Sunday, 24 July 2016

JAMES CARLOS BLAKE'S RULES OF WOLFE

The Rules Of Wolfe is billed as a 'border noir' and it may well be just that. Eddie Gato Wolfe is 19. He's part of a clan of criminals whose legacy stretches back generations and across the Texas-Mexico border. But the family rules say Eddie can't join the real action in the family business until he's finished college, and college is not on his agenda. So Eddie disappears, and resurfaces in the middle of the Mexican desert, guarding the weekend getaway of 'The Boss', 'La Navaja'. The work is dull, and once again, there are rules. But Eddie isn't one for rules.

So when he eyes one of the women who arrives for the weekend soiree, Miranda, who's La Navaja's brother Segundo's squeeze, he ought to know, and we certainly do know, that doing anything about it will lead to trouble. But he does, and she does, and it does lead to trouble and next thing we know Eddie and Miranda are on the run, heading across the desert for the border, with all the resources of La Navaja's organisation mobilized against them. Eddie needs help, but contacting his brothers Rudy and Frank would not only be humiliating, it might alert La Navaja about where he is.

I reviewed James Carlos Blake's first novel The Pistoleer, about John Wesley Hardin, twenty years ago. His shifting narrators have a particular resonance which reminded you of how gunfighters moved into myth. I have followed him consistently since, and frequently been hugely impressed; not least with The Killings Of Stanley Ketchel, which has joined my list of best boxing novels ever.

Blake writes about outlaws, and their struggles to survive in America--with this he's added Mexico to the mix as well, with the country on the other side of Donald Trump's wall serving as a kind of wild wild west surrogate. On the surface, The Rules Of Wolfe isn't a complicated novel, basically a classic man on the run story, but the structure is actually quite neatly built--switching between the Wolfe family in Texas and their own problems, and Eddie Gato, and eventually managing to bring the two together.

Wolfe writes cleanly, which keeps the pace moving, and he is a master of that laconic kind of American voice that goes back before Hemingway into the western. It's a modern sort of western he's written here, and it's a rewarding read.

The Rules Of Wolfe by James Lee Burke
No Exit Press, £8.99, ISBN 9781843444084

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

Thursday, 21 July 2016

TIM WEAVER: THE 'MISSING' INTERVIEW

Tim Weaver's novels about missing persons investigator David Raker have been best-sellers and Richard&Judy selections. In his spare time he has also presented the Missing podcast, discussing with professionals the ways in which people disappear and how they are tracked down.

I made a guest-appearance on Missing to turn the tables on Tim, and interview him about the genesis of the podcast, some famous unsolved missing persons cases, how his fiction and the facts he discusses on the podcast are intertwined, and of course, about his new novel, Broken Heart. It was a great discussion, and I think that comes across when you listen to it.

Here's the link. You can click or go to:  https://soundcloud.com/missing-189443436. It's episode 9. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

GEORGIA ON HIS MIND: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz

One of the topics much discussed in reaction to the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern has been the nature of her relationship with Alfred Steiglitz. Almost twenty years ago, the Metropolitan Museum in New York staged an exhibition of Steiglitz's photographs of O'Keeffe, itself an expansion of another show nearly 20 years before that, which revealed much about that relationship. Every couple of decades, it would seem, O'Keeffe herself and the influence of Steiglitz have to be re-evaluated. This was what I saw twenty years ago, originally written for the FT, but held until the exhibition in New York had already finished, then spiked.

AN ALMOST VIOLENT PURITY OF SPIRIT
Georgia O'Keeffe portraits by Alfred Steiglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings have become commercial icons. Animal skulls dried by the desert, adobe chapels, lush sexual flowers, tall thrusting cityscapes, all part of an instantly recognisable and popular style. O’Keeffe herself has become part of that iconography, just as recognisable. Her face, with its strong sharp features, piercing intelligence, and deep eyes, echoes the visual images of her work. Yet, as this exhibition shows, that image is itself a work of art, a construct that arose from the unlikely artistic partnership of one of the major figures of modernism in America with an unknown student. Over the next thirty years, it would produce nearly 400 prints.

In 1916 Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery was the centre of modern art in America. His journal Camera Work was almost single-handedly turning photography into an art form. O’Keeffe was a 28 year-old unsuccessful artist who had taught in South Carolina and Texas and was now taking classes at Columbia. A friend had passed O’Keeffe’s drawings on to Sieglitz because she knew how much she admired him and his immediate reaction was “at last, a woman on paper!” He exhibited the drawings at 291, getting the state wrong as he billed her as “Virginia O’Keeffe”, but overwhelming with his understanding of her art O’Keeffe’s protestations at being taken up by him. And by his understanding of her art's impact. The gallery which had introduced America to Brancusi, John Marin and Marsden Hartley was now causing a bigger stir. The powerful erotic energy which Stieglitz recognised in O’Keffee’s abstract drawings disturbed many of New York’s critics, even those in the would-be avant-garde.

Stieglitz was keen to introduce women into the modernist movement (Camera Work gave Gertrude Stein her first appearance in print), but where on the one hand he was promoting O'Keeffe's work, encouraging her as an artist, on the other he also began using her as a model, and it is difficult to avoid the sense of her romantic, as well as artistic, objectification.

At the beginning, Stieglitz was taken by the abstract possibilities of O’Keeffe’s remarkably strong, sharp features. He is particularly attentive to her hands. Her long fingers both frame other objects to give them a geometric quality, and provide an abstract shape of their own. If modernism was about isolating the pure geometric volume from forms, Stieglitz was already beginning to move past that abstraction with O’Keeffe. But his photos quickly came to reflect the growing intimacy between photographer and subject. The quest for abstract shapes recedes, as Steiglitz becomes more and more fascinated with O’Keefe’s body, its combination of grace and power, of stark angles and edges softened by deep curves: her breasts against her shoulders, her hips balanced by her legs. The same qualities he had originally captured in her hands he would continue to reveal in her face.

