Tuesday, 31 October 2017

SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN WESTMINSTER

The shock horror at revelations of inappropriate sexual behaviour in the House of Commons came as a huge surprise to the media who cover Parliament. There has never been a sex scandal in Westminster before. Ever. Right? I should Profumo, to use some rhyming slang. I can't tell if the present scandals are considered better or worse than a major party leader hiring a hitman to kill his gay lover, but time and the tabloids will tell. I am suspicious, however, of any scandal which allows Julia Heartless-Bruiser to play the heroine.
But to get on point, when it comes to inappropriate behaviour with subordinates, I recall a column Simon Hgoggart wrote thirty-some years ago. It was probably in the Tina Brown Tatler, which I confess to having read back then, and hooked to the scandal of Margaret Thatcher's favourite cabinet minister, Cecil Parkinson, impregnating his secretary, Sara Keays, during a long affair, all the while upholding Mrs. Thatcher's 'Victorian Values' as one of the heartthrobs of the blue-rinse Tory faithful ought to.

This must have been in 1983, when the scandal forced his resignation, but before his heartless callous bullying treatment of Keays after her daughter was born became public knowledge. Hoggart was, like most of the Westminster insiders, approaching it with some levity. I couldn't find the original column, but memory says it the punchline was something like "it would be an exaggeration to say that the air at Conservative Central Office at 5pm on a Friday was filled with the noise of assistants smacking against desk tops, but not much of one."
They say politics is show business for ugly people, which doesn't explain Harvey Weinstein, but may go some way toward understanding how the power elite functions with those less powerful, in the hothouse and treacherous upwardly mobile atmosphere of Parliament. Shocked! I'm shocked to discover politicians abusing those under them...now they know how the electorate feels.

9/11, ROBERT MUELLER AND SAUDI ARABIA

I am not sure exactly what this means, but I do advise care in following Robert Mueller's investigations. He is described as dogged and perseverant, as scrupulous and honest, but also as loyal, and the question might be to whom is his ultimate loyalty? Here's a portion of a remarkable bit of investigation by Patrick Cockburn of the ongoing 9/11 lawsuit, the Saudi connection, and Mueller's stone-walling of it 15 years ago.

"The reason we know so much about the West Coast activities of the (9/11) hijackers is largely because of Michael Jacobson...an investigatior for the Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Community Activities (relating to) the Terrorist Attacks Of (9/11). Reviewing files at FBI headquarters, he came across a stray reference to an informant in San Diego who had known one of the hijackers. Intrigued, he decided to follow up in the San Diego field office. Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (said) Robert Mueller, then the FBI director...made the "strongest objections" to Jacobson and his colleagues visiting San Diego.." This is Patrick Cockburn in the current issue of Harpers. He goes on to report the links beween the hijackers and Saudi funding of people they visited, and extreme Wahhabis at the Saudi consulate in LA. They had been in touch with another FBI informant named Shaikh, who omitted them from his FBI reports,. When Jacobson wanted to interview Shaikh, even backed by a congressional subpoena, Mueller refused to allow it, and the FBI moved him into hiding "for his own safety". "Graham believed Mueller was acting under orders from the (Bush) White House"....

Saturday, 28 October 2017

JFK ASSASSINATION PAPERS: THE PARTIAL DUMP & THE PERFECT PATSY

Watching the response to the latest release of documents about the JFK Assassination, I'm struck by just how much noise and how little light has been generated. Starting of course with Donald Trump's claim 'he' was releasing the docs, 'ahead of schedule', when of course the release was mandated by a law passed 25 years ago, and Trump in the end withheld what were probably the most crucial documents. But that's par for the course with the Tweeter in Chief.

