Friday, 29 June 2012

ALAN FURST'S MISSION TO PARIS


Mission To Paris, like most of Alan Furst's work, is set in the period just before the Second World War, when Europe is about to come apart at the seams. It's also set in Paris, which makes it a little different, as Furst has actually dealt with Paris during the War itself. Which leads me to think about where this stands in his oeuvre, especially since it follows Spies Of The Balkans, which was a Richard & Judy choice and in this country his most successful novel yet (you can read my review of that book here).

Like Balkans, Mission has a pared down plot—and oddly, considering it's set mostly in Paris, somewhat less atmosphere than his early books. Perhaps he, or we, know Paris too well? Its main character, unusually for Furst, is an American of sorts, Hollywood star Frederic Stahl (to me his name recalls Frederic March and John Stahl, both Americans who might well have been Europeans) born in Vienna, with a Slovene father, now loaned out by Warner Bros. to make a movie in 1938 Paris. But the Germans are waging a deep and complicated propaganda battle within France, trying to keep public opinion away from the idea of preparing for war, and Stahl soon finds himself the object of the affectionate Nazi eye, to his growing discomfort.

From there the story proceeds along familiar lines—through a series of vignettes, set in Paris, Berlin, Morocco, and finally Rumainia, and each ends with an unexpected and sudden death. This is Furst's world, where even the most commonplace of human activities can be fraught with danger, and his stock in trade is recreating that atmosphere of unsettled paranoia and fear.

But this book moves onto a slightly different track in a couple of ways. It's far less ambiguous than many of his previous novels. Furst actually sets up any number of questions for the reader—can we trust so-and-so at Warner Bros, him at the film company, her at the German hostess' party-- and in every case it turns out that we can, or that we were wrong simply to worry. This goes against the great strength of his work, which is that we can never know what positions the people on whom we are forced to depend have taken, and we can never know if that means they can or can't be trusted. So in that sense, this story is more straightforward.

It's also, as I said, less atmospheric. The most interesting parts of Paris don't rise up from the page, they seem to fade in the background of the story. Indeed, the best description is saved for the workings of the film industry (there's even a sly nod to Jean Casson, a hero of previous Furst novels). Even when he visits the wardrobe woman's modest digs, we don't get the deeper sense of what the surroundings mean to her that we've come to expect. Similarly, his Berlin, on Kristallnacht no less, remains something heard off-stage, and he really seems to move through the more exotic settings with even more dispatch.

In a more important way it is more straightforward as well—because Stahl falls in love, and in that sense his 'mission' to Paris has been to do what people have done, have gone to Paris to do, forever. I said in my review of Spies Of The Balkans that there seems to be less 'action' in each successive Furst novel, but that appears to have allowed his love stories to become more involved, more detailed, and I would guess more satisfying for a wider audience. I suspect Mission To Paris will be optioned quickly for a film which, paradoxically, might render what I have taken to be a relatively less well-drawn atmosphere, and convert it into a film whose atmosphere will steal the screen. Furst's work deserves no less.

Mission To Paris by Alan Furst
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £18.99 ISBN 9780863922

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Thursday, 28 June 2012

WHY DOES ANGELINA HAVE TO DIE: THE LINK

I've written (with Portland Green) a piece called 'Why Does Angelina Have To Die', about gender roles in feature films about dance, which will be published in Dance Theatre Journal in August. You can get a sneak preview (actually the whole thing!) courtesy of Film London and Artists Long Format Film...follow this link and use the password ALFF2012 if it asks for one... 
 I will be posting the piece here after publication....but read it now!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

WHEN THE FIGHT WAS FIXED AND I WAS THERE


I was struck by the way Grantland's Rafe Bartolomew expressed his disbelief at the recent split decision that gave Timothy Bradley Jr. the WBO welterweight title belt over Manny Pacquiao. He called it 'boxing's worst robbery at a major fight' since the Pernell Whittaker-Julio Cesar Chavez 'draw' in 1993. That unusual 'majority draw' (two judges called it even, the third gave the fight to Sweet Pea, who doesn't then get a 1-0-2 split decision) was indeed unusual, but it wasn't even the worse decision of Whittaker's career. That one came on another split decision five years earlier. I remember it well because it happened on my birthday, and I was there in the ring.

It was March 1988, in a dingy arena named for the great Marcel Cerdan, in the Paris suburb of Levallois-Perret.Whitaker, whose pro record stood at 15-0, was fighting Jose Luis Ramirez, like Chavez a Mexican, for the World Boxing Council lightweight title which Ramirez had won after Hector 'Macho' Camacho had vacated it. I was there working for ABC Sports and we were broadcasting the fight back to America. It wasn't the most relaxing birthday—dealing with boxing promoters was never easy and the French brothers who were promoting this fight were particularly slippery whenever I had issues to iron out. Simply getting the crew out to the arena from the hotel in central Paris was a task: traffic on the Periphrique tied them up, while I used the metro to make sure I was there early. But in those days you didn't suggest to ABC Sports producers that they travel by subway.

The fight was totally one-sided. Whitaker dominated early, then appeared to settle into counter-punching, because, as we learned later, he had broken his hand in round four. But although Ramirez continued to come forward throughout the 12 rounds, he rarely landed any punches of consequences, while Whitaker picked his shots and connected. I had Pea up 8 rounds to 4 when the bell sounded.

What happened next was different. After the bell, I got into the ring; my job would be to get the interview for our announcer Don Chevrier. I went over to the ropes, above where the judges' scorecards were being totalled, and began reading them upside down. I looked up with an expression of disbelief as I realised Whitaker was behind on two cards, and caught the eye of Jose Sulaiman, the Mexican boss of the WBC, who looked at me impassively.

