Dedicated to classics and hits.

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.)

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