Saturday, 28 February 2009
Update: you can find the programme link here. The film discussion begins about 1:35 into the show, and continues until 3:00 in (that was 0230 ayem until o400!).
Friday, 27 February 2009
Meaker and his wife live in an old farmhouse, in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, from which Maggie commutes to her New York job in advertising. Advertising was a buzz-word at the time, and as both Mad Men and Revolutionary Road confirm, we still see the era as defined by the take-over of the sell, the slick media presentation, over the reality of life. Joseph is a scholar, in dead-end pursuit of hex-signs on Bucks County barns, but he spends much of his time contemplating his lost college love, Varda, a Hungarian woman whose activist nature contrasted even more than Maggie's with his pseudo-intellectual passivity; the key moment in their relationship came when he fled racist hecklers at a Henry Wallace for President rally in 1948; Varda of course was working for Wallace.
The suspense begins when Joseph begins stalking Lou Hart, a local doctor who's accidentally run over the Meaker's cat, Ishmael, whose name signifies not only Joseph's literary bent, but his loneliness, and the hint of Ahabian madness. It turns to murder when Joseph kills a man who's shot a deer and is bringing it back through his farm. But the story is really about how out of place Joseph is in this rural, heavily masculine society, and just as much out of place in Maggie's slicker, faster city world. Its strongest point is in delineating the fine points of both societies, both fueled by heavy-drinking; the awkward formality of the dinner parties, the weekend guests, the equally awkward camaraderie of the local bars. Packer is at his best when he's letting all of this beat down incessantly on Joseph's resentment, and its that inner tension that drives his tale.
Except, of course, that he is in fact she. Packer was actually Marijane Meaker, best remembered today for another of her Vin Packer books, the early Gold Medal lesbian classic Spring Fire, and for being Highsmith's lover. The two lived together in a farmhouse in, yes, rural Bucks County, and when you consider that Joseph's last name is Meaker, it doesn't take Sigmund Freud to read between the lines, and see much of the alienation of the story as metaphor. Not that it matters, because the rest of the alienation is the same sort portrayed by Richard Yates in his novel, and not portrayed very well in the film version; Yates has more power because the masculine weakness is more direct, and he writes with more power, but Meaker's version is, if anything, edgier, and more pathetic, if not sympathetic, as a result. Her prose is typically Gold Medal, not quite as compulsive as some, and with little literary and political touches thrown in, like the Wallace, or an exegesis of Chaucer's 'murder will out', some of which might have seemed odd to the typical Gold Medal thriller reader. But Meaker's fondness for trademarks was ahead of her time. Today they are a trademark of other popular writers like Stephen King, who uses them to give his super-natural stories an anchor in reality, as well as to short-cut to character description, an odd contrast to the many so-called 'dirty realism' practitioners, who use them to signify class distinctions, like props from a horror movie used by the creatures beneath. It works very well at showing just how consumer oriented, how superficially valued, the world Joseph despises actually is, and of course that is the world his wife, and all advertising people, are promulgating.
Read in conjunction with Meaker's memoir, Highsmith, the story of their affair, you can also see how Joseph, despite bearing Meaker's name, is more Highsmith than Meaker, and in a way she might have been writing her way out of the relationship in her head. That Meaker also had a Hungarian lover, her only male romance, while at college, further complicates the biographical rendering. She revisits themes often in her Gold Medal books, but always building them slowly with internal tension; her skill at suspense saw her being compared to Highsmith even before the two became lovers. This novel may not be up to the best of Highsmith, but it's certainly well ahead of the best of Mendes, Winslett and DiCaprio. It was reprinted in 2004, in a volume along with Intimate Victims, by Stark Press, but if you can find the original 1961 Gold Medal edition, there's a lovely cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, which is pictured above. (By the way, the Dillons' cover for Philip Jose Farmer's 1962 Fire And The Night—see my Farmer obit in the previous post—is another classic).
And although the idea resonates, the 1993 Chuck Norris film Something In The Shadows has nothing to do with the Packer book. Though the Chuckster as Joseph Meaker would be a performance to behold. And this is probably the first and last time Chuck Norris and Marijane Meaker will ever be mentioned in the same sentence!
Something In The Shadows by Vin Packer, Gold Medal Books 1961, 35 cents
I also cut out a couple of other interesting things myself, including a run-down of his Essex House output. Essex House was set up by Brandon House, a straight-forward LA publisher of porn, as an adult sf line, and published some very interesting stuff (eg: Michael Perkins' Evil Companions, Hank Stine's Season of The Witch, David Meltzer's The Agency) besides Farmer. Image Of The Beast (1968) introduced Herald Childe, a detective investigating a sex-killing in a novel that now seems well ahead of its time. Childe returned in Blown (69). But that year also saw Essex publish Farmer's A Feast Unknown, in which Tarzan and Doc Savage (called Doc Caliban, a fine literary conceit) indulge in a sexually-fuelled feud, manipulated by a secret society. Two sequels followed from Ace in 1970, with the sex toned down, because Essex had folded. Since Brandon books tended to be sold only in 'smoke shops' and inner city stores, they were unlikely to reach an sf target audience, and they were always going to be too weird for the strokers. Farmer's last Essex House book Love Song (1970) was published by Brandon.
I also wanted to mentioned that many of Farmer's unfinished, rejected, or outlined manuscripts are being published in collaboration with writers he chose, apparently through the Farmerphile fanzine connection. One of them, The City Beyond Play (2007 with Danny Adams) has already been published, while this year will see one that looks interesting, The Evil In Pemberley House (with Win Scott Eckert), a continuation of Jane Austen starring Doc Savage's daughter as the beleagured heroine! Forthcoming are another two that interest me greatly, another of the Opar books, and a western, Cougar By The Tail.
I wanted to detail Farmer's falling out with Kurt Vonnegut, who had given his permission for Farmer to write Venus On The Half-Shell, one of the many Kilgore Trout titles mentioned in Vonnegut's work, but resented the fact that people originally thought he had written it (and it wasn't up to his standards) and also thought Farmer had made a lot of money off the book, which he hadn't. As it happened, Farmer also believed he was short-changed on his royalties by Ballantine Books (and Lester Del Rey, who edited a line for Ballantine, confirmed this belief), and I would have liked to include that in the chronicle of how hard it was for Farmer to make his living as a writer.
