Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: The Third Reich In Power, 1933-39 (2005) by Richard J. Evans

I reviewed the first volume in this trilogy here, and the second is just as gripping and informative. Volume two is chiefly remarkable for the way it answers the question of how and why the average German was able to go along with Hitler's bloodthirsty nationalism and antisemitism. Evans also manages to dispel the myth that the Nazi Party was somehow able to lift Germany out of the Depression.

After WW II historians and sociologists spent a lot of time arguing about and commenting on the fact that Germany, in many respects one of the most civilized European countries prior to WW I, was able to become the most uncivilized in double-quick time. Evans shows that the economic battering and civil unrest that plagued Germany throughout the 1920s essentially created a punch drunk populace that was softened up for Hitler's message: the imminent return of a Germany both powerful and proud. His rabid nationalism also seemed like a strong antidote to the threat (as perceived by the middle and upper classes) of Marxism. Once in power, Hitler and the Nazis began the quick, brutal and ruthless suppression of all forms of dissent. Everyone from trade unionists to Catholics to boy scouts were bullied, jailed, exiled or killed in an effort to create a Nazi-centric state. Given the very high levels of intimidation the Nazis dealt out it becomes less surprising that the German people were reluctant to voice opposition to Hitler. That being said, Evans leaves us in no doubt that after 1933 most Germans were, to a point, supporters of Hitler. However, few of them could have anticipated how great his desire was for conquest and bloodshed.

Evans doesn't delve much into the psychological and sociological reasons for antisemitism, but he shows us that Germany was far from alone in persecuting Jews. Throughout the '30s countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania enacted antisemitic legislation and regulations that often equaled what the Nazis were up to. For all the usual religious and scapegoat reasons, the '30s saw a huge rise in antisemitism across Europe. Where Germany differed was in the enormous propaganda effort the Nazis put into demonizing Jews. Books, movies, radio, newspapers, speeches, there was no form of communication the Nazis didn't use, and use often, to persuade Germans that Jews were a curse upon the land. Evans shows that even Germans who had no particular dislike for Jews prior to 1933 became enthusiastic antisemites after only a few years of non-stop Nazi propaganda.

Popular opinion has often said that Hitler and the Nazis managed to turn the German economy around after they came to power. Not so. The Nazis reduced employment to a large degree by redefining who qualified as unemployed. Seasonal workers, for example, were no longer listed as unemployed when their jobs ended. Germany also began to simply print more money in order to pay for rearmament and public works projects. By 1939 the Germany economy was, in fact, nearing collapse; rationing was becoming commonplace and the consumer economy was disappearing. The Nazis needed a war in 1939 if only to prevent economic disaster. Their economy seemed vibrant but was, in reality, grossly deformed.

If the third volume in this series is as good as the first two it will arguably have to stand as the best history of Germany and the Nazis that's been written.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Film Review: The Best of Youth (2003)

It says something about the state of Italian TV that this film, which was originally made for RAI (the Italian state broadcaster), was supposedly turned down by them once they'd seen the finished product because it was too good for TV. I guess in the age of Berlusconi a TV show without veline (the name for the leggy, half-naked women who adorn Italian TV shows) is unthinkable. Youth is a six-hour mini-series that follows the members of the Carati family from 1966 to 2003, and it has to rate as one of the best Italian films ever. Because of its running time it was only ever shown at various festivals (winning a ton of awards) and in limited theatrical release so its global exposure has been pretty minimal.

The film focuses on the Carati brothers, Nicola and Matteo, who are in university in Rome when we first meet them in 1966. Both are excellent students but it's made clear from the outset that Matteo, who has a fiery, brooding personality, is the genius of the family. It turns out he's something of a troubled genius, as he purposely flunks his final exams in a fit of pique. Nicola is the more grounded, humane brother who has a dogged patience and a desire to change things for the better. As the story moves from 1966 to 2003 key moments in recent Italian history play out in the foreground and background, sometimes directly affecting the two brothers. Nicola meets his wife during the cleanup after the devastating floods of Florence in 1968, and his sister Giovanna is a judge during the landmark anti-mafia trials of the 1980s.

