Month: July 2019

Neither Fish nor Fowl

Force of Evil Film Poster

Force of Evil, a noir film from 1948 was greeted with mixed reviews upon release and, seventy years later, it’s pretty easy to see why.  While the noir plot–an indictment of the numbers racket–is pretty standard, there are a couple of elements that derail its enjoyment as a pure exponent of the breed.

In the first place, it seems like the director (or the producer or the cinematographer or someone) decided that noir sensibilities weren’t quite good enough for them, and the film attempts to transcend the genre, with mixed results.  So the characters have redeeming qualities and unexpected psychological depths, while the film itself was shot with a dreamlike quality which reinforces the fact that nothing is quite as hard-edged as it seems.  The ending is left open.

But none of that makes the film better.  The noir genre is defined by its contrasts of light and shadow.  Even when the good guy is ambiguous, he s certainly good in his context.  The stark difference between the truly dark and the kind of grey is filmed with sharp definition which reinforces the sense.  This film loses its way on those counts.

John Garfield on the Phone in Force of Evil

On the plus side, it’s a 1940’s crime film, so it can’t be all bad, and it has certain action scenes and an interesting pairing of noir femmes, one oh-so-light (yet undeniably self-destructive) and one deeply dark (who is out to destroy everything), which give it a strong push in the genre direction.

I find it interesting that this one was selected for the National Film Registry’s preservation program, as well as being listed in the 1001 Films list.  Why, I ask myself is it there?

I suppose it’s because modern critics appreciate its attempt to transcend its genre and become a more valuable piece of art.

I see this kind of misguided attempt in many forms of art, but perhaps the place where it has done most damage (and this is just my opinion, your mileage may vary) is in science fiction and fantasy literature.  What was once an escapist genre that people could relate to has become a minefield.  A book with a gorgeous, evocative image on the front might hide a literary experiment or a political manifesto between the covers.

Readers, of course, flock away from that sort of thing, and the genre, while slightly de-ghetto-ized is not as popular as it was in the late nineties (especially fantasy).  And now the political questions are reaching Hollywood science fiction and fantasy (even Star Wars, argh), so we can expect a decline in popularity there as well in the short term.

If anything, Force of Evil is evidence that none of this is new, so when you’re scratching your head about the heavy-handed political statements or sudden intrusion of the art film mentality into what you expected to be a fun way to spend a couple of hours, you can take comfort in the fact that popular entertainment will never learn from its mistakes–it will just let a future generation of critics turn the pig’s ear into a silk purse…

But when you actually watch the film, all that porcinity is still evident.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres.  His most recent novel is a thriller / horror crossover into which literary pretensions have not intruded.  It’s called Ice Station Death, and you can check it out here.

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Genius Always Makes Things Better

If I spoke about a book written in the 19th century whose thinly-veiled message is that young women need to be respectful of their parents, appreciate the joys of a happy traditional home life and then added to that that the book also speaks of the love of God as the most important force in life, what would your reaction be?

Yawn?

Yeah, me too.  Except this book has become a classic.  It’s Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and it’s wonderful.

little-women-louisa-may-alcott

It’s a children’s book, of course, or at least it was a children’s book when it was written… if published today, it would be firmly Young Adult or Even aimed at adults because children no longer read at a significant level.

The positive thing about that is that Little Women can be enjoyed by adults today without the feeling that one is reading something below one’s intellectual level.  Better still, the emotional punch this book packs hits across age groups.

Because Alcott’s genius is all about the characters.  Other than a couple of illnesses and a marriage or two, nothing that would make the plot of most other books even happens here.  It’s all about domestic life and tiny little squabbles, petty jealousies and completely plain-Jane friendships.  The acts of rebellion would have Holden Caufield, to take a name at random, scratching his head and wondering if anyone actually believes that a family could be so square (Holden’s word, not mine).

There is very little in the way of interesting events, yet you still find yourself reading, you want to know that it all comes out well for the characters, and suffer with them when it doesn’t.

Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

It’s not easy to make commonplace events, of interest mainly to gossiping grandmother types, gripping.  Even hampered by 150 years under the bridge, Alcott pulls it off.  She was a literary giant, and I can’t even imagine what she would be capable of if she lived today, unencumbered by the worldview of her times and circumstances.  She was supposedly a feminist in her time… you could never tell unless they told you.

Modern feminists won’t enjoy this one but, if you are the kind of person who can look past a little bit of preaching of currently unpopular values and enjoy a beautiful book, you should pick up a copy.  Because looking past the obvious can show you a work which has aged remarkably well.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book The Malakiad takes place in a particularly unusual version of ancient Greece.  You can check it out here.

The Shadow of Rebecca

Secret Beyond the Door Film Poster

It’s not often that we encounter minor movies while watching the 1001 films you need to see before you die, but it does happen sometimes.  Today’s subject, Secret Beyond the Door, is a case in point.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an entertaining thriller that directors other than Fritz Lang would have killed to have in their oeuvre.  But for the man who filmed Metropolis, it’s a second-division effort.

Nevertheless, it’s worth looking at, if only because it pays homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and to Hitchcock’s film of the novel, both of which are classics of their respective fields.  The book, as I’ve so often said, holds my favorite opening line ever.

The parallels are both inescapable and obvious: a young woman meets a man with a mysterious past, marries him and moves to his mansion, where the deceased former wife is nearly a physical presence.  Both end with the house in flames.

Joan Bennet in Secret Beyond the Door

The major difference, and Secret Beyond the Door‘s major point of interest is that the gothic horror comes from the husband himself, and the question of whether he is or isn’t planning to murder the young woman drives the film forward relentlessly.

Regardless of parallels, this one is an enjoyable thriller which should supply a couple of surprises and keep you on edge until the end.

