Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: Get Carter (1970) by Ted Lewis

Get Carter is hands down the most iconic British gangster film of all time, and it's arguably the most memorable role of Michael Caine's career. It's odd, then, that it took so long for a publisher to reissue the novel it was based on. The original novel was called Jack's Return Home, which is an accurate, if underwhelming, description of the contents therein. And now the eternal question: which is better, the book or the film? The answer is that this one of the rare cases where the book and film are equally superb.

For the few people unfamiliar with the film or the book, the story follows London hood Jack Carter as he returns to his hometown, an industrial town in the north of England, for the funeral of his brother Frank. Jack suspects that Frank's death in a car crash wasn't accidental, and he's soon putting the hurt on various people to try and find out the truth. The local gangsters and Jack's bosses in London don't like that Jack is ruffling feathers and breaking heads, and decide it would be better if he was dead.

The novel has not aged one bit. The plot is tight and tense, but what really stands out is Lewis' dyspeptic prose. Here's his description of the patrons at a pretentious club/casino:

Inside, the decor was pure British B-feature except with better lighting. The clientele thought they were select. They were farmers, garage proprietors, owners of chains of cafes, electrical contractors, builders, quarry owners; the new Gentry. And occasionally, thought never with them, their terrible off-spring. The Sprite drivers with the accents not quite right, but ten times more like it than their parents, with their suede boots and their houndstooth jackets and their ex-grammar school girlfriends from the semi-detached trying for the accent, indulging in a bit of finger pie on Saturdays after the halves of pressure beer at the Old Black Swan, in the hope that the finger pie will accelerate the dreams of the Rover for him and the mini for her and the modern bungalow, a farmhouse style place, not too far from the Leeds Motorway for the Friday shopping.

Throughout the novel Lewis applies an acid wash to English society; more specifically, the culture and environment of ugly, money-obsessed, industrial towns in the North. Sometimes the novel reads like hate literature about northern England, but certain other (brief) passages are tinged with Jack's nostalgia for childhood outings with his brother in the countryside around the town. There's a sense in the novel that a more civilized, less mean-spirited England once existed but has now been consumed by a cabal of gangsters, bent coppers, avaricious politicians, and a middle-class obsessed with climbing the social ladder. The spirit of this older, better England is personified by Jack's brother. Frank is dead when the novel begins, but in a brilliant bit of writing Lewis lets us know all about him with a description of the contents of his living room bookcase; his tastes in magazines, books and music are an eloquent testimony to a sober, decent character who was too good and too old-fashioned for his place and time. As Jack investigates Frank's death it becomes even more clear that he was the odd man out in a town given over to self-interest and viciousness, and Jack's attempt to solve and avenge Frank's murder becomes an attempt to reclaim some small part of the innocence he once shared with his brother.

The literary step-parents of Get Carter are Alan Sillitoe and Harold Pinter. Jack's misanthropic descriptions of the town are an echo of the anger Sillitoe brought to his novels and short stories set in the north. Sillitoe had more sympathy for his characters, trapped as they were in dead end jobs and dreary housing estates, and he was more concerned with showing the social and political facts that produced depressed lives and dreary communities. Get Carter's terse, elliptical, and allusive dialogue is pure Pinter. Jack's chats with his fellow gangsters usually have a neutral and pleasant tone but underneath it all they're straining to express violence, rage and naked threats. It's a unique way to create tension, and it's a device that was developed further by Brit crime writer Bill James in his long-running Harpur & Iles series.

So, how far does the book differ from the film, you ask? Not that much, really. The plot was streamlined for the film, and scriptwriter/director Mike Hodges did a wonderful job of choosing what to cut and compress. In a few places the film actually does a better job than the novel; Jack's famous line in the film when he meets Cliff Brumby ("You're a big man, but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full time job. Now behave yourself") is a tweaked improvement over the dialogue from the book. Hodges also made a wise decision to tone down some of the violence aimed at the female characters. Ted Lewis wrote two other Jack Carter novels, Jack Carter's Law and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon, both of which are also being reissued.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Review: Alone in Berlin (1947) by Hans Fallada

Well, the contest is officially over. George Orwell's 1984 and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon have been relegated to my personal second division of searing novels about life in a brutal, totalitarian state. It wasn't even close. The prime reason for Alone in Berlin taking home the cup is that Hans Fallada knew whereof he spoke. In 1911, at the age of eighteen, Fallada killed his best friend as part of a mutual suicide pact and then bungled his own attempt to kill himself. Life was telling Fallada something. He was then banged up in a psychiatric hospital, and for the rest of his life (he died shortly after finishing this novel) Fallada was in and out of prisons, hospitals and psych wards. He battled addictions to drugs and booze, worked as a farmer and journalist, and eventually became one of the more successful and well-known German writers of the 1930s. One of his novels, What Now, Little Man?, was even made into a successful Hollywood movie in 1934. Under the Nazis he alternately resisted and knuckled under (Goebbels put a menacing word in his ear) to their insistence that his writings take a pro-Nazi stance. Fallada had intimate knowledge of resistance and collaboration, and those are the twin poles around which his last novel revolves.

