tom moody

Archive for the ‘books’ Category

cuckoo's nest crit from the internet (before the Combine takes it away)

drawing by Ken Kesey from a 2002 edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Re-reading Kesey's classic after many years inspired a rush of pleasure and then a rush to the Internet for some other perspectives.

Let's start with the "villain," Nurse Ratched, who gets under the skin of the "good guy," Randle Patrick McMurphy, and also the skin of the reader. If you experience the novel as a teen you've encountered the Big Nurse archetype in schools but you have no idea how much she (or he) will persist as a feature of American life, in the workplace, politics, and social realms. Because Kesey made the character female the book will be seen as un-PC today but the author reminds us he also had a female nurse in the story who wasn't a didactic power-freak. From a NYT article, published the year he died:

...Mr. Kesey noted that his novel included another, more positive female character, "along with the big castrator of a nurse and the two prostitutes." "She was an Asian nurse who worked in the hospital's electroshock room.

"She is just as tough and snappy as anything," he said. "It is good to have one positive woman there."

Nowadays when most people think of One Flew Over it's the film version, which Kesey had issues with:

Mr. Kesey said he never saw the 1975 film version of his book, directed by Milos Forman and with Jack Nicholson as the lead, R. P. McMurphy. "It has been the smartest thing I never did," Mr. Kesey said, "because Jack Nicholson is great but he is not McMurphy -- he is too short." He added that Mr. Nicholson also seemed too shrewd for the character.

Nicholson may have been shrewd, but director Milos Forman significantly dumbed down the material. Ironically he was hired as an outsider (Czech art film director) but made the ultimate Hollywood good-vs-evil schlockfest, and became a Hollywood power as a result. His incomprehension of Kesey's complex story stands out in a 1975 Village Voice interview:

I asked [Forman] about his decision, implemented in the screenplay of Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, to treat the story objectively rather than through the eyes of the Indian, Kesey’s point-of-view character.

"I didn’t want that for my movie," he said. "I hate that voice-over, I hate that whole psychedelic ‘60s drug free-association thing, going with the camera through somebody’s head. That’s fine in the book, or on a stage, which is stylized. But in film the sky is real, the grass is real, the tree is real; the people had better be real too."

"You know, I’m glad I didn’t know the reputation of the book when I read it, so I didn’t have this artificial reverence for the ‘cult classic.’ And I think it’s much better that it was made now than in the ‘60s. After a certain time, all the distracting elements fall away, all the transitory psychedelic stuff. And we can follow what it is really about. My film is very simple."

You know, transitory psychedelic stuff such as the book's brilliant but unreliable narration, via Chief Broom, whom Forman relegated to a bit part. Perversely, Forman's take on the story is based on an uncritical acceptance of McMurphy vs Nurse as a clash of primal forces, which was a paranoid schizophrenic's view. Take the Chief out of the equation and you have a comic book story instead of a multi-layered, critical story. Even the CliffsNotes-type sites on the Net understand this better than Forman did. Bright Hub Education has a nuanced theory about the Chief:

Bromden’s suffocation of the catatonic McMurphy ends the novel, and is popularly understood as a mercy-killing of a man whose soul has been stripped away. Yet a much darker reading of the novel shows the patients discarding a symbol they no longer have use for. McMurphy was the epitome of rebellion and subversion against the systems of control set in place. The patients are content to ignore his flaws and stand behind him against the equally-abstracted Ratched. Yet when the battle is over, when those that could help themselves have done so, the defeated form of McMurphy is left behind. He destroys himself to redeem his friends, and they in turn destroy him because he was never seen as a person at all, but an outmoded symbol.

Literary criticism of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has attracted both its share of accolades and controversies for its depiction of a hospital ward as a place of domination and control, and a rambunctious patient who encourages acting out instead of conforming. What makes this story so critically interesting is that it is not simply a polemic against institutional forces. Rather, it is an ingenious portrayal of fantasy and how people [got] caught up in the grandiose and lost sight of humanity. We sympathize with Bromden, the fake deaf-mute for his understanding, but at the novel’s end, we are forced to question that he may truly be the most blind of all.

