Saturday, 30 April 2011


My obituary of Joe 'the Jet' Perry is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. Obviously, I had to keep it simple enough for a non-football audience (and the definition of 'scatback' the Indy provided is not very accurate--McElhenny's dodging, darting style complemented Perry's) but there was a lot more to say, most of which would have showed my age, and my increasingly obvious old fogey disposition.

Joe nearly beat Mel Patton, at the time the world record holder at 100 yards (9.3) running in the Fresno Relays (Patton ran 9.4 Joe 9.5, hand-clocked of course). It reminded me what big events such track meets were in those days, and how, despite the huge popularity of Olympic track every four years, events I grew up with, like the Penn Relays, the IC4As, or the Millrose Games have all become after-thoughts in the sporting calendar.

I would have liked to make more of the integration issue on the west coast. Woody Strode, Kenny Washington, and Jackie Robinson all played professionally in the Pacific Coast Football League, which, like its baseball equivalent, was somewhat better than a 'minor' league. Interestingly, the Indy is also holding my obit of Wally Yonamine, who, before he was abused for being the first American to play baseball in Japan, suffered racial abuse in the PCFL for being the first Japanese-American to play pro football!

The NFL, of course, had been an integrated league in its early days in the 1920s; Redskins' owner George Preston Marshall's racism is generally blamed for its period of unwritten segregation. And the AAFC was integrated a year before Major League Baseball; though the Cleveland Browns left their black players home when they played Miami.

There was a great quote from John Unitas about what a great teammate Perry was; he had two years in Baltimore that were remarkable considering his age. It's also ironic that Tittle, who played college ball at LSU, was the QB for Baltimore when the hotel incident occured. It's a neat distinction to note that the Million Dollar Backfield was half white (Tittle, McElhenny) and half black (Perry, Johnson), and oddly, neither Tittle nor Johnson would likely be in the Hall of Fame except they went on to bigger and better things when they left San Francisco. Sometimes there just isn't enough glory to go around.

Perry was probably the second-most popular 49er on those teams, after Leo 'the Lion' Nomellini, the defensive tackle who was a big-time pro wrestler in the off-season. Those were the days, when all-pro linemen had to wrestle in the off-season to make a living! There were six Hall of Famers on that team in the mid-1950s, but they still couldn't win a title. And there was Alley-Oop Owens, who invented, with Tittle, the Alley-Oop pass. But that's another story....


This is the 400th post I've put up on Irresistible Targets, and for personal reasons and the pressures of work, I've slowed down the last couple of months. I'm at a loss to figure out which direction I ought to take this, and whether there is any future in it. I currently link to my own published work, as well as post crime fiction and other reviews. I have been asked and told to make the blog more specific, that readers will check it regularly only if they know what they are getting.

Originally I had intended to run separate blogs for sports and for writing about art, but the first (...And Over Here, link to it here) is dormant and the second (Untitled: Perspectives, link to it here) is hugely occasional. I never know whether to simply write about what interests me, and put it here, and hope people notice and enjoy: I link to the blog from facebook and twitter, so if you do notice and/or enjoy, re-twit or re-link, or leave a comment (especially if you don't enjoy). Anyway, post 401 will probably show up soon, despite my confusion, so don't go away!

Friday, 29 April 2011


Neil Gaiman's Sandman was a consistently inventive comic series, and he's since gone on to wider acclaim. But he remains a master of composing for the graphic format, and The Dream Hunters is a fine example of why. It's an adaptation of a novella, a short Japanese fable Gaiman originally wrote in prose as a book illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano. Now it's presented in comics format, drawn by P. Craig Russell and captivating from the start.

Part of it is the tone, which is fine enough so one can see exactly why people think it was adapted from an actual Japanese folk tale. Gaiman has a perfect touch; his work is always fabulous, in the sense of fables, and often sentimental, as fables ought to be. But he manages to maintain the seriousness, the emotion, of the material, and by treating it with respect gets the reader to do the same. Part of it is also the art, which sometimes plays with Japanese cliche, and sometimes draws on the conventions of funny animal stories, and indeed the conventions of the Sandman series, because the Lord of Dreams has his part to play. But when Russell needs his fox-turned-woman to be convincing she is, and even better, when he needs the fox herself to convince she does.

