Swans Commentary » swans.com July 30, 2012  



Special Summer Issue: Books, Music, Films


Suggestions For Summer Enjoyment


by Glenn Reed



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(Swans - July 30, 2012)  




•   The Haunting of Hill House (1959), by Shirley Jackson

Considered one of the all-time greatest ghost stories, this Jackson gem is as much a psychological thriller as a boo! piece. It follows the reclusive, unwed Helen as she joins a paranormal researcher and two others investigating the infamous "Hill House," which is known for its past tragedies and consequent hauntings. The story and tension build up slowly, in refreshing contrast to the immediate gratification approach that dominates the genre today. The house itself, described as a maze of odd angles, proportions, and icy drafts in unlikely spots, becomes a character in itself and a reflection of Helen's repressed emotions and desires. The greatest scares, as with the best ghost stories, are in the subtle hints that something isn't quite right. Jackson plays the quiet whispers and slow turnings of a doorknob to full effect in this classic.


•   Fahrenheit 451 (1953), by Ray Bradbury

Sci-fi master Bradbury perfectly nails it in this dystopian novel that examines a future where all books are banned. Main character Guy Montag is employed as a fireman whose duty is to burn books, including any houses that contain them. His nondescript wife, typical of the clueless masses in this society, is content to disengage from reality by plugging into her ear buds, interacting with fictional "family" through TV screens that cover entire walls, and frequently overdosing on her pills. Montag begins to question his work, marriage, and this oppressive society after meeting and bonding with a free-thinking young girl who soon disappears. This plants a seed leading him to steal a book and begin craving more of the written word. Bradbury's bleak vision, prophesying today's alienating technology, builds up to a frantic suspenseful close and, ultimately, scenes of hope. His imagination and detail never fail to keep you glued to the page.


•   The Stranger (1942), by Albert Camus

Camus's work is often cited as an example of existentialism. He insisted it was more one of absurdism, which focuses on the search for meaning in life in the face of an indifferent universe where there may not be any. The novel's main character is Mersault -- a resident of Algiers -- who lives a day-to-day existence that seems devoid of goals, indifferent to consequence, and unconcerned with guilt. Mersault dates, watches neighbors from his porch, and doesn't shed a tear at his mother's funeral. This glimpse of his meandering life is the focus of the first part of the novel and it culminates with a seemingly senseless, violent crime that lands him in prison. Society's ensuing judgment of his action paints a surrealistic court scene where his entire life seems to be on trial. Camus leaves you asking questions with no answers in this unsettling book.


•   Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright

Gritty, darkly realistic, and pervaded with a sense of hopelessness, Wright's story of an African American growing up in mid-20th century America doesn't flinch at all in portraying the entrenched racism that forces its main character, Bigger, to a harsh destiny. Born in poverty, struggling to latch onto an identity when his African roots are strange and distant and his American role is rigidly defined by whites, Bigger is repeatedly forced into conflict. This is with family, acquaintances and, ultimately, the dominant culture that alternately victimizes and encourages him. The latter is from the safe standpoint of whites who can't truly understand the black experience. Wright's prose is straight from the earth, rat-infested shacks, and urban rooftops where both Bigger and the reader can feel that there is no escape. This painful read rips apart the American facade and myth about the land of opportunity and freedom.


•   1984 (1949), by George Orwell

What more can be said about Orwell's nightmarish vision of the future? How often do you hear that our system is just like 1984? The author captures the extremes of both communism and capitalism in describing a world of endless, pointless wars, constant privation, pointless work, 24-hour propaganda, the destruction of language and creativity, torture for dissidents, and a tiny ruling elite who demand eternal allegiance to Big Brother. The main character, Winston, slogs through every day forcing down oily gin, nursing pains and a nasty cough, and exhorted by a two-way video screen, to do more, comrade! and keeping a wary eye on his neighbor's Hitler Youth-like children who think everyone's a traitor. A budding affair with a woman he originally distrusts leads Winston to long for more from life and take chances. Unfortunately, Orwell doesn't foresee any happy endings in this disturbing, but engrossing, look at a totalitarian hell.




•   Bitches Brew (1970), music by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul

This double-album was considered a milestone -- no pun intended -- in the incorporation of rock into jazz, with a funky edge included. Davis also experiments with a more electric sound, while recording pieces that encouraged jazz-inspired improvisations beyond a basic outline in chords, tempo and shards of melodies. Davis's trumpet and Shorter's alto sax poke, prod, and explore with Bennie Maupin's mischievous bass clarinet lurking beneath along with the steady rhythm section. Many of Davis's runs will bring chills to your spine. Great music for a long road trip or a night at home.


