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Friday, June 22, 2018

Circling the Runway

Jake Diamond, J.L. Abramo's gumshoe in Circling the Runway, is an affectionate throwback to private eyes of the golden age. He's a loner, has a particular drink (George Dickel whiskey), has a sassy secretary, and a difficult relationship with the San Francisco police department. He enjoys classic novels--throughout this one he is reading Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (in paperback). He also has a gift for similes and metaphors, though not close to anything of Philip Marlowe's: "His head felt the size of the Trans America Pyramid, point and all." "I walked into the office at ten minutes before nine. I looked like a million bucks. Green and wrinkled." "I decided I had as much chance of getting into Johnson’s good graces as Pete Rose had of getting into the Hall of Fame." And, "Johnson’s patience was being tested, and the sergeant’s patience was not an A student."

Johnson is Sergeant Roxton Johnson, San Francisco detective, investigating the murder of the district attorney. A flurry of bodies follows, involving some of the city's more colorful gangsters. A compendium of Italian names runs throughout, such as Carmine Cicero, Johnny Voglio, and a guy named Vincent Stradivarius, so of course he's known as Vinnie Strings.

Diamond is drawn into the mix to prove that a gangster's cousin isn't the one who killed a mutilated body found in the back of a stolen car. Through much of the book he kind of plays second-fiddle to Johnson and his boss, the beautiful Linda Lopez, who Johnson caught stealing a piece of evidence from the crime scene.

Abramo keeps a lot of balls in the air, maybe too many. A subplot a creep stalking Diamond's secretary, Darlene Roman, is completely superfluous. The ending features one of the things I hate most in crime novels: the villain explaining everything he did, which I think is lazy writing. Also, the book has an odd structure where Diamond narrates his chapters, but the ones without him are in the third person. I preferred being in the company of Diamond, because even if he's not really hard-boiled, at least he's soft-boiled.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Blooms of Darkness

Blooms of Darkness, by Aharon Appelfeld, reminds me of those times we hear about a female teacher seducing an underage boy. Though we make not speak it aloud many men will inevitably think, especially if the woman is attractive, "Where was she when I was in school?" This is a sharp difference from when the genders are reversed--then the male teacher is a predator and the underage girl is a traumatized victim.

I'm not smart enough to figure out why that is; I guess there's a long literary tradition of boys being taught sex by older women. That's the case in Blooms of Darkness, when a young Jewish boy hides out from the Germans in a brothel.

Appelfeld, who passed away recently, is about the age of his hero, Hugo, in the book--11 through 13. He is a child in the Ukraine, the son of two beloved pharmacists. His father is dragged away to a concentration camp, and his mother is going to flee, but first she leaves him in the care of her childhood friend, Mariana, who is plying her trade. Hugo is kept in the closet, but Mariana comes to have great affection for him, and vice versa. "In recent days Hugo has felt an agitation in his body, and when Mariana hugs him, the pleasure grows stronger. It seems to Hugo that this is a feeling it’s forbidden to express openly, but when he is lying in Mariana’s embrace in bed, he allows himself to kiss her neck."

She calls him her puppy and speaks of herself in the third person, often like a simpleton. But Hugo is naturally entranced by her. Though it is not specifically described, it is clear that Mariana takes him to her bed for sex.

While the war is still going on the two have to sweat out searching Germans, because anyone hiding a Jew will be executed. Then, after the war, the two take to the hills to find a home, while the victorious Russians will kill anyone, including prostitutes, who were friendly with the Germans.

I have no idea if this really happened to Appelfeld, but the book feels like a memory, the kind where a young person remembers their first love many years later with the wistful patina of nostalgia. The writing is simple and straightforward, and is at times too treacly, especially when Mariana carries on. But she does have some rules for life; "Wait a moment, I forgot the main thing—a bathtub. In our house there has to be a bathtub. Without a bathtub, life isn’t life. You have to lie in the bathtub for  two or three hours every day. That’s the kind of life I foresee. What do you think?”

Blooms of Darkness is basically The Summer of '42 set during the holocaust. I suppose if one is going to be caught in such a bind, there are worst ways to spend it than in the closet of a whore with a heart of gold.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Immigration Man

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I guess that's how the U.S. has functioned, because we do hold two ideas at the same time. One is that we're a nation of immigrants, welcomed by the Statue of Liberty, a paradise where anyone, no matter how poor or what their background is, can be successful. The other is that we have always resisted immigration, especially if it is people that are not like us. Since the beginning, anyone who is not a white Anglo-Saxon has been harassed, discriminated against, and treated like dirt: the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Poles, the Hispanics, the Asians. African people, of course, were forced into slavery, and had their children sold away from them. Indians had their children taken away and put in schools to "civilize" them.