The love of fox and monk turns into something out of O. Henry, but in a much wider, darker, and in the end enthralling context. Gaiman avoids cliche and melodrama enough to seem true to a Japanese sensibility, but the story works as a universal as well. Like all the Sandman stories, it is about our dreams, and what things exist there that we sometimes see and sometimes don't, or can't. It is exactly the thing to show someone who doesn't believe in the comics format as a means for delivering 'art': this needs no suspension of disbelief that is not required from the best fairy tales, myths, and indeed, modern novels...

Wednesday, 27 April 2011


It might be good timing that The Heroes is released around the same time as Game of Thrones is making a big splash in the small pond of HBO series exiled to Sky Atlantic over here. In fact, there are some similarities between George RR Martin's view of swords and sorcery and Abercrombie's, most of which have to do with a harsh but realistic view of battle and a realisation that the intrigues of power are intrinsically more interesting than the details of battle anyway. Both writers also eschew the fanciful language that often accompanies S&S, and Abercrombie manages a good mix of modern idiom and medieval attitude. He is also writing on a smaller scale. Although The Heroes takes place in the world Abercrombie apparently created for his First Law trilogy, and deals with a massive battle between the forces of the Union for control of The North (roughly England and Scotland, though the parallel is never belaboured), the focus is on a limited number of characters, and within the wider scope of warfare, the various quirks of courage and character are allowed to shine through. Like Martin, Abercrombie is also very good with likeable characters with dislikeable traits, which provides a little spice, and his portrayal of the more barbarian leaders of the North, war chiefs who are 'named men', earning, like Indians, their noms des guerres, contrasts nicely with the rather false varnish of civilisation of the nobles and royal lackeys of the Union.

It's a big book that doesn't read like one, once you've got through the first 100 pages or so, and have an idea of who the main characters are. This is a problem, in that Abercrombie needs that space; he can't sketch a character in quickly, partly because they exist in context with numerous others; the relationship of men (and women) in war is one of mutual dependency. But once you do get going, his writing holds you in place; in this he reminds me a little of Glen Cook, whose Black Company S&S novels are much undervalued, and who writes in contemporary, indeed, pared-down, prose.

This is a real problem with sword & sorcery in general. I hadn't read any in some while, and Simon Spanton recommended this book. I suspect the reason is that as we get older, we have less inclination, certainly less time, and probably less need to lose ourselves in entire worlds, which is what the best writers of S&S create, convincingly enough to draw you in, and thereby convince you of the inner drive of their stories; this is something more dynamic than mere suspension of disbelief.

In that context, Abercrombie's not afraid to keep it simple, not afraid to use an epigraph from the baseball star Mickey Mantle, but he always manages to walk the fine line and keep his writing within the murky parameters of his S&S world. There is at least one very moving death scene, and even a little delving into matters of the heart, all handled every bit as well as the action scenes when the battle, a three-day affair like Gettysburg, actually takes place.

Yet the best thing about The Heroes is the way the story doesn't resolve itself until after the battle, and then it moves in directions you would have been hard put to see coming. It reinforces the notion that the battlefield is not where the real decisions are made, and that the role of heroes themselves is nothing like as crucial as the ballads would have us believe. Rather, they exist as a kind of motivation, propaganda if you will; an illusion designed to lull those lured into heading for battle, prepare them for killing and for death. We see the emptiness in Bremer dan Gorst, hero of the North, and in Curnden Craw, the dependable leader of 'a dozen' for the North; we see it in the cowardice of Prince Calder, a character of Shakesperian wit, and in young Beck, seduced into leaving the farm for a life of glory and discovering it doesn't exist. In that irony, The Heroes is completely modern, reminding me of the Korean War films of Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann more than anything else. And that is high praise indeed. I suspect I will be headed back to the First Law books; I enjoyed The Heroes that much.

