31 August 2011


I've got a couple of pieces of writing floating around out in the internets this week—

A new Sandman Meditations piece has been posted at Gestalt Mash. This week, the penultimate chapter of Brief Lives. If my counting is correct, this is the 50th Sandman Meditation. (The 50th issue of Sandman was "Ramadan", but because I'm reading the stories in the order of the trade collections rather than the original publication, I wrote about that issue back in June when I read it in Fables and Reflections.)

Over at Strange Horizons, it's Pat Cadigan week, and I've contributed an essay about some of the 1980s short stories that helped make Cadigan famous. It's a somewhat odd essay. I expect the nice young men in their clean white coats to show up at my door any moment...

Also, it's Strange Horizons Fund Drive time! The site exists through contributions. The staff are not paid, but the writers are (the reverse of many publisher's policies). Except for a brief hiatus during the end-of-the-year holidays, SH brings you new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry every week at no cost to the, uh, consumer. Donating is easy. Try it, kids, it's fun!

27 August 2011

The Reign of Good Queen Anne Was Culture's Palmiest Day

I hadn't read an ill-tempered screed against all things contemporary and academic for at least a couple of days, so it was with delight that I happened upon Joseph Epstein's Wall Street Journal review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel. What a hoot!

Some sadistic editor at the WSJ assigned Epstein to read and review a book that was never intended for people to just sit down to read. It's a reference book, something for library shelves, a book to be cited, and, for its contributors, a credit for touting. That's not to say it's not useful -- were you doing some research on a particular phase of American lit, it might give good guidance, and I would find it especially useful with undergraduates to show them the wide range of topics that can be thought about, analyzed, studied. Like a 1,200 page collection of academic essays about American history. Useful for various purposes, but not really something to take to the beach or the bed.

Properly categorizing and assessing this book isn't Epstein's priority, because he's not actually interested in the book itself. He wants to rant about the decline and fall of university English departments and the general decline of American culture. He's an inveterate conservative, and that's what they do. We can go to the WSJ to watch them as we might go to the Right-Wing Zoo and knock on the glass at the Crusty Curmudgeon exhibit.

26 August 2011

"The Priests of Alternative Minds"

From an interview conducted in 1977 by UCLA Ph.D. students with Raymond Durgnat, published in 2006 by Rouge:
DURGNAT: Brigid Brophy said that fundamentally a novel is a take-over bid for one’s ego, and that’s probably true for any work of art. Having an artist’s mind take over one’s own mind in a way that enriches it instead of obliterating it. So temporarily, for an hour and a half, I can become more like Dreyer or more like Minnelli or more like anybody than I could be any other way. The mere effort of adaptation seems to me to be a valuable spiritual exercise; even coming to understand a Fascist mind, for example, via Leni Riefenstahl. In a sense, artists are the priests of alternative minds, that is, of communication. Some artists are so rich one endlessly finds more in them. Or one finds them congenial, like old friends. Others one respects rather than likes. There are works of art which one knows are pretty simple-minded, but a sort of temporary regression is probably good for the soul, in small doses, and provided one doesn’t lower one’s standards about the nature of reality and the value of its reflection in art. [...] It’s in the nature of art to involve criticism, whether moral or social or whatever, because it’s in the nature of things to keep going wrong. That’s not a pessimistic view. Society isn’t one of those machines that can run itself. You seem to find my position confusing, but it’s very simple. I just want to be put inside an interesting mind which is as different as I can bear from my own for two hours. And then come back to being myself by thinking about it. But this implies a variety of response, and why I’m difficult to place is because I appreciate anything that is different and honest; and only in the second place do I ask, ‘Is it of a long term validity? Will I want to keep coming back to it?’

25 August 2011

Chaos Cinema

Scarface, 1932

There's an interesting two-part video essay by Matthias Stork posted at Press Play about what Stork calls "chaos cinema" -- action movies (mostly from the last 15 years or so) that violate classical principles of staging, framing, and cutting.

I am in sympathy with Stork's overall point, and one of my few absolutely fuddy-duddy tendencies is a belief that classical action composition and editing is usually superior to the chaos cinema style Stork identifies -- I often want to yell at directors like Christopher Nolan (who is five years older than me), "You kids will never understand why Howard Hawks is great!"

But I have some reservations about Stork's analysis. Basically, they are two: 1.) He interprets an aesthetic technique as a single type of moral expression; 2.) he assumes all audiences watch the way he does.

23 August 2011

Changes at Weird Tales

I was distraught to learn that Ann VanderMeer will no longer be the editor of Weird Tales.

During Ann's tenure, first as fiction editor and then as editor-in-chief, the magazine has been more exciting, alive, and contemporary than it had been in at least 60 years, publishing all sorts of different types of fiction from writers young and old, new and famous; writers known within particular popular genres and writers known better among the literati.

The magazine has been a joy to read. More than a joy, really, because it became an exciting magazine of surprises, and we need all those that we can get.

