Tuesday, 19 April 2016

O.J. AUCTION: PRICES SLASHED/The 1999 Civil Trial Auction

I wrote the following piece from Los Angeles for the Financial Times. It appeared in the FT, in somewhat more restrained form, on 27 February 1999. The hardest part was getting accredited, for some reason they didn't quite believe I came from London, or wrote for the FT, or maybe both. But there I am, about four rows back; you can see me more clearly in the second photo, below left. And by the way, the FT didn't use that title for the piece.

The OJ Simpson Circus was back in action in Hollywood last week, when property from the former football star’s residence was auctioned off on behalf of a Court Receiver, one step in obtaining the $33.5 million judgement levied against Simpson by a Santa Monica jury in the civil suit brought by the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. This being LA, the receiver, Michael D. Myers, came complete with a four-page biographical press release, describing himself as “slim and soft-spoken”.

Sadly, the slim and soft-spoken Mr. Myers went overlooked by the local media, for whom otherwise it was Christmas in February. Hollywood auctioneers Butterfield & Butterfield on Sunset Boulevard overflowed with 17 film crews jostling, 12 reporters pouting, 8 live-vans transmitting, and 5 panicked PRs. All it was missing was Dominick Dunne as the partridge in the front row. 

The top item on offer was OJ’s 1968 Heisman Trophy, awarded by the New York Athletic Club to America’s outstanding college gridiron player, and made more valuable because the Club misspelled Athletic on the inscription. Beyond the contents of his trophy room, the sale also provided a rare look into the aesthetic sensibilities of the football star turned Hertz pitchman and Naked Gun actor. Tiffany style lamps, chocolate box tourist paintings, and a large proto-cubist head painted by Donna Summer all gathered more action than many of the sports items.

The crush of media necessitated a second room for buyers and the curious public, including those desperate for their 15 seconds of fame. Hogging the centre ring of the circus was one Bob Enyart, a right-wing radio host from Denver, who orchestrated a TV camera scrum by announcing he would destroy the three items he purchased in a ceremony on the steps of the LA courthouse the next day at high noon. Enyart claimed to be acting for “citizens frustrated with the American justice system that allowed a criminal to remain as President and a murderer to go free.” Meanwhile, he frantically plugged his web-site, which turned out to be hawking “I Helped Execute OJ Simpson” T-shirts for a mere $200 a pop. As it turned out, Enyart’s OJ exorcism was exiled to the “and finally” item on the next night’s news.

Other buyers included wealthy souvenir seekers like Marty Cohen, who dropped out of the Heisman bidding at $220,000 “when rationality took over” and, more predictably, sports collectors, like Mark Dalen. Dalen came from Michigan, wearing proudly a huge Super Bowl winners’ ring he’d bought off the bankrupt family of former Chicago Bears owner George Halas. “Financial problems are sad, but they’re good news for collectors,” he said, adding he’d bought, and resold, a second Bears’ ring he after it was pawned by the son of a team executive, in his words, 'to pay off drug dealers'. Dalen proved a less than Super Bowl quality bidder, winding up only with OJ’s commemorative NFL Alumni golf umbrella, a snip at $400. That was the only golf umbrella on auction, but six separate sets of Simpson golf clubs sold for $2000 or $2250 each. OJ must’ve insisted on one day of golfing rest.

And of course, there were the OJunkies who had queued for hours to get a place in the room. Yvonne Adler had attended the civil trial every day for six weeks, and now wanted to buy something to burn. Priced out of the early bidding, she tried to pool with three other women, familiar to each other from the trial, to buy and share a collection of four crystal awards. But one of the four refused, on the grounds crystal doesn’t burn. 

The usual absentee and telephone buyers were joined by bidders on the internet. The auction was transmitted live over Yahoo.com, and featured interactive “real time” bidding, using systems developed by the Seattle-based LiveBid. LiveBid has already run 40 internet auctions, selling, among other things, the Batmobile from the movie Batman Returns. CEO Matt Williams, 26, admitted they were doing this one for the exposure. The question was, for whom? As Williams said, 'the prospect of riding the OJ media whirl “gave me goose bumps.”

