Thursday, 22 June 2017

Bruce Dern, The Fire Next Time, and Fritz Lang being silly – Reviews #269

A mini-update, with a book and two movies.

BOOK



The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1962)
– This masterly work by James Baldwin, the poet-philosopher of the Civil Rights Movement, may seem superficially dated – written at a time when blacks couldn’t vote – but remains enduringly relevant, articulating the lot of the oppressed black American, but also the white, trapped in a prison of his own making, the shortcomings of his life and society twisted into antipathy against those who have nothing.

Across two letters – one to his nephew and namesake, the other to us – he talks passionately and persuasively of the beauty and strength of the black population, in contrast with the spiritually bankrupt, artistically sexless, self-denying, self-deluding dominant race, drowning in hypocrisy and given its moral authority by a Christianity whose white God has abandoned his black congregation. He rails at the supposed beneficence of RFK – lauded as a civil rights champion – and his ilk, asking why a negro can become President 'in 40 years' time'. Why only one man, exalted above others? Why should they be grateful for this endorsement? And why 40 years? Why not now?



Baldwin rejects, though, Elijah Muhammad’s call for vengeance, demanding instead that blacks and whites re-examine their roles, their relationships and even their lives, in order to forge an understanding, and so an America fit for both. He is writing, really, for a white audience: trying to articulate for them what it means to be black, to have been brought to the country in chains, to still bear the name of those who owned your ancestors, to be without a voice and a vote, feared and loathed and dared to ascend above your allotted station, so they lock you up or beat you down. It’s heartbreaking to read Baldwin’s contention that the state can hardly lock up all African-Americans, and then consider the spiralling prison population documented in the recent film inspired by the author’s work, I Am Not Your Negro.

The Fire Next Time is obligatory reading not just because of its prescience, but due to its far-reaching implications. Its thoughts on the legitimacy of experience, the ‘innocence’ of malignant privilege and the damage that we do by taking refuge in – and taking our cues from – a toxic status quo are messages not just for the far-right, who won’t read them, but for those well-intentioned people who speak when they should be listening (I count myself among them).

Interestingly – and crucially – though, the book isn’t purely polemical. It’s also personal, its conclusions elucidated through memoir: passages recalling Baldwin’s early years caught between the streets and the church, and addressing his relationship with his younger brother – an extraordinarily touching passage alighting upon universal experience. Man can Baldwin write. But more than that, he can think. (4)

***

FILMS



*MINOR SPOILERS*
CINEMA: The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978)
– This chilly, existential ‘70s car film was the inspiration for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, being the story of a nameless, impassive getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal), whose style, arrogance and motoring chutzpah make him a Person of Interest to both criminals and cops. You can see the influence of Melville’s sleek, sad Le Samourai, of Bullitt – which had ignited America’s interest in car chases (though it isn’t actually very good) – and of Hollywood’s new model crime film: violent, ironic and lacking in conventional heroes, from Charley Varrick to The Silent Partner.

The supporting cast here are wooden and O’Neal himself wasn’t much of an actor (his first line, following a long, wordless opening, serves to instantly puncture the impression), but he brings a certain sad-eyed weariness to a role where an absence of expression is a virtue, and Bruce Dern is excellent as the sardonic, garrulous detective who hates O’Neal’s guts – though when wasn’t he? Not all of its script lands, but it mixes terse philosophy with cynicism and black comedy quite effectively, and Walter Hill’s handling is first-rate. I speculated at first that it had traded fatalism for twists, and wondered whether that was a good thing. On reflection, I think you get the best of both worlds: the unpredictability and entertainment value of a script whose destination is unknown, but also an ending that's far deeper than it first appears: its storyline as circular and eternal as a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.



It’s particularly great to see this on the big screen (as part of Edgar Wright’s season of car pictures at the BFI), which throws you into the breathless, exhilarating, squealing car chases that are its raison d’être. A few years ago, I’d have said that nothing would bore me more, but after Fury Road and – curiously – realising during Tabu just what a difference screen size and environment makes to seeing a motorbike ride, I’m coming around. (3)



See also: Dern is an actor I like more and more. I first came across him in Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, in which he poured delightful levels of scorn upon the idea that Jack Nicholson was becoming a movie star. Then I saw Silent Running (above) as part of the first live Mayo and Kermode show, at Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. Later I tracked down Posse, an ingenious revisionist Western, and saw how his countercultural leanings, and his representation of the promise of the '60s – gone to seed – helped to shape the New Hollywood. He's still immense today, in the likes of Nebraska and The Hateful Eight. Seeing The Driver got me thinking about when Dern wasn't excellent: after all, I'd asked the question. Well, he's cut adrift – hackneyed and toothily irrelevant –in Hitchcock's last film, Family Plot, and conspicuously dreadful in Joe Dante's The 'burbs. I wouldn't advise starting there.

***



CINEMA: Destiny (Fritz Lang, 1921) – This Fritz Lang silent, based on an old German folk song and recently fully restored by the Murnau Foundation, is certainly an experience. The first 20 minutes is unbelievably boring and stilted, as two young lovers encounter Death (Bernhard Goetzke) – who's just stuck up a massive wall around his domain, like a less objectionable Donald Trump – and we encounter primitive direction, bad acting and dozens of wordy intertitles. If you thought talkies were talky, you should try silents.

