Friday, March 24, 2017

Short Take: Medium Cool

Haskell Wexler, perhaps the greatest cinematographer in American movies, made his directorial debut in 1969 with Medium Cool. It's impossible not to respect the film. Wexler probably went further than any prior U. S. filmmaker in presenting fictional material in documentary terms. At times, as with the National Guard training drills near the beginning, or the famous scenes at the 1968 Democratic Convention near the end, it's hard to tell where the documentary aspects end and the fictional material begins. The verité surface is fresh (and Wexler's cinematography is characteristically terrific), but the film isn't very engaging as narrative. The screenplay, credited to Wexler, follows a Chicago news videographer (Robert Forster) and his assorted travails. A major emphasis is the tension between idealism and opportunism that are a daily part of his profession, especially the conflict between maintaining objective journalistic distance and involving oneself out of basic moral decency. But the film doesn't effectively render these issues in dramatic terms; one understands them intellectually far more than one feels anything is at stake. The French director Jean-Luc Godard, whose work the film superficially resembles, has generally avoided these pitfalls of an objective tone. He did so through a poetic use of irony and absurdism. The treatment here doesn't reflect that level of imagination. Wexler seems only fitfully interested in the issues he raises in any case. A good deal of the picture is taken up with the videographer's relationship with a young widow (Verna Bloom) and her son. This material is somewhat more immersive, partly due to melodramatic contrivance, and partly because of Bloom's expressiveness. She takes the viewer inside her character's reserve and her deep commitment to her child. As is typical of American filmmaking, emotional issues have far more impact and resonance than ethical ones. The soundtrack features music from Mike Bloomfield, Love, and the Mothers of Invention.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Short Take: Robert E. Howard, "The Pool of the Black One"

Robert E. Howard's "The Pool of the Black One," starring his Conan the Barbarian anti-hero, is the tenth of the "Conan" stories to be written, and the sixth to be published. It first appeared in the October 1933 issue of Weird Tales (cover at right). In keeping with the Conan stories that preceded it, there's no overlap with the earlier material. Some continuity between the stories would be welcome. If nothing else, it might have staved off the lapsing into formula that mars this piece. As in "Queen of the Black Coast" and "Iron Shadows in the Moon," a solitary Conan once again falls in with some pirates, and while accompanied by a lust-inspiring woman, investigates an apparently abandoned ancient temple or city. They confront a supernatural threat there, and the story ends with Conan on a boat, embarking on a future as a pirate king. One also sees Howard's apparent rule for keeping the main female character alive at the end. If she and Conan have had sex at some point in the story, she will not survive. But if he hasn't tumbled her, she will live, and Howard will titillate the reader with the prospect of the two's coupling after the story's end. The main distinction of "The Pool of the Black One" is that Howard goes further than he has before in portraying Conan as an amoral, opportunistic killer. The character has always left a body count in his wake, but this time he's a calculating, might-makes-right assassin. It's something of a shock to see an ostensibly heroic protagonist engaging in cold-blooded murder. The supernatural enemy in this episode also sets it somewhat apart. There are unambiguously racist overtones in Howard's depiction, and the spectacle gets one thinking about the role paranoia plays in colonialist evils: when confronted with the other, one rationalizes slaughter and enslavement out of fear it will be one's fate if one doesn't do it first. A reader won't think for a moment that such implications were intended--Howard is the last writer one would consider philosophical--but such anxieties do seem at the heart of the story's climactic violence. But with all that said, the piece is a reasonably entertaining page-turner, especially if one hasn't read a Conan adventure before.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Short Take: The Graduate

