2014 summary (with lots of pictures)

Grotesque Ground summary 2014

Calm down, it’s not another summary of what happened in 2014. I want to share with you a few lists of movies and books that I found important in the previous year. I don’t care about keeping up-to-date with new releases, so it’s going to be the summary of what I actually saw and read in 2014. I think it’s not so much about creating such a post, but about revealing your interests and taste in the process.

I never used so many pictures on this blog. And there are two embedded videos. Let the visual craziness begin!

I also decided to keep things chronologically unless you see numbers. The numbers matter then.

Honorable mentions

Movie that surprised me the most

  • Gösta Berlings saga (1924)
Greta Garbo Saga of Gosta Berling 1924
Stunning Greta Garbo in “Gösta Berlings saga”

I expected a boring but necessary for my movie education experience. I watched a gripping and extremely entertaining historical romance that does not stop its pace for 185 minutes. I cannot recommend it enough for every silent movie fan.

Movie that every blogger seems to rave over and I couldn’t stand

  • Frank (2014)

It totally did not appeal to my taste. It’s not grotesque, but quirky. Nothing bad with quirky, just don’t expect me to like it. Let’s leave it at that because I have only bad things to say about “Frank”.

Three masterpieces that prove Japanese movies are simply fearless

  • "Ichi the Killer' poster. Don't google this film if you cannot stand gore. The movie has plenty of guts (pun intended).
    “Ichi the Killer’ poster. Don’t google this film if you cannot stand gore. The movie has plenty of guts (pun intended).

    Hana-Bi (1997)

  • Koroshiya 1 (Ichi the Killer) (2001)
  • Tetsuo (Tetsuo, the Iron Man ) (1989)

  Movies I have to see again to fully appreciate

  • Pafekuto buru (Perfect Blue) (1997)
  • Papurika (Paprika) (2006)

If you want to know why, just listen to this great song from Paprika soundtrack and try not to go crazy in the process.

Sometimes too much awesomeness is too much to handle. By the way, Inception is said to be an imperfect copy of Paprika.

Movies I recommend

  • Teorema (1968)
  • Prestuplenie i nakazanie (Crime and Punishment) (1970)
  • The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
  • Dreams (1990)
  • Nothing Is Private (2007)
  • Geoul sok euro (Into the Mirror) (2008)
  • Prisoners (2013)
Martin Sheen creeps up on Jodie Foster in"The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane" 1976
Martin Sheen creeps up on Jodie Foster in “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” (1976)

 Movies that evoked mixed feelings

  • Shame (2011)
  • Interstellar (2014)

The best documentaryDune_The Emperor's Palace_ Chris Foss

  • Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) – read my review here

 

 The best movie I watched in cinema

  • Nightcrawler (2014) – read my review here

Nightcrawler 2014 Jake Gyllenhaal

The worst movie I watched in cinema

  • Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Movies you may be surprised I really enjoyed

john-carter-city 2012
“John Carter”. I regret nothing.
  •     Charlotte’s Web (2006)
  •     John Carter (2012)
  •     We’re the Millers (2013)

The fan favorite I agree with

  • Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Like I wrote on my twitter in August, as a lover of grotesque I always support talking raccoons as badass characters.

The Grand Ones

The best movies I watched in 2014

1. Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) (1960)

2. The Holy Mountain (1973)

The Holy Mountain Alejandro Jodorowsky hat two women
“The world seems crazy to Jodorowsky and I think that he deliberately shocks to make us notice it.” (my review)

3. Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom 1960 Karlheinz Böhm kisses camera
The British masterpiece which shows ambiguous portrait of the serial killer. Karlheinz Böhm, here shown kissing the camera, gives an extremely strong performance.

4. Ichi the Killer (2001)

Ichi the Killer 2001 - Tadanobu Asano Kakihara smoke
Tadanobu Asano as Kakihara is the best psychotic antagonist in recent cinema history.

5. Stoker (2013)

Stoker 2013 Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker
Every shot in this movie is perfect . All performances are superb. Here Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker.

6. Ugetsu monogatari (Ugetsu) (1953)

Ugetsu Monogatari 1953
Beautiful fantasy about old Japan when ghosts walked among people.

