peteg's blog

Kevin Barry: Night Boat to Tangier.

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Kindle. Transparently Trainspotting meets Waiting for Godot, without the iconoclasm of either. Two early-50s Irishmen sit in a ferry terminal in Spain waiting for their "crusty" (dreadlocked; Australian "feral") daughter of ambiguous parentage to arrive. Most of the book is a retrospective of them running drugs from Morocco via Spain to the west coast of Ireland, their rudimentary indulgence of women and drugs, their squandering of the proceeds in real estate projects, all tendentiously: Moss is not a "colourful character", Charlie makes a minor Begbie. The remains of these days have little to say to those who weren't there on those nights of "legend". Things get a bit twins-y like The Solid Mandala without making enough of the dualisms. On their telling no-one would ever do drugs (so don’t do drugs ok). There is nothing like Lucky's "thinking" here to mesmerise and centre; the style is uninnovative modernism. Some of the writing and motifs are quite fine, but clangers like "the answer to love is not hate" let alone the numerology and busted superstition make me think that Barry is too much category error.

Dwight Garner phones his review in; he seems to excessively quote every text now. Alan Warner suggests Endgame is more apt, and is even more indulgent. Declan O’Driscoll reckons Pinter is the even more apt referent, also quotes at length, and provides the keenest critique I found. Perhaps Barry's point is that these gents represent a solipsistic generation that will plead for romantic indulgence of their past crimes and vacuity, and the future as represented by daughter Dilly should just walk on by. And yes, it might be that trite.

A Face in the Crowd

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Another directed by Elia Karzan. Black-and-white, 1957: Andy Griffiths is an all-American bullshit merchant who is discovered in gaol by local radio lady Patricia O'Neal; she keeps it clean until her wiles are all she's got. The upward trajectory proceeds through Arkansas radio to NYC TV megastardom; the Grand Ole Oprey is mentioned but bypassed. Observing the transition to the Kennedy era of TV politics, Griffiths is charged with spruiking a right wing senator with standard Lockean and patrician tropes. Things go as Hollywood feels they have to, stretching credulity by positing moral outrage when shrugs are what you get. A young made-up-younger Lee Remick twirls her battons. Tom Waits for the remake!

Bosley Crowther was right (at the time) that the rise has its moments but things go stale well before the cliched resolution. Sean O'Neal observes that I'm very late to see this Trumpian classic.

Johnny Got His Gun

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Young men don't have homes, that's why they must go out and kill each other.
— Father Robards dishing out a busted civics lesson.

A Timothy Bottoms jag from The Last Picture Show. Dalton Trumble adapted the screenplay from his own novel (from 1939) and directed (in 1971). The tail end of World War I sees a very young American lose just about everything and nevertheless be kept alive for unmotivated military/scientific/medical reasons. Black-and-white in the later timeline, colour flashbacks. Jason Robards plays dead like Magnolia, Donald Sutherland an unhelpful Jesus. It's all kooky dystopia: a bit Brazil, A Clockwork Orange, The Loved One. It often loses momentum with fragmentary and sometimes poorly realised dream sequences. Monty Python had more fun with their knight.

Manohla Dargis said it was a classic in his review of Trumbo. Roger Ebert liked it at the time, Roger Greenspun less so.

Trumbo

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On Dave's suggestion, and something of a Diane Lane jag from Rumble Fish which I began rewatching. A different time of American greatness when they proudly purged Commies, constitution be damned. This mines similar territory to Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck but is far funnier, including some vintage work by John Goodman with a baseball bat. Bryan Cranston as feted scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo ably anchors it all and got an Oscar nom. Louis CK and Elle Fanning give him something to bounce off. Helen Mirren does her own thing. Christian Berkel's Otto Preminger is irredeemably hammy. I'll have to go mine Trumbo's oeuvre now.

Manohla Dargis was unimpressed at the time.

Randy Kennedy: Presidio.

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Kindle. Texas borderlands noir. Kennedy cites The Last Picture Show as an influence but clearly wasn't paying enough attention as he omits society inductions requiring hot young things to get naked. Far too many words are spilled on descriptions that don't develop plot or character, such as all the times the main character parks the car, goes for a walk, and returns. It sometimes felt like a failing attempt to mine similar territory to Lish's Preparation for the Next Life. Adam Johnson made far better use of Clovis. Briefly, two brothers and a Mennonite girl go for a road trip across the Texas Panhandle. All are defined by their actions (variously thievery, duty, cuckoldry, apostasy) and a general lack of interiority. The vibe is, like Tarantino's latest, rampant nostalgia for the great days of the 1970s and a long time before.

