Sunday, September 07, 2014

Will somebody please cut Maureen Dowd’s cable service . . . or, why Tom Wolfe got it right 41 years ago.


In today’s truly terrible Times column (on the front page of the Sunday Review, no less), Maureen Dowd informs us that she went to a screening of the first episode of the new season of Showtime’s “Homeland,” a series Dowd clearly fancies. This consumes several grafs, followed by more grafs quoting Terry McCarthy, president of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council (a new one on me), then Richard Haass, prez of the Council on Foreign Affairs (heard of that), then Margaret MacMillan, an Oxford historian. The more people a columnist quotes, the less actual writing said columnist has to do, particularly when the quoted kind of seem to support in various ways what is Dowd’s trite and oft-repeated rap against Obama: that the man is just too cerebral, that he suffers from an “air of disconnection,” that we need to do something—or at least get blustery (a la Joe Biden!) to show the world that you don’t mess with the USA. Take that ISIS. You too, Putin. As always, Dowd never offers concrete solutions to these issues.
Has she forgotten Teddy Roosevelt’s observation about how to speak and what to carry?
Then there’s this howler: “In some situations, panic is a sign of clear thinking.” Did Dowd write this in her own panic room?
For Dowd to trigger a column on a viewing of “Homeland” is ludicrous, but Dowd thrives on pop culture wisdom.
Which brings us to Tom Wolfe and his introduction to 1973’s classic “The New Journalism.” Writing about what happens to most columnists after their initial efforts, Wolfe nailed it: “You can see the poor bastards floundering and gasping. They’re dying of thirst. They’re out of material. They start writing about . . . [ellipsis mine] something they saw on the TV. Thank God for the TV! Without television shows to cannibalize, half of these people [columnists] would be lost, absolutely catatonic. Pretty soon you can almost see it, the tubercular blue on the 23-in screen, radiating from their prose.”
And Wolfe was writing about columnists who wash out after a mere eight or ten weeks. Dowd has been chugging along as a columnist for nearly 20 years.
Enough already!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Drinking With Irwin Shaw


Fade In:
A balmy evening in Manhattan, mid-May, 1979: my girlfriend, Chris Keller, and I kill time before a jazz show by strolling along E. 57th Street. An older man approaches slowly. In one hand he holds a small, netted fisherman’s bag, empty. As we get closer, I realize who he is.
“That’s Irwin Shaw,” I say, watching the famous writer disappear into the Dover Delicatessen, a fancy grocery where Greta Garbo could be seen from time to time.
There was no mistaking Shaw’s face with its large nose, florid complexion, shrewd, observant eyes and somewhat wild salt-and-pepper hair (mostly salt). A face of a man who’d done some living. Anyone who ever bought an Irwin Shaw novel in hardback—say “The Young Lions” or “Rich Man, Poor Man” or “Nightwork”—would spot him from the author’s photo. “Let’s go in.”
For a few minutes, we stalk Shaw from narrow aisle to narrow aisle. Chris and I look at each—what are we doing?—and walk out of the store, only to stop a few yards up the sidewalk. I know if I don’t speak to him, I’ll regret my timidity for the rest of my life.
So we wait.
Soon he emerges, his bag weighted by a few purchases.
“Excuse me, are you Irwin Shaw?”
“I am--and you are . . .?”
We introduce ourselves. During a minute or so of small talk, Shaw learns we are reporters: Chris from UPI, I from the Daily News.
He smiles when he hears this. Fellow writers, kind of.
“Fine,” he says. “Let’s go have a drink.”
And so begins our long night of drinking (and drinking and drinking) with one of America’s most famous—and charming—writers of his time. We never made the jazz show.
We end up a half-block west at the Irish Pavilion. Shaw orders Scotch. We follow. Shaw is a veteran Scotch drinker. We are not. It doesn’t matter. Within minutes, you’d think that Chris and I had known Irwin (as he insisted on being called) all our lives. He was sixty-six that year, in Manhattan to consult doctors for an ailing hip, hence his slow gait. An avid athlete, he’d played football for Brooklyn College before embracing skiing, a sport he could indulge regularly since he lived half the year in Klosters, a village in the Swiss Alps. Summers were spent at his recently purchased home in Southampton (the picture above shows Irwin a month or two later at the house).
Shaw spoke proudly of his son, Adam, a former Washington Post reporter who’d recently published a well-received book about an airplane disaster. He spoke of his own travels, places he’d lived, a bit about his war experiences. Hemingway was mentioned. Shaw had introduced Mary Welch to Hemingway, and she became his fourth and final wife (Irwin didn’t talk of this, but Hemingway knew that Welch and Irwin had had a fling during the war, and Papa didn’t like it, but Papa didn’t like a lot of things). I told him that as a kid, I’d skimmed “The Young Lions” for dirty parts, never found. I praised his classic short stories, among then “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” “Sailor off the Bremen” and “The Eighty-Yard Run.”
Mostly though, he asked questions, listening with genuine interest. Chris by far was the more fascinating of his two new friends. She already had lived in Berkeley, Kenya, Paris, Carmel, Avignon, and the French Alps, while the most I’d managed was to escape from Queens (we were living in a great corner apartment in Park Slope before Park Slope morphed into what it is today). It didn’t hurt that Chris was a tall, smart, good-looking young woman. Irwin definitely liked women.
The hours passed quickly. The drinks kept coming. Finally, Irwin paid the bill, insisted on buying Chris a charming Irish wool cap, and invited us to his room at the nearby Ritz Tower for a nightcap.
As we sat in his room, the phone rang. The man on the other end was screaming. It turned out that Irwin was quite late for a dinner with his legendary agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, the screamer.
“What do you mean ‘where have I been?’” Shaw replied to Lazar. “I’ve been with Chris Keller and Vince Cosgrove.” We cracked up. Lazar had no clue who we were.
We finished the nightcap and accompanied Shaw downstairs, where he commandeered a limo to take him to Elaine’s and the steaming Swifty. Before getting in the car, he offered some advice. “I think you two should get married—and you can have the ceremony and reception at my place on the Island.” He absolutely meant what he was saying. I shook his hand, Chris kissed his cheek and off he went uptown to drink more Scotch and exert more warmth to more friends. Somehow, we drove back to Brooklyn without incident.
Four months later we did get married, not on Long Island but in Chris’s native California.
I recently finished rereading Shaw’s 1975 best-seller, “Nightwork,” a great summer entertainment, a book as charming and knowing as its author, filled with colorful characters who cavort in glamorous places (St. Moritz, Florence, Davos, Paris, Rome, Nice). Shaw describes his hero’s travels with such precision and feeling that you can almost smell the Mediterranean or savor a brandy après ski.
The book starts as a bit of a thriller, but that’s not Shaw’s ultimate intent. What we get is a young American, Jamesian in his innocence, who learns about the world from more experienced types, notably Miles Fabian, a witty, affable scam-artist. Remember as you read “Nightwork’ that it was published thirty-eight years ago, and that $100,000 doesn’t get you as far as it did back then; that there are strong female characters, and some who are more pliant. Oh, the hell with this … just read the book and make up your own mind. Go online, a copy will cost you less than the postage.
If you’ve never read Shaw, another good place to start is “Short Stories: Five Decades,” published in 1978. There are sixty-three stories collected, some unforgettable, some perhaps too slick, too glib, too commercial, criticisms that haunted Shaw after the 1948 success of “The Young Lions.” William Goldman, an admirer, has observed that Shaw had “the ability to write with an ease and a clarity that only Fitzgerald had. There is never a wrong word, a phrase that makes you stop, reread, make sure you’ve gotten the sense right . . . Do not look for symbolism in Irwin Shaw . . . He is not interested in that. He wants only to get us safely through the terrors of the night.”
This year marks Shaw’s centenary (he died in 1984), yet I’ve seen no events, no essays to mark the milestone. Michael Shnayerson wrote an excellent biography in 1989, and that same year Esquire ran a superb piece by James Salter, a close friend of Shaw’s. The University of Chicago Press has kept both “The Young Lions” and “Short Stories: Five Decades” in print, and quite a few of Shaw’s other novels (including “Nightwork”) are available via Kindle.
So here’s a suggestion: the best way to honor Shaw’s centenary is to read him, and appreciate the work of a gifted, popular professional.
Here's to you, Irwin.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

More Profumo, Less Weiner—or “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd.”*


