Friday, 29 July 2011


My obituary of Boston sportswriter George Kimball will appear in Monday's Guardian, but it's online now and you can link to it here. I have to confess that I over-wrote the piece; it was very hard to both tell the facts of George's life and convey the brilliant quality of performance art about it within the confines of my original word count, so I called and asked if I could have another 200 words for some stories. Sadly, what was lost in transition to the page was the additional material; since George was one of the most colourful scribes I've ever met, I still wanted to share them. Rather than just adding the anecdotes here, some of which are pretty amazing, the easiest thing to do is simply provide my original take alongside the link to the one published. So here's the original copy (as you notice, I spell hippie the way that doesn't mean someone broad-beamed, although in his later days George was a bit hippy as well as hippie--and I will confess also that I spelled Abbie Hoffman's name 'Abby' in my copy and the Guardian luckily for me corrected it!). I didn't have space to talk about the way George's column at the Phoenix helped make the tribalistic, if not primitive, world of Boston sports accessible for lots of people more concerned with counter-culture than the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, or Patriots. Nor did I mention the awards he won later in life--though frankly, I don't need to, because his writing speaks for itself.


Ernest Hemingway was reputed to have said 'my writing is nothing, my boxing is everything'. George Kimball, who has died aged 67, wasn't a boxer, but if writing about boxing is the ultimate test of a sportswriter's skill, Kimball deserves a place with the greats.

As a columnist for the Boston Phoenix and Boston Herald, Kimball covered all sports, displaying an uncanny ability to cut through the persiflage and get to the core of a story or a personality. He was that rare bigger-than-life raconteur who could write with the same fluency he spun stories, conveying through the grace of his prose the intimacy of an audience gathered in a smoky bar. A robust figure, with ginger beard and pot belly, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes, indulging his Irish ancestry as if he were a native Bostonian, Kimball was as legendary for his disdain of authority as he was for his ability to meet deadlines no matter how hard the previous night's session had been.

When he was diagnosed inoperable cancer of the oesophagus in 2005, he was given six months to live. He ignored the doctors, continued smoking, and began working to leave behind something less ephemeral than his thousands of columns. One result was Four Kings (2008), the tale of the great middleweights, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Ray Leonard, and Roberto Duran, who dominated boxing in the 1980s, its last era of greatness.

That was when I met George, while working for ABC television on its European bouts. Any fight that drew George to Britain, or even better Ireland, became a holiday in itself. The British boxing press recognised one of their own, and to be caught at a bar between George and Hugh McIlvaney, Colin Hart, or Ian Woolridge was, to me, infinitely preferable to further negotiations with promoters or indeed my bosses in New York.

Although George fits in seamlessly with the Runyonesque traditions of great boxing scribes, his route to the daily papers was unique. He came to this hard-boiled field as a literary hippie, typical of his contrarian nature. Born George Edward Kimball III in Grass Valley, California 20 December 1943, his father was an army colonel. George grew up on bases around the world, and entered the University of Kansas on a Navy officer training scholarship. He was soon drawn to campus protest against the Vietnam war. In 1965 he was expelled for picketing the local draft board carrying a sign saying 'fuck the draft'; he'd been arrested for lewd conduct. It was the first of half a dozen arrests. According to Kimball, his father claimed he would have retired a general had his son's anti-war profile not been so high.

Having worked on a poetry magazine, Grist, he headed for New York's East Village poetry scene, and got a job at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, critiquing the work of would-be writers and ghost-writing for Meredith's innumerable books packaged for paperback publishers. His poetry was published in the Paris Review, and in 1967 the famed Olympia Press brought out his only novel, Only Skin Deep, a tongue-in-cheek adult book. He sold pieces to the Village Voice, Rolling Stone and Playboy, but in 1970 returned to Kansas to run for sheriff against the Republican incumbent who'd arrested him in 1965. He ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, as the self-proclaimed leader of the 'Lawrence Liberation Front', used the unwinnable election to indulge in political theatre which included an appearance by Abbie Hoffman.

After the election he moved to Boston and its excellent weekly 'alternative' paper, the Phoenix, part of whose story was told in the movie Between The Lines. His column, 'The Sporting Eye', was an immediate hit, drawing the counter-culture community into Boston's passionate world of sports. Its title referred to his own glass eye, which he claimed to have lost in a youthful bar-room brawl, and which was the punchline to the possibly apocryphal tale of the female reporter who asked George to 'keep an eye on my chair' while she went to the loo. Kimball was renowned for eschewing the Phoenix newsroom in favour of the Eliot Lounge. Famously, he once appeared to drop off copy which was unintelligible, until one editor realised it had to be retyped with every letter moved once space to the left on the keyboard.

Kimball finally quit the Phoenix in 1979 after the millionth confrontation with his editors, bribing a cleaner to open the bar of the Park Plaza hotel at 9am, leaving a colleague at the bar when he disappeared and caught a flight to Florida. He moved to the Boston Herald in 1980, where his columns ran until his retirement in 2005. In 1997 he began a column, 'America At Large', for the Irish Times; they were collected in a 2008 book published in Ireland alongside his biography of the runner Eamonn Coghlan. After Four Kings, Kimball edited two collections of boxing writing with John Schulin, and published a collection of his own boxing writing, The Manly Art, earlier this year.

Kimball died 6 July 2011 at home in New York. He was married four times, and is survived by a son and daughter by his third wife, Sarah, and by his wife Dr. Marge Marash, whom he married in 2004 in a ceremony conducted by George Foreman. He joked that after sixty years he was finally marrying someone who could write prescriptions for him, and it was too late. It would be wrong to say they don't make them like George Kimball any more, but if they do, they certainly don't let them into newsrooms.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011


My obit of Joanna Russ is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. In the flower of my sf reading, late teens and early twenties, I was more impressed by Russ' work than fond of it, though I remember loving Picnic On Paradise, in its Ace Special edition with a beautiful cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, the illustrators of choice for 'New Wave' sf. I made the comparison with Ursula LeGuin deliberately, because they seem to me to be two sides of the feminist coin, in a time and a genre when 'liberation' was still primarily a male game. But they approached it in different ways, and Russ' work always seemed more didatic, more rooted in theory and argument. I could be wrong, but my suspicion is LeGuin's work, more accessible and making its points more metpahorically, will hold up better and survive longer--though as I said in the obit, I think Russ' criticism will continue to be important.

In the piece I used the term 'sci-fi' when I was making a deliberate contrast between the work of Leigh Brackett or CL Moore with the 'speculative fiction' or 'sf' Russ wrote. Call me unreconstructed, but I still love Brackett and Moore and their space opera. But I did use sf in all my other references, which the Indy rendered as sci-fi. If any of you hardcore new wave sf fans were offended, I apologise.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

THE DEATH AND LIFE OF BOBBY Z: Straight to death by video

It's not surprising I never came across the movie adaptation of Don Winslow's The Death And Life Of Bobby Z, as it went straight to video almost everywhere in the world (Japan, Egypt and Israel being a few of the exceptions) after Warner Bros. passed on the finished product. It isn't hard to see why—there were a lot of possibilities in Winslow's breakthrough 1997 novel, which was already somewhat tongue-in-cheek . Tim Kearney has had problems in the Marines and problems in prison, including a fatwa put on him by Hells Angels, so when the DEA offers him an out by impersonating the legendary drug dealer Bobby Z, he takes it. But when his handover to Bobby Z's Mexican connection goes wrong, it begins a story of pursuit that sees just about everyone chasing either Tim or Bobby...including the son Bobby never knew he had.

