| Patricia Highsmith, The Cry of the Owl (1962, Atlantic Books ed.). Middling Highsmith, repeating the play of literal innocence and psychological guilt taken up in the slightly earlier and more energetic The Blunderer and This Sweet Sickness; everyone whom the protagonist by rights should want dead ends up dead, including an ex-wife whose shrewishness strains credibility, but one somehow doesn’t feel as implicated as in the other books mentioned, simply because said protagonist is a bit of a cipher. Even not counting Ripley, I’d put several of her later novels ahead of this, particularly The Tremor of Forgery.|
 Simon Blackburn, Truth (2005, Oxford). Meant as a popularization of contemporary debates over the titular concept, this didn’t seem to me to hit quite the right pitch to serve its intended audience as advertised: Blackburn shuns the kind of boredom-courting technicality that might make matters really perspicacious, but at the same time casually assumes too much background at points – an occupational hazard. Decent on deflationism about the theoretical interest of ‘truth’ in the abstract; that is, the view that it is true that p adds no semantic content to p; and his taxonomic discussion of elminitavism, realism, constructivism, and quietism is useful (even though every time someone tries to explain to me what “constructivism” actually is, I feel as though I must have glanced away at just the key moment). Less convincing on questions about why we might want to be realists in one area (commonplace claims about objects and events, say) and (I guess) constructivists or what have you when it comes to aesthetic or ethical claims. By the final pages, Blackburn writes, “I hope we have become confident in using our well-tried and tested vocabulary of explanation and assessment. We can take the postmodernist inverted commas off things that out to matter to us: truth reason, objectivity and confidence.” I think I missed where this was accomplished – the threat of regress implicit in the notion of confidence of confidence being, perhaps, one reason why.
 A Historical Guide to Langston Hughes, ed. Steven C. Tracy (Oxford, 2004). Collection of commissioned essays giving an overviews of how Hughes’s work (which, just about all contributors note, is too voluminous over five decades of activity to be reduced to a single position) stands with respect to some overarching concerns: place, music, “genderracial” issues, and black politics. The latter piece, by James Smethurst, is the most useful by some distance, arguing that Hughes wasn’t merely representative of Popular Front aesthetics but lays some claim to being one of its architects, and tracking the extent to which a critical perspective was still present in coded but not exactly opaque form in his Chicago Defender stories and columns, even in the wake of his humiliating appearance before HUAC. The music chapter, by the editor, is disappointingly short on critical distance and not notably successful in its vernacular moments: “May the Lord be praised, Hughes was aiming not always for the dignified, select, austere poetry that Cullen sought but for the sensuous, visceral throb that bursts forth into human life.” The point that Hughes was drawn more to urban female “blues” singers of the sort that drew whites to Harlem than to what I suppose rock critics would think of as ‘folk’ or ‘country’ blues, however, deserves further consideration.
 Joyelle McSweeney, The Commandrine, (2004, Fence). Well, the rococo vocabulary certain makes one feel that one’s getting one’s money’s worth: The end-words of the first few lines of “Application Ballad” run: chorizo/cabeza/djinn/Florida/Barcelonic/embarcadero. Sometimes, though, the insistence on verbalizing it slant seems excessive: for some reason, the phrase “a world that wouldn’t math up” (“Youth Idiom”) sticks in my craw the way that Gary Lutz or Ben Marcus can. Faves: “Lives,” prose blocks containing widely separated but vivid aural relations (“cosseted”/”Cassette!”); and the closer, “The Born Fetus,” a success (like sections of Jean Day’s The Literal World) in the hard-to-bring-off epistemology-of-the-neonate mode, which is also less strenuously stylized than most of the book.
 The Romance of Happy Workers (2008, Coffee House). A very carefully wrought book, even in apparently casual moments, that I’m not going to pretend to be able to do justice to here. Just wanted to this register that this poet needs flarfiness like a squid needs a bodystocking. The title sequence, with its boho-lover figure named “Woody,” is perfect.
 The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971, dir. Dario Argento). What’s Hitchockian about Argento’s second feature (I didn’t make it to MOMA in time for its predecessor, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) is the extreme MacGuffinosity of the plot mechanism, some nonsense about chromosomal research that one could, I imagine, plumb for thematic resonance – that and the near-comic absurdity of the suspense-for-suspense’s-sake set-pieces, including a sequence involving the Italian equivalent of Floyd the Barber, a will-they-drink-the-milk-we-know-is-poisoned bit, complete with showy allusion to Suspicion, and a graverobbing scene. Oddly unbalanced for the American viewer by the presence of Karl Malden as a blind crossword compiler – in a way, the film peaked for me early on with the detailed attention paid to his laborious working method. The kidnapping of Malden’s character’s pre-teen niece is a harbinger of the career to come.
