Friday, 22 October 2021

Book Review: Child of All Nations (1938) by Irmgard Keun


Remember the Eloise books by Kay Thompson about a precocious ten-year-old who lives in New York's swanky Plaza Hotel with her nanny and pet pug and turtle? Now imagine Eloise plunked down with her parents in pre-war Europe and on the run from fascism, and you'll have a rough idea of what Child of All Nations delivers. Like The Passenger, which I reviewed previously on this blog, this novel is about Germans fleeing their country, one step ahead of the Gestapo.

In The Passenger, the title character never manages to leave Germany, while in this novel, Kully (the child of the title) and her parents have already left Germany and are hopscotching around Europe desperately trying to beg, borrow and steal enough money in order to pay for train fares, hotels, and boat passage to America. Told from Kully's point-of-view, Child of All Nations strives to capture the mood of Europe as it becomes awash with rumors and fears of war, and fills with political refugees desperately searching for a bolt hole, or at least a visa to a friendly country. 

Kully's father is a writer, spendthrift, and bon vivant who is ill-suited to life on the run. He drops his wife and child off in a series of hotels and rooms, some comfortable, others sketchy, while he hares around non-fascist Europe trying to get writing gigs, borrow from easy touches, and collect on monies owed to him. His wife is long suffering and frequently paralyzed with embarrassment when she's forced to lie or plead with hotel managers who want bills paid, now! Kully takes all the travel and hand-to-mouth living in stride, as children usually do, and finds amusement and wonder in the cavalcade of people she encounters as she crosses Europe, and then finally ends up in the U.S. The world she sees around her is often sad and desperate, and she has the intelligence to recognize this, but her innocence and childish joie de vivre keeps her mostly happy. It's Kully's sunniness and curiosity that throws the agonies of pre-war Europe into stark relief.

Irmgard Keun lived this story as an adult, fleeing Germany in the late '30s with her partner, Joseph Roth, a Jewish German journalist and author. Both were banned authors in Germany. Roth died in Paris in 1939 from acute alcoholism, while Keun hid out in Belgium, changed her name and then spent the rest of the war in Germany. Her novel The Artificial Silk Girl  (1931) is set in the last days of Weimar Germany, and in Ferdinand, the Man with a Kind Heart (1950) she paints a gently comic picture of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war. Both are excellent and, fortunately, still in print.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Book Review: The Golden Spur (1962) by Dawn Powell

There's a small army of writers who are famous for not being famous, or at least not famous enough. Some of the famously not known include Barbara Pym, Olivia Manning, Charles Portis, James Salter, and Thomas Berger. Dawn Powell, who wrote novels about New York City's cultural movers and shakers and spear carriers from the 1930's to '60s, is in the vanguard of this group. Gore Vidal championed her in in the late '80s, and from then on her rise to being a celebrated un-famous author was certain. Yes, she truly does deserve to a greater degree of fame.

Powell wrote novels set in the Midwest, where she was born and raised in Dickensian poverty, and New York City, where she lived from the early '20s until her death in 1965. The Golden Spur is a N.Y.C. novel. The main character is Jonathan Jaimison, a Candide-like young man who moves to New York to find his father. He was born illegitimate in Ohio, the son of a woman who lived and worked briefly in New York as a typist in 1928. Based on a few clues provided by his aunt, Jonathan thinks his father might be one of three men she came in contact with: a famous painter, a great writer, and a successful lawyer. 

Jaimison's search for his father is the loose framework Powell uses to give us a comic tour of New York's cultural population, from major artists down to the wannabes and the hangers-on. Greenwich Village is the centre of most of the action, which is where Jaimison first lands in NY and begins his quest to determine his parentage. Powell has great fun describing the tired boarding hotels, decrepit artists' studios, and speakeasy-ish bars that the characters move between; they form a kind of coral reef which sustains the city's floating population of mostly penniless artists and writers. The novel's title is that of a Village bar in which Jaimison is properly introduced to the city, and it can also be read as a poetic description of the ambition that drives many of the characters to seek fame and fortune.

Powell's comic tone is pitched just this side of savage. She skillfully dissects the pretensions and foibles of the great and the small, but her obvious affection for her characters and their desperate, sometimes hopeless, chase for success and respect stops her from skewering them too badly. Oddly, she seems to have more sympathy for her male characters, viewing their infidelities and selfishness as part and parcel of the artistic temperament. The women, especially a pair of groupies (before that word was known), often seem ditzy or predatory, or both. Jaimison is the Midwestern naif we follow through the big, bad world of Manhattan, and he's successful as the reader's proxy, but the best character is probably Earl Turner, a middle-aged writer who once had a great future but now begs and cadges his way through life while reflecting bitterly on what might have been. 

