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Martin Phipps: From the Soundtrack of The Crown

When I watched the series I was so struck by this segment that I went looking for the soundtrack. It's called "New Queen," with apparently semi-ironic intent, since it occurs at the end of Series 3, Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee.

I absolutely love that piece. I just wish it went on longer. There are other good things in the soundtrack but nothing grabbed me as much as this.

Here's the whole scene. I take it for granted that the series gives a picture in some ways false, but whatever might be said along that line, Olivia Colman's performance as Elizabeth is outstanding:


Two Killers

(Relatively minor SPOILERS)

When I learned, some time ago, that there is a movie based on Hemingway's short story "The Killers," I wanted to see it out of sheer curiosity. There really isn't very much to the story, and almost nothing happens. Two menacing men arrive in a small town. They menace people in a diner. They're in town to kill "the Swede." Nick Adams (this is one of the Nick Adams stories) goes to warn the Swede. The Swede says there's nothing he can do about it and waits for the men to come and kill him.

That's it, as far as the plot goes. There's a good deal more to the story, of course, but it's all character and atmosphere. There's not enough there to fill an hour or two of film time, so the movie, made in 1946 and starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, makes Hemingway's narrative a prelude to an entirely invented backstory. The Hemingway story is gotten out of the way in twenty minutes or so, and is really quite a good adaptation. By "good" I mean both that it's faithful to the original and that it's powerful in itself. 

The Swede (Lancaster) is done in as expected. Then it turns out that he left an insurance policy, and an investigator from the company is assigned the task of locating the beneficiary. In the course of that investigation he uncovers the complicated reasons for the killing. Not surprisingly, they involves gangsters and a femme fatale

It's classic film noir, so much so that when I checked In the Dark, a book about noir, to see if the movie is listed, I discovered that in fact it provides the cover photo. And if you like noir this is one you definitely need to see. It didn't displace Out of the Past as my favorite, but it's well up there in the ranks. I didn't recognize the names of the director and screenwriter, Robert Siodmak and Anthony Veiller, reportedly with some uncredited help from John Huston. It was the first big success for both Lancaster and Gardner. I can't offhand remember having seen the latter in anything else, and now I know why she was a major sex symbol. 

Having located the 1946 film on Netflix (DVD only), I was surprised to discover that there is a second version, made in 1964, and starring John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager play the menacing gunmen. To my taste it's not nearly as good, but I found it interesting as a contrast and an indication of the way film sensibilities were changing. The cinematography is flashier and more elaborate. The violence starts almost immediately. There's much more spectacle: the hero is not a boxer, as in the 1946 film, but a racecar driver, which provides lots of opportunity for noisy action. There's more emphasis on the killers themselves, who are given a psychopathic edge. And Angie Dickinson is a beautiful woman but she doesn't have the smoldering allure of Ava Gardner. It's in color, which the 1946 one is not, and although I certainly have a great love for black-and-white I don't think color is the reason, or not the main reason, for the lack of atmosphere, for the movie seeming flat compared to the earlier one. 

There is one remarkable thing about it: Ronald Reagan plays the bad guy, and he's surprisingly effective. It was his last film role; two years later he would be governor of California. I'm surprised that more wasn't made of his portrayal of this evil character when he was president, considering that he was as deeply loathed as Donald Trump by the same sorts of people. But then in the 1980s we didn't have ready access to old movies.

Both films are available as a set from Criterion, and Netflix, as noted, has the set. Here are the trailers. 


Twin Peaks Revisited

(Spoilers!)

It's hard for me to believe that it's been over three years since I finished Twin Peaks: The Return and stated my intention to re-watch the original series and Fire Walk With Me. Here's what I said at the time: "fascinating but disappointing."

So I finally got back to this plan a month or two ago, accepting the fact that I would have to "buy" the series on Amazon if I wanted to stream it rather than spend a lot of time waiting for Netflix DVDs to travel back and forth. I made it through the episode in season 2 where the identity of the murderer is revealed, then watched Fire Walk With Me (on DVD).

I still love the TV series, though I will admit, with a little sadness, that some of the bloom is off the rose now. I suppose part of the delight of my first viewing was the unexpectedness of so much of it--the juxtaposition of the normal and two kinds of strange, the dark and the silly. Even the darker parts have an element of...not exactly silly, but of parody or caricature, as in the decor and atmosphere of One Eyed Jack's, and for that matter even the Black Lodge, with its "modern" furniture. Obviously startling juxtapositions can't continue to startle, though they certainly still amuse. Why were all those people in uniform--Navy, I think?--bouncing balls all over the Great Northern?

