Thursday, May 31, 2012

Book Review: The Pursued (2011) by C.S. Forester

Yes, this crime novel was first published in 2011 and it is by the C.S. Forester who wrote the Hornblower novels. No, Forester is not still alive, writing his novels in some kind of cryogenic writer's den. The Pursued was written in 1935 when C.S. was already a successful author with one Hornblower novel to his credit. His publisher promptly misplaced the manuscript of The Pursued and it remained lost until 1999. I have a sneaky feeling the publisher lost it on purpose. The Pursued is not what the public would have been expecting, or comfortable with, from the author of Hornblower and The African Queen.

The story is set in suburbarn London and begins with Marjorie Grainger returning home one night to discover that her sister Dot has stuck her head in the gas oven and killed herself. Marjorie and her husband Ted were both out, seperately, visiting friends. Dot had been minding the couple's two children. The inquest reveals that Dot had been three months pregnant. Marjorie and her mother put two and two together and realize that not only was Ted the father, he's also a murderer. The suicide was faked. They can't prove any of this, but the truth is obvious. Mrs Clair decides she must kill Ted. The novel starts out on a grim note, and after that it just gets sadder and nastier.

There are several remarkable aspects to this novel, the first being its resolutely bleak tone. Forester wrote this during the Golden Age of murder mysteries, the era of Christie, Carr, Sayers, and so on, and yet this couldn't be further from their world of vicarages, amateur sleuths, and lashings of cream teas. Admittedly this isn't a mystery, but it was very much out of step with contemporary British crime and mystery writing. Neither is it hardboiled. There's little violence and the none of the characters work for or against the law. Call it suburban English noir. Contemporary readers would, I think, have been scandalized by the novel's sexual frankness and by an ending that is fairly dripping with despair. Perhaps even more shocking would be the fact that the end of the novel leaves the fates of most of its characters up in the air. The only thing we can guess is that things don't go well for them.

As I was reading The Pursued the author I kept being reminded of was George Orwell. Forester, like Orwell, has a very lean, clean, and sober prose style, but, more interestingly, in this novel he shows an Orwell-like ability to dissect and examine the world of the English middle-class. From food to sex, Forester lifts the lid on the dry, dull, mean lives that lie at the end of suburban rail lines. If this novel had been released in 1935 its most horrific element for English readers would be Forester's presentation of middle-class lives being destroyed. Forester is merciless in showing his characters suffer as their middle-class world falls to pieces. The final section of the novel gains a lot of its tension from watching Marjorie and Mrs Clair have their proper, polite lives turned to ash. If the Orwell of Coming Up for Air had decided to try his hand at crime fiction this is probably the novel he would have written.

For an author who's mostly known for producing manly novels about Napoleonic warfare on the high seas, Forester proves to be excellent writer of female characters. Marjorie and Mrs Clair are described in detail and depth, and the novel's emotional punch benefits enormously from the care Forester takes in crafting these two characters. This is not a perfect novel. The two main male characters are barely two-dimensional, and Forester doesn't always have a good ear for dialogue. Those problems aside, this is an intriguing piece of crime fiction that might make you look at C.S. Forester in a whole new light.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Book Review: Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 (2011) by Rodric Braithwaite

This history of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is valuable if only for a widely-believed myth it manages to dispell. The myth is that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was part of a grand strategy to expand the Soviet empire and acquire a warm weather port. Braithwaite, using interviews with ex-Politburo members and records of Politburo meetings, shows conclusively that the Soviet leaders were very reluctant to prop up Kabul's communist government. Like the Americans in Vietnam, the Soviets felt forced into propping up an ideological allyor see them swept away. Their hope was that a few years of military support and training would allow the Afghans to rule and police their own country. Sound familiar?

After only a couple of years in Afghanistan the Russians, even those at the top of the political and military food chain, were aware that they were in a no-win situation. They could control the cities and some key highways but beyond that the country belonged to the mujahedin. And year after year it became more obvious that at some point the Soviets would have to cut their losses and leave. The problem was how to do this without appearing to abandon an ally. This conundrum lead to the war dragging on for several more years, all to no purpose except to further increase casualties on all sides.

Possibly a million Afghanis were killed during the war and millions more became refugees in neighbouring countries. A lot of the deaths were the result of feuds and power struggles between the differenct ethnic, religious and politcial groups that made up the mujahedin. One of the more shocking things revealed here is how badly the Soviet Army treated its soldiers. Rations were poor, pay virtually a joke, and, worst of all, basic healthcare was shockingly bad. The army suffered from major and constant outbreaks of hepatitis and cholera, both of which were due to slipshod management of water and sanitation. Medical treatment for wounded soldiers was rapid, but the overall quality of the medical care was terrible, mostly thanks to a shortage of medical supplies. And all this was on top of the daily physical hardships and brutality of life in the Soviet Army.

Braithwaite has a fascinating story to tell, but it has to be said that he's not much of a writer. He was the British ambassador in Moscow from 1988-92, and that has certainly provided him with some excellent sources, but too often his book reads like a briefing report. If you read this book follow it up with The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke (my review here). Burke's book covers the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, and it's an excellent overview of a complicated and controversial subject.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Film Review: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

This isn't going to be a full-on review of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; let's just take it as a given that you've seen it, you love it, and you agree that it fits into any list of the top one hundred films of all time. An aspect of GBU that hasn't had much, or any, recognition is that the plot isn't just about three men hunting for hidden gold. That's just the top layer to the story. On a symbolic level GBU is about Christ and the Devil fighting for Tuco's soul. If you've finished snorting in derision, I'll continue.

Let's begin with the naming of the characters. Only Tuco, the Ugly, is given an actual name. The Bad is called Angel Eyes, and the Good is named Blondie. The last two have been given symbolic names. Angel Eyes is a reference to Satan as a fallen angel, and Blondie, well, who's always presented in religious paintings as being blonde? The good and bad references seem obvious, but why is Tuco identified as ugly? What does ugly mean in this context? Eli Wallach's certainly no oil painting, but what I'm guessing it refers to is that Tuco, like all mankind, is living in original sin; he's made in God's image, but is marred, made ugly, by orginal sin. Sergio Leone pretty much annouces what he's up to off the top with freeze frames on each character that are accompanied by a caption identifying them as good, bad or ugly. Once he's done this then you know this isn't going to be your average western.

Angel Eyes' satanic character is made explicit early in the film when, after killing two people who've each hired him to kill the other, he remarks to the last victim that when he's paid he always sees a job through to the end. According to folklore one must never do a deal with the Devil because he'll always find a way to turn the tables on you, and that's exactly what we see happen when we first meet Angel Eyes.

