Bookish – Favorite Books, Then & Now

As far back as I can remember, I was always reading. I grew up on an Iowa farm in the 1950s. As an only child, I created my own world and spent as much time there as possible. All the comics, books, and movies I consumed fueled that world  in my head. There were two public libraries nearby; one in Storm Lake, north of us; the other in Sac City, south of us. I spent more time in the Storm Lake library, usually on Saturdays when we’d go to town for grocery shopping. I loved this library. Made of stone and brick, its turret and peaked roofs made it seem like something out of a fairy tale. The library opened in 1906 and is still there, but no longer a library. As you can see from the photo below, it’s now Santa’s Castle, which is fitting, I suppose, given my early memories of the place.

Children’s books were in the basement level, accessed by a stairway that felt like you were going down into a mysterious vault. I’d take out the maximum number of books allowed, burn though them during the week, and get another load the next week. Wash, rinse, and repeat. I did the same thing at the Sac City library. At some point, I felt ready to get out of the kids’ section, even though I was still a kid.  I wanted something more interesting. This, for me, was science fiction. I specifically remember reading Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at least twice, though I can’t remember if this was before or after I’d seen the Disney movie released in 1954. This was the one of the first “adult” science fiction books that really captured my attention. I also read the Classics Illustrated comic book version. Another book I checked out multiple times was Adventures in Time and Space, a collection of classic science fiction short stories first published in 1946.

 

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I also read a lot of Hardy Boys mysteries, which were more age-appropriate for me, I suppose. But my first love was science fiction and horror. As I wrote in a previous post, Famous Monsters and Me – Pt.2: Books and Comics, “…from an early age, as early as I can remember, I was totally in love with science fiction and horror (monsters!) via all their delivery systems; i.e. books, magazines, comics, TV, and movies. Mainly movies, probably because films are so immediate. This is true, but I can’t overestimate the importance of books to me at that time, either. Books fed my imagination and kept me going between films. I was in love with the library and the newsstand.”

That post cites the work of Richard Matheson, a writer of horror fiction who was immensely important to me, especially his novels I Am Legend (1954) and The Shrinking Man (1956).

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I was also engaged by books published in the John C. Winston Science Fiction series from 1952 to ’61. These were in our school library. I was always excited when a new title came in. The jacket illustrations were great, as were the end papers in each volume, drawn by Alex Schomberg. These still give me a charge.

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Around this time I joined the Science Fiction Book Club, published by Doubleday. Or rather, my mother joined it for me. I must have seen an ad like the one below.

I still have a number of these books, though Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity (1956) and Earth Is Room Enough (1957) are the only ones with the jackets still intact (mostly). I especially like time-travel stories. The End of Eternity is a good one. I reread it last year and it holds up pretty well.

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Here are some of the book club titles I still have. Lots of Asimov. His robot stories are great.

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From 1956 to 1962 I bought the Dell paperback editions of the annual anthology, SF: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Judith Merrill. The first collection contains a story by Steve Allen called “The Public Hating,” which takes place in a near-future where executions are carried out in a large stadium filled with thousands of people who direct their hate at the condemned person strapped to a chair in the center of the field. The result is horrifying. I was surprised when I realized “The Public Hating” had been written by the same Steve Allen who was a famous comedian, musician, and the original host of The Tonight Show. It’s an extremely unsettling story that has stayed with me all these years. In 1985 I saw Steve Allen performing an evening of comedy and music at The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. After the show I went back to his dressing room (one could do that then) with my original copy of the book that had his story and got him to sign the title page. He seemed to have forgotten about the story, but it was a nice moment. The third annual collection contains a long story by George Langelaan called “The Fly,” which was made into a feature film in 1958. I’ve forgotten most of the many other stories, but they all fed my imagination at the time.

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It wasn’t only science fiction and horror that I was consuming. In seventh and eighth grade I became obsessed with cars — especially custom cars and hot rods — in anticipation of getting a drivers license when I turned sixteen. I remember reading a series of novels about teens and cars written by Henry Gregor Felson. They usually had a cautionary agenda, but I’m sure I wasn’t too interested in that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Around this time I read Audie Murphy’s war time autobiography, To Hell and Back (1949). It had been made into a film starring Murphy as himself, the most decorated American soldier in World War II. The paperback edition I got had Murphy on the cover in a scene from the film. I hadn’t seen this film, but I was aware of Murphy as an actor in Western films, and I liked war stories, so wanting to read this book seemed natural.

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Two other books I got a big kick out of were My Brother Was an Only Child (1959) by Jack Douglas, and May This House be Saved From Tigers (1960) by Alexander King. Both were frequent guests on The Tonight Show during the years when Jack Paar was the host.

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My first stretch at the University of Iowa was from 1962 to 1966. It was during that time that I read Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for the first time. I can’t remember if this was for a course or if I read them on my own. Regardless, I was quite blown away by both books. They seemed perfect to me. When Hemingway’s A Movable Feast was published in 1964, I bought a copy and read it cover to cover in one sitting. I was sharing an apartment with three other guys. After everyone had gone to bed, I took the book and a pillow into our bathroom and got into the empty tub where I stayed until I’d finished reading. What the hell, I was younger and full of enthusiasm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Somewhere in there I encountered Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). I remember Sal Paradise’s description of being with Dean Moriarty in Mexico and getting so excited by music from a jukebox in a bar that they fell out of their chairs. I wanted to feel that way, and years later, at a Who concert in St. Paul, I did.

Here’s my original copy of On the Road, which has seen better days. It’s used to be on one of our bookshelves, held together by rubber bands. I thought I couldn’t  bring myself to throw it away, but I guess I could, because I was looking just now and it seems to be gone. That’s probably appropriate.

The ending of On the Road is quite moving, with Sal’s invocation of Dean Moriarty. Gatsby is even more so, with its final line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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Another book that was very important to me at the time was Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1965). I read parts of it over and over. My copy got a real workout. It wasn’t until several years later that I first listened to some of his LPs and finally heard the sound of his voice and unique delivery.

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In the winter of 1965/66, I came back to Iowa City early from the holiday break to work at my bookstore job. I remember spending most of the evenings in my single-room rental reading John Fowles’ The Magus (1965). I was in love with that book. It drew me in and wrapped me up in the mystery of its strange and ominous world.

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I totally embraced Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 when I read it. It’s a perfect book to read when you’re in college. The 1970 Mike Nichols film didn’t come close to capturing the spirit of the book, though Alan Arkin was great as Yosssarian. Hopefully the mini-series streaming on Hulu from George Clooney will be better.

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I joined the air force in October of ’66. There wasn’t much opportunity to read during the six weeks of basic training at the base near San Antonio, Texas. They confiscated the paperback copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan (1959) I’d brought with me. The scantily-clad people on the cover were probably too disruptive. I was reading a lot of Vonnegut at the time. He was teaching in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop then, though our paths never crossed, except at a distance.

