Wednesday, 30 May 2018

ALAN BEAN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the astronaut Alan Bean is up at the Guardian online now; you can link to it here. It is scheduled for the paper paper tomorrow. It also contains a nice video about Bean's paitings, and wonderful stills of him on the moon and of the Apollo 12 crew. It was bittersweet for me to be remembering Bean, because I did Dick Gordon's obit for the paper last November, and Bean's were some of the best quotes in that piece, and also because in my original copy I mentioned Bean's painting, 'The Dream', in which Gordon was pictured on the moon, which he never did walk on. But the paper cut that bit; if you're curious you can link to it via this blog by punching the link here.

Oddly enough, I hadn't noticed when the Gordon piece appeared, but the Guardian's style sheet writes NASA as Nasa. They do not, however, write Usa for the United States of America. My experience everywhere else has been that acronyms containing or serving as Proper Nouns are capitalised. But the paper has an odd attitude toward caps: in my copy once, North America was changed to north America: when I pointed out the former was a continent and the latter Vermont, Minnesota, Montana and the like, I was met with a shrug.

Otherwise, Bean's obituary is pretty much as written, again except for the closing. I would have mentioned that of the Apollo 12 crew Pete Conrad died in a motorcycle crash in 1999 and Gordon died last November. But since the paper had cut their mention last time, I went for a different ending this time:  

With Bean's death, only four of the twelve men who walked on the moon remain: Buzz Aldrin, Charlie Duke, Harrison Schmitt and Dave Scott.

It too was cut. 

Saturday, 26 May 2018

PHILIP ROTH: MY LAST WORD ESSAY

My essay about Philip Roth went out yesterday on the BBC Radio 4 obituaries programme Last Word. You can find it on the IPlayer here (it's the second item on the running order). When I pitched it to the programme the piece was titled "Philip Roth And The Great American Novel", but I was then asked to make it a bit more of an obituary: the extra material required some cutting, but it still ran a bit long. The producer, Neil George, had found the quotes he'd like to include; one of them as it happened, I'd already written into the script. He re-ordered a little of the material, and cut a few bits. But it worked nicely, I thought, as it was broadcast.

What follows is the final original script, with the obituary-additions included. I've marked some of the bits that didn't make the final cut in brackets. There were also some things I either cut from my first draft or didn't include because it was not a literary essay, or the discussion would have run too long, so I've included them as footnotes.



PHILIP ROTH AND THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL



Philip's Roth's literary career coincides nicely with my own adult reading life, and it was probably with adult reading in mind that sometime in 1969 I grabbed a copy of Portnoy's Complaint, his first book whose explicit frankness about sex, especially masturbation, made it a huge best-seller. It was also funny, but as a teen-aged student of literature I was not impressed. As the son of a Jewish mother myself, it may have cut too close to the  bone. (Audio: from Portnoy)

Soon after, I saw the film Goodbye Columbus, and went back to read Roth's 1959 novella which inspired the movie. Again funny, but also a sharp-edged dissection not just of Jewish families, but of the American Dream they pursued. It's about assimilation, snobbery, money and its uses. About the class structure of education and its value. It reflected Roth's own childhood in Newark's Jewish Weequahic section, contrasted with the ritzy suburb of Short Hills. And it's about love and sex. You didn't need a Jewish mother like mine to see how Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin's relationship was doomed. (1)  (Audio: Roth on GC).


In 1973 Roth published The Great American Novel. It wasn't. Set it the world of baseball, it wasn't even the Great Baseball Novel; {Bernard Malamud, Mark Harris and especially Robert Coover had beaten him to that}. But in its exuberance and self-conscious over-kill it was parodic comment on the burden of what Norman Mailer called 'the great bitch on one's shoulder', that feeling that any American writer, to be 'great' had to write THE book. Mailer battled the ghosts of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, but even  conceded Moby Dick was American writing's Great White Whale. Roth seemed to be saying he would not chase that whale. And Joseph Heller had already written Catch 22. (2)


{Roth's Jewish comic act, a harsher Woody Allen, became less captivating}. (3) Critics castigated him as a self-hating Jew, pigeon-holing him in a literary ghetto. But his characters, striving for assimilation, transcended that. I could see easily, in Roth's Jewish fathers, echoes of my own Swedish dad, like Roth's the son of immigrants. Roth left Newark to attend the Waspy (white Anglo-Saxon protestant), Bucknell Colege. He went on to the University of Chicago, then became one of the first products of university writing programmes. (4)



