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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Thieves' Highway

A 1949 film from Jules Dassin, Thieves' Highway is a thriller about the mundane business of produce trucking. Richard Conte, an actor probably best known for his role years later as Barzini in The Godfather, plays the son of Greek immigrants who returns from along at time at sea to find his father has lost both his legs in a trucking accident. Turns out he was chiseled by a wholesaler who received some tomatoes but never paid for them, and then sent him off in his truck, drunk. Conte swears vengeance, and teams up with Millard Marshall to truck apples up to San Francisco.

There's no way to make this sound very exciting, but the film is something of a white-knuckler. In those days long-distance trucking was a pretty risky business, with drivers having to go round the clock on rickety equipment. They buy from growers, and then sell at a profit to wholesalers, who are looking to cheat them. Just watching Conte drive down a dark highway, his head bobbing due to lack of sleep, is nerve-wracking. Then, when he arrives in Frisco and faces the crooked buyer, played by Lee J. Cobb, Conte makes one mistake after another. He is distracted by a prostitute, Valentina Cortese, who has been paid by Cobb. He eventually gets his money, but is almost immediately beaten and robbed.

Dassin, who was unrepentant about his communism sympathies, which cost him a Hollywood career, seems to delight sticking it to the establishment. He did so in Brute Force (but not in The Naked City). Thieves' Highway seems to be a cynical indictment of the capitalist system, showing it to be riddled with corruption, chewing up honest guys like Conte. It's also interesting that of the two women in his life, Cortese, the working girl who has been hired as an adversary, and his bourgeois blonde fiancee, played by Barbara Lawrence, it is Cortese who ends up being most loyal to him.

Thieves' Highway is one of those muscular, gritty B-pictures that show how much more care a studio like Fox had in those days, when even their secondary pictures were done with care, precision and artistry, as compared to the secondary stuff they churn out these days, which is only to make a buck, nothing more.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Lost, Season 4

The fourth season of Lost came to a close last night, and I continue to marvel at how it has grabbed hold of my imagination. I couldn't stop thinking about it until I fell asleep, and was still thinking about it when I woke up in the morning, running the various theories through my head, trying to account for the various plot threads and characters. I've never seen a show that was so incredibly detailed, and makes so many cultural references. The two-hour finale had devotees brushing up on the burial of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham and the time-travelling possibilities via the Kasimir effect.

This season was truncated, as it didn't start until January and was hampered by the writer's strike. But it was the first season of the show since it was announced that it had a definite end (I think there are two more half-seasons of about thirteen episodes). This season carried forward the story only about eight days in real time (plus a week that zipped by, after the helpful graphic "One Week Later") but the plot was pushed forward to the present time by a series of flash-forwards, that ingeniously let on who would leave the island, but not precisely how (and more importantly, who wouldn't leave the island, and not precisely why).

As we leave this season, a few major questions loom: we are told that after the "Oceanic Six" are rescued, bad things happen on the island, which is now being ruled by John Locke (who ends up committing suicide (?) and being the mysterious man in the coffin). What happens, and where the island was moved to (in space, or time, or both) will certainly be key next season. Also, the ongoing war between Ben and Charles Widmore over the fate of the island will go on. Ben has come to be perhaps the most important character in this story, as he is sort of the person who represents the island (and he wasn't introduced until halfway through season two). As played by Michael Emerson, he is a magnificent creation, through both writer and actor.

Other questions abound, such as what becomes of Sawyer, Juliet, and three of the "freighter folk" (one of them, Charlotte, made a mysterious comment about being born there). I'm wondering if we will ever get definitive answers about the significance of the numbers, the statue of the four-toed giant, or what ship called The Black Rock was doing in the middle of the island. I have a feeling The Black Rock is a big piece of the puzzle, but we'll see.

As season four ended, Ben told Jack that they all must return to the island, even the corpse of Locke/Bentham. Given that Kate doesn't want to go, and was warned in her dreams by Claire not to take Aaron, it should make for some interesting drama.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Another exercise in Boomer nostalgia...

There's a scene in Almost Famous when William Miller's sister (I think it was Zooey Deschanel wasn't it?) tells him, "Listen to Tommy with just a candle burning and you'll see your future." I've never tried that, but that might be more interesting than synching up Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. In any event, Tommy is one of my favorite albums, and I hadn't listened to it in a long while before this past weekend. I didn't listen to it in the dark with a candle burning, but instead walking outside in the bright sunlight. I gleaned nothing about my future.

Tommy was the first rock opera, or, to be an academic stickler, the first to be called a rock opera, as it really isn't an opera (stuffy academicians would call it a "song cycle.") The impetus behind it, which was Pete Townshend's interest in some guru, isn't very interesting to me, in fact the story isn't readily knowable from just listening to the record; it's been sketched in by the film and subsequent interviews, etc. Of course, it's about a kid who's deaf, dumb and blind, hysterically so because he sees something involving his father, who was thought to be killed in a war, and is told that he didn't see it or hear it. He gets abused by a sadistic cousin and a perverted uncle, takes some acid, and then learns that he can play pinball. Once he gains his senses back he becomes a spiritual leader of some sort, but his acolytes turn on him once he has them cover up their eyes, ears and mouths while playing pinball. Religions have some dumb rituals, but that one might take the cake.

What's so good about Tommy is the music. It could be about knitting and it would still be enthralling. The Who were always primarily about the musicianship, whether it be Townshend's guitar, John Entwhistle's thumping bass, Roger Daltrey's soaring vocals, or Keith Moon's barely contained insanity on drums (he gets my vote for greatest rock and roll drummer of all time). The Overture which kicks things off is a four-minute masterpiece, letting us know that we should pay close attention to what comes next, and is also great driving music, which I can attest to. On a drive down to Florida I put Tommy on as I was leaving a motel in Georgia one morning. What better music to listen to to start the day?

There are several other nuggets of gold on this album, particularly "1921," in which Tommy sees either his father getting killed by his mother's lover or vice versa (depending on whether it's the film or the Broadway show), "Christmas," in which Tommy's parents worry about his salvation, and the underrated "Underture," an over-ten minute jazz-like composition that accompanies Tommy on an acid trip courtesy of the Acid Queen. Of course there is Pinball Wizard, which was a hit for Elton John when he was on the top of the pile, and how I first became aware of Tommy (that's not strictly true--I dimly recall some commercial using the "Tommy can you see me" refrain, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was for).

The suite ends with "We're Not Going to Take It," which, coupled with "We Won't Get Fooled Again," forms a stingingly defiant dyad. Townshend was never one to keep his cards close to the vest.

I saw the film many years ago, and have no burning desire to see it again. As usual with Ken Russell, it goes way over the top (I remember Ann-Margret writhing in beans) and plays to worst excesses of rock culture. I never did get to see the Broadway version, which earned Townshend a Tony Award. For some reason I just didn't feel it was necessary. I guess the best way to experience this phenomenon is just to listen to the record, whether in the dark or not.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Forked Tongue Express

John McCain has a roughly fifty-percent chance of becoming the next president of the United States, no matter how much the American public has had it with the Republican Party. Never underestimate the ability of the Democratic Party to self-implode. For the most part in his political career, McCain has enjoyed a reputation as a "maverick," labeling his campaign the "straight-talk express," admired by those who consider themselves some kind of hip free-thinking independents. That might have been true in 2000, but if you're a voter who chooses the person over the party, take a close look at what McCain has been up to in the eight years since then.

Just the other night I read an article in The New York Review of Books by Michael Tomasky. He's reviewing three books by those who beg to differ with the media-created perception of McCain as some kind of straight-shooting truthteller. His background, beyond the well-publicized stay in the Hanoi Hilton, is largely unknown. He is the son of an admiral, of course, but managed to get into politics in a series of fortuitous circumstances. First of all, his second wife, Cindy (his first marriage ended because of his tomcatting behavior) wed him to a large fortune from a beer distributor and put him a state he had never lived in before that had a propensity for electing Republicans, and was adding a congressional seat after the census. The seat added was in Tucson, which did him no good, but the Phoenix congressman conveniently retired. McCain beat back challenges from competitors who called him a carpetbagger with this: "Listen, pal, I spent twenty-two years in the Navy...We in the military service tend to move a lot....I wish I could have the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."

Tomasky points out this wasn't exactly true (McCain lived longer in northern Virginia) but point well-taken, and it's one that has served McCain well over the years. Tomasky refers to McCain's career as being "thoroughly laundered in mythology," but there's no argument that he was heroic by enduring a horrible experience as a prisoner of war. But there's also no argument that this experience, whether or not McCain has played the card, has helped his image in the media. Some of McCain's critics explain it as a reporter being charmed by McCain, a very amiable man, and not being able to avoid thinking that while he was sitting in a cell with broken bones they were at Woodstock.

This led to McCain's being something of a hero to the press, and got him the maverick and straight-talk express labels. Covered up to a great extent have been his ethical lapses, such as being one of the Keating Five, and his at times obnoxious displays of temper, such as a time when he called his wife a cunt (in front of several witnesses). Worst of all, though, has been his shameful flip-flopping in an attempt to pander to the Republican base.