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The first base I was stationed at was in California, north of Sacramento. I arrived there in June of 1967. At some point I read that a paperback literary magazine called the New American Review was about to appear and would be a regular publication. This sounded interesting, but when  I asked about it in a small bookstore in the nearby town of Marysville, I was told in no uncertain terms that there was no such thing as a paperback magazine. Shortly after that, I was back in the store and there it was on the shelf, the first issue of New American Review. This was very exciting. Each issue had fiction, poetry, and essays. It featured writers such as Donald Barthelme, Jorge Luis Borges, Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer. This was a reminder of the university life I missed and longed for. I needed this connection. I think new issues appeared on a quarterly basis. New American Review was published from 1967 to 1977. In 1973 the title was changed to American Review when it moved from the New American Library to Bantam Books. James Wolcott, writing in Vanity Fair, said the publication “started off stellar and never lost altitude, never peaked out, continuing to make literary news back when literary news didn’t seem like an oxymoron, each issue bearing something eventful.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When I learned that I was being sent to an air base in Thailand for the year of 1969, I took out subscriptions to Rolling Stone, Berkeley Barb, and the British film magazine Sight and Sound. This was another effort to feel hip, involved, and provide a link to my previous life. Though in retrospect, leaving copies of Rolling Stone and especially Berkeley Barb, out in the open in my work area might have been asking for trouble. The Barb certainly raised a few eyebrows. But Sight and Sound, especially, made me feel like I was still connected to that world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The base in Thailand had a library that I frequented. I was the first person to check out Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) when it arrived. I’d read about it and knew it was causing a serious stir. The book was a real kick and a radical change of pace from what I knew of Philip Roth’s work. It was incredibly funny in the most profane way. I had a problem when someone who lived in the same barracks as me swiped the book before I could return it. Despite my anger at this, he didn’t give it back until he was done reading it. This caused trouble with the librarian, who got on my case whenever she saw me. It was the only copy they had and she wanted it back. I didn’t tell her what had happened, because I thought that would only cause more trouble. So it goes.

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Another book I read in Thailand in 1969 was Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (1968). I became obsessed with this book. A Fan’s Notes is subtitled “A Fictional Memoir.” In a “Note to the Reader” at the beginning, Exley writes: “Though the events in this book bear similarity to those of that long malaise, my life…I have drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life. To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged a writer of fantasy.” Throughout the book we see the Exley character as a self-destructive alcoholic, yearning for fame without the talent to achieve it. He’s a spectator in his life, a watcher. This engaged me because I strongly identified with this picture of a romantic, “tragic” figure who greets each new disappointment with a joke and a smirk. I was drinking a lot at the time, and would continue to do so for another eight years before finally stopping. Anti-heroes like the narrator of A Fan’s Notes became extremely popular in fiction and film of the 1970s. Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970) is a prime example, a film I took to heart.

In August of 1970, I received an early discharge in order to return to the University of Iowa and my job in a local bookstore. After enrolling and finding housing, I promptly got run over by a Volkswagen and spent five weeks in a hospital. I didn’t resume college life until the second semester in ’71. In April of 1972, Fred Exley came to Iowa City to give a reading, and you can bet I was there. I got him to sign the hardcover copy of A Fan’s Notes I’d bought the previous year. I was very excited to actually be around him, because this guy was kind of an idol to me. Exley returned to teach a class in the Writers’ Workshop that fall. I asked him if I could sit in on these classes and he agreed. I also started going to a bar he frequented when I thought he’d be there. Slowly, but inevitably, he became less of an idol and more of a drunk in a bar. But A Fan’s Notes is still a great book, or at least it was when I read it. It was initially rejected by over a dozen publishers before being accepted by Harper & Row. A Fan’s Notes, which has acquired a cult following, was nominated for a National Book Award in Fiction. Exley wrote two more “fictional memoirs,” Pages from a Cold Island (1975) and Last Notes from Home (1988), but neither is on the level of A Fan’s Notes. He died in 1992 at age 63.

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It was during this time that I read Gabriel García Márquez’s great novel, 100 Years of Solitude. It has the most amazing opening line: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” It’s impossible not to keep reading after a line like that. It plants the hook deep and immediately raises questions you have to know the answers to. It promises to be a great story. And it is.

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A book that was very important to me at the time was Charles Bukowski’s Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness. Bukowski has been quoted as saying, “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” This heavyweight collection of short stories deeply reflects the spirit of that statement, and more than lives up to the title of the book.

Bukowski, who died in 1994 at age 73, was an incredibly prolific writer of fiction and poetry. He embraced the lowlife and the down-and-out. The title of one of his poetry collections, Love is a Dog From Hell, gives you an idea of his outlook. I fell in love with him when I found this book and subsequently bought a lot of his work, which is brutal, often aggressively outrageous, and beautiful.

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Another book that seemed like the greatest thing I’d ever read was Hunter Thompson’s truly bizarre Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). It originally appeared in two issues of Rolling Stone, with illustrations by the equally insane Ralph Steadman, and felt like nothing you’d ever read before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I don’t remember reading it in Rolling Stone, but when Fear and Loathing came out in paperback, I burned through it and began running around with my copy to corner people and read aloud my latest favorite passage. From that point on, I was reading everything Thompson wrote. I only wish he was around today to give us his take on our current president. With illustrations by Steadman, of course.

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I hadn’t abandoned science fiction and horror. In 1971 while in Iowa City, I got a paperback collection titled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. The book is subtitled “The Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time.” The twenty-six stories in this collection do a good job of living up to that claim. Authors include Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, Cordwainer Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, and Richard Matheson. The book was edited by Robert Silverberg. He’s a great writer who deserves to be represented here, but as editor he probably thought that wouldn’t be fair. The stories selected cover a period from 1929 to 1964. Considering that 55 years have passed since then, it’s probably time for an updated collection. But this is still a great collection of classic science fiction.

There were two follow-up volumes, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume IIA and Volume IIB: The Greatest Science Fiction Novellas of All Time, edited by Ben Bova. Each volume contains eleven long stories by classic authors in the field. I got my copies in Minneapolis in 1975.

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Fantasy and horror collections I acquired since moving to New York City in 1977 can be seen below. These are excellent. I return to them now and again, when I’m in that kind of mood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After finally getting an undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa in 1973, I lived in Minneapolis for three years before moving to New York. During that time, I read Richard Yates’ Disturbing the Peace (1975), a vivid, harrowing depiction of alcoholism. At least, that’s how I saw it. Its protagonist is a New York adman on a downward spiral. I was surprised recently to see in the Wikipedia entry on the novel that it was “dismissed by critics as his weakest book.” I’ve not yet the novel he’s best known for, Revolutionary Road (1961), so I can’t compare it to that, but Disturbing the Peace didn’t seem weak to me at all. Earlier, in Iowa City, I’d read his terrific short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), an evocative title if there ever was one. Richard Yates has been called “America’s finest realistic novelist” by the Boston Globe. I’m not sure when they said that, but he certainly deserves a place at the table.

