Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Gravetapping



Posted: 29 Jul 2014 04:09 PM PDT
The American western novel has a bad reputation. It is reputed to be ethnocentric, violent and, even worse, simple and inaccurate. The good guys are too good, the bad guys are too bad, and the natives are one-dimensional cutouts. The townsfolk—the common working class—are portrayed as stupid, weak, or both.

In many cases this poor reputation is deserved—there have been some really, really bad westerns introduced on television, film and fiction. There have also been some damn good westerns over the years—both past and present. To quote Theodore Sturgeon—he was defending SF, but the same rule applies to westerns—“ninety percent of everything is crap.” It is the other 10 percent that separates a viable genre from a dead one and the western is far from dead, whether we are talking about golden age stories or the novels published today.

An example of an older title—it was published by one of the more maligned houses, ACE, in 1962—that holds its own against the often valid arguments against westerns is Brian Garfield’s The Lawbringers. It is a traditional western from beginning to end. It is short, seemingly simple, and very much to the point, but it is also clever, intelligent, and subtly complex.

The Lawbringers is a biographical novel about the formation of the Arizona Rangers—a law enforcement agency created by the territorial Governor to combat the seemingly endless supply of toughs and criminals that haunted Arizona in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its focus is directed at the chief Ranger, one Burton “Cap” Mossman, but it is told in an unexpected way. It is a multi-perspective novel that never attempts to get into the head of Mossman. Instead he is painted and defined by the characters around him—some real, others created by Garfield—as a hard, stubborn and tough man.

The novel is dedicated to Burt Mossman—“a chivalrous gentleman, a lawman, and an Arizonan.” But it is far from a one-sided novel of adoration. It tackles the man’s complexity as well as his flaws. He is depicted as a hard man doing a hard job. His decisions are made with the citizens of Arizona in mind, but with a frightening lack of color. There are no gradient shades, but rather his view is strictly black and white, and more often than not the end justified the means. He wasn’t above lynching a man to make his point, and the Mexico-Arizona border was less an end to his jurisdiction and more an artificial line to be ignored.

Mossman is a man who withstood political pressures and did what he thought best no matter the consequences. He typified the mythical western protagonist, but is portrayed by Mr Garfield as nothing more than a man—stubborn, sincere, and flawed. He had friends, enemies, and admirers, but he hid behind a wall of secrecy and loneliness. He was a man that fit into the demands of an era, but whose era passed quickly and without much fanfare.

The Lawbringers manages to does all that and also tell an exciting and tight tale. It has a peculiar heavy quality. It is packed with emotion and wonder; wonder at the basis of right and wrong. It has a conscience without being limited or judged by that conscience. It is complex and wondrous. In short, it is very much part of that 10 percent, which has allowed the western story to survive for more than a century.


This post originally went live September 1, 2009 right here at Gravetapping.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

WRATH OF THE LION by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins) Gravetapping



from Gravetapping and Ben Boulden







Wrath of the Lion is the twelfth novel published by Harry Patterson. It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1964, and it is both the longest and best of Mr Patterson’s first dozen novels. Mr Patterson’s early novels all had marvelous titles, and this is one of my favorite. It comes from a line in William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”—

“The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.”

Neil Mallory is a former SAS Colonel now working for British Intelligence. He is sent to a small island in the English Channel, closer to France than England, to search for a French submarine with a renegade crew. TheL’Allouette (ironically meaning “lark” in English) has been cruising the French coast making mischief. It forced a boarding on a ship in the Channel and executed an aging public prosecutor responsible for convicting several of the crews’ comrades.

Mallory’s mission: find the L’Allouette and call in the cavalry. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. The island has only a handful of full time residents, and the heavy, who is a self-exiled former military officer from an old line family, seemingly knows more about Mallory’s doings than Mallory knows about his.

Wrath of the Lion is the most complete of Mr Patterson’s earliest work—its characters are crisply developed (and believable—Mallory has something of a genuinely unsavory past), its plot is linear, tricky (in a good way), and while not surprising to the 21st century reader, it is executed with an almost flawless professionalism and very, very entertaining. The prose is eloquent and smooth describing the action, setting, and characters in a succinct and (somehow) economical manner—

“He took her arm. They walked to the corner and turned into the street. It started to rain, a thin drizzle that beaded the iron railings like silver. There was a dull, aching pain in her ankle and the old houses floated in the fog, unreal and insubstantial, part of a dark dream from which she had yet to awaken, and the pavement seemed to move beneath her feet.”

The setting is a perfect fit for the period it was written. The bad guys belong to a real world French terrorist organization referred to in the novel as the “O.A.S.,” which is an acronym for “Organisation de l’armee secrete”; or its literal English transaction, “Organization of the Secret Army.” The O.A.S. was a group dedicated to keeping French colonial rule in Algeria. It, most notably, made an assassination attempt on Charles De Gaulle in 1962.

