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

14 February 2024

Betwixt Cup and Lip

Years ago, I lived in the Berkshires out in western Massachusetts, which was pretty much a stone’s throw from the New York state line. And we had occasion to go over there, once in a while. It wasn’t totally an unknown country. There was a Japanese restaurant in Kinderhook, Martin Van Buren’s birthplace. There was Steepletop, the Edna St. Vincent Millay writers colony, in Austerlitz And one time, when I went to drop someone off at the train station in Hudson – you could catch the New York Central, and go down to the city – somebody else told me, Oh, that’s where Legs Diamond was shot. I thought to myself, Hmmm.

Things you store away, for later. As it turns out, Legs wasn’t shot in Hudson; he was gunned down in a drunken stupor at a rowhouse in Albany, on Dove Street. Supposedly, it was a uniform patrol sergeant named Fitzpatrick, who was afterwards named chief of police, in return for the favor. Still, it stuck in my mind. New York gangsters, on the lam from the city, would cool their heels upstate, until the heat died down. They wouldn’t go far, just a short train ride out of town. If you kept your head down and your nose clean, nobody was any the wiser. Obviously, the mistake Legs made was to try and muscle in on the local syndicate’s action, and they rubbed him out.

This little nugget, stored away, was the basis for “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” my Mickey Counihan story in Murder, Neat.

The theme of the collection is that the stories take place in a bar. It sounds like the opening line of a joke, which reminds me of something Mark Billingham once said. He got his start in stand-up and sketch comedy, and he later remarked that open mic and thriller writing have a lot in common. You only have a brief window to establish yourself with the audience, for one. And secondly, it’s about having an effective set-up, that winds you up for a punchline. The punchline of a joke most usually depends on the reversal of expectations, and so does developing a cliff-hanger scene. You set a snare, to invite the reader in, and then spring the trap on them.

One difference is that you could easily start the scene with a hook, without knowing how to finish. The pope, a rabbi, and the Dalai Lama walk into a strip club. What’s the kicker? Beats me, I don’t have a clue.

The way it works in practice, though, is that you have a little nugget, and it bumps around in the corners, and picks up other little bits and pieces, and pretty soon it’s turned into a bigger package altogether. You’ve got some ungainly mental figure, a shape, like a dressmaker’s dummy, and you can hang a suit of clothes on it.

Some of us outline, some of us are pantsers. Meaning there are writers who block out the whole story arc in advance, and then fill in the cracks, and there are writers who fly by the seat of their pants. This isn’t to say we don’t take advantage of lucky accident, or that there aren’t always unexpected moments. Those, in fact, are what you live for. But either way, you start with a name, or a turn of phrase, an image, or simply how the weather was.

The curious part, which borders on the magical – even if in practical terms it amounts to stamina – is that when we’re done, both the story itself and the process of getting it over the finish line seem inevitable, by which I mean inevitable to the reader as well as to the writer. We ask that the story be fully formed, woven by the Fates, cast by the dice: of all possible worlds, this one alone is true.

Each story makes a promise, and we'd like it to be kept.

24 January 2024


Anthony Burgess once remarked that the Elizabethan Age was word-drunk – Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, Thomas Nashe (“an upstart crow”) – and as it spilled into the next century, the Book of Common Prayer published in 1604, the King James Bible in 1611, and the First Folio in 1623, we recognize the shaping of the English language into a modern tongue, a vernacular for the commons, in its meaning of the community at large.

What we see, in literature, politics, and religion, is a leveling effect. Not that the language becomes gross, or inexact; the reverse. It becomes more specific, and at the same time, includes more variety. The vocabulary expands beyond the cloisters, or the manners of court. In part, this is a function of class breakdown, the permeability of social and economic barriers: the collapse of feudalism. Also, the essential message of the Reformation is that you can have a personal relationship with God, independent of the interpretation of Scripture by the Church. There’s an obvious political message here, too. Your loyalty to any earthly power isn’t ordained, it isn’t written in stone, it derives from your consent.

I’d suggest that language – or more specifically, let’s say ‘usage’ – is an instrument of democratization. The term vernacular can be defined as indigenous, or local, such as a dialect; natural, or vulgar, or ordinary. In other words, a common manner of speech, in both senses: something everybody shares, or something you turn up your nose at.

