Monday, May 31, 2010

Prince of dumbness

Making even the Middle East safe for budget-busting spectacle cinema,
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the invasion we were all waiting for. Today’s empires don’t colonize but rather colon-ize. This video game adaptation with the long-winded title, the colon and the words that follow presumably promising abundant sequels, sweeps viewers off to CGI-enhanced ancient lands and holy cities and holy shit is it ever devoid of new ideas. The opening anonymous voice-over actually begins with the words, “Long ago, in a land far away…” (You mean, um, Iran?) Three different scenarists, not to mention Jordan Mechner, the video game’s author, actually got paid to write that.

Jake Gyllenhaal, who has never before been such a dry screen presence, plays this street rat who gets plucked from a life of scavenging by a benevolent polygamist king and grows up to be this disturbingly inflated, giant-necked super-acrobat and ultimate fighting champ with L.A. rocker hair and stubble and a distractingly hazy British accent. Ben Kingsley’s his uncle, always looking a little fishy, wearing too much eye liner, and talking too smart for his own good. An unsanctioned invasion transpires, the king is killed by a cloak soaked in something flammable, and Jake takes the rap. With the help of Bond-girl Gemma Arterton’s ornery princess and a time-reversing knife, Gyllenhaal of course sets the record straight and saves the day. The fevered dumbness and political obliviousness wouldn’t be so bad if things weren’t so punishingly generic.

About the only thing that makes
Prince of Persia relatively diverting is Alfred Molina, who keeps turning up with his entourage of black guys who don’t get to talk much. Molina mostly complains a lot about taxes but goes wild for ostriches, whom he races and kisses while fretting over their habitual depressions. Molina’s clearly been given a lot of room to stretch out with this potentially negligible supporting role, and that’s about the smartest thing director Mike Newell does here, taking his orders from the Jerry Bruckheimer/Disney juggernaut. The camera whips around a lot yet Newell can’t seem to piece together a scene with any real coherence, particularly when there’s a lot of action to track, often resorting to excessive slow-motion to cover the lack of useful coverage. Newell’s made some actual movies before, most notably Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral, but in joining the ranks of Michael Bay he’s managed to completely erase any sense of directorial personality. Given that video games, to my knowledge, don’t employ directors, you have to wonder if soon enough movies like Prince of Persia won’t save a few bucks and simply be helmed by robots.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Walking cure: Walkabout on DVD

The opening minutes of
Walkabout (1971) function as a sort of cinematic assault, amputating diverse components from the audiovisual corpus of modern urban existence—crowds and traffic, tall anonymous buildings and radio signals, swimming pools, classrooms, brick walls and ground beef—and pasting them together in such a way so as to induce creeping repulsion and a kind of vertigo in the viewer as efficiently as possible. Soon a father and his two children, Englishmen transplanted to Australia, are driving into the outback for a rather incongruous picnic. A portable radio broadcasts a program offering instruction on proper table manners.

The latent apocalypse of the film’s opening montage manifests in the father’s next actions, which seem to have been planned in advance. He takes a pistol and begins to fire it at the kids, who run and hide. He takes a jerry can and douses their Beetle. (By this point the radio’s playing Rod Stewart’s ‘Gasoline Alley,’ which is maybe some perverse subliminal prompt for dad’s incendiary psychosis.) He sets fire to the car and then turns the pistol on himself, firing a shot to the head then flopping on his back as though in relief. Within mere moments a banal family outing has transformed into a sunlit nightmare, the patriarch dead and the only means of escape from a hostile space destroyed. The resourceful teenage daughter (Jenny Agutter) tries to remain calm and is compelled to render this nightmare a sort of game for her much younger brother (Luc Roeg, credited as Lucien John), who didn’t actually see his father’s suicide, but the pair set out into the desert with no idea as to where to find shade, water, food, or help. They’re on their own, until they meet another youngster (David Gulpilil), also without parental guidance and protection, but blacker, better attuned to this undomesticated terrain, unable to speak or understand their language, but perfectly capable of guiding, feeding, and protecting them from the elements.