Shall we list them? Let's start with the legislation that McCain is best known for--McCain/Feingold, campaign finance reform. Earlier this year McCain announced "he would not abide by primary spending limits he had previously accepted." McCain rarely mentions campaign finance reform anymore, perhaps because the conservatives hate it. Tomasky lists some more flip-flops: the Bush tax cuts (formerly against them, now for them), Roe v. Wade (was against overturning it because it would lead to back-alley abortions, now says it wouldn't bother him, and has praised the appointments of Roberts and Alito, coded language that he would appoint pro-life justices), and no longer supporting rape-and-incest exceptions to the GOP platform plank. McCain's position on abortion is about as strong as Sam Brownback's. Petulant liberal women who say they will vote for McCain instead of Obama as payback for Hillary's defeat should run this around their brains a few times before carrying through that foolish decision.

Finally, McCain is softening on the issue of torture, which he bravely stood against with his own experiences as a backdrop. He has stated he is "satisfied with the infamous Military Commissions Act, which contained provisions that prevented prisoners from challenging the basis of their detention. The bill gave the White House the power to ignore the Geneva Conventions if it wished to."

What McCain is doing, of course, is walking a swaying tightrope: he is trying to woo distrustful conservatives while simultaneously hanging on to independents who were enamored with him since 2000. Like Janus, McCain is presenting two faces and trying to be all things to all voters who might cast a ballot for a Republican. This is particularly tricky considering the lack of popularity that President Bush has. It's currently at twenty-nine percent, but McCain can't win without those twenty-nine percent, so we get comedy like the fund-raiser that barred photographers (McCain and Bush were seen together for a forty-seven seconds, about forty-six seconds longer than McCain would like, I'd warrant).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Brute Force

A 1947 release, Brute Force, directed by Jules Dassin, is a tense, no-nonsense prison drama. The prison genre was a common one from the beginning of films, as we learn in the interview done with a criminologist, featured in the extras on the Criterion Collection disc. In the 1930s alone there were over 70 prison films, but not so many after World War II (they morphed into the prisoner-of-war film). Commonly, films featuring prisoners as antagonists were allegories for society at large, as there's not much an audience member likes to see more than someone sticking it to the system, and a prisoner vs. a sadistic guard or warden is one of the easier forms for this to take (perhaps the most recent example is The Shawshank Redemption).

The difference between The Shawshank Redemption and Brute Force, though, is that there is nothing innocent about the prisoners in Brute Force, whereas Tim Robbins was an innocent man in the former. They are, though, gulity of mostly non-violent crimes. The focus is on a group of prisoners in one cell. We get a glimpse of most of them when they were on the outside. One is a mild-mannered accountant who cooked books so he could buy his wife a fur coat. Another was a soldier who ended up killing a civilian in Italy, another is a stock market swindler. Burt Lancaster is their leader, who was a hood but fell in love with a handicapped girl who knows nothing about his life of crime. He wants to get out of the stir so he can be with her when she has an operation.

The antagonist in this picture is a guard, played by Hume Cronyn, and what an antagonist. Cronyn gives a terrific performance of pure sadistic evil. He's quietly menacing--never raising his voice, a meek countenance, but he rules the yard with an iron hand. While he kisses up to a visiting politician who is putting pressure on the spineless warden (Cronyn wants his job) he is also not above planting weapons on prisoners, sending sick ones to work on the "drainpipe," where they will surely die, or giving false information about loved ones to prisoners (in one case this leads to a suicide). The kindly prison doctor, who spends most of his day soused, sums it up when he tells him to his face that he gets drunk on power, and that he doesn't use intelligence or imagination to rise to the top, he merely uses brute force. His most chillin scene is when he turns up the volume on a Victrola playing classical music while he beats a prisoner with a hose to get information out of him. The other guards, cowed by him, listen anxiously outside his office, playing cards and dreading what they have become.

Most of the film follows Lancaster and his comrades planning a breakout, and the last third of the film or so is a white-knuckled playing out of the plan, of course ending with a direct confrontation between Lancaster and Cronyn.

This is a first-rate film, well written, directed, photographed and acted. Look for Yvonne DeCarlo, TV's Lily Munster, in a small role as an Italian woman.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Franklin Roosevelt Home and Library

Despite the high price of gas, I was looking to get out in the car this Memorial Day weekend. There are some places of interest I haven't been to, even though they aren't a tremendous distance away. One of those is the Franklin Roosevelt home, presidential library and museum, which is located in Hyde Park, New York, about two and a half hours from where I live.

It was perfect weather for a visit to a very pretty part of the country, right on the Hudson River. The Roosevelts had lived in the house they called Spring Wood since 1867, when FDR's father James bought it. In 1882 Franklin was born to James and his second wife, Sarah Delano. It was always his main home, the place that meant the most to him over the years, and it was his idea to open a library on the grounds to the public, which started a tradition that continues today.

The library and museum, perhaps because it was the first one, is on a relatively modest scale, considering that FDR was president for twelve years. Most of the artifacts from his youth, including a bassinet and baby clothes. There are lots of photos, and it's immediately apparent that FDR greatly resembled his father. Once he's president you can zip right through, with a few exhibits on the depression and World War II (including an interactive screen asking you what to do about aiding Great Britain during the blitz). Also, the exhibits are very frank about his disability, as well as mentioning two of the blackest marks on his presidency: the court-packing plan and the interment of Japanese citizens during the war.

The home, Spring Wood, is done by guided tour, and you hear the story of the Roosevelts. Franklin and Eleanor (and Fala the Scottish Terrier) are buried in the rose garden. Out back of the house is a beautiful view of the Hudson Valley.

After leaving there I drove the two miles to Val-Kill Cottage, which was Eleanor Roosevelt's home after FDR died. She never felt comfortable at Spring Wood, perhaps because she was under the thumb of her mother-in-law while she was there (Sarah died in 1941) so after his death, she and the children decided to give it to the government, and she moved to Val-Kill. When I got there wasn't going to be a tour for over an hour, so I decided to move on and save the eight dollar admission fee.

Sometime later this summer I hope to visit another presidential site that I've never gotten to--the Theodore Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, New York.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cheyenne Autumn

In 1964 John Ford made his last Western, an elegy (and perhaps an apology) to the Native Americans who had been the enemy in so many of his pictures. This film is interesting more in its historical perspective than it is as a piece of art or entertainment, because it signals a shift in the thinking of Hollywood about Indians. Not coincidentally made in the year when civil rights was on the mind of all Americans, this is one of the first films that portray Indians as victims of racism and aggression, and white Americans, particular soldiers, as villainous.

It is after the Indian Wars have largely ended, after Little Bighorn. The Cheyenne have been herded onto a reservation in Oklahoma, where they are ill-fed and have inadequate medical care. A Captain Archer, played by Richard Widmark, is sympathetic, but his commanding officer is unmoved, defiantly saying he wants to "stick to his own knitting." A Quaker schoolteacher, Carroll Baker, whom Widmark is sweet on, teaches the Indian children.

When a congressional delegation does not show up as planned to see the Cheyenne's sad situation, their leadership has had enough and leaves the reservation, headed back to their ancestral homeland in Wyoming. Widmark and his troops follow, as the Indians will violate a treaty if they cross a certain river (of course criticizing Indians for violating a treaty is a rich irony). Widmark is conflicted, not wanting any harm to come to anyone. His second lieutenant, Patrick Wayne, hates Indians because they killed his father.

Eventually the Cheyenne come under the thumb of Karl Malden, as a Prussian-born officer who is a stickler for orders (oh, those Germans!) Predictable outrages take place, until Widmark heads to Washington to gain the ear of a sympathetic Secretary of the Interior, Edward G. Robinson.

The film was unsuccessful, and it's easy to see why. It almost breaks under the weight of its earnestness. Though the Panavision photography shows off the scenery magnificently (it was filmed in Ford's favorite place, Monument Valley) it moves glacially. There is also an almost embarrassingly bad sequence set in Dodge City, with James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Historically, it is so wide of the mark to be laughable, and has nothing to do with the rest of the film. It seems to be some sort of comic relief, but is far from funny. I wasn't surprised to read that Warner Brothers cut the thirteen-minute sequence from the film, but it has been restored to video and DVD versions.

And though the plight of Native Americans were finally being recognized at this time, they were still not being played by actual Indians. Anyone vaguely ethnic in a swarthy way could play Indians, except for real Indians. Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland play the Cheyenne chiefs, in that noble stoic way that rings of stereotype. Worst of all is having Sal Mineo as a fiery warrior (I don't believe he has a line of dialogue, but the damage is done).

Cheyenne Autumn's legacy is that it opened the way for other films that would turn the dynamic of the Indian Wars in cinema on its head, from Soldier Blue to Little Big Man to Dances With Wolves. It's a shame it wasn't a better film.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I really looked forward to seeing this film. I first saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and, like many filmgoers, I was swept away by the brilliance of its capture of the thrills of old-time movie serials and pumping them up into a Hollywood blockbuster. Over the next few years I saw the film four more times, and even regularly bought the Marvel comic book which chronicled the adventures of archaeology professor Indiana Jones.

