Wednesday, 13 March 2019

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS: GIR-RUL POWERRR

So first Ginger Sov arrives from France with a stand-up do and wicked piercings. And she's all like Scotland's my country and accent and everything and you gotta make me queen. And she tells Posh Sov she wants to be BFFs. But Posh Sov's like fuck MQS! That ginger bitch is more in line for my throne than I am, so she tries to hook her up with the super-fit squeeze she fancies, but Ginger's too woke for that and she hooks up with Darnley, who's like next in line to Posh's throne after Ginger, but he's like anyone's, an-ny-ones! after a couple of red bull and meads. Ginger's also pretty sporty, ridin' horses and winnin' battles and stuff, but then Posh goes all Scary with these poxy bumps and scars and she uses a ton of goth makeup to cover them up and hide her real face. Then she watches horses giving birth cause she's jealous of Ginger's now Darnley's Baby Momma and the baby's another one who could steal her throne. But the Ian Paisley preacher guy with the huge false beard is all like she's a whore and a papist so they kill her gay singer song writer guy who also slept with Darnley and her best-bud kidnaps and rapes her and like this goes on for two hours....like an extended episode of Neighbours

I exaggerate. Sure there isn't much new in Mary Queen Of Scots; in fact it is a lot like the 1971 film, which itself seemed based, uncredited and with liberties taken, on Antonia Fraser's wonderful biography, There are two major themes to Mary's life: Mary vs Elizabeth, which is in part England vs Scotland, but more the English Virgin Queen versus the younger, prettier, French version. The other is Mary versus the Scots establishment, particularly the church, John Knox versus the Pope, intertwined with the usual Scottish betrayals and in-fighting over their crown and the big one in modern eyes, men over the 'mostrous regimen of women' or as Mary should have called it, 'We Too'.

But to put it simply, the major question in any story about Mary is her own agency: how much she acts and how much she is acted upon, and the biggest problem with this film's approach to that is how it ultimately reverts to cliché whenever it needs to make the dilemma of agency personal. When Mary decides she loves Darnley they ride off on their horses, away from the following lords, to the accompaniment of the inevitable helicopter shot. Later when Elizabeth watches a mare weaning her colt, she is mesmerised to the point of giving herself a shadow-puppet pregnancy. This horse metaphor is so good the movie will come back to it again.

They are serious about the centrality of the distinction between Mary and Elizabeth. The Virgin Queen suppresses her desire to the point of sending the man she loves to woo Mary. Mary, on the other hand, gets married three times, and, if the movie is to be believed, has sex one time with each husband. This is an extreme point of view, based partly on the 1971 film's reading of Darnley's gayness and partly on the filmmakers decision to make Mary the victim of Bothwell, which requires them to ignore a large chunk of her life after her kidnapping and rape, which is probably the most contentious of all the readings of Mary's life. They get around the alternate reading, that Mary might have been part of Darnley's removal, that she went willingly with Bothwell, got pregnant by him (a miscarriage was the result) and stayed with him until they lost the battle of Carberry Hill.

But the film's variations with history are not something that serious, at least if you can justify them in character, and that is the hard part. Bothwell is sympathetic to the point he turns on Mary: the possibility he is actually acting with her or to protect her is unraised. I don't have problems with most of the other deviations, apart perhaps Mary's having a Scots accent. Her English was likely better than, say, Bonny Prince Charlie's, but he had been raised in the French court.

Of course Mary and Elizabeth never actually met, but arranging a secret meeting between them is not a dramatic absurdity. The problem with this meeting is that the arresting shot of the laundry drying and the two queens manoeuvring around the hanging sheets (or whatever they are), each keeping out of sight of the other, loses its visual impact quickly. It's also larding-on the presentation of Elizabeth: after being struck with the pox, she relies on heavier and heavier doses of make-up, creating thicker and thicker white masks, until she looks almost like an sf movie villain.. In case you don't realise that the real woman is hiding behind the mask, the visual metaphor will be flung in your face until you do. Given too that Mary does not age from the time she first sets foot in Scotland until she is executed (oh, did I just spoil the film for you?) while Elizabeth ages rapidly is more of a dramatic license than actually having them meet.

The other major problem I had was the birth of Mary's son. By making Rizzio, generally referred to as her secretary, obviously gay, the movie registers its view on the accusations of her having an affair with him. When Mary's actual birthing is shown in detail as gory as Rizzio's murder, it is like RoseMary Queen Of Scots' Baby: the child is outsized and almost misshapen, which probably reflects the general opinion of the Presbyterians of the time. And when we see the young boy, he looks decidedly like Rizzio—and nothing like the picture we see of the young James I of England, which indicates that Mary won the long game over Elizabeth; dying but leaving her heir to take the crown.

There are things to like here, particularly in the interior scenes, which are dark and claustrophobic, and even occasionally lighted to reflect contemporary paintings. But overall it is directed and shot like a series of music videos (Elizabeth would be a natural) or commercials, a sort of short-span story-telling. I think of the visuals of John Ford's Mary Of Scotland, which makes Mary (Katharine Hepburn) into a Holy Catholic martyr, after its love-story with Bothwell (Frederic March) – which are consistent and build toward its climax, one which reflects Ford's obsession with Hepburn as much as anything else.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent as MQS—despite being limited by never aging—and I like her better than Vanessa Redgrave, who seemed too dominant, even while Glenda Jackson was more harsh. Ronan's finest moments come as she realises her position as Queen is nowhere near enough to triumph over being both a Catholic and, most fatally, a woman. Whereas, for Elizabeth, that problem is overcome by, in effect, denying her womanhood. Here Margot Robbie is more limited by the reading of Elizabeth's increasing one dimension of frustration, but there is something to be said for her starting out on more of an even footing. Guy Pearce as William Cecil is perfect, almost stealing scenes from Elizabeth. Brendan Coyle (Lennox), James McArdle (as a weak Moray) and Martin Compston as Bothwell all fill their costume drama roles well, while David Tennant as John Knox is appropriately intense, all Ian Paisley burning eyes hiding underneath a fake beard worse than the ones worn by Tom Berenger, Richard Jordan and Joseph Fuqua in Gettysburg, the greatest fake-beard movie of all time. And a special shout-out to Ian Hart as Maitland, who somehow manages to look (though not sound, thankfully) exactly like Harvey Keitel.