The stark force of her face was muted somewhat by O’Keeffe’s wonderfully expressive eyes. This expressiveness turns Steiglitz’s modernism transcendental: he had discovered a human form in nature which could both generate and convey the equivalent of his deepest inner experiences. Original as it seemed to him, he was also recapitulating what O’Keeffe had already made the central aim of her own art.

By 1919-20, the photographs have become more intimate, even obsessive. Abstract nudes give way to extreme sensuality, O’Keeffe setting her hair, squeezing her breasts, displaying her feet. They caused a scandal when exhibited, and even today there is something almost fetishistic about them. The scandal was intensified, no doubt, by the fact that they were living together openly, despite the fact that Stieglitz was married. Eventually, Steiglitz would take these 'scandalous' shots off the market.

After Stieglitz was divorced in 1924, he persuaded O’Keeffe to marry him. She saw no point in the added respectability of marriage, and perhaps predictably, Stieglitz’s camera at this point appears to lose its fire. He begins producing more mundane portraits, as if the very idea of being Mr. and Mrs. Stieglitz were the antithesis of their concept of modernist art and modern life. Reflecting their increasing time apart, the pictures become almost chaste. O’Keeffe began to spend more time travelling, while Stieglitz preferred the familiar environs of New York City and his house upstate on Lake George. Some of his passion transferred to his other major series of prints, shot at Lake George, of abstract shapes from nature, particularly clouds. These correspond with his emotions, in much the same way that parts of O’Keeffe’s body once had, but they never recapitulate the total emotional commitment of his 1920 portraits.

But as their relationship, and his photographs of her, became less intimate, Stieglitz finally began to portray O’Keeffe as an artist, rather than a model. He now seemed more involved with the work than its creator, and he began to reveal the iconic O’Keeffe so familiar to us today. Now the sharp angles of her face, the deep gaze of her eyes, the dynamic power of her body reflect what the artist and poet Marsden Hartley called the “almost violent purity of spirit” in her work.

Although Dorothy Norman took O’Keeffe’s place in the passionate intimacy of Stieglitz’s life, and O’Keeffe began to winter far away in New Mexico, they spent summers together each year at Lake George. By now she was travelling through New Mexico in an A-Model Ford, with the back seat removed and converted into a mobile art studio. Her freedom seems to have fascinated Stieglitz, who photographed O’Keeffe’s hands, once again almost as abstract framing, caressing the wheel-covers of a V-8 car. The triumph of man over the energy of machines is an important part of both their work, but O’Keeffe’s hands give the picture its impact, inserting a human dimension to keep the powerful shape of the machine in its place, in fact, turning it into something to be caressed, if not an item of fashion.

There is a wonderful 1932 portrait of O’Keeffe in a head-scarf, looking out the front window of her car as if auditioning for the Bonnie Parker role in Bonnie And Clyde. As she gets older, her face seems to grow deeper, its angles more involving, stronger and more shadowy at the same time. What is clear from these photos is that a relationship which may have started very much as pupil and teacher, and soon deepened into romance, eventually extended beyond romance into art. After the passion faded, they transcended the bounds of artistic or romantic definition. If Stieglitz’s images of her helped mould our perception of her as an artist, her vision as an artist helped Stieglitz find new means of expression through his camera.

“When I look at the photographs Stieglitz took of me, I wonder who that person is,” O’Keeffe wrote for a 1978 retrospective, some 60 years after those first pictures had been taken. Whoever that person was then, she is now the figure whose features, as captured by Stieglitz, reflect perfectly Marsden Hartley's perception of her work's violent purity.

Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait by Alfred Stieglitz
Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 1997

Exhibition catalogue, expanded from the 1978 edition, published
by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997, ISBN 9780300086102


Monday, 18 July 2016

SOVREIGNITY: BREXIT AND THE MANAGER OF ENGLAND

The other day I read a tweet from the estimable historian Tom Holland, saying 'Yes, David was able to kill Goliath - but he could never have pulled the same trick twice" - Israeli general. To which I replied, 'He could have if Goliath had played for an English manager'. A couple of days earlier I'd written the following essay, but it passed the editors' desks unrequited...


LESSONS 'LEARNED' FROM ENGLAND'S FOOTBALL BREXIT 


Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether sport imitates life or life imitates sport or whether they are both intent on becoming artistic parodies of themselves. The confluence of the United Kingdom's Brexit vote with England's (though not Wales' or indeed Northern Ireland's) abject departure from the European football championship was widely noted. As if not satisfied with this, at virtually the same time new Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Brexit's Field Marshal, Boris Johnson, to be her foreign secretary, the Football Association was asking Sunderland's permission to interview their manager, Sam Allardyce, for the England job.

You can argue Allardyce's relative successes and failures within English football all you like. As it happens I met him last summer, and despite his place in the endless line of Big Rons, Big Mals and Big Eteceteras, Big Sam seemed relatively progressive in his thinking. This may have impressed me, but it will not be the ultimate criterion upon which his appointment will be judged. In a stark and not surprising reflection of the late referendum, it is all a question of Englishness.

The argument follows much the same twisted logic of 'sovereignty' that was the rallying cry for Brexit. Paddy Barclay, the Scottish football scribe on the Evening Standard, wrote a column recently rubbishing the idea 'Englishness is not essential' for an England manager. As he put it, 'Germany's successes have been designed by Germans, France's by Frenchmen and Spain's by Spaniards', he wrote. 'So find one'.

I am tempted to interpret that as meaning 'find a German, or a Frenchman, or a Spaniard. But it doesn't, obviously, and therein lies the rub. Paddy listed a number of candidates (Harry Redknapp 'would be fun') including Allardyce. But part of his job description includes 'anyone willing to contemplate an igominious end. Anyone English that is. To be serious: people will look at rugby and reach for the quick fix but, in the long term, principle counts.'