The April 14th issue of The New York Times Magazine featured a cover story on former representative Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and his wife Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton. Weiner is inevitably described as “the disgraced ex-congressman” who tweeted a photo of his erection (covered by his briefs). Weiner thought he was sending the image to a 21-year-old Seattle college student (female). Instead, he accidentally sent the photo to his 45,000 Twitter followers. As Dr. Spielvogel, Alexander Portnoy’s shrink, says at the end of Philip Roth’s great novel, “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”
All this silliness occurred in 2011, and after some days of prevarications, Weiner resigned.
Now he wants to be mayor of New York City, and he’s polling second (with other contenders) to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, according to a Times story last week.
Nowhere in the magazine piece does Weiner state why he wants to be mayor, or what his priorities might be should he be elected (an unlikely event, I believe). Weiner talks endlessly in the article, to the point where writer Jonathan Van Meter says that “never has an interview felt so much like a therapy session.”
Apparently, Weiner is looking for redemption, that three-hanky staple favored by asinine daytime talk-show hosts who resort to the confessional when they’ve run out of people who hope to shed 200 pounds or need to find out who exactly the daddy is of that kid born a while back.
Weiner is not the only tarnished former public servant seeking office. There’s Mark Sanford, the two-term South Carolina governor who claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was actually doing the tango with his Argentinean girlfriend. Sanford, married at the time, declined to resign his governorship. Now he’d like to go to Congress, although even the GOP has ostracized him after his ex-wife sicced a restraining order on him for his habit of showing up uninvited at her house. His Democratic opponent is Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Stephen Colbert’s sister, so this particular election should provide some laughs.
Weiner and Sanford and their quests for redemption raise a question: is inflicting yourselves on the public yet again really the right thing to do?
Which brings us to John Profumo. If you’re of a certain age or have seen the 1989 movie “Scandal,” you may be familiar with Profumo and England’s great Cold War sex-scandal of the early 60s. If not, here’s a primer: Profumo (1915-2006) was an Oxford-educated son of a baron, fought in World War ll with distinction, rose through the political ranks and married actress Valerie Hobson (she played the adult Estella in David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of “Great Expectations”). In 1960, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan appointed Profumo a Secretary of State for War. In the summer of 1961, Profumo met Christine Keeler, a young model and dancer. Their affair lasted only weeks, but Keeler also was sleeping with Yevgeni Ivanov, a senior naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London. If you’ve read your le Carré, “senior naval attaché" means spy, although no state secrets were revealed in the Profumo Affair, as the press soon dubbed the sexy shenanigans.
Profumo—like Weiner, Sanford and so many other politicians through the decades—lied initially (in the House of Commons, no less), claiming he knew Keeler but denying any impropriety in the relationship. Eventually, Profumo was forced to admit his lie, and he resigned. The scandal may have contributed to the 1964 collapse of the Macmillan government.
But here’s where the story really gets interesting: Profumo never attempted a political comeback (probably impossible in that era, anyway). He didn’t write a book, didn’t go on radio or TV. He never spoke of the affair in public for the rest of his long life.
But he didn’t flee to his estate, either. Instead, he volunteered to clean toilets at Toynbee Hall, an East End charity. He worked there for the rest of his life. Eventually, he became Toynbee Hill’s chief fundraiser, and proved very good at his job. His wife also worked for charities until her death in 1998.
In 1975, he was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth honored him at a Buckingham Palace ceremony. One contemporary said he “felt more admiration [for Profumo] than all the men I’ve known in my lifetime.”
I’m not suggesting that Weiner, Sanford and their ilk clean toilets—although it couldn’t hurt. But I think these men (and it’s always men) should have the common sense and the good taste to waltz out of the limelight. They lied to the people they claim they wish to serve. Maybe they could follow John Profumo’s sterling example, accomplish something that helps people, not something that feeds the ego and masquerades as the means to redemption.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said “there are no second acts in American lives.”
If only.
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*This is a Yiddish aphorism Portnoy mentions to Dr. Spielvogel: “When the penis stands, the brains get buried in the ground.”


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

“Selected Letters of William Styron”—Plus Blake Bailey News



In the January 24 issue of the London Review of Books, James Wolcott has a long, perceptive review not just of William Styron’s letters but the whole post-World War ll sweepstakes to write the Great American Novel, a Cracker Jacks prize lusted after by the likes of Styron, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Irwin Shaw and, a bit later, John Updike, Philip Roth and a score of lesser-known writers left panting by the side of the literary road not quite taken.
Like Wolcott, I’ve never been a Styron fan, having started—and failed to finish—“Lie Down in Darkness,” "Set This House on Fire,” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” I did read “Sophie’s Choice,” particularly enjoying the narrator’s remembrances of coming to New York after the war, living in Brooklyn and working at a big publishing company, where he rejects what would become the best-selling “Kon-Tiki.” Having read “Kon-Tiki,” I believe Stingo, Styron’s alter ego, made the right call.
Wolcott’s problems with Styron are similar to mine. Here’s Wolcott: “I was never a fan of Styron’s fiction or his well-oiled, august persona. Each attempt at fording his fiction left me stranded somewhere in the marshy thickets, pushing the canoe, up to my armpits in sonorities.”
Mailer may have been nuts much of the time, but his prose—even at its worst, and in the embrace of lunacy—had a snap, crackle and pop I never encountered in Styron.
But Styron’s letters are another story. Styron had a Zelig-like ability to meet everyone, and the book’s index lights up with famous names: the Kennedys, Mailer (with whom he had a feud, but everyone had a feud with Mailer), Roth, Jones, Shaw, Updike, Lillian Hellman, Gore Vidal (Styron despised Vidal), Mike Nichols, George Plimpton (I guess everybody in the GAN Olympics knew Plimpton), Gay Talese, Frank Sinatra—the names go on and on, and Styron has funny, insightful comments on people, their character (or lack thereof), and their work.
Styron suffered from depression, and he chronicled his battle with the disease in his book in 1990’s “Darkness Visible,” but very few letters deal with this dark struggle. Styron initially beat his depression, but then fell into a final, debilitating spiral. He died in 2006, age 81.
Blake Bailey reviewed Styron’s letters in the January 13 issue of The Times Book Review. Bailey’s tone is respectful, and I bought the book based on his review. But the big news for me is the disclosure that Bailey’s next literary biography, “Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson,” will appear in March.
Charles Jackson? Who?
Well, the clue is in the title: Wilder is a pun referring to Jackson’s life and the fact that Billy Wilder turned Jackson’s best-known novel, “The Lost Weekend,” into a classic, harrowing movie in 1945 (that’s the cover from the 1948 Signet paperback—if the artist made Ray Milland any greener he could pass for a Martian from some pulpy post-war science fiction).
Bailey is a superb biographer, and if you care about 20th century American fiction, you should read his two previous books: “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates” and “Cheever: A Life.” What Yates, Cheever and Jackson share, besides their profession, is their alcoholism. Yates was mentally frail, and both Cheever and Jackson led closeted sex lives. All wounded human beings who at various times lived in that post-war, martini-soaked Manhattan cauldron of literary ambition. I can’t wait for Bailey’s new book.
Bailey mentions in his review that Styron was an admirer of Yates’s work, and helped get Yates a gig writing the screenplay of Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness” for director John Frankenheimer. The movie has yet to be produced, but Yates’s script has been published; Yates wrote a fine short story, “Saying Goodbye to Sally,” based on his Hollywood experience; his take on Frankenheimer is none-too flattering. Ironically, Frankenheimer battled his own alcoholic demons (successfully) during an accomplished career that included “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May,” and one of the best sequels ever made, “French Connection ll.”
So read Bailey’s books, and then reacquaint yourself with the work of his gifted subjects. After posting this, I’m going to start reading “The Lost Weekend” for the second time. Unlike the movie’s ending, the novel closes on a darker note, making Don Birnam’s five-day bender all the sadder.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

My New Year's Resolutions

• Stop walking into people’s houses and gauging how safe they would be in the event of a zombie attack.
• Stop listening to the 60s channel on Sirius-XM Radio until the programmers agree to never ever play any more records by Gary Puckett or Tommy James.
• Stop cursing loudly every time the person in the car in front of you fails to signal.
• In a similar vein, give up hoping that bikers will brake at that stop sign or red light, because most won’t, and if you scream at them they will either a) give you the finger or b) flash a smug look because they’re more virtuous than you in your car, or c) totally ignore you because you’re old and look like you are only two years away from Del Boca Vista.
• Stop telling your wife you’d rather watch that silent Lon Chaney movie on TCM than attend another Bay Area dinner party where you have to direct a million questions to the genius next to you—but said genius never has to show any interest in you, including asking your name.
• Never promise to read any book someone’s book club thought was “awesome” (and here I must plug Joe Queenan’s excellent “One for the Books,” a must for serious readers).
• Stop looking at The New York Times Sunday Book Review bestseller pages, and just accept the fact that many people enjoy reading about shape-shifting vampires who’ve gone to heaven during tonsillectomies and have chatted with God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost—and said Trinity looks and talks exactly like the figures touted by Christian snake-oil salesmen for hundreds of years.
• Stop buying books. You have more than 2,500—and at least 30 percent of those remain unread; given an average reading-rate of 40 a year . . . well, do the math . . . better yet, don’t . . . too depressing given the actuarial odds.
• Keep rooting that Philip Roth will win the Nobel Prize. He’s way overdue.
• Give up on all cable news channels because you’ve never heard of most of their pundits and experts--and ask yourself why they’re on TV and not the tall, scraggly man who’s walked around Berkeley for years, chatting with himself; these so-called experts rarely have anything new or insightful to say, having read the same newspapers and web sites as you.
• Accept the fact that frozen White Castles don’t even come close to the real item, which unfortunately is not available west of the Mississippi.
• Never again stop for a fish dinner in a joint with the word “GROTTO” in its name.
• If in the coming year the word “brilliant’ pops up in an article or on TV describing a politician or actor or moviemaker or financier or novelist or really anybody, remember this: Albert Einstein was brilliant. Lloyd Blankfein not so much, no matter what his childhood rabbi might think.
• Appreciate family, friends and all dogs—just don’t get sappy about it.
• Never forget what you learned as a newly minted reporter: question everything, assume nothing. That includes what people write for their New Year’s resolutions.
• Bonne année.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Repeal the Second Amendment

