Saturday, 31 December 2011

PER WAHLOO'S STEEL SPRING

After discovering Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck in the early Seventies in Sweden, I remember searching around for Per Wahloo's early novels, and finding all of them except The Steel Spring (1968). In fact, I had forgotten about the book, until Vintage's reissue of it along with the other Chief Inspector Jensen novel, Murder On The 31st Floor, in new translations by Sarah Death, whose work here seems to catch the bleakness perfectly.

It's fascinating to read Wahloo in retrospect. The Steel Spring is a dystopian sf novel, in which Jensen, having gone abroad for a liver transplant, receives a message from his government telling him to return home. He soon discovers that his country is closed off to the outside world, but his doggedness gets him back home, where he finds an epidemic has struck, and his familiar surroundings are almost deserted.

Wahloo's concerns are the failure of social democracy, with a specific eye toward the way social improvement leads to social control, and democracy edges into totalitarianism. The urge to control is what has led to the epidemic, a case of society destroying itself from within. That the government under which this tragedy has happened is a nominal coalition makes the story shiveringly relevant to today's Britain, if not as much Sweden. The nameless country in which Jensen works seems to be a mix of Sweden with some proto-Iron Curtain eastern European state, sort of Albania or Romania thrown in.

Jensen is the perfect protagonist for such a setting, and in him it's easy to discern the prototype Beck. He has no personal life, appears to have no opinions or preferences, very little individual feeling, apart from doing his job to the best of his ability, which implies a sort of blind faith in the laws, the social contract, he enforces.

That was always the main conflict in the Beck books: the contrast between the world the policeman is protecting, and the laws he is enforcing—the way they are applied selectively, or not at all, depending on circumstances beyond his control. If The Steel Spring has a flaw, it's that most of the realisations seem to come from Wahloo, because although they are presented via Jensen, Jensen doesn't seem to share the criticisms which are obviously implied. Or maybe it's because he can't see them as criticisms, whereas we can. Which is the mark of good dystopian fiction. Wahloo's solo work deserves to be considered in the same context as Zamyatin, Capek, Orwell, or Durrenmatt...high praise indeed. I will probably revisit Murder On The 31st Floor soon, and if you haven't got to the Martin Beck books, please start now—and be aware I wrote the introduction to the sixth volume in the Harper Perennial reissues, Murder At The Savoy.

The Steel Spring by Per Wahloo
Vintage £7.99 ISBN 9780099554752

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

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

JERRY ROBINSON: THE INDEPENDENT OBITUARY

My obit of the comic-book artist Jerry Robinson, who created The Joker, Robin, Two-Face, and Alfred the Butler for Bob Kane's Batman, is in today's Independent; you can link to it here. The paper has a wonderful layout of Robinson and his Batman art. And I ought to point out my own mistake, as the first Superman movie appeared in 1978, not 1975.

I was fascinated to learn that Robinson had taught Steve Ditko, because you really can see the link between their thick, expressionistic inking, and the way they exaggerate to create realistic characters out of somewhat unrealistic drawings. And also because their political world-views couldn't be more diametrically opposed!

It's also rare to write an obit of someone so universally admired. He helped artists in myriad ways, guys like Siegel and Shuster in particular, in the fight for the rights to Superman, but many others in general, by helping them win the fight to retain copyright to their work (and here Neal Adams stands as the other beacon), syndicate their material, and fight for the human rights of political cartoonists. He also deserves for credit for his early history of comic art, one of the first books to take it seriously and do it well.

I wanted to include this quote from Stan Lee, for whom he worked at Atlas in the 1950s, but cut it for space. In retrospect, I wish I had. 'Jerry Robinson was not only one of the finest artists ever to illustrate comic books, but he was also the head of an editorial syndicate which made cartoons available worldwide, as well as being an inspiration to young artists whom he always found time to help and advise. A genuine talent and a genuine gentleman, he was truly a credit to the arts.'

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

JOHN HARVEY'S GOOD BAIT

John Harvey's police novels have always been built on the characters of his cops, and there is no one better at revealing those characters through the day-to-day concerns that real people have. In that sense, you might place Harvey firmly in the path forged by, say, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, and Sjowall & Wahloo's Martin Beck books. Harvey is a master at very subtly using the cases his detectives pursue to reflect the conflicts they face in their 'real' live, and this is what is most impressive about Good Bait, which follows two separate investigations.

In London, DCI Karen Shields is lumbered with the corpse of a teenaged Moldovan boy found on Hampstead Heath, and despite a number of leads, finds herself running into walls. Not only from potential witnesses who won't talk, but from higher-ups in the department who want certain aspects of the case left alone. Meanwhile, in Cornwall, DI Trevor Cordon, playing out his string in the sticks, is asked by Maxine Carlin, a long-time problem for social services and the police, to find her daughter Rose, who never showed up for a planned visit with her father. Years before, Cordon had tried to help Rose, now calling herself Letitia, and found himself getting more involved emotionally than was safe for a cop. But when Maxine herself is killed just a few days later, underneath a train in London, Cordon decides he will get involved.

Involvement is the real danger in Harvey's work: his characters find it dangerous, and often withdraw rather than take the risk. Although the two cases will be brought very close together, the real parallel between them is the sense of danger emotional attachment can bring, how committing yourself to a person, for whatever reason, always brings risk. The dead boy was involved with a girl whose parents disapproved; Letitia/Rose has a child, by very dangerous man who believes the boy belongs to him. At the heart of each subplot is also a father's desire to protect or possess his child, and a mother's to protect it. The personal is never far from the criminal in Harvey's writing.

Meanwhile, Shields winds up facing an unexpected relationship on the job, and Cordon (a name full of resonance in this context) finds those old feelings for Rose are indeed real, though just as dangerous and unlikely to be fulfilled as ever, and his efforts on behalf of her and her son show him just what his own withdrawal from life has meant. This is where he is vulnerable, and he has to face and shrug off that vulnerability if he is going to get a 'result'. Meanwhile, since in Harvey's books the bureaucracy of the police is often more threatening (and sometimes more criminal) than the villains, Shields finds herself having to walk a fine line, which her new relationship may make more dangerous. It seems likely this is a potential conflict to which Harvey may turn in the future.

Drawing all these stories together, in a way, is 'Good Bait' the Tadd Dameron tune which has become a jazz standard. Harvey name-checks quite a few versions throughout the book (as well as the Swedish Wallander TV series, Eric Dolphy, and his own early western novels!) to the point it becomes a motif, and we remember that we are the bait for each other, and the hooks we take are often barbed. My favourite version might be John Coltrane's on Blue Train, where it's a tune that tries to escape itself, be free and happy, but can't quite shake its way out of the blues. That's what this quiet and affecting novel, whose layers draw out feelings in a masterful way, is all about. It's a very early entry for the best crime novel of 2012.

Good Bait by John Harvey
William Heineman £12.99 ISBN9780434021628

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

Saturday, 24 December 2011

KILLING THE BLUES: MICHAEL BRANDMAN DOES ROBERT B PARKER

Michael Brandman's Killing The Blues is the first of the posthumous continuations of Robert B Parker's characters, being the tenth Jesse Stone novel (Ace Atkins will pick up the Spenser franchise) and it's interesting in the way in strives to match Parker's concerns, and tone. It's more successful in the former, especially once it gets going, because action is character and once Jesse begins trying to help out kids with problems we enter familiar Parker territory.

Brandman produced, and co-scripted with Parker a couple of Spenser TV movies starring Joe Mantegna, which attracted little attention around the turn of the century. He and Parker then did a remake of Monte Walsh, which starred Tom Selleck, which led to a quite good series of Jesse Stone TV movies, starring Selleck as Stone (I reviewed Stone Cold favourably years ago for Crime Time, and might revisit the series later here). In that sense, for Brandman it's a continuation, but when it comes to tone, there is a bit more of the Selleck Stone, and a lot more of the TV movie. Brandman's Stone is somewhat darker, a bit more confrontational, and much more aggressive, than Parker's. He's made his task a little easier by writing out Sunny Randall, and bringing a new girlfriend on the scene. She seems more like Jesse's long-lost Jen than a perfect mate for him, but as always in these series, one assumes things will evolve.