A general description of
Walkabout might give the impression that the film assumes a then-highly fashionable blanket condemnation of Western values and a romanticized appraisal of Aboriginal values, the former making you crazy and violent and corrupt while the latter grants you strength and wisdom and life in a perpetual Eden. Indeed, there are sequences that feel a bit overwrought in their display of civilized versus primitive behaviour, such as the one which cuts jarringly between the Aborigine boy spearing and slaughtering a kangaroo and a white butcher in a white coat chopping up meat in a very sanitized butcher shop. But Walkabout demands a level of attentiveness that forces us to look beyond the broad brushstrokes, through the complexity of the interactions between its characters and images, through the ambiguities inherent in its narrative and lack of subtitles for the Aborigine’s dialogue, and through its sheer duration versus its number of dramatic events. There’s never any lack of tension, beauty, or fascination in its many scenes of hunting, swimming, frolicking, attempted communication, or, of course, walking, but there is a deliberate lack of conventional dramatic incident, which allows us to get closer to the characters and their strange dilemma with a bare minimum of exposition. By the time we reach the end of Walkabout, we come to realize that the film isn’t primarily concerned with moralizing or engaging in facile social critique. It’s a study in the difficulties of cultural adaptation, in the role of landscape in shaping identity, in how adolescent sexuality might emerge when left to its own devices, unfettered by the constant barrage of consumerist iconography encountered in city life. Put most simply, Walkabout is a coming of age story, without the usual distractions.

Walkabout was the first solo directing credit for Nicolas Roeg, the celebrated London cinematographer who’d recently co-directed Performance (70) with Donald Cammell. Adapted from James Vance Marshall’s novel by playwright Edward Bond, Walkabout exhibits the impressionistic, vaguely narcotic mise en scène that would characterize Roeg’s uniformly brilliant work over the next decade, in films such as Don’t Look Now (73) and Bad Timing (80). His liberal deployment of ostentatious wide angle pans, flash cuts, trippy dissolves, and ultra grainy optical zooms on insects and reptiles could be said to date the film, which emerged not so long after Easy Rider (69), yet Roeg comes by such techniques honestly, endowing them with psychological or emotional nuance specific to the needs of this story and its setting. Walkabout has aged so well in fact that the Criterion Collection is now releasing it a third time. The new DVD and Blu-ray features best-yet image and sound and new supplements, including interviews with Agutter and Luc Roeg, each about 20 minutes, and an hour-long documentary about the life of Gulpilil, the truly remarkable actor and dancer who got his start in movies with Walkabout and has since embodied just about every variation on the Aboriginal persona one can image, both sophisticated and silly, in the 40 years since.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Carnival of lost souls: Nightmare Alley

It was late 1938 or early 1939. William Lindsay Gresham was in a village near Valencia, awaiting repatriation after his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, when he first heard about the geek from a man named Joseph Daniel Halliday. The men were drinking when Halliday regaled Gresham with his knowledge of this unusual carnival attraction, an alcoholic driven to such desperation that he bites the heads of live chickens to secure his next drink, decades before such sadistic entertainments would be employed and domesticated by the likes of Alice or Ozzy. The sad story of the geek resonated deeply with Gresham, haunting him, at least until 1946, when his first novel was finally published.

Stan is a handsome, bright young carny working on a modest slight-of-hand act, though he has vague ambitions for greater things.
Nightmare Alley begins with Stan observing the geek for the first time, amazed and appalled. The barker assures his audience of the geek’s genetic singularity: “…he has two arms, two legs, a head and a body, like a man. But under that head of hair there is the brain of a beast.” What the geek assures Stan of is man’s fundamental frailty and perverse fascinations, the understanding of which strikes him as crucial or survival. Stan observes the audience’s primal rapture: “…the crowd moaned in an old language, pressing their bodies tighter against the board walls of the pit and stretching.” Sizing up his marks, he smiles “the smile of a prisoner who has found a file in a pie.” The weaknesses and anxieties that burrow and fester in each of us are to be Stan’s field of study as he works his way up out of the carnival circuit and onto more baroque and profitable grifts among the cultural elite. He discovers a hidden book that reads like an instruction manual for his future. “Think out things most people are afraid of,” it reads, “and hit them right where they live.” But those weaknesses and anxieties also taunt Stan as he tries to ward off his own insistent visions of looming perdition: “In the hot sun of noon the cold breath could strike your neck. In having a woman her arms were a barrier. But after she had fallen asleep the walls of the alley closed in on your sleep and the footsteps followed.”