Then Lang remembers he's a film director, jarring us out of our stupor by turning a beer glass into an hour-glass, before – from nowhere and nothing – creating one of the most moving moments of his whole career, as grieving fiancée Lil Dagover tries to clutch the spirit of her lost love (Walter Janssen), only for it to pass right through her. Having failed, she next turns to poison, hoping to join him in the afterlife. Instead, the gate opens, she ascends the steps and she meets the reaper, who amidst the burning candles that are human lives, offers her three chances to save her lover's life – all she must do is outwit Death once. The film is in six chapters (Lang clearly ripping off Tarantino, like everyone does), and these fantasy sequences form 3-5, with Dagover trying each time to save Janssen from death. Or should that be 'Death'?



The first, in Egypt, is a sort of Arabian Nights pastiche (but must be set more recently, as Janssen has a gun) – and it's lively enough, with some suitably grand sets. The second, set in Italy around the masked balls of carnival (prefiguring >Black Orpheus, which relocated the Orpheus myth to the Rio Carnival), is a little melodramatic and predictable, but easily the best of the three: compellingly told, with Lang's visual imagination augmenting the story. The third and final episode is just absolute shit, unless you're a fan of trick photography and offensive Japanese stereotypes, as our heroes try to evade a waddling racist caricature who looks like a fat, anthropomorphic mole.



Thankfully that's not the end of it, as Lang drags it back for the final chapter, adroitly and intelligently articulating the film's powerful, humanist message – facilitated by a respectful, even humane Death – while serving up an action climax with more than a hint of Griffith and DeMille (it's tinted red too, as was a similar scene at the end of that classic Kong-for-kids movie, Mighty Joe Young). At their best, both Dagover and Goetze are very persuasive, complicit in a sort of unstoppable melancholy, his weary and hers frenetic. The story is complemented, too, by a fine new score that builds impressively and helps the film to attain an overall coherence, while mirroring its various worlds.

I'm not quite sure how to judge a film that takes so long to spark into life, only to do so with a vivid verve, anticipates The Seventh Seal before tossing away our goodwill with interminable low comedy about the Japanese and their funny ways, and encompasses some of the worst of silent film, then turns out to be uncommonly profound: particularly about mortality, though also about love.

Two-and-a-half stars, I suppose. (That is a joke. But also what I'm giving it.) (2.5)

See also: 'Arabian Nights,' you say? Why yes, I have written about Doug Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad (I'd forgotten that it begins with the line "Put a shirt on, man", for which I would like to congratulate myself.

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Thandie Newton, Russian Revolution, and an evening with Elmer Bernstein – Reviews #268

Revel in my balanced lifestyle, as I review a film, a TV series, a novel, an exhibition and a gig.

FILM



The Mouthpiece (Elliott Nugent and James Flood, 1932)
– I have such a soft spot for pre-Code movies, and especially the pungent, abrasive, censor-baiting comedies starring the likes of Lee Tracy (Blessed Event, The Nuisance, Call All Wires!), William Powell (Jewel Robbery, High Pressure) and Warren William (Beauty and the Boss). Though not uniformly, these had a tendency to be extremely funny and cynical, before discovering a latent tenderness that at its best was knitted into the fabric of the film, and at its worst saw the piece unravel into soapy melodramatics. Few, though, were ever as sweet and affecting as this one, in which William’s noble prosecutor reacts to tragedy by reinventing himself as an amoral shyster for the underworld (with a moustache, naturally), only to be changed back by the guileless southern office waif (Sidney Fox) he’s been trying to shag. It’s a little clumsy in places, and mistakes audacity for humour, but it’s saved by the performances.

Fox, a short-lived punchline remembered if at all for her sexual affairs with Universal execs, is hesitant and naïve in a way that might not all be intentional, but works its magic upon you, her innate ethereality, uncompromising morality and unexpected sexual potency convincing us unfailingly that a rich, powerful, overbearing and unapologetically unyielding lawyer would be desperate to sleep with, protect and be forgiven by her. As the lawyer, William dominates as he has to: he’s witty, assured and prepossessing, while allowing self-debasement and self-disgust to bleed into his performance, and he’s supported by the great Aline MacMahon, characteristically brilliant as she turns the somewhat familiar role of the lovelorn, patient secretary into something indelible. In these studio films, MacMahon often gave the impression of having just wandered in from real life: she could have the lightest touch with comedy, and spit out Warner Bros’ snappy zingers, but she was at her best when playing something heavy and truthful and whacked out.

Warren William didn’t star in as many – or as good – tailor-made comic vehicles as Tracy and Powell: his greatest roles were topping the bill in ensemble, state-of-the-nation films like Employees’ Entrance, which bristled with energy, anger and social comment, even if his megalomaniac sex pests powered these movies, and are what you remember of them (indeed, he returned to unrepentantly terrorising virgins in Skyscraper Souls later in 1932). The Mouthpiece is a leaner, slighter and simpler film, which zeroes in on the star, shows him through the eyes of two good women, and allows him an emotional sensitivity that was usually off limits for the pre-Code William. It’s not perfect, but it holds a special place in this cycle of films, and it has several beautiful moments, infused with a sweetness that’s tantalisingly bereft of saccharine or soap.

