Monday, February 25, 2008

Robyn Hitchcock: Moss Elixir

I've yet to read an article about the British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock that didn't compare him to both John Lennon and Syd Barrett, and also refer to him as "eccentric." I'll refrain from using that word, and simply call him "willfully unique." How's that? I can't claim to know a great deal about Robyn or his immense back catalogue, as the first I heard of him was when he was interviewed recently by the Onion's AV Club. I was so intrigued by this witty, intelligent chap that I knew I'd have to check out his music.

Hitchcock is able to write catchy, engaging melodies paired with clever, often surreal, lyrics that show his love of wordplay. A good example of this is the lead track from his 1996 album, Moss Elixir, "Sinister But She Was Happy." It starts with a driving guitar part, mixed with a soaring and dipping violin. In an odd and visceral image, the lyrics describe the title female as being "like a chandelier festooned with leeches." Which in my mind means that she is glamorous and alluring, but also dripping with danger that will suck the life from anyone who gets too close. Or maybe it means nothing at all. Anyway, someone who actually uses the word "festooned" in a song gets points from me. Another great lyric comes from "The Devil's Radio," "Evil, its tentacles are bland, it's like a weevil, it burrows through the land." Quite true. There are little touches throughout his songs, like the faint saxophone in "Devil's Radio," that add perfect sonic details.

But in case you think Hitchcock is just being esoteric for the heck of it, along comes a more straight-ahead rocker like "Alright, Yeah," which sounds like something John Lennon could have written for the Beatles. "Beautiful Queen" is another lovely Beatle-esque tune with the lovely phrase, "Gliding through the snowdrifts in a miniskirt." (Which, as any Minnesotan can tell you, would be very, very chilly!) Moss Elixir is a very strong album all the way through, and it is a great elixir or tonic for these waning days of winter.

Anyway, if you like quirky British people who deserve more mainstream attention, as I do, Robyn Hitchcock is definitely worth checking out. His gift for both words and music will astonish you. For the record, Nick Lowe is a fan of Robyn's, and they'll actually be doing some gigs together soon.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dave Brubeck on Columbia

A pet peeve of mine is the neglect of Dave Brubeck's catalogue by Columbia, his record label during the 1950's and 60's. Okay, I will be the first to admit this is not a world-shaking issue. There are far more important things in life. But as a Brubeck fan, I would love to see his Columbia catalogue treated with the same reverence accorded to Miles Davis's. Columbia has put out entire box sets cataloguing complete sessions for Miles's albums. Which is great, and which Miles totally deserves. But I just wish they would do more for Brubeck's material, as there are still many Brubeck recordings on Columbia that have never been issued on CD. (There are many more that have only been issued in Japan, which are only available in the States at insanely high prices.) Okay, so Miles was with Columbia a lot longer than Brubeck was. But Brubeck made many of his most important records for Columbia, and everything featuring his Classic Quartet with Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright, and Joe Morello was recorded for Columbia.

Is it because Miles is dead and Brubeck is alive? It could be that Columbia is more interested in pushing someone who's dead, rather than someone who still records, and not on their label. But they should do Brubeck the honor of re-issuing this material while he's still alive! He's 87, he won't be around forever. But Columbia hasn't issued any Brubeck material since the box set "For All Time," back in 2004. Did they mark his 85th birthday back in 2005 by digging into the vaults and re-issuing long out of print albums? Nope. They celebrated by doing nothing. Come on Columbia, hop to it! If you need someone to take charge of this project, I will personally volunteer my services to oversee the re-issuing of Dave Brubeck's extensive back catalogue. As producer of such acclaimed CD's as "Mark's Mix CD-2007," "Brubeck Mix, Vol. 1," and "The Ultimate Bobby Darin!" I feel that I can bring a lot to this project.

In all seriousness, Sony/Columbia should do more with Brubeck's catalogue, for fans of jazz and great music everywhere. Dave Brubeck was, and is, a jazz giant, one of the truly great piano players and composers, and his back catalogue deserves more respect.

