Friday, 26 May 2017

JEREMY HUNT: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE TURD KIND

I had finished the morning's writing and was just about to stick the banana bread in the oven and, on this glorious summer day, take my dog for a walk by Swan's Barn, when there was a knock on the door. I opened it and standing in front of me in the bright sunshine was the Health Minister, the Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt, MP for Surrey SW. Oh, I thought, as I struggled to keep touch with reality. Where is Michael Crick and a Channel 4 TV crew when you really need him.

The conversation began normally enough. Can I ask for your vote? Can I answer any questions? he said. Why are you killing the National Health Service? How can you continue the unfairness of austerity? Why are you making such a farce of Brexit? Why are you coming after my pension to feed your city friends? I replied. Anything I can do to keep you out of Westminster I will, and I looked over to the Dr Louise Irvine National Health Action party flyer in my front window.

To be fair, and unsurprisingly, Mr Hunt was not phased, and wanted to 'answer' me point by point. When he started in on 12,000 new nurses, and I replied with 1% per year, nurses disappearing overseas or being driven back to Europe, he bid a gracious farewell. My dog by then had got bored and dashed out the door, and three of Hunt's half-dozen or so advance team were worried, especially when Rufus chased after the MP for a sniff. One asked me if he bit? No, I said, he's trained to flush out vermin, not attack them.

As I finally put the bread tin into the oven, I experienced what the French call 'l'espirit d'escalier', inspired perhaps by either Emmanuel Macron or the third series of Spin. It's a similar phenomenon as the English laughing at Saturday night's jokes during Sunday's lie-in. I could have pulled out my best Dick Van Dyke accent and said 'oi, you're that Jeremy geezer what 'as the talk show on telly'. I could have offered him tea and stalled for an hour to slow down his campaigning. I realised I should have kept my discussion with Mr. Hunt local. And as fate would have it, as I put Rufus on the lead and walked out the door with him, Hunt was coming back down the side street, so I went to unload my specific broadside. He made a joke about the dog being on the lead for his protection, and I asked about our local hospital, run by Richard Branson, with facilities under-utilised because they cannot be sub-leased. Ah, he said, we're taking that away from Virgin, he said. And giving it to whom? I asked and he began to say how they wanted to take back the NHS into public hands as only 8% of it was privately held. We began arguing again, and he went into job creation and growing economy and everything except strong and stable.

He actually seemed to enjoy this; he's got the right training and demeanour. The cooler he remains, like a younger handsomer Geoffrey Howe, the more frustrating it is to argue with him. He's almost affable, in the way people used to insist Shrub Bush was, only Hunt is obviously much smarter. How far below the surface the affability goes is something not hard to estimate from the effects of his policies. And remember, it's not for no reason that the Tories have kept him, like Bojo and the other two Brexiteers, well in the background nationally. The camera, and tough questioning, reveals a lot he doesn't give away in person.

You have to give him credit for that, and for being out on the doorstep, and being so well organised with his team of locals and flacks to help cover the ground. It's an area naturally inclined, like most of exurban England to vote Tory, only moreso, and you can see Hunt as a darling of the party faithful. You have to admire the organisation and the work he's putting in, especially when his best opposition here is National Health Action, who don't have the organisation, nor the funding, and despite the Progressive Alliance, can't draw on Labour or the LDP for that. Because even with the Greens standing down from the ballot, and local endorsement of Irvine by the other two parties, it is still a long uphill battle to unseat someone who got 60% of the vote last time (and UKIP took another 10%). But still he's out there working, which is impressive. Frightening, but impressive. I came to the conclusion that, although I've appeared in a Compass/Progressive Alliance promo video, which you can find here. I think I need to do a lot more. I think I need to do a lot more. And then I realised I had never mentioned the Dementia Tax. Which now worries me in a couple of different ways.

thanks to Michael Goldfarb for the title....

THOMAS H COOK'S TRAGIC SHORES: THE TLS REVIEW

My review of Tragic Shores, Thomas H Cooks memoir of 'dark travel' is in the current issue of the Times Literary Suuplement. You can get a taste of it if you link here, but the rest of the piece is behind a subscription paywall. Or you can buy the paper. There is an outstanding article about Marsden Hartley by Patrick McCaughey, as well as a number of other pieces that will keep your attention.

Thomas is one of the very best crime novelists in America, and as I have written before, works in a manner that is almost sui generis. It is a style that suits his subject here very well, indeed, as he, his wife and daughter travel to those dark places, from which they draw a certain amount of life. More on that later...

The piece as published is notably shorter than the one I originally wrote. I did a rewrite to change the emphasis slightly and re-order it; then it was cut for space and a couple of key points lost. I will post the original up here some time in the future.

Monday, 22 May 2017

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON'S SHADOW DISTRICT

When the body of a woman is discovered in wartime Reykjavik's 'shadow district', suspicion falls on American soldiers, who have brought changes to the social life of the Icelandic capital. So the investigation is handled in tandem, by an Iceland cop, Flovent, and an American MP named Thorson, a Canadian solider seconded to the Americans because he actually speaks Icelandic. Murder investigation is literally a new thing for the Icelandic police, and they are still feeling their way around an investigation; Thorson, of course, is a soldier not a detective.

In modern Reykavik, a 90 year old man is found dead in his bed. A few days later, when an autopsy reveals he was suffocated, and the police investigate, all they find are some cuttings from that murder case in World War II. At which point Konrad, a retired police detective, is asked by his former colleague Marta to, unofficially, take a look.

The underlying theme behind Arnaldur Indridason's novels, explicit in some like his first in English, Jar City, has always been the uneasy conflict between traditional Iceland, a society sealed almost hermetically for centuries, and modern Iceland. His detective Erlendur loves to eat horse head; his colleague Sigurdur Oli loves all things American. Indridason wrote a stand-alone contemporary thriller involving Americans and Nazi bomber lost in 1945; the cold war figures in Draining Lake. World War II was the catalyst for this change, and that is the engine which powers this exceptional story, as its two strands grow closer and intertwine. And the connections are not what might at first appear to be.

The Shadow District takes us back to a society that seems more like Ibsen, if not Dickens, than the modern Iceland in which Erlendur worked, and it's significant that Konrad is a retired cop, someone who still has a foot in the past. It's not even that he is a typical Scandi 'depressive detective' the way Erlendur was so brilliantly drawn. He's a quiet old man, trying to connect the past and the present. There's more than a hint of Conrad too in the way the story plays out, as it very quietly becomes more and more dark, with twists and shocks, as well as the sadness of the years that passed between crime and punishment. Indridson is easily the finest of the contemporary Nordic crime writers, and though the label 'Nordic Noir' is slapped on anything written north of Schleswig-Holstein, this comes closer than most to living up to it. At any rate, it's one of the finest crime novels of this or any year.


The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridson
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781911215059

This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The 1,000th POST

According to Blogger, this is the one thousandth post I have made to Irresistible Targets. I have written about my antipathy to creating stories based on numbers that happen to end in zeroes: Trump's first 100 days, the 50th anniversary of this assassination or that Summer of Love,  but it keeps hacks in business, and I am nothing if not willing to grab an easy hook.  I reckon a thousand posts works out to somewhere short of a million words over the past nine years, and pondering that I realised that this is something like a novel a year, were I inclined that way.

Of course not all the writing has been specifically for the blog: many of the pieces posted have been published elsewhere first, and some I have given to others to republish. Sometimes, I publish a link with my notes on my own writing, occasionally that runs longer than the piece itself.

According the Blogger I have had almost 634,000 page views, which would average out to 634 per post.
The viewing figures are usually lower than that per item, which I don't understand, but I am sure there is a good explanation for it. Still, the work is reaching some people, and I know from the viewing figures of pieces I've written for literary magazine blogs that 600 is actually a pretty impressive number.

