Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Film Pairings — King of New York, Last Man Standing

If you dislike screen violence, move on.  Nothing you want to see here.  Seriously.

In King of New York almost all of it happens at night — what you would expect from a noirish film like this. Night fell on the screenplay and couldn’t get up.  Last Man Standing is late afternoon to sunset, orange-gold overlays a world of endless dust, appropriate for a near-noir film.  In both movies, there’s lots of guns and lots of blood.

Though King has a remarkably talented supporting cast — Lawrence Fishburne, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes and a brief appearance by Steve Buscemi — there is no doubt Christopher Walken is The King of New York.  Walken ‘s character is cold-blooded and charming, crazy as a loon and despite his last, heartfelt and determined humanitarian attempt he fails to redeem his life of serious and gruesome criminality. The machine moves on. Directed by Abel Ferrara, the visually, but brutally striking film prompted some audience members at its premiere to walk out.  Filmed in 1996, it is one of few relatively recent films to meet the exacting standards of what constitutes noir.  There is no hope.

I’ve never seen Bruce Willis give a bad performance.  He is solid here as well, but something is missing.  Arthur Hill has admittedly and respectfully taken the story from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and it was also inspired, some say, by Dashiell Hammett’s work, The Glass Key and Red Harvest. A corrupt town is cleaned up by one tough and unrelenting gunslinger. Director Hill, mines the gold of his Western-movie roots.  He brings prohibition-era gangsters into a wild west town. Willis’ success in going up against impossible odds has less to do with an extraordinary intelligence but rather his ability to fire two guns at the same time. I believe Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers had this skill as well. But things were not nearly so bloody in their dramas. And we are not sure whether the main character is going against the odds, risking his life in the cause of justice or because he was disrespected. Early on, we’re promised the appearance of a super-gangster. Throughout the first half of the film, we (maybe just me) can’t wait for the meeting of the super good guy and the super bad guy, who we know by process of elimination, has to be played by Christopher Walken.  Walken’s surprisingly restrained performance is adequate here.  Given such a pivotal role, though, he’s not been given much to work with and the let-down is inevitable.  The movie is worthwhile entertainment, but it seems to me, Last Man falls well short of its potential. In the end, the most interesting character is the ineffectual sheriff played by Bruce Dern.

If you are staying in, this is definitely a hard liquor night.  I’d save King of New York for last to savor Walken’s incredible performance.  Nobody does crazy as well.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Observations —1988, Year of Crackpots and Fools

Nick & Cher, Top of Their Games
"Diver," by jasper Johns  Sold for $4.2 million
A terrorist bomb blew up a 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland.  Benazir Bhutto was the first Islamic to lead Pakistan. Burma suspended its constitution. Francois Mitterrand was elected French president. Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis as its nominee for President. Republicans nominated George Bush, the elder. Bush was elected. NASA first warned of global warming.  Anthony M. Kennedy was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Robert Bork’s court nomination was rejected. Trash is not private property and may be searched without a warrant said the court. Congress overrode Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act. The Rev. Jimmy Swaggart confessed having “sinned” with a hired dominatrix.   The Rev. Jerry Falwell lost his libel case against Larry Flynt.  However, The Hustler publisher was alleged to have put out a “hit” on rivals Hugh Heffner (Playboy) and Bob Guccione (Penthouse), as well as Frank Sinatra. Mike Tyson hired Donald Trump as an adviser.  Tyson sought psychiatric help. Trump charged Tyson $2 million for advice. There’s a joke in there somewhere. Jasper John’s painting, “Diver,” sold for $4,200,000.  “48 Hours” premiered on CBS.  Rush Limbaugh first went on national radio. Toni Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for Beloved. The Mystery Writers of America gave their “Best Mystery award to Old Bones by Aaron Elkins.  The Private Eye Writers of America gave their top prize, The Shamus, to Benjamin Schutz for A Tax On Blood.  We also read The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy, The Sands of Time by Sidney Sheldon, Zoya by Danielle Steel, The Icarus Agenda by Robert Ludlum, The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice, Alaska by James A. Michener, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.  We watched Coming To America, Rain Man, Beetlejuice, Big, Die Hard, Bull Durham, Naked Gun and A Fish Called Wanda. Musical treats included “Faith” by George Michael, “Need You Tonight” by INXS, “Got My Mind Set On You” by George Harrison, “Never Going To Turn You Loose” by Rick Asti, and “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns ‘n Roses. Rihanna, Adele and Michael Cera were born in 1988.  Those who left us included Roy Orbison, Chet Baker, Divine, John Carradine, John Holmes, Trevor Howard, John Houseman, Andy Gibb and Robert A. Heinlein.  If you were around, what were you doing during this year of the earth dragon?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book Notes — Ten Books That Served As Courses in Life And Writing

