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

27 January 2021

This Time Next Year


Not my usual line of country, nor your usual memoir, Jackie Winspear’s This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing.

If you know the Maisie Dobbs books (number sixteen, The Consequences of Fear, comes out in March) or the engagingly sly Care and Management of Lies, you might think you’ve made Jacqueline Winspear’s acquaintance, but you don’t know the half of it. We imagine we’ll learn something about a writer, or the engines of her imagination, if we’re invited inside her life.

Nothing is a one-on-one equivalency, not John LeCarre’s rascally father Ronnie, or whether Anne Hathaway cheated on Shakespeare with his brother, but we nod with a certain familiarity when Jackie tells us her grand-dad was never able to adjust to loud noises after he came back from the trenches: she was a high-energy kid, and bouncing off the furniture needed less of same.

This is one of those intersections of biography and the imagined that stands out in This Time Next Year. Maisie is herself a veteran of the Great War, and her generation is shadowed by loss. For a writer, this can be a second cousin once removed, the shadows inhabited with someone just off-stage, concealments. We observe an absence, what got left out of the story. It’s a narrative device.

Jackie cheerfully confounds this. It’s not that the story is relentlessly sunny, far from it. The voice is one of speculation, and doubt, and a kind of fey suspension of disbelief, but grounded in exactly remembered detail. The dress. The overturned pot of scalding water. The smell of hops. Nothing is sentimental; everything is vivid.

The trick, if I can use that word, is that Jackie reimagines her childhood. She does something that I think is extraordinarily difficult, from a technical point of view. She gives you the child’s perspective. The girl of six. And then she casts an eye back. The girl of six might well be more wary and less forgiving, but the key is that the grown woman sympathizes with the importance of the event, then. This pulled focus is riveting.

Jackie’s mom, Joyce, looms large. “‘Look at the time,’ she’d say, which was a bit pointless, because the black Bakelite clock on the mantelpiece above the stove, the one in the shape of the grand Grecian palace that came from Nanny, never kept good time, though she had the watch Dad had bought for her when they were engaged. That was the watch that, if it stopped working, she’d take it off and, grasping it by the strap would slap it across the table a couple of times, look at the dial, hold it to her ear and then say, ‘There, that did it.’ Slapping the TV, slapping the watch, slapping the radio – which we called a wireless – if something wasn’t working properly, she would always sort it out with a sharp slap. It was a method she also employed when her children didn’t seem to work properly.”

You get the idea. The ironies. The astringency. It’s very affectionate, though. She seems to lay all her cards on the table, but much is withheld. The silences are quite surprisingly loud.


Late-breaking. This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is up for an Edgar, best Critical/Biographical.

13 January 2021

Soundtracks


I was thirteen, if memory serves, when my dad bought me a record player, and bought me some LP’s to go with it. Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, Benny Goodman with the Boston Symphony (Benny playing classical), and Dvorak’s New World.

I wonder about his choices, but the Brubeck’s stayed with me sixty years. I don’t think I would have appreciated Shelly Manne or the other West Coast guys without it, or Henry Mancini. The theme from Peter Gunn got a lot of airplay, dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-da-DUM-da-dum, but the score I went nuts for was Mr. Lucky. And that organ, backed up with big-band arrangements, led me straight to Jimmy Smith. Walk on the Wide Side, charts by Oliver Nelson, was huge. I’m guessing the biggest R&B hit on AM radio after What’d I Say?



I’m skipping through some of the personal chart-toppers, of course. Coltrane’s My Favorite Things and Olé, with McCoy Tyner’s amazing left hand. I spent a couple of years in Europe, in the military, and there was no shortage of great live jazz, but I’m thinking more of the albums we listened to, and what was on the jukebox. Does anybody else here remember the Electric Prunes, or Mass in F Minor? That was when Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, but the single most evocative song of the era was A Whiter Shade of Pale, which then and now, is an anthem for Berlin.




I spent the 1970’s in a haze of Van Morrison, and I don’t regret it. Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic’s Preview, Hard Nose the Highway, Veedon Fleece. (I can listen to “Tupelo Honey” or “Snow in San Anselmo,” and conjure up the very place I was. “Linden Arden,” “Streets of Arklow,” and “You Don’t Pull No Punches,” as a suite; it never gets old.)

I don’t know that I’ve quite embraced the more recent. I love Sarah McLachlan. I wonder how much of that is due to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Hejira. Bonnie Raitt. Maria Muldaur. It isn’t that the new music isn’t any good, or it’s derivative, but I think a certain template is set. You listen to Ray LaMontagne, and you hear Jackson Browne, or even, God help us, Dave Van Ronk. (Boy, that was an anthem, the summer I was seventeen, driving a load of mattresses from Rochester up to a friend’s family cottage in southern Ontario and getting wired on bathtub benzedrine a lab rat pal of Phill Gleason’s cooked up.)


Probably, a subset of the above. We associate the music very specifically. It’s apparently second only to our sense of smell, as a trigger, of memory, of emotion, and of deeper psychic energies. Is it regret? I can’t listen to James Taylor and “Sweet Baby James” without tearing up. It wrecked me the first time I heard it. So there.