But writing the obit reminded me of how much fun it was to be an sf fan in the heady times of the late Sixties, how exciting Dangerous Visions seemed at the time, pushing the literary bounds of the genre, and how writers like Farmer were constantly surprising you. I also left out the story about how sf writer Randall Garrett arrived at Farmer's house in Peoria one day in the 50s, and stayed three years, until he lost the house. I thought that said something about his character, and I find I've written another virtual obituary here. I think Farmer deserves it. The last line of my Guardian obit WAS cut, by the way: when Joe Lansdale called him the most underrated sf writer, I said Lansdale was understating it.
Tuesday, 24 February 2009
This trans-Atlantic scripting created quite a bind for the British reviewers, one of whom actually opined that the fast pace and slick dialogue was 'not what UK TV is about, I'm afraid.' It must be awful to live one's life in fear, but anyway. Since the actors and the adapter were British, there was the urge to praise, but since this was an American format, the urge to get the boot in was just as strong. A few people mentioned with smugness that it's the first time the format-following has gone in this direction (thinking of everything from All in the Family to The Office) which overlooks the sad truth that where the Yanks buy formats and tinker with them, the Brits simply steal the idea and butcher it, to wit The Bill (Hill Street Blues), Casualty (ER), or This Life ('this ISN'T the British Friends', Amy Perkins told every interviewer, as if that made it so!). And in fact, a much earlier instance of the Brits buying in a format came when the GE College Bowl format was purchased by the BBC and turned into University Challenge (and you can find my take on yesterday's final, and the Gail Kimble controversy, here, where I ask if University Challenge is fixed). But back to Law and Order UK.
The finished product is actually a blend of L&O and the kind of pacing which Kudos, the British production company, first showed in Spooks (you can read about its most recent series here), and it works pretty well. But the punch of L&O comes from the legal dilemmas, not the pacy cop show; and those dilemmas are often related to police procedure: the ultimate question of whether the law can be enforced and whether, if it is, it constitutes justice. The interesting thing is that ITV, in its advertising, has made the usual mistake of equating the two halves of the show with its title, but the title is actually backwards, since it's the police who maintain order, while the lawyers play with the law. Order and Law doesn't really flow, though.
And if you keep that in mind, you'll soon see there is plenty of domestic material to make original screenplays from, but in fairness Chibnall chose his first show well, because the question of tenant-removal for urban upgrade should be a hot topic here in the wake of the new Eurostar and the upcoming Olympics. And the personal drama, in our present economic circumstances, seemed even more relevant. There was an over-reliance on using regional accents to set characters, but the dialogue never seemed forcing itself to maintain pace.
It probably works better if you don't know the original show, because if you do, you can see the original role models for the characters, remembering that one of the beauties of the US series is the way it has been able to keep going with cast turnover. The hardest job is Bradley Walsh's, trying to be Lenny Briscoe when Jerry Orbach is the toughest act to follow. George Dzundza's Max Greevy was the original older partner, and is probably closer to what Walsh ought to be; Orbach's brand of New York humour has been translated pretty well to Walsh's London, but I wonder if the character's backstory will be as convincing. Jamie Bamber is in the beefcake role as Chris Noth's Mike Logan, and can only hope a part in something like Mistresses (NOT the British Sex And The City, by the way!) lies at the end of this rainbow. He could aspire to Benjamin Bratt, who wound up sharing a motel room with Julia Roberts, but can we conceive of the British equivalent of that? The excellent Harriet Walter underplayed the role S Epatha Mackerson took over from Dann Florek, as if remembering that any woman playing a DI in charge has to channel her inner Helen Mirren.
But it's pretty obvious that the influence of Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy informs Ben Daniels' playing of James Steel with thin-burning moral indignation. Bill Patterson is excellent in the Stephen Hill role, getting a chance to play gruff, and hopefully he will continue with Hill's interpretation of the DA's political tightrope, as walked by the CPS, rather than veer off into Fred 'Mr President' Thompson or Dianne 'Where's Woody?' Wiest territory. Interestingly, in the current L&O stateside, McCoy is now the DA, though I haven't seen any of his episodes. Patterson and Hill are a good comparison as actors, and the role is perfect for Patterson. What we miss, in the British system, is the chance for bit parts for tired and world-weary judges who get to crack wise at the arraignments. In Britain, tired judges merely fall asleep.
The thankless role belongs to Freema Agyeman, who doesn't appear of have any of the many female assistant DAs who played second-fiddle to McCoy and Michael Moriarty's Ben Stone over the years (though in fairness the original, Richard Brooks, was male). Jill Hennessy was probably the best, though Carrie Lowell and Elizabeth Rohm both played off Waterston's stentorian character well. No one will ever look less like a DA than Angie Harmon, though, not even Agyeman, who, as Alesha Phillips (no relation to Trevor, probably) functions primarily to rush into the office with information she's gleaned from a file she should have read before the trial started, but decided to wait for better dramatic effect. Given that she made her name playing second-fiddle to Dr Who, this should be easy.
What we can also hope is that the show builds up a small roster of defense attorneys, which was one of the real strengths of L&O, everyone from Philip Bosco to Ron Silver to Elaine Stritch to Tovah Feldshuh to Lorraine Toussaint's Shambala Green (whose hairdo Agyeman is trying to reprise in the photo left) played against Moriarty and Waterston, and were fine doing it. Patrick Malahide (great name--it would do for the character he played better than for him!) was a perfect foil for Steel: they might have even gone to the same school, but Steel has certainly not followed the career path to success. I wonder too if they'll find an equivalent for Carolyn McCormack's Dr Olivet; I'd bring her over to London explaining she'd come to work at the Tavistock Clinic and wound up working with the CPS.
Kudos and Dick Wolf probably have, though it was worrying that the show lost viewers during its hour, especially if it was losing them to an investigation of Zoe Wanamaker's family tree, fascinating though I'm sure that is. I assume they are working on the idea of using the quality of the show's writing to build a solid base, before becoming more immediate and relevant if there is a second series. One of the joys of the American series is that they could draw on the stable of talented actors not based in LA, the ones doing commercials, theatre, and TV in the city. London, of course, should provide plenty of similar talent. Right not, I'd hope they get there.
