Monday, June 11, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Chinatown, Criss Cross

“Ontology! I’m just
  telling you a story
  about this projector, that’s all.”

                               Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book II

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

The way it was, or might have been, the sun
shining except when it doesn't. But, this time
it's personal. Her death, just around the corner. 
The politics, water by any means necessary. 
Blood flowing, through incest or municipal 
corruption. A revisionist perspective, California 
rich, but still nouveau, at least compared to 
assorted Eastern counterparts. Pro-bono 
private-eye, his nose, you know how it is, where 
it hasn’t been since the days of wine, roses, 
drought and manufactured consent. Sliced nicely 
for his troubles. His real boss deliberating on two 
years, statutory rape, not unlike Cross, riding
the white line between ethos and pathos, invariably 
as clear as night. Saying, most people never have 
to face the right time or place... About as close to 
the bone as the cutting room allows. Yes, Jake, it's
Anywhere, and always something to think about. 

Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949)

Not yet the meanest battle, Bunker 
Hill back then was the world, and 
Angel’s Flight a means of escape, 
from the war, or the road. Coincident 
aerial shots of what no longer exists: 
It's in the cards, fate, jinx or whatever.
Those headlights, and furtive parking 
lot embrace. Mirrored dance-hallers, 
clocking each other, knowing crime 
will soon be their song. Burt coos, 
it’ll be just you and me. Her smell, 
wafting double-entendres, deadlier 
than the double-cross, more insidious
than the criss cross. But remnants matter. 
If lucky or smart, they might even beat 
the odds. A lone survivor or future 
politician, not realising no one is 
hard enough to take it to the bank.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Ain't No Coffee Table Blues: The Original Blues by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff

Perhaps it's a sign of the times that there seems to be a market for flashy commodities that prove our worth to ourselves and others. Or perhaps it's just that there's an increasing number of old blues fogies out there with disposable income to spend on expensive books. Because these days it  volumes on early blues and jazz seem to have morphed into coffee table books. As if sending out the signal that this music is my drug of choice and I will spend any amount of money to feed my addiction. Unfortunately, too often it's the case that such books are little more than an attractive repackaging of older material, accompanied by photographs.

Though its eye-catching large format cover might suggest the latter, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff's The Original Blues- The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville latest is anything but. Perhaps it is simply masquerading as such. Because The Original Blues is, in fact, an  scrupulously researched and invaluable book on a subject that has been relatively neglected over the years: namely, the transition of the music from segregated minstrelsy to vaudeville at the end of the 19th century and finally the emergence in the early part of the twentieth century of what we have come to refer to as the blues.

Seroff and Abbott's study ends in 1926, on the eve of the great crash. An interesting year in itself, less an indication of the state of the economy than the rise and centralisation of black involvement in the white vaudeville circuit. From here it would seem the music would no longer be the exclusive province of a black audience and circuit. Though the latter had produced in particular an assortment of  females blues singers, such as Ora Criswell and her protege Trixie Smith, who would perform and record unencumbered by the "blackface" tradition. Not that the centralisation of the music didn't have an economic basis. The  authors, in focusing on performers as well as accountants, bookers venues and critics, site 1921 as a key year, one in which the Theater Owners Booking Association in concert with the race record industry nationalised the black vaudeville circuit, pushing  blues artists, mainly female, to the fore, and, in doing so, created the possibility of a more racially diverse audience.

The Original Blues is a fascinating account,  the third in a trilogy of books about early black popular music that began with Abbott and Seroff's Out of Sight- The Rise of African-American Popular Music, 1889-1895 and Ragged But Right- Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. While it's not necessary to have read those books to enjoy The Original Blues, readers of this one will surely be tempted to delve into Seroff and Abbott's earlier work. Kudos should go not only to Seroff and Abbott but to the University of Mississippi Press for its presentation of what amounts to an important book when it comes to  the history of the music. Whether acquiring the book or obtaining it from the library, no serious fan of blues and early jazz will want to miss this one.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Film Noir Poetry- The Big Combo, The Big Heat

“Ontology! I’m just
  telling you a story
  about this projector, that’s all.”

            Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book II

The Big Combo (Joseph Lewis, 1955)

Parsing's never easy. What matters, 
Alton’s black & white. Not what
you's what you don't. 
Hard-edged, as ever. Arrived, 
Hollywood, 1937. painter,  
writing the book, literally. Not 
plot but images, not ideas but 
things, black and white as colours. 
In-between non-manichaean 
shades framing low-budget fatalism, 
so we might see in the dark.

The Big Heat  (Fritz Lang, 1953)

Shocking, only if suburbia can 
be paradise. Unexpected violence 
and post-war fissures. Leave it 
to those German emigrĂ©s to expose 
wounds, commodity fetishism and 
middle-class angst. At the heart 
the heat: innocent home-keeper, 
vulnerable, tarnished. Contrast 
with the hoodlum’s moll. Bought 
and sold, at the bidding of their 
crime-sponging superiors. Home 
can’t be where the heart is, 
blabbing about Freud and child-
rearing. Yawn. No wonder their 
world is blown apart, a case of 
guilt by conventionality. Coffee-
scarred Gloria in post-war hell, 
damaged goods but a ticket out 
of drudgery. Her wound glowing 
nuclear, waiting in the dark for 
daddy to arrive. Sleazy hotel, 
where the big heat clings, quiet 
street props to Hoodlums Inc., 
without whom we would be little 
more than rootless cosmopolitans.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Border Rats: Charles Bowden's Red Caddy- Into the Unknown with Edward Abbey

Miles Davis liked to say he could tell what kind of musician someone was simply by the way they walked and dressed. I was reminded of that when I found myself thinking about the first time I encountered the late great chronicler of the American southwest and the US-Mexico border, Charles Bowden. I was listening to the World Service while temporarily living in France some years ago. Suddenly, for no more than three or four minutes, there was this voice... Talking about the drug wars and violence in Juarez which, at the time, was only just hitting the news. I remember thinking, who is this guy? Up to then I'd ever heard of Charles Bowden. But from hearing that voice I knew I had to get hold of his books. Because I somehow knew this was a real writer, someone who not only spoke with a certain gravitas, but who doubtlessly wrote from experience, and clearly acquainted with death and tragedy, as well as the beauty of the natural world.

When I did get around to reading Charles Bowden I was certainly not disappointed. His true crime books about border issues, particularly the drug wars- Murder City, El Sicario, Dreamland, A Shadow In the City- are unparalleled. And his books about the desert are as evocative as they are  heartfelt. All of which are  beautifully rendered. You can pretty choose a paragraph at random, like the one I came across over breakfast this morning:  
"Down in the pit some heavy metal band is thrashing out harmonics and a small mob of kids is slam dancing in the afternoon sun. Young women walk past with blank eyes, tattoos, large breasts and a perfume that kills hope with one whiff. The young men shuffle past with homicide eyes. I am staring into the triumph of the industrial revolution, complete with cleavage. Here are all the people no factory whistle calls."
Naturally, I began to collect as many of Bowden's  two dozen or so books that I could find and afford. And what I can say is that there is probably more truth in a single Bowden paragraph than most writers are able to throw together in an entire book, or maybe even a lifetime of writing books. So I was pleased to hear the University of Texas through Lannan and something called the Charles Bowden Publishing Project are on the case, and have churned out a series of  well-presented Bowden reissues and at least one original, The Red Caddy- Into the Unknown with Edward Abbey. And it's this latter book that I primarily want to talk about.

It is, at the title indicates, a tribute to Abbey, that cantankerous author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, amongst many others. Abbey, the conflicted writer, and, as Kris Kristofferson put it all those years ago, "a walking contradiction/partly truth and partly fiction." Not to mention Abbey  the reluctant spokesperson for any number of radical environmental activists, "monkey-wrenchers" as they are called in the parlance.

