Monday, February 22, 2010
Chester Himes is a writer, from some time back in the day, known for one or two things, in particular his novel about racial injustice and the mind-set of the black man in If He Hollers Let Him Go, a book which is frequently compared to Richard Wright's Native Son. Favorably. This is a fantastic book, which I highly recommend, but this isn't what I wanted to talk about.
Himes began writing seriously while in prison, on a charge of jewel theft. Writing, he claimed, was a way to gain respect, both with the inmates and the guards. During this period he invented two of the greatest, most colorful characters in the history either of black writing or mystery writing- the Harlem Detectives. Set obviously in Harlem, this series of mysteries is wild, adventurous, violent, colorful, filled with soul and jazz and home-cooking, replete with wacky antics and repressed class rage. They are classics. They are not well-known due to their somewhat pulpy nature, although when one has read Himes, and understands where he is coming from, there is far more to find even in these hard-boiled noir pulps than the surface impression would suggest.
The Harlem Detectives are Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. They are huge, angry black men, known for their extremely short tempers, their nickel-plated .44 revolvers (which they fire into the ceiling of the police station so often, for purposes of riot control, that by this time the city has simply given up trying to fix all the holes), their fair and just treatment of black people, and a single-minded pursuit of justice- even for whites. They are legends within their own city. It is commonly understood, amongst residents of Harlem, that when Gravedigger and Coffin Ed tell you to line up, you line up. It has never had to happen, but it is not questioned, that they can and will shoot you, simply for stepping over an invisible line. These characters are larger than life, near-mythical figures. Gravedigger has a prominent vein which sprouts on his head whenever he is frustrated or furious, which is often. Coffin Ed, due to an early adventure in the series, sports an acid-burn scar across half of his face, because of which he is overly sensitive to fluids being thrown at him. They are also family men, who love their wives and in Ed's case children. And they love their people. In true hard-boiled fashion, they will buck the rules in order to show even-handed justice to their brothers and sisters. Even if this means bringing a little heavy-handed techniques to these same brothers and sisters.
The Harlem Detective novels are fast-paced, soulful, funny, full of jive, full of excitement, and a surprisingly accurate depiction of Harlem during the period (although, being young and white, I can only trust my sources on this). Hearses roar through the streets, bleeding coffins into market during high-speed chases; a white cop is seduced by a 'high-yellow' sister, ending up locked in an apartment hallway, naked, with a paper bag over his head and a gun in his hand. These are some of the more memorable comedic scenes in these books, and others, grim, dark and violent, also stick out in my head. Cotton Comes to Harlem is probably the most famous of these books, although if you want to start from the beginning, you will need A Rage in Harlem. I recommend these books very highly. They're better even than I'm describing, literarily, and they are some of the most fun I've ever had.
Being such a fan, and finally finding this strange 'artifact' on netflix, I recently got a chance to watch the movie adaptation of Cotton Comes to Harlem.
Netflix describes this as being a cut above the typical 70's blaxploitation flick. I'm not qualified to say, since the only other one I've ever seen was I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, which I'm afraid doesn't count, being a parody. All I can logically assume is that is a solid representative of the genre, and considering the source probably is better than the average. All the right scenes from the book were depicted in the film- obviously no movie can ever match the depth of the written word, so not everything was there, but it was edited together in a sensible way, and one got the 'gist' of the novel by watching the film.
I was a little surprised to find that Coffin Ed, who for some reason did not sport his character-defining acid scar, seemed to take prominence over Gravedigger. Whenever I read the books, I always thought of Gravedigger as the only-slightly-more-prominent detective. Not a problem or anything, just a strange flop.
The music, and I suspect that this is what really defines blaxploitation and what allows it to have cult followers, was god-dam excellent. A perfectly realized, perfectly adapted soul soundtrack, which to me was the star of the show. I could put this movie on just for the purpose of listening to it, although it was so colorful and fast that I'd probably end up watching it anyway.