7. Gösta Berlings saga (1924)

Gosta Berlings Saga 1924 Lars Hanson Greta Garbo
Lars Hanson and Greta Garbo expressing great emotions. Today’s romances and adventure movies could learn a lot from The Saga of Gosta Berling.

8. Accattone (1961)

Accattone 1961  Franco Citti
Can a movie about a pimp be beautiful and fascinating? Of course, if Pier Paolo Pasolini is directing.

9. La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)

La grande bellezza The Great Beauty 2013 Toni Servillo
Accused of being Fellini’s copycat, I see this movie as a distinct and very interesting voice.

10. Tetsuo (1989)

Tetsuo 1989 lovers faces
This movie is insane! David Cronenberg’s fans will love it. But I don’t recommend it to unprepared viewers. A movie that deserves R rating.

Grotesque involved

Grotesque masterpieces

  • The Holy Mountain (1973) – my review here
  • The Day of the Locust (1975) – my review here

Grotesque movies I should also review

  • Tetsuo (Tetsuo, the Iron Man ) (1989)

  • Koroshiya 1 (Ichi the Killer) (2001)

  • Ubu król (King Ubu) (2003)

  • Den brysomme mannen (The Bothersome Man) (2006)

  • Papurika (Paprika) (2006)

  • La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)

 

2014 Reading list

Grotesque favorites

  • Saki – The Best of Saki – read my review hereMiss Lonelyhearts The Day of the Locust Nathanael West cover
  • Nathanael West – Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
  • Nathanael West – The Day of the Locust (1939)
  • Flannery O’Connor – The Violent Bear It Away (1960)
  • Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Bestsellers I recommend

  • Kathryn Stockett – The Help (2009)
  • Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl (2012)

The most entertaining book

  • Boris Akunin – The Winter Queen (1998)The Winter Queen Azazel Boris Akunin cover

A skillfully crafted mystery novel that successfully imitates 19th-century style of writing. Very funny at times. And full of surprises. I think I will read more of Erast Fandorin’s adventures soon.

The best fantasy series

  • Michael J. Sullivan – The Riyria Revelations (2008-2012)

I just ended “The Emerald Storm” (which is book #4 out of 6). I hope for even more action and drama in two last books. And if I won’t have enough of the adventures of two rogues who always end up in troubles (and political intrigues), the author also wrote two prequels.

Riyria Revelations covers Michael J. Sullivan
Six books of sheer fun in three volumes.

The best gritty books

  • Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men (1946)
  • Hubert Selby, Jr. – Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)
  • James Dickey – Deliverance (1970)

The best academic read

  • Noël Carroll – The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (1990)

I think it deserves a post on its own.

 Ultimate choice

The Crying of Lot 49 Thomas Pynchon cover
So much going on in such a short book. I had read it before and will read it again in the future.

The best books I read in 2014

  1. Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
  2. Saul Bellow – Herzog (1964)
  3. E. L. Doctorow – Ragtime (1975)
  4. Hubert Selby, Jr. – Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)
  5. Flannery O’Connor – The Violent Bear It Away (1960)

These five books are so good, no short descriptions could give them justice. They all happen to be classics now, so I think you will find them in your local library. All are worth your time. I own three copies out of five at this point.

Herzog_Ragtime_Last Exit to Brooklyn_The Violent Bear It Away_covers

You may notice the discrepancy between movies and books in this post. What can I say? I read 60 books in 2014, but many of these are simply OK, neither so good I can recommend them, nor so bad I should warn you against them.

 ***

I drew a few conclusions after writing this post.

  1. I seem to cherish great movies with serial killers/murderers/troubled people as main characters.
  2. I breathe the 1960s air. At least in terms of books.
  3. I respect Japanese cinema immensely.
  4. Only TWO movies on my best list are in English. And Peeping Tom is British while Stoker is UK/US coproduction. American cinema, although I watch it most frequently, failed to impress me in 2014. Even Nightcrawler couldn’t be included on the list, as I regard each film on the list a better one than Jake-Gyllenhaal-fest.
  5. All the grotesque movies I could review are not in English. *sigh* As I get the most readers from the United States, it seems I try to sabotage my own efforts. :D On the other hand, I cannot hide the fact that I consider cinema as international art and I watch movies from all around the world. And to be honest, the blog stats are unpredictable. Most popular post on my blog is The Holy Mountain one (this one).
  6. This year Pier Paolo Pasolini became one of my favorite directors (in this post you could spot Accattone and Teorema).
  7. I read way too many fantasy books that I didn’t include here.
  8. Weirdness and great script/plot are not incompatible.

eyes_without_a_face_franju

 I hope you liked this lengthy sum-up of my very subjective pursues. I certainly enjoyed creating all these categories. If you have similar posts or want to share your favorites/least favorites picks of 2014, don’t hesitate to post them in the comments below. I would love to hear about them!