He used the material of his life, and the lives of those he knew, as grist for his mill. His unhappy first marriage to Margaret Martinson; her tragic death later in a car crash. He was a novelist. He wrote. His writing, for better or worse, came first, subsumed his life.In the Seventies he created a fictional alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman and retreated into solipsism, taking his scalpel to writing itself. He never sought public acclaim, like Mailer or Gore Vidal; he didn't deal in journalism. But didn't The Great American Novel need to address a stage bigger than the writer's office or the neighbour's wife's bedroom? (5)

In The Counterlife in 1986, something changed. Roth took apart a story about Zuckerman, and told it from myriad angles. It seemed to free him to unleash Sabbath's Theatre, a bravura celebration of his own so-called faults. It won him his second National Book Award 35 years after Goodbye Columbus.


He was 62. In the space of 15 years he published 11 consistently fine novels. (6) When Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life, he could not have imagined this unprecedented run of autumnal success. The themes were familiar, his life was still material. His turbulent marriage to the actress Claire Bloom led to her writing a memoir, which Roth answered with vitriol in I Married A Communist. But he was also looking outward. In Operation Shylock the self-hating Jew turned the story of a Philip Roth impersonator in Israel into a riff on Jews making Europe great again. 


But the more he got away from himself, the better he got. In American Pastoral, his greatest novel, he created Swede Lvov, an answer of sorts to his almost exact contemporary John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom. The Swede's success in pursuing the American Dream gets tragically ambushed by the Sixties. I recognised Swede's daughter Merry as an alternate world version of Brenda Patimkin; I'd known women like her. Then In The Plot Against America, Roth created an alternate America, which many now see a prophetic.



Sex, Death and America are the great themes of American literature; Roth now wove them together. He transcended his own story, but that 'big book' never came. I don't think he intended it to. But to my great surprise and pleasure, his late novels Indignation and The Humbling came full circle back to the America of Goodbye Columbus, as if it were unchanged, except the writer. (7) And his final book, Nemesis, returned to the days when polio threatened, randomly, as death always does, all of us children.



No writer prepared us so well for his passing. (Audio: Roth on retirement) Announcing his retirement, Roth said he'd like one last big idea. But he didn't need a Great American Novel as validation. Nor a Nobel Prize, after Bob Dylan pipped him (8). As he also said, he'd done the best he could with what he had. And that was great in itself.




Footnotes


(1) You could tell by the casting! Richard Benjamin gets Ali MacGraw? Get outta here. The same year she played Jewish here, McGraw also played Italian in Love Story, which subsumed Goodbye Columbus. But this time Waspy Ryan O'Neil gets the ethnic girl. So she dies. Mike Nichols should have directed Goodbye Columbus.
(2)  I left out the comment on other baseball novels because it was off-topic, but you really should read Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, which was published in 1968 and which I am sure influenced Roth's book. I'm also sure Roth's book was a parody, not of the literature itself, as much as the quest. It's better than many people affect to believe. He throws a lot in, like Melville, but the Patriot League isn't quite the Pequod. But I don't think he was actually trying to write TGAN; though most of the critics assumed he was. I also don't believe he came close in those early years. Also, I'm not saying Catch 22 actually is the Great American Novel, though it may be the best of its generation. 

(3) The Roth/Allen comparison is obvious: Roth was a novelist who used Jewish comedy, Allen a comic who wrote stories as well as writing and directing movies. We could argue for pages about which came first, Roth's novel The Breast or the breast section of Allen's movie Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (both in 1972). Certainly Portnoy had opened the door. But there's another link: Richard Benjamin. Actually Mia Farrow. After breaking up with Woody, Mia 'dated' (as they say) Roth--their houses in Connecticut were probably not that far apart. Mia then published a memoir of her own, shades of Claire Bloom. That year, Woody's film Deconstructing Harry, a more vicious and Jewish riff on Bergman's Wild Strawberries  featured a Philip Roth-like novelist who makes barely disguised fiction out of his life. And Benjamin, who starred in the movie of Portnoy's Complaint as well as Goodbye Columbus, got cast as one of Harry's alter-ego characters, Allen's version of Roth's Zuckerman if you will. Meow.

