Friday, October 31, 2008

Watery, grave: exploring the murky depths of Carnival of Souls and Don't Look Now


It occurs, of course, only after the car carrying those girls has spilled over the edge of the old bridge and sank into the river. It occurs only after that credit sequence, awash in spectral organ, where titles appear at angles that mirror the branches and roots that loom crookedly above the water’s surface. That’s when we get the image of Mary Henry, hair caked in muck, slightly bowed, arms slightly extended out from her sides, a stunned amphibian creature emerging in some primal state of shock along the muddy banks of the accident site. It’s the traumatic image that everything in
Carnival of Souls (1962) can arguably be reduced to. But why reduce it? I’ve seen the movie numerous times since that first midnight screening I caught while in high school at a little prairie art house, back when such screenings were common, and it seems only richer, not the inspired work of atmospheric amateurism I once took it for but something far more knowing and adult and genuinely strange.


So Mary (Candace Hilligoss) walks away from the accident and, after some unseen recovery period, sets out to start a new life in a new town, some god-fearing place in Utah as it happens, where she can play organ in the church—and play the soundtrack to her own movie—and be perfectly anonymous, and lose herself, and live next door to an alcoholic lech who works in a factory and is nearly beside himself with desire for her, egged on by Mary’s capricious, peculiar demeanor, ice cold one day, friendly and needy and maybe even willing the next. He seduces her with coffee and normalness, then later takes her out bowling, but she really just wants to visit the swampy old abandoned palace outside of town, where pale figures beacon to her, rising from the water as if to say, We know where you’re coming from.


When Mary leaves her hometown—actually Lawrence, Kansas, the place William S. Burroughs called home after decades of restlessness—the kindly minister at the church imparts to her how “it takes more than intellect to be a musician—put your soul into it.” But Mary seems so utterly vacant, like she walked out of an audition for Bresson, and anyway she’s not a believer, at least not in the Lord, though the ghosts she catches sight of scare her half to death. Rather than win the hearts of churchgoers, she just wants to hit the right notes—they have a meaning that only she can decipher. She is also an unlikely feminist heroine, setting out by herself in her car, vulnerable but independent, resistant to the patriarchal comforts of fathers, boyfriends, doctors and the church. But there is a price to be paid for going it alone. We learn so little about Mary’s past, but it’s clear that the road trip that brings her to Utah is a flight from one of those “private traps” Norman Bates discussed with Marion Crane just a couple of years previous. If you’ve seen Carnival of Souls, you know just how airtight a trap it is.


I’ve heard it speculated that Colorado-born Herk Harvey directed over four hundred educational and industrial films during his years in Lawrence, and it says a lot about the secret artist in certain people that something so clogged with morose beauty could stay welled up in Harvey during all those years of cranking out documentaries. But who knows? Maybe there are hints of something dynamic and spooky in such titles as What About Drinking? (54), Operation: Grass Killer (61) and Pork: The Meat With a Squeal (63). Harvey made Carnival for an estimated $33,000.00, the production design having been largely provided by a pavilion outside Salt Lake City that caught his eye. The cast were mostly non-professionals, and many of them are quite stiff, delivering flat dialogue that aligns with the odd cutting patterns and the dropping of sound here and there. And it works, and not just as a cult movie. Reality is hardly grounded in this tale and the poverty row mise-en-scène feels as much the product of an aesthetic as necessity. The film remains singular, and not only because Harvey never made another feature.


Like
Carnival, Don’t Look Now (73) begins with an accident, and with an image of its protagonist rising up out of murky waters, streaked with the earth that’s under the water, a man rendered monster in a moment of harrowing desperation. Because the film is edited as a sort of hopscotch puzzle, patterned on temporal ripples that evoke a distinctive flashing imagery shared by both an idea of what telepathy must be like and by the nature of the movies, it also, in a sense, can be reduced down to this one image. But reduction is precisely what the story, taken from Daphne Du Maurier, warns against, the title being ironic: look now, damn it, and then look again—you might just be missing something unfathomably important.


I don’t want to over-emphasize the links between these two films, but I do like the fact that in more or less randomly revisiting them in the days leading up to Halloween they revealed these very curious connection points. Nicolas Roeg, to say the least, is a far more consciously artful director than Harvey, with a career that goes all over the place but frequently touched on something like genius, yet at the same time he seemed very careful to invite a great deal of accident and spontaneity while making Don’t Look Now, and the details yielded from this approach just keep paying off when you watch it again. The story concerns John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie), a Canadian and an English woman long married and freshly grieving for a dead child. Though, like Mary, he’s not a believer, John finds work restoring a crumbling church in Venice, a place I can’t imagine why you’d ever visit if you watched the movies—try following this one with The Comfort of Strangers (90). Laura seems unable to revive herself from grief until she meets, accidentally, the two traveling Scottish sisters, one sighted, the other second-sighted, who claim to have news of her dead daughter. They also claim that John has the gift, and that if he’s smart he’ll start to use it.


The portrait of familiar love and shared tragedy between John and Mary is tremendously resonant and moving, even if you don’t entirely respond to the notorious sex scene, inter-cut with other images of domestic behaviour and accompanied by a homey tune. Christie is radiant with hope after she meets the weird sisters and seems more in love with her husband for having gleaned something he hasn’t yet. Sutherland, in that wonderful wig, is very touching in his gentleness and patience while also giving hints of neglect and fear in his reasonableness. That both actors had worked with Robert Altman not long before might go some distance in explaining just how easily they could immerse themselves into their roles, and even more into their surroundings, while still remaining star presences throughout. They are both so subtle and easy with the more portentous demands of the story, such as the early scene where John merely closes a window and causes grit to fly into the blind psychic’s eyes, one of several acts that render him unintentionally culpable for another’s misfortune, the first being his spilling of water on a slide, causing an image to be consumed by red, and, in some deeply sinister logic, causing his daughter to drown? It’s a horrible implication, and it’s the real meat of Du Maurier’s best work, not unrelated to Melanie Daniel’s mildly sensational arrival setting off a small neurotic apocalypse in ‘The Birds.’