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It was while in Minneapolis that I read E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, another favorite of mine. Doctorow has written many great books, but this is one of his best. I think it was the first time I’d read something that blended fictional characters with historical figures in this way.

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Shortly after moving to New York, I went through one of those periods when you’ve discovered a writer and have to immediately immerse yourself in everything he or she wrote. Sort of like binge-watching, I guess. For me it was Dashiell Hammett. I love the way he writes, simple, direct, tough, and unsentimental. Of everything I read, the two that have stayed with me the most are The Maltese Falcon (1930) and Red Harvest (1929). When I first read The Maltese Falcon, after having seen the film version many times, I was struck by how closely John Huston had stayed to the book and dialogue in writing the screenplay. It’s like the novel was ready to film as it was.

I really liked Red Harvest and keep meaning to re-read it. Just have to find the time. Red Harvest was an inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which itself was remade first by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and then by Walter Hill in Last Man Standing (1996). Elements of Red Harvest can also be found in the Coen Bros. Miller’s Crossing (1990). No small amount of influence from a 1929 crime novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Several years ago I started reading Dennis Lehane, one of the best writers of crime fiction working today. I read Gone, Baby, Gone (1998) after seeing the Ben Affleck film, which I liked a lot. That book didn’t quite prepare me for The Given Day (2008), a novel that transcends genre definitions. Epic both in length (724 pages) and in scope, the book, set in Boston at the end of World War I, has a large cast of sharply defined characters — black and white, police and criminals — in a story packed with violent action, historical detail. It’s incredibly engrossing and involving.

Lehane wrote two excellent novels that form a trilogy. Live by Night (2012), at 402 pages,  and World Gone By (2015), at 309 pages, are less epic in scope, but no less involving. Oddly enough, I read the trilogy in reverse order, but I don’t think that diminished my experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Affleck directed, wrote, and starred in the film version of Live by Night in 2016. The film was a major disappointment and a complete disservice to the novel, especially considering the great job Affleck had done with Gone, Baby, Gone. In addition to these two, other Lehane books have been made into films. These include Mystic River (directed by Clint Eastwood in 2003), Shutter Island (directed by Martin Scorsese in 2010), and The Drop (2014, with screenplay by Lehane based on his story Animal Rescue).

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Don Winslow is a terrific writer of crime fiction. The Dawn Patrol (2008) and The Gentleman’s Hour, his novels about a laid-back private eye who loves surfing are especially appealing. He’s written 19 books, but his major achievement is an epic trilogy about the ongoing drug wars. The Power of the Dog (2005) was the first one I read, and it blew me away. I hadn’t known it was going to be a series until The Cartel was published in 2015. I thought it was even better. The New York Times called it “A big, sprawling, ultimately stunning crime tableau.” I finished reading the final volume, The Border, just last night. I wish I could say it was as good as the first two, but I was hugely disappointed. Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, disguised only by the names John Dennison and Jason Lerner, appear as a newly-elected president and his son-in-law. While I agree with Winslow’s viewpoint, I think this was a major miscalculation. It’s too obvious and too distracting. I don’t think the book was worth the 716 pages it took to take me where it did. But The Power of the Dog and The Cartel will always be great.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Other writers of crime, espionage, and thriller fiction I like include George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Michael Connelly, John Sandford, John Harvey, Bill James, Ian Rankin, Olen Steinhauer, and John Le Carré.

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Evan S. Connell, who died in 2013 at age 88, was a novelist, short-story writer, poet, historian, and essayist. One of my favorite books of his is A Long Desire (1979), a collection of essays about explorers, both famous and obscure, and their quests. He wrote a followup, The White Lantern (1981), which I’ve not read. Earlier today I ordered a copy from Amazon in an effort to rectify this omission. Another favorite book of his is Son of the Morning Star, an epic and poetic account of the life of George Armstrong Custer and its awesome climax at the Little Big Horn in 1876.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Two important books about the Vietnam war that meant a lot to me are Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) and Christian G. Appy’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve always had a fascination with the Vietnam War, which I learned in Patriots is known as the “American War” to the Vietnamese. It was my generation’s war, but I never got closer than Thailand in 1969, something I probably should be thankful for. I really hooked into Dispatches when I first read it. It felt fresh and unusual. Even the book jacket was different; it looked and felt like a kind of textured, brown wrapping paper. In a blurb on the back of the jacket, Harold Hayes wrote, “Dispatches is a series of refractions of Americans in Vietnam, kaleidoscopic images of sounds and senses: from Hieronymous Bosch to Jimi Hendrix… It’s a brilliant, lasting work of art.” Herr’s writing is hip and vivid, unsentimental and electric, suggestive at times of Tom Wolfe, and maybe even a little William Burroughs. It probably makes sense that Herr subsequently worked on the narration for Apocalypse Now (1979) and co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket (1987). He later wrote a short book called Kubrick (2000), a memoir of their nearly 20-year friendship. I love the opening sentence: “Stanley Kubrick was a friend of mine, insofar as people like Stanley have friends, and as if there are any people like Stanley now.”

Herr went to Vietnam in 1967 as a correspondent for Esquire. Dispatches is an account of his time there. I always took it straight and never questioned anything about it. However,
I only recently (as in two days ago) found out the following, per Wikipedia:

“…after publishing Dispatches, Herr disclosed that parts of the book were invented, and that it would be better for it not to be regarded as journalism. In a 1990 interview with Los Angeles Times, he admitted that the characters Day Tripper and Mayhew in the book are ‘totally fictional characters’, and went on to say: ‘A lot of Dispatches is fictional. I’ve said this a lot of times. I have told people over the years that there are fictional aspects to Dispatches, and they look betrayed. They look heartbroken, as if it isn’t true anymore. I never thought of Dispatches as journalism. In France they published it as a novel….'”

I’m not sure how to take this. Would my reaction to the book have been different if I’d known this at the time? Maybe. I don’t know. But I hope not. Even though aspects of Dispatches were fictionalized, that doesn’t make them untrue to the time and place.

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Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides is a revelation. Per description on the back cover, “Christian G. Appy’s monumental oral history of the Vietnam War is the first work to probe the war’s path through both the United States and Vietnam. The vivid testimonies of 135 men and women span the entire history of the Vietnam conflictl, from it’s murky origins in the 1940s to the chaotic fall of Saigon in 1975.” The people interviewed include “…generals and grunts, policymakers and protesters, guerrillas and CIA operatives, pilots and doctors, artists and journlists, and a variety of ordinary citizens…” It’s an impressive and important piece of work.

