Monday, September 29, 2008

How to start smoking a pipe.....

Welcome to the pipe and all those flavours and aromas...
I was always a Cigarette smoker…started of with Wills Navy Cut and smoked Gold Flake Filter Kings till I left it few months ago due to health issues. Holding a pipe was a distant thought to me, never really took it seriously. It took me about six months to get really good at packing my pipe—partly because several of my first pipes have fairly deep, narrow bowls, and these can be a little trickier. Many folks get the hang of it after just a few times, and sometimes even the first time!
The pipe. Understandably, you may not want to invest a lot in something you're not sure you're going to like or continue. However, if you can start off with a not-so-cheap pipe, so much the better. Some cheaper pipes do turn out to smoke quite well, but not all. Here, I'm speaking mainly of briar (wood) pipes, and am leaving meerschaum and clay pipes out of the discussion for now. Corncob pipes are also a good option if you just want to try pipe smoking—they are very inexpensive and require no breaking-in. They do lend a different taste to the smoke, a taste which I generally find more compatible with natural or the so-called English blends, than with the flavoured and sweetened blends.
Cheap pipes sometimes lead to bitter tastes and wet or hot smokes, but sometimes these effects are merely a result of a new briar not being broken-in. Before you blame your pipe, consider that the problem may be caused by your smoking technique or by overly moist or dry tobacco. With a bit of perseverance, you do get better at figuring out what is wrong if you have a smoke that isn't as enjoyable as it should be. If you're not sure, always smoke as slowly as possible, and that cures many pipe problems.
The tobacco. Tobacco choice is important. In my case, at first I wasn't trying the kinds of tobaccos that I would be likely to enjoy, but I had no way of really knowing that. I had always liked the aroma of the sweet-smelling tobaccos but I found they lacked something when I tried smoking them. I finally tried a couple of natural, English-style blends, despite warnings that these were for more serious, seasoned pipe smokers only. Surprisingly, these tobaccos provided the kind of taste experience I was somehow hoping for. Be forewarned though that natural or English-style blends don't usually have exactly the same degree of sweetness in their aroma, and that they're not for everyone. Only experimentation will help you figure out what you like and don't like. Trying new blends can be a lot of fun, but no matter what, always keep some of your favourite blend on hand in case your sampling doesn't go well!
There is a myriad of different pipe tobaccos available with different flavours and smoking qualities. However, you are not totally hopeless as to where to start—just take the plunge and enjoy. If you have a taste for sweets, why not start off with something commercial and easily available like Sail, Captain Black or Amphora, or ask any reputed Tobacco Wala for their recommendation. Some folks stick with these blends forever, but others find much pleasure in the elusive search that perfect tobacco.
If you have a taste for stronger or more bitter flavours in coffee, chocolate, tea or beer, you should try a light English blend as your first tobacco instead of a sweeter one. Better still, start with a pouch of each of the two types. Just don't smoke them in the same pipe if you can avoid it ... Smoking an English blend in a pipe used for aromatics often tastes rather weird, and vice-versa. Let your pipe take on the flavour of your tobacco for a while and then judge the tobacco. Of course, that doesn't mean that first impressions aren't lasting.... If you're smoking a fairly moist blend (like most flavoured tobaccos), be sure to pack your pipe looser than you would a drier, natural English blend.
Packing the tobacco in your pipe. If you've already smoked your pipe, cover up the bowl of the pipe and blow through the stem in case there are small bits of tobacco that are blocking the passage and which could clog your smoke.
I find that there are two key aspects to packing a pipe correctly. First, the tobacco should be only "somewhat" tight in the pipe—it should still be springy to the touch on the surface. Second, the pipe should be loosely in the bottom half of the pipe than at the top, so that it doesn't get too tight down there when you tamp it while smoking.
Start by taking a wad of tobacco that looks like it might be a bit more than enough to fill your pipe. If the tobacco seems really stuck together, fluff it up a bit before you do this. Hold your pipe over the pouch (or tin) so that the pouch catches the tobacco that falls while you're filling it. Push the tobacco in until the pipe is full and a bit of the tobacco is overflowing over the top of the pipe a bit. Don't cram it in tightly; just make sure the pipe is well-filled. Slowly and carefully fill the pipe as if you were trying to measure how much tobacco the pipe would hold under "average" circumstances, not how much you can cram in.
