Thursday, December 07, 2017

Favourite Books of 2017: Noir, Music and Poetry

Favourite Noir (or Noir-related) Fiction of 2017

-Dance of the Infidels by Wesley Brown (Concord ePress). Excellent  and evocative collection of stories about jazz, set mostly in the 1940s, and those who love it. See my review.

-Never Say No to a Killer by Clifton Adams (Stark House Press). Fatal attraction in a roadside filling station/motel. In the tradition of Cain and Thompson. Did crime and western pulpster Adams ever pen a bad novel?

-Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith (No Exit). More southern noir from another great Mississippi writer.  Reminiscent of Larry Brown at his best.

-Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson (Blue Rider Press). An  antidote to our current nightmare, as Erickson's protagonists ride America's back roads, findf the Twin Towers in the middle of nowhere, while listening to old-school playlists. See my review.

-Winter Warning by Jerome Charyn (Pegasus). All I can says is he who tires of Isaac Sidel tires of noir fiction.

-Crimes of Winter by Philippe Georget (Europa). For me, anything set in Perpignan- with its cultural mix- has to be interesting, and Georget, with local cop Inspector Sebag,  is equal to the task. Makes me pine for one of my favourite cities.

-The Long Drop by Denise Mina (Harvill). As dark as any of Mina's books. Based on an actual crime. Read it and immerse yourself in 1950s Glasgow.

-Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine (Open Letter, Jeffrey Zuckerman trans). Recalls Tarkovsky's films in a post-Soviet Union/post-nuclear, Beckett-like landscape. Part sci-fi, part magic realism, part futurist noir...

-The Evenings: A Winter's Tale by Gerard Reve (Pushkin Press, Sam Garrett trans). This odd, darkly humorous  Dutch classic- early slacker-lit- is a half century old but as interesting as ever. See my review.

-A Legacy of Spies by John LeCarré (Viking). Back on form with an addendum to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.

-Suburra by Carlo Bonini, Giancarlo De Cataldo (Europa, Antony Shugaar trans). Haven't seen TV adaptation, but this is a novel that presents contemporary Italy in all its corrupt glory.

-Tragic Shores: A Memoir of Dark Travel byThomas H. Cook (Quercus). Cook visits an assortment of dark sites of genocide, murder, massacre and mayhem. Not as depressing as the title indicates. For anyone loves Cook's fiction.

-Chester Himes: a Biography by Lawrence P. Jackson (Norton). For Himes obsessives, meticulously researched and well-written, depicting Himes as he has never before. Particularly interesting when it comes to his politics.

-Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals by Rick Ollerman (Stark House), a collection of his excellent and informative introductions, essays, reviews, etc..

-Getting Carter, Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir by Nick Triplow (No Exit). One might argue the subtitle's claim, but there's no denying Lewis's importance. Particularly enlightening is the early section on life in and around Hull.

-Krazy: George Herriman- a Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand (Harper). For anyone who loves Krazy Kat. Well-researched and constantly revealing.

-To Laugh That We May Not Weep: The Life and Times of Art Young  by Glen Bray, Frank Young (Fantagraphics). Not really noir, but not far off.  Masses cartoonist Art Young is a legend and a genuine American radical. Informative, instructive and beautifully presented.

-To Have and To Hold by Graham Chaffee (Fantagraphics). A noir graphic novel up there with Darwyn Cooke's extraordinary adaptations of Westlake's Parker novels. See my review.

-Going Down Slow by John Harvey (Five Leaves). Excellent jazz-tinged stories from the creator of Resnick and Jack Kiley. Read them and then go back to Harvey's novels.

-My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics). No doubt everyone's graphic novel of the year. And for me, Ferris sets a new standard. Graphic fiction at its best. Beautifully drawn, scary and soulful.

Favourite two books on Film Noir, neither published in 2017:

-Jean Pierre Melville An American in Paris by Ginette Vincendeau (BFI). Published in 2003. Pretty much everything you wanted to know about Melville, plus an analysis of his films.

-In Lonely Place- Film Noir Beyond the City by Imogen Sara Smith  (McFarland). With her Criterion and Noir City essays, Smith is fast becoming one of my favourite writers on film noir. Published in 2011, but reads like it could have been written yesterday.

Favourite music books of 2017:

-The Art of the Blues by Bill Dahl (University of Chicago). The ultimate blues coffee table book. Lovingly done. Though should have been titled The Art of the Blues and Early Jazz. See my review.

