Friday, 28 June 2013

STEPHEN KING GOES BACK TO DEALEY PLAZA: 11.22.63

Note: I read 11.22.63 (note the title wasn't reordered for British audiences, yet they seemed to buy and read the book without undue perplexity) while writing an essay on the literature of the JFK assassination for BBC Radio 4's Open Book programme. It will be broadcast Sunday (30 June) at 4pm, and repeated on Thursday, which coincidentally is the 4th of July. It should be available on IPlayer. I'll also post the essay itself after the programmes have aired.

It's not surprising Stephen King should approach John Kennedy's assassination through time-travel; one of King's recurring themes is a nostalgia for a more innocent America. His use of the time travel device to alter history is not a new one; in fact, at its best 11.22.63 feels like a particularly good Twilight Zone episode, the kind the late Richard Matheson, one of King's heroes, might have written, and indeed it carries some of the same themes as Harlan Ellison's City On The Edge Of Forever from Star Trek. Having said that, inevitably as a JFK killing novel it disappoints.

Jake Epping is a recently divorced school teacher in Maine, who is recruited to time -travel by Al, the dying owner of a local diner, who has discovered a portal back to 1958, and who wants to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK five years later. Since you come back from your journey only minutes older, regardless of how long you've stayed in the past, this is possible—but because he is dying before he's become absolutely sure of Oswald's guilt, Al needs Jake, with no ties to the present, to do the job for him.

The novel is really Jake's story, not Kennedy's, and it's a very good one. I compared it to the Twilight Zone but there is one difference—at 700-plus pages, King's novel lacks the economy of a TV script. Jake's dry runs, trying to alter the history of a local killing, and his romance in the past, are King at his best—his strongest point may be in subjecting human emotions to the relentless twists of fate—and his prose, while occasionally digressive, moves forward. Because this is time travel the reader needs to allow some slack for repetition: form follows function and seeing the same story from slightly different angles reinforces our sense of time as a dimension, if not an entity of its own (which King implies as time itself seems to conspire against Jake making changes in it).

King's style, which includes setting the scene through intensive use of brand-names, references specifics of the everyday to serve as mundane contrast to the horrors he writes about. It was something adopted by the so-called 'dirty realists' in the mainstream, who used the specifics of working-class life in America as a sort of horror trope to contrast with the safety of their middle-class  academic life. I was therefore on the alert for anachronisms in 11.22.63, and spotted only a couple, the most telling being a reference to George Of The Jungle, a Jay Ward cartoon that didn't air until 1967. Being old sometimes has its advantages--but perhaps time itself was just messing with King or me.

Of course, the fabric of time is more fragile than either Jake or Al realise. There is a character whom they encounter as they go through the portal, whom I was convinced was Jake himself, in an ultimate time paradox, but turns out not to be when the final twists of fate are revealed. But King makes much of the butterfly effect, of causality, particularly in relation to JFK—his scenario of the future had Kennedy survived is one of the more fascinating parts of the book.

The Oswald story, however, is not very satisfying. King follows the Warren Report, Gerald Posner, Norman Mailer path, in characterising Oswald as a maladjusted, wife-beating, glory-seeker. That Mailer himself called Posner 'only intermittently reliable' doesn't seem to bother King, and of course, Oswald as part of a conspiracy would complicate his plot beyond measure; Jake could hardly go back in time to stop a multi-shooter assassination.


And King's characterisation of Oswald and Marina serves as an interesting counterpoint to Jake's courtship of Sadie, his fellow schoolteacher in the past. It also provides an explanation, albeit a thin one, of why George DeMohrenschildt and his white-Russian friends in Dallas might have befriended the supposed leftist Oswald—because of his wife, and despite him. Though DeMohrenschild seems to be amused by this version of Oswald, and this hints at a problem.

DeMohrenschildt is the lynch-pin of King's plot—Al tells Jake he needs to determine if George is the man behind Oswald's attempt on the right-wing Gen. Edwin Walker; if he wasn't then Oswald truly is a lone crazed assassin. The problem is, even in King's scenario, DeMohrenschildt seems more involved in that plot than not. And in reality, his apparent suicide just before Gaeton Fonzi was to interview him on behalf of the House Assassinations investigation (the 'suicide Bill O'Reilly claimed to have heard from DeMohrenschild's front porch, which was a neat trick as it was proven O'Reilly was in Flordia at that time) remains as suspicious as Johnny Roselli's dismembered body being found floating in a gas drum in Miami, just before his recall for a second round of testimony before the same committee.

For King, the question seems to be more about Kennedy, and us, than about Oswald. Do we believe that Kennedy's death ended some sort of Camelot, and do we need to believe that death was not a mere random act, by a willful malcontent? In trying to answer those questions through time-travel King actually confuses the issues, because time itself seems to be acting as if it trying to preserve the act we consider random—in other words, it is a kind of predestination-- and the Camelot we may think ended with JFK turns out to be better in many ways than the world he might have left behind had he completed his presidency. That is a paradox which renders King's own scenario of the assassination itself less important than the way time impacts on the lives of his characters, and what they are and are not able to overcome as people. So the final reveal, the wider scope of history, and the ultimate denouement, all feel rushed in relation to what's gone before. The bigger future shouldn't be a shadow of the assassination's becoming a narrower concern, but it's a broader one too. It's ultimately not very satisfying as a look at that assassination, though it makes for an entertaining, if overblown, Twilight Zone time travel story.

Friday, 21 June 2013

OUR NIXON: THE TRICKY DICK WE KNEW AND LOVED

There is a moment, watching the home movies of Tricia Nixon's wedding, when I wondered what similar Super 8 footage of Sonny Corleone's marriage might reveal. Our Nixon, which shows tomorrow at London's Open City Docs Fest, is built around home movie footage shot by H.R. 'Bob' Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin, three of President Richard Nixon's closest aides, three of his most loyal and devoted followers, all of whom would wind up in jail, cut loose by their hero on his way to becoming the only American president to quit in office.

The footage provides behind the scenes looks at some of Nixon's biggest moments, including the China visit, and his most important speeches. Context is set by clips from network newscasts, and by post-prison interviews with the three home movie makers. When I reviewed Nixon's Shadow, a book about his image (you can link to that review here), I asked whether, in Doonesbury's words, a new generation would recoil as they ought to, and now the same question holds true. But here the answer is more ambiguous.

The answer is that the footage is so infused with the adulation of the cameramen that it's almost hard to realise what is going on. Worryingly, I even found myself admiring Tricia, something I never did when I was young. My feeling was that viewers who were not there would not feel the almost visceral impact of Nixon on the times, and it is impossible for the documentary makers to summon that up from the past. Still there are surprises, the biggest one for me being a small protest by two of the Ray Conniff Singers when they performed at the White House. This was the 'square' music Nixon preferred, and the tiny banner of protest, and the heartfelt Christian plea they make for peace does more to set Nixon and Co. into context than any news reports.

Two things help make Penny Lane's carefully structured film work for an audience to whom Nixon is a blank slate, or worse, pace his posthumous re-evaluation, a statesman. One is the personality of the three aides, who are so obviously out of step with their own and our time as to exude mistrust even as they try to appear ingratiating. These are frat boys, squares themselves, Greg Marmalard and Doug Neidemeyer from Animal House gone from frat house to White House. It was Dwight Chapin's frat buddy Donald Segretti whose 'dirty tricks' on the 1972 election campaign got Chapin dumped, but also allowed the press a chance to ignore the bigger issues of government spying and malfeasance.