Blondie's credentials as Christ are even more apparent. In fact, at one point Angel Eyes refers to him as Tuco's guardian angel, and, just on cue, the sound of a heavenly choir rises in the background. When Tuco takes the injured Blondie to a monastery/hospital the room he's put in conveniently has a painting of the cruxifiction just outside it, which Tuco prays in front of for a brief moment. Blondie's holiness becomes more explicit once the action moves to the Civil War battle by the river. Blondie is appalled by the loss of men and tells the dying commanding officer (to whom he administers a kind of last rites by giving him a bottle of booze) to expect "good news" soon. He and Tuco blow up the bridge and thus end the battle. Blondie's Christ-like nature becomes explicit shortly after he and Tuco cross the river. Blondie goes into a ruined church and comforts a dying soldier by giving him a cigarillo and his coat. The way this scene is filmed suggests that this isn't just an act of random kindness, this is to be taken as an act of divine mercy.

Tuco, despite acting in a decidedly unholy way, is quick to use religious imagery. He crosses himself virtually every time he comes across a dead body, and he tells Blondie that when he, Tuco, is hanging at the end of a rope he can feel the Devil "biting his ass." In one of the film's key moments, Tuco is about to hang Blondie in revenge for having abandoned him in the desert. The sound of artillery is rumbling in the background and Tuco comments that there was also thunder heard when Judas hanged himself. Tuco's split nature is shown during a brilliant scene with his brother Pablo, a priest, at the monastery. Tuco greets his brother with warmth, but his brother gives him a very un-Christian cold shoulder. In the same scene Tuco lets his brother know that his choice of a life of crime was not his first choice, and that Pablo's decision to become a priest was a form of cowardice. The scene leaves us knowing that Tuco is, to a degree, morally conflicted.

The fight for Tuco's soul first becomes obvious in the scam Blondie and he run. Blondie turns Tuco in for the reward money and then shoots away the rope when Tuco's about to be hung. Each time Tuco is about to face death a list of his crimes is read out by the local sherriff. It's as though he's facing a roll call of his sins, or, because he's allowed himself to be put in this position, he's confessing his sins. And after each confession he's granted forgiveness by Blondie/Christ who shoots the rope. Blondie ends the relationship, and on a symbolic level it's because he thinks Tuco has received a moral lesson about his life of crime.

The final shootout in the cemetery brings all the religious themes to a head. To begin with we have the gold buried in a grave, a clear warning that worldly wealth equals death. Angel Eyes is killed by Blondie and slides into an open grave. Not content with having killed Angel Eyes, Blondie then shoots his fallen hat and gun into the grave. It looks very much as though Angel Eyes is being cast back down to Hell. Blondie then makes Tuco put a rope around his own neck and stand on a cross marking a grave. Blondie then rides off. Tuco is left perched precariously on a cross, staring down at bags of gold lying on the ground. The message seems obvious: as long as Tuco stays on the Holy Cross he stays alive; if he leaves the cross for the gold, for worldliness, he dies, and not just in this world. The juxtaposition of shots showing Tuco's desperation to stay on the cross and his view of the gold bags couldn't make this any clearer. After Blondie's judged that Tuco has absorbed yet another lesson on the error of his ways, he emerges from hiding and shoots away the rope. Tuco lands directly on the gold and then we get a freeze frame in which each of the three characters is once again identified as good, bad and ugly. Leone certainly knew how to drive a point home.

It's not as though Leone didn't mix symbolism into his other spaghetti westerns. In A Fistful of Dollars the family that's been split apart by Ramon is clearly meant to be the Holy Family. Leone also throws in some mythological elements when he has Joe, Clint Eastwood's character, hidden in a coffin and carried in a wagon driven by a Charon-like figure (a coffin maker) to the Underworld (an abandoned mine shaft). There he finds safety and forges a magical shield (an iron breastplate), which he wears when he returns to the land of the living. Like any god his arrival on Earth is announced with thunder and lightning (several sticks of dynamite), and Ramon is defeated because his hero-like ability to hit a man's heart with every rifle shot can't beat Joe's magical shield.

I don't think Leone meant for any of the religious or mythological references in his westerns to be taken too seriously. He used these themes and symbols to give his stories a subliminal resonance and weight. Without these elements his films would be more stylish versions of standard American westerns. One proof of this is Once Upon a Time in the West, which feels less substantial than Leone's other westerns because it omits religious and mythological motifs. Instead we get a rather muddy plot that contains some anti-capitalist rhetoric and not much else. The anti-capitalist theme was a common element in a lot of Italian films at the time, and I'd guess that Bernardo Bertolucci's involvement in the script probably had a lot to do with that. 

I may be deluded or off-base with some of my arguments about the religious content of GBU, but give it another watch and see if my thesis doesn't hold up. The two clips below make up the final shootout from the film and I think it proves my point(s). The second clip has bonus Hebrew sub-titles! Here endeth the lesson.

Related posts:

Film Review: Duck You Sucker 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Film Review: Le Quattro Volte (2010)

Here's the plot: an old goatherd living in rural Calabria dies and his spirit/soul/essence passes through a goat, a tree, and ends up as charcoal. Oh, and there's no dialogue. There's ambient sound, some barely audible background chatter, but no conversation. Clearly, this film isn't meant to appeal to the average filmgoer. This is an art film with a capital WTF? The film begins by following a decrepit goatherd in his daily routine. We see him take his goats to pasture, bring them back to the scruffy, hilltop village he lives in, and then go to bed in his spartan house. Just before bed each night he drinks a folk remedy of what looks suspiciously like ash. He dies and a baby goat is born. We follow its brief life until it dies under a tall pine, which is then cut down and brought to the village as part of a festival. After the festival the tree is sold to some charcoal makers and we watch the process of turning wood into charcoal. Finally, the charcoal is taken to the village and sold as cooking fuel. The end.

The Circle of Life plot isn't what's remarkable about this film. There have been meditative, non-narrative arthouse films before this one. What sets this film apart is the sheer brilliance of its cinematography. Even though there is no dialogue or obvious story to hold our interest, the images in the film have their own stories to tell that completely capture our attention. And, in their own way, the images create a dialogue by asking us to figure out what's going on. The cinematographer is Paolo Benvenuti, who does an amazing job of framing shots and using locations that hold our attention all on their own. Every shot is rich in detail and information, as well as often being beautiful or striking. The plot description makes this film sound like a bit of snooze. How compelling is it watching an old man, goats, and charcoal production? In fact, everything we see in the film has moments of drama, comedy, and pathos, only it's all told to us visually.

For comparison's sake I'd recommend a viewing of War Horse (my review here) before seeing Le Quattro Volte. War Horse is a master class in bad cinematography, and by "bad" I don't mean out of focus or any other kind of technical error. War Horse confuses prettiness with great cinematography, and it uses every cheap and expensive trick to achieve its chocolate box beauty: lens filters are used to create more magical cloudscapes, exteriors are only filmed during the golden hours of the day, only the most eye-catching locations are used, and every object within the frame, from actors to tea cups, has been vetted for attractiveness. It's cinematography by way of the Neiman-Marcus catalogue.

