All posts filed under “1960s


Stoner, John Williams (1965)

ImageThis novel has been recommended to me by a number of  friends over the years. One of these was so passionate about the book that she claimed to have purchased a case of copies from the publisher to hand out to people; my copy is the one I accepted from her with gratitude and amusement. I have a feeling there’s a kind of genre for this book, the pellucid, perfect, one-offs which seem absolutely seminal to those who have read them, but which retain an aura of being somehow unknown, or under-known — Housekeeping, The Ginger Man, A Confederacy of Dunces, Mrs. Bridge . . . I don’t know, I’m probably making no sense.

Here’s Stoner: Son of a dirt farmer in late 19c Missouri is sent to the new university in Columbia to learn agriculture. Instead he falls in love with literature. This is the signal moment in the book from which all else follows, and it requires a leap of faith, because our hero seems to have not an iota of self-consciousness, indolence, or voluptuousness, all of which I thought were required in order to give one’s life over to literature. Stoner has a one-dimensional loveless marriage to an inexplicably depressed woman, a one-dimensional forty-year antagonism with his department chair, a one-dimensional love affair with a graduate student, a one-dimensional fondness for his one-dimensional daughter, and then dies of cancer. It’s not very exciting. In fact the plot is unimaginably dull. None of the characters, Stoner included, has any psychological depth — or at least none is revealed to us — and none of them do anything remotely interesting or surprising.

So what’s the attraction? I think the book has two potential audiences. Sentimentalists may enjoy the story of a man who never really understood a thing about himself, the world, or anyone else, but maintained a stalwart dignity from cradle to grave. Writers will be fascinated by the writing. The prose here is transparent in a way I can’t figure out how to describe. I don’t feel like I’m reading when I read it, and I don’t know how Williams does that. There are occasional infinitesimal gestures of lyricism at moments of extremity — sex and death — but by and large the prose has the solidity, gravity, and smoothness of granite. I can’t say I loved this book; on the contrary, it stirred perhaps no emotion at all. But I can see why a prose stylist like my friend would buy it by the case to hand out to students and writer friends, as a specimen.

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Zeitoun, Dave Eggers (2009). Eggers tells the story of a remarkable family in a very easy-going and simple voice.

Animal Kingdom, David Michôd (2010). Stark, crisp, finally melodramatic.

Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (2010). They should show this as a curtain-raiser before every war movie. War isn’t hell, or glory, or dramatic; it’s tedious, confusing, and random.

The Town, Ben Affleck (2010). I’ve never much cared for Affleck, but this is twice now that he’s turned in some really fine work as a director.

Howl, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman (2010). Wow, totally unwatchable! I made it up to the part where they’re on drugs and everything turns into an undersea cartoon or something.

Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy (2010). Sly and fun.

Friday Night Lights (2006-). Has there ever been a more emotionally manipulative show? This thing constantly makes me cry, even though there are precious few characters I really have any sympathy with. It’s weird.

The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998). I got weirdly hooked on this for a while there. Shandling is on the one hand hard to watch and on the other I can’t turn away.

Four Lions, Chris Morris (2010). This seemed like a bad idea. I had to check. It was.

The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis (2010). This was tight and gripping. Haggis knows what he’s doing.

The American, Anton Corbjin (2010). Lifeless.

The Social Network, David Fincher (2010). Eh.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick (1964). Every other year or so.

Marwencol, Jeff Malmberg (2010). Very nicely done.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Jean-Francois Richet (2008). Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, Jean-Francois Richet (2008). The French are so easily seduced by even the most caricatured image of the outlaw. Richet thinks he’s showing us Mesrine’s pathos but all that really comes across is how much he worships the man. Still, this is super entertaining and great to look at.

The Way Back, Peter Weir (2010). Almost absurdly epic. Absolutely worth the afternoon.

Colonel Chabert, Honore de Balzac (1832). Superb.

Salt, Phillip Noyce (2010). I can’t remember anything about this now.

Cold Souls, Sophie Barthes (2009). Anything with Paul Giamatti is worth a look, in this case only barely.

The Tourist, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2010). The Green Hornet, Michel Gondry (2011). Two incoherent and atrocious payday films from relatively interesting directors. It’s almost like they’re trying to be as contemptuous of you for watching this dreck as they can be.

Fair Game, Doug Liman (2010). This is the dramatization of the Plame affair and one of the best films I’ve seen about the Bush administration’s post-9/11 rush to judgment. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are both terrific. Highly recommended.

Even the Rain, Icíar Bollaín (2010). Nice conceit, nice try, but it turns out a muddle.