Oscar Snubs

Entertainment Weekly just put out a list of the 100 worst Oscar snubs ever. There are some great performances that they mention, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Steve Martin in All of Me, Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, and the number one snub of all time, Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. It's an entertaining list, and I thought I would add list of my own favorite overlooked performances.

Let's start with Kim Novak in Vertigo. She was great in it, as was Jimmy Stewart. But neither of them were helped by the fact that Vertigo was a flop when it was first released. Kim has to play two very different roles, which Oscar usually loves.

Cary Grant in North By Northwest. Okay, so Cary doesn't get to show a lot of dramatic range in his role as Roger O. Thornhill, but it's perhaps the quintessential Cary Grant performance. And even though comedy does not win awards, it's difficult to pull it off, and Grant always did.

Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt. (Yet another Hitchcock movie.) EW mentioned this role, but I would add, Joseph Cotten in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Third Man. Clearly the man deserved an Oscar nod for at least one of these parts! One of the biggest stars of the 1940's, Cotten was never nominated for an Oscar. In fact, according to, the only kind of award he was ever nominated for was the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 1949 Venice Film Festival, for his role in Portrait of Jennie. (At least he won that!) Although Orson Welles gets all the buzz for his speech on the ferris wheel in The Third Man, it's Cotten's performance that carries the film. And, according to Graham Greene, who wrote The Third Man, we have Cotten to thank for his character's name. In Greene's book The Third Man, Cotten's character is named Rollo. Cotten apparently thought it sounded gay, so they changed it to Holly. (Which doesn't sound gay at all...) But the wonderful thing about this change is it allowed Valli's character Anna to call Holly Harry, the name of Welles's character. This confusion shows that she is still attached to Harry, even though she's now with Holly. (It wouldn't have worked with Rollo. Also, it reminds me of the candy.)

Martin Sheen in Badlands, and Apocalypse Now. Okay, two all-time great performances that EW totally spaced on. (Although they did mention Sissy Spacek's performance in Badlands.) In Badlands Sheen channels the ghost of James Dean as a bored, loopy serial killer; it's a career-making performance. And should have earned him a shot at the statue. And then we have Apocalypse Now. One of the greatest movies ever made, it runs some 3 hours and 20 minutes in the uncut version re-released in 2001. Martin Sheen is on-screen for 98% of the movie. He carries it, he makes it, it's his movie! Yeah, Brando gets the crazy-guy part (and top billing!) and Robert Duvall gets the line everyone remembers, but Martin is the guy we follow into the madness. With anyone else, it would have fallen apart. The man had a heart attack on the set and endured some 200-plus days of shooting! What more do you want??? And he delivers a great performance. Possibly the most underrated performance of all time.

Alan Bates in pretty much anything he was ever in. In my own opinion one of the finest actors ever, Bates brought a sharp intelligence to every part he played. An underrated actor, he should have been nominated for at least King of Hearts and Women In Love. He was also excellent in An Unmarried Woman and The Cherry Orchard. At least he got some respect on the stage, where he won two Tonys.

Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear. Truly frightening and menacing, Mitchum put the fear in Cape Fear. Compare it to Robert DeNiro's completely over the top hamminess in the much inferior remake. Who are you more scared of? Since DeNiro was actually nominated for this role, justice dictates that Mitchum should have won an Oscar.

Peter Sellers in Lolita. Sellers is truly creepy, and oddly scary, as he menaces James Mason.

James Mason in Lolita. A great performance that Oscar was probably never going to touch, given the subject matter.

Jeremy Irons in Lolita. When this remake came out, I was so bowled over by Irons's performance, I was afraid he would win every award imaginable, and everyone would forget all about how good James Mason was in the original. Turns out, I was wrong.

Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice. Okay, so he's only in the movie for about 12 minutes, even though he's the title character. Still, it's brilliant. Odd fact: Tim Burton first envisioned Sammy Davis Jr. playing Beetlejuice! I can see Sammy as a helpful little guide guy, ala Ringo as Mr. Conductor on "Shining Time Station," but I cannot see him as the sleazy, horny pervert that Michael Keaton plays!

