Books: The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian [audiobook]
Movies: The Man Who Wasn't There
TV: Good Eats [season 4]
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian [audiobook]
This is the first volume of a three-volume compilation of all of Robert E. Howard's stories about Conan the Barbarian, pulp adventures that nearly singlehandedly kicked off the modern sword-and-sorcery genre.
There isn't much to say about the early Conan stories that I haven't already said about the later ones. "The Phoenix on the Sword" and "The Tower of the Elephant" were both standouts. In the hands of a lesser writer, the former story would be a straight ahead "kill the assassins" mission, while the latter would have been a simple fantasy-era heist. But Howard lets each story go beyond that, hinting at Lovecraft-influenced magic just beyond the characters' perceptions.
If only the rest of the stories were that strong. There were scattered bright spots -- the strange, sleeping city of "The Devil in Iron" is a fabulous bit of world building -- but generally the early works didn't hold my interest that well. It didn't help that Howard is not even trying to write strong female characters at this early stage, so the reader is left with a bunch of interchangeable damsels-in-distress, distinguishable only by precise breast descriptions and by how frequently and volubly they talk about how helpless they are. It's fascinating to watch his work waver between "tween boy power-fantasy" and something deeper, richer, and more interesting. There's no "Red Nails" here, but you can see the way there from here.
The Man Who Wasn't There
This is the Coen Brothers' 2001 black-and-white film about a barber whose first foray into crime goes very, very wrong. It's inspired by film noir, and the 40s pulp crime novels that they drew from.
Many critics have pointed out how slowly this film moves. It runs just show of two hours, and it *feels* like two hours. Every other Coen film has a feeling of chaos, like the central crime's unforeseen consequences are spinning out of control, and if the protagonist could just slow the world to half-speed, they could tie up all the loose ends and escape. The Man Who Was Not There isn't like that. It's slow. It's patient. It's relentless. It's like a machine, slowly grinding down everybody that this crime touches.
Ed Crane, the barber at the center of the story, features in every scene. So unlike, say, Abby in Blood Simple, he knows everything we know. And he (and we) know nearly everything there *is* to know. Only a few key facts surprise him. The rest of the time, he can see all the pieces in motion -- he just can't find any way out of it. Hell, he tries confessing to his crimes halfway through the picture, and even *that* doesn't work. And everything works out slowly, so we can follow exactly how each domino tumbles down on the next. More people die. More money disappears. More dreams go up in smoke. And Ed Crane's only apparent option is to sit there and endure it.
The plot is every bit as twisty-yet-inevitable as Blood Simple or Fargo or The Big Lebowski. (I was about to say "... as Miller's Crossing, but then I saw reason: *nothing* is as twisty as Miller's Crossing.) As with most Coen films, you have to accept that realism is just one stylistic option for movies, and it's one they're choosing not to use. Yes, it's heightened, and it's mannered, but that just means it's true in a different way than just putting a documentary camera in a room and recording what's there.
My only quibble is that the world-building feels a bit weak. With the best Coen Brothers films, the movie doesn't just represent a place or a time, it creates a brand-new variant on it that you haven't seen before. The Big Lebowski isn't just set in LA, and isn't just set 1992 LA, but it's a specific, shambolic, burned-out, funhouse-mirror version of 1992 LA. You can say the same even of Fargo, which was ostensibly "based on a true story" (a running joke that forced the brothers to hew to something like realism, by their standards). It's not just Minnesota, but a specific, unforgiving, whiteout-condition, grudgingly polite version of the state that you see in the movie.
I don't see that level of specificity in The Man Who Wasn't There. It feels more like it's trying to re-create a more generic 1950s, drawing on the films of the period, and not eliciting much of a feeling from me beyond, "yes, that is a stylish rendition of that period".
But that's a minor complaint against a hell of an engaging crime story.
Good Eats [season 4]
This is the fourth season of Alton Brown's playful, sketch-like show that demonstrates basic cooking skills and principles.
As usual, it's really challenging for me to say anything useful about this show. Season four of Good Eats is pretty much the same as season 3 of Good Eats, which is in turn rather like seasons 1 and 2. And that's okay -- it remains a solid, entertaining, and informative cooking show. I was intrigued to learn about the advances that have been made in pressure cookers since when I was a kid (and they were loud, irritating, and vaguely dangerous). The puff-pastry episode had several fun recipes. And the chile episode finally showed me how to roast peppers decently. But again, I worry that most of the information goes in one ear and out the other, because I don't really cook enough to put it all into practice.
For next week: onward to season 5 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising, as well as more more Coen Brothers movies and a book about the Coens.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none