Inspired by Dan Schwent I thought I’d blatantly steal his idea and dish out 8 awards for all the stuff I read this year.
Award for restoring my dentedInspired by Dan Schwent I thought I’d blatantly steal his idea and dish out 8 awards for all the stuff I read this year.
Award for restoring my dented faith in the novel goes to Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson - I know I just finished it and my head’s still in a cloud but there were only two other contenders this year, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and The Book of New Strange Things by Michel Faber. This is where it was really tough handing out the 2014 award - heartbreak lesbians and Jesus-besotted aliens would have easily swung it in any other year. (Note – 34 novels read this year, and a further 12 started but abandoned in disgust.)
The why did I wait so long? award goes to : Sinclair Lewis for his brilliant 1920 novel Main Street. This guy was a genius writer and I will be checking his other stuff out soon. (I prolly say that a lot so if you’re listening, Sinclair, don’t shoot me if it doesn’t happen in 2015.)
Best horror movie memoir (well, okay, the only horror movie memoir: Chain Saw Confidential by Gunnar Hanson. The moral of that story is, if you need a few thousand more dollars to finish your gorefest, try to avoid going to the Mafia. You’ll get your money, no prob, but you won’t see one cent of profits if it happens to make, say, 50 million.
The creepiest and most unpleasant reading experience this year is a two-part award. For fiction, there was only one name in the frame, Elfriede Jelinek, and her so far out there you need the Hubble Telescope to see it novel The Piano Teacher. I nearly had to read it standing in the shower. For non-fiction, it was the academic book with the most eyecatching title Torture Porn : Popular Horror After Saw. If I’d thought of it, I could have sent Professor Steve Jones a copy of American Guinea Pig as a Christmas present and asked for his considered response.
The If You All Love Jesus Clap Your Hands award for popular theology was also an easy winner - step forward Rev Rich Wagner for his Christianity for Dummies - he managed to make his fairly hardline fundy views (you’re all going to HELL!) a lot of fun to read about.
Biography of the year is a tie between Shirley Jackson (Private Demons by Judy Oppenheimer) and Andy Warhol (Warhol by Victor Bokriss) – both these Americans were very peculiar people, no question about it.
Weird shit of the year award: The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull. This was a 1972 anthropology book and wow, it was off the scale in strangeness, all about the Ik tribe of northern Uganda. Especially with all the other anthropologists saying that you couldn’t believe a word of it (“obvious nonsense”).
Special award for cuteness : The Shelf by Phyllis Rose. Although the sub-title “Adventures in Extreme Reading” will leave you with a permanently raised eyebrow, this was the best book-about-books I’ve read for a whole long time & I believe it would make any Goodreader curl up and purr in a corner. ...more
which is pretty scary. I really remember the story The Three Marked Pennies by Mary Counselman, written whenRead many years ago with a different cover
which is pretty scary. I really remember the story The Three Marked Pennies by Mary Counselman, written when she was around 19!
"During this day of April 15, three pennies will find their way into the pockets of the city. On each penny will be a well-defined mark. One is a square; one is a circle; and one is a cross. These three pennies will change hands often, as do all coins, and on the seventh day after this announcement (April 21) the possessor of each marked penny will receive a gift. To the first: $100,000 in cash. To the second: A trip around the world. To the third: Death."
During the day everyone in the small town tries to figure out which mark means what. Does the cross mean death?
I won't give away the surprise ending, mainly because I've completely forgotten it. ...more
Six stories from the 1930s and 40s. I like old stuff but you can only go back so far. In music, for instance, everything from the late 20s onwards isSix stories from the 1930s and 40s. I like old stuff but you can only go back so far. In music, for instance, everything from the late 20s onwards is no problem, but the early 20s are hard going (something to do with the microphones and also that they hadn’t written any good songs yet). In movies the guide books earnestly recommend a bundle of silent movies and I’m okay with a few, like The Crowd or The Gold Rush, but those others like Broken Blossoms or Orphans of the Storm… hmmm, perhaps not. And our beloved 1001 Books you Must Read or I Will Come and Smash your Head In has just 13 books listed as pre-1700, and of those Don Quixote and The Pilgrim’s Progress are still read, but darling, has anyone said to you recently that they just finished Euphues, or, the Anatomy of Wit by John Ely and well, you have to read it? Not to mention the other 14.
