Hike to Lookout Point, Hallowe'en 2022. Photo by Juliet Clark
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Movie Comment : Snapshots from a one month trial binge

"And here's George in front of the Taj Mahal. I think they said it was the Taj Mahal."

Glass Onion (2022)

Believe me, I understand that puzzles aren't reality and puzzleworld isn't realism: before age twelve my favorite authors were Isaac Asimov and Ellery Queen. Even in puzzleworld you're generally allowed at most one identical twin or one bullet stopped by the Bible mother gave you but, OK, to some extent I can coast on the backwash of good will from Knives Out.

And I understand that Rian Johnson wanted to end with a comforting lie; god knows I was eager to be led down the garden path. But a steaming chin-high acre of unadulterated horseshit is not a garden path, and expecting us to swallow what you've shoved us into is not comforting.

If justice exists, it exists somewhere outside the puzzleworld. In such predicaments hard-boiled mysteries provided more satisfaction by admitting defeat, but that might harm the franchise.

The Power of the Dog (2021)

In which Jane Campion successfully adapts an unfilmable property (not for the first time) and Benedict Cumberbatch embodies an Anglo-American masculine ideal which is instantly recognizable despite having, so far as I can recall, never before been shown: the embittered omnicompetent noble savage misogynous classicist gay cowboy bully sort of a Natty Bumppo / Viscount Greystoke / Ethan Edwards / Achilles / Sir Richard Francis Burton type.

With fine sleight of hand, just around the time his and Kirsten Dunst's knock-'er-down-again-pa act becomes tiresome, it fades into the story simmering beneath it all along the ancient struggle, sung so often by Patricia Highsmith, of father and son, homosocial macho and heterosocial sissy, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart and "Phil" (supply your own completion) learns that he should've worried less about Metamorphoses IV and more about Metamorphoses IX.

It Follows (2014)

As connoisseurs of mysterious ailments, we know that any disease which always kills its host and infects only one host at any time will not last long. Diseases don't work that way but curses do.

What kind of curse? Obviously a zero-sum rational homo-economicus possession curse!

Demonic possession? Possession of the title to a 1958 Plymouth Fury? No, those aren't quite right....

In a sleepless hour later that night it finally came to mind: the curse of AIDS, which (authorities tell us) can only be lifted by raping a virgin. David Robert Mitchell's account even explains the otherwise inexplicable way that men tend to go ahead and die of AIDS despite their cure!

Surprisingly, none of the enthusiastic reviews I've seen bother to congratulate Mitchell on this insight.

Passing (2021)

An even closer adaptation than Canine Power, which must've won (I'm so confident that I'm not even going to look it up) a special Academy Award for Most Effective Faithful Realization of a Problematic Ending.

. . .

It didn't last

November 5, 2022:

After dinner and dishwashing last night something happened, or stopped happening. I sat on the couch, feet curled under me for warmth, and couldn't think of a reason to move. I remembered that I usually read, or listened to music, or watched a movie, but I couldn't remember why. So I just stayed put until I recalled strongly enough that the ants that had swarmed into a kitchen cabinet were now gone and I could shift the roasting pans and colanders back again, and then I carefully stood up, carried the kitchenware into the kitchen, put on gloves, cleaned the ant traps out, and replaced the kitchenware. Then I walked back towards the living room and paused by one of the bookcases.

I remembered having bought the books but I couldn't remember why and couldn't find any reason to keep walking, and so I stood more or less still until I became thirsty enough and sleepy enough to walk to my water glass and then to bed.

I don't know how well I slept last night, because it didn't matter. I lay there until it seemed inconvenient not to get up and eat the breakfast I'd prepared. I have some duties which I'll fulfill later today. But I still don't feel any need to read, or hear music, or contact anyone, or walk outdoors.

The vacancy isn't at all painful. Since I'm in less of a hurry I might cause less damage and trigger fewer disputes. It's definitely a change, though. Is this what normal people feel like, or is it just another way of being strange?

. . .

