How To Survive the Red Brigades

Kidnap Victim of Italy’s Red Brigades in the 1970s

I have just finished reading a fascinating novel by Rachel Kushner entitled The Flamethrowers. In it, the author describes a young woman named only Reno who races motorcycles on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, gets involved in the New York art scene of the 1970s, and even winds up in the middle of a Red Brigades terrorist cell in Rome. She manages to survive by not letting herself get weighted down.

The following is from my review of the book on Goodreads:

The heroine, referred to only as Reno (from where she was born), is a young woman into motorcycle racing and art circa 1975. She goes to New York, where she gets into the art scene and gets involved with two men, Ronnie Fontaine (briefly) and Sandro Valera, scion of the Italian family that manufactures Moto Valera motorcycles.

Few reviewers, I thought, understood where the book title came from. At one point, Sandro’s father criticizes his son’s admiration of the Italian motorcyclists who went into battle during World War I with flamethrowers on their backs:

Flag of the Red Brigades

But then his father told him the flamethrowers were a hopeless lot. Their tanks were cumbersome and heavy and they were obvious and slow-moving targets and if they were ever caught they were shown no mercy. That’s not a thing you want to be, his father said, after which Sandro continued to love the flamethrowers best, to reserve for them a special fascination, in their eerie, hooded asbestos suit, the long and evil nozzle they aimed at enemy holdouts.

There are two related images to which the author refers. One is to native Brazilians who tapped the Valera-owned rubber trees carrying heavy stones so that their souls wouldn’t drift away. Another is to a would-be suicide Sandro saves from drowning in the East River: He had deliberately weighted himself down with multiple overcoats to facilitate his exit.

Reno carries no such weights. She doesn’t even seem to bear a last name. She goes through life without attaching herself irrevocably to someone who is too weighted down to survive in this world. At one point, she is in Italy among the Red Brigades, who were staging a mass demonstration with kidnappings. She moves through what is a terrorist cell without becoming weighted down with any of the ideology.

An interesting message from an interesting novelist.

Favorite Films: Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

French Film Director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973)

You have to admit it: He looks like an American. But he comes by it honestly. Not only is he a hero of the French Resistance during the Second World War, but his code name was Melville, based on his love of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, born an Alsatian Jew in Paris; but he signed all his films as Jean-Pierre Melville.

I have seen four of Melville’s thirteen films. Although the French New Wave of the 1960s resulted in a publicity windfall for Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Alain Resnais, there were many French directors who never became quite so well-known across the Atlantic. Jean-Pierre Melville is one of them. Others include Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol.

Two Men in Manhattan (Deux Hommes dans Manhattan) is like a Valentine dedicated to New York City at night. A newsman for Agence France Presse in New York is told to investigate the non-appearance of a French diplomat at the United Nations. Moreau (played by Melville himself) looks up his paparazzi friend Delmas. Together, they search for three known past girlfriends of the diplomat, including a Broadway actress, a jazz singer, and a stripper. They even visit a high-priced prostitute known to favor diplomats. When they find that he has died in a girlfriend’s apartment, a conflict erupts when Delmas sees the potential for selling photos that show his death to have been a squalid one. It turns out the deceased was a hero in the Resistance, and Moreau’s boss wants the negatives of the pictures Delmas took.

French Title for Two Men in Manhattan

In no American film of the period have I seen such beautiful scenes of night-time Manhattan. The exteriors in this film are lovely, and the scuttlebutt is that Melville shot them himself. If so, I would regard it as high on the list of the best noir films, irrespective of country of origin.

If you should rent the DVD, I suggest you also watch the extra footage of a conversation between Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, two knowledgeable film critics who provide excellent background to the movie and Melville’s career.

 

Hollywood’s Own Muse

Eve Babitz, Author of Black Swans

Perhaps the saddest thing about Southern California is that so much that has been written about the area comes from clueless East Coast authors who whose work is characterized by a kind of extreme cultural tone-deafness. If you want a true picture of Los Angeles, you have to read Eve Babitz who, alone, seems to understand what the city in which I live is all about. In her story “Self-Enchanted City” in her story collection Black Swan, she writes:

When people would first arrive from New York, they’d say stuff like “This place is full of fruits and nuts and you have no seasons.” So I knew they saw through the cheap thrills of shallow sunshine and were principled easterners determined to be unimpressed. But after a few weeks, even they would show up at Barney’s Beanery driving a brown Porsche, and they’d move into one of those Snow White wishing-well houses where all they could hear were birdies in the trees and all they could see were hollyhocks, roses, and lemon blossoms. And then they’d undergo a kind of molecular transformation, losing all their winter fat, their bad teeth, and their attitude that life was about artists being screwed by “the establishment.” And if they were fast enough on their feet, they’d soon become the establishment themselves. Or, at the very least, they’d wind up writing screenplays about Marxist good guys disguised as cat burglars.

The Chateau Marmont, Archetypal Hollywood Hotel on the Sunset Strip

Eve neglects to mention that they still kept one foot in the East by wearing a New York Times baseball cap. Earlier, she describes what has happened to Hollywood:

But for anything to age gracefully, eternal vigilance is necessary, and Hollywood has not been carefully tended. It has been knocked down flights of stairs, abandoned, left for dead, and sold into slavery. Still, if you ask me, some parts are just as beautiful as my dream version—even more beautiful if you subscribe to the Tennessee Williams decadence-as-poetry theory that ravaged radiance is even better than earnest maintenance.

I am only about a third of the way into Black Swan, but am continuing to make further discoveries every page.