Monday, July 24, 2017

Small Afterthought On Walter Mosley's Six Easy Pieces


A quick note on finishing Walter Mosley's Six Easy Pieces about a week ago.

Some of the stories' resolutions as to "who done it" were anticlimactic. The last story, I think it's called Grim Death, not sure, especially.

But the strength or weakness of the resolutions didn't matter to me. 

The portrayal of black life in LA at that time, late fifties to early sixties, is so rich and full and alive, especially with Mouse returned from the grave, so to say, that the stories seem more like good sturdy pegs to on which hang all that fabulous social tapestry. 

I loved the book for that.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Contrarian View Of Nolan's Dunkirk


Dunkirk my contrarian take. 

2.8 out out of 5 aka 56%

I went in expecting to be bowled over by Dunkirk but wound up feeling sort of meh about this critically feted film. So I speak here as a member of a beleaguered contrarian group, smaller than a tiny thimble, which is less than enthusiastic about it. 

I'm not sure if there's a spoiler alert in this. There may be. I'm trying to avoid them. So govern yourself accordingly, as lawyers like to say. 

I can see what's good in Dunkirk, a film I'd label (neologism alert) a "dramumentary." (About that notion in a while.) Nolan conveys the carnage and human wreckage-filled horror of war through the prism of the Dunkirk rescue. The effects are masterfully done. Dead bodies are askew everywhere and keeping piling up blast after blast from intermittent but constant air bombing. Bombing and explosions and dogfights and killing and drowning are everywhere and ceaseless.

In the midst of all the pervading horrible sights and sounds of war and its mounting carnage arises a focus on a few individuals in multifaceted story lines that operate as microcosms: one soldier's struggle to survive through an unending series of disasters; all that happens on one boat gone out to rescue; the sequence of air battles as mostly manifest in the dogfighting of one particular pilot. Beyond this concentration on a certain small number of individuals is the overarching macrorocosmic story of Dunkirk itself: the entrapment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers; the determined German effort, mostly by air power, to kill as many of them as possible; the efforts such as they were to fend off the German attacks by limited British aerial counter power; the call for civilian help; the help arriving and the massive rescue. 

As a kind of transition between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, Nolan has a few sequences involving the officer in charge on the ground, Kenneth Branagh, liaising with British high command and with his immediate subordinates. He's where the action is, is quite proximate to where all the German slaughtering is going on, but seem to be in some invisible protective cone, looking sharp and clean, his uniform crisp and immaculate, totally untouched. I don't quite get that. 

A big problem for me is that after the set up and the delineation of the different narratives, I kept waiting for whatever it was that was going to emerge to compel and sustain my interest. It never came. The quick and constant cross cutting from narrative to narrative, all against the backdrop of the unceasing German onslaught, blunted the dramatic impact of all of them for as interesting as they were. I became increasingly detached and distanced from all of it. 

It all held my attention but I wasn't riveted and my feelings got increasingly numb. I wanted some intimate connection with something to solder me emotionally to the stories. But the constancy of the effects, the repetitiousness of so much, the insufficiency of anything "inner" coming from the film got me not bored but approaching it, more like impatient, not impatient for something to happen, to be sure things were happening including the same kinds of things over and over--one more ship blasted, one more sequence of dead bodies, of dogfights, of soldiers either drowning or swimming desperately to be rescued, one more scene with Branagh calm, cool, understand and collected, with his stiff upper lip and all--but impatient for something personal and concrete and intimate to move me. (Apples and oranges sure, but Life Is Beautiful with no effects, really with essentially a heartbreakingly tragic premise has, so to say, for me at least, more emotional power in its little cinematic finger than this movie has in its whole spectacular effects drenched body.) 

Enhancing the numbness created by the spectacle is the irritating contrived and crashingly loud music that means to juice up the moments of grave occurrence, the moments of particular suspenseful climaxes and moments of narrative drama but rather gets in the way of all of them by not letting them be. And maybe the loud music indicates a certain lack of cinematic self confidence in Nolan, that he has to pound it into our heads that this is climatic or excitingly suspenseful or particularly dramatic. As a negative complement to the head pounding music is our difficulty much of the time making out what people are saying to each other, particularly the pilots. 