But it doesn't quite seem impressive enough to justify blog for blog's sake. I feel like I'm back in the fanzine world I wrote for occasionally in the early Seventies. So as I have done at various other milestones along this blog's way I have a couple of questions to pose.

First, should I continue? I will confess that in past few months I have had trouble writing, unless I am on a paying deadline. I have a paper stuck to the wall in my office with what I thought were good ideas for feature pieces and a list of reviews to write because I have been invited to screenings or sent books, and they have not been written. I find myself back in the place I was more than 20 years ago, when my MLB job left me and I went freelance, sending stories off unsolicited and selling some of them (while seeing a few appear, with a few changes of course, under other bylines...welcome to London hackery.) I take this mini- writers block as an unwillingness to commit fully to retrace that path. I also take it as recognition that the editors I pitch to, and their audiences, are shall we say, younger than they were or I am, so sometimes I am speaking to a soft wall of incomprehension.

Now I do want to write those stories, and my inclination is to do that if only for myself and the small coterie of the IT faithful. But here is question two: how best could I 'monetize' as they say, Irresistible Targets. I tried once with Google ads: when the total reached something like £20 I tried to collect, and the process of 'validating' myself with them defeated their paying out to me, as I assume it was intended to do.

I could re-launch IT on another platform (different blog, website) which might allow for contributions. I could set up a paywall website, though that seems counter-productive. I could put a paywall on a website including IT, which might allow for subscribers to my sporting wisdom, particularly during the NFL season.

Any suggestions, advice, encouragement or support would be welcome from you, the readers. I first set up the blog thinking it would be a good way of increasing my 'exposure' as all the people who offer you the chance to contribute for free to their money-making outlets tell you is beneficial. I went back today and looked at my first post (you can do that too, here) and recalled I had actually started THREE blogs: one about art, one about sport and other amusing pastimes, and this one intended to be primarily about crime fiction. At least I wasn't insane enough to continue on those paths! I do recommend my art coverage though, the blog was called Untitled (Reflections... , though most of the pieces I have added here at IT over the years.

While IT has created some exposure, it has not translated into anything beyond itself. Is there a good way to move beyond that, or should that be reward in and of itself?

Or, since 1,000 is supposed to be such a nice round number to mark an accomplishment, I could just leave it there.

Friday, 19 May 2017

ROGER AILES: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Roger Ailes went up at the Guardian online last night (link to it here). It is pretty much as written, but trimmed down somewhat; I wrote it on short-order, as it were. Had they given me more time, I would have made it shorter, to paraphrase Pascal (apparently; thanks to my friend Linda Arnold for pointing out he got there first).

One thing that should be noted: Ailes did not create Fix News; he created it as it now is, and he persuaded Rupert Murdoch to make the key business decision that propelled it forward: paying cable networks (which are generally monopolies in their areas in free market America) to carry Fox News. Instead of cable companies paying Fox per viewer, as was the case with most channels, Fox paid them to put the channel on air. Without that manoeuvre,  Fox News might have languished because cable operators figured CNN (and MSNBC) were all their subscribers needed.

This was an obituary, and not political analysis, but I would have liked to show a little more clearly the ways in which his influence is still felt, not only in the USA. In the UK, when we discuss the impact of Lynton Crosby on British politics, the chatterati always trot out his 'dead cat at the dinner table' quote. But years before, Ailes had explained what he called the 'Orchestra Pit' tactic: "If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says I have a solution to the Middle East problem and the other guys falls into the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?" His faith in the shallowness of media was rarely, if ever, proven wrong; in a way the greatest irony of his career is that it began when he challenged Richard Nixon's assertion that television is a gimmick, yet he proved over and over again how right the Trickster was.

And of course when you watch Theresa May campaigning, as per Lynton, to small carefully selected crowds, answering vetted question from carefully selected journalists (Crosby trusts British journalists to be as clueless as Ailes felt the general public were in America), and repeating 'Make Britain Great Again', oh, wait, it's 'Strong And Stable' it's as if Ailes were driving the battle bus.

Which is not to lessen the impact he had on America. You can see it watching the coverage of Trump: television tends toward simplifying issues into a dichotomy: good/evil, black/white, but Ailes turned TV news into a zero/sum game. Viewpoints have their partisan networks (as long as they make money: post-Ailes MSNBC has danced around trying to place themselves at various times as opposition or not, 'liberal' or not) and the once-major network news programmes stand afraid to 'take sides' lest they alienate their shrinking audience, which is even older than Fox's. But Ailes brought them the attitude that fear attracts people to the safety of their screens: crime and natural disaster, once reserved for the local news in areas they affected, are now the stuff of network news, balanced by entertainment info-nuggets to keep you watching. Like most of those who influenced the true baby-boomer generation (born say 1946 through 53-4) Ailes was slightly older, and recognised the resentment at the heart of the majority of that generation who felt abandoned by the cultural changes that came as a result of various liberations.

They were not liberations Ailes fancied: he was very much of that previous era, and his harassment problems were very much an aspect of that. His America was Ronald Reagan's dreamy fantasy of 1950s television shows, stay at home moms in dresses and aprons, the relations between boys and girls being one of power and forbidden fruit. Because that was what he grew up in, and observed from a house-bound perch.

There is an exceptional bio-film to be made here. Would that Sidney Greenstreet were still alive to play the older Ailes. Young Roger is truly a sad story; when he bit through his tongue his father had to drive him in a panic to Akron, as Warren had no doctors able to deal with it. Ailes nearly died, not for the first time. His relation with his parents nevertheless seems distant, perhaps he was too much a burden, a disappointment. That he channeled this into creating a world that you could link to his childhood imagination, one in which those with power, like himself, were protected from all harm, is a powerful image.

None of this was new. We'd known the essence of the game plan ever since Joe McGinnis published The Selling Of The President in 1969, but we've pretended that the game plan doesn't exist, and the Beltway punditocracy has no reason to admit that it does. Political commentary in America now is all about performance art, the way politicians appear to deal with things. It is never about issues, because it doesn't understand those issues, and the last thing people who do understand what issues really mean want is for their audience to share that understanding.


Tina Brown tweeted yesterday that Ailes was a great producer and raconteur, and it was wrong to judge him solely on the sexual harassment charges. I agree. He should be judged on the impact the things he produced: political candidates (Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes, and behind the scenes, often with Giuliani, Trump) and political news. Though he was built like Goering, his legacy may well be as an American Goebbels, though luckily not in the service of a dictator.


Thursday, 18 May 2017

COOKING CAPPELLETTI: CHEF BOY AR DEE AND THE CIRCLE OF LIFE

I was in need of some comfort food. Still a bit dizzy and nauseous with what I hope was just a bout of Menieres (because it will go away if that's what it is) and tired from writing 1,500 words on Roger Ailes for the Guardian in three hours with a pounding headache. To paraphrase Pascal, I'd have given them a thousand words, but they didn't give me enough time.

Anyway, not much in the icebox as I'm off to the US next week. So I boil some store-bought cappelletti and drain them, a dab of butter and some pepper. Toss in a couple of teaspoons of store-bought red pesto. A splash of Healthy Boy thai chili sauce, a dash of Lousiana hot sauce, and some chopped salad tomatoes. Then grate some parmesan cheese over the top. Perfectly comforting.

Then I realise that this looks an awful like the Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli that came out of a can, which many of my young friends (or their mothers) took for Italian food. My mother would not allow such stuff in the house. She always made her own spaghetti sauce, and very well too. She may have been Jewish, but she grew up in a neighbourhood with lots of Italians, always made spaghetti or ziti (same sauce) on Wednesdays and fish on Fridays and even pronounced minestrone to rhyme with 'bone', like those Neopolitans in West Haven did.

