Break my heart and leave me sad

Recording a track with Amy Winehouse for a duets album, Tony Bennett told her she reminded him of Dinah Washington:
"The minute she heard that, her eyes popped wide open and she said, 'You know that I like Dinah Washington?' I said, 'She was a friend of mine.' She was all excited that I knew Dinah Washington and that was the main inspiration. And from that moment on, the record came out just beautiful...

"Everybody just said, 'Oh, I don't know how you're going to handle her,' but I felt completely different. She really loves to perform. Every great artist I ever met, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Pearl Bailey, they'd always have the butterflies. And Amy Winehouse was like that, she was always apprehensive of what was going to happen."
Postmortem: sales of the singer's music skyrocket; likelihood of a third album to be released; possibility that Blake Fielder-Civil may be in line to inherit the estate. (Update: or not.)

I hope there is a third album. I'm sure there are parts of one somewhere, which is all a record company needs. Her most recent single was a brilliant workaround; her limitations, we now learn, included emphysema.

Online listeners and critics are already discussing how Amy Winehouse will be remembered. Frank is eclectic but above all observed, like a good student doing her jazz homework. The themes of heartbreak are acquired and the lyrics so neat the arrangements are practically ruled off underneath. It was only with Back to Black (as uneven in texture as many other albums from her UK contemporaries – don't engineers mix any more?) that the artist began to inhabit and embrace the dissolute jazz persona the performer had created.

I still don't buy the title track or 'You Know I'm No Good', with its fifth-form poetry imagery but when she cracked the lyric 'He walks away / The sun goes down' for 'Tears Dry On Their Own' I fell for La Winehouse hook, line and sinker. With that track she put everything she had on the girl group sound and doubled down. Restless, pissed-off and charming, that single was shorthand for a whole lot of music that came before and a hint of what might have been.

Have space suit, will travel

I once was sceptical about Ridley Scott's not-Alien-prequel Prometheus but I admit it: now I'm interested. From Comic-Con, Noomi in a spacesuit; from the same presentation, Sir Ridley being evasive. I bet it's a looping-time story...


Clint Eastwood interviewed by Stuart Fischoff Ph.D. for Psychology Today, 1993:
Psychology Today: One part of your film career - the "Dirty Harry" aspect of it - contains a lot of violence, as well as people who use violence to resolve conflicts. There's an argument that, if enough of these points of view are put in movies or on television, eventually it becomes an educational experience. So do you ever consider the social implications of your films before you make them?

Clint Eastwood: I consider them, yeah. I consider the social implications. But you mention violence as a means of resolving conflict. Well, conflict is the basis of drama. I guess that goes back as long as time has existed as far as mankind is concerned, dating back to the Greek tragedies or the Old Testament. And violence is a form of conflict, so whether that's catharsis or whether that has some socially damaging effect on audiences - I suppose that would just depend. I tend to believe that audiences are relatively well-balanced people. You're making the film for the average person. You are not making it for the one guy out there who is going to take it seriously and go, "Yeah, gee, that's crazy, I might jump off a building or what have you."

PT: Did you think about the social messages of the "Dirty Harry" movies?

CE: I approached it from the uncomplicated point of view, that it was an exciting detective story but it also addressed the issue of the victims of violent crime. In the 1960s and early '70s, it was very fashionable to address the plight of the criminals instead of the victims. Dirty Harry came along and it seemed like it was ahead of its time.

And also, like my character in White Hunter, Black Heart said, you can't let eighty million popcorn-eaters pull you this way or that way. You kind of have to go ahead. But as you get older you try to do things that please you more. You get a little more selfish. You start thinking I want to do things where I enjoy myself. I don't want to go and just jump across buildings. You know, shoot nameless people off the top of stagecoaches or what have you. That's not interesting. That's why Unforgiven became a very important film for me, because it sort of summed up my feelings about certain movies I participated in - movies where killing is romantic. And here was a chance to show that it really wasn't so romantic.


PT: It has been said about artists, that even if consciously they didn't have an idea, subconsciously they had a kind of shadow government there - the subconscious mind working and being creative.

CE: Yeah, yeah. I think there is a shadow government there. It's sort of part of the soul. But it's probably a combination of what you are. The shadow government is something running inside you and you don't tap into it consciously. If you do, you're afraid it might shrink.

PT: That's a fear that a lot of artists have. It's really true.

CE: I think so. I think a lot of people feel and I must say I felt that same way, too - that if I start fooling with it maybe it will go away or maybe I won't look at it properly.
Full interview here.


