The Offseason Blues

Just like live is awful in those terrible months when there is neither baseball nor football on TV (the unimaginable suffering that has made basketball, of all things, popular), auto magazines from the 1970s are at their dreariest when reporting on the offseason.

The problem is that while motorsport in the mid-seventies was wonderful, dangerous and technologically interesting, road cars were not.

March 1974 Road & Track.jpg

The March edition, which usually came out in February, lands pretty much in the dead center of that offseason, with the result that the only big racing report is on the SCCA Runoffs which, while fun, is not the same as reporting on Formula 1, Le Mans or the Can Am (raise your hand if you think it’s time for another no-rules formula so race cars can actually go fast again).

So the editors of Road & Track dedicated the space to technical articles (the one about hydrogen fuel was very interesting if misguidedly optimistic, the one about insurance truly enlightening), road tests (argh) and the Tokyo Motor Show (not the most optimistic show ever).  The fuel crisis, now with more Arabs, was on everyone’s mind, adding to the mess already created by US regulators.

Dark days indeed, but not without their silver lining, which took the form of a profile of James J. Bradley, Head of the Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library (now the National Automotive History Collection).  A wonderful article that shows how one man can guide an institution’s collecting philosophy and make it a worldwide treasure.

I now have a reason to visit Detroit someday!

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is Jungle Lab Terror in which genetically modified monsters battle communist revolutionaries in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere.  If that sounds like fun, you can learn more here.

 

The Opposite of a Spy Novel

We’ve discussed spy novels here before, and we’ve professed a preference for the books on one end of the spectrum: the unrealistic spy-as-a-superhero genre, as exemplified by stuff like this or like thisJames Bond is probably the perfect example of this kind of reading; suspension of disbelief is a must, but the rewards are a truly fun read and a welcome piece of escapism.

But there’s another side to the spy book business.  Some writers go the literary routs and, instead of making their agents superhuman, they settle for making them all-too-human.  Graham Greene, of course, showed us part of this with his The Third Man, and Conrad failed, but the master is John le Carré.

The Russia House - John le Carré.jpg

The Russia House isn’t his best known book.  That would be The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  I haven’t read enough of his books to say with any confidence that it’s his best… but I can say it’s typical.

In le Carré’s world, spies are tired, worn workers in a trade that takes a toll.  Some suffer the anxiety of being captured and tortured, and shot, but most, the ones not on the front lines simply feel the stress of being responsible for an unheralded part of national security while, at the same time, having to worry about wives and lovers, pushy coworkers and office politics.

These are the characters that populate this novel, and they play against the ones that truly are at risk, the men and women on the front lines whose very lives depend on the aforementioned handlers.

The tension in his books is of the slow-burn type.  You don’t have a gigantic guard running after the protagonist with an AK-47.  The KGB is around every corner, but they’re probably just as bored as you are.

It’s certainly not the escapist rush of a quick 1970s secret agent novels from supermarket racks… but it does draw you in to the Cold War and build a world that means the last page of the novel is turned with regret because you have to return to the real world.  The characters are well-rounded.  They are people, not cardboard cutouts.

The espionage?  It’s secondary.  Like the sex in Lolita or the car trip in The Remains of the Day, it’s a framing device to tel us about lives that might not be so different from our own, and values that are, perhaps, lost.

A worthwhile alternative look at the genre.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Ice Station Death takes international politics and crosses them with Jurassic Park to create a tense adventure with modern sensibilities.  You can check it out here.

Jazzy, Jazzy, Funky, Funky… But Not Quite as Good as the Last One

A few weeks ago, we reviewed On the Town, which we found delightful, entertaining and very, very modern.  So when another Gene Kelly vehicle appeared on the 1001 movies list–and one that won the Oscar for Best Picture, to boot–I expected to be blown away.

An American in Paris - Gene Kelly.jpg

An American in Paris is definitely a good film.  It is light and entertaining and colorful and, to a very good degree, fun.  This is a film I’d recommend to pretty much anyone, and remember it beat the profound A Streetcar Named Desire to the Oscar that year… so I’m guessing other liked it, too.  Also, the talent level in this film… off the charts.

As good as On the Town?  In my opinion, not quite.

