The Sweetness of el Dia de los Muertos

diadelosmuertos-640x360First of all, like Halloween, there’s candy and revelry, but this short animated film by three female film students shows how the process of solemn remembrance tied to festive celebration can help ease the hearts of loved ones left behind. I’ve heard stories (someday I hope I’ll get to see) of gorgeous scenes of people visiting cemeteries overnight with picnics and flowers and the altars they’ve built, enjoying the peacefulness amid candles set like fairy lights all over. Per the description:

Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico and around the world in other cultures. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. It is particularly celebrated in Mexico where the day is a bank holiday. The celebration takes place on October 31, November 1 and November 2, in connection with the Christian triduum of Hallowmas: All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars called ofrendas, honoring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts. They also leave possessions of the deceased.

Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The holiday has spread throughout the world. In Brazil Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain there are festivals and parades and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures.

h/t: Laughing Squid

Also, keep reading below, because our Terrie’s doing an online Halloween bash on Wednesday, October 28th!

Crime Movies in the Queue: Dennis Lehane’s The Drop (2014)

the-drop-posterThis movie was previously called Animal Rescue, the title from Dennis Lehane’s short story from the Akashic collection Boston Noir, which he also editedWhile the title makes complete sense once you’ve seen the film, it could be a bit misleading in advance, because the subject matter is more centrally bad and not-so-bad people. Apparently 3 different puppies played Rocco, named after the Italian saint and patron of dogs, and they are deadly cute. If you’re sensitive to animals in peril, though the pooch starts in a tough place, I think you’ll feel okay with how this plays out. I’m glad they changed the title to The Drop, and since then, Lehane’s expanded the story into an entire novel to go with it and also got to make his debut outing as a screenwriter for the film.

Three days after Christmas, a lonely bartender looking for a reason to live rescues an abused puppy from a trash can and meets a damaged woman looking for something to believe in. As their relationship grows, they cross paths with the Chechen mafia; a man grown dangerous with age and thwarted hopes; two hapless stick-up artists; a very curious cop; and the original owner of the puppy, who wants his dog back. . . .

Boston-NoirI fear the movie’s release was a bit chilled by having the unfortunate distinction of being James Gandolfini’s last film appearance. (Maybe I’m wrong about that, and people flock for such reasons.) Gandolfini, as Cousin Marv, is very good, as are Englishman Tom Hardy as bartender Bob Saginowski (with a funny-pitched voice I liked) and Sweden’s Noomi Rapace as Nadia from the neighborhood (allowed to keep hints of her accent). Turns out another important character, Eric Deeds, was played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who is a Belgian, as is the director, Michaël R. Roskam, making his U.S. directorial debut. Unlike Lehane’s story, which was originally set in Boston (duh), the movie’s location moved to Brooklyn, which I think worked just fine. Hardcore, long-time Brooklynites might have quibbles, but having recently coped with seeing Coors on a “Boston” bar’s sign in Black Mass (also a recommended watch, but, um, NO), I’m feeling forgiving.

Lehane didn’t write the screenplay after his novel Mystic River, but director Clint Eastwood stayed very close to his source material. That meant lots of times when what was said wasn’t what was meant, where the simplicity of a statement was like the tippy-top of an unfathomably huge iceberg. The Drop is paced and told like that, too, a style which I really enjoy, because that’s what happens when people have painful enough history to speak in evasive shorthand about it. No one needs to say “As you know, when we did this thing at that place on such a date….” I always prefer mystery to be left in that kind of shared background, because it adds to the perceived import of whatever it was. Funnily enough, I think about what it meant that people at Hogwarts were so traumatized by the past they were afraid to speak Voldemort’s name. Bad times and bad people are like boogie men, and we can be afraid their names work like evocations. A life-changing moment or relationship may be reduced to “She left me.” or “He died by himself,” but that’s because we know words are insufficient. We barely sketch the outline for each other and require our shared humanity to fill in the rest of the significance.