Le Quattro Volte does not do pretty. The village that the story takes places in sits in a dramatic, picturesque location, but the village itself is unkempt and ramshackle. The citizens of the town are clearly real people, not one of them looking remotely like a model or actor. The exterior shots are taken at all times of the day, and there are no obvious attempts to juice the look of the film through lighting or filters. The cinematographer has simply worked hard to find the best shot composition for each location. One technique he uses that makes most every shot come alive is to put vanishing points, sometines more than one, into many of the shots. A lot of this film takes place outdoors, and Benvenuti uses roads, lanes and alleyways to create vanishing points that draw us into the images and hold us there. The most masterful sequence in the film is shot in a single take, the camera positioned high above a goat pen located on the edge of the village. The scene involves a frisky dog, an Easter procession and a delivery truck, and it's an amazing combination of choreography and cinematography.

A dialogue-free film about death and resurrection clearly doesn't have mass appeal, but it's gripping from start to finish, it looks fantastic, and if your main objection to foreign films is the annoyance of reading sub-titles, no worries.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book Review: The Prone Gunman (1981) by Jean-Patrick Manchette

The most pleasing thing about The Prone Gunman is how thoroughly Manchette deconstructs and warps the traditional crime thriller. One way he does this is to strip his novel right down to the studs. Characters are described in a sentence or two, the plot rushes forward constantly, there's a minimum of extraneous commentary or description, and the action is brutal, frequent and described in the bluntest terms. This is a thriller with all the window dressing stripped away, and once that's done the absurdities and cliches of the genre become very apparent. A lot of pulp crime novels from the 1950s and '60s were lean and tough (Richard Stark in his Parker novels took this style to a brilliant level), but Manchette adds a dash of existential despair to the mix that makes his novels something special. The previous Manchette novel I read was Fatale (review here), and in that one the deadly heroine eventually seems to crack up under the strain of being exposed to the scheming of the bourgeoisie. In The Prone Gunman the protagonist, Martin Terrier, has a more peculiar breakdown.

The plot is a carefully thought out collection of cliches. Terrier is a professional assassin working for a shadowy company or organization that may or may not be part of the French government. Terrier decides he wants to retire from the business and goes back to his hometown in the south of France where he hopes to reconnect with his teenage sweetheart. Not surprisingly, the company Terrier works for decides it doesn't want him to retire, it wants him dead. Terrier and his girlfriend, Anne, go on the run and the bodies start to pile up along with plot twists by the score. There's really nothing original in the story, except for Terrier's reaction once the twists and betrayals reach epidemic proportions. He becomes a mute. It isn't a ruse, he actually loses the will to speak after one rather painful betrayal. It's a bizarre development, but in a loopy way it makes sense. Heroes in this genre traditionally take a tremendous amount of mental and physical abuse; they're shot at and chased; live in fear of betrayal or discovery; suffer torture; live double lives; and are always looking over their shoulder. Somehow none of this seems to have any lasting effects on the hero. At the end of the novel they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and walk into the sunset, all ready for their next adventure. Terrier has a nervous breakdown. Who wouldn't? Terrier has been exposed to all kinds of horrors, shocks and violence, and his reaction amounts to a declaration of existential fright at what's been happening to and around him. It's a startling plot twist, but it points out the absurdity of the mentally invulnerable action hero whose psyche can bear up under any amount of pressure.

Another cliche of the crime/spy thriller genre is that the hero must have a romantic or sexual partner. If it's a wife or girlfriend she usually exists in the story to be captured or threatened and thus complicate the hero's mission. Sometimes the female characters are just around for the sex, which gives the story some sexytime fun and confirms the hero's hetero status. But the one thing that's certain is that the hero will always be paired off with an attractive, even gorgeous, woman who will think he's just great in and out of bed. It's almost an ironclad rule for the genre; no chunky or spotty girls need apply. Manchette completely destroys this cliche. Terrier eventually loses his girlfriend because, well, he's a complete dud in the sack. It's a witty riff on one of the most tired conventions of the genre.

Manchette also has time to rubbish one of the sillier aspects of crime novels: the pointless obsession with technical details; in particular, the fascination with name-branding weaponry. Any crime or thriller writer worth his salt likes (insists) on giving his readers the names and specs for every gun that appears in the story. So when a hero or villain produces a weapon we're immediately told it's, say, a Heckler & Koch MP5 with flash suppressor using a 7.62mm round. Who cares? The important thing is that some guy is armed and dangerous. For all I know Heckler & Koch could be an Austrian ventriloquism act. Manchette itemizes every bit of weaponry and extends the cliche to name-branding weapon accessories. Weapon name-branding exists in thrillers to add some verisimilitude, but it seems ludicrous to add a dollop of reality to stories that are, by and large, as far-fetched as any fantasy novel. One example: the uber-successful Jack Reader thrillers (my review of  Worth Dying For here) by Lee Child are a feast of tech specs, but the plots are relentlessly improbable.

The subversion of thriller cliches goes on right to the end of The Prone Gunman. Unlike the vast majority of thriller heroes, Terrier isn't allowed to walk off into the sunset or enjoy a warrior's noble death. He ends up brain-damaged, living in his hometown, a figure of fun for the patrons of the bar where he works as a waiter. It's the most inglorious possible finish for the hero of a thriller. At the very end we see that Terrier was nothing more than a tool, like a Heckler & Koch, used by his masters until he was broken, and then tossed away. If you have a deep love for the conventions of modern thrillers you might find this book a mite upsetting, but if you like to see literary tropes given a good kicking...enjoy.

Where Tourist Guidebooks Fear To Tread

It's just as ugly on the inside.
Every second Saturday for the last few months I've been dropping by the Downsview Merchant's Market for lunch. Located in the northeast quadrant of Toronto, the market is a big ugly barn of a building that's filled with dozens and dozens of stalls selling all kinds of, well, crap. But more about that later. I go there for the food court. This isn't your average mall food court; there's no Harvey's, Manchu Wok, Tim Horton's or any of the other usual fast food suspects. The stalls in this food court all seem to have been bodged together with plywood, Bristol board, and kitchen equipment acquired from yard sales. The appeal of this food court is some of the best ethnic food you can get anywhere in Toronto. Name a region of the globe and there's a food stall here doing a superb job of representing its cuisine. Over the months I've enjoyed outstanding empanadas, jerk chicken, burritos, tarte tatin, a strange Hungarian pastry called a kurtos, and grilled Serbian cevapcici sausages the smell of which would make a statue salivate.

I was thinking about the market recently after seeing the new TV commercial for USA tourism. Much has been made of the fact that the spot shows a more ethnically-diverse America. What this means is that the creative brains behind the ad have finally started using one of the most common tropes in tourism promotion: multiculturalism. This time of year lots of TV and print ads appear pitching different cities, provinces, states and countries, and many of these ads will highlight their destination's ethnic diversity. The message seems to be, visit us and enjoy seeing people unlike yourself.

Toronto has been pitching its multiculturalism to tourists for a very long time now. Nothing wrong with that; we are, in fact, one of the most multicultural cities around. But what's interesting about ad campaigns like this is the disconnect between what could be called Tourist Multiculturalism and Actual Multiculturalism. The tourism version of multiculturalism in Toronto tends to be built around genteel, gentrified areas of the city that are, shall we say, multiculturally-flavoured. Tourists coming to Toronto are still being told to go to places like Kensington Market and Chinatown, both on Spadina Ave, Greektown on the Danforth, and Little Italy on College St. All these areas lost most of their ethnic character some time ago, but they're all agreeably designed environments for urban professionals and tourists. This is the face of Tourist Multiculturalism.

