Thursday, April 30, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Book: Lean on Pete (Willy Vlautin)

A few years ago I taught at a charter school in Northern Nevada for a spell - the worst-run school that has ever existed, but that's a story for another time - and a very sizable number of my students were scathing on the subject of their parents or guardians, who led incredibly messy lives. The adults' track records with jobs, relationships, substances, and the law were checkered, to say the least. I thought of this during the opening chapters of Willy Vlautin's mesmerizing Lean on Pete, which is told from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy, Charley Thompson, who also lives in the hard-luck contemporary West and could easily have been one of my students.

Charley's mother abandoned him, and although his father kept him, dad has zero sense of what it takes to be a parent. During the novel, Charley will have to learn to fend without his father, but that is only a half-step removed from having him around, because he is pretty useless to begin with.

Especially given his unpromising circumstances, Charley is a very decent kid. He plays football and truly enjoys it. He likes animals and instinctively knows how to treat them. When his dad relocates from Spokane, Washington, to Portland, Oregon, Charley in tow, the boy drifts into the milieu of a local tumble-down racetrack that has seen much better days. He winds up doing odd jobs for an old coot, Del Montgomery, who abuses his low-value racehorses, and it is one of those, the quarterhorse Lean on Pete, who gives his name to the novel.

The racetrack world is depicted here entirely without sentimentality, and the underground world of unsanctioned bush track racing turns out to be even scuzzier. Del is a dirty, disagreeable pervert. But Charley hangs on because he needs the money and he cares for the horses, especially Lean on Pete, who he talks to in the way that so many of us talk to animals. He has never before met such a good listener.

As events he has no control over start to overwhelm him, Charley moves into survival mode, stealing frequently, defending himself as he has to. He could easily become just another casuallty. Will he? That is the drama of the story.

Willy Vlautin is an singer / songwriter with the band Richmond Fontaine as well as a novelist; his second novel Northline actually came with a soundtrack CD in its original printing. Vlautin's practice as a lyricist enables him to pare his language down in a way that provides a very convincing voice for Charley Thompson. Charley is usually matter-of-fact, but occasionally expresses his situation with more urgency:

The thoughts in my head were swirling. I'd seen a lot of things. I'd seen my dad do things. I'd seen him having sex with women. I'd seen him bending women over our couch and ramming into them and I'd seen them in the kitchen sitting on top of him saying things to him. I'd seen him puking his guts out in the sink and snorting cocaine and smoking weed. I saw a woman passed out in the back of our car in nothing but a bra. I saw her pee on the seat. I saw a guy get a broken beer bottle pushed in his face while we were at a daytime barbecue. I'd seen my dad hit my aunt in the face and call her names when all she did was tell him to come back when he wasn't so drunk and mean. I'd seen him wreck her car and then abandon it. I'd seen him talk to the police. I saw a kid get hit so hard that he began to foam at the mouth and go into seizures and I'd seen a kid shoot a dog in the head with a .22. I'd seen another kid tear the pajamas off his sister just so he could see her down there. She was screaming and crying. And I'd seen Del punch a horse as hard as he could and I'd seen a horse break his leg and wobble around on three while the broke one was held on by only skin.

Charley finds some relief in going to the movies, when he can afford to or can sneak in, and in watching movies on TV. His brief plot descriptions often raise a smile:

When the time came for the seven o'clock showing I went inside and sat through two movies. One was about an undercover spy who gets chased all around Europe and the other was about a group of women who get trapped in a cave. The women were good-looking but it was a horror movie and I can never sleep after horror movies.
That night I made a package of Hamburger Helper and spent the rest of the evening eating off it and watching a movie on TV about a hockey player who gets too many concussions and they make him quit so he ends up as a bartender but even so he still skates and then he meets this girl who's a famous skater and they become skate partners. It was a pretty bad movie but the girl was beautiful and she falls in love with the hockey player and then they win a gold medal.
It was still pretty early so I walked around for a while, then I went to the movies and saw one about a good-looking girl who has a crazy father who thinks there is treasure buried underneath a Costco. They end up jack-hammering through the concrete floor and finding a hidden river and a bunch of gold.