Or perhaps there’s no real contradiction. My grandmother actually wrote a letter to R.J. Reynolds, back in the Bronze Age, complaining about their slogan, “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” Amazingly, somebody in PR actually wrote her back, saying basically that their target audience wasn’t grammar-adjacent, so suck it up.

This is the Bad Money Drives Out Good argument, and I’m not sure I’m on board with it. Chandler, in The Simple Art of Murder, remarks that Hammett took murder out of the drawing room and dropped it in the street.  

He goes on to say a number of other things, some of which I disagree with, but his point is that the supposed gentlefolk of the English country house were given the bum’s rush, and the effete Philo Vances were shouldered out of the queue by the more muscular and less fastidious Sam Spade, or the Continental Op. It’s an exaggeration, and the hard-boiled and the cozy still keep company, but Chandler’s put his finger on it.

It’s no secret, either, that Chandler wasn’t a big fan of Mickey Spillane, and he clearly feels Spillane is pandering to the market, the brutality, the contempt for women, the furious, feverish psychological dream landscape, but at the same time, Chandler recognizes the inevitability.

This is an old conversation. The more accessible literature becomes, or citizenship, or Holy Communion, is the mystery cheapened, or diluted? For the previous initiates, yes. The literate, the propertied, the baptized – the chosen ones. Who wants to give up the secrets of a fellowship that sets you apart? By definition, it excludes the other, the unwashed, the unread, the unholy. We make it too easy for them. They should have to jump insuperable hurdles, rehearse impenetrable, Talmudic catechisms. Once you open books to these people, libraries of knowledge, you no longer hold the keys. You lose the power of voice.

Mickey Spillane, in any case, is fish in a barrel. I happen to like Spillane (“How could you?” “It was easy”), but you can understand how Chandler would think he debased the culture.  Chandler’s a snob. For our purposes, let’s pick somebody else. Chester Himes. Himes is definitely genre, and Coffin Ed and the Grave Digger don’t fit all that comfortably into Chandler’s “down these mean streets a man must walk who’s not himself mean,” but Himes is giving us Harlem from the native perspective – although Himes seems like an outsider looking in, dispossessed, and always an exile, the books are still unapologetically black.

We see something similar in science fiction and fantasy over the last, say, thirty to forty years. There was very much a time when it was boy’s club, and pretty much white boys, too.

Alice Sheldon published as James Tiptree, under the probably accurate assumption that SF readers wouldn’t buy stories by a girl. The community is notoriously cranky and hidebound, for all that they’re supposed to be looking to the future.

Ursula Le Guin made waves with The Left Hand of Darkness (ambiguous genders), and then along comes Chip Delany, not only colored, but queer. Sakes alive, the pearls that got clutched.

The lesson would appear to be, that opening the door to opportunity doesn’t water the whiskey. Our literature, our world, is reinvigorated, even reinvented. This is the purpose of a living language. It undermines orthodoxy, and in an Age of Lies, we could use a few choice words.

27 December 2023

Bread & Circuses

I’m not sure whether this is a parable, a trope, or a template – I’m sure there’s a term, a part of speech, an expression in Fowler, synecdoche, perhaps?  (I had to look that up.)  Something that happens, or you happen upon, that appears to illustrate some larger truth. 


I bought a loaf of Pepperidge Farm bread a week or so ago, Sweet Hawaiian, as it happens, and when I went to buy it again, it was nowhere to be found.  At first, I figured I’d gone to a different store than usual, Smith’s instead of Albertson’s, but then I ran into an Orowheat guy, stocking shelves at Sprouts, and he told me he guessed Pepperidge Farm was giving up on the northern New Mexico market, because they couldn’t find anybody to take over the route.  I’m like, What?  Pepperidge Farm was a local staple, when I was growing up.  They were a New England brand, like Hood milk, or Narragansett beer, or Nehi.  Later, they rolled out nationally, and nowadays you can find their cookies at a CVS, or Walgreens.  Milk chocolate macadamia is no longer a specialty item.  But what was up with the bread?

