Tuesday, 30 June 2009

JOHN TOLOS; MY INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

At the risk of being thought what Freddie Blassie would have called a 'pencil-neck geek', let me mention that my obituary of John Tolos, 'The Golden Greek' is in today's Independent. It provides a sequel to the one of Blassie I did for the Indy six years ago; you can find that one here. That's Tolos in the photo on the right, working over Classy Freddie in a cage.

As I said in the obit, their Monsel powder angle was one of the most copied in wrestling; wrestlers were soon being blinded in dozens of innovative ways, most famously when Michael 'BS' Hayes of the Fabulous Freebirds threw 'Freebird cream' into the eyes of the Junkyard Dog. This set up a 'dog-collar' match, wrestlers chained together so JYD could wrestle without his sight, before 30,000 fans in New Orleans' Superdome. There was also an infamous angle in Texas' World Class promotion; Gino Hernandez blinded the British-born 'Gentleman' Chris Adams, but died of a cocaine overdose before they could have the revenge match. They opened their next TV show saying 'this week we've have two terrible tragedies, Chris Adams is blind and Gino Hernandez is dead.'

This seems to be quite a week for nostalgia; I recall Blassie, Tolos, Argentina Apollo, Irish Don McClarity, Gorilla Monsoon and the rest wrestling on TV in the golden age when I was, oh, 11 through about 14. It was the WWWF, and I remember for some reason the ring announcer often welcoming us to 'the Capitol Arena in the nation's wrestling capital, Washington DC', which always made me feel Washington was good for something.

Monday, 29 June 2009

RIP MY LITTLE MARGIE: IN MEMORIAM, GALE STORM

The death of Gale Storm brings back another of those half-forgotten bonds with my childhood. My Little Margie ran for only four years, after beginning life as a summer replacement for I Love Lucy, which was appropriate because it basically copied the format slavishly. But even though I never really warmed to Lucy, in any of her TV incarnations (even then I thought Gracie Allen was subtler), through the miracle of syndication Gale Storm as Margie was a presence throughout my early childhood. Just now, watching the opening theme, with its undertone of pizzicato violins, played over the photos of Margie and father Vern (each episode would end with them repeating those poses) reminded me of how much fun it was.

Cartoon fun, in the best sense of the word. And watching the early 30s Storm playing the supposedly 21 year old Margie as an 11 year old makes it easy to see the appeal of the show to kids who hadn't yet seen double-figures. Margie's expressions are right out of Looney Tunes, as is the famous gurgle whenever she's backed herself or Vern into a corner. It certainly wasn't a crush--even at that age I thought Vern's girlfriend, played by Hilary Brooke (who was also the highlight of Abbott and Costello for me) was hotter than Margie. Though Gale Storm was not to be sneezed at.

I never liked Oh Susanna! (aka The Gale Storm Show) her follow-up comedy, set on a cruise ship and probably the model for Love Boat. Either I'd grown too sophisticated by 9, or Storm's brand of screwball and slapstick wasn't as effective in the setting.

Margie worked because of the ensemble cast. Charles Farrell, as Vern, has an even emptier handsomeness than Ricky Ricardo, and even less masculinity. Ricky's position vis a vis his audience was always somewhat unsure; as a Cuban, a musician, a Latin lover. But Vern was a widowed American man rendered helpless by his daughter. Farrell was a silent movie star whose nasal voice and accent worked against the talkies, but as the nebbishy Vern he's perfect. Even better is Clarence Kolb, who plays his boss, George 'Mr.' Honeywell, looking like Mr Moneybags from the Monopoly board and emoting somewhere between Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn. Much the way he played the mayor in His Girl Friday. The other real star was Gertrude Hoffman as Mrs. Odetts (maybe a clever reference that went way over my little head in those days?) who played the Ethel Mertz neighbour role, and played it well. The setting was also important; it was exotic; Vern and Margie lived in a luxurious high-rise apartment; Vern wore sharp suits to work, and no one I knew lived or worked like that.

Gale Storm herself lived a storybook life. She was born Josephine Cottle in Texas and won a talent contest that saw RKO rename her Gale Storm and feature her in some really bad movies, though I won't pass judgement on Revenge Of The Zombies or Where Are Your Children? until I've actually seen them. The man who won the same contest, to be reborn as Terry Belmont (not as catchy as Gale Storm) was Lee Bonnell: Cottle and Bonnel; fell in love, married in 1941, had four kids and were still married when he died in 1986.

Doing a little research in case I got assigned the obit (but everyone had it in stock, which is a tribute to her in itself) I also discovered that My Little Margie began on CBS, was picked up by NBC after its first season, but continued as a separate radio show on CBS for the length of its run, which probably makes it unique.

When I think of Margie I also think of Topper, The Great Gildersleeve, Amos n Andy, Life Of Riley and other 'adult' shows that we kids watched on Saturday mornings or early evenings in syndication. The ones I remember best share those talented ensemble casts, of actors trained in the films of previous three decades, if not in stage and vaudeville, and writers who followed a similar path. They can be simple, by today's tastes, but unlike modern programming made specially for kids, they don't condescend, at least not to kids (they may be condescending to their adult audiences, but that's another story). We weren't watching some adult's idea of what children 'ought' to see, were told they wanted to see, and could be cajoled into buying the toys from. Though in fairness, that may have begun with Hopalong Cassidy and then Davy Crockett. I think of Gale Storm and I remember how adult I felt watching the show, as if she were projecting my presence into that adult world, and having even more trouble with it than I did. I'll miss her as much as I miss those days.