The end of the novel is kind to almost all of the characters, especially Earl, and Powell leaves us with the idea that what she, and her characters, find most fascinating and enthralling about the cultural whirlwind of New York is its constant change and the struggle to be a part of it. 

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Flics and Voleurs

Popeye Doyle saying "Bonjour!"
The fiftieth anniversary of The French Connection (1971) has arrived, and it's a reminder that once upon a time, in the 1970s, stories about big-city cops, buddy-style or otherwise, were a staple of film and TV, largely thanks to William Friedkin's film. This genre, which I like to call cop noir, gloried in charting the decline and fall of the urban version of the American Dream; corruption was everywhere; streets were filthy and dangerous; bureaucracy stifled policing; the Mafia was the only efficiently functioning urban organization; and rough justice was the norm. Serpico, Busting, The Seven-Ups, Across 110th Street, Freebie and the Bean, and Dirty Harry followed on from The French Connection, and the TV imitators are too numerous to mention. The influence of these films also give rise to the Italian poliziotteschi films, which were an even more feverish take on urban blight and policing. 

Like any overexploited genre, the cop film quickly became played out, and although the 1980s saw them continue to fill screens, the emphasis switched to comedy, over-the-top action and a glossy visual style that was miles from noir. The Last Action Hero (1993) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger was a broad parody of cop films, and it effectively announced the end of cop noir as a mainstream genre. At least on this side of the Atlantic.

Cop noir appears to be alive and well in France. Like the American films of the '70s, Gallic cop films take a gritty, uncompromising view of les flics operating in an environment of corruption, compromise, debilitating (from a cop point of view) legal restrictions, and powerful criminal gangs. Paris the City of Light is absent from this genre. The cops' field of operations is usually the sprawling banlieues  that ring Paris, filled with drab, decaying apartment blocks controlled by gangs of African and North African descent who appear to operate as an occupying army. The Eiffel Tower might make a cameo appearance as a distant spike on the horizon, but otherwise things feel very American: the music is rap, the cops and robbers nosh pizza and burgers, and everyone seems to drive outsized SUVs. No baguettes or jaunty accordion music.

Two of the best examples of this French sub-genre are from TV. Spiral (the French title is Engrenages) ran for eight seasons over 15 years starting in 2005. It has a large cast of cops and lawyers, and covers every conceivable kind of serious crime, from the initial police investigation to the politics of the French legal system. I'm making it sound dry, but it's filled with twists and turns, fraught personal and professional relationships, cliffhangers, and lots of suspect-slapping, but surprisingly little gunplay. It sometimes gets a bit melodramatic, but it's unrelentingly tense and enormously entertaining. Braquo ran for four seasons and is straight-up bonkers. It follows four members of a Paris investigative squad who, in each season, go from the frying pan to the fire to quicksand to a crocodile pit and back to the frying pan. The plotting stress-tests credulity, but the action is plentiful and so is the body count. 

On the film side, some of the better examples include 36 Quai des Orfevres, Les Miserables, Bac Nord, Rogue City, Lost Bullet, and Close Enemies. And here's some of their common tropes: displays of macho posturing that would make professional wrestlers blush; lots and lots of cigarettes; riots and near-riots whenever cops enter a banlieue; cops strongarming or blackmailing prosecutors; and at least one scene set in a frantic, strobe-lit nightclub that features a beating and/or killing in a washroom. A rather surprising one is that cops in these shows and movies are almost all white. The French police, like their American cousins, have a reputation for racism, but that issue doesn't come up as often as one would think in these films. The lack of minorities in cop roles undoubtedly reflects reality, but it's jarring compared to contemporary American films and shows which like to present racially diverse cop shops. 

So if you pine for the aesthetic of '70s cops films, with their grimy settings and tough, toxic cops, rest assured that the French are keeping the genre alive and ass-kicking. The French connection lives on, literally.

Friday, 1 October 2021

S.A. Cosby, Elmore Leonard, and White on Black Criminals

Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby is a savage, twisty crime thriller set in rural Virginia that delivers the goods in terms of intrigue, pace, and action. It also does something rare in mainstream genre literature: it places a Black protagonist (Beauregard Montage) at the centre of a violent criminal enterprise and lets him survive. What's more, he's the savviest character in the story and a skillful getaway driver. So there are three things Black characters don't normally get to do in in crime fiction, at least when White writers are crafting the stories. 

