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

09 August 2023

Billy Friedkin

The director William Friedkin died this week.  Over a fifty-year career, his movies included, most famously, The Exorcist, as well as The French Connection, The Boys in the Band, To Live and Die in L.A., the notorious Cruising, and the hugely underrated Sorcerer, a moody, Gothic remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s bristling existential thriller, The Wages of Fear.

It’s easy to misremember what a jolt The French Connection was, when it came out.  For context, Bullitt had been released in 1968, Midnight Cowboy in 1969, M*A*S*H in 1970.  There was still plenty of room for the traditional -Westerns, musicals, rom-coms – but the new American cinema, so-called, was opening up, and the European influence was strong.  Friedkin specifically mentions Z, the Costa-Gavras political thriller, as a direct influence on The French Connection.  He and his DP, Owen Roizman (who shot The Exorcist, as well), were looking for a documentary feel, a sense of the randomly found.  Particularly in the first act, when Popeye and Buddy are following the hoods around, not knowing what it might lead to, but knowing it could lead to something, they’re shot from a distance, but with a tight zoom, as if they’re themselves under surveillance.  They’re being eavesdropped on; it’s a violation of privacy; the camera is stealing glimpses.

Everybody knows the celebrated car chase, when Popeye commandeers a civilian’s TransAm to run after the train on the elevated tracks, but less celebrated is the way the picture internalizes Popeye’s obsessive, manic fury.  The script is by Ernest Tidyman, best known for Shaft, and it’s elliptical, circling the objective.  The structure is formal, but it’s deceptive, because the story isn’t linear.  It seems intuitive, or somehow organic, just lifting off the pavement like the steam coming through the subway grates.  It’s about street sense.  Popeye and Buddy are like, Oh, we know those creeps, what are they doing out so late?  And what are doing with those other guys, since when do they hang together?

The whole story, in other words, hangs on a hunch, and it proceeds by small, dogged increments, routine footwork, ear to the ground.  And like that other marvelous observer of New York’s particular urban energy, Sidney Lumet, Friedkin taps the nervous, animal muscularity of the city to manifest a sense of dread, a presence, just outside the edge of the frame.  Roizman later said what he and Friedkin were after was to make you uneasy.

They were helped enormously by Gene Hackman.  He gives the character terrific physicality, and his single-mindedness is close to pathological.  You begin to wonder whether Popeye is just plain nuts.  Even though you know he’s right about the Frenchman, he does in fact go over the edge.

William Goldman once said his obituary would lead with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and of course he was right, even though he’d written plenty of other stuff – and me personally, I’ve never liked Butch Cassidy that much.  Billy Friedkin’s notices led with The Exorcist, natch.  I guess that’s fair, but The French Connection put him on the map.  You could do worse. 

26 July 2023

The Martha's Vineyard Mysteries

I enjoy a brutally scathing review as well as the next guy, even when undeserved – Dorothy Parker’s elegantly snide ‘Tonstant Weader Fwows Up’ comes to mind, directed at Winnie-the-Pooh, no less - but I’ve always avoided dishing it out.  This could simply be good manners, or fear of retribution, or the courtesy of least said, soonest mended, but I’d rather encourage my enthusiasms.

On the other hand.  I watched a limited series that ran under the Hallmark banner, the Martha’s Vineyard mysteries.  Four hour-and-a-half episodes, so TV movies, essentially.  I’d like to say I can’t quite put my finger on what doesn’t work, but that would be too charitable.  I can tell you exactly where it goes wrong; it takes lazy tropes, and hits you over the head with them, again and again.

Let’s look at the basics.  You need an engaging cast.  The secret of Rockford, or Magnum, for that matter, is that you can spend time with Jim Garner or Tom Selleck, and their amiability is half the battle won.  But there’s obviously more: you take an amiable ensemble, and you have some kind of relatable gimmick, to create character conflict, and you get a show like The Coroner, or Death in Paradise, or Brokenwood.  Are they all that original?  Not really.  It’s the familiarity we keep coming back for.  They’re series.  The two main characters in the Martha’s Vineyard mysteries are played by Jesse Metcalfe and Sarah Lind, both of them charming and attractive.  The guy who plays her dad, the island’s chief of police, is Eric Keenleyside, even better.  So far, so good.

The set-up.  He’s a former Boston cop, wounded in the line of duty, out on disability.  She’s a local girl, went to medical school off-island, now she’s back.  They of course have a history, a summer romance back when.  Her dad, the aforementioned chief of police, needs their help to investigate the sudden rash of murders occasioned by the scripts.  Oh, and the ex-cop has psychological baggage, his partner killed in the same ambush that made him redundant.

