This is very long and detailed, so I’m going to try to put in a cut tag.
All right, I can't get that to work, not if it was ever so. I'm sorry.
On Tuesday Raphael and I went to Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. The forecast was for a sunny, almost windless day with a high of 87. The air quality was moderate. I complained about this the day before and Raphael asked if I'd prefer not to go. But Sherburne is actually a good place to go on a less than perfect day, because there's a seven-mile wildlife drive with stopping points for viewing whoever happens to be around; also a tiny oak savanna (1/10-mile loop) trail and a prairie trail with an oak grove in the middle with a bench (1/2-mile loop). And it's September; hiking season will be over at some point.
We got a late start but arrived with about five hours of daylight ahead of us. Sherburne is near Sand Dunes National Forest, and its soil is also sandy. It's a lightly rolling landscape full of marshes, pools, and prairie, broken by lines and clumps of trees. You drive through a short stretch of mature restored prairie to reach the actual wildlife drive. It was awash in blooming goldenrod and blue and white asters and rich brown grasses.
We stopped at the Oak Savanna Trail and had a sandwich, read the list of plants presently blooming (six kinds of goldenrod, four kinds of white aster, two kinds of blue aster, rough blazing star, and boneset) and then walked out on the tiny boardwalk. We examined what looked like an abandoned bald eagle's nest through one of the spotting scopes provided, and then started looking at spreadwings (yet another kind of damselfly) in the tall grass that the boardwalk runs through.
Here is an image of a spreadwing that one might see in Minnesota, though I don’t know if that’s what we did see.
A flicker of motion in the distance caught my attention, and I looked up to see three sandhill cranes landing across the prairie near the road we'd come on. "A family," said Raphael, looking through the binoculars. "See the juvenile?" I did see the juvenile, which did not have all its red in yet but was almost as large as its parents. The cranes started walking through the grass, not unlike herons stalking through shallow water; occasionally they would bend their long necks down and poke around in the grass roots, and occasionally one of them would make a sharp dart and come up with food and swallow it.
It was hard to decide whether the cranes were more awesome through binoculars or just as tall shapes against the pale road and prairie, bending and straightening, wandering apart and together again. If you didn't look through binoculars you could also see meadowhawks darting around, the spreadwings rising to catch tiny insects and settling again to eat them, the unexpected wind shaking the oak leaves and the grass and the asters. From time to time a darner moved across the larger prairie, veering after prey or just powering along.
At last a truck came fairly fast along the road, raising a cloud of dust, and the cranes paused, considered, opened their huge wings and rose up, gawky but graceful, and flew away low over the grasses. We went back to looking at smaller wildlife
I was trying to spot a spreadwing through the binoculars when I saw what looked like an animated tangle of brown grass. I said to Raphael, “There’s some kind of mantis there!” and when Raphael expressed astonishment, I added, “It’s very stick-y,” which allowed Raphael to come up with the actual name: It was a stick insect. It took a few moments for me to describe its location and for Raphael to see it, and then I had trouble finding it again through the binoculars, but it was busy clambering around against the wind, so we did both get a good look at it. It was only the second stick insect I’d seen in Minnesota. The other was at Wild River State Park. That one was much larger and was rummaging around in a pile of leaves at the edge of the parking lot. This one was fascinating because its camouflage was so great, and yet it did have to move around, so you could differentiate it from the grass if you worked at it.
We’d arrived in the deep of the afternoon when smaller birds are quiet. We heard a few goldfinches murmuring, and a phoebe carrying on, and a chickadee. We left the boardwalk, admiring the asters waving in the non-foreseen but welcome breeze, and walked around the oak savanna loop. The little oak saplings tangled among the other shrubbery were already starting to turn red. White asters poked their flowerheads through leaves belonging to other plants, to startling effect. Autumn meadowhawks floated and hovered and darted, snatching up gnats from the clouds around them. We had seen a monarch butterfly in the asters while we were eating our lunch, and also a dark-phase swallowtail wandering over the grass; now we saw a painted lady butterfly.
We made an attempt to leave, but a darner landed on a drooping dead branch of an oak tree right in front of the car. The sun was behind it and we couldn’t get a good look without tramping heedlessly into the prairie, so we didn’t, but its silhouette was lovely against the brilliant sky.
We drove on, past tall browning and reddening grasses, clumps of goldenrod, clouds of asters. Darners flew up from the sides of the road and zoomed away. We found at the turning that the refuge had reversed the direction of the wildlife drive since we were there last, which was momentarily confusing; but we found our way, and stopped at the Prairie Trail. I pointed out some thoroughly spent plants of spotted horsemint. We’d seen it in bloom, if you can call it that, at William O’Brien. It’s a very weird-looking plant. Here’s a photo:
This observation continued my inability to accurately provide the names of things; I’d just called it horsemint and Raphael reminded me that that particular weird plant was spotted horsemint. There are other horsemints, but they don’t look so strange. As we stood looking over the rise and fall of the little prairie, with folds of alder and sumac, and lines and whorls of different grasses and goldenrod, all truly starred with the blue and white asters, I said that I loved how big the sky was at Sherburne. Raphael noted that it was a slate-blue just now; we assumed that was the haze of the wildfire smoke all the way from the west coast, a somber reminder of far too many things.
