Monday, 22 May 2017

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON'S SHADOW DISTRICT

When the body of a woman is discovered in wartime Reykjavik's 'shadow district', suspicion falls on American soldiers, who have brought changes to the social life of the Icelandic capital. So the investigation is handled in tandem, by an Iceland cop, Flovent, and an American MP named Thorson, a Canadian solider seconded to the Americans because he actually speaks Icelandic. Murder investigation is literally a new thing for the Icelandic police, and they are still feeling their way around an investigation; Thorson, of course, is a soldier not a detective.

In modern Reykavik, a 90 year old man is found dead in his bed. A few days later, when an autopsy reveals he was suffocated, and the police investigate, all they find are some cuttings from that murder case in World War II. At which point Konrad, a retired police detective, is asked by his former colleague Marta to, unofficially, take a look.

The underlying theme behind Arnaldur Indridason's novels, explicit in some like his first in English, Jar City, has always been the uneasy conflict between traditional Iceland, a society sealed almost hermetically for centuries, and modern Iceland. His detective Erlendur loves to eat horse head; his colleague Sigurdur Oli loves all things American. Indridason wrote a stand-alone contemporary thriller involving Americans and Nazi bomber lost in 1945; the cold war figures in Draining Lake. World War II was the catalyst for this change, and that is the engine which powers this exceptional story, as its two strands grow closer and intertwine. And the connections are not what might at first appear to be.

The Shadow District takes us back to a society that seems more like Ibsen, if not Dickens, than the modern Iceland in which Erlendur worked, and it's significant that Konrad is a retired cop, someone who still has a foot in the past. It's not even that he is a typical Scandi 'depressive detective' the way Erlendur was so brilliantly drawn. He's a quiet old man, trying to connect the past and the present. There's more than a hint of Conrad too in the way the story plays out, as it very quietly becomes more and more dark, with twists and shocks, as well as the sadness of the years that passed between crime and punishment. Indridson is easily the finest of the contemporary Nordic crime writers, and though the label 'Nordic Noir' is slapped on anything written north of Schleswig-Holstein, this comes closer than most to living up to it. At any rate, it's one of the finest crime novels of this or any year.


The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridson
Harvill Secker £12.99 ISBN 9781911215059

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

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The 1,000th POST

According to Blogger, this is the one thousandth post I have made to Irresistible Targets. I have written about my antipathy to creating stories based on numbers that happen to end in zeroes: Trump's first 100 days, the 50th anniversary of this assassination or that Summer of Love,  but it keeps hacks in business, and I am nothing if not willing to grab an easy hook.  I reckon a thousand posts works out to somewhere short of a million words over the past nine years, and pondering that I realised that this is something like a novel a year, were I inclined that way.

Of course not all the writing has been specifically for the blog: many of the pieces posted have been published elsewhere first, and some I have given to others to republish. Sometimes, I publish a link with my notes on my own writing, occasionally that runs longer than the piece itself.

According the Blogger I have had almost 634,000 page views, which would average out to 634 per post.
The viewing figures are usually lower than that per item, which I don't understand, but I am sure there is a good explanation for it. Still, the work is reaching some people, and I know from the viewing figures of pieces I've written for literary magazine blogs that 600 is actually a pretty impressive number.

But it doesn't quite seem impressive enough to justify blog for blog's sake. I feel like I'm back in the fanzine world I wrote for occasionally in the early Seventies. So as I have done at various other milestones along this blog's way I have a couple of questions to pose.

First, should I continue? I will confess that in past few months I have had trouble writing, unless I am on a paying deadline. I have a paper stuck to the wall in my office with what I thought were good ideas for feature pieces and a list of reviews to write because I have been invited to screenings or sent books, and they have not been written. I find myself back in the place I was more than 20 years ago, when my MLB job left me and I went freelance, sending stories off unsolicited and selling some of them (while seeing a few appear, with a few changes of course, under other bylines...welcome to London hackery.) I take this mini- writers block as an unwillingness to commit fully to retrace that path. I also take it as recognition that the editors I pitch to, and their audiences, are shall we say, younger than they were or I am, so sometimes I am speaking to a soft wall of incomprehension.

Now I do want to write those stories, and my inclination is to do that if only for myself and the small coterie of the IT faithful. But here is question two: how best could I 'monetize' as they say, Irresistible Targets. I tried once with Google ads: when the total reached something like £20 I tried to collect, and the process of 'validating' myself with them defeated their paying out to me, as I assume it was intended to do.