With science fiction you can go back to the 1950s and still have maximum fun but before then, you get completely ridiculous plots based on grotesquely mistaken concepts populated by protagonists who give a bad name to cardboard and dialogue like
“That’s it! It would save an enormous portion of the necessary propulsive energy. It would put this trip, otherwise still impossible, into the realm of possibility!”
“This means we own this whole doggoned planet?”
I am being a little harsh, because there are a handful of great stories from before 1950, like one in here, “The XI Effect” which is a very bold end-of-the-entire-universe story, but in general, what I’m saying is
“I beg you, don’t go in there…. It’s… it’s too horrible!” ...more
“IT'S ONLY OUR POOR PREACHER THAT'S PUTTING ON HIS STYLE” - Vernon Dalhart, 1927
Let’s get this out of the way first : the winsome folksiness of this wr “IT'S ONLY OUR POOR PREACHER THAT'S PUTTING ON HIS STYLE” - Vernon Dalhart, 1927
Let’s get this out of the way first : the winsome folksiness of this writer is hard to take. I had to have a bucket handy while I was reading. Example :
God made it clear from the get-go that following him meant letting the good times roll, while going against him would be a major bummer for all parties involved – yucky stuff like eternal death and judgement
Elsewhere, Adam and Eve are described as “the original dynamic duo”. But alas, “they had to go and screw everything up.” What we have here is a hip, slang-slingin’ pastor who’s down with the kids and has an ever-lovin’ wife and two rascally little tykes which he continually reminds you of because it’s cute. Well, I was kind of expecting this kind of thing, and man alive, I got it. He’s trying so hard not to be starchy and pompous, so very often he ends up sounding like he’s talking to fairly dense ten year olds. American analogies, mainly from the area of sports, are found at every turn. I felt mildly bilious throughout.
“WHEN HEARTS ARE HIGH THE TIME WILL FLY SO WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK” - Snow White, 1936
I give him respect for the massive task of organising the information into something reasonably coherent within 378 pages. He doesn’t dodge many issues. And hey ! I found out that the church I grew up in, Congregationalist, was part of the Calvinist group of Protestants. I never knew that. (No one ever took me aside and said “Hey kid, there’s something you should know about predestination…”)
DENOMINATION BLUES : AN ASIDE
In fact, I think 90% of Christians are like that – they have no idea what separates them from other denominations. “The denomination name can mean squat” says Rev Wagner rather inelegantly. Cue Washington Phillips’ lovely 1927 song “Denomination Blues”
Now the missionary baptists, they believe Go under the water and not to wash your feet. And that's all I tell you that’s all, But you better have Jesus, I tell you that’s all
„GRÜNLICHE DÄMMERUNG, NACH OBEN ZU LICHTER, NACH UNTEN ZU DUNKLER“
You probably spotted this already, but the author of this book is not the same Richard Wagner who wrote The Ring Cycle operas. That’s wack. Totally different dude.
“THE SIMPLE THINGS YOU SEE ARE ALL COMPLICATED” - The Who, 1965
I think the Christian religion is deeply weird. The other two monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam, are relatively straightforward – here are the rules, do this, then this then that, job’s a good one. But Christianity is mystical. The whole thing about Jesus on the cross, being sacrificed for our sins. How does that work? The whole other thing about Jesus being God – fully human and fully God. Wow! So God sacrificed himself to himself to redeem the sins of the humans he had created in order that they would get to have eternal life as long as they acknowledged that that’s what he’d done. One’s head is spinning. Makes you wonder why he did it in such a complicated way. Why not give us all eternal life anyway? Or not create us at all and just stick with squirrels and wombats?
But Christianity is the largest religion in the world (30% of global population – nearest rival is Islam with 25%) which is very impressive, considering where it came from (an obscure sect in an obscure part of one of the Roman Empire’s least glamorous provinces).
"I WON'T LOSE A FRIEND BY HEEDING GOD'S CALL FOR WHAT IS A FRIEND WHO'D WANT YOU TO FALL OTHERS FIND PLEASURES IN THINGS I DESPISE I LIKE THE CHRISTIAN LIFE"
- The Louvin Brothers, 1956
Rev Wagner rightly points out that when you turn on your tv news, all you get is miserable stuff, war, pestilence, bent politicians, paedophile disc jockeys, on and on. But cheer up, because Christianity is the Good News! (I recall that Marshall McLuhan said that the adverts were the good news, but that’s not strictly relevant.) Rev Wagner is not a guy to avoid the very harsh truths of Christianity, which a lot of other people would most probably not want to mention. Let’s get to the uncomfortable facts now! Christianity’s Good News is that the God who created us will condemn us to eternal suffering unless we believe certain specific things. But it’s easy to do that because they’re true!
