Monday, September 29, 2014

Me and Sam and Whoever: Brainquake and the Origins of My Life as a Samuel Fuller Obsessive

Reading Samuel Fuller's recently published Brainquake, a novel any self-respecting Fullerista will want to read, made me think for some reason about the origins of my obsession- mild by some standards- for his films, from I Shot Jesse James to his adaptation of Goodis' Street of No Return, his fiction, from 144 Piccadilly to Brainquake, and his incredible autobiography A Third Face.

I'm pretty sure I first became aware of the culture importance, not to mention poetry, of Fuller's films sometime in 1968 while attending San Francisco State. At the time State's film department had a well-deserved reputation, with a number of screenings of different genres each week. Yet no one at State at that time would have dared screen a Samuel Fuller film. He just wasn't in fashion, probably considered too low-brow and in-your-face, neither European, avant-garde nor Alfred Hitchcock. A friend of a friend- I never actually knew his name- pointedly mentioned to me that Fuller's 1957 film Run of the Arrow was playing at a theatre on Market Street. At the time I didn't know a whole lot about  Fuller other than what I'd read in  Film Culture- those Naked Kiss stills!- and Andrew Sarris, who liked to maintain that Fuller was an authentic American auteur. Though, as a child, I'd been obsessed by Fuller's first film, I Shot Jesse James, watching it whenever it was shown on TV. Anyway, I went to see Run of the Arrow, and was entranced by it, fascinated by the camera work and narrative drive, though, at the same time, troubled by the complex motivations of Rod Steiger's O'Meara, a rebel veteran who, having refused to surrender at Appomatox, joins the Sioux. But I knew I had to see more films by this director.

Parenthetically, that same person who'd recommended Run of the Arrow, alerted me a little later to Coogan's Bluff playing on Market Street, then Fistful of Dollars. Soon I was a frequent visitor to those theatres which were either flea-pits or palaces, but usually a combination of the two.  This at a time when no self-respecting film addict would venture beyond  the Surf Theatre, the Presidio or Berkeley rep houses. It wasn't long before I became obsessed with not only Fuller, but Nick Ray and an assortment of film noir directors. So this mysterious person whose name I never knew was responsible in some way for my interest not only in Fuller but film noir. Interestingly, when the SF State student strike was in full swing, he sidled up to me to ask if I knew where he could buy a piece.  Very noir, but why was he asking me?  Did I look like some kind of arms dealer or gun runner?  I wonder now if he might have been, given the era and the ferment, some kind of police informer.  If so, it would have somehow been perversely appropriate.

Later I would seek out Samuel Fuller films wherever I could find them- a double-bill of Shock Corridor and Naked Kiss in London in the early 1970s, White Dog (never shown in the US) in Paris, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Strasse in Berkeley,  and most of the others on British TV at one time or another.  Then, in the mid-1970s,  I bought a secondhand copy of Phil Hardy's Studio Vista book, which, at the time, was probably the only book available on Fuller.  I could now track down his TV work as well as movies. I clearly remember my excitement at seeing a daytime re-run of Fuller's episode of The Virginian, which, despite its obvious compromises, seemed at the time almost as dark as I Shot Jesse James.

Around that time I started coming across his novels, beginning, thanks to Nick Kimberly at Compendium Books in Camden Town, with 144 Piccadilly, followed by The Big Red One. Soon I was collecting the novels, including a pristine armed services edition of The Dark Page. Actually, when you think about it, there aren't many novel-writing film directors. Or at least I can't think of many. There's Sayles, Pasolini, Cimino, Mamet, Elia Kazan, Mailer, Peter Handke, and no doubt some others. But no one makes films and writes novels quite like Sam Fuller. In fact, his films and books are pretty much interchangeable, and, of course, a number of his films would be adapted from novels he'd written.    

Which brings us back to Brainquake. This is a novel written during the 1980s in Paris where  Fuller had exiled himself in the wake of the White Dog debacle. It wasn't unusual for Fuller to spend his non-directing time writing fiction. But the result this time was one of his best. Though Brainquake found a publisher in Japan as well as France, it would go without an English language publisher until the present edition by Hard Case Crime. Too bad Fuller didn't live long enough to turn it into a film. Yet so rapid and sensational are the first few pages of the novel that I was left as exhausted as I was perplexed. Then in the fourth chapter I came across the following and was totally hooked:

She didn't believe in redemption when it came to taking a human life. To her that was breaking the law of life, not the law written somewhere on a piece of paper. She didn't believe in the why of murder, in any medical or psychological explanations for it. The hell with why. What, where, when, who. You kill, you're caught, the door slams behind you. You can spend the rest of your life in a cage, or you can do the decent thing and kill yourself. That was fine. She never begrudged a killer a second killing, as long as the second victim was herself...