The movie, on the other hand, seems even better than I remember, but it is quite different from the series. The DVD that Netflix sent includes a thirty-minute documentary made in 2000 in which most of the major actors are interviewed. Several of them, most strongly Peggy Lipton (Norma), weren't happy with the film's seriousness and darkness, the absence of the comic-but-respectful treatment of what she refers to as "small-town values" in the series.

And whether one approves or disapproves, she's right about the difference. The movie is unlike the series in that it's almost entirely serious and dark. There's not much of the whimsy of the series, less depiction of young romance, more of sex. I don't recall anything comparable to, for instance, the video of Laura and Donna larking girlishly on their outing with James, early in the original series. There's a lot more of what we think of as normal-for-Lynch weirdness, like the mysterious boy wearing a bird mask, and the Black Lodge. There's no old-fashioned wise Major Briggs, and Agent Cooper is a more straightforwardly serious character, whom we see less of than in the series (partly because Kyle McLachlan was concerned about being typecast). And it gets pretty violent, close to horror movie territory at times. It's just not lovable in the way the series is.

But this is a movie, with a time limit of a couple of hours or so, necessarily focused pretty tightly, unless it's to be just another episode in a long and wandering story. A number of the plot threads from the series are either missing or only lightly alluded to. It delves deeply into Laura's character and the things which torment her, including the entity called Bob, and succeeds, which is not a fun ride. Laura is more clearly a lost soul here, in the sense that she is further gone in corruption than we saw in the series. But she's not so lost that she doesn't know it, as witnessed by her outraged intervention when Donna attempts to follow her path. And if I understand it correctly part of the reason for her death wish is that she wants to prevent Bob from taking possession of her.

There's a lot of interesting information in the Wikipedia article on the film. I was especially interested in the critical reception, which was initially quite bad but has grown more positive over the years. Count me on the positive side. I think it's powerful and profound, and although I haven't seen all of Lynch's work, of what I have seen I would only rank Mulholland Drive higher--maybe. I admit to being a little bit annoyed about a few things that I couldn't make sense of. What exactly does it mean in the last scene that Mike demands Leland's "pain and suffering"? I thought Mike had renounced the murder and spiritual cannibalism he had practiced with Bob. Or is it really Mike? I'm generally confused about Mike and The Man From Another Place. 

I had entirely forgotten a great deal from my last viewing of Fire Walk. Two especially powerful moments stand out: Ronette's prayer in the train car, and this exchange between Laura and James not long before her murder:

James: What's wrong with us? We have everything.
Laura: Everything but everything.

That seems a fitting summary of what's happened to Western civilization over the past century or so. And particularly so for Americans of Lynch's generation, and mine. I've wondered if Lynch's work will always appeal more to those of us who recall the pre-sexual-revolution, pre-Sixties culture of the U.S. But I do know of at least one person born in the '70s who likes it as much as I do.

I noticed two very small things that are very interesting in light of Twin Peaks: The Return. In an early scene, when the mysterious FBI agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie with a bad southern accent) appears and delivers a strange rant, he says "I'm not going to talk about Judy." And one of the young people, maybe Donna, says "Laura's mother is kind of spooky," or something like that. Did Lynch already have in mind that there was an evil entity called Judy associated with Laura's mother, or did he develop that idea after the fact, and take the name from that seemingly insignificant bit in the movie?

I guess I'll finish out the second series, though I agree with what seems to be the nearly universal view that the show deteriorates. And watch The Return again?...I don't know...I guess. What I'd really like to see is Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces, ninety minutes worth of footage that didn't make it into Fire Walk. But it doesn't seem to be available at the moment, either on DVD or streaming. 


John Darnielle: Universal Harvester

JohnDarnielle-UniversalHarvester2

John Darnielle, as you may know, is the principal in The Mountain Goats. In effect, he is the mountain goat, as the band seems to be (or at least to have been for some time), essentially a one-man project consisting of Darnielle and various accompanists. He's a brilliant (and astonishingly prolific) songwriter, and the great strength of his songwriting is in the lyrics. This is his second novel; I have not read the first, Wolf In White Van.