Although Italian history plays a big part in Youth the story is as much about personalities and personal choices as it is events and issues. Life decisions, and the motivations for them, are really what's at the core of the story. All of the major characters are faced with important choices that often have their roots in some of the tectonic shifts that took place in Italian society. It's appropriate that Nicola, a psychiatrist, becomes the central character as he tries to understand and influence the important people in his life, chiefly his wife, Giulia, and Matteo. To a certain degree these last two characters are stand-ins for the more toxic and troublesome strands in the fabric of Italian society. Fortuantely, the script does not make them entirely symbols; these are very real people whose actions and motivations are wholly believable, even if, like Nicola, we can never fully understand what has made them into the people they are.

One of the greatest strengths of Youth is that it's able to deliver tremendous emotional highs and lows that don't resort to melodrama or artifice. The Caratis face their share of tragedy and happiness, but none of it feels artificial. Because of this the film packs an amazing emotional punch. These characters are so real we laugh and cry with them to a degree that's very rare to find in a film. In that sense Youth feels more like a beautifully realized novel than a mini-series. The emotional strength of the film owes a lot to the actors, especially Luigi Lo Cascio as Nicola and Alessio Boni as Matteo. Lo Cascio's role is particularly demanding since he has to make a man who's humane, diligent and responsible also come across as entertaining and engaging.

The Best of Youth should almost be judged against novels rather than other films. It has a great novel's psychological acuity and epic sweep, and a careful, detailed focus on its main characters. Director Marco Tullio Giordana deserves abundant praise for orchestrating all the different elements in the film. Although it was originally intended for TV, Youth is also a very good-looking film, with great location work and a soundtrack that neatly mixes a lush original score with period pop songs. One warning: you'll need to keep a box of Kleenex handy.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Book Review: Fatale (1977) by Jean-Patrick Manchette

When reviewing a crime novel it's normally pretty easy to come up with a comparable author or book. Not in this case. Fatale is blunt, brief and brutal; its style brings to mind comics or graphic novels, or a particularly vicious B-movie. That's not to say it's junky or pulpy; this is a proper novel, with crisp, direct prose and a mandate to put the boots to the French upper middle-class.

The central character is Aimee, an attractive woman who travels from town to town infiltrating the local upper crust and then blackmails them once she's found out their dirty secrets. Oh, and she also usually murders her victims after she's got the cash. Aimee arrives in Bleville, a coastal town in northern France, and soon finds that there's no shortage of victims for her blackmail scheme. The denouement finds Aimee facing off against a gang of Bleville's notables. The body count is very high.

A synopsis of the plot can make this novel sound ludicrous and sensational, but that's clearly not what Manchette was striving for. Fatale is almost a schematic of how the upper bourgeoisie acts and reacts to threats and temptations. Aimee is partly an avenging angel and partly a victim of bourgeois culture. She, like a good capitalist, sees society purely in terms of its utility to her: what parts of it can be used to her profit, what parts can be eliminated because they hinder her. In short, Aimee's motivating philosophy would seem to be exploit others before they exploit you.

Fatale is definitely not going to be everyone's cup of tea. It's bleak and cruel, and the tone of the writing is dry and sometimes startlingly matter-of-fact. Machette wrote a handful of other novels but not many of them seem to be available in English.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Film Review: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

In 1974 I was 17 and only one year away from being legally eligible to see the R-rated Thunderbolt and Lightfoot in the theatre. It was a film I wanted to see very badly because it offered the combination of Clint Eastwood, violence and female nudity. My peers and I all tried to get in to see it, and we all failed. Theatres in Winnipeg took R-ratings very seriously. I finally saw it maybe 5 or 6 years later and thought it was pretty damn cool, just what I was hoping for.

I saw it again this past week and have to revise my opinion somewhat. While in most respects it remains a typical example of 1970s action movies, there are some odd angles to it that are worth a second look. The first is the bromance between Clint Eastwood (Thunderbolt) and the much younger Jeff Bridges (Lightfoot). In 1974 bromance was a term that was twenty years away from being invented, but the relationship between the two leads in this film has to be the template for all the movie bromances that followed. The duo meet cute (in action movie terms), do some bonding over beers and bimbos, and then consummate their relationship with a bank robbery in Montana. What's a bit different about this bromance is that Thunderbolt and Lightfoot are so visibly taken with each other. They do everything but exchange friendship rings. There isn't quite a homoerotic vibe to their relationship, but their enthusiasm for each other is a bit odd for the standards of the '70s. Of course, this bromance shouldn't really be a surprise given that the film was written and directed by Michael Cimino. Cimino later did The Deer Hunter, the grand opera of bromances.

