Tuesday, 26 May 2020

ROB REINER'S SHOCK AND AWE: THE ISOLATION ROW REVIEWS V

When I wrote a book about Oliver Stone, I coined a description 'The Thumper' for the moment when, in virtually all his movies, the action stops and he metaphorically turns to the audience and explains what has been going on, the moral of the story, as it were. Since so much of Stone's work is about chasing a sense of enlightenment, that isn't so surprising.

The biggest problem with Shock And Awe is that there is no Thumper--instead, the whole movie is one continuous Thumper, telling us what many of us knew at the time, what all of us except the haters and deniers know now, but and which almost alone in the mainstream media Knight-Ridder was
reporting then--that the Iraq war was based on a mountain of lies, lies legitimized by most of our political discourse. The point is made repeatedly and heatedly, especially by Rob Reiner in a plum role as the Washington editor John Walcott, acting almost as the audience's conscience, if the audience were all Rob Reiners.

There is a key moment in Shock And Awe, when our two lead Knight-Ridder reporters (played by Woody Harrelson and James Marsden) finally get an interview with Ahmed Chalabi, the Bush regime's (and their echo chamber in the media's) go-to source on Saddam Hussein and WMDs. With Chalabi, played as far less slick than he seemed at the time--more Sydney Greenstreet than reality would have suggested) ducking and diving, the interview descends quickly into argument, and then Chalabi calls the journalists 'smug', and although you are no doubt on their side, you realise he is absolutely right--their sense of smug frustration seems to overpower their professional ability. When they entered Chalabi's office, his aide introduced them as coming from 'Knight Rider', which was maybe the only really funny moment in the film--but it's ruined because, when they leave, they remind the lackey that it's 'Knight-Ridder'--thus proving Chalabi's accusation of smugness is true.

This odd smug futility is compounded by a similar scene in which the reporters argue with Harrelson's father-in-law and Marsden's girl-friend's dad (their romance story has probably the worst 'meet-cute' I've ever seen and the whole sub-plot is arch and treacly--Marsden and Jessica Biel seem to be trying to reinforce their images as beef/cheese cake) over the invasion. Again, neither can make a coherent argument. I understand that this mirrors the problems Knight-Ridder was having in the wider world, when it became the go-to source for almost anyone who saw through the subterfuges, and became ignored by everyone else--including some of its own syndicate, here represented by the Philadelphia Inquirer) but that frustration again seems to infantilise the reporters. In fact, that may be the point: their relationship to Walcott is presented as naughty children to a stern father, or maybe teacher.

In some ways it's unfair to judge the film too harshly, because what it really is is a docu-drama, and if it stuck to that more limited format it might have been better. The tale is bookended by an individual's story, and that works to an extent, but frankly the drama in between does not do the sacrifice justice. The actual news clips of Bush, Chaney,Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell (whom the film tries to exonerate by bringing in Tommy Lee Jones to play Joe Galloway and do that) render most of the anonymous sources just that: anonymous--in many cases simply repeating Reiner's talking points. And the key dramatic point--being beaten by the New York Times to the story of Rumsfeld's private intelligence agency--is never really explained.

We all know how the story ended, and 17 years later we are still mired down in the region, on which anarchy and chaos, not democracy, has descended. Fifteen years later, a film whose ending comes so abruptly, and with so little payback that it actually shocked me, wasn't really enough to offer.

Friday, 22 May 2020

PETE RATZLAFF, TIMMY BROWN & THE 1960 CHAMPIONSHIP EAGLES

I've written a double-tribute to two Philadelphia Eagle greats who died in April, along with a look back at the Eagles' 1960 NFL championship season. And Timothy Brown's post-football acting career (you have seen Black Gunn, haven't you?). It's over at my Patreon column: https://www.patreon.com/posts/37414714

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

GEORGE V HIGGINS' FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE AT FIFTY: GIVING JACKIE BROWN HIS DUE: THE ISOLATION ROW REVIEWS IV

I re-read The Friends Of Eddie Coyle recently, and then realised it was the 50th anniversary of the novel's first publication, so I've written a brief essay based on seeing something this time around I missed the first couple of times. One of the truly great crime novels. The essay's up at Medium, and you can use this link to read it, bypassing the paywall.

