Saturday, 27 July 2013


I just watched the first, two-hour half of Robert B Weide's magnificent Woody Allen: A Documentary, shown as an episode of BBC's Imagine strand and graced with a mind-numbingly cliched introduction by Alan Yentob, who presumably commissioned himself for the job.

It's a wonderful film, that makes many of its points through judicious intercutting of interviews, not least with Woody himself, and footage of his films, and more importantly of him performing. In fact, one of the most revelatory moments is when his managers, and Fred Weintraub, owner of the Bitter End, talk about Woody making his breakthrough as a stand up, and you then watch him and he is literally a different performer, far more frenetic and energised in his motions while he performs.

This makes perfect sense, because we have seen how driven he was, from the first, when he was selling jokes to newspaper columnists while he was still in high school. He was writing fifty jokes a day. It's not just as a kid either, for example while he worked on his movies, he was also writing short comic pieces for the New Yorker--Allen the performer needed to transfer that energy into his act, and when it does, it works. There's also a brilliant bit from Dick Cavett, talking about Woody's ability to improvise: he's guesting on Cavett's show with Ruth Gordon and Gina Lollabrigida, and he suddenly starts laughing, telling Cavett he's trying to figure out how they will split up the women.

There is just so much of interest: Woody cracking up every take while 'Keaton' (never Diane) reads his mother's lines in Sleeper; Tony Roberts on their playing together on Broadway and Keaton on how she went after Woody, and most importantly Woody's own takes on his own movies.

His mainstream breakthrough seemed to come with Annie Hall and Manhattan, two love stories shot by Gordon Willis in very different styles. They're important because they were the films in which Woody started to tell human stories with himself in the middle; he got away from the Bergmanesque Interiors, and managed to start drawing his comic New York Jewish world and the serious waspy world together (literally, in split screen in Annie Hall).

But the key moment comes when Allen discusses Manhattan as a 'foreign' film, explaining how they can have 'lightness' without being 'joke comedies', and implying American critics and audiences don't quite allow that.
The problem is, neither does Woody. Annie Hall is a great picture which is often held by Allen's innate ability to do jokes, and inability to resist them. It's not just the nebbish slapstick, which by that point in his career was getting boring. It's the way the rhythm of the film changes as he uses the story as his straight-man, often adding extra beats to dialogue that is quite moving in order to give himself the punch line.

Besides being the gorgeous love song to Allen's romantic New York, Manhattan is a wonderful, touching film, but I would hesitate to agree that it has a European 'lightness', except perhaps in a few scenes, such as Woody's lying on the couch thinking of the things that make life worth living. It works best because he gives the final punch line, deadly serious, but bittersweet, to Mariel Hemingway.

There's also a retrospective worry here, because Manhattan was the first of many films in which Woody's playing opposite much younger women who represent idealised visions of shiksa purity began to make that romantic metaphor begin to seem like a fetish. But that is a discussion for after seeing part two.

Part one ends with Stardust Memories, part Fellini, part Allen's frustrations, and here I take him seriously when he says he was dissatisfied with Manhattan—it's as if, in retrospect, he thinks it was and is loved for the wrong reasons. Maybe because he's taken himself out of the centre, just a bit, and the films are more popular for it. Or maybe it's the reaction to going from a cult figure among the cognoscenti to being a mainstream success whom middle America doesn't quite get. (Aside: when I saw Sleeper I Sweden I was the only person in the audience who got the joke about World War III being caused by Albert Schenker --head of the New York City teacher's union--getting hold of a nuclear bomb, I remember thinking the same would be true if I saw the film in Omaha). But the thing I remember writing about Stardust Memories at the time is that it is populated by a city of characters from Diane Arbus' photo album...his casting agent and his sister say they collected photos of what they call 'Woody People', but I always thought the look of the film was far more deliberately Arbus. And Woody seems disingenuous when he says he never thought the movie was about him, because it so obviously is at least based on that, and he knows we know that's what he's feeling. 

You can see Stardust Memories as a reaction to the overwhelming success of  Annie Hall and Manhattan; his reaction perhaps to his old core audience who liked the early comedies more; his reaction to thinking he could make better films audiences should like more. You can see it as a bitterness over celebrity for the wrong reasons. But it's a perfect point at which to split his career—I think he may have bridged that gap with Hannah And Her Sisters; I wonder if he does too, and I am wondering how they will approach his later career.


