2020 July 15 • Wednesday

Two-Lane Blacktop is a great movie but great in the way that, say, an Edward Hopper painting is great.

Look at Hopper's most famous painting, "Night Hawks". It's beautiful and it has recognizable characters and a recognizable if unknown location.

Does it have a story or a plot? Not really. Does it have meaning? Certainly not. Not unless you're going to impose a meaning on it, because you feel you must.

What could it possibly mean, after all? What could any Edward Hopper painting be said to mean?

Nothing, if you ask me. It's beautiful or it's not.

Most movies are also similarly devoid of meaning but, we hope, not beauty. A "meaning" is not a story.

Take any famous movie. It probably has a clear and compelling story but it would be wrong to say that the movie means something.

North by Northwest doesn't mean something. There's no "meaning" to Jaws.

But once you remove story and plot, or strip them down to the minimum requirements for a movie to have characters with names who do things, and then people will start exerting themselves to tell you what the movie "means" because it's not enough, apparently, simply to enjoy it for its aesthetic qualities.

And so you end up with silly statements such as that Two-Lane Blacktop is "a sophisticated look at American male obsession".

Well, that particular statement could be made about 99.99% of American movies if you take away the word "sophisticated".

You could make the case much more persuasively about Jaws or North by Northwest, that they're a look at American male obsession, than you could about Two-Lane Blacktop.

But I sympathize. I don't think that Two-Lane Blacktop is about anything in particular, any more than Edward Hopper's "New York Movie, 1939" is about anything in particular.

Certainly Hopper might have had something in mind and there's the right combination of blankness and detail for you to project any number of possible meanings or stories onto it.

But the actual thing itself is just beautiful art.

And so with Two-Lane Blacktop.

The title itself, two white lines on black, shows the title of the movie as well as telling it.

The film follows four characters without real names that we ever learn: The Driver, The Mechanic, The Girl and GTO.

It's pretty clear how The Driver (James Taylor) and The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) get their names. Equally clear for The Girl (Laurie Bird). Warren Oates is GTO because that's the car he's driving.

The Driver and The Mechanic drive around the country in an astonishingly blank-looking 1955 Chevy racing people for money. They pick up The Girl hitchhiking and then start racing GTO cross country, with the prize being their cars instead of cash.

But this idea is soon dropped without explanation and we're left to wonder more about who these people might be than what they do.

One of the attractions of movies is that every single thing in a movie could be a metaphor but doesn't have to be.

And so they're are some shots that might mean something but of course might not.

Is it significant in this shot that the GTO faces one way, the Chevy faces the opposite way and a third car of a different color is lifted off the ground and perpendicular to both other cars?

How about this one? Does it suggest that The Driver and The Mechanic are imprisoned by their compulsion to live only for racing and driving and speed, and that GTO and The Girl are viewing them from the outside, wanting an intimate human connection but not at the cost of becoming trapped in some similar cage?

Does the reverse shot suggest that The Driver and The Mechanic perceive GTO to be just as trapped in his way?

Definitely maybe!

GTO famously tells a different story about himself to everyone he meets. He has music to play for any occasion and a well stocked wet bar in his trunk.

Part chameleon but probably not a pathological liar, he seems lonely to the point of desperation, though terrified of getting too close to people.

Harry Dean Stanton shows up as hitchhiker who makes a sexual advance toward GTO. GTO rejects him but it's not exactly clear why he rejects him. It seems not to be gay sex in particular but sex in general and the presumed vulnerability that are too much for him.

Warren Oates gives one of his best performances as GTO. As part of his ever-shifting nature, he changes his colors, very chameleon-like, in almost every scene.

Do the different colors mean anything more than that? Does the actual color correspond somehow to the person or persons he's with? Are they meant to match the colors on their map?

Does the following shot suggest that The Driver and The Girl are literally "on the fence" about what they're doing and where they should go from here?

Definitely maybe!

But mostly it's just mysteriously beautiful.