Your pipe should now have some (or a bunch of) tobacco sticking out of the top and may look like it needs a haircut. Pull most of this off, then take your pipe tool (a "tamper" available at your pipe shop) and *gently* push any loose ends down into the pipe. This way, your tobacco ends up a bit more tightly packed on the top than underneath, which is what you want. Touch the tobacco on top lightly with your thumb. It should feel somewhat springy.
Lighting your pipe. Put the pipe in your mouth and take a few puffs of the unlit tobacco. Not only should it taste good, but you shouldn't have to apply much suction to get air to pass through it. It should only give a little resistance, like drinking liquid through a straw. If you find that you have to draw hard on it, empty it out and start over— you have packed it a bit too tightly and it will not smoke well. Just pry it out slowly with your pipe tool.
Now, the fun part— lighting up! Big wooden kitchen matches work well, as does a lighter. If you try to use small paper matches, you may end up frustrated and with burnt fingers... As soon as the sulfur burns off, pass the lit match across the surface slowly and puff slowly but firmly, just enough to draw the flame down into the tobacco. Try not to burn the rim of the pipe. You can puff deeply, but not too hard. Hold the smoke in your mouth, but try not to inhale it. Let the smoke puff out of your mouth as you take the next puff. It can take a good 10-20 seconds to get your pipe lit. The tobacco should fluff up a little, perhaps a lot. Now take your pipe tool and flatten out the surface of the scorched and fluffed-up tobacco so that you have a flat surface on the top of your tobacco again (don't apply much pressure).
You have just completed what is sometimes called the "false light." It is called "false" because it is now time to light your pipe again. Pass the flame around the top of the tobacco, swirling it slowly to get all of the tobacco on top lit (which you just flattened). As usual, puff slowly, just enough to bring the flame down into the tobacco. This may take another 10-20 seconds or so and generate a lot of ambient smoke, which you will probably enjoy. Now you're on your way... your pipe is lit. Take a slow deep puff every 5-15 seconds or so—more often if the pipe seems to be going out, less often if the pipe seems to be heating up a lot.. You can either hold the smoke in your mouth for a few seconds and just let it drift out and stop there, or you can take a puff, keep the smoke and the pipe stem in your mouth, then a few seconds later, take another puff, letting the previous puff escape into the air. Some smokers will swallow a small quantity of the smoke, which causes it to escape through the nose and look like you had inhaled it. But you didn't. Some pipe smokers actually inhale the smoke like cigarette smokers, but the smoke is very strong and this is not recommended.
If your pipe goes out while smoking, no big deal, just re-light—this is pretty normal. Especially at first, you may need to re-light frequently. It's always better for your piep to go out from time to time than to prevent it from going out by smoking it hot. Furthermore, there's no need to panic and re-light your pipe the second it goes out if you don't feel like it or if you're busy doing something. You can come back to a partially smoked pipe a few minutes later if that's more convenient. And if you're smoking a bent pipe, you can carefully put your lit pipe in your pocket when you enter a non-smoking establishment and it will self-extinguish rather quickly. Every 5 minutes or so, or more or less, tamp down the tobacco a little, just enough to crush the ashes on the surface and to make sure that the tobacco that is lit is touching itself and continues burning. You don't want to apply so much pressure that the tobacco underneath gets further packed.
As the tobacco burns further down, the pipe will heat up. It should get warm, but if the pipe starts to get hot to the touch, let it go out for a few minutes to cool down; you might be smoking it a bit too fast. Hot smoking can cause the tobacco to become bitter, in addition to being uncomfortable on the tongue. As well, it may create moisture build-up that is very unpleasant if drawn into the mouth (which is particularly easy to do if you are smoking a straight pipe).
If you are smoking a brand-new pipe, it will need to be broken in. Smoke only half bowls for a while (at least 10 times or so) until you start getting some carbon buildup on the lower sides of the pipe's bowl. Try to smoke to the bottom as much as possible to get this carbon cake built up and your pipe will smoke much better later. On the other hand, if at any time your pipe starts to taste nasty, stop. Pipe smoking is always supposed to be pleasant and there's no reason why it shouldn't always be so.
Practice makes perfect (or almost). Enjoy!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Garam Hawa(1973)

