Straightforwardness in a Belittered World

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

19th century engraving of Galapagos tortoises.

In view of the description given, may one be gay upon the Encantadas? Yes: that is, find one the gaiety, and he will be gay. And, indeed, sackcloth and ashes as they are, the isles are not perhaps unmitigated gloom. For while no spectator can deny their claims to a most solemn and superstitious consideration, no more than my firmest resolutions can decline to behold the specter-tortoise when emerging from its shadowy recess; yet even the tortoise, dark and melancholy as it is upon the back, still possesses a bright side; its calipee or breastplate being sometimes of a faint yellowish or golden tinge. Moreover, everyone knows that tortoises as well as turtles are of such a make that if you but put them on their backs you thereby expose their bright sides without the possibility of their recovering themselves, and turning into view the other. But after you have done this, and because you have done this, you should not swear that the tortoise has no dark side. Enjoy the bright, keep it turned up perpetually if you can, but be honest, and don’t deny the black. Neither should he who cannot turn the tortoise from its natural position so as to hide the darker and expose his livelier aspect, like a great October pumpkin in the sun, for that cause declare the creature to be one total inky blot. The tortoise is both black and bright. But let us to particulars.

Some months before my first stepping ashore upon the group, my ship was cruising in its close vicinity. One noon we found ourselves off the South Head of Albemarle, and not very far from the land. Partly by way of freak, and partly by way of spying out so strange a country, a boat’s crew was sent ashore, with orders to see all they could, and, besides, bring back whatever tortoises they could conveniently transport.

It was after sunset when the adventurers returned. I looked down over the ship’s high side as if looking down over the curb of a well, and dimly saw the damp boat deep in the sea with some unwonted weight. Ropes were dropped over, and presently three huge antediluvian-looking tortoises, after much straining, were landed on deck. They seemed hardly of the seed of earth. We had been broad upon the waters for five long months, a period amply sufficient to make all things of the land wear a fabulous hue to the dreamy mind. Had three Spanish custom-house officers boarded us then it is not unlikely that I should have curiously stared at them, felt of them, and stroked them, much as savages serve civilized guests. But instead of three custom-house officers, behold these really wondrous tortoises — none of your schoolboy mud turtles, but black as widower’s weeds, heavy as chests of plate, with vast shells medallioned and orbed like shields, and dented and blistered like shields that have breasted a battle, shaggy, too, here and there, with dark green moss, and slimy with the spray of the sea. These mystic creatures, suddenly translated by night from unutterable solitudes to our peopled deck, affected me in a manner not easy to unfold. They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world. Yea, they seemed the identical tortoises whereon the Hindu plants this total sphere. With a lantern I inspected them more closely. Such worshipful venerableness of aspect! Such furry greenness mantling the rude peelings and healing the fissures of their shattered shells. I no more saw three tortoises. They expanded — became transfigured. I seemed to see three Roman Coliseums in magnificent decay.

Ye oldest inhabitants of this or any other isle, said I, pray, give me the freedom of your three-walled towns.

The great feeling inspired by these creatures was that of age: dateless, indefinite endurance. And in fact that any other creature can live and breathe as long as the tortoise of the Encantadas, I will not readily believe. Not to hint of their known capacity of sustaining life while going without food for an entire year, consider that impregnable armor of their living mail. What other bodily being possesses such a citadel wherein to resist the assaults of Time?

As, lantern in hand, I scraped among the moss and beheld the ancient scars of bruises received in many a sullen fall among the marly mountains of the isle — scars strangely widened, swollen, half obliterate, and yet distorted like those sometimes found in the bark of very hoary trees, I seemed an antiquary of a geologist, studying the bird tracks and ciphers upon the exhumed slates trod by incredible creatures whose very ghosts are now defunct.

