Monday, December 30, 2019

Oceans 11 and the Stiff Old Days

I am in the midst of watching the original Oceans 11, featuring Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.It proves itself a rather smothering revelation of cultural detritus. It also exists as a thriller heist movie, I suppose. It has a plot, to be sure. Oh and it’s a vehicle for the aforesaid Sinatra and his Mighty Rat Minions.
Somehow, I managed to read the book years ago. It was handy and I knew it existed as a movie too. I couldn’t keep up with the back stories in the book, for lack of interest. Also, I was busy trying to guess which character in the book was played by which Pack Rat. The book struck me with its grim nihilism, and not much else. It is much darker than Sinatra’s plaything.
I don’t care at all about the movie’s plot. I mean, ex-WWII comrades join forces to rob five Vegas casinos, sure. It is, as I said, a vehicle for the stars. Also, of course, a two hour ad for the enticements of Las Vegas.
The real interest sits with the cultural norms performed in every frame. My goodness, cigarettes are constantly dragged upon. And it is not just the smoking, it is the flair of lighting up, the pensive inhalation, the appropriate grip on the cigarette. The smoking ritual repeats in almost every scene. It is like there was no choice but to smoke.
In tandem with the smoking, the equally constant application of Jack Daniels to the manly spirit. Again the ceremony: ice tongs to drop ice cubes into rock glasses, followed by three ounces of Tennessee  whiskey and an avid gulp. This occurred either when entering a room or mid-sentence in a convo. Sentences end with a healthy sip. I’m just noting the cultural norm.
The boys hang together as a singular mass with minor incursions of dames. Men are from Mars, Women are from Neiman-Marcus: It is as simple as that. The separation is nearly complete. A couple of femmes annoyingly plead inclusion. Angie Dickinson is the only famous one, but that’s it. The heist is no pipe dream, it represents Purpose. Women thus are obstructions.
Dean Martin sings three songs, Sammy Davis jr. one so far. They do so for entertainment purposes, if you weren’t sure. Sammy plays a trash truck driver. We first see him in a group of similarly employed men. They’re all singing and playing harmonica. Sammy sings a showbizzy song that seems unlikely in the circs, tho just right for the inferred audience of the movie. He does all his stage motions too, which also looks unlikely but this aint real life.
So the movie shows a piece of history and the way we were, it promulgates the Sinatra mystique, and it dazzles with the entrancement of Las Vegas. It all seems old and foreign, as if people were never believable. People never really are, so it has that right. I may not need to finish the movie because I got the message.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Topsfield Fair



Beth and I attended the Topsfield Fair Sunday. It has allegedly been held these past two hundred years but it was my first time, as well as Beth’s.  We have both been to smaller fairs, me in NH, Beth in Alaska.

It was trafficky on the highway,  leaf-peeping time. Once off the highway, we slogged in line to the fair. We were directed to a field a couple miles from the fair. Parking on the fairgrounds had filled up an hour or more before the fair even opened. The field had an army of people directing cars to.parking places with a directive of economically using the available space. Shuttle buses brought us to the fair itself.

It was crowded, hey what. A nice, factory-issue autumn day. We were there for the livestock but it is not the most agrarian of fairs. Beth pointed out a cow with bloat. You could tell it was uncomfortable, it switched its tail, and nudged its expanded belly. I felt sad for the creature, and callous for looking at it.

Actually, I think our first act was buying fried dough. We had a few food vouchers and some cash for our gorging needs. I hate the captive audience food search common to such events, smug effing capitalism. Six bucks for a lump of dough fried in oil. Well, it was done well. Taken neat, no sugar or cinnamon, it was crisp on the outside, chewy inside, and not grease-soaked.

Eventually I needed actual food. I am one of regular feedings. A chicken fajita proved satisfying for me, Beth waited. I mean I could have fallen for deep-fried Oreos or some other scuzzy luxury. Elvis’ true vision.

The best part was going in where the draft horse were. Some turned their backs to us assholes, some preened. I didn’t see which but one started kicking loudly at its stall, the sound was alarming. The King Kong moment: I could imagine it busting free, wreaking vengeance on human perps.  Circs sort of amplified this feeling. Without calling people to evacuate the premises, people started removing the horses from their stalls. Handlers shooed us away while leading the massive horses away.

We moved to the arena, where three horse teams pulled wagons briskly. The horses moved in a high-stepped trot, with synchronized step. It was lovely to behold. I understand the lead horse sets the pace while the back two do the main pulling.