2020 July 13 • Monday

The great maestro Ennio Morricone, one of the titans of music in general and soundtrack music in particular, left us last week. But we still have hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of his music to listen to.

for our 630th Soundtrack of the Week, we sat down with Morricone's Dedicato Al Mare Egeo.

The main title theme is a delicious fusion or pop, jazz, classical and exotica with one of the meastro’s most beautiful and stirring melodies—from a career with dozenss of devastatingly brilliant melodies and lyricism. The theme is first presented by violin and then given a wordless vocal rendition by the incomparable Edda dell’Orso.

“Un Grido” gives us the same theme but this time from a strong, gutbucket saxophone while the rhythm track is a hybrid of crime tension and prog jazz. Naked City could have done a great cover of this.

The ethereal and swirling arrangement of the title theme returns in “Lisa e Nikos” but the tempo is a little faster, the groove a little loungier and the melody played by either an unusual electronic instrument or an electronically treated violin playing in the upper register. Ms. Dell’Orso returns, magnificently as always.

The sound of a woman’s laughter suffuses the beginning of the poppy, peppy and almost disco-y “Cavallina a Cavallo”, whose wordless vocals have a silly, sunny and childlike quality to them.

“E Fuggi Via” is a short cue that begins with solo violin, becomes a classical chamber piece and ends as an emotional vocal reprise of the theme that concludes with a dramatic flourish that has a slight baroque feel.

Morricone’s ease with avantgarde arrangements, particularly regarding use of space and unusual sounds, is demonstrated vividly in “Un Sogno al Sole”, in which breathy vocals and plaintive violin playing weave in and out of harps with delay effects (seemingly), sporadic upright bass figures and percussion statements as well as gasps and occasional strident vocal outbursts.

A different theme arrives in “Lisa Del Mare Egeo”, a bright and cheery number with buoyant electric bass guitar, relaxed and gentle disco-funk groove, soaring string section and a strongly optimistic-sounding melody.

The main theme gets its most powerful treatment in “Vedere e Non Sapere”, in which Morricone gives it an “Ecstasty of Gold”-like arrangement. The first time I ever heard this theme, I loved it, but when I got to this point of the record, I was devastated by it.

No more fooling around. For “Tre Per Tre” Morricone launches a funk disco dance salvo with some sick sounds from guitar and keyboard. Your body will move.

From here on in it’s mostly different arrangements of the cues we’ve already heard, presumably original soundtrack recordings vs album recordings or alternates.

One highlight is “Dedicato Al Mare zegeo (Spot)” a short and madcap blast of samba rhythm and steel drum-sounding instrumental voice.

And then there’s a closing pop single version of the theme, wih lyrics and sung by a male vocalist. The rhythmic foundation is kind of like a funk version of a classic Morricone tension track, like if Battle of Algiers had been about a nightclub named Algiers.
2020 July 10 • Friday

As of this writing, the Wikipedia entry for Men Into Space does not mention the Men Into Space comic book!

It checks Murray Leinster's novelization and a toy space helmet, but no comic book!

How do these things happen? If we can't count on Wikipedia, then….

I could add it to the Wikipedia entry myself, That's the point, I guess.

Okay, I started to do it and then my son told me I was doing it wrong, so forget it. Somebody else can do it.

We have exactly one (1) issue of the Dell Men Into Space comic book here.

It calls itself No. 1083, March–May, 1960, which is a little bit odd. Was it a quarterly? And no way were there over a thousand numbers of these, so what does 1083 mean?

Oh, it seems that it's actually No. 1083 of Dell Four Color comics, a series that started in 1942 and ran for twenty years. According to this neat site, they stopped putting "Four Color Comics" on the cover after No. 101.

And so it also seems that this is the only Men Into Space comic that ever was!

It's pretty good. I had seen a bit of the show a long time ago but don't remember it. The comic strives for a believable and accurate scientific approach to, in this example, the problems of humans going to the moon, landing, exploring and returning.