The biggest change is in Spenser's supporting cast: Molly, who's a mothering sort of figure with Parker, becomes an even sassier version of the TV movie character, and Suitcase Simpson's role seems diminished. It's as if this Stone is more of a TV series police chief, and needs an action sequence every now and again; the kidnapping and holding of a small-time gangster seems quite out of character for the old Jesse, but the new one is a man of action. Which also changes the nature of his sessions with Dix, the shrink (played wonderfully by William Devane in the TV movies) because Jesse seems far more in control and far less revealing.

The story itself is very much in the Parker vein, it moves well, and the scenes are delineated clearly. But what it most lacks is Parker's ability to draw a character quickly and concisely, to establish with just a small description and a couple of lines of dialogue, a person you could see and understand. It was his greatest talent as a writer, and it would be asking a lot of Brandman to match it. But while the story is constructed cleverly and delivers at the end, its most powerful scenes are not, as they would be with Parker, the one-on-one confrontations with mobster Gino Fish, because Fish's character just doesn't explode. But the single best scene may be when Fish sends his hitman, Vinnie Morris, off on a job, and when's he's done it he delivers Fish's message: 'always look on the bright side of life'. It isn't really Fish, or Morris, but it many ways it's pure Parker.

Killing The Blues by Michael Brandman
Quercus £18.99 ISBN 9781780872896

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

3D SEX AND YEN: YOUR CHRISTMAS MOVIE?

The new 3D version of Sex & Zen quickly became Hong Kong's all-time biggest grossing (and I choose the word carefully) film, but I wonder if its makers ever happened to watch either of the Paul Morrisey 3D sex 'n horror films. If they had, they might have realised that 3D merely accentuates the unreal nature of soft-core porn, while adding nothing at all, and the western market has moved beyond Category III in Hong Kong. I wonder also if there is a real cultural divide in terms of sex and comedy, and I don't necessarily mean between China and Britain, but within Britain itself, because releasing this film on DVD just in time for Christmas week seems a very strange idea indeed. It is being billed as the first 3D erotic film, which ignores the 3D Stewardesses, a big hit when I was a boy, and the Warhol/Morrisey films, but had they watched any of those films they might have realised the extra dimension, so to speak, isn't necessary or sufficient. But as a stocking stuffer (and again, I choose the word carefully) I'm not so sure!

It was only 20 years ago that Sex and Zen (both films are adapted, extremely loosely, from the 17th century story The Carnal Prayer Mat) was made in 2D, starring Lawrence Ng and more famously Amy Yip (see poster below), but again, western viewers drawn by the allure of 'Category III', the Hong Kong version of 'adult' discovered a very soft core at the heart of a very strange sort of eroticism, one that didn't translate easily into our mores. Be warned as well, if you're a seeker of prurient interest: the version I saw in preview a few months ago suffered three minutes of cuts, which may improve it, or not, depending on your point of view.

There are a few funny moments in Sex and Zen, mostly revolving around the sexual naivete of our 'hero' Wei Yangshang, but otherwise the film is all too often nasty and violent, its sex primitive male fantasy, its attitude curiously prissy about what it shows and doesn't show, and, its mood, in the end, boring. In fact, the single most interesting thing about it is the way the sub-titles, in 3D, appear to be running in another dimension from the film itself, as if they were being projected onto a clear screen in front of each scene, an effect I began to find fascinating, like watching a child's toy theatre.

Wei is a conceited, not to say boring, scholar, who reacts to a recent outrage by the Prince of Ning by telling his master, the Monk Budai, that Ning will not be happy in the long run. Then Wei discovers love. But after marrying his true love, Tie Yuxiang, he fails to excite her. Given his boring lovelife when he goes to Ning's Pavilion of Ultimate Bliss, intending to make Ning pay for his blasphemy, he soon finds himself lost to carnal delights. The sexual-expert Ruizhu entices him but seems oddly unfulfilling, while the sadistic Dongmei frightens him, but seems to symbolise the dangers of the basic insecurity Wei is trying to assuage. But he still has problems, and eventually realises his tool is inordinately tiny. Since he has abandoned Tie, his true love eventually bows to family pressure and divorces him. Meanwhile, however, the Elder of Ultimate Bliss, a transsexual who has attained a sort of immortality by sucking the Zen ying yang out of his/her victims, has a solution for Wei, but the price will be high. He can get a new, larger penis, but in return he has to perform a service for the Prince...confused?

Hiro Hayami is a suitably dazed bozo of a hero, while Tony Ho sometimes seems like a Hong Kong version of Brian Blessed as the villain. The female roles are basically a dead-end street, but Leni Lan is appealling as the true love, and Saori Hara and Suou Yukiko compelling as Ruizhu and Dongmei, as far as the moaning allows. What might work for Suou, and for Vonnie Lui, is the contrast between their relatively innocent appearance, and their 'true' characters, but they don't get a huge chance to display it. Lui, from a girl band, is apparently known as 'Hong Kong's Sex Bomb' in Taiwan, which must be worth something at the Golden Globes (the very idea of a general release in the US is hilarious to entertain, especially as it has attracted virtually no attention in the UK).

The slapstick comedy is crude but effective, especially when Wei gets a donkey dick attached, literally, and a couple of times the intrigue around the Prince threatens to make the story compelling. There is even some well-done action (of the non-sexual variety) which is really the only time the 3D effects seem to add anything at all.

But those moments are all too few-- there are even a couple when the characters' pursuit of pleasure reveals its extreme cost, a sort of Sadian insight which seems strangely out of place. In the end, however, true happiness is revealed with an O. Henry twist, marital bliss is achieved only after the husband has been castrated and wife placed in an impregnable chastity belt. Oh the irony. Of course the young won't believe it, so you probably should not bother taking the kids to this one for Christmas in lieu of your local panto. But it does make a certain amount of sense, especially seeing as the 3D Sex and Zen is likely to put them off Sex and leave them praying for Zen.

3D SEX AND ZEN: EXTREME ECSTASY is on DVD (cinema release was in September)
directed by Christopher Sun screenplay by Mark Wu, Stephen Shiu, Stephen Shiu, Jr. photography: Jimmy Wong Hiro Hayama (Wei), Leni Lan (Tie), Tony Ho (Prince of Ning), Vonnie Lui (Elder of Ultimate Bliss), Saori Hara (Reizhu), Suou Yukiko (Dongmei)

Monday, 12 December 2011

MONEYBALL: THE MOVIE

Moneyball the film is just as interesting for what it isn't as for what it is. It isn't a traditional misfits get together and start to win baseball movie, like Bad News Bears or Major League, though it threatens to become one at a number of times. And it isn't a particularly good explanation of what it is that Billy Beane bought into, and why it was so different to the rest of baseball. What it is, however, is a very good attempt at getting to the core of what Michael Lewis was writing about, which is Billy Beane and his character.

You probably thought it was about the economics, which is the point that people – especially baseball people-- always missed. Lewis was not saying that Billy Beane was the smartest guy in baseball, or that he'd found the best way to build a baseball team. Lewis was saying that Beane had realised something about the economics of baseball, and that if he were going to survive in Oakland, and produce a winning team, he would have to invest in those commodities that other teams undervalued. The film does a pretty good job of explaining that, though they basically boil it down to on base percentage and don't really show what that means.

But that's not the core of what Lewis wrote about. Lewis' theme, his persistent theme, is the maverick, the man who goes against the book, bucks the trends, follows his own drummer. He especially enjoys it when his maverick is obsessive, as Billy Beane is, and eccentric, which he also is, and the film is literally at its most successful when Brad Pitt's Beane gets to play off the stolidity of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Art Howe. That is the core of Moneyball, Pitt burning off energy on the stationary cycle in the bowels of the stadium while Howe sits impassively with his arms folded watching the season first collapse and then explode in front of him.