In its love of con mechanics and its particular way of mirroring of its protagonist’s gradual mental collapse in the shifting tone of its prose,
Nightmare Alley to some degree looks forward to the novels of Jim Thompson, who would be far more prolific than Gresham, though even his most ambitious works cannot match Nightmare Alley’s scope or sustain. There’s also a kinship between these authors in how they write about sex as something ultimately tawdry and doom-laden yet enduringly alluring and captivating upon discovery. There’s something tender and compassionate in Gresham’s evocation of Molly, the electrical girl with whom Stan falls in love, whose pa told her never to make love to a man whose toothbrush you wouldn’t use. (Not bad advice!) The belated loss of virginity is for Stan a revelation: “This is what all the love-nest murderers killed over and what people got married to get. This was why men left home and why women got themselves dirty reputations. This was the big secret.” Stan’s lingering psychic wounds are of an Oedipal nature. His buried desires manifest most dramatically in the affair he concocts with the icy psychotherapist with whom he’ll concoct his most ornate scheme, and whose vocation is to him just another racket. “I know what you’ve got in there,” he boasts to the doctor, “society dames with the clap, bankers that take it up the ass, actresses that live on hop, people with idiot kids. You’ve got it all down.” Stan has an interest in all forms of human folly, but those derived from lust are the ones he himself seems unable to master.

Newly re-printed and handsomely bound by New York Review of Books Classics ($17.95) with an informative introduction by Nick Tosches, the return of
Nightmare Alley has been for me a tremendous discovery. I knew of it mainly from the excellent 1947 film version, brilliantly adapted by Jules Furthman, directed by Edmund Goulding, and starring Tyrone Power. I hadn’t guessed that this pulp source material for some prime noir was itself a masterpiece and something more than a crime novel. It’s a portrait of postwar shadows engulfing a vast American landscape that crushes the likes of Stan in a confluence of exploitation, alcohol, repression, ideology, materialism, religious longing, and dubious promises of upward mobility. Though there were a number of non-fiction works, including a book on Houdini, Nightmare Alley was one of only two novels from Gresham, who was himself it seems crushed by a cocktail of voracious personal demons and bad luck. He tried to ward off his own nightmare alley with booze, Marxism, Christianity, psychoanalysis, and three marriages, the most famous being to the poet Joy Davidman, to whom Nightmare Alley is dedicated, who bore Gresham two children before leaving him for C.S. Lewis in 1953. Grisham suicided in a hotel room off Times Square in September of 1962, unemployed and without prospects, at the age of 53.

Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell in the film version of Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley covers a lot of territory, both psychologically and geographically, crossing the US by truck, train, car, and on foot until Stan’s world seems not larger but smaller, shrinking to a blackened point. His carnival experience comes full circle, like the embrace of a family whose door always remains forbiddingly open, and some of Gresham’s finest passages evoke for us this family on the move, seductive and grotesque and leaving only cavities in its wake: “It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns—lights and noise and a chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the ferris wheel, to see the wild-man who fondles those rep-tiles as a mother would fondle her babes. Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice-cream spoons to show where it had been.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Absence makes the art go yonder: The Missing Person on DVD

John Rosow (Michael Shannon) used to be NYPD, now he’s a Chicago PI and a strong candidate for a DUI. He’s woken from some state close to comatose by the proverbial ringing phone, requesting his services to tail someone all the way down to LA. Initially the gig seems conspicuously easy, with the subject hiding in plain sight, taking the train, not bothering to disguise the fact that he’s a middle-aged white guy traveling with a handsome Mexican boy. Things gradually become more arduous. The technologically impaired Rosow has to buy a phone that takes pictures from a gentleman named Boo Boo (Mark Ventimiglia), pay a
Serpico-obsessed cabbie named Hero (John Ventimiglia) $500 to let him hitch a ride in his trunk, and ward off the amorous attentions of an altogether fetching cougar named Lana (Margaret Colin) who sleep-talks to her mother about blueberry pancakes. But nobody told Rosow switching professions in your mid-30s would be easy.

