Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Freethinkers Rule OK

I left the church behind a long time ago. It seemed like the most sensible thing to do, once I realized just how similar the fundamental stories of Christianity were to all the other stories ancient peoples used to explain the world and their role in it. The imagination of humankind isn’t really infinite, even when creating infinite beings.

To remain a Christian seemed to me to require one of two approaches. I could either stretch the concepts I was learning to be true around the strong central beliefs of the Bible, or I could wrap myself inside the cocoon of what I had been taught, and decide that the rest of the world was wrong about everything that mattered to them.

Neither approach seemed worth the effort. Christianity had some beautiful stories, and several beliefs which set the basis for my own humanist approach to life. Love others as you love yourself. That seemed pretty simple. Why did I need to deny all that was implied by that simple sentence in order to maintain belief in a knowledge system which was contradicted by every alternative belief system, including the seemingly hundreds of different Christian sects?

I’ve always remained fascinated by religion, however. I mean, I went to Lutheran schools for 13 years, so there’s a big part of me that’s been influenced by these beliefs. Read a little about the history of any religion, and you’ll see the enormous role humans play in their construction. Just look at the difference between the Gospel as preached by Jesus in the decades-later reconstructions of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the fire-and-brimstone restrictions on behavior thrown out there by Paul in all those letters that end the New Testament. Basically, Paul created Christianity as we know it. There’s very little in what Jesus said that leads to the concepts of Paul.

You may have noticed we’re involved in something called the Culture Wars, with the battle lines being drawn between fundamentalist Christians and, uh, everybody else. It seems as though the Christians are winning, though not if you listen to them whine about how persecuted they are. But, that’s probably because their definition of the battle is rather different than mine. How do you fight a war when one side says, “Okay, you guys believe whatever you want to believe, and act in whatever way you need to in accordance to those beliefs, as long as you don’t mess around with my right to believe and act differently” while the other side says, “Uh, uh, you don’t understand, we know absolutely what is correct (and just ignore the fact that historically we’ve erred on the side of knowing the wrong thing quite a few times) for all peoples in all situations, so you can’t do what you want.”

I understand that it’s not every Christian, or every sect of Christianity, or, for that matter, every person of any faith who’s fighting me in this regard. Many people realize that the United States of America has been built on a diversity of opinion, of resistance against both the tyranny of the majority and the tyranny of the minority. There is no special power given to members of any one creed, and this allows all of us, even those of us who don’t believe in any God, to contribute to the good of the whole society.

It turns out the division between a secular view of the United States and a Christian view is nothing new. I’ve just finished “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism” by Susan Jacoby, and I’ve learned a few things, let me tell you. For instance, you know the canard that America was founded by Christians, and thus this country was always meant to be a Christian nation? Guess what? It conveniently lets out the fact that they very specifically argued over the question of whether or not God should be mentioned in the Constitution, and they decided that it would be better not to do it. These people knew what happened when specific religions were aligned with a state, and they didn’t want to see that happen here.

Jacoby covers a lot of ground, but she gives some pretty good stories about the fears of none other than Baptists and Presbyterians that the more numerous Episcopalians would foist their world views on these poor innocent believers of somewhat different faith. She greatly admires Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense,” whose role in spearheading the American Revolution is well known to us even though it was white-washed out of history for 100 years because he followed that one up with trying to talk everybody out of belief in God. She covers the intersection of feminism and abolitionism with the freethought movement, and doesn’t shy away from the ways in which both pushed aside the atheists and secularists in order to try to achieve their more narrow aims. Robert Ingersoll, perhaps the nations greatest orator in the 19th century, gets plenty of ink as one of the heroes of the last age in which Americans of vastly differing opinions on religion could at least stand a chance of getting a fair hearing.

Into the 20th century, she places the start of our contemporary version of the Culture Wars back to the Scopes Monkey Trial. From that point until the Roe v Wade decision of 1973, secularists assumed they were on the path of ultimate success. This was something of a legacy from the previous century, when progress seemed to be the favored storyline. It was so easy to watch success after success and decide that the other side would inevitably give up and accept the truth.

Of course, religion is a fundamental need of humans. I mean, you can get past it, if you spend enough time thinking about it, but it’s been so deeply ingrained in so many cultures across the globe throughout history that we have to assume it’s not going anywhere. I’ve gone back and forth between thinking it needs to be completely eradicated, and thinking it could serve a harmless role in society. I see the overwhelming Patriarchal controls of Christianity as it has been historically practiced, and I wonder how it can ever be reformed. And yet, there are Christians who attempt to democratize their religion, who are compassionate towards all people, even those who are remarkably different from them.

Jacoby tells of the many fundamentalist Christian churches, and even some of the more mainstream churches, in the 1950s and early 1960s which played such a horrible role in supporting racism against the Civil Rights Movement. There were fears of the unknown, hatred of those who were different, and a determination to keep things the way they had been for as long as anybody could remember. The parallels between this and the current anti-gay zeal of many Christians are obvious to me. And yet, to the other side, it is just as obvious that gays truly are sinners beyond redemption, or at the very least, sinners capable of leading society down a path that takes us all beyond redemption.

How can we compete with beliefs which insist that abortion is murder? That Terri Schiavo isn’t really brain-dead? That evolution never happened? That sexual desire can simply be ignored outside of marriage between males and females? These are absolute opinions, based on interpretations of the Bible which are not even the only ones possible to people who believe in the truth of that book. There is no compromising with these beliefs. There is no live and let live.