Actual Multiculturalism is found in places like the Downsview market. The vendors and customers are almost all immigrants, and the products in the stalls reflect the desire of the vendors to get one foot on the economic ladder. They're selling luggage, tube socks, jewellery, cheap clothing, DVDs, and lots and lots of SIM cards for cell phones. This stuff is all available other places that are more pleasant to visit and probably have better prices. But for people who've just arrived in Canada and have a desire to be their own boss, the market is step one on the road to being an entrepeneur. And their customers can feel comfortable speaking to a shop owner who shares their language.

The real multicultural face of Toronto is found in drab, scrappy strip malls and bunker-like flea markets in the least leafy and most pedestrian-unfriendly parts of the city. If you go out to Markham Rd. in Scarborough you'll find all kinds of Indo-Pakistani stores and restaurants, none of them catering to the tourist trade. Similarly, Yonge St. north of Finch is awash in Korean and Middle Eastern businesses that never turn up in any travel articles. The multiculturalism that turns up in tourism ad campaigns and guidebooks tends to be the pasteurized version of Toronto's heady mix of cultures. So if you find yourself in Toronto this summer, remember that the parts of the city that look the least appetizing are probably, as it were, the most appetizing.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Film Review: War Horse (2011)

War Horse proves that it takes a big talent to make a good film, and an even bigger talent to make a flaming wreck of a film. Steven Spielberg is the culprit. It's not as though he hasn't done this before; 1941, Always, and The Terminal were all wretched, but War Horse is Spielberg at his nadir.

The story is syrupy even by Spielberg's standards. Basically, Joey the wonder horse becomes the object of affection for all who come in contact with him. He's first owned by Albert, a teenage boy living in Devon. World War One commences and the horse is requisitioned for the military, and a cavalry officer falls hard for Joey. The cavalry officer unwisely charges some German machine guns and Joey ends up in the loving hands of a German private. He then comes into the possession of a charming young French girl before being reunited at the war's end with Albert, who takes him back to England.

Yes, it's a preposterous story, but it's part of a director's job to make the preposterous seem plausible, and Spielberg doesn't make us understand why everyone gets dewy-eyed over Joey. It's true that horses have always been beloved animals (there's a whole sub-genre of kids' lit devoted to them), but this story is in such a rush to gallop Joey and his owners through one cinematic set piece after another that we're completely baffled as to why people want this beast. The longer the film goes on the more ridiculous this affection seems. Of course, on a symbolic level the horse is supposed to represent beauty, peace, and home, and while that goes part of the way to explaining his appeal to his owners, it still doesn't excuse the clumsiness with which Spielberg handles the story.

This brings up Spielberg's great weakness as a director: at heart he's a creator of showstopping moments and sequences, not a director whose focus is always on the story at hand. When he's at his worst, Spielberg's first thought is how to make a shot or a sequence look glorious, not how it's going to advance the story or develop a character. And in Spielberg's world this means every shot has to look like it was taken on Planet Sumptuous. The first section of the film is set in Devon, and in Spielberg's Devon every landscape and interior looks like it could be eaten for dessert. When it rains in this Devon it rains clotted cream. Albert's family are supposed to be poor peasant labourers but they live in a thatched cottage that's so picturesque, so tastefully furnished, you wonder if they're interior designers who've come down in the world. The chocolate box look of this film never ends. The war in France, except for a few muddy bits in the trenches, looks great. And Planet Sumptuous appears to orbit two suns, which is handy for Steven because there's always a stunning-looking dawn or sunset to light every shot. The final scene in the movie features a sunset so fiery I was wondering if one of the suns had gone supernova.

The fussy, prettified, over-produced look of War Horse even extends to the actors. Apparently, Joey can't be owned by unattractive or ordinary-looking people. At the very least he must be owned by people who've done catalogue work for J. Crew. The acting is decent, even though a lot of the actors have to fight their way through West Country accents that give rise to memories of various Monty Python sketches. And none of the actors can compete against the mouthwatering set decoration and ravishing cinematography.

So much energy has been devoted to the look of this film no one, it seems, took a hard look at the script. It's just plain, old bad. The peasantry of Devon spout rural cliches Thomas Hardy would have rolled his eyes at, and the interlude with the French girl is sweetness on steroids. The final section of the film showing Joey's return to Albert doubles down on the silliness. Battle-hardened Tommies unite to get Albert his horse back, and the only way the whole thing could feel more ridiculous and sentimental is if a song and dance number broke out.

The only reason to watch this film is to see how artistically corrupting great success can be. There's simply no one who's going to tell Spielberg that he's going too far, and the result is a film that's simply rotten with self-indulgent flourishes. There is one good thing about War Horse: every third frame of it would make an excellent wallpaper for computer monitors.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Book Review: The Judgement of Paris (2006) by Ross King

This is a history of the Paris art world from 1863-74, a decade and a bit that saw a seismic change in artistic techniques and subjects, and a slower, but significant, shift in what art critics and the public were willing to accept as art. 1863 began with the Salon des Refuses, an exhibition of the paintings rejected by the official Paris Salon. The Paris Salon was a yearly, government-run exhibiton of each year's most praiseworthy paintings and sculptures. In 1863 the Salon's judges were, as usual, chiefly interested in paintings that depicted scenes from mythology, antiquity or history (preferably French), and the style they wanted was what could be called dignified realsim. Those that didn't meet this ideal were stamped on the back with a red R (the paintings, not the artists). In protest, a large number of spurned artists demanded a room near the main salon in which their works could receive the judgement of the public. And thus the Salon des Refuses was born. They did not receive a warm reception from the public. Only eleven years later a special exhibition was held of the artists dubbed the Impressionists, and by that point it was clear that the smart money was on the new guys. Ironically, the critic who dubbed Monet, Degas, Renoir and others as "impressionists" meant the term as an insult.

With hindsight it seems mildly insane that anyone could object to anything painted by the Impressionists. The author shows that it wasn't so much the technical style of the Impressionists (although that was a contentious issue)  as it was what they painted. What the Impressionists painted was modern, ordinary life, from the mundane to the illicit. The old guard felt that the noble art of painting should only be used to deal with noble subjects. In The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser, the author, taking a Marxist view, argued that the animosity directed towards the Impressionists was becuase they brought, as subjects, the proletariat and bourgeoisie into a field that had been dominated by images of the holy and the powerful. Adding credence to this theory is the fact that the dictatorial government of Napoleon III found these artists and their paintings suspiciously democratic. It should be pointed out that the vast crowds that viewed the works in the Salons des Refuses, including lots of proles and bourgeoisie, heaped scorn on the new wave in art.