Since it's an action and drama vehicle as well as science fiction, there are several things that go wrong for our astronauts.

While no writers or artists are credited, the people responsible for this particular comic book were quite talented.

The stories are perfectly paced and compelling, the characters distinct and consistent, though perhaps somewhat unrealistically noble and honorable as viewed from today's perspective. It's probably more like how we wish we'd all behave than how we most often do.

But comics live or die by the artwork and visually, this was really interesting and impressive.

The first thing to catch my eye was the use of color, particularly lots of bright solid colors that enliven various panels.

And then these three panels in a row, each one with a different and powerfully vivid perspective and composition.

This next panel was like nothing I could remember seeing in a comic book before and had me wondering if the artist had been admiring Australian Aboriginal art.

And then finally, this dramatic image of Colonel McCauley approaching the emergency "lifeboat".

I've seen that shot in episodes of Star Trek, which is still several years off in the future. And the rocket he's in isn't pointing nose up, it's mostly on its side and slightly angled away from the surface, so this is a perspective the artist really wanted you to have. It isn't just a direct result of what's happening in the story.

So this was a really cool find! From my favorite bookstore, Oceans of Books by the Sea in Wellfleet, MA. Picked it up last summer, I believe. I hope I can get back there soon!


2020 July 08 • Wednesday

Donald E. Westlake's Parker series, launched in 1962 under the pen name of Richard Stark, remains a high point of tough and fast-paced crime action fiction.

Parker is a professional thief, big score such as armored cars and banks and things like that. Westlake had several interesting things to say about the character, such as that he was "Dillinger mythologized into a machine".

The really good Parker novels, of which there are quite a few, leave you hungry for more like them. And there are a few of those as well.

One of the absolute best, which was first published a couple of years before the first Parker novel, is Jay Flynn's The Action Man.

It was this article by Bill Pronzini that alerted me to the existence of this book. The article itself is well worth reading.

Denton Farr is rich, successful, strong, confident, experienceds, basically has everything. But, you know, he's something of a character. Once a year he pulls a job. Never the same kind of job twice, never near where he lives. But there's something about the planning and execution of a caper that turns him on like nothing else does.

He had come home knowing an easy way to get money. Find out who's got some, then find a neat way to get it.

Neat meaning don't get caught.

He had not been caught. Ever.

There was plenty of money now. But the only thing with any beat to it was the action of going after more.


In The Action Man he breaks one of his own rules when he gets wind of a massive army payroll just waiting to be taken from a bank that's literally across the street from one of the two bars that he owns.

(The book takes place in "Peninsula City" which is not far from San Francisco and presumably one of the cities on the Peninsula Bay Area.)

Flynn establishes the character, a type who could walk over most Men's Adventure Magazine heroes without sweating it, and reveals him to the reader layer by layer.

Farr doesn't take chances.
He sat at the counter and had steak and fried eggs and hash-browned potatoes and four cups of coffee, and he thought about the possibilities of taking that payroll. It couldn't be easy or it would have been done before. He would have to do a lot of looking—first for the way to do it, then for the right men for the job—and if there wasn't one absolutely certain method of operation to use, and at least one alternate that would give a ninety per cent chance of success and getting away clean, he would have to forget it.

Farr has has a local enemy, a television personality who was able to put the screws on him pretty badly one time.

In revenge, Farr married the woman that this other man had been in love with and, with an unbreakable hold on her, sleeps around and does whatever he can to make her unhappy, thus hurting his erstwhile antagonist.

In most books, that storyline would end there but The Action Man is on a higher level. This particular subplot isn't just a subplot and takes a few unexpected turns and leads to developments that are crucial both to the main character and the plot itself.

Another wrinkle: you don't do something this major on your own. Farr gets in touch early on with a crime syndicate liaison that he always uses for connections and materials.