Roeg made several superb, obsessive, haunting movies in the 70s and early 80s, and the title of one of them, Bad Timing (80), could easily have worked for Don’t Look Now. Fate may or may not be an active agent in this movie—against all odds, it’s left deliberately ambiguous—but so many events possess their own inherit disaster. Inevitability hides in every scene, though it only reveals itself to us in that final killer flashback montage. The ubiquitous water and other reflective surfaces splash and offer clues along the way. The truly horrible ending shocked me more upon my second viewing than it did on the first. I somehow forgot what was coming, or, like John, maybe I was just in denial. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to reconsider your relationship to your instincts.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Changeling: the kid strays in the picture... as does the sense of purpose


Single mother Christine Collins comes home from work one day in the spring of 1931 to find her house empty and her little boy Walter vanished. The ensuing search yields nothing, the case is taken up by the press, continuing a trend of bad PR for the apparently ineffective LAPD. Then, months later, a boy abandoned in a truck stop in Indiana is identified as Walter. He’s scrubbed up and rushed back to Los Angeles and the arms of his long-suffering mother. But when the boy gets off the train, as the press snaps the celebratory photos, Christine tells Captain Jones, head of LAPD’s juvenile investigation unit, that they found the wrong boy. Jones tells her to take a second look, maybe the boy’s changed, maybe, he implies, Christine’s not quite right in the head, a side effect of so much worry and dread. Christine takes the boy home, is no more convinced than before, but LAPD, it seems, will have none of it. Case closed.


The set-up, verging on the surreal, is so wonderfully mysterious, yet something seems off. The wrong things are emphasized. Clues are conspicuously dropped. The misleadingly titled Changeling begins with Christine promising to follow a distinguished line of memorable movie characters—Simone Simon in Cat People, Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, Nicole Kidman in Birth, the entire cast of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—immersed in some tale of deep unease where no one will listen to reason and the condescending patriarchy bear down with the weight of our readiness to dismiss yet another hysterical woman. But this story, scripted by TV veteran J. Michael Straczynski, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring that famed mother of five (and counting) Angelina Jolie, has another agenda altogether, one that will render Christine far less intriguing and far more akin to Erik Brokovich than to the heroine of any brooding tale of paranoia. It comes as a disappointment, but what can you do? It’s a true story.


So Christine becomes a crusader, and, while Jolie’s curls and big eyes look marvelous under a cloche, character development consequently evaporates in the heat of a great cause, namely, exposing levels of police corruption so appalling as to speculate collaboration with the worst criminals. The bad guys and really bad and the good guys really good, which is pretty hard to swallow when you’ve got one supremely pissed off John Malkovich playing the humourless pastor and radio personality who scoops Christine up in his flamboyant campaign to bring down LAPD. The history here is absolutely fascinating stuff and right up James Ellroy’s alley, involving a demented Canadian child killer, fiendish mental institutions trigger drunk with the EST treatments, death by hanging, and telephone operators on roller skates. But how to manage it all, how to bring out the movie in it? I’m not sure that Straczynski ever found a real focal point, or that Eastwood saw the meatier possibilities behind the script’s highly sellable mix of sordidness and triumph, Chinatown with a saintly protagonist and a happy ending. (Sort of.) Changeling is uneven, always essentially interesting, and terribly long. Some of the child performances are unspeakably bad. Most of the adults simply have only one note to play (to get an inkling of Jolie's, please see the accompanying photos, especially the first and last). It might have been much more, or, better yet, something completely different. Clint, 78 and on fire these days, is too busy to care much, I guess. Trailers for his next movie are already circulating. In fact I saw one pasted onto the top of Changeling.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ode to Joy: Mike Leigh zeroes in on Sally Hawkins' irrepressible smile in Happy-Go-Lucky


Though his reputation is built largely on a number of celebrated ensemble films, the addition of Happy-Go-Lucky to British writer/director Mike Leigh’s filmography draws attention to an element in his work that I’ve long regarded as an untapped source of mastery: individual portraiture. As with John Sayles, the use of ensemble casts in Leigh’s films, from High Hopes (1988) to Secrets & Lies (96), Topsy-Turvy (99) to All or Nothing (01), ostensibly speak to the filmmaker’s socialist ideals, a belief in the collective that rises to the fore even within the gloomiest of stories where the odds are heavily stacked against communion, consensus or any sort of redemption. And perhaps the exception only proves the rule: Leigh’s Naked (93), which, while still featuring a great deal of multiple character development, is finally focused on the whirlwind of brooding, nihilistic, machine gun wit that is Johnny (the never more remarkable David Thewlis), ends as it begins, with its protagonist fleeing the scene of a crime, alone, limping, unable to bear the kindness of others, an embodiment of despair like no other in Leigh’s cinema.


But, regardless of whether it represents the filmmaker’s more generous view of humanity, Naked, complicated, darkly charismatic, engagingly messy, no doubt hated by some, endures like few Leigh films, looming over the bulk of them with its gruesome integrity intact. This makes it that much more satisfying to report that, 15 years after Johnny terrorized the psyches of lonely Londoners, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the heroine of Happy-Go-Lucky, arrives to dominate the foreground of Leigh’s latest as Johnny’s cheerful nemesis. An apparently gifted teacher of small kids on the cusp of her 30th birthday, Poppy is afflicted with an overwhelming impulse to look on the bright side, and has a similarly divisive effect on all those she encounters: they adore her, abhor her, try to ignore her, or find themselves in a desperate struggle to correct her optimism. Like Johnny, she can natter on like nobody’s business—and Happy-Go-Lucky truly has some of the most brilliant banter of any Leigh movie—and like Johnny her insistence causes considerable problems. This is a comedy about the dangers of thrusting your happiness upon the world.


A friend who wasn’t as taken with Happy-Go-Lucky suggested to me that the film was basically a character study, and for any character study to work you’ve got to fall in love with the character—which he didn’t. I can’t quite agree with this assessment. I think there are plenty of engaging character studies with quite unlikable characters—Citizen Kane (41), anyone?—but if there’s any truth to my friend’s notion then I’d have to claim myself guilty. From Hawkins first appearance, riding her bike through London traffic, ribbons undulating from her basket, hoop earrings dangling, that enormous smile on her face, I was ready to follow her anywhere. When she enters a bookstore and relentlessly annoys the poor clerk who just wants to be silent, I liked her all the more. When she exits the store to discover her bike’s been ripped off and can’t help but just shrug at the silliness of the world, I was pretty much in love with her beguiling audacity.


