Friday, November 29, 2013

Movie Lessons: A History of Violence

In A History of Violence, small-town perfect father Tom Stall gets accosted by gangsters who think he's the gangster Joey Cusack. Is he? Of course he is!

Maybe, in a Hitchcock film, the protagonist might have a chance to be the wrong man; but in just about any other film, we kind of know that Tom Stall really used to be Joey Cusack. So there's not a lot of mystery about his identity: he used to be a killer and a gangster. So how does the film keep our attention with this big mystery more-or-less taken off the table?

Primarily, there's the suspense and the menace of the situation. We know he's the killer Joey Cusack--so now we nervously wait for the situation to shake out, for it to ripple through his perfect life. Which is why we spend so long seeing the world as it is before the trouble starts, sometimes in an almost over-egged way.

For instance, when little girl Stall has a nightmare, dad comes in to comfort her. Aw, perfect dad! Then brother Jack comes in to comfort her. Aw, perfect siblings! Then mom comes in--and everything is perfect. The son's biggest problem seems to be playing baseball in gym class, about which dad gives him some advice, which turns out to be useful when Jack catches the ball and wins the game. Sure, that gets him into trouble with the school bully--but Jack defuses that situation also. Dad faces the problem of litter outside his diner; inside his diner, his cook and his customers all get along. There aren't many problems in the Stall world and every problem is manageable.

Also, there's the scene where Tom Stall and his wife have sex with her wearing her teenage cheerleader outfit, since "they never got to be teenagers together."

All this "perfect Stall-world" would almost be boring if the movie didn't start by introducing us to two wandering killers. Again, this scene is structured around suspense and delay: just as we saw the angry bully approach Jack, so here we hear one say that he "had a little trouble with the maid"--and it's only a little later that we see what this means.

So when these guys show up in Stall-world, we know how much the Stalls have to lose--and we have to wait to see how it's going to blow-up when they arrive in town after being gone for so long. (Bonus: they are driving in a different car, a nod to how they've stolen and killed their way across the state, I think.)

One of my favorite little sequences similarly uses suspense and delay--playing with what we can see and can't: when Tom worries that some gangsters are going to his house, he runs--limping--towards his house (delay #1). He calls his wife, who doesn't pick-up at first (delay #2). She eventually picks up and gets the shotgun ready, just in time for her to point the gun at Tom when he runs in. Only then do we see that Jack Stall is sitting at the kitchen table eating cereal and watching all this, which is an intense moment for him--and for us since we see that he had no idea what's going on. Then while mom goes to take care of daughter, Tom puts the shotgun down on a table--and the camera lingers for a moment before panning off of it, just to remind us that there is a loaded shotgun in the room--and that we can't see it when we turn away. I remember sitting in the movie theater, trying to move the film camera with my mind to show me the shotgun.

Now, A History of Violence uses delay and suspense a lot, but it also doesn't mind skipping some transitional moments. For instance, Tom Stall gets wounded twice in the movie and in the next scene, he's at the hospital confronting the emotional/character fall-out of the issue. We never waste time seeing anyone call the ambulance or see Tom get doctored. It would be a big waste to see that: we don't care about Tom's relationship with his doctor, only his relationship to his wife and kids.

Similarly, most of the violence here happens quickly and messily, since the violence is only interesting insofar as it affects Tom's relationships.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Movie Lessons: Argo

Summary: A CIA exfiltration agent hatches a plot to sneak six Americans out of Iran: pretend they're Canadians making a film. 

Argo is a historical movie, which means that Ben Affleck has only so much wiggle room to play with: to give the idea that the six Americans have nowhere to turn to, he can have a character say that the British and New Zealanders turned the six away (which, since the Kiwis and Brits really did help, earned Affleck a censure from the New Zealand government!); but he can't make it two Americans instead of six or end with them being captured instead of escaping. So, unfortunately, we know how it will turn out, which drains some of the suspense; but then, we know how Romeo and Juliet is gonna turn out, too, and that doesn't spoil it for us.

But because there are so many characters here, so many moving parts, Affleck can't really spend too much time with any of them. There's the Americans hiding out, the Canadians doing the hiding, the Iranian maid who knows the secret; there's the State Department and the White House staff and the CIA; there's the Iranian police and the cultural bureau and the Iranians in the street; there's the Hollywood makers and the Hollywood press. So how does Affleck solve this issue and give us fully-rounded human beings?

Well, he doesn't. "Character" is done quickly and broadly: the producer is an irascible old man, with one-two lines about how he's a shitty dad and kids need mothers; the Iranian in charge of hunting down the Americans has no particular traits; even Mendez himself--the exfiltration agent and guy we spend most time watching--is pretty thin as "the agent who isn't afraid to say no to the bureaucracy," which is a fun character type--but not a fully rounded human being.

Now, Affleck (and the screenwriter, Chris Terrio) pull some good tricks to give us some glimpse of these people. For instance, in Mendez's briefing, the CIA gives us a quick run-down of the six, complete with some home movies; so we are told bluntly who is the social climber, who are the newlyweds, etc.

Then there are all the historical touches which give the film some verisimilitude: there are so many chunky glasses and mustaches that it's hard not to see these characters as characters--the man who chose that soup-strainer must've had a reason and a backstory.

But more than that, Argo gets away with having pretty thin characters because of the propulsive and multi-POVed plot--even though the plot is pretty linear. So: 
  1. Iranian revolution captures Americans, but six escape. 
  2. How will they get out? Mendez offers the movie option. 
  3. He goes to Hollywood to set it up. 
  4. He goes to Iran. 
  5. He faces some pushback from the six. 
  6. He faces pushback from the US government. 
  7. The Iranians nearly catch the, but they escape. 
  8. He reconciles with his wife.
Sure, it's linear and pretty simple, but the script keeps up the tension by jumping between different POVs, including the antagonists'; and by setting up the stakes and the urgency. So we know the embassy files were shredded, but we see kids in a sweatshop putting the shreds back together, including photos of the people who worked there. Can Mendez get the six out before the kids put together their pictures? Or will they end up like the dead bodies we see hanging from construction cranes? Can the six learn their covers? Will the reluctant one be convinced to go along with this plan? And so on. There's even a "will the producer in Hollywood get to the phone on time to answer the call from Iran?" Hokey, sure, but it works to keep attention and tension.

The only real misstep, I think, was in that we spent too much time with Mendez and learned too much about him. Sure, he gets the crazy movie idea from the movie he watches with his son over the phone, but his whole storyline doesn't really add much. Are we supposed to believe that, after reuniting these six with their families, Mendez had a revelation that family was important and that he should be with his own? Frankly, I think it would've worked better with a Continental Op-type agent, a guy who was pretty mysterious. As it is, it seems pretty pro forma for him to have a happy, family-oriented ending.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 203: Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving (#203)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "John Inglefield’s Thanksgiving" (1840) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches:

I've said it before, but Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs is an excellent antidote to the idea of an eternal canon--or even a consistent aesthetic response. So: we love Hawthorne for his ambiguity, while his contemporaries loved him--when they loved him--for his sentimentality.

