Thursday, August 24, 2017

Mickey One: Stand-Up Paranoia

Where and when did I first see Arthur Penn's 1965 black and white Mickey One? Was it on TV or maybe Telegraph Avenue, or perhaps at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road? Maybe all three. Because it's one of those films that seems more like a dream than an ordinary movie. And like a dream, the film is a bit skewered, in parts incomprehensible and not without its flaws and idiosyncrasies. In spite of that, or because of that, it remains, along with Night Moves, my favourite Arthur Penn movie. And along with the Parallax View,  my favourite Warren Beatty movie. Because it was so seldom screened, Mickey One seemed to be one of those films you longed to see again, just to find out if it's really as good as you thought when you last saw it. At least that's how the affected me. Now with this nicely packaged DVD from Indicator (with excellent essays by Nick Pinkerton and Richard Williams, along with extras including an National Film Theatre interview with Penn, and interviews with actor Alexandra Stewart and Matthew Penn on the making of the film) you can finally view Penn's film as many times as you like and come to a decision for yourself as to its worth.

In fact, for me, Mickey One holds up quite well. I'd forgotten the film includes not only Franchot Tone, in perhaps his penultimate  performance, but, significantly, former blacklisted actor Jeff Corey. Significantly because Penn intended Mickey One to be about McCarthyism, or, at any rate, overcoming McCarthyism, with the protagonist deciding, as  Penn says  in one of the interviews,  "Fuck it, I've had it. I'm going to stand up and take it and deal with it." And it would certainly fit right into Beatty's particular liking for portraying paranoid protagonists. As he would  demonstrate throughout his career, from The Parallax View to Bulworth. But as a celebration of paranoia, Mickey One is also a very funny film. As it should be since Beatty plays a standup comedian who can't figure out why "they" are after him.  The humour, which Beatty carries off in his off-cantered dead-pan manner,  is mostly  due to Alan Surgal's punchy Kafkaesque script based on his short play about a third-rate comic. Surprisingly, it would be Surgal's only film credit, though he previously had written a pair of screenplays for  TV's Robert Montgomery Presents. And that was after serving an apprenticeship writing comedy sketches for middle of the road comedians like Red Skelton, Danny Thomas and Bob Hope.

Cloquet (in cap), Penn, Beatty
For all its anti-Hollywood, new wave feel, Mickey One was made only two years before Bonnie and Clyde and a year after The Train, a considerably slicker affair. It's hard to even think that those two films were made by the same person who made Mickey One. As Penn puts in an interview, "I was influenced by the New Wave, but I was also trying to do something essentially American in Mickey One..." In fact, Penn would never make another movie quite like this one, which seems to have as much in common with French film noir as European new-wave. You can blame that on the great Belgian cinematographer, Ghislain Cloquet, a veteran of French cinema responsible for shooting Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar and Mouchette, Demy's Young Girls of Rochefort, Renais's Night and Fog, Bunuel's Expulsion of the Devil, Louis Malle's Le Feu Follet, as well as French noir classics like Jean Becker's A Man Named Rocca and  Claude Sautet's incredible Classe Tous Risques. Filmed mostly at night on the streets of Chicago, Mickey One's ability to move from deep paranoia to dark humour can be attributed not only to Surgal's screenplay, but to the Cloquet can catch light as well as shadow, the surreal as well as the ordinary, the street as well as claustrophobic interiors. Interesting that Cloquet would work with Penn again on the latter's 1981 reunion film Four Friends, but the result would look nothing like Mickey One.

Then, of course, there's  the music, which Richard Williams covers so well in his splendid essay that accompanies  the  DVD. Suffice it to say that, along with the likes of Miles's score for Ascenseur pour l'├ęchafaud, Jackie Mclean and Freddie Redd's collaboration on Shirley Clarke's The Connection, Mingus's score for Shadows, and perhaps Johnny Mandel's music on I Want to Live, Mickey One's  Getz and Sauter collaboration is one of cinema's most evocative of jazz scores. So memorable is it that I thought the film included more of it,  though what is there comes from the famous Getz/Sauter Focus recording, a legendary session for which Sauter composed a comparatively modernist score around which Getz would so flawlessly improvise.

Finally, this is a film that bridges two eras: McCarthyism, of course, but also the post JFK assassination era that has fascinated Beatty for so long. Nevertheless, it doesn't wallow in darkness.  Penn sums things up nicely when he says in the original liner notes to the soundtrack lp, "The story of Mickey One is the expression of fear in a human being- terror wrought in the mind of a man which grows out of all proportion to the situation that induced it. A mind given over to panic, reading doom and despair into every waking moment: living with an unseen enemy who at any moment might destroy him- he becomes the fox among the silent hounds of his imagination." In the end, as Penn goes on to say, "The film was about saying 'yes' instead of saying 'no.'"

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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

If It's Written, It Must Be True: Remember Kay Boyle

“For I can recall now only your faces: Woody Haut, Shawn Wong, Rebhun, Turks, Alvarado
And how many more. Or I catch now and then the sound of a voice
From a long way away, saying something like: ‘Poetry is for the people.
And it should represent the people.’(You can say that again, Woody,)”
— Kay Boyle, Testament for My Students


Did I really say that? I guess I must have, though I’ve no memory of having done so. But, then, what is written always carries a degree of certitude, if not finality, particularly if the person doing the writing is someone whose words bear witness to the highs and lows of much of the twentieth century. at is certainly the case with Kay Boyle, a writer as well as an activist—traits apparently inherited from her mother, who read Joyce’s Ulysses and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons as a Farmer- Labor candidate in Ohio—who brie y entered my life, before politely retreating to a dimly lit corner of my memory, where she remains part of that enticing rubric labeled San Francisco, late 1960s. 