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Short Story – “Brimstone and Marmalade” by Aaron Corwin

 

ShortStoryMonth_150x150Today’s post is a spontaneous one. It features a short story about one’s girl wish for a pony which ends unexpectedly. Or maybe not. It is both funny and sad. It contains the unmistakable feeling of childhood nostalgia. But if you have children, they will also love it.

Firstly, I must admit something. Somebody forgot to write a blog post about short stories and May is Short Story Month. Yes, I’m guilty. I love short stories and I forgot about this celebration. And May is coming to an end.

 

Then, a revelation!

I can recommend a little lovely funny gem that I read a while ago, called “Brimstone and Marmalade”, written by Aaron Corwin. You can read it for free on Tor.com or buy for 0,99 $ here.

It starts as follows:

brimstone and marmalade illustration by chris buzelliMathilde didn’t want a demon. She wanted a pony.

“Ponies are expensive,” Mathilde’s mother said. “How about a nice little demon instead?”

“I don’t want a demon!” Mathilde stamped her foot. “Demons are ugly and creepy and they smell bad!”

(. . .)

Peter Voorhees brought his demon to school once. It was scaly and slobbery, not sleek and pretty like a pony. It got loose in the classroom and tried to eat Mathilde’s hair.

How could anyone think that a demon was better than a pony?

But of course Mathilde gets a demon. Not an ordinary one, but a Miniature Dark Lord. Or rather IX’THOR, MASTER OF THE VENOMOUS PITS OF KARTHOOM.

He is just as awesome as you imagine him to be.

I love fantasy that does not treat itself super seriously while at the same time tells something important about the real world (Terry Pratchett’s novels are great examples of this attitude). The use of grotesque is obvious, but clever.

I think that the scenario presented here is familiar to most of the readers, yet replacing boring pets by demons is a brilliant idea. And IX’THOR deserves a whole novel devoted to himself and his sayings. I really hope that Aaron Corwin will write more in this style in the future. His short story suggests that he already found his voice as an author.

“The Best of Saki” by Saki

best-of-saki coverImagine a younger version of Oscar Wilde’s spokesman, Lord Henry Wotton from “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” standing in the crowd of wealthy upper-class people who do not see their pomposity and silliness. Your witty narrator notices the cruelty and dark desires hidden just underneath the fancy surface. Starting the narrative in medias res he describes what he sees without showing great attachment to characters. And each short story manages to engage you and amuse you. You will not laugh hysterically, but you will chuckle a lot if you read Saki’s short stories.

I got my edition from the library. It belongs to Penguin Popular Classics series (my favorite) and is entitled simply “The Best of Saki” (link). As this is my first encounter with this writer (real name Hector Hugh Munro. Maybe he should have kept it, it attracts the Nobel Prize in Literature), I cannot judge if the selection of 38 stories from his five collections is adequate. As for now, “The Chronicles of Clovis” (1911) collection appears to be the best, though “Beasts and Super-Beasts” (1914) falls close.

The Edwardian period in literature is not a familiar one to me. That’s what I thought when I read the term on the cover. Quick checking proved me wrong! The Edwardian era in England produced many excellent writers, among them Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Edith Wharton, and P. G. Wodehouse. But while most of these writers are widely read to this day (one of the reasons may lie in many film adaptations of their works), Saki is not one of them.

Saki 's photo
Young Saki’s photo portrait

He does not deserve to be forgotten. His short stories, or sketches as I prefer to call them, are funny, sophisticated, satirical and thought-provoking. To quote the cover of my edition, they are “wickedly amusing and as sharp and sparkling as cut glass.”