William Holden in Picnic. Holden got his share of Oscar love, (3 nods, 1 win) although he should have won for Sunset Boulevard instead of Stalag 17. But his role as the drifter who charms the whole town in William Inge's Picnic was one of his best. Plus, his dance with Kim Novak is one of the sexiest scenes in movie history. Factoid: Holden didn't think he could dance and didn't want to do the scene; he finally shot the scene after having a few drinks. Additional factoid: For some reason, the censors made Holden shave his chest for this movie. I have no idea why, I can only assume that they felt that the sight of male chest hair might excite the female populace to rioting.

Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate. EW rightly mentions Frank Sinatra's brilliant work in this movie as deserving a nomination, I would add his castmate Harvey. It's tough to play somebody who's being brainwashed, and the always underrated Harvey pulled it off. (He's also excellent in Summer and Smoke.) It's a pity Sinatra couldn't find more roles as good as this one.

Oh, and there are so many more I'm sure I could add! Anyway, that's just my two cents, don't get me started on actors who should have actually won an Oscar! (Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, that means you!)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Nick Lowe-Jesus of Cool Reissue

Here's a link to AllMusic's blog entry about the upcoming reissue of Nick Lowe's 1978 album Jesus of Cool, aka Pure Pop For Now People.

I can't wait to get my copy! I just started getting into Nick Lowe after At My Age came out last year, and unfortunately, most of his solo albums are out of print. I can only hope that Yep Roc will continue reissuing his old albums. (Though I hope they don't wait for the 30th anniversary of each album!) So I've only heard the Jesus of Cool songs that appear on Basher: The Best of Nick Lowe, an excellent compliation that dates from 1989 and covers 7 Lowe albums, all out of print!

If you don't know who Nick Lowe is, go out and buy Basher and At My Age and Jesus of Cool, and go start a blog, and don't rest until everyone knows how great Nick is! He's a terrific singer/songwriter in the Ray Davies/Paul McCartney style. If you don't know who Ray Davies is, he's the lead singer and songwriter of the Kinks, go out and buy Kink Kronikles, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, Face to Face, and Other People's Lives. If you don't know who Paul McCartney is, I really can't help you out. Anyway, Nick is a writer of very melodic songs that are like little short stories. He's very clever and witty, if you like music with some intelligent lyrics, you'll like him. While I'm at it, if you like these guys, you'll also love Alan Price. Go out and buy O Lucky Man! and Between Today and Yesterday.

Sheryl Crow: Detours-Best Album of 2008!

Sheryl Crow, "Detours"
Sheryl Crow's new album Detours is by far the best new album I've bought this year. Okay, so it's also the ONLY new album I've bought this year. That qualification aside, it's a darn good piece of work. I first got into Sheryl Crow around the time Wildflower came out in late 2005. Wildflower is a great album, but it's very different from Detours. All the songs on Wildflower flow together and have a similar vibe running through them, it's almost a concept album. There are no typical Sheryl Crow rockers to be found on it, which could be why it's her lowest-selling studio album. Since Wildflower's release, Crow's life has seen significant changes. Shortly after Wildflower came out, she broke up with Lance Armstrong, underwent successful treatment for breast cancer, and adopted a baby boy, Wyatt. That's a lot to pack into the span of little more than a year! The sharp contrast in Crow's life between the two albums is pointed out by the dedications. Wildflower is dedicated "To Lance with deep love and appreciation. This record is for you." Detours' dedication reads: "This album is for Wyatt Steven."

