Monthly Archives: February 2011

Nobody’s fools

As it turns out, two of the films I liked best this past year — Winter’s Bone and True Grit — are both built around tough girls who venture into a violent, deeply menacing wilderness in order to settle their fathers’ affairs. In True Grit, young Mattie Ross heads into the Choctaw territory (what would eventually become Oklahoma) to track down the outlaw who murdered her father. In Winter’s Bone, the wilderness is literal and figurative: Ree Dolly, at 17 the effective head of her household, wanders the Missouri Ozarks in search of her father, but the terrain is really the web of secrets connecting the rustic meth-cookers and redneck gangsters who may or may not know if her father is even alive. Both missions are resolved, but at a heavy price — maybe even heavier than the heroines seem to realize.

Of the two movies, True Grit is the most stylized and crowd-pleasing. Like the underlying Charles Portis novel, it satisfies the requirements of a solid Western while gently pushing the genre off balance with almost lethally dry humor. Some critics have used this new adaptation to swear allegiance to the first, which starred John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed federal marshal who is Mattie’s guide and chief protector. I always found that 1969 film nothing more than adequate: it was well directed and beautifully shot, but Wayne’s mountain-of-ham performance took the focus off Mattie, whose singular voice and relentless drive are the soul of the story.

The new Coen Brothers version is better in every way. Where John Wayne was content simply to reshuffle a career’s worth of Western cliches in playing Rooster, Jeff Bridges creates an actual character and inhabits him with complete authority. Hailee Steinfeld is everything one could hope for as Mattie Ross. Best of all, the Coens respect their source enough to use the deeply poignant closing line — “Time just gets away from us” — uttered when Hattie arrives, too late, for a reunion with Rooster.

The heroine of Winter’s Bone shares with Mattie a gift for forcing moral choices on people simply by insisting on her mission.  Ree has learned that her meth-cooker father has disappeared after posting bail; since the family house and lands were the collateral, Ree has only a few days to bring in evidence of his whereabouts before she and her siblings are tossed out, with the younger kids destined to be shuffled through a series of foster homes. Though she is repeatedly warned to stop asking questions, Ree won’t quit, enduring verbal and physical abuse and the clear threat of murder. Effectively defenseless, Ree puts people in the position of deciding if they want to be as bad as they think they are.  If the answer is yes, Ree will pay with her life.

Winter’s Bone is a harsh, unblinking film, and a perfect tonic to counteract culture-war propaganda about the superior values of “heartland” America. This heartland is cold indeed, and cliches about self-sufficiency and looking out for oneself translate all too well into a kind of backwoods omerta as scary as anything in The Godfather or The Wire. There is also evidence of a deeper moral chill in the matter-of-fact way Ree swats aside an attempt to throw her off her father’s trail, or the casual knowledge she shows when traversing the meth wasteland. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance conveys Ree’s stony determination, but it also suggests the psychological scars that made such determination necessary. Ree is forced to do things that few adults, let alone young girls, should have to do, and while we can admire Ree’s fortitude, Winter’s Bone never lets us forget that her situation is deeply wrong in ways that go far beyond the immediate question of keeping the family house.

There is a payoff to Ree’s quest, though the price is probably too high, just as Mattie’s search for justice is achieved only at enormous physical and mental cost. As each film ends, we know the heroines can look after themselves, but we can’t help thinking they would be facing better, happier lives if only someone had done the job for them at the times when it mattered most.

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Everything’s ducky with Nucky

If you’re in the area of Union Township next week, come by the Union Public Library to hear me hold forth on the career of Atlantic City political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. I’ll probably also work in some stuff on Frank Hague, the man who just barely beats out Nucky for the title of America’s greatest political boss, and I’ll be selling copies of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway.

The talk is set for Tuesday, March 1, at 7 p.m.

The library is at 1980 Morris Avenue in Union. For more info, you can call the reference desk at (908) 851-5450, ext. 5452.