As I lay in my hammock that night, overhead I heard the slow weary draggings of the three ponderous strangers along the encumbered deck. Their stupidity or their resolution was so great that they never went aside for any impediment. One ceased his movements altogether just before the mid-watch. At sunrise I found him butted like a battering ram against the immovable foot of the foremast, and still striving, tooth and nail, to force the impossible passage. That these tortoises are the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical, enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them. I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path. Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world.

Meeting with no such hindrance as their companion did, the other tortoises merely fell foul of small stumbling blocks — buckets, blocks, and coils of rigging — and at times in the act of crawling over them would slip with an astounding rattle to the deck. Listening to these draggings and concussions, I thought me of the haunt from which they came: an isle full of metallic ravines and gulches, sunk bottomlessly into the hearts of splintered mountains, and covered for many miles with inextricable thickets. I then pictured these three straightforward monsters, century after century, writhing through the shades, grim as blacksmiths; crawling so slowly and ponderously that not only did toadstools and all fungus things grow beneath their feet, but a sooty moss sprouted upon their backs. With them I lost myself in volcanic mazes, brushed away endless boughs of rotting thickets, till finally in a dream I found myself sitting cross-legged upon the foremost, a Brahmin similarly mounted upon either side, forming a tripod of foreheads which upheld the universal cope.

Such was the wild nightmare begot by my first impression of the Encantadas tortoise. But next evening, strange to say, I sat down with my shipmates and made a merry repast from tortoise steaks and tortoise stews; and, supper over, out knife, and helped convert the three mighty concave shells into three fanciful soup tureens, and polished the three flat yellowish calipees into three gorgeous salvers.

— Herman Melville

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The Ambersons Were Magnificent in Their Day and Place

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1873, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.

In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and when there was a new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got to windows to see it go by. Trotters were out, in the winter afternoons, racing light sleighs on National Avenue and Tennessee Street; everybody recognized both the trotters and the drivers; and again knew them as well on summer evenings, when slim buggies whizzed by in renewals of the snow-time rivalry. For that matter, everybody knew everybody else’s family horse-and-carriage, could identify such a silhouette half a mile down the street, and thereby was sure who was going to market, or to a reception, or coming home from office or store to noon dinner or evening supper.

During the earlier years of this period, elegance of personal appearance was believed to rest more upon the texture of garments than upon their shaping. A silk dress needed no remodelling when it was a year or so old; it remained distinguished by merely remaining silk. Old men and governors wore broadcloth; “full dress” was broadcloth with “doeskin” trousers; and there were seen men of all ages to whom a hat meant only that rigid, tall silk thing known to impudence as a “stove-pipe.” In town and country these men would wear no other hat, and, without self-consciousness, they went rowing in such hats.

Shifting fashions of shape replaced aristocracy of texture: dressmakers, shoemakers, hatmakers, and tailors, increasing in cunning and in power, found means to make new clothes old. The long contagion of the “Derby” hat arrived: one season the crown of this hat would be a bucket; the next it would be a spoon. Every house still kept its bootjack, but high-topped boots gave way to shoes and “congress gaiters”; and these were played through fashions that shaped them now with toes like box-ends and now with toes like the prows of racing shells.

Trousers with a crease were considered plebeian; the crease proved that the garment had lain upon a shelf, and hence was “ready-made”; these betraying trousers were called “hand-me-downs,” in allusion to the shelf. In the early ‘eighties, while bangs and bustles were having their way with women, that variation of dandy known as the “dude” was invented: he wore trousers as tight as stockings, dagger-pointed shoes, a spoon “Derby,” a single-breasted coat called a “Chesterfield,” with short flaring skirts, a torturing cylindrical collar, laundered to a polish and three inches high, while his other neckgear might be a heavy, puffed cravat or a tiny bow fit for a doll’s braids. With evening dress he wore a tan overcoat so short that his black coat-tails hung visible, five inches below the over-coat; but after a season or two he lengthened his overcoat till it touched his heels, and he passed out of his tight trousers into trousers like great bags. Then, presently, he was seen no more, though the word that had been coined for him remained in the vocabularies of the impertinent.

