Saturday, December 26, 2015

Film Quadrupling — A Film Festival For The Pessimists

My most recent film festival post was about the light-hearted Thin Man films. I hope you enjoyed them because the party’s over.  Enough happy films. Let’s take a trip though Dystopia with the four Mad Max films, each a portrait of desolation and revenge. Masterfully directed or should I say choreographed by George Miller, these are the ultimate in motorized chases, explosions and brutality. Sadly, they seem to suggest where, as a society we are going with our increasingly dominant philosophy of survival of the fittest (or meanest).

Mad Max (1979) —Can’t miss this one.  This is the set up for all that follows. A young and still altruistic cop loses his wife and child to a gang of punked-out outlaws. The crime is senseless and all his focus is now on revenge. Whether or not you approve of Mel Gibson and whether or not an hour and half of relentless violence is an appealing way to spend an evening, this is a classic story and most likely an historically important film.  In this first Mad Max out of the chute, we witness digital-less filmmaking at its boldest.  The stunts are done by real people in real space and time. Gibson here, young and pretty, doesn’t say much and doesn’t need to. Events age him, harden him. But what’s left after revenge has been taken? The answer is in the second film. Max is all but dead.

Mad Max: Road Warrior (1981) — A tougher Mad Max has little more going for him than a basic instinct to survive. Though, in what reminded me of A Boy and His Dog, an earlier apocalyptic tale, Max now has a dog to ride with him on the barren landscape is search of gasoline. It’s a kind of  “we have to keep going to get gasoline so we can keep going to get gasoline kind of thing.  But it works.  In fact, this is my favorite of the quartet largely because it takes outlandish villainy to a new level.  Using the look of heavy metal and the symbolic manifestations of sado-masochism, the film has a unique and powerful look and feel.  What really makes this one stand out for me is the addition of a couple of fascinating characters. One is a slimy, slightly crazy crackpot who has built a  primitive helicopter and has taken a liking to Max.  The second is a feral kid, who steals any scene he’s in. Despite the body count, the movie comes to a fine, satisfying end.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) — This one is the outlier.  It has a different sensibility about it.  Yes, there are the usual chase scenes, brutal fights. Certainly there is evil to be righted, the least of which is Bartertown run by a corrupt boss played Tina Turner. But the movie seems dialed down. A little comedy had crept in to Road Warrior.  And it was welcomed.  However, the sustained intensity of action remained.  Here, I almost expected everyone to break out in song. Though certainly a competent, sometimes imaginative undertaking, unlike the others, Thunderdrome might not keep you on the edge of your seat.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — I would have really liked to see an aging Mel Gibson in this one.   In Gibson’s seeming exile, Tom Hardy took the role and pulled his weight as the suffering hero of few words. Very few words, in large part because he wore a metal grate mask for most of the action. The fact is this wasn’t Max’s movie, anyway.  It belonged to Carlize Theron as Furiosa, a fierce warrior who seeks to return to the all-woman Utopia she remembers from her youth. As all the Max films do, Fury Road plays on events in the real world, the brutal and endless fight among the great powers for water and oil. And its amazing how much the desert of Australia looks like those of the Mid East with all the primitive, barely post-industrial battles that go on there. At first glance, one might think it is current news footage from battles in Iraq.

One might also think that the best drink for these movies would be a can of 10W30.  It’s all about oil.  In the end, these are beer movies. Maybe a little sparkling lemonade for those experiencing a desert thirst but have to drive more civilly than the various tribes of road warriors.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Book Notes – News: Indianapolis Names Park After Noted Hoosier Writer

Kurt Vonnegut

When we think of great writers and where they’re from, we’re likely to think of New York or L.A., or perhaps “The South.” Many great storytellers came from below the Mason-Dixon line. Outside of Chicago, cities in the vast Midwest may not come to mind.  In Indianapolis, few writers have become celebrities.  Most likely we have our own roster of celebrities, most likely a bank robber or a basketball player – not that there is anything wrong with that.  But writers?  Not so much. I’m not sure what they thought when Indianapolis born Kurt Vonnegut and his strange relationship with reality and his powerful defiance in the face of convention first blew the lid off by becoming an international literary legend.

Booth Tarkington
We Hoosiers have a hard time identifying with the arts in general, it seems.  There is an area in Indianapolis known as Butler Tarkington, partly in honor of the university located there and Indiana writer Booth Tarkington who wrote The Magnificent Ambersons. This was a book and movie set in the city’s Woodruff Place when it was at its grandest. And there is a Riley this and a Riley that, alluding to poet James Whitcomb Riley, known for a kind of folksy poetry children are supposed to like, and sadly stereotypical of what it means to grow up in folksy Indiana, very different from Hoosier Dan Wakefield’s most known work, Going All The Way.

In the last few years, as Indianapolis seems to blossom, the city is finally taking note of its wordsmiths. The city hosts the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.  Much more needs to be done. However, in the last few days, the city park at 61st and Broadway has been named the Dan Wakefield Park. Wakefield, now 83, returned to his hometown to work on a book about his good friend, Vonnegut. A comprehensive and worthwhile story about this Hoosier native appeared in this Indianapolis alternative newspaper, NUVO News Weekly.