Brothers, sisters shoot your best

I genuinely flinched during Captain America: The First Avenger, in a moment when Cap's shield whangs! off a tank and back to camera. So the 3D cinema experience has advanced, for me, at least: instead of making me want to barf in Avatar and slightly blurring Tron Legacy, in Captain America the technology added a sense of delight to all manner of small things. Canvas tent flaps, rivets, paper flags pinned in maps, Tommy Lee Jones' nose: it's all jumping out at you. There were even dancing girls flashing their gams in a nod to the now very-old title sequence in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, and an upskirt. Classy, pleated, very Busby Berkeley, but still an upskirt.

Although Joe Johnston treats the World War II period action with family-friendly, fair fightin' decorum – dude really knows his Jane's Secret Aircraft – he has an eye for the ladies. Chris Evans' Cap is the hero but Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter is the star. Like Jennifer Connelly in The Rocketeer and Emily Blunt in The Wolfman, she adds lustre. She is a sharp shooter and a bombshell. The men are cheery and lantern-jawed, a rainbow coalition bound by courage. After the death of a friend, Cap discovers his scientifically enhanced super body is too healthy for him to even get drunk. This could be the most Aryan version of Americana since Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers.

Above all, Captain America is about heft. The stereo-ified weight of props and machinery is as palpable as each component of the plot clicking into place. The narrative is as carefully balanced as a Disney film, as smooth as a legal argument. If there is a common aspect to all the recent Marvel and DC movies, it is this defensiveness: the desire to get it right always second to the fear of getting it wrong. The hero dons a deliberately bad version of his uniform early on to allow the audience to get over the titters; a somber mentor is sacrificed too soon to give matters gravity (a tweedy and kinda Prada-ish Stanley Tucci, enlarging on Shaun Toub's affecting Yinsen in Iron Man); a Greek chorus of talkative supporting characters to voice the scepticism of any actual scientists / historians / four-star generals who might be present in the theater. Each comic book movie enlarges the canon of plausible solutions to underpants-on-the-outside, and thus cinema marches forward. If Captain America is Captain America not done wrong it is at least Watchmen done right.

There is a Stark Snr (with more dancing girls – I really did enjoy them), and a child who appears to be from Little Orphan Annie, and hey, wasn't that alley from Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy? The Nazis are not Nazis really. Says Johnston without irony, "We turned them into Hydra, the über Nazis. Real Nazis aren't funny, but you can slaughter them in all kinds of interesting ways and get away with it."

Captain America does get away with it. A bullied orphan is engineered into a killer, loses his best friend and the only woman who loved him before being snatched from his world and abandoned to a friendless future, and we are all entertained.

Pic c/- Empire Online.


We float

Ando Hiroshige, Cat looking at fields at Asakusa (1857), from 100 views of Edo.


Bedside reading, 1970 (Get your ass to Mars)

You can't judge a book by its cover but you sure get an idea of what the publisher was thinking. Another childhood birthday present, from 1970, Captain W.E. Johns' Return to Mars, swiftly repackaged for boys who had enjoyed Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man. But even for a younger reader the discrepancies between these possible futures and the Captain's world of tomorrow became all too apparent. To summarise:
Professor Brane, 'Tiger' Clinton, his son Rex and the Professor's butler, Judkins, travel back to Mars.
Still, nice pic. (More vintage W.E. Johns covers here.)

The colonialist vision of space lives on in Avatar and Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars, now filmed as John Carter. And manservants? Said Michael Fassbender of his role in Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus:
"I play a 'butler.'"


Desktop images

What I love about images from movies and TV is that somebody wrote them.


Bedside reading, 1975

On my eleventh birthday one of my presents was the mass-market edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I was already familiar with the short stories and I loved the character of Sherlock Holmes, his coldness balanced in no small part by Sydney Paget's illustrations for the Strand Magazine. (You will observe, Watson, the detective's profile in Paget's own features.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the most popular Holmes mysteries, although the mystery is solved early on. In his forward to the little 1975 paperback John Fowles (yes, him) attributes the novel's success to its supernatural element: "One thing Doyle must have seen at once . . . was that he had at last found an 'enemy' far more profound and horrifying than any mere human criminal. The Hound is the primeval force behind Moriarty: not just one form that evil takes, but the very soul of the thing."

But although it may be the most famous Holmes novel, the detective is absent for most of the story, hiding out in the moors and wandering around in disguise. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had become bored with his creation and killed off Holmes at Reichenbach Falls. Later, forced by loathsome success to reanimate him, the author chose instead to shape the narrative around Watson.