Thunderbolt meets the '70s quota for gratuituous female nudity, but it does so with a leering, hairy-palmed awkwardness that makes it feel like Cimino might have penned the script when he was sixteen. What's odder is that sometimes the standard male heterosexual lustfulness spills over into something gayer. In once scene a brutish character played by George Kennedy insists that Lightfoot describe a naked woman he saw that day. Lightfoot teases him with the description and then gives him a mock kiss a la something Bugs Bunny would do to Elmer Fudd. Also, as part of the heist Lightfoot has to dress in drag and attract the sexual attention of a clerk. Another scene has a minor character telling Thunderbolt about a prank he pulled involving sticking his dick in another man's hand. Sometimes you have to wonder what audience Cimino thought he was writing for. And I won't even mention the plentiful use of phallic symbols.

The last major oddity is the ending, which turns what has been a nasty, rude, tough, fun heist film into something sadder and more serious. The heist, as is often the case in films like this, goes badly awry. George Kennedy double-crosses Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, knocking them both out in the process, and putting Lightfoot down with a particularly vicious kick to the head. Kennedy meets a grisly end shortly thereafter and T & L escape. The next day our two penniless heroes are thumbing a ride and come upon $500,000 stashed from a previous robbery of the same bank (it all makes sense in the context of the story) inside a one-room schoolhouse now being used as museum. This looks like a happy ending, but the kick Lightfoot took has caused serious brain damage, and in the last 6 or 7 minutes of the film we see him go from dazed to dopey to partially paralyzed to dead. It's a shocking and bleak twist to the end and it seems to be an oblique commentary on Vietnam. The Thunderbolt character is described at several points as a Korean War hero, and one of the last things Lightfoot says before he dies is that he now feels like a hero because he's finally accomplished something: he pulled off his role in the robbery. Like the Vietnam War, Thunderbolt ends with nothing really accomplished and a dead young man.

Thunderbolt is mostly well-made, with some nice cinematography, brisk action sequences and a scene-stealing performance from Jeff Bridges in one of his earliest roles.The plot has one or two holes, but otherwise Thunderbolt is an entertaining crime flick, albeit one that's a bit odd and pervy, but that only makes it more interesting.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review: The Mennyms (1993) by Sylvia Waugh

Working at the library has shown me that adult readers are generally reluctant to move outside their preferred genre; mystery readers read only mysteries, romance readers read only romances, and so on. Sometimes they'll make an exception for a high-profile author like Stephen King or a notable bestseller like The Help, but generally most readers stay in their groove. The one genre they rarely make an exception for is kids' lit. Yes, a lot of adults read Harry Potter, but I think that's the exception that proves the rule. And that's a pity because some of the smartest, most imaginative writing can be found in the kids section.

The Mennyms is a perfect example of first-rate writing that should be allowed a place at the grownups' table. I'll admit that the basic story idea of The Mennyms sounds painfully cute, whimsical and juvenile: the Mennyms are an extended  family of life-size rag dolls who have, for some mysterious reason, come alive. Through a complicated, but believable, series of subterfuges and stratagems the Mennyms have managed to keep their peculiar existence a secret. They live in a house in a middle-class London suburb that was once owned by their deceased maker, and behind perpetually drawn curtains they try and live their lives as though they were fully human. The Mennyms are completely aware that they aren't human, but engage in meals and so on (what they call "pretends") that fill their day.

On one level the novel is about the Mennyms' attempts to live their lives without being discovered. On another level it's about what constitutes a family, and how various domestic rituals and traditions help bind a family together. And on yet another level it's about the Big Questions: why are we here? Why do we exist? What defines existence? Although the Mennyms are dolls, they all have very human, very real personalities. They're very ordinary, very middle-class "people", but Waugh is such an acute and sensitive writer (she's won a ton of kids' lit awards) that you very soon forget that these characters aren't human. If Barbara Pym or Graham Greene had decided to take a stab at writing for kids or young adults they might have come up with something like this.

The Mennyms is the first in a series of five novels, all of which deal in one way or another with the Mennyms trying to avoid exposure and find out how they came to be. There are moments in this series that are unbearably tense and others that are heartbreaking, so much so that I wonder if kids will be able to deal with them. The last novel of the five isn't as strong as one might hope, but overall this series has to rate as a classic of children's literature.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Film Review: The Sword of Doom (1966)

There are many aspects of samurai films that I love but one of my favourites is what I call the Stop, Drop and Die move. This occurs when a master samurai slashes his sword at several assailants and they immediately freeze in a standing position, often with their swords still upraised. This is the Stop portion of the move. We know they've been hit, they know they've been hit, but for a few seconds nothing happens. Now comes the Drop. The assailants slowly topple over or crumple to the ground. There's a certain elegance to this maneuver. You can't just drop to the ground and bounce like some cheap gangster, you have to go down like a neatly felled piece of bamboo. It's very zen. Finally, the Die. Once on the ground the samurai's victim is allowed one limb twitch or a muted groan. No histrionics, please.

