What’s so obsessively interesting about the lives of serial killers?

Chances are, if I am at a loss as to what to watch or listen to, I’ll turn to some documentary, dramatised movie or podcast about a serial killer, psychopath or madman.

Just the other day, while my wife tuned out at the end of the day to episodes of The Nanny, I was racing through a new documentary series on Netflix investigating the Son of Sam murders which occurred in New York in the 1976 and 1977.

Narrated by Paul Giamatti, the show called The Sons of Sam (note the plural) focuses on the claim by obsessive investigative journalist Maury Terry who believed that convicted killer David Berkowitz did not act alone but was part of a satanic cult that committed the spree of murders that terrorised the city.

Then before that, I was gripped by an Australian true-crime documentary series on Stan called After the Night which looked into the series of killings that occurred in the affluent and until then quiet and safe suburbs of Perth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The crimes were perpetrated by deranged family man Eric Edgar Cooke, the last person to be hanged in Western Australia.

David Berkowitz; Did he act alone or was he part of a satanic cult?

After the Night told the story not only of Cooke, but also of two other men who were wrongly convicted of some of his crimes, Darryl Beamish and John Button, and the lengths they and their supporters went to clear their names.  It also captured very well the easy-going, carefree life in the well-to-do suburbs of Cottesloe and Nedlands, and how that sense of security was shattered by a violent string of murders and rapes.

A big motivator to watch this show was reading and re-reading Robert Drewe’s wonderful Perth memoir The Shark Net which had as its backdrop the Cooke serial murders and Drewe’s start in journalism as a cadet reporter for the West Australian newspaper. (Read my review here).

Before that both my wife and I watched The Serpent on Netflix about conman and serial murderer Charles Sobhraj (also known as the Bikini Killer) who lured in hippy backpackers travelling around South East Asia in the 1970s with the promise of a place to stay and a luxurious lifestyle and then poisoned them, held them captive and then murdered them and stole their possessions.

Charming and sadistic: Ted Bundy is a fascinating study in evil

Then there was the documentary series The Night Stalker, about the satanic serial killer Richard Ramirez who broke into homes across Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to rape and murder in a vile spree that terrorised the city. The documentary focused on the detectives who tracked Ramirez down and some of the extraordinary stuff-ups that occurred along the way. It also delved into the cult-like rock star status Ramirez enjoyed and the perhaps even crazier women who threw themselves at him.

Prior to that there was Des about the London serial murderer Denis Nilsen who lured in young men into his shabby Muswell Hill flat. Here he smothered them, slept with their corpses and then dismembered and attempted to flush their remains away. ‘Des’ was played by the brilliant David Tennant (a key attraction for watching the series).

Killing for Company the classic true crime book about Nilsen by Brian Masters (who is played by the great character action Jason Watkins in the television series) that so fascinated me when I read it whilst visiting my London cousin stirred my interest in Nilsen at the time. It also happened that my London cousin lived and still lives in Muswell Hill, a short distance from Nilsen’s flat of horrors, one of the creepy reasons no doubt I chose to read the book at the time.

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des

I also watched the Netflix documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes which re-examined one of America’s most notorious and charismatic serial killers, who also had his own female fan club. There was also the biographical crime drama about Bundy (starring Zac Ephron in the lead role) Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile that I watched maybe a year ago.

My fascination with Bundy began when I read Ann Rule’s classic of the true crime genre The Stranger Beside Me. Rule’s perspective was unlike any other in the history: she was a friend of Bundy.

There’s more for sure. And there are also shows I’ve yet to watch but will no doubt get to at some point. A new Netflix documentary about the Yorkshire Ripper looks intriguing.

Part of the fascination for me is the “how they caught them” aspect, the police and detective work, the clues that emerge and the trail that leads them to identify and capture the villain.

It’s probably then not surprising that my favourite detective shows are not the fast-paced glitzy stuff (I can’t stand shows like NCIS) but the slow-paced procedural dramas featuring believable investigators, my favourites being the dour and eternally grumpy Inspector Morse, Idris Elba’s rugged and damaged Luther and most recently, the renegade LA detective Harry Bosch in the Amazon series Bosch played by Titus Welliver (and based on the novels by Michael Connelly).

All these shows and the ones I have described above I highly recommend if that sort of thing intrigues you.

I do wonder why I am so drawn to these dark and disturbing shows, as are so many other people.

I like to think that I am not a secret psychopath with a penchant for blood and violence. Rather I think there is an innate human fascination with evil people or – if you don’t subscribe to that idea – to people who do evil things, especially those who do them over and over again.

After all these ‘monsters’ were soft, and cuddly babies once, not little devils with horns and a pitch fork.

I also think, that there is penchant in all of us – in the right (or wrong) circumstances to commit crimes of violence and descend into a kind of madness. Just think of all those seemingly ordinary Germans and other Europeans who became Hitler’s willing executioners during the holocaust. Might they have gone on living ordinary lives had a mad dictator not come to power?

Interestingly, on YouTube, a death row interview with serial killer Richard Ramirez has over 6 million views, while Ted Bundy interviews and documentaries online have racked up millions. Ditto Jeffery Dahmer and others.

Just like slowing down when we pass a car crash, it seems we can’t look away.

Why ‘Life Itself’ (about Roger Ebert) is one of my favourite documentary films

One of the most entertaining, moving, inspiring and powerful documentary films I have watched in a long time is ‘Life Itself’, about the life of the famous Chicago film critic Roger Ebert. It’s also the title of Ebert’s own memoir published in 2011.

The film by Steve James (who made the Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams) unintentionally documented the final months in the life of Ebert, who had long battled thyroid cancer, losing his lower jaw in the process, his ability to speak and eat but never his wit or brilliance.

It’s quite shock seeing Ebert for the first time in his hospital bed, missing a large part of his face. But he has these incredibly sparkling eyes, still full of mischief as he types away on his computer, making jokes through a voice synthesizer, writing film reviews and responding to emails.

Just a few months into filming, Ebert passed away in his hospital bed after another medical setback, surrounded by his devoted wife Chaz (who has continued to run rogerebert.com since his passing), friends and family.

The documentary moves between past and present telling the story of how Ebert started out as a young journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times – one of the city’s two main newspapers – and how by chance he became its film critic after a sudden vacancy emerged, a role he maintained and cherished for over four decades.

In 1975, Ebert whose non-snobbish and direct style of writing made film criticism accessible to all who loved the movies, became the first film critic to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for criticism and later a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But it was his on screen rivalry with fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel (of rival paper the Chicago Tribune) on their show ‘At the Movies’ that would make Ebert almost as famous as the actors and directors whose movies he reviewed.

The documentary features interviews with Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene – Siskel died from cancer aged just 53 in 1999 – who wonderfully channels the love/hate relationship between the pair as well as with director Martin Scorcese, who emotionally praises Ebert for helping resurrect his career when it had sunk to a low point in the 1980s due to cocaine addiction and depression.

The documentary also includes interviews with current film critics like the New York Times’s AO Scott, who wrote of Ebert’s passing that he along with Siskel helped to make Chicago “the first city of movie criticism”

“Every medium [Roger Ebert] made use of was, above all, a tool of communication, a way of talking to people — Sun-Times readers, the critic in the other chair, Facebook friends, insomniacs and enthusiasts — about the movies he cared about and, perhaps more important, the human emotions and aspirations those movies represented,” wrote Scott.

Someone who reviewed hundreds of films a year, wrote books and blogs even when battling cancer, he still had time to answer letters, and emails from schoolchildren and college students, said Scott,

In James’ film, Ebert is a larger than life figure with boundless energy. In his earlier years he was always the last person to leave the local bar in the early hours of the morning (his drinking almost killed him) and then later entertained readers with his offbeat and colourful stories from the Cannes Film Festival.

Someone whose well-chosen words could ruin a movie at the Box office (as could the ‘Thumbs up, thumbs down reviews given on television by he and Siskel), Ebert was also one to champion lesser known film makers and smaller independent pictures – among his most ardent admirers is German filmmaker Werner Herzog who dedicated one of his films to him and said, when Ebert passed away that not only was he “the good soldier of cinema” writing about cinema for four decades but that he was also the “wounded soldier who for years in his affliction held out and plowed on”.