Two-hundred-and–twenty-one years ago today, on December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution—was ratified by three-fourths of the states.
It’s now time to start a movement to repeal the second of those amendments. There’s no reason to list the recent mass shootings—or the daily, singular killings that so often go unreported. Most of us, I hope, remember at least the more horrific. There’s no reason to detail the culpability of the NRA and other lobbyists, or Congress or, yes, the President—these people should be ashamed of themselves and should need no reminders.
The Second Amendment can be replaced by a Twenty-eighth Amendment that would more stringently regulate the sale and possession of guns. Semi-automatic weapons should be banned, limited to people in law enforcement and the military. Someone who wants to buy a gun should be investigated—thoroughly. Gun stores and Internet providers should be scrutinized each year, again thoroughly. Illegal possession of such weapons should be punished with serious sentences.
Do I think this will put an end to these obscene attacks? Unlikely. But a new amendment might just make it harder for these weapons to fall into the wrong hands, might decrease the number of these tragedies. Do nothing and nothing will change.
We have an obvious precedent for repealing a Constitutional amendment. Just think of Prohibition, begun with the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, repealed in 1933 by the Twenty-first. It took thirteen years. Repealing the Second would take decades.
But how many more people, how many more children, will die by guns before this country comes to its senses?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Dave Brubeck, 1920-2012



Two years ago shy a day, I wrote a short appreciation of Dave Brubeck, the great jazz pianist and composer--and, by all accounts, a wonderful man. I've shed more than a few tears this morning, but there's comfort knowing there are all those wonderful albums; right now I'm listening to "Blue Rondo A La Turk," the Quartet's great version recorded at Carnegie Hall on February 22, 1963--in the middle of a long newspaper strike. At concert's end, Brubeck graciously thanks the sold-out audience and confesses he worried no one would show up. A fan yells "NEVER!"
For the next five decades, the audience was always there. Here's what I wrote in 2010:
Today is Dave Brubeck’s 90th birthday, and if that means nothing to you, may I suggest you settle in front of the TV and hope there’s a repeat of Bristol Palin attempting to trip the light fantastic on “Dancing With the (Third-Rate) Stars.”
When I graduated from grammar school in 1965, my parents gave me my own record-player, a Westinghouse portable about the size of a large briefcase. Immediately, I filled out a coupon in a magazine and joined the Columbia Record Club, meaning you got four albums for the price of shipping and handling (what the hell was a handling charge, anyway, other than a rip-off—even Amazon has the good sense not to charge for handling). One of the four albums was “The Dave Brubeck Quartet At Carnegie Hall,” a legendary jazz recording of the group’s incredible—and unedited-- 1963 concert to a sold-out audience who appeared as if by magic in the middle of one of the longest newspaper strikes in New York history (farewell New York Mirror, hello New York Review of Books).
I listened to that two-disc album so much during high school that by my senior year the records were so scratched you could only listen to them by sitting nearby and moving the needle whenever it got stuck in a battered groove. At some point, I bought a replacement, but ten minutes ago I put the original on the turntable (yep, still have one), hoping for a miracle. Alas, it sounded like an early experiment by Thomas Edison. Now, of course, I can listen to the concert via my iPod—no scratches, but no memories, either.
I was a huge fan of the quartet: Brubeck on piano, the witty Paul Desmond on alto sax (he once said he wanted to sound like a dry martini--and he did) Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums.
When some friends and I were old enough to travel by ourselves on the subway, I saw the quartet perform at Carnegie Hall, Lewisohn Stadium on the CCNY campus (where Duke Ellington appeared on the same bill), and the Singer Bowl in Queens (the same concert where I heard Louis Armstrong). The music has meant so much to me over these many years that I was really pleased when TCM aired a lovely new documentary this evening about Dave, his family, and the quartet. He may be 90, but he’s still touring.
Happy Birthday, Dave—may you play many, many more sweet notes in whatever time signature you choose.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Spiral"


Thanks to serendipity and Netflix downloads, we chanced upon this terrific French crime drama that centers on a squad of cops and the lawyers—prosecutors and defenders-- the cops encounter. This is not a Gallic version of “Law & Order.” Unlike “Law & Order,” episodes are not self-contained, but comprise a season-long story arc.
Corruption, central to all great crime novels, movies and series, appears here in its traditional guises (money, power, sex). But what makes “Spiral” particularly absorbing is that the characters find their humanity corrupted to different degrees the longer they are exposed to the seedy world in which they toil. The acting is first-rate. And everyone speaks French (there are subtitles). What more could you want?
Oh, yes, it’s all set in Paris, but not the Paris of Rick Steves. I doubt even most Parisians are familiar with all the locations. My wife, who lived there off-and-on post-college, couldn’t identify more than one or two spots. The series also shares a documentary feel similar to the gritty American crime movies of the seventies (both “French Connections”—the second set in Marseille, “Serpico,” “Taxi Driver,” “Across 110th Street”). Oddly, it also shares much with William Friedkin’s underappreciated 1985 “To Live and Die in L.A.,” a film reeking of corruption, and one where nearly all locations are unfamiliar even to the natives.
At “Spiral’s” heart is Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), a police captain who heads a squad of all-male investigators. Unlike “Prime Suspect,” the captain’s sex is not a major issue (times gratefully change, at least a bit). The squad is Berthaud’s family, and like Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennyson, Berthaud has a limited social life. Berthaud is driven, competitive, too headstrong at times, capable of misjudgments, but right in the moments that count.
Her opposite is Josephine Karlsson (Audrey Fleurot), an amoral, chance-taking, often brilliant and always strikingly attractive criminal defense attorney.
Philippe Duclos plays a veteran prosecutor (they’re called “juges” in France), and Gregory Fitoussi a newly minted
prosecutor whose naiveté quickly turns to outage over the compromises the criminal justice system demands.
One warning: the violence is realistically rendered, particularly the gruesome results of killing. I’ve looked away more than once.
The show’s title in France, where it’s a major hit, is “Engrenages,” which means gears or cogs (confession: despite five years of high school and college French, I had to look it up). Whether called “Spiral” or “Engrenages” the series is addictive.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Brilliant Lunacy of “Green Wing”


First, some caveat emptoring: “Green Wing,” a spectacularly inventive British comedy that ran for 18 episodes between ‘04 and ’06, is not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey. It’s so rude, crude, and sexually incorrect that some viewers will turn it off within 20 minutes, maybe less.
All I ask is that you watch two full episodes to get used to the quick cutting, ridiculous characters and often mystifying journey into absurdity. If you don’t dig the show by then, chalk it up to my bum critical skills.
Set in a hospital and focusing on doctors and staff, “Green Wing” thankfully eschews one of the staples of medical series: patients play no part in the proceedings. They’re rarely viewed, have no lines. There are no life lessons, no at-the-end-we’re-all-in-this-together shtick. It’s not “M*A*S*H” or “Scrubs” (thank the gods it’s not “Scrubs”).
“Green Wing” is a deft combo of sketch comedy and sit-com with elements of “Monty Python,” “Benny Hill,” Fry and Laurie, the usual gang of idiots from Mad’s glory days, Lewis Carroll and “Fawlty Towers” (one character, Dr. Alan Statham (Mark Heap) could be Basil Fawlty’s bastard son).
The sole traditional narrative thread revolves around Dr. Caroline Todd (Tamsin Greig) and her evolving relationship with star surgeon Dr. Macartney (Julian Rhind-Tutt), the physician many of the more insane and funny characters desire, including Sue White (Michelle Gomez), a staff liaison administrator who may or may not have magical powers (several times she’s seen leading a camel through the hospital hallways—no explanation given).
The cast is game for anything. Gomez and Heap are particularly gifted physical actors, as is Pippa Haywood as Joanna Clore, the world’s horniest and nastiest human resources chief.
Start with episode one and work your way forward. The not-entirely successful 90-minute finale wraps up the series in its own strange way, consistent with what has preceded.
Give “Green Wing” a shot. If you hate it, you’re forgiven. If you love it, I’ll feel really good to know there are simpatico, perverse souls out there who embrace more anarchic forms of TV viewing.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Gore Vidal, 1925-2012


