film

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

“There fell on them, emerging now and again from the confused babel of hoarse shouts, the one clear word “Murder!”

the lodger coverMarie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel clearly influenced by the real-life Jack the Ripper murders was gripping and suspenseful. The suspense manifests itself from crafting a psychological mystery within the minds of the main characters.

The Lodger begins at a boarding house owned by the Buntings, a married couple that had spent their lives, up until then, in service. They haven’t had a paying lodger in ages, and the two have turned to pawning most of their belongings and going without food for long periods of time. It is also during the opening that information is revealed about a series of ghastly murders in the East End of London, which are perpetrated by a villain called “The Avenger.” When the Buntings are almost down to their last bit of money, they receive a visitor late at night. A strange man wrapped up in his heavy cloak comes seeking lodging. He agrees to pay a larger sum than is normally required with the promise that no one else shall board in the rooms.

Mrs. Bunting is terribly relieved about the new household income. This strange lodger, Mr. Sleuth, is surely a gentleman (at least in Mrs. Bunting’s eyes) and this is the excuse she gives herself any time she needs to rationalize his strange behavior (his daily “experiments,” his obsessive reading of the bible, his queer kind of fear and dislike of women, and his predilection for leaving the house only at late hours that coincide with the times of the murders). She is the one who has the most interaction with Mr. Sleuth, but her husband also has a wee bit. Independently from each other, both Buntings begin to have doubts about their lodger.

the lodger hitchcockThe book is more about the psychology of the Buntings–mostly Mrs. Bunting. Through her eyes, Belloc Lowndes is cooking up doubt and deception. With all of his strange behavior and schedule perfectly matching up with those of The Avenger’s murders, Mrs. Bunting refuses to admit that Mr. Sleuth is anything but a scholar and a gentleman. Each day unfolds with new strange behavior from the lodger. Belloc Lowndes writes with an acute sense of detail and the book is rich with information about the crimes sensationalized through the newspapers that Mr. Bunting buys throughout the day. Rarely, though, does the novel leave the inside of the boarding house, with the rare exception of Mrs. Bunting’s visit to the public police inquest. The mystery and intrigue are mostly confined to its walls, which give the reader a claustrophobic and paranoid feeling. I shan’t reveal anymore, because it would be a crime to give away the reveal (although, I do admit that the ending was very abrupt and I found myself rereading the final few paragraphs).

Also, in 1927, film audiences saw the Hitchcock adaptation that is extensive in its shadows and intrigue. The Lodger played by Ivor Novello is handsome, dark, and suave. The silent film relies on many plot points of the original book, but like most film adaptations, does veer away from the source material. With that said, however, I very much enjoyed the film, which can be watched for free in the public domain (it is remarkable that it remains intact and of good quality considering many early films have been lost or destroyed, re: London After Midnight). I urge you to watch the film, especially if you are a fan of Hitchcock or shadowy dark films in the German Expressionism vain. Although, I haven’t seen it, word on the street is that the 1944 adaptation is also a very good film.

Besides films, the book has also been adapted for radio series. The two I’ve listened to have Vincent Price and Peter Lorre as the lodger, respectively. They, too, are available to listen to for free in the public domain.

  • Vincent Price offers a lodger who is slick and his voices gives the appearance of a gentleman scholar even when on the brink of losing it. @Hollywood Star Time (1946)
  • Peter Lorre is far creepier. His voice lends less to a creeping psychopath, but more to a man cloaked in mania ready to burst at the seams. @Mystery in the Air (1947)

One last suggestion of supplemental works is the Spring 2011 article ‘Using a woman’s wit and cunning”: Marie Belloc Lowndes Rewrites the Ripper’ available in the Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies journal.

The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras

“Yes, it seemed that it was in this realm of her feelings that Lol Stein was different from others.”

ravishing of lol steinI believe everyone should read Marguerite Duras; she is a must. Most people have heard of The Lover, which is a spectacular novella and like The Ravishing of Lol Stein, begs to be read several times, from different angles and at different speeds.

