Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 15, 1939

Arthur Leo Zagat's "Seven Out of Time" wraps up this week while Norbert Davis's mystery "Sand in the Snow" plods along. As if you couldn't guess, Zagat's time-lost heroes manage to save the Earth, albeit with a little help from one of their doctil oppressors. Turns out that he'd succeeded in his mission to learn the meaning of love, and out of love for the lady in the group he sacrifices himself so she can return to her own time. The rest of his kind are annihilated by hostile life forms, but they had it coming. In the Davis that woman Jim Daniels's wife was fighting last week turns out to be an aviatrix who'd flown Euro-gigolo Dak Hassan into the resort community where the story plays out. The flier is chasing Hassan while he chases Mrs. Daniels, which certainly complicates the character comedy but does little for the murder plot.

The new serial gets this week's cover, and if George Rozen's art doesn't exactly make Bennett Foster's "Rider of the Rifle Rock" look action-packed, at least it's accurate. I'd say it looks like a Ranch Romances cover, but Ranch Romances usually at least has someone, and often the woman, carrying a gun. Actually, though, it's a fairly well-written set up of a redemption story for an injured cowboy who lost his girl to a rival during his recuperation. No one wants to hire him because he may be a permanent cripple, and he doesn't help matters by going on a bender to drown his frustrations. Finally a rancher gives him a chance, but as a homesteader so that the rancher can retain his right to the land against the encroachment of the dreaded "nesters" -- farmers to the rest of us. Foster's more impressive writing at novel length, albeit in serial form, than he was in "Two Tall Men" from two weeks ago, and with a slow burn to a range war starting this should get more interesting as it goes along. I think anyone who likes westerns would like this one.

Our name-above-the-title authors this week are Donald Barr Chidsey and Phillip Ketchum. Chidsey was prolific, versatile, and entertaining. He could do exotic adventure, period pieces, and urban crime, with "All Good Embezzlers" a sample of the latter. It's a stand-alone story (no series characters) in which a con man who rents out a recently shuttered bank for a grift eventually crosses paths with a teller who'd been framed for the embezzlement that led to the bank's failure, but escapes in order to clear his name. It's all pretty improbable but Chidsey has the pulp knack for keeping things moving, though I did wonder why this ran in Argosy rather than its companion mag, Detective Fiction Weekly. Phillip Ketchum may be known as a western specialist, but "A Sword for Leif the Lucky" is obviously something else. Pulp authors could sometimes put over a thematic series of stories without relying on a continuing character; H. Bedford-Jones specialized in this sort of gimmick. Ketchum's series focuses on a continuing weapon. This is the third in a series he started earlier in the year about the "magic axe" Bretwalda, which conveys great power on its wielders but also promises both great joy and great sorrow. In this one the latest wielder aids Leif Ericson in thwarting a plot to kill the king of Norway, not realizing until late in the story that his father had been killed by Leif's father, Eric the Red. If Robert E. Howard defines pulp action for you, Ketchum's Bretwalda stories should satisfy. They're not quite so grim but they deliver the blood and thunder quite nicely.

The best of this week's short stories is Maurice Beam's "The Wind Won't Tell," a nice piece of unreliable narrating about a gold theft and subsequent murders in the modern west. Creighton Peet's "Just a Dreamer" is a comical fantastic about a man who has prophetic dreams and ends up getting exploited by the media. The twist ending is that he makes up a fake prophecy about a terrorist attack on himself in order to get people to leave him alone, but returns to the prophecy business after running out of money only to have the fake prophecy come true. Robert E. Pinkerton's "A Pretty Country" is like something for the slicks. A demoralized pioneer wife nearly drives her husband from her after a tough winter of hard luck until she discovers the beauties of the great outdoors in springtime. Richard Sale, usually a cover-featured writer when he has a novelette or serial going, contributes "Down At Sea -- No Position," a print-the-legend tale of a wealthy and vainglorious celebrity flier and his working-class co-pilot, who have to survive on a raft and reach an island after crashing at sea. The playboy cracks but ends up dying a hero as the co-pilot's eventual rescuers assume he was trying to get help for his friend when his raft sank, while the co-pilot, laid up with a broken leg, suspects that the so-called hero had really left him to die -- but he can't really know for sure.

Next week brings a new fantastic serial, a comedy this time, as well as a story by one of my favorite pulp writers, Robert Carse, and the return of Arden X. Pangborn's Wong Sun. And the cover has a dude fighting a dragon. That, at least, is an improvement.