I don't know what the Stop, Drop and Die signifies in Japanese culture, but there are lots of examples of it in The Sword of Doom, one of the best of the classic samurai films. The I have to? Is it really necessary? Oh, well, I'll try. Ryunosuke is a psycho samurai with a perpetual, spooky, thousand yard stare. Why is he like this? We aren't told. He murders a pilgrim for no reason at the beginning of the film, then follows that up by killing a samurai from another clan at what is supposed to be a non-lethal tournament. He then becomes a ronin and falls in with a gang working to support the shogunate. Toshiro Mifune is also around as a fencing master who intimidates Ryunosuke.

The plot borders on the opaque but the action elements and cinematography more than make up for it. This is one of best-looking samurai films ever. The highlight is an attack on the Toshiro Mifune character at night during a snowstorm. Even if there wasn't swordplay involved this would be a ravishing scene to look at, made even better by the fact that the film is in black and white. Snow scenes are made for black and white. Almost as good is the sequence in which Ryunosuke is attacked on a foggy road by rival clansmen. The final sequence is a triumph of art direction and fight choreography. Ryunosuke is in a tavern/brothel with his gang when he suddenly comprehends how evil his life has been. He's suddenly haunted by the shadows of the innocent people he's killed and in a demonic rage he begins slashing the walls apart. At this moment the gang moves in to assassinate Ryunosuke and thus begins a seven minute sequence of non-stop swordplay and Stop, Drop and Die. The film ends on a freeze frame of Ryunosuke still slashing and hacking. I thought this ending was a bit odd until I read that The Sword of Doom was supposed to be the first film in a trilogy, which, unfortunately, never came to pass.

The snowball fight quickly got out of hand.

If you're a casual fan of samurai films the wonky plot might be an annoyance, but if you're a hardcore samurai fan then the classic pleasures of the samurai film are here in abundance. A recent samurai film that's almost as good is 13 Assassins, which I reviewed here. Like Doom, it features a bad guy who's pure evil to the tips of his fingers. The trailer below was put together by a fan, but it's pretty good if you can ignore the music.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Finally, Proof That Jesus Would Vote Republican

As the rough beast of American presidential politics begins its long slouch towards decision day in November, the civilized world is left wondering, as it does every four years, WTF is up with America's obsession with religion. In just last the few days President Obama has had to come up with a compromise on the birth control portion of his health care package in order to placate the Catholic Church, and this is against the backdrop of the Republican primaries, which consist entirely of white multimillionaires trying to proclaim that not only are they more god-fearing than the next guy, but they'll actually make America more god-fearing if given the chance in November. Once the actual presidential campaign begins the two candidates will invoke or quote Jesus and his dad in virtually every speech, and on Sundays we'll see them drop in on the nearest suburban megachurch where their piety will be on full display. But that won't stop both candidates from inferring, or even declaring, that their opponent is in some way heretical or godless.

The auto-da-fé of the American presidential election is a wonderment to Canadians and Europeans because it's a reminder that Yanks are more religious, by far, than anyone else on the block. But why is this? A few months ago I was researching this issue for an article and I kept looking for cultural and political causes of America's religiosity. Nothing seemed to explain the situation until I thought of the other major difference between Europe and the US: social  welfare spending. Europe believes in it, America (its ruling class, at least) loathes it. So I Googled social welfare spending and religion and came up with this academic paper written by Anthony Gill (his website's here)and Erik Lundsgaarde, professors at the University of Washington. Eureka! Solid evidence to explain the religiosity divide between America and most everyone else. Before I go further here are some quotes from the paper:

"...state welfare spending has a detrimental, albeit unintended, effect on long-term religious participation and overall religiosity."

"People living in countries with high social welfare spending per capita even have less of a tendency to take comfort in religion, perhaps knowing that the state is there to help them in times of crisis."