There have been a lot of problems with the supply chain, lately.  It has to do primarily with businesses not carrying inventory, and depending on distributorships.  We’ve all gotten used to immediate gratification, Amazon delivering on demand.  The problem comes when the world runs out of toilet paper, or salt, or any other commodity, and the system clanks to a halt.  All those container ships anchored off of Long Beach, waiting to unload sneakers.

Another possible villain in this narrative is vertical integration.  A single corporate structure is responsible for too many steps; in other words, the company’s work philosophy is manifest all up and down the chain of command, and whether that philosophy is loose and intuitive, or uptight and hierarchal, the law of diminishing returns sets in.  One example would be publishing.  There used to be dozens of trade publishers putting out books, and now there are essentially the five majors.  It hasn’t turned out all that well for writers, or books, or the publishing industry at large.  I’m sorry, am I wrong about this?  The more you consolidate, the less diverse your results.  It seems self-evident.  Any one true church enforces orthodoxy. 

The place this leads me is the diminishing marketplace of ideas.  There’s less competition.   The loudest voices shout down our conversation, and suck all the air out of the room.  Your product won’t get shelf space, even if it’s the hottest thing since sliced bread.

I really want this coming New Year to be better, to show some promise, and give us hope.  Here we are in the season of the shortest days, and the longest nights.  But as my pal Alice used to say, the day after the winter solstice is the first day of summer.  Each morning is brighter.  It’s hard to believe in, when the hours are so dark.  I can only suggest we nourish ourselves, and turn toward the light. 

                                                      photo credit: Carole Aine Langrall

13 December 2023

1st Person Familiar


I went looking for a book I hadn’t read in 60 years – a novel called The Golden Warrior, that I was assigned in the 8th grade or thereabouts – and for whatever reason, I was curious to read again, or at least leaf through.  Something about it had stuck in my mind.  They didn’t have it at the library, and I found it on the internet.  For nine bucks, I was thinking trade paper, but it’s a hardcover, from 1950.  It came from a mail-order outfit called ThriftBooks, highly recommended.

The Golden Warrior is about the complicated political and dynastic struggle between Harold, last Saxon king of England, and William, duke of Normandy, that ends in 1066, with the Conquest.  It picks up the story fifteen years earlier, when William visits England to talk some turkey with then-king Edward.  Edward the Confessor is known for his piety, which unhappily means his marriage is without issue.  He has no heir, and Duke William wants to be named.

The first thing I noticed was that the dialogue seemed a little strained, at least to my ear, and theatrically archaic.  I don’t mean like Sir Walter Scott, and Ivanhoe, where the flourishes are exaggerated to the point of parody – think Danny Kaye, in The Court Jester – but you find yourself thinking, Did these people actually speak like this?  You understand the need for a certain formality, or discretion, or indirection, and plain speaking could invite a rain of troubles.  Still, the elevated speech patterns push you away, they don’t ask you in, they make you all too aware that it’s artificial, a construct. 

Historical fiction is, of course, tricky.  There’s a higher bar to clear, the suspension of disbelief.  It’s easy to make fun of Sir Walter Scott, but the books that are closer in time to his own, Old Mortality, say, or The Antiquary, ring less false, for the simple reason that he can actually imagine or conjure up how those people talked, whereas the speech of a 12th-century Crusader is beyond him.  (I’d think it was pretty much beyond anybody.)

If you look at Patrick O’Brian’s work, though, or Mary Renault, they somehow get around this problem.  Renault, in particular, uses a device you could call the First-Person Familiar, or the First-Person Intimate.  Think about it for a second.  I recently read Tana French’s In the Woods, and liked it a lot, but the way she chooses to tell the story is unreliable: the first-person narration is as much about concealment as it is about peeling away secrets.  The buried past, the buried present.  See, instead, how Renault opens The Last of the Wine, or The Mask of Apollo.  It’s a sleight of hand, which appears transparent; she seems to withhold nothing.  “When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me.” 