What's most interesting about the film, in retrospect, is how clear it seems that the characters of Bobby Z and his erstwhile partner Monk appear to be dry-runs or models for Ben and Chon in
Winslow's recent masterpiece, Savages (you can link to my review here), which Oliver Stone is making into a movie which ought to eclipse this one as Winslow's finest cinematic adaptation.

The problem with the film is it can't decide on how straight they want to play it, and frankly Paul Walker isn't a strong enough actor to be able to straddle approaches. This becomes painfully evident whenever he shares a scene with Laurence Fishburne, even though Larry seems to be sleepwalking through much of his menace. Walker's somewhere between Jason Statham and Chuck Norris, not as pretty as the former, not as tough-seeming as the latter (although, as an aside, it's it odd to see the curiously vertically-challenged Norris appearing smaller-than-life alongside various Tea Party bozos?). Oddly, the business with Walker reacting to Bobby's son is probably his strongest emoting, so perhaps there is hope. He isn't helped by his love interest, Olivia Wilde, who's painted-on face has a range of emotions that makes Walker look like Charles Laughton, if she were any more wooden she'd be outside cigar stores.

Walker's at his best when, in effect, playing straight man for his more talented adversaries: Fishburne of course, but also Joaquim de Almeda as the Mexican drug lord Don Huertero, Michael Bowen as the biker Duke, and most interestingly Keith Carradine as Huertero's foreman, Johnson, who is really the only one who gets the idea of balancing comedy and thriller absolutely right. It's a shame that two of the excellent stars of Justified, Margo Martindale and Raymond J Barry, don't get bigger parts, because they could put the whole thing on the right keel, as they've done in that great TV show (Timothy Olyphant is much more talented, but suffers from some of the same problems as Walker; his is a small screen talent).

The balance, however, is never right. The biker Boom Boom, a explosives 'expert' is played by MC Gainey with some seriousness, quickly seems to have drifted into the gang that chased Clint Eastwood in his orangutan flicks. Josh Stewart doesn't really have the menace to play Monk, Bobby's erstwhile partner. Jason Flemyng, as Huertero's right hand man, Brian, seems to have wandered in from one of those Brit gangster flicks. And it reaches an absurd conclusion when we see the real Bobby Z, and he looks about as much like Walker/Kearney as I do. Which helps deflate a really funny and clever ending, in which his presumptive fatherhood becomes his literal salvation. It's a sign that the screenplay adaptation was, at heart, a solid one, but either director Herzfeld couldn't take in the right way or, more likely, his actors couldn't cope. Having said that, the bookending sequences with Bruce Dern doing his best Dennis Hopper imitation as a crazy man on the beach, telling the legend of Bobby Z, make me wonder whose idea all this ill-judged zaniness might have been.

In the end, there enough action to cover most of the cracks, if little originality to reward you, though Carradine's expression just before his death is priceless. It's also interesting to see MMA star Chuck Liddel look less threatening than you might think in his role as a Hell's Angel heavy; look quick and you'll also spot Oleg Tartarov, Robbie Lawler, and Pat Miletich. When you're more curious about UFC fighters than the love interest, it may be the ultimate definition of straight to video.

The Death And Life Of Bobby Z (2007) directed by John Herzfeld
screenplay by Bob Krakower and Allen Lawrence, based on the novel by Don Winslow


I've just posted an unpublished essay I wrote in 1995 about the Abstract Expressionist painters Franz Kline and Willem DeKooning over at Untitled: Perspectives; you can link to it here. Kline, of course, has been one of my favourites ever since I discovered art--the poster for that 1994 Whitechapel show is sitting over my shoulder as I write this. Part of that was the Black Mountain connection: I read Fielding Dawson's Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline, and it was easy to see the way Kline's work reflected or was reflected in, the poetry of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, just as those influences were reflected in the work of Cy Twombly. So pop over to the other blog and see what I was talking about then...

Monday, 25 July 2011


Ed Wright's period detective novels have been a critic's delight; each of the four has garnered at least one award, including two from the CWA. They're written with an ease that belies the conflicts between characters, and between them and the setting and times, in immediate post-war Los Angeles. Yet they've thus far failed to attract a wider audience--and it would be nice to think that From Blood, released last November, would be the standalone to attract a new audience. It would be nice because it's always good to see writers rewarded for taking risks.

And they are risks Wright, for the most part, handles with aplomb. The setting is modern, with its roots in the protest movements of the Sixties. His protagonist is a woman, one who often behaves more like a young girl, which is understandable as she first loses her family and begins a process of discovering the truth behind that family and her upbringing.

In a sense, it's a road novel, as Shannon Fairchild meets new people, friends, relatives, enemies, and those in between, and moves from place to place both pursuing and being pursued. Wright handles her character nicely; in fact the book is at its most convincing at the beginning, when she is most troubled, and doesn't have the lure of a quest to drive her on.

He's particularly good on the background of the Sixties: was it really so long ago that young people literally have no idea about things which obsessed the book's characters then? Those characters are draw convincingly, both the ones who stayed in the movement, underground, and those who didn't. You can sense the seriousess of the debate, and Wright makes sure you understand the sea-change in our society's attitudes and expectations.

And he's also good at the thriller aspects of the story. Shannon knows who she can trust; her instincts are called into question. And as she gets deeper and deeper into the protest underground she finds her own basic loyalties being twisted. It's a wonderful set-up, that Wright carries off perfectly almost to the end. So you have a story that's as fresh as the continuing headlines about radicals coming up from underground, with deep personal conflicts expressed with believability, and a solid chase thriller. The elements are all there.

It's in the resolution that the story becomes somewhat mechanical, with characters literally coming on-stage one after another as if they're being cued. There are two major turnarounds, which an astute reader will have guessed long before they're revealed to Shannon, and in the end the question is really one of extremism, and whether it's a vice--in the defense of liberty or of anything else. It's a enjoyable debate, and a thrilling ride Wright takes you on--and if the impact of the finish doesn't quite match the build-up, it's understandable. But it makes me doubt whether this is the book that boosts Wright into much-deserved wider success.

Sunday, 24 July 2011


I had meant to write something earlier about the death of baseball manager Dick Williams; sadly his career didn't really have much of a hook for a British paper's readership. Most of his obits in the States seemed to concentrate on his time with the Oakland As, which was to be expected, as he won two World Series with them ('72-73) and they were a collection of larger-than-life characters--Reggie, Catfish, Vida Blue, Joe Rudi, Blue Moon, Rollie, Sal Bando, Gino Tenace, Campy and so on, all orchestrated by owner Charles O Finley, who made an interesting fit with the irascible Williams', who, like his team, appeared to simply ignore Finley as much as possible and get on with the business of winning baseball games (in fairness, it should be noted that it was Finley who put those teams together, as well as tried to keep them poor and hungry). He called that Oakland team '25 versions of me...we looked like damn hippies...but didn't care about anything but winning.'

I remember Williams most fondly as the manager of what remains my favourite baseball team and season: the Impossible Dream Red Sox of 1967, who won the American League pennant at the longest odds of any team in history. I was 16, starting as a junior on a prep school football team loaded with high-school graduates, and we played at Thompson Academy in Boston Harbor the same weekend the AL season was ended. I got dispensation to stay over at my uncle's in Chelmsford, and watched the season's final game, which the Sox won, and later won the pennant when the Angels beat the Twins that night. It cemented my lifelong obsession with the Red Sox (which has not even been dampened by their recent transformation into the Yankees-lite).