The thing is, you can forgive a certain amount of contrivance.  It’s not the end of the world.  The problem here is that it’s all contrived.  They’ve checked every single box.  (I left out Bob the barista, who serves coffee and Zen.)  Jesse and Sarah’s charm just isn’t enough.

And the writing – I’m sorry – is dreadful.  They’ve taken a paint-by-numbers concept, and the scripts follow suit.

One last aggravation.  It’s not location shot, not even establishing footage; they filmed in British Columbia.  It’s as close to Martha’s Vineyard as Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove is to Ogunquit, Maine.  I know, there are economies of scale.  Good Will Hunting was shot in Toronto.  Tom Selleck’s series of Jesse Stone movies was shot in Halifax.  Fair enough.  Canada’s great for making movies.  But in this case, they’re not even paying lip service.  There’s a scene where the chief and the cop are fishing for bluefish.  Off a beach, in the harbor, in protected water.  You go after blues with a surf-casting rig, on an open shore, where the bottom shelves off, because blues run in deeper water, and chase smaller baitfish into the shallows.  They’re ferocious predators, fierce on fishing tackle.  I realize I’m being a real pissy-pants about all this, but it just sticks in my craw.

Certain things are tried and true, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but there’s a real difference between staying in the audience comfort zone and desperate laziness.

12 July 2023

Xena Redux


So, now that I’m thoroughly hooked on Candice Renoir, the powers that be have made the show unavailable for streaming as of the Season 7 debut, which leaves us hung out to dry, at least in the English-speaking television world.  (The series runs another four seasons, and three dozen episodes, before cancellation late last year.)

Same song, different day.  How do you fill the gap when you’re invested, emotionally, in these relationships and outcomes, and all of a sudden you’re Jonesing?  You’d think I might be used to it, by now. 

I can recommend Brokenwood, but not unreservedly.  It’s got the Ozzie-slash-Kiwi thing down, which helps when you’re lonely for the Blake mysteries, but it’s also vaguely reminiscent of Death in Paradise, meaning it can favor the silly.  It reminds you that it’s all a fiction – and not simply made up, but a handshake between the creatives and the audience, when too much of a knowing wink into the camera will spoil the illusion.  I also find it aggravating that while the medical examiner, Gina, is attracted to the lead, Mike, her sexual appetites are played for laughs, and a sign of desperation.  I could do with a little less Our Miss Brooks.  In other words, Brokenwood seems stuck in the wrong era, with some lazy conventions.

Which brings us to My Life Is Murder.  Also an Ozzie show, but after the first season, set in Melbourne, it decamps to Auckland, showing its New Zealand roots.  Because, my dears, the star and exec producer of the show is none other than Lucy Lawless.  Yes, she’s done Battlestar Galactica, and she’s done Spartacus, but those are ensemble casts, and I want to see her in a lead, kicking ass and taking names.  (Yes, since of course you’re wondering, Renee O’Connor does a guest shot in Season 2.) 

Some of us were resistant to the charms of Xena – certainly they mangled Greek mythology – but some of us were equally impervious to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  What fools these mortals be.  My Life Is Murder, I hasten to say, isn’t supernatural in the slightest.  It’s a straight-up detective show.  The scripts are inventive, and the resolutions convincing.  She, the heroine, is a former cop herself, and a cop’s widow.  She gets files, often cold cases, from a pal who’s still active-duty.  We know that in real life, no police agency in the world would countenance such a thing; any good defense attorney would take you off at the knees.  We can allow for dramatic license.  It works, in context.  Some of the other tropes are a bit labored, some of the forensic shortcuts challenge our suspension of disbelief, but whaddya want?  We’re trying to wrap this up in 45 minutes. 

It depends, naturally, on the actor and the character she plays.  Lucy Lawless carries the show, just as Cecile Bois carries Candice Renoir.  There’s more than a passing resemblance in the premise of the two series.  Lucy Lawless is 55, Cecile Bois is 51.  They’re playing strong women who’ve been buffeted by Fate – a cliché, but no less workable for that.  They’re attractive, and sexy, and don’t suffer fools (although you wish Candice would suffer fewer of them).  I think this is a welcome development.  There was Unforgotten, with Nicola Walker, now headlining Annika.  We’ve got Happy Valley, and Vera. 