A statue of Roger Ebet outside a movie theatre in Champaign, Illinois where he had is first newspaper job.

Never someone who wrote anything  out of malice or spite, Ebert was controversial at times, most notably in his review of David Lynch’s cult classic Blue Velvet, a film Ebert despised, but one praised by many critics as a masterpiece.

Ebert gave it one star noting that the “movie is pulled so violently in opposite directions that it pulls itself apart”.

But even if Ebert criticised movies, he would often find things in them to praise (including in Blue Velvet). Scorcese called Ebert’s review of his movie The Colour of Money starring Paul Newman “condemning and helping”.

Still I wondered why the documentary film moved me so much. I hardly knew much about Roger Ebert, apart from having read some of his film reviews, and had not followed his career closely, or his battle with cancer.

Reflecting on that question, I think it has a great deal to do with the storytelling – James is a master storyteller – which manages to capture the totality of Roger Ebert’s “grand adventure” from his small town roots to becoming arguably the famous film writer in the world, with a love of movies that never died.

It’s also this idea of a man who loved sitting in a darkened cinema for 40 years, watching and writing wonderfully about movies, and the emotions and feelings they conveyed (and it’s a nice break from almost every other documentary film I watch and like, which seems to be about true crime, especially serial killers and maniacs).

James also manages to capture Ebert’s magnetic and warm personality and his mischievous nature seen – when most of his body had failed him – in his sparkling eyes.

I give it two thumbs up!

Apropos of a lot: A devout Woody Allen fan on his autobiography and legacy

I’d say roughly a third of Woody Allen’s rather concise autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, is devoted to detailing his professional and personal relationship with Mia Farrow and responding to the allegations made in 1992 that he molested his adopted daughter Dylan at Farrow’s Connecticut  home when she was seven.

As a huge fan of both his stand-up comedy (“The moose mingled, did very well. Scored.”) and his movies (Where do I begin? Love & Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes & Misdemeanors, Match Point to name just a few) I would have preferred to have heard more about his many celebrated films. some of which are only disappointingly glossed over in the memoir – but its not hard to understand why the Allen-Farrow story is given so much weight.

No matter the three decades of denials and the two major investigations that have cleared his name (Allen has never been charged with any sexual offence) an ‘innocent-until-proven-guilty’ man he is not. Allen has been tried and convicted by the media and by many of his peers in Hollywood, where he has been  lumped into the same #metoo boat that includes jailed sex offender and former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Just the other day – if I needed reminding of the stigma attached to Allen’s name – I was listening to the podcast, Fresh Air featuring an entertaining interview with the film director Spike Lee.

At one point during the chat with guest host Sam Sanders, Lee remarked that he had been called the “black Woody Allen” by film critics after the success of his film “She’s Gotta Have it”.

Sanders jumped in: “ How did you feel about that, because in hindsight, none of us want to be Woody Allen?”

To his credit Lee responded “He’s a great filmmaker, he’s from Brooklyn and he’s a Nicks fan”. But no doubt many others in the entertainment industry would have agreed with Sanders.

Indeed, the publication of the memoir itself was caught up in the rebooting of the allegations when Allen’s original publisher Hachette pulped the book following intense pressure from Dylan Farrow and his estranged son Ronan Farrow (the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose own book Catch and Kill was published by Hachette.).

A new HBO documentary has again examined these allegations, without the participation of Woody Allen who has said all he wants to say in his memoir, and in a subsequent interview with the actor Alec Baldwin on Baldwin’s popular podcast, Here’s the Thing.

In his June 2020 interview with Allen, Baldwin, a staunch supporter of the filmmaker, asked him why he considered the allegations made against him “ludicrous”.

Allen replied: “The idea that any one of good standing, that has never had any problem in his life at all would suddenly pick an odd day once in his life to do something [like this] in the midst of a hostile break-up…the whole thing was so preposterous, I thought any common sense person looking at it would see it for what it was: The cliched accusation that one party makes against the other so common in custody cases.

He admits that the fact he was dating Soon-Yi (the adopted daughter of Farrow and her former husband at the time, the pianist and conductor Andre Previn) “absolutely” made the accusations seem more credible, but that doesn’t make them so.

“People were saying, my God, this older person has seduced this young girl and he is taking advantage of her. It looked awful. I could understand that. But we’ve know been married over 20 years. We have two girls in college. It was tabloid fodder at the time, and I understand why it would be. I’m not naïve.

“But the charges were something else…they were investigated, they were not swept under the rug and given meticulous investigation in Connecticut and over a year in New York…and they said there was no thought this child was ever bothered in anyway.

“I feel better they investigated it, I don’t have to feel this thing was ever side-pocketed…they really followed up on it and those were the conclusions they came to.

“I was never alone with my daughter [at the time of the alleged behaviour]. My son Moses will testify to this. I was always in a room with a lot of people, on the sofa, watching TV. I may have sat on the floor and lay my head down on her lap for a second, but to infer anything sinister from that is crazy.”

Allen says his philosophy was to not focus on any of the “rubbish” being said, but just to work, which he did .

“From the moment the false accusation was made, I worked. I did a million films, I wrote for the theater, I toured my jazz band, I played every week at the Carlyle Hotel. If you just keep your nose to the grindstone and work…”

All of this is elaborated on in detail in the memoir alongside a deeply affectionate portrait Allen paints of his wife Soon-Yi.

It is interesting to note that Mia Farrow, an outstanding actress in my opinion, has appeared in 13 Woody Allen movies, from a Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy in 1982 to Husbands and Wives in 1992, the last of which was filmed at the time their relationship was descending into anarchy, when Farrow discovered erotic Polaroid photos of him and Soon-Yi.

Woody Allen at Cannes in 2016. Pic credit: Georges Biard

While the media focus has always been on Allen’s marriage to a woman 35 years his junior, whom he knew as a child, in his memoir he paints a very damaging picture of Farrow as an often cruel mother who collected children like “toys” – she adopted 10 and had four of her own – and who was especially unkind to Soon-Yi, threatening to send her to an insane asylum.

Allen also reminds readers that three of Farrow’s adopted children died young and that her brother the businessman John Villiers-Farrow was jailed in 2002 for the sexual abuse of two young boys. (Another brother, the sculptor Patrick Farrow, committed suicide in 2009.)

He also notes the irony that Farrow flew to London in 2005 to defend the film director Roman Polanski (Farrow starred in his brilliant horror film Rosemary’s Baby) despite Polanski pleading guilt in 1977 to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old minor.

None of these events I understand are included in the HBO documentary.

In Allen’s retelling of events, he was a doting father, who was denied a relationship with his children by a woman bent on revenge.

“A little girl, just turned seven…is taken from a loving father forever, placed in the hands of her out-of-control mother during an emotionally confusing crisis, suggested to by her mother that she was abused, then her denials are finessed over years of contact with only one parent and she is taught, led over time, to believe she has been molested.”

Despite the lengthy focus on his relationship with Farrow, where he chides himself for not recognising the “red flags” early on, Allen does not come across as bitter. When he talks about Farrow’s alleged cruel behaviour towards her children he merely asserts that what he is saying is true over and over again.

 “And how have I taken all this? And why is it when attacked I rarely spoke out or seemed overly upset? Well, given the malignant chaos of a purposeless universe, what’s one little false allegation in the scheme of things? Second being a misanthropist has its saving grace – people can never disappoint you.”

That attitude certainly helps dealing with a rapid press mob which Allen says have promoted and given substance to Farrow’s claims and the many actors, who worked with Allen in his movies, but who later stated they regretted working with him though never so far, he points out, to return their paychecks or Oscars.

It is interesting to consider, in light of the allegations and theTime’s Up movement to support victims of sexual harassment, that Woody Allen has probably created more memorable and powerful roles for woman than any other director in the history of cinema, many of whom have won or be nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.

