Thursday, 30 June 2011

TOM ROB SMITH'S AGENT 6

Agent 6 is the third, and presumably the last, of Tom Rob Smith's novels about Lev Demidov, the maverick intelligence officer/cop who was the hero of Child 44 and The Secret Speech. It is on the surface an intricately plotted work that risks being over-contrived, ranging from New York City in 1965 to Afghanistan in the Eighties, and back to New York. There is the assassination of a Paul Robseon-ish figure, in which Lev's wife and daughter are involved; there are numerous incidents of the Soviet occupation of Kabul, and there is Lev's ultimate solving of the original killing.

I say contrived because throughout the book the plot threatens to take over, spin out of control, stretch credulity, go all Jason Bournesky on is, especially once it's in Afghanistan, but each time we come back to Smith's real themes, and he pulls us back into the clutches of Demidov's story. IT's risky, in the sense that Demidov's ability to 'beat' the system and continue to function within it is a necessity, but one that threatens to undercut the picture of Soviet society he builds. For example, much is made of the way punishment is visited on the families of those the system decides are enemies—not from vindictiveness but simply because that is the way the system operates. Yet Lev's family is allowed to leave the country and travel to the land of the great enemy, and Lev himself is spared ultimate punishment and sent to Afghanistan instead. Smith is a good enough writer to make sure these things do not challenge our willing suspension of disbelief, but they do gnaw away slightly at the edges of his portrayal of the USSR.

Two things make that portrayal ultimately convincing. One, which will be familiar to anyone who read either of his first two cases, is Demidov himself. To an extent the whole trilogy has been about the battle of an individual's humanity against the collective force of government. Lev is a moving and believeable everyman, a detective as compelling in his obsessive nature and his understanding of people as Harry Bosch or Kurt Wallander. Agent 6 is driven by the original plot, but only picks up steam when Lev takes centre stage. Yet even as the New York story is set up, Lev's human values are already being set against the priorities of the people who represent the two warring systems, the dialect versis the human. In Lev's case, this inevitably boils down to a question of betrayal of trust; a prologue set in 1950 shows us that dilemma acted out with Lev on the wrong side, which will be reflected ironically when his decision not to intrude on his daughter's privacy leaves him unable to protect her.

Which leads to the second reason is compelling, and that is the careful way Smith draws out the affinties between the two sides. The FBI's hounding of the black folk singer Jesse Austin may not be as fatal as the attentions of the KGB, but it is every bit as capricious, vindicative, and inhumane--although Smith does hedge his bets slightly by showing the FBI agent villain as somewhat of a bad apple, whereas he's clear about the institutional evil of his Soviet counterparts--except, as with Lev, they aren't. Which may well be the strongest way to make his point about the system.

And as Smith outlines the realities of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan it is hard not to recognise the distinct parallels between their Vietnam and the current Afghan mess in which the US and UK have mired themselves, and which has now gone on for a year more than the Soviet's. Smith may be too careful, in the sense of setting up the reminder that the Mujahideen the US backed to irritate the Soviets opened the door for the Taliban, and eventually themselves spawned Al Queda. He doesn't try to spell it out, and shouldn't need to, but sometimes you feel he's aware there may be many who simply won't see it.

It comes to a moving end, though I suppose Lev's fate could be considered somewhat open ended, in the sense that he's been a survivor, and sometimes an unlikely one, throughout the series. But it is more powerful to take the book's climax as it is stated, with human values and relationships triumphing even in the face of the cruelest and ultimate institutionalised repression. In that sense, Lev Davidov is a true everyman hero, who manages to transcend the mechanics of his own stories; Tom Rob Smith's first detective creation is both memorable and meaningful.

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, Simon & Schuster £16.99 ISBN 9781847375674

ORLANDO BOSCH: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of Orlando Bosch, the anti-Castro Cuban terrorist protected by a number of US governments, and generations of Bushes, is in today's Indy; you can link to it here. Bosch's story branches off into all sorts of murky areas; one of the keys to understanding it is working out the nature of the involvement of US government, both officially and unofficially, in many of the acts of terrorism and assassination he engineered. Operation Condor certainly could not have proceeded without the backing of America; the Letelier assassination definitely received assistance from the CIA. Linking Bosch to the JFK assassination is more risky--although it would be hard to ignore the likely involvement of both Cuban exiles and CIA agents who'd worked with them, or the idea that Oswald most likely was an informant trying to find out about the theft of weapons supplied to those exiles--but although the Dealy Plaza photo purportedly of Bosch next to the umbrella man bears a resemblance, it also looks more like the older Bosch than his 1963 self, and the testimony linking him to Dallas is not convincing, much less conclusive.

There is no question, however, that Bosch qualified as a bona fide terrorist by any definition the US government used then or especially uses now, but that really didn't matter.

Monday, 27 June 2011

WHAT MAKES THE BRITISH HARDMAN HARD?

NOTE: This essay originally appeared in 2001, in Crime Time 24, linked somewhat belatedly to the release of Sexy Beast and the non-release of Two Days, Nine Lives. That was because it had originally been sold to The Independent, who liked the idea of mocking pseudo-tough guys, but then said 'wait a minute!, you're taking the piss out of BRITISH films, British directors, British actors, and British men! And Guy Ritchie too! This editor was also a fan of Bros and Spandau Ballet. I was oddly prescient too: this was four years before Daniel Craig played James Bond; Craig's Bond is a Texas Hold 'Em playing David Beckham clone. I went back and looked at this essay again after the death of John McKenzie; I remember seeing him present The Long Good Friday when it had its English debut at the London Film Festival, and marvelling at how good it was. I thought most of you would have missed this in CT, or forgotten it by now, and that you might like to read it now, and consider how times have changed.

WHAT MAKES THE BRITISH HARDMAN HARD?

Only a few generations ago the cinema’s epitome of British masculinity wore a dinner jacket, played chemin der fer, and drank martinis ‘shaken not stirred’. Today Bond would be hard put to reclaim his place as a role model for British manhood from his contemporaries, the Krays. If this switch from Sean Connery or Roger Moore to the likes of Ross or Gary Kemp, or a steady stream of middle class actors playing untough toughs in a series of ever more preposterous crime films, British masculinity is being stirred, if not shaken, by gangster chic.

Beneath all the geezer bluster lurks a deep-seated macho unease at what exactly stirs the swizzle stick. Recall that US distributors famously told Harry Salzman they didn’t want the first Bond film because they didn’t think audiences would believe in a British hero as a womaniser. Four decades later it seems that for once the Yanks got it right.