TO BE CONTINUED

Monday, April 14, 2014

On the Big Screen: REAR WINDOW (1954)

 
The old tricks still work. Sixty years after its original release, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is playing this week at my town's repertory house, the Madison Theater. I've seen it many times on TV but wanted to see that amazing multi-story set on a big screen at long last. You might assume that everyone's seen this picture by now, but there are fresh gasps and shouts as Raymond Burr lumbers back to his apartment door while Grace Kelly rifles through his bedroom for evidence of murder, her warning system across the yard having failed as Jimmy Stewart and Thelma Ritter were distracted by the imminent suicide attempt of "Miss Lonelyhearts" a floor below. Hitchcock's ability to manipulate an audience is undiminished by time, it seems. But while Rear Window works as a pop thriller it's also an art film in many ways and an astute commentary on spectatorship, if not on voyeurism as many say.

Adapting a story by noir author Cornell Woolrich, Hitchcock casts Stewart as a news photographer laid up with a broken leg. Casts! Broken Leg! Get it?  Sorry, couldn't help myself there. Anyway, despite plenty of TLC from an insurance-company nurse (Ritter) and his high-society girlfriend (Kelly), our hero's going stir-crazy and that's hurting his romance. He obsesses over the activities in the building across the courtyard, from the miseries of "Miss Lonelyhearts" to the daily dance practice of "Miss Torso." Somewhere in between live a salesman (Burr) and his invalid wife, who disappears one morning after a rainy night spent by her husband taking repeated trips outside with his sample case. Stewart deduces murder and wins an initially skeptical Kelly to his theory. He has a harder time convincing his old war buddy, now a police detective (Wendell Corey) that something is rotten across the way. A now gung-ho Kelly invades Burr's space as described, and while she escapes the big man's wrath the salesman now knows he's being watched, and by whom.

Until that moment Lars Thorwald has been an abstraction, as much a construct of Stewart's bloody imagination as a real man and, indeed, a real murderer. Raymond Burr certainly would have gone down in history as one of cinema's greatest villain specialists had he not been lured to TV heroics soon after this picture. Here, however, Burr gives probably his most naturalist performance. Audiences were already familiar enough with Burr to identify him as a menace, and Hitchcock adds a level of strangeness by dyeing the actor's hair gray and putting glasses on him. Otherwise, denied audible dialogue until the final act, Thorwald is more object than character. Hitchcock has it both ways with, filming Burr's movements through the apartment and on the street (as seen only through an alley in an Ozu-like bit of framing) in documentary style with the actor doing nothing like conventional emoting, but also reducing him at times to no more than a red dot -- the light of his cigarette -- in the black rectangle of his unlit room framed by his window. When Burr finally makes eye contact with Stewart, who watches the scene with Kelly and the police through a telephoto lens, and with the audience, it's like a fourth wall breaking, or the abyss looking back at you. It's almost like Sadako coming out of the TV set in Ring when Burr crosses the yard to confront Stewart at the climax, the observed turning on the observer in a way that shouldn't be. Yet Burr really shines as he conveys that Thorwald is as much confused and even scared himself -- Stewart had earlier sent him a message hinting at blackmail to come -- as he is the aggressor in the scene. There's an almost rightfulness if not righteousness to his indignation at Stewart's violation of his privacy and presumed exploitation of his weaknesses.

The identification of Rear Window with voyeurism is only indirectly valid.  While Stewart is probably turned on by the daily sight of Miss Torso and salaciously amused by a young couple initiating their new home, the really erotic element of the story is the way Stewart and Kelly strengthen their bond by jointly constructing a story of spouse murder that just happens to be true. While Grace Kelly is an arousing sight normally, her own arousal is channeled into daredevil detective exploits like her invasion of Burr's locked apartment by climbing in through his second-floor window. She's acting less as an extension of Stewart than to reconnect with him -- make what you will of Ritter's nearly-equal enthusiasm for solving the mystery. Kelly's hostility toward Corey's professional skepticism is also on some level the girlfriend's jealousy of her boyfriend's buddies. Strangely, the film ends by suggesting that victory for Kelly means Stewart becoming more crippled -- he breaks the other leg when Burr dumps him out the window. I suppose you have to read something into how violent and damaging the hero's belated departure from his cocoon is, but I hadn't really thought about that aspect of the picture before I started writing this review. Speculate away if you haven't already.

