Monday, November 28, 2016

Trilogies of Terror!

If you're an aspiring novelist who wants to work in the mystery, SF or fantasy field, you'd better roll your up sleeves and get busy because no one's going to take you seriously unless you've got at least a trio of linked novels to your credit. Part of my job at the library consists of selecting books to send to shut-ins, and it's always a nuisance wrangling a trilogy for delivery because volume ones are inevitably checked out for months. Volume threes are always readily available, and that says something about the literary staying power of most writers; writing a gripping volume one is relatively easy, but keeping the quality up for two more outings? Not so easy. So here's the bad and the good of the trilogy business:

Paul Cornell has a CV thick with Doctor Who novelizations, comic books, and scripts for various Brit TV series. His Shadow Police series (London Falling, The Severed Streets, Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?) follows a group of London cops who police the supernatural underworld. So far, so high concept. The first novel, London Falling, was about a murderous witch and was solidly written and quite entertaining. The Severed Streets was dreadful. For one thing, having an actual writer, Neil Gaiman, appear as a secondary character in the novel must violate some kind of literary fourth wall protocol. It's also just silly. In addition to that faux pas, the novel had a murky, sluggish plot, and, worst of all, things got too serious. I can stomach an over-the-top fantasy/SF concept if the author gives me a wink every now and then to let me know he or she's aware of the silliness on offer, but a writer who can't crack a smile at their own bizarre creation? No thanks. Throughout volume two, all the main cop characters are living in various kinds of existential hell, and that made reading it a joyless slog. You must be wondering at this point why I bothered to read the next one. Foolishly, I was intrigued by the concept (someone kills the ghost of Sherlock Holmes) and hoped that an editor might have warned Cornell that his weapons-grade gravitas was misplaced. No such luck. The most recent novel is more of the same gloomy, turgid writing. It should also be pointed out that Cornell is poaching on a genre established by Ben Aaronovitch in his Rivers of London series which features--wait for it--a group of London coppers who police the supernatural. What are the odds? And why was Aaronovitch kind enough to put a blurb on Cornell's book? That's taking English politeness too far. So that's it, Cornell, you're now undead to me.

And then we have Robin Stevens. Her threesome of cozy murder mysteries for young readers are set in the 1930s and feature a pair of teenage sleuths, Mabel Wong and Daisy Wells, who go to a posh all-girls school in England. At first glance this sounds like something a committee made up of the BBC, the National Trust, and Country Life magazine might have cobbled together. Normally I'd run far, far away from something like this, but I'd come across a mention of the series in the Guardian that praised the quality of the writing. It also helped that I was working my way through Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels at the time and I needed some reading material to, as it were, detoxify with. Good choice on my part; although, oddly enough, like Ferrante's novels, Stevens' novels also feature a spiky female friendship. Her mysteries (Murder Most Unladylike, Arsenic for Tea, First Class Murder) distinguish themselves by being as well-written as anything in the cozy field, adult or otherwise. Stevens does not write down to her intended audience; in fact, it feels like she wants to challenge her readers. The characters and plots are far more complex than you'd expect to find in books aimed at early teen readers, there's a nice vein of humor running through all the books, and the mystery elements are really strong. The locked room mystery in First Class Murder is an excellent introduction to this sub-genre for young readers and compares well with adult examples. Stevens is writing more in this series, but I'd really like to see her take a crack at a full-on adult mystery.

I've started a great many trilogies but not finished most of them. The lesson here is that writers, even very good ones, have trouble spinning out a high-concept premise over more than one book. The fault lies with publishers, who are always trying to find ways to hook readers into committing to a series of books (and purchases). It's hard to blame them for trying to maximize profits, but it's counter-productive when you kill a reader's interest in an author by pushing him or her into producing crappy work. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Film Review: Free State of Jones (2016)

The most interesting part of this film is its subject matter, not the filmmaking itself. Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a medical orderly in the Confederate Army who deserts after learning that a new law allows the sons of the richest slaveholders to be excused military service. Knight returns to his home in Jones County, Mississippi, where he's hunted by the local Confederate militia. After they burn down his home, Knight hides out in a swamp with some runaway slaves. This becomes the nucleus of a guerilla group that eventually numbers in the hundreds and battles the local Confederate forces. Knight and his men end up controlling a significant swath of Mississippi and declare the "free state of Jones", a land dedicated to the principle of egalitarianism for all men, no matter what their colour. The war ends and the Reconstruction period is followed by brutal suppression of black political activism by the KKK and plantation owners. Knight takes a black woman as his wife after the war, and a sub-plot set in the 1950s shows one of his male descendants, who is one-eighth black, fighting Jim Crow laws for the right to marry his white fiance.

The earnest, plodding, clunkiness of this biopic feels, at times, like a throwback to film styles and tropes from the '50s and '60s. 12 Years a Slave and Glory are set in the same era, but they told their stories with subtlety and cinematic flair without diminishing the messages they wanted to get across. Jones has no time for artistry. Dramatic and romantic elements are handled like assignments for a required university course, and the action sequences are staged like pageants. One battle set in a graveyard actually borders on the farcical.

By this point you might think I didn't like this film. Wrong. What sets it apart from a Glory or 12 Years a Slave is that it's eager and willing to tackle issues that don't normally get an airing in American films, specifically the subject of class warfare. At several points in the film it's explicitly stated that the Civil War was primarily about plantation owners, the plutocracy of the South, defending their capital interests with the lives of poor whites. Most films about this period in history might have ended with the conclusion of the war. Jones continues its study of class politics with the Reconstruction period, which, as far as I know, has never been dealt with in any film. The film makes it clear that the efforts of the KKK and their capitalist supporters were directed at denying blacks political power because that kind of power meant a tidal shift in the relationship between capital and labour. All those notions about white Southern notions of "honour" and ''tradition" and fear of black violence were just hogwash. Whites were only interested in instituting a system of legal peonage to replace slavery. In this way Jones emerges as a superior film to Glory and 12 Years a Slave because the latter two films are dealing in honorable platitudes: racism are slavery were bad. This film brings something new to the discussion by showing how racism is so often a screen behind which politicians and capitalists practice their black arts.

Free State of Jones is a flawed film from a purely cinematic point of view, but as an examination of an often poorly understood part of American history it really has no equal. And lest you think that this subject matter isn't worth re-examining in this day and age, check out the interview below with legendary film director William Friedkin. From the 6:23 mark onwards Friedkin defends the birth of the KKK. It's jaw-dropping stuff, and this from someone who's from the allegedly liberal bastion of Hollywood.



Monday, October 31, 2016

Book Review: The Fall of the House of Cabal (2016) by Jonathan L. Howard


Let's play sports analogies: In the field of fantasy/horror fiction, Jonathan L. Howard is a decathlete who regularly ends up on the podium. He's a 20-game winning pitcher who can paint the corners with the fastball, freeze batters with his curveball, and make them look foolish with the breaking ball. He's a centre in hockey who plays a 200-foot game and can be counted on for some Gordie Howe hat tricks every season. And now I've run out of sports I know anything about. My point, and I do have one, is that Howard is a writer who, within his particular field, is adept at any literary style you care to think of. Depending on what's called for, or as the mood takes him, he can do comedy (high and low), horror, big action set-pieces, mystery, wit, spookiness, and good old-fashioned ripping yarn adventure. His masterful skill as a literary shape-shifter is always most evident in his Cabal books, of which this is the fifth in the series.

This time out Johannes and his brother Horst are on the hunt for the Fountain of Youth. To get there they require the assistance of a three women: a spider demon, a witch, and a detective. The Cabal novels take place in a steampunky Europe that looks and sounds roughly like the 1920s. Cabal & Co. journey to several supernatural realms, fight everything from ghouls to vampiric bankers to Satan himself, and it's all done with style and effervescent inventiveness. That description might make it sound like the author has overegged his pudding (a common fault in the steampunk genre), but Howard is disciplined enough to never introduce a new story element without giving it the proper level of development and creative attention. 

What might be most striking about this latest entry in the Cabal franchise is that it still holds the reader's attention. The woods are full of fantasy writers who crank out trilogies, quartets, and quintets, but it's rare for any of these shelf-fillers to maintain a high standard beyond the first in the series. The Cabal books are consistently excellent. One reason for this is that Howard dabbles in a different type of story with each outing. The series has included a mystery story, a picaresque adventure set in a carnival, a Lovecraftian epic, and a war story of sorts. The other factor that accounts for the longevity of the series is that Howard brought in Horst to be a foil for Johannes. Horst is a vampire with a heart of gold, and his geniality,humour and humanity act to leaven the sardonic misanthropy of Johannes. 