All stories are extremely short, 4-5 pages seems to be the norm. All people interested in writing short fiction should read Saki. The limits of length do not influence the style. Saki’s style is very elaborate in terms of vocabulary and grammar. The dialogues are especially cleverly crafted. The carefully composed sentences indeed sparkle with irony. Even if they may seem old-fashioned at times, they suggest a skillful writer who wrote with ease. Saki worked as a journalist and a foreign correspondent for many years before writing these stories.

Yet the subject of these sketches is rarely political. They focus on English aristocracy and its mixture of self-importance, ignorance and affluence. The events are often absurd and frequently switch from apparently normal to full-blown grotesque.

Consider the beginning of the short story “The Reticence of Lady Anne”:

Egbert came into the large, dimly lit drawing-room with the air of a man who is not certain whether he is entering a dovecote or a bomb factory, and is prepared for either eventuality.  The little domestic quarrel over the luncheon-table had not been fought to a definite finish, and the question was how far Lady Anne was in a mood to renew or forgo hostilities.  Her pose in the arm-chair by the tea-table was rather elaborately rigid; in the gloom of a December afternoon Egbert’s pince-nez did not materially help him to discern the expression of her face.

Egbert then engages in the often mocked scenario of trying to apologize for non-existent faults. The wife ignores him. Only the Persian cat, Don Tarquinio, watches him from the rug. Even Egbert’s statement: “I dare say (. . .) I may have been to blame.  I am willing, if I can thereby restore things to a happier standpoint, to undertake to lead a better life” does not improve the situation. He finally leaves the room to change for dinner, asking “Aren’t we being very silly?” as he walks off. Lady Anne is not impressed. The cat answers him “mentally”, thinking “A fool” as he proceeds to attack the cage with a bullfinch inside it.

It was the first time he had seemed to notice the bird’s existence, but he was carrying out a long-formed theory of action with the precision of mature deliberation.  The bullfinch, who had fancied himself something of a despot, depressed himself of a sudden into a third of his normal displacement; then he fell to a helpless wing-beating and shrill cheeping.  He had cost twenty-seven shillings without the cage, but Lady Anne made no sign of interfering.  She had been dead for two hours.

The end of the story. We do not know what Egbert and Lady Anne do (probably not much) and learn only some details about their artistic preferences. Their life together appears to be both safe and dull. Yet we get the whole absurdity of the picture when two married persons are so distant to one another that the husband does not touch his wife to check if she is all right. The pettiness of their concern over some minor details, like an unfortunate remark during lunch, is contrasted with the grave and inevitable mystery of death. And, of course, the result of the story could be predicted from the fact that a truly English Lady did not taste her tea at all. Only death could stop her from doing that!

paul-iribe-1905-elegant-parisienne-art-nouveau-style
This is how I imagine Saki’s characters to look like. (image by Paul Iribe)

The satirical and darkly comic anecdotes about high society are intermingled with stories containing fantastic elements. In “Gabriel-Ernest” the protagonist, Van Cheele, learns that there is a wild beast in his woods. He later meets a wild-looking naked sixteen-year-old boy. The boy, named by Van Cheele’s aunt Gabriel Ernest, is a werewolf whose favorite meal is children’s flesh.

The macabre accompanies the fanciness. Saki’s characters may joke a lot, but they are disillusioned and their feelings often drive them to the edge.

After the laugh comes the reflection that the world described in the stories ceased to exist after World War I. Many movies and books described this crucial change not only in life conditions and economy, but mainly in the people’s minds. There was no going back to the state before the war.

The Edwardian period writers dealt with the world that was coming to an end quickly. People tried to act honorably even if their deeds turned out silly or useless. This juxtaposition of high ideals and prosaic reality persists in Saki’s writing. It comes to me as no surprise that Saki, despite his apparent mocking tone and the age of 44, enlisted as a Private in 1914. He refused to take the commission he was offered. He was shot in the head while in the shallow trench by a German sniper in 1916.

My favorite recurring character in Saki’s stories is Clovis: extremely eloquent, cynical, wealthy young man who seems to be interested only in excellent food and tricking others.

You needn’t tell me that a man who doesn’t love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He’s simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed.