The next two films weren't quite as magical and I saw them once and not again, so I hadn't seen an Indiana Jones film in any form for close to twenty years until yesterday, and I'm glad to report that the reunion was more than satisfactory. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while having a title that is a few words more than necessary, is a lot of fun, and more than fits in the tetralogy that was created by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg.

This one is set in 1957, and confronts head-on the fact that the actor who has inhabited Indy, Harrison Ford, is sixty-five years old. Jones and his sidekick, Mac (Ray Winstone) have been kidnapped by Russian agents who want him to help find the mummified remains of an alien from the Roswell, New Mexico incident in 1947. The head commie is smoothly played by Cate Blanchett, "Stalin's fair-haired girl," a scientist who is dabbling in parapsychological warfare. It seems that the aliens have a crystal skeleton, and the skull has all sorts of powers. As with the other Jones pictures, there's a little bit of fact mixed in with a whole lot of fantasy. There is a crystal skull in the British Museum, which Jones mentions, and they are Meso-American artifacts. As to their interstellar origins and powers, well, that is the stuff of cinema.

Jones escapes (when doesn't he?) and ends up teaming up with a kid, Mutt Williams (Shia LaBoeuf) who needs his help rescuing an old colleague who has found a crystal skull in the Amazon jungles. Jones ends up back in the clutches of Blanchett, and reunited with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) his old flame from Raiders. There are lots of adventures to come, with perilous chases, man-eating ants, spooky Peruvian cemeteries, and spills down waterfalls. I loved it all. These pictures, after all, are essentially B-pictures on steroids, and have the goofy charm of their inspiration, whether it be serials, pulp novels, or 1950's comic books.

I especially liked how the zeitgeist of the fifties was captured. It's not so much the real fifties, but the fifties we know from pop culture. We get a fake town in the desert that is used to measure destruction from atomic tests, LaBoeuf riding on his motorcycle in a clear quote from The Wild One, and Blanchett in a very engaging performance as the villainous Soviet. It's a very cagey performance, avoiding the trap of falling into a Boris-and-Natasha "moose and squirrel" impression. I also thought Ford was having fun wearing Indy's fedora again, and thought he and LaBoeuf had terrific chemistry. I'd be fine with the both of them teaming up again for another adventure.

The ending of the picture, which some have found problems with, is a bit of a muddle. I won't give too much away, but it would seem to refer to the writing of Jacques Vallee, a ufologist who speculated that so-called alien sightings were of beings not from outer space, but from other dimensions. This all ties in together when you consider that Vallee was the basis for the character played by Francois Truffaut in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

There are some things that don't work. Winstone's role as Jones' sidekick has a subplot that stretches credulity and seems to have been added purely to move the plot. Also at times there are too many gags referring to the old films, such as a scene of about five minutes that is totally unnecessary except it works in Jones' fear of snakes. But those are minor quibbles. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a great joy to watch. It's been over twenty-four hours since I've seen it and I'm still savoring some of the scenes.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Little Heathens

Some years ago the hometown of my grandmother and her sister was having their centennial and enlisted those who had grown up there to write some reminiscences to be collected in a book. Little Heathens, written by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, is like a book-length example of that kind of thing. Granted, Kalish, a former English teacher, is a much better writer than my grandmother, but it is the kind of book for those who like to sit and hear their elderly relatives' stories. You can almost taste the ribbon candy and feel the antimacassars on your chair.

Now, I was always one to enjoy the old folks' stories, and there's a lot to like in this book, but I must admit that it was an oddball choice to be included in the New York Times Book Review's ten best of 2007. It doesn't have a lot of oomph to it, even with statements like the one in the first chapter, in which Kalish mentions that her father was banished by her grandfather from the household when she five years old and was never heard from, or even mentioned again. True to that, Kalish never mentions him in the book again, but certainly that must make an impression on a child to grow up without a father in a society where that would have been considered strange, but this is not a book about psychology.

Instead it is an almost anthropological memoir, subtitled "Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression." My grandmother grew up in Addyston, Ohio, an itty-bitty town on the Ohio River, but there's a lot that is similar, and I smiled in recognition at a lot of it. Kalish spent half the year in town with her grandparents and the other half on their farm, and she shares a lot of great memories, some of which sounded familiar. I particularly liked her discussion of how the old folks behaved. They rarely showed affection, and only occasionally swore, but when they did it was vivid, such as her grandmother saying, when kids complained about not having something, "Well, wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one gets full the quickest!"

Kalish also is quite clear that children didn't live lives anything like modern American kids did. They worked, from almost the time they could walk. Lord, did they work. Kalish must describe hundreds of chores, and it's pretty clear that in an agricultural, self-sustaining society children were born to create workers as much as anything else. I got tired just reading what they had to do, whether it was the cooking, the cleaning, tending to the animals, the crops, etc. Kalish attributes her good character to the rigorous childhood she had, and mentions a lot of fun things they did, but at times she's a little arrogant about it, almost implying that anyone who grew up in a different environment must have a character defect.

There are a myriad of details about daily life. She shares many recipes, and some sound pretty good, especially since they grew, raised or foraged for almost everything they ate, with no processed foods or preservatives. They even made their own marshmallows. She also drives home how thrifty they were (they had to be), with nothing being thrown away until it completely outlived it's usefulness. Socks would be passed down from kid to kid, with holes in the tops snipped off and sewed up for smaller feet. Finally they would be cut up for cloth for shoeshining. These people almost always used home remedies for illnesses. Doctor visits were extravagant, and only for something potentially fatal. As Kalish puts it: "When one of us kids received a scratch, cut, or puncture, we didn't run to the house to be taken care of. Nobody would have been interested. We just went to the barn or the corncrib, found a spiderweb, and wrapped the stretchy filament around the wound. It stopped the bleeding and the pain, and was thought to have antiseptic qualities." She mentions more than once that she is amazed none of them got major infections or broke a bone. Of course, she also mentions that four of her grandparents eight children died in infancy.

I think Kalish has a lot of fun imaging young people reading this book, because surely her world on an Iowa farm would seem like the Amazon to a typical American kid of today, and she frequently guesses what her grandparents would have thought of what children do today--"Our folks would have been appalled to the point of apoplexy if we had asked to engage in what is now called 'hanging out.'" She grew up without electricity, without indoor plumbing, and a fifteen-mile trip was a major day's outing. She and her siblings and cousins were also beaten with buggy whips when they misbehaved, but she seems to have taken that in stride and makes no judgemental statements about it.

This book could have gone a lot further. In addition to avoiding the issue of her father, Kalish doesn't comment on the greater world at the time. She mentions that Joe Louis was a hero of her grandfather's, but makes no further comment about her family's attitudes about race, or politics, or tolerance of other religions (everyone was Christian in her community, and except for a few they were all Protestant). Instead she plays it safe, perhaps abiding to the common suggestion that politics and religion should be avoided in polite conversation. She does skirt into the territory of talking about sex, most especially when she remembers learning about it by watching the animals. They do say that farm kids know about it a lot earlier than most do.

For anyone who had relatives who grew up in similar circumstances this book is like a visit to your grandparent's house, and that can only be a good thing. Those who can remember the depression are fast disappearing, and Kalish has done a service in writing this memoir.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Naked City

Jules Dassin died a few days after Richard Widmark did, and is another one of those movie people that I had heard of without seeing much or any of their work. Dassin and Widmark teamed together on Night and the City, which has been floating at the top of my Netflix queue with a "Long Wait" status for several days, so in the meantime I'll take a look at some of Dassin's other films.

Dassin is, sadly, probably best known for being the victim of the blacklist. He was unrepentant communist and was exiled to Europe, where he found some success with films like Rififi, Never on Sunday, and Topkapi (which I hope to view in the next few weeks). But before he was derailed by anti-communist hysteria, he made a few gritty crime dramas: Brute Force, Thieves Highway and The Naked City.

The Naked City, from 1948, is not a noir film, although I'm sure it's been labeled such in convenient bagging. Noir usually takes the viewpoint of an outsider--a criminal or private eye, and owes its style to German Expressionism. The Naked City is the flipside--it is a police procedural, being told from the point of view of the cops, who represent orderliness and comforting blandness, while the criminals are seen as the aberrant viruses that infect a city. And the style is reminiscent of the Italian neo-realists, who used the streets as their soundstages. The Naked City, as we are told in the opening voiceover by producer Mark Hellinger, was completely shot in New York City, which at that time was a novelty.

The film opens with Hellinger telling us we are seeing a different type of film, which is clear when the credits are spoken rather than presented graphically. After some shots of typical New Yorkers going about their day (including the characters we will end up focusing on) a murder is witnessed: a young woman is drowned in her bathtub. The detective assigned to the case is played by Barry Fitzgerald, with his typical Irish twinkle, and he's assisted by Don Taylor as a young detective. Most of the film is devoted to the considerable shoe-leather expended by the cops as they chase down leads. One of their prime suspects is a young man played by Howard Duff who has a habit of telling whopping lies. Eventually they find their man, and things wrap up after a spectacular chase across the Williamsburg bridge. The film's most famous line is its last one: "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."