HEEERRREES EDDIE! My Independent Obit

My obituary of Ed McMahon, pitchman and second banana, is in today's Independent, you can find it here. It was bumped, not surprisingly, by Michael Jackson's death, but recognising there is very little new under the sun, think of MJ as you consider this photo of Ed & Johnny at their freak show best.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

THE WRESTLER: Oscar Catch-Ups Continue

The Wrestler is a film with a lot of similarities to Slumdog Millionaire (see previous post) but one huge difference. Both are films about outcasts, although their arcs are opposite: Randy 'the Ram' Robinson has once been a huge star, and is now existing on the fringes of society, while Jamal in Slumdog works his way out of the fringes to that 15 minutes of fame (and wealth) 'reality' TV promises every zombie who watches it. Their sub-cultures are outside the cinema-goers mainstreams as well; Randy's world of small-time, extreme wrestling is as alien to most Western audiences as the slums of Mumbai. The both love a woman who is the 'property' of men with more money to spend, and they both have a problematic relationship with their family: Jamal's brother takes advantage of him numerous times; Randy has abandoned his daughter.

The big difference, however, is while Slumdog takes an original idea (cuing flashbacks from the questions of the quiz show) and fills it with cliches drawn from films and from our perceptions of India, The Wrestler starts with a cliched story, about the redemption of a fallen sports hero, but avoids, for the most part, surrendering to the cliches. It's helped by the hand-held, documentary feel, which emphasizes both the weirdness of Randy's wrestling world, in which he is still a king, and his 'real' world, living in a trailer on which the rent is always due, working on a supermarket loading dock, and spending his free time with a lap-dancer. The New Jersey setting is as bleak, cold and washed out as Slumdog's Mumbai was bright, warm, and edgy.

Aaronofsky pulls no punches in his portrayal of wrestling's minor leagues: the Necro Butcher stapling a dollar bill to his own forehead, or using a fork to draw blood, the various steroid and other freaks who gather in the high school locker rooms, are all part of the same reality that sees Randy demonstrate 'blading' himself for the movie audience. Welcome to his world. The camaraderie of the wrestlers, the dreams of the big time, the dependence on drugs, the small-time payoffs for big-time effort are all shockingly, and depressingly real. And so is the quiet boredom of the wrestlers sitting around their huckster tables at a 'fan fest' waiting for a few marks to pay for having a Polaroid taken with their heroes.

Although wrestling is the heart of the film, it's in the relationships with the two women in his life that Randy's world is defined. His shambling efforts to effect a reconciliation with his daughter are touching, and his throwing the opportunity away for a night with a young woman who's not even really a fan, just impressed by his former celebrity, brings the start of self-awareness. But it's the pursuit of Cassidy, the lap-dancer who eventually reveals herself to him as 'Pam', a single-mother trying to make a living, that defines Randy for himself and for us. Director Darren Aronofsky makes the parallels between the two forms of entertainment obvious, but their attitudes to their jobs are completely different; Pam won't be fooled by the cheap glamour of her role. The point is driven home again, when, after his heart attack, Randy makes an effort to go straight, and moves to the deli counter of the supermarket. His walk through the bowels of the store mirrors his walk to the wrestling ring, and for a short while his natural ability as an entertainer sees him through.

In the end though,the biggest mark for wrestling is Randy himself. Randy, we learn, is not even his real name; he is 'The Ram', and that's where he's most real. That he prefers to live in the fantasy is the most real part of this film, and it's why in the end, it's far more moving than the more superficially attractive Slumdog.

And, of course, there's Mickey Rourke's performance. Having not yet caught up with Milk, I can't compare it directly with Sean Penn's, but from the clips and trailers, I am guessing that Penn's ability to stay in character, to catch the nuances of Harvey Milk, impressed the voters more than the sense that Rourke was, in fact, in character. Not playing his own character, as John Wayne did, say, in True Grit, but playing himself, the entertainer who spend a long time out of the major leagues. He gets good support, although one still gets the sense that Marisa Tomei, who surely deserved her Oscar nomination--though in a sense Hollywood tends to reward roles as working-class people the same way they do playing the disabled--seems at least as interested in displaying to producers that she still has the chops to do her lap dancing, and I don't say this facetiously, because she did the same thing in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (so it must be working), as she is in exploring the Pam moments (as opposed to the Cassidy moments) of her character. But Evan Rachel Wood clearly relishes her few moments alone with Rourke, her character's tentative reaction to finding, or thinking she'd found, the person underneath the wrestling persona. In that sense, she stands in for the audience, or at least that part of the audience that feels betrayed when Randy the Ram follows his fantasy.

Monday, 22 June 2009

SLUMDOG OR HANGDOG? I.T. finally takes on the Oscar winner

If Slumdog Millionaire had been a Hollywood film, rather than a British one, would it have been greeted by shocked disgust by British critics? Having finally seen it, I don't begrudge it its Oscar--it falls into the proud tradition of Forrest Gump. In fact, Dev Patel's hangdog face would be perfect if Bollywood ever decide to do a musical version of Gump; he could play in the IPL cricket, serve against Pakistan, whatever. But I wish it had been considered in the foreign film category, because its closest equivalent is Life Is Beautiful. Both are films whose basic horrors are true, but whose approach to them is to use them as devices in order to make a larger, and less horrific point. In the case of Slumdog, this use is far more obvious, because it is so contrived--stemming from the quiz-show questions to cover a potted cross-section of the dark side of life in India.

Slumdog is a watchable feel-good film, and indeed was sold as such (see above), albeit one whose twists are both cliched and telegraphed, full of 'Ray Charles could see THAT coming' moments. It's told in flashback from what appears to be the Indian version of Midnight Express, as if Jamal had wandered into an Alan Parker movie. Jamal's brother has chosen old-time Hollywood, as he features in the Indian version of Angels With Dirty Faces (and with a nod to more recent American gangsterism, Madhur Mittal looks almost like an American black).