The spin had been delivered to the mainstream well before the release: the voices called upon to evaluate it were predictably defensive. A couple of threads likely to attract attention from the general reader and deflect attention from bigger issues were the major talking points on virtually all media, from BBC to NBC and even to Fox, where you'd think so-called 'conspiracy theories' about JFK would get as much credence as all the other weirder stuff Hannity, Alex Jones and Trump peddle. Watching the uninformed bit of the  punditocracy wade around in this sludge like they were backstroking in perfumed waters has long since ceased amusing me.

Those pundits always work within the Conspiracy Anomaly, an oddly worthless syllogism which posits anyone suggesting the Warren Commission might be wrong in its assumptions that Lee Harvey Oswald was a long crazed leftist assassin, must therefore also defend any and all other conspiracies extant, from Elvis on the Moon to David Icke's Lizards. Meanwhile, defenders of the establishment like themselves can be proven wrong time and time again when they accept the official version, and never be compelled   to account for that history of conspiracies or lies. They simply write those events off as good intentions gone bad, unfortunate coincidence, or unwitting mistakes. Then they forget their errors and press on with accepting and acting as PR boosters for the next lies which come along. This represents a long and ignoble list of the highly paid and highly promoted punditocracy.

Nevertheless, or indeed, for this reason, I do have a few names to throw out there which I wish some of those enlightened personages might have considered.

1. DONALD TRUMP As mentioned, this was not 'Donald Trump Releasing JFK Documents', as it was billed almost everywhere. This was a release mandated by law 25 years ago, which Trump managed to sabotage by allowing both the CIA and FBI to allow a large tranche of docs to be withheld, for at least six more months until a 'review' has been undertaken. Which was what the 25 year wait was supposed to allow.

2. EARLE CABELL One of the more interesting documents released, as highlighted by Jefferson Morley, confirms Dallas Mayor Earle Cabell was a CIA asset going back to the 1950s. Given that his brother was Charles Cabell, deputy director of the CIA under Allen Dulles, and the man who planned the Bay of Pigs invasion and then was forced by JFK to resign along with Dulles, there has always been speculation of collusion, not least with the late change of the motorcade route to include the odd and unsafe turn through Dealey Plaza on its way to the Stemmons Freeway. Knowing he actually worked for the CIA makes such speculation that much more credible.

3. DAVID ATLEE PHILLIPS: Many of the stories led with Oswald's contacts in Mexico City with the Soviet embassy, and their so-called head of assassinations. This made for great headlines to relaunch the CIA's pet conspiracy theory of 50 years ago into a climate where Russia-hating is popular and rife. The documents released shed no new light, but it's worth remember what we already knew. First, at the time he was supposedly traveling from New Orleans to Mexico City via Houston, Oswald, or someone pretending to be him, was introduced to Sylvia Odio in her Dallas apartment. Odio, the daughter of a man who tried to assassinate Castro, would have no reason to lie about this.

The tapes of Oswald's telephone calls to the Soviet embassy were originally claimed to have been destroyed by the CIA, before they showed up, when the 28 Sept calls were shown to have been made by a voice not Oswald's. The pictures of the man taken by CIA cameras were of a man not Oswald. If, as we believe, Oswald was a patsy, he may have been being moved around Mexico City with one cover story (trying to get to Cuba?) while another man was moving in parallel paths setting him up, and another was doing the same in Dallas.

It's also possible that there were two separate frames built, as Peter Dale Scott has suggested. The first was intelligence sources setting up Oswald the assassin as a Russian/Cuban hireling or sympathizer, in order to justify LBJ's invading Cuba. The second was cobbled together quickly when LBJ unexpectedly balked at triggering WWIII, and then put together piecemeal to show Oswald as a disaffected lone crazed assassin.

Most of the rest of the docs which are still being withheld are most likely for CYA reasons involving cover up for involvement by CIA agents and contacts w Oswald as an informant by FBI. But there may be others, more directly dangerous to the CIA. The most interesting would concern David Atlee Phillips, who, under the name of Maurice Bishop, actually introduced Antonioi Veciana, the founder of the militant Cuban exile group Alpha 66, to Lee Oswald in Dallas in August 63. Phillips, who would lead the CIA's anti-Castro ops, was Win Scott's deputy in Mexico City. Intuiting that he might have been running Oswald around and framing him is no great leap of imagination.