You don't have to be a fantasy/horror fan to enjoy this series. Howard's main aim is to amuse, and what stands out most strongly about the Cabal books is their wit. There are lots of things that go bump, slither, and bite in the night, but the overall tone is comic with a generous side order of rip-roaring adventure. The humour is often acidic, the writing sometimes donnish and orotund (I sense the ghost of mystery writer Michael Innes is present here), and there is absolutely never a dull moment. And here's hoping Horst Cabal gets a standalone novel in the Cabal universe. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Book Review: The Neapolitan Novels (2011-14) by Elena Ferrante

It's hard to know where to begin in describing or evaluating the four novels that comprise Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, so I'll start by declaring that the foursome are among the best works of fiction I've ever read. And here goes my plot synopsis: the story follows two women, Elena and Lila, from childhood to late middle-age, charting their intense, sometimes antagonistic, friendship, and their life in one of Naples rougher areas. Both women, to differing degrees, rise above their surroundings and backgrounds, but the struggle to do so is daunting and costly, So that describes about 9% of the novels.

The single feature that to my mind sets Ferrante above so many other writers is her single-minded devotion to subverting almost every expectation we have about how a fictional narrative is supposed to unfold. Very near the end of the fourth novel, The Story of the Lost Child, one of the two main characters says this:

Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.

The above quote succinctly describes the antithesis of the Neapolitan novels. Many novels and novelists are promoted as realistic or truthful or uncompromising, but within that realism, more often than not, there's a solid structure of cause and effect, and most problems or conflicts find a resolution. It's probably the most difficult thing for a novelist to do: put aside their omniscience and let characters and events sprawl out in all kinds of messy directions without providing any pat rationales or conclusions. Stories are really about endings, or at the very least summations, and to avoid this almost seems like a violation of the storyteller's craft.

Graham Greene once said that "a writer must have a sliver of ice in their heart," and by that standard Ferrante has an iceberg in hers, as she's absolutely merciless in showing the faults and frailties of Lila and Elena. The two of them make good, bad and foolish decisions, are brave, stupid, reckless, loving, careless, spiteful, generous, kind, and bitter, and Ferrante dissects, with forensic detail, every aspect of their thinking and emotions. The psychological depth she gives her characters is virtually unsurpassed.

Ferrante also weaves an metafiction element through her novels. Elena is the narrator, and a novelist, and there is much discussion of how personal narratives are unreliable or can even be shared by different people. By the end of the quartet it's even possible to question whether Elena or Lila has been the narrator.

The only bumpy part of the series comes at the end, when Elena moves back to Naples after years away. It's a questionable decision on her part, but why she doesn't leave again, given how rocky her life in Naples gets, seems odd. Also, her problems with her teenage daughters aren't fleshed out and feel gratuitously dramatic. Beyond that, the novels are astonishingly perfect, although their emotional intensity often becomes hard to bear. So take my advice and detox between each novel with some light reading--Dostoevsky, perhaps.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Film Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

If this summer's film slate of superheroes and reboots and sequels, all of them CGI-heavy, has tired you out, cast your eyes on Hell or High Water. It's a modern western set in the driest, most destitute corner of Texas that borrows tropes from the horse-powered westerns of yesteryear to tell the story of two brothers who rob banks to pay off the mortgage on their mother's land.

The brothers are Tanner and Toby. Tanner (Ben Foster) is a career criminal and all-around hell raiser. Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced dad who needs to pay off the mortgage on his late mother's land. The land isn't worth much, but the oil underneath it, which has just been discovered, is worth $50k a month. But if he can't pay off the mortgage the bank will get the land and the oil. Toby has not, we gather, been a good husband or father, so as an act of redemption he wants to put the land in a trust for his kids once he's cleared the mortgage. The amount he needs isn't much, but it involves robbing banks in a variety of flyblown towns across west Texas. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is soon on their trail.

What's striking about this film is its conscious effort to harken back to the American filmmaking aesthetic of the late 1960s and early '70s. Films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands are obvious visual influences, also the use of local, non-professional actors in small roles. Director David Mackenzie has clearly absorbed the feel of those films and tried to bring them back to life, particularly in the handling of the brothers. Tanner and Toby are the kind of antiheroes that were common in the '70s. They aren't well-equipped in temperament or skills to deal with normal life and have ended up living on the fringes of society, which also makes them unconsciously anti-establishment, a key element of the films of that era.

The most modern aspect of the film is its emphasis on the poverty and despair gripping this part of world. Billboards for payday loan  and debt relief companies dot the landscape, most businesses are shuttered, and the population seems either very old or very unemployed. This is Tea Party America, even though the film never makes any direct political statements along these lines. The bad guys, as in so many old westerns, are the banks, who are eagerly foreclosing on anyone and everything. A briefly glimpsed piece of graffiti at the beginning of the film neatly captures the film's political viewpoint: THREE TOURS OF IRAQ BUT I NEVER GOT A BAILOUT. Sadly, the film is content to just blame the banks rather than drilling down deeper to the politicians who are the banking industry's enablers. The western tropes are cleverly woven through the film, especially during a climactic bank heist that results in an impromptu posse chasing the brothers out of town, and, like the legendary James brothers, Toby and Tanner receive protection from some of the locals. Nobody likes banks.

But this isn't a perfect film. The character of Tanner is too much of a generic crazy cowboy, and Ben Foster overacts accordingly. Chris Pine as Toby is fine, but it's not a very demanding role since he's mostly asked to just look hurt or depressed. Although kudos to Pine or the director for the visual motif of Toby constantly hanging his head down as though literally beaten down by Fate. Only at the very end do we see him standing proud. There are some plot holes, and some awkward and superfluous scenes (did we really need to see Tanner bonking a hotel receptionist?) that mar what's otherwise a lean and efficient film. Part of the blame for that, aside from the script, might be due to the director being a Brit. This kind of gritty, regional story is hard for outsiders to get right when it comes to the details, and Mackenzie is sometimes tone deaf when it comes handling his Texan characters. On the plus side, you can count on Jeff Bridges getting an Oscar nom for best supporting actor.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Film Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

First the good news: Ghostbusters is funny. Not as funny as the original, but miles better than Ghostbusters II, a film almost no one cares to remember. What's made this film relatively unsuccessful (it's still grossed over $200m) is that while it succeeds as comedy, it fails as a film. The original version was funny and atmospheric, mildly spooky, exciting, and visually clever. The new one has none of those qualities. The ghosts were a major star of the first film, but in this iteration the spectres are like props tossed on stage for a group of improv comedians to riff on. That's OK to a point, but eventually you have to try and tell a story, develop an atmosphere, or create a sense of crisis or tension.

The fault lies with Paul Feig, the director. I saw Spy, his previous effort, and was astonished at what an incompetent director he is. He doesn't know where to put the camera, and many scenes feel utterly slapdash, as though he'd gone into the editing room and selected the worst takes on offer. He'd be fine directing a sitcom, but when it comes to features he's out of his depth. Another reason for the film's modest returns is that SFX ain't what they used to be, or rather, our enjoyment of them has changed. When the first Ghostbusters came out in 1984 the effects were ooh and aah-worthy. Audiences were only seven years removed from the SFX revolution that was Star Wars, and were eager for more of the same. By today's standards the '84 film looks a bit primitive, but at the time it was impressive. These days audiences don't view effects as anything special. Even middling budget films have great effects, so you can't expect to entice people with the prospect of seeing CGI ghosts. And the creative minds behind the CGI in this film definitely haven't done anything special. There isn't a single memorable entity, and the climax, featuring an unholy version of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is annoying because it could have been brilliant if they'd used the actual balloon characters from the parade.

And now for the Leslie Jones portion of my review. When it came out that Jones, who is black, was playing the one Ghostbuster who is self-described as not knowing about "this science stuff," the social media reaction was swift and merciless--once again, critics said, Hollywood racism dictates that blacks can't be thinkers. They can provide the muscle or "street smarts," but it's the whites who do the heavy intellectual lifting. The critics were right. Casting Jones as the single non-academic Ghostbuster is liberal racism at it's worst. In interviews defending this casting decision, the filmmakers sound pleased with themselves just to have given a black woman a major role, but the lazy racism becomes apparent when you realize that Melissa McCarthy, who's made a living out of playing women who don't know much about "stuff," has been promoted to the holder of a post-graduate degree. Apparently if there's a black woman in the cast McCarthy has to get an educational upgrade. But the casting decision that annoys me almost as much is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus isn't in the cast. How can you do an all-female Ghostbusters reboot without using America's funniest female actor? Oh well, perhaps they can squeeze her into the sequel to replace Jones' character, who'll be off attending night classes to get her university degree.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: Number 11 (2015) by Jonathan Coe

There's a Christmas hamper quality to Jonathan Coe's writing--a really superior Christmas hamper, the kind Fortnum & Mason's sells, or the ones Billy Bunter lusted after. In both Number 11 and its prequel, The Winshaw Legacy, or What a Carve Up! (1994), Coe artfully and fluently combines multiple plot lines, a score of characters, elements of tragedy, farce, comedy, social commentary, and a touch of the the polemical (my review). And in Number 11 Coe does all this while also slipping from one literary genre to another without, as it were, grinding the gears. This novel begins with a subtle pastiche of an Enid Blyton-ish story, then adds an epistolary quest tale, a Holmesian mystery, and ends with something that smacks of Dr Who. As a purely literary experience, Number 11 is almost overstuffed with pleasures.

