Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Word of the day: Nowheresville

I don’t know how long the link will last, but the Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day is Nowheresville: “a largely unknown or uninteresting place, esp. a small, rural town; (also figurative) obscurity, insignificance, limbo; = Nowhereville n.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from 1917. A 1966 citation that caught my attention, from Time: “Sitting contentedly on the banks of the Illinois river in the very heartland of America, Peoria has for years been the butt of jokes, the gagman’s tag for Nowheresville.” Excuse me: Peoria is the second largest city in central Illinois (after Springfield). Nowheresville my eye.

You can subscribe to the OED Word of the Day from this page.

Harry’s Wagon

I like this diner, as seen in Dark Passage (dir. Delmar Daves, 1947). Harry’s Wagon was a genuine diner, at 1921 Post Street, San Francisco. Reel SF has the details.

[Click any image for a larger view.]

Vincent Parry/Allan Linnell (Humphrey Bogart) orders ham and eggs and coffee from the genial counterman (Tom Fadden). If it weren’t so early, or so late, the Hot Baked Ham might be tempting: Potatoes - Salad - Drink & Desert.

[“How’ll you have the eggs?” “Easy.” “Easy does it.”]

But that guy at the other end of the car? (That’s him in the first of these images.) He’s not just some guy. He’s a police detective (Douglas Kennedy), and that’s going to mean trouble.

Note the time: 4:45 a.m., and Harry’s Wagon is open for business.

[There’s never a conversation about how to spell Parry’s new name. In David Goodis’s 1946 novel it’s as I’ve spelled it here.]

An EXchange name sighting

[Dark Passage (dir. Delmar Daves, 1947). Click for a larger view.]

Dark Passage was filmed in part in San Francisco. According to a contributor to the Telephone Exchange Name Project, GReystone, seen on the cab’s hood, was indeed a San Francisco exchange name.

More EXchange names on screen
Act of Violence : The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse : Armored Car Robbery : Baby Face : Blast of Silence : The Blue Dahlia : Boardwalk Empire : Born Yesterday : The Brasher Doubloon : Chinatown : The Dark Corner : Deception : Deux hommes dans Manhattan : Dick Tracy’s Deception : Down Three Dark Streets : Dream House : East Side, West Side : The Little Giant : The Man Who Cheated Himself : Modern Marvels : Murder by Contract : Murder, My Sweet : My Week with Marilyn : Naked City (1) : Naked City (2) : Naked City (3) : Naked City (4) : Naked City (5) : Naked City (6) : Naked City (7) : Nightfall : Nightmare Alley : Perry Mason : The Public Enemy : Railroaded! : Side Street : Stage Fright : Sweet Smell of Success : Tension : This Gun for Hire : Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Shelby Lyman (1936–2019)

Shelby Lyman, the chess master who hosted PBS’s real-time coverage of the 1972 Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky world championship chess match, has died at the age of eighty-two. The New York Times has an obituary.

PBS’s coverage of the Fischer-Spassky match was a wonder. The actress Chris Chase introduced each broadcast. The moves came by teletype. The game unfolded on a large horizontal board whose squares were pockets holding flat cutout chess pieces. A small number of guest experts sat around a table with a chessboard, offering move-by-move commentary and analysis, with Shelby moving pieces on the large board to follow proposed lines of play before restoring the game in progress. I remember commentary from Edmar Mednis and the ultra-geeky Eugene Meyer (now — gasp — president of the Federalist Society). I remember working myself into a state of high anxiety watching the games.

[A photograph accompanying the Times obituary shows a different kind of display board. I remember a board with pockets, something like the pockets that hold circulation cards in library books. But I think I also remember pieces sliding down to the studio floor. Perhaps PBS switched boards at some point.]

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Twelve movies

[One to four stars. Four sentences each. No spoilers.]

Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears, 2013). Family separations, brought to you by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. From the true story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), who enlists the journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) in a search for her son, given to an adoptive couple without her consent fifty years earlier as she labored in a Magdalene laundry. A strange but effective combination of comedy (odd-couple-on-a-road-trip) and the deepest pain. Lee’s choice to forgive what many would consider unforgivable made me think of the late Eva Kor. ★★★★


Raw Deal (dir. Anthony Mann, 1948). If Anthony Mann is directing and John Alton is behind the camera, I know the movie is going to be good. This movie is much better than good: the story of an escaped convict (Dennis O’Keefe) in a triangle of sorts with his girlfriend (Claire Trevor) and his legal aide (Marsha Hunt). With Raymond Burr as a crime boss and pyromaniac. My favorite line: “We’ll talk about it later.” ★★★★


Swann in Love (dir. Volker Schlöndorff, 1984). Now available from the Criterion Channel, adapted from Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, with Jeremy Irons as Charles Swann, and Ornella Muti as Odette de Crecy (both dubbed in French). Proust’s unnamed narrator is missing, except perhaps for a hint of his presence at the film’s end — which might speak to the difficulty of turning this novel into a film. With cinematography by Sven Nykvist, the film is a visual feast, like a series of paintings for the screen, full of light and wealth. Bonus: Alain Delon as Baron de Charlus, eyes roaming everywhere. ★★★★


All Night Long (dir. Basil Dearden, 1962). Another Criterion find, a reimagining of Othello among jazz musicians gathered for an all-night anniversary party and jam session. Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) is a pianist, a kinda Dukish figure, married to Delia Lane (Marti Stevens), a now-retired singer. Patrick McGoohan is Johnny Cousin, drummer and schemer (cousin = cozen?) who sets out to destroy the marriage. With a post-Marty Betsy Blair and an all-too-brief glimpse of Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus duetting. ★★★★


12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet, 1957). The television listings promised the Jack Lemmon–George C. Scott remake, which I’ve never seen, but what aired was the original, so I watched again. The film makes such a strong visual impression: the frightened face of the nameless accused, Martin Balsam’s polo shirt and tie, John Fiedler’s pipe and glasses, Jack Warden’s hat, Henry Fonda’s white suit, Joseph Sweeney’s wide-awake face, George Voskovec’s stately hair and mustache. In 2019, the story seems more timely than ever: the folklore of what some unspecified “they” are like, the rush to judgment (recall a certain public figure’s rants about the Central Park Five). And yet in this jury room, reason prevails, reminding us of the fragility, not strength, of our judicial system. ★★★★


Gabrielle (dir. Louise Archambault, 2013). Love and sex and disability. Gabrielle (Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who herself has Williams syndrome) is a young woman who sings in a chorus of adults with disabilities, where she and fellow singer Martin (Alexandre Landry) fall in love. This film has an extraordinary humanity and tact: there’s never a name put to anyone’s disability, and the very idea of disability evaporates in the face of the young singers’ deep musicality. My favorite moment: Robert Charlesbois (is he something like a Canadian Neil Diamond?) shows up to sing with the chorus. ★★★★


The Killers (dir. Robert Siodmak, 1946). There’s the cinematography — that light, those shadows, both by Elwood Bredell, whose name means nothing to me (yet). And there’s the great diner scene, with a fussy little proprietor (Harry Hayden) who begins to realize that he’s in a film noir (strange how that works). And there’s the increasing flexibility with which the film (a loose adaptation of a Hemingway stop) handles time, flashing back, and sometimes back again, as insurance investigator Edmond O’Brien tries to get to the bottom of the murder of “the Swede” (Burt Lancaster). Excellent performances by Sam Levene as a police detective and friend of the deceased, and Ava Gardner as a nearly silent incarnation of danger. ★★★★


Echo in the Canyon (dir. Andrew Slater, 2019). A look back at the folk-rock world of Laurel Canyon circa 1965–1967, with period footage, interviews with survivors, and not especially convincing performances by younger musicians of songs by the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, &c. Jakob Dylan, who is front and center throughout, is a dismal interviewer, giving back little or nothing to his partners in (strained) conversation, as in the cringeworthy living-room-sofa scenes. The film presents a highly reductive Norton Anthology of music: Frank Zappa, then in the Canyon, gets a mere namecheck in an anecdote; Canned Heat and The Doors, then in the Canyon, go unmentioned; Joni Mitchell — because she wasn’t yet there? — goes unmentioned; everyone who didn’t make it as a star goes unmentioned; and the musical line of greatness goes from Rubber Soul to Pet Sounds to Sgt. Pepper and stops there. And if it’s really true that “poetic depth and grace” didn’t enter pop music until 1965 (via the Byrds), I’ll eat my Nehru jacket. ★★