On the surface, gangland would appear to be a perfect metaphor for a generation raised on show-me-the-money Thatcherism. But Thatcher-era gangsters, like Bob Hoskins playing Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday, were hardly role models; indeed, Arthur and Terry were figures of fun in Minder. Was it really only twenty years ago that close-cropped hairdos and glottal cursing were the mark of football hooligans and neo-nazi yobbos, embarrassing rather than aspirational?

The current stampede of luvvies, footballers, pop stars, and stand-up comics into gangster roles resembles a giant casting call for a remake of Bugsy Malone. That film was Alan Parker’s way of saying all this American gangster bluster and violence was, well, childish. Two decades on, men WANT to be called lads and girlie has replaced Greer-y in what British wanabees wanna be.

This might be acceptable were it sui generis. Sadly, it‘s actually nothing more than an endless remake of Quentin Tarantino. If Tarantino hadn’t shown that a mix of the stylish language and imagery from decades of gangster movies could transform such unlikely figures as John Travolta, Steve Buscemi, or even himself into action heroes, it’s unlikely Britain would have ever spawned any of these Reservoir Lads films. After all, it was all Nick Hornby could do to reclaim football for upper middle-class boys a full decade after American baby-boomers had indulged their retro fantasies with fantasy baseball (a craze which spawned such films as Eight Men Out, Major League, and Bull Durham).

Peter Medak’s The Krays began the British movie equivalent, fantasy gangland. In Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, public-school old boy Guy Ritchie established his own street cred by letting Vinnie Jones do his mugging on camera. The hooligans’ football idol became a minor movie star, a real hard man made good. Only Vinnie's hardman rep was made in a sport where tugging shirts is considered tough-guy behaviour, and his own signature act involved caressing Gazza's goolies during a match. But the resurgence in football's popularity, off the back of upper-middle class boys like Hornby rediscovering their childhood fields of dreams, is exactly the same as the more recent surge in gangster films. Jones was the perfect bridge between the two, making it easy for Vinnie to become everyone’s favourite diamond geezer made good. Then, following Vinnie down the tunnel came all sorts of close-cropped singers parading their Oxbridge idea of East-End toughness.

This repositioning of middle-class pop stars as working class tough guys reached its apotheosis in Simon Monjack’s Two Days, Nine Lives, which I saw in a preview and which, months or years later, was flushed down the drain of straight-to-video release. Ostensibly a sensitive tale of nine people experiencing Another 48 Hours of therapy in a posh drug clinic, it couldn't resist larding itself with gangster baggage. In fact, in scenes later cut from the film, Clive the therapist was shown in his previous career, committing shotgun robberies of bingo halls (!) and shooting a cashier whom he crippled. As played by Ralph Arliss, this left him so traumatised he still dressed in a 70s timewarp, like Kevin Keegan guesting in The Sweeney.

Luke Goss starred as Saul, pop music producer with a drug problem. Hair cropped, designer needle tracks covered with a designer scarf, and spitting lines between clenched teeth, Goss is all head-butting aggression, which in the context of psychotherapy gives ‘nutter’ a whole new meaning. He expresses rage by quivering like Daffy Duck trying to pronounce ‘preposterous’. Aggression means a posturing head extended to form a human question-mark, like Frank Gorshin playing the Riddler in the Batman TV show. When he plays scenes with the adoring Danny (Jonathan Bruun, whose name seems to come from the same imaginary country as Haagen-Daaz) they’re like Beavis and Headbutt. If all this seems out of place in a would-be sensitive film, Two Days is at least right in suggesting these geezers need therapy. A better title might have been Barrels, Docs, and Crack Smoking Luvvies.

So why does lad culture need so desperately to appear tough? What do they fear might shatter their fragile macho facade? Why does Luke Goss pronounce Bros “bras”? What is it that really makes British hardmen hard?

For the answer, we turn to Sexy Beast, the most stylish of this current gangster cycle. Because beneath its glossy surface, the kind of style Gore Vidal called “forty commercials looking for a product”, Sexy Beast is really about a gangster’s wish to escape the relentless rage of repressed homosexuality, and be left alone to indulge his feminine nature.

For British hardmen, the all-purpose endearment and ultimate insult of choice is ‘cunt’, equating a man with the passive sexuality of the female organ. Contrast this to any episode of The Sopranos, where the equivalent term is ‘you fuck’ or affectionately, ‘you fat fuck’. The American gangster looks at his colleague as a fellow predator in the sexual jungle, not as an obscure object of desire. After all, where Americans call their male friends ‘buddy’, ‘pal’, or ‘home-boy’ the British Lad’s term is ‘mate’, which to everyone else in the world (except Aussies) connotes two creatures of opposite genders getting it on. “This is my mate” should mean Tarzan has found Jane, not Michael Portillo. It's not so much James Bond as male bond.

Again, a generation of Brits plays craven homage to Tarantino. This time, it’s the Tarantino who, in the otherwise forgettable Sleep With Me, delivered a memorable deconstruction of Top Gun, read as an allegory in which the pilots led by Ice Man try to pull Maverick over to ‘the gay side’, where he can learn exactly what those heat seeking sidewinder missiles finding your flaming red exhaust chute actually symbolise. In Sexy Beast, Ray Winstone has already gone over to the gay side, and his former mates are trying to pull him back to the straight side, while revealing their own repressed desires.

The film opens with a suntan-oiled body glistening in the Spanish sun, like a Christmas turkey basting in a roasting pan. In his bikini, bedecked in gold jewellery (gangsters quickly adopt female rules of display), we can’t tell at first whether Ray Winstone is male or female. We see he’s male when he applies ice cubes to his balls, a symbolic scrotum-shrivelling de-manning. His name is Gary Dove. He’s a retired gangster, growing, as his name suggests, peaceful and soft. His friends call him “Gal”. I didn’t say this was going to be subtle.

As the camera eyes lasciviously the young Spanish pool boy, Gal contemplates his good life, like Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams on a Moroccan vacation checking out young Arabs. A giant testicle of a boulder flies over his head, landing in the pool, drenching him in an explosion of liquid, enough to unfreeze anyone’s cojones. It’s an Omen, because big balls Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) soon arrives, intending to pull Gal back to London for a big job. Logan has a permanent hard on for the world (Logan equals “log on”, geddit?). The epitome of designer tough, after literally marking his territory (he deliberately misses the loo while pissing), he actually practices tough guy faces in the mirror, method actor given a scene stolen from Travis Bickle. We soon learn that Logan and Jackie, the wife of Gal’s mate H, were once an item, until Jackie put a finger up his bum during sex. This is wrong, Don tells Gal, and worse, he liked it.