Phagocytic Breakdown (Spring 2022): Cannot both sides say so?

The Complete Poetry of John Donne (Anchor), ed. John T. Shawcross
The old reliable, and still the best reading edition I know.
John Donne's Poetry (Norton), ed. Donald R. Dickson
O monstrous! but one half-pennyworth of poetry to this intolerable deal of critical exempla! I bought this because of Shawcross's blurb. Dude's too kind.
The Complete Poems of John Donne (Longman), ed. Robin Robbins
True to the Longman brand, this is an overweight oversized volume where four-line fragments float like croutons on a tureen of annotations. But unlike the Norton it makes a useful reference work. I sometimes even enjoyed being forced to focus on four lines at a time. And any overkill was forgiven when Robbins satisfied my long-frustrated desire to know what sort of verse epistles Donne's verse epistles were answering:

To Mr J. D. from Thomas Woodward
Thou send’st me prose and rhymes; I send for those Rhymes which, being neither, seem or verse or prose. They’re lame and harsh, and have no heat at all But what thy liberal beams on them let fall. The nimble fire which in thy brain doth dwell: Is it the fire of Heav’n, or that of Hell? It doth beget and comfort like Heaven’s eye, And like Hell’s fire, it burns eternally; And those whom in thy fury and judgement Thy verse shall scourge, like Hell it will torment. Have mercy on me and my sinful Muse, Which, rubbed and tickled with thine, could not choose But spend some of her pith, and yield to be One in that chaste and mystic tribadry. Bassa’s adultery no fruit did leave; Nor theirs which their swoll’n thighs did nimbly weave, And with new arms and mouths embrace and kiss, Though they had issue, was not like to this. Thy Muse (oh strange and holy lechery!), Being a maid still, got this song on me.

Because the most satisfying way to understand an alien context is to actually fucking see the context.

Donne: The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs
"Poetic prose" means "like very bad poetry"; "novelistic biography" means "like a very bad novel" in this instance the type of bad novel that buries any threat of ambiguity beneath a leave-no-studio-executive-behind voiceover. After a while I gave up and browsed the letter excerpts, which led me to:
Selected Letters by John Donne, ed. P. M. Oliver
Too selected for my tastes, and as usual I wanted to hear more than one side of the phone call now and then. Donne's letters exhibit a habitual hunger for material details of his correspondents' lives along with a habitual reluctance to describe material details of his own life. These habits might remind us of, say, a reclusive novelist who mines her friends for raw material. On the other hand, they might have been as widespread and unremarkable as "sorry I'm late getting back to you" openings. We can't know unless you show.

The Cambridge Companion to John Donne, ed. Achsah Guibbory

For one reason or another or both, on this re-survey Donne's Third Satyre hit me where I live. The afterglow cast a more attractive light on Donne's later Responsible Grown-Up poems, and a more glaring light on the question of Donne's sincerity, which I'd always politely ignored, it being none of my business. It's still none of my business, but it's part of the poems' business, and butting into one means butting into the other.

Most who've raised that question must've either maintained soft and stable lives or vigorously revisionist memories. At any rate, it's been raised across all three phases of his writing first the saucy coterie verse and the silly paradoxes; then the flattering patronage bids; finally the Church of England sermons and meditations the phases might even be defined by the particular charge of insincerity each draws.

Middle-aged Donne was first and loudest to deny the sincerity of his youthful manuscript work; for example, in 1625 while fulfilling a request for a theologically sound memorial poem: "I presume you rather try what you can do in me, than what I can do in verse: you knew my uttermost when it was at best, and even then I did best when I had least truth for my subject."

Proving that ya can't catch a break in this stinkin' world, the corresponding charge is that Donne lied when he said he was lying, and that even if he didn't, you couldn't trust him to not do it again. But anyone burdened by seriously ornate introspection, whose attempts to accurately express inchoate intuition forever seem to plunge them into deep hot water, cramping, choking, and sputtering "That is not what I meant at all," will understand the appeal of licensed irresponsibility writing the villain's parts; prattling nonsense; playacting fraudulence....