I could re-launch IT on another platform (different blog, website) which might allow for contributions.
I could set up a paywall website, though that seems counter-productive. I could put a paywall on a website including IT, which might allow for subscribers to my sporting wisdom, particularly during the NFL season.

Any suggestions, advice, encouragement or support would be welcome from you, the readers. I first set up the blog thinking it would be a good way of increasing my 'exposure' as all the people who offer you the chance to contribute for free to their money-making outlets tell you is beneficial. I went back today and looked at my first post (you can do that too, here) and recalled I had actually started THREE blogs: one about art, one about sport and other amusing pastimes, and this one intended to be primarily about crime fiction. At least I wasn't insane enough to continue on those paths! I do recommend my art coverage though, the blog was called Untitled (Reflections... , though most of the pieces I have added here at IT over the years.

While IT has created some exposure, it has not translated into anything beyond itself. Is there a good way to move beyond that, or should that be reward in and of itself?

Or, since 1,000 is supposed to be such a nice round number to mark an accomplishment, I could just leave it there.

Friday, 19 May 2017

ROGER AILES: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Roger Ailes went up at the Guardian online last night (link to it here). It is pretty much as written, but trimmed down somewhat; I wrote it on short-order, as it were. Had they given me more time, I would have made it shorter, to paraphrase Pascal (apparently; thanks to my friend Linda Arnold for pointing out he got there first).

One thing that should be noted: Ailes did not create Fix News; he created it as it now is, and he persuaded Rupert Murdoch to make the key business decision that propelled it forward: paying cable networks (which are generally monopolies in their areas in free market America) to carry Fox News. Instead of cable companies paying Fox per viewer, as was the case with most channels, Fox paid them to put the channel on air. Without that manoeuvre,  Fox News might have languished because cable operators figured CNN (and MSNBC) were all their subscribers needed.

This was an obituary, and not political analysis, but I would have liked to show a little more clearly the ways in which his influence is still felt, not only in the USA. In the UK, when we discuss the impact of Lynton Crosby on British politics, the chatterati always trot out his 'dead cat at the dinner table' quote. But years before, Ailes had explained what he called the 'Orchestra Pit' tactic: "If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says I have a solution to the Middle East problem and the other guys falls into the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?" His faith in the shallowness of media was rarely, if ever, proven wrong; in a way the greatest irony of his career is that it began when he challenged Richard Nixon's assertion that television is a gimmick, yet he proved over and over again how right the Trickster was.

And of course when you watch Theresa May campaigning, as per Lynton, to small carefully selected crowds, answering vetted question from carefully selected journalists (Crosby trusts British journalists to be as clueless as Ailes felt the general public were in America), and repeating 'Make Britain Great Again', oh, wait, it's 'Strong And Stable' it's as if Ailes were driving the battle bus.

Which is not to lessen the impact he had on America. You can see it watching the coverage of Trump: television tends toward simplifying issues into a dichotomy: good/evil, black/white, but Ailes turned TV news into a zero/sum game. Viewpoints have their partisan networks (as long as they make money: post-Ailes MSNBC has danced around trying to place themselves at various times as opposition or not, 'liberal' or not) and the once-major network news programmes stand afraid to 'take sides' lest they alienate their shrinking audience, which is even older than Fox's. But Ailes brought them the attitude that fear attracts people to the safety of their screens: crime and natural disaster, once reserved for the local news in areas they affected, are now the stuff of network news, balanced by entertainment info-nuggets to keep you watching. Like most of those who influenced the true baby-boomer generation (born say 1946 through 53-4) Ailes was slightly older, and recognised the resentment at the heart of the majority of that generation who felt abandoned by the cultural changes that came as a result of various liberations.

They were not liberations Ailes fancied: he was very much of that previous era, and his harassment problems were very much an aspect of that. His America was Ronald Reagan's dreamy fantasy of 1950s television shows, stay at home moms in dresses and aprons, the relations between boys and girls being one of power and forbidden fruit. Because that was what he grew up in, and observed from a house-bound perch.

There is an exceptional bio-film to be made here. Would that Sidney Greenstreet were still alive to play the older Ailes. Young Roger is truly a sad story; when he bit through his tongue his father had to drive him in a panic to Akron, as Warren had no doctors able to deal with it. Ailes nearly died, not for the first time. His relation with his parents nevertheless seems distant, perhaps he was too much a burden, a disappointment. That he channeled this into creating a world that you could link to his childhood imagination, one in which those with power, like himself, were protected from all harm, is a powerful image.