Internet buyers bought three items, and the crush of bidding threatened to overwhelm Yahoo’s Susan Carls, on the computer in the auction room. “It’s pretty scientific,” she said modestly. “The system takes only the highest bid, and automatically eliminates others. But I was really hoping we’d win the next-to-the-last item.” An internet buyer had appeared to claim The Washington Pigskin Club’s Player of the Year trophy, but a late bid from the second room coincided with auctioneer Scott Bradley’s dropping the hammer. "I felt it appropriate to allow the bid," said Bradley, who otherwise coped with the myriad sources with aplomb, to no one's surprise. "Potentially, we can add millions of bidders, but there’s weren’t really any problems."

The piece de resistence, the Heisman Trophy went by phone to a then-anonymous buyer for $230,000. Two days later, Philadelphia sheet-metal wholesaler Tom Kriessman, 47, flew to LA to ante up $255,000 (including tax and comission) for his first-ever sports collectable. "I bought it for everything it represents," he said. "You know, the tragedy that was his life." Not to mention his victims'. 

The sales of OJ’s other tchatkes totalled $152,000. Nicole Simpson’s father, Lou Brown (see photo top left), watched the sale from the front row. Attorney Gary Caris announced afterwards that Brown was "very pleased with the result, but very pleased it was over." They remain aware that the $382,000 raised represents just over 1% of the judgement owed the two families, and that’s before the slim and soft-spoken Mr. Myers’ fees.OJ himself has decamped to Florida, where state law protects more assets against civil judgements.


Ending the post-sale press conference, Butterfield’s George Noceti, compared the Simpson auction to his past successes with Liberace or Elvis. And with that, the OJ media circus folded its tents, and Butterfield’s business resumed, auctioning television and movie memorabilia, starting appropriately enough with costumes from the cult TV show The Munsters.

THE PEOPLE VS OJ SIMPSON: JEFFREY TOOBIN'S THE RUN OF HIS LIFE

The language that divides us. The People V. O.J. Simpson: The Run Of His Life, was released to coincide with the TV series, which in America was called American Crime Story: The Run Of His Life: The People vs O.J. Simpson. Similiarly, in America the book's primary title was The Run Of Life. Because OJ's career as a running back (and Hertz airport hurdler) was probably not something a British audience would recall, that title was played down. And the vs. was changed to v. because a British audience wouldn't be able to make that narrative leap either.

You can listen to or read my essay 'OJ and Our America' which I did for Cultural Frontline, on the BBC World Service, in my previous posts on this blog. I did that after seeing the first two episodes of the TV series, which prompted me to read Jeffrey Toobin's book. In fact, if you're playing catch-up with the series, I'd suggest you read the book early on too, because it will give you another picture of the case and the trial, and put things into context. It's also a great read. Toobin was writing from the standpoint of a legal observer, and he takes on the legal issues with the same sort of dramatic drive the series does, but with much more depth and context. And without actors to make characters more sympathetic.

The title is a little misleading. The Run Of His Life is really better applied to the famous Bronco chase, a run where he eventually turned and went the wrong way before being brought down in his own driveway. The trial was really the run of their lives for many of the other people involved: in a bigger sense, OJ might have been better served had he followed either of his original plans, of suicide or escape. That was the moment the trial leapt into the netherworld of celebrity: as Toobin says 'the world waited to see if O.J. Simpson would blow his brains out on national TV'. Irony is a major player in the Simpson case. As Toobin writes, 'only O.J. didn't understand the preeminent place of race in his own defense'. 'I'm not black. I'm O.J.'

Really the title might have been 'The Indifference To Truth'. Toobin talks of the shamelessness of Alan Dershowitz, but points out 'shamelessness is a moral, rather than a legal, concept.' He then quotes Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman on 'the indifference to truth that all advocacy entails'. He doesn't note the irony of a law school dead assuming the law's rules apply; outside the world of attorneys (and who knows, perhaps even inside occasionally) advocacy may pursued via the truth. Call me naïve and put me on the OJ jury. It's chilling to actually read OJ's 'suicide' note, which begins 'First everyone understand nothing to do with Nicole's murder'. That could be the title of a book too.

Toobin is absolutely brilliant on the way the defense's case was built on lies, and the lies built into performance, helped by the inertness of Lance Ito and the prosecution intent on playing Judy to the defense's Punch. His was the first piece on the 'race card' in the OJ trial, the strategy which proved effective, but he doesn't miss the smaller things. Barry Scheck's fragmentation of the prosecution's overwhelming DNA evidence was filled with explanations that ere 'fanciful, and some were silly'. They posited an LAPD that was both 'totally inept and brilliantly sinister' (this is in Marcia Clark's closing argument in the TV show. Maybe the glove was enough, but without Scheck's dumping of a ton of mud in the recombinant waters, it might not have been.

