Archive | August, 2011

Best movies by decade: the 1980s (19-26)

31 Aug

The past's future that looks a lot like the present.

19. The Breakfast Club/Blade Runner—Critically, John Hughes is a divisive figure; commercially, he’s a smash. He treats teenage suffering, angst, and longing seriously, and here shows a world of raw, mistreated youth. The villains are the unseen parents and the bullying school teacher. Here he uses a very strong brat pack cast: Emilip Esteves, Molly Ringwold, Judd Nelson, Alley Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall. The film has some weak spots, especially the absurd marijuana dance sequence and some of Judd Nelson’s jokes, but in the aggregate it’s a sterling example of teenage suffering made manifest. Too easily dismissed, but not easily forgotten. Blade Runner—A lot is made of this Ridley Scott film. I’ve always been on the fence. It is a good film, but I’m not sure it’s great, partially because I’m so fond of the novel. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a detective who hunts replicants, robots that appear to be human, so lifelike that they often themselves don’t know they are fakes. The future looks a lot like the present, only with more pollution, noise, distraction. Ford is at his best when he plays arch, unemotional characters, and here he gets to fumble through the most existential of plots. As he hunts down the rogue replicants, he begins to suspect his own humanity, as well as the humanity of the entire human race. It’s an up and down movie, but when it’s up, it dazzles.

 

An exercise in occult absurdity, but also funny.

20. Ghostbusters/Amadeus/The Empire Strikes Back—No purer expression of the silliness of pure cinema. A great, comedic cast (although some of the humor hasn’t dated well): Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis and Annie Potts. The story follows supernatural detectives, of a sort, as they begin their business of capturing and storing ghouls and ghosts. A movie with few ideas, but fun, fun, fun. Amadeus: The legend of Mozart, the angelic composer and rakish man, as filtered through the mad excess of the 1980s. A very fine, very interesting play is adapted to the screen by Milos Forman and the author of the play, Peter Shaffer, with interesting, if at times mixed, results. The music is great, and F. Murray Abraham, who sometimes is prone to overacting, does a fine job as the jealous, insecure Salieri. Tom Dulce is problematic as Mozart; he lacks the gravitas the role requires. The play only works if behind the youthful chatter there’s a great, probing mind at work. I like this film, but I’m not sure it’s going to stand the test of time. The Empire Strikes Back: The story goes that when George Lucas saw a rough cut of the second Star Wars movie, directed by Irving Kushner, he said, “He’s ruined my movies.” Of course, he’s wrong. The second film is stranger, more mythic, and more personal than the all of the others, and the final action scene is the best scene in the entire long-winded cycle. The movie is torn between a half-hearted Buddhist mysticism and a brutal sense of existential hopelessness. The entire film is essentially the brutal extermination of the rebel forces, where mid-level officers chase our heroes from one end of the galaxy to the other. The result is a blockbuster with a chilling, morose center.

 

The Dark Crystal—inspired, puppeteered madness.

21. Blues Brothers/The Dark Crystal—John Landis’s follow-up to Animal House is a larger, bigger spectacle. The basic conceit is Belushi and Akroyd’s deadpan shtick in contrast to the thigh slapping verve of those great soul song and dance numbers, and a placid disassociation with the absurd chaos that surrounds them. There are amazing scenes: James Brown as a reverend; Aretha Franklin as a fed up waitress; the car chase along I-90 and the final blues show. The film has some problems, mainly an outsized reputation based on the individual pieces as opposed as the sum of the parts. But when it works, it’s a hell of a viewing. The Dark Crystal: Jim Henson’s artistic statement about good, evil, and the therefore unseen power of puppeteering. It’s a kid’s movie with ideas. A small, dwarfish creature named Jen, believing himself to be the last of the Gelflings, finds himself caught in a longstanding conflict between the peaceful, agrarian Mystics, and the violent, bird-like Skeksis. Jen journeys across a dangerous, surreal landscape, where he hopes to save the world and perhaps fall in love. It’s a fantastic little movie, better than most fantasies, the otherworldliness of the plot amplified by the strange puppets and plot.

A movie as charming, and cloying, as Matthew Broderick singing in the shower.

 

22. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off/Biloxi Blues—A great movie about the inevitable clash between the old and the young. Matthew Broderick offers a stellar performance as the titular character, a know-it-all wiseguy who is too clever for the adults to understand. He’s decided to take his final day off from high school, taking his girlfriend and best friend along for the ride, and he wants to end his childhood with a bang. Ferris’s flaws are the movie’s flaws. Both are smug, self-involved and too cute. But Ferris’s virtues are the movie’s virtues. Both are charming, funny and intriguing. Biloxi Blues: Mike Nichols’s gift, or one of them anyway, is to make things look easy. Here he adapts Neil Simon’s play about his stint in the army, utilizing Matthew Broderick as Simon’s stand-in. The film follows Broderick as navigates the various personalities of basic training, and his conflict with his drill sergeant, played with laid back brio by Christopher Walken, in what is probably his finest performance. Walken balances his tendency to undercut his films with a smirking irony with a believable, compelling character. One of those movies you can watch over and over.

 

Space laser opera as refracted through the dream logic of David Lynch.

23. Dirty Dancing/Dune—A very fine film about first loves, growing up, and the days before the huge cultural shift of the 1960s. Jennifer Gray is very good as Baby, a well-meaning but sheltered girl from a middle class background. She and her family spend the summer at a family camp retreat, where she becomes infatuated with local dance instructor and absurd hottie Johnny, played by Patrick Swayze. The film offers it’s ideas in subtle, half-concealed flashes—the illegal abortion; the Ayn Rand acolyte; the well-meaning liberal who wants to go on a freedom ride but can’t see the meanness he dishes out to his own staff—and the result is a rare thing: kids see one movie, adults see another. This is a very difficult thing to do, and speaks to the film’s timelessness and popularity. Dune: An underrated blast of science fiction weirdness. David Lynch corrals, and ultimately harnesses, the unwieldiness of Frank Herbert’s epic novel. In the far future, multiple royal houses fight for control of the spice trade. The spice is a drug that allows a specialized guild to fold time and allow for faster than light space travel. The spice is mined from enormous worms that slide and burrow through the desert planet’s vast sandy surface. A large cast of characters war against each other with intrigue, assassins, and outright warfare, all through an idiosyncratic lens of a ritualized, arcane society. The sets, costumes and treatment are simply fantastic. Naysayers should give this film another look.

