Friday, June 29, 2012

Film Pairings — Crime That Will Tickle Your Funny Bone

Let’s take a break from those tough guy movies. Skip the cars tumbling in slow motion, the nail-biting suspense, the sly, nasty twist at the end, the blood-splattering shootout.  Let’s get silly. Crime can be fun and funny.  How about an evening of murder and crazy old ladies?

Arsenic and Old Lace.  No groans, now.  When was the last time you saw it? Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) and his childhood sweetheart and new wife, played by Priscilla Lane, visit Brewster’s crazy relatives.  The grave digging brother and the geezer-killing aunts — they meant well — there is an entourage of great character actors from the era — Peter Lorre, Jack Carson, Raymond Massey, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton — playing cops and ominous visitors.  This is clearly a farce, full of coincidences, near discoveries, missing bodies, doors opening and shutting just in time as well as clever lines. The movie no doubt benefited from the play it was based upon, which had a long and successful run on Broadway before making it to the silver screen.  Grant throws himself into his comedic role in this highly-rated vintage comedy, still popular among contemporary viewers. Arsenic and Old Lace will lighten your mood and make you suspicious of your kindly old aunt who makes her own wine.

Then if you want to do more silly, let’s call in the British.  They know silly.  Even dark silly.  Eleven years after Arsenic and Old Lace was released, The Ladykillers came out. It met with immediate success and, like its American cousin, remains a popular rental today. British actress Katie Johnson is an eccentric elderly woman — the theme of the evening — who runs a boarding house in London and is a constant pest at the local police station. But instead of her being a crazy old murderess, she is the surprisingly resilient, clearly batty, intended victim.  Seems as if a gang of thugs rent a room from her, ostensibly for their string quintet to rehearse.  String quintet, smingquintet.  The real reason we have Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and a cast of incredibly fine British actors meeting in at the boarding house is that there is a bank to be robbed and they need a place to plot out their strategy.  The robbery is successful, but that’s only the beginning.  Greed and paranoia take over. Misunderstandings, double-crosses and accidents abound, much to our guilty pleasure.

You might want to avoid Elderberry wine this evening, but why not go for something light and fun anyway.  Celebrate with some spritzers — even you are a serious oenophile — especially if it is a warm summer night. Tonight is not the night for a furrowed brow.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Observations — San Francisco Street And From The Street Art

San Francisco City Hall, Civic Center Fabric Sculpture

Alley Art

Paper Cut-Outs, Through A Window Lightly

On The Street, Lots Of Things To Say

Monday, June 25, 2012

Opinion — They’re Still Trying To Tell You What You Can and Can’t Read

A popular new writer has taken the bestseller lists by storm and has, in fact, created some clouds in the book world. The steamy books of Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy have been banned from libraries in Wisconsin, Georgia, Maryland and Florida — so far. The literary loss may be debatable, but the principle isn’t.

Many of the book banners use the fragile minds children as cause. Save the children is a phrase used by all sorts of folks who wish to control the minds of the rest of us.  The children are rarely threatened.  It is likely they are not even interested in reading what they are not yet curious about. It is usually the last resort for those seeking allies in their efforts to determine what their neighbors read.  I suspect that young readers seeking information need it.  If they are curious about the world, they should be encouraged to seek it. And it is better to get an education from a reliable source than to pick it up from uneducated sources on the street — or in some cases at home.  Librarians are trained in this area and they should be allowed to make decisions concerning what books are available to all members of the public.

Don't join the book burners. Don't think you are going to conceal thoughts by concealing evidence that they ever existed.
—  Dwight D. Eisenhower, speech at Dartmouth College, June 14, 1953

Of course the all the screaming from the bluenoses can only have helped the marketing effort of this surprise bestseller.  I remember when the phrase “Banned in Boston” was plastered all over the cover of books the publisher was eager to sell.  On the other hand, banning shows an incredible ignorance. It’s neither right nor effective.

Over the Years — Books Banned by the U.S. or State governments (Wikipedia)

Candide, Voltaire
Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
Catch 22, Joseph Heller (some states)
The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio
Fanny Hill, John Cleland
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (some states)
Howl, Allen Ginsberg
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence
Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
Operation Dark Heart, Anthony Shaffer (2010)
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (Arizona Schools)
Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
Ulysses, James Joyce
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe  (Southern states)
United States — Vietnam Relations: 1945-1967, Robert McNamara (also known as The Pentagon Papers

The following classics that offended some members of the public would make a great reading list for students of English language novels. 