We took the grassy path, startling small grasshoppers out of our way and stirring up meadowhawks from the tall plants and shrubs. We saw a monarch; we saw a painted lady. Passing through a little grove of young alders, on almost every tip of the dead trees intermingled with the living there was a meadowhawk perched. They swept upwards, snatched a gnat or fly, landed to eat again. Raphael showed me how to identify a female autumn meadowhawk: they have a definite bulge just below the thorax, which was easy to see against the sky. Darners zipped past from time to time. If it was a green darner we could usually tell even from just a glance. The others were mosaic darners, but harder to identify in passing.
I think it was as we approached the oak grove that we started seriously trying to identify the grasses. We’d known big bluestem, aka turkey-tail, for years. After seeing it labelled repeatedly here and there, I could pick out the charming clumps of little bluestem, just knee-high, with their pale fluffy flowers lined up and catching the light. We’d looked at an informational sign at the trailhead, but its drawings of Indian grass and switch grass didn’t look right. Raphael pulled up the photo of the sign about grasses at the visitor center at Wild River, which had struck both of us at the time as much more informative than other attempts to depict native grasses; and we could suddenly identify Indian grass after all. It has a long, narrow rich brown seed head with varying degrees of spikiness; some are quite streamlined and others are tufty and look as if they need combing. And we felt more confident about the switch grass with its airy spreading seed heads.
Raphael pointed out a beetle on the path, maybe a Virginia leatherwing, and then realized that it looked like a moth. A little research when we reached the oak grove and sat down showed that it was a net-winged beetle, and the entry even mentioned that it looked quite a bit like a leatherwing.
The bench we were sitting on was made from boards of recycled plastic. At some point Raphael had had enough sitting and went ahead a little way just to see what was there. I’d noticed when I sat down that there were verses from the Bible printed on the back of the bench in some kind of marker. On the left was the passage from Matthew that begins, “Come unto me you who are weary and heavy-laden,” and on the right the passage from John that begins, “For God so loved the world.” These might have been written in different hands. But the passage in the middle was definitely in a different hand, and began, “We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine.” The ending of the passage was a bit smeared and I couldn’t read all of it, but at the bottom the name “hunter s. thompson” was clear enough. I followed Raphael and relayed the beginning of the passage. “Hunter s. thompson!” said Raphael, going back to the bench with me. “It’s from <i>Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas</i>.” Raphael looked this up too, and showed me the unsmeared passage on the cellphone.
Giggling a bit, we went on our way. We were now well around the loop and into the straight stretch back to the car. From the other side I’d pointed out a lovely layering of grasses, goldenrod, a narrow cleft of willow scrub, and a candy-red line of sumac. Now we came to the sumac from the other side. On the path in front of us was a butterfly. “What is that?” said Raphael. “It’s a Red Admiral,” I said confidently, but it wasn’t. It was another Painted Lady. Raphael consolingly told me that they were both Vanessa, very closely related, but the Red Admiral is very common in Minnesota and I was chagrined that I’d misidentified something else as that.
We came to a little stretch of boardwalk over a marshy area. On a shrub was a shimmery amber-tinged odonate. I pointed it out to Raphael. It turned out to be another autumn meadowhawk, though it looked as if it ought to be an Eastern Amberwing, or at least a Band-Winged Meadowhawk. It had perched on a bit of red-stemmed dogwood, just to be extra-cooperative. We went on through the cattails and willow, past a minute patch of open water and up onto the grassy path again. Raphael pointed out that where the path climbed back out of the tiny marsh there was a nice view over the rest of the open water and the winding marsh with more willow, and cattails, and a shrub we should have known but didn’t. (I briefly misidentified it as more red-stemmed dogwood, because it was my day to misidentify everything; but it had deep purple stems and leaves just starting to turn reddish.)