Yes, it’s association. And it conjures up youth. But we suspect something larger. I think the playlist is a lot more than background music. I don’t think it’s accidental, or incidental, however much is left to chance. Something gets our feet tapping. We might not consciously choose the score, but it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.

23 December 2020

The Little Drummer Boy


John le Carré changed the landscape, no question. It’s not accurate, though, to imagine he sprang fully-formed from the brow of Zeus. He was a hundred-and-eighty degrees from the shockers of John Buchan and E. Phillips Oppenheim, and it’s often remarked that George Smiley is the anti-Bond, but Fleming was himself a real spy, Naval Intelligence in WWII (le Carré worked for both MI5 and MI6, during the Cold War), and Bond is clearly a conceit, an exaggeration of Fleming’s own masochism and snobbery, not to mention a curious sort of inversion: Bond (and Fleming) parallel the career arc of Kim Philby.

Smiley, on the other hand, might be an internalized version of le Carré’s own habits of concealment and emotional avoidance, and Philby’s treachery - which is plainly one of le Carré’s touchstones – might parallel on a national or historical scale, le Carré’s personal betrayal by his father Ronnie. This isn’t some startling apotheosis; le Carré has spoken and written about it with self-deprecating chagrin.

His literary precursors are Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler. He didn’t exist in a vacuum. But the influences we recognize aren’t necessarily literary. Film noir isn’t exclusively an American province, there’s a healthy dose of it British postwar movies (along with an equally irreverent streak of comedies). Brighton Rock, based of course on a Greene novel, is one example. Even better are the Carol Reeds of that era: Odd Man Out, Fallen Idol, The Third Man. Not to mention the Dickens movies that David Lean made. It’s no surprise that these pictures contribute to a climate of mistrust and class resentments, or that they pave the way for the thickening claustrophobia of the Red Scare.

Not everybody reads pulp, either, and I’d like to make a case for Donald Hamilton. Dean Martin played Matt Helm as a Bond parody, but Hamilton’s books were darker. I’d recommend The Steel Mirror, not a Helm novel, but a standalone. It’s a Nazi war criminal/Commie menace hybrid, frightening and effective. And then there’s Richard Condon’s Manchurian Candidate. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was, yes, a game-changer, and fifty-odd years on, it’s worth remembering how it moved the goal posts, but not without context.

Le Carré is about betrayal. This is his consistent theme. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is about a deception operation. Leamas describes it at the end. You had a smart guy who suspected his boss of treason. We laid down a trail of bread crumbs, but artful, so it wasn’t that easy to follow. The smart guy was caught in his own snare. In fact, his boss was an asset of British intelligence, but we made him invulnerable by discrediting the investigation. The subtext of the story is class, a peculiarly inflexible British resonance. And the East German investigator, Fiedler, is a Jew, which comes in handy, some Hebe slyboots with a grudge.

The point wasn’t despair, or cynicism. The point was: These guys aren’t playing by the rules. And if we were still thinking, Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail, we were going to get our ass handed to us. Le Carré, in that sense, isn’t that far from Bond after all.

I read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965, when I was taking Russian at Syracuse, a nine-month immersion course, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. The next year, I was in Berlin. I read The Looking-Glass War, and from a more informed perspective, I thought the book was complete baloney. You wouldn’t need to put a live agent in place, you could get everything you needed from electronic intercept. It made me doubt le Carré’s credentials. On the other hand, there was a lovely piece of tradecraft at the end, when the Vopo sergeant starts pulling the fuses in the breaker box in the apartment block.

Off and on, I ran hot and cold. A Small Town in Germany felt very authentic, from my own experience, but it was kind of inert. Then came Tinker, Tailor, and The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People. Honorable Schoolboy is, I think, a misfire, but necessary. Smiley’s People - the title alone a nod to Kipling – is something of a summing up, and the nuts and bolts are worth the cover price all by themselves. George at Otto’s boat camp?

Then we have The Little Drummer Girl. “Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name.” Probably the best of the books. Le Carré got a lot of grief over it, because it gave a sympathetic picture of Palestinians in the camps, and a decidedly unsympathetic picture of Arik Sharon and the Israeli war hawks, but the story is about hunting a terrorist, and it’s in no way sympathetic to the murder of innocents. It’s completely involving in its spycraft, Winding the Clock, Shaking the Tree, and it’s of course about betrayal. There’s an extraordinary line at the end of the book, “… the last thing Becker wanted was to invent anybody.” This is le Carré’s own admission.

I wouldn’t say he fell off, not by any means, but I began to fall away from him. Our Game, and The Tailor of Panama, are very engaging books, but somehow not entirely present. I liked The Russia House, with its circular-error-probable, but not as much as I should have. I absolutely despised Absolute Friends. Not that it couldn’t happen, but that it took an unworthy shortcut, and an easy out.