The-dropThis movie is like that, told in hints and the looks crossing faces. The people in it are worth watching as they try to figure out who to believe, caught in situations where trust is in short supply. There are some darkly funny moments, too, and plot-wise, a couple of big surprises I really enjoyed. It was also nice to look at, because it was so regular. If they spent a lot of time masterminding a just-so production design, rather than just dropping into what is true-life for a lot of people, it didn’t look orchestrated. Having served my time behind the stick, Cousin Marv’s feels like a million local bars you could find anywhere across the country, and the streets and other interiors seemed that way, too. Even with genuine movie stars in it, the small, local ordinariness of it was very appealing. Experiencing a film less as cutesy, manipulative calculation and more just as being witness to a story can be a relief.

So, I’m recommending The Drop if you like such street-level crime dramas. The trailer gives a decent idea of the tensions at play, except the movie has much more quiet in it. It’s not relentlessly-paced, which makes the shocking scenes more dramatic and lets you know the characters and their lives better. So, add it to your queue, or tell me what you thought if you’ve seen it, too!

Summer Means Happy Birthday, Roller Rinks!

John Joseph Merlin, the Belgian-born inventor of the roller skate.

John Joseph Merlin, the Belgian-born inventor of the roller skate.

Did you know that today, August 11th, in 1866, the world’s first roller rink opened? (Because that happy event occurred in Newport, Rhode Island, I expect that our own Anne-Marie Sutton knows a lot more about it than I do.) But roller skating must’ve been a great way to manufacture your own breeze before electric fans and A/C, so opening in the dog days of summer makes perfect sense!

Did you also know that there’s a National Museum of Roller Skating in Nebraska? Well, there is, and from it, I learned that the first roller skate in recorded history was invented way back in the 1760s by this dignified-looking gent here. We’re also told:

Merlin wore a pair of his new skates to a masquerade party at Carlisle-House in London. Though he was a well-known inventor, he was not a good skater. He could not control his speed or direction and crashed into a large mirror, severely injuring himself and possibly setting back the sport of roller skating for years.

All the early skates were in-line, and the father of the modern, 4-wheel, easier to manuever skate is James L. Plimpton, who, I gathered from The Pandora Society, also founded the New York Roller Skating Association (NYRSA) and, on its behalf, rented the dining room of the Atlantic House, a resort hotel in Newport, to convert for open skating. And that, as they say, is history.

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The image below is an engraving of Victorians skating indoors, and came from Curbed‘s interesting history of the roller rink, its attendant immoralities (!), and its growth with the nation, by Scott Garner.

Interior of a Victorian roller skating rinkPerhaps coincidentally, or not, this week is also the 35th anniversary of when the roller-skating-disco cinematic awesomeness that is Xanadu opened at the box office. It was about an artist who’s bored with his work and stuck in a rut until he meets one of the Muses. (Couldn’t we all use that kind of assistance?) People‘s Drew Mackie says:

Roller skating. Greek mythology. Hollywood. Olivia Newton-John. Gene Kelly. Electric Light Orchestra. By some measures, Xanadu should have been a hit.

It wasn’t, however. Upon its release in theaters on Aug. 8, 1980 – 35 years ago this week – the disco musical Xanadu was met with negative reviews and middling box office returns. That didn’t stop it, however, and this hypercolor fantasy has persisted, becoming a cult favorite in spite of its inauspicious beginnings.

XanaduIf you’re a glutton, as I am, you can read lots of little known facts about the production and the talented people involved, many of whom went on to do things better-received, though, to be fair, the soundtrack album was a mega-monster international hit. I also didn’t know the fact the film is kind of a sequel of a sequel and also, sadly, was Gene Kelly’s last, for which he choreographed the number he performed with Olivia Newton-John.

So yeah, having a dull day? Take yourself and you various pads and braces and helmets and grandchildren out to have some fun on wheels. After all, the Hickory Record tells me there’s a man who skates every week and just turned 89! Gene Elliott says, “I don’t feel old. When I get out there on that floor, it takes me a while to get loosened up but once I do, I’m back in my 60s and 70s.” I admit it, I have no excuse.