Chalk this view up to Gen-X antipathy to a Baby Boomer favorite, but The Graduate has dated--badly. Mike Nichols' 1967 film is one of the pictures that revolutionized Hollywood in the late 1960s. It helped open the door to alienation as a central theme in American filmmaking, and was key to the rise of the anti-hero as a protagonist. Dustin Hoffman, its leading man, led the way for a new generation of stars--Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, among others--who didn't conform to the romanticized masculine ideal of the films that came before. And the picture remains the most commercially successful comedy ever produced in the United States. It's unfortunate to look at it now and find such a trite and clumsily made effort. Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a recent graduate of an East Coast university. The film begins as he returns home to Los Angeles. He's staying with his upper-class parents while deciding on what to do next. It's not long before he begins an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father's business partner. Things get complicated when he falls in love with her daughter (Katharine Ross). Hoffman and Bancroft are in fine comic form. He uses his earnest stare, nasal voice, and stammering delivery to hilarious effect, and her sleek brazenness is devilishly witty. The affair, though, is thinly written. Mrs. Robinson's initial failed seduction and the pair's first pre-tryst scene are quite prolonged, but the humor is in the actors' contrasting demeanors; there's not a single memorable line or gag. A later scene, where she wants sex only to be thwarted by his desire for a conversation, is undercut by the gaudily implausible dialogue. The script, credited to Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, doesn't know what it wants to do with the affair, and the picture more or less drops it to shift to Benjamin's pursuit of the daughter. The romance with her is even more weakly developed. It often comes across like she's humoring a stalker, and taking it too far. Mike Nichols' directing is what results when an ambitious filmmaker has no idea what he's after. Several shots and staging choices call attention to themselves, but they don't cohere into a larger vision. Several moments are played for hyperbole, and the effect is cartoonish. Nichols does his best work in the party scene after the opening titles. Benjamin is the guest of honor, but the attendees are all his parents' friends, and the divide between him and them is deftly rendered. (The scene, which dramatizes the famous "generation gap" between young Baby Boomers and their forebears, probably did the most to earn the picture its acclaim.) The film also benefits from the decision to feature several Simon & Garfunkel recordings, including "The Sound of Silence," "Scarborough Fair," and, written for the film, "Mrs. Robinson." Other cast members include Murray Hamilton, William Daniels, and Norman Fell. Robert Surtees provided the attractive open-air cinematography. The screenplay is based on a novel by Charles Webb.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Short Take: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Reactions vary to Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about the depravities of colonialism in the Belgian Congo. The common take--which has made it a mainstay of high-school and college literature classes--is that the book is an atmospheric, richly written examination of the potential for evil in us all. But one may find it an exercise in portentous obscurantism, and the prose laughably pompous and overwrought. The larger point, essentially a reiteration of Nietzsche’s “gaze long into the abyss, and the abyss gazes also into you,” seems more imposed on the material than effectively dramatized. The story follows ship captain Charlie Marlow as he undertakes a steamboat mission up the Congo River. He has been charged with finding (and hopefully rescuing) the ivory trader Kurtz, a company up-and-comer who is highly regarded by their employers. Conrad’s critique of colonialism has some powerful moments, such as Marlow’s encounter with the “grove of death,” a copse at a company trading station where several native African workers, exhausted and starving, have been left to die. And there are gripping adventure set pieces, such as the scene in which the steamboat, caught in a fog bank, comes under attack from a wilderness tribe. These scenes work because Conrad shows rather than tells. The book falls down because he too often does the opposite. The biggest failure is with the depiction of Kurtz, who is an explicit symbol of Western civilization brought low by the amorality of conquest. Conrad attempts to render Kurtz’s virtues by portraying others’ admiring views of him, but if one isn’t inclined to see charisma as a necessarily positive trait, it falls flat. The reader isn’t made to feel what makes Kurtz a "remarkable" individual, and so his descent into evil carries little weight. His death’s-door epiphany--“The horror! The horror!”--is memorably ominous, but it’s ultimately too vague. Hinting at profundity doesn’t make something profound. One’s immersion in the story isn’t helped by the overblown, gratuitously tony language. Lines such as “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” are both ridiculously pretentious and meaningless. The book comes off like a lot of metaphysical gravy getting poured on a thin slice of meat. Conrad’s later works, such as Lord Jim (also featuring Marlow) and The Secret Agent, seem far more substantial and disciplined.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Short Take: Stormy Weather