I am starting to realise that life is indeed a circle.


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

POWERS BOOTHE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Powers Boothe went up at the Guardian online yesterday, you can link to it here. He died in his sleep at only 68, a surprise because of the incredible energy he brought to his roles. Yet the seeming easy with which he pulled off intensity was amazing, and it was what made him one of my favourites.

I was thinking about how much fun he seemed to be having when he acted, that well studied sense of not having studied at all. And how much fun the set must have been on so many of his films, and what good ensembles he was part of. Extreme Prejudice is like a Hall of Fame of B movie villainy: Rip Torn, Michael Ironside, William Forsythe. Walter Hill had worked with Sam Peckinpah, and this was very much like a movie Peckinpah might have wanted to make. The same with Southern Comfort, another Hill effort, with Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, and Peter Coyote. Or think of Tombstone, with such great turns by lesser stars like Val Kilmer (the definitive Doc Holliday) or Kurt Russell as Wyatt, but tremendous work from Michael Biehn (Ringo Kid), Stephen Lang (Ike Clanton), Bill Paxton (Morgan Earp) or Joanna Pacula (Big Nose Kate).

But the two roles that might be his best performances are his breakthrough part as Jim Jones, which he played like a demented summer-camp director, which made it easy to see how he might get typecast as charismatic villains, and his take as Al Haig in Oliver Stone's Nixon: another film where he shines amidst a wonderful ensemble cast. He gets the lightly hidden drive for power behind Haig, and the way he succumbs to the opportunity to grab it, the way a vampire might succumb to the smell of blood.

There are similarities in many of his roles. Obviously he played a lot of corrupt people with power. But even in two of his starring roles as a hero, he winds up being converted to his heroic role (A Breed Apart and Emerald Forest). The latter in particular is very interesting because he starts off not to far from his character in Red Dawn, which possibly inspired Ironside when he played in Starship Troopers. As an aside, I saw a preview of Red Dawn at the DGA in Los Angeles with a friend of mine, and my ridicule of the movie forced my host to tell me to keep it down lest I offend anyone connected with the film who might be in attendance. It's kind of like the creation myth of the Tea Party militia.

Writing the obit was not easy: there were lots of half-way details about his life, especially his personal life. I found lots of gossip clippings about him and Rebecca de Mornay, which might help explain why his long marriage eventually failed, but was nothing important enough nor solid enough to warrant inclusion. I also discovered there is an artist named Power Boothe, who made a short film called Overture, which some listings credit to Powers Boothe. I eventually found the correct name on a sale listing of old VHS art tapes. I assumed it was this Booth who had also done the art work for Todd Solandz's first film, which also gets credited to Powers.

Most interesting, however, was one source, which appeared to get repeated, saying Boothe had appeared as an extra in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, as a Bolivian bandit. The timing was not impossible; he might have been between college and graduate school, though location shooting was done in Bolivia. I felt that had that story been true, I would have found Boothe talking about it at some point, especially considering his success in westerns. I did manage to find a still from the scenes in Bolivia, and in the back is someone who looks an awful lot like Boothe, although not necessarily the 21 year old Boothe. I never made contact with someone who could tell me definitively, but I feel like this is apocryphal, much as I would have liked it to be true.

Of course he thrived in the quality small-screen drama that have changed the face of film-making in the past 15 years.  This should not have been a surprise, because his best lead role as a non-villain was as Philip Marlowe, in the HBO series Marlowe, as I describe in the obituary. That series was produced along with London Weekend, the kind of deal that was the forerunner for the modern style of subscription channel offerings. Showtime's Fallen Angels was another similar.

Boothe didn't fit my idea of Marlowe, but he got the character and interpreted it deftly. Latterly he stole scene after scene from Kevin Costner and Paxton in Hatfields and McCoys; he and McShane were a terrific double-act in Deadwood, and he was born to play Connie Britton's dad. There would have been more television greatness to come for sure; he was gone too soon. RIP.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

BLUEBERRY EYES: a poem from Franz Kline

In yesterday's post, linking to my Guardian obituary of Jean Stein, I mentioned that I had published two poems based on paintings by Franz Kline in her magazine, Grand Street (issue 54: Fall 1995). I did have a query asking if I might make them available. So here is 'Blueberry Eyes'.

Because the issue was themed 'Space', the first of those poems was 'Torches Mauve', which began with a mention of space, and was concerned with the space within the frame. I think that was the hook I used to pitch it to the managing editor, Deborah Treisman, whom I had met. Coincidentally, I had been rewriting 'Torches Mauve' recently, after seeing the painting again in the Abstract Expressionist show at the Royal Academy, but looking at it today I starting clawing the original back, with only a few changes. I will sit on that one for a while.

The other was 'Blueberry Eyes'. I liked it a lot, and thought they worked together well, but it had actually been published already, in my 1991 Northern Lights pamphlet Chump Change. As that was a limited edition of 300 copies, I figured I was on safe ground.

The poem was inspired when I saw Kline's 'Blueberry Eyes' in March of 1989 in Washington DC, where I was attending a world broadcasters' conference sponsored, I think, by the EBU. I took time off to hit the galleries, and I believe this was in the National: I can still recall the wall and the placement of the painting, I'm slightly less sure of the building itself. I wrote it out as a poem over the next two years and Chump Change appeared in May 1991. I still like the way it moves, with a rhythm I still see in the painting, and the tension between colour and black. Kline was so good with colour, and he did so few of them before he died. 16 years later, here it is again

BLUEBERRY EYES
                                           

Let's fight to hold
the darkness off

somewhere, the other
side of, the river

the shadow of a
bridge, let's let

the night begin
to echo & watch

as flashes of light
bounce off the flow

of water below.
On board a train

New York is
wilderness

bridges connect
deserted islands

remain as sun dis-
appears behind the

Palisades, greens
turn to yellow

red & swirls to
stop at Spuyten Duyvil

& in that instant
train & landscape

intersect &
sunlight dies

Saturday, 13 May 2017

JEAN STEIN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Jean Stein is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper sometime in the future. It is pretty much as I wrote it; with some small deletions, and reorganised somewhat to deal with her books chronologically. I had preferred to leave the third until the end, because it seemed to me that the completion of that book might have signaled something in terms of her depression which culminated in her suicide. But the paper removed my reference to her depression, and mentioned the suicide only in passing, which is policy. I had written that she jumped from her balcony; to me the image of one of extreme despair, given her long bouts with depression, and the completion of her last book, it said something crucial about Jean Stein.

A few other small things: Jules Stein's MCA grew first by representing Guy Lombardo; by the time the moved to Hollywood they had more than half of all the bands in the country under contract. The connection with Ronald Reagan is important, and I had mentioned that. Reagan, as head of SAC, basically sold the union out, which was great news for the studios and Lew Wasserman, Stein's successor as president of MCA; see Dan Moldea's book Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA And The Mob.

I would have loved to have more time to examine Jean Stein's childhood, as she does in her book. And I would have liked to delve further into the 'poor little rich girl' theme which runs through the latter two books. I had mentioned that William Faulkner was 56 when the 19 year old Stein had her affair with him, to me that explained a lot about the interview he gave her, as well as about the interview landing her a job with the Paris Review. Her salon in New York is fascinating in itself, especially those she remained close to--Joan Didion being the most telling.

It was especially nice for me to be able to mention her grace with the magazine Grand Street, which remains one of my favourite, and one of the finest, places where my poetry has appeared. It was a great magazine, and its art coverage was fantastic; a lovely landing place for poems about Franz Kline. And it was good of the Guardian to include mention of her two daughters, both of whom followed in her footsteps, so to speak, particularly Katrina vanden Heuvel, who publishes and edits The Nation.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

DENNIS LEHANE'S SINCE WE FELL

“On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-seventh year, Rachel shot her husband dead.” This is the line that begins the brief prologue to Since We Fell, a tour de force from Dennis Lehane which reminds is above all about what a talented writer he is. Like Mystic River, it is a novel about emotions. But what makes it so remarkable is the way it is told, in three sections, each with its own focus and its own style, the latter serving to emphasize the former.