Skating Around the law by Joelle CharbonneauAnd because it’s Women of Mystery, I must also shout-out to Joelle Charbonneau, who’s since become hugely popular with her cool sff/dystopian adventures for younger readers, but who’s also written the Skating Series of mysteries, Book 1 being Skating Around the Law. Description: Rebecca Robbins is a woman on a mission–to sell the roller rink she inherited in her rural hometown and get back to her life in Chicago. Fast. What she didn’t count on was discovering a dead body head-first in a rink toilet. Now Rebecca is stuck in a small town where her former neighbors think she’s a city slicker who doesn’t belong, relying on a police department that’s better at gardening than solving crimes. With the help of a handsome veterinarian, a former circus camel, and her scarily frisky grandfather, Rebecca must discover the identity of the murderer before she becomes the next victim.

So, whether you do it, watch it, or read about it, hope you’re rolling on with summer fun!

6 Sleeping Beauties: Briar-tangled Folklore

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent, a retelling of Sleeping BeautyI recently saw the film Maleficent (enjoyed it!), another adaptation of the Sleeping Beauty folklore, especially of Disney’s famous animated version from 1959. Maleficent is told, contrarily, from the point of view of the “evil” fairy godmother, much like Wicked revisits Oz from the point of view of the misunderstood and ill-treated Wicked Witch of the West.

These reboots are fun, but sometimes it’s unremarked, amid criticism of the many, many remakes of stories Hollywood now produces, that this reconception of stories has been ongoing ever since the printing press was invented. Actually since long before then, but it’s harder to tell how the bards changed each other’s work where we don’t have copious recordings from the firesides.

(The following theory may be covered extensively elsewhere, but I haven’t seen it. Serious scholars employ classification systems to group folkloric tales, and I believe this one is ATU-type 410, under Tales of Magic, Supernatural or Enchanted Wife (Husband) or Other Relative, 400-459, but there isn’t any ATU number for the story elements I’m discussing here, at least, I think not, being a non-scholarly story hobbyist.)

When Disney created its animated film, it springboarded (pun intended, as you’ll see) from the well-known fairy tale of a sleeping beauty by the Brothers Grimm, “Little Briar Rose.” Well, those German brothers were re-telling it themselves, after hearing the French tale of Charles Perrault, “La Belle au bois dormant” or “The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood,” which was part of a collection published back in 1697.

Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920) The Sleeping Beauty

The Sleeping Beauty by German painter Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920)

But Perrault was not the original author of his tale either. And going back is where we re-discover the real meaning behind the story. Regardless of what Disney fans might attest, L’Aurore isnt the name of the sleeping princess, but actually the name of her daughter, otherwise Aurora or, more tellingly, Dawn. She is the twin sister of a boy named Le Jour or Day. Dawn and Day are the sleeping princess’s children, and Perrault’s own inspiration for his tale was most likely Giambattista Basile, an Italian, whose tale was published even earlier in 1634, and was called “Sole, Luna, e Talia, or in translation, “Sun, Moon, and Talia.”

Now it gets good.

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Are fairies really the stewards of the wheel of the year?

When considering the “sleeping” princess’s birth, she’s a golden child of exceptional beaty, for whom there’s usually a party with 12 fairy guests, going around in turn, each with a unique blessing to gift her. Combining this with the sleeper’s children, overtly named Sun and Moon (or Dawn and Day), the astrological underpinnings of the tale become apparent. The tale is perhaps analogous to Persephone’s disappearance into the underworld of the dead (like a wakeless sleep) during winter, the fallow season. The 13th fairy guest to the glorious young princess’s celebration, the uninvited one who curses her, is bad luck in number and deed, breaking the previous harmony of the twelve signs of the zodiacal year. In fact, hopping briefly into Norse mythology, the much-maligned Loki also plays 13th guest in a similar legend as well. He, too, arrives uninvited and wrathful to a banquet and arranges the death of the most beautiful golden hero of the world, Balder, and at the point of a mistletoe-tipped arrow no less. At this mournful event, the earth falls into darkness. Sounds wintry, doesn’t it?

