Saturday, May 06, 2017

Noir Com: To Have and To Hold by Graham Chaffee

I can't think of many activities as diverting as reading a graphic noir novel? And Graham Chaffee's To Have and To Hold, published by Fantagraphics, is probably the best I've read since Max Cabanes and Doug Headline's 2015 Manchette's Fatale. Not that I've read all that many in between, but you get what I mean. Unlike the Cabane and Headline publication, Chaffee's bande desinee is strictly a black and white affair, right in keeping with the genre and the era. And unlike Fatale, based on the Manchette novel, both story and graphics belong to the author.

Set in 1962 in New York during the Cuban missile crisis, it ticks the usual noir tropes- a marriage gone bad, misplaced passion, infidelity, lust, murder and betrayal. Not to mention a robbery committed for an ulterior motive and  doomed to fail. Which makes To Have and To Hold something like a close cousin to, and an updating of, Kubrick's The Killing. Moreover, Chaffee's text isn't that far removed from Jim Thompson's hard-edged screenplay for Kubrick's film.

While it's the narrative that first grabbed me, as the story progressed I was increasingly impressed by those inky graphics which alternate shades and degrees of intensity, not to mention the tight editing of the material that cuts so fluidly between the various characters and settings with all the aplomb of the finest film noir editors. No doubt the ex-cop and psychotic husband and his wayward wife, whose dreams of the good life have been shattered, deserve one another,  but while reading Chaffee's b.d., I kept thinking about that Floyd Tillman song form the same era, that would be sung by the likes of Ray Price, Don Gibson, Wynn Stewart, etc.: "The sun goes down and leaves me sad and blue/The iron curtain falls on this cold war with you. You won't speak and I won't speak it's true/Two stubborn people with a cold war to go through." Though, in this case, stubborn, is an understatement of monumental and murderous proportions.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Detour the Movie, Detour the Novel

I don't know how many times I've seen Edgar Ullmer's 1945 low budget classic Detour. Certainly I'm not alone in regarding it as one of those quintessential examples of film noir. But for some reason I only recently got around to reading  the novel on which the film is based. Like the film's screenplay, the novel was written by Martin M. Goldsmith, who while writing it worked as a Hollywood scene dismantler. He would go on to write something like a dozen screenplays, obscurities like Robert Gordon's 1947 Blind Spot and Joseph Pevney's 1950 Shakedown- both Poverty Row enterprises. Though he also contributed the story for John Farrow's better known and excellent 1952 Narrow Margin.

That Goldsmith, born in New York in 1913, would adapt his own novel was somewhat unusual in Hollywood at that  time. What's interesting, however, is the degree to which the novel and screenplay differ, which they do in various, but interesting, ways. The most obvious difference is that the film is taken from the viewpoint of pianist Al Roberts who travels from the east coast to Hollywood to find and hopefully marry his girlfriend, Sue Harvey. While the novel, first published in 1939, is written from the dual perspective of violinist Alexander Roth (no doubt thought to be too Jewish sounding a name for movie audiences of the day) and Sue. Their stories are told in alternating chapters, with neither  having any idea what the other is experiencing, or, for that matter, knowing what the other is really like. In the film adaptation, Al might not understand what Vera, the woman he picks up on the road, is about, or get the full drift of Haskell's story, but in the novel no one comprehends anyone. While the novel is about the general condition of knowing anyone, the movie is more about power, at least so far as it centers on Al's relationship with Vera, and her attempts to use him to her own ends.

That being the case, no wonder Goldsmith- for a while Anthony Quinn's brother-in-law- and Ulmer dispose of Sue's entries, and so move her to margins of the narrative. After all, it simplifies the story, turning it into a straight-ahead narrative, which no doubt made it easier and cheaper to film. All important factors for a Poverty Row enterprise to consider. But, in the end, no matter how  cynical and hard-edged the film turned out, it pales in comparison to the novel.

Another difference between the novel and the film is that the latter leaves out an essential element of the former, namely Goldsmith's scathing critique of  Hollywood, and the way it contributes to what Guy Debord would some years later call the society of the spectacle and where women are treated like objects- and, to quote the Dude, "objects are treated like women." Because it's Sue who mostly articulates that critique. Though, in the novel, Alex also has some choice words about Hollywood, little, if any, of which never quite made it onto the screen:

"You know, it would be a great thing if our lives could be arranged like a movie plot. M.G.M. does a much better job of running humanity than God. On the screen the good people always come out all right in the end...Things are plotted in straight lines. There are never any unexpected happenings which change everything about the hero but his underwear."

Still, had Ulmer and Goldsmith included the critique of Hollywood it no doubt would have resulted in an entirely different film, one that perhaps only a major studio could handle properly. Though perhaps hard to believe, but the novel is, if anything,  even darker than the film, particularly regarding one of noir's traditional tropes, the part fate plays in a person's life. Speaking like an American Camus, Alex at one point says,
"Here I had just sniffed out a human life as easily as falling off a log and the world was going on the same as always. The sun was still shining, the birds singing, the people eating, sleeping, working, making love, spanking their children, patting their dogs. It was undeniable proof that man is unimportant in the scheme of things, that one life more or less doesn't make a hell of a difference."

At the same time,  the film does contain nuggets like, "Whichever way you turn. Fate sticks out a foot to trip you." Interestingly,  the book ends with Alex pondering what might have happened had the car not stopped for him, saying, "God or Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or on me for no good reason at all," the film ends with pretty much the same lines, but without any mention of God.  After all, why confuse matters. Noir is noir. No  point in needlessly throwing God into the mix.

While writing the above I was reminded of an article on Martin Goldsmith that appeared in Noir City, entitled The Vagabond by the excellent fiction writer and critic Jake Hinkson. He begins that piece with a quote by Columbia's president and chief of production Harry Cohn who purportedly said to Goldsmith, "You are the most dangerous man I have ever met because you have nothing to lose." If true, that says a lot about Goldsmith and who he was, as well as the demands made by Hollywood on most screenwriters at the time. In fact, Hinkson goes on to not only paint a picture of Goldsmith as something of a Hollywood existentialist, not only a perpetual outsider, who would periodically decamp in Hollywood to write for the studios- invariably a Poverty Row studio- and, money in hand, hit the road, not unlike Alex in Detour,  in search of more salubrious surroundings. To back that up, Hinkson cities Goldsmith as saying, "You can live in comfort anywhere if you just revise your ideas of comfort... I think the ideal combination for making a man entirely independent would be a sleeping bag, a typewriter, a station wagon, and a telescope for stargazing."

Goldsmith wearing sun glasses fasting in
protest to school segregation, Los Angeles, 1964. 
Besides Detour, Goldsmith would publish three other novels: Double Jeopardy (1938), Shadows At Noon (1943) and The Miraculous Fish of Domingo Gonzales (1950). Noirist Bill Pronzini described Double Jeopardy as  a cross between a problem novel and a mystery novel, with a touch of the Postman Always Rings Twice thrown in for good measure. He went on to describe Shadows at Noon as  a wartime fantasy, a what-if novel about a group of ordinary citizens whose city has been bombed
by the Nazis. While The Miraculous Fish of Domingo Gonzalez is a comic novel, perhaps in the B. Traven tradition, about a sleep Mexican fishing village where only sharks are caught. Until an American buyer of shark livers moves in changing the village beyond recognition.  Goldsmith would go on to write for TV, with scripts for The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Playhouse 90, and, in 1977, had a play produced by the Labor Theater in New York. Always politically active, Goldsmith joined the Congress of Racial Equality in the 1960s, and protested school segregation in Los Angeles. He also actively campaigned against nuclear weapons. He died in 1994, largely unheralded. I've heard rumours of an unpublished autobiography floating around, which would no doubt make for fascinating reading. Certainly anyone who appreciates Detour the film should have a look Detour the novel. It's not all that difficult to come by, having, over the past few years, been reprinted by a various outfits. Who knows, maybe the time is right for some larger company to take punt on it. After all, if Black Wings Has My Angel can be reprinted by NYRB, then why not Detour?  In the meantime, take your pick of various editions  (my preference would be for the one with the Larry Block forward). And thumb a ride on that desert highway, whether to hell or Hollywood.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Creating Desire: The Art of Selling Movies by John McElwee

Movie ads a "great lost art?" Well, why not? But one can't help but speculate on what goes into that everyday ads meant to entice the public  through times good and bad into movie theatres. Though McElwee touches on that, it's not really his main concern. Rather, his intent is considerably more panoramic, taking the reader  through some sixty years of movie making: from the early days of Hollywood, through the Depression, up to the 1960s. The ads run the gamut: whether silent films, the advent of talkies, pre-code films, technicolor, teen films, the drive-in movie craze, etc.. Since most of the images derive from press books, some are nothing more than minimalised posters while others are cartoon-like in nature or  simply photographs and text. It's a mixed bag artistically, sometimes gaudy, sometimes stunning, but always interesting, evocative and, in their own way, enticing. And, at least until the 1960s, almost exclusively in black and white. However, by the end of the 60s, newspapers, as McElwee points out, were unable to compete with TV and more up to date advertisements and media. Of course, in the digital age, those ads have pretty much been consigned to the dustbin of history, which only makes their retrieval all the more welcome.