Monday, 23 February 2009
Sunday, 22 February 2009
The film begins with a funeral. Clint's Walt Kowalski is a retired Detroit factory worker whose wife has died, and at the funeral we discover there is vast distance between him and his sons, and even more with their families (one of his grandchildren is played, almost literally, as a modern Veruca Salt). He wants nothing from the parish priest who comforted his wife, and the neighbourhood itself has, like his children, abandoned him; his neighbours are Laotian Hmongs, and Latino, black, and Asian gangs cruise the streets and intimidate anyone who gets in their way. Clint's Kowalski begins the film by literally growling, rather than speaking, to those who offend him. His neighbours, whom he calls gooks or slopes, remind him of his service in Korea, and he's quick to pull out a gun when their young son, intimidated by a gang into trying to steal Walt's prized cherry 1972 Gran Torino. It's a world well delineated by the dark camera work of Eastwood regular Tom Stern, and even the sunshine takes on a flatness which suggests time past, or lost, certainly not the glimmering sunshine of, say, LA.
Most of the rest of the film details the gradual mellowing of Walt, brought about by his growing respect for his neighbours, and the intelligence of their sassy daughter, Sue, who's well-played by Ahney Her. He then takes on the initation of the neighbour boy, Thao, into the lost rituals of American manhood, and the story becomes one of Walt's realisation that the immigrant Lors next door have far more of the traditional American values he cherishes than his own family. There's sometimes a marked lack of subtley in Clint's approach, usually when he's working it for comic relief: the sequences of mutual ethnic insulting with his Italian barber get pretty cringing, although they do pay off when Bee Vang stops underplaying Thao, and speaks the language of the construction foreman with whom Walt's trying to get him a job. Clint also allows himself a moment of flashback, a specific reference to Dirty Harry (if not Charles Bronson in Death Wish), when he encounters a couple of black kids bullying Sue and a white male friend. That the white kid is a pretend gangsta again provides the comic relief, but the idea of the 70-something Walt backing down the toughs, gun or no gun, seems a bit forced.
What isn't forced is the film's ending, which spoiler warning prevents my discussing, but which works emotionally and structurally, and which doesn't involve the Gran Torino, which I'd been waiting for, and which I was glad Clint avoided. It's odd to think that in the major BBC interview around this film, uber-critic Mark Lawson somehow decided this film was set in Los Angeles, thus missing the titular metaphor: the Gran Torino was one of those big muscle cars which Detroit turned out in the era when Clint was becoming a star: now they are relics, just as Walt Kowalski is, and Clint himself is, big tough products of a world which accepted toughness, appreciated values of loyalty to family and tribe, and didn't go all politically correct. Neither the Gran Torino nor Walt (and by implication, the image of Clint) have no real place in today's world, just as the city that produced them has lost its place, and the men who worked in that city's factories making things have fled to the suburbs while their jobs have fled to the very parts of the world that spawn the immigrants in this film.
But the film's ending is not concerned with those bigger issues. Instead, it is Clint's Shootist moment, and carries the same sort of emotional impact; if you think back to that film, and the difference between Wayne's performance in it and the Duke's Oscar for True Grit you'll also recall The Shootist was directed by Don Siegel, one of Clint's two directing mentors. Siegel would have been proud of this film.
directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Nick Schenk, story by Schenk and David Johannson
Saturday, 21 February 2009
Interestingly, one of the dailies (oh, go on, it was the Guardian) reviewed this book and thought Freeman was a woman. That's nowhere near as bad as the guy I heard on Open Book once talking about Flannery O'Conner as a man, but it does show you how fine-tuned his prose is, as well as revealing what critics sometimes assume about such prose. Actually, although the main character is a woman, the narration is pretty obviously in a male, New England male, Vermonter voice.
Friday, 20 February 2009
After reading it, I was disappointed I hadn't at least mentioned it in my piece, because it's an interesting take on what is now becoming the familiar tale of Graf von Stauffenberg's attempt to blow up Hitler, and it approaches the subject with a far more realistic view of the history involved. That's important because Marlowe turned to historical fiction in the next decade, and proved extremely successful at it. You can see this quite easily as predominantly an historical novel, within the framework of an effective thriller. That's why I said the view was realistic. Because Marlowe turns his story into a multi-faceted examination of Nazi Germany in decline. Because Marlowe never tries to lionize the plotters, he is acutely aware that some of them wanted to get rid of Hitler simply because he was losing the war, and others because they felt the war was already lost, and if a coup replaced Hitler they might negotiate a better end to it. It didn't make them heroes, nor did it mean they were necessarily reluctant when they enforced Nazi policies for the past ten years.
But from the American (and British) point of view, would Hitler's fall have been a good thing? Would the President want to dicker with a new German government during an election campaign? Would a Germany caught in civil war between the plotters and those loyal to Hitler not collapse into chaos, opening the door for whomever was closer to Berlin (ie, the Russians) to take over? Was the root of the problem Hitler, or was it German expansionism? These are the immediate questions, and that is why OSS Captain Richard Haller is sent to Berlin, to help the plotters and ensure they fail. But it's also why the Russians have their own man, Comrade Cell (better known, after the war, as Walter Ulbricht) working to the same ends. Making things more interesting is a list put together by the Gestapo security office, of left-winger student leaders and potential plotters against Hitler. Comrade Cell wants that list, because when the Russians inevitably move into Germany, they want to be able to quickly eliminate those who might stand in their way too.
Out of these elements Marlowe builds a suspenseful story with some real depth and historical curiosity. He blends historical figures into the story, not just the obvious, but for example the anti-Hitler 'White Rose' students, a small band of young people who showed more more insight into their country, and far more courage in dealing with it, than most of their countrymen. Yet he keeps Haller's world, which is the spine of his thriller, both relatively believable and real. It's a diverting thriller, especially if it's a Tom Cruise movie from which you need to be diverted.