That '67 team was the perfect one to adore, and Williams was a rookie manager who made the perfect fit for that club for a number of reasons. Owner Tom Yawkey was the antithesis of Finley: he didn't need to make his living from the team and he adored his star players. Williams came in and used his 'my way or the highway' approach to shake some players of their comfort zone. He stripped Carl Yastrzemski of the team captaincy, sending a message that was taken on by the team's core of young stars: Yaz, Rico Petrocelli, Tony Conigliaro, George 'Boomer' Scott, pitcher Jim Lonborg. Yaz would turn in one of the all-time great seasons, winning the Triple Crown, Lonborg would dominate as a pitcher, and all the others would raise their performance levels.

Williams' approach worked because the Sox were a young team; Yaz being the oldest regular at 27, and many of them had played for Williams in the minors. He also inserted Reggie Smith (cf) and Mike Andrews (2b) into the starting lineup, making it older and better. General manager Dick O'Connell got him some pitching pieces, and when Conigliaro was lost for the season when he eye was shattered by a pitch, he got Hawk Harrelson to play right field.

The Sox lost a great seven game World Series to the Cardinals, the strongest National League winners of that decade, when Bob Gibson out-duelled Lonborg in the seventh game. Lonborg was pitching on two days rest and didn't have it; as they did in game seven in 86 against the Mets, the Sox didn't show enough faith in the rest of their staff.

The team didn't repeat in 1968, though Williams managed well. Lonborg broke his leg skiing, which is another of the dozens of Red Sox 'what if' scenarios, because O'Connell went out and picked up Ray Culp and Dick Ellsworth in the off-season' they won 16 games each and with a healthy Lonborg the Sox would have had the league's best rotation. Williams, meanwhile, fired pitching coach Sal Maglie, wanting his own guy: Maglie had made a winner of Lonborg, and other Sox pitchers like Dick Radatz, Earl Wilson, and Bill Monboquette, by insisting they pitch inside.

Yawkey fired Williams late in the 1969 season. He quit the As, mostly because Finley had tried to force him to place Andrews, now playing in Oakland, on the disabled list as punishment for making two errors in a World Series game. He early moved to the Evil Empire to manage the Yanquis, but Finley insisted on compensation, so he managed the Angels and Expos and then took the expansion Padres to a pennant in 1984, making him one of only seven guys to manage champions in both leagues. he was fired the next year, managed in Seattle, and then scouted for the Yanqui. As a manager he was great at changing the attiutude in a clubhouse, and getting the best out of players who wanted to do things his way. Eventually, of course, that approach wears itself out. As he said in a recent interview, about the current millionaire players, 'today I wouldn't last a week...(but) I don't know anybody who refused the World Series checks I helped them get.'

When I did the World Series for Sky with Rico Petrocelli we talked at great length about Williams, and how his drill sergeant approach worked in those heady days of the Sixties in Boston. The players were somewhat apart from the counter-cultural capital the Hub was (and if you doubt me listen to Earth Opera's song 'Red Sox Are Winning') but they were a team convinced of their own destiny; and if destiny worked they always had Yaz. Williams was the perfect face for that team, and we were always convinced that beneath his gruff exterior was a guy who'd fight for his players. He proved that in Oakland. RIP.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


With this novel, Arnaldur Idrisason sends his detective Erlender on leave to pursue his own obsessions in remote eastern Iceland, and leaves to Detective Elinborg the investigation of a young man stabbed to death in his own apartment in Reykjavik. The man, Runolfur, is wearing a woman's T-shirt, a woman's shawl lies under the bed, and a large dose of rohypnol, the date-rape drug, is in his system. As Elinborg investigates, with the sometimes tendentious help of Sigurdur Oli, she's led to a woman who appears to have herself been drugged by Runolfur, and brought back to the apartment. She has no memory of the night, but she called her father for help. Is it a case of modern date-rape leading to murder?

Or is there something else going on? The theme running through Indridason's books is usually about the old Iceland versus the new. Erlender is very much the old, symbolised by his traditional horse-head eating habits. His daughter, with her drug problems, is one representation of the new, and in this novel Elinborg seems to encapsulate the dilemma. She is very much of the new Iceland, a working mother who prefers the life of the 'big' city to the traditional monotony of village life. And as she investigates this case, she gets caught up in the barrier between the mores and values of the village, and those of the big city. Clues deal with foreign cooking, and much is made of the differences between the recipes Elinborg writes about (in her sideline creating cookbooks) and the lackluster diet in the sticks. Food makes for a wonderful contrast, and so does family.

In the investigation, we find family ties playing crucial roles, and the same is true for Elinborg at home. Her adopted son has left the family, and her own son seems set to follow. He's active on social networking sites, where the traditional reticence and privacy of Icelanders seems to have disappeared. Yet her younger daughter, Theodora, takes it all in stride. This precocious child is, in many ways, the most interesting character in the book—full of both modern wisdom and a seemingly ageless attitude toward change.

In effect, Idirason is building Elinborg's character by reflection of those around her; it is not easy, and in fact works best when she clashes with the clumsier police methods of Oli. She works, like Erlender, on instinct, and her instincts are good, and she also seems to be able to use a female empathy in balance with authority to reach some people. Indriason has given her what amounts to a very traditional kind of murder mystery to solve, and, in the end, the solution is something tangential to the main investigation, something that only someone with a sensitivity to Icelandic mores would be able to solve.

But the book's most interesting character remains Erlender, even though he appears only in one or two moments when Elinborg considers him—she reminds me of Wallander or Martin Beck with their mentors at those times. So when it is revealed that Erlender appears to have disappeared: his rented car found abandoned in a church yard, there is, typically for Iceland and for anyone who knows Erlender, little worry. But we know that some sort of investigation is going to follow, and in that sense it's good we've grown a little closer to Elinborg, and enjoyed this novel, because we're already looking forward to the one that will follow.

Outrage by Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781846555503

Friday, 22 July 2011

STEPHEN HUNTER'S 47TH SAMURAI: A Forgotten Friday Entry

The 47th Samurai is not the first time Stephen Hunter has paid homage to movies; the Earl Swagger novel Pale Horse Coming referred explicitly to The Magnificent Seven (and to Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes). This should not be surprising, since Hunter is also a film critic who has championed the action/adventure movie, but unfortunately this tale of a sixty-year old Bob Lee Swagger embarking on a quest for revenge in Japan has to be taken with a huge amount of tongue in cheek. Hunter signals this when he's listing samurai movies – it's as if he's giving you Quentin Tarantino's young adulthood to follow, and though he isn't into the wholesale exaggeration that QT built his Kill Bill films on, Hunter still has a few problems to overcome.

The main ones concern Bob Lee, first because part of the story requires him to remain relatively anonymous in Tokyo, which is not an easy thing for any gaijin, and the other because Bob Lee's samurai training is of necessity too short, a fact about which everyone in the story reminds us, but being aware is not the same as being convinced.

The real problem is that Hunter attempts to encourage the suspension of disbelief by using facts—constantly giving the Japanese terms for weapons, fighting moves, techniques and parts. I noted in my review of I Sniper (2009--you can link to that here) that Hunter's writing was becoming more 'device-centric', and that as a result Swagger himself was turning into a plot device, rather than a character. This book was published the year before that one, but you can see it moving in that direction. In truth, however, when you look at Hunter's pre-Swagger work, you can see that it is the action thriller that interests him, and perhaps the historical emphasis was a detour.

That's dangerous because the strong points of the Swagger series (both father and son) have been personal as well as historical. Point Of Impact, which introduced Bob the Nailer, was conspiracy-based and began filling in Bob's personality; Black Light, the second novel, in which Bob investigates his father's death and White Springs, the first Earl novel, are perhaps his best books, and their core is character crossing corruption. There's some of that here; the sequences on Iwo Jima are particularly strong, if a bit reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's films, and of course the parallels of the Swagger men as American samurai is not subtle, but it is effective. So too is the relationship between Earl and his Japanese adversary during the war, and between Bob Lee and that man's son afterwards.

