Monday, April 28, 2008

Mamet: The Fighter's Face

Great little piece in the NY Times by David Mamet about his new movie, Redbelt.
Jean Renoir said he made movies for the close-ups. I didn’t understand what he meant until I made a fight film. There is little more beautiful than a fighter’s face. Audrey Hepburn was the face of beauty, but if wisdom is knowledge perfected by suffering, the fighter’s is the face of wisdom.
I like Mamet. I'm not always absolutely crazy about him, sometimes I think his dialogue feels forced and unnatural, but he is, really, a writer after my own heart.

Work in Progress: Japanese Game

By Charlie Kondek

I've been working on and off on an article on my main physical activity, kendo. Working title is "Japanese Game." I haven't got a real game-plan for where I'd like to submit it. I'd really like to submit it to a men's magazine of some kind. Below is the intro.

* * *

Describing kendo to the uninitiated, I should do so from the outside in. After all, to someone who has never seen it, it must seem bizarre. Two opponents, gauntleted, in bright, hooded chrome masks and flowing, skirt-like pants, wield with two hands long pieces of bamboo that resemble unopened umbrellas and, screaming, try to slash each other, their bodies smashing together like marionettes after the cut. I should describe this from the outside in, but maybe because I experience almost everything of kendo from behind that metal face, looking out at my surroundings through lines of steel, I feel compelled to describe it from the inside out. If you were to go inside my mind, to the heart of my kendo, what you might find is this.

I'm twelve. I have just read in the paper that one of our small movie houses is showing The Seven Samurai. I ask my mother if I can go. For whatever reason, I can't find a friend to accompany me. On a rainy Saturday afternoon, my mom drops me off alone at the matinee.

It's an old theater, since made over into an "art house." With the rain outside, the inside, carpeted, gold and dark, is warm. Besides the staff, I am the only person in the lobby. I get some popcorn and a pop. There is only one other person in the audience when the movie begins.

It's a three-hour movie. You may have seen it or, if you haven't, you should. It's about a small village in pre-industrial Japan. Every year the village is attacked and raided by brigands, and the village has no protectors. This year, unable to take it anymore, the villagers try to recruit freelance samurai to defend them. They have nothing to offer the samurai except meager food and shelter, yet they are able to obtain seven, who agree to fight for reasons of their own, including pity, altruism, adventure, impersonation and skill.

There is an intermission. I go into the lobby, play a video game and watch the rain. When I return to the theater, I am the only audience member. The samurai have become involved in the lives of the villagers. There are several skirmishes and a mud-splattered climactic battle in a rainstorm. When the movie is over, I am changed. As I said, it's a very good movie.

Skip ahead to my young adulthood. I have lead a life not always sedentary, but not particularly active, either. At the age of 26, I quit smoking. I want to get in reasonable shape and I know instantly how I want to do it: martial arts. I try my hand at mixed martial arts, learning punching, kicking, takedowns and grappling. I'm no prodigy, not particularly tough or strong, but I am passionate and disciplined. It sets the stage for what I want to do next. Ever since I was 12, I have harbored a fantasy that I might be one of The Seven Samurai. I put that fantasy with all my other notions about swords and swordsmanship. I decide I want to participate in fencing of some kind. The university in my town has both a kendo club and a western-style fencing club. It's almost a flip of a coin. Almost.

Ode to Strong Verse

By Charlie Kondek

Some people horde their literary prejudices
like nuts are stored in a squirrelry.
But I would just like to state for the record that I enjoy the poetry of Ogden Nash thoroughly.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Happiest Days of Our Lives


Wil Wheaton has a talent for taking his past, and his present, and making it yours. The Happiest Days Of Our Lives is mostly about the past, and how it connects to the now. It’s about growing up as a D&D, fantasy role playing video game nerd that was more interested in getting high score on a game than scoring on a date. Well, maybe not necessarily more interested, but the game high score had better odds. Been there, done that, and I could still kick your ass in Popeye if we could only find a machine.

You may not have been a D&D nerd, but growing up is growing up, and I think we all experience pretty much the same stuff. Wil takes that stuff and builds entertaining, touching, and often hilarious stories around them that will resonate with anybody from that grew up in the 70s and came of age on the 80s.


