Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts

26 February 2020

The Missing American



I'm reading a thriller by Kwei Quartey called The Missing American.  New writer to me, but he's got half a dozen books under his belt. This one is about internet scams, and takes place mostly in Ghana - along with Nigeria, Ghana is pretty much ground zero for this racket. We get a fair amount of creepiness - the sakawa boys who run the swindles are themselves prey to priests who do weird shit to live chickens and task their acolytes with specific fetish contributions: have sex with a European tourist and bring me her soiled panties. It's garden variety repellent, but not horrific. They make the boys bulletproof, so they can't fail. The marks keep sending the boys money, and the witch doctors take their cut. Criminal hierarchy. 

I recommend the book, which I haven't finished yet. I strongly suspect it's going to get a lot spookier. Quartey was born in Ghana and brought up in the States. He's not going to give us the generic guys in the bone necklaces, stamping around barefoot, but what he's going to give us is the foreignness.

I'm reminded of, say, Gorky Park. The environment as character. The Missing American does this by sliding bits under the radar. The fact that different languages are spoken in Ghana, and a non-native speaker has a familiar accent, but clearly not his own. One-man-thousand. It's a mess of fried anchovies.

Martin Cruz Smith did this by presenting a place that was the next best thing to science fiction. You park your car, you take the windshield wipers off and bring them inside, because otherwise they'd be stolen by morning. Your sergeant comes into your office, you pick up your phone - a rotary dial - you dial it up to zero and stick a pencil in one of the holes. It blocks the signal, busy but not off the hook. KGB isn't listening to your conversation. Renko treats this as second nature.

The guy who did this best, to my mind, was Jack Vance. If you don't know his stuff, you oughta. He had a line in imagining very strange cultural shibboleths. And he managed to make them entirely convincing. A planet where half the world was dark for six months, and where there was only sunlight the other six. A society where scent, apparently the most evocative of our senses, has to be protected - at supper, we mask our faces, because smell may make us swoon, forbiddingly. The Last Castle, one of the more astonishingly anti-Asimov stories, AI as dystopian, or Animal Farm.

I'm thinking of environment as story. Another good Martin Cruz Smith example is Polar Star, the slimeline on the factory ship. It's very much the narrative. John Berryman famously remarked that Stephen Crane's The Open Boat began with the title. It begins, "None of them knew the color of the sky," but the real first line is, in fact, The Open Boat.  Where it happens.  

What's the shape of the story. I'm suggesting this isn't simply local color. The climate, and the weather. Rain or wind. Gators and snakes. Stony uplands, or quicksand. Vocabulary is climate. One-man-thousand. Those anchovies. It's all about the specific, or the remarkable.  

12 February 2020

Man Without a Star


Kirk Douglas. He wasn't the easiest guy to work with, by all reports. He was driven, and not a little of that leaks into his performances. His acting was muscular - not in the sense of beefcake, but the physicality, his center of gravity, the weight. And the restlessness, an inner engine, a furnace. Anger, certainly. He was trapped by it. If one thing defines Douglas, as a presence, it's that he seethed. He gave off heat like molten glass.



Like anybody else, he made his share of stinkers, but in the main, he brought something to all of his pictures. Most of them are solid, some are extraordinary. Once or twice he played a real skunk, Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful. More typically, a guy who was fatally flawed, In Harm's Way, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Arrangement; most famously, van Gogh in Lust for Life. Occasionally, he actually got to be the good guy, Last Train from Gun Hill, and Seven Days in May, notably Spartacus, but by and large, his characters are ambiguous.



He made Man Without a Star in 1955. In brief, it doesn't sound like much. A drifter wanders into a range war, and sides with the little guys, even though he hates barbed wire and what it represents, the end of the Old West, getting crowded in by rules and fences. You've ridden this trail before. Excuse me, no.



The big reveal, when Douglas tears his shirt open to show his scars - roped up in the hated wire, and dragged - isn't simply physical. It's bottled-up psychic fury. This is Douglas balanced on the edge of psychosis, the buried past, the unforgiven injury, the animating event. Nobody is better at this, Like his Holocaust survivor in The Juggler, a much underappreciated movie, this is a guy who isn't simply bruised, but in torment. The thing about both pictures is that they're about redemption. The characters Douglas plays haven't always gotten a second chance. And the other theme in Man Without a Star is the promise of the distant horizon, of escape and reinvention.



There's a darker alternative, of trying to find rescue in flight, and when Douglas to all intents and purposes remade Man Without a Star in 1962, Lonely Are the Brave was 'heroic' on a more intimate canvas, black-and-white, composed in shadows. It was tragedy, absolutely and utterly formal. Douglas exec produced, and this darkness was no accident. He later said it was his favorite among his pictures.




*

Douglas was instrumental in breaking the blacklist. He might have exaggerated his part, but credit where credit's due. Just as it took a collective cowardice, and turning a blind eye, to sustain the blacklist, it took a collective will to beat it. Nobody did it singlehanded. Kirk Douglas did his share.

He hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus. (The novelist Howard Fast, who'd written the book, was himself a former Communist, turned apostate.) They had issues with the script. Trumbo wanted it to reflect the contemporary Red Scare. Douglas wanted it to be more universal. It was a message picture, yes, but not a sermon. Douglas fired his original director, Anthony Mann, and got Stanley Kubrick on board, his guy from Paths of Glory. Maybe he thought Kubrick was more likely to tug his forelock.

