Monday 18 January 2021

Watchmen by Moore and Lindelof

Thanks to an absolutely bullseye Christmas present from a friend (a Blu-ray box set; I'm old school) I have caught up with one of the cutting edge television series of recent times.

Watchmen is of course based on the ground-breaking graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Published in 1987, Moore's Watchmen remains perhaps the greatest graphic novel of them all.

And now along comes a TV adaptation which, on the basis of the first three episodes, is actually worthy of it.

The television Watchmen begins unforgettably in Oklahoma in the 1920s where black city dwellers are being systematically murdered by the KKK — they are even being bombed from the air.

I was stunned by this depiction of the Tulsa Massacre, even when I thought it had merely been invented by the writers and was alternate-universe history. But, terribly, it really happened.

The writer behind the TV incarnation of Watchmen is Damon Lindelof. Lindelof's previous credits include Lost, Prometheus (the crappy Alien sequel) and Cowboys and Aliens. Which in my mind constitute three substantial strikes against him.

However, he was also involved in writing World War Z, which I liked a lot.

And there is no question that his adaptation of Watchmen is a work of genius.

For a start, it is not a straight adaptation. 

There are some hints and reference points for the viewers to relate it to the comics — like the Rorschach masks which have now been adopted by white supremacist terror groups — but otherwise we're in unknown territory.

It gradually emerges that we are indeed in the world of the Watchmen, but some 40 years on from the time of the comics. Its a rich, complex and violent world.

And some of the dialogue is eerily, accidentally prophetic: "Masks save lives." "The president can pardon anyone he wants."

But the president is apparently Robert Redford and we are in a liberalised America (a conservative's nightmare) where cops have to obtain permission from headquarters before they can unlock their firearms.

And even though this makes for an incredibly harrowing and suspenseful sequence in the first episode, it still seems like a pretty good idea — compared to the current situation.

Like the unfortunate policeman waiting for his gun to unlock, the main character in Watchmen is also a Tulsa cop, Angela Abar, played by Regina King.

And Don Johnson, who was so great in Dead Bang, is also a strong presence here as Judd Crawford, Angela's boss.

The cops are wearing masks, and so are some costumed heroes — and costumed villains — and Dr Manhattan is on Mars, where he ended up in the comics, having forsaken mankind.

So far, Watchmen is mind-blowingingly good. My only gripe is a failing that isn't even the fault of the people making the show.

Dave Gibbons gets a credit for co-creating the comic. But Alan Moore is not mentioned anywhere. I was fully expecting this, but it still makes me a little angry...

It's a long story, but basically Moore was once intimidated by some lawyers in Hollywood and he found the experience so unpleasant that he foreswore all the screen rights in all of his creations. 

He gets no money and no credit when they are turned into TV shows or movies. Both of these things are insane, but the no credit is the most insane.

Let's be clear about this, Watchmen the TV show, for all its audacious originality, is still the fruit of the tree that Alan Moore planted.

And in its use of little known but savagely apt historical events it evokes Moore, in all his wide ranging erudition and his genius story construction. 

But his absence from the credits fosters the destructive myth that the writer is irrelevant in comics. I am not denigrating the role of the illustrator here.

On the contrary, Dave Gibbons is a uniquely gifted draftsman. 

But the fact remains that without him Watchmen would have had a different appearance, but it still would have been Watchmen.

Without Alan Moore there would be nothing.

If you want to know more about this mad situation, no money and no credit for Alan Moore — which is entirely of Moore's own making — Neil Gaiman describes it here.

Gaiman recounts how Moore did it "because he was deeply hurt and offended and irritated by being accused in the Larry Cohen lawsuit of having written League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as some kind of studio shill, and because Alan never does anything by halves. 

"Up until the lawsuit his position was that he didn't care about the films people made from his work, but was happy to cash the cheques; after, he decided that he didn't even want to cash the cheques."

Okay, enough about that. I've made my point.

Now, back to watching the Watchmen.

I will report further soon.

(Image credits: IMDB.)

Sunday 10 January 2021

Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis

I was prompted to re-read this Kingsley Amis novel after hearing a really excellent BBC radio adaptation. And I'm very grateful for that impetus, because this is one of Amis's finest books.