Is it weird if I think that the Rear Window set looks like a Norman Rockwell cover come to life? Well, it does -- check out his Saturday Evening Post work from the period and slightly before to get what I mean and how the set design and Robert Burks's cinematography reflect it. Yet at the same time it's an abstract grid that carries out its illusion of reality by denying the audience details it usually gets from movies. Stewart can see Burr in his apartment only when Thowald passes by open windows, and from his distance he can't hear normal spoken dialogue. Stewart is surrounded by music from the other apartments but the Thorwald apartment is a silent movie. Likewise, when Kelly and Ritter go on their errands in the courtyard and street, they can only communicate with Stewart by pantomime. I think of all this as spectatorship rather than voyeurism because there's no sense of omniscience except what Stewart fills in with his imagination. The audience, of course, is doing the same thing. Most of them won't think much about the deeper issues raised by the film, but Rear Window's special virtue is its ability to satisfy viewers on several different intellectual or psychological levels -- like floors of an apartment building, maybe. Psycho probably remains Hitchcock's most beloved film, and Vertigo has recently been crowned the greatest film of all time, at least for the next ten years, but Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock, and in my opinion his best.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: HE WAS HER MAN (1934)

In 1938 James Cagney returned to Warner Bros. after a two-year exile and made Angels With Dirty Faces. That film has one of cinema's most famously ambiguous endings. Cagney's con is going to the chair and is determined to put a brave face on. Pat O'Brien as his old pal the priest urges him to put on a different act: no matter how he really feels, he should pretend to die a coward so the Dead End Kids won't make a role model of him. Cagney refuses -- but in the actual death chamber he does exactly what O'Brien wanted. The question remains: did he have a change of mind or heart, or did he actually crack at the sight of the chair. However you interpret it, what seems beyond dispute is that playing the coward is the right thing for a gangster to do under the circumstances. Angels is a product of the Code Enforcement era; we need to go back to Pre-Code to understand better the significance of Cagney's performance.

Lloyd Bacon's He Was Her Man is one of Cagney's most obscure films. It shouldn't really be obscure given that it's a Warner Bros. gangster film teaming Cagney with frequent co-star and arguable female counterpart Joan Blondell. But it doesn't seem to be discussed much compared to the other Cagney films of the period. Is it so much worse? Having seen it finally, I don't think so, but it is different in mood from Cagney's contemporary pictures, in some ways looking ahead to noir and in some ways looking back to the melodrama of renunciation. Yet at the time of its release in June 1934 some critics saw this picture as one of the straws that broke the camel's back. For such a low-key movie as it actually is, the reaction seems excessive.

In one of the rare appearances of Cagney's moustache, the star plays Flicker Hayes, an ex-con safecracker who takes up his old profession only to set up his partners, who had set him up years before. Having done that, Flicker has to lay low to avoid mob vengeance. He makes his way to San Francisco and from there to a small California fishing village. On the way he picks up Rose Lawrence (Joan Blondell) after first mistaking her for a finger woman in his Frisco hotel room. Turns out she was the previous occupant and had returned to retrieve a wedding dress she'd secreted between matresses. Rose is a fallen woman who has a future in the fishing village, where a simple "Portugee" fisherman (Victor Jory) loves her. She's falling hard for Flicker, however, while an innocent-seeming tourist fisher (Frank Craven) is actually keeping an eye on Flicker after making him in Frisco until the gunmen can reach town. Flicker feels bad about betraying the friendly Portugee and worse about possibly embroiling Rose in his life of perpetual danger. The inevitable arrives, and the most Flicker can do is figure out a way to spare Rose from sharing his fate.

There's something noirish to the doom hanging over Flicker and the impossibility of escaping it, and in the overall subdued, rueful mood of the movie, not to mention the extensive location work anticipating the more naturalistic noirs. The mood extends to Blondell, who gives as morose a performance as I've ever seen from her. By comparison, as Flicker Cagney strives to keep up a cool front, and what keeps him a hero at the end is his renunciation of Rose to save her life and his ability to maintain his cool in the face of death. The gangsters are about to take Flicker for a ride when Jory's family and others of the wedding party arrive. Jory's mother is horrified because they all forgot the ice cream for the reception, but Cagney and his just-arrived "business partners" agree to pick some up for them. At the end of the ride and the start of a last walk into the wilderness, Flicker reminds his nemeses to pick up that ice cream. They'll have to do it, he tells them, because he's going in the other direction.