Give it a shot.  I think it has a lot of charm, and humor.  It tends to skate on the surface, and not go deep into dark waters, but sometimes that does the trick. 

14 June 2023

The Girl from Ipanema


Astrud Gilberto died earlier this month.  She was famous, of course, for her breathy vocals on “The Girl from Ipanema,” which made Bossa Nova a brand name in the U.S. market.  The single sold five million copies.  She was paid scale, and never saw any royalties.

Bossa Nova, in Brazil, developed from samba.  An early iteration is said to be the soundtrack from Black Orpheus, in 1959.  In other words, not so much nova as it is a novel style.  The two big homegrown names were Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, who popularized it worldwide.  In the States, though, Boss Nova was a fad, like calypso or the Twist, and it fell out of fashion after the Sixties.  But in the meantime, it put Sergio Mendes and Stan Getz on the AM charts, and “Girl from Ipanema” and “Desafinado” have become standards.  (“Ipanema” is supposedly the second most covered song in the world, after “Yesterday.”)

Getz/Gilberto was released in 1964.  It was recorded the year before, but Creed Taylor, who produced for Verve, was afraid it would be a dud.  The LP went platinum, and won the Grammy for album of the year.  The previous Getz, Jazz Samba, with Charlie Byrd, had been a hit - “Desafinado” charted for sixteen weeks - Getz/Gilberto was a phenomenon.  It set the bar. 

Stan Getz is one of the great tenor horn players, no question.  And they’re very distinctive.  Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane.  It’s a muscular instrument, and these are guys with muscle.  You can hear ‘em honk.  Getz, though, is incredibly warm.  He doesn’t attack, like some, he caresses.  Getz on tenor curls up with you.  This isn’t to say he was necessarily a nice guy.  Let’s be honest, we don’t always want to meet our heroes.  Sometimes they turn out to be jerks, be they writers, jazz musicians, or whoever.  But when he played the horn, Getz was sweet.  “If we could all play like that,” Coltrane once said of him, “we would.”

That said, the guys didn’t want to give Astrud the credit. Getz and Creed Taylor made it seem like they’d done her this huge favor, putting her on the record.  (The vocals on the album version of “Girl from Ipanema” were Astrud and Joao, in English and Portuguese; the single was engineered to be Astrud alone, with only the English lyrics.)  The whole thing just sounds churlish.  Sixty years gone by, you can’t help thinking they’re a couple of total dicks. 

Anyway, the song put her on the map.  Her first solo album, with Jobim, came out the following year, and included “Insensatez” (“How Insensitive,” but more accurately translated as “Foolishness”), another much-covered standard – Sinatra, Peggy Lee, William Shatner, Sting.  She’s never gone away, either.  You can argue that such-and-such didn’t happen, but it doesn’t seem to have cramped her style. 


Tall and tan, and young, and lovely

The girl from Ipanema goes walking

And when she passes, he smiles

But she doesn’t see

24 May 2023

Moms Get Mad (and Get Lawyers)

Back in February, I wrote a piece about publishers cleaning up writers who’d fallen out of fashion, or more to the point, whose work would sound offensive to the contemporary ear – specific examples being Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and Agatha Christie.  This is a practice commonly known as bowdlerization, after Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who published a 19th-century edition of Shakespeare with the naughty bits eliminated.  Aside from the insult to the authors, my chief complaint is that it irons out context.

Mencken once remarked that a Puritan is someone who’s afraid that somebody, somewhere, is having fun.

The latest iteration of book-banning has dragged in Satan worship and the predatory sexual grooming of children, so plainly, calmer heads haven’t prevailed.  It’s belaboring the obvious to say that the fight against Woke is consciously a fight to marginalize the ‘other,’ and personally, I think the rest of us would be better off if these mouth-breathers were out of the gene pool, but far be it from me.

Which brings us to Ron DeSantis.

  DeSantis is fighting above his weight class, going after the Mouse.  Disney is going to wipe the canvas with him.  And instead of being a savvy, calculating political animal, triangulating his every advantage, he’s advertising himself as a vindictive little shit, who simply isn’t ready for prime time.  Are we meant to take any of it seriously?

Here’s the next wrinkle.

  A group of Florida moms have taken aim at book-banning by filing a lawsuit in federal court.  This is a direct response to a national right-wing organization known as Moms for Liberty, which spearheads the effort to remove titles from school curricula and public libraries.  (565 books were targeted in Florida, during the 2021-2022 school year.)  This lawsuit has been joined by PEN America, by some of the writers whose work has been censored, and by Penguin Random House – Penguin of course a division of Bertelsmann, the biggest publisher in the world.  Stop and think about that for a minute.  Does the state of Florida really want to take on Bertelsmann, in the wake of the Disney mess?

