Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Films: Some Thoughts on "Repulsion"

This week, I watched Roman Polanski's Repulsion, a horror movie about a young woman left alone who loses her mind.  I would never argue that Polanski isn't a great director, and I think he excels at horror.  Whether it's Repulsion or Rosemary's Baby or Knife in the Water, he is able to isolate his characters and create a slow-building sense of paranoia that overwhelms and causes them to see monsters.  Sometimes they're there, and sometimes they're not. 

In this film, an unstable young woman named Carol, who is terrified of men for a reason that is never explicitly explained (more on this later) finds herself alone in her apartment when her older sister goes on vacation.  She starts to have delusions of break-ins and sexual assaults, which jumble together with reality, causing her to attack a suitor and barricade herself in the apartment.  Her grasp on reality deteriorates, and she begins to see hands coming through the walls to grab her and phantom-men who assault her in her bed.  It is suggested, at least how I read it, that she was sexually assaulted as a child and had never confronted this fact.

While I was watching the film, though, I have to admit I had a hard time separating the film from its director.  Isolation, madness, and horror: these have some resonance in Polanski's life.  There's also his recurring theme of the young, innocent woman with sexual demons following her.  If you know about Polanski's life (and I think most everyone knows something about it), this might strike you as a little uncomfortable.

But regardless, Repulsion is an excellent art house horror film.  The cinematography is really impressive, as are the special effects (creepy hands coming out of the walls in particular)  The depiction of the descent into madness is really believable and terrifying.  For the first half, things move slowly and methodically, subtly ratcheting up the tension, until finally there is a moment where everything comes unhinged.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: A White House Tribute to Paul McCartney

Tonight, PBS will air a new In Performance at the White House, a concert celebrating Paul McCartney as he's awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song (he's the third person to ever receive it).  The ceremony actually took place about a month ago, and included performances by Emmylou Harris, Stevie Wonder, and many others. 

I love that these performances are occurring at the White House, because let's face it, they didn't happen there for eight years.  Even the first Gershwin Prize concert, honoring Paul Simon, took place at the Warner Theater, a few blocks from the White House.  So I like that they're bringing them inside, because it makes it less like the administration sees itself as above the popular culture of the country.

So by way of a preview, here is a video of Jack White at the concert, performing McCartney's "Mother Nature's Son."  Enjoy, and tune in tonight.  I hear Obama joins in for a big "Hey Jude" sing-along. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Arkansas and an Update

Last week's book was John Brandon's Arkansas, a novel that exists somewhere between literary fiction and neo-noir.  Or maybe it doesn't exist between them at all: it's a blend of the two.  The book follows Kyle, Swin, and Frog, three characters involved with the drug trade in the South whose stories run towards each other and intersect violently.

Swin Ruiz is a college dropout who still considers himself something of an intellectual.  When he runs out of money, he finds himself working with Kyle, who isn't the brightest, but is more suited to a life of crime.  The two become drug runners for Frog, who installs them at a state park where the ranger is his employee.  They never meet Frog, but he's an important character, with a significant portion of the book allotted to his backstory.  Every other chapter is written in the second person, forcing you to identify with Frog, whether you'd like to or not.

Swin and Kyle spend their days at the park, working for the ranger, Bright, between runs.  He's a strange character, with a collection of half-empty whiskey bottles and a box full of burnt bones in his house.  They have to do random work around the park between visits from Bright's other boss, a woman who dresses only in pink and gets a cut of the drug money.  While they're kind of idling around, Swin meets Johnna, a nurse who he begins dating.  The narrative, which is kind of loose and episodic, threatens to slow down at a few points early on, but the sections with Frog drive things forward leading to the moment things go wrong for Kyle and Swin.

You could say the idea behind the second half of the novel is that a criminal can be undone either by his stupidity, by emotions, or by chance.  When Bright is killed by a runaway, Swin and Kyle do their best to carry on without him, but neither one knows enough about the situation to really lead.  Everything they do leads Frog to suspect their motives, and as his backstory races toward its intersection with their plotline, you just know things are going to end poorly for them.  I guess the big surprise is what becomes of Frog at the end of the novel--if Kyle and Swin are destroyed by their own stupidity, Frog is nearly killed by his emotional investments in his employees.

But maybe the idea isn't just about what destroys the characters, because it's also about what saves them.  Kyle and Swin, Frog and his closest employees: they are family, in a strange sense.  Kyle and Swin realize this late in the novel and know they are the only ones they can depend on, to carry on their stories and to protect one another.  Frog is almost driven to madness when he realizes this about his own story.  If there's any redemption for the characters, it's through the people they have randomly wound up with. 