In many ways, then, He Was Her Man (an earlier title was Without Honor) hardly feels like a Pre-Code movie, and yet critics of the crisis year 1934 treated it like Exhibit A proving the need of Code Enforcement. For syndicated columnist Dan Thomas, the implicit fornication of Flicker and Rose, while she was betrothed to another man, no less, was but the latest reprise of a theme "that has aroused critics to a feeling that continual recurrence of unmarried love on the screen cannot fail to have a relaxing effect on the morals of the young men and women, giving them a warped view of life and the way it is lived today."

Meanwhile, Cagney's cool in the face of doom infuriated Pittsburgh Press columnist Kaspar Monahan, who saw in it a "glorification of evil." Movie historians are familiar with the critique of Pre-Code crime films for their "glorification" of criminals, however incredible that critique seems when movie gangsters so often end up dead or defeated. Monahan clarifies things a little; for him, "glorification" isn't a matter of rewarding crime but an attitude that romanticizes it and makes it appealing despite defeat in the end. "We witness it in James Cagney's 'He Was Her Man,'" he writes, "for at the end, although the gangster he is playing is put on the spot, he is depicted as going to his death jauntily and steel-nerved. Bunk again -- gangster rats facing certain death squeal, bawl and grovel."

While we might wonder about Monahan's firsthand evidence for his claim, it's clear that he represented a viewpoint that had an obvious influence in years to come. While we shouldn't overestimate institutional memory in the pre-video era, Angels With Dirty Faces now looks a little like a correction of or apology for He Was Her Man on the part of Warner Bros. Whether or not you believe that criminals are essentially "rats," are cowards without their guns, etc., you can't help but feel as if a party line, and not just the Production Code, was being enforced by 1938. That's why some of us regret Code Enforcement even if its sophisticated sublimation had artistic benefits of its own. It's especially regrettable if it meant damning an admirably modest picture like He Was Her Man as propaganda for evil. That makes you wonder whose values were most messed up in 1934.

Here's the original trailer from TCM.com

Thursday, April 10, 2014

MONEY MONEY MONEY (L'aventure c'est l'aventure, 1972)

Claude Lelouch's L'aventure c'est l'aventure is France's answer to Otto Preminger's Skidoo: a heavyhanded comedy about oldschool gangsters adjusting to a radically new world. In less obscure terms, Lelouch's film is a send-up of radical chic. A bunch of dimwitted crooks -- Lino Ventura, playing an art forger, is the most high-functioning of them while singer-songwriter Jacques Brel is the other big name in the cast -- emerge from prison to learn that bank robbery, art forgery and other old standbys aren't where the action is anymore. The real action is political; all the old stuff is finished. Even the prostitutes are planning a general strike. Lino's son tells him that even cars are finished. Finding the lad's Molotov cocktail in his car, Lino accepts the premise and blows it up.



Lino's gang takes a crash course in radical politics, hearing talks from such extremes as uniformed Maoists to Salvation Army officers. The thing to do, they learn, is kidnap people in the name of some revolution or other. They start by pulling pop star (and eventually a movie tough-guy in his own right) Johnny Hallyday off the stage at one of his concerts after he sings the title song; Hallyday proves a most cooperative hostage. The gang then gets involved in an archetypal Latin American revolution, turning on revolutionary commandante Ernesto (Juan-Luis Bunuel, the director's son and a director in his own right) when he doesn't pay promptly. They kidnap a diplomat and impulsively play Russian Roulette with him while waiting for the ransom. They stage a successful hijacking, complicated only by their inept reading of an English ransom note. Finally they're living the high life until they're lured into a trap -- the bait's a boatload of topless girls -- set by the vengeful Ernesto, who wants his money back from them.



Eventually we return to the framing device of the gang's trial in Paris, but it's only a brief pause before the big finish as the boys make their break and flee to Africa, where they're feted as radical heroes. Each man takes a turn making nonsensical speeches as the masses cheer indiscriminately, living up to one character's early announcement that they were Groucho Marxists -- Skidoo covered this base by casting Groucho himself as a mob leader. Finally, there's no rest for revolutionaries, and our heroes are last seen sedan chair-napping the Pope, carrying their captive through the jungle and on to further adventures.