See also: I read the only existing Warren William biography a couple of years back. He really didn't have a terribly interesting life. For what's it's worth, Powell made a similar film to The Mouthpiece the same year, 1932, the stolid Lawyer Man, which gets a shot in the arm from Joan Blondell's sensitive, erotic performance, but is hampered by for some reason omitting any scenes that take place in a courtroom.

***

TV



"I'm interested in one thing, and only thing only: bent coppers."
Line of Duty: Series 4 (2017) – I wonder if this is the series to which we’ll look back and see that Line of Duty was beginning to go awry*, when a show that traded on an insider feel jettisoned any genuine concessions to realism, and became too daft and melodramatic and big and yet somewhat unconvincingly inter-connected. That’s its overall impact, but this season is packed with memorable characters, so stuffed with incident that it’s jawdropping in the moment, and yet still quietly dominated by Thandie Newton’s performance.

Newton is Roz Huntley, an arrogant, assertive DCI still scrambling to catch up after taking years off to start a family. When she gets the chance to close a serial killing case, she takes it, arresting Michael Farmer (Scott Reid), a learning-disabled loner incapable of riding out the interrogation (as Series 3 dealt with both Operation Yewtree and the Mark Kennedy affair, so this plot-thread appears inspired by another topical case, that of Making a Murderer’s damaged, eager-to-please, patently innocent Brendan Dassey). Enter AC-12, who have a few concerns about the strength of the evidence.

Line of Duty’s central triumvirate – Steve (Martin Compston), Kate (Vicky McClure) and Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) – are fantastic characters, but here they mostly just plod along. Earlier seasons perhaps saddled them with overly soapy subplots, but this time there’s very little character development, beyond the manufacturing of some unconvincing competition between the two junior officers. Things happen to them, but they don’t change.

Despite that, both Compson and Dunbar are excellent, with Hastings’ broiling sense of rectitude cleverly cast into doubt, and Steve’s somewhat squat stoicism – coupled to an impressively realised impetuosity – once more the defining flavour of the series. A mention too for Paul Higgins, memorable as the vituperatively violent Jamie in The Thick of It, whose patronising faux-earnestness pours out in overbearing, over-familiar line readings that might just be brilliant. Certainly his voice becomes a central part of the programme’s atmosphere, its feel and its identity.

Newton is given an exceptionally tricky role, so much of it internalised, so much of her character’s appearance being for the benefit of others, the actress variously asked to mask, contort, unshackle or abruptly unveil her feelings. Sometimes she’s barely allowed to give a performance at all, being asked to keep the audience in a permanent limbo, dropping clues or red herrings instead of inhabiting a role. And yet when it matters, as in that climactic interrogation, in which she suddenly becomes recognisably ‘feminine’ for the first time, she shows why she was an indie darling, Hollywood star and a stellar coup for Jeb Mercurio and co. That level of acting is rare, even in a show as lauded as Line of Duty (and especially compared to fellow guest star Jason Watkins, who has won a BAFTA and an Olivier, but is desperately unpersuasive here).

Series 4 feels like a bit of a dip after three compelling seasons: there are too many scrawny or barely-tied plot threads, its perhaps noble attempts to look at race and sexism come off more like window-dressing – a concession to ‘serious’ television, rather than state-of-the-nation polemicising – and its culprits are obvious in a way that they haven’t been before. But while its total impact is muted by these shortcomings and its sojourn into the incredible, it’s still cracking, addictive TV. Fella. (3)

*like Sherlock's third series, which was great in itself, but had sown within it the seeds of its own destruction

See also: I talked about the first three series here. My statistical survey on BAME characters in Line of Duty being mostly cowards, informers or bent coppers will have to wait, as I've realised that also describes the majority of the white characters.

***

BOOK



Often when the Spectator says something is brilliant, like the free market or Toby Young's new column, they're wrong. They're not wrong here.

A Long Way from Verona from Jane Gardam (1971) – This is such a special book: like Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel (one of my discoveries of this year), its heroine is a brutally honest teenage writer in a vanished England: and an outsider because she isn’t like anyone else. Like Angel, too, it has an innate, fierce unpredictability and a rapturously distinctive voice (ideally utilised in a first person narrative) which, by definition, make it nothing like Angel. Its wartime Yorkshire setting is intrinsic – the story set against the mercilessness and the brutal lottery of war, even on the Home Front – and it crashes into the narrative, but it isn’t a book about war. It’s a book about Jessica Vye and the world she inhabits, ridicules, abhors and attempts to negotiate, with uncertainty and arrogance and perseverance, and a conviction that never shakes, but does latch onto passing whims, and falls prey to her explosive temper. It is fascinating and funny and spectacularly unsentimental, as well as uncategorisable in the best possible way. (4)

***

EXHIBITION


Lenin's lovely manners

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths (British Library) – I studied Russian history at GCSE, A-level and university (my undergraduate dissertation was on Stalin’s show trials), so I was very excited about the British Library’s exhibition, 100 years on from the revolution. They didn't let me down.