-Blues Unlimited by Bill Greensmith, Mark Cararigg, Mike Rowe (University of Illinois). For fans of the British magazine, and for those who missed it. See same review as above.

-Free Jazz, Harmolodics and Ornette Coleman by Stephen Rush (Routledge). If you love Ornette's music but want to know what his harmolodics was about, then read this fascinating book to find out. Or, at any rate, that's the idea.

-Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music by Ben Ratliff (Penguin). A proactive book that spans numerous genres by critic and author of excellent books on jazz, including one on John Coltrane.

-Ed Pavlic, Who Can Afford to Improvise- James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners. Baldwin and music: about time someone wrote about the connection.

Ten Favourite Poetry (and Poetry-related) Books of 2017

Ghosts by Sean Bonney (Materials). My poetry book of the year. Politically radical. Poetically dangerous. Bonney rips apart any notion of poetry as a middle-class pursuit.

 In Darkest Capital by Drew Milne (Carcanet). Marxist lichenite. Full of Raworthian possibility.

Clark Coolidge, Selected Poems, 1962-1985 (Station Hill). Coolidge,  a jazzman, has an inscrutable ear. I'd read anything by him. Likewise, his compadre Michael Gizzi whose book came out a couple years ago, but which, like basement tapes Dylan crossed with Coolidge, show no sign of becoming any less relevant.

Calligraphy Typewriters by Larry Eigner  (University of Alabama). A large dose of selected poetry from someone who was not only incredibly prolific but rich in his vision of the world.

Gravity as a Consequence of Fate by Allan Fisher (Reality Street). Fisher continues his Olsonian investigation of the local as it moves from substructure outwards.

Barry McSweeney and the Politics of Post-War British Poetry by Luke Roberts (Palgrave). McSweeney, for me a major British poet, certainly merits a book that delves into his work. And Luke Roberts is up to the task.

Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo and Pacific Coast Culture by Andrew Schelling (Counterpoint). A poet's take on the poet/ethnographer and mythic Bay area personality of the 1940s and 50s Jaime de Angulo.

Late Modernism and The English Intelligencer by Alex Latter  (Bloomsbury Academic). Documents one of the most important periods of British poetry, the very short-lived English Intelligencer, and a essential companion to Pattison, Pattison and Roberts's Certain Prose of a few years aback.

Love, H. by Hettie Jones, Helene Dorn (Duke University). Two women connected to two formidable poets- LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn exchange letters over the years which demonstrate the richness of their lives with and without their ex-husbands.

Letters- Prynne/Olson by J.H. Prynne and Charles Olson  (University of New Mexico). Not easy reading but essential for anyone interested in cross-Atlantic poetry currents of the 20th century.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Behind the Writing Days of Smoke

Days of Smoke, my latest novel from Concord ePress, takes place in Los Angeles and San Francisco in that  notorious year 1968.  Though it's a half-century in the past, 1968 remains a year in which, for a brief moment, political change seemed almost possible. But it was also a year in which the media and other commercial and corporate concerns, sensing that cultural drift and the market it could create, began in earnest to co-opt the so-called counter culture, to profit from it and so neutralise any radical edge it might have once possessed.

While young people were protesting against the Vietnam war,  living communally and experimenting with drugs, their ersatz lookalikes were suddenly popping  up on billboards and TV, advertising products ranging form Levi jeans to Volkswagens. It wasn't uncommon for record company executives, now sporting sideburns and hair below their collars,  to throw relatively large sums of money at any rock band with a catchy name. Even politicians, to pursue votes by appearing  in step with the era, were deploying words and phrases previously the exclusive province of  students, dope smokers, acid heads and civil rights activists.  As for the opposition, it was a year in which post-Goldwater Republicans, fearing their ability to regain power might be slipping away in this  apparent cultural shift, realised the empire needed to strike back, so began to put together a long-term strategy, perhaps best articulated in the Powell Memo of 1973, a strategy that would bear fruit a decade later.        

No doubt about it, 1968 witnessed some earth-shaking events. Not only was the war  intensifying, but, at home, assassinations were becoming all too common. In April,  Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis, leading to disturbances in a number of American cities. In June,  Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. Both deaths would affect the political landscape at the time and for years to come. Add to that the rise of the Black Panthers and student uprisings not only in America but around the world, not to mention the police riots that summer  at the Democratic convention in Chicago, which set helped the stage for the election of Richard Nixon that November. 