Rocks and fossils drew Beth’s attention. I consumed my fajita outside the tent before going in. You just have to give it up, get some on your shirt, standing around eating at a fair cannot be done neatly (Allen’s #1 Certitude). I saw a guy chomping on a turkey leg as he passed thru the crowd. Various fried foods on sticks, curious piles of enticing whatnot on paper plates. How about a sliced glazed donut with burger and bacon between? I  tried not to consume the foil wrap to my fajita. My second feeding was a pot roast sundae: meat, mashed potatoes, and corn in a cup with a cherry tomato on top. 

We saw bees, some wild-looking scarecrows, a massive pumpkin. A woman lead a pair of handsome horses around the arena sans any rope, just gestures.

We sat in the bleachers for the Dock Dogs competition. Dogs leap off a platform into a pool, the challenge being to go the furthest. The record, we were told, is more than 30’. One dog got out there more than 20’. Could have gone further. The dog’s handler threw the toy too high and the dog twisted to try to catch it. Lily could probably do well what with the booster rockets she has for hind legs.

Our visit ended as it began, with fried dough. Looked at some of the most beautiful Christmas trees ever. I don’t know why anyone would buy one now tho I suspect they would last a long time.


A bus ride back to the lot, and our car where we left it. A lovely New England day.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Pulp Fiction


Pulp Fiction came out some twenty five years ago and only now do I see it. I have never been comprehensive in my movie watching. To me at least, few movies of such age hold up well. Pulp Fiction feels fresh, albeit imperfect.

Like Glorious Basterds, episodes twine loosely in Pulp Fiction. In fact, by the end of the movie the twining seems looser. The narratives become more discrete and relate less to each other. 

Having the vivid visual images of Jackson and Travolta burned into my brain as about all I knew of the movie, the opening scene had me somewhat at a loss. Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth at a restaurant talking petty crime. Where’s this going? Then they decide in an eruption to rob the place. Plummer’s sudden change from Honey Bunny to hellfire marks the first note of Tarantino’s bumptious hilarity. The scene *stops* in media res.

The next scene introduces Travolta and Jackson. We can start making sense. Tarantino’s strength, of course, is dialogue. His characters riff on whatever, often in the manner of Platonic dialogues. The dialogues don’t seem derived from the characters, however. Tarantino uses the characters as dummies for ventriloquism.

Before I go further, I should clear the air about John Travolta. I have avoided watching this movie and others because of Travolta’s presence. Something about him... He’s someone graced, and braced, by his look. Early on, even back to that atrocious sitcom, he discovered that his smile works. It is his confidence. Tho he has talent and skill, he trusts his smile more. His acting then becomes a strain. He can’t always use that smile so you see him thinking, scheming, to reach a place where he can use that smile. I see this in Tom Cruise as well. I won’t attach this to Scientology tho hmmm. So what I see is someone sweating too much, too self aware within the package of his character.

Anyway, the scene in which they visit the young guys, we see elooquent intimidation, a Hollywood staple, viz The Joker, most gangsters, masterminds, etc. Jackson starts as good cop then blithely kills one guy. He speechifies then he and Travolta shoot too many bullets into the second guy. All in a day’s work. Third guy huddles in a corner. End of Scene.

The episode with Uma Thurman shows off exotic nonsense like her hipster pad and the restaurant with Ed Sullivan as maitre d’/emcee. Travolta efforts to not get involved with Thurman, a gangster’s moll. Tarantino fractured our expectations of romance when Thurman snorts some overly righteous stuff she found in Travolta’s coat. She o.d.’s and we have a party of slapstick overdose humour.

I’ve said my say about Travolta. The rest of the cast seem like they’re having fun. Eric Stoltz as suburban drug dealer and Rosanna Arquette as his seedy wife. A shot of adrenalin saves Thurman and the scene ends with perchance romance in the offing.

The chapter with Bruce Willis is the most convoluted and superfluous. I place him in the same tank with Travolta and Cruise.  I guess he has some skill—albeit not on the harmonica—but not so much range. He plays a boxer who is supposed to throw a fight but doesn’t. He chases around trying to escape Thurman’s gangster. Things become more difficult when he has to go back to his apartment for the heirloom watch his father gave him. An earlier flashback/dream had Christopher Walken explain the history of that watch which Walkenfinally smuggled from a p.o.w. camp to be presented to the boxer as a then fatherless boy. The scene seemed so noble and telling until Walken, it had to be Walken, tells the boy he smuggled it in his ass. There is, by the way, no explaining Walken’s genius.