My pal Michael Davidson, also a spy novelist, and career CIA, thought le Carré was guilty of moral relativism. I’m not so sure. There’s an interior monologue in Smiley’s People, when Smiley goes to Hamburg, and looks east, across the Baltic, and thinks to himself, this is where the Iron Curtain starts, this is where the prison of thought begins, in the barbed wire. Smiley’s generation fought Hitler. Stalin’s legacy is just as poisonous. Smiley uses doubtful means, but he believes in the mission, and the end game.

Ambiguity perhaps defines le Carré. The Secret Pilgrim is one of his later titles. Too easy, of course, to try and pin a writer down through his admitted weaknesses. I think le Carré is more than the sum of his parts. Early on, in Call for the Dead, he says, “the warmth was contraband.” I can imagine he found warmth. His work is chilly enough.

John le Carré

08 December 2020

Jan Morris


 

Jan Morris died a couple of weeks ago.  She was an extraordinary writer, in the tradition of adventurers like Robert Byron and Freya Stark, or Patrick Leigh Fermor and Peter Fleming – and she clearly inspired the later guys like Bruce Chatwin and Redmond O’Hanlon, or even an outlier like Jonathan Raban.  


Morris was a travel writer in the sense that M.F.K. Fisher is a food writer.  M.F.K. didn’t write cookbooks, she wrote meditations about vegetables, and pots, and cranky stoves, and feeding cranky kids.  Jan Morris once remarked that she wasn’t writing guidebooks, she was trying to capture what first caught her attention about a place.  And then how that attraction deepened.  Her favorite cities, by report, were Venice and New York, and she revisited them, her books an overlapping portrait.


Oh, by the by, she was at the base camp on Everest when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norkay made the summit, reported on the day of Elizabeth II’s coronation.  


Aside from my delight in her Pax Brittanica trilogy, a history which my friend John Crowley credits (for his novella Great Work of Time), her tight little sliver of a book, Manhattan 1945, proved a huge resource for my period novel Liar’s Dice, and a dozen Mickey Counihan stories that followed.  

Later on, she wrote two fictions herself, Last Letters from Hav and Hav of the Myrmirdons, which I suppose you could characterize as SF, or fantasy.  They’re imaginary travel books, dispatches from a place on the horizon of memory, or our peripheral vision.

25 November 2020

Jumbled Up


 

I don’t remember having much interest in crosswords or other word puzzles growing up, although I played SCRABBLE a few times with my grandmother – but she insisted on being able to use French, too, which put me at a significant disadvantage.  Somehow, the whole idea of crosswords left me cold, with finishing one only a “bleak satisfaction,” in my pal John Crowley’s phrase.

Then, in my early twenties, when I was in the military, I got hooked on the Jumble, which was a feature in Stars & Stripes.  The proximate cause was that we spent a third of our duty time on mids.  (Shift work is days, swings, and mids: 0800 to 1600, 1600 to midnight, midnight to 0800.  It messes with your sleep patterns.  Cops and firefighters, nurses and EMT’s, merchant seamen, anybody in a round-the-clock pursuit is familiar.)  In that dead time somewhere between 3 and 5 in the morning, before the Russian and East German pilots crawled out of their bunks and into the cockpits of their aircraft, and we were fruitlessly searching the VHF spectrum for signals, you needed a little something to stimulate your groggy synapses. 

If you don’t know how Jumble works, it consists of four words with the letters scrambled.  You unlock GOTDYS, for example, to reveal STODGY, or APHISM as MISHAP.  Not always as easy as it looks, actually.  Sometimes you’d get stuck. 

Then there was the second half of the game.  Each of the words you unscrambled had a few letters circled, and once you had all four words, you had another set of scrambled letters, which you matched to a clue for your final answer.  

I should clarify.  The unit I served in back then was a spook shop, Communications Intelligence.  I myself was a Russian linguist; we also had German and Polish.  Some of the other personnel were ELINT, they broke out radar signatures, and there was a small section that dealt with dedicated electronic encryption, computer-driven, back when this was a more primitive engineering skill.  The point being that, operationally, we were descended from a long line of code-breakers.  Our job was to unravel the secrets that our adversary was trying to keep hidden.  In that light, decoding a Jumble cryptogram might be regarded as an analog of our day job. 

Further, solving the Jumble requires a paradigm shift.  The first part, rearranging the scramble of letters to produce a given word, is a left-brain exercise.  The second half, grasping the sense of the clue, in relation to the individual vowels and consonants, is more right-brain or intuitive.  It asks for a different discipline, not so much a logic puzzle as an empathic one: the whole, the gestalt.

I still play the game on my cell phone, over coffee.  Some years back, I got a jolt of recognition when I read an interview with David Mamet, and one of the questions was about writers’ superstitions, or totems.  He said, if I can’t riddle out the Jumble first thing in the morning, the rest of my day is shot.  Gotta love it.

 

11 November 2020

The Ipcress File


 One of my Facebook groups, The Deighton Dossier (link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/deightondossier), put up a flare that The Ipcress File was newly available on a KL Studio DVD, and I immediately snapped it up.  I’m happy to report that it’s a fine color transfer, with nice, deep blacks, something the picture requires - and it’s a deal at $14 ($20 for the Blu-Ray).