Ignoring his self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, and ignoring also that the long term in international football rarely extends beyond the next major tournament, the question of principle is exactly what drove 52% of voters to Brexit. And as with the referendum, it's important to note that principle is seen through rose-tinted national health spectacles.

In football, England have always ignored the rest of the world to their own great satisfaction. The 1950 loss to the American part-timers (read about it here), perhaps a bigger upset than the loss to Iceland, went ignored at home because basically no one was in Brazil to notice, and the news when it got back to England was so absurd it was dismissed. Not until Hungary thrashed them at Wembley in 1953 did the myth of innate superiority begin to spring recognisable leaks. A World Cup win playing at home in 1966, with Brazil helpfully ushered out of the tourney by the Germans (and an English referee, as any Brazilian will swear) helped resurrect that myth, but the truth is that for the past 20 years, England has been barely more successful in World Cups than, say, the United States.

In fact, a quick fix is exactly what is needed. Eddie Jones, an Aussie, turned England's rugby team around using the same players who had disappointed so gravely at home in the World Cup the previous season. Iceland, lest we forget, were not coached only  by a part-time Icelandic dentist, their other co-manager was a Swede. Xenophobic principle will win England football matches with about as much certainty as would putting the Union jack on their jerseys. The reality is not a question of nationality: England's past choices of foreign managers has been just as underwhelming as their Englishmen. It is a matter of perspective, of a change in perspective, and if history is any guide, that may be, on principle, exactly the most difficult thing for the FA to even contemplate.

Friday, 15 July 2016

THE SELF DESTRUCTION OF THE LABOUR PARTY

I don't care whether youre a Corbynista, Blairite, Millibandito, Blue Labour or whatever. The UK has just gone through the most turbulent three weeks in 70 years. 52% of the country has voted to leave the European Union; the leaders who lied and played the fear card to engineer that triumph have jumped ship; the prime minister who gave the country a referendum as the price of placating his own MPs and holding off a UKIP who gained at Labour's expense, not his, is gone.

There is a new Tory prime minister, chosen by a handful of grandees; there is the most frighteningly ideological & inept cabinet I have seen in my 40 years in Britain; the Labour party has been silent, not even a squeaking opposition, throughout the process, being more concerned with replacing their own leader and marginalising their members who elected him. The media plays their division above all the other problems, but don't blame the media for their biases, they are something you have to live with. Labour achieved power under Tony Blair with a Bill Clintonesque third-way strategy based on Clinton's core precept: where else do they have to go? Thus you focus your appeal on the undecideds, swing voters, independents, marginal seats, and you treat your core voters with a kinder gentler version of the abandonment of a conservative government. Which worked until Labour's tepid response to six years of austerity under the Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition allowed the SNP and UKIP to give those ignored voters alternatives. Tory scare mongering on immigration worked a treat in pushing Labour votes to UKIP in England and letting Tories win parliamentary majority with barely more than 1/3 of vote, but it invited the no vote that won the Brexit referendum.

Labour has been waiting for someone to stand up and marshal the opposition to what was going on--offer the country a viable alternative, help the country make sense of the disaster that is going on. Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader by party members who saw that traditional Labour values and policies were an answer, but, villfied in the press as a nutter and abandoned by many in his party as a, uh, socialist, he was not the leader to marshal the sane part of the country, not the person who could gather opposition and perhaps force a vote of no-confidence once the public schoolboys (and girls) have finished ruining the country they see by right as their playground.

My guess is a figure who was able to do that with any level of articulation and energy might have been chosen Labour leader by acclimation once the dust had settled. If a majority of the parliamentary party and their big donors wanted Corbyn out, the sensible way to do it would be for someone to step up and lead opposition to Tories, not opposition to Corbyn. Filling the gulf of leadership for the country outside Westminster, and indeed outside the party, would make the point self-evident. But who stepped forward? Who presented a vision of anything for the country, anything except a party not led by Corbyn? 

By abrogating their responsibility to the country in a cheap effort to re-establish their control, they have moved Labour closer to a split, and nullified themselves not only as an opposition but as a potential government. The lesson of the Gang Of Four in 1982 was two more election wins for Thatcher, and political wilderness until Nick Clegg's craven deal with Offshore Dave Cameron. Putting self before party, putting party before country, and ignoring the best opportunity to present a united face of sanity in the wake of the past three weeks of chaos was the only sane thing to do, and the opportunity has been pissed away. Like a pack of rabid hyenas they turned on themselves, while a lame sheep strolled past uneaten. Shame on you, Labour.

NOTE: I don't often use this platform for political party broadcasts, but this morning I wrote a quick angry rant on Facebook, & it stayed with me through the day. So I've filled out the thoughts a little, trying hard not to let my despair poke through too far. 

Monday, 11 July 2016

JOE ABERCROMBIE'S SHARP ENDS

Sharp Ends is a collection of short stories from a writer who has become one of my firm favourites since I reviewed Heroes here back in 2011. As promised, I read through the First Law trilogy, and Best Served Cold, set in the same world, and probably should have expressed my admiration of them in print somewhere. Sharp Ends comes as a welcome reminder that Abercrombie is more than just a fine fantasy writer, he is a fine writer.

The collection takes place over a 26 year period, and begins in somewhat familiar territory. Two of the first three tales are effective snapshots of the nature of the two sides in the First Law civil war, 'A Beautiful Bastard' providing a microcosm of the effete stratifications of the Union, and 'The Fool Jobs' featuring Curden Craw amidst the harsh world of the fighters from the North. But the story between those two is something different,'Small Kindnesses' bringing together the skilled thief Shevedieh and Javle, the Lioness of Hoskopp.