There are a couple of things which hold it back from achieving that high bar in my mind.  The first is the music.

I’ve already said that On the Town felt spectacularly modern compared to its contemporaries.  One thing that didn’t feel particularly groundbreaking was the music.  It felt familiar in style, confortable and highly catchy… but nothing new (I’m talking about the style, the lyrics, in several places were quite daring for Hollywood).

An American in Paris changes all that.  It takes the full-bore jazzy Gershwin route which, though definitely more modern doesn’t significantly add to the enjoyment. In fact, I personally preferred the musical style of the earlier film.  It’s certainly not a failed experiment… but perhaps taking a musical audience out of its comfort zone is not the way to get them into the movie.  Having said that, any film with chunks of Rhapsody in Blue in it is a win in my book.

The story itself isn’t quite as full-bore fun as On the Town‘s.  This one has a little more emotional conflict and a little less lunacy.  If given a choice, I will always go with lunacy.

An American in Paris French Film Poster

The dancing, as you can imagine, was top-notch, with Leslie Caron playing a classical foil to  Gene Kelly’s signature style (waves to Leslie, in case she’s reading this).  Unfortunately, the signature dance routine at the end does go on a little long… and the sequence where the main romantic interest is introduced is lifted almost directly from On the Town.

But enough with the nit-picking.  This one was enjoyable, and the musical element made it a light-hearted piece that still holds the interest today.  Maybe if you watch just one Gene Kelly musical, the one to see is On the Town, but this one is also worth watching.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  Prose, of course, doesn’t have a musical score, but it does have rhythm, particularly in the shorter forms.  Those who enjoy the cadence of a good collection should probably check out his book Love and Death, which you can check out here.

Older School Art Film

There was a time when any film from 1951 would have been old-school enough for me.  But that was before I started watching the 1001 movies list.  Now, I can differentiate between a film that seems old from a film that seems old for its time.

Today’s entry is about a French film that feels old for its time, which is a weird feeling since the last French entry in this lest felt extremely avant-garde.

But Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) feels like something from the early 1930s, despite being a 1951 film.

Diary of a Country Priest.jpg

The main culprit is the cinematography, which, at times, is soft-focus, I think probably intentionally, because old-style filming is perfect for a film about the inner life of a priest.  No matter where in history one is standing, at least in the past 150 years, the Catholic Church always seems to be regarded as remnant of an earlier age.  This is clearly how the 1950s saw it and this film treats the problems of faith and belief as something venerable, to be treated as an antiquity.

But that’s not all.  The quick scenes telling the story in choppy little pieces also brings out an earlier age (and works really well), the lack of color (this film would have been a disaster in color) also add to the sense.

Most of all, however, the stark nature of the background and sets, a truly rural setting which, had it not contained 1930s cars (adding to the sense), would have felt like the action took place in the 1910s due to the prominent role or railroads and bicycles.

This is a truly interesting film, one of those that sticks with you, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of cinema.  It made Robert Bresson’s reputation, and deservedly so.  It certainly was very different from anything else on screen in its day (and before or since, too).  Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books span the genres from pretentious literary mainstream to monster horror. A good chunk of his incisive literary fiction which gets right to the core of modern life is collected in a series of linked short stories entitled Love and Death.  Those who enjoy realistic looks at reality without falling into navel-gazing or losing the sense of humor one needs to face life will enjoy this book.  You can check it out here.

The Greatest Male Star Meets the Greatest Female Star in Africa… and in Technicolor

Back in 1951 most films were still in black and white, even massively important ones like A Streetcar Named Desire (although, to be honest, that one would have lost a lot of atmosphere if it had been filmed in the era’s color).  Even big-budget megafilms that would have been better in color had certain imitations.  Bulky color cameras meant that taking them on location was a bit of a nightmare.

So imagine taking them to Uganda and the Congo.

The African Queen.jpg

The African Queen is one of those films that everyone’s heard of but that I, for one, hadn’t seen or really knew what it was about.  I knew it starred Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, which are pretty much accepted as the greatest female and male Hollywood stars ever (and voted so by the AFI), so I was expecting to be blown apart by an acting tour-de-force.

