Thursday, May 29, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, MAY 27, 1939

From this week's "Argonotes" letters column, responding to a letter from J. H. Calderman of the Bronx who protests that Argosy is a "day nursery" whose editors lack "the nerve to hold the mirror up to life," and that "the day of escapist fiction is over."

As far as we know we haven't consciously avoided looking at the world of today, but we also haven't made any particular point of dwelling on the sickening tragedies that are piling up around that poor bewildered animal, mankind. We thought we might give you a place where you could get away from all that for a little time each week. But the reader ... seems to think otherwise. We are cowards, purveyors of rose-colored glasses -- a kind of cross between pink lemonade and a marijuana cigarette. Comes the revolution, and we will be, it appears, the first to go.

The editor goes on to cite the serial "Wild River," which continues this week, as proof that "we'd found the happy medium between entertainment and the realistic view." He also cites this week's cover story.

We're little more than three months away from Germany's invasion of Poland, and seven months removed from the infamous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. People are so scared that they can choose their poison. There's Nazi Germany, of course, which most recently had taken over what had remained of Czechoslovakia after last year's Munich settlement. There's the Soviet Union under Stalin and the enduring threat of world revolution through Bolshevik terror. And for pulp readers, there is always the yellow peril.

In 1939 the peril was arguably more real than it had ever been since the days of Genghis Khan. While Japan so far was more of a menace to its fellow "yellow" people in China than to the western world, the island empire's rise in less than a century from isolated backwater to modern superpower seemed to fulfill many racist prophecies of a great threat from the east. Arthur Leo Zagat, last seen wrapping up the "fantastic" serial "Seven Out of Time," doesn't identify the invaders in "Tomorrow" as the Japanese. He doesn't need to go into that much detail, probably because he knows he's just starting a series of stories for which there'll be a voracious market. Likewise, he doesn't give us a specific date for this initial story. All we know is that it's little more than a decade since the successful invasion of the United States by an overwhelming force that is not white. "Some of them were black-faced, and some yellow-faced," Zagat writes, but the yellows seem to be in charge. Cities have been leveled by bombs, able-bodied people enslaved in work camps. There are hints of mass rape: "Did you hear how they wen through all the houses that was left and dragged out--?" someone says in one of the story's flashbacks.

These are the all-too-literal dreams of Dikar, born Dick Carr, one of a small group of children smuggled out of a falling city and raised in isolation on a mountain the invaders haven't yet explored. These now-grown kids have forgotten more of their culture than seems plausible in approximately a decade, and now live according to a code of "Do-Nots" laid down by the last of the "Old Ones." The "Bunch," as they call themselves, still live in separate quarters for boys and girls, each of whom have their own Boss. Dikar had been Boss of the boys, but is exiled after getting caught cheating -- inadvertently: a friend had put a rock in his fist somehow without his knowing -- during a formal fight for dominance. He explores the wilderness and has his first encounter with the invaders after discovering the slave camp. Having developed into a strong man in his healthy environment -- getting food apparently was no challenge for the Bunch -- Dikar beats a black soldier to death and finds he has no choice but to return to the Bunch's territory, where he redeems himself by defeating his old enemy fairly and begins to plan an insurgency.

'Some day, Marilee,' Dikar ended, 'I shall lead the Bunch down there. I have to, because down there is the America of which the man spoke, an this is the Tomorrow he talked about, an we are the children of yesterday who will reconquer those green and pleasant fields for democracy, and liberty, and freedom.'
And all at once there was a light shining on the land down there, a great and golden light that cast no shadow.

That's a sample of Zagat's imagination of a language for people whose education was stunted in mid-childhood. As you can see, he evokes little in the way of juvenile slanginess beyond the "an" in place of "and," while the Bunch's rhetoric gets downright purple at times. Today's readers might expect something sounding more like the kids in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome but Zagat can't really push beyond his usual style. Anyway, the main attraction is not how funny they talk but the post-apocalyptic circumstance they find themselves in, and the flattering promise that guerrilla warfare waged by untested (if brawny) youth will accomplish something. Argosy already intends to fulfill that promise, announcing that the first sequel, "Children of Tomorrow," -- not "Children of Yesterday" despite Dikar's opinion -- will appear very soon.

The actual Japanese figure prominently in Alfred Batson's "Glory Hill." In this short story a group of British "old China hands" in a hilltop hotel hold off a Nipponese army until they can negotiate an honorable withdrawal. I suppose its a hymn to racial fighting prowess, but the moral seems relevant beyond Asia: "If we had surrendered to them at the outset they'd surely have been rough with us. But when we stood up against them they respected us. I guess life is like that."

John Stromberg's "Wild River" is nothing if not relevant, even if it's set several years in the past, when the Boulder Dam was still called Hoover Dam and FDR had not yet become President. Ludicrous as Argosy's billing of it as "The Great American Novel of 1939" may look, this is an ambitious story with some mature ambivalence amid the action scenes. In the second installment our hero Speed Foley barely survives a tunneling accident in which his mentor is killed. They were working along the Arizona-Nevada border, and the contractor wants Speed to testify that the accident happened on the Nevada in order to avoid a lawsuit from the deceased's Arizona relations. Speed knows (or believes) that it all happened in Arizona. He feels pressured to testify a certain way to keep his job, and for that he's accused of being a sell-out by his sort-of friend Joe Mendel, a Ph.D. forced by circumstances to take a small-time job in the timekeeper's office. If the lawsuit angle hints at corporate deviousness, Stromberg is also skeptical toward Mendel's obsessive class-consciousness. If any character in the story is idealized its Danny Henderson, the old-timer killed in the accident. "Joe liked to argue about Workers, and old Danny had only worked," Speed muses. Stromberg seems to favor a sort of rugged individualism that can't really take sides between Capital and Labor, or between private and public sectors. "I couldn't see that it made any difference," Speed says, "The System or the Government -- there still would be a lot of men at the bottom whose importance was their numbers, and the river and the rock would kill them just the same." For all that, "Wild River" isn't exactly a novel of ideas, though it may be just that by Argosy's standards. For those less captivated by politics, there are vivid descriptions, most likely based on experience, of the dangerous work on the dam project, and the occasional fight. Its virtues make the fate of author John Stromberg, a pulp mystery man, a more intriguing mystery as we go along.

You probably don't get less relevant than the final installment of Fred MacIsaac's "The Golden Woman." This three-parter closes in action-packed fashion as the title character, her admirers in the Company of Jason, and their former captor make their escape from angry Araucanian Indians. It's corny action, though, punctuated by hokum, as when the golden woman eases tensions between different factions in the escape party by reciting the Lord's Prayer and singing "Adeste Fidelis." There's a terribly old-fashioned sensibility here that MacIsaac tries to pass off as the attitude of the ficitonal 19th century narrator, but is more likely his own melodramatic manner.

The whole company kneeled. Laura de Lorme, more beautiful than any woman I had ever beheld, seeming almost exalted in that moment, stepped forward. Her head was raised, and the golden pennant of her hair billowed about her shoulders. Her breast rose and fell with the gentle stir of her breathing....She sang in Latin; presently one or two of the men began in halting tones to follow her, using the English words. Others joined in. Slowly the sound grew firmer, deeper, and swelled to a mighty chorus; the mighty crags of the Andes caught it and filled it with what seemed divine echoes until the sound was of a mighty angel chorus singing in unison with our lady. The moon bathed the scene in pure silver....

This sort of thing may have been what J. H. Calderman, however unfairly, had in mind when he wrote to Argonotes. Calderman would have been right, in the most unfortunate way, if he felt that MacIsaac was an obsolete writer. MacIsaac may have felt that way himself when he committed suicide the following year.

Elsewhere this week, Hugh Pentecost's "Cancelled in Red" continues to complicate itself nicely in its penultimate installment, while Richard Sale reappears with "Fish Aint Got No Brains," the story of a heroic dolphin that must have gone over well, since Sale would write a sequel in 1940. Dale Clark contributes the latest adventure of the chiseling talent agent J. Edwin Bell, "The Spitting Image," in which the notorious flesh peddler rips off a ragged bootblack before realizing he'd be ideal for the part of the star's child in a forthcoming production. After a rare week without a western story, Howard R. Marsh resumes a series about desert hotel proprietor Itching Foot Davis  and his Chinese sidekick Wong Tong, who this time help a poor rancher and a poor but pretty young woman get hitched with the reward for recovering stolen money. What entertainment value there is is in the colorful dialogue and the tease of disastrous consequences of Itching Foot's intervention before the inevitable happy ending. Whether that counts as pink lemonade or marijuana is a matter of taste.

Next week, Hugh Pentecost does double duty, resuming his true identity as Judson Phillips for a timely baseball story while wrapping up his mystery serial. I rather dread reading sports stories, but the phenomenon itself will be something new to write about, so stay tuned....



