Saturday, 25 August 2012

REDO THE REDUX: THE LOST WALTER MURCH INTERVIEW

Back in 2001, at the London Film Festival, I interviewed Walter Murch in connection with the UK release of Apocalypse Now Redux, and wrote the following article for the FT, who paid for it and spiked it. It bounced around between sections and pages, but by the time the discussions had finished the LFF was over and Rudux made much less impact on its release than expected, which meant my piece passed its newspaper sell-by date.  At one point I was going to expand it for the weekend magazine, which would have been a pleasure because, as it happened, I would bump into Murch around Primrose Hill a couple of times, and have some more brief but fascinating conversations. It was easy to think of him as a kind of monk, keeping an art alive, except that his art is part of something that very much is alive; it's as if his is a sensibility which seems more and more out of step with his business. It's not hard to see echoes of his father, who was a painter, in that approach--like a painter he's amazingly deft at the technology of his art. I pitched something along those lines, but without a new hook, that idea eventually died as well. Oddly enough, more than a decade later, I think the interview holds up on its own, and Murch's career remains as crucial as ever. Somewhere, there's a piece I did on the Touch Of Evil restoration, which was published, and when I find that I'll try to post it here as well. And there's a bigger profile waiting to be written. In the meantime, read on...


Apocalypse Now begins with sound. The whirring chop-chop-chop of helicopter rotor-blades fades into the music of The Doors’ “The End”, then rises again as the blades dissolve into the ceiling fan, under which Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard lies grappling with inner demons. It is one of cinema’s most powerful openings, but, in a supposedly visual medium, its power arises from sound.
 
Walter Murch won an Oscar as ‘sound designer’ of Apocalypse Now (and was nominated for a second statuette as co-film editor). When director Francis Ford Coppola wanted quadraphonic sound, it was Murch who came up with the now-standard 5.1 format, using five speakers, with an additional one for sub-sonic noises. “We needed explosions to hit you in the gut as well as the ears,” he says. So when Coppola decided after two decades that the movie now seemed ‘tame’ and wanted to return to his vision and the original screenplay, he turned again to Murch. The result was Apocalypse Now Redux, and at its London Film Festival premiere the man who redid the Redux explained that revisiting the two million feet of negative film, stored in limestone caves for 20 years, was daunting.

“I came on to the original film after they’d finished shooting, and they’d shot roughly a 100:1 ratio between film exposed to film used. Even though I avoided the disasters of the shoot, which are well-known, the edit carried its own chaos.” 

The second time around, working from the original lined script, the result is a much different film, less episodic and more flowing. The restored scenes offer both gains and losses. For example, in the new version, just after Robert Duvall’s famous paean to napalm‘s odor, Willard and his boat crew steal Colonel Kilgore’s surfboard. Willard becomes more human, but Kilgore (Duvall) becomes a less daunting psychopath, more of a buffoon. “Kilgore tipped the balance of the film toward him, away from Kurtz,” says Murch. “The new scenes balance things in a structural sense.” The balance is achieved by the new scenes of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz, in daylight, breaking Willard down and re-educating him. These pull the final, mythic section of the film back unequivocally to Vietnam. 

Also new is Willard’s encounter with a French colonial rubber plantation, whose inhabitants project a ruined colonial grandeur in the face of chaos. A dinner-table debate provides an Oliver Stone-like historical sub-text, newly relevant in light of the Afghan war. “The film’s US run ended before the added burden of present history,” Murch says, “but there is a certain parallel between the Taliban and the Viet Minh, both being the results of America’s misguided efforts.” The scene ends with a beautiful dissolve from a woman behind mosquito netting to fog on the river which suggests it’s all a dream. “That was part of the intention. It becomes like Bunuel, a literally endless dinner conversation. You come out of the dream and arrive at Kurtz’s nightmare.”

The multi-tasking which marks Murch’s career arose from the relative freedom of Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, away from Hollywood’s restrictions. You can understand Coppola’s trust, because Murch projects a calm, the confidence of the master craftsman. But his book about film editing, In The Blink Of An Eye, reveals a fiercely intellectual approach, and his work reveals the sensitivity of an improvising artist. Author Michael Ondaatje watched Murch work on the film of his novel The English Patient, and concluded editing was “the stage of film closest to the art of writing”. Not surprisingly in that context, Murch saw Ondaatje’s novel as first of all a technical challenge.

“It’s extremely complex, with more time transitions than any film made until then,” he explains. “Sound can make those transitions, like when the sound of a whistle Hanna (Juliette Binoche) is throwing while playing hopscotch blends into Arab music in Almasy’s (Ralph Fiennes’) head, and makes the jump in space and time. But the story also attracted me from the human point of view; how you take someone who is objectively evil, and allow the audience to sympathise with him.” 