The acting, as you can expect, was perfectly fine.  Hepburn acted her role wonderfully and Bogart was Bogart (he might have been an utter-mega star, but as an actor, he always played Bogart).  My wife found the love story very nice, and she enjoyed the chemistry between them.

The African Queen Film Poster

Me?  I loved watching the African countryside roll by as seen in period color.  despite being set during a conflictive phase of the first world war, the feeling I got was one of peace and tranquility, and the color made the scenes more real than anything in black and white could ever manage.  I loved that.

And then they blow up a ship, which is also a plus.

So it’s an enjoyable flick which can be watched by people with different tastes and enjoyed for different reasons.  Sure, most modern audiences would be hard-pressed to give you a plot summary, (before watching it, I thought it would be an exploration film in which they used the ship to search out lost tribes and got attacked by cannibals), but it’s definitely worth watching.

And the acting?  It doesn’t get in the way.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel also takes place in a jungle.  It’s called Jungle Lab Terror, and it most certainly isn’t slow and peaceful.  But if you enjoy a good action story with well-rounded characters and a setting that takes a life of its own, this one just might be for you.  Here’s the Amazon link.

And, For 1973, a Fuel Crisis

Automobiles were not having a good couple of years.  Apart from the idiot regulatory push making cars worse every year and, effectively, dooming the American auto industry and gifting the Japanese ascendancy for the next two decades and more, in 1973, the US was in the middle of a fuel crisis (partly caused by the hasty and not well-thought-out smog regulations).

So you can imagine that the December 1973 issue of any car magazine wasn’t going to be a riot of happiness and joy.  Road & Track was no exception.

Road & Track December 1973.jpeg

The cover was a bright spot, however.  That red car was a Wankel-powered Corvette displayed at the Frankfurt Auto Show.  Mid-engined and looking to the future (Wankels were considered one possible solution to the impossible forthcoming smog laws) this was a dream that wouldn’t come into being until the very late 2010s (the mid-engined Corvette, that is).

But a lot of the rest of the magazine, at least the part about modern cars one could buy, reads like Consumer Reports.  With a lack of any excitement, you end up getting a huge test of auxiliary driving lights, and a big focus on how this new car isn’t quite as bad as they expected, and that new car, despite the smog equipment doesn’t quite guzzle as much gas as one might think.  They were dreary times for automotive scribes trying to find a silver lining.

Fortunately, old cars and race cars come to the rescue.  Any magazine with a report about the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance has to be good… and both Formula 1 and Can-Am were much more interesting in the early seventies than they are today (Can-Am is dead and F1 has decided that letting manufacturers develop their cars is bad, so that if you start the year slow, you will be slow.  God forbid that the upper echelon of motorsport actually show any innovation).

Anyway, this one had a bunch of fun stuff, but the part about cars people could purchase remained very, very grim.  It would be the eighties before cars started getting better again.

And we haven’t even reached the OPEC wars yet.  This fuel crisis was mainly structural, not political!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His science fiction novel Incursion is perfect for those who enjoyed Starship Troopers.  A space adventure on a grand scale, it shows you how wars will be fought against incomprehensible foes in the far future.  Here is the Amazon link.

Another British Smash

Once again, we’ve come up on a British film in our viewing of the 1001 movies list, and, just like The Lavender Hill Mob, this one benefits from being British as opposed to a Hollywood product.

I won’t tell you the name of the film.  Instead, let’s look at the elements.  It’s essentially a Greek tragedy of a film, which tells you, from the very beginning, that it ends with the death of the major love interests.  It’s written as a melodrama, and one of the characters, a man in love commits suicide five minutes in… and he’s not even one of the two cadavers from the first scene.

So how would Hollywood have treated this one?  If you said with a heavy-handed dose of melodrama, I’d have to agree with you.

And then the British came in.  For some reason, the Brits seem to be able to take pretty much anything they touch, no matter how plodding and melodramatic, imbue it with a dash of humor and fatalistic acceptance and turn it into a delight.  I kid you not.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman - Ava Gardner and James Mason.jpg

Today’s subject is 1951’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, whose plot stretches the ability for making melodrama bearable to the very limits.  And yet, the film is wonderfully watchable, as if the director had studied the challenge, raised an eyebrow and said “I thought you would bring me something difficult” and then went off to produce a masterpiece.