Though other books have concentrated on film posters, I can't think of any that confine themselves to everyday newspaper images as McElwee's book does. That alone make the book as invaluable as it is fascinating. After all, for most, it wasn't the colourful posters encased in the lobby of movie theatres that attracted the public, so much as the  black and white ads that they perused over their breakfast cereal. And films weren't the only thing being sold in those ads, but local businesses seeking to capitalize on what had become, for many years, the country's favorite pastime. I only wish McElwee had gone into a bit more detail about the politics behind the ads, as well as the techniques deployed in the ads to entice potential viewers. Though there are hints, as in the disclaimer by one movie house regarding Chaplin's Limelight, the theatre making it clear they tempting providence, or patting themselves on the back for being "controversial"- judged correctly, a potentially good selling point: "We realize he has been the subject of much controversy. We do not presume to judge his moral or his politics. However, we do recognize his genius." Clearly, there are various ways to sell a film, but the bottom is creating desire. If nothing else, McElwee's book should be commended for its historical value and approach. The details of which will no doubt be the subject of someone else's analytical skills.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

UNUSUAL SUSPECTS: Character Actors in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly.

Given its script, camera work, superb set-up shots and direction, Kiss Me Deadly is, in the end, an actor’s film, at least when it comes to bit and character parts. At the same time, perhaps due to the extremity of its social critique, appearing in Aldrich’s 1955 movie seemed, for some, more like a one way ticket to obscurity. Some of those appearing in the film had promising careers prior to Kiss Me Deadly, only to be type-casted in its wake. Then there were those who remained bit actors before and after making the film.  Others would go on to achieve a degree of success, though even these actors would face a career of type-casting. Having said, the importance of characters actors, not to mention their professionalism, is undeniable. Appearing in the background, they are able to embellish the plot, as well as create atmosphere. Moreover, in Aldrich’s day, such actors could appear in three or four movies per year, always in the background, more often than not portraying a particular type. Moreover, those who appeared in Kiss Me Deadly would be utilized by Aldrich in subsequent films.  

Tough, cynical, cocky, stupid, sadistic, with a commanding screen presence, Ralph Meeker takes on the role of Mike Hammer with his particular fractured authority. Not  a character actor as such, but someone who would be type-casted for much of his post Kiss Me Deadly career. He was particularly well-suited to play Hammer, a role which required an aggressive yet  straight face, capable of displacing irony from the character onto the narrative itself. However, few remember that Meeker, before Kiss Me Deadly, had a promising career as a promising stage actor, replacing Marlon Brando in the Broadway version of Streetcar Named Desire after the latter decided to head for Hollywood. When cast by Aldrich to play Hammer, Meeker had been  starring in the stage version of William Inge’s Picnic,  a screen role associated with William Holden, and a role for which Meeker had garnered the New York Critic’s Award (as one is told in the trailer for Kiss Me Deadly). When Meeker’s went to Hollywood to make Kiss Me Deadly, it would be none other than Paul Newman who would replace him. Yet Meeker’s Hollywood career would pale compared to Brando’s, Newman’s or Holden’s. In fact, Meeker as Stanley Kowalski is a far cry from Meeker as Mike Hammer, even though both roles exude a primitivism so extreme that audiences sometimes aren’t sure where authenticity ends and humour begins. At the same time, whatever Meeker’s limitations, one wonders if Brando would have been able to handle both parts- Kowalski and Hammer- with equal aplomb. In all probability, Meeker was more versatile than his career suggests. Even before appearing in the stage version of Picnic, he had acquired a screen reputation, having starred in Glory Alley (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), and Big House USA (1955). While Newman, Holden, Brando, all went on to become highly paid stars, Meeker would remain the odd man out, never quite getting the big-time roles achieved by the other three actors

So why Meeker?  Part of the reason for casting him must surely have been financial. Here was a fresh face and, though not a big name, a capable actor, well-versed enough to have no qualms about subsuming himself in the role.  As Aldrich said, “I didn’t need a real star to get the money for the film. The name Mickey Spillane...was enough.” A rare case of the author of the novel selling the movie. Despite his performance, Meeker’s future career would consist of playing the same cynical, hard-edged, tough-talking role time and time again, type-casted as it were in such Hollywood films as Run of the Arrow (1957), Paths of Glory (1957), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967). 

In fact, Meeker could even be thought of as the screen equivalent to Aldrich: underrated, technically proficient, and professional. With hindsight, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Hammer, for few would have been capable of being so dark, so sardonic, and so willing to become as sleazy. Disappearing into the role as someone with no allegiance or class loyalty, and a face that’s hard yet baby-like, unformed because it is impervious. Regardless of the effect on his career, Meeker was able, in Kiss Me Deadly, to take  the noir anti-hero to new heights. 

Cloris Leachman, as Christina, has an short but significant presence in Kiss Me Deadly. Though she dies some ten minutes into the film, she remains a dominant, if ghostly, influence on the narrative. It’s not just her death that is crucial to the film, but her feminist perspective, not to mention the ease with which she can read Hammer. Of the three main women in the film, Leachman is probably the most capable actress. Plain looking- reminding one of Stanwyck- with short blond hair, her barbed remarks cut Hammer to the core. At the same time, unlike Lily’s neurotic whine or Velda self-conscious animal sexuality, if not perversity, Christina need only rely on her wit. Hammer doesn’t like her; after all, she’s an intelligent woman, and therefore of interest to him. Having flagged down his car, Christina easily talk circles around the laconic and iconic Hammer, who can’t quite fathom her. But at least he stopped to pick her up. After all, two other cars had previously passed her by. And there is something about her, other than her looks, that attracts him. Perhaps it’s just that she represents something human, or maybe she represents the last vestige of Hammer’s humanity, some dim memory about what it is to be human. Or maybe he finds her intriguing because he can’t dominate her. That is, if Hammer can be said to have even the slightest analytical ability, whether regarding his own motives or those of others. Be that as it may, Christina, without being present-something akin to Jeanne Crane in Horner’s 1953 film Vicky- becomes the narrative’s provocateur, putting Hammer on the trail of the “great Whatsit.”  Without Christina, and Leachman playing her with such aplomb, the narrative would have stalled in the opening few minutes, and Hammer would be left to his clichés, pursuing divorce cases, entrapping women, while his secretary, Velda, entraps their husbands. 

One wouldn’t know from her performance that Kiss Me Deadly was Leachman’s first film appearance. Previously this former Miss Chicago had only appeared on TV.  But Aldrich, already with a reputation as an excellent director of actors, gets an assured performance from her. Consequently, Leachman strikes the right posture and attitude, gleaning information about Hammer, criticising him without compromising herself or alienating the detective. Her performance also has a great to do with A.I. Bezzerides’s script. What more could a novice film actor want than to  appear in the opening scene, make a strong impression, then make an early exit from the film. Yet Leachman would remain a relatively obscure, though versatile, actress right up to her Oscar winning performance in The Last Picture Show (1971), before going to appear in such films as Young Frankenstein (1974),  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Dillinger (1973),  Daisy Miller (1974), Crazy Mama (1975) and High Anxiety (1977). However, in Kiss Me Deadly, Christina represents a different type of woman, a proto-feminist unwilling to toe the 1950s line regarding women and power. Intelligent, sensitive but scared, she refuses to insulate herself by constructing a near-Thatcherite personality, as does Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious (1952), Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns (1957) and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1953). Reason enough, perhaps, for her move from lunatic asylum to Hammer’s car to the lair of her torturer. 

While the careers of Meeker and Leachman were, to differing degrees, circumscribed by their roles, Kiss Me Deadly is a movie filled with lesser known character actors. Though, for such actors, being circumscribed by one’s role goes with the territory. Still, some would fall into the black hole that comprises the finite universe of studio movie-making.  Others would reappear in future Aldrich films. Perhaps Aldrich liked to maintain a pool of actors, if for no other reason than they knew how he worked, which, in turn, made filming easier and quicker. Unlike Meeker and Leachman, many of these actors, though they might have wished otherwise, were destined for a litany of bit parts. Taking that into consideration, Kiss Me Deadly would prove less a graveyard than some kind of cinematic limbo. 