Over the course of Happy-Go-Lucky we see a fair amount of Poppy both at work and at home, a flat she shares with her best friend Zoë (Alexis Zegerman), their friendship being one I’d place as among the most richly textured in recent movies. We see her take classes in Flamenco dancing from a Spanish fireplug named Rosita (Karina Fernandez, whose over-the-top performance here is absolute gold) and classes in driving from a very tense, troubled, angry young man named Scott (Eddie Marsan, brave, brandishing bad teeth that spring like fangs when overcome by a child-like rant). Between these two polarizing experiences in social interaction the limits of Poppy’s demeanor become increasingly apparent. The Flamenco’s discipline requires her to be in touch with her inner suffering; the driving sessions with Scott require her to accept that her particular energy, however innocently intended, can be construed as something manipulative and damaging when trapped in close quarters with someone whose negativity is just as powerful as her sunniness. The scenes between Poppy and Scott are what unite the decidedly loose narrative threads of Happy-Go-Lucky, merging them into something cathartic, a turning point in Poppy’s maturity, and these scenes are handled so beautifully by Hawkins and Marsan as to be utterly arresting. They are among the finest pieces of acting you’ll see this year.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Workingman's blues: Aki Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy on DVD

He’s an ex-butcher with a drinking problem, currently slinging trash on the streets of Helsinki, maybe taking in a little bingo when the stars line up right. She’s a checkout girl no one ever checks out, with a hidden nurturing side, bandaging his hand when he comes in sporting a bloody injury. They don’t say much. His moustache is enormous and looks fake. She looks anemic. Maybe it isn’t paradise exactly, but there’s a genuine romance unfolding here, something hardly acknowledged in the blank facial expressions that mark both the acting style and the movie’s overall toughened-up, droll attitude towards life’s ordinary cruelties, but it’s expressed with singular eloquence in the close-up of the hand of this woman being kissed on a cold beach.

I’m talking about Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) and Ilona (Kati Outinen), the lovers on the run in Shadows in Paradise (1986), the first of three films that form Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki’s ‘Proletariat Trilogy,’ newly boxed together by Eclipse, Criterion’s no-frills imprint. The trilogy wasn’t originally intended as such, and indeed, their themes, like the ubiquitous rock and roll performances, always happening somewhere in Helsinki’s bars, can be found in many other Kaurismäki movies. But they do share certain remarkable similarities that reward consecutive viewing: their quiet tributes to the haggard dignity and, in two out of three cases, redeeming solidarity of the working class; their endlessly playful interweaving of old Hollywood genre conventions, homages to Sirk, Ray and Hawks, into what would seem an ill-fitting aesthetic; and the use of starkly lyrical opening sequences constructed from images of hard work, sequences that instantly beguile and set the tone every time out.

The special brand of deadpan found in Kaurismäki’s movies could be called Bressonian comedy; it harkens back to certain silent era sensibilities, where melodrama is offset by nonplussed heroes; it found an odd kinship back in the 80s with the work of other highly individual filmmakers from very different cultures, such as Jim Jarmusch, who acknowledged the shared sensibility by casting Pellonpää in Night on Earth (91), and Takeshi Kitano, whose yakuza blow each other’s brains out with the same flattened gaze that marks Kaurismäki’s protagonists. It’s also a radical remedy for the facial gymnastic overkill of Jim Carrey. I guess it isn’t for everybody, but, in harmony with the disarmingly minimalist dialogues, the ruthlessly haiku-like editing scheme, the painterly, palpably lonesome compositions, and the often ingenious use of simple gestures to signify what other filmmakers might use ten minutes of exposition to convey, it’s an approach firmly invested in getting at something elemental in movies, stripping away at the trappings of cinematic storytelling to fulfill a particular truth about life and how the movies reflect it back at us.


Ariel (86) begins with the closing of a mine and of all prospects for the work force of some desolate town. Taisto (Turo Pajala) is given a white Cadillac by his father just before he fatally shoots himself. Taisto then up and leaves for the city, his breaking with the past announced with the collapse of the old barn where the Cadillac was stored only moments after he evacuates it. Helsinki welcomes him with only exploitive day-work, dingy flop houses and muggings, but he meets a saucy girl, divorced, with multiple jobs and a kid. Taisto is unfazed by these obstacles. In fact he decides right away they’re meant to be and she heartily agrees. The kid likes the idea, too.

But soon there’s crime and trouble, and later, with the introduction of a wonderful supporting character played by Pellonpää—who here resembles Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon—there comes a highly entertaining jail break, then still more trouble, then, just maybe, salvation in the form of some shadowy ship waiting in the night. This is neo-noir of an amusingly contained breed, its fatalism curbed by relentless faith in there always being one last chance at a better life, summed up in the Finnish rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’


With his lanky frame, dark shades and crow-mullet, Pajala could be Nick Cave’s Finnish twin. The Match Factory Girl (90), contrasting its predecessors in its fable-like gloom and revenge-driven final act, might best be described as solid material for a Nick Cave song. After an ominous opening sequence in which a log is mercilessly shaved, shredded and whittled down to a mere tiny match, we follow the sad tale of Iris (Outinen), the daughter of morose parents more than happy to subsist off of her earnings. One night after the family silently dines at an expressionistically lit dinner table, the three of them watch coverage of Tiananmen Square on the television—is it in this moment that Iris realizes how far she is from real living? Far away, students risk their lives in the spirit of resistance, while in this tiny home no one even talks.

Not a word is spoken until 14 minutes in—the whole movie’s only 69 minutes long. The first line is: "A small beer." But Iris takes a chance, buys a red dress, meets a man, only to find herself fulfilling a prophecy announced by her crude and uncaring father. He calls her a whore, and, through no fault of her own, she's taken for one. The Match Factory Girl is far bleaker than most Kaurismäki movies, but it possesses a dark poetry that’s well worth surrendering to. An odd conclusion to this loosely connected trilogy, it’s true, but a wonderful turning point in a distinctive, still striking and ongoing career.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The kids are definitely not all right: observing the troubling guises of innocence at work in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw


There’s something about the insertion of a child into a tale marked by frightful shadows that “gives the effect another turn of the screw.” In tales of terror, children can pose a special mystery, their consciousness a blank slate more vulnerable to invisible corruption. There’s the ambiguity of their knowingness and the veneer of their innocence to contend with, as well as the absolute power of their fear and acceptance both. And there is also a child’s relative proximity to the imagined other place from which we come and upon death return, a proximity that invites speculation as to the child’s access to that place’s knowledge and occult goings-on.