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Here are four other books that have been important to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finally, of all the books I want to read again, the one I want to reread the most is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). Beginning in the 1930s, and continuing through World War II and after, two cousins, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, become major figures in the birth and growth of comic books in this country. It’s a work of almost Dickensian density and great imagination. It was no surprise to read in Chabon’s author’s note at the end of the book that Stan Lee, Will Eisner, and Gil Kane had shared their memories of the Golden Age of comics with him. I’ve always loved the world of comic books and superheroes, so I was more than willing to be immersed in Kavalier & Clay. As with all good books and films, it kept me asking the question, “What happens next?” If you haven’t read Kavalier & Clay, I urge you to do so. It may seem daunting at 656 pages, but it’s more than worth it, believe me.

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Well, that’s more than enough for now. This has been a longer ride than usual, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Stay tuned for Bookish Part 2: Favorite Film Books. Ted Hicks

Posted in Books, Fiction, Film | 5 Comments

Best TV 2018 – Supplemental

For those who want to go a little deeper, here is additional material on some of the titles in my Best TV of 2018 post.

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The Americans

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Babylon Berlin

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Barry

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Homecoming

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Jane Fonda in Five Acts

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Killing Eve

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My Brilliant Friend

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Pose

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Sharp Objects

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The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

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Finally, here is a list of several shows that didn’t make the final cut, but were too good not to acknowledge.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace (FX)

Dietland (AMC)

Goliath — 2nd season (Amazon Prime)

Homeland — 7th season (Showtime)

The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Society (Netflix)

Paranoid (Netflix)

The Same Sky (Netflix)

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That’s all for now. See you next time. — Ted Hicks

Posted in Books, Documentaries, Fiction, Home Video, Non-Fiction, Streaming, TV & Cable | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What I Watched Last Year: Best TV, Cable & Streaming 2018

Looking over my list of best shows for 2018, I see that none of them are on network television. All of them, without exception, were seen via HBO, Showtime, Amazon, Netflix, FX, and BBC America. I don’t think network shows, most of them anyway, can compete with the content and quality available to cable channels and streaming services. Fewer restrictions on language, violence, and sex play a huge role in this. It didn’t take long to realize that The Sopranos, which debuted on HBO in 1999, was just as good as, or better than, than most feature films. That show changed the landscape. I’m as excited now by what I can see on our flat screen as I am about feature films in theaters. That said, you still can’t beat seeing something on a theater screen, which is how I’ve seen Roma twice. Roma has had a good theatrical run, though more people will probably see it on Netflix.

There’s so much content available now, too much to keep up with. We only scratch the surface with what we watch, and that’s without having HULU or Starz or the many other outlets. And there’s going to be a lot more. Apple and Disney are launching streaming services soon.

Well, it’s time to get into what I liked best last year, so without further digression, here goes. These are all great shows, but I have to say that The Americans, Babylon Berlin, Killing Eve, and My Brilliant Friend are the best of the best. And Sharp Objects.

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The Americans – season 6 (FX)  This is a carry over from previous years, but rather than put it in a section at the end, I wanted to have it right up front. I was initially skeptical of the premise when I first heard about it — KGB sleeper agents living in Washington, DC for 20 years, raising a family and carrying out covert operations. And living next door to an FBI agent who becomes their best friend. Sounded a little far-fetched, but my wife and I were hooked with the first episode. It just got better and better with each successive season. Okay, maybe all the wigs and disguises were a bit of a joke, but that didn’t really matter. We went with it. The final episode of the final season was a killer. Everything in the entire series had led to the scene in the parking garage, where we didn’t get what we’d expected, but got so much more. Then the gut-punch of Paige on the train platform. At the end The Americans was sad, bittersweet, and heartbreaking. It earned every bit of that. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If not, you can stream all the seasons on Amazon Prime.

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Babylon Berlin (Netflix)  The first two seasons were made available last spring, 16 episodes in all. Reportedly the most expensive German TV series to date, Babylon Berlin begins in 1929 during the Weimar Republic. The main character is Gereon Rath, a police inspector transferred from Cologne to Berlin. He’s a World War I combat veteran who suffers from PTSD and takes morphine to deal with it. It’s a great series with many characters and multiple story lines. Online on Vulture, Kathryn VanArendonk described Babylon Berlin as “part noir, part spy thriller, and part historical portrait.” It’s that and more. The atmosphere is rich and deep, and really wraps you up. Babylon Berlin is based on novels by Volker Kutscher. The series was created by Tom Tykwer (who made Run Lola Run in 1998), Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten. Each episode was written, directed, and edited by all three of them, so it’s all a tight collective vision.

The following video is set in the Moka Efti club, a central location in the story and a place that actually existed. A song is performed, intercut with scenes from the series. This gives a good sense of the tone and feeling of Babylon Berlin.

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Barry (HBO)  Created by Bill Hader and Alec Berg, Barry stars Hader as a contract killer who goes undercover in an acting class in Los Angeles and begins to take part in the proceedings. He discovers he enjoys acting more than being a hit man, but it’s not so easy changing careers. Hader is great in the role. He’s probably best known for his eight seasons on Saturday Night Live (his uncanny Vincent Price impression is one of my favorites). Henry Winkler is the teacher in the acting class, and he underplays the puffed-up self-importance of the character. Barry’s handler, who schedules his hits, is played by Stephen Root, an actor who seems to work all the time. He’s had 236 credits since 1988, but will probably always be remembered as Milton in Office Space (1999). Barry is a comedy that gets serious in uncomfortable ways. Barry is, after all, someone who kills people. The show doesn’t shy away from the reality of that when it happens, and as a viewer it’s not always easy to know how to respond. Hader plays this perfectly. Season 2 begins on March 31.

Here are trailers for seasons 1 and 2.

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Bodyguard (Netflix/BBC)  This British series about a liberal London cop (Richard Madden), assigned to provide security for a right-wing Home Secretary (Keeley Hawes), was hugely popular when it aired in the UK. It shares DNA, along with many other shows, with the Kiefer Sutherland series 24. It’s fast paced, with shocking events, sudden reversals, and a down-to-the-wire momentum.

The following clip is of a sniper attack on the Home Secretary and the way her bodyguard deals with it. It’s pretty intense, so keep your head down.

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Homecoming (Amazon Prime)  Nothing normal about this one. Julia Roberts is a counselor at a government organization called Homecoming that ostensibly helps returning veterans readjust. Everything feels sinister and the true agenda is slowly revealed. Bobby Canavale is outstanding as Roberts’ supervisor, as is Shea Wigham as a DOD functionary trying to figure out what is going on. Just like the rest of us. There’s a Twilight Zone vibe to this show. You never know what’s coming. Homecoming is ten 30-minute episodes, very compelling and perfect for bingeing.

