Monday, January 30, 2012

Opinion — Indianapolis Places, A Little Personal History (Part One)

Some friends of mine in Indianapolis posted photographs of historic buildings on Face Book. They didn’t seem all that “historic” when I lived there. Just part of what made the city what it was. Those images set in motion what is all too easily set in motion these days, trips back in time, remembering and trying to remember people, places and events.

On one such recent excursion, my brother and were talking about a home our family lived in briefly. It was the best house of our lives. Big hall, grand stairway to the second floor. There was a back stairs that connected the breakfast nook to a small bedroom upstairs, I suppose for a housekeeper. Today it would be perfect for the upwardly mobile young family in need of space for the nanny.

We weren’t rich, not at all. What happened was that my parents stumbled upon a real deal, a short-term lease on land scheduled for development. The rent was low because the house would, in a couple of years, be torn down to make room for the expansion of a shopping center. Because there was an age gap of 20 years between the oldest and youngest of the five sons, we older ones had ventured out on our own while the younger ones were still at home. My older brother and I returned to join them for the terms of the lease. We were a whole family for a time, for the first time. Though it wasn’t a mansion, it was large enough to accommodate a family of seven. It had a formal dining room, where we had dinner together just like those families in television sitcoms. The house also had a fireplace in the living room, a two-car garage, a gigantic porch and a large, wooded back yard.

I can picture the house clearly. Or thought I could. My brother asked during our mutual reminiscence, “where was your bedroom?” I didn’t know. I couldn’t picture it. How could that be? Days and now weeks after our talk, I still can’t remember a thing about the room in which I apparently slept. This bit of history no longer exists for me. The brain has many rooms, it seems and some come up missing. Puzzling but not devastating. That’s the way memory works. Unless there is something there to remind us, these things can slip away.

With regard to the beautiful home we lived in, we were forced to leave when the lease was up. The house was torn down as promised. However, the development never happened, meaning the house was demolished for nothing. A handsome, well-built, comfort inducing home was sacrificed on some measure of real estate speculation. In this case, a solid piece of architectural history was ignored by the promise — only the promise — of profits.

This, in turn, reminded me of something similar. In the 1950s, many strange things happened. The whole House of UnAmerican Activities emerged. We became frightened of Communists and bombs. Something else happened in many small towns, especially in the Midwest, I think. Stores on Main Streets were torn down or refaced in flashy “modern” style that often clashed with the county courthouse across the square. There was something about old and established that was considered bad. Indianapolis — unlike say Boston or the entirety of Europe — went with the “old is bad, new is good” idea. Many buildings and homes in Indianapolis were torn down or “remodeled” to death. And they are irretrievable.

So goes part of city’s character. One of the biggest crimes against historical preservation was the destruction of the English Hotel and Theater. What an incredible place the Circle would be if this grand old building still existed. It was torn down in 1948 to make way for J. C. Penny, which was torn down to make way for some mundane office buildings. The historic “Monument Circle” lost a huge piece of history and generations and generations of Indianapolis residents will not have a sense of what a grand city Indianapolis was in the 1900s.

Though I live in San Francisco now, I keep up with what’s going on in my hometown. I do so for personal and professional reasons. Personally, I have friends there and 50 years worth of memories, some obviously clearer than others. I have an ongoing private eye mystery series set in the "Crossroads of America." I'm working on the eleventh in that series — and it will have a lot to do with memories and the loss of them.

The thing is, we, as individuals, are temporary (some might say transitory), but we hope that those who have the power to keep our history alive, do so.

Meanwhile, I will try to get back to that room in the house that is no longer there. It’s left a hole. It’s possible, I suppose, as they say about people not quite living in the real world: “the elevator doesn’t go to the top floor.” Perhaps I am a house where not all the rooms are lit. Even so, I have high hopes for Indiana’s capitol city, now particularly alive and bustling. (CAPTIONS: Top: English Hotel; Bottom: Tomlinson Hall).

Check back on Wednesday for Part Two.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Film Pairing — When Irish Lies Are Beguiling

Nearly fifty years ago, when I had Broadway dreams, I performed in a one-act play by Irish playwright Sean O’Casey on a small stage at Indiana University. The play was End of the Beginning, the name foreshadowing my career in the theater, or was that beginning of the end? O’Casey wrote a terrifically funny play, totally preposterous, full of physical comedy, and yet, in a way only the Irish can do, it is completely seductive story telling.

Here are two Irish films. One is brutal and totally preposterous while also being terrifically funny. The second is not quite as preposterous though equally brutal; but the blend of darkness and comedy is exactly right.