Dumped by Don, Jackie then married H, who’s presumably unflustered by digital probes (Preparation H is, after all, a popular haemorrhoid remedy). Don’t laugh. Remember, the guys who wrote Sexy Beast also wrote Gangster No. 1, an exercise in models playing gangsters, and if we think about what children sometimes call their bodily functions we can only be glad they don’t make a sequel called Gangster No. 2, which is basically what reviewers should have called Gangster No 1.

Don also reveals that Gal’s wife Dee Dee used to be a porn actress. This makes sense, since it gives her extensive experience of pretend sex with disinterested men. Married to a porn star, with (Prep) H for a mate, and far from Britain, Gal is presumably free to indulge in anal stimulation and eye pool boys to his fat heart’s content.

But this won’t do for Don, who is so upset at revealing his inner, so to speak, self, that he breaks his tough guy routine, and flees to the airport. Finally regaining his composure, he gets himself removed from the flight and blackmails the airline into letting him go by claiming a steward touched him up, doing a very convincing impersonation of a homophobe. Returning to Gal, he gets killed by Dee Dee, the woman forced to brandish the inevitable lock stock and phallic smoking barrel. Adding insult to fatal injury, Don gets buried in the hole left in the swimming pool by the giant testicle.

Dee Dee’s big swinging shotgun dick contradicts the analysis of gangster movies offered in Love, Honour, and Obey, a cross between a gangster film and Four Weddings And A Funeral which marks, arguably, the nadir (to date) of this British cycle. Ray Winstone in this one found himself among an absurd cast of would-be tough guys like Jude Law and Rhys Ifans, and luvvie molls Sadie Frost and Denise Van Outen. As one so-called hardman explains: “Women fuck it up in the end,” no double entendres intended, but all of them understood. L,H, & O also featured Kathy Burke dragging Ray Durdis’ impotent gangster to sex therapy. You couldn't make it up, except they did!

Back in Sexy Beast Spain, despite DeeDee’s taking care of business, Gal still must return to London. The big caper has been organised by crime lord Teddy Bass (Ian McShane, who's the most convincing thing in the film), in elaborate revenge for being buggered by bank chairman Harry at some Cliveden-style society orgy. Harry is played by James Fox, who’s wandered in from a remake of Performance, and we all know what that signifies. And did you happen to notice that the working class crime lord so offended by the upper class’ polymorphous perversion is named Teddy Bass, or Teddy Be Ass. I warned you.

How do Teddy Be Ass’ villains revenge themselves on gay Harry? They assemble, naked in a Turkish bath. Do I need to draw you a picture? In case I do, they penetrate the backside of the bank with a giant dildo of a power drill, shades of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, an American buddy picture which wore its sexual role reversals on the sleeves of the dress Jeff Bridges had to wear. When Teddy B. Ass's boys break through into the vault, it releases a huge spurt of water. The naked gangsters swim up the tube and grab Harry’s jewels. Gal stuffs some earrings for DeeDee into his bikini, thus providing himself with the set of the family jewels he lacks. Teddy, having raped Harry’s vault, then shoots Harry in a needless bit of literal overkill. He drops Gal at a bus stop, paying him a tenner like a used hooker, knowing the secret of his shame is safe with a Gal. It’s a buddy movie gone haywire. Having, like Teddy, proved he’s NOT homosexual, Gal can now return to Spain, give DeeDee the family jewels, and enjoy a eunuch's retirement, accepting his femininity, frolicking on top of Don’s body in his pool.

Far-fetched? Director Jonathan Glazer claimed the eponymous Sexy Beast was money, but I think he was having us on. The Guardian’s critic Jonathan Romney, without a hint of irony, described Sexy Beast avoiding “the usual gangster geezerisms”. He noted that “above one hard man there is another, then another, then another….”, then pointed out Ian McShane as Teddy Bass played the ultimate man on top, “with a curiously prissy walk”. He thought Glazer might be “trying to cram too much in”. Some of us might suggest that’s the whole point. As I said before: DO I HAVE TO DRAW YOU A PICTURE?

Saturday, 25 June 2011

RANDY SAVAGE: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of the Macho Man, Randy Savage, is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. The paper gave it lots of space, but had I had more there are a few things I would have liked to write about in more detail; admittedly it would have been more information than most of the readers wanted or needed to know. It was easy to write, and I found that simply relating the highlights of Savage's career made the point about the insanity of the wrestling business and its appeal to 12 year old boys of all ages. So I didn't feel I could waste space explaining the details of George 'The Animal' Steele's retard character. Put it this way: writing about Jake 'The Snake' Roberts disrupting a wedding by putting a cobra (and why it wasn't his boa constrictor, Damien) in the wedding cake is best done deadpan.

One thing left out was his baseball career: Savage tried to fashion himself into a Pete Rose figure, willing to do anything in order to advance, including learning to throw ambidextrously. His talent was limited, however, which eventually became clear, and he devoted himself to wrestling. I might have gone further into Savage's influences beyond Gorgeous George, like Freddie Blassie (who was also a huge influence on the young Cassius Clay), and into the way Angelo Poffo was able to set up a whole promotion with the express purpose of pushing his sons, and avoiding having them spending years in the wrestling equivalent of the minor leagues.

The love-hate relationship between Savage and Vince McMahon, who inherited the WWWF and turned it into today's WWE, was another topic I didn't have the space to explore--Savage got a quick and deserved push, but today remains outside the WWE's own hall of fame. In one sense McMahon always seemed to side with Hogan, who had been his meal ticket, but there is also the persistent rumour that Savage had a relationship of some sort with the very young Stephanie McMahon, but I felt that was speculation I didn't need to get into in the context of an obit.

I would have liked to devote some space to 'Team Madness' as well, Savage's three-woman entourage which included his then-girl friend, a much younger stripper named Stephanie Bellars, whom he rechristened 'Gorgeous George'. The other two were Madusa Miceli, probably the most talented American woman wrestler of her generation, and Miss Madness, Nora Greenwald, who went on to become Molly Holly. Again I would have been speculating, but it seemed to make some sort of life-change when Savage stopped dating young strippers and settled into a relationship with his old baseball first love, who of course was his own age.