Although the TV series is based on Toobin's book, much material seems to have been gleaned from other sources, most notably Larry Schiller's 'as told to' inside story, which is where, for example, the brilliant scenes of Johnny Cochran redecorating OJ's house before the jury can see it is drawn. That he was able to do that speakes volumes about the ineptitude of Ito's court. Toobin is good on many of the sleazy tactics, such as deliberately withholding witnesses, but I can recall others, like swamping the discovery process, that I might have read in his columns but which aren't in the book. No matter: Toobin's book is full of the sort of astounding bits of absurdity that became the daily fodder for the OJ audience. LA DA Gil Garcetti's press officer, Suzanne Child's, would wind up 'dating' talk show vampire Larry King. And at times, like many magazine writers, he has to give the best lines to his colleagues on the daily beat. Mike McAlary's take down of Robert Shapiro presenting himself as the hero of the trial was deflated by Mike McAlary of the New York Daily News, who explained Shapiro was 'a typical Hollywood invention--a character tan-deep in make-up and significance'. Toobin also explains elsewhere that Shapiro drove a Bentley, but it 'was a used Bentley'. Years ago, when I reviewed Chris Darden's OJ book (you can link to that here) I pointed out where Darden said proudly he drove a Mercedes, but that it was only a 'used Mercedes'. In LA, I said, that passes for asceticism.

It's also brilliant on the internal battles within the defense team, particularly Shapiro's exclusion from it as the trial went along.The best thing about reading Toobin is to get the small bits that form the basis of the series' legal argument in more detail, and in tracking the personalities in more depth. F. Lee Bailey in particular comes off far worse than Nathan Lane's portrayal, but almost all the TV show's characters lack the desperate edge that Toobin gives them. And Toobin ends with a postscript on the civil trial, which took place in Santa Monica, not downtown, and of course went against OJ. It's a somewhat better, if less dramatic, but more ironic ending. This is a book to read regardless of whether you've seen the show or not. Because even if you don't intend to watch, after you read this, you will.

The People V O.J. Simpson: The Run Of His Life
by Jeffrey Toobin
Arrow Books, £7.99, ISBN 9781784758867









OJ AND OUR AMERICA: THE CULTURAL FRONTLINE SCRIPT


A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk on the BBC World Service's programme Cultural Frontline, tracing the influence and effects of the OJ Simpson trial; you can read my introduction to that in my post of 2 April, or link direct to the programme on Iplayer here; it comes about 14 minutes in. But for the time the show is no longer available, I thought I'd post my working script (with one footnote) here.

The essay was prompted by the showing of American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson on BBC television. As the series has now concluded, and I am about to write about it, and about the re-issue of Jeffrey Toobin's book about the trial, I thought this bigger picture might be instructive...