Then I turned to Whitaker's corner and looked at Lou Duva, his manager, from whose Main Events company ABC had acquired the fight. Lou was built like a white-haired fire hydrant with a face that looked like it had battered all the other fire hydrants into submission. Lou was a former boxer who'd used the profits from a trucking business to open his own gym, which grew into Main Events when they started managing Leon Spinks. Lou didn't waste much time with bullshit, and when I shook my head at him he knew what was going on. He climbed into the ring, and even before the announcement was made, he was yelling over the ropes at Sulemain. Then the split decision came, with English judge Harry Gibbs (a referee back in London) scoring it 117-113 for Whitaker, judge Newton Campos 118-113 for Ramirez, and judge Louis Michel 116-115, also for Ramirez.

I'd seen bad decisions before. Some I assumed had been foregone conclusions. Part of my job as Director of Programming in Europe for ABC involved sometimes going to matches in London, to watch fighters whom British promoters might be touting. Sometimes I went just out of my own curiosity. Many times these young fighters would be facing some older tomato-can, flown in from a great distance, usually Latin America, for the express purpose of getting beaten. And if the can were to outbox the hometown hero, well, he would inevitably lose a decision, rendered by the referee alone (who was sometimes that same Harry Gibbs), by a scant half-point, and have his arm raised afterwards for applause as a 'gallant loser'. In Ireland I had a promoter offer to 'speed up' the two remaining fights on the card before the one we were doing live back to the States; there aren't too many legit ways you can speed up a six-round fight. The nature of the business, however, means you shrug it off, and wait for the moments of courage and high drama the fighters themselves provide.

Lou Duva wasn't shrugging anything off. His face turned bright red and he exploded, leaning over the ropes to direct a chain of profane accusations in Sulaiman's direction. He invited him to perform anatomical impossibilities, suggested embarrassing things about his geneology, and, more to the point, threatened to sue the WBC. Meanwhile Don was setting up inside the ring, and our producers were telling me they wanted Lou for the interview. I reached around him, telling him we were ready to talk to him,and half-dragged, half escorted him over to Don, with him leaning backwards as he continued to hurl invective at Sulaiman. Then he turned and faced Don, who suggested he might be upset by the decision. Lou turned to the camera and proceeded to give a calm, reasoned evaluation of where he thought the decision was lacking, and what redress might be open to him and Whitaker, and what avenues they might explore when they got back to America. Don thanked him and Lou immediately spun around, picking up his verbal assault on Sulaiman as if from mid-sentence.


I spent the rest of my birthday commiserating in a hotel bar with various people from Main Event, ABC, and some press. The famed Irish scribe Harry Mullan would later write that the decision 'was generally considered to be a disgrace'. Our opinions that night were more Lou Duvaesque. I would have my real birthday party the next day, a Sunday lunch with friends at La Ferme Ste. Genevieve, where in those days they did old-fashioned escargots and confit du canard. When I told them about the robbery I'd witnessed the night before they just laughed, surprised I could take it so seriously. 'You haven't been at ringside and seen what goes through those guys' eyes,' I replied. 'They deserve better'.

Pernell Whitaker went on immediately to win the IBF lightweight title from Greg Haugen, and then avenge himself over Ramirez with a unanimous decision in Norfolk, Virginia that gave him the WBC belt as well. He won seventeen fights in a row between that loss to Ramirez and the excruciating draw with Chavez, and won titles at Welter and Light-Middle before finally suffering his first 'real' loss to Oscar DeLaHoya. How seriously should we take it? The Book Of Boxing Lists has the Chavez fight as the tenth most controversial of all-time, and the Ramirez as the ninth. That's pretty tough for just one fighter. Take away those two bent decisions, and Whitaker gets recognised more widely as one of the greatest fighters of his era, maybe of all time.Which is what he deserves.

Friday, 22 June 2012

JACK TWYMAN: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

The friendship between Jack Twyman and Maurice Stokes, which prompted Twyman to look after his paralysed teammate, is one of the greatest stories in sports. My obit of Jack Twyman is in today's Indy, you can link to it here.

All that was cut from it was some of the basketball detail. Stokes scored 32 points in his very first NBA game, and averaged 16.8 points and 16.3 rebounds in his rookie season, winning the Rookie of the Year award, and making second-team all-NBA, which he would do for each of his three seasons. Twyman averaged 14 points as a rookie, and that would improve to 17ppg in his third year. I pointed out that while Twyman was part of a long continuum of 'white small forwards'--include Cliff Hagan, Jack Marin, Billy Cunningham, Larry Bird, and Dirk Nowitski in that, among others--Stokes was unique in his time. His game was more complete even than someone like Charles Barkley, and he was taller than Barkley as well.

The key bit cut had to do with Stokes' membership on the all-time NBA 'what-if' team. As I wrote, without Stokes, Twyman's scoring 'average went from 17 to 26 points per game the next year, along with 9 rebounds, and in 1959-60 he and Chamberlain became the first players to average over 30 points per game (31.2, along with 8.9 rebounds). After the 1960 Olympics, another Cincinnati University star, Oscar Robertson, joined the Royals; one of the great what-ifs of NBA history is imagining how Stokes,Twyman, and Oscar would have played together. Those Royals also had Wayne Embry, and might have been contenders for years. The rest of the all-time what if team is Bill Walton, Connie Hawkins, David Thompson, and Pete Maravich. That's injury, scandal, drugs, and drugs n all kinds of other shit.