Aside from cat videos, a relatively current Facebook trend is to get folks to list their ten top books.  The point here is to list those books that have stayed with them in some way, a special place in their hearts and or minds.  Because I’m a suspicious sort, I worry that some of these lists wander into the top-ten-books-of-all-time kind of thinking.  

I first learned of this “tag-a-friend” project on the crime fiction web blog, Rapsheet, which I go to every morning to accompany my first cup of coffee of the day.

I dutifully posted my ten (eleven sort of) in the comment section of that post and have been perusing other lists on the blog and on Facebook and decided I would like to explain my choices.  My first thought was that the premise was the greatest or my favorite 10 books. I would be unqualified to list the 10 greatest books because I don’t have the literary or historical qualifications, and because I really haven’t read enough to do such a list justice. Second, readers and writers may approach reading differently. The following is a list of books, not necessarily my favorites, but books that, in some way, changed my life, or my craft or at least my view of the world.

Young Törless, Robert Musil   Musil wrote this prescient tale about the end of innocence and the onset of adolescence while the Nazis were gathering their evil forces in Europe.  The book foresaw the human capacity to force people to belong to a powerful group and to torture those who don’t or can’t.  Musil also introduced me to his more famous contemporaries— Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré. Le Carré let me know that crime and espionage novels could offer much more than the solving of a puzzle and introduced me to the concept of the  deeply flawed protagonist. We find ourselves interested in a central character who is no longer interested in the world.
Soul On Ice, Eldridge Cleaver  There’s no way that a middle-class white kid like me could understand racism as it was at the time without exposure to the stories of people who lived it.  I’m sure there are other great books (Baldwin and Wright) that could have provided me with that kind of education — perhaps a better one.  But at the time, this was what I found and what I needed and when I needed it. Cleaver went off into the ozone later. This, however, was a powerful and meaningful story.
Armies of the Night/Miami And The Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer   I’m not sure this is history as fiction or fiction as history, but Mailer’s journalistic style strikes me as a valuable writer’s resource. These two books, observations of our government’s bad behavior, were part of a new kind of writing that many well-known authors claimed to invent, including Truman Capote with his celebrated, In Cold Blood.
Tesseract, Alex Garland  Again, this is something for writers especially.  How much energy can anyone put into the written word? The words move. The reader must chase them. This was a book that shook me up.
The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda  Fact or fiction?  I’m definitely voting for fiction and from what we’ve learned later that’s a safe vote.  This first volume of books on “the Yaqui way of knowledge,” however reads as well-written magical realism that snagged my young mind.  It opened up possibilities.
Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey  However desperate some writers are to leave the traditional behind, it’s great to be grounded by a master mystery writer now and then. This was an assignment for a mystery conference.  Otherwise, I might have have missed this tightly-plotted classic.
Diva, Daniel Odier (a.k.a. Delacorta) What fun!  Not every book has to cause a furrowed brow. In the end, what this book (and the series) did for me was to say:  “This would be fun to write and “You could do this”— an inspiration I couldn’t resist. It was this series that caused me to write the now out-of-print, Eclipse of the Heart.
Clarence Darrow for the Defense, Irving Stone I was a strange little kid.  I didn’t have any real heroes until this book came along and I got to know something about Clarence Darrow.  A little later I discovered a second hero – Cassius Marcellus Clay (not the boxer, the abolitionist).  Both gained a significant amount of power and stature.  Both were deeply flawed, but both were willing to risk everything to pursue causes they believed in.
Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith  Much like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, we have an author who can create memorable characters and weave them into suspenseful tales relevant to our times. It’s education made compelling.  One learns or tries to learn from the masters. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Observations — 1953, Eisenhower, Lucy and Good Reading