Rachel and Alison are the central characters, and we meet them at age ten when they're staying with Rachel's grandparents while their mothers are on holiday together. The pair aren't really friends at this point, but after an Adventure with a Mysterious Stranger, the two form a bond that lasts, with some major detours, into adulthood. From this point on the narrative resembles a Venn diagram. The centre circle contains a set of Winshaws, a family of media barons, industrialists, and politicians who define themselves by how savagely they can remake Britain into their own avaricious, graceless, cruel and wanton image. The Winshaws were at the centre of the previous novel, but here it's their influence that's being felt--it's now the Winshaws' Britain, and everyone else is trying to eke out a living in it.

Coe uses his wide cast of characters to give us micro and macro views of what modern Britain has become. There's a failed singer who's lured into a dreadful reality show; an Oxford professor whose husband meets with what could be called death by nostalgia; an insufferably wealthy trophy wife whose architectural ambitions lead to disaster; a Katie Hopkins-like columnist who fabricates a story that sends a woman to jail; and a range of more minor characters who all have their role to play in illustrating the decline and fall of the social welfare state.

Although Coe has a lot to say about the state of the UK, Number 11 is not an editorial or opinion piece dressed up in literary finery. His writing is witty, psychologically acute, elegant, and he's not too proud to throw in the broadest of jokes occasionally. Coe is also acutely aware that his kind of comic writing does little or nothing to influence the political climate. In a section of the novel dealing with the murder of some stand-up comedians, he even argues that political satire can actually be counter-productive since it provides the illusion of lively opposition to people like the Winshaws (I actually wrote a piece on this very subject which you can read here). Another idea explored in the novel is that the speed and variety of modern communication is a poisoned chalice. A simple typo on SnapChat breaks up a friendship, and the cynical editing of a TV show almost ruins a woman's life. But Coe is not a Luddite. A sub-plot detailing a man's search for a lost film that he saw as a child in the 1960s is a warning that retreating into rosy memories of the past is not a healthy option.

The only problem with Coe's fiction is that it doesn't move at the speed of politics. The Winshaw Legacy seemed outrageous until Tony Blair and David Cameron came along, and Number 11, which was published less than a year ago, would undoubtedly be a much different novel if it had been written in a post-Brexit vote world. Fortunately, that means we're almost certain to get a third novel in this series, one in which Coe shows how the vulturous Winshaws plan and profit from Brexit. I look forward to it already. I even have a possible title: Wrexit.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Gialli Good Fun

You simply can't beat a giallo film for tawdry entertainment value. Gialli were one of the staples of Italian cinema from the late 1960s to the mid '70s, offering a lurid mix of violence, sadism, voyeurism, sex, and deeply twisted plots. They were what Alfred Hitchcock might have made had he let his freak flag fly. In Italian, giallo means yellow, and the films were given this name as a reference to a publisher who reprinted English mystery/thriller novels with distinctive yellow covers. The films themselves owe a big debt to Hitchcock, Psycho in particular. Many of the films feature heavily disguised killers who attack beautiful women (always with bladed instruments) for a variety of warped or mercenary reasons.

Exploitation elements aside, gialli deserve appreciation for their cinematic qualities and enthusiastic attempts to befuddle the audience with devious plots. These were low to middling budget films, but they certainly tried to put on a good visual show. The interiors and women's fashions in gialli are usually the epitome of '70s style, which is both good and bad, but always eye-catching and/or eye-watering. The musical soundtracks are a mix of the weird and the overblown, and even a big name like Ennio Morricone did work on some gialli. What really keeps these films worth watching are the plots. The producers couldn't invest much money in stars or stunts, but they certainly urged the scriptwriters give it their all. The mystery at the centre of each giallo may be highly improbable, but the plotting is often surprisingly clever and keeps the audience on board, which is crucial since gialli also suffer from some pronounced defects.
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You don't watch these films for the acting. Or the dialogue. Some performances are respectable, the remainder range from wooden to overwrought. Interestingly, it's usually the women who give the better performances. The men often seem more interested in modeling their turtleneck sweaters (a fashion staple in gialli) than doing any actual acting.

So the reason for this post is that I recently got a Roku attachment to my TV, which means I can stream films from YouTube onto the big screen, and the first thing I did was have a giallo film festival with myself as the guest of honour. Herewith are some of the better ones I've seen.


Death Walks on High Heels (1971)

Did I mention that gialli often have ludicrous titles? This one starts out as a standard story of a beautiful woman pursued by a masked madman, but then gets progressively more complicated and surprising. When the mystery is finally unraveled you'll be applauding the scriptwriter for his amazingly intricate and logical, if  bizarre, plotting. The acting here is mostly over the top, at times leading to unintended laughter, but everyone attacks their roles with gusto, especially the actor who utters the immortal line, "Porco!" when confronted with a transvestite.

Who Saw Her Die? (1972)

The young daughter of a sculptor living in Venice is murdered and he tracks down her killer. The plot isn't much to speak of, but the location photography is stunning. The director, Aldo Lado, was from Venice and he clearly knew all the best locations for capturing the spooky oddness of the city. I can't help wondering if this film somehow inspired or influenced Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now which came out a year later.

Death Walks at Midnight (1972)

Another Byzantine plot from the director of Death Walks on High Heels. This time a fashion model witnesses a murder in the building across from her apartment but can't prove that it actually happened. There are some plot holes in this one, but it's still very intriguing and the look of the film is '70s to the max. A sidenote: based on all the gialli I've seen, 80% of the Italian female population at this time were models with the remainder strippers and/or homicidal maniacs.

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972)

If you're going to dive into the giallo genre you have to see at least one starring the gorgeous Edwige Fenech. Fenech is to Italian B-movies of the '70s what the Virgin Mary is to Catholicism. She starred in gialli, cop movies, horror films, and lots and lots of sex comedies. In Iris she wears a variety of improbable outifts, including body paint, and spends the rest of the time forgetting to lock her windows and doors, thus allowing maniacs access to her at all hours of the day and night.

Footprints on the Moon (1975)

This is the outlier in the giallo genre. It begins like many gialli, with a beautiful woman facing a seemingly impossible puzzle: she appears to be missing two days from her life. It's soon clear that this isn't any kind of exploitation film. Florinda Bolkan plays the lead character and she's a superb actress. More importantly, the cinematographer is Vittorio Storaro, the genius behind the camera on films such as Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, and Woody Allen's latest, Cafe Society. The look of the film is amazing, and the story is an elegant, mysterious, subtle attempt to visualize a kind of waking dream. There's no big pay-off to the film, but it's a crime that it's not more widely known or available on DVD. Are you listening, Criterion Collection?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Book Review: The Lie Tree (2015) by Frances Hardinge

Part of my job at the Toronto Public Library involves selecting books for shut-ins, a few of whom are teenagers. This means I regularly spend time combing through dozens of thumbnail descriptions of young adult novels. That translates into a lot of stories about dystopias, mental illness, broken homes, and the paranormal. Most YA novels are written for girls, and one trope that seems to be common to many of them is that girls can and should kick ass, metaphorically and, in the case of dystopian and paranormal lit, literally. In short, there's  a strong and healthy feminist streak running through contemporary YA writing.

Frances Hardinge's novels have all featured underage heroines who get things done through grit, bravery and smarts. So far, so normal. What sets Hardinge apart (far apart) from others in her field is her rich, inventive prose, and you can read my gushing praise of her writing here and here. In The Lie Tree she tries something a bit different. Whereas her previous novels were firmly and fully in the fantasy wing of the YA building, this one has is more grounded in reality. But not entirely.

The story mixes together archeology,  the debate over Darwin's theory of evolution,  and a murder mystery in a late-Victorian setting. The heroine is Faith Sunderly, the teenage daughter of  Erasmus Sunderly, a reverend with who has lost his faith and replaced it with a mad passion for archeology. On a trip to Asia he acquired the eponymous plant, which grows when it's told lies, and produces a fruit, when eaten, that reveals secrets. This is the most fantastical part of the story, but the tree exists more on a symbolic level than as part of a fantasy world. Faith's father is murdered (it looks like a suicide) and she must investigate the crime.

The plot synopsis makes it sound just another example of YA historical fiction in which a plucky heroine proves that the "fairer" sex is no to be taken lightly. Hardinge goes beyond all that by giving her novel a psychological depth that's missing from almost YA titles of this type. Her focus is on the sheer mental torture suffered by women who have wit, talent, intelligence and ambition, but are denied the chance to use their skills at every turn. Faith isn't the only woman caught in the webs of Victorian social strictures. Her mother must play the coquette to acquire a new husband after the death of Erasmus.Faith is initially shocked at this, but by the end of the novel realizes that her mother is doing the best for herself and her family given the limited arsenal she has to work with. Without an income to fall back on, a middle-classwoman must be wed. The fantasy elements are deftly handled, but what makes this book stand out (and covered Hardinge's mantelpiece with awards) is its examination of the psychological toll exacted on people who are denied basic rights by virtue of their gender. And on that basis The Lie Tree also carries a lot of contemporary resonance.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Ron MacLean

Ron breathes the clean, white, air of the country.
I'm usually good for only one sports-related blog post every year, so there must be a great disturbance in the force for me to dash off my second on the subject this year. The disturbance is the news that George Stroumboulopoulos, after only two seasons as the host of Sportsnet's Hockey Night in Canada, has been dumped for the muppet man he originally replaced: Ron MacLean. The perceived reason for the change is that ratings for HNIC have gone down in the last two seasons. Sportsnet figured Strombo was just the young, hip, urban, cool cat who'd pull in a different, and broader, demographic. Apparently the fact that Canadian hockey teams have largely sucked over the last two seasons (I'm looking at you, Toronto) and that the game itself has become progressively less entertaining didn't factor into Sportnet's understanding of the ratings slip. Nor did they pay attention to the fact that although they changed the host, the supporting cast of dull, witless, cranky, reactionary, inarticulate colour commentators and analysts has never been tampered with. No, it was all George's fault. But I don't want this to be a blog about what's wrong with HNIC (you can read my post on that here), or why I think Ron MacLean is a puerile, narcissistic, self-important twat and a craven, simpering, enabler of Don Cherry's bigotry. No, what I want talk about here is that by canning GS and resurrecting RM, Scott Moore, President of Sportsnet, has effectively stuck a big sign on the metaphorical front door of Sportsnet that says, "Whites Only."