Harold Lloyd had finished shooting his latest silent film before he started taking talking pictures seriously. The way he told it afterward, he realized that talkies were here to stay when he dropped in on a theater and found the audience enthralled by the sound of bacon frying in a pan. That doesn't quite sound right, since the only movie I know of with such a scene is King Vidor's Billy the Kid, made a year after Welcome Danger was released as a 100% talking picture. The point stands, however, that Lloyd abruptly determined that the film he'd just made was obsolete. Since he was his own producer, releasing his films through Paramount, he went back into production, shooting new talking scenes while post-syncing as much of the original silent footage as he could get away with. The film reached theaters in the fall of 1929, making Lloyd the first of the major silent clowns to make his all-talking feature-length debut.  It was a big hit, but soon gained a bad reputation, not just for the poor quality of the synchronization but also for its excessive length (113 minutes was outlandish for a comedy at the time) and its political incorrectness. Inevitably, Clyde Bruckman's film is a mixed bag, including some good gags, some jokes on the new talkie audience, and some or the worst stuff Lloyd ever did.

The first act establishes Harold as an amateur botanist traveling to San Francisco. Switching trains at a station, he stops in a photo booth to get his picture printed on a paper medallion. He gets a double-exposure, since the paper disc had gotten stuck when the previous customer, Billie Lee (Barbara Kent) had her picture taken. Getting a two-shot for the price of one, Harold is smitten, convinced that the girl in the picture is his destined love. He then proceeds to meet cute with Billie, though it plays out as the opposite of cute. Having missed his train, Harold finds Billie and her lame kid brother in their car; they're driving to Frisco and camping out nights. Billie is in grease-monkey clothes to work under the car, and when she appears Harold takes her for a dirty boy. Mishaps ensue along the way, the joke being Harold's increasing contempt for the "boy" who's actually his dream girl. He gets pretty insulting as Billie's difficulties with the car increase. The thing is, Billie seems to be just as stupid as Harold takes her to be. Asked whether there's a problem with the spark plugs, she answers that they're certainly clean because she washed them with soap and water the night before. They later run out of gas because she forgot to fill the tank. Thinking something else may be wrong, she removed the carburetor and then leaves it on the running board of a good samaritan's car after borrowing gas from him. Forced to camp on the spot overnight, Harold and Billie are equally incompetent as tent-pitchers. Finally Billie retreats into the tent and femmes herself up so Harold will recognize her as the girl whose picture he's been mooning over all along. When it finally sinks in he's so crestfallen that he runs off into the woods. Destiny finally asserts itself when Billie is frightened by a stray cow. Her rush into his arms inspires Harold to keep on frightening cows. This sequence retains much of the original silent footage, badly dubbed, but the clearest sound you hear is Harold Lloyd digging his own grave. Harold is often brash to the point of obnoxiousness in his silent films, but with sound he's almost irredeemably so. His put-downs and his high, smug voice are really repellent. Slowed by sound-film speed, he seems (at age 36) suddenly too old for his archetypal role as the earnest, aspiring young man. He acts like an utter jerk with Billie, but she comes across as so stupid that she hardly deserves better. And after half an hour we still don't really know what this film will be about.

It turns out to be a police comedy. We learn that Harold Beldsoe is the son of a famous Frisco cop, and that one police captain in the big city believes that blood will tell. He's summoned Harold with the thought that young Bledsoe will have a hereditary talent for dealing with the crime wave in Chinatown. The opium trade there is controlled by a masked mystery man called The Dragon, while the eminent orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gow (James Wang) aids the forces of law and order. Lloyd gets to have it both ways in Chinatown, indulging in nearly every stereotype of sinister, secretive Chinese crime while portraying Dr. Gow as such an advanced specialist in his field that Billie Lee has brought her brother to San Francisco to be treated by him. In addition, Bruckman establishes early that the Dragon is a white man, and none other than the moral crusader John Thorne (Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton). This is established early so we'll note the irony when a desk sergeant (Edgar Kennedy), annoyed at Harold's new obsession with fingerprints, gets a sample from Thorne and as a practical joke tells Harold that it's the Dragon's fingerprint, lifted from "the neck of a strangled Chinaman." The storylines converge when Harold meets Billie again while Dr. Gow is examining her brother. Harold has brought a potted plant that he stole from a Chinatown florist when the proprietor refused to sell it to him. When Gow accidentally smashes the pot, they find that the Dragon is using the potted plants to smuggle opium. Gow is promptly kidnapped by the Dragon's spies, who had chased Harold all the way from their shop, and Harold makes a crusade of rescuing the doctor so he can operate on Billie's brother. His sole helper is Clancy (Noah Young), a breathtakingly stupid Chinatown beat cop --frustrated at a Chinese corpse who doesn't savvy English, Clancy asks him, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?"-- who proves more of a handicap as Harold has to fight his way out of the secret basement passages beneath the flower shop and save Dr. Gow from a human sacrifice to the Dragon. After all that, Harold must overcome the skepticism of the regular cops as he confronts Thorn with proof of his criminal double life.

The flower-shop sequence drags on almost interminably, punctuated by repetitive bits of slapstick from Lloyd and Young and literal blackouts as rooms go dark for one reason or another. There's something brazen in Lloyd's decision to give the audience sound and nothing else for long moments in these bits, but his audacity is more admirable than laughable. Funnier is a slow-motion sight gag involving a turtle with a candle on its back first burning Young's butt -- he leaps about thinking himself shot as Lloyd scoffs while the turtle inexorably brings the flame to Harold's own rear. Better still is a multi-part gag involving changes of clothes. Clancy is KO'd by a gang member who takes his police uniform and puts him in Chinese clothes, gags him and trusses him up. Later, Harold is fighting off a small horde while yelling for Clancy. Clancy manages to stumble into view, his costume making him look like a hopping vampire, but Harold mistakes him for a Chinese and clobbers him. He does this several times over, all the while yelling for Clancy. Later, Harold dons Chinese clothes to get out of a tight spot by mingling with his pursuers. By that time Clancy has freed himself and, taking Harold for another Chinese, clobbers him back. Too much of this sequence is simply sprawling knockabout violence, while the climactic showdown with Thorne and his whip-wielding black servant (Blue Washington) is more brutal than funny. Writing of Lloyd's next talkie, Feet First (a quasi-remake of Safety Last!), Walter Kerr noted that the comedian undercut the mute grace and humor of his exertions with constant grunting and yelling. You can see that already in Welcome Danger's cacophonous violence, while Lloyd's reedy voice coarsens his persona nearly as much as Buster Keaton's croak did his. Once the novelty of a talking Lloyd wore off, his audience must have noticed that some of his magic was gone; Kerr notes that each subsequent Lloyd talkie made less money than the last one. Sound didn't bankrupt Lloyd creatively; he'd have a strong run of films in the Thirties, including one, The Cat's Paw, that refines many of the Chinatown tropes of Welcome Danger by making Lloyd himself a Sinicized American and a fish out of water in the Depression U.S.A. While Welcome Danger itself looks like a failure in retrospect, making it a talkie may have been a can't-lose proposition for Lloyd. It could very well have been a total dud as a silent, but the assured box-office success of his talkie debut, regardless of its quality, gave him breathing room to experiment further until he got sound comedy right.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The last of the singing cowboys

Just last weekend I saw Herb Jeffries on an episode of the Virginian TV show. I was intrigued when he was listed as the main guest star in the cable guide because I'd heard of him as the star of all-black westerns and, as far as I knew, the only black singing cowboy during the heyday of the genre. It was odd to see him in living color, as they used to say, since as the obituaries have noted following Jeffries' death this week at age 100, he was quite light-skinned for his historic role, by virtue of his very mixed ancestry. He could have passed for white fairly easily, and reportedly sometimes did -- while The Virginian had a good record of casting black actors in non-race conscious roles -- but Jeffries chose to star in race films. Better to reign than to serve, I suppose. I'm tempted to call his westerns an alternate universe, but what they really show is that the singing west was an all-American dream in those Depression years, when a new frontier, accessible by automobile if necessary but best enjoyed on horseback, was what we all seemed to need. Here's a clip of Jeffries singing his western theme song, "I'm A Happy Cowboy," as uploaded to YouTube by SyberkaPL.

Monday, May 26, 2014

On the Big Screen: X-MEN:DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

Bryan Singer is bucking a trend in superhero movies. The trend is away from the auteurist approach that entrusts characters, if not whole "universes" to individual visionaries of the Christopher Nolan stripe. While Marvel Studios continues to entrust the Avengers to Joss Whedon, the industry leader apparently wants to avoid identifying any individual franchise with an individual creator. Just last week Marvel parted ways with Edgar Wright, who now won't direct Ant-Man after having lobbied with the company for years to have the film made. Wright's vision made an Ant-Man film possible, but in the end it looks like the "universe" imperatives of Marvel won out over whatever personal vision the director had. Meanwhile, Singer has returned to the X-Men franchise, a Marvel property whose movie rights are held by 20th Century-Fox, after a decade in the wilderness, and after the studio had apparently rebooted the series with the last team film, First Class. What else was Singer going to do? He hadn't set the world on fire with his films since X-Men United, though his misguided approach to Superman Returns is echoed somewhat in his new film. I presume that Warner Bros. really wanted a reboot of Superman, but Singer gave them a very belated sequel to Superman II that ignored the two intervening Superman movies while of necessity completely recasting the franchise. Days of Future Past has a significant recasting from Singer's last X-Men movie, though that decision had already been made for him in the previous film, and it ends up allowing fans to ignore some of the less-loved films in the series. The main thing it does is reestablish Singer as the guiding visionary for the franchise -- with a free adaptation of one of the best-known X-Men comic book stories, and also one of the most influential superhero stories ever written.