Didn't happen. Toward the end of the shoot, they had a conversation about how to credit the screenplay. Trumbo was blacklisted, the kiss of death. Kubrick suggested he himself take script credit. Douglas said fuck it, let's give it to Dalton and take the heat.  Heat they got. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons did columns telling moviegoers to boycott such a Commie picture, but Spartacus ran the table at the box office. Otto Preminger followed suit with an on-screen credit for Trumbo, with Exodus.

It was the beginning of the end, no question. It was about money, of course. The blacklist was bad for business.

*

Kirk Douglas had an unquiet heart. A guy with a chip on his shoulder. He was a romantic, how not? And just below the surface, some deep and unknowable sorrow. He may never have made peace with himself, but now he rests.  


22 January 2020

Once Upon a Time


This is a quixotic sorta thing, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood got me thinking about Who It Might Really Be. Granted, it's a counter-factual narrative, and part of its weirdness is how and where the real world overlaps the fantasy. Sharon going into the matinee and watching herself in The Wrecking Crew is an enormously charming conceit. Her murderers going to the wrong house and finding Brad Pitt stoned out of his mind is a lot more disturbing, because in real life the Manson crew did actually go to the wrong house, and Terry Melcher wasn't home.

Anyway, some of you might have noticed that Edd Byrnes died last week. He was obviously most famous for 77 Sunset Strip and Kookie. He was also from a generation of actors who caught the last gasp of the studio system. He was under contract to Warners, along with Ty Hardin, and Peter Brown, and Troy Donahue. Doug McClure signed with Universal, as did James Farentino and Guy Stockwell. They did a lot of series TV with their respective stablemates, for their specific studios, and they got feature work, but again, they were locked into longtime studio commitments.



The part that Leo gets in the pilot for Lancer was in fact played by Joe Don Baker, who was in his mid-thirties at the time. Jim Stacy and Wayne Maunder, series regulars, were in that same age band. It's one of those simply odd things, that one of these guys breaks out. Steve McQueen, for instance, after Wanted: Dead or Alive, the model for Rick Dalton's show. Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood came out of the same Petri dish, but bear in mind that for every one of them there was a Vince Edwards or a George Maharis.




Of this group of actors, what you might call male ingenues - like Robert Wagner or Jeffrey Hunter a couple of years earlier - I've always thought Guy Stockwell was the most poignant. He got some really good breaks. So did Doug McClure, for that matter, but Guy was an actor with more range. (They worked together twice, in Beau Geste and The King's Pirate, both of them dogs.) Brad Pitt has himself remarked that there are a lot of pretty boys out there, and a lot of pretty boys who can act, but it's still purely a crap shoot. Guy did a bunch of guest shots, and then he was signed for Adventures in Paradise. A year after that, he joined Richard Boone's repertory company for Boone's anthology show, which unhappily only ran one season. Then we get The War Lord, with Boone and Chuck Heston (and James Farentino), Blindfold and Tobruk,  with Rock Hudson, and Banning, with Wagner, and Farentino again, and Gene Hackman - right before Buck Barrow. Not too shabby a playlist.




He doesn't catch fire. It doesn't help that he gets cast in some real stinkers, but he goes back to guest work in television, much like Rick Dalton. Lancer (you guessed it), Bonanza, The VirginianThe F.B.I. (more cross-collateral with Once Upon a Time), and like as not, playing a charming psychopath. As he gets older, character parts.



It isn't that his career went in the tubes. That's not what happened. It's that he couldn't or didn't leverage his early advantage. Maybe he was disappointed in the parts he was offered. Maybe he didn't have enough animal magnetism. He reinvested himself in theater, and was a highly-praised acting teacher. It's not like he lost his chops. It's one of those unfathomables. He should of been a contender, along the lines of Bob Culp or Brian Keith.



All the same, he's got a legacy, whether or not he's the real-life model for Rick Dalton or not. That's just a conceit on my part. Every time I watch The War Lord, I think, Jeez, this guy is good. And this is a picture, basically, where everybody overacts. On the other hand, it seems so physically authentic. The bare stone tower, the winding stairs. When do any of these people bathe? you can only wonder to yourself.

So there it is. My little paean to Guy Stockwell, probably over-thinking on my part, conjured up by Tarentino.

08 January 2020

The Rap Sheet



An uncertain year, 2019, but a lot of good books came out. Plenty of brand names, Bob Crais and John leCarre, Alan Furst and Steve Hunter. Here's a completely arbitrary list of my own.



Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake.

A smart, tart, penetrating story about race and class, memory and regret, self-absorption, self-awareness, and the limits of transparency.



Chuck Greaves, Church of the Graveyard Saints.

If not exactly an eco-thriller, at least second cousin to Edward Abbey. A completely Western novel, and a meditation on how landscape inhabits us.



Lara Prescott, The Secrets We Kept.

Irresistible. A spy story, a history, a corrective to romance. The deep moans round with many voices. A book of echoes, unspoken sorrows, hope.



Don Winslow, The Border.

A fierce, furious, savage novel, a wounded lion dragging himself through a desolate waste, failing in everything but nerve. An absolute shocker.



Philip Kerr, Metropolis.

Bernie Gunther takes his curtain call. A look behind, the uncertain shadows before, a sense of irredeemable loss, and the hinges of horror creaking open under his feet.


A couple of books that weren't new this past year, but that I came on late. Mick Herron's Slow Horses and John Lawton's Black Out, both exemplars of why to start a series at the beginning. I also stumbled across Val McDermid's Forensics (2014), which is utterly indispensable, I kid you not.