“Freethinkers” does nothing to provide hope that this war will ever be won, though it does offer enough history to prove that individual battles can be fought to protect the rights of Americans to differ. At the very least, it shows that we didn’t just suddenly get this way. I don’t know if the country is ready for another Robert Ingersoll, but until we get one, the rest of us have to stop holding our tongues, and argue with the forces attempting to ignore what has been learned through hard work, study, and experience.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Mary Gautier Makes My New Favorite Record

Every time I sit down to write about music, I get stuck trying to describe the sound of it. But, that’s the great big gigantic elephant inside the whole thing. Sure, the lyrics and what they mean are important, and yep, you can’t argue with basic genre and form discussions, and, naturally, the harmony/rhythm/melody standbys are necessary, and of course, there’s always the emotional element to think about. But, music is something you listen to, and the most basic thing differentiating one record from another is the sound of it.

Mary Gautier’s brand new “Mercy Now” has a sound I want to swim around in. Or maybe lay on it spread across the floor like a comforting mattress. Or perhaps I want to wrap this whole thing around my body, or at the very least my head, and feel the warmth of it all. It’s a sound that resonates, with plucking acoustic guitars, gently tapping bass notes, swirling Hammond organ chords, insistent yet perfectly balanced drums, throbbing electric guitars, and most of all a voice that sounds just tired enough to be sick of what’s ailing her yet determined enough to make it obvious she’s not giving up yet.

But none of that tells you what to expect, really. Gurf Morlix produced the record, and if you’ve heard his classic work with Lucinda Williams – “Lucinda Williams,” “Sweet Old World” and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” – you’re going to be in the ballpark. Yet, producing another Southern singer/songwriter with poetic ambitions and distinctly simple melodies created a challenge for Morlix to make sure he could differentiate Gautier from Williams. And, he does. This music is darker, less immediate, and less pop-aspiring than that of Williams.

Williams is a more obviously autobiographical writer than Gautier. Her best work is richly detailed, evocative, and touched with truth drawn from experience. Gautier is less revealing of her song sources. She may be writing from heartbreak, but the details in each song are always a little bit more general. Or, if she conjures very specific imagery, as in the wonderful “Wheel Inside The Wheel,” it’s a list of occurrences from a lifetime of hearing about Mardi Gras, not any actual remembrances of things she saw there.

See, I’ve already moved away from the sound of the record, though thematically, I figured once I’d brought up Williams, I’d better finish off the ways in which she’s different from Gautier right away. I suspect there will be a lot of lazy writers going on about the similarities and not getting into what makes Gautier so special.

“Mercy Now” is an interesting album, a set of ten songs perfectly constructed to move towards an end. Of the first four songs, three are essentially recited over grooves and sound effects from the band. Sound effects is a bad thing to say. The guitars, harmonicas, banjos, et al are there to color the mood, to react to the words and to add to the imagery of the songs. The narrarator of “Falling Out of Love” feels more hemmed in by her experience when mournful harmonica lines and thick electric guitar chords meander around her story. And “Wheel Inside the Wheel” flirts with New Orleans second line rhythms turned inside out, and a deliciously picked banjo line that weaves throughout the song, adding to the Carnival feel without ever putting you inside it, making the song feel like it’s outside time, outside the experience itself. “I Drink” hits the nail on the same kind of head John Prine has pounded on for years, telling the story of a man caught inside the destiny he’s well aware of. Ian McLagan’s organ holds the narrarator to the floor where the bottle lies.

The title track, “Mercy Now,” is interesting. For one thing, it appears to be directly autobiographical, albeit without telling us much of anything about her life. We know she feels her father has worked hard all his life for no reward, and we know her brother is going through something serious. Also, we know that Gautier is of the church, and she feels her church and country need some help. This song is made beautiful and precious by the sound of it. The theme – everybody could use some mercy – is a little trite, but you can’t help but be swept up by its quiet, peaceful delivery and the tone of her voice with its rich Southern accent.

Gautier sings most of “Mercy Now,” but she stretches her voice more on the other six songs. Harlan Howard’s gorgeous “Just Say She’s a Rhymer” and Fred Eaglesmith’s sadly mysterious “Your Sister Cried” show how she can just cut the prettiness from a lovely tune, and add to the emotional power of the words. Her own “Prayer Without Words” is the album’s fastest song. It’s not a rocker, by any means, but her words fly by almost before you can understand them. Again the sound of her voice is the most important thing here.

“Empty Spaces” and “Drop in the Bucket” are both ballads describing a time past the end of a relationship. They’re both enormously beautiful, mournful, and strangely settled. Each benefits from the lovely harmonies of the very talented Patti Griffin, who drops in to help out. Other songs feature harmonies from Gurf Morlix, and I enjoy the way he and Gautier stay so far from each other’s phrasing, but I would love to hear more of the blend with Griffin.

Finally, the album ends with my favorite cut, “It Ain’t the Wind, It’s the Rain.” After all that’s gone before, we come to a song that probably pushes the metaphor of its title a little too far, but which feels, again because of the way Gautier spits out the words, and the thumping power of the drums, and Morlix’s perfectly textured guitar parts, as if it’s liberating. Pain is brought by the rain, but it’s washed away, too. I turn this cut up louder every time I hear it.

This is the record I want to play over and over right now. It’s so warm, so perfectly pitched, so full of depth and openness and spirit. I like it more and more every day. I just can’t really put into words all the ways in which it fills me with sound itself.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Tis the Season

I just got in from walking the dogs. Ugh. It’s cold, wet, gloomy, and generally no fun to be outside. And in something like ten days, baseball season begins.

There’s nothing I look forward to more than opening day, because that’s when the rhythm kicks in. You’ve got a game almost every day or night to either watch, hear, or read about. And that’s just the Cardinals. Thanks to the miracle of fantasy baseball, I also get to care about lots of other games, too.

I’ve gone through periods of intense devotion to baseball, and intense disregard. I have virtually no nostalgia for the Whitey Herzog era of the Cardinals, because I didn’t pay any attention between the end of the 1982 season and the beginning of the 1994 season. Now, I think I’m at a perfect middle ground, liking the game without worshipping it.

