Sunday, 26 January 2014

That Slavery Malarkey: Django Unchained versus 12 Years a Slave

There is a famous Billie Holiday song called Strange Fruit (written by Abel Meeropol). It's a powerful and savage indictment of lynching and Southern racism. It's acknowledged as a classic and a milestone and it is to be admired. And I admire it. Unfortunately, I also rather think it's a heap of junk.

Why? Because, although it may be an excellent polemic, it's a lousy song. There is no pleasure to be had in listening to it. It is tedious, glum and strident. I'm sure some of its adherents would argue that it shouldn't be a pleasurable experience. Such serious subject matter, they'd say, demands an equally serious (read "po-faced") treatment.

I beg to differ. To support my argument, allow me to direct you to the delightful Count Basie Jimmy Rushing number It's the Same Old South (written by Jay Gorney and Edward Eliscu, from their revue Meet the People). This is also an assault on Jim Crow laws and racist atrocities. But instead of being doleful, blunt and overblown it is sarcastic, satirical and hilarious. And its lyrics are set to a jaunty, catchy tune that will have your foot tapping.

Instead of bludgeoning us with horrors as in Strange Fruit — "Pastoral scene of the gallant South/The bulging eye and the twisted mouth" — in It's the Same Old South we are offered snarky humour: "Let the Northerners keep Niagra/We’ll stick to our Southern pellagra."

This song shows that a pitiless attack on Southern bigotry can be swinging and upbeat and fun — it doesn't have to be a painful dirge.

This brings us to my argument about 12 Years a Slave versus Django Unchained. I think Tarrantino's Django is a vastly better movie and, even though it is a prurient, overheated pulp fantasy it is a better denunciation of slavery. No, strike that. Because it is a prurient, overheated pulp fantasy it is a better denunciation of slavery.

You come out of both movies hating slavery. But with Django Unchained you are also exhilarated, uplifted, and entertained. With 12 Years a Slave you are just numbed, dulled and deadened — and quite possibly bored. This is because the film makers of 12 Years are enslaved — if you will forgive the term — by the silly and simplistic notion that form must reflect content.

Thus 12 Years a Slave must be austere, horrific, tedious and repellent, because that is the experience it depicts. I say no. I say if you want to make an effective polemic against slavery why not couch it in the form of a hugely enjoyable, utterly lurid neo-Spaghetti Western?

Why is it better to take this approach? Because you will reach a larger audience. It will also be a more receptive audience because people enjoying an art work will be more open to the ideas it conveys.

Early in Django Unchained, Christopher Waltz dismisses "That slavery malarkey." This brilliantly throw-away line is a more effective reproach than hours of explicit polemicisim.

I'm not suggesting that 12 Years could, or should, have been reconfigured as Tarrantino style pop-art action movie. But neither did it need to be so solemnly numbing and ultimately dull. 

(Footnote: Amazingly the lyrics for It's the Same Old South are only available online in one place, and the geniuses who transcribed it didn't know what 'pellagra' meant, so they just invented a word. In any case, you can make a mental correction and read the lyrics here.)

(Image credits: Jimmy Rushing by great jazz photographer William P. Gottlieb is from Jazz in Photo. Billie Holiday by the equally great Don Hunstein is from Jazz Dot Com. The posters for 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are both from the reliable Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday, 19 January 2014

White Hunter, Black Heart: Peter Viertel and John Huston

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm an admirer of the film maker John Huston.

Huston was an outstanding director and also a fine writer — but he didn't work alone. Most of his movies were made in collaboration with other writers, including the talented Peter Viertel. Viertel co-wrote We Were Strangers with Huston. He also contributed, uncredited, to the screenplays of Huston's Beat the Devil and The African Queen and worked with him on early drafts of The Man Who Would Be King — which would become the masterpiece of Huston's later career.

But Viertel didn't just write with Huston. He also wrote about him, to superb effect. Which brings us to White Hunter, Black Heart — an excellent novel based on Viertel's experience with Huston in London and Africa during the pre-production and shooting of The African Queen.

The portrait of Huston is thinly disguised — he's called John Wilson — and it's quite brilliant ("If there are women or horses within reach he can't control himself."). Indeed White Hunter, Black Heart may be unsurpassed as a novel about film making. It is exquisitely observed. 

Take for instance the hilarious sequence about the fading Broadway actress who wants to break into movies. 'She had found such a wonderful story that she felt she just had to see it made.' It's a script about a dog. Two dogs in fact, Horace and Geraldine.