Thursday, 19 February 2009
THE NEW ANNOTATED DRACULA
edited by Leslie S Klinger
Norton £28.00 ISBN 9780393064506
When I reviewed Klinger's New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (in Crime Time 44) I mentioned how, in following in the footsteps of William S Baring-Gould and treating Holmes and Watson as real people, and Doyle as merely their chronicler, Klinger managed to walk the fine line between anorak and humourist. He manages the same feat with Dracula, treating the vampire as a real being, and Stoker as his mere chronicler, heavily influenced by his undead editor. As with Holmes, Klinger follows in footsteps, in this case Leonard Wolf's 1975 Annotated Dracula, but by reprising the conceit of reality, he manages to bring a much newer approach to Dracula than he did to Holmes. I've never read Wolf's volume, but I find it interesting that it apparently contained any number of authentic recipes for dishes mentioned in the novel; Klinger follows suit, at least as far as paprika chicken is concerned.
As with his Holmes book, there are times the footnotes seem elementary, if not redundant in the extreme. Any number of elementary fixtures of British life warrant exegesis, like explaining the Derby is now known as the Vodafone Derby, and is a horse race. He also explains commonly used Latin phrases like mirabile dictu and cum grano. And though it doesn't get a footnote, in one of the appendicies, about to discuss Stokes pastiches, he actualy launches into an explanation of 'pastiche' itself. I'm still wondering why he would annotate 'dusty miller' if he couldn't actually explain what it meant in relation to tea with a curate. Is it a local cake? Does it hark back to Chaucer?
Where the annotation is most valuable is in pointing out the many inconsistencies and illogicalities in Stoker's own text, most notable of course the fact that, having explained how Dracula can be killed only by a stake through the heart, he is then dispatched with steel knives. This is a godsend for Klinger, of course, because it provides a rationale of internal logic on which he can hang his assumption that Dracula lived to direct Stoker in his writing. The notes also provide him with some opportunities for dry humour. Although he doesn't pursue the issue of Victorian sexuality too deeply, he does point out there is no hidden meaning when Seward, referring to Renfield, says 'so I took the hint and came too'.
Actually, though, there is hidden meaning, and lots of it. Part of the appeal of the best popular fictions is that they tap instinctively into the audience's collective unconscious; this was a Jungian concept I first noticed when studying The Shadow. But when we examine our ideas of the repressions of the Victorian era, an era where a woman ruled the most powerful empire in the world, Dracula fits into a neat continuum with Jack the Ripper, and dare I say Holmes himself has a place. In the appendix on academic approaches to Dracula, Klinger and the professors touch on this, but obviously it is a rich vein to be mined, if not sucked.
I've also believed that part of the appeal of Dracula is its structure; the epistolary (and documentary) approach lends it both suspense and reality, and allows for multiple viewpoints that render Dracula himself more mysterious and thus more frightening. This doesn't receive much attention, but one thing Klinger's notes do help us realise is that Stoker 'padded out' his text by using Baedeckers, and other travel guides. This was a time when continental travel was just coming into its own for the British, and the Transylvanian origins of Dracula are not only one of the first warnings about traveling abroad, but also of allowing too much immigration from Eastern Europe.
THE NEW ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES
Edited by Leslie S Klinger
Norton 2005, £35.00, ISBN 9780393065947
I was probably 16 when my parents gave me William Baring-Gould’s original Annotated Sherlock Holmes, to which this is a worthy, if sometimes over-worthy, successor. I have to confess that even then I was shying away from a position of anorakia in my devotion to the great detective, and my then-evident delight in all things English has since been dissipated by prolonged residency here. Though I still marvel at Holmes’ ability to receive post the same day, get a cab whenever he walked out into the street and travel by train without delay, impoverishment, or considerable risk to his life, none of which is actually possible in today’s Britain.
The reason I said over-worthy is that many of Klinger’s annotations seem designed precisely for 16 year old Americans like me, except that nowadays your basic 16 year old American probably won’t go near a book like this, and his relative ignorance about Victorian England would apply to most adults from my country, and far too many from this one as well.
Klinger follows in Baring-Gould’s conceit of treating Holmes and Watson as actual persons, and Conan Doyle as a mere editor; thus the canon becomes a primary record, however inaccurate or incomplete. Although this was, and is, great fun, the problem with taking fictions as fact, as illustrated by Holmes, is that there are so many internal contradictions, and so many illustrations of the ‘record‘s‘ errors, over most of which Klinger loves to linger. And then there are those annoying things, fact. No snake can do what the eponymous viper in The Speckled Band seems able to do, likewise geese do not have crops, hence the eponymous Blue Carbuncle cannot have been hidden in one. Addressing the latter, Klinger quotes Peter Blau, who sees it as a simple printer’s error, rather than Holmes’ or Watson’s mistake, substituting an ‘o’ for the correct ‘a’, which would render the stone rather more visible. As I said, it is all great fun, in the end.
We love Holmes partly for the element of the superman in him; adolescents of all ages thrill to his abilities of ratiocination, which we have all dreamed, usually at the wrong time, that we possess. But he is also the definitive Victorian character, and the stories tell us more about Victorian life and mores than all the works of Thomas Hardy. I thought of this while watching Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy, but I am not aware of anyone producing similar academic work on the real effect of Yum Yum on 19th century England. Or Japan. More’s the pity.
What is frightening is the ever-growing alternate universe of Holmes pastiches. What’s next, a similar volume of exegesis for them? But console yourself with the idea that even if you don’t enjoy this book’s facsimile editions of the original Strand Magazine presentation, you can always use these two handsome slipcased volumes as the foundations for an extension at the back of your Victorian cottage. Elementary…
originally published in Crime Time 44
Monday, 16 February 2009
FOCUS ON MOTOWN AT LONDON FILM FESTIVAL
Of all the American cities identified with their music, and there are many, from Nashville to Seattle, Detroit may be the one whose sounds best reflect its character. Although we think automatically of Motown, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, Detroit’s legacy extends far beyond Berry Gordy’s vision of pop perfection. Its music is tough, gritty, up-front and challenging, as much as product of its factories as automobiles were. It was that way before Motown came along and it still is a heady mix of black and white influences.
