Norman Mailer

BLAST FROM THE PAST – PAUSE FOR ARGENTINA

ELVIS AND MARILYN MONROE

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Marilyn always attracted intellectuals.  Elvis had his working class fans, the people he called ‘my crowd’.   Both were instinctive performers whose popular appeal depended on glamour rather than cerebral analysis.   Predictably, their lives ended prematurely.   Marilyn has been exalted by Gloria Steinem and others.  Lisa Appignanesi is extremely clever and level headed but the tone of her marvellous book on psychiatry and women, ‘Mad, Bad and Sad’, changes when she writes about Monroe.  We all know that Elvis and Monroe were flawed, vulnerable at best.  But the fans find sympathy for them irresistible.   The difference with Monroe is that intellectuals have been willing to share these emotions about her celebrity.     True, they often pretend that they are being analytical but not always.  They will talk about a special quality that simply touches them.

I have mixed feelings about ‘Some Like It Hot’.  It is a great movie with sharp lines and inspired performances.   Sometimes the film appears to be perfect.  Others, I think the humour against Monroe is offensive.   It can depend on mood.  ’Bus Stop’ is underrated but it works for me because it is the appropriate fantasy for a vulnerable voluptuous waif that I have always wanted to protect.   The man who takes her away from the real world is strong but stupid.  Only the idiot cowboy, Don Murray, will be able to provide a life of respect without molesting her unique female innocence.   ‘The Misfits’ is different.  It is overrated and plodding but it nags.   Even its opening scenes, where a stunning Monroe heads for the divorce court, convince us that she is simply too beautiful for any kind of life that makes sense.  Howard Hawks had his own view of the world and, although cynical, he could be described as an optimist.  His adaptation of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ is very different from the book by Anita Loos and nowhere near as witty but he accepts that the dumb blonde can triumph just like the male heroes of his action films.   All it requires is a world of stupid rich boys.  Hawkes makes sure that there are plenty in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.   Maybe the film should be dedicated to George Osborne and David Cameron.  Now there is a thought.

 

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The rise of feminism in the late 60s is a handy explanation for the appeal of Monroe to intellectuals but inadequate.  Norman Mailer was the first to insist Monroe had significance for human understanding.   Mailer has had his moments and even when being absurd he is readable.  Norman Mailer, though, is no feminist although he was desperate to deify Monroe as a remote existential goddess.  Mailer was obsessed with the unique meaning of America, his troubled homeland, and he sought clues in the lives and appeal of Monroe and Mohammed Ali.   Considering the extent of his epic curiosity it is significant and sad that this literary giant never wrote a word about Elvis.

Monroe married an intellectual and she read James Joyce which must have helped.  She was always curious about intellectuals.  Not that Arthur Miller was any better than the rest.  Supposedly her relationship with the playwright began to perish after she discovered that Miller had written that he would only ever love his daughter.   By the time he was into his next relationship the words were in the public domain.  That relationship prevailed until his death and long after Monroe had self-destructed.  Men like her acting coach, Lee Strasburg, and her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, rearranged their professional lives so that they could devote themselves to the icon.  Elvis had similar relationships with hairdressers, jewellers and, most famously, his doctor.  Hollywood money played a part but so did the presence of fame and the promise of consequence.   But, unlike Monroe, the intellectuals have mainly scorned Elvis.

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Both Presley and Monroe had to make difficult choices that invariably sacrificed integrity and growth for success and money.   Monroe complained more than Presley.   She described the Western ‘River Of No Return’, which is actually not that bad, as unworthy of her.  She called it a ‘Z grade movie’.   Elvis said nothing about his troubles.  Monroe became difficult on the set and Elvis mumbled and froze.  In Hollywood, the two vomited frequently.   The pills contributed.  But despite the similarities, one still has a sense of woman being comprehensively used by men.  It is possible that Monroe had men on an assembly line ready to exploit sexually but nobody really believes that.  We imagine her being lied to and we sympathise with her misplaced dependency on her lovers who, as Miller later admitted, were simply overcome by lust.    The more powerful the men, the less they worried about their lust and her dependency.   Her treatment by the Kennedys is not important because it is exceptional.   It is more of the same deceit, just more extreme.   And Mailer is right.   There is something America defining about Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ at the birthday gala of JFK.   This is the evening when the arrogant and the powerful willingly shared the stage with a vulgarly dressed, drugged, overweight woman whose sacrifice would concern none of them providing that their secrets and impulses were kept hidden.   And, no, that sentence does not imply that her death was the consequence of conspiracy and murderous intent.   Neither was it accidental.  Marilyn committed suicide.  The sheer scale of the overdose is the ultimate evidence of her angry insistence on oblivion.  The coroner recorded that her dead body had forty to fifty capsules of the barbiturate Nembutal.  A murderer would have been more subtle.