I mention such low treachery now, because all of these older versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale have similarly awful acts in them that will horrify a modern reader if taken as straight reportage and not metaphor.

"Sleeping Beauty" by English painter Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846-1902)

Sleeping Beauty by English painter Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846-1902)

For example, the sleeping princess is usually raped by traveling royalty who find her irresistible while unconscious. This maintains her “innocence,” but she becomes pregnant and usually bears twin children to her attacker, later her contrite husband in some accounts. That happens to poor Talia before she bears Sun and Moon in Giambattista Basile’s tale, but if we go back even farther, the assault features in the earlier-still version of the Sleeping Beauty tale, “Histoire de Troïlus et de Zellandine” from very popular collected volumes of romances called Perceforest, most likely composed in France between 1330 and 1344.

Increasingly tipping the nod as to the underlying meaning and the solar/seasonal connection, the medieval story from Perceforest in which poor Zellandine delivers a child of rape from within her coma was, apparently, even performed at Catholic Masses in Germany as part of Shrove Tuesday. Well, that very date will soon be celebrated on February 17th of 2015 as Fat Tuesday or Mardis Gras, when we buckle down to the last forty gray days of Lent before Easter or the spring equinox, depending who’s counting. It’ll be helpful to know, for the next gruesome part, that “lambing season” is said to begin at this same time.

So, what of the sleeping beauty’s twins? Well, often it’s one of them, a hungry newborn infant, who suckles the splinter of flax, or what-have-you, from the sleeper’s finger, and that‘s what wakes her from her curse. No romantic kiss as such is involved. It’s the relentless drive of burgeoning new life. The sleeper awakens, not knowing what’s happened to her, but now a mother to delivered babies, suddenly appearing as do other chicks and foals and lambs and calves at this time of year.

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Painting of a medieval sheep market, Norwich, c. 1300

We can tell the sleeping beauty’s twins may also be metaphorically related to the springtime’s new livestock arrivals, because they’re–yes, it’s horrible again–usually ordered to be slaughtered. In Perrault’s tale, they’re actually ordered cooked and served with mustard sauce (sauce Robert). Horrors aside, that sounds a lot like the ritual Passover sacrifice of a lamb or the traditional Easter feast, the culturally widespread sharing of the “first fruits” of the year in spring rites. Anyway, the sleeping beauty’s child or children are saved (whew) by a kind-hearted cook or servant, who swaps out their prepared corpses with, you guessed it, lamb or even kid goat. And the evil queen who’s ordered the slaughter, in these early tales either the king’s legitimate wife or his ogress mother, is satisfied with the substitution. Is it a kid or a kid? She can’t seem to taste the difference. Hmmm.

Battista’s sleeping beauty’s name, Talia, is said in baby name dictionaries to be an old Hebrew or Aramaic name that has the meaning “heaven’s dew” or “lamb,” indicating the blessing of divine abundance. Well, dew is found at the birth of the day, and lamb at the birth of the year. Easter, a very lamb-riffic holiday with plenty of nods to abundant new life, occurs during the sign of Aries, the ram. Aries is a cardinal sign, meaning the beginning of a new season, and as the so-called first house, it’s also known as the youngest sign or “the baby of the zodiac,” which kicks off the year gamboling at the spring equinox. You may note that in Battista’s tale, the innocent lamb Talia is also supposed to be sacrificed with her children to be fed to the royalty.

Sure, there are many shades of Medea and other culinary child-servers in the earliest of these tales, too, but don’t let me sidetracked on that, or the twins Romulus and Remus, or their mother the Vestal Virgin…I’d be here all day. Unlike a clapped-out modern movie franchise’s sextilogy (I’m claiming it as a word), each one of these 6 sleeping beauties remains fascinating to me. I adore the way layered legacies of traditional storylines continue twisting and looping upon themselves while remaining relevant and compelling.