By Charlie Kondek

I write. I like what I write. I’m writing, now, the kind of stuff I want to read, which, the quality of your writing and your growth as a writer aside, is a pretty good standard for judging your writing. I also feel that, unlike my younger stuff, I don’t imitate as much anymore the writers I most admire or wanted to borrow from. I mostly write like myself. But I have come to realize that doesn’t mean I don’t feel an emotion I thought I was rid of. There are few writers I envy, and those I do envy are the ones I most feel like reading right now.

I envy John D. MacDonald, James M. Cain, Trevanian, and Vladimir Nabokov.

John D. MacDonald wrote a slew of post-war pulp novels but is best remembered for his series of books starring Travis McGee. One of the best things written about him online is here. I am absolutely jealous of MacDonald’s flowing, muscular prose, his lock on the character and the peculiar early- to mid-1960s toughness that was, I think, in large part created by him and exemplified on screen by actors like Lee Marvin. Most fans of MacDonald are hung up on the character of McGee, the renegade “salvage expert” that refuses to buy into the program and lives out of his houseboat, paid for by mingling with some of the nastiest characters ever to inhabit a typewriter. You might not be able to separate what makes these novels great from the integral protagonist of McGee, but I like to think I would read MacDonald if he published his grocery list. There are numerous moments when I read a McGee novel – all them named after colors, like Nightmare in Pink and Bright Orange for the Shroud – where I want to thumb down the corner of the page and come back to a turn of a phrase, a paragraph, and if I followed through on that impulse every time I had it I’d soon have a paperback with every other page marked. Consider this.

New York is where it is going to happen, I think. You can see it coming. The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts. Until locust population reaches a certain density, they all act like any grasshoppers. When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world. One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. But this time they won’t snarl and go on. They will stop and stare and then leap at each others’ throats in a dreadful silence. The infection will spread to all the huge cities of the world, and by dawn of the next day there will be a horrid silence of sprawled bodies and tumbled vehicles, gutted buildings and a few wisps of smoke. And through the silence will prowl a few, a very few of the most powerful ones, ragged and bloody, slowly tracking each other down.

This from Nightmare in Pink. He just tosses this stuff off. And those are just the stand out moments; the guy can describe the movement of a cocktail party or a woman stepping out of the shower smelling of “soapy girl” with equal clarity and vigor.

James M. Cain was the same way. For me, it seems Hammett and Chandler are to Cain and MacDonald what childhood crushes are to marriage. Maybe it’s just that I’m older and encountering these writers at different times in my life. But while Hammett and Chandler are rightly canonized for their role in the development of hard boiled crime writing, for breaking the Agatha Christie formula and developing “the detective novel” or “the crime novel” as opposed to “the mystery,” Cain’s contributions are often overlooked, and he is, I think, undervalued as a stylist. Cain wrote with as much nimbleness as MacDonald, but Cain’s beat was the 30s. If MacDonald is exemplified by someone like Lee Marvin, Cain is Bogart, William Powell, Clark Gable – gosh, hardly anybody can really handle the naturalness of his dialogue, it loses something when it leaves the page, even though it rings bell-proper like the everyman speech that must have existed at the time.

Cain is, I think, too often remembered as a writer who contributed plots than a novelist or storywriter. In the popular mind, we remember the movies based on his works – Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce – and don’t read the works. This is a shame. But like MacDonald, Cain has a fast, flowing style, he gets a narrative on the ropes and then works it with lefts and rights til it falls and you enjoy every blood lusty minute. His work can be about the most ordinary things – for crying out loud, except for a bit of blackmail, there’s no crime in Mildred Pierce. It’s the story of a businesswoman’s rise and fall during the Depression (forget the movie). Cain wrote a book called Career in C Major that was about an architect who learns to sing opera as a way to get back at his wife. That’s it! And I devoured every word. If you had told me when I was 18 that I would prefer a story about a guy singing opera to a lone wolf detective yarn, I’d have thought you were crazy.

