Sunday, May 31, 2015

Commentary – If You’re Under 40, Don’t Read This:

Someone I know very well, someone a few years older than I am, often tells young, vital humans “don’t get old.” Great advice if the alternative weren’t so dire.  He also likes to warn those who have yet to experience the downside of advancing age about all those things that begin to go wrong — The end of endurance, the forgetfulness, the diminishing power of the senses, etc.  “They need to know,” he says.  He means well.  He wants to warn them.  It’s a slippery road ahead. So much of it surprised him and he’s pissed off no one told him what to expect, dangerous curves and soft shoulders being what they are.

If he wasn’t told, it was and is an observable phenomenon if only we would pay attention. If we want to pay attention, that is.  I don’t think that at 25 we wanted to be warned.  We simply refuse to register the signs of aging that are always around us and applying those observations to our own lives, especially when we are in our twenties going about our business, bouncing off our hormones and then trying to live up to the promises we made when we sought a mate and possibly mated and created a few future old people. And then…and then…  after the career pressure lessens, we slow down and start noticing things. A little soreness in our knees, maybe. Some reading specs for the tiny print on prescription containers.  If you are under forty and would prefer to keep your likely future a surprise, you may wish to Google Disneyland or rent Cocoon.

Things That Happen When You Get Old

You drop things.  This leads to frustration and you do not pick up whatever you dropped until you drop something else in roughly the same place.  Eventually it leads to piles of clutter that must be kicked off the main paths of your domicile. Clear passage to the bathroom is essential.

You realize that the greatest invention of all time isn’t the printing press. Forget what you learned on “Jeopardy.” The answer is “What are scissors, Alex?”  Scissors are the greatest invention of mankind. Rubber bands come in second. Canes, though we try to avoid them for as long as we can, are third.

You watch “Jeopardy.”

Because you’re old, you sometimes get preferential treatment and that makes you angry.  And sometimes you don’t get preferential treatment, and that makes you angry.

You are often invisible until your less than speedy pace slows down the more energetic of the species. Those who pass you give off an ephemerally hateful vibe you silently scream at them:  “May you spend an eternity in Galapagos!”

You discover that all of nature’s creatures are more alike than we thought.  Just like whales, you have all sorts of strange growths that appear on your body. Kind of like barnacles. Those that are visible fascinate and frighten children.  Also, you lose a lot of hair, but the hair now grows in strange places and really fast.

You drift off just as that story you really wanted to see comes on the News Hour, and you wake up when it’s over.  “Back to you, Gwen.”

You find out you have made it on every telemarketer’s favorite call list. And somehow they know all about you, especially how old you are. They call you by name.  They seem genuinely interested in your life and happiness until you realize that you are engaged with a computer endowed with a low-level of artificial intelligence.  They continue to talk despite that fact you yell at them with the worst words your faulty, little mind will come up with. You strangle the phone only to discover you have reset the date and time and you don’t know how to fix it. Poetic, isn’t it? Upset, you connect to the blood pressure machine and learn you should be dead. It doesn’t matter. It will all happen again tomorrow.  The telemarketers call several times, usually when you are in the shower, have something in a frying pan or while you are dreaming of your, happier younger self during an unscheduled but always welcomed nap.

When you go to the store to buy one thing, you come home with three things, none of them the thing you went to the store to get.

You believe someone is sneaking in when you aren’t looking. They hide the remote, the telephone and the scissors.

You occasionally answer the remote.

You find the phone when the telemarketer calls. She asks for your social security number because she wants to make sure it’s secure and no one is taking advantage of you.

You look at other old people and ask yourself if you look that old!

On the other hand, there are many wonderful things that happen as you age.  I wrote them down on a piece of paper. It’s here some place.  It couldn’t have gone anywhere.  Maybe the person who steals my scissors….

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Film Pairings  — Heading Out On The Cinema Back Roads

I have no problem with well-made mainstream, even formula films.  I like a few hours of pure escape from time to time.  I think Indiana Jones is one of the greatest B movies ever made, for example. But as regular readers of this blog (both of you) know, I also like off-the-wall cinema. Though I’m not attracted to gratuitous violence sex or blood and guts, I like taboo topics and quirky themes, and I especially like psychological thrillers.  What I expect though is what I’d expect from any good film — fine acting, a compelling story and professional though possibly unusual cinematography. The movies in the double feature I comment on here will make some squeamish, some flummoxed and some angry.  So, having read this, watch the films at your own risk.