None of this was new. We'd known the essence of the game plan ever since Joe McGinnis published The Selling Of The President in 1969, but we've pretended that the game plan doesn't exist, and the Beltway punditocracy has no reason to admit that it does. Political commentary in America now is all about performance art, the way politicians appear to deal with things. It is never about issues, because it doesn't understand those issues, and the last thing people who do understand what issues really mean want is for their audience to share that understanding.


Tina Brown tweeted yesterday that Ailes was a great producer and raconteur, and it was wrong to judge him solely on the sexual harassment charges. I agree. He should be judged on the impact the things he produced: political candidates (Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes, and behind the scenes, often with Giuliani, Trump) and political news. Though he was built like Goering, his legacy may well be as an American Goebbels, though luckily not in the service of a dictator.


Thursday, 18 May 2017

COOKING CAPPELLETTI: CHEF BOY AR DEE AND THE CIRCLE OF LIFE

I was in need of some comfort food. Still a bit dizzy and nauseous with what I hope was just a bout of Menieres (because it will go away if that's what it is) and tired from writing 1,500 words on Roger Ailes for the Guardian in three hours with a pounding headache. To paraphrase Pascal, I'd have given them a thousand words, but they didn't give me enough time.

Anyway, not much in the icebox as I'm off to the US next week. So I boil some store-bought cappelletti and drain them, a dab of butter and some pepper. Toss in a couple of teaspoons of store-bought red pesto. A splash of Healthy Boy thai chili sauce, a dash of Lousiana hot sauce, and some chopped salad tomatoes. Then grate some parmesan cheese over the top. Perfectly comforting.

Then I realise that this looks an awful like the Chef Boy-Ar-Dee ravioli that came out of a can, which many of my young friends (or their mothers) took for Italian food. My mother would not allow such stuff in the house. She always made her own spaghetti sauce, and very well too. She may have been Jewish, but she grew up in a neighbourhood with lots of Italians, always made spaghetti or ziti (same sauce) on Wednesdays and fish on Fridays and even pronounced minestrone to rhyme with 'bone', like those Neopolitans in West Haven did.

I am starting to realise that life is indeed a circle.


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

POWERS BOOTHE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Powers Boothe went up at the Guardian online yesterday, you can link to it here. He died in his sleep at only 68, a surprise because of the incredible energy he brought to his roles. Yet the seeming easy with which he pulled off intensity was amazing, and it was what made him one of my favourites.

I was thinking about how much fun he seemed to be having when he acted, that well studied sense of not having studied at all. And how much fun the set must have been on so many of his films, and what good ensembles he was part of. Extreme Prejudice is like a Hall of Fame of B movie villainy: Rip Torn, Michael Ironside, William Forsythe. Walter Hill had worked with Sam Peckinpah, and this was very much like a movie Peckinpah might have wanted to make. The same with Southern Comfort, another Hill effort, with Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, and Peter Coyote. Or think of Tombstone, with such great turns by lesser stars like Val Kilmer (the definitive Doc Holliday) or Kurt Russell as Wyatt, but tremendous work from Michael Biehn (Ringo Kid), Stephen Lang (Ike Clanton), Bill Paxton (Morgan Earp) or Joanna Pacula (Big Nose Kate).

But the two roles that might be his best performances are his breakthrough part as Jim Jones, which he played like a demented summer-camp director, which made it easy to see how he might get typecast as charismatic villains, and his take as Al Haig in Oliver Stone's Nixon: another film where he shines amidst a wonderful ensemble cast. He gets the lightly hidden drive for power behind Haig, and the way he succumbs to the opportunity to grab it, the way a vampire might succumb to the smell of blood.

There are similarities in many of his roles. Obviously he played a lot of corrupt people with power. But even in two of his starring roles as a hero, he winds up being converted to his heroic role (A Breed Apart and Emerald Forest). The latter in particular is very interesting because he starts off not to far from his character in Red Dawn, which possibly inspired Ironside when he played in Starship Troopers. As an aside, I saw a preview of Red Dawn at the DGA in Los Angeles with a friend of mine, and my ridicule of the movie forced my host to tell me to keep it down lest I offend anyone connected with the film who might be in attendance. It's kind of like the creation myth of the Tea Party militia.

Writing the obit was not easy: there were lots of half-way details about his life, especially his personal life. I found lots of gossip clippings about him and Rebecca de Mornay, which might help explain why his long marriage eventually failed, but was nothing important enough nor solid enough to warrant inclusion. I also discovered there is an artist named Power Boothe, who made a short film called Overture, which some listings credit to Powers Boothe. I eventually found the correct name on a sale listing of old VHS art tapes. I assumed it was this Booth who had also done the art work for Todd Solandz's first film, which also gets credited to Powers.