Detroit’s music was featured in two very different films which I first wrote about in 2002 at the London Film Festival: Curtis Hanson’s 8 MILE, starring the rapper Eminem and loosely based on his own life story, and STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN, Paul Justman’s vibrant documentary about the Funk Brothers, Motown’s too-anonymous studio band, whose diverse talents moulded the music produced by rock’s greatest hit factory.
For Hanson, whose seductive neon Los Angeles dominated LA CONFIDENTIAL, the star of 8 MILE was a seventies-film gritty Detroit itself, its presence hovering over every person and every action in the film. The impact of the city gives 8 MILE undoubted power, even for audiences unconvinced by rap music, or bored with the familiar story framework of show-business success sagas. Eminem’s character, Rabbit, is an immigrant looking for work; Kim Basinger as his mother plays her southern trailer-park accent for all it’s worth. That’s important, because Detroit is a city of immigrants. They poured in from middle and southern Europe, even before Henry Ford’s production line sprang up on the River Rouge. Even the great depression couldn’t shut them down; poor whites from Appalachia and the south flooded north, seeking work. Years later, their voices would echo in the country-tinged refrain of Bobby Bare’s ‘Detroit City’: “I want to go home…”
The Europeans and the Appalachians were followed by blacks driven from the deep south by mechanical cotton pickers. Even before the Civil War, Detroit had been a haven for runaway slaves; the last stop before Canada on the Underground Railway. After World War II, as the big-band era died, Detroit’s urban sound coalesced around the electric blues of John Lee Hooker, originally from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the small jazz combos playing in the city’s countless nightclubs. Berry Gordy’s first entrepreneurial effort, a jazz record store, failed, but back working on Ford’s production line, Gordy co-wrote a song for Jackie Wilson, just released from Lansing State Correctional Institute. Backed by local jazz musicians, including pianist Johnny Griffith, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ became a hit, and it gave Gordy ideas. He began producing records like the Contours’ ‘Do You Love Me’, melding sophisticated background music to pop tunes. That became Motown’s formula, and Gordy organised Motown with the precision of Ford’s assembly line. Writers, arrangers, singers, and musicians laboured in departments, fitting together the pieces of hits as accessible as Model Ts to the (white) American public.
Fifty years later, the world still hums the hits of the Supremes, Four Tops, and Temptations, but STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN rescues from obscurity the geniuses who made those songs, including Griffith, who sadly passed away the night of the film’s Detroit premiere (see his obituary, which I wrote at the time, below). It explores their roots in jazz and blues, and demonstrates the fertile creative atmosphere of The Snakepit, Motown’s studio built in Berry Gordy’s basement. The film’s defining moment dramatises the Detroit riots, which started in July 1967 after a police raid on an after-hours ‘blind pig’ drinking club. The riots left 43 people dead, and 14 square miles of urban destruction. Soldiers patrolled the streets. The black Funk Brothers shepherded their white colleagues home through the flames, but this staring in the face of repression and chaos meant the carefree music of Motown was changed forever. Soon Marvin Gaye produced Motown’s most political statement, and not coincidentally, “What Going On”was the first record to credit the house musicians individually.
Just as Motown and black American music influenced British rock, the British Invasion helped create a new Detroit rock sound. Post-Motown Detroit was tough rock, with an edge. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels wore their Motown-influences proudly, but just as typical were the raw sounds of bands like Question Mark & The Mysterians (“96 Tears”), Bob Seger, or the MC5, house band for John Sinclair’s White Panther political movement. Detroit gave the world Alice Cooper, the early heavy metal band Grand Funk Railroad, and the proto-punk rock of Iggy Pop and the Stooges. And when Motown met LSD, George Clinton’s doo-wop band, The Parliaments, were transformed into P-Funk, the spawn of Parliament and Funkadelic, where veterans of James Brown‘s backup band, most notably bassist Bootsy Collins, drifted into outer space.
One night, Berry Gordy packed up and moved to Los Angeles, taking the ultimate cross-over act, Michael Jackson, with him. The Funk Brothers went back to playing jazz clubs, and as sidemen for blues singers. But Detroit continued to innovate, everything from the disco of the Commodores in the 70s to Detroit Techno, the industry standard of 1980s dance. When I originally wrote this piece, America’s hottest rock band was White Stripes, a husband-wife duo from the Detroit suburbs who played at being urban brother and sister. They owed a huge debt to Mick Collins, a singer-guitarist (no relation to Bootsy) one of whose bands, the Dirtbombs, fused garage music with Motown in ULTRAGLIDE IN BLACK, an audacious cover of Motown standards, Nirvana fronted by Stevie Wonder. Detroit can no more escape Motown than Motown could Detroit.
Eminem is often accused of garnering his popularity simply because he’s white, but he is far from a modern version of Vanilla Ice. 8 MILE presented a kinder, gentler Eminem, conspicuously friendly to gays, children, and even respectful to his trailer-park mom (Kim Basinger). But it firmly anchored rap in the roots of a community that gave the world its cars, and now gets nothing in return. It’s no coincidence 8 MILE features its own version of urban flames. Workers came to Detroit from all over the world, and their melting pot made and still makes powerful music. Though Motown deserted them, though they’re having trouble selling their cars, as Martha Reeves reminded us in ‘Dancing In The Streets’ you can't forget the Motor City. At least not its music.
JOHNNY GRIFFITH (1936-2002) OBITUARY
Few people will recognise Johnny Griffith’s name, but his seductive piano opening to Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is one of rock music’s most recognisable licks. Griffith, who has died aged 66, was a key member of the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band, who not only played but actually created much of the music for the greatest hit-making machine of all time.
Although it was a badge of rock snobbery to be able to drop the names of James Jamerson, generally regarded as rock’s finest bassist, or Benny Benjamin, the great drummer, the Funk Brothers generally laboured in obscurity. Ironically, Griffith, who had recently moved to Las Vegas, died back in his hometown of Detroit, of an apparent heart attack before the local premiere of a new documentary about the Funk Brothers, STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN. The film, like an American BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, helps rescue these virtuosi from anonymity, and received its British premiere last month as part of the 2002 London Film Festival.