I've never seen the film Maurie, but like Bang The Drum Slowly, it suffered from coming after Brian's Song, and unlike Bang The Drum, a film starring Bo Swenson and Bernie Casey was not aimed at being an A feature. But I think the true story of Twyman and Stokes rivals the fictional one of Bruce Pearson and Henry Wiggin in that baseball novel and film. As I said, it's one of the great sports stories of all time, and because of it, I have always admired Jack Twyman.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

LEIF G.W. PERSSON'S ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE


Note: This review does contain a spoiler of sorts. You can leave the final paragraph until after you've read the novel...

When I reviewed Leif G.W. Persson's Between Summer's Longing And Winter's End earlier this year (you can link to that here), I likened it to a cross between Sjowall & Wahloo and Stieg Larsson (particularly The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest). There the subject was the murder of Olaf Palme, and it was ironic that policeman Lars Martin Johansson, investigating a different murder, is not only unable to 'solve' the most important crime in Swedish history, but that the man most responsible not only gets away with it, but gets the girl Johansson fancies.


In Another Time, Another Life it's years later, 1999, iand Johansson, is now married to that woman, though the circumstances of their re-connection are not as innocent as he knows. Thought of as a safe pair of hands, has just joined the Security Police, Sepo, one of the many layers of secret police set up to protect themselves from public scrutiny each time the public is given scrutiny to the previous layer. But the story begins in 1975, when the Red Army Faction took over the West German embassy in Stockholm, leaving four dead, two of them the terrorists. Johansson discovers that files on two Swedes who allegedly helped the Germans, have disappeared and reappeared in his files, and want to find out why. One of them was the victim of a murder in 1989, and the statute of limitations is about to run out—but Johansson's friend Bo Jarnebring, who also appeared in the previous book, and the competent, attractive Anna Holt, were the detectives on that killing. Their investigation got nowhere, primarily because it was headed by the pig-headed, corrupt, alcoholic Backstrom (think NYPD Blue's Bunz without the conscience).

Now, reopening that investigation takes Johansson deep within the workings of the Swedish state—not only in terms of solving the crime, but also in terms of figuring out just who wanted the whole thing reinvestigated, and why. And why it was covered up in the first place.

If Summer's Longing crossed Martin Beck with Mikke Blomkvist, Another Time, Another Life is like Beck crossed with Joseph Wambaugh, and Backstrom, convinced this is a simple homosexual killing barely worth solving, is a character worthy of Wambaugh at his best. Johansson, who in the previous book showed signs of being bound for the lonely life of a Beck, here seems much more in command. The subtleties required by his new job are still a strain, but not beyond him, and in the end he achieves a result that satisfies his sense of justice, and probably pleases those above him as well. My one criticism of Summer's Longing was for its being somewhat prolix, but not only is this book written much more tightly, the result for Johansson means the story is resolved in a way the Palme killing never could be. In that sense, despite the fact that you almost need to know the characters' backstory from the previous book, and you can see where some of their personal lives are headed, this might be a better place for newcomers to Persson to begin.

The brilliance of the story, however, lies in its coda, where Backstrom gets the last laugh, in the end 'solving' the 1989 murder, pinning it on a gay serial killer. That he uses liquor he stole from the murder victim's cupboard ten years earlier, and that the bottle is a banana liqueur which even the thirsty Backstrom presumably found unapproachable, is a bit of subtle irony which Swedes would recognise, and I assume find even more amusing than I did. Underneath the humour, Persson does shine a light on Swedes and their society, and in that broader sense may be the most interesting of the novelists in the current Swedish crime boom.

Another Time, Another Life by Leif G.W. Persson
Doubleday £16.99 ISBN 9780385614191

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)


ARNALDUR INDRIDASON'S BLACK SKIES


It's been a busy couple of weeks for the Reykjavik police, while Arnaldur Indridason's detective Erlendur has been completely out of touch while on holiday in the lonely eastern part of island where he grew up. The compression of time in published fiction means that while readers wait and wonder what has happened to the moody Erlendur, Indiridason has now written two novels, each starring one of Erlendur's supporting cast. In the previous one, Outrage, Elinborg took centre stage, and as I wrote at the time (you can link to that here), her dilemmas, and the case, encapsulated Indridason's recurring theme of conflict between the older traditional Icelandic life, and the new.

Black Skies, which features Sigurdur Oli, is very much rooted in the new Iceland, the boom country which famously went bust in a perfect foreshadowing of the global economic crisis. Oli himself is very much entrenched in a new Icelandic identity: he spends most of his time aping all things American, especially sport. In my own identity as an American sportscaster I began wondering if Oli's TV in Iceland, or his computer, actually could pick up my commentary on Channel 4, or Five, or Eurosport. Although Oli has disdain for most things Icelandic, in another sense, in his aloof loneliness, he seems a much more traditional figure: substitute hamburgers for horses' heads and he's as shut-off as Erlendur.

But he's dragged into a very modern-seeming case when a friend asks him to do a favour for his sister's wife and her husband, who are being blackmailed with photos taken while experimenting with wife-swapping. When Oli goes to visit the woman blackmailer, he finds she has literally just been murdered, and though he can't chase the baseball-bat killer, his dogged pursuit winds up uncovering other crimes, a possible second murder, and a number of small betrayals of his trust. Meanwhile, one of Erlendur's informants has supplied him with a small bit of film depicting his own abuse as a child, and he is in the process of extracting revenge on his abuser.