Their stories are dotted throughout the collection, as if they were a pair moving through this world without taking sides, and surviving on one's wits and the other's prowess. Their final tale, and the book's penultimate, 'Tough Times All Over', starts some 19 years after their first appearance; Shev remains bewitched by the highly untrustworthy Carcolf, and Javle still hasn't resolved her pursuit by the High Priestess of Thond (her mother, as it turned out in an earlier tale). It's a portmanteau story, as a document gets stolen and re-stolen again and again, but it's both amusing and touching, and very well structured within its fast-paced rollicking. I wouldn't hesitate to nominate it for a CWA short-story Dagger next year.

In Shev, the tricky thief constantly getting herself into predicaments and Javle, the warrior armed with the Father of Swords who rarely over-thinks things, Abercrombie has created a female version of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and I don't make this comparison lightly. Leiber is the one outlier of the great talents of sword & sorcery fiction, and probably the hardest to equal, and Abercrombie has equalled the master here.

I say Leiber is an outlier in sword and sorcery because Robert E Howard spawned many imitators, John Jakes and Karl Edward Wagner being the best. Howard's popularity came off the back of the Tolkein revival in the mid 1960s, and eventually writers would move beyond the lone barbarian format to the more Tolkienian bigger one of whole worlds colliding on a bigger stage. When I wrote about Heroes I compared Abercrombie to the best of those writers, George RR Martin, who needs no further introduction, and Glen Cook whose novels of the Black Company are massively under-appreciated but whose trimmed-down style melds perfectly the bigger scale of kingdoms warring and the tighter focus on the men doing the fighting, the kind of scale that Abercrombie has made his own, with prose lean like Cook's but much more layered. Interestingly, Cook also wrote a series more in the Leiber vein, the hard-boiled sorcery Garrett, PI novels.

But what makes Abercrombie stand out is his range, and that is driven home by the story that follows 'Tough Times All Over' and closes Sharp Ends. 'Made A Monster' is a portrait in exhaustion. Bethod is the most powerful Chieftan in the North, but he's tired of war and dreams of peace, among the Northmen and then perhaps with the Union. First he has to deal with Rattleneck, a rebel chief who has sworn to have Bethod's head. Bethod believes he has leverage; Rattleneck's son has been captured alive, and he can use the boy to win over the father. But he has been captured by Logen Ninefingers, the most fearsome warrior in the North, 'blood-drunk and murder-proud' as one character describes him, and Bethod needs to persuade Ninefingers to give up his captive.

Readers familiar with the First Law series will recognise the characters, but those who are not will understand them immediately. Abercrombie has the ability to create a mood that hangs over the story and the characters, and the beauty of his longer fiction is that he's able to keep doing it in scene after scene regardless of the changes. The story's ending is a surprise, though it seems in retrospect inevitable; it is one of overwhelming sadness. And it picks up added resonance when the reader realises that it is the only story in the book set out of chronological sequence; it occurs just four years after the first one, meaning everything that has followed in this wonderful book has been affected by the tragedy of that final tale, and the title of the book takes on another deeper meaning. It is, like Abercrombie's writing, deceptively simple. It is fine writing, in any genre.

SHARP ENDS by Joe Abercrombie

Orion Books, £18.99 ISBN 9780575104679

Friday, 8 July 2016

NOEL NEILL: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of the wonderful Noel Neill, the Lois Lane I and my generation grew up with, is online at The Guardian now, you can link to it here. But it's been revamped a bit by the paper from what I originally wrote--mostly a kind of reordering--and I think it makes better sense as originally written, so here it is. Phyllis Coates was more classically beautiful than Neill (in fact I saw a number of outlets who used a picture of Coates with George Reeves to illustrate their obits and one that had Neill posed with Kirk Alyn and billed Alyn as Reeves) but Neill had that wonderful combination of pizzaz and vulnerability that made the character work in the context of Saturday serials and the serials' offspring on early 50s TV. You could still see that energy in photos of Neill well into her 80s, making appearances and looking remarkably youthful, energetic, and, as ever, happy. RIP.

NOEL NEILL: THE GREATEST LOIS LANE



There may be some argument about who the best screen Superman was, Christopher Reeve, George Reeves or one of the more recent actors all have their proponents. But there seems an almost universal agreement that Noel Neill, who has died aged 95, was the best of all the actresses who played Lois Lane, the ace reporter who frequently required rescuing by Superman while serving as his love interest, but who ran circles around Superman's alter-ego, Clark Kent, at the Metropolis Daily Planet. Neill played Lane in two movie serials and then in 78 episodes of the hit television series, pitching her somewhere between struggling career girl and screwball comedy, particularly effective in her battles with the fiery editor Perry White (John Hamilton). As Jack Larson, who played cub reporter Jimmy Olsen on the TV show put it, 'she had this wonderful perky touch to Lois Lane, and basically she could do everything in one take.' She was the television show's last surviving member.

Her professionalism came naturally. Neill was born 25 November 1920 in Minneapolis, where her father David was news editor of the Star Tribune. Her mother, LaVere, had been a vaudeville dancer, and Noel began lessons at age four; she attended dance school with the young Andrews Sisters. By the time she was nine she'd made her debut singing on the radio, and while still in high school toured with the Andrews Sisters performing throughout the midwest. Her father would have preferred she pursue journalism; by the time she'd finished high school she'd written for Woman's Wear Daily. But after graduation she and her mother headed for Hollywood, where she got hired by Bing Crosby to sing at his Del Mar Turf Club. She also appeared with Bing's brother Bob's band, but another brother, Larry, became her agent, and landed her a contract with Paramount Pictures. 


She made her film debut, unbilled, in Mad Youth (1940) and got her first billing in a Henry Aldrich comedy Henry and Dizzy two years later. In October 1943 she married make-up artist Harold Lierley, but the marriage was quickly annulled. By that time she'd also become the second-most popular pin up for US servicemen, after only Betty Grable.  Her first substantial part came as the neglected and 'nubile' daughter of a party-girl mother in Are These Our Parents (1944), but despite her popularity with the troops, Paramount confined her to mostly bit parts; you can spot her, uncredited, playing a hatcheck girl in The Blue Dahlia (see below left). She moved to smaller studios, with her most notable role coming in Republic's Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948). But it was a series of seven 'Teen Ager' films she made at Monogram which proved crucial to her career. She played Betty Rogers, a reporter on the high school paper, and producer Sam Katzman remembered that when he recommended her for the role of Lois Lane in Columbia Pictures' 1948 serial Superman, starring Kirk Alyn.

