Thursday, 19 October 2017

RIDDLE: A POEM FROM RICHARD WILBUR'S CLASS

I mentioned that I could recall one exercise I did for Richard Wilbur's poetry writing class. This was in the fall of 1970; I was 19, beginning my third year of college, and as I wrote in the previous post, the student strike had convinced me that if I was going to stay in college, I was going to study what I wanted to study. Though I'm not sure this sort of thing was my ultimate goal. If I can find any others from that time which are a bit more, well, you know, I may post them here.

The assignment was to write a riddle in verse.  I was quite pleased when I came up with this one, and if I remember correctly he of course guessed it right away (it ain't hard) but said something nice about the originality of the metaphor, or some such.

I couldn't find a copy of it, but I did find its index card in my files, because it was actually published, in Frank Denton's magazine Ash Wing, in 1977. I hadn't remembered that at all. But I've written it below, from memory. I think I'd get rid of jaundiced in this context and maybe reverse 'around the world' and 'over the top', which I'd originally done writing in logical progression, though the phrases sound better ordered as they are.


RIDDLE

Bright jaundiced yo-yo
What tricks can you do?
Around the world, over the top
And a wicked all-day sleeper too.

RICHARD WILBUR: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

Richard Wilbur, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and America's second Poet Laureate, died last Saturday. My obit of him went up at the Guardian online Tuesday; you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. I had actually written it quite a while ago, probably about ten years ago, long enough that it was saved in my computer in Microsoft Works! However it didn't require much updating, and I was very happy with what I'd written then.

When I was at Wesleyan, Wilbur was one of the two glamorous figures in the English department. The other was F.D. Reeve (father of the actor Christopher), whose obituary I also wrote, four years ago for the Independent. You can link to that one here. What links the two, apart from their patrician elegance, is Robert Frost and Russia. Reeve was Frost's translator when the older poet went to Russia, Wilbur translated Russians, especially Yevtushenko. But more importantly, Wilbur really was the heir to Frost's position as an American poet. His work has the same precision of language, the same sensitivity to the natural world, the same sense of some sort of moral agency behind it, though crucially I find Wilbur's world-view far less dark and far more approachable in our time than Frost's. I almost see it more in Wilbur's blank verse, and occasional free verse, than in the rhymed poems, but it's certainly there. That he was never able to assume Frost's centrality in America's public arts world speaks more to the changes both in American poetry and American society than it does to Wilbur.

I saw him compared to both Auden and Larkin in some obituaries, and it's easy enough to see why. But he's not as showy with his language as Auden, and he's nowhere near as misanthropic, as presumptively world-weary as Larkin. Somehow it's hard to imagine either of those poets translating Moliere with the playful verve Wilbur managed--I do recommend those to anyone still reading this far!

I was lucky enough to take two courses with Wilbur. One was his basic poetry course, where as I say in the obit, his breakdown of a wide range of poets was stunning: his command of the deeper meaning of words, their roots, their sounds, their usages was comprehensive, and he liked poets who could use words deftly and unusually: Hopkins and Cummings, I recall. I then came back and got into his verse writing course the following year, by which time, after the student strike of 1970, I had decided I should be studying those subjects I wanted to study. Wilbur had been one of the professors most supportive of the strike; I remember cycling round campus with the strike paper the morning his poem 'For The Student Strikers' appeared, hawking it like a newsie with a headline: 'Strike paper! Wilbur Poem! Getcher Wilbur poem here'.  The photo above left shows the documentary film-maker Stephen Talbot leading an anti-war march in Middletown in 1969: if you closely behind him you'll see Wilbur, a few rows back, unprepossessingly marching with the students.

I had published a poem when I was 16, in the New Haven Register, but I should have realised just how big a step a class with him would be. Wilbur was not a touchy-feely kind of teacher, but each assignment came back with thoughtful (and gentle) criticism of my work. I can recall one short exercise I wrote for him, a riddle, and he took great pleasure in guessing it, correctly of course.

At some point after that class, I discovered Charles Olson, a Wesleyan alumnus, and my view of poetry changed completely. I wish I'd been able to start making that leap while I was submitting poems to Wilbur, because his input probably would have spurred me on. But though the style I began to absorb from Olson was very different to Wilbur's I never lost my desire to be able to express myself with a mere fraction of Wilbur's acuity, grace, and precision.