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Jane Fonda in Five Acts (HBO)  This fascinating documentary was directed by Susan Lacy, the creator of American Masters on PBS and director of the documentary Spielberg, which aired last year on HBO. Everyone thinks they know who Jane Fonda is, but seeing this survey of her entire life is a bit of a revelation. She’s been around as long as I can remember, but Lacy’s film presents the full range of Fonda’s multiple careers. She’s quite candid, especially about her problematic relationship with her father, Henry Fonda, and her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner. Her reunion with Turner on his ranch is particularly touching.

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Killing Eve (BBC America)  Sandra Oh is the greatest as Eve Polastri, an MI5 agent pursuing psychopathic assassin Villanelle, played with ice-cold charm by the equally strong Jodie Comer. They become obsessed with one another in a lethal dance while the body count keeps rising.

The following confrontation in the clip below between Eve and Villanelle from season one is quite something. They are obviously adversaries, but at the same time there’s a weird attraction for each other that drives the series.

Season 1 can be rented for streaming from Amazon. Season 2 debuts April 7 on both BBC America and AMC.

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The Kominsky Method (Netflix)  Michael Douglas is Sandy Kominsky, an actor who was big years ago and is now an acting coach. Alan Arkin is Norman Newlander, Sandy’s friend and agent. Their relationship, not unlike Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple, is prickly and filled with insults and clever putdowns, but they obviously care deeply for each other. The chemistry between Douglas and Arkin is great. Alan Arkin, especially, is wonderful. What he does with the dialogue is a constant pleasure. It’s comic, but it’s not a sitcom. There are real things at stake here. Aging and mortality are frequent subjects of their conversations. It’s nice to see both actors so relaxed and supported by great writing.

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The Mantis/La mante (Netflix)  Carole Bouquet plays Jeanne, a notorious serial killer known as the Praying Mantis, who has been held in isolated confinement for many years in a vast country estate under high security, a prisoner a la Hannibal Lector. When copycat murders begin turning up, the police ask Jeanne for help finding the killer. She agrees, but only if her estranged son Damien, a cop, will be her contact. He’s had nothing to do with her for years and wants to keep it that way. This series goes to some very, very dark places. It’s like lifting a plank of rotting wood out of the muck and seeing what’s underneath. I loved it.

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My Brilliant Friend (HBO)  Absolutely great. Based on the first of four hugely popular novels by Elena Ferrante that tell the story of a friendship that lasts a lifetime. The first season is set in a suburb of Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Lenu and Lila meet in primary school, where they are clearly the smartest kids in the class. Despite an initial wariness, they develop a strong bond that becomes key to their survival in a restrictive, frequently violent community. You sense the joy that comes with shared discoveries and the recognition of a kindred spirit. The production values are incredible. An entire neighborhood was constructed that looks and feels completely authentic. Nothing looks like a set, this is a totally lived-in environment. Everything about My Brilliant Friend is an achievement of perfection. I was constantly knocked out by the depth and richness of the storytelling. Saverio Costanzo co-wrote and directed all eight episodes, which ensured a consistency of vision. He’s scheduled to do the same for the next three seasons. My wife Nancy was reading the first volume in Ferrante’s quartet when the series started. She subsequently burned through the next three back-to-back. It’s a hit.

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Pose (FX)  Co-created by Ryan Murphy, Pose is set in the ball culture world of New York City in the late 1980s. Until I saw the excellent documentary Kiki (2016), I’d known virtually nothing about this world. Members of the transgender community compete for trophies and titles in elaborate events held in ballrooms. All transgender characters in Pose are performed by transgender actors. It is extraordinary. Billy Porter is amazing as the live-wire MC of the balls. When I saw Kiki, I noted that it was bursting with humanity. That’s certainly true with Pose as well. Humanity and a full range of emotions at full throttle.

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Secret City (Netflix)  A dogged individual attempting to expose a cover-up at high levels is nothing new, but it’s all in the telling, and Secret City does it very well. This is an Australian production starring Anna Torv. I first remember seeing her in the excellent series Fringe (2008-2013), and most recently in the amazing Mindhunter (2017). She’s a very engaging actor who makes me care about what happens to her. The deeply ominous Jackie Weaver also stars. The second season is already available on Netflix. We burned through it in a couple of days. Here are trailers for both seasons.

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Sharp Objects (HBO)  This is a profoundly disturbing series based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. Sharp Objects as a series was created by Marti Noxon, a name I recognized as a producer of Josh Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Already I was interested. Amy Adams stars as Camille Preaker, a burned-out reporter in St. Louis sent by her editor to report on a murder in her hometown of Wind Gap. It’s the last place she wants to go. Too many ghosts. Patricia Clarkson plays Camille’s mother, the ironically named Adora. She’s anything but. Clarkson does this kind of character to perfection. Adora is a smiling cobra, speaking in a soft, purring voice laced with poison. She’s a master of devastating putdowns and quiet eviscerations. This is a creepy, freaky story. It’s a horror story. You won’t look at a dollhouse the same way again. Amy Adams has reportedly said that she wouldn’t want to do another season, because this was too dark a place to go. It’s easy to see why. And it’s quite thrilling.

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Unforgotten – seasons 1 & 2 (Amazon Prime)  We watched both seasons of this last year. Nicola Walker (Last Tangle in Halifax and River) plays the head of a police unit that investigates old cases that were thought previously solved. It follows a familiar formula for these types of show, but is very well made and quite engaging. The third season debuts on Masterpiece (PBS) on April 7. Sunday nights are getting very crowded for shows we like. Thanks for the DVR. Here’s a trailer for season 1.

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The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (HBO)  Garry Shandling was a singular talent. He had a solid career as a stand-up comic, but most importantly he created two unique series, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986-1990) and The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998). I kept hearing about Larry Sanders and finally got HBO just so I could see the show. It did not disappoint. In it, Larry’s the host of a late-night talk show, surrounded by egos and insecurities, but none as full-blown as his own. Guests on the talk show were often real celebrities playing versions of themselves. It was great. I especially loved Rip Torn as Artie, Larry’s producer. Zen Diaries was directed by Judd Apatow, who counts Shandling as a friend and mentor. It runs four and a half hours, which might sound daunting, but it could have kept going and I would have been there for it. Per a description at IMDb, Zen Diaries “included conversations with more than 40 of Shandling’s family members and friends, among them Jim Carrey, Jon Favreau, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman. There are also decades worth of TV appearances, along with personal journals, private letters and candid home audio and video footage that depict Shandling in a fascinating, funny, sad and, above all, completely authentic way.”

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Carry-Overs

Better Call Saul – season 4 (AMC)  The airdate for season 5 has yet to be announced.

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Better Things (FX)  Did not air last year, but season 3 is currently on. Based on the episodes we’ve seen so far, it’s better than ever.

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Billions – 3rd season (SHO)  Season 4 began on March 17.

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Bosch – 4th season (Amazon Prime)  Season 5 begins on April 19. I don’t think Bosch is as strong as it was the first two seasons, but I’ll be watching for sure. Titus Welliver really owns the character of Harry Bosch, and seeing him with Lance Reddick and Jaime Hector makes my day. Here’s a trailer for the new season.