•   Ummagumma (1969), music and lyrics by Pink Floyd (Richard Wright, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason)

Considered early Floyd, though it's post Syd Barrett, this double album contains a raw feel that hints at the group's evolution, classical roots, embrace of psychedelia, and willingness to explore instrumentally. Like the Beatle's White Album, it may seem inconsistent at times, and half of its offerings are composed and performed by individual members of the band. The listener travels from moody synthesizer to the screeching of Careful with That Ax, Eugene to lone classical piano, to a cacophony of animals making sounds in a cave. Vintage Floyd. What's not to like for true fans?


•   Day For Night (1994), music and lyrics by The Tragically Hip (Gordon Downie, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois)

Damn. I'll never understand why this rock group doesn't hit it big in the States, but they're deserving gods in Canada. Downie is an amazing lyricist, here weaving stories of sinking ships, an anonymous murder in El Paso, and scientists holed up in a terrarium with outlines of characters and places that evoke the uniqueness of our neighbors to the north. His singing is from the gut and it's ably buttressed by driving bass/drums and augmented by guitars that can hammer, add an appropriate solo, or settle into an acoustic piece that illustrates the range of this group. They are a national treasure and this album captures them at a point of maturity that is still laced with the youthful enthusiasm and drive. Hip, Hip, Hip indeed!


•   Revolver (1966), music and lyrics by The Beatles (John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr)

Who can go wrong picking a Beatles album? Oh right...those that prefer the Stones. This may not be original, but it's worth reminding that this album marked a transitional stage for the Fab Four, a growing maturity and willingness to experiment, and the seeds for their eventual break-up. It offers the bare strings and melancholy of McCartney's Eleanor Rigby, the tape loop effects and distorted vocals of Lennon's Tomorrow Never Knows, and George Harrison's emergence from under the shadow of Lennon/McCartney with his three song contributions. From exotic sitar to the silliness of Yellow Submarine, Revolver evokes both nostalgia and remains fresh on many levels.


•   Gone Again (1996), music and lyrics by Patti Smith (and Fred "Sonic" Smith, Lenny Kaye, Luis Resto, Bob Dylan, Oliver Ray)

Patti Smith was one of the leaders of the punk rock movement of the '70s. An accomplished poet and writer before her venture into music, she virtually disappeared from the scene in the 1980s/early '90s to focus on marriage, family, and the many personal losses that would influence her later music. Gone Again marked her re-emergence on the rock scene and signaled a need to explore more acoustic pieces and even try out country/bluegrass influenced pieces. These compositions illustrate the range of her vocals, power of her lyrics, and Kaye guitar work that explore the experiences of her losing a husband, a brother, and band members. Poignant, beautiful, and reflective, songs like Wing (for her brother) and About A Boy (a Kurt Cobain tribute) can't help but make you listen to every word and every note.




•   2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), by Stanley Kubrick, with: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain (voice of "Hal," the computer)

This intellectual sci-fi film is classic Kubrick in its pacing, intelligent editing, breath-taking cinematography, ground-breaking special effects (before the advent of computer-generated ones), and a story that operates on so many levels that it leaves you thinking and speculating after every viewing. It examines the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, the status of humanity after a million years of evolution, and the effects of technology both on human behavior as well as the possibility of artificial intelligence developing emotions. The computer, Hal's, plea of "what do you think you're doing, Dave?" reveals more character than any of the humans in the film. Kubrick's obsessional attention to detail creates a visual masterpiece that envelops you in the enormity of space and time and feeling tiny in the face of the universe's mysteries. It contains one of the most brilliant edits in the history of film, when an ape tosses into the air a bone that he has used as a weapon for the first time and when the bone descends, there's a cut to a military spacecraft orbiting above the earth. A million years and we're still just driven by primal instincts? Ingenious.


