Monthly Archives: December 2017

December 29, 2017

Game log 5–12/17

This has been accruing. Might as well dump it out now. There’s nothing very good here, but since when has that ever stopped the log? It keeps on rolling.

Okay, so, last two games of Humble Indie Bundle 9, purchased 9/23/13.

Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken (2011): Ratloop Asia (Singapore) [4 hrs]

This was the commercial upscaling of an in-browser Flash game. A browser is like an itsy-bitsy proscenium, a little Punch and Judy stage with red curtains at the side. The format brings different expectations; not everything can scale. The Punch And Judy Movie remains to be made for good reason. The essence of Punch and Judy is that they’re a miniature vulgar version of real, full-scale drama. So by definition they can’t be real full-scale drama. This felt a little like The Punch And Judy Movie.

The packaging weighed more than the game. Not to say there weren’t a few actual gameplay ideas here, but none of them remotely justified the dimensions of the production. This wanted to be in a browser, or on a phone. Or the back of a cereal box.

A Virus Named TOM (2012): Misfits Attic (San Francisco, CA) [played for 4 hrs]

Simple stuff, overworked and overproduced. A modest little indie game invested with too many hopes. Basically it’s just the pipe rotation/networking puzzle that I first encountered as “Series of Tubes” by Wei-Hwa Huang in 2006 or so (I don’t know if there’s an earlier precursor), combined with the Pac-Man maze/evade mechanics of so many early 80s arcade games. That’s it. They add some minor novelties to try to keep it varied as you progress. But who asked for variety, anyway? At heart this isn’t really a puzzle game, notwithstanding that the designers opted to build some puzzles with it. It’s basically just an arcade game; it probably ought to have had randomly generated playfields and continuous play. It’s okay for such things to be monotonous; that’s the draw, in fact. Say I, anyway. Of course, I only played the single-player content — there’s some cooperative and head-to-head stuff in there too, and maybe that sits better. I promise never to find out.

As for the package, the strenuously professional attempt to keep things lively and generate charm is self-defeating, and misjudged. Maybe if the music were in fact charming, and not ha-ha hardcore as-if, the whole experience would be reframed. Oh well. At least it’s short. Though I abandoned before the end because the last few levels were pointlessly, punishingly hard.

10/21/13: Humble Weekly Sale: Hothead Games. Pay what you want for these three games. I pay $1 because I’m faintly curious about the first game below. Faint to the tune of $1.

DeathSpank (2010): Hothead Games (Vancouver, BC) [13 hrs]

Bought it because it was by Ron Gilbert of Monkey Island fame and seemed to have some adventure elements. At heart it’s actually exactly the sort of thing I usually whine about: a pure tedium of armor and weapons and potions and combos and currency and shops and configuration; phony inflationary “leveling-up” instead of substantive progression; a plot consisting entirely of fetch quests and padding. I wrote off Torchlight and Bastion as a waste of my time. Yet this I played to fullest completion. Why? 1) I happened to be in the mood to embrace the meditation of an empty task-chain. 2) When it comes to emptiness, packaging is everything, and where Torchlight‘s package was genuine refried D&D, and Bastion‘s was preening emo junk, DeathSpank is a cheerfully stupid pop-up book. This I can use. I picked up thousands and thousands of little coins that went ding simply because that’s what one does in a pop-up book, and it seemed like a pleasant place to hang out for a couple days.

DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue (2010): Hothead Games (Vancouver, BC) [played for 1.5 hrs]

Only a few months later in 2010, this “oh oops here’s the rest of DeathSpank” game was released. Seems like they were developing content for a single game and at some point realized it was too much, too long, too bloated, and then instead of cutting back they bulked it up further so that they could split it into two separate products. That’s all well and good for them, but what about me, the player? I started in cheerily enough but after an hour had to have a reckoning: am I really going to spend another 13 hours hanging out clicking on things that go ding in this same pop-up book? What if there were THREE iterations of this game? What if there were SIX? Would I really play them all? If they’re just going to make more and more of it, at some point it’s on me to say it’s been enough. Okay, then: I say it’s been enough. This second one might be marginally more interesting in some superficial ways but screw it. I already had this experience. It’s cute! I’m not complaining. But I’m ready to move on. If, say, in fifty years, when I’m in my late 80s, I have a profound nostalgic desire to return to DeathSpank, what a treat I’ll have in store! A whole brand new game! But for now, I’ve got plenty of other inane non-places to be.