In the end, Mary Queen Of Scots is perhaps too much costume and not enough drama, and the various tensions between countries, relgions and queens are all subsumed into the crucial question of womanhood. Unfortunately, that seems resolved primarily in fashion terms, the movie becomes all costume no drama. Although the execution scene is visually stunning, especially when Mary is stripped of her cloak, a note from history might have been brought it more final drama. Because it took the executioner three strokes of the axe to severe her head completely. Even in dying, Mary was denied her agency.


Mary Queen Of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke
screenplay by Beau Willimon based on the book by John Gay

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

CHARLES MC CARRY: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Charles McCarry, one of the very best spy novelists, is online at the Guardian now; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper sometime soon. It appears pretty much as I wrote it, some time ago, with just brief updating on the books he'd published since then. I particularly recommend The Miernik Dossier, an assured, structurally fascinating debut novel. Tears Of Autumn is a fine novel, which I mentioned whenever I was writing about the fiction of the JFK assassination; I was lucky enough to be able to review some of his later books in various places, The Secret Lovers, with its wonderfully ambiguous title, is one of the very best.

His late return to his Paul Christopher books came with Old Boys, which I reviewed for the Spectator. It's behind a pay wall, but maybe I can resurrect it. It is partly tongue-in-cheek, but great fun.  Christopher's Ghosts was not tongue-in-cheek and had an ending whose final line explained the whole of the Paul Christopher series; a tour de force of a finish (my review is here). I also reviewed The Shanghai Factor, which has another great ending; you can find that review here.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

BETWEEN US (LOGATO): a poem from Italian Sonatas

I've been working a series of small poems, titled Italian Sonatas. This is one of them; they originate in little notes I've discovered in my notebooks and files, from the early Eighties. There is a theme....



Between Us (Logato)

There is nothing
soft, except
the way that night

Escapes your eyes
& drapes itself,
laughing light,

Round the arcs
Of shooting stars
Lost in their flight.






 

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

COLIN KAEPERNICK & THE NFL: THE BUSINESS AND THE GAME

Last week when Colin Kaepernick's collusion suit against the NFL was settled, I wrote about what the settlement meant, and the issues behind it. If you don't subscribe to my Friday Morning Tight End column at Patreon.com, you can now find the column at Arc Digital, here. A quick summary: the settlement has very little to do with knees, and lots to do with owners; note that I wrote it before Robert Kraft took his chauffeur-driven Bentley down to the Orchids Of Asia....

https://arcdigital.media/colin-kaepernick-the-business-and-the-game-37be3626619?sk=03f72df243354388786af77d496c1587

Monday, 25 February 2019

JOE IDE'S IQ

Isaiah Quintabe is a detective, a community problem-solver in the run-down East Long Beach area of LA. He doesn't get paid much, some muffins, a chicken, whatever. But one day his former friend Dodson, a small-time hustler with big-time attitude, brings him a case with a juicy payday: a drug-addled rap star whose life is being threatened, whose entourage contains nothing but suspects, and an attempted murder by a trained giant pit bull who recalls an urban Hound of the Baskervilles.

IQ is not a black Sherlock Holmes, of course: just listen to his lecture about inductive versus deductive logic. But he's as close as it's going to get in Los Angeles, and with Dodson as his even-more-unlikely Dr. Watson, he's soon caught up with a vicious killer for hire who has him firmly in his sights.

If this were simply a Holmes pastiche dressed up for modern LA, this first novel would be nothing memorable but two things make it stand out. First is Joe Ide's deft handling of character and dialogue, which allows the characters space to make the story move, rather than letting it be driven solely by plot. But even more impressive is the way Ide structures the story, taking it back to Isaiah's childhood, the death of his older brother, and his former relationship with Dodson, to fill in not only how he became IQ, but the wider picture of the environment, the hood, and the lives of the people who live there. There is a good analogy with the Holmes stories: part of their enduring charm is the portrayal of the world around Holmes and Watson, and the ways in which they navigate it: Ide had done much the same thing for IQ and his LA.

This is as impressive a first novel as I've encountered in years; which is not a daring thing to say as it was nominated for the Edgar for Best First Novel. I got the same sort of buzz I did when I read Walter Mosley's first, for much the same reasons. Easy and IQ are a nice comparison, though no one is a Mouse. It works because IQ is not a gimmick detective, but because for all his exceptional skills, he is a real character, one smart enough but not quite as worldly as you might think, which allows the rest of the cast to bounce off him. Which, when you think about it, is what Holmes does too. Though Watson is no way as hip as Dodson.

IQ by Joe Ide
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £8.99 ISBN 978147460718 

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

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

FOLLOWING THE FALCON IN MEXICO

After watching John Ford's The Seas Beneath over Christmas (see my essay on it here), I mentioned the Argentine actress Mona Maris, who was one of the most interesting characters in that film, and who, as if by coincidence, turned out to play a part in a Falcon movie I came across, one of the few I had never before seen.

The Falcon In Mexico is one of the Tom Conway Falcons; you'll recall he replaced his brother, George Sanders, when Sanders wanted out of what Saint creator Leslie Charteris called the 'bargain-basement Saint'  series. (I wrote about the best of the series, The Falcon Takes Over, based on Raymond Chandler's Murder My Sweet, here). Sanders' Gay Lawrence was replaced by his brother's Tom Lawrence, and adjustments were made for Conway's lesser talent. It is Conway at his most hapless; RKO wanted to play the Falcon for more laffs than the Saint, and made the most of Conway's trademark double-take,which, especially when women are confusing him at the same time he is being irresistible to them, has to be see to be disbelieved.

The story is actually a fairly complicated parlour mystery, built around the murder of an art dealer in New York, and the disappearance of a new painting by an artist, Humphrey Wade, who is supposed to be dead. Lawrence had been conned into breaking into the gallery by Dolores Ybarra, a young Mexican woman who claimed to have modeled for the painting. Of course Tom now finds himself in the frame, if you'll excuse the expression, for the killing, but he goes on the lam pronto.