He also claims that not a single actress young or old has ever accused him of untoward behaviour, unlike so many other big name directors and actors.

While the memoir is disappointingly and strangely devoid of any photographs, I think it says a lot that the only picture on the back cover, a great shot of Allen stretched out on a couch, was taken by his former girlfriend and long-time collaborator Diane Keaton.

There is of course thankfully a great deal more Allen talks about in the memoir than his disastrous relationship with Mia Farrow and the terrible consequences of it.

I found there was an intimacy to his writing, that I was part of his inner circle. While I have given up hope of ever sharing a coffee  with him, I do feel at least that I got to know him a little better.

Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of the book are Allen’s stories about his childhood as a freckly-faced baseball-obssessed redhead living on 14th Street, Brooklyn and the tales of his gambling, philandering, but loving father who would stuff $20 notes into his pocket while he slept, leaving it up to his more stern and serious mother to keep the household together.

He  confesses, that even though his mother was the better parent, he loved his father more because he was a “sweet guy, warmer, more demonstrably affectionate, while she took no prisoners”.

It’s a heartfelt and very amusing  glimpse into Allen’s early years reminiscent of the opening scenes in Annie Hall, when a young Alvy Singer talks to the camera As a reader you really feel as if Allen is confiding in you and sharing his inner thoughts. A huge fan that I am, it was wonderfully satisfying.

It’s interesting that Allen rejects any claims to be an intellectual – in fact, despite his nerdy appearance he was quite sporty – a point he makes frequently in the book, claiming that he instead has a flair for appropriating erudite snippets that he did not really understand and utilising them in his work “to give the deceptive impression of knowing more than I do”.

He is also extremely self-deprecating about his achievements, especially his work, often attributing its surprising success to cinematographers, editors and co-writers, while always accepting sole responsibility for his flops and failures.

Luck, Allen says played a huge part in the successful career he has had: from getting picked to write jokes that celebrities used in their newspaper columns, to being introduced to the great comedian Sid Caeser (after writing sketches for three seasons at a summer resort in Pennsylvania).

Then, after his stand-up comedy took off, meeting Hollywood superstar Warren Beatty who wanted him to write a comedy. This culminated in 1965’s What’s New Pussycat? which though a bad film in Allen’s opinion, turned into a huge box office hit and paved the way for a long career as an auteur director.

While that luck may have deserted him from 1992 onwards, Allen has just gotten on with his life, making movies, experimenting with different genres and ideas and creating many of his most memorable movies.

While the memoir is ultimately a vehicle for him to tell his side of the story in the Allen-Farrow saga, he has come to terms with the fact that some people won’t ever change their minds about him who “despite all logic, for one reason or another didn’t seem to want to get it.

“Nothing could stir them from the idea that I’d raped Mia’s underage backward child or married my daughter or molested Dylan. I had faith that in due time, common sense, reason and the evidence would descend upon even the most phlegmatic mouth breather, but I also picked Hillary to win.”

An amicable split on screen: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow played a divorced couple in Hannah and Her Sisters.

As a postcript to reading his memoir, I watched Allen’s celebrated comedy- drama Hannah and her Sisters, made in 1986.

I had seen it before, but had largely forgotten the plot which is the story of the loves and lives of three sisters in a large well-off New York family of actors and entertainers.

It’s a wonderful movie, blending dark comedy and pathos in a way only Woody Allen can.

Spookily, the cast contains many of the people who would figure prominently in the abuse allegations.

There’s Allen himself, who plays Mickey, a neurotic television executive having an existenial crisis after finding out he doesn’t have cancer.

His ex-wife Hannah, a Broadway star is tenderly played by Mia Farrow while Moses Farrow (a staunch support of his father) and his future wife Soon-Yi both have cameo appearances as guests at the Thanksgiving dinners that bookend the film

But in a case of art not imitating future life, Mickey and Hannah have parted amicably, remain friends and he is welcomed into her apartment to bring birthday presents to their twin boys. He’s even invited to the second thanksgiving family dinner despite marrying Hannah’s cooky sister Holly (played by Dianne Wiest) and impregnating her.

Reading Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ in the age of Trump

“But why did you go,” my mother asked him, “when it was bound to upset you like this?”

“I went,” he told her, “because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country. If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”

While this may sound like someone reacting to another surreal and disturbing moment in the loony Trump presidency, for example the January 6 storming of the Capitol Building in Washington by far right extremists, it is in fact an extract from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel ‘The Plot Against America’.

The people “in charge” are the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his far-right cronies in the Republican party, who in Roth’s re-imagining of American history, have swept to power in 1940 (defeating FDR) on a promise of keeping the country out of the War in Europe (“Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war” is their slogan) and maintaining cordial relations with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Roth tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark, New Jersey as they adjust – with increasing fear – to life under the anti-semitic policies of a populist leader amid the darkening perceptions of Jews in mainstream American life.

As with many of his books, Roth used his own family as the model for the fictional one in the novel.

He tells the story from the remembered perspective of his seven-year-old self living in a tidy second-floor flat in the “southwest corner of New Jersey’s largest city” which he shares with his father Herman, a hardworking insurance salesman, his loving mother Bess and his willful 12-year-old brother Stanley.

“Our homeland was America.

Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed,” narrates Philip.

Soon after newly inaugurated President Lindbergh has flown to Iceland to meet Adolf Hitler and sign an agreement of peaceful relations between America and Germany, the Roth family take a long-planned holiday to Washington DC to prove to their children that America is not a fascist country, despite who is in office.

But things soon turns sinister when after returning to their hotel from a day’s sightseeing, the Roth’s find their bags packed and lined up in the hotel foyer, because the room they have booked is no longer available.

“Dear, let’s just go,” she (Philip’s mother)  beseeched my father. “Mr Taylor [the Roth’s tour guide] found us a room nearby.”

No!” my father cried and he threw off the hand with which she tried to snatch his  arm. “This policeman knows why we were evicted. He knows, the manager knows, everybody in this lobby knows.”

Later on in the trip there is an ugly incident in a Washington café involving  another diner, who refers to Walter Winchell, the famed New York columnist and radio journalist – a central character in the novel who uses his public platform to denounce Lindbergh – as a “loudmouth Jew with too much power”

“Loudmouth Jew. And for the second time in less than forty-eight hours,” Roth’s young narrator remarks.

Philip Roth, an American literary giant

Philip Roth says he got the inspiration for the book from a line he read in historian Arthur J Schlesinger’s (no relation) book ‘A Life in the 20th Century’ about the isolationist wing of the Republican Party who wanted to nominate Charles Lindbergh as the 1940 presidential candidate.

“It made me think, ‘What if they had?’ and I wrote the question in the margin. Between writing down that question and the fully evolved book there were three years of work, but that’s how the idea came to me,” Roth said in a September 2004 essay he wrote in the New York Times.

He said in a separate NYT interview in 2004 that Lindbergh’s name was “loaded” because he was a hero to the entire world for his record-breaking solo flight across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris.

“Then in the late 1930s he ceased being a hero in our household because he began to seem like an anti-semite. His diaries….show that he was essentially a white supremecist. Jews were distatestful to him. They were inferior to him,” Roth said.

After the family returns from Washington, Lindbergh’s newly created sinister Office of American Absorption (OAA) creates a program called “Just Folks” designed to get young Jews to work in rural farming areas. The Roth’s elder son Sandy, a gifted artist, signs up and goes to work in Kentucky where he can “live on a farm…draw all the things there. Tractors. Barns. Animals. All kinds of animals”.

To Sandy, who hides a sketch of Charles Lindbergh in his portfolio under his bed, the farm experience is idyllic. But to Herman Roth, Just Folks is merely an anti-Semitic plot to separate Jewish boys from their families.

Herman sees everything the Lindbergh administration does in its true light. This puts him at war with his eldest son and his naive sister-in-law Evelyn, who is engaged to be married to Newark’s conservative Jewish leader, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf.