And here's CliffsNotes itself, to tutor the hapless Forman on his perch atop the Hollywood food chain:

Perhaps the most telling difference between the film and the novel is the ending. The novel contains an episode missing from the film wherein Chief observes a dog sniffing gopher holes from the hospital window. The dog is distracted by a flock of geese forming a cross against a full moon. The dog chases the geese toward a road where it is implied the dog will confront an automobile with the inevitably tragic result that machine will triumph over nature. Coincidentally, this is the same course the Chief follows when he escapes from the hospital, giving the novel's resolution a degree of uncertainty as to whether the Chief will succeed in the outside world or succumb to a worse fate in a world increasingly overrun by dehumanizing mechanization. The film's conclusion, however, depicts Chief running from the hospital toward what the viewer assumes is happiness and liberty.

AV Club (which ultimately thinks the movie has "aged better") notes the Chief's contribution to the narrative:

The novel lays out its case with borderline religious fervor. In Bromden’s eyes, McMurphy is practically superhuman, a giant of a man with a great booming voice and seemingly inexhaustible lust for life, an avatar for all that is individual and righteous and masculine (yeah, we’ll get to that) in the world. His battle against Ratched for the soul of the ward plays out like an epic showdown between two brilliant, near-mythic opponents. Even the glimpses we get of McMurphy tired or acting in self-interest have a Christ-like feel to them, a certain garden of Gethsemane vibe. He struggles because whether he wants it or not, he’s responsible for all of them; and in the end, he has to sacrifice himself to free them.

Contrast that with the movie, where most of the running time has McMurphy acting like any reasonable person might if they were thrown into the nuthouse...

Chuck Palahniuk also weighs in that it's a three-way struggle, not a two-way struggle (with the Chief as angelic third party), and why this is important:

And of course we have rebels, loud and dashing, but they'll be silenced when they become too much of a threat. Arrested or lobotomized or wrongly accused of molesting children and thereby discredited. But always lost, killed, left bereft.

That's the pattern. That's always the pattern. But we're never stuck with just two choices.

With any luck, the rest of us will see what's happening and choose to find a third option. Instead of reinforcing a social system by rebelling or conforming, we'll become the Big Chief, and escape into some beautiful vision. A future that's not a reaction to or an extension of any mental ward where we find ourselves trapped at the present moment.

By losing the Chief, as Forman did, you also lose the Chief's paranoid-but-perceptive vision of The Combine, the larger system of social control for which the asylum is just a branch office. James Wolcott gave special attention to that in his 2011 evaluation of the novel:

It’s tempting to consign One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to a souvenir piece from the dissident 60s, its protest energy, trippy prophecy, and twitchy paranoia bridging the marijuana grove between the Beats of yore and the hippies ready to sprout. [Argh, this Vanity Fair style of writing --tm] But when I reread it, it seemed more (curse the word) relevant than ever, the oppressive forces it mutinied against having only gotten more immersive and influential in our lives since McMurphy got zapped. Big Nurse has been supplanted by Big Pharma, the pilling of America fulfilling the novel’s vision of weaponized medication: “Miltowns! Thorazines! Libriums! Stelazines! … Tranquilize all of us completely out of existence.” And the Combine, the novel’s metaphor for the silent machinery of social indoctrination, manipulation, and management, stands as a rough draft for the Matrix, the vision of modern existence as a holographic fraud, a covert information grid operating on its own agenda.

Wolcott wrote this pre-Snowden -- the Combine's biomechanical tendrils have only grown more pervasive in the last half-decade. Kesey's favorite version of the play incorporated the Combine into the production, according to the NYT:

[The Gary Sinise version of the play] was not [Kesey's] favorite production, he added. That designation he reserved for a production he saw 15 years ago at a Sacramento high school, staged so that an elaborate display of grinding cogs and gears appeared in silhouette between scenes to illustrate the play's sinister ''Combine,'' a metaphor for society's grinding machinery.

...and it would be interesting to see a remake of the film with the Chief's "hallucinations" woven into the story.

- tom moody

May 22nd, 2017 at 10:18 am

Posted in books, films

Dead Mountaineer's Hotel

...is a Soviet-era genre-bending novel by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky, one of their more memorable efforts. A ten-little-indians style mystery with an oddball assortment of characters snowed in at a mountain lodge. Just how oddball is gradually revealed to a by-the-book police inspector.

An Estonian film version, "Hukkunud Alpinisti" hotell, with script by the Strugatskys, showed up on YouTube. Made in the late '70s, yet it looks like an '80s film, with aggressively modern set design, an electronic score, and stylish costuming. Touches of Kubrick and Argento, as much as the budget allowed. The Strugatskys somewhat truncated their plot and characters but the story works, especially the surprisingly emotional ending.