On our right for the end of our walk was the brilliant sumac and the cleft of alder saplings, all their leaves fluttering and twinkling in the wind and sunlight; on the left a long slope of prairie grasses interrupted by goldenrod and asters. More darners sailed by. The sky had lost its smoky cast and was a fine late-summer deep blue. We came back to the car and Raphael began to drive away, but I exclaimed at the sight of a big clump of stiff goldenrod covered with pollinators. We didn’t get out, but looked our fill from the car. Big bumblebees, a Ctenucha moth, beetles, ambush bugs. Once Raphael started reading it, I had to edit this entry to correct the Ctenucha moth's name and type, so have another link, since they are very handsome:
There’s one more trail you can actually walk along, near the end of the wildlife drive, but there was a sign at the beginning saying that it was flooded. Before that we drove past long stretches of marsh, open water, and rolling prairie, all patched with clumps of trees. From time to time there would be a wider spot in the road, sometimes a formal space big enough for three or four cars, with a bench or two, or a platform over a low spot with spotting scopes and some informational signs about the wildlife; others just a metal platform with railings, where you could stand and look over the water. We tentatively identified the spot where we’d once common moorhens, which are not so common that we weren’t deeply excited. We’ve also seen muskrats and various ducks in these locations, and once there was a gigantic cloud of mosaic darners all brown and yellow – I seem to recall that some of them were lance-tipped darners, but I may be wrong. This time we heard water birds making a ruckus, but couldn’t see them. Darners came by in about the density that they had been all the while. Over one platform we saw what turned out to be a northern harrier; these guys have an amazing acrobatic flight, and they’re reddish on the underside and bluish on the back. I excitedly called this one a kestrel, which would be smaller and have the colors reversed: bluish on the underside and red on the back. We also very clearly saw a nighthawk with its white wing bars, though the sun was still up.
We also saw some cedar waxwings fly-catching from a tree with a dead top, and heard a yellow warbler.
At last we came to a stretch of water, islands, and snags so large that it had two separate viewing-spots. From the first we saw several groups of large white birds. I thought the first were swans, but they were white pelicans. There were also some swans, however. We came finally around a curve of the gravel road to an observation station in a little oak grove, overlooking the far side of this large sheet of water. This is where most of the dead trees are, and here, to our delight, we saw as we’ve seen before several times a very large number of cormorants. The sun was setting by then, off to our right. The sky was pink and the water reflected it. Many cormorants were roosting already, but some were still coming out of the water; they would land on a branch, sometimes settling and sometimes glancing off several different trees before finding one that suited them, or one in which the other cormorants accepted them. It was hard to be sure. Then they would spread their wings out to dry, looking as if they were practicing to be bats for Halloween.
We found the swans and pelicans we’d seen from the other viewing station, though it was getting pretty dark by then. Cormorants still flew up into the trees and spread their wings. Through binoculars you could see the ones that had folded their wings now preening their breast feathers. Some of them had pale necks and brown fronts rather than being entirely black. I mentioned this to Raphael, who looked it up in Sibley and confirmed that those were juvenile cormorants.
It was getting quite dark by then and the mosquitoes were starting to think about biting us in earnest. We drove past two more pools; beside one two groups of people we’d seen pass earlier, a third car I didn’t recognize from before, and a man using a wheelchair were standing and gesticulating. We pulled up and got out. The water and trees were lovely in the twilight, but we didn’t see any wildlife. The solitary man went away in his wheelchair, the unfamiliar car left, and we followed, watching the varied texture of the grass and flowers fade away into the dark.
On the other hand, the screening will be introduced by Thelma Schoonmaker and this is how Andrew Moor in Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magic Spaces (2012) writes about David Niven as Squadron Leader Peter David Carter, the pilot hero of A Matter of Life and Death (look out, textbrick, for once it's not me):
Never an actor of great range, Niven came instead to embody and to articulate a rather out-of-date ideal: gentlemanliness – or 'noblesse oblige'. His light tenor and gamin beauty are those of the nobility: he reveals, if provoked, the upright steeliness of a man with backbone, but this grit often shades over into a likeable, smiling insolence. Though we knew he could be naughty (and the actor was a noted practical joker), it was the forgivable naughtiness of a well-liked schoolboy It is usually his graceful amusement that impresses, rather than his physicality or intellect (to talk of 'grace' might seem antiquated, but old-fashioned words like that seem to fit). He could be the younger son of a minor aristocrat, at times silly but always charming, and in the last instance gallant, gazing upwards with a sparkle in his eyes, a light comedian who, through sensing the necessity of nonsense, is perfect as Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Anderson, 1956, US). He is fittingly dashing in The Elusive Pimpernel (Powell and Pressburger, 1950), where as Sir Percy Blakeney he embraces foppishness with gusto. His 'airy' quality is winning, and his poetic virtues shine in AMOLAD. He may be well-mannered and eloquent but, as charmers go, his 'classiness' sits easily . . . He is undoubtedly an affectionate figure. Unkindness is not in him, and he is important in our gallery of heroes. But he is never like John Mills, the democratic 1940s ' Everyman'. Mills is the boy next door to everybody and, while that is a nice neighborhood, we really aspire to live next door to Niven. Is it a question of class? We suppose Niven to be a good host of better parties. Mills is like us; Niven is exotic. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and during the war Niven stood for some of the most valued of principles, but his quality (or was it just his prettiness?) seemed the stuff of a previous, and probably mythical, time. Niven himself was a Sandhurst-trained army man, who joined the Highland Light Infantry in 1928 and served in Malta for two years before drifting towards America and into film acting. In 1939, when he left Hollywood for the army, he was a star, and managed to complete two propaganda films during the war while also serving in the Rifle Brigade . . . In the opening sequence of AMOLAD, it is hard to think of another actor who could mouth Powell and Pressburger's airborne script so convincingly. Bravely putting his house in order, saying his farewells and leaping from his burning plane, he is ridiculously, tearfully beautiful. Notably, it is his voice, travelling to Earth in radio waves, which first attracts the young American girl June, not his looks, and later it is his mind which is damaged, not his body. It is difficult, in fact, to think of the slender Niven in terms of his body at all. We remember the face, and a moustache even more precise and dapper than Anton Walbrook's (which was hiding something). Like Michael Redgrave in The Way to the Stars, he is the most celebrated man of war – the pilot who belongs in the clouds.