(4) Roth taught at a number of the early creative writing programmes, and his early stories (which as best I can see have never been collected) appeared in literary magazines (and political ones like Commentary) before making the jump to Esquire and the New Yorker.

(5) One could try an essay on the way creative writing programmes tend to write about writers and teachers somewhat disproportionately and how Roth reflects this. 

(6) This was the hardest part of the essay to write. I'm convinced about the turning point, but the next two books Deception and Shylock, are really still working out bits of The Counterlife. It may have just been aging, the acquisition of gravitas. Look at the contrast in his photos. Up to this point I'd agree with those who find Roth's work repetitive, not challenging, very much inward looking. It had its moment. But starting with Sabbath's Theatre I'd argue each of his novels is brilliantly controlled (even the seeming chaos of Sabbath's, and his status as a major writer (as opposed to one known for Portnoy) is cemented by them.

(7) Indignation is a campus novel, set in the early 50s, with all the class differences and sexual double-standards of Goodbye Columbus. Although The Humbling offended some readers when its aging actor protagonist has an affair with the lesbian daughter of two of his friends, the way 'Mike', the woman, feels compelled to hide the relationship from her parents reminded me one last time of Brenda Patimkin. I also didn't address the misogyny of which Roth stands accused. Here the accusation might be 'self-hating man', because he is so straight-forward about the men's weakness and fear of women, and the way it is inculcated in them. This may be a more generous analysis than some would give.

(8) First Arthur Miller, then Roth. Though I'm not sure his world view is Nobelesque, in the sense of the kind of idealism Alfred sought, but then, was Pinter's? I wonder if Joni Mitchell will pip Margaret Atwood?

Friday, 18 May 2018

TOM WOLFE AND AMERICAN STUDIES


Although Tom Wolfe was in many ways the poster boy for 'The New Journalism', and appreciations of him focused on his revolutionary writing style, Wolfe's classic journalism, and indeed his fiction, was informed equally by the unlikely fact that he had earned a PhD at Yale University in the then-newish field of American Studies. During the war, Yale's American History department was the prime recruiting source for the OSS, and after the war the American Studies programme, concerned less with history than with American civilization, appears to have been no different for the CIA. Rather than go into academe, Wolfe went to work on the Springfield (Mass) Union, then straight to the Washington Post and reporting from revolutionary Cuba. Connect the dots.

American Studies would appeal to the CIA, who were funding all sorts of arts and literary projects, trying to establish the value of American life. Wolfe's doctoral thesis was on the CPUSA's Depression-era League Of American Writers, and in later years Wolfe would link the sociological concerns of his writing to his study of Max Weber's 'Status Theory', an interesting combination for a writer who was anything but leftish. But it's easy to see its fruits at the heart of a couple of the early pieces that made his name. The most famous are 'Radical Chic', about the conductor Leonard Bernstein's cocktail party for the Black Panthers, and 'Girl Of The Year', about society wild child Baby Jane Holzer. Were you to read only these, you might picture Wolfe, the Southern Dandy dressed in trademark planter couture, solely as a gadfly in the social scene, a reportorial version of Gore Vidal or even Truman Capote.

Where many of the so-called new journalists got involved with the people they wrote about, making the story about themselves as much as their subjects, Wolfe remained apart. Instead, he used his prose style to draw the reader in, as if in place of himself, recreating on the page that feeling of 'being there', as Jerzy Kosinsky would say.

But what gave Wolfe's work its muscle was not socio-economic analysis, nor typographic FLAMBOYANCE!!!,  but the mythic aspect of American literature which he gleaned in his studies: the way the American hero, 'hard, isolate, stoic and a killer' in D.H. Lawrence's words, was self-made, tested as an individual, and fleeing from the encroachments of avaricious society. In Wolfe's eyes, Junior Johnson, the stock-car racer who learned his trade evading Federal agents while carrying his father's bootleg whisky to market, was indeed 'The Last American Hero'.

Although not actually the last. For Wolfe he was the forerunner of Chuck Yeager, the test-pilot with the Right Stuff. Just as Johnson was subsumed by the growth of corporate NASCAR racing, so Yeager gave way to corporate NASA, who insisted on total control of their astronauts.