Comic book readers should by now have reconciled themselves to the fact that moviemakers are interested mainly in the characters in their favorite books, not in adapting their favorite stories. So there's no use making point-by-point comparisons of Simon Kinberg's screenplay with Chris Claremont and John Byrne's two-part comics story from 1981. The original "Days of Future Past" set the paradigm for decades of stories in which refugees from a dark future go back in time to prevent it from happening. The "Age of Ultron" story from which the title only, most likely, has been borrowed for the next Avengers movie, is such a tale, as is a new weekly limited series, Future's End, from DC Comics. Given the continued popularity of the trope, adapting "Days of Future Past" is a no-brainer, and from the moviemaker standpoint it's just as much a no-brainer to adapt it to the specifications of the X-Men movie franchise. Most importantly, this promotes Hugh Jackman's Wolverine into a more central role as the time traveler, although the film is fair to the First Class cast by taking Logan out of the action early in the climax. Fortunately, comics and film converge in making shapeshifter Mystique the antagonist whose history-shaping crime must be prevented, though in comics she's aided by a roster of Evil Mutants, while in the movie she's a lone wolf.

Were Jennifer Lawrence herself a mutant she would most likely be Juggernaut, but in movies she's stuck in a blue bodystocking most of the time, and never becomes the vicious badass Mystique has been in comics. That's because everyone wants to talk the poor misguided girl out of assassinating industrialist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a Seventies merchant of death who hopes to unite the Cold War world into a market for his anti-mutant technology. His murder is undesirable first because it will fulfill his prophecies of mutant hostility to humankind and provoke global adoption of his Sentinel program for mutant-fighting robots, and second because she'll be captured after doing the deed and her special DNA harvested to make Sentinels into super-adaptoids who'll spend the next half-century kicking mutant ass by mimicking their powers, as well as making the skies very dark. Also, both Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Eric "Magneto" Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) feel bad about misguiding or otherwise failing the impressionable blue girl. Xavier in particular feels bad about everything a decade after the events of First Class. Crippled at the close of that story, he's been cured by his remaining protege, Hank "Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), but at the cost of his psychic powers. So Logan, whose consciousness has been projected backwards through time, his future body lying helpless (though still dangerous!) as the Sentinels close in on the surviving mutants' Chinese sanctuary, to possess his past self, must talk Charles into talking Mystique out of killing the evil dwarf before he seals his Sentinel deal at the signing of the Paris peace treaty. And they've all got to fetch Eric out of a concrete bunker deep within the Pentagon, where he's been dumped, depending on who you believe, for assassinating JFK or for trying to stop the murder of our first mutant President. You take a chance letting him loose, of course, and before long he has the notion of (actually?) assassinating (another?) President, as if he can prevent the dark future with a preemptive strike on American power.

In some ways the film is an improvement on the comic books. In the original the time-traveler ends up in the dull present, while the movie gets to play with the sounds and fashions of 1973 in a far more effective manner than First Class's aping of 1962. Making Mystique a solo menace allows her to be more slippery and persistent; thwarted once, she survives to fight another day later in the picture. I can't tell you much, after more than thirty years, about the fight scenes in the comics, except that at one point Colossus uses indestructible Wolverine as a fulcrum and a steel girder as a lever to lift the allegedly immovable Blob off the ground. In the film we have two outstanding set pieces: the liberation of Magneto, highlighted by the sight-gag antics of super-speedster Peter Maximoff  (Evan Peters), and the chaotic scene in Paris when the fight with Mystique spills into the street. Singer nicely lends this a sense of historic immediacy by adopting "found footage" techniques, showing the battle through home-movie and TV news footage and demonstrating how the heroes' first intervention has actually made the historical situation worse. The film's weaknesses are typical of the genre. Singer can't resist the impulse to go big at the climax as Magneto surrounds the White House with an uprooted RFK stadium. It ends up less impressive than the Paris fight because its less light on its metaphoric feet. The action bogs down badly and finally grinds to a halt once all depends on Xavier finally talking Mystique out of murder.

The real problem here is bad writing. Wolverine is saddled with repetitive exposition, while Xavier's sappy cliches might convince you not to kill someone only if they provoke you into shooting him instead. Yet lazy writers constantly insult our intelligence by taking for granted that these banal appeals to peace and tolerance or vague notions of redemption are as persuasive as the story needs them to be even though no real effort is made to make them rhetorically or psychologically persuasive. This wishful thinking seems out of place in films dedicated to violence, especially when Mystique has just shot someone and it was a good thing. It's also dishonest to preach peace in a series of films that depends (or at least has depended) on the perpetual hostility of man toward mutant. If reconciliation really happened, there'd be no more need for X-Men movies -- or else the series will be forced in the direction indicated in the post-credits teaser, in which some dude telekinetically building pyramids in ancient Egypt is relevant to mutants somehow. Yes, I know who that is, but I read comic books, unlike most people in the movie audience who, if they stuck around, most likely took this scene as a teaser for the next Mummy movie, or took the man with the gray face to be an Ancient Alien. So Singer may have reclaimed the keys to the franchise just in time to jump the shark with it.

On its own terms Days of Future Past is entertaining enough to get by. It has its little extra movie-movie jokes: Ellen Page is shown teaching Architecture at the Xavier School, while James McAvoy discourses on the implications of bullets curving in mid-air. I promise vintage Marvel No-Prizes to people who get these bits. Jackman is his dependable self and I'm now more comfortable with the First Class versions of Charles and Eric, especially as the originals, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, have grown sadly superannuated. Lawrence and the writers haven't yet tapped the depths of Mystique's villainy, though the ending hints at more mischief to come from her over the next forty years. Peter Maximoff's exploits -- this is one character shared by the X-Men and Avengers franchises, though actors and other details will differ -- certainly set a high bar for next fall's Flash TV show in portraying super speed, while new mutant Blink (Fan Bingbing) has one of the coolest powers yet in purely visual terms. If aspects of the movie insult my intelligence, I suppose I'm used to that by now, and I can find qualities to compensate for that. Maybe I should let Peter have the last word on the movie: "It's cool, but it's disgusting" -- though I might change the order of the adjectives.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

I need a holiday!

Actually, I had a good time at the movies this weekend. I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past and Godzilla and I'll be reviewing them shortly. Both have problems but have virtues to compensate, and I'll describe these when I feel more capable. But I've just now, on a dare, watched The Lone Ranger, and it has numbed my brain and frankly demoralized me to such an extent that I can't write positively about anything. I'd hoped that Gore Verbinksi's disaster of last year was one of those eccentricities that failed due to audience misunderstanding, that it had qualities that certain viewers could appreciate but were missed by mainstream wire-service reviewers. But if anything it was worse than the critical consensus, and the waste in every frame eventually offended me. Many of its sins are really common to "roller-coaster ride" or "tentpole" movies, but the complete failure of creative judgment here was stunning. There's no point in going into detail; doing so would only darken my mood further. So I'll delay the real reviews I was planning for a day in memory of all those dead dollars and two hours taken from my own life, and maybe tomorrow I'll be able to think positively about movies again.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Takeshi Kitano's OUTRAGE BEYOND (2012)

Maybe I was wrong all along, but before I watched the sequel to Takeshi Kitano's Outrage, my impression was that the original film had shown us Kitano's character, the yakuza "Champ" Otomo, getting fatally shanked in prison by a rival he had wronged earlier in the picture. But Outrage was just too popular, I guess, and its popularity demanded a sequel. There were other characters you could follow from the first film, but it wouldn't make sense to have Kitano return as writer and director and not have his on-camera alter ego Beat Takeshi return as Otomo. So sure, he got stabbed, but he got better. We didn't see him actually die. We didn't see him autopsied or cremated. So sure, it could have happened exactly this way. But keeping Otomo alive is just the beginning of Kitano's betrayal of his earlier work.

The virtue of Outrage, at least as I saw it, was in its uncompromising pessimism. It gave you a rooting interest in the ever-manipulated, ever-exploited Champ and kept you hoping that he'd turn the tables on everyone. In 2010, however, Kitano refused the audience that satisfaction. Otomo was caught in an inexorable trap that illustrated the hopelessness of life for most yakuza. In 2012, Outrage Beyond -- look it up on Netflix as Beyond Outrage, but it's the other way around on screen --was the Rocky II of yakuza films. It's a Stallonian sequel that asks the question, "Do we get to win this time?" and answers, "Hell, yeah!"

Fumiyo Kohinata (right in both pictures) plays dangerous games with yakuza in Outrage Beyond.

Kitano keeps himself hidden for the first half-hour or so while reintroducing the other survivors from Outrage. The treacherous winners from the first film are getting a little too arrogant for the police, who put pressure on corrupt detective Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata) to keep them in line. The wily manipulator is burdened with a gung-ho, straight-arrow partner (Yutaka Matsushige) who hates yakuza and questions Kataoka's loyalties. Kataoka, whom we know to be on the take, insists that he thinks of crushing the yakuza all the time, and the scary thing about him is that we don't really doubt this. While not a man of brutal violence like his yakuza interlocutors, Kataoka is arguably the most evil character in either film. He cold-bloodedly plays different families and firms against each other -- actually, he may take pleasure in the way he eggs yakuza into destroying each other. We learn that he's kept Otomo's survival a secret, saving his old pal to unleash when he can do the most damage.