 Voyage to Italy (1954, Roberto Rossellini). Shown as part of the Walter Reade’s welcome tribute to Manny Farber, curated by Kent Jones. An emotionally unsubtle film, subtly acted by Ingrid Berman (caught, almost cruelly, at the precise age necessary for her character, a great beauty to whom time is just beginning to happen) and George Sanders, one of my favorite human beings to watch on a screen. The film survives, and was admired by Farmer, for the composition, blocking, and photographic attention to the landscape surrounding Naples, rather than the hefty metaphorical freight which Rossellini makes it bear – not to mention the seeming suggestion that the couple’s marriage is finally “saved” by the intervention of the Blessed Virgin, in the form of a village procession. (This sequence, complete with canopy carried by local worthies, looks remarkably similar to one the Cordasco clan -- my mother’s extended family -- still participates in every March around St. Peter’s near Chinatown in L.A., as the ceremonial component of the feast the Madonna della Stella.)
 Invitation (1952, Gottfried Reinhardt) Tightly controlled melodrama – it is no great surprise to find that expat director, who did not have the U.S. career of many of his fellows, is the son of no less than the great Max Reinhardt. In a nutshell, sickly and ‘plain’ (you just have to take this on faith in ‘50s studio pics, which contain even fewer unattractive persons than our own) Dorothy McGuire has a year to live, doesn’t know it, and also doesn’t know that doting dad Louis Calhern has more or less hired Van Johnson to marry her so she can be happy in the time she’s got. Then she finds out. Of course, in the meantime, Johnson has actually fallen in love with her, plus there’s a new operation, so it all works out, but the uneasy middle of the picture has some real intensity – it’s really an edge-of-the-construct deal, minus any alien/supernatural element. McGuire’s slenderness and elegant wardrobe do a lot of her work for her, but not all of it, and there’s also good support: Ruth Roman, the weak link in Strangers on a Train (speaking of Highsmith and Farber, come to think of it), is above-par here as the justifiably catty spurnee whom Johnson would have married had he not been bought off, and – if the Reinhardt pedigree wasn’t enough – the film includes one of the few recorded performances by the important acting teacher Michael Chekov, nephew of Anton. A genuine oddity that I’m glad I caught, especially because the presence of Johnson as an ineffectual husband and Calhern as a father who deceives out of love make it a dramatic companion piece to the fascinating Confidentially Connie, possibly one of the great lost ‘50s comedies, and of which more, sometime.
 Big House U.S.A. (1955, Howard W. Koch). Decent-to-good “semi-doc” crime drama. [That is, a member of the late-noir subgenre marked by strong police-procedural elements, location shooting, and “object lesson” voiceovers: see The Naked City, He Walked By Night, T-Men, and the radio series This Is Your FBI.] The completeness with which lawful order is restored allows the movie to get away with much cruelty on the way, with a kidnapped kid (a asthmatic afraid of the nurse’s needle with whom I immediately identified) thrown into Grand Canyon – mystifyingly renamed “Royal Gorge” throughout, as if there were a copyright involved – within the first 20 minutes, and criminal-mastermind-type Broderick Crawford ordering William Talman (so good as a heavy, here and in Ida Lupino’s The Hitchhicker, and so familiar as the prosecutor in Perry Mason that it’s a shock to realize that that role was the one that was “against type”) to burn a dead buddy’s face off with a blowtorch. Come to think of it, the structure here (and the use of an imperiled kid) has a good deal in common with the Argento, above. Thrills is thrills.
 Joan Miro, Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937 (MOMA, through 1/12/09). Not an artist for whom I have a lot of context, but here go my strictly amateur-hour observations: Miro could be kitschy, even garishly so – I particularly dislike the black-light poster coloring of Still Life with Old Shoe -- but also spare and bracing, as in the object trouvés of the “Spanish Dancer” series. Over the decade covered here, the most interesting series are those that attempt to combine these extremes especially two bodies of work from 1933. One group somehow makes the referentiality of sentimental and/or cheesecakey postcards that even Cornell might have rejected disappear into large-scale compositions on paper. (Some related pieces on reflective foil backgrounds, however, have a crummy, prom-décor look.) The other, paintings full of his familiar biomorphic forms, turn out to be abstractions from collages of mechanical ones, para-works that are displayed alongside the finished ones, presumably not in accordance with Miro’s intention but to the advantage of both components. The thinking here is intriguingly Duchampian, though the peculiarities of the transformation seems Miro’s own. Finally, some smaller, later works on Masonite wouldn’t look bad on the front of a book of poems, particularly Two Personages in the Presence of a Metamorphosis. (Just about the entire exhibition is online.
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