Beneath the deceptively plain surface of Lean on Pete, there are rivers of hidden emotion and and a bunch of literary gold.  

Birthday: Paul Gross (born 1959)

The fine Canadian actor/director Paul Gross, well-known for playing a Mountie in the series Due South, was one of the original ensemble for the great 1993 mini-series Tales of the City, which I still think is one of the best television productions I've ever seen. Unfortunately, when it finally became possible to film Armistead Maupin's sequels More Tales of the City and Further Tales of the City a few years later, Gross was not available to reprise the role of the womanizing Brian. Marcus D'Amico, Chloe Webb, Cynda Williams, and Donald Moffat were not on hand anymore either; OK, Moffat's character had died, but the recasting of the other key parts was injurious to the two subsequent series, despite the welcome returns of Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Barbara Garrick, and others. There was an even worse acting loss, however: In the original series, San Francisco played itself, brilliantly; in the two follow-ups, Montreal played San Francisco, badly.

More re Maupin: Of the six original Tales of the City novels that appeared between 1978 and 1989, I think that the finest as a novel is the fifth, Significant Others. Oddly, it is also the one that is farthest off to the side of the main action of the series. Maupin was really developing as a novelist at this point; he had kind of reached a point of diminishing returns with the original format of the series by the time he finished Further Tales of the City; the fourth novel, Babycakes, was an ambitious move in a new direction, and Significant Others fulfills that promise. The sixth novel, Sure of You, is strikingly sour and makes an odd ending to the original cycle.

I have not yet caught up with the three further novels in the series that Maupin published between 2007 and 2014, nor with two novels that are "independent" but still tied into the series by virtue of sharing characters, Maybe the Moon and The Night Listener.

Although Maupin says that the ninth Tales of the City novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal, will be the last, he has made those noises before; I wouldn't count on that being correct. However that turns out, I think it needs to be insisted at the risk of sounding pompous that Maupin is a significant American novelist, not just a "gay novelist," and along with Frank Norris, perhaps the best chronicler of San Francisco. It is no exaggeration to say that what Charles Dickens was to mid-19th Century London, Maupin is to late 20th Century San Francisco.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Birthday: Eve Plumb (born 1958)

I don't think there's any question that Eve Plumb's Jan Brady is the favorite Brady Bunch sibling of all right-thinking people. I would go so far as to say that I'm not sure there would be a Brady cult today if it weren't for Jan. Her recognizable humanity amidst a family of plastic kids and plastic parents was striking; her frustrations were yours, mine, and everyone's. Although the basics are present in the conception of the character, it's Eve Plumb who made it all real. Not surprisingly, take-offs on Jan, smartly performed by Jennifer Elise Cox, made for some of the best material in the excellent parody films The Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Birthday: Ann-Margret (born 1941)

Despite receiving a ton of nominations and awards over the years, Ann-Margret is insufficiently acknowledged as a fine actress; perhaps it is hard to budge your reputation after starring in movies like Kitten With a Whip and Viva Las Vegas. But she has done some excellent work, including a memorable Blanche DuBois in the 1984 television version of A Streetcar Named Desire (in which Beverly D'Angelo is also excellent as Stella). An IMDB reviewer ungallantly points out that Ann-Margret is not stage-trained, which is true enough, but her intuitions about this role and her identification with it are formidable. If you can hold your own with the memory of Vivien Leigh in one of her most famous parts, and put your own stamp on it, you are doing something.

One of the first movies in which Ann-Margret really started to stretch herself is Norman Jewison's meaty, flavorful The Cincinnati Kid (1965), opposite Steve McQueen. She takes what could be a stereotypical femme fatale role and makes it sensationally her own. (The whole supporting cast of this movie about a high-stakes poker player in the late Thirties is wonderful - Tuesday Weld, Karl Malden, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Rip Torn, Jack Weston. Yowza.)

Streetcar Named Desire [VHS]

The Cincinnati Kid

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Menswear Moment: Dawn Powell

He sat down and kicked his shoes off. They lay on the floor jauntily toeing out, reddish-brown, sleek, very much Jay Oliver. He crossed his stockinged feet on the seat opposite, and viewed them complacently, marked the neat way the crimson clocks in the gray hose matched the herring-bone stripe in his blue suit.