The one bit that did get cut was more speculation, about the possible role of long-term use steroids and other drugs in precipitating Savage's heart attack; I noted the amazing list of wrestlers from that era who have died early, and especially a number, like Brian Pillman or Savage, who were smaller guys pumped up to the kind of dimensions and physiques McMahon desired and pushed. I also mentioned that Miss Elizabeth died in 2003, while living in a tumultuous relationship with Lex Luger, of an overdose of painkillers and alcohol.

But Savage's legacy will remain in the ring, where he was one of the great performers of the biggest boom wrestling is likely ever to enjoy. Unlike many of the superstars of that era, he went out and gave his all in the ring most of time; unlike most of them, he got out before the business killed him, or turned him into self-parody. And at his peak he had some of the greatest matches, and was certainly one of the greatest acts, ever.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

HUBERT SCHLAFLY: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Hubert 'Hub' Schlafly, who invented the telepromter (or autocue, as it's called in Britain) is in Thursday's Guardian, or you can link to it here.

It is printed pretty much as
filed, except that when I filed
the story, I had actually
written the first graf in short
lines, like you'd read off
a teleprompter, just like this.

I was not surprised to see it in a more usual format. The desk did, however, point out to me that I'd managed to write the entire story while misspelling his name as Schafly, like the right-wing anti-feminist Phyllis. Hmmm.

I was very pleased while writing the piece to be able to get in a plug for my old boss at ABC, Peter Dimmock, who for me was a one-man education in the business of television sport. He really was the first person to use an autocue in this country. I love the way the BBC was always at the forefront of new technology--note the state of the art telephone foregrounded in the studio shot of Peter presenting Sportsview.

One thing that was lost was the point of the story about Herbert Hoover at the Republican convention: because of his stopping to ask that the machine be restarted, it became public knowledge for the first time that such devices were being used, which was a breakthough of sorts. But people still seem to believe those talking heads on TV are making it up. Though nowadays they're more likely to be being fed clever lines through their earpieces. Maybe we ought to make everyone watch Network again!

Oddly enough, when I started doing NFL on Channel 5, we added a green screen, like weather people use, to our analysis--and besides learning to do my telestrating backwards, like in a mirror, I also had to deliver my analysis to camera. Just after I started doing it, I was talking my friend Paul Shienfeld, who's spent his life working in television sports, and after commisserating with me about the difficulties of green screening, Paul commented that I read autocue better than anyone he'd ever seen. Your eyes never move. I laughed because our show couldn't afford an autocue: the entire sequence was ad lib, week after week. I offered to let him hold up cue cards for me if he wanted to.

Schlafy's portable satellite dish may well have been more important for television, and his pay per view system was probably more important in the minds of the guys who actually run the business. But those are three absolutely essentials parts of the business, necessities on every level, and it's amazing that one guy came up with all three. Just the kind of guy you'd nickname 'Hub'.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

CLARENCE CLEMONS, IN MEMORIAM

People forget how frenetic Bruce Springsteen was in the early days of the E Street Band, which is why the Big Man, Clarence Clemons was so essential; on stage he provided an anchor for Springsteen's antics as he dashed and jumped across the stage, only to make it back (most of the time) just in time to hit the mike, and Clemons, at just the right time. He provided another sort of anchor, too, because Bruce wrote serious songs and often it was Clarence who reminded him, the songs themselves, and us that this was rock and roll.

Musically, Clemons did for Springsteen what King Curtis did in Memphis, or Junior Walker in Motown, providing that anchor, but also the raw squawking reminder that there is more to life than teenager-satisfying guitar solos and hip-hop bottom.

But possibly the most important thing was Clemons looked just right to unify a ragtag bunch of white kids from the Jersey shore. Although people forget that the E Street Band originally included another black musician, the talented pianist David Sancious. Sancious was in some ways even more of a professor than The Professor, Roy Bittan. They both provided elegance, trills weaving in and out underneath the big sax (and sometimes organ) that shared the lead with guitar. Think of the Band's Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel doing the same, and think too of how Springsteen used Danny Federici playing glockenspiel, even in 'Born To Run'. Sancious moved on to more serious (and less star-making) musical pursuits, while Clemons, who never seemed to move on to bigger things (unless you count Lady Gaga, which I can't) always seemed to fit best as Springsteen's sideman, Bill Cosby to his Robert Culp. It's an American stereotype that goes back to Chingnachook and Deerslayer. The relationship is made iconic on the cover of Born To Run (recently voted one of the top 10 ever by Rolling Stone readers) with Springsteen seeming taking a break and resting as he leans on the Big Man, who's playing up a storm, apparently giving him the crucial something he needs.

I first saw the E Streeters in the summer of 1975 at Tanglewood, before Born To Run broke. I'd been directed there way by my friend Berms, who came from Toms River and insisted Greetings From Asbury Park was the greatest record he'd ever heard. It wasn't, but The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle soon jumped into my consideration, and while I lived with Berms in Washington he scared away a woman named Adriana I was dating by calling her Rosalita. Many years later I picked up a bootleg of Springsteen's 'farewell' concert, broadcast on WMMR in Philly from the Main Point, and it is one of my all-time favourite bootlegs. It's from just before that Tanglewood concert, and it's full of energy and promise and never sounds stale. Oddly, it's just become available legitimately, which may be the fate of all my favourite bootlegs—Neil Young's International Harvesters was another of my treasures and that one's just come out too.

The best of Clemons' E Street solos may be the one on Jungleland, but the one on Rosalita may be the one that expresses best his role in the E Street Band: it kicks, it drives, and it restates the theme, which is the theme of so much of Springsteen's music, of salvation through music. He's the second E Streeter to die, after Federici, and he was 69, a bit older than the rest of the band, but it still makes me feel old to think he's gone. I'm not sure how they could tour now without him, but I sure as shit would like to hear a tribute album, with other sax players taking his parts. RIP Big Man.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

13 ASSASSINS: A SAMURAI EPIC WITH WESTERN APPEAL

In one sense, Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins is familiar; following in the footsteps of films you've seen (The Seven Samurai and its American remake The Magnificient Seven being the best-known) and films you haven't (Kudo Eiichi's Jusanin No Shikaku—a 1963 film on whose screenplay Miike's film is based, and serves as the Japanese title) and I haven't either. Takashi certainly lives up to the spectacle of Seven Samurai; this is a big action movie staged with great flair, an big-screen epic immensely satisfying on that level.