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Kenneth Mars

Say auf Wiedersehen to Kenneth Mars, who died Saturday at 75. He joined the ranks of the immortals with his roles in Mel Brooks’ two best movies: The Producers, as unregenerate Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind; and in Young Frankenstein as the slush-voiced Inspector Kemp. I had no idea he’d done so much voice work for cartoons like Rugrats, or that he was the voice of King Triton in  The Little Mermaid and its spinoffs.

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One of them! One of them!

And so, another edition of the great wingnut Walpurgisnacht called CPAC has wrapped up. The braying, snorting, and grunting attendees have flopped, slithered, and staggered home, like the drunken participants in a Sunday night tricky-tray at the Esoteric Order of Dagon Hall. The speeches and minutes have been painstakingly transcribed with crayons on construction paper, and the ones that didn’t end up too badly smeared will be stored in the Bedlam Archives, where future wingnut generations may paw over them at leisure, assuming the silverfish don’t get to them first.

Once again, there was a straw poll to determine the horde’s preference for selection as this year’s Bride of Cthulhu. As it was last year, so it was this year: Ron Paul was chosen to wear the ichor-encrusted crown. With his ascension, the masses lifted their voices for the traditional salutation:

Now that the Great Goldbug has won the big gooble-gobble two years in a row, I assume it is only a matter of time before the Old Ones reclaim Earth for themselves.

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Friday finds

Adventures in the book-jacket design trade, such as this very cool image for Richard Montanari’s The Echo Man. Other examples here.

What do you do with a sleeping baby? Why, build fantasy worlds around her, of course.

Author and blogger Tobias Buckell considers the problem of pirated e-books and concludes that maybe the problem isn’t that much of a problem.

For you Philip K. Dick fans, here’s an illustrated list of places mentioned in the man’s mainstream novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist.

Martin Amis says he would only write a book for children if he had suffered some kind of brain injury. This from the man who wrote the script for Saturn 3.

International politics and zombies.

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Real monsters

Finally saw Let Me In, the American remake of the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, and it turns out to be a pretty decent movie in its own right. The 2008 original is better and tougher in certain ways, but this new version is an honorable job that stands on its own.

Both films are pointedly set in the Eighties, and I was struck by the difference in how each evoked its period. The American version has some shots of Reagan speaking on television, and when the vampire’s victims start turning up, the local law concludes that a Satanic cult is at work. That sure took me back, and not in a good way.

It’s amazing to remember how many otherwise intelligent people were patsies for the whole Satanic conspiracy hoax. People who would give me knowing looks whenever I scoffed, and leaned forward to say, “Well, there’s something weird going on.” Some jogger in the woods would come across a gutted deer carcass and run home convinced that the devil’s minions were out slaughtering children. The hoax became even more toxic when it tangled itself in the mass hallucination about recovered memories, which ruined a great many lives during that singularly strange decade.

Let Me In reminded me that it’s been a long time since I’ve heard any bunk about ritual murders and devilish conspiracies. The Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 terror attacks seem to have blown away that nonsense by reminding the country of real monsters. Unfortunately, the Satanic hallucination was replaced with other hallucinations that led the country into the Iraq disaster and other imperial ventures.

Each decade invents its own monsters, I guess.

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The book circuit

Scroll down to the bottom of this list of guilty pleasures and you’ll find Fred K. reminiscing about the days when his folks would leave him at the book section of Packard’s Market in Hackensack while they went shopping. Since I have plenty of similar memories, this sent me memory-tripping back to the suburban wilderness of Bergen County, and my favorite book circuit in the Garden State Plaza, which had not yet been roofed over and turned into a multi-level Habitrail for consumers. The big department stores had not yet died out, and each had its own book section. Since these sections had different buyers and different policies, it was well worth a young book addict’s time to go exploring. No Forty-Niner ever panned for gold as patiently as I sifted through those coated-wire book racks.