Bertelsmann has a dog in this fight.  The way to wrap your head around it is to realize the big money isn’t in James Paterson or Diana Gabaldon, no disrespect.  The big money’s in textbooks.  And a state like Texas, or Florida, has an oversize influence, because they buy a lot of schoolbooks.  In practice, this means that what passes muster in Texas or Florida, then winds up in Massachusetts and California.  The tail wags the dog.  You can’t produce different editions of a schoolbook for different states and political persuasions.  It defeats any economy of scale.  What just might be happening in this case, though, is that a major publisher is putting Florida on notice.  You may recall the DeSantis administration, or more specifically, the Florida department of education, recently rejected a very large percentage of textbooks, complaining they were tainted with Critical Race Theory, among other transgressions.

The most interesting thing about this new lawsuit is that it doesn’t challenge Florida statute, head-on. We might acknowledge that school boards or library trustees have the authority to pull books, under established process.  But the suit considers First Amendment issues.  The official – governmental – suppression of disfavored ideas is clearly a violation.  This could have legs.

See you in court.

08 March 2023

The Novella

As a form, the novella attracted me early.  It didn’t have the capaciousness of a novel, or the tight rising action of a short story, but it promised both a wider canvas and the close reading of character.  In time, I came to realize how near it was to a screenplay, the economy of depth.

My parents had some John O’Hara titles on the shelf.  I don’t think they were fans of the later novels, which were heavy-duty door-stoppers, but they had all of the story collections – his stories from the 1960’s are terrific, and invite reappraisal – and a trilogy of novellas called Sermons and Soda-Water.  That book became my model for what a novella ought to be, rigorous and intense.

I didn’t see anything to match it for twenty years, and then Jim Harrison published Legends of the Fall, and that book had me seriously re-thinking what you could maybe accomplish in a hundred-odd pages.  (I have to say that the movie adaption is execrable, a subject for another time.)

Much influenced by Legends of the Fall, I wrote a bounty hunter novella called Doubtful Canyon.  I discovered, to my chagrin, that it’s an awkward length, too long for most general-interest magazines, too short for book publication.

Then I did a spy story, called Viper, and put it up as an Amazon e-book.  I did the same with another, The Kingdom of Wolves.  I love the form, but the issue is marketability.

We come now to the Nero Wolfe Society’s Black Orchid Award, which is specifically for novellas, written after the manner of Rex Stout.  This doesn’t mean a pastiche, like a Sherlock Holmes and Watson; in fact, you’re not supposed to use Nero and Archie at all, or their ecosystem.  It means, in the spirit of.  I read a couple of Wolfe novellas, to get the flavor, but I found them dated and contrived, and I read one of the recent winners, “The Black Drop of Venus,” which appeared in Hitchcock, and a mystery I found original and ingenious.  The obvious question: could I write one?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m taking a crack at it.  The trick, of course, is how to do Nero-esque without the tiresome Nero himself, the misogyny, the hothouse flowers, the bloviating condescension.  Archie, let’s face it, is by far the more attractive (and authentic) personality. 

A bigger question is how to address the basic gimmick of the Nero stories.  He never leaves the house.  Archie does the legwork and reports back.  Nero reads the runes and fingers the villain.  How do you repurpose this, without falling into inert convention?  “The Black Drop of Venus,” manages to solve the problem convincingly, with a good deal of wit.  I hope to follow suit.

11 January 2023

The Fabelmans

Steven Spielberg’s latest picture, The Fabelmans, is a knockout.  Let’s start there.  It’s also tanked at the box office, although a big success critically.  I’m inclined to think its strengths weaken its wider appeal.  The movie wears its heart on its sleeve, without apology but without ever getting sappy, an anomaly, in the Spielberg canon, and its jaw-dropping technical fluency flies under the radar.

If you don’t know already, The Fabelmans is a roman à clef about growing up to be Steven Spielberg.  It doesn’t pretend to false modesty; it doesn’t lean into hagiography.  It’s mostly sly, and very funny.  It has big effects that are lightly touched on, like a glancing blow.  It conjures up big emotions, but manages them with suggestion, not brute force.  I’d even say, that alone among Spielberg’s movies, The Fabelmans has the virtue of leaving a good many things unsaid.  It leaves you to your own devices.