So, in the end, the question is whether you smile when Bob Lee assembles his own 47 samurai (the tale of the 47 ronin being the classic Japanese samurai story) or whether you feel it's all too contrived. As usual, Hunter's combat scenes always convince, and when he brings a twist or two into the plot it's never telegraphed, even if Bob Lee always saw it coming. It's got more meat than, say, I Sniper, and it flows along—the only question is how much you want to surrender to the ride.

The 47th Samurai by Stephen Hunter
Arrow Books 2008, £6.99 ISBN 9780099519232


Times have been tough for crack criminal attorney Mickey Haller, and lately he's been mostly defending people against foreclosures, advertising (in Spanish and English) on every page of the phone book and taking every case that comes along. Then one of his clients, a woman who's led a high-profile protest against the bank trying to take her home, is charged with murdering the CEO of the bank. He's been found in the bank's parking garage with his head hammered in, and Lisa was spotted in the vicinity.

The case is almost too open and shut, the perfect platform for Mickey's criminal practice to get back into gear. Throw in a DA friendly with his ex-wife, a missing husband, and a growing link to mob activities, and it's just the sort of theatre where he loves to star. Except that nothing, of course, is quite what it seems.

It's almost criminal that Michael Connelly, undoubtedly our best writer of what you might call police procedurals, is also establishing himself as a master of courtroom drama too. It's not just the twists and turns of the evidence, where he stands out is in delineating the personal battles between attorneys, and between each of them and the judge. He uses that dynamic as a main part of the suspense, which makes the story personal. That has always been the strong point of the Harry Bosch series, the way the personal drives and reflects the story, and it's no different with Haller. Throw in the fact that his client is increasingly unreliable, and the story continues spinning with the twists never seeming artifically inserted, and that is a necessity in good story-telling. Without giving away what 'fifth witness' actually means, the parallel between what Haller does to the eponymous wit and what he does in other facets of his life is clear.

Haller is not as interesting a character as Bosch, perhaps less likeable and certainly less easy to pin down. His morality is flexible, as befits a lawyer, and he himself is actually most interesting when interacting with his ex, ADA Maggie 'McFierce', because both are driven by their profession, each with a holier-than-thou attitude to a business where holy doesn't often enter into it. The big challenge for Connelly is probably to get that next step deeper into Haller's character, which, if the forgrounding in this book is any indication, he is going to try to do.

But in the end, this is, after all, a mystery, Connelly resolves it with a twist, one which, in the old-fashioned sense, plays absolutely true with the reader: it's been out there to see, but there's no reason you (or Haller) would have, because you're just as caught up in the case as he is. It's a bravura piece of courtroom writing, one of those keep-reading-all-night until you finish it books.

The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly
Orion £18.99 ISBN 9781409114420

Friday, 15 July 2011


My obituary of Sherwood Schwartz, who created both Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, is in today's Guardian, and you can link to it here. I have to admit I was something of a Gilligan fan, though I had and still have, no time for the Bradys, and when I sat down to think about the reasons it led to my over-writing the piece somewhat. What was cut to shorten it were my reflections on Bob Denver--who also starred in Schwartz's neo-Gilligan Dusty's Trail, and in two other pilots that never got bought as series, though the pilot episode of Scamps is available on DVD and The Invisible Woman appeared as a one-off TV movie.

Some of the obits quoted media studies professors on the significance of Gilligan, and Schwartz himself in later years would attribute simple but universal themes to it. But the key, in my mind is Denver. First off, he offered Schwartz the abilities to do much of the goofy slapstick and idicoy that were the attributes of Red Skelton's comedy, but with none of the star's ego, so in that sense he made the perfect focus for the series, which in that sense can often be seen as an extended series of sketches for Denver.

But when I suggest Gilligan as a proto-hippie, I also mentioned his previous TV incarnation as the work-shy beatnik Maynard G Krebs, on The Adventures of Dobie Gillis. And when you consider that Backus brought persona of the hapless father from Rebel Without A Cause (as well as the voice of the nearsighted eccetric millionaire Mr Magoo) to the role of Thurston Howell, you can an intersection of characters that might have appealled to the emerging 'rebellious' generation.

Or it may just have been because there was Tina Louise to gawk at in every episode.

It's also important to remember that the perception of the Sixties as a decade of turmoil is true, it is even truer that the vast 'silent majority' did exist, and the real cultural change wasn't marked until the Seventies, when the Sixties counter-culture became the accepted over-the-counter culture --at which point The Brady Bunch was definitely being presented as an antidote.

It's also informative to look at what other shows were popular during the era, to realise Schwartz's comedies were not all that different from, say, The Beverly Hillbillies or even Hogan's Heroes, and one might look at Norman Lear's redoing of Til Death Do Us Part as All In The Family as the sort of anti-Brady.

The one antidote I left out, sadly, was the constant friction between Robert Reed and Schwartz. Reed's previous best role had been as EG Marshall's younger partner in the issue-oriented drama The Defenders, and Schwartz had apparently promised him the Bradys would address the cutting edge issues of the time, and for some reason Reed had chosen to believe him.

Schwartz frequently worked with his children, and in many shows there are credits for an Elroy Schwartz--in fact it is Elroy who co-wrote the original, long-lost pilot show for Gilligan--and he is described in some references as Sherwood's son. Yet his none of his three sons were named Elroy, and two are credited under their own names, so either this was the third son, Donald, using a pseudonym, or Schwartz (or someone else) using one for their own reasons. A curious little mystery.

Sunday, 10 July 2011


Derek Jeter's 3,000 hit yesterday reminded me of an essay I'd written twelve years ago, and I thought I'd go back and look at it to see how accurate I'd been about his position vis a vis the other two great young shortstops of 1999. A little background: after I stopped working for Major League Baseball, and was doing baseball comentary on Sky and other satellite channels (as well as the Olympic finals, twice, for RTE Ireland!) I used to self-publish a baseball preview annual. The following essay appeared in the 1999 edition, along with previews and predictions of each team, and essays on Cuba (the Orioles went to Havana to play and I wrote a piece for the FT), the first-to-worst phenomenon (selling off great players wasn't a new thing in baseball), and an early look at 'weight training' and power hitting titled 'Popeye Arms And The Man'.

The way Jeter reached his 3,000, with a homer at the end of a 5 for 5 day, reminded me that, although the stats have often ranked him below the top, especially in the field, he has had the knack, especially useful playing in New York for the highest-payroll, highest-profile team in baseball, of rising to big occasions where his current teammate ARod has been his virtual opposite. Hence the Yankees leaving Jeter at short, when the younger ARod has more range. But ARod has less of what a NYTimes writer might call 'the right stuff'. Consider the difference in ARod's trying to slap the ball away from Bronson Arroyo, or 'Jeter the Cheater' doing a soccer-style fake of an injury to draw a HBP against Tampa. Jeter (who scored on ARod's slap) isn't tarnished, even after admitting his gamesmanship.