"Paid four fifty for these socks," he stated briefly. 

Lou took his suit coat off and hung it in the closet...He undid his collar - he wore a separate white with his new imported colored shirts - hung up the tie, a Sulka clover-leaf pattern, over the hanger, then sat down beside Jay's feet.

"Some shirt there, Lou," said Jay. "What'd it set you back?"

"Eighteen bucks," said Lou. "I swore I'd never wear a pink shirt but it was the goods that got me. Feel that material." - Dawn Powell, Angels on Toast (1940)

This exchange occurs on the very first page of the novel, which I then immediately knew that I would like.

Angels on Toast

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Texas Killing Fields (dir. Ami Canaan Mann, 2011)

Ami Canaan Mann’s Texas Killing Fields went nowhere commercially, despite the connection to Mann’s father Michael Mann (who is listed as a producer). It was barely released and only grossed $45,000 domestically; it received poor reviews when it was reviewed at all. And yet, although it is not a great movie, it is a very good one, and I believe it was thoroughly misunderstood. Although not quite at the level of Zodiac or Memories of Murder as an elliptical police procedural about a creepy chain of killings, it is nearly as original as those two great films.

Commenters, both professional and amateur, complained that Texas Killing Fields is unclear and confusing, although some did note the rich, layered Texas small-town atmosphere (Mann actually shot on location in Louisiana). Certainly, it is not a transparent piece. Chunks of exposition are withheld. We have to puzzle out the backstory. Relationships are not clear at first. A fair number of Sam Worthington’s lines are mumbled indistinctly (in a quite convincing Texas drawl). Various elements of the plot turn out to be completely unrelated to each other, and some of them just dribble off the edge of the film. There is no neat wrap-up that ties everything together.

I submit that all of this is done on purpose by Mann and screenwriter Donald F. Ferrarone, and that one of the movie’s major stylistic influences is Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which Pauline Kael famously praised for exactly the narrative and stylistic choices that Texas Killing Fields is attacked for. Apparently making those choices today is not OK, unless you are a big enough name (Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson) to get away with it.

If I were Ami Canaan Mann, I think I would be very frustrated that my intentions were not noticed, and my film dismissed as not worthy of attention. Maybe she should have gone for a pure art-house approach, without the infusion of commercial elements such as a car chase (although, those elements are quite well handled). Then the film probably couldn’t have gotten financed, though.

Texas Killing Fields was originally slated to be directed by Danny Boyle, and Mann was brought in as a replacement, although you wouldn’t guess it. Her handling of the material seems personal. In one sense, it is not surprising that the conventionally-minded would not “get” what she is up to here, since the commercial elements that allow the film to get made can mislead some viewers into thinking that Texas Killing Fields is trying and failing to be a “movie-movie” thriller.

On the other hand, grounding in the auteur theory is supposed to allow more sophisticated viewers to discern individual artistic styles in ostensibly commercial movies – that’s what the theory is for, right? We know that a genre film is going to display certain tropes, and although we look at them, we also look beyond them. But apparently some film enthusiasts can only pull this off when the film-as-object is comfortably in the past, and cannot manage it when it’s a new film right under their noses. 

We should be getting all kinds of auteurist analyses of the underbrush of contemporary film production – straight-to-DVD projects, “amateur” and mumblecore films, stuff that only gets aired at a few smaller festivals. But I see very little of that sort of critical work being done. Most reviews linked at the IMDB are simplistic thumbs-up thumbs-down reactions (that’s the bad side of Roger Ebert’s influence), rather than hardcore criticism. I am seldom bowled over by the freshness or unexpectedness of these reviewers’ “takes.” I seldom see detailed argumentation that proceeds on a set of aesthetic principles.