We're back to Fuller the humanitarian iconoclast. Having opened with the literary equivalent of a newspaper headline, Fuller digs down into the characters themselves. Though at first they seem to have jumped from the pages of a comic book, they quickly turn into complex individuals. Everyone- whether mobster, cop, veteran, femme fatale, or hit-men- has their own agenda, code of conduct, rationalisations and peculiarities. So there's a hit-man with well-defined principles, as well as a mentally damaged bagman who's also a poet, barely verbal and lacking any knowledge of the world. Here everyone is a victim, deranged by their crimes or their circumstances. As under-rated  a novelist  as he was once under-rated as a director, Fuller's novels might be plot-driven, but he could write character-driven scenes of considerable beauty, with all the contradictions of everyday life, as in this description of the police photographer doing his job, while dreaming of what might be:

The tunnel between Al's lower teeth at closest focus was cutaneous crypt. His tongue drooped down the corner of his mouth through red lava. Fingernail scratches were red trenches in a Sahara wadi. The ceiling bulb reflecting in his frozen eyes was elliptical Daliism. Taken by the police photographer for his personal collection, the photos would eventually win acclaim when he published them in an art book selling for fifty dollars a copy.

He returned to the mundane official coverage of Al sprawled on the floor littered with red roses and pieces of broken vase. It was boring but the picture editor had a hard-on for that stuff. Picture editors had no taste. They had no imagination, nor artistry. Rarely would of them understand the many things a corpse reflected other than a body on the floor, in a tub, in the street. They were antiquated. Like Norman Rockwell today.

To catch the impact of sudden death, it took art. Only an artist could make that impact memorable, breathe life into death. Take this body. It was so goddam corny the photographer wanted to gag. Not the slightest spark of anything original to it. He could write the whole story of it himself, in the words of one syllable. The man, the girl. The want. She's shy. He takes. She shoots. He's dead. She runs. One day he would have his book, and it would haunt everyone who saw it, because all kinds of violent death caught a different picture of beauty, of nature that homicide create. This here?  Was why newspapers were used for lining litterboxes.

Beautifully put though, in the context of the novel, one hundred percent wrong.  However, in Fuller's fiction and films everyone has their own way of perceiving the world.

Brainquake, like all his other books and films, represents Fuller the tabloid reporter, muckraker, observer, and absurdist. This is a novel that's full of surprises and moves like a low flying aircraft from New York to France. It's as though Fuller had finally shaken loose the shackles of those dark pages of reportage and, juggling various characters and points of view, emerged into the world of modernist noir fiction.  

And for those interested, here's a trailer for A Fuller Life, directed by Samuel Fuller's daughter, Samantha:

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

In the last years of his life, French noirist Jean-Patrick Manchette concluded that the genre in which he had been writing had, when it came to addressing the political reality of the world, become ensnared in the parameters of its own invention. So he decided to turn his attention to spy fiction. Though I would agree that  espionage novels often display a wider scope and can be politically acute, I'm not quite ready to abandon noir fiction altogether. This even though I'm often left asking myself why I'm reading such books, wondering just what a given author is trying to say other showing that they are familiar with the grim reality of the everyday world. Not that espionage novels don't function within their own spectrum of cliches. Which might explain why I've lately been turning to non-fiction, for example the fascinating A Spy Among Friends by Times journalist Ben Macintyre, which  revolves around the notorious spy and Russian defector Kim Philby and his two friends, associates and eventual adversaries Nicholas Elliott and James Jesus Angleton. The former, like Philby, a golden boy in  MI6, while the latter, Angleton, was instrumental in the formation of the CIA and head of counter intelligence.

But this is also a book about class, the old boys network, and the British establishment, the remnants of which are still with us. Though the present government, ruled by ex-members of the Bullingdon Club, tells us otherwise. Though they are amateurs in comparison, and London mayor Boris Johnson a pale imitation to his predecessors.

By "establishment," we're talking about unaccountable power in the hands of the few, brought together, at least in  Philby and Elliott's day, by public school, club, country, cricket and Tory politics. With, of course, a high tolerance for peccadilloes and eccentric behaviour. Macintyre traces Philby's, Elliott's and Angleton's respective lives, including how, over the years, they intersect. In the case of Philby and Elliott, growing up with distant and eccentric fathers (Philby's an advisor to King Ibn Saud and eventually convert to Islam, Elliott's a headmaster who believed in an extreme version of tough love), public school, and Cambridge, where  Philby,  MacLean, Burgess and Blunt met, and their idealistic belief in the Soviet Union was nurtured. From which point it was an easy leap to MI6 (reminding me of Tony Benn saying that when he left Oxford he was expected to join MI6,  politics being a career of a distinctly lower order) and, for Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt, Soviet spies.