Classics Most Challenged in U.S. Public Libraries (American Library Association)
1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
5. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
6. Ulysses, by James Joyce
7. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
8. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
9. 1984, by George Orwell
10. Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
11. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
12. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
13. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
14. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
15. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
16. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
17. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
18. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
19. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
20. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

21. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
22. Native Son, by Richard Wright
23. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
24. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
25. For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
What a great list.

Opinion, observations, banned books, libraries, Fifty Shades of Gray, censorship

Friday, June 22, 2012

Film Pairings — A Strong Sense Of Time And Place, 1950 At Night

I watched a late ‘40s film the other night, one that some critics had given the noir seal of approval.  And it wasn’t bad.  A malicious, greedy woman’s life ended with irony. She died thinking she got what she wanted. But getting what she wanted killed her.  And in the end, she didn’t get it anyway.  The strange little drama was set in San Francisco, or so the dialogue would suggest.  But there wasn’t a hint of the city anywhere on screen.  Watching it wasn’t a waste of time, by any means.  It was clever and innovative in its way, but it might as well have been done in dark clothing on an empty stage.

Not at all true for these two films — Crime Wave (also known as The City is Dark), which was set in 1950s Los Angeles and Night and the City, set in 1950s London. 

Crime Wave, L.A. night.
Crime Wave (1954), after some jumbled scenes behind the opening credits, settles into a dark, tight drama with a backdrop oozing LA.  A gas station is robbed. A cop is killed. One of the three robbers is wounded. Seeking safe haven, the killer tracks down a guy he did time with a few years earlier, a decent enough guy who has managed to find a girl, a job and plan for the future.  Tough luck for the guy trying to straighten out his life.  Worse, there’s a hard ass cop determined to put them all way.

The cast, Sterling Hayden as the cop, Gene Nelson as the decent ex-con and Phyllis Kirk as the girlfriend do well more than a convincing job in this surprisingly realistic portrayal of a guy caught in a system that doesn’t give second chances.  As it turned out, this film was one the first chances for actor Charles Burchinsky, who later changed his last name to Bronson. It’s easy to see why he rose to the top.  Hayden is also rock solid, dominating every frame he’s in without really trying.  The real surprise is Gene Nelson, better known as a Broadway dancer. He does a great job as an ex-con. At six foot, he seemed dwarfed by Hayden, who was 6’5”. But then, so was everyone else. Even with this cast, the star is the city at night.

I have a new, old star to track down.  Francis L. Sullivan.  He’s every bit as important to Night and the City as Sydney Greenstreet was to The Maltese Falcon.  Sullivan plays the owner of the Silver Fox Club in London — a sleazy place where tourists are lured with vague promises of sex and instead plied by cheap champagne at outrageous prices. Gene Tierney is a singer there, unhappy about the situation, but surviving.  Richard Widmark is the con artist who brings in the unsuspecting marks for expensive drinks and inevitable disappointment.  The thing is, Widmark has higher aspirations.  He wants to be somebody.

With the exception of Tierney, everyone is out to screw everyone else. Widmark and Sullivan keep raising the stakes.  Widmark, the small-time crook keeps finding ways to turn each disastrous failure into an even greater opportunity, though each step takes him closer to destruction.

Richard Widmark in Night and the City
We see London in 1954 — and not Big Ben and Windsor Castle.  We get a look at down and out alleys as well as witness a marriage of British character actors with a couple of American stars, both playing their parts in recreating an underworld of petty crimes played out against an essentially American tragedy. This aspect may have been unintended in the beginning.  The director, Jules Dassin, was a victim of the McCarthy era and was forbidden to work in Hollywood films. They moved the production to London and brought in the other American, Tierney, as a favor. It worked.  The direction and cinematography is exceptional, from an opening scene that is a work of art to a closing scene that is a technological triumph in filmmaking.

While there have been dark, dramatic films of the era that have had greater impact, these strike me as near perfect films.  They are not only fascinating as entertainment, but they help capture the history of film through a deep grasp of both time and place. That, in turn, becomes an archive, chronicling an era in the city.

