Sunday, 22 April 2018

POWER & BEAUTY IN CHINA'S LAST DYNASTY: ROBERT WILSON AT THE M.I.A.

You enter the exhibition through a darkened room in which you remain for five minutes, with slight illumination on a small black-glazed porcelain vase. You are invited, indeed almost compelled to meditate on what you see, or do not see, and when the doors open you enter a white room brightly lighted and echoing with noises of bells and whistles. Welcome to Power and Beauty in China's Last Dynasty.

Many successful exhibitions make their points didactically: thematically, chronologically, they order and explain their theses. Shortly after seeing Power and Beauty at the Minneapolis Institute Of Art, I returned to London and visited the British Museum's Living With Gods, which draws across various religions to show ways in which they reflect the same experiences of life. Given that dynastic China lived with gods in the form of their emperors, Robert Wilson's exhibition covers much of the same territory, but in a more focused and totally different way.

Wilson, perhaps best known for his design of Philip Glass' opera Einstein On The Beach, has selected objects from the Qing Dynasty, which ruled China for some two and a half centuries, until 1911, and placed them in ten small rooms, each with its own design, atmosphere and sound. Most tellingly, the rooms and objects are not curated, explained, as the viewer moves from room to room. Instead, after soaking in their impact, after speculating on their presence and meaning, it is not until you leave the exhibition that a docent hands you a guide, inviting you to reflect on your own reactions, and measure them against their historical, social and artist background.

It is a hugely exhilarating experience. Room by room your senses open up, sometimes trying to connect what you see and what you see with what came before. Sometimes you simply stop and absorb the effects, as if you were being drawn into the lives of the objects rather than drawing them into your own. After I was handed the guide, I began to retrace my steps, but after reversing into two rooms I stopped, preferring to collect my own responses first, then measure them against their provenance; absorbing the things themselves as they engaged Wilson, before borrowing their context.

You emerge from the meditative darkness and come a room of white walls with a large display in the centre, familiar perspex holding small treasures. The sounds of bells and whistles attract your attention as you study the display. But entering the third room, you are overcome by the smell of the straw-lined walls, the percussive noise, the constant changing of light. Hanging before you are robes that reflect grandeur, and you feel, with the smell of straw, somehow detached from them. It turned out the room was devoted to Order and Hierarchy; my senses had been followed where they had been led. The explanation of the objects simply reinforced the overpowering reality.
Thus it followed, room by room. Darkened walls and harpie-like screams as you tread on soft carpet; a powerful smell of sandalwood as you're met with a throne and dragons. Icons presented in a shiny, modern setting, with deep bass sounds suggesting chants or whale song. Three meditative screens met in what we might think of as traditional Chinese sounds in one room; in the next walls of icy silver, lush clothing and jewellery and an aria from Turandot. The senses begin to draw themselves together, and then a darkened room decorated with a contemporary mountain scape, crashing sounds and koto music, and a wonderful rough jade sculpture of mountains taking pride of place. It's as if the previous rooms have melted themselves into this presentation, and then you move to the final room, like the first one simple, but as bright as the first was dark, walls glowing white from within. As the first did, this room contains only one object: a green jade vase, accompanied by the sound of waves hitting rocks. It's something eternal, yet fleeting, and I walked back to it twice before actually leaving the exhibition and receiving my guide, as if it were telling me the dynasty's story, recalling its memory for me.

There is no point in delving deeper into the thematic breakdown of the rooms, or how my reactions moved in different directions from their intent. Because my reactions are part of Wilson's intention; his instinct is to reflect on the way in which an ancient China presented itself, to itself. You view as an outsider, trying to understand this new but long-hidden world. The exhibition itself is a metaphor for something that did not disappear totally with the passing of the Qing Dynasty, but the Power to which it refers resides, in the end, in its Beauty. Beauty was encouraged, indulged as a by-product of power, as were philosophies and religions which had a symbiotic relation to power. But watching that green vase, as if it were the only reminder of what I had just seen, I felt sure that, like the statue of Ozymandias, that beauty was what endured long after the Qing were gone. I say 'long after', but it has only been a century, and what, in the end, is a mere hundred years?

Power And Beauty in China's Last Dynasty
concept and design by Robert Wilson, with Liu Yang, curator of Chinese art at MIA
at the Minneapolis Institute of Art until 27 May 2018

Saturday, 21 April 2018

LIES WE TELL: MITU MISRA'S FIRST-TIME THRILLER

When billionaire Demi (Harvey Keitel) drops dead in his private flat in Bradford, his chauffeur Donald (Gabriel Byrne) discovers his final job is to clear the place of any traces of Demi's mistress Amber (Sibylla Deen). But Amber has other problems with her life in the Pakistani community of Bradford, and Donald finds it impossible not to try to protect her from the violence that threatens her. Because there's a video....

When Lies We Tell had its theatrical release, most of the interest lay in finding out how first-time writer/director Mitu Misra and his producer Andy McDermott (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ewen Glass from Misra's story) were able to put together such a cast together for such a stylish-looking debut film. Misra was no recent film graduate; he is a 58 year old self-made millionaire, who sold off his double-glazing company to bankroll his dream of becoming a filmmaker. A certain amount of northern chutzpah and an equal amount of innocent enthusiasm seemed to do the trick, bringing the big names on board, and the story itself may have done a lot of the rest.

Amber is the focus of the film, caught between the world of Pakistani immigrants and the world of white Britain into which she wants to move, to practice law, something which her affair with Demi is financing. But she was married off at 16 to a cousin, KD, who has also made part of that transition, as a local gangster. By going public and accusing her cousin of raping her, Amber won a divorce, but also the suspicion of her community and the smouldering hatred of KD, who now wants to marry Amber's younger sister. Into this world of threat comes Donald, morose and lonely, divorced and living on a run-down farm with Billy, his ex-wife's brother.

Although Lies We Tell doesn't look like a first-time filmmaker's effort, in large part to the exceptionally sensitive cinematography of Santosh Sivan—a leading light in Indian film, and as much a star catch as Keitel or Byrne—his shooting sets the tones of each scene, and because the movie leaps around in tone, the pictures actually accentuate that. Which isn't always totally positive, as there are otherwise has a number of hallmarks of a beginner, not least the urge to cover loads of bases as if to prove the ability to work in all sorts of styles. The script is somewhat repetitive, especially where the younger sister is concerned, with conflicts restated that don't need to be, and the dialogue is often melodramatically one dimensional. The result is that KD, played with great enthusiasm by Jan Uddin, becomes almost a parody of villains we've seen before; similarly the women around Amber's family are classic harpies. But there are other fascinating touches, like KD's abuse of his English girlfriend Tracy, again a take on big-time gangster roles, and a sudden burst of strength from Amber's father (Harish Patel), which comes after one of the film's most realistic scenes, of men's release while betting on cock-fighting.

It's the up and down tone and the hesitation in resolving the film's many story-lines (Demi's son, for example, wants a piece of Amber) which both slow it down and make it frustrating. The Donald-Amber relationship, a riff of sorts on Mona Lisa, only really gains traction when she finally visits the farm, whose Hovis commercial look remind us of the wider context.

Deen, who comes to the role from Neighbours, is a revelation as Amber, and Misra lets her fill the screen. We've seen morose Byrne before, but he does it well, and makes it easier to believe the nature of their relation. Mark Addy is brilliant as his counterbalance, Billy, and there's a nice cameo from Gina McKee as Byrne's ex. But you have to wonder about the twists and turns, the back and forth, the odd longeur. Where did Amber get Donald's number? And why, in one key scene, is KD travelling without his minders? Not many first-timers begin on as grand a scale as Misra, and if it's not a solid success, it has its moments. The key question will be whether Lies We Tell will help him convince the next batch of talent to sign on board.