Detours finds Crow working with a varied sonic palette to create an album with many different kinds of songs on it. It starts out with "God Bless This Mess," which sounds like a home recording of just Sheryl and her guitar, with pointed political lyrics about a President who "led us as a nation into a war all based on lies." Then the heavy drums of "Shine Over Babylon" kick in, and we're back on more familar pop/rock turf. Which in turn leads seamlessly into the count-in of "Love is Free," a catchy sing-along whose lyrics reference hurriance Katrina. "Love is Free" is one of the few songs on the album that sound like a "typical" Sheryl Crow song. She's expanding her range here, and she hits the mark. "Peace Be Upon Us" is one of the songs that shows Crow's desire to create some different sounds, as it mixes in Middle Eastern harmonies and vocals. "Gasoline" is an out-and-out rocker, with the inspiring chours of, "gasoline will be free." I'm not sure I can quite make sense of Sheryl's tale of an energy crisis in the year 2017, but I do like free gas. "Out of Our Heads," despite sharing it's title with a 1965 Rolling Stones album, is another plea for understanding among the people of the world, similar to "Peace Be Upon Us." Sheryl's voice sounds totally different on "Out of Our Heads," if I heard it on the radio, I wouldn't be able to tell you it was her singing.

And thus ends the "political" side of the record, now for the "personal." "Detours" is the next song, a soft tale in which the narrator asks her mother for advice on love, and she speaks of her "paper-thin heart." (More explicit personal songs will follow.) "Now That You're Gone" is one of the highlights of the record for me. It's a gorgeous soul song, about love gone wrong, filled with tasty string fills straight from 70's soul heaven. Again, it shows Crow pursuing a different sound, and I like it. It's followed by "Drunk with the Thought of You," a soft acoustic ballad about infatuation from afar. It's a nice little trifle, and it the positioning of it is perfect, as it's followed by a heartbreaking break-up song. "Diamond Ring" is a scorching, painful, John Lennon-in-his-primal-scream-period song that is plainly about Crow's broken engagement to Lance Armstrong. In my opinion, Lance Armstrong is one of the biggest idiots ever. He could have married Sheryl Crow, a beautiful, talented, sensitive, and intelligent woman, and he blew her off so he could fool around with one of the Olsen twins. There just aren't words for that level of stupidity. He deserves this song. (Okay, so maybe I'm a little biased cause I have a crush on Sheryl. Is that so wrong? I don't think so.) "Diamond Ring" begins with happy lovers, but Sheryl says, "I blew up our love nest, by making one little request." As the song builds in intensity, Sheryl wishes Lance an unhappy future, "Someday you'll be like me, with someone who just wants to be free." Sheryl screams the chorus until she's hoarse, singing, "Diamond ring, fucks up everything." The next song, "Motivation," is an uptempo ditty making fun of those who think the world will simply give them what they want because they're young and pretty. "Well I dropped out of school when I was seventeen, cause I didn't have time to study my magazines," she sings, in character. The satirical "Motivation" serves as an important placeholder between the intensly personal "Diamond Ring" and "Make It Go Away (Radiation Song)" about Sheryl's breast cancer treatment. It's a spare, haunting song about facing mortality. "Love Is All There Is" has a classic Sheryl Crow sound, with a great sing-along chorus. It's followed by "Lullaby for Wyatt," the last song on the album, another beautiful highly personal song, which finds Sheryl musing about what it means to be a mother, and coming to the conclusion, "Love is letting go."

So that's the album, a great mix of personal and political songs that is relevant to our world situation in 2008, and also explores timeless themes of love lost and found. Crow is a great songwriter, and all the songs on Detours are first-rate, there's no filler here. It has a lot of different styles and moods on it, which I like. It's versatile, and I always enjoy someone who isn't afraid to be versatile. I think what I like about Sheryl Crow is the mix of confidence and vulnerability in her. My favorite songs on the album are: "God Bless This Mess," (as a native Minnesotan, I particularily like the narrative detail of "Mamma's in the kitchen, making casseroles for all.") "Love is Free," "Out of Our Heads," "Now That You're Gone," "Diamond Ring," "Make It Go Away (Radiation Song)," "Love Is All There Is," and "Lullaby for Wyatt." Okay, so that's more than half the album! Did I mention I think this is a great CD? Go buy it.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Burt Lancaster, More Than A Star

I read a great article on Burt Lancaster this morning on the British Film Institute's website, and I thought I should include a link to it:

It's a very good study of Burt, who is one of my favorite actors. (Even though there's nothing about Scorpio. Clearly that was just an oversight at BFI!) It makes the very good point that there was something remote and hidden about Burt. Which I think is true. Even after reading Gary Fishgall's excellent biography, Against Type, I don't really have a clear feeling for who this man was. He's still something of an enigma. Suffice it to say, he was complicated. Even Jackie Bone, Lancaster's girlfriend for almost twenty years, doesn't have a lot of insight into his personality. (Or if she did, she didn't tell Fishgall.)

