Friday, 27 March 2009

HORACE MCCOY'S I SHOULD HAVE STAYED HOME: A Forgotten Friday Entry

It's a bit of a stretch to call I SHOULD HAVE STAYED HOME a forgotten book, after all, Serpent's Tail offered a welcome reprint back in 1997, which I reviewed for an early issue of Crime Time, and which seems like only yesterday, not more than decade past. (That's the 1951 Signet reprint, looking very 50s, pictured right).

But it remains one of the most overlooked of the great Hollywood novels. Published in 1938, it has many similarities to McCoy’s better-known THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY, which appeared three years earlier, but it could just as easily be viewed as the inspiration for Billy Wilder’s screenplay of SUNSET BOULEVARD. I've seen it suggested that the story is merely an inversion of A STAR IS BORN, which had been a hit movie the previous year, but I think that's true only in the most superficially simplistic sense.

McCoy is one of the hardest of the hard-boiled novelists, and this hard-boiled novel has very little to offer in the way of redemption. The protagonist is Ralph Carson, a big, good looking Southern boy whose slow drawl mitigates against a career in talkies. So he's working as an extra, sharing a flat with a hopeful actress, Mona Matthews. They're not on the hustle, but they are looking for the big break. And it comes when their new roommate, Dorothy, already a failed actress, is arrested for theft. Mona curses out the judge during her friend’s trial, and the resulting notoriety gains them entry into Hollywood society. Corruption follows as sure as the sun sets into the Pacific. Carson becomes toy boy to Mrs. Ethel Smithers, a widow who is rich and influential and who has strong appetites. Not only does he despise himself (remember William Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD), but McCoy uses the situation to show us exactly why Carson, and a million other good looking kids with some talent never will make it in the human jungle of Hollywood.

The setting and tone is eerily familiar from Wilder’s movie, though the ending is bleaker, and less melodramatic. Mona is fired and blacklisted for union activity; she ends up making a dead-end marriage with a guy she meets through the lonely hearts column (an echo of Nathanael West?), while Ralph stays on in Hollywood, a combination of misplaced optimism and resignation to the reality he can never go home. He's a bit like Joe Buck in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, only more hard-boiled, with the noir hero's usual half-track brain, if not quite the one-track mind.

It all gains impact from McCoy’s hardboiled prose; nearly sixty years later it catches the reader and won’t let go. You’re drawn along, much as the characters themselves are, like marathon dancers who can’t keep going but can’t afford to stop. It's incredibly modern in its vices, and would make a fine film, in period or in our present days of depression, if the film could just be kept true to that tone.

I SHOULD HAVE STAYED HOME by Horace McCoy
Serpent’s Tail (Midnight Classics) 1997, £6.99
ISBN 9781852424022

JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: MY GUARDIAN OBIT

My obituary of John Hope Franklin is in today's Guardian (here). It was one of those that was a privilege to be able to write, to say a little about someone whose own career stood as a monument to what was accomplished by the civil rights movement, even though he accomplished much of it in the face of systemic apartheid.


It was also fascinating to discover some stories I hadn't known before, especially that of his namesake, John Hope, educated at Worcester Academy, which I knew well as a teenager, whose father was white and mother black, but who refused every chance to 'pass' in the white world, and became a founder, with WEB DuBois, of the Niagara Movement. Franklin's biography of George Washington Williams seems equally interesting --almost a prototype of the Hope and Hope Franklin characters, and the story of his father Buck resonated because of the bits of Dennis Lehane's The Given Day set in Tulsa's prosperous black areas, a sort of tribal homeland before its time.

It's not just that Franklin was a great man; it's the idea that the power of learning, of writing, of teaching can have such an impact on the 'real' world. That's what we hope, so to speak, might still apply, especially since the battlelines are so much less well-defined in today's world.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

FURTHER SIGNS OF THE IMPENDING APOCALYPSE

THE ONLY RESPONSE TO THE FOLLOWING IS: 'Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!'

(Although it is also rather mind-boggling to see 'comedy chops' and 'Guy Ritchie' used in the same sentence, unless it's a sentence about his marriage to Madonna.) And lest we forget: the REAL AND ONLY Stooges appear right...

From Daily Variety Wed., Mar. 25, 2009
MGM gets its 'Three Stooges'
Penn, Carrey, Del Toro part of studio's plan
By MICHAEL FLEMING
MGM and the Farrelly brothers are closing in on their cast for "The Three Stooges." Studio has set Sean Penn to play Larry, and negotiations are under way with Jim Carrey to play Curly; the actor is already making plans to gain 40 pounds to approximate the physical dimensions of Jerome "Curly" Howard.The studio is zeroing in on Benicio Del Toro to play Moe.

MGM has delayed release of the film until some time in 2010. Pic was to have opened Nov. 20 in time for the high-profile Thanksgiving frame. The move means that MGM has only one release so far dated for 2009: "Fame," set to open Sept. 25. (Studio has two horror pics and one suspense title waiting for release dates.)

"Three Stooges" is not a biopic but rather a comedy built around the antics of the three characters that Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard played in the Columbia Pictures shorts. Peter and Bobby Farrelly's quest to harness the project spans more than a decade and three studios. They first tried at Col, again at Warner Bros. and finally at MGM, where Worldwide Motion Picture Group chair Mary Parent championed the cause, buying the WB-owned scripts and making a deal with "Stooges" rights holders C3.

Production will begin in early fall. The Farrellys, who wrote the script, are producing with their Conundrum partner Bradley Thomas and Charlie Wessler.C3 Entertainment principals Earl and Robert Benjamin will exec produce. Project will get under way after Penn completes the Asger Leth-directed Universal/Imagine Entertainment drama "Cartel." He hasn't done a comedy since the 1989 laffer "We're No Angels." The Farrellys have long had their eyes on Del Toro to play Moe. Thesp, who's coming off "Che," showed comic chops in the Guy Ritchie-directed "Snatch." The surprise is the emergence of Carrey to play Curly.

Oh, THAT'S the surprise? Someone ought to moiderlize these guys.


Wednesday, 25 March 2009

BETSY BLAIR: IN MEMORIAM

My obituary of Betsy Blair is in today's Independent (here). Because I knew Betsy, and liked her so much, it was hard to write, wanting both to do justice to the person I knew and cover the details of her life for those who didn't know her, all in a word limit which I overran, with the kind post-facto permission of the editor. It's mostly as I wrote it; a few small changes--no writer is ever satisfied with the subbing--but the best compromise I could manage.

The kinds of things you'd like to say, but leave out, are things like the memory which has now become my primary one of her, despite all the time I knew her before it happened. When my son was born, my wife and I made our first trip to the Royal Free at six in the morning; they sent us away, and we spent the day killing time until they'd let us back in. After a lovely al fresco lunch at Vegia Zena in Primrose Hill, we watched Marty, which Kirsten had never seen, and Betsy's performance amazed her, as it should have. Nate would wait until nearly seven the next morning to finally appear, but I've always thought the film somehow kept him entertained while he, and we, were waiting. We had once bumped into Betsy at the hospital, while we waited for a pre-natal scan, and she was coming out of the oncology ward; it was the first hint we'd had that anything was wrong with her health, she wasn't one to dwell on the negative. Apart from George Bush.