The more I’ve learned to appreciate how the game is played, the less I can stand hearing any of the so-called experts in the media talk about it. Baseball announcers are virtually incapable of saying anything that contradicts either the home team spin or the conventional wisdom clichés we’ve heard a million times before. And, sportswriters aren’t interested in figuring anything out, either. They tell us the score, they describe a play or two, and fill their space with quotes and conjecture.

Baseball, more than almost anything else ever devised, lends itself to analysis. Because seasons are so long, because players have so many opportunities to do what they do, there is enough of a sample size to look at statistics which actually explain something about the quality of each player’s contribution to his team. But, because people remember some things more than others, and because few people like to contradict what they learned from their father at an early age, the truth which can be unearthed is often ignored and frequently denigrated.

Which brings me to “Baseball Prospectus 2005,” the latest massive tome of truth and analysis. It’s a book which has expanded beyond its annual 500 pages to a daily updated website with thousands of words per week expended on this game which holds such fascination for me. (To read most of www.baseballprospectus, you need to pay a small annual fee, but there are a number of articles put up for free to entice you to buy more.)

There are things most baseball fans insist upon which Baseball Prospectus consistently denies. But, Baseball Prospectus only makes claims which can be supported by evidence. Does it make sense to have a batter with anything more than a .200 average bunt to intentionally make an out while allowing the runner on first base to move up to second? I forget the statistics from the study they conducted last year, but it most clearly did not make sense. Unless the hitter is completely hopeless, the odds of scoring a run actually go down slightly when the bunt is successfully executed. So, almost every time you hear an announcer go on about how great it is that so and so gave himself up for the team, it turns out that he gave himself up for no reason.

You see, the most precious commodity in baseball happens to be outs. You only get 27 of them per game, 3 per inning, and once you’ve used them up, you can’t score. Anything that does not produce an out increases your chance of scoring. They’ve shown tables which let us see exactly what the statistical odds are of scoring a run in every possible situation of the game. And, in almost every one of those situations, the odds go down if you give up an out.

Speaking of batting average, guess what? Who cares? Well, not really, but who cares in a vacuum? Again, what matters is not how many hits one gets, but how many outs one makes, so in that respect, a walk really is just as good as a hit. Those of us who couldn’t hit a lick remember coaches and fellow players telling us that all the time when we were younger. But, really, on-base percentage and slugging percentage tell us a lot more about a player’s contribution to the team performance than batting average does. Hitting .300 without any walks and without any power is actually pretty poor performance, and, it turns out, average is about the least predictable element of the game. Players with good on-base percentage and good slug tend to repeat themselves; players with good batting average can move all over the map. This makes sense because a) a small number of balls falling in exactly the right or wrong place per year can cause a major fluctuation in batting average and b) official scorers can make odd decisions.

Reading the book is a joy. “Baseball Prospectus 2005” is filled with extensive analysis of what went right and wrong for each team in the 2004 season, along with speculation about what to expect in 2005. And, there are complete statistics for every player in the majors, and all the key players in the minors, over the last four years, with witty and insightful analysis about each.

So, you’re wondering about this upcoming season. Can the Cardinals repeat as National League Champions, and can they win the World Series this year? (I’m sure every truly decent human being roots for the Cardinals, right?) Well, first of all, let’s point out that despite what the conventional wisdom likes to blather on about heart and guts and dynasty and all that, becoming either the National League or the World Series champion is something of a crapshoot. Any team can win any four out of seven games. The worst teams in baseball tend to win 65 games out of 162, so at any time, they can win four out of seven. And, the teams that make the playoffs tend to be among the best teams in any given year, which makes the chance of a random winning streak even greater.

That said, according to Baseball Prospectus, the Cardinals have one of the best four-man hitting line-ups in baseball history. That would be Larry Walker/Albert Pujols/Scott Rolen/Jim Edmonds. Riding the backs of these four hitters can take a team very far. The starting pitching is questionable but plausible cases can be made that it will hold its own. The bullpen should be good, but not as good as last year. Losing Tony Womack and Mike Matheny is always a good thing, even if their replacements are not guaranteed to be better. Losing Edgar Renteria was sad, but not as terrible as you might think, especially considering the money he wound up commanding. And, the Cubs are worse than last year, and the Astros are about to dive-bomb into mediocrity.

This means the Cardinals will almost certainly go to the playoffs, barring a major injury to any of their best players. There is, of course, no real certainty, only odds. Baseball Prospectus can teach us to understand the odds way better than we did when we thought good and bad seasons were flukes.

Bring on the season. This should be fun.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Ben-Hur - Of Hard Bodies and Chariots

In 1925, 80 years ago, without the aid of computerized images, somehow or another, they put the camera down in the ground and showed you those horse-drawn chariots roaring straight at your face and moving at goddam unimaginable speeds. In 2005, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I sat in my living room and ducked, convinced I was about to be run over.

“Ben-Hur” is one of those stories I’ve always kind of known through the cultural zeitgeist, not because I’ve ever actually watched the movie. And, by the movie, I’m referring to the 1925 original, not the 1959 Charlton Heston-starring remake. Nosirree, we don’t need no talking, just spectacle, thank you. Well, spectacle and some fine homoerotic subtext.

I love the fact that this movie was called “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” That’s kinda like saying “Forrest Gump” should’ve been subtitled “A Tale of John Kennedy.” Only, actually, it would be better if Kennedy’s face hadn’t appeared in “Gump,” just his arm.

Somehow, a wild action movie got lumped in with a few scenes from the Bible, and the 1925 audience could take this as an uplifting message film. I have to admit from the perspective of today’s vanishing separation of church and art, I was at least impressed that the final scene didn’t bother to indicate Christ was resurrected. “He’ll live forever in the hearts of men,” is a considerably different meaning than “That tomb is empty, people.”

