Monday, 2 March 2015

PHILIP LEVINE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Philip Levine is online at the Guardian today, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. I've liked Levine every since my first encounter with Not This Pig back in 1968 or 69. I didn't want to turn the obit into a literary exegesis, but I was trying to figure out just how to place Levine in modern poetry, and it was not an easy thing to do. In the end I liked the link to the confessional poets--but his poetry was not about the inner conflicts of the creative soul but the outer stresses of the man at work, and that is how it reads: like a man at work. I thought of comparisons to Carol Rakosi or George Oppen, but with less compression of everyday speech: the critics who accused his verse of artlessness were almost right, what they missed was the same thing that makes Philip Roth's prose so effective, and it is an ability to draw the reader into the rhythm's of the writer's working out what it is he needs to say. Levine did this with the grace of a carpenter hammering home the frame of a house, and the finished product was the kind of structure we could feel was a familiar home...

Friday, 27 February 2015

MARI JUNGSTEDT'S DANGEROUS GAME

Mari Jungstedt's series of police procedurals set on the Swedish island of Gotland, and starring Anders Knutas, started out as one of the best of the Nordic new wave. There were many familiar elements: Knutas was a particularly thoughtful everyman Depressive Detective, there was a well-drawn ensemble, and the addition of television journalism gave it a touch of the point of view that works so well for Lisa Marklund. What was particularly strong was the sense of isolated place: Visby, especially the old town of this once influential port, contrasted nicelty with the rugged barren sense of Gotland itself. Like Mankell's Ystad, Visby turned out to be particularly crime-ridden paradise, but it acted as a sort of microcosm for the Swedish society it could in a sense observe at a distance.

The Dangerous Game, the sixth Knutas novel, takes a wider view, being set in the world of high-priced fashion modelling, and thus also in Stockholm. The story is built around Jenny Levin, a teenaged modelling sensation who happens to come from a farm on Gotland. When Sweden's best-known fashion photographer, with whom Jenny is having an affair, is murdered on a Gotland shoot, the investigation falls to Knutas and his team. And it just happens that the local TV reporter Johan Berg's partner is a friend of the Levin family.

Jungstedt's real strength is charting the choppy waters of the relationships of this cast; Knutas is discovering his jealousy of his colleague Karin's happy relationship, just as he seems to be making progress with his own marriage, at least until his obsession with solving the murder interferes. Berg is likewise driven to family trouble by his concentration on work. The investigation gives Jungstedt lots of room to explore those craggy paths.

But running alongside the main story is another, involving Agnes, a former model now confined in a home suffering extreme anorexia. This is one of the dark sides of the fashion world, and Jungstedt conveys it in chilling detail. But because this is a novel, it points the way toward the solution. Writers often make this work by giving the solution away, and writing from the killer's perspective. But here the killer's identity is kept secret, with a series of red herrings that become less and less effective. So that even a nice twist at the end has been telegraphed in advance, and fails to surprise as it should.

This is disappointing mainly because Jungstedt does such a good job of getting the reader involved, and keeping the story moving on its multiple levels. And despite the let-down of predictability, it leaves one looking forward to a return trip to Visby.

The Dangerous Game by Mari Jungstedt
translated by Tiina Nunnally
Doubleday £12.99 ISBN 9780857521507

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

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

SUSANNE BIEL'S SERENA: FROM LONDON FILM FESTIVAL TO DVD

On the surface, Serena has a great deal going for it, not least the teaming of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, two of Hollywood's biggest and most-talented young stars. Made in 2012, after Silver Linings Playbook but before American Hustle, Serena languished without release, until its appearance at the London Film Festival, which also featured director Susanne Biel's smaller, but more powerful, Danish film A Second Chance. It came and went quickly in cinemas, but now its release this week on DVD might prompt some catching up and indeed re-evaluation.

Cooper plays George Pemberton, whose logging business in North Carolina is threatened by a mortgage foreclosure, and by local efforts to convert much of his timber land into a national park. On a trip home to New York to extend his loans, he meets Serena, an independent spirit he woos, weds and brings back with him to the logging camp, where he learns he's fathered a son by the cook Rachel (the talented Romanian actress Ala Ularu). Serena at first wins the camp over, not least by importing an eagle to kill the snakes which bedevil the loggers, she also loses her child. And when she learns she cannot have another, her jealousy descends like a cloud over Pemberton, Rachel and the son he tries to ignore, but can't bring himself to do so totally.

Based on a novel (which I haven't read) by Ron Rash, Serena seems pitched as a cross between There Will Be Blood (itself based on Upton Sinclair's Oil) and A Place In The Sun (based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, as was Josef Von Sternberg's film of the same title and many other films,including  Woody Allen's Point Break). It's very old fashioned in its morals, its class restrictions, and in the beating down of Serena's proto-feminism. The parallels between the star couple's personal crises and the business problems should reinforce each other.

At times Biel seems to be trying to channel George Stevens, who directed A Place In The Sun, or maybe one of the Kings, King Vidor or Henry King: big movies with epic struggles against the land and epic struggles with love and hate. But at heart, the story is more Erskine Caldwell than Dreiser or Sinclair, with Serena being distracted by (and distracting, to the loss of a limb) grunting fundamentalist hard-man Rhys Ifans, whose one-note performance is a bass note, and Cooper's love for Serena driving a wedge between him and his right-hand man (David Dencik—who ought to be next in line to play Poirot) who nurses a severe crush on him. The steam that rises from all this is echoed mostly in Biel's fascination with showing literal smoke over the Smoky Mountains (with the Czech Republic standing in nicely for North Carolina and Tennessee).