So I'm thinking about it.
Transparent (1734 words) by Anonymous
Fandom: Star Trek: Alternate Original Series (Movies)
Rating: General Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: James T. Kirk/Leonard "Bones" McCoy, past Leonard "Bones" McCoy/Jocelyn McCoy - Relationship
Characters: James T. Kirk, Joanna McCoy, Leonard "Bones" McCoy, Jocelyn McCoy, Winona Kirk (mentions)
Additional Tags: James T. Kirk & Joanna McCoy - Freeform, Overbearing Parents, Heart-to-Heart Conversations, Divorced parents, Starfleet Academy
The one where Joanna and Uncle Jim have a heart-to-heart, and Joanna realises there are much worse things in life than an overbearing parent.
Written for Remix Revival 2017.
I cried, ngl.
* Coursera Style week 2 story (600/600 on the dot)
* Coursera Style week 3 story, cutting the prior week's story in half (300/300)
* PODSA/SGA crossover:
The Ninth Space Wedding (Is the Charm) (3579 words) by celli
Fandom: Pod Save America (RPF), Stargate Atlantis
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: No Archive Warnings Apply
Relationships: Jon Favreau/Jon Lovett
Characters: Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor, DeRay Mckesson
Additional Tags: Crossover, Alternate Universe - Fusion, space weddings, Soulmates, Tropes
Weddings have consequences. Especially space weddings.
* Coursera Style week 4 story (0/600)
* PODSA gift story (1069/whatever)
* basic income contest story (124/5000)
* PODSA mpreg (2062/whatever)
* Star Wars auction fic, two scenes left (704/1000+)
* AIRPF AU with rajkumari905 (3316/whatever)
* AIRPF auction fic (0/1000+)
1. Yesterday's mail brought my contributor's copy of Not One of Us #58, containing my poems "The House Always Wins" and "Dive" along with fiction by Patricia Russo, Rose Keating, and Mike Allen and poetry by Mat Joiner and Holly Day, among others. The theme of the issue is fall. Not One of Us is one of the longest-running, most stubborn black-and-white ink-and-paper 'zines in existence and I am deeply fond of it, with its inclusive themes of otherness and alienation; it is where I published my first short story sixteen years ago this month. If you have the fiver to spare, I recommend picking up a copy. The editor and his family have a cat to support.
2. I am very pleased to announce that my novelette "The Boatman's Cure," heretofore available only in my collection Ghost Signs (2015), will be reprinted in a future issue of Lightspeed. If you have not read it and want an advance idea of what it's like, it was reviewed by Amal El-Mohtar when the collection came out. It has ghosts and the sea and personal history and classical myth and periodically I wonder if it counts as a haunted house story, although it was not written as one. It carries a lot of significance for me. Rest assured that I will link when it goes live.
3. I was not so pleased to hear that Harry Dean Stanton has died. As one can do with character actors, I seem to have conceived an incredible fondness for him over the years despite never seeing him in any of his really famous roles; I have good memories of him from Dillinger (1973), Alien (1979), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). I probably have Paris, Texas (1984) or Repo Man (1984) in my future. I had not realized he was 91. He was a sort of weatherbeaten middle age for so long, I just figured it was his natural, permanent state.
