Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Turner Classic Movies is showing the perverse 1942 Josef von Sternberg classic THE SHANGHAI GESTURE, which I've blogged about before, at 8 eastern. Tune in if you can. It's followed by a movie I have a somewhat ashamed fondness for, 1955's LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING, which has an intoxicating portrait of Hong Kong in the 50s. And some great acting.

I've had a hard day at work, plus I've been battling nosebleeds all day, so I'm crawling inside a gin bottle for the evening...

Monday, February 27, 2012

TRAPS by Friedrich Duerrenmatt

Swiss author and playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt (1921-1990) is most famous as the author of the deservedly revered play The Visit (1956), a glorious black comedy in which a fabulously wealthy woman returns to her home town and offers a fantastic sum for the life of the man who got her pregnant and cast her aside, causing her to fall into a life of prostitution. (Until she marries a rich man, etc.) It's a great exploration of issues like greed, justice, retribution, and feminism, as well as wickedly and darkly funny.

This was another recommendation from Marvin Kaye, and I have to say that he redeems himself with this. Traps was originally published in 1956 as Die Panne (literally, "A Dangerous Game") and is a great example of Durrenmatt's style and wit. In fact, it could very easily be turned into a play.

Alfredo Traps, a traveling textile salesman, experiences an auto accident in a small town, presumably in Switzerland although it could be Germany or Austria or anywhere else. The one hotel is packed full, and he is recommended to go ask a local man with a large house if he can be put up as a guest.

Well, the local guy is more than willing to put him up, and even invites him to a lavish dinner that night. And it comes out that the host is a former judge, and the other guests include lawyers, prosecutors, and a former hangman! And over dinner, they go full-force into a game in which Traps is subjected to interrogation in a mock trial over dinner. Out comes Traps' ambition, his philandering, his callousness, and then the question is raised...was his business rival's death a mere accident? Or did Traps murder him by carefully manipulating events?

It's brief; the paperback I got from the library is only 122 pages long, and is a quick read. On the surface, this reads like a good thriller play, perhaps an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In fact, it's been filmed multiple times: in 1957 as an episode of the old American TV series Suspicion, in 1971 in India as the movie Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe! (or "Silence! The Court is in Session!"), and in '72 in Italy as the movie La piu bella serata della mia vita (literally, "The most beautiful night of my life"), and perhaps a few other times that I wasn't able to track down. The plot about the oblivious, arrogant, self-absorbed Traps (and boy, is that name symbolic!) being caught in a web by the seemingly jovial men around him is classic stuff...but then a little ambiguity is raised, and the reader is left wondering if it's just a case of a late-blooming conscience.

On a deeper level, it really came across to me as an indictment of the ruthless ambition that's a product of our industrialized, corporatized world, and of the destructiveness than can result when selfish people go after their own good with no regard for how it affects others. I guess this falls into Hannah Arendt's description of "the banality of evil."

This is good zesty stuff that still reads well today. If you can get your hands on it, read it. Some enterprising publisher should dust off some Durrenmatt and make an omnibus edition available. Anyone out there, hm?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Saturday at the movies!

It's Saturday! Our gang gathers again, for an easy afternoon of browsing our favorite the used book store down the street, and that place around the corner that sells old LPs and used CDs, and the thrift shop nearby. Then it's a late lunch at the usual restaurant, and then time for a show at the usual old movie house!

First up is yet another early classic from George Melies, "The Devil in a Convent," made in 1899.

And now the main feature: the 1926 version of The Student of Prague, previously filmed in 1913.

(You can just keep clicking on the chapters to watch the whole thing; it's worth it.)

Afterward, we head to the usual cafe for coffee, brandy, or absinthe, and relaxed conversation. There's still plenty of time left in the day, and tons of possibilities await....

Saturday, February 11, 2012

CASTAWAY by James Gould Cozzens

I tracked this down and read it based on recommendations from author and editor Marvin Kaye, who praised it for its "heart-stopping suspense." While it certainly is unusual, and perhaps worth reading in some aspects, it's not something I really had any fun with.