Several posts back I posted film commentary on films by Joseph Gordon-Levitt called “A Thousand Shades of Crazy.” Eddie Redmayne, like Gordon-Levitt, is now a certifiable top-list actor. Though their charms are different, both were fiery comets from the beginning, often playing deeply troubled young men. I reviewed one of Redmayne’s early films in this post.  Here are two other of Redmayne’s early works.

Tom Sturridge And Eddie Redmayne
Murderous Intent:  There is a sense that the bones of the drama are vey much like the current glut of mythical/romantic tales of vampires and legends and destiny and castles and blood. Tom Sturridge, in this British boys’ school drama, is cast as either a crazed loon or a descendant of an ancient tribe who must occupy his contemporary counterparts’ mind in order to realize the myth. That mind belongs to an already troubled schoolmate played by Eddie Redmayne.  It is destiny. Or it’s murder.  And the police have Redmayne’s rebellious character under arrest for the deaths of three likely killed by the eerie Sturridge character, including the eerie Sturridge character himself. Toni Collette helps steady the film as a valid crime drama despite its not quite integrated medieval roots.  She plays a forensic psychologist trying to help homicide sort things out. Gregory Read directed this 2006 film that, other than Redmayne’s extraordinary performance, needed a good bit more sorting. Setting this modern story against a Gothic boarding school background kept reminding us of the murky subplot. But for those up for a bit of a challenge, Murderous Intent, also known as Like Minds, is worth it. And it’s quite possible that the murkiness is a product of my own murky mind.

Julianne Moore And Redmayne
Savage Grace: This is a true story, though there is some dispute about some of the scenes. However the film about the heirs of the Bakelite fortune – the incest and murder aspects, anyway — is purportedly accurate. Redmayne plays the dangerously schizophrenic son of an absent father and a clueless mother, played by Julianne Moore. The film was based on the book of the same name, written by Natalie Robbins and Steven M. L. Aronson.  It was directed by Tom Kalin, and released in 2007. Kalin also directed Swoon, another psychological thriller based on a true story.

Many will find the two films add up to a disturbing evening  — each film for different reasons.  However, those viewers who appreciate masterful performances need to look no further than Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore.

To have at hand during the evening if you’re staying in might be some hearty red wine for the first of the two features. Because we move to a sunnier climate (and fewer clothes) for the second, maybe a white wine from Greece or Portugal. My new personal favorite non-alcoholic drink is merely a chunk of lemon or lime with tonic.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Commentary — Politically Correctness In Popular Culture

I just finished reading a thread of responses that followed a story on Hollywood and its propensity for casting young actresses as the love interest of characters played by much older actors.  Apparently Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is 37, was told she was too old to play the love interest of a character who was 55. No one, I suspect, is surprised.  This has been going on since they’ve been making movies. The point of the article was to compare women’s acting careers and their pay against their male counterparts. It is fact and easily observable: Leading men have longer, more lucrative careers than leading women. This is another variation on equal pay for equal work for women with age thrown in for good measure.
Hepburn and Cooper in Love In The Afternoon

I remember puzzling over Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon.  He was 56 when the film was made.  She was 28.  Clark Gable was 60 and Marilyn Monroe, 35, when The Misfits was released. When Dark Passage was made in 1947, Humphrey Bogart was 48 and Lauren Bacall was 23. Certainly, Cary Grant, and more recently Harrison Ford have had a fountain of youth careers, while most leading actresses, once they reach a certain age, no longer lead – Harold and Maude being a notable exception.

I can’t imagine Hollywood executives getting together premeditatively barring older actresses from certain roles based on anything other than their desire to maximize box office revenues, which means, if that is correct, the problem of inequity is in the marketplace and Hollywood is only exploiting it as they do everything else.  It is what the market wants.  Or is it?

My guess is that this kind of casting is based on groundless  speculation that has become conventional wisdom.  

I’m not sure it’s politically correct to be politically correct these days.  But in my writing I’ve tried to make sure that my work fairly reflects the world it encompasses, while staying engaged in reality. For example, I avoid stereotypes. To me this is not only right morally but also leads to better characterization. Though it is not necessarily my job or Hollywood’s to take on social injustice, in my books there is usually some sort of social issue lurking about in the story, illuminating the plot, which is primarily dedicated the simpler process of finding a murderer.  It doesn’t hurt to be socially aware while we’re at it.

Monroe and Gable in The Misfits
Nonetheless, the Gyllenhaal story had me questioning my role in the seeming perception that a younger woman with an older man is condoned, while the reverse is somehow unacceptable. None of my books have made it to the big screen. However, my little Shanahan series contributes to the overall landscape as is everything that is portrayed in the entertainment arts. And in that series, the main characters are private eye Shanahan and realtor Maureen.  Shanahan is 30 years older than Maureen. The thing is: the age difference is an important part of their relationship. If they were ever portrayed in a film or on TV, I hope the casting director doesn’t try to make it age “appropriate” as some sort of outreach effort to make life fair.

