Friday, December 30, 2005

Esprit d'escalier

Had I seen King Kong and Match Point in time for the Voice film poll, I might have commented on how both Naomi Watts's Ann Darrow and Scarlett Johansson's Nola Rice are struggling actresses . . . how "monstrous" fates await them . . . something like that!

Watts is very good as a vaudevillean down on her luck; her "audition" for Kong (the creature) is pretty great, and brought to mind her incredible audition scene in Mulholland Drive.

In SJ's case — her performance seemed a bit off (not fatally so), but perhaps we can excuse this as a sort of a vertiginous/mirroring form-follows-function thing — the acting's not bad, see, it's that she's *playing* a bad actress . . .

Dizzyheads: Speaking of Match Point, what are the great tennis movies?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Ingalls and Hoban

I've recently discovered Rachel Ingalls's work. Her new book—actually a selection from two collections previously published in the U.K.—is entitled Times Like These. It's a humdrum title for a typically white-knuckled ride. (I should also add that the cover art is overly fussy, and the proofreading atrocious.) If you can find any Ingalls anywhere, give her a shot. My favorite so far is the short novel Mrs. Caliban, which sports a rave from John Updike. (Strangely, I can't find this reproduced in any of Updike's nonfiction collections; is it possible he just provided a blurb, without actually writing a review?*)

In other lit news: I can't wait for 81-year-old Russell Hoban's latest novel, Linger Awhile, to come out in the U.S.—if it ever does. This appreciative Guardian review suggests that his last six books could be published as a single novel, "A Dance to the Music of Time with a kazoo chorus."

* * *

Any New York Sun readers out there? If so, please let me know if you see B. Kite's letter to the editor, re Otto Penzler's article on Harry Stephen Keeler.**


*Update (1/2/06) I bought a different edition of Mrs. Caliban, which provides a fuller Updike quote: "I loved Mrs. Caliban. So deft and austere in its prose, so drolly casual in its fantasy...but opening up into a deep female sadness that makes us stare. An impeccable parable, beautifully written from first paragraph to last."

**Update (1/2/06) Light Reading gives the perfect reading of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull. Take that, Otto Penzler!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Commentary track

Comments and suchlike are now up on the Voice's "Take Seven" site. (I've got a few in there.)

I'm glad B. Kite ranked 2046 as his favorite film of '05; I saw it with him, and he noted that the colors seemed more saturated, more intense, on the DVD than the projection, and wondered if all the U.S. prints were this washed out. His comment on 2046 appears in the Voice; after he sent me an early version of it, we collaborated on a longer version that pointed to a connection with Antonioni's The Passenger. Our augmented version didn't make the final cut, alas, but here it is for you B. Kite completists!

It's no surprise that Wong Kar-Wai takes longer and longer to release a film since his work is founded on a fundamental melancholy for the passing of all things—to complete a movie is to draw a fixed object from the free-floating web of possibility and subject it to the steady pressure of erosion. What's amazing and beautiful in 2046 is how he's found a form which can encompass the provisional, keeping doors open to the past (the earlier two films in this loose trilogy) and also to alternate futures, in which no variation need be lost. And in a bit of fortuitous nomenclature, he calls his castle of crossed destinies the Oriental Hotel—mirroring the Hotel Oriente, where his Eros co-conspirator Michelangelo Antonioni booked Jack Nicholson's David Locke for a few nights of his odyssey in 1971's The Passenger (rereleased this year). Traveler's note: While time and identity are bendable in both establishments, the Oriente assumes no responsibility for whatever breakage may ensue. B. Kite & Ed Park

* * *

In The New York Sun last week, crime/detective-fiction editor/entrepreneur Otto Penzler wrote an embarrassing attackon my man Harry Stephen Keeler—a review so hostile that it suggests Penzler hasn't actually read the book in question, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull.

I drafted a letter, but didn't send it; a fiercer friend (OK, it's B. Kite again) has sent in his two cents, which they should be publishing soon. I'll link to it, if it's linkable. Meanwhile, check out the estimable Paul Collins's typically levelheaded and witty response to Penzler's rantings.

* * *

Two-word review:

Ping pong.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Me and Me and Everyone I Know Whose Name Is Me

The transit strike is over! Time to relax and have a joyous holiday weekend. This may or may not involve parsing "Take 7," the Voice's film critics' poll.

Here's my ballot. The full-fledged issue isn't up yet, but will contain assorted morsels from various writers, plus annotated lists from Messrs. Hoberman, Atkinson, and Lim. (Incidentally, I'm psyched to see that the great Hoberjams also thought Tilda Swinton's turn in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was worthy of inclusion.)

