Wednesday, October 31, 2012

10 reasons to watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Title: Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Director: John Huston
Language: English and Spanish
Rating: PG

Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are down on their luck in Tampico, Mexico when they team up with Howard (Walter Huston), a cheerful, motormouthed old miner who's made and lost several fortunes hunting for gold around the world. They head into unexplored territory to look for gold, and though they're beset by many external threats - heat, harsh terrain, bandits, and other miners who might kill them for their loot - the worst danger they face is from each other.

Tim Holt, Walter Huston and Humphrey Bogart as Curtin, Howard and Fred C. Dobbs

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Three disturbing stories for Halloween (or any other time you wish to be disturbed)

Title: The Damned Thing
Author: Ambrose Bierce
Where I read it: Fifty Great American Short Stories (ed. Milton Crane)

A creepy little horror piece about a man living alone in the wilderness being stalked by something he can't see. The story begins with the coroner examining his body, so you know how it ends for him. All he's left behind as a clue is his journal, where he describes day by day, with growing dread, the thing stalking him. I first read this story years ago and still remembered some of the details. It gets lodged in your brain like a splinter.


Title: Silent Snow, Secret Snow
Author: Conrad Aiken
Where I read it: Fifty Great American Short Stories (ed. Milton Crane)

If I tell you that this is a terrifying story about snow, you might think it's something like a Jack London story with people getting trapped in log cabins in the dead of winter and eating the frozen remains of their friends. But the snow here exists only in the mind of the protagonist, Paul - it's like a static hissing, building up slowly between himself and the rest of the world.

What makes the story so disturbing isn't only that Paul's life is dimming around him, but that he welcomes it; he craves the secret oblivion of the snow and wants the rest of the world to disappear. Is he going insane? Rejecting outer reality for something inward and alien to others? Maybe. That he's the son of typical middle class parents in Anytown, USA heightens the eeriness (there's a Twilight Zone feel to the story). I love how the author takes what could have been an absurd premise and makes it frightening:

The hiss was now becoming a roar - the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow - but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.


Title: The Tell-Tale Heart
Author: Edgar Allan Poe
Where I read it: The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (ed. Joyce Carol Oates)

"And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?"

When it comes to deranged narrators, no one beats Edgar Allan Poe. This one isn't the elegant, depraved madman of The Cask of Amontillado, who lures his victim into the catacombs for an elaborate premeditated demise. The narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart is holding onto his sanity by a thread. His actions are clumsy and sad. When the police arrive he tries so hard to seem sane (I love how, even though everything takes place from his POV, we can guess what the officers are thinking as they listen to him try to make polite chit-chat in the room where he's buried the body). As in The Cask of Amontillado, this narrator has us stand alongside him and witness his crime; he wants us to understand him. But he also has a conscience, which surfaces through the madness.


Other stories in Fifty Great American Short Stories include: The Blue-Winged Teal (by Wallace Stegner) and The National Pastime (by John Cheever); along with The Girls in their Summer Dresses (by Irwin Shaw) and A New England Nun (by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman).


Other stories in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories include: The Middle Years (by Henry James) and Sweat (by Zora Neale Hurston).


This post is shared at the The Short Story Initiative at Simple Clockwork.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Week in Seven Words #142

She talks without pause about books, school, computers, e-readers, clothes, and soccer, and apologizes (unnecessarily) for talking too much, even as she tells her younger sister not to interrupt her.

The trees are dusted with yellow and pale orange, and the shadows are long as we stand together beside the remains of a picnic. Most people have left, except for a businessman who tells us about his mystical healing powers.

I don't think it's best for me to stay in my current home for more than a year or two. We'll see.

In the car, an atmosphere of rancor and brokenness.

His speech is made up of several beautiful threads that don't get tied together.

Seared tuna with avocado and mango. The ingredients separately don't move me one way or another, but together they're bliss.