As police thrillers go, this is a good film with some wobbly moments. Fitzgerald, who is certainly a capable actor, really pushes the leprechaunish qualities of his character. It is interesting, though, that he is not some Sherlock Holmes super-sleuth. In fact, two of the biggest leads they get he initially tells his men not to pursue, but after they press him a bit he gives in, suggesting that every man on the force has a say. We also get some humanizing scenes, such as when Taylor goes home and his wife urges him to give their son a whipping for running out into the street, but he is reluctant to do so. Perhaps because violence can be part of his job he would rather not use it at home.

The action drifts into overripe melodrama every once in a while and there are some extraordinary coincidences, such as when the cops are searching for an acrobatic man who plays the harmonica, and Taylor wanders into a wrestling gym and after asking "Do you know anyone who plays the harmonica?" being told, "Sure! Willie the harmonica player!" I'm also not so sure that it was so easy then, or even now, to immediately identify jewelry as being stolen by merely
checking a list on a piece of paper. Though the murder in the opening scene is rather brutal, the rest of the film has a kind of fuddy-duddy stuffiness to it, the kind of pseudo-documentary style common to industrial and educational films.

Still, there's no questioning the skill in the photography, by William Daniels, which won an Oscar, or the direction by Dassin, who keeps things moving with the pace that led to the phrase a "New York" minute.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pickup on South Street

In 1953 Richard Widmark starred in a splendidly grimy little noir picture called Pickup on South Street, which was written and directed by Sam Fuller. Fuller has had a reputation as one of unsung geniuses of cinema, hailed by modern moviemakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino. This was my first time seeing one of his pictures, and it is a delight.

The story concerns a pickpocket (or "cannon" in the parlance of the times) played by Widmark. He lifts a wallet from a pretty girl's purse on the subway, but he doesn't know that it contains microfilm that was supposed to go to a communist agent. Soon both the FBI and the commies are after him, but he's a slick character and plays all the angles brilliantly, while also falling in love with the girl (Jean Peters).

The writing and direction is crisp and no-nonsense. In the extras (this is a Criterion disc) Fuller expresses a love for petty criminals. He was a newspaperman and pulp novelist before he was a filmmaker, so that makes some sense. Widmark's character, while certainly a low-life, is almost something of a hero in that he is true to himself. There is also a great character played by Thelma Ritter (who received an Oscar nomination for it) as a stoolie who sells information to anyone with green. Even though she has led the cops to Widmark, he doesn't begrudge her for it, saying "she's gotta eat." Ritter's only ambition is to raise enough money to get herself a nice burial plot so she doesn't have to go to potter's field. "I'm trying to make a living so I can die," she says.

Peters, who was a beauty queen who had a brief film career, is quite lovely to look at but doesn't quite sell herself as a tough cookie. Also in the cast is Richard Kiley as a commie bad guy. He is most well known to people of a certain age for starring in Broadway musicals like Man of La Mancha.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hollywood Station

Joseph Wambaugh has been writing about the Los Angeles police department for over thirty years. His novels The New Centurions, The Blue Knight and The Choirboys are classics of the genre. Hollywood Station, his first novel in ten years, perhaps isn't equivalent to those books but it is an entertaining and sympathetic account of the lives of cops.

As the title suggests, this is the story of the Hollywood division of the LAPD. Wambaugh follows about a dozen cops on the beat, their kind-hearted sergeant, and a handful of detectives in episodic fashion. It is apparent that Wambaugh has collected weird tales over the years and thrown them into a literary soup. His favorites seem to be about Hollywood crazies, especially those character who lurk outside Graumann's Chinese Theater. We get bizarre instances such as a guy in a Darth Vader costume pulled over on his bicycle, a fight between Batman and Spider-Man, and a homeless man who can defecate at will.

The cops are an odd assortment. There are surfing patrolmen who are known only as Flotsam and Jetsam, a female cop who has to use a breast pump on breaks, another who aspires to become an actor, and another who is a serious hypochondriac. They all feel besieged by the climate of the times, when they are under suspicion by authorities for racial profiling and corruption, and feel they can't do their jobs. It's tough to be too sympathetic of LA cops while the Rodney King video is still a memory, but Wambaugh does present cops as interesting characters with foibles just like anyone else.

The one plot threading through the book concerns a pair of Eastern European jewel thieves and a pair of "tweakers" (crystal meth addicts). Wambaugh is a little too fond of milking laughs out of the thieves' Boris-and-Natasha syntax, and the tweaker is one of the more foul characters I've read about in a while, with literally no redeeming qualities. Wambaugh edges into Carl Hiaasen territory with his villains, making them stupid and comically inept.

For the most part, though, this is a breezy read with some nice laughs and a satisfying conclusion. The all-knowing sergeant, nicknamed the Oracle, describes police work as the funnest job possible, and while I can't quite imagine that's true, Wambaugh does his best to convince me.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Goodbye, Columbus

This year Philip Roth turned 75, and was feted at one of those "congratulations on living that long" ceremonies. His first book, a novella titled Goodbye, Columbus, is almost fifty (in an essay in the New York Times I read that it was published in 1958, but that appears to be in error). Roth is the most awarded living American author, starting with his debut, which won the National Book Award. I read it again last night.

It is the story of a summer romance told from the viewpoint of Neil Klugman, a college graduate who is biding time in a boring job in the public library. He lives in Newark with his aunt and uncle who are "old world." One fine day, as his cousin's guest at a country club, he meets Brenda Pitimkin, the pretty daughter of a successful dealer in kitchen sinks. The Pitimkins have roots in the Jewish neighborhood in Newark, but with financial success they have moved into the affluent suburbs, or as Neil describes it, one-hundred-and-eighty feet higher in elevation, where the summers are cooler.

Although on the surface this is a bittersweet love story, looking deeper reveals themes that would mark Roth's future work, namely, his examination of the assimilation of Jews in American society. Throughout the book Neil and Brenda, though hot for each other, have a mutual suspicion of their upbringing. Neil can never quite get over the lifestyle of the Pitimkins, most pointedly expressed with Brenda's brother Ron, who was a basketball star at Ohio State. One of Ron's prized possessions is his "Columbus record," which he got upon graduation. It is one of those cornball evocations of midwestern campus life: "The leaves had begun to turn and redden on the trees. Smoky fires line Fraternity Row, as pledges rake the leaves and turn them to misty haze." To Neil, who lives in a city where people sit on the stoop, it must seem like the moon.

Eventually the book turns on some sexual politics. Neil wants Brenda to get a diaphragm, which was a dicey proposition for a single girl in the fifties. This is for Neil's pleasure, which he makes no bones about. Well, Roth has never been accused of being ahead of the feminist curve. Brenda protests, but eventually gives in, but in a bit of passive-aggressiveness leaves her telltale evidence of non-virginity in her dresser drawer, where her mother finds it, dooming the relationship.

As with most of Roth's work, there is a thread of comedy through the entire thing, in the tradition of Jewish humor that goes back to tummlers and up to Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen. The hard consonants of Jewish names have always provided fodder for humor (as discussed in Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, with the explanation that words with a K are funny). "Brenda among them was elegantly simple, like a sailor's dream of a Polynesian maiden, albeit one with prescription sun glasses and the last name of Pitimkin." There is also a very funny sequence when Neil is babysitting Brenda's ten-year-old sister, who is allowed to win all games. He decides to bury her in a game of ping-pong.

The most notable comedy is the Yiddish-flavored syntax of Neil's Aunt Gladys, who is something of a forerunner of the mother of all Jewish mothers, Sophie Portnoy. Gladys is one of those Jewish woman of literature who implore young men to eat and stick to one's own kind, and anyone putting on anything approaching airs incurs from her a "fancy schmancy."

Another thread of the book is a young black boy who visits the library to repeatedly look through a book of Gaugin's paintings. A co-worker with casually racist sentiments is suspicious of the boy, and frequently mentions how expensive the book is, but Neil has a more liberal attitude, and encourages the boy. They look at the paintings together, of Tahitian maidens frolicking in the surf, and the boy succinctly puts it, "That's the fuckin' life." Neil can only agree.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Son of Rambow

A few years ago there was an article in Vanity Fair about some kids who were making a shot-for-shot but distinctly low-budget remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This effort took them many years, until they were into adulthood. There was some talk of this becoming a feature film, but Garth Jennings has kind of taken that ball and run with it with Son of Rambow, which deals with two English kids making there own Rambo picture.

Each kid has particular cross to bear. Will is a member of a strict religious community that is something like the Amish, in that he is not allowed to watch TV and is discouraged from participating in anything worldly. He does, however, go to a school that has all sorts of kids, and meets Lee Carter, who has no friends and is constantly in trouble. Lee lives with his older brother, since his mother is off in Spain, but the brother barely pays attention to him except when Lee has to wait on him hand and foot. Lee's passion is movies, and has his eyes on winning a film contest for young people. He engages Will as his stuntman, even though he seems to have never seen a movie before he watches Lee's bootleg copy of First Blood. Will, who has a hyperactive imagination (he has drawn pictures on the pages of his Bible and makes flip-books) is bitten by the bug and lies to his mother to help Lee make his film.

