Monday, June 30, 2014

Film Pairing — Capote Times Two Or More, The Writing of In Cold Blood

While Breakfast At Tiffany’s may have been the most popular of Truman Capote’s books to make it to film and his most famous book, In Cold Blood solidified his place among America’s greatest writers. The book was considered part of a movement with various names — creative non-fiction, new journalism — that told a “factual” story with the emotion, plotting (and made-up, but in-the spirit-dialogue) to give the story the drama of fiction.  Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, among others were celebrated practitioners of the style.

Historians disagree about who was the first writer to employ this new style, though most give Capote the nod for his tale of mass murderers headed for the death penalty. Capote was convinced that using his new style In Cold Blood would be his masterpiece and bring him a Pulitzer. In a strange and bitter twist of fate, Capote would be passed over.  However, a few years later, Norman Mailer would a receive the coveted Pulitzer for Executioner’s Song, a book about the death penalty in the case of murderer Gary Gilmore.  Talk about punishment.

The weirdness continued.  Two moviemakers, unbeknownst to each other, embarked on movie bios of Capote.  Both focused their films on just the narrow period in the author’s life that involved the writing of In Cold Blood.

Infamous (2006) was the second of the two to be released and immediately suffered from the well-deserved praise of the first.  It was based on another high-society celebrity writer turned realist, George Plimpton.  Relatively obscure actor Toby Jones (at least in the U.S.) played Capote.  Not only was he nearly Capote’s identical twin and an incredibly fine actor, he was perfect for this version of this time in Capote’s life that paid more attention to the author’s life as club-goer and society maven whose flamboyance made him a foreign invader of a down-to-earth small town in Kansas. Townspeople were flattered and shocked.  Infamous had a star-studded cast:  Sandra Bullock, Lee Pace, Daniel Craig, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sigourney Weaver.  Cast and crew have reason to be proud of this fine movie.

 Not to diminish Infamous, Capote (2005), the film, is nonetheless the more powerful of the two. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as Truman, is not the dead-on copy that Toby Jones presented.  But this Capote delivers at a more meaningful level. Because of Hoffman and Dan Futterman’s script based on part of Gerald Clarke’s comprehensive biography, we see and understand a tragedy of classic proportions — Love of another versus love of oneself. This is the tragedy of Capote’s life.  I think the film is pretty much a masterpiece.

If you still have time on your hands, you can watch the highly regarded In Cold Blood (1967), the movie, with Robert Blake. To accompany An All-Capote evening, perhaps you would prefer to honor the author by dinking his favorite drink.  Make a pitcher of screwdrivers and put your car keys somewhere you won’t be able to find them.  And be comforted that least you’ll be getting your Vitamin C.

Film pairing, movie reviews, Truman Capote, Infamous, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Toby Jones, Gerald Clarke, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Pulitzer Prize

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Observations — 1983, Big Year For Stephen King, The King of Pop, and Star Wars

William Golding, Nobel Prize Winner

Soviets shot down a South Korean jet, killing 269. In Beirut, terrorists killed 237 U.S. Marines. France invaded Algeria.  Alabama Governor George Wallace set to serve fourth term. Crack cocaine debuts in US.  Karen Carpenter died of complications from anorexia. First cell phone was tested.  Vinyl record sales took a dive. Disneyland opened in Tokyo.  The last episode of M*A*S*H aired.  Michael Jackson’s Thriller went to #1 and stayed there for 37 weeks.  Torch Song Trilogy won multiple awards.  The Nobel Prize for Literature went to William Golding.  Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for The Color Purple.  The Mystery Writers of America gave its Best Mystery Edgar to Rick Boyer for Billingsgate Shoal and The Private Eye Writers of America gave their top award to Lawrence Block for Eight Million Ways To Die. Other books we read that year were:  The Lonesome Gods by Louis L’Amour, Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins White Gold Wielder by Stephen R.  Donaldson The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Changes by Danielle Steel, Christine by Stephen King, The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré, Pet Sematary by Stephen King, Poland by James L. Michener, and Return of the Jedi by James Kahn and George Lucas. We went to the movies to see: Nation Lampoon on Vacation, The Outsiders, Scarface, Star Wars— Return of the Jedi, Risky Business, Flashdance, Christine, The Big Chill and Trading Places.  The music chart were topped by “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, “Flashdance — What A Feeling” by Irene Cara, “Down Under” by Men at Work, “Beat It” by Michael Jackson, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler, Maneater” by John Hall and Daryl Oates, “Maniac” by Michael Sembello and “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurhythmics. Jonah Hill, Emily Blunt, Carrie Underwood, and Amy Winehouse came into the world. Among those who left it were: Tennessee Williams, David Niven, Harry James Joan Hackett, Gloria Swanson, Pat O’Brien, Rod Cameron, Raymond Massey, Buster Crabbe, Joan Miró, Buckminster Fuller, Jack Dempsey, Norm Shearer and Sir Ralph Richardson.  If you were around, what were you doing during this year of the water pig?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Observations — 1970, Strange Tales of John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Timothy Leary

