Sunday, April 16, 2017

All of the Best Movies, Part 1: 0 - B

Hi guys, here's part one of my long-threatened list of favorite movies. Due to serious and ongoing computer issues, I wrote this on a Tablet, so give me a break. The next post will be C through...whatever. F, probably.

10 Rillington Place (d. Richard Fleischer) - One of the only films to deal with the subject of serial killers that presents the full, depressing picture. If serial murder doesn't depress you, then something's up.

12 Angry Men (d. Sidney Lumet) - Wrote about it here.

1984 (d. Michael Radford) - I have no particular interest in Michael Radford, but I'll be damned if everything didn't just fall together here. This Orwell adaptation is exquisite, and the casting of John Hurt is so inspired as to seem inevitable.

2001: A Space Odyssey (d. Stanley Kubrick) - I don't know what I could possibly add to the discussion at this point, so I'll stick to pointing out that seeing this on a massive screen in the 90s changed my life. For the better? You make the call!

3 Women (d. Robert Altman) - I am very, very tired of the arguments about whether or not a given horror film is or is not actually a horror film, and in response I've embraced my own definition of the genre, which is that a horror film is whatever I say it is. 3 Women is a great horror film.

45 Years (d. Andrew Haigh) - Wrote about it here.

The 7th Victim (d. Mark Robson) - One of the great films about a Satanic cult; the ending makes this for me the ultimate Val Lewton production.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (d. Steven Spielberg) - I'm not comfortable living in a society in which the greatness of A.I. is still a matter of debate.

The Abominable Snowman (d. Val Guest) - Maybe the best Hammer film not directed by Terence Fisher, this movie successfully imbues its title creature and its environment with a quality of awesomeness.

Ace in the Hole (d. Billy Wilder) - I'm not a big fan of Wilder's comedies, but when his skewed cynicism is in full bloom there were few better. Kirk Douglas Kirk Douglases the shit out of this movie.

The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (d. Stan Brakhage) - I watched this during an unhappy, even-more-morbid-than-usual period of my life. Let's just say that whatever trick I was hoping Brakhage's silent autopsy film would do, it did it.

The Act of Violence (d. Joshua Oppenheimer) - The documentary as evil dream.

After Hours (d. Martin Scorsese) - Scorsese has always been funny, so it stands to reason that he would eventually make a film that could be unambiguously categorized as a comedy. It also stands to reason that this film would also be vaguely frightening.

Air Force (d. Howard Hawks) - Somewhat dismissed now, I'm told, as a propaganda film, it may well be that, and so what? It's a thrilling, bracing war film. Besides, how many war-time propaganda films feature as a theme young men who are killed in action before they are able to do anything?

Alien (d. Ridley Scott) - Yes, it is true: I like Alien.

All That Jazz (d. Bob Fosse) - Wrote about it here.

The American Friend (d. Wim Wenders) - Wrote about it here.

American Graffiti (d. George Lucas) - Visually and sonically gorgeous, cynical and not, romantic and not, exactly in tune with what the late hours of the night and the early hours of the morning look and feel like. Remarkably cast. Lucas's masterpiece. Long live Wolfman Jack.

American Movie (d. Chris Smith) - I still want to see Northwestern.

American Sniper (d. Clint Eastwood) - Wrote about it (a little) here.

An American Werewolf in London (d. John Landis) - The obvious skill, inventiveness, and sheer entertainment value of this film make including it a fairly easy choice. But at the same time, as my friend Glenn Kenny says, "Fucking John Landis."

Anatomy of a Murder (d. Otto Preminger) - Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott in a crime/courtroom drama directed by Otto Preminger. It's almost unfair.

Angel Face (d. Otto Preminger) - In the running for the best ending in noir history.

Angst (d. Gerald Kargl) - Wrote about it here.

Anomalisa (d. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson) - One of the most singularly beautiful and moving films of the 2010s. Both unassuming and spectacularly inventive, this is a magnificent piece of modern art.

Antichrist (d. Lars von Trier) - Wrote about it here.

Apocalypto (d. Mel Gibson) - As good an action film as has been made since the 80s.

Ararat (d. Atom Egoyan) - A film about the Armenian genocide that depicts that slaughter as a film within a film. Not an easy movie to describe, really, but I've been haunted by it for over a decade.

Army of Shadows (d. Jean-Pierre Melville) - Melville was such a meticulous director that he could wring suspense and atmosphere out of a man eating a sandwich on  a plane. That he's a member of the French Resistance on a mission probably helps. The film highlights the bravery of the French Resistance by refusing to make them gallant ciphers.

Art School Confidential (d. Terry Zwigoff) - When the barefoot hippie stepped on broken glass, I was sold.

Assault on Precinct 13 (d. John Carpenter) - This film proves that there's some Melville in Carpenter.

Auto Focus (d. Paul Schrader) - Speaking of John Carpenter... Before embarking on the task of making a film about the life and murder of Bob Crane, I imagine the biggest issue would be figuring out the tone. Schrader figured it out.

The Bad and the Beautiful (d. Vincente Minelli) - Big points for the nods to Val Lewton, and for being a kind of merciless film. Until it isn't, of course, but still.

Ball of Fire (d. Howard Hawks) - Sweet Genevieve.

The Ballad of Narayama (d. Keisuke Kinoshita) - Wrote about it here.

Bang the Drum Slowly (d. John Hancock) - Wrote about it here (now with a busted YouTube link!)

Barry Lyndon (d. Stanley Kubrick) - Cinema's greatest pistol duel. All the other stuff in the movie -- you know, all the technical and artistic innovations that changed movies and that Kubrick worked so hard on so that his film could achieve the specifically cinematic heights he imagined for it, and which cause some critics of Barry Lyndon to say "Jeez, Kubrick's such a boring goon!" -- all that stuff is also good.