Looking at the film now, I am not surprised that I fell in love with it ten years ago, because it is, in addition to a kind of chamber corporate thriller, an essentially noir narrative. Its chief concerns are people's prices and limits, how far they'll go and for whose sake, whether there is such a thing as redemption or whether some stains go too deep or whether it even matters so long as just here, just now, just a little, the damage stops. It assumes institutional corruption and personal complicity without making them anyone's excuse. It asks real ethical questions and proffers no pat answers. I've never seen it counted among modern neo-noir and I'm wondering if people miss it because it eschews the style: there are no cigarette contrails or Venetian blinds, but all the philosophy is there, the starkness with which the void can suddenly open beneath you. It's never didactic; it would be dead in the water if it preached. The longest speeches belong to Wilkinson and as his character says shruggingly, "I'm crazy, right?" But it makes its audience notice the inequalities, how being useful is not the same as belonging, how suffering in aggregate can be business as usual until a face turns it into personal crisis, how the woman in the boardroom is the one out on the branch that can be sawn off at need (which does not absolve her of the actions she takes to cling there), and without playing games with audience satisfaction it ends with a move into the appropriate total unknown. It's not grimdark, because good noir isn't. It just doesn't promise anyone they'll make it out—even metaphorically—alive.
I am being evasive about the plot because it's good: it knows that a car bomb and a photocopy can be equally explosive, but the renunciation of empathy is more killing than any chemical. I didn't realize the writer-director had also written four of the Bourne movies, although I feel I should have been able to guess from the scene with Clive Owen in The Bourne Identity (2002), or that he co-wrote the script for Rogue One (2016), which is less immediately obvious to me. I can't remember if I knew that cinematographer Robert Elswit had previously worked with Clooney on Good Night and Good Luck (2005), where I discovered David Strathairn, Frank Langella, Ray Wise, and Dianne Reeves, started to notice Robert Downey, Jr., and finally differentiated Jeff Daniels from Jeff Bridges; he gets some beautiful shots out of ordinary things and some horrifying ones out of the same, like a glossily deserted, fluorescent-lit office building late at night that seems to be waiting for J.G. Ballard. I wish Clooney had won the Best Actor he was nominated for; I don't still randomly think about Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood a decade later. I think the best compliment I can pay this movie is that even if I think of it as noir, I don't think it would have been better filmed in 1949 with John Garfield or Dan Duryea. This memo brought to you by my valuable backers at Patreon.
I was five minutes late to the theater, which I count as an achievement since at Downtown Crossing the Red Line had decided that it would prefer not to; rushthatspeaks and nineweaving had saved me a seat and I came in just as Nigel Terry doing his best BBC switched from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." (My memory is that this produced the line "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed not with a bang but with a whimper," but I don't actually think that happened.) It's even more of a cut-up film than Jubilee (1977), working with many of the same furious themes but even more abstracted here. It plays aggressively with time, slowing, skipping, echoing, blackout and shell-shock and dream. (We ran out of time when we ran out of history, here at the willed, sadistically avoidable end of things. If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.) It flickers between scenes until the screen becomes its own double-exposure kinematoscope. Many of Jarman's movies are painterly; this one is staticky. It's like looking at a sparkler. And indeed, different characters carry these fizzing torches, white magnesium fire burning off the screen; they ward and threaten and signify, perhaps, at the last, hope. Of Jarman's work that I've seen, which at this point includes all the feature films except Sebastiane (1976), The Garden (1990), and Blue (1993), The Last of England reminds me most of the short The Art of Mirrors (1973) and the music videos he directed for the Smiths and for Marianne Faithfull, who appears via the soundtrack, singing the beginning of the "Skye Boat Song" over and over in her cracked bell of a voice as refugees or deportees huddle on the wharves of London, patrolled by balaclava'd soldiers with black boots and black guns and the confident stride of nationalists: there were white cliffs in Ford Madox Brown's painting, but here there's not even a boat. The other thing this film reminds me of is a nightmare. It contains the most frightening cauliflower I have ever seen. It contains a moon-crowned dancing androgyne, a wedding where the bridesmaids are pantomime dames and the baby is present in a pram full of tabloids, an execution in real time. A pair of soldiers waltz in a tire-littered alley, lit by a trash fire. The globe of the world spins as if out of control, between the hands of an actress who looks like (but I don't think is) Sycorax from The Tempest (1979). Its painted countries are probably out of date anyway. "Land of Hope and Glory" sails out over shots of the Albert Memorial and home footage of Empire-shadowed Pakistan from Jarman's childhood, but the violence of soldiers who are not on parade—the grandsons of Kipling's "sons o' the Widow," with all the latest overcompensating gear—stutters like bullet-flashes throughout. New York is a frenetic hallucination, a remembrance wreath the height of hypocrisy when exchanged for a submachine gun. Hitler's on the soundtrack, too.