Writer/director Noah Buschel’s
The Missing Person is loaded with pronounced eccentricities, but its also loaded with amiable, detailed performances, thanks to an impressive cast of film, television and theatre veterans who unanimously seem to jive with Buschel’s kooky, decidedly unhurried neo-noir. Genre tropes are dusted off and tickled back to life, with Rosow regularly knocked unconscious, dreaming of some lost lover, or trading banter with good-cop/bad-cop feds who mysteriously turn up in the motel parking lot. At times it’s a little cute, a little cartoonish, all the coffee and jazz and smokes and booze and abundant anachronisms. Personally, I like coffee and jazz and booze, but besides it’s all leading somewhere, all in the service of a thoughtful narrative arc that exchanges noir’s foundations in postwar despair for a post-9/11 dispersion. This is a story about going missing, staying missing, and liking it, about being missing as a state of grace, and helping others to disappear for their own good.

None of which screams box office gold, I suppose, and thus, in this country anyway, The Missing Person makes its debut at your local video store rather than your local cinema. It plays well on TV, even if Ryan Samul’s HD imagery is a little annoyingly heavy on ostentatious filters. It also plays to the strengths of Shannon, an actor whose very particular peculiarities won him an Oscar nod for Revolutionary Road, not to mention plum nut-job and/or jerk-off parts in films by William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, and Werner Herzog. He’s really quite ideal for the strange, haunted, lumbering hero of The Missing Person, so withdrawn he could initially be mistaken for the title character. Shannon shuffles and groans through most of the film. I had to laugh at certain shots that play out with the sole item on the soundtrack being Shannon’s amplified wheeze. But it’s a wheeze with a soul, from a face like yesterday’s unrefrigerated lunch. Despite intermittent voice-over, we learn only fragments of Rosow’s past, but we finally know everything we need to know just by spending time with Shannon’s sardonic grin, bleary confusion, and seemingly outsized figure. They speak of a primal wound, one we can trace back to Philip Marlowe, to Jeff Bailey, or to Al Roberts. It’s a feeling that transcends time and genre, even when the setting is as winky as this.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Robin Hood: Sowing the seeds of pseudo socialism in a not terribly merry old England

In these times of economic uncertainty it’s reassuring to know that way back in days of yore really good-looking men and women of courage, honesty, and sound grooming stood up against simpering pansy monarchs and really ugly Frenchmen and shot razor-sharp kindling through their ugly-ass necks in the hope of installing some primitive form of socialism in a largely grubby agrarian world. Or maybe it’s supposed to be primitive libertarianism. I mean, who likes taxes? And get a load of all those arrows! The arrow budget for Robin Hood was probably larger than the entire budget for some actual armed revolutions, but what, did you think this was a Ken Loach film?

Helmed by Ridley Scott, written by sledgehammer screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and starring Scott’s favoured gladiator and co-producer Russell Crowe, this
Robin Hood goes back to the roots of the legend, I guess, with His Majesty’s archer Robin Longstride (Crowe, fierce, rugged, kind of bland) coming home from the Crusades to an England in chaos, with a new, really dumb king (Oscar Isaac, shouty, pouty, grating) trying to bleed his citizenry for a few more goblet studs and a two-timing royal advisor pal (Mark Strong, pleasingly evil) quietly trying to sneak the French over for a major invasion. Robin heads to Nottingham to deliver a dead man’s sword to his dad (Max von Sydow, having a hoot playing older and frailer than he really is) and winds up impersonating the dead man so as to assure that the land stays in the family once dad dies and his lovely daughter-in-law Marian (Cate Blanchett, trying her darndest) is left on her own, a proto-feminist about eight centuries too early to get what’s rightfully hers. Screwball flirtations bubble up between Robin and his faux-bride, the taxmen come to pillage and destroy, the Frenchies are crossing the Channel, and the rest is history as semi-comprehensible battle sequences, rife with careening crane shots. And arrows.