This ran in 2006, but I thought it appropriate today to run it one more time:
The first book I read by Gore Vidal was “Washington, D.C.” I still have the 95-cent Signet paperback published in April 1968 (I pretty much have every book I ever bought—the Berkeley house is groaning under their weight). I was a junior in high school, a reader who always leaned toward books unsanctioned by English class. Okay, “A Tale of Two Cities” is a great novel (great Cliffs Notes, too, as I recall), but how could it compare with “You Only Live Twice” or “Farewell, My Lovely” or “Red Harvest” or “The Martian Chronicles”?
“Washington, D.C.” had been a bestseller in hardcover, and I was anxious to read it. So there I was in April 1968, enthralled by Vidal when I should have been studying Latin or trig (I still get chills thinking about trig). I loved Vidal’s novel, in part because one of the major characters was close to my age in the opening chapters.
I became a major Vidal fan, and next read “Julian,” another terrific novel, this one about a Roman emperor who had the excellent idea of returning Rome to a polytheistic society. In other words, Julian wanted to get rid of Christianity, or at least give people some options. Think how interesting the world would be if there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of gods to choose from, kind of like all those choices on cable TV today.
Over the years, I read lots and lots of Vidal: novels, plays, essays, and criticism. His versatility is impressive (among Vidal’s American contemporaries, few can approach this output. Mailer and Updike come to mind, and it’s probably no surprise that Vidal has had disagreements with each). The popular wisdom is that his criticism surpasses his novels, which is an insult to some very good novels. “Myra Breckinridge” is one of the great novels of the 20th Century. Naturally, I still have my paperback of that, published in September 1968, meaning I read it as I started my senior year at Bishop Reilly High School in Queens. “Myra,” which is about a transgender person (a term not in use in 1968) who takes on Hollywood and other American lunacy, was not required reading at BRHS. Is it any wonder that to this day I refuse to divulge my awful math SAT scores? While I should have been cramming for the college boards, I was reading “Myra Breckinridge.” I like to think I’m a better person for so doing. Vidal’s book is funny, cruel and packed with lots of truths about the USA. If you’ve never read it, do so.
Which brings us to “Point to Point Navigation.” By my count, this is Vidal’s 46th book (he published his first novel, “Williwaw” when he was about 20), excluding several pseudonymous efforts. He’s now 81. This latest book is a sequel to his 1995 memoir “Palimpsest” and picks up where that book ended, around 1964. Sadly, this one has little of the verve of the earlier memoir. Repetitive in spots, Vidal seems somewhat disinterested in his own life, or later life. He still has interesting stories to tell, for Vidal met every famous person of the last century (a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle refers to him as Zelig-like). By far the best parts of the book are his moving descriptions of the death of his best friend and companion, Howard Austen.
But if you’ve never read Vidal, pick up “Burr” or “Julian” or “Washington, D.C.” or “Messiah” or “United States” or “Myra.” And there's plenty more.
The man’s a hell of a writer.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Disposing of a Dead Elephant


In 1949, Joan Crawford reunited with "Mildred Pierce" director Michael Curtiz and actor Zachary Scott to make the melodrama "Flamingo Road," in which she plays a onetime carnival hootchy-coothcy dancer who runs afoul of a corrupt sherrff, played by the great and portly Sydney Greenstreet, all set in a steaming, small Florida town. It's a classic Crawford setup (the tagline for the film: "A wrong girl for the right side of the tracks."). Although 20 years too old for the part, Crawford the trouper pulls it off, and she looks great. Pauline Kael called the film "garishly overwrought," but what's wrong with that now and then? Kael does admit that Greenstreet "gives the picture a campy charm," which indeed he does.
The film, written by Robert Wilder (based on his play) and Edmund North, boasts some first-rate dialogue. Here's my favorite exchange:
Sheriff Titus Semple (Greenstreet): "Now me, I never forget anything."
Lane Bellamy (Crawford): "You know sheriff, we had an elephant in our carnival with a memory like that. He went after a keeper that he'd held a grudge against for almost 15 years. Had to be shot. You just wouldn't believe how much trouble it is to dispose of a dead elephant."
If you hear a better conversation in any of this summer's upcoming "blockbusters," please let me know.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Bradbury Summers









The great Ray Bradbury died yesterday at age 91, and there’s little I can add to the lovely obits in the papers and homages everywhere on the web, praising his imagination, his wonderful short stories and novels, and his decency as a man.
But I do have memories, wonderful memories.
Looking at the Bradbury paperbacks I’ve kept all these years, it appears I started reading him in 1964, when I was 12 going on 13. In my mind, it’s summertime and many of my pals have deserted the neighborhood, some to camp, others on vacation with their parents. The days are long, hot and humid, and with no one around to play baseball I read and read and read, usually sitting under a backyard tree, nursing a Coke and a bag of Pretzel Nuggets, racing through paperbacks, mostly bought at Jack’s Candy Store in the shadows of the Auburndale Long Island Rail Road station.
I first read “The Martian Chronicles,” a terrific introduction to Bradbury’s work. I obviously liked the book, because the adolescent critic in me wrote “Great” on the back cover. I bought whatever other Bradburys Jack carried, then prevailed upon my mom to get me more at a bookstore in one the arcades at Grand Central Terminal. I think it was called The Open Book, and it sold only paperbacks. So more Bradburys arrived, not just the ones pictured here but others I loaned to friends, never to see the books again: “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” “Dark Carnival,” “Dandelion Wine."
Children play an important role in Bradbury’s work, and that recognition certainly proved an alluring introduction. Really, though, it was Bradbury’s imagination coupled with his realistic take on humanity that got to me. Some critics—notably Thomas Disch—criticized Bradbury for a sentimental streak. Sentiment, certainly, but a Bradbury story or novel is no guarantee of happiness and joy brought on by easy sentimentality. Why else would the word “dystopian” appear in so many of today’s descriptions of his work?
None of the obits I’ve read has made mention of a 1965 off-Broadway production called “The World of Ray Bradbury,” starring the gifted George Voskovic. Three one-act plays based on “The Pedestrian,” “The Veldt,” and “To the Chicago Abyss” comprised the work, performed at the Orpheum Theater on Second Avenue in the East Village. Luckily, I got to attend a Saturday matinee. “The World of Ray Bradbury” used sound effects and lighting to simulate the future Bradbury created. I’ve never forgotten the staging of “The Veldt,” based on one of his finest short stories.
Looking at these paperbacks makes me want to find a tree, a Coke and a bag of Pretzel Nuggets, then dive into “The Martian Chronicles.” Maybe I’ll be transported to those hot, humid summer days, a 12-year-old once more.
Now that would be worthy of a Ray Bradbury story.

The Art of Bondage: The great book covers of Richard Chopping*

















With Daniel Craig returning this fall as James Bond in “Skyfall” just a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of 007’s UK movie debut in “Dr. No,” and William Boyd agreeing to write a new Bond novel for publication 60 years after Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale” appeared in 1953, let’s celebrate some of the finest book covers ever created--covers Fleming commissioned Richard Chopping to paint for Bond’s adventures.
Ian’s wife Ann came across Chopping’s work in 1956 while attending an exhibition of several painters, including her friend Francis Bacon, who urged her to take a look at Chopping’s flower paintings and trompe-l’oeil works. Impressed, she suggested to her husband that Chopping (1917-2008) might make the perfect artist for the covers of the Bond novels.
Fleming (1908-1964) liked what he saw, declaring Chopping “the only English master” in the art of trompe-l’oeil. Splitting the cost with his English publisher, Jonathan Cape, Fleming paid Chopping 50 guineas (about $147 in 1957), insisting that the cover of “From Russia, With Love,” show both a Smith & Wesson .38 with a modified trigger guard for faster firing and a rose with a drop of dew. Despite such specifics, Chopping always insisted that he and not Fleming ultimately designed the covers.
Eight more covers followed. Another artist worked on “Dr. No,” an unfortunate decision; Chopping, with his breadth of knowledge of flora and fauna, undoubtedly would have produced a memorable cover for a tale centered in the Caribbean, rather than the dark, dreary one Cape published in 1958.
But from “Goldfinger” on, Chopping’s distinctive covers—united by artistically rendered wooden backgrounds--dealt the Bond novels a consistent, distinctive look that Fleming appreciated for their beauty, sense of danger and commercial appeal. Chopping thought “Goldfinger,” with a cover showing a skull clutching a rose and gold coins filling its eye sockets, his finest work in the series.
The gifted Chopping could even make a toad with a captured dragonfly seem menacing as he did for “You Only Live Twice.” He writes amusingly to an editor at Cape about his adventures capturing a toad of “extraordinary malevolent appearance” to pose for the cover. The considerable correspondence among Fleming, Chopping and others concerning the covers sold at auction for $57,600 in 2010.
Writing to Chopping about ideas for the cover of “Thunderball,” Fleming said that the covers were “marvelous” and offered to increase Chopping’s fee, perhaps to 100 guineas. Chopping asked for 200, and Fleming agreed “on condition that you do my jackets every year,” according to Andrew Lycett’s excellent 1995 Fleming biography.
Fleming then suggested the look of “Thunderball’s” cover: “the skeleton of a man’s hand with the fingers resting on the Queen of Hearts. Through the back of the hand a dagger is plunged into the table top.” Chopping showed his independence by adding the Ace of Spades and changing the Queen of Hearts to the Queen of Diamonds. Of course, the Ace and Queen make blackjack, but that game is not played in the novel (there is a scene of Bond besting the villainous Emilio Largo at chemin de fer). Whatever the cards, “Thunderball” remains a great cover.
As is the cover for “For Your Eyes Only,” a collection of five Bond stories In the November 1998 edition of Firsts magazine, Lee Biondi and James M. Pickard wrote, “Fleming made Chopping paint it many times, until he was satisfied with the shape [of the eye] and the color.”
Chopping himself published a novel in 1965 called “The Fly” (not related to any movies with the same title). One editor at Secker & Warburg deemed the novel “a perfectly disgusting concoction” before passing it on to a younger editor named Giles Gordon who concluded the book was “sufficiently sordid to appeal to voyeurs, and if Chopping were to adorn it with one of his famous dust-jackets it could be a succès de scandale; and so it proved.” Utilizing his talents for depicting insects, Chopping painted a memorable cover of a fly—in close-up-that has landed on a human eye. No words appear. Flies also buzz about the covers of “The Man With The Golden Gun” and “Octopussy.”
When the Fleming estate decided to resurrect Bond in 1981 with a new series of novels, Chopping was commissioned to paint the cover for British thriller writer John Gardner’s “Licence Renewed.” Chopping’s cover of a Browning 9 mm automatic, with pearls, flowers and—yes—a fly evokes several Fleming covers, most notably “From Russia, With Love.” Artists paying homage to Chopping’s style painted the covers for the next four Gardner books.
Here’s a suggestion to the good editors at Jonathan Cape: commission an artist to paint the cover in the Chopping manner for William Boyd’s Bond novel due in 2013.
As for “From Russia, With Love,” a fine first UK edition with fine dust jacket can fetch as much as $11,000 these days. Perhaps Auric Goldfinger’s heirs can afford that, but the rest of us will have to play the lottery—or maybe master chemin de fer.
Bonne chance.
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*This originally appeared in the New York Daily News book blog, Page Views.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Harpo Marx, Super Spy