As a surreal side note, I’ll add a Gilligan’s Island link: actress Natalie Schafer, who played Lovely Howell, is in this one as the young bride’s friend and traveling companion.

And, with the reflection that I never thought I’d be writing about Gilligan’s Island here, we can go on to the next film… soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is not based on Rebecca.  You can have a look here.

An Unexpected Melodrama

In my mind–and I may be completely wrong–melodrama in film has two golden ages.  The first was when Lillian Gish was Hollywood’s biggest star, and the second began when producers realized that you could fill theater seats by slowly killing someone of cancer over the course fo a two-hour feature film.

I always considered the late forties to be the province of late noir and uplifting films about how life can be awesome if you just let it.  There are few important melodramas in the mix.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter from an Unknown Woman is a significant exception to the rule.  A film with a narrative frame using one story to tell another, and then tying them together is a brilliant piece of filmmaking that, in showing a crisis for one character distracts you from knowing about another’s impending problems (don’t want to give spoilers here).

It’s a story of tainted love that isn’t anyone’s fault, of misplaced ideals and of lost innocence… but it catches you by surprise.

In those illness films from the seventies, the masochistic audience always knows that they’re supposed to be suffering.  You watch the character you’ve come to care about die (or lose their love, or lose their child to something horrible) with the same numb sense of stupefaction as a cow being led to slaughter.

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter is a very different kettle of fish.  Unless you already know the plot, the film itself never leads you to think that it’s anything but a period play, possibly an exciting one.  By the time you understand that you’ve been lured into the world of melodrama and that the supposed main character (who actually isn’t) has been changed into an honorable man by the events of the film… the credits are rolling.

It’s an amazing transformation, and I’m glad I’d never heard of this one before watching it.  Yes, the hammer blow at the end falls… but the memory of the film will not be the unfortunate ending but the magical lead-up.  This film deserves its place on the 1001 movies list – Max Ophüls was a genius, and his vision of Vienna in 1900 is a visual feast, even though much of the film takes place at night.

Recommended, but only if you haven’t read the review above (oops).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t really do melodrama.  He does do thrillers, though, and his novel Timeless is a good example.  You can check it out here.

 

An Enjoyable Product of its Time

One of my pet peeves, as readers of this space have probably already noticed, is when modern readers or critics attempt to disparage a classic work because it doesn’t conform to present-day expectations.

Racist.  Sexist.  Colonialist.  They are all words used to attempt to deny masterpieces their rightful place in the canon.  So far, fortunately, this agenda seems to be failing, and one can still enjoy Heart of Darkness, to take an example at random, secure in the knowledge that one is reading a pillar of the twentieth century.

What needs to be clear is that these works are a product of their time, and they need to be enjoyed without our modern prejudices, in much the same way as we read the Greeks or Romans.  If you can do that, you will likely enjoy them quite a bit.

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu - Sax Rohmer

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu is a glorious example of the type of thing I’m talking about.  It centers around one of the fears of nationalistic Europe in the early 1910s: The Yellow Peril, or the possibility that Asia would throw off the chains of empire and attempt to dominate the “civilized” world.

I’d love to see what kind of an effect tossing this one into a modern literature course would have–the fur would fly–but if you can turn off the modernity, it’s a brilliant story, well told.

It tells of the world’s smartest man: an Asian mastermind whose job is to undermine the Western powers so that a shadowy Chinese group can take over the world.  Pretty standard stuff so far.

But Fu Manchu isn’t just a criminal.  He’s a genius and a gentleman who honors his enemies and only kills when he must… even though, as an utter madman, he enjoys it when necessary.  It’s those contradictions which make him frightening and lead to this story, as anachronistic as it is, to remain in print to this very day.  Hollywood also took note and there were a couple of films.

The British heroes are, at all times, conscious of their inferiority, and yet struggle on regardless… perhaps a portrait of their own national characteristics.

I wasn’t familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work, but I liked this one, and will be purchasing more of them.  It’s the perfect antidote for today’s oh-so-offended world… an intentionally exaggerated reminder of what the same people who are now socially conscious used to consume by the truckload.  And a great story to boot.

Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside deals with the problems society will be facing in the near future.  You can have a look here.

 

More Visions

A little over a year ago, I wrote a review of a book called Visions III – Inside the Kuiper Belt.  I’d gone into that one with low expectations, but the book blew them all away.  It’s still one of the best contributor copies I’ve ever read.

Visions VI - Galaxies - Edited by Carrol Fix

Unlike its predecessor, Visions VI – Galaxies had some big expectations to live up to.  I’m happy to report that it succeeded reasonably well.   It’s not as good as Visions III, but then, almost no anthology I’ve read in the past few years is.  What it is, however, is a solid collection of writing about space, with adventure and wonder thrown in for condiment.

In a collection of 13 stories (of which I will only comment on 12 as the final tale was “Cloud Marathon”, written by yours truly), there is only one true clunker – a writer who gets the science very wrong (you need to know what a galaxy is if you’re writing a story about galaxies) and is also preachy.

Other than that, though, this book is full of good stuff.  Everything from way-out satire of SF television (“Space Opera” by Amos Parker is the memorable story that does this) to introspective tales that make you question humanity’s behavior (“Final Contact” by Al Onia), it spans the gamut.

Favorites?  There are a couple.  Bruce C. Davis’ “Old Soldiers” packs a strong emotional punch, while “Unity” by Tom Olbert is pure adventure goodness (this one almost lost me for being a little preachy and PC, but the writing carried the day in the end).  But there are other good ones as well, making this a solid read.

So, another good one in this series.  The good news for you is that there are a total of seven anthos in this series.  The good news for me is that I still have my contributor copy of Visions VII sitting in my pile.  A treat to come.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  For people who like anthologies similar to Visions, he recommends his book Siege.  You can check it out here.