And Then I Go And Spoil It All

HBO has Legend (2015) on this month, Brian Helgeland’s bio-pic of the Kray Brothers, Ronnie and Reg, twin London crime lords with a colorful but short rule over the city during its swinging London days. I first came across the Krays in Monty Python’s sketch about the Piranha Brothers, Doug and Dinsdale, a documentary parody on the brothers that manages to be broadly funny yet capture the creepy, feared af folk hero aspect of the Krays in the East End. Eric Idle plays one victim whose head Dinsdale nailed to the floor. “Well, he had to didn’t he?” says Idle. “I mean, be fair, there was nothing else he could do.” Dinsdale Piranha was terrified of a giant hedgehog, Spiny Norman, a Terry Gilliam animation, out to kill him like the crocodile after Captain Hook in Peter Pan. “Dinsdaaaaale …”, Spiny called out as he stalked him. Then there was a 1990 film about them that no one seems to like, and now this one.

Helgeland wrote LA Confidential, and like that film, Legend excels at bringing out a non-New York crime world, which is always a nice change of scenery from all the east coast mob movies. A London local might have complaints about what’s what in the East End, but I definitely felt pulled into his whole Don’t Look Back in Anger gangland. Helgeland, his production designer, and cinematographer, deserve a lot of credit their recreation. Tom Hardy plays both Krays, and he pulls off two distinctly different men. Ronnie is a grotesque, hilarious savage oaf in horned-rim glasses, an out gay man who surrounds himself with pretty boy hoods, and could easily have wandered into Python’s Piranha Brothers sketch. Scenes with Ronnie and his mother or Ronnie’s unlikely entrée into Britain’s gay aristocracy are subtly played and funny. Ronnie trying to singing along to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Somethin’ Stupid” – “and then I go and spoil it all, by saying something stupid like ‘I love you'” – at a Christmas party that turns ugly is a particularly weird funny moment. Reg is a failed boxer with dreams of being much classier than he could ever be, a Brando Terry Malloy who also wants to be Johnny Friendly. You could argue Ronnie pulled him down with his paranoid, violent behavior – they’re compared to the Gallo Brothers by US mafia boss Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri) who wants them to manage Meyer Lansky’s London casino – but, that’s only part of it. When Reg is upset with his wife, who wants to leave him, he beats and rapes her. At least, that’s what Helgeland’s implying by the off-screen abuse. Reg brings those around him down, too, and she eventually kills herself. The first two acts work quite well, showing the brothers rise to the top and the growing division between them, but then what?

“Dinsdaaaaale ….”

The problem for me is really the third act. Ronnie and Reg both manage to commit separate murders in front of lots of witnesses and so eventually end up, respectively, going to a mental hospital (for life) and prison (until eight weeks before his death). Reg’s wife kills herself, and the two people who really deserve some credit for destroying them, Scotland Yard Det. Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston), and a barmaid with no dialogue that I can remember who was willing to testify in court against Ronnie – are afterthoughts. Certainly, there’s no happy ending for the Krays, they spent decades in jail and died there. It’s not like Goodfellas where anyone we’re sympathetic to (Henry Hill) gets out and the real goons (Jimmy, Paulie, Tommy) end up dead or in jail. Legend just peters out.

What’s the point of Legend? Idk. London was certainly better off without the Krays. Helgeland gives Reg and Nipper a scene where Reg lays into Nipper Read as a class traitor of sorts for leaving the East End and returning as a detective who arrests “his own.” As opposed to the Krays, I guess, who murder and bleed their own? We don’t need to take Reg too seriously on that. He likes deluding himself into thinking he’s not really a gangster. Reggie loves that he’s a hood, as out about that as he is about being gay.

But, Helgeland is really only interested in depicting how the Krays destroy each other, at which he totally succeeds to a point. But after that, Helgeland doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the Kray Era. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it wasn’t a bad thing that the Krays blew up their business and weren’t able to front Meyer Lansky and the American mob’s entrée into England. Neither Kray was wronged by life, they’re not anti-heroes with Don Corleone self-pity excuses for what they’re doing. They’re shits. And dumb ones. If Nipper Read and the barmaid were given more voice, you might have some thread in the film where East Enders finally had enough and stood up to them, because that’s what happened – a cop found a Brit willing to speak up after they threatened her kids if she didn’t keep quiet. Instead, we get an ending that just sort of lists and sinks. Too bad, because the first two acts and the beautiful palette of emotions that Hardy finds in these two goons are impressive. So, as far as the Krays on screen go … after two feature films, and many documentaries, I give it up to Python as the best depiction of the boys yet.