But let's be very clear : unless you actually believe these things, and become a Christian, you will suffer for all eternity in the torments of Hell, which is a real place. Doesn’t matter if you never heard of Jesus. Or if you grew up as a Muslim in Iran, where it’s illegal to convert to Christianity (penalty : death). Also, doesn’t matter if you’re like a really good person. Being good or bad has nothing to do with whether you’ll get saved from Hell.
The idea of good people being rewarded and bad people being punished may be the most instinctive of all solutions, but Christianity says that you better not stake your eternity on it.
So let’s say you have Ted Bundy and a lady who’s run the down and out shelter in town for the last 20 years. According to the Bible, if Ted, before his electrified demise, sincerely turned to Jesus and repented and asked for forgiveness, he would get it, and then he would go to Heaven for all eternity. But our imaginary do-gooding lady is an agnostic and pays no attention to religion, she gets an eternity of suffering in Hell.
You see, it’s faith alone which gives salvation, not works. You can’t earn your way to heaven by doing good. Faith in Jesus is the only way.
“LOOK OUT KID, IT’S SOMETHIN’ YOU DID – GOD KNOWS WHEN BUT YOU’RE DOIN’ IT AGAIN” - Bob Dylan, 1965
We all sin, says the Bible, which is “continually the bearer of bad news when it comes to the hearts of humans”. Most of us aren’t murderers or thieves, but there are plenty of sins of omission you pretty much can’t avoid. Did you give enough to the poor? No? A lot of sin is “unnoticeable at times, such as envy, pride, or even worry”. All of human nature is soaked in sin. I’m so sorry, but that’s how it is.
I wanted to ask RW : Even Mother Theresa? Even Mother Theresa?? But I think he’d have sadly nodded and said “Even Mother Theresa.”
But hey, that sounds real bad, but it’s actually all good. You see, “no sin is ever too great, and no sinner is ever disqualified from God’s grace – even someone as evil as Adolf Hitler… so long as people confess their sin and believe in Jesus, God forgives them” Yes. God will forgive you for snapping at your kids and being a bit smug about your golf handicap AND he’ll forgive Hitler for the 6 million killed in the Holocaust. But if you or Hitler DON’T ask his forgiveness for these sins, then you’ll both fry forever. On this point he’s very clear:
In God’s eyes, a little white lie is as big of a stain before God as a mass murder. (p67)
(And we really don’t know whether Hitler did pray for forgiveness down in the bunker. Maybe he did and he really was forgiven. Wouldn’t that be a kicker?
RW adds : “That may be offensive to one’s notion of fair play”.
“BODY ALL ACHIN’ AND WRACKED WITH PAIN” - Paul Robeson, 1930
On the thorny subject of the problem of evil, which I think puts more people off Christianity than anything else, Rev Wagner has some bracing stuff to say on page 298:
Evil sometimes achieves good. Pain forces Christians to depend solely on God rather than on their own resolve. Pain provides an opportunity for God to display his power in a Christian’s life. Pain brings spiritual joy.
Yes, I boggled at these statements myself. There’s another one I’ll throw in here – Christians argue that evil acts such as the Holocaust happened due to God granting human beings free will. I can go with that argument, although it means that God is okay with the depravity which then follows, that He sees the Holocaust and doesn’t then think “this free will thing has gone too far”. But I always bring up the natural disaster, like tsumanis, earthquakes and so forth. I had quote forgotten the Christian answer to that - they’re caused by Adam and Eve’s original sin. The logic of that assertion completely escaped me.
“THAT SURE SOUNDS LIKE HEAVEN TO ME” - Eddie Cochran, 1957
Rev Wagner doesn’t shy away from talking about what happens in Heaven :
Heaven is a real place… heaven isn’t some cosmic ethereal state of bliss but a real tangible place. Heaven is a social city, but it doesn’t have slums or city limits Heaven will meet people’s deepest longings. In a way that’s impossible to grasp, Christians believe that God will meet human’s need for adventure in a way that isn’t life-threatening (because they’ll be invincible!)