What I couldn't predict, of course, was that Jeter and ARod would become teammates, and ARod would move to third base, thus taking himself out of that 'greatest shortstop' equation. One thing I should point out too, as you watch various stats about Jeter's place in the 3,000 hit club, is that for various reasons there are lots of great hitters who never reached 3,000 hits (especially all those Yankees, plus Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx) while Craig Biggio, Al Kaline, and Yaz did (Yaz being the first American Leaguer with 400 homers among the 3,000 hits). Longevity is, in itself, a sign of quality, particularly at shortstop (second only to catcher in the way it takes a early toll on bodies). Nomar, whose overly developed frame soon broke down as I speculated it might, is a good example. The length and relative consistency of Jeter's career will argue covincingly for his spot in the Hall of Fame; ARod, with all the side issues, will certainly justify my rating of him, but make the vote a harder call.

I should also point out that I wrote some snide things about Mariah Carey, and eerily anticipated ARod's dating Madonna. All three sportsters have moved on, in a sense, Jeter to Minka Kelly (via Jessica Biel) ARod to Cameron Diaz (via Madonna and whatever), and Nomar to the soccer star Mia Hamm. Why should multi-millionaire star shortstops be attractive to celebrity actresses?

While you ponder that one, here's what I wrote in March 1999:


There may not have been a time in baseball history when three young shortstops of the quality of Alex Rodriquez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra have emerged together in one league. In fact, based on the past two seasons, you’d be hard-pressed to find three veteran shortstops putting up similar numbers. Most of the great hitting shortstops have stood out by a long margin from their colleagues: Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks, Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, maybe Arky Vaughn. Most shortstops, even the good hitting ones, weren’t there for their sticks anyway. In the American League just after the war you had Lou Boudreau, Junior Stephens, and Eddie Joost (who generally outhit Phil Rizzuto by good margins), but Joost never put two big years in a row together (his 1949 was a dinger, though: .263 23-81, 149bb, 128r). Stephens in 1949 hit .290 39-159 but Boudreau had an off year after his 1948 line of .355 18-106, 98bb and 9k. That’s right, nine.

But right now you’ve got three guys putting up numbers that are close to MVP quality, and they’re doing it every year. Two of them are already their club leaders, and all three are among the wave of new young players who bring back that everyday hard work and respect for the game which many of us believed the NBA/MTV generation had lost forever.

The highest profile, because he plays in New York, belongs to Derek Jeter. The other guys don’t get to date Mariah Carey. To me, she looks about as attractive as Governor Carey, but I’m old and jaded (2011 update: Minka, right, looks much better). Jeter is the middle of the our three guys in terms of age (turns 25 in June) and is already in his fourth year in the bigs. He shows the least power of the three (19-84 last year) but in the offseason this year he has worked on his hands to add more power to his swing, and I’d look for his power numbers to jump. Not that they need to, if Knoblauch becomes a great leadoff hitter again. He’s an excellent base runner (30/36 in sbs, 83%), and he managed a .384 oba despite walking only 57 times (119 Ks). Listed at 6-3 185, Jeter is big for shortstop, but doesn’t look it on the field.

Defensively, Jeter had his best season last year, cutting his errors to an amazing nine, and fielding .986. He’s got the least range of these three, and there are questions about him going to his left, but they aren’t serious ones. Given the pop in his bat, I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually moves from the shortstop position, to second or third, but that would depend a lot on who the Yankees come up with in the future. Bernie Williams was quoted this season as saying that Jeter was the leader of the Yankees and their MVP. Given the talent on that team, and the quality competitors, that is an amazing compliment.

The oldest of the three is Nomar, who turns 26 in July, and he’s only in his third season. He too is his team’s leader, if somewhat by default since Mo Vaughn lumbered out of town. But from the first day he hit the Red Sox lineup, Garciaparra has breathed a fresh attitude into the team, and moving from leadoff to cleanup hitter he proved he would do what it takes to help the team win.
Unlike Jeter and Rodriquez, Garciaparra is a contact hitter: he walked only 33 times and struck out only 62 last season. He’s the smallest of the three at 6-0 175, but looks bigger because he’s so skinny. His power (35-122) is generated by the whip he gets in his bat, and the more I look at him the more he reminds me of hitters like Henry Aaron. He’s a good baserunner, but batting in the middle of the Sox lineup he’s not going to rack up steals.

Last season Garciaparra made 25 errors, fielding .962, but part of that was because the Sox tried to get him to set before he threw, rather than complete the throw on the run as he likes to do, and once he went back to his own style, his errors slowed down. When you watch him closely, you’ll see his whole approach to picking the ball up is consistent, and lets him get the throw away so quickly he saves at least a step on the baserunner. He’s got more range than Jeter, but like Jeter he uses his arm to make up for the ground he can’t cover. Like Jeter, I see him moving off shortstop eventually (particularly if he’s injured, which he seems likely given his body type). Whether it will be an Ernie Banks type move to 1b or a Rico Petrocelli-type move to 3rd I don’t know: but I’d guess it could be tied into the development of SS Adam Everett in the minors.

Rodriquez is the youngest of the three, turning 24 in July, and has already hit 106 home runs in the majors. He may have quicker hands than Gary Sheffield, which gives him phenomenal ability to punish good pitches by waiting on them. His season, .310 42-124 123r 43sb was an MVP calibre performance, especially from a shortstop, and you could argue that could’ve been his second MVP. And don’t think that ARod is feasting in the Kingdome: last season he hit .286 18-54 at home but .335 24-70 on the road. Defensively, I’m not convinced he’s second to Omar Vizquel in range, but I won’t argue with the strength of his arm, which will keep him at shortstop even if he starts to slow down. He’s 6-3 195, which again is big for a shortstop, and you’ve got to worry when he gets hurt on the step exercises, but basically, he’s done nothing wrong thus far in his career. You’d like to see him stop chasing bad pitches (121Ks, only 43bb) but that will come.

I think we owe a lot to Cal Ripken here. When Earl Weaver was the only person in baseball who thought Cal could play shortstop, everyone laughed. Maybe Earl was remembering Ron Hansen, a big shortstop who’d played well defensively for the Orioles in the early 60s, or Junior Stephens on the Red Sox, or even Ernie Banks. For whatever reason, Ripken proved that positioning, athletic ability, and a strong arm could overcome whatever balletic quickness he gave away to the Ozzie Smiths and Luis Aparicios of the world. Traditionally, the best young baseball players all start off (if they don’t pitch exclusively) as shortstops or, in the old days, as center fielders if they were big. Nowadays, they look at shortstop as a place they want to stay, and the additional offense they provide really can change the game of baseball.

So who’s the best? In the field I’d rate them 1. ARod 2. Nomar 3. Mariah’s boyfriend. At the plate, the rating stays the same. In intangibles, it goes 1. Jeter 2 Nomar 3. ARod, but of course he plays second fiddle to the Paganini of the bat in Ken Griffey Jr. It's so close, I find it hard to drive a wedge between Jeter and Nomar, and I suspect we may have a Ted Williams/Joe DiMaggio type argument going on here for years to come. I’d give the edge to Nomar right now, but I suspect that Jeter’s bat will continue to improve, and he is a year younger with an extra year’s experience as well.

But neither guy is ARod. If this guy played in New York he’d be pushing Madonna out of the way to get to the ballpark (2011 note: or not, we can say now. Boy was that a prophetic line!). I think he’s more valuable this season than either of the other two, and remember, he’s both the youngest of the bunch AND has the most big league experience. He’s probably the guy I’d want to start with if I were building a team from stratch, and that means I consider him the most valuable property in baseball.