Most interesting, however, was one source, which appeared to get repeated, saying Boothe had appeared as an extra in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, as a Bolivian bandit. The timing was not impossible; he might have been between college and graduate school, though location shooting was done in Bolivia. I felt that had that story been true, I would have found Boothe talking about it at some point, especially considering his success in westerns. I did manage to find a still from the scenes in Bolivia, and in the back is someone who looks an awful lot like Boothe, although not necessarily the 21 year old Boothe. I never made contact with someone who could tell me definitively, but I feel like this is apocryphal, much as I would have liked it to be true.

Of course he thrived in the quality small-screen drama that have changed the face of film-making in the past 15 years.  This should not have been a surprise, because his best lead role as a non-villain was as Philip Marlowe, in the HBO series Marlowe, as I describe in the obituary. That series was produced along with London Weekend, the kind of deal that was the forerunner for the modern style of subscription channel offerings. Showtime's Fallen Angels was another similar.

Boothe didn't fit my idea of Marlowe, but he got the character and interpreted it deftly. Latterly he stole scene after scene from Kevin Costner and Paxton in Hatfields and McCoys; he and McShane were a terrific double-act in Deadwood, and he was born to play Connie Britton's dad. There would have been more television greatness to come for sure; he was gone too soon. RIP.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

BLUEBERRY EYES: a poem from Franz Kline

In yesterday's post, linking to my Guardian obituary of Jean Stein, I mentioned that I had published two poems based on paintings by Franz Kline in her magazine, Grand Street (issue 54: Fall 1995). I did have a query asking if I might make them available. So here is 'Blueberry Eyes'.

Because the issue was themed 'Space', the first of those poems was 'Torches Mauve', which began with a mention of space, and was concerned with the space within the frame. I think that was the hook I used to pitch it to the managing editor, Deborah Treisman, whom I had met. Coincidentally, I had been rewriting 'Torches Mauve' recently, after seeing the painting again in the Abstract Expressionist show at the Royal Academy, but looking at it today I starting clawing the original back, with only a few changes. I will sit on that one for a while.

The other was 'Blueberry Eyes'. I liked it a lot, and thought they worked together well, but it had actually been published already, in my 1991 Northern Lights pamphlet Chump Change. As that was a limited edition of 300 copies, I figured I was on safe ground.

The poem was inspired when I saw Kline's 'Blueberry Eyes' in March of 1989 in Washington DC, where I was attending a world broadcasters' conference sponsored, I think, by the EBU. I took time off to hit the galleries, and I believe this was in the National: I can still recall the wall and the placement of the painting, I'm slightly less sure of the building itself. I wrote it out as a poem over the next two years and Chump Change appeared in May 1991. I still like the way it moves, with a rhythm I still see in the painting, and the tension between colour and black. Kline was so good with colour, and he did so few of them before he died. 16 years later, here it is again

BLUEBERRY EYES
                                           

Let's fight to hold
the darkness off

somewhere, the other
side of, the river

the shadow of a
bridge, let's let

the night begin
to echo & watch

as flashes of light
bounce off the flow

of water below.
On board a train

New York is
wilderness

bridges connect
deserted islands

remain as sun dis-
appears behind the

Palisades, greens
turn to yellow

red & swirls to
stop at Spuyten Duyvil

& in that instant
train & landscape

intersect &
sunlight dies

Saturday, 13 May 2017

JEAN STEIN: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Jean Stein is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper sometime in the future. It is pretty much as I wrote it; with some small deletions, and reorganised somewhat to deal with her books chronologically. I had preferred to leave the third until the end, because it seemed to me that the completion of that book might have signaled something in terms of her depression which culminated in her suicide. But the paper removed my reference to her depression, and mentioned the suicide only in passing, which is policy. I had written that she jumped from her balcony; to me the image of one of extreme despair, given her long bouts with depression, and the completion of her last book, it said something crucial about Jean Stein.

A few other small things: Jules Stein's MCA grew first by representing Guy Lombardo; by the time the moved to Hollywood they had more than half of all the bands in the country under contract. The connection with Ronald Reagan is important, and I had mentioned that. Reagan, as head of SAC, basically sold the union out, which was great news for the studios and Lew Wasserman, Stein's successor as president of MCA; see Dan Moldea's book Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA And The Mob.

