Basically I didn’t do much this week except have the flu, which was less interesting than it might sound. I also read and watched the following…
Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum – The lives of a handful of characters in Weimar Berlin’s finest hotel, this just did not do anything for me at all. The prose is…fine, I mean nothing one way or the other, but the characters are real stock—an aging ballerina, a gentleman thief, a nebbishy clerk with a fatal illness who decides to blow all his remaining money on learning to live before he dies – I couldn’t detect an actual human being anywhere in the bunch. Hokey, man, real hokey, Library but I’d drop.
If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes – A black worker in a naval plant in WWII-era Los Angeles is brutalized and driven insane by American racial politics. The prose is strong, though not as strong as it would get in his later books, and he still has the sharp eye for injustice and hypocrisy, as he demonstrates throughout the Harlem detective series, but the plot, such as it is, is kind of….loose? Predictable? Ultimately I think his ‘genre’ stuff is stronger, not so much because of the genre angles specifically but more because of the sense of place which is so abundantly vivid in his Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones stuff, but somewhat less thick on the ground here. Library, probably I’d drop it not cause it’s bad but because on my theoretical book shelf I already have like, 8 Chester Himes books and I could probably do w/out a 9th.
Hill by Jean Giono – Weird. Frightening. The countryside of rural Italy, in retaliation for the infinite sins done to nature by humankind, decides to destroy a small community of farmers. Giono has a talent for reframing the prosaic or lyrical aspects of nature in uncanny and horrifying prose, and the portrait of the farmers is savage and true-seeming. Did I find this an uncomfortable allegory for the horrors of climate change (though to be clear it was written a century ago)? Yes, I did. Keep.
The Blonde on the Street Corner by David Goodis – Goodis was a crime writer, I think, at least that’s what I was thinking when I got this from the library, but this isn’t a crime novel, rather a slice of life thing about an unemployed young man towards the end of the great depression, and the hopelessness which overcomes him, embodied here in the eponymous blonde woman. There’s not a ton here, and what plot there is is a little…on the nose, I guess? But a lot of the small interactions between the protagonist and his friends and family ring true, Goodis has the good noir writer’s gift of relaying accurate sounding dialogue between uneducated individuals, as well as an affection for his characters which gives the narrative a proper feeling of tragedy. Library, but I guess gun to my head I’d probably keep it.
Watershed by Percival Everett – About a black hydrologist who becomes embroiled in a revolutionary Indian movement. This makes the book sound more genre-y than it is really, most of the time is spent with the protagonist reconsidering his familial and romantic history, and, implicitly, how they affect his decision to buck the authorities for people whom he has no direct loyalty. I liked it…OK? The depiction of the protagonist’s destructive relationship with a crazy woman is extremely well drawn, and Everett is a thoughtful and insightful cultural critic, but the various narrative strands came together a little too…not neatly, exactly…bluntly, I guess to mix a couple of metaphors. Library, but I don’t know I’d have a burning need to hold on to this.
Between Two Worlds by Simone Schwarz-Bart – A magical-realist high fantasy, some peculiar amalgamation of the Odyssey, Thousand Years of Solitude and The Palm Wine Drunkard, in which our heroic Guadeloupean protagonist, possessed of a courageous heart, a magic rifle, and a golden penis (seriously) quests to defeat a beast which has swallowed the sun and also represents the legacy of slavery, journeying through colonial Africa and the land of the dead en route to his destiny. This description doesn’t really do justice to just how peculiar a book this is, slyly satirical but meant as an authentic epic, in which the tragedy of the African diaspora is redeemed through the suffering of our fairy-tale protagonist. Occasionally I got a little tired of the endless nonsensical descriptions, and I can’t say I liked this quite as much as the last Schwarz-Bart I read, the sublime Bridge of Beyond, but this is a very good, very odd book. Bart is attempting a style that I’m not really mad in love with, but it has to be said she nails it, and when she slips back into something a little less fantastical the excellence of her prose and the profundity of her thinking shines through. It seems very odd to me that Bart isn’t better known/regarded, given both her general ability and the enthusiasm the general public has for this sort of a story. Library, but I’d hold on to it otherwise.