The English Patient won Murch an unprecedented double Oscar for editing and sound mixing. He’d completed the same double two decades earlier at the Baftas, on another Coppola picture The Conversation (1975). It’s a measure of the unique relationship between Coppola and Murch that the director left the footage, and the editing, of that film in Murch’s hands while he left to shoot Godfather II, which he’d agreed to direct in order to finance The Conversation.

“Except Francis still had two weeks of shooting to go when he stopped shooting,” Murch recalls. “They’d run out of time, money, and producers, so about 20 minutes of the script was literally missing, hadn‘t been filmed. I had to make it work, which we did needing only one extra shot, a hand pulling a tape off a reel.”

The Conversation appealed to Murch because it concerns a detective whose specialty is bugging people; he‘s basically a sound engineer. “I came to film from sound,” Murch says. “I developed a fascination with tape recorders in my youth, in the 50s, which was why I was also drawn to the restoration of Touch Of Evil, because the life of Orson Welles’ character dissolves, literally, because of a tape recorder. He’s being taped by Charlton Heston, and the echoes of the speaker give Heston away, then Welles’ reaction leads to his death.”

Universal Studios had re-edited and reshot the film after Welles turned in his first cut. Working from a 58 page memo Welles had sent the studio executives to express his dissatisfaction with their cut, and with what extra footage remained, Murch was able to reconstruct a version far closer to Welles’ intentions for the picture.

“The memo was astute on both the creative and political levels,” Murch recalls. “Welles was under no illusions as to who owned the film, but his approach was ‘I can help you make it better’. It’s interesting, because on-screen Welles always played moguls, yet he spent his career battling them.” 

Touch Of Evil brought Murch full circle, because in that film, Welles, who came out of radio, had used the naturally-occurring source music of the Mexican border town to provide atmosphere. Murch and George Lucas borrowed the idea to score American Graffiti. The result was the birth of the soundtrack hits album. “It was innovative artistically, and commercially,” Murch recalls. “Naturally the studio, Universal again, was completely resistant to the idea.”

Murch also co-wrote THX 1138 with Lucas, and has written two other films, one of which, Return To Oz, he directed. Does he want to direct more? “No, I’m happy doing what I do.” he says. Given all he does, and how well he does it, you believe him.

Monday, 20 August 2012

JOE KUBERT: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obituary of Joe Kubert, the great comic book artist, is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. Kubert would be remarkable simply for the length of his working career, from the age of 13 or so to just before his death at 85. It saw him work for the best studios, of Harry Chesler and Will Eisner, for DC during the both the Golden and Silver Ages, pioneer 3-D, work on the classic EC war comics, and, late in his career, excel with the added freedom the mini-series and graphic novel formats provided.

In that history he resembled Eisner, a comparison I probably could have made in the obit. Both men did late graphic novels centered on their experience growing up as first-generation Jewish Americans, both delved into their Jewish roots, and both were able to wring great emotion from their art while doing it. The one parallel I felt compelled to make was between Kubert and those Korean War films I mentioned: there is more than a little of Mann and Fuller and their sensibilities in his war work.

That I didn't spin off into comparisons was mostly because Kubert's career was so full I found it impossible to keep to my word limit. Similarly, I would have loved to write a few lines on the differences between Kubert's and other Tarzans (not just Foster, but Roy Krenkel springs to mind as an interesting comparison), as well as his work on Tor and Korak, and it might be fun to examine his influence on other artists, and the confluence at DC of him, Neal Adams, and Gil Kane.

At the peak of the Marvel renaissance, it was easy to see Kane's work as being wasted in what we thought of as the standard DC comics fare. Adams, working with Denny O'Neil, famously changed the perceptions of DC, but Kubert received far too little credit at the time (though he has received it since) for the quality of his work--and Bob Kanigher probably deserves more too for bringing more adult themes into DC. Enemy Ace was one, and Ragman, memorably another.

But as I say, I was pressed for space.  I probably should have mentioned Dong Xaoi (2010) his Vietnam graphic novel, which might serve as a bookend to his memorable career. And memorable it was, and it was a privilege for me to remember it in print. Make War No More indeed.

Friday, 17 August 2012

CHRIS BROWN'S SMART FOOTBALL

Chris Brown's Smart Football columns are essential reading for analysis of modern football's Xs and Os, and The Essential Smart Football is more of the same. I enjoyed this collection in book form, indeed have re-read some it already, but I also found the whole of this volume less effective than the sum of its internet parts.

This is for two reasons, one of them unavoidable and the other not. The first, and unavoidable one, is that when Brown posts on the internet, there are usually, in addition to diagramming, video clips which he uses to illustrate the concepts, schemes, or plays he is explaining. He links to brilliant video of coaching sessions, where things are explained in the kind of context I've only got when I had really good access with a couple of coaches in NFL Europe. It's that depth of reference detail that makes his work so informative and enjoyable. In the book format, much of that is lost, which, as I say is unavoidable. It does not diminish the impact of anything Brown has written here, it just means there's more explanation left unsaid.