As the calendar days march their way toward October’s end and I crave some seasonal reading, I find myself snatching Henry James’
The Turn of the Screw from its place on my shelf once more. Few literary works give me the creeps so consistently, so satisfyingly, so eloquently, and given the novella’s length, it can easily be read in a single day –or preferably, a single night– and this somehow intensifies its tenor. Its truly one of those rare books I don’t want to put down once it’s started. Enormously influential and to this day hotly debated with regards to the reliability of its narrator, James’ sharp little masterpiece, originally published in 1898, possesses a singular power, driven by the psychological lucidity of its prose and striking imagery.

The story is somehow all the creepier for starting at a Christmas party, where several eager guests gather to hear one of their own talk of a woman he knew long ago, now dead some ten years, who relayed to him the chronicle of her encounter with sinister forces via a job she’d taken as the governess of two orphaned siblings. The set-up is rather strangely never returned to, and the unnamed governess takes the story’s reigns once it gets started proper, explaining the uncanny degree to which she becomes enchanted with the beatific children under her charge, and the strange figures that begin to appear once she’s settled into the children’s isolated Essex estate.

“I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers on a great drifting ship,” our protagonist tells us long before anything particularly unnerving occurs. The precision of James’ words allow the governess to articulate each step in her journey vividly, gradually drawing special attention to the blood-curdling geometry of gazes that characterize the story’s slipping into the realm of the potentially supernatural.


At one point the governess spots a conspicuously hatless intruder gazing at her through the kitchen window and dashes outside to confront him. Finding he’s vanished, she gazes back through the window from his estimated vantage point, in effect taking his place, and unintentionally scares the beejesus out of her colleague. At another point, little Flora gazes out her bedroom window at night and the governess, wanting to determine what it is Flora’s gazing at, goes to another window facing the same way, whereupon she sees little Miles out in the grounds at night, looking back toward the manor, yet not at her, nor at Flora, but up toward the tower, where the governess is almost certain no one could be.

The Turn of the Screw is an extraordinarily ocular piece of writing. It's visually evocative, but more than that it's compellingly preoccupied by the act of seeing and the impression seeing things makes on our sense of what’s real and what isn’t. James takes us through the governess’ process of trying to come to terms with what she sees, yet he never gives us a comfortable notion of what’s running through the minds of the children, who the governess fears are seeing things “terrible and unguessable and that spring from dreadful passages of intercourse in the past.” Because of this, James’ novella holds a revered niche in the halls of the macabre, implying that children, those little people with their bright, unfinished faces, are inherently intruders themselves, and no matter how much they seem to require our protection, they might just be the last ones we should trust.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Just because you're paranoid: revisiting three terrorific tales by Guy de Maupassant


I’d happened upon a dog-eared copy of his collected stories while staying alone for a few days in this sort of cottage belonging to the father of a friend, a little place in the Rockies. This was years ago and I recall knowing next to nothing about Guy de Maupassant, really, though some sliver of a memory told me ‘Le Horla’ was supposed to be something special. I cooked up some coffee, rubbed my knees to get warm, nestled by a foggy widow in the kitchen, figuring I’d kill a little time with some light reading. I didn’t figure on being unshakably creeped out. Or on the story being so deliciously wrought.

It seems Maupassant’s not read so much these days, at least in English. I don’t know his novels, but his stories are marvelous. I’ve been reacquainting myself with several of them, partially because I've been realizing just how many great filmmakers have adapted Maupassant—Buñuel, Ophüls, Godard—but mostly because autumn is the time of year I habitually set aside for reading anything that might raise the little back-of-the-neck hairs, which often winds up being something from the 1900s, that century haunted by the clash of scientific discovery and persistent folklore, by anxieties drawn from exploration, colonialism and industrialization. Several of Maupassant’s best stories are sly examinations of class insecurity, some, like the marvelous ‘Tellier House’ or ‘Mademoiselle Fifi,’ focus specifically on the fortunes of wily prostitutes. Relatively few could be considered horror in the strictest sense, and those that come closest are relentlessly ambiguous with regards to the supernatural—yet the very particular breed of unease in which they trade functions as a sort of bridge between Poe and Paul Bowles, while exhibiting a flair for economy that looks forward to Hemingway.

‘The Hand’ is a terrific example of Maupassant’s deft managing of the short, sharp macabre, one of those tales relayed by a party with only limited knowledge of what truly passed. A magistrate promises a small audience of women—it seems always the women who are openly curious about all things ghastly or inexplicable in these stories—his memory of “a case that truly seemed to verge on fantasy,” involving an Englishman residing in a Corsican town, a place teeming with legends of violent vendettas. The Englishman possesses an impressive collection of trophies from his travels to exotic lands, among them a human hand, shackled at the wrist, which belonged to an American, the Englishman’s “worst enemy.” Things get especially interesting when the Englishman is mysteriously murdered, and I love the way Maupassant has his otherwise very orderly narrator stop in the midst of describing a crime scene to conspicuously note that the culprit was never found. A finger, however, eventually is. I won’t tell you where.


‘The Inn’ was supposedly a big influence on Stephen King’s The Shinning, though its narrative simplicity and formal elegance could have just as easily informed countless subsequent stories of cabin fever. It concerns a pair of guides looking after an inn nestled in “those bare and rocky gorges that cut through white mountain peaks,” a place that serves as refuge for travelers going through the Gemini Pass. As the story begins the guides are escorting their summer guests down the mountain on the eve of winter, when the inn becomes a “snowy prison” and the area impassable. Ulrich, the younger of the guides, is heartsick for one of the daughters of the departing family, and Maupassant, in spare language, vividly evokes the ache felt as the desired girl carries on past the point where the guides must turn back, disappearing into the distant valley that will soon be erased under a blanket of white.

But the pain of the girl’s absence felt by Ulrich will eventually be replaced by his panic over the absence of Gaspard, his elder co-worker and sole companion for the six-month long off-season, aside from their dog. With Gaspard’s disappearance, paranoia replaces longing, rising like a presence within the “death-like hush of the sleeping mountains.” Maupassant traces Ulrich’s growing worries in prose that keeps within the constraints of reportage, always cool and detached, the antithesis of the histrionics that can makes the work of H.P. Lovecraft, for one, hard to take at times.