“Dinsdaaaaaale …”


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I had a weird 24 hours where I slept all day and couldn’t sleep all night, so I watched the first hour of PBS’ American Epic. [How would anyone know from that title it has anything to do with music?]. I love this period of music, when American record companies sent music producers and engineers out into rural America in 1927 to find and record new and unheard talent. It’s produced by Jack White, Robert Redford, and T-Bone Burnett, so that was a draw, too. One review I read said that the series focuses on artist interviews and family members rather than critics and historians, and I have to say, that does not help what I saw overall. The debut episode splits in half between the Carter Family and then Will Shade & The Memphis Jug Band [Jimmie Rodgers and WC Handy also get some mention here.] That is, a white half and a black half. Most of these TV music histories get criticized for who they leave out or who they over emphasize (Ken Burns’ JAZZ got a lot of that), but sweeping cultural histories like this with limited time are more or less infomercials to get you to listen to new music or read serious history. You never really get enough music or history in these things.

What bugged so much about American Epic‘s simplified view is that it reduces the Carter family white country music half as this pure, poor folks, backwoods Bible Belt music by simple people struggling to get by in a destitute Appalachia. The Carters were the Fugazi of their day, keeping ticket prices low and never charging widows and orphans for a show. And that’s not wrong as far as the Carters go. In the black half, Will Shade’s world is one of street fights, hookers, murders, drunks, and wild times on Memphis’ Beale Street. And that’s not wrong as far as Will Shade’s life and Beale Street go.

What gets lost in this oversimplification is that Jimmie Rodgers’ songs were as bad ass as anything Will Shade was doing. He sang about broke drifters and rubes in jail and mean drunks hunting their girlfriends down with shotguns. “Blue Yodel,” for example:

[by Robert Crumb.]

I’m gonna buy me a pistol
Just as long as I’m tall [rpt]
I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma
Just to see her jump and fall.


You’d be nuts not to cross the street if you saw a Jimmie Rodgers character coming your way. WC Handy also gets glossed for Will Shade here, and Handy wrote Memphis blues, too, but he was also a pre-1927 scholar and intellectual (no points for that in American Epic) who wrote musical histories (on spirituals and other things) and sang about a lot more than whores and knife fights. Like the white music producers who ventured out in 1927, Handy had done the same in the South to recreate that rural music for live shows.

Carter family descendants appear in this episode to talk about the simple innocence of the Carters. Nas appears to talk about Will Shade and connect the Beale Street scene with modern day hip hop’s often violent and crude language. What’s lost in all this is that poor white and poor black musicians had a lot in common, much moreso than American Epic‘s view of whites as churchy, hard-working rural “folk” whose poverty draws families and communities together and blacks as urban thugs whose poverty drives them to crime and drugs and sex. Please see the 2016 presidential election as to how sadly current this view of the US still is today. I’ll watch some more, I think, for the musician interviews and rare clips, but I’m not optimistic this gets better.


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Krazy (But That’s How It Goes)

This week at Los Angeles Review of Books, I wrote up Michael Tisserand’s new biography of George Herriman, KRAZY: George Herriman, A Life in Black & White. Herriman created what is regarded still as the greatest comic strip ever produced, Krazy Kat.  The big story here is that Herriman was creole and passed for white almost all his life, and I agree with some reviews I read, that getting at what that was like for Herriman does not come across 100% in KRAZY. But, what also needs to be taken into account, is that Herriman masterfully hid his real identity from the entire world so well that no one outside his immediate family knew until 1971, 27 years after his death in 1944. Any Le Carré character could take lessons from Herriman on never getting their cover blown.

