Slow apocalypse

The cattle herding was so successful that it spread south from the mountains. Speculation that the herdsmen invited the desert through overgrazing is unfair. Older and larger climatic forces were at work. Around 2000 B.C., the weather simply shifted. A dryness settled tentatively across the Saharan lowlands, and crept into the mountains, and slowly deepened. There were years then as now when the rains returned and the vegetation thickened. But the desert was on its way.

You might expect people not to have noticed such gradual impoverishment. But these people lived surrounded by their art, the now-ancestral celebrations of a bountiful land: etching scarred the rocks for hundreds of miles; paintings endured in theindelible burnt-orange of laterite and iron oxide. The old creations must have forced people to confront their loss. Did they fight each other, hunt witches, find new ways to pray? It made no difference anyway. The lakes and rivers shrank. The big wild animals drifted south. On a cliffside near Djanet, someone drew a weeping cow, which still looks like a declaration from the end of time.

— William Langewiesche

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XVI

March, 2020

The Anderson Tapes (1971)

Watched The Anderson Tapes (1971), a comedy heist movie where burglar Sean Connery finds that after 10 years in prison, the world has changed into a farcical surveillance state. Dyan Cannon appears in the movie, and then disappears from the movie. I’m not actually sure what all the surveillance stuff meant, because despite taking up a lot of space, it had only a minor effect on the plot. Very few things are paid off. Sean Connery bravely acted without a hairpiece for the first time. A motif on synthesizer plays whenever there’s electronic equipment on screen. I wonder whether Dyan Cannon dropping the glass was on purpose or not. Not one animal in sight. Pops had a real Brooks Was Here vibe, glad things turned out well for him in the end. I give it 2 museum quality elephants out of a possible 5 museum quality elephants.

Charade (1963)

Watched Charade (1963), a witty caper movie where Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and some bungling assassins are all trying to find a stolen fortune in Paris. Hepburn’s character is always ordering food but never eating it, and Cary Grant takes a shower with his suit on. Great script: dialog takes on a different meaning when you know the plot. Due to an error, this movie was never under copyright. Is having a clamp for a hand a superpower? Audrey Hepburn and Katherine Hepburn were not related. Low stakes, high charm movie. I give it 4 Ham, Juniors out of a possible 5 Ham, Juniors.

Hold the Dark (2019)

Watched Hold the Dark (2019), Jeremy Saulnier’s horror crime movie about Alaska. Jeffrey Wright is a retired wolf expert asked by Elvis Presley’s granddaughter (Riley Keough) to kill the wolf that killed her son. Only, she IS the wolf: metaphorically, and in naked masked form. Peter Skarsgard is typecast as the unsettlingly intense cipher. Jeffrey Wright should do his version of Taken (2008) next. Normally, if somebody coughs in a movie, it means they’re about to die of cancer. Symbols include: wolves, boots, the sky, throats, masks. Possible symbols: telephones, spaghetti, blondes, knives. The sheriff was planning on taking a trip with his wife. I give it 3.5 salt and pepper beards out of a possible 5 salt and pepper beards.

The Hot Rock (1972)

Watched The Hot Rock (1972), a comedy caper movie directed by Peter Yates. Robert Redford plays a thief who is the best, but due to bad luck he always gets caught. He assembles a team to steal a jewel, and then when it goes missing he has to plan several more increasingly elaborate heists to get it back. George Segal is good in this. So is Zero Mostel. Memorable helicopter sequence over a smoggy Manhattan skyline, as the World Trade Center is being constructed in the background. The man who directed Krull (1983) also directed Bullitt (1968). Donald Westlake wrote the novel this was based on, and William Goldman wrote the script. I give it 3.5 banana stands out of a possible 5 banana stands.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Watched Portrait of a Lady On Fire (2019), Celine Sciamma’s historical love story about French ladies. Marianne goes to an island off the coast of France to attempt to paint the portrait of Heloise, who does not want to be painted because she knows that the painting will convince a rich Milanese guy to accept her mother’s offer to marry her off. Gorgeous movie: talk about every frame a painting! The presence of the servant Sophie undercut my sympathy for the protagonist by reminding me that there were people in the 18th century with harder problems than whether they’d be unhappy in a chateau or a villa. Several outstanding tricks were played on the viewer. Good revision of Orpheus and Eurydice. I don’t think I was meant to laugh when she caught on fire. I give it 4 green dresses out of a possible 5 green dresses.