But Takashi rises above that in a number of impressive ways. The first third of the film needs to set the stage, and he begins brilliantly with a samurai committing seppuku. It is 1844, and Japan is living in the last days of Edo and the rule of the shoguns. The suicide, is shot with an almost abstract simplicity that recalled, for me, the extreme stylisation of Paul Schrader's Mishima, but more importantly focusses the audience on the ritual, the obligations, on the strict lines of demarcation of Japanese society, and on its concepts of honour. The death is a protest against the abuses of the Shogun's son, Lord Naritsugu, a psychopath and a sadist almost in the sense of DeSade's cod philosophy, but also a spoiled child who abuses the absolute power he has. Naritsugu is played brilliantly by Inagaki Goro, once a boy-band pop star, with a cruel insouciance and a sometimes child-like wonder; he carries almost every scene he's in.

There is nothing that can be done within the system to stop Naritsugu, so officials look beyond, to a seemingly retired samurai, Shinzaemon (Yakisho Koji), who, after being shown Naritsugu's worst atrocities, and understanding the dangers to the current age of peace his being placed on the ruling council would bring, undertakes his assassination, and assembles a team of 12,basically untraceable, samurai to accomplish that. The gathering of the team is familiar stuff, but the 13th assassin is not a samurai, but a hunter they meet as the travel to their objective—Koyata, half hunter, half forest spirit, who provides comic relief but turns out to be quite a fighter himself. Leading Naritsugu's guard is Hanbei, an old rival and colleague of Shinza's going back to their days in the samurai dojo.

The final third of the film is the battle—with an entire village turned into an exploding trap, the finale of a sort of game of go for Shinza and Hanbei, which Hanbei appears to have won when he shows up with some 200 samurai, not the 70 Shinza was expecting. It's a spectacularly well-staged battle, and the amazing thing is that we follow each of the 13 characters to their individual fates, understanding who they are—if you think back to The Magnificent Seven, that is exactly what gave the film its power.

If you also think back to The Magnificent Seven, and how Eli Wallach's bandit becomes such an entertaining foil, you will get an idea of Takashi's subtlety, because although Naritsugu is a monster, he is not the battle-foil, that is Hanbei, who is remaining true to the code of the samurai, and loyalty to his master. And this is what gives the film its true power.

Takashi wrings every ounce of drama from the ambiguity of the samurai code, and the epic, in another sense, breakdown of society's order that the assassination itself signifies.
At one point, as Naritsugu's pleasure in seeing the slaughter around him leads him to yearn for a return to the age of war, you almost think Hanbei will turn against this maniac, a Hitler-cum Genghis Kahn-cum Donald Rumsfeld. But his sense of samurai duty is too strong. And when Hanbei and Shinza stage their ultimate duel, Shinza reminds him they were always equals in the dojo, before 'cheating' his way to victory. What is the virtue in loyalty to the wrong cause? Of blind obedience? At one point Shinza points out that rulers have some responsibility to servants and Naritsugu, who has addressed almost everyone as 'servant', finds this notion somewhat strange and amusing.

In that sense, and in another way, Takashi seems drawn to another western model, The Wild Bunch. There is much looking back to the age of war, which some fondness, and there is a lot of living up to the true code of the samurai which reflects the debates about what a man has to live up to in Peckinpah's movie. In one sense you can see that film as Pike Bishop atoning for first abandoning Deke Thornton, who goes to prison as a result, and then abandoning Angel in a similar fashion. They are happy to engage in a massacre, knowing they are likely to die, for the simple pleasure of knowing they will be going out doing what they perceive of as the right thing. That it turns out to be futile for them is not the case in 13 Assassins, but the impulse is the same, and Takashi also undercuts that western ethos by having the 13th assassin, the forest-imp Koyata declares, in the end, samurai bore him when they aren't fighting one-on-one.

It's a wonderful combination of traditional samurai epic with modern ambiguity. You might expect the latter from Takashi, but there is little in his previous work to suggest either the scale or the control of this film. If the ball has been bouncing back and forth between samurai epics and epic westerns (with the odd spaghetti western thrown in), Takashi has put the ball firmly back in the western court.

Monday, 13 June 2011

OUTSIDE THE LAW: REVOLUTIONARY GANGSTERS

With the 50th anniversary of the Paris Massacre almost upon us, Rachid Bouchareb's Outside The Law (Hors la loi) takes on added significance. Inevitably, it will be compared with Pontecorvo's classic Battle of Algiers, but equally inevitably we need to realise that 45 years after that film there is little point in trying to repeat its brilliance, that in putting together a big-budget (for a French film, reputedly $25 million) film, Bouchareb is going to approach the issues within the context of a more mainstream entertainment. But having done just that, Bouchareb does not dodge issues.

He tells the story of three Algerian brothers, who have their home stolen from them by French colonists because they have no deeds--a story familiar today from Israel's appropriation of Palestinian farms. Their father is killed while police massacre demonstrators on VE day in 1945 in the town of Setif, to which the family has moved, in what is probably the film's most visceral and powerful sequence. The brothers take their separate paths: the eldest, Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) to the French army, and capture at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the studious Abelkadir (Sami Bouajila) to the revolution, and a French prison, and the youngest, Said (Jamel Debbouze) to a life of petty crime as a pimp in Paris, eventually graduating to owning a nightclub and managing a talented fighter, dubbed Kid Algiers.

In fact, Outside The Law comes closer to Jean-Pierre Melville's Army In The Shadows than to Pontecorvo, and in using many tropes from gangster movies resembles a politicised Warner Bros movie like The Roaring Twenties, or Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America. That much of the film is familiar, if not predictable, from our gangster memory, slows it down somewhat. But it still caused a political outcry in France, in part because the French authorities are seen to be such villains, and in part because of it connotations to the current 'war' on terror and the situation of Moslems with France itself. Because we identify with the brothers, and thus their cause, and because we agree with the idea, if not always the realities, of liberation, it is inevitable that the French become the film's villains, and that in each situation they are portrayed in the worst light (think of British reaction to the Croke Park massacre as presented in Michael Collins for a parallel). But compare the English poster above with the French version, left, to get an idea of how much more seriously the characters appear, and thus the issues become.