At the time, Parisians thought Manet's Olympia was funnier than Dogs Playing Poker. Go figure.
Speaking of vast crowds, it's remarkable how popular and important art and artists were in France. Pretty much all of Paris, from the high to the low, turned out for each year's Salon showing, and their reactions to the paintings could be as vocifierous as anything you see in a sports stadium. And the critics! A harsh critique back then could begin with the critic seriously speculating on an artist's sanity and morals, and then things would get really nasty. Although the Impressionists triumphed in the end, the author points out that this was mostly thanks to deep-pocketed art collectors in America. Americans had no tradition of triumphalist, elite-worshipping art. They judged the Impressionists on their own merits.

Ross King does a great job of blending art history, art criticism, social history and political history. This is not a book with a narrow focus on artists and art. King creates a full portrait of the world the Impressionists came out of and were fighting against, and he does it with clarity and wit.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Film Review: The Anderson Tapes (1971)

There are three directors who will be forever identified with New York City. The first two are Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. The third, and the one with the least name recognition, is Sidney Lumet. Lumet made at least nine films set in NYC, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon being the most famous, but, unlike Allen and Scorsese, his directorial style is decidedly unidiosyncratic. Lumet, who had a long career in TV before moving to films, had an intense focus on storytelling and he didn't let stylistic flourishes to get in the way of the plot. Lumet's New York films celebrate the city through the faces and voices he cast in his films. The accents and slang of New York fill Lumet's films in a way no other director has matched, and they help give his NYC films an edginess and freneticism that says Gotham like nothing else. He also had an exceptional talent for casting exactly the right actor for each role, right down to the most minor parts. Lumet's fine appreciation for actors also showed in his knack for finding new talent: Christopher Walken, John Cazale, Candice Bergen and Walter Matthau all got their first major roles in Lumet's films.

The Anderson Tapes came just before Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, and it showcases a lot of Lumet's strengths. The story is about the robbery of a luxurious apartment building bordering Central Park. The leader of the gang, nicknamed Duke, is played by Sean Connery, who, fortunately, does not attempt a New York accent. He is clearly identified early on as being a "limey." Martin Balsam and Christopher Walken (in his first film role) take the other major parts. The robbery does not, of course, go according to plan; for one thing, a baker's dozen of government agencies are surreptitiously bugging most everyone Duke comes in contact with prior to the robbery . In an interesting twist, the robbery section of the film is intercut with flashforwards to the robbery's aftermath. This was pretty cool stuff for 1971, and it adds another layer of tension to the entire sequence.

Lumet's skill at casting is very evident. Every secondary and minor role (there are lots of them) is filled by skilled, experienced character actors, some by name performers like Ralph Meeker and Margaret Hamilton, and others by people who simply have great faces or voices. One example of this is the role of the getaway driver, played by Dick Anthony Williams. His voice and presence grab your attention in every one of the few scenes he's in. A few years later he scored back to back Tony nominations for Best Actor. Lumet really knew how to pick 'em.

The film is shot with Lumet's characteristically unobtrusive, semi-documentary style, and the heist is a superb synthesis of camerawork and editing. The New York locations aren't any of the usual ones, but they look great. A special mention has to go to Quincy Jones' score. It's an amazing mix of jazz/funk that sometimes transitions perfectly into some electronic sound effects that represent a key aspect of the plot. The one aspect of the film that really hits a sour note is Dyan Cannon. Never much of an actress, she provides the eye candy and romance for Connery, but their scenes together are awkward and poorly-written.

Martin Balsam's character is both problematical and significant. He plays a flamboyantly gay interior decorator and his gayness is made fun of at most every opportunity. This was amusing stuff in 1971, but today it looks pretty juvenile. On the other hand, it's important to note that neither Connery's character or the other members of the gang make fun of the Balsam character or even mention his sexuality. To them, he's simply another member of the team. This inclusiveness is striking for the time, and Lumet's sensitivity to gay characters would become even more evident in Dog Day Afternoon.

This isn't one of Lumet's very best films, but it's definitely a fun and energetic example of his directorial skills.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Film Review: The Haunting (1963)

Ever since Halloween (1978) the majority of horror movies have been all about the bloodletting. Nothing wrong with that, but some variety is nice. Variety arrived in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project, which counterpunched its way to huge success by showing nothing: no blood, no weapons, no hooded/cowled/goalie mask-wearing maniacs lurching around. Audiences were scared silly by imagining what was lurking just off-camera.

In 1963 The Haunting, based on a novel by Shirley Jackson called The Haunting of Hill House, accomplished the same feat. It had all the accoutrements of the classic supernatural horror story, including a gloomy, cursed mansion; an easily terrified female lead; and even a housekeeper given to dire warnings about staying in the mansion after dark. Beyond those elements The Haunting was a groundbreaker in a number of ways. One of the non-spooky aspects that's unusual is that the character of Theodora, played by Claire Bloom, is clearly a lesbian. This isn't stated directly, but it's very strongly inferred. What makes it more unusual is that she isn't punished in some way for her sexuality, nor is she required to be a heroine in order to compensate for being gay. Minority characters in 1960s films usually had to be extra noble or die, or sometimes both, as a way of making straight audiences comfortable. And Theodora isn't even made to look butch; her clothes are by Mary Quant!

The Haunting was equally innovative on the other side of the camera. Some of the exterior shots were done with a special high-contrast film stock that gives Hill House the look of a steel engraving and emphasizes its crypt-like design. The camerawork is also pretty bold, with an unpredictable and unsettling mixture of wide angle shots, oddly-angled scenes, and eccentric camera moves. Watching this film also makes you realize that ghost stories should always be filmed in black and white. Special mention should go to the sound of the film, which features one of the first uses of electronic sound effects.

The most startling thing about this film is how scary it manages to be without showing anything. The director, Robert Wise (yes, he's the guy who did The Sound of Music), uses sound effects, lighting, reaction shots, and one very bendy door to create horror and tension. Proof that this is very nearly a miracle of direction and imagination is that it's impossible to think of another film that accomplished this until Blair Witch. Ironically, Hollywood remade The Haunting in 1999, the same year as Blair Witch, with Liam Neeson. The remake went nuts on CG ghouls and so on, and it was a critical dud. Of course, how could any supernatural entity be scarier than Liam?

The actors are uniformly good, with Julie Harris very effective as the mousy woman who finds that Hill House has a special interst in her. Richard Johnson grounds the film as the sensible, but open-minded scientist investigating the paranormal, and Russ Tamblyn as the goofy guy is, well, goofy. Perhaps a little too much so. Claire Bloom is superb as Theodora; just watch her subtle facial reactions to what other characters say and do. The Haunting is well worth watching as it doesn't feel dated and it still packs a scary punch. And for another film that scares without showing much of anything, check out the superb Lake Mungo; my review's here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book Review: The Cold Cold Ground (2012) by Adrian McKinty

The fact that The Cold Cold Ground is, for the most part, a police procedural shouldn't be cause for comment except that no one else, as far as I know, has had the bright idea to set a procedural during the Troubles, Northern Ireland's long-running sectarian conflict. A Troubles-set procedural seems like an obvious and rich source for story ideas, so it's a bit odd that no one's done it until now. I'll take a guess that there's still so much residual animosity and bitterness about the Troubles floating around the British Isles that any attempt to fictionalize the subject guarantees a certain amount of unpleasant blowback for the author. If there is any in this case, at least the critics can't complain that the writer's not up to the job.

