Yippie Ki Yay, You Old Building and Loan! 12/24/2009
It's a wild and windy Christmas Eve in Austin, Texas: scudding clouds, blowing leaves, and cold, too, or at least cold for central Texas. We've got wind gusts up to 35 mph, and the tree across the parking lot from my apartment, which was full of turning leaves yesterday, has been stripped almost bare, leaving drifts of orange leaves under the wheels of my car. The wind is also a reminder of just how drafty and badly insulated my apartment is, and the little icy breezes that leak in through my windows make me feel positively Dickensian. I should be typing this at a high desk, wearing a scarf and those gloves without any fingers, like Bob Cratchit in the scenes before Mr. Scrooge comes to his senses. The wind makes my cats restless—makes me restless, too, come to think of it, and later, I'm going to bundle up like Mr. Cratchit and take a brisk five-mile walk around the Hike and Bike Trail.
Tomorrow I'm participating in a Christmas dinner at the home of my hemi-semi-demi ex, but tonight I'm on my own, which is sort of the way I like it. I've said elsewhere on this blog that Halloween is my favorite holiday, and that's mostly true, but Christmas still strikes me pretty deep. It's a melancholy holiday for me, more so in recent years, because it's the time of year my father died, and the time of year my mother was diagnosed with dementia. So there's sadness about what what I've lost, but then, I've always thought it was a melancholy holiday. Which is a good thing, because I actually enjoy (if that's the word) melancholy. I like the fact that this time of year it's cold, that there's more darkness than light, that the sky is blacker at night and the stars a little brighter. Insofar as I have a spiritual life, this is the time of year I feel the mystery more keenly. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way, but it's that mystery, the thinning of the veil between what we think we know and the vastness of what we don't, that overwhelms me and makes me feel simultaneously awed and sad and weirdly hopeful.
Which doesn't mean that I'm not a sucker for the culture of Christmas, both the kitsch and the not-kitsch. I've been listening to the local classical radio station's non-stop, 24-hour "Festival of Carols," and I've been playing my own non-stop assortment of Christmas tunes: the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Phil Spector Christmas album, Anne Dudley's album Ancient and Modern, and a lot of Vaughan Williams music. The two tunes that always get to me, every time, are Stephen Oliver's arrangement of "God Bless Ye, Merry Gentlemen" from his music for Nicholas Nickleby, and Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The last especially reduces me to a sodden mess.
I've already watched two of my favorite Christmas movies, the Alaistair Sim version of A Christmas Carol (Sim is the best Scrooge ever, with the possible exception of Mr. Magoo), and Billy Wilder's The Apartment, which, if you've never seen it or you have seen it and forgotten, is set mostly between Christmas and New Year's Eve. The final shot of Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine playing gin rummy makes me happier than any number of more traditional Christmas images. And tonight I think I'll do a double-header of Christmas movies, Die Hard and It's a Wonderful Life. Yes, Virginia, Die Hard is a Christmas movie, and even a pretty cheerful one, unless you're a corporate executive or a Euro-trash supercriminal in an expensive suit. And as for It's a Wonderful Life, it's the perfect Christmas story for melancholics everywhere, with Jimmy Stewart playing, for once, both sides of his persona in the same film: the aw-shucks charmer of You Can't Take It With You and the brooding, bitter obsessive of Vertigo. It encapsulates somehow the crazy dichotomy of the season—at least as far as we melancholics go—that roller-coaster combination of "Why fucking bother?" with "Hey, anything can happen!" This may be the only time in history that anybody will ever compare Frank Capra with Samuel Beckett, but in its own crazy, sentimental way, It's a Wonderful Life (which for much of its running time has the distinct subtext, "No, it isn't") is a gloss on Beckett's "I can't go on, I'll go on."
So, in the spirit of my Christmas movies, I say to you all, Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan! Yippie ki yay, y'all! God bless us, every one! And shut up and deal.