Edgar Allan Poe Festival in Riverhead, LI

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The Riverhead Business Improvement District in Riverhead, Long Island is hosting its very first weekend-long Edgar Allan Poe Festival — an event five years in the making by the creative mind of Sal St. George of Medford, NY (who also created the Charles Dickens Festival in Port Jefferson; the 19th Annual Charles Dickens Festival will be held this year from December 5 – December 7, 2014).

Activities began today, Halloween, from 3-7 pm, culminating with a parade. Simultaneous events will be held on Saturday, November 1, from 11 am to 6 pm (with a 5:45 double feature starring Vincent Price in The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum), and on Sunday, November 2, from 12 noon to 9 pm, with a fireworks display at 8 pm. A more detailed list of events can be found at RiverheadLocal.com.

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Complimentary hayrides will be offered by the Riverfront from 12-3 pm on Saturday & Sunday. Free Witches Brew will be served to children at the Blue Duck Bakery Diner throughout the weekend.

According to NorthFork.com, during the festival, nearly 50 live book readings will be held at over 15 locations, “from the Suffolk County Historical Society — which is hosting an official Edgar Allan Poe exhibit — to the Long Island Aquarium, which is unofficially extending Halloween a day by encouraging children to show up in costume at its Bats, Barnacles and Broomsticks party from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.”

Many of the participating businesses can be located in the Riverhead Town Guide and Business Directory Map. The streets feature decorated lamp posts, each an entry into a festival contest.

Many thanks and congratulations to Sal St. George and the Riverhead Business Improvement District for the creation of such an impressive Edgar Allan Poe Festival.

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Follow me on Twitter @katcop13.

Pam, Walt and Mary P.

Ah, Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins of the beloved books, the magical nanny who looked like a wooden doll and could be difficult and even scary? Mary Poppins of the beloved Disney movie, who looked like radiant young Julie Andrews and sang unforgettable songs? In the new (newish-I Netflixed) movie, Saving Mr. Banks, we get to see the creators of those two somewhat overlapping but definitely not identical characters, working together most unhappily.Mary-Poppins-standing1

It is “based on” the making of the Mary Poppins movie, and the intense conflicts between Disney and the author of the books, P.L. Travers, with flashbacks to her tragic childhood skillfully woven in.

Note the words “based on.” It is as much about the actual conflict as, say, the movie Mary Poppins is about the original Mary Poppins. In other words, not so much. I enjoyed it anyway, just as I mostly like the movie Mary Popppins while knowing very well it is not, actually, the real Mary Poppins.lpmp

If I were a serious critic I’d have trouble reconciling those two conflicting reactions. Since I’m not, I can say that Saving Mr. Banks, for me, was an interesting, enjoyable and kind of sweet piece of ( mostly) fiction. The accurate parts are: most of the characters were real people, the conflicts existed and there are tape recordings to prove it, and the back-story of Travers tragic childhood seems to have been true. Tom Hanks does an excellent job of portraying Walt Disney as a rather kind person, with real creativity at his core, and at the same time, a slick businessman. (That’s another whole blog. Or book.) Emma Thompson does a super job of portraying Travers’ snobbery, verbal cruelty, and the insecurity and pain that is its source. Watching the Disney operation at work was great fun. And there is a wonderful moment in a flashback when her aunt arrived to set things straight in Travers’ childhood home…with her carpet bag and parrot-headed umbrella, commanding the children to get to work, spit-spot. Remind you of anyone? MaryPoppinsUmbrellaHandle-e1388691419663

In the movie, Disney persuades Travers to accept his way of making the film. That highly moving key scene never happened. And he did not put up with Travers because he still needed her to sign the contract. It was already a done deal – though she did have script approval. Her tears at the premiere were not tears of relief; she hated the movie for the rest of her long life. All the way to the bank. And in real life she was even more strange and difficult than she is on screen. (That could be another whole blog.)

