Thursday, February 26, 2015

Rant — The Right To Die

For many this is a subject to avoid.  Some may also ask why a blog mostly dedicated to crime fiction and film would interject something that is political, possibly religious and probably controversial in nature in this space. I’ve been unwise before in this regard. If I considered the blog merely a marketing tool for my books, I should remain neutral.  But I promised myself and my readers that I would, from time to time, give voice to what I believe, completely divorced from savvy marketing.  As I write this, there is legislation in several sates that would allow physician assisted suicide in cases involving terminal illness and corresponding pain and suffering. I hope this movement, also called "death with dignity," will gain support and allow each of us to make these critical choices for ourselves when we can, while we can.

Gertrude Stein; What was the question?
As a mystery writer, death is rarely far from my thoughts. At my age and with my DNA letting various demons out of the bag, death is a regular companion. I am paying greater personal attention to the inevitable.    Some of those thoughts are dedicated to practical questions, and the solutions to those are relatively common sense. (1.) What happens to my belongings when I go? Some of the concerns are spiritually speculative. (2,) Is there an ego, an identity that exists afterward and, if so, what might that be? Some are spiritual and practical at the same time. (3.) If death becomes imminent, what do I do? How hard do I or others fight against it?

All right.  Belongings are relatively easy.  That’s what wills and trusts are for. Some of the decisions might be difficult. But the chances are you’ve thought about it long before death became this real. Some things don’t get resolved. Old photos and letters, for example, and other items of mostly sentimental value may prove impossible n less a younger family member has developed an interest in family history. I’ve never thrown away a letter and it’s equally difficult to part with photographs. I also have all my old news clippings, those about me as a novelist and those by me during my media days. Who would want them? Fortunately that wind-up cable car that played a tinny version of “I left My Heart In San Francisco” got lost during one of my moves. The truth is I probably will leave my heart here and not much else.  I’ve already begun sorting and tossing.  It’s not going well.

The ego/identity question is metaphysical and not answerable in this realm. Those who have chosen a religion may be guided by its tenets and might get some help from the appropriate spiritual leader. Some religions believe they have it all figured out. Personally, I doubt that, but I certainly have thoughts on the subject.  It is, at times, fascinating to consider the endless possibilities of the meaning of life and what happens, if anything, when it comes to an end. It’s similar to the solving of a mystery.  We have clues, suspicions, and crackpot theories.  The thing is:  When the finally the end comes, we are rarely any closer to solving the mystery than we were when the question first presented itself.

There is a story about author Gertrude Stein and her long-time companion, Alice B. Toklas. It is said they had an agreement that when the first to die was passing through death’s door, she would reveal the secret with her last breath. Alice lingered by Gertrude’ bedside when the day came.  And when the legendary Stein appeared to be shuffling of the mortal coil, Alice pleaded:  “What is the answer?  What is the answer? Gertrude had just enough life to respond.

“What was the question?”

The really important question is what do you do about death when you can still do something about how you die. If we are hit by a truck or suffer a massive heart attack, no amount of preparation will make a difference.  But given modern medicine and the nature of some deadly diseases, we may have warning.  And we may understand what to expect as we travel consciously on the path to death.  Also, we may have choices.

In some cases, palliative care specialists may be able to provide a calm, peaceful and pain free journey to the final moment.  Sometimes family and friends are there providing comfort and company until the person slips away. I think this is ideal. I’m game to let nature take its course when I have a choice and when the process is as serene and respectful as this suggests.

Many deaths do not allow for a civilized, dignified departure. Sometimes we are stuck in between. The treatment for some cancers, for example, create horrible moral dilemmas as the cancer advances and conditions worsen.

Chemotherapy may very well be the way to go. In some cases, after months of discomfort, often severe, the cancer is nonetheless beaten and the patient has a full recovery and has many more productive and enjoyable years ahead. There are times, no doubt, when the suffering is worth it.  

Sometimes it’s not.   There are times when chemo is given simply because it is the only alternative to imminent death and we’re not allowed to let people die. But sometimes, such treatment only causes suffering. No healing.  Just suffering. The pain is prolonged in exchange for a short gain of a few painful, unhappy extra months. I would question its value.  Similarly, if staying alive is simply staying alive in a state where one can no longer communicate or enjoy a book, where one is simply trapped in a body, I don’t see the point. I want out as quickly as possible.  I accept the notion that few get through life without suffering, but it seems to me most intelligent beings avoid it when they can.