Barton Fink (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) - Miller's Crossing in 1990 and then this in 1991 were as thrilling a pair of cinematic experiences as I've ever had or ever expect to have. Barton Fink is a stunning piece of dark movie/literary grotesquerie. It's also a hilarious horror film.

Bay of Angels (d. Jacques Demy) - Wrote about it here.

Beau Travail (d. Claire Denis) - The ending of this film is evidence of a filmmaker being fully confident that she is making the correct artistic choices. Which she is.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (d. Ted Post) - I honestly believe that the first three sequels to Schaffner's original classic are, by and large, vastly underrated. These movies take bigger chances, and are darker and nastier and more complicated than any major Hollywood franchise I know of. Check out James Franciscus's face when he winds up where he winds up in this one.

Big Night (d. Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott) - Pretty much a complete delight, with a perfectly judged final scene.

Big Trouble in Little China (d. John Carpenter) - Kurt Russell performing without ego. What a lot of 80s genre movies wanted to be, but didn't have the guts to put themselves out there.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) - Wrote about it here.

The Black Cat (d. Edgar G. Ulmer) - The perfect Universal horror film. Best use of the oft-used second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony ever.

Black Christmas (d. Bob Clark) - After many viewings, Billy's phone calls still make the hair on my neck stand up. Hell of an ending, too.

Black Hawk Down (d. Ridley Scott) - On the very short list of the great combat films of the modern era.

The Black Torment (d. Robert Hartford-Davis) - Wrote about it here.

Blade Runner (d. Ridley Scott) - I'm hearing nowadays that a lot of people find this movie boring . Fuck off.

Bloody Sunday (d. Paul Greengrass) - Achieves a naturalism rarely found in American films. James Nesbitt is brilliant.

Blue Collar (d. Paul Schrader) - Would qualify for this list for the opening credits alone.

The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (d. Les Blank) - Would qualify for this list for the little boy with the umbrella alone.

The Blues Brothers (d. John Landis) - Everything I said about An American Werewolf in London multiplied by two, with the addition that compared to modern comedy films, The Blues Brothers looks like Michael Powell directed it.

The Body Snatcher (d. Robert Wise) - The film that made me love Boris Karloff.

Bone Tomahawk  (d. S. Craig Zahler) - A bizarre mix of literary Western and exploitation horror, with a stacked cast. It also has a scene violent enough to drive people from the room.

Le Bonheur (d. Agnes Varda) - I wasn't sure how I was feeling about this as I watched it, until the ending instantly brought to mind a certain Randy Newman song, and I was on board.

Bonjour Tristesse (d. Otto Preminger) - The kind of thing that Charles Willeford would have written if Charles Willeford had written this kind of thing.

Brazil (d. Terry Gilliam) - As great now as it was when I first saw it. This is one of those films that has seemingly always been with me, funny and ghastly and wondrous.

Breakdown (d. Jonathan Mostow) - An entirely effective thriller, but it makes the list because it offers the best evidence I can think of that Kurt Russell is a great actor.

Breaker Morant (d. Bruce Beresford) - Wrote about it here.

Bride of Frankenstein (d. James Whale) - "I love dead...hate living" is the whole film, chilling and sad, judgmental and mournful.

Bridge of Spies (d. Steven Spielberg) - We are officially taking Spielberg and Tom Hanks for granted.

A Bridge Too Far (d. Richard Attenborough) - No, it's not perfect. But did you see Sean Connery shoot that Nazi through the window?? Suh-weet.

A Brief History of Time (d. Errol Morris) - Wrote about it here.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (d. Sam Peckinpah) - "Am I still gonna get paid?" Oh, Sam.

Bringing Out the Dead (d. Martin Scorsese) - Taxi Driver as phantasmagoria, Travis Bickle as lifesaver.

Broadcast News (d. James L. Brooks) - The one Brooks film in which everything he's trying to bring together does finally come together. Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter are through-the-roof good.

Broadway Danny Rose (d. Woody Allen) - If pressed on the matter, I'd say this is my favorite Woody Allen movie. In addition to being his funniest, it's also his most impeccably calibrated.

Broken Flowers (d. Jim Jarmusch) - Jarmusch's version of an existential mystery. This had to star Bill Murray, or no one.

The Brood (d. David Cronenberg) - Wrote about it here.

The 'Burbs (d. Joe Dante) - I'm not a big Dante guy, but boy do I love this movie. That the somewhat controversial ending subverts the message-movie climax it seemed to be satisfied with is merely one if its many joys.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Announcement. Announcement! ANNOUNCEMENT!!!

No, I'm not packing it in, regardless of what the paucity of new blog posts around here might indicate. Instead, I'm Working On A Project, and am choosing to tell anyone who's still around about it as a way of forcing myself to follow through.

The short version of what I'm doing is, I'm making a list. Which is almost done. It's a list of my, I don't know, nearly 200 or so favorite movies. Long-time readers might remember that I did this once before, but for various reasons I feel compelled to do it again. One reason is that the old list, which I'm not going to link to, has long been in desperate need of both pruning and expansion. Second, I'd like to do more with it than merely provide a list of titles. I'd like to comment in some small way on each one. These comments are unlikely to be any longer than three or so sentences, what with there being somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 movies on which to comment and so forth, and when it's a movie I've already written about at some length I'll more than likely just provide a link to that post. Furthermore, unlike the old list, this new one won't be presented as a single post but rather as a series of I-don't-know-how-many. As many as seems both necessary and practical, I figure.

