This stressful year shows no signs of stopping, with reasons to panic so myriad we’re not even gonna get into them here. One thing’s clear: we all need places to put our eyes and brains that distract us, soothe us, and ready us to engage with the scary stuff more effectively. To that end, here’s the stuff filling our queues at Portland Monthly this week, from soapy British intrigue to midcentury melodrama and beyond.
As we stare the barrel down of a long, dark winter, I've been cutting the monotony with a string of Hollywood melodramas: big, ripe, lurid studio concoctions featuring stars who may as well be gods weeping in blindingly saturated technicolor. Given who I am as a person—someone whose entire undergrad MO was “How can I talk about how this thing is actually gay?”—these movies score bonus points if they wriggle out from beneath the restrictive Hays Code of the day to offer slyly political or homoerotic subtext. Enter Johnny Guitar.
Directed in 1954 by incorrigible bisexual Nicholas Ray (who would go on to make Rebel Without a Cause the following year), Johnny Guitar is a gay-as-hell Western fever dream filled with eye-popping costumes and jaw-dropping subject matter. Joan Crawford stars as Vienna, a pants-wearing, tough-talking saloon owner locked in a cosmic battle with the puritanical Emma (Mercedes McCambridge, who would go on to voice the demon in The Exorcist) in the old West. The women are thinly-disguised former lovers, it seems, and the titular Johnny Guitar (a hulking Sterling Hayden) is sidelined to decoration almost immediately.
This movie has everything: Joan Crawford telling her casino lackey to “spin the wheel, Eddie—I like the way it sounds” through three layers of Velveeta; a leather-clad McCambridge holding a literal whip as she stands behind a trembling Crawford; an explicitly anti-McCarthy countenance that nods to The Crucible, which premiered the year before. It also, blessedly, has this scene, where Crawford calmly talks her lynch mob down in a ballgown from behind a piano:
Johnny Guitar was mostly dismissed by American audiences during its theatrical release, and it's not hard to see why: marketed as a shoot-'em-up Western, it is, instead, a wordy and hallucinatory queer revenge saga bent on upending the lazy complacence of the Eisenhower years. For those same reasons, it's easy to understand how its estimation rose when French critics like Jean-Luc Godard got their hands on it and wrote breathless praise about its use of color and structural boldness.
Thanks to Godard and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar (whose Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown quotes this film directly), Johnny Guitar has become a cult classic, and it is available for all to stream on Hulu right now. Bask in its insanity, guffaw at its nerve, and fall in love with its costumes—it should warm you up for a few days, at minimum. —Conner Reed, arts and culture editor
Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind is a book I read very, very quickly. In fact, I skimmed through it at an alarming pace, largely because I could not live with the unbearable tension created therein. Which brings me to the warning: this book is about people in a world where bad, unexplainable things are happening over which they have no control. So yeah, it’s a bit on the nose. But beyond the slow-paced and excruciating tightening of an invisible vice that Alam cranks with the precision of a master torturer, there’s so much at work: he also puts our first world consumption, our liberal racism, our smug assumptions of safety, our instinct for self-preservation, our reliance on technological crutches, our incredible vulnerability, and more on the rack.
Deeply unsettling and heart-clutchingly terrifying, rest assured that I would not be recommending this book for your current mental state were it not for the profound lesson within about being human. It holds in its 241 pages the threat of annihilation, and the ineffable beauty and connection we are privy to as it approaches. —Fiona McCann, senior editor at large
Welcome to the second day of our second lockdown! As my job is put on hold yet again, I’m finding ways to stay sane for all the hours of “free time” (I cringe now at the word) that I’ll have. What better way to enjoy it than some creative escapism in the form of: fantasy novels! Tuning into worlds that aren’t ours has always been a hobby of mine, and it seems like some needed relief now more than ever. My current pick: Song for Arbonne, by the illustrious Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. This is the fifth novel I’ve picked up by him, and the sweeping poetry of his prose leaves me with a renewed love for the English language every time. I highly recommend his other works, especially Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan. —Ainslee Dicken, editorial intern