It’s vividly staged – in the space where I saw the Gothicism exhibition in 2014 – with digital screens and photographic lightboxes, all framed in vivid scarlet, enticing you in and guiding you through the story, beginning in a Tsarist Russia of unbelievable inequality, charting the mounting division and discontent, and then exploding into revolution, and the five years of bloodletting that were the Civil War (an oft-overlooked part of the story, dealt with in due detail here). Crucially, Russian Revolution does a formidable job of being a paper-led British Library exhibition without just showing you a lot of books.


The Whites' propaganda was largely rubs. Here's an exception.

There are books, papers and some irresistibly arresting posters, but also dozens of other artefacts – a Red Army cap; a peasant’s cheap, woven shoes; a wooden gun so alarmingly primitive it induces panic; a free gift given away at the Khodynka Field tragedy, the cheap tankard juxtaposed with one of Tsar Nicholas’s own immaculate regal glasses – listening posts, a giant digital map showing the marauding Red Army’s progress during the Civil War, and a climactic screening room, with Shostakovich on the PA and classic propaganda films by Eisenstein (October) and the Vasilievs (Chapaev, Stalin’s favourite on the big screen).


The greatest excuse of all time.

Now and then the exhibition text is a little drab or clunky, or begins discussing events or institutions before defining what they are, but the wealth of material is astonishing, and I got a particular visceral thrill from seeing the handwritten notes by Trotsky and Lenin – the latter applying under a pseudonym, extremely politely, to be a BL reader in 1902 – as well as those propaganda posters in the constructivist style, much homaged or parodied, but still bracingly and instinctively powerful. Like this one:



That constructivism I bum off so much

My main take-aways:

a) my uncontroversial view that the ‘communist’ experiment in Russia was essentially just a disaster (and one which continues to plague socialist causes) doesn’t look like being challenged any time soon

b) the reviled Tsar Nicholas II, later executed for his crimes against the workers, visited the wounded a day after a tragedy... *whistles*

(4)

***

LIVE



The Best of Elmer Bernstein (aka The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and more!)

at the Royal Albert Hall, Sun 18 Jun, 2017

This was such a fantastic show, and it’s been a pleasure to work on too, allowing me the chance to chat to luxuriate in the movie music of the incomparable Elmer Bernstein, who has been a favourite since my teens (I often work to his music, particularly The Man with the Golden Arm, a hypnotic, unrelenting jazz offering that simply changed the way movies were scored), and to chat to the great comedy director, John Landis, who worked with Bernstein on 12 films, and was one of the co-hosts of this concert. The other was Peter Bernstein, Elmer’s son and John’s schoolmate, who shared funny, moving stories about his bold, brilliant, blacklisted father, as well as conducting the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. With Peter on the podium, Landis shamblingly shuffling papers and regaling us with big, well-trodden showbiz tales, and a setlist showcasing Elmer’s pioneering work in everything from epics to comedies, Westerns to romances, and nature documentaries to sweaty, cynical, claustrophobic fag-end noirs, it was cosy, conversational and emotionally overwhelming in turn.

Some of the music was merely pretty and well-played, the show kicking off with a trio of pieces that have no real resonance to me – the theme from the Nat Geo TV show, a suite from The Ten Commandments, and the main title music from the bloated disaster movie, Hawaii, but everything that happened after that was wonderful in one way or another. Bernstein’s rhapsodic homage to/pastiche of classic Hollywood music – evoking the very history of Hollywood and composed for a ‘60s TV show called Hollywood and the Stars – was a revelation, captivating me with its sweeping, Steiner-esque beauty, and was followed by three cast-iron classics. The Man with the Golden Arm rapped and stuttered, its snares and cymbals mirroring the stabbing pain and breathless desperation of addiction (the film’s theme). To Kill a Mockingbird showed Elmer’s innate understanding of cinema, the composer isolating that the story’s raison d’etre is to deal with adult themes from a child’s perspective: the suite, then, for all its tension and frantic menace, is dominated by the music-box cues and elegiac simplicity of his main theme. And The Magnificent Seven, which closed the first half, was an explosion of exuberance: the piece seeming fresh and new all these years, as if heard for the first time. In this setting, one could appreciate not only Bernstein’s instinctive genius, but also his intelligence and craft: the violins leaping up for the final go-round, as the seven ride to the rescue.


I took this picture of the orchestra. It's not very good, is it?

The second half, once more peppered with Peter and Landis’s reminiscences, observations and easy badinage, was a similarly eclectic mixture of unassailable classics and genuine curios. The sleazy but rousing jazz of Walk on the Wild Side was followed by From the Terrace – intended to showcase the ‘romantic’ Bernstein, but a little dull (I know of the film only as an unapologetic Myrna Loy completest) – before a spirited take on the End Title music from ¡Three Amigos!, Landis’s favourite Bernstein score written for him, being that very post-modern thing: a gentle spoof of Elmer Bernstein’s Western scores. After that, we got the director’s favourite Bernstein score of all, a glorious new arrangement of Bernstein’s music for Scorsese’s period drama, The Age of Innocence, followed by a previously unheard – and unused – piece of music written for the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London (“I used Sam Cooke instead – it took a couple of years, but Elmer forgave me,” as Landis remembered), its pained, violent and discordant death-throes wrapped up in the eerie soundscapes we already know and love. And then it finishes as it must, with an exuberant Great Escape suite, rich in delayed gratification, as we hang on and on for that famous "Dah dah, dah dah dah-la-dah" only to find it fully reclaimed from the dire dirge of an England defeat, and reborn as the triumphant, playful, rousing anthem it once was.