Lee Child.

Viva Zapata!

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An Anthony Quinn jag from Lion of the Desert and Marlon Brando completism. Entirely black-and-white, 1952. Quinn got an Oscar for his effort as brother to Brando's Zapata. Written by John Steinbeck, directed by Elia Kazan. Over several sittings as it failed to grip. Things go as you'd expect for a fictionalised hagiography of a Mexican revolutionary, who Wikipedia suggests deserved something better. Many shots of Brando (framing, expression, shiny skin, bulging eyes, whatever) reminded me of classic Orson Welles. The scene in the church was pretty funny, and to a lesser extent, the one where Brando meets his future in-laws. Perhaps his flattest performance overall.

Bosley Crowther at the time.

Salman Rushdie: Shame.

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Kindle. I've been meaning to re-read this for a while. It's a quasi-historical-fictional account of Pakistan's political upheavals of the 1970s and early 1980s: the unsteady rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and concomitantly his nemesis Zia-al-Haq. They and their families are lightly disguised; Rushdie winkingly denies that the "virgin Ironpants" is Benazir Bhutto and so forth. I liked his authorial insertions, though they are strongly normative and unsurprising, and my history remains too weak to draw deeper parallels with actual history or fathom his mythology. Mohammed Hanif is far funnier in his account of al-Haq's end days.

The book is very quotable.

Politeness can be a trap, and Bilquis was caught in the web of her husband's courtesy. 'As you wish,' she wrote back, and what made her write this was not entirely guilt, but also something untranslatable, a law which obliged her to pretend that Raza's words meant no more than they said. This law is called takallouf. To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words. Takallouf is a member of that opaque, world-wide sect of concepts which refuse to travel across linguistic frontiers: it refers to a form of tongue-tying formality, a social restraint so extreme as to make it impossible for the victim to express what he or she really means, a species of compulsory irony which insists, for the sake of good form, on being taken literally. When takallouf gets between a husband and a wife, look out.

On the dangers of a theocratic state (Rushdie claims that only Iran and Israel were such at the time, but Wikipedia suggests he was blinkered):

So-called Islamic 'fundamentalism' does not spring, in Pakistan, from the people. It is imposed on them from above. Autocratic regimes find it useful to espouse the rhetoric of faith, because people respect that language, are reluctant to oppose it. This is how religions shore up dictators; by encircling them with words of power, words which the people are reluctant to see discredited, disenfranchised, mocked.

But the ramming-down-the-throat point stands. In the end you get sick of it, you lose faith in the faith, if not qua faith then certainly as the basis for a state. And then the dictator falls, and it is discovered that he has brought God down with him, that the justifying myth of the nation has been unmade. This leaves only two options: disintegration, or a new dictatorship ... no, there is a third, and I shall not be so pessimistic as to deny its possibility.

The third option is the substitution of a new myth for the old one. Here are three such myths, all available from stock at short notice: liberty; equality; fraternity. I recommend them highly.

As with everything Rushdie, coverage is legion on the web. Shehryar Fazli provides a broad perspective from 2012.

The Awful Truth

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More Cary Grant completism. This one doesn't have a dire IMDB rating, which suggests people no longer watch black-and-white screwball comedies from 1937. At its core is an uppercrust, idle, NYC-society sex farce featuring Irene Dunne. She grew me on me as things dragged on. Most scenes are paint-by-the-numbers, sometimes with mild twists, often saved only by Grant's heroic, sometimes manic, physicality or Dunne's zaniness and dawning awareness that Grant is the singular man in town, just as the formula requires. The dialogue is knowing but not particularly sharp, and completely lacking in broader social commentary. The dog is very well trained, and there's some fantastic work by a black cat in the closing scenes. Grant and Dunne made at least two more of these together. Loads of details at Wikipedia.