Though that doesn’t quite describe the career of Albert Dekker who plays the menacing Dr Soberin. Quoting the classics and connected to art world, Soberin’s agenda is to profit from unbridled technology. Born in Brooklyn, 1904, Dekker appeared in such films as Dr Cyclops (1940), The Killers (1946), Destination Murder (1950), The Pretender (1947) and Suspense (1946). Then came his political career, serving  as a Los Angeles Democratic assemblyman from 1945-46. After Kiss Me Deadly, his career stalled, appearing in just six films over the next fifteen years. In the 1960s he returned to the stage, and appeared in a final film, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). Soon afterward he died in mysterious circumstances. Though the official cause of death was accidental suffocation, it appeared to be a case of robbery (money and electronic equipment were missing), but with sadomasochistic overtones. When his body was discovered, the coroner is reported to have said, "This one had everything but a vampire bite." 

Other actors in Kiss Me Deadly were fortunate enough to escape such infamy.  Amongst the film’s most capable characters was Paul Stewart as the gangster, Evello. Stewart had once been part of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater, having made  his screen debut in Citizen Kane (1941), as Kane’s valet. He went on to mostly portray gangsters, fight promoters and cops in scores of films, both on TV and on the screen, including  Johnny Eager (1942), Champion (1949), The Window (1949), Edge of Doom (1950), Deadline USA (1952), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Loan Shark (1952),The Juggler (1953), The Joe Louis Story (1953), The Wild Party (1956), King Creole (1958), In Cold Blood (1967) and Day of the Locust (1975). With a memorable face, and tough working class demeanour, he’s one of those character actors for whom the term character seems to have been invented. Which is to say his life appears to have been written on his face.  

Another character actor in the film is Wesley Addy who plays the mysterious Pat, whose relationship to Hammer is nothing less than ambiguous. Is he Hammer’s friend or his nemesis? Is he a cop or federal agent? And is there some kind some homoerotic relationship between the two men? Other than Eddie the mechanic, Pat is the only man in the film that Mike seems to like. He’s even able to walk into Mike’s apartment without waiting for the door to be opened for him, whereupon he sees Mike and Velda kissing and says, “Don’t let me bother you.”  Perhaps he feels at home in their presence. Or maybe he’s a kind of voyeur, playing a role not unlike those viewing the film. And even though he’s filing a secret report on Hammer, Pat refuses to take part in the Feds questioning of Mike. Laudable, but there is something distinctly creepy about Pat. Of course, he admires Hammer, perhaps a little too much. Working for the state, this thinking man’s Mike Hammer appears to be ex-military, or a former athlete that has spent too much time in Hugh Hefner’s Penthouse. To his credit, Addy has no problem carrying off so ambiguous a role. After Kiss Me Deadly, Addy would go on to appear in numerous films, including six more films by Aldrich- The Big Knife (1955), The Garment Jungle (1957), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), 4 for Texas (1963), Hush..Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and The Grissom Gang (1971), as well as non-Aldrich films like Ten Seconds to Hell (1959), Seconds (1966), Network (1976) and The Europeans (1979). Through it all, Addy always appears to be in character, maintaining the coldness of a sci-fi alien, a judge or  state functionary. 

Perhaps it was her willingness to compulsively smooch Mike Hammer that put a damper on Maxine Cooper’s career. As someone else whose character is written on her face, Cooper’s role in Aldrich’s film touches on the perverse, so much so that she must be one of the few women in film- another example is Mercedes MacCambridge and, for that matter, Joan Crawford, in Johnny Guitar- whose sexuality is not something many would care to encounter. In fact, there is something incestuous about her relationship with Hammer. Though Cooper had a prolific career on TV, she only appeared in three other movies, two of them by Aldrich- as the bank teller in  What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), as the nurse in Autumn Leaves (1956), and, swapping healer for a person needing healing, as a sick woman in Hal Bartlett’s airplane melodrama Zero Hour! (1957).  None of those roles come close to the raunchiness of Cooper’s presence as Velda. Which is a shame, because there is something genuinely disturbing about her as Velda, as if Aldrich and Bezzerides can’t decide whether she is a moron, a nymphomaniac, or a prophetess, who speaks about “the great whatsit” while supplying the brains to Hammer’s brawn. 

From the sublime to the ridiculous, Gaby Rodgers (Lily-Gabrielle) is yet another memorable character in Aldrich’s movie. Her performance as a young neurotic comes across as near-Brechtian in its alienation, giving one cause to wonder if she’s  a bad  actress or superbly capable of delivering her lines as instructed. Unfortunately, Kiss Me Deadly was a big kiss-off for  Rodgers who appeared in just one other movie, The Big Break (1953), two years before Aldrich’s film. After Kiss Me Deadly, she, like Cooper, turned to TV work. Literally radiating in the film, one assumes it was Rodgers’s ambiguity rather than her sexuality that cut her Hollywood career. 

Nor was Hollywood all that kind to Marian Carr, who played Friday, the nymphomaniac and sister to the gangster Evello. Though Carr’s career did last at least  another year. Prior to Kiss Me Deadly she had been in such films as Twin Husbands (1946), Follow That Blonde (1946), San Quentin (1946), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), Northern Patrol (1953),  Ring of Fear (1954), World for Ransom (1954), and Cell 2455 Death Row (1955). After Aldrich’s film, her output was limited to Nightmare (1956), The Harder They Fall (1956), Ghost Town (1956), Indestructible Man (1956) and When Gangland Strikes (1956). Clearly, offering sex so blatantly is as unforgivable as being, consciously or otherwise,  a bad actress. If it is true, and it is all about character-  “It’s not enough to have talent, you’ve got to have character,” says George C. Scott to Paul Newman in The Hustler- it’s debatable whether Carr was born with it or had it thrust upon her.

Keith McConnell, who plays the Athletic Club clerk, appears for a matter of minutes, slapped around before turning into a nearly unrecognizable corpse. He is the  man who guards the gate behind which lies Pandora’s box. Inept he might be, but, then, that’s his nature. The man’s character is one of weakness, once again there’s a homosexual undercurrent. Born in 1923, McConnell had a lengthy career, specializing, despite his Irish background, in playing British officers, gentlemen and gentry, as well as  policemen, butlers, bartenders and even Sherlock Holmes. His first film credit was in 1950, playing a British lieutenant in When Willie Comes Marching Home, followed by such forgettable  films as Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950), A Life of Her Own (1950), Kim (1950), 5 Fingers (1952), Botany Bay (1953), The Caddy (1953), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), 4 for Texas (1963), Morituri (1965), Time After Time (1979), Wrong Is Right (1982) and Young Lady Chatterley II (1985). His face exudes submissiveness and fear. As an effeminate male, he comes right out of Spillane’s homophobic and nativist novel.

Being an L.A. film, albeit in the 1950s, necessitates a smattering of ethnic types. So naturally one finds characters actors from an assortment of communities. Like Nick the mechanic, who comes across as Hammer’s one true friend, bonding through their love of fast sports cars. Displacement it might be, technological pornography it most definitely is. Jive-talking Nick is particularly fond of saying “va va voom.” Once ensconced in Mike’s car, he says to his idol, “I want to see how this little bird flies,” and “let’s get his baby on the road.”  A speed merchant, he’s  on top of things,  as up to date as any member of the lumpen proletariat can possibly be. Nick is in fact Nick Dennis, born in Thessaly, Greece in 1904. His foreign-looking face  appeared in a number of  films, or at least  whenever a Greek, Turk or Mexican was needed. His first appearance was in 1947 in A Double Life. From there he went on to appear in Sirocco (1951), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Ten Tall Men (1951), East of Eden (1955), The Big Knife (1955), Top of the World (1955), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), Spartacus (1960), Too Late Blues (1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), 4 for Texas (1963). Like Christina, Nick has an early death in Aldrich’s film. Mike mourning his passing with a worried look and a tumble in bed with Velda. But Nick is the only guy capable of making Mike’s engine hum.