Okay, actually the rest involves cartloads of exposition you’ll never quite piece together, completely unnecessary flashbacks to Robin's misremembered childhood, cornball dialogue, big speeches rife with empty rhetoric, and Scott and company’s best attempt at re-doing the storming of the beach in Normandy from
Saving Private Ryan. Only fitfully diverting, this adventure epic is far too bloated to be as rousing as it wants to be. Scott’s an old hand with managing elaborate set pieces, but the results don’t feel inspired this time out. His brother Tony always gets dissed for being the lesser, more vulgar director, but, you know what, stupid as it was, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 was a lot more fun.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Parental misguidance: Mother and Child

Now in her early 50s, Karen (Annette Bening) still lives with her mom, a reticent woman with vacant eyes, housebound and it seems not long for this world. Karen works as a physical therapist for the elderly. We know Karen had a child at 14 whom she gave her up for adoption. We hear the maudlin unsent letters Karen still writes to this daughter she never knew, and we sense that there’s something terribly sad about this woman who forfeited her opportunity to care for a child so that she could spend her life caring for the aged. Karen is socially impaired, lonely, angry, and wears dumpy clothing. She’s unkind to her housekeeper. Still, she’s weirdly sympathetic. You wish her the best.

Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) by contrast has turned her own difficult, controlling nature into something of a social asset. She’s a reputable lawyer, fiercely independent, without any familial ties, very self-assured, beguilingly attractive, sensual without sentiment. She’s seduces her not-easily-seduced new boss (Samuel L. Jackson) in a heartbeat, and nabs her dopey married neighbour as a side dish. It’s no mystery that Elizabeth is Karen’s daughter, and the fact that they both inhabit Los Angeles, that they both inhabit this movie, conspicuously title
d Mother and Child, prompts us to speculate how they’ll eventually reunite. That such expectations are never fulfilled in any sort of obvious or predictable way is a testament of sorts to the storytelling skills of writer/director Rodrigo García.

But García’s feats of plot-twisting slight of hand also constitute all that’s finally most frustrating and annoying in
Mother and Child. Much like the work of its executive producer, Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the movie betrays it’s finer qualities in an over-extended final act riddled with blasts of dramatic irony that feel as contrived as so many earlier scenes feel honest, thoughtful, and highly attuned to the peculiar and unnerving ways we negotiate our relationships. There’s a third storyline here, involving Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her attempts to adopt a child, and the presence of this seemingly unrelated thread should, I suppose, be a major tip-off to the sort of Paul Haggisy, too-neatly tied-up ending we’re slowly moving toward.

The restraint exhibited in certain exchanges between characters, exchanges that often resemble interrogations, is striking. The bits of dialogue whittled down to the bone, sometimes down to simple declarations, are intriguing. Editor Steven Weisberg has an immaculate sense of when to exit a scene, which is to say he always leaves as early as possible, yet never too soon. The performances are uniformly inviting while never being ingratiating. Bening and the exceptionally perfectly cast Watts are never more watchable than when seemingly trying to push others away. Jackson, in bow-tie and glasses, with graying beard, and Jimmy Smits, who plays a cuddly, baffled love interest for Bening, are effortlessly endearing in their inability to resist these pushy, off-putting women, the sort of flawed but resilient mother figures who form the core of García’s world view. There’s so many appealing aspects to
Mother and Child, so many items to lure us in, that the over-calculated series of last act revelations, all timed to go off in rapid, numbing succession, to ostensibly give the audience its big emotional release, become a major let down even if you see them coming a mile away. I just lauded Weisberg for his judicious trimming, but there’s one additional cut he could have made that might have saved the whole movie, one that would have occurred right at the end of that scene were Watts drops off a letter at the adoption agency, the scene that assures us that everything is changing, when there still remained a balance of ambiguity and conclusiveness in keeping with all that’s most eloquent and memorable in Mother and Child.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Vivre sa vie on DVD: Godard year zero – Karina's visage – trouble with words – A double game

In an interview for
Sight & Sound, conducted by Tom Milne in October of 1962, Jean-Luc Godard was asked if he felt his most recent work, Vivre sa vie (62), was a departure from its predecessors. Godard replied that, on the contrary, he felt it was an arrival. The previous work had been the product of a cinephile, one whose knowledge of life had accumulated exclusively within the spectral darkness of the cinema, where as this, his fourth movie, a somewhat somber chronicle of an aspiring actress’ slippage into prostitution, was the first to be constructed in the open air, so to speak, to attempt to absorb and reflect upon the realities of the world beyond, not to mention upon art forms other than the movies. It may read as sacrilege, particularly on this, the 50th anniversary of Breathless (60), his iconoclastic debut, the movie that more than any other encapsulates the French New Wave, but Vivre sa vie does feel in some sense like Godard Year Zero, like the full emergence, both politicized and poeticized, of the auteur who dominated the 1960s and changed his medium forever. It certainly had far greater impact on me, someone discovering these movies decades later. Breathless excited me. Vivre sa vie arrested me, and continues to do so. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray, with characteristically superb supplements, from the Criterion Collection.