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Glow – 2nd season (Netflix)  The release date for season 3 has yet to be announced, but will probably be late summer.

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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – season 2 (Amazon Prime)  Season 3 airdate is yet to be announced.

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Mozart in the Jungle – season 4 (Amazon Prime)  This excellent series has been cancelled by Amazon, but you can still stream the first 4 seasons.

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Veep – 6th season (HBO)  The 7th and final season begins on March 31.  The writing is nasty and inspired. Julia-Louis Dreyfuss and the entire cast play it for all it’s worth. As farcical and exaggerated as this show frequently is, compared to the actual news from the White House every day, Veep seems more and more like a documentary. It’s probably wise that this will be its final season, because I’m not sure where Veep could go from here.

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Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO)

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Bonus News

You may already have heard, but thirteen years after it ended, Deadwood is coming back. Not as a series, but this is better than nothing. On May 31, HBO will debut Deadwood: The Movie. Almost the entire original cast is returning, including Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock and Ian McShane as Al Swearengen. Those of us who were fans felt that the series ended much too soon. Hopefully this will allow for some closure.

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That about wraps it up for this go-round. See you next time. — Ted Hicks

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Great Covers & Illustrations – A Totally Random Collection

During the last several years of looking for film-related material, I’ve stumbled across a lot 0f other stuff that I felt compelled to save. When I was going through it the other day — in a successful effort to avoid doing anything actually productive — it occurred to me that you might like to see some of these. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to this collection of covers and illustrations, other than they all got my attention in one way or another. Some, such as  the Edgar Rice Burroughs book covers, are beautiful. Others are dynamic, dramatic and kinetic. Some are simply weird and bizarre, possibly offensive. So, with no apologies, here goes.

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The current blockbuster film notwithstanding, the original Captain Marvel was a guy! As well as being the source for the forthcoming Shazam! movie, which opens on April 5. The lineage is a bit tangled.

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British paperback editions of early James Bond novels.

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Note: I’ve been unsuccessful so far in finding out the meaning of the reverse swastikas on two of the covers above. I doubt that they have a Nazi connection, but it’s curious.

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I have no idea what the story is here.

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The following panel is by Wally Wood, probably for an EC science-fiction comic. The comment “Not exactly, but close enough” is what put it on another level for me. Below that are two of Wood’s greatest EC covers.

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First publication in 1953 of William Burroughs’ Junkie, with Burroughs using the pseudonym William Lee.

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“Departure of the Witches,” aka “Witches on the Sabbath” or “Witches Going to Their Sabbath.” Painted in 1878 by Luis Ricardo Falero. This looks very modern to me, and quite realistic, aside from the fact that the witches are airborne in the midst of bats and assorted demons.

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I have no idea what the hell this is.

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There’s more, but this is probably enough for now. — Ted Hicks

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Best Documentaries 2018 – Supplemental

See below for more on some of the films in my Best Documentaries Part 2 list.

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Hal

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John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

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Kusama: Infinity

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Love, Cecil

David Bailey is a fashion and portrait photographer who, along with Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, helped to create the image of  “Swinging London” during the 1960s.  Per Wikipedia, “they were the first real celebrity photographers.” David Hemmings is said to have modeled his character in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) on Bailey. Beaton by Bailey documents a photo shoot of Beaton by Bailey (thus the title). Itwas directed by William Verity in 1971.

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Monrovia, Indiana

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The Opera House

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306 Hollywood

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That’s all for now. See you next time. — Ted Hicks

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“Monrovia, Indiana”

Posted in Art, Documentaries, Film, Film posters, Home Video, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | 3 Comments

What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2018 – Part 2

Here are the rest of my top choices for 2018.

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Chef Flynn (Cameron Yates, director)  Flynn McGarry opened a restaurant he called Eureka in his home at age 11. His journey is amazing. Totally encouraged by his mother, Meg McGarry, Flynn has attracted much attention as a sort of Doogie Howser of gourmet chefs. In 2015, he was named one of Time magazine’s 30 most influential teens. He definitely wants to be taken seriously, and, as we see in Chef Flynn, he mostly is. This is an excellent and very appealing documentary. The filmmakers had access to many hours of home movies taken over the years, which was a great advantage. Last year Flynn opened Gem on the Lower East Side of New York. This is for hardcore foodies. He charges $155 per person for a 12-15 course tasting menu served over a 2 hour period in a dining room seating 12. Flynn McGarry will be 20 years old this November.

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 Cielo (Alison McAlpine, director & writer)  If this film doesn’t fill you with a sense of awe, nothing will. It was shot in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. A lack of pollution or artificial light allows views of the night sky that are the ultimate in high-definition. There’s something mesmerizing about a sky full of stars and constellations. When I was a kid on the farm in Iowa, I’d sometimes go outside, lie down in the grass and just watch the sky. It was like I was looking for something I didn’t have a name for. During Cielo‘s 78 minute running time we meet people who work in the desert, such as  astronomers and astrophysicists, and those who live there, including miners, algae collectors who fish in moonlight, and local storytellers. They all have something to say about the night sky. It inevitably inspires metaphysical musings. As the director says in her narration, this is “…where the sky is more urgent than the land.”

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Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable (Sasha Waters Freyer, director)  All I’d known about Garry Winogrand before seeing this film was that he was a professional photographer. I especially love it in a documentary when I learn something about a person, place or thing that I knew little or nothing about. That’s definitely true here. Garry Winogrand was an irrepressible character — eccentric, idiosyncratic, and a great street photographer. And he had a great voice, which we hear on the soundtrack. But I didn’t expect to finally be so moved by the film. I always hope to be engaged by films I see, but it’s often takes me by surprise. I think that’s an indication of a great subject and a high level of filmmaking, as it is here.

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 Hal (Amy Scott, director)  The goal of this documentary is to spark a re-evaluation of Hal Ashby’s film career, to give him his due. Ashby began as an editor for Norman Jewison, and received an Academy Award for editing In the Heat of the Night (1967). As a director, he had an unprecedented run of films in the 70s, one terrific movie after another. Just look at this list: The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976 – featuring the first Steadicam shot!), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979).

If his films in the 1980s were undistinguished, that’s disappointing, but it almost doesn’t matter when you’ve had a string of films like these. Amy Scott’s film makes a persuasive case that Ashby should be a member of the pantheon that includes the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. Which seems obvious, when you consider his work. Hal Ashby died on December 27, 1988. He was only 59. Seven great films in the 70s, one after the other. Not bad, huh.