I would have loved to have more time to examine Jean Stein's childhood, as she does in her book. And I would have liked to delve further into the 'poor little rich girl' theme which runs through the latter two books. I had mentioned that William Faulkner was 56 when the 19 year old Stein had her affair with him, to me that explained a lot about the interview he gave her, as well as about the interview landing her a job with the Paris Review. Her salon in New York is fascinating in itself, especially those she remained close to--Joan Didion being the most telling.

It was especially nice for me to be able to mention her grace with the magazine Grand Street, which remains one of my favourite, and one of the finest, places where my poetry has appeared. It was a great magazine, and its art coverage was fantastic; a lovely landing place for poems about Franz Kline. And it was good of the Guardian to include mention of her two daughters, both of whom followed in her footsteps, so to speak, particularly Katrina vanden Heuvel, who publishes and edits The Nation.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

DENNIS LEHANE'S SINCE WE FELL

“On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-seventh year, Rachel shot her husband dead.” This is the line that begins the brief prologue to Since We Fell, a tour de force from Dennis Lehane which reminds is above all about what a talented writer he is. Like Mystic River, it is a novel about emotions. But what makes it so remarkable is the way it is told, in three sections, each with its own focus and its own style, the latter serving to emphasize the former.

The first, titled 'Rachel In The Mirror', could easily stand alone as a novella in a mainstream literary magazine. It covers the story of Rachel Childs, raised alone by her psychology-professor mother who authored a best-selling self-help book called The Staircase, which referred to the stages any relationship goes through, and which Elizabeth tells Rachel was a piece of 'emotionally adolescent snake-oil'. She barely remembers her father, who left the family when she was young, but she recalls her mother's threat as he walked away: “If you leave I will expunge you.” Her mother gave Rachel little information about her father, but she becomes determined to track him down, and after Elizabeth's death in a car crash, that determination becomes an obsession. The story of her quest is interwoven with her experience as a successful TV reporter in Boston, married to a successful producer, and on the verge of network stardom. She is sent to cover an earthquake in Haiti, and in the chaos that follows the disaster, she finds it impossible to 'report' the positive, and her career and marriage both crash. Like the quest for her father, it's a tale of disappointment, and a revelation about the nature of life and life's pain. It is a perfectly done, self-contained story, but one that needs to be remembered as the tale unfolds. It also contains one of Lehane's aphoristic moments, like the Irish whiskey scene in The Drop, when a character explains “the only people who as questions like 'did he want to be something besides a bartender?' are people who can become whoever they want. The rest of us are just Americans.”

When the second section, 'Brian', opens, Rachel bumps into the private detective she had originally hired in Western Massachusetts to search for her father at the faculties of universities in the area. Brian is now back in charge of his family's lumber business in Canada, and he is the stable figure Rachel needs, as she's now suffering from an inability to face the world. But all, as they say, is not what it seems, and Brian is living a double life, built on a structure of lies. Were this the opening of the novel a shrewd marketing type might have called it The Girl On The Staircase, because it fits into that modern genre of woman battling to find the truth behind an ominous menace. Lehane is again pitch-perfect: his writing builds that menace slowly, and it concludes with the scene that opened the prologue.

The third section deals with the aftermath of the shooting, as Rachel tries to piece together the mysteries that have gone before. It's titled 'Rachel In The World', which reflects the change as she is forced to act. And it's written in the kind of action prose we've seen from Lehane in his last few novels, quick moving, event-driven, and pushing toward a conclusion that at first glance, while legitimate and consistent, might strike some as being somewhat mechanical. Until one stops to think about what has gone before and what has been said to Rachel and thought by Rachel, and presented to Rachel. And here is where this brilliant novel transcends the concept of psychological thriller, or to be more accurate, it tells us where the roots of the psychology that creates the situation for such thrillers lies, and what it means. Because what it is about, recall, is the nature of living, and how we cope with its pain. And what we do, Lehane is telling us, is play roles, play con games, by which we fool others and ourselves about what we are inside. From her mother's book and tales to the hitman playing injured father, from Rachel indoors or inside herself to Rachel out in the world as wife or as avenger, we learn to accept the darkness outside, the dirt beneath. Because, as we learn, we do not own life, we rent it.

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Little, Brown £18.99 ISBN 9781408708330

published on 16 May



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

Sunday, 7 May 2017

WILLIAM HJORTSBERG: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the novelist and screenwriter William Hjortsberg is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper at some point. As far as I have seen, apart from a nice one in the Livingston Enterprise, this is the onliest one that has appeared in the press, and that is a shame. I remember enjoying the comedy of Alp and the audaciousness of Gray Matters, and then being shocked at the change of tone in Falling Angel, which surely is a classic.

