion Collection. The three of the four films I've watched thus far, The Seventh Seal(1957), Cries and Whispers (1972)& Persona (1966)are big hits, but I dig all of his movies. I haven't really dug into the non-hits but I am most eager.  I believe that you can divide Bergman into three main periods:  His films of the 50s are what you might call his "expressionistic" period, with ponderous medieval settings and heavy use of allegory.  In the 60s he made a transition to more "realistic" film making, with heavy use of natural lighting and plots that were typically contemporary.  And then in the 70s there was a late shift into more "modern" looks- using color and more graphic sexual material.

  So through A Glass Darkly is from the beginning of that second period, and it has a theme that resonates with other Bergman sixties films like Persona.  Through A Glass Darkly was part of a trilogy of films Bergman made between 1961 and 1963.  Through A Glass Darkly was the first film, followed by Winter Light (1962) and The Silence(1963).  Although none of Bergman is what you would call "light" all three films from this period are very "heavy" and did poorly at the box office, according to the interview with Bergman biographer/film scholar Peter Matthews, because they broke with audience expectations.

 Personally, I found Through A Glass Darkly, with it's theme of Artists cannibalizing their loved ones for material particularly appetizing because I actually spend a good amount of time thinking about the relationship of the Artist to his/her environment and how that impacts the resulting art.  In Through A Glass Darkly, Bergman seems to be copping to the fact that such a process is inevitable, and to a certain extent, simply unforgivable.  There is no redemption at the end of Through A Glass Darkly, only sadness.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Trances (1981) d. Ahmed El Maânouni


Movie Review
Trances (1981)
 d. Ahmed El Maânouni
Criterion Collection #689
Criterion Collection/World Cinema Foundation edition released December 10th, 2013

  With two films from Turkey and this film from Morocco, the wider Islamic world is well represented in the batch of World Cinema films being released by Criterion Collection in a collected set on December 10th, 2013.  Trances is about popular Moroccan musicians Nass El Ghiwane.  What is amazing about this film is that it's a documentary about popular music in an Islamic/Arabic country- the only other film of that sort I can remember seeing is a Vice documentary about Heavy Metal in Iraq and Syria, but this is obviously several classes up from that.

 You can be forgiven if you have never heard of Nass El Ghiwane.  They don't have a rerelease going, there is no Pitchfork coverage of them.  That may actually change after this movie comes out, but maybe not, since it has been streaming on Hulu Plus for a minute and only 4 people like it on Facebook.

 Trances has a ton of performance footage, some random shots of Morocco, discussions between band members about stuff and like a love story or something between the main guy and this hot Moroccan chick.  It's pretty uh.... non-Muslim.  I'm sorry but the Muslim world has such a bad rap when it comes to art and modern artistic culture that it's almost stunning to learn a band like Nass El Ghiwane actually exists.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson

The House on the Borderland (1908) by William Hope Hodgson

Book Review
The House on the Borderland (1908)
by William Hope Hodgson

  The question of "what is literature?" comes to the forefront in the 20th century.  The continued growth of a "popular" Audience for newspapers, magazines and novels far out paced the growth in critical/serious /academic attention to literature, especially in the area of market impact.  The critical/serious/academic community was slow to come to terms with this development.  The attitude of late 19th century/early 20th century literary critics towards "popular" literature and art is well treated in Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America by Lawrence Levine.

 In literature, perhaps the earliest genre to challenge the divide was science fiction/fantasy/horror.  The Gothic tradition of horror was present at the birth of the Novel itself, and had periodic revivals between the end of the 18th and end of the 19th century: A period over one hundred years.   The earliest common example is The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, published in 1794.  Gothic/horror fiction "revived" 25 years later in the 1820s.  This period saw more well developed literary themes, typified by books by Authors like Charles Maturin (See Melmoth the Wanderer published 1820) and James Hogg (See The Private Memories and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published 1824), moved the genre of gothic/horror away from simple reoccurring motifs like "deserted castle," "ghosts in the hall" into the more serious and advanced area of literary themes like doubling.