So what would they have made of this story? Thanksgiving as a family holiday is ripe for sentimentality: Oh, father, we can finally reconcile! Oh, wandering daughter, no one can replace my dead wife but you! Oh, lordy!

This story has lots of that: a daughter under a nameless sin returns home; literally sits in the chair set aside for John Inglefield's dead wife; shakes hands with her stern minister brother and clasps hands with her still-blooming twin sister; and flirts safely with her father's apprentice, who probably would have married her and given her a stable, acceptable life.

Then the reconciliation just... fizzles out. The sin-marked daughter Prudence(!) can't stay, but has some sinful business to get back to, despite the overtures of her family to stay. And in each previous reconciliation there's been some note of sin: for example, her missionary-to-be brother says he hopes to see them all in Heaven and Prudence notes the improbability of that; and when her sister Mary almost throws herself on Prudence, Prudence begs off having their bosoms touch, since such a gulf of sin separates them now.

And so the sentimentality his contemporaries loved is mixed with that sin-obsessed ambiguity that became his preeminent quality in the early 20th century. Which makes for an odd Thanksgiving story: family, food, and--instead of football--unconquerable sin. As if, for all that we have to give thanks for, there's a whole other realm of human existence that is beyond the possibility of cheer.

In other words, what cosmic horror is to Lovecraft's New England, sin and guilt is to Hawthorne's.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Old Time Radio Review: Quiet, Please: The Thing on the Fourble Board

I recently listened to "The Thing on the Fourble Board," an episode of Quiet, Please from 1948 that some people have praised very highly as an excellent episode of that show and a fabulous bit of horror. Now, I'm a bit of a fan of old time radio, and I think it's worth a listen to. Have you listened to it? Great, because I'm going to spoil the plot and twist if you haven't.

The show starts with a direct address from an ex-roughneck (oil-field worker) Porky. He calls his wife "Mike" to come over, but she doesn't, so Porky tells a story from his old oil-field days--a story of terror. The story involves a core sample of million-year-old rock--which has a fancy ring and a finger in it. And that finger turns out to be--invisible! Once the mud is rubbed off, that is.

Now, all this time, the geologist who came out to do the examination is worried that there's something up on the derrick floor. This is called a "fourble board," and Porky explains why in another example of how he fills in information about oil-production work in between the horrific story. It's info-dumpy, but it makes total sense since Porky is telling us this story and responding to our questions or confusions (in a way that isn't that unusual in some shows).

So, after the geologist is--natch--horrifically murdered; and then after another death and the closing of this well; the roughneck comes back to the derrick and throws paint on the invisible creature that's clearly killing these guys. The creature has a horrible body but a very cute girl's face, so the ex-roughneck does the only logical thing: he "marries" it. And all this time, while he's been telling the story, we haven't been at a bar or party--we're tied to a chair or held at gunpoint, waiting for "Mike" to come eat us.

Now, that final twist that puts us in a different position is pretty effective as a moment of horror; as is the approach of "Mike," who has an awful, baby-ish but barely human voice.

But it also seems somewhat odd and a little silly in its way. For instance, he meets a monster with a girl's face and falls in love with it, which is both inter-species-weird and vaguely pedophiliac. Why give her a little girl's face? There's some talk about her being lost, which gives some reason why she gets associated with youth; but that just compounds the weirdness and discomfort of this grown man luring this subterranean monster child into this strange relationship.

And while the turn from "uninvolved listener" to "presumptive sacrifice" is appropriately scary, there's no real great tie between "invisible underground monster" and "you're in the story." It works great for kids, such as in the story of the old man's toe--"And you have it!" But besides the shock, there's not much else to make it specific to this story. It could be the story of a man searching for a will--and you have it!--or the story of a serial killer--and you're next! An invisible, subterranean spider-lady-turned wife doesn't scream "you're next" to me.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Movie Analysis (Short): This is 40

Why did This is 40 fare so poorly with critics? Some guesses:

  • Apatow-overload and backlash:
    • People seemed to love his earlier films, but later years seem to bring more and more films by Apatow and circle (Seth Rogen, James Franco, etc.)
  • Sequel-(sorta)-itis:
    • People felt this spin-off was double dipping into the well
  • Too long and self-indulgent:
    • Yeah, over 2 hours is too long and yet another drug-use scene to add to the list of similar scenes in other Apatow (and circle) films
  • Too mixed tone:
    • Some of the comedy here is just fun, some of the drama here is just nail-biting relationship stuff--and though there's a profitable overlap in the middle, the movie ping-pongs a bit too much between the two tones (in a way similar to Funny People)
    • It also feels like the opposite of a date movie: you shouldn't watch this with a loved one to laugh and bring you together, but more as a conversation piece where you'll see how different your feelings might be about the issues involved
  • Meandering:
    • Though there's some overarching structure here--it's their birthday week, with a big party coming at the end--there's lots of scenes and issues that give this a sprawling, loose, lived-in feeling. This is sort of Apatow's charm but also part of all his problems: self-indulgent, overly long, too whiplashy tone-switches.
Still, it had some good laughs and some excellent additional casting and some serious reality. If any writers out there want to take seriously the idea of digging deep into their issues, you could do worse than look at how Apatow and friends do it.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 202: Washington Irving, The Stout Gentleman (#202)

Washington Irving, "The Stout Gentleman" (1822) from Washington Irving: Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveller, The Alhambra:

When I taught a college class in 19th-century science fiction, I started off by saying that they would enjoy everything we read, except for one short novel that would bore them silly; and, as I guessed, when we got to George Tomkyns Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (1871), they all told me that they were bored to tears. Why then was this such a popular book at the time? I argued that the boredom of the piece was linked to its realism, its drab dread of invasion--that Chesney was as skillful with boredom as Tarantino, who I think is a modern master of moments when "nothing happens."

All my students offered a different explanation for its popularity: there was just less to do back then, so...

Though that does short-sell the entertainment ecology of the 1870s, I couldn't help think of it when reading Irving's "The Stout Gentleman," a comedic-tinged story of a man who is trapped in an inn--by rain and lingering fever--and whose boredom is lavishly painted. There's no one to talk to, one boring magazine, and no internet. So the narrator describes his boredom at boring length--the rain, the misery, the emptiness.

(Bonus: he says something about stuff carved into the walls or windows that you could find at any inn, which sounds like the 1822-version of contemporary highway bathroom poetry.)

And then the narrator becomes obsessed with the mysterious Stout Gentleman in room 13, a man whom the narrator never sees, but has to assemble from the effects he has on the world. The Stout Gentleman never comes out of his room and he eats late--so he must be rich. He upsets a cheerful chambermaid, so he must be rude and ugly. But he pleases the nagging landlady, so he must be charming. Etc. The narrator becomes so obsessed with this Stout Gentleman that even when other travelers show up and start chatting at night, the narrator is no longer able to be entertained by this. Of course, when the narrator tries to meet or see the Stout Gentleman, he just misses him.