By chance Willis and the gangster meet and try to kill each other. Their battle enters a shop where the owner gets the best of both and ties them up. He and a cop, I don’t know how he got involved, take the gangster to another room and rape him. Just another shop of horrors. Willis frees himself and saves the gangster. That clears Willis who rides off into Hollywood happy ending. Tarantino playing to the cheap seats?

I didn’t mench that while back in his apartment Willis runs into Travolta, who was looking for Willis. Willis kills him, wait what?

We then go back to the scene where Jackson and Travolta apply muscle to the young guys. After Jackson’s interminable and not last recitation of a passage from Ezekiel a fourth guy comes out of hiding with gun blazing. And he misses. Jackson reads this as a sign from God.

The pair take the surviving guy. In the car Travolta accidentally shoots the guy. In a panic they get the gangster to call a fixer who, at the home of Jackson’s friend, played by Tarantino, helps them clean up and dispose of the car. The fixer is Harvey Keitel, who is lushly efficient and businesslike.

And after that, the two go to a restaurant for breakfast. Right, Amanda and Tim go forth with their robbery. Jackson calmly thwarts Tim but there’s a stand off with Amanda. Jackson invoked that damn Ezekiel passage again and lets the couple go, a sudsy happy ending. We are left thinking of Travolta’s imminent  doom. Except for that it’s a wishy washy ending.

Any Tarantino movie could be titled *Fun with Nihilism*.  That and the elegant violence seem consistent in his movies, from what I’ve seen. This movie had something of *Goodfellas* to it in the way it finds humour and elegance in the wrong places. Seems like he needs a grownup with him when he’s directing. Nonetheless, if you can take the violence and tidy grimness, this is a pretty fine movie. Even with John Travolta.



Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Glorious Basterds

Well, I watched this. I know Tarantino has certain roguish skills as a filmmaker, and excesses as well. Excesses plus John Travolta explain why I have yet to see Pulp Fiction. Brad Pitt, I don’t mind.

I had little sense of the movie when I began. It opens SS officer visits a dairy farm. With a courtesy that eventually becomes malevolent he interviews the farmer. Slowly and obsequiously the officer gets the farmer to admit he is hiding Jews. The actor playing the officer is outstanding.

The SS shoot up the hiding place but a woman escapes. The officer has her in his pistol’s sight but he doesn’t shoot for some reason. I don’t know if such urbane nastiness existed in the SS or anywhere, it feels more like a Hollywood  convention, but the scene sure was riveting.

That was Chapter One. The movie seems structured like a novel the way it presents the various threads. The threads come together in the end. So far so good.

The next chapter presents Brad Pitt as a lieutenant in command of a crack Nazi-killing outfit. It is not explained why this little band exists or how. Any number of Hollywood movies feature similar righteous bands of good guys on an extracurricular mission. The soldiers are all Jewish. Pitt is a Southerner with a healthy Army drawl. He and the SS officer carry the film.

After the creepy SS officer, Pitt’s character is downright comedic. Pitt seems comfortable with the accent and the accent doesn’t feel overdone. At this point I realized that Tarantino was doing a Coen Brothers movie: edgy, skewed, oddly funny. The band’s reputation precedes it. Except for Pitt, the outfit is largely faceless. Most of the cast is unknown to me.

In one scene Pitt interrogates a captured German officer. The officer won’t spill so Pitt calls for one of his men, the legendary Bear. His m.o.: beating his victims with a baseball bat. He enthusiastically does so to the officer, like a baseball slugger, then whoops, citing Ted Williams and Fenway Park. That performance convinced that last German soldier to give information. Pitt etches a swastika in the guy’s forehead so that when he no longer wears a uniform, people will still know he was a Nazi. The dead get scalped. I don’t doubt that somebody tried scalping during WW2 but the detail here seems outre.

The various threads/chapters got a little confusing for me. The woman who escaped in the first chapter reappears, tho I didn’t immediately recognize her, as a cinema owner, having inherited the place. What seems like meet cute occurs when a German soldier chats her up.  She remains cool to him but later they meet again. It turns out that he’s an Audie Murphy style war hero. He convinces Goebbels to use her theatre for the premiere of the movie made about and with this hero. She uses this opportunity to plot the murder of the German high command that will attend the premiere.

The next chapter introduces a British operative who would work with a German actress to somehow, I’m not sure how, assassinate the German High Command at the premiere. This leads to a scene at a bistro in which the plotters intermingle with German soldiers. An SS officers sniffs out the plotters, I don’t know what they’re doing there anyway. Everyone has a gun trained on somebody. In what seems like a patented Tarantino moment, everyone gets shot. Except for the actress, none of these characters seemed vital to the story. The whole chapter felt superfluous, tho gripping.