Moneyball might have been a more interesting film had Steven Soderbergh hung around to direct. The original adaptation was by Stan Chervin, the first screenplay by Steve Zaillian, and Soderberg's concept apparently would have included interviews, like Reds, and probably explained the baseball concepts behind Moneyball better. You can see the urge to make the film more accessible to folks who aren't baseball geeks, more like what everyone expects a sports movie to be, which is why the film as directed by Bennett Miller keeps edging toward those traditional tropes (and it's not just baseball, think of Hoosiers, or Miracle on Ice, or Bang The Drum Slowly, or The Longest Yard—all films about disparate characters learning there's no I in team--and that's why North Dallas 40 is such a good sports movie, because it subverts that entire message, and why it was so important in the original Rocky that Rocky NOT win) of the team that learns to play together turning into winners. But you can also see why Aaron Sorkin, who seems to specialise in making drama out of mundane non-fiction, would be find this story interesting, because his films are full of obsessives, misfits, and geeks, and also because Billy Beane is literally a Sorkin character come to life, full of fast-talking repartee, and every bit as driven, if not by the same drivers, as Sorkin is reputed to be.

Where the film lets down is in failing to make some of the obvious parallels stronger. Scott Hatteberg is a Billy Beane character: Beane's own career as a player stands as a monument to the ability of scouts to misjudge talent, or predict a player's ability to harness his own talent—Hatteberg's own doubts reflect Beane's and more might be made of that. Similarly, the film gets mawkish with Beane's daughter, but skips the potential for real conflict and literally ends with her offstage, speaking through a cheesy song she's recorded for him. They really need to explain Bill James more clearly, explain the Red Sox' John Henry and his attempted hiring of Beane better (Henry is given the film's 'hammer' (a phrase I coined in my book about Oliver Stone) speech, which hits you over the head with the movie's theme, in case you've been asleep for the past 80 minutes and missed it) and it would have been good to have answered the question of how, if Bill James was actually working for the Red Sox, Billy Beane was responsible for everything. It also would have useful to have credited Joe Morgan's gloating explanation of why Moneyball couldn't work, just so we could blame him for fatuousness.

It's also interesting that Jonah Hill is so obviously unathletic (until you see the film of A's extreme Moneyball propsect Jeremy Brown, a pudgy catcher who never really made it in the bigs, and he looks just like Hill) because Paul DePodesta, the executive on whom he's based, was actually a college baseball player at Harvard, so yes he was somewhat socially inept, quiet and self-effacing (which is why he didn't want his name used in the film, which otherwise uses real names throughout).

In fact, if Aaron Sorkin had got involved earlier, we might have been able to combine The Social Network and Moneyball into one movie, with DePodesta and Mark Zuckerberg duelling with their computers trying to impress Radcliffe girls. It's like Beane's the Rob Lowe character from West Wing, or maybe Josh, and Brandt is Toby. In Beane Sorkin gets to combine the handsome jock with the smart geek, and create an unclubbable god! In that sense Moneyball and TSN are the same movie, and end on the same note, with Zuckerberg and Beane both viewing or hearing the voice of their love, ex-girlfriend or daughter, who can't be with them. Sob.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

CRIME TIME'S BEST NOVEL OF 2011

I wrote the following for Crime Time (crimetime.co.uk) who are doing a survey via tweet, and then posting the full text on their website.

I agreed with the Dagger judges for once: Crooked Letter Crooked Letter is beautifully written & says much about America, not just the South. I thought Robert Crais' The Sentry defined Joe Pike & Elvis Cole. I admire Michael Connelly's 2011 two-fer: The Drop, a fine Harry Bosch, and The Fifth Witness, the best Mickey Haller yet.

I should also mention that I was going to put Graham Hurley's Borrowed Light on my list, but went back and discovered it was published last year. But it deserved the mention.

MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS: GODFREY HODGSON

NOTE: Speaking this morning about my obit of Tom Wicker, which appeared in today's Guardian and which is discussed in my preceding post, my friend Michael Goldfarb and I talked briefly about Godfrey Hodgson, the Guardian's man in Washington during much of the time Wicker was the Times' bureau chief. It reminded me of this review I wrote for the Spectator seven years ago, and it seems appropriate to post it now, because Hodgson's analysis seems so precient given our precipitous decline in the years since then, years during which most of the inequalities Hodgson warned about were increased, with little thought to the effects that might have on society. I've reprinted it as it appeared, with just a few cosmetic changes...
A SECOND, DARKER, ANALYSIS (Spectator, 15 May 2004)
In 1976 Godfrey Hodgson published In Our Time, a portrait of America in the years from ‘World War II to Watergate’. To this American, reading it newly arrived in Britain in 1977, it seemed remarkable that the best social history of my country during my then-brief lifetime should have been written by an Englishman. Hodgson's sharp eye captured both a society in turmoil and one imbued with immense postwar promise. He combined critical distance with an innate, almost American optimism.
Nearly three decades later this sequel, as its title implies, is far less optimistic. Hodgson would certainly agree with Richard Nixon’s campaign manager and Attorney-General, John Mitchell, who said, on his way to jail, ‘This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognise it.’ Certainly there’s little of In Our Time recognisable in Hodgson’s analysis of the nation today.
He now sees a country in which the postwar liberal consensus has indeed moved right, turning free-market capitalism from an economic theory into a cultural template. The result is an America in which financial segregation increasingly preserves opportunity for a wealthy elite. Quoting Mark Twain’s aphorism, ‘We Americans worship the almighty dollar! Well, it is a worthier god than hereditary privilege’, Hodgson argues convincingly that American society has come to resemble old-fashioned Europe, and its strictly class-structured elites, enchanted as much if not more by the latter than the former.
Hodgson’s analyses in cross-section, topic by topic, dividing the country into its constituent interests and ultimately bringing those sectors together. By digging beneath the surface of cause and effect, he shows clearly where political policy and social change intertwine. Nowhere is this more evident than in the central issue of race.
The Right’s current hegemony is not due to policy, but in fact a by-product of racial politics. On signing 1965’s Voting Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson said, ‘There goes the South!’ The Democratic party’s control of Congress came from its uneasy alliance of northern liberals and southern conservatives. The combination of legalised equality for blacks and the left's protest against the President’s conduct of the Vietnam war drove southern whites first to George Wallace and then to the Republicans, changing the political balance for the rest of the century.
Once in power, the overriding aim of this Republican ascendancy has been to undo Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Buttressed by the postwar economic boom, the New Deal created a burgeoning middle class, expanded its educational system, provided a state-guaranteed safety net, and gave the baby-boom generation the most privileged upbringing the world had ever seen. Those baby-boomers have piece by piece dismantled the hand that fed them, until only Social Security remains from the New Deal, and it too is now under fire.
The moneyed elite in northern cities have abandoned state education, while the growth of ‘Christian Academies’ in the south has, in effect, resegregated education there. University costs have escalated while financial aid shrinks, reinforcing an eduational upper-class. Is it any coincidence that both candidates for president in this year’s election were members of the same secret society at Yale?
This paradigm repeats in Hodgson’s examination of American life. One major change from 1976, as befits a scholar rather than a journalist, is that he now draws on mounds of statistical analysis. This is not always an advantage; sometimes the numbers threaten to overpower the reportorial instincts which make his work so telling. Strangely, the most obvious factual error he makes is British, saying that the 1970s saw Arthur Ashe become Wimbledon’s first black champion. In fact, Althea Gibson had won the woman’s title two decades earlier, but her death in relative obscurity last year showed, without needing Ron Atkinson to drive the point home, that we sometimes overrate the impact of sport on the advancement of minorities.
Yet sport helps demonstrate Hodgson’s acuity. He rightly draws on Robert Putnam’s excellent study, Bowling Alone. Putnam extrapolated from the decline of recreational bowling leagues that television had destroyed the sense of community activity in America. Hodgson takes his analysis further, tracing the massive changes in the telecommunications industry, arguing convincingly that the free market has created a less responsive and less responsible media just when Americans are most crucially dependent on it.
Hodgson concludes, with typical understatement, that his book paints ‘not an altogether happy picture’. He asks if America will ‘turn back’ to ‘older and wiser’ instincts. Rarely has a call for liberalism been made in such a convincingly conservative fashion.
More Equal Than Others by Godfrey Hodgson, Princeton Univ. Press, £29.95


TOM WICKER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker is in today's Guardian, though online it's dated last Friday (2 December); you can link to it here. Wicker was a fine writer; I've enjoyed a number of his novels very much, and my praise of A Time To Die is honest and if anything understated; I've never understood why it didn't win a Pulitzer that year. But the point I was trying to make was that he was by no means the outsider some of his writing (and his presence on Nixon's enemies list) would make him out to be. But unlike many columnists, he was in most cases a writer who refused to bend reality to fit preconcieved ideology--he was hugely critical of Jimmy Carter, and was one of the few important opinion writers who refused to let Ronald Reagan skate on Iran Contra. If his fiction had a flaw, it was a tendency toward worthiness, an echo perhaps of the strong morality in his columns. Thus it was a surprise to discover his three Gold Medal paperbacks written as Paul Connelly--pulpy fiction was a good way of working out some of the kinks in those moral positions.