It's all played for slight laughs; and Irving's friend witnessed this story being written and noted that Irving laughed to himself. So why am I so reminded of Poe's unsolvable mysteries told by feverish men, like "The Man of the Crowd" (1840)? A feverish narrator. A weirdly attractive mystery. An unknown other. An overactive imagination. An attempt to read the mystery through its signs. A failure of detective work. Even a slight obsession with shoes.

The one main difference may be Irving's claustrophobic picture of the boring inn and Poe's wide-ranging picture of London's tumult. Which seems right: Irving wants people around him (heck, he even wrote this story while sitting around with a friend), Poe is more worried about others.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Movie Analysis: The Sixth Sense (or, Sixth Sense's Lessons)

Scriptshadow (the website and the book) offers several lessons from The Sixth Sense, such as "avoid dual-column dialogue" and "don't hang your story on a twist ending" and "hide your plot points." Which are fine comments and some of the lessons are even technically useful, such as "if your scene takes place in a generic location, like a church, don't waste time describing it, just say INT. CHURCH."

But there's several other lessons we can take from The Sixth Sense--and at least one way that we can see Scriptshadow's reading as a little off, if not exactly wrong.

  1. Start with stakes: the movie's opening shows 
    • a troubled marriage (with his wife telling Dr. Crowe how work is first and everything--even her--comes second for him); 
    • the consequence of Crowe messing up, with Donnie Wahlberg shooting Crowe and then himself.
    • Which sets up an unsolvable conflict: if he concentrates on work more, he'll lose his wife, but if he concentrates on her instead of work, he'll end up getting shot again.
    • And we see how the situation with Cole mirrors the situation with Wahlberg from the opening. Can the doctor fix this kid in time to avoid getting hurt again?
    • Though the film doesn't make much of this, we can squint and kind of see how Cole could turn out to be a school shooter or other "villain," just like Wahlberg in the beginning. In a later scene, Shyamalan shows how Cole doesn't do so good at school when he uses info from the dead to answer a question, which leads to a confrontation with his teacher where the teacher calls him a "freak." Which is, we're led to believe, the worst thing you could call someone. BUT! Leading up to that climax, Cole has been yelling at his teacher about his (the teacher's) childhood nickname and bullying issue. Though Cole seems like the victim here, he also comes off like a monster-in-the-making.
  2. Increasing weirdness and delay: considering that the trailers had "I see dead people" and it has become something to be parodies, it's interesting to watch the movie and see how late this admission comes and how long the movie plays with weirdness.
    • Weirdness: A little kid speaking Latin.
    • Weirdness: All the cabinets opened in a second when mom is out of the room, with Cole not moving from his chair.
    • Weirdness: In photos, Cole is accompanied by a strange distortion.
    • Weirdness: The thermostat can't keep the room warm.
    • Weirdness: Cole is forced into a closet that cannot be opened--until it can.
    • Reveal: "I see dead people" comes around 48 minute mark.
    • Weirdness: He has bruises on his body--which adds to the stakes of the ghosts.
    • Weirdness: The dog runs away from a ghost (old cliche).
    • Weirdness: Strange sound on the tape of an interview with a disturbed child and Crowe noting how cold it is (which we know the meaning).
  3. More delay: Shyamalan sets up lots of questions and makes us wait for the answer.
    • We see the outside of Cole's secret fortress tent, which looks like a normal kid tent--and only much later do we see that the inside is covered in sacred objects and images of saints.
    • Similarly, we see how the tent protects him from a ghost, so when the tent starts to fall apart and a ghost gets in, it comes as a nice shock.
    • And we don't get to hear what that ghost tells him, as the movie jumps forward to the funeral where Cole unmasks the killer mother.
      • Bonus cinematography: at the funeral, Cole walks through a sea of adults who are taller, their dialogue reduced to moody whispering--until he sees the dad, who is sitting down and therefore more at Cole's level. When Crowe comes into the frame, the three of them make a perfect diagonal line with their heads.
    • Cole tells his mom what his grandmother says, which is an answer to a question, and only after mom breaks down crying do we hear the question.
  4. The family drama: if you take out the ghost angle, this story still would have some power as a conventional drama. You have the single mother trying to deal with her strange child; and the strange child trying to deal with his social alienation.
    • Shyamalan emphasizes how good things can be between Cole and his mom, showing her physical support (cleaning his clothes, feeding him) and emotional support.
    • It's especially nice to see them in just playful moments, like when she races a shopping cart that he's in--a scene that does nothing to advance the plot, but emphasizes their warmth.
    • But then we also see their hardships and troubles, often in contrast; so, for instance, mom asks Cole if he took this precious pennant and he says no--and he can't admit to his mom that it was a ghost.
      • Bonus cinematography: the happy cart-race scene shows both of them in one shot; the dinner argument over the pennant has the camera pan from one to the other, reminding us that they are separate.
    • When Cole tells his mom that his grandmother loves her, we see how this affects Toni Collette, which shows us how important this is to her.
  5. Characters discuss themselves: though Scriptshadow says that the plot points are hidden (well, sort of), the characters explicitly discuss all their character issues. Which makes it a really easy film to watch since we're not usually uncertain about people's motivations or reasons.
    • So Crowe's wife reads him his award for being a Super Child Psychologist.
    • In their first interview, Crowe and Cole discuss Cole's story--how the divorce affected him, how he does in school, etc.
    • Crowe specifically asks Cole what he wants to get out of this therapy.
    • While Crowe, to get closer to Cole, confesses to his own fears and worries about growing apart from his wife.
    • Cole starts a conversation with his mom with "I'm ready to talk now."
  6. Scenes that turn: there are a couple of scenes that start out one way and end up another, which is a nice way to twist the knife a little. 
    • For instance, Crowe comes home to find his wedding video on the TV--and then to find his wife in the shower--and then... then he finds her Zoloft. So what looked like it might be a reconciliation is just a reminder that we need a reconciliation.
    • Similarly, Shyamalan will show us a happy scene between Cole and his mom before an unhappy scene.
    • The video that Cole gives the dad starts off with the dead girl playing with marionettes, which gives him a warm feeling--and then the video shows the mom poisoning her food.
      • Note: This whole sequence doesn't involve Cole (or Crowe) and he's probably not even there, but we watch it all, which is one break of the film's deal--we follow Cole, Crowe, or Cole's mom. But by this time, the movie may have earned one break.
  7. Repetition of theme: so much of the movie is about communication, so it's no wonder that:
    • The school play is The Jungle Book, introduced as a story of a boy who can talk to the animals.
    • Crowe's wife in the antique store talks about how objects talk to people.
  8. Repetition of theme, part 2: so much of the movie is about parents and kids, so 
    • even the stupid cough syrup commercial is about that;
    • and the killer mom poisoning her daughter is clearly about that (and in contrast with the suspicion that Cole's mom is abusing him).
  9. Helpful revision: if you look at the script, you'll see that Shyamalan streamlined the second talk in a church: it's shorter, has more natural dialogue, and doesn't put any emphasis on the danger of the ghosts (which would be a red herring here, which is kind of late). 
  10. Laying it on a bit thick: when Cole has figured out how to use his gift, EVERYTHING IS WONDERFUL. This is a bit much, with Cole
    • getting the lead in the play;
    • being friendly with the teacher he bullied before;
    • beating out the kid who got the cough syrup commercial (Merlin says to this bully, "Silence, village idiot");
    • and leading all the kids in a funny moment.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The depressed/apathetic protagonist

I've been thinking about depressed/apathetic protagonists as I've been writing a work with a protagonist who tends towards that way. The difficulty with a depressed/apathetic protagonist is that we generally want a protagonist who drives the film: generally speaking, it gets hard to identify with someone who's sad sackdom is unrelenting.