Of course, I am willing to cut them a little slack in terms of relating to Bollywood conventions, and a little good natured hommage is always appropriate in a film you're enjoying (though oddly enough never in a film you don't) but it is hard to enjoy such contrivance and cliche. Even English cliche, in the enormous caca pooh-pooh joke young Jamal endures, methaphorically. The contrivance comes via The Millionaire programme, adding organically to the drama only once, in the late interchange between Patel and Anil Kapoor, about the Jack Hobbs answer. Otherwise, it's a nice gimmick to drive a plot told in flashback alongside one in real time, but contrivance? Falling off a train and rolling up literally to the Taj Mahal? Jamal comes back more often than Monty Python's limbless knight

This is India presented in terms of the things most westerners know about it already, which is to say, cliches: from call centers to slums. And its overall message, that watching TV shows like Milllionaire will somehow transform India into a country where the Hindu mobs cheer Jamal on rather than burn his slum and kill his mother seems somehow facile, as if Thomas Friedman's idea that all the world is fat like his America, had somehow come true. Oscar loves this kind of thing.

And now that Jamal is a milionaire, I expect a Rocky III type sequel: he got what he wanted but he lost what he had! Jamal has to fend off thousands of friends, ersatz relatives, and strangers with their hands out; bandits aiming at robbing the Muslim millionaire; he decides to own a cricket team in the IPL; Latika decides she wants a Bollywood career--pure Oscar gold!

Friday, 19 June 2009

CHARLIE MARIANO: IN MEMORIAM

Charlie Mariano died Tuesday in Cologne. I first heard him playing in Eberhard Weber's Colours band, in the 1970s, with Rainer Bruninghaus and Jon Christensen--Yellow Fields (1975) remains one of my favourite records. Interestingly, Charlie played mostly soprano sax (and nagaswaram, the Indian oboe), for Colours, although he was by trade an altoist. I remember seeing them sometime in 1978-79 at the Round House, and being mesmerised by the way, playing live, they could add layers to the music they were recording, and how Mariano's work seemed somehow stronger live, his presence almost mystical.

Doing some research, I hadn't realised he was born in Boston, and came up with guys like Quincy Jones and Herb Pomeroy, played with Serge Chaloff and Dick Twardzik. He played in Stan Kenton's and Charles Mingus' bands, and as an accompanist; in fact as I looked deeper into his history I realised he was unique in having careers in Europe and Asia as well as America. I haven't heard his recordings with his Japanese wife, Toshiko Akiyoshi, on piano, nor had I realised he was an early teacher at the Boston music school which became Berkelee, which is where she was a student.

In Europe he played in a couple of jazz-rock bands, the German Embryo and in the Dutch combo Pork Pie, with Jasper van't Hof on keyboards and Philip Catherine on guitar; they made duo and trio albums which are often interesting. His versatility is amazing; another of my favourite records is Blue Camel, with Mariano accompanying the Lebanese oud virtuoso Rabih Abu-Khalil.

I followed Weber and Mariano to the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, a fusion band of sorts with a horrible name but often some very captivating music,in a fine horn section with (from left to right, Mariano second from left), Barbara Thompson on tenor, the great German trombonist Albert Manglesdorff, and Ian Carr, Ack van Rooyen, and Kenny Wheeler on trumpets. They were excellent live, not quite as good on record. Mariano was never a standout in any of those bands, never up front, never showing off. In that sense, he was the perfect sideman, and it helps explain how he could fit in so seamlessly with so many different kinds of players. You have to admire his creativity, and his flexibility, his curiosity and his openness to new musical directions. It's what jazz is all about.

FORCED TO LOOK BACK: SCOTT FROST'S HIGH CONCEPT NOVEL

Don't Look Back is a 'high concept' novel: a serial killer called 'Goya' leaves his first victim in the Rose Bowl. Goya is avenging abuse by Catholic priests, and those who covered up that abuse, and he's leaving pictures and clues based on paintings (by guess which Spanish artist?), and, best of all, the Pope himself is coming to LA, and guess at which 100,000 seat stadium he's going to make his personal appearance? That's high concept!

It's also high concept because after concept, everything else is low priority. As I followed the investigations of Lt.Alex Delillo, I became intrigued at the notion he was a gay cop, working with a gay boyfriend. That, at one point he mentions his daughter merely added to the frisson; here was the potential for severe conflict, and all that in the face of the Catholic church. It wasn't until around halfway through the novel that Delillo mentions an ex-husband, and I realised she was a woman.

Highly embarrassed by my mistake, I went back and re-read carefully, looking for any evidence there might be as to Delillo's gender, and found none. Nothing descriptive, no personality traits, no reminiscence of that first embarrassing confessional, zip, nada, zilch. To say that Delillo has no personality would be an understatement; she hasn't even the hint of a personality. The boyfriend, Dylan Harrison (the rest of Traveling Wilburys preferred to remain anonymous, maybe because Don't Look Back was a Dylan movie, though a Motown song) has even less; he exists to make assumptions Delillo can correct and supply Latin translations, even those from religious use that Delillo has no idea about, although she can quote chapter and verse from the gospels. Go figure.

When it turns out Goya, whose personality is also subsumed beneath the artwork he's chosen as his trademark, has predicted Delillo will be his executioner, that should rachet up the suspense; instead, the finale proceeds like a clockwork toy, Black Sunday with wheelchairs instead of blimps. An intriguing subplot, with shadowy Swiss Guards who might be acting as the Vatican's enforcers, simply fades away.

Sometimes you can see the makings of a screenplay in a novel, sometimes even its roots. Here you can see Ashley Judd trying on the uniform and asking can't we throw in another sex scene or three? I don't know why I'm so bothered; at least I got the Pope's sex right.