Speaking of which, there was still nothing to beat the austere and windswept Shetland, all gorse and moody weather, or the sturdy and engaging Douglas Henshall as Jimmy Perez.



And best picture? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (I know, I don't like him either, but fair is fair.)

11 December 2019

Smiley



"I've got a story to tell you," Ricki Tarr says. "It's all about spies."

I fell into a familiar comfort zone this past weekend, and watched Smiley's People again. I needed something reliable and even stately, after the random disturbances of late.



George Smiley was introduced in Call for the Dead (filmed in 1967 as The Deadly Affair), but he slips out from the wings, almost apologetically, and takes center stage in the Karla trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy; and Smiley's People. He has a couple of curtain calls later on, but they're essentially cameos.

Smiley's been played by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, and Gary Oldman. For most of us, including John le Carre, Alec Guinness holds the crown. Nor has le Carre been poorly served, for the most part, by the movies. Deadly Affair and Spy Who Came in from the Cold are both excellent. On the down side, the feature film iterations of The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House and Tinker, Tailor aren't as successful - probably due to the necessities of compression. A Wanted Man and The Tailor of Panama fall somewhere in the middle. The books work better as TV miniseries, when they're given room to breathe. Not that the long form is foolproof. A Perfect Spy and The Night Manager both suffer from being over-faithful and leaving in too much.



Which is where the BBC/Guinness versions of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People seem so exact, rigorous narratives that still allow for silence, melancholy, inhalation, even the appearance of accident, although no detail is accidental in George Smiley's world. "Topicality is always suspect," he says, in Tinker, Tailor. In other words, when you buy intelligence product, it pays to be skeptical if the product fits your needs too perfectly. And he's of course proven right: the Witchcraft material is manufactured, it's been carefully massaged to send all the wrong signals.

My particular weakness for Smiley's People is I think due to its structural integrity. It doesn't have, for example, anything like the extraordinary supporting turn by Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon - although Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase comes close. It simply seems all of a piece. 



Originally, the producers meant to follow the story arc of the complete trilogy, starting with Tinker, Tailor, following with Honorable Schoolboy, and wrapping with Smiley's People. Schoolboy apparently presented production difficulties, and they skipped it. Quite honestly, Schoolboy is the weakest of the three books, but more to the point, Smiley isn't in fact the lead actor. It makes dramatic sense to move on to book three. (It actually took five years in between.)

When it was first shown on the BBC, radio guy Terry Wogan ran a weekly feature called, "Does anybody know what's going on?" Let's storyboard Smiley's People out.



The old lady in Paris writes the General in London. He, in turn, takes a bullet in the face on Hampstead Heath. George, the old man's former vicar, is called in to clean up the mess and put the whole thing to bed. George smells a rat. What is it Toby Esterhase tells him? Karla is looking for a legend for a girl (a legend, in the jargon, is a manufactured biography, a cover story). And with only this to go on, George begins to tease out the plot.

The plausible back-story, the collateral. Otto's pal in Hamburg, the sex-club owner. The spymaster's mistress, and her hidden child. The secret Swiss bank account and the fumbling Russian diplomat in Bern. The long coat-tails of KGB's foreign operations, and why in this particular instance the organs themselves can't be trusted.



Of course it's a tangle. How not? The method is that we learn only as much as George learns, although he might very well be a step ahead of us, from habit and his larger experience. But how he proceeds has a firm logic. Toby, then Connie Sachs, which leads him to Claus at the club in Hamburg, to the kids house-sitting Otto's place, and the campground, with Otto's boat moored in the shallows and the music unbearably loud, to drown out the torment.

The formality, the inexorability, makes it all the more satisfying. Smiley gathers his resources, and closes his hand. The title is a pun, not simply Smiley's crew, his favored inside team, but his people in the sense that Kipling used it, Mine Own People, Great Britain and the British. There isn't much of the moral relativism le Carre is sometimes faulted for. Smiley's defeat of Karla isn't ambiguous, in spite of the cigarette lighter Karla discards on the cobblestones. The win is personal.



Smiley, then, represents a certain kind of Englishness. Decent and disciplined. The war generation, We Happy Few. They took on Hitler, and then fought the Cold War. "Survivor of every battle since Thermopylae," Connie Sachs says. Le Carre himself might smile, and shake his head, to imagine George characterized that way. But he's said in the past that a country's spy services reflect the nation's character. Mossad, KGB, MI-6, CIA. The way they conduct operations reveals their inner nature and their calculation of political gain or loss.

Smiley is also betrayed by his wife (with his best friend, who's also of course a Soviet asset), and you could make the case that British SIS, once dominant, is the cuckold of the intelligence world, abandoned and orphaned by its CIA stepchild. Or perhaps that's too fanciful. Let's just say that Smiley, like Alec Guinness, is emblematic of his time and class. We might even be allowed to think of class as the key to Smiley, his protective coloration. He navigates the currents, eddies in still waters, and waits his turn.





27 November 2019

The Mighty Wurlitzer



Lara Prescott's novel The Secrets We Kept is about CIA's successful efforts in the late 1950's to bootleg Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which Novy Mir had refused to publish in the USSR. The manuscript was smuggled out, and translated into Italian. CIA arranged for the first Russian-language edition, hoping to embarrass the Kremlin. They got more than they hoped for when Pasternak won the Nobel Prize but was discouraged (to put it mildly) from accepting. For the Soviet Union, it was a public-relations disaster, the engines of terror fearful of a poet.