That gets the biggest reception of the night, and so Peter steps back on stage to conduct one more: the scintillatingly sordid Sweet Smell of Success, Bernstein's other great jazz score of the '50s. It's a fitting climax to this celebration of a great artist, which gives us everything we could want, aside from Far From Heaven (my absolute favourite Bernstein score), and salutes his creativity without sugar-coating his personality. Elmer is painted as a man who fought endlessly against pigeon-holing, evaded easy categorisation, and was only able to forge the path he did by taking chances, erecting a wall around himself, and coating his brilliance in an impermeable level of arrogant authority. Bernstein wasn't needlessly abrasive like his predecessor and admirer, Bernard Herrmann (Peter recalls his dad once ringing Herrmann to say thank you for recommending him for a commission, to which the older composer said something along the lines of: "If I didn't think you could do it, I wouldn't have said you could. Now go away"), but from Landis's stories he emerges as a necessarily tough cookie, insulated from creative interference by his crusty self-confidence. I sat there thinking that I'm glad he was, because the cinematic landscape would be a much blander, duller place without him.

Then Landis came back on stage to shout "Go home", so we did. (3.5)

See also: I wrote about my favourite Bernstein piece for the Royal Albert Hall blog here.

***

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Dustin Hoffman, The Black Dahlia, and bent coppers – Reviews #267

... in which I arrive five years late to the Line of Duty party to find that all the bent coppers have already been caught.



Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel (2003/2015) − In 2003, former LAPD homicide detective Steve Hodel held a press conference to announce that he had solved perhaps the most notorious unsolved murder case in American history: the 1947 slaying of the 'Black Dahlia', an aspiring actress named Elizabeth Short, whose brutally mutilated body was found in a parking lot in Los Angeles. The unforgettable appellation − often misattributed to tabloid hacks repurposing the film noir title, The Blue Dahlia − was actually Short's nickname in life, and, with the singularly horrifying manner of the body (cut in two with surgeon-like precision), may explain why it became such a sensational newspaper story. Yellow journalism fanned the flames of a tale that had everything − a beautiful victim, a sadistic villain, and innumerable conspiracy theories − turning the hunt for the killer into a dark parlour game, rather than it remaining what it should always have been: the search for justice after the death of a young woman, almost certainly murdered by an abusive ex-boyfriend. By 1950, she was a line in Sunset Blvd. Four decades later, James Ellroy revisited the crime in the dark, semi-fictional opening novel of his LA Quartet.

Hodel's theory, which made his book an international best-seller, is that the killer was his own father: a doctor, former musical prodigy and bona fide genius, by the name of George Hill Hodel. And for a third of its 500-page length, Black Dahlia Avenger − the name the killer gave himself, and Steve's self-appointed role here − is a gripping read: clumsily written and riddled with typos, but presenting a compelling narrative piecing together a timeline from innumerable press cuttings, fascinatingly documenting George's past, underscored by Steve's uneasy but loving relationship with him, and incorporating a remarkable gallery of supporting players, from Maltese Falcon director John Huston to surrealist, sadistic photographer Man Ray, and the big players in law enforcement in 1940s LA.

Then we get to the 'evidence' and it's sketchy as hell, Steve consistently going about a third of the way to proving something, and then considering the job done, and calling back to it, with an "as I have shown". The bits at the beginning were decidedly questionable too, including two supposed pictures of Short in George's personal effects which don't look like her at all (one of them has since been proven, by Steve himself, not to be her), but I'd hoped that was just the catalyst for his investigation, not a central part of it. Parts of the investigation at least support the case for further analysis of Hodel, Sr as a suspect − particularly handwriting comparisons − but the author seems conspicuously unable to differentiate between credible evidence, coincidence and batshit conspiracy theory. He'll also do things like (on p. 275 of the 2015 edition) show how his dad looked just like a composite picture, by airbrushing out his dad's moustache. Yes, OK, but your dad had a moustache. At one point he suggests, without further elaboration or investigation, that the "wealthy Hollywood man" being sought by police must have been his father.

"Who's your father?"
"George Hill Hodel."
"Ah yes, George Hill Hodel, the only wealthy man in Hollywood."

I do have some sympathy for Steve. His dad was clearly an awful, awful person − as evidenced by his rape of Steve's 14-year-old half-sister, of which he was cleared, but clearly guilty − and he may well have been capable of this crime. He may even have done it. But the author's obsessive attempt to link him to every unsolved rape and homicide in LA in the 1940s is less than convincing. His cries of a cover-up, as supposedly evidenced by the 1949 grand jury hearings into the failure to find the killer, are also patchy. In the 'Aftermath' section, added in 2005, we hear from Lt Jemison, appointed by the DA's office to look into the initial LAPD investigation, who attributes the failings to incompetence, rather than wrongdoing.