OJ AND OUR AMERICA

Was it really two decades ago? Watching The People Vs. OJ Simpson transported me back to that summer of 1994. After a stressful day in charge of the host broadcast of the opening match of the FIFA World Cup, I'd ordered room service in my hotel to watch the NBA basketball finals, when the infamous white Bronco driven by OJ's friend AC appeared in a box in the screen's lower third. Soon, the basketball was relegated to the box, then it disappeared, as the strange freeway convoy disguised as a police chase took centre stage. It was presented just like sports coverage, because America's new national pastime was television, and OJ gave TV everything it could desire.
It was billed as the 'crime of the century', or the 'trial of the century', but almost every decade in America produces at least one of those. It actually was the television event of the past century, but re-seeing it today generates far more than nostalgia. The Simpson trial balances on two great axes: race and celebrity, and it is both history and prediction. It is America defining itself, by its unending racial schism, and re-defining itself, as Andy Warhol foresaw, by celebrity.
The mini-series sets the scene with the brutal beating of a black man, Rodney King, by white Los Angeles police four years earlier, and the massive riots which followed the cops' acquittal on criminal charges. This signals the first crucial theme: the show dissects the way Simpson's defense was based on the disconnect between black and white Los Angeles. White America believed stars like OJ transcended race; prosecutor Marcia Clark wisecracks that a jury of OJ's peers would actually consist of 'middle aged white millionaires'. Black Americans saw it differently.
The narrative of OJ being framed by cops who resented his wealth and fame, hated his having a beautiful white ex-wife, recalled the Jim Crow era when 'uppity blacks' might be lynched for 'recklessly eyeballing' a white woman. Whites saw OJ as a world apart from Rodney King, but OJ's lawyer Johnny Cochrane knew they had one crucial thing in common, their skin; actor Courtney Vance milks every nuance of racism perfectly.
Twenty-two years later, America has a black president, and something like 20 per cent of the country believes he's a foreign-born Moslem educated in terrorist cells. It's impossible not to feel the embers of prejudice smouldering, waiting to be blown into flames by the next police killing of an unarmed black man.
Race was the strategy, but the trial was defined by celebrity. OJ had always received special treatment from the police and district attorneys in LA. It was easy to see why: when I met OJ while covering the 1992 Barcelona Olympics;, his charisma was overpoweringly physical: he's big in a way Cuba Gooding, the actor playing him on TV, cannot convey, yet moved gracefully with a chiselled handsomeness and easy smile. In the face of his celebrity, the prosecution pulled on kid gloves, but the money and sheer weight of numbers of the defense team pounded every concession into a submission. Judge Lance Ito preened for the cameras even as his head sunk beneath the quicksand; Clark and her assistant prosecutor Chris Darden saw TV punditry in their futures.
The mini-series plays the celebrity card knowingly, by highlighting OJ's friend Bob Kardashian, played with his trademark insecurity by David Schwimmer. Typically, there’s no mention of the garment bag Kardashian removed from OJ’s house, with whatever crucial evidence it contained (NOTE: This comment was premature. The bag did feature later, as Kardashian and AC opened it together to discover it contained nothing incriminating. That moment signalled the show's almost total acceptance of a changed Kardashian, Schwimmer being a character far more sympathetic. But I wonder.) Because what’s more important is that OJ was godfather to Kardashian's oldest daughter, Kim, and there follows a series of knowing winks at the soon-to-be-famous-for-being-famous sisters.
The Kardashian phenomenon was, in effect, enabled by the Simpson trial. It brought together the new world of 24 hour news and multi-channel television in a perfect storm, creating a parallel universe in which the trial became a catalyst for endless argument, speculation, innuendo, and punditry, full of cliché and sophistry, all about style and process, not about substance.
This legacy haunts us today. Not just in the morass of trash television, but in the trash television that has been the two-year cycle of the American presidential elections—an endless series of so-called debates in which nothing is debated, filling countless hours of airtime. Donald Trump, most of whose supporters believe that Barack Obama is a foreign terrorist, steps seamlessly from awarding pretend jobs on scripted reality shows, to playing a candidate in an endless reality show. Indeed, his candidacy would not be possible were it not for the OJ trial.
The primary voters themselves are like the jurors in a series of OJ trials, distracted by the big money dream teams of consultants who make TV commercials, believing in the celebrities they know from TV, and unable to escape the inflammatory rhetoric that invokes that shadowy cloud of ever-present racial divide. The Simpson trial created the Kardashians and empowers the Trumps; it is the template for today's America, glued to its TV screens, understanding nothing.

Monday, 18 April 2016

NANA VASCONCELOS: A REMEMBRANCE

I met Nana Vasconcelos once. I was flying to Oslo in June of 1987 to cover the Dream Mile and Bislett Games for ABC Sports. As I got onto the plane in London, I could smell the guy in front of me, and hoped he didn't sit next to me. He was with a couple of others, one of whom took the seat next to mine; the other two moved a row back on the other side of the aisle. I looked around and realised I was sitting with Jan Garbarek; across the aisle were Eberhard Weber (at whom I had turned my nose down) and Nana Vasconcelos. They making a connection back to Oslo after a tour performance.

I went into fan boy mode, something I wouldn't do a few days later at the track meet. As it happened I was carrying my latest chapbook/pamphlet of poetry, Mucho Mojo, from Northern Lights, and it contained poems based on songs of Weber's (and Keith Jarrett's, but not Garbarek's!). I later sent Garbarek another pamphlet with a couple of his songs on it--'send it to Jan Garbarek, Oslo, it will get to  me' he said. I got all three to sign the pamphlet, talked with Garbarek a lot and Weber a little, and barely to Nana. In truth, he seemed so laid-back as to be flying metaphorically. I just looked at that pamphlet again: his signature has a joyful little star over it; not dotting any 'i', just his exuberance.