Even though the Summer of Love had come and gone, young people still flocked to Haight Street in San Francisco and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, seeking that previously forbidden elixir of drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll. Yet the pollyannaish optimism of the previous year  was already draining away, replaced by hardened, street-level attitudes and confrontations. There was, to quote Dylan, music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air, but with the Panthers, Yippies and Diggers pushing for political change, slogans like Make love, not war, and Turn on, Tune in and Drop out, were discarded in favour of in-your-face declarations like Off the Pig, Free Huey, Bring the War Home and Eldridge For President. As for those polymorphously perverse streets, they were now populated by drug casualties, dealers, homeless teenagers, disgruntled black youths, vets bearing the mental scars of the war,  sexual predators, charlatans, bikers and lumpen weekenders.

It’s this side of 1968 that Days of Smoke attempts to recapture. In a sense, the year itself  could even be said to be the protagonist of the novel. At least in so far as how the forces at work in that year impinge on the novel’s two main characters, Mike Howard and Connie Myles as they make their way through the wreckage, moving from Pasadena to San Francisco, on the run from the law while, at the same time, negotiating what has become an increasingly paranoid existence. 

Anyone familiar with my previous novel, Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, might remember a ten year old Mike Howard. In Days of Smoke, he’s nineteen and a reticent but accomplished musician who washes dishes and sometimes plays music at The Copper Kettle, a Los Angeles coffee house and music venue, based on L.A.’s one-time home of traditional music and political meeting place, the Ash Grove. To avoid the draft and ending up in Vietnam, Mike has declared himself a conscientious objector. As the novel opens, he is hoping to convince his draft board that he's  a pacifist, even though he's not sure the  term is really applicable in his case. It’s at the draft board office that he comes across Connie, employed there as a secretary despite hating the war, not to mention her co-workers. Mike has no way of knowing that on the evening of his appearance at the draft board, Connie will take his file home and burn it. Meanwhile Mike, seeking to forget what went on earlier in the day, spends the evening consuming a cocktail of vodka and marijuana, before passing out, waking up to find his beloved Kettle has been set alight.

Though Days of Smoke seems to revolve around Mike, it’s Connie’s novel. And it’s the real Connie to whom the book is dedicated. If for no other reason than the Connie-of-the-novel is how I imagined the young secretary I happened to encounter at the Pasadena draft board where I appeared in that same year to argue my case to become a conscientious objector. Some months later, awaiting the draft board’s decision- one I would never receive- I came across a news item in the local paper to the effect that a young woman working at the draft board had been arrested for destroying draft files. 

It happened so long ago I sometimes wonder if I just imagined it all.Which wouldn't have been surprising considering that particular time and place. After all, back then a very thin line separated the imaginary from the real.  Which was the case on a personal as well as political- "all power to the imagination"- level. Of course, that meant, on the one hand, anything might be possible, while, on the other hand, it led to a certain naivete regarding society's ability to subsume anything that might threaten its stability.  

Days of Smoke attempts to depict some of that year's events, not least of which  the assassination of Robert Kennedy, as well as issues that were discussed at the time, such as what kind of change might be possible, how best to achieve it in a consumer-driven culture. Fortunately, the novel’s misguided militant group Hard Rain is entirely fictitious, though at the time there was no shortage of similar political groups and communes, invariably led by some charismatic charlatan, Charles Manson being just one of many, prepared to take their acolytes to the brink. All, of course, to a soundtrack of the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Otis and Sly, their words parsed within a haze of marijuana smoke resulting in an array of political possibilities, some good, some bad, and some extremely ugly.  

As the title implies, there seemed to be  smoke everywhere, in the form of a pre-revolutionary joint, post-coital cigarette, the fog and smog, as well as that which accompanied arson, incendiary devices and police tear gas. Not to mention all the smoke America created in Vietnam by bombs, napalm or defoliants. To see through all that  smoke could partly be what Days of Smoke is about. And it could even be said the book itself exists in its own kind of haze: part fin d’epoch novel, part noir coming-of-age novel. Though Days of Smoke depicts the dark side and paranoia of 1968, it hopefully  also recalls the passion, idealism, politics and naivete of that particular time.  The cliché is if you remember the sixties you weren’t there. Although it was fifty years ago, I was there, and remember what went on all too well. Which is not to say that it doesn't at times seem like a dream. But a dream that, despite its nightmarish side, and for the sake of the courageous few, who, like the real Connie, put themselves on the line, should not be forgotten.  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Jazz and Film Noir