When my father was eventually placed in the Alzheimers unit in a nursing home, I visited and was able to observe several patients over time.  Some sat dazed and confused. Some seemed withdrawn in fear.  Others seemed to be in constant distress. Still others showed no outward signs of anxiety.  It’s quite possible they were in a benign other world.  My father, fortunately, seemed to keep himself occupied in harmless fascination with his surrounings, examining them in a way that seemed to provide some meaning or purpose for him.  He passed away before we were faced with any notion that his existence brought him more pain than pleasure.   However if I were the woman who appeared to be in a constant state of terror, I would surely want someone to help me move on or out, whatever the appropriate word is.  There is an obvious need for more compassion in such cases.

I have, as I’m sure many of you have, a healthcare directive that indicates my wishes for no extraordinary effort to keep me alive. If I’m not really going to live a conscious life, pull the plug.  But I live in California.  As forward as the state is, I am not permitted to have a physician-assisted suicide even if doctors determine that I face a long, slow and painful death. To perform the act on my own, without professional help, could make matters even worse. A botched suicide could lead to a worse hell.

In the end, shouldn’t we have the right to arrange our own deaths while we still have the mind and the means to do so and have professional guidance to do it right? But it is against the law here, as it is in most states. 

Who wouldn’t prefer a quick death or one with pain control as we depart? But if that’s not going to be possible, then planning our own deaths is preferable to a season of suffering, mental or physical. Certainly there are ethical questions. We don’t want someone nudging us to an early end because health care costs are diminishing the inheritable estate, for example. Or someone suggesting our condition is worse than it is to get out from under the burden of providing care.  But from what I’ve seen of Oregon’s law, which has set the bar for new legislation, and the research from such serious organizations as Compassion and Choices, there are ways to build safeguards into laws that will protect the ill, the elderly and the disabled from exploitation while enabling people to make decisions about their own lives, especially the quality of those lives as they near an end.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Film Pairings — An Escapist Night With Harrison Ford

Forget for a moment Harrison Ford’s work in Indiana Jones, Star Wars and the superior Blade Runner. He has anchored dozens of popular movies reflecting our times and dozens more of pure escape. I do not know him, nor do I have any knowledge or opinion about the man as a human being. Like everybody else I’ve seen an occasional interview on TV.  Ford seems uncomfortable, awkward, as most of us non-celebrities would be with a camera in our face. That may be the magic he brings to his roles, a man uncomfortable with the expectations others have of him or those he has of himself. He is much like us.  He is for his generation what Jimmy Stewart was for his — our stand in.

There are actors — James Garner, Tom Hanks, Gene Hackman among them – who have an easy believability.  Harrison Ford is also one of those. He’s not Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale, an actor convincing us he’s Lincoln or a serial killer; but this guy, essentially the same guy he’s been in the last several movies, effortlessly it seems, convinces us that Harrison Ford is not the character, but that the character is Harrison Ford. And he’s damned good at it.

Instead of going for Indiana Jones, Hans Solo, or Jack Ryan, characters he helped make icons, there are several films that are especially well done thrillers: Frantic, Witness, and Presumed Innocent. They are well worth your time. Then there are those in which Ford adds just enough to standard fare, making what might otherwise be a mere modest evening’s entertainment an enjoyable adventure.  Here are two:

Air Force One — If one wanted to learn how to put together a thriller, he or she would do well to study Air Force One.  The bones of the movie’s structure are entirely visible. It’s about a nice guy, former war hero, his lovely wife and daughter whom he loves.  Make him the leader of the free world and put the lives of that world and his lovely family in constantly changing yet increasing jeopardy. Next, once this thing takes off (plane and story) don’t let anyone take a breath. Add lots of patriotism, including a stern President Harrison Ford telling villainous Russian Gary Oldman, in Reagan-like tones, “Get Off My Plane.” Nothing new here. However this is a solidly made film that does what it sets out to do and you will watch it on the edge of your seat while you moan at its predictability and overwrought patriotism. Directed by Wolfgang Peterson, this 1997 film also features Glenn Close, Dean Stockwell, William H. Macy and Paul Guilfoyle.