So, white water canoeing without lifejackets! And maybe even bikinis in Heaven… Well, we don’t know for sure.
“THE THINGS THAT YOU’RE LIABLE TO READ IN THE BIBLE” - Peggy Lee, 1956
Rev Wagner admits that there are errors and inaccuracies in the Bible, which is the inspired word of God. The original manuscripts were error-free but subsequent scribes and copiers have been the problem. This is strange – because why wouldn’t God want to ensure his word reached us without these errors? Come to think of it, why wasn’t he a lot clearer about issues like predestination, the sacraments, whether there can be a just war and so on instead of leaving us to guess what he meant for 2000 years? And why allow the rise of a successful other monotheistic religion 700 years after Jesus? It’s all so unclear. It almost looks as if things in this world were entirely manmade and have evolved in a haphazard higgledy-piggledy way over the centuries without any supernatural intervention at all.
The whole think kind of bugs me. I don’t mean to be harsh (I’m not Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens) but it just seems that the point of Christianity is to get yourself safely into Heaven. That’s it. The point is not to do good on this earth, that’s nice but quite inessential, and won’t be taken into account. It sounds more than a trifle self-centred to me.
“ALL ROMANTICS MEET THE SAME FATE SOMEDAY, CYNICAL AND DRUNK AND BORING SOMEONE IN SOME DARK CAFÉ” - Joni Mitchell, 1971
In the end, the version of Christians this book promotes does seem to be extremely romantic. God being so lonely he needed human beings. God wanting humans to freely choose Him, and not be robots. His only Son having to die to save us, unworthy us. But me, I’ve bored you enough already for one day. There are lots of other topics we could chat about – what about Satan, for instance? And grace? And the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism, that’s a good one. And the Trinity, whew…
It’s essentially a story about three lost children and this one guy’s attempt to find them. He’s a social worker. So wHow can this not be five stars?
It’s essentially a story about three lost children and this one guy’s attempt to find them. He’s a social worker. So we have a social-worker-as-alcoholic-fuckup hero. One of the kids he’s trying to save is his daughter. In the novel, it’s 1980, 81, 82, Carter into Reagan, and we’re in the wilderland of Montana where there’s a crackpot and his family, one of these millenarian swivel eye ranters about the gold standard and masons and the illegal government in Washington and how Roberto Calvi’s death by hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London was precisely foretold in Revelations and is a portend of the End Times. Our social worker Pete Snow gets involved, gets fascinated, when the son of this family wanders into the playground of a school, intrigued by the sight of so many children he’s not related to.
This is a Big Statement novel, and I was reminded of that famous aside in Hendrix’s song Fire : “Move over, Rover, and let Jimi take over” because in this context Jonathan Franzen = Rover and Smith Henderson = Jimi. If Franzen is continually taking the psychological temperatures of his bedizened middle-class cohort and making neurotic notes and fretting here and fretting there, Henderson is showing us a whole other thing, a working-class world where everything is in a continual state of fuckedupness, people are careening like pinballs from one carcrash to the next, and if there are any notes on these terrible cases, Pete Snow, out of his brain as usual, has just opened his office window and hurled them out into the street, his daily anguished protest against the enormity of what happens to Americans without a safety net, where his social services department is the only one they’ve got, and you can see for yourself what state that’s in.
There’s a really chilling theme running like an evil undertow in this large novel : child sex. There are some offhand remarks about fostering and children’s homes indicating, as if this was such an open secret that it’s on a level with Santa Claus not being real, that foster parents and children’s home workers routinely had sex with the kids in their control – like, of course, jackass, what did you think? This is not pursued, it’s just there like background static, like the abstracted humming of all America’s paedophiles. Then there’s the fate of female runaways : they become hookers. We’re also given to understand that this is the way the world is. And what if they’re only 13, 14, 15? So much the better. Because the punters will love it. Another author would have made this the main plot, but here, it’s just part of the picture. I admired that coldness of that.
There’s going to be a tv mini-series for sure which will be a must-see for 2015 or 2016, and I’m predicting right now that the kid actress who gets the role of Rose Snow, Pete’s daughter, will be someone we never heard of and will knock us all out and will get the Golden Globe. For Jeremiah Pearl, there’s only one choice, but it’s too obvious, Daniel Day Lewis. A Globe is also waiting for that actor. And I was thinking Amy Ryan would be great as the drug fiend mother of Cecil, but it would be a retread of Helen McCready in Gone Baby Gone, in fact that’s why I thought of her, so sorry Amy, it has to be somebody else. You’d have been great.
