Never Cursed

Welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top. Bacon. Scones, butter, cream, jam. A pot of Lapsang souchong tea…. And some sausages.

—- Reynolds Woodcock, Phantom Thread

 

 

One of the ideas that I had when we decided to Cut the Cord (eliminate cable television) is to rent movies from the library. Free and easy. Our library has a huge selection of DVDs – movies on the ground floor and instructional/educational on the third. I see people, especially families with children, checking out monstrous piles of DVDs – I don’t know how they can watch that many in the seven day allotted period. I used to check out movies, but haven’t in a decade or so.

I can’t believe that I hadn’t seen Phantom Thread yet – a variety of reasons, mostly related to sloth in its various forms. It’s been a year. But as I was at the library on the last day of 2018, returning a stack of books, I looked along the long rows of DVD offerings (shocked at how many I had already seen) until I chose Phantom Thread. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film and Daniel Day-Lewis’ last. It was in the running for a number of Oscars – and I don’t give a shit.

I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. His work is a gift to the world.

Phantom Thread was reviewed better than his last full film, Inherent Vice. However, I loved Inherent Vice – of course, if you didn’t like it, or you think it was a piece of crap… I won’t argue with you. Paul Thomas Anderson does not know who I am – I have never met him and never will, but somehow he made a film, Inherent Vice, for me individually. If he scanned my dusty noggin and extracted whatever is in there and then made a movie that would resonate… it would be Inherent Vice. Well, actually it would be Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s impossible to put that on celluloid or nitrate or bits-n-bytes. Inherent Vice is as close as you can get in the real world.

So, I pulled out the DVD player, blew off the thick layer of dust and plopped the library disc in. It took some playing with the various remotes but I managed to get it to play in surprisingly good quality.  Excellent film – really needs to be seen twice because, like all truly good films, the first time through you sit there going “What the fuck is this?” Once you realize it’s a twisted rom-com you can enjoy the belly laughs.

I’ll let you enjoy the humor of a persnickety and slightly effeminate dress designer of a main character with mommy issues and surrounded by women (customers, seamstresses, and his sister) lugging the name Reynolds Woodcock around London. Chekhov’s gun makes an early appearance in a book about mushrooms. And the surface beauty masks the perverse melodrama simmering underneath.

So now – a trip back to the library and the return chute and another walk along the DVD aisle. I can’t plan ahead because the films churn quite a bit. Old-School baby!

 

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The Screaming Skull

Jenni Whitlock:
Eric, when you found me, what else was there?

Eric Whitlock:
What do you mean, ‘What else?’

Jenni Whitlock:
A skull?

—-from The Screaming Skull

 

As I learn to adjust to a life without cable television, I explored the nether regions of the hundreds of free streaming channels available on the Roku. I haven’t researched it – but it looks like anyone can cobble their own Roku channel together – and there are lots of them. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) these are mostly poorly done and colossal time sucks.

I did stumble across a collection of old, bad, out-of-copyright horror films. These always bring back memories of when I was in sixth grade or so and discovered what that odd round wire antenna-thing that came in the box with new televisions was used for. I had discovered the UHF channels that my parents knew nothing about. I would crawl out of bed after the family was asleep and creep into the darkened kitchen and tune in what I could find on the little portable TV. This included channels dedicated at night to grade Z horror films.

Now, a half-century later, I like to look for these horrid memories from long ago. I thought I remembered one called The Screaming Skull and chose it. Turn’s out I had never seen it – and my life isn’t enriched by seeing it now.

I’m not going to review The Screaming Skull… take my word for it – it’s bad.

 

You know it’s bad from the first scene… a cheap plastic skull rises from a bucket of water bubbling with dry ice and you get:

Narrator:
“The Screaming Skull” is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror. It’s impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect. It may *kill* you! Therefore it’s  producers feel they must assure free burial services to anyone that dies of fright while seeing The Screaming Skull.

I’m sure they didn’t have to pay out… ever. The movie is simply not scary.

The only good thing is that the main character, despite being poor, drives a seriously cool car, a mid-’50s Mercedes-Benz 190SL Gullwing. The movie brightens every time this car appears. I would love to learn the story about how such an exquisite expensive hunk of steel made in into such a low-budget film.

Mercedes-Benz 190SL from The Screaming Skull

And that’s about it. All the rest sucks.

Looking up information on the film – I didn’t realize that it was satirized on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Going to have to watch that… when I have a lot of free time.

Oh, and it is very loosely based on a short story. I found it online here. Not sure if the story is any better than the film….

Anal Vice

Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
—-Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos

Back a few months, with Mother’s Day approaching, I was struggling with figuring out what to do.