Don't Look Back, Scott Frost
Headline £19.99 ISBN 9780755346479


this review also appears at www.crimetime.co.uk

Monday, 15 June 2009

ROBERT B PARKER'S NIGHT AND DAY

Night And Day starts with odd sorts of crimes in Paradise; Jesse Stone is called out to deal with parents complaining about a a female school principal who's examined her girls' underwear before a school dance. This abuse bothers him. So does the fact that there are reports of a peeper in Paradise, and he's soon graduated to becoming 'The Night Hawk,' making home invasions and taking pictures of housewives naked. While investigating, Jesse discovers that sleepy little Paradise also harbours its own swingers club, which, despite his evident appeal to women of all varieties, Jesse doesn't feel tempted to join. Even though his ex-wife Jenn, after appearing to draw closer to Jesse, is all of a sudden offered her big break in New York, and just has to take it, and the producer who comes with it.

Sex makes problems for everyone, except Parker, who's a master of double-entendre dialogue, but not all his characters come equipped, like Jesse, with a drink, a shrink, and quip that makes you think. There are two stories here; the first is the criminal one, in which Jesse is most worried about children (and wives) being abused. The principal's actions are a reflection of a deeper problem, with her law-firm heading husband, while one of the girls most bothered by her actions is actually being harmed far more by her parents' swinging. Jesse will work these problems out, and suggest appropriate psychological help, as usual, while tracking down the Night Hawk, which proves surprisingly easy to do, even as his antics escalate in seriousness.

But the other story is Jesse's. It's odd that Parker's best scenes involve Jesse and Jenn; the shallow, totally self-centered, and fearful Jenn is revealed in just a few lines. In fact, her best scene is a message left on Jesse's answer machine, which is something I commented on being an effective metaphor when I reviewed 'Stone Cold' the first of the Tom Selleck Stone adaptations, back in Crime Time 49. Parker's Jenn is so fingers-across-the-blackboard bad it's always been hard to figure out exactly what Jesse continues to see in her, which I'm sure his shrink has been wondering for years as he rolls his eyes at the ceiling behind Jesse's back. Also difficult is trying to avoid visualing a Jesse who begins to seem more and more like the wisecracking Tom Selleck who plays him in the movies, and less like the more introverted guy who arrived in Paradise from LA (and isn't that an ironic formulation?). Faced with the finality of another Jenn dilemma, Jesse revisits some of his favorite old flames, retreats to the bottle, talks to his poster of Ozzie Smith, who seems better than a shrink, and finally turns to Sunny Randall, meaning the ultimate conflicted couple hook up again. And not before time!

The problem with the parallels here is that they are all made so obviously. Jesse and his shrink Dix (make of that name what you Freudians will!) play psychological ping pong so deftly that any subtle points are immediately hammered home and generally reinforced with a joke. I shudder to think what happens when Spenser and Jesse settle down for a chat some day, and I hope Susan and Dix get to make up the foursome. Jesse's powers of observation also seem to be waning. A woman who while still in high school had a daughter who's now 13 can't be 'about 40', unless she stayed back a whole lot of years in grammar school. But that would make her as thick as Jenn.

Still, it's hard to hate a novel where the creepiest characters are a big-shot lawyer, an academic, and an overgrown preppie husband, rather than the sex criminal himself. It's like night and day, when you think about it.

Night And Day by Robert B Parker
Quercus £16.99 ISBN 9781849160506

this review also appears at www.crimetime.co.uk

Saturday, 13 June 2009

THE MANY FACES OF THE GIRL CUT IN TWO

While collecting the art to accompany the review of Claude Chabrol's Girl Cut In Two (see the previous post) I was struck by how differently the film was being marketed in different ways to different audiences. In Britain, with the title changed from 'The Girl' to 'A Girl Cut in Two', the colour is a lurid pink and Ludovine Sangier is shown from the scene where she is the most prostrated before Charles Saint-Denis (though without the peahen feathers she was wearing). It's a picture about sexuality, and a woman who appears to be seeking out exploitation, in an almost predatory pose, completely contrary to the actual scene from which its taken, and to the inner flow of the film.

The film was a German co-production, but in Germany, it's presented as a very different movie: a psychological study of 'The Split Woman', the idea of split personality emphasised by the mirror image Sangier as Gabrielle, and her looking confused, if not befuddled. The red background contrasts with the black dress to suggest the torn personality, and the two men, Charles and Paul, are posed in the bottom corners of the poster like little gremlins warring over her soul (cf the scene where Pinto's date passes out at the toga party in Animal House).

That war seems all but over in Italy, where again the movie has been retitled The Innocence of Sin, which again makes Gabrielle into a more active participant in what goes on; the idea of the woman as seducer is reinforced by the pose, in which Gabrielle becomes older, features a hairdo reminiscent of the licentiousness of the Roaring Twenties, and indeed makes her look very much like a cross between Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli in The Conformist.

Sexuality is removed from the equation in America; the US posters turn the film into a neo-noir thriller, with Sangier looking very American in the main shot, which has the diagonal line dividing her face in two, just like classic pulp magazine covers, and the shadows or blinds from noir movies. Here the two men are posed with her, not gremlins but fully part of her story, and in the same diagonal, which I like in terms of design. It makes the film look like something Brian De Palma might have directed, and, the more I think about it, the more that makes sense; DePalma's metier is objectifying women, and manipulating the audience into sharing their exploitation. His women are often femme fatales, or trying to be, which is not a part of Chabrol's film, but the sensibility, while less subtle, is not that far removed.