This vanishing American hero (to use Leslie Fiedler's phrase) recurs in variations even as Wolfe reports on America civilization becoming a more and more bizarre beacon for the rest of the world. I was still in my early teens when I devoured The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby (1965), his first collection. The title story is about two car-customizers, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth and George Barris 'King of the Kustomizers'. As a kid I knew nothing about Baby Jane Holzer, but despite having only slightly more interest in cars, I devoured the pictures of hot rods in Rod & Custom magazine, built plastic models of Big Daddy's cars like the Beatnik Bandit. Wolfe's story is about the way Kustom Kulture in Kalifornia seeks a freedom unavailable in, say, Detroit, or even New York. It's also about the battle between designers, one creating art without thought to functionality, the other building artistic works one could actually drive. It's a theme repeated in Wolfe's 1981 polemic against modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House.

In 1965 I was already listening to the disc jockey Murray the K on 1010 WINS in New York. Wolfe's essay 'The Fifth Beatle' portrayed Murray less as a leader of the nascent counter culture than a frenzied self-promoter, the 'king of the hysterical disc jockies' , though those of us who listened knew the hysterical crown actually belonged to 'Cousin' Brucie Morrow, whom Murray replaced on WINS. Ironically, two decades later, after the publication of Bonfire, first serialised in Rolling Stone, Norman Mailer called Wolfe 'the hardest-working show-off in the literary world', in effect a novelistic Murray the K. The ensuing feud with what Wolfe called 'my Three Stooges', Mailer, John Updike and John Irving concerned the quality of his fiction, which Wolfe self-flatteringly described in terms of the social realism of Zola, Dickens, Balzac and Dreiser. In his riposte to the Stooges, 'Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast' Wolfe argued writers should be focused on 'the material' of American life, not their own talent. Funnily, the two novelists he cited were Joseph Wambaugh and John LeCarre: early Wambaugh was everything Wolfe may have thought Bonfire to be, and a good counter to Updike, but LeCarre's spies moved in a world very much apart from the billion feet, especially the billion American feet.

Although Irving might be said to be the most self-consciously Dickensian of Wolfe's Stooges, and Updike the most obvious opposite of what Wolfe wanted to do, the feud with Mailer is paradoxical, if not in their fictions (though Mailer's mythic takes in, say, An American Dream or Why Are We In Vietnam? are as full of American Studies as Wolfe, and former originally was serialised in Esquire!) then in their non-fiction. We think of the New Journalism as being defined not only by flamboyant writing like Wolfe's, and by less flamboyant long-form, and by the insertion of the writer into the story, which was very much not Wolfe's MO. It was however, Mailer's, or did you miss the point of Advertisements For Myself? He did it in the third person (something he learned reading Henry Adams at Harvard, probably in American Studies!). Wolfe himself credited Gay Talese's 'Joe Louis At 50' as opening his eyes, while some of the new journalists, say, Jimmy Breslin, were working in the style of great columnists--bringing the freedom of the column to their reporting. The point is that, in non-fiction, this was very much a shared enterprise, without the back-biting. But when we entered into the realms of fiction, all bets were off. Could Wolfe have dug back into his own past and written anything like Mailer's vast novel about the OSS and early CIA, Harlot's Ghost (whose promised part II never appeared)? To do so might have required Wolfe's own presence; Mailer, in this case, was playing the observer.

But his critics felt the difference between Wolfe's material and his 'talent'. It goes back to Wolfe's writing his way out of the diffidence of being an observer. Perhaps there is his own element of class involved. His family had money; if he were not in the CIA he might possibly have been supported by them. In Bonfire he captured the sense of the greed-driven Eighties perfectly, his involvement with the characters almost matched the ones about which he'd reported. But that was because they were the Ivy League elite, the ones who had once gone into the CIA, and cover jobs in journalism, but now were busy being a different kind of Masters Of The Universe, by moving money and living large. But after Bonfire, away from the types he knew well, his three later novels revealed the limits of observation as opposed to creation, most famously in I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), in which Wolfe very much wasn't his black woman from a poor background who attends an elite university. He was expanding an observation about an issue in society into a framework he was unable to fill convincingly.

