Saturday, September 20, 2014

Film Review: The Organizer (1963)

The list of films about strikes, unions, and labour disputes is a short one, and it's safe to say that almost none of them qualify as light entertainment. It's not a sub-genre known for laughs and whimsy. I'd never heard of The Organizer and I really have to wonder why, because this has to be the Lawrence of Arabia of the organized labour sub-genre of films. Yes, it's that good.

The setting is a textile factory in Turin in the late 1800s. The five hundred or so workers endure 14-hour shifts in hot, dirty and dangerous conditions, and, not surprisingly, don't get paid much. One of the workers gets his hand mangled by a machine, and that serves as the impetus for the workers to at least think about demanding changes to their working conditions. As luck or fate would have it, a teacher and socialist named Sinigaglia is passing through Turin (he's on the run for political crimes) and offers his help in organizing the workers. A strike ensues, and as it drags on for several weeks the resolve of the workers is sorely tested. The owner of the factory begins to feel the pinch and offers a meagre improvement in working conditions. The workers march on the factory to occupy it, the police fire on the crowd, a striker falls dead, and the film ends with the workers filing back to their jobs with nothing gained.

That synopsis makes it sound like The Organizer is yet another breast-beating, long-faced melodrama about the kicking the working-classes take from plutocrats. What makes this film so brilliant and surprising is how exuberantly and broadly entertaining it is. There's tragedy, yes, but there's also romance, comedy, pathos, farce, social commentary, slapstick, and action. The script and the director do a masterful job of weaving multiple characters and sub-plots into a story that resonates because it's so multi-dimensional. Most labour-oriented films are polemical, and that can distance an audience from the story. This film is so engaging, so lively, so filled with vibrant characters that the message aspect of the story works on an almost subliminal level.

I referenced Lawrence of Arabia because one of the most riveting aspects of The Organizer is the cinematography. Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno gives every scene an epic quality, no matter if the location is a tenement or a grimy factory. One of among many superbly filmed sequences shows people filching coal from a railway siding. The sequence's shot composition, the staging of the action, and the camera movements are those that we're used to seeing in films with more monumental subjects and budgets. The look of the film is actually used to make us feel how important this struggle is. The plight of workers in a forgotten time and place isn't an easy sell to an audience, but thanks to the film's majestic, dynamic cinematography, the story and its characters are given a gravitas that might not have existed with a more conventionally-shot film.

The film also gets bonus marks for not demonizing management in any ridiculous way. The factory's manager is simply behaving as one would expect a late 19th-century capitalist to act, and in a clever little scene we see the manager being put in his middle-class place by the factory's owner. The manager is visiting the owner at his home where a birthday party is going on. The manager is there to update the owner on the strike, and when their chat is over the owner invites him to join the party but then instantly and coldly disinvites him with the words, "But you're not dressed suitably." It's the owner's upper-class way of telling him that he's not one of them. The factory's owner scoots around in a wheelchair, and I'll hazard a guess that the crippled railroad owner in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West is a reference to this character. Mario Monicelli, the director and scriptwriter of The Organizer, even references his own previous masterpiece, Big Deal on Madonna Street, with an almost identical closing shot that suggests work is a prison. And once again this film proves that Italian cinema of the 1960s and '70s (my review of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) was unmatched when it came to turning politics and social issues into mass entertainment.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When Clowns Attack! Or Why Russel Brand Offends All the Right (and Sometimes Left) People

Warning: dangerous when opinionated.
Clickbait links are the colorful, candy-coated landmines of the Internet. We all know they're full of empty calories (You Won't  Believe What Kim Kardashian Just Did!), provide traffic for dodgy commercial sites (Incredible Story Of How This Georgia Housewife Lost 30lbs In 3 Days!), and lead us to websites that we wouldn't want showing up in our web history (The Rude Pictures Of Obama The CIA Doesn't Want You To See!). The clickbait I almost invariably fall for is the kind that's offering me a clip of one of Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, John Oliver or Stephen Colbert, who I'll get to see "takedown" or "destroy" some cruel/clueless/vapid right-wing pundit/pol/entity.

