Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Stove-Junker (S.K. Kalsi)

In an excellent, depressing, and undoubtedly realistic 2012 blog post entitled " 'It Can't Be Done': The Difficulty of Growing a Jazz Audience," Kurt Ellenberger notes:

...most of the music we are trying to build an audience for is cognitively demanding. So we're looking for some marketing, education, packaging or programming strategy that will influence and/or supersede both personal taste and the enormous pressures of the dominant popular culture; at the same time, we're asking people to commit to an art form that will tax (and probably frustrate) their capabilities before, hopefully, delivering a heightened aesthetic experience.

Most people, even most educated and intelligent people, don't want to grapple with cognitively demanding material in their leisure time. Attempts to make them want to - Oprah Winfrey's 2005 "Summer of Faulkner" is a great example - are almost always foreordained to failure. Dragging those who are not accomplished swimmers into the deep end of the pool is more likely to alarm them than stimulate or satisfy them.

I say this by way of preface to introducing a beautiful novel by a clearly gifted author - S.K. Kalsi's The Stove-Junker. As it happens, Faulkner is the first author that Kalsi acknowledges in a list of influences in the "Acknowledgements" at the back of the book, and the comparison is not an over-reach, because the commonalities are apparent:

  • Stream-of-consciousness writing style
  • Dense, poetic, highly specific prose
  • Unreliable narration
  • Thickly described place-setting (in Kalsi's case, Luzerne County in Northeast Pennsylvania)
  • Only a couple of inches beneath the highly figured modernist surface, you find a melodramatic, potentially pulpy story of a deeply dysfunctional family across a couple of generations, with heavy "shadows of the past" 
This last point is what makes Kalsi more Faulknerian than Joycean (Joyce is the second writer he thanks). Joyce is NOT melodramatic; he does a deep dive into ordinary clear water. Faulkner and Kalsi leap, too, but into a muck of sin and unresolved goop. That is a big difference.

The specificity of the prose is worth pondering. Let me choose a Kalsi passage that is very detailed without being difficult:

Everything can kill you. The elements, wind, water, sun, cold, heat, everything is dangerous, coiled to strike your heart. I entered the medicine aisle, surrounded by shelves of fever-reducing pills and cough syrups, diabetic foot creams and salves for insect bites, joint braces for sprained wrists and ankles, and wraps for bruised knees. They had every remedy, for everything from chronic flatulence to dry eyes, sleeplessness to foot odor, gum disease to earwax, but what about loss? Maybe St. John's Wort, maybe Stinging Nettle, maybe a cocktail of B-complex vitamins and fish oils? They offered you power bars to build muscle, testosterone pills for a lazy libido, vitamin-infused water, lotions that promised to liquefy your skin, making it buttery soft and impervious to the harmful sun. They offered ointments for psoriasis, stress packs and fiber powders to regulate your bowels. Simple solutions to complex problems.

Notice how this forces you to deal with profusion in precision, at a level of attentiveness that we seldom attempt in "real life." The fact is that generalities (even cliches) are comforting and relaxing, whereas poetic precision is exhausting. It must be taken slowly (which is part of the point). It makes you think. Many people do not want to think, or to experience anything that intensely and densely. Even romantic love, which is intense by definition and should be specific (because you love this person and not that one, right?) often resolves in people's minds and emotions into vague and universal simplicities. Easier that way.  

The audience for a novel such as this, therefore, is self-selecting once they know of its existence; it's the ones who revel in the cognitive challenges. Others will scent trouble ahead, because the instinct for avoidance of certain materials operates in them powerfully and unerringly. Needless to say, I hope you are in the first group. But I do my job by putting the facts of the case in front of you.

Plot? Characters? I'll step out one inch on this: The Stove-Junker is about a man who goes home. Or thinks he does:

...I wonder if I'm inventing my life by remembering it? Perhaps I am. Perhaps imagination is a compensation for what I cannot remember. Perhaps tale-telling to fill up the time and ease this heart is a compensation for what I cannot remember. Maybe I am imagining being home, imagining the Dutch barn, the cold air and this boy. Maybe the dog is not barking and what I think is real is just imagination?

Or perhaps there is a kinship with the movie Carnival of Souls, and at a certain point in the narrative, the protagonist Somerset Garden changes states without being ready to admit it. Clues are provided but (it will not surprise you to learn) no definite answers, because it just isn't that sort of book.

I leave the exploration to you.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Radio: The Black Museum

I went to my long list of old time radio shows and chose an unfamiliar one at random. What I got was a great show with an interesting history, and deliciously dark – The Black Museum. It was one of several Scotland Yard-themed shows that played in the U.K. and the U.S. in the late Forties and early Fifties. A syndicated program made in England, it was produced by Harry Alan Towers and narrated by none other than Orson Welles (who also starred in The Lives of Harry Lime for Towers around the same time). The modus operandi of the show was for Welles to select an object from Scotland Yard’s “Black Museum” and lead us into a dramatization of the particular murder case it was associated with. These “curious and repellent” mementoes gave each episode its title, such as “The Brass Button” from early in the run, which I listened to. The actual case it is based on occurred in 1942, although the dramatization is so loose as to be almost unrecognizable:

August Sangret

Welles naturally makes a splendidly melodramatic host. The Black Museum differed from a U.S.-produced counterpart called Whitehall 1212 in that it was not purely procedural, but “included scenes of the actual murders and….scenes from the criminal’s point of view.” All to the benefit of this episode, which starts with an eccentric and apparently man-averse young woman sketching on the outskirts of a village in Kent. She is approached by a soldier who seems friendly enough, but won’t take no for an answer….Rape is very strongly implied, although not mentioned as such during the rest of the story. The scene is creepy and quite effective. The procedural elements that dominate the rest of the episode hold the interest well, and of course center around the brass button from a battle jacket that the soldier inadvertently left behind him.