He looks away at one point, tears in his eyes, as he asks for advice. My voice sounds stronger and wiser than I am; the words emerge from a place that's deeper than the surface pettiness and worries in my life. But I don't know if any long-term good will come of this conversation.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Interview with Nancy Cudis

Nancy Cudis has a passion for writing, reading, and promoting great books and stories (especially little-known gems) on her blog, Simple Clockwork. Anyone who loves to read and write about short stories should participate in The Short Story Initiative on her blog, which has attracted a community of enthusiastic readers. I'm fortunate to count Nancy as an online friend and fellow blogger, and am happy to introduce her here.

Nancy is an award-winning blogger, writer, part-time student, full-time community development worker, and a former news reporter. She blogs about short stories, Philippine literature, poetry, books, and personal experiences at her blog, Simple Clockwork. She lives in Cebu, Philippines where she can trek the mountains or drive to the beach or party at a club at any time she wants because of their proximity. She pursues her Masters in Media Studies at a local university. She is active at Cebu Bloggers Society Inc. and recently formed with Geezelle Tapangan of the Cebu Book Club.

On to the interview...

HK: Why did you decide to take up blogging? What has been most rewarding about it (and what's been the biggest challenge)?
NC: Restlessness. It started with being restless more than a year ago. I had left a three-year news reporting stint that required me to submit at least two news stories a day six days a week; then I suddenly found myself in a new five-days-a-week office job that expected me to do more editing and coordination than writing. At the same time, I have more free time to do what I want, which I used for reading and traveling. But writing is something I have always loved doing. One morning, I woke up, feeling frustrated and knowing that I just have to write again. So I started with a personal blog in January 2011. Ten months later, after stumbling upon a supportive community of book bloggers, Simple Clockwork transformed into a book blog, although I did not completely veer away from personal non-book related accounts worth sharing.

At first, I was reading and blogging without direction. I was stretching myself thinly by being everywhere, in any genre that captures my fancy, for any author who took an interest in my efforts. It took me some time to discover what I really wanted to do for my blog. Eventually, blogging for a purpose has become more important to me. Sometimes I feel like a literary activist or an advocate, believing highly in the books, stories, and authors I feature and hoping just as highly that readers and visitors alike will pick them up and include them in their reading menu and be inspired to live better. And you know what’s rewarding about all these? Those special moments when I wake up, open my email, and receive out-of-the-blue comments on old posts telling me how much my blog has inspired them or helped them a lot. Naturally, these incidents would fire up my drive to blog more.

HK: How do you choose which books you'll read? Do you have a reading plan, or are your choices more spontaneous?
NC: Because of my spontaneous experience with starting a blog, it is no surprise I spontaneously choose the books or short stories I read. But when I really like a book or a short story, I really rally for it, but still open to the fact that not all will fall for it. That is one beauty of the book blogging community; there is a lot of positive energy going on and at the same time, there are constructive criticisms, too. If I had experienced otherwise, I would have left the book blogging scene a long time ago.

Rather than a reading plan, I have an editorial calendar, which determines what I read and blog for the month. It is something I did as a news reporter and which is an old habit I could not shake off. Fortunately, it is working for me pretty well in blogging. I have a good mix of short stories, Philippine literature, mythology, comics, children’s books, classics, and romance--genres that particularly hold a special place in my heart.

HK: When you think of books or short stories that you've loved, what qualities make them memorable to you?
NC: Whether it’s a book or a short story, what makes it memorable for me is the ability of the writer to gracefully capture my attention and bring me to a screeching climax and a heart-wrenching resolution. For me, the plot of a story is only as good as how the writer delivers it.

HK: What themes/topics/ideas are you most interested in exploring when you write your own fiction?
NC: I have long been writing short stories, several in high school and college and some just recently. I’m now attempting to write a novel. My eyebrows are always knotted together getting the story going. But all these stories have a common denominator--the dynamics of human relationships.

I’m perennially amazed at how people interact with each other, online or offline, and how we change a lot over time without us consciously aware of it. I think we are interconnected by an invisible thread and how we interact with each other will determine how long or how short that thread will become. I’m equally interested in how people think and how their thinking impels their actions. I’m a reflective person, perhaps a little introverted. So human relationships and human thinking are some things I would like to explore in my future fiction.