Bacall and Bogart in Dark Passage
On the other hand, it seems to me that automatically insisting that women have an expiration date and men don’t is foolish.  It is a denial of reality for one thing.  And depending on the story, it is much like Hollywood did with Charlie Chan, casting caucasions in the role when there were no doubt many fine Chinese actors who could have played the part without the artificiality.  Who could forget — though we’d like to — John Wayne as Ghengis Khan? Or the grotesque performance of Mickey Rooney as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese neighbor in Breakfast At Tiffany’s?  The same thing applies to the age of the actors. Unless a vast age difference is part of the story or defines the characters, why wouldn’t a 55 year-old man find a woman who is 37 attractive?  Or a 55-year-old woman?

I think Hollywood learned from the John Wayne and Mickey Rooney debacles, but Hollywood producers should also take a look at the way it stereotypes its actors and the presumption that the public won’t accept 37 as sexy. That being said, my concern isn’t that significant age differences in relationships are inherently wrong or that they shouldn’t be portrayed, but that denying work to qualified applicants based on a woman’s age is sexist and ageist.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Film Pairings —Pierce Brosnan: One Comedy, One Not So Funny

Salma Hayek With Brosnan
I’m a Pierce Brosnan fan. Not obsessive, but I have the sense that if he is in a film, while it may not be a classic, it will be entertaining.  Ghost Writer, and Matador were examples of Brosnan at his best. For me – and I know how debated this is – he made a fine Bond, splitting the difference between Sean Connery’s earthy and Roger Moore’s tongue-in-cheek portrayals.  The two Brosnan movies tonight do not tap any deeper level of acting skill than a Bond film requires, and the movies will not give you any greater understanding of the universe, but if you are looking for an escape from the daily grind you could do far worse:

After The Sunset — Lots of fun.  We have a charming diamond thief, a beautiful and smart woman, a rogue FBI Agent, an exotic local island, a quirky local gangster and an extremely desirable diamond.  In addition to Brosnan, we have Salma Hayek, Woody Harrelson and Don Cheadle, all of whom perform admirably in roles that fit well, but are not especially demanding. Released in 2004, this heist comedy was directed by Brett Ratner.

Brosnan As The November Man
November Man — The film opens in a sunny seaside town. In moments, the fun is over. This is a gritty violent, spy film. Reviews when it was first released in 2014 were not entirely favorable. That may be explainable.  It is not as splashy as a Bond film and not as subtle and wily as movies based on John le Carré novels. November Man, based on a series of spy novels by Bill Granger, falls somewhere in between and works just fine on a smaller screen. The story raises questions about the use of killing as part of the exercise of some larger justice. Pierce Brosnan is the central figure, an ex-spy lured back into the game to protect a loved one.  It wouldn’t be a spy plot if there weren’t enough twists and betrayals to fill a couple of hours and keep us guessing. Turns out we can’t trust the Russians or the Americans. Who knew?  Directed by Roger Donaldson, the cast includes fine performances by Luke Bracey as an ambitious young CIA agent who sees Brosnan’s character variously as a hero and a devastating disappointment, and Olga Kurylenko as the hunted, the only one who is able to put all the pieces together.

If you want an accompaniment to the evening’s entertainment, something light and tropical (don’t forget the umbrellas) is suitable for After The Sunset. However you may wish to switch to something darker and more sinister for the November Man as the setting eventually moves from a lush tropical isle to a bleak Eastern Europe.  If your spirits need to be unspirited, switch from coconut water to a good, strong Coca Cola.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

On Writing – Not Ripped From The Headlines, But Stolen From The Ignored

Richard Burton and Peter Firth in Equus

Playwright Peter Shaffer wrote the award-winning Equus after reading a story about a young man blinding six horses. Disregarding what might have been the true motive, Shaffer instead created a fictional story in which a psychiatrist becomes a mind detective and the audience witnesses the tragedy of the cure being worse than the disease.  I didn’t see the play (the original or revival), but I have seen The Richard Burton- Peter Firth film version and it is stunning.

My point is that the news —and not necessarily those events that make the headlines – may answer the question readers often ask writers.  Where do you get your ideas? From life. Maybe even a filler story in your local paper. Though that is rarely my source, there was one very short news article that sparked the plot of a full-length novel. I wrote it without knowing the facts of the actual crime, but merely the premise. And that sparked the question, “how could this be true?”  And off I went.