Friday, 8 July 2011


Books Discussed In This Essay:
Goddard: A Portrait Of The Artist At 70 by Colin McCabe
Bloomsbury, £25, ISBN 0747563187
The Films Of Nicholas Ray by Geoff Andrew
British Film Institute, no price listed, ISBN 1844570010
Nicholas Ray: An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz
Faber 1993, £12.99 ISBN 0571178308
Early Film Noir by William Hare
McFarland £29.95, ISBN 0786416297
Hardboiled Hollywood by Max Decharne
No Exit Press, £18.99, ISBN 184243070X
Val Lewton: The Reality Of Terror by Joel E Siegel
Secker & Warburg, 1972, £1.20
Fearing The Dark: The Val Lewton Career
by Edmund G Bansak
McFarland £29.95 ISBN 0786417099

I’ve always been amused at the thought of Jean-Luc Godard, the roaring lion of revolutionary film, playing out his string in Switzerland, strolling to the chocolaterie alongside the other petits bourgeoises. The implicit contradiction of Godard’s choice of a return to cuckoo-clock land (not so surprising, really, as he grew up a Swiss Protestant) is merely the last metaphor for a career more problematic, though not much less important, than Colin McCabe’s study would like to suggest. To McCabe, Godard is the ‘greatest figure’ from the last generation of cinema, both the greatest ‘essayist’ and ‘one of the greatest poets cinema has known’. That’s a lot of greatests. Those terms, poet and essayist, are, for McCabe, linked and not at all contradictory. He means poet not in the film reviewer’s standard sense of being visually lyrical, but in the more absolute sense, of someone working with a language in its purest, most refined state. And indeed, that was the theoretical point Godard the essayist insisted was most important, the language of film, and the one Godard the director was always pursuing, at least theoretically.

Whether Godard the filmmaker ever lived up to Godard the theoretician is a matter of debate. The paradox of film is that it always seems to transcend intentions, a paradox which, while eminently true of Godard's own work, consistently undermines, if not contradicts, his critical efforts. Embarrassingly, some of Godard’s best films work in ways his own theories would insist are invalid. On the other hand, some of his worst films are the most 'pure' cinema, yet even so they often venture into the didactic. There is a very specific reason for this, one which may explain why it’s so easy to think of Godard as a slim-line Orson Welles, indulging his rebelliousness.

There is a conflict in Godard which comes from his detachment from the world of humanity. His is a life overwhelmed by and subsumed in the cinema, and his films reflect a world where everything is expressed in cinematic terms. 'The art of the 19th century, the cinema,' he says toward the end of his Histoire (s) du cinema (1978), 'created the 20th century, which on its own existed only a little.' Well, that is one point of view. This is what makes him exciting as a film-maker, what makes him such a poet, but the world of film will take one only so far. I have friends with whom I will talk in lines from Animal House, our joke being that all human existence can be explained within that sensitive film. We are often unable to communicate to other people using such references. They haven't seen the film, they haven't remembered it, they haven't understood the context or its relation to whatever it is we were talking about. They are, after all, people. But for Godard, it was as if all existence could be expressed only through film, and unless our hearts and brains are made of celluloid he isn't really interested, and that just doesn’t work.

Beyond that concept, Godard also adored American films. All of them. Far more than the French. I don’t think he, or McBride, ever tackle the paradox that Godard’s view of America was of a country composed out of celluloid; like the patrons of the pub I first visited when I travelled to London in 1972, who heard my friend was from Chicago and spontaneously make tommy-gun noises.

For me, the crucial film in all Godard’s oeuvre is Made In USA. Here the lover of film noir takes a Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) novel ready-made for noir adaptation, and turns it into a literary analysis of why the USA is in Vietnam. It’s a lecture, a polemic, a didactic rant, and it expresses, more than Godard’s Marxism or his faith in film, the shattering revelation that the world of American cinema was a by-product of the same American system that created the moral cesspit of Vietnam (or, to put it even more tellingly for Godard's benefit, refined and perfected the quagmire the French left behind). Made In USA is a work of rage that marks the end, I believe of Godard’s most fertile creative period, one which produced half a dozen undisputed great films, and which was followed by a long uneven period of films that, with a few exceptions, repeated past experiments less successfully. And even some of the exceptions, like Sauve qui peut, are successful in a less-involving, more distancing way.

Colin MacCabe never really comes to grips with that, because it doesn’t fit into the picture of the world’s greatest filmmaker. If that sounds like a criticism, I have to say it is not a fault, because the book is so comprehensive that the reader familiar with the films will be able to make his own evaluations. It is comprehensive in other ways, too: MacCabe provides a history of Marxism which is a book in itself, and here, I think there is something of a misreading. Because Marxism, to Godard, was a stick with which to beat not only capitalism and, by extension, America, but also a device with which to approach humanity without having to deal with humans. It gave Goddard a template, beyond cinema, with which he could classify all his relations--and Godard’s Marxism was as soulless and potentially dangerous as Pol Pot’s.

Just as contradictory, in MacCabe’s portrait, is Godard the manipulator, the movie mini-mogul, as cruel to individuals as any capitalist and as vicious within the system as any Hollywood tycoon. One thinks of careerists on a local council, building up a socialist fortune for themselves in a sort of shadow-mirror of the world they claim to despise. One doesn’t expect a parallel morality from artists, but one can ask for it from polemicists.

Geoff Andrew quotes Godard: ‘If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of re-inventing it, and what is more, of wanting to’. (And full props: what a superb film-critic Godard was!) This re-issue of Andrew’s excellent 1991 study of Ray, with brief materials added to bring it up to date, is welcome, particularly as the original study was followed by an excellent biography two years later, Bernard Eisenschitz’s Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. The biography was particularly enlightening on issues of Ray’s sexuality, and also his background in radio, and hence sound. Viewed together with Andrews’ study, they provide a full grounding in a film-maker whose abilities to tell a story cinematically were exactly what endeared him to the Europeans who came to idolise ‘ignored’ strands of American film in the 50s and 60s. Kudos to the BFI for bringing this book, by one of their own, back into print.

Ray is also an important director in the annals of film noir, an American genre named and more or less identified by the French, which grew out of a confluence of hard-boiled pulp fiction and German expressionist film. I have argued in these pages about the roots of film noir in the intersection of the liberated flapper and the German silent horror film; many of the most important of the film noir directors were refugees from Germany. I‘ve also worried about the dangers of conflating the terms hard-boiled, pulp, and noir. They are related, but they don’t necessary mean the same thing, and one does not automatically lead to the next.

Which is why I’m a little puzzled with Early Film Noir, which also opens up by claiming film noir received its baptism in France just after World War II, when the French recognised the work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. French critics may have defined film noir, but they did it a decade later, and it didn’t take the French (or the British, as Hare further asserts) to recognise Hammett, Chandler, or, in noir terms the purest of his big three, James M Cain. They were best-sellers already: if Hammett hadn’t been a huge success both in print and through the Thin Man movies, the 1939 version of The Maltese Falcon would not have been its second remake!

There’s no real logical progression to Hare’s account of some of his favourite films, and what the British Across The Bridge, released in 1957, has to do with early film noir beats me all to hell, apart from the fact that Hare likes Ken Annakin and Annakin provided a foreword for this book. Hare’s version is very much a middle-of-the-road account of noir, no Detours allowed here, and it won’t add much to your understanding if you’ve previously considered the genre in any detail. It is, however, written with great affection, and its section on Jane Greer and Out Of The Past, which benefits from an interview with the wonderful actress, is worth the price of admission in itself.

Hare would have been better off structuring his book more like Max Decharne’s Hardboiled Hollywood. Again, there’s no systematic study of the genre, but Decharne avoids false labeling, and instead provides a series of vignettes that illuminate the origins of some great crime films. It’s not academic, but it’s a lot of fun, much like some of Woody Haut’s efforts for the same publisher. Decharne’s specific concern is linking the films to their source novels, and examining the kinds of changes the stories underwent along the way, and it also boasts some great book cover illustrations.

