10 Years of Sunset Gun

Kim Morgan’s great site Sunset Gun turned 10 years old this August (a nice dovetail with Dorothy Parker’s recent birthday as well). Kim, who is one of the best writers working today, celebrates the moment by re-visiting the topic of her very first post, The Bad Seed.

Her writing has enriched my life. Seriously. It’s strange: I discovered her long before I discovered her site. As a matter of fact, the first piece I read by her (in Salon.com) went up before Sunset Gun came to life. The piece made such an impression on me that I printed it out. It was in a more innocent time where I still was devoted to having hard copies of things I felt were important.

Thanks be to archives, that piece, about the “barrel-chested man”, is now available via Salon’s archives. You can feel both the authority and the emotion in her voice. Her voice is unique. There is no other voice like it. It struck me immediately as someone I wanted to listen to.

Years later, I discovered her bright pink site (I can’t remember the first piece I read), and it would be awhile before I put it together – that this woman was the same woman who wrote that Salon piece I loved so much. When I figured it out, I thought to myself, “Of course. Of course. I would recognize that voice in a dark alley.”

Her topics are wide and deep. She writes about music (she’s written pieces on Dale Hawkins and Link Wray that are high watermarks for me), but also about film and actors. Her essay on the great Warren Oates is essential. And words can’t express how excited I am to see her video-essay on Oates in Criterion’s upcoming release of Monte Hellman’s The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. Kim gets Warren Oates like no other!

It’s rare that you discover a new writer who is actually exciting. I can count those instances on one hand. Kim Morgan is at the top of the list.

Happy birthday, Sunset Gun!

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The Best Concert Movies Ever Made

… in honor of Woodstock, which recently had its 45th anniversary, Jason Bailey at Flavorwire has put together a list of the 45 Greatest Concert Movies Ever Made.

I liked the brief paragraph describing Gimme Shelter:

In another — and much grislier — case of a documentary film crew getting more than they bargained for, the Maysles Brothers figured they were just doing an on-the-road rock doc. But the Altamont Free Concert wasn’t just the end of the Stones’ 1969 US tour; it was, for many, the end of the ‘60s, a woozy bad-vibes fest that culminated with the killing (caught on camera) of a festivalgoer by the Hell’s Angels. It’s a harrowing film, but not just in that moment; the Maysles make the viewers breathe in Altamont’s sinister air, the darkness tingeing the frame, the music, the fans, and the moment.

I re-watched that film recently and yes, harrowing is the word for it. That final freeze-frame of Jagger’s face, used by Criterion as the cover-image on their release of the film. Incredible.

And of course I’m thrilled at #43 and #16 on the list. Yes, yes, and yes.

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The Books: Essays of E.B. White, “The Geese”

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Next book on my essays bookshelf:

Essays of E. B. White

“Geese” is a perfect example of what E.B. White does like no other. It is difficult to pinpoint from where the magic emanates. It is difficult to actually label what he is DOING and why it is so damn effective. For all intents and purposes, this is a story about some geese he owns on his property in Maine. He is so good at observing animal behavior, and we’ve seen that before, it comes up repeatedly in his essays (and also in his books for children). So that is delightful. I love animals and it’s fun to “get to know them” through the eyes of someone so in tune with who they are and how they behave. But what isn’t so easily discussed is how an essay about geese manages to erupt a little volcano of sadness and mourning in me (and in others, I am sure). E.B. White does not anthropomorphize. But he does understand that animals have motivations, a reason why they do the things they do, and he unpacks that for us in the small family drama that occurs among the geese. So there’s that. But by the end of the story, I am feeling so melancholy and mournful, for some reason, and so the final line of the essay “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day” comes as a great affirmation of what I am feeling, an acknowledgement that yes, this is sad, and yes, E.B. White feels sad too.

But all along, at each step of the way, you are “merely” reading about the events in the Goose World. E.B. White does not make comparisons, does not try to widen the microscope into a telescope. He keeps his eye on the barnyard for the whole entire time.

It’s magic what he does.

The story is simple and tragic. A mother goose lays three eggs. Then one day, eggs not yet hatched, she falls down dead. E.B. White wanted to save the three eggs, and so he did a quick search to see if he could put the eggs under another hen in the district. Then he bought an incubator, but it was too high-maintenance for him and he thought, “Well, I’ll just buy three new goslings” – basically to give to the gander, who, in one day, was deprived of his mate and his offspring. He brings the goslings home and introduces them to their foster father. What then unfolds, as the makeshift family gels, makes up the majority of the essay. You cannot put it down. You wonder, “Oh God, I hope the gander likes the goslings” and “I hope the gander is okay with this turn of events” and “I hope the goslings thrive …” It’s a little cliffhanger. You care about these damn geese.