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John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection (Julien Faraut, director)  This film consists almost entirely of archival footage shot at the final of the 1984 French Open between McEnroe and Ivan Lendl. Julien Faraut has taken this footage, which was originally shot by Gil de Kermadec, France’s national technical director of tennis at the time, and fashioned it into an impressionistic essay that’s almost surreal at times. Then there’s the fascination of observing John McEnroe and his supernatural skill, as well as his famously short-fused behavior. I still don’t understand how the game is played, but this film is a trip.

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Kusama: Infinity (Heather Lenz, director) Someone else I’d never heard of, Yayoi Kusama, has been called the most popular artist in the world, per a 2014 survey of museum attendence. I love this film and I love Kusama. She’s a wonderful character, seen usually wearing her signature polka dot clothing and shuffling with little steps from one place to another. Born in Japan to an abusive mother and womanizing father, she came to the U.S. in 1957 following a correspondence with Georgia O’Keefe, who encouraged her. Heather Lenz’s fine film is filled with Kusama’s truly innovative art and testimonies from many who know her. An amazing detail is that in 1977 she checked herself into a mental hospital in Japan, where’s she’s lived since. Her art studio is a short distance from the hospital.  She’s been quoted as saying, “If it were not for art, I would have killed myself a long time ago.”

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 Love, Cecil (Lisa Immordino Vreeland, director)  Cecil Beaton is another person I knew little about, other than his name and a vague awareness that was involved in photography and fashion. The documentaries I’ve seen have been a great education. Beaton was a singular individual. His fame would be assured if he’d only designed the costumes for the stage and film versions of My Fair Lady, but he did quite a bit more than that. He was a fashion, portrait, and war photographer. Six volumes of his diaries were published in his lifetime. He was a homosexual at a time when that was a criminal offense in England. He also had relationships with women, most famously Greta Garbo. Love, Cecil includes many interviews with Beaton filmed over the years. The feeling I was left with is that his life was a work of art.

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 Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman, director)  Fred Wiseman is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers, living or otherwise. His first film was Titicut Follies in 1967, and he’s been making films in his rigorous style ever since. He never employs narration, talking head interviews, or on-camera IDs. He just puts you in an environment and there you are. He has created an important body of work, documentaries that are documents, if you know what I mean. I was especially eager to see Monrovia, Indiana, since I grew up in a  farming community in Iowa. But I was disappointed when I saw it at the New York Film Festival last October. I think my expectations were at odds with what was on the screen. I was a kid in Iowa during the 1950s, and this was Indiana today. Not the same, things change. When I saw it again a month or so later, I was able to do so without those expectations. I was able to see it for what it is, another great Fred Wiseman film.

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 Moynihan (Joseph Dorman & Toby Perl Freilich, directors)  Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of the good guys, as this documentary persuasively proves. A great quote at the beginning of the trailer below, attributed to Moynihan, is this: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” This is especially relevant to the current occupants of the White House.

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 The Opera House (Susan Fromke, director)  A detailed study of how the Metropolitan Opera moved from its old location at 39th & Broadway in Manhattan to become the crown jewel of the newly constructed Lincoln Center in 1966. Using still photos, archival footage, and interviews, The Opera House takes us every step of the way. I wish more time had been spent on how Robert Moses, using his influence and connections to cut red tape, had caused the destruction of many city blocks and the forced displacement and relocation of many hundreds of tenants who were living in the neighborhood that was razed to provide space for the sprawling Lincoln Center campus. This is acknowledged, but to examine it in greater depth would take another movie. As it is, The Opera House, shows how warring factions of architects, administrators, and politicians somehow managed to create a great cultural institution. It’s quite a story.

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Saving Brinton (Tommy Haines & Andrew Sherburne, directors)  A must-see for film buffs and students of film history. I was immediately interested because of the subject, but also because it takes place largely in farming country in southeast Iowa, not far from Iowa City, where I went to college. The film follows Mike Zahs, a somewhat eccentric fellow, who discovers in a farmhouse basement many boxes of nitrate film prints from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The film collection had belonged to William Franklin Brinton, and also included slides, journals, posters, and catalogs. From 1895 to 1909, Brinton travelled throughout the Midwest showing the films and slides . Mike Zahs makes it his mission to restore these films, which include footage of Teddy Roosevelt, the first moving pictures from Burma, and an ultra-rare film by Georges Méliés. Saving Brinton is a delight, a word I don’t usually use to describe anything, but it’s appropriate here. Zahs, with his full, unkempt beard, is a real character and fun to be with. The task of finding agencies capable and willing to take on the restoration of these films turns Saving Brinton into something of a thriller. The University of Iowa and the Library of Congress finally get involved. The films themselves are amazing to see. Saving Brinton leads up to a gala showing at the same theater in small-town Washington, IA where William Franklin Brinton first began his presentations. This is at the State Theater, which opened on May 14, 1897, and is amazingly the world’s oldest continuously operating movie theater. There’s something so unlikely and wonderful about all this that you can’t quite believe it.

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306 Hollywood (Elan & Jonathan Bogarin, directors)  I’ve said before that I especially like documentaries in which the filmmakers have a personal connection to what the film is about. 306 Hollywood is unique in its approach. In a New York Times review from last September, Ben Kenigsberg describes the set-up in this way: “After their grandmother Annette’s death in 2011, the sibling directors Elan and Jonathan Bogarín mounted what they conceived of as an archeological dig of her New Jersey home — an excavation of the objects and spaces she left behind.” They do this in a way that’s playful, surreal and fanciful, and at times evokes magical realism. The filmmakers videotaped interviews with their grandmother frequently over the last 10 years of her life. I don’t remember if they say why they did the interviews, but they’re crucial to the film. They provide the connective tissue of 306 Hollywood. Annette is a wonderful character — entertaining, vivacious, and sharply reflective of a lifetime of experience. I can’t begin to do it justice here. You just have to see it.

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The following films cited in Part 1 & Part 2 can be streamed via Amazon:

Chef Flynn

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Free Solo (available March 5)

Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable

Hal

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

Kusama: Infinity

Love, Cecil 

306 Hollywood (on iTunes 3/5/19, airing 3/18/19 on POV/PBS, on Amazon 7/1/19)

Watergate (available in 6 separate episodes on Amazon)

Monrovia, Indiana can be streamed for free (along with Wiseman’s entire catalog) via Kanopy, an on-demand service for universities and thousands of public libraries in the US, UK, Australian, New Zealand, and Canada. You just need a library card to sign up. If you’re in New York, go to the NYPL website to do this.

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After reading Part 1 of this post, a friend of mine emailed me to say he hoped I’d be including RBG, an inspiring and hopeful study of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in Part 2. It’s an excellent film, but I didn’t think of it as readily as the titles that made the final cut. Other fine films I wish there’d been room for are the Fred Roger’s bio-doc, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Amos Gitai’s important West of the Jordan River, and especially Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, directed by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner.

