Archive for Jack London

Pg.17 #15

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2020 by dcairns

Thus was constituted that terrible trinity whose names are indissolubly associated for all time in the annals of crime. The fate of the three assistants was happier: they were in after life to become those distinguished surgeons, Sir William Fergusson, Thomas Wharton Jones, and Alexander Miller, whose names are yet eminent in the temple of science. It is a strange world.

*

They were all-but forgotten people: the breed that was remembered with a start, or with the unreality of a recrudescent dream. The day of carvings alone brought them into the sunlight and reawakened the memory of former times. For as far back as even Nettel, the octogenarian who lived in the tower above the rusting armoury, could remember, the ceremony had been held. Innumerable carvings had smouldered to ashes in obedience of the law, but the choices were still housed in the Hall of the Bright Carvings.

*

Before then, I’d never been aware of social classes. Suddenly they hit me smack in the face. We lived only a few blocks from some elegant apartment buildings on the Hudson where doormen stood day and night in front of covered entrances helping well-dressed people in and out of their big cars. It struck me for the first time that theirs was a different universe from that of the people who rented cheap rooms or that of my brothers and sisters scurrying to our jobs along with other working-class people.

*

Save existence, they had nothing in common,–came in touch on no single point. Weatherbee was a clerk who had known naught but checking all his life; Cuthfert was a master of arts, a dabbler in oils, and had written not a little. The one was a lower-class man who considered himself a gentleman, and the other was a gentleman who knew himself to be such. From this it may be remarked that a man can be a gentleman without possessing the first instinct of true comradeship. The clerk was as sensuous as the other was aesthetic, and his love adventures, told at great length and chiefly coined from his imagination, affected the supersensitive master of arts in the same way as so many whiffs of sewer gas. He deemed the clerk a filty, uncultured brute, whose place was in the muck with the swine, and told him so; and he was reciprocally informed that he was a milk-and-water sissy and a cad. Weatherbee could not have defined “cad” for his life; but it satisfied its purpose, which after all seems the main point in life.

*

He announces who we are. As he talks I amuse myself thinking of the unprecedented shock in his mind. A short while ago he was Professor Jacobi, a famed and aged man still playing like a fanatic child in his laboratory. He wore a skull cap and occasionally addressed an auditorium filled with dignified and obsequious colleagues. The world paused now and then in its Saturnalia of greed to turn its ears to his voice–a voice that promised calmly and authoritatively that new secrets were being wrested from nature; that science was fashioning new toys from life.

*

Two men in shiny brown coats hovered close to Isaac looking for pigeons to feed. Isaac watched the play of their hands. Their pursuit of birds seemed elaborate to him (Isaac couldn’t locate a smear of pigeon shit in the Place des Etats-Unis). The shiny coats belonged to a dip artist and his squire. Isaac appraised this pickpocket team with a cool turn of his mind. They can’t be from South America. The Guzmanns (a tribe of pickpockets out of Peru) would never wear shiny coats. These are locals from Algeria, or Sicily. Starving kids with the soft, beautiful fingers of a girl.

*

From where I am sitting now I can look out the window and see a pigeon being a pigeon on the roof of the Harvard Club. No other thing can be less what it is not than a pigeon can, and Miss Stein, of all people, should understand that simple fact. Behind the pigeon I am looking at, a blank wall or tired grey bricks is stolidly trying to sleep off oblivion; underneath the pigeon the cloistered windows of the Harvard Club are staring in horrified bewilderment at something they have seen across the street. The pigeon is just there on the roof being a pigeon, having been, and being, a pigeon and, what is more, always going to be, too. Nothing could be simpler than that. If you read that sentence aloud you will instantly see what I mean. It is a simple description of a pigeon on a roof. It is only with an effort that I am conscious of the pigeon, but I am acutely aware of a great sulky red iron pipe that is creeping up the side of the building intent on sneaking up on a slightly tipsy chimney which is shouting its head off.

*

Seven bits of page seventeens. There! I knew there had to be a quicker way to say it.

Classic Crimes, by William Roughead; Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake; A Third Face, by Samuel Fuller; The Portable Jack London, edited by Earle Labor, from the story In a Far Country; The Kingdom of Evil by Ben Hecht; Marilyn the Wild, by Jerome Charyn; The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze, by James Thurber, from the essay There’s an Owl in My Room.

How the West was Not

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2018 by dcairns

So, I got Netflix for THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, which of course meant we could watch THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, so we did. I used to indiscriminately like all Coen Bros movies, with a slight preference for the early, funny ones. The tendency towards emptiness did start to nag at me a little as early as MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK. The nasty sense of humour didn’t — I have a fairly dark S.O.H. myself. But then came INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS which I disenjoyed so thoroughly it made me retroactively question even my favourites, and proactively question subsequent films.

I suspect the following will make David E. impatient, since he was onto the Coen’s combo of snark and misanthropy from the start.

Here’s my run-down of the episodes in this latest western compendium. Not too many specific spoilers, but plenty of comparisons with the Bros’ earlier offerings, good, bad and ugly.