These are tough, moody films, shot mostly at night.  I’d skip the cheap champagne. Let’s drink with the tough guys — Hayden, Widmark and the owner of the Silver Fox Club. Whiskey on the rocks seems about right.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Observations — As If Any Of This Is Important, Confessions Of An Accidental Hoarder

It is only quiet if I don’t listen.  In the early morning, just before light saturates the air around you and distracts you, you can hear the hum.  I call it the hum of the universe, but it is only the sounds of tires on asphalt all around the city — even on the interstates, which are too far away to see.  There are a few more obvious sounds —the fog horn of a ship heading into the Bay never far away and sometimes jets  above the fog.  There is the strange, otherworldly whine of the electric busses when they come near and before they go away and fade back into the hum.  The hum, though, is not intrusive. I hear it only when I want to. I’ve adjusted to urban quiet.

Though I often sleep through it, I love this time in the morning.  The wind hasn’t come up yet and no matter the temperature, I am warm enough and can breathe easily. There is a freshness to the air as if the night cleansed it.

But clutter invades.  Personal clutter.  I have a small apartment and I’m usually working on half a dozen projects at the same time.  Papers are stacked on papers.  In the kitchen, a few skillets are out because there is no place to put them and I’ve gathered several lethargic orchids.  They were beautiful years ago and I’ve repotted, watered and fed them.  They live, but they do not bloom. I can’t bring myself to toss them. 

There are books everywhere. I’ve sold a few to a local used bookseller. I plan — the key here is the word “plan” — to box a bunch up and give them to Friends of the Library for a sale to benefit one of the most important of public places.  There are also a bunch of books I know I will never read again, but cannot bring myself to part with.

I have a small monkey collection (not real ones) and a not particularly valuable (except to me) collection of art.  There is limited room on my walls, most of which is taken.

In a storeroom in the garage I have boxes and boxes of photographs.  I’ve taken a fair amount of them.  I’ve been through a large suitcase full of photographs I have tried to sort and thin out probably two or three dozen times in the last 30 years.  I’ve thrown away maybe half a dozen. Some of the photographs have been handed down through the generations.  There are few tintypes among them. Some of them are of people I don’t know.  I’ve been bringing them upstairs for a project I’m working on.  Many of them are stacked here and there.

My older brother likes to warn younger people about what happens when people grow older.  You know, things to expect.  No doubt one of those warnings must be there is likely to be an increased tendency and perhaps even a requirement to hoard.

There are not enough files for my so-called financial records. There is a stack, growing like a wild fungus of medical and medical insurance papers. There are wills and operating manuals for cameras, telephones, computers and printers.  There are dozens and dozens of notebooks, little pocket-sized books that serve as places to capture ideas as well as phone numbers and grocery lists.  Under my desk are plastic containers filled with drafts of novels and copies of the novels themselves.  More are downstairs.  I also have a small magazine collection, another box of every publication I’ve edited or contributed to, a dozen or so miniature (read toy) cars and old cameras. There are stationery supplies.  Hidden away are drawers with old watches and a dozen sunglasses, though I never wear sunglasses.  Neither the sunglasses nor the watches are antiques.  Just old watches and, oh, probably 30 pairs of reading glasses no longer strong enough for me to use.  I also have many pens. Some are fountain pens, which I love, but never use.

On my desk are notes for and drafts of novellas as well as material for one web site and two blogs.  There are three unpublished novels.  It’s so great to live in a paperless society.

Unfortunately I have only one, small closet.  Therefore it is hard to keep clothing from creeping out of the little space and hanging around doorknobs and over a few boxes of those books I mentioned.

There is noise clutter too.  Street cleaners, trash trucks, arguments, the neighbors’ television sets, another neighbor’s Harley and the skateboarders who have taken a liking to the hill I live on.  Still another neighbor has a dog who barks for at least half an hour every morning at eight. I suspect it’s when the inhabitants go off to work and leave him alone in the house.  I suspect they don’t know it is his habit. Once a week a leaf blower adds to the symphony of bad noise and there is, periodically but lasting a long time, house renovation.  Precisely at noon every Tuesday, there is a very loud horn, followed by an unintelligible voice explaining why, I suspect, there is a very loud horn blowing.