Sure, a character may start out slow and sad, but in your average story, something will snap that person out. (Though, please god, we hope it's not a manic pixie dream girl.) So how do we write stories about characters who remain depressed or apathetic until the climactic moment?

I'm not the first person to say this, but I think one possible solution here is to give the depressed character mini-goals. Or even negative goals. Take Leaving Las Vegas: the protagonist's goal is to drink himself to death during one wild vacation. But if that's all he wanted to do, he could do that anywhere. And if that's all he wanted to do, he could do it alone. But instead the alcoholic, suicidally-depressed character has other goals: to get to Las Vegas, to connect with some human being; then when things get too close, he wants to find some way to piss off the woman he's connected with. (It's been a while since I've seen the film, so I'm going off vague memories and the wiki page.)

Another solution is to give the character a strong supporting cast. Again in Leaving Las Vegas, the suicidal alcoholic connects with a prostitute who inverts his situation: she wants to live but has a dangerous job. I'm not even sure what her overall goal is in the movie--which is one reason we know she's not really the protagonist--but she has lots of scenic goals: getting out of bad situations, getting jobs, getting the alcoholic to stop drinking.

Here's one last final thought on how to make a depressed/apathetic character interesting: beware of giving too much of their depressive interiority. Depressed people don't walk around all the time thinking about how depressed they are; but any problem like depression can lead to repetitive, "stuck" thoughts. If a character's usual response is "who cares?" or "I'm not getting any enjoyment out of this," that can get pretty tedious to hear about if this is the only thought of theirs we see. Since this character may not be making big external gestures, it might be tempting to give more of their interior life--but their interior life is boring if it's so repetitive. You can be repetitive in certain art/high lit works (say, Carole Maso's stream-of-consciousness of a dying woman, Ava); but in other works, I think you want to save those interior glimpses of depression for when they're most effective.

I'm sure I'll have other ideas as I play with my depressed protagonist (what fresh hell can I make for him?), but here's my initial thoughts.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 201: Eddie Rickenbacker, Notes on War Experiences (#201)

Eddie Rickenbacker, "Notes on War Experiences" (1918/2011) from Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight:

Here's something I learned from Into the Blue: if you have any fears or anxieties about flying, do NOT read the experience of early fliers. Don't even think about it. Pretend that planes were perfected by the Greeks and we've been flying safely since before the European colonization of America. Because if you read stories like this that are less than 100 years old--stories about planes crashing under ideal conditions, of aviators getting airsick and of not realizing their surroundings--your flying anxieties are going to become acute.

Luckily, I'm not particularly anxious about flying--no more than I am about everything else in the world. So when I read this story of future ace and airline executive Eddie Rickenbacker's first experience flying over enemy territory, my overwhelming feeling is amazement. Amazing: out of 16 pilots who flew from France to the base, six arrived safely, with six forced to make landings before, and four crashing on arrival. Amazing (though very reasonable and still continued to this day): before flying on the recon/training mission, ground crews need to know what to do with your stuff in case you don't come back. Amazing: Rickenbacker's plane was so far below the quality of Major Lufbery's plane that he fell behind, though Lufbery always performed a "virage" to keep the planes together--within shouting distance(!). Amazing: Rickenbacker was so focused on staying close to Lufbery that he forgot about the ground. Amazing (but really understandable): Rickenbacker was so focused on flying that he didn't even notice the enemy and allied planes around him.

The whole piece is full of these little first-person details--and no attempt to pretend that he wasn't frightened and out of his depth--that I'm very glad that he thought to type this up. Which is an interesting idea in its own way: here's Rickenbacker, blue-collar mechanic-turned-flying ace, uncertain about his writing abilities, but who thinks that his experience on the cutting edge of war flying should be preserved. And yes, the writing is rough in parts; but this just makes me wish more people wrote down their experiences, unembellished and truthful.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 200: Walt Whitman, Wild Frank’s Return (#198)

Walt Whitman, "Wild Frank’s Return" (1841) from Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose:

Here we are, my last story-a-day entry in the Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along. Can you believe I've been doing this for 200 consecutive days--and I still haven't gotten a book or a movie deal? Come on, Hollywood, I'll even play myself if Julia Roberts isn't available.

I'll probably have some summing-up to do after this; and I'll probably continue to read the Library of America's Story of the Week. Which raises the question: What will I do with the other six days of the week? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, let's just enjoy #200.

Now, apologies if you've seen this before, but I have to steal from my old blog and repeat one of my favorite literary comparisons:

Walt Whitman (from "Song of Myself"):
You there, impotent, loose in the knees,
Open your scarf'd chops till I blow grit within you,
Spread your palms and lift the flaps of your pockets,
I am not to be denied, I compel, I have stores plenty and to spare,
And any thing I have I bestow.
Walt Whitman Mall (from "Mall Highlights"):
Enjoy shopping Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers,
William Sonoma, J. Crew, L'Occitane, bebe, Pottery Barn and Tourneau Watch Gear.
From pampering yourself at Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon at Saks Fifth Avenue
to indulging yourself at Legal Sea Foods and California Pizza Kitchen,
you're sure to find everything you desire!"
I'm not sure if I'm being unfair to Walt or the Mall in that comparison, especially when the truth is that I like both of them. But I can't pass by without pointing out that Whitman's poetry loves to catalogue and list and crowd things together--which is pretty like the modern-day bazaar of the mall. The only difference being that Walt usually wants to bring people together through catalogues--the slave and the seaman and the shopkeep, all Americans!--whereas the ideology of the mall is... something else.

Which is why it's also fun to look back at Walt's early work, the sort of semi-hack gig he held in order to buy food before he became the American Poet. (That transformation is also worth looking into; I'm especially fond of the time that Walt reprinted Leaves of Grass with a positive quote from a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson, effectively turning Emerson's private letter into a blurb.) Like today's entry, which is a sensationalistic and gruesome story that wouldn't be out of place in today's New York Post. Naturally, when it was printed, it came with the note that it was from a true story.

The plot, told from beginning to end, is simply that a prodigal son leaves his family when he's angry with his father and brother over a horse; he comes back and everything seems like it's going to be okay, with his brother giving him that horse to ride; a storm spooks the horse and kills the prodigal--who returns home in Poe-approved mangled form.