There is one recent news story out there that should have been big news and seems like the basis for a fine high-society, British-style mystery by a writer knows his or her way around families like the Rockefellers.   The Waltons have the money, but not the pedigree. Nor do the Kochs. However, there are so many angles to the transplant story and the legendary family that it could be the source of several mysteries.

I can’t say the Rockefeller heart story was ignored.  After all, it wasn’t all that far under the stack of “if it bleeds, it leads” new stories.  Several sources pop up when Googled.  It’s true.  It’s fantastic. I am amazed that it didn’t receive more attention, especially while our country is engaged in a heated political battle over economic inequality. Six hearts, for goodness sake. I’m not saying he’s wrong to receive them. But it says a lot about the way our country works. The issue, not Rockefeller specifically, just the luck and the largesse of it, promises to be the central focus of the 2016 presidential campaigns.

Six Hearts And Holding
Yes, David Rockefeller, 99, has received six new hearts, so far. The latest transplant surgery was performed at his home. He is now recuperating on his private island.  His nearly $3 billion in self-worth has its roots in family ties to Standard Oil and Chase Bank. His family name is a synonym for rich and powerful.

Being a touch cynical as I am, I wonder what keeps him going. Perhaps it is just a fiery, passionate spirit for life, perhaps a desire to make sure his philanthropic philosophy is adhered to, or to piss off aging and frustrated family members who feel they’ve waited long enough. Certainly there are a number of Rockefellers eager to be the family matriarch or patriarch. Also, any number of foundations that are on the bequest list might be impatient for that chunk of promised dough.

Meanwhile, the sheer number of hearts as an example of what the super-wealthy can buy provokes all sorts of public arguments over the haves and have nots. What a background for a murder drama. Aren’t most murder mysteries morality plays?

I have no personal animus toward the senior Mr. Rockefeller. Get well, David.  However some clever mystery writer should use this remarkable story as grist for the mill.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Commentary — Fiction, Art, Music: Perchance To Dream Or Live In Another World

I’ve wandered into this territory before.  I understand dreams that feature family and friends and other people who are major players in our lives.  I am amazed, however, at the mechanism that puts them together in some sort of narrative. I often enjoy the experience even when the stories are surreal and often try to make sense of what the subconscious stitched together. Is there a way to interpret dreams to provide meaning or gain insight into our lives? Unfortunately, the ephemeral little stories easily slip from my grasp.

I also love those moments when I spend time with my dog Casey, though he’s been gone now quite a few years.  It’s always a pleasant visit. My old Karmann Ghia returns regularly. And sometimes the theater is mind blowing in an — excuse me – awesome way. Blockbuster dreams, with special effects that seem to defy the laws of physics.

On the other hand I am completely mystified by the appearance of people in these nighttime dramas whom I’ve never met, yet they have full-blown personalities and we somehow interact in places I’ve never been.

We are likely unaware of the many messages our brains receive while we are doing something else.  I suspect we take in scents, fleeting peripheral images, the brief breeze on our skin and bites of sound that go directly to the subconscious. These too must be processed and quite likely they are stored in some fashion.  Maybe they too are retrieved and thrown into the mix when the Brain Studio composes and releases its nightly productions.

As a fiction writer I’ve consciously made up people and places and events. While I may have, from time to time, borrowed traits from existing humans and certainly real-life settings, I seem to make others up out of whole cloth or at least I thought I did.  Flattering myself now, I’ve done so at least somewhat convincingly at times.  So, why is it a stretch to accept these appearances of previously unknown characters in my dreams? Perhaps they come from the collection of those inadvertent, consciously unrecorded sensations.

I suppose because my mind is writing books somewhat consciously, the ego says, “I did it.” But, while we dream, the brain creates the characters, fixes the time, determines the setting and puts the events in motion without my conscious intervention. In a sense, “I didn’t do it. My brain did it.”

If it can do that, what else can it do on its own or without my so-called conscious direction? This says we are not solely our conscious selves, the self we know.  We are also someone whom, to a greater or lesser extent, we don’t know.

Obviously, this other mind, sub mind, alter ego – call it what you will – is capable of making choices, perhaps piecing together snippets of sensations we weren’t aware we were experiencing and, in turn, creating a world that not only seems foreign to us, but is.  Is it possible, then, for that other (alter, sub) to take over?

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, also known as multiple personality) is not new and it is controversial. Many respected researchers and academics discredit DID as a legitimate mental illness. For those who do accept it, the diagnosis is often reserved for those who have experienced childhood abuse or who have been victims of other extreme circumstances in which disassociation is an act of self-preservation.  My little commentary isn’t meant to jump into this particular fray, though fiction (mystery, thriller, horror) writers have found fertile ground here.