It is Bengelsdorf, who endorsed Lindbergh at campaign rallies, that helped legitimise the aviator’s anti-war and anti-semitic rhetoric that swept him to power in a landslide. Bengelsdorf is then appointed as executive director of the OAA.

Like Sandy, Evelyn refuses to believe Lindbergh has evil intentions against the Jews because her husband-to-be is part of his administration. She calls her brother-in-law Herman “another Jew afraid of his shadow”.

Telling the story of America’s rapid decline under Lindbegh, Roth brilliantly weaves in reimagined historical events and real political figures of the times into the story including, most chillingly, a state visit to the White House by Nazi Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (executed in 1946).

Evelyn attends as the partner of Rabbi Bengelsdorf  where she dances with Von Ribbentrop, appearing in news reel footage that Philip watches when he sneaks into the neighbourhood cinema.

“I found him a very charming gentleman and highly intelligent….” says Evelyn of her Nazi dancing companion.

While reading the novel, amid the November presidential election and all its craziness, I could not help think about Donald Trump, a populist and far right sympathiser who unlike Lindbergh did become US president and whose four years in office were marked by chaos and a rapid disintegration of American democratic values. Many have called Trump a dictator.

It also made think of all my fellow Jews around the world, especially in America, who supported President Trump because he is a so-called friend of Israel (that is the most common explanation I hear). However, they conveniently brush aside or willfully forget that Trump has been a strong supporter of the far right white supremacist movement, which is no friend of the Jews.

Poster for the HBO miniseries.

Perhaps they would identify with Roth’s brilliant creation Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who in his pursuit of power, stoops so low as to dine with Lindbergh’s Nazi friends.

In an interview with the New York Times in January 2018 – a few months before he passed away aged 85 – Roth said that while Charles Lindbergh may have been a genuine racist and anti-semite, he was also because of his flying feats a “genuine American hero”

“Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac, “ says Roth.

I couldn’t agree more.

The Plot Against America is a riveting historical novel that will surely resonate with readers in the post-Trump age as we ponder who might be the next popular figure to make a claim for the White House on a platform of lies and disinformation.

Philip Roth said in the same 2004 NYT essay that because the events he depicted in his novel did not happen in America despite many seeds for them occurring being present (other virulent and influential anti-semites at the time of Lindbergh included carmaker Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose Jew-hating radio show was broadcast to tens of millions), it shows how “how lucky we Americans are”.

While Joe Biden has promised to restore America’s democratic values, that luck may have run out.

(Footnote: The Plot Against America has been made into an HBO miniseries by David Simon, the creator of The Wire (one of the best TV shows of all time).

It stars among others Winona Ryder as Evelyn Finkel and the great John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf – I am eager to see it.)

‘Happiness’ – is Todd Solondz’s masterpiece the most subversive film of all time?

If you want to have your mind blown cinematically, do yourself a favour and track down a copy of Todd Solondz’s 1998 independent classic “Happiness” starring – among others – the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Ben Gazzara (also now deceased), Lara Flynn Boyle, Jon Lovitz, Cynthia Stevenson, Louise Lasser and Jane Adams.

Don’t be fooled by the title (which is ironic), this is one of the most disturbing, brilliant and darkly funny films you will ever  see.

In the style of other great ensemble cast films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Happiness follows the intertwining stories of an eclectic band of misfits, losers, perverts, loners and dreamers set against the backdrop of modern American life with its condos, office cubicles and supposedly “happy” family homes.

I watched it twice in 1998, when it first came out. The second time I dragged some friends along and I recall some of them swore they’d never forgive me – it’s that kind of movie.

Then, after reading about the making of Happiness in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, which chronicled the independent film era (movies like Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Crying Game and Pulp Fiction), I felt compelled to watch it again.

It was pretty hard to find it online – the film has slipped somewhat into obscurity. But with a bit of perseverance I finally tracked a bootleg version* and watched it again, astounded once again by its originality as I was 22 years ago.

Among the highlights of the film, is the brilliant performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a role you will never forget.

He plays the pivotal character of Allen, an overweight and deeply unhappy office worker whose sexual frustrations and inability to talk to women (“I have nothing to talk about. I’m boring,” he tells his therapist) has transformed into a penchant for making obscene phone calls to single woman he finds in the telephone directory.

This is a central and recurring theme of Happiness – the extraordinary/unspeakable things supposedly ordinary people do behind close doors, when nobody is watching.

(Another key character, Allen’s dowdy and desperately lonely neighbour Kristina (Camryn Manheim) confesses to murder and dismemberment over a chocolate fudge sundae with strawberry ice-cream.)

While Allen may be revolting in many aspects, Solondz treats him and other unsavoury and sad characters in the film with great empathy, recognising that people are not just one shade of colour. Allen can also be kind, comforting and understanding – he just needs to find the right woman!

Allen shares his apartment block and often the lift with the glamourous, but vacuous author Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) one of three sisters whose stories are also told in Happiness.

Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) gets some phone relief

Helen bemoans the inherent phoniness in her writing  -“If only I’d been raped as a child” she moans ridiculously as she longs for some authentically awful experience.

These awful experiences rain down on her younger sister, the naive and sweet guitar-playing Joy (Jane Adams) despite Joy’s best efforts to be a good and useful human being.

The first of these humiliations play out in the brilliant opening scene of the film, where Joy is left devastated by her date Andy (played by the comic Jon Lovitz in a great cameo) after she rejects him as a romantic partner.

Andy gives Joy an expensive gift, but then angrily snatches it back telling her it’s for the girl who loves him for who he is – he just wanted to show her what she is missing out on.

Andy: “…you think I’m shit? Well, you’re wrong, ’cause I’m champagne, and you’re shit. Until the day you die, you, not me, will always be shit.

The third sister is mother hen Trish (Cynthia Stevenson)  who believes she is living the life her unhappily single sister Joy can only dream of.

All dimples and smiles, Trish’s near perfect life is centered around her solid marriage to softly-spoken therapist Dr Bill Maplewood ( Dylan Baker in a devastating brilliant performance) and the home they have made in a big double story house filled with three busy young children.

The illusion of happiness: Bill (Dylan Baker) with his son Billy (Rufus Read)

However, Bill, whose patients include the masturbatory Allen, is not quite the wholesome family man and tender father figure his wife and the world thinks he is. He’s a craven pedophile with an uncontrollable lust for young boys around the age of his eldest son Billy, who just happens to be enduring the trials of puberty and his inability to ejaculate (“Dad, when will I cum?”).

In one of the early scenes in the film, we see Bill drive to a convenience store on the way home, purchase  a teen magazine from the shelf and then vigorously pleasure himself in the backseat of his sedan as he flips through the images.

We also meet Helen, Joy and Trish’s feuding parents, unhappy Lenny (played by the gravely-voiced veteran character actor Ben Gazzara) and his neurotic wife Mona (another movie veteran Louise Lasser) who share a luxurious condo.

Lenny wants out of the marriage, but insists there is no one else. He just wants to be left alone.

Mona’s frustrations boil over into one of the funniest (and tragic) lines of the film:

“It’s OK. I’m not dumb. Things happen. I’ll get over it. I just wish you had done this 20 years ago.  NOW I’LL HAVE TO GET ANOTHER FUCKING FACE LIFT.”

Black humour is a constant throughout the film, often accompanying the most excruciating and humiliating moments.

“If there hadn’t been humour of sorts in the movie, it would be unbearable,” Solondz said in an interview in 1998.

But, he doesn’t use humour just to break the tension, nor does he use it to mock or belittle the character’s painful experiences. For Solondz, humour is the flipside of what is so sad about the characters he depicts.

“It’s often hard for me to separate what I find so sad from what I find so funny. There’s a kind of poignancy for me…things that I am very moved by I find funny.”

I think this is a fundamental truism (as seen in many great Woody Allen movies, especially Crimes & Misdemeanours). If you don’t agree with this premise, you’ll probably hate Happiness.