 After the Gothic literary revival/amplification of the 1820s, Edgar Allan Poe happened.  Poe is perhaps the patron saint of genre fictions, since he straddles the horror/detective/literature divide so effectively. Poe "invented" the Detective story, though it is important to note that the full blossoming of detective fiction did not take place until a half century after his death.  In terms of horror, Poe established it as a powerful genre to use in the short story format, and as that format increasingly gained a popular audience through printed magazines and newspapers, Poe's artistic vision but increasingly be seen as prophetic.

 By the last 25 years of the 19th century, genre fiction was becoming increasingly popular AND artistically diverse, spawning several Authors who would essentially define new Genres of popular fiction.  The most significant of these is H.G. Wells.  You can certainly nit pick with the statement that Wells "invented" science fiction but in terms of a popular understanding of that word, yeah he did. Science Fiction was differentiates from prior fantasy/horror novels by the use of science and a complete withdrawal from classical/romantic /gothic tropes of description, plot and theme. Wells was not the only one inventing new popular genres, during the 1880s H. Rider Haggard wrote Adventure/fantasy cross-over novels that laid the way for what we would today call "Action-Adventure" literature.

  The 20th century would bring a virtual explosion of literature in all these areas, and in new mediums like the graphic novel/comic book, film, etc.  One early 20th century development was the evolution of supernatural horror- which is essentially a synonym for "Gothic Fiction" between the late 18th century and the early 19th century into something different.  That something different would come to fruition in the pulp fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, but Lovecraft was a phenomenon of the 1920s.  The House on the Borderland is the first novel to head down that road of post-Gothic supernatural horror.

  Framed as a typical "discovered narrative" ("We were fishing in the wilds of Ireland, Jeeves and I, when one day I uncovered this worn out journal in a tiny crevasse by the shore, entranced, we began reading immediately.") The House on the Borderland quickly detours into a weird, surreal narrative about a man in a house at the end of time.  There are snorting pig men, fifty page descriptions of the end of the universe, and enough "unknown madness" type purple prose to fill up a London tube car.  And it is FANTASTIC.  I'm not sure if Hodgson was appreciated at the time or if he was "rediscovered" due to a combination of Lovecraft's popularity and his obviously surreal tendencies but either way I really recommend this book.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dry Summer (1964) d. Metsin Erksan

Ulvi Doğan,r 60s Turkish Cinema Actress.

Movie Review
Dry Summer (1964)
d. Metsin Erksan
Criterion Collection #688
Criterion Collection/World Cinema Foundation DVD released December 10th, 2013.

  This movie has 17 likes on Facebook via the Criterion Collection?  According to the listing, Dry Summer won the "Golden Berar" award at something called the "Berlin Film Festival" which strikes me as being the rough equivalent of the Toronto Film Festival in terms of market making impact.  I frankly question the Audience for this picture, and that is speaking as someone who watched it himself.

  That being said, I can see why the Criterion Collection/World Cinema Foundation calls Dry Summer a "benchmark" of Turkish cinema even though I have only seen one other Turkish film, also released by the World Cinema Foundation (and streamed on Hulu Plus on the Criterion Collection channel though NOT an official Criterion Collection release.)

  That other film, The Law of the Border was more or less a Cowboys and Indians story.  This film is more like a Turkish version of a Balzac or Hugo novel- 19th century French realism.  The story revolves around two brothers and the wife of one of the brothers (the younger.)  The older brother is the villain of the piece.  The older brother hatches a plan to dam up the spring on their property which angers the local villagers at the bottom of the hill.  Litigation ensues, and then murder. The younger brother goes to prison after being convicted of the equivalent of manslaughter and then the older brother convinces the wife that the younger brother was killed in prison.  Younger brother shows up, murders older brother.

 I am summarizing the plot because I'm sure nobody reading this gives a shit or will watch Dry Summer. The theme of scarce resources and changes among traditional cultures appears to run consistently through the first batch of World Cinema Foundation films being released by the Criterion Collection:

 Redes:  Mexican film about the plight of fishermen in Mexico.
 A River Called Titas: Bangladeshi film about the plight of fishermen in Bangladesh.
Dry Summer: Turkish film about the conflict over water in Turkey.
The Law of The Border: Turkish film about plight of tribesmen in south east Turkey.