As a little "added value" for my nonexistent fans, I'm going to list my "second ten" favorite films of 2005. N.b., I have yet to see Brokeback Mountain, L'Intrus, or Caché (I'm especially keen on seeing the last one); I missed Kings and Queen, The Power of Nightmares, Mysterious Skin, Keane, and Mondovino—all things I hope to catch on DVD.

Are you ready for the second ten?

You can't possibly be ready.

It's too momentous.


Here it is:

11. Memories of Murder
12. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
13. Syriana
14. A History of Violence
15. The Baxter
16. Tropical Malady
17. Pride & Prejudice
18. Kung Fu Hustle
19. The White Diamond
20. The Chronic—wha?-cles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

I also liked: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, most of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Passenger (re-release), Wheel of Time, Capote to a degree, Broken Flowers to a degree, some of Batman Forever, some of War of the Worlds, about half of 3-Iron. (I guess this is my "third ten," though not necessarily in order...well, maybe more or less in this order, with The Passenger rising a little.)

I didn't care for Junebug, and I thought The 40-Year-Old Virgin was way too long.

Oh, and I'd still like to see Good Night and Good Luck and Match Point.

And now: The ball's in your court, Dizzyheads. What have you seen and liked?

Calling out, in transit

Those busybodies over at Ten Words are keeping up with the debilitating, irritating, conversation-making transit strike.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Happy birthday, Anthony Powell

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Anthony Powell, one of my favorite authors. He occupies the top deck of the old E.P. pantheon—alongside Charles Portis and maybe that Nabokov fellow.

For several years now I've wanted to write something* about Powell; this year would have been the one to do it, but such an undertaking would require, at the very least, another pass through his very long novel, A Dance to the Music of Time, which appeared in 12 volumes from 1951 to 1975. More recently (over the past two years), there's been an AP biography by Michael Barber (savaged by the U.K. press), which I thought was helpful for the non-Anglophile reader (i.e., myself); a reissue of Hilary Spurling's Invitation to the Dance, a guide to the characters and places woven throughout ADTTMOT; reissues of his two final, non-Dance-related comic novels, O, How the Wheel Becomes It! (Green Integer) and The Fisher King (Chicago), both of which I recommend—The Fisher King in particular; and Understanding Anthony Powell, an academic treatment of Powell's works.

This piece in the Scotsman is a generally sound assessment, though a bit dry for my taste—Powell is a very funny writer, and I don't think this comes through. Constant comparisons of Powell to Proust make ADTTMOT seem daunting, but I think almost anyone would enjoy dipping his/her toe/toes into one of Powell's very funny early novels, ideally Afternoon Men (1931). (Venusberg, What's Become of Waring, and Agents and Patients are also worthwhile; I haven't read From a View to a Death yet—saving it for my old age.) (Speaking of which: Powell lived until March 2000—he was 94 years old.)

The Scotsman article asserts that "Powell, though an inferior writer to Waugh, was the best chronicler of the British 'establishment' over most of the 20th century." Inferior? I'm not so sure. I've read and liked some Waugh, but I maintain that Powell's the more satisfying writer. There's a difference in tone and scope; still, it's not unhelpful to think of Powell as some mix of Waugh and Proust.

After making that formulation, throw it away!

* * *

There's much more I want to say about Powell in this space. For now, I'll just relate how it was on a family trip to Yellowstone (c. 1997) that, browsing in a haphazardly organized bookstore in Montana, I came across Afternoon Men. I'd heard of Powell and the Dance, and was attracted to the book's title and epigraph—derived from Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, which I was already fairly obsessed with. If I hadn't gone into that store...seen that book at that moment...if the store hadn't been so otherwise humdrum (i.e., there weren't really any other titles of interest)...would I have read Powell, adored him, let him into my life to this extent?

I say "Powell," as if referring to the person rather than the work—that might be apt, given the nature of the Dance. Aside from the page-by-page pleasures, the grander—the "macro"—satisfaction is in how certain characters weave in and out of the narrator's life, disappearing for volumes at a time, having offstage lives of their own. As enjoyable as his short, single-volume novels are, Powell is unparalleled in this sort of overarching view of life, an effect** only achievable over the course of a very long book.

That's really enough for now!


*I.e., something grand; I've written smallish things and glancing references.

**"Effect" sounds cold; rest assured that the scale is always human, always accessible. His long chapters (c. 50-70 pages) are typically accounts of the events of a rather small unit of time, often a party of some sort. His magic is in imbuing all the banter, the gossip, the parade of personalities with considerable import, a quality that may not be apparent until the chapter or book is over.