The Ravishing of Lol Stein begins with the life of 19-year-old Lol Stein as she is engaged to Michael Richardson. While attending a summer ball, Michael dances with an older married woman who we then assume he begins an affair with. Their engagement is called off and Lol has a mental breakdown. From then on, the reader is left to suss out what is exactly going on. The narrative resumes about ten years later, when Lol with her husband and children return to the town where she was betrayed by her ex-fiance. The novel is sometimes confusing, which it is meant to be. Translator Richard Seaver is excellent when translating the long meandering sentences or illuminating the direct narration,

[O]f John Bedford it was said that he was capable of loving only women whose hearts had been broken and, what was more serious, that he had a strange penchant for young girls who had been jilted, and driven mad, by someone else.

At times, the reader is on wobbly terrain. The identity of which narrator is speaking at what time can be difficult but Duras is doing this purposefully. Lol Stein is mysterious and deemed unstable by the residents of her hometown, but to Lol, herself, she has completely recovered from her madness, which is a disappointment to her. Spying and watching people from afar are major themes and the reader feels as if they are looking at the story underwater–images appear hazy and just out of fingers’ reach. This all begs for the book to be reread several times with pleasure.

The reliability of Lol and the second narrator (whose identity is not revealed till halfway through) can be challenged at every turn, but by the conclusion of the novel the unreliability can somehow be trusted to be the actual story. Whirling around the lives of Lol and her friends, there is always a sense that there is a history that precedes them and that will go on without them as well as a history that is missing. The reader must consume the entire novel to parse the meaning and what is happening.

The memory itself goes back beyond this memory, back beyond itself. She was perfectly normal once upon a time, before she went mad at Town Beach.

Memory and perception are always strong themes for Marguerite Duras. Her work usually has a simple premise, which then is brilliantly unraveled and raveled once more. What is first perceived as gossip could possibly be the truth and what is labelled as madness is far more complicated (or not). Lol isn’t a useless housewife but is more resourceful than she lets on. Obscuring the view is also common. In The Lover, the protagonist looks through the slatted shades of her lover’s windows and Lol Stein is often found spying through the windows of a hotel.

I find Marguerite Duras very interesting. She was born in French Indochina in 1914 and lived for most of the 20th Century. She was extremely prolific and besides literature, she was also involved in film. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her screenplay, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. If you haven’t seen this film, I highly recommend it (see the trailer on YouTube–it, of course, reveals nothing of the plot). It deals with memory like much of her work. You can see her bibliography here and the list of Le Monde‘s 100 Books of the Century (#71).

This is Number 8 on The [International] Reading List.

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

“Off there to the right–somewhere–is a large island…it’s rather a mystery.”

most dangerous gameBefore there was The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, there was The Most Dangerous Game penned by Richard Connell in 1924. This story is one of the original classics in the genre of man vs. man/the tables have been turned on this safari.

I am a fan of “Mysterious Islands” in literature and the confines of the place can be a worthwhile conceit for a story. The story begins with Sanger Rainsford, a young and successful big game hunter, off to hunt Jaguar in Brazil with his mate Whitney.

“Don’t talk rot, Whitney, said Rainsford. “You’re a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?”

“Perhaps the jaguar does,” observed Whitney.

With this dialogue right off the bat, Connell is explicitly preparing the reader for a turn of events. With the story first beginning from the perspective of the hunters, Connell is also planting the idea of focusing on the prey.

As the two are sailing to South America, Rainsford falls overboard and swims to the shore of a Caribbean island called Ship Trap Island, which already has a reputation of a high number of shipwrecks nearby. Once he is on dry land, Rainsford makes his way to the chateau inhabited by two Cossacks–Ivan and General Zaroff, the latter being the owner. Over dinner, Rainsford soon finds out that General Zaroff is an avid hunter and has even heard of the famous Rainsford. As their conversation proceeds, however, Rainsford comes to find that the often-bored General Zaroff stocks his estate not with the most obvious big game choices. In fact, he stocks the island with the most dangerous game.

“But they are men,” said Rainsford hotly.

“Precisely,” said the general. “That is why I use them. It gives me pleasure. They can reason, after a fashion. So they are dangerous.”

