Saturday, December 26, 2015

Film Quadrupling — A Film Festival For The Pessimists

My most recent film festival post was about the light-hearted Thin Man films. I hope you enjoyed them because the party’s over.  Enough happy films. Let’s take a trip though Dystopia with the four Mad Max films, each a portrait of desolation and revenge. Masterfully directed or should I say choreographed by George Miller, these are the ultimate in motorized chases, explosions and brutality. Sadly, they seem to suggest where, as a society we are going with our increasingly dominant philosophy of survival of the fittest (or meanest).

Mad Max (1979) —Can’t miss this one.  This is the set up for all that follows. A young and still altruistic cop loses his wife and child to a gang of punked-out outlaws. The crime is senseless and all his focus is now on revenge. Whether or not you approve of Mel Gibson and whether or not an hour and half of relentless violence is an appealing way to spend an evening, this is a classic story and most likely an historically important film.  In this first Mad Max out of the chute, we witness digital-less filmmaking at its boldest.  The stunts are done by real people in real space and time. Gibson here, young and pretty, doesn’t say much and doesn’t need to. Events age him, harden him. But what’s left after revenge has been taken? The answer is in the second film. Max is all but dead.

Mad Max: Road Warrior (1981) — A tougher Mad Max has little more going for him than a basic instinct to survive. Though, in what reminded me of A Boy and His Dog, an earlier apocalyptic tale, Max now has a dog to ride with him on the barren landscape is search of gasoline. It’s a kind of  “we have to keep going to get gasoline so we can keep going to get gasoline kind of thing.  But it works.  In fact, this is my favorite of the quartet largely because it takes outlandish villainy to a new level.  Using the look of heavy metal and the symbolic manifestations of sado-masochism, the film has a unique and powerful look and feel.  What really makes this one stand out for me is the addition of a couple of fascinating characters. One is a slimy, slightly crazy crackpot who has built a  primitive helicopter and has taken a liking to Max.  The second is a feral kid, who steals any scene he’s in. Despite the body count, the movie comes to a fine, satisfying end.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) — This one is the outlier.  It has a different sensibility about it.  Yes, there are the usual chase scenes, brutal fights. Certainly there is evil to be righted, the least of which is Bartertown run by a corrupt boss played Tina Turner. But the movie seems dialed down. A little comedy had crept in to Road Warrior.  And it was welcomed.  However, the sustained intensity of action remained.  Here, I almost expected everyone to break out in song. Though certainly a competent, sometimes imaginative undertaking, unlike the others, Thunderdrome might not keep you on the edge of your seat.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — I would have really liked to see an aging Mel Gibson in this one.   In Gibson’s seeming exile, Tom Hardy took the role and pulled his weight as the suffering hero of few words. Very few words, in large part because he wore a metal grate mask for most of the action. The fact is this wasn’t Max’s movie, anyway.  It belonged to Carlize Theron as Furiosa, a fierce warrior who seeks to return to the all-woman Utopia she remembers from her youth. As all the Max films do, Fury Road plays on events in the real world, the brutal and endless fight among the great powers for water and oil. And its amazing how much the desert of Australia looks like those of the Mid East with all the primitive, barely post-industrial battles that go on there. At first glance, one might think it is current news footage from battles in Iraq.

One might also think that the best drink for these movies would be a can of 10W30.  It’s all about oil.  In the end, these are beer movies. Maybe a little sparkling lemonade for those experiencing a desert thirst but have to drive more civilly than the various tribes of road warriors.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Notes – News: Indianapolis Names Park After Noted Hoosier Writer

Kurt Vonnegut

When we think of great writers and where they’re from, we’re likely to think of New York or L.A., or perhaps “The South.” Many great storytellers came from below the Mason-Dixon line. Outside of Chicago, cities in the vast Midwest may not come to mind.  In Indianapolis, few writers have become celebrities.  Most likely we have our own roster of celebrities, most likely a bank robber or a basketball player – not that there is anything wrong with that.  But writers?  Not so much. I’m not sure what they thought when Indianapolis born Kurt Vonnegut and his strange relationship with reality and his powerful defiance in the face of convention first blew the lid off by becoming an international literary legend.