Garam Hawa (Hot Winds) was the first feature from director M.S. (Mysore Shrivinas) Sathyu of India. The film was controversial from its inception, as it was the first film to deal with the human consequences resulting from the 1947 partition of India. This action, ordered by British Lord Mountbatten, split India into religious coalitions, with India remaining Hindi and the new country of Pakistan serving as a refuge for Muslims.
Despite its controversial subject matter the film was initially accepted by a commercial producer, but then pressure and fear of the critical and governmental reception of such a work led to a rapid withdrawal of the offer. Sathyu turned to the government sponsored Film Financing Corporation (FFC) for support. This agency was created as an alternative for filmmakers seeking financing for work which was not commercially embraced by institutional distributors. Its aim was to free these artists from the dominance of loan agencies and their control of film content. Sathyu secured FFC financing and his film, based on an unpublished story by Marxist activist Ismat Chughtai, was completed in the city of Agra. The production of the film was plagued by a smattering of public protests; ultimately, Sathyu had to divert attention from his actual locations by using a fake second unit crew and sending them out with an unloaded camera.
Once finished, Garam Hawa was again the subject of controversy; it was banned as an "instigation to communal dissension." Sathyu was strong in his conviction, however, and he showed the film to many government leaders and journalists. The influence of these people on the censorship board led to a reversal of the ban. The film went on to win a national award for its contribution to "national integration." More recognition followed, including accolades that praised the film's efforts to create "a language of common identity" and to humanize the situation endured by Muslims in North India who did not wish to move from their homes after the partition.
The screenplay for Garam Hawa was written by Kaifi Azmi (an Indian poet and lyricist) and Shama Zaidi, Sathyu's wife. The tale is a complex narrative assembled with loving attention to detail. The story's main focal point is Salim Mirza, played by veteran actor Balraj Sahani in his final film before his death. Salim is a Muslim shoemaker and patriarch who does not want to relocate to Pakistan. There is the added element of a love story woven into this political narrative, however, and it is this element which adds greater meaning to the story. The filmmaker's adept use of light and framing adds dimension to the characters and their struggles.
Salim's daughter, Amina (Gita Shauhat Kaifi), is betrothed to Kazim (Jamal Hashmi); they are shown to be deeply in love and very happy together. Kazim goes across the border to Pakistan to find work (as there is none for Muslims in Agra as the story progresses). When he returns to marry Amina, he is arrested. She pines for her lost lover, but has the attentions of Shamshad (Jalal Agha), whom she does not love and does not wish to marry. Her agony is a reflection of her father's; these people are trapped between two worlds.
Salim is powerless against the shift in attitudes and political climate; he finds himself unable to secure bank loans, unable to keep possession of his family home, and losing his means of survival as once-loyal customers take their business elsewhere. He has done nothing wrong, yet he is punished by the post-partition environment in Agra. As Salim's situation becomes more grave, the camera frames him in smaller spaces, implying his imprisonment in his own hometown. He says, "They have taken everything. Only our faith will survive." He is strong, but he is discouraged by the exodus of family members into Pakistan. In the end, he too makes the journey to the train. On the way, Salim and his son Sikander (Faroukh Shaikh) encounter a massive protest rally which seeks to unite the dispossessed of the nation. First Sikander, and then Salim, join the flag-waving mob. The train is forgotten, and the final scene brings a sense of hope as we see Salim accept his situation in a new way and begin to take charge of his life.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Inge Morath

Inge Morath, the daughter of a scientist, was born in Austria on 27th May 1923. The family moved to Nazi Germany and as a teenager she was sent to the force labour camp at Tempelhof for refusing to join the Hitler Youth.