Solondz goes on to say: “ I didn’t know if people would laugh or if they wouldn’t laugh, but it didn’t matter. I always believe that however  [the audience] felt they would listening to what is going on…that you were seeing something you hadn’t seen before…things that are the most deeply personal are discussed in the most open and devastating way ultimately.

This is especially true of the film’s darkest character, Dr Bill Maplewood, who when confronted by his eldest son Billy  about his terrible crimes, confesses in complete honesty

The scene which occurs on the couch in the family’s living room is one of the most devastating father and son moments ever depicted in a movie. Bill, for all his horrendous faults cannot lie to his son, nor will he harm him, despite his uncontrollable proclivities.

Asked by Billy if he would do to him, what he did to his friends (rape them), Bill replies: “No. I’d jerk off instead”.

As the esteemed film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Happiness: In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity.”

Happiness is ultimately a film about the human condition in all its complexities, perversities, hidden layers and deep dark secrets.

It is in my humble opinion, a masterpiece (but not for everyone).

*To track down a version of Happiness, download the Russian social media app OK (trust me on this one). Login via your Facebook account and then simply search for Happiness on the app.

From Sex, Lies and Videotape to Memento: all the independent films you need to watch

52570Earlier this year I read “Down and Dirty Pictures” a hefty tome by film industry chronicler Peter Biskind that told the story of the rise of independent American cinema from the late 1980s until 2000.

Independent – or indie – films refers to low-budget films made outside the major Hollywood film studio system.

Biskind calls  Down and Dirty Pictures “something of a sequel” to his excellent “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” the book he wrote about the new wave of European-inspired film making that emerged in America in the 1960s and 1970s that I read a while back, in which film makers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola feature prominently.

“Down and Dirty Pictures” is a highly entertaining and educational account of how struggling film distribution companies like Miramax, founded by brothers Harvey (the now convicted sex felon) and Bob Weinstein, turned low-budget films made by unknown writer-directors into Academy Award winning gold and how Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival provided the  platform for these film makers to showcase their work for the first time and connect with the money men who would finance their more mainstream careers.

Biskind calls Sundance and Miramax the “twin towers of the indie movie world”.

The career journeys of directors like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino,David O Russell, and Todd Haynes feature prominently in the book as do actor/writer/directors like Billy Bob Thornton,  and emerging stars like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

While much of “Down and Dirty Pictures” focuses on the deal-making business side of film production and distribution (which may not appeal to everyone) it’s also a fantastic guide to some of the best films that were made during that time.

Rather than write a lengthy review of Biskind’s book – I highly recommend it if it’s your cup of tea – I thought I’d rather provide a run down of some of the films he talks about and which you might like to add to your ‘must watch’ lists:

(I have marked with a *HNS” films which I have not seen myself)

1989

MV5BNDllYWVkOTQtZjRlMC00NWFjLWI0OGEtOWY4YzU4ZjMxYzg3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UY1200_CR82,0,630,1200_AL_Sex, Lies and Videotape – a tale of sexual repression and perversion, written and directed by Steven Soderbergh who would go on to make films like Erin Brokovich, Traffic and Oceans 11 to name just a few. Made for just $1.2 million, it was bought by Miramax at Sundance and ended up winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. With the big spending marketing push of the Weinsteins it went on to gross almost $25 million. The movie starred Andie McDowell, James Spader and Peter Gallagher. (HNS)

 

 

My Left Foot – directed by Jim Sheridan, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Irishman Christy Brown who overcame cerebral palsy to become a celebrated writer and artist.

MV5BM2FhYjEyYmYtMDI1Yy00YTdlLWI2NWQtYmEzNzAxOGY1NjY2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTA3NTIyNDg@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_Cinema Paradiso – Miramax helped turned this obscure Italian film by writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore into an award winner and surprise indie hit. IMDB’s synopsis: A filmmaker recalls his childhood when falling in love with the pictures at the cinema of his home village and forms a deep friendship with the cinema’s projectionist. (It actually came out in 1988, but I am going with the chronology of the book). I watched it a long time ago, but do recall its magical qualities.

 

1991

Poison – a film by Todd Haynes, one the leading lights of independent cinema and the New Queer Cinema movement, whose later films included the Bob Dylan film I’m Not There and the American period drama Far From Heaven (HNS).  He also made the brilliant HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet. Touching on many taboo themes, IMDB’s synopsis of Poison reads: “A boy shoots his father and flies out the window. A man falls in love with a fellow inmate in prison. A doctor accidentally ingests his experimental sex serum, wrecking havoc on the community.” (HNS)

1992

GasfoodmovieposterGas Food Lodging written and directed by Allison Anders. I remember seeing this coming-of-age film at the Rosebank Mall arthouse cinemas in Joburg and loving it. Set in New Mexico, it tells the story of a single mother trying to raise her two daughters, one of whom is played by the gorgeous Ione Skye. Sweet and moving.

Reservoir Dogs  the stylish gangster movie that heralded the arrival of one of the great movie talents, writer and director Quentin Tarantino. Have seen it countless times, would watch it countless times more. Great soundtrack, cracking dialogue and great performances by Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, the late Chris Penn and Michael Madsen.

The Crying Game – written and directed by Neil Jordan, a love story with a sensational twist set against the backdrop of IRA terrorism in London. I saw it years ago. My chief memory is of the American actor Forest Whittaker in cricket whites bowling in awkward fashion. Of course I also remember the famous and shocking ending, which most who saw it kept a secret for others (I won’t tell either). I would love to watch it again. Biskind’s book notes that The Crying Game grossed $62.5m and became the first indie film to earn more than $25m in America and thus become the first indie ‘blockbuster’

1994

Clerks –  written and directed by Kevin Smith, this ultra-low budget classic (made for $27,000) tells the story – in grainy black and white- of Dante Hicks’ both mundane and crazy day behind the counter at a convenience store. Truly hilarious (I watched it again recently) and witty and infused with pop culture references, its a must-watch on my list.

Pulp_Fiction_(1994)_posterPulp Fiction – written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. A masterpiece about gangsters and crooks in Los Angeles that revived the career of John Travolta and turned Samuel L. Jackson into an A-list Hollywood superstar. Filled with so many unforgettable scenes, an amazing soundtrack and long list of incredible cameos. Became the first indie to gross over $100 million and ended up making $222 million around the world on an $8 million budget. The film that made Miramax.

1995

Kids – written by Harmony Korine and directed by Larry Clarke. A disturbing and confronting film (as I recall it) about a group of New York teens drinking and having sex, and in some cases becoming HIV positive.

Welcome to the Dollhouse – written and directed by Todd Solondz. According to IMDB.com’s summary: “An awkward seventh-grader struggles to cope with inattentive parents, snobbish class-mates, a smart older brother, an attractive younger sister and her own insecurities in suburban New Jersey.” Biskind notes in his book it was originally titled “Faggots and Retards” which he said “perfectly captures the flavour of the movie”. (HNS)

1996

Flirting with Disaster – a comedy written and directed by David O Russell and starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette and Tea Leoni. About a guy (Stiller) who drags his wife and young baby on a road trip in search of his birth mother. I don’t recall a great deal about the film, apart from laughing a lot. David O Russell went on to make a string of brilliant films including Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

Shine – directed by Scott Hicks, the biopic about the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott played by Geoffrey Rush (for which he won an Oscar) and his battles with mental illness. An uplifting film that I have watched a number of times, plus great classical music.

Fargo_(1996_movie_poster)Fargo – written and directed by the Coen Brothers. Arguably one of the best films of all time, spawned its own TV series that was equally as good. A black comedy set in the ice and snow of North Dakota and its strange Scandinavian-esque accented characters. A movie about a dim witted and crooked car salesman’s (superbly played by William H. Macy) bungled attempt to have his wife kidnapped so that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the ransom. Heavily pregnant local cop (played equally brilliantly by Frances McDormand) solves the puzzling case.