Like many of the other great British children’s book authors – Barrie, Kipling, Nesbit, Milne, Grahame and more – she had a traumatic childhood and made a mess of raising her own adopted child. (The unhappy childhoods of those authors could be yet another blog – and has been the subject of many articles and books)

Best for us to enjoy the Mary Poppins books, enjoy the Mary Poppins movie and enjoy Saving Mr. Banks while recognizing that they are, mostly, separate works of powerful imaginations.

Liam Neeson: Matt Scudder in “A Walk Among the Tombstones”

A Walk Among The TombstonesMatthew Scudder, Lawrence Block‘s alcoholic-cop-turned-private-investigator, is coming to life on the big screen this September. Actor Liam Neeson portrays ex-NYPD Detective Scudder, a character who’s appeared in LB’s novels since 1976, in the neo-noir film, A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on the tenth Scudder novel of the same name.

The director and screenwriter is Scott Frank. Regarding Neeson and Frank, crime writer Lawrence Block said, “I couldn’t be happier about either the star or the writer/director, both of them genuine artists and brilliant professionals. My book’s in good hands.”

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(Writers and Movie Buffs: Be sure to check out Scott Frank’s Screenwriters Lecture, and his take on Film Noir.)

Early reviews for the film are already favorable. The trailer’s been released. The hard part for movie-goers is the wait between now and September 19, 2014.

Follow me on Twitter @katcop13.

Fleming. Ian Fleming.

Ian_Fleming,_headshotThe start of the recent mini series, Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, begins with a quote from the author himself: “Everything I write has a precedent in truth.”

While I’m not sure that’s exactly the case, I do believe that Fleming experienced many of escapades and adventures that inspired his stories and his iconic character, James Bond. Those of you who’ve seen some of my posts may know that I’m a big fan of spy thrillers and of Fleming’s in particular.

Fleming was born into a wealthy family and attended the top British schools Eton and Sandhurst. A rich playboy, he dabbled in the family banking business and in journalism while living in the shadow of his more successful novelist brother, Peter. When he was recruited by the Director of Naval Intelligence to help in the effort against the Nazis, his life took a different direction as he realized he had an aptitude for spying. Fleming was involved in the planning of Operation Goldeneye and in the planning of two other intelligence units during the Second World War.

After the war, Fleming retired to Jamaica and the home he built there, Goldeneye, where he wrote his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952. It’s not too surprising that his hero, Bond, or 007 as we know him, has a backstory as a Commander in the Royal Navy Reserves. A sure fire case where writing what you know really works. And one that has brought many novels and much pleasure for which Fleming fans like myself are thankful.

Fleming, who died at 56 in 1964, wrote 14 Bond books and 9 short stories, all of which are represented in films. Several other authors have also written post-Fleming Bond novels. Sean Connery, David Niven, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig have played James Bond over the course of 23 movies. And all have had the pleasure of introducing themselves with words I’ve come to know and love: Bond. James Bond.

Sadly, the next Bond movie won’t be out until 2016. Guess I’ll just have to wait for it.

How about you? Do you have a favorite James Bond book, or actor? I’d love to know.

Part 2- Once Upon a Time in America

In my last blog I wrote about a new-to-me crime movie, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and said, “How I ran across it in my research is weird enough to be another blog,” Here is that blog.

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I ran across it because I have been doing real research into Jewish organized crime of the 1920’s and 1930’s, in Brownsville, Brooklyn. It is part of the background of my next book about Brooklyn crime, old and new, and particular Brooklyn neighborhoods. I like doing research, have both training and skills, and, oh, yes, it works well for procrastinating on actual writing. (Joking. Sort of)

In addition to reading some serious books about time, place and topic, I’ve also done some roaming around the Internet. In that digital way of one search leading to another, somewhere in there I stumbled on an article by Meyer Lansky II – yes, the grandson of that Meyer Lansky, key associate of “Lucky” Luciano and one of the organizers of the National Crime Syndicate.