HK: If you could choose any three authors, dead or alive, to meet with you to discuss literature and give you feedback on your writing, who would they be and why?
NC: American writer O. Henry, English crime writer Ruth Rendell, and Filipino writer Amador Daguio.

As I have often written in my blog posts, reading O. Henry’s works is like having a glass of wine with him on the balcony and watching the world unfold before our eyes. His works reflect his laidback and relaxed personality yet he delivered many powerful and witty short stories. I would like to be with him on that balcony, not just observing the people on the streets but also talking about my writing.

On the other hand, Ruth Rendell is fantastic. She wrote some of the most mind-boggling works I have come across with. Reading her stories is like riding a train wherein I have to grip something because any time the train’s speed will escalate faster and faster...then stop. Oh, I would not want to ride with her on that train to discuss literature; perhaps after I get off the train, so I could ask her properly how she does it--write admirably gripping stories (and she makes them look so easy to write!).

Amador Daguio would make a great person to walk or trek the mountains with. Reading his works, I could imagine him pointing out huts of native tribes and we would be exchanging clever stories about them, or having a picnic with him and trading over-the-top stories to answer our incredulous “what if” questions. I would like to ask him how to vibrantly capture Filipino stories on paper in a series of short stories. I think that would be really neat.

HK: What are your current writing projects, and what do you hope to work on in the future?
NC: My blog in itself is a writing project. I hope for each blog post to be relevant. I have a lot of plans for my blog, including partnerships with groups that advocate reading and literacy. My hope is that more parents will appreciate the value of encouraging reading to their children at an early stage. While I iron out the details, I will continue The Short Story Initiative, which encourages bloggers and readers to share the short stories they have read. I also work with Mel U of The Reading Life for our joint venture wherein we share our thoughts on Filipino short stories. Every now and then, I try to pick up my pen (yes, I sometimes still use pens) to write a short story. I hope to make a collection of them in the future.

As this is the last question, let me take this opportunity to thank you, Hila! You sure ask really good and thought-provoking, if not tough, questions, and I thoroughly enjoyed answering them!

Thanks, Nancy, for participating!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Worth Watching: Victor Victoria (1982)

Title: Victor Victoria
Director: Blake Edwards
Language: English
Rating: PG

It's 1934, and the scene is Paris. Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is an out-of-work soprano who can hit fearsomely high notes. She meets Toddy (Robert Preston), a self-described "old queen" and out-of-work cabaret singer. He has an idea to help her break into the Parisian nightclub scene: she'll pass herself off as a female impersonator named Victor. Everyone will think she's a man who's really good at looking and singing like a woman. Other than Toddy, no one will know that she's a real woman.

Julie Andrews and Robert Preston in Victor Victoria

Friday, October 19, 2012

Week in Seven Words #141

When I go somewhere new and don't know anybody, instead of hanging around awkwardly with my drink and thinking about who I should approach and whether anyone will approach me, I try to find a bookcase; then I can half-browse for books, half-scope out the room without feeling like a spotlight is on me.

When shouting/singing/dancing/whirling people pour into the room and fill it wall-to-wall, I slip outside for a breather.

Why are so many educators humorless? When they make jokes they look pained and nervous, as if they've colored outside the lines and won't get a sticker for their work.

As he lectures us in a nasal voice, admitting no interruptions, he reminds me of a tortoise. A pedantic tortoise in an pea green coat. Thinking about him this way makes him more human to me.

Passive-aggressive silence is more effective, and obnoxious, than an explicit renunciation.

The Prayer for Rain permeates us.

At last the heat is on, and the floor no longer feels like permafrost.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Week in Seven Words #140

"What do your parents do?" I ask. "As little as possible," she says.

I notice when the kids don't know how to pronounce a word they say the first sound or syllable, and then let the rest of the word die in their mouth. 'Significant' can turn into 'sigf.' Then they move on to the next word without looking back, as if they've committed a verbal hit-and-run.