As pathetic and, in the end, sad as his life was, and as duplicitous and destructive as his action were, I couldn't help but feel a certain amount of admiration for Philby. After all, he might have been a traitor, responsible for a number of deaths, but one could say that at least he never acted out of self-interest. Macintyre believes he was simply addicted to deception. That might be the case, but it might also be a slight over-simplification. Philby was also a true believer and there was nothing in his life that could possibly over-ride that. Of course, the establishment gathered around him, as they usually do. Nevertheless, I still found it remarkable that the political  career of the foreign secretary Harold Macmillan could have survived after exonerating Philby in parliament. That he could then go on to become prime minister would be unthinkable today. Or that Anthony Eden could have also survived having rejected an inquiry. Most touching of all was the final meeting between Elliott and Philby,  separated by their respective positions, with Elliott taking it upon himself to extract a confession from his old friend. This after Philby had spent years milking Elliott for information, just as he had spent years gaining information form  the anglophile Angleton, deflating this ex-poet and supremely paranoid spook in the process. John Le Carré's afterward highlights this brotherhood. He asks Elliott, who by the 1980s had retired only to advise Thatcher on intelligence matters, "Could you have him (Philby) killed?" Elliott responds: "My dear chap...One of us." Nevertheless, after Philby's defection, things would never be the same. The establishment would continue to exist, of course, but Angleton would never recover from the betrayal, nor would Elliott. Likewise,  the relationship between MI6 and CIA, and between MI6 and the more déclassé MI5, who had always been out to get the toff Philby.

Coincidentally,  Owen Jones in a recent article in the Guardian writes about the origin and meaning of the term "establishment," tracing it back to the formidable Times and Spectator journalist and author of such books as The Spoiled Child of the Western World: The Miscarriage of the American Idea in Our Time and The Kennedy Promise, Henry Fairlie who coined the term:

Fairlie had grown cynical about the higher echelons of British society and, one day in the autumn of 1955, he wrote a piece explaining why. What attracted his attention was a scandal involving two Foreign Office officials. Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had defected to the Soviet Union. Fairlie suggested that friends of the two men had attempted to shield their families from media attention... This, he asserted, revealed that "what I can the 'establishment' in this country is today more powerful than ever before.

For Fairlie, the establishment included not only "the centres of official power- though they are certainly part of it"- but "the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised...This "exercise of power", he claimed, could only be understood as being "exercised socially". In other words, the establishment comprised a set of well-connected people who knew one another, mixed in the same circles and had one another's backs. It was not based on official, legal or formal arrangements, but rather on "subtle social relationships."

 But the more important point is that not only did the establishment offer protection to the likes of Philby, Burgess, and Maclean, but that they would make sure the three would, for as long as possible, remain impervious right up to the time of their ultimate exposure and defections. Certainly neither their drunken behaviour, homosexuality, communist past, or social slights had prevented their promotion.  Written in a witty and effortless style, A Spy Among Friends is one of some ten books written by Macintyre, all in one way or another about spooks and outsiders, including The Napoleon of Crime, about Adam Worth whom Macintyre calls the real Moriarty, and Agent Zig Zag, about Eddie Chapman, who was a WW2 MI5 spy, both of which sit atop a stack of books I'm looking forward to reading at some point in the not-so distant future.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Paperback Confidential- Crime Writers of the Paperback Era by Brian Ritt

Paperback Confidential, put together by Brian Ritt, is the latest and, in my opinion, the best encyclopaedia-reference book when it comes to paperback pulp writers. At least in English. Its cover recalls the heyday of the scandal sheet, Confidential, and shows the famous and the infamous, in this case, Chandler, Hammett, Highsmith, Goodis, Woolrich and Charles Williams. But there are many other writers inside the book's covers, some  well known, and some not so well known, like John Trinian, Malcolm Braly, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Benjamin Appel.  No, Ritt does include everyone. How could he? So there's no mention of writers like Mary Holland, Jay Thomas, George Milburn, Robert Ames, Vera Caspary, Robert Finnegan or Daniel Fuchs. Nevertheless, there's enough ammunition here to last a lifetime. Ritt includes,  under each writer's name, a biographical entry, as well as a bibliography, and writers one might also like, many of whom are not included in this book, which makes Ritt's volume even more expansive. My only criticism, other than the various noirists left out, would be that the cover misplaces the importance or, at any rate, the emphasis of the writers included, putting them in the category of scandalous rather than transgressive, political or subversive. But that's only a minor point, because,  if you're after an  overview of the genre, from the Depression the present, you'll want to get hold of Ritt's book.

While pouring through Paperback Confidential, I couldn't stop thinking about how much easier these days it is to find  information on writers of crime-noir fiction than when I was writing Pulp Culture in the mid-1990s. On the other hand, for me, tracking down information was  part of the fun of writing Pulp Culture, followed by Neon Noir and Heartbreak and Vine.  Though no doubt about it, had Ritt's volume been available, it would have made the writing of those books a much simpler process. But at the time there wasn't anything like it around, at least not in English. What was available was Geoffrey O'Brien's groundbreaking Hardboiled America, followed by a small handful of books over the following years. Like  Lee Server's Over My Dead Body and Danger Is My Business, followed a number of years later by Pulp Fiction Writers: the Essential Guide to More Than 200 Pulp Pioneers and Mass Market Masters. The latter not a bad book, but not nearly as comprehensive as Ritt's volume. Likewise, Arthur Lyon's Death on the Cheap. Not forgetting the essays in Gorman, Server and Greenberg's anthology The Big Book of Noir.