Still, we’re talking about a flick filled with miracles, as that Heavenly arm can cure anything it touches. Turn a floppy baby doll into a living breathing kid? No problem for the Christ-finger. Cure two lepers who fought their way through the angry crowd in order to achieve a happy ending for the main character, even though you’re carrying your cross and on your way to Golgotha? Touch that bright shining arm, and all will be made well.

On the other hand, Judah, Ben-Hur spends most of the movie looking for a) revenge on his ex-lover, the Roman soldier Messala and b) looking to support a leader who will bring his Jewish people out of their oppression at the hands of the Romans. Oh, and showing off his legs (and frequently the rest of his very well-shaped body.) (Note: There is no direct textual support for my contention that Messala messed around with Judah, but it looked pretty obvious to me when they saw each other for the first time in years, and came as close as two men in 1925 could be allowed to kiss on screen.)

A word should come from my voyeuristic mind concerning movies of the 1920s. The sex was sublimated, but it always catches my eye. Both women and men could wear outfits which cling in some places, and leave lots of skin showing in others, and I’m proudly going to cop to a love of that sort of thing. The scene in “Ben-Hur” when Iras, the Egyptian vamp, comes within an inch of seducing our hero, is one of the great sex scenes of all time, and they barely touch each other. You can just feel the heat between them.

Alright, let’s move back to the spectacle for a minute. In this two and a half hour movie, you’ve got about twenty minutes of Jesus stuff, with a whole lot of this spent on the Nativity. (Which reminds me, how impractical was it that Rome tried to make every single citizen and subject go to the city of their births to be taxed (thus allowing Jesus of Nazareth to be born in Bethlehem, where his father and conveniently his great grand-sire David were born)? The scene wherein all the inhabitants of Jerusalem – apparently an ancient world version of Los Angeles, where nobody was actually born, but everybody lived – are running hither and thither to get home in time to be counted, was pretty chaotic. And, how did they know if they got things wrong? It’s not like there were any ways to prove anybody was who they said they were.)

There’s about forty-five minutes of blither about love and honor and family, and maybe another twenty minutes of assembling an army and finally having Judah meet Jesus, only to learn God don’t want no war. That leaves two very long and very, very thrilling sequences that remain among the greatest feats of movie making even after all these years.

The first is the sea battle between a fleet of Roman galleons (including the one upon which Judah is enslaved at the galleys) and a bigger fleet of pirates. Holy moley! First of all, I’m guessing they had to actually build at least some of these ships, and then wreck them during the fight sequences. Secondly, they obviously had hundreds of men running wild all over the screen during the battles. Could it possibly have been choreographed, or did they just give everybody fake swords and tell them to go out swinging? The carnage is amazing, with men being killed horribly, and others diving into the sea in a desperate bid for survival. All this and Ben-Hur wearing only the flimsiest little cloth covering in the mid-section? I know how that sublimation thing worked in the olden days.

And, I’m guessing you’ve heard about the chariot race, but I’m equally guessing you’ve no real idea just how incredible that scene is. Again, they obviously built an enormous, detailed set to portray an arena in Antioch in 30 A.D. Then, they turned about a dozen teams of horses loose, and set the cameras where they could bring you the most action. Constant cutting builds greater and greater excitement from close-ups to wide shots to high shots to low shots as the speed builds up, as horses and men drop to the ground, and as Ben-Hur and Messala race to the death. I’m getting short of breath just thinking about it again.

What do I know about Fred Niblo, the director? He had a long career, mostly in silents, but he lasted a few years into the 30s. He obviously had an incredible eye, and a strong sense of pacing, not to mention a Griffith “Intolerance” level feel for building gigantic sets. It’s amazing to see how big the walls and buildings could be compared to the tiny size of human beings.

The actors were also mostly unknown to me. Apparently Ramon Novarro was second only to Valentino in the great Latin heart-throb standings of the mid-1920s. It was easy to see why. May McAvoy plays Esther, the virginal love interest, but I much preferred Carmel Meyers, who played Iras, the Egyptian sensualist. I’ve seen enough silent movies now to be used to the oversize acting conventions, but these people did occasionally move a little more naturalistically than you might think.

I’m still trying to figure out how they filmed from underneath those horses. Wow!

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

1950 Crime Spree

If you watch any of the “CSI” TV shows, you know how science kicks criminal butt every time. There’s hardly any way to kill somebody without leaving traces of evidence behind, no matter how hard you scrub the blood away. DNA is everywhere, and there’s an army of virtually infallible criminologists eager to use the latest machinery to solve crimes and put the perpetrators behind bars for a good long time.

Heckfire, this isn’t new shit at all. I watched this 1950 movie on Turner Classic just the other day called “The Tattooed Stranger,” and it was like a 1950 prototype for “CSI:New York.” Just as we’re so used to seeing on our TV screens, the city is a backdrop wherein a regular citizen and his dog find a body, and immediately the forensic team is poring all over the crime scene.

The details were different, as DNA hadn’t quite been mapped – or even discovererd – yet. There was a lot of stress put on fingerprints and footprints, and even a thrilling scene wherein one of our heroes figured out how tall the killer had to be from the position of the moveable car seat, presumably still a relatively new invention at the time.

It was also interesting to see the veteran cops not quite convinced that the college boys knew what they were doing. “Things are different now, Corrigan,” explains Capt. Gavin. “It’s not like when we were chasing bootleggers down Bleecker Street.” But, don’t worry, 90% of investigation is still done with the feet and with the head.

I don’t know that this 64-minute flick would be of much interest if not for the documentary aspects of it. It’s filmed all over New York, with spectacular shots of the 1950 skyline, Central Park, the Bowery, and Brooklyn, as well as close-ups of 1950 police and tattoo equipment. The plot is about as believable – and for its time, sordid – as your average TV crime show today. The woman found dead has a tattoo on her arm, which leads the cops to find she’s been married repeatedly in order to collect insurance, and one of her husbands wasn’t dead. The sordid part came because she mostly married marines during World War II who weren’t likely to return to her.