The professors back up these conclusions with all the necessary facts and figures (graph alert!), and their paper makes for very interesting reading, but be warned that it is an academic paper so it's a tad on the dry side. The profs argue that as church-sponsored social welfare programs (education, relief for the poor, etc.) are replaced by state programs, people see less value in religion itself. Religiosity (it's defined as weekly church attendance in the paper) does not, however, decline immediately upon an increase in social welfare spending. Decreases in religiosity are generational.

The paper emphasizes the role of churches in providing social welfare support as one of the key causes of religiosity. That's where I disagree with them. I don't think American churches have any significant tradition of providing material support for their followers. I think a more likely explanation, which is hinted at in several places in the paper, is that fear is what drives some people to church, and since WW II the US has been one of the most fear-filled countries on the planet. First there was the Cold War and its fear of nuclear war, then the Vietnam War, fear of street crime in the 1970s, and then a reboot of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan. Add in the wars in the Middle East and 9/11 and you have society that's filled with dread. It's small wonder that Americans look for supernatural protection and comfort when so much that surrounds them seems so dangerous and unpredictable. And this is all on top of a society that provides the most meagre of social safety nets.

It doesn't come as much of a surprise that the Scandinavian countries, with their broad and comprehensive social welfare programs and non-involvement in military conflicts, sit at the bottom of the league in terms of religiosity. It's a clear message that people who have some confidence in their future well-being, who don't live in fear of death and disaster lurking around the next corner, have no need of imaginary beings to protect them. Needless to say there are probably a dozen other factors that can help account for US religiosity, but it would seem that free, universal health care goes a long way towards creating and maintaining a secular society. Gill and Lundsgaarde's paper provides some more proof of this with the example of the ex-Soviet Union. Once religion was made legal in Russia after the fall of the USSR, spirituality made a big comeback. It was no coincidence that the end of the USSR also marked the end of cradle-to-grave welfare programs for Russians, not to mention the end of a guaranteed job for all.

The role of religion in American politics became a big deal in the 1970s as President Jimmy Carter let it be known that he was a "born again" Christian. That seemed to be the starting bell for the evangelical movement, and it's become a key factor in every presidential election since. The rise of the Christian right has gone in lockstep with the erosion of social welfare programs that began with the election of Reagan in 1980. The US is now at a point where the Tea Party and the various Republican presidential hopefuls spend enormous effort in thinking of ways the US government can do less for its people, except, of course, when it comes to waging wars. All this looks like more evidence of religiosity being largely dependent on social welfare spending.

So, from the point of view of a ruthless, evangelical Republican politician there could be no shrewder political strategy than to cut any and all social welfare programs; its appears to be a guaranteed way to fill the pews and stuff the ballot boxes with votes for the GOP. And, really, it's probably what Jesus would do. He wouldn't want a nation of happy, healthy unbelievers. Of course, there was that time he fed the multitudes with free bread and fish...that does sound a bit welfare-ish, a bit food stamp-y, but it was probably a deliberate mistranslation by some liberal, elitist professor of ancient languages.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Book Review: Eye of the Cricket (1998) by James Sallis

This is the first I've heard of James Sallis, although it turns out the film Drive (my review's here) was based on his novel of the same name. And he's written a sequel called, naturally enough, Driven. I'm guessing the third in the series will be called Driving. Anyway, Cricket is one of seven novels Sallis has written featuring private detective Lew Griffin. Griffin is black, a resident of New Orleans, and in this novel a part-time university prof teaching modern literature and French. Reading between the lines it would seem that Griffin was once more of a full-time private dectective.

Cricket presents the problem of the crime writer who doesn't appear to be all that interested in writing about crime. In this novel Griffin investigates a couple of missing persons cases in a laidback sort of way that involves a lot of eating and drinking in colourful New Orleans eateries while asking questions of obligingly talkative friends and acquaintances. In this way we get an engaging tour of the city, but there isn't really any detection going on. And the final 40 or so pages have Griffin living on the street in order to find his son who disappeared in New York several years previously. The missing son portion the story is poorly developed and makes for a limp, saccharine finale.

Sallis isn't the first crime writer to lose interest in crime. Michael Dibdin's series of mysteries featuring Comissario Aurelio Zen eventually became mood pieces with a bit of crime on the side. American mystery writer K.C. Constantine hit the wall after nine books about Mario Balzic, the Chief of Police of Rocksburg, PA. He rejuvenated himself by retiring Balzic and writing about his replacement, but before that happened his last two Balzic novels were nothing more than extended rants about life in America under Ronald Reagan.