Lies We Tell is now available on download and on DVD

Friday, 20 April 2018

JOHN HARVEY'S BODY & SOUL

Frank Elder has almost got his quiet life in Cornwall sorted. Elder fled there after he moved from London to Nottingham to help his wife's career. His wife's infidelity destroyed the marriage; his daughter's life spiraled out of control, especially after she'd been kidnapped by a sex offender when she was 16, and though Elder was the one who rescued her, he could not put her life back together. In the end, he fled. Now he does odd jobs, some for the police, visits the pub, has an on and off relationship with a woman who sings jazz. Until out of the blue his estranged daughter asks to visit, and arrives in London with her wrist bandaged, demanding he ask no questions.

Of course he does, and she leaves, but Elder follows, and discovers Katharine was working as a model for Anthony Winter, a well-known artist, and their relationship ended badly. He returns to Cornwall, but then Winter is murdered, and Katharine Elder is the number one suspect. And just to make things worse, Adam Keach, Katharine's kidnapper, has escaped from custody.

If Resnick is John Harvey's greatest detective, Elder has always been a sort of id to Resnick's ego. Quick tempered, often harsh, not the type to calmly think things through. He's also risked more than Resnick, and as the summary above suggests, not always successfully. So his motivations in this case are a powerful drive, in a sense a chance for Elder to redeem or maybe even vindicate himself. And while he may be sleeping occasionally with a jazz singer; Elder didn't even like jazz.

His real skill lies in the way Harvey makes the story reflect the inner turmoils of his characters' relationships, the ways they deal with life. It's always been one of the hidden highlights of his writing: balancing off the small pains inflicted by those we love or think we love, against the greater pain inflicted by the criminals his cops pursue. Although Elder, and to an extent Kate, remain the centre of the book, we see the conflicts reflected in the other characters he encounters—ex colleagues and friends on the London and Nottingham forces, his ex-wife, even his new circle in Cornwall. But it's mostly the shadow of exes that lowers over the story, as if the past is returning for a reckoning. Harvey is very good at the small nuances of people's everyday behaviour; alongside the tension of suspense comes the equally compelling tension of their lives. Body and Soul indeed; just listen to the song.

We saw the last Resnick novel not so long along, and retired from crime writing. He came back for this, Elder's last case, and as the various strands of the story weave together toward the climax it is every bit as touching as Darkness, Darkness was. If you've read this far, you might be interested in following this link to an appreciation of John I wrote for Windmill Books, on the publication of that novel four years ago. 

I have to declare an interest here: I don't know anyone who's written as many novels as John has, and I know very few who have written so well. But I also don't know many nicer people than John Harvey, so my declared interest may be interpreted as the hope John will write another novel, and once again surprise and delight.

Body and Soul by John Harvey
William Heinemann £14.99 ISBN 97811785151804

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

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

PHILIP KERR'S GREEKS BEARING GIFTS

Greeks Bearing Gifts appeared just around the time of Philip Kerr's death; it is the thirteenth Bernie Gunther novel and one more was finished and is due to be published. As a number of tributes noted, his best work may not have been in the Gunther series (particularly A Philosophical Investigation), but March Violets is certainly one of the outstanding debut novels for any series characters, very much in the Chandler tradition but set not in LA but Nazi Berlin, and the series was compelling because Kerr made Bernie Gunther one of the most interesting series detectives.

In the classic hard-boiled tradition, Gunther is defined by an inner-code, although given his circumstances his is more ambiguous and flexible than most. Being a cop in Nazi Germany, and in the Germany which followed, poses all sorts of moral and ethical questions, forces all sorts of compromises and makes Gunter always a bit of a flawed hero. He reminds me in many ways of Hammett's Continental Op, especially in the way the Op tends to tell everyone the truth while everyone tells him lies. But where the Op is cynical, Gunther is somewhat more cautious and self-protective.

That is the heart of this novel. It opens in Munich in 1957, where Gunther is living under a false identity and working as a morgue attendant. Unfortunately he is recognised by a Munich cop, and drawn into a complex scheme involving payments from East Germany funneled through an ex-Nazi general to left-wing parties opposed to the proposed new EEC. In fact, the set up is a knowing riff on Chandler's story 'Pearls Are A Nuisance', and when it leads to Gunther landing a job as an insurance investigator we get another, even more thinly-disguised riff on James M Cain's Double Indemnity, on whose screenplay Chandler worked.

All this set up leads to Gunter being sent to Greece to investigate a claim for a sunken yacht, and as those two nod and wink set-ups would remind us if we needed reminding, nothing is what it seems. The claimant turns up dead and Gunther finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy or two involving gold stolen from the deported Jews of Salonika. And, of course, at odds with the Greek police, and perhaps with the Mossad too.

If this sounds complicated, it is, and that is the weak part of the story. It goes back and forth and back again, and there is a lot of explication, including the German and Greek post-war political landscapes. Bernie makes progress, but the problem keeps shifting, like the waters above the yacht. He's assisted by the local agent for his insurance company, a familiar figure of familial corruption recognisable from any number of British spy thrillers, and forced to realise that his whole presence may be part of the set-up.

There is also a femme fatale, as you'd expect, and given that he is Bernie Gunther and not James Bond, he is rightly suspicious. But Elli's character is another problem—that both denouements of their relationship take place off stage merely highlights her lack of depth as a potential betrayer. It's odd, because he's using shorthand for these characters from noir: one crucial villain is basically described as Sydney Greenstreet, which doesn't work and actually doesn't seem like it should be all that accurate.

But the denouement of the story itself is something that takes place off-stage. In one sense, that is a problem for a thriller, but in the sense of Bernie Gunther as a ture hard-boiled character, it works, at least in part because it has been set up by all that exposition. In hard-boiled fiction, as in real noir films, the world is not put right by the detective's work: he must accept that its corruptions continue. Given the scale of the corruptions Kerr lays out, that really is the only possible ending. He adds an historical footnote regarding the real characters who appear in his tale, which simply reinforces that finish.

I would have preferred a more taut narrative, a more ambiguous femme fatale, and perhaps more direct resolution. But in the sense that Gunther loses in order to gain whatever closure he achieves, Kerr has kept the tale firmly in the tradition of one of the most fascinating detectives of our era. He will be missed.

Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr
Quercus, £18.99, ISBN 9781784296520

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

Sunday, 15 April 2018

THE CHELSEA HOTEL: IF THESE DOORS COULD TALK. NOTES ON MY FRONT ROW DISCUSSION

I was on BBC Radio 4's Front Row Friday night, discussing the auction of doors salvaged from the renovation of the Chelsea Hotel, bought by a property company and being turned into, well, part of whatever most of Manhattan has been turned into today. You can link to the programme on the IPlayer here; it's the second item, about 15 minutes in, and sadly was rushed for time for a subject that has so much popular culture currency. But we probably should have concentrated primarily on the relative value-ranking of the sold doors.

Setting the scene was taking too long, so I never got a chance to get to the most crucial character in the story, Stanley Bard, who ran the place from the Seventies onward. This was probably my fault, as I am fascinated by its origins: the architect Philip Hubert virtually invented the concept of a 'coop', and built the Chelsea (in 1884 not 1885) to house both artisans and artists, the upper floors having studios while many apartments were allocated to people who'd worked on the construction. The twelve story building was not, as is widely reported, the tallest building in New York when it opened; it was however the tallest without a spire (Trinity Church, at 279', was almost twice as tall). But by 1890, when structural steel took over in building, as it had in Chicago, Pulitzer's World building, 20 stories and 348 feet, took the mantle.