The Fugitive — This is a story thrice told. It is based, however loosely, on real life story in which a physician is accused of killing his wife. The reporting of of the crime and trials were sensationalized and formed the basis for the wildly popular TV series starring David Janssen and making the “one-armed man” a regularly used phrase to create doubt in an excuse or alibi. In film as in the TV series, to prove his innocence he must be free to find the actual murderer. But the main pursuer is no idiot and he has resources the lonely runner does not. It is cat and mouse all the way. Who knows why anyone would try to top the TV show? But producer Roy Huggins and his crew did so in a remarkably successful way.  The 1993 movie, with Harrison as fugitive Dr. Kimble accused of the crime, goes on the run and the rest is cinematic history. This was a huge box office triumph and whatever negative criticism surfaced was buried in the film’s success. In the end The Fugitive not only made tons of money, but was also nominated for seven Academy Awards, with Tommy Lee Jones winning Best Supporting Actor for his role as the chaser in this thrilling chase movie. Andrew Davis directed.

If you’re having a mixed drink, nothing too sweet.  Think about Scotch and water, soda or on the rocks.  These are old-fashioned thrillers.  They will keep you wide awake without taxing the gray matter.  If you’re going alcohol free, I’ve found tonic with a bit of lemon to have the right touch.  It’s not wrong to have popcorn and Coke with these two.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Film – One Fan’s Top Twenty Crime Films, Forward To The Past

In the glow of the Academy Awards, I wanted to do something that was both crime fiction and film-related, but I’ve seen too few of the current award contenders. I retreated to the past. Though I realize I have no special standing other than being a long-time fan, here is a revised list of my favorite crime films, most of them written about on this blog during the last four or five years.

1. Blade Runner — Is it possible for a robot to have a soul? Director Ridley Scott builds a fantastic marriage of noir and science fiction. Just as L.A. Confidential recreates the recent past, Blade Runner creates a believable near future. (Based on the novel, Do androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick)
2. No Country for Old MenHeads or Tails, die now or later. It makes no difference — whatever you do, evil stalks you and yours. The typical Coen Brothers dark humor rides a desolately bleak thin line as the movie tells us there is no escaping evil or the collateral damage it brings. (Based on a book by Cormac McCarthy).
3. Gosford Park This is an Agatha Christie tale on steroids, though it was not based on an Agatha Christie story. Before he created television’s continuing compulsion “Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes created Gosford Park, a kind of murder-in-the-parlor mystery that tops the cozy sub-genre. Robert Altman directs a sterling cast.
4. Fargo — The Coen Brothers do it again and again. They can make you believe in the absurd. Unlike No Country, Fargo’s dark humor is laugh out-loud. The people are so real and yet what they do is so insane. That’s why we laugh. It’s so true.
5. The GodfatherThis is the standard against which “mafia” movies are measured. However, it is much more than that. Francis Ford Coppola sets up the relativity and the complexity of right and wrong in a powerful, richly told tale that transcends genre. (Based on the bestselling book by Mario Puzo).
6. The Maltese FalconWhat can I say? As a mystery writer favoring private investigator fiction, this just might be as good as it gets. Unlike the uneven screenplays based on Raymond Chandler’s classics, this Hammett genre tale directed by John Huston may be the first best private eye film, perfectly rendered.
7. The Talented Mr. Ripley (also Purple Noon) The second version is the American film, starring Matt Damon and directed by Anthony Minghella; while Purple Noon is the same film done earlier by the French with Alain Delon and directed by René Clément. Both are excellent portraits of the charming, ingenious sociopathic Ripley. The films are intricate, fun, and stylish. Cynicism at its best. Timeless. Ripley’s Game, with John Malkovich as Ripley, is also a fine crime film. (Based on novels by Patricia Highsmith)
8. L.A. Confidential You can choose to watch a movie made in the 1950s. Or you can watch a 1950s film from the perspective of the late 1990s. Oddly, the rear-view mirror approach in this case gives us cinematography not available in the fifties. It was directed by Curtis Hanson, based on the novel by James Ellroy.
9. The Kennel Club Murder Case  William Powell stars as Philo Vance giving us an unintentional preview of his famous characterization of Nick Charles in the popular, light-hearted Thin Man series. The movie was based on the novel by S. S. Van Dine. It was directed by Michael Curtiz and costarred Mary Astor.
10. ChinatownRoman Polanski may be one of the most underrated directors by American critics. However, this film shows up on nearly everyone’s list. There’s no question about its qualifications. It’s Los Angeles a couple of decades after L.A. Confidential. Being a cop in L.A. doesn’t get you a ticket to heaven. (A lesser-known Polanski film, Frantic, is also well-worth watching.)