Henderson’s style has come in for some comment. It’s in-your-face and sometimes it does have more than a tinge of the Cormac portentousness about it, but I think Henderson has really got his own voice going here. Here is Pete overwhelmed by what could have happened to his daughter:
When he went out in the chilled morning to his car, tiny handprints from some prior removal preserved in the frost on his windows promptly undid him. He slumped against the car door into the crusty snow and howled out griefs that had come on as sudden and frightening as earthquakes, and even after they emptied out, left him in fear of aftershocks, of unseen cracks in the load-bearing trestles of his mind.
And he’s fond of uncommon words :
He parked and circled the abandoned brick and granite structure. Stern bartizans like watchtowers.
The turkey vultures turned in slow circles, black and cruciate
Pearl spoke endlessly of catamounts. How they are the only creature that kills for sport.
They spent a day climbing up into the floor of a glacial cirque. They hiked an esker that cackled with snowmelt
Maybe you will think that stuff is overwritten, striving to impress, but for me it made this fictional world as real as pain. Where Smith Henderson came from I don’t know, but he’s here now. I recommend this novel to all of you. ...more
This is a short novel which might be pretty good but I’m not able to read it. Why? Well, it will not be aWHAT IS GOING ON WITH SELF PUBLISHED AUTHORS?
This is a short novel which might be pretty good but I’m not able to read it. Why? Well, it will not be a surprise to you, because I’ve seen the same complaint many many times times for many self-published books : the text is festooned with typos and punctuation errors, and really, it got to be a pain in the neck.
Here’s the one which finally stopped me.
She turned back toward the dunes where the heat made the air ungulate.
It did what?
un•gu•late (un'gyoo-lit) [L., unguis, a hoof; -atus suffix meaning provided with] NOUN: a mammal having hooves
Yes, I know, our author obviously means undulate.
I also know very well how easy it is to miss typos. When I write a review I have to reread it three times before saving it, then I read it again and find another four mistakes. I still find horrible errors in old reviews of mine when someone votes for them (and I embarrassedly fix them, and faithfully untick the “add to my update feed” box, and STILL it goes into the update feed. But that’s another issue.)
If I had written a novel I would proofread that bugger until I could proofread no more, then I’d give it to a friend to proofread it again, and I’d pay for their trouble, because it’s no fun proofreading a long work, which is what I began to feel I was doing as I read Apartfrom. Why do self published authors not do this? I do not understand. You might think they would be very keen to have their lovely book go out into the world with a fresh coat of syntax and spruced up spelling and looking its best. But it seems not to be a priority. Huh?
If there is ever a corrected text I hereby promise Constance Dunn that will read it properly but until then, I am very sorry, it droove me nut's.
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
What is democracy?
The September Umbrella MovementChurchill :
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
What is democracy?
The September Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong were all about democracy. There’s an election for Chief Executive (=President of Hong Kong) coming up in 2017. Okay, an election, that’s good, right? Well, not if a government-appointed committee hand-picks the candidates who are allowed to run in the election. You might think that in Hong Kong, democracy is a façade. Wool is being pulled. Can’t trust them Commies. Never could. They’re only going to have elections when the result’s already known.
But one moment.
In America, the jest goes, every four years the people are given a free choice between two millionaires. Maybe you don’t have to personally be a millionaire (like Obama wasn’t, I think) but you have to be able to make friends with millionaires, because you can’t run for Prez unless you have a ton of money, and this cuts out 99% of all known Americans.
So, in Hong Kong you can’t run for prez unless you’re endorsed by the Chinese Communist party, and in America you can’t run for prez unless you’re endorsed by a bunch of very rich people.
Hmmm. So that’s the candidates, what about the policies? Absurdly, policies which the party you don’t like designs to be popular with the public will be attacked as “populist”, meaning that any policy designed to be popular must be insane or dangerous or just completely wrong. The message is : beware of any politician coming up with policies the people like. But seriously, policies send all but hard-core geeks to sleep, so they're left to some inner coterie inside the self-selecting parties to cobble together. And so in the democratic west we get our candidates and our policies from a narrow elite. This is democracy.