Finally, what about the French themselves? I confess, the marketing of the film in to its native audience is the most puzzling of all. We're back to pink, but in France we're presented with a drawing of Sangier posed somewhere between a Marseilles hooker and a Rohmer gamin transferred to the 1950s. Holly Go not so lightly. She's cut not-quite-in-two by the framing, as if she's poking her head and saucy self around a doorway, inviting you in for a good time. Which seems even farther removed from the reality of the film than any of the other countries. What is it about prophets in their own country? Or is France really, as Chabrol, via Charles, suggested, torn between puritanism and decadence? And judging from the marketing response to his film, they haven't made up their minds!

Friday, 12 June 2009

CHABROL'S GIRL CUT IN TWO

When I reviewed Claude Chabrol's Comedy Of Power back in Crime Time 52, I noted that its French title, L'Ivresse du pouvoir, translated better as 'the intoxication of power'. That intoxication remains at the core of his 'new' (released in 2006 in France) film The Girl Cut In Two. On the surface it is about a different sort of power, sexual power, but at its heart it retains Chabrol's instinctive recoiling from the upper crusts of French society; here the heroine, TV weathergirl Gabrielle Deneige (ie, Snow) is torn between the old aristocracy and the power of new sort of intellectual class, nurtured by a media they affect to despise. There was a seeming Greek chorus of powerful men who watched the action in L'Ivresse du pouvoir; they could be the men gathered in their soft chairs at Charles' private club in Lyon. As he gets older, Chabrol, like Clint Eastwood, seems to work with a kind of shorthand of his own iconography; despite its operatic overtones, The Girl Cut In Two is as much about Chabrol's movies as it is a tragedy about a spoiled innocent or a withering dissection of the haut-bourgeoise.

Gabrielle, played by Ludovine Sangier with a sort of confident passivity that invites exploitation, meets the much older novelist Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand), and begins an affair with him. She is also being pursued by young Paul Gaudens, flamboyantly wastrel heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. Chabrol is never kind to the haut-bourgeoisie, for good reason, but Benoit Magimel plays Paul like a French version of Freddie Conway, his thin layer of charm buttressed by money. Gabrielle, raised by her bookshop-owning mother, falls for the older father-figure, and meanwhile is elevated, by more older men who obviously fancy her, to presenting a chat-show, a lighter version of the kind of faux-intellectual discussion programmes we've already seen Charles endure. Charles uses Gabrielle; for her birthday he takes her to that exclusive sex-club, where (we are later told; there is very little prurience in Chabrol's lubricious filming) he watches her have sex with his friends. He then abandons her; his wife takes care of changing the locks on his city baisodrome. Gabrielle lapses into lethargy, from which Paul's louche Prince Charming wakes her; eventually she will agree drunkenly to marry him, much to the disgust of his inevitably snobbish mother. But the marriage, and Paul's performance, is overpowered by the shadow of Charles; Paul is obsessed with what he did to Gabrielle, and we are aware that when Paul is obsessive bad things can happen.

The film follows the outline of the story of Evelyn Nesbit, whose wealthy husband Harry Thaw famously murdered architect Sanford White at the roof theatre of Madison Square Garden in 1906. Thaw escaped with loose confinement at a mental institution only after Nesbit agreed to testify, at his second trial, to White's depravations, which included his pushing her on a red velvet swing (hence the title of the 1955 movie The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing). Nesbit, of course, was younger, an artist's model and showgirl who from the age of 14 was her mother's breadwinner; Gabrielle here is a bubbly innocent, convinced of her own ability to handle men, with a protective, not exploitive, mother. The bit of the original story Chabrol follows most closely is telling; Nesbit was promised a big pay-off for her testimony, and of course then cut-off completely, the same happens to Gabrielle, although it seems to be Paul's mother's pleading and telling her secrets of his childhood which convinces her, rather than the promise of riches made by her (third) sleazy lawyer. Why learning that Paul may have drowned his brother in their kiddie bath would make anyone more sympathetic to him is something only the French could explain.

Chabrol is best with the juicy details of the society he pillories; he is so convincing with the provinicialism of Lyon that one British reviewer described the film as being set in a 'small town' (another referred to Gabrielle throughout his review as Camille--wake up and smell the reference!). Early in the film he sets out his theme when Charles tells a TV interviewer that France is 'drifting into either decadence or puritanism' but we don't see much evidence of the latter. We gradually learn that Charles' pose as an intellectual is just that, a pose. His real name is Denis, not Saint-Denis; he writes on a computer, not in longhand as he tells people; his wisdom consists of aphorisms borrowed from other people. One reference to DeSade is all we need to put this into context; the character Chabrol's camera catches most lovingly is Charles' agent, Capucine (Mathilda May), one of the boys, as it were, but displayed at every opportunity. This raises another interesting comparison to another aging director, Woody Allen. Where Chabrol's camera quite blatantly objectifies these women, one never has the sense, as you do in Allen's work (all the way back to Manhattan) that there is an element of wish-fulfillment. Although me may be tempted to draw a parallel between Charles/Chabrol, our identification is kept firmly on Gabrielle. In fact, the more interesting women are Gabrielle's mother Marie (Marie Bunel), who plays her as well-intentioned but perhaps not dynamic enough to protect her daughter the way Paul's mother (played brilliantly by Caroline Silhol) does, and Charles' wife Dona (Valeria Cavelli), who, true to her name, is constantly referred to as a saint, but whose cheery adoration apparently includes full acceptance of everything her husband does to other women.