The pair reprised the roles in a serial, Atom Man versus Superman, two years later, but in 1951, when producers put together a feature film as a dry-run for a TV series, Superman was played by George Reeves and Lane by Phyllis Coates. The show was an immediate hit in 1952, but other commitments forced Coates to leave after the first season and Neill took her place, making the part her own. She continued with small parts; oddly, she played bits in back-to-back Oscar winners: An American In Paris (1951) and The Greatest Show On Earth (1952), both times unbilled, sadly. Her last film role was Lawless Rider, released in 1954, but she also appeared in many of the early television programmes which were extensions of the B movie and serial factories, including The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid and Racket Squad. Neill remained with Superman until the show was cancelled in 1958 following Reeves' death, a presumed suicide, at which point she retired. 'I didn't have any great ambition,' she said. 'Basically I'm a beach bum. I was married, we lived near the beach, that was enough for me.'

She had married William Behrens in 1953; they divorced in 1962, and she married Joel Taylor. They would divorce seven years later. She went to work at United Artists' television department, at one point handling Tom Selleck's fan mail. She returned to the screen in Richard Donner's 1978 Superman movie, reunited with Kirk Alyn to play Lois Lane (Margot Kidder)'s parents. She was, of course, unbilled. But fans recognised her and she became a popular presence at film and comic book conventions and fan gatherings. She would also appear, with Jack Larson, in the 1991 TV series Superboy, and as a woman leaving all her money to Superman's nemesis Lex Luthor in Superman Returns (2006).

In 2003 her publicist, Larry Ward, published a biography of Neill called Truth Justice and the American Way. The following year Tom Selleck presented her with a Golden Boot award, for her acting in western films and TV. And in 2010 she was named First Lady of Metropolis, Illinois, and the following year a statue of her was unveiled in the town centre. It pictures her as Lois Lane, the first career woman many youngsters encountered in the Fifties, but one fated to be remembered as one who 'spent most of (my) time bound, gagged and waiting for the bomb to go off.' She died 3 July 2016, after a long illness, in Tuscon, Arizona, and leaves no survivors.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

MICHAEL CIMINO: HEAVEN & HUNTERS, CHINATOWN & SICILY, THUNDERBOLT & LIGHTFOOT

Michael Cimino was eulogised in much the same way he was reviewed during his lifetime, with a double-barrelled critique aimed at both hubris and excess. Americans jumped to dismiss him as Europe's darling who received his just desserts. He was the man who brought down United Artists single-handed, who presided over the greatest financial flop ever, the movie whose failure also signalled the end of the 'movie brat' generation which revolutionised Hollywood in the Sixties and Seventies. He was the director who wasted his promise on Heaven's Gate after the huge success of the 'first' Vietnam movie, The Deer Hunter, the man who lived out a bizarre surgically-altered life in self-imposed exile in France for the twenty years since his last movie took in exactly $21,000 at the U.S. box office. Or about the cost of one day's lunch on Heaven's Gate.

Yet the shorthand conceals some deeper truths. Cimino had the misfortune of having his epitaph already  written, by Stephen Bach's Final Cut, an entertaining book about the profligacy involved in the making of Heaven's Gate, and Cimino played unerringly into the script Bach had written. But Final Cut is a story as much of the death of the studio system due to the abrogation of producing power and control as it is of one director's explosion of self-indulgent ego. Far from being an aberration, Heaven's Gate was part of a continuum in Hollywood; Eric von Stroheim's silent Greed writ large. It exists alongside films like Cleopatra, Ishtar, Gigli and Waterworld, except its expectations and its pretensions were greater than any of those. Especially Gigli. The finished product, when viewed in one of the two-hour 'restored' versions, is an almost-epic western, spoiled by its longeurs: most notably the roller-skating, derivative of John Ford's dancing scenes, but trapped in Cimino's, not the story's, needs. It owes much to Vilmos Zsigmund's cinematography, some of the greatest ever done on westerns. But if Heaven's Gate were part of a continuum of Hollywood Excess, it's also a part of revisionist cycle of westerns broadly about class struggle: Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid; Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller; Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West. All those films, however, foregrounded personal stories, and most of all, Cimino seemed to be absorbing Bernardo Betrolucci's 1900; and Heaven's Gate thus foregrounds the dialectic. That helps explain why European critics adored Heaven's Gate as much as most American critics hated it. That and his insistence on casting the wonderful Isabelle Huppert, for reasons one can easy guess at.

In The Stunt Man, released two years after The Deer Hunter, Peter O'Toole plays Eli Cross, an ego-maniacal director making a World War I movie, whose anti-war 'statement' seems, to its writer, being drowned in farce. He tells his writer, played by Allen Goorwitz, “I know a man who made an anti-war movie, a good one. When it was shown in his home town, army enlistment went up six hundred percent.” Eli Cross might well be describing The Deer Hunter. It won Oscars, it made money, it was loved. After Heaven's Gate it received some re-assessment: Peter Biskind called Cimino our first fascist director, though Pauline Kael had already bestowed that title on Don Siegel after Dirty Harry. Although its most gripping scenes were those in Vietnam, the famous Russian roulette games organised by a sadistic enemy, in a strange inversion of the infamous 'Saigon Execution' photo, The Deer Hunter was one of three movies in 1978 that dealt more with the effects of Vietnam on America. It beat out Coming Home for the Oscars, while Who'll Stop The Rain (aka Dog Soldiers), probably the most acute of the bunch, fell by the wayside. But Cimino's message seemed to be reassuring the faith Americans had in their own myths and dreams; combined with that Forties' war movie sense of racial propaganda in making the Viet Cong sadistic gamblers, The Deer Hunter lent itself to criticism from the left. In that sense, Heaven's Gate might be seen to be exploding the critiques of what Cimino would always insist was his anti-war vision.