It’s endless and tiresome.  I didn’t used to like being up at three or four in the morning.  It seemed uncivilized; but in the darkness and the quiet, there is a lovely calm, a pleasant hum.  It may be one of the reasons why old people get up early.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Film Pairings — French Films, The Big Picture And The Little One

Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie made an adventure film in exotic settings. The movie was called The Tourist.  It was, it appeared, a big-budget, completely American undertaking and was, in the end a pleasant enough escape.  I had no idea at the time I saw it that it was a remake, that there was an earlier film, a smaller one, made by the French. One might think that the mere presence of Jolie would be enough for most to favor the American version. I would say that these people have not seen Sophie Marceau.  And while I am a nearly obsessed fan of the incredibly versatile Johnny Depp, I cannot help but recommend Y van Attal, who went from geek to dangerous sophisticate far more convincingly than Depp. 

The movie is Anthony Zimmer, made in 2005 and directed by Jérôme Salle.  Zimmer is a criminal mastermind, worth several fortunes and clever enough to elude the concerted efforts by the best police in the world as well as elite hit men from the Russian mafia.  His weakness, according to the smart top cop, is the woman, Chiara.  She, both the cop and the mafia believe, is the key to his capture.  In the French version the chases are less grand, the explosions smaller and the screen not quite as wide.  However, there is real power to the story, genuine understanding of the relationship between the two main characters and a far greater sense of satisfaction at the end.  The French win this one.

French film number two is Monsieur Hire, starring Michel Blanc as the strange, mousey little man who has serious intimacy problems and a conflicting obsession. Sandrine Bonnaire, plays a woman who is taken by or at least plays this strangeness and becomes the focus of Monsieur Hire’s voyeuristic habits.  Largely because of these tendencies, and the fact that they caused him trouble once upon a time, he is also a suspect in a murder investigation.  We are teased, almost from the beginning, that he is the murderer.  We are torn as well.  He is a nasty little man. Yet we take no pleasure in those who would bully him.  As in any good film, things become more complicated.  And there are twists to the twists.

While Anthony Zimmer sizzles on screen and keeps you focused with action and sweeping wide shots of exotic scenery, Monsieur Hire smolders. It is slightly claustrophobic and moves through the exposure of deep flaws in character made apparent in intimate, almost embarrassing glimpses.  The film (1989) was directed by Patrice Leconte.  He also co-wrote the screenplay, along with master writer Georges Simenon, who wrote the novel —Les Fiançailles de M. Hire — upon which the film is based.  The film certainly has Simenon’s sexually bizarre and environmentally offbeat feel.

You may want to reverse the sequence of the two films.  While Anthony Zimmer (maybe something bubbly to drink) is energizing, perhaps too much so before going to bed, Monsieur Hire might be a little too smarmy to leave as the last thoughts of the evening. Perhaps some Port.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Opinion — Some Updates, Some News And, No Doubt, Some Foolishness

Whenever I’m asked for a brief bio for book jackets or as background when I appear on a panel, I always end it with: "Tierney lives in San Francisco where he is working on several fiction projects.”  Fiction projects.  Those two words allow me a certain freedom, while giving these "projects" an air of vague importance.  

The thing is:  it is actually true (not the importance perhaps) But I have been working on some shorter mystery pieces — 20,000 to 30,000 words.  The novella is a form that seems more natural for me. And finally, after all these years, the form has become more desirable.  Traditional publishing, unless it is a “literary” work, has frowned on books under 80,000 words. This wasn't always the case when pulp fiction had a market share.  But since?  People wanted blockbusters.  In defense of e-book publishing, its proliferation has opened a few more doors. That includes shorter novels.  Fortunately a major publisher agrees. We’re ironing out the details of what is most likely an August release of a new mystery novella.  When dates, cover, and availability are nailed down, I’ll probably make a big deal about it right here.

I’m also experimenting with what is for me an entirely new approach, again thanks to the dramatic change in publishing technology.  Though I suspect, many have already done this or a version of it, I’m using the blog format to create a living memoir.  That is to say, by using a blog, I can update, revise, rewrite, add pictures (or delete them) and link information to other sources at any time during the process, which may be, if I choose, the rest of my life. When I die or become unable or unwilling to write, the memoir is done. Up to the minute. Meanwhile, the reader may read it as he or she chooses, starting from the top or bottom or middle, sampling only a bit here and there, returning to see how what they’ve read has changed or, of course, finding the whole thing a pain in the butt and moving on to the next blog.