It was a privilege to be able to write Wilbur's obit and note his passing for a British audience. I hope I did him justice. I just wish the paper would occasionally use a younger photo of poets who lived nearly 100 years! The first photo at top right is of the young poet; the one just above to the right is from about the time I was a student at Wesleyan, and how I remember him. RIP

Monday, 16 October 2017

GETTING CADLED: A REMEMBRANCE OF KEVIN CADLE

My friend and colleague Kevin Cadle died unexpectedly yesterday, aged 62. I've written an appreciation of my man for nfluk.com, you can find it here. It was a shock, especially since he was supposed to do our Talksport show that night, and I was looking forward to doing his Sportsheads programme this week. Just saying that reminds how much of our careers in this business depends on relationships: Kev brought me aboard on Showtime Sport's Euroleague basketball (it was in 2003 and 2004, not the late Nineties as I misremembered) and I was able to throw some things his way: it was true that we talked about that old time feeling of working together regularly just a couple of weeks ago: you just never know what will happen.

As some of you may remember, Kev replaced me on the Sky NFL show. Sky being Sky no one ever bothered to inform me of this, but I was lucky enough to have Channel Five pick up the late night Sunday and Monday games soon after, and the rest was history. The Sky NFL producer was on holiday, and had assumed someone else would let me know; meanwhile Kev and I had lunch in Primrose Hill when he knew but I still didn't. The next time we got together (which curiously enough was by accident, and on Primrose Hill) we had a talk. Kev hadn't wanted to bring the subject up, because he felt embarrassed and, assuming Sky would have had the grace to inform me; he figured I was being polite and not bringing it up either. That we stayed friends says all that needs to be said.

The photo above was taken just about a year ago, after the NFL game at Twickenham, when I interviewed Kev on stage to help promote his memoir, The Cadle Will Rock. In the middle is Karl Baumann, who was our producer on WLAF/NFL Europe. I'd tell the Amsterdam story now, but this isn't the time or the place.

But it makes me smile. I've got others; the Frankfurt concentration camp one is my favourites. Maybe someday. And this is the absolute truth: no sooner had I posted this than my email showed a request from Kevin to connect on Linkedin. He'd Cadled me one last time! This morning someone posted a picture of Kev and Cecil Martin carving the Thanksgiving turkey, a Sky tradition which I believe was Karl's idea. It was high sports comedy, and it got better every year. When I saw the photo I started laughing out loud. And then I cried. RIP Big Guy.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM: WRONG TURN ON RIPPER STREET

NOTE: This review contains some spoilers, but that shouldn't matter because the film offers its own spoilers early on.

It's the East End of London, before the Ripper murders, but the Limehouse Golem is a serial killer who has already killed a prostitute, a Jewish scholar, and a family in the rag trade. The police have no clue, but the public and press are clamoring for results so Scotland Yard hands the investigation to Inspector Kildare, a detective who has gone nowhere in the Yard because he is 'not the marrying kind', and thus will be gladly sacrificed to the public as the murders multiply.

But as Kildare joins the case, he is presented with a domestic poisoning, of playwright John Cree by his wife Lizzie, a former music hall star in the female impersonator Dan Leno's shows. And the two cases turn out to be connected, as Kildare discovers in the reading room of the British Museum, where Thomas DeQuincey's infamous essay on the art of murder has been annotated by the Golem himself. Which limits the list of suspects to Cree, Leno, Karl Marx and George Gissing.

Does this not sound like the skeleton of a tremendous film? It is taken from Peter Ackroyd's novel Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem, and the possibilities are endless. A conflation of the Ratcliff Highway murders about which DeQuincey wrote, and the story of James Maybrick, the Ripper suspect poisoned by his wife, Ackroyd's book was a rich mining of the nuances of Victorian sexuality, as well as a turn about performance, creation and fame. Screenwriter Jane Goldman said it was a long-time dream of hers to adapt the book for the screen. But that long-time does not appear to have been used in considering what would be the best way to do that.

The biggest problem is that the story's big twist, the identity of the killer, is made obvious a third of the way through the film, and that leaves the viewer hoping that some more exotic twist may be in the offing—a bit of stagecraft magic from Leno, perhaps, or a demented Kildare turning out to be the killer. The latter would make great sense, not just because Bill Nighy sleepwalks his way through the role, perhaps thinking he's already played a Peter Cushing role at least once. His eventual awakening would be welcome,  because Kildare's closeted sexuality could have spurred exactly the sense of murderous rage the killer shows. Though of course how it would apply to the victims chosen would still be problematic. It's interesting that Alan Rickman was originally cast in the role, but had to bow out as he grew ill.