Lion of the Desert

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An Oliver Reed (Italian General Graziani) jag from The Big Sleep, and more Rod Steiger (Mussolini) completism. Anthony Quinn plays another Bedouin in a liberation struggle: briefly, Omar Mukhtar leads the peoples of Libya in mounted guerrilla skirmishes against the Italian Fascists who are trying to rebuild the Roman Empire between the world wars. Two-and-a-half hours later he gets hanged for his efforts. I imagine there are more parallels with Giap than the obvious (teacher, strategist in a guerilla war, improbable military victories, etc.).

The production is a bit incoherent as some Bedouin have English accents, as do some Italians (notably Reed). Quinn gets by with his American drawl. There is some hammy work by other actors, for instance by Gastone Moschin whose shtick was significantly more effective in The Godfather II. The goal was clearly a lush Lean-style effort, but the result is a drawn out and constipated history lesson. The high rating on IMDB is probably due to a conflation of art with valour, just like The Bandit. I won't be bothering with director/producer Moustapha Akkad's The Message now.

Vincent Canby connects it with the politics of 1981.

White Mischief

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Greta (you can leave your pearls on) Scacchi — she’s in Palm Beach of course — goes gold digging during World War II amongst the unpatriotic expats of unimaginatively colonial British Kenya. Her entrepôt is anciently titled, landed, porcine, freshly-minted husband Joss Ackland, who feigns unfamiliarity with his accountant and canvasses the possibility of losing the war. An early scene with Hugh Grant assures us that the fight she puts up when she encounters the titled, unmoneyed and entirely resistible Charles Dance (dial familiar from the endless Game of Thrones ads) is just what she was trained to do. The inevitable happens before the characters are sufficiently developed for us to care, and the following necessities (pariahs!) still leaves ten minutes to go. It's a nothingburger; if you've got the genes and the stomach to use them you'll always be just fine navigating patrimonial bullshit.

The draw for me was Sarah Miles (sporting the same boofy hairstyle a decade after The Big Sleep). Her character is a wanton miss, as is John Hurt's. Director Michael Radford did better with his immediately-previous effort: 1984, which was also a remake. Every trope has a short halflife (e.g., the camera goes MIA rapidly), the exploitation is deeply wired (why revisit this stinky topic?), the avarice is mostly absent rentiers. These's an air of fraud to the whole thing.

Roger Ebert in 1988, muted and workmanlike.

3 Women

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Altman completism, and the least least Altman of the Altmans I've yet seen. It's 1977. Two Texan gals move to California in separate waves of migration: Shelley Duval (before The Shining) and Sissy Spacek, both very young but essentially what they've been since. There are very few of his classic moves; all I noticed was the overlapping dialogue around the swimming pool. Things are episodic, amiable but tedious, until identities become as fluid as a much later David Lynch.

I'm not going to claim I understood much, and even Ebert couldn't find the words at the time but spilt many more in 2004.

The Last Picture Show

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A dying small town in Texas, somewhat proximate to exotic, cheap Mexico and about-the-same Oklahoma, loads of old classic folk tunes and barely serviceable trucks, in black-and-white in 1971. It's part of a brace of movies of that time pining for the peak America of the 1950s (cf American Grafitti). The draw was a very young Jeff Bridges.

Things begin like a series of Altman vignettes before we hit the grooves of an overarching narrative. Timothy Bottoms's Sonny is the pivot around which seemingly all the women swing; for instance forty-something Ellen Burstyn with a steady gaze: "No... I think I'll just go on home." These are stories of those who remained to brave the perennial disappointment in their lack of football skills. The mental impairment of Sonny's brother (?) is sensitively handled. Town bike Cybill Shepherd escapes to Dallas for college and that is that for all the young men in the town. Bridges joins the army and ships out to Korea. The following year's football team is far superior.

The lack of judgement (in both senses) of the inhabitants of the town strikes me as implausible; most small places make something of their generational hatred and feuds (cf Cloudstreet and so forth). The two Oscar winners anchor the older generation: Ben Johnson is the all father (a wised up Ed Hurley?), owner of all three town hubs: the cafe, the pool hall and the movie theatre. Cloris Leachman plays a cougar who's not too happy when she gets traded in for a younger model but allows herself to be talked around after a larger tragedy.

For some reason director Peter Bogdanovich, writer Larry McMurtry and the cast (!) thought a superannuation sequel was a good idea.

Roger Ebert at the time and in 2004.