He was a great percussionist, who fit in beautifully to the textures of the Garbarek band. Here's a link to them performing in France a few years later, with Rainer Bruninghaus on keyboards, it's wonderful. I can't recall who the pianist was on that flight; I think it was Bugge Wesseltoft, but it might have been Lars Jansson. Whoever it was was, he was sitting in coach, while we were in business; Garbarek joked that was because he was Swedish.

It wasn't just Garbarek, of course. Nana played with almost all the great ECM musicians, and he also made his own records for the label. He was not just an accompanist: with voice and percussion he could lead and provide his own polyrhythm section. Sometimes I think his best music comes in collaboration with Egberto Gismonti; look for the early ECM record Saudades, but here's a link to a tune, Bianco, from their 1994 record Duaz Voces, linked here.  Or go backwards, to his work with Milton Nascimento, or Gato Barbieri, or Gilberto Gil. I know I did after that short plane ride, which was a real highlight of my ABC Sports career. RIP Nana.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

DAVID LEAN'S SOUND BARRIER RESTORED

I talked about David Lean's 1952 film The Sound Barrier on last week's Americarnage (you can link to it here; it's episode 211, in the '3 Points' section early on). What I didn't mention was I actually think I'd seen the film before; when I was 7 or 8 years old, at my uncle's summer camp. I can't be sure: I remember Run Silent Run Deep; The Harlem Globetrotters Story; The Jackie Robinson Story and Jim Thorpe: All American more clearly, but as soon as it started I felt a familiarity, a sense I might have seen it (and perhaps, a couple of years later, Pork Chop Hill, in the great hall up there in New Hampshire) but the realization how strange it must have been, and, now that I have lived in this country nearly 40 years, how strange the film may seem to a younger generation.

The Sound Barrier has just been re-released on DVD, in a version restored by the BFI National Archive and Studiocanal, with funding from the David Lean Foundation. Watching the modest interview which appears as an extra, I learned this was Lean's personal favourite among his films, which might come as a surprise, given his enduring fame for his early adaptations and later epics. But it was a project he put together himself, out of fascination with the story of trying to break the speed of sound, and its concern echo some of his other films.

I thought first of In Which We Serve, another film I think of as an 'anti-epic', in that it tells an epic story by bringing it down to a personal one, and it emphasises sacrifice rather than triumph. That film was Noel Coward's personal project, and he brought Lean in, much as Lean and Alexander Korda brought in Terrence Rattigan to write the screenplay for The Sound Barrier.

 The story's based on the story of Geoffrey DeHavilland, who lost two sons testing his experimental jet, and its early focus is on John Ridgefield, the aircraft manufacturer played by Ralph Richardson, and test pilot Tony Garthwaite, played by Nigel Patrick, who marries Ridgefield's daughter Susan (Ann Todd). Denholm Elliott is the son being pushed to fly, although he's not very good at it, and John Justin is Philip Peel, Tony's wartime buddy who becomes his fellow test pilot.

It's a film about ambition and loss, about obsession and challenge, with the fabric of an almost Learish family dominance about it. Richardson plays that classical motif in a most understated way. He won a BAFTA as best actor, and also the New York Film Critics Award, but became the first actor not to double the New York award at the Oscars. His performance, in its theatricality, puts him at a tangent to the rest of the cast, who are being more natural—but this is English natural in the 1950s, and hence extremely stiff and almost self-conscious, particularly in its concessions to film glamour, particularly the ritual lighting of cigarettes: the contrast makes Richardson's work more powerful. It's a little odd that Joseph Tomelty as Will Sparks, the engineer figure who is the equivalent of Frank Whittle, whose engine design enabled the breaking of the sound barrier, is played with a characteristic Irish comic relief, as if this were a John Ford film.

This is the part of the film modern audiences may not quite get; this stiffness. Justin is like a prototype Peter O'Toole, with none of the animism; Todd, whose marriage to Lean (his third of six) finally broke during this filming, often seems to be suffering more off-stage than on. In contrast, Dinah Sheridan, as Peel's wife Jess, seems the most natural character in the film. There's an odd scene where Patrick takes Todd for lunch in Cairo: it's a travelogue celebrating the wonder of a four-hour trip to Egypt; only after lunch does he remember he has no way to get back to Britain, having delivered the plane he was flying—this leads to a short commercial, as it were, for BOAC. The Cairo scene concludes with Jess (see right) accepting that Peel will soon go back to Britain to join Tony as a test pilot; the flying doesn't seem to have lessened Susan's fear of the air.