Ann's a great editor and will go on to many marvelous things in the future, as will the rest of the extremely talented staff. They worked wonders with limited resources, and I have no doubt the future holds great things for them all.

Today, though, is a sad one.

Thank you to everybody at Weird Tales over the last five years. You've got a lot to be proud of, and you've made a lasting contribution to the history of a magazine with a history that was already pretty impressive.

21 August 2011

Suffrage and Race

Over at Daily Kos, Denise Oliver Velez has posted a helpful overview of the complex history of civil rights struggles in the U.S., particularly the 19th century.
Just as the abolition movement spawned a struggle for women's suffrage, and the civil rights movement was the impetus for both second wave feminism and LGBT rights, the historical role of black women in the context of the suffrage movement is a key to understanding the founding of black women's clubs, sororities and political organizations. That history also explains the roots of the racial contradictions of second and third wave feminism and the development of black feminism.
She goes on to discuss the rift between Frederick Douglass and some of the most prominent white women's suffrage activists after black men were enfranchised, as well as some of the later conflicts and complexities -- a history that had some eerie resonances during the 2008 election (for a good account of which, see Rebecca Traister's Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women [a book far better than its hyperbolic subtitle might suggest]).

I was particularly interested to discover, via Velez, a review by Rebecca Edwards of the PBS documentary Not for Ourselves Alone in The Journal for Multimedia History. In the Feminism in America course that I sometimes teach, I use a few of the resources and documents from the program's website, but not the documentary itself because of exactly the limitations Edwards points to -- the oversimplification of complex and contradictory historical figures. The history is more interesting than Not for Ourselves Alone shows.

Over the past couple of decades, a lot of good work has been done to add complexity and nuance to our view of the struggle for suffrage. I'm particularly fond not only of the book Velez draws a lot of information from, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote by Roselyn Terborg-Penn, but also such books as White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States by Louise Michele Newman (pretty academic and bit tough going at times, but worth the effort -- I don't know of another book that shows the connections between racism and imperialism in the suffrage struggle so well), Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves by Deborah Gray White (among other virtues, this provides plenty of challenge to the naive view that black women somehow all have the same opinions about everything), Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith (spiritualism, free love, utopia, drugs, internecine struggles -- this book has it all!), Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings (a comprehensive biography of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, which is to say: a really fascinating book), and Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland by Linda J. Lumsden (Lumsden is particularly good on contradictions of class in Milholland's life, and it's a fascinating life). That list is just some favorites I could think of off the top of my head, and it's not at all comprehensive, but just glancing at any of those will show that suffrage in the U.S. is an amazingly rich history -- and Denise Oliver Velez's post does a fine job of showing some of that richness.

20 August 2011

Kubrick in Montage and Mosaic

Stanley Kubrick didn't make a lot of movies, but his is, nonetheless, one of the great artistic oeuvres of the 20th century. Here's a lovely, hypnotic montage, created by Richard Vezina, drawing on everything from Killer's Kiss to Eyes Wide Shut (with the exclusion of Spartacus, a film that was pretty much work-for-hire). I recommend clicking on the full-screen button at the bottom right corner, not only because Kubrick is best on as large a screen as possible, but because one of the interesting things Vezina does is create mosaics from multiple shots.

(Note that there is nudity and violence in this video.)

(via Film Detail)

19 August 2011


Jason Zinoman at The New York Times asked a group of film directors and writers to name "the scariest movie they’d ever seen", and got a lot of overlapping answers from a relatively broad group of people -- The Shining, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing.

What most interested me was not the choices, but the reasons. People respond to films (and all forms of art) in diverse and unpredictable ways. Marti Noxon, for instance, lists The Blair Witch Project as one of only two movies (along with The Exorcist) "that have kept me awake as an adult"; on the other hand, I found Blair Witch to be a useful remedy for insomnia.

Many of the responses hark back to childhood reactions, and this is understandable -- children are generally easier to scare than adults, and our early experiences, before we have been numbed and carapaced by life, tend to be the most vivid and visceral. (In 1985, I thought Terror at London Bridge was unbearably frightening. Now? Not so much.)

18 August 2011

Eight years

The room in which The Mumpsimus was born. Photo from February 2007.

Well, golly. Today marks eight years since I created this blog back in 2003. I didn't post anything beyond the definition of the word "mumpsimus" on that first day, but then things got going with a post about a story by James Patrick Kelly after a brief statement of purpose.

The statement of purpose ended by saying, "Who knows what will come of all this?"

What became of it was certainly more than I ever expected. The busiest time for the blog, in terms of posts and of visits from readers, were the first few years, particularly 2004 and 2005. There weren't a whole lot of other people doing what I was doing, and it felt like everybody who was writing blogs about books and literature of any sort knew and read each other (hence the creation of the Litblog Co-op). But the blogosphere expanded rapidly, and one day it seemed like there were 1,000 book blogs out there. And a lot of us stopped thinking of ourselves as fundamentally book bloggers, for various reasons. I still write a few reviews a year, but usually for places other than this blog, and though I've always written about film here (the 6th post on the site was about Brazil), I've grown more and more interested in writing about it as over the last few years I've been involved in making some movies and have started teaching film and media courses.