Therefore the recent atrocities committed by the government in detaining asylum-seekers and removing their children from them and put into cages should strike someone as nothing new. But it is horrifying that in this day and age it still has to be argued about. It is cruel and barbaric, and anyone who can't see that has been so twisted by either racism or xenophobia or both is swimming in a cesspool of immorality.

There has been a lot of misinformation about this policy. Like the women who are at the restaurant, and one says, "The food here is terrible," and the other says, "And the portions are so small," the alt-right has taken a position that this is no big deal and that this is the Democrats fault. So, basically, they are agreeing with Bill Clinton, who they say started this policy. No. The law they are talking about refers to removing children from unfit parents, not using them as a bargaining chip to get a folly of a wall built.

Jefferson Sessions, the elf that now is Attorney General, cited a Biblical passage justifying the policy. Besides the fact that we don't use the Bible to make our laws, the passage he used has been fodder for those justifying any bad law, such as slavery.

Beyond this is our national phobia about immigrants. Once upon a time they came by boatload and were processed at Ellis Island. Some of them stayed in cities, others went West. Some made it, some didn't. But many persevered, and about 40 percent of today's Americans are descended from those immigrants. I would say that worked out okay. A study shows that immigration actually helps the economy, because it increases consumerism and immigrants perform jobs that many other Americans won't do. But this study was killed the ghoul Steven Miller, who not only has one of the more punchable faces I've ever seen, but also to be evil incarnate. Saturday Night Live used to portray Steve Bannon as the Grim Reaper, I suppose Miller would be Lucifer himself.

The alt-right, which supports anything Trump does, has made some outrageous statements. Fox and Friends argued that they aren't cages, their fences made of chain-link. Ann Coulter said the children are actors (wow, there are a lot of Central American kid performers). Laura Ingraham said the concentration camps they are in are like "summer camps." Funny, when I went to summer camp my parents were allowed to pick me up, and we played games and shot arrows. How do they sleep at night, these people? Maybe they're not human.

President Trump has repeatedly stated that he can do nothing about it because it is the law. So how was he able to sign an executive order today stopping the policy? Something doesn't add up. And don't give him credit for ending a policy he implemented in the first place. The order does nothing for the children already separated from their parents (perhaps permanently), keeps the zero tolerance policy alive, and merely means that parents and children will be detained together, when they should be welcomed with open arms.

This country really can suck.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Incredibles 2

The Incredibles, from 2004, is considered one of Pixar's finest films (I rate it behind Toy Story 2, but reasonable people can disagree). Fourteen years later, we get a sequel, again written and directed by Brad Bird, who has won two Oscars for Best Animated Film, and just might win another for The Incredibles 2.

This is not to say that the sequel is as good as the original. At many points the film feels like it's trying too hard. The action scenes are so fast that I felt a little numbed by them. And the plot seemed recycled from other superhero films, including the original: what is the place for superheroes in our world?

The film picks up right from the end of the last one. Superheroes are illegal, and when Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) attempt to stop a bank robbery, they are admonished for wreaking destruction, and told the money is insured. Their funding is cut, and they are living in a motel. They seem resigned to getting regular jobs until a billionaire who loves superheroes wants to get the law changed. He needs just one hero to prove his point--Elastigirl.

So the film bifurcates. Elastigirl has adventures involving stopping a runaway train, saving an ambassador from a helicopter attack, and unmasking the Screenslaver, a villain who hypnotizes his victims through a screen. Elastigirl thinks it's been too easy, and savvy viewers will agree and have this figured out beforehand.

The other half of the film is the family's domestic life. Mr. Incredible has been reduced to taking care of the kids, and he discovers that the baby, Jack-Jack, has superpowers. Many superpowers. He can shoot lasers out of his eyes, erupt into flames, travel through different dimensions, and multiply into several Jack-Jacks. Much of this is shown off in an amusing fight with a raccoon.

The baby stuff is very funny, and I enjoyed hearing the little kids giggle at it around me. The action scenes, as I said, seemed old hat, though the animation is breathtaking. A whole new bunch of superheroes are introduced--my favorite is Reflux, who has such severe heartburn that he can vomit lava.