The factual detail—sprinkled into the narrative in small morsels—is as interesting as the plot. There is an interesting definition of the word “karate,” a bevy of detail about 1960s French-Algeria relations, the workings—in surprising detail—of the tiny Type XXIII U-boat design (an undersea electric tin can), and even a perfectly placed quote—from what I believe is Shakespeare—

“When you sup with the devil you need a long spoon.”        

—which is everything one expects from a high quality Harry Patterson novel.

Neil Mallory may seem familiar to the regular reader of Mr Patterson’s work, and for good reason. A very different Neil Mallory starred in The Last Place God Made; an incarnation that was saw him as bush pilot rather than a former SAS officer.

Posted by Ben Boulden at 7:49 PM No comments: French terrorist organization referred to in the novel as the “O.A.S.,” which is an acronym for “Organisation de l’armee secrete”; or its literal English transaction, “Organization of the Secret Army.” The O.A.S. was a group dedicated to keeping French colonial rule in Algeria. It, most notably, made an assassination attempt on Charles De Gaulle in 1962.

The factual detail—sprinkled into the narrative in small morsels—is as interesting as the plot. There is an interesting definition of the word “karate,” a bevy of detail about 1960s French-Algeria relations, the workings—in surprising detail—of the tiny Type XXIII U-boat design (an undersea electric tin can), and even a perfectly placed quote—from what I believe is Shakespeare—

“When you sup with the devil you need a long spoon.”        

—which is everything one expects from a high quality Harry Patterson novel.

Neil Mallory may seem familiar to the regular reader of Mr Patterson’s work, and for good reason. A very different Neil Mallory starred in The Last Place God Made; an incarnation that was saw him as bush pilot rather than a former SAS officer.


Monday, July 28, 2014

David Kalat is one of my favorite reviewers and commentators--here he shows how to do it


PRYOR CONVICTIONS  FROM MOVIE MORLOCKS

Richard Pryor stood on the stage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC in 1998.  It was an unusual audience for the veteran comedian—a bunch of stuffed shirt politicos and hoity toits, there to award Pryor with the Mark Twain Prize for humor, and to congratulate themselves for doing so.  He was 58 years old—and although no one knew it at the time, he had less than a decade left to live.
Those 58 years had been filled with incident: he was born in a brothel, forged his comic fearlessness in front of the Vegas Mafia, set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine, and played a computer hacker inSuperman III.
Addressing this audience of VIPs, Pryor said that he considered his mission as a comedian to be more than just making people laugh—it was using that laughter as a tool “to lessen people’s hatred.”
As it happens, we can see this noble calling at work in a particular scene of Pryor’s 1976 film Silver Streak.