When a friend passed this book along to me after having read it himself and, if I understood him, not expecting to read it again, I wasn't sure that I would ever read it. Why not? Well, contemporary fiction is not my great interest, and I had low expectations, including the impression (of unknown origin) that it would be a whimsical, ironic, and gently humorous look at small and mundane things, somewhat along the lines of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories. I enjoyed those at the time, but the time was decades ago now, and I have not wanted to revisit them, and have no particular desire to read anything else of the sort. And--the strongest reason, I guess--the ability to write a good song is not necessarily accompanied by the ability to put words on a page effectively.

And I might well not have read Universal Harvester if the recent release of a new Mountain Goats album, Dark In Here, which I haven't heard, had not been the occasion of a conversation which resulted in my lending the book to someone else, and his reaction causing me to have a look at it myself.

I was not altogether mistaken in expecting something Keillor-esque. The story takes place in small towns in Iowa (their placement is significant, and a map is helpful). And the characters are small people, mostly young, limited in the scope of their knowledge and ambition. Set in the late '90s, it begins in a video rental store (the Video Hut) with a young man named Jeremy who is one of the two clerks who are the only staff apart from the owner. Jeremy is twenty-two years old and still suffering from the loss of his mother in an auto accident when he was sixteen. He lives with his still-grieving father; they get by, not knowing quite what to do with themselves. Jeremy is getting a little old to be working in a video store.

Much of the novel might be said with reasonable accuracy to be in Keillor mode. The people are portrayed with charm and a little irony, the ways of the place observed keenly, with a bit of humor and a distinct melancholy but no unkindness. But then it switches into another mode, a much darker one. Into the Video Hut one morning comes a girl named Stephanie, returning a tape, and hesitatingly, vaguely, telling Jeremy that something is wrong with it.

She didn't set her tape down; instead, she held it in her hand, chest-high, a little away from her body.

"There's something on this one" she said.

Jeremy thinks she's complaining about the movie (Targets, a 1968 movie in which Boris Karloff appeared, shortly before his death).

Stephanie looked a little blankly at Jeremy, measuring him, then said, "No, it's a great movie. I've seen it before.".... "It's the tape, there's something on it."

"I can credit your account," said Jeremy.

Stephanie put on her measuring face again and seemed to decide Jeremy wasn't going to understand. "No, it's fine," she said. "Never mind. Maybe tell Sarah Jane about it, though, OK?"

(Sarah Jane is the store's owner.) Jeremy puts the tape aside and forgets about it. A few days later another customer brings in another tape, with a similar complaint. Some days go by before anyone looks into the problem, but eventually Jeremy, Stephanie, and Sarah Jane have watched two of the tapes, separately or together, and what they find disturbs them. Spliced into the movies are bits of home video shot in what seems to be a barn or shed. In one case it's several minutes of nothing, just the empty place. Others involve mild violence, or near-violence: a hooded and silent figure doing odd, slightly demeaning things; a person or persons hidden under a tarp, seeming to struggle, and receiving several kicks.

More similarly modified tapes are discovered. Most of the interpolations aren't actually violent, but they're menacing, not only in their content but in their apparently random appearances in apparently random movies. Jeremy, Stephanie, and Sarah Jane begin to search for their source. Mixed with the deftly rendered personal stories and situations of these characters now is an element of dread: these scenes are real, and they do not seem to be staged, and they seem filled with dread, though nothing very dreadful actually happens in them.

So perhaps this is going to be a horror story, or a thriller. Then the tricksy stuff begins: the narrator intrudes on a scene to say that there is another version of it, in which this happens instead of that. Repeatedly the story walks up to what promises to be a revelation, then veers away to something else. There's a great deal--too much for my taste--of shifting around in time: something is about to happen, the scene shifts, and sometime later we learn something about the thing that was about to happen. All very cinematic--consciously so, I would guess, since movies are central to the story.

Eighty-four pages in, Part Two begins, and we are in the story of a woman who, a few days after Christmas in 1972, abandons her husband and young daughter to join a Christian cult. You'll note that there are now two instances of a lost mother.

The stories do come together, and I guess most of this back-and-forth, up-and-back movement lies in the general area of modern fictional technique. (Or is it post-modern?--I'm not competent to say.) But it becomes frustrating, in spite of the charm of the details, because (in addition to there being too much of it) too many questions remain unanswered. Or at least seem to. When I closed the book I felt annoyed that I still didn't know exactly what had happened. And then I wondered whether anything at all had happened: had I just experienced a far more sophisticated execution of the "it was all just a dream" trick that has always seemed to me a cheap one? I am not a fan of The Wizard of Oz.