Growing up in Detroit, Griffith received classical training, but seeing no opportunity for black classical pianists, he turned to jazz and blues. At 16 he was travelling with John Lee Hooker; later, his skill as a tasteful accompanist saw him hired by Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington; he also toured with then-gospel singer Aretha Franklin.
He had already played piano on Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops”, co-written by Berry Gordy, when, in 1961, Gordy, a jazz aficionado who had gone bust running a jazz record store, lured him to Motown with the promise of a jazz recording contract. True to his word, Gordy issued two Griffith albums on his Workshop Jazz label which are now collectors items. But Griffith was one of the few Motown studio musicians not contracted exclusively, and as a ‘hired gun’ he played on such non-Motown hits as The Capitols’ ‘Cool Jerk’. At one point, Gordy paid him $100 a week to spy on Motown musicians who might be moonlighting; after Griffith continued to pocket the money without ever turning in any of his friends, Gordy tried to fire him, eventually settling for terminating his career as a spy.
It was as one of the Funk Brothers three keyboardists that Griffith’s legacy will endure. His elegant stylings often served as counterpoint to the ‘gorilla piano’ of the late Earl ‘Chunk of Funk’ Van Dyke, the group’s spiritual leader. But Griffith was just as much at home on the organ: that’s him on the Hammond B3 delivering the powerful opening of Junior Walker’s “Shotgun”.
The Funk Brothers included white musicians, and their collective reaction to Detroit’s racial turmoil in the Sixties can be heard best on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”, the first album on which they received individual credits. They remained close even after Berry Gordy packed up one night and without warning moved Motown to Los Angeles, but as a unit the Funk Brothers ceased to exist until they were reformed for the film.
Griffith stayed in Detroit, playing jazz clubs, session dates, and touring with, among others, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and he took over the keyboards in Muddy Waters’ blues band after Otis Spann’s death. He also served as musical director of a local radio station, and was involved in the founding of Detroit’s first black-run television station.
Only eight of the 13 Funk Brothers remained to participate in the film, and Griffith is the second of those eight, following drummer Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen, to have passed away since its filming was completed. The night Griffith died, the band went ahead with their performance at Detroit’s Uptown Palladium. “We celebrate his living by playing,” said percussionist Jack Ashford. Usually, during performances, Griffith and fellow keyboardist Joe Hunter would place a studio photo of Earl Van Dyke between them; their colleagues did the same with photos of the other deceased Brothers. The loss of Johnny Griffith may finally leave an unfillable seat in this greatest of rock bands.
Johnny Griffith, musician born July 10, 1936 Detroit
died November 10, 2002 Detroit
survived by his wife Delma, one son, two daughters, six Funk Brothers
Friday, 13 February 2009
I hadn't known what to expect when I uncovered a copy of the original Arrow edition, published two years before CF&L. Isle Of Joy, it turns out, is a small-scale tour de force. It should have made some reputation for Winslow, although I can see why it may have been overlooked at the time. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek spy thriller, it's not quite comic enough to be farce, but given the way the story proceeds to a most serious finish, one wonders if, had the overall tone been more serious throughout, it might have reached a bigger audience. I think the same fate has befallen a couple of Robert Littell's books, and it's a fine line to walk.
This one is a roman a clef, with a thinly-disguised John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, who in this case is conflated with an earlier JFK lover into a spy. Walter Withers is an ex-CIA agent now working as a PI in late 1950s New York, when he is assigned to bodyguard Senator Joe Keneally's and his wife on Christmas Eve. But his real function is to act as beard when Kenneally needs to sneak off with actress Marta Marlund, and of course Marlund winds up dead, in Keneally's room. What follows is a story which twists and turns between the police, FBI, and CIA, with political capital up from grabs and betrayal suggested at every turn. There are more characters whose models are easily recognisable, not least a fiery Jack Kerouac. Everyone has secrets to hide, even Withers' erstwhile girlfriend, nightclub singer Anne Blanchard, whose life in the Village contrasts sharply with Walter's staid WASPy uptown.
That's important, because as I said the real beauty of this novel is its nostalgic portrayal of New York City in the late 1950s, when it was the center of the known universe, and when anything was possible. Winslow does as fine a job as anyone I've read at conveying the real feel of the era: if you've been watching Mad Men on television, you need to go back a few years before the really modern stuff started to take hold, before the fabric of life itself started to change. It's wonderfully evocative, while at the same time hinting that the betrayals and twists of the worlds of politics and spying were somehow part and parcel of the new world which was coming.
There's also a key scene set at the 1958 NFL championship game, between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts, the so-called 'Greatest Game Ever Played', when pro football began to slip into the nation's consciousness to replace baseball. Although Winslow makes a couple of sporting errors (Jim Parker, not Joe; and New York wouldn't be talking about Mantle and Maris together in 1958, as Maris was in Kansas City) they're not serious (of course, not everyone is a sports pedant, luckily for them. I'd noticed a couple of baseball anachronisms, and a train-route problem, in the proofs of The Given Day, but according to Dennis Lehane they were caught before the book went to press) I hope they were corrected when Arrow reissued the book last year. The audience that lapped up Mad Men, which was enough for The Mendes Family to hack up Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road on their behalf, ought to lap this up too. It's Yates' era, but it's dealing with the Manhattan the characters in RR left behind. In fact, Winslow nails Yates' dilemma when Walter mulls over the impending death of the Manhattan bar.
'This new American dream, neither city nor country but a banal melange of the two. A society connected by television and automobile and little else except the desperate delusion...that we all want the same thing, a house in the suburbs...A few more years and the clubs will be dead...and I'll be one of the few mourners at the wake. The rest of American will be in their suburban bomb shelters sitting in the televised glow of the seemingly endless parade of cowboy shows.'
That's a brief contemplative pause in what's otherwise a fast and entertaining trip. Winslow deserves a wider audience, and this is the kind of book that, once he has that audience, would cement his reputation.