Brandon's writing is really engaging because it is so spare.  He seems to only want to give you enough to have a complete image of these characters, and his description of their actions and their internal monologues is at times off-putting because it is so clear and to the point.  Putting Frog's sections in second-person was a really wise decision--he would be a really difficult character to identify with in third-, or even first-person.  Brandon has a new book, out this summer, called Citrus County.  Based on the strengths of Arkansas, it is definitely one to check out.

Now, the update: I am going to post sections of a new story here next week!  It's one I've been editing for the past week, attacking with red pen.  And I'm really excited about it.  Check back here next Monday for at least part of it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Films: Inception

Last Friday, as the heat index crept upward, I went to a matinee of Christopher Nolan's new film, Inception.  It seemed like the perfect way to beat the heat for a few hours, to duck into an air-conditioned theater and watch an action movie.  I expected a good movie, a summer action movie, but I had no idea I would emerge from the theater, two-and-a-half hours later, with my mind completely blown.  I couldn't stop talking about the movie all weekend, telling anyone who would listen that they had to see it.  Like The Dark Knight, Nolan takes the idea of "summer action movie" and turns it to his purposes, producing one of the smartest action movies I have ever seen.

The plot revolves around Dominic Cobb, a dream-thief who is able to steal information from his subjects' subconscious.  He has been exiled from his home and kept away from his children, and he's offered a chance to go home if he can accomplish "inception": planting an idea in a subject's mind.  He assembles his team, which includes a chemist, a forger, and an architect, to go into the mind of a corporate heir and convince him to break up his father's company.  Their plan involves a dream within a dream within a dream, which will allow them to plant the idea deep in the subconscious.  It also allows Nolan to toggle between several layers of reality, each with their own rules of physics and time.

This aspect of the movie was one of my favorite parts: Nolan made the rules, and then he told his story within them, and I love when a science fiction movie does this.  He explains, enough that no one should be lost, how time works within a dream, and how going deeper into the dream-world (another "level" down) affects the movement of time.  Physical effects are also felt at deeper levels.  So in the first level of the dream, as a van falls off of a bridge, the gravity in the second level kicks off.  And this fall, which takes only a few seconds in real-time, takes significantly longer to get to the next levels, allowing the characters to do what they need to at the lower levels.

Through the film, Cobb's dead wife, Mal, keeps showing up in the dreams.  She operates as something of a wild card through the film, with Cobb's guilt over her death making her into a vengeful specter throughout the dreams.  She arrives just in time to cause chaos during Cobb's missions, and the movie lets us know, through Ellen Page's character Ariadne, that the success of the inception mission depends on Cobb confronting Mal in the lower levels of the subconscious.  I love that I just got to write that sentence in a review of a summer blockbuster.

This is a movie that could have very easily been a confusing, sloppy mess.  When you're dealing with dreams and actions that take place largely in the imagination, and a plot that warps notions of time and space, it's pretty simple to let the fact that it is all a dream allow you to dismiss logic and order and have some sloppy writing.  Instead, Nolan set the rules, and he played within them.  The movie made perfect sense according to its own logic, and that's really what I want out of a science fiction film like this one.  I've heard there are some critics who think that the dreams in the films were too orderly, but I think that was a choice Nolan made to have a really cohesive film, and I prefer it to the latter, something that could have turned out really navel-gazing and dull.

I believe Inception will be a movie worth watching again, because the director's other movies become more layered and complex the more you watch them.  Once you know the twist in The Prestige, you notice all of the clues scattered throughout the movie.  I'm interested to see what kinds of surprises the director tucked into the dreams onscreen here, and what other layers we'll see on the next viewing.  Maybe he intends it to work like a recurring dream, where you remember just a little more each time.  I wouldn't put it past him.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Summer Music Edition

I'm just going to say it: I don't really have a topic for today's post.  I thought about opening with a joke about not being at the Pitchfork festival and decided against it, and I thought about listing what I've been listening to this summer, but I came up a bit short.  But it's my first week back, and I can't really be out of musical topics, can I?  So here we go.

One of my favorite newer records right now is American Slang, by the Gaslight Anthem.  They are a band from the New Jersey shore, and they really embody the idea of that (and I mean the old idea, the broken-down splendor of Asbury Park and the shadiness of Atlantic City).  They're channeling Springsteen, and their first song I heard, "Old White Lincoln" throws out references to Tom Waits and sailor tattoos.  There's something not quite nostalgic about the lyrics, as though they were already trying to hold onto a time that passed.  The new album's title track has some amazing lyrics ("They cut me to ribbons and taught me drive/I've got your name tattooed inside of my arm) and to me, it feels like summer.  The band is touring with the Hold Steady later this year, but nowhere convenient for me to see them.