Soon, with the arrival of a French exchange student who all the English kids think is maximum cool, the project gets too big, and Lee resents that control is slipping out of his hands. The two friends get estranged, and Will is continually getting into trouble with his mother.

The film, for the most part, is charming and sweet. It never really moves into high gear, maintaining a slight presence that seems designed to not offend more than to entertain. The comedy veers from British drollery to slapstick, which is problematic when the kids are actually put into danger toward the end of the film. I did smile at how some of the kids seemed to be naturals for the film industry, saying things like, "Hurry up, we're losing light!"

The two leads, Bill Milner and Will Poulter, are engaging child actors, and do an effective job of expressing how imaginations can assuage the normal horrors of adolescence. This film would have succeeded more I think, had the screenplay not been so formulaic and had some more of the whimsy from the kids it was about.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


This 1959 CinemaScope Western was written and directed by Edward Dmytryk, based on a novel by Oakley Hall (who just died a few days ago). Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten who was jailed but then "named names." I mention that because this is an example of someone using the Western genre to explore themes that were very contemporary, as it was with High Noon.

The title of the film refers to the town of Warlock. The citizens are besieged by cowboys who like to shoot up the town and chase off cowardly lawmen. The citizens decide to hire a marshall, Henry Fonda. Since they are not an incorporated town, he is not technically a lawman, more like a mercenary. He's accompanied by his longtime partner, Anthony Quinn, who sets up a gambling parlor, which is one of the conditions Fonda demands.

The cowboy gang finds that Fonda is not easily scared off. One of them, Richard Widmark, is conflicted by the violence and leaves them. He, like the rest of the town, comes to view Fonda's authoritarian rule with a suspicious eye (as he predicted they would). Eventually Widmark takes the job of deputy sheriff, so he is the official law in town. Now there is basically a triangle of sides here, between Fond and Quinn, the cowboys, and Widmark, and there are various showdowns between all sides.

As Westerns go, this is one of the more psychologically complex I've seen, especially in the days before the "post-modern" westerns that started being made in the late sixties. All of the characters have multiple layers. Widmark starts out being with the bad guys, but ends up being the hero. Fonda rides into town a hero, but at times is a villain. And Quinn, well, I'm not sure how intentional it was, but his devotion to Fonda borders on the homoerotic. Maybe this wasn't evident back then, but it sure is now.

In the supporting cast are all sorts of recognizable character actors of the period, with great names like Regis Toomey and Whit Bissell. Also in the cast are DeForest Kelley (Bones from Star Trek) and Frank Gorshin, who would go on to the play the Riddler, as Widmark's brother, a good bit of casting as I always thought they resembled each other. Interestingly enough, Widmark would marry Fonda's ex-wife some years later.

Friday, May 16, 2008

New Jersey--Where You Can't Pump Your Own Gas

I've lived in New Jersey for over thirty years. I've heard the usual cracks when telling people where I live (not where I'm from--the answer to that question is Michigan, for some reason). Yes, New Jersey has some of the ugliest scenery you can imagine, especially on the major thoroughfares, but well over ninety percent is lush and green and could be mistaken for the rolling hills of Virginia. And while I've never personally known anyone in the Mafia (at least I don't think I have) I'm sure the saga of the Sopranos is not complete fantasy.

Very often I hear, especially from people in neighboring states, of the oddity that in New Jersey you can not pump your own gas. Along with Oregon, we are the only people in the country who can not do that, and I'm frequently at a loss to explain why. I had that conversation again today with a co-worker who lives in Maryland, so spent some time online trying to find out why.

Turns out the law was passed way back in 1949, when it might have made some sense. But why in god's name hasn't this law been ashcanned years ago, like laws against buying liquor on Sundays? There seems to be a passionate resistance to it, and it's kind of baffling. There is an organization called the New Jersey Gas Retailers that is deadset against it, and have two arguments, both of which define the word specious. One, it's for safety reasons, and two, it saves jobs.

Safety reasons? Anyone who can not figure out how to use a gas pump has no business operating a vehicle. It's easier than operating a dishwasher. The spokesman for the gas retailers says that people may pump the gas in the wrong hole. What other hole is there? The tailpipe? And as for safety, is there a rash of people going up in flames from dropping a cigarette into a puddle of petrol in the other 48 states? This is infantilizing at its worst.

As for the job issue, well, I suppose that could be true, but how many tears were shed when elevator operators and switchboard operators lost their jobs due to technological advances? Besides, there's a way around that. How about offering both self and full service? Many states do this, and have to by law because of people with disabilities. If you want someone else to pump your gas because it's cold out or you just don't feel like getting out of the car, you can choose full service, but if you'd rather get in and out quickly and have mastered the complex steps required to pump your own gas, you could that too. The price for both should be the same. Just because some people like to be catered to like pashas shouldn't rule out the possibility that those of who want to help ourselves shouldn't be able to.

I would always choose to pump my own. When I'm driving out of state and fill up it's a treat, like getting a substitute teacher who doesn't have a severe set of arcane rules. From my reading, though, neither New Jersey or Oregon are likely to switch, even if it meant lower gas prices. That's just nuts.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Sweet Science

What has happened to boxing? I've been thinking after seeing the film Redbelt, which is about mixed martial arts, and reading a review of a cultural history of boxing. There was a time, not that long ago, when boxing was a major sport on the American landscape, and not only that, it was significant in the culture. It used to be that the heavyweight champion was a household name. I can't name him now (actually, there are three, which is part of the problem) and looked the names up. None of the fighters: a Ukrainian, a Russian, and a Nigerian, ring any bells. They might as well be the world badminton champions.

When I was growing up, during the days of Muhammad Ali, boxing was a big deal. My younger brother was a huge fight fan, and we would watch fights (back then they were on network TV, then HBO) and get excited about them. I will always remember us jumping up and down when Leon Spinks dethroned Ali. Fighters from lower weight levels, like Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, were also known to many who had never even see them fight. I'm a fairly sports literate person, but when I try to think of fighters active today I can come up with...let's see, Oscar Delahoya, Roy Jones Jr.....are they even still active?

This is a far cry from the days when the heavyweight champ was as well known as the president. John L. Sullivan, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, and of course Muhammad Ali were huge celebrities in their times, and are still known today to many.

So what happened? There's a few possibilities. Some may say that it takes a charismatic figure. Mike Tyson was the last champ to be well-known, but was it because of his greatness as a fighter or because he was a prominent psychopath? If a fighter came along with the appeal of, say, Tiger Woods, would he do for boxing what Woods did for golf?

Also, how do you watch boxing these days? It's not on network TV anymore. Long gone are the days when they would actually broadcast a championship fight on Wide World of Sports on a Saturday afternoon. Before my day fights were a regular staple on TV on Friday nights, something that ESPN seems to be interested in carrying on, but is too little too late? When boxing went almost exclusively to pay-for-view it suddenly went from a sport followed by the lower-middle-class to one that is for rich assholes. The argument against this is that huge fights like the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila weren't televised, either, but the nation followed breathlessly.

Then there's the possibility that boxing just isn't interesting to young people today. Not with mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting, which are fast-growing sports and offer more possibilities of bloodshed. It's interesting that boxing may actually be too sedate to captivate a generation that has grown up playing video games where one wins by ripping the heart out of his opponent.

Of course the biggest reason is probably that boxing succumbed to the corruption and greed of those who run the sport. Don King may be the man who killed boxing. That there are three different boxing councils and three different champions is severely telling. A reasonable person would ask--why don't the three champs have a "playoff" so there is one champ? The knowledgeable person will rub their thumb with their first two fingers, the universal gesture for "money." To follow boxing is to be forced into the gutter with con men and criminals, and who wants to wallow in that company? It's a shame.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Don't Bother to Knock

In 1952 Richard Widmark starred opposite a relatively new actress--Marilyn Monroe. This was her first dramatic starring role, a chance to prove that she could act.

The film, directed by Roy Baker, is a taut psychological thriller. Widmark plays a pilot who is in New York because he's just gotten a Dear John letter from his girlfriend, a lounge singer in a hotel (played by Anne Bancroft, quite good in her first film role). He tries to talk her out of the breakup and she finally has to tell him that she wants out because he's cold and cynical.

All of this happens before the real plot of the movie unfolds. Monroe plays the niece of the elevator operator, Elisha Cook. He's gotten her a job babysitting at the hotel. There's something a bit off about her, and this is confirmed when we see a closeup of the scars on her wrists. Widmark, back in his room after Bancroft's brush-off, spots Monroe through the window across a courtyard. A smooth talker, he manages to get into the room and finds out just how crazy Monroe is.

I liked this film a lot because you couldn't quite tell where it was going next. When I say it was taut, I mean like a string on a tennis racquet, as it is only 76 minutes long but packs a lot of plot into those minutes (movies were a lot shorter those days as double features were common). It is a strange experience to watch Monroe playing the part of a girl who's not playing with a full deck, considering how she met her end. Also, to those of who didn't grow up with her when she was alive, her breathy delivery can seem like self-parody. But it's still a solid performance and is a bit of evidence that she was a better actress than many think.