While reading “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” John Lewis Gaddis’ excellent biography of the Cold War diplomat and historian, I came upon a curious fact. In 1933, Kennan arrived in Moscow to set up the American embassy in the wake of United States diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. One evening, Kennan attended a performance of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” accompanied by Harpo Marx. “There is unfortunately no record of what, if anything, they talked about,” Gaddis writes.
Harpo Marx in Moscow? In 1933?
Absolutely true, and there’s a bit more to the story than that.
Turns out, FDR appointed Harpo “a goodwill ambassador,” and Harpo’s six-week tour proved a huge success with Russian audiences. Remember, Harpo did not speak when performing, so there was no language barrier. And perhaps FDR slyly thought Russians would more easily accept someone with the last name of Marx.
In “Harpo Speaks!”, his 1961 autobiography (written with Rowland Barber), Harpo (1888-1964) admits to serving as a secret courier, delivering communiqués taped to his leg to and from the US embassy, no easy task given he was closely watched during his visit. At the tour’s end, safely out of the USSR, Harpo writes, “I pulled up my pants, unwound the straps, handed over the dispatches from Ambassador [William] Bullitt, and gave my leg its first scratch in ten days.”
This may seem unlikely, but a letter exists to Harpo from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, praising Harpo’s "loyal services" and suggesting, "there may be ways that you can help your country again."
I love the idea that Harpo worked as a spy, taking real risks in the land of Stalin.
Depite the dangers, Harpo certainly had fun while he was there (I suspect Harpo had fun wherever he went). Seeing his name spelled in Cyrillic letters, Harpo decided it sounded like “Exapno Mapcase.”
He liked to send cables to friends in the US, despite heavy Soviet censorship. One that failed to get through was to Alexander Woolcott, a fellow member of the Algonquin Roundtabe. Harpo, a champion croquet player, wrote: HAVE GONE THROUGH TOUGHEST WICKET. NO LONGER DEAD ON RED. EVERYTHING BUCKETY-BUCKETY. EXAPNO MAPCASE.
Much of this information comes from various websites, and if you’re interested in more information, just Google “Harpo Marx Soviet Union 1933.” One site I’d like to single out is “Harpo’s Place,” lovingly created by one of Harpo’s four children, Bill. “Harpo’s Place” reproduces Harpo’s 10 Rules:
1 Life has been created for you to enjoy, but you won't enjoy it unless you pay for it with some good, hard work. This is one price that will never be marked down.
2 You can work at whatever you want to as long as you do it as well as you can and clean up afterwards and you're at the table at mealtime and in bed at bedtime.
3 Respect what the others do. Respect Dad's harp, Mom's paints, Billy's piano, Alex's set of tools, Jimmy's designs, and Minnie's menagerie.
4 If anything makes you sore, come out with it. Maybe the rest of us are itching for a fight, too.
5 If anything strikes you as funny, out with that, too. Let's all the rest of us have a laugh.
6 If you have an impulse to do something that you're not sure is right, go ahead and do it. Take a chance. Chances are, if you don't you'll regret it - unless you break the rules about mealtime and bedtime, in which case you'll sure as hell regret it.
7 If it's a question of whether to do what's fun or what is supposed to be good for you, and nobody is hurt whichever you do, always do what's fun.
8 If things get too much for you and you feel the whole world's against you, go stand on your head. If you can think of anything crazier to do, do it.
9 Don't worry about what other people think. The only person in the world important enough to conform to is yourself.
10 Anybody who mistreats a pet or breaks a pool cue is docked a months pay.
I particularly like Number 8, and will now take leave to attempt to stand on my head. If this proves my last post, you’ll know why.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

“Dean Spanley”




Director: Toa Fraser 2008
A lovely film with a superlative cast (Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill, Jeremy Northam, Bryan Brown) that escaped me until discovery via a random search of downloadable movies from Netflix (one reason for the film’s obscurity: Miramax, the American distributor, chose to release it straight to video and cable). Although I watched “Dean Spanley” before reading the book, I’d like to discuss the novel first for reasons I hope become apparent as we move along.
“My Talks With Dean Spanley” by Lord Dunsany appeared in 1936. Lord Who? I suggest you Google the author and his many accomplishments, but here are the opening grafs from Wikepedia:
“Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (24 July 1878 – 25 October 1957) was an Irish writer and dramatist, notable for his work, mostly in fantasy, published under the name Lord Dunsany. More than eighty books of his work were published, and his oeuvre includes many hundreds of published short stories, as well as successful plays, novels and essays.
“Born to one of the oldest titles in the Irish peerage, Dunsany lived much of his life at perhaps Ireland's longest-inhabited home, Dunsany Castle near Tara, worked with W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, was chess and pistol-shooting champion of Ireland, and traveled and hunted extensively.”
He also fought in the Second Boer War and World War l, in which he served in the trenches and was wounded. A rich, event-filled life.
A mere 149 pages, the novel consists of exactly what the title implies: conversations between the narrator and Dean Spanley, a dignified, somewhat reticent Edwardian clergyman the narrator meets at his club and discovers a shared interest: the transmigration of souls. The narrator also discovers that the Dean enjoys a rare port—Imperial Tokay from Hungary—and under the wine’s influence the Dean regresses to a previous life: as a dog called Wag by his masters, although the dog himself prefers the name Moon-chaser because, as the Dean recalls: “Many’s the time I’ve told him [the moon] to go away and not look at me in that odd manner; and he pretended not to hear me. But he knew all right, and he knew he was odd and strange and in league with magic, and he knew what honest folks thought of him: I’ve told him many a time.”
A shaggy dog story, perhaps, but one told with great charm and insight. In her New York Times review, Katherine Woods praised Dunsany’s work for “its originality and wisdom, its understanding and subtlety and whimsical charm . . . [the book] can be read with the keenest enjoyment again and again and again.”
Quite so, but what a challenge for a screenwriter to turn an essentially plotless novel into a film. Enter the gifted Alan Sharp (b. 1934; credits include “The Hired Hand,” “Ulzana’s Raid,” “Night Moves”), who wrote a brilliant script, expanding the story and adding characters while remaining true to Dunsany’s original premise. Sharp’s script is a perfect example of how gifted writers can transform seemingly unfilmable material into a witty and quite moving film.
Without giving too much away, Sharp’s script provides the narrator (Northam) with a wealthy, cantankerous father (O’Toole in a great performance) who has withdrawn from life after the death of another son in, yes, the Second Boer War. Enter Dean Spanley (Neill) and his canine reminiscences, courtesy of the rare Imperial Tokay supplied by a sly fellow (Brown) who calls himself a “conveyancer.”
There are no special effects or make-up tricks here, and Neill never apes the mannerisms of his former four-legged entity. Rather, he ever-so-slightly relaxes his face, turning the starchy cleric into a blissful storyteller who clearly loved howling at the moon and chasing rabbits (Wag’s favorite prey).
There are several surprises along the way. The actors are at top form. There’s little action, save for dogs gamboling during parts of Spanley’s regressions, but the talk is gentle and evocative. Expertly directed by Fraser. A movie that deserved attention and awards. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Spy vs. Spy