 

Yes, that's a snake tattoo rising out of his pants. John Carpenter was never subtle.

24. Escape from New York/Batman—John Carpenter had an incredible B-movie run, including Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Starman, Christine and Big Trouble in Little China, a body of low-budget work that is brutish, nasty, unsentimental, and unparalleled. (Excepting Samuel Fuller, of course.) He deals with the dark, with murderers, ghouls and casual dismemberment. He is not subtle. He is not kind or nice. He had missteps, and his later films are miserable. But in his early career, he is a grand raconteur of the dead and the dying. His movies are often stuffed with ideas. His worldview can be summed up in a few words: the universe is cruel, capricious and violent, full of sucking black stars and dark matter; the human body is frail; and death can come at any time, and it is meaningless. In New York, the island of Manhattan is taken to the logical conclusion of the 1970s crime spree films and turned into the nation’s penal colony. When the president crashes into the island, one man is sent inside to bring him out. Co-stars B-movie experts Lee Van Clief, Harry Dean Stanton and Donald Pleasance. Batman: The 1980s were a great time of grandiose pop posturing. Tim Burton’s stagey, loopy take on the Batman mythology is dark and twisted, and although badly dated and outshined by the recent films, an intriguing take with a dazzling performance by Jack Nicholson as the Joker. He plays it as a murderous, baffling clown, a very literal interpretation that works. His overblown performance steals the movie away from everyone, including Burton, who at times seems a bit lost amidst the jagged sets and smog and rain machines. Still, appropriately grim.

 

An epic characters study of an American communist.

25. Reds/Parenthood/Peewee’s Big Adventure—Warren Beatty’s distills the visual style of Woody Allen, the narrative pacing of Coppola and the social engagement of Elia Kazan. into an epic character study of infamous American communist, John Reed. The film is patient, warm, suitably outraged and honest. Beatty’s acting skills were always meager; he picked good directors and didn’t work much, and the result is a body of work that is impressive, considering his wooden, flat delivery. But, watching this film, which is too long but very fine, it’s clear that Beatty could have been a very fine director.  Parenthood: A suburban take on Hannah and Her Sisters, a comedic romp through the tough challenges of adulthood and parenting. The cast is excellent, especially Diane Wiest, Jason Robards, Rick Moranis, and Steve Martin. Martin and Moranis especially let down their comedic defense shields and show a hard cherry pit of humanity. Look at Martin’s performance in particular; he could have been a very intriguing dramatic actor. This is a very fine movie, funny and touching without being corny. Peewee’s Big Adventure: Who knew that Pee Wee Herman, Paul Reubens’s arrested man child, was such a prescient creation? We can see traces of Pee Wee’s refusal to grow up, compromise, or accept the hard realities of the world in all of our schlubby, fat and soft characters peopling every comedy released. This is a funky little film, a road movie following the ultimate house-bound nerd. Time rests uneasily on this relic of a former age, but there’s something

 

The Running Man: violent, silly, prescient.

26. The Running Man/Raising Arizona—Sometimes it’s the cheesy movies that get so much right. Schwarzenegger had a big-money decade in the 1980s, turning his hard body and weak grasp of English into an improbable blockbuster machine. The films are dated; the blasé violence, from a distance of over 20 years, now seems vicious and nasty; the jokes are terrible; and the acting is, across the board, mediocre. But his body of work does hold little gems, including Predator, Terminator, Total Recall, and later, True Lies. Running Man is a very fine little satire that prefigures the reality TV craze. Schwarzenegger plays a policeman in a totalitarian state who has been falsely accused of committing a massacre. His only way out of a life sentence is to participate in a game show where felons must duel with all-star murderers who hunt them down through a series of combat spaces, all for the delight of the viewing public. Raising Arizona: Inspired lunacy. Nicholas Cage, who when contained by a great director is a very fine actor, plays a dumb as hell thief married to a barren cop. They decide to steal a child from a wealthy family of septuplets. The wealthy father hires a mercenary to track them down, while Cage’s former criminal partners appear to make life difficult for the struggling couple. It’s a Warner Brothers’ cartoon writ large, a slapstick onslaught of stylized violence at a breakneck pace. At any dozen moments the film could have fallen apart, but it doesn’t, and it is this recklessness that gives the movie such machine gun energy.

Honorable mention: The Long Good Friday; The Outsiders; Poltergeist; Highlander; Paris, Texas; Hoosiers; Labyrinth; Class of 1984; Scarface; The Last Temptation of Christ; Chariots of Fire

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The best movies by decade: The 1980s (11-18)

29 Aug

Philippe Noiret and Isabella Huppert in Bernard Tavernier's Coup De Torchon.

11. Dead Poet’s Society/Coup De Torchon/The Naked Gun—A great movie about being young, and the danger of charismatic mentors. This film holds two stories, and two lessons simultaneously: students being inspired by a great teacher, and students being ruined by an arrogant egotist. The young (or optimists) see it one way, the old (or cynics) see it the other. It is this dissonance that makes this a timeless, moving work. Peter Weir is a fantastic filmmaker. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, even The Mosquito Coast are all intriguing, haunting films, but here, utilizing the tropes of the boarding school story, he crafts a film that is both a celebration of teaching, individualism, life and poetry, as well as a condemnation of living a life without consequences. Coup De Torchon: A great adaptation of a very fine Jim Thompson novel. Moving the action from the American South to French colonies in Africa, the film follows Lucien, a dim-witted cuckold who is tolerated by the townspeople and his superiors because he is so laughably dull. But beneath the banal veneer is a vengeful intelligence who hides his violent urges behind slack features and sad eyes. The sick values of the colonizing French are laid bare, as are the petty, self-destructive vices of small town people. A great original score and a scoured, godforsaken landscape provide the backdrop. Not to be missed. Naked Gun: One of the silliest, dumbest comedies ever made, yet it’s also one of the funniest. It’s all because of Leslie Nielson, who attacks the character and material with class, brio, and panache. He plays officer Frank Dreben, a loveable fool who punches, shoots, insults and kicks his way through a world too complicated for his simple mind to understand. He’s a parody of Dirty Harry, an aged Clint Eastwood without the looks or the brains.

 

A fantastic, pulpy as hell jaunt through a vicious boy's reformatory.