Basically, Cosby has Beauregard do all the cool things that are usually the exclusive domain of White characters in this type of story. He finesses his way through a heist that goes wrong and its aftermath by being smarter and meaner and deadlier than the White guys he's up against, and manages to still be alive at the end. In this regard, Blacktop Wasteland has a strong blaxploitation vibe, and it's hard not to imagine an alternate reality in which Jim Brown would play the lead in the novel's film adaptation. In White-written crime fiction, Blacks usually don't do much more than flesh out the body count.

Car culture is one of the main pillars of post-war American popular culture, but Blacks, as far as I can recall, have never been given a place in it. The glamour, power, and freedom that the car represents in American life has resolutely excluded Blacks. Lots of films have been made about road trips, car thieves, racing, cruising around, and even more than a few specifically about getaway drivers, but it's almost impossible to recall a Black face being behind one of those wheels, with the very, very recent exception of the Fast & Furious films. Blacktop Wasteland puts Beauregard at the beating heart of car culture (he has a garage, owns and worships a boss Plymouth Duster, and is an ace driver), and the impact of seeing a Black character in that rare position is almost vertigo-inducing.

More than a few of the reviews I've read of Blacktop Wasteland have compared it to the crime novels of Elmore Leonard, and, yes, in its detailing of deranged and dopey crooks pinballing off each other as they scheme and backstab, it owes a lot to Leonard, who's had a huge influence on so much of contemporary American crime fiction. This inspired me to go back and reread a few of Leonard's books, especially because Leonard was one of the few White crime writers to put Black characters in major roles. I didn't have to read many of them to see that a common trope in his novels is the White hero thwarting and killing the Black criminal. And while Leonard's heroes are often criminals, they're also lovable or honorable rogues, unlike the Black crooks who are usually just plain bad. Leonard lets his Black antagonists be crafty and cool, but they're always undone in the end by the "good" White crook.

In Swag, two White armed robbers, Stick and Frank, team up with Sportree, a Black criminal, on the robbery of a department store. Sportree double-crosses his partners after the heist and plans to kill them, but Stick and Frank manage to get one step ahead of him and shoot Sportree and his partner. Stick kills four Black characters in the course of story, something Frank notes at the end with amused astonishment. Rum Punch, filmed as Jackie Brown, has a White woman and man turning the tables on Ordell, the Black gun runner she's been working for. He's killed by White ATF agents. Get Shorty has "good" mobster Chili Palmer defeating and killing Black drug dealer Bo Catlett. 

And then there's Out of Sight. Snoopy and Kenneth are the bad Black guys, and they're very bad. Snoopy doesn't even have the saving grace of being particularly clever or cool; he's just a stone cold killer. And Kenneth? He likes to rape White women. In one scene he tries to rape Karen Sisco, a U.S. Marshall and White heroine. She slaps him down with an expandable baton. The episode feels contrived and pointless, as though it was only put there to show a White woman flattening a Black man. Snoopy and Kenneth are killed (the latter just as he's about to try and rape another White woman) by Jack Foley, a good White bank robber, at the climax of the story. It would be hard not to argue that the portrayal of the black characters in this novel borders on racist.

So while Leonard could certainly write interesting Black characters, he was even more interested in showing them being outfoxed and killed by his White heroes. That's why it's so refreshing to have a Black character like Beauregard be involved in a Leonard-influenced plot and come away alive. It's also nice to see the template for American crime fiction be given a colour adjustment. 

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Book Review: The Passenger (1939) by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz

I've read a handful and a half of German novels written between the world wars and they're always a startling glimpse into a society that's increasingly like our own: cynical, feral, vindictive, petty, angry, and more and more in thrall to fascism. Authors such as Hans Fallada, Erich Kastner, and Irmgard Keun charted the decline and fall of the German people from the Weimar Republic to the rubble of Berlin in novels that were unsparing in their examination of the sicknesses that gripped the German psyche. 

Ulrich Alexander Boshwitz's The Passenger can be added to the list. What makes it special is that it's written by a Jew who experienced the early horrors of Nazism before fleeing the country in 1935. The other authors I mentioned were "Aryan," as the Nazis would have called them, and, as such, weren't exposed to the full panoply of crimes and brutalities the Nazis were capable of. Boshwitz is superb at showing the gross indignities and the matter-of-fact insults Jews were subjected to, as well as the more lethal activities of the Nazis. 

The story, which takes place over a week, is set during Kristallnacht in November, 1938, when the Nazis organized the destruction and looting of Jewish homes and businesses. Otto Silbermann, a middle-aged Jewish businessman, is trying to settle his business affairs prior to fleeing Germany with his wife, who is Aryan. Their son is in Paris trying to secure them entry permits. Silbermann is at home trying to sell his apartment building to a man named Findler, another Aryan, who is beating down the price to a ridiculous level since he knows Silbermann must flee, when there's a pounding at the door. It's the SA, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, and Silbermann runs out of the back of the apartment while the SA beat up Findler.

