Articles by

<Nick Pinkerton>

05/27/11 11:16am

Yeah, this is *that* movie.

  • Yeah, this is *that* movie.

Tonight at 92YTribeca, Mike White of the film zine Cashiers du Cinemart (whom we interviewed yesterday) presents George Armitage’s 1990 Miami Blues, from Charles Willeford’s novel.

Charles Willeford’ s signature style—the depths of vice, violence, and perversion, observed with an observational comic’s eye and described with the same deadpan delivery devoted elsewhere to To-do List banalities—developed away from the light of an appreciative public. Publishing since the pulp days, Willeford was never able earn a living from fiction until, shortly before his death, he received fat advances and a measure of fame. Willeford was even asked to write a script for Miami Vice; he submitted a storyline where Crockett came out of the closet.

That Very Special Episode shelved, Willeford’s Miami would be realized on-screen when an adaptation of his Miami Blues began filming in fall, 1988. The author had died that spring.

Miami Blues, published in 1984, introduced the character of Hoke Moseley, a divorced, lumpen, middle-aged Miami detective with a mouthful of false teeth, on the trail of a fresh-from-the-slammer sociopath, “Junior” Frenger. The book was a surprise hit, followed by three more Moseley adventures which took full advantage of all-access badge of the police procedural to cut satirical cross-sections through the ethnic and social strata of an absolutely of-the-moment Miami and its supermarkets, timeshares, and residential hotels. His “mystery” plots are festooned with miscellaneous, mundane details that finally emerge as elements in a vast panorama hellscape, teeming with the taken-for-granted absurdities intrinsic to contemporary American life—an au courant quality parodied by the title of his last Moseley book, The Way We Die Now. Willeford’s matter-of-fact, shrugged-out humor makes more upmarket farces (Don DeLillo’s White Noise, for example) seem labored.

There had been one since-forgotten movie from Willeford’s work made before, 1974’s Cockfighter, directed by Monte Hellman. In it, the author played a significant role: he’s the elder trainer with the W.C. Fields nose atop a cavalryman’s mustache. George Armitage, who eventually wrote and directed Miami Blues, was grinding out product at Roger Corman’s AIP when Cockfighter came through (Jonathan Demme, his former Corman stablemate, has a producer credit on Miami Blues).


Armitage’s screenplay adaptation is a model of smart streamlining (his 2004 The Big Bounce, from Elmore Leonard—who learned a thing or two from Willeford—also finds a détente between the properties of its cast and source material). Playing Frenger, Alec Baldwin has one of the few opportunities of his ill-fitting leading man period to practice a seething comic talent. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Susie, the lost girl from Okeechobee who Junior meets as she’s hooking her way through Dade Junior College—where she might’ve taken classes from the English department’s Prof. Willeford, who loved writing this kind of ding-dong dame. Fred Ward plays Moseley, in a somewhat reduced role here, though the character couldn’t have asked for a better interpreter than Ward, whose working-class veracity is so great he might have been manufactured by Dickies (Miami Blues was the center of Ward’s Triple Crown of 1990 releases, bookended by Tremors and Henry & June).

It’s a great movie for mouths, those telltale indicators of class: Leigh’s uncorrected lisp and overbit frown, Ward’s denture routines, Baldwin’s put-‘er’-there come-on smile, a rehearsed-from-TV-infomercials cover barely concealing impatient ex-con wariness (Junior is only sincere when first seen, gaping out the window on what’s presumably his first airplane ride). Never acquiring the social graces corresponding to his ambition, Junior drags Susie into his white-trash fantasy of upward mobility, financed by banditry—paralleling another superb Reagan/Bush I-era snapshot, Raising Arizona. There is an early scene where they meet for a terraced-dining brunch, overlooking a water ballet. Junior shows up in a pastel Coogi sweater and lemon-colored slacks, asks for separate checks, enthuses over the Spencer’s Gifts t-shirt she’s bought him (“Life’s a Bitch When You Party Naked”), then spits up the yogurt on his salad (“This ice-cream dressing is sour as shit”). Following Willeford’s lead, Armitage never leans on the comedy; a rumored adaptation by Neil LaBute of Willeford’s art-world jape, The Burnt-Orange Heresy, will likely not fare so well.