Wolfe's most famous book remains The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), chronicling his travels across America on an LSD-fuelled trip with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, including Neal Cassady and the Grateful Dead, a journey that also spawned parts of Hunter Thompson's first book, Hell's Angels. Kesey of course is best-remembered today for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1962) a moving novel about an issue of sorts, but more tellingly a daringly-constructed and written study of an individual hero's battle with society. That was also, more obviously, the theme of Kesey's now-neglected second novel, Sometimes A Great Notion (1964), the tale of the Stamper logging family's battle against unionzed loggers in Oregon. Although it is very much rooted in realism, the characters often speak in first-person monologues, like a new journalist's patter. I think of Paul Newman, as Hank Stamper in the final scene of the film adaptation, riding down the river like Huck Finn, straight out of your American studies class, flipping a middle finger at the world.

Wolfe of course remained aloof from the merriest of the Pranksters' pranking. But it's hard not to think that in Kesey and his rebellion against the norms of Sixties society, and his return from the West to the East on his bus, Wolfe saw his most crucial themes laid out for him, in one psychedelic, tie-dyed pattern. That he could never reproduce this in his fiction should not come as a surprise. After all, after the Magic Bus, neither could Kesey.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

SILENT FEET (a poem after Eberhard Weber)

When I found the manuscript pages of Silent Feet I was pleased at how well I remembered it, and how well it held up. I wrote it 40 years ago, just after the poem Coachwheel Yellow, a villanelle which I posted here back in 2016, and to which you can link here. Or look on the side of the blog page, where you can link to all the poems posted here.

The connection is the studio/greenhouse, and the same very specific place and situation in both poems. 'Silent Feet' is another ECM poem, inspired by a song, in this case the title track of Eberhard Weber & Colours' 1977 album. It remains one of Weber's best songs, and the way his bass swirls and builds around the other players (Rainer Bruninghaus on piano, Charlie Mariano on reeds and John Marshall on drums) is superb. This would be around I time I saw them at The Round House in Camden.

Today I was looking at the album's cover art, by Maja Weber, and wondering why when I wrote this I did not make more of the Watership Down connection (to the cat were given silent feet and eyes that can see in the dark; I have another poem with the latter title which remains unfinished) at the time. Maybe I wasn't looking at the LP sleeve. I wrote it originally in August 1978 and changed it only slightly in the next year. It was accepted for publication by two magazines which folded, before being published in 1987 in a very small magazine called Magazing, in Glasgow, but the 'finished' version appeared in Brief (Canyon, California) issue 5, 1989. I made a few more changes recently in the version you are reading here.



SILENT FEET
                                                 (after Eberhard Weber)

The colours jump off his brush, names on a list
Eager to complete itself.
The canvas stretched like a target; his eyes
Controlling a weapon he cannot dismantle.
The angle of the easel is determined by
The relationship developed between hand and eye.
It can be considered
From the outside, by a woman watching
In the doorway, on bare feet, silently
As his arm reaches
To connect the line of the body
With the canvas, reclining
In its plane. He senses
Her presence, still outside but changing
The contours of the studio. The patterns
roll against his eyes like waves. She hears
Him turn before he does, before she sees
It happen. Her eyes are nervous, bird's song;
They meet his askew; they move away,
Return; she hears him move again; he sees
Her, a flutter of wings outside;
She is gone.

MARK BILLINGHAM'S KILLING HABIT

Someone is killing cats up North London way, and although Tom Thorne can't help but feel tomicide is not his proper calling, he's going to be seconded to his old Kentish Town stomping grounds, an improvement over his new commute from his partner Helen's place in Tulse Hill up to Hendon. And he knows there is always the possibility the serial feline killer might move on to something more satisfying, for both of them. That's the grim reality for Thorne, an honesty that makes him one of British crime fiction's most compelling detectives.

But once up NW5 way, he works out a mutual assistance deal with DI Nicola Tanner, suffering her own recent loss, but investigating the murder of a drug dealer, a case which isn't as open and shut as it seems.

Savvy readers might think they know where all this is going, but one of Mark Billingham's strong points is the way he manages to confound expectations. There are twists along the way, and one big and very convincing one at the climax which will satisfy puzzle fans as well as those of the classic Scandi/British school of police procedurals.

Beyond that, what makes Billingham so good is the way the twists move within his own story and his relationship with the police itself. His cops are a rainbow coalition, ahead of the British curve in many ways, and the way their personal lives stack up, survive problems or not, is as much a thriller in its own way as the crime plot. And like John Harvey, one of the masters of the genre, the cops' own situations are often mirrored by the story itself: here there's an interesting doubling between a criminal held in protective custody and Thorne's own troubled relations with his partner and her sister.