At the time though, it seemed like the kind of movie someone who allegedly pretended to be Vietnam vet might make, and was soon contrasted with Oliver Stone, a real Vietnam grunt, and his Platoon. Ironically, Stone and Cimino found their careers intertwined: Cimino had passed on directing Stone's script of Midnight Express; later he wanted to direct Born On The Fourth of July, with Al Pacino in the lead role, but the studios wouldn't go for that. Eventually Stone and Tom Cruise (in his best performance) got it done. Cimino then brought Stone in to write Year Of The Dragon, based on Robert Daley's dense novel of New York City corruption: between Stone, Cimino and star Mickey Rourke it became a troubling tale of one racist's journey to find redemption through the love of an Asian TV reporter. It's Cimino's  Chinatown; Quentin Tarantino adores its drive, especially the final shoot-out between Rourke and John Lone, the Oriental villain. He also admired its only partial coherence; which critics found less appealing; it flopped.

Two years later Cimino filmed Mario Puzo's The Sicilian. Audiences expecting a gangster story got a badly-acted film about pre-Corleone banditti which paled in comparison to its obvious influence, Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano. The film prompted a legal battle over the right to final cut; although Cimino had it written into his contract, in court he tried to hide a letter from producer Dino DiLaurentis which had voided that specific part of the deal.

Following The Sicilian and an ill-fated remake of The Desperate Hours, American critics breathed a sigh of relief, perhaps, that Cimino's long-term project with James Toback (what could possibly go wrong?) and Rourke, about the gangster Frank Costello, never came to fruition, or his version of the Legs Diamond story. He moved to France and wrote a novel. European critics waited for Cimino's versions of Malraux's Mans Fate (fascinating when considered in terms of the controversial treatment of Asians in The Deer Hunter and Year Of The Dragon); or The Fountainhead or Crime and Punishment. Some who've seen the scripts claim they are brilliant and, inevitably, way too long.

Then pictures emerged of Cimino after cosmetic surgery, no longer the pudgy Italian-American but a waif-like Mediterranean, eerily similar to Michael Jackson or athlete Bruce Jenner's transformations. Jenner, of course, has since transitioned to Caitlyn; when rumours of his own sex-change surfaced Cimino denied them forcefully, both at Cannes when the latest final version of Heaven's Gate premiered and last year in a rare interview with the Hollywood Reporter.

But such talk of sexuality ought to be taken in the context of what may be Cimino's finest film, his first, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot. He had helped write Magnum Force, and Clint Eastwood, impressed with the original script of Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, offered him the chance to direct it, with Eastwood and his company Malpaso producing.



It's a taut but offbeat script, directed tightly. It opens with Bridges confessing he may not be 'man enough' because he's got a wooden leg, while a priestly Clint delivers a sermon before turning and running from a hit man. It's part road movie, with incredibly wacky monologues by Bill McKinney and Dub Taylor lighting up the highway, but mostly it's a dissection of the buddy film as romantic comedy. Clint and Jeff Bridges are the eponymous buddies; Bridges (Lightfoot) is a drifter who hooks up with Clint's Thunderbolt, who's being pursued by two ex-partners who believe he ripped them off after their last heist. The plot requires them to make a big score together, and the caper requires Bridges to dress in drag and go to the drive-in movies as Clint's date. This enrages the film's other buddy pair, Leary (George Kennedy) and Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), whose characters are revealed by their names: Leary leering at Bridges with a barely restrained combination of lust and hate alongside generation-gap resentment; Goody (or goodwife, as the Puritans would have it) suffering in silence. Robin Wood famously analysed the cross-cutting of the robbery scene as love-making, climaxing as Bridges removes a pistol from the rear of his woman's panties while Eastwood, having got his 20mm armour-piercing cannon erect, more force than any Magnum, lets it explode into the vault. You may recall similar seduction imagery in the British 'thriller' Sexy Beast many years later.

What a difference control makes. With Clint calling the production shots, T&L was made for $4 million, and returned $25 million. Like many Hollywood wunderkinder, all Cimino may have needed was a producer to do what producers at their best are supposed to do. But few producers are Clint Eastwood. In that 2015 interview Cimino spoke of himself in a way that suggested, in different circumstances, his career might have been far different. 'I'm sort of an accidental filmmaker, you know,' said the art student turned commercial director turned scripter turned director. 'I come to it by accident. I sort of bumped into it. And then the results have been what you've seen, for better or worse'.

Monday, 4 July 2016

DICTE: CRIME REPORTER

Note: There is a little bit of spoiler in the following.Though I haven't mentioned which character needs a kidney transplant and is on dialysis in one episode & then apparently OK in the next. The Danish title of this series is Dicte, but for Channel 4's Walter strand this crime series has been retitled Dicte: Crime Reporter. That makes it sound a bit like a comic strip, or a pulp magazine story, or a B movie series from the Forties. And though that tone is probably pretty accurate, it really ought to have been called Dicte: Angel of Death, or better Dicte: Corpse Magnet, because in just the first three episodes Dicte has discovered a corpse while squatting to pee beside a dumpster; discovered her next-door neighbour hung, and interrupted coffee with her friend Anne to fish a dead baby out of the river. This would be considered suspicious if the cops were to think that Dicte was making stories to enchance her career as a crime reporter.

Actually, a better title might have been Sex and the Danish City, because what we've got here is a kind of cross between The Bridge and Sex And the City, the city in this case being Aarhus, Denmark's very second city, to which Dicte has returned after divorcing her unfaithful husband. The Sex and the City bit is a reference to Dicte's two childhood friends: Anne the single nurse and Ida Marie, the pregnant housewife with the husband absent on business. They chat about men, and sex, and of course find corpses floating in the river when they do.