That took place under Ehrlichman, who was in charge of putting together the 'plumbers' unit, designed to counter White House leaks. Ehrlichman post-prison is easily the most engaging of the three: one of the real highlights of the film is a commercial he made, and which was quickly withdrawn, for ice cream. He says it's 'unbelieveably good' and then smirks 'and believe me, I'm an expert on that subject'. Stay through the credits to see it.

Haldeman was truest of true believers, cast as Martin Borman by his critics, all brush cut and Rumsfeldian arrogance. He gives an interview about his children calling his hair out of fashion, and, like his boss, admits he is. In his most telling quote, he speaks of their arriving in Washington with 'no great ideological thrust or noble ambition'. Once out of prison, he's rocking a carefully styled 70s do, but it doesn't change him at all. He still denies the truths the Watergate tapes reveal, that he as chief of staff was engineering a major cover-up, and unlike Ehrlichman, who doesn't seem surprised he never spoke with Nixon again, Haldeman seems hurt by his abandonment by the Tricky One.. You almost feel sorry for him. You feel even more sorry for his wife, who shows up in a few shots, always looking like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The second thing that helps us understand is a series of taped conversations which sometimes reflect on the footage already shown. The last of these, when an obviously drunken Nixon calls Haldeman after the speech announcing his and Ehrlichman's 'resignations', is telling. Nixon curses what he's done, but also asks Haldeman, whom he's just cut loose, to call round to get reactions to how his speech went for him. We've previously heard both his need for approval and Haldeman's unwavering willingness to provide that. And we still can't shake the feeling, as we do when we hear Alexander Butterfield explain to Nixon how the recording devices work, and Nixon saying 'there may be a day we have to have this' that Nixon, even drunkenly, was speaking for a record, double-accounting for posterity.

There's a fascinating discussion as Nixon, and Ehrlichman deconstruct a TV show they can't identify, but is All In The Family, the American version of Til Death Do Us Part, and how it glorifies homosexuality. Nixon takes the lead: 'You don't glorify homosexuality on public television. You know what happened to the Greeks. Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was a homo, we all know that. So was Socrates.' 'But he never had the influence television has,' adds Ehrlichman. 'The last six Roman emperors were fags,' Nixon begins, and Ehrlichman cuts him off with an explanation of 'fatal liberality' that Haldeman finally cuts short. Speaking of that, the discussions of Henry Kissinger, his duplicity, and his penchant for pillow talk, are fascinating. Haldeman later explains that Nixon feels it's OK for Kissinger to 'be a swinger in New York, Florida, or California, but he should not be in Washington.' He advises 'not to put him next to the most glamorous gal anymore, but to seat him next to some intelligent and interesting woman instead.' This was the White House in 1971.

Along the way there are other amusing cameos and side views. Ehrlichman's camera reveals in great detail the bidet in an ornate Paris hotel bathroom. Daniel Moynihan pops up in the foreground as Nixon's helicopter takes off. John Kerry speaks on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against The War during the March on Washington; this is the footage that the 21st century equivalent of Nixon's frat boys, Shrub Bush and Karl Rove, would use against him relentlessly 40 years later. When Nixon complains no one's called to congratulate him on a speech, and Haldeman says Nelson Rockefeller has, Nixon says 'well, the hell with him!'. And there's celebrity TV interviewer Barbara Walters, interviewing Haldeman, and carefully grimacing when he says history will judge Nixon as one of the great presidents; the grimace, of course, filmed later as a reverse.

But most important are the glimpses of the real Nixon, whose gloating at the press reaction to his announcement of peace with North Vietnam, a peace that never arrived, is a masterpiece of hypocrisy. This is what I grew up knowing, instinctively about Nixon, and what Our Nixon allows a new generation to acquire at its own pace, and learn, as mine did, to recoil.

EXIT: MADS MIKKELSEN ON THE RUN, MORE FILM AT NORDICANA

When I wrote about the Danish film A Hijacking I suggested that the theme of business ethics and its relation to social morality was part of many recent Scandinavian films, among them Exit. In A Hijacking the conflict was between a businessman's social responsibility to the crew of his vessel and his ingrained desire to 'win' the negotiation. As it happened, I had just seen Exit earlier the same day at the Nordicana festival, and though the two films weren't part of a double-feature, the connection was obvious.

Exit begins Mads Mikklesen explaining, in voice-over, how negotiating is all about knowing your opponent's weakness, and that every opponent has one. The movie opens with Mikklesen, as Thomas Skepphult, and his partner in a firm called Nova Investment forcing out the man whose family's firm it had been, because he has done something that crossed their ethical boundary while completing a deal with another firm. The ousted man, Morgan Nordenstrole, goes back to his office and blows his head off with a shotgun.

Seven years later, Nova is trying to exit that deal, and cash in their profits, but another investor, the super slick Gabriel Mork, holds them to ransom on theexit. At the same time, Thomas' mentor and partner, Wilhelm, announces he wants to retire, and shows Thomas a hidden compartment in his safe, in which is a tape which Thomas believed had been destroyed. That night, Wilhelm is murdered, and because his death would save Thomas millions on the price of buying him out, Thomas becomes the top suspect and is arrested. But while trying to contact his lawyer, someone else gets on the line, and Thomas realises he's been set up, and nothing is as it seems.

On the one hand, Exit is a complicated, sometimes repetitive, innocent man on the run film, in the tradition of Tell No One or Headhunters, and it wouldn't surprise me if it hadn't hadn't provided some inspiration for Jo Nesbo's tale. As with the Harlan Coben novel (and the French film) Thomas is lucky to have a professional to call upon for help, in his case a cousin who is some sort of security operative, and helped also by the insane incompetence of the Swedish police. Detective Malm, played with a wonderful sneer of suspicion by Ia Langhammer, has decided the case from the first, and after that point, no amount of killing, shooting, fire, or kidnap can distract the cops' attention. Which is great if you're an accused murderer on the run. Especially one played by Mikklesen, who is fast becoming the most sado-masochistic character in movies: public-school boy perverse torturing James Bond (and getting his come-uppins, so to speak) in Casino Royale, getting beaten to a pulp more here than in The Hunt, bloodier than Valhalla Rising.

It also never seems to occur to the police to see whether Thomas is still running his business, which he is trying to do using his assistant Fabian von Klerking as a go-between. Eventually Fabian (Alexander Skarsgard) has to go to Mork (whose name, at least in English, suggests murk and angel at the same time; John Rabaeus, playing him, is excellent, and looks a bit like a classier version of William Forsythe) and Mork, it turns out, did the nasty to Fabian's father. But he overcomes his distaste out of loyalty to Thomas, and this impresses Mork. It also suggests that there is something about the aristocracy, the old Sweden, as signaled by Fabian, that is not only worth admiring but has been lost. Although I was wondering if the burned out 'P' in the 'Prince' sign in the inevitable seedy bar Thomas is forced to visit was some sort of comment on the Swedish royal family.