Actually, however, Champ has counted his blessings and, once paroled, simply wants out of the old life. He seems exhausted, or not yet fully recovered from his injury, not even interested in sex after all his time in stir. He considers taking a conventional job or moving to South Korea, but just when he thinks he's out, Kataoka drags him back in. Meanwhile, in perhaps the most unlikely twist of the sequel, Otomo ends up befriending Kimura (Hideo Nakano), the man he disfigured in the first film, who then stabbed him in prison. Kimura got out some time ago and runs a batting cage with two young punks as his so-called soldiers. He's the one person in the picture that Otomo is willing to forgive. Champ figures he had it coming for slashing Kimura's face when he had tried to apologize for an offense, and by now Kimura is willing to let bygones be bygones. Meanwhile, Kataoka struggles to stir up a gang war, inviting malcontent yakuza to get help from out of town and raising fears of Otomo to force a series of provocations that finally draws Champ into the fray. It takes a bullet in his side and the murder of Kimura's proteges -- shown as bullying jerks in their first appearance, we're meant to pity them eventually -- to revert Otomo into the killing machine Kataoka had hoped to see. Wounded in an elevator, Champ seems to mock the implausibility of his endurance, asking: "Why do they always aim at my belly?" He is a resilient cuss, and once he's up and running again Outrage Beyond becomes a relentless killfest.

Otomo and Kimura hook up with a big outside outfit to fight their old antagonists -- they see an opportunity to expand and deplore the current boss's treacherous route to power -- and the rout is on. Suddenly the bad guys are beset by seemingly limitless resources, while Champ rediscovers his knack for creative torture. The highlight death scene this time is the comeuppance dealt to one of Otomo's treacherous underlings from the first film. After pissing himself (it's always a demerit for a director to show this), the man is tied securely to a sofa chair and set up in Kimura's batting cage as the pitching machine is loaded with baseballs. Nothing else is quite as flamboyant, and the killing actually becomes monotonous after a while.

Once he's started, however reluctantly, Otomo never seems to know when to quit. Almost inevitably, he and Kimura are marked for elimination, and after Kimura is eliminated, it looks like Kitano is setting up a Wild Bunch style climax as Champ arrives at a funeral full of his enemies and an almost gleeful Kataoka puts a gun in his hand. It doesn't quite turn out that way, as Kitano instead closes with a scene that may well have made audiences applaud. If so, that would only reaffirm the extent to which Outrage Beyond is a kind of sell-out for the sake of audience gratification -- and it can't be a good sign that Kitano reportedly has been negotiating to make a third Outrage movie. That is outrageous in its own right. To be fair, Outrage Beyond is an entertaining movie on its own terms. But it entertains in a way that cheapens its predecessor, in my view at least, and that's a shame.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, MAY 20, 1939

The "Great American Novel of 1939" was, to my knowledge, never published in book form. Its author is a mystery man. According to the Fiction Mags Index, "Wild River," which begins this week, is John Stromberg's only appearance in Argosy. Apparently it's his only appearance in pulp fiction. It may be his only appearance in print, period. "Stromberg" may be a pseudonym, but I haven't found out who he really was. There's reason to suspect he's a front, since it's hard to imagine Argosy touting a serial from a complete nobody without having first published at least a short story. The subject may have been attractive, however. "Dangerous jobs" was a popular sub-genre in pulps, or at least in Argosy. The future screenwriter Borden Chase (Red River, Winchester '73) made it a specialty with tales of "sandhogs," tunnel diggers, etc. Such stories are Argosy's answer to the social realism of its time. Stromberg's is a story about the construction of Boulder (nee Hoover) Dam. The hero is "Speed" Foley, a college baseball star with an engineering degree who boasts of landing a job on the great dam project to impress a girl. He has none, in fact, but is determined to find one. The main subject of the first installment is poverty, rare for Argosy if not pulps in general, as Speed's money and possessions melt away as he hunts for work. He just about touches bottom before getting work as a helper to a veteran tunnel driller, in part because a Big Boss recognizes him as a ball player and presumably as a prospect for a company team down the line. The claim Argosy makes for "Wild River" is preposterous, of course, but the serial does demonstrate the weekly's literary pretensions, and this installment isn't the action-packed affair you'd expect from pulp fiction. It isn't bad, either, and I get a sense that some lived experience influences it. We'll be back for more next week.

If John Stromberg is a nobody, Theodore Roscoe is one of Argosy's stars. His name above the logo probably sold more copies of this week's issue than the cover. "Stay As Sweet As You Are" is one of his stories set in Four Corners, his grim parody of the small-town America of a generation before. It's a Capra-esque locale if you can imagine It's A Wonderful Life and Arsenic and Old Lace happening in the same place. The Four Corners stories are told by a narrator who grew up there and witnessed or heard about the gruesome episodes that took place with disquieting frequency. This time it's a tale of a love triangle involving two spinster sisters who run a candy store and the town's new druggist. The older, meaner sister tyrannizes over the younger, prettier one and becomes her rival for the druggist's affections. Everyone's sympathies run one way, but Four Corners has a lot of twists, the name notwithstanding. It isn't much of a whodunit when the town learns that the druggist died after receiving poisoned candy, and the twist in the tale is predictable once you're used to this sort of story, but Roscoe's mastery of tone and his success in evoking place and period (his titles are usually taken from popular songs of the time) hold your interest to the end.

Frank Richardson Pierce's latest No-Shirt McGee story, "A Ton of Gold," covers a forty-year period. "This ton of gold business starts back in Skagway about the time folks first commenced callin' me No-Shirt McGee," the old sourdough says to get things started. No-Shirt befriends the proprietor of a shipping company whose title ton of gold is lost, apparently stolen, in the near-sinking of a steamship. There are suspects, of course, but no evidence until the ship is sold for scrap metal to one of the suspects in the present day. It's a little implausible that a crook would wait that long to claim his loot, but with Pierce the telling counts for more than the tale and I enjoy No-Shirt's vernacular narrative voice. The author never overdoes it and that makes the McGee stories a pleasure to read -- small triumphs of style over substance.

The other noteworthy stand-alone story this week is Garnett Radcliffe's "The Cup of Satan." It's the sort of yarn that often gets described as a "Boy's Own" type. That usually means gruesome action and a whiff of bigotry. An officer of the Raj is tortured by an Afridi bandit, as illustrated above. The villain taunts the hero with the certainty of his demise while looting the officer's possession. Radcliffe makes grim sport of the barbarian's ignorance; the bandit devours not only his victim's lunch of biscuits and sausage but a bar of scented soap. The villain's gastronomic curiosity proves his undoing as the hero convinces him that a bottle of petrol is actually a rare wine that's really good when heated over a fire. Begging for it to warm himself as he dangles over a cliff, he provokes the bandit into claiming it for himself out of spite. One way or the other, someone's going down. By now I've grown jaded about pulps' portrayal of non-whites as evil and cruel, -- there is a good Sikh, however, who gets killed by the villain -- but it still annoys me when they're shown as this stupid. Short and to the point and more an anecdote than a real story, this is definitely the pulpiest thing in the magazine this week in both the good and the bad sense of the word.

Along with two other nondescript stories, Fred MacIsaac's "The Golden Woman" continues as we finally meet the villain from last week's cover and everyone prepares for an epic escape from a war-torn jungle, while Hugh Pentecost's "Cancelled in Red" reaches its halfway point with the identity of the murderer no more apparent than before, while giving us a new murder of a supposed suspect to solve. Pentecost keeps things lively as his stamp-collector hero gets himself still deeper into trouble with the cops as he struggles to protect two different suspects, each of whom may well be guilty. Next week's chapter should be a highlight, but it's sure to be overshadowed by Arthur Leo Zagat's return with a vision of an American apocalypse that will prove one of Argosy's most popular stories of the year.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Takeshi Kitano's OUTRAGE (2010)

Takeshi Kitano is the former game-show host and comedian -- some Americans may still know him best as "Vic Romano" from Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, the freely dubbed U.S. version of the 1980s Takeshi's Castle program -- who literally became the heir to Kinji Fukasaku when the great director fell ill and was unable to finish the film Violent Cop. Already changing his image to star in the picture, Kitano (who performs as "Beat Takeshi") took over the direction and rewrote much of the script, and a star was reborn. By the end of the century Kitano was recognized as Fukasaku's heir as Japan's top director of crime films, but he also gained an arthouse following that had eluded the prior master until the end of his career, thanks to the personal aesthetic touches Kitano added to his pictures, most notably in 1997's Hana-bi ("Fireworks"). He broadened his scope in the new millennium with mixed results. His Zatoichi remake disappointed me -- he dared claim that the blind swordsman wasn't really blind! -- and subsequent films received less attention in the U.S. For a new decade Kitano returned to familiar turf with what seemed a less artistically ambitious yakuza picture, but Outrage (the Japanese title is a transliteration of the English word) is perhaps his closest work in tone to Fukasaku's heritage of yakuza cynicism. It's the sort of picture that more effectively conveys that "crime does not play" than any amount of bourgeois moralizing.