The first, titled 'Rachel In The Mirror', could easily stand alone as a novella in a mainstream literary magazine. It covers the story of Rachel Childs, raised alone by her psychology-professor mother who authored a best-selling self-help book called The Staircase, which referred to the stages any relationship goes through, and which Elizabeth tells Rachel was a piece of 'emotionally adolescent snake-oil'. She barely remembers her father, who left the family when she was young, but she recalls her mother's threat as he walked away: “If you leave I will expunge you.” Her mother gave Rachel little information about her father, but she becomes determined to track him down, and after Elizabeth's death in a car crash, that determination becomes an obsession. The story of her quest is interwoven with her experience as a successful TV reporter in Boston, married to a successful producer, and on the verge of network stardom. She is sent to cover an earthquake in Haiti, and in the chaos that follows the disaster, she finds it impossible to 'report' the positive, and her career and marriage both crash. Like the quest for her father, it's a tale of disappointment, and a revelation about the nature of life and life's pain. It is a perfectly done, self-contained story, but one that needs to be remembered as the tale unfolds. It also contains one of Lehane's aphoristic moments, like the Irish whiskey scene in The Drop, when a character explains “the only people who as questions like 'did he want to be something besides a bartender?' are people who can become whoever they want. The rest of us are just Americans.”

When the second section, 'Brian', opens, Rachel bumps into the private detective she had originally hired in Western Massachusetts to search for her father at the faculties of universities in the area. Brian is now back in charge of his family's lumber business in Canada, and he is the stable figure Rachel needs, as she's now suffering from an inability to face the world. But all, as they say, is not what it seems, and Brian is living a double life, built on a structure of lies. Were this the opening of the novel a shrewd marketing type might have called it The Girl On The Staircase, because it fits into that modern genre of woman battling to find the truth behind an ominous menace. Lehane is again pitch-perfect: his writing builds that menace slowly, and it concludes with the scene that opened the prologue.

The third section deals with the aftermath of the shooting, as Rachel tries to piece together the mysteries that have gone before. It's titled 'Rachel In The World', which reflects the change as she is forced to act. And it's written in the kind of action prose we've seen from Lehane in his last few novels, quick moving, event-driven, and pushing toward a conclusion that at first glance, while legitimate and consistent, might strike some as being somewhat mechanical. Until one stops to think about what has gone before and what has been said to Rachel and thought by Rachel, and presented to Rachel. And here is where this brilliant novel transcends the concept of psychological thriller, or to be more accurate, it tells us where the roots of the psychology that creates the situation for such thrillers lies, and what it means. Because what it is about, recall, is the nature of living, and how we cope with its pain. And what we do, Lehane is telling us, is play roles, play con games, by which we fool others and ourselves about what we are inside. From her mother's book and tales to the hitman playing injured father, from Rachel indoors or inside herself to Rachel out in the world as wife or as avenger, we learn to accept the darkness outside, the dirt beneath. Because, as we learn, we do not own life, we rent it.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Little, Brown £18.99 ISBN 9781408708330

published on 16 May



This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.Crimetime.co.uk)

Sunday, 7 May 2017

WILLIAM HJORTSBERG: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the novelist and screenwriter William Hjortsberg is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper at some point. As far as I have seen, apart from a nice one in the Livingston Enterprise, this is the onliest one that has appeared in the press, and that is a shame. I remember enjoying the comedy of Alp and the audaciousness of Gray Matters, and then being shocked at the change of tone in Falling Angel, which surely is a classic.

Although the obit is basically as I wrote it, there were a lot of small trims, and one big one which we will get to. Given the laid-back of the life of the man his friends knew as 'Gatz' (which was excised from the piece) I thought it might be worthwhile to patch up those little details which I thought rounded out the story. Because, as Louis Cyphre might say, the devil is in the details. For example, I don't know why but I thought it important to say that the Johnny Favourite whom Cyphre hires Harry Angel to find had been a famous crooner, which makes his disappearance even harder to fathom.

When Hjortsberg was little, his father had a country house in the Catskills, where young Bill learned to fish, something he would continue in Montana. At Dartmouth, he used a photographic memory to allow him to work in the pizza joint nights while going to college in the days. He and McGuane won Stegner Fellowships at Stanford: this was probably the most prestigious creative-writing programme in America:
before McGuane and Hjortsberg it had included Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Peter S Beagle and George V Higgins (though its 'hit rate' isn't as impressive afterwards). Before starting at Stanford, Hjortsberg and his wife Marian travelled in Europe and Central America; this comes up in a couple of books, including the recent Manana, which I will review here soon.

It also comes up in Toro! Toro! Toro!. I explained that the title was a play on Tora! Tora! Tora!, which had been a movie about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; I was then asked by the desk to explain what Tora meant: tora (tiger) was the code word to signal the attack was underway; an acronym for TOtsugeki RAigeki, usually translated as lightning attack.

I mentioned the unlikely influence of Per Lagerkvist's The Dwarf on Alp. When Tom McGuane advised Hjortsberg to take up screenwriting, he said 'it's like taking candy from a baby', which was an echo of Herman Mankiewicz's famous 1925 telegram offering Ben Hecht $300 to come out to Hollywood: "'Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around." I also noted that the screenplay Nomad was constantly being optioned, so although Hjortsberg had few credits, between options and doctoring, he kept earning. 

Hjortsberg's first marriage and a brief second one both ended in divorce. In 2000 he was set up with Janie Camp by the western writer Richard Wheeler and his wife, two more of the Montana gang. This seemed somehow fitting, as Gatz was not only at the centre of the gang, but his son Max married Jim Harrison's daughter Anna, which made them sort of royalty. Having written Harrison's obit for the Guardian (you can find it here), I felt like it was something I should mention. 

There's a picture of Brautigan sitting round a table with McGuane and, I think Jim Harrison, and a couple of bottles of bourbon. The other people aren't facing the table but I wonder if one of them is Hjortsberg. He spent two decades researching that Brautigan biography, and though I was not tempted to read it, I am now. We forget not only how important a writer Brautigan was for a brief time, but also how very talented at his peak, with his combination of minimalism and surrealism (or what Robert Bly would call 'leaping'). His life was also one of extreme difficulty, and though such a big book seems the antithesis of Brautigan's work, I am getting the sense that karmatically, his life may have demanded it. Or it may just have been an obsessions, but either way it makes sense. 

It's odd that I should think Hjortsberg in later years resembled Noam Chomsky a bit. He died from pancreatic cancer. He had finished the sequel to Falling Angel, and was going to call it Burning Angel, except James Lee Burke, another Montana-based writer, published a novel with that title. Burke apparently told Hjortsberg to use it anyway, but the book will be published under a different title, which he wouldn't tell interviewers.

 He did, however, respond last year when an interviewer asked him for some 'parting words', which was a prescient if not ominous query. Hjortsberg told him "live every day to its fullest. Suck it in. It's all so brief". Which is a good way to end an interview, or a life, or an obituary. It was how I ended mine, though sadly, it's not how it ends in the paper. RIP.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

JONATHAN DEMME: ON SYNCHRONICITY AND LAMBS

 It was sad synchronicity that Jonathan Demme should die just after Bruce Langhorne, whose obituary I wrote for the Guardian last week (link here). Langhorne started doing film scores with Peter Fonda on The Hired Hand, and I would assume it was Fonda who hooked him up with Demme for Fighting Mad, in which Fonda starred. Langhorne did the music for one of Demme's two masterpieces,  Melvin And Howard.