As I said, the plot involves some repetition (here review imitates life), and a good deal of twisting. Thomas repeats the same sort of gambit a few times, and indeed there are two escapes via powerboat, which is stretching it for any movie not set in Hong Kong. Questions of loyalty and trust are paramount, from Wilhelm's wife Louise, to Thomas' own wife Anna (played with some relish by Kirsti Eline Torhaug). Samuel Froler is excellent as the psychopathic villain, and even better is his henchman Ahmed (Hassan Brijay) who might have walked out of one of the Pusher films

Which is one of the strongest points of Exit. At times it has that grainy darkness of 70s American crime films, and which the Pusher films share, but it is also very carefully one of the most noirish films to come from the sadly misnamed Nordic Noir pantheon. It is exceedingly dark and shadowy, and for most of the film the only light comes in scenes set in Thomas' home, where the sunlight streams in over water and through picture windows. But mostly it takes place in places where natural light never shines, or at night, or both, and that sets the mood. When the film reaches its visceral climax, it's full-scale Fall of the House Of Usher, which I found symbolic. Director Peter Lindmark has a nice visual command which helps give depth to what otherwise would be just a pacy thriller with a few too many longeurs. And when the ultimate betrayal is revealed in the final twist, it too is a shadowy picture in a reflection of a dark room. It doesn't get more noirish than that.

Exit is available on DVD from Arrow Films on 8 July

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

Thursday, 20 June 2013

JAMES GANDOLFINI AND TONY SOPRANO

James Gandolfini wasn't just cast perfectly as Tony Soprano, he inhabited the role. He was Jersey-born, Rutgers-educated, New York-trained. Those New Yorkish roots were true of most of the Sopranos cast--born in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Mount Vernon, Hoboken. Dominic Chiasnese, Tony Sirico, Vincent Pastore, David Proval, Jerry Adler, even Frank Vincent, all felt real as Jersey mobsters. Gandolfini worked as Tony because he felt real too, but there was something else there, an extra bit of shadow, an ingratiating appearance, that meant the audience could believe in him both as a gangster and as David Chace's character.

Tony could be a softie and mean it, and then order Big Pussy killed. He could then dream-talk to Pussy, through the mouth of a dead fish, and it was believable. The show was based on Tony's being just slightly off the mould.  He once called himself a 260-pound Woody Allen, and that's what came through as Tony. Plus, although there are any number of Wesleyan references in the show, I always figured it was Gandolfini who got Mangenius into Arties for dinner.

Where this worked best was possibily with Nancy Marchand, as his mother. Marchand (born in Buffalo, which might as well be Wisconsin in New York terms) was Tony's Italian Jewish mother, and if their interaction sometimes veered between classic Greek drama and every sitcom on TV since the 1950s, she had the same kind of slightly hidden special thing that brought out the real Tony. It works with Edie Falco (another New Yorker) partly because she works to escape the mould as well.

I still think Gandolfini's role as Bear in Get Shorty may be his best (though lots of people like Virgil, in True Romance, which may have got him cast as Bear anyway). It's fascinating to see how far he came from that part to the Sopranos, but also how he didn't go much farther. He's excellent in any number of films, but it's always in the same sort of supporting role, as a blustry figure of crude authority: the CIA boss in Zero Dark 30, the general in In The Loop (playing straight man for a Brit, no less); the mayor (and best thing) in the remake of Taking of Pelham 123 (he made Travolta look handsomer in five different movies--supposedly Gandolfini was voted best-looking in his high school class, which really lets you know all you need to about New Jersey); and as Robert Redford's punching bag in The Last Castle. He relies the same mannerisms he employed as Tony, the twinkle in ther eye, the look of surprise, the knowing tilt, but on the big screen they were less effective. It was as the anti-hero on the small screen that Gandolfini worked best.


It made a huge impact. The Sopranos marks a turning point in TV drama--the creative energy moved to cable TV, and deeper darker series and more ambitious films were the result. Without the success of the Sopranos there might not be a Mad Men, or Justified, or Breaking Bad. On the other hand, there might not be a Lilyhammer either. But Gandolfini didn't let it rest there. He was a producer on three HBO films; as executive producer and presenter of Alive Day Memories, about soldiers returning from Iraq, as producer of the Prism-award winning War Torn, about the psychological damage of combat, and again as a producer on Philip Kaufman's Hemingway and Gellhorn, with Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen epically miscast as ill-matched writers.

If you can find it, go back and watch Showtime's 1997 made for TV version of 12 Angry Men (which went back to Reginald Rose's original teleplay). It's a good cast, with Jack Lemmon in the Fonda role, George C Scott as Lee J Cobb, Ossie Davis, Hume Cronyn, William Petersen, and Gandolfini as Juror 6 -- the Edward Binns part in the movie made 40 years before. He nails it, and he moe than holds his own in an excellent cast. And it reminds you of what talent in New York is like. We saw the cast of the Sopranos in Scorsese films, in episodes of Law & Order, maybe in theatre if we were lucky enough. But read this article from the 1988 New York Times, about when Gandolfini was doing the thing generations of actors had done before him. He found his unlikely success, playing a Jersey character, and every time you heard that music play, and watch Tony Soprano and his car and cigar drive up to that exit, count yourself lucky you are watching. RIP.

Monday, 17 June 2013

TOBIAS LINDHOLM'S HIJACKING: FILM AT NORDICANA

Writer/director Tobias Lindhom signals his intentions right at the beginning of his powerful A Hijacking, shown as part of the Nordicana festival. It's the story of a Danish merchant ship taken by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. The film actually opens with Peter C Ludvigsen, the CEO of the shipping company called into a meeting with a Japanese firm they are looking to buy. They want to spend less than $15 million; the Japanese are holding firm at $21m. We see Ludvigsen begin his negotiations; then we see him afterwards, the deal done for $14.5m. And soon after, he is called out of a meeting to learn about the hijacking.

In this country, reviewers praised the lack of a 'Hollywood' hijacking, as if by not being Under Siege European films were automatically superior. You might be forgiven for expecting that, given the film's UK poster, but having assured themselves this wasn't Steven Seagle, they seemed to assume the movie was some sort of docu-drama, and paid little attention to its opening and the thrust that it portends, and continues. This is crucial, because A Hijacking (an odd mistranslation, since the Danish title, Kapringen, would be THE Hijacking--but Lindholm himself explained in Sight & Sound that they chose to translate with the indefinite article to distinguish themselves from 'the action genre' and to 'signal objectivity', which obviously cued the British critical response. It's good value from one indefinite article!) belongs firmly in the tradition of films like Inheritance, Exit, or even Headhunters; films in which the demands of big business challenge the concept of personal ethics within the traditional societal morality of Scandinavia. Its Danish poster makes that clear, and, in this sense, A Hijacking is really two films, one dealing with the prisoners' dilemma, and the other with the negotiation.

The prisoners' story (we see only the three white prisoners, the other four are kept separately, which we must assume is an interesting bit of Somalian racial profiling) is one of fear, uncertainty, and claustrophobia. Lindholm's first feature film, R, was a prison drama (which I have not yet seen, but now will!) which also starred Pilou Asbaek, who will be familiar to Borgen viewers, and who is absolutely excellent in his roller-coaster emotional ride as the ship's cook Mikkel—indeed, it is a small act of relief for him at film's end which turns out to have tragic results. Most telling is his relation with his captors—there is a scene where he and crewmate Jan catch a plaice, and it almost appears a form of Stockholm Syndrome, call it Copenhagen Syndrome, is in the offing.