Although the obit is basically as I wrote it, there were a lot of small trims, and one big one which we will get to. Given the laid-back of the life of the man his friends knew as 'Gatz' (which was excised from the piece) I thought it might be worthwhile to patch up those little details which I thought rounded out the story. Because, as Louis Cyphre might say, the devil is in the details. For example, I don't know why but I thought it important to say that the Johnny Favourite whom Cyphre hires Harry Angel to find had been a famous crooner, which makes his disappearance even harder to fathom.

When Hjortsberg was little, his father had a country house in the Catskills, where young Bill learned to fish, something he would continue in Montana. At Dartmouth, he used a photographic memory to allow him to work in the pizza joint nights while going to college in the days. He and McGuane won Stegner Fellowships at Stanford: this was probably the most prestigious creative-writing programme in America:
before McGuane and Hjortsberg it had included Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Peter S Beagle and George V Higgins (though its 'hit rate' isn't as impressive afterwards). Before starting at Stanford, Hjortsberg and his wife Marian travelled in Europe and Central America; this comes up in a couple of books, including the recent Manana, which I will review here soon.

It also comes up in Toro! Toro! Toro!. I explained that the title was a play on Tora! Tora! Tora!, which had been a movie about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; I was then asked by the desk to explain what Tora meant: tora (tiger) was the code word to signal the attack was underway; an acronym for TOtsugeki RAigeki, usually translated as lightning attack.

I mentioned the unlikely influence of Per Lagerkvist's The Dwarf on Alp. When Tom McGuane advised Hjortsberg to take up screenwriting, he said 'it's like taking candy from a baby', which was an echo of Herman Mankiewicz's famous 1925 telegram offering Ben Hecht $300 to come out to Hollywood: "'Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around." I also noted that the screenplay Nomad was constantly being optioned, so although Hjortsberg had few credits, between options and doctoring, he kept earning. 

Hjortsberg's first marriage and a brief second one both ended in divorce. In 2000 he was set up with Janie Camp by the western writer Richard Wheeler and his wife, two more of the Montana gang. This seemed somehow fitting, as Gatz was not only at the centre of the gang, but his son Max married Jim Harrison's daughter Anna, which made them sort of royalty. Having written Harrison's obit for the Guardian (you can find it here), I felt like it was something I should mention. 

There's a picture of Brautigan sitting round a table with McGuane and, I think Jim Harrison, and a couple of bottles of bourbon. The other people aren't facing the table but I wonder if one of them is Hjortsberg. He spent two decades researching that Brautigan biography, and though I was not tempted to read it, I am now. We forget not only how important a writer Brautigan was for a brief time, but also how very talented at his peak, with his combination of minimalism and surrealism (or what Robert Bly would call 'leaping'). His life was also one of extreme difficulty, and though such a big book seems the antithesis of Brautigan's work, I am getting the sense that karmatically, his life may have demanded it. Or it may just have been an obsessions, but either way it makes sense. 

It's odd that I should think Hjortsberg in later years resembled Noam Chomsky a bit. He died from pancreatic cancer. He had finished the sequel to Falling Angel, and was going to call it Burning Angel, except James Lee Burke, another Montana-based writer, published a novel with that title. Burke apparently told Hjortsberg to use it anyway, but the book will be published under a different title, which he wouldn't tell interviewers.

 He did, however, respond last year when an interviewer asked him for some 'parting words', which was a prescient if not ominous query. Hjortsberg told him "live every day to its fullest. Suck it in. It's all so brief". Which is a good way to end an interview, or a life, or an obituary. It was how I ended mine, though sadly, it's not how it ends in the paper. RIP.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

JONATHAN DEMME: ON SYNCHRONICITY AND LAMBS

 It was sad synchronicity that Jonathan Demme should die just after Bruce Langhorne, whose obituary I wrote for the Guardian last week (link here). Langhorne started doing film scores with Peter Fonda on The Hired Hand, and I would assume it was Fonda who hooked him up with Demme for Fighting Mad, in which Fonda starred. Langhorne did the music for one of Demme's two masterpieces,  Melvin And Howard.

Demme personified a sort of detached cool irony, an attitude signified by the tightly-buttoned collar look he shared with two other key ironists of the Eighties, the Davids Lynch and Byrne. If Demme's haircut seemed borrowed from Lynch's Eraserhead, his hipster heart was certainly defined by the film which many fans defined as their favourite, the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. That audience is often less impressed with what was Demme's greatest film, The Silence Of The Lambs. He may have drawn this harder edge from the beginnings of his directing career, not with art house indy fare, but working for the B-movie schlockmeister Roger Corman, who gave directing breaks to the likes of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppolla, Joe Dante and John Sayles. Demme's films for Corman are knowing pieces of exploitation which give their casts free rein to make the most of their material.