A Film With Me In It is a farce. It would have worked on stage very well. A bumbling out-of-work actor and his know-it-all friend find themselves in an impossible situation that becomes more and more impossible with each passing moment. Here “accidents happen” is an immense understatement. That they realize that there was no way they could convince the police that what happened in the flat was purely accidental lead the two into additional desperate and foolish acts. When a policewoman comes to call….well…the stage is set. Again. You think you had a bad day. The film, set in Dublin, was released in 2008 and features Dylan Morgan, Mark Doherty, who also wrote it, and Amy Huberman. Suspend disbelief early on and you will have fine time.

Watch The Guard last because it is a masterpiece thanks in large part to the immensely talented Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) as the local Galway cop and, as a perfect foil, an FBI agent underplayed to perfection by Don Cheadle. One comes to love Gleeson’s character as dense and politically incorrect as his character appears to be. The film (2011) was the most successful Irish film, in terms of box office, ever. It is the story of professional drug traffickers who take their business to a remote part of Ireland believing that the local police are inept and that the plying of their trade would be trouble free. John Michael McDonagh wrote and directed. Gleeson received a Golden Globe best actor nomination for his work here. Great fun.

I may be in a rut in the Irish libations department. But most fitting for the evening is a drink called Black and Tan. It is made with two beers (layered), usually half pale ale and half stout. This is not only a great drink, but also a metaphor for the films in the pairing — light and dark. In Ireland, as Wikipedia warns, the drink has been renamed to avoid the politically charged Irish “Black and Tan” issue. So perhaps we should call it a Blacksmith. The light beer is poured first and the dark beer is poured slowly, over the round bottom of a spoon in order to create the “layer.” Then, of course, if you are not into the art of pouring or into beer or into metaphors, there’s always Irish whiskey. Cheers!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Supersillium — Crime Writers And Co-Creators

You have one of my books in your hands. You download it and it appears on your screen. You read the first few pages and you start to close the cover.

“No,” I yell out. “Don’t stop now. Three more pages and you’ll be hooked!” I don’t yell it. It’s recorded, of course, and the message is set to go off if the reader loses interest and begins to close the cover of his e-reader. You don’t care. You close the flap anyway. “Please,” comes a desperate whisper. “One more chance, can’t you give me one more chance?”

You set the e-reader on the table. “There’s a great sex scene on page 36,” comes my muffled voice.

Interactive possibilities are endless. We already have definitions of difficult words. In some books I could use “obstreperous” and not worry about it. Touch the word and the definition will pop up. In the same way I can throw in some Latin or French and make you believe that I have something extremely high-minded to say and you can have it translated for you with a simple touch. This technology is already being used in university class textbooks. And I’m sure it’s being integrated into books for entertainment. Games plus story. This is all happening now.

However, there is always room for innovation. For example, I like to think that there is humor in my mystery fiction. So, when one of my characters says something funny, why not a laugh track? And perhaps there might be times, say after a particularly spectacular rescue, some discreet applause might be appropriate. How is that done? The computer will track your eyeballs to see where you are on the page and react accordingly. We could enhance the words you are reading in various ways. Maybe a sudden gunshot in the story could prompt a sudden visual of a gun, firing right at you. Sound effects? Why not? We want you to jump out of your skin. We could make the sounds optional in the event you are reading on the plane.

A writer could also refer to an event in the main character’s past, and with a little poke of the reader’s finger, that section of the author’s previous book would appear to explain that his girlfriend dumped him in a brutal fashion and that’s the reason he let her walk off a cliff one rainy night. In fact the author could take you on all sorts of side trips. In some books maps may appear to let you know where Kiribati is if you don’t know.

But the reader could be pretty effective too. Perhaps you could have some options. For example, you could click on “Remove all adverbs,” or “skip any references to the weather.” Maybe “eliminate all dream sequences,” or “parenthetical remarks.” Another might be “no pets.” Or “more pets.” What if you’re bored with the setting. Change Manhattan to Kokomo, Indiana. Feel more at home.

Eliminate your peeves from the book BEFORE you read it. For example, if you are a dedicated vegan, the character who ordered a steak would get a big, grilled Portobello mushroom instead. No smoking? Not a problem. Could be a smoke-free book. How about a Christian edition of the next book you buy. The Story of O without the steam. The story would be a little shorter, of course. Maybe it’s more O’ My God! than “O.”

The writer and reader can become co-creators. Is this exciting or what?

CAPTION: The national flag of Kiribati. What’s a posting without a little art?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Year of the Dragon

Opinion — What To Do About The Pirates In Our Midst, Intellectual Property Theft

The first order of business is to disclose that I have a vested interest in protecting intellectual property rights (how intellectual is, of course, debatable.) I write mysteries for a living. I’m about as far as you can get from “living large.” I have a one-bedroom apartment, no car, and for the most part, drink inexpensive wine. If I don’t have some severely expensive medical emergency or I live too long, I should be able to exist in this lifestyle for the rest of my life. From a world population perspective, I am very fortunate. Blessed. Even so, I have to work for a living to stay off the streets.