With its lowlife settings, femmes fatales, tough guys, shadows, urban landscapes, and fatalistic narratives, film noir  has long been associated with jazz. After all, both are considered predominantly indigenous forms and both can't help but celebrate marginality.  But prior to the late 1950s, that association, on-screen at any rate, had yet to be established. In fact, jazz would be, for the most part, notable by its absence.  Though some composers, such as Geroge Hermann, George Antheil, Henry Mancini, Max Steiner, Adolph Deutsch, Miklos Rozsa, David Raksin, Elmer Bernstein and Alex North, contributed soundtracks to films that had elements of jazz buried within them. It was only in the latter part of the 1950s with the popularity of the predominantly west coast cool-school, that jazz tended to become a mainstay of film noir.  Even so,  it still wasn’t all that commonplace given the degree to which the two art forms have become associated with one another. In fact, it was only in the 1960s that jazz and film noir begin to solidify what would become a long-term relationship. 

Having said that, jazz in most examples of film noir, functions primarily as mood music, to create a particular atmosphere or add  tension or feel of a given film. Nothing unusual in that; it’s, for the most part, how music functions in film. Nor should one be surprised that jazz is seldom allowed to speak on its own, much less form its own narrative. Which is why there are, to my knowledge, no film noir soundtracks by the likes of Ornette Coleman (though he did provide the soundtrack for Conrad Rooks’ 1966 Chappaqua), Coltrane or Monk (his unused soundtrack to Les Liaisons Dangereuses would no doubt have been an exception that proved the rule).  Perhaps the closest jazz came to assuming a dominant presence in a narrative were in films like  Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (see my review on the previous entry in this blog),  or the Euro-noir Elevator to the Scaffold.  Which illustrates that such music was more than capable of driving any given narrative, if not make a statement in its own right. This is not to say that there isn’t some excellent, provocative and interesting music to be  heard on film noir soundtracks. Only  that any such music is the exception rather than the rule. Which is why it might be worthwhile to compile an annotated list of my own favorite jazz soundtracks.  Not that all are the the greatest examples of film noir; in fact, some barely qualify as film noir, but such films are included because they contain elements of film noir and  showcase the music,  whether to create a mood or drive the narrative. Interestingly, musicians, when they appear on screen, function very much like domestic servants, as  silent witnesses to what is occuring in front of them. Comments or statements mainly exist in the sub-text of the music, surfracing only through the lyrics of songs that may or may not be jazz-based. Finally, one might ask why these films mostly relied on west coast musicians associaated with the cool school of jazz.  This might have been because west coast and cool jazz displayed, as a genre, a certain conciseness and self-containment; it was inoffensive, easier to understand than more complex jazz forms; it had no overt political connotations; and, finally, it was mostly Los Angeles based, which meant the musicians were at hand, and more likely to be familiar with the studio set up and recording process.

- Phantom Lady, 1944. Directed by Robert Siodmak. Remembered for Elisha Cook’s frenzied- some would say masturbatory- drum solo, intercut with Ella Raines’s sexual innuendos, until they reach fever pitch simultaneously. It was Lester Horton who staged the music and Hans J. Salter the film’s overall musical director.  The other musicians performing alongside Cook- his drumming dubbed by Dave Coleman- in the nightclub are Barney Bigard on clarinet, Howard Rumsey on bass, Robert Bain on guitar and Freddie Slack on piano. Those scenes occupy only a fraction of the film, but it’s what many viewers remember when it comes to Siodmak’s excellent adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s novel.  

- Man With a Golden Arm, 1955, Otto Premminger. Considered by many one of the best jazz scores to come out of the 1950s. Though Nelson Algren, who penned the novel, hated the adaptation.  Nevertheless, the angularity of Elmer Bernstein’s score nicely reflects the narrative structure. And he doesn’t shy away from making use of  post-bop passagzes, which he mixes with non-jazz elements. A rare example of a soundtrack album that stands up on its own, which utilizes the likes of trumpeter and fluglehornist Shorty Rogers and His Giants, which included Bob Cooper on tenor saxophone, Pete Condoli on trumpet, Shelly Manne on drums, Ralph Pena on bass, Bud Shank on alto saxophone, and Pete Turner on piano. Not Chicago musicians that would more accurately reflect the locale of the film, but effective all the same. Soundtrack available on Polygram.