What is most interesting in this portrayal, however, is where it seems to veer slightly from historical reality. The officer in charge of anti-terrorist activity, Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan) is presented as being immensely self-aware, not racist in the way the police are, and as a veteran of the Resistance. Historically, the police in charge of the repression of the FLN in France as the police turned out to be uniformly those who had collaborated energetically with the Nazis, and in effect were happy to substitute Algerians for Jews (see my previous post on this blog, on the novel Murder in Memoriam). Faivre, however, while fighting for the French empire, has, like Messaoud, been a prisoner of the Vietnamese, and has come to believe Ho Chi Minh's axiom, which is presented as revolutionary theory to Abelkadir in prison: repression works in favour of the revolution, and the more vicious the repression, the more self-defeating it becomes. Faivre understands this, and to him is given the film's final, prophetic line, which is shown to come true in a silent coda celebrating Algerian independence.

Bouchareb transcends his gangster-film set pieces in a number of other ways—by having police break up the wedding (with echoes of The Godfather), by having the dilemma of whether Kid Algiers should fight for the French title become a political issue (which needs to be resolved through violence), by having Said—the criminal—being the brother who wants to preserve his French life. And he benefits immensely from the talents of his three leads, whose interactions helped make his previous film, Days Of Glory, so successful. Debbouze, in a Cagneyesque role, steals the show—he's so imbued in the look of Thirties Hollywood, so almost cuddly, as to throw the film into another dimension. Bouajila's task is somewhat harder—he starts out almost as a Jeff Goldblum before morphing into Giancarlo Esposito, though I kept thinking of Jerzy Kosinski in Reds as the role model for the increasingly cold doctrinaire leader he becomes. Zem, whose solidity provides the anchor, has the biggest moment, the break-down scene with his mother. Without such strong leads, the film would dissolve into an action thriller, as it is always threatening to do, but because they play against each other so well, it assures that the personal and political stories stay connected and neither overpowers the other.

Given the recent 'Arab Spring' the anniversary of the Paris Massacre ought to be an opportunity to revisit what importance we give to independence, and what responsibilities remain for the colonial powers, not least in their own countries. There is an interesting sequence, in which DeGaulle goes to Algeria, to encourage a 'moderate' government, which celebrates Algerian oil coming to France. The parallels with our own world aren't hard to miss. And Ho's lessons on the futility of repression ring true more than half a century later. This is a film which gives new meaning to familiar materials, and transcends them powerfully.

Friday, 10 June 2011

DIDIER DAENINCKX'S MURDER IN MEMORIAM: A Forgotten Friday Entry

NOTE: While starting to write about Rachid Bouchareb's film Outside The Law, which deals with the Algerian struggle in France for independence, I went back to Didier Daeninckx's novel to see how his approach compared. A slightly shorter version of this review originally appeared in Crime Time 47, in February 2006--I'm assuming I hadn't seen the film Hidden, which approaches the issue in much the same way, at the time, although it came out right around the time the CT review was published.

The best thing about this translation of Murder In Memoriam which, as Meurtes pour memoire, won the French Prix du Roman Policier in 1984, is how fresh it seems. The French conflicts over Algeria in the early 1960s, against which it is set, have a distinct echo in today's so-called Global War on Terror, and the response of the French authorities for abuses committed under the guise of fighting terror have a distinctly sharp reflection in Washington and London today.It created a stir at the time, and is sometimes credited with forcing the French to examine the fact that many of the police responsible for the massacre had been active collaborators with the Nazi occupation twenty years before that.

When Bernard Thiraud, a student, is murdered in Toulouse, Inspector Cadin soon discovers that his father was also killed during the massive pro-Algerian demonstration in October 1961, during which the police murdered scores of marchers, and which has become known as the Paris Massacre. Is there a connection?

Although in mystery terms the availability of news film of the event seems somewhat contrived, a deus ex machina link, and Cadin's relationship with the murdered student's girlfriend doesn't quite ring true, it is all presented with an understated verisimilitude that somehow seems very French; its atmosphere a cross between Chabrol and Costa Gavras or Pontecorvo. The political history is actually far more interesting that the crime itself, which is obviously because it's more interesting to the author as well. But Daeninckx carries off the task of making the political thriller work with success. The translation by Liz Heron also strikes me as being first-rate, with colloquial French being rendered in appropriate English. Kudos to Serpent's Tail for bringing this back into print.

Murder In Memoriam Serpent's Tail £7.99 ISBN 9781852427955


JAMES ARNESS: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of James Arness, Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, is in today's Indy; you can link to it here. It's pretty much as I wrote it, except the bit about the show being retitled 'Gun Law' when it ran in the UK. I had written 'imaginatively retitled', but maybe we're not as self-deprecating as we like to think here in Britain!

Arness was very much like the character he played, low key and modest, and the fact he was content to stay in the same role for 20 years was one of the keys to the show's success and its long run (Law & Order tied it with 20 seasons, but far fewer episodes, and of course a changing cast). I was never a fan, but I'd be curious to go back and see some of the shows now; perhaps the early black and white half-hours, often based on the radio scripts, were harder-hitting. Oddly enough, I am old enough to remember hearing, if not listening, to Gunsmoke on the radio--I'd have to guess I was 3 and my mother was listening.

The Wayne friendship was real, and it must have been a treat for Arness to play Tom Dunson in the TV remake of Red River; though I doubt Bruce Boxleitner carried the impact of Montgomery Clift as Matt.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

WILLIAM BURROUGHS' NAKED LUNCH: THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY APPRECIATION

NOTE: I originally wrote a piece on Naked Lunch for Headpress, then revisited the idea for London Magazine to celebrate the book's 50th anniversary, and the anniversary edition that was published then. It appeared in the October/November 2009 issue of that estimable magazine, as noted on this blog at the time, but it has not been available online, in either version, until now. What follows is the London Magazine essay, slightly revised. I find it easy to choose the four greatest American novels (The Confidence Man, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby) but numbers five through ten seem to change and re-order constantly. But Naked Lunch is always one of those next six....

When I was 17, in the summer of 1968, I brought a copy of Naked Lunch home from the library. Mrs. Doyle, the librarian, who had been watching over my reading ever since she snuck me my first library card when I was only four, had no negative reaction; after all, she'd put the book on the shelves. But my father, perhaps remembering the book's obscenity trial only a few years before, or more likely reading the Grove Press cover blurbs (ignoring Norman Mailer’s praising Williams Burroughs as “perhaps the only American writer possessed of genius”) and worried perhaps about my motivations, took it back the very next morning.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at university just a couple of months later and Naked Lunch was the first book I was assigned to study in John Hackett's freshman English class. That assignment put an end, once and for all, to any idea I had of studying religion, or even worse, political science. I was hooked.