The story, of course, is fictionalised, and gets around the ultimate problem that it was Chuck Yeager, in America, who broke the sound barrier (you could look at that portion of The Right Stuff as the more overstated yet underplayed version of this film), but Lean solves that problem in style, because it is the personal challenge which is what finally must be overcome, finding the key to controlling the jet airplane. This allows the movie to triumph even if they never actually say the barrier is broken, and reinforces the film's interior epic concerns.

You might think those an awkward fit with Rattigan, but if anything the family drama is more powerful than the aerial challenge. The somewhat unsung hero here is cinematographer Jack Hildyard, who works in different styles, sometimes suggesting film noir, sometimes a deep-focus trapped feeling, sometimes a tumultuous background. Obviously there's a lot of second unit work which is very good, and there one's lovely visual metaphor that goes unremarked: when Peel watches a swallow diving, as if giving him the clue to piloting; I was sure he would credit his feathered friend for the advice.  Malcolm Arnold's score is a mix of sometimes overdone cliché and sometimes wonderful emotional background: there are a number of passages of something sounding like a theremin in which I could hear echoed any number of Sixties British TV dramas.

In Lean's films we are often engrossed by the struggle within being played out on a grander stage, certainly it's the core of Lawrence Of Arabia, Bridge On The River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago, the three epics which took nearly 20 years of his career, where the stage seems to run away with the interior conflicts. In that sense, we might see The Sound Barrier as a bridge between Brief Encounter or the Dickens films and those grander scale movies, and understand well why Lean loved it so much.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

EARL HAMNER & THE WALTONS: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Earl Hamner is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It shoud be in the paper paper soon. The focus of the obit, of course, is The Waltons.  I mentioned that the show appeared just as Fred Silverman was cutting all the country programming that had been so popular, and his instincts, while perhaps not quite perfect (since many of those shows continued to do well in syndicated re-runs) were accurate as far as The Waltons went. The family were the antithesis of the Beverly Hillbillies, but the show's success ran deeper than that. 

America was coming out of the Sixties into a 'me' decade whose lifestyle conflicts presaged the present day even more than the Sixties did. The Waltons may have reminded younger people about the realities of their parents' own childhoods; there was a sense among many in those times that while they may have been rebelling against society, per se, they did not actually hate, or want to be estranged from their families. 

It also had a fairy-tale sort of verisimilitude, because it was Hamner's own life as he idealised it, or as he wanted it to be. If you doubt this, take a look at how much Richard Thomas, as the eldest son John-Boy, resembled the young Hamner.

The isolated world of Walton's Mountain in the Thirties was a surprisingly liberal place, something signalled by Will Geer, blacklisted actor, singer, Communist and activist—who created a garden at the American Shakespeare Theatre in the town next to the one where I grew up. Grandpa, had seeded leadership to his son, played by Ralph Waite, a former social worker and divinity student; who after The Waltons would run for Congress as a Democrat and lose three times. The Waltons preached tolerance, equality, and responsibility—it may have been sentimental but it was easy to feel its heart was in the right place.

The adult leads were fine: Michael Learned was the saintly mother, Ellen Corby brilliant as the crochety grandma. The children were a bit too clean, too glowing, too nice and nowhere near dusty enough for farm children, but you could almost believe in them as country folk. All that is, except for Mary Ellen, the oldest girl; Judy Norton-Taylor, who played her, sounded like she'd walked out of a house in suburban California in 1969.

I also mentioned that Hamner's adaptation of Charlotte's Web was excellent; I watched it any number of times when Nate was little, and it was guaranteed to move me. Hamner was certainly sentimental, but when he was on at least it was a strength. And sentiment often appeals to the cynics among us.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

THE NIGHT MANAGER: A FEW LOOSE ENDS

A few loose ends I wonder about, after watching the final episode of The Night Manager.