The novel kicks off with the discovery of a man's mutilated body in a junked car. At first it looks like yet another killing related to the Troubles, but it rapidly emerges that this might be the work of a serial killer targeting homosexuals. Detective Sean Duffy is the lead investigator and he soon finds that the IRA may be involved, and that a woman found hanged in an apparent suicide may also be part of the mystery. This all plays out against the background of Catholic Belfast reaching the boiling point as the IRA  hunger strikers in Maze Prison begin to die. 

McKinty has crafted a novel that works beautifully as a procedural and as a period piece (the story's set in 1981) capturing the look and mood of a region with one foot in a civil war and the other on a banana peel. The procedural aspect of the novel is exceptional. Duffy is shown to be very much part of a team. His fellow officers aren't just there to pass on important bits of plot information at key moments, they also get to be clever, add commentary, and crack wise. Duffy clearly feels comfortable working with this group and relies on them, despite the fact that he's a Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a predominantly Protestant organization despised by Catholics. The scenes of Duffy with his fellow cops are probably the strongest elements in the novel. The final sections of the story have Duffy becoming more of a lone wolf, and they work well in giving the story a thrillerish finale, but I found myself wishing that the procedural aspects had kept going to the end. Also, some of the players who come into the story towards the end are rather high up the political food chain, and that moves things well beyond a police procedural.  The transition is a bit jarring. That aside, the mystery at the heart of the story is satisfying and cleverly thought out.

McKinty brings the Belfast of 1981 alive with short, sharp descriptions of shattered streets, grandiose sectarian graffitti, menacing British firepower in the air and on the ground, and a populace that's always keyed up to either fight, flee or heap abuse on the police. The main reason I can believe that McKinty's descriptions are bang on is that they match up perfectly with an excellent memoir about the Troubles by Malachi O'Doherty called The Telling Year: Belfast 1972 (I'm pretty sure this was the book) that I read a few years ago. I think what McKinty captures best is the all-encompassing feeling of dread and tension that people, especially the police, lived with. Northern Ireland, as seen through Duffy's eyes, is a minefield of actual and theoretical dangers, any one which can be triggered by a wrong step, a wrong turn or a wrong word. It's an intensely dispiriting world (even the weather's crap) and McKinty makes it feel very, very real.

Sean Duffy is a strong and entertaining protagonist. He's smart, funny and believable as a cop. Far too many fictional cops moan and groan about their jobs. Duffy seems to like what he's doing and is dead keen on getting results. He's not a jaded or beaten down cop (there are far too many of those), he's not too cynical, and he's human enough to indulge in the odd bit of very petty corruption. Duffy's keenly aware that he's a fish out of water as both a university-educated policeman and as a Catholic in the RUC. The dichotomies in Duffy's life seem to find symbolic expression in an unexpected event that takes place in a public washroom. It's an odd and audacious scene that begs for some kind of follow-up, which, I suspect, will come in the next Duffy novel.

I have a minor complaint about Duffy that really qualifies as more of a pet peeve: we're forced to learn far too much about his musical tastes. Lately it seems to me that every mystery writer has to make a point of telling us what their detective likes to listen to. In the past few years I've read mysteries by Ken Bruen, Massimo Carlotto, and Gianfranco Carofiglio in which their detectives musical choices are regularly mentioned. It's a pedestrian way to build a character, and the worst part is that these Desert Island Discs moments always (for me) break down the fourth wall. I always feel I'm being buttonholed by the author for a bit of a natter about his favourite songs and artists. I blame Elmore Leonard. He introduced the idea of characters referencing their choices in music and movies, and after that the genie was out of the bottle. One of these days I'd like to see a mystery writer give us a brilliant detective with really horrible taste in music. How about a sleuth who only listens to ABBA and Slim Whitman? I shall now stable my hobby horse.

I've read four other crime novels by Adrian McKinty and The Cold Cold Ground is jostling for the number one position on my list of favourites. It has the tension, fast pace and intrigue you expect from any mystery/thriller, but it also manages to evoke a time and place that's beginning to fade into the past. And in Sean Duffy we have a character who is not only compelling, but, I'm guessing, is going to be changing in upcoming novels. One final aside: is there a more perfect example of Brit/Irish understatement than calling a low-grade civil war the Troubles? If it had been even more bloody would it have been called A Spot Of Bother?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Review: Damascus Nights (1989) by Rafik Schami

In One Thousand and One Nights, the great Arab classic of fantasy and adventure, Scheherazade tells 1,001 stories to her husband King Shahryar. The king has killed every one of his previous wives after one night of marriage. Clever Scheherazade keeps herself alive by telling the king a new story every night but leaving it unfinished by dawn. The king keeps her alive in order to hear the end of the story the next night. In this way Scheherazade keeps herself alive until the king eventually realizes the error of his ways and agrees to spare her life.

Rafik Schami takes the basic concept of this classic of Arabian literature and sets it in Damascus in 1959. Salim the Coachman, a famous storyteller who has spent most his life driving a coach between Damascus and Beirut, is visited in a dream by his good fairy. The fairy tells him that she's the one who's helped make him a great storyteller, but now she's retiring and he will lose his voice. She's asked the king fairy for a favour on Salim's behalf: if he receives seven unique gifts within three months he will regain his voice and once again be a great storyteller. Salim has seven friends who gather at his house once a week to listen to his stories. They try everything to bring back his voice, but nothing, not special food or trips away, works to return Salim's voice. Finally, the friends get the idea to take it in turns telling a story to Salim, and, after he's been told seven stories, Salim does get his voice back.

On one level this novel is a celebration of the Arab tradition of storytelling. Schami effortlessly constructs all kinds of stories, from the traditional featuring demons and fairies, to contemporary tales highlighting the character of Damascus and Syria in 1959. Schami has an amazing ability to craft story after story without repeating himself or sounding formulaic. And both his traditional and contemporary stories are equally strong. His later novels, The Dark Side of Love (review here) and The Calligrapher's Secret (review here), also demontrate this ability, but the storytelling, in both cases, is part of broader and more ambitious novels.

The political aspect of Damascus Nights is not hidden in any way. In 1959 Syria had joined with Egypt in the United Arab Republic, a short-lived attempt to create a pan-Arab nation. Not only had Syria lost its political independence, the age of the secret police and the midnight knock on the door was in full bloom. The fact that Salim and his friends get together for traditional storytelling is clearly shown to be a result of other kinds of speech having become so dangerous. For every traditional story in Damascus Nights we get another that shows the cruelty and injustice of contemporary Syria. Like Scheherazade, Salim and his friends are telling tales to stay safe; any other kind of conversation can lead to prison.