I was thinking about a poem I had written that mentioned Magnolia, a dog named after JJ Cale's song. I couldn't find it in my files, but I came across this one, intended for a collection called Signal Rock, loosely about my beaches, but which has yet to be collected.

I wrote this in Oslo, in June of 1982. I was there to cover the Bislett Games and the Dream Mile; that may be the trip I met Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber. The poem was published by Rialto, in Norwich, in 1985, and the following year in the US, in Gil Ott's lovely magazine Paper Air, from Philadelphia. The photo comes from the website Ossipee Lake Webcam, which stuns me time and again with photos taken from the same location...


Coming out of the water when the moon has gone
behind the clouds, the phosphorescence in
the ocean disappears. Shale splinters
& cuts my fingers as they grab a hold;
water runs off me like a peeling skin.
I dry myself in the sand, but it sticks
to my hands. The moon returns. I pull
the remains of a sweater over my head.
The wool is moist; the weather's changed,
the water is starting to move.
When my breath comes back I begin
To rearrange the sand, as if I had never
been there. Behind the rocks it stretches
for miles, in every direction but one.
A long way to go before I've got it right.
The tide, moving out, covers nothing up.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013


My obit of the boxer Emile Griffith is online at the Guardian now (you can link to it here) and you ought to find it in the paper paper soon. For anyone my age, the fight when Griffith killed Benny 'Kid' Paret remains a vivid memory, but as I tried to explain in a few lines cut for space from the obit, the story went beyond that.

Here's the way I wrote the story of the weigh-in: 

Another story lurked in the shadows. At the weigh-in, Paret taunted Griffith, calling him 'maricon', Spanish slang for 'faggot'. Gilbert Rogin described the incident, without specifying the insult, in the following week's Sports Illustrated, in language so coded it still could pass many innocents by, including this 11 year old boy. 'It is the most vulgar epithet in that violent idiom and is particularly galling to Griffith, who has a piping voice, wears extravagantly tight clothes, has designed women's hats and is, ordinarily, a charming, affectionate kid.'

The Guardian defined 'maricon' as 'sissy or queer' but I'm afraid that doesn't convey the contempt laden in the Spanish phrase, which in the macho context of the boxing world was huge. But I quoted from Rogin's article because, at age 11, I knew nothing of the slur--it hadn't been reported except in euphemism, in the daily press, and even if dad was already subscribing to SI, I would not have recognised the undercurrent of innuendo which Rogin quite skillfully built.  

When writing the obit I went back and watched much of the fight, including the fatal round 12. I don't see the kind of vicious assault Rogin described in his article, and which the legend of the fight attributes to Griffith. Paret (pronounced Par-ET) was a boxer who could take a punch, and was always in with a puncher's chance. Griffith appears to hurt him a couple of times earlier in the round, and to me, it's just a case of a boxer trying to put his opponent down to the floor. Paret is held up by the ropes, and Ruby Goldstein is definitely slow to pull Griffith away. I'd forgotten that Goldstein was also the ref when Ingemar Johannson dropped Floyd Patterson seven times in one round.

Gary Smith's 2005 Sports Illustrated article, which coincided with the release of the documentary film Ring Of Fire, is excellent in describing many of Griffith's self-contradictions. It's especially interesting on the relationship between Griffith and his employer, Jack Miller, at the bar in Jersey City where Emile worked...and in Griffith's need for a mommy figure. My friend Michael Goldfarb asked if I remembered Griffith's mother at the Paret fight, and I had to say I didn't, but in another small bit edited out of the piece I did  mention Griffith set up his mother and seven siblings in a house in Queens.

Finally, I mention the moving scene in Ring Of Fire between Griffith and Paret's son. What I do remember is that before the fight, all the papers ran pictures of Paret with his son, who was two, on his shoulders. Apparently he took him everywhere. And apparently, he'd decided to quit boxing, at 25, after that fight, although that may just be the legend being built up.

When I think of that fight, I see the darkness of the old Madison Square Garden, the haze of smoke that gathered over the ring and seemed to descend upon it, and I see the raw violence reflected in the faces of the men at ringside, men whose look doesn't seem to exist any more. They are something out of a George Bellows painting at the dawn of the digital age. I hear Don Dunphy's voice denying anything serious could be wrong, keeping the show going, and I realise that is also what I do for a living, though not with boxing. But I've worked in boxing, made my accomodation with that world, and I wonder if I could do the same now. Griffith seemed trapped within that vicious macho world of boxing, probably, but not definitely, moreso than he would have been in many trades during those times. That he killed a man who insulted him in ways that couldn't even be stated outright in those days seems a sad irony today.

Sunday, 21 July 2013


There is often a bittersweet taste to Charles McCarry's best work. In Christopher's Ghosts (see my 2008 review here), it was the pang of nostalgia, and the events that made McCarry's trademark fictional spy what he became. There is a touch of that same sadness in The Shanghai Factor, but here we are watching a man become a spy, and it's not so much that he has to learn about the losses necessary when one plies that trade, it's our growing realisation that the trade itself comes naturally to him.

McCarry's anonymous hero falls under the wing of an experienced CIA man named Burbank, who runs him on a mission in China which will remain secret between the two of them, and grows more and more complicated as he infiltrates, as it were, the complicated world of Chinese business. Eventually, back in America, he and a Chinese agent will play a complicated game of cat and mouse, each trying to 'turn' the other, each knowing what the other may be doing—a battle of wills and wits which McCarry compares metaphorically to their playing one-on-one basketball.

This is complicated by the fact that our hero is in love, with a Chinese woman, Mei, whose bicycle-crash meeting with him in Shanghai identifies her as an agent. Of course the affair ends, as he moves on in the world of China, but the anonymous affair (Mei, of course, must be a code name) remains for him almost obsessional, even after he has left China.

As the novel builds up, the suspense, which is built from the many ambiguities of the tale, intensifies, which has the remarkable effect of putting the reader into the position of the agents. This is where the inevitable comparisons of McCarry to (I would argue early) LeCarre are most valid—both have this ability to confront and confound the reader with the complexities of the world of espionage. And both are well aware, as we are told here, in probably the most crucial line in the book that 'the entire basis of espionage is trust'.

Like LeCarre, McCarry is also aware that the nature of spying has changed, because the nature of the world has changed, and the old battle of two super powers on a roughly equal footing has disappeared. Commercial interests have their own part in the game now, and in China, we have a budding superpower which remains in part the 'inscrutable' land we read about in 1930 pulp magazines and Fu Manchu novels.

The complicated plot is resolved in a somewhat less ambiguous manner than some readers might have hoped—there are a couple of twists whose outlines, at least, should have been more obvious to our hero—and I was convinced that one final twist of betrayal was coming at the end, but it never does.

But I mentioned that McCarry's work has often been bittersweet, and there is one revelation which has the same sort of impact as his stunning last line of Christopher's Ghosts. Again it involves lost love, and it works because it is so understated, and we realise that one of the basic spying assumptions our agent made, right from the beginning, was completely wrong, totally backwards, and that sometimes people do act for reasons of their own, reasons of the heart. As our hero himself states, in a bit of self-created Lao Tzu or Laozi as he's now known, 'the wise man does not believe in triumph'. 

The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry
Head Of Zeus  £14.99 ISBN 9781781855096

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (

Tuesday, 9 July 2013


I'm always interested in new westerns, films that belie the ongoing belief that the genre is dead, so I was intrigued by Sweet Vengeance, which offers a strong female lead role, and colourful performances from Ed Harris and Jason Issacs. Sadly, the film (originally released as Sweetwater, which may have played more on Harris' western past) is less than the sum of its parts.

Jones plays a newlywed wife on a dusty farm in New Mexico. She was, we learn, a whore, who has settled with a Mexican (played well by Eduardo Noriega) who lacks the edge of violence necessary for this frontier. Their land is surrounded by land owned by the self-proclaimed Prophet Josiah (Issacs), whom we watch, early in the movie, murdering trespassers on his land, and seems to control a good portion of the town as well. We learn he is a refugee from Utah, and we see him engaged in sex with his wife and, it seems, his daughter as well.

The build-up is classic, until Harris, as Sheriff Corneilius Jackson, enters the scene, trying to track down the two murdered trespasses, whose unlikely tale of being related to the governor turns out to be true. It's as if he's Virgil Cole reappearing after being out in the desert too long--but the suggestion of a saviour who's spent 40 days in the desert comes to mind, for reasons that I'll soon discuss. Meanwhile, Josiah and the bank are putting pressure on Miguel and Sarah for the land he covets, and that soon turns violent too.

