Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The New Human, The Old Private Eye

I don’t spend a lot of time with the young. It’s my loss, I know.  I have nothing against people based on age.  In fact, I regard under thirties with kindly envy. Our paths simply do not cross.  Not only do I spend more and more time alone, but when I’m not I’m usually with old friends, most of them my age, mostly people who share my discomfort with crowds, late hours and loud noise. This intolerance keeps me away from playgrounds, amusement parks and sports bars, rock concerts, raves, parties, even crowded food joints.  I often remember Yogi Berra’s line:  “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded. Sometimes, when I find myself in some San Francisco neighborhood after dark, I think I’m 20 again, living on the edge.  It’s more likely dinner ran late.  Also, because of my nature, which is to observe rather than engage, I avoid 10Ks, mountain biking, hiking, white water rafting, the gym and other places where the young and or extremely fit congregate.

So its not that I stay away from young people exactly.  It’s that I stay away from places where they tend to congregate.  And it’s just as well. I don’t have the means to communicate with them. They are intensely involved with little gadgets  — little gadgets that connect them to the world — other people, movies, books, maps, encyclopedias, history, science, anthropology, and philosophy, all of which fits into a gadget that fits in a pocket. Because of the gadget, there’s no need for newspapers and magazines to tell them what’s going on around town or what new restaurants have opened or what’s on the menu at Urbana or who’s playing at the Justice Club.  Everything you might want to know is at their fingertips, including how many minutes before the next bus arrives. Exactly how many minutes.

The gadget has and continues to change everything. One of the reasons we have homes, besides having a comfortable place to sleep, is so we can have book shelves, telephones, a TV set, storage for old photographs music, memorabilia. Most all of those things now fit in the gadget.

What has emerged in the last decade is the prototype of the new human.  What do these modern homosapiens need?  Apparently just an electrical outlet for now.  These and other signs strongly suggest we are in the age of dematerialization.   Without the encumbrance of possessions and permanence, we are at our most mobile, our least dependent.

The 1990 Hardback
There’s not much reason for the new human to have an address.  It’s almost like living on the wind, I imagine.   Add to this the decline in personal income even for the educated and the increase in the cost of living space in thriving, exciting cities and we come upon a problem and another startling nontraditional solution.  One of the increasingly popular trends in cities like Manhattan, Seattle and San Francisco is the creation of very small studio apartments (300 square feet or less) — room enough for a bed, tiny kitchen and an efficient, but not necessarily luxurious bath. With a little creativity it might not look like a prison cell. Hang the bike in the hall.

Certainly in highly urban centers, there’s no need for a garage because there is no need for a lawnmower or old paint cans, barbeque equipment, toolboxes, or more to the point, a car. Take a bus or train, ride a bicycle.  Rent a car, or share one by the hour if some strange urge from your reptilian brain takes over.

For those who make the choice, there is a new way to exist in the world and a fairly clear general direction for the future.

I’m in the midst of writing the 11th mystery novel in my series featuring semi-retired Indianapolis private eye, Deets Shanahan. As I write him today he is 72 years old.  I’m just shy of that myself.  One of the many things I didn’t foresee when I undertook the first book (Stone Veil) in the late eighties was that eventually my diminishing participation in the world at large would mirror the conveniently decreasing relevance of a Shanahan-type private eye to the world. It is a coincidental and yet symbolic crossing in time for me and possibly for an era.
The More Recent Trade & e-Book

At this time, in addition to the incredible reliance upon the Internet and the changes it makes to the way we live, it occurs at a time in which we must adapt to another, this time unpleasant reality.  We must finally give up what remains of our innocence.

The bank down the street is no longer interested in your community. Its owners live in London or Brunei.  In fact the owners of most of the companies with whom you do business have never stepped foot in your town, let alone your neighborhood.

You need not just worry about the corruption of services you’ve taken for granted because they seem to have worked in the past, those in charge of maintaining order don’t necessarily subscribe to the equality of the citizenry.   “Stop and frisk” is a statistical success for example.  But, using its principle, we could reduce crime to zero if we simply locked everyone up.  But this disease derived from unchecked power runs through all of the governments’ cops as well as thousands of private security forces. And you should be reminded that the local police are probably pretty benign compared to the sometimes indiscriminate power of the Secret Service, FBI, CIA and NSA.  Increasingly we are at the mercy of mega-corporations that not only purchase legislators, but also operate large private security forces. You don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of Halliburton or Exxon or Monsanto.  And if you believe that, in the end, we have the Supreme Court as a backstop to this kind of abuse of power see the Citizens United decision.   “Money is speech,” the Robes say.