(Clovis in “The Match-Maker”)

Lizzy’s Literary Life blog describes Clovis in the following way: “Clovis spends his time visiting the higher classes, lounging around the lawns, sipping the cocktails and amusing himself at the expense of his hosts.  Injecting wicked, if not downright malicious comments at (in)appropriate intervals.” He goes away with that thanks to his position, intelligence and the wit that none of his interlocutors can successfully match. He reduces each problem to absurdity. Clovis can also easily adapt to changing circumstances.

In “Tobermory” the title cat is taught how to speak English. It proves disastrous as the upper-class ladies and gentlemen realize he knows everything about them, as he has been spying on them when hunting pigeons behind their windows.

The panic had indeed become general. A narrow ornamental balustrade ran in front of most of the bedroom windows at the Towers, and it was recalled with dismay that this had formed a favourite promenade for Tobermory at all hours, whence he could watch the pigeons—and heaven knew what else besides. If he intended to become reminiscent in his present outspoken strain the effect would be something more than disconcerting. Mrs. Cornett, who spent much time at her toilet table, and whose complexion was reputed to be of a nomadic though punctual disposition, looked as ill at ease as the Major. Miss Scrawen, who wrote fiercely sensuous poetry and led a blameless life, merely displayed irritation; if you are methodical and virtuous in private you don’t necessarily want every one to know it. Bertie van Tahn, who was so depraved at seventeen that he had long ago given up trying to be any worse, turned a dull shade of gardenia white, but he did not commit the error of dashing out of the room like Odo Finsberry, a young gentleman who was understood to be reading for the Church and who was possibly disturbed at the thought of scandals he might hear concerning other people. Clovis had the presence of mind to maintain a composed exterior; privately he was calculating how long it would take to procure a box of fancy mice through the agency of the EXCHANGE AND MART as a species of hush-money.

tobermory--kocomour-od-sakiho by Markéta Vydrová
“Tobermory” by Markéta Vydrová (link)

This attitude of cynical indifference and successful activity in both realistic and fantastic circumstances make Clovis a perfect guide in the grotesque world of Saki’s fiction. Clovis also fits the Trickster archetype when he tricks people into wild schemes just for his (and the readers’) amusement (“The She-Wolf” or “The Unrest-Cure”).

High-brow English humor may seem dated at times, but the true cruelty and macabre that lie beneath it are still striking today, one hundred years later.

You can read all of Saki’s short stories online as they are in the public domain and see for yourself if you like them. I recommend Project Gutenberg site http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/152 which provides simple html text, epub and Kindle format. For PDF format try Feedbooks http://www.feedbooks.com/book/3399/beasts-and-super-beasts.

To encourage you even more, I will quote Roxploration: “Many of the stories in this collection feature vicious beasts – a hyaena, a werewolf, a ferret, and a boar among others – and a powerful recurring theme is the perceived battle between the refinements of gentrified society and the raw power of nature – although, at times, it is the duchesses, dowagers and débutantes who can seem the more beastly in their behaviour.” The whole great review of “The Best of Saki” by Roxploration can be found here.

downton_abbey_poster season 1
The best show on TV.

And if you want to experience more Edwardian era feelings and learn more about the transition that WWI brought, I recommend “Downton Abbey” which is one of the best TV series that I ever watched. (I am finishing second season now, so no spoilers, please.) It concerns the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants who both live in the title country estate.

Please comment and do not hesitate to share your favorite Edwardian writers.

“Classics of the Macabre” by Daphne du Maurier

RomanaC - Hipster Guys Owls
This image fits the book perfectly.

A collection of six best short stories by Daphne du Maurier is a must-read for any horror and grotesque fan. This book will bring you nightmares. Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg felt compelled to adapt two of these stories to the big screen. After reading them, you won’t wonder why.

Daphne du Maurier's "Classics of the Macabre" book coverAs you might have noticed in my first post about Edgar Allan Poe’s “King Pest,” I love reading short stories. And I mostly agree with canonical rules that Poe established in his “The Philosophy of Composition” in 1846. Especially the one about “a distinct limit… to all works of literary art – the limit of a single sitting.” Simply put, a short story should be short! The number of characters should be limited and the whole story should have singular focus. However, there are some short stories that are more complex but are still able to captivate me in their worlds. Daphne du Maurier’ stories do it with ease.

I am going to discuss the stories from the oldest to the newest one and encourage you to read them without giving away any spoilers (as there are spectacular twists in some of them!).