Hukkunud_Alpinisti_hotell

- tom moody

May 19th, 2017 at 9:40 am

Posted in books, films

my am*zon reviews in html

A minor ingrate on the former dump.fm ridiculed the sidebar link here, "my amazon reviews, '98-'03" -- it was supposed to be a joke, oh well. These reviews were written in the innocent days before Jeff Bezos emerged as a totalitarian Sauron turning the American workplace into a high-tech surveillance hell.
The reviews were an experiment in attempting "pro" culturecrit in an unpaid environment and ceased when one of them had wording altered by a staffer.
Rather than continuing to link to the black evil that is am*zon, I've saved the reviews as an HTML file.

- tom moody

May 13th, 2017 at 9:50 am

drawing, from daniel albright memorial

albrightmemorial

Just learned that one of my favorite teachers, Daniel Albright, died a couple of years ago.
A memorial with readings, music, and reminiscences was posted: [YouTube]
The drawing comes from a series of pictures projected on the auditorium screen, interpreting a passage from one of Albright's books. (It reminds me a bit of Erika Somogyi's work)
I'll have more to say about him -- I just ordered a few of his tomes that I hadn't read yet. I've plugged him a few times on the blahg over the years.
Several of the reminiscers describe him as a genius and there's really no other word. When he lectured he held you spellbound -- you could feel your brain expanding.
In his younger years (when I had him as an undergrad advisor and my brain was still expanding) he primarily focused on English lit. He was in his mid-20s when he wrote a book on "Yeats' creative imagination in old age." That's one I ordered -- I've always been curious about it but never found it in a library or bookstore.
Gradually he broadened his criticism to include music and painting. At the end of his life his focus was interdisciplinary studies. His pursuits took him from Virginia to Rochester to (after 2003) Harvard, whether I gather his courses were popular.
I like his writing on poetry and music and modernist theory in general. I don't really care much about the interrelationships of the arts but appreciated that he would also take the flip side of the argument, explaining why and when it was good for a discipline to remain entrenched in its area of competence (to use a phrase of Greenberg's, a critic he admired but didn't agree with).
An astute Am*zon commenter said, regarding Albright's last book Putting Modernism Together: "A great project but this original and talented thinker is finally unable to let go of the canon." You could do a lot worse having someone to explain the canon to you, but the frustration isn't with Albright's conservatism so much as it is selfishly wanting to see that brilliant mind probing outside the established greats.

- tom moody

April 9th, 2017 at 8:11 am

Posted in art - others, books, theory

quip of the week

Jeffrey St. Clair, Counterpunch:

Stephen King’s It was one of the five scariest books I’ve ever read, along with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Clive Barker’s Damnation Game, Tom Holland’s Lord of the Dead (featuring Byron as a very temperamental vampire) and, of course, In My Time by Dick Cheney.

- tom moody

March 31st, 2017 at 9:05 am

Posted in books

belter history

The cable channel formerly known as the Science Fiction Channel has a new series, The Expanse, which is pretty adroitly done, despite overuse of the trope of "blowing people away" (via pistol, railgun, or airlock), which occurs with as much regularity and emotional impact as a Moe/Curly face slap. The series adapts books by two sf late colonizers writing under the name James S.A. Corey. When it's time to borrow, borrow from the best, and the Coreys owe a large debt to earlier writers for their conception of "the Belt" (as in, asteroids) and Belters.

Larry Niven used "Belter" in the '60s, mostly in short stories in his "Known Space" series. Wikipedia's summation:

The Sol Belt possesses an abundance of valuable ores, which are easily accessible due to the low to negligible gravity of the rocks containing them. Originally a harsh frontier under U.N. control,[citation needed] the Belt declared independence after creating Confinement Asteroid, a habitat with spin gravity that permitted safe gestation of children, and Farmer's Asteroid, the Belt's primary food source. Almost immediately a lively competition began between the fiercely independent "Belters" and the technology police of the U.N. Several years of tension and economic conflicts followed, but soon settled into a relatively peaceful trade relationship as the Belt has so many resources that the UN and the Earth need.

C.J. Cherryh also had gritty Belters in her books Heavy Time (1991) and Hellburner (1992). Wikipedia, again:

[The novels] are set in the Sol system at the beginning of the "Company Wars" period in the 24th century. Heavy Time introduces ASTEX, a division of the Sol Station Corporation, ... engaged in asteroid mining for minerals to support the Earth's economy and the war effort. Disputes over mining rights, corporate corruption and economic exploitation are key plot elements in the first novel.