This scene sunk me. The burst of violence felt so hopeless. Plus Tarantino makes it so snazzy with the explosive flash of the gunplay.  A young German soldier who just became a father survived. Pitt appears. They both discover that the actress also survived. Pitt tried to negotiate with the German to get the woman. It seems like a moment of release as the German seems to allow the woman to leave. As Pitt negotiates, she shoots the German.

Action culminates in the theatre. Pitt and what’s left of his company and the actress attend. The SS officer from the first chapter is at the theatre and discovers the infiltrators in his methodical yet courteous way. The actress is interviewed by the officer. After she admits of her role in the plot he surprisingly leaps at her and chokes her to death. That came from nowhere. Two of Pitt’s rather happy-go-lucky operatives in the theatre audience are not detained. They have explosives strapped to them and other weapons.

The SS officer takes Pitt and the one remaining operative away to negotiate a way the officer could surrender. The cinema owner has slipped a death-to-Nazis message into the premiere, at the same time starting a conflagration. Meanwhile in what at first appears to be a possibly romantic moment between her and the hero German turns ruthless and they kill each other. With even Hitler attending the premiere, I didn’t expect the complete destruction of everyone in the theatre. Tarantino chose an alternate reality. The last two American operatives madly and blithely shoot people in the chaos of the fire. O nihilism! None of the doomed have much notion or concern of imminent death.

So... the SS officer asks for all sorts of benefits, which are agreed to. He takes the two surviving Americans to Allied territory and surrenders to them. Pitt immediately kills the German driver, and carves a swastika on the forehead of the officer.

Tarantino manages to play with the audience’s sense of wish fulfillment. Yay, Hitler dies, but so do almost everyone else. Pitt’s character bobs along calmly in the chaos. Many other characters are on suicide missions. Tarantino presents the flowering beauty of murder and destruction.


Tho Tarantino manages some subtle moments the bombast of violence provides the tonic note for him. Compared to the Coens he’s ruthless and lacks their quirky surprise. I will say that he takes a different tack towards the Nazi horror than other films. He revels some in that horror, but at the same time sounds Vonnegut’s so it goes. He has made an imperfect but powerful movie.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Hampton Beach at the End of Time



Labour Day, Beth, Lily (the dog), and I travelled North to the hallowed consumption of Hampton Beach. Hampton Beach is the expressive pimple on New Hampshire’s modest sea coast. Besides a wide and inviting beach, the place offers lots of scuzzy attractions. An actual ocean looms on the wet side, with evocations of grease on the other side. Hello,  American vista.

We hadn’t much aim to our journey but thought to let Lily see the ocean, and Hampton’s a close option. The ride up is pleasant, with salt marshes near the end.

The shoreline at Hampton Beach presents a wide and easy embrace. It seems a calm harbour with an expansive shelf of sand.  You will find across the road from that the smell of grease and the inflection of commerce. You are drawn, in your mufti of sloppy shorts and shirt, to the preening grub of consumption’s valour. That means shitty appeasement of dulled senses. Something greasy with extra cheese, please.

The arcades looked charged with electric fun tho I have never spent money in one. Cramped stores sold garish t-shirts that expressed empty sentiments. I mean the captions on the shirts were empty but also the totality of the devise of wearing such words (the saga of MAGA). As if we were all just shirts frozen in our tilted slogans.

We charged the debit card one dollar to park. Lily and her ilk were not welcome on the beach so we strolled some on the walkway. Lily had a continent of endeavor to sniff but we had to keep the leash short.

I did not mench that the grey clouds were wet in behavior. The last day of mercantile summer had a fizzle for an ending. The boardwalk was busy but the beach held few people. 

Driving along the strip, Beth saw an emporium dedicated to fried
dough, or *fry* dough as the sign would have it. This tripped memories of carnivals and state fairs. I went to get some.

I harbour no glowing memories of fried dough, but here it was in all its smell. Except that once it came time to pay, I needed Hard American Cash, of which I had none. I had to procure green stuff from Beth.

Beth took her dough neat, sans any of the TWENTY possible toppings. The last time I had fried dough, the options were sugar and cinnamon. Now the piqued connoisseur can choose peanut butter and jelly or even sauce and cheese. I went with what I knew, cinnamon and sugar.