 

It’s worth remembering that this was a ground-breaker when it was released.  Dr. No had dropped in ‘62, From Russia With Love in ‘63, and Goldfinger in ‘64.  The Ipcress File slipped in just ahead of Thunderball, in late 1965.  Bond was a huge phenomenon – and Thunderball was the picture where Bond turned the corner toward eye-popping FX set pieces: stunts and spectacle.  Not to diminish how flat-out terrific they were, and the vigorous confidence that Sean Connery brought to the table.  I was just as ga-ga for Bond as anybody, and Bond set the bar high.

 


The Ipcress File is sly.  It has the confidence of the ordinary, of homely detail.  It begins with Harry making coffee.  He’s a little fussy, and fastidious.  He wears a pair of rather thick-framed glasses.  You’re not thinking some smoothie at the baccarat table, you’re wondering if he’s wandered into the wrong movie, or you did.  And then the focus begins to skew.  Otto Heller’s camera angles and Sidney Furie’s fey direction, a sort of oops, we led you to think one way, when actually you should have been looking at the fish tank off to one side (this is a rhetorical device, there are in fact no fish tanks, for which we could be grateful), and we begin to pay closer attention.

 


The device that Ipcress File uses is to make the ordinary sinister.  Simple details seem to gain weight.  And then they don’t.  Bluejay writes a phone number down for Harry, but it’s disconnected.  Harry’s aggravated.  Dalby takes the scrap of paper, and turns it over.  It’s a program for a musical recital.  Not the number, Dalby points out, but the piece of paper it’s written on.  The tradecraft isn’t a mystery.  It’s elemental. 

 

All of Ipcress is like this.  Half the time, it seems like everybody’s scoring points on each other.  The class issues are worn on their sleeve.  “You’ve got a good job for a passed-over major,” Ross tells Dalby.  “A word in your shell-like ear,” Dalby says to Harry, putting him in his place.  This fuels the whole story.  Ross and Dalby are offering Harry a place above the salt, and both pretending it’s of no consequence to them.  Dalby and Ross wear regimental ties, but Harry, in the end, really doesn’t give a shit.  One of them betrayed him. 

 


The Ipcress File made Michael Caine a star.  I know, Alfie, but that just confirmed it.  He’d done Zulu, a couple of years earlier, and he’d read for the part that went to James Booth, the slyboots lower-class enlisted, private Hook.  Cy Enfield, the director, cast him as Bromhead, the aristocratic officer.  Only because Enfield was a Yank, and didn’t know any better, Caine later said, because a Brit director would never have cast me.  Class is cast in stone.

Accent is destiny.

 

The sound of Bow Bells.  Caine is a Cockney.  So is Roger Moore, point of fact.  He had to pretend to a kind of generic mid-Atlantic, that wouldn’t fool a Brit, but might work on the rest of us.  When the two of them worked on Bullseye! together, they were clearly having a lot of fun.  Bob Hoskins once remarked that Michael Caine opened the doors ‘for the rest of us.’  I think you might go back to, say, Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  It was a time coming.  Rita Tushingham in A Taste of Honey.

I don’t think there was any one single moment.

 

The Ipcress File comes close to that single moment.  It doesn’t date that badly.  The brainwashing parts are pretty lame, but the personal and political tensions are vivid.  It gives us immediate difficulties.  We might make fun of those contrived shots through the cymbals, but the revealed accidents are sudden and genuine.

 

In my opinion, a great movie. 

 

28 October 2020

Fortune & Men's Eyes


We have a mixed attitude toward history, and toward historical fiction, particularly fictionalized biography. I think the issues are compounded when the subject is familiar to us, through myth or received wisdom, and we take it personally. We can mislike having our habits of mind disturbed. Look at Shakespeare. He rests in a somewhat shallow grave; we know so little about him, the early years, certainly, that we’re each free to imagine him on our own image.

Which is what Kenneth Branagh does in his movie All Is True, not Shakespeare early on, but in old age. I don’t agree with much of Branagh’s speculation, but I don’t fault him for it. We can conjure up ownership out of affection for the plays, or the poetry, or fixed ideas, and resist a different interpretation. The difficulty I have with Branagh’s reconstruction isn’t that his Shakespeare is unconvincing personally, but his characterization of a working writer is inauthentic and reductive.


By contrast, Shakespeare in Love seems right to me, but probably because the filmmakers were less constrained by known quantities, and both convention and hard facts were elastic. They used playfulness to their advantage, and the picture lets in air and light.


My personal favorite is Anthony Burgess’ extraordinary Shakespeare novel, Nothing Like the Sun. He later published a straight-up biography, which I also devoured.

Burgess characterizes the late Elizabethan as a word-drunk age, and Nothing Like the Sun is profligate. Burgess was always drunk on words – Clockwork Orange, anybody? – but his Shakespeare book is written in a headlong Elizabethan stream-of-consciousness that bends the laws of physics. It was like nothing I’d ever read, and still is. It takes some balls to write Shakespeare in first-person, to imagine yourself into Will’s doublet and hose, and his voice.