Both Niven and Cherryh depict Belters as scrappy, independent operators, comfortable in tight spaces and hard vacuum suits, mining the rocks and constantly struggling with more sedentary Earth bureaucracies. The whole concept is basically bunk since radiation exposure and bone density loss make it impossible for humans to live in space for long periods, but as long as romantic conceptions are dying hard, might as well acknowledge the early dreamers.

- tom moody

March 18th, 2017 at 10:33 am

Posted in books, films

recent reading

Christopher Priest, The Inverted World

--An early (1972) almost-straight-science-fiction work by the author of The Prestige. This should be better known, it's exceptional British new wave that is not as glum as J.G. Ballard (although it's pretty glum). For much of its length it seems to be masquerading as a "hard" sf novel a la Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity. Ultimately, though, "inversion" describes both the setting (a world of spatiotemporal distortion) and what the book does to genre expectations.

David Goodis, Black Friday, Cassidy's Girl, The Burglar, Street of No Return

--Goodis is dark without making you want to hang yourself, a la Jim Thompson; these four are the best I've read so far. Library of America included the latter two in its collection of five books in a single volume but I would swap Black and Cassidy for Nightfall and Moon in the Gutter. Another strong contender is Down There, which served as an unlikely basis for Truffaut's film Shoot the Piano Player. Shoot is manic and lighthearted, where most Goodis is lugubrious and fatalistic. Truffaut follows the source novel's arc of a societal rise and fall almost exactly but makes subtle changes of tone and attitude throughout. Down There has humor but it's not as rollicking as Truffaut's "Gallic absurdist" (?) twist on the material. (E.g., the indelible quick shot of an elderly woman clutching her heart and falling down after a gangster says "strike my mother dead if I'm lying.")

Georges Simenon, "Inspector Maigret" novels.

--Penguin is republishing and retranslating all 80-some-odd of these books and that's a smart call -- they are highly addictive and not in the least repetitive. There are a few standard recurring themes, such as a small town with local aristocrats hiding dirty secrets, but Simenon keeps it fresh with unexpected plot developments, keen observations of people, and lush but economical descriptions of French locations ranging from the Atlantic seaside to Paris to the Cote d'Azur. Start at the beginning and read the first thirty (they're short) -- the next translation is due in late November.

Update, September 26: Major rewrite of post.

- tom moody

September 23rd, 2016 at 9:45 am

Posted in books

Drive, book and film

Drive, the movie, featured disturbing gore, Albert Brooks as a notable villain, and too-long stretches of Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan making cow eyes at each other. It's pretty good but if you backtrack to director Nicolas Winding Refn's "Pusher Trilogy" you can see how the director deliberately, possibly subversively, "went Hollywood." If you want to experience Drive without the sentimental goop, I recommend the Pusher films and also James Sallis' source novel, also titled Drive. (And the book's sequel, Driven.)

Keith Rawson has a good rundown on the Drive book/film differences. Sallis is a writerly writer in the Cormac McCarthy mold who is also a fan of Richard Stark. The Driver character resembles Parker with backstory -- mostly melancholy. Driver is far less zombie-like in the books than Gosling plays him.

One lingering question about Drive, the book, and please email if you have any thoughts. A character is introduced late in the story named "Eric Guzman." There is an earlier character named Standard Guzman (Standard Gabriel in the movie -- Mulligan's creepy husband played by Oscar Isaac.) Who the hell is Eric Guzman supposed to be? Is this Standard back from the dead? A fake name used by mobsters trying to track down Driver? Both? Neither? Very little is said between Driver and another character, "Doc," to explain who "Eric" was and what happened to him. Did Driver "take him out"? The barely-explained reappearance of the Guzman name (and there is a third Guzman mentioned -- Eric's brother Noel, who Doc supposedly fixed up medically) in a novel with a Pulp Fiction-style scrambled chronology throws off the rhythm of the scrambling so the result, for this reader, was confusion as to when events were taking place. Again, would appreciate others' thoughts.