A bold statement, I know, but bear with me. The Golden Horseshoe area of Ontario, which encompasses Toronto, and the cities of Vancouver and Montreal (and their suburbs) represent the bulk of the population of Canada. These areas are highly urbanized and very multicultural, especially Toronto and Vancouver. These three areas drive hockey viewership in Canada, and their essential makeup is enthusiastically unrepresented on HNIC. Look at the faces on HNIC and it's pretty much wall-to-wall middle-aged white guys. There are two token women, and two visible minority men who get even less airtime than the women. Compare and contrast with any local TV news crew in any of Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver; diversity, diversity, diversity.

The resolute whiteness of HNIC (and this also applies to every other hockey broadcast in Canada) is, on one level, simply a reflection of hockey culture in North America. The cost of playing hockey for kids and teens is now so prohibitive it's become difficult for anyone but the overwhelmingly white middle and upper-middle classes to participate in it. Look around the NHL today and you see only a bare handful of visible minorities playing the game. Sportsnet isn't responsible for who is or isn't playing the game, but through their choices in on-air personalities and the editorial tone of the hockey broadcasts, Sportsnet is sending a clear message about who they think the game is for and about. And that brings us back to Ron MacLean.

MacLean might be a crap host, but he's the perfect choice if, as it would seem, Sportsnet is only interested in going after the suburban/rural, conservative, white male in the age range of 40 to dead. Ron launches into a bromantic paean whenever he gets to talk about the small-town roots of this or that player. The gushing gets even more torrid if the player is from the Prairies, which, in the minds of Ron and his on-camera cohorts, seems to be the abode of the gods. If a player is from Saskatchewan or Alberta, Ron is sure to mention that "They raise them tough out there" or "He's a good Saskatchewan boy" or "Those long western bus rides build character." Players from the cities don't get any extra praise, unless, of course, they have an Irish last name, which means we're bound to hear either "He's a tough Irishman" or "He's a fine broth of a lad." It's enough to make you gag on your soda bread. And if you're a visible minority the message is clear: don't bother playing or watching hockey...we don't want you.

As though to underline its commitment to an aging, white demographic, two years ago Sportsnet gave MacLean his own show, Hometown Hockey, which saw him hosting NHL games from a different suburb or small town each Sunday. The idea of celebrating places where the vast majority of people don't live seems odd and/or foolish when you're in the business of pulling in viewers. Sportsnet markets the show as a celebration of Canada and Canadians, but the sub-text of the show is that white, non-urban Canadians is who hockey is for. Visible minorities are in the majority in both Vancouver and Toronto, but  good luck seeing any on Sportsnet hockey broadcasts. Too bad they didn't have the foresight to move to a Newfoundland fishing village or a Manitoba farming community.

I'm part of that aging, white demographic, but I work in Toronto with a very diverse group of people, many of whom are young. They talk a lot about basketball and soccer, even baseball, but the subject of hockey is pretty much left to us old guys. Is this what Sportsnet wants? For some of these young Canadians hockey is as remote and irrelevant as jai alai or Australian football. Hockey broadcasting bears a large part of the blame for this situation. Instead of reaching out to the next generation of sports fans, they have turned their backs on them, almost thumbed their nose at them, with their ceaseless and mawkish love affair with a Canada that hasn't existed for at least a generation. Strombo was a weak choice to pull in new viewers, but bringing back MacLean to front Sportsnet's marquee hockey broadcast probably puts HNIC on the black diamond slope to ratings oblivion. And it's what they deserve.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Book Review: The Loney (2014) by Andrew Michael Hurley

The DNA for this wonderfully atmospheric and unsettling novel of the supernatural set in the 1970s can be found in two places. The first is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. What Waters did in her novel was overlay a ghost story on a story that's largely about the social upheaval in post-war Britain as it moved rapidly to a social welfare state. This gave her novel a complexity and resonance that's lacking in most horror/supernatural fiction, which tend to have a relentless focus on nothing but the scares. Like Waters, Hurley has crafted a solid, complex, elegantly-written novel that includes a horror element, but it's not all about the horror. Take away the supernatural element and The Loney could still stand on its merits as a straight novel about faith, especially its blindness.

The other strand of DNA in Hurley's novel comes from Barbara Pym, a forgotten and then rediscovered novelist from the 1960s and '70s. Pym wrote gently comic novels about the English middle-classes. Her characters place great importance on social rank and the proper observance of social customs and traditions, often in the context of the Anglican church. Hurley gives us a group of people who could easily have wandered in from a Pym novel One couple even has a wonderfully fruity and Pym-like surname: Mr and Mrs Belderboss. Like Pym's characters, Hurley's are middle-class and carefully, constantly snobbish about their inferiors, especially those who don't appear to be sufficiently pious. And at times, between the chills and frights, Hurley invites us to smile, if not laugh, at their buttoned-down silliness.

And so on to the plot: the unnamed narrator is a fifteen year-old boy who is the chief carer for his brother Andrew, who is mute, probably autistic, and several years older. Their parents, the Smiths, are devout Catholics and their lives revolve around their church, which has recently changed priestly hands. Father Bernard is the new, young, Irish priest. His predecessor died "suddenly," as they say. The Smiths and Belderbosses aren't keen on this disturbance to their routine, and their first chance to put the new dog collar-wearer to the test comes on their annual Easter pilgrimage. They go to a place on the northwest coast of England called the Loney. It's a bit of untamed coastline that's infamous for is deadly tides and bogs. The house they stay in, called the Moorings, is architecturally in keeping with the gloomy, haunted surroundings. The pilgrimage is a both a retreat and a chance to visit various local shrines. The Smiths fervently believe that God will cure Andrew on one of these pilgrimages.

The Smiths and Belderbosses have happy memories of previous trips to the Moorings, but nothing goes right this time. A third couple, Miss Bunce and her fiance David, had lobbied to go to Wales instead, and Bunce is quick to voice her displeasure at the roughness of the land and the accommodations. None of them are entirely happy with Father Bernard, who seems insufficiently stern, and the weather is thoroughly crappy. And then there's those locals; they're an ominous crew with yeasty accents and a habit of making startling and unnerving appearances.

Without dropping spoilers all over the place it's tricky to describe what constitutes the horror in The Loney. Hurley achieves his goal by layering episodes and glimpses of savagery, menace, eeriness, and disquietude. What it all seems to add up to is that the Loney is a patch of England where pagan beliefs and spirits still hold sway, not to mention some nasty black magic. All this pagan horror is nicely contrasted with the religious activities of the pilgrims at the Moorings, who are equally obsessed with the magic in the form of prayers, holy talismans and Christian shrines. It's a case of two sides of the same coin, only the pagans appear to have backed the winning side.

Hurley's deftness with character-building really puts this novel on a different plane. Tonto, who we meet as an adult at the beginning and end of the novel, is shrewd, caring, perceptive and agnostic, if not atheist, at an early age. He's wise enough to see that the faith of his parents and their peers is equal parts hobby and play-acting. The adult characters, even the minor ones, are sharply drawn. The Smiths and their friends could have easily been portrayed as purely fatuous or shallow, but Hurley takes the harder route of showing people whose often foolish belief in faith arises from being wounded or frightened, or in wishing not to offend loved ones.

So this'll be my book of the year so far, and it also has to be one of the most sophisticated horror novels I've ever read. And now please hurry up with the film version, which is in the capable hands of the people who produced Ex Machina.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Film Review: The Nice Guys (2016)

Shane Black, the testosterone-addled writer/director behind such guys with guns films as Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Last Boy Scout, isn't wholly to blame for this embalmed-in-nostalgia disaster. It's clear he didn't get the memo. No one who has read the memo would have cast Russell Crowe in anything remotely resembling a comedy. I'm positive a memo was sent out to everyone in Hollywood letting them know that Crowe can't do funny in the same way that Donald Trump can't do rational. The proof is the romantic-comedy A Good Year (2006), in which Russ tried to go the full Hugh Grant and ended up doing a career face-plant that registered on the Richter scale. And I`m positive another memo will shortly be doing the rounds in Hollywood letting people know that Ryan Gosling also appears to be comedy-impaired.

