Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood – “And away we go!”

SPOILER ALERT: Be advised that I’m planning to talk about things that you might prefer not knowing before you see the film, unless you’ve already seen it. This includes the ending. Proceed accordingly.

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I’ve seen Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood four times in a month, twice in IMAX (couldn’t resist). I can’t imagine that I’m done, though I may take a break for a while. The first time it didn’t kick in for me right away, but by the end I was there. It’s great. Maybe not Citizen Kane or Tokyo Story great, but Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is its own kind of great.

The film follows three main characters: slightly over-the-hill TV cowboy star Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), Rick’s stunt double/friend/companion Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie). Rick and Cliff are fictional characters, but Sharon Tate is a real person who was murdered by members of the Charles Manson “family” on Friday, August 8-9, 1969, in the home she shared with film director Roman Polanski in Los Angeles. Everyone knows this. When you hear the name Sharon Tate, the first and often only thing you think of is the Manson murders. This hangs over the film, an ominous foreshadowing of horrible things to come.

The performances are all excellent, especially Brad Pitt’s as Cliff Booth. DiCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton, is an alcoholic who has lost his license due to drunk-driving charges, requiring Cliff to drive him everywhere in Rick’s cream yellow 1966 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. Cliff’s own car is a beat-up ’64 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia convertible. Rick lives in a house next door to Polanski and Tate on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. Cliff lives in a trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In Theater. Tony Rome with Frank Sinatra and Pretty Poison are playing the night we see Cliff driving home. Cliff is a self-professed driver and gofer for Rick, and says he’s happy to do it. Late in the film, we hear in voice-over that Cliff is a “buddy who is more than a brother and less than a wife.”

An animus toward hippies is expressed throughout with frequent references to “fucking hippies” and “goddam hippies,” mainly by Rick. I was a bit thrown by this at first, but Rick starred in Bounty Law, a popular TV Western in the 50s and early 60s. He’s a generation before the rise of  flower children and the counterculture, which may account for his resentful attitude. Cliff refers to “hippies” with a pejorative twist to the word, but I think he may be parroting Rick, rather than really buying into it. After all, Cliff wears hippie-style clothing, such as suede moccasin boots and a beaded wrist band. Through much of the film he wears a Champion spark-plugs t-shirt under an Hawaiian shirt. He flashes a peace sign back to Pussycat (a Manson family member played by Margaret Qualley) when he drives by her as she’s waiting on a bus-stop bench. So he’s not exactly adverse to the trappings of the counterculture.

Rick regularly suffers extreme hangovers. He’s constantly clearing phlegm from his throat with racking coughs and spitting. He plunges his face into a large bowl of ice water in his makeup trailer to get in shape for work. I wouldn’t want to hang out with Rick, but I would with Cliff. Cliff has a sense of ironic detachment in what he says and does. He seems to be in on a joke that only he knows. And he has the greatest dog in the world, a lovable pit bull (really) named Brandy, who will play a crucial part in the film’s climax. Brandy, by the way, received a special award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the Palm Dog, which was accepted on her behalf by Quentin Tarantino. Meanwhile, Cliff feeds her Wolf’s Tooth dog food, which, per the label, is “Good Food for Mean Dogs.” So far in my viewings I’ve noted “Racoon Flavor” and “Bird Flavor,” in addition to my favorite, “Rat Flavor.”

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Margot Robbie is excellent as Sharon Tate. There’s been criticism that she gets short shrift in the film, but I don’t see it. She may seem a bit vacuous, but I think she’s simply dazzled by having parts in movies and living in Hollywood. We see this when she shyly talks her way in to see The Wrecking Crew, a film with Dean Martin that she’s in. Her reaction to seeing herself onscreen and the response of the audience in the theater obviously delight her. She’s an innocent, which makes the growing weight of the Manson vibe all the more of a buzzkill.

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is advertised on posters and in the trailers as “The 9th Film from Quentin Tarantino.” This might seem pretentious and self-important, but the truth of it is, I anticipate each of his films as an event, much like I did the next Dylan or Beatles albums in the 1960s. And he usually delivers. His command of the filmmaking process is so strong that you can’t help but be caught up. I know not everyone likes him, but for me he’s more than worth the attention.