The Secrets We Kept is deliciously juicy, on any number of levels, and terrifically serious. The catty asides, on the one hand, the abyss of the Gulag on the other. The voices carry the story, and the sense of period is absolutely convincing. I highly recommend it, as a fiction - although I don't imagine Lara Prescott needs my help, she's getting a lot of good press - but also in the documentary sense, as a corrective. The history is genuine.

White propaganda, so-called, is basically information, although it may well be slanted in your favor. Think, for example, the Voice of America, or Radio Moscow. You know the source. Grey, though, is more along the lines of a false-flag operation, where a story, pro or con, might be planted in a supposedly neutral (or even hostile) media environment. Black propaganda is deniable. The provenance isn't traceable.

Back in the 50's and 60's, this effort was managed with a certain sophistication, as well as brute force. The legendary Frank Wisner, one of CIA's clandestine chiefs, called it "the Mighty Wurlitzer," and it was an instrument Wisner played well. The coordination of underlying narrative is a tool of spycraft, generally, as in the development of a legend, using false background material or selective truths, but Wisner wasn't just selling ice to Eskimos, he was developing a brand. He was mythologizing America, and American virtues, as dedicated countermeasures against Stalinist myth and methodology.

This exemplifies and defines the Cold War. The crazy thing to me is how it's redefined itself, and metastasized, in the present day. Obviously, you can blame the Internet, or social media, but there seems to be something more afoot. We've internalized this Wall of Noise. One of the standard practices of Intelligence is discrimination. All information isn't equal. The phenomenon we're seeing now is that everything has the same weight, that it deserves a hearing. Which gives rise to dense constructions of unreason, hysteria, alternative realities. You have to wonder if it's a symptom, or the disease itself. It's like the Black Death, in the Middle Ages. It made no sense, it struck down the evil and the virtuous alike, the young, the old, the hale, the sick. It didn't matter. There was no explanation, other than the Hand of God. This is like some willed, mass brain death, a plague of information noise. What will the post-Apocalyptic world be like? One thing we might wish for is a large, empty silence. 

13 November 2019

Our Discontents


Edward Snowden has a book out, called Permanent Record, wherein he explains himself, and his betrayal of his country's secrets. Jonathan Lethem gives it a very sympathetic and thoughtful reading in The New York Review of Books:
I've never pretended to have much sympathy for Snowden, myself. He's a defector in all but name, and did make love to this employment. Esli igrat' ovsta, vstretit' volk blizko, Russian folk wisdom has it. "If you act the sheep, you'll meet a wolf nearby."


I    SNOWDEN

Snowden's storyline is different from, say, Daniel Ellsberg's. Ellsberg knowingly put himself in jeopardy. After the NY Times and Washington POST began publication of the Pentagon Papers, he was indicted for the theft and unauthorized release of classified documents. The judge in the case dismissed all charges and declared a mistrial on the grounds of government misfeasance - the Plumbers are one part of the picture, while Nixon's people offered the judge himself an appointment as FBI Director - and Ellsberg walked.

Snowden never showed this kind of willingness to take responsibility for his actions. He shopped the information around, and he was canny with his tradecraft. When he jumped ship, he took care to reformat all the hard drives on his old computers, and he took four new laptops with him on his way to Hong Kong, one for secure comms, one for normal comms, one as a decoy, and the last with what's called an air gap, meaning physically isolated from insecure networks and in fact never connected to any network at all. Let's accept that this is a sensible precaution - for somebody going over to the enemy. Snowden's explanations ring hollow. I'm sorry. You can embrace paranoia, you can say, look what happened to Ellsberg. (You can of course go further. Gordon Liddy, one of the Plumbers, famously said he'd willingly stand on a street corner, and they could whack him. One way not to be subpoenaed by a grand jury.) Snowden is taking steps to protect himself, but at the same time, he's playing to the cheap seats.

He sees himself as some kind of James Bond. Do we really imagine he's concerned with the privacy of American citizens, or NSA's abuse of civil rights? Gimme a break. This is a guy with an over-inflated sense of his own importance. He imagines himself in the lead part, but in truth he's nothing more than a cameo. He moves some of the furniture around, and exits.


II   PHILBY

Spy memoirs are a subset of the political or campaign biography, and the defector memoir is even narrower and more specific, being in practice targeted disinformation, self-serving and untrustworthy. Kim Philby's My Silent War is a canny business model.

Philby was the foremost of the Cambridge Five, arguably the most successful KGB penetration of Western intelligence during the Cold War. He was recruited in the 1930's, and maintained his cover for almost thirty years, before escaping to Moscow. He betrayed sources and methods, and compromised an uncounted number of assets. There's no way of knowing how many of them were tortured and executed. Not least, he poisoned the relationship between the UK and US security services for years afterwards - the Americans thought the British spy world was riddled with poofs and Pinkoes - and led to a fury of counterintelligence investigations and an abiding institutional mistrust.

Philby's memoir, published five years after his defection, is a fascinating study in misdirection, not to mention settling old scores. Massaged by his Russian handlers,  if not entirely ghostwritten under KGB discipline, My Silent War captures something of Philby's own voice, preening and petulant, completely self-absorbed. His justifications are without irony, maintaining a Stalinist fiction. He's impervious to his own contradictions, to his personal history, let alone the historical confusions of his own time. The point of the exercise seems to be embarrassing as many of his professional contemporaries as he can, Angleton at CIA, his MI5 interrogators, who never managed to catch him in a lie. More importantly, from the point of view of an analyst or debriefer, Philby's account leads even a more careful reader away from certain observable evidence, plants false flags, creates suspicion, upsets the commonly accepted, and afflicts the comfortable. It's intentional mischief.