Indeed, it turns out that many of the classic Kingsley Amis scenes that I so fondly remember and chuckle at over the years come from Girl, 20.

It is Amis at his funniest, which is high recommendation indeed. It is also often bigoted, blinkered and pointlessly bleak... which is about par for the course with our Kingsley.

That really excellent radio adaptation I mentioned was foolishly retitled All Free Now (this is the title of the last chapter of the book but... still... foolish). 

But otherwise it was brilliantly written by Tony Bilbow. The next time it's available, I urge you to have a listen. In a couple of ways it even improves on the novel.

Now, on to that novel itself. Girl, 20 is the story of Roy Vandervane, sort of an André Previn figure — a serious conductor of classical musical who is also seriously trendy.

And, like Leonard Bernstein in the States, he is an avid supporter of left wing causes and the youth of the day (the day being the late 1960s or early 70s).

Roy has been married a couple of times, and indeed is still married, with three kids, two of them grown up. But he hardly bothers to conceal his constant affairs with other women.

These other women are increasingly young. The title refers to the fact that Roy is moving towards Girl, 20... but he has now actually overshot that destination and is currently with Sylvia, 17.

You might be inclined to think that Sylvia is some sort of victimised waif. Think again.

Referred to by Roy's wife as a "filthy little barbarian of a teenager," Sylvia is in fact a full blown monster and one of Amis's greatest comic creations.

The story is told from the point of view of Roy's old friend Douglas — affectionately known as Duggers — a music journalist. 

Duggers disapproves of Roy's womanising in general, and of Sylvia in particular. He definitely doesn't see what Roy sees in her.

His descriptions of Sylvia's appearance are uniformly unappetising — looking like her "hair had been sprayed with glue while she stood in a wind tunnel" — but it's her behaviour and personality Duggers really takes issue with and the heart of the book consists of his attempts to get Roy to give up Sylvia. 

Meanwhile, Roy is busy making use of Duggers as camouflage so that he can see Sylvia in public. This leads to some classic scenes in the novel. Every time Duggers is forced to meet Sylvia again my heart lifts with joy.

And although Sylvia is depicted as a hateful troglodyte, Amis is fair minded enough to give her a fantastically funny and cuttingly accurate tirade against Duggers and everything he stands for. 

Calling him a "top-heavy red-haired four-eyes" is the least of it. She does such a spectacular job of demolishing Duggers that even he is impressed. 

Sylvia also has some scathing things to say about Roy's grown up daughter ("you can put her through a mincing machine for all I care").

Sylvia may be a monster but she's clearly a monster that Amis loves and she is the occasion for his most ferocious comic genius.

The book is full of Amis's adroitly amusing descriptions — "a fat and silent aunt-like figure" conjures shades of Wodehouse. Red double decker London buses go ""rampaging around Marble Arch."

And when Duggers gets to the bedroom with his own complicated but often passionate girlfriend she starts "undressing with the speed and conviction of someone about to go to the rescue of a swimmer in difficulties."

Kingsley Amis became more reactionary over the years as his brain softened with alcohol, but he could always write well and he often remained sharply, zanily, almost surreally funny.

And with Girl, 20 he's near the peak of his powers.

(Image credits: The main image is my scan of my own copy of the London Book Club hardcover, which I think has the most striking cover design of any edition. The art is by the mysterious J. Critchard who has absolutely no presence on the internet whatsoever. Except, I guess, for this footnote now. The other covers are from Good Reads. The title of the Spanish edition means "We all want to be young" — see? My Spanish lesson are paying off.)

Sunday 3 January 2021

52 Pick Up by Frankenheimer, Steppling and Leonard

I recently wrote about John Frankenheimer's Dead Bang. That movie is genuinely great. A small forgotten masterpiece.

So I couldn't wait to see what Frankenheimer, one of my favourite directors, did with a book by Elmore Leonard, one of my favourite crime writers.

52 Pick Up is a terrific novel. (I wrote about it here.) And the film, while not in the same league as Dead Bang, is also rather terrific.

Chiefly because it tries hard to be faithful to Elmore Leonard's book — and it succeeds. 

It shares the same emphasis on offbeat characters, and is faithful to much of Leonard's original dialogue — "his dialogue is laconic with a mordant wit," as Frankenheimer rightly notes.