I would've loved to be able to go on further about Betsy's presence sitting around a table, either at her flat or John Lahr's above, the way she seemed to generate and encourage conversation. I wanted to write more about her salons: I think she'd learned so much so quickly in those early days in New York, she wanted to keep that atmosphere alive wherever she lived, and her circles in Hollywood, Paris, and London were wide-ranging.

Re-reading her memoir made me marvel at how well-written it was, the shifts in time and place work perfectly to convey the sense of both a girl thrust into a wonderous world at a very young age and the older woman remembering how it was. There's little bitterness in it, except perhaps in the introduction, where it is deserved.

I loved the way Nate cuddled right into her lap when he was little; I regretted that once we moved from London we saw so little of her. We never got to talk more about Orson Welles and her experience as Desdemona (one of three) in his Othello, which would have made a fine article for a paper. But then I realised her history with the play itself would have made an even better one.

Researching her life I discovered she'd played in two more Othellos. I've never seen All Night Long, Basil Dearden's version set in London's jazz scene, featuring Patrick McGoohan in the Iago role, and Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck as themselves. Marti Stevens has the Desdemona role. One comment called it 'camp' which would be interesting to see Betsy doing, though I suspect they mean unintentionally camp. Betsy also played Bianca in Tony Richardson's 1955 BBC version with Rosemary Harris as Desdemona. Interestingly, I came across one listed which had Billie Whitelaw in the Bianca role; I wonder if any copy of the original exists. Richardson's version of A Delicate Balance is available on DVD, and Betsy is superb; it reunited her with Joseph Cotten, with whom she played in The Halliday Brand, which is a much undervalued western, not least for her performance. I also would have liked to see her in the 1965 BBC Play of the Month Death Of A Salesman, with Rod Steiger, but these were the sort of asides that had to be lost from the obit. I would have liked to have gone further into the blacklist; how Dore Schary made the difference with Marty (writing Millard Kaufman's obit for the Guardian a few days later, I learned Schary had saved Bad Day At Black Rock by suggesting the character be made one-armed, knowing Spencer Tracy wouldn't be able to resist playing the part disabled, and with Tracy on board, the studio wouldn't cancel the film--it seemed like the kind of story I would have heard from Betsy had I been able to mention to her that I was doing the piece.

A few days after I filed the obit, I was at a BSC preview of Bertrand Tavernier's In The Electric Mist, and when we were talking I mentioned that Betsy had died, and he was distraught. She'd been a guest last summer at their festival in Lyon, and he regaled me with stories about how graceful and knowledgable she'd been; there's nothing he enjoys more than talking the minutiae of film history, and he was completely in his element with her. I said this came as no surprise.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

LAW AND ORDER UK REDUX

Since I wrote about the debut of Law & Order UK (here) I've seen four more episodes, and I've noticed something interesting. Unlike the first show, the three shows which followed were all based on classic L&O stories that I remembered well (the first was also an adaptation, just not of an episode I recalled), and each of them fell far short of the original. That made me realise I had judged the first show far more on the basis of what it might be, as opposed to what it was, or more crucially wasn't. So when I saw the fifth entry to the series last night, I was relieved it wasn't a story I recalled vividly, and more than a little surprised that I didn't think it worked all that well.

In general, Law & Order UK is underplayed. L&O at its best has the ability to delineate its new characters quickly and well, the way Robert Parker or Ed McBain do in their books. But the British version finds the parts very much slow-building; actors not so much projecting themselves as allowing the words to do it for them, and the words are not doing it well. Bradley Walsh seems to be playing off Jamie Bamber, all internal control and releasing nuggets of wisdom,rather than making the younger officer play off him. In 'Buried' last night's episode, when the cop who blew the investigation (and beat a gay suspect) 25 years earlier says 'we finally got him', I can't see Jerry Orbach handling the reply 'we?' as a throwaway line, the way Walsh did. Orbach would've milked it with his sourest scowl. In fact, the programme lacks anyone who can scowl properly (although I know Harriet Walter can). Instead, the emoting has a 'let's make the best of it, it'll be all right on the night' attitude, like a soap opera you wait for the inevitable cup of tea. If I were casting, I might reconsider, make Bill Patterson the lead prosecutor and Walter, insanely under-used at present, the DPP.

In the British version, the shows are often played as who-dunnits, but the key clues are similiarly underplayed. In 'Buried', when a young woman says she hasn't seen her parents' house in Lewes, alarm bells were going off everywhere except in the show's cops' heads. It's odd that the writers, in re-doing some of the very best shows, are so cavalier with the key lines. In the previous week's 'Unsafe', a remake of the absolute classic 'American Dream', the key line in the original was when Zeljko Ivanek, relishing his role, crows 'it's not like I haven't done this before', which springs a trap in Michael Moriarty's mind; a similar line in the British version does nothing for Ben Daniels; the revelation strikes him only after he sees records that remind him of what was said.

Daniels is one of the show's major problems. Not that he isn't a good actor, a sort of small-screen version of Jeremy Irons, it's that most of his conflict is internalised; hell, in 'Unsafe' he was reduced to tears of helplessness. The bigger difficulty is that there isn't enough interplay between the CPS and the real villains, the defense attorneys, to provide the chance to emote. They've cast them well, Patrick Malahide in the first show, Colin Salmon in the fifth, but they aren't given chances to go mano-a-mano in a judge's chambers; they don't object; the can't make plea deals the way the American lawyers can. There are no arraignment hearings, set-pieces in each L&O which give a bit-part to a judge who gets to crack wise. Another of the very best L&Os was 'Working Mom', the story of the suburban housewife who kills to protect the secret that she's moonlighting as a high-class call girl. Her lawyer was played by Elaine Strich, running circles round the repressed Moriarty. Leslie Manville was an inspired choice for the role in the remake, but she wasn't given any circles to run.

In fact, the whole episode lacked the bite of the original; I realise we Americans are supposed to be devoid of irony, but isn't 'Working Mom' a better title than 'Vice', just as 'American Dream' had far more connotations than 'Unsafe'. A key part of 'Buried' was the hypnotism of the only witness; in the original the title was 'In Memory Of', again far more telling. Dr Elisabeth Olivet, as played by Carolyn McCormack, had a bigger part in the drama; the British version used the hypnotist as a technician, like it was an episode of Holby City. Again, the emphasis seems to be on the mechanics of the plot, rather than the conflicts or expressions of character.

Olivet was a key figure in the US version of the second show in the series, called 'Born Bad' but here retitled, again as if with a rolling pin, 'Unloved'. It is the episode where the defense is a genetic proclivity to violence, and ends with the child believing himself a freak, and asking for prison. The British version became an exercise in class consciousness, you expected someone from Wife Swap to appear at any moment. And whether it's a natural instinct, the American child actor was able to convey a blank indifference while his English counterpart could do only yobbish aggro.