Etc. etc. etc.


Point Blank, John Boorman (1967)

This is a very strange movie which absolutely could not be made today, a French New Wave film made by an Englishman in California. Its narrative head games, its druggy swings from hysteria to Weltschmerz, its boredom with both sex and violence, and above all its conviction that no amount of revolutionary individualism can put a dent in the fortress of capitalist hegemony all work together to provide a devastating critique of the sixties even as “the sixties” was in the deepest throes of its self-regard. Watching this, you’d guess it had been made in 1974, not 1967. It rivals Didion’s White Album in its prescience. There are lots of moments you might use to mark the end of the dream of the sixties: Kent State, My Lai, the assassinations of King and Kennedy in 1968, etc. Add to the list the moment in Point Blank when the girl at the psychedelic dance club goes around behind the screen and discovers the bad guy Lee Marvin’s beaten to a pulp. He’s buried under a pile of film! And the girl’s screams of horror harmonize with the soul singer’s screams of ecstacy. I find it both liberating and terrifying that an aesthetic moment can be that perfectly rendered and this completely forgotten.


Le Doulos, Jean-Pierre Melville (1962)

Bernard Tavernier says Melville wanted more than anything to be the French William Wyler, which makes a great deal of sense, but of course that could never happen, because Melville, however much he admired and even imitated the great bread and butter Hollywood directors like Wyler, had a talon d’Achille: he was the Frenchest Frenchman ever. That’s what makes these gangster pictures of his so weird. All the Hollywood noir tropes are in place–dive bars, brassy molls, trench coats, double crosses, stool pigeons, big cars, cigarettes–but the– what, soul? core? mien? there’s probably a French word for it–of the characters is completely different than that of the characters in an American noir. They all come across as incredibly vulnerable, sensitive artistes playing the roles of tough guys. I mean really, Belmondo? Robert Mitchum could eat him in one bite. (Remember too that this is made in 1962, by which time noir was already being parodied and deconstructed in Hollywood.) Anyway, I’m not complaining that this is a failed noir, since I don’t think it was intended to be a noir at all. It’s a kind of pseudo-nouvelle vague take on noir, maybe. A very curious picture.


Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville (1969)

Melville’s chilly formalism has turned me off in the past, but it works quite brilliantly in this account of a French resistance cell’s wartime activities. There are scenes of great drama, action, daring, cunning, etc., but they’re all conveyed with stony austerity, so the effect isn’t one of excitement but of grim duty and honor. I should have thought of this before, but Melville’s style recalls not so much that of the American noir directors with whom he’s said to have been obsessed, but rather the Japanese pictorialists like Ozu or Mizoguchi, who like Melville are always conscious of the relationships between every figure in the frame.

A particularly tragic, and I imagine sadly accurate aspect of the story is how focused the resistance fighters must need be on the potential for one of their own to betray them. An early scene where a miserable, terrified turncoat must be executed speaks elegantly to the deadly and ironic pathos of the resistance fighter who finds himself having to harm one of his own in order to strike at his enemy.


Analog Africa

These people have released five CDs, of which I own the most recent four, each of which is absolutely exquisite. You have never heard such sublimely funky grooves in your life. The Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou makes James Brown sound like Lawrence Welk.

The first CD is labeled “#3,” because Analog Africa’s first two releases came in the form of mp3 mixes. Both are available for free download on their blog, and also through the Paris DJs podcast.

Paris DJs is where I discovered Analog Africa, and it is itself an incredible resource. Their weekly free podcast features all sorts of never-made-it-off-vinyl-onto-disc deliciousness from all over the world. There are nearly 200 mixes to download, and they’re all free!

Here’s a direct link to the second Analog Africa mix:


The Cincinnati Kid, Norman Jewison (1965)

Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Tuesday Weld, Rip Torn, Karl Malden, Cab Calloway, and Ann-Margret. Playing poker. In New Orleans. Music by Lalo Schifrin. Title song sung by Ray Charles. And cock fighting! What more could you possibly want from a movie! Well, OK, less cockfighting.


Machine Gun McCain, Giuliano Montaldo (1969)

A strange, stylish, maudit mob picture from the assistant director on Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. (That’s saying something, by the way, since secondary scenes in that movie are perhaps the most brilliant ones.) The picture feels like it could be a Cassavetes; things move either in brisk shorthand or in emotional wrenched and wretched slow burns. Incredible cast includes Cassavetes, Britt Ekland, Gena Rowlands, and Peter Falk; how that happened I have no idea. Another “but for the grace of TCM” reason to have cable.