Unsurprisingly, our British political elite is scorned, disliked and often out and out hated. We’re used to Americans having paranoid thoughts about Washington, but Britain is developing a similar loathing for Westminster. In 1948 the two main parties were voted for by over 95% of electors. Next year the same two parties will be lucky to get 60%.
What is democracy? Churchill said it was the worst form of government, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Is democracy where the public dispiritedly allows a self-selecting elite to gather all power into its own hands, which paternalistically claims to be working feverishly for the greater good whilst blatantly feathering their own nests? Is democracy where successive profound disappointments engender a terminal sleepwalking weariness in the people, coating our spiritual landscape in a defensive kneejerk cynicism which turns into conspiracy-theorism at the edges, edges which every day eat further into the soft white centre of politics?
“I’m telling you, it was a big bird, with great big wings, like this”
A SERIES OF BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS OBSERVATIONS ENLIVENED VERY OCCASIONALLY BY THE UNEXPECTED
This is the UK :
It's easy, really.
This book is about the UK.
Among the many things I learned from this book that astonished me were that people tell political pollsters anything that comes into their pretty heads, that they hold contradictory opinions at the same time, that they’re just plain fickle, that they are surprisingly loyal, that they lie about whether they vote at all or who for, that you can’t trust them as far as you could collectively throw them, and that you could fill Wembley stadium three times over with the crazy shit they believe. Well, who would have thought it? There was I thinking that the British public like nothing better than poring over page 37 of the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the election to the European parliament, and earnestly debating fishing quotas with their partners. I was so wrong.
Everyone knows that Americans tend to think that Paris is situated slightly to the west of New York and that the rest of Europe is about where China really is, but British people think that around 20% of government spending goes on foreign aid (it’s really around 1%), that 30% of the population are immigrants (it’s 13%), and that a quarter of all benefits are fraudulently claimed (it’s really 0.7%). But this book makes a startlingly zen-like observation – the British public is both wrong and right about politics, both stupid and wise. Individually, we’re trivial idiots; collectively, we’re almost never wrong.
Amongst the things I actually did learn here was that all this chat about the internet recalibrating democracy is just chat, in terms of voting it has changed nothing; and that there’s a built-in bias against the Conservatives in the way British constituencies are organized. This one was odd – it takes a lot more votes to elect each Conservative MP. This is because people are moving from the urban areas to the leafy suburbs, i.e. from Labour territory to Conservative territory, all the time in their upward striving. As Conservative governments improve the people’s life chances they at the same time make it harder for themselves to get re-elected. I liked that!
(Poor old Ed Miliband! The all time most unpopular Labour leader ever. The good news is that his party is much more popular than he is. David Cameron has the opposite problem. Now, if we could only persuade Mr Cameron to defect to Labour.... )
However, this is also true:
At the last election in 2010 nearly 45% of the poorest fifth of the population did not vote, compared to only 20% of the richest fifth.
THE ETHNIC VOTE
I will end with something not in the book. There’s a chapter on ethnic minority voting. In Britain, as in the USA, ethnic votes go solidly to the non-Conservative party, i.e. Labour. In USA, it’s the Democrats. I remember the BBC interviewing this Hispanic guy in Miami during Obama’s first election. “You, know,” he said, “Hispanic people are natural Republicans. The Republicans believe in small business, and we are all small businessmen; they believe in family values, and we are very strong on family values. They don’t want any gun control, and we don’t want any gun control. They hate abortion, and we hate abortion. But we all vote Democrat.” “Why is that?” asked the BBC man. “Well, you see, the Republicans don’t think we should be here in the first place.”
To my surprise this movie still stands up as a great horror film. Its power, wild kinetic energy and aura of rot and disgust are intact. Further surprTo my surprise this movie still stands up as a great horror film. Its power, wild kinetic energy and aura of rot and disgust are intact. Further surprises are found when watching it again after many years – there’s only one scene which has any blood in it, and there’s only one death-by-chainsaw in the whole movie. There’s no nudity, no swearing. Yet still the level of violence, physical and mental, is unremitting. This is the ur-text of slasher movies, and I think also for the torture porn we have been deluged with in recent years. (It’s recognised as the first movie to feature the Final Girl, the one who suffers but survives.)
So now I have to explain, if I hate all those slasher and torture porn movies, why The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is actually good. This will take the kind of fancy footwork Leatherface displays in the last amazing shot.