There are nice character touches, such as the bitterness of the victim’s mum – not over the murder, but over her daughter’s oddity of character! (Adding all the details up, it is quite possible that the writer meant to suggest a lesbian sub-text.) The postal delivery-boy who discovered the body is palpably disappointed that the Scotland Yard investigators don’t grill him longer. One of the soldiers from the local base who comes under suspicion tries to stonewall the inspectors about having been AWOL at the relevant time, until he realizes that it’s a murder he’s being questioned about. The actual killer is cleverly tripped up by the inspectors when he is confronted. A background hum of gossip and chit-chat round about the village and at the local pub in the wake of the murder adds considerable atmosphere. All in all, it’s a jolly good show.

Here is more information about The Black Museum:

The Black Museum

The Black Museum

“The Brass Button” is accessible along with other episodes at this page:

The Black Museum

Many of the old time radio pages have episodes of The Black Museum, which ran 52 episodes, all still extant.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Non-Fiction Bestsellers, Often Unimpressive

Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City is going to come in for renewed attention now that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have committed to the movie version. The book has been in "development hell" for a decade, but Scorsese / DiCaprio is a high-profile - albeit somewhat predictable - outcome. Although why Scorsese thinks that DiCaprio is the right actor for every role that has ever been written is simply beyond me.

Something else I don't get is the esteem in which this book is held. Sure, it's a reasonably compelling read. But the book cannot be categorized fairly as non-fiction, because Larson constantly cheats - which is to say, makes stuff up, including dialogue and descriptions of his characters' thought processes. He goes freely into their minds on no warrant. How could one respect the author's journalistic or historical integrity? He takes the easy way out time and again.

Besides that, the yoking together of the "Devil" and "White City" themes is forced and awkward, reading on every page as if Larson is straining for the bestseller he eventually got.

It is a low form of endeavor altogether, and has had a baleful effect on other narrative non-fiction writers. Michael Capuzzo's Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916, although worth reading, is a much worse book for Larson's palpable influence, as are many others. One can practically hear the literary agents and publishers at the authors' elbows, commanding them to sex it up.
There is a kind of social capital to be had from reading this sort of non-fiction bestseller because others will have read them or at least heard of them. But there is an enormous variability in their quality.

Another badly overrated item that is forthcoming as a movie (James Gray / Charlie Hunnam) is David Grann's The Lost City of Z. There are no new revelations in this book, and the significance of the story is not clear. Percy Fawcett's 1925 expedition into the Amazon was an old-fashioned, underfunded, under-equipped fiasco with an unscientific goal. The "lost city" theory was unworthy of a man of intelligence, but fits in perfectly, as Grann does admit, with Fawcett's spurious spiritualism. So to me this came across more as a tale of stupidity than a tale of bravery.

There is a frisson of uneasiness to be had from the notion of the jungle swallowing so many explorers, both Fawcett's party and many of the subsequent expeditions that tried to find him. But as a functional modern magazine writer, Grann brings no sense of poetry or awe to the narrative. The chapters that describe his own adventures are especially blah and reveal him as an inadequate researcher. He gets all worked up over seeing a supposedly inaccessible document that was already available in English translation and that you or I could have found. He offers a very sketchy summary in his last chapter of some interesting modern scholarship concerning the Amazon region which seems meant to vindicate poor Fawcett, and to justify Grann's own superfluous trek into the jungle, but it does not accomplish either task convincingly, and so brings the book to a flat conclusion.

Friday, August 21, 2015

"The Ballad of John and Yoko"

Bill Crider posted this as a "Song of the Day" at his blog, and I couldn't resist commenting, because I have thought about this song a lot:

For such a charming and funny song, "The Ballad of John and Yoko" actually posed a challenge to pop singer-songwriters that has not been much taken up: to dash off songs as quick commentaries on what is going on right this minute. Doing this well would require keen observational and verbal skills, as well as ready access to catchy and functional tunes that can frame the lyrics (so perhaps it simply takes too much talent!). The notion of newsy songs is related (as Lennon's title indicates) to the ballad tradition, which has had some continuing relevance in folk music, Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" perhaps being the best-known example; and also to Tom Lehrer and Mark Russell-style satiric political songs. But I'm not aware of anyone out there doing quite what Lennon did here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Acting...It's Not for Sissies (Nicole Comer)

Although Entertainment Tonight and pre-awards red carpet shows would have you believe otherwise, acting really isn't that glamorous a profession. At any given time, the rewards of fame and money that many associate with acting are flowing to at most a couple of hundred individuals, among countless thousands who are plying the craft. (Of course, you can substitute the words music, writing, sports, and quite a few others for "acting" in that sentence; it truly has become a "winner take all" world.) Worse, nothing, not even an Academy Award, guarantees continued placement in that group. If you don't believe me, take a gander at the complete IMDB credits of Faye Dunaway.

And yet, for those that love their art and can't imagine doing anything else, "working actor" is a proud, realistic, and honorable badge. Nicole Comer's delightful book is aimed at that population, and those who would join it. You'll have to get your starshine fix somewhere else.

Comer has been in the trenches for a good while, as a performer, coach, staffing agent, and, inevitably, odd-jobber. Along the way, she has developed a keen sense of how acting works as a business, especially in Los Angeles (and it could fairly be said that this guide is L.A.-centric). She has gathered her insights, anecdotes, scar tissue, and sass into this short, non-nonsense book that bypasses discussion of acting technique (she assumes you have other sources for that) for a penetrating look at how to optimize your chances for survival in a difficult industry.