Booth Tarkington
We Hoosiers have a hard time identifying with the arts in general, it seems.  There is an area in Indianapolis known as Butler Tarkington, partly in honor of the university located there and Indiana writer Booth Tarkington who wrote The Magnificent Ambersons. This was a book and movie set in the city’s Woodruff Place when it was at its grandest. And there is a Riley this and a Riley that, alluding to poet James Whitcomb Riley, known for a kind of folksy poetry children are supposed to like, and sadly stereotypical of what it means to grow up in folksy Indiana, very different from Hoosier Dan Wakefield’s most known work, Going All The Way.

In the last few years, as Indianapolis seems to blossom, the city is finally taking note of its wordsmiths. The city hosts the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.  Much more needs to be done. However, in the last few days, the city park at 61st and Broadway has been named the Dan Wakefield Park. Wakefield, now 83, returned to his hometown to work on a book about his good friend, Vonnegut. A comprehensive and worthwhile story about this Hoosier native appeared in this Indianapolis alternative newspaper, NUVO News Weekly.

Dan Wakefield 

Congratulations to Dan Wakefield and to Indianapolis, a city that seems to be awakening to its own greatness.

Monday, December 14, 2015

On Writing – And Gender Pronouns

One of the many stories credited to the great Yogi Berra occurred while he was doing the color commentary on a televised baseball game: A couple of flashers ran across the field.  When asked whether they were male or female, Berra reportedly said,“I don’t know. They had bags over their heads.”

One of the changes in American and Euro-culture is how we regard sexual orientation. Another is gender recognition. It seems to me that the English (American) language accommodates orientation.  However we don’t do so well with gender.  Truth is: We never have. At a time when we are accepting people whose gender is in transition, has transitioned or will remain fluid or unidentified at the owner’s wish, why must we categorize it.  We don’t bother sorting out the genders of those who constitute a “they,” “their” or “them,’ why do we need to use an imprecise, misleading word to describe (usually a second reference anyway) an individual person.

In a case of better never than late, The Washington Post just announced that when the gender is unknown, it is journalistically acceptable to use “they” or “their,” rather than the awkward “him or her” or “his or hers,” or “he/she/them.”  The problem with this is that pluralizing a pronoun isn’t the same as referring to gender. This has been a problem with an informal broken-down solution for many years, but it strikes me there is a much better solution. Simply develop a gender-neutral set of short words for singular, gender-free pronouns.

Sadly, in this case, language doesn’t change like this. We let the use of language determine its correctness. It’s a natural evolution.  The same goes for words in dictionaries. We don’t make up words, put them in the dictionary and hope people use them. In high school a group of us wanted to see if we could invent a word. We came up with “fledge.” It would be a response to such questions as “what did you do all day?” Our answer would be an active version of “Just hanging out.” We moved around, did things, but in the end accomplished little. We flidged. We dropped that word into every conversation we had – for a while.

Are you familiar with the word?  Of course not.  But maybe, just maybe, a larger group – LGBT people, for example – could come up with something and start a campaign. If not, I’ve just spent a good part of an afternoon flidging.

Here is a related post   

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Film Pairing — How About A Nick And Nora Holiday Film Festival?

At least once a year, I watch all six Thin Man movies.  It is my own little festival.  I have a comfortable chair and a relatively large flat screen TV in my small apartment in San Francisco. I am the only festival attendee, so it’s just me, an orange and a bowl of popcorn.  

I don’t come to this subject with any particular expertise, no deep knowledge of Dashiell Hammett.  It’s as much nostalgic as anything else. When I was young these films were on the late-night movies that followed the local news.  A shamelessly self-promoting Indianapolis used car salesman who called himself “The King” hosted the program.  He stood in front of a blackboard (as high-tech as it got in those days) slashing prices on various automobiles as he yelled, “The King don’t care.”  Then we would go back to a grainy but charming Nick and Nora Charles and that wonderful blend of suspense and comedy, bright wit and dark shadows, the high life and the low life.  If that wasn’t the birth of my love for private eye stories, it certainly enhanced it. Such was the life of the young me in a hide-a-bed, with the black and white television flashing noirish shadows on the wall.

If you want to have your own holiday festival, here are the Nick and Nora Charles films in the order they were made, noting that Hammett had decreasing influence on the final cut and virtually none for the last couple of movies.