Hooked being the operative word for the kaleidoscopic parade of addictions on display in Naked Lunch. Burroughs was writing about the way human need creates the conditions for humans to be controlled, and I, along with my generation, was starting to feel the cultural imperative to rebel against control. Read the essay “Testimony Concerning a Sickness” which introduces the novel. Addictions, to Burroughs, were like viruses; they took over your body's metabolism and changed it, so it couldn't function normally without them. 'Language is a virus,' he said, and language was just another thing he refused to allow to control him. Thus Naked Lunch proceeds almost at random, its cut-ups disdaining elements of control like plot, or logic, but it drives its points home directly, with image and with language that reflects both pulp fiction and pornography, language that works to get a reaction from the reader.

Reading Naked Lunch was like studying a combat map of the Sixties' culture war battle zones. Although it was almost a decade old, the writing was fresh, hallucinatory. I’d already read the Beat heroes, starting, oddly enough, with Gregory Corso, whose appeal was more to romantic adolescents than to revolutionaries. But Corso, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac symbolised rebellion to a younger generation looking for freedom but also dependent on their new parental figures to show them the way. It was part of being a baby-boomer, this expectation of having things done for you while you changed the world. But where most of the Beats were wild and loud, the bad neighbours who needed to turn down their be-bop music at four in the morning, Burroughs was more the quiet guy walking down the street staring at his feet, maybe mumbling to himself. But, and this was an important lesson to learn, despite not being wild, not being loud, Burroughs was farther out than anyone. Ginsburg’s hero, Walt Whitman, said “I contain multitudes.” Hidden inside the grey suit uniform of middle America, Burroughs’ said 'of course you do, you have to'.

I sought out his first novel Junkie, published under the pseudonym William Lee. It's a pure pulp first person tale of addiction written in tight prose, Naked Lunch before it flipped out. My friend Michael Goldfarb told me when he was young he fantasized about Bill scoring scag at the same Automat he used to visit with his parents. I envisioned Bill waiting for his man, eying Joseph Cornell in a corner table surreptitiously checking out the counter girl. Michael and I were both middle class college boys and could identify with Burroughs’ life story. It enhanced his mystique. Born in St. Louis, attended Harvard: he could have been TS Eliot. But after Harvard he wandered to New York and hooked up with the Beats, discovering crime, drugs, and the sleaziest side of the gay underworld. Even better, family money supported him. It came from his grandfather’s cut of the Burroughs' adding machine fortune—some tales had his granddad actually inventing the thing—and he even called his last collection of essays The Adding Machine, along the lines of 'when the legend becomes fact, print the legend'. Now the Burroughs Co. is gone, merged into the giant Unisys, a monolith corporation straight out of one of Burroughs’ Nova Express novels.

Well ahead of the hippies, in the Fifties, Burroughs left the cities and went back to the land, growing dope in Texas with Joan Vollmer. He married her as if to defy the controlling conventions of his own sexuality. They lit out for Mexico one step ahead of the police. The story of his failed attempt to play William Tell with her is well known, but her death was the pivotal event of his life. In the introduction to his novel Queer (written just after Junkie but not published until 1985) he said 'I live with the constant threat of possession and a constant need to escape from control. The death of Joan brought me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice but to write my way out.'

Control again. He jumped Mexican bail and wound up in Tangiers. He wrote notes and stories, and in Paris, with Ginsburg, Brion Gysin, and Harold Norse cutting and pasting and editing, produced Naked Lunch. Norse, whose died only recently (I wrote his obituary for The Independent, you can link to that here), produced his own cut-up novel, Beat Hotel, but it wasn't published until 1973, and then only in German. There's nothing addictive about it; Norse, a poet, lacked the pulp edges of the writer of Junkie, lacked the tormented vision of control.

The ripple effect was immediate. Mailer’s Why Are We In Vietnam?, one of his two or three best novels, drew heavily on Naked Lunch, blending it with Faulkner's The Bear into a searing take on the addictions of pre-Sixties America. Meanwhile Burroughs was extending his cut-up techniques, going farther into the realm of Philip K Dick paranoia in his Nova Express trilogy. Rock bands named themselves after props in his novels, Steely Dan, Soft Machine. David Cronenburg understood what Burroughs was about when he tried valiantly to film Naked Lunch, trying with limited success to find an objective correlative for what Burroughs saw, to translate his hallucinations into celluloid reality. Less successfully, what was Trainspotting if not the outer trappings of Burroughs moved to Edinburgh and reduced to mundane Scots dialect? Forty years later, writers could still be copying his prose and calling it avant garde.

Eliot fled Missouri because it wasn’t respectable enough, became a bank clerk in England. Burroughs left Missouri to abandon respectability, then, having discarded it, trampled it, inverted it, perverted it, gave up the bohemian haunts of Tangiers, Paris, London, and New York to return to Lawrence, Kansas, a town whose claim to fame is its pillaging by Quantrill’s guerillas during the Civil War. Did Thomas Wolfe say you can't go home again? Lawrence was the hated mirror image of Missouri, a final finger flung in the face of his respectable tradition. Shooting Joan didn’t lessen his fascination with guns. In the 1980s Burroughs began painting, exhibiting works of “shotgun” art, created by blasting buckets of paint onto the canvas with buckshot, Jackson Pollack meets Travis Bickle. Interviewers would show up expecting mystic rap and be driven to distraction by his laconic drawling reticence. With-it celebrities, millionaire actors and rock stars, Sean Penn and Dennis Hopper and Kurt Cobain, came to pay tribute to his far-out genius. Bill put on his suit and showed them his guns. (Hopper, at least, got it: that's his portrait of Burroughs on the right). Burroughs had returned to his roots physically. Emotionally, he had never left them. He always was Bill Lee, his alter-ego narrator of Junkie, clinically aware of the effects of the many abuses to which he subjected his system. Like Hopper, he could stand back and observe his addictions even while serving them. Unlike Hopper, he could write them into his books. He never gave up drink or drugs, though he did clean up his heroin addiction. He outlived Cobain, with whom he cut an album in 1992, and outlived almost all the major, younger figures of the Beat Generation.