Is the book just for aspiring actors, then? Far from it, actually. I think that anyone is who is trying to freelance or build a solo service business in any field would benefit strongly from what Comer shares here. The book takes less than two hours to read and is a heck of a lot of fun besides, so it is an excellent investment.

As it happens, beyond being a film critic myself since my college days - I made part of my living at it in my 20s, imagine - I have other connections to the Los Angeles film and television scene. A college friend has worked as an entertainment reporter there, and my sister, who has a bachelor's degree in drama and a master's degree in television, has spent many years in casting and production. Through them and their connections I have heard a lot about the ups and downs of the business. And Nicole Comer is exactly right, it is not for the faint-hearted. 

Comer has solid brass-tacks advice on such issues as finding your acting niche (you can't expand beyond your niche until you have one), having headshots done (a very thorough chapter), joining the Screen Actor's Guild, working with agents and talent managers, attending workshops (an extremely valuable activity), keeping up with the TV world (viewing every series becomes part of your work), and navigating "pilot season." Just about everything she says chimes with discussions I have had with my sister, and both have wickedly funny stories about the jerks one encounters in the industry (along with surprisingly many solid, grounded individuals).

I think the only bone of contention between their points of view would involve Los Angeles theater, specifically non-Equity productions. Comer is kind of down on the idea of involving oneself too heavily in this world, suggesting that daytime theater rehearsals impair an actor's ability to take auditions for film, television, and commercials, and that industry types don't much attend non-Equity shows, so the chances of being seen and appreciated are few.

My sister, who has worked extensively as a stage manager on non-Equity shows, would demur. She tells me that she can almost always re-arrange rehearsal work around an actor's audition needs, and that industry types indeed show up at the performances with great frequency, in part because there are usually at least a couple of experienced television actors in the cast of any given show. She has been surprised by who she has seen in audiences. 

Well, great minds don't always agree. But Nicole Comer is never doctrinaire about any of the opinions she expresses; she is explicit about the fact that she is coaching from the perspective of what she has seen and experienced herself, and Your Mileage May Vary. You actors out there would do well to avail yourselves of what she has to offer. As a freelance writer, I learned from it too.  

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962 (David Meuel)

Even though the literature on film noir continues to grow at a dizzying pace, there is still some virgin territory to be claimed. David Meuel's The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962 would appear to be the first book-length treatment of its subject (I say "appears to be" because such assertions have a way of being disproven later). The concept of noir westerns as a subset of "off-genre noirs" goes back a long way, and has been discussed in sections of books (such as Alain Silver et al.'s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, which first appeared in 1979) and in articles (such as Michael Shepler's 2008 "Sagebrush Noir: The Western as 'Social Problem" Film," which oddly goes unmentioned by Meuel). But it has long merited fuller treatment, and Meuel's well-written, engaging study is an excellent start on that. There will certainly be more books on the subject ahead.

Discussions of film noir can easily bog down in definitional disputes, which even though I am a participant at one of the best noir discussion boards, The Blackboard, I try to steer clear of. Although "film noir" was first used as a descriptor in France in the late 1940s, it was not a recognized term in the United States until the early 1970s. Therefore, as one of our finest noir scholars James Naremore has pointed out, it is "a concept that was generated ex post facto." No director or screenwriter of the "classic noir period" (fairly close to Meuel's defined dates of 1943 to 1962) would have known at the time that noir films were what they were making. It was inevitable that complete consensus on the use of the term would never be reached, and it has not been; as Naremore states, "no writer has been able to find the category's necessary and sufficient characteristics." The edges of the phenomenon are blurry even if the core is not.

In dealing with a branch of off-genre noir, David Meuel is necessarily operating at the edges, where disputes about what is in and what is out are potentially the most bruising. I'm not going to worry it. He has chosen 21 films by 11 directors to concentrate on, while identifying another 50 relevant movies in an appendix. His arguments on behalf of the inclusion of the 21 films are reasonably persuasive without amounting to a "Meuel test" for what constitutes a noir western. Thematic complexity, psychological depth, visual style, and bleakness of outlook all figure into his analysis, but in differing proportions with respect to each title and director.

When you look at it that way, the scope of the noir western could be construed very broadly. Any double fan of noir and westerns, and there are many, will readily think of some titles that Meuel has not listed - Joseph Kane's Ride the Man Down or Don Siegel's The Duel at Silver Creek, for instance (both 1952). In fact, it is harder to exclude many 1946-1960 Westerns from consideration than it is to include them. If one combs carefully through any of the numerous printed iterations of Phil Hardy's indispensable work on the Western, many of the descriptions of obscure A-/B+ Westerns spring off the page as meriting viewing and additional research in connection with this theme. And no one, as far as I am aware, has even started working on the noir strain in television Westerns.

So Meuel is a pioneer, and all that ultimately matters is whether he is a good pioneer, which he manifestly is. He found the spot-on publisher for this sort of material, McFarland, which has long specialized in offering the findings of independent scholars in popular culture, whose work is many cuts above mere fan writing, but generally more accessible and less jargon-ridden than the books that university presses put out. (Many such volumes are invaluable, but may present more of a challenge to the uninitiated.)

Well before the tag "noir" was applied to Westerns, the sort of movies that Meuel discusses were called adult, psychological, serious, and literary Westerns, and later, as we headed into the Sixties and Seventies, revisionist Westerns. An equally good description for some of them would be "arthouse Westerns"; in fact, a book parallel to Meuel's and covering many of the same films could be written that minimized references to noir and concentrated on how the arthouse attitude came to shape a genre one might think would be immune to it. I have a soft spot for many of the more extreme arthouse Westerns that Meuel resists a little bit - Anthony Mann's The Furies, William Wellman's Track of the Cat, Delmer Daves' Jubal - although he does very well by Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident, one of the very first arthouse Westerns. Somehow John Ford always escapes being labeled "arthouse," despite the obvious fact that every single last thing in his films, every frame, is intensely considered.