Sunday, 17 April 2011


My obituary of Arthur Marx, son of Groucho, will be in Monday's Guardian, but it's online now and you can link to it here. I hadn't realised he was such a good tennis player; it seems obvious that having achieved something on his own, he felt perfectly comfortable moving in his father's world, even if he approached it from a different angle. Looking at his credits, it seemed he was a natural at a kind of old fashioned comedy that worked well on television, but his his Marx Brothers stage plays are a different sort of thing. I only wish I'd seen The Impossible Years; anyone who writes A material for Alan King is OK with me.

Thursday, 14 April 2011


Tributes to Sidney Lumet have concentrated, and rightly so, on his major pictures and his knack for giving actors real chances to shine. But there is a danger of seeing him, particularly in light of 12 Angry Men being his first film and Network being arguably his best-known, and the one with the best sound-bite clip for obits, as a social realist, if not a satirist, or looking at his work along the lines of many of the other directors who came out of live television in the 1950s and went on to make the kind of earnest, feel-good work Hollywood loves to honour with Oscars (cf The King's Speech). Network has more of an edge than most such films, but at the same time it is far from Lumet's best work; it lacks subtlety, even when considered as a farcical black comedy, and like many of his films it resolves itself mechanically. But there's no question that Lumet deserves to be noted as a major director of crime films, as both 12 Angry Men and The Verdict have to be counted among the top courtroom thrillers, and they are by no means his best crime films.

And while it's important to recall Lumet's grounding in theatre (and the Actor's Studio) that background combined with his work in the early days of live television to produce a style which to many seemed utilitarian, albeit actor-friendly. Live TV offered most of the limitations of theatre (closed sets, limited casts) intensified by the audience's dependence on the single camera's point of view; a dependence which Lumet quickly turned into an asset with use of close-up and very quick cutting to create the illusion of action, or better, to draw the inner action out. Most of his best films let the actors work in extreme close-up, and those close-ups usually come quickly from ensemble shots that define the characters: once they take centre stage; think not just of Peter Finch in Network but say, Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men or Paul Newman in The Verdict. 12 Angry Men, released in 1957, was actually adapted from an original teleplay; of his next five films, four were adapted from plays. The Fugitive Kind (1960) is pure Tennessee Williams meets Actor's Studio, but Lumet injects Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) with an energy that transcends O'Neill's words; it remains one of the great filmed plays, and Katharine Hepburn one of O'Neill's greatest interpreters. I haven't seen Lumet's TV version of The Iceman Cometh (1960), with Jason Robards and a young Robert Redford, but it is now available on DVD.

It's interesting to watch him progress through filmed theatre: The Sea Gull (1968) with Vanessa Redgrave, James Mason and Simone Signoret, Robert Marasco's Child's Play (1972) again with Mason, Robert Preston and Beau Bridges, and later smaller productions with big-name actors: Peter Shaffer's Equus (1977) with Richard Burton and Ira Levin's Deathtrap (1982) with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, in what is as much a crime film as his Murder On The Orient Express (1974) is a filmed play.

Most of Lumet's best films are those which are set in the corrupt world of New York City politics and policing. Serpico (1973), which is the one people gravitate onto, was the entry point for Lumet, and part of that great revival of New York crime movies sparked by The French Connection. It may be the key film in Lumet's career: it's conducted via close-ups of method acting Al Pacino set against a paranoid world in which he never knows who among his cop colleagues and bosses and politicians is corrupt and a threat. His paranoia turns out to be fully justified. Although Lumet returned to that dark side of New York corruption repeatedly, it seems to me that Serpico and its urban paranoia, make it closer to films like Midnight Cowboy, and as such it and its successor Dog Day Afternoon (1975) are less connected with Lumet's later, more sombre, crime films than they are with Network; all three concerned with frustrations about the mores of society and its institutions, as revealed by almost insane paranoids.