- Sweet Smell of Success, 1957. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick, music by the Chico Hamilton Quartet.  Martin Milner plays Steve Dallas, a guitarist in Chico Hamilton’s band and Hunsecker’s sister’s boyfriend.  Steve’s guitar licks are in fact played by John Pisano. The on-screen band consists of Hamilton on drums, Paul Horn on flute and sax, Fred Katz on cello and Carson Smith on bass. Other L.A. based musicians play on the studio soundtrack, including Pete and Conte Condoli on tumpet, Herb Geller on saxophone, Bob Cooper on saxophone and oboe, Shelly Manne on drums, Bill Holman on saxophone, Milt Holland on bass, etc.. All overseen by Elmer Bernstein.  Here the musicians contribute to the narrative, their music pushing the narrative forward. Set in and around Times Square, Hamilton also contributes some dark alley/backstage dialogue, altering Mackendrick’s script when necessary, changing  ‘Throw a rope around her and keep her here while I go get him.’  to ‘Cool this chick here while I go get him.’  Soundtrack available on Fresh Sounds (Spain).

-  I Want to Live, 1958, directed by Robert Wise. Susan Hayward performance as Barbara Graham, as the infamous prostitute sentenced to death for an alleged murder, is almost equalled by Johnny Mandel’s impressive score. It features Gerry Mulligan on baritone saxophone and Art Farmer on trumpet, assisted by Shelly Manne on drums, Red Mitchell on bass, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Pete Jolly on piano, Bud Shank on reeds. Like Man With a Golden Arm, Mandel’s soundtrack works on its own, either as mood music or as mainstream 1950s jazz. For me a more evocative soundtrack than the more renown Duke Ellington score for Premminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, a year later. Mandel’s soundtrack is available on Ryko.

- Elevator to the Gallows/Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, 1958, directed by Louis Malle, in his full directorial debut. Two lovers’ perfectly planned murder is ruined when one of them is trapped in an elevator.  As much Nouvelle Vague as it is a slice of Euro-noir, with a dark, brooding and profound score.  Arguably the most famous and recognisable of jazz soundtracks, with Miles improvising directly off the screen, recorded at Le Poste Parisien Studio in Paris on December 4 and 5, 1957. With nineteen year old French tenor whiz Barney Wilen on tenor, Kenny Clarke on drums, Pierre Michelot on bass and Rene Urtreger on piano. Soundtrack available on Verve.

- Touch of Evil, 1958, directed by Orson Welles. Mancini’s score fits perfectly into  Welles film, and was apparently a callaboration between the two men. Mostly it’s a Stan Kenton-influenced soundtrack that contains elements of rhythm & blues, border and latin music, with a dash of Martin Denny’s exotica music so popular during that era. With that opening music as impressive a score as Welles’s famous tracking shot. This and Mancini’s music for the noir TV show Peter Gunn would influence the music for TV shows like  77 Sunset Strip, Johnny Stacatto, Naked City, M Squad, and Mike Hammer. Among the musicians Mancini used on Touch of Evil were Pete Candoli on trumpet; John Stanley, trombone; John Graas, french horn; Plas Johnson tenor saxophone; Dave Pell, bass; Red Norvo, vibraphone; Barney Kessel, guitar;  Ray Sherman, piano;  Jack Costanzo from Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban orchestra, on bongos; Mike Pacheco, percussion; Shelly Manne, drums.  Soundtrack available on Fresh Sound.

- Anatomy of a Murder, 1959, directed by Otto Premminger. For me a little too glossy to be an authentic film noir.  Though one of first films to openly address the subject of rape. But there’s no denying the power of Duke Ellington’s soundtrack even if the great man was slightly past the peak of his career.  Nevertheless, it was arguably the first major film that showcased a jazz score, by an African-American at that. And, if it was at times the music is slightly intrusive, and the compositions, compared to his best tunes, a little thin, it does feature many of Ellington’s main musicians at the time, including Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves on saxophones, Harry Carney on baritone saxophone, and Cat Anderson on trumpet, with a handful of compositions by Billy Strayhorn. Released on Columbia Records.

- Odds Against Tomorrow,  1959, directed by Robert Wise, with a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky from William McGivern’s novel.  Another film about racial tensions, this time amongst armed robbers, starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame. With a soundtrack- heavily influenced by Shuller and his Third Stream music-  written by John Lewis, already a seven year veteran of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis deploys fellow MJQ members Connie Kay on drums, Percy Heath on bass and Milt Jackson on vibes, as well as  Bill Evans on piano, Jim Hall on guitar, Joe Wilder on trumpet and Gunther Shuller on french horn, Joe Wilder, etc.. Particularly lovely are Jim Hall’s sparse notes at the close of Odds… There are two albums related to this film: one is the soundtrack album on CBS, the other is an album by John Lewis and MJQ playing music from the film on United Artists/Blue Note.