First Issue of Playboy Features Marilyn Monroe
Korean armistice was signed. Dwight D. Eisenhower assumed U.S. Presidency. He nominee Earl Warren, became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He formed a government contract oversight committee. He condemned Joseph McCarthy’s book-banning proposal, while Georgia approved the country’s first literature censorship board. East Berlin failed in their attempt at insurrection. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as spies. Charlie Chaplin left the U.S. amidst claims he was a communist.  Fidel Castro began his rebellion against Cuban leader Juan Batista. Winston Churchill was knighted by recently crowned Queen Elizabeth II. The hydrogen bomb was developed. Lucille Ball gave birth to Desi Arnaz Jr., for real while TV Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky. Hollywood developed wide-screen cinemascope in an attempt to separate Americans from their TVs. TV Guide debuted. Samuel Beckett’s En Attendant Godot opened in Paris.  Arthur Miller’s The Crucible opened in New York. First successful open-heart surgery was performed.  Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first climbers to reach the crest of Mount Everest.  Bill Vukovich won the Indianapolis 500.  Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The Mystery Writers of America didn’t award an Edgar for “Best Novel” until 1954. However they did give an award for a “Best First Novel” in ’53.  It went to William Campbell Gault for Don’t Cry For Me. Other books of note included Junkie by William Burroughs, Plexus by Henry Miller, Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin and The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.  Best sellers that year included The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas, The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain, and From Here To Eternity by James Jones. On the big screen we watched Roman Holiday, Peter Pan, How To Marry A millionaire, Pickup on South Street, Titanic, From Here To Eternity, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Shane, War of the Worlds, and The Wild Ones. We listened to “Song From Moulin Rouge” by Percy Faith, “Vaya Con Dios” by Les Paul and Mary Ford,” I’m Waking Behind You” by Eddie Fisher, “You, You, You” by the Ames Brothers,  “I’ll Waltz Again With You” by Theresa Brewer, “April in Portugal” by Les Baxter, “No Other Love” by Perry Como, and “I Believe” by Frankie Laine. Among those born in 1953 were Tony Blair, Kim Basinger, Pierce Brosnan and John Malkovich. Taking their leave were Joseph Stalin, Eugene O’Neil, Queen Mary, Dylan Thomas, Sergei Prokofiev, and Hank Williams.  If you were around, what were you doing during this year of the water snake?

1953 Nash

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Film Pairings — White Heat, Rififi, A Night Of American Black And French Noir

Virginia Mayo and James Cagney in White Heat
I may have to give up my mystery writer’s license for my admission: I’ve never liked watching James Cagney and avoid most of his films. But I see now, it’s been my loss. In White Heat, he plays a macho, mama’s boy, a complex character that Cagney pulls off with aplomb. White Heat is on everyone’s list of great gangster films.  It’s also a heist movie with a reliable supporting cast — Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Steve Cochran, and a very convincing  Margaret Wycherly as “Ma.”  We’ve got guns and trains, prison violence, car chases and explosions, and still we don’t lose that sense of noir gloom. Virginia Kellogg picked up an Academy Award for Best Writing, and the 1949 film won the Best Picture Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America.