Trevanian, if I’ve got this right, is the pseudonym of a college teacher and drama prof. He came to prominence writing satirical spy novels but then wanted to switch genres. With each genre, he wanted to use a new pseudonym. But his publishers complained that they had already invested in the Trevanian brand, so he stuck with it. His spy novels – The Eiger Sanction, The Loo Sanction, and the highly praised Shibumi – are great and all, but it’s for his mature works that I’m really ga-ga. I can even show you the metaphor that made my heart constrict and sold me on Trevanian for good. It’s:

Those of us whose lives are draped across that war find their youths deposited on the shore of a receding, almost alien, continent where life was lived at a different tempo and, more important, in a different timbre.

This from his Hitchcockian psychodrama The Summer of Katya. Here’s a bit from his Montreal detective story, The Main, that knocked me out:

In the window of a fish shop there is a glass tank, its sides green with algae. A lone carp glides back and forth in narcotized despair.

Trevanian puts to great use the tricks of the theater in a pretty, economical prose style. He’s a master at character development, pot boiling, time, pace and setting. There’s just something very special about his work, he knows when to turn it on and when to let it roll. And some of the stuff he was turning out before he died - The Crazy Ladies of Pearl Street - are soulful.

As for Nabokov, cripes, where does one start with Nabokov. Well, the truth is, I just started with Nabokov, in a book of his stories, after years of having a friend recommend him to me. Now it’s on to the Nabokov novels. If you’ve read him – man, where do you start? The man does with words what painters do with light.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel

Reviewed by Josh Wilker

If you could have the skills for one day of any athlete from any time in history, which athlete would you choose? Nolan Ryan and his 100-MPH heat? Lawrence Taylor and his ability to search and destroy? Muhammad Ali and his fast feet, faster jab, fastest mind?

Me, I’d go with Pistol Pete Maravich.

I can’t be alone in this choice, even though Maravich has, twenty years after his untimely death at age 40, receded somewhat in the collective memory. Throughout his basketball life, which from his days as a reed-thin high school sensation never strayed from the white-hot spotlight of intense public attention, Maravich captured the imagination of fans as few ever have before or since.

People flocked to see him create a kind of spontaneous magic that in the mad forward rush of a game made him seem like Houdini and Edison and Charlie Parker all at once, escaping trouble with sleight of hand dribbling, inventing seemingly impossible pathways with his contortionist passes, stretching the music of the game by playing so many notes so fast that the game itself, if not the scoreboard under his bucket-filling barrage, must have seemed at times as if it might break. Indeed, the defining moment of the Pistol’s career may have been just one such moment, when his setting of the all-time career college scoring record stopped the game in progress. Reporters flooded the floor, demanding comment from Maravich, who was uncomfortable with this stoppage of play. He kept darting looks up at the scoreboard while making his statement. It was the story of his life: He just wanted to get back inside the game.

Mark Kriegel, in his gripping biography of the Hall of Fame guard, Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, makes clear that the game itself was for most of Maravich’s life his only means of transcending the abundant pain in his life. Kriegel also details the price Maravich paid for this transcendence. Like other child prodigies, Maravich built a life entirely around his art, from early childhood practicing his dribbling, shooting, and passing with intense concentration for several hours each day. Under his obsessive father’s direction, this life quickly became one pointed beyond merely becoming a good basketball player or even a basketball star. Father and son conspired to bring to the world a basketball player who would change the way the game was played. The effort to attain such a stratospherically lofty goal eventually took a harrowing toll, not only isolating Maravich from most everyone in the world—even in many cases from his own teammates—but contributing to a strain on the Maravich family that most tragically resulted in Maravich’s mother succumbing first to rampant alcoholism and then to suicide. Maravich himself seemed for most of his days to lead a deeply unhappy life, one that often devolved into ferociously self-destructive habits such as drinking himself into fits of raving, flailing idiocy and driving like a suicidal maniac. Maravich overtly contemplated following the awful lead of his mother on more than one occasion, and in perhaps his most definitive off-the-court moment his fascination with UFOs and the pain he felt in his life here on earth led him to paint a message on his roof to any visiting extra-terrestrials: “TAKE ME.”