III  UN-AMERICAN

When he heard from MI6 that Philby was a proven traitor, J. Edgar Hoover is supposed to have said, "Jesus Christ only had twelve, and one of them was a double." There have been serious spy-hunters, and there have always been fools. Hoover may have seen Reds under the bed, and he inflated the FBI's successes, but he wasn't the hysteric many people take him for. We've got other contenders for that office.

Joe McCarthy stands in for a lot of the excesses of the Red Scare, and he bullied plenty of people, both in and out of government, until he made the mistake of going after the U.S. Army, and Eisenhower quit tip-toeing around him. Not that Ike disagreed with McCarthy on principle, most like, and Nixon owed his vice-presidency to Republican leadership brokering a deal with the party's Right, but Ike wouldn't countenance an attack on the military, his family, and the architect of his own wartime victories. McCarthy's day was done.

McCarthyism, though, casts a long shadow. It was the kiss of death for many a Democratic candidate to be labeled soft on Communism. David Halberstam makes a good case that it kept Jack Kennedy from pulling the plug on American support for South Viet Nam. And in a very real sense, Nixon's engagement with China was only possible in light of Nixon's track record as an anti-Communist.

On the other hand, we have the enormous damage done by smear campaigns, gossip, fear-mongering, and the blacklist. Public shaming, livelihoods destroyed, suicides, families broken apart. It was a cover, too, for Jew-baiting and union-busting, the fluoridation scare, the polio "monkey" serum, the mongrelization of white people. It was all them godless Commies behind it.


IV   THE RUSSIANS

Given that McCarthy was a blowhard and an opportunist, it's easy to forget that the Soviet Union mounted a determined espionage effort against the U.S., aimed specifically at the atom program, but more generally at targets of opportunity, whether they were Communist sympathizers or just somebody in a position of compromise. Both the Rosenbergs and the Alger Hiss case drew enormous attention, protests that they were being railroaded, on the one hand, and people wanting their scalps, on the other. With the declassification and release of the VENONA intercepts, two things show in bold relief: first, that Hiss and the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty of spying for the Russians, and secondly, that much of the agitation in their favor was orchestrated by the Kremlin.

This is not a settled argument, by the by. You can still get a lot of grief and ridicule from the uninformed or conspiracy-minded, who'll label it deviant history, and accuse you of being a provocateur or a CIA stooge. It's an orthodoxy practiced by both sides, Left and Right, that only the pure of heart deserve a hearing. It's essentially Stalinist revisionism.

Of course there was a climate of hysteria. There was also a genuine Russian spy presence. Or more than one. KGB, state security, and GRU, military intelligence, ran compartmentalized operations. Historically, they've been rivals. KGB is generally acknowledged to have better tradecraft, GRU has been know to trip over its own feet, but whether they've worked in harness or at cross-purposes, we're talking about their cumulative score.

They've made their mistakes, they've had their successes. From penetrations (Ames and Hansen), to Wet Work (the Skripal poisonings, Litvinenko), disinformation campaigns, false flag attacks - the techniques vary, over time, as the technical resources develop. The constant, or throughline, is disruption.


V    TRUMP
  
Which brings us to the present day. The conflicting narratives about Russian interference in the 2016 election are about whose ox is being gored, but a lot of the vocabulary sounds familiar. Witch hunt, whistleblower. and so forth. I'm not going to try and sort it out.

Whether you believe there's a Deep State conspiracy (or slow-motion coup), or if you've decided the guy's a dangerous moron, is completely irrelevant. The point is that the Russians have succeeded beyond any and all expectations. Nobody could possibly imagine this would bear such poisoned fruit. I have friends on the Right who are utterly convinced that the Trump opposition is an attempted coup, and these people aren't knuckle-draggers, they're by and large intelligent, articulate people. In equal measure, I'm not alone in entertaining the idea Trump could be in the pocket of the Russian mob, or the Mexican cartels, or whoever - or that the chaos alone is reason to shit-can him. But nobody in the Kremlin is enough of a Satanic genius to have come up with this scenario. The end result is happy accident. They can't believe their luck.

I have one last comment, though. Looking at the historical record, we might call Ellsberg a hero and Snowden a dupe, even a traitor. Or it could be the other way around. The question is, what do you do? If you're trapped in this situation, if you begin to wonder whether you're the Good German, or an enabler, where do you go? Nixon demanded Cox be fired. Richardson, his AG, resigned. Where do you draw the line, and quit, when do you fall on your sword? It's no easy or obvious choice. We like to think we'd do the right thing, that we'd choose the moral high ground. Which is where, exactly? 

"You'll die on the gallows, or of the pox," Lord Sandwich once remarked to John Wilkes, and Wilkes answered, "That depends on whether I embrace your lordship's principles, or your mistress."

23 October 2019

Reversals


Some of you may know that the Brit writer Mark Billingham started out in comedy, and he once remarked there were a lot of similarities between doing stand-up and writing thrillers. Namely, setting up punchlines. E.g., "The pope, the Dalai Lama, and a stripper walk into a bar." I don't know where it's going, but it catches your attention. Jokes, of course, depend on the reversal of expectations, and setting a trap in writing is much the same. Sometimes the punchline gets left out, all the more effectively. The ending of Pet Sematary. You're not turning around.