Not that there aren’t plenty of devices.  The whole picture is about devices, about invention, and subterfuge, about the tricks of memory, and the power of narrative.  It’s about becoming a storyteller.  And particularly about becoming a storyteller on film.  The actual plasticity of the medium, physically cutting film and gluing it together, how the character and plot reveals turn on the edits. 

You know there are going to be movie references, but they’re sparing – at least direct references.  The gang of Boy Scouts boils into the theater for a matinee, a couple of minutes late, and the movie’s already started.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the scene where Jimmy Stewart reaches up and wipes the dust off the old stagecoach with his sleeve.  Liberty Valance is of course a movie about the  tricks memory plays, or the tricks we play with memory.

There are Easter Eggs a-plenty in
The Fabelmans, don’t get me wrong.  Some are self-referential, like Sammy showing the film strip to his mom in his bedroom closet, some are directed outward, the hole in the piece of sheet music – is that Godard, maybe?  They can’t possibly be accidental. 

So, to the second point, Spielberg’s astonishing technical facility.  We’re talking about the guy who used Hitchcock’s simultaneous backwards-track and forward-zoom from Vertigo to give us Roy Scheider’s sudden disequilibrium in Jaws, not quite believing what he’s just seen from the beach, and knowing full well he has just seen the shark swallow a kid whole, out on the water.  That delicious moment in Jurassic Park, when Bob Peck, the hunter, realizes he’s become the prey, the warm breath of the velociraptor on the back of his neck: “Clever girl.”  Indiana Jones brings a gun to the knife fight; Paul Freeman, in the same movie, letting the fly crawl across his face and into his mouth and out again, without breaking character.  Oskar Schindler, out for a pleasant horseback ride, looks down from the hillside to see – what?  He doesn’t understand, quite, what he’s witness to, but it’s the Jews of the town being rounded up and dispossessed, something Schindler should push away, and simply unsee.

Spielberg himself once remarked, self-deprecatingly, that when he and George Lucas got back together to do Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that Lucas seemed to want him, Spielberg, to forget all the skills he’d learned in thirty years, and essentially make a 1980’s picture, or maybe even the ‘50’s. 

Suffice it to say, that The Fabelmans comes along in a traditional, linear presentation.  It’s deceptively straightforward.  Cleverly constructed, but without calling attention to itself.  The story arc, which is low-key, is essentially the kid coming to terms with the dynamic of his parents’ marriage.  That he sees it through the camera isn’t your conventional framing device, or meta-narrative, or easy analogue.  The scene where his parents announce their divorce to the kids has one of the very few extremely tricky and calculated camera movements, that catches the teenage Sammy in a mirror, filming the scene.  It goes by so fast, it’s almost subliminal, and in fact it’s a fantasy from Sammy’s POV.  Here’s the biggest giveaway or Easter Egg of all.  The Fabelmans is shot in flat, the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, not the 2.39:1 of widescreen.  This is the closest Spielberg could practically come to the classic Academy ratio, used in Hollywood until 1953, and the advent of ‘scope. 

There are two show-stopping cameos in the movie, and I don’t want to be responsible for spoilers, so you can skip this part.  But here goes.  First up is Uncle Boris, who shows up in the second act.  Boris ran away with the circus and became a lion-tamer.  Judd Hirsch runs away with the movie, momentarily.  The second cameo comes at the end, and it’s John Ford.  I’m not going to tell you who plays him.  The scene with Ford, though, is by all accounts what in fact happened when Spielberg met him, the once.  Along with Ford’s advice, where you frame the horizon line.

Hitchcock once said that people love being shown what’s behind the curtain, and I think it’s true, but I think it’s also true they like sleights of hand quicker than the eye.  Sammy’s dad explains to him, at the very beginning, what they’re going to see: your eye holds the image long enough for the next image to succeed it, and this creates the illusion of moving pictures.  This is “persistence of memory,” so-called.  Spielberg knows just how much to give away, just enough for you to hold that shaky image, in your mind’s eye.  And he’s careful, this time around, not to give away too much – nor does he withhold.  The beauty of The Fabelmans lies in its generosity of spirit, its spontaneous embrace, and an abiding, naïve sense of wonder, even now, for enchantment.    


28 December 2022

Be a Good Beaver

This is an Andrei Voznesensky poem that appeared in the New York Times fifty years ago, on New Year's Eve, 1972. I've treasured it ever since.

— [Translation by Theodore Shabad, NYTimes Moscow Bureau]

Be a Good Beaver

by Andrei Voznesensky

My strongest impression of 1972 was an encounter with a beaver who barred my way and began to weep. I don't know about your beavers, but ours have two dark-red front teeth.  I wish the beavers of all countries well and a Happy New Year.