As if DeSade were not enough, Charles buys Gabrielle a copy of Pierre Louys' La Femme et la Patin (The Woman And the Puppet), the source material for films like The Devil Is A Woman and The Obscure Object of Desire. It's as if the world inhabited by Charles and his circle is a last gasp of a fading misogynistic society, and although the Pauls cannot replace it, Gabrielle's chance at being part of the apparent new order, via TV, disappears. The film's cylinders click into place in the carefully foreshadowed finale, as Gabrielle appears as the assistant of her magician uncle, being sawed in half, with a buzz-saw. Literally, this follows the Nesbit story; after being shafted by the Thaw family she had a career in vaudeville, but it ties Chabrol's threads together neatly.
The vaudeville world is more dead than that of Charles' circle, more old-fashioned, and, in her position in the act, Gabrielle is now totally passive, being acted upon, deconstructed and put back together for the audience. We never see them in the theatre, because they are not there; the audience is us, watching Uncle Denis do to Gabrielle what Chabrol has done. It is we who are the decadent, or the puritans, and Chabrol the magician. It is a wry comment on decades of work, and centuries of France.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

SPIES, LIES AND THE WAR ON TERROR: The Lobster Review

The following appears in the current issue, no 57, of Lobster (£3 from 214 Westbourne Hill Avenue, Hull HU5 3JB) which will be the last in hard-copy format. The issue features a piece on pre-emptive war by Paul Todd, one of the authors of the book I reviewed, a wrap of recent material on the JFK, RFK and Wallace assassinations, a deconstruction of Martin Jacques and Marzism Today's part in the rise of the New Labour Thatcherism, and two amusing pieces, one by Anthony Frewin reminding us that Richard Nixon never confessed anything to David Frost and another drowning in the morass of D. Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories, about which I will eventually write here as well. Lobster will continue in some format on the web, so please keep posted.

Spies, Lies, and the War On Terror
by Paul Todd, Jonathan Bloch, and Patrick Fitzgerald
Zedbooks, £14.99, ISBN 9781842778319

This book is published as the debate rages in America about whether or not the activities of the Bush regime, specifically the torture of various combat detainees and suspects rendered from various parts of the world, should be subject to some sort of investigation, if not a truth and reconciliation commission. The larger issues, involving the systematic bending of the tasks of the intelligence community to create enough of an excuse for war, but also concerning both the morality and legality of such aggressive war, lie dormant behind the sexier images of torture and Abu Ghraib. But the odd thing is that, in America's public debate, 'the facts' of the past eight years remain contentious, and debatable, whereas, as this book clearly illustrates, they are part of a policy continuum, whose boundaries had been set out clearly in the decades before 9/11, and, on a broader scale, whose basic premises continue to threaten civil liberties in the West.

The strength of this book is the way it considers a spectrum of issues, and draws the lines which connect them. It starts by examining the threat of 'Islamism', not in the wake of 9/11 but tracing it back to its roots in the Carter administration's support for Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion. The simple point, that the US and Britain now find themselves just as mired in that country as the Russians did three decades ago, barely needs to be stated. That the architects of an earlier alliance of 'creative destruction', in the brilliant terms of neo-con apparatchick Michael Ledeen, the makers of Iran Contra, should be setting the agenda for the second President Bush came as no surprise, but that there was such a continuum through the Clinton years perhaps should. Depending now on a Sunni 'arc of moderation' has simply inflamed the area further, with Pakistan, rapidly destablising, at the fulcrum of this divide.

Having set out broadly the strategies responsible for creating this mess, and made clear that those responsible remain detemined to make it worse in the interests of promoting their concept of American (and British) ascendancy, the book sets out briefly but comprehensively the nature of the alternative intelligence (and media) structures created to massage the facts into justifications for enacting those plans. Bush, Chaney, and Rumsfeld devised their own intelligence apparatus, not only to produce the desired results, but also to wage a propaganda war on their own population.

Of course, this material that has been out there for years, but what is interesting in this new look at it is the way it is put into the context of an overall approach to the 'threat of Islamism'. Besides revealing the smoke and mirros behind this essential charade, the book's examination of other key long-term links, such as those between the Project for the New American Century and Benjamin Netanyahu's first Israeli government, whose focus continues into the second Natanyahu era, indicate the absurdity of believing the present policies of the West have any desire, much less possibility, of actually achieving a 'solution' in the Middle East.

That Richard Perle was passing information to the Israelis from Senator 'Scoop' Jackson's office, where Paul Wolfowitz also worked, in the early 1970s, simply reinforces the idea that we are seeing a continuum of policy, a 'long war' whose modus operandi, as the authors make clear, we've seen before. The phony intelligence estimates of the Soviet threat, produced in the 1970s by the so-called Team B, were drafted largely by Wolfowitz. The neo-con movement was experienced at phony excuses for military chest-thumping thirty years ago; they simply got better with practice.

After a discussion of the eroding of civil liberties during this 'war on terror', the authors move to a specific discussion of Europe. The US used the 9/11 'attack' to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, and create a platform from which to launch many of its covert operations. One question the authors do not address is the parallel between the way the Pentagon in the US sought to control intelligence, and thus create a policy-making platform for itself, and the way NATO has become an autonomous policy-making body, rather than a mutual defense treaty. They do trace another parallel, in the way the European Union has morphed from a trade and travel agreement into a vast non-elected form of government. They trace in great detail the growing and most worrying aspect of control acquired by unelected bodies, bureaucrats, and indeed failed or disgraced politicians from member countries. Though we look to Europe to protect human rights through its courts, the amount of intelligence currently shared automatically by its members is staggering, and puts projects like the introduction of ID cards in this country into an even more-worrying perspective.

Early in the days of 'axis of evil' and 'war on terror' those of us who alluded to George Orwell and his notion of perpetual war were derided, while the David Frums of the world inhabit the BBC's analysis programmes. If one were to further draw connections to the paranoid work of Philip K Dick in today's electro-magnetic world, one would be similarly marginalised. Yet, as this book concludes, 'calls are monitored, travel circumscribed, and torture is again being routinized (sic). All this is done in the name of security in the War on Terror.'