I don't know why this movie isn't depressing. It should leave you feeling absolutely bludgeoned; I think it's so angry it's exhilarating. It mourns the loss of England that was or should have been, but it isn't conservative. In one of two scenes I had seen excerpted in photographs from the film—the other being Swinton between fire and water—a posh boy and a soldier fuck on top of a gigantic Union Jack, the former balls naked, the latter booted-gloved-masked to anonymity, in such a welter of cigarettes and empty wine bottles that you're amazed either of them is up for it, and maybe they aren't. It's vicious, but I also think it's funny. I'm not sure either the establishment or the jackboots got what they wanted out of that one. Elsewhere Jarman himself sits at his real desk, writing in his real journals, the nuclear power station at Dungeness overlooks Prospect Cottage to this day and the industrial desolation of London is a document as well as a vision. (Eyeless tower blocks, rag-and-bone quaysides, houses behind barbed wire. Nowhere is home here. Where are they setting out, that monkish, magician's boat at the end? All that's left is away.) The filmmaker's family appear as themselves thanks to at least two generations of home movies. The whole thing feels like something you could stumble across in the middle of the night but not discover in a museum. It feels more like the inside of another person's head than some self-portraits I've seen. Afterward, in the restroom, a total stranger with a German accent turned to me at the stall door and asked, "Did you just see the film? Did you like it?" Then she asked if I was German. I have to believe M. John Harrison saw this film.
You understand that this is not a review, but I hope you understand also why I had to say something. I love several films by Derek Jarman—Wittgenstein (1993) unreasonably—and when I walked out of the Brattle Theatre tonight I did not expect The Last of England to be one of them, but it may be that I do, not even because it's so beautiful, because often and pointedly it's not, but because it is so much itself. It's fragments against the ruins. It's on fire. (I could and would screen it to follow David Rudkin's Penda's Fen (1974): Jarman himself the ungovernable, dissonant flame.) This explosion brought to you by my visionary backers at Patreon.
I discovered this on my way to the Tilda Swinton festival at the Brattle. So far this week, I've seen her in Sally Potter's Orlando (1993), and in two Derek Jarman films. Orlando remains an absolute delight. I love the wit; I love Orlando's glances through the fourth wall; I love the doubling of the scurrilous Nick Greene and the publisher, and the Sebastian and Viola casting of Sasha and Shelmerdine. I adore Quentin Crisp's Elizabeth I. (He was born to play that part.) I love the Jacobean winter funeral, and the teacup topiary, and the perfectly truthful absurdity of most of the costumes. I love the scene where (as I once wrote) Orlando "rushes in a fury into a hedge maze ... whisking round a corner, she emerges in another century, in another cage of skirt."
I confess that Tilda Swinton gave me Thea's fiery hair in Cloud & Ashes. She's a fabulous muse—which is all I share artistically with Derek Jarman.
Caravaggio (1986) is imperfect and astonishing. It was one of Sean Bean's earliest films, and Swinton's first. The stagings of the paintings in the film are so perfectly Caravaggiesque—so blasphemous, numinous, intemperate, unmoving, shadowy, and dazzling, so cold and so engorged with godhead. They are clearly what the artist saw. The canvases on screen are merely sketches: art is what the camera sees.
Still trying to get my head around The Last of England (1987), which is incandescent. It's so dazzling it hurts. Literally: I have eyestrain from the visionary flicker. The rant is on the fall of England—all its goodness and greenness, every vestige of decency—under Thatcher, a gut-wrenchingly relevant anger. Part of it I saw as Asmodeus' Books: it begins with the auteur speaking as he writes a curse in a cluttered workroom, in a beautiful italic hand: what he spells, is. (Greenaway appears to have stolen that image, in a prettier, post-modernist take.) Out of the whirlwind, I recall a few most vivid scenes. There was an evocation of the Ford Madox Ford [Brown! Ford Madox Brown! My proofing skills have gone to hell] painting from which the film takes its name: a huddle of despairing people at a harbor, underlaid with Marianne Faithfull singing, "Speed, Bonny Boat"—but they're prisoners. There is no boat, and no Australia. They've simply come to the end of ground. There was a naked Poor Tom, gnawing on a demonic raw cauliflower. It would terrify a vegetarian into eating sashimi—at least that doesn't writhe and flap. No really—it looked like some sort of brain-bird with broken pinions. And there were sequences of astounding beauty: Pan dancing in a brickyard, and Tilda Swinton whirling in silhouette before the flames of the apocalypse.
Later: sovay and rushthatspeaks have posted brilliant reviews of The Last of England, here and here. I stand in awe.
1. I forgot to mention that the podcast in which I participated at NecronomiCon is now free to stream online: The Outer Dark 016: Live from NecronomiCon 2017. Other participants are the excellent Craig Laurance Gidney, Scott R. Jones, Stephen Graham Jones, and Peter Straub, with Scott Nicolay hosting and Anya Martin moderating. I seem to have overestimated how carefully I need to speak for radio, but it was a lot of fun.