Our Greatest Living Film Critic, XV

February, 2020 (Pre-COVID)

Ford vs. Ferrari (2019)

Watched Ford vs. Ferrari (2019), which isn’t the name of the movie. In this movie for dads, cartoon character Christian Bale beats some smug cartoon Italians. The message of the movie is that if you want to sell automobiles to baby boomers, you have to empower your brand ambassadors. This movie is bad in many ways: everybody says what’s happening out loud, and the story beats are totally predictable. Everything except the racing scenes is pretty dumb. Matt Damon gives a spectacular performance as Tommy Lee Jones: when Tommy Lee Jones retires, Matt Damon should be him. Become him. Some possible historical inaccuracies: Not sure that Ford executives were actively sabotaging their team during the race. Not sure that both Carroll Shelby and Lee Iacocca were yoked as shit. I could be wrong. Tracy Letts gives a great physical meltdown. The racing scenes are amazing. I give it 3.25 black cowboy hats out of a possible 5 black cowboy hats.

Ash is Purest White (2018)

Watched Ash is Purest White (2018), Zhangke Jia’s melodrama about a woman’s life set against the background of massive government building projects in China for some reason. Qiao is the girlfriend of BIn, a gangster, and she goes to prison for him. When she gets out, he wants nothing to do with her, so she makes her own way until he shows up again, in a wheelchair, and she helps him learn to walk. Then he leaves, and the movie is over. There is a UFO as well. I’m not sure what to make of this movie: the performances by the leads were great, the footage of places I’ve never heard of is up my alley, but the plot just meandered, like it only had a few critical scenes but wanted to space them out. Brother Eryong: “You know Bin, there are only two things I care about: animal documentaries and ballroom dancing.” I gather that thermoses play a huge role in Chinese society. I give it 3.5 Cohibas out of a possible 5 Cohibas.

Experiment in Terror (1962)

Watched Experiment in Terror (1962), a Blake Edwards thriller starring Lee Remick as a woman strong-armed into helping heavy breathing serial creep Ross Martin into robbing a bank in pre-hippie San Francisco. Glenn Ford plays a straight-laced FBI agent who women find attractive, perhaps contractually? This movie blends Dragnet (1967) style reverence for tight-cropped law enforcers with a dark Freudian psychosexual weirdness, and it’s no surprise it was a remarkable influence on David Lynch. Maybe Lynch and Fincher, because this feels like a grandfather to Mindhunter (2017). Shots of the same pre-apocalyptic San Francisco as its more colorful contemporary, Vertigo (1958), which it would pair nicely with. Ross Martin, whose character is shot to death on the pitcher’s mound in Candlestick Park (what does it mean?!) went on to play Artemus Clyde Frog, née Gordon, in Wild Wild West (1965). Good telephone switching in this movie. There is never an explanation for the title. I give it 3.5 Popcorns out of a possible 5 Popcorns.

Seoul Station (2016)

Watched Seoul Station (2016), an animated prequel to the live-action Train to Busan (2016). This is a Korean zombie anime about an interconnected group of people trying and failing to survive a zombie outbreak. Thematically, I guess it’s about the idea of losing your home. Like Parasite (2019) it is pointedly about class disparity and a hidden underclass taking revenge on the bourgeoisie, by metaphorically turning everyone into them and by literally eating them. Mixing 2D and 3D animation is (almost?) never a good idea, and isn’t here either. The girl made me mad when she just refused to shut doors behind her while being chased by zombies. I’ll watch Train to Busan (2016) next. The twist ending was a surprise, didn’t come completely out of nowhere, but was still not necessary. I give it 3.5 bottles of Energy D out of a possible 5 bottles of Energy D.

Train to Busan (2016)

Watched Train to Busan (2016), Director Yoo Gong’s live-action Korean zombie train movie about class warfare, not his animated Korean zombie train movie about class warfare. The movie stars, among others, Woo-sik Choi, the teen from Parasite (2019), that Korean dark comedy about class warfare, which was made by Bong Joon-Ho, the Korean director who also made Snowpiercer (2013), a train movie about class warfare. In Train to Busan, the zombie apocalypse happens during a train ride, and people from different classes war against each other while zombies pick them off. The theme is sacrifice. They are given a very nasty set of zombie parameters: fast zombies, fast infection, hard to kill, they don’t stop to eat people, and worst of all, animals can also be zombies. Hard to see a way out of this one. The little girl does a great job, especially in that final scene. The lead guy (also the director) does a good job, as does the muscle-man. I give it 4 Alohas out of a possible 5 Alohas.