A “film in twelve tableaux,” each preceded by a title card listing telegraphic synopses of their contents—ie:
THE BOULEVARDS – THE FIRST MAN – THE ROOMVivre sa vie, though compact and economical, unfolds with the rhythm and structural intricacy of a novel, perhaps a character study from Zola, from whom Godard borrowed his heroine’s name. Yet Nana (Anna Karina), first seen during the credits in a trio of close-ups, resembling mug-shots, is also an anagram for the name of the actress portraying her. This is but one of multiple allusions to the nature of this movie’s double game: it is at once a work of fiction and a kind of documentary, about prostitution, of which we will learn a fair amount, particularly in the montage of transactions set to a series of frequently asked questions; about Paris’ suburbs and the lives passing through them; and about Karina, Godard’s wife and valiant collaborator, who like her character came from elsewhere to make it in the movies. Karina’s performance is repeatedly startling. At times she looks directly at the camera, with those immense, worried eyes, as though checking in, or wondering if this is how things were meant to go. She seems always to be utterly immersed in the most immediate sources of stimulus for her character—writing a letter, dancing, conversing with a philosopher, “hooking” a client, or, most famously, being moved to tears by The Passion of Joan of Arc (28)—while also somehow aware of being the subject of a movie. While positively radiating innocence, Karina, then all of 21, had already sufficiently developed as an artist to follow her husband/director onto the high wire, the result being this movie that, in a new age of understanding and sophistication with regards to what movies can be, draws attention to its artifice, though camera work and through its eerie use of truncated fragments of Michel Legrand’s score, while never spoiling its fictive illusions.

Prostitution is a primal theme in Godard’s work, and the problematic role of actresses in the movies, as the subject of the (predominantly) male gaze, is never far from the surface. Fortunately Godard isn’t interested in victimization—the excerpt he selects from
Joan of Arc emphasizes the heroine’s participation in her own martyrdom—but rather in the social dynamics that allow one such as Nana to be gradually swallowed up by misfortune. There is in Vivre sa vie a constant mistrust of interpretation, or even of the meaning of words themselves, not an insignificant statement coming from a former critic. Nana expresses her discomfort with words in the first scene, where she breaks up with a boyfriend in a café, trying out certain token phrases as though trying for the best line reading, while Godard, perversely, shoots their conversation from behind, so that their faces are unseen and all we have to go on are their words themselves. Godard places obstacles between Karina’s face and the camera almost as often as he allows her face to consume its frame in an act of pure portraiture, yet the images in Vivre sa vie, though occasionally awkward, aren’t obtuse but rather fixating and beautiful, and there seems to be a sly joke in the fact that the first name of Nana’s pimp is the same as that of the movie’s cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. From start to finish Vivre sa vie continually reminds us that Godard’s greatest work is never, as the cliché suggests, a cold, intellectual exercise. This is a work of rapture, curiosity, rigorous play, and, indeed, genuine compassion, so that even if its abrupt finale feels perhaps like the intrusion of one type of movie onto another, we’re left with the devastating feeling that at any moment those who slip through the cracks, whether in art or in life, are that much more likely to be caught in the crossfire.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Burning trails, driving under the influence, with man and beast and man-beasts: new books from Sam Shepard and Jim Harrison

When I was a teenager I’d hop in my father’s rattling old work van, or later on the used Jetta he and my mother had helped me buy, and kill hours just driving along back roads alone, around Olds, Cochrane, and Black Diamond, or across the foothills toward Dead Man’s Flats and Canmore. It was a form of escape, the forging of a connection with a landscape, and a way to figure out how to write. My mind was able to stretch out on these short treks, and the stubborn words I sought with little fortune in my parents’ house or in the high school hallways where I’d hide while ditching class would finally emerge, often just a few a time, and I would carefully write them out with my right hand while steering with my left. Driving around aimlessly in rural areas with pen and pad by my side seemed like a magic method for coming up with ideas, and my suspicions seemed confirmed when I’d read about how Sam Shepard, whose plays kind of blew my mind at an early age, was supposed to have done the same thing.