Jean Servais threatening in Rififi
No doubt an inspirational resource for many American crime films to follow, the word for White Heat is “American.”  In 1955, The French produced Rififi a gangster/heist film that epitomized noir.  In all fairness, the story was realized by American director Jules Dassain who had been banned from Hollywood, blacklisted during the notorious McCarthy era of “commie” hunters. Based on the Auguste Le Breton’s Du Rififi Chez Hommes novel, a recently released, over-the-hill gangster brings together a specialized crew to rob a high-end jewelry store.  The meticulously planned (and filmed) robbery is worth the price of admission alone; but the film is not over.   I suspect that anyone wanting to understand film noir would do well to study this masterpiece, not only for its story, but for the superior cinematography which captures the working streets of Paris in the mid-fifties.

If the diminutive Cagney casts a big shadows on the screen as the manic American tough guy, French actor Jean Servais, does it in reverse.  His depression (ennui) is tangible without being melodramatic.   In White Heat, Cagney is so intense we cannot take our eyes off him.  In Rififi, Servais, the central character, almost doesn’t exist. It’s his immense and cool quiet that astounds. However, the last minutes of the film more than confirm the greatness of all that precede it and create a genuine work of art.

If you take in this double feature some night, consume with glasses of champagne or Pernod (if you’re the moody type) because the French are slightly victorious in the match of these two great films.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Observations — 1974, Ted Bundy, Thomas Pynchon & David Cassidy

India became the world’s sixth nuclear power.  Richard M. Nixon resigned the presidency. Gerald Ford assumed the position and pardoned Nixon.  A fire in Argentina destroyed 1.2 million acres.  5,000 died from Honduras hurricane “Fifi.” Ayatollah Khomeini called for an Islamic Republic in Iran. Genetic engineering was banned.  Patricia Hearst was kidnapped. People Magazine debuted. Barbara Walters was picked to co-anchor “The Today Show.” Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from Russia.  Ted Bundy was captured after committing at least 30 homicides.  “Love, American Style” went off the air. 55 m.p.h. speed limit was imposed nationally. Nolan Ryan threw a fastball at 100 m.p.h., didn’t get a ticket. Oscar Robertson retired. Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record. George Foreman knocked out Ken Norton. David Cassidy was trampled at a concert. Paul McCartney formed Wings, released “Band on the Run.”  Patti Smith released “Hey Joe,” credited with being the first punk rock record. Joan Jett formed The Runaways, Top Billboard Hits were:” The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand, “Seasons In The Sun” by Terry Jacks, “Love’s Theme” by The Love Unlimited Orchestra, “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, “Dancing Machine” by the Jackson 5, “The Locomotion” by Grand Funk Railroad, “MFSB” by TSOP (you’ll know it when you hear it), “The Streak” by Ray Stevens, “Bennie and The Jets” by Elton John, and “One Hell Of A Woman” by Mac Davis.  Though Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon was all the rage, picking up all sorts of book awards, some members of the Pulitzer Prize Committee were offended by a passage on necrophilia.  No Pulitzer Prize for Literature was awarded in 1974. The Mystery Writers of America awarded The Edgar, their top prize, Tony Hillerman for Dance Hall of the Dead. Those on the Bestseller List included: Centennial by James A. Michener, Watership Down by Richard Adams, Jaws by Peter Benchley, Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy by John LeCarré, Something Happened by Joseph Heller, and The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth. We watched Chinatown, The Godfather 2, Day for Night, Blazing Saddles, Towering Inferno, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Death Wish, Man With The Golden Gun and Murder On The Orient Express. Among those born to become notable this year were: Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Penelope Cruz, Joaquin Phoenix, and Hillary Swank. Those who left us included Bud Abbott, Dizzy Dean, Charles Lindbergh, Ed Sullivan, Agnes Moorehead, Walter Brennan, Richard Long, Jack Benny, Tex Ritter and Cass Elliot. If you were around, what were you doing during this year of the wood tiger?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book Notes — Faraway Places

I want to thank the person who came up with the concept of “crime fiction.”  I’ve always thought that the term“mysteries” was misleading for many books in which there was no mystery, but where crime was central to the story. Now if someone would clear up “literary” crime fiction.