12. Bad Boys/Diner/The Karate Kid—A guilty pleasure that is also a great film. Sean Penn plays a rough and tumble juvenile who is sent to a detention center after accidentally killing a child. The center is run by two baddies who intimidate anyone who doesn’t do things their way. His rise through the ranks, through guile, fearlessness and a pillowcase full of soda cans is a harrowing journey through adolescent hell. When his nemesis, played by Esai Morales, enters the center, it’s only a matter of time before the two face off in a duel to the death. A pulpy, low-brow classic of blank-faced adults facing violent, amoral children. Astonishing. Diner: Barry Levinson’s first film follows a group of mid-twenties characters as they move through a weekend of Baltimore nights. There are multiple stories, such as Mickey Roarke’s debt to a local gangster, but the movie’s pleasures lie in the scenes of casual hanging out, mostly between the males at the diner. It’s a rambling, funny and melancholy little movie, and the best film Levinson ever made. A superb ensemble cast. The Karate Kid: A great movie about a friendship between two damaged souls. Pat Morita plays a Japanese expatriate suffering through a lonely existence on the petroleum-damaged shores of West Coast America. Ralph Macchio plays a hardened boy picked on by local karate hoodlums. They both deliver sensitive, intriguing performances, and the unfolding of their improbable friendship is fascinating. The movie does some interesting things, including a sly ramping up of bullying, making the villains seem both realistic yet terrifying. The essential figure in the film is John Kreese, the unscrupulous leader of the mean-spirited dojo where the bullies have learned their ass-kicking trade. He’s a careful counterbalance to Morita’s patient, non-violent training. This is the impact of bad teaching and cruel adults.

 

Ran: A very Japanese take on Shakespeare.

13. Ran/The Road Warrior/Raiders of the Lost Ark—Kurosawa’s stately reimagining of King Lear to feudal Japan is a great example of an east meets west high brow mashup. Many of his familiars are here, following a foolish king who divides his kingdom between two unworthy heirs, leaving out the child who really loves him. It’s all wide shots and long takes, a taxing pace compared to most movies, but beneath the placidity there’s a raging ball of fire. Once the movie heats up, the whole world breaks open. The Road Warrior: One of the rare instances of a sequel that is superior to its predecessor. Mad Max returns here in this Australian B-movie epic about a small band of survivors attempting to hold on to civilization while besieged by the madness of the fallen world. They are the remnants of a once-great civilization locked in a war to the death with a band of homosexual, transgressive, amoral cannibals. It’s silly, yet magnificent. Raiders of the Lost Ark: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg combine to create an homage to the pulp comic heroes of their youth. The results are implausibly fantastic; Indiana Jones—archeologist extraordinaire—shoots, punches, whips, bikes, rides and slides through a trans-global romp in search of the Ark of the Covenant. He’s racing a deranged gaggle of Nazis, and a villainous nemesis in the field. The film charges along with the speed and power of a locomotive, and for sheer entertainment, it’s unrivaled in its artifice.

 

After Hours: A long night's journey into day.

14. After Hours/King of Comedy—Scorsese really shines in his little oddball side projects. After Hours is the story of one man’s attempts to make it home on a really strange night. The obstacles keeping from his home are myriad, both real and psychological, and New York has never looked so confounding and otherworldly than it does here. It’s funny, scary, unpredictable and weird. And it feels like something cosmic is at stake, this little man’s nightmarish ordeal. Black humor at its finest. King of Comedy: De Niro and Scorsese team up again, this time with a comedy. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a lonely, introverted talentless little man, obsessed with becoming famous. The vehicle for his passage towards fame is talk show host Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lee Lewis, giving a peek at the tough, stern-faced (and bitter) man behind the manic mask. De Niro is marvelous and has a knack for comedy. It’s a very funny, cynical and discomfiting little film, a precursor to the awkward comedies of the 2000s.

 

A bloody little crime film, and arguably the Coen Brothers' best.

15. Blood Simple/Mona Lisa—The Coen brothers first film is anything but simple. They take a standard crime story, basically a riff on The Postman Always Rings Twice, and infuse it with macabre humor, random chance, and idiosyncratic filmmaking. It’s a landmark film, the entrance of the Coen Brothers to the world of movies, and a very fine child of the 1940s noir movies. Mona Lisa: A British take on the American crime movie. Bob Hoskins plays an unlucky tough guy who is hired by a call girl to protect her in this British take on Taxi Driver, only with a redemptive streak. Hoskins emerged in the 1980s as a snarling dwarfish presence. He’s a fierce actor, when handled properly, and with this and The Long Good Friday, he seemed poised to become a new Richard Widmark or Robert De Niro. It never quite happened; instead he’s become a reliable character actor with predilections towards cartoonish overacting. Still, here he delivers a frightening but fragile performance of a violent man who feels every little betrayal in the cockles of his enlarged heart. There’s menace, gunfights and underworld aplenty, held together by Hoskins’s surly snarl.

 

A bloody romp through ancient history, as man redefines his relationship to the gods.

16. Pixote/Conan the Barbarian/Beverly Hills Cop—A gritty vision of raw youth. Street children in Brazil, at the mercy of thugs, police, predatory adults, attempt to survive in the brutal shantytowns. The movie follows half a dozen characters through a few months of their homelessness. It’s a subterranean tour of a hopeless, pathetic world, but with bright moments of virtuosic filmmaking. A wonderful but grueling precursor to City of God. Conan the Barbarian: Better than you remember, and almost superb. Oliver Stone and John Milius wrote the script, with Milius directing. They harness the rough physicality of Schwarzenegger (and limited English and wooden delivery) by giving him only a handful of lines. A lot of films have attempted to capture the amoral, animalistic horror of pre-recorded history, but I would argue that this movie does it better than the rest. Conan is an orphaned warchild forced into slavery, fighting his way to freedom as an unnamed pit warrior.  He then wanders the world. Max Von Sydow plays an aging Viking king who hired Conan to save his daughter from a snake cult. James Earl Jones adds class and depth as the leader of the cult. The movie would be perfect, really, except for a silly, unnecessary scene with a succubus that is just lame. Still, the final climax is harrowing stuff, and Conan’s prayer to a god he doesn’t believe in is a touching testament to man’s relationship to the gods. Beverly Hills Cop: Eddie Murphy was, for a long time, a potent force in pop culture. He made a number of very good films—Trading Places, Coming to America, and 48 Hours—that were funny, engaging, well made. This is probably his best movie, where he gets to play a tough and funny detective from Detroit, looking for a murderer in the sunny inanity of Los Angeles. The supporting cast is strong, the story works, and Murphy has some great lines. Overall the movie has dated well, and has a touch of the classic. The problem with Murphy is his refusal to reveal the darkness he has inside. He could have been a very good dramatic actor, and his comedies would have benefited from a bit more honesty from his performances. He is dark; look in his eyes during his scenes, when he isn’t being funny. There’s a world of weird menace in there, and like Jerry Lewis before him, he seems incapable of letting it out. As he ages—and this is the problem with all of our funny, manic actors—he seems to be stuck in a mobius strip of his previous performances.