11. Atlantic City — Burt Lancaster proves he was more than a big star — he was a fine actor. This is an unlikely, unpredictable and some would say “quirky” film about a gangster sent out to pasture. Directed by Louis Malle and written by John Guare.
12. Key Largo — Edward G. Robinson steals the movie from Bogart and Bacall, though it wasn’t fun seeing the old gangster in a bathtub, it’s a work of art. Black and white never looked better. Directed by John Huston and based on the play by Maxwell Anderson.
13. Laura — Gene Tierney (no relation, unfortunately) may have been the draw, but Clifton Webb makes a good and mysterious film extraordinary. Vincent Price and Dana Andrews also appear. Directed by Otto Preminger, and based on the book by Vera Caspary.
14. Red Rock WestOf all the definitions of noir — and I admit a bit of confusion — this one seems to hit all the marks. One bad, desperate, but seemingly harmless decision leads to trouble, followed by more trouble.  Directed by John Dahl. For those who love to disparage Nicholas Cage, forget about it.  He’s great in this one. Dennis Hopper is also featured.
15. Blood and WineIt’s worth watching if for no other reason than to see Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson compete for the nastiest character in an entertainingly nasty film. Directed by Bob Rafelson.
16. The Good ThiefA sometimes dark, sometimes hilarious and often sexy caper movie. No one could have played the thief better than Nick Nolte. Directed by Neil Jordan, the film was based on Bob le flambeur by Jean-Pierre Melville and Auguste Le Breton. The rare appearance of actress Nutsa Kukhianidze is a plus.
17. Rififi – Perhaps this should be higher on the list. Directed by American Jules Dassin, but based on a book by French author Auguste Le Breton, this meticulous heist film loses nothing in translation and is no doubt inspired by and an inspiration for US. Noir films of the 1950s.  It stars Jean Servais.
18. Twilight This is a small, but well-constructed film that may be the last best P.I. film. Add to this Paul Newman, James Garner, Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon in masterful late-in-life performances, and you have a jewel. Directed by Robert Benton.
19. To Catch a ThiefMany of Alfred Hitchcock’s films are arresting, fascinating, and could be on this list. But none, in my opinion, combine acting, story and setting in as polished a way as To Catch A Thief, based on the book by David F. Dodge.

20. Point Blank — Lee Marvin dominates this near-perfectly rendered and unexpectedly stylish film directed by John Boorman. Point Blank was based on Richard Starke’s (Donald Westlake) book, The Hunter.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Film Pairings — Two Excellent Films Reluctantly Recommended

I put these two on the list because I had been ignoring foreign films and these crime garnered several awards. I put off watching them because they were about pedophilia.  I’ll admit I usually avoid movies with a lot of on-screen violence and especially those involving children or dogs.  A wimp, I know.  I also know it’s called fiction and what the characters do is called acting.  Even so, I had a moment early in each film when my finger hovered over the “stop” button. In these two, on-screen violence is at a minimum, though the effect is nonetheless powerfully and sadly moving.

The Hunt There must be something in the Scandanavian air that keeps its storytellers from rushing things.  This Danish film takes its time, slowly revealing character before getting to the heart of the matter.  Patience is rewarded with nuanced performances examining a sensitive subject. Has a young girl been molested?   And what does the mere suspicion of this emotionally charged crime do to the suspect? The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg and starring Mads Mikkelsen was released in 2012 and went on to gather a number of international awards.

The Silence
The Silence In this German film, the question isn’t whether a crime has been committed, but if the perpetrators can be caught. The Silence, in a way, is the flip side of The Hunt. Because the film begins with the crime and the two men who committed it, it is not a spoiler to reveal that one is a hardened pedophile and the other is confused by his own feelings and even more perplexed by the actions of his violent friend. One is reminded throughout the film of the toll such crimes take on everyone involved, from family and friends to the police.  The Silence was released in 2010 and also won several international awards.  It was based on the novel, Das Schweigen by Jan Costin Wagner.  Directed by Baron bo Odar, the film features a strong cast.