- tom moody

August 3rd, 2016 at 9:40 am

Posted in books, films

Hard to Be a God -- book and film

Good English translations of books by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are starting to become available; I recommend their science-fiction-cum-medieval-swashbuckler Hard to Be a God. Star Trek fans will immediately recognize this as a "prime directive" story ("We must not interfere in this primitive society, however dysfunctional") but Hard to Be a God was published in the Soviet Union in '64, two years before Trek's five year mission. Moreover, the observers walking around on this feudal planet, wearing mini-cams disguised as jewelry, are Communist utopians, not Federation would-be-colonialists. The observers see themselves as historians, nothing more. Plotwise, let's just say this particular planet's habit of torturing and killing its intellectuals sorely tests our protagonist's restraint. The antagonist, Don Reba, was originally named Rebia, an anagram for a certain Stalinist henchman; the Strugatskys changed it because it was a little too obvious.
Iain M. Banks wrote a similar tale 35 years later, Inversions, with two competing notions of how to go native. Also recommended.
Not necessarily recommended is the 2013 film version of Hard to Be a God, directed by Aleksei German (who died that year). The film mixes Tarkovskian aesthetics with Ubu Roi-ish perversity in a depiction of a completely degraded anti-culture. It's stylistically fascinating but incoherent; the science fiction aspects are subtle to the point of non-existence. For example, the characters are constantly mugging for the camera disguised as a jewel on the protagonist's forehead (which is never explained), yet he is in half the shots, being filmed by we-know-not-what. The book mentions helicopters whisking our agents around the planet; these are not seen in the movie, which is all horses and mud puddles -- like an extended version of the "Bring Out Your Dead" sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

- tom moody

July 22nd, 2016 at 8:59 am

Posted in books, films

Let the Right One In -- metafiction reconsidered

Wrote the following post in 2012 after seeing the film version of John Ajvide Lindqvist's book Let the Right One In. After reading the book I'm not so sure of this. More after the blockquote. [Spoilers]

Let the Right One In [the film] is a perfect loop that spins out more even metafiction than the main story contains.
Several mysteries of the clumsy Father, surrogate Father, or captor seen in the first half are explained in the second.
The Father, we learn, is the boy at the end of the next cycle of serving as keeper/guardian for the ageless vampire girl.
What strikes us initially as the Father's slow-witted ineptitude is in fact burn-out and grief after a lifetime of murdering for her and covering up her crimes. He still loves her, because she once seduced him just as convincingly and decisively as she does the Boy in this film. Yet he longs for death, wants to get caught, and disfigures himself horribly when he sees he is about to be replaced, inevitably, by a younger guardian.
All of this will happen to the Boy, as it happened to unknown other boys before. We are seeing the beginning and the end of his life.
One critic complained about the violence of the revenge in the swimming pool at the end -- was it just a cheap thrill for the audience? Perhaps, but the pleasure is hollowed-out by the scenes of the Boy weeping afterwards. Also the extremity of the event further explains the Boy's willingness to give the girl decades of servitude -- he owes her big time. Prior to this we saw him vacillating over her murders, even losing his taste for his serial killer clipping collection. After this incident, he's hooked for life.
I pondered the gender-bending of the vampire Girl. It explains how/why she offers "guy advice" to the Boy about defending himself from bullies. She asks the Boy to "be me" but also wants to be him.
We see hints of how the power dynamic of this very alike couple will play out over years of the Boy's servitude. The girl bosses the Father around and occasionally offers him a stroke on the cheek. The Boy, feeling his oats after shellacking his first bully, plays games with the girl's weakness of not being able to enter a room uninvited. She must give him a bloody demonstration of where such games will lead.
Most the reviews I skimmed talked about the coming of age/romance aspects of the story but not its exposition of the roots of a lifetime co-dependent relationship.

Reading Lindqvist's novel, source of the film, several years later, lowers the above interpretation a few notches. [More spoilers] In the book, the "father" is an alcoholic with a jones for boys, picked up by the vampire late in the alcoholic's life, and the vampire is in fact a boy, missing genitalia since his transformation to bloodsucker instigated by a sadistic vampire aristocrat in centuries past. (The purpose and mechanics of the de-sexing are a bit murky in the book.) Although Lindqvist wrote the script for the film version, the decision was made to downplay the sexual elements. Those changes certainly still leave open the interpretation above -- that in the film, the Father was once a Boy to the vampire, and the story hinges on the acquisition of a new Boy. Nevertheless, this spin was not in the author's mind. I still like my "loop of doom" version but it may have to be reclassified as fan fiction.]

Update: A.V. Club critic Scott Tobias had a take similar to mine:

And then the coda -- which finds Oskar on a train during the daytime, tapping Morse code to Eli, who’s curled up in a box by his side -- feels remarkably bittersweet. Their destinies are now entwined, and they aren’t alone any more, but for how long? Someday, Oskar will also be a middle-aged man, trudging out in the snow with a funnel and a jug, collecting sustenance for his beloved.

- tom moody

June 18th, 2016 at 9:58 am

Posted in books, films