4. GEORGE JOANNIDES: Joannides worked on JM/WAVE, the CIA's operations run out of the University of Miami, which included the plans to kill Castro (Operation Mongoose). He basically ran the Student Revolutionary Directorate (DRE), which was even more aggressively active than Alpha 88 against Castro; it was DRE who staged the confrontation with Oswald in New Orleans which caused Trump to accuse Ted Cruz's father of killing JFK. Joannnides was the CIA liason to the House Committee on Assassinations in 1978, which is an interesting use of the fox as a game keeper (HSCA was of course never informed of the conflict of interest). There were lawsuits to get his files in 2005 (he was also accused of participating in the RFK killing) which the CIA blocked. These likely don't fall under the purview of the files in the National Archives, but it would not surprise me were there other material there.

5. ALLEN DULLES Thanks to David Talbot, whose biography of Dulles, The Devil's Chessboard, is essential reading on the subject of the CIA and its doings, including re JFK. Had it been published back then, I would have added it to the compendium I wrote for the London Library on the 50th anniversary of the assassination (you can link to it here) for his speculation on what documents may be missing. These include information about what Allen Dulles was doing at the CIA facility known as 'The Farm' on 22 November; given that he had been gone from the Agency for two years. It's easy to speculate he was ready to oversee operations in the chaos that might have followed the assassination (recall communications going dead just after the shooting). I would be surprised if records were kept, but any confirmations of meetings or other attendees would be welcome, and, since they might suggest a highly-placed disaffected element of the CIA was involved or had knowledge of the plot, would be something the CIA would need to stall indefinitely.

6. WILLIAM HARVEY, HOWARD HUNT et al: David Talbot also mentions files on the Church Committee's 1975 interview with the CIA's legendary William Harvey, who was in charge of the much of the Company's dirty work and may have felt he was being hung out to dry. Even travel records might be revealing for Harvey, David Morales (who was a hit man working for Harvey and Ted Shackley) or Howard Hunt, who denied being in Dallas on 22 November, but lost a libel suit to a magazine who claimed he was, and then of course issued a death-bed confession via his son. Talbot also mentions files on J. Walton Moore, the Dallas CIA office chief who assigned George de Morenschild to Oswald (I have always believed it was de Morenschild's writing in Russian, on the back of the famous Oswald posed photo) and Gordon McClendon, the Dallas businessman Jack Ruby called for after he shot Oswald.

7 LEE OSWALD: The '201' file the CIA kept on Oswald was supposedly destroyed by James Angleton (who also destroyed Mary Pinchot Meyer's diary after she was murdered; her estranged husband Cord Meyer was high up in the CIA and she had been having an affair with JFK) but bits of it have been pieced together. If you believe that many of the contradictions in that file were because Oswald's 'defection' to the USSR was being used as a barium meal, to discover leaks within the CIA, this complete file would possibly answer some questions; it might also reveal contacts which would help show Oswald was indeed an agent, informer, and/or dupe: in other words, a perfect patsy.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

ROBERT GUILLAUME: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the actor Robert Guillaume has been posted at The Guardian online, you can link to it
here. It should be in the paper paper soon; in fact, they called me while I was out taking the dog for a fall swim at Waggoners Wells, and asked for it in two hours as it was intended for today's paper, before Fats Domino died.

Guillaume was a very late starter in many ways, but his good luck in being spotted a number of times, and his hard work at a number of good roles where he was the first to take over from the original lead, or to take a show on the road, was impressive. Apparently, despite his success as Nathan Detroit, which ought to have convinced almost anyone, network executives were very hesitant to offer him the Benson role on Soap: I probably should have mentioned that as well as being the show's anchor, his work with Katharine Helmond was the best relationship in the show. Benson, in a sense, was less successful because his was more a two-hander with James Noble, who had to stand in for any number of characters from Benson.