Morath graduated from Berlin University in 1944. After the Second World War she worked as an interpreter for the United States Information Service before joining the RWR radio network. Morath also contributed articles to the literary magazine Der Optimist.

In 1950 Morath moved to France where she worked with the Austrian photographers Ernst Haas and Erich Lessing. This involved writing text captions for the two photographers. The following year she found work as a photojournalist with Picture Post, a magazine based in London.

Morath's first book, Fiesta In Pamplona 1954. After the publication of an photo essay on French worker priests by Morath in 1955 Robert Capa invited her to join the Magnum photo agency. Other books by Morath included Venice Observed (1956), Bring Forth The Children (1960), Tunisia (1961) and From Persia to Iran (1961).

Morath married Arthur Miller in 1962 and together they published the book In Russia (1969). This was followed by My Sister Life (1973) with poems by Boris Pasternak, In the Country (1977), Chinese Encounters (1979), Salesman in Beijing (1984), Portraits (1987), Shaking the Dust of Ages (1998), an autobiography, Life As A Photographer (1999), Masquerade (2000) and Border Spaces; Last Journey (2002).

Inge Morath died of lymphatic cancer on 30th January 2002.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Royal Enfield Bullet 500cc

Royal Enfield was the brand of the Enfield Cycle Company, an English engineering company. Most famous for producing motorcycles, they also produced bicycles, lawnmowers, stationary engines, and even rifle parts for the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield. This legacy of weapons manufacture is reflected in the logo, a cannon, and their motto "Made like a gun, goes like a bullet". It also enabled the use of the brand name Royal Enfield from 1890.

In 1955 Enfield of India started assembling Bullet motorcycles under licence from UK components, and by 1962 were manufacturing complete bikes. The original Redditch, Worcestershire-based company dissolved in 1970, but Enfield of India, based in Chennai, continued, and bought the rights to the Royal Enfield name in 1995. Royal Enfield production continues, and now Royal Enfield is considered as the oldest motorcycle company in the world still in production.

After the war the Enfield Cycle Company came back with the last G and J pre-war models, and the "Flea". In 1947 the Royal Enfield 500 cc Model J was back in production, but was now fitted with telescopic forks with two-way hydraulic damping instead of the old pre-war girder forks. The front axle mountings were offset forward of the fork legs. The 1939 Bullet 350 kick started the post-war models. They used two rocker boxes for the first time. This enabled better gas flow and consequently higher volumetric efficiency. Royal Enfield's own designed and manufacture telescopic front fork placed the Redditch marque at the very forefront of motorcycle design. The biggest advancement introduced by the new Bullet was its swinging arm rear suspension system and hydraulic damper units themselves. In 1949 Enfield made a J2-the first model with a telescopic front end followed in 1948 by a 500 cc twin (Enfield's 25bhp answer to the Triumph Speed Twin, which stayed in production until 1958.

In 1948 the J2 model, with 'twin exhaust ports' and pipes, was released initially for export only. The J2 exhaust port split into two after the exhaust valve, so the difference was more for appearance.

The post-war J models had a rigid rear frame, and a four-speed Albion gearbox with an extra lever that the rider could press to find neutral. This was a simple, solid 499 cc push-rod single with 84 mm bore x 90 mm stroke and a compression ratio of 5.5 to 1. It also used a fully floating white metal big end, similar to those found in radial aircraft engines, with the usual felt oil seals, Amal carb, and Lucas magneto ignition. The fully floating white metal big end could be replaced with an aftermarket caged roller bearing conversion. By 1950 the compression had been raised to 5.75 to 1, with a claimed power output of 21 bhp (16 kW) at 4,750 rpm. These were essentially torquey sidecar machines. In 1949 the first new models were introduced: the 350 cc full sprung Bullet, and a 500 cc twin. The sportier alloy head, swing arm frame 350 cc Bullet was a sensation. It was the 1954 350 cc Bullet model which was to be made in India until the present (read further down). In 1953 the 500 cc model appeared, using the same bottom end. After 1956 a new frame was introduced in the British-made version of the Bullet, making it different from the 1954 model still being produced in India. The British made version was manufactured until 1964. The Bullet 350 and 500 also used the fully floating big end design.