It’s so matter-of-fact.  It might remind you of Dickens, Copperfield, maybe.  The later Dickens is slyer, more oblique, sliding up into the story from below.  This, the beginning of Last of the Wine, starts with the boy being born, but in fact in the middle of the story, the war with Sparta already a decade old.  Renault gives us an immediate present, nothing that smells of the lamp.

Actually, that’s not accurate.  It does smell of the lamp.  Not in the metaphorical sense, from Plutarch, meaning labored, but in the literal sense: you can smell the oil in her descriptions, see the light flickering on the wall. 

I’ll get past my initial resistance to The Golden Warrior.  I’ll accommodate the rhythms, the storytelling, the manners of speech.  You learn the beat, the time signature.  Some writers are more easeful than others, is all.  Renault can be deceptive; it goes down so smoothly, you never taste the hemlock. 

22 November 2023

John Woo: Hard Boiled

John Woo is back.  His new picture, Silent Night, drops December 1st.  It’s his first American movie since Paycheck, in 2003, so it’s been awhile.

Woo came to the States in 1992, to work with Jean-Claude Van Damme.  He later made movies with Travolta, Christian Slater, Nic Cage, Dolph Lundgren, Tom Cruise, and Ben Affleck, before he went back to China.  The truth is, he was never a good fit with the American studio system, and I don’t honestly think any of the pictures from his American period are as good as the ones he made before and after. Of his later movies, the five-hour historical epic Red Cliff is a jaw-dropper.  But for sheer delirium, nothing can beat Hard Boiled, the last picture he made in Hong Kong thirty years ago, before he left for Hollywood.

Chow Yun-Fat is the tough cop, Tony Leung is the gang enforcer, and they of course go head-to-head.  But in fact, Tony’s character is undercover, which leads to a lot of doubling up and doubling back and double-crosses, which are John Woo trademarks.   

You didn’t really come for psychological twists and moral crises, though.  You came for the choreographed set pieces, and in Hard Boiled, there are three doozies. 

The first is the shoot-out in the restaurant, which is filled with caged birds, with highly decorative plumage, and you know feathers will start to fly.  (Birds are another repeated Woo visual.)  This is also the first time I recall seeing the stunt where the guy slides down a stairwell banister on his back, shooting a gun in each hand as he slides, all the way to the foot of the stairs.  The second is the shoot-out in the warehouse/garage, which involves a lot of crazy motorcycle jumps and crashes, along with rappelling through a skylight and other acrobatics.  The third and last gunfight is the showdown at the hospital maternity ward, which has to be seen to be believed.

The two cops, our heroes, are trying to thwart a hostage situation, including an entire floor of newborn babies.  There are dozens of bad guys, natch, and as I remember, the whole place has been wired with explosives, but fear not.  At one point, our guys are moving down a long corridor, back to back, so they can cover each other, and shooting out glass walls, left and right, and when it looks like they’re trapped, they duck into an elevator - do a speed reload with fresh magazines – and get out of the elevator on a different floor, and keep shooting.  Lest you think it’s small potatoes, this scene is shot in one take.  Two minutes and forty seconds long.  Word has it that the final shootout took forty days to shoot.

John Woo is nothing if not a technical master, and you find yourself holding your breath in some of his action scenes.  All the same, I think he’s a romantic at heart, like Peckinpah.  The visuals stay with you, but he gives you the emotional punch, to go with them.

25 October 2023


Unforgotten, it ain’t.  But it’s still Nicola Walker.  And even if we don’t have Sunny and the rest of the Unforgotten crew, we have a new team, up in the wilds of Glasgow.

Annika is another police procedural, courtesy of the PBS Masterpiece channel (which, along with Acorn, carries a bunch of good stuff).  It follows the Marine Homicide Unit – is there, in fact, such a thing?  Not that it matters, it makes for a good set-up.  The episodes are self-contained, so unlike Unforgotten, or Shetland, there’s no story arc over the full season.  Nor is Annika as dark as either of the aforementioned.  It has a lighter touch.  And it has a gimmick where Nicola’s character breaks the fourth wall, and speaks directly to us, sharing not so much her thoughts about the specific case in hand, but more her textural observations, Ibsen or Sophocles, whatever pops into her floating stream of consciousness.  I find this device both charming and revealing, it has transparency; I can also see where people could find it aggravating, fey and cutesy. 