It reminds me of The Bridge because one of the early charms of that series was the contrast of ethnic stereotypes: the party-loving non-stop shagging Dane (Kim Bodnia) and the Spock-like logical unemotional Swede (Sofia Helin). Someone at DR must have figured Bodnia's Martin Rohde was letting the side down, because in Dicte everybody is shacking up, as they say in Quebec. Dicte has a zipless with the world's sexiest pediatrician; her photographer Bo (Dar Salim, who will be familiar from Borgen) has had one with the receptionist; and when Dicte catches him on the office couch with two women he jokes that together their ages make 44 so that's alright. When Dicte refuses to cooperate with the police her crusty old editor, named Kaiser like some German emperor or someone's dog (and played well by Peter Schroeder) tells her to give Wagner a blowjob to apologise; when she coorperates by handing over Bo's photos, he tells her to buy everyone a drink and do a strip tease to apologise. Dicte's daughter (Emilie Kruse) has found her own boyfriend, only he becomes a suspect in her first case. Everybody's at it, except the quiet police detective Wagner, played by Lars Bergman, who always plays the quiet detective. His partner Bendston (Ditta Ylva Olson) is a lesbian, and he can't keep up with her dates, but he's too busy for it all, plus, like Dicte he's been married and divorced. Too busy, that is, until he meets the heavily pregnant Ida Marie, and it's lust at first sight. Obviously something in the Aarhus air sets the Danish pastry cooking. His partner Bendston (Ditta Ylva Olson) is a lesbian, and he can't keep up with her dates, but he's too busy for it all, plus, like Dicte he's been married and divorced. Too busy, that is, until he meets the heavily pregnant Ida Marie, and it's lust at first sight. Obviously something in the Aarhus air sets the Danish pastry cooking.

Dicte's big difference is her past. She got pregnant when she was 16 but her strict Jehovah's Witness parents forced her to give up her baby. Now she has her daughter, who's quite mature but upset by her parents' divorce, but she's looking for her lost son, and strangely enough, the storylines tend to revolve around parents and children, if not always her specific ones. 

Having said all that, and suspending one's disbelief that Aarhus could join Ystad in becoming the world's second Scandinavian murder capital, Dicte's enjoyable, in large part because Iben Hjejle plays her with fearless abandon. She is dogged, but impulsive. She lacks a certain degree of sophistication, accessorizes like a teenager, and seems to have a pilot light that flicks to full without warning. There's a certain sense of schadenfreude about watching her private life as much as watching her always open the door that shouldn't be opened, or skip on waiting for the help she ought to know she will need. But she's immensely likeable, and the audience is surely rooting for her slimy ex-husband (the shrink) to become one of the victims-next-door sooner or later, especially after he starts sleeping with her friend Anne. Dicte's part Mrs Marple and part Hildy Johnson, but she's all Dane. Which apparently keeps one very busy.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

'NO TREES?' HE SAID (a poem)

I wrote this originally in April 1982, after a walk through the woods in Wiesbaden, Germany. I brought it back to London and rewrote it listening to Eberhard Weber, and changed the title from April Walk to 'No Trees?' He  Said, which is one of the cuts on his album Little Movements. The poem seemed to pick up darkness from the music; also the album cover seemed appropriate. I've changed it a little bit in the past few months, which may reflect the 34 years or may not. I believe this is the first time it has appeared in public.



'NO TREES?' HE SAID      
                                                   for Ulrike, after Eberhard Weber

Tomorrow we will find
ourselves walking inside
of our cities again.

Today, moving slowly
through the shadows
of trees we remember

too much. There is no
future, you say. The day
is only itself, I say. We

follow muddy trails toward
a sunset our footsteps
tangled amidst the leaves

disappearing, in between
the trees the sunlight
captures us, holds us

closely, while we're still
walking out of the forest,
as if it cannot let us go.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

ALAN FURST'S HERO IN FRANCE

It's Paris, 1941. Half of France is occupied by the Germans, the other half is run by Petain's Vichy government. The Resistance is starting to take shape, and Mathieu (his nom de guerre) is the lynch-pin of a group that smuggles downed flyers back to Britain. It's Alan Furst territory. 

A Hero In France (oddly, the book was published as A Hero Of France in the US, and changed for the UK. I prefer that title because it speaks of La Patrie in a specific suggestive way) is somewhat different from Alan Furst's novels, which specialised in slow-building, atmospheric stories. This time, almost a reflection of the fragmented nature of this resistance operation, it's a fragmented story, one that cuts quickly between locations and operations. The atmosphere is set in broader strokes, because the pace is faster and the swirling cast of characters come and go—we learn about them quickly and briefly, and we, like Mathieu himself in many instances, don't know who can be trusted and who cannot. The reader is aware of the possibility of betrayal, but many of the side stories remain unresolved: an old flame of Mathieu's is a committed communist working in their group, and tries to recruit him; we wonder if he could be sold out for their purposes. The success of his operation leads the Germans to send a civilian detective to Paris to investigate; we wonder if he will be the bloodhound who finally sniffs out the conspirators. There are French toughs and the usual Furstian mix of shady people of shadowy origins coming in and out of the story. And there are untold stories hinted at or merely seen in passing. This makes it seem slighter in some ways, but this makes for a sense of time getting faster, gathering momentum like a snowball rolling downhill.

It works very well. The episodes build and the tension builds with it, and again you feel Furst deliberately trying to recreate a more individual atmosphere, trying to put you in Mathieu's mind, make you see how well he copes with the ever-changing, always-dangerous world around him. At first I thought this was a somewhat slighter version of the shadowy genre Furst has made his own, but by the time I finished I realised it was more a different perspective on that genre, the protagonist's own perspective. Oftentimes in Furst's work, sides are sorting themselves out. Here, the battle lines have been drawn clearly, and men like Mathieu have a single course to pursue. Because it moves so relentlessly, this is actually a decent place for new readers to encounter Furst; for those of us who've been with him a long time, it's a fascinating variation on a theme. Perhaps it ends too quickly, with too few wartime questions answered, but it's a compelling tale of heroism. It delivers what the title promises.