Demme personified a sort of detached cool irony, an attitude signified by the tightly-buttoned collar look he shared with two other key ironists of the Eighties, the Davids Lynch and Byrne. If Demme's haircut seemed borrowed from Lynch's Eraserhead, his hipster heart was certainly defined by the film which many fans defined as their favourite, the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. That audience is often less impressed with what was Demme's greatest film, The Silence Of The Lambs. He may have drawn this harder edge from the beginnings of his directing career, not with art house indy fare, but working for the B-movie schlockmeister Roger Corman, who gave directing breaks to the likes of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppolla, Joe Dante and John Sayles. Demme's films for Corman are knowing pieces of exploitation which give their casts free rein to make the most of their material.

Fighting Mad was the third of his Corman flicks; the first, Caged Heat, a women-in-chains movie before Orange Is The New Black made those hip, had music by John Cale, but the best of the three was the second, Crazy Mama. It had an inspired performance by Cloris Leachman, and was the only one of the three Demme didn't write; Robert Thom's screenplay (story by Frances Doel) is more original and offbeat, and less formulaic than Demme's two. Leachman is over the top as a beauty parlour owner who loses her salon and embarks on a crime spree; the commentary on Seventies America, its economy and morals, is plain even though the film, which echoes the Thirties and Ma Barker, is set in 1958 and boasts a great Fifties soundtrack.

He followed those up with the much overlooked Citizen's Band (aka Handle With Care) written by Paul Brickman. Demme did off-beat well, and he was brilliant with actors who underplayed such parts. Paul Le Mat and Candy Clark from American Graffiti; Bruce McGill from Animal House and Roberts Blossom from just about every B movie in the 70s (and Gatsby's father in The Great Gatsby) all shine in a movie that speaks to the growing dislocation of the 'Me Decade'. After a nod to Hitchcock via Roy Scheider and Last Embrace, in which Scheider's obsessive search for his wife's assassin prefigures Silence Of The Lambs, he made Melvin And Howard (1980). Langhorne  again did the music; his proto-Americana perfectly marking the dissolution of the American Dream in the Nevada desert. Last week when I was discussing Warren Beatty and Howard Hughes on Front Row, I hadn't had a chance to mention Bo Goldman's screenplay (Goldman is the only other writer credited with Beatty on Rules Don't Apply) and those dread words 'American Dream'.  Paul LeMat was superb again as Melvin Dummar, Jason Robards is one of the best screen Hugheses, and Mary Steenburgen won an Oscar for what is basically the Candy Clark role. It's one of the more important films of the end of the Seventies, as they melded into the Eighties.

To this point, Demme's career seemed to be following an arc, but his next feature, Swing Shift, wouldn't  appear until 1984. Around that time I met Ed Saxon, Demme's producer, who was a friend of my LA friend Steve Berman. I remember Saxon talking about Demme's love of music, not just Talking Heads but much more. He made some music videos and did a little TV, a pattern which would continue throughout his career. He may go down as the greatest of the rock film makers. Then came the off-beat success of Something Wild (86) and the lighter Married To The Mob (88), and he also did the Spalding Gray monologue Swimming To Cambodia. But none of this prepared us for The Silence Of The Lambs (1990).

Silence won five Oscars, and deservedly so. I wrote about the movie's approach when I reviewed the book's 25th anniversary edition (link here) and how Demme recognises the book is about Starling, and makes her central to its tensions, but as it had done right back to his Corman days, he also allows Hopkins and Lecter to steal the show. Hopkins performance comes close to Lecter as hipster; he's poised like a dancer.  He gets the way Harris used characters to reflect aspects of Lecter, just as Lecter jumps on aspects of those characters for his own devices, the most important of those being his effort to get Starling to recognise and nurture her inner serial killer; her empathy is like Will Graham's in Red Dragon (even better in Michael Mann's version Manhunter), and her malleability was the weakest part of Silence's sequel. And Demme gets wonderful performances from supporting players, most notably Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford and Anthony Heald as Dr Chilton.

His next film was a fascinating documentary Cousin Bobby, about his cousin who was a preacher in Harlem. The following year came Philadelphia, a big star film that was a change of pace but somehow less satisfying. It's again a showcase for the actors, though I keep thinking Tom Hanks and opera risked playing to gay cliches. The odd thing about Philadelphia is that one of its two Oscars was for original song, Bruce Springsteen's 'Streets Of Philadelphia'. As they do so often, the Academy voters seemed swayed by fame; Springsteen's isn't even the best original song in the movie; Neil Young's 'Philadelphia' deserved the statue. It's interesting that Demme would go on to make two documentary films with Young.

In the 24 years since Philadelphia, Demme made only six feature films, two of which were remakes much less successful than their originals, The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate. He made Wallace Shawn's adaptation of Ibsen, A Master Builder, completing his set of the stars of My Dinner With Andre. His last feature was a music movie, Ricki and The Flash, which might have been more interesting with Cloris Leachman in the Meryl Streep role.

Demme's legacy will revolve around Silence Of The Lambs, and I think somehow Melvin And Howard will be revived. But his legacy may equally be his devotion to music, to making films about music or musicians he loved; to his willingness to step away from feature films to make documentaries (I particularly like Jimmy Carter: A Man From Plains, where the plain bit contrasts nicely with the style, and The Agronomist, about the Haitian activist Jean Dominique); and maybe even to the jobbing work of television, to which he occasionally brought that eye that was so evident when he churned out B films for Corman. I think of Philadelphia, in many ways, as a musical documentary. I admire the scores of many of Demme's films, probably more than the extended length music films themselves. But he was a rare and many faceted talent. RIP

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

ROBERT PIRSIG: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, is up at the Guardian website; you can link to it here. It ought to appear in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it; it was difficult to write in the sense that one felt the need to explain his philosophy, which he had difficulty doing in hundreds of pages, and also to reflect on a hugely relevant and fascinating life, especially his early years.

I was never a fan of the book. I'm not sure whether that was because I was already locked into some kind of duality linked to Aristotle, or my New England background, or my Swedish-Jewish ancestry, or whether it was because I was locked into my own sense of the Sixties, which was one of rebelliouness but not of rebellion. Or maybe it was because I had not been all that impressed by The Prophet, and Gibran's advice to my generation, nor by Casteneda's Don Juan. Maybe I've never been big on self-help.

To me the key was Pirsig's appeal to the 'Me Generation' -- his Quality (the Guardian plays havoc with capitalization) concept allowed you to find your truth apart from its wider context: a way of allowing you to feel satisified with your inner self while not necessarily allowing it to interfere with your interaction with the outer world. As the Sixties morphed into the Seventies and the counter culture became the over-the-counter culture, changing 'the system' became a task that was set aside. Pirsig allowed his readers a sense a way they could remain within the system while remaining true to themselves.  Obviously, this was crucial to Pirsig's own development as a child and then an adult who couldn't fit in with existing systems for which he may have been simply too smart.

I was skipped from first grade into second, and I know a little bit about the problem. Unlike Pirsig, I was big for my age, which kept bullying down to a moderate level, but I had a teacher who resented me, I was bullied, and I went from being a star to a supporting player. Most importantly, not matter how capable you become at fitting in, you are always behind your classmates in emotional development, and there is nothing you can do about that. You may sublimate by trying to please, by working to othe expectations of others, but it all raises questions about who you are yourself. 

The idea of being one with the mechanical world was appealling, in the sense that The Whole Earth Catalogue left large holes unfilled. But I was also irritated by the same sense of consumerism at the heart of practicality. I recall a scene where Pirsig manages to discover the spark plugs are being clogged by the richer mix of gas caused by the thin mountain air; something his friends would never be able to do. But he fixes it by going to the shop and buying new spark plugs: I remember wondering why he didn't clean and file them. Buddha could probably buy new sparkplugs too.

I was serious about the influence of Brautigan as much as Thoreau. I understand the allusion to Melville, but I don't see him as an influence. I also wondered about Ken Kesey: in my original copy I'd speculated Robert Redford would see this story as a kind of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but where the patient eventually escapes.

I would have loved to be able to give more details about Pirsig's many jobs, his epic battle with the University of Chicago's philosophy department, his constant returns home (when he was committed, by his father, to the VA hospital, he was living across the street from his parents. His behaviour before his breakdown was truly dangerous, including brandishing a gun in front of his wife and kids;his marriage nearly ended at that time, and seemed to be on life support for most of the ensuing decade. I confess to not having read Lila, and it would be interesting to see just how much of the breakdown of the marriage is charted in that book. Reading interviews with Pirsig from around that time (there's a great one by Ed Zuckerman in Mother Jones that must've been just before the Pirsigs separated, and her apperaances in the interview would suggest difficulties). It might be time for Redford to take another crack at those film rights.

Friday, 21 April 2017

DON RICKLES: ON LAST WORD

I appeared on BBC Radio 4's Last Word today, talking to host Matthew Bannister about the comedian Don Rickles, whose obit I wrote for the Guardian two weeks ago (link to that here.). You can find Last Word on the IPlayer here -- it begins about 22 minutes in, but it's a fascinating programme from start to finish.

There was so much to say (and trust me I said it) but I have to say Frank Sinatra tells the story of Rickles' after-dinner put down far better than I did. Yet even in such a small space, you get a fine feeling for the man. Have a listen, you hockey pucks.

BRUCE LANGHORNE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Bruce Langhorne, the session guitarist & percusionist who inspired 'Mr Tambourine Man' is online at the Guardian now, you can link to it here. He was, as I say, a crucial, perhaps seminal figure in the transition from folk music into rock; a brilliantly creative guitarist who added what you might think of as 'lead' guitar to the strumming and fingerpicking of folk. Only his 'lead' was more counterpoint. In fact, his best playing has that kind of just hitting the very edges of the melody, like Thelonius Monk on folk guitar. He was the session guy on so many of the crucial folk records on Vanguard, Elektra, and of course Dylan's Columbia records. And that photo of him, Dylan, and Bill Lee playing with Carolyn Hester on her first record in 1961 is a perfect moment of frozen time.

Bringing It All Back Home is probably the pivotal album for Bob Dylan, opening the door for Highway 61 and his live touring with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper and then with The Band. I've tried hard to try to pick out the bits of Langhorne and the bits of Al Gorgoni (Kenny Rankin also plays on the album) but you can easily hear how their interplay segues into Bloomfield on the next record. And it is not really a coincidence that Gorgoni plays on Al Kooper's records, especially the first Blood Sweat & Tears album.

But I was enthralled by Langhorne with Richard and Mimi Farina. I was listening to their song 'V' and then had to read Thomas Pynchon, and read Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, and be entranced by Mimi's voice, and autoharp, and guitar. It was a sort of time of magic innocence. There's a great picture of the three of them at Newport; Bruce is playing tambourine while Kooper sits in on guitar and Joan Baez seems to be hurrying onto the stage to get into the act. There are those who say that Dylan appropriated much of the psychedelic poet image from Farina (Mimi said Richard always hid the songs he was writing whenever Dylan came by) in much the same way Joan Baez took her singing style from Debbie Green. I'd like to think of it more as cross-pollination, but it is significant in an eerie sense that Farina died in a motorcyle accident coming back from his book launch on Mimi' birthday, and Dylan poses in a Triumph t-shirt on the cover of Highway 61.

I already knew Langhorne from folk albums, especially Odetta's.  And I remember their playing just before Martin Luther King spoke in Washington before the 300,000 people, though I must've seen it later on film. There was an interesting diversion to be written about the way, as folk melded into rock, black folk artists faded from the spotlight. Just as country blues singers gave way to the electric Chicago blues, and to white rock bands. One of the fascinating aspects of Langhorne's life was his moving between worlds; it was only a chance reference to his having a first wife who was a dancer, and whose name was Georgina, that led me to discover he (and Brother John Sellers) played with Alvin Ailey's dance troupe.

Avalanche is not one of my favourite Eric Andersen records; that's not Langhorne's fault, but he would have been better providing the edge when Andersen was singing more softly. I got the feeling that playing tasteful chops behind singers like Noel Harrison was probably a good motivation to play with Hugh Masekela; some versions say it was Masekela who introduced Bruce to Peter Fonda. I recommend The Hired Hand as a movie and also for Langhorne's score. I didn't remember that he'd done Stay Hungry, whose value seems to have diminished by our later perceptions of Arthur Schwartzenegger, but it was a piece of synchronicity that I should have been reviewing Warren Beatty's Howard Hughes movie just before I had to write Bruce Langhorne's obit: Jonathan Demme's Melvin And Howard says a lot about Hughes, a lot more than Beatty's does.

I originally started the piece with a thought about those who are not so much written out of history as never written into it, but then I realised although it sounded good, it didn't really apply to Bruce Langhorne. He's written into history for perhaps the wrong reason, but that serves as springboard to the vast spectrum of his music making. It was a privilege to be able to revisit his polyglot talent, and give it and him the recognition he deserves. And I'm gonna have to hunt down some Brother Bru Bru's Hot Sauce, for sure.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

MAYDAY, MAYDAY! BRITISH ELECTIONS & THOSE WHO DON'T REMEMBER HISTORY....AGAIN

Listening on BBC Radio 4's Today programme to Theresa May's rationalizations for calling a snap election, it was obvious that they were so transparently false even young Tory boss Nick Robinson had trouble remaining properly obsequious. The election does two things for Mrs. T2.

First is to establish a crucial cushion against her own party's far right wing. Realistically, the EU could give a shit about the size of her majority; they hold the cards in their divorce negotiation regardless of what British voters say or think. Once again Tory party divisions dictate British national policy disastrously.

Second, a 2017 election means the next vote won't come in the immediate aftermath, but some three years after, May's inevitable failure to deliver a positive result in those Brexit divorce talks. Win or lose, she's in the clear, and she will anyway attempt to blame her failure on the'saboteurs', in chilling echo of Mrs T1's 'enemy within'. She made a feeble effort to distance herself from the rhetoric of the rabid Tory press, but even young Nick was able to see through that.

And while elections are always a risk, with Corbyn 'leading' Labour, she knows she can cripple them, and the rest of the opposition, for a generation, or at least a few electoral cycles, and that's just icing on the red white and blue British gateau.


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

RULES DON'T APPLY: MY FRONT ROW DISCUSSION & MORE

I was Samira Ahmed's guest on Front Row last night to talk about Warren Beatty's Rules Don't Apply, a biopic of sorts of Howard Hughes, with her and Karin Krizanovich. You can follow the link here. It's a really good and spirited discussion, and covers lots (but not all) of the fascinating issues in a film that in the end seems to me more about Beatty than Hughes. I will be writing about this shortly, I hope. The discussion is at the top of the show, following an introductory poem from Inua Ellems.

But stay with the show, because producer Jerome Wetherald put together a doozyEllems' new book is worth your attention, a challenging look from an outsider at British poetry during his years in this country, interpreted into his own verses. And then we all get to join the fantastic Stella Duffy in discussing Channel 4's serial killer teen drama Born To Kill, trying to extrapolate where it's going to go and where it might end up based on the one or two episodes we've seen. And finally we all get to react briefly to Ben Wardle's essay on keeping one's musical tastes alive, though as soon as Wardle dropped the phrase 'me dad' into the discussion, I knew my perspective was going to be from a point of more advanced perception. 'Sampling' 'Can't Get Used To Losing You' (whose title he didn't seem to know) indeed. Luckily for me, I was last to speak, and had very little time left to alienate everybody else!

Monday, 17 April 2017

MEGAN ABBOTT'S YOU WILL KNOW ME: BEYOND THE BOUNDARIES OF NOIR

Devon Knox is an immensely promising young gymnast, despite having lost two toes in an accident with a lawn mower when she was just three. She's worked obsessively hard, and her parents, Eric and Katie, have had to work just as hard, and make serious sacrifices, devoting themselves to her career. But when the handsome young assistant coach at her gym is killed in a hit and run, the finely tuned cocoon around her begins to come apart, and the family face difficult choices as blame and suspicion permeate their tightly-wrapped world fraught with competition, pressure, and jealousy.

All parents know that feeling that 'one morning you wake up and there is this alien in your house', but even as she says it Megan Abbott is reinforcing the darkness behind it with the story of cave fish who, when seeing their parents for the first time, still cannot be seen by them. Around this tension flows the classic noirish theme of the man with the one-train mind, but half-track brain; the innocents and the temptresses, tempered by the family and 'the smell of chloraseptic and panic'.

One of the beauties of Abbott's writing is the way she can transform the most mundane narrative into a dream-like state, where the characters are fighting as much with fate as with each other. This would come as no surprise to readers of her first five novels, with titles like Die A Little and Bury Me Deep, which drew on classic film noir themes and settings, in a way which heralded her as an original and unique voice in crime writing. You Will Know Me is her ninth novel; the last four have been set in a suburban world that is indeed more mundane, but every bit as threatening as the world of those earlier books.

I was surprised the marketing people didn't try to retitle this one something like The Girl On The Balance Beam, in an attempt to lure in that 'Girl whatever' audience. But You Will Know Me is a title which points the way to what this story is at heart, a true noir thriller. At a time when everything from Danish political dramas to cozy kitchen mysteries has the label 'noir' slapped on it, rendering the term virtually meaningless, what Abbott has done is to drawn out the essence of noir from these modern settings, and subtly transmuted the basics of noir to serve her purposes. There's a touch of Thomas H Cook in this, a bigger touch of Dorothy Hughes, but each of Abbott's novels has had its own approach to this darkness. Her dilemma is how to make our world and its optimism jibe with the futility that lurks at the heart of the world of noir.

She does it with the help of the kind of classical allusions that Devon's injury recalls, as much Nathaniel Hawthorne as James M Cain, as well as the contemporary (Amanda Knox?). The dreamy images of seeing, of illness, of fever, that run through the tale draw you into its world. They immerse you in its uncertainty. Not in the mystery puzzle sense, but in the sense of how does life continue? how is life measured? how do children grow up and parents help and hinder them? It brings the dilemmas of real noir down to an everyday level, which, if you study it, is the essence of noir, the everyday turned upside down. This tale of everyday obsession may well be Megan Abbott finest piece of writing to date, which means it is exceptional.


You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Picador, £14.99, ISBN 9781447226352

Thursday, 13 April 2017

OUTSIDER CINEMA: SAM FULLER AND MONTE HELLMAN

NOTE: I found this essay in my files the other day. I wrote it in 2003, and by rights it should have been in my late lamented Crime Time column, but I have the feeling I might have been saving it for the first isue of Kamera, where I had a number of articles but not this. So here it is now, two B-movie toned studies of two of my favourite directors.

Lee Server’s book on Sam Fuller is really three small books in one, much like Fuller’s small but excellently formed B movies which he made in the 1950s. The first part is an interview with Fuller, who gives good copy as he goes through his career, which includes some remarkable films, some forgettable ones, and many which in retrospect appear to be object lessons in how to use film to tell a story.  The second part is an analysis by Server of the films: he is a solid critic, helped by his understanding of the man and his ability to put the individual films into the context of Fuller’s wider career.  Finally there are interviews with people who worked with Fuller on his films.  As cinematographer Joe Biroc says, ‘Some of his ideas were so crazy!’.  It’s funny how time and the critics have recognised Fuller’s special genius, but in the context of his times in Hollywood he was considered an energetic, talented, off-beat guy whose talent extended no further than B pix.  This was the way Richard Widmark, who starred in two Fuller films, including Pickup On South Street, which is arguably his best, described him to me when I interviewed him for the FT.  Widmark meant it with great affection and respect.

Fuller’s own cut of The Big Red One has been released recently, establishing him posthumously as an A director, certainly a benchmark for Spielberg and others who are lauded for ‘reinventing’ the war movie.  His crime films are extraordinary, starting with I Shot Jesse James, which is closer to White Heat than Stagecoach in tone.  It’s not that Fuller is a consummate pulpster, although he is. A film like House of Bamboo, ostensibly a remake of the noir classic Street With No Name, has everything that makes the original so great: betrayal, a strong homosexual undercurrent between the boss and his (betraying) new henchman, and gang violence. But it adds layers of cultural and racial clashing, uses of sexuality, and an implied comparison between the Army culture and the criminal underworld that make it a fully developed and satisfying story.  So too his other ‘Japanese’ film, The Crimson Kimono, in which the audience’s expectations for the white LA cop and his Nisei partner are constantly being reversed. 

That is the key to Fuller: he is always surprising.  Is there a more off-beat yet successful western than Forty Guns? (well, maybe, Johnny Guitar, but no matter) It’s what makes Fuller so important and what makes this book so entertaining. But it never answers the question I’ve been dying to know since I saw The Naked Kiss and realised there was another character named Griff.  There are Griffs in six Fuller films.  Why?

***

Monte Hellman is in some ways the antithesis of Fuller, even though stylistically you might say he follows in Sam's footsteps.  But where Fuller went his own way, content to write, direct and produce B features that left him with a relative amount of artistic freedom, Hellman has bounced all around the movie business, leaving footprints all over the town, but with only a few films credited to him as a director.  Some of those films are cult classics, and for good reason: The Shooting (written by Carol Eastman) and Ride The Whirlwind (written by Jack Nicholson) were shot back to back in 1966 for Roger Corman. The two westerns are darker takes on Budd Boetticher more than Fuller; both star Nicholson and Millie Perkins, and remain seriously underrated, if not ignored.  Even better, to my mind, is China 9 Liberty 37, released in 1978 with Warren Oates, Fabio Testi, Jenny Agutter and Sam Peckinpah (yes, Sam Peckinpah!), which combines Hellman’s own Sixties sensibility with another Sixties sensibility, that of a spaghetti western

This should be no surprise, since Sergio Leone himself offered Fistful Of Dynamite (aka Duck You Sucker) to Hellman (eventually Peter Bogdanovich tried to direct, then it was offered to Peckinpah, before Leone himself stepped back in), and Hellman is the guy who directed the ‘prologue’ sequence filmed for ABC television in the USA for Fistful Of Dollars. In this scene prison warden Harry Dean Stanton offers a back standing in for Clint Eastwood an amnesty if he will go clean up the town of San Miguel.  ABC had been unhappy with the moral ambiguity of the Man With No Name, and so settled for the Man With No Face!

All this would guarantee Hellman a spot in my personal Hall of Fame, but his cult reputation rests on two more films, both of which showcased Warren Oates (well, actually Oates stole the first one, but never mind).  First was Two Lane Blacktop, arguably the most over-hyped independent film in American history.  The screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer was published as a complete issue of Esquire magazine, before the film was even released, billed as the greatest screenplay of all time.  It wasn’t, and the film could hardly live up to that kind of build up.  What it is is a portrait of American obsession on the road, and the model for any number of road movies (Spielberg's The Duel, anyone?) that followed.  Oates steals the show from crooner James Taylor, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and one-hit wonder Laurie Bird, not that  hard to do, and battles the cars to a draw.

Oates gave the performance of a career in Hellman’s Cockfighter --based on the Charles Willeford novel--certainly one as intense as Alfredo Garcia, but more controlled.  The story of Frank Mansfield, who has taken a vow of silence until he wins the ’Cockfighter of the Year’ award, is another one of obsession, and a particularly American, frontier type of masculine obsession.   Hellman regular Stanton is joined by Troy Donahue, Perkins and Bird to make up an interesting cast of talented character actors and Hollywood burnouts, just the sort of group you might expect Hellman to assemble.

I say expect because the most interesting part of Stevens’ story is keeping track of all the uncredited editing, scripting, directing jobs which Hellman has done, and all the uncredited changes which have been made to his films, most notably Cockfighter.  It is the story of a Hollywood lifer, not quite a consummate player of the game, but certainly a player, where a bit of drive and a bit of charm and bit of chutzpah can get you a long way.  Hellman seems to have lived his life with one project or another at some stage of development, and that is a particular sort of hell which Stevens manages to keep within the context of the work by which Hellman will be remembered.

Sam Fuller: Film Is A Battleground by Lee Server (McFarland, £22.50, ISBN 0786417005)
Monte Hellman: His Life and Films by Brad Stevens (McFarland, £23.50, ISBN 0786414340)

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

JOHN CONNOLLY'S GAME OF GHOSTS

A couple of hundred pages into A Game Of Ghosts Charlie Parker feels, “not for the first time, as though he had wandered into a ghost story”. What, I wondered, could have brought that on? Could it be the Bretheren? Or the spirits of Peter Magus and the Capstead Martyrs? Maybe the Hollow Men? Or The Collector? Or the ghostly apparition of Philip, unacknowledged son of the Providence crime lord Caspar Webb (John Connolly names are always carefully crafted)? Or his Mother? Or Parker's dead daughter Jennifer? Or her very much alive half-sister Sam? This novel is filled with enough characters to require a supernatural scorecard!

But that is only part of what makes it so intriguing. The chess game Parker navigates is multi-dimensional, though the first three dimensions are bad enough. He is commanded by his friendly FBI man Ross to search for a missing private detective named Jaycob Eklund, though Ross won't say why. It doesn't take Parker long to discover Eklund was obsessively on the trail of the Bretheren, and there are other disappeared people along that trail.

Connolly's picture of the Bretheren's world is not only chilling, but totally convincing, a combination of suburban Borgias complete with incestuous couplings and Stepford families concealing their true purpose. It stands in contrast to Parker's own world, since Sam's mother Rachel, still frightened from Sam's kidnapping in the previous Parker novel, wants to limit his access to his daughter. Parker is always a character caught in the middle, sometimes the fulcrum, sometimes the object in the vice getting tightened. But he remains a most steady anchor to humanity.

One of the joys of entering Charlie Parker's world is that Connolly sees things so well and writes so well what he, or rather his characters, see. A Game Of Ghosts is layered with such craft that it is almost a disappointment when things resolve themselves with relative quickness, as if you really don't wish to bid some of these characters behind. Even the most dangerous of them. Of course, in Charlie Parker's world, you never can be sure.

A Game Of Ghosts by John Connolly

Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99 ISBN 9781473641860

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

NERUDA: CHASING THE POET (LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW)

Neruda, which played in the directors' competition at Cannes and the official competition at the London Film Festival, and is now on release, is set around the thirteen months Pablo Neruda, poet and Communist Party Senator, spent hiding in Chile after President Gonzalez Videla turned on the leaders of the broad left coalition that elected him, declared the communists illegal, and began rounding them up for incarceration. But Pablo Larrain's film is neither thriller nor bio-pic. Rather it is a poetic essay in art, character, and politics, one that seems structured not by its narrative but by Neruda's poems themselves.

This becomes evident in an opening scene where Senator Neruda debates his colleagues in an august chamber that turns out to be the urinals in a men's room, like you might find in London men's clubs or Turkish baths. It's as surreal as anything in Bunuel, and reminds us that Neruda's early poetry, influenced by his time in Spain, was surrealistic. It's a tour de force which contrasts with another early scene inside a wild party thrown by Neruda and his wife Delia, who makes him up for his costume as all around them champagne flows and naked female breasts bounce. There we're reminded of the Bunuel who dismantles the bourgeoisie yet is very much a part of it. This is one of the film's key issues: Neruda the communist not only lives a privileged life, but Neruda the poet's value to the party is such that he is literally protected from the very real discomfort most of his comrades now face.

The movie quickly moves to a noirish thriller format, as Neruda is chased by the young detective Oscar Peluchonneau, who may well have been put on the case because he is not expected to succeed. Oscar is the narrator of the film, and his own story serves as a sort of convex mirror to Neruda's: he is the illegitimate son of a famed policeman, an outsider drawn to Neruda's work even as he hunts him down. At times this is superbly shot as noir by Sergio Armstrong; it also verges on an almost Tom & Jerry kind of parody: Neruda escapes detection in a brothel by donning dress and wig; in a photographer's shop by putting his head inside a frame. There are a number of scenes where party photographers set up seemingly comic staged shots to use as propaganda. And in the final chase, as Neruda crosses the Andes on horseback, Oscar pursues in a motorcyle sidecar, shot against a patently cheesy back-projection. But now this comic effect sets us up for the real poignancy of the denouement, itself shot with austere beauty in the snowy mountains. Perhaps this is what all the comedy is doing.

Delia tells Oscar that he might just be a character in a Neruda story; the poet after all was a huge fan of thrillers. But Oscar may also believe that Neruda is a character in his story. Both these fantasies are, in their way true; this is another of Larrain's themes, and one which is reinforced by the editing, by Herve Schneid, which breaks up scenes yet keeps them flowing, as if to suggest a timeless quality, a sense that the situations are unchanging, almost pre-destined. The politics of the right seems locked into a sort of Chilean machismo which Neruda, in this movie, specifically plays against. He speaks to women through his poetry, which again is pointed out by his sad love scene with Delia; his disinterest disappears when he is in the brothel, though here he merely drinks and recites. The timeless theme is reinforced by the mention, in passing, of the commandant of one of the concentration camps set up for the communists and union members, he is a young colonel named Augusto Pinochet.

He's helped by the performances. Remembering this is not a bio-pic, some details change; for example Delia was actually twenty years older than Neruda. Luis Gnecco as Neruda sometimes seems to old, too soft; but he can transform himself quickly. Mercedes Moran as Delia is perfect, the aristocratic Argentinian artist who loves the poet. And Gael Garcia Bernal is just as good as the perhaps deluded Oscar; he is a cypher we cannot quite figure out in the way that we think we know Neruda himself. The film proceeds at a dreamy pace for an erzatz thriller, and there is perhaps too much repetition is very similar scenes; one too many brothels and a thousand party arguments behind.

But it is bookended by brilliance, and the coda, with Neruda in Paris being introduced by Picasso, is another telling touch. We recall the controversary around Picasso's own special place with the Resistance, and when he introduces Neruda as an underground resistance fighter we know how false the description is, even as we see shots of those who aided him escape Chile as they languish in prison. I thought of the fate of Varian Fry, ignored after rescuing dozens of major artists from the Nazis. But in these scenes it is a different, younger and stronger Neruda who reads to adoring French crowds: Gnecco has pulled his character into that new role.

Neruda the film is indeed like the poetry of its subject, and it builds like a shelf full of his poems. Underneath, it examines the writer's place, his heart, and his life in a way a more straightforward biography might not.

Neruda, directed by Pablo Larrain, written by Guillermo Calderon
is in cinemas from 7 April