The second reason is that this is very much a collection of individual pieces, yet there is a themed book screaming to be let out by some perceptive editor. The theme is the continual evolving nature of offensive and defensive football, and how the changes in college offense are impacting the NFL in ways that not long ago were thought impossible. Spread offenses couldn't work in the NFL, so the argument went, because the players were that much bigger, faster, and better, they were better-prepared by professional coaches. Schemes that existed to bridge the perpetual talent gap in college (and at lower levels), to allow less-gifted athletic teams to compete with the more physically talented, just wouldn't work at the next level.

Well, as we have seen, that concept is being proven wrong. Brown details many of the ways in which it is, and strips down many of the college concepts which already are becoming keys to the NFL game too. I love the way Brown jumps from Urban Meyer's spread offense to the 3-3-5 defense to Mike Leach (via his book Swing Your Sword). But there are further sections on Frank Beamer or Nick Saban, for example, that would continue that back and forth argument, as well as a few on offense as well. Brown is brilliant on the largely unacknowledged influence of Steve Spurrier, and tracks the history of Dick LeBeau's zone blitz and the Alex Gibbs school of run-blocking in an almost off-hand way (the former in a fine dissection of the Packers-Steelers Super Bowl?. He's very good at getting from the specific (or practical) to the theoretical, as in his pre-Super Bowl piece on Victor Cruz and the Giants' relation to the spread offense.

But all this wonderful analysis would have had more impact had it been analysed to a point, and I can almost see why not. Because there are three pieces here about the Patriots: one on how Rex Ryan created the new Pats' offense, which makes perfect sense from the moment you read the title, one on Brady and the no-huddle, and one on the one-gap and two-gap defense, which pointed out something I had not noticed about the New England defense last season: not only were they shifting looks, they were often playing half the field in a one-gap, 4-man front, and the other in a two-gap 3-front. I went back and looked and Brown, of course, was right.

New England has been a crucible of experimentation in the Belichick era; he famously has sought ought Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and others in a conscious effort to translate their concepts into the NFL game. His O line operates closer to Alex Gibbs style than many would notice, and his defenses owe much to the zone-blitz. I wonder if, had Brown organised this book along the themes I've suggested, if it wouldn't wind up funnelling down in the end to an analysis of the Pats as the team that most brings this evolution of the NFL game to the forefront? I don't suggest for a moment that it did, and if it did, it might well limit the book's appeal—but I do think that judicious editing, with the elements re-ordered and connected by Brown's macro-analysis, would have made this a classic, instead of just essential reading.

The Essential Smart Football by Chris B Brown
self-published, ISBN 9781470125592 $5.99 (available via Amazon) 

THE FALCON TAKES OVER, REVISITED

Thanks to the magic of BBC IPlayer, I had managed to catch up with a few of the old Saint movies just before and during the Olympics—a little light relief, as it were. I recommended them on twitter (@carlsonsports, if you're interested) and one follower asked if I could recommend the Falcon films as well. I suggested he try The Falcon's Brother, in which George Sanders' brother Tom Conway replaces him as the lead character, and The Falcon Takes Over, which famously is based on Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. Then I realised I probably hadn't watched the latter in twenty or more years, and I gave it another viewing. It was made in 1942, and it holds up well for a series B-picture.

Transforming a complicated Chandler story into a light-hearted romp could not have been easy, but it is amazing just how much of Chandler's plot remains. The most interesting thing is Ward Bond's (uncredited) performance as Moose Malloy (the Chandler characters retain their names) – not as sympathetic as Mike Mazurki and obviously pumped up by a padded suit, Bond plays it almost like a horror movie villain, a better-looking Rondo Hatton. And it's revealing yet again to be reminded of just how cold and evil Bond could be when a part required it. Helen Gilbert makes a compelling Velma, too: she's attractive in a vampy way (helped by a Veronica Lake hairdo) rather than beautiful, and you can see her allure to Moose as well as to other gangsters. It is something of a giveaway as far as the plot goes, but Gilbert makes the best of it. And she is tiny; Sanders towers over her, and by rights they should have been able to get one shot of her and Moose standing to establish the beauty and the beast nature of their relationship.

Gilbert is an interesting story. Originally a cellist, her entry into films seems to have been via the MGM orchestra and a short-lived marriage (as most of her seven marriages were) from 1936-39 to the much older Mischa Bakaleinikoff, a musical director at Columbia, whose brother Constantin was a musical director at RKO, and indeed is credited as such on The Falcon Takes Over, though the score was actually done, uncredited, by Roy Webb. Her most interesting marriage was to Johnny Stompanato, the Mickey Cohen strongman more famous for being murdered by Lana Turner's daughter, or so the story goes. If you want a good comparison in actual Chandler movies it would be to Martha Vickers, from The Big Sleep—she projects the same sense of raw and dangerous sexuality. Like Vickers she never escaped to bigger roles, and like Vickers her career was over by the 1950s, even though in Vickers' case her performance in The Burglar should have reinvigorated it.