Although his career might be said to have been made by the JFK assassination, his position on the killing was one instance where he avoided his own dictum (in On Press) against over-reliance and trust in official sources. Wicker supported the Warren Report without equivocation immediately upon publication; and when the Times published its version of the House Assassination Committee's report, Wicker's introduction contradicted the report's own findings, that JFK's assassination was likely a conspiracy. I had written about a confrontation at a 1980 New York literary cocktail party at Jean Stein's apartment, where Anthony Summers and Norman Mailer took pot shots at Wicker, with Robert Blakely, chief counsel to the Committe in the crowd (Blakely would write a book concluding the Mafia, and no one else, killed JFK). Summers accused Wicker of having written his critical introduction before studying fully the evidence; Wicker, by then having read Summer's own excellent book, acknowledged that there were questions but opined a conspiracy had not yet been fully proven. It was an odd position for a journalist as critical and probing as Wicker to take, but I suspect it had more to do with the leaning against the Manichean world-view the establishment ascribes to conspiracy theories of any sort, than the actual evidenciary trail.

Finally, in my obit I did mention his step-children as survivers; I worked with one of his step-daughters at ABC in London for a number of years, and I'm sorry Kayce didn't get mentioned in the piece as published.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

GEORGE PELECANOS' CUT

When I reviewed The Way Home in 2009 (you can link to it here), I suggested that, since so much of his work falls into the series framework, it might be grouped with George Pelecanos' previous two novels, The Night Gardener and The Turnaround, into a trilogy I dubbed 'Fathers and Sons'. His new novel, The Cut, in one sense might be considered the fourth book in what would then become a quartet, but it also marks a departure in style from the trilogy which precedes it, and also introduces a character who seems poised to begin a series of novels all his own. Spero Lucas does the investigating that gets a major drug dealer's nephew off a stolen car/traffic accident beef, and winds up working for the dealer to trace a leak in his marijuana supply chain. Things get complicated from there, and there's an interesting twist in the end, which helps confirm Spero's lone-wolf status.

In one sense, Spero's story continues the concerns of the 'Fathers and Sons' trilogy, with family values, in the old-fashioned, core sense of that phrase, being at their centre. Lucas is one of four children, two natural, two adopted, raised by hard-working Greek parents. He and his brother Leo are the adopted ones, and Leo is black. Of the two older children, one is a successful lawyer and the other is a ne'er do well; neither has much to do with their widowed mother. Leo is a teacher, Spero a war-hero home from Iraq, working as a casual investigator for a criminal defense attorney. The Cut features sub-plots; one of Leo's students is a witness to one of the central crimes, and is a bright boy in need of a father figure; a crooked cop turns out to have a criminal father of the worst sort—the contrasts between nature and nurture are never sharper than when Pelecanos approaches them through the prism of crime.

But looked at from another angle, The Cut does a couple of things differently from most of his previous fiction. There is a feeling in the way the book is structured around Spero that reminded me of Robert B Parker's fiction, how quickly he constructs a scene and the characters within it, and then moves on. Like so many of Parker's novels, this one also moves very quickly toward one big action scene, a structure not unlike the westerns which Pelecanos admires and which have been reflected before in his work.

The other new thing is Spero himself, who, unlikely as it seems, reminds me of John D MacDonald's Travis McGee, the 'salvage consultant'. That's the nature of Spero's work for the defense attorney. Like McGee, he possesses superior and well-honed skills that make him more formidable than he might seem (and like McGee's, those skills were acquired in the military). But most striking is Spero's attitude toward the opposite sex: though firmly on the side of families and raising children properly, he is, like McGee, a confirmed bachelor and unwilling (or unable) to commit to a relationship—though he is a lot of fun even without that. Being the 21st century, this attitude runs afoul of one of the women in the story, but being McGee-like that is, in effect, her problem. Admittedly, it has been a long time since I read a Travis McGee, but I was hearing definite echoes of his pop psychology in the narrative.

This is not meant to deflate the impact of this book. There is no one writing crime fiction who deals more realistically or more tellingly with the situation of working class people in American cities, and the degradation of life within those cities caused by the disappearance of jobs and the downscaling of education as a government priority for those people. He makes the problem personal, and that works. In The Cut, he has adapted those concerns to a faster-paced, more hero-centered story. If it's Parker and MacDonald with a conscience and a soul, that is not a bad thing to be.

The Cut by George Pelecanos
Orion Books, £12.99 ISBN 9781409114567

Saturday, 19 November 2011

THE THREE TINKER TAILORS

In 1938, E.M. Forster wrote that, if asked to choose between 'betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country'. You might look at John LeCarre's work, particularly the books now known as the 'Smiley novels' as a profound examination of that point of view, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as its apotheosis. The novel was published in 1975, and the justifiably renowned television adaptation was shown in 1979. It may strike some as foolhardy to make a film of Tinker Tailor now, but in three decades our world has changed. The wars fought by our spies are no longer symmetrical and our perception of the home team in that battle, that nebulous entity called Britain/England, depending on who's speaking and in what context, has taken a battering from years of Thatcher/Blairism. Most importantly, our feelings about the nature of loyalty and betrayal have altered, and that change of our perspective may be the most notable thing in the new version.

The film is a fine adaptation, too, so good it drove me to re-read the book, and then to watch the TV series, which, oddly enough, I had never seen (in my early years in London I eschewed television, in part because I was working at ITN and got enough of it there). The screenplay (by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Staughan) sacrifices, as it must, character for plot, but the way it re-structures that plot, leading with the shooting of Jim Prideaux, not only makes the story flow more like a thriller, and less like a parlour mystery, but also foregrounds the novel's central concern with betrayal. It jettisons some of the supporting cast to simplify things. Where it differs most from the previous versions is in its attitude toward what drives that betrayal, and in its nostalgia for something very different than the things LeCarre wrote about.

It's too facile to say that being directed by a Swede (Tomas Alfredson) means the film falls onto the side of neutrality, but when Bill Haydon justifies his treason on the grounds of aesthetics, the film seems to accept the statement as if he were offering a critique of design, and makes you wonder if Haydon had ever been to the USSR. But in the book and on TV it is clearer that Haydon's aesthetic is his self-view; after all he is an artist, even if not a very original one, and rather than submit to the failed aesthetics of the world in which he grew up, which his paintings represent, he found it more aesthetically pleasing to create his own world, no matter how unreal, which in secret mocked that one. I've always found it odd that Ian Richardson played Bill; he's hardly a charmer, especially to the opposite sex; in my mind he was playing Anthony Blunt (whose own treason was revealed just before the TV series came out). But Blunt's own betrayal was indeed for aesthetic reasons, like those I've just described, and LeCarre was either prescient or imbued with deeper knowledge when he wrote his book.

The other big difference is that the film seems nostalgic for the era in which the book was set, but only to a point. It misses an important nuance there; the book itself was nostalgic for an earlier time—either the pre-war innocence of England or the years of the war itself, when these men were heroes and not so much bureaucrats. Haydon's art speaks to the thirties, and the suits worn by the Circus' leaders speak of that era: chunky tweeds and garish pinstripes, whereas the film's version of the 70s boast thinner materials, thinner ties, thinner lapels. Everything is more sleek, including the Circus itself. Critics praised its grainy reconstruction of its era, but a few moments with the TV series renders that praise hollow. Theirs is a far more shoddy world, one that still speaks of rationing and second-class status. In the film version, gone is the ramshackle HQ of a small British overseas business, stuck into tiny rooms in old buildings—its Circus is a cross between the many warehouse sets of Spooks and the control room of Get Smart.