As the first case expands, Oli finds himself in almost over his head with the world of fast-moving high-finance, looking on with disdain at the conspicuous consumption which seems to be fuelling it. He's also forced to face the breakdown of his own relationship, and re-examine the way he saw the divorce of his own parents. That story acts as a parallel of sorts to the story of Andres, the abused child, and yet again provides the contrast with the old: Andres' only happy times was when he was taken from his mother and raised briefly on a farm, away from the 'modern' Iceland.

Oli's doggedness finally solves the murder, which turns out to be unconnected with the larger issues of money-laundering and speculating, and the possible second murder, another out in the old Icelandic wilderness, which may have done the killing itself. And Anndres' story resolves itself too, with a touching ending that acts as a coda to both stories, reminding us that beneath the trappings of our lives, how basic the needs of human existence really are.

Oli makes the perfect protagonist, in a sense, because he doesn't mull through these issues himself, as Erlendur would (Erlendur actually strikes me as being perhaps closer to John Harvey's Resnick, or Graham Hurley's Faraday than his Swedish forebears). This means the reader is free to make the connections and draw the conclusions for himself. This is why I think Black Skies is one of, if not the best, of Indridason's books. And, of course, we still don't know what's happened to Erlendur.

Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781846555817


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

Thursday, 14 June 2012

A ROYAL AFFAIR SHOWS DANISH POLISH


It's kind of amusing that virtually any look at a Danish film still begins with reference to Dogma, because the Danes have shown they can be adept in virtually any genre or style, in cinema or on television. Perhaps no one moreso than Nicolaj Arcel, best known outside Denmark for his screenplay adaptation of the Swedish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (like many of his screenplays, written with Rasmus Heisterberg--they also did the Swedish TV series version) but also the director of a number of very different films, including the excellent political thriller The King's Game, and the fantastic fantasy Island of Lost Souls, possibly my favourite film at the London Film Festival a few years ago. It shouldn't come as a surprise that he should tackle the costume drama—what may come as some surprise is that, in A Royal Affair, he does it so well.

The film tells the story of Princess Caroline, brought from England as a wife for King Christian VII, and not only relegated, through her husband's childish personality and the court's disdain for her as his consort, to a position as royal non-entity, but also, because of the strict censorship imposed on the Danes by their church-led government, stopped from pursuing intellectual growth through the Enlightenment, spreading quickly through Europe. Enter Johann Streunsee, brought in as doctor to the King, and quickly becoming his confidant. Streunsee manipulates Christian into bringing the Enlightenment to Denmark, instituting countless reforms; but he also betrays his friend and patient by beginning an affair with the desperately lonely princess.

It's an intriguing mix of love story and political thriller, with very obvious echoes in the present, when reactionaries among the rich and the fundamentalists combine to try to hold back reform that might make life more free for all, and threaten their own privilege. It's helped by an extraordinarily deft bit of camerawork from Rasmus Videbaek, whose interior work in particular recalls Amadeus in its way it allows the characters the mysteries of candlelit darkness.

There's another echo of Amadeus here, in the performance of Mikkel Boe Foelsgaard as Christian, which reminded me of Jeffrey Jones' as Joseph II in that film. But Christian is a more complicated figure—an indulged child who's eccentricities have been encouraged by a court (in particular his father's widow, who wants the crown for her own son) who prefer to run the country using the King as a figurehead. The way the two stories, of personal betrayal and political change, come together, gets played out in Foelsgaard's performance, as he has to decide for himself whether or not to topple Streunsee, and imprison his own wife. You can follow his dilemma, the simple lack of fortitude, the good intentions but bad reactions, which brings the entire story into focus. At times, you can feel an intense sympathy for his lechery, and his weakness. When he signs away his own power, you feel for him, and the idea that you know this cannot have a good end cleverly undermines some of the headier moments of Enlightenment, reminding us that Streunsee himself succumbs to the lure of absolute power. Which of course he never really has.

That's e's balanced nicely by Mads Mikklesen's performance. Mikklesen brings out the character's hubris, as well as his innate nobility, he also catches on to the fact that, as with The King's Game, the film hinges on a well-intentioned protagonist not understanding how the political game is played. So too with Alicia Vikander, as Caroline. Hers is the responsibility for not letting the love story get too mawkish, not even when she is voicing the last letter to her children which frames it. Although the best comparison I could make might be with Isabelle Adjani, its a cooler, more Anglicised version. She's particularly good at bringing a English sense of female improvement to the story, as if this were a 19th century English novel...and Harriet Walter is excellent in a cameo early on as her mother, Queen Augusta, explaining the real-politick of royal marriage to her. There is an excellent ensemble cast, particularly David Dencik as the chief reactionary and villain, Guldberg, a pious hypocrite of a type we're exceedingly familiar with these days. But the supporting figures are particularly well-drawn, especially in the ways they react to the reforms Streunsee brings—they are nominally all in favour of the Enlightenment, but they find themselves wavering as it begins to effect their privileged lives.

I knew this story through Per-Olov Enquist's wonderful novel, The Visit Of The Royal Physician, in which the issues of the Enlightenment are foregrounded. Apparently, the filmmakers wanted to use his book, but its rights have been tied up in another project which has never got off the ground. So they nominally used a Danish novel, Princess Of The Blood, billed in some quarters as an 'erotic' novel, which, like the film, takes Caroline's point of view. Interestingly, they liased with Enquist, and hired lawyers to review their script to determine just what was history, and in the public domain, and what was Enquist's invention. Although they might have satisfied the intellectual property guys, the finished film still has a lot of the feel of the Enquist novel, which is no bad thing.