I’d delayed watching last year’s remake of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” because I’ve admired the novel (which had commas in its title) since its 1974 publication, and I’m a huge fan of 1979’s nearly six-hour mini-series with Alec Guinness brilliantly interpreting John le Carré’s most memorable creation, George Smiley. I own the DVD, and have watched it at least three times over the years. It’s great television.
When I heard “Tinker, Tailor” would be remade as a feature film with Gary Oldman as Smiley, my immediate question—undoubtedly one considered by le Carré and Guinness admirers everywhere—was the obvious: how do you pack so much complicated intrigue and so many complex characters into a two-hour movie (actually a two-hour twenty-seven minute movie)?
The sad truth, after watching the remake, is that you don’t, no matter how noble the effort.
First, some small reservations:
The film, much of which is set in London and its environs, doesn’t appear to have been shot in England. True, there are shots of London buildings, and maybe one or two exterior scenes (like Smiley’s home in Chelsea), but most locations and some of the sets—like the office of a minister—seem more European than British. Since many of the names in the credits appear Eastern European, and a major incident from the book has been transferred from Czechoslovakia to Hungary, my guess is much of the production took place there, no doubt for budget reasons. The result: the movie lacks a feel for London in the early 70s, when the story takes place.**
In the mini-series, The Circus—le Carré’s name for the headquarters of MI6—was a cramped space with narrow, dark hallways and sudden corners, a perfect place for spies to plot and keep secrets from each other. In the movie, it’s a huge, wide-open space more appropriate for an insurance company of its era, which perhaps explains why Control’s office looks like a decompression chamber, and the room where the heads of The Circus gather resembles an acoustically remodeled boxcar. There are no other places for these guys to get privacy.
In the novel and the mini-series, Smiley meets a former agent named Jerry Westerby to pick Westerby’s brain as Smiley seeks to discover the traitor in The Circus. The wonderful Joss Ackland plays Westerby, stealing his scene with Guinness, no small achievement given Guinness’ talents.
But in the film, the name Jerry Westerby has been given inexplicably to another character from both novel and mini-series: Sam Collins, the agent who was on duty the night news arrived that a field agent had been killed (allegedly) in Czechoslovakia. I know I’m carping here—and only dedicated le Carré fans would care--but le Carré’s sequel to “Tinker, Tailor” is “The Honourable Schoolboy.” Jerry Westerby is the eponymous hero of that book—and Sam Collins plays a major part, as well. Why rename Collins as Westerby for the movie? Senseless.
But here’s the movie’s major problem: unlike the mini-series, in which each of the potential traitors is clearly delineated, the movie fails to establish who these men are. They remain ciphers. When Smiley captures the mole, it means nothing. Any one of the suspects could have been proved treacherous, and the reaction—at least for me—would be: okay, but so what? There is no emotional release.
Which doesn’t mean there are not moments and performances to admire in the remake: Oldman is excellent, and Bernard Cumberbatch, as Smiley acolyte Peter Guillam, gets several affecting scenes, as does Mark Strong as the betrayed agent, Jim Prideaux.
But what a waste of such gifted actors as Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and Ciarán Hinds, who are left victims to cramming so much exposition in such limited time that all they can do is hint at whom their characters are. I’m not sure Hinds, a versatile actor with real presence in any movie he appears, has more than ten lines.
As I watched the remake, I kept wondering what viewers unfamiliar with either novel or mini-series would make out of such a truly Byzantine plot? Not much, I think.
As I said, the film’s a noble attempt. My advice, however: read the novel, watch the mini-series.
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**My good friend Ken Salikof sent along the following information regarding the locations used in the new "Tinker Tailor." It appears they shot more in England than I thought, but to little avail, at least to my eyes:
Principal photography took place between 7 October and 22 December 2010.[11] Studio scenes were shot at a former army barracks in Mill Hill, north London.[5] Blythe House in Kensington Olympia, West London, was used as the exterior for "The Circus."[12] The interior hall of Budapest's Párizsi Udvar served as the location for the café scene, in which Jim Prideaux is shot.[13] Empress Coach Works in Haggerston was used as the location for the Merlin safe house. Other scenes were filmed on Hampstead Heath and in Hampstead Ponds, where Smiley is shown swimming, and in the physics department of Imperial College London. The exterior shots of the Islay Hotel, a run-down hotel described in the film as being near Liverpool Street station, which Smiley uses as a base, were shot in Wilkin Street, London NW5.[citation needed]
The events which take place in Czechoslovakia in the novel were moved to Hungary, because of the country's 20% rebate for film productions. The teams filmed in Budapest for five days. Right before Christmas the team also filmed in Istanbul for nine days.[5]

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Peter Bogdanovich on Roger Corman, favorite movie books, today’s auteurs*





Roger Corman, the legendary director and producer of such drive-in classics as “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “House of Usher”--plus a slew of decidedly non-classics like “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent”--turns 86 next week, which seems an appropriate time to celebrate such a prolific, unique and fascinating life in American movies.
“Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel,” an entertaining and informative new documentary arriving this week on DVD and Blu-ray, offers one way to appreciate Corman, not just for his movies but for the impressive roster of aspiring filmmakers who launched careers working for him: Martin Scorsese (“Boxcar Bertha”),
Francis Ford Coppola (“Dementia 13”), Robert De Niro (“Bloody Mama”), Ron Howard (“Grand Theft Auto”), Jack Nicholson (“The Cry Baby Killer”) Joe Dante (“Piranha”), Jonathan Demme (“Caged Heat”), and Peter Bogdanovich (“Targets”).
I recently caught up with Bogdanovich (whose other films include “The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon,” “Saint Jack, “ and “What’s Up, Doc?”), speaking to him from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he’s taught since 2010. Bogdanovich, 72, made his early mark programming films and writing about directors for the Museum of Modern Art, which led to pieces in Esquire and a column appropriately titled “Hollywood.” In addition to writing numerous books on film, Bogdanovich has acted in movies and TV, notably playing Elliot Kupferberg, Dr. Melfi’s shrink on “The Sopranos.”
(*This originally appeared in the New York Daily News book blog, Page Views)

Page Views: What would you tell a student who asked about Roger Corman?
PB: I’d tell them to look at the documentary. Roger was an extraordinary force in the so-called New Hollywood. You could say that the first really successful off-Hollywood picture was “The Wild Angels” in 1966. That was kind of a counter-culture cult movie. Roger had a tremendous impact of the New Hollywood because so many people who became important figures in the movement—like Coppola or Jonathan Demme or Scorsese or Jack Nicholson or me—all started with Roger. He had a tremendous eye for talent.
He was a good director, too, if the script was good . . . but I think he enjoyed producing more than directing.

Page Views: You and your first wife, Polly Platt, moved from New York to Los Angeles in the 60s. How did you meet Corman?
PB: [We] had moved to California with the intention of getting into pictures, [while] I kept writing for Esquire. One night we went to see a movie by Jacques Demy called “Bay of Angels.” We were with a friend, Paul Mayersberg, a critic and screenwriter. Sitting behind us were two people I didn’t know. But Paul knew Roger Corman and the person sitting with him, who I think was Bob Towne [future Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Chinatown”]. Paul introduced us, and Roger said, “I’ve read your stuff in Esquire, and are you interested in writing for the movies?” And I said, “Yeah.”

Page Views: Which led—before “Targets”—to working on “The Wild Angels.”
PB: I did a lot of work on “Wild Angels.” I only got credit as an assistant to the director [Corman], but in fact I rewrote eighty percent of the script for no credit and very little money, and found most of the locations and did many of the [camera] setups, then directed three weeks of the second unit.

Page Views: I read years ago that Corman also asked you and Polly Platt to write a World War ll movie, which was never made. What happened to the script?
PB: Funny you should ask. It was called “The Criminals,” and in the divorce it reverted to me, and for years I’ve had it. My older daughter, Antonia, just recently made a short film that she financed herself, [“My Left Hand Man] and it’s quite a brilliant piece of work. She was rummaging through some stuff that I’d left at her house [and] she found a copy of “The Criminals” that Polly and I had done in the 60s, and Antonia flipped for it and wants to make it, wants to direct it. It’s a good script.

Page Views: What’s it about?
PB: It’s based on an actual event—everything in the story happened. When the Nazis were invading Poland, the Polish underground went to the main prison near Warsaw and let all the criminals loose with the proviso that they please do what they were doing to get into jail, but do it against the Nazis. We focus on five criminals who were let out and what happens to them.

Page Views: What are your favorite Corman movies?
PB: I like “Masque of the Red Death,” and “House of Usher,” too.

Page Views: Since books are discussed around here, what are your favorite ones about movies? And you can’t mention any of your own.
PB: My favorite books about movies include “The Parade’s Gone By” by Kevin Brownlow, “The American Cinema” by Andrew Sarris, “Adventures with D.W. Griffith” by Karl Brown, and “Growing Up in Hollywood” by Robert Parrish.