The actors were not exactly a-list. John Miles played Frank Tobin with only two possible facial expressions – grim determination (used mostly during gun battles) or the goofball grin of somebody who gets a private joke whenever anybody else opens their mouth. Walter Kinsella’s Corrigan was a character who seemed a little more suspicious and weary of the world, but not much was done with him aside from allowing him palpable disgust at the sight of a heavily tattooed man. Patricia White played the beautiful botanist Dr. Mary Mahan, whose help was indispensable to cracking the case.

I wonder if the various “CSI” shows will ever mean this much to future generations. I doubt it, because these shows spend less time explaining and more time showing off the brilliance of the characters. Corrigan and Tobin weren’t always right, though they got their man in the end. And despite the “CSI” use of various city locales to differentiate between themselves, they don’t devote half as much loving footage to real places in the world. Even a b-movie like “The Tattooed Stranger” felt like it was about people, wooden, barely caricatured people, but people nonetheless, set out in places that actually existed.

Even more impressive was my viewing the other day of another 1950 movie, “The Asphalt Jungle,” which did what rarely happens in modern TV or movies, and that is told the story entirely from the point of view of the criminals. This one was directed by John Huston, and it starred Sterling Hayden, James Whitmore, and Sam Jaffe. It took the Hollywood regulations of its day – that none of the criminals could escape unpunished – and tried to turn it into a multi-character modern tragedy. It might have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids – I mean, a limited amount of time to devote to each person’s fate.

Jaffe played Doc Erwin Riedenschneider, a German émigré with master thief credentials. He plotted some of the biggest capers of the 40s, though he had been in jail for several years before the start of this picture. But, time spent in the clink was time to plan his biggest job ever. All he needed was a driver, a safe cracker, a hooligan, and a backer to pay everybody.

Whitmore was the driver, Anthony Crusoe was the safe cracker, Hayden the hooligan, and Louis Calhern the backer. Marilyn Monroe played a small but wonderful role as Calhern’s mistress. Every one of these characters had depth, and it felt like the real intersection of different lives. None of them were portrayed as ruthlessly evil, as anything other than humans who weren’t quite capable of living in the path of the straight and narrow. They had their reasons, some decent, some terrible. They had dreams of leaving the life they were living, and this caper was to be their ticket out.

Of course, you know the best laid plans – and this plan was laid pretty well – can go to pieces pretty quickly. Halfway through this movie, things start to unravel, and the criminals almost start to catch themselves. The policeman most often shown here is actually on the take from Marc Lawrence’s brilliant character Cobby Cobb, the man who ties all the criminals together. Even the law is not shown to be perfect in this film, though eventually a speech is given that explains that most policemen are good, even if one in a hundred might not be.

You can’t exactly root for any of these people, but you can be touched by each of their dooms. I was particularly blown away by Calhern, who has just told Monroe they can go away together when he is arrested. The look of broken-hearted sorrow on his face is priceless when he realizes a) he’s been nabbed; b) his dreams are all gone; and c) the woman he was willing to take with him was as dim as she was beautiful. And, oh, when Jaffe is caught because he took too long watching some kids dance to swing music on a café jukebox, you just about want to weep.

Crime dramas on TV always show criminals as being devious plotters with virtually no goodness in them. They have their motives, of course, but these rarely have anything to do with humanity. We don’t see them do anything but lie after the crime has been committed, which makes it easy for us to believe the law is always right. In 1950, we were given the option of seeing things from both points of view, and at the time, I don’t see how I would have had much patience with “The Tattooed Stranger.” But, in retrospect, pairing it with “The Asphalt Jungle” makes for a perfect double feature. There are men and there is science; there are lawkeepers and lawbreakers. Times have changed, to be sure, but crime always makes for good stories.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

A Modesty Blaise Proposal

I was one of those guys who laughed at “Austin Powers” without really getting all the jokes. At least, anything that had to do with specific references to James Bond went straight over my very tall head. I’m here to tell you that I have no opinion as to which actor made the best movie Bond because I’ve never seen an entire 007 picture.

When I was a kid, I do remember a playground conversation with a guy my age whose mother let him go to Bond movies when he was around 10 or 11. To this day, I can hear the tone of his voice, halfway between blushing confusion and manly pride, when he said, “Of course, she tries to make me close my eyes during the good parts.” Said good parts, I was led to believe, contained oodles of naked female flesh.

You see, the 60s were many things, and one of the things they were was an era of absurdly male-centric sexuality. It was a time where sophistication and sex went hand in hand, but only if you assumed sex meant young, preferably buxom women at the beck and call of older, normally well-off men. The thing is, if you do go back and pick up some of that decade’s porn, Playboy or less familiar mags like Cavalier, you’ll find that it was pretty much worth it to read them for the articles. Not that I’m gonna pretend that’s what I did when I visited my Uncle in Bloomington, Illinois and found ten year’s worth of subscription copies lying around in his basement bathroom.

Anyway, the ethos of this particular approach said that sex was something to be enjoyed between two people who liked each other, but that it wasn’t anything to tie two people together for life. This, along with a love for jazz, fine liquor, and the novels of Norman Mailer, was the sign of the good life. And, frankly, jazz, fine liquor, and sex with or without commitment really are things I recommend highly. Norman Mailer, however, was an asshole.

A far better read, though one which was undoubtedly dismissed as trash at the time, would be the paperback novel “Modesty Blaise,” written by one Peter O’Donnell back in 1965. (Those of you wondering what else I bought the last time I went to the thrift store can now exhale.) Modesty Blaise was an English comic strip about a female Bond who had a propensity for being naked from time to time. (Again, a childhood memory: my only contact with this strip was a single reprinted sequence in “The Penguin Book of Comics,” on the same page as a panel from “Barbarella,” and boy, did I look at that page a lot.) O’Donnell was actually the author of the strip, though not the artist.