There are some funny ideas here and some decent moments of visual humor -- Ventura's facial expressions are priceless as he listens painfully to his cohort's labored rehearsals of his English for the ransom note -- but I suspect that a lot of L'aventure's humor is lost in translation. The whole point is the culture clash of gangsters and political radicals so the way the different sets of characters talk has to be a big part of the comedy that the DVD's subtitles don't really convey. The main point of the crooks' stupidity is made effectively enough with their compulsive gambling -- they take bets on which of them will crack as Ernesto tortures them one at a time -- and their idiotic attempt to seduce girls on the beach with their silly macho walks. But the comedy is silly rather than satiric and the film is fun but forgettable -- David Thomson didn't even list it on Lelouch's filmography for The Biographical Dictionary of Film. L'Aventure doesn't really deserve that sort of neglect, but it isn't exactly a vital document of its time, either. The impulse to satirize radicalism sometimes results in instant camp; if that intrigues you, this film will, too.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 8, 1939

Reading a general-interest pulp magazine is often like watching TV. Series characters seem to predominate, so that with any given issue, especially of a weekly like Argosy you'd see several familiar faces. Authors strove to establish popular characters, hoping that they'd mean guaranteed sales. Some characters had whole magazines built around them; those were the "hero pulps" like Doc Savage and The Shadow. But series characters were prevalent everywhere, and this week's Argosy has three recurring characters along with Dr. Kildare wrapping up his second serial. Karl W. Detzer's Michael Costello may have been designed as a fireman counterpart to Kildare. This week's cover story, "Costello Learns to Take It," is Detzer's fourth story about the rookie firefighter. The title is self-explanatory. Costello sees his first major action, and his first corpse.

The smell -- the awful smell -- again caught Michael by the throat, pressed like iron fingers. The beam of the flashlight wavered briefly, steadied, wavered again. But Michael saw. He knew without seeing. 

There wasn't much left of the bed. Only a black mass of sodden ashes, wet down by the hand-pump and the spray from the engine-stream, a piece of wet blanked, and there in the center....

In short, Costello cracks under the early pressure, is reassigned to a quieter neighborhood, gets into trouble out of frustration, but redeems himself predictably enough with conspicuous heroism just as it looks like he's hit bottom. Like many pulp stories it's a rite-of-passage/test-of-courage scenario addressing the unspoken anxieties of young adult readers, and Detzer, who specialized in fire stories, has enough skill to keep it freshly readable.

One of my favorite series characters since I discovered the pulps two years ago is Frank Richardson Pierce's No-Shirt McGee. Introduced in 1937, McGee is a "sourdough," an old timer from Klondike days, still tough but more often a wise counselor to younger characters, and also the hero of tales from his own past. No-Shirt was popular enough to get a cover in 1938, and Pierce kept him going well into the 1940s, taking him to Short Stories after Argosy went slick. McGee is a first-person narrator who tells rather than writes his tales. That means that Pierce writes in a vernacular style with loose grammar. If you've read Robert E. Howard's boxing stories about Sailor Steve Costigan, No-Shirt McGee is written in a similar style, -- down to the present-tense narration -- while the character is a good deal smarter than Costigan. "The Bells of St. Mary's" is a dramatic tale of No-Shirt's youth, when he nearly freezes to death racing a claim jumper back to Portage Pass to help his injured partner. The title refers to the sound you allegedly hear as you're freezing, though No-Shirt has to decide whether he's actually hearing a real bell signaling his salvation. Here's a sample of Pierce's style:

Well, I'm on my feet again. I don't remember gettin' there, but I'm there and the bell is ringin'. It's off to the left now. It's makin' a sucker out of me. First it rings to the right, then to the left and I use up a lot of strength zig-zaggin' back and forth.

The wind is like something alive -- slapping at me and pushing -- but it is like knives, too -- a hundred buzz-saw blades cut through my clothes, slicing to the very bones. And it carries the sound of that bell in it so strong that the ringing seems to be a part of it. And I keep falling down and getting to my feet to stagger on again, walking to the endless pealing of that persistent bell.

The No-Shirt series is consistently entertaining and Pierce's style definitely elevates them. You can read some of these in the trove of Argosy issues scanned onto Unz.org. Here's one from earlier in 1939, for starters.

