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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd

I wasn't that crazy about Alan Bradley's second Flavia de Luce mystery, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, so I have fallen out of touch with the character. But I couldn't resist the latest, the eighth in the series, with a title like Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd. That's a line spoken by the witches in MacBeth, and this mystery does involve both cats and a presumed witch.

This book finds Flavia back in England at her home, Buckshaw (apparently she spent time in boarding school in Canada). It's still post-war England--I don't know if she's aged commensurate with the release of the books--I don't think so--so she certainly does run into a lot of murders. That's the problem with amateur sleuths--who would be Jessica Fletcher's friend on Murder, She Wrote? She must have had hundreds who died.

Anyway, Flavia is delivering a message for a friend on her trusty bike, Gladys, when she finds the intended recipient, a reclusive woodcarver, dead. He's upside down, strapped to a door. Of course, Flavia doesn't run and call the police. She examines the room first. As she says, "How could I tell Clarence that finding another dead body was anything but dreadful?
On the contrary: It was thrilling; it was exciting; it was exhilarating, it was invigorating; to say nothing of electrifying and above all, satisfying. How could I tell the dear man that murder made me feel so gloriously alive?" She finds several first editions by a children's author named Oliver Inchbald (clearly based on A.A. Milne), who mysteriously died on island, pecked to death by seagulls.

Flavia, a chemist, manages to interview several subjects and gets to the bottom of things. We really have to suspend our disbelief that an adult would answer her questions. In her family life, her father is ill in the hospital, and she's frustrated that she can't get to visit him.

The main thrust of the book seems to be recounting the poor life of Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A.A. Milne who resented being put in his father's books. Here Inchbald has a son who tells Flavia how terrible his father was: "Oliver Inchbald had beaten Crispian Crumpet? That golden-haired little boy of the storybooks? My mind almost gagged at the idea as my brain cells drew back in horror."

The "who done it" is a bit of a let down, but does involve Flavia being attacked by someone wearing antlers. Most of the pleasure of these books is Flavia's personality and gift of metaphor and simile: A few: "Not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral, the office of The Daily Telegraph was in a part of the city flattened by the Blitz. Even after ten years, blackened bombsites still remained scattered round the church like rotting teeth in the mouth of some ancient duchess." Another: "Carla Sherrinford-Cameron, her hands clasped together at her waist like lobster’s claws, was singing “The Lass with the Delicate Air,” and I found myself wishing I had thought to bring a firearm with me—although whether to put Carla out of her misery or to do away with myself, I had not quite yet decided."

The Flavia de Luce novels are what are known as "cozies," like the Jane Marple books or that series where a cat solves mysteries. They don't usually involve guns. I tend to like my mysteries with a noir bite and some nihilism. But, for a cozy, these books are near the top of what is being written these days. Well done, Flavia!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Romeo and Juliet (2013)

Any regular reader of mine knows I have a special affection for Romeo and Juliet, as I was in the play thirty-five years ago in college. I have seen every film adaptation I know of, and more than a handful of stage productions, both professional and amateur.

I had missed a 2013 film written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, and directed by Carlo Carlei. It is, somewhat remarkably, set in Italy during the time period Shakespeare meant it to be. But right away I was thrown back on my heels. The prologue was rewritten, adding a jousting tournament between Mercutio and Tybalt. Mercutio is incorrectly named as of the house of Montague (he's neither Montague nor Capulet, which is why he cries out, "A plague o' both your houses!"). In effect, this Romeo and Juliet is the Cliff's Notes version, with words changed, many scenes cut, and amazingly, scenes added.

Fellowes has some hubris adding things to Shakespeare. He creates lines for Rosaline, the normally unseen love of Romeo's early in the play. When Benvolio learns that Romeo is now in love with Juliet, he thinks he might have a shot at Rosaline. None of this adds anything to the play, and just seems there to make people like Harold Bloom angry. I will admit that a scene between Lord and Lady Capulet, when the dad urges Juliet to get married ever sooner to Paris, makes sense--Capulet wants her to marry Paris before Paris backs out, and with Tybalt dead, the Capulet line is in danger of dying out.