This novel was actually adapted from O’Donnell’s original screenplay for what was apparently a thoroughly butchered motion picture which came out at the same time. It was successful enough to launch a regular series of novels, though I’ve certainly never seen any of them turn up in my pawing over used paperbacks.

I have to admit, I was surprised at how entertaining this book turned out to be. I was expecting kitsch, and kitsch I got, but it has a fairly elaborate caper plot with superb pacing. Believe me, I may not know spy stuff very well, but I know pulp fiction, and this comes in at the top of the pulp game.

Is there sex? Well, how else is this book going to become sophisticated? It’s about two retired criminals working on the side of the law striving to prevent an international gang of thieves from stealing $10,000 in diamonds being shipped from South Africa to the Middle East. Why wouldn’t you take time out, on page 80, for the following passage? “In love, she used her splendid body to give joyously and without restraint, ranging from glad submission to urgent demand. The happiness in her giving touched his mind with a glowing warmth; but more than that, she received his own gifts with the same unfettered joy as she gave, and this above all stirred the deepest wells of his being.”

A couple chapters later, Modesty’s lover, Paul Hagan, walks in on her while she’s doing yoga, and gets completely freaked out. Ms. Blaise is the epitome of 1965 young girl super-spy sophistication. Of course, because it’s 1965, we also get this, two paragraphs after thirty or forty pages of twists and turns and physical exertion between Blaise and her partner Willie Garvin against the bad guys:

“ “Why the hell do I do it?” she said helplessly. “Why do I always have to . . . to snivel once a job’s over?”

“Not always, Princess,” he said reasonably. “Not often. Only after the rough ‘uns. And we’ve been right up the sharp end for a long while this time.” He eased himself to a sitting position. “I think it’s nice meself,” he said simply. “Honest I do, Princess. It’s nice an’ sort of . . . womanly.””

Ah, it’s too easy to focus on the sexist bullshit, which is held to a mid-60s minimum, to be honest. Blaise only threatens to use her secret weapon, the Nailer. What’s that, you ask? Probably the stupidest name ever given to any secret weapon in the spy world, because it refers to times when Blaise would take off her shirt and walk into a room of bad guys. The few seconds they would waste staring at her perfect breasts would buy her, or her partner, enough time to strike first. Apparently, no concerns occur to anyone that the villains could possibly be gay.

This sort of stuff aside, Modesty Blaise was an interesting creation. In a lifetime of reading pulp novels, comic books, and the like, and watching TV and movie action heroes, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered someone who worked so hard in a fight, and who suffered so much pain that she had to rest for a while after it. By holding her back from being a superhuman being, even if the only reason was because she was a woman, O’Donnell vastly increased the tension. I loved the fact that Modesty Blaise is not infallible, but that she keeps on fighting anyway.

Yeah, there are ultimately way too many cheap disposable deaths of the villains, and a few really unbelievable yet entertaining weapons hidden in various articles of clothing (including, of course, Modesty’s bra). But, I devoured this book for the cheap excitement it was meant to give. In fact, I found it a damn sight more thrilling than any episode of “Alias” I’ve ever seen, and quite possibly less demeaning.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Considering Ellen Gilchrist

From the author’s note to Ellen Gilchrist’s collection of short stories, “I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting With My Daddy,” specifically referring to the fact that her story, “Gotterdammerung, In Which Nora Jane and Freddy Harwood Confront Evil in a World They Never Made” was written a full year before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: “I wish evil did not happen in the world. I wish the world could be populated by people like Nora Jane and Freddy Harwood, fortunate, caring men and women, watched over by a writer who would never let them come to harm.”

I’d never thought it was the writer’s job to prevent her characters from coming to harm, so this point struck me as interesting. Now that I’ve finished about three weeks worth of lunches with Gilchrist stories (in addition to this collection, I read her previous “The Cabal and Other Stories”), I realize that she really does take this injunction seriously. Oh, bad things can happen to people, but there’s nothing they can’t deal with.

I read a few books by Gilchrist back in the 80s, and then I lost track of her until I picked up these two collections on a remainder table at a store that was having a half price sale because they were going out of business. I’m saying I got them cheap partially to emphasize my own guilt for forgetting how much I like Gilchrist, and partially to realize the value of picking up cheap books now and again, because they can point you in directions you may otherwise avoid.

I remember tales of Rhoda Manning, though I must confess to forgetting the details from so many years ago. “I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting With My Daddy” gives us five stories featuring this character whom Gilchrist obviously loves above all others. She returns to Manning again and again, but not in chronological order. Gilchrist has created a richly detailed universe of the extended Manning family, in which virtually any era can be explored without ever slipping in a contradictory detail. It’s a creation which is as fascinating as it is impressive.

Gilchrist characters, Manning or not, are mostly Southern, mostly well educated, mostly upper class, mostly interested in the arts if not literary or theatrical creators themselves, and mostly good. They are, however, full of facets and flaws. Gilchrist can say something revealing about a minor character with a beautiful sentence or two, which explains her ability to return to them at greater length in other stories. Here’s Rhoda in the 1970s watching her youngest son: “Teddy looked so cute, standing in front of my stereo listening to music and shuffling his feet. I wanted to give him a big hug and a kiss but he didn’t like to be interrupted when he had started something so I left him alone.”

Not much really happens in any given Gilchrist story – except possibly “Gotterdamerung,” a virtual thriller in Gilchrist world, albeit a thriller with some characters who strike me as living in the building of Frasier Crane if that were in New York – but the characters experience a lot. This is what she does so well, gets us into the heads and the hearts of real human beings, all of which Gilchrist loves.