(Which isn't to claim that we never in fact act wickedly or foolishly or indiscreetly. The opposite of true is false, true that, but the opposite of struggling to describe the whole-and-nothng-but is a more capacious thing. Non-Puritans can permit themselves a holiday without denying the goddamn job; competitive play isn't warfare but doesn't deny aggression.)

Donne ended his youth with a catastrophic attempt at man-to-man sincerity, for which he, his wife, and his ten (plus and minus) children won fourteen years of deprivation and humiliation. That's enough to make anyone reconsider their assumptions.

Characteristically, Donne's sycophantic course correction overshot so far as to raise comment even from an age of patronage. But I believe his his explanation. Gargantuan flattery provided a vehicle to justify the ways of God (as manifested in those God has chosen to empower) to Man (or Woman, if she has money and influence). It's not that far from the filters and retouching of love lyrics, and even closer to Dante's use of "Beatrice": an acceptable, sometimes even rewarded, frame from which to express what can't quite be expressed more realistically or directly.

Donne's final makeover raises the most vexed and unanswerable questions of the bunch, He was raised Catholic in a once-powerful family distinguished by Catholic martyrs stretching from uncle Thomas More to younger brother Henry. Was Donne's C. of E. conversion purely careerist? If not (and for that matter if so), why, with his initial vocational path so thoroughly blocked, did he resist repeated pressure to shift to a church career?

The all-enveloping spiritual-political tangle of seventeenth-century Europe was too dark, thorny, and shifting for even its residents to navigate. We collectors of vintage postcards are in no position to do better. But I can at least describe which particular mistaken impression I gained and kept:

Donne's Christian faith was genuine, and shaped by a keen sense of human frailty: his own, certainly, but equally manifest in the squabbling rulers of this world. We look for truth, and since we'll never achieve omniscience, we'll always generate conflict: after establishing broad agreement, we'll find our ways to narrower controversies. Without attaining the as-yet-unheard-of tolerance theorized by later centuries, Donne wished enforced certainties might be limited to what seemed most inarguable (or least argued against), permitting minor divergences as an ineradicable sign of human limits, rather than shedding blood and damning unshriven souls over each one of them.

In this story, Donne had every reason to revolt against the regime-undermining and murderously intolerant Counter-Reformation Roman church, but (unlike some other converts) not to cut off his Catholic relations, turn spy, or call for exterminating the brutes. And, being viscerally aware that his chosen-for-him national church was sometimes capable of its own murderous intolerance, and that its eternal verities were sometimes subject to the vacillating hands of very mortal monarchs, and that its professional churchmen would sometimes be obliged to propagandize the party line of the moment, he preferred not to until it became clear that God, country, and dependents left him no other option.

O monstrous! but one half-pennyworth of postcards to this intolerable deal of presumption! Conscience prescribed more reading: the polemics, sermons, letters.... Not an unwelcome future prospect, but for now I needed to stretch my legs a bit.

. . .

Movie Comment : All I want for Christmas is my death by cop

Wsród Nocnej Ciszy (Quiet is the Night) (1978)

No place conveys the true meaning of winter solstice like Mitteleuropa, and this has a gorgeous surface. But, having discarded the wobbly flesh of literary prose, that lovingly concrete clarity makes the plot's bare bones look gimmicky and trite. A sensitive boy with a serious boy-crush and a viciously strict father is far more likely to write this story than to act it out.

For once, appending a final surprise twist might have been worthwhile just a wee posthumous postscript with a punked-Ellery-Queen revelation....

Christmas Holiday (1944)

Given my taste, resources, and inordinate age, how in hell-on-earth have I never watched this maudit mastermess? I must've simply refused to look past the title and the stars. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

It'll take a few more viewings, and possibly some diagrams, before I feel justified in putting a reader's surprise at risk. I'll at least note that somehow, in the midst of all their veerings and switchbacks, its ninety minutes find room for two outrageously extended scenes of a couple just listening, just watching. And that its final sequence might exactly bisect a line drawn between the transcendentally abject carnalities of Borzage's Farewell to Arms and Bunuel's L'Âge d'Or.