Author Tom Spanbauer
I traipsed around the Internet to find some sort of definition from dictionaries to book discussion groups.  What I found was more confusion. Even so, the term continues to be bandied about by reviewers and readers. During a recent interview with Omnimystery News, James Lee Burke said, “I try to write a book or short story that has literary merit.”  I’m not sure what that means either, though I would imagine that if any of the more popular crime writers fall in the so-called literary category Burke would be one of them.

I don’t believe there is a definition on which we can all agree.  Perhaps it is similar to what has been said about obscenity.  We can’t define it, but we think we know it when we see it. Again, if there is “literary" crime fiction, Faraway Places qualifies.

I suspect that author Tom Spanbauer neither intended to write nor would he now consider his first book, Faraway Places, a literary crime novel or a crime novel at all. Certainly none of the rest of his highly regarded novels has a crime as a central plot point. But this one does, and I believe the powerful story would appeal to many crime fiction readers, especially those who seek a high-quality, out-of-the ordinary read.

Thirteen-year-old Jake Weber lives in an isolated area in the remote state of Idaho. He is a sensitive boy.  Every sensor in his adolescent being is working over time. His mind and pen register the smell of the river when it is full and flowing and the scent of the river when it is shallow and unmoving.  He is aware of the feeling of the wind, the movement of the clouds, the flight of the birds and the sound everything makes.

That place up there in the stand of twenty-two cottonwood trees smelled like the wind  — a hot smell full of dry June grass and sagebrush and big round crusty cow pies and horse turds all mixed ….  Under those trees that sound the leaves made made you feel like you were having secrets whispered to you, and I whispered secrets back — like my secret name that I said aloud there.

One hot summer day and against standing orders from his emotionally distant father, Jake goes for a swim. He witnesses a brutal murder, as brutal as I’ve ever read.   This is only the beginning, however. Secrets are exposed. Nature, human and the rest of it, will have its way. It was particularly grotesque as murder stories go, a hellish epiphany, and a particularly rough rite of passage for young Jake out there in the middle of nowhere, where a crime like this could easily go unnoticed.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Observations — 1978, “Drinking The Kool Aid” And The Bee Gees

908 followers of People’s Temple Leader Jim Jones voluntarily drank lethal Kool Aid. Jimmy Carter convinced Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’ Menachem Begin to join him at Camp David to discuss a framework for peace. Carter said “no” to neutron bomb.  A former Italian premiere and his bodyguards were slain. U.S. agreed to turn over the Panama Canal to Panama. Carter doubled the size of U.S. national parks. The Supreme Court ruled women need not pay more than men for health insurance.  Carl Sagan won a Pulitzer Prize. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt was shot. Charlie Chaplin’s coffin (with Chaplain’s remains) was stolen. Ted Nugent autographed a fan with a knife. First “test tube baby” was born.” Balloon angioplasty was developed. Sony released its first Walkman. Velcro was introduced to the marketplace. “Dallas” premiered on TV. One of the Flying Wallendas slipped off the high wire to his death.  Leon Spinks defeated Mohammed Ali. Ali returned the favor before the year ended.  Pete Rose reached 3,000 hits. Al Unser won his 3rd Indianapolis 500.  Bjorn Borg won the French Open and Wimbledon. China lifted its ban on Shakespeare, Aristotle and Dickens.  Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel Prize for literature.  The Pulitzer for literature went to James Alan McPherson for Elbow Room.  The Mystery Writers of America gave its top award to William H. Hallahan, for Catch Me If You Can. We also read And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, The World According To Garp by John Irving, The Snow Leopard by Peter Mathiessen, War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. We watched Grease, Superman, Animal House, Every Way But Loose, Heaven Can Wait, Hooper, Jaws 2, Dawn of the Dead, Revenge of the Pink Panther, and The Deer Hunter.   We listened to “Shadow Dancing” by Andy Gibb, “Night Fever” by the The Bee Gees,  “You Light Up My Life” by Debbie Boone, “Kiss You All Over by Exile,  “Baby Come Back” by Player, “How Deep Is Your Love.” By The Bee Gees, “Thicker Than Water” by Andy Gibb, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey and “Three Times A Lady” by the Commodores.  Among those born in 1978 were Kobe Bryant, Usher, James Franco, Ashton Kutcher and January Jones. Pope John I died after only 33 days in office. Others who departed include Norman Rockwell, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Shaw, Bob Crane, Charles Boyer, Louis Prima, Gig Young, Keith Moon, Dan Dailey, Oskar Homolka, Keith Moon and Edgar Bergen.  If you were around. what were you doing during this year of the earth horse?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Commentary — The Brood Reunion, From 17 To 70