And finally, a brief word about how I go about making lists like this, when I go about it at all. Lots of folks engaged in similar types of frivolity tend to get themselves all wound up about the difference between "best" and "favorite", a pressing issue with which I don't plan on concerning myself. My list will be a crazy, iconoclastic, in your face, hot-rodding samurai meth angel mish-mash of "favorites" and "best", whatever the latter really means, as well as movies I've only seen once, years ago, but which for one reason or another, I can't shake. Films, in other words, which have had a significant impact on me (some of these I'm in the midst of re-watching, in case I'm not confident the impact had less to do with me than the film). Whatever marks these particular films have left on me (I've shifted from "impact" to "mark", you may have noticed) should probably be positive in some sense of the word, and I'll do my best to keep this straight, so that, for example, Seth Rogen's Hot Dog Dicks or whatever the fuck that thing was called, doesn't accidentally find its way in. But again, each film on the list will come equipped with some sort of glib explanatory comment.

So there you go. Stay tuned, etc. Here's a picture to goose this post with a little energy.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

More Capsule Reviews? Indeed, Yes.

The Lovers on the Bridge (d. Leos Carax) - When discussing reclusive, meticulous, and relatively unprolific film directors, like Terence Malick (nine, possibly ten features in 44 years) and Stanley Kubrick (13 features in 46 years), one doesn't often find Leos Carax thrown into the mix. He's made five films since 1984, and his name is a pseudonym! What's he trying to hide, and so forth. The fact is, each of Carax's films since Boy Meets Girl, his first, has been in some way more opulent or radical, culminating thus far in 2012's completely bonkers Holy Motors, and his most financially excessive and difficult movie, in practical terms, turned out also to be his most successful. That would be this one, The Lovers on the Bridge, for a long time the most difficult of Carax's films to get ones hands on, until last Tuesday, when Kino Lorber put it out on Blu-ray.

The film, from 1991, stars Juliette Binoche as Michele, a mysterious woman who is discovered sleeping in the spot on Paris's Pont Neuf (a bridge that in the film has been closed to the public for repair and restoration, but during filming had not been, forcing Carax to recreate portions of the Pont Neuf and its surroundings as a set) favored by Alex. Alex is played by Denis Lavant, an actor who was destined to meet Carax, and an actor whom Carax was destined to meet. Anyway, they're homeless, as is Hans (Klaus-Michael Gruber). Michele is an artist who is losing her eyesight, but where exactly she came from, and why she's now homeless is unclear. Alex, falling instantly in love with her, shamelessly paws through her belongings which, however meager, offer several leads (including a loaded gun) that point towards an unhappy romance in her past, and perhaps a quest for revenge.

Which ain't the half of it. There's mystery and betrayal and cruelty and violent death and intense romantic flourishes. In the most famous sequence from Mauvais Sang, his film previous to this, Carax shows us Lavant dancing madly down the street at night, to the tune of David Bowie's "Modern Love". Carax sort of recreates that here, but goes bigger with everything: instead of one piece of music, it's several; instead of one person, it's too; instead of a street at night, it's a bridge at night; instead of nothing in the sky, it's fireworks. The sequence is astonishing, as is much of the rest of the film. The Lovers on the Bridge is gripping, and wild, and completely unpredictable. In the end, though, Carax is romanticizing something that I don't find romantic. To such a degree that I wonder if Carax even meant to romanticize it (all I'll say is, Michele could do better). If he didn't, then he's at odds with the film he made. Then again, if Carax hadn't made it, no one else would have, and that would be too bad.

The V.I.P.s (d. Anthony Asquith) - This is one of those damn movies in which Orson Welles wears one of his stupid discolored fake noses. The other two I know about (and I'm thinking specifically of the color films, so the hue of the nose stands out; Welles wore many fake noses in black and white movies) are Claude Chabrol's Ten Days' Wonder from 1971, and Welles's own The Immortal Story from 1968. This one, The V.I.P.s, which stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a fiery married couple coming apart in Heathrow airport, hit theaters in 1963, so we're spanning a near decade here. The nose seems somehow most fitting in this picture, since his whole role is a put-on of sorts. He plays Max Buda, a Hungarian film producer who needs to get out of London with a ditzy actress (Gloria Gritti) by midnight to avoid a hit on his taxes. He's a cartoon, and in This is Orson Welles he has little good to say about it, other than to say that Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith are "tremendous" in it, and that director Asquith shouldn't be judged solely on The V.I.P.s as the project, from a director's point of view, was hopeless, it being obviously controlled by the Burton-Taylors from the start.

But the movie ain't that bad! Written by playwright Terence Rattigan (best known through the film adaptations of Asquith's own The Browning Version and David Mamet's badly underrated The Winslow Boy) The V.I.P.s is very much an "it is what it is" kind of movie, in that it probably was never going to be that good, but so what? It follows several stories of various VIPs stranded by fog in Heathrow: the previously described story about Burton and Taylor, which also features Louis Jordan as the man stealing Taylor away; another about a Duchess (Margaret Rutherford) who is in danger of losing her home; the Welles one; and finally, the one with Smith and Taylor. And Welles is right, they're tremendous. Taylor, allowed to speaking with his native Australian accent, plays the young owner of a tractor company, who is about to lose it all in a takeover, and possibly go to prison, because he put his faith in the wrong person. Unless, that is, a very large amount of money can find its way into his bank account by tomorrow morning. The thing is, nobody seemed to actually care all that much about the Rutherford or Welles stories (regarding the latter, least of all Welles himself, I'm assuming), so it's really a movie of two halves (which at a certain point converge). And I liked both. Burton, Taylor, and Jordan, all give exactly the performances they need to give in order to put across their bit -- Burton might be said to be giving more than is necessary, but one also senses that this film might've hit a bit close to home for him in certain ways.