Charles Gordone was, I believe, the first black dramatist to win a Pulitzer, and No Place To Be Somebody was the first Off-Broadway play to win as well. I read that this was Guillaume's favourite role. I never saw an episode of the Robert Guillaume Show, but would be very curious to view it now: it must have driven the network Standards & Practices people crazy. Interracial romance? What next?

Similarly, Sports Night never made it to Britain (I assume because they would assume American sports was of no interest to anyone) but a takeoff on ESPN Sports Center could easily be seen as a precursor to Studio 60 (Saturday Night Live) or Newsroom (CNN). I've also never seen the movie Prince Jack, but alongside Guillaume as King and Robert Hogan as JFK you have Lloyd Nolan as Joe Kennedy, Cameron Mitchell as Gen Walker, Kenneth Mars (Franz Liebkind in The Producers) as LBJ, and Dana Andrews, Theodore Bikel, William Windom and Jim Backus. How did I miss that? RIP, Robert Guillaume.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S TWO KINDS OF TRUTH

Harry Bosch is still working cold cells, his office a converted cell at the San Fernando PD. But when the small town is hit by a double murder at a pharmacy, Harry's experience means he becomes the primary on the case, which he quickly realises is not just a brutal killing attached to a random robbery.

But just before the murders were called in, Bosch had been visited by an old LAPD partner Lucia Soto, accompanied by a DA and an investigator from the departments new Conviction Integrity Unit. Preston Borders, a sex killer Bosch had put away thirty years ago has petitioned for a new trial, based on the confession of another criminal to his lawyer. As the other man is now dead, the lawyer came forward, and a recheck of the evidence discovered new DNA evidence which backs up the confession. And if someone else killed Danielle Skyler, Bosch must have framed Borders with the evidence that did convict him.

Two Kinds Of Truth is Michael Connelly's second novel released this year, following The Late Show, which marked the debut of a new cop character, Renee Ballard. In my review of that book, to which you can link here, I wrote that Connelly's books are character-driven, though never shrinking as police procedurals, and often in the Bosch series resembling hard-boiled detective stories as well. I also noticed, in the previous Bosch novel, The Wrong Side Of Goodbye (link to that review here) the way Connelly's weaving together of two complex stories became driven by plot—which I thought might reflect the different approach to writing the Bosch TV series.

This novel's two stories aren't as complex, nor as deeply-layered as The Wrong Side Of Goodbye's were, but they are also, in a sense plot-driven. The pharmacy killings lead to a more serious drugs case, and Harry winds up going undercover to get to the bottom of the prescription opioid racket. Meanwhile, Harry hires his half-brother Mickey Haller to defend him in the re-opened murder case, which turns into a courtroom drama, and most interestingly, one based on what is, in effect, a locked-room mystery.

The first story is a thriller, and it really stretches the image of Harry as an action hero. Its pacing is quicker than the other story, in which the investigation has to proceed layer by layer, and much of it done by Haller and his investigator, and reported back to Harry. It also has to resolve itself like clockwork: legal clockwork, and legal is the meaning of the two truths in the novel's title. The mesh of the stories isn't as seamless as you'd hope: but both wind up being page-turners, reading to get to the solutions. It's the way in which thrillers and puzzles get to a similar place by different means; the dark interiors of hard-boiled Harry are what gets passed by to an extent. The great thing is, it doesn't matter. Undercover thriller, courtroom drama, locked room mystery. The menace of drug rings and the menace of venal DAs and Rat Squad cops. And Harry Bosch, whose character remains as deeply compelling as ever. Michael Connelly remains the best in the business.

Two Kinds Of Truth by Michael Connelly

Orion, £19.99, ISBN 9781409145554

published 31 October



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

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.