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One (2008): Hothead Games (Vancouver, BC) [played for 1.5 hrs]

Penny Arcade is a longstanding webcomic about two unpleasant nerds who play videogames, constructed as a charisma fantasy in which there’s something wry and snappy and authoritative about being unpleasant nerds who play videogames. It’s self-congratulation very thinly veiled as self-deprecation and it’s always rubbed me the wrong way. Nonetheless I thought maybe I could get through one episode of their game. But the game is an RPG, so, as I said above, the packaging is going to be the entire value. And the packaging here is smarmy overwritten trope-clusterbomb gobbledygook, i.e. “geek culture.” Strictly for people who think “Chthulhu plushie” is always and ever intrinsically hilarious no matter the ubiquity. That’s not me so I’m out. Also the design is full of 2008 clumsiness, with way too much clicking necessary to get from one non-event to the next.

Like I said, I only put in a dollar for this bundle because of DeathSpank. This just hitched a ride and I never wanted it in the first place. But I gave it its 90 minute due.

11/5/13: The Humble WB Games Bundle. I “beat the average” by spending $5 for six games, one of which I already have; a week later three more games are added, making a total of eight new games. I purchased this solely for Batman: Arkham City and Scribblenauts. From my point of view the other six games are completely incidental. But here we go!

Here we go, sort of. See, the thing is…

F.E.A.R. (2005): Monolith (Kirkland, WA) [played for 2 hrs]

Okay, well, I can see that this is a class act, really I can, but it’s basically a machine purely for making the player tense, and I don’t need that at the moment. In fact perhaps it’s enlightened to say that I don’t ever need it. I passed on Dead Space for the same reason. Of the two, if I had to pick a horror movie to be stuck in, I’d pick this one, which as you can see from the trailer is basically The Ring done as an “evil lab” story. Not my favorite but I’ll take it over outer space fleshmonsters any day. But isn’t a lovely thing about life that one doesn’t have to pick a horror movie to be stuck in?

Really, it’s mostly a gunfight game, with a horror wrapper. But gunfights make me just as tense, if not tenser, as the vengeful spirits of little dead psychic girls, so that’s no relief. I played two hours, killed a whole bunch of guys, got jump-scared a whole bunch of times, and decided I get the drill. It seems like a pretty good drill but I think I’d rather stay away from drills.

There are some expansion games that came with it. I won’t be playing those.

Which brings us to:

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin (2009): Monolith (Kirkland, WA)
F.E.A.R. 3 (2011): Day 1 Studios (Chicago, IL + Hunt Valley, MD)

Right, so, the sequels were in the bundle too and naturally I’m not going to play them either. For the time being. And I expect the time being to continue being for a good long while.


The Lord of the Rings: War in the North (2011): Snowblind (Kirkland, WA) [played for 2 hrs]

A big-budget mediocrity, one among thousands. Games like this are the reason you can’t just go out and buy every game that looks like it might be good. Because chances are it’s not that great. The brand tie-in is done well enough, and I’ll admit that the scenery looks pretty nice, but ultimately it’s all just tinsel. The actual playable area is usually a big rectangle, in which you just stand and fight hordes of bad guys. It’s a glum slog. The writing, the design, the gameplay — everything about this is professional, expensive, and worthless. Games are the new Hollywood, baby!

I put in two hours trying to see some variety but the game insisted on denying it to me. I quit when I noted that I had gotten to level one, part 19, and saw that it was just going to be another fight against the same bunch of bad guys I’d been fighting for the past 18 parts. What a drag. There’s so much better out there and my time deserves it. Shame about all those nice castles and mountains and things that they built. If only there’d been something to do in them.

