August 2012

Top of This issue Current issue


Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Put Out More Flags (1942) by Evelyn Waugh is a half interesting novel about the onset of World War II in Britain, written when that war was just a few years old. Truth be told, I don't much like Mr. Waugh; he was a smooth enough prose writer, with a sometimes sympathetic sarcasm, whose appeal is greatly marred by his own barely concealed sense of superiority. In this novel, a "bounder" manipulates and betrays his friends, and is rewarded with material things, promotion and a brilliant marriage to a wealthy woman who adores him. Lesser beings die on the battlefield or are sent to prison as suspected fascists. The book, like most of Waugh's, stopped instead of ending, and left me with a bad taste.

One to Count Cadence (1969) by James Crumley is a somewhat muddled and forgettable war novel by a fine writer who later made his bones writing hardboiled detective fiction. Somewhat autobiographical, following a handful of soldiers through Phillipines training and Vietnam conflict set in the early 1960's, before it was officially a war, we have various familiar overlapping tropes: macho displays; best friends pounding each other to a pulp; ingratiating, unreliable Asian whores; lots of didacticism; war is hell and all that.

A Confederate General from Big Sur, (1964) by Richard Brautigan, was surprisingly good. I hadn't read Brautigan since I was a teenager. This is a familiar '60's genre, how a bunch of us got together and decided to be wastrels and lived in a shack and smoked a lot of pot, but the prose is rather good (reminiscent of some of Norman McLean's flights of description in "A River Runs Through It"), the characters always interesting and rather sympathetic, and even the women transcend objectitude and have appealing beliefs and quirks.

I watched the full three seasons of Slings and Arrows, a Canadian series about a Shakespearean theater in which each season centers around a production. The first year, we watched a "Hamlet" emerge while the director died, a mentally unstable replacement was brought in, the actors suffered the usual affairs, panic attacks and other emergencies, and the clueless businesspeople considered doing shallow musicals instead. Its all rather realistic and amusing. It is also interesting to note how television in other Anglo countries does not seek out actors of the same stunning beauty and perfection as American TV, nor care as much about their teeth, hair and makeup. The third season was very poignant, maturely recognizing that happy endings are not strictly necessary even on television: several of the characters went out on a limb to help a dying actor realize his wish to play Lear, and lost their jobs as a result when the show had to be canceled. (They held a single performance in a nearby church so he didn't die disappointed.) The most telling and true moment was when Richard, the stuffed shirt administrator who had become almost likeable the two last seasons, fired Anna, his assistant, and she told him how close he had come to being human.

Zodiac (1988) by Neal Stephenson is an early environmental thriller by the author of "Snow Crash". It has sex, drugs and toxic waste, and was reasonably diverting, with some clever stuff about genetically engineered bacteria which do the opposite of what they were designed for.

The old chestnut Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857) by Thomas Hughes is rather short and non-dense for a 19th century British novel. Its a view into a completely alien world, that of British boarding schools with their complicated schemes of fair play, noblesse oblige and the like. Some of the rules have survived: fight bullies but do not rat them out. I am entertained by the fact that George Macdonald Fraser chose the most egregious bully in the tale, Flashman, as his protagonist for a series of light, historically accurate military novels.

Drive, (2011), directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, about a driver of getaway vehicles who falls in love with a young, lissome mom next door, is a stylish noir that works best when the characters, particularly the protagonist, don't talk too much, and loses a lot of momentum and credibility when they babble. Its also overly violent, with a lot of crushed or blown off heads.

The Stunt Man (1980), directed by Richard Rush, is an interesting, metacinematic mess, with a wonderful turn by Peter O'Toole as a megalomaniac director. Nothing within it is really believable: the World War I movie within the movie, much of the mind-gaming, Steve Railsback's one note performance as the protagonist, and the Vietnam tropes which feel like an afterthought. What it has is some other marvelous performances--Barbara Hershey as the ingenue, Allen Garfield as the writer--and a Schrodinger's finale which you will talk about after: was Barbara Hershey in the trunk of the car which went off the bridge? In the last scene he has with her after coming out of the river, she has flowers in her hair and is romantically lit, and Railsback's stunt mentor is looking out of the shot as if he is unaware of her. Railsback looks even more psychotic than usual. Is he hallucinating her, or was it the "greatest mind-fuck of all"?

The Hard Way (1943), directed by Vincent Sherman, is representative of a huge class of forgotten movies that were made with sufficient skill that they warrant our attention. I watched this one because it features Ida Lupino, on whom I have a mad crush. She is a steely "stage sister", escaped from a sooty industrial town, who manages her more pliant younger sister the actress, and we experience many of the tropes familiar from better known movies: the conflict between love and the stage, the misery of the less talented and fortunate spouse, the sympathetic, slightly alcoholic female playwright, the star in the grip of too many conflicts going up on her lines and fainting on stage. Lupino as always delivers a performance of steely intelligence. The movie itself has a pronounced anti-feminist twist, with the younger sister choosing love over career and Lupino terribly punished for her wits and drive.

The Searchers (1956), directed by John Ford, is of course one of the greatest American movies, up there with "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Raging Bull". The hunt across the seasons for the missing girl, the complexity of the relationships (the two searchers detest each other at the outset), Wayne's liminal status (half inside, half outside the community), the ambiguity of his plans for Debbie when they find her (save her? kill her?), the stubbornness, mutual love and narrowmindedness of the settlers, the multitude of unusual subplots (the Indian girl Martin accidentally marries, and her destiny), the presentation of an evil Indian chief with some compassion and much dignity, the murderousness and kindness of the cavalry. And that wonderful, heartbreaking last shot, as Wayne (framed by it) walks away from the door everyone else has entered.

The Loved One (1965), directed by Tony Richardson, is a Hollywood meltdown, a bizarre mindmeld of Evelyn Waugh with Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, who wrote the script. The latter two fuck with Waugh's story for no real reason, turning it into "Brideshead Meets Candy", notably adding a teenage genius with a German name and a rocket ship to the story. I don't much like Waugh to begin with, as I said above, and this is a heartless concoction in which the only character with any innocence is driven to suicide by the cynicism and cruelty of everyone else. Along the way, it makes some interesting observations about the American death-cult, the movies, fundamentalism and capitalism.

I reread Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the Return of Sherlock Holmes, two of the first grown-up books I experienced in my childhood. I have had a life long respect for Sherlock Holmes, the stories stand up in both their strangeness and logic, and most of all this time around I enjoyed the spectacle of Doyle inventing something new, the hero who looks at footprints and cigar ash, and then endlessly creating new problems for him to solve. Among my favorites, a story where an apparent madman is smashing cheap busts of Napoleon all over London--but we know, with Holmes, that he must be looking for a jewel secreted in one of them.