The General, at first, invites Rainsford to join him on a hunt, but after turning him down, Rainsford has found himself as the target for the next hunt. The most gripping part of the story is when Rainsford is out on the island. The General has given him a window of three days and a head start to out outmaneuver him. Rainsford must utilize all of his survival and trapping knowledge that he has acquired from his past hunts. “It was then that Rainsford knew the full meaning of terror” and the reader feels the anxiety too.

Screenshot from 1932 film adaptation.

Screenshot from 1932 film adaptation.

At the beginning of the story, Rainsford is clearly set in his black and white perception of the hunt, both his pursuit of jaguars and other exotic animals as well as General Zaroff’s hunt. Rainsford is pulled back and forth between his own desire to stay alive and his idea of murder.

“The Most Dangerous Game” is available for free in the public domain. It has also been adapted for the screen several times, with the most well-known being the 1932 film, which is available to watch in its entirety on YouTube.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

“The pain was terrible. And then she remembered. It was over. It was over. The baby was born…”

rosemarysbabyLike most people, my familiarity with Rosemary’s Baby comes from the excellent film adaptation by Roman Polanski. In my edition of the book, the short but intriguing introduction penned by Mysterious Bookshop owner, Otto Penzler, states that Polanski–who was new to Hollywood filmmaking–had not realized that he could take liberties with the source material, which is the norm with adaptations. But enough about the film and more about the book!

Although, I had already known the outcome of the narrative and what lies behind every twist and turn of Rosemary’s Baby, I still found myself creeped out by the novel. The writing is unadorned and straight to the point, but Levin is able to do something interesting with his words. What stood out to me was young Rosemary’s constant battle between the people trying to control her and her pregnancy (and, for that matter, her everyday life). Her insufferable husband, Guy Woodhouse, thinks she is just a silly housewife whose duty is to make him breakfast and to read him lines while he is rehearsing for his next play. When Rosemary, amid her fear of a conspiracy to take her unborn baby from her for a more dastardly endeavor, reaches out to an obstetrician she once saw, who ultimately thinks she, too, is a frivolous woman who must be taken away by her husband and attending obstetrician. Her fears and worries are not considered and her husband Guy says, “[Dr. Sapirstein] has a name for it. Prepartum I-don’t-know, some kind of hysteria. You had it, honey, and with a vengeance.

What always enthralled me about Rosemary’s Baby was the idea of paranoia and suspicion. Rosemary begins by rationalizing her own doubts but, as the story evolves, it becomes a “who can she trust” scenario that leads to the reader’s rapid heart beat and intense desire to turn page after page. With Rosemary doubting her situation and sanity, so does the reader.

“This is no dream, she thought. This is real, this is happening.”

While many people may argue that Rosemary’s Baby is not horror so-to-speak, I don’t concur. The horror of the story is that Levin has setup a real world that is so average and filled with evil represented in the most mundane and unsuspecting of people.

 

Rosemary’s Baby is Number 2 on my RIPXVIII list.

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life

By now, most of us know that the new incarnation of the Doctor will be Scottish actor, Peter Capaldi. He’s fantastic and I am extremely curious to see how he’ll be as the new Time Lord.

But…

In 1995, he won an Academy Award for a short film he wrote and directed titled Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The film focuses on one night as Herr Kafka is trying to write his famous novella, The Metamorphosis. He can’t seem to get that opening line right. What shall poor Gregor transform into? Kafka is continually interrupted by a strange knife sharpener, a gaggle of girls having a Christmas Eve party, and a costume saleswoman. Below is the video for the entire short film. Enjoy!

“Gregor Samsa, blah, blah, blah.”

I’m sick and tired of bad writing.

The 1976 film, Network, kept creeping up into my psyche yesterday. It seemed like a perfect storm had brewed leading to my inner Peter Finch-style cranky fit. Everything came to a head after I read a recent essay excerpt on Salon.com. It was from a supposedly longer piece by the writer, Periel Aschenbrand (who has a blurb on her personal website describing herself as the “Lady Gaga of Literature”). VIDA had posted the link with the question of why would a female writer think it in any way a good idea to sleep her way to the top. [Feel free to find the article and read it; I just can’t bring myself to relink it here but to abbreviate: the writer claims to have had an opportunity to dance the horizontal hustle with author, Philip Roth, and considered how having such an affair would skyrocket her to fame and notoriety].