These video bits are usually smart and funny, and their targets always richly deserve the comic abuse thrown their way. Lately I've stopped biting on these clickbaits (and even watching the shows they come from) because there's something depressing about the enthusiasm that greets these "epic takedowns." The glee with which these bits are greeted online by those of a left-wing bent (and I'm pink verging on red) speaks to the absence of vigorously left-wing politicians and parties in the US, Canada and Britain. The takedowns done by TV's political comedians amount to a political form of whistling past the graveyard. These shows are an opiate that delude us into thinking that the cabal of rightist politicians, think tanks, advisory groups, and media conglomerates that dominate political discussion and decision-making are faced with a vocal, determined and effective opposition. They aren't.

The popularity of the political humor programs fronted by Jon Stewart & Co. is a testament to the lack of success of leftist politicians and organizations. All the riotous jokes, witty ridicule, and takedowns by these comedians have done nothing to retard the growth of income inequality; rollback government privatization; stem the tide of anti-union legislation; or diminish the increasing role of corporations in political life. All that laughter is the soundtrack to the morphing of the welfare state into the corporate state, If there were political parties fighting and winning battles for the majority, rather than the super-affluent minority, these shows probably wouldn't exist. In fact, back in the 1960s and '70s political comedy was relatively uncommon, and what little there was took the form of good-natured ribbing rather than today's acid attacks. The modern age of political comedy got underway in 1984 with Britain's Spitting Image, a satirical puppet show, which was a reaction to the rise of Margaret Thatcher (elected PM five years previously) and the concurrent dismantling of unions and the welfare state. Similarly, America's political comedy shows were a reaction to two terms of George W. Bush, the advent of Fox News, and the growing mainstream acceptance of barking mad groups such as the birthers, creationists, and the Tea Party.

Today, political comedy functions as a loud, entertaining, but toothless opposition party that helps hide the fact that the left has, to varying degrees, become mute and emasculated. Even the shows' stars sometimes seem to realize what's really going on; Bill Maher and Jon Stewart often complain that Obama isn't pulling his progressive, leftist weight. The right wing is quite aware of the harmlessness of left-leaning political comedy. Occasionally a Fox News anchor or Republican politician will get in a snit over something they heard on the Comedy Channel, but more and more often they simply ignore it. Stewart and the others have settled into their role as clowns and court jesters, people whose political opinions and barbs can be ignored because they present themselves entirely in the role of comics, and who takes that kind of person seriously?

And then we get to the curious case of Russell Brand, a comic who seems to make both the left and the right uncomfortable and angry. About a year ago Brand made waves in the UK when he advocated in print and interviews that people shouldn't bother voting since all the main political parties are simply playing minor variations on the same pro-corporate tune. More recently, he raised hackles on the right by suggesting that the rise of ISIS and its appeal amongst some British Muslims was partly attributable to British political policies and attitudes. I'm not going to argue the validity of Brand's opinions, but the flak he's taken seems to be as much about his background and profession as it is the intellectual strength of his arguments. What seems to have infuriated his critics is that this particular jester is daring to aggressively suggest alternative policies and points of view. This isn't what designated clowns are supposed to do. The mockery and caricature that typify programs like The Stephen Colbert Show passes without criticism on the right because it's largely calorie-free; their hosts put laughs ahead of advocacy at all times. When Brand combines humor and advocacy, and reaches a large audience, voices on the right get hot and bothered. This piece in the Catholic Herald is a typical response.