-  Shadows, 1959, directed by John Cassavetes. The film and the accompanying music were a breath of fresh air when the movie first appeared. A film exploring inter-racial relationships in 1950s New York, with improvisational acting, reflected by  improvisational music supplied by the great bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonist Shafi Hadi. Mingus, always willing to demonstrate the influence of European composers on his music, is perfectly comfortable creating a soundtrack for one of the great independent film-makers.  Music from Shadows as well as The Connection can be found on Shadows (Beat, Square & Cool) Vol 5.

-  The Connection, 1962, directed by Shirley Clarke from Jack Gelber’s Living Theater play. Noir?  Perhaps not, but what could darker than junkies sitting around a cold water flat, shooting up, playing jazz, talking in hipster argot. Jackie McLean on tenor saxophone, Freddie Redd on piano, Larry Richie on drums, Michael Mattos on bass. A score by the great, but underrated, Mal Waldron. On the few films to have an edgy and uncompromising hard-bop soundtrack, played by musicians who also act in the film, so play an integral part. Music available from Blue Note.

- Mickey One 1965, directed by Arthur Penn. Music by Eddie Sauter with Stan Getz improvising on saxophone. A reprise of the Sauter and Getz collaboration on the 1961 album, Focus, in which Getz improvised against a modernist string accompaniment. Getz drives the narrative, which grows increasingly paranoid. Not only, in my opinion, Beatty’s finest film, but firmly in the noir existential tradition with elements of French new wave movies that Penn was so fond of at the time, refected in the soundtrack that works perfectly on its own. Soundtrack available on Polygram.

- Once a Thief, 1965, directed by Ralph Nelson, from John Trinian/Zekial Marko’s novel Scratch a Thief, and a remake of  (two of his novels have recently been republished by Stark House Press). Nelson deploys music as an integral part of the narrative, with a nice scene in a nightclub that feature various musicians put together by Lalo Schrifrin, amongst them Red Callender, Buddy Collette, Conte Candoli, Paul Horn, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Howard Roberts.

-  Sweet Love, Bitter, 1967, directed by Herbert Danska. A rarely seen film, with Mal Waldron’s score, with Waldron on piano and Charles McPherson featured on saxophone, as well as such musicians as saxophonist George Coleman and bassist Richard Davis.  About the problems facing a black jazz musician based loosely on the life of Charlie Parker.  A more immediate and darker film than Clint Eastwood’s 1988 Bird in which McPherson also takes Bird’s solos in a score supervised by Lennie Niehaus.  But Waldron’s soundtrack is more discrete, and Danska’s film a more low budget affair, yet just as, if not more, effective. 

- Round Midnight. 1986, directed by Bertrand Tavernier. A well-intentioned, up-market, slightly glossy, music bio- part Bird, part Bud Powell- with film noir elements hanging on its coat-tails. Starring the great tenor player Dexter Gordon, whose music is featured in the film, back by an array of great musicians, such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Billy Higgins, Tony Williiams, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, etc. Soundtrack available on Sony Music.

-  The Hot Spot, 1990, directed by Dennis Hopper from Charles Williams’ novel Hell Hath No Fury.  Despite an impressive cast, featuring Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen, and a screenplay at least partly written by Williams, this isn’t, for me, an all that  successful film noir. No matter, because it has an excellent and evocative soundtrack put together by long-term L.A. rock vet Jack Nitzsche, with significant contributions from  Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Taj  Mahal.  Watch the film but buy the soundtrack, available on Verve.

- Devil In a Blue Dress, 1995, directed by Carl Franklin. A glossy, yet workman-like film noir, which doesn’t quite come off, certainly not when compared with  Walter Mosley’s novel from which it derives. Nevertheless, not as bad as some have claimed. Moreover, it has a killer soundtrack brought together by Elmer Bernstein which combines the best of Central Avenue music from the late 1940s and early 1950s, or its approximation thereof, featuring Jimmy Witherspoon, T-Bone Walker, Roy Milton, Duke Ellington, Wynonie Harris, Pee Wee Crayton, Thelonious Monk, Bull Moose Jackson, Amos Milburn, Lloyd Glenn, Memphis Slim. The soundtrack is available on Sony/Epic.

(A version of this article first appeared in Noir City, 2015)

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'échafaud, 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.'"