Wednesday, January 28, 2015

M (1931): How Beckert Throws Society Off-Balance

Title: M
Director: Fritz Lang
Language: German
Rating: Not rated

Towards the end of M, a child murderer asks an assemblage of criminals, "Who knows what it's like to be me?"

It's a line from one of the most well-acted monologues I've ever watched on-screen, delivered by Peter Lorre - an actor usually best known for playing disturbing individuals. In this case, his character forces people to consider the limitations of earthly justice.

Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a small man, boyishly plump, who for much of the movie strolls the streets of a German city anonymously. He's responsible for a series of child murders (it's also all but explicitly stated that he has a sexual interest in his victims). The crimes remain off-screen. What we see is Beckert passing through the city, whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King" in the presence of children he wants to prey on. He lures them with toys, candies, and balloons. What we also see is a mother, waiting for a child who never returns from school. And there are scenes of the city in a panic, people pointing fingers at each other and sending letters to the police that accuse their neighbors.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Week in Seven Words #242

Cut a path across planks, past muddy furrows, pitted grass and cables coiling snake-like.

A pink cake on a purple plate and a stew of plastic spiders are what he serves me from his waist-high kitchen.

A pleading grown-up, a giggling child. The red clock on the microwave marking a wasted lesson.

There's a well of misery in her. From time to time, she peeks into it, maybe sticks her head part-way in (the echoes of 'not enough,' 'not enough' are stronger in there). But for the most part she ignores it, even though its emanations and stagnant contents affect much of what she does.

As a younger child gets read to, older ones hang around and listen in. The pleasure of hearing a story out loud, and sharing its delight with another person, doesn't have to fade.

A bewildered, apologetic face behind a windshield.

Their happy shrieks and laughter mix with the shimmer of the swimming pool.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Three Short Stories About Waking Up Later in Life

Title: New-Wave Format
Author: Bobbie Ann Mason
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

The main character, Edwin, is a 40-something man in a relationship with a woman about twenty years younger. It works, at least at the start, because he hasn't changed much since he was her age. He's drifted through life in a kind of stupor, with little awareness of the world and understanding of himself.

Interestingly, it's his new job as a bus driver for developmentally disabled adults that pushes him to develop. (And this story isn't sentimental about his growing understanding and affection for them, and their attachment to him. It feels real.) As he gets to know them better and take responsibility for their safety when they're on his watch, he wakes up a little - and with this new maturity and awareness comes pain. The author doesn't shy from the pain of growing and the loss which comes with re-evaluating one's life and relationships. There might be healing but also a regret for the years, even decades, that have slipped by unnoticed.

Where does the 'new-wave format' come into this? Edwin plays music on his bus - first only oldies and then experimenting with newer more electric and frenetic music - while pretending to be a disc jockey. Music connects him not only to his passengers, but to different parts of his life. The older music, listened to in a new context, helps him revisit and better understand a past he's slept through. He ages mentally on that bus; the music helps to bring him up to date. In different ways, both the old and new music push him to the present moment and underscore the way he relates to his passengers. At the end, he's more mature - but this also means he can't slip back into the comfortable sleep that's cushioned him over the years.

Title: Revelation
Author: Flannery O'Connor
Where I Read It: American Short Stories Since 1945

O'Connor's stories sting; they're thoughtful and sharp, and sometimes funny in a dark way. Even when a character experiences some kind of redemption, the moment isn't necessarily hopeful. There's no easy redemption in her stories. This one begins in a doctor's waiting room, a good setting for bringing together people from different levels of the social hierarchy and pressing them into a confined space, forcing them to breathe each other's air; the setting also suggests that the people occupying it are in need of a cure of some kind, not necessarily medical.

The main character, Mrs. Turpin, is a woman who lives by social distinctions. She's a respectable white woman who knows exactly where she fits in relative to everyone else. Hers is an ordered world, and it feels like a gift she received for being the spotless creature she is. It's only proper that she command respect and own land with her husband.

Another person in the waiting room, a sullen, bookish teenaged girl named Mary Grace, takes a savage dislike to Mrs. Turpin. Their violent confrontation shakes Mrs. Turpin's complacency, her perception of her own goodness and the idea that the social hierarchy in the world around her somehow mirrors what's in Heaven.