Halfway through the read, my inner Peter Finch stood up and screamed, I’m not gonne take this anymore!

I read till the end. I’m sure many people will take issue with the content of the essay–one attempts to further career by shagging up the ladder–but I just thought, what drivel? This essay was not funny (which I imagine was its intent) but, no, I was more concerned with its lack of creativity, story telling and craft. It fell flat. Yet, I’m sure it will get a lot of hits for Salon because of the title. What it revealed most was that the writer was not as quick and witty as she thought, but, instead, had the skills to string together a good tale like a fifth grader attempting open-heart surgery. What was proposed as an amusing and brazen anecdote made the writer look tired and shallow. The thesis of the essay could have been exactly the same if written in a well crafted and imaginative manner, but like Philip Roth in the essay, I too would have been bored by the writer and continued eating cherries.

To add insult to injury, during my total lackluster afternoon reading this juvenile and trite essay, I logged into my Goodreads account for the second time ever. I first created the account about a year ago. When I glanced through my virtual bookshelves, I noticed I had a ton of books but more noticeable was the ton of books that I had not even heard of. After some sleuthing, I found out that the default selection on Goodreads is to automatically add recommendations. Some books, I had no recollection of; others did look like they might be of mild interest; but then I was completely stunned by a romance novel featuring a shirtless cowboy depicted in fuzzy lens with half of his face blocked by, if memory serves me correctly, a giant cowboy hat (but even if it didn’t have the hat, I would like to think it did). I can’t fathom was Goodreads’ algorithm would choose a book with such factory produced plot and hackneyed language–perhaps, another book on the shelf had a storyline with romance?

I was just so annoyed by this avalanche of crap writing.

Perhaps, I should stop here. If I don’t, I fear, I could go on and on. Life is too short for many things and why would anyone want to waste time on bad writing. It seems like we are in a deluge of it lately, though. Where is this trend coming from? Has it always been around and now that we are all more connect, the bad everything has a chance to read its nasty head? Why are we letting this slide?

Whatever you’ve made of my cranky, writerly rant, I shall leave you with this.

The Garden Party by Václav Havel

garden partyIt’s about time I wrote more about The Garden Party. Around the time of Havel’s death over a year ago, I wrote a post detailing my enjoyment of the play. Also, a few months following his death, I found myself in Prague once again and was witness to how influencing he was to the Czech people. There was in memoriam graffiti all throughout the city. 

Czech literature, especially in the 1960s, is filled with humor and satire that came from its rocky political history. I don’t know why lately I’ve been thinking of The Garden Party but I do lament the fact that almost every book I own is sitting sadly in a storage unit–my copy of The Garden Party: and Other Plays included. But as luck would have it, I found a scanned PDF on my computer of just that one play from the collection. I was thrilled and hurriedly took to it.

vaclav havelThe Garden Party concerns itself with the Pludek family. Hugo, one of the sons, is at the age when his father thinks he should be doing something productive with his life. A friend of his father, Kalabis, is invited to the house to meet Hugo and size him up, but, alas, the man cancels at the last minute citing his involvement at a garden party for the liquidation office. Hugo is sent off to the party to meet him.

What ensues is Hugo’s ability to quickly ingrain himself into the bureaucratic environment of the liquidation office. The clerk and secretary often repeat the same words and phrases over and over again leading to a bizarre irrationality to their rationale (or is their bizarre rationale to their irrationality). Specific bureaucratic language is also called upon throughout the dialogue.

havel_garden party

Over the course of the party, Hugo so impresses them that the employees think he is a seasoned worker. The Garden Party ends with Hugo being put in charge of liquidating the liquidation office. His language has changed and he has metamorphosed into one of them. While in costume, Hugo’s parents don’t even recognize him because he has become a bureaucrat.

Havel’s play can be enjoyed simply as an absurdist work but its historical context is an important one. He is satirizing the Communist regime which was devoid of ideals like creativity and culture.