The trail takes him to the artist's daughter Mona (played by Martha MacVicar, soon to be renamed Martha Vickers by Warner Bros.) who is haunted, she believes, by her father's ghost, and thence to Mexico, where her father lived and worked (and which enabled RKO to use some of Orson Welles' stock shots from his never-finished Brazilian film, It's All True). There they meet Maris, playing Wade's widow, and her slick new husband Anton, who's in the Falcon's face PDQ. A Wade collector, 'Lucky Diamond' Hughes (perhaps to distinguish him from Howard Hughes?) shows up trying to chase down the stolen 'new' painting. Emory Parnell plays Hughes with a combination of bluster and sneaky greed that is delightful, if a bit embarrassing (check him out in his jammies when The Falcon breaks in on him).

Dolores soon turns up dead, so throw in the local taxi driver (Nestor Paiva), his son, the mysterious hotel clerk (Mary Currier, a kind of B move Bette Davis), cops and Dolores' father and you've got a twisty mystery that Conway struggles to solve.

Maris (second right in the photo right) is again one of the best things about the film; she has more range than most of the actors involved, though her role doesn't necessarily demand it. She gets second-billing, after Conway, and deserves that, perhaps because this was her second Falcon pic; she played in Sanders' second one, A Date With The Falcon, as the exotic femme fatale who involves him with a gang trying to get a formula for artificial diamonds, which coincidentally prevents his marriage to long-term fiance Wendy Barrie, who, for all her pizazz, isn't as interesting as Maris.

Paiva as Manuel, the taxi driver (center in the picture above), does a nice job of insinuating more than the usual Mexican cliches in his role, but the hidden star is MacVicar (left). She seems to be sleepwalking through much of the movie, but then, when the mystery becomes clear, you realise that has been the effect of his haunting--and the closing scenes when he is 'herself' again her vitality jumps off the screen. It is no surprise Warners had things in mind for her, and it was her bad luck to have her part in The Big Sleep reduced when the film was re-edited to emphasize the Bogart-Bacall relationship, following their success in To Have And Have Not. I wrote about that for Crime Time many years ago, perhaps I'll need to revisit the piece myself. In the meantime, this is a fun episode of the Falcon series, helped by the setting and especially by the two actress leads.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

LIAM NEESON AND DEATH WISH: THE ANATOMY OF A CONTROVERSY

In the days of click-bait celebrity journalism, identity-politics opinion, and memory that extends no farther than the last hit of the 'delete' key, it was hard to figure out exactly what it was that actor Liam Neeson had done forty years ago after a 'close friend' had been raped that merited the headlines it generated. The rapist had been a black man, and the tabloids, both printed and virtual, screamed that Neeson had gone out on the streets looking to kill a black man in revenge. And of course the tabloid headlines generated more 'serious' reflection. One opinion piece in Britain's Guardian explained that Neeson confessed to having 'entertained a racist lynching fantasy' and gone 'looking for a black man to murder'.

But what Neesom had actually said was something not so subtly different, and it rang a warning bell in my head, as it should have done for anyone with a passing knowledge of popular film. Neeson told the online newspaper The Independent that he had packed a cosh and gone to black neighbourhoods hoping 'to be approached...that some black bastard would come out of a pub and have a go at me so I could kill him'. So he was a man seeking vengeance for a rape going out and making himself an obvious target so he could exact his revenge? I've seen that movie.

It was called Death Wish, based on the novel of the same name by the recently deceased Brian Garfield, and it starred Charles Bronson and was directed by Michael Winner in 1975, and thus not long before the incident Neeson described. It was a huge hit, and it's not unlikely that the 23 year old Neeson saw it. Bronson plays a Paul Kersey, a New York City architect whose wife is murdered and daughter raped by a gang of intruders (including Jeff Goldblum in his first film appearance). He begins setting himself up as an obvious target for muggers, then kills them.


So rather than seeking out any black man as a revenge victim, Neeson was specifically looking to be attacked, so his venegance might be justified. Obviously, he never acted out those impulses, possibly because his local community was unwilling to provide the requisite bastards to have a go at him, but the whole thing is so close to the plot of Death Wish to suggest he may have been acting out a movie fantasy in his head. Which is still something for which he can indeed still feel ashamed.

But perhaps we should remember that although he was not an actor then, Liam Nesson he is one now, and actors do tend to see the world as an extension of the movies. Let's set some more background here: Neeson gave his interview on a promotional tour for his new movie, Cold Pursuit, in which he plays a snow-plow driver seeking revenge against the drug dealers he thinks murdered his son. The film is a remake of the Norwegian thriller In Order Of Disappearance, and Neeson's casting is rather like Winner's casting of Bronson, because like Bronson, Neeson is best-known for his action hero movies.

In Garfield's original novel, Paul (called Benjamin) is an accountant. The book was originally adapted by screenwriter Wendell Mayes for director Sidney Lumet, the Michaelangelo of New York City's urban decay in the Seventies, and was to star Jack Lemmon. In Garfield's words, the story was that of 'an ordinary guy who descends into madness'. It was meant to recall the adage about digging two graves when you embark on revenge. But when producer Dino DeLaurentis acquired the rights, Lumet backed off the project and Winner (whom Garfield called 'an idiot') was brought on board, along with Bronson, with whom he had a successful working relationship. In Winner's subtle hands, the violence was played with voyeuristic celebration, something perhaps more deserving of apology than Neeson's violent fantasies. Bronson, of course, became an heroic figure. Enough to propel Death Wish to four film sequels, a fifth film based on Garfield's own sequel, Death Sentence, and a 2018 remake starring Bruce Willis, which I have not yet seen because frankly, life is too short.

In his interview, Nesson mentioned his growing up in Northern Ireland, during what are euphemistically called 'The Troubles'. He grew up seeing the urge, the constant demand, for vengeance played out all around him. His film career reflects that, especially the series of Taken movies, in which he avenges himself on kidnappers. Cold Pursuit was getting none of the buzz of a Taken film, and indeed opened to disappointing returns in the US, bringing in the worst box office for any Neeson action film since Darkman in 1990, his introduction to the genre. Which leads to the question of why Neeson felt now was the moment to unroll this forty-year old fantasy tale of revenge?