1. Why does no one except Youssef recognise Jonathan Pine when he goes back to the hotel where he was the night manager? Lots of turnover?
2. How do the 28 truck drivers hired by the arms buyers all know when to leave the trucks just before they blow up? How could they know when Pine would detonate them? Do all of them work with the revolutionaries? Would none of them mention to their actual bosses there are bombs in the trucks?
3. How does Pine walk through a swimming pool while drowning Freddie Hadid, then return to the hotel with his trousers not only dry but still pressed?
4. How will the Hadid family react to Freddie's death? Especially as Pine is the one who left the casino with him?
5. The big one: To whose account did Pine transfer the $300,000? His own? As a baby shower gift for Angela Burr? To pay for Jed's kid?
6. Is Tom Hiddleston really just a personal trainer'd version of Franchot Tone? More 'Toned' as it were?
7. Why wasn't Pierce Brosnan driving the paddy wagon that takes Roper away?

Monday, 4 April 2016

BOB ELLIS AND NEWSFRONT: IN MEMORIAM

I have to say that, until he died, I hadn't realised Bob Ellis had written Newsfront, one of my favourite movies, and one of the best of the Australian New Wave in the late 70s. It holds a special place for me because it's set among the world of newsreel cameramen in the late Forties and early Fifties, and the great Bill Hunter plays a cameraman committed to his craft, to loyalty, and to fairness. It's set in changing times, as newsreels are being squeezed aside by the growing presence of television, and Hunter's commitment is being challenged by his more upwardly-mobile brother (played by Gerard Kennedy).  The film ends at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, where Hunter happens to be the only camera at the water polo match between the Soviets and Hungary; this literal bloodbath has become legendary in Olympic history.

The movie resonated with me because I was working for UPITN, one of the television news agencies, which was a direct descendant of the Fox Movietone News newsreel agency. Many of our execs, cameramen around the world, and staff had worked for newsreels, and the news gathering ethos was the same. The competition, in our case with the BBC-run Visnews, was almost as cut-throat as that in Newsfront; I can't count the number of exclusives stolen by 'accident' or false claims by our more influential rival over the years.

Hunter's attitude represented a certain kind of Australian egalitarianism which I could even then recognise, and it was overtly Labour, and it's made easy to follow because Hunter's often instructing his assistant, an English emigre played well by Chris Haywood, and the conflicts also play out with his wife, whom he's married because his colleague whom he loves (Wendy Hughes) is more taken with his brother. It mixes the personal with parallels in social commentary, and it does it well.

I didn't know about Bob Ellis. Mostly because I doubt his name was on the credits of the movie when I saw it in London; it had been cut considerably by director Philip Noyce and producer David Elfeck, and he'd had himself removed from the credits (he was later restored). Reading his obits, he was a notorious over-writer, wanting to include lots of detail and what was described as polemic. When he won a Writers Guild award for the script for the mini-series True Believers, he clutched the statue and told the producer '' you turned War and Peace into Peyton Place'.'

He also wrote I can't claim much knowledge about Ellis' career; was a playwright, film director, political writer, and critic, but I recommend reading his obituaries, because he's is exactly the kind of wonderful combination of charm, wit, inappropriateness, and belligerence we often associate with Aussies, and he grew into a gruff but loveable sort of curmudgeonly elder statesman status. He predicted the rise of Tony Abbott, and lost a slander suit brought by Abbott and his treasurer Peter Costello, in a wondering throwaway line about them and their wives. So he couldn't be all bad. He's irresistible in Not Quite Hollywood, a documentary about that boom in Australian cinema, all slash and kill and take no prisoners. That was a great era in Australia, which I appreciated from London; not least because Ellis' contemporaries at Sydney University, like Clive James and Germaine Greer, were over here making waves (Les Murray was another there at that time).


I always think of Aussies in two categories: those who rort and those who use the same energies to attack those who do. Ellis strikes me as one in the latter category. I'll probably delve further into his career, even if he did say 'Americans are scum' but maybe he was talking only about Hollywood.

In the meantime, try to see Newsfront. It's a brilliant picture. RIP Bob Ellis

Saturday, 2 April 2016

OJ AND AMERICA: THE CULTURAL FRONTLINE TALK

My discussion of the OJ Simpson trial, prompted by the American Crime Story series, The People vs OJ Simpson: The Run Of His Life, was broadcast today on the BBC World Service's Cultural Frontline programme. You can listen to it on BBC Iplayer here; it starts around 14 minutes into the show. I'm talking about the trial and its attendant media circus, and the knock-on effect it has had on America; the things that connect OJ Simpson to Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Have a listen....