Sallis' focus in this novel is on Griffin coping with middle age and dealing with the demons of his past. Sallis is a good writer, sometimes a fine writer with a Faulknerian way with words, but his ability to craft prose can't disguise the fact that he isn't really interested in telling a story. Another sign that Sallis is more interested in creating a literary novel is that he has Griffin quoting and referencing famous authors at a furious clip. That kind of thing is never a good idea; it always seems to be a substitute for storytelling. I can't recommend this book, but I'm curious to see if Sallis is a more disciplined writer in Drive and the earlier Griffin novels.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Film Review: Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010)

Hollywood used to make tough, nasty cop films (for more on this see my review of  The Seven-Ups), but that genre seems to have been surrendered to other countries. Hong Kong produces some good ones, although they often suffer from the John Woo, let's-kill-100-gangsters-without-reloading factor. Two of the best that I've seen in recent years are from Brazil: Elite Squad (2007) and the sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.

The first film was the about the formation of BOPE (standing for Special Police Operations Battalion, an actual police unit), a paramilitary group of police officers charged with combating crime in Rio's favelas. The first film was a no-nonsense, let's-put-a-special-team-together-and-fight-bad-guys story. We see how bad the situation in Rio is off the top, then we get the selection and training sequence, and then we see the team kicking ass. Elite Squad wasn't flashy or groundbreaking, just violent and ruthlessly efficient, but its right-wing tone seemed more appropriate for a Chuck Norris movie.

This sequel seems to be making amends for the political stance of the original. As the title indicates, this time the enemy isn't drug dealers, it's the cops and the local politicians. Local police units in Rio are taking over whole favelas and taxing every kind of commercial activity, up to and including internet service. They then use some of that loot to buy off the politicians who control or oversee the police. The good guy in all this is Col. Nascimento, the head of BOPE. He's kicked upstairs to keep him out of the way, but, of course, he can't stay behind a desk when there's trouble on the streets. His problems are complicated by an ex-wife and estranged son who don't like his politics.

The Enemy Within doesn't reinvent the cop movie wheel, but it delivers a solid storyline and lots of tough, nasty action. Seeing the first film would be an advantage in order to understand a lot of the backstory of the central characters, and I have a feeling that some knowledge of Brazilian politics would also be an advantage. Both these films are a reminder that Hollywood doesn't have a monopoly on polished, hard-hitting action films. The only real difference between these films and their Hollywood equivalents is the tens of millions of dollars paid out by the big studios for stars and ad campaigns.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Film Review: The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

By 1972 the western, as a film genre, was in palliative care, done in by a deficit of original ideas and by the public's growing taste for cop and disaster movies. European directors like Sergio Leone had taken westerns as far as they could go in terms of epic scope and allegory, while Hollywood countered with a stream of gritty, realistic westerns, the so-called revisionist westerns. Titles that fall under the latter category include Will Penny, Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, Bad Company, and, to a lesser degree, The Wild Bunch. The hallmark of the revisionist western is the debunking of the heroic, American expansionist ideal of John Wayne westerns. Revisionist westerns are sympathetic to Indians, show cowboys as skanky and feral, and present settlers and townspeople as racist and greedy.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid is firmly in the revisionist camp. The writer and director was Philip Kaufman, who'd go on to greater fame with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Right Stuff. The title raid was the last bank robbery of the James-Younger gang, but Kaufman's focus isn't so much on the robbery as it is on more contemporary issues. In 1972 the U.S. was still waist deep in the Vietnam War and its inner cities were becoming war zones. In Raid, Kaufman offers up a thesis that America's taste for violence has deep roots. The gang and the townspeople of Northfield are shown to be equally callous and bloodthirsty. Jesse James murders a kindly old woman just to acquire her clothes for a disguise, and after a posse of Northfield citizens accidentally gets in a firefight with a posse from another town they take pride in having inflicted casualties on the other posse. The philosophy of the film is summed up beautifully during a baseball game that's half brawl, half sporting event. One of Northfield's leading citizens tells Cole Younger that baseball is now America's national sport, and Cole politely corrects him by saying, "Shooting is America's national sport and always will be." Cole then blasts the baseball out of the air, immediately ending the game.