The shift to more "adult" Westerns involved a number of directors, among whom Anthony Mann has received his just due, and Delmer Daves definitely has not. Meuel has a fine feel for the different personalities and strategies of these directors and honors all of them, who in addition to Mann, Ford, Wellman, and Daves include Budd Boetticher and Sam Fuller (long cult favorites), Raoul Walsh (not one bit inferior to the more celebrated Howard Hawks), Robert Wise (a supreme craftsman), Henry King, Allan Dwan, and Andre De Toth.

In short, this is a highly worthy addition to the film buff's bookshelf.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Television: Bourbon Street Beat

Bourbon Street Beat, which only ran during the 1959-1960 television season, was the least successful of the four linked Warner Brothers detective series produced around that time. The other three are 77 Sunset Strip (6 seasons, 1958-1964), Hawaiian Eye (4 seasons, 1959-1963), and Surfside 6 (2 seasons, 1960-1962). Despite the supposed geographic diversity of the shows – New Orleans, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Miami – all were actually shot on the same California back lot. This made “cross-overs” a snap, and they were frequent! A few years later, this sort of everywhere-nowhere studio shooting would have seemed dated, as detective shows branched out (to their benefit, I think) on location: Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco, Kojak.

All of the Warner Brothers quartet initially featured pairs or trios of handsome detectives, as well as glamour chick female employees; “colorful” sidekicks appeared on a couple of the shows, most famously Edd “Kookie” Byrnes of 77 Sunset Strip. When Bourbon Street sounded its last Beat, its lead character, Richard Long’s Rex Randolph, moved over to 77 Sunset Strip, while Van Williams’s Kenny Madison joined the youthful brigade on the new Surfside 6. (Later, after Surfside 6 met its own demise, its star Troy Donahue, in a different character, joined the cast of 77 Sunset Strip.)

Left behind in New Orleans was Andrew Duggan’s Cal Calhoun, who rejoined the regular police force from whence he came and was later featured in a 1962 77 Sunset Strip episode in which Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s Stu Bailey visits New Orleans. Duggan also guested five other times on 77 Sunset Strip in five different roles; watching a heavy dose of these series is absolutely guaranteed to provoke déjà vu! (Plots are also recycled between the shows.)

The episode “Wall of Silence” starts in “Luzon Village” in Louisiana Bayou Country where, improbably, a sizable group of refugees from an unspecified Communist country in the Balkans have been relocated. They talk in anxious whispers because they are being collectively blackmailed by someone who knows their dark secret! – the secret is just as improbable, although I won’t spoil your pleasure by revealing it. One brave soul played by the ubiquitous character actor Jay Novello takes a journey to the Big Easy to hire a private detective to get them out of this mess. He pays Rex Randolph’s secretary a retainer, but immediately gets cold feet and takes off because Rex can get back to the office from a nearby joint (the Absinthe House!) where he’s romancing one of his no-doubt many gals. This particular sweetie is talking marriage a little aggressively, which makes Rex happy for the interruption.

By the bye, all the Warner P.I. shows, and many similar series of the era such as Checkmate, Follow the Sun, and The Brothers Brannagan, are united in their espousal of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy lifestyle, clearly demonstrating, although not saying in so many words, that marriage is for squares and losers. Our heroes may seem gallant, but when it comes to women, they subscribe to the old “4F” philosophy – find ‘em, feel ‘em…you know.

Back to our story: Naturally a curious Rex goes nosing around Luzon Village, and naturally he runs into the “wall of silence,” getting told to hoof it out of town if he knows what’s good for him – a familiar drill. For this, the local color portion of our program, the bayou set is actually not bad. (Luzon Village is supposed to be on Barataria Bay, which is about 40 miles due south of New Orleans on the Gulf Coast.)

Soon the plot thickens with a murder-made-to-look-like-a-suicide (chance for a noir visual) and the deaf-mute boy who discovers the body (and who turns out to be a significant little chap in several ways). To resolve the mystery, Rex has to rely on the rest of the manpower in his office and, in a clever bit of sleuthing by partner Cal Calhoun (this must be the Alliterative Detective Agency!), the almighty reach of the United States Postal Service.

Louisiana-based swamp noir inevitably plays off the “alien” quality of the Cajun subculture – rural, non-terrestrial, closed off, presumably inbred, and not even linguistically English. Walter Hill’s tense, underrated film Southern Comfort is a key example. (Of course, as with any dramatic use of stereotyping, this runs a considerable risk of insensitivity.) In this episode, that trope is slightly underplayed – although the chief villain still turns out to be a Cajun, his opposite number, the village hero, is also Cajun, and neither is too exaggeratedly ethnic. Instead, the ethnic strangeness is largely displaced onto the transplanted Balkans (who might have been more at home in terrain like Minnesota’s or Maine’s, perhaps?).

All in all, an entertaining hour of television. For me, one of the chief appeals of this particular era of the private investigator is the Playboy swankiness I mentioned – in Bourbon Street Beat, Richard Long’s Rex Randolph is smart, suave, dapper, has a fab bachelor pad, and an office next door to a jazz club. I mean what could be better, right? My favorite scene here has Rex comparing the merits of slivovitz, raki, ouzo, and absinthe –it’s a tough job but someone has to do it. Forties P.I.s often lived pretty ascetically, but from the mid-Fifties through the late Sixties, their lifestyle turned consumerist, and frankly looks a lot more fun. I take Ralph Meeker’s Mike Hammer to be a pivot point with that, as in other ways. The TV detectives of the time kept Hammer’s cool stuff, but forewent the atom bombs. They are without desperation either internally or externally provoked – therefore, I would say that they have moved beyond noir.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

How I Rank the Republicans' Chances

Right this minute...