The excellent supporting cast includes the monumental jawline of Charles Napier, Nora Dunn playing Cuban, and Shirley Stoller from The Honeymoon Killers wielding a meat cleaver behind a pawn shop counter. Armitage’s film has since acquired deserved Employee Picks fame, though its halfhearted theatrical release from flat-broke Orion Pictures returned the name of “Willeford” to obscurity… where the high master of marginal American probably belongs.

05/11/11 4:00am

At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing

George Kimball and John Schulian, Eds.

Library of America

Articulated in Britain in the 19th century, prizefighting belongs to the world in the 21st, but through the 20th it was headquartered and nurtured in these United States, where hard men with a history of sharecropping, shtetl, potato famine, and hobo camps commingled their 
blood on the canvas.

At the Fights, Library of America’s history of writing on and around the fistic arts, elucidates that golden age which was, among other things, a story of successive waves of ethnic aspiration and rivalry. Jack London, reporting from the Jim Jeffries-Jack Johnson fight, is candid in discussing the racial/tribal animus in the ring, as is Budd Schulberg on his childhood idolization of middleweight Benny Leonard, his victories “sweet revenge for… pale little Jewish boys who had 
run the neighborhood gauntlet.”

Colum McCann’s introduction gets the inevitable boxers-writers comparison over with mercifully early. It is worth noting that fighters, for their part, very rarely compare themselves to authors—though Gene Tunney contributes herein an account of his bout with Dempsey that shows no signs of Dementia pugilistica. “Like mediocre fiction,” David Remnick writes in a superlative piece on Mike Tyson, “fights for the heavyweight championship of the world are invariably freighted with the solemnity of deeper meanings.” This is demonstrated most baldly by the Great American Novelists here, who come off as tomato cans, throw

It’s hard to deny, though, Norman Mailer’s play-by-play of the Rumble in the Jungle (unlike his quickdraw predecessors at ringside, Mailer benefits from playback tape and no looming deadline). Mailer’s onetime campaign manager, Joe Flaherty, puts a stingingly funny snap at the end of every paragraph of his eulogy for Sonny Liston, “the pallbearer of fifties liberalism,” and the sanctimonious media reactions to his death. On wolverine-fierce Stanley Ketchel, another famously troubled fighter, John Lardner’s “Down Great Purple Valleys” is justly celebrated for its opening one-sentence biography of its subject; as perfect as the lede is, what’s even more impressive is the speedbag tempo that follows.

This collection, assembled by George Kimball and John Schulian, has a notably worried conscience over the pleasure of watching “the flop, flap, flop of leather bruising human flesh,” per Irvin S. Cobb. Along with the workaday fighters and trainers, a recurring cast of crooks, fixers and promoters reappear from piece to piece—James Norris, Don King, the trash behind Primo Carnera’s hoax of a rise. Queasy fight “fan” Gerald Early, not mincing words: “It is fitting to have professional boxing in America as a moral eyesore: the sport and symbol of human waste in a culture that worships its ability to squander.” Elsewhere, Bill Barich gives a persuasive account of the cumulative effects of a boxing career (capsule: it makes you broken and dumb), and Ralph Wiley writes on Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini killing his opponent in the ring—the reason we watch 12-round fights today, those of us who watch at all.

But we’ve come to praise the Marquis of Queensbury, not bury him. Read At the Fights with YouTube fight footage at the ready: there’s no more satisfying experience of the hand-in-glove relationship between criticism and art.

08/18/10 3:50am

The Long Ships
By Frans G. Bengtsson, Trans. Michael Meyer

New York Review Books

A household name in Scandinavian literature since its publication during World War II, the title The Long Ships is recognizable to English-speakers, if at all, from a tenuously related 1964 epic with Sidney Poitier.

New York Review Books reckons to remedy that with this 500-page hunk chronicling 20 years in the life of Red Orm, a son of Skania, born during the reign of Harald Bluetooth, who first goes a-viking as a teen. Over the book’s four parts, Orm tours Spain under the Moors, plunders and hews his way through England after the Battle of Maldon, manages the affairs of his homestead, and sets East for “Bulgar gold.” But, no mere Boy’s Own Adventure, The Long Ships has also a droll twinkle—key to enthusiast Michael Chabon’s introductory endorsement—provided by Orm’s chronicler, one Frans G. Bengtsson (1894-1954), a Swedish translator and writer of antique verse.