When the e-book revolution came about, my regular publisher adapted. My most recent books are now available by my publisher, Severn House, at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and many other places around the world. I also formed, at some expense, my own book-publishing capability to reissue some of my earlier books now that those copyrights have reverted to me. Life Death and Fog Books has now published the early and I might add, immodestly, critically praised Shanahans and one, never before available, stand-alone novella. As I said, there was expense involved and certainly financial risk. I may or may not earn back my admittedly small investment, let alone make a profit. Maybe it pays off. Maybe it doesn’t. That’s business. In San Francisco, the minimum wage is $10 an hour. I seriously doubt, when all things are considered, that I earn that much on most of my books. I’m explaining, not complaining. And I’m aware that I’m belaboring the point. But writing is what I do. And like house painters, chefs, web site designers, etc., who I hope also enjoy what they do, I would like to be paid for the product of my labor by those who use it.

I discovered a few months ago that one of my books was available on a web site for free download. I was concerned and wrote about it here. Some writers have taken the position that they consider this a cost of doing business. And, of course, it is. Like pilferage. And, in fact, I can imagine various sets of circumstances when this sort of piracy would be admirable. Maybe if the web site were part of prison program, helping those challenged by job loss and/or providing some free books for those in poverty, I’d be in agreement. But the web site I saw, the one that offered the free download, had national brand advertising on it. The owners of the site were receiving income using the stolen labor and expenses of others.

I think most people will see this as theft. If there was some good reason for sharing, then receiving advertising income for it pretty much eliminates any altruistic motive. I am far from the only one troubled by this. The federal government is concerned. But what should they do about it? Two giant industries, with billions of dollars at stake, are battling each other to determine the content of laws that might be enacted to combat piracy. The huge entertainment industry — movies, TV, music — wants the harshest possible laws in ways that, in fact, may destroy the magic of the internet and provide the strategy and techniques for future censorship.

I’m not inclined to be sympathetic to companies like Viacom and Disney any more than I might be sympathetic to Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. Their opposition is made up of high-tech firms, some of them huge and extremely profitable, like Google and You Tube, some of them nonprofits offering valuable free services like Wikipedia as well as many independent businesses, nonprofits and free access bloggers. They believe currently proposed laws, rightfully so, will not only destroy their existence by making them responsible for things they cannot control, but the whole beauty of the Internet. I would ask if this second group is willing to help create a playing field that doesn’t allow, even encourage the theft of products of others — independent musicians, writers, and artists, among them?

Apparently lawmakers who had initially taken hardline stances in favor of the ham-fisted legislation are changing their minds. That seems like good news. Even so, we must pay attention to what the lawmakers do. Tampering with the free-flow of information on the Internet is an extremely dangerous undertaking with regard to individual freedom. Our legislators need adult oversight. Meanwhile, SOPA and PIPA, the legislation now being considered and apparently reconsidered, should be given concrete shoes and dropped in the Potomac.

UPDATE: I wrote this post last Friday. Since then, I’m told, the New Zealand government has shut down one of the sites that provided free downloads of books, including my own. Arrests were made. In addition, the overreaching laws initially proposed by the movie industry are losing support. One final note: in the Republican debates in South Carolina, all of the four remaining candidates agree with President Obama that the proposed laws, as written, should not be passed.

Incidentally, sometimes it is difficult to know what information has a copyright and what doesn’t, which of course, is part of the argument that such companies as You Tube pose. As for my own little blog, most of the time I’m pretty sure that the images I use in these posts are copyright free (promotional material for movies and books are generally provided by publicity departments for just that purpose). However, I’ll quickly remove any material I’m not entitled to publish. Please feel free to leave your comments about the subject.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Film Pairing — Stone And Under Suspicion, Actors Shine

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m drawn to the sport of boxing. I know it is a brutal, brain-bruising sport. But there’s something about it that few other sports can claim. Unlike football, for example, another constant concussion sport, boxing is one on one — one person’s fitness, endurance and strategy against another’s. There’s no way anyone can say, “we’d have won if we had a better quarterback.” One body and one brain engaged in a primal battle. It may be wrong and reflect the worst of human nature, or nature itself; but it is about as pure as it can get.

On the other hand, I’m not at all embarrassed to admit that I admire British actors and actresses more, generally speaking, than their American counterparts. I buy into the process of repertory experience, which usually means that actors develop considerable skills before celebrity is bestowed.

Bearing both of these thoughts in mind as I considered this double bill — Stone and Under Suspicion — I’m not necessarily saying these are among the best crime films ever made. They aren’t. But they meet two very important criteria worth noting. Each film is, at its core, a singular battle between two individuals, and these four characters are portrayed by American actors every bit equal to the best Britain has to offer.