And the way it all turns out is perfect, and yet … and yet … there’s that last line to consider. Sadness is unleashed through the telling of the story … somehow … expertly … by E.B. White. I don’t know how he does it.

Excerpt here.

Excerpt from Essays of E. B. White, “The Geese”

My next concern was how to introduce these small creatures to their foster father, the old gander. I thought about that all the way home. I’ve had just enough experience with domesticated animals and birds to know that they are a bundle of eccentricities and crotchets, and I was not at all sure what sort of reception three strange youngsters would get from a gander who was full of sorrows and suspicions. (I once saw a gander, taken by surprise, seize a newly hatched gosling and hurl it the length of the barn floor.) I had an uneasy feeling that my three little charges might be dead within the hour, victims of a grief-crazed old fool. I decided to go slow. I fixed a makeshift pen for the goslings in the barn, arranged so that they would be separated from the gander but visible to him, and he would be visible to them. The old fellow, when he heard youthful voices, bustled right in to find out what was going on. He studied the scene in silence and with the greatest attention. I could not tell whether the look in his eye was one of malice or affection – a goose-s eye is a small round enigma. After observing this introductory scene for a while, I left and went into the house.

Half an hour later, I heard a commotion in the barnyard: the gander was in full cry. I hustled out. The goslings, impatient with life indoors, had escaped from their hastily constructed enclosure in the barn and had joined their foster father in the barnyard. The cries I had heard were his screams of welcome – the old bird was delighted with the turn that events had taken. His period of mourning was over, he now had interesting and useful work to do, and he threw himself into the role of father with immense satisfaction and zeal, hissing at me with renewed malevolence, shepherding the three children here and there, and running interference against real and imaginary enemies. My fears were laid to rest. In the rush of emotion that seized him at finding himself the head of a family, his thoughts turned immediately to the pond, and I watched admiringly as he guided the goslings down the long, tortuous course through the weedy lane and on down across the rough pasture between blueberry knolls and granite boulders. It was a sight to see him hold the heifers at bay so the procession could pass safely. Summer was upon us, the pond was alive again. I brought the three eggs up from the cellar and dispatched them to the town dump.

At first, I did not know the sex of my three goslings. But nothing on two legs grows any faster than a young goose, and by early fall it was obvious that I had drawn one male and two females. You tell the sex of a goose by its demeanor and its stance – the way it holds itself, its general approach to life. A gander carries his head high and affects a threatening attitude. Females go about with necks in a graceful arch and are less aggressive. My two young females looked like their mother, parti-colored. The young male was quite different. He feathered out white all over except for his wings, which were a very light, pearly gray. Afloat on the pond, he looked almost like a swan, with his tall, thin white neck and his cocked-up white tail – a real dandy, full of pompous thoughts and surly gestures.

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Happy Birthday, Dorothy Parker: “A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy.”

Dorothy Parker, near the end of her life, speaking of the Algonquin Round Table:

These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days — Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them. It was not legendary. I don’t mean that — but it wasn’t all that good. There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn’t have to be any truth.

Dorothy Parker was famous for her wit, sharp tongue, and incisive (sometimes brutal) opinions. After seeing a young Katharine Hepburn in one of Hepburn’s first Broadway roles, Parker wrote, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

She spoke and wrote the way her her mind worked: fast, caustic, competitive (she must win), and lethal. There are so many anecdotes about her, and who knows if they are all true, but I prefer to believe they are true, because somehow, strangely, it makes me believe in the possibility of WINNING. Of crushing an opponent, using just a few words. It may not be a lovable quality, but it is certainly a theatrical and literary quality. One of the most famous anecdotes is the story of Dorothy Parker and actress Clare Booth Luce approaching a narrow doorway. They both stopped, not being able to walk through it side by side. Clare Booth Luce, trying to be witty, said, gesturing for Parker to go first, “Age before beauty.” Parker swept through the door first, retorting, “Pearls before swine.”

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I love her for her unladylike devastating meanness, but I also love that her wit was not empty, or facile. It was a true expression of her sensibility (one aspect of it anyway), and it was always funny, which is not an easy task.

Her short stories are devastating, beautiful miniature portraits of loneliness and urban life. There is a sadness in her later interviews, an awareness that she was perhaps pigeon-holed, or she had pigeon-holed herself.

Here she is, during an interview with The Paris Review in 1956:

Like everybody was then, I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers. My verses are no damn good. Let’s face it, honey, my verse is terribly dated – as anything once fashionable is dreadful now. I gave it up, knowing it wasn’t getting any better, but nobody seemed to notice my magnificent gesture.