The film is filled with killer music cues used to underscore or, in some cases, create, a mood or feeling. These include “Hush” by Deep Purple, “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” by the Mamas and the Papas, and Vanilla Fudge’s weird version of “You Keep Me Hanging On” which is heard during the freaked-out climax in Rick’s house at the end. Despite multiple viewings, I couldn’t keep track of all the songs, but the music always feels perfect for what’s on the screen. Razor-sharp sound edits are used repeatedly, with a song being cut off in the midst of a lyric or chord as we cut to another scene. I often wanted to hear more of a song, but everything keeps moving forward.

At first I wondered about the use of narration in the film, which is not consistent. Early on, in response to Rick explaining to agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) that his car is in the shop, a brief voice-over by Kurt Russell cuts in saying that’s bullshit, that Rick lost his license and Cliff has to drive him everywhere. This is accompanied by a shot of an upset Rick in the foreground and a wrecked car in the background. That’s it for narration until Russell’s voice-over resumes near the end as Rick and Cliff are returning from making spaghetti Westerns in Italy. On the flight back we see Rick in first class with his new Italian wife Francesca (Lorenza Izzo). Cliff is seen back in coach, a reminder of the Hollywood pecking order.

Tarantino also occasionally uses on-screen titles to establish dates and locations (such as “Sunday, February 9, 1969,” “Playboy Mansion,” “Six Months Later”). As with the narration, there’s no formal consistency to this, but the film’s structure is flexible enough to allow Tarantino to use what he wants when he thinks he needs it, even if it draws attention to itself. Anything to better tell the story.

This being a Tarantino film set in 1969, you’d expect an abundance of period detail and pop culture references, and you’d be right. A lot of time is spent showing clips from Rick’s TV series Bounty Law, as well as preparation and rehearsals for a guest shot he’s doing on a new Western series called Lancer, which was a real series from 1968-1970. Bounty Law itself is most likely based on the Steve McQueen series Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961). Which reminds me, Damien Lewis appears briefly as Steve McQueen in a scene set at the Playboy Mansion. He nails it. His look, his speech, and the way he’s lit evokes McQueen in an uncanny way.

In a flashback, Cliff has a very funny encounter with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet.

There are copies of Kid Colt and Sgt. Rock comic books in Cliff’s trailer. Rick collects Hopalong Cassidy coffee mugs. We see him adding a new one to the shelf after he’s returned from Italy. This is all Tarantino.

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An impressive amount of work went into creating the magazine covers and movie posters featuring Rick that appear in the film. Check the following. These are perfect.

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The most powerfully sustained sequence in the film is Cliff’s visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a slow burn of tension. Several times earlier, when Cliff has been driving Rick or by himself in the Cadillac, he’s made eye contact with a “hippie chick” by the side of the road, trying to hitch a ride. This is Pussycat, a member of the Manson family, played by the excellent Margaret Qualley. Cliff hasn’t been going in her direction, until he is. He asks where she’s going and when she says to Chatsworth and the Spahn Movie Ranch, this gets Cliff’s attention He was Rick’s stunt double when Bounty Law was being shot there eight years previous. In answer to Cliff’s questions, Pussycat says she lives there with her friends. Cliff says he’ll drive her, not out of kindness or flirtation, but because something sounds fishy and he wants to find out what the deal is.

Once there, Cliff sees mangy dogs crisscrossing between ramshackle buildings and rusted car bodies, and a growing crowd of “hippies,” mostly young women, who watch Cliff intently. Cliff asks to see George Spahn (Bruce Dern), who owns the ranch, but is told it’s his nap time and he can’t be disturbed. Cliff insists, and the tension grows. Of course, we know the history of the place, so tension is built into our response to the scene. It’s a great set piece, masterfully shot and edited.

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If you’ve seen Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, you know how it ends. If not, you probably should stop reading now, because I’m going to talk about that briefly.

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Since Tarantino had already rewritten history by having Brad Pitt’s commandos kill Hitler at the end of Inglourious Basterds, and in a movie theater no less, it was no surprise that he would do something special here.