 

Tim Roth as a vicious neo Nazi thug in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain.

17. Made in Britain/The Hit—Alan Clarke is a tough as nails British director. His films lack much of the window dressing that accompanies most movies. They don’t have clear character arcs, plots, or even arguments. Instead they are a study of social problems through intense, well-shot scenes. Scum, his take on the British juvenile reformatory system, watches like a swift forehand to the throat. Here, he has Tim Roth playing a vicious, bullying racist who despises the juvenile system attempting to rehabilitate him. He is smart, charismatic, and clever, but also violent, unpredictable and mean. He hates those who wish him well, and betrays every small kindness offered to him. The resulting movie follows Roth through five or six scenes, each ending with Roth’s snarling, irredeemable rage. The Hit: Essentially a play with four characters, and a movie that is both artful and commercial at the same time. Terence Stamp is an informant, mellowed out on stoicism and too many drugs, whose luck has run out. Two hitmen, played by John Hurt and Tim Roth, are taking him across Europe to kill him near the bosses he betrayed. It’s a road movie and a thriller, but Stamp’s blessed out weirdness, his refusal to fight, gives the movie a ghostly charm. And John Hurt, a wonderfully bizarre character actor, here gives a great and strange performance.

 

Bertolucci's ravishing, meditative story of the last emperor of China.

18. The Last Emperor/Breaker Morant—The 1970s and 1980s heir apparent to the Italian cinematic tradition, Bertolucci makes big, operatic films. 1900, for instance, runs over 5 hours long in the full version. (The short version is useless) He’s a flawed filmmaker, prone to moralizing, loose with the English dubbing, and too easily distracted. He’s overrated, too; Last Tango in Paris is an interesting film, as is The Conformist, but they lack something meaty, something human, and have dated badly. Emperor follows the career of the last emperor of China, from his ascendancy as a three year old to his life as an ordinary citizen. It is a beautiful and powerful piece of work, suitably grandiose, although one viewing with swear you off of Bertolucci for decades. Breaker Morant—So many films from Australia are great, and here’s another one. An updated telling of Paths of Glory, here a group of soldiers in the Boer War are charged with war crimes. They’ve executed some Boer prisoners under orders, and now the powers that be use them as deranged lone wolf scapegoats. (Sounds familiar.) It’s an austere, powerful piece of filmmaking, and alongside Gallipoli illustrates the ease with which commanding officers can throw away human lives.

The best movies by decade: The 1980s (1-10)

28 Aug

The white powder decade began with a blast. Disco exploded into punk, hardcore, and heavy metal, while the Cold War was losing its chill. Our society was stratifying. The personal computer—once a trope of science fiction—moved from a rarity to commonplace in less than a decade. The cyberpunk notion of worlds within worlds became manifest with the early saplings of interconnected hard drives. A new terminology appeared.

End of the world anxieties surfaced: population pressures, nuclear annihilation, comets run amok and the world itself gone mad with dwindling resources and droughts. Inflation, terrorists, oil scares, it was a time of great escalating violence, brooding eschatology.

Life felt scripted; we were living in a film (and not a very good one, either). To complete the invasion of fiction into real life, a Hollywood studio actor moved into the white house.

Filmwise, any decade would look shabby against the personal, idiosyncratic 1970s. That decade had delivered a generation of visionary filmmakers, serious film nerds dedicated to the medium. The movies focused on the fringe, outsiders being scrubbed and peroxided by a noxious American conformity. What is Travis Bickle, really, other than another rebel forced to confront the limitations of his rebellion? But if the 1970s punished its rebels, the 1980s rewarded them with accolades, riches, notoriety, and absurd body counts. Bickle kills exactly three people; John Matrix, in Commando, kills close to a thousand. Look at Die Hard. Look at Lethal Weapon. Bodies everywhere, and no real accountability. Celluloid life and death became cheap.

The 1980s eased up. Films moved away from social engagement. That dirty realism—that was engaged but never very realistic, really—fell out of favor. The overall tone lightened, although the dark movies resounded with a vicious bleakness that eclipsed all that had come before. It was a decade of visual excess; onscreen violence ramped up to industrial kill ’em all efficiency. There were no musicals, few westerns. The films vacillated between an unbearably light touch (today some feel as substantial as a twinkie) and a hard, excessively punishing vibe.

The big story of the 1980s was the shift towards youth. Blame it on money. The cartoon/cereal/cheap toy/fast food machine reached its grubby hands into cinema. Teenagers and adolescents had susceptible tastes, free time and their parents’ money. They became the market, and we’ve been living with this shift ever since.

But as these were the first movies of this type, they are unself-conscious and in their way, groundbreaking. They had few antecedents; the results, when they work, are fascinating.

Dean Stockwell steals the show in the best film of the 1980s.

1. Blue Velvet/Goodfellas—A beautiful, funny, grotesque, horrifying nightmare of a movie, which vacillates between extremes of human behavior. Home from college, Kyle McClaughlin, upset over his father’s failing health, finds an ear in a field near his house. He reports the ear to the police, and is slowly pulled into an investigation that involves his girlfriend (Laura Dern) a haunted lounge singer (Isabelle Rossellini) and a deranged madman roaming the town at night (a ferocious Dennis Hopper). The movie shifts from harsh realism to dream logic, often within seconds. MacLachlan, Dern, Rossellini and Hopper are all excellent, but the supporting cast of Dean Stockwell and Brad Dourif are superb. Stockwell’s lip synch of Roy Orbison is unparalleled; it’s scary, funny, alienating yet almost wholesome. Goodfellas: It’s tough to say anything new about the best edited, planned, and put-together film ever made. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco and Ray Liotta yell, drink, punch, kick, shoot and stab their way through three decades of mobbed up New York life. The movie streaks along with an intense visual and aural power. It’s images, music, beatings and dinners and shooting and cards and violence, a stunning collage of brutal pop music fantasia. The effect is a powerful study of restless men in the crime trade, but also a disturbing example of grand technique masking a lack of moral inquiry.

 

Portrait of the Jewish gangsters as young men.