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That’s all for now. Next up is Best TV for 2018, though I might take a slight break to write a different post before that. Time will tell. In any event, see you soon. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Art, Documentaries, Film, Film posters, Home Video, Music, Non-Fiction, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | 2 Comments

What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2018 – Part 1

Last year was another excellent year for documentary features. Of the 15 films on my list, my top picks are Free Solo, Watergate, and Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

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Free Solo  (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhalyi, directors)  Though Free Solo  opened in theaters last September and ran here for several months, I didn’t see it until earlier this month. Even though I read great things about Free Solo, and was urged by friends to see it, I resisted. Not sure why, though I have a fear of heights, and might have thought this could put me in a place I didn’t want to go. But when it was re-released in IMAX earlier this month, I decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did, because it’s a great film. And the dizzying heights didn’t bother me at all. I’d heard of Alex Honnold and knew he was a “free solo” rock climber. They don’t use ropes or any other safety equipment. This seems insane, of course, but watching him in action is something else. His goal in Free Solo is to climb the 3,000 foot sheer granite rock face of  El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. No one has done this before. Going into the film we know he survived, but it’s a real nail-biter nonetheless. Alex Honnold is a fascinating, perplexing character. We’re inside his head throughout as he talks on camera and in voice-overs. He’s clearly wired differently than most people. Alex is so skillful  as a climber that he doesn’t feel like he’s taking risks in what he does, though we also hear of other free solo climbers who have died in this pursuit. It’s a sobering reminder of what the stakes are. Alex is also in a romantic relationship with a woman he met at a book signing, Sanni McCandless. This challenges his single-minded focus on climbing. Jimmy Chin and his filmmaking crew are all experienced climbers, which they’d have to be in order to film this. They’re frequently on camera, participants in the process of the film. I like it when documentaries acknowledge that a film is being made, rather than pretending it’s all happening on its own. This is an exceptionally well-crafted film with a compelling personality at its center. See it if you already haven’t.

Free Solo won Best Documentary at the British Academy Film Awards on February 10th, and has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, to be presented on February 24th. It will be available for streaming via Amazon on March 5th of this year.

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Watergate (Charles Ferguson, director)  You might think that over the years you’ve heard everything there is to know about Watergate. I know I did. But this new documentary was directed by Charles Ferguson, and we’d seen his excellent film Inside Job at the New York Film Festival in 2010. It was a detailed autopsy of the 2008 financial meltdown, so I figured Watergate would be worth a look. It turned out to be worth more than that. Ferguson takes a vast amount of material — archival footage and interviews with the participants who are still alive — and weaves it into a comprehensive and comprehensible narrative of the entire event, making it seem fresh. Watergate is over four hours long, but there’s not a wasted minute in it. It’s fascinating, though the resonances with today’s political circus are disturbing.

Watergate had a brief run in theaters last Fall and aired on the History Channel. It is currently available on Amazon, broken into several segments.

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Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (Travis Wilkerson, director, writer, producer, editor, cinematography)  I want to get this right. I saw it twice last year and knew it was an important film. It’s streaming on Amazon, so I watched it again yesterday to refresh my memory. I was startled to find that it hit me much harder this time. This is a deeply personal film for Travis Wilkerson. In 1946, Wilkerson’s great-grandfather, S. E. Branch, shot and killed Bill Spann, a black man, in his store in Dothan, Alabama. Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is Wilkerson’s investigation into what happened and who these people were. He narrates in a voice that is quiet, calm, measured, and all the more disturbing for that, considering what he says. He’s telling it directly to us, the audience. The first words we hear are these: “Trust me when I tell you, this isn’t a white savior story. This is a white nightmare story.” The film that follows more than proves that.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? casts a much wider net than the killing in ’46. The thing I had remembered most strongly from seeing it last year were segments in which we hear Janelle Monae & Wondaland’s song “Hell You Talmbout.” Against a powerful percussive background we hear “Eric Garner. Say his name. Eric Garner. Say his name. Say his name. Won’t you say his name?” As the words are spoken, they appear with a jolt on a blank white screen. Other names are substituted: Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and more. At the time, I didn’t know this was Janelle Jonae’s song or its title. I just knew it felt like a punch to the head. This film is incredibly well-crafted, but it doesn’t sand down any edges to make it easier for us to see and hear. In notes I took yesterday, I wrote that watching it felt like a form of “blunt-force trauma.”

We also learn of Recy Taylor, who was raped by a group of white men in nearby Abbeville, and of Rosa Parks, an NAACP investigator sent to aid Recy. This was 10 years before Rosa became a symbol of the civil rights movement by refusing to sit in the back of the bus. Nancy Buirski had previously covered this in her excellent film, The Rape of Recy Taylor (2017).

S. E. Branch was initially charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Bill Spann, but was never tried. When Travis Wilkerson attempted to find records of the case in the Dothan court house, he came up empty. Nothing remained. It was as though it had never happened. As Travis says at one point, “My great-grandfather murdered that man, Bill Spann. He shot him in cold blood and got away with it.”

Wilkerson interviews his mother and his aunt Jill on camera to see what they remember. They are open and helpful. He has more difficulty trying to contact his other aunt, Jean, who is a politically active white supremacist.

Everything we learn about S. E. Branch just gets worse and worse. Travis tells us that S. E. kept four things under the counter of his store: two sets of brass knuckles, a bullwhip, and a loaded revolver. Later in the film, Travis relates a letter he received from his Aunt Jill with further revelations about his great-grandfather that go deeper and darker than he’d previously known. This is a Southern Gothic horror story, a heartbreaking, haunted movie. It’s filled with details that support this feeling. Some of these might seem random. Travis finds the hospital where Bill Spann died after being shot. In an aside, he tells us that the stain on the front door, which we see on screen, is from when someone blew his brains out while standing on the steps. At another point in the film we see a dead deer, filmed in crisp black and white, lying twisted in a ditch or field, eyeless with hordes of ants crawling over its body. This all feels appropriate to the subject.

From the beginning, there’s a low sound of static that runs throughout, like a needle on a scratchy recording. This adds to the sense of unease that pervades the film. There are also many shots from the POV of a car driving down empty roads, with filters that give an hallucinatory look, with clouds the color of burnt orange, like it’s Hell.

After many obstacles, Travis finally locates the cemetery in Lewisville, Alabama where Bill Spann is buried. As we see shots of the gravestones, we hear him say, “Two families in Alabama. One of them is white, and one of them is black. One of them is the family of a murderer, and one of them is the family of the murdered. One of them is buried in an unmarked grave, and one of them is filming it.”

The title of  Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is taken from Phil Ochs’ song, “William Moore,” about a 36-year-old white man who was murdered on a highway outside Atalla, Alabama in 1963. He was taking a letter supporting civil rights to the governor in Jackson, Mississippi.

Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is an essential document. People need to see this. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I urge you to do so.

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The remaining films in my Best Documentaries of 2018 list will be covered in Part 2. – Ted Hicks

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Supplemental:

Free Solo

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Watergate

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Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

New York Times review

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