On a swampy path one evening

I met a beaver.  He broke into sobs.

His red enamel front tooth

  protruded dejectedly like an emergency brake.

They've found a way, those crafty sobbers, 

Just try to approach their lodge, 

  and they will come out and sob before the bulldozer, 

  causing the driver to take pity and retreat.

They'll come out in crowds and hold their paws.

They'll come out in crowds and hold their paws pleadingly

  to protect their homes against the engine:

  "You've got the power - 

  but we've got our tears."

Our sobs against your engines roar!

In the eyes of this aging child

  tears stand in my way.

What do you think you are?  A village pump?

Come on, let me pass.

Are you crying to save your stream?

What else would you be pleading for?

Are you avenging your domain's ruination?

Tears are standing in my way.

Why are my knees now giving way?

I have never been stopped so far

  either by women weeping on the phone 

  or by a fool's raging arrogance.

Or is it that the river reeds and grasses

  have edged in to block the road, 

  bearing the weeping holy icon

  to make me repent, me, the sinner.

Be a good beaver, you New year, 

  and bring us not grief, but the will to fight.

You splendid, reproachful weepers,

  be good beavers, be good beavers.

Be a good beaver, and your conscience,

  silent and fearless as it awakens in the dawn, 

  will become a teary, though defiant demonstrator:

  "no pasaran, no pasaran."

The way is barred to intrusions,

  the way is barred,

  barred, oh lord,

  barred by tears …

24 August 2022

The Satanic Chorus

Five months after the initial publication of The Satanic Verses, the Ayatollah Khomeini put a bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head, for defaming Islam. (It shouldn’t be lost to view, as the author John Crowley points out, that The Satanic Verses also lampoons Khomeini.)

In the thirty-odd years since, the novel has been burned, bookstores have been fire-bombed, riots have killed dozens. A guy blows himself up in London when he prematurely sets off an explosive device; the book’s Japanese translator is found murdered; thirty-seven people die at a Turkish literary conference when the hotel is burned down. And in August of this year, a fanatic finally caught up with Salman Rushdie himself, and stabbed him multiple times, putting Rushdie in critical. He survived the attack, probably losing an eye.

Meanwhile, down in Albuquerque, there’ve been a series of ambush killings, targeting Muslim men. The first was back in November of last year, and police regarded it as an isolated incident. Then there were three more recent murders, in July and August, over a span of two weeks, and that put the focus back on the earlier homicide. Was there a pattern, and were they hate crimes?

Each of the victims had been Muslim, and of South Asian descent. The community was alarmed, unsurprisingly. In this actively malignant age, was somebody with an imagined grudge trawling for towelheads? New Mexico isn’t particularly homogenous: the grievances at issue between the native Indian population, and the Hispanic conquerors, and the Anglos – late arrivals, a mere three centuries of self-importance and privilege – are as close to surface as a bruise. For the relatively small and contained Islamic social and religiou fabric, how could this not be a threat?

“I believe in America,” the undertaker tells Don Vito, the opening line of The Godfather. The immigrant American experience has always been about promise, about a new world both literally and metaphorically. It hasn’t worked out all that well for the indigenous people who were here first, but for the huddled masses, yearning to be free, the shtetl Jews on the Lower East Side, the refugee Cubans in Miami, the Irish and the Italians - even the Africans brought chained in the holds of slave ships from the Bight of Benin, who came north between the wars, to the Great Lakes steel towns, to Ohio and Chicago, and New York.

They brought their labor and their industry, and their energy. Jazz, and fashion, and the Harlem Renaissance. America is about reinvention. What was Greektown, in Baltimore, two generations ago, is now Syrians, and Vietnamese, and Salvadoran groceries. How not? There are two hundred languages spoken in Queens. My cousin Peter, born and bred in New York, in some ways the archetypal WASP, goes to Queens to eat. Instead of hunkering down inside a fortress of white privilege, he’s excited to find something new.

Immigrants and exiles are borne up by hope.

It comes as no sad surprise that the guy APD arrested as their primary suspect for the killings in the Islamic community turns out not to be some white supremacist but one of their own, a lame with a chip on his shoulder named Muhammad Syed. He apparently went after these guys because of perceived slights. He has a record of domestic violence complaints, dropped because nobody in his family would press charges against him. We would suspect, the women, and a culture of submission, an authority figure who terrorized them. In other words, we’re not talking about a Medieval belief system, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s primitive interpretation of Islam, we’re talking about Primitive Dick Syndrome. The murders in Albuquerque were about insecurity.