The big twist is that he lets Sharon Tate live. Manson sends four of his minions with orders to kill everyone in the Polanski house, but they never get there. They’ve impulsively decided to kill Rick Dalton, who has just kicked them out of his drive. Rick is in a frothing rage after finding a bunch of hippies in an unmuffled, exhaust-spewing ’59 Ford Galaxie junker idling in front of his house. Cliff has taken Brandy for a walk, but not before lighting up a cigarette dipped in LSD that he’d bought from a hippie girl previously. As he leaves Rick’s house with Brandy, he says, “And away we go!” He’ll repeat this later as he’s being wheeled out on a gurney to an ambulance, after he and Rick and the faithful Brandy have killed the intruders in spectacular fashion. This is the only real violence in the film, and it’s a doozy.

So in this telling, the Manson murders never happened. Joan Didion would never famously write, in her 1979 collection The White Album, that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969. At the very end of the film, after the cops have come and gone, Rick has been invited up to the Polanski house to meet Sharon and have a drink. As he walks up the drive with Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), the camera cranes up and over, around the trees, and comes to rest looking down on Rick as Sharon and the others come out to meet him. I felt a melancholy sense of happiness knowing that they were still alive, that they hadn’t died. It affects me even now, as I think about it.

It’s at this point that the title, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, appears on screen for the first time. The title may reference Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, but I think more importantly it signals that this has been a fairy tale. I think Tarantino fell in love with Sharon Tate and didn’t want to see her die. His film rescues her from Charles Manson. After all, fairy tales have happy endings.

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There’s some overlap in the following trailers, but I think both are worth seeing.

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I’ll close with a shot of the awesome Brandy. Never thought I’d love a pit bull, but what do I know? Supplemental materials for this film will be posted in 1-2 days. Stay tuned. — Ted Hicks

Brandy

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Posted in Books, Feature films, Film posters, History, Music | 12 Comments

Recent Documentaries – Supplemental

Here are supplemental materials for the documentaries discussed in the previous post. These include interviews, Q&As, podcasts and performance clips. I realize these may be more useful once you’ve seen the films, but I leave it up to you.

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Echo in the Canyon

Q&A followed by a music performance on opening night, May 31, at the Angelika Film Center in New York City. This program was repeated the next night, which is when were there.

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David Crosby: Remember My Name

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Podcast of discussion and Q&A with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders following a screening at Film Forum.

New York Times obituary of Toni Morrison: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/06/books/toni-morrison-dead.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage

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Mike Wallace Is Here

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Jay Myself

Podcast with Jay Maisel and director Stephen Wilkes at B&H Photography in Manhattan.

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For Sama

The following interview with Waad and Hamza al-Kateab and co-director Edward Watts took place at a screening we attended on July 21 at the IFC Film Center in Manhattan. It was the second time I’d seen the film and the first for my wife Nancy. It felt like a real privilege to see and hear Waad and Hamza in person.

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

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Posted in Documentaries, Film, Home Video, Music, Non-Fiction, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

Random Notes on Recent Films – Documentaries!

I’ve recently seen several exceptional documentaries. They cover a range of topics and experience, but all have very human concerns. Here are my impressions of them.

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Echo in the Canyon (Andrew Slater, director)  This brilliant display of nostalgia centers on the California folk rock music scene that was born in Laurel Canyon — a winding stretch of hillside homes between Sunset Boulevard and the San Fernando Valley — in the mid-1960s and radiated out from there. Members of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Beach Boys all lived and hung out there, developing their music. The Mamas and the Papas came out from New York City and became part of the collective sound. Members of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield eventually spun off to form Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young).

Echo in the Canyon covers the years 1965 to 1967. The Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine album was released in ’65, and the ringing sound of Rober McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker guitar changed things forever. The film opens with Jakob Dylan behind the wheel of  a ’67 Pontiac Firebird convertible driving to Laurel Canyon. Jakob is an on-camera interviewer throughout. We see him talking with people who were directly involved with the scene and those who were influenced by it. These include Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Brian Wilson, Michelle Phillips, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Lou Adler, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. The segments with Tom Petty (his last interview before his death in 2017) and David Crosby are especially vibrant and evocative.