The acting in Texas Killing Fields is sensational up and down the line. Although Sam Worthington’s hot-headed cop may appear to be a somewhat clichéd character initially, the irony is that his supposedly calm, centered partner, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, turns out to be far more of a hot-head, a dangerously obsessive guy. Worthington does the best performing I have seen from him, and inhabits his character physically, with great exactitude. But although Worthington is top-billed, it is really Morgan’s movie, and he impresses as a powerhouse presence here. The contrast between him at 6’2” and Worthington at 5’10” seems several inches greater than that, and the troubled friendship between the two men, who may love each other without even liking each other, is one of the best cop relationships on film, all the more so for being unemphatically handled.

As Worthington’s ex-wife and a commanding cop in her own right, Jessica Chastain is so authentic that you want a few more scenes for her. In an almost wordless villainous role, the versatile Jason Clarke is frighteningly edgy (and in fact is often at the edge of the frame, or of our ability to see him – he slides quickly by, a slippery eel). Stephen Graham impresses in his small lowlife role, as well, but then Graham always impresses - he and Clarke are two of the best unheralded actors in movies and television today.

And as a young girl who has been dealt the worst possible start in life, Chloe Grace Moretz, who was only 13 years old when the film was shot, recalls another great actress at that age, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver – that’s heady company. Without her, the movie would be nowhere near as moving as it is; with her, the beautifully handled final scene carries an extra punch.

My refraining from plot summary is deliberate. Texas Killing Fields is designed to make the viewer work, and each should do that work for themself.

Birthday: John James Audubon (1785-1851)

John James Audubon's gives me an excuse to post some of the delightful plates from his last work on the mammals - pardon me, "vivarious quadrupeds" - of North America. In truth, these were mostly prepared by his son John Woodhouse Audubon. Audubon himself was in failing health at this time, possibly suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, and the second and final volume of Vivarious Quadrupeds did not appear until after his death.

That is a black-footed ferret above, a species actually first described in the Western scientific literature by Audubon and his colleague the Reverend John Bachman: "It is with great pleasure that we introduce this handsome new species." Of course, this ferret also represents one of the great back-from-the brink stories in the annals of conservation. It was officially declared extinct in 1979, but was fortunately rediscovered, and today there are more than 1,200 animals in the wild, as well as captive breeding populations. The Toronto Zoo has led the way in the recovery of the species.

Arctic fox

Rocky Mountain sheep

Sea otter

North American beaver

Fox squirrel

Audubon's Animals The Quadrupeds of North America

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Birthdays: Ross Lockridge, Jr. and Howard R. Garis

Two of today's birthdays celebrants are subjects of favorite books of mine. John Leggett's Ross and Tom is a deeply moving account of the lives and suicides of Ross Lockridge (1914-1948, pictured above) and Tom Heggen (1918-1949), two best-selling "one book wonders" (Raintree County and Mister Roberts, respectively) of the late Forties.

I know that Lockridge's family disputes some of Leggett's conclusions and that Lockridge's son Larry has written his own biography, Shade of the Raintree, which I own and mean to read. But Leggett's book is beautiful and empathetic and will not be superseded; a well-written biography retains authority even when some of its facts and interpretations are later overruled.

Lockridge and Heggen were both Houghton Mifflin authors, although they missed meeting each other. Without giving too much away, I can say that the moment when Heggen learns of Lockridge's suicide is the page in Ross and Tom that haunts me the most.

The second book is, like Larry Lockridge's, a family memoir: Roger Garis's completely delightful My Father Was Uncle Wiggily, about growing up in a family of popular children's writers, including the indefatigable paterfamilias Howard R. Garis (1873-1962), whose volumes for the Stratemeyer Syndicate probably number in the hundreds (it is difficult to trace all the pseudonyms). The title of this book first caught my eye as a kid because, of course, I owned the famous Uncle Wiggily board-game ("The Evil Pipsisewah says, Go back three spaces!").

It's a great read, but there is more to the story: a few years ago Roger Garis's daughter Leslie published her own family memoir, House of Happy Endings, which details the less charming aspects of her grandparents, the mental struggles of her father (who only survived Howard by five years), and the burden-bearing of her mother.