A Hard Day (2014)

Watched A Hard Day (2014), a Korean crime movie about a corrupt police detective who has a really hard day. Despite definitely being a movie, it was paced a lot like several shorter television episodes strung together, and the sound track had a TV feel to it as well. I wonder what all the drowning symbolism could mean? There’s lots of tension, but it’s the kind of tension where you’re trying to hide a dead body in your mother’s casket, and the camera cuts between you and the funeral director who’s about to see you doing it. I like the shot where you think somebody’s going to get blown up, because that’s how the camera is set up, but then something else happens instead. Good thinking going back for the bullets, butterfingers. I give it 3 scruffy dogs out of a 5 scruffy dogs.

Recognizable experiences

But now and again there appears a novel which opens up a new world not by revealing what is strange, but by revealing what is familiar… Here is a whole world of stuff which you supposed to be of its nature incommunicable, and somebody has managed to communicate it. The effect is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives… you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. ‘He knows all about me,’ you feel; ‘he wrote this specially for me’… For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylized, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with the recognizable experiences of human beings.

— George Orwell

I really butchered the quote, in the sense of hacking it apart. It’s actually about Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer, but I took out everything specific to those books and tried to make like it was about literature in general.

The vacillator’s prayer

The peril of arguing with you is forgetting to argue with myself. Don’t make me convince you: I don’t want to believe that much.

— James Richardson


Man projects into the cosmos his own nascent demand for social justice; and when from the outer spaces the magnified echo of his own voice returns to him, promising punishment for the guilty, he draws from it courage and reassurance.

— E. R. Dodds

Books Read, 2020

Changing jobs and world events kept me from reading as much as last year. It wasn’t that I didn’t have time to read, it was that, for whatever reason, I didn’t have much of an urge to read much during the middle part of the year.

Fiction (18)

  • The Odyssey by Homer

    The Emily Wilson translation, which I thought was much more readable, but didn’t inspire me the way Fagles did. Looking forward to reading her Iliad when it is released.
  • Favorite Father Brown Stories by G. K. Chesterton

    The first fiction by Chesterton that I really liked, though I didn’t like every story in the book. Will probably read more Father Brown.
  • Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
  • Dark Star by Alan Furst
  • The Polish Officer by Alan Furst
  • The World at Night by Alan Furst
  • A Hero of France by Alan Furst
  • Red Gold by Alan Furst

    These Alan Furst novels, all about spies in WWII Europe, constituted all of what I read between about June and October. In the future, when I think back on the quarantine, I imagine
  • From Hell by Alan Moore

    A reread, but it’s been about 20 years. I liked it a little less this time, but not by much, and I still think it’s a masterpiece. I appreciated different things about it this time: the art, research, and logistics more than the fireworks.
  • The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • Castleview by Gene Wolfe
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Plague by Albert Camus
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov

    A reread, but I didn’t remember much about it.
  • One Step from Earth by Harry Harrison
  • Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

    I hated this book. I didn’t actually finish it, but got most of the way through, and I was certainly finished with it. I don’t hate it because it’s obscene, what I hate was that it was sloppy and self-indulgent.
  • Down and Out in Purgatory by Tim Powers

Non-Fiction (16)

  • Sahara Unveiled by William Langewiesche
  • The Architecture of Happiness by Alain De Botton
  • Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall
  • Atlas of a Lost World by Craig Childs
  • Discussing Design by Adam Connor
  • The Tiger by John Vaillant
  • Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • Cultural Amnesia by Clive James (Essays)
  • Harmonium by Wallace Stevens (Poetry)
  • The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
  • In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Take Ivy by Shosuke Ishizu
  • Design Is Storytelling by Ellen Lupton
  • ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’ by Geoff Dyer
  • Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg
  • Farnsworth’s Classical English Style by Ward Farnsworth

Power hungers

Don’t trust the revolutionist with your freedom: he’s an authoritarian who just happens to be out of power.

— James Richardson