•   The Sweet Hereafter (1997), by Atom Egoyen, with: Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Bruce Greenwood, Gabrielle Rose

Tragedy. It's a common theme for Egoyen. This dramatic film examines the effects on a small Canadian town of one such tragedy -- an accident where a school bus slides off a road and onto a frozen lake, where it sinks and many of the children on-board are killed or injured. It follows the efforts of an outsider lawyer, who himself is trying to cope with the personal tragedy of a drug-addicted daughter -- to organize a lawsuit against the bus manufacturer as a way to help process the townspeople's pain, as well as his own. The vast landscape of the Rockies helps create a mood piece where the characters seem dwarfed by nature and random events, struggling to adjust the best that they can to overwhelming grief. Overhead shots of the bus heading to its destiny, slow pans that move past characters into dark spaces, and scenes that alternate from the present to the past of the bus picking up its passengers all create a dreamlike world where time blurs. In the end, the courage of a teenage victim of the crash to move on without anger holds a lesson for all. A bittersweet and moving film.


•   Blade Runner (1982), by Ridley Scott, with: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah

First things first: view the director's cut, which does not have the studio-forced Ford voiceover that wrecked the film's commercial release. This sci-fi classic follows Decker (Ford) as he hunts down a quartet of murderous, artificial humans (replicants) in the dark, rainy streets of a worn-out, future LA. The viewer is enveloped in this gritty, claustrophobic setting where the most lucky and talented people have moved to the promised lands of the off-world. There's a sense of a spent humanity drifting through a melding of cultures, while longing for home, family, stability, and the past. Repeated shots of eyes hint at the search for soul and blur distinctions between humanity and machines. While the replicants grasp for real emotions, human emotions are dulled and lifeless. Decker's budding love for replicant Rachel (Young) and his growing disgust for his work as a blade runner make the viewer begin to question who is human, and who is not. A joy of mood, pacing, visuals and an intelligent story.


•   City of Lost Children (La Cité des Enfants Perdus) (1995), by Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet, with: Ron Perlman, Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon

Stylistic, amusing, and a visual feast, this drama-fantasy takes place in a French coastal community where it always seems to be night and strange occurrences are the norm. It revolves around the man-child Krank, who lives in an off-shore, oil-rig-type structure with his test-tube-created siblings, and who kidnaps children to steal their dreams. Miette, a precocious girl who is the member of a gang of children, teams up with the simpleton called One, who is on a mission to find his little brother who has been nabbed by Krank. This surreal world of Caro and Jeunet is filled with diabolic Siamese twins, an acrobatic flea who injects a mind-controlling serum in its victims, and a hand of fate that drops Miette into the hands of an undersea diver after she's bound and tossed in the ocean to die. A fun and imaginative film.


•   The Color of Paradise (1999), by Majid Majidi with: Hossein Mahjoub, Mohsen Ramezani, Salameh Feyzi, Farahnaz Safari

Many Iranian directors remind us of the power of the medium when not laden with special effects and chase scenes. This drama offers powerfully-realized characters including the blind boy, Mohammed, who takes true joy in connecting with nature, contrasted with his unhappy father who can't appreciate anything -- especially the boy that he views as a burden rather than a gift from the God he feels has abandoned him. The director effectively incorporates mountainous scenery, with flower-filled fields and villages nestled in valleys, into shots that are alternately majestic and intimate. The latter is captured in scenes of Mohammed with his loving sisters taking pleasure in the touch of an insect and smell of a flower. The creep of inevitable tragedy comes with the father's distancing himself from his son throughout the film. This touching film perfectly illustrates how art transcends politics and illustrates our common humanity.


•   Fanny and Alexander (1982), by Ingmar Bergman, with: Pernilla Allwin, Bertil Guve, Morje Ahlstedt, Anna Bergman, Ewa Froling

Bergman explores grand themes of individuals struggling with relationships with God, dealing with death, dysfunctional relationships, and growing old. This epic, sweeping drama covers all of those bases as it follows the two children of a well-to-do family that runs a theater in a small, early 20th century city. Stunning visuals and nostalgia pervade the first part of the film, where family and friends gather for a lavish Christmas celebration. Fascinating and amusing characters include a flatulent uncle who entertains the gathered children, the Jewish merchant, Isak, and the mysterious Ismael. Tragedy later strikes as Fanny and Alexander's gentle father dies and an adolescent Alexander, in particular, struggles to deal with the loss. The mother, desperate for support, marries the controlling, abusive bishop a year later. Conflict immediately ensues between the harsh bishop and Alexander, further shattering the boy's childhood innocence, with beatings and stark empty rooms. Destiny prevails in the end of this thought-provoking, "art house" film.


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About the Author

Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont.   (back)


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Published July 30, 2012