The 1943 film Stormy Weather is a glorious showcase for the period's finest African-American musical performers. The story is dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's fictional recollections of his life from the end of World War I to the time of the film. The main thread is his intermittent romance with a singer played by Lena Horne. (Robinson and Horne were never a couple in real life.) The script is thin, but it doesn't pretend to be anything more than a scaffolding for over 20 musical numbers by the film's cast, including Robinson, Horne, bandleader/singer Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers dancing duo, singer/pianist Fats Waller, and dancer Katherine Dunham and her troupe. The high point is probably the Nicholas Brothers' spectacular "Jumpin' Jive," which may be the most astonishing dance scene in the history of film. Lena Horne, in beautiful voice, takes center stage with four songs: "There's No Two Ways About Love"; "Diga Diga Do"; "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" (a duet with Bill Robinson); and the title song. The last, intended as the film's showpiece number, is accompanied by a lovely ballet featuring Katherine Dunham and her dancers. Fats Waller is a delight, both with "Ain't Misbehavin'," his signature song, and "That Ain't Right," a duet with singer Ada Brown. Bill Robinson, who was 53 when the film was shot, isn't quite in peak form, but even at less than his best, he can still hold his own with the best tap dancers anywhere. He's also a tremendously likable presence, and he zips one right through the non-musical scenes. He's helped in this by Dooley Wilson, who is the film's comic relief as his always-broke best friend. The production values are almost as modest as the script, but none of it matters given the performers. This is one of the most entertaining movie musicals ever made. The script is credited to Frederick Jackson, Ted Koehler, H. S. Kraft, Jerry Horwin, and Seymour B. Robinson. Andrew Stone directed, with the dances staged by Clarence Robinson and Nick Castle. Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Benny Carter, and drummer Jo Jones are among the background musicians. Leon Shamroy provided the black-and-white cinematography.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Short Take: Nightmare Alley

The 1947 noir melodrama Nightmare Alley doesn’t quite come together, but it’s pretty compelling regardless. Tyrone Power plays an opportunistic carny worker who graduates to working as an upscale mentalist at a swank Chicago nightclub. His ambition doesn’t stop there. He meets up with a corrupt psychologist (Helen Walker), and the two connive to fleece her patients with spiritualist swindles. The screenplay, credited to Jules Furthman, is shaped as a rise-and-fall morality play. It perhaps errs in making the Power character an essentially good-man-gone-wrong. He seems aimless in the initial scenes, and those might have had more urgency if his hustling nature was clear from the start. The film also doesn’t develop the crookedness of the psychologist very well; the subplot feels as if it’s been truncated. But the film has a lot going for it. The carnival setting of the first act is richly realized, and director Edmund Goulding gets strong work from the cast. Power brings a charismatic intensity to his role that is just about perfect. He is completely convincing as a successful con-artist; he also makes the viewer feel the character’s ruthlessness, and when things go bad for him, his anxiety and fears. Helen Walker hits just the right enigmatic note as the psychologist. One is never quite sure of how to take her, which in the end proves the correct reaction to her character. Joan Blondell has a rich, world-weary expansiveness as the carny mentalist who teaches the Power character the ropes. As her broken-down alcoholic husband, Ian Keith has a depth and thoughtfulness one doesn’t quite expect. The almost angelically pretty Coleen Gray probably has the most difficult role. She plays the carnival beauty who marries Power’s character, and becomes his partner in his mentalist routines. The character is the story’s conscience, a part that often drags on a film, but Gray’s performance is so fresh and direct that her scenes never feel sappy. The dense, black-and-white noir visuals are courtesy of cinematographer Lee Garmes and production designers J. Russell Spencer and Lyle Wheeler. The film is adapted from the novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Jim Shooter Victim Files: Len Wein

Len Wein, born in 1948, grew up in Levittown, New York. In his teens, he met the future comics writer Marv Wolfman through a comic-book letter column. The two quickly became best friends. They formed a comic-book fan club and frequently attended the office tours at DC Comics in the early to mid-1960s. A few years later, both broke into the field.