Bengtsson plays wry Herodotus to the world in the first millennia, AD—years when competing gods jostle for Europe’s soul. Thor and Odin are but casually remembered for “weather-luck”; serving under the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba, Orm and company swear fealty to Muhammad and harry Christians; returning home to find his jihad victims now in the favor of the court, Orm shrugs and moves with the times, “faith” inflamed by desire for a Christian wife.

With Orm’s conversion, the narrative is concerned with evangelical efforts to civilize the North, through honest good works, looming chiliastic threat, cunning bribery, and any-means-necessary (Orm’s priest debates the church’s position on baptizing men rendered unconscious with drink). And if the company of so many burly, bearded heroes can weary, Bengtsson’s clear-eyed witnessing of a new world dawning does not.

07/22/10 8:52am


Cemetery Man (1994): Dario Argento protégé Michele Soavi added a Kafka-Beckett deadpan to the absurdity of Italo-horror illogic. Mysterious, glumly funny, gorgeously bedecked in hand-made overgrowth and decay, Cemetery looms high above the Sargasso Sea of 1990s fantasy-horror. Long-legged gravestone-chinned Rupert Everett plays the caretaker of a provincial Italian cemetery where the soil breeds restless dead, flesh-eaters that demand re-killing—so he goes his nightly rounds with his revolver and mute, turnip-shaped companion, Gnaghi. The finer Italian title, Dellamorte, Dellamore—“Of love, of death”—suggests the film’s division of life between sighs of ecstasy (Anna Falchi reincarnates as his loves) and resignation (“I’d give my life to be dead”).

Cemetery Man plays at 7pm at the Museum of Arts and Design’s “Zombo Italiano” series.


Escape from Alcatraz (1979): A callused, stoic reproach to another summer of action pictures saddlebagged with talk, talk, talk. Director Don Siegel had the best run through the 70s outside of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and capped it with this last collaboration with Clint Eastwood, a piece of how-to moviemaking that, with the nightly scratch of a nail-clipper against stone and construction of a papier-mâché head, builds toward an unbearably absorbing concentration in illustrating just what the title says. The controlled full-body athleticism of Eastwood and co-conspirators Jack Thibeau and Fred Ward synchronize to Siegel’s sense of necessity in the break-out section, while the earlier introduction to prisonyard society, full of fine character parts, singlehandedly established a new standard.

Escape from Alcatraz plays at 4pm and 9:35pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Clint Eastwood retro.

05/26/10 3:10am

I Was Looking For a Street
By Charles Willeford

PictureBox begins a series of reprints from the Charles Willeford corpus—patchily in print after his late-80s renaissance—with I Was Looking For a Street, retrofitted with demographic-outreach Jonathan Lethem blurb and artsy layout.

Street was written in ill health and published in 1988, after Willeford’s death. He had only just earned real money and niche fame after a career largely spent in pulp fiction and remaindered purgatory. Street recounts the years leading to Willeford’s first autobiographical work, 1986’s Something About a Soldier, which picked up where Street leaves off, after the 16-year-old Willeford lied his way into the military, where he would log 20 years of service (“Pulp was more of a social marker than a thematic or generic grouping”offers Luc Sante’s new introduction, discussing Willeford’s extra-literary career).

Street is divided into two sections. The first is Willeford’s memories of streetcar-era L.A. on the cusp of the Depression, and a very loving portrait of the Southern-bred grandmother, Mattie, who raised him alone before he ran away to lighten the family burden. In the book’s second and rather longer part, Willeford describes his experiences as one of “thousands of boys my age riding freight trains to nowhere,”coasting between El Paso, Yuma, and Agua Prieta, Mexico.

Those unfamiliar with Willeford’s voice will discover the addictive pleasure of his drily comic straightforwardness, betraying no “shocking”relish when relating the obscene facts of life (the coveted jobs at McKinley Industrial School that allowed cow-fucking; the melancholy world of hobo camp S&M). As always, Willeford remains a repository of self-sufficient how-to and sundry (sometimes dubious) information. In his thumbnail sketches of road life, we learn why the brim on a cowboy hat is curled, a recipe for mulligan stew, and the right and wrong way to jump a train. These details, accumulated, fill out a grand mosaic of the Southwest in the 30s every bit as vivid as the 80s Miami of Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels.