Brand's critics, from the left to the right to spittle-flecked Fox News personalities, make disparaging mention of his lack of qualifications to speak out on the issues of the day. He's often described as "only" being a comic, a celebrity, and a third-rate actor. Apparently being articulate, intelligent and passionate isn't enough. I can understand the angst about Brand's lack of qualifications. The mainstream media overwhelmingly favours and respects voices that are "qualified" by virtue of having degrees from the right universities, a job at a think tank or NGO, a position within government or a political party, or are ex-military officers. In the Catholic Herald opinion piece the writer says that Brand's "ignorance" might be aiding and abetting (to an undefined degree) the flow of Muslim jihadis from the West to Iraq/Syria. Just for argument's sake let's say Brand has somehow inspired one or two Muslim lads from Bradford or Manchester to decamp to an ISIS stronghold. The theoretical blood on Brand's hands would pale in comparison to what the tall foreheads from Oxbridge and the Ivy League, the writers on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, and the legions of "experts" on CNN and Fox are responsible for. It's these people who supported the sanctions against Iraq (1990-2003) which led to the deaths of as many as 500,000 children, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in search of mythical WMDs. That conflict cost Iraq somewhere between 200,000 and one million lives, and those figures don't include those who died as result of breakdowns in health care delivery and sanitation.

It would seem that if you have the right kind of qualifications, and express yourself in a dry and academic tone, your opinion and advice can be as deadly as a car bomb or IED. Brand's rambling, witty, orotund musings have so far proven to be far less lethal. Just think what the body count would be if he had no sense of humor and a degree from the London School of Economics or Harvard.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Book Review: Hard Rain Falling (1966) by Don Carpenter

In one of my recent book reviews I ranted about writers reviewing the works of other authors. Hard Rain Falling has glowing testimonials from George Pelacanos, Anne Lamott, Richard Price and Jonathan Lethem. I guess they're the exception that proves the rule, because Carpenter's novel is a startlingly original work that, rather amazingly, was out of print for a very long time. The problem may have been that upon first publication it was advertised and reviewed as a crime novel. Jack Levitt, the novel's central character, moves in a criminal milieu most of the time but crime fiction fans would have been bitterly disappointed, not to say shocked, by Carpenter's relentless focus on Levitt's existential despair and anger. Yes, this is pure literary fiction, having more in common with novels by writers such as Sartre, Camus, and Patrick Hamilton than anything from the hard-boiled or noir schools of crime fiction.

Levitt is raised in an orphanage in rural Oregon in the late 1940s after being abandoned by his feckless parents at an early age. Jack runs away from the orphanage to Portland where he becomes a petty criminal, hanging around pool halls, scrounging a living from the occasional job or petty theft. It's there he first meets Billy Lancing, a black teenager who's also a runaway like Jack. Billy has a tremendous gift for shooting pool and makes his living hustling games. The two don't really become friends, but Jack finds something admirable or appealing in Billy's pure talent. The story hops in and out of Jack's wandering life, which is mostly spent in divey hotels and bars. He also ends up in jails and, finally, in San Quentin prison. In prison Jack is reunited with Billy, whose life has been almost as messed up as Jack's. Jack spends three years in prison with Billy as his cellmate, and they eventually become lovers. Shortly before Jack is released, Billy is murdered while trying to protect him from a prison gang. Jack finally goes straight after leaving the "Q", as it's called, and ends up married to a woman from a much higher social bracket. Complications ensue.

When we first meet Jack as a teenager he's a brutalized, empty soul, and his character arc in the novel can be loosely described as a philosophical and psychological journey to acquire some humanity. It's not an easy, pleasant or entirely successful trip. Jack sees no meaning in the world and barely any value in existence itself. Here's a taste of Jack's acid view of life:

"All right. Everything is a dream. Nothing hangs together. You move from one dream to another and there is no reason for the change. Your eyes see things and your ears hear, but nothing has any reason behind it."

 Jack absolutely revels in the power of negative thinking. Almost all the novel is written in this tone, but the perfect clarity and ferocious honesty of Jack's scathing analysis of existence (as seen from his perspective) is actually exhilarating. This kind of writing can easily drift into tediousness and cheap nihilism, but with Jack we believe that his brutish, streetwise existential angst is coming from actual experience. Jack's seen the worst from people and so he's basing his worldview on bitter experience. Literature is filled with middle-class characters saying roughly the same things, but most of the time they sound like solipsistic whiners. Jack doesn't have a self-pitying bone in his body.