That sort of twist wouldn't be out of bounds at Tales from the Crypt: the prodigal son returns, only dead. Cue sad trombone. The strange thing here is that we might expect some moral to be tacked on after the fact--kids, don't leave home angry! But the main lesson here seems to be, "don't tie a horse to your wrist when you're taking a nap because a storm could spook the horse and drag you to your death, genius." Seriously: here's a guy who has been to sea, who should know the danger of tying one thing to another, when that "another" is your wrist. And he's taking a nap under a tree, but no, he can't tie the horse to the tree, that would be too sensible for Wild Frank.

Though the ending is a little campy for my tastes, the way that Walt tells the story is interesting and keeps up the tension. He starts with Wild Frank returning to his hometown and acting somewhere between an assured young man and a dirty jerk. So the story starts off with the question, "What's this guy's deal?" Then we hear all about his deal--his anger issues, his fight with his father and brother. So, has he returned to make good or to start trouble?

And just when we've got our first question answered (Who is he? He's Wild Frank), leading to more tension (How wild is he?), we get--release. Frank and his brother meet and are friendly enough; the brother even offers him his old favorite horse, the one that they fought over. And the horse knows and loves Frank. And then Frank stops to take a peaceful nap in a beautiful landscape that reminds him of the happy parts of his childhood.

Then, when we've gone from curiosity to tension to release, we get the real horror of the horse dragging Frank to his death. Which may be a campy, Grand Guignol end, but a well-curated trip to get there.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 199: Annie D. Tallent, Bill of Fare on the Plains (#87)

Annie D. Tallent, "Bill of Fare on the Plains" (1899) from American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes:

Annie D. Tallent was the only woman on the Gordon Expedition, a group of miners who tried to invade the Black Hills in 1874 to prospect for gold; but today's entry isn't at all political, but just focuses on the day-to-day experience of living away from "civilization."

There's a historical interest here, but with 20 years between the expedition and her memoir of the time, Tallent's worst memories have a sort of golden aura of humor. Sure, that elk was disgusting--but what a fun story to tell. Sure, Annie couldn't quite flap those jacks the way the men could--but what a fun story to break out at dinner parties. Sure, those men were probably lying about all the game they shot but couldn't carry home--but then again, considering the devastation of native flora at the hands of American hunters, maybe they did.

Tallent's record of what the expedition ate--or couldn't stomach to eat--ends with her wonder at her own appetite: she was so hungry that she ate cold bacon and flapjacks as big as a hat, which is all they had to eat. Everyday: coffee, beans, bacon, flapjacks. Which makes invading Indian Country sound a lot like going to your neighborhood Denny's.

Sitcom slump--or tarnish of the golden age

I realize that I've talked a lot about movies here, but really, I probably spend more time watching television. Part of that is structural: when Sarah gets home from work and we eat dinner, it's easier to watch a half-hour show rather than a half-hour section of a movie.

It helps that we have lots of television to catch up on: we've just finished season four of The Wire, still haven't started Breaking Bad, and just recently caught up on Mad Men. And then there's all the sitcoms we like, like Parks and Recreation and Louie.

For an experiment, Sarah and I tried a lot of the new TV sitcoms this season, like The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife. And they're all competently done: I always get at least one chuckle or laugh from them. But none of these shows are groundbreaking and even my old favorites, like Modern Family, seem to be in something of a slump.

Or is it just that sitcoms, which mostly live on repetition of their situation, are paling next to today's dramas that aren't afraid to upset the status quo. Parks and Recreation has characters marry and deal with new issues, like Ben Wyatt starting a relationship with Leslie; and resigning in disgrace from government; and then moving on to work for a non-profit foundation.

But in Modern Family, how many times are we going to see Cameron and Mitchell get into some form of argument where Cameron goes over the top and Mitchell stays too grounded? How many times in The Goldbergs or Trophy Wife are we going to see parents having trouble connecting to their kids and their situations?

Is it just me or are sitcoms in a bit of a slump right now?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 198: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment (#78)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment" (1837) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches:

I first read "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" in ... high school? Middle school? Elementary school?! In any case, I can't remember a time when I thought "bad people get a chance to be young again--this will go well." Maybe it's just baked in to our collective unconscious that wishes go awry--especially wishes of mad scientists, like Hawthorne's Rappaccini and Aylmer ("Rappaccini's Daughter," "The Birth-mark"), to name his most popular two. Not that those are his only two: even The Scarlet Letter has a sinister, learned man, while his notebooks are full of science-y things as the kernels for stories. Another technology Hawthorne is fascinated by: photography, as in the House of the Seven Gables.

The LoA page notes the recurrence of the sinister scientist in Hawthorne and his repeated motif of youth's return--which I would actually widen out a little to something like "the return of history, however ghostly": the parade of ancestors in Seven Gables, the play-acting of history in Blithedale Romance, the sentimental replay of history in his sketches, etc. (But can you tell: I read the heck out of Seven Gables, am not so up-to-date on my other Hawthorniana.)

OK, fine, this story is very much in Hawthorne's motif-wheelhouse. What about the story itself?

Hawthorne doesn't mince words about how old the people are here: the first two sentences say "old, venerable, white-bearded, withered," and "Widow." He also launches in directly to the story of their unhappy and sinful pasts--so we're not exactly on their side. "Venerable" doesn't equal "respectable." And after we hear about that, the next entire page is taken up with how sinister Dr. Heidegger is, with his book of magic and mirror that shows his dead patients. Which also clearly shows that we're in Hawthorne's liminal fantasy/science space.

(My favorite example of this is actually in "The Birth-mark": when sinister Aylmer in the 1700s (I think) shows his wife these "magical" things that, for his 1800s audience, are all nameable technologies. Magical light show--well, that's just a zoetrope. And so on.)

I also have to shout-out the trope of the pre-experiment experiment that Hawthorne uses: before the people take the Fountain of Youth water, Heidegger uses it on a rose that springs back to life. So of course, right before the people get old again, the rose shows the limited power of this rejuvenation. This is a trope that still gets used today, with the scientist noticing--oh no!--that the rat they used before human testing has become sick/reverted to being dumb/etc.

But what really stands out here isn't just that the people grow young, but that they revert immediately to the sins of their past: the old drunken soldier starts singing drinking songs, even though he isn't in a bar or drinking; the old merchant starts mumbling about deals, even though there are no deals to make. This is why I think we shouldn't just classify this as "becoming young again" but as "history repeating." It's a phantasmagoric, fantasy situation.

And ruling over this dream is Dr. Heidegger, who may be mysterious, but occupies a less sinister position than many of Hawthorne's other doctors. He's not trying to ruin anyone's life, or even necessarily putting his own research above other people's health--he's not the one who ruins the rest of the Fountain of Youth water. He may be as stern as Time but he's also as unmalicious as Time. Science is not mad here--just inexorable.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 197: Francis Stevens, Unseen—Unfeared (#199)

Francis Stevens, "Unseen—Unfeared" (1919) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

Warning: Super-sappy interpretation.