Oddly enough, the movie is content to leave most of those questions of sexuality lurking in the background. Leno is a female impersonator; Lizzie starts her career playing men. Kildare's assistant turns out to be sympathetic to his sexuality, though nothing is made of this. Uncle, the theatre manager played by Eddie Marsan, turns out to be a sado-masochist not above blackmailing Lizzie into servicing his needs. The acrobat Aveline (played with bitchy menace by Maria Valverde), who loses Cree to Lizzie, then joins the household, taking the pain of wifely duties away from Lizzie. This is a rich broth of sexuality in conflict, but most of it goes nowhere. Perhaps they were worried about revealing the twist too son were they to reveal too much, but because they point you so obviously in the direction of the real killer that's no excuse.

The story is told through imaginings by Kildare of the various suspects carrying out the killings, and through Lizzie's own story, told to Kildare as she awaits first trial and then the noose for poisoning her husband. Kildare's protective attraction to Lizzie is hard to figure, except that it's necessary for the plot, but we see Lizzie abused sexually as a young girl and then punished brutally by her mother for having been abused. Orphaned at 14, she makes her way into the theatre, and with the unfortunate death of Leno's midget foil takes over that place in his act and becomes a star.

So as Lizzie directs Kildare's Inspector Knacker, we lose further opportunities. Karl Marx is played by Henry Goodman in a fake nose wig and beard as if he were a music hall character, he adds nothing to the film; nor does Morgan Watkins' George Gissing, though he is shown in an opium den and explains he's married a fallen woman to try to save her.When you consider the way director Juan Carlos Medina sets the scene, half Hammer horror and half Ripper Street, to show us all the degradations of the East End, you might expect to get more than a knowing nod to where each of those characters came from.

But in the end, it is Lizzie's film, and Olivia Cooke rises to the challenge by channeling her inner Kate Winslet, almost to the point of parody. The directors' and her real interest seems to be the music hall and the backstage world; obviously that is where Lizzie has come alive, but it turns out to be a thing much deeper than that and we're never really convinced of that. And when the denouement comes, a lot of heavy mascara is no substitute for character. You might have expected a bit more of Dan Leno, who is played well enough by Douglas Booth, though as with Marx or Gissing, the film always backs off giving him more character to explore. Even in the film's final scene, in which Aveline dies in an accident, playing Lizzie in the noose, you wonder if there's something you missed—though the film immediately tells you you haven't, by going to a celebratory shot of Lizzie, though you obviously have.

It's that kind of movie. Gratuitously violent at times, well-set up at others, it in the end goes around in circles, to no point because the audience knows too well where it is going to end up. It would have been easy to have made the journey more worthwhile.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

GOD OF WAR: EPIC HISTORY, MARTIAL ARTS & WESTERN MOVIES

It's a nice piece of synchronicity that the next film I saw after Blade Of The Immortal was God Of War, a Chinese wuxia war drama based on historical events of the 16th century. The film opens with Chinese soldiers under General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) being defeated by Japanese pirates who are preying on the coast of China. Yu is stymied by a lack of tactical imagination, inferior troops, and the politics of the Ming dynasty. Young General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) arrives to take charge, and wins the chess game against the pirates, driving them away.

So far, so simple. The battle scenes are done well, and the tensions within the Chinese camp have a nice parallel with the Japanese invaders: the 'pirates' are largely ronin, battling for plunder and women, being supervised by samurai. The young Lord Yamagawa (Kaisuke Koide) is offended by this affront to the samurai ethos, but the commander, his sensei Kumasawa (Yasuaki Kurata) is playing his own chess game with a sort of zen patience which General Qi visually is shown to echo.

With the battle won, General Qi eventually wins his argument to recruit and train his own army, why General Yu is arrested by the Ming government. And when the Japanese return in force, Qi is put in a dilemma of having to defend three towns, including the one where his army's families have been left behind, against a vastly superior force.

Fans of non-stop action will be disappointed, not least because Sammo Hung plays such a small part (in fact I was half-convinced he would be released from prison and ride to the rescue in the final scenes). He and Zhao get one scene, in the prison cell, where they display their individual fighting skills, but Hung's presence, his calm acceptance of his political fate is somewhat wasted here. That kind of fighting is not the point, however, because God Of War is a real historical drama, and so intent on proving the superiority of the Chinese to the Japanese it resembles wartime propaganda. That it was scripted by four writers reflects a somewhat disjointed structure, as it veers between action, intrigue, and even domestic drama. But at its best it reminded me of John Ford and his cavalry trilogy. Not only are there distinct echoes of Fort Apache in the training scenes (borrowed by Kurosawa for The Seven Samurai, then again by John Sturges for The Magnificent Seven), but it's easy to see Capt. Kirby Yorke in General Qi. I might be stretching things to suggest a brief homage to Chariots Of Fire in one training scene, though without the Vangelis.