This seems to be kind of where we’re at.

I don’t know whether the clown who went after Salman Rushdie really imagines he’s going to get ninety-nine virgins in Paradise, or whether he’s just compensating. It’s hard not to see these guys as sad sacks, Lee Harvey Oswalds, dead ends and losers. They’d never make it on a level playing field.

And while we’re on the subject, I think the Ayatollah’s another limp dick.

It’s a locker-room thing. The biggest loudmouths have the least wisdom. Anybody with sexual confidence keeps it to themselves. Would this be about Trump and his fluffers? You betcha. Kari Lake, running for governor of Arizona, tells us Gov. DeSantis of Florida has Big Dick Energy. She’s opening herself up to a bunch of cheap shots, but I’ll settle for the one. All that Big Dick Energy is what killed those guys in Albuquerque, in my opinion. It’s a toxic, corrupted view of manhood.

I may not like militant Islam, but I don’t have much if any respect for militant evangelical Christian Nationalism, either.

Over-orthodox bible-thumpers of any description just plain stick in my craw. Nobody’s got a lock on salvation, not you, not me, not the pope in Rome. I think Marjorie Taylor Greene’s a moron, but what really gets my goat is her righteousness. If she were nothing more than a simpleton, I might be able let it go; but she’s pushing a poisonous brand of snake oil I can’t swallow.

The problem with the mullahs and the anti-vaxxers and crusaders of every stripe, is their conviction that they alone know the path to godliness. Trump and DeSantis are of course without principle, repellent and opportunistic thugs, but that’s a horse of a different color. The more dangerous aspect is the committed and convinced among us. There’s no reasoned argument you can use with a true zealot.

I’ve got no prescriptive answer. We’re stuck with this gene pool, for better or worse. You have to wonder, though, about our poisoned models for masculine behavior.

Honor killings, rape as a weapon of war, vengeance for disrespect. But isn’t it just locker-room talk, after all, that Big Dick Energy? Who does it really hurt?

Fill in the blanks.

Oh, and now polio is back.

Just how dangerous is ignorance and misinformation?

I give up.

11 May 2022


This is a gun post, so if that stuff leaves you cold, feel free to skip ahead. I’m not going to take offense. I know not everybody shares my oddball enthusiasms.

When I was a kid, there were a lot of Westerns on TV. They began to taper off in the early 1960’s, and cop shows and private eyes picked up steam, but if you look at primetime in the years just previous, Westerns dominated the schedule every night. ABC’s Sunday line-up, for example, was Colt .45, Maverick, Lawman, The Rebel, and The Alaskans. That’s a solid block, although I guess you could argue that The Alaskans, strictly speaking, was more sled dogs than horse opera. (And except for The Rebel, they were all produced by Warners.) Mondays was Cheyenne. Tuesdays had Sugarfoot and Bronco, Laramie, Wyatt Earp, and The Rifleman. Wagon Train ran on Wednesdays. Thursdays, you had Bat Masterson and Johnny Ringo. Friday was Rawhide and Hotel de Paree. Saturday night brought us Wanted: Dead or Alive, Have Gun - Will Travel, and Gunsmoke.

L to R: Will Hutchins, Peter Brown, Jack Kelly, Ty Hardin, James Garner, Wayde Preston, John Russell

Is it any wonder that I was crazy about cowboy guns and fast draw? I drew on Wayde Preston in the titles for Colt .45, and on Richard Boone in the opening sequence of Have Gun – Will Travel, but I never mastered the trick of Wayde Preston’s spinning his seven-and-a-half-inch-barreled Colts back into the holsters. By this point, mind, I’d moved on from the cheesier grade of cap gun to the top-of-the-line Nichols 45 Stallion, the closest thing you could find to the nickel-plated gun Shane carried. And then Mattel came out with their version, superseding the Fanner 50, the Shootin’ Shell .45, an actual double-action, single-action you could cock coming out of the holster, a huge step up in design, as regards verisimilitude.

We put away childish things.