Mr. Lecky enters a vast, empty department store, and proceeds to make arrangements to survive and defend himself. It's more than obvious that some sort of catastrophe has occurred, but no reference is actually made to it or do we ever know exactly what happened or how Lecky survived. We're just presented with his efforts to arm himself and survive. Eventually someone termed an "idiot" makes his way into the store, and Lecky ends up shooting and killing him. Lecky continues to make a little fort and survive, but finally...(SPOILER: goes back to the body and realizes it's himself. The end.)

It's brief, but it took me several days to read it because I found the writing stilted and outdated, and the actual story to be fairly uninteresting. It seems to be meant to be allegorical, perhaps of man's aloneness in the universe, or just a sort of modern Robinson Crusoe. However, the ambiguous ending gives it a supernatural air; perhaps a way of saying that man's struggle to survive will ultimately destroy him?

It's a sort of book that one reads as a challenge and struggles with, rather than enjoys. It's one of those rare works that crosses Literary Significance with genre content. Still, I have to say I didn't like it much. It often was rather dull and drawn-out for my tastes, even for such a brief work (in hardcover, just over 100 pages). It would certainly be good for those writing in the current trend of apocalyptic fiction; Lecky's struggle to survive and make sense of things like firearms and cooking would be good grist for their mill. But for me, it just wasn't that suspenseful or interesting. Mr. Kaye's recommendation seems off...but then I found out he's a craniosacral therapist and reiki "healer", both practices that I find to be horrifying quackery, which makes me view Mr. Kaye in quite another light. I still find him a good anthologist, though.

James Gould Cozzens (1903-1973) was an author of some controversy; his novel Guard of Honor, a WWII story, won a Pulitzer, but later works like By Love Possessed raised ire for purportedly being racist and/or anti-Semitic, even though he probably was more of a general misanthrope with little hope for humanity as a whole. An attempt at young adult literature bombed and he vanished from the literary scene for the last ten years of his life. He was a harsh critic of modernism, and today some find his works off-putting in their use of archaic words and conservative or downbeat themes, and even sometimes lack of action in his stories. (Although, he still has some fans, of course.) By Love Possessed was made into a dreadful movie with Lana Turner that had the dubious distinction of being the first-ever in-flight movie.

Not especially recommended, unless you're interested in apocalyptic literature.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Love that cover blurb: "A Modern Masterpiece of Ancient Evil." A woman screaming and running from a sinister house. Ghosts, curses, supernatural stuff, right?

My ass.

Pardon me for being vulgar, but this book cover is a total bait-and-switch, and considering this is a 1968 printing, was probably done to capitalize on the then-current craze for gothic romances. Scandal at High Chimneys is really just a standard historical mystery from Carr.

I picked it up because I'd come across a reference somewhere to it involving ghosts. Well, there's a murder with someone posing as a ghost, but hardly anybody believes for a second it's a real ghost so it's hardly mystifying.

The year is 1865. Young Clive Strickland is visiting the Damon household, proposing to Celia Damon as a favor to her brother Victor, for complex reasons. There's also sister Kate (who does not shimmy) and father Matthew Damon (who was never in Good Will Hunting). But a man's ghost is seen in the house, dressed in bizarre clothes, and suddenly the "ghost" shoots Matt between the eyes and makes a getaway. And that's about the limits of scandal.

Who was it? Unfortunately, the book meanders and is hard to follow at times. Damon has an unfaithful wife, the girls' stepmother, who also turns up dead. We get confrontations with various family members, and a visit to a music hall, and some discussions of theater, before the murder is solved.

I wasn't impressed. Maybe it was just me, but the progression of events often didn't seem logical to me, and sometimes the characters would go to some location just as an excuse for Carr to show off his research. He has postscripts discussing the theater world of the 1860s, and quite honestly I'd love to have an old-style music hall in town, but it just doesn't come together as an organic whole.

Not recommended, except perhaps for some of the commentary on Victorian theater. There's several mentions of a play, It's Never Too Late to Mend, which was made into a film featuring that master melodramaticist Tod Slaughter, which is in my collection. I'll be sure to discuss it later.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

At the Cinema with a Woman in Black

Not being much for football, I went out this evening and caught the new Hammer film, The Woman in Black.

I'd read Susan Hill's novel a long time ago, and have forgotten much about it, so I can't say how true to the source this is...but damn, this is one spine-chilling film. Literally. After one jolt, I actually felt my spine tingling, not something that happens that often.