There are other odd changes too: Smiley is moved from Pimlico to Hampstead (though the address on his letters, strangely, is a building in Kings Cross used for Spooks); he even swims in the pond on the Heath every morning. Gary Oldman's Smiley is a stronger and silenter character than Alec Guiness'; his performance reminded me most of Toni Servillo as Andreotti in Il Divo; Smiley as determined bureaucrat. The Circus' bureaucratic in-fighting is presented along those more European, less English lines as well. This is highlighted by some of the mis-casting, which you see around the Circus 'board room': Toby Jones is too young to be Alleline, and though he catches the ambition he doesn't get the clubbable fatuousness, nor the hint of incipient fascism, both of which were captured perfectly in Michael Alridge's TV performance. David Dencik's Toby is too weak; Bernard Hepton's was a more mysterious character. And although Terrence Rigby's Bland looks the part more than Cieran Hands, both are wasted; Hands' role reduced to a few sinister closeups and threats to maintain your suspicions. Which is the real problem: in the novel and the TV series, the identity of the mole is still a mystery—even though, like Smiley and Prideaux, we intuit it must be Haydon. But in the film, Colin Firth is really the only possibility; none of the others, bar Dencik, are given a chance to establish themselves, but Dencik plays the character too weak to be the traitor. That the film manages to be far more a thriller than the TV series is a tribute to the structure of its script and the pacing of the direction.

The novel is clear about the nature of betrayal, as an outgrowth of secrecy, and sexuality is part of that secrecy; its clarity recalls the Forster quote. Its deeply understated sense of friendship grows from the world of schoolboys to which LeCarre traces the English proclivity for both loyalty and betrayal. For LeCarre, sex is a side issue, a motivator, not a determining factor, and the TV series reflected that. For example, in the novel the relationship between Haydon and Prideaux is explained, if you can call it that, by innuendo—small comments about being close, reports from their university days, all of which require you to read between the lines, and much of which might have been missed by, say, a young American like myself with no grounding in British society. In the TV series, you are almost shocked to see the slight reaction from Ian Richardson when Ian Bannen (an excellent Prideaux) shows up. It should be noted that in LeCarre the only sexual relationship that is actually out in the open, discussed and mentioned freely, is Smiley's, or more specifically, Anne's serial adultery. In other words, only betrayal makes sex an open subject. In that context, Smiley's loyalty to Anne becomes a mirror, if not an explanation, of his loyalty to Britain, and the Circus.

And of course Smiley's own deepest relationship (apart perhaps from Control—and consider the meaning of his service being run by 'control', English self-control, self-restraint, stiff upper lip and all that) is with Karla, whose woman's name is no coincidence. Smiley 'gives' Karla the lighter Anne has given him, inscribed with the ironic-in-context 'all my love', and that becomes a key to identifying Karla's machinations behind the Circus' problems.

All this is grounded in hidden sexuality, but our world today, at least on film, requires that we give sex a more straightforward approach. In the movie, Colin Firth and Mark Strong exchange smouldering glances that leave little in doubt. This is the reason they are there, although  they are,strictly speaking, too young;  it would be a stretch, in the time of the story's setting, to see them as veterans of World War II. In this light, it is odd that they chose to give Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumerbatch) a gay back-story; there is no hint of that in the earlier versions, and there seems no point to it, unless they were worried they needed to balance off the image of gays as traitors. The film's sexuality does work much better on one level, however, and that is in the relationship between Ricki Tarr and Irina, who is far more beautiful in the film than she was on TV, and whose fate is shown in a moment that helps condense the plot. Moving Prideaux's betrayal from rural Czechoslovakia to a Budapest cafe is fine for its time-saving, but moving the Tarr scenes to Istanbul is a fine change that allows fewer religious overtones to Irina's conversion, and more standard spy intrigue. Interestingly, Tom Hardy's Tarr is probably the single role in the film that comes closest to the interpretation in the TV series (by Hwyel Bennett) while Svetlana Khodchenkova's Irina is very much a figure of sexy glamour, where Susan Kodicek's had been partly religious and partly non-glamorous in exactly the same way the service is presented throughout.

This ties in with the decision not to show Mrs. Smiley, which is pretty much true to the book, although it ends with Smiley anticipating her return to gather him up. The TV film added a postscript of sorts—with Sian Phillips perfect as Anne—which uses her to sum things up: Bill 'loved being a traitor', and she misses one opportunity when Smiley asks if she loved Bill, where she could have echoed ironically Smiley's earlier answer 'not really', but she also sums him up. 'Poor George,' she says, after telling him she didn't love Haydon. 'Life's such a puzzle to you isn't it?' Meanwhile Smiley fiddles with his glasses, and resets them over his eyes, perhaps seeing straight again. Anne is very much a presence in the film, but in a very clever way, seen only from behind, and with a flower in her hair to symbolise some sort of exotic and old-fashioned glamour, perhaps someone trying to retain their youth.

The film adds a few other inventions which are improvements, not all simply because they're needed in the restructuring which turns it into a literal thriller. John Hurt is particularly over the top as Control, and that works. The Christmas party scene is the one contrivance which actually harkens back to the LeCarre point of view, the one time you get that sense of the Circus as a second-rate British overseas corporation. And the moment Santa enters as Lenin and everyone sings the Soviet anthem in full voice is brilliant. The modern ethos seems reflected too in Connie's new status: from a dump of a flat she has moved up the property ladder to a lovely detached house in Oxford, and though Kathy Bates needs to be more crucial in this condensed plot, it is hard to top Beryl Reid's Connie for pathos.

And although Haydon's artistic career doesn't play the part in the film it did before—hence the problem with the 'aesthetic' argument; Haydon is not, after all, a very good artist—it is a signal that he is off-kilter. Colin Firth's performance is exceptional, particularly in catching what LeCarre described as the 'pewter' tone of Haydon's eyes after his interrogations. His louche pose, slipping on chukka boots, would be something Richardson would not do. He wouldn't wear chukka boots! But of course much of the rest, including the looks exchanged with Mark Strong's Prideaux, is stuff we've seen before from both actors; for that Firth could have wandered in from the set of A Single Man.

But the most telling re-doing is Prideaux's relationship with the schoolboys. Prideaux, after all, is the key character, the one who is personally betrayed by the man he idolises and loves, the man with whom he has the exact sort of schoolboy relationship envisaged by EM Forster. In the novel and TV series his car is something old fashioned, 'best of British,' an icon which represents the illusions of a lost past which he is conveying to the boys he teaches. LeCarre is pretty clear about this: in the novel we again intuit that Jim has killed Bill because the manner of death has been foreshadowed a couple of times, most notably when he kills a bird in front of the schoolboys. On TV we see it, but it's a face to face killing, a small discussion of betrayal followed by anger. And although there is no discussion between Jim and Bill in the film, the face to face is reduced to Jim's seeing him through a sniper scope, the look on Colin Firth's face is one of what, resignation? Perhaps invitation? And we sense Jim may even be doing him a favour.

We know the myopic Jumbo could well be the schoolboy Smiley—the kind of boy who could grow into Alec Guiness' huge spectacles. But he can't really become Gary Oldman's Smiley, and that is probably why there is such a significant change in Strong's Prideaux, whose car is a junker and who, after killing Bill, reacts to Jumbo with fury. In LeCarre, traditions carry on, and public schools will continue to produce men increasingly unsuited for the non-imperial world—Camerons and Osbornes and even non-men like Stella Rimington. For Alfredson, it's different. You might read Strong's rejection of Jumbo as a rejection of the weak or you might read it as a rejection of the system. In the latter reading, Prideaux becomes a sort of disillusioned hero, the only one in the game willing to give it up because it's at heart corrupt, or at least disfunctional. But I prefer to see it as Alfredsson's way of suggesting the circle has been broken here, and Prideaux will no long participate in grooming boys for the system that feeds the Circus. I love the ambiguity here, but it bothers me because of what follows.