That being said, All Is True has a lot of good stuff. The candlelit interiors were apparently shot by candlelight, for one, which is no small trick. The settings and the art direction are terrifically authentic. People were paying attention. The cast is wonderful: Branagh himself, Judi Dench, Kathryn Wilder as the older daughter, Ian McKellen’s cameo as Southampton. I think the picture suffers simply from being too earnest; I can’t buy the conceit that Shakespeare was treated like a monument in his own lifetime. He brought himself notoriety, and financial security, but how could he not still be, in his private and less secure moments, the upstart crow?


There’s one close to sublime moment in All Is True, a little past the halfway mark, when McKellen shows up as the Earl. It’s already been established in a conversation between Will and wife Anne that Southampton is widely thought to be the Dark Lady of the sonnets – they’re dedicated to him – and late at night, the two old boys slightly in their cups, Will reels off the whole of “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” as a sort of swan song or even perhaps reprimand. And then, astonishingly, Southampton quotes it back to him, from memory. The scene is done in tight close-up, a long single take for each of them, with no reaction shots. Every seamed furrow of their age shows in the firelight. These are men in their waning years, and the bloom of youth is long past, yet, “Like to the lark arising at break of day/From sullen earth,” we see them lit from within, luminous and transparent.


This is the last piece I’ll be posting before November 3rd is upon us. I’d ask that each and every one of us exercise our responsibility to vote. Take care and be well.

14 October 2020

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)


I saw Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade in London, the year it came out, and was enormously impressed.  (Apparently the U.S. release was cut by some six minutes, and the DVD is missing that footage.)  Watching the picture again – has it really been fifty years? – I recognize its strengths and weaknesses, but I think I gave it more credit than it was due, at the time.

 

For example, what is Vanessa Redgrave doing in the movie?  She was big box office, after Blow-Up and Camelot, but her character in Light Brigade is a superfluous distraction.  She sleeps with her husband’s best friend, but other than demonstrating the impenetrable superficiality of the ruling classes, it has no dramatic purpose.  For another, they don’t manage to make it entirely clear why Cardigan leads the Light up the wrong valley, and charges directly into the Russian cannon, instead of flanking them – which leaves a pretty big hole in its pretense to historical accuracy.

 



That being said, the movie has wonderful virtues.  The production design, which conjures up the dense ecosystems of David Lean’s postwar Dickens adaptions, and the cinematography by David Watkin, he of Robin and Marian, Chariots of Fire, and Night Falls on Manhattan.  But chiefly, the inspired casting.  Some of the actors weren’t even Richardson’s original choices – amazingly, Trevor Howard as Lord Cardigan, a part Richardson offered to Rex Harrison.  No disrespect to Rex, but seriously?  In a career that includes Brief Encounter, The Third Man, The Roots of Heaven, and Sons and Lovers, watching Howard chew on his mustaches in this performance is nothing short of heart-stopping.  His glaring matches with Harry Andrews as Lord Lucan (in life they were brothers-in-law and cordially disliked one another) are sulphurous.

 


Howard and Harry Andrews aside, there’s the gloriously nasal John Gielgud as Raglan; the inimitable Peter Bowles (later of Rumpole) at his most fatuous, and Jill Bennett as his lion-hunter of a wife; tragically memorable, Norman Rossington, Albert Finney’s best mate in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the Beatles’ manager in Hard Day’s Night, as the Sergeant Major compromised by his commanding officer, Cardigan, and broken to the ranks – one of the more brutal and graphic flogging scenes in any movie.  David Hemmings, though, is disappointing in the pivotal role of Nolan, too languid and too pretty.  (And reportedly insufferable during filming.)

 


The other point to make is of course the context.  Like many pictures from the late 1960’s and early 70’s, Charge of the Light Brigade falls under the shadow of Viet Nam.  In this case, not so much metaphorically, because the Crimean War was itself a huge folly.  The mismanagement of the war, and the management of public opinion, were two sides of a coin.  Cardigan was a hero in Great Britain after Balaclava; Lucan was in disgrace.  It was years before Cardigan’s reputation began to suffer, and even after he was exposed as an incompetent, there were people who refused to believe it.  (Cardigan’s bravery wasn’t doubted, but his leadership was a joke.)  The very real benefit that came out of the Crimea’s “confusion of purpose” was the reform of the British Army that did away with the purchase of commissions and brought in a policy of promotion by merit.  Not perfect, but a start.

 


Viet Nam was often seen at right angles, or in reflection, not in our direct gaze.  Lost Command, Mark Robson’s version of Larteguy’s The Centurions, came out in 1967, and The Green Berets in ‘68.  They weren’t box-office bombs, but opinion was divided on their merits.  The more common approach was peripheral.  M*A*S*H supposedly took place during KoreaNicholas and Alexandra is a lot more about the year of its release, 1971, than it is about the fall of the Romanovs: it’s Nixon, Cambodia, and Kent State.