Silbermann now goes on the run, desperately trying to get his hands on some money, find a route out of Germany, and avoid being noticed. He criss-crosses Germany by rail, tracking down his Aryan business partner who, of course, takes the opportunity to cheat him, as well as following up rumors of secret border crossing routes. As the days and nights of flight take their toll on Silbermann, he becomes more and more exhausted, and, eventually, unhinged. Finally, when his bankroll is stolen while on a train, he completely loses his grip on reality and goes to a police station and demands an investigation. A Jew asking for justice in Germany is clearly insane, and the police inspector he deals with has him sent to an asylum where the novel closes with the inmates screaming in unison, "Jews out!"

Fun stuff. One of the smartest elements of the novel is that Boschwitz uses Silbermann's flight to allow him to meet a score of different characters on trains, and in hotels, bars, and restaurants. This plot device allows him to show us the range and nature of German fascism and anti-Semitism. Silbermann's journey brings him into contact with true believers in Nazism who are anti-Semitic to their core, opportunists who mouth Nazi and racist slogans as a tool to plunder Jewish property, others who parrot the party line without really having thought out what it all means, and a few, including the police inspector, who try, within limits, to help Silbermann. Not all Germans were equal in their enthusiasm for Hitler. 

Silbermann's tortured progress around Germany is paralleled by his existential crisis. He's described as "looking" Aryan, which is something he both takes comfort in and resents. He's been a loyal German, fought in WW I, but now he realizes, more acutely than ever, that he's always been an outsider. At the end, what tips him over the edge is his inner conflict over expecting justice and respect as a "good" German and his refusal to deny his Jewishness. The two are not compatible.

The closest comparison for this novel is Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin, written just after the end of the war. It's also structured like a thriller, and features a large cast of characters, almost all of whom are Aryan and are portrayed in an even less sympathetic light than Boschwitz does with his. Both writers are keen observers of how Nazism gave license to the weak, avaricious, and sadistic to indulge in their darkest fantasies. Boschwitz died in 1942 when the British troopship he was travelling on was torpedoed. He was in the process of revising this novel, and it's possible to see why: two short sections of the novel feel tonally wrong and interrupt the flow of the story, and the ending seems dashed-off rather than conclusive. These are, fortunately, only minor problems in a minor masterpiece.

Friday, 27 August 2021

Great Scott!

Randolph trying to ignore the hot blonde next to him.
The Criterion Channel is currently showing the "Ranown" westerns, a linked group of six westerns starring Randolph Scott that take their name from the production company (owned by Scott and his producing partner) that made all but one of them. The six were directed by Budd Boetticher, four written by Burt Kennedy. I've watched them all, and they're an intriguing look back to when horse operas ruled the roost in theatres and on TV. They also contain a foreshadowing of the more savage, anti-heroic westerns that were coming down the road, especially the Leone westerns, which hit the screens only four years after the last Ranown film.

Scott's character in these films (bar one) is always, rigorously, the same: taciturn, stoic, rugged, single-minded, solitary. His dialogue is terse and flinty, so much so that in some films, notably Ride Lonesome, he almost becomes a secondary character. Scott was never much of an actor, and in his longish career he morphed from matinee idol in the '30s to sandblasted cowboy in the '50s. Watch his performances across these films and you realize you're watching the template for Clint Eastwood's acting in the Leone films. Eastwood was famous for cutting his own lines in these films so that when he spoke it mattered more, and that's exactly what scriptwriter Burt Kennedy did for Scott. The Man with No Name is essentially a more sociopathic version of Scott's cowboys and sheriffs. 

As if to compensate for Scott's stiffness, he's usually paired with characterful villains (as was Eastwood) played by, among others, Claude Akins, Henry Silva, Richard Boone, Lee Van Cleef, James Coburn, and Lee Marvin, all of whom get juicy dialogue and some interesting quirks; Boone's character in The Tall T is a match for Scott when it comes to being laconic, but whenever someone accidentally hurts themselves he dissolves into sadistic, giggling laughter. Claude Akins in Comanche Station always answers to his character's name with a cheery "Hello" no matter what the situation. It's little details like that help make these films come alive. The bad guys are often well and truly evil. Henry Silva's character is a serial killer in spurs who'd feel at home in far grittier films made in the '70s, and in most of the films the villains think nothing of killing people in cold blood. 