Anyhow, it's Taylor and Smith who are the show. Maggie Smith plays Taylor's personal secretary, who is also in love with him, and it's all one massive Thing Which We've All Seen Before, but the two actors, and Rattigan's very professional script, made me feel quite wrapped up in it all. I started watching the film, thinking I'd probably hate it. The sons of bitches fooled me.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Capsule Reviews: More of Them

45 Years (d. Andrew Haigh) - This remarkable 2015 film, writer-director Andrew Haigh's third feature, based on a story by David Constantine, and newly released on home video by Criterion, stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a married couple who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Just a few minutes after the film begins, Geoff, Courtenay's character, receives a letter informing him that the body of Katya, his girlfriend whom he was going to marry until she died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1962, has been found. This causes Geoff to, he believes naturally and quietly and his wife fears obsessively, think back on those days, and his youth, and the sad death of a young woman. For Rampling's Kate, this is terrifying evidence that perhaps her nearly fifty years of marriage to a man she loves was, for him, merely a kind of second-rate consolation after he lost the one woman he truly loved.

Haigh's film moves along at a pace as gentle and natural as the country house and land where Kate and Geoff live. And the performances by Rampling and Courtenay are impeccable. I frankly can't imagine two actors better suited for this film, who could possibly appear on screen and immediately inhabit their roles. Rampling's performance is a slow trip from soft to brittle; she is constantly, inwardly fighting against the fears that she hopes are irrational. Meanwhile, Courtenay's Geoff embodies a kind of intelligent obliviousness: if it turns out that he's been pulling the wool over Kate's eyes for the last half century, he's been doing the same to himself. Otherwise, he'd be better equipped to deal with the news about Katya without shoving it (again, gently) in Kate's face.

One thing about 45 Years that I haven't stopped thinking about since I saw the film is an aspect of the film's plot, such as it is, that I supposed I'd better not spoil. All I'll say is, at first I thought this small but crucial revelation was, and I'll put this word in quotes to highlight the fact that I now believe my reaction was foolish, "unrealistic." The fact is, however, that the thought process, or lack thereof, which led to the moment I'm not telling you about is one that millions of people constantly engage in. Until one day the penny drops. Or doesn't. Usually, when and if it does, the impact is not so great as it is here. At any rate, it's just another example of the dozens of ways that Andrew Haigh captures simple humanity throughout this film.

Her Husband's Affairs (d. S. Sylvan Simon) - So, Bill Weldon (Franchot Tone) works in advertising, writing slogans. He turns to his new wife Margaret (Lucille Ball) for opinions on the slogans he comes up with, but all he really wants from her -- and he openly admits to this -- is her approval. Which she gives. However, after coming up with a top-notch slogan for a new straw hat, Bill's achievement takes a backseat to the praise his bosses (Edward Everett Horton and Gene Lockhart) heap on Margaret, who tricks the mayor into endorsing said straw hat. A bit rankled at first, Bill soon forgets when his friend, the eccentric inventor and professor Emil Glinka (Mikhail Rasumny) comes over and says in effect "Hey Bill and Margaret, will you invest in my life's work: an embalming fluid that turns corpses into glass statues, shaped in a pose of your choosing?" No, they tell him. Well, he continues, if you need a shave, this jar is full of a byproduct of my new embalming fluid that I don't even care about, but if you rub it on your face it gets rid of all your stubble. No more shaving, no more razors. Seeing dollar signs, Bill takes the cream to his bosses, who also flip, though after all the important contracts and et cetera have been signed, it is learned that this cream has a disastrous side effect, which perhaps you can guess. In any case, the person who figures out a way to turn Bill's lemons into lemonade is Margaret.

Which brings us to maybe the half hour mark of this screwball comedy which will eventually take the audience all the way to the courthouse. This loony-toon of a movie, written by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer in full-on "fuck it" mode, is a delight. Directed by S. Sylvan Simon is perhaps best-known for The Fuller Brush Man, a Red Skelton vehicle written by Frank Tashlin, Simon would later produce The Fuller Brush Girl, also written by Tashlin and starring Lucille Ball. Sylvan was dead, at just 41, by the time Tashlin started his own career as a director of feature films, but though he wasn't involved in the film, it's not hard to imagine Her Husband's Affairs as one of Tashlin's own wildly Technicolored movies. Simon may not have had Tashlin's visual invention, but the two men seemed to share a sense of the absurd. Simon doesn't ever wink: the plot of this film is so nuts, and it's a no-question screwball comedy, but the characters regard the lunacy as no more or less than another catastrophe that might become an opportunity. Bill is kind of a prick, but I think the film knows that, and it's only because it sorta kinda has to that Hecht, Lederer, and Simon end the film the way they do. There's a more logical ending, and better, ending we'll just have to imagine. Either way, Tone isn't the star, Ball is, and she's terrific. Deathless stardom was right around the corner for her, and you can see why.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Thoughts on Silence

Good evening. Well, enough of that. Over on Paul Clark's blog, which tallies and records the winners and runners-up and other odds and ends for his annual Muriel Awards, I wrote in the neighborhood of 1200 words on what I consider the best film of 2016, and then some, Martin Scorsese's Silence. Please for to go over there and read them!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Chabrol's Inferno

One of the better, by which I mean both "perfect" and "inevitable", author-director pairings I've encountered is that of Ruth Rendell and Claude Chabrol. Rendell, the late British writer of exquisitely diabolical and bleak tales of human catastrophe may not have been adapted by Chabrol, the late French director of either an individual's moral collapse or the blossoming of that same individual's immorality, depending on how you look at it, all that often (there are only two: Chabrol adapted Rendell's The Bridesmaid in 2004, and her masterpiece A Judgment in Stone as Le Ceremonie in 1995), but the degree to which the two artists seemed to be on the same page is akin to the psychological twinship of David Cronenberg and J.G. Ballard. Cronenberg has thus far only adapted Ballard once, but when Ballard died it's a little surprising that Cronenberg didn't himself pitch over face down in the garden, mysteriously. 