It was a hairier day than this. Beards were to the wearers’ fancy, and things as strange as the Kaiserliche boar-tusk moustache were commonplace. “Side-burns” found nourishment upon childlike profiles; great Dundreary whiskers blew like tippets over young shoulders; moustaches were trained as lambrequins over forgotten mouths; and it was possible for a Senator of the United States to wear a mist of white whisker upon his throat only, not a newspaper in the land finding the ornament distinguished enough to warrant a lampoon. Surely no more is needed to prove that so short a time ago we were living in another age!

At the beginning of the Ambersons’ great period most of the houses of the Midland town were of a pleasant architecture. They lacked style, but also lacked pretentiousness, and whatever does not pretend at all has style enough. They stood in commodious yards, well shaded by leftover forest trees, elm and walnut and beech, with here and there a line of tall sycamores where the land had been made by filling bayous from the creek. The house of a “prominent resident,” facing Military Square, or National Avenue, or Tennessee Street, was built of brick upon a stone foundation, or of wood upon a brick foundation. Usually it had a “front porch” and a “back porch”; often a “side porch,” too. There was a “front hall”; there was a “side hall”; and sometimes a “back hall.” From the “front hall” opened three rooms, the “parlour,” the “sitting room,” and the “library”; and the library could show warrant to its title—for some reason these people bought books. Commonly, the family sat more in the library than in the “sitting room,” while callers, when they came formally, were kept to the “parlour,” a place of formidable polish and discomfort. The upholstery of the library furniture was a little shabby; but the hostile chairs and sofa of the “parlour” always looked new. For all the wear and tear they got they should have lasted a thousand years.

Upstairs were the bedrooms; “mother-and-father’s room” the largest; a smaller room for one or two sons another for one or two daughters; each of these rooms containing a double bed, a “washstand,” a “bureau,” a wardrobe, a little table, a rocking-chair, and often a chair or two that had been slightly damaged downstairs, but not enough to justify either the expense of repair or decisive abandonment in the attic. And there was always a “spare-room,” for visitors (where the sewing-machine usually was kept), and during the ‘seventies there developed an appreciation of the necessity for a bathroom. Therefore the architects placed bathrooms in the new houses, and the older houses tore out a cupboard or two, set up a boiler beside the kitchen stove, and sought a new godliness, each with its own bathroom. The great American plumber joke, that many-branched evergreen, was planted at this time.

At the rear of the house, upstairs was a bleak little chamber, called “the girl’s room,” and in the stable there was another bedroom, adjoining the hayloft, and called “the hired man’s room.” House and stable cost seven or eight thousand dollars to build, and people with that much money to invest in such comforts were classified as the Rich. They paid the inhabitant of “the girl’s room” two dollars a week, and, in the latter part of this period, two dollars and a half, and finally three dollars a week. She was Irish, ordinarily, or German or it might be Scandinavian, but never native to the land unless she happened to be a person of colour. The man or youth who lived in the stable had like wages, and sometimes he, too, was lately a steerage voyager, but much oftener he was coloured.

After sunrise, on pleasant mornings, the alleys behind the stables were gay; laughter and shouting went up and down their dusty lengths, with a lively accompaniment of curry-combs knocking against back fences and stable walls, for the darkies loved to curry their horses in the alley. Darkies always prefer to gossip in shouts instead of whispers; and they feel that profanity, unless it be vociferous, is almost worthless. Horrible phrases were caught by early rising children and carried to older people for definition, sometimes at inopportune moments; while less investigative children would often merely repeat the phrases in some subsequent flurry of agitation, and yet bring about consequences so emphatic as to be recalled with ease in middle life.