The actress wants to get her film made. Wilson the director just wants to get her into the sack. So he listens patiently to her endless exegesis of the dog script. In an aside he confides to our hero, Pete Verrill, the book's narrator: "If there's as much love in that old gal as there is talk, I'll be dead in the morning."

Our hero eavesdrops:

'The husky, tireless voice droned on. "He's alone now, poor Horace," I heard the woman say.
"We dolly with him as he trots slowly down a deserted street. He turns into Grosvenor Square. We cut to a long shot as he starts across it... Geraldine can be seen coming down Brook Street. She passes Claridge's... Suddenly they see each other,,, They race towards each other. The music swells. We hold the final picture in an extreme long shot, as they meet and turn and go off together. That's the end. The find each other..." I heard a slight sniffle from the lady as she finished.

"Well, honey," I heard John say, "isn't that something? Isn't that something?" '

Besides being a deft piece of comedy, this is also superbly true to life — the more utterly amateur an aspiring screenwriter is, the more likely they are to throw in lots of technical film-making terminology.

There's other great moments of character detail, many of them centring on the producer Paul Landau (based on Sam Spiegel) who has a love-hate relationship with Wilson, whom he calls the Ogre. "In a well-ordered society he'd be in a straitjacket now," says Landau. For his part, Wilson delights in tormenting Landau, calling him a "flesh-peddling pimp," adding affectionately, "I really can't help liking Paul. He's such a desperate man."

Written 60 years ago, nothing has really changed in the film business.

(However, we get a different insight into Landau when Peter accuses him of lying and the Jewish producer replies: "If I had always told the truth, Pete, I would now be a cake of soap.")

The bulk of the novel takes place in Africa where our liberal and like minded heroes from Hollywood are confronted by the hair raising racism of the local whites. They have to sit through lectures concerning the supposed genetic inferiority of the black Africans and bunkum about their lesser brains. When the blacks skilfully thrash their white employers in a soccer match Peter gleefully observes, "The small frontal lobes of their brains were not at all in evidence."  

But the African sequences chiefly focus on Wilson's obsession with trying to hunt and kill an elephant. (Ironically, a few years later Huston would make the film Roots of Heaven, based on Romain Gary's novel, which is about a group of what we'd now call eco-warriors fighting to defend elephants from poachers.)

This is all based on reality, although in his autobiography Huston is at pains to point out that he never did kill an elephant, and would now consider it a sin.

It's intriguing to note that despite Viertel making no attempt to disguise the people depicted in his novel, no one seems to have taken umbrage at the warts-and-all portraits of them. Huston remained a friend and collaborator of Viertel after the book was written — indeed, he suggested that Viertel rewrite it to make his portrait of Wilson even less flattering!

White Hunter, Black Heart is a classic novel, immensely readable and beautifully written. If you're interested in John Huston, in film making in general, or simply want a perceptive and engrossing read I can't recommend it highly enough.

And once you've read the book you might like to see the film of it, made by Clint Eastwood. It's a first rate piece of work and worthy of the novel, preserving all its most memorable sequences. Eastwood not only directed the film but starred as Wilson, and I think it may be his best performance ever. The screenplay was by Viertel himself, James Bridges and Burt Kennedy.

(Image credits: The British hardcover with its striking and appropriately black and white cover by Peter Rudland (another great Rudland cover here; totally irrelevant but I couldn't resist) is from Amazon UK as is the US hardcover. The Dell movie edition is from Good Reads. The UK Panther paperback with the excellent John Richards cover art is from ABE. The Bantam paperback is from Flickr. The African Queen poster is from iStream. the French African Queen poster is from Caracol y Derrapa. The Clint Eastwod DVD cover is from Cover Dude.) 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Banker by Dick Francis

It's a testament to Dick Francis's skill that he can even make a merchant banker (that contemporary bogeyman) a likable figure. The title of his novel 'Banker' has a double meaning. It refers to both the hero of the story and to the racing slang for a horse who is believed to be a certain winner.

The milieu of private banks is only part of the setting for the book. Dick Francis also explores the fascinating world of alternative medicine and herbal remedies. The story is as compelling as I've come to expect from him, getting off to a flying start with a knife attack in the second chapter.