All of which is to say that, just as it's impossible for me to watch certain Cronenberg films such as Shivers and eXistenZ that are not adaptations of Ballard (and in the case of the former was written in complete ignorance of Ballard's work) without nevertheless thinking of Ballard almost constantly, it is similarly pointless for me to bother trying to resist, any time I watch a Chabrol film, the specter of Ruth Rendell hovering over the proceedings. And even though Rendell was a writer of suspense and mystery novels, this juxtaposition occurs in my head even when the Chabrol film I'm watching is not of a similar genre. Which brings me to the Chabrol films collected together in a new Blu-ray set by Cohen Media. This trio of 90s films from the extremely prolific director did not follow one after the other -- in fact they're broken up by first The Eye of Vichy, his 1993 documentary about Nazi-occupied France, and the aforementioned La Ceremonie -- but as a package both harmonize with each other and feed into my Rendell thoughts, and break off sharply, leaving me stranded as someone who may have overstated his case. But in any event, enough about Rendell, would probably be the wise philosophy hereafter, and more of Chabrol.

But I'll be damned if Betty, the first film chronologically in the set, doesn't remind me of Rendell. At least as far as the psychology of the characters is concerned. In Chabrol's film, based on a novel by Georges Simenon, the titular Betty is played by Marie Trintignant with a wild mix of despair, depression, innocence, aimlessness, coquettishness, and, as it transpires, more. When we first meet her, Betty is horribly drunk, with the aim of becoming even drunker. A man claiming to be a doctor (and maybe he is, but it turns out he's also a junkie) is happy to oblige her, and take from her later whatever payment he deems fitting, one presumes, until Mario (Jean-Francois Garreaud), the owner of the bar to which the doctor has taken Betty, and Laure (Stpehane Audran), Mario's lover and a retired nurse who lives in a nearby luxury hotel, save her, with Laure almost instantly taking the younger woman under her wing. Laure rents a room, adjacent to her own, at the hotel for Betty, and helps Betty arrange to have her clothes and other personal items picked up from her former home, where her estranged husband, the son of a prominent military figure, and their two children still live. This all leads to Betty explaining to Laure how she ended up in this lowly alcoholic haze of a life (though Laure herself can drink, herself), most of which we learn in a series of flashbacks. Chabrol gives these scenes a while to take a full shape -- how and why did Betty disgrace herself in the eyes of her husband and her in-laws? what did Betty sell, as a way of buying her way out of the family and a future of public scandal, a decision that fills Betty with shame and seems to fuel her drinking? -- until finally a clear, or clear-ish picture of this tortured young woman reveals itself.

And yet. I can't go too much further without robbing Betty of too much of its considerable power. Though not a suspense film, Betty has within it a considerable amount of quiet suspense, and, more importantly, though not a mystery film, the force of its final impact is due to an accumulation of story and character information, and of performance. Chabrol, who up until the point that everything we need to know has been learned has been as invisible as ever, steps out of the shadows and kicks you, and everyone, in the stomach. At no point in Betty is a crime committed, yet by the end it's understood that the world the characters inhabit is an amoral one, and maintaining one's honor, and expecting others to do the same, is a sure way to bring Rendell-ian doom down upon one's head.

More terrifying still is L'Enfer, from 1994. Originally conceived and written by Henri-Georges Clouzot, the film was begun but left unfinished by Clouzot in 1964 (footage of the aborted project is used in Serge Bromberg's documentary Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno). Thirty years later, Chabrol adapted the original script, and cast Emmanuelle Beart and long-time collaborator Francois Cluzet as a young married couple who run a lakeside hotel. Initially they seem quite happy, but after a while Paul (Cluzet) begins to suspect Nelly (Beart) of being unfaithful with one of the hotel's regular guests, Martineau (Marc Lavoine, a kind of French version of Everett McGill). Even before Paul makes his suspicions known (first to the audience, eventually to Nelly), the viewer is clued into something being off in their relationship by Chabrol's use of a few frames of pitch black to separate some scenes. At first jarring, then perhaps merely an experiment in visually representing jumps in time, this technique achieves its full, if mild, note of disorientation when at one point it seems to cut off Nelly in mid-sentence.

When Nelly first learns of Paul's suspicions, she's touched, because she takes it as evidence of his love for her. But soon his jealousy becomes more aggressive, and, further, it becomes impossible to persuade him that he's wrong. Chabrol makes it fairly clear, I think, that Paul's accusations are baseless, but the precise reason Paul is so certain is less so (though I suspect casting Emmanuelle Beart as Nelly was not done arbitrarily). This fits, as his behavior, and finally his violence, become, one hopes, impossible to understand, and Paul shifts from a man one might find it possible to empathize with to a man one hopes to see hit by a bus. Both Beart and Cluzet are superb, but Cluzet in particular feels frighteningly authentic. Watching L'Enfer, as Cluzet's Paul begins to really spin off into a storm of choking rage and paranoia, I thought "This seems like exactly the kind of man, or one of the type of men, who murders his wife." I was reminded less of Rendell, I'll confess, than of another Chabrol film, his more naturalistic (in L'Enfer, Chabrol sometimes employs Dutch angles and back-projected shadows to highlight the irreality of Paul's thought process) Pleasure Party from 1975, which, along with Fosse's Star 80, strike me as the most depressingly believable depictions of murder, and murderers, I've seen on film. Anyway, with Cluzet, Chabrol again reaches those same heights of unease and menace, and with Beart that same heartbreaking confusion and fear, as the marriage she thought was happy becomes a prison of terror and abuse. She woke up one morning and found herself in Hell.