The plot, such as it is, has Crowe and Gosling as, respectively, Jackson Healey,an enforcer for hire, and Holland March, a boozy P.I., joining forces to find a missing girl in 1977 Los Angeles. Also along for the ride is Angourie Rice playing March's precocious 13 year-old daughter. The missing girl, Elaine, is somehow involved in both the porn business and a scandal affecting Detroit's automakers. Various people want her dead and are happy to take out anyone looking for her. As you can see, Black repeatedly hit the cliche key on his laptop when he sat down to write this mess. The thin plot is just a rickety framework for a barrage of dead-on-arrival gags and glitzy, extravagant production design that recreates in lurid detail the era that good taste forgot.

Even if Crowe and Gosling were born comics it's hard to imagine them wringing laughs out of this material. A typical gag has March asking Healey, "What do you call those guys without balls?" March is thinking of eunuchs, but Healey wittily replies, "Married?" This would have been a tired gag in 1977, but Black thinks it's so funny he has his duo do another variation of it later on. Adding a precocious kid into the mix just makes things more like a bad sitcom, and when the girl ends up at a porn producer's party the film takes a turn into the unsavory that it never recovers from. None of the actors survive this train wreck. Gosling and Crowe are poor, Rice is awful, and Kim Basinger as an attorney general is...very odd. When she first appeared on screen I wasn't sure what I was looking at. A Pixar creation? A hologram? And then I remembered that some actors now have it in their contracts that they must be digitally altered to look younger. Basinger doesn't look younger, she looks like a replicant auditioning for a Blade Runner sequel.

Shane Black clearly set out to make a guns and gags version of Boogie Nights. The latter film, however, wasn't fixated on period detail and had a laser-sharp focus on character. The Nice Guys is just a collection of bad jokes dressed up in wide lapels and garish colours. And even the action elements are lacking, which is a shocker in a Shane Black film. Avoid this one and just watch something nasty and funny that was actually made in the '70s like Freebie and the Bean or Busting.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Film Review: The Witch (2015)

Of all the qualities that help make a horror movie succeed, acting usually isn't at the top of the list. Editing, cinematography, makeup and special effects are normally the most mentioned aspects of horror films. In The Witch, the acting is everything. The setting is colonial America in the early 1600s, and the story focuses entirely on a family of Pilgrims who are trying to farm (not very successfully) in the middle of the wilderness. An opening scene establishes that they have been exiled from a Pilgrim settlement due to some transgression on the part of William, the head of the family. Based on how he behaves with his family, it seems likely that his sin was being too pious for his peers, if that's possible. One day the family's infant son is snatched away by a witch, and so begins the disintegration and destruction of the entire family.

The story is rigorously straight-forward, steeped in folkloric imagery, stripped of all modern sensibilities, and doesn't have any of the cliche plot twists and jump scares that are standard issue in most modern horror films. This is a true horror film in that what rivets our attention is the horror of what's happening to the characters, not the scares inflicted on us by things jumping out of the dark or crashing sound effects or blood-soaked visuals. This makes the acting all the more important because it's the actors who largely carry the burden of transmitting the horror to the audience. The small, ensemble cast is superb, and writer/director Robert Eggers has given them rich, chewy, period dialogue that the actors make sound completely natural. There isn't one performance that stands out from the others, but Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, the eldest son, deserves special mention for a scene in which he wakes from a fever that is so intense it'll raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

The acting is supported by the look of the film, which is sombre, gloomy and classically understated. Showy camerawork would have taken the audience out of the reality created by the story and the actors, so kudos to the director for that decision. Another subtle and effective touch is that each character is given a flaw that they keep hidden. The father is an incompetent farmer; the mother resents having come to America; the daughter isn't quite pious enough; the son is casting lustful looks at his sister; and the young twins are out and out holy terrors. This isn't a simplistic crew of God-bothering Pilgrims. All in all, the best film I've seen so far this year



Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Book Review: Dark Money (2016) by Jane Mayer

There is no getting around or understating the fact that Charles and David Koch, the multi-billionaire brothers from Kansas, have been engaged in a campaign of unarmed insurrection against the American state since the 1980s. Through their underwriting of dozens (hundreds?) of advocacy groups, think tanks, academic institutions, and political campaigns they have advanced the cause of what could be called the abridgment of American democracy. They have spent hundreds of millions of their own dollars to achieve this, and have solicited/badgered their plutocratic peers into giving as much and more to support their goal of reducing the role of government to something resembling that of a concierge at a luxury hotel--a mere functionary tasked with keeping the unwashed out of the lobby and satisfying every whim of the guests.

Jane Mayer has done a remarkable and tenacious job of showing all the roots and branches of the Koch brothers propaganda war. Aided by like-minded billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson, Richard Mellon Scaife, John Menard, and a torch- and pitchfork-bearing mob of mere centimillionaires, the fruit of the tree planted by the Kochs and watered with the furious tears of anti-tax tycoons is that slouching beast known as the Republican Party. What was once upon time a conservative, but mostly rational, political party has now become the marionette and mouthpiece for a cabal who seek to turn the political/capitalist clock back to roughly 1900, which, in their view, was a golden age of capitalism unfettered by unions, taxes or government regulations.

Mayer makes it very clear that the Kochs and their allies don't just want a diminution of the government's role in society and the economy, they want it banished from the playing field altogether. The John Birch Society was the incubator for this extreme philosophy back in the '60s, but it took the Kochs to give it mainstream appeal and respectability through the GOP. The Kochs achieved this by creating an entire ecosystem of advocacy and political organizations that promoted and funded policies and politicians that were in accord with their fanatical worldview. The proof of their success is that the GOP is now not so much a political party as it is a counter-revolutionary movement seeking to rollback all progressive policies enacted since the end of World War Two.

Although taxation and government regulations are the main targets of this Koch-led guerilla war, they work equally hard at deconstructing democracy through the gerrymandering of congressional districts and by curtailing voters rights. The Kochs and their allies are mostly concerned with enriching themselves, but they also want to create a new American state in which corporations become the fourth branch of government, surpassing in power the legislative, executive and judicial. It's arguable that that has been the case in the U.S. for quite some time already, but America's billionaires want to rig the democratic game so that their power cannot be challenged by the judiciary or through the ballot box. Politicians have been for sale for a long time, but the Kochs want to take things to the next level by disenfranchising the poor and establishing legal precedents that give corporations and the wealthy de facto control over the electoral process.

What the Kochs are up to sounds, at times, like some kind of conspiracy theory spawned by social media, but Jane Mayer is meticulous in uncovering all the layers in this proto-parallel government that's made up of interlocking foundations, charitable trusts, PACs and advocacy groups. This kind of detailed reporting always risks being tedious, but Mayer is wonderful at balancing facts and figures with a strong sense of narrative structure.

The question that comes to mind from reading this book is why has the U.S. lead the developed world, especially in the postwar era, in producing so many wealthy people with an ideological blood lust for less government and more, far more, profits? I think there are two possible answers. The first is that, as Calvin Coolidge observed in the '20s, "The business of America is business." The foundation myths of the United States like to dwell on warm and fuzzy concepts such as freedom, democracy, opportunity and escape from persecution. It's more accurate, if less romantic, to say that most people came to America for one reason only: to make money. People didn't uproot themselves and make dangerous sea voyages to an unseen, unknown land for the chance to vote or engage in free speech. They came because America offered economic opportunities that couldn't be found in their own countries. America was populated from the beginning with people who had an intrepid desire to better themselves financially, and this became the country's dominant cultural theme. And for some of the richest Americans, financial self-aggrandizement became a quasi-religious impulse; in fact, in the last several decades capitalism and Christianity have become officially linked in many evangelical churches through the so-called prosperity gospel. The Kochs and others of their ilk see themselves as saintly warriors in the holy war against government.

The flip side to the American dream was slavery, and this institution, which shows capitalism in its rawest form, has affected American's view of labour and capital to this day. Slavery, and the Jim Crow-era that followed up until the 1960s, produced a permanent economic underclass that could be identified by race. Blacks were deemed an inferior race, and it followed that their poverty was a natural by-product of an inherent lack of intelligence and ambition. To be black was to be poor, and to be poor was to be black. For white America, economic failure was regarded as a failing on a personal level, it marked one out as a lesser being, it made you black, but it wasn't seen as an inevitable by-product of capitalism. In Europe, the working classes, who weren't tripped up by racial questions, grasped the fact that economic hardship and inequality was simply part of the capitalist equation, and they organized and backed unions and political parties that fought directly for their interests. In the U.S., the racial fear of poverty and economic disadvantage was a prime reason a true worker's party (on a national level) never emerged. So the sense of shame, horror and fear that Americans have viewed life at the bottom of the economic ladder played right into the hands of people like the Kochs. If the poor and working poor see themselves as lesser Americans, lesser humans, it follows that those at the top are the best and brightest, and to deny them their wealth and power is simply going against nature. It's this warped logic that helps explain why the white, populist, working-class Tea Party (a quietly Koch-founded movement, as Mayer points out) metastasized into the Red Guard of the GOP. Against their better interests Tea Party supporters embrace the brutalist capitalist ideology of the Kochs as a way of distancing themselves from the poverty they fear and loathe.