Besides Nick and McConnell the Irishman-turned-English, there’s Juano Hernandez as Eddie Yeager. He is a boxing trainer whom Hammer consults in his gym, following a template upon which such roles would be based, including George Tobias in The Set Up, Paul Stewart in Champion, Everett Sloane in Somebody Up There Likes Me, Nicholas Colasanto in Fat City, Morgan Freeman in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, etc.. Hernandez is probably best remembered for his role in Ben Maddow’s adaptation of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1949), directed by Clarence Brown, in which, he appeared as the black man who is lynched. An ex-boxer, Hernandez, previous to his movie career, had worked in circuses, carnivals,  minstrel shows and vaudeville. Born in Puerto Rican, in 1901, he appeared in TV programs like Naked city, The Defenders and Johnny Staccato. The son of a seaman, Hernandez was self-educated, having spent his youth as a street singer in Brazil and landed his first acting role in a 1927 production of Show Boat. Prior to Intruder in the Dust, Hernandez appeared in Harlem is Heaven (1932), The Girl From Chicago (1932) and Lying Lips (1939),  Young Man With a Horn (1950), Stars in My Crown  (1950) and The Breaking Point (1950). After Kiss Me Deadly he would go on to appear in some twelve films, including St Louis Blues (1958), The Pawnbroker (1964), and The Reivers (1969), playing cops, judges, preachers, musicians, sharecroppers, and native Americans. In Aldrich’s film, Hernandez has what amounts to a cameo role, underused and only peripherally relevant to the plot.

Marginally less peripheral are the two thugs Hammer confronts in the swimming pool changing room at Evello’s luxurious home. The recognizable faces of the two Jacks- Jack Lambert and Jack Elam in the roles of Sugar and Charlie Max- are sleazy rather than ethnic. Slit-eyed and ugly, Jack Lambert looks like a nightclub bouncer or ex-football player who has recently fallen off the wagon. Born in 1920,  Lambert was in such illustrious films as The Killers (1946), Chicago Confidential (1957), Machine Gun Kelly (1958), Party Girl (1958), Force of Evil (1948), The Great Gatsby (1949), Day of the Outlaw (1959), and Aldrich’s Four for Texas,  Vera Cruz (1954) and Four for Texas (1963). His partner is another usual suspect when it comes to film noir, and, if anything, even more ubiquitous and menacing than Lambert. Specializing in playing gangsters and outlaws, Jack Elam was, in fact, a former accountant and hotel manager. With a leer, the result of blindness in one eye- making him the original “one-eyed Jack”- Elam appeared in such films as The Far Country (1954), Vera Cruz (1954), Kansas City Confidential (1952), Rancho Notorious (1952), Gunfight at OK Corral (1957), Baby Face Nelson (1957), Four for Texas (1963), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). As a character actor he occupied a position on the weird and wild side of John Ireland and Arthur Kennedy. One could say that Elam and Lambert illustrate the extent to which Hollywood relied on such people, their ilk giving various movies that evil leer and dangerous atmosphere. In fact, film noir as a genre would have been all the poorer for their absence, so adept were they, thanks to directors like Aldrich, at giving such films a creepy everyman look without needing an  over-abundance of dialogue or screen-time.

But, then, neither did Fortunio Bonanova need much screen time to memorable. One first glimpses him in the role of Carmen Trivago, in a Bunker Hill rooming house, the kind of place fellow-Italian John Fante writes about in Dreams From Bunker and Ask the Dust. According to Velda, Trivago is “an opera singer in search of an opera,”  so he stays in his room singing along with Caruso. That is, until Hammer arrives, wants information and, when Trivago hesitates, he, like the oaf he is, begins breaking his beloved records. Unlike Elam and Lambert, Trivago, at twice their weight, was no tough-guy. In fact, he began his  career as a baritone singer with the Paris Opera, going on to write a number of operettas, plays and novels, as well as appearing in several movies.  Like Paul Stewart, Bonanova was in Citizen Kane, playing the singing coach who, at great pains, instructed Kane’s second wife to reach those dulcet tones. That Aldrich would pick up on two actors from Welles’s movie says something about his astuteness regarding character actors and how they can alter the atmosphere of  a movie, as well as  his artistic relationship to Welles- both were working at RKO in 1941- whose film Touch of Evil, released two years earlier, might be thought of as a spiritual cousin to Aldrich’s movie. 

Another Italian making a brief but important, appearance in Kiss Me Deadly is Silvio Minciotti who plays the old man moving furniture on his back in the Bunker Hill rooming house. He is important if only because he has a spare moment to philosophize, while telling Hammer, who might be one of the few people who ever stopped to talk to the old man, where he, Hammer, can find Lily. More of a trooper  than Bonavova, Minciotti was called upon whenever a picture called for a rugged, old world Italian. Consequently, he appeared in such films as Full of Life (1957), The Wrong Man (1956), Serenade (1956), Marty (1955), Clash by Night (1952), Fourteen Hours (1951), Deported (1950), House of Strangers (1949), The Undercover Man (1949).  His presence in Kiss Me Deadly, and I mean his presence, rather than the lines he speaks, gives the film, up to that point, a semblance of gravitas.

If Hammer denotes masculinity-beyond the call of duty,  there are others who denote the opposite. If not effeminate, then at least weak men; in other words, those who can be pushed around by tough-guy crooks and private investigators. Consequently, we not only have Trivago and the Athletic Club clerk, but the morgue attendant, played by the familiar face of Percy Helton, who must surely have been one of the most prolific bit-actors in Hollywood. Of course, such parts would only be plentiful so long as tough-guys continued to flex their muscles. Helton began his career as far back as 1915, playing the waif in the silent film, The Fairy and the Waif.  His professional career would last until  the 1970s, appearing  in scores of films, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Head (1968), The Songs of Katie Elder (1969), Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), 4 For Texas (1963), Ride the High Country (1962), The Music Man (1962), Jailhouse Rock (1957), Shake Rattle and Roll (1956), White Christmas (1954), A Star is Born (1954), Thieves Highway (1949), The Set Up (1949), Criss Cross (1949), Call Northside 777 (1948) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). With an apparent fondness for the service sector, Helton’s speciality seemed to be funeral directors, store keepers, bank clerks, hotel clerks, news vendors, mailmen, judges, chauffeurs, station masters, train conductors, drunks, loafers, and any part that necessitated servitude, obsequiousness or marginality. 

But there were even those with more marginal roles, their primary function to reinforce Hammer’s perspective. For instance, Robert Sherman who crops up at the beginning of Kiss Me Deadly  as the leering gas station attendant. He would go on to appear in films like Aldrich’s The Big Knife, (1955), Picture Mommy Dead (1966), No Time for Sergeants (1958), Kiss Them for Me (1957), For Men Only (1952). As well as a gas station attendant, he find cinematic service as a soldier, cop, journalist and, in Aldrich’s The Big Knife, a bongo player. In Kiss Me Deadly we see him sizing-up Christina, and so informs the viewer he comes from the same mould as Hammer. On the other hand, he agrees to post Christina’s letter. With McCarthyites lurking in the background, and “the Great Whatsit” in everyone’s consciousness, this was a world where such attitudes were commonplace, and those emulating Hammer had the upper hand. Whether he would tempt a federal rap and peak inside that letter is another matter.

Some of the other character actors in Kiss Me Deadly who would appear in Aldrich’s later films include Marjorie Bennett, the manager of Silvio’s apartment. Bennett made her first film appearance in 1917, followed by scores of others in which she mainly played housekeepers and cooks, from Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) to Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Coogan’s Bluff (1968). Mort Marshall as Ray Diker, the science reporter on whom Velda compiles a file, whose bloody face one sees in close-up, would appear in Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang (1971) as well as Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955). Strother Martin as Harvey Wallace the truck driver who kills Kawolsky because of his connection to Christina, would appear in Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955), as well as The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), The Wild Bunch (1969), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Butch Cassidy (1969). James McCallion as Horace, the building superintendent where Christina lived until “she moved out…in the middle of the night,” would also have a lengthy career in TV westerns and crime stories as well as appearing in Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954), The Big Combo (1955) and Coogan’s Bluff.  Robert Cornthwaite, playing one of the FBI agents would be typecasted as doctors, professors and military types, while James Seay, the other FBI agents, would be given roles that required an authoritative voice. Both Seay and Cornthwaite can also be seen in Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

Screenwriters came and went- though Aldrich would use Bezzerides three times in all- but bit actors tended, in order to maintain a particular look to his films, to be re-employed by Aldrich. It would be a mistake to say other directors did not make use of these unsung professionals who, if luck and ability would have it, could appear in several movies per year, but few seemed to deploy such actors to the degree Aldrich did, using them as a quasi-company that defined and enriched his work. Keeping the budget low and the atmosphere high, these actors put in performances that were memorable yet subsidiary, foregrounded for a moment but subservient to the main actors and narrative. Kiss Me Deadly, as much as any other Aldrich film, relies on  such character actors to the degree that one could say that the film is propelled by their performances. This even applies to the main roles- Meeker, Rodgers, Cooper, and Leachman- themselves little more than character actors writ large. In fact, their performances are a testimony to the power of the film as an idea and social critique, to the degree that even its stars would become, to one degree or another, type-casted, no matter how hard they might have wanted to resist that definition.  After all, in Hollywood, ”you’ve got to have character,” even in era of the great Whatsit.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Copacetic Props: Wesley Brown's Dance of the Infidels

I can't think of many short story collections that delve into the world of jazz as affecting or guileless as Wesley Brown's Dance of the Infidels. Recently published by Concord EPress (full disclosure: also my publisher), these stories-  title taken from Bud Powell's famous  composition (see YouTube clip below)- weave together the lives of iconic jazz musicians with a handful of mainly fictional characters. It's a mix that produces situations and interactions that go some way to defining not just the music, but the era, not to mention  the lives of those affected by the music and the era. Of course, there have been numerous writers who have taken jazz as their subject matter or utilized as a backdrop, from Albert Muarry, Dorothy Baker, Toni Morrison, John Clennon Holmes, Rafi Zabor, Ishmael Reed, Josef Skvorecky and Michael Ondaatje to Lou Cameron and Harold Flender. For me, Brown is every bit as good as most of them, particularly when it comes to depicting the historical, musical and personal shifts during a particular era, in this case the years just prior to and after World Wear Two, when the music was moving from swing to be-bop, from dance music to something more cerebral.  