In the criminal televison series, there are two separate, yet equally important versions. The Americans, who don't mind looking or acting hard-boiled, and the British, who seem intent on keeping everything up on stage; it is the difference, on a small screen, between cinema and theatre, and that's why, when you look at them side by side, the British version, better than most of its domestic counterparts, seems lessened.

Friday, 20 March 2009

WARREN KIMBRO; NEW HAVEN ACTIVIST

My obit of Warren Kimbro is in the Guardian today, you can find it here. Kimbro's was an incredible story, one I felt grateful to the paper for letting me write. Growing up in the New Haven area, I watched my hometown change from a thriving real city to a ghettoised shell surrounding an ever-more-fortified Yale. I remember being at an FT Christmas party and having an editor who'd been to Yale tell me how much the college had done for New Haven, and I said, that's why we all is so rich and so grateful! This did little for my future as a freelancer for the pink-only-in-colour one.

One thing that didn't make it into the piece was that Kimbro was, surprisingly, a huge Yale sports fan; when I read that it brought his story closer. Even more than that, though, was the memory of having gone on strike at Wesleyan that May, of demonstrating on the New Haven green, and of how even in the middle of all that seeming chaos there was a feeling that something better would come from it. In Middletown, when the body was found in nearby Middlefield, we figured some of the guys I used to hang around the gym with were probably in on the deal. Those were very different times. I'm not sure how much good came from them, but certainly Kimbro's story proves something did, and it gives us all some hope.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

HEROES NEVER DIE: WESTLAKE AND SPILLANE IN THE AMERICAN EYE

Yesterday's essay on the Watchmen film was the 100th post on Irresistible Targets. Thanks for all the feedback--leave it on the site if you can (rather than emailing me) so it too can be shared.

Meanwhile, my January (!?!) American Eye column has finally been posted at Shots, a double review of and tribute to Donald Westlake's last Richard Stark Parker novel, Dirty Money, and the first of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer mss to be finished by Max Allan Collins, The Goliath Bone. As the link to it at Shots no longer works, you can now find the whole piece reprinted at IT here. Mickey and Goliath. Sounds like the title of a biography. That's Mickey and Max above on the right, and Westlake and Stark together on the left.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

WATCHING THE WATCHMEN

Watchmen created an interesting phenomenon; its reviews, particularly in the US, were as bad as any film's I can recall, including some every bit as gratuitously violent as they accused the film of being. At the same time, it was the top grossing movie in its opening weekend, despite, at two hours 40 minutes, being too long for the allegedly limited attention span of today's teenaged cinema audience. I heard one cinema manager explain that parents were arriving with six-year olds expecting something like Spider Man 23, given that the film suffered a two-thirds drop in the second week, word of mouth may have caught up with the fact that this isn't the film almost anyone thinks it is. At the most basic level,the bad reviews are very much a part of this inability to place, indeed, to understand what the film actually is, and this is a problem which has hung over Watchmen ever since the novel came out; first its writer, Alan Moore, and then potential director Terry Gilliam, both declared it unfilmable.

Watchmen is set in the 1980s. Nixon is in his fifth term as president, and costumed heroes have been outlawed, except for Doctor Manhattan, his body transformed in a nuclear accident, whose presence on the American side has thus far kept the world out of nuclear war. The Soviets are threatening war and Nixon is convinced the US could win nuclear armageddon, and someone has just murdered The Comedian, a member of the 1940s crime-fighting group The Minutemen, who stayed active with the Watchmen, and who, we learn in the credits sequence, has worked for the government doing any number of dirty jobs including assassinating JFK from the Grassy Knoll. Rorschach, who apparently has kept working as a costumed crime fighter, despite the ban, tries to reform the Watchmen to avenge the Comedian's killing.

Normally, it's not a good idea to review the reviews of a movie, but in this case, because I think the critics' reactions reflect the core difficulty the film presents, I will refer to two in particular: by AO Scott and Anthony Lane. Scott is the Bosley Crowther of this millennium for the New York Times, vainly fighting a rearguard action for literary values, mainstream entertainment, and artistic decorum. Scott finds it remarkable that the 'interminable' film 'freezes its frame of reference in the 1980s', saying it would appeal best to someone who was a college sophomore at that time, who had 'a smattering of Nietzsche and an extensive record collection'. While he's perceptive enough, which isn't saying much, to note themes of 'apocalypse and decay' (but not to realise the 80s was where these themes came together after being explored separately throughout the 70s) he also accuses the film of 'shallow nihilism', seeing its major conflict as the moral choice between killing masses and killing individuals; 'the only action that makes sense in this world is killing.'

At least he's willing to concede some sort of meaning. Lane, Oxford's man at the New Yorker, might be expected to treat it more gently, as Moore is English, and in this country critical reaction to Watchmen has been tempered by patriotism and the opportunity to show moral disapproval for rapacious Hollywood. But Lane is, in fact, even more dismissive than Scott, advising audiences to walk out after the credits sequence. He compares Watchmen unfavourably to Persepolis or Maus, the 'acceptable' face of graphic novels, saying Watchmen is stuck in 'cod mythology and rainy dystopias'. He too is bothered by the setting, though he's too mathematically challenged to understand Nixon is on his fifth term, not his third. He's also seemingly incensed by the fact that the movie's Nite Owl rips off Batman. His idea of the demeaning audience at which the film is aimed is 'leering 19 year olds' who believe 'America is ruled by the military industrial complex and whose deepest fear (even deeper than meeting an intelligent woman, he says) is that the Warren Commission might have been right all along.'

It's easy to see behind their dislike of Watchman's political perspective. Moore, of course, has dealt before in rainy dystopia; V for Vendetta is set very much in the British version of Watchmen's America, a cross of Thatcher and Orwell which five terms of Nixon approximates fairly well. Superman, remember, fought for 'truth, justice, and the American way', and this world view is one the novel and film present with irony. Remember too, war requires a suspension of super-hero disbelief: if in the 1940s, the Allies really had Superman and Wonder Woman on their side, why didn't they win the war overnight? The experience of Doc Manhattan (and the Comedian) in Vietnam shows us what this would have meant in 'real' life, and makes the bigger point. The superhero impulse does not solve problems, and its appeal is always, at heart, fascist. This, presumably, is what drew the sneering Nietzsche references from AO. But living in an era where a president sought virtually absolute powers to wage virtually perpetual war, it's quite a feat to ignore any metaphoric linking to the present, especially from the paper of Judith Miller. I mean, they even make fun of big business, can you believe it (!?!), as if prosperity weren't just around the corner.

The film is, if anything, more heavy-handed than Moore in ladling out the irony of the superheroes at the beck and call of a corrupt imperialists. The Comedian, who works willingly doing the government's dirty tricks, is also the only crime-fighter who understands, and accepts,his existence as the theatre of the absurd Moore sees it being. He answers Nite Owl's anguished cry 'what happened to the American Dream' by laughing 'this IS the American Dream', and Jeffrey Dean Morgan's playing of the character like Robert Downey playing Nick Fury (one of the models for him) makes that work. I think at least part of the vituperative critical response in the US (and the critical pleasure in the UK) comes from that raw expression of American failure. In this sense, the closest filmic equivalent I can think of is Godard's Made In USA, in which a Richard Stark 'Parker' novel is transformed into a little essay about how the US is in Vietnam because of the same impulse that caused Richard Widmark to throw the lady in the wheelchair down the stairs. Substitute comics for film noir, add a little entertainment value, and you've got Watchmen.