But this is Widmark's show in many respects, even though he's the straight man to Monroe's cuckoo. His sardonic delivery and easy charisma are a pleasure to watch, and he has a way with a line like, "The female race is really cheesing me up!" I also smiled to hear a line that must have been an inside joke, when Bancroft says to him, "My mother always warned me about a high forehead." This reference to Widmark's rapidly receding hairline was also used by Barbara Bel Geddes in Panic in the Streets. It appears that a lot of sport was made with Widmark on his tonsorial curse.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Next Supreme Court Justice?

John McCain's statement that he wants to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices in the mold of George W. Bush's appointments, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, should be reason enough for any fence-sitters on this fall's election. More justices like Roberts and Alito will ensure we will have a society with back-alley abortions, a streamlined execution process, and continued unchecked executive power that will allow the president to ass-rape the constitution. If you want your phone calls listened to by some government stooge, vote McCain.

If Barack Obama is elected president, that will be a huge break for our beleaguered civil rights. It is highly likely that as many as three sitting justices will retire in the next presidential term: John Paul Stevens, who is 88, Ruth Ginsberg, who is in her seventies but has had some health issues, and David Souter, who according to reports has always been uncomfortable on the Court and may retire out of boredom and pique (he considered quitting after the Gore v. Bush decision).

Who will be Obama's choice? Last year court-watcher Tom Goldstein prepared a list of 30 names. I think it's safe to say that Eliot Spitzer won't get a call, and Obama himself is on the list, and I believe it would be a conflict of interest for him to be both president and on the Supreme Court. The list is dominated by women and minorities--but no matter who is elected it is likely to be someone of Hispanic descent. Also, since Sandra Day O'Connor's replacement was Alito, the court has gone down to one woman. Obama, then, will probably select a Hispanic woman.

And who would that be? After spending some time Googling yesterday there is a consensus on two candidates: Sonia Sotomayor and Kim Wardlaw. Sotomayor, of Puerto Rican heritage, is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals who is long been believed to be the next Democratic choice for the Court. She is best known for a decision against the Major League Baseball owners during the last work stoppage. Originally appointed to the District Court by the first President Bush (as part of a deal with then Senator Moynihan), her promotion to the Court of Appeals was fought by Republicans, and she got 29 nay votes. If Democrats control the Senate, though, as it appears likely, Obama can nominate anyone he likes.

Wardlaw (she is half-Mexican) is a judge on the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. There hasn't been any mass mobilization against her, but of course the screaming mimis on the right will squawk about anyone Obama should nominate.

Of course, unless she's Vice President, Obama could kick Hillary Clinton into the cloistered world of the Supreme Court, where she wouldn't be heard from again. I'm sure that would be a tantalizing prospect for a President Obama.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Savage Detectives

Continuing the Best 10 Books of 2007, as chosen by The New York Times Book Review, I turn to a novel by the late Chilean-Mexican writer Robert Bolano, The Savage Detectives. It is not an easy book to summarize, nor is it an easy book to read, but by the time I finished all 647 pages, I felt rewarded.

Bolano is a writer well-known in Latin American circles. He died in 2003 at the age of fifty, and founded a movement called infrarealism. Slowly his works have been released in the English-speaking world, and The Savage Detectives is considered by many to be his masterpiece.

The book has an unusual structure. It is bookended by the diary entries of a young man in Mexico City. He is a sometime student who becomes enamored of a circle of poets who call themselves the "visceral realists." The two ringleaders are Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. This section is a lot of fun, as the narrator has some erotic adventures and the Bohemian slackers argue about poetry, drink, and sell dope. The section ends with Belano and Lima rescuing a streetwalker from her murderous pimp and heading into the Sonora desert to find a female poet who was in a similar movement some fifty years earlier.

The middle section, which is some 400 pages long, is a quilt of oral histories from dozens of characters describing their encounters with Belano and Lima, covering twenty years. The witnesses' accounts range from Mexico to Barcelona to Paris to Israel to Liberia. Some of these accounts are short stories unto themselves, such as an Englishwoman remembering driving across Europe in a van full of hitchhikers, or a woman professor in Mexico City hiding out from a campus siege by police in the ladies' room, or an attorney with a fondness for Latin recalling Belano when he was a camp attendant rescuing a child from a crevasse, but would end up having an affair with the lawyer's daughter. Some of these are quite funny, such as the story about Belano challenging a critic to a duel, and the two clash swords on a beach as their incredulous seconds look on, and some of them are dramatic or sorrowful, such as the experiences of journalists in war-torn Africa.

The only two characters we don't hear from are Belano and Lima themselves. Instead we form our perception of them through others. It's sort of like the five blind men and the elephant, only in this instance it's forty-some people. If the similarity of the name isn't enough to give it away, Belano is based on the author himself, and Lima on his best friend Mario Gonzalez. They are like the Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty of Mexico, and this sprawling narrative does recall the best work of the Beats.

The third portion of the book resumes the diary, as Belano and Lima track down the poetess in the desert while the pimp is on their tail. It certainly is no coincidence that the first names of the two characters, Arthur and Ulysses, are names from literature of characters who on quests, as these two are wandering in the desert in search of something without knowing quite why, although when they find it it ends up saving them.

The translation is by Natasha Wimmer, and it is masterful considering how difficult it must have been, given the vernacular and also the excessive use of poetic terms of art. It should be noted that a working knowledge of Latin-American writers would help, as at times they are listed for several paragraphs. I wasn't quite sure who were real and who were fictional, although I was helped by knowing who Octavio Paz is (the Nobel laureate is the kind of poet the visceral realists hate).

This is not a book for the beach (unless it is a Mexican beach), as it takes a considerable amount of attention, trying to keep all the characters straight. It wouldn't do well to stop this book and try to start it again some days later. In fact, the best way to absorb this book would probably be to read it twice, but that's something most people don't have the luxury to do.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Panic in the Streets

This 1950 film, directed by Elia Kazan, saw Richard Widmark's image completely reversed from the sadistic killer Tommy Udo. He plays a government doctor trying to put the lid on a breakout of pneumonic plague in New Orleans. It's a mixture of film noir and medical thriller, and though it's of smaller scale than most of Kazan's pictures, socially speaking, it's mostly absorbing to watch.

Kazan had already made Gentleman's Agreement, but wanted to prove he could be a visually interesting director and not just a stage director working in film. He studied Orson Welles and John Ford films, and from the opening scene it's clear that he has stepped up to the plate: the camera pans from a night shot of rain-soaked streets (a noir staple) to a balcony, with music in the background. A man stands on the balcony, wiping his head. We then cut to a poker game (a foreshadowing of A Streetcar Named Desire, also shot in New Orleans). What follows is a series of impeccable scenes, including one extremely long take involving men chasing a man across railroad yard, complete with a train passing, that doesn't end until the chased man is shot to death.

If you ever see this film, pay attention to how many long takes there are. Kazan shoots them in two ways--moving the camera, or having it sit stationary in a room and letting characters wander in and out of frame, or move from background to foreground and back again.

All of this is a bit more interesting than the plot, which involves Widmark realizing that the man killed in the opening scenes has plague, and warns the police that the killers must be found before the disease spreads. He is teamed with a crusty police captain, played by Paul Douglas, and of course the two men come to a begrudging respect for each other. Also of note in the cast are Zero Mostel and Jack Palance (here billed as Walter Jack Palance, in his film debut) as the two hoodlums on the loose, and Barbara Bel Geddes as Widmark's wife. Fans of the old Lassie show will recognize Tommy Rettig as Widmark's son.

In the grand scheme of things this was a minor picture for Kazan, a transitional one, as the commentary track describes it. It doesn't really have a political agenda, and coming between Gentleman's Agreement and Streetcar, it can be excused that it's not particularly well-remembered. But it does show sings of what was come in both Streetcar and On the Waterfront.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


My admiration for David Mamet goes way back to my days as a drama student in the early eighties when he was the hot young playwright on the scene. As I look over his credits on the IMDB I see that I’ve seen a good portion of his films as a director: House of Games, Things Change, Homicide, The Spanish Prisoner, Heist, State and Main, and The Winslow Boy. None of these films would qualify as blockbusters–what they mostly have in common is a striving for integrity and authencity (and many of them are concerned with con men).

When I saw ads for Redbelt I was surprised to hear that Mamet was the writer and director, because it looked like a conventional martial arts picture. With Mamet’s name on it I was intrigued and took a look at it, and thus it is the first time I willingly saw a film with Tim Allen in it.

After seeing the film it’s easy to see what Mamet was going for–his main character embodies much of what has characterized Mamet’s career as a director. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays an instructor of ju-jitsu who is a purist, unconcerned with the glitz of the fast-growing mixed martial arts world. He follows the code of the art, like a modern-day samurai. I know practically nothing about ju-jitsu or mixed martial arts, so it was interesting to take a tour of those worlds. Mamet must have been lured by the concept of the integrity of the sport butting heads with the gaudy media show, much like the sordid world of boxing, that it’s become.