The later crime and corruption films provided Lumet with a different theme, with a framework, and with the perfect way of blending the lead character back into the ensemble, getting away from Pacino and Finch. The best of the films I'd call his 'New York cycle' (and include Serpico and Dog Day if you insist), and maybe the best of all his films, was Prince Of The City (1981), with Treat Williams proving Lumet's skills with actors who never quite became stars. In fact, there are no stars, it's full of lesser-known New York actors, like Jerry Orbach, and the ensemble feel gives it a 'you are there' character (You Are There, hosted by Walter Cronkite, was a series Lumet worked on in the 1950s, which reenacted moments of history in docu-drama fashion). Prince was followed by The Verdict, which I'm tempted to include in this cycle even though its setting is Boston, and even though as a vehicle for one of Paul Newman's absolute best performances, it's closer in some ways to Serpico or indeed Network, though in this case Newman is brought back from the edge. Jack Warden leads a brilliant supporting cast, including James Mason and Edward Binns. If David Mamet's script becomes mechanical as his then-wife Lindsey Crouse cracks up on screen, Newman's rebirth carries it off. However the edge Mamet brings to the tempatations of evil is what is missing from the next two of Lumet's New York cycle: Q&A (1990), with Nick Nolte doing the Newman, Night Falls On Manhattan (1996), like Prince based on a Robert Daley book, and this time with Andy Garcia as Treat Williams/Newman and Richard Dreyfuss chanelling Jack Warden. Lumet's late-career return was marked by the last of this cycle, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), which is less concerned with institutional corruptions, and more with families, with fathers and sons, but which captures that feeling of uncertainty in relationships that ought to be certain. Or you could look at it as a serious version of the unfunny comedy Family Business, made almost 20 years earlier.

Many critics think of Lumet the way David Thomson described him: a solemn, often humourless adapter with no personal signature. Certainly he has made some clunkers, some in the 80s, more in the 90s, when his choice of material seemed flawed—and sometimes despite getting good performances from people you might not expect to deliver. But looking at some of his more overlooked films tells us something about Lumet's real strengths. Yes, if his sense of humour were better the black comedies might have more edge -- Fail Safe (1964), of course, for all its many strengths, which were never more apparent when George Clooney and Stephen Frears paid homage to it with their live TV version in America, will always be covershadowed by the satirical farce of Dr Strangelove-- but no one seems to remember Bye Bye Braverman (1968) which was very funny indeed. It probably reflects Lumet's upbringing with parents in Yiddish theatre, and indeed the bit I remember best from it is the excellent Godfrey Cambridge as a black, Yiddish-speaking, New York cabbie, and the brilliant Warden, whose career might have been sterling even if he'd never acted in anything but Lumet's movies.

Another film no one seems to recall is Lovin' Molly (1974), his next film after Serpico. It's an odd, almost urban adaptation of Larry McMurtry's excellent novel Leaving Cheyenne, one of his modern westerns like Horseman, Pass By (Hud) or The Last Picture Show which preceded his epic westerns. You might think Lumet was trying to cash in on the success of Peter Bogdanovich's film. The book is Jules et Jim set in Texas; two very different men in love with the somewhat difficult Molly, and is told in three parts, by each character in succession, at twenty year intervals. I call the film almost urban because the casting and indeed the settings do little to suggest the Texas background which is so rich in the novel. Beau Bridges is fine as the easy-going man, and Blythe Danner handles Molly with aplomb, especially if you don't try to believe she's Texan. The same applies in spades to Anthony Perkins. It's not quite the miscasting of Fear Strikes Out, because part of the story is the way his sensitive boy is a disappointment to his father, played with a bit more Texas ornery-ness by Ed Binns, who gets the great quote when explaining to his son (Perkins) why Molly isn't worth worrying about: 'A woman's love is like the morning dew: it's as just as apt to settle on a horse turd as a rose'.