Echo in the Canyon was directed by Andrew Slater. He managed Jakob Dylan’s band, the Wallflowers, and was also the president of Capitol Records from May 2001 to January 2007. Per Slater, “The film is about the exchange of ideas and how it’s resonated over time.” It’s fascinating to hear how the groups and their music interacted. Brian Wilson says the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (1965) influenced the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), which in turn influenced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

The music is the thing, and for those of us who were around when these songs first came out, Echo in the Canyon provides quite an emotional punch. The following clip shows Buffalo Springfield on Hollywood Palace in 1967, with a condescending introduction by host Tony Martin. I almost needed a seatbelt when “For What It’s Worth” segued into “Mr. Soul.”

In addition to the archival footage, the film includes songs performed by Jakob Dylan and the Echo in the Canyon Band in 2015 at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. Rehearsals for these songs are effectively intercut with the concert performances. When we saw Echo in the Canyon on opening weekend here in New York, Andrew Slater and Jakob Dylan were there for a Q&A after the screening. After the Q&A, Dylan and about seven other musicians set up at the front of the theater and gave us a 15-20 minute mini-concert of music from the film. Overall a really great experience.

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David Crosby: Remember My Name (A.J. Eaton, director)  This makes a fine companion piece to Echo in the Canyon. It was produced by Cameron Crowe, who interviews Crosby during the film. David Crosby can be a prickly individual, and very hard to get along with, which he readily admits. He says that even now none of his former band mates will speak to him. He has no trouble talking about this and the rest of his life. He’s quite engaging as he leads us through his years with the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (& Young), and his subsequent solo career. This is a sad story at times, but he’s still here and still making music.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

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If you have an interest in the first two documentaries, you’ll probably want to  see Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, which opens at Film Forum here in New York on September 6. I saw her open for Jackson Browne at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 1975. She was giggly and seemed thrilled to be there. That was a good show.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, director)  I knew who Toni Morrison was before I saw this film, but had not read any of her books and had no idea of how important she was as a writer and a person. She’s a compelling on-camera presence, speaking directly to us as she tells of her life and work and the way she sees the world. Talking heads who offer their thoughts on Toni Morrison include Oprah Winfrey, Hilton Als, Russell Banks, Fran Lebowitz, and Angela Davis. Her recent death somehow makes the film feel more immediate.

Update: This film will be playing a return engagement at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center from August 16 through August 22.

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Mike Wallace Is Here (Avi Belkin, director)  I found this documentary absolutely riveting. Every moment had my complete attention. At one point I realized I needed to visit the restroom, but kept putting it off for fear of missing anything. In what must have been a monumental challenge, 698 hours of footage was boiled down to a 90-minute film. It’s a superb job of editing. The clips come fast enough to give you whiplash.

I knew Mike Wallace as an aggressive interviewer on 60 Minutes, but there was a lot I didn’t know. He’d been a radio drama announcer, an actor, a game-show host, and had done cigarette commercials. But it’s his confrontational style with high-profile interview subjects that fascinates.

The film begins with a clip of Wallace interviewing Bill O’Reilly. He’s pressing O’Reilly on his aggressive, rude, and hostile treatment of guests. Wallace shows clips from O’Reilly’s show to illustrate this. O’Reilly responds that Wallace was an inspiration to him, and that he used him as a model for how to behave during interviews. Wallace is clearly taken aback by this, and doesn’t have a comeback. It’s an interesting moment.

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Excerpts from press notes for the film:

Mike Wallace Is Here is told exclusively through archival footage, without one talking-head commentary or backward-looking interview diluting the immediacy and power of Wallace’s work. The film traces his career on the air from his invention of the “tough question” in his 1950s interview show Night Beat to his news specials of the ’60s and his extraordinary four decades on CBS’ 60 Minutes, examining how his genre-defining work changed the standards of broadcast journalism for good and for ill, while unpacking the personal qualities that made Mike tick.

Director Avi Belkin had broad access to CBS News’ archives for the making of the documentary, including never-before-seen materials from 60 Minutes’ earliest days on the air. Drawing from that and other sources, including the University of Texas at Austin where Wallace’s early kinescopes are stored, he crafted the story of Wallace’s path from radio drama announcer to early TV actor-pitchman to hard-hitting journalist.