2. Anthony Lane not liking The Limehouse Golem (2016) does not deter me from wanting to see it, since he consistently underestimates almost anything that counts as genre, but I am glad at least he appreciates Bill Nighy:
No film in which Bill Nighy appears can ever be discounted. Rakish, dapper, not quite ruined, quavering with half-concealed amusement, courteous toward a fallen world, and somehow both urbane and faintly spectral, he could have stepped straight out of a Sargent portrait. I can imagine him in spats. What a pleasure it is, then, to see him in a frock coat and a spotted necktie, stalking the London streets. In "The Limehouse Golem," set in 1880, he plays Inspector Kildare of Scotland Yard, whose career as a detective has been held back, it is whispered, because he is "not the marrying kind." The role was originally to have been played by Alan Rickman, who died last year—a passing as hard to accept as that of Severus Snape—and Nighy was cast instead. Rickman's Kildare would have been more insidious, perhaps, with a deeper drawl, and more likely to be suspected of the crimes that he was deputed to solve. Nighy, as sensitive as a seismograph, approaches them with a shudder.
3. Courtesy of strange_selkie: different kinds of manual labor being done really well, which means really beautifully because efficiency generally is. Some of it is performance flair, but some of it is just practical and also ridiculous.
I’ve seen a post going around about how bland British food is. And having spent eight months there long ago, and never finding a burger that wasn’t cooked halfway to crisp but in the American restaurant, I can agree on some things (granted, this was the height of the mad cow scare). You think pineapple on a pizza is weird? Try canned corn.
But every time someone claims British food is bland, I remember stepping into a bakery in Bath and buying an eclair made that morning, a crisp shell filled with fresh whipped cream (none of that yellow pastry-cream goo, feh) and glazed with a sweet dark layer of rich chocolate.
I could get piping hot pasties stuffed with fluffy potato and just enough sharp cheese to be a delicious meal in itself; the pastry would crumble into thin buttery flakes. Or sausage rolls with sausage that was sausage, all the way through, and not laden with old pepper the way the American stuff is. In fact, the sausages by themselves were mellow, subtly flavored links that were just greasy enough and not too greasy.
I could sit down in a teashop and get raisin teacakes slathered in melted butter, sweet and salty and oh so good. Or a plate of scones; delicate, dense rounds just barely sweet, to be split and spread with the heavy richness of clotted cream and topped with the garnet sharp-sweetness of strawberry jam. Nothing will ever match scones and cream; I dream about it.
More varieties of cheese than I knew existed, and all locally made. Good chocolate, not some poor excuse that has only enough cacao to meet the legal minimum--chocolate that came in textures. Golden, crunchy filled cookies that bore as much resemblance to an Oreo as fresh-made mousse does to canned pudding. Candy bars with layers of chocolate, caramel, and delicate wafers that had actual flavor, not just a blast of sweetness. The indescribable weirdness of the Crunchie bar.
If you think British food is bland, you just haven’t tried the right thing yet.
I know the '30's were a bad decade for Keaton, personally, professionally; the studio system was a creative straitjacket, his marriage was breaking up and his drinking was out of control, and a lot of Speak Easily is funny at the level of affectionate smiling rather than open laughter, but the fact remains that as Timoleon Zanders Post, a mild-mannered and literal-minded professor of classics turned loose on an unsuspecting world by a well-meaning porter who just wanted him to live a little, Buster Keaton is adorable. Owlish, serious, and nerdily articulate, on discovering that he has apparently inherited $750,000 from an unknown beneficiary, "Timsy" throws all his worldly belongings into a steamer trunk—or tries to; some of his belongings are things like a coatrack and a chaise longue, which don't pack well—and heads out to experience Life, which he finds in the form of a fifth-rate troupe of vaudevillians who can't even get a hand in the culture-starved whistle-stop of Fish's Switch. Durante's Jimmy dashes back and forth between banging on the upright piano that passes for an orchestra pit and baggy-pantsing his way through jokes that even dad jokes would be embarrassed to know socially. The already thin audience is bailing as the curtain comes down. But Post is enraptured by the sweetly mediocre dancing of Ruth Selwyn's Pansy Peets and flattered by the support of the loudmouthed comic whom he addresses at all times as "James" and before anyone including Post quite knows what is happening, they're all headed to Broadway on the strength of a fictitious inheritance and the professor's very sincere appreciation of an art form which he keeps comparing to Aristophanes. (He is crestfallen to be told that not everything in Greek comedy is suitable for the Great White Way. "But, James, it was done so in Athens!"–"Yeah, they might get away with it in Athens, that's a college town!") He doesn't get mixed up with the gold-digging prima donna that is Todd's Eleanor Espere so much as he gets steamrolled, but the audience knows he'll come out of it eventually, even if he does stagger around initially with lipstick prints like rouge on those beautiful cheekbones of his. The finale in which the straight-faced professor finds himself accidentally salvaging the show with physical comedy isn't quite worthy of Sempitern Walker, but then Keaton's wearing too much clothing for that.