Geese settle onto the baseball diamond, where they strut from one mud puddle to another with awkward majesty.

She shows how happy she is to see me by drawing a spontaneous stick figure portrait of me surrounded by hearts and balancing a blue dog on my head.

Rain plinking on my shoulders as I sit in the Sukkah.

During the Hallel prayer service, the lulavs rustle, and a wind seems to rise and fall in the room.

"What do you want to do on your birthday?" I ask. "Anything I can get away with," she says.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Week in Seven Words #139

They're identical twins in platform shoes and airy skirts, wearing jewelry with mystical designs. If I had to guess their age I'd say they're in their 50s, but they carry themselves like much younger women, brushing back the hair from their face and perching bird-like on their seats during the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur. I don't even know them but I have a feeling they're pretty awesome.

On Saturday afternoon a little girl, maybe three or four, shows up to synagogue wearing shoes with built-in squeakers. Every time she takes a step they let out a loud high chirpy noise. Two questions cross my mind as I try to concentrate on praying: 1) Why would you have your child wear shoes like that to synagogue? 2) Why would you buy shoes like that to begin with? Children are already experts at making noise; they don't need your help.

The first married couple: man and woman stand apart and discuss the pains in their legs and whether there will be rain later in the evening. The second married couple: man and woman sit on a bench, hold hands and say nothing.

The orange-yellow mums in the flower pot by the window look like a multi-faceted sea creature, small insects swimming in and out of it.

Towards the end of the fast on Yom Kippur I'm mellow. During the short afternoon break between synagogue services I sit in a nearby park, where my mind throws open its doors and says, "Welcome world," to the trees, the passing cars and pedestrians.

He speaks eloquently, but his story would have been more powerful had he not ended it with a request for money.

teshuva (תשובה‎)
The Hebrew word for 'repentance' is teshuva, which means 'return.' You've gone off course and now it's time to come back. Teshuva is important all year round but is especially emphasized in the 10 days spanning from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. On Sunday we go out to lunch, mindful of what happened last month. But unlike last month there are no fights this time, no recriminations that ruin our plans.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Worth Watching: In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Title: In the Heat of the Night
Director: Norman Jewison
Language: English
Rating: PG/PG-13

An influential businessman in a small Southern town has been murdered, and the first suspect brought in for interrogation is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). Why Tibbs? He's a black man and was found sitting alone at the train depot with a wad of cash in his pocket; in the eyes of Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger) and his ragtag crew of officers, he might as well be sentenced on the spot. When it turns out that Tibbs - Mr. Tibbs - is the best homicide detective in Philadelphia, makes more money a week than Gillespie does in a month, and was only passing through the area after visiting his mother, he's recruited to help solve the case. Reluctantly, after some pressure from his own police chief, he agrees.

Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger as Sheriff Gillespie

It's not a happy situation for Tibbs, working in a hostile town where he could easily get arrested, beaten or shot. Tibbs can't just be good at what he does. To receive basic human consideration, he has to be the best; he has to meet the highest standards of professionalism if he even wants to be tolerated. I don't think we ever see Tibbs eat anything, wear anything other than a suit, or sleep. He has to be more than human.

Poiter delivers his lines a little too stiffly here, compared to his performances in a couple of older films. Maybe the extra stiffness reflects the strain of having to play - not for the first time - two roles in a movie: the role of his character (who's trying to stay alive, solve a crime, and show racist people that he's a person worthy of respect) and the role of Poitier the Emissary, put on the big screen to comfortably show white audiences in the late 1950s through the 1960s that black people can be good and kind and smart too.

Before Poitier, black actors didn't get prominent parts on-screen, with the exception of some musicals. From what I've seen they were mostly portrayed as slow, child-like, and/or servile. Poitier broke down some of those stereotypes by playing intelligent characters, people with nobility and courage and strong will. But to endear himself to white audiences, he wasn't allowed to be sexual, and he needed to be shown as helpful to white people. In the movies I've watched so far, his characters weren't boring or perfect, and he portrayed people who had backbone and wouldn't accept racist insults. He broke ground in cinematic scenes where he wrestled down racists (in the The Defiant Ones), called them 'boy' (in Lilies of the Field), and in this movie, slapped them. Those scenes still have power today, but they were much more shocking when the movies first came out. Still, Poitier was limited in his choice of roles, because he had to present a certain image to movie-goers.