The story is the film's release was delayed because the producers couldn't figure out how to sell it. And even though it's only 102 minutes, it seems longer, as if it wants to be (or was) more epic in scope. I wonder, because Rachel's father is played by Kim Bodnia, himself a fairly hot commodity after The Bridge, yet he doesn't have a single line in the picture. The way Ularu is kept silent virtually until the climatic scenes makes me think there are scenes missing that would have built more tension in the camp itself, which as it stands is merely a pretty set in a pretty location. At the same there is a lot of symbolism (not least the eagle and the snake, or various logging accidents) suggested but never really developed. And there seems to be something missing in Toby Jones' sheriff, played as Charles Laughton's mini-me.

This is very much the case of the whole being much less than the sum of its parts. Biel appears to have enjoyed the wider scope this story suggested, but in the end it has a very narrow focus on the stars, to the point some of their amour fou conflict becomes repetitive. But with two of the most marketable stars in the world, this should not be a bad thing. But I wonder. Lawrence inhabits roles in a way Cooper doesn't quite; he seemed to be always a step shy of letting go fully in Silver Linings, and here he shows a fatal weakness which he ought to be able to convey as a strength. But when Lawrence's strength transmutes into a Lady Macbeth madness, Cooper has no answer. What I thought was a holding back seems, in the faceof Lawrence's energy, a weakness: there is a soft core to Cooper's characters, to the extent I was thinking Michael Murphy as I watched this. Serena is an intriguing, interesting film, but one that raises more questions than it answers.

Monday, 23 February 2015

THE IMITATION GAME: OSCAR'S 'BASED ON A TRUE STORY' CATCH UP II

What it is about Bletchley that drives the British crazy? Another Oscar nominee 'based on a true story', The Imitation Game provides yet another rejoinder to the British obsession with criticising Hollywood's playing with historical fact while ignoring British films which are every bit as 'economical with the 'actualite' as we say in Westminster. As I watched The Imitation Game, waiting for Kate Winslett to cycle through one of the shots, I recalled that in Enigma the traitor was a Pole, except no Poles worked at Bletchley, even though the Poles had provided the Brits with an Enigma machine; they were banned because Johnny Foreigner can't be trusted to keep secrets like good old chappies from the right schools and Oxbridge.

The Imitation Game is structured as a thrilller: can Alan Turing and the Famous Five solve Hitler's puzzle in time to win the war? In order to make this thrilling, some truths need to be bent. Turing's inspiration, of looking for the words, like 'Heil Hitler' that appeared in every message was something that had been part of the decoding process since almost the beginning. And of course it wasn't simply a handful of people in one quonset hut watching while Turing built his computer; there were thousands of people at Bletchley Park.

But as the title implies, The Imitation Game isn't really a thriller. It's about Turing himself, as the ultimate enigma, and his own Imitation Game, his hidden life which saw him arrested for indecency in the early Fifties, and given drugs to chemically castrate him. Which is a story worth telling, and which has been told in a number of biographies. But the film traps itself in a morbid fascination with the appeal of victimhood, which forces it to twist Turing and his work to fit its framework of injustice.

There need to be obstacles in Turing's way, besides the obvious mechanical and mathematical ones. Hitler isn't villain enough for this film. The real villain has to be Alastair Denniston, transformed from a cryptographer himself who apparently ran his unit well into a Colonel Blimp figure ignorant of the work his staff was doing and more obsessed with bringing down Turing than Hitler. Which is a shame, because the opening sparring between Charles Dance as Denniston and Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing are great, and could have been the basis of some dramatic tension without creating a cardboard villain.

In this film Turing has the double curse of being both gay and geek. Although Cumberbatch has a few Sherlock Holmes moments early in the movie, he has to be portrayed as being completely asocial (despite a dress sense which only disappears after he's drugged), although Turing apparently could be quite gregarious. Although the film is sympathetic to Turing, it revels in stereotyping him: twice in the film Turing in effect commits treason: after the war by telling his whole story to the Javert-like detective who's convinced he's a spy, and during the war by hiding the fact that John Cairncross is a Soviet spy. Of course Cairncross, the infamous Fifth Man, never worked with Turing, ergo, Turing never was blackmailed by him.

The conceit of the film, in turning Turing's paper titled The Imitation Game into a metaphor for his self, is a good one. He 'thinks differently', and a parallel is drawn between the man and his thinking machine. But in his naming the machine Christopher, after his lost early love, and his breakdown at the thought of losing what by movie's end is his only friend, takes him completely overboard. What's touching is the way Turing learns early to cover up his emotions, when the headmaster tell him his friend is dead, and he realises he never knew Christopher was even ill. As he said to Christopher, all speech is really in code, and in that is the core of what this film ought to have been about.

Turing was victimised, of course, but he also lived an active life (we never see a moment of gay affection in the entire movie; in fact its iconography is more concerned with the love story between Turing and Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightly who looks as out of place in the 1940s as she does doing higher mathematics, although she does jut her jaw on cue). It was Turing who reported the burglary of his house to the police, not imagining it would lead to his own prosecution. And though the film says Turing committed suicide after finishing his court-ordered drug treatment, he in fact died a year afterwards, and there is some debate about whether his death were accidental rather than suicide.