Raid has an appropriately gritty, dirty look, and the gang members range from sociopathic to feeble-minded. Jesse James (Robert Duvall) is presented as a scheming psychopath who has a bottomless hatred for Northerners. Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) is the brains of the gang, and has, despite his hardcore criminality, a very American innocence and delight when exposed to new sights and marvels. The acting is excellent throughout. It's no surprise that Duvall is good, but Robertson's acting is a bit of surprise. Robertson was always the bland utility infielder of leading men, but here he gives a charming, eccentric performance that's a perfect counterpoint to Duvall's homicidal Jesse James. The film's main drawback is a series of cutaways to a railway car full of Pinkerton men who've been hired to hunt down James and Younger. These scenes are badly shot and turn out to be irrelvant to the plot. I was going to attach Raid's trailer to this review, but it's absolutely stuffed with spoilers. Instead, here's a still from the film showing the aftermath of the raid.

Not Available In Canada

This past weekend my wife and I went across the border to do some shopping in Orchard Park, just south of Buffalo, New York. These days, what with the strong Canadian dollar, hopping across the border to pick up some groceries, clothes, and of course cheap American gas, is completely routine; most everyone in southern Ontario does it, and a big chunk of Buffalo's economy depends upon Canadian shoppers. But in 1967, when I was ten, a trip to the U.S. was just about the most exciting event on the calendar outside of Christmas. Fortunately for me, we had a cousin living in Livonia, a small town near Rochester about a three hour drive from Toronto. We'd visit her several times a year and I looked forward to these trips the way kids today dream about a trip to Disneyworld.

In 1967 I was reminded daily of how exotic and bold and fun the U.S. was thanks to Rocketship 7, a kids' cartoon show beamed out of Buffalo every afternoon. Between the cartoons came the commericals for a cornucopia of magical consumer goods such as PF Flyers sneakers. Their ads clearly and conclusively showed that small boys could, with the aid of PF Flyers, achieve running speeds comparable to that of a cheetah or The Flash. My Canadian feet were normally clad in desert boots; safe, sober footwear designed to create a steady, even gait and flat feet. Only Field Marshal Montgomery ever found them fashionable. And then there were the ads for breakfast cereals: Trix, Froot Loops, and the black truffle of sugary cereals, Capt. Crunch. These fructose and corn by-product concoctions weren't just delicious, they had mascots! The Silly Rabbit, Toucan Sam, and the Captain had 30-second adventures that were more involving than any random five hours of Canadian TV programming. The cereal I usually got at home was Puffed Wheat, which might as well have been called Cardboard-O's. But the ad that made me frantic with desire was for the Johnny Seven O.M.A. To say that the O.M.A. was a toy gun is like saying the Ferrari Testarossa is a passenger vehicle. O.M.A. stood for (and the ad's voiceover shouted this in a Voice of Doom) One Man Army. Seven weapons in one gun! With a gun like that I could pacify my entire neighbourhood. Don't believe me? Here's the ad:

I was an absolute fiend for toy weapons thanks to shows like Combat and The Rat Patrol, so if given the choice between the O.M.A. and the ability to fly like Superman I might have taken the plastic weapon. There was one problem: the most covet-worthy products of America's toy and sugar industries were almost never sold in Canada. Just to grind that fact home the border station TV commercials for these items always ended with the flashing words, NOT AVAILABLE IN CANADA. Sometimes they even added an announcer who would say the offending words sotto voce. And there were dozens of other products that carried this warning. Why was this? Probably something to do with tariffs, small market size, et cetera. All I knew is that there seemed to be some kind of fun and frivolity barrier between America and Canada.

Several times a year I'd have a chance to wallow in the bounty of the U.S. when we made the trip down to Livonia for a long weekend with cousin Cleo. We normally crossed the border at Niagara Falls, and there couldn't be a more stark difference between two countries than at that crossing. The Canuck side of Niagara Falls was all silly tourist attractions and parkland. The Yank side consisted of some touristy stuff and then a thick belt of factories that produced noise, flames and smells. We usually drove through this zone at night, and I can vividly recall passing huge factory windows that were left open in summer to provide some air and glancing inside them to see men silhouetted against open hearths and kilns. Of course, our car windows had to stay up even in the summer because the smells these factories produced would gag a Mumbai rat. It was an nose-scorching mix of burnt plastic, gas fumes, and something very rotten. Best not to think about how toxic those fumes were.

Once we were well past Niagara Falls, N.Y., my parents would, on occasion, stop at a tavern. These taverns were always outside of towns (something to do with zoning laws, I think) and had a convivial, almost family-friendly atmosphere. My folks would enjoy their first Genessee Ale since the last trip to Livonia, and I would play on the inevitable shuffleboard table. The idea of the whole family going into a tavern would have been unthinkable at home. Taverns in Toronto were gloomy bunkers with separate entrances for men and "Ladies and Escorts."