Belkin’s aim was to create a dialogue with his subject, who died in 2012 at the age of 93.  By collecting every instance where Wallace himself was interviewed, and coupling his answers with his interrogations of others, Belkin created a framing dialectic for the film inspired by Wallace’s own trademark style. “This film interviews Mike while he’s interviewing others,” says Belkin, who began researching the film in 2016. “We got a ‘Mike Wallace interview’ using Mike’s own tools.”

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Here’s Mike Wallace interviewing Donald Trump on 60 Minutes in 1985. Note that Trump is more or less coherent, not ranting, and seemingly not yet insane.

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In the following clip, Wallace gets fiercely schooled by Louis Farrakhan.  I don’t remember if this is in the documentary, but I wanted to include it here.

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From the press notes:

Mike Wallace Is Here resonates at a moment when journalism and the American press corps are threatened by a government intent on sowing constant doubt and spreading distrust of the media. “The idea for this film originated with a question:  how did we get to the place broadcast journalism is at today?” says Belkin. “Mike was era-defining, yet he was so prescient in many ways. For him, journalism was about asking the hard questions, and in doing so, speaking truth to power. Now, the powers that be fight back against journalism. [The government] is focused on giving one very subjective point of view, with all else labeled ‘Fake News.’”

“We’re at a very precarious tipping point for broadcast journalism, where the different corridors of power are getting the upper hand,” says Belkin. “A crucial moment in the film is when Mike says ‘the first thing that totalitarians do is attack the free press.'”

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I don’t think there’s anyone quite like Mike Wallace in broadcast journalism today. I’ve heard that he was not a fun guy to work with, but we could use a few more like him.

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Jay Myself (Stephen Wilkes, director)  I’ve seen this twice and loved it both times. I hadn’t heard of Jay Maisel — a well-known New York photographer — before this film. In 1967, needing a larger and more substantial place to live and work in, he bought the Germania Bank Building on Bowery and Spring Street. Built in 1898, it had 36,000 square feet, six floors, and 72 rooms. More than enough space for the endless collection of objects Jay found strange and beautiful, however useless they might be. By 2015, tax and maintenance costs that had grown to $300,000 a year forced him to reluctantly sell the building. He’d originally bought it for $102,000, and sold it for $55 million. Not a bad deal, but now he was faced with the overwhelming task of clearing out all the stuff he’d accumulated over the 48 years he lived there.

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Stephen Wilkes, the director of this film, was nineteen years old in 1979 when he went to the Bank to drop off a portfolio of his photography for Jay Maisel to see. Jay liked his work and became a mentor and friend. When Stephen heard that Jay was selling the Bank building, he felt he had to document the move. Maisel said okay, gave Stephen access with a film crew, and the result is this fascinating film.

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According to Jay:

He wants to “see things the way a child would see them.”

“Before you can see, you have to look.”

“Objects there only if you really see them. Art is trying to make others see what you see.”

Holding a rock from his collection, Jay  says “You couldn’t build a rock this good. Although I have a friend who makes rocks.”

“We do not take pictures, we are taken by pictures.”

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Jay Myself is currently showing at Film Forum. It was originally scheduled to end on August 13, but has been held over.

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For Sama (Waad al-Kateab & Edward Watts, directors)  This is not only a great documentary, but also a tremendously important work that should be essential viewing for everyone. In the press screening invitation I received in early July, it’s described as “…a powerful account of one woman’s inspirational journey through love, motherhood, war and survival during five years of conflict in Aleppo, Syria.” It had won Best Documentary at the 2019 Cannes and South by Southwest film festivals, as well as top prizes at other festivals. Despite that, when I’d received invites to earlier screenings, for some reason I didn’t think I wanted to see it. I’m glad I overcame that, because when I finally did see it on July 10, I was completely knocked out.

For Sama is comprised of footage shot by Waad al-Kateab beginning in 2012 when she was a student at Aleppo University who joined the resistance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. She wanted to bear witness to what was happening and get it out to the world. During this time, Waad falls in love with Hazma al-Kateab, a doctor in the last remaining hospital in the rebel-held city. They have a daughter in the midst of constant bombing and rocket strikes. The voice-over narration spoken by Waad takes the form of a letter to their daughter Sama.