The most powerful part of the novel might be the relationship between Jack and Billy. The two men don't discover that they're gay while in prison, they discover that they have a desperate need for intimacy and love. The sex is secondary, and the awakening of Jack's humanity is attributable to his romantic relationship with Billy, brief though it is. The other exemplary aspect of the novel is the way in which Carpenter captures the flavour of life on the fringes of society. The atmosphere and cynical camaraderie found in pool halls, bowling alleys and cheap hotels is vividly described, and the scenes set in prison are the best of their kind I've ever read outside a memoir.

One way of looking at Hard Rain Falling is as a modern, R-rated retelling of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both novels are picaresque (more or less), and both have a surprising relationship between a black and white youth. And in turn, it's obvious that Hard Rain Falling has exerted its own influence on later writers, specifically Jonathan Lethem, whose The Fortress of Solitude (my review) is clearly based on Carpenter's template. In fact, Lethem edited Carpenter's last, and unfinished, novel Friday's at Enrico's which was released just this year. The only flaw in Hard Rain Falling is one also shared by The Fortress of Solitude: both novels sputter and fumble at the end. Jack's relationship and marriage with Sally brings the novel down to earth with a thump. The writing remains intense, but the relationship's ups and downs veer towards melodrama more often than not. The entire last quarter of the novel is poorly conceived and the finale is clumsily abrupt rather than intriguingly ambiguous, which is probably what Carpenter was aiming for. Even with this problem, Hard Rain Falling is a remarkable novel that deserves a new readership.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes (2011) by James S.A. Corey

This is meat and potatoes SF writing, but the respective protein and vegetable components are of a very high quality. More specifically, this is an SF novel that's conceived and written to be one of the best SF films of the 1980s or '90s; it's basically a film script in novel form, and the obvious influences are Alien, Aliens, Outland and Blade Runner. This isn't a "hard" SF story, the kind that delves deeply into the effects of scientific or technological changes on a future society; this is about tough men and women who swear, drink and fornicate, and also get caught up in a monstrous corporate plot that threatens to destroy the solar system.

The two main characters are described in broad strokes--brave space captain, hard-bitten space cop--with just a little bit of extra shading (a bit of humour here, a dash of exstential despair there) to make them more than just cartoons. Secondary characters run the gamut from good ol' boys to slick corporate baddies to grrl power femmes, all of whom are familiar to us from every action movie of the last thirty years. The plot is a deftly-constructed series of revelations and cliffhangers, and the action scenes follow the templates laid down in most every SF film.

Leviathan Wakes is a clean, efficient, enjoyable piece of genre writing that's devoid of any original style or exciting prose, but what makes it interesting is that it's the product of two writers working under the Corey pen name: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The only dual author novel I've read previously was Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. That novel read exactly like any other Pratchett book, and I was left wondering if Neil's only contribution was to bring Terry tea and Jaffa cakes when he was feeling peckish. Leviathan is no-frills blue collar writing, but it's also an example of error-free writng. Something that too many genre novels (SF, fantasy, mystery, crime) have in common are literary "speed bumps." What I mean by speed bumps are those moments in a novel that make me put down the book, groan, and wonder why an editor wasn't around to say, "Uh, you might want to rewrite that last bit."

This isn't really about bad writing. Lots of modern genre novels feature decent prose, but too often they feel like a rough draft rather than a finished product. For every genre novel I read, I probably abandon two others because they need heavy pruning; have serious, but fixable, plot problems; are barnacled with clumsy pop culture references; get caught up in referencing genre conventions; and have underdeveloped lead characters. Good prose writing can't be taught or edited into existence, but all of the aforementioned problems can be eliminated or reduced with the help of a good editor. I'm guessing that the drastic belt-tightening that's gone on in the publishing industry has probably diminished the role of  creative control editors in favour of glorified proofreaders. At least it seems like that's the case. The Corey team hasn't produced deathless prose, but each author undoubtedly acts as a rigorous editor for the other, and that's resulted in a novel with a high degree of professional polish. Oh, and it's also going to be the next big show on cable TV.