Hubert's vision didn't work out financially, and new owners included the very rich, and one of the mainstays of the Chelsea would always been its attraction to what someone called 'the troubled children of the very rich'. When the hotel had more financial problems during the Depression, it was bought by three partners, one of whom was Stanley Bard's father, and eventually Stanley took over as manager. He was finally forced out when the heirs of the other two partners decided to sell the hotel, which finally happened in 2007.

Bard would have been a better starting place;  I should have begun with the idea that there was never a house dick at the Chelsea in its glory days. Stanley let people do what they wanted, as long as they weren't 'destructive to the hotel'. That didn't apply to Edie Sedgwick, who famously fell asleep and set her room on fire; Bard moved her to the first floor, where the lobby staff could keep an eye on the room, and protect the art, often accepted in lieu of rent, that decorated the walls.

We did touch briefly on the way the Chelsea remained a melting point for bohemian artists and what we might today call 'trustafarians'. It's first peak was probably in the Fifties, when New York was the cultural capital of the world, and lots of the people who made it so were at the Chelsea, the beat writers, the abstract expressionist painters (Mark Rothko paid his rent with paintings). Arthur Miller wound up there in 1961 after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe, before moving to his farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut.  That's him with writing with Elia Kazan looking on, in his tidy room. Miller described the hotel as having 'no vacuum cleaners, no rules, no shame'. We mentioned Dylan Thomas, who didn't actually die in the hotel, nor actually drink himself to death at the White Horse, but the fact he was staying there was enough. Most of the Beats stayed at some point, though William Burroughs didn't write Naked Lunch there. Jack Kerouac's door went for $30,000.

In the Sixties Andy Warhol's crowd and musicians made the Chelsea. Warhol's film Chelsea Girls is more remembered than watched nowadays, while Shirley Clarke's Portrait Of Jason may get the actual feel of the place in the Sixties the best; Clarke was a resident there. Oddly, Chelsea Girls doesn't include Warhol's superstar, Viva, who was a long-term resident. Bard's efforts to get her to pay rent were legendary, cornering her in the slow lift, or yelling at her in lobby, but they only once wound up in court (her rent, legally controlled, was $920 a month). Once when the people in the flat next door moved out, Viva knocked a hole in the wall and doubled the size of her apartment. If you remember her film performances, you might imagine her righteous indignation. My favourite Chelsea Hotel photo is probably Viva and Patti Smith standing on one of the beautiful wrought-iron balconies, or maybe the one with singer Eric Andersen tied up with them there. Smith and Sam Shepard lived there, in a room slightly less neat than Arthur Miller's. Which reminds me, when you hear Viva talking about the suicides at the hotel, like her upstairs neighbour who landed head-first on a table in the courtyard, you get a real sense of ho-hum, don't you wish you could watch your neighbours do that, about her. Talk about neatness.

The highest price paid for a door was $100,000, for room 211, where Bob Dylan wrote 'Sara'. I wonder if Dylan was staying there because the Chelsea was where Harry Smith lived (and died). Smith's Anthology Of America Folk Music was a bible of sorts for Dylan; listen to The Basement Tapes if you don't believe me. And of course Leonard Cohen's (424).
That door went for $85,000. Host Stig Abel opened the show by playing a clip of Cohen's 'Chelsea Hotel 2', but spared the post-Archers audience the best line: 'giving me head on the unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street', which sums up what the hotel quickly became and may be the greatest rock/sex line ever. Janis Joplin, who was giving the head, and making an exception for the less-than-beautiful Cohen,was in room 411. Jimi Hendrix stayed  in room 430; his door drew only $13,000.

After that the decline began. Rich rock stars took rooms, tourists flocked to see them. After Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen, in the bathroom of room 100, Bard divided the room into two to stop tourists making a gawk shrine of it. There's a great picture of the two of them in the bathroom. What I love about it are the toothbrushes neatly lined up in the holder on the wall. Alex Cox's Sid And Nancy is probably the best of the movies set there; it's also one of funniest films of the 80s. Much more telling than Madonna's book Sex, which was the end of the line for the old Chelsea, being sold for celebrity, the entire hotel treated like the discarded doors would be 30 years later. In its later years stars like Rufus Wainwright would check in for a year and then release a record written in the Chelsea, as if they could appropriate a sense of artistic suffering and struggle by footing the bill for its artistic rub.

Stig also mentioned Arthur C Clarke writing 2001 there. It was actually the screenplay for the film he wrote there, with Stanley Kubrick also staying: according to Barry Miles, Clarke kept a telescope in his room, and used it to look into windows. Those were the kind of stories I wanted to bring in; a painter named Alphaeous Phileomon Cole lived in the hotel for 35 years and died in 1988 at the age of 112; he was supposedly the oldest living man on earth at the time. Or the masochistic heiress Isabella Stewart Gardiner picking up fellow drunks to beat and rob her. Of Julian Schnabel's daughter doing her college homework in the bar of the El Quijote restaurant in the hotel lobby. Charles Jackson, who wrote The Lost Weekend, killed himself in the Chelsea in 1968.

I was fascinated by the families who lived there. I didn't mention the novelist Joseph O'Neill, who lived there with his wife and three children. I did mention the composer Virgil Thompson, a long-term resident, whose flat 920 was bought after his death, and kept in period features by the couple who bought it. You can find pictures of it online, and it gives you a sense of the grace of those upper floors. It also made me think of the couple who bought it, also with three kids, sending them out trick or treating on Halloween up and down the Chelsea.

At the end of the item Stig asked me whose door I would choose he opened it up to anyone in history--trying to reduce my choices I fell on Kerouac, as I'd been trying to figure out how to get his one-night stand with Gore Vidal at the Chelsea into the conversation. I should have said Rothko, far more of an artistic idol for me, and the first thing I would have done would be look for paint drippings. When I called the Gramercy Hotel 'just around the corner and down the street' I was speaking figuratively: I wanted to get in the idea Beat and Warhol crew member Gerard Malanga always used to put his friends into the East Side hotel: when I finally had some money I stayed there too: you got a key to Gramercy Park, one of the nicest squares in New York, and it was two blocks from Pete's Tavern. Charles Ives lived off Gramercy Park; I liked the contrast with Virgil Thompson in the Chelsea.

Looking at what I've just written, it's no surprise I felt I hadn't done the best presentation: there is just too much. But I was hoping for Stig to ask if the passing of the old Chelsea was the end of an era. Being me, I managed anyway to squeeze in these lines, which I did not read well as I was rushing to get the item finished quickly. They're from a poem called The Hotel Chelsea:

Anita! Soon this Chelsea Hotel
Will vanish before the city's merchant greed.
Wreckers will wreck it and in its stead
More lofty walls will swell

The old street's populace. Then who will know
About the ancient grandeur, marble stairs,
Its paintings, onyx-mantels, courts; the heirs
Of a time now long ago. 

It was written by Edgar Lee Masters. In 1936. As former Chelsea Hotel resident Robert Crumb said: "It's always the end of some era in New York".