Silver-Streak
Before we examine that moment, some context.  Silver Streak was an action comedy co-starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, in the first of numerous pairings.  It was directed by Arthur Hiller, from an original script by Colin Higgins.  And, it is a pointedly Hitchcockian picture.
I don’t mean anyone would mistake this for a Hitchcock film.  And it has none of the ostentatious panache of the thrillers from the supposed “heirs” to Hitchcock’s mantle: Dario Argento, Brian DePalma, Claude Chabrol.
But, it’s a film that was clearly made by filmmakers who had learned lessons from Hitchcock.  They hadn’tmastered any of those lessons, but they at least did their homework and turned in a credible effort.  If the Argentos, DePalmas, and Chabrols of the world were the ace students, Hiller at least earned a gentleman’s C.
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Here’s the wrongly accused man (Wilder), caught mid-way between two chases—racing after the real bad guys, racing away from the cops.  Here’s his love interest, an improbably available Hitchcockian blonde played by Jill Clayburgh in her best Eva Marie Saint imitation.  Here’s the MacGuffin that motivates this chase.  Here’s a story that basically just mashes up The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest.
The story goes that Gene Wilder was attracted to the project (the first movie in a long time that he hadn’t written himself) because of the opportunity to play a “Cary Grant-like” character—and don’t think the parallel was lost on Grant, either.  When Grant met Wilder for the first time, his first question was Hey, did you guys just copy North By Northwest there?  And Wilder’s response: Yup.
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Trains make great settings for thrillers—the claustrophobic confined space hurtling at great speeds across picturesque landscapes make for as romantic and dramatic a setting as a filmmaker could ask.  Airplanes offer many of the same attributes, but for all their surface similarities, planes and trains make for very different kinds of movies.  A typical thriller set on a plane would focus on the threat to the passengers posed if something were to happen to the plane—whereas a train-based thriller would typically emphasize the enclosed space and the tension that comes from trapping a bunch of strangers in a thin metal tube from which no one can easily enter or leave.
Which is one reason why Silver Streak works as well as it does: it willfully violates those familiar rules.  A thriller set on a train should be about the sensation of being trapped—but Gene Wilder gets thrown off, knocked off, or forced off the train three times in the course of this adventure!  Far from being trapped on the train, he spends as much time off the train as on.
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Another rule willfully violated by Silver Streak is that it is a buddy comedy in which the second half of the team, the co-billed star of the thing, doesn’t even appear until 60 minutes in.  And here we are, halfway into this blog post, and we’ve barely mentioned Pryor—I’m trying to model that disorienting, frustrating feeling.  But, while it’s true that the movie is half over by the time Pryor shows up, it’s also true that it doesn’t really start until he arrives.
I mean, no disrespect to Gene Wilder—he’s terrific.  He deserves the Cary Grant role here, and he does it well.  And he’s certainly capable of bringing manic intensity to his work (cf. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, still the default version of that story, despite the best efforts of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp).  And despite what the title says, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is the demented masterpiece it is because co-writer Gene Wilder insisted on keeping faith with the Universal classics that inspired it.  But, for all that, Wilder’s Cary Grant-ification is a little low-key.  Enter Richard Pryor and suddenly a whole new movie gets going.
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Arthur Hiller was reluctant to work with Pryor—the comic’s reputation had preceded him, and Hiller was worried he’d be difficult.
And, just once, he was.
The scene in question occurs when Pryor’s character is trying to help get Wilder’s character safely past the various federal agents who are out in force looking for him.  He takes a can of shoe polish, a gaudy jacket, and a radio and tries to disguise this red-haired Jew as a black man.
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OK, so… blackface.  The third-rail of American comedy.  Touch it at your peril.
But, that’s not to say it’s necessarily fatal.  As I’ve written about here before, there are instances of genuinely funny blackface comedy that wrestle with the terrible racial offense without falling victim to it.  There are ways to do this—it’s all in the details.
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The scene involves Gene Wilder rubbing shoe polish on his face and indulging in the broadest, most cartoonish racial caricature he can summon.  That’s a given.  What happens next determines the context of this gag, and how the joke is pitched.
As written, the script called for a white man to enter the bathroom while Wilder was blacking himself up and accept the ruse, believing him to be black.
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And here’s where Pryor drew a line.  Although Pryor didn’t articulate what bothered him about the staging, it’s easy enough to figure out: in this version, the joke seems to be that this absurd racist stereotype is close enough to the truth about black people that it’s convincing.  It gives audiences a place to laugh atblack people.
Pryor instead suggested an alternate staging—why not have a black man come in instead, the shoeshine man for example, and immediately see through this as an incompetent effort.  “You must be in a lot of trouble,” he could say, and shake his head in disappointment at the world.  Then, when Wilder later manages to fool the cops with this blackface act, the joke isn’t directed at black people, it’s directed at Wilder’s character and the foolish white people who can’t see past the fake skin color.
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Pryor had to basically go on strike to force Hiller to shoot it his way—but he was right.  Pryor’s version not only rehabilitated the ethical stance of the joke, he just plain made it funnier.  It was one of the bigger laughs of the movie—a signature moment.  A small tweak, but one that shifted the focus of the joke in a crucial way–and it’s too Pryor’s credit that he saw how to rescue the scene with such a subtle change.
6 RESPONSES PRYOR CONVICTIONS

 Posted By John : July 26, 2014 2:17 pm
Great post and excellent observations. Reblogged, natch.

 Posted By AL : July 26, 2014 8:33 pm
On the list of the Top Ten Comedians of all Time, this brilliant gifted man is near to position #1. Richard Pryor. We lost him too soon…

 Posted By pdb : July 26, 2014 9:17 pm
I wholeheartedly agree with AL. My son and I watched Silver Streak recently and I remember the scene Mr. Kalat discusses in this post. His insights and description of how that scene evolved make me respect Richard Pryor even more, if that’s possible. He had his personal demons but he fulfilled his mission of lessening hatred.

 Posted By Doug : July 26, 2014 10:33 pm
It’s said that all humor comes from pain; Pryor was the master comedian because he hurt so much.
Mel Brooks wanted Pryor for Bart in Blazing Saddles but the studio balked because of Pryor’s drug use, so he only had a writing credit in what could have been his biggest starring role. That had to hurt,too.
It’s been too, too long since I saw “Silver Streak”.
I mean no disrespect, but Jill Clayburgh didn’t look well in her final film, “Bridesmaids”.
I think Wiig cast her in the role of her mom to honor her, to give Clayburgh a curtain call on her career.
Pryor wrote/directed his own career summation, “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling”. He did more projects after, including two more films with Wilder, but what he wanted to say, he said in Jo Jo Dancer.

 Posted By george : July 27, 2014 12:38 am
“I mean no disrespect, but Jill Clayburgh didn’t look well in her final film, “Bridesmaids”.”
Well, she was dying from leukemia. In fact, she died six months before the film was released. I haven’t seen BRIDEMAIDS. Maybe she should have retired after her role in LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS.
Pryor looked bad in the last film he made with Wilder, ANOTHER YOU (1989). The effects of MS were painfully obvious … so obvious that I couldn’t laugh at the film, or even watch it until the end.