Fifty years ago, or so, seven of us who went to the same high school in the mid-sixties decided we would not lose touch with each other as time marched or meandered on. What we had in common was a lack of interest in sports, the marching band or math club.  Most of us were interested in debate, speech, radio, or theater.  We were an opinionated group and still are.

The Brood In The Beginning
Being too young to drink legally, we met after school at a neighborhood diner for coffee or in Rob’s basement. We hung out together talking politics, ethics, religion and sex, almost all of this in theoretical terms. Especially the sex part.  “What if” games were also popular.  You know, what if you were to be stranded on an island, what three things would you bring along?   I think that our desire to get together  again and again was not so much the loyal warrior brother mentality that some boys engage in, but mere curiosity — a “what if” game realized.  What if we were 70? What would we be like?  How might we have changed?  Would we still be alive?

We were white.  We had no friends of color because there were no students of color in our high school or in our neighborhood.  I remind you this was 50 years ago. We were middleclass white kids, probably somewhat unaware of our privilege, but also pretty much unaware that there were those with even greater privilege. We referred to our little group as “the brood” for practical purposes. This was the name we used among ourselves. However word got out that there was this exclusive club and kids we didn’t know wanted to join.  Join what? We weren’t a club or a fraternity, just a group of guys with common interests who got together to discuss subjects most kids our age weren’t interested in.  There was no application form because there was nothing to join. If we were smarter, perhaps we could have charged a membership fee and sold tee-shirts.  But no doubt we would have been found out and the allure would have returned us to the anonymity we had when it all began.

When high school was over, we began to disperse. College, marriage, and military service, as well as jobs took us in different directions.  Among us are two attorneys, two who did public relations, one a business executive, another a truck driver, and another with a career in the grocery business. Two live in Indiana (Indianapolis and Evansville).  Other hometowns include Springfield, Illinois, Grand Rapids Michigan, Atlanta, San Francisco and a lovely, historic town in Tennessee. Two are gay. There are tons of grand children, great grand children, and more than a few ex-wives. None of us are in poverty, though there is not a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet among us. Three are still gainfully employed. The rest of us are at least semi-retired.

At San Francisco's Magic Flute Restaurant

I am certain that we seven are not the only group that has set out to do this — have our own private reunions.  And probably others have succeeded as well.  I’m not suggesting this is news, merely rare. 

Over the years we have met in Indianapolis (several times), Atlanta, Biloxi, Miami and last week in San Francisco — 50 years since all of this “brood” stuff began.

I do draw a few conclusions.  The main one is that after several days together, it is clear to me the essence of each individual has not changed one iota.  We are merely old 17-year-olds.

As a murder-mystery writer, though, I cannot let this go by without using this set up as grist for the mill. There is a story here. Unfortunately, it presents me with a dilemma: Whom do I kill?