2. Once Upon a Time in America/The Shining—The Jewish had their mafia, too, and Sergio Leone explores their rise, might and impact in this fantastic, and fantastically underrated, mobster epic. Sergio Leone spent years adapting the source novel, and then years more filming, editing, fiddling. The result is a hard sell: over three hours of non-linear storytelling, with a main character who is suspicious, quiet, and sexually aggressive. The film fell on hard times immediately, butchered by its U.S. distributor. The U.S. release was cut down to two hours, and put in chronological order. It’s a shame, because the long version is splendid. The hard-scrabble Jewish boys in the ghetto, forming up their own little gang, is some of the best stuff cinema ever produced. Ennio Morricone gives the best score of his career—and this is saying a lot. The Shining: One of the greatest horror movies of all time begins as a formal exercise in arch aesthetics. Jack Nicholson and his wife and son move to a mountain hotel to keep watch over it while it’s shut down for the winter. The isolation wears on each of them, as do the ghosts of dead people who keep popping up in their waking nightmares. The hotel carpets, the walls, the rooms, the air—you can smell the place while you’re watching it—the aggregate is an oppressive immersion into a psychological space that feels real.

 

Woody Allen apes Fellini to great effect in Stardust Memories.

3. Crimes and Misdemeanors/Hannah and Her Sisters/Stardust Memories— Perhaps Woody Allen’s best film, a thrilling drama and a hilarious comedy connected by shared characters, Crimes and Misdemeanors benefits from a great cast and a probing script that doesn’t stray from Allen’s major obsessions: we are living in an abandoned world; man must make his own moral decisions; whatever meaning we ascribe to life is put there by us. There are two stories. The first follows a wealthy, philanthropic doctor (Martin Landau) who has ensnared himself in a foolish affair. His angry mistress (Angelica Huston) threatens to reveal all to his family if he doesn’t get a divorce. The second story follows a documentary filmmaker hired to make a movie about his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a man he despises. There are a number of other characters in what is perhaps Allen’s best film. Landau is superb, and Huston is so aggressively obnoxious, it feels like Allen is tempting the audience to desire her demise. Hannah: Just a great film, easy and comforting. Woody Allen’s most ensemble piece of filmmaking—there are over ten characters—follows a family of women and the men who cheat, abuse, lie and neglect them. Woody Allen plays a neurotic who turns to various religions when he’s confronted with his imminent demise. Funny, but with a streak of melancholy ten miles wide. Stardust: Woody Allen mimics Fellini, and the results are spectacular. He plays a filmmaker facing a series of professional and personal crises. The movie looks like a sequel to 8 1/2 , and the film’s raw, primal power offers a vicious counterpoint to the funny and gentle comedies of some of Allen’s other films.

 

One very hot day in the mean streets of Brooklyn.

4. Do the Right Thing/The Verdict—Spike Lee’s best film, where his personal politics, filmmaking skill, and urban aesthetics (on-location shooting, hip hop soundtrack, and diverse, multi-ethnic cast) all combine in a compelling story of race, music, history and culture on an impossibly hot day in the racial incubator of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Lee plays Mookie, a young man struggling with his relationship and his unfulfilling job at an Italian pizza joint, owned by Sal, played by Danny Aiello. Aiello’s sons embody the complicated relationship to their neighborhood: Pino (John Turturro) detests the place, while Vito feels like it’s his home. Two dozen or so characters wander through the increasingly volatile day, culminating in a murder and race riot. It’s a grim, uncompromising film, punctuated by humor, great music and fantastic performances. Just look at the cast: Ossie Davis, Samuel Jackson, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, Bill Nunn, and even Martin Lawrence. A great New York film. The Verdict: A nail-biting drama about ethics, middle-age, and morality. Paul Newman plays a washed up drunk, an unscrupulous, untidy and not very smart lawyer who discovers a deep, abiding morality in what might be his last case. He is hired to settle a wrongful death suit, against a large Catholic hospital. His client isn’t dead, just comatose without a hope of awakening. His client’s family wants the settlement money to start over. The diocese offers him a settlement, but he refuses. And the white-knuckle legal work begins. It’s a very fine film, dramatic, intense, unpredictable, and Paul Newman’s performance is unforgettable.

 

Cinema's wildest man lost in the wilderness.

5. The Mission/Fitzcarraldo— One of the only films to realistically deal with religious faith without sarcasm or scorn. Jeremy Irons stars as a Jesuit priest in South America, working with a local tribe to build houses, develop agriculture, and promote beautiful music. The Ennio Morricone score is astonishing, as are the lush on-location shots of waterfalls, verdant forests and tribal villages. Irons and his indigenous peoples achieve a type of working utopia, but trouble comes from the old world. The Spanish cede the territory to the Portuguese, who crave the land where the tribes live. Robert De Niro plays a slaver, who slowly converts to the peaceful Jesuit point of view, only to be pulled back to the violent life by the double-dealing Portuguese. A somber but very fine film, with moments of exquisite beauty. Fitzcarraldo: Werner Herzog’s almost doomed journey into the Amazon is the story of a failed dreamer whose biggest ambition is to build an opera house in the Amazon. It’s a great counterpoint to the calm beauty of The Mission; the wild here is unknowable, unpredictable, and dangerous. The backstory of the film strains belief; Kinski was so obnoxious, he blew off an extra’s thumb with a rifle, and his onset tirades were so inflammatory that, supposedly, the tribal people offered to kill him for Herzog. Herzog’s raw, half-crazed filmmaking—he’s essentially a gonzo filmmaker—is put to great use here in what is the best of the Kinski-Herzog films.

While we're watching the television, it's also watching us.

 

6. Videodrome/Raging Bull—Still beautiful, still titillating, still shocking. James Woods plays a sleazy television producer who one day stumbles across a low quality show that appears to be a woman being tortured. He investigates, and slowly enters a world where he can’t tell where reality ends and television begins. Twisted, unnerving, beautiful: the arrival of David Cronenburg as a great director of ideas. Cronenburg’s revulsion/fascination with bodily functions is on full display, and his insistence, even now, on making high brow B-movies is the thing that has set him apart from the pack his whole career. It would take years, really beginning with Dead Ringers, for Cronenburg to be accepted as an artist, as opposed to a John Carpenter-esque shocker. (Which, by the by, is a fair analogy; look at The Brood or The Fly to see how his career could have gone.) Raging Bull: A movie that gets so much right, but some things wrong, with an outsized reputation resting on a great performance and three or four incredible scenes. Until The Fighter, it was probably the best boxing movie ever made, but it suffers from at times glacial pacing and a confused moral and narrative point of view. As time passes it becomes less and less clear what Scorsese’s argument is; he seems to be saying that redemption comes in odd forms, that we all deserve forgiveness, but I can’t be sure—do we all, really?—and I don’t think he is either.