1. Jeb Bush - On the strength of his name and the fundraising capacity that goes with it. It's certainly not anything else he brings to the table.

2. Marco Rubio - He's young, he's handsome, he's articulate, he's Hispanic, he held his own nicely in the debate. A "gifted politician," as one Democratic commentator put it.

3. Carly Fiorina - Coming out of nowhere, she absolutely killed the junior varsity debate and was the toast of the night in general.

4. Rand Paul - He is NOT running a particularly good campaign. But he is interesting and distinctive. No shot at a VP slot though, unlike Rubio and Fiorina.

5. Donald Trump - The wild card. I may have him too low or too high, who knows. I think the debate hurt him.

6. Scott Walker - Totally lackluster, too bland for a national campaign, made no impact during the debate whatsoever. He would be a credible VP possibility, except SO boring. A much less telegenic Paul Ryan.

7. Chris Christie - His combativeness simply will not wear well over the long haul, and he has more negative baggage than almost any of the 17. He will not be anyone's VP pick. His star has really faded.

8. Ted Cruz - He can't keep up with Trump in the crazy department, and hell, that's his strong suit.

9. John Kasich - This year's Tim Pawlenty.

10. Mike Huckabee - I used to think, well, at least he has a sense of humor. But what an embarrassment the man has become.

11. Ben Carson - He is not disgracing himself, which is something.

12. Rick Perry - Didn't do too badly in the J.V. debate, but has a long history of stupid.

13. Bobby Jindal - Also OK in the J.V., but for some reason I cannot take him seriously. Is it superficial of me to note that, like Walker, he lacks the handsomeness a male candidate in this day and age needs? It probably IS superficial, but it's also probably true.

14. Rick Santorum - I assume he wants to maintain his visibility for reasons other than thinking he has a genuine shot at the candidacy.

15. Lindsey Graham - Why?

16. George Pataki - Why?

17. Jim Gilmore - Why, oh why?

I think the most solid team that the GOP could put up against Hillary would be Rubio-Fiorina. Appeal to youth, women, Latinos - hitting the Dems where they're strong. Rubio would look majorly vigorous next to the increasingly grandmotherly Clinton. He could pull off an upset, while Jeb would just put everyone to sleep.

My guess is that Hillary is rightly looking very hard at Martin O'Malley for her VP. I think he would be a superb pick. He and Fiorina debating would be something else. I hope that happens.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

I Am Lion (Mambo Banda II)

Independent and self-publishing can easily encompass a category of "outsider literature," akin to outsider art and music in that it does not follow the usual rules. Mambo Banda II's magical realist allegorical political thriller I Am Lion qualifies as outsider literature in that sense, although it is probably also drawing on African narrative traditions that may only seem unusual from a different cultural perspective.

The outsider feeling of the text is magnified, though, because of its rough-hewn quality. Not to put too fine a point on it, the book could use a copy-editor! A professional editor would catch the misspellings, tidy up the frequent run-on sentences, and eliminate some worse problems (like a couple of patches of formatting instructions that somehow got dumped into the narrative on pages 151 and 189).

There can be a question, of course, as to when persistent "errors" become part of a style. Controversy formed around the novels of the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola (1920-1997) - was his "broken English" a reinforcement of Western stereotypes about uneducated Africans, or was it merely vernacular? (The debate has swung in favor of the second viewpoint.) Undoubtedly Mambo Banda's prose does reflect local African uses of English which should not be entirely edited away in favor of a smoother and more banal product. For example, this run-on sentence is fairly effective because it conveys a sense of motion:

Aaron tried the elevator but it was out of service, he used the stairs, slowly he ascended up the unforgiving stairs.

But I do think that the text could be tweaked in unobtrusive ways that would encourage more readers to engage with it.

And what is it exactly that they will be engaging with? The story opens with a homeless man named Lion who does not remember his past. The context is an unspecified African geography (Portuguese and Arabic are spoken as well as English) where Pathos City and Solemn Island are in sight of each other, but jurisdictionally separate albeit desperately tangled. Lion will find himself involved in a Machiavellian fever-dream of revolution, terror, bureaucracy, assassination, political marriage, street gang activity, and boring conference presentations, and the deeper in he goes the more he will recover of the lost parts of his own journey.

Imagination is not lacking here, and neither is narrative drive. Even when the story became dauntingly convoluted or went off on sidetracks (such as a passage with a ghostly guide that seems to have parachuted in from Dickens' A Christmas Carol, or an overly detailed description of a fistfight), I turned pages speedily. I cannot say that I was entirely satisfied at the finish - there were too many nagging loose ends. (Where did you go, Princess Deborah?) But the book was undoubtedly a trip.

So do I recommend I Am Lion? That's a tough call. It's clearly not for everyone. I believe it would benefit not just from the copy-editing I mentioned, but from one further general overhaul to clarify parts of the story that are more confusing and ungrounded than they need to be. Some confusion is atmospheric; too much is trying.

Mambo Banda's vivid descriptive prose is generally a highlight of the reading experience:

The moon cast a fatigued radiance, making it difficult to see anything. It was absolutely silent with the exception of a seething noise in the background, relenting and unending. Different smells filled the air, but one scent dominated, the smell of rotting mangos. Dawn approached and slowly relieved the night of its duty. The darkness began to vanish, slowly revealing the true nature of the place. The seething background sound continued even after the night faded away.