The original novel was called Death Wish because Paul Benjamin was acting out his own death wish, and Brian Garfield wanted to show his vengeance was leading to his own self-destruction. Winner and Bronson's version was more celebratory of Paul's transformation. And the ambiguity persists.

Was Neeson's a bold confession, aimed at pointing out this futility of revenge? Or was he seeing, as Michael Winner had, a simpler vision, that, as Rap Brown reminded us,'violence is as American as cherry pie', and thus he was using his own life to bolster his standing as an action-hero purveyor of violence? Or was he merely conflating his fantasies with a deeper reality?

The link between films and reality is especially strong in Neeson's own life, where the tragedy of his wife Natasha Richardson's death recalled one his own most moving roles, in the days before he became the Charles Bronson de nos jours, as Ethan Frome. Eschewing cynicism, it would not be unreasonable to believe that Neeson was not simply promoting his latest, that he would feel drawn to unburden himself of a memory of great unpleasantness in order to remind viewers that his characters in films are just that, only movies, and reality is much more cruel. If that be the case, he should be faulted only for not realising that the sins of the past are today grist less for deep reflection than for the internet mill of outrage.

Friday, 25 January 2019

ALAN JUDD'S SHAKESPEARE'S SWORD

Simon Gold is an antiques dealer in a town that must be Rye. He's divorced, and lives with his sister Stephanie, whom he describes with affectionate accuracy as 'simple'. He is perhaps something of an obsessive, which turns out to be crucial quality when he meets Gerald Coombs, looking for a desk, and his wife Charlotte. Stephanie may be simple, but she senses immediately Simon likes Mrs. Coombs, and he is soon invited to dinner, and he soon discovers a rapier used as a poker in Gerald's fireplace, and with his obsessive nature, realises that Shakespeare, in his will, left his sword to one Thomas Combe. Could this be that very, long-lost, sword?

Alan Judd has written a very English version of Double Indemnity, playing on that obsessive quality becomes a central theme in the novel, but being English, Simon's real obsession becomes, not Charlotte Coombs, but Shakespeare's sword. It is as obvious to Simon as it is to the reader where all of this is heading, and how it gets there is as carefully thought out as it is, in retrospect, explained by Simon's narration, and of course what is most English of all is the very modest sense of irony which pervades the story's finish.

Judd maintains this tone throughout, and it gains its timbre from the way you come to join Simon's perspective; it is easy to forget early on that it is his addressing you, but by the end the story has gained its ironic resonance from just that fact and it's deeply-veined Englishness is reinforced by its modest tone. This is Simon Gold, Sussex antiques dealer, not Walter Neff, California insurance salesman.

A nicely worked sort of antique, as if murder were nothing to really get too excited about.

Shakespeare's Sword by Alan Judd
Simon & Schuster £8.99 ISBN 9781471178191

Thursday, 17 January 2019

SOREN SVEISTRUP'S CHESTNUT MAN

A woman's body is found, missing a hand, one morning outside her suburban Copenhagen house; found after her son rose, made himself breakfast, and went to the neighbours when his mother wasn't there to take him to school. The case is assigned to Naia Thulin, single-mother, youngest detective on the homicide squad, and unhappy possessor of a new partner, Mark Hess, recently returned to Denmark by Interpol, for reasons unexplained but which, given his uncooperative personality, she thinks she can understand. But the murder takes on a different importance when the sole clue, a child's chesnut man left near the corpse, gets connected to the disappearance, a year earlier, of Kristine Hartung, the young daughter of Rosa Hartung, a minister in the Danish cabinet. Now, just at the point Rosa is returning to work, Kristine's fingerprints are found on the chestnut man. The only problem is the man who confessed to Kristine's kidnap and murder is serving his sentence in prison.

The intricacy of The Chestnut Man's set-up is built upon masterly in this gripping twisty thriller from Soren Sveistrup, creator and writer of the ground-breaking Danish crime series The Killing. And there are similarities between that show and this, Sveistrup's first novel. Particularly in the close attention paid to the parents of crime victims, but also in the way that few characters are what or who they appear to be, which is the main device for raising suspicion and keeping the plot twisting away.

There are also some of the familiar Scandinavian tropes--an emphasis on children, on early abuse, on the failures of the state to identify or cope with it. There is the relatively ordinariness of political figures, and the way their own bureaucratic battling is mirrored by other situations: familial and also within the police, and the way family and work impinge on each other is mirrored starkly with Thulin's own situation. As the story opens, Thulin's boss, Nylander, is desperate for more detectives: he blames the growth of new departments, like the one battling cyber-crime. His only consolation is the addition of Hess, a cop no one else seems to want; meanwhile he doesn't know that Thulin has already applied for transfer to cyber-crimes.

I was also struck by the familiarity of the chestnut man motif. The Danish non-confrontational equivalent of conkers, the chetnut men are made of twigs and nuts. The idea of leaving them besides the crime recalls other thrillers, say Jo Nesbo's Snowman--and interestingly it was Sveistrup who wrote the screenplay for the film of Nesbo's novel. It's not just Scandinavian: CJ Tudor's Chalk Man, for example, and I suppose you might trace it back Thomas Harris, but in general the more innocently bizarre the killer's signature, the more chilling the killer's crimes.

The strong point of the novel is the relationship between Thulin and Hess, which progresses slowly and with its own twists, but works best because of the strong contrast in their personalities. There is lmost the sense they are presented as character sketches for actors: leaving some bits to be filled in by interpretation: some of the supporting cast are more fully drawn, but less interesting. Sveistrup runs the story well: the plot moves like that of a series, but never creaks nor barely stretches credulity; the guessing game is fair (and I came close, but no chestnut), and there are the by-now requisite multiple conclusions, which in this case grow progressively more upbeat until the final one appears to set the stage for a sequel. Which ought to be worth waiting for.

The Chestnut Man by Soren Sveistrup
Michael Joseph, £12.99  ISBN 0780241372104

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

Friday, 11 January 2019

LOVIN' MOLLY AND LEAVING CHEYENNE, REVISITED

I reckon that I first saw Lovin' Molly probably in 1974 or 75, but maybe a bit later. I might find the exact date if I look though my old notebooks, wherever they are. I do know that I had already read Larry McMurtry's novel Leaving Cheyenne, on which it is based, before I saw the movie.