But the crux of understanding the film, and both these reviews, is Lane's harumphing at 'cod mythology', because Watchmen the novel is all about mythology. No less than Godard, Moore is aware of how the pulp fictions of a society reflect, if not shape, that society's behaviour. But he's reflecting comic books from the 'golden' and 'silver' ages, not film noir from the 40s and 50s. This mythology was always going to be the hardest part to convert to film. In fact, the most self-referential part of the novel, a comic within the comic, was eliminated (though it was filmed for a DVD bonus). This is why the setting, in the 1980s, is so important: the real target audience for Watchmen was born in the baby boom, and grew up reading Marvel comics, attracted to them by their adding of real-life angst to the daily lives of Superheroes. That's why the music of the film is so anchored in Sixties cliché (and here I have to agree with Lane that we should ban 'Hallelujah' from any further soundtrack use, ever. Ironic intent or not.) When Frank Miller revitalised Batman with the Dark Knight Returns, the films drew on that nihilism only slightly; though the iconography got adapted in many other parts of mainstream film making.

Remember too that, apart from Doctor Manhattan, none of the Watchmen is actually a super hero. They are costumed crime-fighters, but they posses no super powers (though Ozymandias seems to come very close in some ways). Nite Owl's being out of shape is only hinted at by one shot of his gut, then he seems back instantly to full villain-routing prowess, but these are very much people. Of course he's a copy of Batman, AO, that's what Moore was doing, playing with the tropes of the heroes, at the same time he was inventing so many more. And if the Comedian is his most perfect invention in terms of the role of the hero him (or her) self, it is Rorschach who, as his name implies, is the litmus test for the audience. With his constantly-shifting mask, but otherwise dressed like Mike Hammer, his Spillane-like voice-over frames the film, and it is his diary which will, at film's end, overturn the great good deed which the Watchmen have done. He is the spirit of pure vengeance, and as played brilliant by Jackie Earle Haley, with a Clint Eastwood rasp made all the more effective by the coincident release of Gran Torino, he is both the most violent and most sympathetic of the characters. This suggests another comparison, because what Moore and now Snyder are doing with comic heroes is very similar to what Sergio Leone did with westerns: The Man With No Name reflected, in some ways, an adult approach to the super-hero elements of the genre, a look at what things might really be like if you accepted the conventions of the genre and tried to make them work in reality.

Moore drew on existing comic characters besides Batman. Rorschach is his version of Steve Ditko's Question and Mr A, particularly the latter, with his uncompromising views of right and wrong. That so many of the other characters recall previous comics' heroes is intentional, but too esoteric for the mainstream movie audience; even modern comic nuts are unlikely to have seen Charlton comics, the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and many more. So the backstory gets jammed into that entertaining credits sequence which Lane loved. We learn the fates of some of The Minutemen, heroes of the 40s, of whom the Comedian is the only one still active. Mothman went crazy; Dollar Bill was shot when his cape was caught in a revolving door. Lesbian heroine Silhouette was forced to 'retire' then murdered with her lover by an old enemy turned into a crazed sex killer by her 'perversion'. The similar fading to the background of gay Hooded Justice is passed over. But the depth of Moore's comic book universe is thus established right at the start, and to some extent, it's a question of how much the audience can accept it, and what follows, as history which underscores their appreciation of the film.

It has its flaws, though few of them are as serious as those that rendered Zach Snyder's previous film, 300, also a comic book adaptation, so one-dimensional. It is at times gratuitously violent: even if it is understandable that the basic fighting should been enhanced, to emphasize that, although lacking super powers, these are still heroes. Rorschach's prison scenes go on for too long, are too graphic, and don't need to be there; there's a similar indulgence in his explanatory stories. There is an adolescent and voyeuristic lingering over the attempted rape of the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), and when the somewhat wooden Malin Ackerman (who has the unfortunate task of trying to play a scene while being loved by two blue Doctor Manhattans while a third works in the next room) finally dons her costume and steps on screen I laughed out loud, because the costume was simply latex and high heels and she looked almost exactly like a blow up sex doll. The guys, except Rorschach, get costumes obviously engineered to assist them; while Silk Spectre gets fetish. This too reflects the adolescent male sexual world of comics and their audience, including AO Scott, who, oddly, found both Gugino and Ackerman's performances 'solid'. So latex has its artistic uses after all.

And on its own terms, the film is at its weakest as it tries to resolve its over-arching mystery, the bigger question of sacrifice and survival. Part of this is because the ethical dilemma is presented in exactly the kind of philosophy-lite that the critics complain about. Part of it (spoiler alert here) is down to Ozymandias really not being involved enough in the story to the point where he is revealed to be its linch-pin; this was a flaw in the novel too, though to a much lesser extent. And the destruction of Manhattan with nuclear devices is puzzling as well: it seems to have been specific enough to have left most of the island (including both Nite Owl's subway tunnel and Silk Spectre I's flat) unscathed (not to mention free of radiation).

Watchmen fails as a juvenile entertainment; it's too complex. It probably fails as a complex entertainment, in that its assumptions, and its biggest dilemma, are both too simple. The many-layered subtleties of the novel are, after all, based on readings of comic books, and although Michael Chabon has won awards for doing just that sort of deconstruction, not many others doing it will be praised by the New York Times. Time magazine, however, picked Watchmen as one of the 100 greatest novels in English, so go figure. The movie has the power to keep a sensitive, non-comic book reading, anti-violence, prefers-subtitles kind of movie watcher like my wife attentive throughout. It's a fine effort at adaptation, probably about as good as we could expect. I'd put it somewhere between Leone's Fistful of Dollars, a not-quite-perfect first effort, and The Good The Bad and The Ugly, a pulp epic (For A Few Dollars More is more of a self-contained and perfectly formed film) but it should be considered in the same way as we looked at Leone's westerns. Something different from the super hero movies you've seen before. That may well be more weight than the genre can stand, especially in the eyes of Mr Scott and Mr Lane.

Friday, 13 March 2009

JOE GORES' INTERFACE A Forgotten Friday (the 13th) Entry

It's hard to call Joe Gores' Interface a 'forgotten' book, especially since it was re-issued in 2004, thirty years after it first appeared, in Orion's 'Crime Masterworks' series. But it's worth looking at again, especially because Gores followed it up in 1975 with Hammett, another great novel, which became a fine, if flawed film, and now of course has a new novel out in the US, Spade & Archer, a knowing prequel of sorts to The Maltese Falcon. It hasn't been announced in this country yet, so I haven't seen it, though I have seen some mixed reviews, which have led to me think it isn't perhaps as hard-boiled as one might've thought it might be.