Find the best print you can, be prepared to perform the usual Breen Office de-Coding, and stay alert.

. . .

Dovetonsils We Have Heard on High

Itinerant scholar Matt Wall informs us that our blessedly absent acquaintance Anselm Dovetonsils has finally made it big in Japan Hallmark:

Safety Match's Fireplace Chat
It's OK if it were a lie or a joke, try saying, "I had something good today, too." And then, close your eyes. Something as good as a tiny stone, is rolling here and there, more often than you think.

. . .

Movie Comment : Mommy issues

Petite Maman (2021)

An antichronistic fantasy which refuses to acknowledge our otherwise universally acknowledged duty to produce fish-out-of-water "What is this magical sexting of which you speak?" romps. If anything, its solemn, uncool, uncruel children made me think, possibly because we watched it a few days before Christmas, of Curse of the Cat People. It's softer than Curse, of course; still, I appreciate the thought.

Generation Wealth (2018)

The project starts by documenting lives devoted to the making of money (and nothing else) and the squandering of money in as effervescent and showy a fashion as possible. Then stretches to document lives devoted to the emulation and attainment of celebrity. Natural enough, I guess, we punters and suckers being so prone to confuse "celebrity," no matter how minor or micro, with wealth. Then, equally naturally, stretches to document lives devoted to the sculpting and presentation of one's chosen self-image obsessive exercise and seasonal cosmetic surgery, or plain old just-like-the-happy-peasants-did starvation since punters and suckers think that's a celebrity's duty and rich assholes run out of other selfish ways to squander. Then stretches to document people who took unwise loans in hope of establishing a better (more isolated) home for their family, thereby helping their exploiters safely establish more vacation getaways and vacant investments. Then tears multiple ligaments to document "unhealthy work-life balance" more generally, where "work" incorporates all the above, plus any extended attempts to create something more lasting, or to understand, aid, teach, or touch groups outside one's immediate circle of intimates, and "life" consists of quality time with the kids.

What should we do when the kids weary of our company? Whoops, looks like we've reached the end of the show; be sure to tune in same time, same place, next life!

. . .

If You Can Read This Clickbait You're Too Damn Close

"When X graduated college, he had a burning desire to be an entrepreneur. Now, he is one."
- Microsoft Office-promoting link on Windows login screen

Sometimes I fantasize it as "a burning desire to save lives," or "a burning desire to bring beauty into the world," but I always feel worse afterwards.

"Voters See Democracy in Peril, but Saving It Isn’t a Priority"
- New York Times headline, 2022-10-18

The message is neither welcome nor surprising, but I do appreciate its elegant concision. In that respect, at least, the news is unlikely to get better for a while.

. . .

Who's a "so's yer old man"?

BLINK tags have gone dark, the Dancing Baby has an offer taken early retirement from Meta, but beezark abides. Joe Cabrera writes:

I came across your post on "beezark" and have one more to add to the pile. it's another one from the comics, namely the 11-13-27 episode of "Polly and Her Pals"

And it's a beauty! Cliff Sterrett, man....

YOU! Y'funny lookin' beezark!

. . .

the hour of the twattering of bards in the twitterlitter

My fine fleshy friends have already had quite enough of this corny story, thank you, but since it's the only thing I'll ever write that would please James Joyce, and I know Hell and Purgatory have solid internet connections that being the explanation for Facebook I should document it.

Our back yard, relatively large, with some beds of diggable soil, has served as home or vacation rental to several generations of scrub jay. We may have established a reputation as contemplative, quiet types; at any rate, the scrub jays (unlike the mockingbirds, crows, and hummingbirds which contest the territory) show no dismay or annoyance in our presence, and we're comfortably domestic together, or anyway as comfortable as birds and neurotics get.