Many commentators have made the point that during this election cycle the Kochs have ended up on the outside looking in as Donald Trump has swept aside their preferred candidates. The Kochs may have lost the battle but they've won the war. Politics is broken in the United States, and it's due in no small part to the Kochs. The American right is now an anarchic crew of ideologues who want to cripple federal and state governments. These are vandals, not politicians. Jane Mayer's book is an invaluable and astute guide to the structure, purpose and character of this counter-revolution, and it probably stands as one of the most important political books written in the last ten years. The Kochs certainly think so because they tried very hard to silence her. There's no higher recommendation for the book than that.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Film Review: The Long Goodbye (1973)

One of the notable aspects of American films of the 1970s is that many of the male stars who emerged in that decade looked like the average man in the street. Actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Al Pacino, and Gene Hackman would have been character actors, at best, in the '40s and 50s, but in the '70s they were major stars. None of them were conventionally handsome, some could even be called homely, but they could all act the pants off most of their more handsome contemporaries.

And then we have Elliot Gould. He leaped from character actor to star with back-to-back roles in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and MASH (1970). Both films were controversial and very plugged in to the zeitgeist. Those two roles gave Gould enough career momentum to carry him through most of the '70s as a bona fide leading man. But unlike Hoffman and the others, all of whom continued as leading men into the '80s and even the '90s, Gould's career in the big leagues was fading out by 1978 when he starred in Matilda, the one and, hopefully, only film about a boxing kangaroo. The Long Goodbye is a reminder of why Gould's career as a leading man had such a short trajectory: he wasn't a very good actor.

The Long Goodbye is based on a Raymond Chandler novel, with Gould playing iconic  P.I. Philip Marlowe in contemporary Los Angeles. The plot doesn't matter a whit because Chandler's stories are primarily about character, atmosphere, attitude, and the city of Los Angeles, which also, in a sense, fills the role of Marlowe's sidekick and sparring partner. Director Robert Altman is attuned to the special flavour of Chandler's work, especially the louche charm of crime in the sunny, palm tree-shaded environs of California's upper classes. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond puts that louche quality up on the screen in spades, and it's reasonable to say that he's the real star of the film. The supporting actors, Sterling Hayden, Nina van Pallandt and Mark Rydell are all excellent, and in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment you can spot Arnold Schwarzenegger as an anonymous heavy.

It's Gould who torpedoes this film. He mumbles dialogue that sounds as though it was ad-libbed, and all of it is horrible. What Gould and Altman were up to isn't clear, but I'd guess they were trying to create a Marlowe who has one foot in the whiskey and water '40s and another in the weed and transcendental meditation '70s. It's a disaster. Marlowe's incessant chatter isn't amusing or clever, and Gould's acting is, tonally speaking, in another galaxy from what his fellow actors are doing. The scenes between Gould and Hayden are torture to watch because the latter is actually acting while the former is riffing on some cross between Popeye at his most garrulous and a stoner. A much, much better actor might have been able to do something with this role, but Gould makes a bad situation much, much worse.

Gould was one those average-looking guys who became a star in the '70s, but his natural pay grade was as a supporting actor. He was best at playing shrewd, urban, fast-talking hustlers, but only in small doses. His other films from that decade are mostly forgettable or forgotten, as are his performances in them. California Split (1974) and Busting (1974) are the exceptions to this rule, but in each case Gould is sharing the acting load with a co-star. Bits and pieces of The Long Goodbye are excellent, but the stumbling, nattering self-indulgence of Gould's performance turns the film into, at most, a curiosity rather than something worth seeking out.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Book Review: The Sixth Directorate (1975) by Joseph Hone

Yes, it's a horrible cover.
There's never really been a writer of spy fiction like Joseph Hone. He only wrote four spy novels featuring reluctant agent Peter Marlow, and one of those, The Valley of the Fox is more of an eccentric take on a Geoffrey Household-type adventure yarn than it is a spy story. Having read all four now, it's clear that Hone was using the genre as a vehicle for lyrical, trenchant, forensic examinations of male-female relationships. Or to view it another way, he saw spying, and its concomitant betrayals and life-long political commitments, as perfectly analogous to the tides and tempests of romantic relationships.

All four of Hone's spy novels have intense personal relationships at their core. The first in the series, The Private Sector, begins as a study of Marlow's relationship with the woman who becomes his wife in post-colonial Egypt. That novel only kicks into spy gear at about the one-third mark. This novel, the second in the series, begins in full spy mode and then becomes a story of entangled relationships for most of its length. The plot has Marlow assuming the identity of a KGB sleeper agent who has been resident in London for many years. His assignment is to go to New York and take a job at the U.N. where, hopefully, he'll flush out an extensive network of KGB agents. That two sentence synopsis represents about 7.6% of the actual plot of the novel, which is daunting in its romantic and political complexities.

Soon after arriving in New York, Marlow finds that the man he's impersonating is part of a long-standing romantic triangle, and Marlow finds himself taking the man's place in that subterfuge as well. What's even stranger is that not only do all involved know about the various secret personal relationships, the concerned parties also know about who's spying for whom. This may be one of the few novels about spying in which none of the main characters have any secrets worth hiding. They do, however, go through the formalities of pretending they are acting in secret, just as failed relationships will continue to go through the usual domestic routines as though nothing had changed.

The fact that Hone's novels often drift more towards Henry James than Ian Fleming would be a problem if he wasn't such a fine writer, and The Sixth Directorate features some of his best writing. Here's Marlow describing the smile of someone he doesn't much like:

When he smiled, it was no more than a short break in the gray weather over the stumps and mud of no man's land.

And here's the introduction to one of the major characters:

But it wasn't a wooden face by any means. Only its present outlines were fixed. For the moment it had simply withdrawn the currency of  expression; it was resting, as if inwardly reflecting on its assets. leaving only a rough estimate of its worth on view, so that passers-by might be warned of the stakes involved before making an investment. 

Hone also writes prose that can easily double as blank verse. Here's a description of an agent confronting the painful duality of his life:

Now, in the silence, the other man, whose only business was guile, alert and smelling the wind, reared in him, while the happy man cursed the hour.

One of the hallmarks of a great writer is that he or she will toss something into the mix just for the sheer fun of showing off their artistry and technique. This is a description of the interior of the U.N. building that extends a passenger ship metaphor to include a stowaway:

...the whole area was remarkably like the first-class passenger concourse of a big tin liner, moored disconsolately and permanently beyond territorial waters, going nowhere.
     Only the shoeshine man seemed real--a middle-aged, balding New Yorker, in a short-sleeved tartan shirt, bent permanently forward on a little wooden chair over his work, head bobbing furiously, his hands and forearms a dusty brown with the years of his trade. He was like a stowaway on this listless ship full of impeccable people, someone from a ghetto that had shinned up the anchor on our last night in port and had now been set to work his passage by the captain.

Hone's novels are deficient in the slam and bang of a lot of spy fiction, but no one writes as well as him in this genre, and it would be a mistake to ghettoize his talent in the espionage section of the book store; he's simply a superb writer. The Sixth Directorate is only marred by a certain slackness in the later stages of the novel when the personal relationships begin to get a bit too fraught and all-consuming. On the plus side, the finale is wickedly tense and well-plotted.

My reviews of Hone's other Peter Marlow novels:

The Private Sector
The Oxford Gambit
The Valley of the Fox

Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Review: Rain Dogs (2015) by Adrian McKinty

This is the fifth in Adrian McKinty's series of mysteries featuring DI Sean Duffy of Northern Ireland's Royal Ulster Constabulary, and it's time to start thinking of them as historical fiction (they're set in the 1980s) and not just mysteries. I say this because one of the purposes of historical fiction is to reveal the past in ways more subtle and nuanced than can be found in history books. The bare bones history of Northern Ireland's Troubles is well known, but a writer like McKinty teases out the quotidian life of people living at the leading edge of the conflict. What makes this series have a foot in both literary genres is that in each book McKinty incorporates one or more historical figures (Gerry Adams, Margaret Thatcher, John DeLorean, etc.) who had a role, big or small, in NI's conflict. The intersection of real characters and events with the fictional Duffy has a twofold purpose: it marks the series out as an attempt to add shading, colour, and perspective to the historical record, and it's also a way of keeping the memory and significance of the Troubles alive.