I also have a lingering fondess for Daniel (1983) from EL Doctorow's fictionalised Rosenbergs, again partly for its New York casting, including Mandy Patinkin, Ed Asner, and Tovah Feldshuh. The Morning After (1986), with Jeff Bridges and a surprisingly good Jane Fonda, might be considered a near miss, but among the crime films it's hard to raise much affection for A Stranger Among Us (Melanie Griffith with the Hasidim should have made a great comedy), Guilty As Sin (Don Johnson can't repeat Hot Spot with Rebecca DeMornay) or Find Me Guilty with Vin Diesel. Luckily, Lumet's reputation doesn't have to rest with these films. In fact, it doesn't have to rest on his crime films at all, there is too much else to consider. But considered on his crime work alone, he is a major director.


My obit of Wilfred Sheed is in today's Indy, you can link to it here. To me, he was the quitessential New Yorker writer, just ahead of his time in his Anglo-Americanism: check out any issue now, or the NYRB or Vanity Fair or even the NYTBR to see how heavy the impact of Brits is on the New York version of American culture. The hardest part of writing the obit was actually cutting back on the number of aphorisms I could have used, Sheed was that clever a writer.

Thursday, 7 April 2011


Last week the Guardian devoted an entire page of their Friday review section to Joe Queenan's discovery that Kenneth Branagh was not the second coming of Laurence Oliver. Since this acclamation is now more than two decades old, and because most of us have long since been disabused of the notion, Queenan's decision to use the upcoming Thor movie for a re-evaluation that turns out to be merely a confirmation of the existing evaluation is an interesting one, more interesting because he seems to miss the essential point of Branagh's original appeal and his career since then.

Where the comparison with Oliver held up best, I believe, is in the transition from stage to film. Oliver understood very well how to convey theatrical effects, and also understood even better the uses of the camera to provide those effects, like close-ups, which could not be delivered on the stage. Watching his Hamlet, Richard, or Harry is to get the best sense of theatrical performance. Branagh had a similar sense of transferring some of the immediacy of the stage, some of the control the lead actor has, to the screen. Problem was, he had much less to work with.

Years ago I wrote about Branagh's Henry V, noting that his was a performance for Thatcherite Britain. Oliver's had been empowered by World War II; Branagh's by the Britain of war in the Falklands ('rejoice!', 'gotcha!') and war against miners. His was a performance full of stature but lacking presence. I called it a cost-accounting prince; the newly upwardly-mobile striver's version of nobility. It's not, as Queenan believes, a question of looks, though Branagh is a potato compared to Oliver, or indeed to most Hollywood action men. It's a question of posture. I never got the sense Branagh's Harry knew what battle, or comradeship, were all about. Olivier got it, even with the bad haircut and dye job. Branagh was more like posing for a photo op, taking a chance to deliver some good PR and move on; Nick Clegg with an army behind him. He was adept at organising, at putting things together with his RSC and Oxbridge stock company, and getting the reflected spotlight onto himself; the actual acting, full of pomp and circumstantial evidence, got lost in the shuffle.

The difference between Oliver and Branagh was exactly the difference between Sean Connery's James Bond and Daniel Craig's hold-em playin', football-supporting, hands clenched in knife-edge sprinting version: not so much dumbed down as aimed down. Craig grabs one note of Bond, technology, and like a junior clerk who's just watched Top Gear, jumps into the role. Branagh avoids one-note by projecting technique; thus he failed miserably in Dead Again because he was unable to tap into the ambiguities real noir would require; instead he and Em did their Footlights thing in the shadows, half-full of sound, some fury, and signifying almost nothing at all.

Branagh fell prey to the same sort of problem when he did BBC's version of Wallander, a dully-hammered one-note sombre based on some English idea of Scandinavian alienation. His Wallander is closer to Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole than to Mankell's detective, and not a patch on Krister Henriksson's more nuanced version.

Queenan notes than Branagh has done some excellent work for television (though he includes Wallander in that) but fails to figure out why. It's mostly that the small screen gets filled with Branagh's actorly emoting, where on the bigger screen it gets overpowered and lost. Interestingly, his two best TV roles have touched on his quintessential strengths as a performer. As Shackleton he got to project beyond and through English reserve; enduring unnecessary hardship and managing to triumph in defeat.