Outrage follows the now-classic yakuza formula of a more-or-less honorable man -- honorable at least according to the supposed yakuza code -- serving an unworthy boss. Beat Takeshi plays "Champ" Otomo -- with his potato face you can believe he took his lumps in the ring -- an underboss to the weasely Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura), the head of his crime family. Ikemoto is in trouble with "Mr. Chairman" (Soichiro Kitamura) because he's consorting with a boss from a rival syndicate whom Ikemoto had befriended in prison. To satisfy Mr. Chairman without violating his sworn brotherhood with Murase (Renji Ishibashi) orders Otomo to pick a fight with Murase's men, particularly Kimura (Hideo Nakano). While Ikemoto may have meant to put on a show of antagonism, things quickly spiral out of his control and the Murase family is destroyed.

Outrages: above, misuse of dental tools; below, the wrong tool for yakuza self-discipline.

Ikemoto is still skating on thin ice as enemies within the Sanno syndicate seek to exploit his weakness (of character, that is) while underlings like Ishihara (Ryo Kase) exploit opportunities created by the fall of Murase. Otomo is little more than a pawn for both the yakuza and Detective Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata), an arch-manipulator who seems to enjoy egging yakuza into killing each other, as long as someone survives to keep paying him off. As Ikemoto lives large off his minion's labors, racking up a hefty tab at the African consulate his men have turned into a casino, you can tell he's not long for this world, and while Otomo is finally just as eager as anyone to be rid of this jerk, you can also tell that he's being set up to follow not far behind his loser of a boss.

If the title means anything to Kitano, it may refer to the anger the audience is meant to feel on Otomo's behalf as everyone plays him for a goon and a sucker. The man's a brutal thug but you can't help feeling that he's doing the hard work everyone else benefits from, and you feel more certain as the film goes on that "Champ" is going to get the short end of everything. The movie's ultimate outrage is its refusal to gratify any hopes that Otomo might turn things around. You wait for him to turn the tables on all those manipulating or betraying him, but Kitano forces you to see how implausible your hopes are. Finally his best option is to turn himself in to the cops, on Kataoka's advice that "it's better to take a TKO than get knocked out." Otomo doesn't seem to have what it takes to rise to power and hold it in 21st century Japan, and as it turns out not even prison is a safe harbor for him.

Kitano was reportedly more interested in filming the violent set pieces than in any other aspect of the picture, but Outrage has the same laconic style of his early crime and cop pictures. While the violence is often spectacular, albeit on a small scale -- Otomo's attack on Murase's mouth with a dental drill is a jolting highlight -- the acting really carries the film. From Beat Takeshi's own punchy lead to Kunimura's cravenness, Kase's sinister smoothness and Kohinata's Machiavellian smugness, the director has assembled a forceful ensemble to tell his story. Outrage effectively re-establishes Kitano's mastery of the yakuza genre -- but unfortunately Kitano wasn't done. Later this week, we'll look at his sequel, a film that self-indulgently trashes most of Outrage's grim virtues. The sequel inevitably diminishes the memory of the original once you've seen it, but for now let's leave Outrage to stand alone as a superior crime film.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: JIMMY THE GENT (1934)

By modern standards, 67 minutes hardly seems like time enough to tell one story, but Michael Curtiz's film often feels like two different stories are fighting for dominance in that short span. The ads sell the story the title suggests: Jimmy Cagney as a crude boor crashing society and making a mockery of social graces. But that element is barely developed and looks like an afterthought added to pad out the film, which started out with the title "Heir Chaser." Bertram Millhauser's screenplay is really about an elaborate legal game the Cagney character plays to secure an inheritance for a wanted fugitive. Cagney runs a sort of detective agency that tracks down heirs to apparently intestate fortunes, and Curtiz opens the picture with a montage of stock-footage death and destruction punctuated by newspaper headlines. Cagney (playing Jimmy Corrigan, "the greatest chiseler since Michelangelo") has a team of minions led by the much-abused Louie (Allen Jenkins), and a rival agency led by the suave Charles Wallington (Allan Dinehart), aided by Corrigan's former flame Joan Martin (Bette Davis). The contrast is stark. Corrigan runs his business like a gangster and he looks like one, sporting a brutish Jack Dempsey haircut -- short on the sides, longer on top -- that reportedly repelled both director and leading lady. When Corrigan visits Wallington's office, he's overwhelmed by a refined staff that practically forces cups of tea on him, in the most polite fashion. He takes nearly as many lumps as Pete Puma and pays for it; the consequent tummy rumbling is as close as even Pre-Code cinema dares get to flatulence humor. Despite his discomfort, Jimmy endeavors to emulate the example set by his rival, but the only real payoff is a new set for Corrigan's office and better dressed extras. Jimmy doesn't mingle with the rich and the only change in his personality is that he now boasts of "crawling with ethics." And he lets his hair grow out a little to look more civilized. He does all this to gain business and win back his girl, but those goals are at cross-purposes after a bag lady dies with a fortune in bonds sewn into the lining of her coat. The Corrigan and Wallington agencies race to find an heir. Joan finds a granddaughter for Wallington, while Jimmy gets a tip from a hophead that a wanted killer, using an alias, is actually the old lady's son.

The fugitive (Arthur Hohl) actually killed his man in self-defense, but an angry girlfriend (Mayo Methot) is determined to testify against him. Jimmy's mission is to make sure that Monty Barton can inherit his fortune and enjoy it as a free man, minus the 50% Jimmy will claim. The key is to neutralize the girlfriend. That can be done by getting her to marry Monty, since these are still the good old days when a wife is not allowed to testify against her husband in court. But Jimmy doesn't want to cut the girlfriend in on Monty's money. So before he makes his move on her he press-gangs Louie's dimwitted girlfriend (Alice White) to marry Monty before a justice of the peace. Then, keeping this secret, he convinces Monty's girl that she'll get a fortune if she marries Monty and effectively acquits him. Later, he'll be able to cut her out by saying the marriage was illegitimate. In case Louie's girl gets any ideas, Jimmy has her marry Monty under a false name, so her marriage won't be legitimate, either. It's actually a pretty brilliant scheme, and it works, but it all turns to ashes for Jimmy when Louie blabs about it to Joan, thus destroying the image of a reformed Jimmy that the title gent had tried to cultivate.

To atone, Jimmy makes a grand gesture of self-sacrifice. He goes to Wallington's office and surrenders his share of Monty's inheritance to his rival so it can go to the granddaughter. As it turns out, Jimmy has smelt a rat for some time. Wallington had been making romantic moves on Joan for a while, but now that he has a big payday he moves to ditch her and take a steamer across the Atlantic alone. Jimmy manipulates everyone so Joan will catch Wallington on the ship and after the requisite brawl -- much of it happening behind a closed bathroom door -- our hero gets the girl. The problem with all this is that Jimmy Corrigan is one of the most unlikable characters Cagney ever played. He never ceases to be a ruthless self-serving manipulator and a thug at heart, but there's little charm or even charisma to compensate for that. There's no reason to root for him except that he's Jimmy Cagney, and that might be enough if he really were the sort of cartoon character he seems to be here, but I think audiences knew better and I hope they recognized this as second-rate Cagney, as Cagney himself apparently did.

The trailer doesn't play the "gent" angle up so much and thus sells the picture more accurately. It's from, of course.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, MAY 13, 1939

This week's cover heralds the return to Argosy of one of its most popular writers. For promotional purposes, at least, the magazine calls Fred MacIsaac "the master of adventure fiction." The 53 year old had been a mainstay of Argosy for about a dozen years, starting in 1924, but the three-part serial "The Golden Woman" is his first appearance in the venerable weekly for almost exactly three years. Since 1936 his output had fallen off considerably. The FictionMags Index credits him with only one published story, a novella in Dime Detective, in all 1938. In 1939 he had already published two stories, including a serial in Detective Fiction Weekly, before this Argosy gig, and he'll co-author another Argosy serial later this year. A year later he would kill himself in an act blamed on his going dry creatively. If we judged writers by the way they died, MacIsaac might be as famous today as Robert E. Howard, pulp's most famous suicide, but Howard's end had little or nothing to do with his writing, as far as I know. In any event, MacIsaac seems not to have stood the test of time, and I regret to report that the opening installment of "Golden Woman" is nothing special. The author is almost apologetic about any literary shortcomings that might be detected, presenting the tale in what he thinks might be taken for an archaic style, on the pretense that it's a recently-discovered 19th century manuscript factually relating an ancestor's adventure. The title character is admittedly inspired by Lola Montes, but has little of the personality that association might lead us to anticipate. She is mostly an idol for the men of the story to worship, except for the unscrupulous captain who abandons her and the "Company of Jason," a group of New England gold-seekers, in the wilds of Patagonia, subject to attack by South American savages. MacIsaac attempts to differentiate the men of the company and establish conflicts among them, but no strong personalities emerge. We'll presumably get to the meat of the story next week, when the castaways encounter the villain of the piece, a European (as shown on the cover) who's made himself king of the Araucanians, the Patagonians' enemies. But that doesn't excuse a certain lifelessness in this installment, compared to some of the other content this week.