It's in the Aftermath section − missing, of course, from the original 2003 edition − that we realise Steve wasn't as mad as we thought. He may have begun the investigation because he decided that a photo of a random woman was Elizabeth Short, but his father really was a suspect, to the extent that he was bugged, and his phone tapped, by the DA's investigators. And there, in the transcripts, he seems to hint at some complicity in the Black Dahlia killing ("Supposin' I did kill the Black Dahlia? They couldn't prove it now"), while practically confessing to the murder of his secretary, Ruth Spaulding. But, as we see from Jemison's subsequent report, something cleared Hodel, Sr from suspicion, and he was eliminated as a suspect. Steve's contention that Jemison was being forced to drop the investigation into his father, and used the phrase "tends to eliminate him as a suspect" to show his unease, is unconvincing and not backed up by any evidence.

It's a frustrating book, then, and by no means 'case closed'. And while Steve clearly cares about Short, and makes a good fist of reclaiming her as a lovelorn young woman, rather than the dissolute slut painted by misogynistic cops and writers down the decades, he also wallows in the depravity and sadism of her murder and countless other murders of young women. I was suckered in by my fascination with Ellroy, LA noir and an unsolved mystery, but found myself feeling sickened, exploited and depressed by the end.

Hodel has since alienated most of his defenders by asserting that his dad was also the Zodiac Killer. (2.5)

See also: For a long time I avoided 'true crime', because it made me feel either guilty or unhappy. Those concerns were overridden by a couple of books which sounded too fascinating to neglect: Michael Finkel's True Story and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Now I may be back where I started.

***



The Folks That Live on the Hill by Kingsley Amis (1990) – Amis’s blinding wit can’t always rescue this poisonously misanthropic book about outwardly avuncular academic Harry Caldecote and his troubled family: the bereaved Clare, alcoholic Fiona, henproteckted Freddie, brutalised Bunty, and feckless, possibly criminal Piers, who exist in a Torily-realised London of crushing mundanity, waspish disgust and drab, brownly toneless multiculturalism. And at times even that voice fails altogether, turning in on itself to birth such laboriously self-satisfied sentences as the Amis of Lucky Jim would himself have lampooned, and necessitating that one read each of them several times to unpick the text, subtext, etc. That’s a parody of one of them.

There are others when the author’s unparalleled, deliciously English turn of phrase still dazzles, Amis cramming deadpan observations and dismissive putdowns into exposition and description, places where most other writers wouldn’t dare (or indeed bother). But he’s forever punching downwards, the malevolence and jaundice of his worldview rendering his work less than human, while he articulates the working class experience about as effectively as David Mitchell attempting a cockney accent. Or Andrea Leadsom. Occasionally, particularly towards the end, he offers his characters a little solace and understanding – if not a lifeline – but for far too long Amis seems to treat his characters with contempt, smugly revelling in not only their imperfections, but in the misogyny and absence of compassion that he mistakes for charming roguishness.

It’s also boring: rooted in a time and place (the Primrose Hill of 1990) that seems not only fleeting but also desperately uninteresting, people by characters whom it’s difficult to care about, since the man who created them can’t really be bothered. Amis displays flashes of lucid empathy – particularly in the deeply moving final chapter – where he effectively humanises and empathises with Clare, while I found the passages dealing with why an alcoholic like Fiona drinks truthful and even profound, but the bulk of this detached, inert book has uninteresting characters doing almost nothing aside from thinking about why they dislike one another, a prejudice that ultimately I couldn’t help but share. (2)

***

FILM



CINEMA: Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970) – This revisionist Western from Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn is unfocused when it should be freewheeling, and cartoonish in a way that undermines its seriousness and integrity, but it has a few vivid moments, and helped pave the way for not only Blazing Saddles and Altman's Buffalo Bill, but Jarmusch’s deadpan Dead Man and Costner's brilliant Dances with Wolves, which also portrayed the bluecoats of the U. S. Cavalry as lying, duplicitous murderers.

Dustin Hoffman is Jack Crabb, at 121 years old the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn (or 'Custer's Last Stand'), that monument to arrogant, genocidal, imperialist complacency. During the film's 139 minutes, Crabb becomes a multitude of genre archetypes, from orphaned pioneer kid to gunslinger, Indian to Indian Fighter, medicine man to town drunk, hermit to trail scout, as the film swings wildly between sincerity and surrealism, subversion and sex comedy.

It’s possible to be both cartoonish and deftly satirical – Frank Tashlin did it with his 1957 masterpiece, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? – but Little Big Man is far too erratic to sustain that for more than a few minutes of time, drifting from its fine opening 30 into spoofs of Stagecoach, Shane, The Searchers and My Darling Clementine and some risible sex comedy little better than what you’d find in a Carry On film (the same year, Peckinpah interrupted his superb, elegiac Western, The Ballad of Cable Hogue with Benny Hill-like inserts), even if having Faye Dunaway deliver it means that you can at least gorge yourself on her translucent beauty (those cheekbones, fuck me).