But given that this is a central moment in Danish history, the story might seem to tell itself. That is where Arcel and Heisterberg have been so effective –because if the Enlightenment were to set people free, as it were, to make mistakes. Their script is up to date, and it's also classic; echoes of Hamlet as well as Jane Austen perhaps. The English flatter themselves to think only they can do costume drama—this remarkably thoughtful and entertaining film proves them so wrong. Oh, and apparently Lars von Trier did look at the script, and help with some of the editing. So you can't get far from Dogma after all.

A Royal Affair opens tomorrow (15 June) in London.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

HENRY HILL: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY


What were the odds that the mob rat Henry Hill would die of natural causes, or out of jail? He beat those odds pretty well, which was my original lede for the obituary which is up at the Guardian online (you can link to it here) and which you might see in tomorrow's paper paper.

What's published is cut considerably from what I wrote: the paper asked for colour and it was hard to resist including many of the details of Hill's escapades, already familiar from Scorsese's Goodfellas. In the film the execution of Billy Batts is played for an almost surreal humour, and as I say is indeed the centrepiece of Scorsese's film. In some ways I think it's the best of his gangster pictures, which is another aspect of my original that got cut back: but certainly it's important to realilse that even the hypocritical notion of 'the Family' found it hard to survive through the 'me-decade' and the explosion of paranoiac drugs.

Ray Liotta's performance deserves great praise; he catches the essential weakness behind Hill's slick hustler facade, and the essential violence behind most of his colleagues. The real Hill's slide out of witness protection and afterwards was far less glamorous than his gang years, and his addictions took their toll. I find the idea he and Whitey Bulger might have been drinking together (unknowingly?) at some bar along the coast in Santa Monica or Malibu an intriguing one. Bulger took Hill's betrayals a step further, using his informing to further his own crime career--letting the authorities do the hard work for him.

It was telling too that Hill was scooped up in the net of the bottom feeders like Howard Stern or Geraldo Rivera--a fate Kid Twist might not necessarily have preferred to his Coney Island swan dive. But Hill might be the prototype of the gangster who's media image made him greater than he was. And I was surprised to see that he'd opened a restaurant in West Haven, where both my parents grew up. I remember an uncle telling me proudly that he took a course at Syracuse just after the war, where the professor called West Haven the most mob-controlled and corrupt little town in America. Uncle Gene said it made him feel proud. Henry Hill would have thought the professor a mark to be taken.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

TEOFILO STEVENSON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of the great Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson is up at the Guardian's website now, you can link to it here. Ideally, it will also appear in tomorrow's paper. It was printed with a number of cosmetic changes, but one of them is important. I wrote originally that I was 'privileged' to see Stevenson's gold medal victory while I was working at the Montreal Forum in 1976, and therein lies a story. I was a press liason at the Forum, which meant I worked through every minute of gymnastics, the semi-finals and finals of both volleyball and basketball, and the final night of boxing, which was a great one. It was my first Olympic games; I've been blessed to work at eight more, and London 2012, where I'll be covering basketball for the BBC, will be my tenth.

Stevenson's victory was impressive, in its ironic way (I have never seen a towel fly so fast, for such little reason, at any fight since), but even more impressive was the one that preceded it. Leon Spinks at light heavuweight (his brother Michael had just won the middleweight gold pounding a Russian into submission) had one of the great fights I've ever seen: a three-round slugfest with Cuba's Sixto Soria, who was the favourite (he would win the world championship in 1978). Soria came out fast, and seemed to be landing three punches for every one of Spinks'--but Leon's were more telling. Going into round three Spinks was obviously down by two, but Soria, who could have tried covering up and protecting his lead, was having none of that. The toe to toe continued until Spinks finally staggered Soria, followed up his advantage, and referee stopped the fight with just seconds remaining.

The Stevenson-Simon fight (below right) was almost comic anticlimax, but Stevenson had virtually clinched the gold medal when he knocked out John Tate in the first round of their semifinal bout, which sadly, I didn't see. Tate and both Spinks brothers would eventually become heavyweight champions (Tate briefly held the WBA version). Stevenson, of course, had to be content to be a hero in Cuba, and a legend in amateur boxing.

I probably should have written more about the propaganda war surrounding the Ali-Stevenson matchup; it simply intensified when the Cubans turned down the offer, with the restraint of Stevenson's freedom to earn being held up as an early example of the victory of the free market system. How the actual fight would have gone is impossible to determine: Ali was already a shadow of himself, and Stevenson was younger, stronger and fitter. Stevenson didn't have Ali's speed, and his style had been heavily influenced by amateur scoring; he could certainly have kept Ali away, but how was he going to get in and hurt him? I remember Angelo Dundee telling me Ali would have won easily, but then, Angelo would have said that. I do wish we could have seen it.

It's also amazing how much alike they were, and how, only in the past year or so, Stevenson's aging face began to resemble later Muhammad Ali, a sad reminder that there is no 'safe' boxing.

One last thing I didn't mention in the obit: Stevenson was voted outstanding boxer of the 1972 Olympics, and in that year he was made an Honoured Master of Soviet Sport, an award given to few non-Soviets. He was that impressive.

Monday, 11 June 2012

GREAT GATSBY AGAIN!

F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous quote is probably the one where he says there are 'no second acts' in American lives. Yet his greatest book, and to my mind the greatest American novel of the 20th century, The Great Gatsby, is all about someone trying to create a second act for himself. Of course he fails. And it is in that failure that the brilliance of Gatsby lies.