Friday, 8 May 2020

DONALD HAMILTON'S NIGHT WALKER: THE ISOLATION ROW REVIEWS III

With the Korean War underway, Naval Lieutenant Dave Young has been called back into service. Young, who had been doing a graduate degree in engineering on the GI Bill, is not happy with this, and he has drunk through the train fare the Navy sent him. So he finds himself hitching in Maryland on his way to Newport News. He's picked up by Larry Wilson, a former employee of the Navy Department, who agrees to drive out of his way to Washington and front Young bus fare. But he also explains he was fired from his design job for having Red sympathies (in the days before Tim Russert simplified everything, Red meant communist or socialist, not Republican). Young gets nervous right away, but while he's looking over Wilson's design for a yacht, he's knocked unconscious. And when he wakes up he's in the hospital, his head wrapped in bandages, being called Mr Wilson, and told he's been lucky to survive the car crash and ensuing fire. Then the beautiful Elizabeth, Mrs Wilson, shows up and without even a moment of surprise, takes him home.

Night Walker reads like a pure pulp nightmare, but actually it was published first as a serial in the slick magazine Colliers in 1951, called Mask For Danger. Dell reissued it in 1954 under its present title. Hamilton may not have worked his way up the pulps, but he certainly absorbed both their sometime frenzied pace, and, as with the best of the noirish genre, their sense of confinement, paranoia and hopelessness.

Most readers will know Hamilton best as the writer of the Matt Helm series of novels, which began in 1960 and were often held up as America's grittier more realistic alternative to James Bond, something the movie-makers who adapted them with Dean Martin as Helm never seemed to notice. Hamilton also wrote western novels, including The Big Country, and another adapted as The Violent Men,which were treated with more respect by filmmakers. Helm's world is one of cynicism, hard-edged betrayal and more than a little male-chauvinistic. Those qualities are all present here, but there is also a nightmarish mystery here worthy of Mickey Spillane, as Young struggles to escape from the quicksand of Commie espionage.

The opening car scene is beautifully over-the-top: it reminds me of nothing as much as Detour, and if you were thinking of filming Night Walker, you might see a mix of that classic noir film with another, Pickup On South Street. Casting the film would be fun: if you'd made it then you might have Richard Widmark or Sterling Hayden as Young, and Susan Heyward or Joan Bennett as Elizabeth, a classic femme fatale with a seemingly vulnerable edge. The doctor who plays along with the deception has his own motives and Wilson's Aunt Molly, with whom Larry and Elizabeth live, is suspicious from the go, but the biggest enigma is Bonita 'Bunny' Decker, Wilson's 'old friend', for whom he was designing the boat, and whom Young keeps calling 'Red'. It's claustrophobic, and it's set on the waters of Chesapeake Bay, seemingly always at night, which is a masterful bit of noirish writing. I've gone back once or twice to the Matt Helm books, without the same satisfaction I had when I was a youngster devouring them, but in a sense, even though written in the previous decade, this is a more mature Donald Hamilton, working in a mature genre, and for all its madcap reversals and unlikely situations, Night Walker is a treat.

Night Walker by Donald Hamilton

Hard Case Crime 2006, £6.99 ISBN 9780857683489

This review will also appear in Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

DON SHULA: BEYOND THE LEGACY OF UNDEFEATED

I have done a long essay about Don Shula, the NFL coach with the most wins in history, and coach of the only undefeated Super Bowl champions, who has died at 90. It's at my football site, Friday Morning Tight End, to which you can link here. It's a subscription site, but the subs are damn cheap.

ALLEN GARFIELD: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY

My obituary of the great character actor 
Allen Garfield  went up on the Daily Telegraph's website on 30 April. I missed it at the time, and because trips to the shops are limited, didn't see whether it was in the paper paper. What follows is basically my original piece, written short and succinct to give it a better chance of squeezing in to the paper in these sad times, though I have added a bit about the background to the filming of Chief Zabu. I re-watched The Conversation recently, and was again impressed with how brilliant he is playing Harry Caul's opposite, and how nicely John Cazale is pulled between them. What's interesting to note that Coppola always claimed Gene Hackman had trouble adjusting to the Caul character, as he personally was far closer to Garfield's personality. 