It is right that Turing should be elevated to the position of a national hero, and that the prosecution of homosexuality should be condemned. The movie is strongest precisely at the moments Turing seems most human: when he realises immediately upon breaking the code that it cannot be used automatically and instantly to save lives. That one of the team has a sailor brother whose life is endangered that day is the kind of fictional liberty one allows in a film, to add to dramatic tension. But there are liberties and there are liberties, as a 1940s bishop might have said to an actress, or indeed an actor. Bend the reality of Bletchley to make the chase of code-breaking more exciting, that's the way the game is played. But bend it to insist on Turing as a helpless victim, and reduce him to tears (it reminded me of Cumberbatch's Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; he's left crying there too, as Guillam is given a gay backstory that seems to exist only for that teary payoff) and that's unfair, and indeed unheroic. The Imitation Game is structured and written (by Graham Moore, based on Andrew Hodges' book) cleverly, and directed by the Norwegian Morten Tyldum with the same visual panache and sense of movement that made Headhunters so enjoyable. Within its own terms works well; it's just a shame its terms are so limited by its agenda.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

SELMA: THE OSCAR CATCH UP OF 'BASED ON A TRUE STORY' FILMS

The five most confusing words in film: 'Based on a true story'. Why do film makers think they are so essential, what makes them assume it will attract more viewers? Do people want to have history explained to them, or do the five words give the story some kind of added value, better than fiction? I wrote about this phenomenon two years ago, particularly about Lincoln (link to that essay here), noting the sportswriter Peter King's evaluation of Argo: 'it may be inaccurate, but at least it's educational!' We should be able to understand that movies will take liberties with facts, the question being whether they can stay true to the essence of their story's reality, or whether those liberties propagate distortions that become part of the cinema audience's historical record. Irresistible Targets will be catching up on some of the contenders for this year's Oscars -- and 'based on a true story' is part of each one.

Selma is a fascinating contradiction in those terms, because it has attracted much criticism, some of it justified and some of it not, about the limits of artistic license. Having read much of the criticism before seeing the film, I was surprised by how much I liked it in general, and how much I agreed with many of its basic choices. In telling with great scope and emotion  the story of the Bloody Sunday march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma focuses on Martin Luther King's leadership, and his personal difficulties exacerbated by the FBI's sending his wife Coretta tapes of his adultery. It also concentrates on the movement from the inside, showing the black leadership and their own struggles with tactics both to gain their rights and win over hearts and minds. 

The cinematic problem is that Selma has trouble telling both those stories comfortably. I made a point that had Lincoln been called Emancipation, the criticisms it received for not paying more attention to black characters fighting for their rights would have been more justified. The reverse is true here, in a sense: apart from John Lewis' conflict with his fellow members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committe (SNCC, or Snick) who felt usurped by King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the group story reduces the SCLC hierarchy to back-up singers. In a sense, the tapes become a bigger story, and Coretta's return to Martin is the dynamic that propels the bigger story: this is not unusual in Hollywood films, but here the personal also has a bigger context. Note the contrast of the two movie posters: the one above right concentrates on King & his internal battle; the one below left shows King facing his external battle.

In a key moment of the film we see President Lyndon Johnson tell FBI boss J.Edgar Hoover to use the tapes. In fact, there is no evidence LBJ asked, much less condoned, Hoover's attempt at blackmail. In fact, the FBI sent the tapes to virtually every major southern newspaper; no editor, no matter how virulently segregationist, used them. Today, they'd be on TMZ in an instant, without even having to be leaked to Matt Drudge. The world has changed for the better in some ways.

More importantly, though, Selma's director (Ava duVernay) and writer (Paul Webb) have decided that King needs a worthy antagonist, and with a crop of juicy villains on offer (Hoover, Alabama governor George Wallace, Dallas county police chief Jim Clark) they wanted that villain to be Johnson. I hold no great affection for LBJ, but casting him as the villain here is unfair and unjustified by the public record. Having passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, something the Kennedys would never have been able to do, Johnson was wary of trying to cajole Congress a second time on behalf of Voting Rights, that much is true. And he disliked King's moral high ground, in part because, even as a southerner, he knew King was right. 

But rather than stand in King's way, Johnson actually had agreed with King that action was necessary, telling him to provide images which would make America rally to the underdog's cause. Far from trying to stop the Selma marchers, LBJ had given them public support on 4 February, three weeks before Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot. He continued to try to minimise the loss of political capital his own confrontation with Wallace would cost, but it was federal judges (Daniel Thomas and Frank Johnson, the latter played by Martin Sheen with echoes of President Barlet) who acted, and Johnson who not only sent troops but took over the Alabama National Guard, to protect the marchers.

DuVernay consciously underplays this. Johnson's March 15th 'We Shall Overcome' speech is one of the great Presidential speeches in American history, and was given to a packed session of both houses of Congress. In the film, there are a few congressmen sitting in an empty auditorium. Johnson knew the import of what he was doing: when he signed the Civil  Rights Act, he said 'there goes the South', and so it has happened. The Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party had always been an anomaly, but one that kept the Democrats in power. Since 1968, America has listed remarkably back to the right.

Johnson's speech was also carried live by the three television networks. Selma doesn't show this, but the film does show the March 7th march being watched live on television, which did not happen. There was film on the evening newscasts, which we watched, but there was no live broadcasting from the field in 1965. 