There are plenty of mystery series set in the past featuring sleuthing Victorians, medieval monks, and Regency aristos, but in almost all these examples the historical setting is just dusty window dressing. McKinty is trying to draw attention to some fairly recent history that's beginning to slip from what could be called the popular historical record. The Irish (I'm including NI and Ireland in this) are in a peculiar situation where their image abroad, the myth of Irishness, is a twee amalgam of peat smoke, mad poets, green fields, gurning peasants, and well-lubricated wit. It's an image that keeps the tourist dollars flowing and warms the hearts of descendants of the great Irish diaspora. The Troubles interfered with this travel poster narrative in a big way. How could all those twinkly "Oirish" people throw bombs into crowded pubs or kneecap women? It was like finding out your favourite uncle had a stash of kiddie porn. As the Troubles have wound down to a dull murmur, the shamrock-encrusted image of the Irish has filtered back, and populist fare like Patrick Taylor's Irish Country Doctor book series and TV's Ballykissangel have brought the Irish compass needle pointing back to due leprechaun. The Duffy books are, perhaps, unique in reminding the literary public that until fairly recently a small population of white, English-speaking Christians were going at each other with the kind of ferocity we now associate with the Middle East.

This Duffy mystery may be the most polished of the bunch. It has a variation on the locked room puzzle (a locked castle!), and the set-up for it is splendidly handled. Chapters four and five should be read by any aspiring mystery writer as an example of how to establish a crime scene and lay out all the relevant clues. The death being investigated is that of Lily Bigelow, a writer for the Financial Times who seems to have killed herself  by jumping from the top of Carrick Castle. Bigelow was covering a trip to NI by a group of Finnish businessmen but as Duffy digs deeper it turns out that Bigelow was interested in uncovering something very nasty. The novel is filled with McKinty's usual wit and sharp descriptions of life in NI, and there's a bonus side trip to Finland that, visually speaking, seems to have been inspired by Billion Dollar Brain, a brilliant and unappreciated film by Ken Russell (my review). And the finale suggests that if there any more Duffy novels, his life might be headed in an interesting new direction.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Book Review: Deep South (2015) by Paul Theroux

A new Paul Theroux travel book is always a cause for celebration, and while I certainly enjoyed a lot of Deep South, other portions left a bad taste in my mouth. Theroux's odyssey through America's Deep South is illuminating, thorough, and heartfelt, but also wrong-headed and occasionally condescending.

I knew there was trouble ahead when Theroux began the book with a diatribe about the indignities of air travel: the delays, the security, the searches, and so on and so on. This specific kind of whining is the special province of older, white, affluent writers, and I expected Theroux to be better than this. No one likes airport security, but the alternative is too grisly to contemplate. Unfortunately, Theroux then goes the extra mile from whingeing all the way to pure snobbery when he says, "All air travel today involves interrogation, often by someone in a uniform who is your inferior." Ouch. Paul doesn't define what makes someone inferior to him, but I'm guessing it's because they wear an ill-fitting uniform and are paid by the hour. Of such comments revolutions are born. But on with the trip...

Theroux has always excelled at getting under the surface of the lands he's journeyed through, and this outing is no exception. He has a novelist's eye for character and landscape, and, even more importantly for the purposes of a travel writer, an unquenchable curiosity about people and local history. Theroux drills down deep into the South's history and culture, showing how the Civil War and the Jim Crow-era have never truly ended; in fact, if the book has a theme it's that racism is alive and well throughout the South. I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose, but the extent of the divide between blacks and whites in the South is still somewhat shocking. Theroux's tour of the South takes in many locations that were the scene of infamous examples of white on black violence, and he does an admirable job of bringing these episodes to life. But then he puts his foot in his mouth when he describes being harangued by a black woman for arriving late for an interview. He casts her in the role of professional white-hater, and, what's worse, surmises from her looks that she might not be black at all. What makes this so offensive and dumb is that later in the book Theroux shows that he's aware of the fact that white Southerners regard even a trace of black "blood" as enough to count someone as black. This is, in fact, the theme of Light in August by William Faulkner, an author who Theroux discusses at length in the book. Theroux might not have seen his antagonist as black, but it's almost certain that Southern society does.

Most travel writers who take a spin through Dixie invariably knock off a few thousand words about antebellum mansions, mint juleps, oak tress dripping with Spanish moss, Southern hospitality--all the boilerplate of Southern travel writing. Theroux doesn't have time for that kind of tripe. He shows that the South is primarily a land of grinding poverty, fear of the outside world, and apocalyptic fatalism (and a hell of a lot of fried food). Theroux has great sympathy for the South's poor, but a shaky understanding of the politics and economics behind this poverty. At times he seems to take a the-poor-are-always-with-us tone, as when meets one particularly indigent family and offers a quote from a Chekhov short story called Peasants. The quote describes a woman's sense of realization that peasants are human and can be pitied for their suffering. It's a tone deaf piece of writing by Theroux since it casts him in the role of a patronizing snob--look at me, I feel sorry or these people and here's an example of my erudition to prove it. He correctly points to free trade deals that having hollowed out the South's manufacturing base, as have cheap imports, but he doesn't take the next step and point out that in this regard the South is no different than, well, most every other part of the U.S.

Since 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan, the corporate and political elite of America have been engaged in an overt and relentless campaign to rollback the relationship between capital and labour to something approximating the period before 1900. In short, business wants workers underpaid and unrepresented by unions, and their political allies want to distract or disenfranchise voters who might want to reverse this process. There's nothing secret about this and dozens of writers have described it at length. The South has more than its fair share of poverty, but that's largely because the region was always well ahead of the rest of the country in the twin sciences of disenfranchisement and union busting.

Theroux is good at micro views of poverty, but the macro escapes him. He fails to see that he's living in a country which is now almost existentially committed to creating wealth at any expense. The fact that he himself has homes in Hawaii and Cape Cod (I'm guessing they're not shotgun shacks) is a testament to the wealth-centric economic policies that create poverty. Theroux bemoans the lack of government assistance for the poor, but doesn't make the link to the low taxation he enjoys which pays for luxury homes. It's a simple equation: less social welfare spending so the upper-middle-classes and above can grow richer thanks to lower taxes. Theroux applauds various non-profit groups and NGOs that try to ameliorate life for the Southern poor, but he fails to see that these are simply band-aids. Without profound changes at the political level these efforts are largely futile.

Theroux takes the Bill Clinton Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the federal government to task for funding anti-poverty projects in Africa and elsewhere when many parts of the South are in just as bad a shape. It's a fair point, but it overlooks two factors. First, to acknowledge that kind of poverty exists in the U.S. is a tacit admission that there is a systemic problem in the way wealth is distributed in America, and no one in the upper levels of American society is willing to cop to that. Second, Theroux's complaint overlooks the fact that racism plays a huge part in the debate around social welfare in the U.S. American culture has always seen poverty as a self-inflicted wound caused by laziness and ignorance, and those are the same qualities ascribed by racists to blacks. In short, a significant number of white Americans have traditionally seen poverty as a black problem caused by the innate moral and intellectual shortcomings of African Americans. Instead of seeing blacks as simply the economic underclass, no different than economic underclasses in other countries, whites have seen a "black problem" rather an economic problem.

The doggedness and sense of empathy Theroux shows in his trip down south is admirable, as is his prose, but his inability to explicate the political and economic causes underlying the South's near-Third World status can be very frustrating. He does, however, get bonus marks from me for rightly praising the works of Charles Portis, a writer who should be famous for more than just True Grit.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Donald Trump: the Church of America's Pope

No one's been saying much about Donald Trump lately so I thought I'd try and get a conversation going.

The business of political punditry has never been better or busier thanks to Trump and the drunken clown fight that is the GOP nomination process. One aspect of Trump's rise that's produced mass head scratching has been his success with evangelical Republicans. Ted Cruz, the most bothersome of the GOP's divine host of God-botherers, was supposed to be the darling of those who think Jesus came over on the Mayflower, drove the dinosaurs out of America, and then invented baseball. Evangelicals, so the theory goes, should be shocked and dismayed by Trump's worldliness, his vulgar displays of wealth, his sexual boasting, his multiple marriages and infidelities, and his unrepentant New York, N.Y.-ness.

What people don't appreciate is that this makes Trump the pope of the Church of America. You see, evangelicals aren't really Christians. Yes, they assemble in churches, say prayers, quote bits and pieces from the Bible, but it's more correct to call them members of the Church of America. I'd argue that what's known as the religious right is actually a new, hybrid religion that's composed of equal parts capitalist boosterism, white ancestor worship, rabid nationalism, militarism, with just a patina of Christianity. Followers of the Church of America, unlike Christ, have an active dislike for the weak, the meek and the poor, and they're definitely not peacemakers. The religious right has taken bits and pieces from the Old and New Testament to craft a religious outlook that ennobles capitalism, praises warriors, exalts masculinity, and denigrates scientific thought. The best evidence for this hybridization is the so-called "prosperity gospel," which basically turns God into the Uncle Money Bags character from the game of Monopoly. Play the faith game the right way, says the prosperity gospel, and you'll be rewarded with riches.