 


Charge of the Light Brigade came out in 1968, after the Tet Offensive.  The timing is coincidental, but the movie’s antiwar sentiments were sharpened considerably by what was widely viewed as an American military and political embarrassment.  (Historically, it was a defeat for the NVA and Viet Cong, but the public perception in the U.S. and Europe was quite different.)  Light Brigade, then, becomes a provocation, and a warning against foreign adventurism.  It’s not about a war a century old, but a war very much in the here and now.  And the generals bickering over who gets the blame for the slaughter remind us uncomfortably of the tone-deaf Westmoreland, with his talk of a light at the end of the tunnel.  No accident. 

 

We imagine we made peace with Viet Nam.  Not with Viet Nam per se, a country that makes us sweatshop sneakers, but with Viet Nam as an American failure, which is complete nonsense.  Missing in Action is psychological denial, Chuck Norris fighting the war over again, but winning this time.

 

Charge of the Light Brigade is a moment frozen in time.  Not the Crimea, but 1968.  It betrays its own period.  I don’t think it’s a bad picture, far from it, but I think it shows its age.  You look at a movie like The Thin Man, and admire or indulge its representation of its own time and place, but still think it has a universal charm, whether or not it’s dated.  You give it the benefit of the doubt.  Light Brigade is too much the product of its own particular period; it can’t breathe.  It’s trapped in its immediate context.  That immediacy, which made it seem so genuine and alive back then, makes it an artifact now.  It’s a fossil.

23 September 2020

Moby Dick


Moby Dick, the movie.

My grandma Ada had a summer house in South Dartmouth, Mass., and I used to go to the New Bedford whaling museum.  In the 1800’s, New Bedford was the capital of the New England whaling industry – with Nantucket and Provincetown close behind – and the whaling museum is terrific.  Their main draw is a half-scale model of a whaling ship, indoors, that kids or grown-ups can clamber all over and in. 


The world premiere of John Huston’s 1956 movie of Moby Dick was in New Bedford, in June, and my dad scored us tickets.  It was a big deal, both for him and me, and for New Bedford, which never really recovered after the boom days of whaling were over.  Looking up the event, all these years later, it turns out the picture premiered at three downtown theaters simultaneously, and Gregory Peck showed up at all three.  I remember him, vaguely, and I’m sure we bought the souvenir program, but I don’t remember the movie itself making that big an impression.  

It wasn’t, in fact, a huge hit.  I think it made its money back, but that’s about it.  The reviews were lukewarm.  Peck took the biggest beating.  He was too young for the part, and he didn’t have the chops, but more than that, he was Greg Peck, he wasn’t supposed to play some looney tunes with a peg leg.  (That would be Robert Newton.)

Huston cast Orson Welles as Father Mapple, in a cameo.  Andrew Sarris remarked that Huston should have hired Welles to direct, and played Ahab himself.  There’s a certain poetry in this.  Huston’s clear first choice for the part would have been Walter Huston, his father, but his dad was now dead.  Welles went on to do a very interesting stage adaption, where he played Ahab - I saw a later production of the play with Rod Steiger, and trust me, no scenery went unchewed. 


Going back and watching the movie now, though, I have to say it’s unfairly maligned.  Ray Bradbury did the screenplay, with Huston, and it’s very judicious – they emphasize the spectacle, and lean only lightly on the Old Testament aspects.  Peck is actually not embarrassing as Ahab; he’s pretty good.  John Wayne as Genghis Khan it ain’t.  Richard Basehart is wrong for Ishmael, let’s admit, and Woody Strode was going to be the harpooner Queequeg, but had a scheduling conflict.  Leo Genn gets a lot of mileage out of Starbuck, the sympathetic First Mate.  In the long run, what Huston does with the casting is to use faces.  You probably didn’t know then who Harry Andrews or Bernard Miles or Noel Purcell or Mervyn Johns were, but you knew a great face when you saw one.





You get a careful choice of detail.  The movie shows the doldrums, when the wind dies and the sails flap idly, the ship in irons.  You see routine, both the boring and the terrifying: a spooky scene with St. Elmo’s Fire playing through the yardarms, a Nantucket sleigh ride, the harpooned whale dragging a longboat.  There’s a strong sense of how the ship functions, as a mechanism, or a community.  Bluntly, everything In the Heart of the Sea got wrong, this picture gets right. 

One particular thing of note, the cinematography, by Oswald Morris.  You can look this guy up.  He did eight pictures with Huston, Moby Dick was the third.  He worked with Carol Reed and Tony Richardson and Sidney Lumet.  Very much a pro.  But they used a special process, famously, with Moby Dick.  They shot the picture, and desaturated the images.  This is something that’s gotten more common nowadays, because you can do it post-production.  If you’ve seen John Boorman’s The General, for example, the picture loses more and more color as Brendan Gleeson loses more and more of his moral center; at the end it’s black-and-white.  Band of Brothers uses a similar technique: the combat footage has little or no color.  Moby Dick isn’t digitally manipulated.  They apparently printed a black-and-white negative over a color separation, and the result is similar to looking at a hand-tinted illustration, of the period.


So, something perhaps to revisit.  A lot of times we go back, and suffer disappointment.  It’s nice to go back, and be pleasantly surprised. 