05/12/10 2:00am

Nightmare Alley
By William Lindsay Gresham
NYRB Classics

William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 classic-of-a-sort never disappeared—Spain Rodriguez illustrated Nightmare Alley in 2003, and it’s playing in L.A. as a musical as I write. And now we have a reissue of the essential text, the least “corrupt and censored”version—per Nick Tosches’s forward—of a work on intimate terms with anti-human emotions.

Stan Carlisle is a 21-year-old virgin run away to the carnival at the start of Nightmare Alley, which follows The Great Stanton through his unsentimental education and rise, from the early 1920s through turbulent 30s, from magic tricks to vaudeville mind-reading to parlor-spiritualist respectability. His conscience doesn’t make it past the sideshow. Nightmare Alley is transfixed by the resourceful skullduggery of show folks and its demonic blond hero, while reporting the psychological attrition of a career in flim-flam. No softie to start with, Stan sizes up people as marks and chumps until his worldview retracts to: “Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough.”

The book is 22 chapters, each headed by a figured trump card of the Tarot deck—one of its author’s manias. Gresham was a wounded soul whose search for balm led him through the Communist Party, Presbyterianism and psychotherapy, with booze in between. Each can be discerned here, including an aside with a rail-riding “Negro”that screams 30s “committed”fiction, several dollars worth of dimestore Freud, and a femme fatale psychologist who reads Stan cold after he’s spent a lifetime using women as accessories to his act.

Tyrone Power bought and starred in a convincing Nightmare Alley for Fox the next year, but tumultuous Gresham couldn’t capitalize on his “break,”producing just one more novel, then nonfictions about Houdini and freak shows, before his 1962 death. Ailing, Gresham committed suicide in Times Square’s Dixie Hotel, where he’d taken notes on carny lingo 20 earlier. Tosches celebrates Gresham’s ear for the idiomatic rap of the midway—and it does rightly bark off the page.

04/02/10 8:52am


Jean-Claude Brisseau is mostly known to American moviegoers for 2002’s Choses Secretes and its offspring,Les Anges Exterminateurs and A l’aventure, noteworthy for their Nicolson Baker-grade fascination with female masturbation. There is a perverse imp in Brisseau’s nature. The legal censure for harassment that resulted from intimate “readings” when casting Choses Secrètes—charges were filed by unsuccessful auditioners who had, yes, masturbated in front of the director—seems not to have chastened him, but to have driven him deeper into his monomania, until one wonders if he’ll ever return from his crusade to record female orgasm on film.

Even those inclined to regard all this, in their discomfiture, as a sad pervert’s El Dorado can’t be too dense to appreciate the majesty of Brisseau’s first scandal, 1988’s De bruit et de fureur (The Sound and the Fury), which this afternoon plays New York for the first time since Lincoln Center’s 2004 J-CB retrospective.

The backstory: Brisseau taught school for twenty years in the Parisian banlieues, in Clichy, Bagnolet, and Aubervilliers, a professeur des Lettres at the now-defunct C.E.S. Diderot (Collège d’enseignement secondaire—age range 11-14, roughly equivalent to American Junior High and likewise a quarantine for hormonal anarchy). Another schoolteacher-turned-filmmaker, Eric Rohmer, had become a sort-of mentor after viewing Brisseau’s Super-8 Hitchcock homage in 1975. After a decade scrabbling together projects in obscurity and subsisting on a thin gruel of acclaim, Brisseau roared into Cannes, 1988—about as fallow year for films as you’ll find—with a feral, outlandish movie that purged his suburban experiences, De bruit et de fureur.