This is, apart perhaps from the Mormon sex theme, pretty standard stuff, but this is not a Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott movie. The opening, which involves Issacs preaching in extreme closeup direct to the camera, sets a tone which the film finds hard to maintain, in part because it undercuts its own themes with attempts at offbeat humour that mostly fall flat. These involve Harris' dancing and Issacs' own slippage into a very modern kind of self-aware irony. The latter is particularly jarring since the film begins with its supporting characters hewing very closely to the kind of formal declamation that works so well in films like True Grit. But they, or the writers (Logan and Noah Miller, story by Andrew McKenzie; Logan also directed) can't keep it up. It's as if they're determined to make a Tarantino movie, but couldn't get Uma Thurman.

In fact its the relgious theme which is the strongest part of the movie, not least visually, as Josiah has erected a series of whitewashed crosses on the approach to his ranch, looking like a cleaner version of the road in Spartacus. There is a parallel to modern America, and the self-serving hypocrisy of the fundamentalist right, which might have been played on more strongly--just as the incest theme needed to be set out more clearly by identifying the women in Josiah's household beforehand. They also hint at the bigotry behind Josiah's religion, particularly important as Miguel is Mexican. There's something potentially powerful and contemprary lurking below the surface here. But as with Josiah himself constantly getting tired of keeping up the pretence, what we get on the surface is a temptation to fall back on hamming it up--something Harris does with more tongue in cheek than Issacs.

The other big problem is that Jones is simply not strong enough for them to play off. Her success in Mad Men was based on her conveying repression, and on the small screen she often appeared to be about to boil over. On the bigger screen, however, she's merely simmering, and when she delivers her lines, there's little of the power required to make them work. One or twice she seems so ananchronistic, it makes you wonder if the 1950s isn't really her default setting. On the other hand, there is at least one gratuitous nude scene. And there is another problem, which is the closeness, which doesn't become apparrent until the end of the film, of Sarah's previous employment, at her mother's whorehouse. This fills out the character of Miguel, because not only is he demeaned in the eyes of the townspeople because he's Mexican, but also because he married a whore. And as we see when he and Sarah are introduced, he can't shoot; but she can. Usually, you'd expect Sarah and Miguel to have moved on to begin her new life, but the revelation (in a great scene with Amy Madigan in a powerful cameo--Madigan is also married to Ed Harris) then is followed up when she seeks her revenge, starting with the local banker.

When Jones does begin to enact her vengeance, we get disappointed on a number of counts. Yes the local banker is a worthy victim (and played with great relish by Stephen Root) but death for a peeping Tom? He's peeking on a schoolgirl, so I suppose there's a modern analogy in there too. The final shootout ends in something of an anti-climax, although the Christian symbolism of Sarah's hiding among the lambs is a good one. And the ending is rather a cop out, as we have seen her dig her own grave, next to her husband's, but instead we see her burning her fancy dress, and standing naked again, before the fire of rebirth.

There are moments when this film charms, and a few where it seems to be working toward new approaches on old themes. In the end, though, it lacks the courage of its own convictions, much like Josiah himself, and settles for new gags and old tropes, and it's too much for January Jones to overcome on her own.

Sweet Vengeance (2013) aka Sweetwater, is out on DVD

Monday, 8 July 2013


Last week my essay on the literature of the JFK assassination was broadcast on Open Book. It's still available on IPlayer here (about nine minutes in).Because of time limitations, portions of the essay we recorded had to be edited out, so what follows is the original script; what we intended to cram into six or seven minutes.

The bits that are gone are mainly toward the end--the establishing of Oswald as a patsy and, most sadly, the brilliant JFK And The Unspeakable, which not only makes the case for conspiracy, but places that conspiracy firmly into an ongoing context. You can read my original review of that book, written for the magazine Lobster, here.

Still, it's wonderful to be able to get ahead of the inevitable deluge that will engulf the 50th anniversary come November, and Open Book is, as always, a great listen...


Everybody remembers. I was in eighth grade art class when Mrs Hugins was called away. She came back to tell us President Kennedy had been shot and we were being sent home. Two days later I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Oswald dead. It was all open and shut.

So it seemed to this boy of 12. JFK's Camelot of a White House had been struck down by a Communist defector misfit. A year later, the Warren Commission endorsed that simple explanation, but instead of calming the nation, it raised more questions than it answered. The Warren Report spawned a minefield of debate and disinformation, which has spawned more than a thousand books. By the time I turned 16, it was open and shut no longer.

The best of the first wave wear their reaction in their titles: Mark Lane's Rush To Judgement, Harold Weisberg's Whitewash, and Sylvia Meagher's Accessories After The Fact which catalogues the evidence buried within the Report's 26 volume appendix. The early fictions, meanwhile, approached Kennedy's murder metaphorically: Thomas Pynchon's Crying Of Lot 49, Loren Singer's Parallax View, and Winter Kills, by Richard Condon (author of the Manchurian Candidate) where the president's assassination is ordered by his mob-connected father.

Stephen King's recent novel 11-22-63 is a throwback, dismissing doubters of the official verdict as those who can't accept Kennedy's death as an act of random absurdity. In his novel, a Maine school-teacher goes back in time to stop Oswald. It's a good time-travel story, powerfully imagining the butterfly effect of Kennedy's survival; much of King's work has always been revisiting a more innocent time. His picture of Oswald as lone crazed assassin fits his sense of American innocence betrayed.
He still had that prissy little smile on his face when he walked up to me. Arrogant and prissy, both at the same time. He's wearing that smile in just about every photograph anyone tried to take of him....basically, there's nothing more to see anyway. Just a skinny little wife-abuser waiting to be famous.
But in the was almost certainly Oswald. You've heard of Occam's Razor, haven't you? ...'all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one.'
- (reading from 11-22-63)

The collapse of trust in government in the Seventies wake of the Watergate scandal, saw a House of Representatives investigation conclude the likelihood of a Kennedy conspiracy, but also a reluctance to blame anyone but the Mafia. The derailing of the committee is detailed in Gaeton Fonzi's The Last Investigation. British journalist Anthony Summers' Conspiracy, first published in 1980, became the crucial one-volume summary, but the real steps forward belonged to the two best Kennedy novels. Charles McCarry's Tears Of Autumn got him labelled the American John LeCarre,while Don DeLillo's Libra shows a typically obsessive DeLillo protagonist endlessly researching the ultimately unknowable.

Think of two parallel lines...One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What makes a connection inevitable? There is a third line. It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self. It's not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It's a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny.
-(reading from Libra)
The third wave of JFK literature was sparked by the 1991 release of Oliver Stone's movie JFK—whose JFK: The Book Of The Film is itself worth reading. The establishment response was Gerald Posner's ballyhooed Case Closed, a prosecutor's selective brief against Oswald and for the Warren Report. Norman Mailer called Posner only intermittently reliable, but used him as the basis for Oswald's Tale, in which Lee's unhappy marriage to the Russian beauty Marina saw him shoot Kennedy in a fit of jealous envy. More telling was James Ellroy, who claims America's innocence disappeared on the first boats over, and said the 'real trinity of Camelot was look good, kick ass, get laid'. No idealist, his conspiracy, laid out in The Cold Six Thousand oozes with sleazy reality.

He got the basic stats: One suspect caught—a kid-- a sheep-dipped leftist. Guy Bannister dipped him. The kid killed a cop. Two cops were sent to kill him. Phase two went bad. The second cop botched his assignment.
Littell holstered up. Littell studied his ID....
The streets were dead. The windows zipped by. Ten thousand TVs glowed.
It was HIS show.
He developed the plan. Pete Bondurant helped. Carlos okayed it and went with Guy Bannister's crew. Guy embellished HIS plan. Guy revised it. Guy botched it. …
Littell counted windows. All tint-distorted. Smudges and blurs. His thoughts blew wide. His thoughts cohered:
Talk to Pete. Kill Oswald. Ensure a one-shooter consensus.
- (reading from The Cold Six Thousand)

The portrait of Oswald we get from Warren, Posner, Mailer, and King actually shows most convincingly that he was uniquely qualified to become someone's perfect patsy. Ray and Mary LaFontaine, in Oswald Talked, made a convincing case for Oswald as a failed government informer, ripe for the set-up. And in 2008, James Douglass' JFK and the Unspeakable put forward the strongest case yet for a conspiracy, including detailing an earlier, eerily similar plot derailed only by the President's cancelling a trip to Chicago. After nearly 50 years, Douglass showed there were still new approaches, with echoes right up to the present.

The Unspeakable is not far away. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that became foreign to us. The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, it is ourselves. Our citizen denial provides the grounds for the government's 'plausible deniability' avoiding our responsibility for the escalating crimes of state done for our security, we who failed to confront the unspeakable opened the door to JFK's assassination and its coverup.
- (reading from JFK And The Unspeakable)

The problem is believers in conspiracy assume the burden of proof, not just to find who really did pull the trigger on Kennedy, which would be impossible now, but for every other conspiracy as well, whether the Royal Family are really lizards from space or Elvis is still alive. As the generation which remembers the event begins to die off, newer, more immediate plots may push Kennedy into history's background. Meanwhile Oswald's ghost remains a permanent patsy, there to persuade us violence and history really are random, beyond our control. Which is why as Don DeLillo, reminds us...

The valuable work of theorists has shown us the dark possibilities, prodded us to admit to ourselves the difficult truth of the matter. No simple solution, no respite from mystery and chronic suspicion. Conspiracy is now the true faith.
- (reading from De Lillo's 1983 essay 'American Blood: A Journey through the Labyrinth of Dallas and JFK')

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


This review of Norman Mailer's Oswald's Tale first appeared in the Spectator, 2 September 1995. I dug it out when I was writing my script for my Open Book essay on the literature of the JFK assassination, which I will also post here in its original form sometime after tomorrow's repeat broadcast of Open Book. What follows is slightly different from the published review-- I've made a correction, incorporated some of the ideas from my original draft, and added one or two small points--but it is substantially the same. I was tempted to go off on a tangent, comparing the Kennedys of An American Dream and Oswald's Tale, or the Kennedy of the former with Oswald himself, but that's really a whole separate essay! And I do wish that Mailer had been able to fulfill his promise at the end of Harlot's Ghost: 'to be continued'. And yes, the Henry Wade who was Dallas DA (and denied knowing Jack Ruby, which was easily disproved) is the same DA who was the defendant in Roe vs Wade).


If Marina Oswald had let her husband Lee make love to her on the evening of 21 November 1963, John Kennedy might still be alive. This is the major conclusion one can draw from Norman Mailer's 800-page excursion into the life and mind of the world's best-known alleged assassin.

Americans have always been keener on myth than reality, and few American writers have had a sharper grasp of American myth than Mailer. His forte has been taking real people and focusing his intellect and his instincts on what it is that turns them mythic. He has done this both in fiction (with JFK himself in An American Dream) and non-fiction (Richard Nixon, Marilyn Monroe, and, most tellingly, Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song). In many of these cases, it is death itself which confirms iconic status; this is true of John Kennedy and it should be true of Oswald as well. Certainly Mailer would like it to be.

The problem is that Oswald is no Gary Gilmore, and in trying to move him into iconic territory Mailer forgets his own instincts for American myth. A 'lone crazed assassin' might play better for his purposes, but reality has stacked the deck against such an interpretation of Oswald, not least because as a lone assassin he is so mundane. Instead, it is Oswald the patsy, and the JFK conspiracy, that has reached the level of myth.

In 1970, we might have welcomed Mailer's excursion into the conspiratorial quicksands of the assassination. Today, an increasingly prolix Mailer ignores the very lessons of deception he provided just four years ago in his own CIA epic, Harlot's Ghost, and seems content to tie some extensive research together with some dubious sources in a loose bow that comes undone almost instantly.

The new material in Oswald's Tale, much of it assembled by Lawrence Schiller, is an exhaustive combination of interviews conducted in Moscow and Minsk, along with transcripts of the KGB's bugging of Oswald and Marina's flat. Those looking for new insight into the mind and character of Oswald will be sorely disappointed—as will those looking for photographs. There is a good deal of repetition, and at times Mailer seems keener, or at least content, to reveal the character of life in the old Soviet Union, not for any insight it may throw on Oswald or his motives, but just for the chance to apply his metaphoric skills to another country. Certainly the new republic of Belarus may have welcomed that. But after all the information has been disseminated, the picture of Oswald still has huge questions, and Mailer's answers leave huge holes.

One might expect those holes to be filled once Oswald returns to the USA, but it is here the book falls apart. Mailer's two main sources for this period are Priscilla Johnson MacMillan's Marina and Lee and Gerald Posner's Case Closed (Posner's book itself draws heavily on the former). This is akin to using Mein Kampf as your primary source for a book about the Holocaust.

The best that can be said about Marina and Lee is that government agents sequestered Marina Oswald, who feared deportation, AND granted MacMillan exclusive access to her. Like others handed exclusives, she delivered what those granting the favour desired: a portrait of a lone crazed assassin in the making. It was not her first encounter with Oswald; in Moscow she had interviewed the putative defector; she has admitted to at least being debriefed by the CIA when she returned to Boston, though not to having discussed Oswald at all. Marina Oswald's story changed over the years, depending on who she was talking to. Mailer's interpretation of Marina's various testimonies is a keystone in granting Oswald his killer's status, yet as recently as 1993 Marina herself said unequivocally that 'Lee did not do it'.

Posner takes things a step further, by distorting or ignoring the case for conspiracy. Mailer obviously distrusts Case Closed; he has referred to Posner as 'only intermittently reliable', and occasionally he points out some of Posner's more blatant twistings of the record. Amazingly, he still relies on the book as a primary source. By following Posner, Mailer accepts a world full of extraordinary coincidence, in which none of the coincidences are meaningful. Oswald becomes a homicidal Zelig popping up a the right time in the Texas School Book Depository, while the people who shared the stage with him are simply written out of his tale. Posner's book was billed as being definitive on the JFK assassination; really it is a clumsy bit of extended character assassination: if we can convince you Oswald really was a nutter then you'll ignore the evidence and believe he acted alone.

Having journeyed 800 pages trying to build a portrait of Oswald as a singular force in history, Mailer is obliged, like Posner, to ignore the most obvious interpretation of Oswald's seemingly delusional and often contradictory psyche: he was the perfect candidate to be set up as someone's patsy. Mailer's coy dance around the possibility of Oswald's homosexuality lends the word patsy a particular vibrancy. Don De Lillo, in Libra, showed us more behind the shadows of those gay contacts, particularly the bizarre David Ferrie. Oliver Stone was accused, like Jim Garrison before him, of using Clay Shaw's sexuality to help demonise the possible conspirators, even Oswald. But for Mailer, this aspect of Oswald merely hints at why Marina wouldn't put out on that fateful night.

Proving there was a conspiracy requires showing only that a few of the myriad coincidences of Oswald's life are not merely random. Jack Ruby has always been a short-odds entry in that sweepstakes. For example, when Ruby corrected Dallas DA Henry Wade's reference to Oswald's subversive activities' at the Friday night press conference ('that's Fair Play For Cuba Committee') we wonder how Ruby knew the name of Oswald's bogus committee, and why he thought it crucial to set the record straight. Maybe he was just another pathetic attention-seeker, but witnesses also placed him with Oswald in his strip joint, the Carousel Club; in Dealey Plaza that morning; and at Parkland Hospital when JFK died.

The problem is that if just a few facts which suggest a conspiracy are real, then they challenge the hypothesis of Oswald as Norman Bates, as a lone crazed assassin, and Mailer must seek his new Gary Gilmore elsewhere. Oswald's Tale is indeed an American mystery, because Kennedy's death was the product of something more than an unrequited hard-on. That has always been Mailer's territory, but once upon a time Mailer would have been less concerned with solving the mystery, and more concerned with the deeper tale of an American tragedy.

Oswald's Tale: An American Tragedy by Norman Mailer
Little Brown, 1995, £25


My obituary of Jim Kelly, best-known for Enter The Dragon, but for me at his best as one-third of Three The Hard Way, is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. The track of Kelly's brief career as a blaxploitation star might be said to reflect his relative lack of acting ability--he had a certain presence (which his combat pout, combined with tufts of chest hair that appeared to be glued on, and loud exhales during karate fights all did much to dissipate; see below left) but there is self-restrained cool and there is the inability to emote. Fred 'the Hammer' Williamson had more of a career, but little of it was worthwhile so perhaps Kelly was better off pursuing other avenues which gave him more satisfaction. You could say that was what Jim Brown did, first when he gave up football, and later when he withdrew from full-time acting.