This guy, linked to below, a professional film critic, puts some of this well: 

....In devoting so much time to the dull, counterproductive construction of its action sequences, Dunkirk dispenses with nearly all other elements of drama. At first, this is to the film's credit; the characters don't waste time offering backstory or personality quirks, as they're too focused on the immediacy of survival. In fact, most of the characters have names you can only glean from the credits, with the men becoming too preoccupied with their own skins to give a damn what the fellow next to them is called. After a time, however, the blurred lines between characters only exacerbate the editing's cold, distancing effect. This inadvertently stunts the power of a few instances of interpersonal contact that do materialize, such as the traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy) who's picked up by Dawson from a torpedoed ship—a subplot that's so quickly sidelined that it barely gathers emotional force...

In the end,  in my reading of the movie, Nolan tends to subvert Dunkirk as the exemplification of the glory of British pluck. He clearly recognizes the bravery of the civilian rescue and he appreciates the demonstration of felt obedience to duty. But, as I see it, he is more outraged by the unthinkable human wreckage this war has taken. So outraged in fact, that I have the sense that he isn't overly celebratory of the heroic achievement of the rescue. His appreciation for it as the film reveals it is muted by the transcending horror in human wreckage of the war. As one example, the Germans aren't vilified as the enemy. For Nolan, war itself, not Germany, is the enemy. 

This shows in the last scene where the soldier who makes it is riding home in a train through the English countryside with stops along the way to cheering crowds. One civilian hands up to him and a fellow surviving soldier a couple of bottles of beer and keeps intoning "Well done." The "Well done" sounds fatuous and ludicrous, the absurdity of "Pip, pip" with its black hole human-vacuuming-up hollowness adjacent to the hellish horror these soldiers have survived. I'm reminded of the townspeople's absurd enthusiasm for the war, World War I to be sure, in All Quiet On The Western Front in stark juxtaposition to what Paul Bäumer experiences. The surviving soldier, a mainstay character, can only close his eyes and retreat in to himself to try to escape the hollow cheering and force away his vivid memory of all he's survived. 

I'll come close to ending of these doubtless too many words with a note on  the idea of "dramumentary." My sense is that Nolan wants to give a true account of what went on at Dunkirk, wants to record what happened there dispassionately, relentlessly and remorselessly, but also wants to tell particular stories about, show the drama and excitement of, what went on. He wants to tell an overall story about an amazing, virtually miraculous, civilian rescue but he does not want the heroic glory of that rescue to displace his insistent larger theme of the despised-by-him useless waste, maiming and death, the toll of wreckage war wreaks. 

In my judgment in his merging of these two approaches, drama and documentary, he loses artistic control. They obtrude on each other such that for all that is undeniably good in the film, some of it spectacular, the good and the spectacular become spectacle. Spectacle overwhelms the drama and the human; and the audience, or at least this audience of one, gets numbed, detached, distanced and impatient. 

I'll almost finally, finally say, there is something ahistoric in Nolan's larger theme. His subsuming of World War II, what the allies were fighting against, by the theme of war as Hell is to me simple minded to the point of moral infantilism. 

Finally, finally, I can well think that my reading of this movie is highly idiosyncratic and off the mark. So many smart people have gone on with so many superlatives about Dunkirk. If I'm off base, slightly, somewhat or wildly, then I'd love to be shown the error of my ways and judgment.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Note On Walter Mosley's Six Easy Pieces


I'm reading Six Easy Pieces, six Easy Rawlins stories by Walter Mosley. They are undertied by Easy's personal situation, his job, kids, relationship with his girl friend Bonny, his business interests, the question of and his deep, deep feelings about his best friend Mouse's death  and his central inner conflict. He is conflicted  between his shot at serious, responsible, domestic bourgeois life, and the call of the streets, the wildness, the life and death dangers, and excitement of them. 

The Los Angeles black social history, the concreteness of a class of people in a certain time and place, including fraught black white relations, on top of the actual story telling is illuminating.

One very short part of it all keeps knocking around in my head. 