ALLEN GARFIELD, ACTOR


Allen Garfield, who has died aged 80, was one of the finest character actors of his generation, turning supporting parts into memorable roles. Denied leads because his appearance failed to match his talent, his made his characters, often villainous, venal or corrupt seem real because they always seemed to accept who they were. In his own favourite film, Francis Coppola's The Conversation, he played Bernie Moran, a wire-tapping rival to Gene Hackman's Harry Caul, but one without Caul's crippling conscience. He worked with Coppola again in One From The Heart and in Cotton Club as Abbadabba Berman, the mob accountant whose signature line “it's nothing personal, just business” was borrowed to become crucial in The Godfather.

Garfield was born Allen Goorwitz in Newark, New Jersey. In high school he began amateur boxing, while working as a copy boy on the Newark Star-Ledger. “I was going to be a journalist-boxer, the Jewish Hemingway,” he said. But he was drawn to acting, and adapted part of the film Tomorrow The World for his high school's theatre. He studied acting in New York under Anthony Mannino while working as a journalist and editor, but it was a play he wrote in the mid-Sixties that impressed William Devane, who though the same age as Garfield, had already played in Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Fesitival and Off-Broadway in the hit poliutical spoof MacBird. Devane was head of theatre writing at the Actors Studio, and admitted Goorwitz as a writer/director, telling him to "make some waves". He soon wound up in acting classes under Lee Strasburg and Harold Clurman, and took the stage name Garfield in tribute to Body And Soul star John Garfield. His own first film role came in 'Orgy Girl '69', a film in which, he was quick to point out, “there was no orgy!”

Three of Brian dePalma's early films showed his talent for quirky comedy and began his pattern of repeat performances for appreciative directors. His first lead came in John Avildsen's Cry Uncle, playing a short fat private detective who fancies himself a ladies man. “It was one of a kind,” he explained, when other leads did not materialise. He did much episodic television; later in his career he played in a Faustian episode of Tales From The Dark Side. When a young Bradley Whitfield refuses to believe he is the Devil, saying “you've been watching too much bad TV”, Garfield replies devilishly “I like bad TV'.

Robert Altman cast him in Nashville, as the emotionally fragile singer Ronee Blakely's husband/agent. “It was painful...Altman allowed me to take responsibility for my character: over-bearing, loving, bullying.” After his parents died, Garfield dropped his stage name in their honour; he was billed as Goorwitz in some of his best work, starting with William Fiedkin's The Brink's Job, alongside character actor stalwarts Peter Falk, Peter Boyle and Paul Sorvino. In Richard Rush's The Stunt Man he's the screenwriter foil to Peter O'Toole's ego-maniacal director, “like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza”. Five years later, in Wim Wenders' The State Of Things, he reclaimed his stage name, at the urging of Shelly Winters. “Make life easy for yourself,” she said. “Garfield really suits you”.

He was billed as Garfield in Cotton Club, the overlooked Desert Bloom, and his most familiar part today, the bombastic Chief Lutz in Beverly Hills Cop II. “I love making a ton of money doing big pictures, but if I believe in a film, as I did with Desert Bloom, which we did for hardly anything, I'll do it.”

Garfield suffered a stroke in 1998, just before filming The Ninth Gate, but Roman Polanski rewrote his part to include his part-frozen face. He ceased acting after a major stroke in 2004, and moved into the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills. But he had an unexpected final lead role, when Chief Zabu, a film he believed in and made for almost nothing in 1986, was finally shown in 2016. It was the brainchild of another New York character actor, Zach Norman, and was shot on a college campus, with students handling most of the technical duties and the cast bunking in the dorms. Norman was a successful real-estate magnate, and in the movie Garfield plays a brash upwardly-mobile real estate tycoon, caught up in a plot to take over a new Polynesian island nation. Killed by distribution and other problems when it was made, its satirical echoes of Donald Trump brought Chief Zabu back into the public eye, thirty years too late. Garfield died 7 April 2020, when coronavirus spread through his nursing home.