What is odd is the way Bruce Lee's star rose, fuelled by his death, no doubt. Lee is closer to Kelly in acting terms than he was to, say, John Saxon--for all that Enter The Dragon is a cult film, none of the three actors had great careers afterwards. I wonder how much camp is involved in the whole blaxploitation revival --certainly we could look at almost all of Quentin Tarantino's later career as an excercise in camp, if not an effort to become a high-priced Larry Cohen. That Kelly didn't join the Original Gangstas cast, or thht Kung Fu Joe is a figure of some fun in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka says something about the continuing value of Kelly's role.

Still, he seemed to appreicate his late renaissance in fandom, and take it with good humour. Speaking of which, you really should go to you tube and watch that 2004 Nike Chamber of Fears commercial, in which LeBron James goes head to head with Kelly--it is absurdly weird.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013


My obituary of the photographer Bert Stern, best-known for his 'Last Session' shots of Marilyn Monroe, is in today's Independent, buy the paper paper or link to it here. Obviously, the Marilyn pictures are the big talking point--I avoided getting into detail about whether or not Stern, as I said in the piece a notorious womaniser, and Marilyn actually consummated a different sort of relationship, and Stern himself hinted but never said, but I probably should have mentioned that he laid on a lot of Dom Perignon along with the other acoutrments, and in many of the shots Monroe looks decidedly heavy-lidded.

The Smirnoff ad is indeed remarkable, and he also made a fantastic one with Buster Keaton for the vodka. There was a long essay on the bleeding into 'art' of commercial photography, and the way fashion is the cutting edge of that bleed. In the modern art world, where ironic commentary on one's own work is more important than the work itself, the advertising theme might well be considered part of the art--so the ironic commentary of the pun on 'dry' in dry martini is just as artistic as the representation of heat, or the geometric inversion of glass and pyramid. Stern, it should be said, appears to have been a master of using the emotional power of red--see the Lolita poster.

I would also have liked to have said more about Jazz On A Summer's Day, which is a truly memorable document. It is a very mainstream picture of the jazz world in 1958, as you might expect with Willis Conover emceeing, but the performances are brilliant, and it does include Thelonious Monk, in a trio with Roy Haynes on drums. Jazz in that period, particularly the five years following, might well be my favourite music, period, and watching the film puts you in the mood for a little bit of the harder revolution that was to follow. In terms of creating an impressionistic picture of Newport at the time, it's perfect, right down to the America's Cup races going on in the background. Beats the hell out of High Society.


My essay on the literature of John F. Kennedy's assassination was broadcast on Open Book Sunday, and will be repeated this Thursday, which ironically enough is the 4th of July. But it's already up on IPlayer, and will stay up on the Open Book page of the site. You can link to it here--my piece begins about nine minutes into the show.

It had to be edited from what I originally recorded, and some crucial things are missing. In particular a mention of Anthony Summers' 1980 compendium Conspiracy, which has been re-issued steadily (under different titles) but remains a good one-volume starting point, and more crucially, the non-fiction of the third wave. Ray and Mary LaFontaine's Oswald Talked does an excellent job of demonstrating what Oswald the federal informant might have thought he was doing in Dallas, and thus shows that, as Posner, Mailer and the like unwittingly established, he was a prime candidate to be set up as a patsy.

And James Douglass' 2008 JFK And The Unspeakable is to me the most impressive and convincing argument for a conspiracy, and for that conspiracy being part of an ongoing part of American life. You can link to my review of it via the 'Bullseyes' listing on the right of this page.

I also mentioned the dual dilemma faced by those who believe in the likelihood of a conspiracy--they can disprove the accepted, Warren Report version, but it is difficult to prove any of the alternatives. In fact, if the real assassins were to confess tomorrow, many researchers would dismiss the confessions. More frustrating, if you believe JFK was not killed by a lone, crazed assassin you are deemed to be responsible for any and all crackpot conspiracy theories out there, and not just about the assassination. Whereas those who accept the mainstream solution are never held responsible for governmental or official lies or malfesance, regardless of how many times it can be proven to occur.

I will post my script as originally recorded after the repeat has been broadcast. In the meantime, Open Book's always a good programme to listen to, and it's nice to get in ahead of the coming great wave of assassination literature as the fiftieth anniversary nears.