I checked the Alamo Drafthouse app on my phone and discovered they were having a Mother’s Day brunch along with a showing of “The Sound of Music.” I remembered that Candy had said once, years ago, that this was one of her favorite musicals. It seemed a little pricey (at first) but I went ahead and bought three tickets. Nick would be up from Houston to visit and that would be a nice mother’s day.

I told Candy (couldn’t really keep it a surprise) and she was worried about Nick.
“I don’t think he’ll like the movie,” she said.

She reminded of one time, years ago, when She, Lee, and I were watching The Sound of Music on TV and Nick walked through the living room.

“What are you watching? What kind of sick stuff is this? What are they singing about? Anal Vice?” he said.

The song, of course, was not “Anal Vice,” but “Edelweiss.”

Alamo Drafthouse is the only movie theater chain we will frequent. The food (and drafts) are good, I love the bits they show before the films, but the real attraction are their policies. One, if they catch you talking or using your phone during the film, they throw you out. Two, and the big one for me, is they do not allow anyone to arrive late. It drives me nuts how, at a regular movie theater, people keep streaming in, searching for their seat, twenty minutes after the show starts. Assigned seats and these policies are the only way to make movie-going worthwhile.

I texted Nick to ask if it was OK for him to see The Sound of Music.

“Y’all paint me as some uncultured brute,” he replied. So he was good to go.

As it turned out, the thing was fantastic. It had seemed pricey at first – but the food was amazing and way more than worth the cost all by itself. The staff came out before the film and explained how hard they had worked on the menu (Austrian themed) and hoped we enjoyed ourselves. The film was sold out and the logistics of getting four courses of food (and wine) out to all those seats in the dark, during a film was incredible.

One good thing is that the film had an intermission and that was when they brought out the main course (Schnitzel, poached eggs, asparagus, tomato) so we could eat that with the house lights up a little. Of course, the movie was fantastic. Your forget how much these classic films were designed to be seen in a theater, on a big screen, and not on a television. Really enjoyable.

So, I’m going to keep an eye on the Alamo Drafthouse to see when they will do something like this again. A close eye – this one sold out in hours. It’s a really special special treat.

Just don’t forget to turn your phone off.

What the Pho?

Lee bought a shirt at Bistro B.

Oblique Strategy: Revaluation (a warm feeling)

Bistro B

Everybody has their Christmas traditions. Ours is to have lunch at Bistro B. I checked my blog archives, and I wrote about Christmas at Bistro B six years ago. You can read it here. It hasn’t changed much and my 2011 description is still good:

The place, as always, was packed. We waited for a few minutes, which I enjoyed. I stood by the little altar with the burning incense spiral, the electric-powered prayer wheels, and the little shrines decorated with offerings of change. I looked around at the tables to see what other folks were ordering. There were a lot of butane portable table burners heating hot pots that were being shared by a whole family – three generations or more – packed around the big round tables. I love watching a family eat, the heads bent, concentrating on the food, with a ballet of chopsticks dancing in a circular chorus while everyone picks up their food, talks, and laughs.

Its a noisy, happy place, with an army of black-clad waiters rushing, cleanup crews pushing a big square cart, a thick crowd at the registers – some clutching inscrutable bills, but most there for take-out. Some odd genre of electronic dance music pulses… loud but barely audible over the conversations, and a phalanx of flat-screen televisions incongruously simultaneously shine out an NFL documentary. The kids reported that the restroom was, “Like a nightclub.”

We were earlier than we usually were – so the place wasn’t completely packed. The menus were new – the numbers only going up to 494. And in the last six years the restroom extravaganza has been toned down more than a bit.

As always, the Christmas-day service was a little rough. There is a new “Taco” section in the menu – Candy ordered one of those. “Oh, I’m sorry, that’s new, we haven’t learned how to cook those yet,” was the answer from the waiter. Candy ordered chicken, Nick, Lee, and I ordered Pho. The chicken arrived quickly, but no Pho. A while later, the waiter came by and asked how everything was. “No pho,” we answered. He looked flustered and our three enormous bowls of soup came out in a minute. That’s cool – usually we don’t even get what we order – a busy place with a book for a menu and 494 items – you have to chill a bit.

Spring Rolls and dipping sauce

My soup as it arrived. What mysteries await in these warm waters?

The soup after I added sprouts and other vegetables. Those little eggs were hiding down in a little nest of rice noodles. I don’t know what creature they originally came from

After our food we drove across the city for our second Christmas Tradition – to see a movie. It’s getting so that we will only see films at the Alamo Drafthouse (their no phone-no talking-no arriving late or you will be thrown out is a game-changer) and we took in I,Tonya at the Alamo in the Cedars. They have a nice bar upstairs with a killer view of downtown Dallas.

A nice way to wile away a Christmas day.

The family on the balcony at the Alamo in the Cedars, Dallas, Texas

Cruise the Boulevards Of Regret

“You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

So, last September I read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon because… well, because it is Thomas Pynchon – but more specifically because I had read that Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) was making a film based on the book and I wanted to experience the text first.