Note: the painting and photo of the painting are by Duncan Hannah. To read more about the story behind this image, go here.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Mixing it up

My dawg Brandon's "Mixing Desk" is up on Slate right now—read it, then watch this pointlessly great video. Or watch the video first, then read. Or do both at the same time.

You will love it! You will not know what is going on!

It will make you smile.

Cleanse the palate with this...

Then watch this.

Postscript: Then watch this.

Now go be productive!

Who let the dogs out?

Re the French face-transplant story: I've been reminded most of all of Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage), one of my favorite movies. (It's up there with The Shop Around the Corner!)

A recent Times story name-checked EWF, but only briefly, and amid a crowd of other title including Face/Off and Seconds. The real-life medical story is taking place in France, and of course EWF's surgeon is French.

But there was something else...a second connection, another thread from Franju to current events. I couldn't put my finger on it...

...until this weekend, when I passed two dogs, playfully growling at each other. The woman in France had been attacked (while unconscious) by her own dog...and in EWF, the doctor has been experimenting on the dogs that he keeps in the cellar. (I refrain from giving away the ending—but let's just say that dogs play a key role.)

I apologize for the title of this post.

Your friend,
Billy Idol

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Book 'em!

Check out "Top Shelf"—the VLS's 25 favorite books of the year!

Other alphabets

For the first time in 12 years, the International Phonetic Association is amending its official alphabet. A sound called the labiodental flap will be granted its own letter, one that looks something like a v with a hook.[...]The new symbol had been recommended by a fellow linguist, Geoff Pullum, who described it "as if a fishhook R had been slammed leftward into a lowercase v so hard its vertical had merged with the right leg of the v, and the dangly bit had been left hanging there like the drain pipe out of an upstairs toilet in a partially demolished building." —Michael Erard, "With Sound From Africa, the Phonetic Alphabet Expands," New York Times, Dec. 13

Linguists say the Armenian alphabet is one of the oldest in the world that is still in use. It has proved remarkably durable, surviving a carousel of empires, vast migrations and even genocide. Armenia is a small country with a big diaspora, and its language is valued as the glue that has held the community together. Today's 38 letters vary little from the original 36, which were first brushed by an Armenian monk around A.D. 405 in order to translate the Bible.[...]In the fourth century, Armenia was split between the Persian and the Byzantine empires, and the little country had to make a choice: East or West. Eastern letters (as in Arabic) tend to be horizontal. Western letters tend to be vertical. The Armenians chose a vertical script inspired by Greek and Syriac and thereafter cast their fate with the West.
—Jeffrey Gettleman, "Armenians Celebrate Their Letters," New York Times, Dec. 13

When I think of the professor whom the state asked to give his ideas on Turkey's minorities, and who, having produced a report that failed to please, was prosecuted, or the news that between the time I began this essay and embarked on the sentence you are now reading five more writers and journalists were charged under Article 301, I imagine that Flaubert and Nerval, the two godfathers of Orientalism, would call these incidents bizarreries, and rightly so. —Orhan Pamuk, "On Trial," The New Yorker, Dec. 19

The best way to imagine the kingdom [said the monk] is not to think in terms of climate or colors or culture. Simply imagine a place where numbers have not yet been invented. Where there is nothing remotely like a number—and yet where a natural order abounds. It cannot be found, for it does not respond to mathematics. No coordinates can capture her.[...]Men do not know letters in the Kingdom; their vocabulary, monitored by means of water, is severely limited; they are permitted five hundred words; for every word over these five hundred, they lose a word previously gained—at the other end, at the start. —"Digression: The Numbers and the Letters," from Project for 26 Bottles

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Real Keeler news!

"We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy."
The New York Times, 1942

I've written about the mystery novelist Harry Stephen Keeler before—both on The Dizzies and in the Voice and for that exemplary fanatical journal known as the Keeler News—but I don't think I've yet mentioned that the Collins Library (an imprint of McSweeney's) has brought out The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, arguably HSK's best single-volume novel.* The CL edition is a handsome clothbound specimen, and the clean paper will not make you wheeze (a common side effect from vintage Keelers, ca. the '30s and '40s).

There's no better place to start. It's a wildly entertaining book, full of plot pyrotechnics, bravura dialect, and truly enjoyable (and nicely integrated) bits of whimsy. (My favorite: a can't-fail business scheme for a poetry journal.)

It also contains what might be Keeler's most famous sentence. Stylistically, it's not entirely typical of his prose, but it does convey his trademark enthusiasm (and knack for addictively oddball nomenclature):

For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter's "Barr-Bag" which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2163 pearl buttons; nor of—in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel—or Suing Sophie!