It's a curious irony that the last film in the set, 1997's The Swindle, is a light-hearted con artist thriller that also includes, of the three, the bloodiest moment of violence. But at a certain point, as is the tradition in this sort of light thriller, the stakes must be, or often are, raised. Chabrol, directing from his own original script, does so effectively, but up to that point The Swindle is simply great fun. It's about an at first glance mismatched pair of con artists -- Isabelle Huppert as Betty and Michel Serraut as Victor, the age difference pronounced, but other than business partners what are they? Their relationship doesn't appear to be romantic. In any case, the plot takes them to Sils Maria in Switzerland, where a local hotel is hosting a dentist's convention, which Victor believes offers many opportunities to rip off rich orthodontists. Betty precedes him there and when Victor arrives he finds out that she's already found a mark, but not one associated with a convention. The man, Maurice (Cluzet again), is hauling around an attache case stuffed with five million Francs, which he has to deliver for, etc. Victor and Betty begin palling around with Maurice, laying the groundwork to snatch the money, while, gradually, the question arises, as it often does in these situations, who is conning who? And who is conning that person?

I do not mean to sound dismissive with those glibly phrased questions. The Swindle really is a delight, Serraut in particular is wonderful (he's closer to being the star than he is to sharing the main stage with Huppert), and part of that delight comes from recognizing the structure but not knowing what exactly that structure is supporting this time. And there are just lots of little details, like Cluzet, somewhat more likable here than he was in L'Enfer, a little bit drunk, raving that cheese fondue "gives [him], personally, a taste sensation like no other." Chabrol seems to be on vacation a little bit here, and more power to him. It's fun to go along with him.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Books I Read in 2016

Sorry about the absence of anything like a "blog post" lately. But things have been, you know, whatever. Anyhow, I'm back with this, my annual list of The Best Books I Read This Year. As always, these books more likely than not were originally published in years other than 2016 (although there are three 2016 books this time around, which may be some kind of record). Of all the books I read this year, of whatever type and of whatever vintage, these are my favorites. No particular order, except for the last two, which are my two favorites of the year.

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley - This thriller was something of a sensation in the UK, but somewhat less so here. Who can say why, though its fairly reserved pace might have something to do with it. Hurley's story is about a church's annual trip to a gray and windswept UK island nicknamed the Loney. The previous year, something happened on that trip which haunted the then parish priest until his death. The new priest, rather less strict and more easy-going than his late predecessor, wants this year's trip to be somewhere more light-hearted, but he bows to pressure, and off to the Loney they go. While there, the mystery of the island is solved, in a manner of speaking, and the truth is genuinely disturbing.

For some reason, I was resistant to The Loney at first, but it wasn't long before Hurley's simmering, moody novel got hold of me. Previously, he'd published two collections of short fiction, which I'll be looking into soon.

Herovit's World by Barry N. Malzberg - One of at least two novels by deeply respected yet nevertheless cult science fiction writer Malzberg in which his subject, or target, is science fiction itself (for the record, the other one is Galaxies).  Published in 1973, when SF was still in the throes of its New Wave boom, Malzberg's short novel is about Herovit, an SF writer whose heyday was several years earlier, and who now barely survives regurgitating what he and other Golden Age writers had already hammered to death before the 60s had even begun. As his marriage fails, and a smugly comfortable sell-out compatriot insists that Herovit is incapable of more than what he's doing now, Herovit begins to break down. Not so much a science fiction novel as a feverish psychodrama, Herovit's World is one of the most damning genre examinations ever written.

Silence by Shusaku Endo - A novel of such intense moral and spiritual complexity that I hardly know what to say about it in this space, Endo's 17th Century-set classic is about two Portuguese Catholic missionaries who travel undercover to Japan to give comfort to persecuted Japanese Catholics, and to find Father Ferreira, another missionary who, it's been said, denounced his faith under torture by the Japanese authorities. Silence is a novel of great brutality, the suffering of the innocent is relentless. How is it possible to hold onto one's faith when your cries of mercy are met with silence? This, of course, is the central question, not just of the novel but of religious faith, and Endo -- himself a Catholic -- attacks it with a clarity, and a determination to not fall for a simplified version of either the question or the answer, that is pretty much unheard of now.

Mr. Fox by Barbara Comyns - For what I'm pretty sure is the fourth year in a row, Comyns has made this list (a status much desired by deceased British writers all over). Comyns's fiction is occasionally bizarre (see The Vet's Daughter for example), but other times, as in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Mr. Fox, it depicts the simple complexities faced by characters who are struggling through the days, weeks, months, and years of their lives. Here, Caroline Seymour, a young single mother (her husband decided one day to leave) meets and sort of befriends a shady businessman named Mr. Fox. They soon decide, for the sake of financial expediency, to live together (platonically), and for several years their lives intertwine and separate: Mr. Fox goes back to London while Caroline takes a demeaning job as a live-in housekeeper for a rude, demanding woman and her brat of a daughter; Caroline moves back in with Mr. Fox when he buys a building and becomes a landlord (though much of the actual work is done by Caroline). Mr. Fox devises a scheme to buy used pianos and sell them for a profit. Much of this goes on during World War II, so in the midst of this they have to worry about German bombing raids.

Mr. Fox was Comyns's penultimate novel, but I could detect no slip in her talents. If anything, while I don't consider this her best, necessarily, her skills here are as fine-tuned as they ever were. The humor and the tragedy are delivered in the same tone, and this story about domestic tension and the dramas of employment, somehow moves at a headlong pace. And regarding that domestic tension, most of that comes from how Caroline views Mr. Fox, how the reader views him, how the reader is meant to view him, and how we take it all by the end. It's handled exquisitely, because the reader never sees it being handled.

Dispatches by Michael Herr - Herr's book, one of the seminal pieces of 20th Century war journalism, has sort of had everything said about it that could possibly be said at this point. All I can tell you is that I've never felt the ungodly stress and fear of the Vietnam War, to the extent that only reading about it can make me feel anything of the sort, as I felt within the first ten pages of Dispatches. It's like you're breathing it in, while wondering how any of the men you're reading about, journalists as well as soldiers, could have ever survived twenty minutes, let alone months and years. This book has an incredible, undeniable texture to it. Even if it was just spoken words, I'd still feel like I could hold it in my hands.