Monday, 9 April 2018

RUSTY STAUB: LE GRAND ORANGE, JE ME SOUVIENS

That title is a little bit misleading. I never saw Rusty Staub play for the Expos in person; his two stints in Montreal didn't coincide with my one. Staub was the Expos' first real star: he was bright, handsome, hit for power and learned French (though from New Orleans he didn't speak the Cajun variety). By the time I lived in Montreal,, Staub was playing for the Mets, and I saw him on TV-- the Mets had traded for him in 1972. That was a powerhouse trade, with the Expos collecting Mike Jorgensen, Tim Foli and especially Ken Singleton for Staub.  The Expos got good value, but the Mets got someone who helped put them over the top in 1973. Staub played with in injured hand most of the season, then separated a shoulder in the playoffs, where he hit three home runs as the Mets beat the Reds for the National League title. He played six of the seven games of the World Series in right field despite being not really able to throw the ball, and hit .423 as the Mets lost 4-3 to Oakland.

It's always hard to trade the face of your franchise, but Staub went on to play a similar role in New York. He was born in New Orleans, and he seemed to personify that easy going personality and love of life we think of when we think of the Crescent City. Everybody seemed to like him, not just the fans, and for years they still talked about him in Montreal, and still do, even although his first run was only three seasons.

Oddly enough, Singleton became the same sort of local hero in Montreal Staub had been, just as likeable, though in his own different style; eventually he would be a broadcaster for the Expos (as Staub was for the Mets) and now he is in his final season covering the Yankees.

It was in Montreal Staub was nicknamed 'Le Grand Orange', because of his hair, for the same reason he was nicknamed Rusty (his given names were Daniel Joseph). It's funny that after Montreal he spent four seasons with the Mets and five with the Tigers (as well as a final stint of five more years with the Mets), both teams whose uniforms featured orange that matched his hair.

Staub was a bonus baby for the expansion Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros), but he did get one year in the minors at class B Durham before the Astros brought him up. He was only the second 19 year old rookie to play 150 games in a season. He didn't do all that well, but by the time the Astros traded him to Montreal he'd been an All-Star two years in a row, though hitting only 16 home runs in the two years. The Astrodome was a nightmare for hitters.

I recall Bill James pointing out something interesting about Staub's career. James was always making the point that statistics need to be taken in context, and one of the major contexts in baseball is the nature of your home field. Staub, like Joe Morgan or Jimmy Wynn, was already a fine hitter when the Expos got him: but Parc Jarry was a much better hitting environment than the Astrodome had been. He then played in a great pitchers' park for the Mets, and a great hitters' park for the Tigers. He demonstrates through his Win Shares system that Staub's value remained remarkable consistent even as his stats seemed to get better. And that his biggest year in Detroit wasn't as good as any of those.

Staub had a long career, by virtue of those years on on-the-job apprenticeship in Houston, and his final years with the Mets, where he was a fine pinch-hitter and useful bench player. James rated him 24th among right fielders, just ahead of Pedro Guerrero, in his Historical Baseball abstract, but that was 17 years ago. Interestingly, that's just behind Singleton at 18th and the Expo great Andre Dawson at 19th.

Staub's value is increased by his long career: James runs an interesting comparison of his 356 win shares compared to Joe Dimaggio's 385. But Joltin Joe played in only 13 seasons: he had some time in the Pacific Coast League, so arrived in New York a more finished product at age 21, and he also missed three seasons to the war, so the two are not as close as the career win shares would indicate. Besides Guerrero, the guys immediately behind Rusty are Rocky Colavito, Jack Clark, Roger Maris and Gavy Cravath: that's a pretty strong group.

Staub started two charities which were huge successes, one his own educational foundation, the other for New York police and fire fighters' widows and families.  He also owned two restaurants in New York and was a great cook himself (more of that New Orleans tradition). Tall and graceful at the start of his career, by its end he was more like Boog Powell than Jim Gentile. He died on this season's opening day, of a heart attack. The Mets had a moment of silence for him. Were there still an Expos team in Montreal, that silence might have extended beyond a moment.

Friday, 6 April 2018

STEVEN BOCHCO: ON BBC LAST WORDS

I spoke about the television writer and producer Steven Bochco on BBC Radio 4's Last Word programme
today. You can link to it on BBC IPlayer here, my bit is the last one on the show, starting about 22 minutes in. But it's a programme worth listening to from the start, with Winnie Mandela, Drue Heinz, and two important British sportsmen, Ray Wilkins and Eric Bristow.

If your very sharp eared you might be able to discern that some of my stories are edited down; producer Neil George cut it so you probably won't (except where, for example I refer to his friends whom I actually haven't mentioned in the edited version) but it flows wonderfully, which is as it should be as his was a wonderful story to tell. And I should have mentioned the name of the really great TV composer Mike Post, who did the Hill Street Blues theme.

What was lost was some background details, a couple of stories, and some explanation of the nature of his importance in the history of episodic television. You can fill in some of that with the Guardian obituary, to which I will post a link along with an essay filling in the bits from both. The obituary is in today's paper Guardian as well....

Saturday, 31 March 2018

HEY HEY LBJ, WHAT DID YOU DO 50 YEARS AGO TODAY?

It was a Sunday, the 31st of March fifty years ago, 1968. I was in my last year of high school, already halfway out the door to college. The Vietnam war was a concern, but knowing I'd been offered scholarships, and would spend the next four years deferred from the draft, it was not an immediate worry. On that quiet spring evening President Lyndon B. Johnson was about to address the nation on television. I was watching it alone, but I began to shout to my family once the import of his now-famous words sank in. “...accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

'We' had toppled a president! Eugene McCarthy's strong second place finish in the New Hampshire primary, backed by Vietnam protesters dubbed 'the Children's Crusade', had shown LBJ he would have to endure a battle to get what should have been, as a sitting president, an automatic nomination. Though he spoke of unity and his concentrating on a solution for the Vietnam War, those words rang hollow. I was celebrating. LBJ was a favourite of my grandfather, who was a long-time Democratic party hack. Ten years earlier he had come back from a 'Jefferson-Jackson' fund-raiser at which then-Senator Johnson spoke, and given me an LBJ-autographed programme. 'This man will be president some day,' he told me. He fulfilled my grandad's prophecy, but now change was coming. Johnson would be gone. A war would be over.

Of course, that did not happen. Change came, but in none of the ways I'd anticipated. Johnson's crowning achievements in his brief presidency were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Even as he stood down to 'unite' America, just four days later Martin Luther King was assassinated, and riots harkened a new era in the fight for racial equality. Robert Kennedy would enter the campaign, like McCarthy on an anti-war platform, but also as a potential civil rights healer. At the time I saw RFK as the cynical opportunist he had always been. Over time, I've come to re-assess my opinion of him, believing his conversion was real, spurred by the move to wider social activism by MLK. What we lost was no less than an opportunity for a racially unified anti-war and social justice movement. After RFK's assassination, Johnson's vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, won the Democratic nomination after a Chicago's bloody convention, then he lost narrowly to Richard Nixon in November 1968. 

The convention brought changes in the Democratic party that enabled George McGovern to win the party's nomination in 1972. By then I was 21, and he was the first of many losing candidates for whom I would cast my vote, and he's still the one I believed in most whole-heartedly. Despite the Vietnam War, now four years deeper in to tragedy, despite the Watergate scandal still years from being taken seriously by the mainstream media, Nixon trounced McGovern.

Immediately after Johnson's speech I wrote an anti-war poem, which was published in our very conservative local paper, the New Haven Register; my first published poem. I went away to college, marched against the war, went on strike in 1970 following the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. I protested against the war and for Black Panther leader Bobby Seale in New Haven, when Yale President Kingman Brewster proclaimed the impossibility of a black man receiving a fair trial in America. I became a conscientious objector, and the draft missed me. I moved to Montreal anyway. Watergate came and went, as did, eventually, the war, and finally Nixon himself. All triggered by Johnson's withdrawal from the Presidential campaign.