Frederic Bonnaud, apprising Brisseau some years later, called it “the first French film to depict the youth of the suburban housing projects and the gangs they formed in those zones of exclusion.” The setting is Seine-Saint-Denis, the suburbs Northeast of Paris proper. At the Galliéni Metro, Bruno Scamperlé (Vincent Gasperitsch) disembarks, travelling alone. He is a babyfat-soft fourteen, wearing a small crucifix and itchy-looking off-the-rack blazer, carrying a valise and an oversized cage housing a canary named Superman. He has directions to a new home in the cités HLM, “Cité de Noue,” one of those poured concrete warrens of humanity called a “Grand ensemble.” The elevators are out, so he starts up toward the 15th floor. On the 10th, he exchanges a glance with a young punk in disintegrating denim, Jean-Roger Roffi (François Négret), who’s setting door mats on fire. Following right behind Bruno, the janitor drags a captured Jean-Roger upstairs, presenting him for punishment to his ogre-ish father (Bruno Cremer). Instead, Dad beats the janitor to the ground before a mute audience and a laughing Jean-Roger—then he turns and drops the kid with a slap (“No one hits my son… Except me”). Bruno, meanwhile, comes home to find that his mother has arranged him a welcome party with everything provided—crepe paper decorations, snack cakes, Christmas lights, and a note explaining she couldn’t get away from work. “Retour à Paris” is cued on the tapedeck; Charles Trenet sings about a homecoming 40 years ago to these same Eastern suburbs. Bruno, looking for his new room down the hall, is unastonished to encounter a strange, silent woman with protuberant eyes, wearing 17th century dress and carrying Superman—transformed into a bird of prey—like a falconer (this is Lisa Hérédia, Brisseau’s collaborator and wife—it’s undoubtedly a fascinating marriage). Suddenly she’s kneeling nude on the bed, her quantity of dark hair undone, guiding Bruno’s hands slowly down her torso until the silent spell is broken with a snap of wings as the bird scratches the boy’s cheek.

In eight minutes of runtime, Brisseau introduces the major characters, the major absences, the milieu, the dreamy parentheses, the air of neglect, the comic-tragic swing of violence based in failure of empathy (comedy when it’s someone else, tragedy when it’s you). “I wanted to prevent the audience from becoming stuck in one kind of film,” he has explained; though we may broadly define De bruit… as a “slum picture,” moment-to-moment it can be a surreal wet-dream, an apocalyptic tragedy, a cartooned gallows comedy, or an earnest social problem movie. He owes something to fluidity of Surrealism—Paul Delvaux might’ve painted these icewater nudes, and Brisseau has acknowledged his film’s kinship with Buñuel’s 1950 Los Olvidados, though the division of child’s fantasy and reality are more permeable here. Bruno’s cheek is scratched in a “dream,” but the mark is still visible once we’ve returned to ostensible reality.

Perhaps another comparison is more helpful: Bruno’s arrival at Cité de Noue is the beginning of a stranger-rides-into-town Western. The roving adolescents are as much tribes or posses as gangs; the hand-smashing they’ll administer to a rival is a warning out of One-Eyed Jacks or The Shooting. But Brisseau has re-shuffled the tropes. Bruno is too weak and passive to play Gary Cooper and clean things up. The job should go to Cremer, a swaggering Gaul-cowboy, an authoritative Jean Wayne type with gut and aquiline profile—but he’s a career criminal, content to down Heinekins and practice in his bedroom hall shooting gallery, where he unloads his Winchester at Sioux targets (his brother, a shrimpy sight gag, wears a buckskin jacket).

Finally, Bruno’s dilemma, the dilemma of De bruit…, is the presently unfashionable dilemma of the Western: Civilization or Barbarity? (Or, as Brisseau has put it “Culture or death”) It’s established in the epigraph, taken, like the title, from Macbeth: “Blood hath been shed ere now, I’ the olden time ere human statute purged the gentle weal.” Brisseau knew these suburbs; we must presume he saw blood shed there, for he shows them as a border territory, threatened by war drums or a new Völkerwanderung. Bruno, a sweet-spirited booby raised by the state, hangs in the balance.