But beyond that, Fellowes and Carlei don't really seem to understand the play. Did they not know that in essence, Romeo and Juliet is a comedy for the first half? It has all the elements of a  romantic comedy, with lovers and pining and wooing and all that stuff. It also has Mercutio, one of Shakespeare's greatest characters, the wise clown. Here, most of Mercutio is cut. I can understand that, as his banter with Romeo, and his antagonism of the nurse, is mostly puns that no one gets today. But if you have a good Mercutio, it doesn't matter, as just his manner makes you like him. Carlei cuts half of the Queen Mab speech, for goodness' sake, and all of the conjuring scene.

The play turns on a dime and becomes a tragedy when Tybalt kills Mercutio, but if Mercutio is pretty much a non-entity, as he is here, nobody cares. The creative team behind his version seems to think the play has no humor at all.

There are scenes that are usually cut that are kept in, such as almost the entire apothecary scene, and Romeo killing Paris in front of the Capulet monument. But one line is cut that is essential to the play. In fact, the play can be boiled down to two lines: "I am fortune's fool," which is left in, and "Is it e'en so? Then I deny you stars!" (in another folio, it is "I defy you stars!") Both indicate the nature of destiny in the play--when Romeo kills Tybalt, he is a puppet of his own destiny, but when he hears Juliet is dead, he decides to create his own destiny.

Now, to the cast. The name in this production is Hailee Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Oscar for True Grit. She proved she's not a one-trick pony with her fine performance in The Edge of Seventeen, but she wasn't ready for Shakespeare. She's cute as a button, but very wooden, especially in the balcony scene. There's no chemistry between her and Douglas Booth, a heartthrob as Romeo. Very good is Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, and Paul Giamatti's performance as Friar Laurence really points out how much of this mess was his fault. Tybalt, I was surprised to learn at the end, was played by Ed Westwick of Gossip Girl. He makes for a very dashing villain.

This wouldn't be a terrible film for kids who are not ready to read Shakespeare, but just to get the story. For anyone who can read it, though, it's pretty much blasphemy.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

At the Existentialist Cafe

Philosophy is a subject I've always steered clear of-- I never took a course on it in college, and when I hear about it my mind kind of glazes over. But I read good things about Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe, and while there are chunks of it I still don't understand, she does a pretty good job of doing two things: explaining just what existentialism is, and putting us into the world of the people who espoused it.

What is existentialism? Bakewell jokes; "From the mid-1940s, ‘existentialist’ was used as shorthand for anyone who practised free love and stayed up late dancing to jazz music." Black turtlenecks and berets were their uniform (although she writes that before that, lumberjack plaid was the rage). Of its origins, she writes: One can ... narrow the birth of modern existentialism down to a moment near the turn of 1932–3, when three young philosophers were sitting in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris, catching up on gossip and drinking the house specialty, apricot cocktails."

These three philosophers were Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion and lover Simone de Beauvoir, and Raymond Aron. Sartre boiled down his theory to three words: "Existence precedes essence." If you, like I, still don't know what that means, Bakewell says that most of what Sartre wrote about what it was to be free. Or, "It is sometimes said that existentialism is more of a mood than a philosophy, and that it can be traced back to anguished novelists of the nineteenth century, and beyond that to Blaise Pascal, who was terrified by the silence of infinite spaces, and beyond that to the soul-searching St. Augustine, and beyond that to the Old Testament’s weary Ecclesiastes and to Job, the man who dared to question the game God was playing with him and was intimidated into submission. To anyone, in short, who has ever felt disgruntled, rebellious, or alienated about anything."

Existentialism grew out of something called phenomenology, which was taught by the German Edmund Husserl, who, along with the previous century's Georg Hegel, are the proto-existentialists. What is phenomenology? "It meant stripping away distractions, habits, clich├ęs of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return our attention to what he called the ‘things themselves’. We must fix our beady gaze on them and capture them exactly as they appear, rather than as we think they are supposed to be." In short, "phenomenologists describe," while "existentialists concern themselves with individual, concrete existence."

If that makes your head hurt, there is still much to enjoy about this book, which is full of a lot of gossip, quarrels, and affairs. In addition to the three French philosophers mentioned, Bakewell also writes extensively about Martin Heidegger, whom she calls "the twentieth century’s most brilliant and most hated philosopher." He wrote an influential text called Being and Time, but also was for a time a Nazi, and never repudiated the Nazi philosophy.

We also see Albert Camus, the author of The Stranger, one of the most read texts from the movement, who fell out with Sartre and Beauvoir over politics--he was dead set against any kind of violence. The wavering of these people about communism is almost comical--they like it, then they don't when they realize that Stalin is killing a lot of people. The invasion of Prague in 1968 finally ended it for them.