Billingham is good enough with characters that when, for example, Thorne attends his first gay wedding, of the tough-talking Sergeant Christine Treasure, it actually brings a smile to the reader's face. It's that quality of writing that makes Mark Billingham, my old podcast partner on The Crime Vault Live (interest declared) one of the best, and most consistent, writers in the business.

And of course, there are the cats.

The Killing Habit by Mark Billingham
Little, Brown £18.99 ISBN 97807551566949
published 14 June

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

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

THE BEST TIGHT ENDS: JASON WITTEN, ANTONIO GATES & MY GRIDIRON TOP TEN

Last night on Talksport2's Nat Coombs Show starring Gnat Coombs we were talking about Jason Witten's retirement and the Chargers' release of Antonio Gates, and I mentioned the following article which I wrote last August as a Carlson's GOAT (greatest of all time) column for issue 31 of Gridiron (and if you haven't yet subscribed to Gridiron, why not?).

I have left the article as it was written (with one change in the second 11), though of course now Witten is no longer active and he has 11 Pro Bowls to his name, while Gronk is still active (after much soap opera drama by the 'hot takes' bunch) and now has four first-team All Pro selections and five Pro Bowls to his credit, tied with Ditka and more than Mackey or Winslow. Dallas certainly was expecting Witten to return as a full-time player, while although I fully expect a team, probably a very good team, to pick up Gates, he will certainly be much more of a situational player.

Were I writing the piece now, after the 2017 season, I would probably move Witten at least into a tie with Gates at number nine. I realised that the arguments I made in favour of Tony Gonzalez at number one apply similarly to Witten--his longevity at high quality is so unusual for the position it argues in his favour. In fact, although I'm pretty well set on the top five, the next five or six are very much fungible in my mind: the higher peaks for more limited time are balanced off by extended quality. I noted too that when Witten caught his record 110 passes in a season, he was not the consensus All-Pro (that was Gronk), and averaged only 9.4 yards per catch. My feeling is that the top five guys, at their peaks, all had to be accounted for by defenses in ways that separated them from the pack. 


THE TOP TEN TIGHT ENDS


Tight end wasn't even recognised as a position until the Sixties; in 1961 the UPI and NEA all-pro teams chose their first TE (rookie Mike Ditka); the AP followed suit in '62 (Ron Kramer). The growing use of halfbacks as flankers (eg: Lennie Moore, Frank Gifford) meant one end stayed in the line; Vince Lombardi made Kramer, a 250 pound sometimes tackle, that guy on a permanent basis. The position called for a balance of blocking and pass-catching skills; in those early years athletic guys like Ditka, John Mackey, or Jackie Smith gained lots of yards on mis-matches. One beneficiary of the change was Pete Retzlaff, who came into the league as a halfback, became a flanker, then a split end, finally, as he slowed a little, moved in as a tight end. In four seasons, he was all-pro once, could have been twice, and went to the Pro Bowl three times. Rule changes that opened up the passing game in late 70s saw the explosion of Kellen Winslow, Ozzie Newsome and others, until Shannon Sharpe became a prototype for the receiver-first guys we see today.

Ranking tight ends was difficult. Blocking is a skill that is not quantified, where reputation often matters as much as success. Many times the TE with the best stats used to lose out with all-pro voters to someone who was perceived as a better blocker. Some great TE seasons were undervalued by all-pro voters because they came on lousy teams, as if the idea of your TE being your top receiver was a joke (see Bob Tucker 1972). I've tried to balance receiving and blocking, and factor in longevity. One thing that stands out is the demand of the position works against a lot of great seasons, but great tight ends often have long careers filled with seasons less than their peak. There are a number of great TEs whose best seasons always seemed to come when someone else was having a better one (Ozzie Newsome). Finally, I've listed the number of first team all-pro selections and Pro Bowls for each guy. Take them with a grain of salt. There were multiple all-pro teams for most of the history of the NFL; they didn't always agree, and although the AP team is the generally accepted one today, there are a couple of others. The Pro Bowl picks two tight ends from each conference, but is also less reliable every year as the event itself becomes an increasingly irrelevant circus. Note Tony Gonzalez' 14th Pro Bowl came as an alternate! So here's my pick of the position:

Runners-up: 21. Russ Francis (0/3) or Steve Jordan (0/6) 19 (tie) Jerry Smith (1/2) or Jay Novacek (1/4) 18. Bob Trumpy (1/4) 17. Mark Bavaro (2/2) 16. Ben Coates (2/5) 15. Fred Arbanas (3/5 AFL) 14. Keith Jackson (3/5) 13. Pete Retzlaff (1/3) 12. Todd Christensen (2/5) 11. Ozzie Newsome (1/3)

The countdown (active players in bold):
10. (tie) Charlie Sanders (3/7), Jason Witten (2/10): longevity at this position is unusual; most of the greats tend to have five Pro Bowls in their resumes. I thought Sanders' might have been lucky to be chosen in all three of the all-pro seasons, but there was a reason voters respected him, which was partly his blocking. Whitten became the record holder for most catches in a season for a TE with 103 in 2012.

9. Antonio Gates (3/8): Undrafted out of Kent State where he was a basketball player, Gates is the poster-boy for the match-up style pass game of the modern era. Became a decent blocker, and even now with his speed gone can post-up defenders in the end zone as well as anyone in the league.

8. Jackie Smith (0/5): Smith could easily have been first team all pro three times, especially in '68 and '69 (when he also rushed 12 times for 193 yards and 3 TDs). But he was viewed as more of a pass-catcher, and the Cardinals as pass-happy, in a still run-orented era. Forget his famous drop for Dallas; he never should have been playing for the Cowboys anyway.

7. Shannon Sharpe (4/8): The same skill set as Smith, but played in a system and era that encouraged those skills. A willing if not terribly effective blocker, not as good as Smith, but a huge mis-match problem for defenses.

6. Dave Casper (4/5): From '76 through '79 the best in the business, then joined on the Raiders by Ray Chester and Christensen. Ghost to the Post remains as good as Alley-Oop in the list of plays named for specific players.

5. Rob Gronkowski (3/4): Injury is all that is keeping Gronk from consideration for the top spot; he may be the best combination of blocker and receiver of anyone on the list, capable of handling defensive ends one on one, of beating defensive backs downfield, and with reach and hands up there with Gates or Gonzo.

4. John Mackey (3/5): Mackey was the TE on the NFL all-decade team of the 60s; then Mike Ditka replaced him when the NFL chose the 75th anniversary squad. At the time I made the case for Mackey, but looking closely at the all pro selections, I realised in 67 his selection could easily have gone to Jackie Smith or Jerry Smith; in 68 it should have gone to Jackie. He was a ferocious blocker with great speed and running ability; injuries curtailed his career.

3. Mike Ditka (4/5): If you want to call him and Mackey a tie I'd be happy. Ditka's rookie season, 1961, saw him catch an unheard of 56 passes for 1076 yards and 12 touchdowns. He lost the AP all-pro to Kramer in 62 but got UPI's and was clearly better. He wore down as well, but hung on as a blocker with Dallas. Like Mackey, absolutely ferocious after the catch, and teams didn't have what we now call strong safeties in those first years.

2. Kellen Winslow (3/5): Gronk before there was Gronk, though he wasn't the in-line blocker Gronk is. 1980 was his second season, but first as starter and like Ditka in '61 his line 89/1,290/9 revolutionized the game, recognizing the changes in coverage rules made him a match-up nightmare. He had another 1,000 yard season in '82 as did Newsome (1,002) and Joe Senser (1,004), while Dan Ross racked up 910. Winslow simply wore down after nine seasons, but his epic performance against Miami in the 1981 playoffs, catching 13/166 and blocking a field goal to prevent the Dolphins winning, is one of the greatest individual games ever.

THE TOP TIGHT END: TONY GONZALEZ

When you compare players, you have to judge peak performance and career performance. You might make an argument for Winslow, or maybe Ditka, or even Casper at their peaks, but nobody did it so well for so many seasons as Gonzo. You can judge tight ends by the receiving skills, their running skill, their blocking. You'll see Gonzalez referred to as another basketball player converted to tight end, but that's wrong. He was a football player too. As a high schooler he shared the Orange County athlete of the year award with some golfer named Tiger Woods, and for three years at Cal-Berkeley he played football first and then switched to basketball. He was an All-American tight end as a junior, when he came out for the NFL draft; 6-6 power forwards averaging 7 points per game weren't high on the NBA's want list anyway. It took the Chiefs three seasons before they focused on Gonzalez' skills: in his fourth season he registered the first of his four 1,000 yard seasons; Christensen, Winslow and Sharpe had three each.