When I first read The Hound of Baskervilles, Holmes' absence was confusing to me. I decided that it must simply be a rule for detective novels that the central character was not there; only later when I got around to reading Fowles' forward and afterword was I educated. (Boys never read the instructions.) Nowadays I indulge in my own authorial contrariness, and it's become my mantra that the main character or even the narrator should be mysterious, covered up, or missing.


Got a weird thing to show you, so tell all the boys and girls

A friend of mine works in an office where all the systems keep crashing. Email doesn't work, applications are losing data and user log ins fail. IT suspects the problems stem from their recent upgrade to the new version of Word.

Putting out my short stories on Kindle (here, ici et voila) required coding HTML and graphics, zipping and uploading it to Amazon, checking in two different applications and adapting to the quirks of same. Publishing on Smashwords would have required updating manscript(s) in Word. At which point I thought fuck that, and returned to my (new) writing. I don't have time for that shit.

I wrote my first novel in Word 4. On a Mac Plus with an external 30 megabyte hard drive. Word 4 was brilliant. Word 5 we were told to avoid. 5.1 was tolerable: more features than you needed but the keystroke to capture and move a paragraph up or down was useful. I think Word 6 was not Mac native code – Apple was a dying company, and Microsoft ruled the world. I lost track of the next versions. I became so frustrated I briefly attempted working in Claris Works. (A benchmark of desperation.) Then I discovered Final Draft and started working in that.

Final Draft is not perfect either but it is simple. One font, thank you; one page layout, automatic page numbering (top r/h corner), para and linespacing preset (1.5, with a line break after each para), and that's it. You write in scenes (or chapters) which can be viewed as index cards and, most wonderfully, moved around in chunks. Prints one way, too; saves to easy to locate back up folder. There are some production planning features for real screenwriters which I don't require. I block out a treatment in FD (automatic scene numbering) and then write in the app or in Text Wrangler and drop them in. Just like typing.

Word could do all that, of course: the problem is getting it to do just that and no more. 'You can configure it,' as my friend Paul Reynolds loved to goad – we would bang on about Word the way other men talk about sports – but no matter what macros I deleted or features I switched off, something else would pop up: an auto address complete, a custom ellipsis, a line that demanded to be Helvetica bold italic underline, the pod bay doors that wouldn't open. That's why I started working on laptops: they're easier to throw across the room.

I still have a copy of Word on my computer and flinch when I have to open it. I don't know anyone who enjoys using the application. It puzzles me that after decades of computers and software becoming better, faster, sleeker, simpler that Word only gets harder, more tangled, more complicated, less reliable.


Recently played (iPod)

  1. Private Life - Grace Jones
  2. Mohawk - Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie
  3. Hotel California - Eagles
  4. Carry That Weight - Beatles
  5. Quinn the Eskimo - Bob Dylan
  6. Get Some - Lykke Li
  7. The Night I Fell in Love - Luther Vandross
  8. Steppin' Out - Joe Jackson
  9. Harder Better Faster Stronger - Daft Punk
  10. Golden Birdies - Captain Beefheart
  11. Forever - Minuit
  12. Graham Greene - John Cale
  13. Kiss Them For Me - Siouxsie and the Banshees
  14. Bones - The Killers
  15. Nothinginsomethingparticular - The Associates
  16. New York State of Mind - Alicia Keys
  17. Reckless - Crystal Castles
  18. Band of Gold - Diana Ross & The Supremes
  19. The Blower's Daughter - Damien Rice
  20. Truck Sweat - Tobacco


When you sit down to write, is that what you do? Just say, "Okay, I'm starting a book" and then sit down and keep writing until it's done? Do you take breaks? Do you ever get writer's block?

No. No writer's block. Never had it. Don't believe in it. Doesn't exist. I don't buy that one.

Ernest Hemingway said it... If you've got writer's block, write one sentence. And if you can write one, you can write two. If you can write two, you can write three. If you've written three, you have a paragraph. There's just no such thing as writer's block.

I work all the time. I write all the time. No days off, not for any reason. I get up in the morning and I start at it, get into the afternoon, I work out. I work at it at night. I work on it until I go to bed at eleven. I keep a notebook by my table and I write in the middle of the night sometimes. Sometimes I'll write from maybe 4AM to 6AM and go back to bed, but I write all the time. And I always have. That's the way I've always done it.
James Lee Burke. Full interview here.