I found the historical backdrop fascinating, and the Ming subplot intriguing. Even more compelling is a subplot which recalls Ford's Rio Grande: General Qi's petulant and impulsive wife hen-pecks the great leader, before his men (including the leader of the miners Qi has recruited to form his new army) but when the Japanese attack comes, and his base city has to be defended by its population, Lady Qi (Regina Wan) stops being Maureen O'Hara and turns into a warrior as well.

The battles are exciting, with new technologies introduced, three-eyed muskets and multi-pronged lances disguised as tree branches, as well as a 'Crouching Tiger Cannon' which is a bit deus ex machina, but for all the explanation, cheerleading, and historical details, what makes God Of War work is the interplay of characters, and the final showdown between Qi and Kumasawa reduces the vast scale of the drama down to great man. It's effective. Zhao is hamstrung somewhat by his need to play humility, but Kurata is outstanding as the Japanese sensei, and Wan, who is the centre of virtually every moment she's on screen, is worthy of O'Hara in her fiery scenes, and dynamic in her fight scenes. Ryu Kohata gets to have fun as the leader of the ronin, and the leader of the miners is played by Sammo's son Timmy Hung, which ensures another individual fight with Qi.

It's uneven, and fans of non-stop action might be bored, but God Of War is a sort of thinking man's wuxia, a return to form for director Gordon Chan, and a showcase for some personal conflicts within an epic backdrop.

GOD OF WAR is released on blue-ray, DVD and digital on 16 October.

This review will also appear at DVDChoices.co.uk

Monday, 9 October 2017

TAKASHI MIIKE'S BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL: LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017: 1

This is apparently Takashi Miike's 100th feature film, and as such made its London debut as the Gala show  of the 'Thrill' Strand of the London Film Festival yesterday. It's an epic swordsman movie, with supernatural overtones, and like most of Miike's work, based on other sources, in this case a manga series by Hiroaki Samura. It's very different from Miike's last LFF entry, Yakuza Apocalypse, in 2015. Like that film, which I discussed on our late, lamented Americarnage podcast, but about which I didn't write, there's a serious theme behind the over the top treatment of violence. Apocalypse was somewhat derivative of blaxploitation and early vampire tropes, everything from Solomon Kane to Kolchak. 

But the basic theme, equating the Yakuza with vampires, was a thread that tried to hold the whole thing together, at least until the face of the ultimate apocalypse, a giant soft frog, appeared. To music that sounded like Ennio Morricone scoring the Teletubbies. I found my screening notes, and I'd actually scrawled 'some weird shit coming out of nowhere', which is a good description of Miike's work.

For someone who works so quickly, Miike can make some incredibly artful cinema. Blade Of The Immortal opens in black and white, a homage of sorts to the 50s. Manji (the name echoes Clint Eastwood's 'Joe Manco', The Man With No Name') is a samurai who is tracking down his sister, who's lost her senses after seeing her husband killed by Manji, under orders from his master. The kidnappers kill her, in a scene echoing The Wild Bunch, before Manji literally disposes of the entire bunch, somewhere between 70-100 (I lost count). He is dying, but a witch feeds him 'bloodworms' which heal his wounds, rejoin his severed hand to his body, and basically render him immortal.

Fifty years later, and in a fine, cold-toned colour, he meets a young girl (Hana Sugasaki, shown right with Miike)  whose parents (her father is a samurai sensei) have been murdered by a group of swordsmen, the Itto-ryu, who eschew the honourable tactics of samurai, insisting on winning at all costs. He eventually agrees to avenge them on her behalf.

What follows is interesting, but to be honest it's a bit boring. I wrote that after yet another one man against dozens fight. Despite the set-up, which would augur some internal, as well as external battling, Blade Of The Immortal really becomes a kind of Kill Bill, or Kill Lots More Bill. The presence of Kazuki Kitamura here does little to avoid one making that connection. But seriously, there doesn't seem to be any substantial difference between the Itto-ryu and other fighters, particularly those from the government, and there is no real examination of the samurai code. Nor, despite the strains of facing an immortal life thanks to witchy worms, does Manji appear to try to figure much out. It's superficial compared to some of the work of Beat Takeshi, where existential questions of samurai loyalty and life's meaning often haunt the story, or even to Miike's own 13 Assassins, a film which draws quite heavily on westerns (my review is here) or Yakuza Apocalypse.