Trump is the ideal leader of the C of A. His wealth, particularly his flaunting of it, is a siren call to those who believe that wads of money are proof of God's favour. This in turn ties in with the widespread belief on the religious right that American was specifically and particularly blessed with natural riches by the Almighty. To this way of thinking, Trump is surely one of God's chosen ones since he's been blessed more than most. The other factor that Trump relies on to attract evangelicals (probably without his realizing it) is his history as a horndog. This would seem to be illogical given the religious right's habit of getting its plain white J.C. Penny knickers in a twist whenever sex becomes an issue. Trump's sexual history is a declaration of male privilege, appetites, and vanity, and as such it dovetails nicely with the evangelical view of the sexes: men are providers and defenders of the family, bold and brave in their dealings with the world outside the family, and if they cross a line or two, or stray, they must be forgiven by their womenfolk because the challenges they face are so taxing. Women, on the other hand, should concentrate solely, as the German saying goes, on kinder, kuche, kirche. Trump is vividly and ostentatiously masculine, and that goes down a treat with those evangelicals who believe that men should be at the centre of the family and the nation. And Trump is certainly far more butch than the rest of the GOP field, all of whom come across as various flavours of nerd.

I can't say I'm surprised at Trump's success; I actually kind of predicted (*pats self on back*) that someone like him would come along in this piece I wrote four years ago on the Republican primaries. Until the GOP finally splinters into two new parties, the Delusional Republicans and the Deranged Republicans, we'll be seeing more of the same madness from the GOP every four years. It's a sickening thought, but at least it'll probably keep Twitter from going bankrupt.

Related posts:

Finally, Proof That Jesus Would Vote Republican
What Makes a Conservative Conservative?




Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Glenn Healy

As a degenerate hockey fan (go Leafs!) I watch a lot of games and listen to way too much sports talk radio. The big story of the 2014-15 season was Rogers TV/Sportsnet taking control of almost all hockey broadcasts in Canada in the first year of their multi-billion dollar agreement with the NHL. Rogers splashed out on glitzy new sets and poached talent from rival TSN and the CBC. The result was a decline in ratings in both the regular season and the playoffs. It wasn't supposed to go this way. Rogers bet big money on hockey, and figured a fresh approach, or at least a serious cosmetic makeover, would harvest more viewers. We're now almost two full seasons into the Rogers era of hockey broadcasting, and here's my take on what's right and wrong with it.

THE GOOD


Less Ron MacLean. He's not completely off the airwaves yet, but, fingers crossed, his banishment to the Siberia of Hometown Hockey and his limited exposure on his Punch and Judy show with Don Cherry will, I hope, lead to permanent retirement. As host of Hockey Night in Canada, MacLean came across as a spoiled, narcissistic, smirking adolescent. He treated his own opinions as gospel and became petulant and whiny when faced with even mildly contradictory views. And his self-indulgent interviewing style, loaded with witless puns and opaque references to people and events the average viewer was unaware of, became unbearable to watch. So long, Ron, long may you shiver in minor-league rinks across rural Canada.

George Stroumboulopoulos. George's first season as the main host and face of Hockey Night in Canada was a qualified success. He's a more intuitive and agile interviewer than MacLean, and he does a good job of wrangling all the talking heads Rogers has stuffed into its expensive new set. At 43 years-old he's not the "young blood" Rogers touted him as, but he's a vast improvement over Ron. But someone please tell him that saying "Dude" every 20 seconds just makes real young people think you sound foolish. The only mark against him is that he's a shameless and hysterical promoter of the NHL and Rogers. At least MacLean took the occasional swipe at the league.

Christine Simpson. While CBC controlled HNIC, Christine Simpson was relegated to the role of rinkside reporter. Rogers has given her some feature interviews and she's shown skill and intelligence at this job. So much so that one wonders why they haven't given her a hosting job instead of Darren Millard, but more about him later.

Elliote Friedman. It's nice that Sportsnet brought in Friedman to provide some reasoned analysis as a way of counterbalancing the jokey jockstrappery of the resident ex-NHLers; unfortunately, that's resulted in a tedious game of "Let's Tease Elliote" by the likes of NickKypreos, Glenn Healy and P.J. Stock. The puckheads are uneasy in the presence of a non-rink rat and they react by needling Friedman at every opportunity. It's juvenile beyond belief.

Mike Johnson. Insightful, well-spoken, honest, smart, and always to the point. How in hell did this guy get a job in sports broadcasting?  He's the best colour commentator working in Canada by a country mile, and he'll probably be poached by a US broadcaster one of these days, a move that will undoubtedly be cheered by the his Canadian peers--after all, he makes them look bad.

THE BAD

Don Cherry. I feel faintly traitorous for wanting to see the end of Cherry, but it's time we recognized that all his rants and pronouncements about how hockey should be played amount to an argument for more concussions in the game. He can still be amusing and occasionally insightful, but that's outweighed by his rambling, community bulletin board mentions of hockey people no one's heard of, and his pom-pom waving for the police and the military belongs on a different network--Fox News.

No Girls Allowed. Women's hockey leagues continue to grow. Scan the crowds at NHL games and you'll see lots of female faces. Check out HNIC and the only woman on the main set on a regular basis is Sophia Jurksztowicz, who may be eminently qualified to be part of a hockey broadcast but seems mostly cast in the role of eye candy. Sportsnet is using women more prominently as rinkside reporters, and but why not as analysts? Elliote Friedman has no hockey qualifications on his CV, so why was he allowed to make the leap from rinkside reporter to panelist ahead of women like Christine Simpson or Cassie Campbell-Pascall or a dozen others?

And No Europeans or Visible Minorities. European players have been a key part of the NHL for a very long time, but I don't think there has ever been a Euro ex-NHLer used as a colour commentator or analyst. If you were a smart executive at Sportsnet you might think a European analyst could add something new to the mix. Or you could just wheel out another ex-enforcer from Knuckleburg, Saskatchewan, and let him mumble hockey platitudes. Visible minorities are almost as scarce as Europeans. Kevin Weekes was dropped from HNIC by Sportsnet, and now the only non-white faces are David Amber and Arash Madani, neither of whom are given prominent roles.

"Funny" Hosts. I don't know who the first sportscaster/commentator to bring a humorous touch to sports broadcasting was, but he has a lot to answer for. Every sportscast now seems to come with a side dish of "comedy" served up by people who may amuse their friends and relations, but who have no business trying to be funny in public. I'm talking about you, Darren Millard. Millard looks like a circa 1970s game show host with a sense of humor to match. On radio and TV he fills the air with puerile banter and jokes so labored they come with assembly instructions. But he's far from the only one doing this; in fact, it sometimes seems the majority of people in sports broadcasting in Canada are in it for the "laughs." One of the few sports broadcasters who was genuinely witty was Kathryn Humphreys, late of City TV and now retired. Her reward for actually being funny was to be ignored by all the major sports media outlets. The message was clear: a witty woman is a menace to the self-esteem of sports stars and teams, but fatuous clowns like P.J. Stock (another ex-resident of Knuckleburg, Sask.) of HNIC or Cabbie of TSN can have all the national airtime they want.

Tame Journalists. For quite some sports journalists at the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail have done double duty as paid co-hosts/regular guests on sports radio networks and on TSN and Sportsnet. Two in particular, Damien Cox and Stephen Brunt, eventually transitioned out of print journalism and become full-time employees at Sportsnet. The optics of this are very bad. Sports journalism may be the "playroom" of the newspaper business, but there's something wrong about journalists being on the payroll of the corporations that own the teams they cover. This conflict was made very apparent when Dirk Hayhurst, an ex-MLB pitcher was working as an analyst on Blue Jays games. Some of his criticisms were not well-received by Jays management and he was dropped by Rogers and scooped up by TSN. Rogers, the sole owner of the Jays, has always been sensitive to critiques of their team, and Sportsnet's coverage reflects that fact. Brunt now does puff pieces for the team on Sportsnet's website. On the hockey side of things, the chill on dissenting opinions is less obvious, but it's still there. The talking heads on TV and radio often complain (delicately) about the lack of scoring in the NHL, but no one has noted the precipitous decline in the entertainment value of NHL games. The NHL brand of hockey is frequently tedious to watch (the TV  ratings bear me out), but that ugly truth goes unmentioned by many sports journalists, largely, I suspect, because they worry it would mean the end of their profitable moonlighting gigs on TV and radio. Sportsnet and TSN don't want the public told that hockey is often less exciting than reruns of  Meet the Press, and so far, it seems, few journalists are willing to raise this issue.

Hockey Insiders. This is the job title given people such as Darren Dreger, Bob Mackenzie, Scotty Morrison and Pierre LeBrun, but I can't figure out why their respective employers waste money and airtime on them. So-called insiders boast about breaking stories on trades and the like, but in practice what that invariably means is that they "break" the news a scant few minutes before the team in question posts the news on Twitter. The "insiders" get their scoops by being chummy with GMs and player agents, and this creates a damaging side effect: any time this group is asked to comment on players or teams, their anodyne answers are painful to listen to. They're so desperate to avoid offending or alienating their sources they end up saying nothing of value.

THE UGLY

Glenn Healy. He looks like an enraged hedgehog and that's the nicest thing I can think to say about him. Healy's analysis of games revolves around reminding viewers that he once rode the bench for a Stanley Cup-winning team; he spits venom at the very concept of hockey analytics; and his sense of humor consists entirely of bitter sarcasm. Despite these defects, he's somehow become HNIC's most high-profile colour commentator.  It's possible he's a lovely man in civilian life, but on-air he's the most toxic personality in Canadian sports broadcasting. Think of him as the anti-Mike Johnson.