This turns out to be false however. The hijackers live through the power of the gun, and Asbaek turns out to be manipulated even more cynically by Omar (Abdihakin Asger), their negotiator, as we see they are by the shipping company back home.


That is because this is a negotiation, and thus a personal battle for Peter and for Omar too. Peter's played with great inward control by Soren Malling, and his assistant Lars by Dar Salin. They too are veterans of Borgen, which should not be surprising because Lindholm was a writer on that show (he also co-scripted The Hunt, which I still see as an Oscar nominee in 2014, read my London Film Festival review here) and one of the key themes of Borgen is the area where ego, where personal motivation, leeches into the demands of the business of politics.

Peter, and his company, make a great show to the families of their crew of caring about the safety of the men. At first, we can ascribe the hard-line they take with the Somalis to the outside expert they've called in, named Connor Julian and played by Gary Skjoldmose Porter, who's a steroided and tattooed guy with an Australian accent and a Berkeley T shirt. The point is he isn't Danish.

But we soon see that Peter has gone into his own negotiation mode, and this becomes, in a sense a personal battle. Not just with Omar—conducted over ship to shore radio, which heightens the tension but keeps the focus on each man individually—but with himself, and perhaps his instincts. Julian is there to help keep him from getting emotional over his men, but Peter actually needs little help to forget that. His mantra is that negotiating involves 'knowing the opposition', but the reality is he knows little about them. What he does know is Omar is another negotiator, and the men are his only leverage.

As the days mount up, indicated by captions which seem to increase geometrically, the pressure grows, and the key scene comes from Peter's wife visits him in his office. He's been separated from her almost as fully as Mikkel has from his wife. She wakes him on his office couch and we see he is sleeping in a sleeveless T-shirt, the same uniform Mikkel wears. He is vulnerable, but he dresses in his suit in the same way warriors don armour, and by the time he is fully dressed he has gone into warrior mode, and he sends his wife away brutally.

The deal is finally done, not without tragedy, and Mikkel is reunited with his wife and daughter in a spare office room, a touching scene which plays out the difficulty of his return to his former world. Meanwhile, Peter, having handled the difficult duty of notifying a family of a death, finally leaves the offices. The film's last shot is of the garage doors closing down, like prison gates. The question is whether Peter has escaped his own prison of business and negotiation, or whether is he always going to be captive there.

A Hijacking is on general release 

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

Friday, 14 June 2013

WHITMAN'S WILD CHILDREN: THE HEADPRESS REVIEW

Walt Whitman is a great place to start any examination of the Beat poets. Ginsberg acknowledges his debt explicitly in his wonderful “A Supermarket in California”. The liberating flow of Whitman's American free verse influenced Ginsberg even more than his status as an emerging 19th century gay icon, but there was also a sense, that carries through in Ginsberg, of Whitman's importance as a putative man of the streets, constantly out among the public, engaged with and writing about ordinary people, to the extent of his visiting Civil War battlefields where he comforted the wounded boys. Sadly, given such a good starting point, Cherkowski’s idea of “man of the streets” may be more an image of a proto-hippie Walt cruising the docks for willing sailors. But love beads were never a part of Whitman’s accessorizing, not even when his hair was long.

Actually, Whitman might be a role model for Cherkowski himself, because this book could easily have been subtitled “Song of Myself”. It's a kind of Neeli in Wonderland, as it were, and sometimes this preoccupation with self is downright hilarious. Cherkowski tells us Ginsberg’s first words on meeting him were “You’re fat”, and Neeli riposted “You’re old”. He then reports, deadpan, “Things were never smooth between us after that”. Johnson shat on Boswell from far greater heights without creating undue bumps in their relationship!
The high point of Neeli’s life appears to be when his own poetry is praised by some youngsters who mistake him, in his beads and buttons, for Ginsberg himself, or maybe when he beats the great man at Trivial Pursuit, which turns out to be one of Ginsberg’s favourite pastimes, if not a metaphor for Beat poetry.

It might just be a metaphor for this book however, for it really is a Beatnik Trivial Pursuit game between covers. We know the Beats have been turned into an industry, a marketing concept if not gimmick, and there is a lot of mileage in constantly recreating a neighbourhood tour of San Francisco in the late 50s, or the Village in the 60s. Hell, Michael McClure (one of the 12 poets discussed here), always adept at riding the waves toward the next celebrity or grant, once wrote a book called Scratching The Beat Surface. That seems deep by Neeli’s standards.

As a critic, Neeli is a fine tour guide.He makes no bones in refusing to make judgements about Harold Norse, who deserves close examination, not least for his influence. But when I wrote Norse's obit back in 2009, I mentioned it was hard not to make him sound like a literary Zelig to the Beats, and I wonder if that is a role which might have been inherited. Neeli gets overcome by the faux sentimentality of Jack Micheline, just gives up and lets it all wash over him. When he’s asked to review John Wieners’ Selected Poems, he’s again simply overcome with feelings, yet actually his take on this unjustly neglected poet is probably the best chapter in the book. And its nice to see attention paid again to people like Philip Lamantia.

Otherwise, there is far better stuff out there on the major subjects: Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Bukowski. Neeli says Buk “didn’t buy the Eisenhower 50s, didn’t buy the Kennedy 60s” but misses the point: that was when Buk did his best writing, and when Buk did buy into the Reagan 80s, he lurched into self-parody. Of course, self-parody is a staple of the Beats, and Gregory Corso’s ever-inventive riffs are the other highlight here. Corso tells him: “I’m the elder now. A daddy. You who do so love the Gregory got the goodie gumdrops from me.” It sounds like the sort of thing Corso might say. Then Neeli, calling him a pied piper, marches off with Corso through the streets of North Beach, reminding me of nothing as much as a happy Boswell.

The other link to Whitman, which Neeli ignores, is that Walt was a major league mama’s boy, sleeping at the foot of her bed long into adulthood. This problematic close relationship with mothers is a theme that runs through the Beat poets, most notably Ginsberg and Kerouac. And so with Neeli. When he takes 250 mils of bad acid in 1978 what does he do? He calls mom, and she advises him to find Lawrence Ferlinghetti! Which despite the tripping he does, but by the time he does Ferlinghetti is sitting in a cafĂ© reading the New York Times. Far out! Maybe Neeli’s Mom could have drawn him a map, and perhaps Neeli would have got us to Ferlinghetti sometime before disco became king.

Whitman's Wild Children: Portraits of 12 Poets

by Neeli Cherkowski

Steerforth Press (South Royalton, Vermont) 1999
ISBN 9781883642860 $18 (UK£12.00)

NOTE: A somewhat different version of this review appeared in Headpress 20.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

VIGGO MORTENSEN DISCOVERS EVERYBODY HAS A PLAN

Everybody Has A Plan is a powerful gothic noir tale of two brothers who grew up in the Tigre Delta of Argentina. Agustin has left his past behind, becoming a children's doctor in Buenos Aires, where he seems to be drifting out of his life, his marriage, and his very existence. He sits alone in their flat, the gulf widening between him and his wife, played with great outward chill and inward anger by Soledad Villamil. Pedro is the brother who stayed behind, to live a life of crimes both petty and serious (including kidnapping) and living for the day, the traditional getting by of the Delta natives, often at the expense of the Buenos Aires-type weekend and summer people. But when Pedro discovers he has incurable cancer, he decides to visit his long-estranged brother.