Sling Blade – written, directed and starring Billy Bob Thornton. According to IMDB: “The film tells the story of Karl Childers, a simple man hospitalized since his childhood murder of his mother and her lover, who is released to start a new life in a small town.” Biskind’s depiction of Thornton’s deepen southern accent and utter contempt for Harvey Weinstein’s threats are one of the highlights of the book. (HNS)

Citizen Ruth – written and directed by Alexander Payne and starring Laura Dern. According to IMDB: “An irresponsible, drug-addicted, recently impregnated woman finds herself in the middle of an abortion debate when both parties attempt to sway her to their respective sides.” (HNS). Alexander Payne has made a lot of great movies since Citizen Ruth including Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendents.

MV5BMzA5Zjc3ZTMtMmU5YS00YTMwLWI4MWUtYTU0YTVmNjVmODZhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjU0OTQ0OTY@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Trainspotting – a cult classic for many, based on the cult novel about Edinburgh junkies by Irvine Welsh. Screenplay by John Hodges and directed by Danny Boyle (the duo behind the equally brilliant Shallow Grave). Starring Ewen McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner and Johnny Lee Miller. Amazing performances, brilliant trippy dance soundtrack and astonishing storytelling and imagery.  Cost only £1.5m to make, hard to believe it grossed only $17m worldwide.

1997

Copland written and directed by James Mangold. It’s hard to think of this as an independent film, given it stars Sylvester Stallone, Ray Liotta, Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, but it was distributed by Miramax and made for just $15m. It was also meant to resurrect the career of Stallone as a serious actor in an unusual part, that of a tired, half-deaf, portly, do-good sheriff in a New Jersey town where corrupt New York cops have settled. I watched it recently and thought it excellent. Stallone is very good in it.

Good Will Hunting  – written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, starring them and the late Robin Williams and directed by Gus Van Sant. One of the most successful independent films of all time. Made for just $10m and grossed $225m around the world.  Distributed by Miramax. The story of a janitor from the wrong side of the tracks who turns out to be a mathematical genius, but with a deeply troubled soul. Turned Damon and Affleck into Hollywood megastars.

1998

220px-Happiness1998PosterHappiness  – written and directed by Todd Solondz with an ensemble cast that includes the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his best and most disturbing roles. A film that intertwines different stories and plenty of disturbing material (sexual perversion, pederasty to name just two). This film may appall some people, but I thought it brilliant in its depiction of a diverse mix of good, weird and evil characters in a suburban setting. Saw it a long time ago (twice). Would definitely watch it again.

Pi – written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. IMDB’s summary of the black and white psychological thriller: “A paranoid mathematician searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature. A true low budget film costing just $120,00 to make and distribute, Pi grossed $3.2 million. Aronofsky went on to make a number of brilliant bigger budget films including Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan. (HNS)

Velvet Goldmine – co-written and directed by Todd Haynes and starring Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Christian Bale and Tony Colette. According to IMDB: “In 1984, British journalist Arthur Stuart investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade, who was heavily influenced in his early years by hard-living and rebellious American singer Curt Wild.”  (HNS)

2000

71DJIt8Q3OL._SL1094_Memento  – the movie that launched the career of Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Batman films, Inception) and which many people still consider his best work. it tells the story of Leonard, a man with short-term memory loss, who attempts to track down his wife’s murderer. Starring Guy Pearce, a film I would like to watch again.

Independent films continue to be made past the millennium, but as Steven Soderbergh tells it in Down and Dirty Pictures “The independent film movement as we knew it, just doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe it can’t exist anymore. It’s over.”

Biskind chimes in: “Miramax killed it. With success. Success that was purchased at an enormous cost” by which he means the independent studios were overrun by the major studios who formed their own “indie” divisions and through commercialization.

Got any other suggestions to add to this list? Please post them a comments or send them to” freshlyworded@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

Re-reading Into the Wild: what killed Chris McCandless?

One of my all-time favourite books is Into the Wild by journalist John Krakauer. The film adaptation by Sean Penn was also superb.

I first read Krakauer’s beautifully written investigation of the short, but eventful life of idealistic adventurer Chris McCandless – who died in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 – whilst travelling around the south and Midwest of America on an Amtrak pass in the late summer of 1997.

Having recently re-read the book whilst on holiday, it occurred to me that back then in 1997, I was the same age – 24 – as Chris McCandless when he died, alone, in a rusting bus, on the Stampede Trail overlooking the Teklinaka River.

People around the world have become fascinated by the story of a well-educated and intense young man from an affluent West Virginia family who gave away all his savings, burnt his money and credit cards and abandoned his car to tramp around America for two years on a rite of passage “to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution”.

McCandless wished to follow in the footsteps of his literary heroes Henry Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Jack London and test himself with a final adventure in the wilds of Alaska.

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Chris McCandless – at Bus 142, in the year he died

After the first Associated Press article was published on September 13, 1992, about a body discovered by moose hunters in a remote camp, accompanied by a diary and a final plea for help, John Krakauer wrote a 5000 word article for Outside magazine “Death of an Innocent”  based on interviews with people who had met McCandless on his wandering. He then expanded that article into a book which became a 1996 bestseller. Sean Penn’s haunting film came out in 2008.

Alongside these mainstream retellings, hundreds of videos have appeared on YouTube about McCandless including documentaries, tributes and amateur investigations. There’s also hundreds of articles online discussing the book, film and McCandless’s adventures and final misadventure most of them captured on an excellent website, christophermccandless.info

People have become obsessed with his short, but adventurous life, his unique philosophical view of the world and his tragic death. Not all are hero worshippers indeed Krakauer has received plenty of criticism for – in the view of some harsh critics – glorifying the death of a naive and arrogant young man who thought he could tame nature, but who ended up succumbing to it in the most terrible way.

chris mccandless

The journal McCandless kept at the back of a book on edible plants

I was one of those people who became fascinated about Chris McCandless, in particular  his tragic end and the mystery about what actually killed in. That fascination has never died, and I found myself, upon re-reading the book this year, scouring the internet again for clues and answers.

As John Krakauer himself wrote in an article for New Yorker magazine in 2013:

The debate over why McCandless perished, and the related question of whether he is worthy of admiration, has been smoldering, and occasionally flaring, for more than two decades now.

What I discovered is that a lot has happened  – both in terms of conjecture and scientific research – to try to come to a definitive answer.

It is worth remembering that John Krakaeur first came to the conclusion – in the article he wrote for Outside magazine – that Chris McCandless had most likely died when he mistook the supposedly poisonous wild sweet pea (Hedysarum mackenzeii ) for the edible wild potato (Hedysarum alpinum) and ate its seeds.

“Wild sweet pea looks so much like wild potato that even expert botanists sometimes have trouble telling the species apart,” wrote Krakauer in Into The Wild.

As depicted in the movie, Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) is seen studying the leaves of the plants he has been eating and discovering his mistake, to his horror.

But in the book Into the Wild, Krakauer said he had got it wrong, and that Chris McCandless did not make the mistake of mis-identification and that he was not as reckless, naive and possibly even suicidal as some claim. (Even, if he had eaten the wrong plant, some food plants experts say wild sweet pea is not in fact very poisonous.)

After McCandless wrote in his cryptic keyword diary on Day 90:  “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEEDS. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP” Krakauer concluded that skinny and desperate for food, McCandless had accidentally poisoned himself by eating wild potato seeds not just the roots. Three weeks later he was dead.

Krakauer hypothesized that wild potato seeds contained a toxic alkaloid that weakened McCandless to “to such a degree that it became impossible for him to hike out to the highway or hunt effectively, leading to starvation”.

Then in 2007, Krakauer suggested that a toxic mold had grown on the seeds McCandless stored in a damp Ziploc.

“Now I’ve come to believe after researching from journals of veterinary medicine that what killed him wasn’t the seeds themselves, but the fact that they were damp and he stored them in these big Ziploc bags and they had grown moldy. And the mold produces this toxic alkaloid called swainsonine. My theory is essentially the same, but I’ve refined it somewhat. You know, who cares? But I care and his family cares,” Krakauer said.

Six years later, in the 2013 New Yorker article, Krakauer admitted he had made a “rash intuitive leap” by suggesting in the first edition of his book that the alkaloid that killed McCandless was perhaps swainsonine, a toxic agent known to inhibit glycoprotein metabolism in animals, leading to starvation.