The political implications are clear, and Brown is able to tap into them.  As well he should, having, during the 1960s, worked with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, before joining the Black Panthers. Eventually he would serve 18 months of a three year sentence for refusing to be inducted in the armed services. Perhaps that's also partly why he can make his subject matter move so seamlessly in that direction, depicting musicians as no less vulnerable than those who follow the music, with all concerned  subject to the function and drift of those transitional years. All of which is apparent from the very first story, Women From Mars, about a young female trombone player who, for economic reasons, joins an up-and-coming female wartime big band. But as excellent and perceptive as that story might be, it only the opening salvo for what will follow.  In the second story, The Land of Oop-Pop-La-Da we're introduced to four young music enthusiasts: Anna, Danny, Sylvia and Wardell. Anna is Jewish,  Danny Catholic, while Sylvia and Wardell are black. Anna and Danny meet in high school, and, bonding over the music, become regulars at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, one of the few places where blacks and whites could openly dance and socialize together. It's where Sylvia spots Wardell- "a smooth talker whose words were as slick as his processed hair"-  on the dance floor.  The four  become friends. But, while Anna is hungry to learn the latest dance steps from Sylvia and Wardell, Danny simply wants to get lost in the music. As  the book progresses, Brown fills out the stories of  each of these characters, culminating in the final entry, In the Mood to Be Moody. Of course, the four teenagers have their ups and downs, and eventually go their separate ways, but not before encountering young versions of  Bird, Dizzy, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan,  Ella Fitzgerald, and King Pleasure, as well as seasoned veterans like  Count Basie, Ellington,  Lionel Hampton, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Billie Eckstine.

Billie and Hawk
In between are a couple stand-alone stories, one featuring a teenage  Dexter Gordon, in Harlem for the first time, having just been hired by Lionel Hampton. Interestingly, Brown, the author of three novels, and lauded by none other than James Baldwin, was meant to work with Gordon on the tenorman's  autobiography. Unfortunately  Gordon would  pass away before the book could be written.  Another stand-alone features Coleman Hawkins. Set in 1936, Hawkins has just returned from five years in Europe and in need of replenishment, musically and spiritually. After reluctantly facing down Lester Young, and searching the contours of Body and Soul, Bean in an adjoining recording studio comes across ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his not-so-dummy Charlie McCarthy. An incongruous meeting as hilarious as it is fortuitous. And, of course, touching, something which could be said for all the stories in this collection, each related in a bop prose that specializes in some incisive descriptions of the music:

A young Dexter G.
"Not wanting to step on anyone's toes, Dexter stamped his foot and blew a yelp from his sax like he'd stepped on his own toes, hoping to put himself on a good footing with the two left feet that were so neat of Sweet Georgia Brown. He gave props to Prez's light throaty hum and Webster's breathy growl, letting them know that, like Georgia Brown, he was still in the shade where they were concerned. But not wanting anyone to think that he came up to the bandstand with nothing to say for himself. Dexter blew into Sweet Georgia Brown, catching some of her high-toned sweetness and low-down sass."

"...a horn player named Lester Young was introduced; and, unlike Danny's father, he had a lot to say. Danny listened to what sounded like a humming breeze, dancing a slippery soft shoe on top of the horn player's breath. He couldn't help but wonder if this was the kind of feeling his father didn't want to talk about? A long yawn followed that went on the prowl in Young's throat and mouth and then sneezed through the radio like he was coming down with a head cold. But if Lester Young wasn't feeling well, Danny wanted to get closer to whatever was making him feel under the weather. And he got his wish as feverish puffs of breath, egged on by hoots from the band, ballooned out of the horn, and burst in a splash of heat over Danny's face."
Ella Fitzgerald

If I have a criticism it isn't that the last story closely gumshoes the second,  or that he tends, like many of us, to romanticize  the music (though hardly when compared to, say Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful), but only that this collection is so enjoyable that it really should have been twice as long.  No wonder Baldwin admired Brown's writing. For me, Dance of the Infidels is one of the best books of short stories I've read in a while, and something anyone who loves the music, from young adults to elderly but avid listeners, can't fail to appreciate.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Been Here and Gone: The Art of the Blues by Bill Dahl and Blues Unlimited, edited by Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe and Mark Camarigg

I was five or six years old when I heard my first blues song. If I remember right it was Tennessee Ernie Ford singing Milk Em In the Morning Blues. Tennessee Ernie liked to stop  to chat with me before his radio program on KXLA in Pasadena, which came on the air just after my dad's program. Not that I knew blues from blintzes, but, hey, any song with cows or horses in it was  okay by me. Some years later I would be listening to Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Johnny Otis, etc.. But I still wasn't aware of blues as a form, nor would I be until I was in my mid-teens and first heard Leadbelly, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry and Lightnin' Hopkins, probably on Les Claypool's evening program in the early 1960s on KRHM-FM. It was also around that time I bought my first country blues record Samuel Charters's classic compilation The Country Blues. How could I not fall in love with music the Cannon Jug Stompers, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie McTell, the Memphis Jug Band, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, etc.. That was followed by LPs by the likes of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Leroy Carr, Ray Charles, etc., and pretty much whatever was available at the time, which meant LPs on labels like Folkways and Prestige. Within a few smaller labels would join in the fray, releasing compilations and LPs devoted to recently discovered country blues musicians.

I was fortunate enough during those years to have been able to hang out  at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles  where I heard practically every blues musician playing the coffee house circuit, from  Lightnin', Muddy, Bukka White, Son House, Sleepy Estes, and Johnny Shines, to songsters like Mance Lispscomb and Mississippi John Hurt.  I must have heard Lightnin' a hundred times, so much so that I found myself taking him for granted, to the point that it would be another twenty years before I was able to appreciate him for  the blues poet that he obviously was.

My friends and I would sit in the front row of the Ash Grove listening to those bluesmen, as well as any number of  great bluegrass and old-time musicians, trying to figure out how they did what they did. "Dumb-ass kids," is the way Ed Pearl, who, along with his brother, Bernie, ran the Ash Grove, would refer to us in an interview I read some years back. Which I thought was funny, if a bit unfair. Though we didn't have money to spend, we were as much if not more into the music than anyone else at the club. Ry Cooder was there as well, but he was already on a different level, thanks not only  to his obvious and precocious musical prowess but because he had the sense to ask various musicians to give him private lessons. I was too stupid to think of anything quite so enterprising.

When I moved to the Bay area, I still kept eyes and ears open for whoever came through town, and was able to continue see and hear  Little Walter, Muddy, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt,  B.B. King, Skip James, Albert Collins, Albert King, Earl Hooker, etc. at places like the Fillmore, the Avalon, the Matrix, as well as, in Berkeley, the Cabal and Freight and Salvage. There were also small clubs in the Haight and Fillmore district that booked blues musicians. I remember seeing T-Bone Walker, for instance, at the Haight Levels, with no more fifteen people in the audience. Sometimes the musicians would travel with a band and sometimes they would play with whoever was available.  This could lead to some incongruous pairings, such as the nights I heard Little Walter backed by the Quicksilver Messenger Service.  I don't think Walter was all bothered. Anyway, he was clearly drunk most of time, and not in the best of health. Not that his condition stopped him playing far better than most other bluesmen could do healthy and sober.