With wealth disparity at record highs, the U.S. has already evolved into neo-feudal society. Only those who are highly flexible, highly mobile, highly technological can avoid being part of the working poor crowd, who are being kept quiet and complacent by mind-numbing sitcoms and sensuous, underdressed women eating burgers from Carl’s Jr.  Private lobbyists funded by anonymous billionaires, make sure you are continually distracted through ads that suggest that regulations designed to level the playing field are somehow threats to your freedom.  Guarding their own privacy, while stealing yours, is an obsession.  We’re not allowed to know who is buying influence or how much of it. On the other hand, global corporations that benefit from knowing who you are know who you are, where you are and what you are planning to do there.  They are huge organizations with international reach, powerful information gathering potential, secret management, unlimited technological capability and immensely powerful contacts.

What does any of this have to do with the future of the fictional private eye, or the “new human” for that matter?

The new human has private eye built in.  Think of Lauren Bacall uttering the line:  “You know how to Google, don’t you?  The new human knows how to Google.  The gadget is a phone, a satellite map, a fax, a camera, a sound recording device, a finder of people and a hacker’s tool to sneak inside other gadgets and a complete, instant and international source of information.  You want to know about poisons, or bullets, check out Wikipedia. The new human doesn’t need a private detective.  Armed with the gadget, the new human is a private eye.

This, in my mind, is an exciting new model for what makes the private eye special.  Independence. A cheap start-up.  A Bourne who knows who he is and just wants to be on the right side.  But here is where I think we run into trouble.  If I were younger and savvier, I’d introduce Shanahan’s son or grandson or daughter with a fit, smart, independent, highly mobile private eye. But the P.I. model, itself, is in danger.

All of this is to say is that today’s fictional private eye, faced with this potential enemy, is as out of place as I am.  Many of the crimes are too complicated. The perpetrators are untouchable — and their resources too great, too much for any one person.

It’s not simply that both Shanahan and I got caught with our technological pants down, but that in crime fiction, now, we can’t always be sure what crime is or how to go about righting a wrong.  Was it always this way? Are these words pretty much the same as anyone’s last words as we loose touch with reality, as time runs out?

Perhaps.  But I don’t think so. We understand one human murdering another.  We understand simple theft.  But most of us still don’t understand the complex crime the investment banks committed that put so many families out on the street that caused business bankruptcies, that ballooned unemployment, that destroyed the retirement income of so many seniors that caused suicides and divorce. The shrewd Wall Street entrepreneurs counted on our naiveté to collect obscene bonuses on their deceits.  While they bought yachts and third homes, still more working Americans slipped into poverty.  These are mega scams, not a romantic art theft or spousal murder for insurance — not one evil brain against one noble, if flawed knight determined to do good.  Nothing so personal. Nothing so human. Nothing so singular.    

It’s on the NSA scale – billions of swipes of Meta data in a blink of an eye. The worst crimes (because they are mass produced) are committed by corporations, often with government support.  Even if some individual could reach far enough and hard enough to threaten a corporation with legal action serious enough to mean anything, the response would be swift and total.  If you make trouble, the powers set out to destroy you. Neither you nor they will ever make it to a courtroom and a judgment by your peers.  In the end, if there is a judgment at all, it will be a judgment by their peers, appeal after appeal after appeal until you run out of money to pay your lawyer or until it reaches a Supreme Court that supports the feudal system that in some mind-boggling bungling equates dollars with speech.

Characters like James Bond are fun, but a fantasy. Jason Bourne, a rogue from the corporation/government I describe, is slightly more plausible and may be at home in this world.  But the every day P.I. operating out of a small, cheap office, seems hopelessly lost in the 21st Century.

Solid private eye tales, I think, are all about right and wrong, good and evil.  In fact, it is not just about good and evil, it predicated upon them.  A good P.I. story needs evil to exist — and to be understood.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Joseph Gordon-Levitt — A Thousand Shades of Crazy

From Hesher

A few weeks ago I profiled Matthew McConaughey, drawing the conclusion that he had become a master of inserting his personality into every character he played. This isn’t a derisive remark. It’s a Hollywood tradition. John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Vincent Price, Clifton Webb, Clint Eastwood – talented stars, all of them — had substantial careers.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t do it that way.  More in the tradition of Daniel Day-Lewis or early Rod Steiger and Robert De Niro, Joseph Gordon–Levitt creates a fresh creature, an absolute original each time.  Even when directors hire him because of previous performances as a type  — a wild or crazy, often-criminal young kid — the actor simply won’t play it the same way twice.