O, Brave New World! 12/09/2009
In my (probably futile) efforts to remain au courant with the inexorable digitization of literary life—and to shamelessly promote my new novel, Next, soon to available as both a book-book and an e-book and who knows what else, maybe a direct download to your cerebral cortex, so you can remember having read it with actually having to take the time to turn the pages and have my prose pass before your eyes—I now have an author page on Facebook. This is in addition to my Twitter page, of course, and this blog. They are all linked to each other in the sticky, organic, and kind of creepy way everything is these days. It doesn't really matter if I think all this is a good thing (and believe it or not, sometimes I actually do), because it's not just coming, baby, it's here, and it's sink or swim from here on out, especially for aging midlisters like me. It's hard, though, I'm just saying. Sometimes I enjoy it—I actually like Twitter's 140 character limit, because it plays to my strength (aka, my weakness) for making short, glib jokes. On the other hand, Facebook baffles me, and makes me feel like I'm my mom, and it's 1987, and I've got my first VCR, and it's blinking 12:00, 12:00, 12:00 at me—let's face it, it's laughing at me—and I haven't got the slightest idea how to make it stop, let alone how to record or play back anything. As for programming the fucker, forget it; it's like learning Urdu, which I'm guessing is the original language of the guy who wrote the instruction manual.
Okay, anyway, so you get the idea. I'm old, all this shit is new, and it scares the hell out of me. People, I didn't even have a cellphone till about eight months ago, after I locked my keys in my car with the motor running in the Central Market parking lot (talk about your senior moment) and couldn't find a payphone within a ten-mile radius, and I had to go into the camping store next door and ask the earnest, young camping-store hipsters if I could use their phone to call a locksmith, and it turns out locksmiths don't even answer their fucking phones anymore, they have a service, and the first thing they ask you for is your cellphone number. (I ended up calling a cab, because it turns out cabbies carry jimmies and can pop the lock for you for about 25 bucks, a good thing to know if you're in your mid-50s and your mom already has Alzheimers and you can feel your own brain slowly turning to oatmeal.)
Anyway, as I was saying, Facebook is a baffling, strange new world for geezers like me—it took me all day yesterday to figure out the difference between a "page" and a "profile," and even now, I'm still not sure I've got it right. But at any rate, the author page is there, under the pretentious title, James Hynes, Author, to distinguish it from my other Facebook page, which is personal, and which you can't get to unless you know me or used to know me, and which, let's be honest, I hardly ever look at because it comes at me like a firehose of information, often from people and sources (friends of friends, apparently) whom I've never heard of before. It's an adjustment, is what I'm saying, for a 54-year-old novelist who is used to spending vast amounts of time by himself, to find that in order to swim and not-sink in the ocean of digital literary culture, he needs to open himself to the hive mind of the internet, that he has to switch off the solitary, austere, I-wanna-be-Tolstoy mindset of the creative artist and turn himself into Locutus of Borg in order to sell the book. Though there are worse things, I guess, than being Locutus of Borg, like, say, being a former midlist novelist.
Anyway, there it is, my geriatric rant, my cranky, catlike rage at a world that insists on changing and requiring new skills of me when all I want to do is lie in the sun and wait to be fed. I got it off my chest. I'm done. My resistance, it turns out, really is futile. I have been assimilated. See you on Facebook.
Edge of Darkness 12/02/2009
This is a belated post: I meant to write about the great British TV and screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin back in September, when he died, but I'm only getting around to it now. What reminded me was two things that happened in the last few days. One is that I saw a trailer for an American feature film remake (starring, saints preserve us, Mel Gibson) of Martin's masterpiece, the 80s miniseries Edge of Darkness. The other, better news was that I just found out that the original Edge of Darkness is at last available in the U.S. on DVD.
Martin made his early reputation as the creator of a gritty British cop show called Z-Cars (which my very British friend Jim Crace tells me is pronounced "Zed Cars," not "Zee Cars), but the only TV writing of his Americans are likely to have seen are Edge of Darkness and Reilly Ace of Spies, both of which played on PBS in the 80s (I think). His screen work may be more familiar: he wrote two films that Americans (of my age, anyway) are likely to remember. One was the original, Michael Caine version of the comic heist film, The Italian Job, which has a well-deserved cult reputation . It's got a very offbeat, loose, late-60s vibe (like, say, Bedazzled, or name-your-favorite-Richard-Lester-film). I first saw iton TV back in the summer of 1974, during my first summer home from college, and the power went off ten minutes before the end of the film (there was a tornado; long story), and while I had a chance to see the famous chase scene in Milan (I think), where tiny European cars chase each other through medieval pedestrian arcades and over rooftops, I didn't see the movie's famously ambiguous ending for years afterwards. It's still a fun movie, and much better than the recent remake.