Donald Barr Chidsey is back with his second novelet in as many weeks. In "The Coughing Mountain" the owner of a struggling New Guinea copra plantation meets a potential new investor: the superwoman T.S. "Terry" Ashley, a former tennis champion, aviatrix and big game hunter, now in search of new thrills. Our hero needs at least one more white person to control his 86 native workers. Chidsey pulls no punches in this blatantly racist tale.

"I have yet to meet anyone who has a good word for the natives."
"You're not likely to, unless they're a missionary or a liar."
"They are a surly lot."
"They're surly," agreed Liggett, "and they're ignorant and stupid and ungrateful and lazy and treacherous and incompetent. The worst ones are from the coast villages, where the missionaries have had a crack at them."

The title refers to a semi-active volcano that gets busier later in the story. While the Melanesian natives worry about an eruption, the mysterious Duk-Duk criminal society stirs up trouble by playing on native superstitions. When the malefactor pictured above accidentally sets himself on fire the natives panic. Terry proves her mettle by helping prevent a fatal stampede. "The girl in that instant realized that dealing with natives in New Guinea was not essentially different from dealing with cattle," Chidsey writes. It turns out that unscrupulous white men are behind the Duk-Duk provocations, and our hero and heroine deal with them and the inevitable eruption before getting married. Horrible as Chidsey's (or his protagonists') sentiments may be, this story is this issue's best. It's energetic and action-packed and the racism is at least an honest expression of how many Americans felt in those days, adding an authentic edge to the narrative.

A different sort of racism finds expression in Walter C. Brown's "Steal No Man's Shadow." Brown was a Chinatown specialist, sometimes telling his stories from the viewpoint of white policemen, sometimes from what he took to be the Chinese viewpoint. This week's story is all Chinese, a kind of love story with a macabre twist. A illegal-immigrant refugee from the Japanese invasion of China is available for marriage. Our hero pines for her but can't afford the bride price because his uncle is a moocher and a gambler who spends his nephew's earnings from a gift-shop catering to "rice-face" (i.e. white) tourists. His sympathetic business partner finds a way to help his friend and repay a debt. He hosts the uncle for several days of unrestrained feasting until the glutton eats himself to death, thus freeing the nephew to use his resources to win his bride. If writers like Chidsey portray an inferior Other in the South Seas, writers like Brown portray Chinese as Other for the sake of Otherness. Brown is racist insofar as he fails (or refuses) to portray Chinese as Just Like Us, but I can't imagine anyone reading this story and simply assuming that Chinese are simply inferior. They are just profoundly different, if also a little quaint. Here's a sample:

"There is an evil weight on thy spirit, Wang Kai," said Hugh Lee, "for thy mouth droops like the branches of the willow tree. If a pain-devil has entered thy skin, let the apothecary be sent for. But if thy trouble be of the spirit, share the burden with thy unworthy friend and its weight will be lessened by half."
Wang sighed heavily. "It is because of my great love for the girl Ming Yan and the sea of silver that stands between us. Across the water the parent of a girl-child must save up money to purchase a husband for her, but in this land a goodly price must be paid before she leaves her father's roof."
"But here that is the law," Hugh Lee declared solemnly, "Only yesterday I sought enlightenment on this puzzling fact from the Rice-face who drives the look-see wagon [i.e. tourist bus], and he informed me it was the Law of Supply and Demand."
"There may well be such a law," young Wang answered, "for this is a goodly country, but there are many strange customs."

The Chinese characters speak in such flowery fashion throughout. It may be just as offensive to Chinese-American readers as Amos-n-Andy style dialect would be to blacks, but I'm not sure the two cases were meant to have the same effect on the default white readership of Argosy. I actually wonder whether we can draw a straight line from this sort of Chinatown story -- there are others more obviously hateful -- to the elves, vampires and other magical creatures who appear in 21st century "urban fantasy" books. Nowadays we can indulge in fantasies of Otherness without projecting those fantasies on existing races of people; back in 1939 writers like Walter C. Brown didn't know better and probably meant no harm in their writing. Perhaps they can be forgiven.

Elsewhere this week, Phillip Ketchum presents the latest installment of his chronicle of Bretwalda, the magic axe tied to the destiny of England. In the three previous stories he's established that the axe confers great joy and great sorrow on its wielders. In "Paths of Conquest" the sorrow comes from the hero's failure, despite Bretwalda, to prevent William of Normandy's conquest of England in 1066. The joy is his winning of a girl in the process, while Ketchum, writing at a time of growing Anglophilia in the face of the Nazi threat to Europe, suggests that William's conquest will prove a good thing for everyone. Turning to our own nation, Richard Sale returns with another Civil War tale involving Robert E. Lee. "The Judas Tree" focuses on a double-agent trying to trick General Grant into letting Lee escape from his predicament at Petersburg near the end of the war, and how the spy arguably outwits himself. This is a shorter, grimmer piece than Sale's tale from last week. The issue closes with an "Argosy Oddity," a short-short story by the weekly's standards. John Ames York's "The Time is at Hand" is a Twilight-Zoney vignette about a busy businessman confronted by Death Himself and the chance he gets to make a farewell that might actually save him. In the other serials, we finally get a murder in the second chapter of Hugh Pentecost's "Cancelled in Red," in which our hero blunders into a conspiracy to destroy evidence in order to protect a suspect he presumes innocence, and of course gets into trouble with the police, while Bennett Foster's western "Rider of the Rifle Rock" wraps up with the remaining mysteries resolved, vengeance taken, and all well for our hero who had started the serial lame, drunk and broke. It's almost too neat, but I suppose the serials have to end happily in this sort of magazine.

Speaking of which, would any other pulp magazine boast of presenting "The Great American Novel of 1939?" Argosy does, and we'll have its first chapter next week, along with the return of No-Shirt McGee and our first visit to Theodore Roscoe's Four Corners, a town out of Norman Rockwell's nightmares.


Monday, May 12, 2014


Tom Keene was RKO's cowboy star during the Pre-Code era. He made some A pictures but quickly settled into B stardom before sinking further gradually, from RKO to Monogram by the 1940s. For some reason he changed his stage name to Richard Powers later that decade. He used that name steadily to the end of his career, but one fan of Thirties cowboys saw value in the name abandoned by the man born George Duryea. Such fame as Keene has today is owed to his employment by Ed Wood, first in a failed TV pilot, The Crossroads Avenger, and later in Plan 9 From Outer Space, in which he and Gregory Wolcott have an epic confrontation with Eros the alien. Yet here's Tom Keene in Otto Brower's Scarlet River hobnobbing with Myrna Loy, Bruce Cabot and other studio players in an RKO commissary. This is more a movie-movie than a true western, with Keene playing a thinly disguised version of himself, or his star self: a cowboy actor named Tom. The modern world's encroaching on the old west and director Edgar Kennedy is having a hard time finding pristine locations for his latest horse opera. This is illustrated in the trick opening, the dialogue of a pioneer couple, Keene as the husband, interrupted by a honking automobile. Another location is disrupted by cross-country runners. Aren't the Los Angeles Olympics over by now? the crew wonders. Finally a ranch is found far from the cares and snares of 1933, but there's a serpent in this eden -- a foreman who at one moment courts the pretty young owner, whose younger brother idolizes him, and in the next schemes with a crook to defraud her out of the ranch. He squares these contradictory tactics in his mind by taking for granted that the girl will marry him. This is Creighton Chaney in his fifth movie role as an adult, two years before he dares claim the mantle, or at least the name, of his much-mourned father. Creighton is 27 years old, his frame and his voice less husky than we know them, but you still know his character doesn't stand a chance with the girl, if only because this is a Tom Keene picture. It's not as if Keene is a matinee idol -- far from it, it seems to me -- but young Chaney is still very green. He can't really project either charisma or menace, so the foreman ends up a subordinate villain, his conflicted motives leading him to confront and get killed by the principal heavy when that scoundrel threatens the heroine. Earlier in the picture, Creighton is the butt of the film's great joke. Usually when westerns send up Hollywood they hypocritically make Hollywood the other, the hero becoming an authentic westerner who shows up the dude actor. In Scarlet River the gag is that Tom the cowboy actor both talks the talk and walks the walk, showing up the real cowboys. He's a better cowboy than Creighton the full-time rancher. In one scene Tom's wandered away from the set and director Kennedy challenges Chaney to do the classic taking-control-of-the-runaway-stagecoach stunt. Proud Creighton, already jealous of the girl's attention to the star, assumes himself capable, but ends up having to take the classic Yakima Canutt dive between the rows of horses to escape trampling. More accurately, I guess, Canutt himself takes the dive, as he does when Tom reappears to prove his superiority by "doing his own stunt." Canutt's an invisible man, however -- though he has a bit role in his own right -- while the kiddies were supposed to believe in Keene's own miraculous skills. You're left wondering how seriously the film takes itself, especially when Tom plays the moral-exemplar film to the hilt. Chronologically this picture should be part of the Pre-Code Parade, but it's a movie in which Tom Keene spanks a teenage boy for smoking cigarettes. So Scarlet River is working its own trail while the parade passes by, and the director is happy as long as no one marches in front of his camera. Historically this is one of those historical-footnote pictures in a trivial way. It's not quite on the level of Clark Gable playing the heavy in a William Boyd movie, but Lon Chaney Jr. definitely looms much larger in the collective moviegoing consciousness than Tom Keene does, and the retroactive disproportion of their roles gives Scarlet River a slight psychotronic pathos, as does our knowledge of their respective fates. Plan 9 is one thing, Dracula vs. Frankenstein another. Who did fare better in the end?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