Today, with America mired in perpetual war for perpetual peace, needing a Black Lives Matter movement to combat an epidemic of killings, and with a president as shifty as Nixon but with none of his wisdom or integrity, I went back and through the miracle of the internet watched Johnson's full speech for the first time in fifty years. He seemed a more sympathetic figure now, trapped in the quagmire of Vietnam after sacrificing his Democratic party in his quest to achieve racial justice. A few years ago, when I wrote a review of the film Selma, I questioned whether it was fair to make Johnson the villain of the piece, especially when so many less ambiguous villains were available, starting with J. Edgar Hoover. Johnson's relationship with King was an uneasy one, but as another movie,All The Way showed, he had to burn bridges of his own to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed. He played a big-stakes political game, knowing what was at risk if he won, and did what he thought was right anyway.

LBJ may not actually have said 'there goes the South' in 1964 as he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, but that is exactly what happened: by 1968 the drift of the racist, fundamentalist, conservative Dixiecrats to Nixon's Republican party had begun. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan took the White House from Jimmy Carter, the transformation was complete: allied with the far-right oil men, military contractors, and western tycoons, the southerners could squeeze the traditional Yankee moderates within the Republicans: compromise with the hated 'liberals' soon became impossible.

Watching anew, I realised LBJ's speech was primarily about the divisions he saw growing in America. He began by speaking of divisive partisanship. Later he said “I will not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing”. I paid no attention to those words at the time, but five decades later, they sound more prophetic than “there goes the South”. Johnson had been a consummate arm-twister in his time as Senate majority leader, a master of bending those on both sides to achieve some sort of compromise. Today, Mitch McConnell is as ruthless as any Menshevik; the threat of Tea-Party purists backed by Koch and Mercer money being enough to keep all but the bravest or most foolhardy Republicans in partisan line. America enters new, undeclared, open-ended wars, with a bi-partisan monotony of rubber-stamped support behind them. Bernie Sanders' 2016 version of the “Children's Crusade”, like McCarthy's in 1968, merely confirmed the weaknesses of the Democrat's chosen candidate, who nevertheless nearly won.

We know now that Nixon was conspiring with the likes of Henry Kissinger to sabotage the Paris Peace Talks to end the Vietnam War, on which Johnson was staking his withdrawal from partisan politics. We know Johnson knew about it, and thought it treasonous, but was afraid to take action of Nixon for fear he would be accused just what he had sworn he would not do: play party politics with the war. The conflict in Vietnam would persist until 1975, when the ignominious abandonment of Saigon put paid to the whole false notion of 'peace with honour'.

By then, Lyndon Johnson was more than two years dead. It is hard not to conclude the failure of his sacrifice to achieve either peace or justice left him empty. What he would have made of America's electing a black president, then following by electing one who's facing accusations of presidential treason with Russia is beyond speculation. But thinking back to 1968, and watching Johnson's speech, so remarkably un-televisual, so devoid of spin in today's terms, is to see it in a different light. It rings true, with a sense of battered honesty about it. We don't get many politicians acting at all honourably these days. Thus history adds nuance my young self could not, makes him a more sympathetic figure. I still have that autographed programme. I find it means more to me today. It holds up better than my poem.

Friday, 30 March 2018

ERIK STOREY'S NOTHING SHORT OF DYING

Note: this review contains slight spoilers
 
Clyde Barr is a soldier and mercenary who's been gone for 16 years, including the last two in a Mexican jail. Now he's back in Colorado, communing with nature and staying away from civilization, when he gets a broken-off cell-phone call from his sister Jen, who's been kidnapped. She's his sister, and their childhood was traumatic, so Clyde comes back to society, low-down society, to find her, and free her. And there's nothing short of dying, as Kris Kristofferson sang, that's going to stop him (though in Kris' case it was only getting dressed and going out of the house he was talking about).

Easier said than done, and soon he's fighting a war against meth dealers, aided by his Mexican prison-mate Zeke, who happens to live just a few Colorado hills away, and Allie, a beautiful barmaid from a biker bar who's attached herself to him. But sidekicks don't have great prospects with Clyde, who's strategic sense is as limited as his luck in avoiding and surviving impossible situations is infinite. This is a dangerous combination for bystanders. Of course Clyde is skilled, and the body-count mounts rapidly: I started keeping score in the book's margins until I got tired of that.

What makes it work is first-time novelist Storey's sense of pacing, and the way he's able to combine Clyde's extreme existential thoughtfulness with his limited practical version of the same. Almost like a zen version of Jack Reacher, except he's totally unaware of it. The cast of characters is well-drawn, because the villains need to be when you have this kind of tarnished white-knight invincible hero, and the inevitable searing loss of Allie, the best character in the book, is well-handled. As action thrillers go, it's got the action, and the thrills, and a bit of decent characterisation is not to be sneezed at.

When it's all over Clyde drives off into the sunset and sees a small herd of wild horses, what in a western might be called mustangs or broncos, running 'because they felt like it'. He realises they are following Allie's advice and 'living in the moment'. And he realises he could 'go in any direction...doing what needed to be done'. If only he'd read Jack Reacher, he wouldn't have needed the horses.

Nothing Short Of Dying by Erik Storey
Simon & Schuster, £7.99 ISBN 9781471146862

EMERGENCY GOALIES: SCOTT FOSTER AND GUNNER GARRETT

Last night in Chicago, the hometown Blackhawks lost both their goalies: the number one was injured during warmups, and the number two cramped up early in the third period. Cue 36 year old accountant Scott Foster, who last played a competitive hockey game for Western Michigan University 13 years ago, to get the call to suit up. Foster is one of a number of amateur goalies who attend matches on call for just such emergencies. Who knew?

Things were different when I was growing up, and our local pro team was the New Haven Blades, of the Eastern Hockey League, the league that served as the inspiration for the movie Slap Shot. Teams in the EHL carried 13 players: 3 lines of forwards, two pair of defensemen and one goaltender. If a goalie got hurt, there were problems.

I was watching a game with my dad one night in 1968, the Blades against, I think, our arch-rival Long Island Ducks. The Blades' goalie was Roger Wilson, whom they had picked up from Charlotte when their starter, Al Johnstone, was lost, probably through injury. At some point in the game, the Ducks' goalie got hurt, and was taken off the ice. Here it got interesting, because the protocol was basically for the home team to provide a goalie, and the Blades' emergency goalie was their trainer, Ken 'Gunner' Garrett. The game stopped as we waited for Gunner to put on the pads, and when he skated onto the ice to warmup in the Ducks' goal, a raspy voice boomed out from the other end of the New Haven Arena, behind the Blades' goal.

'Give 'em Wilson!' the voice shouted. 'Give 'em Wilson'. Wilson turned around in his goal, pulled off his glove, and gestured with his middle finger. 'Fuck you, Marty!'. 2,200 people burst into laughter. The players and fans were a lot closer in those days, when goalie's could recognise each heckling voice by name.

Garrett made quite a few appearances in goal. Thanks to the Internet Hockey Data Base, I learned that he played five games for the Blades that year, probably between Johnstone's injury and Wilson's acquisition. His goals against average in those games was an amazing 2.17. Against the Blades, he played just six minutes, according to IHDB, and allowed a goal.  In all, they list 20 games over eight years with the Blades, and one for the Johnstown Jets in 1961-62, his first season as a hockey trainer (it was Don Perry, the Blades' player-coach, who was in Johnstown at the time, who brought Gunner to New Haven). The Blades and the EHL were rough: Perry is standing to Garrett's right in the photo; I recall his throwing a player from the Jets threw a barroom window when he caught Blades fraternizing with him after a playoff loss. To Garrett's left is Blake Ball, whom the sharp eyed will recognise from his bit part in Slap Shot, as one of the goons from the past brought back for the championship final.