The heart of the book is Sartre and Beauvoir. They had a very long relationship--until his death in 1980--though they had an open relationship. He was five-feet tall and had a lazy eye, but was still a ladies' man. She had affairs with Nelgon Algren and Claude Lanzmann, and wrote what Bakewell considered the most important work to come out of the existentialist movement: The Second Sex, a revolutionary tract on feminism.

Other characters to cross the pages are Jean Genet, who was always with the underdog, and if the underdog succeeded to become top dog, he would change sides; Hannah Arendt, who in writing about Adolph Eichmann's trial, coined the term "banality of evil," and Colin Wilson, who at 24 wrote a publishing sensation called The Outsider, which was later found to be riddled with errors.

Before I read this book I knew very little about any of this--I've read No Exit by Sartre and The Maids by Genet, but not The Second Sex or The Stranger, not to mention Sartre's magnum opus, Being and Nothingness. But, as Bakewell reminds us, existentialism is all around us. Just think of any of a number of Woody Allen films.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cameraperson

Kirsten Johnson has what is kind of an unsung job: she is the cameraperson for documentaries. She's been doing this for twenty-five years, and took bits and pieces from the many films she's done and made a collage, Cameraperson, that she calls a memoir. It's strangely fascinating.

Johnson shot all the footage, but the films are from other directors. She helpfully puts up title cards as to the locations (but you'll have to stick around for the credits to see the films). They are from an amazingly broad set of circumstances. There is footage shot in hot spots like Bosnia, Darfur, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Colombia, but also in such comparitively genteel places as a Penn State football game (the first home game after the sex abuse scandal hit).

Johnson also includes footage of her life--her twins, and her mother, suffering from Alzheimer's disease. There is only one glimpse of Johnson, when her mother turns the camera on her while she is doing her hair.

While Johnson is the director and camera operator of Cameraperson, a lot of credit has to go Nels Bangerter, as the editor. There is a sequence toward the middle of the film that shows the scenes of great death--in Rwanda, Liberia, Tamir Square, etc., that are calm now. We see a pastoral place or quiet building and then get a total of dead. It hits you right in the gut.

The only film that I've seen from this work is Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, on which Johnson worked as a camera operator. It shows Moore interviewing a soldier who tells Moore he would rather go to jail than be redeployed. He says he'd rather be incarcerated than kill poor people, another powerful moment.

Johnson has been all over the world for what must be a thrilling but dangerous line of work. It might strike someone that a "greatest hits" package of a documentary cinematographer, along with home movies, might be pretentious, but Cameraperson is anything but. Instead it shows great humanity.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Eight

Once again Ellen Datlow has presented us a ghoulishly fun compendium of horror stories with her eighth volume of The Best Horror of the Year. One of the most valuable parts is her introduction (based on her Facebook page postings, it's not her favorite thing to do) which gives me ideas for reading throughout the year. Then it's on to the stories, which vary from the simply creepy, like Tom Johnstone's "Slaughtered Lamb," which only suggests carnage, to Ray Cluley's "Indian Giver," which describes it in detail.

Horror has a pretty broad definition. Not all of these stories have anything to do with the supernatural. A very disturbing story called "Lord of the Sand" is about what a man can do with an animal called the camel spider (it's a real animal, and pretty awful looking, but after checking on Wikipedia its largely harmless to humans), and our old friend the plague. Two of the best stories here may be about plague, but we're not really sure. "Snow," by Dale Bailey, has some folks in the Rocky Mountains hearing about an apocalypse of some kind and hoping to ride it out in the mountains, until one of them breaks a leg. In "Wilderness," by Letitia Trent, something weird is going on while passengers are delayed in the airport in New Haven. I mean, beyond what normally goes on in New Haven.

But the supernatural is fairly represented. "Fabulous Beasts," by Priya Sharma, has something to do with snake-people (if that's the correct term--homo serpentis?) and "We Are All Monsters Here," by Kelley Armstrong, is a vampire tale. When you're not sure if it's supernatural or not makes things really interesting, like Stephen Graham Jones' "Universal Horror," which involves some friends playing a drinking game on Halloween when a certain child dressed as a mummy keeps showing up. Or "My Boy Builds Coffins," by Gary McMahon, which is exactly as the title describes it. These kind of stories, that don't spell everything out, can be frustrating for someone anal, but work well at suggesting the horror rather than ruining it with a half-assed conclusion.