The other album I'm really loving this summer is Brothers by the Black Keys.  It's more Motown-influenced than their earlier records, and I love that they're moving in this direction.  I still can't believe sometimes that there are only two people in this band, because they have such a full sound and their songs have a wider range than some much larger acts.  Plus, I like the fact that they're geeks who play incredibly bluesy, soulful music.  Standout tracks on the new album include "Ten-Cent Pistol" and "Tighten Up."  And "Next Girl."  And "Sinister Kid."  The whole album is worth listening to, and then worth listening to on repeat.  There's also a deluxe vinyl edition.

So that's it for today.  Hopefully, now that I'm living in a city, I'll be able to go to more shows and report back.  The lead singer of Dr. Dog is playing a solo show at the end of August, and the Avett Brothers are playing up in Bethlehem around my birthday.  Either show would be a great end-of-summer show, I think.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bonus Tuesday: Arts!

That's right, I'm not only back, but I'm throwing in a bonus Tuesday post this week.  It's more of an announcement, but still: Tuesday Post!

I know I announced the website when it was launched, but head over to Allison Mosher's website to see the new design and a bunch of new paintings.  And while you're there, you can check out her new blog, Her Digital Memory (or you can click that link).  On the blog, she'll be posting works in progress and announcing upcoming shows.

That's all for today.  Go look at some paintings!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Carter Beats the Devil

Despite being a little busy with moving, I found time in the past few weeks to read, from start to finish, Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil, a book that has been on my radar for several years.  It's one of those books that I would look at every time I was in the bookstore, read the back cover of, and tell myself I had to read it eventually.  Finally, I decided it was going on my summer reading list, and I am so glad I made that decision.

The book is pretty big, somewhere around 650 pages, all of them bursting.  There are reprints of posters from magic's heyday around the turn of the century, and a playbill in the beginning of the book that turns out to be something of a table of contents.  The story revolves around Charles Carter, a real-life illusionist who was a contemporary of Houdini and Thurston, diving back into his life story and the events surrounding the death of President Harding in 1923.  As he begins his career, Carter meets the Marx Brothers (back when they were still Julius, Adolph, and Leonard on the vaudeville stage), as well as "Borax" Smith, a real-life business magnate; he makes a nemesis, Mysterioso, and is promoted by Houdini, leading him to worldwide fame and success.

Much of the book revolves around the aftermath of President Harding's death, with a large section delving into the hapless Secret Service agent who is investigating Charles Carter.  The agent, Jack Griffin, is desperately trying to regain his reputation after failing to prevent the assassination of McKinley.  While Griffin is kind of a moron, he does manage to make one great discovery, and toward the end of the novel, Carter calls him "the greatest audience member I ever had."  I don't want to spoil anything, because there are so many great twists and turns, but the last third of the book is extremely exciting, and revolves around a technology invented by a young man named Philo Farnsworth.

I really loved this book, and it made me think of two others: Water for Elephants and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.  I love when a work of fiction creates a world that's so large and encompassing that it surpasses the idea of historical fiction--I don't know what you'd call it, really, but some books just have this way of pulling in people and events from history and making you believe they really interacted with these fictional characters.  It almost seems more real than history, in its way.  Whether it's Kavalier and Clay at a party with Salvador Dali or Carter the Great receiving a motorcycle from BMW's co-founder Max Friz, I really enjoy when a story jumps off of the page and wanders into the real world.  What is interesting about this book's connection to Kavalier and Clay is that the two novels were published around the same time, are both enormous, and were both written by authors who graduated from the MFA program at the University of California at Irvine.  Must have been something in the water.

I could not stop reading this book once I picked it up.  It has mystery, suspense, and perhaps most importantly, wonder.  That's kind of the theme of the novel, I guess, this idea of a loss of wonder and how it is regained.  For a long time in the middle, Carter is depressed and detached, so much so that he often feels he is looking down on his life happening.  What saves him is his ability surprise and to be surprised, his ability to elicit wonder.  I think this makes him a really admirable character, and is a characteristic that comes through in the writing: through the book, there are some incredible feats of misdirection and surprise, the work of a writer who is something of a magician himself.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Not Quite Back, But Getting There

I haven't updated in a few weeks, but I should soon be back to my regular schedule (that is, Monday-Wednesday-Friday) starting next week.  We just moved down to Philadelphia, so we're still getting settled in. 

Two new developments here on the Short List: you can now "follow" the blog (and have your picture in the new box to the right) and share the links on Twitter, Facebook, or whichever social networking site you prefer. 

Come back next week for a review of Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil, music to get you through the heat wave, and (hopefully) a review of Inception, the new movie by the director of The Dark Knight and The Prestige.  Or a review of the new Toy Story, which I saw last weekend.

So that's it for now, but I'll be back soon.