The answer is that TCSM is it, it’s pretty much all you ever need (should you need a high voltage film of terror in the first place). All the thousands of non-supernatural horror movies since 1974 have been riffs on this movie. Get a bunch of young people in a particular place and chop them up one by one. Make sure there are at least two hot young white women. (Essential.) That’s the plot. There are a handful of other non-supernatural horror movies of merit (The Fly, District 9, Calvaire) and they are the ones which aren’t riffs. So this is me saying – Dracula by Bram Stoker is a masterpiece, all the other vampire novels can be shredded (sorry Ann Rice). And this is true, unless you’re a genre fan. If you actually like the thousands of tiny variations of place, tone, character, ambience, costume, then you like your slasher or vampire or torture porn movies and novels, just like I like a lot of old blues, which are all variations on a single theme too. But for non-fans, all you need is the one good one.
What did Johann Sebastian Bach do with Goldberg? He wrote 30 variations on a theme for him. Goldberg didn’t say hey Johann, I only need one, thank you very much. He was glad to have all 30. He was a fan.
O UNHAPPY LEATHERFACE
Gunnar Hansen played Leatherface and his book is charm-charm-charming. His account reveals that the movie was made by a bunch of film students who were all trying to get some kind of career going, only one actor had any experience, and they basically made up how to do a movie as they went along. No props manager, no stuntmen, no health and safety advisor. This meant that the actors were flinging themselves about and accreting numerous minor injuries, and coming far too close to actual real whirring chainsaws, so that by the end of the 8 week shoot, in the 100-plus degree heat of Texas summer, they were beat, battered, bruised and abused and they never wanted to hear another word about chainsaws. They limped home!
The abuse didn’t stop there either – the movie, which none of them expected to do anything other than play a few Texas drive-ins, made let’s say between 50 and 100 million over the next 20 years, and they didn’t see any of that. Including Tobe Hooper, the director. So they had a horrible time making the movie, saw it become a top hit, and then got no pay for their pains. It’s one of many sad movie stories, all variations on another theme - the theme “what did we sign?”. This particular version features a company which was a front for the mafia. So, I guess, that’s where the money went.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The movie had several strokes of dumb luck which made it the thing of wonder it is. The only person to get a big career out of it was Tobe Hooper, the director, so was its brilliance down to him? Tobe or not Tobe, that is the question. The answer is that without the great cinematography, terrific musique concrete soundtrack, without Leatherface’s genius masks and unique character, and especially without the set design in the cannibal family home – all those mobiles and artworks made of bones, the furniture made of skeletons, the odd carcass lying around, sourced from the local unwittingly-generous Texas farmers and from one of the women whose day job was a veterinary assistant (the set stank to high heaven, what with the 100 degree heat, and the actors were in there for 16 hours a day) then of course, it would have been weird and watchable but not the unrelenting pit of stomach fall down an unsuspected manhole experience it is.
Leatherface is a nightmare. Gunnar was 6 feet 4 and they made him wear boots with three inch heels so he is enormous. But he moves fast, and he wears the horrible dried-human-face mask. And he doesn’t speak, except in pig-like squeals, very high pitched. Just when you are used to him as the lunatic chainsawyer, there’s a scene where he’s in the kitchen and he’s wearing a different dried-human-face mask, with make-up on it, and a wig of bountiful grey curls, and he’s puttering around with his apron on, and he’s MOTHER!
My other favourite scene is after Leatherface has grabbed and sledgehammered the first kid and meat-hooked and freezered the second kid, we see him go to the front window and draw the curtain, he looks out anxiously, right, left, right again, he’s very worried, sits down holding his head, very distressed – WHERE ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE COMING FROM? ARE THERE ANY MORE? He’s all on his own and he’s having to cope with a home invasion!
BANNED IN BRITAIN FOR YEARS
Undoubtedly the chef d’oeuvre in the movie’s menu of misery is the suffering of the main female character Sally played by Marilyn Burns. The second half of the movie is all about her running, screaming, jumping through windows, being recaptured, bound, gagged, nearly chainsawed, nearly being brained by Grandpa, running, running, with Leatherface in hot pursuit, screaming. You know, this is not King Lear. Dialogue is at a minimum. This movie is laying out the future of horror right here : the point of these movies is the detailed display of female suffering, "the necessary demise of the female" as my GR friend Jan Rice called it. That’s what we’re here for. The boys may die in horrible ways too (as they do here) but their deaths will take up little screen time. The camera wishes to linger on the bound and gagged and terrified female. So yes, these are sadistic, sexist, probably misogynistic movies. You can’t pretend otherwise, although critics have seen TCSM as a parody of the family or family values or as a comment on Vietnam or as vegetarian agitprop (meat is really murder!).