If you've never read anything by Schami before, this novel, as excellent as it is, is only a hint of the creative heights he reaches in his masterpiece The Dark Side of Love. Unfortunately, Schami, who lives in Germany, has done all of his writing in German and not enough of it has been translated into English. I'm sure, however, that when he wins the Nobel Prize for Literature translations of his other works will immediately follow. That's right, the Nobel Prize, and don't forget that it was me that said it first.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book Review: Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950) by Mervyn Peake

You could hold an annual contest to decide which genre Titus Groan and its sequel, Gormenghast, fall into and you would never get a satisfactory answer. To call them fantasy is to suggest they have magical elements, which they don't. They have too much humour for a gothic novel, and alternate reality novels makes them sound like sci-fi or steampunk. And yet the novels do have overtones of all those genres. The best description I can come up with is to say that they have Shakespearian plots peopled by Dickensian characters. Or is it the other way round? The setting is Gormenghast Castle, an insanely large complex marooned in a barren wilderness, seemingly cut-off from any other civilization. The characters, all with names so delicious you could spread them on toast (Deadyawn, Flay, Rottcodd, Opus Fluke, Flannelcat), consist of the Groan family, who rule Gormenghast, and a host of lesser notables, functionaries and servants. The time period? Hard to say, but it feels like the mid-1800s.

The plot revolves around two characters: Steerpike, a kitchen boy who schemes and kills his way to (almost) ultimate power,  and Titus Groan, the heir to the throne of Gormenghast who must eventually confront Steerpike. That describes the major story arc in the novels, but there are a score of minor plots that support or spin-off from the main storyline. Not one of them is dull or distracting. It's in this way that the novels feel like something Dickens might have produced if he'd been a recreational opium user. Peake fills his novels with striking characters but makes sure to give all of them something to do or be a part of. Dickens had an effortless ability to manufacture  unique characters, and Peake is his equal in these two novels. Even his most outlandish characters, the ones for whom eccentricity is something that's only visible in the rearview mirror, have a depth and level of detail that makes them more than just "colourful" characters.

One of the most fascinating characters is Gormenghast Castle. This is a big castle. Peake never gives us any dimensions, but you get the idea that it's probably several square miles in size. And don't think of it as a medieval fortress; it's more of a combination Tibetan lamasery and Italian palazzo. Peake takes us into every nook and cranny of it, and we end up knowing its strange delights as intimately as its inhabitants.

The novels would be remarkable enough based only on their wealth of drama, incident, characterization, and the richness of the prose, but Peake is also an exceptional comic writer. His comic style ranges from slapstick to Wodehousian wit to Lewis Carroll-like absurdity. Gormenghast, in particular, is filled with humour, and you could almost make an argument that it's as much a comic novel as it is anything else.

I suppose the main appeal of the novels is that you never have any inkling of what's coming next in them, never mind what literary genre they will morph into. There are literally dozens of memorable scenes and sequences. A very partial list would include: Lord Groan's mad belief that he's an owl; the hilarious and accidental death of the headmaster at Titus' school; Steerpike's "seduction" of Cora and Clarice Groan; a stunningly awkward party featuring one spinster and dozens of male teachers; and the climactic hunt for Steerpike, which all takes place during a devastating flood.

Are these novels about anything other than entertainment? That's as hard to figure out as the whole question of genre. Everything about the novels is so freewheeling and varied it would be easy to put just about any kind of meaning on them. I think there are two possibilities. First, Gormenghast Castle is a human consciousness, and the wildly various characters that live within it are all the different personality traits, quirks and problems a single human mind can embrace or fall prey to. Second, all of Gormenghast's personalities are templates young Titus can choose and learn from in forming his own character as he grows from boy to man. Or I could be wildly wrong on both counts.

The only disappointing thing about the world of Gormenghast is the third volume, Titus Alone. Do not bother reading it. Peake was dying as he wrote Titus Alone and, not surprisingly, the quality of the writing is pretty poor. There's also a BBC mini-series version of the first two novels that was done in 2000. It has an all-star cast, but it feels flat and stagey, and it completely misses out on Peake's humour.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Five Minute Major For Boredom

Yet another player nods off during a playoff game
Well, the NHL playoffs have reached the halfway mark and, once again, the game has been reduced to the sporting equivalent of trench warfare: bloody, slow-moving, and painful to watch. What's worse is that the game's stars, the ones who haven't been eliminated by series losses or headshots, have disappeared from view. Skill players such as Ovechkin and Gaborik have either been checked into irrelevance or have purposely dumbed their games down to satisfy the backcheck first, score later philosopy of, well, all the remaining playoff coaches. Add in goalies who seem to get bigger and more agile every year, and referees who leave their whistles in the dressing room, and you have some diabolically dull hockey.

Not that the hockey media has had much to say about the poor entertainment value of the playoffs. The talking heads on Hockey Night In Canada, Sportsnet and TSN toss out terms like grittiness, playing responsibly, the 200 foot game, fininshing your check, sacrificing yourself, which are all, it would seem, synonyms for not attempting to put the puck in the net. The vast majority of commentators seem delighted with this kind of hockey. Partly this is down to the fact that so many on-air hockey pundits are ex-goalies and ex-fourth-liners, all people whose hockey life consisted of preventing goals. The other reason is that the networks have far too much invested in playoff hockey to dare mention that what they're broadcasting is akin to rugby on ice.

In addition to the cheerleading for no-offence hockey, there's been a not so subtle delight expressed in the the failure of elite players to perform. The reason for the disappearance of skilled play is that everything about playoff hockey (the ferocious hitting and checking, the clutching and grabbing) is designed to diminish the talents of players like Crosby and the Sedins, and the ex-grinders who comment on the games are often thrilled that their kind of player is grabbing the limelight instead of the guys making the big money. It's a situation that's entirely unique to hockey. A crude analogy would be the NBA ordering its top players to switch to lead sneakers during the playoffs. There's also been a whiff of bigotry coming from the ranks of the hockey media when it comes to Russian players. The ineffectiveness and reduced ice time of Alexander Ovechkin, and the one-game suspensions handed out to Radulov and Kostitsyn in Nashville, have been met with mutterings about Russians not being emotionally committed to playing hard in the playoffs. These comments once again point out the apartheid that exists in hockey broadcasting. European players have been a big part of the NHL for nearly forty years, but, as far as I can tell, there has yet to be a European commentator hired by any sports media outlet in all that time. Any mumble-mouthed ex-goon who wants to spout cliches about hockey gets his shot on TV or radio as long as he's from Moose Jaw or Minnesota, but God forbid that a European should appear on the airwaves. Maybe if one of the networks was employing a Russian ex-player he could talk to Ovechkin or Radulov in their native tongue and get some kind of inside information.

Being the degenerate hockey fan that I am, I will continue to watch the playoffs, but, be warned hockey gods, lately I've found myself switching briefly to Blue Jays baseball. The fact that I'm willing to risk slipping into a coma by watching baseball is an indication that playoff hockey is pushing me to the limits of sanity.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Book Review: Johannes Cabal the Fear Institute (2011) by Jonathan L. Howard

In the two previous Johannes Cabal novels (my reviews here and here) author Jonathan L. Howard tried his hand at a steampunk adventure and a tale about a demonic circus which combined elements from Terry Pratchett and M.R. James. In his latest novel Howard goes the full eldritch and worships at the unholy temple of H.P. Lovecraft. He does it brilliantly; in fact, better than H.P. ever did.