1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The ballad itself is practically a proper musical, except that, as with OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? the songs are all sorta diegetic. We have the welcome return to the fold of Tim Blake Nelson, and the unbelievably crisp cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who they got acquainted with on PARIS JE T’AIME and used again to even better effect on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, a flm with a unique look in the Coen oeuvre. It’s fascinating to see iconic western imagery shot in an ultrasharp digital way. When people start by telling you they liked the photography it reliably indicates they hated the film, and I hated this episode. The “humorous” violence is mean and squicky: the severed thumb from THE LADYKILLERS is back. Remember how funny it is when Travis blows the guy’s hand off in TAXI DRIVER? That’s how funny the mutilation gag is here. The saving grace is Carter Burwell’s music: this whole movie is the best showcase he’s had for a while.

2. Near Algodones. Or, One Damn Thing After Another. A pretty good Leone imitation in places, this is nevertheless just as pointless and unpleasant as Part 1. James Franco as a bank-robber is given no appealing qualities, so his Really Bad Day is neither a nightmare we can empathise with nor even a justifiable punishment. These two episodes look to have been written in an afternoon. Both end, kind of, with The Last Sight You’ll See, harking way back to BLOOD SIMPLE’s grotesque yet kind of poetic plumbing close-up final shot.

3. Meal Ticket. Here’s where I start to wonder if the ordering of the stories is a problem. As soon as we meet the armless, legless “protagonist” of this one, we expect that something terrible will happen to him. Which means viewing the whole film in a queasy suspense, and not being surprised. The wintry, nocturnal look is really gorgeous and the reason for the story being told, as with the previous installments, is inscrutable. Shit happens, you say? No shit. Fiona was on the point of bailing at this point… but got drawn back in.

4. All Gold Valley. Things take a turn for the better here, maybe in part because we have a story by Jack London. It’s no TO BUILD A FIRE but it’s good. All the episodes are magnificently cast from both a dramaturgical and a physiognomic point of view, but here Tom Waits is actually given sympathetic traits, and though we suspect we may be being set up for a fall, this is not entirely true. This was the first yarn that didn’t make me feel horrible, and the nature photography ascends to new heights of loveliness,

5. The Gal Who Got Rattled. Another adaptation, this time from Stewart Edward White. whose stories have been used by the movies a fair few times, but not since 1941. A really grand evocation of a wagon train. Likeable characters. “I’m really worried about this girl,” said Fiona of Zoe Kazan’s nervous young frontierswoman. There’s a cute dog. This one’s a proper story, very strong, strikingly presented. It would play even better if it weren’t following a trio of sick joke blackout sketches: we need to believe the Coens are sincere here, for the yarn to play emotionally. It COULD be taken as another set-up/punch-line bit of cynical manipulation, and of course if we can give the Coens more credit than that and actually embrace the apparent warmth of feeling and sympathy, the film will play MUCH better. It’s a great little film: Kazan is terrific, and Bill Heck and Grainger Hines ought to be stars.

Also, by this point, the use of pages turning in a book of wild west yarns, with coloured illustrative plates, is really paying off. It’s something I don’t believe we’ve seen before in a film: the illustrations pluck a moment from the narrative, often from near the end, and then we wait for it to turn up and make sense in context. It can add a little extra touch of inevitability to a tragedy, an added twist of irony to a joke.

Also also, it’s nice to finally meet a girl. I know westerns have traditionally been male-dominated, but watching this one’s like going to prison (if you’re a man). Only with less sex.

6. Mortal Remains. OK, Tyne Daly is here so you’ll get no complaints from me. Well, maybe a few. This is DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS only on a stagecoach instead of a train. I mean that literally. I liked the misty cut-out buildings that nod both to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and the whole history of the western movie set. A bunch of facades with nothing behind them seems an apt metaphor for something or other, but what? Oh yeah.

The garrulous English character is hard to process as anything other than a riff on THE HATEFUL EIGHT, and it does feel like the Coens have been treading familiar ground: Tarantino already gave us a western full of talk, with epic iconography but an oddly intimate, enclosed locale, and a lot of unpleasant characters doing horrible things we cant possibly care about. The mysterious, even mystic quality the Coens aim to evoke here certainly adds a new flavour, but as this one fades out I realize why anthology films usually have a framing structure. It’s hard for one episode to deliver an ending satisfying enough for all six.

Maybe the Coens need to stick to adaptations. Their two strongest films, the ones that feel most like they have a reason to exist, are NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and TRUE GRIT. The brothers are experts at pastiche, and their delight in language, both verbal and cinematic, is a kind of redeeming feature (they do care about SOMETHING), but what they get from an original author with world experience and an interest in people seems to be something they struggle to achieve by themselves.

Dissenting views are welcome.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS stars Delmar O’Donnell, Harry “Oz” Osborn, Ruby Sparks, Oskar Schindler, Dudley Dursley, R.M. Renfield, Mary Beth Lacey, Colonel Oates and Alastor ‘MadEye’ Moody.

The Cold

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on September 15, 2015 by dcairns

This is a treat — a riveting short film, produced by the BBC, made available on YouTube by its director, David Cobham.

A fairly straight filming of a Jack London short story, by a filmmaker with considerable experience of nature filming. Narrated by Orson Welles — and it’s one of Welles’ great performances. His flair for the dramatic is in perfect synch with the material. Just by sounding a bit concerned, Welles stokes the flames of suspense. Understatement may not be something you associate with old Orson, but he’s a master of it. It’s just that his understatement is naturally a bit bigger than most.

Enjoy!