By the time I arrived in Britain in the 1970s there were only a couple record shops- Dobells and Colletts- where one could buy blues records. It must have been at Dobell's on the Charing Cross Road that I first picked up a copy of Blues Unlimited. But it led me to realize that Britain was a hotbed for blues scholars, collectors and aficionados.  Mainly it seemed centered around  Blues Unlimited,  edited by Mike Leadbitter and Simon Napier and writers like Mike Rowe and John Broven.  At the time I was also renewing my interest in the rhythm and blues music I had grown up with in L.A., as avid fan of  Johnny Otis's t.v. program and late night radio hosted by DJs such as  Hunter Hancock and Huggy Boy. The Blues Unlimited crowd were fairly parochial in their tastes, and, though each had their specialty, weren't all interested in separating  the various strands of the music. I liked the fact that the  magazine was produced in the sleepy seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea-  jokingly referred to as "the southland's home of the blues" or something to that effect- where Leadbitter lived Napier and Broven lived. Of course, there were other important British writers working at the time not connected to the magazine as such, like Paul Oliver, whose books I avidly consumed. But when it came to periodicals, Blues Unlimited was, for me,  the most interesting. I even contributed to it at some point in the mid-1970s with a review of Charlie Gillett's book on Atlantic Records. Some of Blues Unlimited's pre-1970 articles were collected in a book that Leadbitter edited entitled Nothing But the Blues (1970). Other than the dedication and scholarship, maybe I liked the magazine because it was in that British tradition of the obsessive amateur, a tradition that invariably cuts  across class lines.  Of course, America has its own brand of rogue collectors, not to mention academics, but there it seems, at least until recently, as much a profession as  a vocation. And, of course, back in the day it was more difficult  for Brits to get access to the music, which might have made many appreciate the music that little bit more. Of course these days that's changed, and, unless one collects 78s, everything is pretty much available in one form or another.

Which brings me to the recently published Blues Unlimited- Essential Interviews From the Original Blues Magazine. Though it might be a bit  similar to Jim O'Neal's Voice of the Blues, published a decade or so ago, which also consists of interviews from O'Neal's magazine,  the recent Blues Unlimited reaches further back, drawing from the magazine's archives a more esoteric bunch of musicians. The interviews, all of which go into great depth, are divided into geographical regions, moving from Chicago to L.A., stopping along the way in Detroit, St Louis, Mississippi, and Texas. Certainly the likes of Red Holloway, Fred Belew, Snooky Pryor, Baby Boy Warren, Big Maceo, Arthur Crudup, Lonnie Johnson, Juke Boy Bonner, James Cotton, Albert Collins, Roy Brown, and record men Henry Glover of King Records and Ralph Bass of companies from Savoy to Chess, are not your usual suspects.  Though it should be said that when these interviews appeared in the magazine, the subjects were still working musicians or producers. Now the musicians are simply distant remnants of the past. Though the subjects might be  dead and gone,  their influence continues. And do their recordings, now their words preserved in books like this one, nicely presented and edited by  Bill Greensmith, Mike Rowe and Mark Camarrigg. Fascinating reading for any dedicated blues fan.

Though Blues Unlimited might be nicely presented,  it can't hold a candle in the looks department to Bill Dahl's The Art of the Blues. A mere glance at the photos is enough to make any bluesnik remember why they got hooked on the music in the first place. Every photo and poster  is like a short story, and a small bit of history.  Romanticised, perhaps, but important artifacts from specific eras and an evolving music whose influence continues to this day.  The ultimate blues coffee table book, The Art of the Blues  is  divided into chapters covering such subjects as sheet music, prewar record ads, catalogs, pre and post-war 78 labels, posters of the music and movies, album covers, blues publications and promotions, etc.. It probably should have been titled The Art of the Blues and Early Jazz, because it covers the latter as well. But don't  be fooled into thinking that just because it concentrates on the art and imagery of the blues that Dahl's book lacks the substance of  the recent Blues Unlimited. On the contrary, there is a great deal of content here, with short but informative essays on a variety of subjects and figures. While so far we have not only the Art of the Blues but The Poetry of the Blues (Paul Garon and Kevin Young),  Conversations With the Blues and Blues Off the Record (Oliver), Nothin' But the Blues (Leadbitter), Nothing But the Blues (ed. Cohn), Deep Blues (Palmer)  and so many others, none  can compare- and I think most of the authors would agree- to actually listening, I mean really listening, to the music itself.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

In the Tower of Song: Steve Erickson's Shadowbahn

"I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet.
But I hear him coughing all night long
A hundred floors above me in the Tower of Song."
                                         Leonard Cohen

Steve Erickson, who's long been one of my favorite writers, really has only one subject, which is to say America: what it is, what it might have been, and what it could be. No more so than in his latest novel,  Shadowbahn, in which he presents an alternative narrative, drilling down deep into the culture to expose present day fissures, in an attempt to arrive at the heart of the heart of the country.  He does this by taking various perennials: music, the open road, and characters motorvating those shadowy and ill-defined blue highways, to find a point where the past, present and future converge, and where that  elusive sense of history can finally be grasped, if not defined.

As usual in an Erickson novel, it's the process that matters, those roads and places as much dreamscape as landscape, its  characters invariably in transit, taking the back roads between places and states of mind. Having said that, the framing of  Shadowbahn is simple enough:  the Twin Towers is spotted by a trucker somewhere deep in the Badlands. On the bumper is a sticker saying SAVE AMERICA FROM ITS SELF, a slogan he can't quite get a handle on.  So the reader is thrown into a land not so much badas neglected, often patronisingly painted as flyover red, part of what, in Shadowbahn, is referred to as the Disunited States. It's a post-vinyl flip-side of our here-and-now nightmare. The towers stand like two twin speakers so natural in their  woof and warp that music emanates from these Towers of Song, though more Eno-ambient than Dylan apocalyptic.

It's all about twins, in fact.  Or dualities. At the core of the novel is Jesse, the lone inhabitant of  one of the Towers, who also happens to be Elvis's stillborn twin. In the Shadowbahn world, it was Jesse who survived and  Elvis who died at birth. Though Jesse can't sing a lick, he writes strange articles about a music-  from Bird and Coltrane to an obscure Elvis-influenced British band in Hamburg- few have heard. Moreover, music comes from Jesse, though it's  not in his voice, but that of his stillborn brother. No wonder the music magazine he writes for thinks Jesse has gone off the deep end.

Because Shadowbahn takes place in a world that might have been had Elvis not existed, the Beatles never got much further than Hamburg. Which meant that John Lennon ends up in a secondhand record store, and eventually becomes homeless. Such was the spirit of the era that even JFK is affected, never becoming president, but, permanently in a wheelchair dreaming of his senatorial past, spends his time gawking at young women as they enter and leave Warhol's Factory. And so music, at least the white rock variety, which a Malcolm X type character understandably critiques, is severely curtailed. Though Parker and Zena, siblings- one black, one white- who travel those secret highways on their way to their mother in Michigan, hold bits of that other strand of American music on taped playlists compiled by their father, which gives them, in turn, a kind of significance, as well as a degree of leverage over others.

"Regions seed from the nation, states from regions, cities from states. By midcentury the recently formed Arklahoma Christian Conglomerate applies to the World Trade Organization for a patent on 'America' under the Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIP) agreement. A rage of countersuits is filed by other northwestern-hemispheric entities. Attempting without satisfaction to assess the petitions by typical standards of singularity, functionality, and precedent, the organisation's council ultimately gathers representatives for the various claimants in a locked conference room where, stripped of all digital resources, each imposed a question with the understanding that the patent for 'America' legitimately belongs to whichever answers correctly: Who recorded 'West End Blues' in June 1928?"

Living in such shadows can only obscure the road, making any destination ill-defined and barely reachable. It's the music that paves the way.  After all,  the highway and music have long been intertwined? And what, according to Erickson, America has given to the world. No matter that the music has been appropriated, dependent on the country's original sin as much as on its warped exceptionalism. And so Shadowbahn- laid out in twin paragraphs with headings that could be song titles- implies that it is a matter of who can navigate those blue highway as much as who possesses the music.