The twist ending is a time-honored tradition. I got thinking, on the other hand, about twist openings. I just watched Night Train to Munich again, which is a terrific Carol Reed picture from 1940. The set-up is almost completely self-contained, a story all by itself, and Rex Harrison doesn't even show up until 20 minutes in. Not long after, the movie takes a sharp left-hand turn into the Twilight Zone. It's not what you were expecting.


I realized, watching it this time around, that Night Train to Munich puts me in mind of certain of John LeCarre's novels, The Little Drummer Girl in particular. The beginning, the set-up, "Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name," is itself masterful, and then he seems to wander off the beam, into some other story entirely. You're like, Wait, What, Where Are We? He's actually got absolute control, he's simply gathering the reins. Little Drummer Girl is about a deception operation, and the book is an illustration of method, a metafiction.


Metafictions can be said to call attention to themselves. Sometimes it's sleight of hand, sometimes it's done in plain sight. There's a Dutch Leonard book called The Hunted - some years before La Brava made him a household name - and it starts out with a guy in Witness Protection, who's been relocated to Israel, but the mob tracks him down and puts a hit on him. So far, so good. Then maybe a third of the way in, the story goes off at a right angle and all of a sudden, it's not about that guy at all, it's about this other guy, somebody you thought was a supporting character. Well, okay, it's Elmore Leonard, but hello? 


For my money, The Charm School is still Nelson DeMille's best book, not least because he takes what I think is a false and discredited premise and sells it, utterly. Not just that I suspended my disbelief, but that he had me totally convinced. Whether or not the spell wears off is of no consequence; he owns it, and you sign on. Here's the thing. Nelson pulls the same damn trick Dutch does. He starts off in one direction, and puts the pedal to the floor. We got ignition. Then he takes a curve at speed, and snaps your head around. He's got this guy who's only a walk-on, so you think, and suddenly he's center stage.


I don't think this is all that common a narrative device. At least, I haven't run across it that often. David Copperfield begins, famously, with "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else - " but we don't imagine Dickens is going to give Steerforth the lead. Likewise with Scott, no stranger to conventional theatrics, the hero of Old Mortality is your usual generic ingenue, and Scott quite happily loses control of his story to the two contending heavies, Lord Claverhouse and the Covenanter assassin Burley, who basically walks off with the book, but in the end, convention wins out.

Then there's the thing where you shift gears without even meaning to, or because the story requires it. In the first of the bounty hunter stories, for instance, I started out in one direction and veered off unexpectedly in another. I never intended it to be the beginning of a series, the guy himself seemed accidental, I thought I was channeling The Wild Bunch, and it turned out to be Have Gun, Will Travel. Not that I'm complaining, mind, but it took me by surprise.

I think this is where I'm going with this. That we should anticipate the unexpected. In anybody's narrative, but particularly our own. You follow the scent, you follow the story where it leads you, convention be damned.

Oh, and the punchline? "Mustard, custard, and you, you big shit."

09 October 2019

Capt. Blood



Captain Blood, famously, made Errol Flynn a star. It was the first of nine features Flynn did with Olivia de Havilland, and one of twelve with director Michael Curtiz. Flynn and de Havilland got along fine - she admitted the chemistry and spiked the rumors of a romance - but after a six-year run, ten of the twelve pictures delivering big box office, Flynn and Curtiz cordially loathed each other.



My own opinion is that the pictures Flynn made with Raoul Walsh in the 1940's are better movies, by and large, the best example being Gentleman Jim, but if not for the Curtiz swashbucklers, Flynn wouldn't have made it to the A-list. Curtiz was an awful bastard, by most accounts, but he brought home the bacon. Casablanca won Best Picture, and six of his other movies got nominated. He directed Cagney and Joan Crawford to Oscars, out of ten nominations overall for his lead actors.

Andrew Sarris, whose critical opinions I generally admire, feels that Curtiz had no genuine personality, as a director, that he basically ground out sausage, and that Casablanca was a happy accident, a sort of rebuttal to to the auteur theory, where the exception proves the rule. I'd beg to differ. If you say the director is in his pictures, then okay, Curtiz made an awful lot of crap. On the plus side, along with Casablanca, we've got White Christmas and Yankee Doodle Dandy. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, the original Wax Museum. Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Angels with Dirty Faces. Eddie Robinson and Garfield in The Sea WolfMildred Pierce, Young Man with a Horn, We're No Angels, and The Breaking Point ain't too shabby, either.


Curtiz was Hungarian.  He spoke five languages - "all of them badly," his son later remarked. Born a Jew in Budapest, he changed his birth name from Kaminer to Kertesz when he was nineteen, working in an acting troupe that crossed Europe. Kertesz was more ethnically Hungarian, in the anti-Semitic climate of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. He began directing theater, and directed Hungary's first feature film, in 1912. He was also on the Hungarian national fencing team that year, in the Olympics. When the war came, he served in the army. He was wounded, and invalided out. He went back to the movies, and spent seven years learning the trade. He caught the attention of Warner Brothers in 1926, and by the time he went to Hollywood, he'd already made sixty-odd pictures.  He was 39 years old.

This story, familiar in some ways, is framed by larger political imperatives, Kati Marton puts it in context with her terrific book The Great Escape (2006), subtitled Nine Hungarians Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. The nine are Curtiz and Alexander Korda, Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz, and Arthur Koestler, for the arts, with Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neuman, for the sciences. I highly recommend it.