The Apple Tree (1952)

An old man feels at last alive after his forever nagging wife died. But the twisted apple tree in the garden starts to make him uneasy as it hides the sun from a sweet young apple tree… The story concerns topics like guilt, love and appearances. Is the long-lasting marriage a really happy one? What does it mean to care for someone?

It is not my favorite, but I‘ve got a feeling I may appreciate this story more as I grow older.

The Birds (1952)

Hitchcock's "Birds" - birds waiting
Still from the movie “Birds” (1963)

An epic short story which will always be read thanks to a classic Hitchcock’s adaptation. Nevertheless, it must be said that the movie and the short story have only one thing in common: the title birds and their violent behavior. The protagonist in the short story is a WWII veteran who tries to save himself and his family from an invasion that no one is prepared for. The style is simple but full of gripping details: “He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as pointed forks.” The story has a more political overtone than the movie, but remains universal at the same time. How is one to protect oneself from the enemy that can be anywhere?

The Blue Lenses (1959)

Daphne du Maurier "The Blue Lenses" book coverMy favorite one and the most grotesque of the six. A woman is a patient of the expensive clinic after the eye surgery. The nurses and doctors take good care of her, everything seems fine. But after she has bandages removed, she sees other people heavily distorted…or not?

Basically, she sees everyone with a head of some animal in spite of a human head. Her nurses are a cow, a cat and a <spoiler removed>. Her doctor is a terrier. But her visiting husband turns out to be…

The mixture of human and animal features constitutes a basic element of grotesque imagery. It frightens and disturbs us. It goes back to ancient mythologies. Various cultures believed in creatures (or gods) of both humanoid and animal characteristics (centaur, manticore, Horus, etc.). However, when the mix is unexpected, it is a source of horror (think “The Island of Doctor Moreau” which I will certainly review some day). Animal heads in this short story possess mainly a symbolic meaning, giving away the true nature of each person.

It is a very ambiguous story, as the explanations for apparent sight malfunction may vary. It bases on psychological fear rather than physical repulsion, though a few disgusting elements also appear. I wonder why it isn’t more well-known. It certainly deserves it.

The Alibi (1959)

A seemingly normal middle-class man decides to murder somebody, it does not matter whom. He meets a desperate single mother in a desolate tenement house and decides she will be his victim. He begins to rent the room in her apartment. He pretends to be a painter, considering it the best alibi. But he cannot foresee everything…

Sometimes we may get a wrong impression that the end of the 20th century invented cold-blooded, perverse murderers and psychopaths as main characters. But literature always described sick individuals and their misdoings. I think that a sick human mind is one of the main focuses of art in general.

“The Alibi” remains shocking, even if we read similar stories, not only in literature, but also in the news.

Don’t Look Now (1970)

A married couple starts to recover after their small daughter’s death. They are on vacation in Venice. They meet a pair of strange-looking twin sisters. One of them is a blind prophetess who says that Christine, their daughter, worries about them and wants them to leave Venice immediately. They intend to leave but the skeptic man keeps seeing a figure of small girl in a red raincoat who seems to be in danger…

"Don't Look Now" the girl
Still from the movie “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

The movie by Nicolas Roeg is one of my favorite horrors, yet I enjoyed the short story. The adaptation differs in some details from the story, and the husband, played by Donald Sutherland, is in Venice because of his job. Also there is an infamous, rather explicit, sex scene which is only referred to in two sentences in the short story. Aw, the cinema of the 1970s!

The story is more ironic than the movie. I suggest you check both.

Not After Midnight (1971)

The weakest one in my opinion, still captures the sense of uneasiness in a strange land. The land is Crete, an island in Greece, where a lonely teacher decides to spend his holidays. He meets an odd American couple. The wife invites him to their house but “not after midnight.” The myth of Dionysus takes an important part in the story as the teacher discovers that the previous inhabitant of his house drowned. And he visited the couple beforehand.Theatrical masks. Roman mosaic from the 100s BC.All of du Maurier’s stories in this volume feature ordinary characters in the ordinary setting (home, garden, hospital, holiday resort) who face extraordinary, or even surreal, challenges.

I get the notion du Maurier says that while you fear the unknown, you should fear the known more. It may surprise you.