But later analysis by Dr. Thomas Clausen, a professor in the biochemistry
department at the University of Alaska, found no trace of swainsonine or any
other alkaloids.

Into_the_Wild_(book)_coverIn his 2013 article for New Yorker magazine, Krakauer wrote of how his theories had brought scorn from many, especially Alaskans, but that he had then come across a “brilliant” writer named Ronald Hamilton who had discovered “hitherto unknown evidence that appears to close the book on the cause of McCandless’s death”.

Hamilton’s paper “The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless,” offered, Krakauer wrote “persuasive new evidence that the wild-potato plant is highly toxic in and of itself, contrary to the assurances of Thomas Clausen and every other expert who has ever weighed in on the subject.

“The toxic agent…turns out not to be an alkaloid but, rather, an amino acid [a neurotoxin called ODAP causing lathyrism, a kind of paralysis], and according to Hamilton it was the chief cause of McCandless’s death. His theory validates my conviction that McCandless wasn’t as clueless and incompetent as his detractors have made him out to be.”

Worryingly though Krakauer notes that Hamilton is “neither a botanist nor a chemist; he’s a writer who until recently worked as a bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania library.

But after further scientific testing supported Hamilton’s theory, Krakauer concluded: “considering that potentially crippling levels of ODAP are found in wild-potato seeds, and given the symptoms McCandless described and attributed to the wild-potato seeds he ate, there is ample reason to believe that McCandless contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds”.

Alas, in a 2015 article for New Yorker, titled “An Update: How Chris McCandless Died” Krakauer admitted, following more criticism from a journalist in Alaska, that he needed to do more testing to prove his theory that neurotoxins are present in wild potato seeds and publish the results in a “reputable peer-reviewed journal”.

This he did – after further scientific research – authoring a paper with Dr. Jonathan Southard, Dr. Ying Long, Dr. Andrew Kolbert and Dr. Shri Thanedar,  titled“Presence of L-canavanine in Hedysarum Alpinum Seeds and its Potential Role in the Death of Chris McCandless,”  It appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine in March, 2015.

The paper concluded that L-canavanine (an antimetabolite with demonstrated toxicity in mammals) was a significant component of wild potato seeds and because they made up a significant portion of his meager diet “it is highly likely” they were a “contributing factor to his death”.

Of course ‘highly likely” meant Krakauer was still not 100 per cent about his latest theory and it was again an Alaskan journalist – Craig Medred from the Anchorage Daily News – who took him to task in a highly critical and daming article titled “The fiction that is Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into The Wild'”.

Originally published in January 2015 – a month before Krakauer’s second New Yorker article – but updated in September 2016, Medred posited that it wasn’t wild potato seeds that killed McCandless, but toxic mushrooms.

Medred points out that entry 89 of the 113 entries McCandless left in his terse diary states: “Many Mushrooms. DREAM.”

“DREAM is written in the largest, boldest letters of any word in the journal, and there are large, dark arrows connecting mushrooms to the word DREAM.” writes Medred.

He also notes that photos of mushrooms appeared on film found with McCandless’s body and appeared as photos in the McCandless family’s book about their son “Back to the Wild”.

Medred says a noted authority on Alaskan mushrooms – scientist Gary Laursen, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks – had identified mushrooms McCandless had eaten as “Amanita muscaria’ a variety known to make people sick and cause hallucinations. Laursen also identified other varieties of mushrooms in the photos that made people violently ill.

(Medred’s criticism of  John Krakauer’s book extends way beyond the wild potato seeds theory and claims the chapter he wrote about the time McCandless spent in Alaska has no basis in fact and that some of the books found with McCandless’s body (with underlined passages and notes that gave clues to his view of the world) were not actually his but that of an Alaskan adventurer “who’s now a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks”).

I looked up the mushroom Amanita muscaria online: depending on the location/variety it is either bright red, yellow or orange with white warts, similar to those I have seen myself whilst walking in woods near my own home of Gisborne, Victoria.

They about as toxic looking as any mushroom could look in my opinion, and it seems hard to believe Chris McCandless would have gorged on them, let alone eat one.

Even if he had tried one, according to the research I found online, it would have made him violently ill – but not fatally so – and it is unlikely he would have tried anymore.

Then in December 2018, Medred published another article about John Krakauer and Into the Wild.

In it he quotes an “authority on wild edible plants, Samuel Thayer” who he says lumped all of Krakauer’s poison plant claims together as part of a “poisonous plant fable.”

Thayer’s main criticism is that any poisoning theory requires one to know how much of wild potato seeds McCandless actually ate.

“While it certainly is true that people can poison themselves with wild vegetation, the fear that we attribute to plants is monstrously out of proportion with the actual danger they pose,” said Thayer.

Medred has another monumental dig at Krakauer, writing:

“Krakauer has never been able to accept the idea that McCandless simply starved to death. To do so, would be to recognize that McCandless  was killed by his own incompetence, and that would undermine the whole “Into the Wild” myth of a bright young man on a sensible adventure of self discovery murdered by twists of fate at the hands of nature.”

That is a view held by some – though not by me.

Regardless, we will likely never know with any certainty what caused the death of Chris McCandless. It will remain an unsolved mystery, his death a tragic end to a life full of promise.

What I believe is that Chris McCandless did not intend his Alaskan trip to be a suicide mission, and that he planned to walk out of the bush and re-enter society sometime at end of 1992.

How do we know this? From his photos of course. After all, why document your travels, if not to share them with others.

RIP Chris.

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His final photo: The card reads:   “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!”

The real meaning of ‘insouciance’

focus photo of brown sheep under blue sky

‘Insouciance’ is a fantastically pompous word whose meaning I can never remember, no matter how many times I look it up.

It one of those words that I have never heard spoken aloud – you’d sound like a bit of a dill if you threw it into a conversation (Go on, I dare you!) – but which keeps cropping up in the books I read.

This occurred most recently on page 261 of Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson when the young narrator, Ruby Lennox, describes the family car being stuck behind “one particularly insouciant beast” on a drive down a country road in Scotland.

The insouciant beast in question is a sheep, part of a herd that the family are forced to navigate around frequently on their holiday.

Just what kind of sheep was this, I wondered? Lazy, evil, cunning, naughty, haughty? I had no idea. So I looked it up – again.

Insouciant, or the noun ‘insouciance’ pronounced IN-SU-SI-ENCE means “lighthearted unconcern” according to the Merrim Webster Dictionary” or a “casual lack of concern” according to the definition Google throws up.

The Cambridge Dictionary puts a bit more meat on the bone saying it means a “relaxed and happy way of behaving without feeling worried or guilty”, while the MacMillan Dictionary throws in a more specific circumstantial factor defining it as “not worrying about or paying attention to possible problems”.

My favourite definition comes from the Collins Dictionary which defines insouciance as a “lack of concern shown by someone about something which they might be expected to take more seriously”.

“He replied with characteristic insouciance: ‘So what?'” is the example this dictionary gives.

Synonyms include “apathy”, “nonchalance”, “indifference” and another little-used word “torpor”.

Of French origins, its fabulously pronounced AN-SOO-SAYN in the mother tongue and no doubt still used in conversation by chic Parisians, without sounding quite as silly as an English speaker would.

As for the “insouciant beast” on page 261 of my novel, I can only laugh when applying all these descriptions to the behaviour of a rather silly farm animal.

On the other hand , is does rather brilliantly describe the seemingly animalistic urge to not give a shit.

It also nicely describes the attitudes of quite a lot of people in high office, come to think of it.

My father the serial killer: discovering the real Shannon O’Leary?

out-of-the-fire-and-into-the-panIt’s hard to write an honest review about ‘Out of the Fire and into the Pan’, the second memoir penned by the Australian actor, performer and songwriter Shannon O’Leary, without confessing that a large part of my motivation for reading it was finding out the identity of the author.