I found some articles about Garrett: he had a long career as a trainer in minor league hockey, finally retiring after the 2008-9 season with the Amarillo (Texas) Gorillas. In an article written by a Gorilla teammate, he claimed 22 appearances (there is one listed in IMDB with no minutes played, which may be the missing one). One of the old Blades claimed Gunner recorded three shutouts in a row, but again, IMDB doesn't credit him with any during that five game 2.17ga run. He sometimes lived in the arenas where he did his training (which usually included being the equipment manager) but doesn't seem to have played any further as even minor league teams moved to using backup goalies (it wasn't commonplace in the NHL itself until the 50s).

The Blades disappeared when New Haven redeveloped and built the Coliseum. The Arena, on Grove Street, was torn down, and the location is now the city's FBI offices. The Coliseum, which seated about four times as many people as the Arena, became home to the Nighthawks, of the more advanced American Hockey League. Eventually they folded too; a couple of other teams tried to replace them in lower leagues but New Haven never embraced other teams they way they did the rough and tumble EHL.

As for Scott Foster? He played the final 14 minutes of the game, saved seven shots and allowed no goals,  as the Blackhawks won 6-2. Foster was named the game's first star, and received a boxing-style championship belt. Gunner Garrett? Well, he didn't have a belt, but he did get a memorial banner, made by the Austin Ice Bats in 2005 when he suffered a heart attack during a game, and the team thought mistakenly he had died in hospital. When he returned the next day to find the banner hanging in the rink, he was given it as a keepsake.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

LINDA BROWN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Linda Brown, who was the student in Topeka whose father was the Brown in Brown v Board of Education, is up on the Guardian online. You can link to it here. It ought to be in the paper paper soon.

The piece is pretty much as written. They did lose a small but telling observation early: dropping the 'other side of the tracks bit' from this sentence, "But Topeka's primary schools were segregated; Linda had been attending Monroe Elementary in a black neighbourhood literally across the railroad tracks, and then a bus ride away." I felt it reinforced the point of segregation. They also cut a closing line from the Governor of Kansas, which I didn't mind because it was fairly generic. 

In a way it was hard for Linda Brown to assume the mantle in the same way people like Rosa Parks or Ruby Bridges or James Meredith did: she never had to face the angry crowds when the time came to take her rightful place. But as a symbol of her, her father Oliver's, and the other Topeka families' determination, her story is one that should be retold over and over.


Thursday, 22 March 2018

FRONT ROW AND AMERICA'S COOL MODERNISM

I was on Front Row last night, talking about a new exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford: America's Cool Modernism. I gave it a glowing mention, and I will write a more detailed review of it soon, but you can link to the programme on the BBC IPlayer here. It's the first item in the running order, and yes, I did know that an aquatint is not a painting!

You might want to hang around for the rest of the programme, which includes Steven Soderbergh's latest movie, filmed on mobile phones; a pointed look at comedy teams and what happens when they split up (engendered by the culturally tragic events befalling either Ant or Dec over the weekend); and blood on stage, inspired by a new production of The Duchess Of Malfi which splatters audience and stage. It's presented by Stig Abell...

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

RAGNAR JONASSON'S THE DARKNESS

Hulda Hermannsdottir is approaching her retirement from the Reykjavik police. She's just cracked a hit and run, where the victim was a child-molester, and she has decided to leave the case unsolved. At the same time, she is called into her boss' office, and told to take her retirement early, immediately, in fact, and to clear her office for another in a long series of up-and-coming younger men who passed her by during her long career.

As slight recompense, Hulda gets her boss' agreement to work one last case, and chooses the death of a Russian asylum-seeker which had been written off a year earlier as suicide or accident by one of her colleagues. It doesn't take Hulda, who is a methodical, dedicated worker, to uncover evidence that the death may have been a murder.

At first, the impressive thing about The Darkness is the way Hulda fits into that popular stereotype of the depressive Nordic detective. Hard-working, team-playing and alone since the death of her husband to a sudden heart attack aged 52, Hulda has little in the way of a life outside her job: she walks and climbs in the countryside, but gave up the family home by the shore and now lives in a faceless high-rise in Reykjavik itself.

But as the story progresses, and we begin to see more of the original crime, we also learn more about Hulda's own story: born illegitimate, her father a nameless American solider who disappeared back to States, her mother forced to live in a certain shame by the tight boundaries of Icelandic society. If we thought of Hulda as typical of a certain kind of detective, we see too that she is a product of a society which in many ways has changed, but whose emotional bounds were set pretty strongly generations before.

In fact, Jonasson's two stories move almost in parallel, the the mystery of Hulda herself is in many ways as gripping as the search for a killer in a murder no one but Hulda believes happened. Jonasson tells the killer's story from a separate point of view, and because of this, the sharp-eyed reader will know long before Hulda who the killer must be. Even so, the 'solution' to the crime comes as a sharp twist in the tale, one which plays against the reader's expectations. Were the story left there, it would resonate strongly. But in an epilogue of understated brilliance, Jonasson turns the entire story around on itself, and puts Hulda right back where she started, a victim, of sorts, of society's preconceptions.

Jonasson, whose first novels were more traditional mysteries set in small-town Iceland, a setting which became well-known in similarly-set popular series Trapped, has moved into different territory with The Darkness. The book is billed as the first of a 'Hidden Iceland' trilogy, and the hidden Iceland it traverses is the country of the mind. The Darkness builds to an absolutely moving ending, haunting and sobering. And it plays with and shatters the expectations of the genre like no novel I can recall since Joe Gores' classic Interface, which is high praise indeed. It's a bravura piece of writing, and The Darkness may be the most unsettling, lasting and best, crime novel you'll read this year.

The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson
Penguin: Michael Joseph, £12.99, ISBN 9780718187248

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON'S SHADOW KILLER

It is Rekyjavik, in the summer of 1941, after what one character calls 'the British invasion' of the island, and the Brits are in the process of handing over occupation of the strategic country to the Americans, who although still neutral, need to protect their convoys. When a traveling salesman is found shot dead in his flat, Iceland's only homicide detective, Flovent, is teamed up with a Canadian military policeman, Thorson, whose parents were Icelandic and who speaks the language. Thorson is necessary because the victim has been killed with a bullet from a Colt automatic, which means the killer very well could be an American soldier.

The Shadow Killer is the second in Indridason's 'Rekyjavik Wartime' series. It takes place before the first, The Shadow District, which began with a crime in the present day and flashed back to another murder which Flovent and Thorson investigated. This book shows how the two were brought together, and also shows the transition in Icelandic society, which was such an important theme in his Erlandur novels, also coming together with the influx of British and especially American soldiers. In such an homogenous, inward society, this impact, on social norms as well as economic life, was immense.

These changes have been part of most of the very best of Scandinavian crime fiction, going right back to Sjovall and Wahloo's Martin Beck: how these small, structured societies have adapted to the changing modern world. Indridason's first book, Jar City (aka Tainted Blood) was specifically linked to the unusual genetic 'purity' of Iceland, and with this series set some eight decades ago, he has a smaller, more distinct petri dish to play on his themes of Icelandic society under the pressure of change. And because it's wartime. it also allows him to revisit another recurring theme in Scandinavian crime: the ambivalent record of the Nordic countries during World War II, during which Noway and Denmark were occupied by the Nazis, Iceland by the Allies, Finland fought the Russians, and the Swedes stayed neutral. This legacy does not disappear: it played a part in one of the Rebecka Martinson films recently aired on British TV.