But, I also feel like many of those critics don’t know the comics. I do. Nelson George, an accomplished music historian, is one example.  He focused almost entirely on race in his New York Times review, complaining about what we still don’t know about Herriman’s experience. He’s not wrong about that. But, via Tisserand, we now have a biographical and historical context with which to look at Herriman’s comics, anchoring his strip – up until now a perpetual whimsy machine – in a time and place. I hope I answered that complaint somewhat in my piece with examples of Herriman, as we can only see now via Tisserand, clearly talking about his feelings on race in Krazy Kat.

What’s also getting overlooked for the more obvious news of Herriman’s race and passing is that Tisserand pretty masterfully reconstructs the cartooning world of Herriman’s career from 1896-1944. Race in America as a news angle will always trump what it was like to draw funny animal pictures for William Randolph Hearst in 1913. But, Tisserand deserves a lot of comics history credit for giving us Herriman’s work world and showing how radically different the career of cartoonist was in his lifetime than it is today.  At 16, Herriman began working in newspaper cartooning in LA, and his career reflects in every step the Hearst and Pulitzer yellow journalism world’s use of him and the medium (in every section of a paper, before photography was common). Back then, in rooms full of ink-stained cartoonists from New York to LA, comics sucked up everything from sports to modern art to politics for material and inspiration, and Tisserand gets across vividly this wide open era when there was no real differentiation for people like Herriman or Hearst of “high” or “low” culture on a comics page. They just wanted it funny, and didn’t care how you got there.


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The Double Life of Peter Arno

My story on New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno (1904-68) is out in this month’s Vanity Fair (“The Double Life of Peter Arno,” with pictures by Stanley Kubrick, no less).  I even got my name on the cover, way up at the top, where I finally – *finally* – am billed over Meryl Streep (so long overdue).   Many thanks to Graydon Carter and my editors Mark Rozzo and Bruce Handy for giving me so much space and support in doing this story right.

Streep Arno

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Points, Skyfall, Points

I was watching 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy again tonight and just noticed two familiar Jack Bulldogs sitting on the bureau behind MI6 spymaster Control (John Hurt) … familiar, because one is the same Jack Bulldog sitting on the desk of MI6 spymaster M (Judi Dench) in 2012’s Skyfall. So, points to Skyfall for this homage (or do all MI6 bosses have porcelain Jack Bulldogs on their desks?) as both M and Control have been tricked from the inside by people they once trusted (a mole, and a 00 agent turned terrorist, respectively) who end their careers at the top of the circus.

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Off The Wall

0_0_3430949_00_320wThank god for Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese’s career second acts as documentary filmmakers. I just rewatched Scorsese’s Bob Dylan film NO DIRECTION HOME and, while I know it’s Dylan-controlled, it’s still a great story beautifully told. Lee’s new film about Michael Jackson’s OFF THE WALL is equally interesting. For once, there’s no mention of Joe Jackson’s tyranny, MJ’s predatory sexuality, chimps, or Lisa Marie Presley – just a musical study of Jackson’s life from childhood up until his breakthrough with OFF THE WALL. In most biography of him, they use the word “genius” to explain how his music came about, sort of in the way you’d use “magic” to describe how Harry Potter gets from London to Hogwarts. Lee interviews Jackson’s producers, Berry Gordy, Quincy Jones, the guys from Philly International, songwriters, and musicians all involved with it to really take the album apart in a great way. Jackson only wrote three songs on this one (all but two (?) on THRILLER) but this is the one Lee is citing as Jackson’s musical and personal breakthrough in getting away from his family. Seeing Jackson argue with his brothers on stage during the Victory (?) tour was kind of shock, too. You don’t see him angry much. This is Jackson at a peak of cool and musical creativity for me – when THRILLER came out, all I can remember is the red jacket, the glove, all the SGT. PEPPERY goofiness. Jackson meets Reagan, all that. That’s my memory, anyway, and I’m sure it’s colored by time and my bias against Jackson’s pop supremacy. I was listening to Talking Heads and Squeeze by then, and I wrote him off. Lee’s documentary is a great answer to my teenage rockism.