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The death of Elvis was like his career.  Without adequate support from others he failed to nurture himself and his talent.  He lost his grip on his life.   Perhaps there was no final self-destructive act but like Marilyn he was impatient for resolution.   The drugs escalated out of control, and the result was waste, as it was with Marilyn.  Both could be stupid and brilliant.  Nobody who takes movies or music seriously would argue that either of them can be ignored.   Monroe is memorable in a film which is so brilliant that she could be excused for being anonymous.  As the girlfriend of Louis Calhern in’The Asphalt Jungle’ she steals scenes but more than that she defines perfectly not only the weakness at the heart of her sugar daddy but also what makes him sympathetic.   This was a difficult task but Monroe coped so well the world became instantly excited.  In the Henry Hathaway movie ‘Niagara’ her sexiness is overplayed and absurd, and she weakens the film.  There is one scene where the camera follows her walking away into the distance.  The actress, Constance Bennett, said, ‘There is a girl with her whole future behind her.’   Elvis provided the same uncomfortable mix.  Only a bigot, though, would ignore the classic records because of the existence of the dross.

But somehow the sympathy that is automatic for Monroe is withheld for Elvis.  Gender is important.   Most of the women Elvis slept with would have understood his intentions but he would not have had to taste condescension from his lovers.  That only came from the people who owned him.   He may have thought he was making music for his fans but really he was like Marilyn, singing for his supper at the dinner tables of the powerful.    The contempt Monroe experienced riddled her whole identity.  Elvis had more freedom but he still experienced the same contempt.  These two victims had to feed on it throughout their terrible lives.

As Howard Jackson is touring Argentina at the moment, a few blogs from the past will be remembered.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

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REAL MEAN CRITTERS

LAST TRAIN TO BUSAN

SOUTH KOREA 2016

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There is a memorable moment in the otherwise forgettable William Wyler 1959 version of Ben Hur. It makes an audience gasp for breath but also chuckle in relief.   It has nothing do with the Crucifixion, spiritual enlightenment or the Christian creed. Inevitably the moment occurs during the chariot race. A charioteer is hurled to the floor of the amphitheatre where he collides with the horses and wheels of a passing chariot. Somehow the almost broken man scrambles to his feet.  Grateful for his escape the audience is left open mouthed when the shaky charioteer turns around and another chariot hits him full in the face. The message is clear, just when you think it cannot get any worse often it does. If that can be achieved in an old-fashioned epic, imagine what happens in an accelerating apocalypse. Zombie films can be variable but those interested in excitement can relish those zombie moments when the worst just gets worse.

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Last Train To Busan is an exciting and great zombie movie. 2016 was a good year for zombie cinema. There have been three films that distinguish the genre and these alone should make the decade memorable for cinema historians. These three films are Maggie, The Girl With All The Gifts and Last Train To Busan. Maggie provides a small scale and personal drama and The Girl With All The Gifts offers an alternative view of the Creation and the destiny of the human race. Last Train To Busan continues a tradition in South Korean horror movies and is critical of present day neoliberal capitalism. Without ever taking itself too seriously it offers political protest that shameless right wing newspapers in Britain prefer to call social satire. The film also has elements that exist in Maggie and The Girl With All The Gifts.  We witness conflict between a father and his daughter and are given a view about the future of the human race. Apart from one incident the women in Last Train To Busan escape criticism. The suggestion is that the gender is undervalued. The film has one uncomplicated male hero. He is not too bright and not successful but he does care about others.  Sang-hwa is big and tough and the kind of bloke that Norman Mailer recommended for wartime combat. Sang-hwa is sensible, not afraid and ready to rescue others.  He is not the main character in the film.  He is there to help.