In a nutshell, it's the story of widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps, who travels to a remote village to settle the estate of a wealthy widow. The villagers are unfriendly, and he spends long hours in her house going through her papers. The house is isolated, located on an island in a marsh, accessed only by a causeway that's drowned at high tide. There's a string of deaths of children in the town, and Kipps sees the phantom figure of a woman in mourning clothes skulking about the island. He comes to connect her story to that of the deaths of the children, and must solve the mystery...before his own son comes to visit in a few days.

It's actually remarkable for an old-fashioned haunted-house movie to hit theaters like this these days. And a period piece, set in the Edwardian era, about the mid-1910s. This is like Hammer in its golden days, historic horror done at a breathless pace. It's also unusual for Hammer, which despite its many horrors, never actually did a ghost movie.

It's relentlessly suspenseful, and Kipps' night in the haunted house is an unending orgy of horrors. And it sometimes defies expectations. There's a great scene where he hears a rocking chair moving inside the locked nursery. He finally gets in, and we see the rocking chair rocking...and normally, it would stop dead, or simply not be moving. But here, the chair continues to rock, and is only the beginning of the harrowing events.

Daniel Radcliffe shucks Harry Potter for this, and he pulls it off well. The villagers are called on to do one-note performances, but a couple who are Kipps' only friends in the weird place are good. The settings are remarkably naturalistic; I feared a Tim Burton-esque Addams Family fantasia of overdone gothic fakeness, but that was thankfully avoided in favor of settings that could actually looked real and believable. And for all I knew, were.

This is good intense stuff, and I hope it does well. It's the sort of thing I'd love to see more of. This isn't slasher killers and gore, but good supernatural horror. (It's occasionally reminiscent of Asian horror films, but only occasionally, and that's probably more coincidence than anything.) The Woman in Black isn't high art, and there's little deeper meaning to it, but it's a fine example of craft. See it and have fun.

(EDIT: As soon as I posted this, Roger Ebert tweeted a link to a story about how the house and settings were done. Turns out to be a real house, the village was a real one in Yorkshire, and there was a huge attention to detail. The toys in the nursery were all genuine antiques from the period. They also looked into macabre Victorian corpse photography [propping up a dead relative or child and taking their photo as a memento] and other aspects of the story. It's good fun; read it here.)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Dust & Corruption Calendar for February 2012

February is a cruel month. It's simultaneously short and long, with dreadful weather. As a children's book I once read said, "You keep waiting for the warm days to come, and when they finally come, you wonder why you waited." (Or something like that.) And it has Valentine's Day, my least favorite holiday. (Yes, I'm single again this year, but even when I'm seeing someone I hate V-day.)

So let's find some other things to do...

2/3 - Bigger Than Life: The Films of Nicholas Ray. Retrospective of the maverick director's work, including noted films noir as KNOCK ON ANY DOOR, IN A LONELY PLACE, PARTY GIRL, ON DANGEROUS GROUND....and more mainstream films like JOHNNY GUITAR, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and KING OF KINGS. Check the website for full schedule. AFI Silver Theater, 8633 Colesville Rd, Silver Spring, MD.

2/4 - Tilted Torch: Sweet Things: Burlesque, variety, music and comedy, in one fun evening. The Red Palace, 1212 H St NE, Washington, DC. Doors 9:00, showtime at 10:00. $10 in advance, $15 at the door.

2/9 - DCVariety Open Mic: My pals Mab Just Mab and Swami Yomahmi host an open-mic variety night at the Red Palace. 9:00.

2/9 - Corruption at Tammany Hall! My friend Albert Cadabra helps kick off a weekly night burlesque and variety. Tammany Hall, 152 Orchard St, New York, NY. 9:00, $10 admission.

2/10-12 - Winter Festival of Wonders, celebrating Baltimore's Station North Arts District. Lots going on over the three-day festival, all centered at Area 405, 405 E Oliver St, Baltimore, MD.

2/11 - Tassels & Champagne! My pals at the Gilded Lily troupe put on a Valentine's show, hosted by the dishy Mark Slomski. Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave, Baltimore, MD. I can't go, but if you want to, get tickets in advance!