Music emanated from a joint nearby. The singer regaled the crowd with a set list of Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, done all country-style. We could see him standing by the window of the place. He was alone but must’ve had a tape player to round out his band. The shift to country took much from the songs, made them crass and typical. The audience occasionally made bar crowd noise but the grimness of performance for both the singer and the audience was palpable. His job and their entertainment, straining to exist.

As we drove from the main strip we noticed that the sea wall now prevented any view of the sea, at least from a car.  This was new. Intimations of the sea encroaching on livelihood. C loser inspection showed that chunks of granite had been placed at the foot of the sea wall as a hedge against erosion. A curious red seaweed clung to the granite and swirled thickly in the surf. I would be loathe to step into that water tho I suppose people do.

Hampton Beach is by no means a large paradise but it is full to the brim. Shops and joints squeeze between the hotels and motels. This colony is a destination for the commercial energy that powers the turbine. The entertainment is pointless and that’s the point, at least so long as the turbine still spins. That it could all be swept into the sea does not seem possible tho it is quite likely. Here no future exists, just the smell of fry dough and the electric noise of arcades. Such, such the American endgame, and someone somewhere reaps a profit. In such stridency does the machinery work. When the ocean wipes this all away, the smell will linger. 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Moby Dick Continues


Reading *Moby Dick* once again--I have read it perhaps four times previously--gives me such pleasure. My familiarity with the book allows me to savor it. Mostly I am reading it a chapter or two at a time. I seem unable to lay into it but since I know where it heads, that's okay. I get to sound the depths.

I know Melville wasn't, in life, exactly a successful sailor (or much of anything except author of Moby Dick), not in the romantic sense depicted in the book. But that thoughtful man fully engaged with the life in *that* life. Thus the resonance one feels in reading the novel.

Melville pragmatically and thoroughly delves into the details of whales and whaling. He did not just produce a narrative, he wrote a life, or a living. In a way, he resembles Proust, tho in much different terms and execution. Both expand their work into depth, if you can follow that. In their respective works they stare at a murky horizon with eyes set for every detail. I have a border collie, I know what that's like. The writing of their respective master works required tenacity and endurance.

With Melville, a particular urgency pushed him, one that Proust perhaps did not face. Melville felt the need to followup early success. Additionally, he needed to make some mon. The early parts of his novel show him building a neat, lively story. Like with his earlier novels, he had vivid experiences he could relate. A sea change occurred however by way of a central dissatisfaction with the possibilities of simple narrative. And so Melville followed his nose and not the marketplace. In doing so, he failed to find the small success that he sought. But he wrote *Moby Dick*, a wonder.

I paint a simplified picture, or just write a hint of the expanse. *Moby Dick* has no single *about*, as nothing of worth ever has. He had, for instance, to contend with Shakespeare. Those passages in which he conjures Shakespeare strike me as clumsy, and taste of derivation. Nonetheless, that contention adds more drive to the operation. Just as he sought some manner of peace with The Bible's presiding power, so too with Shakespeare.


Moby Dick stands simply as a grand event. You could call it a poem because it coalesces around something other than narrative. It wants words to align both objectively and subjectively. Writing Moby Dick both confined and released Melville. Melville wrote that rare thing.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Moby Dick Again


I have somehow transitioned to reading books on my devices. Much as I love the physical item, digital books offer advantages.  So, because Moby Dick is so readily at hand, I am reading it once more. I’ve read it enough times that I can read in dribs. I can enjoy it a chapter at a time because I need not race forward to see how the narrative resolves.

Narrative kinda bores me. So often, an author’s narrative intention produces misshapen exaggerations. An unneeded *about* hangs over such work.

I haven’t read Toni Morrison, for instance. This is not a willful choice, I just haven’t felt the gravitational pull. I wonder if she can surprise me, because popular novels tend not to. I do not offer these thoughts as reasonable criticism. I’m just wary of professional novels.

Melville tried to be professional. He’d had vivid, exotic experiences to work with. Those early novels were easy ventures. Moby Dick begins that way, but then Melville discovered unexpected depths, which he sounded. The book became, let us say, a spiritual commitment.


I have previously burbled about Truman Capote’s failed grand d’oeuvre. He signed a contract and just wished the venture well. I am not so I interested in that, and I suppose I should leave it there. Narrative is the least vital element of novels for me. I like the kicks of Language, and the awareness of the author. Virginia Woolf’s driven exercises, for instance. I will have to find my way into a Morrison novel, so I can cross over from conjecture. Right now, tho, The Whale.