Saturday, February 9, 2013

Book Notes — The Thief, Fuminori Nakamura

If writers were generals, young Fuminori Nakamura would have an embarrassment of metals and ribbons on his chest  — including a chance at The Los Angeles Times best thriller/suspense for 2012.  The Thief is his first book translated into English.  It won’t be his last.

Words and sentences are razor slices, forceful.  Quick and short.  Tough as well as elegant as they are, the minimized narrative and terse dialogue deliver surprisingly full-bodied, fully textured inner and outer worlds.  As a reader I was involuntarily swept along. Later, backing off a bit and looking at it as a writer, I wanted to understand the brush strokes of his work.  I wanted to know how he packed so much feeling into this brief, unsentimentally written book.

The story is not complex.  I would pose that it contrasts a man who lives in a world he creates and controls. We might find his life sad, tawdry, but it is not without meaning for him.  It has value here and there.  His pickpocket profession is not without some measure of fulfillment. He has talent, enjoys challenges, appreciates in a modest way his accomplishments.  He is not propelled by ambition or greed.  One could easily conclude that it is art that he practices.

One mistake. He allows others to enter his sphere — and we can argue fate and free will if we choose.  Or we can say that this is Noir.  One mistake.  That’s all you get.

The Thief is published by Soho Press and translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates

Friday, February 8, 2013

Film Pairings — One Man’s Poison And A Plague On your City, All In One Night

So many films, watched years after they’re first released, don’t hold up.  On the positive side, some, not so happily welcomed at the time, look pretty good today.  D.O.A. and Panic in the Streets seem to have bested the test of time and of some its original reviews.

Few plots could be more compelling than this one that unfolds in just 83 minutes of D.O.A.  A man discovers he’s been murdered. He just isn’t dead yet. He only has 48 hours to discover who poisoned him and why. Fundamentally a fine supporting actor, Edmond O’Brien takes over the screen. It is the signature role of his career. D.O.A., in shadowy black and white, is fast-paced and tense. There are glimpses of 1950 San Francisco and Los Angeles and a Studebaker Commander convertible (Okay, that was a personal thrill). D.O.A. is a must-see for noir fans, especially for Ernest Laszlo’s brilliant camerawork.

Panic in the Streets is less single-minded. But similarly, a public health officer must find carriers of the plague and do so despite bureaucratic and criminal attempts to stop him.  Like O’Brien, The official, Richard Widmark, has a 48-hour deadline. Widmark does a great job, and he is surrounded by an extraordinary cast probably more accustomed to a Broadway stage. Director Elia Kazan brought in Barbara Bel Geddes. Paul Douglas, Jack Palance and Zero Mostel.  Panic in The Streets, also released in 1950, was filmed in New Orleans and used many of the locals in smaller roles to add authenticity — and they did.  Also, the stunning cinematography of Joseph MacDonald created a gritty realism

Whatever you drink for this wonderfully moody double feature should be consumed straight. However, make sure it hasn’t been spiked with a luminous toxin or prepared by someone with a body temperature above 104.

Monday, February 4, 2013

On Writing — Creating Characters, A Grand Scheme Gone Wrong

I thought I had a brilliant idea.  And maybe it was, but I couldn’t make it work.  Skeptics though you may be, bear with me for a few sentences.  The Asian Zodiac is thousands of years old. And is far more complex and subtle than finding your sign on the paper placemat at your local Chinese restaurant. Not quite as old is the Western Zodiac, which, like its predecessor has been debunked by almost all contemporary scientists.  Even so, much critical thought has been given to the subject over the centuries and the subject is far more complex than most might imagine.  And while it may be appropriate to dismiss it, if we take it literarily rather than literally, it has value.

That is the fascination for me. Both systems, valid or not, have created incredibly sharp and detailed descriptions of various character types.  Though each sign of each system has sub characteristics based on more specific time and place of birth that would further refine them, just taking the 12 Asian principal signs and their descriptions and adding to them the 12 western signs (an Aries monkey, for example), we have 144 clearly delineated personality profiles from which to draw. It is an interesting resource.  It doesn’t matter if they are true in this case.  We are writing fiction.

Happy Year of The Water Snake
So even though I’d only be skimming the surface, I set out to write 12 mystery novellas that, when concluded, would use all the primary personalities.  With the help of charts and Suzanne White’s The New Astrology I began.  There would be three quartets before the project was completed.  I wrote the first three novellas, nearly completing the first to be called The Yellow Road To The Sun QuartetBlack Tortoise, Vermilion Bird and Blue Dragon. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well. The first two were horrible.  Only Blue Dragon had any promise.  I dumped the whole idea, but kept the one story that nearly worked. This confirmed what I suspected.  I couldn’t write characters according to a blueprint, even one of my own making. For me, even vague outlines are stifling.  But it remains an interesting challenge for some writer whose mind is more structured and whose nature is more patient.

However, I believe there are worthwhile remains. If anyone is interested, the novella, Blue Dragon, rewritten and renamed The Deadly Secrets of Ted Zheng is available free here.

Meanwhile, however you feel about astrology, Chinese New Year begins this month on the 10th.  Enjoy “The Year of the Snake.”


Friday, February 1, 2013

Film Pairings — Crimes Or Misdemeanors

Perhaps no crimes have been committed.  No murders, no heists, at least of a material kind.  But what about intentional humiliation?  Deceit for sexual seduction? Something more than mischievousness, something just short of emotional torture?

Les Liaisons Dangereuses was written in the late 1700s by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.  In the 20th and 21st centuries, the book was mined for the cinema by the French, English, American, Korean and, most recently, the Chinese. There are the two available English language versions — Dangerous Liaisons and Cruel Intentions.  One is critically acclaimed.  The other has spawned nasty little sequels. And it’s probably important to understand that while the plots of these two are much the same, there couldn’t be a greater difference in style and feeling.

Similar to the initial impression of Wild Things, reviewed last week, Cruel Intentions begins as a dark teen comedy.  Unlike Wild Things, Cruel Intentions never transcends its first impression.  The style may have been intentional, though. It worked for its target market.  Ryan Phillippe, looking uncannily like Justin Bieber in this 1999 film about rich, spoiled, emotionally bullying teens, is joined by Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Phillippe and Gellar are the foxes in the henhouse of innocence. (The “henhouse of innocence? Sorry I lost my mind there for a moment.) And when the nasty deeds are done, they must face each other.  Whatever I might say about its depth or lack of it, the film was entertaining and extraordinarily successful.  Wikipedia says that Cruel Intentions 4 will be released in 2014.

And now for something completely the same only very, very different.  Dangerous Liaisons is essentially the same plot in the hands of masters and set in the luscious excesses of 18th century France.  Christopher Hampton adapted the screenplay from his play and from the book. And Stephen Frears directed this true-to-the-period piece released in 1988.  The cast is extraordinary, featuring Glenn Close and John Malkovich as competing, evil manipulators.  Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman are not only beautiful, but also excellent in their roles.  A very young Keanu Reeves has a minor role. Much like Cruel Intentions, there is plenty of sex. But unlike the young American version, the wit is much more biting in France.  The endings of both might be considered darkly comedic or humorously tragic.

It almost has to be champagne for the evening in honor of the book that inspired all these films and certainly in the meanness that stems from the boredom of being part of the “idle” rich.  Join in for a few hours.  Spoil yourself. Indulge.