This man, known as The Commissioner, would dismiss the job as impossible if anybody but Farr were pitching it. But it is Farr, so it is possible, even likely, but the organized crime families are issuing a very firm "No".

The political fall-out from the operation, they feel, will cost them much more money than any cut of the proceeds can bring them.

So Farr gets it straight. Stay away from it—or else.

This is just another item on his list of things to watch out for.

The writing style throughout is perfect. Denton Farr has more bases covered than a reader is likely to think of. He's not just wealthy, he's a well known and extremely well liked and respected member of his community.

Nothing he ever does is rushed or sloppy or poorly thought out.

At one point Farr is visited by a police officer, a Captain of Inspectors named Gene Nicholls. Consider how well Farr has laid his ground work here, and that it's not just laying groundwork but also sincerely part of who he is.

Gene Nicholls liked Denton Farr. Hell, every man in the department did. He was good for five hundred tickets to the Policeman's Ball every year, and the tab for the stuff they fed the kids at the Christmas party. He would toss a cop who tried using his badge to cadge a free drink out on the street, and then send him a check for a hundred bucks when he got married. At least a dozen men in the department, turned down by every bank in town and even the loan companies, were buying houses of their own because Dent Farr let them have the down payment on a no-interest note they could take ten years to pay back, if they had to. For guys who were having a tough time bringing up four kids on a take-home of two eighty-five a month, Dent Farr had picked up the cost of babies and funerals. In most cases he did this anonymously. Where it wasn't anonymous it was a confidential matter between Farr and the other party involved.

Denton Farr asked no favors. He even paid his parking tags.

The cops of Peninsula City would fight each other to protect him.


The Parker of the Richard Stark could never be this sort of person. Parker isn't personable. By necessity he makes a virtue of distance, blankness, neither expecting or helping beyond a brutally simple binary logic of how to do what must be done.

Denton Farr, already set for life, is a man with many intimacies, pleasures, desires and at least this one seemingly pathological drive for a certain kind of "action"

It's an excellent book, without question one of the greatest of these crime heist tough-guy novels.

An additional note: at the bank, "The assistant cashier's name was Charles Rouse". Charles Rouse as in Charlie Rouse, the alto player for Thelonious Monk's quartet? Coincidence? We are unlikely ever to know.

Also, while it would probably wouldn't be useful to classify this novel—and the Parker books and other members of the club—as "existential" fiction and therefore more serious and, I don't know, artistic than what we'd call them otherwise, these books do often fit that description, and the very last line of The Action Man rather pleasantly reminded me of the very last line of L'Etranger.

The first line is "The dawn seeped, thin and gray, through the restless morning fog, lightening the hardly-moving surface of the bay, alerting the birds in the live oaks and pine forests of the hillsides".


2020 July 06 • Monday

R.I.P., Maestro Ennio Morricone.

Carlo Savina's music for the Eurospy movie Goldsnake Anonima Killers is our 629th Soundtrack of the Week.

It starts out with a forceful but slinky theme song in which a female vocalist sings in fairly heavily accented English. I can't make out all the words. "I can not stay longer / But my dream is stronger / Than —". I can't tell what it is that her dream is stronger than. But it's a cool song, kind of like a spaghetti western version of "Thunderball".

Next, while "Oriental Mood" hits the usual notes of a gong here and what sounds like maybe a harpsichord trying to imitate shamisen and koto there, it's a rich sonic landscape, deep and complex, and an excellent cue. It quotes the main title theme.

The main title theme then returns as "Instrumental Shake". I love these types of cues and this one is especially good. Not much to it and it barely passes the one-minute mark but it's great.

Then there's "Crazy (Instrumental Version). This is a romantic lounge slow dance number featuring the violin and it's lovely. Naturally there's a vocal version of it as well a few tracks later on, with breathy and ethereal post-Astrud singing. "Crazy / I am crazy / When I see charming eyes / Oh dear, oh me, oh my." It's a cool song that made me consider what a Henry Mancini/Astrud Gilberto team-up might have sounded like.