Skull is clearly not your average whodunit—mystery fans with a sense of humor will enjoy it, and non-gumshoe aficionados (i.e., the rest of us) who like surprises will be delighted. And for you lit'ry eggheads—say, adherents of the sort of prose adventurism espoused by the Oulipo—this is the perfect introduction to an avant-garde stylist working (miraculously successfully, for many years) within the constraints of popular fiction. (From the late '20s to the early '40s, Keeler was published in the U.S. by Dutton.) I admit to having some (non-financial) interest in the success of the book—I urged that most companionable of literary investigators, Paul Collins, to try a Keeler, and knew I'd found a kindred soul when he started snapping 'em up on eBay.

There's (clearly!) much more I could say about Keeler—hopefully I will, in a full-fledged article someday. For now I'll just say—I envy those encountering the great HSK for the first time!


*I say "single-volume," because some of Keeler's books, while complete (and enjoyable) in themselves, constitute brilliant sequences in which (e.g.) the solution to a single crime will be different in each book. The most dazzling example of this is the Marceau series (The Marceau Case; X. Jones—of Scotland Yard; The Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne; Y. Cheung, Business Detective)—which also intersects briefly his two-part tour-de-force, The Mysterious Mr. I/The Chameleon. This massive six-book apparatus (all of it published between 1936 and 1939!) constitutes the centerpiece of Keeleriana.

Also worth checking out: His "Big River" trilogy (Portrait of Jirjohn Cobb [what a title!], Cleopatra's Tears, and The Bottle With the Green Wax Seal) and his numerous novels (e.g., The Peacock Fan) in which a book of Chinese wisdom, entitled The Way Out, helps the protagonist prevail. (Entries in the "Way Out" series aren't as tightly linked.)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Connections

The sage Ed Halter—with whom I crossed paths no less than three times this week!—made this connection yesterday, between two Chinese stories. Here's one:

One of China's newest factories operates here in the basement of an old warehouse. Posters of World of Warcraft and Magic Land hang above a corps of young people glued to their computer screens, pounding away at their keyboards in the latest hustle for money.

Workers have strict quotas and are supervised by bosses who equip them with computers, software and Internet connections to thrash online trolls, gnomes and ogres.

The people working at this clandestine locale are "gold farmers." Every day, in 12-hour shifts, they "play" computer games by killing onscreen monsters and winning battles, harvesting artificial gold coins and other virtual goods as rewards that, as it turns out, can be transformed into real cash.

That is because, from Seoul to San Francisco, affluent online gamers who lack the time and patience to work their way up to the higher levels of gamedom are willing to pay the young Chinese here to play the early rounds for them.

"For 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, my colleagues and I are killing monsters," said a 23-year-old gamer who works here in this makeshift factory and goes by the online code name Wandering. "I make about $250 a month, which is pretty good compared with the other jobs I've had. And I can play games all day."

and here's the other :

Residents of a fishing village near Hong Kong said Friday that as many as 20 people were killed by the paramilitary police this week, in an unusually violent clash that marked an escalation in the widespread social protests roiling the Chinese countryside. Villagers said as many as 50 other residents remained unaccounted for since the shootings on Tuesday.

It was the largest known use of force by security personnel against citizens since the killings around Tiananmen Square in 1989. That death toll is still unknown, but is estimated to have been in the hundreds.

The violence near Hong Kong began after dark on Tuesday evening in the town of Dongzhou, when the police opened fire on crowds to put down a demonstration over plans for a power plant. Terrified residents said their hamlet has been occupied since then by thousands of security officers, who have blocked off all access roads and were arresting residents who have tried to leave the area in the wake of the heavily armed assault.

Friday, December 09, 2005

December 8

Home around 2 a.m. Stumble in. Hall light not working. Egg sandwich, usual hangover prophylactic, not available, as eggs in fridge expired in October. Eat granola bar in desperate measure to counteract dreaded hangover. Glasses off, read a paragraph plucked at random from three different New Yorker pieces. Am trying to approximate a Surrealist technique. But why do this now, at 2 in the morning?

Bed, room spinning. Fitful sleep. Keep waking up. Dream that doesn't feel like a dream in which parts of my right molar shatter. If I could stitch together a couple hours of sleep, I'd be fine, but doesn't seem to work. Finally succumb. Dream involves a long ride on a futuristic train to Florida, unsuccessful attempts to shop at a poorly designed grocery store, and watching video footage made by a terminally ill and entirely fictitious Australian TV personality, who has detonated elaborate explosives on his vast property. Someone says, "I'll see you in hangover city." Wha?

Wake up around 9. Coffee. Look at front section of Times. Feel at ease—not hungover. Then see photo of John and Yoko on the op-ed page, lose my bearings, and weep.

View My Stats