The new swingarm frame 500 cc twin of 1949 would eventually evolve into the Interceptor. The 500's big end had no bearing inserts, the machined con-rod running directly on the crank pin. In the 1956 700 cc Super Meteor, a development of the 500, conventional babbitt bearings were fitted, and were used on all subsequent vertical twins.

The 500 cc Bullet engine produced 25 bhp (19 kW) at 5,250 rpm while torque peaked at 29 lb·ft (39 N·m) @ 3,600 rpm, From 2,000 rpm onwards torque did not fall below 25 lb·ft (34 N·m) till beyond 5,300 rpm. Later models like the 250 cc Crusader (1957) and 700 cc Meteor (1955), were followed by the 250 cc Continental GT (1965), the 700 Constellation (1959), available with Royal Enfield's "Airflow" full fairing, and the 736 cc Interceptor (1963).

During the onslaught of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers in the late sixties and early seventies, the English factories made a final attempt with the 1962 - 1968,[5] series I and Series II. Made largely for the US market, it sported lots of chrome and an engine performance with less than 14 seconds to the quarter mile at speeds well above 175 km/h (105 mph). It became very popular in the US, but the classic mistake of not being able to supply this demand, added to the demise of this last English made Royal Enfield.

The Redditch factory ceased production in 1967 and the Bradford-on-Avon factory closed in 1970, which meant the end of the British Royal Enfield.

After the factory closed a little over 200 Series II Interceptor engines were stranded at the dock in 1970. These engines had been on their way to Floyd Clymer in the US, who unfortunately had just died. His export agents, Mitchell's of Birmingham, were left to dispose of them. They approached the Rickman brothers for a frame. The main problem of the Rickman brothers had always been engine supplies, so a limited run of Rickman Interceptors were promptly built.

As far as the motorcycle brand goes though, it would appear that Royal Enfield is the only motorcycle brand to span three centuries, and still going, with continuous production. A few of the original Redditch factory buildings remain (2006) and are part of the Enfield Industrial Estate.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Jamini Roy(1887-1972)

Born in 1887 in an obscure Bengali village of the Bankura district in West Bengal, an area especially rich with a folk art tradition, Jamini Roy arrived in Calcutta in 1903 to enroll in the Govt. School of Art. He was the most famous pupil of Abanindranath Tagore, whose contribution to the emergence of modern art in India remains unquestionable.
After the academic training in the Calcutta School of Art in the early 1920s, some of his works bore residues of the Bengal School mannerisms. He made some brilliant forays into a Post-Impressionist genre of landscapes and portraits, yet Roy’s early career was calamitous. He endured extreme poverty and his work was lack-lustre and banal.

Disheartened, Roy began a wrenched journey to discover his own true style, undertaking odd jobs to survive. Roy discovered the answer to his predicament right in rural Bengal, in Kalighat paintings, the popular bazaar paintings sold outside the Kalighat temple in Calcutta.
In 1925, he began experimenting along the lines of the Kalighat idiom, and by the early 1930s he had made a complete switch to indigenous materials. His fascination with the indigenous art of Kalighat painting and the terracotta's of the Vishnupur temple, grew unabated. Quietly, yet firmly, the bold simplicity, linear flow began to suffuse his work. In his mid-thirties, he abandoned his tame and conventional art practice. He abandoned the canvas and made his own painting surfaces out of cloth, wood, even mats coated with lime, and painted using earth and vegetable colours. The 1930's saw the beginning of his scintillating career, which spanned well into the 60's.