Fighting Mad was the third of his Corman flicks; the first, Caged Heat, a women-in-chains movie before Orange Is The New Black made those hip, had music by John Cale, but the best of the three was the second, Crazy Mama. It had an inspired performance by Cloris Leachman, and was the only one of the three Demme didn't write; Robert Thom's screenplay (story by Frances Doel) is more original and offbeat, and less formulaic than Demme's two. Leachman is over the top as a beauty parlour owner who loses her salon and embarks on a crime spree; the commentary on Seventies America, its economy and morals, is plain even though the film, which echoes the Thirties and Ma Barker, is set in 1958 and boasts a great Fifties soundtrack.

He followed those up with the much overlooked Citizen's Band (aka Handle With Care) written by Paul Brickman. Demme did off-beat well, and he was brilliant with actors who underplayed such parts. Paul Le Mat and Candy Clark from American Graffiti; Bruce McGill from Animal House and Roberts Blossom from just about every B movie in the 70s (and Gatsby's father in The Great Gatsby) all shine in a movie that speaks to the growing dislocation of the 'Me Decade'. After a nod to Hitchcock via Roy Scheider and Last Embrace, in which Scheider's obsessive search for his wife's assassin prefigures Silence Of The Lambs, he made Melvin And Howard (1980). Langhorne  again did the music; his proto-Americana perfectly marking the dissolution of the American Dream in the Nevada desert. Last week when I was discussing Warren Beatty and Howard Hughes on Front Row, I hadn't had a chance to mention Bo Goldman's screenplay (Goldman is the only other writer credited with Beatty on Rules Don't Apply) and those dread words 'American Dream'.  Paul LeMat was superb again as Melvin Dummar, Jason Robards is one of the best screen Hugheses, and Mary Steenburgen won an Oscar for what is basically the Candy Clark role. It's one of the more important films of the end of the Seventies, as they melded into the Eighties.

To this point, Demme's career seemed to be following an arc, but his next feature, Swing Shift, wouldn't  appear until 1984. Around that time I met Ed Saxon, Demme's producer, who was a friend of my LA friend Steve Berman. I remember Saxon talking about Demme's love of music, not just Talking Heads but much more. He made some music videos and did a little TV, a pattern which would continue throughout his career. He may go down as the greatest of the rock film makers. Then came the off-beat success of Something Wild (86) and the lighter Married To The Mob (88), and he also did the Spalding Gray monologue Swimming To Cambodia. But none of this prepared us for The Silence Of The Lambs (1990).

Silence won five Oscars, and deservedly so. I wrote about the movie's approach when I reviewed the book's 25th anniversary edition (link here) and how Demme recognises the book is about Starling, and makes her central to its tensions, but as it had done right back to his Corman days, he also allows Hopkins and Lecter to steal the show. Hopkins performance comes close to Lecter as hipster; he's poised like a dancer.  He gets the way Harris used characters to reflect aspects of Lecter, just as Lecter jumps on aspects of those characters for his own devices, the most important of those being his effort to get Starling to recognise and nurture her inner serial killer; her empathy is like Will Graham's in Red Dragon (even better in Michael Mann's version Manhunter), and her malleability was the weakest part of Silence's sequel. And Demme gets wonderful performances from supporting players, most notably Scott Glenn as Jack Crawford and Anthony Heald as Dr Chilton.

His next film was a fascinating documentary Cousin Bobby, about his cousin who was a preacher in Harlem. The following year came Philadelphia, a big star film that was a change of pace but somehow less satisfying. It's again a showcase for the actors, though I keep thinking Tom Hanks and opera risked playing to gay cliches. The odd thing about Philadelphia is that one of its two Oscars was for original song, Bruce Springsteen's 'Streets Of Philadelphia'. As they do so often, the Academy voters seemed swayed by fame; Springsteen's isn't even the best original song in the movie; Neil Young's 'Philadelphia' deserved the statue. It's interesting that Demme would go on to make two documentary films with Young.

In the 24 years since Philadelphia, Demme made only six feature films, two of which were remakes much less successful than their originals, The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate. He made Wallace Shawn's adaptation of Ibsen, A Master Builder, completing his set of the stars of My Dinner With Andre. His last feature was a music movie, Ricki and The Flash, which might have been more interesting with Cloris Leachman in the Meryl Streep role.