In any case, I think in this movie the strengths of his performance lie not so much in the delivery of his lines but in his intense facial expressions, and his body language suggesting defensiveness and leashed strength; he has a compelling screen presence. His demeanor is a sharp contrast to Steiger's Sheriff Gillespie, a laconic bulldog of a man who slouches around, chews gum, puts his feet up on his desk, and hides a sharp mind behind an easygoing manner. Gillespie is racist, not so much with true conviction as with a need to feel superior to others in some way, given his nonexistent personal life and low-paying, high-pressure job in a backwater town. Tibbs's city manners, cleverness and sophisticated crime-solving techniques reluctantly impress him even as he's eaten up with jealousy and outrage.

Rod Steiger as Sheriff Gillespie

Detective Tibbs and Sheriff Gillespie don't become friends, but Gillespie does come to see Tibbs as a man worth respecting and defending. In one great scene that captures their relationship and its uneasiness, Gillespie hosts Tibbs in his home where they talk over drinks. Letting Tibbs into his house is an unspoken sign of respect from Gillespie, who doesn't like having guests over. In the course of their conversation, they discover some things they have in common (two law enforcement officers, leading a lonely life with lots of hard, tiring work), and Tibbs starts to look a little relaxed for a change. But then the feeling of fellowship startles Gillespie - it's suddenly too much, sharing confidences with a man who should be inferior to him but isn't - and he retreats back into his racist mindset and shuts Tibbs out again, leaving Tibbs disillusioned and regretful. As long as he can see Tibbs as an officer, Gillespie is able to work with him, but he keeps retreating from the idea of Tibbs as a man.

That scene felt a lot more real to me than the ending, which hit a wrong note. Suffice it to say, Tibbs solves the murder, and he's about to leave this little town where maybe he's changed some people's perceptions. Gillespie arrives to see him off at the train station. At this point the filmmakers (and Poitier) make it seem like Tibbs really needs the recognition from the sheriff. He doesn't just want the victory of getting acknowledgement from a man who thought he was dirt at the start of the film, or the satisfaction of changing some people's minds; he seems to actually need Gillespie's approval. (Not like in Lilies of the Field, where the recognition he wants from Mother Maria feels more like the respect a person demands from a worthy contender.) Here it seems that Tibbs wants a pat on the head.

Tibbs and Gillespie along with Endicott's servant in the famous slap scene

I haven't said much about the murder, because while there are some suspenseful moments and colorful (and yucky) minor characters the movie is worth watching mostly because of Poitier and Steiger and their dynamic.

I also love the feel of the movie in some of the scenes. There's the blur of lights in the beginning with Ray Charles singing In the Heat of the Night. Also the unexpected moments of humor or irony; for instance, the first character in the film who respectfully addresses Tibbs as "Mr. Tibbs" is one of the most racist characters, Endicott (Larry Gates), who lives like a plantation owner of yore. He regards his workers with paternalistic condescension and pines for the good old days where he could get away with shooting the uppity ones. These days he can't even deliver a slap without getting one back.

What I wanted more of was Tibbs's thoughts about the situation he's in. Not his need for acknowledgement or his need to stay alive and stay one step ahead of those trying to kill him, but his thoughts on being in alien territory. Usually he's in Philly, well-respected and in his element; in the South he's rejected and threatened by white society and doesn't fit in among the other black people who are still kept in "their place." His mother lives in these parts, and he understands some of the culture - seen especially in his conversation with Mama Caleba (Beah Richards), a character who plays a key role in the murder mystery. But what does Tibbs think? He's an emissary from another world (in this case, a big city in the northern U.S.), just as Poitier himself bridged two worlds in mainstream cinema, his films becoming part of an important transformation in American culture.

*All images link back to their source (Flixster Community).