The U.S. invaded Cambodia. The National Guard killed four Kent State University students who protested the Cambodia invasion. An earthquake killed 50,000 in Peru. A “man eating” tiger was said to have killed 48 near New Delhi. Tonga and Fiji became independent, no longer officially tied to the UK. Nasser died. Anwar Sadat took his place in Egypt. Biafra joined Nigeria.  The Beatles broke up. The floppy disc was invented. The NBA expanded to 18 teams. U.S. lowered voting age to 18 from 21.  John Lennon and Yoko Ono told media they were both having sex-change surgery. MLB banned Oakland A’s from using gold-colored bases. Jim Morrison was tried in Miami for giving a lewd and lascivious performance.  The verdict: Not guilty. Timothy Leary escaped from prison.  Assassination attempted on Pope Paul VI. Japanese writer Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide after failing in a coup attempt. Mega-talents Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix had drug-related deaths “The Red Skelton Show” went off the air.  “All My Children” premiered. The year’s Academy Award went to Midnight Cowboy.  We also went to the movies to see:  M*A*S*H, Patton, Love Story and Airport.  The Nobel Prize For Literature went to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Other books we read included I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Bech, a Book by John Updike. The Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar award went to Dick Francis for Forfeit.  We listened to Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon And Garfunkel, Close To You by The Carpenters, American Woman by Guess Who, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head by B.J. Thomas, War by Edwin Starr, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Diana Ross, I’ll Be There by The Jackson Five, Get Ready by Rare Earth, Let It Be by the Beatles, and Band of Gold by Freda Payne. Born in 1970 were: Uma Thurman, Matt Damon, Rachel Weisz, River Phoenix and Tina Fey.  Died: Inger Stevens, Gypsy Rose Lee, Charles Ruggles, Ed Begley, Billie Burke, Frances Farmer, Hal March and Sonny Liston.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Commentary — The Loneliness Of The Lowly Midlist Writer

I’m at that awkward age.  Wait.  There’s nothing awkward about it, except when I try to walk. Tall, old and overweight, I have a kind of Humpty Dumpty gate — with a decided teeter.  The teeter (or totter) was caused by a second brain surgery to fix brain radiation damage caused by lasers after the first surgery to remove a tumor*. The result is continued brain necrosis and, apparently, a scalpel slice a little too close to my motor nerves.

 I am chubby because one of the treatments involves steroids, which does all sorts of things, including the creation of a ravenous appetite. I am chubby because it is difficult to exercise and I hate doing it.  I am chubby because I like to eat. And I’m not visualizing kale or broccolini when I say, “eat.” I’m thinking Pecan pie. 

This is why I'm no longer invisible
So, to get to the point, at 6’2” and 278 pounds, I am not the invisible old man I once was.  As many of you who have gone beyond the half-century mark already know, you may not be waited on in the order of your arrival at retail counters because you’ve become at least partially invisible.  I experienced that before I became larger-than-life in (in a purely physical sense).  A cane, which is necessary most of the time, nonetheless adds to the unintentional drama of my presence.  Children stare. I once wore a hat to prevent additional melanoma from forming on my bald skull, but the hat seemed like gilding the lily. As a writer, I think it is in my nature to prefer to observe than be observed. At the moment, that is difficult. However, I’ve already lost a bit of height.  And it’s quite possible that as I suffer, as we all do, the inevitable dematerialization of old age that eventually I will again be a wisp of my former self. Invisible once again.