Bowden's short tribute- barely a hundred pages, with an intro by his friend Luis Alberto Urrea- shifts between his personal encounters and thoughts about Abbey, to preparing and attending a conference on the late author. A conference that Bowden dreads attending, and one that he knows Abbey himself would never have come within ten miles of. In between, Bowden does his best to demythologise Abbey- he "wasn't complicated, just ornery"- never once shying away from his more outrageous beliefs, while, at the same time,  pointing out what made him an interesting writer and friend. The title alludes to a car that Abbey purchased late in life as a gift to himself, a car that Bowden casually refers to as "an obscenity." Of course, that purchase was typical Abbey, the revolutionary with retrograde views on a range of subjects, such as   immigration, political correctness, women, etc.- sounding like a cross between Che Guevara and a Trump voter, though I doubt if Abbey, ever the anarchist, ever in his life  countenanced voting for anyone.  

It's a moving testimony, and Bowden's prose is as hard hitting as ever. Okay, so it's really little more than a puffed-up piece of journalism, but what journalism it is, with any number of memorable passages, such as the the following, in which Bowden, in the first page or two, lays it all on the line:
"To unravel something, you have to have as thesis. But to understand the dead ends, back alleys, and side roads of life itself, you have to mistrust your thesis and constantly keep an eye on it lest it blind you to detail, contradiction, lust, love, and loneliness. I can't write about a friend and make it neat and tidy until I intend to kill my friend. And this is not my intention."

 If you like Red Caddy, you will certainly want to read two other recently published University of Texas/Lannan Bowden books: Desert: Memoirs of the Future, originally published in 1991, and Red Line, originally published in 1989. Both seem as relevant now as when they were first appeared. With Bowden's voice, the one I first heard on the BBC all those years ago, coming through  on every page, the reader quickly realises that these days Tuscon's desert rat, the man with the pet rattlesnake, is missed more than ever. While Miles might have been able to tell the worth of a particular musician by the way he carried himself, for a writer, it's the way he or she talks- the tone and  ability to vocalise a world view- that matters. That's I see in Charles Bowden and what Bowden saw in his friend Edward Abbey.
"He lived in a moral universe. Beneath all the sexist barbs, the racist wit, the meanness, the pranks, the stunts, the anger, the episodes, the constant laughter and mirth, he inhabited and consciously expanded a moral universe. One where cleverness and normal standards of success don't count for  much but right and wrong count for pretty much everything. Ah, one life at a time, please, but still a real life."

Monday, May 28, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Film Noir Poetry- The Big Sleep

“Ontology! I’m just
  telling you a story
  about this projector, that’s all.”

            Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book II

The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

No point summarising, neither could 
Chandler or Hawks. Bogart-Bacall 
mouthing Chandler-Faulkner-Brackett. 
Set pieces, anxious double-entendres. 
Elusive, like a re-financed dream, or 
suburban tracts, fuzzy around edges. 
The title: what we've yet to awake
from. Nascent spaghetti freeways in 
a land where dicks rarely walk. Down 
what mean streets? As if automobility 
were enough, or protection? Those
bonnes mots now rampant, quick, 
artificial, if left to the imagination, 
like “butchering on the parlor floor.”

Saturday, May 26, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Film Noir Poetry, from Asphalt Jungle to Woman On the Run

“Ontology! I’m just
  telling you a story
  about this projector, that’s all.”

  Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book II


The Asphalt Jungle (John 
Huston, 1950)

Mix a criminal mastermind, tough-guys, 
double-crossing suicide. Hard-boil to 
urban decay. Greasy Emmerich swindling 
hooligan-employees. Soft-boiled Marilyn 
knowing she’ll soon have it all. But, 
Sterling, keep your eyes on the recipe. 
Farm-hands have problems of their 
own. Down Mexico way, Maddow typed 
while Huston strutted. Which begs the 
question: the state of things or capitalism 
on its uppers? Goutez-vous. Crime in 
a culture based on theft? Dix, dying 
alongside a disinterested horse, unlike 
Mr Ed, drugged mule Frances, who 
hasn’t the chops to tell it like it is.