The Player (1992) – An amoral Hollywood executive beats a writer to death and tries to get away with it. Also, romance! The running joke, of course, is that the protagonist’s actual crimes, murder and whatnot, are paralleled by his artistic crimes, making awful bilge for the studio system. Altman’s long tracking shots and multi-part dialogue are inspirational, and the endless 80’s star cameos are a lot of fun. I basically have never been able to like Tim Robbins in anything because he seems pompous and sleazy, but here he’s supposed to be pompous and sleazy and so it totally worked for me. Of course, the actual mystery doesn’t really make a lick of sense, but, whatever, we can’t have everything.
Wages of Fear (1953) – In a small South American border town, four European tramps agree to drive two trucks of nitroglycerin to a burning oil derrick a few hundred kilometers into the hinterlands, knowing that any small misfortune will kill them. Everything having to do with the actual driving bit of it is amazing, tense and terrifying; the hour build up before hand it seems to me is much, much too long, and it actually didn’t do all that good a job of introducing the characters. Not that it’s badly done exactly, it’s just that the premise itself is so brutal, so sharp, that anything that surrounds it seems to detract from it. Also, the very, very end was stupid. Still, fabulous all in all.
Tampopo (1985) – A band of culinary ronin teach a widowed mother how to run the perfect Ramen shop. If the framing story sounds insufficiently peculiar, rest assured the interluding vignettes promise the strangest food porn you will ever watch, making Jiro Dreams of Sushi look like 120 days of Sodom. Charming and funny, I might have enjoyed this more if I hadn’t decided to watch it on my 4th day of being laid up with the flu, which meant I was more nauseated than enthralled by a lot of it. Still, as someone who’s only memories of two months in Japan (basically) are of Ramen shops (Hokkaido style has butter and corn! There was a joint in the Kyoto train station where they had a basket of raw eggs on the table that you could crack on your soup, just hanging there like a normal condiment!) I was basically pretty down with a 90-minute homage to the King of noodle soups.
Shoot the Piano Player (1960) – A once famous pianist, now taken to playing ragtime at a dive bar, is pulled into a life of crime by his rapscallion brother in Trouffout’s homage to American crime. Who gives a shit what I think but this didn’t really come together for me. The noir bit didn’t really make any sense, and I thought the extended back story presented mid-film was kind of nothing. I liked a lot of individual scenes and lines and bits, but as an entire movie it seemed disjointed and I never really found myself giving a shit about any of the characters.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – Look, I was sick for fucking days now, OK? I just couldn’t watch anymore goddamn arthouse films, I needed something the film equivalent of the popsicles which were, for a while there, my only form of sustenance. This fit the bill. The negative part of my brain wants to point out that the plot makes no sense, and the villain/central conflict is so thin that I can’t remember any of it even a few days later, and that the humor comes, basically, just from each of the characters pointing out the absurdity/impossibility of the situation that they’re in. On the other hand, it’s genuinely funny, Taika Waititi seems extremely comfortable going from funny regional director to the pilot of a couple hundred million dollar ship, and Chris Helmsworth has decent comic chops, and you can see he’s enjoying the hell out of not having to make a third Thor movie which was exactly like the first two Thor movies. In practice I enjoyed this more than any other Marvel movie I’ve seen probably since Avengers – look what can be accomplished when you break out of that paint by numbers mold!
Red (1994) Strange. Lovely. A kind-hearted model in Geneva hits the dog of a bitter ex-judge who may or may not be God. Conversations about morality ensue. In keep with the rest of the Coleur trilogy this movie looks beautiful and comes together in a meandering, dream-like fashion, never providing clear narrative answers but offering a conceptual/thematic through line which was hopeful without being saccharine. I quite liked it.
Action Man (1967) – An aging French criminal (Jean Gabin) runs into an old friend with whom he served in Indo-China, and the two decide to knock off a bank. Basically a second rate Rififi, but since Rififi is fucking amazing this was still pretty solid. The actual heist is kind of nonsensical, and the fight scenes are similarly all kind of stupid, but Jean Gabin is fabulous, brutal and selfish and authentic feeling, and the ending comes together in a really weird, mean way.