The best two stories of the collection both spell everything out, to satisfy my more mundane instincts. "Black Dog," by Neil Gaiman, features his character from American Gods, Shadow Moon, walking across the English countryside (didn't we learn that no good can come of this from An American Werewolf in London?). This story, which will involve the Egyptian god Bast, is sort about whether you're a cat or a dog person, and kissing and feeling up a ghost. But Brian Hodge's "The Stagnant Breath of Change" is a real dilly. It's about a town that has made a deal with something called The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young so that nothing changes. Of course, this has repercussions unforeseen by the town fathers who struck the deal. It's a real chiller, and is a perfect way to end the book.

There were a few stories that didn't grab me. "Hippocampus" by Adam Nevill left me perplexed--I guess it's the aftermath of something terrible happening on a ship, and I have no idea what was going on in Stephanie M. Wytovich's "The 21st Century Shadow."

But I'd give a thumbs up to at least 15 of the 20 stories, a pretty good batting average. I highly recommend all of the books in this series.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Summertime

Willie Nelson singing George Gershwin? Not a likely combo, but Nelson has sung almost everything in his sixty-plus year career. The resulting album, Summertime, won the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album Grammy, and I would have liked to have purchased it even without that distinction.

But. I hate to come down on Willie Nelson, who is as much a music god as any this country has ever produced, but this album is about twenty years too late. Nelson, at 84, just doesn't have the pipes for some of these songs. The title track, for instance, is one of the most beautiful in the American songbook, especially when sung by someone with a superior voice (check out Audra McDonald performing it). Nelson almost speaks-sings it, and while this gives it a certain poignance, it doesn't do service to the song at all.

Other misfires are "Love Is Here To Stay" and "Someone to Watch Over Me." The livelier songs, which don't require as much range, such as "Somebody Loves Me," "They All Laughed," and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" work better (the latter features Cyndi Lauper), while pairing with Sheryl Crow on "Embraceable You" just highlights how much better a singer she is at this stage.

The orchestrations are terrific, though, and on a song like "It Ain't Necessarily So" Nelson is able to use his talents in phrasing and inflection to make it the highlight of the album.

I'm a fan of Willie Nelson and the Gershwins, but this album was a sad disappointment.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Neruda

Pablo Neruda was a poet and a politician. He ultimately won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But in 1948 he was hunted across Chile for being a communist.

That is the subject of Pablo Lorrain's 2016 film Neruda, which seems to be more interested in the policeman who is chasing Neruda. He is a Javert-like figure played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who would seem to be fictional, but narrates the film and gets most of the psychological examination.

Neruda, whose real name was Ricardo Reyes, was an internationally known poet who was in the Chilean senate in the Communist Party. The Chilean president outlawed communists, so Neruda had to go into hiding. Played by Luis Gneccho, Neruda was fat and balding, but was nonetheless a ladies' man and libertine, and perhaps a bigamist. But he was beloved by his supporters, who helped him go into hiding, where he managed to elude police for over a year.

Bernal plays a man called Oscar Peluchonneau, who is the son of a prostitute ("the son of a venereal disease," he says) who fancies himself the son of the founder of the Chilean police. He carries himself with utmost poise and dignity, and takes his job very seriously. When someone tells him he is his civilian superior, he says "I have no civilian superiors." His pursuit of Neruda is dogged, to the point where he is pursuing him over the Andes into Argentina.

Anyone with a glimmer of knowledge about Neruda knows whether he will get away or not, but I think Lorrain is more interested in the chase than in the possible capture. Indeed, Neruda's wife tells Bernal that he is also all about he hunt--that Neruda created him just to be in this fiction. The lines between fiction and fact are kind of fuzzy--is Bernal the son of the great man? Does he even exist?

Lorrain, who also directed the American film Jackie, likes to play games. He frequently cuts dialogues between two characters so that they shift locations in between sentences, defying physics. I suppose this could be to make the film less stagnant, or to give it a more dream-like quality. The film is also very dark, without bright color, perhaps signifying a dark chapter in Chile's history (there would be worse, as we get a brief glimpse of a young August Pinochet).

I found Neruda interesting, and there is plenty of his poetry. It can be a bit confounding, and I never rally bought Bernal as the policeman--he is too boyish. I needed the part to be played by someone about ten years older.