Roy enacted a complete retreat from the middle class congruity of art-school trained modernity and withdrew into the nostalgic lyricism of the true Bengali folk painters. This marked a new phase in the history of Indian Modern Art, with a strategic denial of its 'modern' traces. Though his own amazing style took off and matured from there, he never forgot his debt to the Bengali village and especially to Kalighat paintings.

However, Jamini Roy's art too awaited the same fate as some of his celebrated predecessors like Abanindranath and Raja Ravi Varma. The neat patterning, rythmic outlines and flat, bright colours were extracted from his works and tamed into a standardized formula and a flood of perfected copies overcame the master.

Jamini's presentation of Santhal drummers, toiling blacksmith, Krishna-Balaram and women figures like Radhas, Gopi's, Pujarinis and Virgin and Child became very popular during the 1940s and his collectors included the middle-class Bengalis as well as the European community. His work was exhibited in London in 1946 and in New York in 1953. He was honored with the State award of Padma Bhushan in 1955.

He died a much celebrated and revolutionary artist, at the age of 85, in Calcutta in 1972.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Nirvana's Nevermind

There isn't all that much new that you can say about Nirvana's "Nevermind" that hasn't already been said. So this review is more like a review/essay.

The hype and mystique surrounding this album is all true. It did change the face of rock, and along with Pearl Jam's "Ten" was the songbook that most popular 90s bands borrowed from.

So much has been written about Kurt Cobain, his life, his suicide, Courtney, Courtney/Grohl feud, etc., that's it's easy to forget what all started the hype in the first place. Nirvana's "Nevermind" is undoubtedly one of the greatest rock albums of-all-time. From the classic intro of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," to the subdued closing "Something In the Way," every song is both instantly memorable and brilliant. There isn't a single bad song on this disc. "Nevermind" is like a greatest hits in of itself.

What made this album so great was that the music was punk, but also had a pop-sensibility with infectious hooks and killer riffs. In this sense, you kind of get the best of both worlds--the raw anger and energy of Black Flag, and The Dead Kennedy's, but also the melody and harmony of The Beatles.

If you were born shortly before or after the death of Kurt Cobain, it's hard to imagine how revolutionary this CD was. When "Nevermind" exploded, it drew the line in rock. Bands that were otherwise obscure (Mudhoney, L7, Screaming Trees) were signed to major labels and enjoyed radio-play. Alternative bands that had been around for a few years that were already signed (Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice In Chains) became huge overnight. The early 90s was a really exciting time in rock. Radio had been infested with the likes of Slaughter and Trixter, and, for a while, everything was new and fresh.

The only real drawback for me is that the revolution of "Nevermind" made people close minded about bands they had only just recently loved. Although it is a blessing that some of these bands were shown the door, i.e., Slaughter, a lot of good bands were discarded and trashed rightfully or not. "Nevermind" was certainly the death nail to all old-school rock. Most of these bands were killed overnight.

If Nevermind's sound is familiar now, it's only because thousands of rock records that followed it were trying very hard to cop its style. It tears out of the speakers like a cannonball, from the punk-turbo-charged riff of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" onward, magnifying and distilling the wounded rage of 15 years of the rock underground into a single impassioned roar. Few albums have occupied the cultural consciousness like this one; of its 12 songs, roughly 10 are now standards. The record's historical weight can make it hard to hear now with fresh ears, but the monumental urgency of Kurt Cobain's screams is still shocking.

In conclusion, fourteen years after its release, "Nevermind" often emulated, never duplicated, is still one of the best albums of all-time and belongs in every rock collection.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon's Watchmen.