Having pondered it a bit more, I think I do know what happened, though I'm not certain, and even if I'm right about the big picture there are still a good many puzzling details that I'm not pleased not to see cleared up. Moreover, I think one could construct an argument that is at least plausible that almost none of the narrative actually occurred. Ambiguity and subtlety are good things, but I think Universal Harvester may go a bit too far in those directions.

Still, I give it a qualified recommendation. There is much to enjoy, and a fair amount that is strongly moving. And perhaps you will catch on more quickly than I did; I was long ago forced to recognize that I can be somewhat thick. I'll give you one bit of advice: pay very close attention when the narrator says "I", or otherwise refers to him/her self.

In any case, there's no doubt that John Darnielle's gifts as a writer extend to fiction.


Kurosawa's Ran

I finished Kristin Lavransdatter last week and have a half-written post about it, but have had unexpected demands on my time this week and haven't been able to finish it. In the meantime, just a quick note about this film.

What a magnificent epic! I really didn't know what to expect. I only knew that it's  considered one of Kurosawa's most important works, and that its plot is based loosely on King Lear. According to Wikipedia, Kurosawa was already working on the story when he first encountered Lear, and that for him it originated with a Japanese story about a king who had three sons. In any case there are a lot of clear parallels with Lear, but it's not simply a retelling of the story in a medieval Japanese setting. 

I'll restrain myself from going further, and also from gushing, and just say that if you like Kurosawa's work at all and haven't seen this one, you must. Apparently he had a huge budget to work with, and obviously a great deal of money and time went into it, as it features several large and complex battle scenes. Among other things it's an enthralling visual spectacle, not only in the big scenes but in smaller and intimate ones as well. 

The title, by the way, puzzled me a bit, as it isn't the name of any character. Again according to Wikipedia:

The complex and variant etymology for the word Ran used as the title has been variously translated as "chaos", "rebellion", or "revolt"; or to mean "disturbed" or "confused".

Kuroran.jpg
Theater poster, from Wikimedia: Fair Use, Link


About Endlessness

That's in italics because it's the name of the movie. I read this very intriguing review this morning, and may even go so far as to check local theaters to see if it shows here, which is probably unlikely.

In 75 concise minutes (as long as any movie needs to be), About Endlessness is completely provocative and satisfying. Each sketch dramatizes a random incident in a Scandinavian city. These scenes, stylizing the real and the imaginary, are light as air — capriccios that go to the heart of human experience.

It's by a Swedish director, Roy Andersson, whose name I don't recall having seen before, but based on the review I think I might like his other work in addition to this one. Of course it helps that the reviewer invokes the near-sacred name of Ingmar Bergman.

I wouldn't agree that 75 minutes is enough for any movie, but it strikes me as a reasonable target for most.

Here's the trailer:

 


Ozu: Late Spring

As I expected, I liked it more this time. Such a simple story: a widower and his daughter, who's getting on into her twenties. He wants her to get married--or does he? She doesn't want to get married--or does she? The resolution of the situation is fairly straightforward, and deeply poignant. 

Knowing that the film was released in 1949 made me wonder about the conditions under which it was made--I mean both the physical and psychological conditions, the war having ended only four years earlier and the country still under occupation. There is no direct reference to the war or the occupation, which seemed puzzling. According to Wikipedia, filmmakers--and everyone, I suppose--were subject to a certain amount of censorship by the Allies, which explains this curious absence. A few images like this one are implicit references to the occupation:

Late_Spring_Coke

You'll notice that the sign is in English. A bit after this moment the two bicyclists pass a sign giving the load limit of the road, also in English. 


Yasujirō Ozu: The End of Summer

I very much liked the two Ozu films I've seen, Late Spring and Tokyo Story, in spite of some difficulty in adjusting to the mannerisms, especially the vocal mannerisms, of a language and culture so different from mine. As I said when writing about Late Spring back in 2011, it's

a difficulty I've had with other Japanese films made prior to 1960 or so: the facial and vocal expressions are just culturally different enough for me to feel that I'm not quite sure what's going on underneath, not quite connecting as I should.

It's hard to explain, but there often seems to be a disconnect between the sounds I hear and what they seem to mean based on what the character is saying and the expression in the voice. 

I've seen Tokyo Story twice, which is at least part of the reason why, after the second viewing, I decided that I like it a little better. But I want to see Late Spring again. Ozu made several films with similar seasonal titles, and I'm working my way through those I haven't seen, which now leaves Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, and An Autumn Afternoon. That list is in chronological order: Late Spring was made in 1949, An Autumn Afternoon in 1962. 