The blog wouldn't have survived if it couldn't change along with me, and it really has -- not just visually, as this Wayback Machine capture of the site in the fall of 2003 attests. It's always been a place where I've tested out ideas, basically presenting a first-draft face to the world, which wasn't scary until suddenly, when I got some links from well-trafficked sites in 2004, people were looking. A lot of those early posts seem embarrassingly awkward, naive, and wrongheaded now, but there are recent posts that are awkward, naive, and wrongheaded, too. That's the territory, the necessary risk for any endeavor like this.

15 August 2011

Spoiled Again!

Arguments about "spoilers" are [SPOILER ALERT!] tedious and annoying, and nobody who feels strongly about such things one way or the other will ever convince the fanatics people on the other side to agree with them, so such arguments are a huge waste of time and energy, and I have vowed [SPOILER ALERT!] to stay out of them for ever and ever and evermore, but now the film scholar David Bordwell has gone and made a fascinating blog post about [SPOILER ALERT!] how spoiler standards have changed and shifted over time and in various circumstances. Very much worth reading.

14 August 2011

Leon Morin, Priest

How strange to see a Jean-Pierre Melville movie where none of the characters wear trenchcoats or fedoras!

Melville was a king of style, his best films usually tales of gangsters who are looking for a portal back to the Hollywood movies they fell out of. Leon Morin, Priest, though, is the middle of a trilogy of movies in which Melville tried to capture the experience of France during World War II, a time when Melville himself had been soldier in the Resistance -- the first, The Silence of the Sea, was his first feature as director, the third, Army of Shadows, is his most epic masterpiece, the film where he was able to bring together all of his interests, passions, and proclivities, giving them a depth and resonance they'd not quite had before.

Leon Morin was originally going to be more epic than it is, but part of Melville's goal in making it was to create a more commercial and popular movie than he had before, and so he sacrificed as much as he could bear to that goal. His first cut ran about three hours, whereas the new U.S. edition from Criterion runs 117 minutes. What Melville reportedly cut -- and this is supported by the two (tantalizingly short) deleted scenes included on the Criterion disc -- was a lot of material about everyday life in France during the Nazi occupation. The released version of the film focuses primarily on the protagonist, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), and the object of her fascination, the priest Leon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Traces of the cut scenes haunt the film in a few anomalous and inexplicable moments, but these contribute to the overall feeling of the occupation's remote terror, like the sounds of tanks and gunshots just beyond Barny's window at night. Mostly, this is a movie about Barny's loneliness and the emotional perils that loneliness brings her to.

10 August 2011

On Stand By Me

The House Next Door has now published a piece I wrote for the 25th anniversary of Stand By Me:
During the summer of 1986, my friends and I all thought Stand By Me was the greatest movie ever made, and we were sure it had been made for us, because though the characters in the film were a year or two older than we were, and though the story was set during our parents' teenage years, we could all see ourselves in one of the four main characters. No film had ever seemed more real to me, more true, more beautiful. I was ten years old.

08 August 2011

On Trouble and Her Friends

Strange Horizons has posted my review of Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends, recently re-issued by Tor. I went in expecting to love the book, or at least enjoy it, because my admiration for the novel Scott published after Trouble, Shadow Man, is boundless. (I've called it "one of the great science fiction novels of the past 25 years," and I do believe that.) Unfortunately, and much to my sadness, I didn't think Trouble and Her Friends has survived the years quite as well.

06 August 2011


Last summer, some friends and I got together and very quickly made a 40-minute horror movie, because ... well, that's what friends do together, right? I've now put it online so that everybody can see the sort of mischief we get up to here in the woods of New Hampshire. For more details, see its Vimeo page.

(Note: It's got adult language and some gore.)

02 August 2011

Trying Out Google Plus

I'm giving Google Plus a test run, because with the Start Google Plus browser extension, I've been able to link all of my Facebook and Twitter feeds in a way that is not overwhelming, and so it looks like I might be able to use Plus as a single hub from which to access various forms of social networking clearly. Using Plus's circles, it's really easy to keep track of various groups of people, so I'm perfectly happy to add folks I don't know, which I don't do with Facebook, because I hate just about everything with Facebook's interface.

I don't promise to be a prolific poster on Plus (I'm not prolific on Facebook or Twitter), but if you want to add me, here's my profile, and I'll probably reciprocate. (I say probably because I'm still exploring the technology and don't want to make any categorical promises! My great fear is somehow I'll stop following somebody and then they'll think I hate them and I won't even have realized I've done it. Maybe I should create circles for my various anxieties...)