In Woody Allen's lesser Everyone Says I Love You (stay with me now), the son of two liberal Democrats has become a staunch Republican--which is later revealed to be the product of a brain clot cutting off oxygen to part of his brain. There's almost something of that nature in Francis Stevens's story here, where a guy has all these fears about Italians and blacks and Jews--and it's eventually revealed that his brain has been poisoned. It's a fun reversal of what many readers of 1900s weird tales would take as the unfortunate status quo of racism and xenophobia.

We could speculate that Francis Stevens, née Gertrude Mabel Barrows (mariée Bennett), might have brought this slightly askew view to this dark fantasy because of her position: a widowed woman, taking care of an invalid mother and daughter, might have different ideas about the world than your Lord Dunsanys or your John Colliers--or, yes, your H. P. Lovecrafts. But that's just speculation; and while we have a bunch of Francis Stevens stories fro, 1917 to 1923, we know very little about her--like why she stopped writing.

That speculation and history to the side, today's story actually starts out rather like other weird tales of the time, both in tropes and in construction. This sentence--
Bodiless, inexplicable horror had me as in a net, whose strands, being intangible, without reason for existence, I could by no means throw off.
--could really have been written by just about any of the weird writers of the time. Once you get used to lines like that, the story here is

  • narrator Blaisdell meets a close-lipped detective friend of his, Mark Jenkins who is following a poisoning case and who believes the weird Doctor Holt is innocent; (Jenkins gives Blaisdell a cigar); 
  • Blaisdell wanders through an immigrant community, seeing horror and monstrousness all around him, a teeming world of malice and horror (which is not all that unusual in many depictions of poverty, where "teeming" seems like the usual situation); (Blaisdell partially smokes the cigar);
  • he wanders into Holt's lecture, which shows how the world is covered with human's thoughts-given-life--and since humans are terrible, these thought-forms are monstrous: centipedes and amoeboid creatures, all with sinister human faces, which causes Blaisdell to faint;
  • Blaisdell considers suicide, but is stopped by Mark Jenkins, who comes to tell us the real story:
    • the cigar was poisoned (and Jenkins mixed up his good cigars with the cigars he took from the poisoner);
    • Dr. Holt was dead the whole time, which means that Blaisdell hallucinated everything, including the malice of the immigrant community;
    • but there is something odd about this particular filter-paper that Holt used in his lecture--so they destroy it.
So we have tropes of the invisible all around us, which connects with the idea of the microscopic monster (which we saw in David H. Keller's "The Jelly-Fish"); we have a human-hating scientist; we have apparitions beyond death's door; we have the reasonable but perhaps not accurate explanation of the weird; we have the destruction of the disquieting object--all fairly standard for fantastic fiction. (Which is not a bad thing. I just heard an interview with a comic book author who seemed to feel that identifying tropes was the same thing as criticizing a work.)

But then we have the detective story: the poisoned cigar, the switcheroo, the ongoing investigation.

And on top of that we have the moral switcheroos that I talked about at the top. For the first few sections, this seems like a typical representation of early weird fiction, but with that strange opening about a normal crime and the detective who know but won't speak, I think Francis Stevens is cluing us in that things aren't going to go totally as we expect. And so the ending isn't just "monsters are all around us" or "people are monsters" or "we live on a thin skin of sanity"--though there's a large touch of that as well. There's something almost hopeful about the detective coming back to save his friend, first from the poisoned cigar that the detective idiotically gave, then from the friend's own attempts at suicide, and lastly, from the knowledge of the terrible things that might be around us.

And since those terrible things are caused by our thoughts, then these good thoughts of friendship may well cause good things to live around us--unseen, yes, but unfeared because they are on our side.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 196: Vincent Sheean, Aufenthalt in Rosenheim (#200)

Vincent Sheean, "Aufenthalt in Rosenheim" (1938) from Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944:

To go along with their series on the American Civil War--The Civil War: The First/Second/Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It--the LoA has two volumes on World War II reporting. As with the Civil War memories, there's something interesting about stripping out our post-hoc knowledge of the events and wondering what it looked like to those living through it.

So here, while delayed ("Aufenthalt") in Rosenheim, Vincent Sheean observed the demonstrations of anti-Semitism in this city of 21,000 people (if I'm reading this correctly). As he says, his guidebook points out the architectural style of the place--oriel windows and arcaded footwalks--but the anti-Semitic bulletin boards seem just as common. To me, this is the central metaphor and problem for Sheean: how can a country's ideological architecture, built over centuries, be so added to or overwritten by this Nazi anti-Semitism?

Now, today, if you were to write about anti-Semitism in the ramp up to World War II, you'd talk about the endpoint (Holocaust), the outbursts of violence (Kristallnacht, etc.), the creep of racial discrimination into schools and society (the Nuremberg Laws, etc.).

What you probably wouldn't think of is what Sheean notices: a bulletin board with pictures of Germans who "bought from Jews"; a list of Jewish businesses (almost half of them crossed out); photos of conspiring Jews--Einstein, Fiorello La Guardia ("The Half-Jew Mayor of the Jewish World Metropolis"). Only at the end of this description do we see that this bulletin board includes a reference to the Nuremberg Laws.

The second half of this piece is Sheean's attempt to puzzle out "How, actually, can such things be?" How have the Germans fooled themselves into thinking the Fuhrer doesn't want war? How have they been convinced to behave like "gangster children"? Sheean falls back on an idea of Bernard von Bülow, that the Germans are immature politically, partly because the nation-state form was so late coming to Germany. And he ends with a hope that, after this madness passes--"when the torture of the coming years is over"--Germany's valuable contributions will go on.

Which gives the story a strange dissonance, since that opening about anti-Semitism is never returned to explicitly. And while we can see Sheean as thinking pretty clearly about the future--"the torture of the coming years" shows that he knows that things are going to get worse before they get better and that war is probably coming--there's no idea here that these anti-Semitic bulletin boards are leading to the camps.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 195: Henry James, The Tree of Knowledge (#171)

Henry James, "The Tree of Knowledge" (1900) from Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910:

One of the benefits of reading the LoA's Story of the Week is how wide a net they cast--from James's early stories to his late stories. That may sound sarcastic, but I mean it seriously: in today's literature classes, you're more likely to read late James, which gives you an idea of what he became--but in leaving out early James we forget where he started. So after last week's example of James trying to be pleasantly commercial, we have this later story--which is, on its surface, all about the dangers of aesthetic misjudgments in the marketplace.

I'm also glad to have this piece to read since the LoA page reminds us that James didn't always invent whole-cloth. A lot of his stories came from kernels passed around in his social set. So What Maisie Knew--the story of a child who is caught between her parents' divorce and remarriages--was seeded by a story of... a child who was caught between her parents' divorce and remarriages. So today's story was inspired by something James heard, the story of a bad sculptor whose aesthetic failures were exposed to the heretofore believing wife... by his son! Oh, what a betrayal. Who knows how this family felt when they read their story in transmuted form when their friend/acquaintance James wrote about it.