I say that because I think Interface was, arguably along with George V Higgins' debut The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, the most important crime novel of the 1970s. Where Higgins was looking forward, in the sense he was working out a style that no one in the genre had used before, and which he would refine to the point of brilliance, Gores looked back, producing a novel that probably was the greatest take on the idea of hard-boiled detectives anyone had attempted to that point, and probably greater than any de-construction of the genre since. Apotheosis is a word often used without justification, but to me, Interface is the apotheosis of the hard-boiled novel.

Gores was breaking ground pretty consistently back then. His 1969 novel, A Time Of Predators, anticipated Death Wish by a few years, although it's closer to Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, one of his two most misunderstood movies (The Getaway being the other, and for many of the same reasons) although I haven't read The Siege Of Trencher's Farm, the source novel for the film, it came out the same year, so neither was presumably an influence on the other. His DKA series was, in essence, police procedural set in a detective agency, specializing in skip tracing: long before Alex Cox's film. He was one of, if not the first, writers to emphasize the mundanity of routine private investigations, something that would be followed by any number of private eye writers. He'd also played around in the DKA novels, including a cameo appearance by Richard Stark's Parker, a gesture returned by Donald Westlake in a novel of his own.

I mention Parker, because Gores dedicated Interface to Parker, 'that Stark villain...because he's such a beautiful human being.' And that's quite a big clue into the business of Interface, because the crook in that story, called Docker, is Parker with a slight limp, and the nominal hero, Neil Fargo is as bent a private eye as you've ever seen. The book begins with Docker killing two men and stealing drugs for which he was supposed to be the bag man, limping away with both money and heroin. Docker was a Vietnam buddy of Fargo's and Fargo has brought him in, acting as middleman between a local dealer, Kolinsky and an importer, Harriss. Kolinsky keeps a junkie mistress, called Robin, who's given up on life, and she knows Docker, and Fargo is looking for her, because she's actually Roberta Stayton, an heiress whose father pays Fargo for the search.

It's not a pretty story, and it's not told in pretty terms: in fact it seems of a piece with all those grimy looking early 1970s crime movies, the dark and grimy side of the bright New Frontier, when the veneer of society's civilising structures had been removed from the ever-present underworld. It's a novel about failed dreams, and about obligations to the past; a novel about the ruin of Vietnam and the sonambulant world of drugs. Most of all, it's about what being a private detective is all about. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade has a line about not really being as crooked as he's supposed to be, and of course he has responsibilities he cannot escape, lines he will not let himself cross. The same is true in this book, which spends 200 pages deconstructing everything about a private eye you're supposed to believe, and then putting it back together with one twist that turns it all on its head. I loved the novel when I read it for the first time, and it is so well-done I was still caught by its twist when I re-read it thirty years later. Joe Gores has always been the real deal, and this is the most real of all his books. It's a classic, it's one of the all-time greats. Over the years I've handed out a number of copies of the book to friends; it's the kind of book you want everyone who loves the detective novel to read.

Interface by Joe Gores 1974
Orion Crime Masterworks edition, 2004 £6.99
ISBN 0752851888

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

VISITING OLD CITY HALL with ROBERT ROTENBERG

My review of Robert Rotenberg's Old City Hall is up at Crime Time, you can find it here. It's the best first novel I've read since Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, and look where that one went. The publisher's blurb compared it to Law & Order, and in fact, it shares many of the strengths of that series. Of course, they also compared it to CSI, and I still can't figure out why! And if you're curious, that's the Old City Hall itself, on the left.

LOREN ESTLEMAN'S AMERICAN DETECTIVE

Amos Walker is back, and for most of this novel Estleman shows why his detective has remained a mainstay in the streets of Detroit, while many of the other regional private eyes have fallen by the wayside. Walker is hired by a former star baseball player, who's now facing bankrupcy, to investigate his daughter's boyfriend, who, he worries, is after her trust fund money, all that he has left her. When Walker finds the daughter murdered, he finds himself in his usual position, caught between the cops, his client, and the real killer. In this case, the killer would appear to be the boyfriend, but Walker needs to find him and prove it before he starts feeling a literal pinch.

What works best about this book is the way the aging Walker and his own increasingly creaky business, fit in with both declining Detroit and with the faded glory of his client, a hero the last time the Tigers won the World Series, back in 1968, a victory which, it being Detroit, sparked riots. There are a number of convincing scenes, especially one where a corrupt real estate agent tries to seduce Walker, and all of them play off a sense of time passing, and not for the better. And of course all this was written before the auto manufacturers discovered that there was a 'get out of jail free' card available from the government, in terms of bailouts for an industry which already had ground itself and its city into meaninglessness.

What works less well is the final third of the book, where Walker is forced to perform some heroic derring-do reminiscent of Harrison Ford in Air Force One. For just a second, I thought the derring do might become derring didn't, and this would be an elegaic story, and thuswork better; on the other hand I think I'd miss Walker.

So I'm glad the villains did miss him. Someone ought to get Estleman into print in this country; see my very first American Eye column in Shots; you can find it here. We need more good private eyes.

American Detective, by Loren Estleman
Tor Books 2007, US $7.99, ISBN 0765350823

HILLARY WAUGH: MY GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Hillary Waugh, who died on 8 December (though his death wasn't made public until the end of the month) appears in today's Guardian; you can find it here. Waugh was one of the masters of the police procedural novel, and Last Seen Wearing is considered a milestone. It was particularly interesting to analyse his approach to the sub-genre, to which he came via 'cozy' mysteries. And it was a special pleasure for me to write about him, as he was born and lived most of his life in New Haven and Guilford, Connecticut, the area where I was raised. Apparently, he kept a very comprehensive daily journal fom ages 17 to 80, and they lined rows of bookshelves in his house in Guilford, which had been his family's summer cottage when he was a boy in New Haven. Like Guilford, Woodmont, when I was growing up, still had cottages used in the summer by people from New Haven, only ten miles away; with my birthday approching, it struck me how diametrically different my life would be had I been able to buy and live in one of them...

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

AND HERE'S TO YOU MRS. MYERSON: Julie Battles Light Literary Incontinence

There is a danger of over-indulging in schadenfreude while watching an exercise in literary self-promotion explode, especially when damage control starts to become so hilarious that the overall result may well be to put readers off the book entirely. I reached for the metaphoric alka-selzer after reading that Julie Myerson's publisher was promoting her 'controversial' book, in which she uses the story of banishing her drug-using son, to 'fans of Joan Didion'. Didion, you'll recall, wrote an extremely moving memoir, The Year Of Magical Thinking, after losing her husband and daughter in the same year. So if you're a fan of death-memoirs, you'll love Julie! Except, it wasn't Julie's son who died, no, he was merely being used to counter-point the tale of a Victorian girl who did. Though not from drugs. Well, here's the difference: Joan Didion wrote about herself, her husband, and her daughter. She didn't need (or presumably want) a two-centuries old ghost to use as a literary device, and she wouldn't stoop to using her child (or husband) as a literary device.