If you approach film only as an escape from the drudgery or the horror of our lives and the visions brought to us by the six o’clock news, you may wish to pass on these. There are billion dollar blockbusters out there that will take you to galaxies far away. If you wish to try to understand the nature of our little species, these two may prove worthwhile.  For an evening accompaniment, the Danes might suggest you try Akavit, distilled from potatoes, to help you through The Hunt.  For those who avoid alcohol, how about egg coffee? Beer of course will work with both the Danish and German films.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

On Writing — Anatomy Of A Murder Mystery

We go back to our favorite mystery writers because they are predictable in the same way we go to good friends.  We know what to expect from each.  They are reliable. We know what to expect from Miss Marple and from Bosch, Spenser, and Robicheaux.  We settle in and quickly call up how we see them and the regulars who appear with them. It’s comfortable.  But it’s not only the main characters who provide reliability.  It’s the mood the writer creates, and it is, and perhaps we readers are less likely to see it, how the story is constructed – its architecture. If I were crass, I’d call it formula. That may be harsh. Maybe it’s a mood surrounding the meat of the story.

In some cases, the bloodletting takes place off stage and in some series, it’s in your face.  In some cases the main character’s backstory is essential (the number of divorced ex-alcoholic protagonists is remarkable).  And the reader not only follows the crime solving, but also the battle the protagonist has with his or her past. Still, some of our favorites have very thin backstories. “Bond, James Bond.”

I’d add, in terms of architecture, not all mysteries are mysteries.  The stories of Colombo aren’t mysteries in the purest sense (my sense, anyway). We follow the dowdy detective as he goes up against a brilliant antagonist. We are happy to watch him solve the case, wiping the smirk off the perpetrator’s face, but we know from the first who did it.  Jack Reacher’s crime solving isn’t his dominant feature. More likely we observe and endorse as he gives villains their violent due.  It’s a high-five kind of moment. Miss Marple, on the other hand, is a character in genuine, perhaps I should say “traditional” mysteries. She solves crimes and as the story unfolds, the reader is allowed to match wits, follow the clues and attempt to beat the legendary snoop to the endgame.

Whatever our favorite writers give us, we want more. Though it does happen (Marple and Poirot) it’s not that often a popular series writer will have two equally popular series, or for that matter be extremely successful with standalone crime fiction. To me, that’s not a measure of talent, but a statement of the needs of the reading audience.  It’s a marketing issue.  But it is real.

A personal note: I used to have a particular fan who would email me after completing a book of mine to give me her thoughts about it. I enjoyed her comments.  At the end of the email, she would name the book that was next on her list. She had gone through a number of, though not all, the Shanahan books when she said that Eclipse of the Heart was next. Eclipse was a standalone mystery book of mine that was quite a bit different from the Shanahans. I never heard from her again.  

I rededicated myself to the Shanahan series.  The character was far from a household word, but he and Maureen had a decent following. I look at it as a kind of blue-collar Nick and Nora Charles. Some humor, some strange characters set against an Indianapolis backdrop. Not hardboiled and maybe a bit less fluffy than Hammett’s fun crime couple, my stories could get dark, but never ended by destroying all hope.  The sun would likely come up the next day.  And readers liked Maureen as much or more than Shanahan. I’ve always enjoyed those books

Standalone novel (out of print)
I can’t speak for all writers or any other writer for that matter, but there is something especially exciting about starting a story with a clean slate.  New characters, new setting, new architecture. Even though Eclipse didn’t leap to The New York Times Best sellers list, I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. It was a working vacation. I don’t believe St. Martin’s Press made a bundle on this series departure. I don’t think they took a bath either.

A few years back, I decided to take another break from the Shanahans. I wrote two books, both very different. I was unable to place the one I thought was the most accessible and was, I was sure, the “big” book, my agent at the time begged for. The second departure was very different.  Very dark.

Instead of a private eye as a central figure, it is a police procedural about a serial killer. We meet the serial killer early on. We witness the pursuit.  But just when we think it isn’t a traditional mystery because we’ve met the serial killer, we discover something is amiss.  It is a mystery after all.  And, unlike my other novels the end is not a full reprieve for anyone. We wonder, perhaps, if justice can ever be done.  This is a  “no, no” for some crime fiction readers. Psychologically, the sun might not come up tomorrow.

Standalone (The quiet outlier)
Of the 11 Shanahans and six other mysteries published so far, Good To The Last Kiss is an outlier. I spent months researching serial killers. I read books about the psychology of those who commit those kind of crimes and I listened to confession tapes made by those who did the crimes.  I also interviewed San Francisco homicide inspectors.  I worked on it with a passion. The truth is I became obsessed and depressed. When the first draft was completed, people who act as my early sounding boards were uncharacteristically silent about how they felt about it. They seemed shocked.