The story this time out has necromancer Cabal hired by the Fear Institute, a secret organization sworn to eliminate fear from the hearts of men. How to do this? By journeying to the Dreamlands, where dreams come to life, and slaying the Phobic Animus, the begetter of fear. The members of the Fear Institute believe a new Golden Age can be achieved if Man is no longer shackled by fear. Cabal accepts the job, and he and three members of the Institute go to the Dreamlands and, naturally enough, discover all manner of horrors and terrors. What fun!

I won't bother with plot details, but suffice to say that Howard constructs a fascinating, entertaining story that always maintains a very high level of imagination, excitement and invention. Howard is simply a great storyteller and a clever writer, and his talent would shine out in any genre, but he shines even brighter in the fantasy/horror world, a place that seems to have more than its fair share of hacks. It's also praiseworthy that Howard sets out to create a homage to Lovecraft but doesn't let that get in the way of his storytelling. When writers decide to write a homage or pastiche it's usually a way of papering over their own lack of originality. The horror/fantasy genre is stuffed with writers who've been "inspired" by Lovecraft, Pratchett and, of course, Tolkien, and they produce a lot of second-rate material. Howard succeeds in his homage because he uses Lovecraft as a flavouring rather than as the main ingredient.

Lovecraft was famous for his firm yet repulsive handshake.
The appeal of Lovecraft (1890-1937) for horror writers is understandable because he was the popularizer of a new kind of horror story. The vast majority of pre-Lovecraft horror stories were about ghosts, with the occasional werewolf or vampire thrown in for variety. Lovecraft created a literary world of cosmic terrors, hideous gods and creatures who weren't satisfied with merely killing you; they wanted to extract your soul, play with it, nibble on it, use it as a ping-pong ball, shred it into confetti, and then lather, rinse, repeat with it. Lovecraft had a feverish imagination and writing style that's entertaining in small doses. The problem with Lovecraft is that he really only knew how to write one kind of story, but at least he did it with a lot of energy and colour.

I say that Lovecraft was a popularizer because the real father of cosmic horror was William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918), an English writer who Lovecraft cited as an influence. Hodgson's life and writing career was cut short by an artillery shell during WW I, but prior to the war he produced short stories and novels that redefined what a horror story was. His finest novel is The House on the Borderland, which is virtually a template for much of Lovecraft's fiction. Hodgson also wrote some great short stories, including a whole series about Carnaki, a Sherlockian sleuth of the supernatural. Carnaki's name is ridiculous, making him sound like a  second-class magician operating on Brighton Pier, but his adventures are wonderfully strange.

The only problem I have with the Cabal books is Cabal himself. He's a more black-hearted version of Blackadder, and that's amusing up to a point, but towards the end of each novel I keep hoping/expecting there will be some change in his character. It never happens. Cabal is entertaining, but his misanthropic sarcasm has become a one-note joke after three books. More variety, please.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Italy's Sorrow: A Year of War, 1944-45 (2008) by James Holland

The Italian campaign has often been glossed over in histories of the Second World War. It didn't have the epic scope of the Russian Front, the strategic significance of the invasion of France or the drama of the war in the Pacific. The war as it was waged in Italy was a long, hard slog that featured no famous battles and no charismatic commanders. Italy's landscape of hills, mountains and poorly-built roads made it ideal for defense, and James Holland shows how the Allies were doomed to an arduous fight to climb up the length of Italy.

Two things stand out in this history: the first is the ferocity and frequency of German reprisals against the civilian population. Partisans in northern Italy were a serious menace for the Germans ( far more so than what they faced from the French Resistance), and they responded to partisan attacks with mass shootings of civilians, including women and children. The worst atrocities took place on the Monte Sole plateau as the Germans tried to root out the Stella Rosa partisan group. The civilian population of the area was almost entirely massacred, including over 200 women and children in a single killing in a cemetery. The second revelation is that not all atrocities were committed by the Germans. Holland reveals, in sickening detail, the wholesale rapes committed by French colonial troops from Algeria (called Goumiers) as they fought their way up Italy's spine. Their crimes went unpunished. The French film Days of Glory (2006) is about the Goumiers and turns out to have been a complete whitewash job.

James Holland is a decent writer, but he doesn't offer the wit or acute analysis that you get with Max Hastings, the current king of military historians. Holland's book would have been better with more discussion of the civil and political disorder that gripped northern Italy in the immediate aftermath of the war. He also glosses over the way the Allied forces allowed the mafia to become even more entrenched in southern Italy.

Film Review: The Avengers (2012)

At this point in cinema history, comic book superhero films have formed their own distinct genre. This means that in the same way that James Bond films are only compared to other Bond films, comic book films can only be evaluated against their brethern. All comic book films begin with the handicap that their source material is intended for kids and teens. Some twentysomething hipsters might disagree, but the backbone of the comic industry consists of readers not old enough to vote. Given that the target audience skews young, these films are intended to be fast, noisy, violent and slick-looking, with plot usually taking a backseat and characterization reduced to the broadest of strokes. And by the standards of comic book films, The Avengers rates very high.

The main advantage this film has over others in the field is its humour. The minute a comic book film gets serious I really start to laugh. The worst in this regard are Christopher Nolan's Batman films, which struggle mightily to bring psychological depth and gravitas to a genre that's wholly unsuited for it. Superheroes are ludicrous creations, no more believable than elves or yeti. What's fun about superheroes are their powers and the bizarro villains they must face off against. Taking Batman seriously is akin to wondering why Yosemite Sam has a grudge against rabbits. The Avengers scores well in the comedy department; every bit of bombastic dialogue or over-top-action is balanced out with a one-liner or a sight gag. This saves the film from the angst-ridden pomposity of the Batman franchise, and gives us some relief from the almost non-stop action. You know humour was uppermost on the scriptwriters' minds when the villain's last line in the film is a dry witticism that might have wandered in from a Noel Coward play.

The Avengers also manages to do a good job of juggling a large cast of characters. In this kind of ensemble piece it's usually the case that several characters are shunted to the sidelines to make room for the big players, but in this film just about every character gets their fair share of screentime. Robert Downey Jr. is a stadout (no surprise) as Tony Stark, and he's matched by Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, who underplays his Bruce Banner character against Stark's plus-sized personality. The other actors are good (watch for a Harry Dean Stanton cameo!), although Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow doesn't really cut it as an actress or as someone athletic enough to engage in martial arts. Tom Hiddleston as bad guy Loki gets this year's Alan Rickman Award, given annually to the Brit actor who best combines on-screen villainy with scene-stealing acting. Congratulations, Tom!

Like all the comic book films The Avengers is fun and forgettable entertainment, but in the world of superhero entertainment it stands as one of the best to come along in a while. And I'm sure that it'll be miles better than the next mirthless, logy Batman film.