The first, Stone (2010), is a claustrophobic little film. Even though Robert De Niro is one of the stars, I’d never heard of it. That he could effectively portray anyone was never in question. Here, he is a flawed bureaucrat in the criminal justice system trying hard to suppress his own demons while trying to cast out or at least sort out demons in others. We watch and appreciate. What was pleasantly surprising is the phenomenal job Edward Norton did portraying a kind of pure evil. The battle between the two as the convicted arsonist Norton attempts to convince De Niro, that he should be paroled is fascinating. Snake charming. Or a dance. The dance, as in Ali and Frazier, is everything. Milla Jovovich also stars.

Under Suspicion (2000) is less concerned about philosophy. The dance that turns out to be largely between Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman is simpler in the sense that there appears to be no larger truths involved. It is simply cat and mouse. Hackman plays a wealthy, powerful and talented lawyer in Puerto Rico, who is implicated in the murder of a young girl. Freeman, the top cop, calls him in to, of course, “clear up some details.” And just as most of the drama in Stone takes place in De Niro’s office inside a prison, most of Under Suspicion takes place in the Freeman’s office inside the police station. Though the film is essentially about the two men, actress Monica Bullucci, plays a significant role.

As I mentioned earlier I find these films especially interesting less because they have successfully realized the overall goal, but more because of the performances of the actors. The chance to see the cream of the American crop of actors in roles that allow them to show the depth of their talent isn’t as frequent as it ought to be.

To sip or not to sip: I’d watch the first film spirit free. But to cap off your evening in Puerto Rico — and you do get glances of it here and there — try my standby, rum and tonic with a twist of lemon. Not lime. Lemon. Well, lime if you must.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ten Little Republicans — Rick Perry Takes A Hike, And Then There Were Four

In the spirit of Agatha Christies Ten Little Indians, the Republican nominees for President have — as the process proscribes — been disappearing. Today, the perfect Hollywood Central casting Southern County Sheriff, Rick Perry, took a hike, perhaps off on a mountain somewhere to guard some sheep. He isn’t coming back. Apparently his last words favored keeping Boss Gingrich alive. Earlier, Perry stated that God wanted him to be president. Apparently God changed his or her mind. Oops. For the main posting check here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Book Notes — Musicians And Prose: The Low Life, Years Before And After Today Before And

If you want something to read that’s uncommonly good, you might have to look to the smaller, independent publishers to get it. Also, if you stick with some of these publishers, you get the advantage of knowledgeable people separating the wheat from the chaff all the while getting the good stuff the bigger publishers, interested in trends, ignore. Two of these risk-taking publishers are Akashic Books, New York, and City Lights, San Francisco. The books featured here are: The Dewey Decimal System (Akashic Books), Nathan Larson’s first book, and Los Angeles Stories (City Lights), Ry Cooder’s first collection of short stories.

Before getting into the books, it should be noted that these two authors have quite a bit in common. Cooder is a professional guitarist, singer and composer (Paris, Texas soundtrack, among others) and Larson is a professional guitarist and composer (Boys Don’t Cry soundtrack, among others).

Larson’s book is a sustained wound. Set in the near future, a partially patched together man — brain and bone — works for an unscrupulous D.A. in a devastated New York City. The only true survivors of whatever happened to NYC are the criminals, the corrupt politicians and the rich — if that is not all redundant, anyway. Lots of violence, but the hero, if you could call him that, is a far cry from the Jack Reachers of the world. Dewey Decimal is vulnerable, often wrong, constantly confused and disoriented, as well as incredibly neurotic — though he is a survivor in a world most couldn’t and apparently don’t survive. Style and substance merge here. We share his perceptions not just through the observation of the narrating protagonist but also through the jumpy, fragmented style itself. The readers are not just observing a character who is often adrift but become adrift themselves. It is the state of character’s mind and that of his city we feel, even when seriously, we don’t want to.

Instead of moving forward into an ugly future, Ry Cooder backs us into the ghost of Los Angeles past — back to the forties and fifties. Instead of the staccato, almost frantic style of Larson (not a complaint), the notes here are slightly longer, the images having taken time to relate, are clearer, oddly wistful. I say “oddly” because there is not much in the way of sentiment here either, unless forlorn is sentimental. In one story a motorman is let go after years of taking train number 606 out to the ocean and back. What we discover about the character is that he has a deeper and more meaningful relationship with his trolley than with any human, including his wife. The notion that this trolley can take us through Los Angeles’ old neighborhoods and give them life is a lot of what that story — and the collection — is about. What I found was a writing approach that is at once deeply historical (as in preservation of the way things were) without being academic. The stories are told through, in Hollywood terms, the extras. While the stories may focus on one or two characters, these folks are neither particularly heroic nor tragic. In fact, they are barely memorable (also not a complaint) in any conventional sense. They simply are, as is the city. What brings these characters together may very well be of a criminal nature, but the crime is rarely the central issue.