2/11 - JUST IMAGINE, the early sci-fi/comedy film that's rarely seen. AFI Silver Theater, 2:45.

2/14 - Valentine's Day. If you think I should like this day, then ask me out and make it worth my while.

2/14 - Tainted Love! A break from the miseries of Valentine's Day, with my friends Trixie Little & the Evil Hate Monkey. (Really, I'm not blowing smoke when I refer to all these people as my friends...they ARE my friends. I know a lot of interesting people, some of whom are shockingly respectable.) The Ottobar, 2549 N Howard St, Baltimore, MD.

2/18 - Love-a-Go-Go! Burlesque & fun with Runaround Sue and Sugar Shack Burlesque, with the cutie Chris Chaos. The Red Palace. 9:00, $12 in advance, $15 at the door.

2/18 - Comic Strip! Comedy and burlesque, uniting two troupes, Twisted Knickers and Black Tassel Boolesque. State Theater, 220 N Washington St, Falls Church, VA. Doors at 10, $12.

2/18 - Third Annual Fund-Raiser Party. Art, science, and the occult meet and mingle at the Observatory, 543 Union St, Brooklyn, NY. 8pm, $20.

2/19 - TRANSATLANIC TUNNEL, a seldom-seen early sci-fi film. AFI Silver Theater, 4:00.

2/20 - THINGS TO COME, the early sci-fi classic. AFI Silver Theater, 4:00.

2/20 - President's Day. I'm off that day; who's up for fun?

2/21 - Mardi Gras! Carnivale!

2/24 - METROPOLIS! The restored, complete-as-possible print, with live music from the Alloy Orchestra. AFI Silver Theater, 7:30pm.

2/24-3/4 - "Die Fledermaus," Johann Strauss' operetta, from the Victorian Lyric Opera Company.  I plan on hitting that at some point; I need some operetta. At the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater, 603 Edmonston Dr, Rockville, MD. $20.

2/24-3/4 - "From Shuffle to Show Boat," the latest outing from the IN Series. Cabaret salute to early 20th century Broadway, with songs from early black musicals and classic operettas. (A double-dose of operetta!) The Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC. See the site for showtimes and tickets.

2/25 - THE BLACK PIRATE. The 1926 classic, with Douglas Fairbanks swashing his buckle, and live music from the Alloy Orchestra. AFI Silver Theater, 2:30.

2/26 - PARASITES: A USER'S GUIDE, screening of an experimental documentary, with Q&A with the director. The Observatory, 6:00, $10.

As always, if any readers know of anything, send me a message or leave a comment and I'll be happy to publicize it.

Back to the Phantom Concert Hall

Again, we assemble in our best bohemian finery; we've scored good seats at the concert hall for rare treat. There aren't many violinists up to the challenge of this piece: Tartini's Violin Sonata in G minor, better known as "The Devil's Trill"!

Legend has it that Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), himself a famed violinist and composer, had a dream in which Old Scratch himself showed up, playing the violin, playing a fantastically difficult piece, and when he woke, he quickly scribbled down the parts he remembered and built this sonata around them. Not sure how true it is, but the piece is notoriously devilish to play, requiring lots of difficult acrobatics with the fingers that even by modern standards it's hard to perform. One story has it that Tartini himself had a sixth finger on one hand that enabled him to play these fiendish trills!

Of course, the Prince of Darkness has always been associated with the violin; "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is but a more modern example. Paganini himself was rumored to have infernal connections, an image which he undoubtedly cultivated. Satan is often depicted playing the violin, and there have been many macabre works around the instrument, short works like Sax Rohmer's "Tcheriapin" and Madame Blavatsky's "The Ensouled Violin," and novels like J. Meade Falkner's "The Lost Stradivarius" and Anne Rice's "Violin" which I've never read and may never get to, having lost my taste for her work some years ago.

If you can get hold of Rachel Barton's CD "Instrument of the Devil," a collection of diabolical string works, the liner notes have good stuff about Old Nick and the fiddle. Plus there's another version of this piece, done as a chamber work with only a harpsichord for accompaniment.

So sit back, relax, and let the Devil have his'll be none the worse for wear...or will you?