Oddly enough, Lovecraft cited ‘Le Horla’ as a source of inspiration for his own ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’ though whatever tonal resemblance they share might be explained by the fact that ‘Horla’ is written in the first-person as a journal, allowing Maupassant to indulge in flights of subjective inner turmoil on behalf of his lonesome, deeply troubled protagonist, who, regardless of how we interpret his claims of being pursued by some invisible entity, is clearly losing his marbles. Maupassant’s prose is by nature not overtly poetic, yet there’s much poetry in his looping of images which shift in meaning upon return, as is the case with the ship from Brazil sailing down the Seine. When first it appears our protagonist is so inexplicably moved by its grace that he salutes it. By the time it returns, this ship will become a harbinger of catastrophic malaise.


The journal keeper is tormented by a heightened awareness of the invisible influences at work in the world, phenomena that seems to him sufficiently grounded in both science and common sense. His sleep is gradually invaded by the sensation of some succubus-like presence, what would today be likely diagnosed as the effects of parasomnia. He sees containers of water and milk mysteriously drained every night. At one point he witnesses the power of hypnosis on a relative and is overcome with terror of the psyche’s frailty, all the more reason to feel susceptible to the elusive force he characterizes as spying, watching, penetrating and dominating. He’s spiraling into some sort of psychologically induced abyss, clearly, yet this doesn’t mean that the entity won’t succeed in corrupting and finally ruining him.

“Solitude is certainly dangerous for active intellects,” the protagonist of ‘Le Horla’ tells us, which may remind us of the inherent solitude of the writer. At one point the protagonist complains about having never read anything that might describe his condition—but how did Maupassant feel toward the end of his life, shortened by syphilis and its accompanying madness, knowing that not only had he read about such conditions but actually wrote about them? Some say he was already going mad when he wrote ‘Le Horla.’ He died, a year after attempting suicide, on June 6, 1893. He was 42.

Monday, October 20, 2008

By the time I get to Phoenix: Psycho, in all its trauma and fascination, returns on DVD


It is for me one of those genuinely inexhaustible movies, and, though its violence pierces me only more deeply as time goes by, I find myself returning to it more than any other.
Psycho, newly released on a special edition two-disc set from Universal, with a beautiful new transfer and unusually good supplements, has that crystalline character of something that yields new or richer readings or sensations with every handling. It forbids and seduces at once. As the brutal set pieces in the shower or on the staircase or in the basement grow more familiar, the relatively mundane moments—Marion’s hurried negotiations with the used car dealer; Sam and Lila’s negotiations in the nocturnal gloom of his hardware store, brimming with sharp objects—grow in fascination. It’s one of the few Alfred Hitchcock films not about glamorous people, yet its morbid allure is colossal.


The story? Two no longer young lovers meet for another tawdry rendezvous and feel a decisive moment looming over their stalled relationship. He’s been married, is struggling financially, and proud, painting for her a sad picture of the two of them living meagerly as monthly alimony payments are sent off in the mail. She’s a secretary, is starting to feel life close in, is ready to dive into domestic hardship with him, and offers to lick the stamps. Back at work a client of her boss leaves a huge amount of cash which she’s meant to deposit but instead pockets. She packs a suitcase and makes a break for the nearby town where her boyfriend lives, that always hesitating hunk unaware he’s in love with a felon. She drives through a rainy night, tires out just as a motel with vacancies shows up on the side of a lonely road. She checks in, meets the lonely, sensitive, clearly unworldly and maybe unstable but still innocent-seeming proprietor. He’s the wispy, soft-spoken twin of her boyfriend, and serves her sandwiches and a huge jug of milk while his batty old mother mutters curses in the house overlooking the motel. She starts to wonder if she hasn’t gone a little crazy. Everyone goes a little crazy sometimes... Given its stature, I’m going to keeping writing here on as though you’ve seen Psycho. If you haven’t, well, my friend, you’re in for something special.


The horizontal lines that push steadily across the screen during Saul Bass’ famed opening credit sequence, accompanied by our first taste of Bernard Herrmann’s masterfully portentous, nerve-fraying score, strike me now as a graphic preview to Norman Bates’ hand slapped over his mouth after “discovering” the bloodbath. Better yet, these lines resemble the viewer’s hand closed over eyes that can’t help but continue to watch. Psycho is nothing if not an ocular web. The peephole Norman watches his naked prey through; the montage that sinks us into that bloody drain hole and then circles out from Marion’s dead eye in the film’s chilling mid-point; the gaping hollow pits that stare back at Lila from the shriveled head of Mother: the mere act of looking never feels so passive after Psycho but rather something all too easily corruptible.


It was Lila’s third-act sequence of looking at things that caught my attention most intensely during my most recent viewing. She enters Mother’s room, sees the antiquated mirrors and dresses, the strange decorative objects and, most bizarrely, the deep impression of Mother’s presumably rarely moved body on the bed. She enters Norman’s room, sees the dolls and examines that untitled book we’re never allowed to glimpse. And Hitchcock keeps cutting between these objects and Lila’s pointed gaze—not unlike his cutting between Marion’s eye contact with her rather confusedly troubled looking (tipsy?) boss as he crosses the street in front of her car—reminding us over and over how very purposeful and consequential this activity of looking is. Reminding us, too, of the unnerving, seeming randomness of things, the constant details, like Marion’s uneaten lunch or the exacting date and time given at the top of that first scene of Marion’s hotel room tryst with Sam. If an individual’s death has seldom been so horrifyingly palpable as that of Marion’s in Psycho, surely this is partly due to the randomness Hitchcock so lovingly emphasizes in every conceivable way, right down to the casting of a star in what in other hands would seem the disposable role.