When shade is available and a paper book is underway, I often go to the yard to read. In early June, I brought Finnegans Wake along, settled myself on a wooden chair by the back fence, and began subvocalizing away. Elsewhere, the adolescent jay its blue come in, but still scruffy and lanky was poking around the mulch.

After laboring over a page or two, I heard a low flutter, looked up, and saw the jay hopping in my direction. It paused to give me the twice-over we get as they decide whether they mind us knowing the location of their peanut cache. I kept reading, it hopped to my feet and then began a murmuring croon. (Jays use a range of soft affectionate vocalizations with their intimates, like unto the secret language of ducks but harder for us to mimic.)

We duetted a bit, and then went on to other things, including (in my case) a coughing fit.

I later assigned the toughest job to Barry McGovern, and I, he, and the book all visited the yard a few times, phone speaker low and muffled in my shirt pocket. The jay came calling all the same, so it would appear to be the song, not the singer.

. . .

Hollywood Lesbians by Boze Hadleigh (1994 edition)

Surprisingly compelling, not so much for the scanty haul of sketchy anecdotes as for a debate which builds coherency over the course of the book.

It begins with Hadleigh's two most concordant interviews, with Marjorie Main and Patsy Kelly: raucous in-your-face dykes dishing the dirt in the comfortably intimate fashion Hadleigh prefers.

The other eight interviewees resist his prompts or his terms with varying levels of agreeableness, demurral, bounds-setting, or outrage, but on grounds of enlightening solidarity.

Hadleigh attempts to explain (and his subjects generally refuse to acknowledge) the notion that coming out of the closet will be both a relief and (more importantly) provide support to their repressed fellows now and in the future.

His subjects react by insisting on the difference between love and sexual acts, the difference between work and love, and the disproportional importance of work in their life as they experienced it and as they'd prefer to be remembered by others. Most pointedly they note (and Hadleigh refuses to acknowledge) the similarity (or equivalence) of his examination to other exploitations they've fought: unwelcome and exhausting presumptions of intimacy, prying and public shaming by journalists, the humiliating shams forced on them by the studios, the denial of any right to unobserved life, the careers brutally truncated by sexist stereotyping.

And some objections resist any summary:

Boze Hadleigh: Off the record? I can turn off the tape recorder.

Agnes Moorehead: Leave it on, leave it on. [Sighs.] You apparently have your own informants. I don’t know what you've heard, and I don't want to hear, and some of it may even be true.

BH: The truth gets around.

AM: ...Somehow.

BH: Would the truth hurt you professionally, now?

AM: Now? Probably not. But I don’t want anyone misinterpreting what was beautiful and even spiritual. I haven't penned my memoirs and doubt that there will be I hope there won’t be a book purporting to represent my life. My work, anyone can see. I never really cared to share anything with the public, or very many people, besides my work.

BH: As a supporting actress, you'll be a part of many books and biographies of major Hollywood stars.

AM: That was rude, too.

BH: I meant that having been in so many famous movies, with so many legendary stars, your name and face in movie stills will be in so many books yet to come.

AM: You’ve just presented my case, in a way. Let's suppose a biography is written of... Jean Arthur. She had her life, her work, a husband or two, no children, and different people thought different things about her. She was emotionally intricate. Most women are. Actresses, more so. An entire book could put much of Jean Arthur, and what she did and who she loved, into perspective. It would take an entire book, at least.

No such book is forthcoming for me. If I make a statement to you now, it will be used and misinterpreted, and one way or another will represent me, if it’s controversial or shocking enough, in who knows how many future books? On the screen or in a book, even a famous supporting actress never receives the same in-depth... the amount of time that any star, great or indifferent, always receives.

As an actress. I’m used to this. I have no option. As a person, I do. My life has been as long as any. I’ve had to struggle more than most people in my very privileged profession, and although my career might be described or capsulized in a few paragraphs by some writers, I won’t let that happen to my life. Certainly not to my own private life... having others try to understand or illuminate me, all in the space of one or two pages or less in a book about someone else!