The visit has a simple reason; Pedro is terminal, and wants his brother's help in terminating his life. And when he dies, Agustin, whose relationship to his own life is terminal, leaves his brother's body behind in the tub, and goes back to the house where he grew up, pretending to be Pedro. As his wife will say to him, when he is briefly in jail, and she realises what has happened, 'you would rather be in prison than be yourself with your wife', which defines the kind of prison in which Agustin sees himself.

Viggo Mortensen, who spoke Spanish as a child in Argentina, plays both brothers, but of course here there is an added twist, as he is playing one brother playing the other. It's a brilliant performance, full of the uncertainties that define Agustin in relation to his past, a past he is incapable of escaping. More than that, by assuming Pedro's identity, he also assumes Pedro's choices. Agustin might enjoy the life of a simple honey-maker, Pedro's erstwhile occupation—and you might see it as the choice between the mind and the body, the id and the ego, but it creates for Agustin a responsibility as much as a freedom. Agustin has, in his mind, been living for other people's expectations, their dreams, while Pedro lives only for himself.

Because Pedro has been involved with some serious crimes, Agustin falls into the world of their childhood friend, Adrian, played with psychopathic relish and Johnny Hallyday-ish charm by Daniel Fanego. Adrian senses the change, recalling the brother whom he felt unequipped to survive in their environment, and makes the most of it. Also sensing the change is Rosa (Sofia Gala Castiglione), the young woman who is seemingly trapped in Adrian's web, or in the Delta world he, as a force of evil, represents. This is another prison, and Rosa soon becomes the person who has the ultimate plan, which is to simply leave it all behind. We realise this is not what Agustin has done; he has left one part of himself and returned to another, but he has not found a new, total self at all. And perhaps there is no room for change. It isn't really a plan at all, and throughout the movie, no one's plans seem to bear fruit. But as Mike Tyson famously said, 'everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face.'

Writer/director Ana Piterbarg's first feature is a noirish gem of character study that moves at a slow pace, the rhythm of the Delta, as it were. It's a slow burn, a build-up to the violence that has been implicit throughout the film, implicit in the Delta, which is shot with great creativity by Lucio Bonelli, combining beauty and threat, and always with a sense of confinment, whether is the apartment, the prison cell, or the Delta itself.

Mortensen, of course, can act in three languages, and the Tigre Delta is the same sort of evocative and ominous setting that the Louisiana bayou would be, when this film is remade in the States. Of course Mortensen won't be the star, but it will hard for anyone to match this performance, and along with The Hunt this has to be in the running for Crime Time's best foreign crime film of 2013.

Everybody Has A Plan is on release now

note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

EAT YOUR HEART OUT QUENTIN TARANTINO: MY MICKEY SPILLANE INTERVIEW

 
NOTE: In the summer of 1999, Mickey Spillane arrived in London to be honoured by the late lamented Crime Scene festival at the NFT. He had just flown in from South Carolina, via Charlotte, that morning, and his BBC handler wanted to make sure I understood I had 45 minutes with Mickey, who was, after all, in his 80s. Then he would rest before taking a taxi to Broadcasting House for another interview. After 45 minutes, Mickey shooed the handler away, and I ran out of tape as we continued talking until, literally, he was being pushed into the taxi cab.Caspar Llewellyn-Smith ran what follows, my short version of the interview, in the Daily Telegraph that Saturday--I later transcribed the whole thing for Crime Time, and maybe I'll post that here sometime too; it's worth it!

I, THE JURY, Mickey Spillane’s 1947 best seller, boasts the most infamous ending in hard-boiled fiction. Mike Hammer knows the woman he loves has murdered his best friend. She is seducing him with a strip tease. She’s also reaching for a gun behind her back. Hammer plugs her in her naked belly with a slug from his .45.


How c-could you?" she gasped
I had only a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
"It was easy," I said.

Eat your heart out, Quentin Tarantino. More than 50 years after writing those words, the king of pulp fictions is in London. Spillane's 81 years old, but his handshake could still crush a hoodlum’s trigger finger. He will deliver a Guardian Lecture tonight to keynote a season of crime films at the National Film Theatre, which includes the debut of a Spillane documentary directed by award-winning crime writer Max Allan Collins. "He was savaged by the critics," says Collins, "so Mickey developed this persona, entertainer and pitchman." 

And how. Interviewing Mickey is like saddling a bronco who refuses to be broken, and knows all the cowpunchers’ tricks. Ask about critics and he’ll tell you about interpreting between Salvador Dali and Jimmy Durante, who were both speaking English, more or less. Ask about politics and he’ll tell you about being shot from a circus cannon. There's no slowing down. And he’s still answering the inevitable questions about Mike Hammer’s violence with laughter.

"I tell them, you know why Mike shot that woman in the belly? He missed!"

Nowadays the violence of so-called neo-noir is high fashion, while Spillane’s has become somehow declasse. On its 50th anniversary, I THE JURY went out of print in America for the first time. Mickey’s surprised to learn he’s coming back into print in the UK with Robinson Publishing’s HARDBOILED: A MIKE HAMMER OMNIBUS, released to coincide with his visit. (Note: You can find my essay on the two Hammer omnibuses here).

"Corporate turnovers," he shrugs. "They thought I’m old and passe. I tell them I’m not an author, I’m a writer. I’m a merchandiser. I did Miller Lite commercials for 19 years on TV. The Mike Hammer TV series has been brought back for the fourth time. People know me, they stop me on the street."

In the adverts, Spillane, in trench coat and fedora, played himself as Mike Hammer with enough ironic humour to launch a thousand Tarantinos. "Hey, Mickey, got a Lite?" "Sure thing doll." The series featured many of America’s most famous sportsmen, but he was the star, the one they all looked up to. Spillane, like John Wayne (who gave him a treasured vintage Jaguar as a reward for some script doctoring) was what American men aspired to be. "Things change," he sighs. Well, almost sighs. "The Blue Ribbon’s gone in New York. We have no leaders to admire, all we’ve got is that cocksman in the White House" 

Spillane isn’t crazy about any of the Mike Hammer films either. The first, I THE JURY, was made by Victor Saville in 1953. Its NFT showing will be its first British showing in its original 3D format, and with the 20 minutes of cuts by the censors restored. But Spillane has never seen it all the way through.

"I went once in Brooklyn. Biff Elliott walks on screen and says "I’m Mike Hammer," and a voice in the audience howled ‘DAT’S Mike Hammuh?’ I walked out." He laughs again. "Victor wanted to make an epic, THE SILVER CHALICE, which fell on its face with a deathly thud. So to save money he gets this slob writer, and he rooned it! They have Mike getting knocked out with a wooden coat hanger!"

Ten years later, Spillane was cast as his own hero. Can you imagine Raymond Chandler playing Philip Marlowe? Mickey looks at stills from THE GIRL HUNTERS. "Good grief, did I ever look like that? There’s Shirley Eaton. What a pro; no ego, she just played the character and made me look good." The filming was done in Britain, where he palled around with gangsters like Billy Hills and Jack Spot. "When we needed a .45 for Mike, Billy brought a sack full of guns to the set, with live ammo."

The best-regarded Hammer adaptation is Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY, which ends in nuclear holocaust. Mickey hates it. "They never even READ my book!" Aldrich saw an apocalyptic strain in Hammer, and critics have recently tried to connect that to Spillane’s faith. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness, but the critics got it wrong. "It’s not the end of the world we witness," he says, "but parousia, the coming of the peace of God, the end of the system of things as they are. It’s taking in knowledge."