Its passages in the Indian camp are often affecting, sensitive and richly ironic, deeply rooted in a wise, glowing humanity, and blessed with a fantastic performance from Chief Dan George as Hoffman’s adopted grandfather (George played a similar role in Clint’s The Outlaw Josey Wales). There are also flashes of brilliance in Penn’s direction: Sunshine framed in the tepee doorway, silence after a killing, and the chilling and unforgettable first appearance of the cavalry – announced by Hoffman’s desperate sprint through the camp-site, which is captured on handheld camera, and eerily, masterfully utilising the music and iconography of the bluecoats familiar from a hundred films in which they were the heroes (perhaps most memorable, Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

But the film as a whole is a bit of a shambles: tonally incoherent, frequently and offputtingly aloof, and rarely as pointed and furious as it needs to be: Richard Mulligan’s Custer is amusingly trivial, but playing him as a vainglorious imbecile makes him seem more like Maid Marian and Her Merry Men’s Robin than the deluded, arrogant bigot of history, and the climactic battle – crucial to the whole picture – is irritating and badly-staged, trading comprehension for what it imagines wrongly to be visceral excitement, and then trading any vestiges of that for low comedy and sledgehammer satire.

Hoffman is also way out of his depth for much of the film. Perhaps he’s here as a post-modern joke – because you wouldn’t expect to find a titular Jewish nebbish as a Western hero, because his recognisable persona only really makes sense in 1970s America – but he seems merely miscast, and cast adrift by a script that chucks out its sense of anger and purpose not only at will, but for not discernible reason, aside from the instant gratification of a cheap laugh. (2.5)

***

TV

Here are some thoughts on Line of Duty. My 8,000-word fan theory on how the length of Vicky McClure's hair relates to the scale of her inner turmoil is still to come.



Line of Duty: Season 1 (2012) – OK, I'm finally diving in. A principled counter-terrorism officer (Martin Compson) botches a case and winds up in anti-corruption, where he's asked to investigate the charismatic, popular Tony Gates (Lennie James), whose crime-solving stats are off the scale. It's not great timing for Tony, who's just helped his mistress (Gina McKee) cover up a hit-and-run, or perhaps for ambitious young cop Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), trying manfully to get on his team. This gripping, consistently surprising cop series is simply too far-fetched and melodramatic at times, but it's also beautifully acted – especially by James and McClure – with above-average dialogue from creator Jed Mercurio, and intelligent, extremely effective direction, with a blue tint to proceedings, and characters up-close-and-personal, or dwarfed by monolithic buildings or the enormity of their burdens. Its greatest virtue, though, and it has a few, is its scope of characterisation. It's not non-judgemental, exactly, it's more that it's even-handed, with Mercurio assured in his ability to economically, and without warning, skewer our sympathies: to engender sympathy for a villain or cause us to rage at a hero's sanctimony. That shifting perspective, allied to an impeccably-plotted narrative, saw me race through the bulk of this in one sitting. (3.5)

***



Line of Duty: Season 2 (2014) – A sometimes stunning second season: a bit messy, a bit silly, but keeping you guessing throughout, and with a fantastic performance from Keeley Hawes. She’s DI Lindsey Denton, the sole survivor of a hit on a protected witness, and so ripe for investigation by Steve (Martin Compston), Kate (Vicky McClure) and their hard-nosed, Roman-nosed boss (Adrian Dunbar). But is she a criminal mastermind, a victim or something else entirely? Line of Duty can be gimmicky at times, with a bit of screenwriting-by-the-book – the oldest trick in that book being to give every supporting character a quirk (like the pathologist with a heavy cold in the first series), or to half-inch your highlights, the hospital sequences here using tricks familiar from both The Godfather and Nighthawks – but it’s also thrilling and gripping and with truly great set-pieces, including the powerhouse interview sequences that are its calling card, and are now prefixed by that ominous, unpleasant honking on the tape.

The show does a good job, too, of drawing you in, both by developing its characters and by withholding information about them: that tends to work better when you’ve got an actor like Mark Bonnar (as a questionable DCC) rather than Sacha Dhawan (whose performance I found both flat and unconvincing), a truth underlined by McClure working wonders with a somewhat underwhelming subplot about an affair. Former Ken Loach discovery, Compston, is also so effective – and defines the tone and feel of the series – with a very definite style that initially struck me as woodenness, but is a sort of unyielding, unpolished and awkward stoicism. The important thing, I think, is just how wrapped up in this all I became: it’s possible to pick holes in it, perhaps even to pick it till it unravels, and I don’t think it quite matches The Shadow Line – that weird, dark and bleak vision of endemic moral and professional corruption – but I just can’t wait to return to it. I’ve started Season 3 already. (3.5)

***



*A FEW SPOILERS FOR SERIES 1 AND 2*
Line of Duty: Series 3 (2015)
– One of my problems with the (delightful) French cop drama, Spiral, is that is has no memory: it ended its first series on a cliffhanger that was never mentioned again, while undercover agent Sami disappeared from the series for four years, and wasn’t brought back again until the writers got a bit stuck in Series 4. Line of Duty looked to be going down the same route for a while, but by the beginning of Series 3 it became clear that the revelations of its past two seasons hadn’t been forgotten about, they’d just been put on a timer, and they were about to blow. The result is the best season yet, taut, compelling and compulsive, giving two knockout characters – historically corrupt DI, Dot Cottan (Craig Parkinson), and it’s-way-more-complicated-than-that DCI Lindsey Denton (Keeley Hawes) – extraordinarily gripping storylines.