What was most worrying about the recent G20 protests in London was the way the police have been encouraged to distance themselves from the citizenry, whether protestors or passersby, and consider them uniformly as threats. This is the enduring legacy of the war on terror, and it begins, and ends, with the twisting of intelligence to suit the purposes of bureaucrats with power. This is the chilling warning this book provides.

Between the time I wrote that, and its appearance, I attended the book's launch, where a number of speakers elaborated on the issues raised by Spies, Lies. Tony Bunyan of Statewatch, who wrote The Political Police in Britain some thirty years ago, was the most forceful, pointing out that what was an exceptional situation when he wrote that book has become permanent, everday reality, and with chips in automobiles, medical records, and fingerprinted passports, it can only get worse, as the EU is way ahead of Britain in pioneering the one-card-fits-all model. He pointed out the uses of terror; when police raided the 'ricin factory' in Harringey, they never notified public health authorities, to prepare for a possible emergency; when it turned out there was never any ricin, the news was not released for three years. He pointed out two ironies: that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have perfected the means of surveillance we always accused them of using to cripple liberty, and that the prime use of torture has not been to gain information but to systematically generation further justifications for additional state control and power. In the face of governments harnessing what he called a 'digital tsunami' terrorism doesn't threaten our way of life, but the reaction to terrorism certainly does.

Since then, as well, Barack Obama has made a stirring speech implying a new American position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, his promise to shut down Guantanemo has proven to be riddled with loop-holes, and we've just learned Obama's government plans to 'resettle' some 17 Uighurs, Chinese muslims sold for bounty money to US forces happy to accept any warm bodies as trophies in the war on terror, to the Pacific island of Palau. Palau appears to have discovered some 200 million good reasons for risking the wrath of China and accepting them, but according to the State Department, the gift of such monies was purely coincidential. Really. The rest of the Guantanemo prisoners, who have had done to them things we hung Japanese for back in 1945, remain in limbo. It's hard to determine exactly where Obama's priorities lie, but it seems clear that the progress of the machine seems to be beyond the control of anyone, no matter how stirring their oratory.

Monday, 8 June 2009

BERNARD BARKER: MY GUARDIAN OBIT

My obit of the Watergate burglar Bernard Barker (pictured right with the rest of the Nixon Five, he's the one in the stylish hat) is in today's Guardian, you can find it here. I'm less convinced of Barker's presence in Dallas on November 22nd, but if you believe Hunt was there then that would make sense. I'd be curious to learn about his activities with Batista's secret police; Havana in the 1950s is a fertile ground for the imagination.

Cut from the piece was his career after he took 'early retirement' from his building inspector job: he came a 'zoning consultant' and was arrested in 1983 and charged with trying to bribe a zoning commissioner. He was eventually acquitted on what was described as a technicality. The time he served in Florida was for using his notary public seal to endorse Nixon campaign funds to himself. As the man said, the price of freedom is high.

Barker is also survived by only one of the Watergate burglars, Eugenio Martinez.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

TOXIC POETRY VERSES (SIC) TOXIC MEDIA

After reading Robert McCrum's analysis of the affair of the Oxford Poetry Professor in last week's Observer, I was baffled enough by his defense of Ruth Padel in the face of a 'toxic' media, and his suggestion the controversy might stop other poets from pursuing the job, that I wrote to the Review section, as follows:

Is it not somewhat disingenous of Robert McCrum to suggest Ruth Padel 'learnt a painful lesson about the potential toxicity of the metropolitan media' when, as it happens, it was she who initiated contact with that toxic media to frame a story suggesting her opponent in the Oxford election might not be appropriate for the job, pointed them in the direction of the 'evidence', and then assured the same toxic metropolitian media, with a straight face, that she had never done any such thing. As her intent seems more toxic than the media's, the words hoist and petard spring to mind. As for the difficulty of finding a new candidate, I suspect there will be no shortage. Might I suggest JH Prynne or Allen Fisher as two whose lectures might be somewhat more intriguing.

I could have pointed out that said disingenuity might be attributed by some to McCrum's being the former publisher at Faber & Faber, and Padel's being published, coincidentally, by Faber & Faber, as Faber have always seemed exceedingly good at manipulating the literary media, but I didn't. In any case, the letter was published today, under the title 'Poetic Justice' which is apt, although it had already been used by just about everyone else in media. What was printed today was, however, truncated:

Is it not somewhat disingenuous of Robert McCrum to suggest that Ruth Padel "learnt a painful lesson about the potential toxicity of the metropolitan media" ("Who dares to follow in Ruth's footsteps?", last week) when it was she who initiated contact with that toxic media to frame a story suggesting her opponent in the Oxford election may not be appropriate for the job. As for the difficulty of finding a new candidate for the Oxford professorship of poetry, I suspect there will be no shortage. Could I suggest JH Prynne or Allen Fisher as two whose lectures may be intriguing.
I don't mind their reducing the catalogue of Padel's own toxicity, although the facat they felt it necessary to do so does tend to reinforce my point. Or dropping the 'more' before intriguing, as if anyone could be more interesting than Padel! What really bothers me is why they changed 'might' to 'could' at the start of the final line. There might could be, as some old New Englanders might could say, some grammatical explanation for doing this, but it might/could require someone better-versed than I am to explain what it was.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

MAJ SJOWALL: THE WALL STREET JOURNAL INTERVIEW

Coinciding with the showing of the BBC's Wallender series on PBS in America, Tom Nolan (biographer of Ross MacDonald) had a fascinating email interview with Maj Sjowall in the 28/5 Wall Street Journal (here), tied also to the re-release of the Martin Beck series by Vintage/Black Lizard in the US. (Thanks to J Kingston Pierce at the estimable Rap Sheet, for pointing this out).