There was a lengthy, and very good, examination of Fitzgerald's novel by Jay McInerney in yesterday's Observer (you can link to that here)--an interesting choice of author because there are a few similarities between McInerney and Fitzgerald; both have been seen as chroniclers of their generations, when both quite obviously have talents and aspirations beyond that. Both are seen as followers of, if not hangers on, to high society. McInerney's piece comes in the wake of Baz Luhrmann's film and his reaction to it is pretty much as flat as mine (you can link to that piece, which I wrote last month, here).

McInerny is very good on the importance of Nick Carroway, and his position as narrator. One might see FSF himself as being more like Carroway than he cares too; certainly Gatsby is what he sees himself as trying to be, and Zelda was his Daisy. But it's not constructive to interpret great fiction through its relation to an author's own life, and I apologise for being tempted that way. The brilliance of Gatsby lies in the attempt to build a new life, to the openness of America to such possibility, and to Fitzgerald's sharp eye for (and Carroway's ultimate dissolution with) the entrenched upper class of American life. In the Twenties, as in the Roaring Reagans, they flaunted wealth, and aspirations were high. McInerney doesn't mention Tom Buchanan being a former star athlete at Yale, just the sort of thing FSF himself had aspirations to (there, I've done it again) but he is the sort of person to whom things come easily. And Gatsby isn't.

Gatsby is a cipher, a character who might have walked off the pages of Melville's Confidence Man. McInerney's absolutely right that people can and do read Gatsby as a sort of manual in getting ahead, a celebration of the basic American right to get rich, and enjoy the love story even though it's ending isn't happy. But beneath that lies a basic sense of the intangibility of that dream, that the pursuit of happiness --not money--as enshrined in the ideal of America, has hidden and not so hidden boundaries and limitations. Fitzgerald understood this as well as anyone--hell, Gatsby's partnered with Meyer Wolfsheim and he fixed the World Series. It doesn't get much more ironic about the American Dream than that.

No one has ever put his finger on the promise and the frustrations of that Dream as well as Fitzgerald did. No one has ever placed it on its pedestal and knocked it down with quite such panache.
 


MEGAN ABBOTT'S END OF EVERYTHING


It might become a challenge to discuss Megan Abbott's books without reference to the words 'fever' or 'dream'. Her first four novels approached the world of noir from the inside, or perhaps, in a genre where the protagonists are usually men, often superficially attractive (qualities we're supposed to judge in women) but possessed of one-track minds and/or half track brains, we might better say from the other side. This reclaiming of the world of noir has been, for me, the most interesting and original work done in the crime field in this new millennium.

Although her fifth novel, 2011's, The End Of Everything, is, on the face of it, a novel about adolescence, whose 'crime' sits mostly offstage while Abbott provides a stunning take on the power of sexuality, and the even greater power of repression. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense, because that is at heart what noir is all about at heart—the feeling a child has, of being caught in the grip of a force he or she cannot control, a primal urge beyond understanding or coping-- isn't that exactly what noir protagonists wind up feeling? That they are adults merely intensifies the predicament, intensifies the temperature of the fever dream in which it takes place.It's why the best noir is filmed in shadow, in fog, in haze, in darkness, where no one can see what is coming.

Lizzie and Evie are best friends, with Evie's older sister Dusty their glamorous role model, and Evie's father, Mr. Verver, as the perfect dad, at least in the mind of Lizzie, who's being raised by her single mother, who herself has just begun an affair. Then, Evie disappears, and it soon appears she has been kidnapped by the Verver's insurance agent, Mr. Shaw. But nothing, it seems, is the way it seems.

Although the setting appears to be the 1980s, but the story has the feel of the 1950s—so much so that it reminded me of Thomas H. Cook at his best, the same sort of emotional undercurrent which reveals itself in its own repression, that same sort of quiet build-up which goes beyond noir, but still stirs the perfect surface in search of the imperfections underneath. Abbott, through Lizzie's teenaged eyes, builds an undercurrent of sexual malice which permeates virtually every scene, boiling just beneath the surface. And Lizzie's perceptions are modern, the only really modern thing in the story—she is the author's stand-in, seeing a Fifties noirish reality beneath that 80s world. The reader feels like a youngster who's stumbled across their parents' cache of steam-covered 50s paperbacks. So Mr. Verver, the seemingly perfect father, more and more takes on the appearance of a predator, an abuser, not so different perhaps from Mr. Shaw.

Except that Mr. Shaw is also not quite what he appears to be, and Evie's kidnapping is not quite that either. Without wanting to spoil the story, Abbott has also written a look back at Lolita, again, as I suggested at the start, told from the other side. After all, what is Nabokov's novel, if not a look at 1950s masculinity, and its fatal attraction to the unspoiled, perfect, uncomplaining, unthreatening femininity of the 50s teen, just starting to be sexualised in the post-war modern world.

It's a brilliant book, whose tone never falters, whose tension is wrenched tighter and tighter with each page, and whose vision is resolutely noirish. Megan Abbott's fiction remains fascinating in its obsessions, and in The End Of Everything, she takes them out of their classic setting, and proves she can make them work on a wider, more surprising canvas.

The End Of Everything by Megan Abbott
Picador, £7.99, ISBN 9780330518314

Sunday, 10 June 2012

THE LONE CRAZED PRESIDENT: POST CELEBRATES WATERGATE'S 40TH ANNIVERSARY

The Washington Post had scooped the world's press on next Sunday's 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, just as they did with the story itself 40 years ago. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward offer a fascinating catalogue of some of the ways they conclude that 'Richard Nixon was even worse than we thought'; you can link to that piece here.