 

Bruno Ganz as a melancholy angel, helping absorb the misery of the world.

7. Wings of Desire/The Lost Boys—Wim Wenders teamed up with Peter Handke to produce a wonderful, shimmering film about earthbound angels, who’s sole purpose is to observe, absorb, and sublimate the suffering of their mortal wards. They live in a black and white universe, devoid of feelings, and they don’t interfere. Bruno Ganz plays an angel who falls in love with a circus performer. His great love leads to his becoming human, which gives the film its emotional core and also the scaffolding of its tragedy. The real coup, and source of delight, is Peter Falk, who plays himself, an actor on the set of an East German production. A complex, wonderful, life-affirming film. The Lost Boys—The best thing Joel Schumacher ever did, connecting the vampire myth to youth culture. A divorced mom and her two sons move to a seedy West Coast city. They discover a disturbing city infested with vampires. The vampires are, in essence, teenagers. They want to sleep all day, romp all night, and do whatever they please in their super-strong bodies. They scare the adults and prey on the children. It’s a brilliant concept, the best take on vampires since Bram Stoker, and the results are thrilling, fun, and at times even elegant. An antsy, timeless little fairy tale.

 

Michael Douglass as Gordon Gecko, the scourge of Wallstreet.

8. Wallstreet/Platoon—For a brief moment, Oliver Stone was a great director; it didn’t last long. With Platoon and Wallstreet, he made two of the best movies of the 1980s (and Salvador was an interesting, highly watchable failure). Wallstreet follows a young Charlie Sheen, being seduced into the world of high finance by Gordon Gecko, played with a reckless gusto by Michael Douglas. It’s a fast film, staccato dialogue and lots of plot, but the essential story is the journey of Sheen from son of a working class union man to adopted child of Gecko, scion of financial power. Stone’s career offers a fascinating glimpse into how talent and ambition can go wrong. His later films all possess good ideas, but he lacks the coherence to hold the camera still and observe. Platoon is, besides Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and to a lesser extent Full Metal Jacket, the best film about Vietnam. Stone draws upon his own experiences, delivering a searing, personal, and disturbing view of the war on the ground, utilizing a fine cast and great music. It is a troubling film, with its cutthroat themes of loss of innocence and survival, but the film feels so close to the action, so honest and right.

 

Inspired, comedic madness.

9. Back to the Future/The Terminator—Michael J. Fox is underrated in this very fine movie about time travel, first loves, and taking control of your destiny. Writer Bob Gale stashes all manner of time travel paradoxes in his trilogy of movies, echoing the eternal return of the hero’s quest; in each film, the same scenes keep playing out, in the same way. It’s an ambitious message, and a damned torpedo to the notion of free will. It’s only in the final minutes of the last film does he drop the notion and allow for personal growth. The Terminator: Time travel of a different type. James Cameron’s B-movie science fiction film does something spectacular and new; the action is set before the apocalypse, allowing the action to have a moral weight, with the added bonus of saving millions of dollars on sets, costumes and design. The story is simple: self-aware machines in the future, determined to wipe out their fleshy human creators, send a killing robot back in time to kill the leader of humankind. The adult leader of the humans sends a human emissary to save his former self. It’s a powerful piece of pop sci fi nonsense that prefigures the prophets of singularity that swear of self-aware machines in our lifetime.

 

Creepy, dystopian vision from the puckish Terry Gilliam.

10. Brazil/Time Bandits—Terry Gilliam’s anarchist paean to the end of freedom and free will. A bean counter (Jonathan Price) in a society over-crowded, over-controlled, and obsessed with nonsensical medical treatments, discovers a clerical error that ruins a poor schmuck’s life. He tries to rectify the error, and runs into a terrorist group intent on overthrowing the bloated government that hides behind a society of capitalism and consumption. Gilliam is the Puckish figure of American cinema, a grand prankster, irascibly talented but distractible, undisciplined and prone to too much weirdness. Still, despite a career littered with false starts and discarded projects, he’s produced a substantial body of work, linked with childlike wonder of the atrocious nature of humankind. This is considered his best, although the much-maligned The Adventures of Baron Munchaussen wears the passing years well, and 12 Monkeys is a minor masterpiece. Time Bandits: A cosmic adventure story linked by comic scenes of history, dream, and unbounded imagination. A lonely boy takes up time travel with a group of lusty, untrustworthy pirates, all little people armed with pilfered weapons from up and down humanity’s timeline. They are looking for a map of the universe, pursued by pure evil. Gilliam makes little effort to qualify or explain his conjurings; later, in The Fisher King, he would attempt to meld his quirky view of the world to the insane ramblings of the city’s homeless, giving some half-hearted social commentary. I like him better here; there’s no need to explain the deranged nature of the world. Not for everyone, but for those so inclined, a unique rumpus of a romp.

The music of my life and my life in music

15 Aug

1.

With music—as well as movies, books, clothes, jobs and relationships, too—you’re either moving forward or you’re dying.

At 12, I was a classic rock man. I listened to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones. Before this I listened to kids’ praise and oldies radio. I did not dance. Favorite tape: “Sgt. Pepper’s.”

At 13, I listened to power pop and hair metal: Warrant, Def Leppard, Skid Row, AC DC and Metallica. I did not dance, but I sang a lot. Favorite tape: “Skid Row.”

At 13 ½, I moved into progressive rock: U2, REM, the Las, Jellyfish. I did not dance, but I believed in the basic decency of other people. Favorite tape: “War.”

At 14, I glommed onto the slacker rock/alternative stuff. I listened to Pavement and Dinosaur Jr., Jane’s Addiction and the Lemonheads, before I was steamrolled like everyone else by Grunge: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains and for the cognoscenti, Mother Love Bone (the band members of Pearl Jam with a different lead singer, who overdosed on heroin and died). I did not dance, but I wore baggy pants and wondered about narcotics. Favorite tape: “Ritual de lo Habitual” and “Slanted and Enchanted.”

At 15, a meteor struck; I got into punk. Skate punk first—NOFX and Lagwagon and Pennywise—and then Christian punk and pop punk, with some fun time excursions into Ska and Rock Steady. And then punk punk: Minor Threat and Bad Brains and the Clash. Favorite tape: “Minor Threat.”