Now, that is imperfect - for one thing, he means "relentless" (or "unrelenting"), not "relenting." But "the smell of rotting mangos" is nicely specific; the notion that, if radiance helps us to see, "fatigued radiance" might prevent us from seeing, is intriguing; and "slowly relieved the night of the duty" is an excellent turn of phrase. These are the opening words of the novel, and they unquestionably got me interested. 

But sometimes when Banda is just trying to push the story forward, the language gets flat-footed:

One fateful morning everything changed; an unpredictable set of events would rip Salim's world apart.

The dialogue, which is the primary way we "know" the characters, lacks differentiation and can be stilted in effect. I found myself able to live with that, but I do think the people in the story, Lion aside, could be fleshed out more fully in ways other than their spoken language. I don't really have mental pictures of them.

So-o-o-o - the book has substance and urgency, but is not (yet) everything it could be. I could recommend a revised and corrected version more confidently. For now, I Am Lion is for the adventurous reader who does not mind carrying a machete into the jungle territory of literature.

I Am Lion

Alan Ladd

There is something ambiguous and mysterious about Alan Ladd -- maybe it is his slight blankness, the fact that you could project onto him -- that made him natural casting for Jay Gatsby, even if the movie didn't turn out so great.

It also helps explain why he is far and away the most iconic male noir star among gay men. I believe this was always the case; recall the photo of Ladd taped inside Sal Mineo's locker in Rebel without a Cause. (Mineo would later say that he played Plato as film's first "gay teenager" at Nicholas Ray's express instruction.)

Ladd aged rapidly after 35, which was fairly common in those days, but his aging did not give him the physical authority it bestows on some actors; he went from being boyish to looking like an oldish boy.

(Aging can be especially hard on shorter actors in Hollywood, I think; Audie Murphy's career also started to fizzle after 35, and even the great James Cagney had to make major adjustments and develop as a character actor.)

Ultimately Ladd's story, with his attempted gun suicide at 49 and his eventual fatal overdose at 50, is one of Hollywood's saddest. His alcoholic mother had committed suicide years before; probably he was always at risk, and not well-equipped emotionally to deal with the downslope of a movie career. An interviewer asked him in 1961, "What would you change about yourself if you could?", and he replied, "Everything."

Monday, August 3, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Radio: The Whistler

The Whistler is a know-it-all. He'll narrate your doom while snarking at your stupidity, posing endless rhetorical questions that you can't hear (but we in the radio audience can). The formula for this popular anthology series was a durable one that lasted almost 700 episodes, and had separate movie and television incarnations as well.

Glancing through an episode list, I noticed the title "Danger Is a Beautiful Blonde," and thought, Well that sounds classic enough. The story was broadcast three times on The Whistler, in 1945 (with war-time references), 1949, and 1951. I listened to the 1945 broadcast first and was immediately taken with the quality of the voice acting and the first act set-up.

Van Stevens is a good-looking young single engineer on assignment in an unfamiliar West Coast city, who gets street-cruised and ultimately picked up by a swanky woman in a nice car on a Saturday night. Given that he was facing a boring night alone, our Van can't believe his good fortune. The dame takes him back to her impressive beach mansion (with a Picasso on the wall), and the game is on. The actors (whom I have not been able to identify) capture the thrill of the pick-up scenario very well, and the atmosphere is thickly erotic. But of course, the young woman has an ulterior motive that's not exactly sexual...

In a movie, with some time to work with, this opening might have been spun out interestingly, but a half-hour radio program only has about 25 minutes of actual plot-time, and this has got to move fast! And so it does, if not entirely satisfyingly. The character of the femme fatale Doris seems dangerous one minute, dippy the next. The closing segment features a genuine deus ex machina in the form of a policeman who is actually completely on top of the situation and able to explain every last thing that has happened! The man is an honest-to-goodness doom preventer for Van Stevens. It's kind of a surprise ending simply because that sort of spot-on official assistance is seldom offered in noir, where typically a good chunk of the problems come from policemen who don't understand a darn thing.

The 1949 re-broadcast tweaks this denouement by briefly adding a character who is only referred to in the original, giving rise to an additional two minutes of twistiness, but arrives at the same end-note. This version features the familiar voice of Jack Webb in the lead, opposite Joan Banks (Frank Lovejoy's wife - I swear, we can't get away from Lovejoy!). The Van Stevens character is called Van Barkley this time (and again in 1951). The dialogue is partially re-written; for example, the exchange about Picasso (which makes Van seem like a culturally with-it guy) is lost.

The 1951 version is very close in its details and overall effect to the 1949; it features Bill Bouchey and Michael Ann Barrett in the leads. Bouchey worked extensively in film and television. Barrett had uncredited parts in The File on Thelma Jordan and The Wrong Man, and worked with Jack Webb more than once in the early incarnations of Dragnet.

The Whistler goes on knowing many things, because he walks by night.

3/5/1945 version:

5/8/1949 version:

7/29/1951 version:

Danger Is a Beautiful Blonde

Complete episode logs for The Whistler can be found at these two sites:

The Whistler (Jerry Haendiges Vintage Radio Logs)

The Whistler (radioGOLDINdex)

The second of these has detailed information on the three versions of "Danger Is a Beautiful Blonde":

79407. The Whistler. March 5, 1945. CBS Pacific net. "Danger Is A Beautiful Blonde". Sponsored by: Signal Oil. A man walking along the street is picked up by a beautiful, rich woman and finds...murder! The program opening is slightly upcut. The script was subsequently used on "The Whistler" on May 8, 1949 (see cat. #76091 and #16759) and on July 29, 1951 (see cat. #93298). John Dunkel (writer), Hazel Leitel (writer), George W. Allen (director), Wilbur Hatch (music), Bob Anderson (announcer). 29:48. Audio condition: Very good. Complete as above.