From what I remember of the story, Mary Grace's mother is much like Mrs. Turpin; perhaps Mary Grace strikes out at Mrs. Turpin as an indirect blow to her mother as well - and a blow against everyone who maintains a society based on polite fictions, with genteel manners substituting for kind sincerity. Mary Grace's anger isn't misdirected and strange; it's the rage of someone who can see the lies but can do little to change anything. Nonetheless, she helps transform Mrs. Turpin, who takes Mary Grace's attack as a personal spiritual message.

Mary Grace and Mrs. Turpin are also similar (Mary Grace might as well be Mrs. Turpin's daughter, or maybe the teenaged version of her in an alternate life). Mary Grace's attack unleashes some of Mrs. Turpin's personal fierceness, which is usually masked by gentility and expressed in petty ways. When Mrs. Turpin's world gets turned upside down, her ordered world smashed, she rages. She shouts questions at Heaven. She has a kind of savage strength in her, and her faith is no longer a complacent feeling of well-being but more a cry of anger and fierce questioning.

Title: Rosendo's Tale
Author: Jorge Luis Borges
Translator: Norman Thomas di Giovanni
Where I Read It: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry

The narrator's voice in this one pulls you into the story. He's a man who has killed someone in a knife fight and gets recruited, via a corrupt police force, to intimidate voters at the behest of corrupt politicians. He does this for years; a life where manhood isn't defined by near-constant physical violence seems unimaginable. And then at some point he sees the senselessness of it, including a key moment where he sees himself mirrored in another man - what he must look like himself as a brute. Could he have had that moment of recognition at any time in his life, or did he have to get worn away a bit by the passage of years?

[Edited 2/2015]

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Week in Seven Words #241

The photo of a canyon, blown up and stretched wide, looks like a marvelous chasm in her wall.

When people substitute an ideology for self-knowledge, they talk and act as if parts of them have been carved out.

Dresses draped all over the closet like colorful skins she has shed.

Does writing in a journal help? I think it can, as long as you're honest with yourself. I know that over the years, growing up and even a little into adulthood, I forced cheer and optimism into some of what I wrote - writing things as I wished they were or as I thought people would want them to be were they ever to discover the journal. Sometimes I just wrote, uninhibited, but it didn't come easily. It's important to write freely, especially when writing to myself. Though looking back at past entries I've also learned some key things about my younger self from what I omitted or how I spun a certain event.

As his grandmother raises questions about the bill, he leans towards the waiter and whispers, "Can I have chocolate milk?"

Their house is littered with power tools, the cabinets gaping and furniture stacked in the front room. They look forward to the day when order will emerge from the obstacle course.

His speech is a series of smooth white pebbles that sink slowly to the bottom of a pond.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Cartoonists at work

Charlie Hebdo, Before the Massacre from The New York Times - Video on Vimeo.

The New York Times posts a short documentary on Charlie Hebdo filmed in 2006 (after violent eruptions over Danish cartoons).

Monday, January 12, 2015

Two Movies Directed by Henry Hathaway: Call Northside 777 (1948) and Kiss of Death (1947)

I don't know much about this director, but wound up by coincidence watching two of his movies fairly close together. It turns out he's directed some famous westerns, but the following two movies aren't. They're worth watching most for certain characterizations, striking visuals, and - for the first one mentioned here - historical interest too.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Week in Seven Words #240

A sculpture park pockmarked with construction - few differences between the art displayed and the machinery making room for new installations.

Her long-legged stride represents how she's made her way through life.

Clouds roll in over the river. On the rocks, a sea gull, a soda can, and a bundle of clothes that may have someone in them.

The conversation fans out to West Africa, Korean soap opera stars, karaoke, and the way people lock their thoughts into binaries during arguments - two solutions to every problem, two possible opinions in complete opposition.

Pigeons hold court in the shadows of the bridge.

He barrels out of the convenience store with a shopping cart full of cupcakes and beer. No partying in half-measures.

Walking a long distance outdoors, especially on uneven ground, gets at muscles that remain dormant during a gym routine.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Week in Seven Words #239

The aquarium looks like an animated TV show; the water is ink, the fish cartoons lazily cutting their way past wavering plants and glittering castles.

His finer side emerges in art. A sketch of leaves coaxed away by an autumn wind.

Banshee music on the TV and moans from the people scribbling round the table.

Now that she's old and alone, she'll give people the finger with a smile, because she doesn't care anymore, and no one expects better of her.

Her ankles are ribboned in Lord of the Rings tattoos.

I identify the building by the ambulance lights flashing outside.

They think there's nothing new to learn beyond what they already know. Stepping outside the bounds of that knowledge is craziness and self-indulgence.