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They Don’t Give Oscars For Best Movie Screen

rcavintage“It broke up my friendship with Steve Jobs,” he said, “when I told him movies were not meant to be seen on 21/2 -inch screens.” – film preservation philanthropist David Packard. First, it’s lucky for us that Packard is spending $180 million to house and preserve UCLA’s nitrate film library. That’s a huge gift to film history, a vital one. But, that comment, about how you’re *supposed* to see cinema, is an attitude that’s always grated on me. A 2 1/2 inch screen is an extreme example, but you’ll also hear from ppl bitching about 70mm and arcane sound systems that only a handful of theaters could show nationwide. When I was 17 and moved away to Chicago for college, I had a color 9″ x 9″ RCA TV and a beat VCR to watch movies. I watched Hawks, Bergman, Ford, Leone, Kurosawa … does that sound like sacrilege? Masterpieces viewed on a 9″ screen (almost as bad as 2 1/2″)? Then you’re not as thirsty for cinema as I was. But there’s always some annoying purist to tell you you’re not doing something right. There were two revival houses in Chicago, and I wasn’t about to wait for them to show me every movie I wanted to see. I couldn’t, there were hundreds. Seeing a movie on a smart phone seems crazy, but if I was 17 and couldn’t wait to see Preston Sturges’ movies for the first time, I’d do it. Also, what kind of a friendship did you have with Jobs where such a simple disagreement could end it? What a couple of pills.

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Oscar Night, Post 1968

12801614_10208940772499832_1078604544273274954_nI hope Chris Rock kills it on Sunday. But no matter what he does, he’ll get criticized for not being hard enough on the Academy or somehow getting the issue wrong because he’s got a wide range of angry people to please. Keep in mind, he’s got the nearly impossible task of answering the Academy’s long history of diversity issues in one monologue. It’s a huge moment in Oscar history – Rock hosting when the Academy’s whiteness finally became unbearable – that alone has to be the biggest ratings hook of the night. It’s probably the most important Oscar night since the 1968 show after Dr. King was killed. I expect viewership to crater after Rock’s opening jokes. It might be the one year they should give out the awards first and put the monologue on last. I hope it’s as good as Colbert at the White House Correspondents Dinner ridiculing George W. Bush to his face, but Colbert only had to be up there for his piece. Then he got to sit down. Rock’s gotta be there three hours. Think of it this way — Rock gets 15 minutes total to be funny during a three-hour show (at least, that’s what Billy got when I wrote for it). If he’s not hard enough, he’ll get critiqued for letting them off easy. If he attacks the white nominees in front of him too much – making clear that white privilege makes many of them less than legit nominees – or hammers the Academy as outright racists – he’ll most likely lose the audience for the night. That might sound good. But then there’s still 2 hours and 45 minutes to go! When the show lags after hour one, it’ll look to ppl like he’s bombing, like it’s his fault the show is slow or dull. This is one of those moments when they say of pols “It’s the political speech of his life.” I’d say that’s what it is for Rock. No white host would have that weight to carry. And few other black comics. Anyone would have to address it. Billy ripped the Academy voters when we did jokes about THE HELP, but Rock’s one of the smartest guys on race anywhere. The bar has never been higher for anyone hosting this show.

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Hail Arizona

*spoilers below*
Finally saw HAIL, CAESAR; I love the way the Coens set all this up within Eddie Mannix’s mid-life crisis of conscience over what he does for a living (studio fixer), his religion, and politics, in Hollywood. Should he quit, what does he believe in, what’s worth a serious man’s time in life? It’s a mid-life crisis movie without the usual guy in his forties having an affair with a twenty-yr-old or throwing one last rager in his parents house or something. I don’t know that plot-wise it pays off that well – the pay-off was not that exciting or funny – but like other Coen Bros movies, the existential questions are the focus, and the real humor is all within that. They’ve been doing this sort of philosophical low brow comedy since RAISING ARIZONA (remember the Buster Keaton riff of Hy seeing the rest of his life flash before his eyes in the last few minutes?) and this is another, but without the manic pace of that one or O, BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? The Coens give the casting of Channing Tatum a now predictable twist (like HATEFUL 8, the pretty boy is secretly the bad guy!) so I hope that casting joke is done for a while. My favorite scene among many is Clooney finally back at the studio after his kidnapping by communists (who indoctrinated him) now pontificating on DAS KAPITAL to Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix. Clooney does a great job of sending his own self-serious politicking up, and Brolin’s building slow burn as he listens makes it the subtlest, funniest scene either has ever done. Like A SERIOUS MAN, it’ll probably require a second viewing, but it’s pretty good.

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