Page Views: You’ve mentioned in the past that Andrew Sarris and the late Eugene Archer were early critical influences. I think most movie-savvy New Yorkers know about Sarris, but what about Archer?
PB: Gene was the fourth-string critic for The New York Times in the late 50s, early 60s. He left The Times to go to Europe to make films, which didn’t work out for him. He was a brilliant critic, brilliantly perceptive guy about movies. He and Andrew Sarris used to hang out together, and they’d come up to my little apartment and I’d screen a 16mm print. Gene was the more talkative of the two at that time. He was quite brilliant at analyzing movies and a great influence on films I should take a look at but hadn’t.

Page Views: Both Sarris and Archer embraced what came to be known as the auteur school of film criticism, which looked for a consistent directorial theme and personality. Do auteur directors exist these days in Hollywood?
PB: Auteurism today? Well, everybody thinks they’re an auteur. But nobody seems to understand what the whole auteur thing was. It wasn’t a theory as far as the French were concerned. It was a political statement called la politique des auteurs. Truffaut and Godard were attacking the old-fashioned, well-made film, Franch or American. They thought Howard Hawks was an infinitely better director than Fred Zinnemann. They thought Alfred Hitchcock was a greater director than David Lean. They were against Marcel Carné and for Jean Renoir. Personal films were what they looking for, where a director’s personality dominated despite who wrote it or who was in it or who photographed it.

Page Views: What relatively young directors fit that category today?
PB: There are some of them. Like Wes Anderson. Quentin Tarantino. Noah Baumbach. A few. But the whole idea of la politique des auteurs was to point out directors who worked within the Hollywood system but who transcended the system with their personalities—people like Ford, Lubitsch, Renoir, Hitchcock, Hawks.
We don’t have that kind of thing now—it’s a different world.

Page Views: Does Roger Corman qualify as an auteur?
PB: Yes, I think so. His films had a definite personality.

Page Views: At the end of the documentary, both you and Jack Nicholson lament the current state of big-budget, CGI-driven studio pictures. Nicholson calls them “circuses.” Do you think a case can be made these days that there are TV series superior to what Hollywood produces?
PB: Unquestionably. Look at “The Sopranos.” What movies are as good as ‘The Sopranos?” That was better than any movie. Now I’m watching “Breaking Bad”—it’s brilliant. I was watching with a friend, and I said, “Why don’t they make movies this good?”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Robert Morse: The Original Mad Man







One Saturday in the early spring of 1963, the Cosgroves schlepped out to Huntington, Long Island, for a party hosted by the publisher of the magazine where my mom worked as an associate editor. I believe the party was a birthday celebration for the publisher’s son. Since the son and I were roughly the same age (eleven), my parents dragged me along.
My mom’s magazine was “Sportswear Merchandiser,” a trade publication of McCall’s aimed at the buying departments of clothing stores big and small. She often traveled around the country interviewing buyers and profiling their stores. I remember one trip took her to Phoenix to do a piece on Goldwater’s Department Store, a chain then owned by Barry Goldwater’s family.
That day at the party, we met a friendly, older man whose name I’ve sadly forgotten. Somehow the discussion turned to the theater and the fact that I’d never seen a Broadway play or musical. The man asked me what show I’d like to see, and I said, “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.” I’d seen the cast perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and my dad, who played piano, had bought the sheet music. We didn’t have a record player that worked, but I knew the score well before I saw the show.
A few days later, my mom received two front-row tickets for a matinee during Easter Week. It turned out that the man we’d spoken to at the party owned the company that printed tickets to all Broadway events. I’ve been in his debt for nearly 50 years.
With one exception we got to see the original cast: Robert Morse, as the charming, conniving J. Pierrepont Finch, Rudy Vallee as the slightly bewildered company head J.B. Biggley, and Charles Nelson Reilly as the ridiculous, conniving Bud Frump (both Morse and Reilly won Tonys, as did the play and its creators. It also won the Pulitzer Prize).
The exception was the actress who played Finch’s love interest, Rosemary Pillkington. Bonnie Scott, the original Rosemary, had left, replaced by a talented young actress named Michele Lee (more on her later).
“How To Succeed” had been running for 18 months, but the cast performed like opening night. Morse’s energy was contagious, and after a few minutes he started glancing at my mother and me and grinning “that grin of impetuous youth” as Finch sings—to himself in the mirror—in one of the show’s famous songs, “I Believe In You.” My mother, who had a distinctive laugh, was enjoying herself so much that Morse could hardly avoid gazing her way. The fact that she was a very pretty woman might also explain his attention (that’s my mom circa ’62 at her desk at the magazine).
A thrilling day: walking around Manhattan—or “The City” as we bridge-and-tunnelites referred to that borough—striding through the lobby of the just-opened Pan Am Building (my mother’s office was next door at 230 Park, the skyscraper then known as the New York General Building before the Helmsleys got their gilded hands on it), having lunch somewhere in Times Square, then going to the show. This was big stuff for a kid from Queens. I’ve never forgotten the excitement—even today I knew exactly what box to unearth in the garage to find the Playbill I’d clutched going home on the subway five decades ago.
Robert Morse, of course, now plays the enigmatic, goateed Bertram Cooper on “Mad Men,” a brilliant piece of casting not just because Morse is such a good actor but—at least for me—because of the association with the original mad man he played in “How To Succeed.”
Morse himself has said in interviews that he feels that on “Mad Men” he’s playing Rudy Vallee’s part in a non-musical version of “How To Succeed.” Wouldn’t it be great if they did a musical episode of “Mad Men,” using some of Frank Loesser’s great songs? I can see Don Draper staring at himself in the mirror in the executive washroom, crooning a variation of the original showstopper tune, retitled “I Can’t Believe In You.”
As for Michele Lee, who would go on to a terrific career on TV (notably on “Knots Landing”), we met about ten years ago at a black-tie event in LA during my days at TV Guide. After I told her I’d seen her in “How To Succeed,” I started singing “Rosemary”: Suddenly there is music/In the sound of your name/Rosemary! Rosemary! /Was the melody locked inside me/Till at last out it came? /Rosemary! Rosemary!
Instead of running away from an obvious lunatic, Michele Lee started singing from the score, and soon we were duetting, despite the sad fact that I cannot carry a tune. Thankfully, Michele Lee has a wonderful voice. A lovely moment with a lovely lady.
It’s just a few hours until the “Mad Men” season-opener. I hope Robert Morse is in it. I think before that, I’ll play the original cast album of “How To Succeed” and pretend it’s that memorable day in 1963, when my mother laughed and laughed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

“The Wind and the Lion”


TCM just showed John Milius’ masterpiece of hokum, which I’d not seen since the day it opened at Radio City Music Hall in 1975. There’s much to commend: Billy Williams’ beautiful cinematography, Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring music, Sean Connery (as a Berber pirate, no less) and Brian Keith (as Teddy Roosevelt) carving up enough ham to feed fifty at Easter dinner, and Milius’ energy in staging a throwback to some of the great cinematic ripping yarns of yore. Think “Gunga Din”and “Lawrence of Arabia” for starters.
Milius loosely based his screenplay on an incident in 1904 in which Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli and his brigands kidnapped a man named Ion Perdicaris and his stepson from Perdicaris’ Tangier villa. When Raisuli made various ransom demands, President Roosevelt and Secretary of State John Hay, sensing an issue to boost Roosevelt’s reelection, sent several battleships to Morocco and thrilled Americans with the slogan, “Perdicaris alive, or the Raisuli dead.” Ironically, Perdicaris, the dilettante son of a wealthy American, had given up his United States citizenship years earlier, a fact that failed to deter either Roosevelt or Hay. Perdicaris and his stepson, who became great friends with the Raisuli during captivity, were eventually released unharmed—and Roosevelt, of course, won another term.
Milius used this event as a springboard for his story, wisely transforming the 64-year-old Perdicaris into a beautiful widow named Edith Pedicaris with two precocious children (Candice Bergen, whose last name in the film has been shorn an “r”). Following the formula of thousands of movies since the first nickelodeon lured paying customers, Mrs. Pedicaris at first despises the Raisuli, then slowly respects him for his gallantry before seeming to chastely fall in love with him, a no-brainer when the rascal who kidnapped you is Sean Connery, who’s having such fun with the role that it doesn’t matter when his Scottish burr vanquishes his mild attempts at a Arab accent.
Milius only falters in the last third, when US Marines square off with a contingent of German soldiers during an attempt to rescue Pedicaris and her children, who themselves are intent on saving the Raisuli who’s been captured by the Germans. If you’re not following this, it’s okay because Milius has failed to clarify what the Germans (and the French, as well) are doing in Tangier. But no matter, really, because the climax is exciting, and the movie succeeds as a grand, old-fashioned entertainment. Available on DVD (for $4.99 on Amazon)—or watch for the next time TCM airs the film in all its letterboxed glory.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Long-lost Donald Westlake tape: Redford, Godard, Hammett and more*