Neither book was likely to come out of the big publishing houses. So we can thank what we call independent or small presses like City Lights and Akashic for making sure we have access to unusual, high-quality fiction.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Guest Post: A Little Fun, A Little Promotion And A Desirable But Unlikely P.I. Partnership

By Fran Moreland Johns

If it hadn’t been for Deets and Nick, I’d have been a goner. I was just flat out lucky that the two top sleuths in the U.S. had been having drinks at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room just across the street. Whew.

I had been having a latte myself, around the corner at Starbucks, but as I walked around the corner headed home I was invited to stop in for a visit with the rock group in town for a gig at The Fillmore. They were in one of those giant, luxury buses that take up half the block parking in front of the building. But just as the band members were helping me up the step a couple of bad guys came dashing out of the Payday Loans place, guns drawn, making a dash for the getaway car right behind us. I was directly in their way, and clearly they were going to mow me down. I was VERY glad to see Deets Shanahan strolling up, pulling a revolver from the waistband of his scruffy jeans, and Nick Charles right beside him, extracting a chic little handgun from his blazer. Deets and Nick were casually blasting the bad guys’ feet out from under them when I woke up.

OK, it was only a dream – and I was more than a little bummed to wake up before I saw the inside of the bus, which is a serious wide-awake dream of mine – but it makes perfectly good sense.

Deets Shanahan, my favorite P.I. of all time, is now back in trade paperback and e-readers (start with Stone Veil and just try to quit before you’ve read every one. Can’t be done.) And Nick is back in town with his ace comedienne wife Nora, thanks to Emily Leider’s exhaustively researched and delightfully readable new biography, Myrna Loy – The Only Good Girl in Hollywood.

Deets and Nick would get along just fine, probably even in the Boom Boom Room. They might be different in decades, dress codes and locales, but they’re similar in cool when it comes time to get the bad guy. Deets’ Maureen would, furthermore, get along famously with Nora.

Happily for readers of great tales everywhere, the Shanahan series and Myrna Loy – The Only Good Girl in Hollywood are here for the reading. Happily for anyone who can make it to the Jewish Community Center on February 21, Leider will be presenting “Nick and Nora’s San Francisco,” presented by the San Francisco Historical Society and Museum at 7:00 PM. (Info Below)

It’s the stuff of dreams.

Disclosure: As you can readily guess, Fran Moreland Johns is a good and supportive friend as well as a talented writer. She is the author of Dying Unafraid (Synergistic Press), a nonfiction book telling of people who did just that, and of essays, articles, columns and short stories published since the 1950s. A real hit at cocktail parties, she’s now gone from death-&-dying to abortion, currently finishing a book on abortion before & after Roe v Wade. She works for arts, interfaith and end-of-life causes, and blogs about them (and other subjects) on Red Room, Open Salon and Boomers and Beyond.

San Francisco Event — Emily Leider, Author of Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl In Hollywood

“Nick and Nora’s San Francisco” will focus on three figures: Dashiell Hammett, the former Pinkerton detective and San Francisco resident who wrote The Thin Man and created the sleuthing characters Nick and Nora Charles; actor William Powell, who played Nick in the 1934 MGM movie version, which spawned five sequels; and Myrna Loy, the actress who portrayed Nora in all six Thin Man films. Illustrated with film clips and photographs, Leider will discuss Hammett’s relationship with Nick, Nora and San Francisco, and the experiences of Powell and Loy in San Francisco while filming After the Thin Man (1936) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), the two Thin Man movies actually shot (in part) in San Francisco. Leider will touch on San Francisco’s reputation as a “wet” city during Prohibition, and on the impact of Repeal in 1933 on the audience for The Thin Man.

Nick and Nora’s San Francisco

February 21, 2012

7:30 PM; reception prior at 7:00

San Francisco Jewish Community Center

3200 California Street, San Francisco

Presented by the San Francisco Historical Society and Museum

Caption: Nick and Nora on the Golden Gate, from Shadow of the Thin Man

Ten Little Republicans — And Then There Were Five

He believed in global warming, evolution, didn't hate gays, and wanted to eliminate the loopholes in the tax code. Mr. Huntsman didn't stand a chance. See original post. Or the most recent.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Film Pairing — Two Movies About People Duct-Taped To Chairs

If the kidnappers get what they want, the victims of two stupid abdutions will go free. This is the premise of both films in this double feature recommendation.

In perhaps one of the most daring acts of casting, Martin Scorsese directs Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro in King of Comedy. In the second, Christopher Walken gets the chance to be Christopher Walken and on-screen for the entirety of a full-length film — The Suicide Kings. It’s not quite a one-man show; but it nearly is.

And just as Lewis is held hostage, spending a good deal of his screen time taped to a chair listening to Sandra Bernhard, so to is Walken in Suicide Kings all-tied up trying to get the best of a bunch of kids who abducted him.