Wein got his start scripting stories for the DC horror-mystery titles edited by Joe Orlando. However, his first published scriptwriting effort, done in collaboration with Wolfman, and drawn by Bill Draut, was the story "Eye of the Beholder!" in Teen Titans #18. The issue, cover-dated December, went on sale on September 19, 1968. Wein was a prolific scriptwriter for DC during the next few years, and supplemented that work with scriptwriting for other publishers, including Marvel, Gold Key, and Warren. His most famous effort during this period was the Swamp Thing series he co-created with artist Bernie Wrightson.

In 1973, Wein began doing an increasing amount of work for Marvel. Chief among his assignments was being the regular scriptwriter for The Incredible Hulk series. Shortly after taking over the book, he co-created Marvel's Wolverine character with company art director John Romita. The character was introduced to readers in The Incredible Hulk #180 (October 1974) in a story illustrated by Herb Trimpe and Jack Abel. In early 1975, in collaboration with artist Dave Cockrum, he included the character in the story in Giant-Size X-Men #1, the first episode of the celebrated revamp of Marvel's X-Men title. The story was also the first appearance of the X-Men characters Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler.

In late 1974, Wein succeeded Roy Thomas as the company's editor-in-chief. He lasted approximately seven months in the job, which was then taken over by Marv Wolfman. Upon stepping down, he negotiated a writer-editor employment contract with the company. The contract stipulated that he was to write and edit four comic books a month. Wein continued working under this contract until late 1977.

At that time, Wein moved over to DC Comics, where he began scripting the Batman stories in Detective Comics.

Comics scriptwriter Doug Moench, a contemporary of Wein's, has alleged that Wein left Marvel because of conflicts with Jim Shooter, who was still the company's associate editor under editor-in-chief Archie Goodwin. From a 2006 interview with Tim Leong:

[Jim Shooter] was making life miserable for everybody [at] Marvel, including Chris Claremont, who bit his tongue and held his peace for the sake of his beloved X-Men. You [have] to remember: Roy Thomas had already quit, Marv Wolfman had quit, Len Wein had quit, [G]erry Conway had quit — I mean, the list went on and on and on and we haven’t even gotten to the artists.

Moench's claim has been repeated multiple times by comics bloggers and message-board commenters.

However, the only parts with any truth to them are the references to Thomas and Wolfman, who left Marvel after their contract-renewal negotiations reached impasses. In both cases, the obstacle was reportedly Shooter's refusal to allow them to continue editing the books they were scripting. Gerry Conway, who left for DC in 1976, did not quit because of conflicts with Shooter. In a 1981 interview with Rob Gustaveson, he said:

Jim was my assistant when I was editor at Marvel for about a month, and that's really been the extent of our relationship. When I worked there as a writer-editor, I really didn't have anything to do with Jim. (82)

While Shooter and Claremont had occasional disagreements during Shooter's eleven years in Marvel editorial, Claremont had a great deal of praise for Shooter after Marvel let him go in 1987. In The Comics Journal's news article about Shooter's termination, written by Kim Fryer, Claremont said, "[Shooter] wasn't the ogre that was thought. Things that were better [at Marvel] were better [because of] him" (16). He also expressed admiration for Shooter's editorial acumen and understanding of the comic-book marketplace.

As for Len Wein, he has never claimed he left because of conflicts with Shooter. In a 2000 interview with Chris Knowles, he provided this account of his departure:

At the time, I was writing Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, Mighty Thor, and Incredible Hulk, all at the same time, and I was getting too obsessed about the little day-to-day details of the job, and going crazy. At that point, DC was wooing me like crazy to come back and work for them, and Jenette Kahn made me incredible offers of all kinds of things that I could have if I came back. I was sort of resistant for a while, and then they finally offered me Batman--Detective Comics--right after Steve Englehart left, Marshall Rogers was continuing with the book, but they needed a new writer, and they offered me Batman, my all-time favorite character. I thought about it, and said, "Yeah, I'd like to do that," and so I gave them a tentative yes on the gig, and went to tell Stan [Marvel publisher Stan Lee] that I was taking over a book at DC as well. Stan didn't think it was right or fair, but I kind of explained that I just needed to do a little distancing if I was going to keep myself sane, and finally, with great reluctance, he said, "All right, fine. If you have to write Batman, then write Batman, but we don't want you to use your name on the book, because you're top writer on our four top titles. Use a pseudonym, and do what you've got to do, and we'll live with it." But he was clearly not happy. I called DC back, and said, "Okay, here's the deal: I can do the book, but Stan doesn't want me to use my name on the title. I have to use a pseudonym." Of course, DC was not happy, because what they wanted to do was promote me writing the Batman book. So, now I had pretty much what I wanted--the four top books at Marvel, and Batman at DC--and nobody was very happy.