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Thanks to the courage of Sang-hwa, relentless zombies and complicated humans the movie is a thrill ride. The set pieces are fabulous and the chases spectacular. In Last Train To Busan the zombies are more animated than normal. These creatures are not burdened with the dopey walk and the listless nodding of heads that often makes them too willing to be victims. Infections vary between movies and countries, and these zombies run at speed. The jerking of their limbs is convulsive, and their indiscriminate appetites create mounds of hungry creatures chewing new victims and each other.  Last Train To Busan has claustrophobic confrontations within the train and large-scale spectacle on the railway tracks. In between the action there are smart and well-timed pauses for reflection.  It is all achieved by CGI but the film moves at a fabulous pace.  No one in the audience will have time to quibble over the special effects. At one point the train to Busan drags a trail of head biting zombies along the rail tracks.  This image alone makes the film worthwhile.

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Although the inside of the train looks like an aeroplane and the railway station an airport the inspiration for Last Train To Busan appears to be the two great Hitchcock train movies, The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest. The crawl of anxious humans along the luggage racks and above the heads of the zombies has the feel of a Hitchcock movie. Somehow trains calmed Hitchcock. His Catholic guilt he explored elsewhere. There are no obvious Catholics in Last Train To Busan but there is plenty of guilt. Thanks to those self-effacing folks, the IMF and the American Government, the people of South Korea have had to endure neoliberal economics for the past thirty years. This means working hard and the winners not thinking too much about the losers. The harshness of the economic regime produced an increase in suicides.   Like The Host, another South Korean horror classic, Last Train To Busan equates suicide with defeat but also as an option for the honourable.  At the beginning of the film a mechanical robot substitutes for a security guard and waves us forward. We are entering a society that has already been dehumanised.

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Seok-woo is a divorced fund manager. He is obsessed with work and making money. In a better moment he decides to take his daughter to Busan to see her mother, his estranged wife. Seok-woo has sacrificed intimacy with his family for material ambition. His casual conscience is challenged by the apocalypse.  His daughter demands he becomes human and thinks about others. Seok-woo is not convinced but the carnage is persuasive. Humanity and compassion will be important, and Seok-woo realises that he needs to be concerned not just about his family and friends but others. He makes moral progress on his journey towards Busan. The villain in the film also has compassion and concern. He wants to survive so that he can see and protect his mother. His concerns, though, are too narrow. Thinking only about his mother and himself he is selfish rather than selfless. His actions permit the zombies to create unnecessary mayhem.

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Last Train To Busan has been described as gore filled. This is insensitive criticism. A lot of people are killed in the film including several sympathetic characters. Apocalypses break eggs and much more. There is a lot of blood but heads and limbs stay intact and intestines stay where they should be, out of sight.   The deaths may occur on a large scale but they amount to something more than a killing spree. The events in the film mix large scale battles and small scale confrontations. In the distance we see crowds erupt into hysterical zombie carnage but there are also face-to-face encounters that would fit into a Western movie. Because of the relationships of the characters and the sequence of events, the film emphasises how battle translates killing into sacrifice. Most of the humans who die in Last Train To Busan are sacrificed by the circumstances of the struggle. The main characters, though, have to decide between sacrificing themselves or others. For a good guy the choice is obvious, as it should be.   The film alerts us to what we should really think about when we fantasise about our role in a possible apocalypse. Wondering about whether we will be tough and capable, the best of what remains, is for the indulged of modern societies. Too many zombie movies are concerned with separating the weak from the strong and endowing the survivors with superior glamour. They neglect the notion of sacrifice and how it affects the really tough decisions we have to make. Last Train To Busan is important because it is great but also because it demonstrates that for all the appeal and worth of zombie movies the genre has been remiss.

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The survivors of the last train to Busan are few. They are not strong and will need to be rescued and supported by others. The Girl With All The Gifts imagines a post-apocalyptic future, and so does Last Train To Busan. In very different ways both films are modest about what humans beings should regard as their entitlement and destiny. In Last Train to Busan the scene in the final railway tunnel is poignant.  One of the survivors sings something that sounds like the Hawaiian Wedding Song.   Familial commitment and human relationships will remain important. But the challenge from the survivors to the audience is clear.  We need to be sensible about gadgets that pretend to offer status but instead only make us part of a faceless crowd, like the zombies in the film who are distracted by the ring tones on mobile phones. If human beings continue to adhere to the only fittest survive credo of neoliberalism, we are doomed. The human race can only prevail providing we are willing to help the helpless. In Ben Hur the good guys looked after the lepers, and in Last Train To Busan they support the weak and dependant.  If the strong do not accept this responsibility, they will become weak because they will be obliged to live without hope and that means hopeless. And, if a valid future for human beings means sacrifices unpalatable to neoliberal winners, so be it.

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Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.