Even without the crass attempt to get a rub from someone else's heartfelt tragedy and their remarkably straightforward accounting of her own feelings, one might have been merely amused at some less visceral level while watching the whole 'controversy' play out in such predictable ways, and follow such well-established protocols within the tightly-knit world of Britain's literary establishment. I particularly liked the restriction of advance copies--to ensure the debate isn't sullied by anyone having actually read the book itself, and thereby judging her actions by the written result. The furore about Julie's 'revelation' and her 'torment' thus becomes the issue, rather than the issue being about using her son as a literary device. Which is fairly hypocritical considering that it's nothing more than an extension of a long and tedious tradition of newspapers acting like puppies rediscovering the trials and tribulations of everyday life each time one of their staff journalists or certain selected freelancers encounters it for themselves. The Guardian, for example, has an entire section, Family, devoted to such revelations, and its G2 section seems to pick a new writer every year or two (like Maggie O'Farrell or Lionel Shriver) whose every shopping trip becomes fodder for another column. ((Note: this turned out to be especially prescient: see the update below)). There is no requirement such pieces be factual: Zoe Heller wrote hundreds of them about every aspect of getting around in the high life in New York for multiple papers and magazines while simultaneously describing, without any apparent 'irony' (see below) how she suffered from depression so strong she couldn't leave her bed or even write a word for weeks at a time. But exploiting one's children still requires some tact, and once it became clear some editors felt Julie lacked a certain sensitivity, damage-control began pounding its computer keys.

The self-help card was the one played post-facto to justify Julie's weaving of her own story of throwing her drug-using son out of the family office, or home, into her latest book. In a huge Guardian piece Saturday, even Ian Jack, who shares an agent with Julie, found it hard to accept this at face value. According to their mutual agent, he reported, Julie 'would have preferred the book to slip quietly into the shops' but with her keen sense of media cause and effect, knew this was 'unlikely' so she launched a pro-active strike by giving a quiet interview to the Bookseller, and having it get picked up by the friendly-fire of the Observer. 'People need to know this happens to families like ours,' she said. 'When we were in our darkest, loneliest place, it would have been helpful to read a book like this.'

Really? The book is, apparently, about a Victorian girl who left a nice album of watercolours behind when she died aged 21. You can see the film poster: 'What do you say about a Victorian girl who died at 21?' How this was supposed to help parents whose kids were on drugs, including those harder than skunk, was not explained. Perhaps Julie's advice is to get an agent and write the story up to tack on to whatever dim idea of a book they've been unable to spice up otherwise. Call it therapy.

By coincidence, yesterday I heard Ulrike Jonsson on Woman's Hour, offering support for women afflicted with Light Urinary Incontinence. This is common among women who've had children (or spent twenty years pounding back pints with the lads). It occurred to me that Ulrike was kind of a working-class version of Julie, only more comfortable talking on TV. Ulrike was basically saying 'people need to know this happens in families like ours'. Only she didn't have a book to promote, nor the story of a 200-year dead woman to append to her tale. There is help and there is self-help, after all.

Julie's real aim is to help those afflicted with Light Literary Incontinence. The story is not really her son's, nor her family's, but hers: the writer coping with real life. Parallel-life stories were hot, you can see Julie telling her agent, like Nicole Kidman with her enhanced proboscis in The Hours. But since every minute detail of Julie's family life has been inflicted on readers of various newspapers, mostly the Guardian, for years, how to spice that bit up? Luckily, there is a strong new tradition of 'hidden family' stories among the British literati. Lately it seems virtually every Oxbridge-educated writer who's between good book ideas discovers that his or her father, apparently a perfectly average bottom-whipping Englishman, was actually a Romanian woman spy who'd had a sex-change operation, moved to England, robbed banks, and maintained two additional families, one in Romania and the other in the furthest reaches of working class Yorkshire. In a sense, these are stiff-upper-lip versions of Oprah-style 'survivor' tales. But as we've seen in the US, most of those stories wind up being hotly disputed by the families the writer has 'survived', if not shown to be out and out frauds.

When Mr Myerson spoke to papers on Saturday, he said Julie was 'devastated at what she'd done to people we love,' and that she didn't think she was 'famous enough' (yet) to 'have the Daily Mail parked outside'. She wasn't speaking to the press, though not because of her intense devastation, but because she'd sold her agony exclusively to the Sunday Times. Even Ian Jack recoiled at that one, saying 'oh irony'. What the English call irony, the French call 'Albion perfide'. Mr. Myerson's reference to the Mail was a nice way of setting the class boundaries out firmly. For the Myersons' campaign, the battle lines were familiar: against Julie: the tabloids, including the Telegraph; for Julie: the Guardian and BBC, with the Sunday Times walking a narrow tightrope of disapproval balanced by the long pole of having paid for its exclusive. Having been quoted at length over the weekend, Mr. Myerson finally weighed in with a long piece in today's Guardian (linked via a photo of her, not him nor her son) that showed the game at its most cynical.

On BBC Radio Monday, Julie sounded aggrieved that her son had sold his story to (wait for it) the Daily Mail! One assumes he didn't use her agent. 'How could he?' falls a bit flat coming from someone who has already sold both his story, and then her story about his story, multiple times. Today, Mr Myerson explained how Julie had met with her son over 'lunches in our local Italian', where he had corrected the proofs and given his OK (something the son disputes totally). Julie used poems the son had written, which they found when searching his room for more material, but that was fine because she paid him £1,000 to use them in the book. Consider that one for a moment. You have a son whose drug addiction frightens the hell out of you, you kick him out of the house, and what do you do next: meet for lunch and discuss the book you're doing, and bung him a grand which of course he will spend responsibly. I await her appearance on Newsnight Review, where she can review her own book, and attempt to break Andrew Neil's all-comers record for getting caught looking for your camera. You want some BBC producer to say 'I know Joan Bakewell, and you're no Joan Bakewell!'

The Guardian gave Mr. Myerson one last chance to reclaim the moral high-ground, but his article today read like 'a doctor writes'. When he quoted a Professor who 'estimates that as many as 10% of schizophrenics in the UK would not have developed the disease had they not smoked cannabis', you not only wonder how Julie's book is going to stop them, but of what use an estimate that may be as high as some figure actually is, and of course whether we should not try to separate correlation with causation. He played the sympathy card, describing how after throwing their son out, he and Julie 'gaze from the front window...watching the empty street, wondering what to do next'. Thinking of which papers they haven't yet sold a piece about their window-gazing to. Then, we assume, they decided to include their son in Julie's next book. Finally, he played the self-help card one last time. 'Your problem starts when your child smokes his first skunk. And maybe then you'll pick up her book and want to understand'. Even at his most impassioned, he never lost sight of getting in the plug for the book.

I do not mean any of this to downplay the seriousness of any child out of control, much less one who's discovered drugs. But that's not the point. The point is the line you draw between working out serious problems, helping others with their problems, and using a situation in a cynical attempt to liven up a boring story and generate massive publicity for yourself. Of course, once the media have quieted down, it will be up to the book-buying public to decide which on side of the line to place the Myersons.