Interestingly, it was only after his basketball career came to an end that Maravich finally found a sturdy sense of peace in his life, through a touchingly deep love for his wife and young sons and through an embrace (of typically Maravichian intensity) of a spiritual life. Reading in Kriegel’s book of this happy ending, and of all the pain that preceded it, ultimately made me take stock of my own life. You can seem to have everything in the world and still be miserable. So look around, find love, give thanks, hold tight. But Kriegel’s book also got me dreaming, as any worthwhile book on Pete Maravich would have to do. I’m glad for the life I’ve got, for the love that surrounds me. But for just one day I’d like to know what it felt like to be Pistol Pete in his prime, to levitate all sadness and loss, to make the whole world tilt and reel and gasp and laugh, to create with nothing but sparks from my fingertips a strange new carnival dazzling the night.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


By Charlie Kondek

was a Bogart fan growing up. My favorite movie, to this day, is Casablanca, and I make no apologies for that. I recently revived my interest in this actor and read a couple of books I had.

The first was the coffee-table book, Casablanca: The 50th Anniversary by Frank Miller (no, not that Frank Miller). One of those books that seems commemorative and you got it as a gift (I did) and you kind of glanced through it, unsure whether it had any depth to it. This does, describing the short happy saga of the making of the film, sketching in the personalities at play, from producer Jack Warner to director Michael Curtiz to the screenwriters, the Epstein brothers and Howard Koch. A very thoughtful, thorough and enjoyable book about a great movie, giving an insight into how they used to make movies. It clears up a few misunderstandings I was aware of; namely, that everyone thought it'd be a flop, that it's a miracle of accidents it was made the way it was. No, they pretty much knew what they were doing, they just weren't prepared for how big it would be, nor its legacy in American film.

Bogart was assembled by biographist Ann Sperber and finished by Eric Lax when Sperber died before she could complete the work. An excellent, interesting Hollywood biography, one of those weighty ones that I pick up thinking, "How'm I gonna read all this?" and then end up devouring with ease. I never knew much about Bogie growing up, only that I wanted to be like him: calm, tough - I can blame him for my smoking career, actually, him, James Bond and James Dean. (I've been quit for ten years.) The Bogie of this biography reveals that he was a native New Yorker, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, that was really unsuited for anything except drinking and sailing til he found a home in theater and eventually migrated to film, along the way honing a character actor into one of Hollywood's most endearing leading men.

That, I realized after reading this and the 50th anniversary Casablanca, seems to be Bogie explained: he was a character actor in the leading man role, a backgrounder thrust into the spotlight, retaining the basic sense of virility (there's that word again) even as he navigated the aisle usually reserved for the more gentile, top-hat set. That's the quality he brought to Rick Blaine, the man without a country, the reluctant hero, and established his prototype - often imitated, never quite duplicated. But why would you want to? There was only one Bogie.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

So, the Steve McQueen, the Elvis, or the Peter Fonda?

by Charlie Kondek

I grew up reading Esquire, GQ, Details, People and my mother's Cosmopolitans. I used to really escape into these magazines, especially Esquire - they seemed to offer access to another world. Not just the world of adulthood, but the world of sophisticated adulthood, of adventure, romance, glitz.

Esquire and GQ have really suffered lately, in my opinion, reverted to world-weary, seen-it-done-it-what-do-I-invest in next elan. Worse, the magazines more completely resemble web sites - no articles, just lists and sidebars and images, endlessly. I don't want my magazine looking like a web site. But I have a new champion for men's magazine writing: Men's Vogue. I started reading the magazine about a year ago and have been very happy with each issue. Besides Men's Journal and Sports Illustrated and a few others, usually of the zine or cult variety, this is my favorite glossy.

Really, Men's Vogue includes, in every issue, stuff I think any magazine of the sophistiacted globe-trotting kind should have. Take, for example, what was in the first issue I read.

-an article about the tradition of gambling on Macao and how that's being changed by new international investors

-the travel adventures of model Sophie Dahl

-a story about a shop in Milan that specializes in recapturing the romance of being a rich man in the 1920s and 30s by selling vintage watches, travel items and other accessories

-an article on tennis star James Blake that also featured pics of him in various coterie

-an article on the new "Bond girl," Eva Green ("when French women are beautiful, they hurt with their perfection")

-an article about different barber shops. This one chap in London says there are three basic haircuts for men: the Steve McQueen, the Elvis, and the Peter Fonda. I thought that was just great. This barber was the stylist on Snatch and Layer Cake.