Sama

I’ve never seen anything quite like this. The point of view is as personal as it gets. These are not events seen from the outside. The film shows war from the inside as experienced by people dealing with life and death survival in their homes and neighborhoods. It’s very raw and very real. I’ve seen For Sama twice now and it definitely retains its power. There are things in the film I’d not seen before, and would have preferred not to see, though I’m glad I did. This was day to day life for Waad and her husband, daughter, and their friends and neighbors. What hit me the hardest was that it was children who were the most tragic victims. And it’s still going on. There’s nothing past tense about any of it. This film is not history seen in a rear-view mirror.

I was particularly struck by a scene with one of the volunteer doctors after casualties from a bombing have been treated in the hospital. Many of them are children, and some of them are dead. He’s sitting on a bench or guerney in a hallway looking distressed and wiped out. He says, “Children have nothing to do with this. Nothing.” In another scene, Naya, the five or six-year-old daughter of friends of Waad and Hazma, is talking about cluster bombs in a very ordinary way. Why does she even know what a cluster bomb is?

While many others fled the city, Waad and Hazma and others like them chose to remain in Aleppo to do what they could to help. In the end, when Assad’s forces overwhelmed the city, they were forced to leave. It was then that Waad met filmmaker Edward Watts. They worked for two years to shape the film that became For Sama.

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If you don’t see any of the other films in this post, I urge you to see this one. Unfortunately, For Sama is no longer showing in New York City. I mentioned earlier that initially I didn’t want to see it. Others must have felt the same way, because after playing for one week at a Manhattan theater, screenings were reduced to once a day for the second and final week of its run. It’s probably playing elsewhere in the country, but this for sure is not a multiplex film. It will be shown on the PBS series FRONTLINE later this year, so the potential for more people seeing it is greater. Though the announcement at the website says a “broadcast version” will be shown, which makes me uneasy. I’m afraid the rawer footage may be cut, but maybe not. In any event, it’s a great film. I said earlier that For Sama should be essential viewing. Don’t let that put you off.

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That about does it for now. I’ll be posting supplementary material for these films in a day or so. Stay tuned. See you later. — Ted Hicks

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Sama a few years older

Posted in Documentaries, Film, Film posters, Home Video, Music, Non-Fiction, TV & Cable | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

To the Moon!

I was stationed in Thailand with the U.S. Air Force when the first manned moon landing happened on July 20, 1969. (That’s me defending the free world at right.) We received news there via armed forces newspapers and radio, but I think I felt a distance from events since most of them were taking place half-way around the world. Besides the moon landing, other seismic events in 1969 included Woodstock, Altamont, Chappaquiddick, the Chicago Seven trial, Easy Rider and Abbey Road, the Stonewall riot, Nixon’s election, and the Manson murders. It was a full load. I just realized there was a second moon landing (Apollo 12) that November. I’d forgotten that. You always remember the first time something significant happens.

I read a lot of science fiction as a kid. And saw many SF movies. When the Russians kicked off the space race with Sputnik in 1957, it felt like the promise of all that was being fulfilled. It’s been very disappointing that space exploration stalled for years and only now seems like it might get off the ground again. I’d thought at the very least that the moon and Mars would have colonized by now. The films I saw in the years before Apollo 11 fired my imagination. Here is a selection of films made both before and after the first moon landing. Most have serious intent, while a couple are just plain goofy.

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Release dates and directors for the films are as follows:

A Trip to the Moon (1902) – Georges Méliès

Woman in the Moon (1929) – Fritz Lang

Destination Moon (1950) – Irving Pichel

From the Earth to the Moon (1958) – Bryon Haskin

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) – Arthur Hilton

Radar Men from the Moon (1952) – Fred C. Brannon

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Stanley Kubrick

Countdown (1968) – Robert Altman

Moon Zero Two (1969) – Roy Ward Baker

The Right Stuff (1983) – Phillip Kaufman

Apollo 13 (1995) – Ron Howard

First Man (2018) – Damien Chazelle

Apollo 11 (2019) – Todd Douglas Miller

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See you next time. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Documentaries, Feature films, Fiction, Film, Home Video, Non-Fiction, TV & Cable | 4 Comments

“Nice Guys Finish Dead” – Part 2

I had so many great covers left over from the last post that I decided to put them in a follow-up. As with the first batch, these depict lives largely lived in dirty back alleys with broken bottles on the pavement, in a kind of netherworld. These are not visions of the traditional American dream. For me, they’re a direct connection to film noirs of the late 1940s and ’50s.