December 28, 2017

94. I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

2001: 094 box 2


written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

No trailer seems to be available anywhere; in its place Criterion has just uploaded the above scene. So that’ll have to do.

Criterion #94.

Spoiler: she doesn’t know where she’s going.

Another peculiar Michael Powell joint, this time in black and white. A romantic comedy with almost no comedy and very little romance. Wendy Hiller sets off toward a remote Hebridean island to marry a rich businessman — never seen — but her last little ferry ride is delayed for days due to inclement weather, and while waiting it out on the remote-Hebridean-island-but-one, she’s seduced by the realities of the land and the people and Roger Livesey. After putting up a desperate but futile fight against her inner desires, she finally accepts that she wants so much more from life than to marry a rich offscreen businessman: she wants to be with the guy who’s actually been in the movie with her. Fin.

That summary makes it sound like an entirely reasonable movie, but, as usual, in the execution, Powell’s impulses are eccentric. (Eccentricity being relative, this is to say that he’s eccentric to me.)

The opening titles and our heroine’s initial train journey north are both put across with lively whimsy and cinematic puns — production credits are painted on the side of a passing milk delivery cart; a top hat seems to puff smoke as it crossfades to a train engine, et cetera. But once we arrive at the scene of the action, all that quirky charm flies away, for good, and Powell and Pressburger become intent almost exclusively on capturing “atmosphere,” something vague and homely and enveloping. They do okay. But they never really show how that atmosphere engenders any particular thought or emotion, how it constitutes a movie. We either feel its significance or we don’t, I guess according to how much we internally resemble Wendy Hiller’s character. She’s seen partaking in what looks like anodyne disinterested tourism to kill the time… and then subsequently in her hotel room, wringing her hands about having her life completely turned upside down by it all. If you say so!

This is Hiller’s second and final Criterion appearance. As in Pygmalion, she makes a admirably forceful impression, but owing to the way the movie is put together, the character isn’t entirely accessible to the audience. And the significance of Roger Livesey as a screen presence I must admit I don’t really understand. Some sort of a… fellow? With hair? To put their two unusual faces on screen together feels almost rebelliously un-Hollywood. Who are these people??

Who are these people and why didn’t we ever get to see them actually fall for each other? Did they fall for each other, really? If so, why? Isn’t that what the movie is about? Did I miss that scene? It’s all by implication, of course, and then the implication itself is by implication. The scenario determines the emotions, in a movie that is, not coincidentally, about the experience of one’s scenario determining one’s emotions. So it makes a kind of internal sense, but it’s intrinsically static. Stasis and preordination can be dreamy, and I can sort of imagine this film having a misty dreamlike effect, for those who are primed and susceptible. As I said last time: perhaps it benefits from repeat viewings, as it becomes less of a drama and more of a pattern. It seems to me to have been a mere pattern from the outset.

I note thematic similarities to Black Narcissus — a scenic location draws out repressed desires and eats away at the self-deceptions of propriety. Peeping Tom and The Red Shoes are also both more or less about the inner life emerging to disrupt the outer life. But Powell personally seems to have spent his life remarkably unfettered, freely pursuing pretty much everything that interested him, both artistically and romantically. So it’s not clear to me what these repressed desires were that he was constantly trying to work out. Maybe it’s just an English thing. These are exceptionally English movies, after all; maybe they only truly make emotional sense if you’ve grown up instilled with English social instincts.

Tilda Swinton, for example, says it’s her favorite movie, which sounds about right. An eminently unrepressed person, who nonetheless is (perhaps) inwardly in constant renegotiation with conventional societal repressions. I guess to be a free-spirited Brit feels like being in a Powell & Pressburger movie; one constantly has the sensation of being strangely exaggerated.

Finlay Currie from Great Expectations is in there too. Pamela Brown makes a conspicuously striking impression in a role where it’s hard to justify — another of the Powell’s many sometime relationships revealed on screen. And as the prim little rich girl: Petula Clark!