...and more. It seems like all my interests are there. Crime? Check. Books and film? Check. Travel? Check. Sports? Check. Sure, I skip the architecture section and the food section but reading a magazine is not usually about reading it cover to cover. Another issue had an article about how art is being stolen out of the Italian countryside. Isn't that awesome? Not just an article about crime - cool, weird crime. I enjoyed it like I did when I was a teenage kid.

I had some of the same reservations as when I was a kid, though, and some new ones. When I was a boy, I felt partially disgusted at what I read because it involved the world of the moneyed and I knew that was, at best, a lie, at worst, evidence of the economic unfairness that plagues the world. (I was a bit clasisst even then and have always hated materialistic people.) This time around, what I noticed was the quality of the writing, something I've paid more attention to as I've grown as a writer. Each piece in the magazine was smooth, clear, clever - and they all sounded the same. Further, they lacked a certain quality and I finally figured out what it was. Authenticity. They lacked authenticity. In fact, I caught parts that I thought were out-right lies. (Sophie Dahl was trapped for days on a drifting ship with Chechen mobsters and spent the days "teaching them Aretha Franklin's greatest gospel hits?" Ah, no, I don't think so. Another writer claimed that he got into so much gambling trouble during his first semester at Cambridge he was "forced to take a job on a North Shore oil rig." Right.)

But it's still a pleasure, perhaps a guilty pleasure, to read these. And I realized something else about how magazines make the magic they do. The ads - and there are tons of them - the ads tell a story in images, an ongoing story woven into the narrative of the entire magazine. It's the same kind of story told in airports. You look at all these people going places with all this promise and you make up stories about them in your head, about who they are, where they are going, and what will happen to them. The narrative of Men's Vogue is: You are rich. You are going places, internationally, with alluring, attractive and potentially dangerous people. You are attractive. You are the star of this movie. And the director and the screenwriter. We are the art directors, the prop makers, and the editors. Here are the pictures to prove it.

That's what thrilled me when I was 16. As a man of 35, it's nice to revisit that, even if I have a different perspective. That's a topic for another day!

By the way, this post was based on something I wrote at the wonderful message board Voices from Beyond.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Best American Sports Writing of the Century

Review by Charlie Kondek

David Halberstam edits the annual Best of American Sports Writing anthologies and put this together with Glenn Stout in 1999 to commemorate the best of the previous century. There are some unusual choices in here, especially in the Writing on a Deadline section, but most of the others kept me up nights.

Among the great reads in this tome is what lead me to the book in the first place, "Brownsville Bum" by the recently departed W.C. Heinz, a 1951 piece for True magazine that, according to some (including Jimmy Breslin), is the best piece of American sports writing ever written. Heinz' style was flowing, somewhere between conversation and internal, and in the kind of common, bar room patois I've always enjoyed and which, due to its specifically 1950s style, we'll probably never see again.

Other pieces in this book that got under my skin include Richard Be Cramer's 1986 piece on great American hero Ted Williams ("How Do You Like Ted Williams Now?"), Roger Angell's thorough 1985 meditation on the mystery of pitching ("Gone For Good"), Thomas McGuane's 1965 ode to fly-fishing ("The Longest Silence") and Al Stump's 1961 piece on a dying, bottle-throwing, cursing, violent Ty Cobb ("The Fight to Live," later the basis for his book and the movie based on it).

I also have to call out some other remarkable stories. Get your hands on these in this or any other collection for some incredible writing:

  • Frank Deford, "The Boxer and the Blond," Sports Illustrated, 1985. Tells the story of Billy Conn and his upbringing as an Irishman and a fighter in Pittsburgh.
  • Paul Solotaroff, "The Power and the Gory," an incredible 1990 piece for The Village Voice about steroid abuse in weightlifting. You will not be the same after reading this.
  • J.R. Moehringer, "Resurrecting the Champ," The Los Angeles Times Magazine, 1997, about an LA Times reporter who befriends a homeless man who may or may not be a former boxing champion. A great boxing story that probably not many fight fans know about because it comes from a non-fight writer. Makes me wanna read this.

Really, this is an amazing collection, an inspiration to me as a reader and a writer. There's even a John Lardner piece on golf that kept me interested and a George Plimpton piece on Ivy League football that made me want to read more Plimpton. My dad and my brother have birthdays coming up and are gonna get this from me.