The Roffis are vandal-kings, their faded patriarch the mute, bedridden grandfather who’s consigned to the extra room with the contraband pinball machine. Jean-Roger’s walls are a shrine to degraded popular culture, Stallone and Bronson. He entertains Bruno with tapes of Dawn of the Dead (the Section-8 shootout scene, which Brisseau must have appreciated) and lesbian porn (with better lighting, it might be Brisseau’s A l’aventure). In the same exaggerated register of the eye-popping, garish wallpaper, Brisseau gets down the atmosphere of certain dodgy after-school hang-outs, the houses where you could leaf through scummy porno mags with titles like Genesis while N.W.A.’s “Just Don’t Bite It” plays; read Soldier of Fortune while your friend digs an AK-47 out of his older brother’s bedroom closet. Hyena-grinning Négret, with the complexion and dark-circled eyes of a compulsive masturbator, is in the grand tradition of miniature French film actors—he’s twenty here, playing a held-back pubescent, and you never question him. He has a wonderful Vigo-esque scene where he flies out the classroom window to caper over the ledges and roofs of his Collège—what endorsement of culture has been so eloquent on the ecstasy of its absence?

The bulwark against the Rossis’ decline and fall is the classroom’s mistress, played by Fabienne Babe, who takes to giving Bruno after-school tutoring—any boy’s dream, given the skirts she wears. In the movie’s loveliest respite, Bruno and teacher dance a waltz to Nana Mouskouri’s recording of “Aux marches du Palais,” a traditional Bretagne song whose origins date back at least to the 18th century—everyone from Piaf to Laforêt has recorded it at one time or another (there’s no non-diagetic music, so it’s something like the film’s theme). For Brisseau, to transfer culture is always to create a sense of continuity, and so an idea of future, and so to alleviate isolation. Lessons plans include an absurdly complicated globe toy to illustrate gravity, the poems of Jacques Prevert—Brisseau’s favorite teaching aid—and Verlaine’s Gaspard Hauser chant, the subject of which is the same 19th century German wild child from which Werner Herzog improvised his film. This idealized acculturation, based in that “Matthew Arnold idea of culture” that Susan Sontag liked to disdain, contrasts the lowered bar in François Bégaudeau and Laurent Cantet’s 2008 The Class.

One might conclude that for Brisseau, womanly wiles are what transmits culture—though what about the lesbian teenage gang debs? Papa Cremer is principal sole masculine authority, anyways, and his credo is nihilism. Cremer, lugging around the same massive carriage as his director, was working with Brisseau for the second of three times here, and Brisseau made him an icon (in a bit of clairvoyance, Bruno’s class is reading Maigret and the Tramp—Cremer would become famous for playing Georges Simenon’s Inspector starting in 1991). When Jean-Roger’s older brother (Theirry Helene) gets a job and starts talking about moving in with a dreaded girlfriend, Dad tries to talk him out of abandoning the family tradition of deadbeat scumbaggery. He recalls witnessing the massacres in Algeria—he might have been part of the pied noir French population whose mass repatriation built the HLMs—that forged his personal philosophy: “There no God, no hell, nothing… Just a big black hole at the end. It’s all a war that never ends.”

As this conversation occurs, the Mortmarte funicular is visible behind them, one car sliding up, another down. In shorthard, it’s the visual schemata of the movie, a tension between ascent (the recurrent images of birds, the rooftops) and descent (the cave-like basements where the gangs convene), Heaven and Hell.

Though word is out that Brisseau is too French for his own good, he is an avowed disciple of Anthony Mann and John Ford, has learned a great deal about the spiritually evocative properties of landscape from the great San Diegan, while Ford’s use of landscape “at the edge of mysticism and poetry,” Brisseau has said, has “been my guide throughout my life.” In interview, Brisseau talks about Ford, Mann, Hitchcock, Bresson—whose supernaturally precise editing he approaches here—not as influences, but as peers, co-workers he’d just seen over lunch. He shares this manner with Libération “critic” Louis Skorecki, his friend, early champion, and career-long defender, who has called Brisseau one of only two filmmakers of the last thirty years “worthy of the appellation ‘director’” (The other? Yes, you guessed it: Luc Moullet.)

This may all seem like a ridiculous presumption, but in De bruit… it allowed Brisseau to become the equal of his models. In a hostile country of stained concrete surrounded by bare trees, planted all at once and too close together, he discovered an ineffable moral landscape, his own Monument Valley.

03/05/10 2:30pm

Victor Fleming
March 5-18 at Film Forum

Film Forum’s two-week, 22-film Victor Fleming retrospective continues a project begun with the 2008 publication of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master by Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow—an attempt, per the dust jacket blurb, to restore the director “to the pantheon of our greatest filmmakers.”