It's also a pleasure to see (unbilled, of course) two favourites in small but crucial parts: Turhan Bay as Ampthor and Hans Conreid as Marriott, where I'd argue he's at least as good, if not better, than Douglas Walton or John O'Leary, from the two straight-forward adaptations. What is interesting is the way that, in this film, you can see much more clearly the way the stories which Chandler grafted together to make his novel don't actually mesh perfectly—particularly the 'Mandarin's Jade' section.

Of course the big problem is the need to make this a Falcon movie. It's no surprise Leslie Charteris sued Michael Arlen for stealing his Saint—the films are almost indistinguishable from the Saint, particularly the Sanders ones, except that the humour is a bit broader (Alan Jenkins in the comic sidekick role and James Gleason as O'Hara, the cop are both great, but the play between O'Hara and his bozo underlings tires quickly). Seriously, how can you hate a picture where Gleason growls at Jenkins 'Awright Goldy, for the last time, why'd you knock off those swamis?' Sanders seems already bored with the role, and his fatal power over women—one kiss makes them faint, literally—belies his character's name, which is Gay Lawrence. There is something unconvincing about the charm of Arlen's Gay Falcon, and Sanders appears to enjoy making him a bit of a helpless buffoon in the face of femininity. That's why Lynn Bari, as Anne Riordan, whose role grows from the original novel, and is far bigger than in the movies which followed, is so refreshing. There's an element of His Girl Friday, which was released the previous year, about her wisecracking character, and the way she treats the Falcon as an equal, more or less. It's something Chandler wouldn't have done, and something which made the Bogart/Bacall combo work so well in The Big Sleep, so much so that Howard Hawks went back and made Vickers' role smaller and played up that chemistry of equals. It's only on a small scale, but this RKO programmer is the better for it.

I'm recovered from the Olympics, but the Falcon made a diverting evening anyway—I should take my own advice more often.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

ARIEL WINTER'S TWENTY-YEAR DEATH: THE SPECTATOR REVIEW

My review of Ariel Winter's impressive troika of a first novel appeared in August 4 edition of The Spectator. You can link to it at the Speccie's website here. What follows is the review as it appeared, except I have corrected one mistake, a 'who's' for 'whose', which was mine--I am inclined to blame predictive text, as I really do know the difference.

Three Shades of Noir

In the days of cheap paperbacks, publishers sometimes printed two pulp novels in one volume, back to back. Ariel Winter has done them one better, because The Twenty Year Death consists of three novels, dealing with murders committed over the course of two decades, each told in the style of a great crime writer.

The first is set in 1931 France, hommage to Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret. A corpse found floating in the flooded drains of Verargent turns out to come from the local prison, from which there is no escape. Inspector Pelleter has just visited the prison, to interview a serial killer he captured, and is drawn into the investigation. Among the anomalies he discovers is the murdered man's daughter, the beautiful Clothilde-ma-Fleur, still a teenager but living near the prison and married to a successful American writer named Shem Rosenkrantz.

Maigret novels are drenched in atmosphere; their physical setting reflects the psychological background to the crimes, and Winter gets this perfectly. Pelleter cuts through, almost forensically, the many-layered barricades thrown up to outsiders by a provincial French town, even as more murdered prisoners are discovered. And his interviews with the serial torturer of children in the prison put the puzzle of the his investigation into a very modern context, giving Pelleter a perspective even Maigret might envy.

Ten years later, The Falling Star is set in Hollywood, where detective Dennis Foster is hired by an old friend working security at a film studio. Their French leading lady, Chloe Rose, is convinced she is being stalked. Chloe, of course, is Clothilde, moved with Shem to America and become a star, but she seems to be cracking under the weight of her success and Shem's relative lack of it. Shem is having an affair with a would-be actress, and when she is found horribly murdered, Foster begins to think he might have been set up to take the fall.

The hommage this time is to Raymond Chandler, but Winter wisely avoids imitating the master's style; it's been done too many times, and done well too few. But he catches perfectly the essence of Chandler's underlying tone of despair and disgust at the corruption Philip Marlowe finds under the shiny surface of Los Angeles, where even the most savage crimes can be buried if you've bought the right connections. Foster resembles Chandler's earlier detectives, Carmody or Dalmas, the slightly more pulpy prototypes for Marlowe, and like them he does as much of the right thing as he can. The killings are stopped, reputations are preserved, and Chloe Rose winds up protected in a sanitarium. 

Which builds to the climax, set in 1951 and written in the style of Jim Thompson, the master of nihilistic pulpy noir. Rosenkrantz, by now a drunk and a has-been, who'd be played by Sterling Hayden in the film version, returns home for the funeral of his first wife, hoping to receive something from her inheritance that will help him pay for Clothilde's continued institutionalisation. His trip has been financed by his girlfriend Vee, travelling with the gangster whose mistress she is on the side, and Shem faces the prospect of a reunion with his estranged son, born after he left his wife not knowing she was pregnant.

As you'd expect from Thompson, Shem's hopes soon crumble, even as he begins working with a local journalist on a play, The Furies, which might win his reputation back. He commits an accidental murder, gets conned by Vee, and even the master stroke he conceives to solve all his mounting problems goes wrong. It's told in the delusional sort of first-person inebriated that Thompson loved, and as he knew, there is only one way these things can end.

That is the point, and it's easy to lose it behind the audacity of Winter's stylistic experimentation. These three books are indeed one novel, and the The Twenty-Year Death is not a specific murder, but the slow death of an artist, killed by love, by his inability to overcome his own insecurities and live up to its promise. By borrowing the voices of these three masters, Winter has also latched onto a basic truth they all shared, the power of The Furies which defines noir: love is deadly.

Ariel S.Winter, Titan/ Hard Case Crime, pp.672, £18.99, ISBN: 978085768581

Friday, 10 August 2012

MY MOMENT OF OLYMPIC FAME

They say that any publicity is good publicity, but whoever made the observation made it long before the age of the internet. My Andy Warhol-predicted 15 minutes came after the men's basketball quarterfinal match between Argentina and Brazil. After the game ended, with Argentina winning to advance to the semifinals, I was closing out our BBC television broadcast with my colour commentator John Amaechi. I was turned to my left to face him, with one eye on the monitor to make sure I could get to the goodbyes over the proper shot.

Meanwhile, down on the court, the Argentines were still celebrating, and one of them (Pablo Prigioni, I'm told) kicked a basketball into the stands, or more precisely, straight into my head, directly into my right headphone. The effect was rather like getting your bell rung by a head slap in American football, when you're wearing a helmet, and after a disconcerting moment I turned to my right, and saw some commentators in the row in front of me playing with the ball, which had rebounded off my skull. I jumped to the conclusion they'd hit me by accident, and launched into an ad lib tirade as a way of explaining why my question to John had been interrupted by my 'Owwww!'

John corrected me, we finished on time, and I laughed it off. About ten minutes later, my phone rang. It was BBC Interactive. Would I mind if they posted the clip on the website? I asked what it was I'd actually said, and they assured me it was nothing too awful, just embarrassing, so of course I said go ahead.

The video went viral, immediately becoming the most watched item on the website, and I even got messages asking if I was OK. Of course I was, we Carlsons being strong of square head. But it was odd, that after twenty years or more of broadcasting, I would finally attract attention on a wider stage for nothing more than turning my head at the wrong time and getting my noggin knocked as a result!

Sadly, the clip is audio over the closing shots from the arena. If anyone had captured it on video I'd probably be a global superstar today! Here's the link to the BBC website; if you're outside the UK and can't fool their ISP detector, you can probably google 'angry commentator gets hit by basketball' and find something.

And I'm still waiting for a signed basketball from the Argentina team by way of apology.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

GORE VIDAL: AN APPRECIATION


It has been fascinating watching reactions to Gore Vidal's death, because his is a career that will resist short and immediate summary. There are those, like my friend Michael Goldfarb, who lamented the way, in his words, Vidal 'went up his own arse' late in his career, and many others noted that he had not really fulfilled the promise of his talent, and similarly blamed it on a louche sort of self-indulgence. There were those who had always disliked his politics, particularly as they smacked of a kind of class-treason, and because Vidal was so capable of expressing his views with dismissive venom for those who disagreed.

I can sympathise with those who feel Vidal at some point stopped being a man of letters and started playing one on TV, but it's going too far to call him a dilettante. Man of letters is an apt description, and the problem is more that our society no longer has a place for men (or women) of letters, in the old sense, and instead has given their public platform to cable TV shouters and standup comedians, while reserving their intellectual platform for academics and privileged journalists.

Vidal came of age as a man of letters in a time when novelists were still figures of public profile, but also at a time when television was beginning to erode their standing. We can see in the clips of his famous TV encounter with Norman Mailer (and even those with William Buckley, though Buckley was far more the 'privileged journalist' than man of letters) the seeds of Vidal's self-reduction: he's put down by Dick Cavett, who's far more instinctive and comfortable with the situation. Vidal learned, but very quickly he (and Mailer, the more relentless self-promoter) were relegated to the fringes. Vidal and John Kennedy, related by multiple marriages, are a good match in the analysis of such considerations: Kennedy transformed our politics and got us Reagan (and Obama, in that sense) and pushed many of the figures of old-style machine politics out the back-doors of their smoky back rooms.

Like Truman Capote, Gore courted celebrity, but he was a far more prolific and active writer. As an aside, it's fascinating that Capote's best book, like Mailer's, is in the 'non-fiction novel' category; what they were doing was writing contemporary historical novels, where Vidal's best books were traditional historical novels, and he confined his contemporary work to straightforward non-fiction and broad, and less successful, satires.

The traditional historical novels were his best books, Julian, and four of his American (or Narratives Of Empire) septet (including his the earlier political novel Washington DC) Burr, 1876, Lincoln, and Empire. I'd suggest Burr is the best of the six, because, as with Julian, Vidal works with a central character who is strong enough to overcome his own voice and push his own persona to the background, while still containing it. Lincoln may be the most interesting, because despite his evident desire to deflate the Lincoln myth he still can't help but be impressed with the man himself. These books made such a mark in good part because their re-interpretation of history was both factual and understated—with considerable sympathy for history's failed heroes, and with a perspective that still isn't being taught in American schools. His later efforts, like Live From Golgotha, or Hollywood in the Empire series, tried too hard to be shocking, too much in thrall to their own revealing of emperors and their new clothes, though Creation, which I enjoyed greatly, despite its treading much of the same ground as Julian with early Christianity, was entertaining in its audacious ultimate conspiracy theory, a sort of shaggy-dog finish worthy of Vonnegut.

Vidal's reputation was originally based on the scandal of his 'coming-out' novel, The City And The Pillar, though his first, Williwaw, a World War II novel is more interesting precisely because its so different in style, somewhat Hemingway-esque, from virtually all that followed. After that book, he preferred, it seemed, to approach sexuality as a side issue, as it were, or to have great fun with it, as in Myra Breckinridge. He also wrote mysteries, as Edgar Box, and I have to confess that I've never read any of them. My standards in crime fiction are rather different from the kind of thing I assumed Vidal might write, though I should probably give him the chance to prove me wrong.

There is a good study to be done of his early television work (though sadly most of those live dramas shown in the 1950s have not been preserved), his film work and his theatre. The Best Man is a considerable political drama, and has been revived, though it, like Washington DC, wasbettered by others in the era. Vidal was in some ways too much an insider to craft more straight-forwardly exciting books about contemporary politics. His original screenplay for The Left-Handed Gun was remade as a TV movie called Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, with Val Kilmer in the Paul Newman role, and the focus switched away from Freudian parental issues and more to Reconstruction-era politics. And of course that steamy scene with Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in Ben Hur was famously Vidal's, and even more famously, beyond Charlton Heston's comprehension. What Heston would have made of Caligula is beyond comprehension!


Vidal was astute as a social critic, but perhaps weakened by his natural aristocratic hauteur. He made much of his run for Congress in 1960, where he ran ahead of Kennedy's Presidential vote, but he knew he was never going to actually win the election in staunchly conservative Duchess County, NY--I think he secretly longed to be the sort of imperial president he saw Franklin Roosevelt as having been, and indeed, Eleanor Roosevelt was a major backer of his campaign. It was probably a more serious effort than Mailer's famous run for mayor of New York. Vidal understood the power of what might be called 'meta-politics', the entrenched interests for whom government becomes merely a tool, and he understood it both from personal experience and also from study of it historically—control of resources and trade was just as important for the Romans as it is today. Even in death he was roasted for his willingness to consider, and promote, 'conspiracy theories', which he sometimes seemed to be doing simply to get his audience to consider the possibilities. Evidently, he had been doing this since his school days: Vidal is supposedly the basis for the character Brinker Hadley in the novel A Separate Peace, written by his Exeter classmate John Knowles. One of my favourite Vidal pieces was an essay in the New York Review of Books some 40 years ago, in which he 'proved' to my satisfaction that the Watergate burglar and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt had in fact written the diaries of Arthur Bremer, whose wounding of George Wallace put Wallace out of the 1972 Presidential race, where he might well have siphoned considerable votes away from Hunt's employer Richard Nixon.