Which is the triumphalist ending, undercut by the ironic use of 60s pop song 'La Mer' as Oldman's Smiley sits in the control seat in the Get Smart set. It doesn't really work. Smiley is in charge, but as we know from LeCarre, this is not really a triumph: it is only the first step in his becoming what he is closest to. For me, coming back to the 1970s versions, artefacts of the time I arrived in this country, but with the knowledge I have learned over all this time, the depths of its predecessors seem something the film cannot match. But I am also acutely aware that there is a generation of film-goers now as ignorant of that Britain as I was when I arrived here, and this is a film pitched for them, and, as I have said, an excellent one, for me too. I am not criticising the film for not recognising what is after all outside its purview; but I wonder if, even within its own terms, that was way it ought to end.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

THE NIGHT THEY DROVE THE CANDIDATES DOWN

Sometimes it really does seem like you couldn't invent this stuff...but while reading about Herman Cain's defenses of both his past as an employer of women and his present as a tabula resa in terms of Libya and other parts of the rest of the world, and the opening line of The Band's 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' ('Virgil Cain is my name/and I served on the Danville train') and the resentment which provides the emotional core of that song seemed to fit our current Tea Party world, that the rest of this just happened, as they say...so peace out


THE NIGHT THEY DROVE THE CANDIDATES DOWN

Herman Cain is my name

and I worked on the pizza chain

til Bachmann's insanity came

and tore up the prim'ry campaign

in the winter of 2011

I was trailin, barely made news at seven

Then came the babes with the stories to tell

It's a time I remember oh so well


The night I drove her forehead down

Liberal media grinnin

The night she claimed I felt around

Fox News pundits were spinnin

They went, gag gaga gag gaga

Gaga gag gag gaga gag gaga....


Back on the stump in Tennessee

Politico says to me

Herman quick come see

We've got the testimony

And one week later when it all came out

Said I don't know what you're talkin about

Don't remember that woman, not at all

And the settlement's somethin' else I don't recall


The night they drove the candidates down,

And it's just beginnin

The night they drove the candidates down

Why can't we do our own spinnin

Goin gag, gaga gaga gag

Gaga gag gag Gaga gaga gag


Out on the stump in Richmond town

Said 9-9-9'll bring your taxes down

Tea party they gave a frown

said it's just 666 upside down

Now it may be the devil who made me grope

But for tax policy there still must be hope

If I'm President, I'll make the country fine

And if I dont, at least I got mine


The night they drove them candidates down

The tea party was grinnin

The night they drove them candidates down

Cause Mitt Romney weren't winnin

They go, gag gaga gag gag

Gaga gaga gag gag gaga gag


Met with the papers in Milwaukee

And what did they say to me

Herman, do you agree

With Obama's take on Gaddafi?

Well, OK, so I answered slow

And I had to admit that I didn't know

WTF, it's only President,

Bush knew shit from Saddam and look where that all went...


The night they drove them candidates down

What was it they expected?

They night they drove them candidates down

Jes tryin to get elected

They went gag gaga gaga gag

Gaga gaga gag gag gaga gag


Like Rick Parry before me

I forget and smile

Unlike Mitt Romney longside of me

I'll hold a view for a while

Now I don't mind choppin Michelle

Santorum? Already gone to hell.

But if the voters notice what I lack

I'll say it could be worse, cause I could be Barack!


The night they drove them candidates down

Liberal pundits all grinnin

The night they drove us candidates down

Fox News says I'm winnin

they're all gag, gaga gag gaga

gaga gag gag gaga gag gag gagaga...


Tuesday, 8 November 2011

SMOKIN' JOE FRAZIER: IN MEMORIAM

It was Joe Frazier's blessing and curse that he shared center stage in the squared circle with Muhammad Ali, and their rivalry may be the greatest of the sporting 20th century, better than Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Palmer and Nicklaus, Borg and McEnroe, because it took place in the one setting most revealing of a man's character, courage, and self-awareness.

It helps that Frazier and Ali were perfect complements to each other. Out of the ring Ali was pretty, loud, egotistical—a presentation he'd learned studying pro wrestlers. He often had another agenda, and he played it out perfectly. Joe was rugged but not beautiful, softly spoken, and straight forward in what he said and what he did.

The same applied inside the ring. It's not enough, nor is it true, to say they epitomised the 'boxer versus the puncher' matchup—you want a classic for that watch Kenny Buchanan against Roberto Duran. Rather, it was that their behaviour in the ring echoed perfectly their characters outside it.

Ali's boxing style kept his face from being hurt. He was the quickest heavyweight any of us had ever seen, both with his dancing feet and his ability to pull his head back out of range in a flash. His punches, with their twist on the end, weren't knockout blows, but damaging in their own way.

Smokin' Joe, by contrast, was willing to sacrifice himself to get into punching range, taking a beating in order to give one, and once he got close enough he inflicted hammering drill-press pain, with a left-hook that destroyed right-handed punchers. He was Rocky Marciano, in a lot of ways, and once Eddie Futch taught him to bob and weave coming forward, he was as close as boxing gets to an irresistible force.

The shame of their three meetings is that Ali, having been stripped of the title, didn't get to work his way through the other contenders, and face Frazier with his hand and foot quickness intact. When they met at the Garden for the first time, a few days before my 20th birthday, I listened to the fight on the radio. I was a war-protesting pseudo hippie jock trapped into a love of competitive sports, and Ali of course symbolised the meeting of those two worlds so I was cheering for him. But even in the radio commentary I could tell that Joe was dominating, coming forward, taking the fight to Ali. The beauty of their fights is that Ali proved he had the courage to match Frazier at his own game, enduring inhuman punishment, until in the monumental rubber match, it was Futch who threw in the towel after the fourteenth round.

People remember that Ali won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 (but often forget it was at light-heavy) but not that Joe won the heavyweight gold in Tokyo four years later. His path to the medal wasn't easy, because he lost at the Olympic trials to Buster Mathis, who drove Joe crazy in the amateur ranks. When Joe lost to Mathis at the Olympic trials he complained that the Baby Huey-shaped Mathis pulled his trunks so high ('up to his titties') that he was penalised two points for a low blow that went right into Buster's ample midsection. But Mathis pulled out of the '64 Olympics, and Joe, despite breaking his left thumb in the semifinal, won the heavyweight gold. He would later destroy Mathis when they met as pros.

Frazier's pro career is odd, in that, having come up later than Ali, he never fought Liston or Patterson, he missed Ernie Terrell and Cleveland Williams, and after Ali he somehow never got in the ring with Ken Norton. His best fights, apart from Ali, were probably his first against Oscar Bonavena, who knocked him down twice, the stoppage of George Chuvalo (both those guys made Joe look like Ali), the first win over Jerry Quarry, which was probably Quarry's best fight, and the first over Jimmy Ellis, the Ali sparring partner who won the 'tournament' to replace him as champ, a tournament Joe refused to fight in. Joe Bugner gave him a tough fight losing a 12 round decision, and the one I remember well is Frazier's quick win over Bob Foster, the exceptional light-heavyweight, who was tall and skinny and nearly knocked horizontal in mid-air by a Frazier punch. But here's the rub: Ali had half a dozen fights besides the ones with Frazier that were legendary, or close to it. Frazier really had only the ones with Ali.

He lost twice to Ali, and twice to George Foreman, who was an immovable object if ever boxing produced one. Ali watched Frazier's irresistible force rendered useless and figured out what he'd have to do to beat Foreman, and he knew, having survived three fights with Joe, he could take the punishment. He paid the price down the line, as we all know. Joe saw Ali extending his career for big paydays, but his own comeback lasted only one fight, an awkward draw with Jumbo Cummings, and he retired for good.

Joe's legacy will always be entwined with Ali's, and it's important to remember how badly Ali treated him. Joe refused to participate in the WBA's tournament when Ali was stripped, and he wrote to President Nixon asking that he reinstate Ali. He actually loaned Ali money to keep him going when he wasn't boxing, and making a living speaking on college campuses. He thought they were friends, and he'd stood by his friend.