Cigarettes by Harry Mathews - Considered by more than a few people to be Harry Mathews's masterpiece, my expectation was that Cigarettes would be a stylistically dense piece that, however rewarding, I would have to pull myself through. And indeed it is dense, but not in terms of language, which is quite straightforward. Where Cigarettes is dense, and maybe the word here is rich, is in its incidents and characters, the former of which span decades (and slip in and out of the worlds of finance, horse ownership, and art, with sex being the main thread connecting them all) as do some of the latter, who cross paths with each other, or are related to each other, or sleep with or betray or steal from each other. Though it could be described as a class satire, which I suppose it can't not be on some level, the novel is just too unusual to be merely that. The story itself is rambunctious, but somehow in the telling of it, Mathews himself refuses to be, which lends to the novel an air of biography. Which is perhaps the key to the satire.

The Lake of Darkness by Ruth Rendell - This is how Ruth Rendell begins this, one of her typically skin-crawling novel about a psychopath who mixes his life with those of naive, unsuspecting, every-day nitwits:

Scorpio is metaphysics, putrefaction and death, regeneration, passion, lust and violence, insight and profundity; inheritance, loss, occultism, astrology, borrowing and lending, others' possessions. Scorpians are magicians, astrologers, alchemists, surgeons, bondsmen, and undertakers. The gem for Scorpio is the snakestone, the plant the cactus; eagles and wolves and scorpions are its creatures, its body part is the genitals, its weapon the Obligatory Pain, and its card in the Tarot is Death.

Finn shared his birthday, November 16, with the Emperor Tiberius. He had been told by a soothsayer, who was a friend of his mother's whom she had met in the mental hospital, that he would live to a great age and die by violence.

If that's not the kind of writing you're looking for, then buzz off, friend! Like Barbara Comyns, Ruth Rendell's talent is one that is so expected that it tends to be taken for granted. In truth, we didn't know how good we had it.

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze - My experience with crime fiction this year has mostly been one of reading very bad books by good writers. It's been disheartening, but there have been a few exceptions, the most striking of which is this one. I wrote about it here.

I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton - In this novel, originally published in 1930, a young man with no prospects named James Wrexham answers an ad in the paper looking for someone to catalogue the library of one Jonathan Scrivener, while Scrivener is out of the country. Wrexham gets the job for reasons he can't quite figure out and discovers that Scrivener has already left the country so the two can't meet before Wrexham begins work. Furthermore, he will be living in Scrivener's opulent apartment, and his pay will be extremely generous. Over the course of the next few months, Wrexham will meet several of Scrivener's friends, none of whom knew Scrivener was leaving the country, and none of whom have known the strange man very long. Wrexham is hoping they can tell him something about Scrivener, and Scrivener's friends are hoping Wrexham can do the same.

A fascinating mystery in which much of the evidence gathered is done so through conversation or by making assumptions that may or may not turn out to be true, I Am Jonathan Scrivener is a singular book, a sort of metaphysical suspense novel about the way people choose to live, and whether or not that was ever really a choice.

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - For a long time, I counted this as the Philip Roth Novel I Wanted To Read The Most, and so I did. As you may know, this one's fairly notorious, even infamous, for its graphic and depraved (I feel pretty confident this is the right word for some of the stuff that goes on here) sexual content. Mentioned less often is the emotional wallop that stuff carries when read in context. The novel's about an aging puppeteer named Mickey Sabbath who has betrayed every woman he's ever been with, ever married, and as the novel opens he's become sexually obsessed with his latest mistress, also married, and who dies of cancer. This sends Mickey on an aimless, amoral, rather disgusting journey that left me pitying and hating him in...well, I won't say "in equal measure" because that would be a lie. Anyway, the last line of the novel says everything, and there's a sequence about halfway through where the reader is made to jump back and forth between a footnoted phone sex conversation between Sabbath and his mistress, and, on the top half of the page, a long passage about Sabbath's wife, and the life he's left her to live. Sort of takes the heat out of the phone sex, I'll tell you that.

The Late Breakfasters by Robert Aickman - "Griselda de Reptonville did not know what love was until she joined one of Mrs Hatch's famous house parties at Beams, and there met Leander." So begins the great Robert Aickman's only full length novel (he also wrote a novella called The Model). As far as I'm concerned, Aickman is the greatest horror writer the 20th Century-plus ever produced, so it's somewhat curious, and therefore interesting, that his longest piece of fiction isn't horror at all. Of course, by "at all" I mean "mostly not"-- still, though, there's a ghost, and sinister goings-on in cemeteries. Otherwise, though, The Late Breakfasters is a wonderful, if sometimes deeply off-kilter, English Country Estate novel, full of the kind of sly humor and devastating characterizations you'd expect from the best of that form. Until, you know, the action leaves the country estate, and more than half of the damn thing becomes a different kind of society novel. With further strangeness to come.

"Those, if any, who wish to know more about me should plunge beneath the frivolous surface of The Late Breakfasters." I found nothing frivolous about The Late Breakfasters myself, but I did find that the mystery of Robert Aickman, for me, had deepened.

My Father, the Pornographer by Chris Offutt - Offutt's 2016 memoir has at its deeply fascinating center Andrew J. Offutt, Chris's father and one-time mainstream science fiction writer, turned, after a while, full-time pornographer. What's incredible are the details: that his father wrote his pornographic novels openly, regardless of his many pseudonyms, that his wife typed all his many hundreds of manuscripts, that he talked openly around the house about his work in porn, that he was at the same time a serious writer, or anyway considered himself to be (he had a short story published in Harlan Ellison's famous anthology Again, Dangerous Visions), that he gave up a lucrative, if hated, career in insurance in order to write pornography full-time, and that he wrote it all from a house in Appalachian hills of Kentucky. Clearly not a good man in the, er, traditional sense, Andrew J. Offutt (who died in 2013) had an enormous impact on his family, not least on Chris, his writer son, whose task upon his father's death, was to dig through and catalogue the thousands upon thousands of pages his dad had produced over the decades. In doing so, he forges a new relationship with his dad as a fellow writer, something that never happened while he was alive. Chris Offutt becomes Andrew Offutt's most insightful, and possibly most generous, critic, while relating stories of family and childhood that are sometimes funny, but generally awful, humiliating, terrifying. My Father, the Pornographer ends with a revelation that I regarded with horror, but which Chris tries to make the best of. It leaves Andrew Offutt as a figure I'm glad I never met, but also as a man I can't help but pity.