76091. The Whistler. May 8, 1949. CBS Pacific net. "Danger Is A Beautiful Blonde". Sponsored by: Signal Oil. A man walking along the street is picked up by a beautiful, rich woman...and finds murder! This is a network, sponsored version of cat. #16759. The script was used previously on "The Whistler" on March 5, 1945 (see cat. #79407) and subsequently on July 29, 1951 (see cat. #93298). Wilbur Hatch (music), George W. Allen (producer, director), Marvin Miller (announcer), Jack Webb, Joan Banks, Hazel Leitel (writer), John Dunkel (writer). 29:43. Audio condition: Excellent. Complete.

16759. The Whistler. May 8, 1949. CBS net origination, AFRTS rebroadcast. "Danger Is A Beautiful Blonde". A man walking along the street is picked up by a beautiful, rich woman and finds...murder! See cat. #76091 for a network, sponsored version of this broadcast. The script was previously used on "The Whistler" on March 5, 1945 (see cat. #79407) and subsequently on July 29, 1951 (see cat. #93298). Jack Webb, Joan Banks, Hazel Leitel (writer), John Dunkel (writer), Marvin Miller (announcer), George W. Allen (producer, director), Wilbur Hatch (music). 1/2 hour. Audio condition: Excellent. Complete.

93298. The Whistler. July 29, 1951. CBS Pacific net. "Danger Is A Beautiful Blonde". Sponsored by: Signal Oil. A man walking along the street is picked up by a beautiful, rich woman and finds...murder! The script was previously used on "The Whistler" on March 5, 1945 (see cat. #79407) and on May 8, 1949 (see cat. #76091 and #16759) Hazel Leitel (writer), John Dunkel (writer), Michael Ann Barrett, Bill Bouchey, Hy Averback, Earl Lee, Charles Calvert. 29:01. Audio condition: Excellent. Complete.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mississippy Missippi Tu-Polo (dir. Pablo D'Stair, 2015)

The indefatigable Pablo D'Stair - tireless as both a filmmaker and a promoter of his work - is coming back at ya with his latest DIY experimental art-house feature, Mississippy Missippi Tu-Polo. And this one, folks, is mad funny. While it is is true that D'Stair's calculated minimalist style has driven some critics and viewers out of their ever-living minds, and that this new film is as relentlessly methodological as anything he's done, there's no denying that the dialogue here hits and sustains a bright satirical tone, to the point where D'Stair is drawing some comparisons to Woody Allen.

Certainly MMT-P (I'm not typing that again) is as culture-soaked as Allen's Manhattan. The shout-outs are, if you are on the right wavelength, irresistible - Hjalmar Soderberg's Doctor Glas, you go, Pablo! - and if not, they will probably strike you as the worst sort of preening. (And I'm guessing then that you don't like Woody either.)

D'Stair, taking the lead under his acting pseudonym Carlyle Edwards, plays a young gadabout, Victor d'Entrement, who has persistent visions of setting the literary world on fire even though it's not clear that he's written more than a page here and there. He has come up with the perfect title for his next book - some might beg to differ - which happens to be the same as that of the movie we're watching, and which is a reference to a long-unreleased Bob Dylan "Basement Tapes" cover of John Lee Hooker's song "Tupelo Blues." But what goes with this title? Of that Victor is unsure, so he engages in a series of tete-a-tetes over a lengthy period, mostly with fellow writers, to try to free-associate his way to some appropriate content.

If the dialogue is a smidge Woody-esque, the cinematic manner is more than a smidge middle-period Godard, unsmilingly analytical. D'Stair, shooting in (washed-out smudgy) color this time, covers every scene from two unbudging angles (he will never claim a chapter in a history of camera movement). His roundelay of visits begins and ends with actress Helen Bonaparte, familiar from other D'Stair outings as the voice of cynical reason, and proceeds through nine other individuals, who are allotted four or five tiny scenelets apiece. Each of these snippets ends in a blackout (more like a sepia-out, really) with a couple of seconds pause before the next one. It is interesting just how well the rigorous format enhances the comical effect of the characters' sometimes inane, sometimes surprisingly sharp observations.

Poor Victor is a big-time noodge whom it is rather shocking to find having any friends at all, but just about everyone in the film seems narcissistic and self-absorbed, so maybe his alarmingly high annoyance level doesn't fully register. Well, on the audience it does but we don't really count, not being able to burst through the screen a la The Purple Rose of Cairo or Sherlock Jr. and tell Victor to get a grip, already. It would be fun to do, but even without that opportunity, the movie's still a kick. Watch it for free here:

Mississippy Missippi Tu-Polo

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Finding Pluck (Peter Difatta)

Peter Difatta's Finding Pluck is a throwback in more senses than one. It's a period novel with more than one period - half this university-based story is set during the 1995-1996 school year, and the other half is a parallel action set during the 1927-1928 school year. But it's also a throwback because it seems more akin to the popular fiction of earlier generations than to most of what gets published today. The tone, the stately march of the sentences, is dignified, even dare I say genteel, and one might say the same of the characters. This is a very nice book, even though the core topics are controversy-baiting - gay rights and religious intolerance.

It's a neat trick, and the book is a smooth, professional performance. Finding Pluck will charm plenty of readers, and is about as reading-group-friendly a title as I have come across lately. It won the William Faulkner Literary Award given by Faulkner's home town of New Albany, Mississippi. The judges of that book described Finding Pluck as "pleasing," which indeed it is, and further noted that it "handles well a sophisticated narrative structure," also basically true.

You undoubtedly feel a "But..." coming up, and I can't say you're wrong. Finding Pluck has considerable merit, yet it left me a little cool in the final analysis.