In the writing my books,  I mostly relied on information from French publications. I remember pouring over a copy of Les Ecrivains des Etats-Unis, 1800-1945, published by L'oeil in magazine format, and given away for free that I found in the window of a bookstore in Perpignan.  That must have been sometime around 1992. Then at that same bookstore, I saw and bought a copy of Mesplede and Schleret's Les Auteurs des Serie Noire: Voyage au bout de la Noire. That was just what I needed. That was followed, a decade later, by Mesplede's more comprehensive, and, for me, indispensable, Dictionaire des litteratures policers, in two volumes, published, as was Les Auteurs..., by Joseph K.  These days, with the likes of  Paperback Confidential, the relevant information has become fairly accessible. Likewise, the reprints of the novels themselves. No need to scour around secondhand stores. You can just sit in front of your computer and order all those rare books on the internet, albeit at inflated prices. Nor is there any need to learn a foreign language or travel to a foreign country to acquire some fairly routine information. No doubt one of the wonders of the modern world. Though, of course, something has been lost in the process. Still, if you want to keep up with the novels and their authors, Brian Ritt's Paperback Confidential is a good place to start.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Do Not Sell At Any Price- The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 rpm Records by Amanda Petrusich

I  admit it, I'm a bit compulsive, particularly when it comes to vintage blues, early string band, jazz and country recordings. But to be honest, I've spent most of my adult life trying to avoid collecting 78s of those genres, because I know once into it, I'd never find a way out, and collecting would probably overtake my life as it has those of the collectors and anthologists Amanda Petrusich writes about in her excellent and highly readable book. No, I prefer to get the music in whatever form I can- 78s, 45s, LPs, CDs or MP3s. As the subtitle of her books states, Petrusich takes us into that strange world of the 78 collector. Deploying her own brand of populist, even chatty, prose, honed in periodicals like the New York Times, Atlantic and the Oxford American, and in her book It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music, Petrusich tracks down the likes of John Heneghan, Chris King, Joe Bussard, Ian Nagoski, Richard Weize, as well as expounding on legendary collectors like  Harry Smith and James McKune. Not exactly household names, but well-known to those into the music and of interest to those who would like to be.

Amanda Petrusich
On a personal note, I'm glad I didn't read Petrusich's book  before writing  my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, which features a group of 78 blues collectors, one of whom is loosely based on the infamous and highly eccentric McKune. The fact is,  I've long been interested in 78 collectors, going back to a misspent youth hanging around places like the Ash Grove and  Don Brown's Jazz Man records in Los Angeles, where the likes of  John Fahey, Barry Hansen and Bob Hite would congregate to talk and plough through the new arrivals. I knew McKune's name batted around- heard that he was pretty weird, something of a recluse and so on, but didn't know much about him. That is until I read Mary Beth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues, in many ways a precursor to Petrusich's book, though the former concerns those who searched out rural blues singers, made field recordings, as well as those who collected the music. So while Hamilton's book was certainly an influence, had I read Do Not Sell... book before writing my novel, the two books together would have probably pushed my narrative in another direction altogether, albeit with a greater concentration on historical and discographical accuracy.

Of course, Petrusich and her pals are right when they say there's something special when it comes to listening to 78 rpm records. It's not only the time-travel element, but something about the sound itself, both intimate and unfiltered. Though I suspect this has something to do with concentration. That one naturally gives more attention to a single recording than to a string of recordings as when one listens to an LP or CD, where one's attention tends to dissipate over time. But that's technology for you, a factor that's played a part since the advent of the LP. I remember a critic in the 60s magazine Little Sandy Review saying one should listen to no more than three or four tracks of any blues artist on an LP at a time; otherwise it represents a false impression of how they would have presented their music to the public. Be that as it may, these days, as Petrusich points out, one can stick the entire Harry Smith Anthology into an MP3 player, and, with the shuffle mechanism, destroy any semblance of Smith's careful, if strange, sequencing. But, then, that was pretty much the case back when Columbia put out the Robert Johnson box set, which, when it appeared, disrupted the sequencing of earlier releases, which themselves were sequenced artificially. Which only shows that it's all artifice, from the moment a recording is made to the technology by which it reaches the listening public.

For me, Do Not Sell... is most interesting when the author talks to the collectors themselves- whom Petrusich likens to detectives and investigative journalists in their pursuit of their prey- and the music to which they are devoted. Of lesser interest are those moments  speculating about why people collect 78s. Nor is it all that astonishing to hear that collecting is a predominantly male pursuit. But I think Petrusich realises as much. Likewise, she can't quite convince herself that collecting might be a sign of a Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Aspergers, concluding that, in most cases, it's simply an addiction, one that appeals to, or creates, eccentrics.