The story is a sort of West Texas Jules and Jim. Gid Frye (Anthony Perkins) is a stiffly upright young man, working on the ranch owned by his demanding father (Edward Binns). He and his best friend Johnny McCloud (Beau Bridges) are both in love with free-spirited Molly Parker, who loves them both. The novel is told in three sections, twenty years apart, each narrated from a different character's point of view: Gid in 1925, Molly in 1945 and Johnny in 1964.

Watching the movie again, I could almost feel my first responses to it, which I don't think have changed very much in the 40-whatever years since I saw it, and I also remembered the book even more clearly. The film is touching at its best, awkward at its worst. It never does feel real, never gets the sense of its location. It's too close, too clean, too colourful. Too many interiors where you don't sense the feeling such a romantic tale should lead to.There are a few shots to show Molly's beauty, and one or two where director Sidney Lumet does manage to engage with the wider landscape: there's one where the now-ill father looks out over his land and commiserates with Gid over Molly's marriage to a third boy, Eddie. 'A woman's love is like the morning dew; it's just as apt to land on a horse turd as a rose'. I remembered that line verbatim from the novel.

Which is the other big shortcoming: the drive of the movie comes from the characters, and from their dialogue, and all of that comes from the book. But the movie itself doesn't really manage to set up or build to its key points, its biggest conflicts and its most important actions are almost throwaways, or else telegraphed and then dismissed quickly. That seems to me to be a lack of feeling for story-telling from the screenwriter/producer Stephen Friedman, who also produced The Last Picture Show, the second hit movie made from a McMurtry novel (the first was Hud, from the novel Horseman, Pass By). The next hit wouldn't be until Lonesome Dove. The screenplay really works only when they are speaking, and the many forshadowings and mirrorings are lost in the shuffle. And I do think it would have been better to have called the movie Leaving Cheyenne. Or at least Loving Molly. Note McMurtry didn't feel the need to drop the final g in the novel's title, and replace it with an apostrophe, which the film makers did in a Hollywood way that seems very condescending. if only to get the song from which the title comes into the film to help explain what it is doing. Because as much as it is a film about love, it is more a film about life, or rather death: there are five deaths in the story, and as always love and death set the courses of our lives.

The casting doesn't quite work, though it tries to. The first story is the longest section, and because the ages are right works best. Anthony Perkins young is less jarring than I felt when I first saw it: he works hard, literally, on the farm and in some ways seems more real than Beau Bridges, who never seems to get dirty as a cowboy ought to. I remember being captivated by Blythe Danner's performance as the young Molly then, and maybe not as much now, though she's still more fun than Gwyneth Paltrow. Twenty years on, Perkins is a bit too rigid, Danner's still OK, but Bridges seems to be in his own character. Neither of the males ages very well: they try the creaky walk without success, and Danner's 1964 is heavily made-up. I also had forgotten that Susan Sarandon was in the film; her role is small but crucial, as the woman Gid marries, who proceeds to fulfill his father's warnings about marriage. 

But it's a tribute to McMurtry's writing that enough of this story remains to make the whole think work, and make it moving. Or movin'. I suspect modern audiences might feel ambivalent about Molly's sort of 'premature' feminism, but it rings more real than that of, say, Fried Green Tomatoes. And it speaks more clearly within its Texas setting, which is what is lost in the filming, that sort of dry-sand Baptist community in which the rules are set for some.

I recalled the film's end verbatim, because it was again taken verbatim from the book, as Johnny thinks back to the first scene which Gid had narrated, and recalls it from his point of view, and regrets just two things: not seeing Gid's face when he surprised the two of them, and not having a Kodak to take a picture of Molly's face as she waited on the school house steps. Such regrets are what we all have, and in his way Johnny is lucky to have so few. It occurs to me that I am just about as far removed from my original viewing of the movie as Johnny is from his remembrance of that election day when he and Molly met at the polling station early. In my own narration, like Johnny's some forty years later, I find that the film, though not as moving as the book, touches via memory some of those very regrets from the first time I saw it, and those from the years that have passed since I did.

Now, when I die Take my saddle from the wall
Put it on the pony Lead him out of his stall
Ride her out, Old Paint, I'm leaving Cheyenne
And goodbye Old Paint, I'm leaving Cheyenne

NFL BLACK MONDAY & THE TERRIBLE 20: MY PATREON ROUND UP


Alongside picking the Wild Card weekend last week on my Patreon site, I also wrote the following essay recapping the seasons of each of the 20 teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs, and getting a headstart on the coaching carousel. Later today I will be posting a very long column at Patreon, analysing the coaching changes so far, addressing the question of racism, predicting who might get the two jobs still open, and of course giving a run down and making my picks of all four Divisional Round games. If you'd like to get current, you can subscribe at patreon.com/mikecarlsonfmte and get more background essays as well as picks of the season's final three games, including the Super Bowl. So here's last Friday's first post:


Black Monday is when the guillotine blade falls for coaches, and one-quarter (ie, eight) of the NFL's jobs seem to change each year. The main point being, not improvement, but blame. If you want improvement, you might make a move like the Browns did in midseason: a risk, but one that worked (and note they identified the offensive coordinator as part of the problem and fired him too) or maybe like the Packers did, which didn't improve anything but signalled something. I don't know what. Aaron Rodgers didn't look any more unhappy. It occurs to me that many of the same things being said about Ben Rothliesberger in Pittsburgh might well be said about AR.

But Black Monday really ought to be rebranded as Blame Monday. When I look at the six head coaches fired Monday, I don't see any whose performance screams 'this is not fair', except perhaps Steve Wilks in Arizona, who probably deserved another year with Byron Leftwich in the hope Steve Keim could put some talent around Josh Rosen. And that is the nub of the problem, because when I look at those six teams I see six who could have and should have fired their GMs before even considering what to do about the coaches. Only one, Miami, actually did, letting Mike Tannenbaum go and promoting Chris Grier, son of ex-New England personnel guy Bobby, but the problem in Miami is that owner Steve Ross is the interfering type, and wants a GM who can be influenced. Which is why Miami is what they are (as with all these points, see below).