“Hollywood” by Charles Bukowski

“Hollywood” book cover

If you were to read only one documentary book about making movies,  I would suggest Hollywood by Charles Bukowski. It tells the story of his real Hollywood experience as a screen-writer of the movie Barfly. The screenplay was based on his actual life. (Do you get it? Life -> Screenplay -> Movie -> This book. So meta! )  The book is absolutely hilarious. I do not advise you to read it if you think that Hollywood is all about talented people in glamorous settings. And that movie industry is a rational area of business with only balanced individuals involved. Here you will meet all kinds of freaky, obsessed, and shaky human beings who at the same time are able to produce brilliant art. For any movie-goer it is an absolutely fascinating novel.

What spices the fun is the fact that it is Roman à clef (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_%C3%A0_clef) which means that you become involved in the quest for the actual actors, directors and moviemakers behind their false names. After all, what else could you expect from the writer who hid behind the person of “Henry Chinaski” (here again a narrator). This adds surrealism to the book: real people become characters in the novel, in this sense prolonging their existence through Bukowski’s mind. As I write these words, many of the characters in the book are dead, but in Hollywood they stays strong. However, I doubt if most of the people described here wanted to be remembered like that. As the author stresses all the time: Hollywood is all about falseness. People pretend to the media, hide behind their public image. For example, you cannot look at Mickey Rourke (the lead role in Barfly) in the same way. Bukowski portrays him as someone who only plays a tough guy, but often feels insecure.

Faye Dunaway, Charles Bukowski and Mickey Rourke on the set of “Barfly”

What is grotesque about this book? The contrast between prestige usually associated with movies and the reality that destroys this illusion. Chinaski is an outsider in Hollywood. He does not know this world, and he does not particularly care if the movie will get finished or not. The book does not disappoint in puzzling the readers. The characters are grotesque: needy, physically deformed, or mad.

Here is an excerpt, featuring Jean-Paul Sanrah (most probably Jean-Paul Sartre!) who is to find funds for the movie:

There was a fellow there who had the ability to raise money, to back films. This fellow, Jean-Paul Sanrah, had no money himself but it didn’t matter: they said he could jack off a statue in the park and money would emanate from the genitals. Great.  (. . .)

The door, as they say, was ajar. And Henri-Leon was trying to rouse a large body resting on this large bed. The body would not rouse.

I saw Henri-Leon reach into a bowl and grab a handful of icecubes. Two hands full. He pressed the icecubes against both sides of the face and on the forehead. He opened the shirt and rubbed the ice on the chest.

The body still didn’t rouse.

Then all at once it sat up, screamed: “YOU SON OF A BITCH, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? I’M GOING TO HAVE TO DEFROST MYSELF!”

“Jean-Paul, Jean-Paul…you have…visitors…”

“VISITORS? VISITORS? I NEED VISITORS LIKE A DOG NEEDS FLEAS! GO OUT THERE AND STUFF FROGS IN THEIR MOUTHS! PISS ON THEM! BURN THEM!”

“Jean-Paul, Jean-Paul. . . you had an appointment. . . with Jon Pinchot and his screenwriter…”

“All right…shit…I’ll be right out…I’m going to jack-off first. . . No, no, I’ll wait…something to look forward to…” (. . .)

Then Jean-Paul came trundling out. He was dressed in white pants with wide yellow stripes. Pink stockings. No shoes. His hair was all in brown curls, didn’t need combing. But the brown hair looked bad. Like it was dying and couldn’t make up its mind what color to be. He was undershirted and scratching. He kept scratching. (. . .)

Then, he stopped, seemed to see Pinchot.

“You want money, right?”

Pinchot smiled.

“Fucker, I will get you your god damned money,” said Jean-Paul.

“Thank you. I just told Chinaski, here, that you were a genius.” “Shut up!”

Then Jean-Paul looked at me.

“The best thing about your writing is that it excites the Institutionalized. Also those that should be excited. And that figure goes into the many millions. If you can only remain pure in your stupidity, someday you may get a phone call from hell.”

“Jean-Paul, I’ve already gotten those.”

“Yeah? Huh? Who?”

“X-girl friends.”

“YOU DULL ME!” he screamed and began circling the table again, scratching himself as he did so.