Lancaster was clearly very intelligent, and very ambitious. His rise to the top in Hollywood is amazing. In the fall of 1945 he was cast in his first professional theater role. Next year, he was making his first movie, The Killers. By 1948, he had formed a production company and was making his own movies. Wow. What is so amazing to me, is that a man who was an acrobat, who didn't seem particularily interested in becoming an actor, wound up making it very quickly, and took complete control of his career. He must have been intelligent to do that. Lancaster's choice of movie roles was interesting, too. Whenever he seemed to be getting typecast, he would find a way to break out of it. When people thought he was just a film noir guy, he did The Flame and the Arrow, a swashbuckler that was one of the biggest hits of 1950. When he was seen as just a swashbuckler, he took dramatic turns in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), and From Here to Eternity (1953). Slowly but surely, one film at a time, he expanded his range, to the point where he may have been the most versatile leading man of his generation.

One thing I did learn from Fishgall's book is that Lancaster did have a temper. Lancaster was on Mike Wallace's show to promote Birdman of Alcatraz, and Wallace decided to ask Burt about his temper. Burt promptly displayed his temper by walking off the set and leaving the studio.

If anyone wants to know more about Burt Lancaster, I would definitely recommend Gary Fishgall's book. Fishgall interviewed at least one person who worked on every film that Burt Lancaster ever made. As a professional biography of an actor's work, it's very thorough. (Oddly enough, Gary Fishgall has also written a biography of Sammy Davis Jr.)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Wham of Sam!

The one and only Sammy Davis Jr.
I want to take a moment and reflect on one of the most versatile entertainers ever, Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy led quite the life. Did you know, dear reader, that he had a torrid affair with Kim Novak? This was in the late 50's, before Sammy married the Swedish actress May Britt. Columbia, Novak's studio, was very upset about this, and they feared the backlash should Kim and Sammy's relationship become known. So Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, suggested to Sammy that he break things off with Kim if he wanted to keep his good eye. And so they split up. But can you imagine a couple more unlikely than Kim Novak, at the peak of her hotness, and Sammy Davis? (I would give my right arm to have shagged Kim Novak in 1957!) Anyway, Sam must have had something, because the ladies sure liked him.

Sammy's affair with Novak may have led to his first marriage, in 1958, to Loray White, an African-American woman, just before he married May Britt. His marriage to White lasted only a year. Sammy's marriage to May Britt led to his playing a diminished role in JFK's inagural, as the Kennedys feared a backlash against being associated in any way with an interracial marriage. Of course, the Kennedys were happy to let Frank Sinatra carry off the entire event and escort Eleanor Roosevelt. I guess Mafia ties weren't such a big deal, at least not to old Joe Kennedy. Of course, under pressure from Bobby, this would eventually lead to JFK staying at Bing Crosby's house in Palm Springs in 1962, instead of Sinatra's. And Bing Crosby was a Republican, for God's sake! Peter Lawford had to be the bearer of bad news to Sinatra, for which he was instantly excommunicated. Sinatra was building a heliport for the Presidential helicoptor, and upon hearing the news, took a sledgehammer to the heliport!

Sammy Davis may have been the only person to give Richard Nixon a hug on national TV, which he did at the 1972 Republican national convention. He may also have been the only person to ever give Richard Nixon a hug. I guess Sammy felt Nixon needed a hug, and he probably did, what with Watergate and all. Why Sammy became a Republican is anyone's guess. (I guess May Britt's Swedish socialism didn't rub off on him.) In addition to being African-American, Sammy was also a convert to Judaism, two groups that do not traditionally vote Republican...but whatever. I'm sure Sammy was thrilled by hugging Nixon, lord only knows what Nixon thought! (Nixon was not a big fan of human touching.)