A Hero In France by Alan Furst

Weidenfeld & Nicholson £18.99 ISBN 9781474602907

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

SLEAZO INPUTS: JO COX, OMAR MATEEN & THE POLITICS OF SENSELESS VIOLENCE

Jo Cox would have turned 42 today. Before she could, she was murdered by a man named Thomas Mair who, as we heard at the time, may or may not have suffered mental problems, may or may not have been committed to far-right or xenophobic policies, may or may not have yelled 'Britain first' as he pulled the trigger. But Thomas Mair was simply the fatal tip of an iceberg of abuse which Jo Cox received in her short time in parliament, invective and threat addressed to her for what we all know is no good reason. Still some people found rationale or excuse or compulsion enough to make those threats, and now she is dead.

It was only a week since I had sat in the World Service studios for four and a half hours, commenting live on Muhammad Ali's memorial service. What I watched transcended my sadness to fill me with hope and joy; I have rarely felt so proud to be American. Two days later, a man used an assault rifle to kill 49 people and wound 53 more at a gay club in Orlando. Then came Jo Cox's murder. When I heard the news I flashed back more than six years, to the shooting of the Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords while she was conducting a 'Congress on Your Corner' mobile surgery in a supermarket car park. Six people were killed but Giffords, remarkably, survived being shot in the head; her shooter was described as a paranoid schizophrenic, originally judged incompetent to stand trial, but is now serving life in prison. He has never explained his motivation.

Mair, on the other hand, was being portrayed in the media as a loner with problems, at least until he felt compelled when he appeared in court to give his name as ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’, which convinced the judge not to brand him a terrorist but to refer him for psychiatric examination, as if Mair’s membership in Britain First and the Brexit referendum tomorrow were trivialities. Meanwhile, in the immediate outpouring of grief for Jo Cox and her family, a memorial appeal solicited donations for her three favourite charities, and a Tory councillor in her native Yorkshire tweeted his anger that her death was being used for political purposes by the Remain campaign, and falsely characterising the Leavers. As if to prove his point he made an obscene suggestion as to what he might be donating to Jo Cox’s memorial.

Compare that to the portrayal of Omar Mateen, who shot up the Pulse nightclub in Orlando a few days before Cox was killed. In this case of conflicting motivations, there was little doubt in the media’s collective unconscious that Mateen was, unlike Mair, a terrorist. I could place photos of the two men side by side and give you a clue to part of the explanation for this bifurcation.

We feel a human need to try to understand what seems incomprehensible when faced with such events, yet in the times since January 2011 when Giffords was shot, there was also a different sort of need, not just to assess motivation but also to claim identity victimhood, establish primacy within the latest atrocity news cycle. In the wake of the Pulse massacre, it was if the issues were queueing up to be taken the most seriously. At times the debate took on the tone of a television commercial: 'he's a homophobe'. 'No he's a terrorist.' 'Stop! You're both right.'

Omar Mateen chose his target carefully: it was a gay club and he appears to have been a self-loathing closeted gay man. He was also a Moslem and called the 911 emergency hotline just before he died to claim allegiance to ISIS and martyrdom for himself, something that apparently should be done before you undertake your act, not after. He was an abusive husband to his first wife. He was also a child of the internet age, a Millennial to the death, checking Facebook to see if 'Pulse Orlando shooting' was trending online while he fired his gun.

Are these categories mutually exclusive? Omar Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle to inflict his damage; he had tried unsucessfully to buy weapons and armour a few weeks earlier elsewhere in Florida; the gun store owner had reported him to the FBI. As with each of the interminable mass killings in America, this immediately became a gun control issue, and almost as immediately the US Senate failed to take even the mildest action at reforming America’s gun laws. It is likely only a matter of time some American commentator or NRA official, should they need more ammo, as it were, in the debate, notes that despite Britain's tight gun control laws, Thomas Mair used a pistol to kill Jo Cox.

It transpired that FBI had already questioned Mateen twice, based on conversations he'd had and people he knew, to inquire he if might be a terrorist. They found no reason to believe he was.. He also worked for G4S, in America viewed primarily as a supplier of security guards, not a major provider of government services as they are in the UK. G4S ran two separate background checks on Mateen. Paradoxically, his gun purchases, despite his history of domestic violence, were likely he was overlooked precisely because he had no ties to international terrorism, except those in his own mind. Yet in most of America’s media Mateen remains a terrorist, while Mair remains a lone crazed assassin.

When he wrote The Family, his book about the Charles Manson killings, Ed Sanders coined the phrase 'sleazo inputs' to try to explain what drove Manson and his followers to enter the world in which their gruesome killings were a necessary and justifiable part. In Manson's case those included the underbelly of LA, the cheap bars and strip clubs, the petty criminals,, the religious hustlers, drug dealers, and show biz hangers-on. Having spent most of his life in prison, when Manson was released into the hippie world of the Sixties it was like putting a small piranha into a goldfish bowl.

We've moved on since 1971, but our goldfish bowl, while more exotic, may not be any better prepared for the odd predator. The Mansons of our time need not seek out sleazo inputs in the underbellies of our cities, on the fringes of our lives. They are beamed into our living rooms and fill our cyberspace. They are amplified by the respectable media, who need sleaze to attract an audience; they are repeated by those who deal in the currency of fear: calling on us to take sides, demonizing those who think or look or act different, encouraging us to be all we can be while staying safe behind wall. They warn us that trouble is always brewing, that we are always under threat. They glorify the power of those who ‘serve’ our society with weaponry, at the same time they insist there is no society above our self-interest, and that self-interest is always under threat and myst be protected. In our world these are not sleazo inputs. They are, simply, inputs. No wonder bodies fall.