"The music is unlike any heard by anyone since what once was called the 'American century,' when the predominant music of that century, so compelling as to have spread beyond America, was the expression of and then rebuttal to America's self-betrayal- when the music was about America regardless of whether it came from America, whether it believed in America, whether it thought of America, whether it spurned or rejected America. The previous century's music knew of America whether anyone knew that it did. At the previous century's root was a blues sung at the moment when America defiled its own great idea, which was the moment that idea was born. "

One can argue until the cows come home whether this is Erickson's best book, but for me it might well be his most important and timely in a series of important and timely books. Not only because these days one often has the feeling of being ensured in some maniacal alternative reality, but because Erickson's book demonstrates the degree to which one takes for granted the narrative to which one's grown accustomed, and how easily that narrative can be blown to rags. No one writes about such matters like Erickson, an inveterate  left-coaster, who has made a career out of exploring not just the edge but how it relates to our continental drift in general. At times Shadowbahn's love for, and obsession with, music and its significance reminded me of the kind of thing the likes of Richard Meltzer and Sandy Pearlman used to indulge in during the early, and heady, days of Crawdaddy. We've come a long way since then. Now, with information moving  faster than a speeding bullet, and more powerful than the most mind-warping loco-weed, it's all about sequencing, turning those playlists Parker and Zema possess into relics of the past. Now it's all about  algorithms and those who create and control them. One can only hope the Tower of Song somehow keeps on keeping on. This as everything falls apart around it. As they do, Shadowbahn is not so much a what if... but an if only... novel.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Morbid Symptoms: The Dreams and Realities of Gerard Reve’s “The Evenings”

TRUE TO HIS NAME, Gerard Reve fills his 1947 debut novel The Evenings with a series of dreams, nightmares, and daydreams — fantasies that have as much to do with the Nazi occupation of his native Holland as with his young narrator’s anxieties about life in the postwar years. Given the historical circumstances and what we know of Reve’s temperament, it’s no wonder that these dreams are accompanied by a certain cynicism, a pervasive discontent that, at least at first glance, could be said to border on the nihilistic.
Published when the author was 24 years old — and only now, after all these years, rendered into English by Sam Garrett — The Evenings kick-started a 50-year literary career. Reve’s works include novels as well as books that blur the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Relatively unknown outside Holland, at home Reve is regarded as a key figure of post–World War II literature. But he was anything but an establishment figure. He was an out gay man who wrote openly and humorously about homosexual sex and the relationship between eroticism and religion and took every opportunity to épater la bourgeoisie et la bohème alike — appearing, for example, at a Dutch literary festival, wearing both a swastika and hammer and sickle around his neck, to read a poem many considered overtly racist. Born into a leftwing, atheist family, Reve ended up a Catholic convert and fervent anticommunist. But this did not secure him the favor of the authorities and the conservative forces in his home country, who prosecuted him for obscenity and blasphemy after he depicted one of his narrators making love to God (incarnated as a donkey).
(to read the full review go to L.A. Review of Books)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Boxing and Film Noir

“Boxing is simple. Two unarmed volunteers, matched in weight and experience, face off in a white-lit square. It is ritualized crisis, genuine but contained. At its best, a bout is high improvisational drama and the boxers are warrior artists. When it falls short of perfection, which is almost always, the failures are interesting in themselves. Horrifying or hilarious, and all points between, no two fights are alike. What happens in and around that mislabelled ring is a potent distillation of everything human.”    
        Katherine Dunn, One Ring Circus                                       

“Mind and muscle coordinated so evenly that one seemed to work as quickly as the other.”    
Jim Tully, The Bruiser

“No other subject is, for the writer, so intensely personal as boxing. To write about boxing is to write- however elliptically and unintentionally- about oneself.”
Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing

Film noir has long been associated with specific architectural spaces. Nightclubs, barrooms, dime-a-dance palaces, shadowy staircases, as well as particular  views of the city. To that list one can add that most enclosed and claustrophobic of spaces, the boxing ring. In that space dramas, both brutal and artistic, are played out before paying spectators hungry for blood and a modicum of style. Traditionally, those punters, depending on the fighters’ notoriety, comprise a gallery of film noir sleazoids:  gangsters, detectives, tough guys and gals- whether femmes fatales or their candy-wrapped sisters- con-men, gamblers, wealthy sportsmen, as well as a smattering of working class stiffs. All to see two people engaged in the sweet science. Which is to say, to watch two men, at worst, beating each other to a pulp, or, at best, trying to out-think one another in a dance suggested by the more subtle aspects of the sport.

The more I think about the more I’ve come to realize that watching boxing on TV with my father must have served as my introduction to the world of noir.  Television being a poor substitute, as A.J. Liebling would write in his classic book The Sweet Science, for sitting at ringside, a vantage point from which one can more ably instruct the fighters, from a simple “kill ‘em” to the more esoteric “hit him in la panza!”, but one I, nevertheless, still cherish. Friday nights- at least in the days before I was occasionally made to go to shul- we’d watch from the comfort of our  Pasadena living-room, the Gillette Fight of the Week. As well as local broadcasts on Wednesday from L.A.’s Olympic Auditorium and on Saturdays from the Hollywood Legion Stadium. All this went on from the early-1950s to the early 1960s, from the last days of Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson to the first sightings of a young Cassius Clay. Settling down in front of our Zenith 24” with one of those new-fangled pinging remote controls, we would watch regardless of name or rank of the fighters. As we did so my dad regaled me with stories about the boxing matches and fighters he’d covered as a news photographer in Chicago and Detroit from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s. Stories about Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Dempsey, Barney Ross, Benny Leonard, Henry Armstrong, etc. both in and out of the ring. 

Over the years, I grew particularly fond of local L.A. fighters, most of whom never quite made it on the national stage, like Lauro Salas, Manuel Ortiz and Art Aragon. Likewise, the local broadcasts. I remember Hank Weaver, the ringside TV announcer at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, would sometimes have the young comedian Lenny Bruce as his guest. Of course, I also enjoyed watching more well-known boxers like Carmen Basilio, Kid Gavilan, Willie Pep, Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore. There was something about that sleazy boxing world populated by cigar smoke, men with Benzedrine smiles wearing sharp suits and snappy hats, that seemed both glamorous and interesting. With the exception of Aileen Eaton who promoted fights at the Olympic Auditorium, it was pretty much a male-dominated world with women pushed to the background, appendages to snappily dressed gangsters, Hollywood types, and business sharks. Or, scantily dressed, employed between rounds to parade around the ring holding the number of the upcoming round high in the air.  But at that age I was more interested not only in the fighters, but the  photographers, their Graflexes propped on the canvas’s edge, just as my father was once paid to do, not to mention the sportswriters surrounding the ring pounding out copy in situ for the morning editions, a job I would have gladly killed for.

No wonder I was so fascinated by all those boxing movies I would see at local movie houses, or on TV. Films like Champion with Kirk Douglas, Somebody Up There Likes Me with a young Paul Newman. Then, later, The Harder They Come with Bogart, Body and Soul with John Garfield and The Set Up with Robert Ryan. All dark stories- noir before I knew anything about noir- though, for the most part, always allowing a small bit of light to creep into their shadowy finales. I quickly realized that many of the films, at least the not-so-noir ones, seemed to have a similar narrative: immigrant kid from a tough neighborhood climbs to the top despite set-backs, to finally, with the help of a cute understanding young woman, defeat their demons and rise to the top. In other words, classic, if cliched, story lines however dark their undercurrent. But, for me, the stories interested less than the ringside and dressing atmosphere the films were able to convey. 

It was easy even then to see there there was something wrong with these films. Not so much their cliched story lines or fake-inspirational message, but the way they portrayed boxing. Watching the fights on TV and an avid reader of the sports pages and Ring Magazine, I couldn’t help but note that their portrayals were both phony and, for the most part, poorly done, at least in comparison to the boxing matches I’d been watching. And to this time I’ve yet to be dissuaded of that opinion. Documentaries aside, boxing has rarely, if ever, been accurately portrayed. There have been close encounters, moments in Raging Bull, Fat City, The Set Up or bits of Million Dollar Baby. I suppose Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) got it partly right, but that was because it was impossible not to, given Ali’s boxing style and ability to “float like a butterfly…”  But, to my knowledge, no one to this day has been able to depict boxing accurately, to the point where I could say, “yes, that is exactly how it is.” 

One would have thought boxing would be well suited for the screen. Or that directors would be lining up to do so.  All those possible camera angles and ways of lighting the action, the close-ups, not to mention the sheer drama and myriad possibilities regarding physical and psychological transformations and transitions. But, then, the Hollywood’s need for compactness clearly isn’t in accordance with the strategic elements of boxing. What would be the point of exploring the intricacies of boxing? Better to concentrate, in true American style, on the pugnaciousness of a last-ditch punch or the willingness to overcome adversity. Given all that, no wonder few if any directors seem interested in exploring sweet science.

Still, boxing and the cinema have a long backstory. D.W. Griffith made a boxing film, the silent Broken Blossoms in 1919. As did Alfred Hitchcock, having directed The Ring in 1927. While the first known film of a boxing match was made by Edison protege William Dickson, whose 37 second film of a fight between Jack Cushing and Mike Leonard, known as  the ‘Beau Brummell of pugilism,” appeared in 1894. These days you can find clips of almost any legendary bout you can think of on the internet. Watching just a handful reveals what their fictional counterparts lack: the ability to depict ring tactics, the sport’s fluidity of movement, as well as the physics of action and reaction. No wonder that most films are about fighting and punching power than boxing. Or that one invariably sees a bruiser up against a guy with heart, willing to take two punches in order to land one, who gets up off the canvas to beat his opponent and maybe put his well-meaning but compromised manager, in debt to the mob or corrupt promoters, in a difficult position. That seems to be what the public has long wanted, or at least that’s what producers have thought. Boxing may be brutal, bloody and maybe inexcusable, but it doesn't necessarily take place in a world in which good- whatever that means- ultimately prevails. Add to that the quantity of punches thrown in a boxing film, inevitably many more than in any one actual bout, no matter how brutal it might be. And what’s with distorting the sound of those punches? All of which only shows the extent to which most boxing movies not only over-romanticize but falsify their subject. In a sense, it’s not dissimilar from the way most movies featuring jazz falsify and over-romanticize the music. Of course, it’s no coincidence that both jazz and boxing are activities in which minorities- African Americans, Jews, Latinos, etc- play a large part. Or that jazz and boxing both entail a high degree of discipline, a fluidity of movement, a knowledge of the essentials, and an ability to improvise.

Photo by Albert Haut
Of course, some films, the most obvious example being Raging Bull, try to get it right. And Scorsese came close. Perhaps because LaMotta was something of a bruiser in the ring and a rags-to-riches-to rags eccentric outside, which meant he could fit LaMotta's  story could fit within the confines of the standard treatment. Or maybe I just think Scorsese came close because the director for some reason decided to freeze the frame at the exact moment of my dad’s famous shot of Jake knocking Sugar Ray out of the ring. At the same time, one can’t imagine even Scorsese making a similar film about Sugar Ray Leonard, or even Sugar Ray Robinson, much less Floyd Mayweather Jr.. Though their personalities might be sufficiently noirish, their boxing styles aren’t very conducive to usual screen depiction.

Still from Raging Bull, same fight,
Detroit, 1943
Ironical, when one thinks that boxing photography has such a long and illustrious history. Since film is nothing more than 35 photographs per second, one would think it wouldn’t be that difficult to get it right. But that would be to ignore the economics and politics of the film industry. At the same time, while boxing films are rarely convincing, that is hardly the case when it comes to novels, short-stories and literary
essays on the subject. Though maybe that’s an unfair comparison.. After all, writing is cheap to reproduce. And a blank page allows the writer the possibility and space to portray his or her subject in all its subtlety. Nevertheless,  the list of fiction writers who have written convincingly about boxing is a long one, which includes the likes of Leonard Gardner (Fat City), Budd Schulberg (The Harder They Come), James Carlos Blake (The Killing of Stanley Ketchel), Jim Tully (The Bruiser), W.C. Heinz (The Professional), Eddie Muller (The Shadow Boxer, The Distance),  F.X. O’Toole (Rope Burns, O’Toole the nom de plume of cutman Jerry Boyd), Jack London (The Game), and even James Ellroy. While their non-fiction counterparts include Liebling, Mailer (The Big Fight) and others), Joyce Carol Oates (On Boxing), Katherine Dunn (One Ring Circus), Gerald Early (The Culture of Bruising), Nick Tosches (Night Train), Jonathan Rendall (This Bloody Mary Is the Last Thing I Own), as well as work by George Kimball, Hugh McIlvanney and Thomas Hauser.
Leonard Gardner

Although these days I no longer follow the sport as I once did, I still try to keep tabs on a promising fighter or two- more often a slick boxer than a heavy puncher- following their progress until they succeed or fail, as they all do at some point do.  Likewise, I also get as excited as any hardened fan at the prospect of the next big bout. And I still enjoy watching boxing movies- of course, the more noir the better- despite their deficiencies. In fact, it could be that it’s their deficiencies that make them, particularly the older films, so entertaining. And, of course, I live in hope that some new boxing film might finally get it right, no matter how shocked I might be should that ever be the case. Though, despite the recent spate of such films, they never seem to do so. In the meantime, boxing movies, then or now, will remain essential to film noir, and the ring an essential space in the architecture of the genre. 

A baker’s dozen list of my favourite film noir boxing movies:
Huston's Fat City
1   Fat City, 1972, dir., John Huston- My favorite boxing movie as well as my favorite boxing novel. Huston makes a valiant attempt to be accurate when it comes to portraying the sleazier side of small-stakes, small-town boxing. Keach, Bridges and Candy Clark are excellent, and there’s even a role for former L.A. boxer Art ‘the Golden Boy” Aragron.
2   The Set Up, 1949, dir., Robert Wise.  Boxing is mostly about waiting. Waiting for your chance, waiting for the fight, waiting for the decision. Robert Ryan is as stoical as he is touching as  washed-up fighter. Shot in real time, so downbeat one journalist at the time noted: “Any more pictures like this and they’ll be establishing a ban on prize-fights.” Look out for the photographer Weegee as the time-keeper.
3   Raging Bull, 1980, dir., Martin Scorsese. An honest portrayal that comes close to making it as an accurate depiction of boxing in and out of the ring. At least so far as LaMotta boisterous and his off-kilter personality goes. Ring shots are done with painstaking care. But even here it falls victim to the usual boxing schtick.
4   Body and Soul, 1947, dir., Robert Rossen. Script by Abraham Polonsky. One of the first boxing films to portray the sport as a socialist morality drama. With John Garfield playing the victim of big money. Nicely shot by James Wong Howe who filmed the fight scenes on roller skates with a hand-held camera to achieve fluidity and in-the-ring realism.
5   Killer’s Kiss, 1955, dir., Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s second film, influenced by his Look Magazine street photographs and film noir. Set in New York, it concerns a welterweight and a taxi dancer. Uneven and flawed, it remains my favorite Kubrick movie. Nicely shot, in noir and white. A calling card that helped when it came to making his next movie, The Killing.
6   The Harder They Fall, 1956, dir., Mark Robson. Based on Shulberg’s excellent novel. Bogart’s final film. Real ex-boxer Max Baer, Jersey Joe Walcott and Joe Greb in a film-within-the film make appearances in this film, loosely based on the career of heavyweight champion Primo Carnera who unsuccessfully sued over the film. Screenplay by Philip Yordan.
7   The Fighter, 2010, dir., David O. Russell. Wasn’t expecting much but was totally engrossed in the film, which led me back to the actual fights. Wahlberg and Bale as Micky Ward and his brother-trainer in the 1980s. But, for me, it’s Melissa Leo and Amy Adams who deliver the knockout blows while displaying the fancier footwork.
8   Million Dollar Baby, 2004, dir., Clint Eastwood. Based on a number of O’Toole short stories.
Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman are convincing enough, though the film falls short of the mark when it comes to ring-realism. Strip away the gender politics and its a fairly routine, possibly over-blown, boxing film. 
9   Hard Times, 1975, dir., Walter Hill. Who also writes the screenplay. Previously known as a screenwriter, he deploys Bronsan and Coburn to great effect as a bare-knuckle fight and his partner and hustler as they travel through Louisiana during the Depression. Hill originally wanted Warren Oates for Coburn’s part.
10  Monkey On My Back, 1957, dir., Andre De Toth. A heavily fictionalized bio film of welterweight champion and war hero Barney Ross, played by Cameron Mitchell. Hokey at times, frightening at other times. In the tradition of 1950s mental illness films, like Fear Strikes Out. Ran into trouble with the censors over its portrayal of drug use.
11  Gentlemen Jim, 1942, dir., Raoul Walsh. Bio-pic of Gentleman Jim Corbett. Errol Flynn as  San Francisco bare-knuckler at the end of the 19th century, who rises to the top, going toe to toe with John L. Sullivan. With a screenplay by noirist Horace McCoy. Former welterweight champ Mushy Callahan trained Flynn for the role, and doubled for Flynn for footwork shots. Apparently Mike Tyson’s favorite boxing film.
12  Somebody Up There Likes Me, 1956, dir., Robert Wise. Biopic of middleweight champ Rocky Graziano. Newman’s first major role. Wise, his noir career behind him- though Odds Against Tomorrow is still to come- dispenses the usual Hollywood boxing story-line: fighter, with the help of a woman, overcomes immigrant poverty and life of crime. Written by Sweet Smell of Success writer Lehman, with some nice street-side shots of the New York thrown in for good measure. 
13  Requiem For a Heavyweight, 1962, dir., Ralph Nelson, from a Rod Serling teleplay. Anthony Quinn as a punch-drunk has-been pugilist at the end of his career, hoping to transition into another way of life. Darker than its TV counterpart. With a young Muhammad Ali as an early Quinn opponent, punching, from Quinn’s point of view, directly into the camera.