Shannon O’Leary is a pseudonym adopted at the request of her family.

Her first memoir, ‘The Blood on My Hands’ which I read and reviewed almost 3 years ago, dealt with the author’s horrific childhood, where she was sexually, physically and emotionally abused by her father Patrick, a sadistic serial killer (never caught) whom the author witnessed murder young women on the rural outskirts of Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s.

Out of the Fire and into the Pan, which begins with the author’s move from Port Macquarie to the inner suburbs of Sydney aged 15, is the story of O’Leary’s bumpy journey through a string of failed relationships with damaged men to becoming a mother of five kids and entrepreneur. It also charts her eventful and ultimately successful career in the entertainment industry.

While I was curious from the start to know who O’Leary really is (not too many memoirs claim a serial killer for a father) the stimulus to try and solve this mystery actually came from O’Leary herself: her second memoir seemed packed full of clues about her real identity.

For instance, she writes that in 1977:

I was always busy acting. I had a guest spot on a well-known soap opera, appeared in some television commercials and gained some extra work on a few films

A footnote identifies the soap opera as ‘The Restless Years’ and so I spent a great deal of time trawling through the list of actors that appeared on the show, to try and work out which one was Shannon O’Leary.

When that proved fruitless, I tried Googling her work as a ‘reporter’ on popular television show from the early 1980s, and another, a childrens show, she said she appeared on called the Super Flying Fun Show.

Later in the memoir, she mentions a scandalous story about her that appeared in a gossip column when she was dating a much old British-born cinematographer called ‘Henry’ and again I dug around online looking for the article without any luck.

She also writes about her work on a 1980s ABC mini-series  where she agonised about having to appear topless in an embrace with a “young blond Shakespearean actor [who] was already a star in Britain”.

All these clues were enticing, but led me down rabbit holes and towards red herrings.

In the end, it was the return address on the back of the package which contained my review copy of her book which proved the most valuable clue. After a bit of digging and cross-referencing of property records, I discovered who she was and soon came across the concise Wikipedia page of the real Shannon O’Leary. I also found other stories about her and her family online.

While, I do not plan to reveal who Shannon O’Leary really is – that was never my intention – I can say that the information online corroborates the major biographical details shared in her memoirs – though unsurprisingly, there is no mention of her disturbing childhood or who her father was.

It was also nice to see a photo of Shannon O’Leary and learn a bit about her interesting family, in particurlar her kids, which have also been successful in the entertainment sphere.

As for her second memoir, it is worthy sequel to the harrowing story of her childhood, and also an enjoyable chronicle of what life was like in Australia for a young aspiring actor and entertainer in the 1970s and 1980s.

The second memoir, while not nearly as shocking as the first book, still includes graphic flashbacks to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, who continues to make sadistic appearances in her life, a hissing shadow of a man that refues to go away, and whose crimes went completely unpunished.

I heard him laugh and opened my eyes to see him pointing the gun at me. The shot cracked out, whizzing over my head making me jump and teeter on the branch.” I think you can stay there for hours,” Dad said, as he walked inside.

Thankfully O’Leary also  takes time, amid the many traumatic and sad episodes, to recount her successes, big and small along the way. Most pleasingly for the reader there is a sense of progress, of building towards something hopeful: a loving relationship, a happy family and a comfortable home in a NSW country town.

Despite her abusive childhood, O’Leary emerges as a victor, as someone who triumphs over the rotten hand dealt to her at the start of her life. That she survived at all is a wonder, even she struggles to fathom:’Why was I spared?’

If I am to make any sort of criticism of her memoir, it would be to say that the author sometimes says too much when less would be better.

But that is a very minor criticism. O’Leary is good story teller, blessed with the gift of objective self-reflection. All of her experiences are retold with a feeling of ardent authenticity. The key moments in her life, both good and bad, become her “stepping stones” towards a place of relative normality.

For O’Leary,  the act of writing and telling her incredible story, as painful as that must have been at times, is way for her to liberate herself from her past and to find healing.

“Letting people know about my childhood was like I’d experienced a coming out – a shedding of skin,” she writes towards the end of her second memoir. “By writing the book and with my father dying (in 2009), I had liberation from my past.”

‘100 Hundred Years of Dirt’: a classic Aussie memoir

NEWOne-Hundred-Years-of-Dirt-CoverWhen I picked up journalist Rick Morton’s memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt I had a sense it would be a great read.

This was partly due, I think, to the evocative photograph on the front cover  – a lonesome tin-roofed shack set against the contrasting colours of the deep blue sky and that distinctive red earth – and the title, which suggested this would be a gritty tale embedded deep within the Australian landscape.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Morton, a journalist with The Australian newspaper, has written a fine book which draws comparison in its storytelling to the works of Helen Garner, Clive James and Robert Drewe’s The Shark Net.

I mention Robert Drewe as I just finished reading The Shark Net for the second time, a rare effort on my part.

The Shark Net chronicles Robert Drewe’s childhood and early adult life as cadet reporter in Perth during the time crazed serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was on the loose. It is also an evocative depiction of suburban amid Perth’s sand dune suburbs in the 1950s and 60s.

Rick Morton also chronicles a young journalist-to-be’s life in the making (he is only in his early 30s). But whereas there is an overall lightness to Drewe’s middle-class Perth tale (his father was a Dunlop executive who hosted tennis great Rod Laver in his living room),  Morton presents a modern ‘Heart of Darkness’ that begins near the very bottom of the socio-economic sphere.

First our young hero (to steal from Clive James) has to navigate the brutality of a remote outback station, then the oppressive poverty of a hand-to-mouth existence in a conservative Queensland country town and then later – as a young gay man – battle anxiety and depression amid the neon lights of the Gold Coast.

It’s certainly not light reading, nor its it easy reading at times, but thankfully Morton adds dollops of wry humour, fascinating family anecdotes and insightful academic research to his tale of tragedy and woe.

It’s of course something of a miracle he survived it all, let alone emerged triumphantly as one of the country’s top journalist writing about social issues – though after you read his memoir, you realise how well-qualified Morton is for that particular journalistic beat.

The ‘dirt’ in the title refers to the origins of the Morton family – in remote outback Queensland – who at one time owned five enormous cattle stations near the Birdsville Track in an area known as ‘Channel Country’ that collectively were the size of Belgium.

“It’s that red earth…,” Morton reminisced in a radio interview. “I’ve always been disappointed with regular dirt.”

It is here that we hear about his grandfather, the legendary cattleman George Morton, who ruled the family’s vast pastoral lands with great cruelty and vengeance.  It was his grandfather – Morton informs us – who discovered the bodies of the Paige family who succumbed to this most “vicious” and inhospitable of landscapes when they got lost in Christmas 1963.

It is in this inhospitable terrain, where deadly Brown snakes invade the homestead, kitchen, that tragedy unfolds when Morton’s brother Toby is horribly burnt in a terrible accident.

It’s also where he learns that his father, Rodney, is having an affair with the teenage governess. When his father abandons the family and takes off with the governess, Rick, his mum, his badly burnt brother and two-month old sister ends up in Charlesville in emergency public housing with no money. Later they move to Boonah, south of Brisbane, where the struggle to survive continues.

In many ways the book is a tribute to the stoicism of his mother Deb, who made up for a lack of money with unconditional devotion and love for her children (including her self-destructive son Toby, an ice addict) and who realised her younger son Rick, was cut from a different cloth (she lovingly referred to him as an “alien” to explain his more sensitive and intelligent nature) and potential to make something of his life.

It’s also a meditation on social inequality and its inherent unfairness (the family’s finances were so tight they did not have enough money to take advantage of ‘two for one’ offers in the supermarket) and how hard it is to break out of that cycle, with Morton drawing on his own experience trying to make it in a profession dominated by the private school-educated middle classes.

“There’s this creeping sense, this argument that poor people are morally inferior, which I think is repugnant for a start,” Morton said in the same radio interview – his poignant memoir is a powerfual antidote to that snobbish view.

It’s also about what can emerge from the dirt and grit of a tough upbringing.