If there is an Incredibles 3, I hope they veer off in a different direction where the debate about the legality of superheroes is resolved.

One more thing: I haven't heard too much about this, but Elastigirl, in her costumes, has the kind of body that women have spent decades complaining about. She has a figure more ridiculous than Barbie, with possibly 44-18-44 measurements. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane did write about dads possibly feeling a little awkward getting turned on at a kid's animated movie. Of course, she is elastic, so maybe that's just the dimensions she wants to be.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The People vs. Larry Flynt

Milos Forman's third and last Oscar nomination for Best Director came with 1996's The People vs. Larry Flynt. The script was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who have written many scripts about real-life oddball characters (and also wrote That Darn Cat). This time they take on the bilious pornographer, Larry Flynt, who seemed to be in court as much as anywhere.

Woody Harrelson plays Flynt, who began his empire owning strip clubs in Ohio. He began a newsletter, which turned into Hustler, a magazine that broke several taboos. The script gleefully recounts some of them, such as a cartoon with Santa Claus sporting a large erection, or a pictorial with Dorothy getting gang-banged by the Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (I remember that one--it was pretty hot).

Of course, in a nation first settled by Puritans, that did not go over well with bluenoses. Flynt was tried for obscenity and convicted, with the case overturned. "All I'm guilty of is bad taste," he cries at one point. Eventually he would be paralyzed in an assassination attempt, and go all the way to the Supreme Court in a battle with evangelist Jerry Falwell, whom Hustler parodied in a Campari ad stating that his first time was with his mother in an outhouse.

The film rests on irreverence, as Harrelson as Flynt evolves into a kind of First Amendment hellion. But I think the film is really a love story. Courtney Love is Althea, a stripper he married and stayed with until the end of her life (she drowned in a bathtub after an overdose, and she also had AIDS). The film ends with him, after his Supreme Court victory, watching videotape of her in happier, better times.

This film is over twenty years old now and Flynt isn't so shocking anymore. You have to hand it to him, though, while Playboy and Penthouse are on their last legs as print magazines, Flynt's magazines are still going strong, and he's outlived Hefner and Guccione. The film paints him as a rival to those men, though he lives in similar gauche luxury.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is pretty much a straight-forward biopic with an affection for its subject, despite his outrageousness (at one trial, he wears a "Fuck This Court" t-shirt). The audience's stand-in is Edward Norton as his long-suffering attorney, who despite his misgivings sticks with him (and won the Supreme Court case). The prologue shows Flynt at about thirteen, selling moonshine to hillbillies--an old man buys a thimble-full of the stuff for two dollars--and Flynt isn't judgmental; he just wants to make an honest buck, and hits his father in the head with a jug for drinking up his profits.

Forman doesn't employ too many tricks here, as Flynt and Althea are larger than life as it is. He continues his use of amateurs as performers, starting with Love, who is really very good. It's a shame she didn't keep up with her acting career. In roles as judges or attorneys are James Carville, real-life civil liberties attorney Bert Neuborne, and Flynt himself as a judge who sentences the man playing him to 25 years in the penitentiary. Flynt's longtime friends and factotums at the magazine are played by Crispin Glover, Vincent Schiavelli (as Chester, whom  I suspect was the cartoonist behind "Chester the Molester") and Brett Harrelson, Woody's brother, as Flynt's brother, Jimmy.

Woody Harrelson received an Oscar nomination in what was the first part to really separate himself from the friendly, dim-witted bartender on Cheers. It is a tour de force as a man with no scruples and no taste who ends fighting for the American way. This film goes to show that the right to free speech is only as strong as we are willing to allow the most repellent people to use it.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Stagecoach

Before Stagecoach, Westerns were kid stuff, B-movies and serials that had simple plots and no complexity. But John Ford changed all that. Stagecoach, released in 1939, was something of a template for Westerns to come (many of them directed by Ford) which turned the Old West into a place of American myth, a metaphor the great experiment of democracy. The Western, like jazz or the musical comedy, is uniquely American. It also, not incidentally, was the first starring role for John Wayne, arguably the most American of all movie stars.