But the murder might be a simple case of jealousy, as the dead man's girlfriend was playing around with soldiers while he was away on his selling trips, and had just moved out with a British soldier while he was gone. Neat as such a theory would be, there are shadows hanging over the investigation, and German-supporting Icelanders popping up. With Thorson and Flovent having to move between both American intelligence and the British, as well as understand Icelandic mores, the mystery becomes more and more complicated, yet its solving may be more complicated than the mystery itself.

Indridason has produced a multi-layered thriller that delves delicately, almost discreetly, into its characters. He writes with tremendous feel for them, and uses action to let those character reveal themselves. It's a mistake for Brits to label the likes of Flovent or Thorson 'depressive detectives': they are people, and that realisation has always been what makes the best Scandianvian crime fiction work so well. That it is used in such a complicated historical setting marks yet again just how talented this Icelandic novelist is.

The Shadow Killer by Arnaldur Indridason
Harvill Secker, £14.99 ISBN 9781911215073

Thursday, 8 March 2018

JOSEPH KANON'S DEFECTORS

It's 1961 and Simon Weeks, a publisher in New York, is arriving in Moscow to work with a writer whose book he will edit. The author is his older brother Frank, a former CIA agent who defected to Moscow after a career spent spying as a double-agent for the KGB. Frank's defection cost Simon his job in the State Department, and also cost him his respect for the big brother he always idolized. Even more than the memoir, this trip will allow Simon to come to grips with the reasons for his brother's betrayal, of family as much as country.

Would that it were that simple. Simon is thrust into the centre of the exiled spy community, including the famous Guy Burgess as well as lesser figures. And Frank's wife Jo has not adjusted to exile, especially since the death of their young son. Frank's KGB minder is ever present and, inevitably, it turns out Frank has a slightly different agenda than simply getting that book published.

I'm surprised sometimes that Joseph Kanon isn't mentioned more when we talk about the top writers about espionage, particularly since his novels approach the field in off-beat ways. Certainly Defectors is a perfect example of that, because as it moves along at a quick, almost claustrophobic pace--reflecting Simon's reactions to Moscow--it becomes a story of bluff and double bluff, of almost constant betrayal, and of very few people being exactly what they seem. What would you expect from a small community of defectors, of people who've lived double (or worse) lives?

The twisty story is gripping, but the novel's real strengths lie in its setting: not so much Moscow as the early Sixties, just before the Cuban missile crisis, with the Cold War at full throttle. Kanon shows us his exiles through a very telling filter of contemporary attitudes, both personal and political. And most of all, through the bonds of relationships--family ties which tug at both the brothers, and which pull the twists in unexpected directions right to the end. This may be Kanon's best book yet.

Defectors by Joseph Kanon
Simon & Schuster ISBN 9781471162640 £8.99 

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

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

THE POST: OSCAR WATCH IV

When looking at The Post, it's essential to keep the film's title in mind. Although it opens with a bravura scene of a fire-fight in the Vietnam jungle, a deathly chaos whose tracer lights illuminate Daniel Ellsberg's experience, it is not a film about Vietnam. Neither, despite the central presence of Robert McNamara as a catalyst for Ellsberg's decision to take the government's lies public, is it a movie about the Pentagon Papers. It is about the Washington Post, and its ascent to a position of national prominence alongside (or just behind) the New York Times. I've seen it said that the opening firefight serves as a visual metaphor for the Post's battles with the government (and the Times), but that idea, like the movie itself, does a huge disservice to Ellsberg. That's because the real centre of The Post is Katharine Graham's internal battle to assume control of her father's and husband's paper, and the means through which she is able to begin to enact her vision of being a major, quality daily. The problem is that Graham's story runs along a parallel track with the paper's search to beat the Times' exclusive, and Ben Bradlee's competitive journalistic drive keeps the action moving.

To his credit, Spielberg manages to bring the two strands together with some aplomb, at the moment Graham gives the order to 'print'. Her struggle is the more subtle, and repetitive, and it is difficult for Meryl Streep, as Graham to convey the depth of her insecurities, though she does well with what is presented. Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, had bought the bankrupt Post in the 1930s. When he retired, he made Kataharine's husband, Phil Graham, his successor. Graham was a manic depressive, and we learn that he killed himself. But part of his problem was his resentment of having been the son-in-law who rises, part that the Post was still a backwater paper in a company town, and he was at times abusive to Kay and the children: not least for her Jewishness. This backstory is instructive, because none of it is given away, instead Streep looks lovingly at Phil's photo. But if you're aware of it you can see better the roots of the insecurities which Streep delineates.

That she was taking the Post public at the very moment the government exercised prior restraint by getting an injunction against the Times' publication of the Pentagon Papers is true, and it is rightly presented as a Rubicon moment for her. She was risking her family's legacy, and the battle is encapsulated well by Tracy Letts, in another of his good-guy roles as Fritz Beebe, the family lawyer and chairman of the board.  He's set against Bradley Whitford, in a remarkable performance of unwillingly restrained anger and resentment, as board-member Arthur Parsons.

Graham also had her Washington social whirl, in which she was still playing the traditional wifely role, to consider. And it is an underplayed moment of decision when she sits down with McNamara (a brilliantly accurate performance from Bruce Greenwood, getting just the sort of moral incomprehension McNamara showed in The Fog of War) to tell him she will be publishing the Papers. Ironically, in later life Graham would seek injunctions similar to the government's against the Post, or take other actions against her putative biographers.

In a sense, when it comes to the newspaper side of the story, The Post is a cross between The Fog Of War and All The President's Men on the one hand, and on the other the classic newspaper drama, the kind of modern version we saw in, say, Ron Howard's The Paper. In fact, the most thrilling scenes in the movie, as in Howard's (a very Spielbergian director) are those that lovingly follow the dynamic of setting linotype, and then the rush of the presses as the papers roll off. The latter is something we've seen repeatedly, but watching the drama of the pages themselves getting set was literally inspiring.

All The President's Men lurks in the background. It's amazing to realise that the Post's first tranche of the Pentagon Papers literally fell on the desk of a reporter (who tellingly remains anonymous and excluded from the story itself) just as Deep Throat appeared in Bob Woodward's ear (at least as the movie version would have you believe). Bradlee's editorial ability to run with found gold is an important one, but it was the other Ben, Ben Bagdikian (played with a nice edge by Bob Odenkirk) who actually tracked down Ellsberg, whom he'd known at Rand, and got the Post their scoop. Which of course would not have been a scoop at all had not the Times been injuncted against printing; but of course as the film shows, the Post's running with their story opened the nation's floodgates.

Jason Robards' Oscar-winning feet-on-the-desk performance as Bradlee hangs over Tom Hanks too, but Spielberg and Hanks choose to play Bradlee not as Robards did, as a crotchety old-school journo, but as a sort of middle-class suburban businessman, closer to William Holden in The Corporation. The lemonade stand scenes remind us that Spielberg does like to frame the world from a child's view, but Hanks' Bradlee shows none of the society nous of his Boston Brahmin upbringing—Bradlee had come to the Post by facilitating Phil Graham's purchase of Newsweek, and was a mover in society almost as much as Graham. Kay Graham gets it right when she questions Bradlee's actually closeness to JFK himself (Bradlee's own book about it, Conversations With Kennedy, is an effort to convince himself as much as the reader that it was more) but Bradlee was also close to James Angleton of the CIA; his wife Tony Pinchot was the sister of Mary Pinchot Meyer, married to Cord Meyer (no relation to the Post's Meyer), another top-man at CIA; it isn't coincidental that Meyer was the brains behind the CIA's Operation Mockingbird, by which it acquired assets within the major media. When Mary (by then divorced from Cord) was murdered it was Bradlee who helped Angleton find and destroy her diary, in which her own relationship with Kennedy was supposedly detailed. But in this workd, even Bradlee's elite Georgetown townhouse is made to look like something from a suburban neighbourhood; Ben Bradlee is your good American Joe, pace Private Ryan.