I went to summer camp, and learned the basics of gun safety, shooting single-shot bolt .22’s at fifty feet. This is back in the day when the NRA was essentially an educational and shooting group, not a political lobby. (I don’t want to get into how Wayne LaPierre and the 2nd Amendment absolutists hijacked it –maybe next time.) You got merit badges for your shooting skills, and I think I made it to Intermediate, which later stood me in good stead, when I shot Expert with the .30 caliber carbine in Basic Training, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

My dad himself had a single-shot Remington bolt .22, and he took me up Mass. Ave. to Roach’s Sporting Goods, across from the Sears, and we bought a Mossberg. Nice gun, I still own it. The next summer I was fifteen, and he let me buy a .22 Colt Frontier Scout, up in Ellsworth, Maine.

Let us pause, for a moment. My father was the gentlest of men. He served, though, in all three theaters of war, in the Navy, back and forth across the North Atlantic, with the wolfpacks, later in the Mediterranean, and through the Suez Canal, and at the end, in the Pacific. He only told the funny stories, of course. They ran aground in the Suez Canal because the skipper was drunk. It’s only years afterwards, reading his logbooks, that I hear about a close call, outside the anchorage at Scapa Flow. Never a word.

This gentle man, however, saw no contradiction in his son learning how to conduct himself safely and sensibly around firearms. He encouraged it. I could go off on a long sidebar about the guys who came back from the war, but I’ll leave it for now. For the purposes of this story, I spent hours with that Frontier Scout, dry-fire and live fire, cleaning it religiously, taking it apart all the way to the springs, spinning it in and out of the holster. I lived with that gun. (Still own it, too.) For a very long time, that was my model, what I imagined a gun should be.

Some years later, I bought its big brother, a single-action replica of the Colt SAA made in Italy. Heavy bastard, two and a half pounds, chambered in .38-40, with a trigger pull of no more than a few ounces. Tricky gun to shoot, with a lot of felt recoil, and not exactly practical. It was a sentimental choice, and meanwhile, I’d discovered the 1911. It was time I left an earlier century behind.

Again, let’s admit the influence of a Western, not a TV series, but The Wild Bunch. It’s hugely transitional, in many ways, but particularly its time period, introducing the automobile, for one, and the machine gun. And of course the .45 auto, the Colt 1911 pistol, which is almost a character in its own right. “I’m curious about the weapon you men are carrying,” Mapache’s German advisor says. “It is restricted to the use of military personnel. It cannot be purchased, or even owned.” And in the last gunfight of the picture, the .45 auto is in heavy rotation, speed reloads and all, shaking out spent magazines and slapping in full ones. It’s a far cry from the showdown in Shane, or Ride the High Country, for that matter.

Steve Hunter, who’s far more knowledgeable about guns than I am – Point of Impact, Dirty White Boys, Hot Springs – caught wind of the fact that a .45 auto wouldn’t reliably cycle blank rounds, and the armorers on The Wild Bunch wound up buying .38 Supers, which you could find in Mexico, because it was the heaviest caliber legal for civilian carry. Two things, here; I know I’m trying your patience. The first is that anything bigger than the .38 Super, or the 9MM, was illegal in Mexico, and the .45 was restricted to military and police. Secondly, the .38 Super is an outlier. The .45 auto cartridge and the gun itself were designed around each other. John Browning originally came up with an autoloader in .38, and the War Department rejected it. This is a complicated story, involving the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection, and I can’t do justice to it, here. The point is that after the 1911 in .45 was adopted by the U.S. Army, the .38 Super came along in the 1920’s, and it turned into a gunfighter’s gun. John Dillinger carried one.

Steve, being Steve, immediately went on GunBroker, and bought a .38 Super.

So did I. It was an alloy-frame Commander, and I’m here to tell you it’s one of the most reliable guns I’ve ever shot. You could put two hundred rounds through it, it got dirty, it kept right on shooting. The design was still state of the art.

Hunter did a lot with the .38 Super. It’s a major plot point in Black Light, when Bob Lee’s dad Earl is killed in a cornfield, and it resurfaces in Havana. For me, I gave the gun to Mickey Counihan, in my postwar New York stories. There was just something about it.

I don’t own a 1911 any more. I caved, and got a 9MM. It’s a CZ 75 compact. Heavy, simple, reliable. Actually the second most reproduced handgun in the world, for military and police, a generation removed from the Browning High-Power, another much-copied gun. I’ve still got a reflexive weakness for the single-action Army and the .45 auto, but fashions change. A gun is like a piece of furniture, threadbare and comfortable. We’re reluctant to give it up.

[Having opened the door here, I’m going to commit. The transformation of the NRA from a minor sportsmen’s group into a major political lobbyist is one of the big stories of the last thirty years, and it happened under the covers. Nobody noticed until it was too late. Stay tuned.]