In the earlier mentioned post, I also spoke about a Czech film, A Report on the Party and Guests, which I absolutely love but only saw once because I had a hell of a time trying to find it. Well, good news! It’s on Criterion Collection and is available in the US through Hulu.

And remember,

The garden party is for everyone!

Philip Roth, an American Master, on his birthday

Philip RothA great thing about living in New York City is being able to go watch the new PBS American Masters 90-minute documentary titled, Philip Roth: Unmasked for FREE at Film Forum. Today–and Roth’s 80th birthday as well–is the last day it’s playing, so check for times. Otherwise, your second option is to wait till 29 March for the premiere on PBS.

This doc is definitely worth a watch. Regardless of your opinion about Roth or his writing, it really is hard to deny that he is a very prominent and successful 20th century American writer. His novels are always exhaling a breath of zeitgeist. The film mostly concerns itself with interviewing Roth with some peripheral chatting with friends and the very strangely airy and otherworldy, Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) who was the only element that took me out of the whole fascinating film.

Roth was witty and open in the interviews and it was intriguing to see that he still stay friends with people from high school and college who remain his readers while he has a novel in progress. The more humorous bits were when he talked about his very loving and normal parents (the antithesis to the Portnoy mother & father). A funny anecdote he told was before Portnoy’s Complaint was to be released, he brought his parents in from New Jersey to New York City and prepared them for the book by telling them that they might be hounded by journalists and, of course, be compared to the fictitious parents within the novel. He parents left and got into a cab. When Roth asked his father later what happened, he said that his mother started to cry and say that her son had “delusions of grandeur” and that nothing big would come of Portnoy’s Complaint.

In the wake of Roth’s announcement that he is retiring from writing, The Guardian put out an article of Roth’s picks for his best novels. The article concludes with,

Referring to fellow writers including John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, EL Doctorow and William Styron, Roth said he “ran with some very fast horses … Now, the Nobel prize committee doesn’t agree with me. They think we’re provincial. But I suspect they’re a little bit provincial.”

Free Podcasts from the Writers Guild of America, East

Through iTunes, the Writers Guild of America, East has made available many free podcasts.

Here’s Boardwalk Empire showrunner Terence Winter discussing the merits of premium cable with Denis Leary,co-creator and star of Rescue Me. There’s Tony Award–winning playwright John Guare explaining the challenges and rewards of adapting work from stage to screen. From 90-second clips to hour-long panel discussions,WGAE’s iTunes U site provides entertaining and educational media for any artist, writer or aficionado.

While perusing through their listings, I noticed podcasts discussing such topics as Writing NY: How the Big Apple Inspires and Informs the Movies, Reflections on Adaptation, and many other components of writing. Although, these podcast have more to do with television & film writing, I thought this could be quite interesting. They offer podcasts on mistakes to avoid, marketing yourself, and chat with successful playwrights and screenwriters.

Also while clicking around in iTunes, I came across some other free podcasts that might be of some interest,

  • Film Forum, not solely writing but can offer some interesting discussions from filmmakers
  • University of Warwick, hear writers read their own work along with discussions and notes

Limitless

This weekend, I watched Limitless. This film is based on the novel, The Dark Fields, by Alan Glynn. I haven’t read the book but what attracted me to the film was the premise:

Unshaven and unfocused, living in a grungy Chinatown walkup [sic] and frequenting the last bar in Manhattan…Eddie is stuck on Page 1 of a long-overdue novel.

The whole time I was watching this, I kept thinking that this must be Flowers for Algernon had it been written by Philip K. Dick. A poor and lowly NYC writer with no motivation or inspiration to write is given the opportunity to take an illicit pill to open up his mind and clear his way of thinking. In four days, he has his novel.

When the film came out, a writerly friend of my mine was appearing in one of those short TV spots that they air in the back of cabs. He was being interviewed about this film (which he hadn’t seen) and was asked if he would ever take an imagination-boosting pill if it existed. His response was no–probably because he is one of those people that actually likes being a suffering artist.

Granted, the movie didn’t live up to the expectations I had (there are many plot holes and plot points that are completely abandoned and forgotten) but still enjoyable. It was fantastic to see Bradley Cooper’s change throughout from struggling writer to high-powered financial phenom.