Me, I found myself loving even more the bunch of folks populating “The Cabal,” a 132-page novelette. (Some of them also turn up in “The Sanguine Blood of Men” and “Hearts of Dixie” from the same book.) Here is the plot, a series of events with little purpose other than to reveal the characters around whom things happen. Caroline is returning to the South to teach literature at a small college. Her gay male friend introduces her to his local theatre group cronies, all of whom have at one time or another been on the couch of psychiatrist Jim Jaspers. Jaspers has flipped his lid, and everyone is worried about their secrets being exposed. That’s pretty much all that happens, but it happens with flair, with wild determination and vivid excitement, with passion and discovery.

It’s not that Gilchrist draws only characters who are likeable. Many of the folks in this town would drive me crazy in real life. But, Gilchrist does give each of them a chance to make their case for being in the world, and small kindnesses can intercut pompous declarations to soothe any anger from the reader. In “The Abortion,” Gilchrist gets inside the heads of characters from half a dozen distinct vantage points, and makes them all seem sympathetic, no easy task on such a subject.

I wonder how much Gilchrist sells. She’s got something like 18 books out, so she must do all right, but I also think I’ve seen many others on remainder tables in my time. Do they consistently print too many, hoping for another “Victory Over Japan,” her 80s respectable seller? I don’t understand the book business the way I understand the record industry. But I understand I’m not done reading the work of Ellen Gilchrist.

Now, as for whether you may wind up enjoying this stuff or not, I suppose it depends on your ability to be satisfied with the concluding sentences of “Light Shining Through a Honey Jar,” the final story in the “Rhoda Manning” book. “Of course she fell asleep in my arms. I covered her with a knit coverlet my aunt Lily made years ago in Boutte and then I tiptoed into their room to see what the twins were doing. They were asleep like spoons, side by side as they were in the womb. Such is love. Such are the moments of our lives. Breathe in, breathe out, go and watch a sunset.”

Thursday, March 03, 2005

40 Years of a Century's Worth of Drama

I love to go poking around in the past every now and again. Nothing too organized, you understand. I prefer digging through the detritus at estate sales, looking for family photos or diaries. (I once scored a set of mid 1920s diaries of a teenage girl living in a small town in southeast Missouri, my all-time fave discovery because nobody but me cared about them.) And, I enjoy poring over the books on sale in thrift stores, where you never know what might catch your eye for less than $1.00.

A couple years ago, I stopped accumulating books beyond what I could read inside a month. This made thrift store book shopping slightly harder, because so many of the things I’d see seemed more interesting while bending over in an aisle than they do when stretching out on the couch and actually spending time with them. So, unlike 20 years ago, when I might pick up two dozen books at a clip, I’ve pretty much stuck to one or two oddballs from the olden days now and again.

Another thing I like to do is to occasionally read something about which I know next to nothing. Oh, and I dig reading criticism, because the process itself fascinates me. (Sue me, it’s what I do.) So, when I picked up a cute little hardback called “Twentieth Century Drama,” first published back in 1962 and written by some goober named Bamber Gascoigne, all the synapses were firing. Aside from three years in the early 90s when I was inexplicably allowed to write about theatre for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, my knowledge of the stage is limited to what I picked up in general survey English courses back in high school and college.

Back in the early 60s, you could write a book about 20th century drama and really only have it cover 40 years, and eliminate all but European and American playwrights. So, I settled into that world of certainty and proclamation, where young Mr. Gascoigne could actually imply at one point that it was a fault of a certain playwright that his work was better suited to be seen on stage than to be read. Now, that’s some old-fashioned literary criticism, folks.

You can divide Gascoigne’s book into two parts. The second turned out to be less interesting than the first; he picked eight major writers and told us what he thought about everything they did. Aside from some interesting points about the work of Arthur Miller which countered the thoughts I’d read in January by Robert Warshow, my lack of familiarity with the plays made his insights fairly irrelevant to me. I do think I want to read Sartre’s “The Flies” now, but that’s about all I got there.

However, the first half of the book was much better. Here, he surveyed the major plays from the 20s to the 50s, and came to general conclusions about each decade. Thus, the 20s were a time dominated by theatre of inaction, when “an amazed and disapproving Why?” was the major theme. And the thirties was a time of solutions to problems, a theatre of action. The forties “could be described (pedantically) as an analysis of the implications of action, from the point of view of the agent.” (And, I love that use of pedantically as ironic distance from his own approach.) The fifties return to the implications of inaction, but now the emphasis is on people. The question is no longer why so much as what happens to people.

I’m enjoying this little shortcut through theatre history, and trying to map it onto what I know about pop culture. The 20s strike me as a time of wildness, a time when life was a giant party and we were going to push everything to the limits. I hear the jazz of Louis Armstrong, I read the comic strip Krazy Kat, I see films with avant garde sets and actions, I read novels like “The Great Gatsby.” Obviously, there were downsides to the party – bringing Gatsby into the discussion probably shoots down my theory – but in some ways, the stuff I think of in the 20s is more about “Why ask why?” than “Why?” itself.

The thirties, however, did seem to be about rolling up the sleeves and getting to work. Jazz was turned into an industry – the big bands were efficient machines capable of making swing out of anything. And Woody Guthrie started roaming the land. The comics turned serious – Buck Rogers and Dick Tracy could solve problems, and eventually, by 1938, we had Superman. The movies were probably a little more distant, but novels were like “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Onto the 40s, and we’re looking for the implications of action. Well, the big bands broke up, and a thousand independent voices started to make some noise in the music world. The comics didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously, and the films seemed divorced from reality. I’m losing my focus on this theory with this decade.

But, back to the the fifties, and I’m there. It’s all about individuals caught up in a cold, cruel world. What is James Dean but a guy who can’t do anything and yet feels the weight of his inaction? And Elvis certainly seemed capable of action, but ultimately, he and all the rock’n’rollers were pushed back into a much more narrow straight-jacket. The comic books turned to crime and horror stories, where innocent victims were hurt through no fault of their own.