BH: The solution is to write or collaborate on your own book.

AM: It’s one solution. The other is to do nothing, and inertia is the result of most of our struggles, my boy.

The contrast feels painfully sharp to both parties of the dialogue, but both sides seem ethically valid, and (as shown by later events) they don't necessarily conflict. To a broad (if still precarious) extent, acknowledgment of not-strictly-heterosexual leanings or practice is no longer guaranteed to end (or even necessarily define) a career. And without the lure of ruination, there's no reason to favor gossipy headlines about smallfry celebrities like John Gielgud or Agnes Moorehead over gossipy headlines about Brad Pitt or Beyonce.

As for eliminating gossipy headlines altogether, no dice. That would be bad for business.

. . .

Bloomsday 2022 Gift Guide

Hoyced the Bloomingdayl sailes!

Joyceans do not live by exegeses alone; we crave congenials with our genealogies. For your general all-round touch-of-the-poet Joycean, I warmly recommend these recent manifestations of congeniality.

Pride of Essex and host of hosts David Collard has wrangled online salons weekly since early 2020. And while David was saving (or at least boosting) my and other attendees' socially-distanced sanity, he was, on the side, sustaining his own (and now yours, purchaser-to-be) with the fresh-off-the-Sagging-Meniscus wonderworker Multiple Joyce, an addictive yet fat-free jumbo heart-shaped box of Joyce-friendly and Joyce-adjacent bonbons.

(There is a slight difference of opinion between myself and the grand Collard insofar as I prefer Gabler's edition of Ulysses to its precursors taking for granted that all editions are and will be mistaken, Gabler's errors have the advantage of being volitional and explicit, and "Nother dying" and "Mity cheese" more than compensate any doubts about the word known to all men yet [as David says] we can all unite to expel a chorus of raspberries at Danis "Usurper" Rose.)

My favorite Joycean, Fritz Senn came from the fannish pre-academic-respectability era of Joyce scholarship, and remains a model of rectitude, generosity, and wit not as trademarkable a regimen as Silence, Exile & Cunning Ltd., but awfully attractive all the same. I'm now enjoying the dadblanged heck out of his third book in English, Joycean Murmoirs ("once more a book that I have not really written comes out under my name"), a good old fashioned voice-driven fan history. If you find this first page excerpt charming, give it a try:

But I never had any doubt that my preoccupation with Joyce and I always mean the works and far less the author is a substitute (or "Ersatz") for a satisfactory life or the kind of success one dreams of in adolescence and can never stop desiring. Maybe a term like "sublimation" comes close to it. [...] One has to cling to something, I imagine.

And if you don't, at least try some of Senn's more traditional critical essays. I see he's got a new collection coming in a month or two, Ulysses Polytropos, available to pre-order for only, er, $120. Senn's no academic but I guess his current publisher is.

For this season's primary source re-reading, I decided to pass my blearing eyes over every page of Finnegans Wake for the first time since 1979. Even with the widely-spaced benefit of McHugh's Annotations (published 1980), it was rough going literally, since more-extended-than-usual subvocalization soon strangled my sixty-three-year-old throat into a persistent dry cough.

To my rescue came a McHugh upgrade, FWEET, and a vocal upgrade, last year's audiobook. Barry McGovern's performance is unprecedentedly skillful, unlikely ever to be approximated, and although costar Marcella Riordan outclasses most rivals, I can't help wishing McGovern had been granted the whole. These our troubled times are such that their recording's most easily obtained in streaming form, but unless you plan to stay awake, finger tracing pages, for thirty hours straight I'd recommend either the 23-disk CD set or the 105 low-quality high-convenience MP3 files. "Responsible" corporate entities have not seen fit to provide any placeholders, cue sheets, or titles to connect recording to book.

Update: I've indexed the audiobook's MP3 files with a TSV spreadsheet containing track number, traditional page number (and starting text, to help with nontraditional page numbering), and file duration (to help with other audio formats).

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .