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

Saturday, 8 April 2017

DON RICKLES: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Don Rickles is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, apart from his description as a turtle. I had already described him using canine similes, but I then described his delivery being as 'aggressive as a snapping turtle'. This description of an action became a description of either Rickles or the turtle: 'thin-lipped and hood-lidded', which I not only would not have written, but which doesn't resemble Rickles. Tant pis.

I went back and watched a lot of Rickles' roasting, and the ethnic stereotyping has aged very badly. In the roast of Sammy Davis, Jr. he makes a lot of very old fashioned jokes, and it's interesting to watch Sammy and Nipsey Russell rolling with laughter, while Wilt Chamberlain responds with a distinctly cold eye. I understand that he was different than, say, Bernard Manning--not least because he eschewed the profanity that added a touch of real-seeming anger to his epithets. But the cracks that seemed planned also seem somewhat anodyne; it was in the ad-lib that Rickles shone. And he was also a master of patching up the insult with faux bonhommie.

It's important too to note how important Frank Sinatra was to his career. I managed to leave an unintentional repetition  of Hollywood celebrities flocking to his stand-up shows: my intended line at the start of the fourth paragraph would be "Sinatra's endorsement attracted Hollywood's attention, and in 1958 he also landed his first movie role, a small but effective part in the submarine drama Run Silent Run Deep' (above right). Call me dummy.

Rickles' real genius lay in what Scorsese sensed, his unpredictability. As I suggest, it's what made him so good at roasts (he was probably more important than Dean Martin in Martin's roasting serie) and as a talk-show guest (and explained why he had to wait so long for that gig, since networks do not like that which they cannot control) and what limited his efficiency as an actor. He was good in Innocent Blood and Casino because he was playing characters he knew well from his career in Vegas, playing variations of himself.

And I was lucky to be able to include Henny Youngman's final zinger at Rickles' own roast. Watch the whole routine; Henny basically delivers a standard routine, and interacts with Milton Berle brilliantly. It has everyone in stiches, not least Rickles, who seems almost unable to figure out what the hell Henny is doing. You hockey puck!

Thursday, 6 April 2017

SHUT IN: FROZEN HORROR

The Maine winter is closing in on Mary Portman, played by Naomi Watts. She's a child psychologist trapped in her house during a Maine winter storm, with only her son, catatonic in a wheelchair, and what may be a ghost, maybe the ghost of a deaf child who disappeared into a storm rather than be moved from his current home. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, lots could. Shut In has a beautiful set-up: a lovely clear winter day, and Mary's husband is taking their son, who has been expelled from school, away to a boarding school, seemingly against his wishes, and hers. It's a great open for a horror film, more like Ordinary People or The Ice Storm, and the cold beauty of the house in the Maine landscape is a perfect backdrop, an invitation for something bad. Sadly, those films of family angst turn out to be more thrilling than this one. No sooner perceived than the trip goes bad, and Mary is a widow, and forced to care for the 18 year old, who as it turns out is her step-son, and is now in a near vegetative state. She's exhausted, she's having sleep problems which include awful dreams, and her empathy is tested to its limits when she tries to 'rescue' the deaf boy only to have him run away into the winter night. She starts to hear noises behind the walls, and even her own therapist-by-skype (Oliver Platt) can't help her find her bearings.

Now the perceptive among you will be able to anticipate exactly where this is all going, and the film-makers are happy to prove you right. It reminded me of the 'strange tales' pulps of the 30s, where such situations always turned out to have very rational explanations, which were never very satisfactory. That is problem enough, but the real problem is the film is unable to generate much tension, which is a shame because you can see what appealed to Watts about the role: the chance to play independent adult woman, to show empathy, and to react to horrific violence. But the film's big reveal is wasted, Oliver Platt finds it hard to decide whether he's playing it straight or not, and Charlie Heaton, who projects overtones of Anthony Perkins, too early and often, is just too much of a one-note psycho to make the rest convincing.

It's easy to poke holes at the Maine which is too cold to go out in, but in which no one's breath seems to condense, and gloves appear optional. What's more telling is the real psychological fissures get lost in the most mundane of terror tropes.'Put down that axe and let's talk about it'. Literally. There is also an element of sexual tension and repression which is hinted at obviously, but never actually manifested, and that could have been the real horror, particularly if they hadn't retreated to the step-son gambit. So it's odd to see Watts start the movie with a full role she clearly relishes, and at one point seems to be headed toward Catharine Deneuve in Repulsion, winds up being mostly helpless-babysitter-who-will-always-make-the-wrong-decision, a la Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. The conversion is so total, that in the film's coda she is totally unconvincing playing normal mother heading into the Maine adoption centre. Watching Watts throughout the film I kept hearing her name as 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,' instead of Mary Portman. To see the oddness of that final scene, which seems shot in a different stock to the rest of the film, makes it a weird coda which woke me up more than almost any off the horror which preceded it.

Shut In directed by Farren Blackburn, written by Christina Hodson
starring Naomi Watts, Charlie Heaton, Oliver Platt 
Released on DVD and Blue Ray 10 April 

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

ROBERT B PARKER'S SLOW BURN BY ACE ATKINS

Jack McGee is a Boston fire-fighter, who's lost his best friend and two other colleagues in a fire at an abandoned church in the South End. McGee's convinced it was arson, but the department and the police have found no evidence and are not pursuing it. So he asks Spenser to look into it. Spenser begins nosing around, and his nosing leads him to arson and to an old enemy, Jackie DeMarco. Spenser had an accommodation with Jackie's father, but the new generation doesn't have no respect, as we say.

Ace Atkins is the best of all the writers who have tried to extend Robert B Parker's characters, and you would think in many ways that Spenser would be the toughest of his acts to follow. Atkins is a good enough writer to be able to capture Spenser's tone, and Parker's ability to set scenes and delineate characters crisply, without hewing slavishly to the formula. In fact, what makes Slow Burn interesting is that Atkins adds narration from one of the arsonists, so the reader knows the DeMarco plot is a dead end, a possible literal dead end for Spenser, while allowing him to break the case in other ways. And interestingly, the denouement takes place with Spenser slightly-off stage, although the stage has also been set for a massive confrontation, with Atkins hinting at Spenser's eventual need to reassemble his crew for a shootout, which has happened before. Atkins also sets the stage for Spenser and Susan to actually try living together again, though it takes the arsonists to actually bring that possibility into play. Don't try this at home, kids.

This strikes me as the best of all the Parker pastiches yet, but I have two quibbles. The first is minor, when Parker is cutting Susan's lawn and 'starts' her push mower. Push mowers don't have engines to start, unless this is a southern thing for Ace, and a push mower is the opposite of a riding mower, even if it is what Spenser would call a power mower. Southerners call tea 'hot tea' too. Actually I also wondered if a guy of Spenser's vintage would be calling firemen 'fire-fighters', or more importantly, because we know Spenser can be educated, whether some of his associates would.

More crucially, at one point Spenser was on a stake out, and to kill time “mentally catalogued the great fighters from Massachusetts. I started with Marvin Hagler, Rocky Marciano, and worked my way back to John L Sullivan. I had not forgotten Willie Pep. If I'd started with the best I might've started with Pep.' As If, Ace! Willie Pep may well be the best of those fighters, but he damn well wasn't from Massachusetts! Pep is the pride of Connecticut, born in Middletown, lived in Hartford, died in Rocky Hill. Spenser would know that.

Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn by Ace Atkins
No Exit Press £7.99 ISBN 9781843448730

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