Allen Garfield, actor

born 22 November 1939, Newark, New Jersey

died 7 April 2020, Woodland Hills, California
survived by his sister, Lois 

Sunday, 3 May 2020

PARLOUR GAME: a sonnet

I like to think of Parlour Game as a mini-sonnet, but it didn't start off that way. I originally jotted down lines way back in 2010, at a time of some upheaval beginning in my life; these included the closing couplet. I went back to it in 2018, and had it virtually finished. But it still needed a title. I think it was in the summer that I got an email from Jenny Scheinman's mailing list with a track from her and Alison Miller called 'Parlour Game', which was also the name of their new quartet.

I listened to about three bars and realised I'd found the title. Not because of the music; this isn't a poem inspired by the sounds, but the title just works too well on its own. The music had a certain back and forth to it, like much of Scheinman's work, a sense of being just off the main track, tangential one moment, ethereal the next, and like the poem itself, moving from one short motif to the next, edgy but still rhythmic. It did get me reading the poem out loud again, and that brought two small but I think crucial changes. So thanks to Parlour Game, the band.

I'd come to Jenny Scheinman's violin playing in Bill Frisell's 808 quartet, and then her own wonderful Crossing The Field, whose title appealed to me because it suggested Robert Duncan's classic poetry book The Opening Of The Field, and whose 13 tunes seem like a progression through all sorts of indigenous American music, with elements of classical, jazz, country and bluegrass. It's one I play often. Credit synchronicity. Here's a mini-sonnet with a jazz violin title.

PARLOUR GAME

I ponder it
Repeatedly.
What is the point
Of heatedly
Debating why or not you care,
If what was there's no longer there?

You like to say
Responsibly,
Your sad clichés
So lovingly,
With words whose shadows signify
The door's already shut, goodbye.

Illusions die when truth impinges,
Drowned out by groans of rusty hinges.

CHINA MIEVILLE'S LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS: ISOLATION ROW REVIEWS II

It's Paris, 1950, the Second World War is still being fought and Resistance fighters battle the Nazis, in a guerrila war punctuated by the appearance of surrealist artworks come to bizarre and seemingly uncontrollable life. The French call them 'manifestations' or 'manifs' for short—jumping ahead almost two decades in our universe for the word meaning demonstrations. Our hero in The Last Days Of New Paris is Thibault, still only 24, but 'before the war he had already committed' to the surrealists, and now he prowls the ruined streets of the city, in woman's night-clothes that turn out to have their own less than surreal purpose. Thibault has the mentality to be able to interact with the manifs, and with things the Germans are also trying to conjure up, on their own terms. As much as this be possible.

How did this come to be? In a parallel story-line, we follow an American, Jack Parsons, a follower of a different sort of arts, a disciple of Alistair Crowley, in the south of France, where he encounters Varian Fry, the American consul who helped many of the avant-garde to safety via Spain, and through him Andre Breton. Fry's is one of the most fascinating stories of the war, and of its aftermath in modern art (I wrote about him for the FT, and I will publish that piece here shortly). Parsons is an engineer, and his idea is to somehow harness the energy of these most modern of artists, and create a Golem who could help defeat the Nazis. Think of James Whale's Frankenstein crossed with the Pandora's Box of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. Or something else, because nothing here translates easily.

China Mieville has created a world whose images do their inspirations proud, something easy to overlook as each new manif we meet captures our imaginations. But it's necessary they act in a setting which, in its own manic destructiveness, has its own logic. There is an element of the super-hero comic to it, powers arise we didn't know existed to resolve situations, but in general there isn't that much deus ex machina to the story, and there is a lot of pure humanity. Not least from the manif most central to the tale, The Exquisite Corpse created by Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy, who turns out to be the most human character of them all.