There's also "Crazy (Instrumental Version 2)", not much different but no violin and more prominence given to guitar, vibes and saxophone.

"Funny Shake" is goofy clown music with some jazz combo lounge elements in the foundation. Whatever scene needed this music probably should have been cut from the film.

Fast Man with the Golden Arm high-hat playing starts out "Action" and sets the scene pretty quickly. This tough and tense mood is diverted by the addition of scatting vocal chorus and use of harpsichord. The vocal part of it isn't a favorite flavor of mine but this track is quite good.

"Action 2" is nothing like it, being more pounding ostinato and cool keyboard lines floating on top while somebody keeps hitting a gong really hard.

The next track is "Suspence" [sic], an atmopsheric piece with lots of space and a use of organ that might remind you of old radio shows. "Suspence 2" is similar but quite a bit longer.

Then the main title theme gets an "Instrumental Reprise" with some great electric guitar sounds.

Strangely there then appears to be a second "Action 2" cue. It's like the first "Action" cue but with instruments taking the place of the singers. A later "Action 3" is similar but has a slightly different ending.

These movies often have night club scenes and here's "Night Club", a surprisingly cheery and buoyant number almost insipid in its happy simplicity. It's hard not to love the use of the harpsichord in this combo, though, and the sounds of all the instruments.

"Lounge Mood" starts out with a simiarly buoyant and perky energy but downshifts to brushes on the drums and romantic piano with more beautiful electric guitar sounds.

Finally there's "Finale", which starts out in "Suspence" mode before returning to the vocal version of the main theme.


2020 July 03 • Friday

The photo of Eva Lynd from Bowler's Handbook (1958, noted by us in Eva: Men's Adventure Supermodel) compelled us to get that actual Bowler's Handbook.

It turned out to be pretty interesting.

Of course we went looking for Ms. Lynd right away and found her.

Strangely, the photograph in Eva: Men's Adventure Supermodel has this caption, which appears to have been clipped and pasted on top of the photo: "Dazzling Eva Lynd is a little dazzled herself at the ingenious operation of Amercan Machine & Foundry Company's Automatic Pinspotter. It has revolutionized the bowling industry".

As you can see, the actual copy of Bowler's Handbook that has joined the Gutbrain archives has a slightly more staid text: "Eva Lynd is intrigued by the ingenious operation of American Machine & Foundry Company pinspotter, revolutionary development".

What gives? We might never know. We might not even be able to recall this discrepancy at some point down the road.

Speaking of the use of machines in the bowling industry, Bowling Handbook shows how bowling balls get the holes put in them, a process about which it had never before occurred to me to wonder.

We bought this for Eva Lynd but got a surprise Groucho Marx bonus.

And of course there's a lot about bowling, including a substantial amount of content about women who bowl or, if you prefer, "Ladies of the Lanes".

After noting that there are about six million women bowlers active in the US, the article presents numerous positive comments about men and women both bowling and competing, though there seems to be some agreement among the men and women quoted that men will always have the competitive edge.

The reasons cited are fairly vague, when reasons are given at all. It comes down to unsubstantiated assertions of differences in strength and stamina.

Bowling champions Hank Marino and Buzz Fazio had nothing but unqualified praise for Marion Ladewig, nine-time "Female Bowler of the Year" and first female bowler to be inducted into the Women's Sports Foundation Hall of Fame, according to Wikipedia.

Hank Marino felt that watching Brunswick's Marion Ladewig in motion was about as fine a course of bowling as any man or woman could get.

"The results she gets speak for themselves and show that a big hook is not necessary for making high scores. She bowls with amazing accuracy, because her coordination is perfect and her approach smooth. There's nothing in her style to throw her accuracy off."