  That is what you call an artistic theme.  The World Cinema Foundation is clearly concerned with realistic portrayals of traditional cultures in flux.  The two remaining films, The Housemaid from Korea and Trances from Morocco break the theme but there you have it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gate of Flesh (1964) d. Seijun Suzuki


Movie Review
Gate of Flesh (1964)
d. Seijun Suzuki
Criterion Collection #298

  OK I'm out of book reviews- damn you The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy- no one told me it was really 3 books!  So I'm going to fill the gaps with more Criterion Collection reviews because those are easy to churn out.  At times it feels like half of the Criterion Collection is Bergman films and the other half are Japanese films.  At least Gate of Flesh is by Seijun Suzuki, the left field bizarro b movie Auteur of legend. Suzuki has 7 Criterion Collection titles under his belt.

  Gate of Flesh is set in deolate, post apocalyptic World War II Tokyo, where a gang of scrappy, color coded prostitutes shacks up with a scummy ex-Japanese soldier.  The soldier is played by Suzuki stalwart/Chipmunk cheeked champion, Joe Shishido.  Everything about Suzuki's film making feels fresh a half century later.  Although Gate of Flesh is clearly what Americans of the same time would call an "exploitation picture" the quality is unmistakable.  As is... the weirdness, endemic to all Suzuki films, and the brutality, which also appears to be common in Suzuki pictures.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Redes (1936) d. Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann

Original poster art for Redes (1936) d. Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann




































Movie Review
Redes (1936)
d. Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann
World Cinema Foundation
Criterion Collection #686
Criterion Collection/World Cinema Foundation edition available December 10th, 2013

  I'm sure I've mentioned the two main categories of Criterion Collection titles: movies that are actually watchable/fun and movies that are boring and "important."   Different people may break movies down among those categories different ways.  For example, I would the work of Carl Th. Dreyer in the for former category, and I'm sure many people would put them in the later.  I can barely make it through Japanese films from the 50s and 60s, and Italian Neorealism give me a desperate feeling in my soul, like I'm trapped in a boring film class and can't out, and I'm sure there are people who love both those types of films.

 Redes, however, is incontestably a film of historical significance, rather then a fun romp.  Shot by a multi-national crew and released in 1936, Redes is a very early attempt at documentary style realism, shot with non-professional actors and with a very distinctive (for 1936) visual attitude.  The press release for the Criterion Collection edition calls it a "precursor to Italian Neo Realism" but it seems more likely that Italian Neo Realism was created under similar conditions and with similar influence.

  The good news is that Redes clocks in at barely an hour, so if you are in the mood for 30s Mexican film about the plight of fisherman in Baja California... check it out.

  One release note that is worth considering: None of these World Cinema Foundations come with extras- just the (restored) film.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Market Makes Whores of Us All: The Prostitute in Japanese Cinema

Seijun Suzuki's color coded prostitutes have a strict moral code that resembles the Pimp's Code of the West


The Market Makes Whores of Us All:
The Prostitute in Japanese Cinema

Double Suicide (1969) d. Masahiro Shinoda
The Life of Oharu (1952) d. Kenzo Mizoguchi
Gate of Flesh (1964) d. Seijun Suzuki


  You can't work with Artists and ignore the metaphor of Artist as prostitute in terms of their relationship with the larger cultural-industrial complex.  It is a well trodden Artistic theme since before culture WAS an industry, via the Romantic movement.  In Western Art frank depictions of the economic causes of prostitution are few and far between.  Instead, the emphasis up until today tends to be a religious/moral analysis often explicitly made in reference to Christian literature.

 However Japanese cinema, while often dealing with the feelings of personal shame experienced by prostitutes, lacks the Christian reference point that permeates Western Art, and allows Japanese films to more explicitly deal with the economic roots that lay behind most acts of prostitution.  This in turn allows the viewer to think about the larger idea of prostitution as a metaphor for the relationship that most have with economic necessity.  In other words, we all trade valuable part of ourselves in exchange for the economic necessities of existence, and compromising a personal code of values is often unavoidable.

   The economics of prostitution are in full display in Double Suicide, where the plot revolves around the attempt by the star-crossed male love to "free" the Prostitute by buying her.  In this film, his rivals are economically favored men who also want to buy the Prostitute in an effort to buy her love.  The title and ending of the film suggests a deeply fatalistic philosophy and the story itself clearly takes the stand that "resistance is futile."