Ejiofor’s character, Mike Terry, is a great creation. He teaches at an academy that struggles to remain afloat financially. His wife, Alice Braga, her eye on the bottom line, is losing her patience. When Ejiofor comes to the rescue of a Hollywood star (Allen) in a barfight, he is rewarded with a job as a co-producer on a war picture. But Mamet, turning a gimlet eye on Hollywood, shows that dealing with Hollywood types is like dancing with the devil, and Ejiofor finds himself in a situation where his way of life comes to a severe test.

This is a terrific picture, smartly-written and well-performed, especially by Ejiofor. At a certain point toward the end I felt my admiration ebbing, as it appeared it was going to surrender to the conventions of the sports film, but Mamet and his stand-in character had more surprises for me. The very ending was a little over the top, but satisfying.

Mamet uses many of his stock company, such as Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon and David Paymer. He effectively uses Tim Allen, who’s probably made more bad films than anyone in recent memory. I also liked Emily Mortimer as an emotionally fragile attorney who allows herself to be tutored in the ways of ju-jitsu. But it is Ejiofor who is the emotional center of this film. Coincidentally, I happened to see the film Serenity last night, in which Ejiofor plays a villain who kicks ass with flying fists. How interesting that this actor, who was so good in Dirty Pretty Things, among other films, would also seem to be the kind of guy you’d love to have accompany you on a walk through a bad neighborhood.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Could It Finally Be Over?

During the week leading up to this week's Democratic primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, Hillary Clinton compared herself to Eight Bells, the filly that was to run in the upcoming Kentucky Derby. Well, as the sporting world now sadly knows, Eight Bells finished second and then broke both of her front ankles, forcing doctors to euthanize her right on track. Clinton hasn't been put down in the equine sense, but the comparison may be apt, because after eking out a win in Indiana and losing North Carolina handily, her candidacy is all but over. Barack Obama, barring videotape evidence of him having sexual congress with children or animals, will be the nominee for President.

I was out on Tuesday night and did not put on the news when I got home, instead finding out the result on Wednesday morning. I've been in hibernation, so disgusted by the course of this campaign that it's made me sick to my stomach to watch it. But when the smoke clears and the news is good (which to me equals Obama victories) I can come out of my self-imposed cave, blinking my eyes, faced turned to the sunlight.

Obama has survived a radical pastor, not wearing a flag lapel-pin, and bowling a 37. He has endured a mountain of trivia, such as somehow being paired with a member of the Weather Underground, who committed crimes when Obama was eight years old. At times he seemed discouraged, and with good reason, as he tried to remain above the fray and actually speak to issues (he did occasionally vent, but I thought with good humor, such as mocking Clinton's ludicrous cozying up to gun-owners by wondering whether she was Annie Oakley).

Clinton, for her part, has done damage to herself in this pursuit of the presidency. She has spoken of "obliterating" Iran, suggested that black people are not hard-working, and in a craven pandering move, pushed for a gas tax holiday despite its condemnation by economists. "I don't put stock in economists," she said, a statement that comes close to saying "facts are stupid things." I suspect she knows deep down that it's over, but in a cracked sense of pride will ride out the primary season, which ends on June 3rd, and then throw in the towel.

What next for Obama? Well, he'll have to steel himself. Whatever the Clintons threw at him, it will be far worse from the dirty-trick squad of the G.O.P. The Wright controversy won't be allowed to die, and there will be whispers about Obama's fictional Muslim faith. We may come to wonder if "liberal" is part of his name, i.e., "liberal Barack Obama." What Obama needs to do, and it's never too early, is go on the offensive. Start to define John McCain, now. If McCain brings up Wright, Obama should bring up John Hagee or Ron Parsley. Hammer away at McCain's statement about 100 more years in Iran, at his recent statement that he likes Bush's judicial appointments, and for all the blather about the straight-talk express, McCain has a history of slippery ethics and will basically be a third term of George W. Bush.

Obama will also be pondering a running mate. The possibilities come in various categories:

The Vanquished: John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, or Hillary herself. Edwards has pussy-footed about an endorsement, and has the stench of the Kerry loss in '04--pass. Richardson has in impressive resume, and is Latino, but not a very dynamic campaigner. Possibly. Dodd, no way.

As for Hillary, there will be a lot of talk about this until the convention. I don't see it happening. Why would Obama want to hitch his wagon to that kind of headache? For one, she and Bill overshadow him. She has plenty of negative baggage, and a man can't be expected to be that magnanimous after the beating he's taken.

Women: If Obama passes on Clinton, he may want to take a woman to mollify the female vote. There aren't any prominent Democratic women who have foreign policy experience (Madeline Albright isn't native-born), but there a number of governors and senators in the mix--Kathleen Sibelius of Kansas, Jeannette Napolitano of Arizona, Claire McCaskill, Missouri.

The Olive Branch: A way of making peace with the Clinton campaign without offering her the number-two spot would be offering it to one of her supporters--Ted Strickland of Ohio, Evan Bayh of Indiana, General Wesley Clark.

Southern White Men: To gather the white working class voters (or the "hard-working people", as Clinton describes them), Obama could turn to men like Sam Nunn of Georgia, Jim Webb or Tim Kaine of Virginia, David Boren of Oklahoma, Bill Nelson of Florida.

I'm sure that whoever the choice is it will be the result of a well-reasoned process, and by that time Hillary will fully supporting the nominee.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Kiss of Death

When Richard Widmark passed away in March, I was embarrassed to realize that I really only knew him for two roles: as Jim Bowie in the bloated John Wayne history pageant The Alamo, and as the victim in Murder on the Orient Express. Over the next week or so I hope to rectify this by taking a look at Widmark's best roles available on DVD.

I start, of course, with Kiss of Death. This was Widmark's star-making turn, for which he received an Oscar nomination and spent much of the rest of his career trying to live down. He memorably inhabited psychotic killer Tommy Udo, who had a hyena-like cackle and a penchant for pushing wheelchair-bound old ladies down staircases.

Kiss of Death is a solid if unspectacular example of film noir directed by Henry Hathaway. As with many films of the age, it is awash in sociology. Victor Mature plays Nick Bianco, a career criminal who has two small children. When he's pinched after a jewelry-store robbery, he's offered a deal by the well-meaning D.A. (Brian Donlevy) if he gives up his compatriots. Bianco, however, lives by the code of omerta, and goes to jail. While incarcerated, though, his wife commits suicide and he rethinks his allegiance to the mob, who had promised him she would be taken care of.

Bianco is pushed by the D.A. to get the goods on the sinister killer Udo, whom he had befriended while in Sing Sing. This leads to a showdown in an Italian restaurant, with Bianco ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to save his kids.

Hathaway has crafted a few excellent scenes, particularly the robbery that opens the film, when the thieves are making their escape by taking an elevator, sweating as it stops on each floor. There's also a great scene in the restaurant in the end, when Udo spots Bianco through an opening in a curtain and approaches with a kind of leopard-like stealth. Some of the script, perhaps because it is ham-strung by the production code, takes a soggy approach toward Bianco, giving him religious overtones and tilting the contrasts a little too much toward black and white when the story asks for shades of gray. However, the most famous scene in the film, when Udo pushes the old lady down the stairs, remained and is justifiably memorable. Even today it is a jarring example of sociopathic behavior.

The film was shot largely on location around New York City, including the Tombs, the Chrysler building, and Sing Sing prison. A few other things of note: it is narrated by a woman (Coleen Gray), which was a rarity for noir films and a young Karl Malden plays a police detective.

In addition for being known as Widmark's striking introduction to film audiences, it also is one of Victor Mature's finest performances. Mature would go on to be something of a joke in Hollywood, starring in sandal-and-toga pictures as a muscleman. This film and his turn as Doc Holliday in John Ford's My Darling Clementine are evidence that he was a better actor that his legacy suggests.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A Seagull in the Hamptons

In her tenure as artistic director of McCarter Theatre, Emily Mann has now directed all four of Anton Chekhov's great plays (he wrote a fifth, Ivanov, but it's treated like a red-headed stepchild and rarely produced). I've seen two of them, as The Three Sisters was done before I moved here, but I thought her productions of The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya were first rate. Now she has tackled The Seagull, but instead of setting it in turn-of-the-century Russia she has not only translated it but completely rewritten it, setting it in present-day Long Island. The results are mixed.

There's certainly nothing wrong with the inclination. The Cherry Orchard has been done with black actors in the roles of serfs. But what Mann has done here takes some hubris. Let's face it--for all of Mann's gifts, she is no Chekhov, and something has been definitely lost in translation. I reread the play today after seeing the production last night and some suspicions were confirmed: the magic and poetry of Chekhov's language got left by the side of the road.
For those unfamiliar, The Seagull takes place on an estate belonging to the family of a great stage actress. She is at odds with her mercurial son, who harbors ambitions to be a writer but rails against the conventionality of his mother's work. The actress is keeping time with a famed writer younger than she, while the son is besotted with a neighbor girl, Nina (Mann has Americanized all the names of the characters except Nina's). When the writer seduces Nina and ruins her life, just because he can, the son becomes suicidal. Oh, and this is a comedy.