Bitter. But making bitterness funny (“magnificent gesture”). A real survival skill, so so useful to writers.

Another quote from the same interview:

I don’t want to be classed as a humorist. It makes me feel guilty. I’ve never read a good tough quotable female humorist, and I never was one myself. I couldn’t do it. A “smartcracker” they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.

This was her main struggle as a writer. I feel her “sick”-ness and “unhappiness” IN her writing, which gives it some of its oomph. She’s not a shallow person, as “wits” are often supposed to be. Quite the opposite. She’s devastated by phoniness, cruelty, bad writing. It hurts her.

She says in the Paris Review interview:

Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is a great book. And I thought William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness an extraordinary thing. The start of it took your heart and flung it over there. He writes like a god. But for most of my reading I go back to the old ones – for comfort. As you get older you go much farther back. I read Vanity Fair about a dozen times a year. I was a woman of eleven when I first read it – the thrill of that line “George Osborne lay dead with a bullet through his heart.” Sometimes I read, as an elegant friend of mine calls them, “who-did-its”. I love Sherlock Holmes. My life is so untidy and he’s so neat. But as for living novelists, I suppose E.M. Forster is the best, not knowing that that is, but at least he’s a semifinalist, wouldn’t you think?

She said once that humor needed “a disciplined eye and a wild mind”. To me, that perfectly describes her verses, which are tight as a drum, the rhyme schemes and rhythms almost a throwback to Longfellow, who writes rhymes and rhythms so perfect, that they must be read out loud for the sheer joy of them. There are, perhaps, verses more famous than the one I’m excerpting here today (her poem about suicide – “razors pain you”, her poem about “one perfect rose”) – but her four-line stunner about Oscar Wilde is one of my favorites.

Obviously, Wilde was a huge influence on Dorothy Parker. He had the same brutal eye, the same caustic perfection of thought encapsulated in his epigrams – and I would say that Parker, here, is “disciplined” and yet also very “wild”. It takes a wild broad mind to write something like this, but she has reined it all in to something perfect and cool and self-contained. One of her biggest gifts.

Oscar Wilde

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

I love that crazy mean dame.

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You Can Totally See Us In The Crowd.

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from Eminem’s Facebook page, picture of his recent concert with Rihanna at MetLife Stadium

… if you squint. If you squint really really hard. My sister Jean and I were sitting right above that little blurry line of red lights off in the far distance, in the middle of that line. We were in the third row. Come on, you can totally see us.

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The One I Love (2014)

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Super-fun with a great premise. Avoid spoilers if you can. There are no spoilers in my review at Rogerebert.com. I went into it not knowing the twist, and am glad I did. Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss are great. I enjoyed it a lot.

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Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (2014)

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The second Sin City doesn’t break new ground or explore that grimy world further or deeper. It kind of just sits in the same space that the first one did. However, I didn’t mind that. I love what it looks like, and I love the pleasure that the look of the film brings me. It covers up a multitude of flaws. And I know I’m in the minority, but I don’t have a problem with the portrayal of women at all.

Nothing really new here, and 3-D adds nothing. It kind of just sits there, in its sameness to the first. So. Take it for what it’s worth.

My review is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Praise for Love Streams

A beautiful and very kind (to the film and to my essay) review of Love Streams in the Oklahoma Gazette. Patrick Crain is great on the film and what makes it so unique. I love this:

As Robert Harmon, Cassavetes gives himself the role of a lifetime — the most representative of the Cassavetes Male. Complicated and layered, we understand Harmon in the same way we would as a fascinated onlooker. We’re not sure what drives him to be so selfish and shallow, but we’re intrigued anyway. He does insanely horrible things that we still seem to forgive due to the skill of Cassavetes as a charmer who knew how to make you realize that the majority of your friends are just as flawed as the characters he wrote and played.

Yes!

And Jake Cole reviews the DVD/Blu-Ray release of Love Streams for Slant Magazine. You can certainly feel the excitement everywhere about this film being released on DVD at all, let alone by Criterion.

You can order the film through Criterion, or it’s also available on Amazon. I’m sure it’s elsewhere, too, anywhere DVDs/Blu-Rays are sold. The Love Streams mania will soon pass. But in the meantime …

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Love Is Strange (2014)

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You guys, it is so so good. Don’t miss it.

My review is now up at Rogerebert.com.

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Sneak Peek: A Short Clip From My Video-Essay About Gena Rowlands

Love Streams is out now via Criterion.

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