Isle Of Joy Don Winslow Arrow (1996) £6.99 ISBN 0099706415 reissued 2008 ISBN 9780099706410
Wednesday, 11 February 2009
It's a daring move, an epic novel from a writer who's one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, and thus far very well served by the movies. Not only was Mystic River made into a superb film by Clint Eastwood, but Ben Affleck directed brother Casey in a remarkable adaptation of Gone Baby Gone, which seemed to fall lamentably between the cracks when the awards season began. Martin Scorsese is filming Lehane's gothic thriller Shutter Island, a challenge to adapt for the screen, and Lehane himself has scripted for The Wire, the epic TV cop show.
I'd arranged to meet Lehane the day after the game, and that Monday it was pouring down rain in St. Petersburg, so I appreciated the old-fashioned portico protecting the sidewalk on the block of Central where the restaurant Bella Brava, incongruously chic and modern, is located. As it turned out Lehane had been at the game too (he actually met his wife at a Super Bowl party!), so we talked football and Bruce Springsteen's halftime show for a while, and noted how this rain seemed to be washing away all trace of the game from the area. He'd just finished with the annual writer's conference he runs at Eckerd College, where he did his own degree in writing; he doesn't spend much of his time in his native Boston anymore, living most of the year in St. Pete with his wife, who's an opthamologist there, and doing his writing in a downtown office. Lehane looks like a character from one of his Boston books, and sounds like it too, so I ask him about his time as a student at Eckerd, which must have been a big change from Boston.
DL: It got me to switch to decaf, if you will. To calm down. I wrote very minimalist at the time, and you could say I've been working away from that.
It's odd, because The Given Day is such a big book, but with its concerns with race and class, and the way you tell the big picture with smaller personal stories, it reminded me a lot of The Wire.
DL: Well, that all predates The Wire, the issues of class and race. My first novel was about race war standing in for class warfare, and that was the point of the last page of that book, if I can give myself props, cause I wrote it in 1990 (it was published in '94), I thought was the best thing I'd written. But The Wire, what it taught me in the last four years was distillation, and structure in a different way. The novelist's structure is unwieldy, and you don't realise how much so until you try an epic. Without The Wire I might have produced a 900 page book.
When I started reading The Given Day, it seemed familiar; the opening scene recalls The Natural, with Babe Ruth getting off the train, and Don DeLillo opened Underworld with the 1951 playoff. But what you did with it, both as framing, and commentary on the story, was impressive, and the way baseball comes back into the main story too, in just a small but significant way.
DL: Do you know the writer Stewart O'Nan? (Here we digress to discuss, as fellow Boston Red Sox fans, Faithful, a book O'Nan co-wrote with Stephen King about the Sox 2004 World Series win, the win which canceled Ruth's so-called 'Curse of the Bambino', and finally rewarded all us long-suffering followers). He has a concept he calls the 'natural clock container', and for me that was Ruth. My clock was from the 1918 World Series to Ruth's sale to the Yankees, and the police strike was the story contained within that container. It's the kind of thing you rarely see done on TV, because it's hard to follow one big story, there's too much indulgence, it's what stopped Twin Peaks, say, from being as great as it could've been. But the story has to stay true to its spine. I'd write stuff for The Wire that I'd love and at the story meetings they'd say 'that's great, but how does it pay off to the ending?', and they were right.
There's a great sense in The Given Day of things reflecting the past eight years in America, particularly in the way the powers that be, including J Edgar Hoover, invite trouble, as an excuse for repression. That's before John Hoover became J. Edgar, and the Bureau of Investigation became the FBI, and it's a great untold story about repression...
DL: Well, I don't think there's a single human being who's not a dirty bomb in Manhattan away from tromping all over civil liberties...
There's a great line, when James J. Storrow, who's sort of the enlightened upper-class, says of the police chief, Edwin Curtis, 'such men fiddle while cities burn...such men love ash'. Curtis, Hoover, governor Calvin Coolidge: we see their equivalents in government today.
DL: Thanks, I'm glad you liked the line, but there's no pat answer for the 'meaning' of the book. If it was pure good and bad, it wouldn't be interesting...
And the FBI agent Rayme Finch sees it, he says 'people don't want truth they want certainty, or the illusion of it.'
DL: Finch was a real character; he was the first Melvin Purvis, a superstar agent, who overshadowed Hoover. But what he's talking about, that's the human impulse.
It reminded me in a lot of ways of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.
DL: Hammett is so great. I have to go back and read that again. Everyone goes back to Chandler, but Hammett's where it starts.
It's interesting too that, in the end, the only union that saves the characters is the marriage union...
DL: I knew I was writing about unions, about all aspects of the word union. If you look back at my books you'll see I'm playing with one word or concept. But if you have to tell people what the ending means, it means you haven't done your job.
The Given Day is such a departure from your previous work; it's as big a jump from that as Mystic River was from your detective novels.
DL: It's hard for me to write unless what I'm doing scares me on some level, unless it's something I haven't done before. I have to stay as loose as possible, you can't worry about what people want. What you owe your audience is a great performance.
But with your next book you're going to return to Kenzie and Gennaro?
DL: Yes, it's ten years later, and it scares me. Do I still have that looseness? They had an ignorance about them, and I wonder if I can recapture that now that I've flirted with self-importance. But he (Patrick Kenzie) hadn't talked to me for ten years, and then all of a sudden I heard his voice in my head.
Was it Casey Affleck's voice?
DL: No, but it's funny, because Casey wasn't anything like what I'd pictured Patrick, but I can't get him out of my mind. But it worked. Only Ben and Casey knew what they were doing there, well, them and the DP (John Toll, cinematographer) but they could see it. Obviously, Patrick has aged, he's not 32 anymore.
You say 'flirted with self-importance'. I read an interview with you, and you talked about success and how you could've become 'a real dick', and your first marriage blowing up. But it wasn't clear in that interview, was this cause and effect?
DL: No, I had lost my wife and home, and then the book (Mystic River) took off. That's when I could've turned into a prick. But that's when I was able to put things into perspective. I tell my students don't become a writer because you need to self-actualise. Go to a therapist! So many have no idea of who they are, they think if they become successful it will tell them who they are, but it doesn't fill that part. I was secure, but with an incredible ego. What's dangerous is when you have the incredible ego but you're still insecure.
It sounds like a definition of Hollywood.