That such collectors have shaped our musical memory, if not our taste, is beyond doubt. But as Pestrusich points out, many of these collectors are blinkered when it comes to the value of more recently recorded music. As though cocooning themselves in a different time, and putting some distance between themselves and a music that, in many instances, was considered dangerous, will give them a degree of protection or take them back to a simpler, more comprehensible world. Petrusich wonders if in fifty years time the same sorts of people will be gathering to collect and listen to hip-hop, with time having turned it into something less threatening and subversiveness. Which is why it's refreshing when Petrusich comes across someone who can put the ethos of the collector in perspective. Ian Nagoski, responsible for the anthology To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916-1929, puts it this way: "Some people are just really good at listening to records... When you get to a certain level of knowledge, and can pass that along to people, that's really exciting and really beautiful...I see that in 78 collectors over and over again- they're dying to express, to someone..., how beautiful the whole thing is...[These] guys are definitely discontents in a Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents kind of way. They're looking at the world and seeing it as untenable. The world is sick. And yet here is this thing that affirms that there's something about it that's beautiful. But it's forgotten, or lost, or separate from day-to-day reality. But if you could put it back together, then you could reconstruct this gone world, this kind of life that was once worth living, make that into your own life, and then it would be okay or tolerable for you."

Though she searches for some kind of platonic ideal regarding collectors and the process of collecting, Petrusich never really finds it. After all, collecting is anything but objective, it criteria varying with each collector according to their idiosyncrasies. No point searching for such forms when it comes to aesthetics or the value of artifacts. They are what they are. The result is what our culture has made it, not what it could or should be. Petrusich can't be faulted for her search, even if she never quite determines whether those artifacts are the result of aberrant visions, whether they are culturally determined, or simply fixed by the woof and warp of character. This even though most of the anthologists, in contrast to Harry Smith, would seek to remove themselves from the context of their anthologies, as if that were possible. Anthologies are skewed regardless. Moreover, what is collectible (or anthologisable) these days is often be the converse of what was popular when first released. But, once again, so what?  If one likes Skip James- who certainly was an anomaly- one simply likes Skip James. One hopefully doesn't collect his records based on their popularity or lack of, or by their monetary value, not unless you value them simply as commodities.

So Do Not Sell is as much about Petrusich as it is about the records and the music. But her conversational tone and self-deprecating humour are used to great effect when it comes to describing the music and the listening experience, which helps make the book accessible to those who might not be familiar with the music. While I initially found her personal asides slightly annoying, such as the section in which she describes learning how to scuba dive in order to search for some Paramount 78s that might have been dumped in a river outside the company's pressing plant some eighty years ago. But in fact the episode is not only very funny, but exemplifies the extremes to which collectors, or would-be collectors, will go to get their hands on a box of priceless 78s. Moreover, it shows that the days of the neophyte getting in on collecting 78s are over, which means that Petrusich has to content herself with accompanying collectors as they track down records. 

Harry Smith as young hipster
Perhaps the most comprehensive section is the chapter on Harry Smith and his influential but never equalled 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. Petrusich maintains the Anthology, with its esoteric sequencing and hermetic packaging, can be likened to an aural poem whose meaning constantly awaits discovery. She  wonders what it must have been like to have heard the Anthology fifty years ago, before MP3's,  Dylan, the Beatles, and all that followed, including the advent of meaning as such. I can try to answer her question, since I first heard the Anthology a bit over fifty years ago, and can say listening to it was a daunting experience and hard to comprehend  in its entirety, but at least it was free of the cultural baggage it has since acquired. Spurred on by listening to the New Lost City Ramblers, Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, etc., I would diligently trek to the library to listen, one side at a time. When I finished, I went through it again and again. While the music has stayed with me, I never actually owned a copy until its reissue on CD in 1997. And even then, because of the hype that would surround it, I don't think I listened to it all that much. But while reading Petrusich's chapter,  I returned to the Anthology, and, not surprisingly, it sounds better than ever. That in itself is enough reason to read Petrusich's book. It's going to almost anyone hungry not so much for 78s-as-objects but for the music contained on those 78s. Sure, I would have liked the book to have been more hardcore in its pursuit of collectors and their records, but I doubt if  I was the reader it was aimed at. But even a hardened listener like myself couldn't help but be charmed by Petrusich's willingness to get to the music by any means necessary, whether learning to scuba dive or riding shot-gun with an assortment of shellac-junkies.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Another Noir Roundup: John Trinian, James Curtis, Malcolm Mackay, Owen Martell, Robert Wilson

The books have been piling up of late,  so, to assuage both guilt and laziness, this is going to be  another series of quickies. As usual, it's my favourite publisher, Stark House, that has come up with some of the most interesting books: reprints of Nude on Thin Ice/Memory of Passion by the always excellent pulpster Gil Brewer, and Nothing In Her Way/River Girl by the prolific regionalist Charles Williams. Though for me the biggest surprise and most intriguing title is their reissue of two novels by Gold Medal writer John Trinian, North Beach Girl coupled with Scandal of the Sand.