And what a strange and utterly perfect star performance it is. Janet Leigh is so damn good in Psycho because she’s as supple and cagey as her final adversary. Whether looking luscious in her bra with her boyfriend or in the office where she works, Marion is never quite penetrable. Indeed, it’s her eyes that remain remote. Other than hints of panic—with the car dealer or the cop—her eyes don’t betray her. Until she meets Norman, and only then do they begin to truly soften. Norman, his insecurities so eloquently, so tenderly embodied by Anthony Perkins, talks to Marion about “private traps” and here we have, in all its bravura irony, the most poignant moment of connection between two people in the whole movie. Marion is still guarded, yet she’s engaged to the point where this strange young man will actually cause her to turn around and go back to Phoenix, to return the money and accept punishment. But just as her private trap becomes illuminated for her, she has of course walked right into a different sort of trap beyond her ability to avoid, and moves straight into one of the most enduring evocations of sheer trauma in cinema history.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Hymns to the silence: embracing the mysteries of Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive


Set in a Castilian village in the years immediately following Franco’s victory and the end of the Spanish Civil War, Víctor Erice’s
Spirit of the Beehive (1973) evokes a landscape, flat and vast, creaking and autumnal, in which inhabitants appear to have been driven into hibernation. But in this protracted, quasi-fairy tale sleep begins a richer depth of dreaming. Like Ana (Ana Torrent), the remarkable, dark-eyed, five-year-old girl at the film’s centre, we’re able to explore this landscape, while the political tumult that has scarred it is never mentioned directly. Rather than being merely oblique, Erice shaped his debut film so as to be attuned to Ana’s way of seeing, while the impressions left in the wake of recent events—events that exhaust Ana’s limited understanding of the world—still exist to be read peripherally by the rest of us.

While phasing in and out of Ana’s perception, using both time-lapse dissolves and the overlapping of discordant sounds, both thoughts and images to unify the various elements into a general spectral atmosphere, Erice exhibits a singular sensitivity to subjective experience, emphatically placing value on individual interpretation without being precious about it, or even feeling shackled to any one individual. Potent symbols abound, but their significance is unannounced, or perhaps it is just that it always remains out of reach, except for rare moments such the one in which Ana is asked to place eyes on a two-dimensional figure in front of her class at school: here is an unmistakable  lesson in seeing. By this point in
Spirit of the Beehive, Ana and her older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) have shared the experience that, over a short period, will radically alter Ana’s relationship to what is seen and not seen.


A truck arrives in their town. It carries in it a dubbed version of James Whale's 
Frankenstein, which is projected in a makeshift screening room. Films are surely rare spectacles in these parts. And Ana, overwhelmed by the story of the monster and the girl he inadvertently kills, leaves the screening with important questions she can’t answer alone. Before they sleep that same night, Isabel tries to explain the film to her sister in a way that blurs her own ideas of reality and fiction. She tells Ana that the monster is not really dead because movies are fake; however, the monster himself is real and, if he knows you, you can call out to him at night and he will visit. Rather than demystifying the film, Isabel’s complex reading makes the mystery of the artificial man more real for Ana, and soon Ana’s own tactile experience, particularly the things she witnesses at an abandoned farm near the train tracks, will confirm her sister’s testimony.

Adults move through Ana’s world either mutely or speaking in riddles. They have withdrawn from the world to preoccupy themselves with, in the case of Ana’s father Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez), beekeeping and nocturnal writing, copying out passages from Maurice Maeterlinck's Life of the Bee; or in that of her mother, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera) writing to an unidentified other who she knows may never actually receive her letters. Ana’s mother’s writing could perhaps be interpreted as a model for Ana’s own private missives: both enact a kind of prayer, sending out messages in spite of the hopeless ambiguity surrounding delivery.


Spirit of the Beehive is a strangely textured, hauntingly beautiful and seductively slippery film of seemingly always fading autumnal light, mirrored images and enveloping enigma. Not unlike The Curse of the Cat People, its insight into child psychology through the examination of traumas that adult eyes never fall upon bridges the magical thinking of early childhood and the melancholy observation of movies that look to the past for knowledge of the present. It’s somehow a fairy tale, a tone poem and a political allegory all at once. In short, its unforgettable, and not to be missed by anyone with a tolerance, much less a desire, for the sublime that lays in the shadows of the inexplicable. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sympathy for the dumbbell


There are times when you’ve got to wonder if this young century that no longer feels young anymore, more specifically the eight years that have followed that famously fraudulent 2000 presidential election, hasn’t been some sort of prolonged bad dream from which America and all the rest of us are about to wake from with one wicked-ass hangover. George Walker Bush will soon be making his departure from the White House, the last stretch of what has proven to be one very long and wearying walk indeed. Some may argue that a preemptive strike on summarizing his presidency is unlawful, but such temperance has no firm place in the dictates of movies, and certainly not the movies of Oliver Stone, whose W. arrives in theatres just in time to greet the appointment of a new American president—though the film might be best viewed as a melancholy parting gift for the outgoing one.

Stone and Bush—could one ask for a more delightful contrast of names?—are exact contemporaries. They attended Yale at the same time, though apparently never met on the student party circuit. But Stone has never shied from identification with the great demons of recent history regardless of their political stripes, thus his portraits of both Nixon and Castro have been strangely tender in their way. As W. gets underway we find Bush (Josh Brolin, who when wearing a cowboy hat bears a striking resemblance to Billy Bob Thornton) circling the oval office, pivoting round an axis in precise opposition to Stone’s camera, as though the two are in a formal dance or are a pair of boxers sizing each other up. And all the while our supporting characters sit in heated discussion over how to characterize their nation’s nebulous post-9/11 enemy, settling, finally, on “axis of evil.” It’s a rousing opener, introducing our protagonist just when his confidence is at the highest it’ll ever be, setting us up for the stumbling ascension to power that led up to this moment and, we presume, the terrible downfall to follow. Curiously, over the next two hours, we’ll witness a great deal more of the former than the latter.

Written by Stanley Weiser, who co-scripted Stone’s Wall Street, W. needs to be viewed more as portraiture than polemic, even if it seems at times to want to be both. This character study is founded above all in Bush’s contentious, approval-seeking relationship with his father (James Cromwell), whose own presidency and its misadventures in foreign policy now look to us like an exercise in centrist moderation in comparison. Having succeeded as a frat boy and failed miserably as a student and labourer, we hear Bush Jr. berated by his dad for hi-jinx and aimlessness, ordered to stop behaving like a Kennedy and respect the family name. Bush Jr. will never fully heal from these wounds, exacerbated by his suspicion that brother Jeb’s the unspoken favourite. It is these wounds that’ll slowly give him the gumption to go into politics and later still become so embroiled in Iraq, convinced of his mission to finish the job dad abandoned back in 1991.