But the retrospective is even more interesting for what it doesn't discuss, which is motivation. Exactly what was it that made Richard Nixon so sensitive to leaks and things that might slip out of the White House and be revealed? What were the things Nixon needed to protect? And who ordered the break-in?Answers come there none.

At the risk of being labelled a conspiracy theorist, which is about the worst thing the mainstream media can call someone suggesting larger forces might be at work in American politics (remember the derision of Hilary Clinton's reference to a 'vast right-wing conspiracy' against her husband? That sure proved far-fetched!). But Woodward and Bernstein (and even more so Woodward in his series of insider books about American politics) have always avoided any consideration of 'deep politics'-- something particularly unusual given Woodward's own background in Naval Intelligence. Now Robert Redford has announced he's going to make a documentary about Watergate, with Woodward (whom he played in the movie) and Bernstein coorperating, and I can only think that this Woodward thesis is about to be reinforced for the post-literate among us.

Of course the 'great man' approach to history remains a valid one,within its limitations. But what Woodstein are presenting, 40 years on, is an even more graphic account of Richard Nixon as the presidential equivalent of the 'lone crazed assassins' who have stalked American politics for at least the past 150 years. As I pointed out in my book about Oliver Stone, it's irony at the highest level that America's highest-profile conspiracy theorist should made a movie remarkably sympathetic to Nixon and his psychological flaws; the difference being that Stone never took his eyes off the bigger picture, and was thus better prepared to see him in the context of forces operating around, if not beyond, his control.


The Post article makes much mention of Nixon's anti-Semitism, and the ambiguous place of Henry Kissinger in his administration. But it contains zero discussion of Kissinger's role in Nixon's October Surprise. Nor is there any mention of, among otherts, Howard Hughes, Donald Nixon, the Mafia, Bebe Rebozo, Cartha DeLoach, or Pepsico. What exactly was 'the whole Bay of Pigs thing' the White House tapes reveal? Exactly what were the Watergate burglars looking for?

Beyond Nixon himself, there are still basic questions about the whole Watergate affair, and even more about the Post's coverage. What was the true role, and motivation, of Deep Throat? Was Mark Felt the only source, or was DT an amalgam for others? What role did Woodward's own history with Naval Intelligence play? And let us not forget that, although Nixon did eventually resign (leading to that wonderful cover of Rolling Stone, headlined cuttingly: The Quitter) the whole Watergate issue was swept under the carpet during the 1972 election campaign, which was an almost total sweep of America for Nixon. That is the legacy we need to remember.


Thursday, 7 June 2012

CHRIS ETHRIDGE, RIP


I was saddened to read yesterday that Chris Ethridge, bass player in The Flying Burrito Brothers, has died aged 72, in his hometown of Meridian Mississippi.  His death is an excuse to remember just how exciting the Burritos were when they first appeared. I always liked Ethridge's bass playing, not just in the Burritos, but on lots of other records, including a couple by Ry Cooder, but  especially on Ron Elliott's wonderful album The Candlestickmaker.

Part of their excitement was down to Sneaky Pete, and the Bakersfield kind of twang they snuck into what were rock songs, and, particularly on The Gilded Palace Of Sin, their first album, what good songs they were! Ethridge co-wrote three of Parsons' best songs, the two 'Hot Burritos' on that album, and 'She' (along with Booker T Jones). Two are wonderfully plaintive ballads, but the opening bass riff on Hot Burrito 2 is priceless.

Plus the band looked great, in their Nudie suits.That's Ethridge second from left above, next to Pete, in an outake from the original cover session. the cover, you probably don't remember, placed the two women, dressed  Bonnie Parker-style, in the doorway of a dilapidated shack/outhouse that gave an ironic twang to the 'Gilded Palace of Sin' idea.

And of course The Flying Burrito Brothers was one of the great band names of all time. Although it appears they 'borrowed' it from a band founded by two of the survivors of Parsons' International Submarine Band, and the original FBB included Barry Tashian, from Boston's Remains. Maybe Parsons had come up with the name with the ISB? Interestingly, I have a disc of a live Burritos concert at the Fillmore East where Chris Hillman feels it's necessary to explain to the crowd what a Burrito is. 1970 sure was a long time ago.

By then Ethridge had left the group. On the first album the drumming was done by Jon Corneal (from Dillard and Clark) and by my favourite 'lost' great drummer, 'Fast' Eddie Hoh. Michael Clarke, from the Byrds, would later join the group. The Burritos are part of what would be one of Pete Frame's great family trees, as they cross-fertilized with the Byrds (Hillman, Parsons, Clarke), Dillard & Clark (Bernie Leadon, who went on to Londa Ronstadt and the Eagles, Byron Berline and Roger Bush, soon to form Country Gazette), and of course Rick Roberts, who wrote and sang 'Colorado', their best post-Parsons song, and went on to great success in the more vapid Firefall.

It was interesting too to see that Etheridge eventually toured with a reformed version of the FBB, the Refried Burritos, for the lackluster Flying Again in 1975, and over the years I've encountered a number of the John Boland/Gib Guibeau versions of the group, which have done better in mainstream country than the originals ever did in the rock charts, but they were never close to the same. I discovered Ethridge had rejoined a new FBB amalgam in 1991, including Poco's drummer/singer George Grantham, with Sneaky Pete as well as Boland and Guibeau. They even made an album called Eye Of The Hurricane, which I suppose I will have to now seek out and listen to. I do seem to prefer living in the past musically more and more these days.