In the end it's the Times that gets the media attention, with CL 'Punch' Sulzberger, like Graham the heir to the paper, and AM 'Abe' Rosenthal, its managing editor, facing the press when the Supreme Court decision in the papers' favour is handed down. Michael Stuhlbarg's caricature of Rosenthal (whose column, On My Mind, was universally derided as 'Out Of My Mind' in the days when he stepped down from editorship) is stereotypically amusing to the point of cruelty. When we hear Nixon's own voice on the tapes, I was a little surprised there were no tirades against the 'Jews', Tricky Dick saw both the Times and Post as being Jewish family affairs.

Spielberg ends the film with an ironic reference to never going through this again, when we all know that Watergate, which firmly put the Post on the dias with the Times, was just around the corner. He does another re-enactment of Frank Wills' discovery of the Watergate burglars—remember those were the same burglars whose ransacking of Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office got the government's prosecution of the actual leaker thrown out of court. Spielberg likes to end his films with none too subtle conclusions, think of the graveyard scenes in Private Ryan or Schindler's List. The fate of Daniel Ellsberg, of course, is only feed for another movie.

The Post gathered Oscar momentum because it has an obvious correlative to our present times, Donald Trump and Fake News and the less stirring performance of our leading papers in their age of declining relevance. This was illustrated in passing by Spielberg in what  was, ironically, the best moment in the entire film (apart from the linotype and presses). It is an actual news clip of CBS television's Daniel Schorr explaining what exactly the government was doing by taking the Times to court to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers. Schorr does it in 30 seconds or so. He covers the issues, explains the legal tactic, and sets the stage for the movie better than it could do for itself. You can't imagine any of our present-day knights of the makeup room on television doing that now.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

DUNKIRK: OSCAR WATCH III

It isn't hard to understand the popularity of Dunkirk, which comes to us as part of a celebration of Churchill's early days and the eponymous evacuation of British forces from France in the early days of World War II. One could draw the obvious analogy with today's European crisis, Brexit, and Dunkirk is the easiest of this year's four films (Churchill, Darkest Hour and Their Finest) to break down in those terms, but it's more deeply-seated than that. Because what Dunkirk celebrates, and what the event is celebrated for, is British understatement, and the stiff-upper lip.

It's an understated film, especially considering the size of the Dunkirk enterprise, which here is scaled down to one beach, a couple of ships and a handful of boats. Everything goes into narrow focus, even the timeline, which is shifted to allow the three strands of the story to coincide at their climaxes. As with most Christopher Nolan films, time is of the essence, and the structure of Dunkirk, while it seemed to befuddle a number of critics, is not that hard to follow. I am not sure what it adds in terms of story-telling apart from perhaps distracting from the narrowness of the strands, as if to provide them with more collective weight. Those strands are the story of two 'lost' soldiers trying desperately to get off the beach, and contrasted with the officers in charge, one boat's journey across the Channel, and two fliers trying to provide air cover for the evacuees.

Understatement is celebrated along with the stiff upper lip, and they don't come much stiffer, although this, oddly, is somewhat class-conscious. The soldiers on the beach, inured to queueing, occasionally moan about their situation, but the two who are two main figures keep remarkably silent. One for very good reason, and when that reason is revealed, the British soldiers turn on him with remarkable xenophobic vigour. Oddly, the ordinary soldiers are the least convincing in costume: it's hard not to see them as modern actors. In the officer class, however, the stiff-upper lip holds. Kenneth Branagh literally has no upper lip, but as is common with his serious roles, he seems more to be playing Trevor Howard or Noel Coward playing a naval officer, than an actual naval officer.

Upper lips don't come much more stiff than Mark Rylance's from whose lips words emerge only after great effort. Were he to play the lead in a Pinter play I assume time itself might stop. Rylance's pained looks epitomise the British desire to overcome hardship, including the somewhat unnecessary hardship he makes for himself in his handling of the shell-shocked officer he picks up, whose lip has unstiffened to the point of liquidity. This creates a tragedy which Rylance has to let go, a symbol of the sacrifices we all must make, and of the creation of heroic myth (which anticipates Their Finest Hour to a T, or tea.) For all that, Rylance absolutely steals the show. And finally to Tom Hardy, as the last of the Spitfire pilots, whose understated tactic is simply not to talk at all, except for a few brief phrases over the radio to his fellows.

So as an exercise in understatement, Dunkirk is indeed a tour de force, a different sort of war movie which adapts its structure to celebrate defeat, or better, victory in defeat. But to think that it somehow avoids the tropes of war films would be a mistake, and to do so makes certain moments stand out more. Branagh stays behind, ostensibly to aid the French who will be evacuated in the next wave, when he knows full well there will be no next wave. It was tempting to think of him making an appeasement to the age-old antagonisms which have sprung up over Brexit, but I think it was more to give us a sense of the Capt. Scotts, the captain going down with his ship. Think Robert Taylor in Bataan, without the machine gun, the grave, or the Japs crawling toward him.

I spent a long time trying to figure the fuel capacity and range of those Spitfires, and at five miles per gallon, Tom Hardy would indeed have had plenty of time to do most of what he does. However the laws of physics make a couple of scenes dubious: the plane floating on the waves, when it's engine would tip it forward and then down very quickly indeed, and Hardy's amazing manoeuvres while in a powerless glide, where English grit proves too much for gravity. Given his ability to move the plane I wondered why he bothered to land away from the evacuation point, and into the middle of the oncoming (somewhat late and without any urgency) handful of Germans. Perhaps he was being a decoy. But if you think of this section of the film within its own chronological order, you see a story-line that is virtually unchanged from Air Force, apart from the Germans strafing a downed pilot, and that makes one wonder if the time-shifting is a sort of sleight of hand aimed at distracting the audience from the familiar tropes the film actually embraces, not denies.

But most instructive was the reaction of the British soldiers to the discovery one of them is actually French, and thus unworthy of being saved. No matter that the French are actually holding back the Germans while all this is happening (though for reasons we still don't understand fully, the Germans mostly held themselves back, including, crucially, in the air). This was Brexit in a nutshell: we're getting out of here and we are not taking any immigrants with us.

When everyone gets back to Britain they discover the full scale of the success of the evacuation (though somehow Kenneth Branagh knows the exact total while he is still on his little beach) and it puts that small story Nolan has shown us into some sort of context.

Writing before the Oscars, I can't see Dunkirk winning, Chariots Of Fire-like, in what would now be an upset. It is apparently the largest-grossing WWII movie, ever, but two-thirds of its takings were outside the US. However I happened to see it in America, and the audience, while not as partisan as a British one, was definitely impressed with the overall dignity and grit of the film's approach. If it were to win it might be because it speaks to certain virtues in a time of chaos, and America shares its own sort of chaos with Britain right now. But I guess that Oscar voters will be split between those who see Dunkirk as an innovation in war films and those who wonder if such a micro-focus really does convey a macro picture after all. And there are other films which get more specifically into our collective malaise, or get away from it.