Trinian preferred the name Zekial Marko (though his real name was, in fact, Marvin Leroy Schmoker) and it was under Marko that he wrote for The Rockford Files, Mission Impossible, Kolchak, and Toma, a TV series that he also  helped create. As well as the film Once a Thief, starring Alain Delon, Ann Margaret and Jack Palance, adapted by Ralph Nelson from Trinian's novel  Scratch a Thief. There was even an earlier adaptation of the book made in France by Henri Verneuil, with a script by one of France's best, Michel Audiard (father of Jacques), with Delon and Jean Gabin entitled Melodie sous-sol, translated for English-speakers as Any Number Can Win.

Born in Salinas- Steinbeck was a neighbour- Trinian (1933-2008) spent most of his time in the Bay area, and, during the late 1950s, did a stretch as a bartender at a Sausalito waterhole called The Tin Angel. Just like a  character- the writer-bartender- out of a Don Carpenter novel. Trinian/Marko had quite a reputation at the time, not all of it laudatory. Nevertheless, pulp pundit Rick Ollerman calls him "one of the most realistic of the Gold Medal writers." Indeed, both North Beach Girl (1960) and his final Gold Medal novel Scandal on the Sand (1964) read like minor classics. The latter concerns  a dozen characters brought together by whale stranded on a local beach, while the former revolves around the usual mix of drugs, sex and alcohol, here with a cast that includes Erin, a young female protagonist, an ambitious lesbian and an artist who wants to paint her. After all, it's the hipster world of Bay Area beatnik bohemia: "Who the hell wanted to work. Working got you nowhere. It was just like voting. Your one lousy vote didn't really count. The system wouldn't collapse if you voted against it. So why try? Why work? No matter what job you were performing, the system wouldn't care if you walked out on it. There would always be another sucker to take your place. And Erin had had jobs enough to uphold her way of thinking. Carhop, waitress, usherette, receptionist, cocktail waitress, file clerk, and now artists' model. She had walked out on them  all at one time or another. And no one had missed her. Life had been able to stagger on without her shoulder to the wheel. So, all jobs were the same. She hated them. And now she had had her fill of them and she would do absolutely nothing. And perhaps, while her money lasted, she would be able to figure out a way to be done weigh working for good."

Also included in Trinian volume is an excellent introduction by pulp honcho Ollerman,  an afterward by Trinian's daughter, the artist Belle Marko, and a mid-volume remembrance by the novelist Ki Longfellow who, as a teenager, was Trinian's  soul-mate, who went on to become Vivian "Bonzo Dog" Stanshall's partner. Trinian, and, a second or two earlier, Longfellow, appear in the film's trailer:

The equivalent of Stark House in the UK would probably be London Books Classics. In the past they've published novels by such London working class writers as Robert Westerby, Gerald Kersh, Simon Blumenfield, John Sommerfield and James Curtis. Their most recent is Curtis's There Ain't No Justice. Curtis (1907-1977) has long been one of my favourites with novels like The Gilt Kid, which I've written about before, and, of course, the classic They Drive By Night. There Ain't No Justice is a boxing novel- arguably one of the best- that explores the underworld surrounding that sport in pre-war London, and its effect on a kid from the slums of West London. As usual, Curtis's characters deploy the  language, syntax and slang of the working class. In lesser hands, that might come off as clumsy or cliché-ridden, but here it sounds exactly right. Curtis hung out in  Soho watering holes with the likes of Gerald Kersh and Robert Westerby, as well as various poets and painters.  Like They Drive By Night, There Ain't No Justice was adapted for the screen by Pen Tennyson, though not quite as successfully. Still here's a YouTube clip from the opening scene from Tennyson's 1939 adaptation. If you like bleak settings, boxing, and working class London, you won't be disappointed by this one.

Fast forward to contemporary Glasgow. These days British crime pundits all seem to be talking about Malcolm Mackay, whose A Sudden Arrival of Violence (Pan) is the latest and last novel in his Glasgow trilogy. And one can see why.  All three novels explore the city's criminal underworld, and its various characters, and they do with no small amount of flair and fluidity. What I also find interesting is that Mackay, who hails from Stornoway, purposely ignores the most obvious manifestations of the region he's writing about. In contrast to Curtis, there is, other than the locale, little in these books that could be specifically thought of as Glaswegian. In fact,  there's a universality and matter-of-factness to Mackay writing that makes me think of someone like J.G. Ballard. At the same time, his prose is as crisp and tight as a Black Mask or Gold Medal author. I would say this is definitely a young writer to watch if he hadn't already written two excellent, and dark, novels, How a Gunman Says Goodbye and The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. And he has a fourth novel, The Night the Rich Men Burned, on the way.