In Mysterious Skin (2004), Gordon-Levitt was a victim of molestation, he portrayed a disturbed, self-destructive teen who seemed intent on only harming himself until he is contacted by another victim and sees the need to get through i.

Brick (2005) has become a cult classic.  And while some experts disagree, many find the movie an unexpected small, noir masterpiece (set in a high school).  Gordon-Levitt has the distinction of playing the part Bogart or Mitchum would normally play. He pulls it off, always on the verge of losing, almost playing the fool. He is tough, relentless in in his pursuit of a noble but impossible goal.

From Brick
Killshot (2008) is based on Elmore Leonard’s book by the same name.  Here, Gordon-Levitt gets the humor.  The wild and crazy kid in this film, unlike the others isn’t the sharpest tool in the drawer as a character, but as an actor he makes dumb charming, funny and horrifying, as I suspect Leonard meant it.

Talk about dry humor, as Hesher (2009) we see the most cold-blooded of the young disturbed characters he plays.   Without trying, he out-squints Eastwood and gives you an as unpredictably yet believably crazy guy in ways that are as subtle and effective as Mitchum. Yet he is neither of them. He is not doing impersonations, but can easily communicate a thousand words in a single glance.

In the strange but riveting Looper (2012), Gordon-Levitt seems to have made his last pass through youth.  All innocence is lost.  The sweet, funny young kid from “Third Rock From The Sun” is gone.

As he matures as an actor and a human, I think we are witnessing one of the best transitions from child star to adult since Leonardo DiCaprio.  Lately, he has had significant roles in such blockbuster films as Inception (2010) The Dark Knight Rises, (2012) and Lincoln (2012).  With Don Jon, he seems to have moved on.  He seems to have taken the status seriously by writing and directing a film that has arrived with accolades. At 32, Gordon-Levitt is an adult. It will be fascinating to see what talent tapped so early can achieve as time passes. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Cinema Censorship — Trailing Behind Banned Book Week

From Flavorwire, Tyler Coates reports that Woody Allen has pulled his film Blue Jasmine from theaters in India because of that country’s anti-smoking campaign.  Apparently, in addition to showing the hazards of smoking before all films, the Ministry of Health demands that anti-tobacco messages be shown during scenes in which cigarettes are smoked. Might we expect to see a message about the inappropriate nature of chopping someone’s head off during a beheading scene?

The most recent film, according to Wikipedia to be restrained prior to release in the U.S. was The Yes Men Fix The World.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit.  The movie, which included information about Dow Chemical, Exxon, and Halliburton, was finally shown in 2009.  Also, The Profit, a film about L. Ron Hubbard was held up initially by a lawsuit by the Church of Scientology and now by an unhappy investor.

Other silliness.  Back to the Future is banned in China because the country is uncomfortable with the notion of time travel.  China also ended up banning Avatar after it proved too popular and interfered with release of its own blockbuster — Confucius.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Actors Of Distinct Character — His Name Is Mud

I was not a fan of Matthew McConaughey. Weighing whether or not I was going to see a film he was in his presence would tip me against it. I’ve since changed my mind. As I think back on it, it might have been the character (sleazy, unctuous) he played regularly, combined with the fact that he played those characters so well that it made me squirm.  I began to change my ways when they made a movie out of my favorite of Michael Connelly’s books, The Lincoln Lawyer. I wasn’t thrilled they picked McConaughey to play the title role.  On the other hand, I knew instantly it was the right choice.  Here was a charming but slimy, opportunist with sliding scale principles.  In that sense Connelly captured and McConaughey delivered a spot-on stand-in of the country’s legal system. There’s a major leap from the law to justice. The character and the actor walked the razor’s edge between despicable and redeemable.
McConaughey in Mud

In the film, Mud, McConaughey has confirmed, now, through a significant body of work, that he has carved out a permanent place among the great male character actors, each creating a singular mark in the profession, character actors so strong they can carry a film, much as McConaughey did with Mud. We saw the seeds of this character in A Time To Kill (an adaption of John Grisham’s best, now on Broadway) and the result of that loss of Innocence in The Lincoln Lawyer.  Now we see it gain and again, most recently in Killer Joe and The Paperboy, and before that in Magic Mike.  It’s obvious we’re not witnessing an actor pursuing the same goals as Daniel Day-Lewis or Robert De Niro, becoming someone entirely different for each role, but creating an original “type’ in much the same way as Christopher Walken, Vincent Price, Charles Laughton, Clifton Webb successfully created original types.

Mud, incidentally, is a worthwhile film. Whatever you may think of Reese Witherspoon – and I like her – she does a great job here as does Sam Shepard.  Talented Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland play the two teens, one of them investing his entire view of the world on a drifter’s honor.