Side note on Nixon, Sammy would have been lucky if Nixon didn't confuse him with some other celebrity. Nixon was notorious for misidentifying people. Kirk Douglas was once in a receiving line next to Danny Kaye's wife, and Nixon was introduced to her first. After meeting her, Nixon said to Douglas, "Hello, Mr. Kaye." He told Gregory Peck he loved him in Friendly Persuasion, which Nixon probably saw because it dealt with Quakers, (he was a Quaker), and Peck had to tell Nixon that he was thinking of Gary Cooper, who had been dead for 10 years. (And who really doesn't look like Greg Peck.) Question: what the hell were Democrats Peck and Douglas doing meeting Nixon??? (Peck was actually on Nixon's enemies list. With a photo of Gary Cooper next to his name.)

Steve Martin talks about being on the Tonight Show when Sammy was also a guest. When Steve was in the middle of his act, Sammy fell off the couch, doubled over in laughter. Steve thought he had done really well, and then he discovered that Sammy fell off the couch laughing every time a comedian was on the show! In his book Born Standing Up, (go read it, it's great) Steve says of his pivotal appearance on the Tonight Show, "At the end of the act, Sammy came over and hugged me. I felt like I hadn't been hugged since I was born." Which is probably how Richard Nixon felt too.

Oddly enough, Marlon Brando and Truman Capote both expressed a strong hatred of Sammy Davis in interviews. Brando called him an "applause junkie," which I suppose he was. I would suspect that Sammy and Jerry Lewis got along very well, because they were both performers who were clearly seeking the audience's approval, and who would do anything they could to get it. To them, applause was like oxygen. For Brando, it was just the opposite, at a certain point I think he got fed up with the applause, and did everything in his power to make the audience dislike him. And Brando and Capote hated each other, because of Truman's brilliant 1957 piece on Brando, "The Duke in His Domain," published in The New Yorker. Brando felt that Capote had betrayed him by listening to his stories of his alcoholic mother, all the while not taking a single note, and then putting it all in the piece anyway. Well, however Truman got it, he wrote a terrific piece. (He was honing his "complete memorization" skill that he put to use later with In Cold Blood. "Do you know I have 95 percent word recall?" he would crow.)

Anyway, Sammy Davis was a great entertainer, versatile and truly talented, and he led a fascinating life. You could write a book about him, and several people have. As a final note, both Davis and Bobby Darin, who were both insanely versatile, recorded entire albums devoted to the songs from Doctor Doolittle. (The Rex Harrison version, not the Eddie Murphy version.) How odd is that?

Movie Review: Scorpio, starring Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon, directed by Michael Winner (1973)

Poster for Scorpio, starring Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon, 1973.

Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon on the set of Scorpio, 1973. Director Michael Winner is standing in the middle.
Michael Winner's 1973 movie Scorpio, is not quite a classic 1970's anti-establishment thriller, but it's close. It was actually released before many similar films, like The Parallax View, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, and All the President's Men. Scorpio paints a less-than flattering view of the CIA, and given that, it's very surprising that the crew was actually allowed to shoot some scenes at CIA headquarters. (As a side note, the cast and crew were staying at the Watergate Hotel the night that the infamous burglary took place.)

Scorpio stars the great Burt Lancaster as an aging CIA operative whom the CIA has decided to eliminate. The task of eliminating him falls to the title character, a younger operative who has just returned from Paris on a mission with Lancaster. Scorpio is played by the amazingly handsome French actor Alain Delon, and it's a role that recalls his performance as a killer in 1967's Le Samouri. (Brilliant film, go see it.) The film really makes the CIA the villain, and in a way it's similar to the Bourne movies, with one man on the run from the organization he used to belong to.