Two bonus features are on the DVD but aren’t currently on FilmStruck: “audio essay by film historian Ian Christie” and “the 1994 documentary I Know Where I’m Going! Revisited, by Mark Cousins,” but I managed to find the latter on YouTube, so I feel I’ve done pretty well with this one. There’s also some home movies of Michael Powell going on pleasure walks in the Scottish highlands, a scene from Powell’s earlier Scottish isle movie The Edge of the World — now available on FilmStruck in its entirety but from this excerpt I’m not really tempted — a slideshow of travel photos taken by Nancy Franklin, New Yorker critic, who seems very willing to stand up and be counted as this movie’s biggest fan — she appears in the Cousins piece, too. And then a few on-set photographs. As with most Criterion discs, the main thing it all gets across is that some people, somewhere, do in fact care a lot about this movie. I’m always affected by that sort of thing! Hey, these people seem nice enough, and look how much they like the movie; maybe I like it too!

Sure, maybe I do. Why not. But not enough to write about it anymore.

Oh right except for the music paragraph. Music is by “Allan Gray,” which is just another way of saying Józef Żmigrod. It has a few inspired touches and a few blatant miscalculations; on average I’d say it’s a bit obvious and old-fashioned. But if you’re in a misty dream maybe that’s plenty. Consider the clip embedded at the top of the page; maybe anything more dramatically precise would break the spell, assuming you ever fell under a spell in the first place.

Finding a piece to listen to was a little tricky; the opening titles have narration over them so that’s no good, and the end titles are an arrangement of the folk song from whence the film takes its name, which besides being a vocal seems insufficiently attributable to Allan Gray. In the course of the movie there are no musical showpieces that stand in the clear, so I’ve had to cheat a bit: this is the climax of the penultimate scene, when the leads kiss farewell (wink!) to the main theme of the score — it may not be the actual start of the cue but let’s pretend it is — and then to fill out the clip I’ve included the cue that immediately follows, the Scottish-ish tune that corresponds to “the cursed castle” (see below).

(Hey do you hear that, toward the end there? Sounds like maybe a woman’s voice got half-juxtaposed into the music somehow? Maybe the magnetic tape was stored badly, or some wires were touching when it was duplicated, or something? Well, I just double checked, and that’s in the movie.)


December 19, 2017

93. Black Narcissus (1947)

2001: 093 box 2 2010: 093 box 3


written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden (1939)

Criterion #93.

A complete triumph of production and craft, in service of an oddity. That seems to be Michael Powell’s thing.

This is absolutely peak Technicolor, as good as color has ever looked in any film. Startlingly good. As good as Disney — which Martin Scorsese, on the commentary, points out as an influence. He says that when he saw it in a theater in the 80s, on a certain hard cut to brilliantly colored flowers, the audience actually gasped. I think I might have made some noise there too.

The painterly composition and palette control, the sensitive editing and music, the incredibly lush and precise matte paintings, the sets and costumes, on and on. The acting, even! All exquisite. An all-time beaut. One for the showroom floor.

And this is all to give us… what? A weird psychological drama about how nuns in the Himalayas have a harder time than usual resisting the call of the sensual. Why?

Not just “why,” in fact: I don’t even think the premise makes any sense. One of the nuns says something about how her devotion to her vows has been disturbed because of the view: “you can see too far.” That’s not how it works! When people are surrounded on all sides by purple mountain majesties they are more than ever inclined to think lofty spiritual thoughts. The idea of a monastery on a remote mountaintop is a cliche! Yet here we’re supposed to see it from the start as some kind of recipe for sexual disaster. How bizarre.

There’s almost an idea there that would make sense to me: that giving up one’s worldly life is actually dependent on pushing back against it, and when it recedes to the other side of the earth where it can no longer provide resistance, one is disconcertingly free to think about what one actually wants. But for that to be the point, this mountaintop convent would need to be depicted as a place where, indeed, the meditative peace is too complete. And that’s not how this movie plays it. Instead, it keeps reminding us that the palace they’re living in used to be a harem, and fills the space with earthy local characters who provide sensual distractions. The Himalayas, land of worldly temptation, is the idea. Pretty weird idea.

The distractions primarily take the form of David Farrar hanging around in tiny shorts. Sometimes shirtless too. Powell says several times on the commentary that Farrar had the goods to be a major star, he just didn’t want to be one — and that he was the kind of person who was pleased with himself for being disinterested in fame. That I think is also what gives him his star quality in the first place: that there is no career occupying the back of his mind and weighing him down. Just the charisma of purest self-satisfaction.

Meanwhile Jean Simmons as “sexy Indian teenager who never speaks” is problematic, not just for reasons of ethnicity — but, you know, for those reasons too. The movie is too peculiar to accuse of any clear colonial or racial arrogance; if you do the math it probably could be worked out as a fairly self-critical depiction of English people in parts of the world that aren’t properly theirs, produced in the year of Indian independence. That’s the case made by one of the essays in the Criterion package. But ultimately it’s all too weird and personal to take it as having conscious or coherent political ideas — it’s all psychological first and last — so I tried to simply ignore the crazy race-deaf casting. As best I could.

Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron look rather similar, especially when en-habited down to just their faces. I assumed the casting was meant to create a deliberate doppelgänger effect, as they come into conflict. Then I read that they were, respectively, Michael Powell’s ex- and current girlfriends. So… I guess Freud would say I was right? Maybe that bit of trivia accounts for the whole movie, in fact. In terms of explanation I’ll take what I can get. Both women do an excellent job, by the way. When Byron emerges as a screen-chewing force toward the end, it’s electrifying.

Basically we have here exactly the same creative DNA as The Red Shoes and the same screwy dramatic effect of obscurely motivated fervor. I certainly appreciate intensity for its own sake, even when I really can’t say where it’s coming from or where it’s going. That said, knowing where it’s going is always preferable. (Hopefully the next movie on the list knows where it’s going.)

Really, what was Powell’s deal? This is the guy who went on to make Peeping Tom. He was working things out through art that aren’t my things, and I continue to wonder whose they are. An extremely talented craftsman but I’m getting the sense that his psychological eccentricities put limitations on the work. On the other hand, the strong impact of the local effects — including some powerfully emotional ones, like the flashbacks here — is almost enough to carry one through. It’s the kind of stuff that improves on repeat viewings, when the overall pattern becomes a house to live in and take for granted. The crookedness only shows from outside; inside one can just enjoy all the wonderful furniture.

I wonder how much the original book jacket painting (by one Roland Cosimini) might have had to do with Powell and Pressburger’s enthusiasm for this material in the first place.

Commentary by Powell and Scorsese (recorded 1988) is fine — both are always interesting company. Scorsese points out shots and concepts that he stole for his own movies (i.e. “I did a whole sequence of that kind of shot in The Color of Money“), which, as it did with The Red Shoes, fascinates me for its dramatic incongruity: Marty Scorsese is obsessed with this nun movie? But his enthusiasm kind of points out why we don’t have to care much about the subject matter to be stirred by the craftsmanship. And I appreciated the encouragement in that direction.

I watched on FilmStruck, which lacks one of the three video pieces listed as being on the DVD, a 24-minute general behind-the-scenes documentary. Sounds interesting but, really, what can I do? This is the new reality. I’m sorry everyone, but I’m settling for what I can get with my subscription.

I got an 8-minute piece by Bertrand Tavernier about the movie — fine — and then a 17-minute interview with same. Since Tavernier is basically just speaking as a friend of Powell’s and an admirer of the movie, this is entirely a secondhand report, a little like listening to someone describe what they learned from the bonus features on a different, superior edition of the DVD. But he tells it well enough.

And then there’s this pretty-interesting piece about director of photography Jack Cardiff and the whole apparatus surrounding Technicolor. My main takeaway was that Cardiff made the color look so good because he was intimately familiar with the entire Technicolor process, so his thought processes extended all the way down to the technical roots — whereas cameramen who tried to just treat Technicolor as a consumer-ready tool — which of course is something the Technicolor Corp. was happy to sell it as — ended up using it to much feebler effect. This is the way with technology generally: it solves a problem but only in its own particular way, so the end-user is never really free to think beyond the original problem. Unfortunately computer technologies are now just too complex for the creatives to fully understand what they’re dealing with or why. That remains the burden on CGI and probably always will: the tool is too mysterious to be wielded with deep intuition. It has to be managed. (Cardiff talks a bit about how the usual Technicolor process was for Natalie Kalmus to show up on set and boss everyone around.)

As usual, watching a second time and then watching bonus features makes the movie seem more and more worthy. Yes, Scorsese is right, this is something “special” — his favorite word — so why, really, am I griping about its being weird? Heck, maybe it’s one of the greatest movies of all time! It certainly seems to have been influential — on special effects, not least. And I could swear I saw images from later Hitchcock in there. (Surely this is where the nun at the end of Vertigo is running in from.)

I don’t think I denied, anywhere above, that this might be one of the greatest movies of all time. It might be! I’m just saying it’s also clearly not one of the greatest movies of all time. Exactly like The Red Shoes.

Basically, it’s a clear masterpiece of some sort — but only of that sort.

Again Brian Easdale delivers an extremely British score with upscale concert-hall manners. I find this sort of thing engaging just on its surface — hey, it sounds almost like “classical” music — and then beyond that, this is actually quite a well-scored movie. The use of chorus to represent things sensual is really strong — he brings it in to powerful effect at four or five different points in the movie; each entrance got me good.

The climactic sequence, when the action becomes more or less a horror movie, was apparently composed musically before shooting, and then filmed to match — but the music in question doesn’t take center stage; it’s still pure underscore, so the effect is less one of balletic synchrony than it is simply of consistently measured pacing. I guess P & P needed a metronome to keep them steady enough to be scary. Anyway, it worked. But there’s too much dialogue and sound and screaming and whatnot to use that as our excerpt, so instead we’re just going with the Main Title, which isn’t necessarily the most distinctive achievement here, it’s just the one in the clear. (Those are some onscreen Tibetan longhorns being blown at the start.)


December 5, 2017

4. Conrad: Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer


CD4, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 160 pp.

(This cover, like Tom Sawyer’s, seems to have been painstakingly traced and redone at some point in its first couple of years. Compare. In this case the above is the first version; subsequent editions (see below) use the recreated illustration.)

The dark places of the human soul — this is the region that Joseph Conrad so brilliantly explores. In the steaming jungles of the Congo or the vast reaches of the sea, it is man’s capacity for good and for evil that is his enduring theme.

Heart of Darkness tells of a powerful European, Kurtz, who reverts to awful savagery in an isolated native trading post.

The Secret Sharer describes the terrible conflict of a young captain who is torn between his duty to his ship and his loyalty to a young officer with whom he identifies himself after the murder of a mutinous crew member.

Compelling, vivid, exotic, suspenseful, these are among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language. “To make you hear, to make you feel, above all to make you see” — this was first and last, the aim of Conrad.

With an Introduction by Albert J. Guerard

I was assigned both of these in or around 10th grade, and read them in my trademark style, bounding over the text like a stone over water. A lot of description? Skip it. Somehow I was never properly taught how to read descriptive passages. My instincts told me that attempting to achieve visual effects in prose was futile, and I wished authors would know better than to try.

Here’s your first excerpt, the opening paragraph of The Secret Sharer:

On my right hand there were lines of fishing stakes resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes, and crazy of aspect as if abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach. To the left a group of barren islets, suggesting ruins of stone walls, towers, and blockhouses, had its foundations set in a blue sea that itself looked solid, so still and stable did it lie below my feet; even the track of light from the westering sun shone smoothly, without that animated glitter which tells of an imperceptible ripple. And when I turned my head to take a parting glance at the tug which had just left us anchored outside the bar, I saw the straight line of the flat shore joined to the stable sea, edge to edge, with a perfect and unmarked closeness, in one leveled floor half brown, half blue under the enormous dome of the sky. Corresponding in their insignificance to the islets of the sea, two small clumps of trees, one on each side of the only fault in the impeccable joint, marked the mouth of the river Meinam we had just left on the first preparatory stage of our homeward journey; and, far back on the inland level, a larger and loftier mass, the grove surrounding the great Paknam pagoda, was the only thing on which the eye could rest from the vain task of exploring the monotonous sweep of the horizon. Here and there gleams as of a few scattered pieces of silver marked the windings of the great river; and on the nearest of them, just within the bar, the tug steaming right into the land became lost to my sight, hull and funnel and masts, as though the impassive earth had swallowed her up without an effort, without a tremor. My eye followed the light cloud of her smoke, now here, now there, above the plain, according to the devious curves of the stream, but always fainter and farther away, till I lost it at last behind the miter-shaped hill of the great pagoda. And then I was left alone with my ship, anchored at the head of the Gulf of Siam.

No way would I have read any of these words, as a 10th-grader. I would just let my eyes drift down it, waiting to be stopped by the subliminal sparkle of an active verb — like looking for Waldo. He’s not here! Onward. And I still feel that temptation sometimes, to rush past the painting and get to the acting. But it turns out that when I force myself to stop, move very slowly word by word, and paint, I enjoy the task.

I think what I was never given the opportunity to learn is just how slow that work can be, compared to other reading. It’s counter-intuitive, after all, since in reality, imagery is taken in very quickly whereas action is intrinsically time-consuming. In prose nearly the opposite. Elementary school students ought to be given the assignment of reading passages like this and then actually drawing everything that’s described. (For all I know, maybe I was given that task, and then later decided on my own that it would be preferable to outrun it. Oops.)

Conrad limits large-scale paintings like the above to a few choice spots, but he’s not shy about taking the brush in hand. In addition to the visual effect I think it also creates an important psychological impression: the overabundance of words demanded by each picture suggest a narrative anxiety. Conrad and his narrators are overthinkers, in environments that give them plenty of space to run. When I was a kid, excess of detail felt like a miscalculation, but now that I’m an anxious adult I recognize the mental mode from which it springs: overdescription is what it feels like when too much conscious thought crowds each moment. All that noticing is a burden, even as it notices well and with pleasure, and in a sense, the weight and quality of that burden is what Conrad’s work is really about. What’s it like to be a man of the world, a man at sea, but be thinking and feeling all the damn time? It’s hard.

I went in a bit wary that Conrad might be a zone of masculinity in some off-putting, puffed sense — and indeed there is a marked “manliness” of both style and substance, but it never grates because he comes by it honestly, and also clearly has profound reservations about the whole package. Running silently through both of these stories was the subliminal implication that being a man is more or less the same thing as being traumatized. That, I think, is how biography, subject matter, and style ultimately link up. Heart of Darkness ends on this note: women wrongly believe that life is good and meaningful, but the prospect of actually destroying that illusion is too much, too depressing, for a man to go through with. Of course the woman and the man are both in his head.

Heart of Darkness seems to be a rendering of the most traumatizing experience of Conrad’s life, and it is indeed a masterpiece. I’m with the consensus on this one. For the first half of my reading I felt prepared to call it an “absolute masterpiece”; in the second half I had the sensation of there being some lumps in the pudding, and some burned bits. But that’s really a quibble. The scope of what Conrad takes on, here, and the ability to construct the thing so that it does in fact take it on, is to marvel at: nothing less than the equation of politics with philosophy with psychology, made concrete and harrowing, fully modern in 1899. Its grip is very firm.

“The horror! The horror!” is generally interpreted as being Kurtz’s report on a cosmic vision, his judgment on the soul of man and the nature of existence and all that; it’s all “a horror.” Sure. But I propose that he might equally and equivalently be describing an actual emotion, particular to him. An underlying horror is the impulse that has driven him in all his amorality, now finally laid bare to his self-awareness. And the deep resonance of the story, for its mesmerized witness Marlow/Conrad, is his own persistent inner sense of horror. That is, I’m again saying: there’s a whiff of PTSD here. “I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.” A wonderful phrase for a sad thing, from someone who knows.

The Secret Sharer pales in this company — it’s much smaller-scale, and simpler in technique and intent — but it’s still a forceful little story with a striking premise. It comes first and makes for a suitable opening act.

The two works are linked by psychological elements that I can’t help but note are also recurring themes in my Twilight Zone entries: the doppelgänger-projection of a detached inner self; the implicit menace of the world, of society, of one’s fellow man in all his unknowability. Rod Serling, as a soldier, had also been a bit traumatized. For what it’s worth.

Guerard’s introduction pushes a psychological interpretation, pretty similar to mine; it seems like the idea of pairing these two items into one volume might have been his. I felt his sale was maybe a little strong-armed for an introduction — hey, let us make up our own minds! — but it’s well-written enough.

Okay, since there were two works here, we’ll do a second excerpt too, from Heart of Darkness. Marlow has just arrived at a Belgian station in Congo and has found a chaotic scene of pointless activity, broken equipment, and brutality.

You know I am not particularly tender; I’ve had to strike and to fend off. I’ve had to resist and to attack sometimes — that’s only one way of resisting — without counting the exact cost, according to the demands of such sort of life as I had blundered into. I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men — men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther.

That nearly gave me chills, when I read it. These days I spend more than enough time contemplating the flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of rapacious and pitiless folly; I felt and knew exactly what he was talking about before he put the excellent words to it.

004 B
CP523, 60¢, 1972.
CT824, 75¢, 1975.
CQ1004, 95¢, 1977.
CY1221, $1.25, 1979.
CE1429, $1.75, 1980?

New branding and 70s typography to match.

004 C
CW1668, $1.50, 1982? (price drop!?)

Centered logo.

004 D
CW1668, $1.50, 1983?
CE1893, $1.75, 1983
CE2072, price unknown, 1986?
CE2321, $3.95, 1989?

Once again, a tasty 80s revamp. The terrifically atmospheric image (which wraps around, by the way) is credited in the book as “cover painting by Fritz Trupp,” but Fritz Trupp turns out to be not a painter but an anthropologist. I think there must have been some sort of miscommunication from the art department; surely what we’re looking at here is a photograph rather than a painting, presumably one extracted from Trupp’s book The Last Indians: South America’s Cultural Heritage, published in 1983, that same year.

In other words: it’s the wrong jungle. But that’s okay. It’s cinematic and it looks the part.

004 E
2657, $4.95, 1997

That was a great cover, but guys, we’ve got a problem: it’s too mysterious and engaging. How can we put a damper on that? I know, dump the palette, and blot out most of the visual interest with a big rectangle. There we go, now it looks dull as can be; in fact you can hardly even tell what you’re looking at anymore. Perfect.

Another late-90s downgrade. Joyce Carol Oates shows up to try to compensate, but to no avail: her comments are shallow and unenthusiastic; she doesn’t seem to like Conrad all that much. The only part where she perks up — distastefully so, to my mind — is when she goes through the motions of giving him a pointless drubbing for his supposed crimes against PC. She seems to really relish that. “I’m bringing all my scholarly skills to bear, here, so listen up: when you really break it down, this story is awfully Eurocentric in its worldview, tsk tsk tsk.” NO SHIT, CAROL! THAT’S THE STORY! I’m rolling my eyes just typing this.

004 F
3103, $4.95, 2008 (Now OOP)

This is simultaneously bland and garish, and is clearly just a tacky Photoshop manipulation of a bit of stock imagery, but let’s admit it: it could be worse. At least it’s trying to entice us. New piece by Vince Passaro is unpretentious and on point; as with Tom Sawyer, the most recent commission was the most rewarding to read. A pleasant surprise, that!