Of all the department stores, Bamberger’s had the largest and most varied section. The front had all the new books and bestsellers, but then there were several rows of midlist paperbacks. Bamberger’s was particularly strong on certified classics: my first Theodore Dreiser novel (The Titan), my first John Hersey (The Child Buyer), my first Mark Twain (Life on the Mississippi), and my first C.S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet) came to me through the good offices of Bamberger’s. I also got my introduction to Jimmy Breslin through his gut-busting first novel, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, though I had to swallow hard at the thought of paying $1.25 for a paperback.

At the far end of the Plaza was Stern’s, which had a good-sized book section, though the stock tended to favor novelizations and movie tie-ins. Along the way there was Atlantic Books, Cards and Gifts, a hole-in-the-wall place that nevertheless had some surprisingly good stuff — I found C.W. Ceram’s The First American, an Ace Double of Jack Vance’s The Last Castle and The Dragon Masters, and the Ballantine paperback edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s poetry, Fungi from Yuggoth, with the Gervasio Gallardo cover art.

All of which was mere prologue, of course, to Schiller’s Books, the Emerald City at the end of the young booklover’s road. I’ve rhapsodized about the place before, and it’s been gone for decades, so I won’t rehash any of those reminiscences.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a big-box bookstore as much as the next reader, and any place with a big stock of books is a little slice of heaven to me. But there was a particular flavor to being on the prowl for books back then, and I’m always happy to be reminded about it.

Evolution in reverse

Q: What’s the difference between the American newspaper industry and a mastodon sinking into a tar pit.?

A: None, really, except that the mastodon probably had the sense not to say “It’s all the bloggers’ fault!” right before it died.


Hey everybody! I hear there’s a big football game coming up! Let’s all . . . what’s that? You mean, I missed it again? Damn!

John Barry

John Barry, who died Sunday of a heart attack at the age of 77, was along with Bernard Herrmann one of the first film composers I learned to identify by name. He quite simply blew my mind at the tender age of nine or 10 when I went to see my first James Bond flick, You Only Live Twice. In retrospect I can see it’s not a very good movie — certainly the lamest of the Sean Connery era, with a visibly bored star and a script that reflects none of the wit of its scenarist, Roald Dahl  — but I couldn’t have cared less back then. All I knew was that the movie had a rocket base hidden inside a volcano, a piranha pool for the disposal of incompetent functionaries, and above all John Barry’s most gleamingly beautiful Bond score. The opening sequence, with a space capsule hijacked right out of orbit by another vehicle, was hot stuff already, but Barry’s music — all silken menace, gradually building to an awesomely scary climax — hit it out of the galaxy. The You Only Live Twice soundtrack was the first music I wanted to buy and own, along with the soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Barry’s music defined the early Bond movies the way Bernard Herrmann’s music gave an emotional undertow to Alfred Hitchcock’s thrill rides. Hell, Barry was a bit of a Bond in his own right, giving London a little extra swing and marrying Sixties siren Jane Birkin (with whom he is pictured above). You simply can’t imagine Goldfinger or Thunderball without John Barry’s music. Nor, for that matter, would Midnight Cowboy work half as well without that mournful harmonica theme, and Body Heat would be rather tepid without his touch. His crushingly sad music for Petulia carries the emotional ballast beneath Richard Lester’s bright surfaces and tricky editing.

ADDENDUM: I just watched The Incredibles again with one of the sprouts, and I was reminded of how brilliantly Michael Giacchino’s music works as both a sendup of and homage to John Barry’s early James Bond scores. The scene where Mr. Incredible discovers the Kronos Project is scored along the lines of “Capsule in Space,” and the first sight of Mrs. Incredible piloting a jet is straight out of the Fort Knox aerial sequence in Goldfinger. The story I heard is that Brad Bird originally tried to hire Barry for the film, but the composer didn’t want to retrace his decades-old footsteps.

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