Ethridge, unlike Parsons, was more of a real Southern boy, and he brought all sorts of musical influences to bear on the Burritos, mixing southern soul and Nashville with Parsons (then under the heavy influence of the Stones--it was the Burritos who were actually playing at Altamont when the original trouble broke out), Chris Hillman's bluegrass background, and Pete's country-western pedal steel. It was a heady mix, and they were heady times. RIP.

PS: If you do happen to be chasing down the Burritos for the first time, be careful: I have a disc called Hot Burrito, which is an anthology that contains all the band's key early work, but it has been remastered to put Parsons' voice up front. Occasionally this means Pete's steel licks become more solo, but in general it takes away the palpable drive of Ethridge's bass and Hillman's rhythm guitar.


EINSTEIN'S OFFICE

My friend and former colleague at UPITN, Steve Springer, passed on this photo, of Albert Einstein's office at Princeton, as it was on the day he died.

This led me to conceive of a theory of chaos and relative order, to wit E=mc squared

energy = (mess x constant clutter) squared

Hope that sorts out that...

SPORTING MOVIES ON RADIO 4


Interestingly, while I was making up the link to the Browser interview on baseball books, just below, I was listening to a debate on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, discussing sports movies to help promo the launch of Fast Girls, where the panel seemed to conclude that all sports movies are about triumphing over adversity (perhaps on the basis that Fast Girls appears to be a pretty bog standard example of the type). You might argue this is the basis of most movie scripts--but the reality is that the best sports movies are dominated by boxing and baseball, and I'd say the four best boxing movies (Raging Bull, The Set-Up, Fat City, and Rocky), many of the best baseball movies (including my co-favourite Eight Men Out) as well as the best American football movie (North Dallas 40) are all about various forms of failure--although Rocky is the best example of the situation where sporting failure is personal triumph.


They mentioned Chariots of Fire, which had come ninth in an LA Times poll of the best sporting movies ever, the top British performance. It probably is the best British sports movie, and it's very much about triumph over adversity, but the second-best British sporting film is This Sporting Life, and it is very much about failure. The top film on the LA Times list was Hoosiers, which does fit that triumph formula, although it's done very well. My other co-favourite baseball movie, Major League, is a perfectly crafted success-against-the-odds film, maybe the best ever, while the film version of Bang The Drum Slowly, like the novel which is among my five picks in The Browser interview, is a classic precisely because within that formula lies a more important kind of triumph, which proves literally short-lived.

BEST BASEBALL NOVELS: THE BROWSER INTERVIEW

Literally a follow-up to the Radio 4 Open Book essay in April (you can link to the posting about that here) I did on baseball novels, here's an interview on my favourite baseball novels I did with The Browser which has just gone online, you can link to it here. It goes into a bit more depth and, because it wasn't necessarily aimed at an audience unaware, if not resistent, to baseball per se, it allowed me to include a couple of books I like a lot, but which generally don't appear on such lists.

Just to shortcut the process, the five are The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor by Robert Coover, Bang The Drum Slowly by Mark Harris, The Natural by Bernard Malamud, The Veracruz Blues by Mark Winegardner, and Hoopla by Harry Stein.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

THE BRAIN GAME: TALKING HEAD INJURIES ON RADIO FIVE

I appeared on the Radio 5 documentary The Brain Game last night, and it's available (for a week, and within the UK only) on BBC IPlayer, you can link to it here. Mark Chapman hosted, with Yahoo Sports' Jason Cole and me as guests, and we discussed the sad fate of Mike Webster, which prompted the recognition of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and the ongoing concerns raised by our growing awareness of the injuries football players carry with them.

Producer Simon Clancy assembled some fantastic interviews, including one with Webster's son, who spoke of using a taser on his father so he could black out and relieve his pain, with Harry Carson, who contemplated suicide and now would not want his grandson to play football, and with Ricky Williams, who while denying the longtime problem described what he does to give his body time to recover. We didn't discuss the possible uses of medical marijuana. Simon also had the famous audio of Saints' coach Gregg Williams telling his players to attack Frank Gore's head. It allowed me to point out to Mark a moment when I spotted what I thought was a deliberate attempt to injure a player during the Super Bowl we broadcast on BBC television last February.

It's a subject we could easily have spent twice the time on, to venture into other sports, into the legal ramifications of the various lawsuits against the NFL, and to discuss the various other factors which might play into the conditions of former players. It was also fascinating for me to put my own experience, in the limited context of high school and division III football, into the discussion; but at one point, as I searched for a word, I started to wonder if the 20 or so years of playing lacrosse and taking faceoffs might have added to some toll as well.

Have a listen; it's a good show.

Monday, 4 June 2012

KATHRYN JOOSTEN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Kathryn Joosten, who played Jed Bartlet's secretary, Mrs Landringham, in The West Wing, and, more famously, but less within my sphere of attention, Mrs. McCluskey in Desperate Housewives, is up at the Guardian's web site. You can link to it here. The one question I couldn't answer was whether her death in The West Wing was a reaction to her first bout with cancer, but certainly her recovery and later career, and the way in which she recapitulated her illness in the show itself, was exemplary. I had wanted to make more of it, and in fact at the end of the first paragraph, after saying her death became the centrepiece of the final episode of Desperate Housewives, I wrote the following: 'In this case, art imitated life, as the character, like Joosten herself, died after a battle with lung cancer.' But for some reason, it was edited from the published piece. At any rate, the story of her career was indeed remarkable, and she and Lily Tomlin in their own show would have been a hoot.