Demme's legacy will revolve around Silence Of The Lambs, and I think somehow Melvin And Howard will be revived. But his legacy may equally be his devotion to music, to making films about music or musicians he loved; to his willingness to step away from feature films to make documentaries (I particularly like Jimmy Carter: A Man From Plains, where the plain bit contrasts nicely with the style, and The Agronomist, about the Haitian activist Jean Dominique); and maybe even to the jobbing work of television, to which he occasionally brought that eye that was so evident when he churned out B films for Corman. I think of Philadelphia, in many ways, as a musical documentary. I admire the scores of many of Demme's films, probably more than the extended length music films themselves. But he was a rare and many faceted talent. RIP

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

ROBERT PIRSIG: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, is up at the Guardian website; you can link to it here. It ought to appear in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it; it was difficult to write in the sense that one felt the need to explain his philosophy, which he had difficulty doing in hundreds of pages, and also to reflect on a hugely relevant and fascinating life, especially his early years.

I was never a fan of the book. I'm not sure whether that was because I was already locked into some kind of duality linked to Aristotle, or my New England background, or my Swedish-Jewish ancestry, or whether it was because I was locked into my own sense of the Sixties, which was one of rebelliouness but not of rebellion. Or maybe it was because I had not been all that impressed by The Prophet, and Gibran's advice to my generation, nor by Casteneda's Don Juan. Maybe I've never been big on self-help.

To me the key was Pirsig's appeal to the 'Me Generation' -- his Quality (the Guardian plays havoc with capitalization) concept allowed you to find your truth apart from its wider context: a way of allowing you to feel satisified with your inner self while not necessarily allowing it to interfere with your interaction with the outer world. As the Sixties morphed into the Seventies and the counter culture became the over-the-counter culture, changing 'the system' became a task that was set aside. Pirsig allowed his readers a sense a way they could remain within the system while remaining true to themselves.  Obviously, this was crucial to Pirsig's own development as a child and then an adult who couldn't fit in with existing systems for which he may have been simply too smart.

I was skipped from first grade into second, and I know a little bit about the problem. Unlike Pirsig, I was big for my age, which kept bullying down to a moderate level, but I had a teacher who resented me, I was bullied, and I went from being a star to a supporting player. Most importantly, not matter how capable you become at fitting in, you are always behind your classmates in emotional development, and there is nothing you can do about that. You may sublimate by trying to please, by working to othe expectations of others, but it all raises questions about who you are yourself. 

The idea of being one with the mechanical world was appealling, in the sense that The Whole Earth Catalogue left large holes unfilled. But I was also irritated by the same sense of consumerism at the heart of practicality. I recall a scene where Pirsig manages to discover the spark plugs are being clogged by the richer mix of gas caused by the thin mountain air; something his friends would never be able to do. But he fixes it by going to the shop and buying new spark plugs: I remember wondering why he didn't clean and file them. Buddha could probably buy new sparkplugs too.

I was serious about the influence of Brautigan as much as Thoreau. I understand the allusion to Melville, but I don't see him as an influence. I also wondered about Ken Kesey: in my original copy I'd speculated Robert Redford would see this story as a kind of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but where the patient eventually escapes.

I would have loved to be able to give more details about Pirsig's many jobs, his epic battle with the University of Chicago's philosophy department, his constant returns home (when he was committed, by his father, to the VA hospital, he was living across the street from his parents. His behaviour before his breakdown was truly dangerous, including brandishing a gun in front of his wife and kids;his marriage nearly ended at that time, and seemed to be on life support for most of the ensuing decade. I confess to not having read Lila, and it would be interesting to see just how much of the breakdown of the marriage is charted in that book. Reading interviews with Pirsig from around that time (there's a great one by Ed Zuckerman in Mother Jones that must've been just before the Pirsigs separated, and her apperaances in the interview would suggest difficulties). It might be time for Redford to take another crack at those film rights.

Friday, 21 April 2017

DON RICKLES: ON LAST WORD

I appeared on BBC Radio 4's Last Word today, talking to host Matthew Bannister about the comedian Don Rickles, whose obit I wrote for the Guardian two weeks ago (link to that here.). You can find Last Word on the IPlayer here -- it begins about 22 minutes in, but it's a fascinating programme from start to finish.

There was so much to say (and trust me I said it) but I have to say Frank Sinatra tells the story of Rickles' after-dinner put down far better than I did. Yet even in such a small space, you get a fine feeling for the man. Have a listen, you hockey pucks.