Thibaut teams up with an American photographer, Sam, who is something of a Lee Miller, but turns out to be something more than that. She is being hunted by the Germans, because she understands what they are up to. And what they are up to, in the end, is resolved in artistic terms that come as a massive surprise that as soon as its revealed seems absolutely the inevitable result, and indeed cause, of what is going on, and is itself a wonderful metaphor for the relative powerlessness of art in terms of effect on the world.

I read The Last Days Of New Paris on a weekend away in The Hague and Amsterdam, which was a perfect way to stretch it out and to put it into context of the works I was seeing at the wonderful museums. It was surprisingly easy to let the mind go in the hands of Mieville's imagination, though the setting was never going to move from Paris. Brilliant fun.

The Last Days Of New Paris by China Mieville
Picador, £14.99, ISBN 9781447296546

Saturday, 2 May 2020

SIMENON'S MAIGRET AND THE WINE MERCHANT: TALES FROM ISOLATION ROW

I actually read this Maigret novel, not while in Corona lockdown, but its polar opposite, on a flight from London to Miami, to cover the Super Bowl for the BBC, visit my niece and her new baby, some friends in West Palm Beach and generally enjoy the sunshine. It's easy to forget exactly how perfect Simenon is for travel reading, compact tales that proceed with deliberate energy and are written with an attention to detail in a prose that makes such detail clear.

So clear, in fact, that I was reminded of a time in the Eighties when I sat on a prize jury for sports documentaries, the Golden Shot (yes, a gold-plated shot-put ball was the trophy) in the Slovene resort town of Portoroz. The winning documentary was a French film about a French sailboat crossing the Atlantic. It was not my pick, partly because its best feature seemed to be the arguments among the crew, even in mid-storm, about what was to be served to dinner, how it should be cooked and what wine to drink with it.

So too with Maigret. The wine-merchant whose murder Maigret investigates is a tough, self-made man and inveterate womanizer, the kind of man who generates no lack of suspects. This was published in 1970, it is a time of change in France, but part of Simenon's observations point out clearly that many morés remained unchanged. Not least meals. Indeed, although Maigret is bothered by the flu throughout the story, his appetite barely wanes; at one point, late at night and feeling sick, the prospect of Madame Maigret's choucroute forces him to remind her 'and don't forget the salt pork'. Similarly, even the toughest case can wait for veal blanquette at the Brasserie Dauphine.

I can't help but feel Simenon drawing a parallel between those two French obsessions, food and love, but it's most interesting in the area where the two intersect. Though not as interesting in the area where the latter intersects with respectability. Maigret's discomfort with the upper classes, apparent in the interviews he conducts, is set against the characters from the rest of his world, drawn more vividly with the feel of a Victor Hugo. The contrast between Madame Chabot, in her house off Place Des Voges and in her chauffeur-driven car, with Madame Pigou, wife of Chabot's accountant, in her messy apartment in Monmartre, could not be clearer.

But as ever, it is this sensitivity which makes Maigret stand out, and in this case, it's his personal relation with the killer, his seeming empathy, that makes the story so involving, and its resolution so moving, despite its outwardly seeming matter of fact or anti-climactic. Many of us prefer the understated Simenon, whose eye for details draws us more deeply into the crime, and its solution.

Maigret and the Wine Merchant by Georges Simenon

translated by Ros Schwartz

Penguin Classics, £7.99, ISBN 9780241304260

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

TALES FROM ISOLATION ROW

Because I have been working in the past couple of months to generate traffic on two other platforms, my American football content on my Patreon site, Friday Morning Tight End, and other writing on Medium, sometimes via the Arc Digital platform, I have neglected Irresistible Targets. This should not surprise you, since I have at least twice seriously considered simply abandoning this project, which I was hoping would attract a much larger regular readership than it has.

But the lockdown has left me with more time to use, and I thought it might be time to begin working my way through books and television series and films I have read and watched, made notes about and organised ideas, but not written because, frankly, there was no money in it. So for the immediate future, at least, I'm proposing to write as many brief pieces as I can, and publish them here under the rubric of reviews or tales from Isolation Row. We'll start with a rather excellent Maigret from February....