Alone in Berlin is based on a true story and follows Otto and Anna Quangel, a working-class couple whose only child, a son, is killed in action in 1940. They're devastated, but unlike millions of other Germans, the couple decide to clandestinely protest the war. They start writing anti-war, anti-Hitler statements on postcards and drop them in public places. The Gestapo is soon on the case, although the impact of their protest is clearly negligible. The Quangels manage to evade capture for several years, but, inevitably, luck turns against them and they're caught, and the last quarter of the novel covers their interrogation, trial and imprisonment.

The Quangels are at the centre of the story, but there are at least a dozen other characters who orbit around them, including co-workers, neighbours, relatives, cops, Gestapo officers, and criminals. These supporting characters include (to name a few) ardent and avaricious Nazis; working-class Berliners trying to keep their heads down and endure the war; petty criminals who are both evading and profiting from the war; and naive, hopeless resisters to the Nazis. Fallada knew what life was like in the lower reaches of German society, and presents it with a brutal, even enthusiastic, harshness. His characters are terrified of the Nazis and the war, and the horror of the regime seems to bleed into personal relationships, many of which are violent and toxic. Fallada is brilliant at describing the petty, degrading horrors of life under Nazidom and the way people will demean themselves to stay out of trouble or curry favour with the authorities. The prison sections of the story are the best of their kind I've ever read. Fallada had many and varied experiences of being detained by the state, and every morsel of that experience and knowledge makes it into the novel.

Grim would be a good, catchall description of Alone in Berlin, but it's also ferociously tense and spiked with a terrifically black sense of humour. It makes for an odd but exhilarating reading experience. There are no happy endings for anyone, but Fallada writes with such energy and descriptive richness that reading about the horrors of life under the Nazis becomes perversely pleasurable. What's even more remarkable about this novel is that Fallada wrote it in under a month, and you can sense that he was in a rush to capture in prose all the rage, bitter sarcasm, and cynical humour that had been bottled up inside him since the Nazis came to power. Alone in Berlin isn't just a great novel about totalitarianism, I'd also put it forward as perhaps the best novel to come out of World War Two.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Film Review: Mystery Road (2013)

There are lots of things to like about the look of this Australian mystery-thriller, but the strong visual elements paper over a threadbare plot and characters who seem to have been developed on an Etch-A-Sketch. The story takes place in a small community in one of the most Outbacky-looking parts of the Outback, and that means we're treated to a full share of limitless vistas, glorious sunrises and sunsets, and shots of people dwarfed by desiccated, yet epic, landscapes. That's all well and good, but  the Outback, like the Alps or the Hawaiian Islands, is one of nature's visual wonders, and any half-decent cinematographer should be able to find some eye candy in those locations.

The mystery at the heart of Mystery Road is the murder of an aboriginal girl just outside of town beside a highway used by big-rig truckers. The investigating detective is Jay Swan, part aborigine, and recently returned to his hometown from a stint working in the big city. If Jay had seen his share of mysteries set in small towns in which outsider cops figure, he'd have been prepared for the cold shoulder he receives from all and sundry. He's disliked and distrusted by the all-white police force, and equally scorned by the local aborigines because he's working for the white authorities. Oh no, he's a man caught between two cultures! This aspect of film isn't done with any originality, except in the visual realm. Jay's dealings with these two communities are filled with a palpable physical tension. The people he talks to and/or questions lean away from him, look to one side, or otherwise convey through their movements and posture their utter disdain for Jay. It's a smart and visual way to convey information without resorting to dialogue.

The weakest part of the film is the mystery. Striking shots of the Outback don't make up for a plot that wanders off in various directions at a very slow pace, and then leaves us almost completely in the dark as to what happened to whom and why. Fortunately, the film ends with one absolutely terrific action sequence that plays out over vast distances. An added bonus is the work of actor Aaron Pedersen in the role of Jay Swan. He has a strong, Russell Crowe-like physical presence that makes him the centre of visual attention even if he's just standing or sitting.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Book Review: The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara

The utter brilliance of this novel can be gauged by the fact that its central character and narrator starts off as annoying and unlikable, and proceeds from there, by stages, to become despicable and utterly repellent, and yet it's impossible not to be fascinated by his train wreck of a character arc. Bad guys and girls can often be compelling fictional characters, but Norton Perina, the sociopathic scientist at the centre of the novel, lacks the glamour or calculating genius of a Hannibal Lecter or Blofeld. Perina is anti-social, pedantic, misogynistic, lacking in empathy, occasionally sadistic, and, worst of all, an enthusiastic pedophile. Yanagihara's compelling, incisive writing keeps us fascinated with Perina even though it's hard not to spend most of the novel hoping that he's bitten by a poisonous snake or run over by a bus or shot with get the idea.