Sam Shepard

Times have changed, I’ve gotten a little more disciplined about working at a table, and I don’t even own a car these days, but, if the many brief stories, poems and fragmentary prose collected in
Day Out of Days (Knopf, $32) are any indication, it seems Shepard, now in his 60s, still acting, still writing, has kept up the habit of driving all over the place, without destination, and writing, a sort of endless existential commute to work. (Though he portrayed US Air Force Major General Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, Shepard is to this day famously uncomfortable with airplanes, and thus drives himself to all his filming locations. His insistence on roadways over airways was endearingly transferred to the protagonist of the Shepard-scripted Paris, Texas.) Several pieces in Day Out of Days could be attributed to the same narrator, someone most often found behind the wheel of a truck on a road somewhere in North America, someone who apparently is and isn’t Sam Shepard, who shares Shepard’s occupation, age and Midwestern roots, if not his exact experiences or sensibility. An aging actor becomes so disinterested in his work that he can’t even remember which movie he’s working on. A man returns to his hometown many years after fleeing and becoming famous and finds another man who never left and still resents him. A traveler stops in a motel during a blizzard and meets an emotionally distraught woman who claims to be a lover from his days in New York in the 1960s. Ghosts from this narrator’s past keep materializing, generating anxiety, and interrogating his sense of identity. The result is often funny, and sometimes spooky.

Not as spooky, perhaps, as a series of tales, dispersed throughout
Day Out of Days, involving a seasoned professional assassin hired to cut off someone’s face, an activity which forces him to reconsider his vocation. Nor as spooky as the story of the nervous man who finds a head in a basket while walking along the side of a highway. The head speaks to the man, and asks him for a favour. Savage, incomprehensible violence is a recurring theme here, with characters pondering events far off in the Middle East, or closer to home, in the drowned suburbs of New Orleans. In an especially hilarious story, a man talks about floating to safety in the wake of Katrina with Chubby Checker, his bodyguard, and his beloved piano. Fantasy, memoir, and essay blend together in this absorbing, strange, and elegant collection, an ode to restlessness, stray human connections, and what genuinely open spaces we still have left to wander upon.

Tensions between urban and rural space, between movement and stasis, between solitude and togetherness, are also a key feature in Jim Harrison’s most recent collection of novellas,
The Farmer’s Daughter (Anansi, $29.95), which also consumes a lot of highway mileage, covering much of the continent in just a few hundred pages. It’s a spry, sensitive, sometimes sex-crazed book, which frequently drifts into evocative reveries centering around its author’s love for nature and sport, an homage to basic instincts and refined tastes.

Sarah Anitra Holcomb comes of age in the titular tale, set in rural Montana. She’s a smart and highly literate girl, quietly lusted after by the amiable old farmer who becomes her best friend. A keen observer of nature, she witnesses numerous blood rituals that transpire in the wild, and eventually becomes familiar with similarly bestial encounters between men and women, which prompt an act of revenge. The sudden, somewhat incongruous swerve toward crime drama halfway through ‘The Farmer’s Daughter’ nearly upsets the tender tone of the whole, yet Harrison’s eye for detail keeps things balanced, his attention to animals and humans and they way they sniff each other out, negotiate their terms of survival, violate their tacit contracts, and meet with some natural form of justice.

Jim Harrison, with friend

‘Brown Dog Redux’ marks the return of Harrison’s horny Chippewa as he tries to flee Michigan social services with his stepdaughter, who, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, is to be placed in a home of disabled youngsters. Brown Dog gets dumped by a lady in Toronto before touring the prairies with an Indian rock and roll band and gradually winding up in Michigan all over again. His journey is fun, if not the most memorable of Harrison’s latest narratives—that accolade would be reserved for ‘The Games of Night.’ This final tale concerns a lycanthrope, afflicted as a boy after being bitten by a Mexican hummingbird, now living out his adult life largely in isolation so as to sequester himself from others during his monthly moonlight rampages. But our protagonist wearies of being a lone wolf, of only reading about romantic love in the poems of Ovid. He wants a girlfriend. So Harrison renovates a familiar mythology to investigate the extremes of desire, and in doing so facilitates our suspension of disbelief by simply requiring us to recognize the network of impulses dictated by the beast within all of us.