My first submission of Kiss met with a long, angry rejection from an editor I had successfully worked with in the past. The objections (San Francisco was an “overused setting” and “serial killers were passé”) didn’t hold water. If those were the real reasons, there wouldn’t have been such anger. There would have been that familiar phrase that many of us have heard too often: “I’m sorry, your manuscript, though well-written, is not right for us at this time.”  When the book was finally published, it was as if it fell into a hole.  There were no reviews. No mentions anywhere.  As they say, “no buzz.”  No sound. A stone in a pond would have at least a ripple or two.  In this case, there wasn’t even a plop.

Perhaps, referring to the notion that a series book is like visiting an old friend, and that readers who expected a familiar Shanahan in this case, climbed in bed and snuggled up to a stranger, perhaps a scary stranger.

There was a small but meaningful relief from the silence surrounding the book I worked the hardest to write and felt the most passionate about.   Someone felt it was worthwhile.

Review: Good To The Last Kiss
Tierney serves up a dark, twisty little gem in which a pair of embittered detectives and a not-quite-dead victim combine irresistibly…. Every year the genre has its Goliaths, bigger and better ballyhooed than this modest entry. Come Edgar time, however, Tierney's well-written, tidily plotted, character-driven David of a book deserves to be remembered. — Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2011 

Remembered?  Probably not. The end did not promise the next day’s sunrise.  The bow was left untied. From a marketing point of view I understand that I failed to live up to expectations, not necessarily of crime fiction in general, but for those expecting the dogged, curmudgeonly detective, Deets Shanahan. However I do not regret writing it. I wanted to write a book from a different point of view. Sometimes you write the book that you need to write. But if you do, be prepared to accept the consequences.

This year is bittersweet.  The last Shanahan novel will be released on May 1. Renewed passion went into Killing Frost as well, perhaps because it is the last of a 25-year run.  In the fall, my version of a cozy (in novella form) will be released. Another outlier.   

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Film Pairings — One Smart Nasty, One Sleazy Nasty

Dorothy Parker once said, “If you can’t say anything nice, come sit by me.” Both of these movies have nothing nice to say about its characters or humanity in general. No one is nice.  No one. It is a cynical double feature for those in the mood for cynicism.

The Two Faces Of JanuaryPatricia Highsmith’s novels have proven to be a rich source for cinema.  Strangers on a Train, the three Ripley movies and this one, The Two Faces of January.  Hossein Amini directed the three principal actors, Viggo Mortenson, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac in this 2014 tale of two male con artists, a beautiful woman and a suitcase full of money.  Grittily set in Greece and Turkey, we watch the shift of power as all three attempt to outsmart the authorities and each other.  This is one of those smart, small films you’ll only see on platforms like Netflix.  I don’t have a problem with big budget, action packed, technologically pumped up blockbusters. But I am pleased that low budget, difficult to distribute little jewels like this have a way to get to us.

The Bag Man — What a strange film. Some might conclude that this is a morality tale in which an evil genius toys with a fool who sticks by his principles when they are the very characteristics that are used to dupe him. Unfortunately I expected but didn’t get the moral of the story. Perhaps that is it — nothing to get — in a noir perspective.  The French called this movie Cat in The Bag. In some countries it was released as The Motel.  The 2014 film is dark, violent and at times flirting with the horror genre and at others inexplicably surreal. For me the saving grace amidst the gratuitous bloodletting is Brazilian actress Rebecca Da Costa, who, if she had a sleeve, would have something up it. (what?). No matter, she is the beauty, brains and the best reason to watch the movie.  John Cusack, plays a character he’s played well a few times before while Robert De Niro and Crispin Glover do what they do without breaking a sweat.   The dark and sleazy film was directed by David Grovic. 

For the first film, ouzo maybe.  For the second, bring a blanket to the sofa before you settle in. Depending on your attitude, you could be happy with a whiskey on the rocks or a cup of hot chocolate.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Rant — Lies, Lies And Damned Lies

First, don’t believe anyone sitting in front of a computer who tells you “It will only be a second.”  

My brother dropped me off at the bank while he did some business at the drug store.  We are both old, impatient and we try to keep our lives simple because we don’t do well with complexity, physical or mental.