Every moment of this one flows at exactly the perfect pace.  It’s not a caper film or an action blockbuster, but it keeps you entertained by combining elements of mystery, love stories, beautiful scenery, questionable morals, a major car crash and even a bullfight.  And all along, the actors deliver wonderful performances, understated or overwrought as the case may be.

Of course, it isn’t perfect… the name ‘Flying Dutchman’ is applied to a person and not a ship, which causes some head-scratching (especially for a person who writes and reads as much fantasy as I do), and I, for one, don’t like the framing device of knowing they’re going to be dead at the end.  But even with all of that, I watched, entranced, as the magic happened.  The garish color of the era helped as well.

An aside for the performance of James Mason, who we’d already seen in The Reckless Moment.  Before he became a major Hollywood star, he was apparently typecast as a doomed tragic figure which, given his peaceful delivery and world-weary acceptance is utterly perfect.

Anyhow, very much worth watching.  Find it and see it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans every genre and length. His latest book is, Jungle Lab Terror, a romp through the Darien Gap… with monsters and a mad scientist.  Those who like their 1950’s style b-movie thrills with a dose of 21st century literary quality can learn more here.

The National Book of Argentina

Every culture seems to have its National Writer or National Book.  England has Shakespeare (and the US borrows him as the emblem of writerly perfection, at least until they decide that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel and stop dicking around), Italy has Dante (who had Virgil) and so forth.  Moving to the Spanish-speaking world, the situation is similar.  Spain has Cervante’s Don Quixote.  Perú has the wonderful Mario Vargas Llosa and Colombia, García Márquez.

But what about Argentina, my own land?

Ask a foreigner and, if he knows a little about literature, he would say “Borges” without hesitation… but that isn’t necessarily true, even though I wish it were, since Borges represents everything that’s good about Argentine culture.  Hell, they even passed him over for the Nobel Prize for the right reasons despite now being considered an embarrassing error on the part of the committee.

But there is one book that Argentines consider the national book, and it isn’t by Borges.  It’s by a man called José Hernández, and it’s a poem. (Yes, we do poetry here sometimes).

Martin Fierro José Hernández

Yes, the Martin Fierro (always referred to as “the” Martin Fierro, never just Martin Fierro) is the book that Borges pointed to when he said that Argentina has at least one work of great literature.  Everyone else in the country can name it.  It’s the ONLY work of Argentine literature that everyone can name, and would be the very first book most people would name.

Better still, it speaks to the very soul of the country.  Not only to the people from the ranches and farms, whose life int eh mid 19th century it describes so well, but you can also, in the fatalist view and the celebration of suffering as the only real road to becoming a man, see the roots of the art form that most people would associate with the country: tango.

I recently quoted a line that said that only in Buenos Aires can sadness be turned into an art form… but it isn’t exactly true.  Martin Fierro did it half a century earlier.  It’s something I’ve always hated about the national character, that we dwell on the negative so much (I tend to look at positive stuff much more than negative, so I end up in endless arguments).

Other than being a paean to suffering, this book is actually quite good.  Entertaining (he isn’t suffering from imaginary ills and persecutions, but very real ones), true to its time (PC crusaders will need to avert their gazes) and reflecting the politics of its time without bothering to be overtly political or naming names (something the great Dante would have been well advised to do).

It’s been used as a battle flag by everyone including anarchists, but it’s not really that kind of book.  It’s more of an ode to the gaucho life and the kind of men it forms, and even ends on a reasonably hopeful note.  The politics of the day are long gone, but we can still identify with the characters.  And that is timeless.

Finally, a technical note.  The Martin Fierro, like the Quixote (again, if you don’t want to look like an idiot in front of Spanish speakers, remember it’s “the Quixote”) before it, consists of two books.  If you only read the first, you’ll miss a lot of what people are talking about when they mention it.

Anyway, grab a copy and get to know the Argentine soul.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who writes about the world, and the things that make everyone similar–as thrown into sharp relief by the things that make us different.  If you like to read about people like you from different parts of the world dealing with problems that wouldn’t happen to you, then his science fiction and fantasy collection Off the Beaten Path will probably make you very happy.  You can have a look at it here.