Here’s another recent discovery from the dark recesses of my garage: a
60-minute Sony audiotape of an interview with the great Donald E. Westlake conducted on November 2, 1973.
Donald Westlake (1933-2008) wrote more than 100 books, numerous short stories and screenplays over a 50-year career in which he won three Edgars, the title of Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America, and a 1990 Oscar nomination for his superb adaptation of “The Grifters.”
At the time of the interview, I was in grad school in Boston studying journalism, although “studying” is a stretch. I’d been assigned to interview a celebrated person, and I immediately thought of Donald Westlake, a writer I’d admired for his humorous thrillers (“Adios, Scheherazade,” “The Hot Rock”) and his hardboiled caper novels about a professional thief named Parker, written under the aptly chosen pen name Richard Stark (the character’s latest movie incarnation opens in October with Jason Statham in “Parker”).
Mr. Westlake seemed surprised when he opened his Manhattan apartment door--he’d been expecting me the following week. Despite the confusion, he welcomed me warmly. For the next hour or so, he patiently—and most entertainingly—answered my many questions.
For space reasons, I’ve condensed some of his responses.
Beginnings:
“I started writing when I was 11. In my late teens, I was writing short stories of every conceivable type, and sent them to everything from Future Science Fiction to The Sewanee Review. First story I ever sold [at 19] was science fiction, second was a comedy to a men’s magazine, third was a mystery story. Mysteries were what I got a good response on. I spent years saying I was a writer disguised as a mystery writer, and after 30 books and several movies, I thought maybe I’m a mystery writer disguised as a writer.”
Favorite writer:
“My admirations are not necessarily my influences. My favorite living novelist is Anthony Powell [author of the 12-volume “A Dance to the Music of Time”]. If I ever took an influence from him it would destroy me because he writes such a controlled but leisurely way that if I put anything of that into my stuff, it would break the springs. I love those books.”
Influences:
“When I was a kid and first writing I was completely in love with the Cornell Woolrich/William Irish books. I think he’s dated rapidly. I didn’t exactly borrow from him, but I had much of his sense of heightened expectations of people always being slightly off balance.
“I love Hammett, never liked Chandler—I’m one of the few. In ‘Red Harvest,’ there’s my favorite chapter title of any book: ‘The Seventeenth Murder.’ Some of Parker comes out of that.
“A guy named Peter Rabe wrote a batch of books for Gold Medal in the 50s, and he was absolutely the single largest influence on writing style. I was completely in love with the way the man wrote. Everything is a little bit oblique, but with this sense of terrific tension underneath. I read that he had [advanced degrees] in psychology, and that his dissertation was on frustration--and that was the key to the man’s writing: how to behave like a normal human being under the stress of frustration. Throughout the 50s, he was doing beautiful work . . . with awful Gold Medal titles like ‘Murder Me for Nickels.’”
Writing as Richard Stark:
“I was doing a book a year for Random House, and I thought it would be a good idea to have a paperback company that I was selling to to [help] pay the rent. So I did the first Parker novel in which he got caught, and the editor at Pocket Books took me to lunch and said ‘Is there any way that this guy could get away at the end, and you could do three books a year for us?’ And I said, ‘I think so.’”
The funny business:
“My agent urged me not to do it [write humorous thrillers]. ‘You won’t get any paperback reprint, you won’t get any foreign money.’ I was calling it at the time ‘The Dead Nephew.’ I was edging into it being funny. It wound up as ‘The Fugitive Pigeon’ [1965]. The hardcover sold twice as well as any of the book before it, and it did a better paperback sale, and got all the same foreign sales. It was a first step forward.”
On Jean-Luc Godard’s “Made in U.S.A.” (1966):
“A producer in France said he wanted to buy the rights to ‘The Jugger’ [a Parker novel]. I consider that the worst book I’ve ever written. It was the wrong kind of story for that character. My agent said [the producer] wanted to buy it. That was amazing—I don’t care how good the translation was, it’s still going to be a rotten book in French. A deal was made [but] he only made three payments, all late . . . so we assumed he had given up. But he was going ahead. Godard made the movie on 12 afternoons . . . sort of making the thing up as he went along. Anna Karina played Parker. After that, and Lee Marvin [in “Point Blank”] and Jim Brown [in “The Split”], a friend of mine said, ‘Parker has been played by a white man, a black man, and a woman. I think the character lacks definition.’ It’s a very, very bad movie.”
On “Point Blank” (1967):
“I thought it was a fine movie when I first saw it. Its mannerisms and its artiness are making it creak now. Lee Marvin is lovely, and John Boorman worked his ass off. Even the things that didn’t work, I thought were beautiful. There’s one sequence where Lee Marvin has gone into an apartment, and he’s looking for somebody, and he’s told that that person isn’t there, but a messenger shows up the first of every month. Marvin says fine, and sits down to wait for the first of the month. Boorman shows him walking around the room. Then he sits down, and Boorman fades out, then fades in on the same room with all the furniture gone—it’s just an empty room and Marvin is sitting crouched on the floor in the corner. Waiting. Then Boorman fades out, and fades back in with the furniture back in the room, and Marvin sitting on the sofa when the doorbell rings. That image of dead time and sitting in a corner of an empty room didn’t work because people were wondering, ‘What’d he do with the furniture?’”
On “The Hot Rock”(1972):
A good movie that could have been a much better movie. Bill Goldman did a beautiful, funny screenplay. The director, Peter Yates, had made ‘Bullitt,’ which wound up with a chase at the airport—well, the original screenplay of ‘The Hot Rock’ wound up at an airport, and Yates said he didn’t want to do it again. It was a terrifically funny sequence. Bill Goldman had done a chase—not out of the book. He had established that Kelp [George Segal] did a lot of jogging and had been a track man in high school, and that an assistant of Dr. Amusa [who wants a priceless gem restored to his African nation] was a former Olympic runner, so when they get into a chase across the airport it gradually turns into a race where they’re doing racing things rather than quarry- and-hunter things. When that was written, [Robert] Redford was going to be Kelp, and George C. Scott was going to be Dortmunder. Redford did honorably. He was miscast [as Dortmunder]—he did the best he could. There are terrific moments in that movie, like Ron Leibman flipping the scarf over his shoulder in the back of the truck.”

At interview’s end, I asked Mr. Westlake to inscribe my paperback copy of “Bank Shot.” Here’s what he wrote:
All right, Vince,
You ask too many questions. Take him away, boys.
Don Westlake
Opposite the inscription is a page listing some of his book titles, including “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” Didn’t know he wrote those, eh?
Donald Westlake was a funny guy—as well as a gifted writer and lovely man who couldn’t have been kinder to a nervous, would-be reporter on his first big interview, all those many years ago.
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*This originally appeared in the New York Daily News book blog, Page Views

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Small Moments on a Foggy Day





Cruising east with Roxie the Lab after a walk through the lovely but fogbound dog park at the Berkeley Marina, listening to Jonathan Schwartz on SeriusXM. The fog matches my murky mood. But then Schwartz plays three wonderful songs, wonderfully performed—and fog and mood slowly fade.

First up is Johnny Mercer, a great lyricist who had a parallel career as a singer, particularly in his early days. He’s singing a bluesy something I’d never heard (and not a song whose words he wrote): “I Lost My Sugar In Salt Lake City.”

I lost my sugar in Salt Lake City
Oh, why did I go there?
I should have stayed down in New Orleans
And never gone nowhere

A man which we talked from Kansas City
His words were sweet like wine
He gave us diamonds & limousines
And stole that gal of mine

At some point, Mercer flows into—for want of a better word—recitative:

Salt Lake City is renowned for it's beauty
The snowcap Sasquatch mountains are nearby
In 1929 the factory output was 43 million dollars
Wholesale trade amounted to
71 million five hundred & ten thousand five hundred & seventy three dollars
Retail trade ninety two million
There's salt beds & farm lands producing
alfalfa, green, sugar beats & vegetables in the vicinity
But as far as I'm concerned
I don't care if I ever set foot there again in Salt Lake City
That town is a nemesis to me

On paper, it sounds odd, but Mercer makes it work, and the recording is a delight.

Next comes Lena Horne with “It’s Love” from the great Bernstein-Comden-Green musical, “Wonderful Town.” A lovely song, beautifully sung:

It’s love, it’s love
Well, who would’ve thought it?
If this is love then why have I fought it?
What a way to feel, I could touch the sky
What a way to feel, I have found my guy

Finally, there’s Fred Astaire backed by the Oscar Peterson Trio (Ray Brown on bass, Alvin Stoller on drums), performing “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket”:

I've been a roaming Romeo
My Juliets have been many
But now my roaming days have gone
Too many irons in the fire
Is worse than not having any
I've had my share and from now on:

I'm putting all my eggs in one basket
I'm betting ev'rything I've got on you
I'm giving all my love to one baby
Heaven help me if my baby don't come through

This is part of a four LP album released in 1952 as “The Astaire Story” (and yes, it’s available on CD). Wonderful stuff.

As Peterson hits his last note, Roxie and I pull up in front of the house. The sun’s shining, my mood’s lifting, all thanks to some great music. As Astaire sings in “I Got Rhythm”: Who could ask for anything more?
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I know: no books, no movies mentioned. Let's just call it droit du bloggeur.