So what happened to Gascoigne after this book? Well, he wrote lots of other books including “The Encyclopedia of Britain,” and hosted a popular British quiz show called “University College.” I found a website called www.historyworld.net which seems to have been founded a couple years ago by the guy. Who knew?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

So You Say You've Got a Bad Education

“I liked it all the way until the last fifteen seconds.” I had just told my friend Mark that we had gone to see “Bad Education,” the new film by Pedro Almodovar. He was referring to the trite boxes of text pulled out of the frozen final frame, detailing the fates of the main characters in the years after the 1980 date of much of the action. “American Graffiti” this wasn’t, and we really didn’t need to speculate about the future, let alone be given any definitive take on it.

But then again, nothing in “Bad Education” can be seen as an accurate rendering of the truth, so why should we believe that Almodovar is doing anything but having a little fun at the ending? This is a movie about a movie director who reads a story (and films a movie based on it) about a short story about events in the life of the director and the writer, with all the mirror images spiraling inward upon themselves that this might imply. It is also about the unreliability of memory, and the ways in which we use our tales of what happened to change what happened. Oh, yes, and it’s also about obsession, a powerful impulse often confused with love, and in Almodovar’s universe, something which can be turned on and off at the first sight of a new piece of ass.

Enrique Goded (played by Fele Martinez) is a successful director combing through the tabloids desperately in search of a story idea for a new film when he is visited by an extremely beautiful man (Gael Garcia Bernal, last seen in “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) purporting to be his childhood school chum Ignacio. And we are off and running. Ignacio was Enrique’s first love, we learn, after this man, now calling himself Angel because he has become an actor, hands over a story which could inspire a movie. “The story is based on our experiences at school,” Angel says, “And then the adult experiences I made up.”

School was dominated by Father Manolo (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), a nasty little priest who, of course, attempts to sexually abuse Ignacio. The boy manages to resist his advances, though the father, not quite brazen enough to successfully use his powerful status to complete the seduction, keeps giving it the old college try. Ignacio and Enrique begin some bumbling efforts towards their own sexual experiences. When Manolo catches them, Ignacio, unbeknownst to his friend, agrees to give in to what the priest wants him to do, if he won’t expel Enrique. Unfortunately, Ignacio gets fucked twice over, since his first love gets sent packing anyway.

This back story gets told fairly clearly, but not much else afterwards is so straightforward. In Angel’s story, Ignacio grows up to be a drag queen who threatens Manolo with exposure of their past – all written down in a story within the story – but doesn’t quite have the skills to pull it off. He leaves without a resolution. When Enrique decides to film the story, he changes the script to have Ignacio killed by another priest trying to prevent the blackmail from occurring.

Meanwhile, in the real world, we learn that the real Ignacio has been dead for three years, and that Angel is his younger brother Juan. (This explains why the lovely nudity of Enrique isn’t enough to seduce Angel when they go skinny dipping together, in a hot scene of sexual frustration and beauty.) Then we learn that Manolo is no longer a priest.

As Juan/Angel portrays his brother’s drag persona Zahara in the film, Enrique meets the very ill Manolo, who tells his tale of the two brothers. Now, we see the adult Ignacio not as a transvestite, but as a junkie transsexual with two enormous fake breasts and not much else in the way of surgery. He is bribing Manolo, but the ex-priest has become obsessed with Juan, who is not above stringing him along with sex in exchange for gifts. (The scene wherein Juan uses his new Super 8 camera to film one of their trysts – remember, this is 1977, a time not only pre-AIDS, but pre-video recorders – is a hilarious and mildly disgusting bit.)

Juan decides Ignacio has to die because he is ripping off his mother, and Manolo, who doesn’t have enough money to pay off both brothers, is ready to go along. So, Juan scores some extra-pure heroin, and Manolo gives it to Ignacio, who falls onto his typewriter in a particularly juicy neo-Hitchcockian death. (Hitchcock’s ghost was almost certainly hanging out in Almodovar’s studio when they filmed this flick.)

Who are we going to believe? This looks like the truth, and everybody pays the consequences as if it were the truth. Enrique loses his obsession with Juan and Ignacio; Manolo has no more chance of ever getting Juan back (as if he ever did), and Juan has nobody left in his corner but the make-up girl who, in the postscript, he eventually marries.

I’m leaving out so much of what makes the film great, because I haven’t mentioned the Bernard Herrman style score mixed with Spanish music (including a cool rock’n’roll cut from the 60s), the spectacular splash of bright colors, the extravagant cutting between odd long shots and tight close-ups, the bits of humor, the juxtaposition of erotic scenes with attention to other details. If I see this again sometime, I’ll look to see if there are obvious clues to the shifting points of view; the first time through, I was too dizzy just keeping up with the delirious motion of it all to catch anything subtle.

Another way of looking at the ending is to see it as a way of balancing the beginning. Enrique and Juan have just definitively parted, and nothing can move in this film without their relationship. The opening shot, appearing at the tale end of some of the coolest film credits I’ve ever seen, is a closeup of one of Enrique’s movie posters. The only motion in the first few seconds is of his hand cutting out a newspaper story. Then Juan arrives at the door, and the motion begins. When Juan leaves at the end, everything stops, and we are left with words, just as we were when he was not there. (In the middle, after Juan couldn’t bring himself to sleep with Enrique (yet), and he left town, Enrique was back to cutting out another story; he cannot move without this object of desire.) These words are not necessarily any more believable than the tabloid stories; in fact, the most unbelievable of them all may be that Enrique went on to make more movies.

So, did Almodovar discover this tale in a tabloid clipping? Or is it autobiographical? Or is he playing around with the sources of artistic inspiration? Can a film spring fully formed from the stuff of life, or does it need to be blended with seeds of other sources of imagination? Good questions all, and while I have my own versions of the answers, I’m not sure they’re the only ones possible after watching “Bad Education.”