Update (11/3): While being savaged by Jeremy Paxman can make anyone sympathetic, the confession in today's Guardian that Julie wrote, anonymously, the 'Living With Teenagers' column in the Saturday Family section would seem to reinforce what I said--as Julie admits that 'some incidents were partly fictionalised', to make the stories better. The Guardian editors say they felt uncomfortable on behalf of her children, should anyone find out the author's identity, but not uncomfortable enought to deny Julie her market. And although they received complaints from people worried about the same thing, they say that was balanced by the praise they received from people who now realised 'they weren't alone'. Even though they were sharing their suffering with someone who was making it up whenever it suited her. The editors also didn't know about the Myerson's crisis: perhaps she was saving that one for the book.

The issue to me remains not whether or not Julie should have written about her son, nor whether or not drug use is a serious problem. The issue to me remains the way her son and her problems became part of a literary construct, promoted through predictable controversy in predictable places. At least by Tuesday she'd figured out a way to talk around giving her drug addict son the £1,000 (now, it seems, she discovered she'd 'channelled' the money to him, and a supernatural novel is probably waiting already in the wings).

But if there is one lesson to be learned, it's what kind of an idiot would turn to an anonymous novelist's half-fictions in the Guardian in order to learn how to raise or cope with their children?

Friday, 6 March 2009

SPIKING DEEP THROAT: GERARD DAMIANO AND JIM MITCHELL'S GUARDIAN OBITUARIES

I wrote Gerard Damiano's obituary for the Guardian soon after he died on November 1st last year, but it never ran, and now has officially been spiked. Of course Deep Throat didn't have the same impact in the UK as it did in the States; the British Board Of Film Censors saw to that, but even so its importance has only increased over the years, especially in the minds of those for whom it was a seminal experience in the 1970s.

As the obit was reaching its sell-by date, however, the paper missed a golden opportunity: Mark Felt, the man alleged to be Woodward & Bernstein's Deep Throat (I remain convinced that although Felt may have been the guy Woodward met in car-parks, the book's Deep Throat is a composite, whose identity hides other, more important but less dramatic, sources) died December 18th, and the next day Harold Jackson's excellent obit led with the film: 'Mark Felt, who has died at the age of 95, was appalled by the sleazy echoes of the pseudonym jokingly wished on him by Howard Simons, the managing editor of the Washington Post. But long after memories of Linda Lovelace's pornographic film have vanished, Felt will live on in American political history as Deep Throat'. Running the obit of the guy who directed DeepThroat alongside the obit of the man who became Deep Throat was seemingly an opportunity too good to miss, but apparently the idea met with something less than total enthusiasm at the editorial meeting.


So here it is, pretty much as I wrote it—the Guardian's eschewing the word 'actress' created a problem when Damiano attributed his experience as a hairdresser to helping him work with actresses: their preferred term, 'actor', wouldn't make sense, and 'female actors' or 'actors of the female persuasion' would be awkward, so that's been restored-- and I've added a few name checks and a little background on The Devil In Miss Jones. I've also appended another pornobituary spiked by the Guardian, back in 2007, of Jim Mitchell, who along with his brother Artie made the other X-rated mainstream hit movie of 1972, Behind The Green Door. It now appears for the first time.


GERARD DAMIANO
When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used the movie Deep Throat to name the anonymous source behind their Watergate investigations, it reflected the impact which the film had made on America. Not only was hard-core pornography suddenly acceptable for 'respectable' audiences, it was chic enough for the hip young reporters who would bring down a president.

If the eponymous oral skills of its star, Linda Lovelace, were what attracted mainstream moviegoers, the movie's success with those people owed much to the sensibility of its director, Gerard Damiano, who has died aged 80. Damiano's humorous approach, larded with juvenile jokes and bad puns, helped get audiences past the discomfort they expected to feel watching hardcore sex on-screen. It was as if Damiano were making an X-rated Carry-On film. He even took a cameo role, as a gay bystander out of place at an otherwise straight orgy, who looks at a man engaged in coupling with Lovelace's roommate (played by Dolly Sharp), and quips 'what's a nice joint like you doing in a girl like that?'

If Deep Throat ushered in the era of acceptance of sex on screen, Damiano was the first porn director to be suggested, if not celebrated, as an auteur. But he followed an unlikely path to film-making. Born in New York, he was exposed to the city's seamier side at an early age, working in an 'automat' restaurant and as a shoeshine boy in Times Square. He joined the navy at 17, then worked as an X-ray technican at a hospital in Queens before becoming a hairdresser. He eventually owned three salons, and credited the understanding of women he developed in that business to helping him direct the actresses in his films, and getting them to do what he wanted.

He got into directing porn through amateur photography, originally as a tax-dodge. He shot short 'stag' films before his first 'feature' We All Go Down, its title punning on the nursery rhyme, was released in 1969. He had made seven films before meeting Lovelace (pictured left, with Sharp), whose prodigious oral sex technique suggested the ongoing joke which became Damiano's script. Having never had a climax, Lovelace discovers her clitoris is located in her throat, and by learning 'deep throat' manages to finally achieve orgasm. Damiano, credited as 'Jerry Gerard', wrung every ounce of schoolboy humour possible out of this scenario, aided by the goofy comic talents of Harry Reems, as Linda's doctor, and Carol Connors, now better-known as Thora Birch's mother, as his nurse. The film, released in 1972, caught the spirit of change as the Sixties morphed into the 'me decade' of the Seventies; seeing it, and the Mitchell Brothers' Behind The Green Door, released just before it, became almost an act of rebellion against the world of Richard Nixon, hence inspiring the Watergate leaker's name.

But behind the success there were dark sides. Although it cost less than $25,000 to make, the money had come from Butchie Peraino, whose father Anthony and uncle Joey 'the Whale' Peraino were 'made men' in the Columbo crime family. With distribution controlled by the mob, Deep Throat's actual profits will never be known, but have been estimated well in excess of $100 million. Damiano, who had a one-third share of the film, was made an offer he couldn't refuse after the money started to roll in, and sold his rights back for, not coincidentally, that same $25,000.

Lovelace would eventually claim she was forced into making the film, in effect being raped on screen. Her abuse is generally attributed to the violent control of her then-husband, and manager, Chuck Traynor, which Damiano acknowledged in the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, but at the same time insisting she had been a willing participant on set. Most crucially, the Nixon Justice department brought federal prosecutions against the film; both Damiano and Lovelace testified under immunity in the trial staged in conservative Memphis Tennessee. As a result, one actor, Reems, was convicted, though that conviction would be overturned on appeal by his lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, of later Claus von Bulow and OJ Simpson notoriety. The Perainos would eventually serve small sentences for distributing offensive material.