The familial grievances offer Weiser and Stone a classical, dramaturgically sound framework to build on, and they’ve tailored the chorus of advisory voices so as to heighten the sense of their protagonist as tragic fool: Richard Dryfuss as Cheney, condescending, shamelessly savouring the word “empire” like a fat lizard; Thandie Newton doing a fun, blood-curdling Condoleezza Rice; Scott Glen as a glinty-eyed if perhaps not sufficiently callous Rumsfeld; Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, the defeated, lonesome voice of reason and morality; Toby Jones as Karl Rove, seen here as nothing less than a Satanic puppet master. Each has their moment to carry the torch of flamboyant disgrace, though none rise above the level of strict support for Brolin, whose performance here is virtually flawless, all the more effective and troubling for being somehow perfectly sympathetic, as amiable a good ol’ boy as we always suspected Bush must have been before he was granted fearsome powers. When Rove questions his strut, Bush replies, “In Texas we call that walkin’,” and it’s clear that the man might have seemed refreshing when the peril of his incompetence was still abstract and distant. W. is more than allegory and Brolin finally too complex in his characterization to seem merely a product of a flawed system, though in the end his confusion alone seems the absolute measure of his character.

Given all this, all these factors begging to add up to something, how strange that W. seems to be lacking a last act. This absence of resolution is perhaps fitting given the absence of exit strategy that’s so hounded the occupation of Iraq. Yet however eloquent this structural parallel between reality and art, you couldn’t be blamed for desiring more when the credits suddenly appear, be it the long, draining road to the present or our sad hero’s final surrender to the knowledge of his true historical role as widely loathed blunderer on the world’s greatest and more consequential stage. Stone would seem up for at least one of these jobs, and spends much of the film building up to it with a welcome lack of directorly affectation, save a few oddball close-ups of belt buckles or ladies’ shoes smooshing corn cobs and a regrettable, entirely redundant dream sequence offering only one more confrontation with poppy. How Stone and Weiser came to decide on their abbreviated ending is ambiguous, but I suppose we at least can give them credit for leaving the final judgment on their subject up to us.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Busting up the boys, singing those skeletal blues, a MacGyver of improvised bikinis: the inimitable Ida Lupino graces two of the finest Fox noirs


Man, oh man, Ida Lupino. Just one of her loaded little wordless hms is worth more than reams of dialogue from most other actresses. She was born in Brixton, schooled at RADA, but like so many of the elements that fed the best of American movies of the 1940s, and film noir in particular, her outsider's, specifically European perspective seemed only to heighten her contribution to the deep, strangely poeticized Americaness of her on-screen presence. Émigrés helped nurture what would eventually be tagged—the by French, of course—as the noir sensibility, its fatalism and chiaroscuro stylistic economy, but Lupino never seemed less than American in her toughness and resilience, her fundamental vulnerability and make-due-with-what-you-got glamour. If you didn’t know better, you’d believe that she, Gloria Grahame and Barbara Stanwyck all came from the same little town—and all three of them anxious to escape.

Moontide (1942), one of three new releases in the ongoing ‘Fox Noir’ series, and a major discovery for most of us, was a proto-noir especially informed by European tastes. Fritz Lang was its first director before the more utilitarian Archie Mayo took over, and Lang’s moody aesthetics remain very much intact. The film was the US debut of French superstar Jean Gabin, familiar to contemporary cineastes, if not the average American moviegoer, from his roles in films by Jean Renoir, who’d also crossed the Atlantic to work in Hollywood. Ever vigilant regarding his image, Gabin was exactingly involved in the script’s development, and apparently much to the project’s betterment. There was also a delirium sequence initially designed by Salvador Dalí, though it seems little of his ideas made it through the censors. But perhaps the most European thing about Moontide had nothing to do with the personnel at all: after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the West Coast location shoot was cancelled and the production moved into the studios, where the luminous artificiality of the sets, the foggy docks especially, endowed the film with its sublimely dreamlike atmosphere, which only increased the story’s already considerable air of dread and romance.


Based on actor Willard Robertson’s pulp novel, deemed unfilmable by many on account of its being too sordid, and adapted by novelist John O’Hara, Moontide begins with a night of expressionistic alcoholic oblivion, with dockworker and working class bon vivant Bobo (Gabin) emerging from his ominous blackout in front of a bait shack. A murder’s been committed, and Bobo can’t be completely sure he didn’t do it. Bobo’s pal Tiny (Thomas Mitchell), to be found that morning, get this, snapping towels against the naked ass of the flamboyantly monikered Nutsy (Claude Rains in an interesting but smallish role), suggest the pair skip town, but Bobo’s usual wanderlust is suddenly overwhelmed by his fascination with Anna (Lupino), a waif with a background too painful for her to share. He fishes from the sea one night during a suicide attempt, keeping the fuzz at bay by pretending to be her husband. Anna threatens to domesticate Bobo and bring his alliance with Tiny, apparently forged in blackmail and repressed homosexuality, to a grinding, ugly halt.

Moontide is drenched in neurosis, swarming with damaged psyches and astoundingly loopy romantic gestures—at one point Bobo gives Anna a prostitute’s dress as a symbol of his affection—yet its never less than buoyant thanks to the profound charisma of its leads: Gabin’s sensuous gaze, his easy, gypsy hedonism and rather chauvinistic optimism—he has a magnificently callous speech where he extols the virtues of breakfast as a balm for suicidal depression—matched by Lupino’s aching sense of weary regeneration, her unspoken recesses of darkness and immensely touching surrender to love, at one point caressing Gabin's fleshy face like a precious stone. The film in its way looks forward to In a Lonely Place (50), one of my all-time favourite noirs, in its tender, brooding study of a fragile connection between a younger, secretive woman and an older, violent man that no one seems entirely safe around.


If Moontide has spent most of its cinematic life unknown or under-appreciated, Road House (48) has remained something of a legend, rather difficult to see but now finally appearing on DVD, only months after the death of the great Richard Widmark, whose appearance here formed yet another triumphant follow-up to his unforgettable debut in Kiss of Death (47). Curiously, it finds Lupino again coming between a seemingly untamable virile type and a seemingly more civilized, well-heeled associate, oddly matched male buddies whose friendship is tainted by compromise. When Midwestern rural roadhouse proprietor Jefty (Widmark) comes back from his travels with “a new attraction from Chicago” named Lily (Lupino, suddenly blonde though looking only more like some strange creature from elsewhere), his intentions are clearly more than professional. But Lily, the picture of feminine independence, seems utterly disinterested in romance, her response to all of Jefty’s increasingly intense come-ons being little more than barely softened brush-offs or some variation of those wonderful little shrugging hms of hers. She remains impenetrable until she suddenly sets her sights on Jefty’s manager Pete (Cornell Wilde), and that's when all hell breaks loose.