If you can give me a reason why Keim, Jason Licht or Mike McCagnan should still be making decisions for a football team, please do. Obviously John Elway is safe in Denver for Elway reasons, and Mike or Paul Brown is safe in Cincinnati for Brown reasons, but unless those three guys were actually ceding personnel decisions to their fired coaches, which we all know they weren't, why are they still getting to choose another coach. Or hire consultants, as Licht did, to choose one.

I would add two more GMs to that list, Bruce Allen in Washington and Dave Caldwell in Jacksonville (or is it Tom Coughlin? Or is that the problem). Allen's locked to the Dan, but Jacksonville's problems are endemic, and 2017's season now looks like an outlier (and after all, was only 10-6 plus a 2 game playoff run). But let's start our rundown of non-playoff teams with the team that reminds me of Graig Nettles famous quote about the Bronx Zoo Yankees: 'when I was a kid I wanted to either play baseball or join the circus. With the Yankees I got to do both'.

Pittsburgh (9-6-1): Professor Tomlin's Fun Bunch strikes again! The Steelers by all rights should be in the playoffs—many people, including myself, had them as pre-season Super Bowl contenders, but the Killer Bs were struck by whatever it is that's decimating the bee population around the world. For all that James Connor gained the yardage LeVeon Bell might have, he wore down as the season progressed (think Jalen Samuels might have got just a few carries earlier in the year, Mike?) and of course Antonio Brown's hissy fit when he couldn't wear JuJu's MVP tutu kept him out of the season's last game. Which turned out to be academic but had the Browns won in Baltimore we would have enjoyed the soap opera around whether AB would play in the Card round. Which I think he would have: he's a prima donna but he's OUR prima donna being the Professor's thinking. Here's the thing though: Tomlin's approach means he has not backed himself into any corners with AB: Pittsburgh can't afford to release or even trade him ($21m plus cap hits for two years) so they need to take a Boston Red Sox/Manny Ramirez approach: “that's just AB being AB” because the bed is made and AB is fully tucked in.

Tennessee (9-7): Crossroads for rookie coach Mike Vrabel, who could go the Jeff Fisher/Mike Mularkey/Ken Whisenhunt perpetual near .500 contender route, or perhaps build on the team's success this year. They were better defensively than I expected: Romeo Crennel did a nice job with a talented bunch, but offensively they will have decisions to make re Marcus Mariota, and it was odd how few big plays they got from Dion Lewis, which shows yet again the way the Pats scheme to get the best out of their parts, and why they are almost always willing to let them go.

Minnesota (8-7-1): Changing offensive coordinators was a short-term fix, but the emphasis on the run didn't help the pass game get better; in fact it seemed as if the ways DiFillippo schemed Thielen and Diggs open disappeared quickly, and the Vikes became easier to defend. Mike Zimmer's D hit a wall late in the season as well: if you can deal with his rush packages, you can beat them too easily. Their loss at home to Chicago was disappointing, more for the way their offense ground to a halt than anything else. Was Kirk Cousins THAT much better than Case Keenum? In some ways, yes, but they are going to need to rethink their offense in the off-season. It's worth noting here that the six highest-paid QBs in the NFL were Aaron Rodgers ($33.5m), Matt Ryan ($30m) Kirk Cousins ($28m) Jimmy G ($27.5m) Matt Stafford ($27m) and Derek Carr ($25). None of them are playing any more this year. This tells you two things. One: a starter playing well during his rookie QB salary capped contract is the most valuable commodity in the NFL and two: Cousins needed to throw for more than 131 yards last week.

Cleveland (7-8-1): FIRED (MID-SEASON) HUE JACKSON If every firing were so straight-forward, every team would do it every year they were losing. It's hard to say whether interim coach and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was the reason for the turnaround, because the defense played well all season, but the offense, minus Hue and Todd Haley, blossomed under Freddie Kitchens, with Nick Chubb and Baker Mayfield both blossoming. This creates a dilemma for the Browns: Williams' track record as a head coach is disappointing, while Kitchens has never been a head at any level. A lot of people will want to take over here, because the talent level is so good, and I think bringing in any offensive-minded coach (eg: Mike McCarthy) over Kitchens would be a mistake. I doubt Williams would stay on as DC if they hire a more neutral type (Jim Caldwell is being considered) but on paper at least, if Williams stayed, that would be the best idea—though in reality chemistry is a fragile science.

Landover DC Beltway Bandits (7-9): Jay Gruden did a pretty good job considering Josh Johnson is no Colin Kaepernick. The Skins seemed to be the most injured team in the league, yet their offense held together, and their defense played hard despite a questionable secondary, and of course the late-season release of DJ Swearinger—though you don't hear anyone complaining about a culture of indiscipline under Gruden minor. As I said above, it's Bruce Allen who ought to carry the can for the depth-free Skins, although he gets some points for a defensive line built in the past couple of drafts. I tried to understand the Alex Smith signing, but was he really any more effective than Josh Johnson Off The Street, and will they try to keep Johnson away from the San Diego Fleet next month? Or will they let him go and do the Right Thing and sign Colin Kaepernick?

Atlanta (7-9): The blame fell on the assistants, which is the other way out I didn't discuss at the start. I expected Steve Sarkisian to be fired; despite the idea that Calvin Ridley had helped solve their red zone problems early in the year, they were never as consistent as they ought to be, and Tevin Coleman was not able to be the every down back he had to be with Devonta Freeman's injuries. Marquand Manuel getting the chop was more of a surprise, as he goes back to Seattle days with Dan Quinn, and frankly, their D played no better or worse than in past years, which, considering the injuries was a positive. Sometimes it's not the quantity of but the quality: losing Deion Jones and Keanu Neal early was a blow Atlanta never seemed to recover from, though Damonte Kazee, drafted as a slot corner, proved effective as a strong safety.

Miami (7-9): FIRED: ADAM GASE Who do you choose, Tannehill or Tannenbaum? Or neither. You could try to argue that when Tannehill was healthy, Gase's teams were competitive, and with Brock Osweiler they weren't, and you can also argue Tannenbaum had a penchant for  older over-paid stars who couldn't be coached into a couple more years of excellence because Bill Parcells or Rex Ryan wasn't coaching them. Which is why it seems Rex Ryan even though Tannenbaum is gone. And Rex got to the playoffs with Mark Butt Fumble. Remember it was Rex's father who said “"QBs are overpaid, overrated, pompous bastards and must be punished." What did Ryan Tannehill ever do to him?