They have passed, those darky hired-men of the Midland town; and the introspective horses they curried and brushed and whacked and amiably cursed—those good old horses switch their tails at flies no more. For all their seeming permanence they might as well have been buffaloes—or the buffalo laprobes that grew bald in patches and used to slide from the careless drivers’ knees and hang unconcerned, half way to the ground. The stables have been transformed into other likenesses, or swept away, like the woodsheds where were kept the stove-wood and kindling that the “girl” and the “hired-man” always quarrelled over: who should fetch it. Horse and stable and woodshed, and the whole tribe of the “hired-man,” all are gone. They went quickly, yet so silently that we whom they served have not yet really noticed that they are vanished.

So with other vanishings. There were the little bunty street-cars on the long, single track that went its troubled way among the cobblestones. At the rear door of the car there was no platform, but a step where passengers clung in wet clumps when the weather was bad and the car crowded. The patrons—if not too absent-minded—put their fares into a slot; and no conductor paced the heaving floor, but the driver would rap remindingly with his elbow upon the glass of the door to his little open platform if the nickels and the passengers did not appear to coincide in number. A lone mule drew the car, and sometimes drew it off the track, when the passengers would get out and push it on again. They really owed it courtesies like this, for the car was genially accommodating: a lady could whistle to it from an upstairs window, and the car would halt at once and wait for her while she shut the window, put on her hat and cloak, went downstairs, found an umbrella, told the “girl” what to have for dinner, and came forth from the house.

The previous passengers made little objection to such gallantry on the part of the car: they were wont to expect as much for themselves on like occasion. In good weather the mule pulled the car a mile in a little less than twenty minutes, unless the stops were too long; but when the trolley-car came, doing its mile in five minutes and better, it would wait for nobody. Nor could its passengers have endured such a thing, because the faster they were carried the less time they had to spare! In the days before deathly contrivances hustled them through their lives, and when they had no telephones—another ancient vacancy profoundly responsible for leisure—they had time for everything: time to think, to talk, time to read, time to wait for a lady!

They even had time to dance “square dances,” quadrilles, and “lancers”; they also danced the “racquette,” and schottisches and polkas, and such whims as the “Portland Fancy.” They pushed back the sliding doors between the “parlour” and the “sitting room,” tacked down crash over the carpets, hired a few palms in green tubs, stationed three or four Italian musicians under the stairway in the “front hall”—and had great nights!

But these people were gayest on New Year’s Day; they made it a true festival—something no longer known. The women gathered to “assist” the hostesses who kept “Open House”; and the carefree men, dandified and perfumed, went about in sleighs, or in carriages and ponderous “hacks,” going from Open House to Open House, leaving fantastic cards in fancy baskets as they entered each doorway, and emerging a little later, more carefree than ever, if the punch had been to their liking. It always was, and, as the afternoon wore on, pedestrians saw great gesturing and waving of skin-tight lemon gloves, while ruinous fragments of song were dropped behind as the carriages rolled up and down the streets.

“Keeping Open House” was a merry custom; it has gone, like the all-day picnic in the woods, and like that prettiest of all vanished customs, the serenade. When a lively girl visited the town she did not long go unserenaded, though a visitor was not indeed needed to excuse a serenade. Of a summer night, young men would bring an orchestra under a pretty girl’s window—or, it might be, her father’s, or that of an ailing maiden aunt—and flute, harp, fiddle, ‘cello, cornet, and bass viol would presently release to the dulcet stars such melodies as sing through “You’ll Remember Me,” “I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” “Kathleen Mavourneen,” or “The Soldier’s Farewell.”