At one point Easy, who is comprehensively well read, musing on that conflict within himself thinks about that very excitement generating danger, which is the streets' siren call to him. He meditates on the mortal danger to everyone  simmering just below the surface of his now dead best friend Mouse. He places Mouse at one ferocious bookend of kind of a spectrum of the ways black men respond to white men. Mouse never backs down from any man, regardless of his colour. If any man (or woman for that matter) messes with him, then that sets off an explosion in Mouse that burns that man alive. 

Mouse is the worst of the streets, giving back ten fold for whatever they take. He is the embodiment of the darkest, most violent danger of the streets, but a few ticks below wanton. He is loyal unto his own death to his best friend Easy who is loyal to him. He dies trying to help Easy out a life threatening jam with some very bad men. 

In the description of Mouse standing violently up to any man regardless of colour, I thought in way that he prefigured the Black Panthers.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Few Notes On Dickens's Style In Oliver Twist


I'm rounding the club house turn reading Oliver Twist.

One question that continually occurs to me is: what is the essence of Dickens's totally singular style? 

One thing I'm noting is the narrator's high and inapposite rhetoric when talking about the various lowlifes and pompous phonies. He may refer to Bill Sykes's sleeping as his "slumber" or Fagin's declarations or assertions as "asservations" or Mr. Bumble's self importance as his "state of high elevation." The examples are so endless as to be a key pattern in the fabric of the novel's prose. 

The inapposite high language is of course purposefully high burlesque, meant, in a playfully, whimsically arch way, to demean and puncture the objects of its description. 

So, for example, Mr. Bumble's self importance gets underlined, mimicked and parodied by the high rhetoric

And Fagin and Sykes get diminished by the whimsy that undercuts them by bracketing them even as the portrayal of their leeching, parasitic viciousness is shown full bore, Sykes soaked in his violent predatory nature, moving violently forward like a shark, and Fagin in his predation, in his insidiously malignant false sympathy and false affection,  "Ma Dear," mere cover for his manipulative exploitation and destruction of young lives to feed his own maliciously obsessive acquisitiveness . The destruction they both wreak is perhaps most pathetically evident in Nancy, whose few shreds of dignity, sympathy and pride shine out from and make seem worse the otherwise hapless, destroyed creature that Sykes and Fagin have reduced her to. 

In contrast to the tension in the narrator's paradoxical high falutin descriptions of the lowlifes and pompous fools, some malign and some benign, is the constancy of suitably approbative language, even to the point of sentimental idealization verging on caricature, in the descriptions of the exemplary characters like delicately sensitive Oliver himself or saintly Rose Maylee or the goodly Mr. Brownlow. In these descriptions there is very little, if any, irony or playfulness or anything arch, although the narrator does poke fun at the self important but ultimately harmless Mr. Grimwig, who repeatedly threatens to eat his own head and who his great friend Mr. Brownlow doesn't usually take too seriously.  

Anyway, these are some immediate thoughts. It would be interesting to take a passage or two and closely analyze them to try to get more particularly text based in showing what Dickens is doing.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Charles Diickens and Stevie Ray Vaughan: Can You Dig It


I'm at the part of Oliver Twist when Nancy gets Oliver from Fagin to deliver him with Fagin's say so to Bill Sikes. Sikes wants him because he's small enough to help Sikes and crew complete a promising robbery.

It's in Chapter 18.

I mention it only because, maybe, Dickens can be said to write the way Stevie Ray Vaughan, may he continue to rest in the rockin' Blues peace, plays. Strong, large genius strokes both of them that are so compelling that you may be tempted to wonder about delicacy and nuance.

Resist the temptation for at least two reasons:

one, even, for both, amidst their strong broad art, their seeming "broad strokes" so to say,  is subtlety, playfulness, tasty placement, and layered complexity; and

two, then, there are forays into the sheer delicacy of their art,

as when, in  this scene, Oliver, who's pure victim here, in his lovely innocent goodness is solicitous of Nancy,

as what arouses his sympathy is Nancy shown desperately torn among her acute sympathy for Oliver, her fear of Sikes, and her also, fear aside, wanting to please him,

as when Oliver for all his innocence is shown beginning to calculate and have cunning, agreeing to go peaceably with Nancy on his reckoning he might be able to get away given crowded streets and possibly sympathetic bystanders,

and as when he's brought eagerly by Nancy to Sikes who's, again, shown as shark like in his single minded predation, the personification of virtually unmitigated maleficent functionality in which almost nothing else registers with him.