I'm belaboring the point, which is that where Andrew Sarris sees Curtiz spreading himself too thin, I see industry, ambition, restlessness and insecurity. Sarris regards him as sausage-maker - and in fact Warners maintained two individual film crews for Curtiz, one for the picture he was actively shooting, one for the picture he was prepping next - and I think it reveals an obsessive. There's for example the story that Curtiz grabbed for a notebook to write down a sudden idea, forgetting that he was driving at the time, and ran himself off the road.

I see Curtiz the refugee, the stranger, running in place to catch up, afraid something or someone is catching up with him. The upstart Jewish kid from Budapest, trying to break into pictures, and never quite gaining the confidence it won't all be snatched away. Curtiz in high dudgeon, with David Niven the target: "You think you know fuck everything and I know fuck nothing, but let me tell you, I know fuck all." This is not a guy who thinks he stands on rock, he's afraid he stands on sand. 



Sarris admits Curtiz has vigorous technique, but he doesn't believe Curtiz has a theme. I couldn't agree less. No, Curtiz isn't Walsh, he doesn't have the muscularity, and he for sure isn't Anthony Mann, another exile, who inhabits the true fury of separation, but what Curtiz brings to the game is an intimacy, set inside the bigger canvas, a larger scale. In his better pictures, Curtiz reveals himself to be trapped, isolated, estranged. Bogart, in Casablanca, says, "Nobody ever loved me that much."

25 September 2019

It Rained All Night the Day I Left


David Edgerley Gates


I've been thinking lately about the diminution, or devaluation, of language. Degradation, even, not too strong a word. The calculation being that it doesn't matter, that precision or accuracy is irrelevant, and we're just a bunch of persnickety snobs, who condescend to honest folk and treat them like knuckle-dragging hillbillies, that never had no book-larnin', and get things all twisted around with fancy words and high-falutin' airs.

I'm obviously thinking, too, that this is connected to our present culture of false or competing narratives - conspiracy theories, in effect. Bad money drives out good. The counterfeit devalues honest weight.


There was a time, not that long ago, when a guy like Albert Einstein inspired respect. ("How does it feel to be the smartest man in the world?" somebody asked him. "I don't know," he said. "You should ask Tesla.") An athlete or a war hero, sure, but Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, the NASA team that put us on the moon, an American novelist winning the Nobel. We admired their skill, and tenacity, and sheer will. We took pride in their intellect. All of a sudden, this is suspect, and we're not supposed to trust the weatherman. Not an exact science, admittedly, but more informed than reading the entrails of chickens.

Maybe this is an odd complaint from a writer of fictions, but to be convincing, fiction depends on exact detail. If you get one thing wrong, it casts doubt on all the rest. Not to mention Twain's enduring advice: use the right word, not its second cousin. 


So if you take this inexactness, and fold it in with false narrative, you get a kind of Stalinist double-talk. "Our brave soldiers are moving ever forward," or "Our fervent comrades of industry are exceeding all expectations," and pay no mind to the NKVD machine guns behind our brave soldiers, to shoot slackers, or the bazillion shoes made to fit left feet. Facts become transactional, in the sense that they're negotiated. We agree on a shared reality, the least common denominator. (Or is that the most?)

The question then becomes, what's lost, in the exchange? As language gets dulled, it conveys less. Misuse makes it less useful. Without precision, it's at the same time less resonant. It slips its moorings, cast adrift.


Now, in France - I know, this sounds like the opening line of a comedy routine, the same crowd that regards Jerry Lewis as an auteur - the French answer to an Academy, which guards against barbarisms, like social media or cell phone jargon imported from les Etats Unis. Good luck with that one. But it reminds me that my grandmother, all these many years back, wrote a letter to R.J. Reynolds, complaining about their advertising slogan, 'Winston Tastes Good, Like a Cigarette Should.' And she actually got a very courteous response. Apparently enough people were offended by the use of 'like,' instead of 'as,' that corporate assigned a team to answer the complaints. The answer, in effect, was that they were dumbing it down. This was advertising, not Freshman English. It simply sounded better to the naked ear. My grandmother was having none of it. A longtime educator, she wasn't in the least mollified. She was fluent in French, too, although to my knowledge she never saw a Jerry Lewis picture. 

English as a language, of course, develops through usage and accretion, much like English common law, established by precedent and convention, not by fiat. There is no ruling body, the Chicago Manual of Style notwithstanding, to lay down the law one way or the other, or settle the dispute over the Oxford comma. But it's disheartening, all the same, to see language disrespected - or more to the point, dismissed. I'm not that much of a grammar Nazi, although I do think spelling counts, and I'm overly fond of the semi-colon, but what distresses me is that the dismissiveness, the act of not caring, seems symptomatic of a larger contempt for expertise, for informed debate. Somebody, maybe from the CDC, commented about the anti-vaxxers, "Science is just another voice in the room." In other words, everybody gets equal time, no matter that common sense calls bullshit. 


I'm well aware that I could be accused of falling into a You-Kids-Get-Off -My-Lawn thing, and that what I'm saying is by definition elitist, but that's the whole damn point. When language loses coherence, when it loses exactness, it loses utility. You can't share an agreed-upon reality if you can't even describe it. Is this political? Of course it is. The politics of language is about ownership. If we surrender ownership, we lose the gift of speech itself.  

11 September 2019

The Disappeared


David Edgerley Gates


I wrote a story a couple of years back called "A Multitude of Sins," that got left out in the rain for a while, and eventually appeared in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock. But how the story worked its way from the back row to the front seats illustrates something about our writing habits, and squirreling away the odd detail.