If, like me, you have a weakness for jazz novels, you'll want to have a look at Owen Martell's Intermission (Windmill). It opens with the Bill Evans Trio playing those historic dates at the Village Vanguard in New York, in June, 1961. Not long after which Evans' bass player, the great Scott LeFaro is killed in a car accident. Intermission explores the effect of LeFaro's death on Evans. It's the kind of novel that only an outsider could write. From South Wales, Martell is able to create an evocative, if subdued, atmosphere, as he explores Evans' character over the months following LeFaro's death- which constitutes the intermission of the title. Though, for me, there was something about the novel- perhaps it's the over-romanticisation of this particular subject- that made the novel the less than the sum of its parts. But perhaps that's unavoidable. Over-romanticism seems to be an occupational hazard,  particularly for outsiders. Still,  readable jazz novels are hard to come by. From the very start, Martell's book  reminded me  of a novel I read in French some years ago by Christian Gailly entitled Un Soir au Club (Editions Minuit) about the Evans trio playing a small club in a provincial French town, a laudable attempt which fell short of the mark. Martell's book, which could be thought of as picking up where Gailly's book left off,  is, despite its faults,  a more complete and satisfying work.

If you like complex, fast action spy novels based on a fair amount of research, Wilson's latest, The Whitehall Mandarin (Arcadia), will definitely interest you. An American who served in Vietnam as a Special Forces Officer, then moved  to England, after which he renounced his US citizenship, Wilson has written four previous spy novels. His latest moves from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, and, for the most part, centres on Lady Somers, who, in this novel, happens to be the first female to head the Ministry of Defence. It also brings spooks from previous Wilson novels, as it moves through the Cold War, into  the swinging 60s, the Profumo affair, the Bay of Pigs, Malaya, Vietnam, and China's growing importance on the world's stage. I was completely engrossed until the pace picked up to such a degree that I found it hard to keep my disbelief sufficiently suspended. It's just that there are just too many events of earthshaking importance.  Nevertheless, there are some great moments, and Wilson has certainly done his research, throwing in any number of real personalities from the era, to the degree that I found myself  googling various names with some surprising results. Wilson is in the Ambler, Furst, McCarry, Le Carré category, though not as subtle as the latter two, nor as controlled as the former two. More like a espionage-equivalent of James Ellroy, with a scatter-gun approach, though without Ellroy's manic style and mannerisms. Though I'll no doubt dip into his earlier novels, this one, however entertaining, illustrates the adage that less is often best.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron

My interest in the artist, film-maker and self-styled witch Cameron goes back to 1964 when, as a  nineteen year-old, I attended a Movies Round Midnight screening of her films at the Cinema Theatre in Los Angeles. The Cinema was located on Western just above Santa Monica Blvd, next to the O Sole Mio Pizza House.  I began attending those screenings no doubt for all the wrong reasons, when someone said they were showing midnight porn films at some movie theatre in Hollywood. Naturally my friends and I were curious only to discover the "porn" was, in fact, Stan Brakhage's Window Water Baby Moving and Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Enfants Terribles. I'd  never seen anything like either film, and so returned the next week, and every week thereafter. The Cinema was managed by Mike Getz (in fact, a distant relative of mine), but it was poet John Fles who programmed Movies Round Midnight. Fles had been involved with periodicals like Trembling Lamb, Kulchur, the Chicago Review and its off-shoot Big Table. His aesthetics were straight out of the Film Makers Co-op in New York and, to a lesser degree, Canyon Cinema in San Francisco. Over the next year or so I saw all the classic underground films of the 1960s, as well as hard to get and seldom seen films from earlier decades.  Those films made enough of an impression that I would later exhibit similar films in San Francisco.

Parsons and Cameron
John Fles
The most memorable screening at the Cinema was that night Cameron showed her films. Having fallen on hard times, it was meant to be a benefit for her. As the images appeared on the screen, she sat in the projection booth reading her poetry over the p.a. system. I didn't know much about Cameron at the time other than she had a reputation as a witch of some kind. Nor did I  know what to make of the mid-screening commotion in the projection booth, and what sounded like breaking glass followed by a number of tarot cards that descended onto those sitting in the back rows. Aware of Fles's fondness for dada-like moments which he outlined in his essay entitled "Seeing Is Believing," which I wish I still had, I took the commotion to be just another example of his desire to "upset the equilibrium," like the time  he stopped Invasion of the Body Snatchers at the moment when Kevin McCarthy looks into the truck and sees all those pods, disconcerting the audience to such a degree that, for a moment, I thought a riot might ensue.

Cameron and Hopper in Night Tide
Apparently Kenneth Anger, Cameron's sometime friend and rival,  had invaded the projection booth, demanding the print of his film Inauguration of a Pleasure Dome be returned to him. This developed into a full-scale confrontation that spilled out into the lobby. As I left someone brushed me followed by a small gaggle of men dressed like thuggish bankers. The next day my mother asked me why there was blood on the back of my shirt. "Were you in a fight last night?"she asked. "No," I answered, "I was at the movies." When I returned to The Cinema the following week,  Kenneth was picketing the theatre for not respecting the rights of film-makers.