The show has grit, without being horrifically brutal or down in the mouth.  Glasgow has the rap of being a pretty tough burg, but as shown here, it’s not all murk and spit and shadows.  And people don’t seem oppressed or bitter.  It doesn’t come across like a province of the former Soviet Union. 

The other three cops on the squad are individuated enough to give them flavor and specifics, without falling into the generic, or caricature, but it’s Annika herself who has an inner life, and a domestic one.  She’s a single mom, with a teenage daughter, and this is nowhere near as deadly as it might sound.  Their relationship is prickly, and feels organic, and it’s interesting from the outside.  Both actresses feed into a natural dynamic, adversarial and anything but treacly.  Part of what makes it work is that our hero, while very perceptive and on-game as a cop, is a lot less skillful as a mom.  She has a hard time navigating the shoals. 

The mysteries are better than serviceable, although not terribly mystifying; the cop shop stuff is convincing; the cops are really good, you get to like them, the cast wins you over.  Mind you, they can be rather dour (dure, the Scots would say), and the humor – of which there’s a fair amount – is delivered very deadpan.  You can turn on the subtitles, too, but if you’ve gotten used to the accents in Shetland, it shouldn’t pose a problem here.

You kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. The first season in, I think this one’s a keeper.

11 October 2023

The Reckoning

I don’t want to jump feet-first into the savage quicksand of Israel and her adversaries, but I have some observations about the Hamas attack, absent politics. 

First, the intelligence failure.  It’s astonishing that the Israeli security services missed the signals; Hamas may have kept planning for the offensive under wraps, but the best you can say is that the Israeli intelligence community was asleep at the wheel, complacent if not derelict.  They pride themselves on active countermeasures – and the U.S. shares satellite coverage and electronic intercept – so how did Hamas hit them so hard, and so suddenly?

The word “surprise” is being over-used, in this context.  Netanyahu’s current governing coalition includes some rabid right-wing fundamentalists, who not only reject the two-state solution, but reject basic human rights for the Palestinians in general.  (It should be pointed out that Fatah, the political wing of the PLO, accepts in principle Israel’s right to exist; Hamas is dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and Jewish genocide.)  If you listen to the inflammatory rhetoric of the present administrator of the West Bank, once investigated by Shin Bet for suspected sedition, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking he represents an existential threat to Palestinians as a people.  This isn’t to make excuses, or to suggest any kind of moral equivalency with Hamas, only to say that the terror attacks shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Another thing is that Israel is obliged to respond – has already responded – with brute force.  Civilian casualties are only going to mount.  This is a cruel consequence of the years of war.  You can argue the rights and wrongs of occupation, of resistance and intifada, but the intractable reality is unyielding grievance, and more innocents die. 

Then there’s the presence of other actors, in the wings.  The confrontation states have never given a rat’s ass about the Palestinians; the cause is just a stick to beat Israel over the head with.  Syria has been meddling in Lebanon for fifty years, and hope is lost.  Hezbollah and Hamas, once Syrian clients, are now supported by Iran.  The mullahs have of course disavowed the Hamas terror strike, saying they support Hamas in their struggle, but had nothing to do with this specific attack.  I call horse feathers.  Hamas stockpiled tens of thousands of missiles in preparation for this.  The obvious suspicion falls on Tehran.  Talk on the street says officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard met with Hamas in Beirut to plan the ground game. 

Israel won’t sit on its hands if the Iranians are even remotely implicated.  A strand of DNA, a single nose hair recovered from the crime scene, and Iran’s balls will go on the block.  It will not be pretty. 

On a more political front, the disarray in Congress can only sidetrack an effective American response.  The lack of a Speaker means the House can’t take up military aid to Israel, or Ukraine, or Taiwan.  (Has everybody forgotten about the Chinese and their Pacific ambitions?)  We’ve just sent a carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean.  But as it happens, the Navy doesn’t currently have a Chief of Naval Operations, because Tommy Tuberville, Republican senator from Bumwad, has put a hold on flag rank promotions - in response to a Defense Department policy on abortion

This is insane. 

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 clich√©, 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