Rather than have everybody unhappy with me, [I thought] that maybe it was simply time to take a clean break, take the deal DC was offering, and use my own name, and give myself a chance to sort of refresh my batteries and take on the other projects! So, I finally said that was the thing to do, I had gotten too obsessively involved in my Marvel books, and I came back that Monday and basically sat there with Stan and said, "Look, I want to use my own name on the Batman books, and if that means I've got to go, then I will leave." It took Stan so many years to understand my feelings, it was like, "I gave you what you wanted, I said you could write Batman! Why are you leaving?" I just felt I needed it for my own mental sanity at the time. (110)

Kim Thompson talked to Wein for his 1980 The Comics Journal news article about Roy Thomas leaving Marvel. According to Thompson, Wein said that "Lee angrily assured him that he would never work for Marvel again" (12).

The claim that Len Wein left Marvel because of Jim Shooter is just another of Doug Moench's many false or uncorroborated accusations about Shooter and his time in Marvel editorial.

Len Wein would not work on Marvel characters again until 1981, when he scripted the DC-published Batman Vs. The Incredible Hulk company crossover book. The creative personnel on the book had to be approved by Marvel. Jim Shooter authorized Wein scripting the title. It is not known if Stan Lee, who was no longer involved with the comic-book side of Marvel's business, was consulted. In 2011, Shooter wrote on his blog that Wein "was the natural choice to write the book," citing Wein's experience writing both of the title characters. He was very happy with how the book turned out, calling it "Great stuff."

While continuing to work for DC as a scriptwriter, Wein became an editor for the company in late 1979. He held that position until 1986. His most notable accomplishment was hiring British talent to work on DC titles, including scriptwriter Alan Moore and artists Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons. He also edited Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen, DC's most acclaimed publication ever, and its most commercially successful acquisition since the 1930s.

Between 1986 and 1990, Wein mostly worked as a scriptwriter for DC. He also did occasional scriptwriting during this time for Marvel, Eclipse, and Comico.

In 1990, Wein was hired as editor-in-chief of the Disney comics line. He left the position in 1992. Since then, he has divided his time between comic-book and animation scriptwriting.

Works Consulted

Cooke, Jon B. "An Illegitimate Son of Superman: Talking with Swamp Thing Co-Creator Len Wein." Comic Book Artist. Spring 1999 (). 81-83, 97. Rpt. in Comic Book Artist Collection, Vol. 2. Ed. Jon B. Cooke. Raleigh: TwoMorrows. 2002. 85-87, 139.

Fryer, Kim. "Jim Shooter Fired." The Comics Journal. Jul. 1987 (116). 13-14.

Knowles, Chris. "Road to Independence: The Great Marvel Exodus." Comic Book Artist. Feb. 2000 (7). 112-115. Rpt. in Comic Book Artist Collection, Vol. 3. Ed. Jon B. Cooke. Raleigh: TwoMorrows. 2005. 110-113.

Leong, Tim. "Moon Knight: Doug Moench Vs. Charlie Huston." 1 Apr. 2006. Link.

Shooter, Jim. "The Secret Origin and Gooey Death of the Marvel/DC Crossovers--Part Four." 21 Jul. 2011. Link.

Thompson, Kim. "Roy Thomas Leaves Marvel." The Comics Journal. Jun. 1980 (56). 9-12.

Related posts:
  • The Jim Shooter "Victim" Files
           -- Introduction
           -- Tony Isabella
           -- Steve Englehart
           -- Gerry Conway
           -- Mary Skrenes