Another big leaguer who feels that anyone can profit by watching Marion Ladewig in person, on film, or TV is Buzz Fazio—

"Marion is outstanding. Her style is simple. Simplicity is the secret. She walsk—Just four steps—and sets the ball down straight. Her direction is amazing. The ball goes just where it's supposed to go. Her style is something for all women and men to study," concludes Buzz.


But apparently, even in 1958, there was this old problem:

Far from gloomy about prospects of women, Hank says there is one definite way for ladies to boost their scores. That is to wear slacks wherever local custom permits.

"In some areas of the nation, it is considered improper for women to wear slacks," he explains. "Yet dresses often interfere with a woman's freedom to swing the ball pendulum-style. Wearing of slacks by women bowlers would give them a definite rise in scores."


All in all, the Bowler's Handbook was an interesting window to look through.

We'll leave you with this "Come Hell or High Water" photo of a bowler wading through two feet of water to get to his league.


2020 July 01 • Wednesday

Men's Adventure Magazines, a staple of a certain kind of mid-century page-turning entertainment, has its own cottage industry of research and reference books.

There are several places to start, of course, but the only book that I've read on the subject so far is this memoir of the female model for a huge number of illustrations, paintings and photographs for these magazines as well as numerous book covers, photographs, miscellaneous modeling gigs, appearances as an actress or extra in films and television programs, etc. She even had her own band, The Models, for a while!

The woman in question is, of course, Eva Lynd, who tells her story in Eva: Men's Adventure Supermodel, edited by Robert Deis & Wyatt Doyle.

That's the hardcover edition. There's also a paperback with a different cover and, for some reason, a lot fewer pages. (Who would want that?)

The harcover's cover image comes from here:

Don't confuse New Man's cover story, "The Passion Decoys Who Blasted the Nazis" with Bluebook's cover story, "The French Dynamite Dolls Who Blasted the Nazis".

It's Eva Lynd both times and artist Norm Eastman both times as well.

Lynd recounts her career with warmth and fondness and a light touch.

She was in Cuba months before Castro took over, had a charming interaction with Cary Grant while working as an extra on North by Northwest, won a hundred books from Peter Lawford at a party by throwing a bottle cap into a waste basket and has only glowing things to say about the artists and photographers she worked with, as well as the model who was her male counterpart, Steve Holland.

In the following image, Lynd is the model for four of the five women and Holland the model for both men. Al Rossi is the artist.

This style of painting and illustration… does it still exist? I'm sure people can do it but there probably isn't any demand for it outside of reproducing originals for a secondary collectors' market.

You might gain some new respect for the skill involved after seeing how they use photographic references to create these scenes. This book has several examples.

Eva Lynd was quite busy in the 1950s and 1960s. You never knew where you might see her. She even showed up in the 1958 Bowler's Handbook.

One of her more interesting gigs was certainly as a hair model for Salvador Dali, who was doing some thing where he created his own hair styles. Because I'm sure there was a huge demand for that.

The Dali hair style that Lynd modeled was called "French Bread". The other two pictured here are "Miss Sea Urchin" (center) and "Bullet" (right).

On a side note, I was watching Vertigo recently and my eye was caught by an issue of Swank magazine on Jimmy Stewart's coffeetable.

Film theorists have noticed this and incorporated it into a strategy of interpreting every single thing in every frame of the movie as an obvious Freudian sexual signifier.

Me, I just wanted to know what issue it was.

Vertigo was filmed in the autumn of 1957, so I presumed it could be from then or perhaps the summer before. (The November 1957 Swank had an article on Hitchcock so that would have been an amusing touchm but that's not what the cover looks like.)

I haven't been able to find any Swank magazine with that cover. (There are only a few that have the masthead in yellow, so that makes it easier to look for.)

But in my search, one that kept coming up and whose date would have made it perfect for the Vertigo coffeetable was the August 1957 Swank with none other than Ms. Eva Lynd on the cover!

She was everywhere! And she's still with us, healthy and happy in her California home though not, alas, appearing at Pulpfest 2020.

Maybe she can reschedule for next year. Let's hope!