On the Big Screen: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)

Heroes belong to everyone, and thus to no one in particular. They save people, but they're not saviors. If you depend on them to redeem your personal life, you should prepare for disappointment. But that fact cuts both ways. The superhero, in particular, rescues people as he or she encounters them. That doesn't mean the hero can take for granted that he can rescue or redeem whom he will, when he wants. That's the moral, or the closest thing to one, of the second film of Marc Webb's Spider-Man series, written by many hands -- too many, in fact. There are parts of the film that have nothing to do with what I just wrote, and they're the worst parts. Anything with Paul Giamatti, who plays a Russian crook who later becomes the Rhino, one of Spidey's canonical enemies, is not only awful but embarrassing for the actor. These scenes unfortunately bracket the film proper, Giamatti's first appearance following a prologue furthering the Parker Family Backstory, and they create an unfair first and final impression. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is actually a little better than his predecessor -- I liked it better, at least -- if only because Webb is no longer going over old ground. The new series's approach to the Osborn family and the Green Goblin is different enough from Sam Raimi's to qualify as a real reboot, while the new movie blazes fresh territory by giving us another classic Spidey foe, Electro, for the first time in theaters. I don't think the Webb treatment of the Osborns -- tycoon father Norman (Chris Cooper) and misfit son Harry (Dane DeHaan) -- surpasses Raimi's, and I don't really care for much of their ideas about Electro (Jamie Foxx), but they all serve their story purposes adequately, while the Giamatti scenes reek of afterthought, as if someone at Sony thought there hadn't been enough action in the real film.

Max Dillon and Harry Osborn embody the theme I described. Max, the future Electro, is some sort of idiot savant and borderline crazy loner whose life changes when Spidey (Andrew Garfield) rescues him in passing during the first Giamatti sequence. Max is the kind of guy who sees this as the forming of a personal bond with the gregarious web-slinger, whose heroism and popularity he envies. Max is conceived, and performed by Foxx, as something between Richard Pryor's character from Superman III and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman from Batman Returns -- a pitifully awkward creature of largely untapped gifts and depthless rage unleashed by the trauma of victimization. Amazing 2 even takes up the Batman Returns linkage of its heroes and villains with animals, Norman Osborn and Richard Parker (Campbell Scott) having experimented on splices of human and animal DNA. Max himself is superfied by falling into a tank full of electric eels after an industrial accident. He feels betrayed when Spidey seems to turn on him after Max blunders into Times Square in search of power to feed upon. This fight is the film's best sequence as a confused Max is mesmerized by his own transformed face filling every HD screen on the square, his dream of fame realized, while cops prepare to shoot him down if Spidey fails to talk him down. That Jamie Foxx is a black man, though blue as Electro, compounds the tension and relevance of the standoff before the inevitable explosion. In any event, Spider-Man fails to save Max and fails to live up to Max's delusion of their intimate friendship. That makes Max willing to listen when Harry Osborn airs his disappointment with Spider-Man. Having inherited the family disease that killed Norman -- it makes you blotchy and turns your hands into claws -- and having deduced from confidential info on Oscorp research that Spider-Man is somehow a by-product of that work, Harry hopes that his old school buddy Peter Parker, who gets the best shots of Spidey in the local papers, can persuade the web-slinger to donate some blood, which Harry expects will cure him. When Spidey himself raises the reasonable objection that their blood types might not match, and the equally reasonable possibility that his mutated blood might make Harry worse, young Osborn concludes that the vaunted hero is a big fraud. He's no hero if he won't help me, you see. Both Harry and Max see themselves as betrayed by Spider-Man and as victims of Oscorp, Max as an exploited employee, Harry as the rightful heir being shut out of his birthright by the firm's unscrupulous bureaucrats and researchers. They share a vision of scorched-earth vengeance, while Harry, having guessed at last that Peter is Spidey, strikes at Peter's brainy girlfriend Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) out of spite. Gwen's proximity to the putative Green Goblin -- Harry never calls himself that as far as I can recall -- has raised alarms among longtime comic book readers. All I'll say about that is that Marc Webb has some kind of audacity to even tease a recreation of one of the darkest moments in American superhero comics while paying homage to The Hudsucker Proxy at the same time.

Given how many people compared the contemporary feel of The Amazing Spider-Man favorably to Sam Raimi's slightly retro, ever-so-slightly campy vision, it's surprising how oldschool Amazing 2 feels for a superhero movie, how I reach for comparisons to movies 20 years old or more instead of recent stuff like the Marvel Studios productions or Christopher Nolan's Batman films. Amazing 2 has problems of pacing similar to Tim Burton's Batman films, while both Webb films aim more for pathos than other current superhero movies, which also makes them reminiscent of Burton.Webb isn't the kind of cinematic visionary Burton is at his best, however, and there are points in the action this time where the effects seem little improved, if at all, from what Raimi's team was doing a decade ago. The final fight with Electro seemed particularly weak, even compared to the earlier Times Square rumble, but the filmmakers probably undermined themselves by turning Max into an essentially incorporeal energy being -- and in their minds that may have excused any sloppiness in the CGI. At other times the effects are quite nice; I'm impressed by the dedication to detail that shows the fabric of Peter's homemade Spidey costume bunching up realistically as he goes through his contortions. While the effects are hit or miss, Webb and his writers hit the emotional notes they aim for more often than not to make up even for the raspberry-false note of the very last scene, which has a moment of almost unimaginable corniness for 2014. While this film arguably just gets by, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the next sequel or the spinoffs that already have been announced. To suggest that Paul Giamatti is part of this franchise's future isn't necessarily Webb's best move. Instead, it might be said, as many did after The Dark Knight, that the director has said all he needs to, or can, about the character in two movies. Things never end that simply, however, when there might be billions at stake. Billions in money, that is; that's what makes Spider-Man a hero to Sony, after all.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


2013 was a great year for male actors. Had the Academy the prerogative to name up to ten Best Actor nominees as it can nominate up to ten Best Pictures, the talent pool would not have been diluted at all. Given how many excellent performances weren't even nominated (Tom Hanks, Oscar Isaac, Joaquin Phoenix, Robert Redford) I was bound to be skeptical toward whoever won the award. It didn't help that media people had coined a word -- "McConaissance" -- to describe Matthew McConaughey's dramatic rise in critical esteem in the last few years. Back in 1996 McConaughey was the male equivalent of Julia Ormond, i.e. overhyped and overrated. His supposedly star-making performances in A Time to Kill and Contact were dreadful, though I concede that he began to show promise as early as 1997's Amistad. McConaughey's star never fell as completely as Ormond's, but by a certain point he had become a laughing stock. But over the last two or three years the actor has been on a roll, at least with the critics. To put himself over the top, he resorted to the actor's old standby: self-mortification. To play real-life AIDS victim Ron Woodroof, McConaughey lost a lot of weight, surrendering his once-vaunted beauty. Academy voters are suckers for such things, I scoffed. Was McConaughey really even in the league of his fellow nominees like Chiwetel Ejiofor, much less the actual best actors (in my view) who'd been denied nominations?

Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club is a Schindler's List for the age of AIDS. By now I doubt that's a novel observation, but if not it bears repeating. The comparison is categorical, not qualitative. In both films, the hero is a venal wheeler-dealer who does good deeds for selfish motives, at least at first. It can be argued in favor of Dallas Buyers Club that Ron Woodroof isn't given a teary speech repenting his homophobia, his sexism, his drug and alcohol abuse, etc., etc. He remains a prickly, abrasive figure throughout, and McConaughey deserves much of the credit for that. Woodroof was an electrician and rodeo enthusiast -- a rodeo clown becomes his angel of death, though the motif thankfully isn't overdone -- and in many ways a typical redneck. We see him expressing disgust as the story opens in 1985 upon learning that Rock Hudson has AIDS and was thus a homosexual. Our only hint that he has any more mind than his buddies is that many of them don't even know who Hudson is. After he collapses and is hospitalized, Ron rejects the diagnosis of AIDS, and the warning that he has only a month to live, presuming that only "cocksuckers" get it. As his symptoms grow worse, he reveals an unexpected but crucial facet of his character. Woodroof is an autodidact, capable of crash-course self-education on topics of urgent interest. People like him are often indifferent toward if not distrustful of institutions and institutional procedures. His refusal to submit to the FDA testing of AZT, in which he might receive a placebo instead of the real drug -- he offers to buy the stuff directly -- sets him on the course of alternative, clandestine medication. Understandably impatient with the slow pace of FDA testing, and increasingly distrustful of AZT's scorched-earth effects on the immune system -- Woodroof becomes a smuggler and purveyor of unapproved if not illegal remedies for people unwilling to wait but willing to take chances. Like others at the time, he tries to get around the FDA ban on selling these remedies by forming a "buyers' club" in which members pay a monthly fee to receive drugs as needed. His practices put him at odds with the FDA and other bureaucracies, but his own persistence seems to vindicate him. Given a month to live in 1985, Woodroof lives until 1992.