One of the highlights of the film for me was watching the conversation between Coretta King and Malcolm X, on the same day Johnson first gave his public support. Malcolm positions himself between King and Johnson, much as Johnson himself had, and points the way toward a unified leadership that, had Malcolm not been assassinated weeks later, might have changed the course of the civil rights movement. Watching Nigel Thatch as Malcolm reminded me of just how well the black cast is matched to their characters: not just David Oyewolo as King or Carmen Ejogo as Coretta, who inhabit those roles (and Oyewolo's in particular is a best-actor worthy performance), but I knew who Andrew Young, or Ralph Abernathy or Bayard Rustin were before the film identified them, a tribute to casting as well as acting. By contrast, Tom Wilkinson all dropped chin and jowls as LBJ, Tim Roth as Wallace and Dylan Baker as Hoover give more stylised performances (Baker's is particularly good in getting Hoover's slimy discomfort with black sexuality--in a sidebar that didn't need to be part of the movie, Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit woman who, as subtitles inform us afterwards, was murdered while driving marchers, was accused falsely by the FBI of being a Communist Party member and having abandoned her children to seek sex from black men: these were Hoover's strongest weapons).

The film follows our present-day iconography by downplaying the importance of religion to King and the movement. I recall him as Reverend King, and it was partly from this status as a churchman that he gained much of his support outside the South. The film also somewhat downplays the ecumenical nature of the third march; those remarkable photos of nuns arm in arm with local blacks still resonate. Growing up with a (Congregational) minister who was taking time off to work in the Civil Rights movement in the south, I knew first-hand of the religious foundation of the movement. We see James Reeb, the Unitarian minister from Boston, get murdered, and we see Greek Orthodox Archibishop Lakovos, also from Massachusetts, standing with King. But we don't necessarily realise how many of the SCLC hierarchy were ministers themselves, nor do we see the bearded figure of Rabbi Abraham Herschel marching in the front row with King. The small point of the once-strong bond between blacks and Jews in liberal causes, which has now largely disappeared, was worth a small nod. In fairness, the film does place a less-conspicuous rabbi up front next to Lakovos.

As I said, there is much to admire about Selma, not least its focus on the politics of King and the movement, from the inside. But in the end, that conceit about the live TV broadcast of Bloody Sunday rebounds just a little on the film makers. Because the existing footage, the black and white newsfilm, some of it retained on kinescope, carries more power than the battle scenes on the bridge, which are portrayed well, and make a powerful emotional impact. But I recall after the Atlanta Olympics, going to the MLK National Historical Centre in Atlanta, a site given almost no promotion by Atlanta's Olympic committee, and if the locals were correct, getting precious few tourists as a result. But walking around the exhibits, I found myself frozen in front of the news footage from that day, and found tears welling up as I remembered watching it as a kid, reading the articles in Life magazine, and realising again what my country was like when I was growing up with 'truth justice and the American way'. How many sacrifices were made, simply to get us to where we are now. Selma does bring that home. But torn between King's personal struggle and the movement's it takes an easy way out by making Johnson its villain, and it never really harnesses the power of that fuzzy black and white film. And I say black and white, rather than monochrome, deliberately.


Friday, 13 February 2015

BOSCH: TITUS WELLIVER & MICHAEL CONNELLY TALK THE NEW AMAZON SERIES

Friday 13th is not the most auspicious day to launch a new series, but the success of Michael Connelly's Bosch on Amazon Prime is not something that will depend on luck. Because this project is driven by Connelly's will to see his character depicted on the screen the way he was conceived on the pages of his novels. Connelly has taken huge risks, and been rewarded in the sense not only that the finished product reflects his own work, but the ensemble work of people who seem to be just as driven by their ambition to make something deep enough to encompass the silences that fuel Connelly's writing at its best.
Having watched the first four episodes of Bosch, I can confirm that it's a show both satisfying to long-time followers of the books, but in no way dependent on them; it has its own context and dynamic. It's different, as it should be, but what is consistent is the world-view of Connelly's writing and the strength of Bosch's character.

Last week Connelly and Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch, flew into London for an overnight trip to promote the series. I managed to interview Welliver, but first caught up with Michael (disclosure: I've written an afterword to one of his books, twice interviewed him on stage in London, and even gone to baseball games with him) who was tired but visibly happy. Even the red-eye from LA was a blessing for him: 'I've been so busy with Bosch, I haven't been able to write, so it was good to have a few hours to work on the next book, which brings Bosch and Mickey Haller together.'

Connelly said he's waited twenty years for a chance like this, but what's fascinating is the way he made it happen. 'I've invested most of my adult writing life in this character,' says Connelly, 'and I didn't want him to be something that he's not.' He bought the rights to the character back from Paramount, for a 'seven-figure sum', and hooked up with Henrik Basten, a Swedish-born producer who was such a fan of the Bosch books he named his son Harry. With writer/producer Eric Overmyer, a veteran of quality shows like Homicide: Life On The Streets, St Elsewhere, The Wire, and Treme, they took the unusual step of writing both the pilot episode and the show 'bible', detailing the characters and plot line, before pitching the show to the networks and streaming services.

On that basis, Amazon asked for a lunch meeting, and wanted to take the project 'off the table'. 'Amazon sold more of my books than anyone in the world, and the bottom line is I write books,' Connelly says. 'I was thinking, these will be one-hour commercials for my books. And they weren't intimidated by their audience. It was such a change. With the networks, you make the pitch and they go behind closed doors and you never hear from them.'

Connelly says that if the show makes it through a second series, he will 'break even', but that doesn't account for ancillary sales (foreign or DVD) nor for the boost to his book sales. But you get the very real sense that it isn't about the money. Having had a disappointing ride in other non-Bosch television projects, Connelly simply wants the best for his character.