I’ve just begun, so there are only a few posts and I’m going through photographs now.  This is not just a time-consuming task, but as you might imagine, a sometimes rich and sometimes painful experience.  If you want a sneak peek at the blog in its earliest stages, click on Albion and New Augusta — A Memoir in Transit.  It is not a mystery, but rather stories of my family. Realizing that I am not particularly famous, nor is my story any more or less extraordinary than a majority of people on the planet, I can only say that the merit here, if there is any, is in the form it takes.  The blog format enables me (and you) a freedom that normal publishing does not — going backward and forward in time. 

One other thing, which is relatively new to me, is I am not writing about fictional characters in fictional places doing fictional things. I deal only in the challenge of reporting, biased reporting no doubt, but reporting nonetheless.  The stories focus on my parents and my understanding of their history and the lives I knew. I observe from my perspective their existence from birth to death not in the way an organized memoir does, but in the way our minds work — out of order, or seemingly random selections of past events. One memory leads to the next, but often not in linear fashion.  I want to capture that.  I want to be able to revise my memories as I think about them again and again, and link them to letters and photographs.  As I said, it’s an experiment in form.  

Friday, June 8, 2012

Film Pairing — 1940s Brothers Noir

Not all films that I’ve enjoyed are actually good movies.  Redeeming qualities — a glimpse into history, extraordinary cinematography, interesting actors — can easily erase even the most serious flaws.  In my case, I’m curious about what audiences looked at in the late 1940s when I was just becoming aware of the world?  Cars, clothing, interiors — much of which is distantly familiar.  The added mystery and danger are pluses.

Lawrence Tierney
Scott Brady (Tierney)

I paired these two films because, beyond the closeness of the times and the dark nature of the stories, because each starred one of two brothers, Lawrence Tierney and Scott Brady (Gerard Kenneth Tierney), who were significant stars of “B” movies.  Both transitioned to TV at the same time the world did. I suspect both were able to keep food on the table by taking supporting roles in a whole range of popular TV shows and in the occasional film.  Brady was a regular on Police Story and later made an appearance in All In The Family. Brother Lawrence, who was the bad guy in many movies, continued to play the heavy as recently as an appearance on Seinfeld.
Before you begin the evening, a warning: If you want to watch Born to Kill (1947) you have to give in to the melodrama. Some of it is improbable.  Much of it is overacted or poorly acted.  It is difficult to tell whether Tierney has more than one octave or facial expression, but his character’s essential meanness is never in doubt. I kept thinking his lines were meant for Humphrey Bogart — and things might have turned out better if Bogart had delivered them.  Claire Trevor nearly makes up for Tierney’s shortcomings. She matches his nastiness word for word and deed for deed, except with a slightly more subtle portrayal. Trevor is one good reason to watch the film.  The other is that the plot is extremely clever and timeless. If there was ever a film that deserved a remake, I vote for this one.  Walter Slezak plays a corrupt P.I.  Robert Wise directed.
Scott Brady plays a good cop in He Walked By Night (1948), documentary-styled film about a multiple murderer.  Richard Basehart, who had been pretty invisible to me as a star, turns in great performance as the cold-blooded killer.  And a pre-Dragnet Jack Webb plays what might have been the first CSI-type character in a crime drama. (I’m sure I will be corrected).  If you can believe cops who talk like they never heard a curse word, you will find yourself being seduced by the film. And the end makes any investment you made worthwhile.  A fantastic bit of cinematography comes at the end in a chase through vast storm drain system of L.A.  Webb and Basehart are fun to watch (Scarcely a woman in sight).  Brady seems to do a spot-on impression of his brother.  This isn’t necessarily good.

Incidentally, a third brother, Edward Tierney, also made a few films, one with his brother Lawrence called Hoodlum. Edward never quite achieved significant notice.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Observations — A Little Bit of Paris in San Francisco

French presence in San Francisco is notable.  There are similarities, of course — the focus on food and wine being the most obvious.  Great restaurants, La Folie and Fleur de Lys are two always high on the critics’ lists.  There are many others around town.  Downtown, near the front, formal gates of Chinatown is a small area with a high concentration of things Francais.  Not as large as New Orleans’ French Quarter, I call it San Francisco’s French Nickel — a bad joke I continue to tell despite the groans. Here are some photos taken near there.

Gitane, A Restaurant on Claude Lane
A Boutique on Claude Lane
Le Central, The Place For A Power Lunch, On Bush Street
Notre Dame Des Victoires, A Church on Bush Street
Cafe de la Presse, Grant and Bush Street
Cafe Claude, on Claude Lane