In The King of Comedy, 1983, De Niro plays a lifelong loser who has always dreamt of being a late night comedian, a popular talk-show host like Johnny Carson. Lewis plays the reigning late night king. This isn’t “Hey ladeeeee” Lewis or Cinderfella. And he is up to the acting challenge, showing us that the on-air personality may not be at all like the one off stage. De Niro isn’t Taxi Driver dangerous. Instead he plays goofy with a close to dangerous subtext. He too is up to the challenge. One might think that the casting director must have dropped some acid, but it all works in a quirky way, creating a one-of-a-kind film. Credit goes to Bernhard as well, though, given the character, it was less a stretch. Watch for cameos from Dr. Joyce Brothers, Tony Randall, Victor Borge and members of The Clash. In the film, Di Niro kidnaps Lewis and will release him only when Di Niro gets a chance to perform on a version of the “Tonight Show.” It’s bizarre, no doubt. Then there’s that good question, where else can we find Robert De Niro doing stand-up?

In Suicide Kings (1997), Walken is Walken all movie long. I know a few people who can mimic him pretty well. I think all you need to do is break up a sentence with a pause that seems inappropriately placed and show an expression that doesn’t relate to whatever it was you just said. Walken, I think, wants to continually defy your expectations and continually surprise you. Frankly, I think it works. I can watch him all day long. But if you don’t like Walken, skip the film. There is very little else. He plays a once powerful gangster, who has no pull anymore. But a group of rich don’t know that. In an attempt to free a sister of one of the men from kidnappers who want $2 million in ransom, they kidnap Walken and will release him only if he uses his gangster connections to convince the kidnappers to free her. They tie him up and the fun begins. Among the brash young’uns are characters played by Denis Leary and Jay Mohr.

What do you drink when the movies are not necessarily all that darkly funny? The King of Comedy is more creepily funny than darkly funny. Maybe not hard liquor. Or, if so, a mixed drink. Even though the films are neither trendy nor retro, a Cosmopolitan or a Royal Gin Fizz might work.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Blatant Promotion — Tease From My Lastest Thriller

Excerpt from Good To The Last Kiss

The kid knew it would be tonight. He could feel it taking over, wrestling with his numb soul – a force out of nowhere, taking him to a place he didn’t want to go.

Not a whole lot he could do about it. He knew that too. He had tried to fight it before. But this was the feeling. The beginning. He knew it. And it would only get worse.

She had already flipped most of the contents of a childproof bottle of Tylenol into the toilet during the act of getting it open. Before that she discovered the dry cleaners had failed to replace an essential clasp on her black evening dress.

Julia Bateman took a couple of deep breaths and – having convinced herself that she had brought on a period of calm – looked around her studio apartment for a couple of stray aspirins. Nothing. Calm, she went back into the bathroom. Once her feet touched the wet tile, they struck out on their own and her body slapped against the floor. She got up slowly, checking to make sure everything was still working.

Everything worked. ‘See,’ she said with a phony brightness. ‘Every fucking thing is just delightful, isn’t it?’

She couldn’t find her face in the mirror. The old apartment building had no bathroom exhausts. Steam still coated her reflection. When she took off her towel to clean the mirror it snapped the bottle of Chanel No.19, shattering it in the tub, exploding like radiation waves from the detonation of an atom bomb and sending a cloying scent into her bathroom.

She cut a finger trying to pick up the little granules of glass from the porcelain. As soon as she was convinced the visible pieces of glass were retrieved, she ran the water forcefully to draw the rest of the glass and the dregs of Chanel down the drain. Afraid the smell would hang in her small studio, she ran to the windows to open them, again to discover a small movement in the drapery across the alley.

What was it? Had there been someone there? She decided not to care. She went back to the bathroom, pulled out a tube of Ben Gay and applied it to the bristles of her toothbrush.

Inspector Vincente Gratelli was off duty, shoes off, a glass of Chianti in his hand, watching television.

He was not a pretty sight, even when he wasn’t exhausted. He looked older than his fifty-five years and no one would mistake him for a retired fashion model even if his tie were tied and his shirt buttoned, and his hair combed.

This was the only TV he allowed himself – that and 60 Minutes. The news. The national news ended. It was the local news now. The stylish mayor was talking about the murders. Gratelli switched off the set, went to the window. Darkness was overtaking the light. There was a pinkness down on the busy street. The color of the sunset, the influence of the neon. He heard a siren. It was beginning. He felt a little guilty. He should be doing something about the murders. When you know it’s going to happen again, it seemed like you ought to just keep working – all day, all night. But there was nothing to go on. Absolutely nothing. So he finally gave up. Finally took a night. He’d eat. Go to bed early. Try to get some sleep. Get some energy so he could pile back in with a fresh mind and at least a mildly cooperating body.