Making the point about German expressionism and horror as a major root of film noir ought to have been easy for William Hare, since the director of Out Of The Past, Jacques Tourneur, apprenticed on Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO, the same studio that made that Mitchum/Douglas/Greer classic. Lewton was the subject Joel E Siegel’s Val Lewton: The Reality Of Terror (1973), still one of the great film books and a remarkable study of the producer as auteur. The budget-conscious techniques of Lewton’s films would be reflected in dozens of classic film noirs, and Cat People, his first, and perhaps best, could be argued an important early noir in its own right.

Fearing The Dark credits Siegel’s book, but goes far beyond, offering a complete biography of Lewton, a fascinatingly pulpy character whose life is reflected in his approach to film-making. Lewton was a creative producer (and writer) who was able to get the best out of his directors and out of his small budgets because he didn't need to let his ego go out of control. At RKO, that probably would not have done him much good anyway. Most of the great noirs owe a lot to the ability to be creative with low budgets: when dealing with stories of failed small-timers, it became a narrative, as well as stylistic advantage. Bansak makes much of the Orson Welles connection: Robert Wise and Mark Robson were RKO editors for Welles who became directors for Lewton; further, David O Selznick tried to get Welles to take Lewton’s job as story editor at RKO. What a team that would have been! Following Siegel, Bansak doesn’t have all that much new to offer in critiquing the films themselves, but his exhaustive detailing of Lewton’s life helps explain both how he came to create a run of small masterpieces in a short period at RKO, and why he didn’t repeat the feat on a larger scale elsewhere.

And the details of his biography highlight Lewton's polyglot background; a creative life filled with a spectrum of experience. That was something many of the great Hollywood film-makers had: they learned their story-telling from many media, and they brought experience from outside the screening room and editing suite to the art of cinema. They saw the world as containing cinema, not being contained within it. It's virtually the opposite of Godard, and extremely instructive, if not corrective, it is.

Thursday, 7 July 2011


Yesterday I wrote this obituary of Cy Twombly for the Independent, but because of a glitch in my computer, I never actually filed the copy to them, and as they were unable to reach me later they had to rush to get another piece. This is the kind of mistake I hope I never make again, wasting their time and mine, and losing the opportunity to register my appreciation of Twombly in print.

I first wrote about him after I went to the Tate Modern's 'Cycles and Seasons' exhibition in 2008, the very first post for Untitled: Perspectives, which was intended to be a regular blog about art, but has been somewhat irregular instead. You can link to that essay here. I had always been interested in Twombly, because of the Black Mountain connection, and I took time in this obit to try to explain briefly its importance; but there wasn't really space to link the writing of Olson or Robert Creeley, the music of John Cage, the dance of Merce Cunningham and the art of Kline, Motherwell, or Twombly.

But that Tate show was a revelation to me, because although I had a sort of regard for Twombly, I hadn't realised how beautiful much of his work could be, and I was overcome by its ability to express emotion and move me. I regret messing up that assignment from the Independent, and apologise profusely to my editors there. What I wrote for them follows.


The American painter Cy Twombly, who has died aged 83, was our last link with the glory days of the Abstract Expressionists, but his work was always an awkward fit with that movement, indeed with any modern movement. It was a mark of his idiosyncratic talents that he abandoned New York for Italy just as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline were at their peaks of success; moreover, where all of those artists died at the height of their fame, appreciation of Twombly's work progressed slowly, dividing critics and the public alike. Some of the reasons for this became evident in his hugely successful retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2008. Where individual Twombly canvases might seem ephemeral, random, and difficult, presented together their impact was intensified and became clearer. His mix of dripping colour, hand-written notes or fragments of poetry, and chaotic lines for many obscured his mix of classical and modern concerns. Cynical voices accused him of deliberate obscurantism, but Twombly never indulged in flamboyant display for its own sake, preferring to find new ways to express old stories.

If Abstract Expressionism wanted to go beyond the pure self-involvement of abstraction, Twombly's work can be seen as constantly seeking more direct expression, and even in a European context, spoke of a uniquely American perspective. Like the Abstract Expressionists, there is a sense of American pragmatism, but there is also the intellectual curiosity which allowed him to absorb European classism, and meld it into something sui generis.

He was born Edward Parker Twombly, Jr., 25 April 1928 in Lexington Virginia. His nickname came from his father, a pitcher in baseball's major leagues who was called 'Cy' for his resemblance to the great Cy Young. He studied in Lexington with the exiled Spanish artist Pierre Daura, and after finishing high school, he spent a year at a prep school in Georgia followed by brief spells at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts school. In 1950 he got a scholarship to New York's Art Students League, where he met and became close to Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg introduced him to Franz Kline, and persuaded Twombly to enroll at Black Mountain, an experimental college in North Carolina, where Kline, Ben Shahn and Robert Motherwell taught, and where Twombly's affair with Rauschenberg would lead to the breakup of the latter's marriage.

The influence of Kline and Motherwell was apparent in Twombly's first New York shows, one arranged by Motherwell at the Samuel Kootz gallery, and another at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery, where he shared the space with Joseph Cornell. But Black Mountain's influence extended beyond painting. The college's rector was the poet Charles Olson, and much of the writing on Twombly's canvases recalls Olson's 'Projective' verse, and his dictum that 'form is never more than an extension of content'. Kline's work is often compared to Chinese written characters, and Olson drew on Ernest Fenollosa's studies of them; we can often see Twombly's graffiti as objects in themselves. John Cage taught music at Black Mountain, and the silences in his work might be seen to have their equivalent in the large expanses of blank canvas in many of Twombly's larger works.

A grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts allowed Twombly to travel to southern Europe and North Africa. 'Virginia is a good start for Italy,' he said, referring to his Southern sense of faded glory, but he returned from that first trip to go into the Army. His service as a military cryptographer also had a profound influence on the writing he would include in his paintings. Moving back to New York, he worked closely with Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who were was breaking away from Abstract Expressionism, and would be crucial in the foundation of Pop Art. Twombly left Stable for Leo Castelli, fast becoming New York's most influential modern art gallery, but by then he had moved to Italy, and, in 1959 married Tatiana Franchetti, the sister of one of his patrons.

If his 1959 'Poems To The Sea' show a fusion of Kline's art and Olson's poetry while celebrating the peaceful Mediterrean shore, Twombly was already creating new work which reflected the heat and passion of Italy, such as 'Crimes of Passion' and 'Murder of Passion', as well as more classical influences, including Roman myths, particularly Leda and the Swan. His series based on the Discourses of Commodus, which he painted to reflect the assassination of John Kennedy, received a savage reception from the critics when shown at Castelli in 1964. Although that setback caused his production to slow down, he began returning to the States more often, working both in Lexington and in New York. His painting reflected this part-time change of setting, particularly the series Treatise On The Veil, whose strong brush strokes and serenity remind one of late Rothko. At the same time, the elegaic Nini's Paintings seem an almost violent grief in response to the death of the wife of his Roman dealer.

One can see pieces of Shahn's emotional impact and Cornell's cool found-object commetary co-existing in Twombly, but his scale was always increasing. By the Seventies, massive works like his deliberately-mistitled 'Fifty Days At Iliam', based on the Trojan War had restored his reputation, prompting a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1979. He began spending most of his time in the southern Italian coastal town of Gaeta, producing sculptures based on boats and paintings with watery themes, like his version of the myth of Hero and Leandro. Twombly showed at the Venice Biennale three times, thirty-seven years apart, and had retrospectives in Zurich and Paris before the monumental 1994 show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, In 1995 the Cy Twombly Gallery was opened at the Menil Collection in Houston.