The enduring image of the Beat movement will be Kerouac and Cassady in their T shirts and Levis. The advertisers won’t let that die. Burroughs never fit that image, even though his sober, business-suited figure itself should be as iconic, in its ironic way. Burroughs' writing was the most dangerous of all the Beats, and the most original. We can all sit at home now and use computers to rearrange paragraphs the way Burroughs did with scissors and glue. Interzone has its own web space on the internet. Heroin hasn’t gone away, though it had to move over for crack. I still prize my Sixties Grove Press edition of Naked Lunch, the most subversive of all the Beat works, the feel of it, that sense of being rebellious by being a consumer of the right stuff. Ironic isn't it? I haven't actually held that book in years. Fifty years since it was published? Forty since I read it? In the age of Google and Wikipedia, I wrote this essay from memory, nothing more.

Monday, 6 June 2011

DEON MEYER'S THIRTEEN HOURS

Deon Meyer's Thirteen Hours has been nominated for the Johannesburg Sunday Times Fiction Prize, which is fascinating, because it's so rare to see the crime genre elevated into these general awards, and guessing the reasons why Meyer's book is on the shortlist provide a good entry into why Thirteen Hours is such a compelling book.

First off, it's a totally involving thriller, but that in itself would never be reason for the mainstream reviewers to take notice. A young American tourist is found murdered in Cape Town, and her friend is missing, and, it turns out, being pursued by the killers. Benny Griessel, the recovering alcoholic detective who first appeared in Devil's Peak is put in charge of the investigation, and he basically has 13 hours in which to find the girl and bring her to safety. The story proceeds as if in real time (I say as if because, unlike a TV show like 24 Hours, a writer cannot control real time—the book won't take 13 hours to read, obviously, though some reviews write as if it would!). Meyer has shown himself adept at thrillers before, and his touch is sure, his pacing relentless, and he never plays tricks with the reader.

But what makes the book so good is that Meyer's true forte is the police procedural. The format actually lends itself to thrillers better than mysteries—it deals with the process of policing, and in a thriller where all that is hidden is the result, the procedure itself becomes part of the tension. What the procedural offers is the chance to glimpse into both the personalities of a police team, the ensemble casts that make everything from Ed McBain's 87th Precinct to Harry Bosch's LAPD or Wallander's Ystad police so interesting, and the politics of policing itself.

Griessel gets the assignment partly because he is expendable; he is a loose cannon who can be sacrificed. His superiors see the task as hopeless, and it's better that Griessel take the hit if it fails. He is an older white officer in a force which is increasingly conscious of achieving some sort of racial balance. Which leads to the other factor in Meyer's mainstream appeal, his frank and revealing approach to race as revealed in the interactions of the various police, Afrikaaners, Zulus, Xhosa, and Colored. I've mentioned James McClure before when I've written about Meyer; his novels set in apartheid South Africa featured an Afrikaaner police lieutenant and his Zulu sergeant, and to many readers provided a telling look at the realities of South African life that they couldn't find in mainstream fiction.

Meyer's world is more complex than that, and he does an excellent job of playing with the rivalries, jealousies, and internal politicking of the new South Africa, while keeping the context personal. In that sense, Griessel is somewhere between Bosch and Wallander, maybe closer to Martin Beck, in providing an abrasive but somewhat neutral sounding board for the other characters. He also has to navigate through the monied politics of the South African music business, solving a second, seemingly locked-room murder, at the same time. Of course the two cases turn out to be connected, but it's in such an inventive way (and a way that reflects the reality of dangers in South Africa—whether people choose to get involved with violence or not) that it really works.

There also turns out to be a bigger story behind the two American girls, and although it's not contrived, it's so big that the revelation seems something of an anti-climax, as if there could have been a whole separate story built from that. Still, it is a bigger theme, and those are the kinds of elements that also impress the mainstream critics. And what most impresses me is the smaller themes which Griessel himself personifies—like so many of our favourite detectives, a flawed but well-intentioned man, with the cynicism of the idealist who's seen his ideals shattered. He's more interesting than Mat Joubert, who also appears in this book, and although Meyer has studiously avoided writing either into an actual series, more Griessel, and continued involvement of Joubert, who's bound for the private sector, would be welcomed.

Meyer's mainstream attention in South Africa is deserved, and more attention in this country is definitely overdue. Thirteen Hours is a compelling thriller, a multi-layered police procedural, and a book whose good writing survives into English translation. Meyer's surely one of the very best in the game.

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer
Hodder& Stoughton £6.99
ISBN 9780340953617

Saturday, 4 June 2011

'DR. DEATH': JACK KEVORKIAN'S GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Dr Jack Kevorkian is up on the Guardian's website, you can link to it here. It's hard to know exactly what to make of Dr Death, and perhaps one can make too much of his defense of Nazi doctors in concentration camps, but it is hard to escape the feeling that he was, at heart, a badly-adjusted obsessive, and it is easy to see that like many obsessives, he was capable to great compassion to individuals but had great trouble extending it in theory. I called him the 'Ralph Nader of Death' in my copy, but that was cut from the piece as used.

I also wanted to try to compare him to William Burroughs, not just for their asceticism but for their attitude to death--but that was the stuff of a literary essay, not an obituary. It was telling that Kevorkian became a popular talk-show guest even as he was disavowed by most of the assisted-suicide community.

The Barry Levinson HBO film with Al Pacino sounds interesting, but on the face of it I get the feeling that Pacino's hot emotionalism might not be right. If he did 'crack' Dr Death, it would indeed deserve an Emmy.

And it was also fun to revisit Ron Rosenbaum's essay, Travels With Dr Death, which became the title-piece of his first, and probably best, collection of journalism. It was when he was really at his peak as an essayist, and Kevorkian provided him with the perfect fodder for one of his exegeses, almost a religious interpretation while being both perceptove and entertaining.

I also found myself wondering if a wrestling match between Kevorkian and Dr Sam Sheppard might have had any legs?

Thursday, 2 June 2011

WALLY YONAMINE: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of Wally Yonamine, who died three months ago, is in today's Indy, you can link to it here. It's a great story: a Japanese-American football star who suffered racial abuse in the AAFC, then switched to baseball in Japan and suffered even more from prejudice there. He is a legend in Japan, and in Hawaii, and the whole story of foreigners playing baseball in Japan is a fascinating one that probably deserves its own study.

So does the history of pro football on the Pacific Coast before the Rams (transplanted from Cleveland) and the 49ers (from the All American Football Conference) established themselves in the NFL. The PCFL featured a lot of stars who went on to bigger things, including Jackie Robinson and Woody Strode, as well as integrating the NFL, and the tale of barnstorming outfits like the Hawaiian Warriors is another with no equivalent nowadays.