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Meyer Lansky mug shot

The article came from the Huffington Post and it was called “The Many Faces of Meyer Lansky.” He was musing about how his grandfather has been depicted in movies and television, both by name and as characters obviously based on him. One of those movies was Once Upon a Time in America.

I don’t know which detail is the most weird. The endless American, or at least Hollywood, fascination with organized crime? The author listed no less than eight favorite portrayals. The statement that he is always happy to see Grandpa’s appearances as part of the boys legacy, the boys being people like Frank “Lucky” Luciano, Frank Costello, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel? “Boys” is a strangely innocuous way to refer to that gang. They were hardly Tom Sawyer. The matter of fact statement that Lansky himself liked Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth in Godfather II and he called to Strasberg to discuss it?

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Strasberg with Al Pacino

Meyer Lansky was still alive, though ailing, when Once Upon a Time… was made and his grandson writes “Reportedly, De Niro requested an audience with Grandpa to prepare for the role” as Noodles Aaronson. He was turned down but DeNiro’s Noodles, with his “…humble demeanor and calm articulation…were familiar.” Note the word “audience” instead of “interview” or “meeting?” Lansky was not exactly a pope or a king.

Maybe none of the above is as strange as another article, an interview with Meyer Lansky II in which he is asked who his grandfather especially admired. He said, “Lincoln and Gandhi.” At that point, Lewis Carroll took the place of Sergio Leone or Mario Puzo.

Of course it is in the gap where facts don’t mesh, memories don’t match, and anecdotes don’t make sense, that mystery plots live and grow. In fact, I just got a whole new idea for a subplot … a really good one… the solution to a problem…

A New/Old Crime Film

When I am still thinking about a movie weeks later, I have stop and ask why. Especially when it is an old movie I always assumed was junk. Especially when it is about the Jewish gangsters of the 20’s and 30’s, which is part of my next book. Especially when it begins on the old Lower East side and Sergio Leone, an Italian and the king of the Spaghetti Western, made it.

How I ran across it in my research is weird enough to be another blog, but today I’m trying to write about the movie itself, Once Upon a Time in America. n334432

Leone intended it to be two full length movies but the studios refused to release it that way and apparently made a complete mess in the process of cutting it down for release. No surprise that it was widely panned and unsuccessful. Later, with the short-term release of an almost complete version, it was hailed as a masterpiece. What I saw seems to be in between: it is obvious some scenes are missing, but it is closer to what Leone intended.

It jumps back and forth in time, telling some of the story in the now of the movie, 1968, when a mysterious man, “Noodles” Aaronson, (Robert DeNiro) returns to his old haunts on the Lower East Side. He seems sad and shabby,but, we soon learn, he is on a mission. Some of it is about the glory years when he was prospering as a bootlegger in a gang with his best friend Max (James Woods) and the old gang. Some of it is about their youth on the streets, how Noodles and Max met and what came from those unbreakable bonds. There is a beautiful girl too, who haunted his adolescent dreams, (Jennifer Connelly in her first role; Elizabeth McGovern in the adult years).

The young actors (Scott Tiler and Rusty Jacobs) are extraordinary and the portraits of them as kids, schemers but still children,and their world, is what is staying with me. The specificity of many moments, the acting, the look of the background, are caught in my imagination.

Then we learn gradually that something happened – the reason Noodles left and maybe the reason he is back – and I kept watching because I wanted to know what it was. I wanted to see the puzzle solved. Bit by bit, very skillfully, the pieces drop into place, with the scenes of them as successful crooks laying the ground work for what happens later.

The final resolution is a bit of a mess, very ambiguous. It might be brilliant or it might be a complete cop-out, where they ran out of ideas. It could even be both.Then again, there could still be a few crucial missing scenes.

Nevertheless, I’m haunted by the overall atmosphere of loneliness, lost youth, lost dreams. I’m glad I watched it and recommend it to anyone with an interest in the period or the subject.

And I expect to keep thinking about it.