No, it wasn't really a -good- movie per se. It was fun, and worth a watch if you're a fan either of blaxploitation or Chester Himes. If you're both, you might get something out of it that I missed. I suppose I'd have to recommend reading the book first. If you like what you see, the movie might be worth a rent.
However, the books I would consider essential reading, for mystery fans, for fans of black literature, for fans of action; for practically anybody. Do yourself a favor and discover Chester Himes. It might be the best thing you do all year.
Friday, February 19, 2010
Thursday, February 18, 2010
by Roxane Ramos
Never one to back away from a fight, Quentin Tarantino takes on an epic one in his latest venture, Inglourious Basterds, vanquishing the Third Reich and rewriting a prominent chapter in 20th-century history along the way. His movie re-imagines the trajectory, though not the ultimate outcome of the Second World War (the Axis still loses), using his trademark tropes of oddball manifestos, mesmerizing banter and flamboyant violence at turns barbaric and comic. Not since Mel Brooks mounted the Nazi musical “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers (1968) have we seen such a giddy, raucous romp through World War II.
In typical genre-mashing style, Tarantino opens his war movie with plaintive strains of tumbleweed music, leaving no doubt of where we are existentially—codes of honor, black hat/white hat, cowboy justice. Geographically, the scene is Occupied France, starting in 1941, and the dueling parties—black hat and white hat respectively—are the sinisterly cheerful, rumor-sniffing SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and the take-no-shit, take-no-prisoners US Army Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). A Tennessee native with unexplained rope burns around his neck, Raine leads a team of Jewish-American soldiers, those inimitable “Basterds,” in a quest for Nazi scalps.
Each of the two men loves, indeed revels in, his work and the collision course between them is accelerated by an entertaining roll-call of Tarantino creations—a chatty Nazi war hero, both bolstered and sickened by his achievements; an unflappable British undercover agent, always combining a stiff upper lip with a stiff drink; a strong, silent soldier who annihilates Nazis with brute force and a baseball bat; and a glamorous German movie star-cum-British spy. But the catalyst for the action comes in the form of the seemingly unassuming, steel-willed Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent). Cinema proprietor, femme fatale (evidence of yet another genre) and sole survivor of her family, Shosanna is a woman on a mission: to kill the Nazi high command and thereby avenge her family and end the war. A Nazi film premiere provides the perfect opportunity, inevitably attracting the attention of the “Basterds” who hatch an eve-of-destruction plan of their own.
Like all Tarantino pictures, this one is filled with Jeopardy-worthy trivia—nitrate film burns three times faster than paper, Goebbels was the Nazi David O. Selznick—and peppered with unusual props, sometimes meaningful, sometimes just fun (a calabash pipe, a recurring glass of milk). It’s all the spillage of Tarantino’s overstuffed mind, as obsessed with a good (even if improbable) story as with esoteric or banal minutiae. (Royale with cheese, anyone?) This is why his movies are such a great ride, crammed with elaborate set pieces and unexpected, yet satisfying, plot twists.
Oscar will surely recognize Tarantino’s writing efforts, if not his directorial skill, and buzz has surrounded Austrian TV actor Waltz in his breakout role as Landa, deservedly so. But I’d like to take a moment to appreciate Brad Pitt, the Clark Gable of our era. Like Gable, his acting talents are overshadowed by his movie-star looks, sardonic smile and mega-celebrity life. But he’s turned out to have a real knack for comedy and, sometime while we were busy swooning, he’s built a reputation for indelible comic portrayals, starting with his rooster-strutting charm in Thelma & Louise, through the impassioned gibberish of Snatch, to, in more manic form, aerobically-fuelled ADD in Burn After Reading. Here, he adds to that growing resume with a quirky performance of drawl-infused nonchalance and deadly conviction. It’s time to give the man his props and let him be Cary Grant for a change.