Punk had energy. Punk had ratatat speed. Punk had guts, spit, anger, rebellion. Punk was distaste. Punk was revolution. Punk was the antithesis of gentility and kindness. It was untamed, primal energy. I loved it. I moshed. I became aware of politics. I shaved my head. I didn’t draw big black Xs on my hands, but I considered it.

And, I danced. A lot.

2.

People didn’t dance at shows. They collided. They smashed. They sublimated. It was violent but not mean-spirited. If you fell, people helped you back up.

I was attached to the scene but never part of it. I saw most of the shows at the Nite Owl, a rundown place on Fairfield. The black box of a building rested at the edge of an enormous parking lot. The lot was usually covered in broken beer bottles and gnarly teenagers smoking cheap cigarettes. I didn’t fit in. Neither did my punk friends. Like hipsters, no one save for a few gutter punk kids seemed punk enough. We all wore shirts of our favorite bands, knew the lead singer of the Descendents was smart and the lead singer of Face to Face was strong.

I went to dozens and dozens of shows. It became a habit. The shows were a big part of my social life. The anti-establishment ethos of punk became a big part of my point of view. I didn’t want to vote for the corrupt politicians, didn’t want to wear clothes with labels, didn’t want to own nice things. I wanted to repudiate the nice, genteel lie of middle class suburbia.

Punk inculcates a basic need to destroy. In this way, punk caused and causes its own end.

Punk is bleak. Punk is empty. Punk is self-destructive. Punk is not beautiful. Punk is negation.

Like a virus, tribe or deity, punk hates non-punk. Punk drives out non-punk.

By 20, I hated music. All music. Hated it. Despised it. The only bands I liked were Hot Water Music and the Clash, and these I listened to once every few months. I was angry, confused, introverted, and once again, I did not dance.

I then rediscovered Soul music. Soul is fresh. Soul is sexy. Soul is harmony. Soul is the ghost wail of Wilson Pickett, the heartbreak of Otis Redding, the ear popping splendor of Aretha Franklin.

 

The greatest of the soul singers, Otis Redding.

3.

It was a movie, strangely, that brought soul back into my life. I was 22 years old on a chartered bus in Chicago, and the driver clicked on The Temptations movie. The movie is fantastic, the music better. I went out and bought up David Ruffin, as well as half a dozen Temptations cds.

The music of my childhood was reborn.

Soul returned me to humanity. Through it I rediscovered the pleasures I had denied myself through the harsh asceticism of punk rock: electronica, dance, pop, even some country. It was a kaleidoscope of color, where I had previously viewed everything in black and white. Favorite cd: “Sam Cooke Live at Harlem Square.”

Soul brought me Doo Wop and girl groups. Soul brought me Rhythm and Blues, too. Soul brought me Screaming Jay Hawkins, Mary Wells, James Brown and, well, dancing, too.

 

3.

Perhaps it was the instability of my professional life—trying to make a living as a writer takes fortitude, luck and talent, and I was only in abundant possession of just one of these—or the chaos of the larger world, but my mid-twenties brought me to lighter fare, New Wave music and its progeny: The Cure, the Smiths, The Church, the Talking Heads (technically post-punk, but . . .), The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Beirut and the Postal Service. The emphasis was on good writing and harmony. The music was catchy. The songs were not heavy, but they weren’t slow, either. They drifted along currents of bohemian ennui and underemployed malaise.

Favorite album: a compilation of the Smiths’ greatest hits I put it together i-tunes.

Morissey, the haunting voice of a generation.

4.

A record player revitalized my appreciation for classic rock. I inherited records from Beth’s cousin, her parents, and my parents, and I started re-listening to Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel and so on. I was twelve years old again.

I started listening to new music again, but also reggae and jazz and funk.

Reggae is finding beauty in too much sun. Reggae is punching through the malaise. Reggae is harmonized vocal slang. Desmond Dekker, Ken Boothe, Toots Maytal, and back to the Specials. Favorite record: “More Best of the Specials.”

Jazz is cocaine nights and tawdry red glare. Jazz is the naked city. Jazz is polished brass horns. Jazz is following your ex-lover in the dreary rain. Favorite album: “After Midnight.”

Funk is fun. Funk is Funk is thick, staggering swagger. Funk is sexy. Funk is a radioactive backbeat. Favorite record: “Florida Funk.”

Funk brought me Fela Kuti who brought me afro-beat. Favorite album: “Coffin for Head of State.”

From funk to afro-beat to Country. Rabbit Fur Coat was the hinge.

Country is hard living on the fringe of things. Country is broken hearts and petrochemical horizons. Country is not the end of happiness; country is the acceptance that happiness was always impossible. The Jayhawks, Justin Townes Earle, the Watson Twins. Favorite record: “Fire Songs.”

 

The inimitable Fela Kuti.

5.

And that’s the story of my musical life: Pop to rock to grunge to punk to soul to new wave to rock to jazz to funk to afro-beat to country to a bit of everything.

6.

There’s one more chapter.

When Beth got pregnant, I began listening to orchestral music. It was a need—I hungered for beauty, order, serenity, connection to the past. I prefer the chamber music of Mozart and Bach to the stentorian thunder of Brahms or Beethoven. I dug around for minor composers. Vivaldi and Schubert and Sibelius are my favorites. Orchestral music gives me peace. Strangely, while listening I always imagine troops in the crumbling Hapsburg empire, smoking cigarettes with felt gloves. Listening to the music of men who lived hundreds of years before me attached me to the human comedy in a way that I had—partially because of the ethics of punk rock—avoided.

Favorite movement: Sibelius’s violin concerto.

When Simone was one day old, she listened to her first songs. “Sweet Loraine,” from Nat King Cole and “For Emily,” by Bon Iver. I felt like crying. I listened to music most of the day as friends stopped by, and we wrapped her in cloth blankets, marveling at the munchkin-faced little person sleeping in the bouncy red seat, and the euphoria lasted until midnight, when we had to rush Simone to the hospital.

7.

Simone makes listening to music hard. She’s difficult to please. She turns off the receiver, opens the cd player, and switches the input to radio. She dances baby waltzes to orchestral music, and a two-step jitterbug to dance music.

It’s adorable. But with a baby there’s less time for everything. Outside of family concerns, work takes precedence, then writing, then movies, then graduate school, then comics, and finally music.

My interest in new music has atrophied. The desire isn’t dead, but it’s dying. Perhaps it’s inevitable.