That occasion is told in some detail in Spencer Kansa's well-researched and entertaining Wormwood Star. In this instance as told by Fles, Getz and photographer John Brittan- the only person, according to him, who respected Kenneth's one-person picket-line.  Kansa also mentions that the altercation might also have been about some Aleister Crowley manuscripts that Anger thought were rightfully his. In any case, that's just one anecdote out the many that appear in Kansa's book, a new edition of which has just been published by Mandrake a predominantly occult publishing house in the UK.

Fairy Queen (1962)
Marjorie Cameron (1922-1995), who arrived in Pasadena in 1945 straight out of the military, was for many years an iconic figure in L.A. bohemian culture, which included such disparate personalities as Wallace and Shirley Berman, Curtis Harrington, Kenneth Anger, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, David Meltzer and Russ Tamblyn. Interestingly, she never had much time for Venice poets like Stuart Perkoff, who apparently were too macho for her temperament. And she appeared in several movies, playing opposite Hopper in Harrington's film low-budget classic Night Tide, then in his film Wormwood Star, as well as in Anger's Inauguration of a Pleasure Dome.

Born in Iowa and a frequenter of jazz joints on L.A.'s Central Avenue, she  met and, in 1946, married  the infamous rocket-man and leading occultist Jack Parsons whose life came to an untimely end in Pasadena, when in 1952 he blew himself up, whether by accident or otherwise, at his Pasadena residence on South Orange Grove. It was a death from which Cameron would never fully recover. Parsons, the subject of at least two biographies, was not only a Crowley devotee and patron of the Agape Lodge, but one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an influential rocket scientist at Cal Tech, this despite the fact he had no formal training in such matters save some experiments to perfect liquid-fuel rockets in the Arroyo Seco and Devil's Gate Dam. He was also a writer, poet and science fiction fan who was referenced in Philip K. Dick's novel Dr Futurity, and could count amongst his friends actors, artists, and writers like Jack Williamson, Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard, who shared Parsons' residence and became something akin to his sorcerer's apprentice. Following Jack's  death, Cameron took it upon herself to take up where her husband had left off. In fact, Wormwood Star, the title of Kansa's book, is also the title of Curtis Harrington's Cameron-inspired film, and the name Cameron gave to Parsons' magical child, the production of which became Cameron's long-term obsession.

Though Cameron would move from Pasadena to Silverlake, as well as Venice, West Hollywood and various spots in the desert, there was something about Pasadena in those days. Perhaps a matter of wealth combined with mysticism. It's a subject Mike Davis addresses in the first chapter of  City of Quartz. As religious leader and mystic Annie Besant once said, "The finest magnetic vibrations in the world are to be found in Pasadena." Though I grew up in east Pasadena- S. Orange Grove was like another world to me- I was never privy to magnetic vibrations, fine or otherwise. However, Farnsworth Crowder's Los Angeles- The Heaven of Bunk Shooters (1931), sheds a bit of light on those "vibrations," and  how the occult and various sects exploited public awe and mystification regarding science, physics and metaphysics:

Cameron in Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of a Pleasure Dome
"Whatever waves, oscillates, vibrates, pulses or surges contributed, by analogy, to the explanations of harmony, absent treatment, telepathy, magnetic healing, vibratory equilibrium, spiritualism or any other cloudy wonder. Surpassing are the powers of these scientific sects. One awed citizen referring to a busy group of vibrators cloistered in the hills, whispered, 'My lord, man!- they wouldn't dare release their secrets. The race isn't ready- not advanced enough. The world would go to pieces. It would be like giving everybody a handful of radium. Ignorant people would have too much power.'"

Got it?  But that's one of those  disconnects that Kansa, who manages to interview most of the relevant parties,  avoids addressing. Clearly, tangents abound, but, in the final analysis, Kansa demonstrates Cameron's importance in the history of L.A. art and bohemian culture of the 1950s and early 60s. Though exhibiting many of the characteristics that would become commonplace a few years later, Cameron would eventually be enveloped by mass culture, not to mention various personal issues and downright bad luck. Too bad Kansa offers little in the way of criticism regarding the historical drift represented by the likes of Cameron. And, disappointingly, there's no reproduction of Cameron's art work. Though, to be fair, Kansa makes it a point to say that he was unable to obtain permission to reproduce it, which he mitigates by adding that much of it is available on-line. Part-visionary and part-naif, Cameron  cuts an admirable if somewhat pathetic figure. But, for me, whenever I hear Cameron's name, I can't help but think about that night at the Cinema Theatre in 1964 and all those tarot cards falling through the air and the look on my mother's face when she realised that going to the movies can sometimes be a bloody affair.