Takuya Kimura is fine as Manji, but the show is mostly stolen by Sugisaka as the young girl he eventually equates with his long-gone sister. The villains are all impressive, especially Sota Fukushi as the androgynous head of the Itto-ryu, particularly when he gets the tables turned on him by sneaky Imperial bureaucrats. Miike presents the Tarantino-like anachronistic costumes, and there is a good bit of his trademark dark humour. But one wishes Miike would have done more to condense the story into its main lines: graphic novels are told quickly, although series do meander. But I get the feeling that for number 100, Miike was looking to go full Tarantino.

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

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

OJ SIMPSON: SPORTING WITNESS

I was interviewed by the BBC World Service programme Sporting Witness, to talk about OJ Simpson as he was being released from prison. My part of the programme was to put his football abilities into context, though I also experienced his charisma first hand at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, where he was accompanied, I think, by Paula Barbieri (I'm not sure because he never introduced her, and there was a certain uniformity to some of his women: having just written about Hefner, you could see OJ buying into the whole Playboy Philosophy. Just check out his house before his lawyers gave it the right-on make-over!) You can link to the show here; it was produced by Simon Watts and it's worth a listen.

Monday, 2 October 2017

HEFNER VS FEMINISM: SAMIRA AHMED (AND ME) IN THE GUARDIAN ON PLAYBOY

Samira Ahmed has written a piece on Hugh Hefner for the Guardian, on the place of Playboy and Hugh Hefner in the culture wars of the 1970s. You can link to it here. I'm quoted in it a few times. As I had just written on him for TLS and talked about him on BBC Radio 4 Last Word (see previous posts) we wound up discussing part of his place in our respective cultural developments--mostly at the point where, as I mention in the TLS, Hef had ceased to a 'revolutionary' and more a marketer widening out from the middle-brow middle-class which was his original target with Playboy.  As you might glean from the quotes, the discussion was spirited and fun: where it should have taken place was on BBC Radio 4 Front Row, but sadly Hef didn't schedule his death conveniently enough.

The first black playmate actually arrived in the pages of the magazine, via the Chicago Playboy club, in 1965: a better way of looking at the racial mix of playmates might be to consider how close they adhered to the template that Hef had established. I always assumed Hef thought of himself as a classic liberal as far as race relations went, but that didn't change what were his fetishes regarding the girl next door. I loved Samira's take on the London Playboy Club, and her parents' visits their on business (it was the only place in London to get a decent steak, she told me they said). As I said, we should've had this talk on the radio!

I thought Samira's take on IVF, that women use it because they are forced to wait for men's immaturity to pass, was a bit harsh. I would have guessed that a bigger factor was women's desire to get ahead on the business ladder while they are young, knowing that motherhood is most often a set-back on the corporate ladder. This is, of course, the ethos of a male-dominated world, and it raises a basic dilemma about feminism, and indeed other liberation philosophies: do you work to change society's mores, to open up opportunities for all, or do you reach out to grab your fair share of what society offers, within the existing mores. Samira mentioned Gloria Steinem and Debby Harry as former Bunnies with different attitudes; you might look at say Erica Jong's Fear Of Flying and the 'zipless fuck' as a way of simply appropriating the Playboy philosophy for women.

And the Guardian, being the Guardian, spelled hippie 'hippy' in the copy, meaning that even though it was my quite, when I saw 'hippy chicks' in print my first thought was confusion over what being broad-beamed had to do with anything. But they have made the same 'correction' to my copy when I've written for them too!

HUGH HEFNER: MY TAKE ON BBC LAST WORD

I appeared on Last Word last Friday, talking about Hugh Hefner, and the literary side of Playboy, which I was also writing about for TLS. You can link to it here. I mentioned Alex Haley, and they had a great quote from Hefner mentioning George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi party; in my piece you can read the story of the that interview. It's a fascinating radio show: I wish I'd heard the other quotes included, but of course, as with the TLS piece, it goes into the wider picture of Hefner and society...and the London Playboy Club.

I BUY IT FOR THE ARTICLES: HUGH HEFNER, PLAYBOY, AND LITERATURE

I've done another essay for the TLS, about the literary content of Playboy; it was published yesterday and you can link to it here. It was frustrating to write in one sense: Hef turns out to be a a major figure in the culture of my lifetime, but also one who serves as a lightning-rod for many of the debates about that culture. I could have gone off any any number of tangents, but quite rightly TLS wanted to keep the focus on the written context of the magazine.

I hinted at the Howard Hughes analogy: remember Hughes designed bras, had countless affairs with starlets (sort of the equivalent of playmates and bunnies) but also with numerous big-name successful
actresses. He was a more active version of Hefner's playboy prototype, but like Hef he wound up living in a cocoon (in Hughes' case a germ-free one) indulging himself with movies. I might have to explore that one a little farther.