In classic, brilliant fashion the author has his hero save someone from the attack, jumping on the teenager with the knife. But then the police jump on him, thinking he's assaulting the kid, and let the real attacker get away. This really punches the reader's buttons, making us angry and frustrated. The hallmark of a writer who truly knows his stuff, and can get a powerful emotional reaction from his audience (Thomas Harris is also superb in this regard).

The plot also packs a real emotional punch, and is often stomach churning, dealing as it does with the birth of deformed colts to prize thoroughbreds. It's an immensely suspenseful book because I genuinely didn't want anything bad to befall the horse Sandcastle or his owners.

But this being a thriller, bad things do happen, to all sorts of people. And animals. Once again Dick Francis impresses with the quality of his prose. There are masterful descriptions of horse racing: "The ground trembled from the thud of the hooves... the sweat, the effort and the speed filled eyes and ears and mind with pounding wonder and then were gone, flying away, leaving the silence." (I particularly like "pounding wonder". Nice alliteration of the "nd"s.)

There also beautiful little bits of observation. A stable lad is sweeping up in front of the thoroughbreds' stalls, watched by the horses "with the same depth of interest as a bus queue would extend to a busker." It's just perfect.

If there's a flaw in the book, it's that the death of one of the characters doesn't seem to have sufficient impact on some of the other characters. This didn't ring emotionally true to me. But that doesn't prevent Banker being one of Dick Francis's best.

(Image credits: The Colin Thomas cover photo at the top (white-on-black instead of his usual black-on-white designs) is from Jan-Willem Hubbers excellent site.  The others are from Good Reads. I'm rather fond of the German Kindle edition. And the yellow US hardcover is stylish, too.)

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

I've always regarded Kingsley Amis's masterpiece as being his brilliant ghost story The Green Man, so I've tended to ignore his much more famous first novel Lucky Jim. But Lucky Jim has been loved and admired by generations of readers and I recently re-read it myself, in the edition illustrated (right) with a very useful introduction by David Lodge.

I have always vividly remembered at least one inspired comic scene from the time I first read Lucky Jim, decades ago. It is the magnificent set piece where our hero Jim Dixon is desperately racing to try and get to the girl he loves before she leaves, and he's on a bus and it seems to be travelling in slow motion. 

Sitting on the top deck of the double decker, Jim is being driven into a frenzied rage by the bus's leisurely progress:"the driver added to his hypertrophied caution an almost psychopathic devotion to the interests of other road-users." 

Every possibly delay ensues in an almost animated-cartoon style. And Jim begins to fantasise feverishly about more of the same, encouraged by the bus driver's utter lack of urgency: "gossipping knots of loungers parted leisuredly at the touch of his reluctant bonnet; toddlers reeled to retrieve toys from under his just-revolving wheels."
When the bus stops to allow a farm tractor onto the road in front of it, "Dixon thought he really would have to run downstairs and knife the drivers of both vehicles."

Published 60 years ago, Lucky Jim stands up amazingly well. It's hilarious, brilliantly written and beautifully observed. The best drawn characters include Professor Welch (Jim's boss at the university where he has begun to teach, who holds Jim's fate in his hands). 

A master of evasion, Welch can never finish a sentence. Then there's Welch's son Bertrand, the loathsomely pretentious bearded, beret-wearing painter who has the girl Jim wants. And Margaret, Jim's sort-of girlfriend, a manipulative and emotionally blackmailing bundle of neuroses whom Jim can't quite get free of.

Unusually in Amis's canon, the book ends very happily and makes for an entirely satisfying read (though I kept tut-tutting about how many cigarettes everyone smoked).  Highly recommended.

Recent Penguin editions also include David Lodge's insightful and informative introduction which makes the interesting point that Lucky Jim was a sort of reversal of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. Greene's book was dark and tragic, Amis's light and comic. And while The Heart of the Matter leads to a genuine suicide through the hero's inability to free himself from morbid pity, Lucky Jim features a fake suicide which allows its hero to shake off just such pity, and escape happily to London with the girl he fancies.

(All the images were taken from Good Reads including the Penguin of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter with the excellent Paul Hogarth cover illustration. The copy of Lucky Jim I just read had Jonny Hannah cover art, seen at the top of this post. Note the little vignettes surrounding Jim. For instance, you can see Bertrand with his beard and beret above Jim, and Professor Welch in his ridiculous fishing hat below him. I also discovered that the US first edition hardback had cover art by Edward Gorey, recently reprinted in both American and British paperbacks. Now I lust after a copy.)