He proved it with literary analysis, something he did very well, and something which especially in recent years I found very interesting. Another of his most impressive essays was a long re-evaluation, again in the NYRB, of William Dean Howells. And it occurred to me when reading it, and more recently when trying to get back into Howells, that Vidal's championing of his talents lay as much in self-awareness as in retrospective championing. Howells, of course, was known in his time as The Dean Of American Letters, and as both editor and writer was a campaigning journalist and astute literary critic. He also championed the fiction of realism—as any students who have read The Rise Of Silas Latham, which is really the only one of his novels still in currency, will know. Howells wrote humour and farces, indeed some satire, and it was hard for me when reading the essay not to think that perhaps Vidal saw himself in Howells, and saw his fate to be remembered for one, or maybe a few, novels of historical realism. It also occurred to me how much different his career would have been in the 19th century, where his status among society would have precluded his need to chase celebrity. I wonder whether, a century from now (assuming people are still reading), Burr or Lincoln will be read, whether they will be texts set in history classes, exist to be read solely in American Studies classes as artefacts, or whether it will be only Vidal's bitchy TV videos that will be available to a new generation. Yesterday I watched Vidal narrate a documentary on the growth of the National Security State, and realised how different Washington had become for him since his youth. It made me realise how much I had enjoyed his work, and how much I had learned from it. All the self-indulging egotism in the world can't take that away.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

PUTIN AMERICA IN ITS PLACE: The British Press and the 2002 Winter Olympics

 While preparing for London 2012, I discovered in one of my Olympic files this piece, which I wrote during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Not surprisingly, I failed to sell it to any of the British papers, who find both winter sport and self-criticism of minority interest. Ten years later, it would have been interesting to revisit Mitt Romney's success in rescuing the games from the Olympic bribery scandal--the latter of which I did write about elsewhere. Salt Lake is now a dim memory, as is curling in the minds of Britons, and some of the discussion of skating judges may still be esoteric, but here it is, basically as written ten years ago....

PUTIN AMERICA IN ITS PLACE
Winter Games Highlight A Double Standard In The British Press

What better place than Salt Lake City 2002 to un-thaw the Cold War? Incredibly, as US-Russian relations went downhill faster than Alberto Tomba, the British press rushed to back Vladimir Putin’s call for a boycott of the Winter Olympics.  Biased judging was victimising the Russians.  Biased drug testing was penalising the Russians.  Partisan crowds (“those whining snivelling Americans,” as the Independent described them) were intimidating everyone from the President of the IOC to the Russian ice-hockey players who lost to the Czechs (though why the Americans wanted to stage manage a win by the defending champion Czechs was never really explained.) To anyone familiar with Olympic history, the most interesting event has often been hypocrisy, and backing Putin’s putsch was merely the culmination of another gold medal performance by Britain.

Who in Britain cared?  After all, the Winter Games are made up of odd sports with odder nomenclature, not invented or played exclusively by Commonwealth nations. But of course a little America-bashing, admittedly all too easy in these days of Bush junior, is just the thing for feature writers who know little and care less about sport anyway, yet still get sent to cover the world's biggest sporting stage. It made perfect fodder for filling a column or two in the back pages, while ignoring the actual competition.

But then Britain struck GOLD! In curling! Cue Curl-mania!  To anyone with a memory, it was a carbon-copy of Hockey-Madness! thrown up by Britain’s 1988 Go For Gold medal in Seoul. At least most people in Britain actually knew what field hockey was. The BBC began showing every curling match available, and taking it very seriously indeed, as if trying desperately to legitimise the sport, now that Britons were world-beaters.  We suffered through seven years of hockey coverage after Seoul; how long before curling supplants snooker on BBC2?

Had not Putin come along, curling might have distracted Britain from whingeing about biased judging, and blaming it on American spectators, which is like blaming the Birmingham Six's conviction on the courtroom gallery.  The attacks on the US for unacceptable chauvinsim began when the Salt Lake crowd booed ferociously after a Canadian skating pair were denied gold, in favour of the Russians. This was portrayed as unacceptable chauvinism, even though Canada was, at last glance, still a separate country, actually competing against the US.  The crowd, of course, might well have contained a large number of Canadians, but in any event, what they were jeering was judging they immediately recognised as biased and politicised. And they turned out to be right. The Canadians had been cheated by a French judge who felt so guilty over what she had done she actually confessed.  In fact, she had been merely following the orders of her federation, who had cut a mutual cheating deal with, guess who? the Russians, who promised to perform a similar cheat in their favour in another event.  No wonder Putin wanted to shift the blame.

The Russians got caught, but their skaters weren’t penalised, beyond having to share the gold with the Canadians. But in the best traditions of political tit for tat, when Russia's Irina Slutskaya finished second in the women’s skating, the Russians tried a similar appeal.  The only problem with claiming biased judged against Slutskaya was that her silver medal was the direct result of the American judge placing her second in the long programme, behind gold medallist Sarah Hughes, but ahead of the American favourite, Michelle Kwan.  Had the American not dropped the Candian Hughes to second, and the American to third, Slutskaya would have finished third. Meanwhile, the Russian judge had, amazingly enough, placed Slutskaya first. And dropped Hughes all the way to fourth. It made for an embarrassing protest. And no sooner had that controversy died down, than Russian cross country skiers were banned from the Games for blood-doping, with the Americans again being accused of bias, even though the IOC runs drug testing.