Carolina (7-9): What looked like a Norvgasmic offense at the start of year floundered on Cam Newton's injured shoulder and the seemingly perennial problem of finding receivers.  Devin Funchess again under-achieved, though DJ Moore is a keeper for next year, though next year Greg Olson is not going to be back. They have decisions to make with injured/aging defensive stars like Thomas Davis, Julius Peppers, Luke Keuchley and Dontari Poe, as well as center Ryan Kalil for years their best and sometimes only decent O lineman. GM Marty Hurney's second draft should be a challenge. Christian McCaffrey had a hell of a year though, considering he was the only weapon teams needed to account for the second half of the year.

Green Bay (6-9-1): FIRED (MID-SEASON) MIKE MC CARTHY: Joe Philbin sure made a big difference. I think they need to let Aaron Rodgers decide whose offense he wants to play in, which would appear to be Josh McDaniels', but I kinda doubt JMcD is going anywhere, unless Bill Belichick tells him he has no plans to retire anytime soon, or Tom Brady says he does. The Packers, small-market as they are, and again being lumbered with the pre-Reggie White tag of not being a place urban free agents want to go, ought still to be a welcoming destination for a coach, especially with Rodgers in place. If Rodgers wants a QB innovator they could look at Kliff Kingsbury (who's barely older than AR), or maybe Baylor's Matt Ruhle, though being a great recruiter for a second-tier program, as Ruhle was at Temple as well, may be too close a match. He also isn't an offensive guru, being a defensive coach and an O line coach for a year under Tom Coughlin. Maybe Rodgers will consider Adam Gase, whose rep as a 'QB Whisperer' is based around a year of 'coaching' a good season out of Peyton Manning. Gase is like the Bill O'Brien of the other 44 states.

Detroit (6-10): I predicted the firing of Jim Bob Cooter a couple of weeks ago, because this year the short-pass game seemed to regress as if Matt Stafford pulled his head back into Cooter's shell. With Carro-On Johnson injured, you'd think they'd try to open things up, but of course trading Golden Tate made the pass game one dimensional, as he was their best short receiver. I suspect Matt Patricia will grab some ex-Pat offensive guy looking to take better advantage of Stafford's arm; I wouldn't be surprised if they draft or sign a slot receiver. The upside, the ceiling of all this, of course, is perpetual Tennessee Titanism. Fun Fact: the Lions went 9-7 under Jim Caldwell in 2017.

Denver (6-10): FIRED: VANCE JOSEPH: John Elway wasn't going to fire himself and no one else was either. He hired Joseph to be what Tom Boswell in a baseball context called a 'Peerless Leader' type: the square-jawed leader of men. Boswell said that archetype often stand firm while chaos swirls around them, doing nothing about it, which kind of describes Joseph's game management, but it's very hard to think that if he had just been a tougher ramrod Denver's season would have been much better. It was Elway who decided Case Keenum was the answer, and though he had an impressive draft (and landed Philip Lindsay undrafted, which I cheered) they seem to build their D as if a Manning were going to be building big leads, or a couple of ace rushers would do the job, when their secondary was a key to Von Miller's success. How Chris Harris comes back from injury is a big question, but the idea they are interviewing defensive guys like Vic Fangio and Chuck Pagano tells you something.

Buffalo (6-10): The Bills were sort of like Carolina lite, except Josh Allen isn't the passer Cam Newton was, and they don't have a Christian McCaffrey, but their receivers are a similar mismash and Brian Daboll may not have jumped onto that bandwagon. Defensively they were tough all year, but the Pats' ability to push them around and run on them was a revelation late. I'm not sure Sean McDermott has a long term plan for getting better, and I'd predict he gets closer to a hot seat next season.

Cincinnati (6-10): FIRED: MARVIN LEWIS The idea that Hue Jackson might be next in line for the job is funny. Lewis went 16 season with the Bengals, ended with a winning record, the most wins in team history, and an 0-7 playoff mark. His teams were stocked with behavioural problems and character issues, but he avoided for the most part the Tomlin-out of control label in large part because everyone knew the Brown family were signing these guys with character issues because they were good value risks. One thing to remember, if you're a GM (or a coach, who should be given a sign-off on such moves) when you draft a guy with issues, you can't be surprised when he has issues, and if you don't know how to control them, you shouldn't be paying him the big bucks. I'm talking about you, Giants, not just the Steelers. Remember when the Pats brought in problem children like Corey Dillon (Bengals) or Rodney Harrison? Or Randy Moss, who had the huge season and then was dropped when the shine wore off? Vance Joseph, the peerless leader of Denver, appeals to the Bengals but I wonder if Eric Bienamy, latest Andy Reid assistant to get in the spotlight, might get a job here: he played in Cincinnati, and he's a strong players-type coach, not an offensive innovator. But the Bengals mediocrity is almost endemic: I trace it back to the Carson Palmer situation, when they were a team trying to compete with the Colts and let their best hope of doing so simply leave.

YOUR (?) Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11): The Jags put the blame on Nathaniel Hackett and fired him during the season. They were 3-8, with seven straight losses, and went 2-3 the rest of the year, with Todd Milanovich calling the plays and Cody Kessler starting at QB. Who thought that was a good idea? In those five games the Jags scored two touchdowns, one a Dede Westbrook punt return and the other a Leonard Fournette one yard run. Putting less than 10 points per game on the board means your defense has to be better than the Bears 85 or Ravens 2000 or Bucs 2002 if you are going to win. Yes Blake Bortles was bad, but who thought Cody Kessler gave them a better chance of winning? Who thought so after one week?

But the moment that may wind up defining the Jags 2018 season was Leonard Fournette, injured, and TJ Yeldon, in uniform, sitting together chatting on the bench for the whole of the their loss to Houston. How much did they have to talk about? Tom Coughlin vented about it afterwards (maybe someone might have broken up the gab fest by, maybe, playing Yeldon?) and in the best traditions of Coughlin and NFL punishment, Yeldon is certainly not coming back. Fournette has had guarantees in his contract voided for 2019, which means he might be on the trading block, as if Carlos Hyde were the Future in Florida. Remember, the Jags led the NFL in rushing in 2017, playing Tom Coughlin run the ball and play D football, so it's a little surprising Tyrone Wheatley, the RB coach and Pat Flaherty the line coach brought in this year to improve pass-blocking in particular, were both fired. Fournette's injury-pagued season certainly had a lot to do with their ills, but an inability to get good QB play had a lot more (and even in that famous Super Bowl win over the Pats in week two Bortles' scrambling and yards after the catch on throws were the key factors).