  The Life of Oharu is closer to a Western style morality play, with a main character who declines and declines in a way that would be intimately familiar to any semi-literate Englishman of the 18th century via the widely disseminated prints of William Hogarth.   Oharu is, again, a tragic figure, but stripped of the prissy moral judgment of Christianity her plight takes on a more universal feel. Removing moral judgment from the equation allows the Viewer a closer level of sympathy with the prostitute, and again helps to draw out the ways in which we all compromise ourselves to survive: The prostitute as universal symbol of humanity.

  Gate of Flesh differs from The Life of Oharu and Double Suicide because it is a contemporary tale set in the aftermath of World War II, but the economic imperative behind the main group of prostitutes is made impossible to ignore.  They even have their own "code of conduct" which requires ALWAYS getting paid for sex, much in the same way we have the Pimp code of conduct in contemporary Western culture.  These prostitutes are moral agents, which is somewhat unexpected since Gate of Flesh in most other ways is what we call an "exploitation film" in terms of using brutality and sensationalism to excite the (limited) Audience.

 I feel like this frank depiction of the economic/universal qualities of prositution- and as a mirroring artistic theme- is still limited in the West, and the non-Western sources are a fertile place to find inspiration for fresh ways with developing "The Market Makes Whores of Us All" as a viable artistic theme.



Young Törless (1966) d. Volker Schlöndorff

Mathieu Carrière plays Torless in Schlondorff's 1966 film.



































Movie Review
Young Törless (1966)
 d.  Volker Schlöndorff
Criterion Collection #279

  I gave this movie review a book review "time slot" (Thursday 5:30 AM) for two reasons.  First, I'm not done with the Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy.  Second, The Confusions of Young Torless is ALSO a title from the 1001 Books collection of Novels, and I've previously reviewed the book, on May 22nd of 2012.

  Young Törless is an enduring classic for reasons beyond the execution of the film itself.   Volker Schlöndorff is a lesser known (compared to Werner Herzog and Fassbinder) figure in the world of New German Cinema, but I believe an argument can be made (and is made by the film maker himself in the 20 minute feature that accompanies the streaming version on Hulu Plus.) Schlöndorff actually went to school in France and worked in the French film industry as a second director/assistant director.  According to his own words, he was motivated to return to Germany and introduce some of the energy created by the French New Wave to German Cinema.  The result of this was New German Cinema, though  Schlondorff admits that upon his arrival/return to the German film industry Werner Herzog was already there, though only a director of "short documentaries."

 Besides the seminal role Young Torless plays in New German Film, there is Schlondorff's awareness of the horrors of Nazi Germany, and his attempt to make a German language film which addresses that horror.  Although the book was written well in advance of World War I, let alone World War II, it clearly shares some foreshadowing of certain aesthetic aspects of Nazi rule, particularly the gleeful, sadistic perpetration of violence on the bodies of the excluded.

 In Törless, the young thief Basini is subjected to all sorts of physical, mental and sexual abuse at the hands of Beineburg and Reitling, while Torless passively watches from the sidelines.  Schlondorff draws a clear line between the passivity of European intellectuals during the rise of Nazism and the passivity of Törless in the face of such gross, deplorable abuse.

  The relationship of the main characters of Torless to sex and sexuality is a topic for another blog post, but clearly tracks with the repressed homosexual overtones familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of English "Public" (private) school life in the same time period.   Musil's frank depiction of this abuse is simply without peer in contemporary English literary culture.

  Finally, there is the increased importance of the author of the source material, Robert Musil.  His "big novel" the uncompleted the Man Without Qualities, has experienced a revival within this decade.  This revival was no doubt spurred by the 1996 reissue of the novel with a new translation by Sophie Wilkins and a "textual overall" of the uncompleted work.

  If you look at a Google Ngram of "Robert Musil" in English language books, you can see a steep ascent, but not until 1960.  Musil suffered through a half century of English language obscurity, but when Scholodorff made his version of Young Torless Musil was in the midst of his first dramatic uptake in the English language.  Other then a brief decline in the first part of the 70s, Musil has been gaining in popularity ever since his initial cultural break out at the beginning of the 60s.

Blog Archive