Has any comic been as acclaimed as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen? Possibly only Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, but Watchmen remains the critics' favorite. Why? Because Moore is a better writer, and Watchmen a more complex and dark and literate creation than Miller's fantastic, subversive take on the Batman myth. Moore, renowned for many other of the genre's finest creations (Saga of the Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, and From Hell, with Eddie Campbell) first put out Watchmen in 12 issues for DC in 1986-87. It won a comic award at the time (the 1987 Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards for Best Writer/Artist combination) and has continued to gather praise since.
The story concerns a group called the Crimebusters and a plot to kill and discredit them. Moore's characterization is as sophisticated as any novel's. Importantly the costumes do not get in the way of the storytelling; rather they allow Moore to investigate issues of power and control--indeed it was Watchmen, and to a lesser extent Dark Knight, that propelled the comic genre forward, making "adult" comics a reality. The artwork of Gibbons (best known for 2000AD's Rogue Trooper and DC's Green Lantern) is very fine too, echoing Moore's paranoid mood perfectly throughout. Packed with symbolism, some of the overlying themes (arms control, nuclear threat, vigilantes) have dated but the intelligent social and political commentary, the structure of the story itself, its intertextuality (chapters appended with excerpts from other "works" and "studies" on Moore's characters, or with excerpts from another comic book being read by a child within the story), the finepace of the writing and its humanity mean that Watchmen more than stands up--it keeps its crown as the best the genre has yet produced.

Comic books superheroes are basically fascist vigilantes, with Superman and his dedication to truth, justice and the American way being the exception that proves the rule. Both "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns," the two greatest examples of graphic storytelling, deal explicitly with the underlying fear the ordinary citizenry have of the demi-gods they worship. The one inherent advantage that "Watchman" has over Frank Miller's classic tale is that it requires no knowledge of the existing mythos of its characters because Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, the Comedian and the rest of the former members of the Crimebusters.

The brainchild of writer Alan Moore ("Swamp Thing," "V for Vendetta," "From Hell") and artist Dave Gibbons ("Rogue Trooper," "Doctor Who," "Green Lantern"), "Watchmen" was originally published by DC Comics in twelve issues in 1986-87. Moore and Gibbons won the Best Writer/Artist combination award at the 1987 Jack Kirby Comics Industry Awards ceremony. The central story in "Watchmen" is quite simple: apparently someone is killing off or discrediting the former Crimebusters. The remaining members end up coming together to discover the who and the why behind it all, and the payoff to the mystery is most satisfactory. But what makes "Watchmen" so special is the breadth and depth of both the characters and their respective subplots: Dr. Manhattan dealing with his responsibility to humanity given his god-like powers; Nite Owl having trouble leaving his secret identity behind; Rorschach being examined by a psychiatrist. Each chapter offers a specific focus on one of the characters, yet advances the overall narrative.

Beyond that the intricate narrative, Moore and Gibbons offer two additional levels to the story. First, each chapter is followed by a "non-comic" section that develops more of the backstories, such as numerous excerpts from Hollis Mason's autobiography "Under the Hood" or Professor Mitlon Glass' "Dr. Manhattan: Super-Powers and the Superpowers," an interview with Adrian Veidt, or reports from the police files of Walter Joseph Kovacs. Second, almost every issue has scenes from "Tales of the Black Freighter," a comic-book being read by a kid near a newsstand, which offers an allegorical perspective on the main plot line.

"Watchmen" certainly nudged the comics industry in the right direction towards greater sophistication and intelligence, although a full appreciation of its significance is always going to be lost on the bean counters. The Book Club Edition of "Watchmen" offers the teaser: "He's America's ultimate weapon . . . and he's about to desert to Mars." As a representation of the work as a whole that description is simply stupid, especially since it is followed by a glowing recommendation by Harlan Ellison that concludes "anyone who misses this milestone event in the genre of the fantastic is a myopic dope." If you ever spent time reading and enjoying any superhero comic book, you will appreciate what you find in "Watchmen."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Cornell Woolrich(aka William Irish and George Hopley)1903-1968

Despite the fact that he will probably be forever remembered as the author of Rear Window, one of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous films, Cornell Woolrich to mystery aficionados is the father of noir. Born in 1903 in New York City, he spent most of his childhood in revolutionary Mexico with his father who was an engineer. He went to Columbia University but left rather soon. His writing career with six novels in the manner of Scott Fitgerald meet with tepid success. After a disastrous marriage and unsuccessful career as scriptwriter, he went to live with his mother in New York. His first mystery, The Bride Wore Black (1940) is the classic noir and one of the major books of the genre. More followed - especially short stories - with the characteristic that readers were never sure if the ending was going to be a happy one or a sad one. This is probably why Alfred Hitchcock and many other film makers were so attracted to his work. Woolrich is probably one of the "filmed" mystery authors with Rear Window as prime example. He lived most of his life secluded especially after he had his leg amputated following an uncured foot infection. Woolrich died in 1968.