But there are other ways to be invisible.  Being a midlist writer is one. I flatter myself a little by defining my achievement level that high, but the process of elimination makes it the only category I can use.  I am not a best selling author or a literary giant, yet I’m not a new, promising, or emerging writer. A big writer, yes, thanks to the pecan pie, but not in the sense of being recognized as a writer. On the other hand, I’m published. I am thankful. The problem for many of us in that category is that, as it is in other fields in these days of corporate rule, we have not become brand names.  We are an unfamiliar box of cereal on the shelf, one that might make you simultaneously curious and wary. Though, as a midlist writer, we might feel lucky to be on the shelf at all.  My point is that if you are a crime fiction fan, the supply of fantastic books is endless. Look a little deeper or farther and you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

I’m not complaining.  Certainly breaking in— getting one’s first book published, let alone reviewed — is tough enough.  And I’m aware there are those who would wish some of these old, midlist fogies just get out of the way. Eventually, we will.  In the meantime, like old character actors, we’re going to work as long as we can because writing is what we do.  And while I will not presume to choose whom, among the living midlist writers you should check out, I am recommending you look for them (us).

Also, I’m not asking you to give up reading NYT best-selling authors.  They’re best selling for a reason. I am an avid fan of many of them.  But maybe, instead of reading James Patterson’s 20th book of the month, you could wander around the bookstore, library, flea market or Internet to check out others who come highly recommended, but haven’t achieved brand-name status, whose books aren’t stacked on a table by the store’s front door or taking up a full page ad in the Times. Some of us have stopped writing but have reissued very worthwhile early works.  Others of us continue to write and have both old and new works available.

There are important discussions about how the changes in the publishing landscape not only affect bookstores and readers and publishers, but how serious it is for midlist writers. This situation is often lost in the loud debate between Amazon and the few remaining major publishers in which Amazon is the one usually demonized.

*P.S. For the medically minded, more on this story can be found here.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Observations — 1985, Terrorism Rears Its Ugly Head

Artist Jean-Michel Basquait
Mikhail Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader.  President Ronald Reagan began his second term. Terrorists took 33 hostages on a TWA jet.  Terrorists hijacked an Italian cruise ship. Terrorists seized an Egyptian Airliner after an Athens take-off. Fifty-nine died. “New Coke” bombed. A gigantic hole was found in the ozone layer. An Indiana University basketball coach threw a tantrum and a chair.  Larry Bird scored 60 points in one game. The seatbelt law took effect.  The first Internet domain was registered.  A cluster of forty-one tornadoes hit Ohio, Pennsylvania New York and parts of Canada, leaving 76 dead. Claus Von Bulow was acquitted of murder in his wife’s death. Madonna appeared nude in Playboy and Penthouse magazines.  Gary Kasparov became world chess champion. Amadeus won the Academy Award for Best Film. It was the year of release for The Color Purple, Prizzi’s Honor and Kiss of the Spider Woman.  We also watched The Breakfast Club, The Goonies, Back To The Future, Weird Science, Rocky IV, Legend, Brazil and Clue.  The Mystery Writers of America gave their top award to Briar Patch by Ross Thomas and the Private Eye Writers of America gave their top award, The Shamus, to Loren D. Estleman for Sugartown.  We also read: The Talisman by Stephen King, The Sicilian by Mario Puzo, Love and War by Jon Jakes, So Long and Thanks For The Fish by Douglas Adams, and The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth. Topping the charts musically were:  “Careless Whisper” by Wham, “Like A Virgin” by Madonna,  “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” by Wham, “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner, “I Feel For You” by Chaka Khan, “Out Of Touch” by Daryl Hall and John Oates, and “Money For Nothing” by Dire Straits. Among those who took their first breaths this year were: Michael Phelps, Keira Knightley and Bruno Mars.  Those who took their last include: Lloyd Nolan, Edmond O’Brien, Scott Brady, Richard Greene, Selma Diamond, Scott Brady, Rock Hudson, Ricky Nelson, Orson Welles, Yul Brynner, Ruth Gordon, Phil Silvers, Simone Signoret, Marc Chagall, Frank Oppenheimer, and Anne Baxter. If you were around, what were you doing during the year of the wood ox?