Then, after one last big circle, he ran to the bedroom, slammed the door and was gone.

“My brother,” said Henri-Leon, “is not feeling well today. He is upset.”

I reached around and refilled the glasses.

Charles Bukowski

How did you like it? Makes one want to read Sartre’s books, doesn’t it? :)

I also recommend watching Barfly. It is a very good movie. But after reading this book I was surprised it was ever made. Probably every movie has a similarly crazy background, but not every movie has a writer walking on set.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “King Pest” – Introduction to the Grotesque

Social status vs. death

A few years ago I bought a beautiful edition of Poe’s complete short stories and devoured it with great pleasure. To my pleasant surprise, Poe rewards his faithful followers. Sure, all of us heard about the infamous “The Black Cat” or “The Fall of the House of the Usher.” Poe is talked about at school to the point that we want to say “Nevermore!” However, it is the author that will reward you with wonderful, little-known gems when you read more that the canon.

“King Pest” is such a precious short story. It was very appropriately included in the collection “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque” in 1840. I think it can illustrate perfectly what the term grotesque means.

The plot is simple, yet the descriptions of places and people create an atmosphere that is rich with meaning. The style is extremely flowery on purpose. It contrasts with the horrific reality. The same with the events: they are treated humorously while remaining scary and disgusting. Add a bit of profanation and sexual exploitation and you have an ambiguous story that critics don’t know how to approach. The ambiguity haunts the grotesque. The bewildered audience is a preferable result.

Image inspired by the Black Death.

“King Pest” is like “The Hangover” if it happened in the 14th century London during the Black Death pandemic. Before the hangover part. It relates the adventure of two drunk sailors who venture into a deserted part of the city, escaping without payment from the local pub. They come across a strange meeting in the house that was previously inhabited by an undertaker. Six people sit around the table, four men, two women. Each of them is grotesque to the point that he or she stops resembling a human being.

It’s hard to choose my favorite. A lady with “a soft smile played about her mouth; but her nose, extremely long, thin, sinuous, flexible and pimpled, hung down far below her under lip, and in spite of the delicate manner in which she now and then moved it to one side or the other with her tongue”? Or a paralyzed man, “habited, somewhat uniquely, in a new and handsome mahogany coffin”?

Each of them calls himself a part of nobility and each of them is dying.

And the setting is so bizarre that it deserves a mention:

“Before each of the party lay a portion of a skull, which was used as a drinking cup. Overhead was suspended a human skeleton, by means of a rope tied round one of the legs and fastened to a ring in the ceiling. The other limb, confined by no such fetter, stuck off from the body at right angles, causing the whole loose and rattling frame to dangle and twirl about at the caprice of every occasional puff of wind which found its way into the apartment. In the cranium of this hideous thing lay quantity of ignited charcoal, which threw a fitful but vivid light over the entire scene; while coffins, and other wares appertaining to the shop of an undertaker, were piled high up around the room, and against the windows, preventing any ray from escaping into the street.”

I think it is every horror fan’s dream come true movie setting. The characters are not familiar but fascinating. The title character is a ruler of this place and he orders our two sailors to drink “a gallon of Black Strap.” If not, they shall be “duly drowned as rebels in yon hogshead of October beer.” The two men disagree and expose King Pest to be Tim Hurlygurly, the stage-player. The result is a brawl which ends up in the whole place being flooded by liquor. Two sailors escape, each kidnapping one lady.

The whole short story can be read here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/King_Pest

Arthur Rackham – Legs and Hugh Tarpaulin escape from King Pest’s court (a fragment)

Atmosphere of prevailing death dominates the story, though the pompous speeches are genuinely funny. I really like this story because it says something about human behavior during hard times. If you knew you were to die (and the whole world you had known with you), would you moan and pray? Or would you gather in a blasphemous setting, with people doomed like you, enjoying drinking, sex, luxury, and imaginary honors? Each reaction is probable, but the second one is  somehow less obvious. It can evoke pity, horror, disgust, laughter. Such mixed feelings are part of the genre called the grotesque.

I hope you enjoyed this opening post and I will see you here again. I plan to write about movies and books that belong to the grotesque genre. You will see what I mean in the next posts. Feel free to comment, like and subscribe. I am here to stay. :)