The gender politics (a term we greenhorn dudes from back East like to use) are...interesting. The male characters spend a lot of time talking about what they reckon a man ought or ought not to do. At many points they make decisions based on some unwritten code of behavior for cowboys, and several of the films feel like morality plays in which Scott's hyper-masculine, hermit-like rectitude is held out as the gold standard for maleness. His relationships with the female characters (usually rationed to one per film) are chaste and formal; they're always addressed as "ma'am," sexual tension is absent, and the women are there to be protected. What's striking about four of the titles (Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station) is the threat of rape from the villain(s) that hangs in the air. In Comanche Station the story begins with Scott rescuing a woman who's been captured and raped by Comanches, and she's then the subject of leering comments from Claude Akins. When sex isn't on the menu, food quite literally is: the women are all asked at various points to do the cooking and then complimented on their ability with a skillet and coffee pot. It's a conservative, Eisenhower-era view of women as homemakers and passive sexual partners who have to be protected or taken. In only a couple of years this trope of chaste heroes paired with virtuous women would die a quick death thanks to Bond films and more forgiving censors.

Two things make these films (four of them, anyway) really watchable: the rich, Technicolor cinematography that captures the strange, forbidding beauty of the deserts of the Southwest, and the scripts, which are admirably tight and economical, resulting in running times well short of 90 minutes. In an age of bloated action films that brush up against 3 hours, that's a blessed relief. Two of the films, Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone, don't stand up. The latter is a slow tale of revenge that was shot on cheap-looking studio backlot filled with third-string character actors, and the former has Scott playing a surprisingly affable character, but, like the other, it's undone by a weak supporting cast.

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Film Review: Fat City (1972)

The poorest of the poor, the denizens of skid rows and flophouses, the frequenters of dive bars and bus station lunch counters, usually don't show up in films as anything but colourful background extras, briefly-glimpsed eccentrics/headcases, or as mildly threatening minor characters. Fat City directed by John Huston takes a non-judgemental, almost cinema verite look at three characters living in the ragged end of Stockton, California. 

Billy (Stacy Keach) is an ex-boxer who's down on his luck, which, for him, is probably a chronic condition. He lives in a one-room apartment and makes ends meet as a day labourer picking crops. He meets Ernie (Jeff Bridges) at the YMCA and convinces him to take up boxing under the tutelage of Ruben, a local boxing coach and promoter. Billy takes up with Oma, a local barfly who's unattached after her boyfriend is sent to jail for a few months. Oma is in love with sherry and the sound of her own voice in an empty bar. Ernie loses his first two "pro" fights and marries his pregnant girlfriend. Billy tries to make a comeback, wins his fight against an ailing, veteran Mexican boxer, but then loses Oma to her newly-released boyfriend. Billy hits the bottle and the film ends with him bumping into Ernie. The two go have coffee and share a long, uncomfortable silence.

European filmmakers have a long tradition of viewing the downtrodden through a sympathetic or dispassionate lens, but in Hollywood they've most often been viewed as comical, pathetic, or dangerous; abject failures, above all else. Given America's binary moral view of capitalism (poor=bad, successful=good), this is hardly surprising. Fat City doesn't try to place its characters in a socio-political context, or explain why they've ended up on skid row. Neither does it demonize them or go for cheap laughs or maudlin sentiments. The tone is observational, and the cool, unobtrusive cinematography makes the viewer feel at home in the rooms, gyms and bars the characters float between. Essentially, Huston steps aside to let the Billy, Ernie and Oma tell their stories without any directorial signposting or underlining. The films wants us to watch these people and not judge them; just watch and listen and experience their fragmented, messy lives as they do.

Boxing provides a loose framework for the film, with a drunk, destitute Billy meeting Ernie at the end and telling him that he's thinking of getting back in shape for what is probably the umpteenth time. Ernie has found some success boxing, but their final, silent scene together is a foreshadowing that Billy's fate will also be shared by Ernie. Although this isn't really a boxing film a la Rocky, the sport has always been the grand metaphor for American life, with its idea that achievement comes through bold, violent, individual acts in which there are winner and losers, and nothing in-between. Fat City dispenses with this myth by showing that boxing is simply another stop on Billy's stumbling journey through life, not terribly different from his time spent in bars or picking onions for $20 a day. 

The performances are uniformly excellent, but the shining star of the cast is Susan Tyrrell as Oma. This is a role that could have led to severe scenery chewing, but Tyrrell keeps things very real. If you've spent any time in the kind of bars that have a coin-operated billiard table as their sole and only attraction, then you've probably seen, and certainly heard, an Oma. Tyrrell nails this character perfectly. Huston's direction is subtle but effective, and this could be considered a companion piece to Wise Blood (1979), another study of people on the edges in the Deep South.