In this version of the story: Morgan Mallow is a bad sculptor who doesn't know he's bad and just blames the market for not being ready for his awesomeness. His wife is a devoted believer in his skill. His son Lancelot wants to drop out of school and go to Paris to become a painter. And poor Peter Brench is the schmuck who is good friends with Morgan, but recognizes he's awfulness as a sculptor; but he won't say anything because of his friendship--and because he's in love with Morgan's wife and he doesn't want to hurt her by showing that her adoration is misplaced. And on top of that, Peter is godfather to Lance--and Peter wants to keep him from Paris because Peter is afraid that Lance will realize his dad is an aesthetic flop.

The LoA page notes that this story has some Maupassant-y twist; but the style is all James, all the time. Who else could write such barbed and recursive sentences as
It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend Morgan Mallow. This was a subject on which it was, to the best of his belief, impossible with veracity to quote him, and it was nowhere on record that he had, in the connexion, on any occasion and in any embarrassment, either lied or spoken the truth.
The Maupassant-y twist is that (a) the son always knew his father was a failure at art; and (b) the mother always knew her husband was a failure. Which means that Peter's been keeping this secret forever--mostly from himself, I think. That is, I think Peter's thoughts are meant to go like this:

  • Starting point: "I am a beautiful martyr--I could make Mrs. Mallow love me by exposing her husband's foolishness. But I sacrifice my own happiness to hers!"
  • Ending point: "Mrs. Mallow knows her husband is a failure and still loves him, therefore I could never marry her. I'm not a martyr, just a fool."

In other words, Peter was able to enjoy his own distance from his ideal state as an aesthetic pleasure (representing himself as a martyr, a sacrifice to love for love's sake); but he misjudged his real situation, which was simply as what he appeared to be: family friend and no more.

The story emphasizes this through the constant (constant!) refrain of knowing: what Lance will learn in Paris, how ignorance is bliss, what it is Peter knows that Lance doesn't and vice versa. Of course, as in What Maisie Knew and The Ambassadors, the people who are supposed not to know (the kids and love-blind spouses) turn out to know all along; while those who are supposed to be in the know--the sophisticates--get blind-sided by events.

And now, as this is my final James of the original 200 stories, I want to add that modern-day readers generally will not enjoy his multi-clausal and recursive sentences--his hesitations and equivocations. And as the goal today, as in James's day, was to be bought and appreciated--but always bought first--I think he is a bad model to follow for sentence-level structure except for techniques of delay.

Movie Analysis (but not really): Lost Boys

I've been watching a bunch of vampire films lately, for a project that Sarah's doing for work. We watched the Korean melodrama Thirst, the cowboy vampire film Near Dark, and this, the height of Joel Schumacher's oeuvre.

I don't remember the last time I saw this film, but I remember liking it; and watching it this time around, I found a lot to enjoy:

  • the theme of teenagers as monsters--that then gets subverted in the third act with the pillar of the community being the head vampire; 
  • the fearless vampire killers getting their vampire lore from new comic books, not dusty old tomes in libraries (another example of youth culture being positive.

But most all, Lost Boys does a great job with its weird, slightly off-kilter settings:

There's the whole town of Santa Carla, which is a sun-drenched sea-side California small town with a strong hippie and punk rock vibes. But instead of a paradise of fun--even with its all-time carnival and video store and comic book store--the whole place is curdled. And this notion is gotten across quickly, mostly through images of the town played under the credits.

Then there's the individual locations, like grandpa's house, which is this big, rustic house full of dead things and dangerous objects. That is, if you had a condo with an axe, it might look out of place. But in grandpa's place, we could find just about anything. This can be used for plot convenience, for scares, or--as in the case of the constantly appearing pieces of taxidermy--for laughs.

The sea-side carnival isn't very original, but the vampires' den is a nice touch: it's a luxury resort that has fallen into a crack in the earth during a big earthquake. So the teen vampires are living it up in a place that was for adults only, which nicely ties in with the theme--look out, teenagers are overturning all of our values and the world we built!--and also gives them a fun new place to run around in, full of gothic touches: fountain, fallen chandeliers, ruins. We're not in some Transylvanian castle, but this is as close as California gets.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 194: Fred Allen, The Life and Death of Vaudeville (#195)

Fred Allen, "The Life and Death of Vaudeville" (1956) from The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner:

When I get to talking about my interests, I can sound like "The Spanish Inquisition" sketch from Monty Python: My main interest is science fiction and fantasy literature. And comedy. Among my interests are sf-and-f literature, comedy--and politics. My main interests are sf-and-f literature, comedy, politics, and photography. And history. And insider stories about how historical people lived. And so on. (Oh also: Monty Python.)

So Fred Allen's memories of vaudeville life hits a sweet spot for me, the same spot hit by Harpo Marx's memoir, Harpo Speaks. (One of my high school English teachers had his own idea of what should be on the curriculum, which is why I can talk about Harpo Marx's life but not Catcher in the Rye.) For one thing, this excerpt from Fred Allen's (mostly completed) autobiography goes all over the place, listing various insider stories from vaudeville life.

To give you some idea of the breadth of this piece, here's a short list of some topics covered:

  • the vaudevillian smalltimer's love of diamonds--which are useful as collateral;
  • the smalltimer's habit of judging everything by their own showbiz lives, i.e., "Do I remember the Johnstown flood? Are you kidding? I and the wife were playing Pittsburgh that week...";
  • the off-season vaudeville centers and the strange habits they adopted, like celebrating Christmas in July (since they were often traveling in the winter);
  • various techniques for skipping out on hotel bills;
  • the variety and openness of vaudeville: "All the human race demands of its members is that they be born. That is all vaudeville demanded.";
  • how vaudeville families survived on the road;
  • how jokes were stolen and how a vaudeville association attempted to protect joke ownership;
  • and lots and lots of memories of individual acts and terrible theaters and funny events that happened to other people.

But there's a cloud to all this funny material, which is the problems of vaudevillians who attempt to get out of the uncertain showbiz life (which is exciting, unlike other forms of life); and the ultimate death of vaudeville, about which Fred Allen brooks no discussion: Will the TV bring back vaudeville? No. "Vaudeville is dead. Period."

Which only makes this wide and occasionally rambling reminiscence of the vaudeville life all that more interesting and valuable. We're not likely to see this sort of inside view again.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 193: H. P. Lovecraft, The Music of Erich Zann (#189)

H. P. Lovecraft, "The Music of Erich Zann" (1922) from H. P. Lovecraft: Tales:

On one hand, "The Music of Erich Zann" is classic Lovecraft Mythos story: (1) a narrator who starts out by telling us that he has a fractured memory and other mental health issues; (2) the narrator gets involved in something mysterious--an expedition to the Antarctic, a strange inheritance from a quirky uncle, or, in this case, a strange house on a strange street where a strange viol player plays strange music late at night; (3) a final revelation of cosmic depth that is horrifying and alienating, involving some sense of Things beyond that are more basic to the universe than we are, puny humans.