Even in a production that doesn't quite know what to do with him, it's a pleasure to watch Keaton do his thing. He's a silent comedian, a physical actor: he drops flat to the floor to read the inheritance letter, as if afraid it'll get away if he doesn't pin it in place; he has the stuffy, prissy posture of a man who can be identified a mile off by his pince-nez and his umbrella and his undertaker suits until he gets excited about something, at which point he bounces and flails and runs in and out of rooms like he's reenacting Marathon. He falls off trains, couches, catwalks, his own feet. When the calculating Eleanor tries to get the professor shikkered in order to compromise him (okay, I guess the PCA wouldn't have gone for that, either) and Post in the belief that a Tom Collins is a kind of lemonade mixes them both drinks stiff enough to cause spontaneous combustion, the results are one of the silliest drunk scenes I have ever encountered and gorgeously so, as a helium-voiced Todd loopily tries to put the moves on her oblivious prey and Keaton very seriously and very incompetently attempts to put his seductress to bed, at different points accidentally folding her in half and failing the fireman's carry and both of them slithering all over the furniture until Todd dressed in a negligée, a fox stole, and a very fancy hat takes a running faceplant onto one of the twin beds while Keaton who has managed to remove his shirt and his pants but forgotten about his sock garters carefully arranges himself on the other and passes out cold in a position that would give lesser mortals a crick in the ass. When he wakes up and comprehends where he is, he slips backward off the bed and blinks catlike over the rumpled bedclothes, a perfect silent short. If you're curious about Keaton's voice, by the way, it's not just fine, it's good. It's notably middle-American but not flat, with an edge that lends itself well to the meticulous diction and drypoint delivery of a character who absentmindedly hypercorrects "speakeasy" into "speak easily," but he can also sound shy, solicitous, flustered, and defiant, with the occasional Jimmy Stewart-like crack when events—or girls—really overtake him. I remain extremely annoyed that Mayer refused to take a chance on him for the serious, sympathetic role of Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel (1932). He'd have been a revelation.
In the great reckoning of stories of nerds in show business, Stand-In (1937), Speak Easily is not. Probably the best way to consider the movie is as a series of extended sketches on a theme, of which the audience should enjoy whichever appeals to them and disregard the rest. Buster Keaton, even at a very rough patch in his life, remains both ridiculously beautiful and beautiful in motion, kinetic energy with umbrella in hand. I am aware that Jimmy Durante is something of a polarizing phenomenon, but I really enjoy him and his manic energy which never feels like it's gotten away from him. In the middle of the finale, he hauls a piano out in front of the curtain and does one of his nightclub routines and who cares if it makes sense in context, what we've seen of the show-within-a-show Speak Easily has been a sort of scantily clad revue mish-mosh anyway and Durante's sideways sequiturs are charming: "I know I'm not good-looking, but what's my opinion against thousands of others?" The problem with putting him and Keaton in the same routines is that neither of them is really a straight man—they're just different types of zany, Durante brash, Keaton mild—and I'm not sure the studio knew it. Too many of the jokes are set up as though one of them is supposed to hail from planet Earth and really they work best when the characters are operating at cross purposes (Post's inability to understand slang vs. Jimmy's inability to speak anything but) or unexpectedly on the same screwy wavelength. They were assigned two other films together, The Passionate Plumber (1932) and What! No Beer? (1933), and I am considering watching the latter only because it's in the TCM buffer and it's a Prohibition-era comedy about the repeal of Prohibition, which sounds historically intriguing if possibly not very well done. It does not, alas, appear to co-star Todd, who gets one of the best throwaway lines in the picture describing a costume she has in mind for her classically inspired dance: "There's not very much to it, you know, it's just right across here and a few beads—right, left." There's not very much to the film, either, but I regret nothing about giving it a try. The best of it is really funny; the worst of it won't hurt you. This variety brought to you by my Aristophanic backers at Patreon.
I really dislike doing this. I feel terrible when I can't support people I want to support, or can't shower money on them rather than providing a dollar a month. And yet from the other side, every $1 supporter is so valuable to me that I have continual difficulty in remembering that there is an awards structure and that people who are able and willing to support me for more than that are supposed to get extra perks.
ANYWAY, I don't want to make anybody feel guilty or anxious, or obliged in any way, except that, if it isn't inconvenient and you haven't already done so as a result of my posting the link on Twitter, you might spread the word a little further. If you can't or don't, no guilt need obtrude, not the slightest.
Here's the link to the public post on Patreon:
Raphael and I are hoping to go hiking later this week, so I intend my next post to be another phenological one rather than this kind of thing.