One of the highlights of the Tate Modern show, titled 'Cycles And Seasons', was Twombly's two versions of what his arguably his greatest work, 'The Four Seasons'. Although influences of music and poetry abound in the paintings, there is an obvious reference point to Poussin, and just last week the Dulwich Picture Gallery opened 'Arcadian Painters', a joint exhibition of Twombly and Poussin, which does much to answer the still-spiteful voices in the British press who, even after his death, rushed to deflate his reputation. Twombly died in Rome 5 July 2011, after a long struggle with cancer. His wife predeceased him in 2010; he is survived by his son Cyrus Allessandro, and by his long-time companion Nicola del Roscio.

Note: this essay appears also at Untitled: Perspectives (On Art

Tuesday, 5 July 2011


Let's say HP Lovecraft was born around 1980 and was a big Elmore Leonard and Justified fan, read comics and Stephen King, loved punk music and southern rock. Well, maybe not that last. But posit all that and Lovecraft might well have written something a lot like North 40—an entertaining update of Cthulu for redneck America in the 21st century.

In Conover County, somewhere in America's Dukedom of Hazard, a book is opened by slackers in the town library and with it opens a hole and threatens to await one of those evil sleeping things that horror fiction couldn't die without. Meanwhile, half the county's people are transformed, given strange powers and, some, even stranger appetites, and all this with the big dance at the high school about to happen.

Scripter Aaron Williams not only keeps the action moving, he actually makes all of this make sense, progress in a fashion which never asks us to suspend our disbelief. Like King, he works the inequities and battles of mundane life into the supernatural creatures these people become, and like Lovecraft he imbues his hidden monster with exactly the kind of hidden fears and desires that drive horror, that make Lovecraft, for all his baroque eccentricity, still scary after all these years.

The art, by Fiona Staples, complements the script perfectly; her creatures are inventive and well realised, and always remind us of the people they once were. The sense of this evil merely being an extension of real life is palpable in the art, which is why the story works so well. That its apocalyptic finish is confined to Conover County is a lesson in restraint, but the setting up of a sequel is welcome. This is one of the most engaging comics I've seen in a long time.

North 40 by Aaron Williams art by Fiona Staples
Titan/DC Wildstorm £14.99 ISBN 9780857680501

Friday, 1 July 2011

VIVA RIVA: They Fall Harder in Kinshasa

The Congolese gangster film Viva Riva won six awards, including best picture, at this year's African Academy Awards, a triumph of sorts for what is, unabashedly, a genre picture, and a very knowing one at that. Although it has been compared to City Of God for its raw portrayal of low life in Kinshasa, there is much in this film that will be familiar to devotees both of classic gangster movies and blaxploitation filcks. Director Djo Tunda Wa Munga was educated and went to film school in Belgium, and he and screenwriter Steven Markowitz show their grounding in the classics of the genre, both good and bad. What is surprising is the energy which Munga brings to the film, and the frank honesty with which he presents his protagonist Riva, always engaging if not always admirable.

Riva (played with great enthusiasm by Patsha Bay Mtune) is a small time criminal who rips off a tanker full of gas from his Angolan boss, Cesar, intending to make a killing on the Kinshasa black market. He returns to his hometown, Mariano, and with his best friend in tow hits the Kinshasa night spots, immediately falling for Nora, moll of local big man and hard guy Azol. From this point it is a question of who will catch up to Riva first, whether he will get the payday or the girl, and whether he will survive. All fairly predictable, and laid out in patterns familiar from the Thirties and the Seventies,and shot with that dirty grainy look of 70s B movies. One line, 'Kinshasa la belle, Kinshasa la pourbelle,' (Kinshasa the beautiful, Kinshasa the garbage) might well be the movie's motto, and the look of the film, alternatively seductive and grotesque, reflects that brilliantly.

But two factors lift Viva Riva above its roots. One is the portrayal of Kinshasa la pourbelle as a capital where virtually everyone in authority is corrupt and for sale: politicans, military, police, and even priests. It's a world of organised chaos, in which only someone trying to work the angles appears to be able to get ahead. It's interesting to see the contempt the Angolans have for their Congolese neighbours, and to read the subtleties as the languages switch from Lingala to French to Portugese.

The other factor is Mtune's performance as Riva, which gives the film its hard-edged realism, as well as its pace and humour. Munga never sugarcoats Riva, whose passion for Nora doesn't stop him heading for the local whorehouses as soon as he has the money, nor does it stop his friend Jim from abandoning his own wife and kids for the chance to go with him. Nora herself, played with great dignity by the exquisite Manie Malone, understands her place in the high-priced but violent world she's chosen, and her relationship with Riva is, in effect, the film's biggest challenge to the world-view it presents so well. There is a danger in all this; although Munga would argue he is showing Congolese society as it exists, his camera does linger on the film's sex scenes, pushing us, the audience into Riva's point of view, and that can easily be misinterpreted.

Occasionally, Munga overdoes it, as with Cesar (whose name of course recalls classic gangster flicks just as his wardrobe is straight out of 70s movie Harlem, and who is played with great relish by Diplome Amekindra) but this is always leavened by the less stylised progression of Riva's flight, by the local 'commandant' and the lesbian hooker/informer who is her lover, and, it should be said, by large doses of humour, some of it fiercely black (no puns intended). Riva's 'rescue' of Nora from Azol's fortress is played for slapstick comedy, even as their lives are at stake. And when, at one point Cesar tells his men, who've already cut a bloody swath through Kinshasa, 'we have to be more ruthless, it drew laughter from the preview audience watching the film with me. This, to me, is a sure sign of the kind of movie Viva Riva is celebrating, as well as the kind of movie it is. But most impressively, when it comes to a veritable inferno of a violent climax which threatens to go over the top, Munga again balances the impact with an ending that is ironically both touching and chilling.

In this sense of relentless inevitability, of momentary joy in the face of impending doom, of faith in the power of the big score to liberate, when in reality all it does, and is expected to do, is provide a good time, Viva Riva reminds me less of its gangster antecedents, and more of an African The Harder They Come, with just as flawed but appealling a hero trying to survive and beat a system designed to spit out dozens like him everyt day. It's more polished, but it has all the energy of that film, and is even more entertaining. See it.


My obit of Eric Swenson, founder of both Independent Trucks and Thrasher magazine, and a key figure in the resurgence of skateboarding in the late 1970s, is in today's Guardian; you can link to it here.

Swenson was a fascinating figure--his love of street art led to the founding of Juxtapoz, which is now America's biggest-selling art magazine, and he and Fausto Vitello made a true counter-cultural ying and yang, yet were astute businessmen who were successful in the commercial culture as well.

The obit ran as written, except for the last graf, which was lost for space. The obit ends saying Swenson took his own life and his survived by his wife. I thought the circumstances of his suicide, and the speculation about the reasons behind it, told us much about his life. Here's what I wrote:

Early in the morning of 20 June 2011, Swenson sat down in front of the police station in San Francisco's Mission district, put a gun in his mouth, and killed himself. Gwynn Vitello speculated he may have chosen a police station to spare family and friends the trauma of finding him. She said he was 'one of the most independent persons I've ever known. He was like John Wayne. He kept everything close to the vest.' Swenson is survived by his wife, who believes he killed himself because he thought he was becoming a burden to her.And, as professional skateboarder Tommy Guerrero explained, Swenson was 'a doer from the old school. He was the guy who would pull out a wrench and fix it ...this was his whole approach to everything.'