Nora, Asta, Nick
The Thin Man — This is the one that started them all, the one based on an actual Dashiell Hammett novel and made William Powell as Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as Nora Charles one of America’s favorite film couples.  The film has a Christmas-New Year’s holiday theme, though I’m happy to say, it’s nothing sappy.  Maureen O’Sullivan plays the only sane member of a crazy family and a young and debonair Cesar Romero plays a gigolo. What else?  The film is a fantastic reflection of the times.  We get a glimpse of post-depression, post-prohibition 1934.

After The Thin Man — This is one of my favorites.  One of the reasons is that the lovely couple return to San Francisco and also because it takes place on New Years Eve.  Jimmy Stewart co-stars. Look for the usual brawls, a few red herrings, a great nightclub in Chinatown, and glimpse of the city’s bustling Market Street of 1936.

Another Thin Man — Baby makes three.  Sheldon Leonard plays the heavy in this film set in Manhattan and Long Island. A creaky old mansion and creaky old people, says the creaky blogger, as well an elaborately designed murder and a slew of petty ante gangsters inhabit the whodunit.  Watch for the big production number.

Shadow Of The Thin Man — We’re back in San Francisco and off to the races. Donna Reed, Stella Adler and Barry Nelson are in the cast of this mystery featuring such characters as Spider Web and Rainbow Benny (they may be the same person, I’m not sure). Pay attention to the wrestling match scene.  Nice twist at the end.   This time the big brawl is at an Italian restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf.

The Thin Man Goes Home — Maybe because it’s the small town backdrop.  Maybe it’s because Nick has given up his martinis for apple cider and it seems to have turned him into Ozzie Nelson.  Whatever the cause, this is my least favorite.  While all the films offer some wonderful silliness, this one just seems contrived without redemption of a knowing wink.  If you had to cut one from this list, this would be it.  Otherwise, it’s worthwhile just to know you saw them all. 

Song Of The Thin Man — It’s nice the series didn’t end on a sour note. This one bounces back. New producers, directors and writers. Though the last couple of films were only based on “characters created by Dashiell Hammett,” this one finds the formula. The film also benefits from a great supporting cast that includes one of my favorites from the “B” picture cast of characters, Gloria Grahame, plus Keenan Wynn, Jane Meadows, and a very young Dean Stockwell as Nick and Nora’s son.  We are treated with ‘40s jazz, a floating casino and nightclub (Shades of Mr. Lucky), wet, foggy nights, and a telltale necklace.  One of the pleasures is to see the stylish couple thirteen years after the first film, still elegant, still funny.

If you are so inclined, think about a Thin Man Holiday Festival. Light-hearted, celebratory and certainly auld lang syne. Because it is a festival and especially because it is The Thin Man, martinis and champagne are nearly mandatory accompaniments. Chances are Nick and Nora will be drinking with you. Not to insult my hard drinking friends, but if you want something non-alcoholic, follow Nick’s lead, maybe Martinelli’s sparkling cider. A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street step aside.

Note: This is a repost, revised to be more timely.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Blatant Self Promotion — Short Mysteries For The Traveler, Stocking Stuffers

What’s more fun than murder for the holidays?  I’d be happy as hell if you bought any of my books as gifts.  Go here for the complete list.  However I can’t help but think with all the traveling going on this time of year on that short mysteries – mystery novellas – are great small gifts. They are the perfect length for that plane trip from New York to Iowa City.  In fact, these San Francisco stories are trips in themselves.

The Blue Dragon – A murder at the Blue Dragon, a small apartment building in San Francisco’s Chinatown, prompts the absentee owner to hire Chinese American Peter Strand to calm the anxious tenants. But Strand isn’t exactly what he appears to be. Neither are the tenants, who on the surface seem to be regular people going about their lives. Strand, a forensic accountant by trade, doesn’t intend to investigate the murder, but he soon realizes that this isn’t a gang-related killing, as the police believe. The murder was committed by one of the tenants. Finding out which one exposes the secrets of the Blue Dragon and brings Strand face-to-face with a few ghosts of his own. Trade paperback and e-book

Death In The Haight – When Michael Vanderveer goes missing, Private Investigator Noah Lang assumes it’s just another runaway escaping to the Haight, San Francisco’s home to the displaced… until the homicide cops pay him a visit. Fifteen-year-old Michael has been implicated in the murder of a prostitute, and the police don’t want Lang mucking up their investigation — especially Inspector Stern, who has strong opinions about Lang’s questionable past. But Lang becomes inextricably involved.  Michael is being ransomed. As everyone waits for the kidnappers to make their next move, Lang struggles with the moral implications of rescuing Michael, only to have to turn him in for murder; and with Stern, who’s increasingly volatile behavior may just put Lang’s life in grave danger as well. E-book.