"A Multitude of Sins" is about the serial unsolved murders of women in Ciudad Juarez, the so-called feminicidio, which has been going on for the past fifteen years or so, or perhaps more to the point, since the establishment of the maquiladoras along the border. If you don't know what I'm talking about, the maquiladoras are an enterprise culture, factories established on the Mexican side, by American corporate, what they produce exempt from duties and tariffs. The idea, not in itself a bad one, is to provide jobs and raise income levels. If you consider that girls form the countryside might previously have spent a few years in the whorehouses of Villa Acuna or Piedras Negras, this seems like a better deal, or at least disease-free. It might remind us of the New England mills, early in the 19th century, when they recruited young female labor from the local farms, and put them up in dorms, and sent them home afterwards with a nest egg. Assuming they didn't lose a finger or an eye to the heavy machinery.



The problem here, and you can see the punchline coming, is that the girls crowding in to work at the maquiladoras develop the characteristics of a herd of wildebeest, and the predators wait in the tall grass to pick off the weak, the newborns, the stragglers. Four thousand deaths, by some accounts. Hard to write it off as a statistical blip.


So, not focusing on this, just having it in the background, my peripheral vision, I run across a story about bones being dug up at a building site west of Albuquerque. Dead girls, it turned out, maybe a dozen of them. Best guess, a window of four years, they were buried out there. Dental records identify some of them as reported missing by their families. They were in the life - they were users, they were hookers. You can see where I'm going with this. They were picked off when they fell behind. 


But the murders stopped. This graveyard had a start time, and a cut-off. What happened? Maybe the guy was doing time. Maybe he died. Maybe, my reptile brain suggested, he left town. He went to more fertile ground, where dead girls weren't even being noticed. What put this in mind was a series of portraits, an exhibit by the artist Erin Currier. She did a show of imaginary pictures, this is who these women were, these dead women in Juarez. They had names, they had moms and dads, they had ambitions, they had audacity. They had their own interrupted memories.


I'm thinking, wait one. There's a way to use this. Not to trivialize it, but a way to tell a story. And so I did.

Erin Currier at Blue Rain Gallery, in Santa Fe. Opening on Friday, 09-13
Erin Currier's website
http://erincurrierfineart.com/


All images copyright Erin Currier 


28 August 2019

Red Dawn


David Edgerley Gates


Red Dawn was released 35 years ago this August. I think it's aged pretty well. The silly stuff is just as silly as it was back then, and the good parts still hold up.

If you don't know the premise, here it is: Russia invades the U.S. Proxy forces from Cuba and Nicaragua come boiling up the middle of the country, between the Rockies and the Mississippi, the Soviets reinforce across the Bering Strait and down into the Great Plains. Caught by surprise, small pockets of resistance spring up, and in a small Colorado town, a bunch of high school kids learn evasion and ambush techniques, and take the fight to the occupying troops. If it all sounds faintly ridiculous, it is.


The writer/director John Milius got raked over the coals for what was widely seen as a Red-baiting, loony Right fantasy, but in spite of the fact that Gen. Al Haig loved it, Red Dawn is deeper than it seems, at first blush. It's not really about Colorado teenagers at all. To me, it was obvious from the get-go that Milius was making a picture about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the kids were stand-ins for the mujahideen.


Aside from that, or in spite of it, or any and all of the above, I'm always drawn in by the sheer exhilaration of the movie-making. Once you swallow the set-up, the rest of it is inevitable, fated and austere. It's beautifully shot, by Ric Waite, the New Mexico locations framed in wide ratio. The score, Basil Poledouris. The rigorous structure, and the kinetic pacing, but at the same time a sense of natural rhythms, the movement of the seasons, the shape of silence. For an action picture, it's got its fair share of stillness and melancholy.  


And for all that it's about the kids, it's actually the grown-ups who put it in sharper relief. Powers Boothe, the American pilot who bails out over occupied territory. "Shoot straight for once, you Army pukes," has got to be one of the great exit lines. Bill Smith, the Spetsnaz colonel brought in to exterminate the Wolverines. "You need a hunter. I am a hunter." (Bill Smith speaking his own Russian, a bonus.) Ron O'Neal, the Cuban revolutionary who loses his faith. "I can't remember what it was to be warm. It seems a thousand years since I was a small boy in the sun."

Corny? You bet. Affecting? Absolutely.


Red Dawn wears its heart on its sleeve. Its innocence, or lack of guile, is suspect, even embarrassing. But it has an unnervingly specific authenticity. It respects the conventions, and yet - I can't quite put my finger on it. The picture is subversive. It's not about glory, that's for damn sure. It's about loss, although it might be about redemption, too, but it doesn't promise us much comfort.

*

Some years later, I wrote a spy story called The Bone Harvest, set in the early onset of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I have to wonder, the way we do, how much was I influenced by Red Dawn? Which might seem like a dumb question, but let's be honest, we pick up all kinds of stuff, attracted by its texture or reflection, like beach glass or bottle caps. Hemingway once said no decent writer ever copies, we steal.


If in fact I took something away from Red Dawn for my own book, I hope it was a certain naive muscularity, the notion that you can will something to happen. I don't mean this in the meta-sense of getting a book written, I mean that the story I wanted to tell was how raw determination could put boots on the ground. Stubbornness a virtue, not playing well with others. If that's the lesson, it's not just the story arc of Red Dawn, it pretty much defines John Milius' career, but you could have a worse role model.