Another familiar series character in this issue takes Argosy in an even more comic direction. Dale Clark's J. Edwin Bell is a bottom-feeding Hollywood agent; the standard epithet for him is "the flesh peddler." Bell is constantly trying to jump on board a gravy train, whether by ripping off naive newcomers, studio executives or, preferably, both. In "The Liar and the Mouse" he learns from "Hardboiled Hannah," a never-was actress turned party-girl spy that a top studio special-effects man is taking credit for the work of an underpaid underling. Hannah's idea is to blackmail the studio man into giving the underling a big contract from which she and Bell then take a big cut. Bell's idea is to cut Hannah out of the equation by making his deal with the studio man, getting his percentage from the big guy by intimidating the meek underling into accepting his old contract. The Bell stories are when Argosy most reads like a sitcom, with the conniving Bell usually losing and often ending up on the run. The stories are amusing in their own right, and they're made more fun now by often-obsolete cultural references, e.g. "Hardboiled Hannah didn't know it yet but that signed agreement wasn't worth anything more than a Republican vote in the state of Texas!" It was a different world back then.

On the serial front, Max Brand's "Calling Dr. Kildare" closes with that gunshot victim cleared of a murder charge and his sister, a good bad girl, selflessly renouncing Jimmy Kildare's love at the urging of Dr. Gillespie, the dying man convincing Rosalie that he needs the young doctor more than she does. Soap opera stuff from a king of the westerns, complete with the pathos of renunciation, but movie audiences would eat it up when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the movie version at the end of the month. Dr. Kildare would return for two more serials in the next two years. In chapter two of Norbert Davis's "Sand in the Snow" Jim Daniels must begin to solve a murder at the estate where he and his wife are vacationing while keeping his hapless new friend, on the run from another dubious murder conviction, from being framed for it, and keeping the suspicious gigolo Dak Hassan, who sees Daniels as a fellow practitioner, from making moves on his wife. This is the sort of mystery story where there's a surplus of eccentric if not suspicious personalities, including the literal comedy relief of a husband-wife team of alcoholic Hollywood gag writers. To clarify:

A joke is something you say -- a gag is something you do. Gags are lots funnier. Like when you sock a guy in the mug with a pie, or hit him with a baseball bat, or give him a cigar that explodes. Those are gags.

And so's the close of this chapter, when Jim's surprised to find his wife getting into a catfight with a complete stranger in a public street. I'm not a big mystery fan, but Davis's story is diverting enough to keep me turning the pages.


In the penultimate chapter of Arthur Leo Zagat's "Seven Out of Time," our team of time-lost humans captures one of the future-earth doctils and whips up a plan to destroy the doctils' colony on a distant planet in order to thwart their plan to take over Earth 1939, sacrificing themselves if necessary. The twofold plan involves destroying a barrier protecting the doctils from the planet's hostile indigenous life and killing the doctils' matra, the last true female preserved for breeding purposes.

She was far greater in size than any woman we had seen, but she was formed like the women we knew, and not like the grotesque beings who guarded her. Her skin was white as the fabric on which she was stretched, and lustrous. Great-bosomed she was, and huge-limbed, and tremendously wide of hip. Her eyes were closed in a deep slumber that somehow I knew was something other than sleep. The contours of her face had an almost unearthly beauty, yet she wore, like a mask, an expression of bovine placidity, of mindless calm, that made her somewhat less than human.

Why didn't they put that on the cover?


Rounding out this week are two stand-alone stories. Nat Shachner, who specialized in sci-fi for the pulps and historical sketches for The American Mercury, contributes "Test for a Tatar," which comes as close as anything in Argosy to the blood and thunder people associate with real pulp fiction. It's a gruesome tale of the rise of Temujin the Mongol to power and his taking of the name Genghis Khan. It's told from the viewpoint of Subotai, the Khan's loyal vassal, who sees his lord manipulated and set up for assassination by Targoutai the Taidjut, though who the real manipulator is proves open to question. A seemingly drunken Temujin tests the loyalty of his own tribesmen by ordering them to kill their favorite horses, and then their favorite wives. Luckily, Subotai is a bachelor, and the other men have wives to spare. Targoutai finally goads Temujin into killing his own father, but Subotai thwarts the Taidjut's plan to slay Temujin at his moment of triumph. Argosy is no kiddie pulp and its stories can take an amoral turn, but there really seems to be no point here other than mayhem -- but I suppose there was an audience for that, too. Finally, the editor predicts that A. M. Burrage's "Out to Rest" is "certain to become one of the most memorable short stories of the year." It's really a trifle, and I can't imagine its premise was much less familiar then than it is now. A soldier (or is it a former soldier) can't tell whether he's dreaming in wartime of his death in bed two decades later or dreaming in the present of his dead comrades from the war. Can you guess which it is?