Mascara: Death In The Tenderloin – From the very beginning, things just aren’t what they seem. On a late, lonely night, San Francisco private investigator Noah Lang’s eyes deceive him. He makes a mistake. But what should have been simply an embarrassing moment becomes a deadly walk on the wild side. Unfortunately for Lang, before this nightmare is over, he puts his life on the line a second time for a new client who may or may not have a missing husband, who might or might not live on a boat in Tiburon and who seems to have an odd way to settle the bill for services rendered. Available as a trade paperback and e-book

Also check out this recent article:

Sunday, November 29, 2015

TV — Law & Order: The Franchise of All Franchises

I forget a lot of thing these days. That’s not an entirely bad thing. Broadcast channels have expanded and filled the time with reruns. Many that seem new to me aren’t new to me. Also, I can take only so much nostalgia. However, the unsentimental reruns of “Law & Order,” the original, are fresh, perhaps because I am forgetful; but probably because they are just that good.

My favorite mainstream cop series was “Homicide, Life on the Street” and its dark, cynical humor. I never missed an episode of “NYPD Blue,” despite its complete lack of humor. I hoped I’d see Sipowicz smile – just once.  Nope.  On the other hand, “Law & Order” wasn’t as character-driven. It was issue-driven and compelling, largely because the stories were “ripped from the headlines.” which meant covering timely, but more important, controversial subjects, putting public issues on public display. Sadly many of those early issues – the show premiered in 1990 – are still not resolved and still under debate.  The repeats remain fresh. We’re not only caught up in the police procedural aspect of the drama, but also the legal maneuverings that examine in dramatic fashion the moral and ethical nuances of the crime. Sometimes the difference between law and justice are painfully apparent.

The shows, formulaic as they are, were well written with an unequalled cast of accomplished actors in recurring roles. However, the show was so successful and ran for so long – 20 seasons – significant cast turnover was inevitable. Many a fine actor found “Law & Order” a career stepping–off point, while others extended successful and highly respected careers.

Among the many talented actors who have made a mark in this TV classic were Chris Noth, Dann Florek, Michael Moriarity, Dianne Wiest, Richard Brooks, Steven Hill, Paul Sorvino, Sam Waterson, Benjamin Bratt, Jesse L. Martin, and S. Epatha Merkerson.

The highly successful spin-offs – “Law & Order Criminal Intent,” also in reruns, as well as the most successful of the offspring, “Law & Order SUV,” still going – may see their inspiration return. Rumors that creator Dick Wolf plans to reprise the original are still bouncing around.  He wants to.

Personally, I’d love to see it.  Unfortunately some of the actors are no longer among the living.  Jerry Orbach, Fred Dalton Thompson and Dennis Farina have passed on. However, heavyweights Sam Waterson and Chris Noth might be up for a brief revival, one more season to give the show the formal farewell it deserved (it was axed abruptly) as well as set the record for the most seasons for a prime-time dramatic series.  Currently, “Gunsmoke” is tied with “Law & Order” at 20 seasons each. To put the numbers in perspective, “Perry Mason” had nine.

Meanwhile Wolf is trying to build another franchise with Chicago P.D., Chicago Fire and Chicago Med. Incidentally, 

Steven Hill, who seemed ancient in the early episodes of “Law & Order” is 94.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rant – Food For Thought And The American Politics of Hate

I’d like to think I’ve mellowed, but lately I’ve succumbed to the other side of old: disgruntlement. With all this unbridled hate based on skin color and now religion, from so many Americans, I have to hold back a loud screaming, “A pox on all your houses!” Except that some houses are actually worse than others, despite the fact that most of them claim to be God’s house.

Unfortunately God, in all his or her guises, has been imagined re-imagined, co-opted, adopted, politicized, interpreted, and reinterpreted to serve mankind’s baser instincts. The so-called “word” has been translated into so many languages so many times no one really knows what was intended, not even the folks who claim to have heard the word directly from God’s mouth and transcribed it for posterity. Then again, what do we usually think about taking advice from people who hear “voices?”