But what stands out about Gonzalez' career is that longevity. 17 seasons. No major injuries at a position where the wear and tear of blocking, combined with the catching over the middle, invites pain. The consistency of 14 Pro Bowls. The success of moving to Atlanta, where he was unlucky enough to enjoy only one complete season of Julio Jones distracting defenses away from him. Detractors will point to his only adequate blocking, to a perceived lack of breakaway speed; he's more like Gates than Gronk in that sense. They'll point to a lack of a Super Bowl ring, but frankly, that's not a reflection of his play. It's almost impossible to conceive of another career like Gonzalez's. You may prefer a different guy if you're choosing for just one game, but over a career, there's no doubt who ranks number one.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

BEAST: MICHAEL PEARCE'S DEBUT PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER FROM THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL

Michael Pearce's debut feature Beast, which played at the London Film Festival in October, is set on Jersey, and begins at a birthday party for Moll, who has the spotlight stolen from her by her sister's announcement of an impending baby. Moll, who is kept well under the thumb of her domineering mother Hilary, escapes from the party and spends the night dancing. But when her dancing partner begins to get aggressively amorous on the beach in the morning, she is rescued by Pascal, carrying the rifle he's been using to poach rabbits.

Part of the beauty of this very assured first feature lies in the constant contrast between the posh Bergerac world of Jersey, and the darker world underneath. Moll, a tour guide who shows visitors the island's pleasant side from a bus, is also kept well under hell by her mother, made responsible for care of her invalid father. Pascal, the wild woodsman, begins to set Moll free, but we become aware there are secrets in her past. We also learn the island is being rocked by a series of kidnapping/murders of young girls, and as the relationship between Moll and Pascal deepens it becomes no real surprise that Pascal becomes a major suspect.

Beast depends on its stars to make this mix of stories and styles work, and they deliver. Irish actress Jessie Buckley is a revelation, hiding and releasing bits of her character in ways that only occasionally don't surprise. She's asked for a lot of emotion, but manages not to overwhelm Johnny Flynn as Pascal, who has to be even more of a chameleon, and present a charming face to the Jersey world to which he doesn't belong. And Geraldine James, as Hilary, is a figure worthy of a horror film, holding in her own repressed fury and fear of her place in the island's society.

Pearce's script twists and turns while never losing the basic duopoly of its love story. There is so much contained passion and violence, he needs the sensitive camera of Benjamin Kracun to let the landscape, the seascape, the very atmosphere play against and with his story, bringing out elements of the gothic as well as the romantic, of crime and horror. Note the difference in the two posters for the film if you doubt me. The harsh meeting of sharp-edged rocks, cliffs and sea works perfectly here, and so too the confines of the small island. There is a scene inside a country club whose tightly pressed walls and fragile furniture and place settings almost demands to be spoiled. There's another, an interrogation scene with the excellent Olwen Fouere as a police detective, which blends oppressive space and colour with her own hammering power.

Without getting into spoilers, it is difficult to express further admiration for the script, but as much as it keeps one guessing, plays with carefully placed reference, and builds and tests sympathies, it has an ending whose ambiguities are worthy of some great thrillers of the best. This is an assured and exciting first feature, in fact, I cannot remember a first British thriller I've enjoyed as much in years. And Buckley in particular is an acting talent to watch. Recommended wholeheartedly.

Spoiler Alert: do not read what follows if you're very good at reading between lines, or if you're sensitive to spoilers. But come back and read it after you've seen the film: 

At the screening I attended, there was some debate about which character was, in the end, the Beast, and Pearce said this was a source of argument whenever the film is show. But the movie's title is not 'the' Beast, but Beast, and to me it seemed pretty clear, especially after the ending took me  away from the Thelma and Louise finish I thought had been set up. Pearce's beast is not a person but a feeling that lurks in many of us, and something we need to recognise, understand and control in ourselves. This is what Buckley conveys so brilliantly, and what Flynn is so good at covering up.

 BEAST is on general release at of 27 April 
Note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)