*   *   *

There was at least one kind of story rarely or never seen in Argosy. As letter writer Mrs. Clay Clark of Camden ME writes in this week's Argonotes column: "ARGOSY has always printed a different type of story for each and every issue, a miracle, yet there is one type I cannot recall ever seeing ... the Negro stories." By which she means comical stories about those funny colored people who talk in Amos 'n Andy dialect. The editor answers: "We don't know why people don't write Negro stories for ARGOSY, but we are rather relieved, because unless a Negro-dialect yarn is very, very good, it is apt to be simply terrible."

I've found a few racist stories in Argosy, and a few -- fewer, sadly -- that actually count as anti-racist. I hope to share some of the latter with you sometime, but as for all my American readers, the April 15 deadline looms -- and I have more reading to do.

TO BE CONTINUED


Sunday, April 6, 2014

On the Big Screen: CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

Spoilers everywhere. Trust no one.
 
You can excuse Steve Rogers getting a little paranoid. His next door neighbor turns out to be an Agent of SHIELD. The only living person he knows from his own time -- as far as he knows -- was a founder of SHIELD. And some people will tell you that the two women are related. Even the guy he banters with while jogging in the morning turns out to be a sort of super-soldier in his own right. And when a buddy from Steve's past turns up unexpectedly, he turns out to be tied up in some secret government program. Our boy's got to wonder whether he ever has dealings with normal people. But that's the life he chose when he volunteered for Project Rebirth back in 1942, and the life he's been stuck in when SHIELD thawed him back to life in 2011. Still, taking all this into account, should Captain America have had the knee-jerk reaction of distrust and disgust we see when Nick Fury shows him SHIELD's latest experiment in surveillance and pre-emption? In story terms it's right for him to have it, but if Steve's a throwback to the Greatest Generation and all that, shouldn't he be more likely to trust government, at least at first, than people who've actually lived through all the events that make 21st century people less trusting? The Winter Soldier would have had an extra level of moral complexity had Steve initially trusted SHIELD on this and gradually had to learn better. But Steve Rogers is our audience-identification figure and he needs to tell us right away, as if we couldn't figure it out for ourselves, that This Is Wrong. Because it is. I'm not saying this is a mistake by the filmmakers, but it struck me as slightly wrong -- too neat, just as it is to blame SHIELD's excesses ultimately on our old friends at Hydra. That scapegoating undercuts The Winter Soldier's claims, or the claims made for it by many reviewers, of contemporary critical relevance. Hydra, the enemy of SHIELD going back to the 1960s in comics, has become a convenient source of context-free evil. More evil even than Nazis, Hydra is the perfect fictional foil: an evil that no one on earth can claim is a reflection on them. Blame what happens in Winter Soldier on Hydra and you're really blaming nobody. This story's excesses in the name of surveillance and preemption -- a superweapon capable of simultaneously eliminating up to 20,000,000 potential enemies around the world -- are blamed on Hyrda's obsession with an "order" that is antithetical to freedom. But the excesses of surveillance and preemption on which Winter Soldier is supposedly meant to reflect weren't born of an obsession with "order," were they? Quite the opposite, some would say. If a Marvel movie dared to say that such a mad scheme resulted with an obsession with "freedom," than the reviewers would have something to write about. As things stand, I can't wait to see what Slavoj Zizek has to say about this movie, but while most of you ask "who?" let's move on.

On the terms it chooses for itself, Winter Soldier is one of the best Marvel movies yet. It brings the Marvel movies about up to speed with modern superhero comics, where you learn that "everything you thought you knew is wrong" just about once a month. It seems to prove that writing makes these films, while good writing makes them just about director-proof. The Russo brothers have a questionable resume for directing an action movie, but the writers of Captain America: The First Avenger are back, and Christopher Markus and Sean McFeely really deserve most of the credit for this film's success, my philosophical quibbles above notwithstanding. There's a meta-quality to the Captain America film series, the first film really evoking the Golden Age of Comics while the new one makes ample use of concepts from Ed Brubaker's 21st century revitalization of the character. Brubaker is an as-yet unsung pop culture hero of our time. He took over writing Captain America after a run on Catwoman at DC that definitively turned that character into an antihero if not an outright hero. The Selina Kyle we saw in The Dark Knight Rises arguably owes a lot to Brubaker and artist Darwyn Cooke's vision, but Brubaker's influence on Winter Soldier is more direct. Comics are a writer's market these days, with the star scribes expecting carte blanche to unprecedented degrees. On Captain America Brubaker broke one of Marvel's great taboos. The folk wisdom had been that at Marvel only three characters never came back from the dead: Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, Peter's girlfriend Gwen Stacey (I hope I'm not spoiling any future films!) and Captain America's wartime sidekick Bucky Barnes. In comics Bucky died somewhere in the North Atlantic while diverting a German rocket from its target, in the same incident that got Cap himself frozen in ice for many years. Bucky's reappearance was often teased, and other characters sometimes wore Bucky's superhero costume, but Barnes himself was dead, dead, dead -- until Brubaker said he wasn't.