But his greatest performance may well be as Heydrich in the HBO/BBC Conspiracy, the story of the Wannsee meeting at which the logistics of the Final Solution were agreed. Branagh gets to display a little flash, but primarily the performance is a perfectly controlled exercise in bullying petty bureaucracy; the Thatcherite ideal transformed on the wider historical context. He plays off well against the more anguished performances of some of his 'nice' Germans (Ben Daniels in particular), and he gets brilliant support from Stanley Tucci as Eichmann; Tucci understands exactly the mundanity at the heart of the evil on display. Without meaning to take the historical context lightly, the nature of these characters could just as easily have been those at the meeting where Dave Cameron and Nick Clegg drew up their own final solution (the Big Society) for Britain. They are the children of Thatcher, just as Branagh will be remembered as Thatcherism's greatest actor.

Directing Thor is not beneath Branagh's talents; there Queenan has it wrong. Playing him would be. But Loki might well be perfect for him.

Monday, 4 April 2011


My obit of Manning Marable, who died last Friday, and whose new biography of Malcolm X was published today, will be in tomorrow's Guardian; you can link to it online here. Although it was shortened somewhat for space, it retains all the main points I made, with only some further analysis of what made his approach to racial equality through social equality (yes, socialism!) unique. I left out much of the academic infighting, which saw him accused of, among other things, cultivating a Frederick Douglass hairdo! And I'm very curious to see his biography of Malcolm X; it draws on many documents obtained from federal agencies and may shed some light on his assassination, as well as his place in the black liberation movement.

Friday, 1 April 2011


Fear Itself, which is a great title, somewhat overstates the impact of this novel, whose strongest point is that it manages to capture much of the feeling of the pulp heroes of the late Thirties. Jimmy Nessheim, a German-American FBI agent, former college football star, and all-around good guy is very much in the tradition of Operator No.5 or Secret Agent X, a man of strong build, good looks, and not a whole lot of characterisation. He relies, like any good pulp hero, on his 'inner steeliness', and has a family right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. So when he finds himself engaged in infiltrating the Bund, and lands himself, inadvertently, in the middle of a political intrigue between J. Edgar Hoover and the head of his counter-intelligence, he acts more as a reflector than a protagonist himself.

This would be fine if we got more of the most interesting characters, who are the real ones: Hoover, his right-hand man Clyde Tolson, and William Stephenson, the Canadian chief of British intelligence in Washington, who is, as one might expect in a British novel, the true hero behind the story. There is even a chilling scene in which Heydrich frightens the life out of the German intelligence officer behind the book's secret plot, which turns out to be the assassination of FDR. Rosenheim has obviously done his research, and he has a firm touch when it comes to the pecadillos, both personal and political, of the FBI boss—it's a little bit of pre-war history that needs more telling.

The most interesting of the fictional characters, Harry Guttman, the counter-intelligence boss at odds with Hoover, is a Jewish outcast within the Bureau who's given a crippled wife as well as a thankless job, but who turns out to be just as two-fisted as our hero. The hidden plot, and the identity of the assassin, are not hidden particularly well, partly because the red herrings are built up too deliberately and too fully, and when Nessheim finally finds a true love, it's hard to believe he could be wrong. It might have been nice as well to get FDR slightly more on stage; he's an appealing character, and his contrast with Hoover might have been interesting. There's a prequel killing which is fairly clunky in plot terms, needing to be explained, but not very convincingly, a couple of hundred pages later, and there's the odd Anglicism, parenthetical aside, or unnecessary description (like Chicago's 'famous Loop') that pulp writers used to like because they were being paid by the word, but which slow things down. And one thing Operator No.5 could have told you, is that in a story like this, action is everything. Fear Itself is an interesting historical thriller, but not quite a compelling one.

Fear Itself by Andrew Rosenheim
Hutchinson, £14.99, ISBN 9780091796068