“The streets were dark with something more than night,” Raymond Chandler once wrote. Cornell Woolrich, in his suspense noir classic Rendezvous in Black, takes it a step further by penetrating and calibrating that night where “the darkness changed only to another darkness.”

It’s a pessimistic viewpoint that may have grown out of Woolrich’s early life in New York City, where he was born in 1903 to soon-divorced parents. In the 1920s Woolrich wrote two critically well-received but commercially disappointing Jazz-Age novels, and experienced emotional devastation with a failed love and a brief, annulled marriage. With the advent of the Depression and with few career prospects Woolrich, living back with his mother in a Manhattan residential hotel — where he would die a recluse in 1968 — started writing for the pulp magazines.

Developing a taut and psychological intensity with over 100 stories, Woolrich was well-prepared to convey his dark themes of revenge, murder, and doomed romance when in the 1940s he began writing hardcover crime novels that often put him in the same league with Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. His so-called black series include such books as The Bride Wore Black, Black Alibi, Black Curtain, and Black Path of Fear.
One of the most nightmarish is 1948's Rendezvous in Black, with a stark and menacingly poetic and often elegiac tone commensurate to the consideration, “How could a thing that was so good become so bad ... how could a thing that was so right become so wrong?”

That anything could be so good, and so right, was beyond question in the everyman and girl-next-door engagement of Johnny Marr and Dorothy, who first met “when she was seven and he was eight. And they’d first fallen in love when he was eight and she was seven. Sometimes it happens that way.”

And sometimes what is so bad and so wrong happens instead. When Dorothy suddenly, on a May 31st — the night before their wedding day — dies in a freak accident involving a low-flying charter plane and a group of drunken men, Johnny’s life is shattered. And no matter that only one man, unknown, is to blame, a now maniacal Marr plots vengeance on all five men.

But if “revenge is a dish best served cold,” Woolrich chills it down several degrees further as his cold-around-the-heart character doesn’t content himself with just killing each suspect. He wants them to live and endure the same mental anguish as — on May 31st of each year — he exacts retribution upon their loved ones, leaving taunting notes that ask, “Now you know what it feels like. So how do you like it?”

In Rendezvous in Black’s accumulative, page-turning race-against-time, the twists and turns have their own twists and turns, and a reader can go for several pages of uncertainty as to which one of several possible scenarios is being played out, and by whom. Speaking of characters, it is a mark of Woolrich’s devilry-in-the-details craftsmanship that even the secondary personalities are as carefully considered and nuanced as the main protagonists and antagonists; surprisingly perhaps, Woolrich displays a keen and sympathetic understanding of women.

In any case, the only sure thing in this tense, any-which-way-but-lucid cat-and-mouse game — the pursuer is a seeming bumbler of a Colombo-like detective — is the portentous and perennial despair of darkness and shadow that allows for no shades of gray. Each rendezvous is truly a date with a dimming destiny bearing down by any means necessary: “A train of death. A cavalcade of doom. Dozens of black cars, scores of them; shaking the rails, shaking the night…”

Even ostensible refuge and escape may comprise wasted effort: “And now they were on a ship, coursing deep water, crossing an ocean between two worlds. The eternal darkness was still around her…”

Then it closes in: “Night came on in her heart. One by one, all the lights went out. It got cold, and a wind from nowhere knifed at her. Her step didn’t falter; outwardly there was nothing to show that, within her, the whole world was going down into blackness.”

Into, indeed, a dark with something more than night, a darkness that changes only to another darkness.