Mann changes the locale from a Russian lakefront to the Hamptons, playground of the rich. The lead character is an actress on Broadway, completely self-absorbed. Her son is a little younger in this adaptation (19, where Chekhov makes him 25). Mann has scrubbed all references to Hamlet that Chekhov made, to draw parallels between Hamlet and Gertrude to Alex and Maria (son and mother in The Seagull). She also seems to have lessened the metaphor of the title bird. Alex shoots and kills a gull and presents it to Nina, and when Philip (the writer) sees this it seems to spark in his mind the idea of destroying Nina just as Alex has destroyed the bird. In the fourth act, Chekhov has Nina repeat three times, "I am a seagull." I didn't hear that line in Mann's adaptation, but to be fair, I couldn't hear much of what actress Morena Baccarin was saying in that act.

I've only seen one production of the original Seagull, and that one was hard to top--it was done in Central Park and starred five Oscar winners (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken and Marcia Gay Harden) as well as Natalie Portman as Nina. Directed by Mike Nichols, that production had snap, crackle, and pop, and was played as a comedy, all mention of suicide notwithstanding. The McCarter production, on the other hand, was much more lugubrious. There were frequent dead spots and the actors seemed to have no rhythm at all, as if they had each rehearsed their parts separately and just met for the first time that night.

A few of the actors acquit themselves quite well. I was impressed with Laura Heisler as Milly (Masha in Chekhov) who famously opens the play with the line, "I wear black because I am in mourning for my life." Heisler looks a bit like a beatnik in her black duds and energizes all of her scenes, despite playing someone severely depressed. I also enjoyed Brian Murray as Nick, Maria's brother, who provides most of the comic relief (although he's no match for the performance Walken gave in the Park). Nick is both funny and extremely sad, as he is an old man who is weighed down by regrets. And Larry Pine, who plays the doctor in both this production and the Nichols one, is terrific, but everything I've ever see him do is top-notch.

In the mixed results category are Morena Baccarin as Nina. She is certainly fetching, flouncing about in the first three acts barefoot, in skimpy sundresses, like a pixie. I'm sure most of the men in the audience were enraptured. She almost shines on stage, like a newly-minted penny, and it's easy to see why any men would lose his mind over her. But I wasn't impressed with her in the last act, after she's been used by Philip. Not only couldn't I hear her, but she just didn't sell the change she'd gone through, getting by mostly by indicating, a glum look on her puss. I'm also of a mixed opinion about Maria Tucci as Maria. She just wasn't convincing as a theatrical grand dame, perhaps because she doesn't have the regal bearing the part demands.

In the didn't-care-for category I include Stark Sands as Alex. To be fair, this is a tough part to play. He's really a spoiled brat, and probably crazy to boot. It's tough to sympathize with him. Sands inhabits the role well but doesn't transcend the weirdness of the role. And David Andrew McDonald is very weak as Philip (Trigorin in Chekhov). He is a first-class cad, a famous writer who spends all his time fretting that he's not considered as great as others, but he also should be charismatic. McDonald, though a nice-looking fellow, is unconvincing as a lothario (his high-pitch laugh doesn't help). Finally, I feel sorry for Matthew Maher as the poor schoolteacher who is in love with Milly. He's supposed to be a sad sack, but he delivers his lines with a halting cadence that makes it seem as though he was kicked in the head by a mule. Would a schoolteacher really sound like that?

For those who do end up seeing this, please take the time to read the Chekhov, preferably afterward, so you can remind yourself what was great about the play to begin with. To read it beforehand will only sharpen your disappointment.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Wings Over America

I don't think there's any music that gives me a bigger rush of nostalgia than that of Paul McCartney and Wings. During the mid-seventies, when I was a teenager and carefully spending my money on records, the decision to buy his records was the easiest to make. All I have to do now is hear one of those songs or see an album cover and I'm instantly transported to Dearborn, Michigan, where I can visualize my bedroom and how I sat on the floor and listened to the records.

Of course I am old enough to have been around while McCartney was still a Beatle. My dad was hip enough (he's only twenty years older than I am) to bring home a few Beatle records, and I played those incessantly and even bought a few of my own, but that was after they had called it quits. My dad also bought a copy of one of McCartney's first solo efforts, Ram (my dad loved Uncle Albert, as do I). I also got a copy of Red Rose Speedway for Christmas one year, and though that record is pretty awful in retrospect I didn't know any better and I played it over and over again.

When I started buying records in earnest, about 1974, it was in the forty-five format, and the first one I remember buying was the single Band on the Run. That was a huge seller for McCartney and Wings, and the album had several memorable songs, including Jet. He also had recorded the theme song for a James Bond film, Live and Let Die, and that was one of my early purchases (the combination of McCartney and Bond was quite an elixir for me, those were two of my greatest passions). Interestingly enough, I never did buy that album, though I did get a forty-five for Jet, which is still one of my favorite songs from the decade.

In those days, with no Internet, I had no idea what records were being released or when. If I got wind of a new McCartney record it was akin to being given a jolt of electricity--I had to go out and get the new record. I remember reading about his next upcoming release, Venus and Mars. By now I was buying albums, and I didn't waste much time in getting it. Again, in the rearview mirror of thirty years this was not a good record, but back then it might as well have been Mozart to me. This album was shortly followed by Wings at the Speed of Sound, which had two big hits: Silly Love Songs and Let 'Em In (my mom used to love to sing along to that one when it came on the car radio).

The next release after that was Londontown. By now Wings was just McCartney, his wife Linda, and Denny Laine. I was about seventeen, and starting to realize that Paul's best work was far behind him. I remember distinctly being at a party and talking about the Beatles with some girl that I liked. She was a big Beatle fan but was openly disdainful of the direction McCartney had taken. She sneeringly intoned the overly catchy "With a Little Luck," which was the hit single from Londontown, clearly indicating she thought it was drivel. Classic rock was giving way to new wave and punk. Wings was bubblegum pop.

Londontown was the last new McCartney release I would ever buy. I guess he's had quite a few records since then (I know his latest was some sort of Starbucks-related venture) but I got off the train that day in Christie Rimbach's basement when my childhood infatuation with him succumbed to the harsh realities of adulthood. I do have a copy of Wings Greatest Hits, which is a joy to listen to, and includes Band on the Run, Jet, Live and Let Die, Uncle Albert, Another Day, Silly Love Songs and all the other hits that are firmly rooted in my adolescence.

Monday, May 05, 2008

American Eve

In the first years of the 20th century, one of the most famous women in America was a teenager, Evelyn Nesbit, a model for artists and photographers and New York showgirl. She was ubiquitous in advertisements and magazines, and had a kind of innocent beauty that also possessed a measure of sophistication. She was courted by many stage-door millionaires, but it was Stanford White, renowned architect, who made her his mistress. Later she would marry an unbalanced millionaire, Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh, who would learn that White spoiled his child-bride and during the summer of 1906, in the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden, a building White designed, Thaw would murder White and cast Nesbit as the focal point of the first American trial that would become a media circus.

Nesbit's story, and the tale of murder and insanity that accompanies it, is brilliantly told in Paula Uruburu's book American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the "It" Girl, and the Crime of the Century. While the appelation It Girl is incorrect (that was Clara Bow some twenty years later), Nesbit was certainly the first model to gain national attention. Her humble upbringing from a Pittsburgh suburb to full-time model at age 14 is layed out in scrupulous detail, as is her seduction by White and courtship with the mad Harry. What Uruburu seems most keen on doing here is setting the record straight--Nesbit was vilified by many in the press at the time of the murder and trial. As Uruburu points out, she was more sinned against than sinning, a girl who was neglected by her mother and allowed to be exploited by the rapacious men of the age. Uruburu's book is Evelyn's story, told largely from her viewpoint (making large use of Evelyn's two memoirs) and by the end of the book it is clear that she was a victim of circumstance and her own beauty.

The book is carefully researched, with as much detail as the reader would want without being bogged down in too many facts and figures. The chapters describing White's seduction and subsequent deflowering of Evelyn read partly as history, partly as erotic novel, with the reader's senses saturated to overflowing. The chapter depicting the shooting is as tense and exciting as a thriller, and the trial (there were actually two) is rendered in novelistic fashion, with the emotions on display, rather than laborious recitations of transcripts.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is the style of writing. This is no dry academic tome, nor is it a non-fiction novel. It is biography and history, but with a delightfully mordant drollery. Uruburu never passes up a chance to inject levity into the proceedings, whether it be referring to a low-rent lawyer's reputation being as checkered as his suit, or Harry Thaw's sisters looking like Harry in fright wigs. She also allows frequent glimpses of what was going on in the first decade of the 1900s, interspersing other headlines of the day in context, whether they be the assassination of President McKinley or the electrocution of Topsy the elephant.

Anyone having an interest in true-crime, sensational trials, a history of the sexual mores of America, or the time period when the horse and buggy was giving way to the automobile would be advised to read this book. You will learn a lot--that the Thaw trial was the first to require a jury to be sequestered, that the term "sob sister", referring to women journalists covering the trial, was coined in this instance, and that on the same day Thaw shot White, a hippo at the Central Park Zoo passed on due to heat prostration. This book is as tasty as a snack and fulfilling as a meal.