But confounding the critics is his favourite pastime. "It tears them up. I had seven books at once in the top ten best seller list. I said ‘you’re lucky I don’t write three more!'"

He’s written two children’s books. The first, THE DAY THE SEA ROLLED BACK, won the Junior Literary Guild Award. "I keep winning these crazy prizes," he shrugs. "It meant the book sells to libraries." And he’s still writing.

"I’m halfway through a new Mike Hammer novel," he says. "But I used to write fast…now my rear end gets tired. I’m not full of piss and vinegar any more. The vinegar’s all gone." He wrote I, THE JURY in nine days, originally plotting it as a comic book starring "Mike Danger". The book revolutionised the publishing industry.
"I knew it would be a hit. Paperback reprints were huge during the war, and I saw a market for originals. All those soldiers coming back. A little sex wouldn’t hurt, and they’d seen violence. I got a comic distributor to guarantee a paperback reprint, got a $1,000 advance from Dutton for the hardcover." Soon the only books outselling Spillane were the Bible and Dr. Spock. "I’ve gone downhill ever since," he laughs. 

Spillane has a radio interview next. He’s been talking for two hours; I’ve long since run out of tape. Across the room in the Savoy, a business meeting has ground to a halt, eavesdropping on Mickey’s spiel. After he leaves, they ask, "who was that?"
"Mickey Spillane," I tell them.
"Mickey Spillane! How do you interview Mickey Spillane?"
"It was easy," I said.

Monday, 10 June 2013

HEROES NEVER DIE: PARKER AND HAMMER

Note: this essay originally appeared as my twelfth American Eye column at Shots, in January 2009. I originally posted on this site a link to the piece, but the link no longer functions, hence my reprinting it now. But it prompted a spirited exchange with Max Allan Collins, which you can find with the original post here.

HEROES NEVER DIE

It's always sad to mark the passing of an era, and even sadder when you're reminded of another you'd marked already. This essay is dedicated to two giants of the field, which makes it appropriate that one of the books discussed is The Goliath Bone, the first of a number of Mike Hammer manuscripts Mickey Spillane left behind and which Max Allan Collins has completed. And at the end of January, less than a month after Donald Westlake's sudden death on New Year's Eve, Richard Stark's latest, and I suppose last, Parker novel, Dirty Money appears. It occurs to me you could argue that all the Parker books were begun by Westlake, and finished by Stark from Westlake's notes.


At one point in Dirty Money, the police release an artist's sketch which deliberately makes Parker kinder and softer, exactly what I mentioned when Westlake revived Stark and Parker in 1998 (was it really that long ago?). Kinder and gentler? Parker and Claire actually stay in a Berkshires B&B surrounded by leaf peepers, and Parker manages to blend in, as far as that goes. The subject of Parker aging never comes up, although his attitude toward Claire is somewhat less prehistoric than it was in the first series of books. He doesn't seem to have aged because Parker was never really a child of his time, or any time, but there is one problem: modern technology, surveillance, communications, forensics, have certainly made the life of the professional criminal more difficult.



The story picks up where Ask The Parrot left off, but the botched heist happened two books ago, in Nobody Runs Forever. I am convinced Westlake intended this story to be on-going, from book to book, for just as long as he could manage. Raymond Chandler once wrote that whenever your plotting gets stuck, have someone with a gun come in the room, Westlake has refined that dictum; the characters may or may not have guns, but they almost always have or can discover larcenous motives—double cross has always been the central theme of the Parker books. Parker is looking to collect cash he left behind in a church, and all sorts of people, from a tough-talking lesbian bounty-hunter to a hapless wanna-be true crime writer, are getting involved, and most of them are looking to take some of the dough, or all of it. They are introduced and described with such care, as are others, like the real Tony Soprano, New Jersey crime boss Frank Meany, or the Massachusetts state trooper Gwen Reversia, that you're certain they were destined to appear again. My feeling is that Parker's anonymity would continue to be compromised, book by book, until Westlake reached the point he couldn't write Parker out of. Things always came back to haunt Parker; if his life were easy, it would never have been fun to write about. Or to read. So I'm sad that my dream of Parker's Last Stand will never come about.



According to Mickey Spillane, there could never be a last stand for Mike Hammer, because 'see, heroes never die. John Wayne isn't dead. Elvis isn't dead...you can't kill a hero'. He said it to me when I interviewed him, he said it on stage the next night at the NFT, and I'm sure he said it a million more times. And it's true, but only to a point. The Duke didn't die, of course, but he went out perfectly before that death, in The Shootist. Even earlier he'd had the luxury of working his way through a host of different valedictory performances, among them The Cowboys (very good) True Grit (good) and McQ (not so good) before he and Don Siegel made their small classic.



Mike Hammer had no such luck; he's been out of print for a long time, consigned to being a relic of his era; Hammer is firmly entrench-coated into immediate postwar America, he's one of the best representations of the era's unconscious drives, and even though he moved reasonably well into the sixties, the ferocious drive and energy wasn't there; the times had changed (and so, in fairness, had Mickey). Mickey left six Hammer manuscripts in different stages of completion, and The Goliath Bone was the most fully finished, but it's also the most risky with which to launch a Hammer revival, because it's set in post 9/11 New York, thus taking Mike Hammer as far as possible out of own times and into a time warp.



Face it: Hammer has to be in his eighties by the time the jets crash into the World Trade towers. For the story's purposes, he's played as if in his late fifties or early sixties, I'd guess, and he's actually planning on making Velda an honest woman at long last, but it never jells. That's because it's not your disbelief you're being asked to suspend, but your belief, in the character Mickey created, and in the writing he did when he was young and hungry. The writing here, whether it's Mickeys or Max's, just doesn't have the same intensity; it's too knowing. The thing that made Kiss Me Deadly work so well as a film was that Robert Aldrich and Buzz Bezzerides recognised the primal drives that Hammer represented; they felt the energy in the prose, the manic power of the character. That's gone now; this Mike Hammer is far closer to Mickey doing his Miller Lite ads, or telling his fantastic stories; Stacy Keach could play this story in the TV series without too much problem; hell, Mickey might even be able to play it himself, in his 80s. But as Hammer fiction it just doesn't take off.



Not that they don't try. As Velda says, at one point, Mike is taking on, literally, the whole damn world, and the David and Goliath metaphor isn't lost on anyone. This is just before they actually do get married, and Mike turns down a hell of a seduction attempt on the eve of his wedding; this is a kinder gentler Mike Hammer too. Well kinder, maybe. And there are plenty of jokes about relics.



But even as the plot gets going, it winds up depending on his trusty .45 being not so trusty after all. The biggest twist is, if you know the Hammer novels, pretty obvious, and though it's fun, it just isn't the same thing. At one point, Pat Chambers, Hammer's long-time buddy, police foil, and longer-after Velda, says 'nothing lasts forever, Mike'. Velda tells him 'a relic is in the past, Mike'. That contradicts Mickey, who said that heroes never die, but they're both right. Heroes live forever, but they live in the worlds in which they are heroes, and they aren't always such heroes in other worlds. Apparently, some of the other unfinished Hammer novels are period pieces, and some take Hammer through the decades. I'll look forward to seeing what Mickey and Max do with Hammer in the world where he belongs. 

DIRTY MONEY by Richard Stark

Quercus, £16.99 ISBN 9781847247117

THE GOLIATH BONE by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Quercus, £17.99 ISBN9781847245953

MICKEY SPILLANE'S COMPLEX 90

The good thing about Complex 90 is that it reads like vintage Mickey Spillane, which shouldn't be a surprise, as Max Allan Collins, who has finished the book for Mickey, explains in the introduction. The title had once been announced for publication in the early Sixties, and Mickey gave him a partial manuscript to safeguard. It's set in 1964, with a new president in Washington and a new leader in Moscow, and Mike Hammer is hired as a bodyguard to accompany a straight-shooting (in the non Hammer sense) Republican senator to Russia, after helping said Senator survive an assassination attempt that killed his primary bodyguard. The novel opens with Hammer having got himself back to America after escaping from a Russian jail, and leaving a trail of (coincidentally enough) 45 Commies behind, meaning he's now an international incident.

Hammer then tells the first part of the story to the panel of US intelligence bigwigs, in flashback. This is always a dangerous thing, because you'd think he'd edit a few of the more lubricious details out of what he says (as opposed to what he tells us, the readers). This is the best pure Hammer in the book; his prison break is fast action set up by his hard-boiled resistance to his captors. As I said, vintage stuff.

Back in America, the question becomes why the Russians went after Hammer with such zeal. A question of revenge, against him and/or Velda, his former secretary and, as it turns out, an agent of the same top secret agency that employs Hammer? Or is there some other motive? Hammer investigates, Russians try to kill him, and he must beware of the motives of people who may appear to be friends, or, as always with Mike, potential lovers.

The story moves quickly, moved by its actions, as you expect from Spillane at his best. It's denouement is somewhat complicated, relying on an awful lot of engineering complicated plots which don't always seem necessary, and there's far more time spent on Hammer's head-butting with authority, establishing his own freedom to use his own methods, than there is on fleshing out (so to speak) some of the characters who are potentially villains. So when the truth is revealed, it's nowhere near as much shock as it ought to be.

My problem with the book is that this isn't a vintage of Hammer of which I'm particularly fond, although I thought The Big Bang, another of Mickey's posthumous collaborations with Max, set in 1965, was superb in many ways (you can read my review here). I remember liking The Girl Hunters (1961), but in Complex 90 the concept of Mike and Velda as secret agents gets carried to retrospective extremes—going back to the OSS during WWII for Velda—and Sixties spy excess. If the agency Mike and Velda work for really is so secret, why is Hammer carrying its ID around in his wallet, and how would anyone else know what the ID meant? I know this was the era of James Bond and Matt Helm and Man from UNCLE, but Mickey had Tiger Mann, and to me Mike Hammer is far more interesting as a private eye than a secret agent, especially since a good portion of his secret agency, as I mentioned, involves him arguing his bosses into letting him be a private eye. Call me conservative (which is what a Mike Hammer fan ought to be).

There is also an interesting private scene with Velda, which details her torture when she was trapped behind the Iron Curtain on a mission, which ends with something less than tender, but does go a long way into explaining why Mike and Velda never felt the need to marry—an issue in 21st-century set Goliath Bone. When I reviewed that book, it prompted a spirited exchange with Max Collins about what he called my 'distressingly literal' take on the book—and you can find that exchange here. I'm also going to reprint the original Shots review, as it doesn't seem to be up at their website any longer. And post the Telegraph version of my 1999 interview with Mickey. Meanwhile, enjoy...

Complex 90 by Mickey Spillane and Max Alan Collins
Titan Books £17.99 ISBN 9780857684660 

Note: This review, in slightly different form, will also appear at
Crime Time www.crimetime.co.uk

Sunday, 9 June 2013

DEACON JONES: AN APPRECIATION

I was hoping to write Deacon Jones' obit for one of the papers, but he wasn't really a concern for British audiences, so I wrote this instead, aimed not at an audience that had never heard of the Deacon, or did not comprehend American football, but one that does.
 

Great sportsmen leave legacies of definition. Some are so dominant they redefine the game, forcing changes in the rules. Basketball devised goaltending, offensive goaltending, widened the lane, and banned the dunk to neutralise big men, like Bob Kurland, George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Lew Alcindor, when their opponents could not. Lords made rules to restrict fast bowling after Thompson and Lillie and the great West Indies attacks of the late 70s.

Greats often have signature moves, even outside pro wrestling. Deacon's was the head slap. He didn't invent the head slap, but as he famously said, 'Rembrandt didn't invent paint'. He was so devastating smashing his open hand over the ear-hole of opponents' helmets that the NFL banned the move ('hands to the face'), which was still being coached in high school and college when I played, the celebrated 'ringing his bell'.

And finally, greats are often defined by their nicknames, different ways of capturing their greatness which eclipse their given names. The true greats often have more than one, and some of them are the kind of definers sportswriters used to make up in the pre-Chris Berman days. Think of 'Babe' Ruth, the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat. Deacon Jones, who has died aged 74, is one of those rare sportsmen who qualifies in both those categories, but more than that, he also defined his own dominance so perfectly, his definition sticks as part of gridiron football's jargon. 'Deacon' gave himself that name, which has a threatening, grave-side feel to it, because he didn't want to be just another David Jones. If he hadn't, in LA he might have been mistaken for one of the Monkees. But the press also termed him 'the Secretary of Defense' when he went to Washington.

Starring for the Los Angeles Rams' defensive line known collectively as 'The Fearsome Foursome', Deacon specialised in turning the drop-back pass into hazardous duty for quarterbacks. As he explained: 'you take all the offensive linemen and put them in a burlap bag, and then you take a baseball bat and beat on the bag. You're sacking them, you're bagging them. And that's what you're doing with a quarterback.' The term 'sack' was born, but it took nearly 20 years before it became an official statistic in 1982.

Which is a shame, because if anyone had been counting sacks while Deacon was busy accumulating and defining them, his legacy might well be even greater, if that's possible. There have been attempts to go back and count sacks, post quarterback mortem if you will, but its a haphazard business without actual film: you can't reconstruct a sack from the box score, like baseball historians did when they retroactively counted saves by pitchers who saved games before the concept or the stat even existed. The consensus seems to be that Deacon had two seasons, 1964 and 1968, of 22 sacks each, which would be the NFL record if anyone had been counting, and if Michael Strahan's bogus sack on Brett Favre's lie-down were removed from history as it should be. Some historians give him 26 sacks in 1967 (he was the NFL's defensive player of the year in both 67 and 68). Coy Bacon is sometimes also credited with 26 sacks in 1976, but in both cases other recounts have lowered the figure. Deacon's unofficial total of 194, including that 26, would still rank third all-time.

Deacon's path to the NFL was not easy. He was expelled from South Carolina State, a black university, for participating in civil rights protests, and wound up at Mississippi Vocational College (now Mississippi Valley State) another segregated institution, but one well off the scouting circuit. The story is Rams scouts saw him on film, while watching for someone else, and noticed a 270 pound lineman running down pass receivers. They drafted him in the 14th round.