By a wide margin, Simone’s favorite songs are the ringtones from her grandfather’s cell phone and the battery-powered ditties from foreign-made toys.

Bringing up a badass baby: Pete’s Dragon

5 Aug

I just tried to watch Annie Hall with Simone. She didn’t laugh once. Ten minutes in, she dug Pete’s Dragon, one of her favorite movies, out of the library and thrust it in my face.

My younger sister, Suzanne, hates Pete’s Dragon. She loathes it. She despises it. She casts aspersions on its character. She hates it while my older sister Ann and I both like it.

There’s a story here.

But first, the movie.

Pete’s Dragon follows a young orphan runaway whose only friend in the world is a cartoon dragon. The mix of live-action with animation is dated, but it has some interesting things. An aged Mickey Rooney hams it up through a couple of songs, which makes you yearn for the days of Andy Hardy. (I’ve never, ever, ever understood how he was once married to Ava Gardner.) Shelly Winters really lets herself go as a vile bumpkin villainess who lords it over a stable of inbred rednecks. The scenes last too long, the songs are just okay, and most of the acting appears to be filmed on the first take.

 

You wouldn't believe it kid, but my name used to be in lights.

Basically, it ain’t cool by a longshot. But it’s also fascinating. It has all of these old Hollywood actors, including character actor Charles Tyner, out to pasture. Red Buttons has a few lines. Helen Reddy wears some awesome high-waisted pants.

Musicals were the only movie genre my parents could agree on, so we watched them a lot growing up. They were (on the surface anyway) wholesome, we could sing along with the songs while my parents could also enjoy the stories. I’ve seen a lot.

There are cool musicals that are also good (Singin’ In the Rain; The Bandwagon; Nashville to name a few) and good musicals that are kind of square (Fiddler on the Roof; Top Hat; Holiday Inn; 1776) and important musicals that are neither good nor cool (best example being On the Town, although Dreamgirls qualifies, too).

Pete’s Dragon doesn’t really fit in with any of the above categories. It’s too long; the dragon’s unintelligible speeches are frustrating; the hokey jokes are on the whole awful. You keep waiting for a burlesque number, or some f-bombs, to spice up the picture. You want there to be lurking subtext, some hint of the perverse, but there isn’t any. It’s just doggone wholesome.

 

Rooney's gone and drunk up all the moonshine again.

Simone likes Pete’s Dragon and despite its lame components I’m glad. The movie is about friendship, finding your way in the world, and how you have to rely on other people to survive. I can only watch it with the eyes of my former self; when Pete is almost killed with a harpoon, it just tears me up.

Anyway, back to Suzanne. She hates Pete’s Dragon and I think I know why. She came along when the rest of us were a little older; Ann went to college when Suzanne was 7. She missed the endless carousel of musicals. She cut her teeth on The Little Mermaid, instead. Pete’s Dragon is a type of movie they stopped making somewhere in the late 1980s (Newsies being a notable exception). It’s pleasures are innocent, and innocence has run its course.

We didn’t watch Pete’s Dragon today. Instead we took Simone to run through the ice cold spray fountain at Welles Park. She found a pink bucket and could never quite figure out how to fill the pail with water without getting drenched.

Paul Bowles: The Unholy Wanderer

1 Aug

Paul Bowles left America at a young age and never looked back. He spent his entire life moving from place to place; he never settled in on a home. His restless life resulted in a unique point of view: casually misanthropic, learned, drawn to the exotic, and certain that the west had masked mankind’s brutal nature with fine things, but that the essential violence was unchanged.

He had three distinct careers, as a composer, as a poet, and as a writer of fiction. He also wrote journalism, and he recorded the folklore and stories of the townspeople he met.

The author, smoking a long-handled cigarette.

The first thing to understand about Paul Bowles: he is strange. His thoughts are not your thoughts. He has a disassociated view of life. Things happen to his characters that aren’t understandable, or even connected to any sort of known cause and effect.

He’s a cool writer, in the sense that he’s difficult to pin down, holds transgressive moral views, and seems unconcerned with material success. His books contain strange worlds, although they are, for the most part, exercises in realism. His common themes are disassociation, alienation and cultural miscommunication. His characters are often arrogant about their cultural place in the world, until they meet the hard realities of their new surroundings. He’s best writing about Americans loosed upon the North African world. Each of his novels has a scene—and it’s usually the best scene in the story—following a tourist wandering through the windy Moroccan streets late at night, searching for something they won’t find.

He wrote one great novel, one very good novel and two interesting failures. His stories are hit or miss, although the good ones rate with the best short stories of the last fifty years.

He had a distinguished career as a composer. He was one of Aaron Copeland’s star pupils and produced a number of compositions that are held in high regard. He was married to Jane Bowles, who wrote a very well regarded novel of her own. He details their peripatetic wanderings in his autobiography, Without Stopping. (Which, by the by, is interesting but not interesting enough; he intentionally leaves out the juice, steam, sex and violence. The result is a book for fans, but not for the casual reader.)

One of the great novels of the 20th Century.

Start with his masterpiece, The Sheltering Sky. It’s a superb piece of writing, following three foreigners in Northern Africa as they navigate the cultural dissonances of being wealthy and privileged in a part of the world that is still living with a collective moral viewpoint of the Middle Ages. It’s a flawless work, lyrical and horrifying.

An excellent novel by the unholy wanderer.

His second best work is The Spider’s House. It’s very, very good. It follows two Americans and their friendship with a Moroccan youth. The backdrop is Fez, and Bowles describes and explores it so well it becomes a major character in the book. There’s political unrest, secret societies, anti-American sentiment, a dash of romance.

Up Above the World is a pot-boiler, well-written I suppose but thin, with a terrible (and boring) third act. Let It Come Down is diverting, and it has good ideas, a good set up, but then the story is sort of shunted aside for the last thirty pages, replaced with a drug trip that doesn’t quite satisfy.

Then, his stories:

“By the Water” (man wanders into a strange town, angers a freak, ends up on a distant beach with a young orphan)

“Pages from Cold Point” (A father is seduced by his son, realizes there is evil in the world)

“The Delicate Prey” (Revenge tragedy of three Bedouins hunting a lone Arab)

“A Thousand Days of Mokhtar” (An eccentric crank’s bad day and the horror that results from it)

The author and the enormity of the mysterious desert.

He’s a disquieting presence in American letters, a piercing explorer of foreign cultures and a fantastic outsider artist.