In the great documentary Video Nasties, there’s a clip of James Ferman, the head of the then British Board of Film Censors, saying why the movie was refused a certificate in Britain. It was according to him the unflinching focus on the suffering and agony of the young woman which takes up the last 25 minutes of the movie. In his opinion, this should not be permitted to be presented as entertainment. Well, naturally, all the movie buffs wrote him off as a stupid dinosaur – TCSM was shown at Cannes and bought by MoMA! It was art!
But maybe the old dinosaur from the 1980s had a point. Not that I’d want to go as far as to ban a movie showing 25 minutes of a female being tortured – I mean, what do you take me for? Banning a movie? That would be barbaric.
This book is neither fish nor fowl, ape nor apricot, neither a hawk nor a handsaw, but what it is is often quite aggravating. I had thought it would bThis book is neither fish nor fowl, ape nor apricot, neither a hawk nor a handsaw, but what it is is often quite aggravating. I had thought it would be a kind of absolute beginners guide to basic film ideas which is what I was after because although a movie fan I am, I am, all previous encounters with film theory have left me dismayed and in a state of mild-to-medium paralysis. With film theory I always end up more confused than before I started.
This book did not help that much. Probably not at all. I'm still an ignoramus, I can just drop a few names, that's all. This book doesn’t look advanced, i.e. for film students and theory geeks only, in fact it looks like it’s for me, with its 2 page lavishly illustrated entries on such stuff as Censorship, Poetic Realism, Blaxploitation, 3-D, Queer Cinema, and slightly more arcane stuff like Process Shots, Free Cinema, Persistence of Vision, Match Shots and the like. But this guy David Parkinson is clearly a geek and an early-film geek to boot, because for almost every entry we get
The diagonal tracking shots in Gionanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) proved so influential in taking the viewer into the heart of the scene that so-called “Cabiria movements” came to feature in such diverse pictures as Yevgeni Bauer’s The Child of the Big City (1914) and William J Bowman’s all-but-forgotten The Second-in-Command (1915).
Despite the popularity of American features like Traffic in Souls (1913) and Damaged Goods (1914), and German Aufklarungsfilme or enlightenment films such as Hyenas of Lust (1919), early exploitation was strictly censored.
(I’m not even sure that last sentence makes sense – just because these movies were popular, why wouldn’t they still be censored? Anyway, I digress.)
These 100 ideas are strung together in a loosely chronological fashion, from e.g. No. 3 The Kinetoscope to No 100 CGI but even in Idea No 98 Mr Parkinson is still banging on about The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) and Intolerance (1916). All these very early films are important and even though you’ll never have even one tiny impulse to go and watch them, you need to know this!
The other thing is that the author lapses into quart-in-a-pint-pot technogibber at various moments :
Point of View shots soon acquired prospective and retrospective uses. Exploiting cross-cutting and eyeline matches, film-makers also devised continuing, discovered, delayed, multiple, open and forged perspectives.
I would have liked some explanation about all those perspectives but no such luck.
The shifting line between on- and off-screen space was also crucial to the mise en scene style perfected by the likes of Max Ophuls and Kenji Mizoguchi. But the master of off-screen technique was Yasijiro Ozu, who used off-centre framing to exploit an image’s centrifugal force to guide the viewer to the edges of the frame and the real world that existed beyond. In order to achieve this, he devised a fully circular film space around which he could construct alternative axes of action and this create totally new spatial contexts throughout a scene.
I’m sure he knows what he’s talking about, and maybe if I saw these movies by Ozu I’d see straight away, but this is too compressed. Still, an awful lot of hard work has gone into this book, and there are great nuggets to be unearthed. Like
Two-hour pictures now contain upwards of 2000 shots, compared to 300-500 over 90 minutes in the studio era… the average shot lengths halving from four to two seconds between LA Confidential (1997) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004).
And you can’t beat insights like
The average feature contains around 40 minutes of music. However, some have none at all.
Aw, sorry, David Parkinson. Sometimes you lead with your chin.