Stagecoach was based on a short story by Ernest Haycox, with a screenplay by Dudley Nichols. The plot is a basic structure that has been seen many times in many locations, such as Grand Hotel and Ship of Fools: a group of disparate people thrown together in one place. This one place happens to be the stagecoach across Arizona and to Lordsburg, New Mexico in the year 1880. On board are a cross-section of the Old West: a lawman, a soiled dove, a gambler, a dipsomaniacal doctor, a bloviating banker, a young woman traveling to see her husband in the army, a mild-mannered whiskey salesman, and an outlaw.

At first at odds with each other, they have to come together as the territory they are crossing is active with Apaches, led by Geronimo. They also deal with the young woman having a baby. Stagecoach is a film about redemption, and also of people being misunderstood, and comes together for a fine ending.

Wayne is the Ringo Kid, who has busted out of the pen. He wants to get to Lordsburg to kill the man who killed his father and brother. Curly, (George Bancroft) the no-nonsense marshal, who believes that Ringo is a good man, but has to arrest him. Claire Trevor is Dallas, the prostitute who is forced out of town by the blue-nosed ladies, who are also giving the boot to Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), who is always drunk, but happily so. He's even more happy to make the acquaintance of Mr. Peacock (played by the appropriately-named Donald Meek), who has a satchel full of whiskey samples.

Also on board is John Carradine as a Southern gambler who acts the gentleman but is actually a scoundrel (he's probably based on Doc Holliday) and a banker (Benton Churchill) who has embezzled money and plans on getting to Lordsburg before the telegraph lines are fixed. Finally there's comic relief with Andy Devine as the driver, Buck.

Many familiar Western tropes are here, some of the first time. This was Ford's first time filming in Monument Valley, where he would make many more movies. We get the cavalry coming to save the day, and the classic shot of the stagecoach in long shot, with a pan left to reveal a bunch of Apache ready to attack (the film was not enlightened about Indians, but they wouldn't be until the 1960s). There's also a showdown in the street, a man holding the "dead man's hand" (aces and eights), and two spectacular stunts by Yakima Canutt, one of them so dangerous that Ford swore he would never do such a thing again (Canutt falls between the team of horses and the stagecoach rolls over him).

The cinematography is by Bert Glennon, and though in black and white, captures the beauty of the terrain. There is also Wayne's star-making intro, when he has just cocked his Winchester having fired it, the camera zooming in on him (it does go out of focus for about a quarter of a second, but this is forgiven). Another shot really captured my attention. Wayne is in the foreground, watching Trevor walk down a corridor shaded in darkness, with the light at the end, which made me think of the last shot of The Searchers.

The love story between Wayne and Trevor is sweet, and also a bit forward-thinking. He doesn't know she's a whore, so he's immediately smitten, and she likes him, too. The others, particularly the young woman (Louise Platt) disdain her. But Wayne doesn't care, and she proves herself valuable when Platt has the baby. So does Mitchell, who has to sober up to deliver the infant. Mitchell won the Oscar for the role (he had a great year--he was also O'Hara in Gone With the Wind). So this film has several characters who are not what they appear to be.

Stagecoach is one of the greatest of Westerns and one of the best American films, period. I've seen it several times and watched last night as if it were the first time. That's what a great movie can do.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Woodstock

The winner of the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Grammy this year was Portugal. The Man. Despite the pretentiously punctuated name, I found their album, Woodstock, their eighth studio effort, to be very pleasing, and difficult to categorize. They are in the rock world, but are not guitar driven, with very danceable music with a bit of hip-hop thrown in.

They were founded by John Gourley and Zach Carothers while in high school in Wasilla, Alaska. Hopefully some day they'll be the most famous people to have lived there, supplanting the current person, Sarah Palin.

Although there are no songs on this record that I would want to skip, I want to discuss two tracks that I find to be perfect pop songs. One of them is "Feel It Still," which I had actually heard before through the world around me and didn't know was them. Gourley sings in a falsetto, the bass line is tremendous, and the song is punctuated by brass and saxophone that gives it a special oomph.

The other is the closing track, "Noise Pollution," which is the kind of song I could put on repeat for about an hour. It's a complex recording, with multiple layers. Gourley raps the lyrics, which contain a lot of French. Featured on the track is actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, of all people. I can't listen to this song without moving my head.

Another great song is "Tidal Wave" which has a great hook, and "Number One" which samples Richie Havens' "Freedom," which was the opening song at the Woodstock concert (and perhaps a source for the name of the album).

Though not my standard cup of tea, which would have included guitar riffs, I found Woodstock a fine record and was glad to expand my horizons a little. This is definitely a band I would like to see live.