Transit (dir. Christian Petzold, 2018). A brilliant movie that collapses historical time into an eternal fascist present: France then is France in some near future, falling to German forces, as people are rounded up and neighborhoods “cleansed.” A writer-as-emigre theme suggests Stefan Zweig; the film’s title and plot recall elements of Casablanca, with a German refugee holding the magical papers that will permit two people to sail from Marseille. I was also reminded of the complex strategies of substitution in Toni Morrison’s Jazz: every relationship here is a substitute for some other relationship. With Franz Rogowski (who looks like a haunted figure from a Kafka story) and Paula Beer (Frantz), Transit is the best new movie I’ve seen this year. ★★★★


Dark Passage (dir. Delmar Daves, 1947). A great vehicle for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, with Bogart as an escaped convict wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Lauren Bacall has her reasons for helping him. Like Casablanca, the film breaks into memorable bits — the circus tent, the station wagon, “Finish your smoke,” the cab ride (Tom D’Andrea), the trumpet, the surgeon (Houseley Stevenson), Madge (Agnes Moorehead) at the little window, Harry’s Wagon, and the final scene, with Bogart as a South American Rick. How Moorehead didn’t receive third billing is beyond me. ★★★★


Obit (dir. Vanessa Gould, 2016). A compelling look at the work of the New York Times obituary writers, who daily perform extraordinary efforts of research, writing, and revision against an unyielding 6:00 p.m. deadline. With brief explorations of the lives of obituary subjects — among them, and most movingly, David Foster Wallace, with a visibly sad Bruce Weber recounting his telephoning every Wallace in Champaign-Urbana to find the writer’s parents. A teacher of writing might find this film useful for its depiction of writers at work, collecting and checking facts, roughing out a structure, sweating each sentence. And the clippings in the Times morgue — oh my. ★★★★


The Tall Target (dir. Anthony Mann, 1951). Dick Powell stars as John Kennedy, a New York City police sergeant attempting to foil an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln (the so-called Baltimore plot). Lots of suspense and duplicity in close quarters: almost everything happens on a train, or next to a train, or under the wheels of a train, a steam engine, the Night Flyer to Washington. This unusual film is clear evidence that film noir does not require fedoras or cigarettes or the twentieth century. With Ruby Dee, Will Geer, Adolphe Menjou, and great cinematography by Paul Vogel. ★★★★

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)

Monday, August 19, 2019

Mike Pompeo, heat-seeking missile

From Susan B. Glasser’s New Yorker profile, “Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of Trump”:

As a former senior White House official told me, “There will never be any daylight publicly between him and Trump.” The former official said that, in private, too, Pompeo is “among the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump.” Even more bluntly, a former American ambassador told me, “He’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.”
I don’t know whether to lament or celebrate that metaphor. A heat-seeking missile would do a lot of damage to that ass.

Related reading
All OCA metaphor posts (Pinboard)

Domestic comedy

[The art-supplies store had an odd-looking wastebasket.]

“Would you recognize that as R2-D2?”

“No. My knowledge of Star Trek is pretty limited.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[Apparently it can be domestic comedy even if, or especially if, one isn’t trying to be funny.]

Sunday, August 18, 2019

“A kind of foreshortening”

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities. 1930–1943. Trans. Sophie Wilkins (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

This passage reminds me of what William Faulkner has to say about peace as a condition achieved in retrospect, “when the subconscious has got rid of the gnats and the tacks and the broken glass of experience.”

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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Start sharpening

The Crow has informed me that today, August 17, is National #2 Pencil Day. It’s not to be confused with National Pencil Day, which falls on March 30.

Have you noticed that people are once again saying “Happy National Pencil Day” and “Happy National #2 Pencil Day” instead of “Happy Holidays”? No, me neither. But a slightly belated Happy National #2 Pencil Day to all.

Thanks, Martha.

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All OCA pencil posts (Pinboard)