What’s going on here and around the world really is a battle of the superheroes, each with their bands of often violent followers who demand you believe in their made-up story, not the other guy’s. There has been and will be torture and torment in nearly every land in the world because someone says Mohammed is the greatest, another says Christ, another Buddha, another Ganesha (my personal favorite).  Moses fits in there somehow. And then there’s that whole Zeus-Jupiter dispute, not to mention sun Gods, which kind of makes sense to me. And let me add: I think pantheists are under rated too.

There is enough confusion just in Christian circles. When I was growing up, I was curious about the seeming unexplainable.  A Catholic kid who lived a couple of houses away learned that my family was Lutheran and told me matter-of-factly that I was definitely going to hell. Only Catholics went to heaven.  I told a young friend of mine, an evangelical Christian, what my other friend said and he told me to stay away from Catholics because all Catholic schools had guns in their basements and planned to kill us all when the time was right. In my formative years I went to various churches, places where bodies were dunked in water, eventually sputtering, coughing, choking to the surface suddenly saved or reborn. I could do that at home, in the bathtub, I thought. I’ve always had an independent streak. I could save myself, thank you. I listened to those souls who testified, in a state of mind just short of a voodoo trance.  In high school, a group of us regularly met in a basement to discuss such matters without resolution or agreement, but with mutual respect and the enjoyment of a hearty discussion.  In college, nearly every night of my freshman year, often while playing euchre, was spent discussing the meaning of life, and sorting, with my friends, through various philosophies, Eastern and Western. Despite my focus on theatre and journalism, over the years I took elective courses in Western Philosophy, Buddhism and Hindu. And like most folks of my generation, I dipped into the literature of Hermann Hesse and Carlos Castaneda.

After sitting at a bar in Bloomington, Indiana with still another group of intellectually curious friends, a young man whom I’d never met and never saw again said that everyone searches for an epistemology. I asked about him later and no one in our little group heard from him again.  Perhaps he found his epistemology or perhaps he went off on a search. A third possibility was that he thought the whole idea was foolish and that his comment was far from an endorsement, more of a futile, disappointing observation.

He may have been puzzled at the notion that we need a rulebook at all.  At the time, I thought that by epistemology, he meant people needed a set of rules to live by. Most religions had them, it seemed. That would explain this extraordinary and to me silly dependence on so-called sacred text, no matter in what part of the world, or when it originated. Nearly everyone may be looking for the official rulebook, the one that would guarantee him or her not only an afterlife, but a damn fine one at that.  So imagine if you think you’ve found it and you did your best to live by it, then someone comes along and says you’ve been reading and abiding by the wrong rule book all your life you are going to get pissed. Why not just try to live a good life?  You know how to do that. Do you really need a book to tell you not to do harm to others?

There are more than 4,000 religions on earth, and more than seven billion people, (a few more than can fit in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco). So maybe we, at least here in the U.S.A., need to listen to our founders who fled religious persecution and wanted religious freedom for all. That’s who we are, as a nation. Work to protect all our freedoms and not be pro one religion and anti-another. So believe what you will, live as you like as best you can in  just manner, and keep your rulebooks to yourself.

Incidentally, “epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief,” according to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I was looking for an epistemology, something that would give meaning to life, but something that also made sense. Whoever he was, he was right, I think.

A final note: We, in the U.S., are approaching elections to determine who will represent our interests at home and abroad. In the last few days we have experienced a slew of candidates who seek office by tapping into our fear and ignorance about other cultures and religions.  They take advantage of world events, reshape their meaning to ride the fear they have created. They skew statistics and blatantly lie. Some would revisit the tactics of the Nazis used on certain people they considered dangerous or inferior. Some would reinstate pre-Selma voting laws that would prevent certain Americans from voting. Some would deny full rights to minorities based on little more than unverifiable folktales.

Let’s put the bluster of modern–day Mussolinis to rest.  Let’s keep the old-style Klan-inspired segregationists a footnote to history. Let’s ignore those who believe this is a nation that holds a single religious belief.  I don’t regard pride as something to seek, necessarily.  However the United States of America should be proud of being a melting pot of the world. It has been our single, most outstanding accomplishment. It has been the source of our entrepreneurial energy and the inspiration for invention.  With the possible exception of native Americans — and they likely came from somewhere else, only much earlier – we are a nation of immigrants.  Many colors, many languages, many faiths. Let’s not get caught up in the cynical attempts to scare us into hate and discrimination.  

Happy Thanksgiving.