The sign tells you all you need to know about the cheeriness of Canadian taverns. And if you wanted a bottle of booze you had to go to an outlet of the government-owned and ominously-named Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Once inside you would scan noticeboards bearing the names and prices of the different kinds of grog. Nothing was on display. You would then write down your choice on a form, take it to a cashier and pay, and then hand the stamped form to a man dressed like a banquet hall waiter who would disappear into the back of the building and return with your purchase, which was then placed in a brown paper bag. The U.S.S.R. had nothing on Canada when it came to scorning consumerism. No wonder my dad delighted in U.S. liquor stores, with their open displays of booze that often came in novelty bottles shaped like soldiers or racehorses or these:

Livonia was a very small town, partly agricultural and partly a bedroom community for people working in Kodak's head office and plant in nearby Rochester. For my purposes it was excellent as the town had an ample supply of boys my own age who were eager to play all the usual childhood games. One unusual activity we enjoyed was "playing store", as we called it, at the Livonia Dairy. The Livonia Dairy was a small concern, consisting of a barn, dairy equipment, a walk-in refrigerator holding milk, butter, and so on, and a till. On Sundays the business was closed, but they left the doors open for people to pick up their dairy needs and pay on the honour system. We kids would "man" the till on Sundays and go into the refrigerator to get people's purchases. We took our wages in the form of chocolate milk. We had no adult supervision and no one seemed to mind what we were doing. I know it sounds like something from a Norman Rockwell daydream, but it's true.

But the highlight of a trip to Livonia was going to Arlans department store near Rochester. This was our Aladdin's Cave. The three of us (four when my older sister came along) would split up and not meet again until shopping exhaustion set in. My mother would hunt for clothes and textiles, all of which were far cheaper and more various in the U.S. I, of course, was in the toy section, marveling at the serried ranks of toy weaponry: muskets, rifles, machine guns, cap pistols, even toy bazookas. Dad was something of a magpie; he ferreted out the rare and the unusual on Arlan's shelves, but he was especially attracted to anything that came in a jumbo-sized container. On one memorable occasion he dragged me out of the toy section to show me a quart bottle of Hai Karate aftershave, which he promptly dropped on the floor. We scurried away and that part of the store became a musky no-go zone for the rest of the day. Arlan's also introduced us to cutting edge developments in American junk food. We had our first submarine sandwiches at Arlan's and became hopelessly addicted to them. Back home, sandwiches were only available through the Sandwich Control Board of Ontario, and by law could contain only one piece of meat and one piece of cheese. Well, maybe not, but you get the picture. Mum wasn't usually too interested in foodstuffs until the day she discovered cheese puffs. She bought a bolster-sized bag, and by the time we drove back to Canada the bag was nearly empty and mum was bright orange from her fingertips to her elbows.

Passing through Customs back into Canada was always a fraught occasion for dad. He hated paying duty, so as we approached the border he and mum would rehearse their lies for the Customs officer. Dad was a poor liar, inevitably laughing nervously the second we rolled up to the Customs booth. If that wasn't a giveaway the sight of our overstuffed station wagon always gave the game away. We'd be waved over for an inspection and a jaundiced official eye would be passed over the contents of the wagon.

"Is there alcohol in those, sir?"
"No, that's a collection of porcelain Revolutionary War figurines."
"They have screwtops."
"Hahahaha! So they do."

Duty paid, we'd be on our way home where I would be the envy of my peers for at least several days as I unveiled the latest additions to my armoury. Securing the Johnny Seven O.M.A. made me a local hero for at least two weeks. Within those weeks I lost all of the gun's moving and removable parts, and was soon reduced to making machine gun noises when I played with it, the same as with all my other toy guns. It didn't matter. There would soon be something new and wonderful in America to lust after.

Livonia is still there, but with the imminent bankruptcy of Kodak it's probably going to go back to being entirely agricultural. The Livonia Dairy might still be going, but I'm sure they're no longer on the honour system. The factories in Niagara Falls, N.Y., are silent and sweet-smelling; every one of them mothballed or bulldozed. When my wife and I do some cross-border shopping now it's often for the same products (but cheaper) that we have at home, and this last time some familiar names (Old Navy, IHOP, Borders) had closed their doors, done in by western New York's declining economy. Video game warfare has replaced the need for the O.M.A., but, just for old time's sake, I always lie at Customs.