The highlight of the movie is a chase scene through a construction site, with Lancaster performing almost all of his own stunts. Even at 58 years old, he's still fit and full of vigor. (If you want to see Burt in his physical prime, watch The Swimmer, and keep in mind the fact that he was in his early 50's when it was filmed.) Lancaster was always a great performer to watch, he was from the old school of actors that never gave a bad performance, and he keeps things humming along here. Paul Scofield is also very good as a sympathetic Russian who helps Burt out in Vienna. (The Vienna setting gives Winner an excuse to make a couple of visual references to The Third Man.)

Given Lancaster's liberal tendencies, it's surprising that he wasn't more enthusiastic about Scorpio. In an interview he said, "It's a CIA story, nothing incisive, just a lot of action. It's one of those things you do as part of your living, but you try to avoid doing them as much as you can. There's an awfully good cast, but it's pure entertainment, of no real lasting significance." Ouch. Scorpio actually reunited Lancaster with all the main participants, as he had previously worked with Winner on 1971's Lawman, Delon in 1963's The Leopard, and Scofield in 1964's The Train.

Winner isn't a truly great director, (his most famous movie is Death Wish, with Charles Bronson), and Scorpio isn't a great movie, but it's an enjoyable enough action picture with some interesting points to make. As Winner says in Gary Fishgall's book, "Against Type: the Biography of Burt Lancaster," "It showed the CIA doing things that nobody at the time believed they did. And that now everybody believes they do." Which is quite true, and Scorpio was actually a little ahead of the game, as I noted at the beginning of this post.

The most annoying thing about the movie is the blaringly loud soundtrack by Jerry Fielding. It's so bad! I almost expected it to have a title song, so big was the music building up to the titles. And there are some plot points I totally missed, because it's pretty complicated. And then there's the part where Burt Lancaster gets on a plane disguised as an African-American priest. I'm not even kidding you. Somehow, I don't think that would have worked in real life.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Marvel-Less Claire

I recently finished John Burnham Schwartz's 2002 novel, "Claire Marvel." It's not an especially memorable book, which is unfortunate. It's a tale of young lovers in college. One day Julian Rose meets the improbably named Claire Marvel. Sparks fly, things happen, etc, etc. Julian is a graduate student in political science under the tutalage of Professor Carl Davis, a renowned conservative scholar and mover and shaker. (He actually knows Henry Kissinger!) Julian and Claire have a relationship, but eventually she leaves Julian for Davis. Julian moves back to New York City, forgets about Claire, and the novel would seem to be at an ending point. Wrong! While Claire is married to Davis she and Julian reconnect and continue their affair. This seemed like too much of a stretch to me, a very unnatural plot device.

It's as if Schwartz got to a certain point in the narrative and said, "Okay, I have to keep throwing them together to keep people's interest, how do I do it?" The answer is, he should have written a shorter book. "Claire Marvel" drags on too long, and covers much too long a timeframe, about ten years or more. It needed to be shorter, and the timeframe needed to be more compressed, to make it have more of an emotional impact. And it's also just odd to have Julian still obsessing about Claire even years after he meets and marries Laura.

Although "Claire Marvel" is Schwartz's third novel, it feels and reads much more like a first novel. The gossamer-thin plot, the love story, the college setting at the beginning, it all feels like a roman-a-clef first work by a young writer. But what ultimately makes the book fail is that the characters never ring true. We are unable to see what Julian sees in Claire. Why is she so marvelous? I haven't the foggiest notion. She does not come off as interesting or unique. Schwartz never describes Claire in enough detail for her to seem real to us, and she's still an enigma at the end of the book. A title character can't be that empty.

Schwartz is a good writer, his novel "Reservation Road" is much acclaimed, though I haven't read it, and was just made into a movie released last fall. It was supposed to be what they used to call a "prestige picture," (the kind of "serious" movie that garners awards for those involved) with Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jennifer Connelly, but it sank without a trace. In fact, according to, it grossed just $36,000 in the US, and it looks like it was only in theaters for one weekend. I think someone lost some money on that one! Anyway, I hope anything I read by Schwartz in the future is better than "Claire Marvel."