Inglourious Basterds has received some heat for playing fast and loose with facts—the movie is “unconcerned with moral dimensions,” “trivial,” “appallingly insensitive.” Perhaps these reviewers missed or were less than charmed with the spirit of the enterprise. But Tarantino’s not making documentary nor is he interested in moralistic drama. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, he is interested in classic battles between good and evil, a movie mainstay, but he regards his role as that of ringmaster or impresario of the proceedings, letting us decide what to make of the action. In the end, history (incidentally, also a dispassionate onlooker) gave the Allied Forces victory as the culminating moment; Inglourious Basterds offers a different kind of catharsis, though in fantasy form—sweet revenge.
The acting was, excepting a few of the minor roles, terrible. The main character in particular was obnoxious in a way that few have ever been. I don't wish this on very many people, but I sincerely hope the gentleman never gets another acting job. I believe the world would be better served if he applied his talents elsewhere. What impressed me about this movie was the atmosphere. From start to finish, I was creeped the hell out. Sound was well-applied, the sets and environment were consistently dreary (and wet), the pacing made sense and kept my interest. Violence and gore were there, but I was not beaten senselessly over the head with it. On that note, the movie made the expert choice to keep the creature effects to a minimum. There was something horrible going on in that quaint little Spanish town, terrible things happening to its citizens, but the particulars of the mutations were not lingered upon. A flash here, a glimpse there. The Jaws and Alien method. Let my imagine scare me, because it is a significantly more powerful tool than any effects crew.
Onward to the written word. On the anniversary of the later great Phil Farmer's death, I reread Lord Tyger, a fast-paced, adventurous, graphic and strange book. Ras Tyger is the Noble Savage, but not in any idealistic sense. This is a realistic savage, a true innocent, a murderous, fornicating trickster uncorrupted by the social constrictions and taboos of society. His adventures as a psuedo-Tarzan are fun, soaked with blood and semen, and presented through the eyes of an intelligent savage who has known no other world than his jungle. "My mother was an ape; my father is god. I come from the land of ghosts," he says as he prepares to engage in a joyous romp of raining misery down upon a tribe of native blacks. This is not the only novel Farmer has written regarding the Tarzan character- the other, Tarzan Lives, is perhaps my favorite of all his books. Rest in peace, Phil. I'll see you along the River when I get there.
There is a scene near the middle of the book in which our innocent hero has decided to seduce the unfortunate heroine by means of inserting a beating crocodile heart into her vagina. Perhaps I'm a bit of a morbid fellow, but this and the graphic descriptions of intercourse which followed were, shall we say, exciting. I was at a friend's house at the time, taking a bath in fact, while I read this scene. At an awkward moment, she burst in to inform me that the pipes were leaking and filling the downstairs ceiling with water. My life at this point became an R-rated scene from a slapstick silent comedy; echoes of exactly the kind of humor Farmer likes to insert in his own works. Thanks universe. That one was fun.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The filming is weirdly beautiful in dismal grays, with mysterious looks at 'things' that resolve themselves in a horrifying manner. I love a good horror flick, and heaven help me that post-apocalyptic horrors are a sub-genre favorite of mine, but The Road is not a movie I love. But, I do admire it, and wish it didn't make me so uncomfortable about the future.
And then, there's The Libertine, with Johnny Depp at his most beautiful (is that even possible?) degrading his way into a syphilitic facelessness in a fairly short span of years. Johnny is John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, a rakish and unrepentant poet and dilettante who abducts his wife-to-be, has multiple mistresses, and has a complicated relationship with the king.
Another movie I don't love, but do admire in how quickly it establishes the grungy underbelly of courtly life in the late 1600's. The theatre itself is a character here, rowdy and relevant to daily life. The movie shifts from erotic dreaminess to ghastly nightmare, all in gorgeous dress. Maybe I like it better than I thought I did. At least, in the end, we see Johnny at his prettiest again.
And, we love to share thoughts about film and books over cocktails, which sometimes is just a cuppa tea, and other times, maybe martinis.