You always hear that Hollywood has some sort of liberal bias, but you couldn't tell that from all the films that disparage the by-the-book bureaucratic procedures of the regulatory state. In Dallas Buyers Club the government only gets in the way of Woodroof's efforts to save his own life and make money by saving others. Actually, left-wing and right-wing alike can confirm their biases from watching this film. Small-government types can deplore the cumbersome, arrogant bureaucracy that delays the availability of apparently effective remedies. Anti-corporate types can infer that the FDA was in bed with the makers of AZT. As for AZT itself, the film can't help but appear to echo Woodroof's almost-paranoid distrust of it, though if you pay attention you can conclude that the real problem was with the dosage rather than the drug.

If there's anything "liberal" about Dallas Buyers Club it's Woodroof's overcoming of his homophobia through his friendship with the transsexual Rayon (fellow Oscar winner Jared Leto). Ron's initially repulsed by Rayon, as he is by the gay man who greets him at a public meeting where he shows up to collect brochures. There's a first glimmer of respect when Rayon beats him at cards in the hospital, but then comes a realization that he can use Rayon as his sales agent in the gay community, in the places he's reluctant to visit himself. But whether Ron really repudiates his past prejudices is open to question. When he forces one of his former friends to shake Rayon's hand in a grocery store, Ron's clearly less concerned with forcing the man to respect Rayon than with humiliating him and avenging his own past humiliation by his old cronies. It's safer to say that Woodroof respects individuals capable of asserting themselves with toughness, as Rayon does when negotiating a cut of Ron's business, or when their doctor (Jennifer Garner) stares down Ron's sexism by declaring herself "a fucking doctor!" What I really like about McConaughey's performance is that Ron Woodroof never fully turns into a good (in the sense of likable) guy. He's never really ennobled by his adventures. To the end, there's something narcissistic if not selfish about him, and something self-righteous that makes his rants against AZT less than fully reliable.

For most viewers, the proof that Woodroof is (or becomes) a good man is the bonds he forms with the other heroic characters, the doctor and the transsexual. But more so than Schindler's List, Dallas Buyers Club seems to say that someone doesn't have to be good to do good. It's unclear whether Woodroof even sees himself as a hero; he's simply out to ride the bull as long as he can, doing anything he can to keep his seat. As for McConaughey, I thought he overplayed the yahoo side of Woodroof in the early scenes, though that was probably necessary to heighten the contrast over time. From then on he's rock solid, from his foolhardy impersonation of a priest for smuggling purposes to the way he conveys that Woodruff's light is going out in the late scenes. I don't think he was the year's Best Actor, but that's no disgrace in such a competitive field, and now that I've seen his work I'll at least say that McConaughey belongs on anyone's short list.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, MAY 6, 1939

Radio Archives is a leading publisher of vintage pulp fiction in electronic form. They have the right to reprint stories from Popular Publications, the publisher of The Spider and other hero pulps and the leading purveyor of the 1930s "shudder pulps" whose lurid, violent covers make them among the genre's top collectors' items. They've also started a "Best of Argosy" series, given that Popular bought Argosy from the moribund Munsey group at the end of 1942. The first volume of the series was a selection of George F. Worts's adventure stories about Peter the Brazen, i.e. the original man of bronze. The second and latest reprints "Minions of the Moon." Of all the generations of stories from Argosy, Radio Archives had to choose the serial I've described as a piece of crap for the last two weeks. What do they see in William Grey Beyer's mock epic, which concludes this week? Search me. To recap: a 1939 dude goes into suspended animation after undergoing an experimental anaesthesia and wakes up thousands of years later. Civilization has gone smash and reformed in odd fragments from different eras. Hence he encounters reconstituted Vikings -- literally, they talk Old Norse and worship Odin. More importantly, he encounters Omega, the disembodied brain who is the last survivor of the Moon's indigenous culture. Omega is a clear forerunner of The Great Gazoo; the attitude is definitely similar. Though he can possess human bodies when he pleases, Omega needs our hero to fight for him a battle against two Earthlings -- Russians, in fact, -- who have evolved super-brains like himself, albeit hostile and domineering, as Russians, some would say, have always been and always will be.

In this third and mercifully last chapter Omega requires our hero to win leadership of the Vikings by proving his hitherto-unknown prowess at axe-throwing, in order to lead their assault on the citadel of the Russian brains. The brains fight back by summoning an illusory army of Mongols, perhaps recalling that Mongols kicked Russian ass historically. This idea of people from different eras encountering one another in timeless circumstances must have been popular with writers and readers of "fantastics," on the evidence of this and Arthur Leo Zagat's "Seven Out of Time." But the gimmickry makes theses stories seem puerile to me. This is a comedy, after all, so maybe people just enjoyed the humor of Omega's insults and the hero's 1939-vintage snappy patter. I will admit that this chapter proved more interesting to read once Beyer let Omega opine about humanity's shortcomings.

"I know," agreed Mark, "And the logical inference is: Fifty billion humans can't be wrong. There must be a deity."
"Nonsense, my superstitious idiot. Among humans, majorities have always been wrong, and you know it. Cite one instance where a majority has been right. I dare you!"
Mark thought for a minute. "There must be one somewhere..."
"There isn't. That is why man is where he is today. Majorities rule and majorities are always wrong. The multitude always allows itself to be swayed by some loudmouth who promises a lot, but who really holds his own interests paramount. Now, now ... I'll admit there have been some really selfless men who did manage to get a following. Confucius, Christ, a few others... But the reason they ultimately failed lay not in their lack of merit, but in the crass stupidity of those they tried to help. A race who, in a fevered instant, could forget all the benevolent teachings pounded into them for generations and foolishly follow a madman into war. I don't know why somebody hasn't destroyed the race long ago. If it wasn't against my principles, I would have done it myself."

Remember that Beyer wrote on the brink of World War II, which most thinking people seem to have expected, anticipating a showdown with fascism if not also with Stalinist communism down the line. So anticipating, Argosy readers may have found Minions blackly comic when it simply seems silly now. The past doesn't always translate perfectly.

This week's cover feature is the new serial, a pre-publication winner of the annual Red Badge Mystery prize from the Dodd Mead publishing company. In last week's "Looking Ahead" preview section, the editors announced Hugh Pentecost as a new author, but he was nothing of the sort. Only 36 this year, he had already publishing in Argosy since 1926 under his real name, Judson Philips. While he'd published detective stories as Philips, most notably the "Park Avenue Hunt Club" series in Munsey's Detective Fiction Weekly, the author had evolved by the 1930s into a sports fiction specialist. He may have adopted the Pentecost pseudonym to avoid typecasting, so to speak, or in the hope of getting his work taken more seriously. His plan seems to have worked; as Pentecost, he became president of the Mystery Writers of America, was proclaimed a grandmaster in the 1970s, and continued publishing in the surviving mystery mags until his death in 1989. It all begins with "Cancelled in Red," which opens without any murders. Pentecost takes his time building up anticipation of a murder in future chapters, introducing the likely victim, a corrupt stamp collector, and all the potential killers he's victimized. It reads easily enough, but we won't really see where it's going until future chapters.

Our name-above-the-title novelet writers this week may be familiar now, and they will be before we're done. Richard Sale leads the issue off with "The Rebels are Coming!" in which a small-town Pennsylvania doctor matches wits with Robert E. Lee before the battle of Gettysburg. The doctor thinks he can delay Lee's invasion for a crucial time by convincing the Rebel general to march around his town to avoid an epidemic. It becomes an entertaining mind game as Lee suspects a con from the beginning yet can't dismiss the possibility that the doctor is telling the truth. Deeper inside, Donald Barr Chidsey returns with "The Lizard Man." The title character is no mutant or monster, but a gangster hiding out on a South Seas island, having learned his way around the mountains to the point that he seems to crawl across them like a lizard. This fugitive has grown homesick, and Chidsey makes him almost sympathetic for a chapter before having him kidnap a millionaire tourist. The story then becomes an archetypal tale of a virtuous servant of an unworthy master, as a much-abused secretary, formerly a social peer of his present boss, has to save the day while his employer whines and whimpers. It was disappointing to see the gangster prove no more than a plain villain after his introduction, but Chidsey knows how to keep readers interested and satisfied.

That's more than I can say about some of the other stories this issue. In fact, I'll let them pass without comment and close with another thumbs-up for the latest chapter of Bennett Foster's "Rider of the Rifle Rock," in which dark forces conspire to eliminate the serial's enigmatic assassin for a crime he apparently didn't commit. The suspicious circumstances of his demise -- shot while trying to escape with a smuggled gun with dud rounds -- points our hero toward the actual person out to provoke a range war. This serial concludes next week, while Chidsey and Sale return, as does Bretwalda the magic axe, and we take another visit to the Chinatown of the pulp imagination.