And the Sacksonville D of 2017 was very good, but its quality was exaggerated in retrospect. Turnover luck was a factor, and big sack totals in a couple of games against teams with bad O lines and/or QBs was another factor. Penalty luck came into it too, as it usually does against teams which play aggressive press-man coverage with corners, and hang-on coverage by linebackers.  Perry Fewell, another ex-Coughlin assistant brought in to work with the DBs, was also fired; as I said above, the Jags' D had nowhere to go but down, and you can look at indiscipline there, as Tony Boselli did every week on Gnat and my's Talksport radio coverage, but really? If discipline is your worry, do you fire the position coaches? The Jags may be the best example in this whole sorry catalgoue of blame dodging: the three men responsible for building the roster, for choosing the players, for setting the tone, for planning the games, the three men at the cutting edge of this 5-11 season have jettisoned almost everyone beneath them. Is this the British army in World War I? Send the soldiers over the top into withering fire, and execute for cowardice the few officers who survive.

New Jersey Giants (5-11): Say, didn't you used to be Odell Beckham? The Giants thought they were a couple of pieces (Saquon Barkley, Nate Solder, Will Hernandez) away from a playoff run. Great as Barkley was, do you wonder if moving on at QB might have been a better move? The G men were competitive in many games, like the meaningless season finale against the Cowboys, though they couldn't close games out. Maybe Beckham makes a difference, and Eli is better with defenses playing the deep threat. Maybe a team with a great running back (with 88 catches, a rookie RB record for whatever that is worth) learns how to protect a lead? Maybe their D springs back to life? Maybe Pat Shurmer puts it all together. The Giants like to believe in maybes.

Tampa Bay (5-11): FIRED DIRK KOETTER: Koetter is another guy whose firing is hard to argue against, as he's had his chances, and he fired his former mentor Mike Smith as DC, not that it made a difference. But GM Jason Licht is the guy who traded up in the 2016 draft to take a kicker (!) Roberto Aguayo (!) who was out of the league quicker than Ryan  Leaf (while Kevin Byard, Yannick Ngakoue, James Bradberry et al were still on the board. Licht announced he was hiring a headhunter company to help in the search for a new head coach; are you kidding me? Koetter ought to be in demand as an OC somewhere, or maybe an HC back in college; I wonder if Todd Monken helped himself with the early season success with Fitzy; after that bubble burst Jameis Winston had arguably his best year.

Santa Clara 49ers (4-12): Monken was Nick Mullens' coach for a couple of years at Southern Mississippi, which is interesting to me, though irrelevant to the Niners, who could be good with Jimmy G back next year (no knock no Knick Mullens, who will be valuable as a really low-cost backup but might also bring a decent draft pick if they deal him now while his stock is high). The Niners have pieces to build around, the core of a good defensive front, and can improve their roster. Arrow is probably pointing up for them.

Raiders Formerly Known As Oakland (4-12): John Gruden's strategy this season seemed to be to make the team look worse than the one he took over was, in order to make what he hopes will be his improvements look even better. With Reggie McKenzie squeezed out, hiring Mike Mayock as GM isn't as silly a move as it seems: Gruden will be making the decisions and what he needs is a scout, and of the media guys Mayock is one of the best. Of course note I said of the media guys. They have cap room, they have draft picks, they have Jordy Nelson resigned for another year, and they don't have a place to play. Do you really think London would flock to eight games from this outfit? On the plus side, they could use Walter Raleigh as a Raider mascot.

Newark Airport Jets (4-12): FIRED TODD BOWLES Bowles had four years to succeed with the Jest, but how GM Mike McCagnan keeps his job is beyond me. I said before the season that hiring Jeremy Bates as offensive coordinator wasn't the best thing, and despite promising play from Sam Darnold, their offense was never consistent. Not that their defense, Bowles erstwhile speciality was either. But this situation might be a perfect one for Adam Gase to walk into, though I am not convinced he instantly creates a top offense here.  I do like the idea of AFC East coaches rotating around, as they always seem to (even Belichick came to NE from the Jest) to provide familiar fodder for the Pats inevitable stroll to the division title.

Arizona (3-13): FIRED STEVE WILKS: This is harsh after one season, with an injury-ridden club who have allowed themselves to be bled of talent, especially on defense, and who thought that Sam Bradford was the answer. Firing Mike McCoy and letting Byron Leftwich take over as OC was a bold move that had a good immediate effect, and it might have been worth giving Wilks another season to let that play out with Josh Rosen. GM Steve Keim has restocked the defense to a decent level, though not what it might have been, and he ignored a number of needs. Rosen may pan out, Christian Kirk was a good pick, and you might question some of the play-calling. But the lack of talent probably isn't Wilks' fault, and he shouldn't have been the one to pay the price. Rosen may want to apply for hazardous duty pay if he thinks Keim is going to build an offense around him.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

BREXIT, TRUMP, AND HISTORY'S HAND: MY ARC DIGITAL ESSAY

I've written a piece for Arc Digital on Brexit from the point of view of a dual national American living here in Britain, and lamenting my inability to look with schadenfreude at my adopted country from the point of view of an American, because when I look at America from the point of view of a Brit (or even an expat Yank) I see something just as horrific.

I should point out that schadenfreude, and indeed angst, with which I end the essay, are both German words happily emigrated into the English vocabulary, and neither is likely to be invited to leave the OED if and when we cut our ties with the EU.

In fairness, the piece wound up being less about my own personal dilemmae, and more about a history of Brexit for Yanks and others who remain unaware of it, and a pointing out some parallels between the world of Brexit and the world of Trump. You can link to it (Arcdigi publish on Medium) right here. Many thanks to editors Bonny Brooks (who suggested the topic) and Berny Belvedere.