The novel is written as a series of autobiographical letters sent by Perina from his prison cell to a friend and fellow scientist. The friend feels that Perina's remarkable career demands some kind of autobiography. Perina is raised on a farm in Ohio in the 1930s by parents who are both one card shy of a full deck. He goes to medical college and in 1950 joins an expedition to a chain of barely-explored islands in Micronesia. Perina is accompanied by two anthropologists, and the purpose of the expedition is to make find a tribe that has never had contact with the outside world. The tribe is found and it seems they have discovered the key to extending life. Some of them appear to be hundreds of years old, but while their bodies don't age, their minds eventually turn to mush and they wander the jungle like animals. Perina's research, and his realization that eating a turtle found only on the island extends the islander's life, provide the foundation for his spectacular career in research, which culminates in the winning of a Nobel prize a decade or so later. The island is eventually despoiled by researchers and pharmaceutical companies searching the island for more medical marvels. The turtles quickly become extinct, and the key to longer life is never found. Perina makes many trips back to the island and starts adopting the island's abandoned children, forty-seven in total, and brings them back to the US where he raises them himself. Perina is arrested in the 1990s and charged with sexually assaulting one of his adopted children, and his final letter to his friend lays bare the enormity of his crimes.

The People in the Trees works superbly on many levels. It's an adventure story about exploration, an allegory about Western exploitation of  Third World cultures and resources, a critique of scientific curiosity, and a clinically thorough examination of a brilliant sociopath. One theme in the novel could be described as the fascism of scientific inquiry. In Perina's career, and in the scientific/academic environment he lives in, the quest for empirical truths trumps all considerations of ethics and morality, and even common sense. One of the tragedies of Perina's life is that his amorality actually makes him a better scientist, and his resulting professional success makes him a more successful monster. The awfulness of Perina is made bearable and fascinating by Yanagihara's meticulous examination of his thoughts and beliefs. He's far from a one-dimensional villain; at times he can show pity, even affection, and he's even aware of the cruelty he's unleashed on the island. Perina's POV is always colored by his general misanthropy. This becomes particularly apparent during his first trip to the island when his descriptions of the flora and fauna are filled with disgust and loathing. Perina is surrounded by riotous tropical life, and its fecundity and variety seems to horrify him, possibly because he can't control or dominate this environment.

The psychological and physical horrors that fill this novel are made tolerable thanks to Yanagihara's lush, precise prose. She moves seamlessly from describing tribal life, the ecology of her imaginary jungle, to the intricacies of scientific research without missing a beat. It's an amazing achievement, albeit one that's sometimes hard to stomach.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Podcast Ho!

In my ongoing quest to dominate all forms of media, today sees the launch of the Jettison Cocoon podcast! Yes, in response to legions dozens a couple of the fans of my blog, I've gone the full geek and put my voice and opinions out into the interweb ether. My co-host and technical producer (by which I mean he did all the actual work) is my son Sam. A warning: we're reliably informed that we sound very much alike so the easy way to tell us apart is that he's the tall one.

Our inaugural podcast has reviews of The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara, American Colossus by H.W. Brands, the DVD release of Godzilla (2014), a little-known Italian film called The Organizer (1963), and some rambling thoughts on the way the upcoming hockey season will be broadcast here in Canada.

We hope to put out new episodes of the podcast every two weeks or so, and in about ten days you'll be able to find our podcast on iTunes. And you can always get to the podcast by clicking on the handy link on the upper right corner of the page you're reading. And now you're wondering about the picture of the steroid monster posing dramatically on a rocky beach. Well, iTunes requires an image of some kind to be attached to your podcast's name and description, and nothing came immediately to mind. The name of my blog comes from a wonderfully ridiculous line in Thunderball, but an image from that film seemed too specific. The above artwork is by James Bama, a commercial illustrator and artist who did the covers for Bantam's reissues of the Doc Savage pulp novels in the 1960s. My dad read them out loud to me when I was about eight-years-old, and so he's largely to blame for my reading tastes since then. So please listen to the podcast, forgive any speaking errors, and do drop me a word to let me know what you think.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Film Review: The Organizer (1963)

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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