Ross And Tom: Two American Tragedies

Raintree County (Ross Lockridge)

Shade of the Raintree, Centennial Edition: The Life and Death of Ross Lockridge, Jr., author of Raintree County

Mister Roberts: A Novel (Classics of Naval Literature)

My Father Was Uncle Wiggily: The Story of the Remarkable Garis Family

House of Happy Endings: A Memoir

Uncle Wiggily Board Game

Older Office Buildings

[I first published this piece in my previous blog Patrick Murtha's Diary in 2011. I am not aware of any changes in the buildings' status.]

I am saddened to read of the dilapidated state of the Peoples Bank and Trust Co. Building (663 Main Avenue) in my hometown of Passaic, New Jersey. It has been vacant for more than two decades, and although redevelopment has been pushed, it has not materialized. The 11 story art deco tower, built in 1931, was beautiful in its prime but is now just a wreck.

There must be so many buildings like this on Main Streets in small cities across America -- the eight story First National Bank Building at 404 N. Main Street in Oshkosh, Wisconsin (1927), comes immediately to mind.

These onetime gems were built for the needs of a different era and are not easily re-purposed; rehabilitation is inexpensive and, in a period of economic decline, possibly foolhardy (it cost more than $2 million to remove the asbestos from the Passaic tower, in anticipation of a sale that hasn't happened). I adore these buildings, but what do you do with them?

Peoples Bank and Trust Company, Passaic, New Jersey

Passaic Bank Tower gamble may not pay off

One option the city never considered was demolition...The building, known as the "Bank Tower" was built in 1931 to house the Peoples Bank and Trust Co. Over the years, law firms, medical offices and professional services have been among its tenants. The tower, with its large, expansive street-level windows, pierces the city's skyline. It has been vacant for two decades. 

"Its historic value, its aesthetic value is extremely important," said Fernandez. "It's the city's history. As a longtime resident of this community, it's something you can relate to the downtown area." Those who grew up in Passaic connect the tower to better days. "It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful," said city historian Mark Auerbach. "It was a destination. It was the jewel of downtown."

First National Bank Building, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

The Daily Breeze

A little newspaper called the Daily Breeze keeps popping up on my radar. It is a member of a large consortium called the MediaNews Group and serves the communities of the South Bay area in Greater Los Angeles, including Torrance where its office is located. Its circulation is small - only 70,000. But earlier this week, it pulled off a coup when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for a series on school district corruption.

Slate and other media outlets quickly picked up on the irony that one of the two beat reporters on that series, Rob Kuznia, had already left newspaper journalism for public relations because he wasn't make enough money for a basic lifestyle ("he said it was too difficult to make ends meet at the newspaper while renting in the LA area").

So, if there are any solvent metro newspapers around looking for a very capable reporter, it looks like there's a stray Pulitzer winner sitting around. Just saying.

One of Monday’s Pulitzer Prize Winners Left Journalism Because It Couldn’t Pay His Rent. Now He’s in PR.

But what does that have to do with the lovely classic postcard atop this post? (Click on it, it looks great in large scale.) Well, I was already aware of the Daily Breeze because I subscribe to its superb blog South Bay History, curated by Sam Gnerre. This is unquestionably one of the best local history blogs I have encountered anywhere.

A post just went up on the establishment pictured in the postcard, a combo drive-in restaurant and motel called Patmar's that existed from 1939 to 1960:

Patmar’s drive-in was a primo hangout spot in El Segundo

Love the architecture! It can't quite be considered Googie because it is a little early - but a precursor, maybe? When the complex was closed down in 1960, a local liked the restaurant building enough to buy it and move it to the El Segundo Golf Course, where it served as the pro shop for about 30 years. It was finally torn down in 1993 - with regrets, but the deterioration of the structure's innards had progressed beyond the point of economically viable repair.