He insisted on only two elements of creative control in the control, approval of the 'showrunner', and that the show be shot entirely on location in Los Angeles, which is such an integral part of the stories. There are moments of real brilliance: as Harry follows a dog up into the woods where the bones which start the case are found, it turns from bright urban LA to Grimm Brothers forest. And in episode four, written by Connelly and George Pelecanos and directed by the great cameraman Ernest Dickerson, Bosch emerges into the LA River chasing a suspect  who's disappeared.

The plot is worked together from three of the novels, City Of Bones, The Concrete Blonde and Echo Park. The casting is fascinating: Jamie Hector and Lance Reddick from the Wire became Bosch's partner Jerry Edgar, and deputy chief Irvin Irving respectively. The strong supporting case includes Amy Acquino as Lieutenant 'Bullets' Billets, Steven Culp as the DA 'Rick' O'Shea, Scott Klace and Troy Evans as the detectives 'Crate and Barrel', and Mark Derwin as Capt Harvey '98' Pounds. They look like real people and, as Connelly says 'like my books, they talk like people talk in the middle of their lives, not in the middle of a script.' Jason Gedrick as the villain, Raynard Waits, brings a Michael Keaton-like unpredictability to what is often a by-the-numbers sort of role. Mimi Rogers is chilling as a lawyer who specialises in suing the police; one fine early cameo is provided by Scott Wilson, as a retired doctor whose dogs digs up the bones that get the main case going. 'That's where I felt like a real producer. I know Scott, we'd been going to Dodger games together for 20 years. If you bring people in who know and like the books, they get it.'

But the key piece of 'getting it' was the casting of Bosch, and although Connelly and his team were convinced Welliver was the right actor, it seemed as if they would never be able to get their schedules to jibe. After getting through the small talk, of having the same birthday and both being born in New Haven, Connecticut, I asked Welliver about the role, and the strange circumstances under which he finally landed it.

TW: There are so many moving parts in life—I was a single parent and doing Transformers, and I was had one of those situations coming in to New York for a meeting with them, and I'd lost my cell phone, and I was afraid they'd be thinking 'is he just jerking us off' because I read the script in 20 minutes and basically had said 'OK, where and when', but I was worried it had gone away.'

What was it that appealed to you?

TW: I wanted to work with literate people I respected. Bosch has tremendous depth, he's not just a cigar-chomping hard-boiled guy. I loved his vulnerability, his deeply lonely troubled world of solitude. The problem is he's an observer, so how do you make that physical, active? And this show allows you to be contemplative without spelling it out. The networks are terrified of silence, they don't trust the audience to get it. But it's a metaphor for the detective process, it's a grind. We see Harry sitting at his desk, going through files for something he may have missed. It's like literary judo, he flips it over.

And we've got quality TV here, where they're thinking outside the box, which you can do in this non-network universe. We did the shot of Bosch emerging into the LA River, with a drone, from overhead and panning out, to show he's alone, and then set him into the context of the city. The drone was terrifying, sort of THX1138. It has to stay a certain distance away from you, with its blades spinning, but I'd rather jump out of a plane!'


You've specialised in detectives, and in quiet characters who have all this stuff going on inside, particularly in Deadwood.

TW: Yes, Adams was a listener, a student of the human condition. He was in a state of constant observation, and so was I because working with Ian McShane was like a master class, except he's so generous. I did this scene, Adams is on the bed, and David Milch said 'he's waiting for his life to begin', and without having to say anything, we got that, quietly. He understood this, and there's nothing he didn't write that wasn't in there for a reason, but he always would give the audience the benefit of the doubt that they would get the little things you do.

It sounds like a straight progression to Bosch?

TW: Exactly. You know, I never wanted to do a show and two seasons in get bored and become a pain in the ass to everyone. I'll do Bosch as long as they'll have me.


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


BILLY CASPER: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of Billy Casper is in today's Daily Telegraph; you can link to the digital version here. It's pretty much as written; there were a number of stories about Casper's great personal kindnesses with other golfers that I left out for reasons of space, but her seemed a truly admirable character, the very definition of what we seem to expect sportsmen to be.

I remember Casper convincing me you didn't need to be a freak of nature to be a great athlete (though you might argue his temperament, concentration, and hand/eye coordination were all pretty freaky). In episode 4 of Bosch, Harry tells Jerry Edgar that 'any sport you can play while smoking or drinking isn't a sport', but watching Billy Casper beat the Big Three gave the average guy great hope....

Sunday, 8 February 2015

SUPER BOWL 49 AND ITS DISCONTENTS: THE LAST (?) WORD

In case you missed it, and you probably did unless you checked out nfluk.com, here's my final Friday Morning Tight End column for this season, wrapping up the Super Bowl. It appeared with one big typo: I'd predicted the game wrong, taking Seattle on the grounds that if they won I'd be right, and if the Pats won I'd be happy, so it was the onliest way I could get a win-win situation. Had I taken the Pats, however, I would have won the picking competition among the so-called 'experts' at nfluk.com! Here's the column:

It wasn't the WORST CALL OF ALL TIME. That's our internet age of hyperbole and lack of perspective, much less memory, screeching. And a lot of post-facto wisdom. As if wisdom would be expressed BY SHOUTING IT IN CAPS! Face it: had Ricardo Lockette caught that ball, they'd all be screeching 'UNLIKELY HERO!' and 'WHAT AN GUTSY PLAY CALL' into the cyber black hole of media.