Most writers like to position themselves on the happy-few side of historical slightings, but Sragow has justification. David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary assigns Fleming only a few perfunctory paragraphs, while Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema deposits him in “Miscellany.” Fleming, who died in 1949, missed the opportunity to spend his twilight years hosting a parade of USC students with tape recorders. After his banner year of 1939, in which he had directing credits for both MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind, Fleming went into a period of decline, by general consensus. That neither film was entirely directed by Fleming cannot aid our argument that he is more than just another Norman Taurog. Even before his falloff, the quality of Fleming’s output vacillated too wildly for some—a flaw largely concealed by Film Forum’s cherry-picked program (the reason The White Sister isn’t playing probably has very little to do with print availability).

Modern biographers of safely canonized Golden Age figures will feel free to disprove their subjects’ cultivated self-mythologies (Hawks, Lang) or out dismal truths (the ineffable image of Hitchcock waddling after Tippi Hedren, pants around ankles). Sragow’s 645-page labor of love is frankly and infectiously hero-worshipful. The author is dedicated to reclaiming the lost legend of Fleming: A Midas touch director; a bullseye shot and the handsomest man in town; a discreet and courtly cavalier, enjoying and being enjoyed in the sexual roundelays of Cocoanut Grove Hollywood. (Sragow doesn’t place undue emphasis on the rather large number of anecdotes that involve the director slapping actresses to produce on-screen tears, and we’re assured that Fleming’s rumored anti-Semitism was of the 20s slangy joke-pejorative type.)

Fleming’s early life straddled two Americas, that of the still-rural, vestigially Victorian late 19th century and the patent-mad 20th. Born in 1889, in a citrus grove in cowtown Pasadena, he showed an early aptitude for tinkering and, coming of age as he did in a time when there were uniquely so many really new things to be, the young Fleming—strapping, mechanically inclined, enterprising—might’ve easily becoming a success in any of the era’s emerging industries, made a fortune selling iceboxes or brake pads, become a solid-citizen Republican alderman in some Citrus Belt town. As it happened, Fleming, having already driven a hack and worked at an L.A. “Locomobile” dealership, was chauffeuring in the Santa Barbara of 1915 when Alan Dwan and the Flying A movie company came through town to grind out some two-reelers in front of the scenery. Fleming left with them.

Over the next few years, Vic showed a knack for getting close to “top men.” He apprenticed as cameraman for producer-star Douglas Fairbanks and, after the Signal Corp, did a stint in postwar Europe filming Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points victory lap. Returning to California and the newly formed United Artists, he advanced to the director’s chair as if it was a birthright.

Film Forum’s sampling of Fleming’s silent filmmaking is necessarily fractional-less than half of his known output has survived. The Mollycoddle (1920) is a goof on Fairbanks’s roistering persona, with Doug, Sr. playing a frontier-stock expat sissified by a European upbringing.

Fleming’s other great silent-era collaboration was with Clara Bow, fresh off her first hit when Paramount teamed them on an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Mantrap (1926). Bow plays a Minneapolis beautician stranded by impulse marriage in the Great White North; her itch to flirt foiled in the land of dour Presbyterians, she twitches, tousles, snaps the waist on her skirt, ever poised on the brink of a fox-trot seizure. (Fleming pulled off the impressive feat of simultaneously escorting Bow and Alice White—First National’s blonde answer to Bow.)

Part of Sragow’s case is Fleming’s presence at the establishment of some of the all-time-great screen personas. Fairbanks’ grin was already trademark and Bow’s “It” was on the way by the time Fleming worked with them, but he played an essential role in laying the groundwork for Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy and, first, Gary Cooper, with whom Fleming made two movies in 1929. One was The Virginian, from Owen Wister’s novel, Fleming’s first complete sound film—surprisingly fluid in its outdoor ride-and-talk setups—and the first “large scale” sound Western. It provided future directors a pattern of screen measurements to fit Cooper: Rarely flamboyant in his set-ups, what Fleming had was the instinct sometimes called “camera smarts” or, if you have an advanced degree, “filmic sense.”