So overall, keep up the good work, Daily Breeze!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Book: The Wreckers (Bella Bathurst)

The title of this grand survey of nautical true crime presents an ambiguity right up front. Are wreckers people who cause shipwrecks in order to profit from them, or only people who passively take advantage of such shipwrecks as occur? In a sense, the entire book is devoted to teasing out the implications of that question. Bella Bathurst takes us round (literally) the island of Britain in this "Story of Killing Seas and Plundered Shipwrecks, from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day," and in the process we meet not only wreckers under both definitions, but representatives of many other related "breeds": hovellers, salvors, pilots, lifesavers, lighthouse keepers, smugglers, and beachmen. (The Thames River has its own even more colorfully named types: river pirates, day and night plunderers, mudlarks, rat-catchers, and scuffle-hunters.) Many of these, no matter what skullduggery they engaged in, were (and needed to be) exceptional seamen.

Bathurst investigates, tours, and conducts interviews in seven wrecking zones:

  • The Goodwin Sands off Kent in the English Channel
  • The Pentland Firth in the north of Scotland
  • The Scilly Isles
  • The Hebrides on the West Coast of Scotland
  • The Thames
  • Cornwall
  • The East Coast of England (specifically the Norfolk / Suffolk / Essex area)

The geographical detail is delightful. The treacherous Goodwin Sands come and go with the tides:

The island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth, once modestly populated and kind of a Wrecker Central, is now abandoned to the elements:

The "garden isles" of Scilly are guarded by the forbidding Western Rocks:

Off the Scottish island of Mull, a boating George Orwell once nearly went down in the infamous Corryvreckan Whirlpool:

Wrecking has its strongest public associations in Cornwall and in the Scillies, where several generations of photographing Gibsons made beautiful images of disaster, such as the one atop this post, and these:

Museum acquires famed Gibson shipwreck photos

But the Gibsons hardly had a monopoly on striking images of wreck:

Here is a more modern wreck, the RMS Mulheim which grounded at Land's End in Cornwall in 2003:

The chapter on always-picturesque Cornwall in The Wreckers is one of Bathurst's most amusing, as the Cornish persistently try to capitalize economically and touristically on their heritage of wrecking, while simultaneously denying that most of it ever happened. Fact and fiction become hard to disentangle here, as much of Cornwall's reputation for deliberate wrecking (putting out "false lights" and such) is derived second-hand from Daphne Du Maurier's popular 1936 novel Jamaica Inn, and the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock film based on it.

The real Jamaica Inn still exists on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, and is understandably popular with visitors.

"Jamaica Inn2" by Stewart MacInnes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Another piece of popular culture that shaped perceptions of wrecking is Compton Mackenzie's 1947 novel Whisky Galore, along with Alexander Mackendrick's 1949 film adaptation. This story is based on a real incident, the grounding of the cargo ship SS Politician in the Hebrides in 1941. From the wreckers' standpoint, general cargo ships are usually the best prizes, carrying as they do all manner of useful, valuable, and just plain interesting goods. Given that there was a whisky shortage in Scotland in 1941 owing to World War II, the fact that the Politician was carrying several hundred thousand bottles of superb whisky bound for export to the United States was one of those once-in-a-lifetime pieces of good fortune that you just don't argue with.

Wrecking may not be what it once was, but Bathurst points out that it will continue to exist as long as there are ships at sea, and Great Britain still boasts a public official with the nifty title of "Receiver of Wreck." All salvage is supposed to be reported, and this has been the case for a very long time, but the problem has always been getting people to report, and most officials have ultimately looked the other way rather than pressing the point. Although, as Bathurst points out, "There is not a single line in the laws of England or Scotland which supports the notion of 'finders keepers'," the idea is deeply ingrained in the populace and will never disappear.

There is a continuum between casual beachcombing and the sort of actively malicious wrecking that involves false signaling, leaving wreck victims to die while retrieving their goods, and cutting fingers or biting ears off corpses in order to retrieve jewelry. At some point on that continuum, understandable high spirits give way to unforgivable criminality, but identifying the exact spot where the crossing-over takes place is not easy by the lights of law, philosophy, or even common sense. That's part of what makes wrecking a great subject. Bella Bathurst has done full justice to it.

The Wreckers (Bella Bathurst)

A Century of Images: Photographs by the Gibson Family

Jamaica Inn (Daphne Du Maurier)

Jamaica Inn: 75th Anniversary Edition [Blu-ray]

Whisky Galore

Whisky Galore (Alexander Mackendrick)