The other Martin script Americans will know is Kelly's Heroes, which is, of course, a touchstone film for guys my age, a cheerfully cynical heist/World War II comedy, in which a unit of weary American soldiers at the end of the war stage their own private invasion behind enemy lines to "liberate" a cache of German gold from a bank in a French village. I'll even confess to owning the DVD, and I watch it every couple of years or so. It hasn't aged as well as The Italian Job; a lot of what seemed madcap when I was fifteen now just seems labored and phony. The film features a lot of sweaty American character actors who are too old to be playing WWII-era GIs, and a lot of the dialogue sounds like it was written by a non-native speaker of American slang (which is what Martin was, of course). That said, it's a clever idea, and a well-constructed story. If you're willing to put up with Telly Savalas and Don Rickles, the film also stars a steely, young Clint Eastwood as Kelly and Donald Sutherland in full, late 60s antic mode, playing an anachronistically hippie-ish tank commander called Oddball. And it's handsomely made, with some skillfully staged action sequences. Mainly, though, I still love it because it's vastly less sentimental about human nature than the George Clooney Iraq war film (first Iraq war, that is), Three Kings, which is basically a remake of Kelly's Heroes. Three Kings is pretty impressive until the last ten minutes, when it loses its nerve and turns into a third-generation photocopy of Casablanca, whereas Kelly's Heroes flaunts its cynicism to the very end, with its American "heroes" cutting a deal with an SS officer and riding off into the sunset with stolen Nazi gold.
But much as I love these cult-fave movies, the real reason to celebrate Troy Kennedy Martin is Edge of Darkness, which for my money is one of the greatest TV miniseries of all time. It stars Bob Peck (best known to American audiences for his later role as the big game hunter in Jurassic Park) as a tough, Northern English cop named Ronald Craven, who, in the opening scenes of the series, witnesses his twenty-year-old daughter, Emma, being murdered by an Irish terrorist. So the story starts out as a standard revenge melodrama—tough, obsessed cop on a quest to find his daughter's killer—but even within the first episode, it takes a weird turn and keeps getting weirder. I don't want to say more about the story, in the hope that you'll track down the DVD and watch it yourself, but suffice it to say that it combines elements of mid-80s British politics (anti-Thatcher, anti-nuke), with elements of the paranoid thriller, ecological activisim, the supernatural, and intimations of incest. It's interesting to note, for example, that in the iconic publicity photo from the series (see above), both the teddy bear and the gun that Craven is holding belonged to his daughter.
Other reasons to watch it: it's beautifully directed by Martin Campbell (who has gone on to make several James Bond films, including the excellent recent reboot, Casino Royale), and it's shot in that moody, gloomy, claustrophobic, telephoto-lens-heavy style of mid-80s Brit thrillers that I like so much. It also features wonderful performances by a small army of great British character actors (Ian McNeice, John Woodvine, Zoe Wanamaker). Peck himself is magnificent, playing repressed rage in a way that evokes that master of repressed rage, the late, great Patrick McGoohan.
The series also features the best performance of American actor Joe Don Baker's career. If you only know him as a heavy from American films, you're in for a surprise. In Edge of Darkness, he's clearly having the time of his life playing a more-than-half-crazy, golf-obsessed, rogue CIA officer named Darius Jedburgh. In his first scene, he's carrying his golf bag into a luxury hotel suite in London, just back from Nicaragua, and among the drivers and nine-irons is a .50 cal machine gun. He also gets many of Martin's best lines. In the scene where he first meets Craven, the two bond over a Willie Nelson song ("The Time of the Preacher"), and Jedburgh asks Craven if he's ever been to Dallas. When Craven says no, Jedburgh gives a big Texas grin and says, "It's where we shoot our presidents. The Jews got their Calvary, but we've got Dealey Plaza."
More than that, I shouldn't say. After Martin died a few months ago, I dusted off my blurry old VHS copy and watched the series again, and not only does it hold up really well, it seems surprisingly resonant with, um, our current situation. Let's just say that corporate malfeasance, government complicity with same, and imminent environmental disaster never go out of style (not to mention crazy CIA agents). I can't imagine that the Mel Gibson remake will be nearly as good—there's a whole other blog post to be written about how American feature film remakes of good British TV series (State of Play, Traffik) always manage to mute or even eliminate everything that was interesting about the original show—but I am encouraged that the film is being directed by Campbell, who made the original. But in the meantime, go to Amazon or your online retailer of choice, and get the DVD of the original. Jim Bob sez, check it out.
PS: If you can still find it on ABE Books or e-Bay, Faber and Faber published Martin's Edge of Darkness script back around the time the show was on the air. It's well worth reading in its own right.
In which I mostly write about books, movies, and TV. An all-purpose spoiler alert: Sometimes I will talk about these works on the assumption that the reader's already read or seen them, so if you haven't, be forewarned.
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