When Obi-Wan Kenobi Robbed a Bank

Alec Guinness was an important actor, of course.  He was world famous long before he played that hermit, Old Ben, but unlike many of his great films, Star Wars is still a hugely central part of modern culture.  Perhaps it should have been more important to us that he played several weird roles in the wonderful Kind Hearts and Coronets, but to be honest, it was more mind-bending to see Kenobi robbing a bank in The Lavender Hill Mob.

Audrey Hepburn and Obi Wan Kenobi in the Lavender Hill Mob.png

This is a British caper film classic, in the style of The Italian Job, a nice counterpoint to the dense, grim crime films that were being produced in the US as noir disappeared into its own nether regions.  It’s lighthearted and a joy to watch, and I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the plot.  All you need to know, all anyone needs to know is that Kenobi robs a bank.

Half the time, I was expecting him to do the Jedi hand wave or go berserk with a lightsaber, but he stayed in character and used his mind to run the job.  I suppose that was best for the film.

Several actors that went on to great things got their screen debut in this one, but the two that caught my eye were not on their first film, but still hadn’t played the roles that fixed them in my head.

The first, as you can see from the picture above, is Audrey Hepburn, who has a minor part at the very beginning of the film.  She plays a charming young woman, so no real surprise there.

The second, and much more important in my view is Desmond Llewelyn, who played a tiny, uncredited role in this picture, later went on to scale the heights of movie glory.  Why?  Because he played Q in the James Bond films.

There used to be two film franchises that I would go to the movies for: Star Wars and James Bond.  Star Wars lost that distinction after The Last Jedi (I skipped Solo because I hated the preaching, message-filled stupid of TLJ) and James Bond, which is still attractive (although we’ll need to see if the character, so beautifully neanderthal, survives much longer in this day and age.  While he stays true to the original, the producers will get my money).  So Q is an important figure in my movie-watching.

Anyhow, this is one to watch.  Fun without any ifs or buts.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of a fast-paced thriller entitled Timeless.  If you enjoy your crime modern, edgy and international, then this one is definitely for you – have a look here.

Gorgeous Inside and Out

I was at WorldCon in Dublin last year and I met the publisher of Fox Spirit Books, to whom I’d recently sold a story for their book American Monsters Part I.  This is part of their FS Monsters series which already included award-winning volumes.  It was an honor to be a part of the anthology, and it was even better to receive the book and look through it quickly.

The thing was gorgeous, a square format, comics, great authors.  Just a wonderfully presented book overall.  I immediately understood why the earlier installments in the series had been so well-received.

After spending a little time with the publisher group in Dublin, who is a very laid-back and funny human being, I told her that I was surprised that they’d produced such a serious series.

Fortunately, they took is well and I count them among friends as opposed to having landed me on the blacklist, but it’s definitely a wonderful feeling to know that awesome art can come from fun people who don’t take themselves too seriously.

American Monsters Part I.jpg

As you know, I’m a sucker for beautiful books, so having a contributor copy of something that looks this good is just wonderful.

But the best part of it all was that I eventually got to read my copy and revel in the amazing job that editor Margrét Helgadóttir (a great writer in her own right) did in compiling, translating and introducing the work in this volume.

Simply put, the content matches the presentation.  Each story is very different, and each explores a chilling expression of Latin American myth, with monsters mostly being  from before colonial times.  The fact that these are most certainly not European monsters adds an unfamiliarity which makes many of them truly chilling.

My favorite story was Christopher Kastenschmidt’s “A Parlous Battle”, both because it’s very well written and because I tend to enjoy adventure fantasy even more than the quieter types.  This one is set in his Elephant and Macaw Banner world which is quite the universe (there’s an RPG and a novel, too).

Honorable mention goes to the comic “Perla del Plata” by Paula Andrade which, as a native of Buenos Aires hit very close to home, especially the phrase “We have made sadness an art form.”  Perfect.

Anyhow, I recommend this entire series.  There are big names in every book, and they look fantastic.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  Those of you who enjoy fantasy and science fiction set outside the usual European and US settings will love his collection Off the Beaten Path.  You can buy it on Amazon.