He joined a Rams team that had a decade earlier been the NFL's most exciting and glamorous, but was struggling. He joined veteran Lamar Lundy to form a good pair of defensive ends. Coach Bob Waterfield would soon be replaced by Harland Svare, and the Rams drafted Merlin Olsen with their first pick in 1962, and he made an immediate impact at tackle. In 1963 Svare traded for his former Giants' teammate Rosey Grier and the Fearsome Foursome was complete.

Historians will show there were other references to defensive lines being called 'Fearsome Foursomes', including one Grier played on, and Svare played behind, in New York. But the label had been placed on the AFL's Chargers the year they moved from LA to San Diego, 1961, when the now sadly overlooked Earl Faison joined Ernie Ladd, Bill Hudson, and Ron Nery. Maybe the LA press stole the name from San Diego, but when George Allen arrived as head coach in 1966, he turned the defense loose, and the Rams' fortunes around.

In Allen's second year, 1967, the Rams lost only one game in the season, finishing 11-1-2. But they had to travel to Milwaukee to play Green Bay (9-4-1) for the conference playoff, where they lost decisively to the Packers, which set up the Ice Bowl the following week in Green Bay. Having the play on the road was unfortunate, but Green Bay matched up well against the Rams; in the regular season's final game the Rams had just squeaked past the Pack despite sacking Bart Starr six times. The Packers had probably the league's best offensive line, and they used fullback Chuck Mercein to help; Starr was sacked only once in Milwaukee while Willie Davis and the Packers got to Roman Gabriel six times, which blew a hole in the Rams' accusations that the Packers softened the Milwaukee field to slow them down. I can recall the Packers suggesting that the Fearsome Foursome were controllable, just as they thought they could handle Dallas' D, led by Bob Lilly.

The Rams might have fallen short of the big prize, but Jones and the Rams captured the hearts of LA, if such things exist in LA, and took advantage of the media opportunities that attention created. Olsen became a successful actor, Jones was a successful singer, did quite a bit of acting and was a frequent pitchman, most famously for Lite beer, and Greir did a bit, as well as becoming an aide to Bobby Kennedy; he was at his side when RFK was killed. Deacon's self-promoting wasn't as flashy as Joe Namaths, but it was always backed up with results—he is a significant figure in the development of modern sportsmen.

Deacon played with the Rams between 1961-71, two years for the Chargers, and 1974 when he was reuinted with Allen at the Redskins. That's Allen, in the photo above, presenting Jones when he was inducted into the Hall Of Fame; when Allen went in, posthumously, in 2002, it was Jones whom the family asked to present him.

Jones was All-Pro, unanimously, every year between 1965-69, and second team three other times. He went to seven straight Pro Bowls with the Rams, and another with the Chargers. He was an automatic choice for the 75th anniversary all-time NFL team picked in 1994. His individual dominance is hard to assess partly because of the flair with which he accomplished it, and partly because of the hype, but whenever I look at all-time teams, and get into the argument of could these guys play in the modern game, where everyone is bigger and stronger, I point to Jones, a 270 pound end with strength, quickness, and an arsenal of pass-rush weapons, and say 'he could'.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

ANDREW GREELEY: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Father Greeley, the priest and prolific writer, is online at the Guardian (link here) and might well be in the paper paper on Monday. Father Greeley was a fascinating character--someone who might have stepped from a Warner Bros. movie in the Thirties (Angels With Dirty Faces?) played by Pat O'Brien. It was a cliche he played to the hilt in Chicago, with his column in the Sun-Times and his very high-profile rooting for Chicago's teams. Interesting chose the Cubs over the White Sox.

I was tempted to try to do a comparison with Greeley and the Berrigans--the most telling point being that for all his criticism of the Catholic church, Greeley never left it. Indeed, despite being an advocate of reform influenced (at least it seemed to me) by liberation theology, Greeley also was a firm believer in many Catholic traditions, foremost among them parochial education and celibacy for priests. My sense is his politics moved further to the left as society moved further toward the right, toward greater inequality, and greater worship of Mammon. Although, as a best-selling author, he himself did live well.

And best selling he was--though his high sales in later years were more a factor of his prodigious output. I can't say I've ever paid much attention to his fiction, which seems both formulaic and also a vehicle for his examining issues which concerned him. I was serious, however, in praising his sociological work on Catholocism, and I would be very curious to read his book on the ascension of Pope Benedict, not least to see what his personal reaction was, but primarily to get an insider/outsider view of the politics involved. I can't believe he was happy when Benedict claimed child-abuse was a product of 'normal behaviour' in the licensentious 70s. In that context, though, I read an interesting essay Greeley wrote on the legacy of Pope John Paul II (you can find that here) and it made me wonder if Greeley ever thought of fictionialising the conspiracy theories around the death of John Paul I (either that he was murdered or that he died while in bed with a nun). Just a thought. If Greeley already had that thought and wrote a novel about it, please let me know.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

TOM SHARPE: THE MOST RIOTOUS ASSEMBLY

It was with some sadness and some bittersweet nostalgia I heard the news of Tom Sharpe's death, and I wonder now why more isn't be made of the career of this great comic novelist.

Looking back, I suppose I might have been foreshadowing my own life, but when I lived in Montreal in 1975-76, I was addicted to Tom Sharpe novels. I can't remember now if I discovered them there, perhaps through my English girlfriend, or if I had already been reading them, but I do know I found quite a few of them in The Word bookstore, the Pan editions whose covers were as chaotically attractive as the books, and I do know they were laugh-aloud funny, especially in the middle of French Canada. But one thing for certain, is that I came to Britain from Montreal half-expecting it to be a comic paradise reflecting Sharpe's writing, and finding myself only barely half wrong.

Once in the green and blessed land, however, my attachement to Sharpe soon faded. Some of it was his own losing some edge--after all, the underlying savagery of the satire in the early books was always going to be diffifcult to draw upon--and some of it was my realising the the reality of living in this country was almost as satirical as satire itself. Sharp often adopted a Colonel Blimpish persona, but when in the writing you begin to feel the hand of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, you might well turn elsewhere.

As if to illustrate the point, it always intrigued me that Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, his first two books, both of which were set in South Africa, weren't anywhere near as respected in this country as, say, Wilt, Blott On The Landscape, or Porterhouse Blue (not to diminish either of those books, which deserve their comparisons with Wodehouse and Waugh). But the South African books have a much more cutting satire behind them, as befits Sharpe's own experience in the country (and indeed as the child of a British fascist father and a South African mother).

I think, however, that he was hugely influential. I don't think Malcolm Bradbury's academic satires would be half as funny without Sharpe's influence, for example. Bradbury did the adaptation for the excellent TV version of Porterhouse Blue, and you can see the Ian Richardson House Of Cards set-up taking place right before your eyes. Sharpe was anarcghic, and could write slapstick, which is a very hard thing to do well--you have to create characters who are both real and absurd, and you have to maintain enoughh sympathy for the the audience to anticipate what's coming, and regret it as well as laugh at it. He was a master of that.

Trying to think of who has come along since Sharpe, I can't really come up with an equivalent, though in sf both Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchet might be considered in the vein. I wonder if it's because self-satire has become too facile a vein to mine--or perhaps because there's so much of it about. Sharpe's best work, to an outsider, cut to the bone. But to the Brits themselves, it simply reinforced the sense of a pleasant eccentricity, which in the end would ensure everything continued as it always had. So Sharpe became a sort of 'national treasure' as the modern term goes. But at his peak, I think Tom Sharpe suggested something different--and the power of his humour came from that.