“All I have to do,” I told my brother, “is close an account.”  The deceit, it turned out, was in the “all.” I went to the bank teller’s window, pulled out two check books. “I want to close this one and put what’s there into this one.”  It was simple.  I thought I needed an account for my personal stuff and one for business.  It turned out to be a hassle and my business was about as far from high finance as one could get. One account would do. Couldn’t a teller accomplish that simple task?

No.  I had to go talk to a guy in a suit at a desk.  “I’ll just be a second,” he said, sitting down, keys clicking, eyes squinting at his computer. He had questions.  “Everything’s the same,” I told him.”  I hadn’t changed my name ever, or my address, or email address, or phone number in 25 years. Nonetheless his response was a lot of clicks on the keyboard and more questions and do I want this or that.  “No, no, this is easy,” I repeated.  “I want to close this account and put the balance in this one.  That’s all.” I wanted a nap too, but I kept that to myself.

“This will take just a second.”   Click, click.  While he clicked and squinted, a conservatively dressed woman walked up to us.  The guy stood up.  I stood up.  My mother raised me right.   “This is Miss ‘So-and So.’ She’s the branch manager.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, trying to figure out why we would need a branch manager.  I’d already graduated to a guy in a suit.  Were these people merely lonely?

The manager and I shook hands and eyed each other.  I remembered from a past life that business people exchanged business cards.  But I didn’t have any. We’d have to forgo the ritual.

There was not a lot to say.  I looked around for my brother.  Since I wasn’t at the counter or sitting out in the open I feared he had returned, didn’t see me and went on.  

“Are you being treated well?” she asked.

“Yes.”  More silence.  Was I supposed to ask about her family?

“Just trying to simplify my accounts,” I said trying to bridge the awkward quiet.  I already knew, in my heart, that wasn’t going to happen.  I thought maybe they were stalling while they checked with the feds. Maybe there was a local bank robber who dressed up as an old geezer and beat people with his cane. I leaned my cane against the desk to lower the tension just in case. My mere presence is known to have made made children cry and run away.

The woman and I continued to look at each other for a while until she realized there was nothing to talk about. I suppose I could have complimented her on her scarf, but I worried about my brother worrying about me and decided not to do anything that would further slow the process down.  She excused herself.  The guy in the suit sat down.  So did I.

“Just be a second,” he said.  Again he was clicking and looking at the screen. “We’re going to make this easy for you. You won’t have to change your password.”


“Or your PIN number.”

“Why would I?”  I was keeping my personal account.

“We’re opening a new account.  Just a minute.  It won’t take long.”

“I just want to close….”

“We’re opening an account that will be the account under which your personal account will be.  It will make you a VIP."

A VIP, Curmudgeon Or Bank Thief Suspect?
“So by this time tomorrow, I’ll be more important than I am now?”

He laughed uneasily, going through Wagner’s Ring Cycle on his keyboard. I stood up briefly to see if I could spot my brother.  He is a worrier.  He was probably wandering the sidewalk in front or the parking lot in back, questioning clerks in other stores, thinking that I may have had a heart attack or something.

“I just wanted to simplify my account,” I said

“It’s better now.  It’s nearly all set up.”  Click, click, click.  More clicks. He was on a roll.

“I didn’t realize it would take so long,” I said.  “I have someone waiting.” Now I was going well past perturbed and ramped up to high-voltage worry about my brother panicking and calling the police to help him search for my body.

“Just a second,” the man said.  Click click click. “We’re getting this all straightened out.  You’re getting the VIP status. Click, click, click.  He slid his chair back near the giant printer and we waited until a couple of sheets spat out.  He looked them over — a man concerned with detail.  I was ready to bolt.  I stood.

I looked for security. Would I be shot before I hit the door? I saw my brother. He wasn’t happy to see me. It would have been better if I were found sprawled out between cars in the parking lot.

“We’re done,” the man in the suit said. He had some sort of exit speech that trailed off as I departed. I started to breathe and thought, well at least it’s done. And soon the two of us old geezers could make a break for it.

The next day I checked the accounts on my computer. The account that was supposed to be closed wasn’t.  The balance wasn’t transferred. I transferred it. (duh) A couple of days later I received a new debit card.  I have no idea whether it replaces the old one or if it’s connected to the strange, additional master account that makes me a VIP.  A day after that I received an envelope from the bank. It had tabs and stickum and instructions in microscopic gray print that could only be read by a jeweler and opened by someone with an advanced engineering degree.  Inside was my NEW PIN number. I didn’t want a new card, a new PIN number, a new account.

Any attempt at simplification only complicates things.