“It’s changed because of prize money,” says Jayne Torvill.  But the real question was whether it had changed at all, because money has actually been a factor in figure skating going back to the days of Sonja Henje, and more to the point, judging abuse has a long Olympic tradtion, based on factors of nationalism and mutual benefit. In fact, the ISU instituted the current scoring system specifically to try to eliminate jury-rigging.  Instead, the placements system, which eliminated the averaging of scores, actually made it easier for judges to help their own, and hurt anyone else’s, competitors

So we came full circle.  When an American crowd boos because Canadians have been cheated, it’s because Americans are boorish homers.  But when, for example, at Edmonton’s World Athletics Championships, Russia’s Yegerova WASN’T banned for doping, the British press welcomes the Canadian crowd’s jeering her. In fact, British athletes on the track led the booing. Did I mention gold medal double-standards?

We heard similar yelps about American crowds in Los Angeles and Atlanta.  But the Yanks are wimps compared with the abuse Polish competitors faced in Moscow in 1980, or Japanese received in Seoul in 1988. The fact of geography guarantees Olympic crowds in the US are overwhelmingly American, while a European Olympics is more accessible to more countries. Unlike Britain, America produces contenders in many of the esoteric winter sports, and  surprisingly enough, American crowds do prefer to see American winners. Although when they see those winners, unlike British supporters, they don’t invade the playing surface (the scenes after the women’s curling were another replay of the 1988 hockey final, when the pitch invasion was led by Colin Monyihan, then minister for sport).  Lack of nationalism must explain why the British press was filled with stories about the achievements of Ole Einar Bjorndalen, Janica Kostelic, or Simon Ammann, and a curling gold medal was kept in reasonable perspective. That was meant ironically, by the way, even though, as an American (born) I am supposed by the Brits to be incapable of such a thing. The British find American  partisanship far more reprehensible than, say, the idea of football supporters routinely killing people while following “the beautiful game”.  Presumably this is because Americans are not as culturally advanced as Europeans.

The IOC is predominately Euro-centric. The winter sports federations, each of which supervises the judging at its own events, are overwhelmingly controlled by Europeans.   They are happy to reap the financial benefits that American television brings them, and the record attendances delivered by a venue like Salt Lake City.  But when the routine corruption or incompetence which passes unnoticed in their cozy wintry wonderland is suddenly exposed on television screens around world what can they do?  Blame the messenger.  Blame the Americans.  And the British press jumps on the European bandwagon so fast you’d think it was the Ryder Cup.

Controversy in Olympic judging is as old as the games themselves.  British officials didn’t do a bad job of trying to eliminate American medal winners in London in 1908.  What goes around eventually comes around.  Was Kim Dong-Sung unfairly deprived of his gold medal when he was disqualified in his short-track race?  I happen to think so, but the referee (not ‘the judges’ as the British press insisted) who made the decision happened to be Australian, the same Aussie who had refused to take a gold medal away from his countryman after another Korean caused a total shambles in the 1000m race.  Trying to make up for one bad decision, he made another. The Korean Olympic Committee threatening lawsuits are the same people who organised the 1988 Olympics, which featured some of the most biased judging in Olympic history, in favour of Koreans in boxing, karate, and judo?  Or have we forgotten Roy Jones already?

One solution might be to hold the games only in small winter-friendly countries, where partisanship on the cross-country ski course or the ski jump goes unnoticed by the outside world,  and where the host nation has no contenders in figure skating or ice hockey.  Another is to reduce, rather than increase, the number of sports which let judges choose winners. But figure skating is what pulls in the audience which otherwise doesn’t know and doesn’t care about winter sports, so neither solution is likely to happen. I suppose that too is America’s fault.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

AN IRRESISTIBLE TARGET APOLOGY

The posts have grown few on the ground lately, but there is a very good reason for this: I am doing play by play commentary on Olympic basketball for the BBC, with the British former NBA player John Amaechi, and we are doing three games each day. Between the preparation, the actual time broadcasting, the fighting through the huge crowds channeled through a gigantic mall before they can get into the Olympic Park, and the trying to care for my grated larynx, there hasn't been time to actually clear my head and write.

If you'd like to hear the commentary, the BBC has shown quite a bit of it on BBC2 and BBC3, but every game is available online and usually via red button. Most of the games we do are also taken by the host broadcast feed, and thus are available to countries without their own commentators at the game. We are also being used by Channel 9 Australia for quite a few games live in Australia. And if none of that works, there are always ways in this wonderful age of the interweb.

I have discovered an unpublished article I wrote with some bitchiness about the reaction to winter olympic coverage ten years ago, and I may be able to publish that, and speaking of bitchiness, I would like to do an appreciation of Gore Vidal, when I have time to do him justice.