They had other music to offer, too, for these were the happy days of “Olivette” and “The Macotte” and “The Chimes of Normandy” and “Girofle-Girofla” and “Fra Diavola.” Better than that, these were the days of “Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance” and of “Patience.” This last was needed in the Midland town, as elsewhere, for the “aesthetic movement” had reached thus far from London, and terrible things were being done to honest old furniture. Maidens sawed what-nots in two, and gilded the remains. They took the rockers from rocking-chairs and gilded the inadequate legs; they gilded the easels that supported the crayon portraits of their deceased uncles. In the new spirit of art they sold old clocks for new, and threw wax flowers and wax fruit, and the protecting glass domes, out upon the trash-heap. They filled vases with peacock feathers, or cattails, or sumac, or sunflowers, and set the vases upon mantelpieces and marble-topped tables. They embroidered daisies (which they called “marguerites”) and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and owls and peacock feathers upon plush screens and upon heavy cushions, then strewed these cushions upon floors where fathers fell over them in the dark. In the teeth of sinful oratory, the daughters went on embroidering: they embroidered daisies and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and owls and peacock feathers upon “throws” which they had the courage to drape upon horsehair sofas; they painted owls and daisies and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and peacock feathers upon tambourines. They hung Chinese umbrellas of paper to the chandeliers; they nailed paper fans to the walls. They “studied” painting on china, these girls; they sang Tosti’s new songs; they sometimes still practiced the old, genteel habit of lady-fainting, and were most charming of all when they drove forth, three or four in a basket phaeton, on a spring morning.

Croquet and the mildest archery ever known were the sports of people still young and active enough for so much exertion; middle-age played euchre. There was a theatre, next door to the Amberson Hotel, and when Edwin Booth came for a night, everybody who could afford to buy a ticket was there, and all the “hacks” in town were hired. “The Black Crook” also filled the theatre, but the audience then was almost entirely of men who looked uneasy as they left for home when the final curtain fell upon the shocking girls dressed as fairies. But the theatre did not often do so well; the people of the town were still too thrifty.

They were thrifty because they were the sons or grandsons of the “early settlers,” who had opened the wilderness and had reached it from the East and the South with wagons and axes and guns, but with no money at all. The pioneers were thrifty or they would have perished: they had to store away food for the winter, or goods to trade for food, and they often feared they had not stored enough—they left traces of that fear in their sons and grandsons. In the minds of most of these, indeed, their thrift was next to their religion: to save, even for the sake of saving, was their earliest lesson and discipline. No matter how prosperous they were, they could not spend money either upon “art,” or upon mere luxury and entertainment, without a sense of sin.

— Booth Tarkington

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Notes on “Summer Interlude”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


A ballerina (Maj-Britt Nilsson), disappointed in love and aging out of dance, impulsively visits an island on which, as a teen, she spent a summer vacation. As she wanders, so does her mind; she remembers her first love and her first brush with death. All of writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s mature themes and concerns are present in the 1951 “Summer Interlude,” but he hasn’t yet grown icy, imperious, or gnomic. The art aspects of the movie are perhaps overdetermined (hey, it’s Bergman), but the handling is so assured, almost musical, and its themes so satisfyingly worked out within its structural and dramatic frameworks, that it’s just about irresistible. Its overcoming of your initial suspicions — of its conceptual heaviness, of the hoariness of its theatrical metaphors — becomes part of its effect and meaning. It’s the kind of work that makes you feel grateful for the mastery of its maker. Bergman’s control of the medium can catch you unawares. In an instant he can leap from sparkling Scandinavian naturalism to the Germanic gloom of the supernatural. (This, too, has a thematic as well as a formal significance.) A shot of a black-clad woman traversing a winter path has the oomph of Dreyer; it’s a vision drawn from another world. The ballerina’s acceptance of the reporter at the end of the film is hopeful (it’s not an unhappy ending — not exactly) yet it’s framed as a kind of death. She’s breaking with idealism as well as the ballet, and summer, in its truest form, will never come again outside of her memories. A scene in which the lights go out during a ballet performance anticipates the film melting in “Persona”; it’s Bergman’s way of equating aesthetic commitment with the will to live. (Art is life and life is sex and sex is never enough.) Is there more of Bergman in Stig Olin’s ballet master or Georg Funkquist’s spiritually rotten Uncle Erland? I suspect the latter. I admired a shot of the lovers’ hands playing above a bed. It’s a single-image distillation worthy of Godard. In fact, Godard may have borrowed it for “A Married Woman.”