Watching Lily and Pete’s courtship shift from mutual antipathy to desire—he’s anal about tidiness while she chain smokes and leaves her butts burning everywhere—is supremely pleasurable, even sort of surprising despite the conventions. It's nearly as pleasurable and surprising as Lily’s debut as the road house chanteuse. As Lupino unceremoniously plunks herself down at her mini-upright we hear bowling balls still knocking about in the background. But by the time she starts singing her stark blues number in that seductive, gravelly, idiosyncratic voice—has Cat Power, a.k.a. Chan Marshall, seen this movie?—there isn’t a single person in the joint who isn’t under her peculiar spell. The scene is magic, visibly stoking a flame within both the already swooning Jefty and the much cooler Pete.

The love triangle as originally conceived in the first versions of the script, something much discussed in the disc's supplements, strikes me as the source material for Blood Simple (84), though I've never heard the idea brought up elsewhere. But the story as it emerges here is at once more conventional and more emotionally pointed that was originally intended, building up to a last act that bristles with betrayal, manipulation and Jefty’s masochistic, maybe even suicidal mania. Indeed, Widmark steals the show in the final scenes, though there would arguably be no scenes to steal without Lupino’s  singularly beguiling presence charging every scene with attitude, conflicted desire and on-the-spot ingenuity—you’ll be amazed at what she can do with a few scarves during the scene where they go to the beach sans bikini. All of these qualities would come to shape Lupino’s groundbreaking work as a director: she was one of the first women in Hollywood to bust up the boys. But, as is evidenced in these films, she had already been rehearsing for that job for years.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Death on the installment plan: Julian Barnes tries to overcome his thanatophobia, fails, writes book instead—and it’s pretty good!


Now the leaves shrivel, brown and fall from the trees to be obliviously trampled into wintry pulp; now the air turns crisp and thin, the days shorten and the nights forbiddingly chill—what better time is there to think about death! I’ve been reading the Nothing to Be Frightened Of (Random House, $32.95), English novelist Julian Barnes’ latest work of non-fiction. I’ve been reading it mostly outdoors, perhaps because my denial of summer’s end is nearly as resilient as our collective denial of that bigger, more ominous End. My reading of this divertingly morbid little volume has passed largely over pints of rich, opaque, iron-fortified beer on a tavern’s dusky patio until my fingers ached, a sensation that starts to blur its origins—is it just the coldness or the weakening effects of time on my digits?—once you reach a certain age, and that age likely depends on whenever it was you experienced le réveil mortel, a handy term dreamed up by Charles du Bos which Barnes suggests is best translated as “the wake-up call to mortality.”

I don’t know if this sounds like somebody’s idea of bragging, but I actually can’t even remember my own réveil. It seems like it was always there, already hatched and doing its work on my well-fed anxieties before I even knew what anxiety was. There are those, I’m told—and not only those who ascribe to religious beliefs—who aren’t plagued by fear of death. For them, Nothing to Be Frightened Of should hold some anthropological curiosity, a primer on what the fuss is all about. For the rest of us, Barnes’ pithy, anecdotal and arguably kind of amiably aimless thanatophobist’s memoir is all too familiar in its chronicles of late night sweats, those special sorts of panic attacks reserved for involuntary nocturnal “pit-gazing.” Barnes, now 62, is a non-believer, so his pit, for the record, is truly fucking fathomless, and the title of his book needs to be read with the emphasis on that first word: it is precisely nothing that’s so frightening.

Barnes goes through any number of age-old forms of philosophically intoned consolation, from the religious to the genetic, and finds more than adequate grounds for dismissing every one as insufficient. But consolation, that is, grown-up consolation as opposed to the rubber nipple type, doesn’t seem to be what this book is all about—unless we consider the value of the simple consolation of recognition, the reminder that we’re all in the same boat… even if it’s eventually going to smash into an iceberg.

“It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish,” observed Jules Renard and quoted by the Francophile Barnes, and for me this rings true. Literature, perhaps above all texts that survive their authors, holds a singular link to mortality, and books, hand-held, intimate by nature, closely invoke our private dialogue with time. Barnes, while claiming that if given a strict number of days left would probably chose the emotional mainline of music over books—also pretty sensible if you ask me—thus makes the refrain of Nothing to Be Frightened Of references to the books and authors he knows best, which seem mostly to be late 19th century and early 20th century Euros, like Flaubert, Zola or Turgenev, who, as cited by Barnes, once claimed that Russians have a unique talent for swatting away thoughts of death, making them disappear into the “Slavic mist.” “Nowadays,” Barnes later points out, “both the gesture and the mist are available pharmaceutically.” I guess this would be an example of another form of consolation here: humour, which is something Barnes appears to be in no danger of losing.

Barnes’ book is hardly all-encompassing, its consideration of “how we die” being largely confined to how middle-class westerners with reasonable access to health care die. No matter how universal a chord he strikes in his candid exploration of his own thanatophobia and that of people he’s been close to, Barnes never even begins to account for the varieties of thanatophobia that distinguish us culturally. But in a sense, the specificity of Barnes’ book, the personal aspect of it, is its real strength. As much as anything else, Nothing to Be Frightened Of is about Barnes coming to terms with death through the prism of his own family, through recalling the deaths of his parents and grandparents—each of whom are fun characters to spend time with and vividly drawn by the author—or consulting his renown philosopher brother; through trying hard to remember things about the past and about people, all the while acknowledging that memory and the imagination are nearly interchangeable. Barnes seems perfectly comfortable with the vagaries of memory, since as a novelist he’s vocationally inclined to believe some deeper truth may be gleaned from the (re)construction, however founded on the unintended fictions of our murky consciousness. And in these truths are perhaps a third and last form of consolation: our number may be up sometime, but before then, at least there might be one more sublime spark of understanding. All for naught perhaps, but a spark all the same.