09 September 2020

Exiles


I’m not sure what started this train of thought.  I might have been thinking about portrayals of the Raj, or the relationship between colonials and Empire, A Passage to India, Shakespeare Wallah, The Man Who Would Be King, and I drifted into more personal reminiscence.

My dad grew up in the wilds of Elyria, Ohio, and was sent East to boarding school when he was fifteen.  He was the youngest of five boys, and followed in his brothers’ footsteps.  I think plainly my grandmother Ada thought they’d get a better secondary education; it almost certainly helped them get into a good college.  My own experience with boarding school started at the same age, but I didn’t profit from it nearly so well.  I’m bringing this up because it has a parallel in Rudyard Kipling’s exile and return – you could definitely do something with this as metaphor, but I mean it literally, Kipling at five years old, uprooted from the heat and light of Bombay, packed off to the damp south coast of England, abandoned to the rigid torments of an unyielding Evangelical orthodoxy.

I don’t in any way mean to suggest my experience, or my dad’s, was anything like Kipling’s.  I idealize my father’s childhood, in fact, as some sunny upland of innocence, an unshadowed place out of Booth Tarkington or Don Marquis, gigging for frogs and going barefoot and swimming nekkid in the turbid shallows of the Black River, but this is utter nonsense, nobody’s childhood is unshadowed.  As for his years at Milton, he remembered them with enough affection to encourage me to apply there.  I wound up going somewhere else, and I wasn’t crazy about the whole prep school formula, either, but it was a long way from Dickensian horror.  Kipling wasn’t so lucky.  The years in Swansea, in the care of a retired Merchant captain and his wife, were manipulative and abusive.  Kipling’s own account, sixty years later, in Something of Myself, unflinchingly conveys his bewilderment and terror, the House of Desolation, he calls it.  “Often afterwards, [my] beloved Aunt would ask me why I had never told anyone how I was being treated.  Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established.”  The despair is absolute, a lifetime after, the injury never forgiven.



Kipling says a couple of very interesting things about this period.  First off, remember that he was imprisoned there for six years, aged five to eleven.  He says, Turn a boy over to the Jesuits, for that time of life, and they’ll own him for the rest.  He also says, There were few books in that house.  But when they found this out, his parents sent him books, and they were rescue.  Lastly, he talks about his strategies for combating abuse.  “If you cross-examine a child of seven or eight on his day’s doings (specially when he wants to go to sleep), he will contradict himself very satisfactorily.  If each contradiction be set down as a lie and retailed at breakfast, life isn’t easy.  Yet it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell, and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort.”  Well, yes.  This is a very sly admission on Kipling’s part, that the cruelty he encountered here was an engine for his imagination.  You don’t have to be a survivor of domestic dysfunction to recognize the coping mechanics; even a pretty healthy family dynamic can require navigation.  Kipling is saying that the habit of secrecy, of concealment, of lies, is a survival mechanism, it’s protective coloration.  Oh, and he sings for his supper.  He begins to make up stories. 

Happily, this isn’t taking place in a complete vacuum.  He doesn’t have close relatives in England, but there are a few close enough to see the kid’s miserable, and his mother shows up finally to effect his escape.  (He never seems to blame them for this, by the way, Alice and John, his parents.  They identify as Anglo-Indian, overseas English, and it’s common practice to send your children home to Great Britain so they don’t go native.  The problem being that the foster family Kipling and his sister Trix were lodged with are opportunistic scum.)  We can all too easily imagine the twelve-year-old boy’s apprehension that he hasn’t broken free, that this is all a cruel joke, that the House of Desolation will open its jaws to him again, but no, this isn’t an imaginary release, they spend a careless spring and summer near Epping Forest, and we can’t help but think this is remembered in Puck of Pook’s Hill.


(One of Kipling’s gifts, it seems to me, is his enormous sympathy with childhood.  He re-imagines it.  Reading his children’s stories - or having them read aloud to you - The Just-So Stories, The Jungle Book, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, Stalky & Co., you can hear how each of them are pitched for a different ear.  The Just-So Stories are clearly aimed at four to six, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies aimed at a slightly older audience, say  seven to ten.  But he’s never condescending.)

Kipling was twelve going on thirteen when he went to public school at Westward Ho!  It was of course a curriculum that emphasized muscular Christianity, but the boy, Beetle in the Stalky stories, got his growth.  We imagine it was tough at first – did they even have hot bath water? – and there was caning, and institutionalized bullying by the upperclassmen, and for all of that, he pulls up his socks and soldiers on.  This isn’t the torment of Swansea, it’s a discipline he can embrace. 

He wasn’t, however, a terrific academic success.  His grades weren’t good enough to get him a scholarship to Oxford, and his parents didn’t have the means to pay his tuition, so John lined up a job for his son back in Lahore, assistant editor of The Civil and Military Gazette.


Kipling docks in India in October, 1882.  He’s just shy of seventeen, and he’s been away for eleven years.  “I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving again among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not.  …My English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.”