Then, when the time came for them to be matched, Ali launched into his full pre-fight hype mode, calling Joe an Uncle Tom, a gorilla, dumb, and all the rest, which not only infuriated Frazier, but hurt him. You could see his anger in the first fight, which otherwise he might have approached with some reluctance, in a business-like way. But Ali had made it personal, and both guys took a lot of punishment as a result.

Smokin' Joe was pretty fine as a singer too, with that Philadelphia sound—something that is often overlooked. He wasn't dumb by any means; but there was still a lot of rural Beaufort, South Carolina rather than urban Philly (or Louisville, for that matter) in him. He was funny and quick-witted in interviews, but that side of his personality would always be overshadowed by Ali. As would Joe's entire legacy. There is no shame in that—Ali is undoubtedly the biggest worldwide sports personality ever-- but there is shame if we don't remember just how good, how straight-forward, and how important Joe Frazier was. He was everything heavyweight boxing was supposed to be, and, since the days of Ali and Frazier, has not really been for a long time.

Monday, 7 November 2011

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: IDES OF MARCH

Sometimes it seems as if George Clooney wants to single-handedly re-interpret America's last great Golden Age in terms of the paranoid politics of today, as if to make the world safe for an heroic sort of Kennedy liberalism. Although he reached back to the Fifties to recast TV newsman Edward R Murrow as the forefront of the campaign against McCarthy-ism in Good Night And Good Luck, it's more instructive to see the CIA reduced to a Chuck Barris gong show, or Fail Safe's Col. Jack Grady given a conscience but still carrying a full payload of paranoia strong enough to conclude both the President and his own son are Soviet dupes.

His latest film, Ides of March, which received its world premiere at the London Film Festival is really a reimagining of The Candidate, which highlight the differences between Clooney the director/star and the approaches of both Michael Ritchie, a sharp social critic, as the Candidate's director and Robert Redford as its star. Ides transfers the focus from the candidate, Governor Mike Morris, played by Clooney, to his number two campaign chief, played by Ryan Gosling. In a neat transfer from The Candidate, here it is the political pro who is the idealist, who believes in the candidate, and the candidate himself is, at best, already a seasoned pol. But just as crucially, we can imagine Ides Of March's storyline beginning exactly at the point The Candidate ends, with Redford as Bill McKay, exchanging glances with the young campaign worker slipping into a hotel room. That moment symbolised McKay's corruption in the way American political films—and I extend this to documentary as well as fiction-- see their politics: in personal terms.

The difference between the two films is primarily that Clooney starts from an assumption that we all know our institutions are corrupt; he is building on the revelations which spawned films like The Candidate. That the professionals are running the show, that ideals are sacrificed on the altar of vote-getting expediency, a revelation in The Candidate, here is taken for granted. The play on which the film is based was called Farragut North, after a Washington DC street off K Street where lobbyists and consultants make their lairs. Therefore the crucial change of focus is from the candidate himself as idealist to the campaign manager as idealist—the somewhat contradictory idea that Ryan Gosling's Stephen Meyers is a ruthless professional who could be in this sleazy business for idealistic reasons. That he is out-smarted by Morris' opponent's campaign chief, Tom Duffy, played by Paul Giamatti reprising Allen Garfield/Goorwitz's brilliant performance from The Candidate, is not a surprise; that the weakness on which Giamatti preys is Meyers' boss Paul Zara's (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) sense of loyalty—Hoffman in a sense is playing the Peter Boyle character from The Candidate, but he is playing it as PSH in standard mode. Although the term 'anorak' doesn't really exist in America, he wears one, and plays it as one; the most predictable scene in the film is the one where he gets the push from Morris. It's a shot of the car in which the dagger is being used, and when Hoffman gets out, and the car drives away, you can predict the slump of the body within the anorak.

Because this is America, the crucial betrayals are not political but personal—and it's hard to figure out whether Meyers is more incensed because Morris is shown to have sexual feet of clay, or because Molly, the campaign intern he's sleeping with (Evan Rachel Hunter) has 'cheated' on him. Intern sex reflects the post-Clintonian reality of political morality, which is specifically referenced twice: first when we learn the Republicans are more ruthless, better organised than the democrats-better at the process of politics, the perennial lament of the headed-for-extinction liberal. And second when we learn that the one unforgivable political mistake is 'fucking an intern'--all else, including starting wars, pales into insignificance.

That Meyers first lets Molly down and then appears to threaten her with exposure causes her suicide, and puts him in the position to be able to blackmail Morris indicates the key thrust of the film. Although Clooney the actor handles Morris' 'reveal' brilliantly. It's always fascinating to me how powerful Clooney can be playing against type. He's our Clark Gable, but he has darker depths. And like Gable, he's not very good at comedy, though unlike Gable he keeps trying. Clooney the director isn't so subtle about the reveal: both Morris and Gosling's Steven are cast in half-shadow, to emphasize the duality of their positions, the choices they make. It's shot wonderfully by Phedon Papamichael, who alternates the styles of campaign documentary and neo-noir with aplomb. The film reveals its origins as a play – it is opened up but everything of importance takes place in small encounters, and the mobile phone plays an important role in delivering outside news. But the real point of the film is never politics, but love.

This is born out by Marisa Tomei's turn as Ida Horowitz, the obnoxious (and Jewish—pointedly so) reporter for the New York Times, who keeps telling people she loves them and reminding them that love means nothing. In that sense, we see Giamatti's seduction of Gosling as more telling than Molly's seduction of him, and we realise that Molly's weakness may well be believing in love more than politics. It is interesting that the scene in which Gosling rings least true in his role comes in the bedroom, where he's revealed to be far more buff male beefcake than you'd expect from a campaign manager—more American Psycho than American Politico. But again, that may be the point. And the reversion of Molly to helpless girl, female victim of morality (her family is Catholic) may well be more a comment on the false morality of American politics than an attempt to send the women's movement back to the Sixties.

There are a few practical problems. That Molly is the daughter of the Democratic Party's chairman means that Mike Morris would know her as well as Paul Zara says he does, and Stephen would likely be at least aware of who she was. Would Morris thus choose her to sleep with? After her death would no one do an autopsy that would reveal her recent abortion, and then check local clinics? Did no one ask Stephen why he happened to go to her room where she was found dead? Did no one try to trace her phone? But those are the kinds of question you'd ask in a crime film, not a political drama.

The revelation that politics are corrupt, or hypocritical, is hardly earth-shaking. It's easy to see Ides Of March as longing for some more innocent reality, but such innocence may never have really existed, we George Clooneys just believed it did because the media (and movies like The Candidate) hadn't revealed all to us. This film is earnest in its liberal way, well-played and well-made, but it really reveals very little.

Ides Of March directed by George Clooney
screenplay by Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon,
based on Willimon's play, is on general release

Friday, 4 November 2011

JOKERS ARE WILD

When Bob Kane and Bill Finger were producing the Batman, the villains were influenced heavily by Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. They were often bizarre, barely human creatures which reflected a perception that criminality was an aberration, out of pace with normal human behaviour. In one sense, they were ogres from children's bedtime stories; think of the Riddler, the Penguin, or Catwoman, yet not really threatening in a real-world sense. Yet even in those days of more straightforward comic books, and even through the Sixties rebirth of the Batman as an icon of ironic camp culture, there were a few villains who hinted at darker depths, and touched more sensitive areas. Two Face is a brilliant creation, a basic psychological trauma personified, but the key adversary for every version of the Batman has always been the Joker, and no matter how camply the caped crusaderwas portrayed, no matter how comic the Joker became, he was the one villain who can never quite hide the basic frightening instability that serves as the perfect foil to the Batman's obsessive quest for revenge against crime itself. He was and is the one villain who personifies the chaos which is what we all ultimately fear.