In the studio Osi Umeniyora had his hands on his head; I had mine spread in disbelief (you may have seen the screen shot @c4nfl put up on twitter!). We were both aghast that the Seahawks hadn't run the ball: they'd nearly got the TD two plays before, when Marshawn Lynch picked up five of the six yards they needed, and only a brilliant diving tackle by Dont'a Hightower saved them. Then Rob Ninkovich came down the line to stop Lynch for no gain. Bill Belichick didn't call time out, leaving the game in the hands of his defense. Was he figuring the Seahawks would throw on second down, to ensure they had a chance to run three plays? They'd thrown for a TD from the three, to Doug Baldwin, who went all scatalogical in celebration and cost Seattle 15. I tend to think he just wanted his players to put the pressure on the Seahawks.

Were the Patriots to lose because of the Malcolm Butler tip that Jermaine Kearse caught on his back (while Duron Harmon leaps over him, rather than playing the ball and probably getting a penalty for hitting an unprotected receiver) it would have been a sure sign that the gods were still very irritated with New England, or that Phoenix was no place for the Pats to ever play again. But football is such a game of inches. Butler had been beaten by Kearse earlier, only for Kearse to drop what was possibly Russell Wilson's best throw of the playoffs. He'd also gotten away with a trip, when he slipped in coverage.

The Seahawks, as they do so often, marched right down the field after Tom Brady to Julian Edelman for the TD. A wheel route to Marshawn Lynch beat Jamie Collins, just as they'd beaten the Packers on the same play. Now it was second and goal from the 1, down to 26 seconds left.

You can see Pete Carroll on the sidelines watching the subs. 'They're in goal-line!' he yells into the headset, which was probably all the prompting Darrell Bevell needed to try a pass. But the Pats' in goalline had two problems, defending both edges. Watch the previous play, and as Nink comes down the line, they've got Hightower to his outside, to defend the option. When they went 6-2 goal-line, I was sure the Seahawks would try an option, and Wilson, not Lynch, would get the winning score.

Aside: Marshawn Lynch was one touchdown in five carries inside the one this season. One for five. He's only five for twelve in the past three years.

When the Seahawks come out with the stack right, you can see Butler checking with Brandon Browner on who has whom. Butler, as we now know, knew the pick play was coming. A pick was a good call, you were unlikely to see a flag on it. But Browner stands Kearse up, which forces Lockette to run his pattern flat (compare it to Brandon LaFell's slant for the TD earlier). And if you watch from the ground-level sidelines camera, you see Butler is breaking to the spot the moment the play starts. Wilson saw an open receiver, but Butler was already beating Lockette to the ball. And all of a sudden Tom Brady was 'cemented' to use the word I saw in a number of internet columns, first from Mike Freeman, as the 'GREATEST QUARTERBACK OF ALL TIME'.

Now he might well be; I think he's got a strong case. But lets say Butler drops the interception, and Seattle scores. Is he then not the greatest ever? If not, who is? The title of greatest ever is a moveable feast, and I relish the discussions and arguments it produces. But quarterbacks do not win games alone, as Malcolm Butler reminds us.

If not the WORST CALL EVER, was it at least THE GREATEST SUPER BOWL EVER? It may well be, but the last one in Phoenix was pretty good too, as was the Steelers-Arizona game the following year. The Ravens-Niners game when THE LIGHTS WENT OUT had a bit of everything, including the late goal-line stand. And that's just in the last seven years!

I have to admit, I'm getting tired of everything having to be decided instantly, definitively, and triumphantly. It's just white noise, and the problem is that it tends to interfere with the clear signals that a brilliant game like Super Bowl 49 sends to us. It tends to turn the spectacle into the equivalent of a video game, which may be the way the NFL prefers it anyway. I should note that when the game was 'played' officially on Madden, the result was 28-24 to New England. I'm glad the players decided to show up anyway.

TEAM BUILDING

A lot was made of the Seahawks undrafted wideouts: Baldwin, Kearse, Lockette and Matthews. They did have two drafted rookies, Kevin Norwood and Paul Richardson, but I'm not sure either actually played. But what was interesting was on the other side of the ball. When Jeremy Lane (sixth round pick in 2012) got hurt on his interception return, Tharold Simon (fifth round pick in 2013) replaced him, but they moved Byron Maxwell (sixth round pick 2011) into Lane's slot assignment. The Pats immediately went after Simon, who struggled. But it shows how the Seahawks pick up corners with the size and length they like, and then coach them in Pete Carroll's system, which can take a couple of years. Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor were both fifth round picks because scouts thought they weren't fast enough to cover; backup safety DeShawn Snead was undrafted.

The Pats, on the other hand, got to the Super Bowl in part because of free-agent corners Darrelle Revis and Browner. Revis shut down Baldwin completely—I think betting his over of 4.5 catches was my dumbest call of the day. But when Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington (undrafted) had their problems, Belichick had no hesitation in turning to Butler (undrafted rookie from Division II West Alabama) who had shone in camp but hadn't had a lot of meaningful snaps. The Pats haven't done as well developing corners, but their lineup is littered with undrafted guys, waiver-wire guys (sometimes both) whom they've identified as guys who can contribute. These are two well-coached teams. And it's no coincidence Dan Quinn follows Gus Bradley from the Seattle defensive coordinator job to a head coaching job, his in Atlanta.

THE DIFFERENCE

When I previewed the game, I said the Pats would have to play perfectly with the right game plan, while the Seahawks could win simply playing their game. And so it turned out. In the fourth quarter the Pats schemed their way into the match-ups they wanted, content for the most part to take short gains on passes, and getting a lot of yards after the catch from Edelman (seventh-round pick) and Danny Amendola (undrafted, originally signed by Dallas, but high-priced free agent from the Rams). Meanwhile Seattle got the kind of big plays in the crucial moments late in both halves to keep themselves in the game and put themselves in position to win, at least before THE WORST CALL IN FOOTBALL HISTORY ™. Maybe you can argue that, by passing on second down, they were playing the Patriot game, trying to outfox New England, rather than just doing their own thing.