I'm not sure why I picked End of Summer as my next one. Like the other two I've seen, it's a very low-key family drama involving partings of some sort. It seems that Ozu has produced a series of delicate and subtle variations on a modest theme. There is not much "drama" here, using the word in the colloquial half-slang sense that's developed in recent years: no shouting, no weeping, no accusing and demanding. These three films at least are centered on generational connections and their dissolution. This is not violent rebellion, as has been typical of American and European art since at least the '60s, but the quiet relinquishing of ties as time and especially the changing times push or pull families apart. It seems more than likely to me that the changing times are more important than they may seem at an outsider's glance. It's never given more than passing mention, but it seems present in things like the juxtaposition of traditional and modern dress, of street signs and advertisements in Japanese and English ("Drink Coca-Cola!"), of urban and pastoral imagery, and in the rarely-mentioned but significant awareness of the war.

As for the specific film that I sat down to write about: well, for the first half of The End of Summer I didn't like it as well as the other two. That's in great part because I wasn't sure what was going on. The family relationships are more complex, involving more people, and I had trouble keeping track of who was who and exactly how they were related. As far as I noticed, none of this was ever directly explicated. I'll admit that there was an element here of the Westerner sometimes having trouble distinguishing Asian features when they are somewhat similar: I had that problem with two of the three young women, sisters and a sister-in-law, who, to my eyes, looked rather like each other. This is not quite as ethnocentric as it sounds, as I sometimes have the same problem with Euro-American films where there are two characters of the same sex, age, and coloring. (The third young woman was played by Setsuko Haro, whose face is pretty distinctive and memorable.) 

TheEndOfSummerNoriko, Akkiko (Setsuko Hara), Fumiko (l-r). I don't have any trouble telling Noriko and Fumiko apart when they're together. 

The plot involves the misbehavior of the family patriarch (no problem recognizing him) and is mildly comic--only mildly to me, anyway--through the first two thirds of the film. But all around this man's foolish renewal of a past romance with an old flame who's grown cynical (if she was ever otherwise) there is that air of puzzled melancholy as the younger generation wonders what to do with him and with themselves.

Whatever disappointment I felt in that first hour or so was compensated for by the fact that the film is in color. The characteristic long still interior shots are just as they are in the other two works: taken from a couple of feet off the floor, looking down a hallway with people coming and going at the other end, looking from one room into another, looking through a door to outside, from ten or fifteen feet away so the visible area is very small. These views of the characters from a certain distance could have the effect of making theme seem isolated, but they don't work that way for me. Instead, by giving the interiors so much space, the effect is of people very much enclosed and protected within a receptive home. And the color makes one aware of the richness of the houses and furnishings--there's a lot of warm wood--in a way that black and white can't. And as for the exterior scenes--well, the landscapes made me want to visit Japan.

Towards the end I was very much won over. The final twenty minutes or so are as powerful as anything in the other two films, and perhaps even more beautiful. I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't seen it and might do so, so I won't say any more. I will certainly be seeing this one again. 

I had about decided to cancel my Criterion Collection subscription, as I had gone many months without using it at all. There just didn't seem to be all that much there that I wanted to see, and the app or site or whatever you call it is obsessed with...well, let's just say cultural trends which don't interest me. But recently I made an effort to search out directors like Ozu, and found enough to make the service worthwhile for another few months anyway. 

I can't find a trailer online, but YouTube seems to have several copies of the whole film. Must be some sort of copyright gap.


The Gentlemen

I can't remember whether the previous Guy Ritchie film I saw was Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch. I do remember that it was very cleverly plotted, well-acted, quick-witted and quick-moving, and at least half-funny in its depiction of the British underworld. The Gentlemen is very much the same, and I enjoyed it. But there is something not quite right in treating rather vicious criminals as witty and glamorous, and imparting a light-hearted quality to acts of violence. It's all done with an ironic wink, which I guess is better than doing it seriously, but still, it seems unhealthy. 

Continue reading "The Gentlemen" »


The Vast of Night

This is a fairly low-budget sci-fi movie which as far as I know is available only on Amazon. Set in the late '50s in a small town in New Mexico, it's presented as an episode of a television show modeled on The Twilight Zone, complete with an introduction in Rod Serling's voice and prose style. I found it enchanting, so much so that I watched it a second time. It's basically a straightforward UFO story, in many ways typical: it could be an episode of The X-Files without Mulder and Scully, but it's done with such skill and atmosphere that it gives new life to what have become the conventions of UFO mythology.

Continue reading "The Vast of Night" »