These next seven years account for Plain Tales from the Hills, Soldiers Three, Under the Deodars, The Phantom Rickshaw, and Wee Willie Winkie, along with poetry and six days a week of newspaper content.  The boy, once bereft and cast out, is home again.  His engine burns furiously.

Kipling was always full of industry, and his energies never deserted him, even if age slowed him down a little in the last five or so years of his life, but nothing matches the fever of that time in India. Both the Gazette and its sister publication, the Pioneer in Allahabad, were dailies, and he refers to the newspaper work as Seven Years’ Hard. He clearly wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything else.
     Try as he will, no man breaks wholly loose

          From his first love, no matter who she be.

     Oh, was there ever sailor free to choose,

          That didn’t settle somewhere near the sea?

I admit I have a real weakness for writers like Kipling, and Sir Walter Scott, and Dickens, or for that matter John O’Hara, who just pour it on.  Their invention, their freshness, their sheer concentration, is astonishing.  I’m sure they have their moments of despair and doubt.  But they lace up their God damn game shoes, and go out to play, with the score against them.

Kipling is one of those guys who’s anything but transparent.  In disguise, he takes on other voices, he protects himself.  He’s still in a boxer’s crouch.  Restless and forlorn.  The boy, abandoned, finding refuge in stories, a larger fate, a secret destiny.  Kim.  Kipling the spy.  The writer as double agent, infiltrating his own narrative, reporting back to us at great personal risk from an occupied country, where the real enemy is trust. 

Famously, he says of Bombay:
     The cities are full of pride,

          Challenging each to each –

     And she shall touch and remit

          After the use of kings

     (Orderly, ancient, fit)

          My deep-sea plunderings.

This is a man who put regret aside, but regrets color his life.  He forgets nothing, and forgives less.  Kipling absorbs, and apologizes.  Not even Dickens is less himself, or more.  Hidden, he rings true, as clear as water.



26 August 2020

Exiles


From March through August is a long time to have a void in your socializing. It's enough to make you start talking to strangers in a park, regardless of what your mother told you about not doing that sort of thing.

The situation finally got so bad that one morning the wife and I decided to hit the drive-up at Starbuck's for coffee and lemon bread snacks. Of course, the people in line behind whoever is being served at the window tend to get a little perturbed if you pause for very long to converse with the window employee, so we soon knew it was time for us to move along. Now, we needed a place to enjoy our morning coffee. This led us to a nice, little, hidden-away park with some elbow room and a beautiful view of nature. A place called Fox Run.

We had barely settled in at a metal picnic table, sipped our coffee and opened our sealed packets of lemon bread, when a young fellow with camera and long lens walked up and inquired if he could use the far end of the table for a short while. Well, I had my large, red, Harley bandanna down around my neck and my wife had her surgical mask off so we could eat and drink in comfort, but it was a large table with plenty of room for social distancing, so we told him to go ahead and use it.

Naturally, one thing led to another and a conversation ensued. It started with cameras and photography. On this particular day, he was shooting photos of the turtles in the upper lake. That led to the usual where are you from, where did you go to college and what kind of work do you do. After all my years of subtly interrogating people as a Special Agent, I don't mind asking questions, and I've found that most people like talking about themselves if you can once get them started. Strangely enough, they get so involved talking about themselves that few of them ask questions back.

We soon found he was an artist painting in the abstract style and had also tried his hand at a little writing. We then had an interesting conversation on such topics as creativity and inspiration. At the end, we swapped get-in-touch information and went our separate ways.

Michael DePalma is his name.

WALKS -in the Goddess series
Over the next couple of weeks, I went to his two websites:http://www.waveformexpressionism.com/and http://www.thewaveformexpressionist.net/ . And, while I know very little about painting and the techniques involved, not to mention the various styles, I do know if something is pleasing to my eye. If we had the money to buy paintings, the wife and I would now be owners of a couple of Michael's paintings which spoke to our artistic interests one way or another.

In some of Michael's blog articles, I found pieces on inspiration, writer's block, creativity and other topics of interest for writers. For myself, I have always found it interesting and motivating to discuss creativity with someone in one of the other branches of the Fine Arts. It seems that the inspiration and creative process in other branches is often comparable to what writers go through for a completed manuscript. It is all art in different forms.

But, like all in the Fine Arts, success is a pyramid with limited room at the top for only a few artists (writers/musicians/actors/etc.) to make big money. Artists are lucky if they can even be high enough on the pyramid to make a living. Some don't become successful and their works valuable until after they are dead and gone, as if they were just then discovered. For many of us writers, it's a good thing we have a steady income, or 9 to 5, or even a retirement pension to pay the bills while we create. For those who don't have that safety net to fall back on, it can be an insecure world.

So what we have here, is a graduate from a prestigious university who is trying to exist on his creative talents, but still needs to live on more than thin air. What he is looking for now, is a job in the graphic arts field where he can put his creative talents to good use.

Check out his two websites, observe his artistic talent and read some of his blog articles. Then, if you like what you see and happen to know of an opening in the field of graphic arts, e-mail him through one of his two websites. Or, if you wish to remain anonymous, send the info to me and I'll pass it on to Michael.

In the meantime, keep on creating.