Inevitably, Markus and McFeely have Hydra-ized the Winter Soldier's origin, Brubaker having made him a product of Soviet experimentation, and thus more closely associated with the Black Widow than in the movie. I don't really have an issue with the change, but a weakness of the Bucky angle for the movie is that its big revelation can't have the impact Brubaker's had in the comics, the latter coming as it did after forty years of modern Captain America stories with our hero missing his friend, and in defiance of a recognized if informal taboo. The movie writers tried to compensate by making Barnes a more important figure in Steve's early life than he ever was in comics -- in Simon & Kirby's original stories Bucky is a much younger camp mascot whom Steve meets only after his super-soldier transformation. But one movie couldn't substitute for years of Captain American & Bucky comics, and so the movie Barnes really can't be as important a figure for the audience as the filmmakers want him to be and can make him be for Steve Rogers. Superhero movies want to encapsulate up to 70 years of experience in a handful of movies, and they may get away with it with movie viewers who don't know comics, but for a Brubaker fan like me there was something lacking in the movie's homage. There was at least one moment when the writers tripped over the ever-evolving, ever-rebooting Marvel comics mythos. The Black Widow is repeatedly identified as a former KGB agent, but when her date of birth is given in one scene it turns out that the KGB ceased to exist when Natasha Romanova was seven years old. Marvel Comics wants the KGB to remain part of the character's past, so they've reimagined her as another kind of super-soldier who, like Steve, is much older than she looks, but the filmmakers probably didn't want to turn people off by having Scarlett Johansson play a woman in her eighties. Film adaptions of comics will never be perfect, and I'd actually rather not have them go too far in the Sin City direction. But the Widow's age as given here seems to be a mistake that may raise more questions than were intended.

Once I step away from both my comics-reader biases and my philosophical differences with the story I can recommend Winter Soldier as both an effective action movie and a showcase for character development. After a James Bond style opening pitting Cap against an old comics enemy, the film goes into slow-burn mode, illustrating both Steve's alienation and his guileless good nature. He may mourn all he's lost -- his encounter with the physically and mentally frail nonagenarian Peggy Carter is genuinely sad -- but happily doesn't put himself in an emotional box. He has an innate ability to win friends and their trust that pays off as his fellow jogger Sam Wilson unrolls his own formidable skillset. Winter Soldier may be more of an actors' film than any other Marvel movie, and Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie and Scarlett Johansson make the most of that. Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury gets more screen time than ever and manages not to wear out his welcome (look for the Pulp Fiction homage toward the end, by the way), while Robert Redford's late-life effortless mastery is mostly reaffirmed here. Marvel's getting quite good at building up mid-level villains (see also Iron Man 3) and in that category Frank Grillo takes the honors this time as a questionable SHIELD agent. The action scenes are all you could ask for, though I still wonder how much credit the credited directors deserve for them -- or are they glorified dialogue directors like you had in early talkies? I enjoyed the hand-to-hand combat and the car chases more than the inevitably overblown three-helicarrier climax, but the climax itself wasn't bad, either. I'm not ready to join those calling Winter Soldier the best Marvel movie to date -- it's not necessarily even the best Captain America movie -- but as a big improvement on Thor: The Dark World it's a reassurance that Marvel is probably far from exhausted either creatively or technically.

Epilogue: Winter Soldier follows a new pattern set by Avengers and Dark World of embedding the important extra scene in the middle of the end credits, while the actual post-credits bit is a comparatively anticlimactic coda to the film proper. This time the middle bit introduces some characters we'll be seeing in the next Avengers movie, while the coda is an encore for Sebastian Stan, whose reported multipicture deal with Marvel means not only the Winter Soldier's return, but possibly a promotion down the line if the films follow Brubaker's example. If you really need to go, you can leave after you see the twins.