None of them were easy. The homicides. These were particularly nasty. Some strange twists. The girls were young, too. The way they were left – that too was strange and sad and smarmy. Wasn’t messy. Not bloody or anything. It was something more indefinable. Something less visceral, more unsettling in its sickness.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Opinion — To Blog Or Not To Blog

Reading the posts on the blog “Murderati” is almost always provocative (in a good way). And not just the writers’ posts. The comments on those posts are thoughtful, often funny, as well. It’s an active, rather interactive site, and it’s great to witness writers and readers talking to each other in such a highly spirited manner.

I am kindly envious. I haven’t been able to generate the kind of debate and commentary here. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted a blog.

There were a number of other reasons as well. One was that I enjoy writing and there are times when I don’t want to work on the draft of whatever novel I’m working on at the moment. I have other things to say — about writing, publishing, and the city I live in and, perhaps, an occasional rant on politics. As a former magazine and newspaper editor, I miss putting words and pictures together and commenting on current events. But I’d be misrepresenting myself if I didn’t acknowledge that I was encouraged to create a blog by the popular notion (Maybe it was a commandment: Thou shalt create a blog.) that this piece of the “social media” was essential if I wanted to continue to sell books in this all too modern world.

But, somewhere on the blogosphere — and I’m sorry I can’t give proper attribution — someone recently suggested that, for writers, having a blog might be counter productive. The rationale was that while one may like your books, allowing readers to get to know you might not be a smart marketing move. In other words, someone, who might otherwise have read your book, checks out your blog and discovers you are a pompous windbag or possess any of number of less than admirable qualities. That thought was provocative too, but uncomfortably so. I know who I think I am. But do I know who people think I am, especially those who read what I write. My books are one thing. My personal opinions and observations, as they are revealed here, are something else. And I may be something else altogether.

Here is the final verse of Robert Burns’ poem, To A Louse.

O would some Power the gift to give us

To see ourselves as others see us!

It would from many a blunder free us,

And foolish notion:

What airs in dress and gait would leave us, 

And even devotion!

So, now should I write the blog, looking back over my shoulder? Questioning. Does using a poem to make a point make me a pompous ass? Will people think that the person they see on these blog pages somehow relate to the books I write? Should they?

One of the writers I’ve admired over the years is Truman Capote. I think he may have created some of the most elegant English any American ever wrote. I have seen him interviewed many times. I’ve seen him speak in person. (He arrived at the small auditorium drunk and incoherent.) I’ve read a few books about him. If I’d had the chance to have dinner with him, I would have. I’m sure it would have been interesting and educational. I would have been honored. In the end, though, I don’t think he was the kind of guy I’d pal around with. (He would probably feel the same.) I thought he whined a bit too much and only a fool would trust him with a confidence. On the other hand I’ve read all of his books and would read anything they’ve yet to unearth. I would have read his blog had he lived long enough and felt the need to create one.

But the larger point, I think, is that the writer is not the same as the story or the characters he or she creates. The proof is not in the pudding maker but the pudding itself. Was that pompous? Trite? Second-guessing isn’t fun.

At any rate, I’d love to hear from you about whether you think author’s blogs (not mine necessarily, though it is fair game too) actually help sales or hurts the writer. Or if, in fact, it makes a difference. Also, and perhaps even more interesting, what can you tell, if anything, about an author by the books or blogs he or she writes?

CAPTION: Portrait of Truman Capote by Horst P. Horst

Friday, January 6, 2012

Film Pairing — The Naughty Joe Orton And A British Education

While the American establishment was attempting to quash the literary influences of such iconoclastic writers as Jack Kerouac, Great Britain’s legendary theatre scene was dealing with its own challenge to the status quo. Out of nowhere a naughty, disrespectful playwright emerged, bringing dark humor, violence, and obscenity to the London stage. His name was Joe Orton and like many rebels, his early death may have sealed his fame. Kerouac died at 47 in 1969 of alcohol abuse. Orton out did him. He died at 34 in 1967 of repeated hammer blows to the head.

In his short life Orton wrote several well-received plays — What the Butler Saw, The Ruffian on the Stair and Loot to name a few. As far as I know only Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane made it to film, and also as far as I know, only Sloane (1970) is available for viewing. It stars a very funny and horny Beryl Reid and a hilariously prim and proper Harry Andrews. It also stars Peter McEnery who spends most of the film in his jockey briefs attempting to titillate or offend those with whom he co-inhabits a big, gloomy house. There is sex, murder, and an unquantifiable amount of rude behavior. The play was outrageous and caused the young Orton to be noticed and applauded. Orton seemed to enjoy the attention, positive and negative.