DOING THE RIGHT THING:

As I predicted/suggested on the show, Tom Brady did give the pick-up truck to Malcolm Butler. I hope Chevy give him a choice to colours. The MVP car is one of two things I dislike at the end of the game, well, make it three with the Disneyland business. It turns an honour into a gridiron version of The Price Is Right; it ought to have a woman in a gown opening her hands to show the car off. But what I really dislike is handing the Lombardi trophy to the owner, rather than to a team captain. It shows you who runs the game, and who the game is run for. Game? Every time I call it a game, you remind me it's a business, and every time I call it a business you say it's a game (cf North Dallas 40). At least the beauty of this Super Bowl kept us free from Spygate, Deflategate, arrest reports, and all the other stuff that will occupy THE SCREAMING PUNDITS for the rest of the off-season. It was a Super Bowl to remember, and isn't that enough?

LAST WEEK: 0-1 PLAYOFFS: 8-3 REGULAR SEASON: 169-86-1 SEASON: 177-89-1
In the end I tied with Neil Reynolds for the NFLUK championship (the NFL.com failed to credit my picking the Colts in week 13 in case you're counting) but it should be pointed out that Paolo 'The Great' Bandini was ahead of us both before he missed an entire week. I had never before done better than 7-4 in the playoffs, and I wound up just two games behind last season; two games after 267! I've been between 64-68 per cent correct in nine of the ten years I've been doing this column; as the internet would say 'YOUR STUPID CARLSON, TWO THIRDS ISN'T EVEN HALF, YOU SUCK!'

This is the last Friday Morning Tight End for the season. After a few weeks in Tahiti recovering from the strain of Channel Four and FMTE, I'll be back at the end of the month with the off-season Friday Monthly Tight End, talking about the draft, free agency, arrests, and all the other stuff that prompts the GREATEST OFFSEASON EVER! See you then, and as ever, thanks so much for reading, and responding to this column. JUST NOT ALWAYS IN CAPS!

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

FRANCESCO ROSI: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of the great Italian director Francesco Rosi, appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 30 January. Because of the pressures of moving house, I missed it that day, but it is available online, and you can link to it here.

I remember seeing The Mattei Affair at the NFT, and being immediately enthralled. The sense of paranoia and conspiracy appealed to my own sense of politics, and the way the film moved through an ambigous area between documentary and drama was thrilling. Chasing down his films was difficult in those days, but I tried, while relishing the contrast with my other favourite Italian director, Sergio Leone. I made a comparison of the two, which isn't in the piece as printed, about their both making films with Rod Steiger. I'm sure it was Steiger's characteristically over the top performance as Al Capone in Richard Wilson's 1959 film that drew both directors to him.

After Hands Over The City, Rosi had made three features looking for wider success before he went back to his metier, corruption, conspiracy, and greed, and his next three films, Mattei, Lucky Luciano, and Illustrious Corpses, may be his best. I loved the contrast of Lino Ventura in Illustrious Corpses with Gian Maria Volonte, and Volonte would later draw on the sense of exhuastion and frustration Ventura projected. The film was based on the novel Equal Danger, by
the Sicilian Leonardo Sciacsia, whose affinities to Rosi are obvious. There was a separate essay to be written there, but I could indulge my favourite discoveries of the late Seventies, after I arrived in London, so far.

The films Rosi made after Christ Stopped At Eboli tend to be underrated, or dismissed as playing to the art house market internationally. But they all have remarkable virtues, and I specially had singled out Philippe Noiret in Three Brothers in my original copy. Adapting Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been problematic for directors, but Chronicle Of A Death Foretold may be the best, even if I'm not as convinced by Rupert Everett as the Telegraph was. In The Palermo Affair, whose script was part written by Gore Vidal but is not very tight, the acting can't carry the film. But The Truce is a loving adaptation of Primo Levi, with John Turturro bringing, oddly enough, a little Rod Steiger to the role.

Tony Servillo in Il Diva could be channeling Gian Maria Volonte, and I also mentioned Marco Bellochio's Good Morning Night as another recent Italian film influenced by Rosi. But go back to the Mattei Affair. It's available, in not great quality, on You Tube, but its themes resonate with today's world.



Tuesday, 3 February 2015

ROD MCKUEN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the poet, singer, songwriter and composer Rod McKuen, is in today's paper Guardian, a slightly longer version was online Sunday night. You can link to the online version here. I found it a very difficult obit to write, partly because, in my deliberate ignoring of most of his output, I'd failed to realise how prolific and successful he was in so many areas, and partly because I didn't want to get hyper-critical of the easy-reading, easy-listening product he turned out.

Of course anyone interested in 'serious' poetry in those days would find it hard not to be critical--even as a teenager, and without being overly impressed with 'mainstream' literary critics, it was easy to tear his work apart, as graceless, facile, trite, treacly, and sophomoric (and I understood sophomoric, believe me). There were a number of figures who came out of the west coast with a similar aesthetic approach--and many who'd been allied with the Beats--of straight-forward formlessness and inward focus. I'd think McKuen's influence extended a long way: I wouldn't be surprised if many college professor writing workshop poets had been McKuen fans when young.

But for Rod it was all about the image: he was selling the same sentiments, packaged in verse or in song, in different wrappers.