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Notes on “Enchanted April”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:The effectiveness of the 1991 “Enchanted April” is an upshot of its subtlety, its lightness of touch. Director Mike Newell resists making statements or following through on obvious setups. Even the screenplay’s twists seem less like engineered surprises than happy discoveries. (It was written by Peter Barnes.) Though the conception includes a heavy dose of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the trysting you’re conditioned to expect never comes; instead, the characters’ existing relationships are revivified or directed down more socially acceptable avenues. It’s a rare conservative take on romantic farce. (Presumably, that’s the take of the 1922 source novel, which I haven’t read.) Miranda Richardson is wonderful as the retiring mouse who is zapped and made elemental by Italy’s charged atmosphere. Her travel mate, played by Josie Lawrence, is similarly affected: towards the end of the picture Lawrence exudes so much sensuality that you feel a little embarrassed for her; she gives a courageously open performance. Like “High Season” or “The Trip to Italy,” “Enchanted April” shows us Northern Europeans being transformed by an encounter with the Mediterranean. I want to compare the movie to Hiroshi Shimizu’s wispy evocations of travel and temporary association, but I don’t want to sound like some kind of fucking egghead.

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Notes on “At Eternity’s Gate”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

It’s inevitable that Julian Schnabel’s movie about Van Gogh, “At Eternity’s Gate,” will be compared to Altman’s “Vincent and Theo.” Both pictures attempt to capture the ecstatically enervated aspects of Van Gogh’s art; they’re expressionistic takes on an expressionistic artist. But whereas I remember Altman’s picture as focusing on the conventional drama provided by Vincent’s relationship with his art-dealer brother, Schnabel approaches his subject as a graphic artist. His movie is a sort of icon of Van Gogh. It’s bold but also conventional; it hews to the painter’s reputation as a secular saint. Willem Dafoe seems to have been cast with the idea of evoking his Christ from Scorsese’s “Last Temptation.” His Van Gogh has the searching quality of that earlier role. Like Scorsese’s Christ he contemplates serenity, but, in this world at least, it remains elusive. Schnabel may be the most painterly major filmmaker working. His movies are often less concerned with plot than with tone and surface, and here, as in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” his scenes seem almost brushed in; they have a plein air bravura. There’s a liquid quality to the picture; it’s a tonal-textural reverie. (This may be the first representation of Van Gogh to frame the painter in Whitmanesque terms.) Unlike previous handlers of the Van Gogh story, Schnabel doesn’t try to overwhelm us with the bold colors of the French countryside. And perhaps because he wants us to understand Van Gogh’s art as a product of the artist’s private consciousness, he resists the temptation to recreate famous paintings; when he shows a sunflower, it’s a dead sunflower. Schnabel’s Arles is a scrubby, wild place, with unpredictable wind and lowering skies — a place where light is fleeting and dangerous things are possible. Like saints of old, Van Gogh trudges off to this quasi-wilderness to be alone with his perceptions, and perhaps confront his demons. Whereas Gaugin needs the remoteness of Tahiti to stake a claim to a personal vision, Van Gogh’s solitude is as internal as it is eternal; his vision is inescapable. It stalks him, drives him. In a sense the movie is about the loneliness of individual perception. Schnabel perhaps missteps when he has Van Gogh talk about painting for audiences of the future, but the sentiment plays into the Christ motif, and it’s hard to deny Schnabel this assertion once you’ve accepted the other parts of the proffered mythos. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that Schnabel wants us to see Van Gogh as having sacrificed himself in order to awaken us to a new manner of seeing. It’s corny, but it works in context. It may also be true.