If Damiano played Hitchcock in his Deep Throat cameo, he became porn's version of Ingmar Bergman with The Devil In Miss Jones (1973), a take off on the title of a famous film. As close to a serious drama as porn had produced, the film's title character is a spinster, played by Georgina Spelvin (a play on a traditional Broadway stage pseudonym), who commits suicide, then discovers a wild sex life, including an appearance by a snake, on her way to hell. Hell, however, finds the now sex-starved Miss Jones doomed for a Sartre-esque eternity with a frightened, and once again seemingly gay, Damiano, unable to get him to participate in sex with her. The sequel, Memories Within Miss Aggie (1974) drew on Hitchock's Psycho, and was shown at Cannes. His last major film, The Story of Joanna (1976), was also the first major porn film to feature a gay male sex scene.

Damiano churned out about fifty films, but as the industry exploded with the video boom, none made the impact of those four significant works. His last attempt at parody was 1989's Splendor In The Ass, with Nina Hartley and Sharon Kane. In the early 1990's he made three films in Italy with Moana Pozzi; his last two films brought the Italian star to America, in Naked Goddess and Naked Goddess 2 (1994). He retired to Florida, where he died after suffering a stroke. Married and divorced three times, he is survived by a son and daughter from his second marriage.

Gerard Rocco Damiano, born New York City 4 August 1928
died Fort Myers, Florida 1 November 2008

JIM MITCHELL
The Mitchell Brothers’ were pornographic pioneers. Hunter Thompson called their O‘Farrell Theatre ‘the Carnegie Hall of sex’, and although Deep Throat is generally considered the film that inaugurated mainstream acceptance of porn, their film Behind The Green Door, released earlier in 1972, generated at least as much publicity at the time. Jim Mitchell, who has died aged 63, was the driving force of the team. Both Mitchell brothers were captivated by sixties’ dreams of ‘sex, drugs, and rock n roll’, but Jim was the one who transformed the sex into profit. Those profits allowed them to live their dreams to excess, until the night in 1991 when Jim shot and killed younger brother Artie (Jim is left, Artie right, in the photo above).

Raised in the mill town of Antioch, outside San Francisco, their parents were ‘Okies‘ who migrated west from the ‘dust bowl’ during the Depression. Their father, Robert, was a gambler and sometimes teacher, a combination of seriousness and bluff which his sons carried over into their careers. They grew up unusually close, with Jim the more serious and Artie the joker.

While studying film part-time at San Francisco State, Jim began working at the Follies, a flea-pit movie house showing ‘nudie’ films to men in dirty raincoats. Intrigued by the possibilities of milking this market, he began selling nude photos of women to girlie magazines. With Artie’s wife, lawyer Meredith Bradford, the brothers bought a building at the corner of O’Farrell and Polk streets in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin district, and on the Fourth of July 1969, with appropriate patriotic fanfare, opened their theatre, showing X rated movies on the ground floor and producing their own short stag films in the space above. Eventually, they owned eleven cinemas, and decided to produce a feature film that might appeal to both sexes, which they could showcase in their theatres. Green Door, a sexual variation on a traditional campfire horror story Artie had heard in the army, cost $60,000 to make, far more than Deep Throat. It grossed $25 million, far less, but still mightily impressive.

Its notoriety came from its star, Marilyn Chambers, who was the model pictured holding a baby on the Ivory Snow laundry detergent box (Ivory’s motto, ’99 44/100 % pure’ became Chambers’ marketing gimmick). Where Deep Throat got better distribution, thanks to its funding by organised crime, and offered some redeeming humour to counterpoint its more straightforward, traditionally stag-film sex, Green Door was more self-consciously arty, though Mitchell famously quipped ‘the only ‘art’ in porn is my brother.’

Their follow-ups, The Resurrection Of Eve (1973) again starring Chambers, and Sodom & Gomorrah (1975), met with progressively diminishing results. But Jim was the first to recognise the potential of video cassettes, and the Mitchells made a fortune selling tapes direct. When the mafia again tried to trump them by selling bootlegs of their films, they won a landmark court case which resulted in the FBI piracy warning still seen on tapes and DVDs.

By then, the Mitchells were no strangers to courtrooms. Local authorities kept their lawyer, Michael Kennedy, busy in a running battle which they never lost, despite the O’Farrell offering live sex shows, the forerunner of lap-dancers, and personal rooms. Among its alumnae was Nina Hartley, who acted in the mainstream film Boogie Nights, which bore a strong resemblance to elements of the Mitchells’ story. The O’Farrell offices resembled a non-stop fraternity party. Jim, at heart an old-fashioned street hustler, attracted local politicians, lawyers, and cops; their circle boasted at times Black Panther leader Huey Newton, members of the band Aerosmith, cartoonist Robert Crumb, and journalists Herb Gold and Warren Hinckle. Their particular bete-noire was Mayor (now US Senator) Elaine Feinstein, whose vendetta against them intensified after her unlisted phone number appeared on the O‘Farrell marquee, preceded by the words ‘for a good time call…‘

In 1985, the long-awaited sequel to Green Door was a disaster. More engaged in the process of auditioning potential actresses than actual casting, Artie gave the starring role to his then-girlfriend ‘Missy’, who could neither act nor perform on-camera sex convincingly. Over-budget, and the first porn film to feature only ’safe’ sex, it flopped, though Missy achieved her requisite 15 minutes of fame when she turned out to be Elisa Florez, a former aide to right-wing US Senator Orrin Hatch.

The brothers’ relationship began to deteriorate under the twin pressures of financial strain and erratic live-style. In February 1991, Jim, armed with a rifle and pistol, kicked in the door of his brother’s house and shot him three times. Charged with murder, the prosecution alleged he had become frustrated with Artie’s decline into alcohol and drugs, which was threatening their business. Mitchell claimed he had gone on an ’intervention’ to try to convince his brother to seek treatment. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and served three years of a six-year sentence at San Quentin.

Their story became a cautionary morality tale told in two books, Bottom Feeders (1993) and the more prurient X Rated (1992), and a film, Rated X (2000) where they were consigned to being played by Mitchell-wannabes, the brothers Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, with Estevez directing. By then, the O’Farrell had become a San Francisco landmark and tourist attraction. When it celebrated its 30th anniversary with shows by 72 year old stripper Tempest Storm, Mayor Willie Brown declared a ‘Tempest Storm Day’. Brown later did the same for Chambers, who only four years earlier had been arrested while having on-stage sex during an O’Farrell show.

After his release from prison, Mitchell lived quietly, raising horses at his ranch near Petaluma. His daughter Meta took over running the O’Farrell, while Artie’s children never reconciled with him, and filed several wrongful death suits which were settled out of court. He is survived by his mother Georgia Mae, his third wife, former O’Farrell dancer Lisa Adams, and four children by his second marriage.

James Lloyd Mitchell, born 30 November 1943 Stockton, California, Died 12 July 2007 Petaluma, California

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

HEADING NOORT BY NORTHWEST: SASKIA NOORT GOES BACK TO THE COAST

My review of Saskia Noort's first novel, Back To Coast, has been posted at Crime Time; you can click to it here. It's difficult when someone's first novel is actually the second translated and published, because one expects it to be better. Although the story becomes somewhat obvious, and the lead character is not particularly sympathetic, Noort does a good job of getting us into her head, and it takes some courage to make your first heroine less than perfect. Interesting, if not totally convincing...