Pynchon has occupied a great many of my thoughts and a large part of my time ever since I first picked up a paperback copy of Gravity’s Rainbow at the KU Bookstore in 1976 or so (I was not able to finish it for a quarter century – not until a summary, an online page by page annotation, and wiki helped me keep the characters straight). I have read most of the rest of his oeuvre (still have an unopened copy of Bleeding Edge on my bookshelf) and am most assuredly a fan.

Up until I read Inherent Vice I considered Pynchon’s fiction to be unfilmable. After reading it, I agreed with PTA in that Inherent Vice was only almost unfilmable. He had tried to adapt Vineland into a movie, but realized that was impossible.

Because of business and inattention to the Internet, I missed the Dallas showings of the film in December, but finally a wider release was in the offing. My son and his friends saw it over the initial weekend, but I wasn’t able to fit the time in so I decided to go after work.

On Monday I logged into the Alamo Drafthouse website (it’s only a stone’s throw from my house and my work) and bought a ticket for that evening. I was tired and it was bitter cold and I knew that if I didn’t buy it ahead of time I would wimp out after work and go home and sleep.

The Alamo Drafthouse is such a nice experience. You get a reserved seat, craft beer (Temptress Baby!) and the food isn’t bad at all. I ordered a hamburger – a Royale With Cheese, of course. Alamo’s policy of no talking and no cellphones is certainly a welcome perk.

So… how was the film.

If you are a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson you will be disappointed. This isn’t a PTA movie; it is a Pynchon movie. PTA’s movies can be weird (Frogs!?) but this one is WEIRD. What makes it crazy making if you don’t know what to expect is that he sets the stage with so many familiar tropes and then abandons them without a moment’s hesitation or regret. From the trailer you might think that it is a detective story – about a search for a missing billionaire and the detective’s old girlfriend – hoary old familiar plot devices -, but from the book I knew that this is a feint – that nothing is going to be explained, nothing is going to make sense, and the mystery will fade away rather than be resolved. What the hell exactly is The Golden Fang anyways?

You might also think that this is going to be a druggie comedy in the style of The Big Lebowski. There are elements of that – but the comedy is overshadowed by Pynchon’s signature paranoia and despair.
But, that said – I thought it was great. It is the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Despite the ending being changed and large sections of the novel excised (you have to do this to get a tolerable running time) it is amazingly faithful to the book – for good and bad.
What was crazy for me is the way the characters speak. I have been reading Pynchon for so long I am very familiar with the unique language a Pynchonian character uses – his cadence, style, and subject matter. I have been reading these letters on the page and hearing them in my head for decades.

Now, to hear these words coming out of another human being’s mouth was astounding. I could only shake my head at this ephemeral world of imagination now come to life on the silver screen.

One Groove’s Difference

“What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”
—-Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

I have always had an odd and powerful relationship with the novels of Thomas Pynchon. I have spent a good portion of my life with his work in my hands. It started with Gravity’s Rainbow – which took me twenty five years to read… and I consider it to be my favorite novel. Even though I first tried to read it in college I was not able to get through the massive tome until the advent of the internet. I had to follow along with a chapter by chapter summary and a hypertext compendium of characters and information to keep from getting lost.

Then, over the years, there was the almost equally massive V – then the short and bitter Crying of Lot 49. Time marched on to the West-Coast based Vineland and by the time Mason & Dixon arrived I was writing online and chronicled the devouring of this text as I went along.

From my old blog – The Daily Epiphany

Daily Epiphany -Friday, March 19, 1999

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs

May 2, 1997. A little less than two years ago. That’s the exact day that
Mason & Dixon arrived from Amazon (an online journal is useful for finding useless factoids like that).

Over those two years I have, sometimes dutifully, more often sporadically, with plenty of vacations and sabbaticals, slogged through the pages. I was well known to be seen carrying that book around, it’s cover handmade by me from the red white and blue Tyvek wrapper it arrived in. “Aren’t you finished yet?” asked on many occasions.

That didn’t bother me. After all, it took me twenty five years to read Gravity’s Rainbow. In some ways, Mason & Dixon, though shorter and less complex, was even more difficult. The weird faux colonial Olde English and bizarre capitalization and punctuation added an Extra Dimension of Difficulty to the usual Pynchonian Puzzlements.

So slowly I kept at it. Week by week the irregular, oval coffee-stain on the pager-edges moved, slice by imperceptible slice, from my right hand to my left.

Tonight, I finished it.

I bent the cover back and slid the crude Tyvek cover off and dropped it into the trash. It was replaced with the original two-layer cover, preserved from the travails of two years of pawing, stored safely in a dresser drawer.