I looked for a straightforward connection to the Liverpool poets--I've often thought of Roger McGough as the British McKuen--but I couldn't make a strong enough link to include it. You might think McKuen at least showed a path for Leonard Cohen to take, though Cohen is a far more interesting artist his poetry was a let down for anyone who read his two early novels while coming to his music.

The Guardian didn't leave in the snippets of song lyrics I used, for example with 'Jean' (Jean, Jean, roses are red, all of the leaves are turned green) which said more than I could about his songs. I hadn't realised just how prolific McKuen was, and how quick he was to jump on the styles of the Sixties-Seventies era, both musical and personal, to sell his work. But it was an odd mix: the pop star shedding serial skins and the crooner whose work with Anita Kerr reminds me of Sinatra with Nelson Riddle, at his most self-pitying. No wonder Frank loved it.

But it was perhaps that sense of wounded caution that was the crux of McKuen's appeal. I wondered how much of his young life might have been amplified in the telling--but certainly he was a man whose persona was both self-created and forced on him, to ill effect. I read some speculation about his sexuality, which, despite fathering two children in Paris, remained in doubt. He did form a production company with Rock Hudson after Hudson, like Sinatra recorded an album of McKuen songs; there's a real parallel in the romantic leading men. And some of his titles, of albums or books, seem laden with double entendre: The Single Man, Alone After Dark, even More Rod. And there's the cats. And he did a disco album called 'Slide Easy In' whose cover has an arm covered in Crisco, and  with a song aimed at Anita Bryant called 'Don't Drink The Orange Juice'. But it didn't seem fair to deal with innuendo, and really it doesn't matter.

I was convinced it was his telling his own story that led to his breakdown, depression, and his stopping touring. And I could relate to his huge house in Beverly Hills with half a million record albums and over 100,000 CDs. 'I have my books, and my poetry to protect me,' Paul Simon sang. It seemed like Rod McKuen was still looking for protection.

Friday, 30 January 2015

SUPER BOWL 49: MY NFLUK PREVIEW

This month has brought me to the end of a very difficult process. I'm writing this in the chaos of my new temporary home, having been too busy for Irresistible Targets for all of January (except to comment on my obit of the great Robert Stone). Apart from my filling in on Channel 4's NFL highlights programme, the weekly @c4nfl Extra Yard podcast and doing round-ups for Irish radio, I've only been writing about the football this month, but Sunday I will be in the studio presenting the big game with Gnat Coombs and Osi Umeniyora. Sadly, the studio itself will be in Stratford, East London, not in Phoenix, Arizona.

I previewed the Super Bowl on The Extra Yard, and on our own Americarnage podcast (see Americarnage.co.uk) today's column for nfluk is the only place I've come out and made a pick. It was a difficult choice, and I really would not be surprised to see New England sneak it. Of course if the latter were to happen it would please me considerably...

Here's the link to the column. Enjoy:

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

ROBERT STONE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Robert Stone is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here and it should be in the paper paper tomorrow or soon. It wasn't until I was writing the piece that I realised how deep Stone went into himself to pull his fictions out; the long spaces between books were likely as much recovery as research. There was the sense too, which I didn't put directly into the piece, that Stone lived before (and while) he wrote, in fact, was driven to live. Whereas so much fiction today is written very well but has no life behind it.

The obit is pretty much as written up through Dog Soldiers, which deserves every bit of praise I gave it, and more. I should have mentioned Stone wrote the screenplay of the movie as well (with Judith Rascoe) and that it was titled Who'll Stop The Rain (after a Creedence Clearwater song) because some executives thought people would think Dog Soldiers was an animal movie. The three leads are all spectacularly good, Richard Masur heads a stellar supporting cast: Gail Strickland, Anthony Zerbe, Ray Sharkey, and I think you could consider it, alongside The Gambler as perhaps Karel Reisz's best films (though he didn't necessarily agree when I posed the point to him once years ago).

When I started to explain what made Stone's writing unique, the paper had a problem with a quote from stone: 'I like big novels. I really admire the grand slam', fearing their audience wouldn't understand what he meant my grand slam (a phrase used in tennis and bridge as well as baseball).

I then wrote: 'His friend Kesey's first novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1962) featured passages of beautifully unfocused prose, mirroring the effects of the hospital's drugs on its patients; his second, Sometimes A Great Notion (1964) was an attempt at the big novel, in more standard prose style.' This, I thought, explained perfectly the idea of the synthesis Stone created in his writing. It was also interesting that Paul Newman directed and starred in the film adaptation of Sometimes and that it was retitled Never Give An Inch.

The paper also lost one of my points by changing 'actress' to 'actor' in the copy. What made Children Of Light so personal was that the schizophrenic character was a woman, like his mother. It's an odd policy, to use a gender-neutral term for actors, but insist, for example, on the gender-specific coinage 'gay and lesbian'.

The controversy over Outerbridge Reach was something I merely mentioned, but Stone was accused of borrowing heavily from a book called The Strange Voyage Of Donald Crowhurst. This is one of the perils of research; the uses Stone made of the story, as the obit implied, went farther and wider than the Crowhurst did. For which I would cut him some slack.

I don't believe any of Stone's novels could be called best-sellers, though they were very favourably reviewed and nominated consistently for major awards. I probably should have made more of his beat connection; his novels sometimes read like beat writing with more sympathy for the mainstream. His mixing of poetry and realism, while not quite magical as the Latin Americans, or his drug-familiar contemporary Tom Robbins, is probably the most thoroughly and painfully American of any major novelist of my lifetime.