Murder and other forms of criminal behavior appear to be central to all of Orton’s work. They were, in fact, central to his life. If you are interested in this brief but significant period of British theatre and quick rise and fall of one of its legends, you may also want to watch Prick Up Your Ears. The biographical film is based on the book by John Lahr, senior film critic for The New Yorker and directed by award-winning film director Stephen Frears. Gary Oldman, who resembles Orton, plays Joe. Alfred Molina plays Orton’s frustrated lover. Vanessa Redgrave is Orton’s agent and Wallace Shawn plays Lahr. The film (1987) covers the creative years that began when Orton and his lover met and lasted until the last brutal seconds of each of their lives.

The pairing of one of Orton’s most famous plays (adapted to film for posterity) and his well-told, if discomforting, biography can only intensify the argument of whether life mirrors art or visa versa. They certainly won’t settle it. Even so, it is quite an evening.

Not sure what to recommend as accompanying drinks. Certainly beer would work. This isn’t Noel Coward. Because it is cold in most of the English speaking countries in January, maybe a hot toddy — whiskey, hot water and honey with cloves or cinnamon. Or lemon. A hot toddy might calm your nerves and help bring on slumber after an evening of uneasy, embarrassingly funny and tragic drama.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Opinion — Ten Little Republicans Redux

Based on one of Agatha Christie’s classics, someone invites ten prominent Republicans running for president to a big Texas ranch house. And they die off — one by one. Who killed them and why? You’ll be able to follow the story in the next few months. Here are the characters. Perhaps you know who could best play these parts.

1. A rich (trust fund baby), good-looking Mormon with a tan and a great haircut who constantly changes his mind. To show his great empathy, suggested dialogue: “Corporations are people too,” or “Forget what I said when I was running for office in a liberal state. I have.” Also, “tax returns, tax returns, what tax returns?”

2. ELIMINATED January 16 — A rich (trust fund baby), good-looking Mormon with a great haircut who doesn’t change his mind all that often. Suggested dialogue: “I believe in evolution and in science. Call me crazy.” Music inserted here that indicates he is doomed. He awaits his surge.

3. ELIMINATED January 4, 2012 — A crazy, God fearing housewife who has five answers in her head and chooses one of the five no matter what she’s asked. Suggested dialogue: “I’m at the tip of the spear,” repeated every three minutes. Or, “To me, being submissive to my husband is the same as being respectful.” Also, “God wants me to be the first submissive president.” God changed his/her mind and smote her (or is that smited her?).

4. A chubby, rich adulterous intellectual, who has been married several times and now lives with his party-going trophy wife, and who professes a strong belief in family values. Suggested dialogue: “Breakfast at Tiffanies? Hell, lunch and dinner too.” He could also say: “Let them eat cake,” or maybe “Give me the cake. Now!” Generally regarded as smart by people who aren’t.

5. A slightly addled uncle, who says crazy but strangely consistent things about how to run a country: Suggested dialogue: “Whatever regulations you want to pass, don’t. Whatever regulations are on the books, abolish. Now we got ourselves a country. Wheeeeee!” Other guests complain: He just won’t go away!

6. ELIMINATED January 19. A southern, county sheriff type (central casting) who believes if you think a guy might be guilty of a crime, you ought to be able to kill him and that old people are generally greedy bastards out to steal the tax subsidies from big oil. Suggested dialogue: “I sleep well at night,” or “What we need is barbed wire, drones and electric fences to keep the Mexicans out. I ain’t a molly coddler.” God Ronald Reagan wants me to be president. He has a lot to say if only he could remember it. Probably the next politicide.

7. ELIMINATED December 3, 2011 A tall, rich black guy whose favorite poet is Donna Summer. Background in Pizza, Whoppers and cookie dough. But surprisingly shows his willingness to go against the rich if need be. Suggested dialogue: “Even rich gay people are evil.” God ordered him to be president. God also ordered a large Pepperoni.

8. A tall, goofy Catholic choirboy, terrified of gay people, who thinks everybody should be a tall, goofy Catholic. Suggested dialogue: “Stay away from me Sheriff, I prefer to shower alone.” Also, “God wants me to be president because I can’t get elected to congress from my own state. And I need a job bad.” Also “Hello! I’m over here! Hello?” He did find a way to get attention: “Bomb Iran, ban birth control AND make oral sex illegal.” Now people know who he is.

9. ELIMINATED October 5, 2011. Another (recently rich) housewife; but this one isn’t submissive, just a crazeee diva. An addicted bromide user, this maverick is as attractive as she is simple-minded, except when it comes to publicity. At some point in the movie she is asked what newspapers and magazines she reads. Offended, she claims this is a “gotcha” question and goes medieval on the media for asking it. Suggested dialogue: “Maybe I’ll be there. Maybe I won’t,” she says while batting her eyes. “But remember, I’m the only one who can ask me questions.”

10. A shadow appears at the last minute, after all of the others are dead. There is evil laughter. “As my brother always said, “Stragedy. Damn fine Stragedy.”

Revised earlier post.

CAPTION: Michelle Bachmann with husband. Their prayers went unanswered AGAIN.