This is the spirit which is captured brilliantly in Batman: Going Sane, written by JM DeMatteis and drawn by Joe Staton and Steve Mitchell, in which the Joker, having 'killed' the Batman, discovers both 'normal' life and love. DeMatteis' story pulls no punches, but is based on the perilous ying and yang between hero and villain; without the Batman, the Joker remains haunted by an emptiness even love cannot fill, while the 'reborn' Batman cannot conceive of a world in which a Joker reborn as an ordinary man can exist. The artwork plays this dichotomy well: often harkening back to the simplicity of 'comic' books, but always bordered with darkness that occasionally is allowed to take centre stage, as in the dramatic moment when the Batman announced to Jim Gordon 'I'm back'. But the studied plainness of the Joker's life as a citizen makes a strong contrast, and the way he edges back to his Joker-madness is an intercut sequence of rough brilliance.

The real key to the modern Joker is the embrace of his madness; some of the artists who've approached him recently assume there is no top over which they cannot go. But he's such a brilliant creation, such a representation of the appeal of the madness, that they may be right. But notice the story's title: this is not really the story of the Joker's 'going sane', it is the struggle of the vengeance-stoked Batman to regain his sanity, and not surrender to the Joker's world. Mitchell's heavily-inked lines remind me of Frank Robbins, and serve here to remind us of the harsh borders of the world these two antagonists inhabit, and the equally wide lines that delineate order from chaos. It's that response to chaos that makes this such a touching, and indeed powerful, story.

Appended to it is a story called 'Gotham Emergency', written by From Hell artist Eddie Campbell and Darren Sears, and drawn by Bart Sears in a style nearly as dramatic but somewhat slicker as Going Sane, which draws on the thing that has lain at the centre of all Joker stories—the Batman's need to inhabit the Joker's mind in order to defeat him—this is Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter stuff, and like Lecter the Joker is the more flamboyant character. The other connection with Going Sane is the presence of an attractive woman doctor who is drawn to the Batman, and who can be used, if only for an instant, to establish his own somewhat tenuous humanity.

With the Joker stowed away safely at Arkham Asylum, it was another stroke of brilliance to make him the narrator of short stories. These stories work best when we remember, or indeed forget but are reminded, that they are told from the Joker's own unstable and untrustworthy perceptions. In Volume Two of Joker's Asylum the most impressive tale features the Mad Hatter, and is drawn by Keith Giffen and Bill Sienkiewicz in a wonderfully tormented style that only dimly recalls Tenniel. Like Going Sane, it revolves around the Hatter's efforts to make himself 'normal' through love, and of course it fails for the same crazy reasons the Hatter is what he is. What brings it to a bravura conclusion, however, is the Joker's own presence as narrator, as writer Landry Quinn Walker catches his function perfectly. In other stories the Joker presents you with a riddle in a story about the Riddler and leaves you to figure it out...or not. Penciller Andres Guinaldo reminds me a lot of Gil Kane. There's also a little comic relief from James Patrick and Joe Quinones, when Harley Quinn breaks out of her asylum to spend Valentine's Day with the Joker, and a rather familiar film noir version of Beauty and the Beast with Killer Croc playing, of course, the Beast. I was also taken with Kelly Jones' art in Kevin Shinnick's tale of Clayface, 'Midnight Madness'. But it's the Joker who unifies all these stories, and makes them work.

Batman: Going Sane DC/Titan Books 2008 £9.99 ISBN 9781845768638
Joker's Asylum, Volume 2, DC/Titan 2011 $10.99 ISBN 9780857681676

Monday, 31 October 2011

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: LATIN LOVES

LATIN LOVE AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL
Las Acacias (Argentina)
Karen Cries On The Bus (Columbia)

An Argentinian truck driver picks up a load of lumber in Paraguay. On his way back to the border, he stops and waits for a woman whom his boss has paid him to take with him to Buenos Aires. When the woman arrives, she is carrying an infant daughter, which was not part of the deal. But it was his boss' request. They drive on, he nearly leaves her behind, but finally he gets her across the border, takes her all the way to the capital, and slowly warms to her and her daughter. They get to Buenos Aires, where she's greeted warmly by her relatives, and goes inside. He waits. Eventually she comes back out. They agree they might meet. He drives away.

That's all that happens in Las Acacias, at least on the surface of things. But as a study in the hesitant return of a shut-down man to humanity, in the power of optimism, and as a slow-building maybe love story, it is as touching and convincing a film as I have seen in some time. Yes, it is a two-hander, and yes, it is a road movie, and we know how these elements constitute almost a special genre in independent film. But a number of things make Las Acacias stand out from such works—and justified fully its winning the Sutherland Award, for 'most original and imaginative first feature' at the London Film Festival.

The most important is the way director Pablo Giorgelli uses the road not as a device, but as a metaphor, for the narrow confines of truck driver Ruben's life. He is more than a loner, or a creature of the road; he exists within the boundaries of the highway, within the claustrophobic spaces of his truck's cab. His links are to his sister, to whom he delivers a birthday present many months late, and to his son, who exists in a picture, taken the first time he ever met him, when the boy was eight. He is living in an existential wilderness, his rituals of gear shifting and drinking mate, guarani, or fizzy water are the sort of rituals of theatre of the absurd.

Into this existence comes Jacinta and her daughter, added to his truckload of acacias. There are parallels: he has a son he doesn't see and a mother who's never mentioned; she has a daughter she carries with her and her bags, and says the baby has no father. But she has hope; for her the road is simply a way of getting from one place to a more promising alternative, one where she and her daughter will have a better future.

Eventually, Ruben's gruff, hardened exterior begins to bend, and it is here that German DeSilva's performance is extraordinary. He shows the way Ruben has internalised the strict boundaries of his world, he implies the self-protection that forms the foundation of that attitude. And he shows the hesitation, the almost self-bewilderment, with which Ruben begins to emerge, dares to take the chance. Hebe Duarte, as Jacinta, has to play straight-man at times, to this impassivity, which she does with great sensitivity—and the beauty of the film is we watch waiting for the worst to happen, for the fragility under Ruben's hard exterior to crack, and for Jacinta to pay the price. But it doesn't happen, and the film ends on a small note of hope, even as Ruben drives his truck away, still shifting gears. It was probably my favourite of all the films I saw in the Festival, and it's rare I find myself in such whole-hearted agreement with the LFF awards.

Karen Cries On The Bus exchanges types of vehicles, opening with Karen, indeed, sitting on a bus in tears. It is the story of a woman who leaves her husband in search of herself. Karen finds herself with few skills and little money, with a room in a shabby boarding house, and quickly reduced from optimistic job-seeking to begging at the bus station and stealing food and basics. It's also a familiar tale, and this Columbian film stays truer to the tropes than Las Acacias; the husband is a charming boor, Karen finds a somewhat iffy friend with a heart of gold, and she meets a man who is much closer to her ideal—all of it very predictable, and not really going anywhere new. But Angela Carrizosa Aparicio is absolutely brilliant as Karen, flashing intelligence beneath her seeming helplessness in the face of life on her own in the big city. The way she adjusts, or doesn't, to the filthy and barely working communal shower in her boarding house acts as a metaphor for that adjustment, but even better is the way she appears to first shrivel and then blossom, and sometimes both, almost a more demonstrative version of Ruben. In fact, her performance is yang to da Silva's yin; were the Festival presenting best actor and actress awards, those two would likely have been my picks.

Writer/director Gabriel Rojas Vera handles the men in the story brilliantly too: her husband Mario makes the right gestures, but we soon she exactly why she lost in marriage to him, and when she meets a more sensitive and encouraging man, he reveals, to her and to us, the almost ingrained macho attitude which is at the core of what she must overcome to find herself. If it's a little black and white in its juxtapositions, and if her new-found friend is even more a caricature than the men, and her 'conversion' a bit forced, Maria Angelica Sanchez's performance plays off Carrizosa's restraint very well. What's even more impressive is the way scenes are staged, the use of locations, and the way they are shot, with the photography reflecting and amplifying Karen's emotions, draw the audience into her dilemma, and though it is very much a womens' film, none but the Marios in the crowd would fail to be drawn is as well. The film ends as it began, but now Karen is watching another woman on the bus in tears...there are eigh million stories in the naked Bogota, and hers will be another of them.

Las Acacias (Argentina-Spain 2011) directed by Pablo Giorgelli, written by Girogelli and Salvador Roselli
Karen Cries On The Bus (Columbia 2011) written and directed by Gabriel Rojas Vera
both premiered at BFI London Film Festival