There is a lot going on in Finding Pluck, which in addition to the double-period structure and shifts between third and first person, is structured as an earnest social agenda novel AND a pop supernatural novel. It is hard to discuss all those aspects of the performance simultaneously, so let me try to do so separately, without giving away too much of the plot.

The 1927-1928 chapters, focused on a budding friendship between University of North Carolina students Bernard Pembroke and Damien Holdrich, come across as more convincing than the 1995-1996 chapters, which center on the life of UNC freshman Taylor Hanes, a boy from a fading mill-town who has committed a subterfuge in order to receive a full scholarship.

I think this contrast in effectiveness is based on the relative distances in time more than anything else. We know 1995, and Difatta's version of it seemed off to me. We don't know 1927 directly, and therefore Difatta's F. Scott Fitzgerald Lite take on it seems passable enough.

The relationship between Bernard (shy, stuttering) and Damien (bold, confident) is very akin to that between Gene and Finny in John Knowles' classic prep school novel A Separate Peace, but with the homo-eroticism less sub-textual than in the earlier book.

In the modern chapters, Taylor Hanes is a likeable protagonist, but it could be that his creator likes him a bit too much, because he keeps letting him off the hook. Taylor is punished in due course for his subterfuge, but is then eventually re-rewarded for it. He initially gets a B minus on a paper-and-project that really deserves a B minus (the teacher in me notes), but then the grade is adjusted upward to an A because Taylor's heart is in the right place.

These chapters depend on Taylor's making friends, among both fellow students and adults, who will assist him in figuring out a mystery with a paranormal component. Assist him they do - they all come on board very swiftly, and barely pause over questions of belief in ghosts or other manifestations of the beyond - but the overall effect is too much like that of Hardy Boys and Friends. Let's get to the bottom of this, guys!

As a supernatural novel, Finding Pluck plugs into the standard narrative of ghosts having unfinished business that prevents them from going over to the "other side." This material is distinctly second-hand, by way of Hollywood and earlier popular novels.

As a social agenda novel - and I quite share its mission of respect for gay rights - Finding Pluck overloads its case by setting up straw men such as a Fred Phelps-esque crazy-Christian church that figures in both time-frames. The sense of homosexuality in the story is extremely attenuated and disembodied, and could barely give offense to your conservative grandmother. When Bernard and Damien start sleeping together, it happens so much "in between chapters" that it may take you a while to figure it out. The joys of the erotic do not put in an on-stage appearance here.

Popular narratives are often, let's face it, somewhat fantastic in effect, because the "reality" they put into play is idealized and glamorized. Damien, like any fictional romantic object, is a shade too perfectly what Bernard needs to pull him out of his shell. Taylor and his friends are just slightly too concerned and noble and right-thinking. The Christians are caricatures - not one without some basis in reality, I'll readily admit, but awfully convenient for the story. (They go completely batshit at the climax of the 1920s chapters, and the denouement of a well-known British cult horror movie of the 1970s puts in an unexpected WTF guest appearance.)

The rigging of the game shows up most clearly, however, in the chronology. We are told that Bernard Pembroke inherited the family business and "got very involved with minority groups to help their cause, particularly speaking out on equal rights for gays and lesbians" - this would have been in the 1950s - and before his death circa 1970 set up a UNC scholarship for self-avowed gay and lesbian students.

Now this is fantastical. No industrialists anywhere in the world were speaking up on behalf of gays and lesbians in the 1950s. No one was endowing full scholarships for gay and lesbian students in the late 1960s, nor would an institution such as UNC have agreed to administer one for at least another 20, probably 30 years. The timing is all off, yet the reader's suspension of disbelief depends on it.

Difatta mentions in an afterword that "Several of my beta readers asked me if all the historical and background information in Finding Pluck was true," and goes on to state that all the historical examples given of mistreatment of gays and lesbians are factual, as indeed they are. But he doesn't address the issue of whether the events in his narrative would have been possible in the real world. They would not. That's damning.

Another example: A key thematic event in the 1920s chapters is Damien's taking Bernard to hear an on-campus concert of Mahler's Second Symphony, which affects them both greatly. Difatta uses a quotation from the text of the vocal fifth movement as a closing epigram.

I hate to rain on this parade, BUT: Mahler was in eclipse in the United States (and most everywhere) from his death in 1911 until the 1960s. During the 1920s, the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg performed a few Mahler works with the New York Philharmonic; otherwise his music was scarcely known in America.

And the Second is one of the largest of Mahler's works: it lasts 90 minutes, calls for a huge orchestra and chorus and soloists, and is one of the most challenging works to play in the entire classical repertoire. It would not have been played by a student orchestra in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1927-1928.

These facts are easily checked, and if you are going to use Mahler as a linchpin in your story, you should take care that readers familiar with Mahler are not going to automatically balk at your ahistoricity. This is not just niggling on my part - it speaks to a cavalier handling of reality that I started to feel on almost every page of Finding Pluck.

Another example: The handling of Taylor Hanes' collegiate financial aid situation is factually unsatisfactory - his father would have had to be involved at every stage, filling out forms and submitting documents; student loans would necessarily have been discussed at an early stage. None of that happens.

There is a story about the young John Gunther, Jr., in his father's famous memoir of him, Death Be Not Proud, that the lad is offered one of Upton Sinclair's Lanny Budd novels about a globe-trotting adventurer, and replies, "I prefer my Superman straight." That's what I feel about Finding Pluck - that if an author is going to make such a hash of the real world, it would be better to make the setting fantastic altogether, or go alternate-reality or something, to cut gripers like me off.

The novel is a pleasant read but only if one does not ask questions of the text, and that's simply not my favorite sort of novel.

Finding Pluck