DL: It's so amazing to meet people there who are secure in themselves. They're talented, but it's their work. Ed Harris was like that, just so impressive. It's funny, because when Ben Affleck was shooting Gone Baby, he was shooting lots of coverage, and everyone was looking at each other saying, he must be be scared. If you shoot a lot of coverage either you're scared, or, if you're someone like Scorsese, you're a genius. Turned out, Ben knew exactly what he was doing.
Scorsese is making Shutter Island, with Leonardo DiCaprio. That novel was a real departure for you.
DL: I'd tried to jump on the bus and I felt like I'd be hanging on the side for the rest of my life.The first time I'd met Richard Price, who was a literary idol of mine, he asked what was the goofiest thing I could do, and I said write a gothic novel, and I figured if Richard Price didn't laugh me out of the room, I might as well try.
It seems a hard book to adapt for the movies
DL: Well, the script is terrific, and Scorsese's directing. With all that in play, it's all down to alchemy (laughs).
In your early books, and in both the first films, child abuse is a major theme.
DL: I worked with abused kids, as a counselor, and I had to stop. It was an obsession of my early writing, but it's tough, there's a fine line between calling attention to it, and exploiting the issue for entertainment. But coming up in the 80s, in writing workshops, the hardest thing to justify was the killing of a child, or writing about the holocaust. It was like you skipped twenty steps for empathy. It was like when I saw an ad for The Boy In Striped Pajamas. Children and the Holcaust, I said 'enough!'. But seriously, I sealed it for myself with Mystic River, and I don't have to go back there again.
We discussed films for a while, how The Wrestler revisited great 70s movies like Fat City or The Scarecrow. I was looking forward to seeing Gran Torino that night, and we talked Clint Eastwood, and eventually whether the shot of the little boy looking out the back seat of the car was a shot too much in Mystic River; a habit I'd suggested in my book about Clint that he had, when he wanted to make sure he hooked the audience. And finally we got down to the greatest line of dialogue in American film, and we were only a beat apart. For Lehane it's William Holden as Pike Bishop, in The Wild Bunch, saying 'let's go'. I'd always been more partial to Warren Oates' reply: 'why not?', but no, Lehane said, 'Holden's line is action, and Oates' is reaction'. 'Nilhilstic reaction,' I said, 'which is why I liked it'. 'But it's 'let's go' that defines the movie, and them,' he said, and thinking about it, he was right in an American hsitorical sense, even if Oates' line seems more purely Peckinpah, a signal of change, perhaps. 'Did you know,'Lehane asked, 'that Peckinpah wrote a whole scene for that, that they told him to cut, and he shot so little usable that 'let's go' was basically all that was left.' 'So he didn't start out minimalist, like you, he was just edited that way?' I said. There is a sense sometimes that big stories demand their own space, and in The Given Day it seems that Lehane has used no more space than that story demands. It's a major achievement.
NOTE: This interview also appears on Crime Time: www.crimetime.co.uk
THE GIVEN DAY is published by Doubleday, ISBN 9780385615341
Monday, 9 February 2009
Sunday, 8 February 2009
I did do a slight rewrite and addition to update it following the US elections, the latest of the events after which 'nothing will ever be the same', of which I've counted about half a dozen in the first seven years of this millennium. And though my review may seem somewhat harsh about lawyers in general, one has to consider reality, as pictured below.
Sunday, 1 February 2009
by W. D. Snodgrass
This is the needle that we give
Soldiers and children when they live
Near the front in primitive
Conditions or real dangers;
This is the spoon we use to feed
Men trapped in trouble or in need,
When weakness or bad luck might lead
Them to the hands of strangers.
This is the room where you can sleep
Your sleep out, curled up under deep
Layers of covering that will keep
You safe till all harm’s past.
This is the bed where you can rest
In perfect silence, undistressed
By noise or nightmares, as my breast
Once held you soft but fast.
This is the Doctor who has brought
Your needle with your special shot
To quiet you; you won’t get caught
Off guard or unprepared.
I am your nurse who’ll comfort you;
I nursed you, fed you till you grew
Too big to feed; now you’re all through
Fretting or feeling scared.
This is the glass tube that contains
Calm that will spread down through your veins
To free you finally from all pains
Of going on in error.
This tiny pinprick sets the germ
Inside you that fills out its term
Till you can feel yourself grow firm
Against all doubt, all terror.
Into this spoon I break the pill
That stiffens the unsteady will
And hardens you against the chill
Voice of a world of lies.
This amber medicine implants
Steadfastness in your blood; this grants
Immunity from greed and chance,
And from all compromise.
This is the serum that can cure
Weak hearts; these pure, clear drops insure
You’ll face what comes and can endure
The test; you’ll never falter.
This is the potion that preserves
You in a faith that never swerves;
This sets the pattern of your nerves
Too firm for you to alter.
I set this spoon between your tight
Teeth, as I gave you your first bite;
This satisfies your appetite
For other nourishment.
Take this on your tongue; this do
Remembering your mother who
So loved her Leader she stayed true
When all the others went,
When every friend proved false, in the
Delirium of treachery
On every hand, when even He
Had turned His face aside.
He shut himself in with His whore;
Then, though I screamed outside His door,
Said He’d not see me anymore.
They both took cyanide.
Open wide, now, little bird;
I who sang you your first word
Soothe away every sound you’ve heard
Except your Leader’s voice.
Close your eyes, now; take your death.
Once we slapped you to take breath.
Vengeance is mine, the Lord God saith
And cancels each last choice.
Once, my first words marked out your mind;
Just as our Leader’s phrases bind
All hearts to Him, building a blind
Loyalty through the nation,
We shape you into a pure form.
Trapped, our best soldiers tricked the storm,
The Reds: those last hours, they felt warm
Who stood fast to their station.
You needn’t fear what your life meant;
You won’t curse how your hours were spent;
You’ll grow like your own monument
To all things sure and good,
Fixed like a frieze in high relief
Of granite figures that our Chief
Accepts into His true belief,
His true blood-brotherhood.
You’ll never bite the hand that fed you,
Won’t turn away from those that bred you,
Comforted your nights and led you
Into the thought of virtue;
You won’t be turned from your own bed;
Won’t turn into that thing you dread;
No new betrayal lies ahead;
Now no one else can hurt you.