But on the other hand, "The Music of Erich Zann" is considered something of an outlier by such a great Lovecraft scholar and enthusiast as S. T. Joshi, who writes that “it reveals a restraint in its supernatural manifestations (bordering, for one of the few times in his entire work, on obscurity), a pathos in its depiction of its protagonist, and a general polish in its language that Lovecraft rarely achieved in later years.”

Admittedly, the story doesn't end with the sea parting for Cthulhu--who gets described as something like a dragon, squid, and man--but with a sense of limitless dark beyond the window of Erich Zann's garret room, the highest spot on the mysterious Rue d'Auseil; and also with the wind whipping away the pages of Erich Zann's story--which we never learn. So I understand why Joshi says this story shows restraint. In that same vein, Lovecraft wrote of this story, "I like it for what it hasn’t more than for what it has.”

That said, this story does fit easily with Lovecraft's other works. A man who creates otherworldly art through some scary contact with the unknown. Isn't that almost "Pickman's Model"? A man who survives beyond the limit of death--well, can I introduce you to "Herbert West--Reanimator" and the man in the cold room of "Cool Air"? Even that limitless darkness with some whistling sound isn't entirely unknown in Lovecraft's other works; I would argue that this could be Azathoth.

I also think that we need to read "The Music of Erich Zann" alongside Lovecraft's Dreamland tales, which are pilfered liberally from Lord Dunsany's stories. That is, the whole set-up is more dreamlike than horrific: a man takes a room in a house on a street that doesn't exist in the city--where even the river smells weird. Instead of the horror invading our everyday worlds or of some lingering terror being unearthed where we live, the horrific here starts with the person wandering into some dream-world.

Lastly, I initially laughed when the narrator--a philosophy student--state that "my metaphysical studies had taught me kindness." Metaphysics doesn't really sound like the kind of philosophy to make one kind. Ethics, maybe, but metaphysics? But on reflection, I think this works in with this story and the cosmicism we find in Lovecraft's other stories: if the universe really is a cold and uncaring place, where the limitless dark is just outside our window--barely held back by our aesthetic attempts to combat it--then it follows that human kindness to one another is even more precious, no matter how unhelpful it ultimately is. Which puts in new light his unstoppable letter-writing and friend-gathering career, which dwarfs his fiction output tremendously.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 192: Henry James, A Problem (#116)

Henry James, "A Problem" (1868) from Henry James: Complete Stories 1864–1874:

Today, when Henry James is considered "The Master" and one of the high-water marks of American literature, it's nice to remember that he struggled to find his place in the market. (Also: that he struggled with constipation and other earthly ills.) Before he wrote his masterful novels, he wrote a bunch of things to pay the bills. The LoA page nicely includes both a contemporary comment by James on this kind of work--
I write little and only tales, which I think it likely I shall continue to manufacture in a hackish manner, for that which is bread. They cannot of necessity be very good; but they shall not be very bad.
--and also a comment from contemporary reader Moorfield Storey-- 
I have just finished a most delightfully trashy story in the Galaxy by my friend or acquaintance, Henry James. Just the sort of dish-water which suits one in June.
"Delightfully trashy"! What a great way to describe Henry James's work. (Also, I love that Storey can't decide whether James is a friend or acquaintance. Who hasn't been there? Especially with James.)

This story does have a certain melodramatic, soap opera aspect: a young wife on honeymoon gets her fortune told--she'll have a daughter who will die young. When she has a daughter who survives some childhood disease, the young wife mentions another fortune she got, which reminds the husband of a fortune he got once: both of them are supposed to marry twice.

Now, today, that wouldn't be news, but I guess back in the day, you'd only remarry if your first spouse died. Therefore it would be impossible for both husband and wife to remarry. These conflicting fortunes contribute to an admittedly stupid fight between them, which leads to their estrangement... until their daughter dies and the two of them come back together and are remarried.

Back in the day, that was maybe a fun way to get out of that loophole; but when I heard those conflicting fortunes I was just waiting for them to get remarried to each other. This may be personal bias, as I tend to enjoy the screwball comedies of remarriage, like The Awful Truth and The Lady Eve.

Even with that ending easily guessed, this is an interesting piece to read, for its Jamesian interest in psychology, such as the estranged wife's feelings on moving back in with her mother and thinking her husband is going around with other women:
She felt that deep satisfaction which comes upon the spirit when it has purchased contentment at the expense of reputation. There was now, at least, no falsehood in her life.
And then there are those moments when the narratorial voice will just come out and address the reader, admitting to us that
The reader will see that [young wife] Emma was a simple, unsophisticated person, and that her married life was likely to he made up of small joys and vexations
Now, I haven't read as much James as I pretend to have read, but that sort of address seems uncharacteristic of his later, novel-length works. But here's the question: is it because he became more interested in innuendo and ambiguity? Or simply because short stories give one less space to set up the characters?

November is National Novel Writing Month

November is National Novel Writing Month, which is something I have very mixed feelings about:

  • Do we need more people writing novels?
    • Well, maybe not, but it's not like you have to read them, so you don't get to tell people to knock it off if this is what they want to do.
  • Isn't November a terrible month for this?
    • Absolutely: besides Thanksgiving, there's the ramp up to Christmas--meaning there's lots of distractions.
  • Will pumping out 50,000 words in a month result in a good novel?
    • Probably not, but the point is just to get people past the "blank paper" paralysis. The motto is write now, edit later.
  • Will you actually write 50k words?
    • Well... that's the hope.
I joined NaNoWriMo two years ago, primarily as a way to meet creative types when I moved to San Angelo in October. It worked: the people I met then have been meeting as a writing group for two years. My novel project for that year started as a joke--1984 from the POV of O'Brien--but then I started to get actually interested in it. Short version: I never really planned to write much and then when I started to care about the story and wanted to outline, that just slowed me down. So I didn't write 50k my first year.

My second year, I was going to write short stories, but I got fouled up with editing. I know that's my major problem when trying to write: I'm always second-guessing myself into paralysis or constant re-working. So I basically pulled a Professor Sea Gull, working and reworking one longer-than-necessary short story.

So those are two problems I have: I like to have an outline beforehand--though it can change as I write; and I like to edit (which is a no-no for NaNo). But there's a third problem: the "grass is always OH SHINY" problem: I always have ideas and I always want to be writing those other ideas instead of the story I'm working on.

I have ideas this year for getting over those first two problems: I have a few stories outlined, with notes and ideas; and I'm going to try to remember Robert Sheckley's advice to think that you're not writing a story, but only a simulation of a story. I'll just say to myself, "this is an oddly detailed outline" and keep on going. (Also, I'll try to use brackets and reminders rather than doing all the "research" that usually derails my writing.)

As for the third problem, I'm just going to have to lock the door and say "no" (or rather "later") to any ideas that come in over the transom, as it were.

So, let's see if I can do it this year.