Sjowall makes a couple of important points. First, it has been generally accepted (I believe I got it from Henning Mankell's intro to Roseanna in the Harper Perennials reissues for which I wrote the Murder At The Savoy preface -- see my essay on Nordic crime here) that Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series was the immediate model for the Beck novels, but Sjowall says that was not the case. She and Per Wahloo only read McBain (and Hillary Waugh--see my obit here) AFTER reviewers compared their books to the two American authors. They recommended McBain to their publisher and wound up becoming his Swedish translators!

Second, her favourite of all the many screen adpatations of their work (mostly on TV, but including the American version of The Laughing Policeman, is Bo Widerberg's
The Man On The Roof, about which I've written glowingly, based on seeing it some thirty years ago, at the London Film Festival I believe, and never since. It hasn't turned up on DVD either, to the best of my knowledge.

It's also somehow odd to think that, although Wahloo has been dead for 34 years, Maj Sjowall is only 73 years old, and has not written any novels since the final Beck was published. That seems a shame, but the magic of the couple's writing may have been the result of their own special chemistry. Nolan's written an excellent piece; I only wish it were longer.

GEORGE PELECANOS' WAY HOME

George Pelecanos' novels arrange themselves, mostly, in series; the three Nick Stefanos books, the outstanding DC Quartet, which includes two of his very best, and the quartet featuring Derek Strange (and sometimes Terry Quinn). Shoedog, another of his best, is a standalone, and Drama City (thus far) appears to be one too. Although on the surface there are no concrete links to suggest that Pelecanos is in the process of building another series, I find it very easy to approach The Way Home, his excellent new novel, as very much part of a continuity with his previous two books, The Night Gardener and The Turnaround; a trilogy concerned deeply with issues of parenthood, of how we as parents and we as a society raise our children, and in the changing perception of values within that society, and which may reflect some of his experiences writing for The Wire .

I am not suggesting that Pelecanos is writing a novelized version of the TV series, absolutely not. There is a sense, in a sprawling narrative like The Wire, that you can cover lots of angles and bring a multitude of perspectives to bear. But Dennis Lehane talked (see the IT interview here) of having to leave out lots of good material because it didn't drive the storylines forward. The brilliance of what Pelecanos has done in his last three books is to focus his story-telling within narrative arcs that enable him to focus on specific personal stories. The Night Gardener had a framework of murder to be solved. But in Turnaround, the crime was in the past, and it was the working out of the present that drove the story. In The Way Home, it is a crime not committed, a sense of values upheld, that provides the tension, and by keeping that central plot simple, the narrative is left free to consider the characters. Spareness was the key to Shoedog; like a fine Gold Medal noir, there was no waste, which left you inside the characters. The same sort of spareness, but with a far more sensitive affinity for the quotidien society around those characters, makes The Way Home compulsive reading, and I think it's fair to say few Gold Medal books would strike such a chord of realism in the internal dynamics of an average working family in America in their own time as Pelecanos does today.

Chris Flynn is a teenaged screw-up, much to the consternation of his hard-working, blue-collar father Thomas. When Chris is sent to a juvenile prison, Thomas feels his son has to learn to pay the price for his actions, and in confinement, Chris eventually does. The story then shifts; Chris is working, laying carpet with his father, one of his prison buddies as his partner. He has a girlfriend, he has a straight life. Then, tearing up a floor, Chris discovers a bag of money...and leaves it. And from that point, the story escalates, with confrontation taking on an inevitability that will force Chris and his father to make hard choices, about exactly what it is men have to do, and exactly what fathers need to do for their sons.

Pelecanos writes movingly about the little things that make fatherhood; Flynn remembering the heat of his son's little hand as he rode in his bicycle seat. But that is part of a bigger picture. He states clearly what Flynn is: 'a guy who went to work every day, who took care of his family...and would pass on without having made a significant mark. He had been fine with this in the past. His aim was to install values, work ethic and character into his son, and see him through to adulthood, where he would become a productive member of society and in turn pass this along to his own children. But when Chris jumped the tracks, Flynn's belief in the system failed.' This is the central theme of this trilogy, and the failure of the system is not just one of kids going off the rails.

There is an element of melodrama about this; Chris' prison attitude is changed by a tragic event and the story is resolved with a piece of 'standing-up' whose roots may be a little more sentimental than realistic. Pelecanos' model is often the myth of the American west, where men have to do what men have to do, but where families, and houses, are signs of 'civilization' imposing itself on the lawless wilderness. Given the metaphor, the fact that Pelecanos is, at heart, a sympathetic writer, makes such hints of sentimentality work. They also work because, in the other thing which seems like it might be Wire-influenced, this book has the structure and flow of a scene-by-scene screenplay: each scene works, leads to the next, keeps the flow moving. It's a bravura piece of writing, and would make a fine film in the right circumstances. One final point about the Wire influence: possibly the pressures of working on the show ended Pelecanos' novel-a-year pace, if only for one year, but I think it shows in both The Turnaround (see my original review of that book, the first post to IT, here) and this book, in the sense that the personal stories are now foregrounded, the territory is staked out, and the crime elements are really there for structure. I think those two novels may have had a little longer to percolate, and they are among his best books as a result.

Sometimes, when people wonder why I'm drawn to crime fiction, I say because it addresses society as it is, not as we'd like it to be. The reality is, crime fiction doesn't actually do that very often. More often, it's addressing society as we dramatize it, without accepting that the dramatisation is real. The beauty of The Wire was that the dramatization did become real, something you can't simply finish and walk away from and never think about again. That is what Pelecanos has done here. The beauty of The Way Home is that you finish the novel and wonder whether, in the real world, living up to values alone is enough to get it done.

NOTE: This review also appears at Crime Time: www.crimetime.co.uk