My focus has been on paperback covers. I haven’t gone into the authors or content. That would be another kind of piece. But in the process I’ve missed some interesting connections. It’s been pointed out to me that the author of Lovers Are Losers, Howard Hunt, is the same E. Howard Hunt who gained notoriety as a Watergate conspirator. It turns out that during and after World War II he wrote novels under his own name as well as spy and hard-boiled novels using a variety of pseudonyms. Night Light was written by Douglass Wallop, who would write the novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which became the Broadway musical Damn Yankees.

Okay, here are more covers. I think the most problematic aspect of these, from a “woke” point of view, is the way women are depicted. But as before, I’ll let them speak for themselves. The first one doesn’t waste any time.

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I particularly like the title of this one. Very hard-boiled.

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I want to wrap up with a really strong cover. I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing more of these. – Ted Hicks

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Posted in Art, Books, Fiction, Film | 2 Comments

“Nice Guys Finish Dead” – and Other Hard-Boiled Visions

I’ll get back to film-related subjects shortly, but in the meantime, there’s this.

Started by Fawcett Publications in 1950, Gold Medal Books was notable for introducting paperback originals. Other paperback publishers dealt in reprints. No one had done this before, and they made sure you knew it. At the bottom of many of their covers was the statement, “Original Gold Medal Novel — Not a Reprint.”

Per Wikipedia, “Gold Medal’s obvious success…revolutionized the industry.” They had a staff of artists, and the first thing that hit you at the newsstand was the covers, which were sexy, violent, and melodramatic — sex and death, all of it scantily clad. The covers and titles were often noirish and hard-boiled, not to mention incredibly sexist. Gold Medal wasn’t the only publisher who used this approach, but they excelled at it. Other paperback publishers had covers and titles that were just as lurid and sensational, but Gold Medal takes the cake. The majority of the covers I’ve selected for this post are theirs. They also attracted interesting writers, including David Goodis, John D. MacDonald, W. R. Burnett, Louis L’Amour, MacKinley Kantor, and one of my personal favorites, Richard Matheson. I was the proud owner of the two great horror novels seen below (and still have this edition of I Am Legend, held together by rubber bands, somewhat the worse for wear).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One of Gold Medal’s titles in 1950 was Women’s Barracks by Teresksa Torres, reportedly the first lesbian pulp novel.

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I think now I’ll let the covers speak for themselves (with occasional asides).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“…in a world of lonely women.” Whew! I like how he’s adjusting his tie.

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There were Westerns, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s interesting when the pulp approach is used to market literary classics.

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Some may not be “classics,” but were written by established authors in their field. This Raymond Chandler cover is really out there. I wasn’t sure if it was real or a parody, but as far I can find, it’s authentic.

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Here are two written by Patricia Highsmith. Strangers on a Train (1950) was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 film version with Farley Granger and Robert Walker. Highsmith used the pseudonym Claire Morgan for The Price of Salt (1952). She didn’t want to be identified as a writer of lesbian fiction. It was the basis for the Todd Haynes film Carol (2015), with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the lead roles.

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This is one of the more subtle titles.

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 The image here is less lurid than many of the others and captures a feeling I’m not sure I could define, but there’s definitely something going on. This is one of the more interesting covers.

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I’ll end this politically incorrect collection with the only science fiction title in this post. This cover really pops.

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That’s all for now. I hope this has been interesting. See you next time. — Ted Hicks

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Wait, one more, a book I’d never heard of by Harlan Ellison. It has a very kinetic cover. Ellison is better known for his science fiction.

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Posted in Art, Books, Fiction, Film | 11 Comments

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 with George Clooney streaming on Hulu 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 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 I 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 read 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 mine is his 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