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Notes on “C.H.U.D.”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

It stands for cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers. Released in 1984, “C.H.U.D.” is a late-in-cycle New-York-in-the-’70s movie that in some ways reminds me of Tim Burton’s “Batman,” itself an end-of-cycle New-York-in-the-’70s movie. Certain scenes, like the opening, are effective because of rather than in spite of their cut-rate simplicity. The obvious phoniness contributes to the atmosphere; it’s an aesthetic phoniness. The plot combines “Raw Meat” and “Alligator”: illegal waste-disposal practices conjure zombie-like mutants. They dwell in the sewers, from which they emerge to devour bums and attractive women. The connection to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is hard to miss (C.H.U.D. = T.M.N.T.). Director Douglas Cheek coaxes lively performances from his cast while ensuring the material retains its hustling street-level verve. And he’s good at capping off micro narratives with memorable shock images. Two examples: the severed head of a cop’s wife, soggy and draped in seaweed, and blood spouting out of a shower drain and staining a white bar of soap. By recontextualizing the radioactive monsters of the ’50s so that they speak to ’80s concerns like homelessness, public health, and pollution, the screenplay, by Parnell Hall, almost qualifies as clever. John Goodman and Jay Thomas turn up for about 1.5 minutes playing partnered cops. A bit where a woman grabs an incongruous samurai sword to fend off a C.H.U.D. anticipates the famous moment in “Pulp Fiction.” I loved a bit in which a government operative wearing sunglasses and an IZOD shirt grabs a dime and swallows it in order to prevent an opponent from using a payphone.

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Notes on “Atlantic City”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

Like “Nashville,” the 1980 “Atlantic City” is an essayistic treatment of a city. But it’s not brash and satirical like “Nasvhille”; it’s glancing and melancholy-romantic — a loser’s lament. It’s to director Louis Malle’s and writer John Guare’s credit that they emphasize the lament over the loser. Unlike the similarly themed “The King of Marvin Gardens,” the movie doesn’t hold your nose to the rot; rather, it lifts it out of it. Burt Lancaster plays Lou, a past-his-prime operator who lives to sustain his self-image. As a young man, during the heyday of Atlantic City, he was a mobster’s lackey, an errand boy, but in his mind his past and the city’s former glamour are interwoven. He’s adopted the city’s legend as his own. It’s how he copes. The screenplay requires Lancaster to embody the spirit of Atlantic City. It’s a corny idea, but Lancaster carries it, and your surprise at seeing him carry it is part of what lifts the movie up, makes it feel a little dizzy, like an Astaire-Rogers number. Lancaster’s peculiarly aristocratic italicization is used to suggest the manner in which Lou soft-shoes around the obstacles of reality. Lou is acting, but everyone indulges him; he indulges himself. His self-delusion is a kind of gallantry, a means of ameliorating hardness and decay. Like an habitual gambler, he’s pathologically hopeful, and perhaps we recognize something of ourselves in his commitment to kidding himself. (In many ways, the movie anticipates Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”) When Lou becomes involved in a punk kid’s cocaine score, it’s hard not to recognize it as a metaphor for Atlantic City’s flirtation with legalized gambling. Both are morally dicey propositions that promise a return to glory and influence. If Lou is intended to connect with and lovingly subvert our notions of movie tough guys, Susan Sarandon’s Sally is meant to recall the showgirl of the ’20s and ’30s. Like Lou she’s tied herself to a fantasy, but hers is pre-corrupted: Once gambling is legalized, she’s gonna make it as a croupier. (Even Lou doesn’t buy it, though he humors her.) Sally’s casino classes, led by that old satyr Michel Piccoli, are kitchen-sink reflections of the drilling scenes common to backstage musicals. There’s no glamour in them except for what Sally puts there in her imagination. It’s a fugazi put-on glamour, a willing-itself-into-existence glamour, an Atlantic City glamour. “Atlantic City” features some of the most thematically precise location shooting in movie history. You can’t see a crumbling resort structure, noble in its decrepitude, without thinking of Lancaster, stately and tall like a building, and his resiliently ornamental Lou. Everything works on multiple levels. That multivalent quality is built into the conception. Perhaps its responsible for the movie’s peculiar hum.

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