In order to make room in my bookcase for the Pynchon, I had to pull something out. So, now, it’s Infinite Jest. It’s only 1,079 pages long. Print looks a little small. I even have a bookmark for it. I bought the book used and it contains a loose snapshot of some scrubby looking guy posing by a motorcycle. I have, of course, absolutely no idea who this is. That’ll do.

The thickness and size seemed familiar so, on a whim, I pulled that Tyvek bookcover out of the basket, turned the cover around.

It fit exactly.

A few years later, I tackled Against the Day, then fell off the Pynchon wagon (for no real reason except maybe the intrusion of real life) until now.

Now, I decided to read Inherent Vice – Pynchon’s noirish dark psychedelic detective crime novel.

“Dealing with the Hippie is generally straightforward. His childlike nature will usually respond positively to drugs, sex, and/or rock and roll, although in which order these are to be deployed must depend on conditions specific to the moment.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

“It had been dark at the beach for hours, he hadn’t been smoking much and it wasn’t headlights – but before she turned away, he could swear he saw light falling on her face, the orange light just after sunset that catches a face turned to the west, watching the ocean for someone to come in on the last wave of the day, in to shore and safety.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

I had the trade sale paperback on the shelf for a long time, but I had to read it right now because, next month, they are coming out with a movie made from the story.

Oh, and not just any movie, a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

Imagine that, Paul Thomas Anderson filming a Pynchon novel. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

Modern technology has advanced now to the point I could sit in my reading chair with the book in one hand and a tablet in the other, with web pages queued up to alphabetical and page-by-page summaries to help me with the complex plot and kaleidoscope of characters.

This is arguably his most accessible novel, if for no other reason it has a familiar setting and is woven upon a loom of an established detective genre. It is the only thing I’ve read by Pynchon that I would say is remotely filmable – though just barely.

It still has the Pynchonian style of paranoia, subtle complexity, and, especially, a huge cast of odd characters with odder names. I enjoyed the book immensely. It is, without a doubt, the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Now I am psyched for the film. Only a few days before the premiere. This will be the second beloved book (after Cloud Atlas) committed to celluloid (actually its digital equivalent) by a stylish director in the last two years. I loved Cloud Atlas (both the book and the film) though it predictably bombed at the box office.

I suspect a similar fate for Inherent Vice – I can’t imagine the ordinary teenage-minded moviegoer enjoying the complex interplay of humor and horror that the Pynchonian Universe produces splashed across the silver screen. But I will be there, staring up as if it were meant for me alone.

“You need to find true love, Doc.”
Actually, he thought, I’ll settle for finding my way through this. His fingers, with a mind of their own, began to creep toward the plastic hedge. Maybe if he searched through it long enough, late enough into the night, he’d find something that might help — some tiny forgotten scrap of his life he didn’t even know was missing, something that would make all the difference now.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Looking at the IMDB page – it sure looks weird, seeing all those big time (and not so much) stars arranged against those wonderfully outlandish Thomas Pynchon character names.

Reese Witherspoon … Penny
Jena Malone … Hope Harlingen
Joaquin Phoenix … Doc Sportello
Josh Brolin … Bigfoot Bjornsen
Sasha Pieterse … Japonica Fenway
Owen Wilson … Coy Harlingen
Benicio Del Toro … Sauncho Smilax
Michael K. Williams … Tariq Khalil
Eric Roberts … Mickey Wolfmann
Maya Rudolph … Petunia Leeway
Martin Short … Dr. Blatnoyd
Sam Jaeger … Agent Flatweed
Katherine Waterston … Shasta Fay Hepworth
Martin Donovan … Crocker Fenway
Timothy Simons … Agent Borderline
Yvette Yates … Luz
Serena Scott Thomas … Sloane Wolfmann
Keith Jardine … Puck Beaverton
Elaine Tan … Xandra
Madison Leisle … Goldfang
Steven Wiig … Portola Barkeep
Jeannie Berlin … Aunt Reet
Christopher Allen Nelson … Glenn Charlock
Hong Chau … Jade
Jefferson Mays … Dr. Threeply
Peter McRobbie … Adrian Prussia
Samantha Lemole … Gold Fang Mom
Toyia Brown … Harmony
Diana Elizabeth Torres … Lourdes
Sophia Markov … Amethyst Harlingen
Andrew Simpson … Riggs Warbling
Victoria Markov … Amethyst Harlingen
Martin Dew … Dr. Tubeside
Michael Cotter … Rhus Farthington
Taylor Bonin … Ensenada Slim
Laura Kranz … Chryskylodon Patient

“Later they went outside, where a light rain was blowing in, mixed with salt spray feathering off the surf. Shasta wandered slowly down to the beach and through the wet sand, her nape in a curve she had learned, from times when back-turning came into it, the charm of. Doc followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did. The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not.”
—-Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice