Saturday, June 30, 2007

Top Ten Victorian Novel Titles

My prejudices have always lined up with the curmodgeonly conventional wisdom that the 19th century was truly the greatest age of the novel. What's less debatable, though, is that the 19th century was the greatest age of the novel title. Sure, there are 20th century gems like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Lolita, but I'll take a Victorian title over a contemporary one any day of the week.

10. Can You Forgive Her? (Anthony Trollope). Obviously, my bias is for wordiness, and sentences-as-titles are often favorites. But this one is memorable not just as a sentence, but as an interrogative. What's the best 20th century book with a question in its title? Who Moved My Cheese? Trollope's is the second best interrogative title of all time, topped only by...

9. What Will He Do With It? (Edward Bulwer-Lytton). How Awesome Is This? Points for ambiguity, long-windedness without pomposity, and comically obvious (to modern eyes) sexual double entendre. Deductions for Bulwer-Lytton being an unread and probably unreadable goliath, a kind of dorky caricature of a Victorian author.

8. The Egoist (George Meredith). Maybe it's just me, but who doesn't want to read a book about an egoist? (I haven't yet, but will soon). Meredith's title shows off the kind of terse directness that alternated with the more famous volubility of classic Victorian titles. I don't think the straightforward "The X" format is quite so popular now, but it had a terrific heyday in the 19th century.

7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte). The best place-name title in 19th century British fiction, edging out Mansfield Park and flat-out slaughtering Middlemarch. Of course Middlemarch is probably a better novel than anything on this list, but the title has a kind of dense, ungainly obscurity that surely drives away far more readers than it entices.

6. The Odd Women (George Gissing). I haven't read this, either, but I want to. "Odd" is just a great word no matter how you look at it, and this simple title allows it to take rare full billing.

5. Jude The Obscure (Thomas Hardy). Wins the character-name title award. This has such a nice ring to it that my freshman-year hallmates took to calling a preppy douchebag named Jude on the third floor "Jude The Obscure," which eventually got whittled down to just "The Obscure." The book is, of course, great as well, but actually my least favorite of the major Hardys -- not so the title.

4. Our Mutual Friend (Charles Dickens). Beats out Bleak House and Great Expectations for the best Dickens title. Not flashy or immediately evocative, but subtly intriguing... An interrogative without the question mark. Whose mutual friend? Mine? Dickens's? What's going on?

3. Dracula (Bram Stoker). According to Wikipedia, Stoker probably didn't get the word from the historical Vlad the Impaler. He just stumbled across the Romanian word dracul and decided it was pretty badass. It was: this is a very good read, but half the reason Dracula continues to occupy so much cultural space, even in the 21st century, is because Stoker didn't call the book "Count Vampyre."

2. Far From The Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy). Before the cliche, there was the book. Normally I hate gerunds (more on that, perhaps, later), but this one transcends that bias.

1. He Knew He Was Right (Anthony Trollope). Some of the greats had title-writing in their blood (or at their publisher's office); some didn't. Hardy had it; George Eliot didn't (besides Middlemarch, there is the archaically boring Mill on the Floss, the laconically boring Adam Bede, and the, uh, boringly boring Silas Marner, which, in fact, is probably the comic archetype for dull-sounding Victorian titles assigned in school).
Trollope was an absolute master of the art. Besides the two represented here, there are The Way We Live Now, Ralph The Heir, Is He Popinjoy?, and An Old Man's Love. But this one takes the cake--not only is it a full sentence, it's a brilliantly ambiguous one, a sentence that already takes place within (and yet also without) the main character's brain. It's a title that could be an opening line. This may be a completely obscure Trollope novel, number 28 of 45, or whatever it is, but I will read it just because of the title.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Top Five Full-Length Suspense/Horror Films On The Web

This actually started as just a list of cool movies that are online, but then I realized that they were all pretty ghoulish, as many of my favorites are. Also, while many movies show up on YouTube and get taken down, these are all fully legal and should be available for a long time. Enjoy!

5. Night of the Living Dead (1968).
"They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!!" Bring it on, George Romero, bring it on.

4. Nosferatu (1922).
The F.W. Murnau classic. Moody, engrossing, and actually scary at a couple points. (And campy in many other parts.) If you find it hard to get into silent film, perhaps you should check this out after renting "The Shadow of the Vampire," which gives you all sorts of fun context and shot-for-shot recreations of the original.

3. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). In eight parts.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Peter Lorre. That's right. Peter Lorre. The man who perfected being creepy, strange, and awesome before Christopher Walken was a spermatoza. Also, while Hitch claimed otherwise, most agree that it's superior to his 1950s remake with J-J-Jimmy Stewart.

2. Fritz Lang's "M" (1931).
Of course, now that I've confessed my deep love for Peter Lorre, you don't think I'd forget this one, do you? The only reason it isn't number one is that I think it's kind of sacrilege to watch such a textured black-and-white film on a YouTube screen (even though the quality's pretty good for YouTube). But if you've never seen it, just five minutes should convince you to run out and get the Criterion Collection DVD.

1. Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr (1999).
Talk about creepy, strange, and awesome. It's not technically suspense or horror; it's a documentary. But it's pretty chilling all the same. Definitely one of Errol Morris's best, perhaps second only to "The Thin Blue Line." And it's on Google Video, so it has higher resolution than the others on this list.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Songs About Automobiles

10. “Cadillac Ranch.” El Dorado fins, whitewalls and skirts/ Rides just like a little bit of heaven here on earth… A lighthearted love song, dedicated to the ultimate Detroit chromeboat.

9. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” My tires were slashed and I almost crashed but the Lord had mercy/ My machine she's a dud, I'm stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey… Seven minutes of gimmicky lyrics that come dangerously close to Billy Joel territory. But it’s a toetapper, and it’s hard not to like.

8. “Used Cars.” My little sister’s in the front seat with an ice cream cone… A wistful lament for all those poor folks who have to buy their cars second hand. A little overwrought, perhaps, but moving in spite of itself.

7. “Stolen Car.” Each night I wait to get caught/ But I never do… Stealing hearts and stealing cars. It’s the same thing, really, when you get down to it.

6. “Racing in the Streets.” For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels/ Rumbling through this promised land… The gentle piano arrangement gives this song a contemplative distance from its noisy, roaring subject matter.

5. “My Hometown.” Two cars at a light, on a Saturday night/ In the backseat there was a gun… A chilling survey of the ravages of deindustrialization. The narrator grows from son to father with his hands on the wheel, deciding whether to keep circling around Main Street or to pull out of town.

4. “Born to Run.” At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines… I’ll be honest. While it is admittedly brilliant, I think this song is a little overrated, and that it overshadows its superior album companion “Thunder Road” (below). The fact that the track has been played and quoted for thirty years doesn’t help. It just never seems fresh to me like it must have seemed when it was new.

3. and 2. (Tie) “State Trooper” and “Open All Night.” Two parts of the same song. A man drives down the Jersey Turnpike in the dead of night. In one version, he’s an outlaw: License, registration: I ain't got none/ But I got a clear conscience 'bout the things that I done… In the other he’s a working man on the night shift, remembering taking the same drive with his girl: Fried chicken on the front seat, she’s sittin’ in my lap/ We’re wipin’ our fingers on a Texaco road map… Whether or not they are the same man, they curse their radios for being jammed up with talk and gospel and offer this prayer to the relay towers: Hey ho rock and roll deliver me from nowhere.

1. “Thunder Road.” All the redemption I can offer girl is beneath this dirty hood…. It really isn’t the Boss’s most articulate comment on American car culture (see Nos. 10, 8, and 6, above). But it's certainly the best of his many hey-girl-get-in-my-car songs. It offers rich Catholic imagery and stark visions of life passing by, framed by the dashboard and seen through the windshield.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Favorite short stories available online and suitable for reading at one's tedious job

1. Anton Chekhov, The Bishop (This entire website is wonderful, by the way.)

2. Henry James, The Figure in the Carpet (It's hard to get enthusiastic about starting a James novel, but the short stories are almost always fun to read, particularly the ones about art and artists.)

3. Vladimir Nabokov, Signs and Symbols (I'm not a huge Nabokov fan, but this story is incredible.)

4. D.H. Lawrence, Odour of Chrysanthemums (As I mentioned in an earlier list, he was 24 when he wrote this. Man.)

5. Thomas Hardy, The Withered Arm (My favorite supernatural story, although I'm not too well-read in the genre.)

6. Frank O'Connor, My Oedipus Complex (My favorite short story writer in English. His very best aren't available online, I don't think, but this is a good one.)

7. James Joyce, Araby (There are probably better stories in Dubliners, but I like this one the best.)

8. Flannery O'Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge (She's always struck me as a rather nasty writer, but this story is undeniably great.)

9. Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need? (Joyce called this the greatest story in the history of Western literature. I think he might have been being facetious, since it is not even close to the best story Tolstoy wrote, but I still like it. It is a page turner, or in this case a screen scroller.)

10. William Carlos Williams, The Use of Force (This whole website is a good resource for people stuck for long periods in front of a computer.)

Suggest your own, as my job is unlikely to get more interesting in the one month I have left.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Top 10 Communist Monuments to Visit

Mao Mausoleum (and other Communist monuments on Tiananmen Square to include the Monument to the People's Heroes and the Great Hall of the People) - Beijing

The Stalingrad memorial on Mamayev Kurgan - Volgograd

The Grand Monument to Kim Il-Sung - Pyongyang

Lenin's mausoleum (I would include all of Red Square but Lenin's waxy corpse is about the only Communist bit left on it since they closed the Lenin Museum) - Moscow

A pair of heads:
- The largest Lenin head in the world - Ulan Ude
- The largest Karl Marx head in the world - Chemnitz

Stalin World - outside of Vilnius (technically not a monument by Communists, but deserves a mention)

Palace of Culture and Science - Warsaw

The Weltzeituhr (World Time Clock) in Alexanderplatz - Berlin

Technically not a monument by Communists, but a personality cult monument: the Neutrality Arch in Niyazov featuring the famous statue of the late Turkmenbashi

And ... The Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin (if only it had been built ... of course, it would have collapsed under its own weight ... but the plans are impressive to examine today)

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The 10 Movies Whose Presence In The IMDb Top 250 Is Most Galling

I know no one takes this list seriously as an index of considered critical judgement, or even ordinary good taste, but it continues to bug me anyway. Perhaps that's because the Top 250 does reflect, in a weird hybrid way, both established film-history judgements and authentic popular choice. Normally that kind of combination works pretty well for my taste--and there are lots of good movies on the list. But their presence only makes the absurdly overrated stinkers more irritating...

In reverse order of IMDb rating:

10. #219 - Stalag 17 (1953). Just to show that I'm not a historical snob. This is a fine WWII POW movie, but it's also dorky, dated, and unmemorable. One of the Top 250's many problems is that it overrates the 'Golden Age' of the '50s (37 films) and underrates the 'New Hollywood' period of the '70s. No way Stalag 17 deserves this position ahead of, say, Straw Dogs.

9. #214 - Cinderella Man (2005). I haven't even seen this, and its presence here still galls me tremendously. I won't complain about Gladiator, because I understand big historical epics do well on this kind of list, but do we need TWO Russell Crowe movies in the Top 250? That's embarrassing.

8. #197 - Magnolia (1999). This is up there with A.I., I Heart Huckabees, and Igby Goes Down in my personal list of Most Hated Movies Of All Time. In fact I'd say this is my signature Most Hated movie. You have to go to and look up synonyms for 'pompous' and 'leaden' to fully appreciate how awful this film is. I'm confident the recent Hilary Swank 10-plagues-of-Egypt feature, The Reaping, did a better "Frogs" scene than this clanking monstrosity.

7. #130 - Crash (2005). All I'll say is that I disliked Crash before it was fashionable to dislike Crash. I'm actually surprised the post-Oscar backlash hasn't dropped this Academy embarrassment out of the Top 250 altogether.

6. #129 - V For Vendetta (2006). What the fuck? Seriously. This is the most surprising movie on here. Even more surprising, it apparently does better among women then men. Mysterious and very galling.

5. #122 - Children of Men (2006). The most overrated movie of 2006. It's not really all that different from V For Vendetta in its sophomoric futurism -- I used to think that was a snark, but according to the Top 250, it's a mark of distinction. Blech.

4. #96 - Braveheart (1995). OK, so I said I wouldn't complain about about popular historical epics, but this is an exception. What a piece of crap! And just to prove that I'm not a blind Mel Gibson-hating Jew, I thought Apocolypto was very, very good. But if you add a few slaves-who-aren't-really-slaves to Braveheart, you have the The Patriot, don't you?

3. #63 - Reservoir Dogs (1992). I'm sure this will raise a few eyebrows, but I detest this movie. Truly pointless violence. Violence so "cool" and so idiotic that it could only be immortalized in a frat boy college poster. Peckinpah would vomit Beast Lite all over himself if he lived to see it.

2. #29 - Fight Club (1999). Same college-poster bullshit as Reservoir Dogs, only combined with a truly vapid "existential" mindfuck.

1. #2 - The Shawshank Redemption (1995). The Most Quietly Overrated Movie Of All Time. Somehow, between 1995 and 2005, this film went from absorbing (if manipulative) prison flick, to middlebrow cult classic, to THE SECOND GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME. I know it's not Tim Robbins' and Morgan Freeman's fault that they're naturally wooden and self-serious. But how did this happen? Not only is Shawshank #2 all time, it's also the single most voted-on movie in the entire top 250, and, as far as I can make out, on the entire IMDb site. How did this happen? It's extremely galling.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Check this shit out

A slightly modified and expanded version of my last list...