The Difference by Charles Willeford - The best way to describe this, crime writer Willeford's lone Western, is that it is exactly the kind of Western you'd expect Willeford to write. This is a compliment. Telling the story of Johnny Shaw, a young man determined to exact revenge on a rich land baron and his sons (and who, when we meet him, has already killed one of them and is on the run) for taking the land Shaw thought was his. Initially portrayed a sympathetic kid with good reason to be outraged, eventually, in classic Willeford style, Shaw is proved to be a pure sociopath. If the men he's feuding with are also villainous, they perhaps at least have human blood in their veins. Shaw doesn't. He doesn't even rise to the level of snake.

Based on a True Story by Norm Macdonald - Labeled a memoir but in fact a novel, Norm Macdonald's Based on a True Story may be the best book ever written by a stand-up comic. Loosely structured around Macdonald's (the character) iffy plan to gamble and win big in Vegas and taking the form of a road novel, Macdonald (the writer and comedian) has used the basic facts of his life to build a hilarious, dead-pan alternate universe in which, for example, yes, he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, but he achieved this primarily by taking advantage of Lorne Michaels's morphine addiction. But this is not at all a linear tale, and Macdonald digresses constantly, talking about his friends in show business (he is sincere and heartfelt when talking about Chris Farley), and dropping the occasional bombshell. For instance, it turns out that, though he was a successful comedian, Rodney Dangerfield was plagued his whole life by the fact that no one ever gave him any respect. Macdonald writes about being told once by Dangerfield that a hooker once said to him "Not tonight, I have a headache." Then Macdonald asks "Can you imagine hearing something like that from a prostitute?"

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe - Perhaps the most intellectually stimulating book I read in 2016 is this one, my first by Nobel laureate Oe. About a writer with an autistic son, much like Oe, whose ambition is to write a book of guidance and definitions for autistic children. Weaved into this is the writer's, and one presumes Oe's, relationship with the poetry of William Blake, whose enormously complicated philosophy, language, and spirituality inspire the writer, and will possibly guide him through his difficult task. Present also is the writer's memories of another writer he once knew, referred to only as M in this book but who is clearly meant to be Yukio Mishima (whom Oe himself knew, and whom Oe had many issues with). And so on. It's both easy and more than likely a mistake to regard Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! as a piece of fictionalized autobiography, but even if it is exactly that, it's no less rich for the fact. I read this back in February, and it still pops into my head from time to time.

Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore - Beginning with a fifty-page story of deceit and murder among what I guess you'd have to call cavemen, written in a syntactically fractured language that, well, takes some getting used to, this book, comic book writer Moore's first novel (his second, the 1,300 page Jerusalem, came out this year. I'll get to it) is a series of short stories that are connected by theme and imagery, and occasional references to what we've seen before, but more than any of those they're connected by geography. Spanning thousands of years (the last story takes place in 1996, the year the novel was published), the whole novel takes place in the stretch of land that would become, and now is, Northampton, where Moore has lived his entire life (and where Jerusalem is also set, by the way). As the title suggests, Voice of the Fire is infernal and apocalyptic, and the imagery is at times terrifying. Individual chapters could be lifted out and work as historical horror stories. It's quite an unnerving piece of work.

The Sundial by Shirley Jackson - As it happens, earlier today I watched, for the first time, Andrei Tarkovsky's film The Sacrifice, which, in simplified terms, is about a group of people living, or visiting, a Swedish country house when the news breaks that a nuclear war is about to begin. Transplant that basic idea (also remove the nuclear weapons and make the danger something closer to the Apocalypse) to a village in the United States and you have The Sundial, Shirley Jackson's fourth novel, from 1958. Another major difference (there are quite a few others, of course) is that of tone: while The Sacrifice is somber (if also occasionally absurdist and fantastical), The Sundial is actually closer to The Late Breakfasters -- sardonic, cutting, funny. If anything, Jackson is more acidic in portraying her characters than Aickman, but then again, Jackson's characters are, by and large, more awful. In essence, The Sundial is about a bunch of passive-aggressive shits waiting for the world to end, an event they're sure they're going to survive. If that doesn't sound like a good book, I don't know what does.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey by Brian Moore - It seems like every year, I read at least one novel about a down-on-his-luck family man trying to find a job so he can support his family, but constantly getting in his own way. Obviously some of these are better than others. The Luck of Ginger Coffey is possibly the best one I've ever read, and maybe the best one it is possible to write. About an Irishman, Ginger Coffey, who moves with his wife and young daughter to Canada, only to find the job prospects that led him there collapsing almost instantly. When I learned early on that the money he'd set aside for the trip back home to Ireland, should Canada not work out, and which Ginger's wife Veronica believed was never in danger, had been almost completely spent, and Ginger still jobless, I think I caught my breath. Ginger has some small victories here and there, and he's not without ambition (he wants to become a reporter), but whatever ground he gains he quickly loses, or gives away, and soon enough he's drinking way too much, there's no ounce of happiness at home, and your heart just breaks. In the early stages of the novel, Ginger believes, perhaps even correctly, that his one friend in the world is a young boy who lives upstairs, who likes to play games with Ginger. How that relationship ends just about destroyed me. And then the ending of this novel actually made my eyes well up. Books never make me cry. Except this one.