And such delicacy for Stevie Ray Vaughan, well, better to listen than for me ineptly try to convey it in words:

Sunday, July 2, 2017

On Joni Mitchell's Mediocre Version Of Last

Listening to Joni Mitchell's At Last, track 2, from Both Sides Now. The song was written in 1941, as a movie song and performed since as a standard. 

Musical Intro: perfect.

First few lines, compare to Etta James's definitive version. JM doesn't bring out the Etta's full throated, full bodied joy. She's pallid and ordinary in comparison. She has no life in her singing. Compared to Etta James, she sounds small. 

Now getting into it, her phrasing isn't terrible but it's nothing special. 

"My heart... that line, nothing interpretive in it. At this point she's basically mouthing the words, singing without feeling.

The music is great.  

"A dream to call my own... Here again her voice is flat, not as flat as in sharps and flats, but flat as in undramatic, and her voice tends to drag lifelessly even as the musical accompaniment is wonderfully rich and comes to her partial rescue. 

"I found a thrill to press ....Same comment. Not thrilling. Nothing thrilling conveyed.

Then she goes on a bit till "I found my love at last..." and a pattern emerges as I hear it with some flat lifeless singing then her taking a shot at some dramatic emphasis that is ok but a shadow of Etta James. 

"I found a dream that I could speak to..." an incompetently sung line as her voice just drags lifelessly. When Etta James does it, you hear and feel her emergence from weariness. Something, a bit like,  but not exactly, the way you do when Aretha Franklin's soul is rescued from the "lost and found." Or at least I do. 

"A dream to call my own..." same criticism as just above. I have never known... what I'm hearing hear is effortful singing to try to get at an effect, not natural or organic emotion in the singing. So different from how marvellously she sings her own songs.

So it's a serviceable version. She's too good a singer to sink below that.

If you look at the lyrics, they're quite trite and sentimental. But Etta James, who can sing great in most styles, takes them and makes something urgent and passionate out of them. Joni Mitchell much less so, to my ears. She can't do with this song, that holds the possibility of a great version if the singer can get past the corny images in the lyrics--say the way Cassandra Wilson does with so many pop songs, like the Monkees' Last Train To Clarksville--what Etta James does with it. 


Which is my thesis relative to this record, that JM is only so so with the ballads and standards on it. 

I'll agree that it's unlikely that Etta James could do Mitchellian justice to JM's hallmark songs, but that's irrelevant to my thesis.


On Reading Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist In Fact


Happy to announce I'm reading or rereading, I honestly  can't remember which, Oliver Twist.

Dickens,  it's trite to say, is a miraculous miracle of a writer.

I remember being taught second year English by the inestimable Warren Tallman, an Ichabod Crane looking guy, tall, gangly, bespectacled, with wisps of hair, a friend of Robert Creeley, and his fellow Black Mountaineers,  champion of the poetics that theorized following the rhythms of natural breath, as argued for, as I remember, by Karl Shapiro, and who championed the irascible Mordecai Richler, and who gave me, unexposed to so much, my first taste of intellectual Bohemia, especially on inviting a few of us to parties at his house, the likes of which at 19, grown up lower middle class, and knowing only little of the world, I couldn't begin to imagine, and who set me on my path to majoring in English and then on to graduate studies.

We read Great Expectations. I remember we were talking about some scene where an ultra obsequious merchant, not His Oiliness, Uriah Heep, was selling Pip something or trying to. And Warren Tallman was turning himself pedagogically and almost bodily inside out just to try to convey that factor X that makes Dickens's prose fiction so indescribably miraculous. I can't remember whether he was able to do it to his or our satisfaction. But I do remember his asking us with, what can I call it, maybe desperate enthusiasm, paraphrase, "Can you see what he's doing there? Can you see it?" 

So that's one thing about Dickens, the miraculously oddness of his writing, his playful archness, his ironic exaggeration, his savaging of the objects of his scorn with the most delicate but piercing tropes and verbal touches, and his sheer sentimentality, fat tears running down so-sad faces on a black velvet background sentimentality, but making incomparable art out of it, and bringing me near to tears with it too. 

His anti semitism notwithstanding.