It has always been flattering, if not slightly embarrassing, that she would cite me in her poetry book Testament for My Students, though these days it causes me to wonder who that person might be whom she quotes. Or, for that matter, if I really was her student? Because I can’t remember her having actually taught me anything. Nor could it be said that she in influenced my writing. But, then, perhaps that’s as it should be. After all, even though she taught creative writing at San Francisco State from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, she always harboured a realistic attitude regarding her job, publishing, during that time, an essay in which she argued, tongue perhaps only partly in cheek, that “all creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” And even though she was my graduate supervisor, it wasn’t like we had the usual teacher- student relationship. We would simply meet, first in her office on campus, and then, once the 1968–69 student strike was under way, at her home on Frederick Street in the Haight. I remember our first conversation concerned a short essay I had written about discovering the work of writer Jorge Luis Borges. It wasn’t about Borges’s writing so much as about the pleasures of discovery, and how that particular discovery came about. In fact, the essay, in retrospect, was not dissimilar from the type of retrospective prose Kay would produce in a book like Being Geniuses Together, which she had co-authored with Robert McAlmon. at discussion aside, our conversations mostly focused on more immediate matters, namely the strike and the politics surrounding it.

Since I have no memory of having said the words she attributed to me, it not only makes me wonder who that person was who said or wrote such things, but the the fact that she had grown up in the heady atmosphere of mid-western populism, the politics of which had long been of interest to me. Although Kay would prove an advocate for young writers like Sonia Sanchez, she appeared slightly hesitant when confronted with unfamiliar strands of contemporary writing, clinging, as she would do, to the fractious rise of Modernism, what she would describe as the revolution of the word, which had played such an important role in her life. I remember, not long after our first meeting, she asked me to have a look at the galleys of a book of poems by Joe Ceravolo, Spring in is World of Poor Mutts, which had just won the first Frank O’Hara award. She’d been asked to blurb the book, and wanted me to offer her an opinion as to whether the poems were worth commenting upon. I don’t know why she would have felt insecure about passing judgment on such an excellent poet, particularly when one considers the influence of Kay’s old friend and mentor William Carlos Williams on Ceravolo’s work. So, on the one hand, Kay, who was already in her mid-sixties when I met her, was willing to accept what was on offer, but, on the other hand, she was sometimes baffled by it. I suppose there was a similar contradiction when it came to her politics and her writing style. Or, for that matter, in her somewhat dated sartorial style—dark grey suits, perhaps the very same tailleurs grises, which her in-laws deemed the correct attire for a young married woman on their first sighting of her in France in the early 1920s—and liberal amounts of make-up, as though paying tribute to the past while living in the present. 


Reading Kay’s stories and essays these days, I’m impressed by their elegance, politics, humour, their ability to conjure up a particular time and place, as well as her exactitude when placing herself in the situations she describes. However, it was only in the late 1980s that I began to reassess her work, prompted by a remark made by my late friend, the poet and cultural critic Edward Dorn who mentioned that, in his estimation, Kay was a better writer than Hemingway. At the time I thought it was an unusual, if disparate, comparison—stylistically they seem so different albeit sharing a particular era. But I was reminded that the critic Edmund Wilson, whether complimentary or otherwise, once called Kay a “feminized Hemingway,” while Gertrude Stein compared the two writers as well, but only in terms of social class, offering the opinion that Kay Boyle was every bit as middle class as Hemingway. Or it could be that Dorn meant that Kay was a more interesting chronicler of those earlier decades than Hemingway, which, judging by essays in her Some Things that Need to be Spoken, might well have been the case. 


Did Kay Boyle exert an influence on my future interest in noir ction and film? I seriously doubt it. is even though I had already begun what would be a life-long obsession with Dashiell Hammett. Too bad that it never occurred to me to ask her about Hammett and Lillian Hellman, both of whom she surely must have known. After all, were there any writers of that era Kay hadn’t met or corresponded with? And in a sense I guess there was something noir-like when it came to the subject matter of our discussions, at least as far as Borges’s literary mysteries or Rimbaud’s disappearance were concerned. And maybe, if I had only been able, during those meetings with Kay, to cast my mind forward, into the future, I might even have been able to catch a glimpse of the person I would become. A decidedly trickier feat to accomplish than looking back on that younger version of myself, the one who knew Kay Boyle in an era when everything was, for a brief moment, up for discussion and ideas seemed capable of threatening the social order. Not unlike those earlier decades that Kay liked to write about. Though partial to the past, Kay made more than the best of the present. Writing about those years when I knew her, Kay, in a Long Walk at San Francisco State, would put it like this: “I had lived on mountaintops, carried my babies in a rucksack on my back when I skied, believed in poets more than any other men, honoured French Resistance fights and Italian partisans, crossed into Spain with letters from the exiled to the brave and the defiant and the imprisoned there, and brought illicit messages out. And now, through force of circumstance, I was, of all unlikely and unsuitable things, a college professor. I was a college professor, who spoke of her institution as if it were a possession of the heart.” 

(If It's Written... first appeared in the Fall, 2015 issue of The Scofield)
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