Friday, 1 April 2016

THE GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS AND THEIR CHASE FOR 73

I've done a story for Newstalk Ireland's website about Stef Curry, the Golden State Warriors, and their quest for the best-ever record in an NBA season. You can link to it here. It's really about the way their game combines aspects of the team that holds the mark, the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls coached by Phil Jackson, with aspects of the Warriors' greatest rivals today, the San Antonio Spurs of Tim Duncan and coach Greg Popovich. Which makes sense, because Warriors' Coach Steve Kerr won three championships with Chicago, and then two more with San Antonio. I'll have to do another one one who actually IS the best team of all-time, as opposed to one with the best record. If the Spurs upset the Warriors in the playoffs, that discussion might become a little easier.

UPDATE: No sooner had the post gone up on Newstalk, than the Boston Celtics went into Oakland and beat the Warriors. Go Celts!

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

JIM HARRISON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Jim Harrison is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. It is pretty much as I wrote it (though a couple of literals have snuck in) which surprised me slightly as it was a bit longer than requested, but after trimming I didn't think I could lose any more.

I was fascinated by the whole Hemingway thing, perhaps because by some fine synchronicity, I'm reading Paul Hendrickson's wonderful Hemingway's Boat right now. I was struck by how closely Harrison echoed Gertrude Stein, but there is a further comparison that struck me this afternoon, too late to include: Hemingway had more discipline than Harrison, perhaps more restraint. I think it's telling Harrison may have, if anything, lived the more indulgent life, but remained married all his life. There's probably a good story to be written about all the shenanigans that went on around The Missouri Breaks and 92 In The Shade (Tom McGuane's novel which he directed himself).

Of course I don't believe Harrison is the writer Hemingway was. In fact one of the first comments on the Guardian's web site was someone saying they liked Harrison the man more than Harrison the writer, and I tend to agree. He is a tremendous interview--dropping in quotation of and reference to all sorts of writers and obviously completely enraptured with the art. He may have come off as raw, but he was definitely cooked. I probably should have mentioned he was, for a time, the poetry editor of The Nation; for a guy who tell an interviewer for the Paris Review who asked if it was a problem to be a 'Michigan writer' that 'the Upper East Side of New York was constitutionally the most provincial place I’d ever been' that seemed a pretty neat trick.

I hadn't read Harrison in a while, but I pulled a copy of Letters For Yesenin out of a box and really felt the energy and despair in the poems. I suspect he wrote himself out of that.  He was a creature of his indulgence; just track his pictures in reverse. It was some life. And you can also take his food indulgence seriously: I still use his recipe for making meatballs and spaghetti sauce, and it's damn good. Needs a powerful lot of wine to go with it too. RIP Jim Harrison.

Friday, 25 March 2016

GARRY SHANDLING: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY


My obituary of Garry Shandling is up at the Guardian online, you can link to it here. As I said this morning on Twitter, Larry Sanders is probably my favourite comedy show ever, and the obit was pretty easy to write: I knew how great it and he were and how I wanted to explain that. I would've liked more room to quote some of his lines, but his wasn't the kind of comedy to be remembered with one-liners, that was part of the story.

In fact the hardest part of writing it was constantly typing Larry Sanders when I meant Garry Shandling! The story ran pretty much as written: there's also a link to the excrusiatingly funny Ricky Gervais interview, whose explanation got rewritten slightly confusingly: Sanders wanted to do his interview first, but they did Gervais' filming first, which got them off on the wrong foot, as it were. They also cut, for some reason, the mention that Shandling had been Carson's favourite guest-host, until he had to stop doing that when his own debuted in 1986, which is a big part of why Jay Leno, who more or less took his place guest-hosting, wound up with Carson's spot when he retired.

I would have loved some space to track his influence in more detail (Apatow, for example, got his first break as a writer for Sanders). And I would have liked to spend a little more time of his Buddhism. There was a funny story about his bumping into Conan O'Brien in first class flying back from Hawaii, as one does, where he had gone to meditate on the Buddha, as one does.  And another about his telling a joke to the Dali Lama, which the Lama doesn't get. Or his basketball games. But go to you tube and watch his Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee interview with Seinfeld.  They're discussing when David Brenner died. Jerry says his first thought was 'there goes a lot of material', which Garry finds incredible. The talk about Robin Williams' suicide and the quotes I used follow. Shandling boxed regularly, he hooped on Sundays, and he died of a sudden heart attack at 66. RIP