This was not the situation with the script that the director first received. It was by "a young Los Angeles dramatist, John Steppling... Steppling did an inadequate job. He contributed nothing and he took away a lot of Elmore Leonard."

So Frankenheimer sensibly hired Elmore Leonard to restore Elmore Leonard to the screenplay.

(In fairness to John Steppling, he would later go on to script the memorable prison drama Animal Factory.)

52 Pick Up is the story of a wealthy, happily married businessman Mitch (Roy Scheider) who becomes the victim of a blackmail plot.

But Mitch isn't so happily married that he isn't involved in an affair with the beautiful young Cini (Kelly Preston)...

And he isn't so wealthy that he can afford to give in to the blackmailers' exorbitant demands.

But Mitch also isn't inclined to give in. As the bad guys find out, they've chosen the wrong guy to lean on.

But what bad guys they are — an unforgettable trio lifted straight from Leonard's novel. "Nobody does villains better than Elmore Leonard," says Frankenheimer,

How true. The villains here are Clarence Williams III as Bobby Shy, a gunman who in the novel amusingly and knowingly evokes the outlaws of the Old West.

Here he seems more like he's sauntered in from a blaxploitation movie, but is equally splendid, a sardonic, charismatic, murderously laidback presence.

Then there's Robert Trebor as Leo Franks, the greasy peep show entrepreneur, wonderfully cowardly and sycophantic.

And, perhaps best of all in a very fine trio, John Glover as Alan Raimy — called Raimi in the book, and described as a "hip creepy guy" with "a weird fucking mind." 

Glover is the perfect personification of Alan and is one of the most memorable things about the movie.

And then there is Vanity (a singer and protégé of Prince) who makes an indelible impression as Bobby's affably corrupt girlfriend Doreen.

These guys — and girls — are all vivid and distinctive, because they're gifted actors and their characters are taken straight out of Leonard's novel.

But the movie also inherits some problems from the book.

Let's set aside the overblown (no pun intended) climax in both novel and film, where Mitch solves his problems with explosives.  

We're setting it aside because I don't have a better suggestion for the ending...

Where I do see clear room for improvement is in the treatment of Cini. In the book she is entirely an offstage character.

Very sensibly, in the movie we get to see her, albeit briefly. But this just intensifies the problem of both novel and film.

You see, when Mitch refuses to pay blackmail for having an affair with Cini our three, deeply evil, bad guys kill her and threaten to frame Mitch for her murder, unless he coughs up.

For the rest of the film (and novel), Mitch does a fine job of not coughing up.

Unfortunately, he also seems to do a fine job of not giving a damn about Cini's death; and he was supposed to be in love with her.

And, especially in the film,the death of this lovely young woman sits too heavily on our emotions to let us fully enjoy the dark, violent crime comedy that unfolds...

Very much to his credit, Frankenheimer was keenly aware of this.

"I had only one problem on the whole picture — to show Roy Scheider's emtional breakdown... after watching the execution of his girlfriend."

And Frankenheimer had an excellent idea of how to solve this problem. But it involved a scene what would have cost an additional $75,000. So they went for a cheaper version of that scene, which simply doesn't work.*

But it would be misleading of me to dwell on the imperfections of this film. When it hits its stride, it's exhilaratingly good.

Because of the constrained budget — the movie was shot non-union — Frankenheimer wasn't working with his A-team.

But while he may not quite be in the same league as Ken Adams, production designer Philip Harrison does an outstanding job — Alan's creepy bachelor pad is superb as is the Leo's peep show establishment.

And although Frankenheimer couldn't work with a star cinematographer like Gerry Fisher, he seized the opportunity to work with someone new and up and coming:

"I had seen... Das Boot, and the camerawork by Jost Vacano, and particularly the lighting, really impressed me." Following this, Vacano would go on to a distinguished career in Hollywood.

Beautifully shot, superbly scripted and acted, with a driving score by Gary Chang, 52 Pick Up is one of the best Elmore Leonard movies. Up there with Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Jackie Brown.

It also happens to feature a very nice cat.

(*For more details, please see Gerald Pratley's excellent book The Films of Frankenheimer, which was also the source of the quotes in this post.

(Image credits: IMDB.)