Instead, my comments are meant to help me flesh out a fictional character in a book I’m working on. This has been an exercise in purposefully tapping my subconscious and trying to figure out why he may have the doubts he has about about who or what is controlling his actions. Writers might ask this question about his or her work. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Film Pairings – Living And Dying By The Code

We are our minds and captives of our lands, our culture and the stories we are told — at least those we believe.  Deadly Code (also released as Siberian Education), and The Drop show humans who cannot get beyond the limits of the code of the culture that shaped them. One film is set in the foreign country of Siberia, the other in a foreign place known as Brooklyn.

If author Dennis Lehane didn’t like The Drop, he would have no one to blame but himself.  He wrote the short story on which it was based, wrote the screenplay for the film and then a novel by the same name based on the movie. He squeezed every drop from the plot, as well he should. The Drop is flawless.  It is dark, moody, surprisingly twisty with correspondingly top-notch acting and cinematography. Tom Hardy portrays an easy-to-forget bartender in a tough part of Brooklyn. He is seemingly under the control of failed gangster boss James Gandolfini in what unfortunately turned out to be the actor’s last role. Naomi Rapaceis is a woman trying to survive abuse. Michaël R. Roskam directed this tough, expertly crafted crime film released last year.

While The Drop inhabits the insular culture of Brooklyn, The Deadly Code takes us to a place far more foreign, but also bound by the code of its culture. This is a bleak look at an occupied people seeking to hold on to their identity in the midst of the clash.  It is a story that epitomizes the constant clash of cultures throughout the world — all little tribes, separated by their own stories of the truth. Fear and hate cause endless victimization and retaliation. Though there seems to be some debate about the specific truth of this particular story, there appears to be a larger truth that unsurprisingly the film, though thought-provoking as it is, doesn’t or can’t express) and certainly can’t solve. John Malkovich does a masterful job of being keeper of the moral principles and storyteller for the oppressed culture.  Gabriele Salvatores directed the film released in 2013 based on an unpublished novel by Nicolai Linin. The Deadly Code is a good film on every level and provides a glimpse into a world we rarely see.

To accompany the films, there’s no need for anything high-end.  I’m tempted to suggest you blend the endless down & out bar scenes of The Drop with the snowy Siberian weather and ramshackle villages of Deadly Code by suggesting stale popcorn and Vodka.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Book Notes — Killing Frost Released Today, Reviews Coming In

Blatant Self-Promotion:  Today is Launch Day.  This is the official release date for Killing Frost, Indianapolis P.I. Deets Shanahan’s last case. I apologize in advance for posting the news everywhere I can today. Some of you may get this more than once; but I promise to contain myself once the day is over.

The goal here is to sell books.  On the other hand, hardback prices are steep. Remember, your local library is your friend.  Let them know and they will get it for their collection and you can borrow it. If you’d like to purchase a copy and want to support your local, independent bookstore and it’s not on the shelf, they can order it for you. It’s also available through regular on-line booksellers as well.

In 1990, Stone Veil, my first Deets Shanahan mystery novel was nominated for a Shamus Award. Since then, there have been ten more novels in the series with positive nods along the way from The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Deadly Pleasures Magazine, The Houston Post, The Indianapolis Star, Mystery News, Thrilling Detective and The Library Journal.

Killing Frost celebrates Shanahan’s 11th mystery and caps the series in its 25th year.

Killing Frost — Synopsis

At seventy-two, Deets Shanahan, still reeling from brain surgery is ready to check out.’  But fate has other plans. As he waits for the arrival of a mysterious, unwanted, yet insistent new client, he spies a car pull in his driveway.  From his window, he sees a woman head toward his front door. This is the first time he sees her and the last time he sees her alive.
Her death leaves too many questions. What did she want with Shanahan? Why was she killed? And what can he, in his condition, do about it? Shanahan’s obsessive search for answers will uncover a disturbing trail of greed, lies, ambition, sibling rivalry and police corruption.
Twenty-five years ago Shanahan embarked on his first case. Killing Frost is likely his last, a touching story of age, infirmity — and love.

Killing Frost — Early Reviews

“The real prize here is the tone, which Tierney keeps expertly hovering between compassionate valediction and civic outrage.”  — Kirkus Reviews

“This entry is a tribute to human decency and one man’s refusal to give up in the face of age and inevitable physical deterioration.”  — Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

An Indianapolis native, I now live in San Francisco, the setting for a second P.I. series — the Paladino-Lang mysteries and for a new mystery novella, Blue Dragon, which will be released this fall. For more information visit