This one kicks off with hotheaded, bullying tough-nut Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays) shooting dead a suspect, and dressing it up as self-defence. As always, it takes a little time to acclimatise to the new characters (I just want to see Ted, Steve and Kaaaaaate), but Mays is explosive and arresting (ironic, really), and his storyline’s topicality is just the sort of thing TV should be doing, even in this showy, tabloid way. The other new cops are less than convincing – with the supporting cast members either average (Arsher Ali) or actively poor (Leanne Best and Will Mellor, who was once excessively rude to my secondary school am-dram group at a charity event) – but our intense personal investment in these people (and particularly the relationship between Steve and Kate) informs the programme’s balance of characterisation and rug-pulling revelation, which reaches fever pitch in the final two episodes (the last a bumper edition).

Its imperfections, particularly its underwhelming bit-players and concessions to ridiculousness (not to mention unnecessary inaccuracy) can frustrate, because it is so nearly great. As it is, it’s great fun: addictive, immersive and with passages of brilliance. A mention too for Neil Morrissey, whose supporting bits are always welcome, even though the second series changed his storyline from one of quiet, bitter pathos to one of astounding and off-putting cynicism. (3.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

David Ford + Michele Stodart & JP Ruggieri at Islington Assembly Hall

Friday 2 June, 2017


(L-R) JP Ruggieri, David Ford and Michele Stodart.

It took seeing David Ford live to turn me into a fan. That was in 2015 when he played a one-man-band show at Soho’s underground Borderline club, looping his multi-instrumentalism in a sweaty, intense show that revealed the unusual potency of both his performance style and his protest-songwriting. Watching him is like witnessing Tom Waits’ soul trapped in the body of Dermot O’Leary. I haven’t seen Ford since, though I’ve listened to him a lot. His new thing is a three-hour, 30-song ‘roadshow’ tour featuring two support acts, a drummer and himself, accompanying one another throughout all three sets. I found JP Ruggieri’s the least compelling: he’s a fine guitarist whose technical prowess perfectly complemented the later two performances, but his own songs are a little pedestrian, and he’s a pleasant rather than dynamic vocalist. Dynamic, though, is the perfect word to describe Magic Numbers alumnus Michele Stodart, whose magnetic presence, arresting mid-Atlantic twang and slew of singular mannerisms – from singing out of the side of her mouth to marching on the spot like a turbo-charged Jona Lewie – lit up the place. There were real echoes of Janis Joplin in her performance, and comparing someone to perhaps the most mesmeric live performer of all time is not something I do lightly.

At around 9:30, Ford takes centre-stage to play “a lot of new songs and a few old ones”, kicking off with a thrilling take on the sub-Waitsian ‘Let It Burn’ and torturing his fretboard for the benefit of the photographers in the pit. The new songs, from ‘Animal Spirits’ – a forthcoming ‘concept album about macro-economics’ – are a mixed bag, with the sleazy, somewhat platitudinal funk-rock outweighing the thoughtful ballads, and the oldies aren’t all his best, but ‘Pour a Little Poison’ (containing perhaps his signature line, “I’m just a whiny little English boy singing the blues”) is raucous, ‘I Don’t Care What You Call Me’ desperately sad, and ‘Waiting for the Storm’ blessed with an eerie foreshadowing and a weary poignancy. The audience misunderstands his desire to ‘not do an encore’ (meaning that he’ll do the songs without pretending to go home), leading to a delightfully silly bit where we have to stay as quiet as possible while he’s off stage in order to coax another song. He does an exuberant 'My Sharona'* with a full band ("Playing this has been a dream of mine for years"), then comes out – unplanned – for another by himself, as a result of the cacophony, breaking his pledge not to play a song with swearing in it as he blasts out ‘Every Time’, his unexpected, unapologetic, counter-intuitive anthem, which seems conventional in its sound and language, but almost revolutionary in its theme and ideas: that fame isn’t for him, and he doesn’t want your pity, that in order to get it he’d ruin the present and break up his happy life. It gets faster and faster, Ford spitting out the vituperative, sincere, self-justifying words as he cranks up the atmosphere and the angst.



It’s what’s been missing during his enjoyable but faintly pallid set: the singer-songwriter having traded the taciturn mystery of 2015 for a languid, appealing but less explosive approach, which befits the roomy, high-ceilinged venue with its proscenium arch, but perhaps isn’t what David Ford is for. It does, though, mean that we get some of his insights on current affairs: I thought I was bored of people just calling Donald Trump names now, but he really is “a fucking toilet with hair”, so thank you to David for that. I imagine that this show will get better and it better as it progresses, since the band had had just a day and a half to rehearse, but this second date was good enough: occasionally slightly scrappy and rushed, but also affable, great fun and with some truly special moments, thanks to Ford and particularly Stodart. (3.5)

*'My Sharona' by The Knack was a post-punk single by The Knack that got a second wind from its inclusion in the glossy, Hollywoodised but near-iconic Gen X film, Reality Bites. Tarantino had been about to include it in Pulp Fiction, but frustratedly dropped the idea as it no longer seemed fresh.

***

Thanks for reading.