Dan Wakefield 

Congratulations to Dan Wakefield and to Indianapolis, a city that seems to be awakening to its own greatness.

Monday, December 14, 2015

On Writing – And Gender Pronouns

One of the many stories credited to the great Yogi Berra occurred while he was doing the color commentary on a televised baseball game: A couple of flashers ran across the field.  When asked whether they were male or female, Berra reportedly said,“I don’t know. They had bags over their heads.”

One of the changes in American and Euro-culture is how we regard sexual orientation. Another is gender recognition. It seems to me that the English (American) language accommodates orientation.  However we don’t do so well with gender.  Truth is: We never have. At a time when we are accepting people whose gender is in transition, has transitioned or will remain fluid or unidentified at the owner’s wish, why must we categorize it.  We don’t bother sorting out the genders of those who constitute a “they,” “their” or “them,’ why do we need to use an imprecise, misleading word to describe (usually a second reference anyway) an individual person.

In a case of better never than late, The Washington Post just announced that when the gender is unknown, it is journalistically acceptable to use “they” or “their,” rather than the awkward “him or her” or “his or hers,” or “he/she/them.”  The problem with this is that pluralizing a pronoun isn’t the same as referring to gender. This has been a problem with an informal broken-down solution for many years, but it strikes me there is a much better solution. Simply develop a gender-neutral set of short words for singular, gender-free pronouns.

Sadly, in this case, language doesn’t change like this. We let the use of language determine its correctness. It’s a natural evolution.  The same goes for words in dictionaries. We don’t make up words, put them in the dictionary and hope people use them. In high school a group of us wanted to see if we could invent a word. We came up with “fledge.” It would be a response to such questions as “what did you do all day?” Our answer would be an active version of “Just hanging out.” We moved around, did things, but in the end accomplished little. We flidged. We dropped that word into every conversation we had – for a while.

Are you familiar with the word?  Of course not.  But maybe, just maybe, a larger group – LGBT people, for example – could come up with something and start a campaign. If not, I’ve just spent a good part of an afternoon flidging.

Here is a related post   

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Film Pairing — How About A Nick And Nora Holiday Film Festival?

At least once a year, I watch all six Thin Man movies.  It is my own little festival.  I have a comfortable chair and a relatively large flat screen TV in my small apartment in San Francisco. I am the only festival attendee, so it’s just me, an orange and a bowl of popcorn.  

I don’t come to this subject with any particular expertise, no deep knowledge of Dashiell Hammett.  It’s as much nostalgic as anything else. When I was young these films were on the late-night movies that followed the local news.  A shamelessly self-promoting Indianapolis used car salesman who called himself “The King” hosted the program.  He stood in front of a blackboard (as high-tech as it got in those days) slashing prices on various automobiles as he yelled, “The King don’t care.”  Then we would go back to a grainy but charming Nick and Nora Charles and that wonderful blend of suspense and comedy, bright wit and dark shadows, the high life and the low life.  If that wasn’t the birth of my love for private eye stories, it certainly enhanced it. Such was the life of the young me in a hide-a-bed, with the black and white television flashing noirish shadows on the wall.

If you want to have your own holiday festival, here are the Nick and Nora Charles films in the order they were made, noting that Hammett had decreasing influence on the final cut and virtually none for the last couple of movies.

Nora, Asta, Nick
The Thin Man — This is the one that started them all, the one based on an actual Dashiell Hammett novel and made William Powell as Nick Charles and Myrna Loy as Nora Charles one of America’s favorite film couples.  The film has a Christmas-New Year’s holiday theme, though I’m happy to say, it’s nothing sappy.  Maureen O’Sullivan plays the only sane member of a crazy family and a young and debonair Cesar Romero plays a gigolo. What else?  The film is a fantastic reflection of the times.  We get a glimpse of post-depression, post-prohibition 1934.

After The Thin Man — This is one of my favorites.  One of the reasons is that the lovely couple return to San Francisco and also because it takes place on New Years Eve.  Jimmy Stewart co-stars. Look for the usual brawls, a few red herrings, a great nightclub in Chinatown, and glimpse of the city’s bustling Market Street of 1936.

Another Thin Man — Baby makes three.  Sheldon Leonard plays the heavy in this film set in Manhattan and Long Island. A creaky old mansion and creaky old people, says the creaky blogger, as well an elaborately designed murder and a slew of petty ante gangsters inhabit the whodunit.  Watch for the big production number.

Shadow Of The Thin Man — We’re back in San Francisco and off to the races. Donna Reed, Stella Adler and Barry Nelson are in the cast of this mystery featuring such characters as Spider Web and Rainbow Benny (they may be the same person, I’m not sure). Pay attention to the wrestling match scene.  Nice twist at the end.   This time the big brawl is at an Italian restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf.

The Thin Man Goes Home — Maybe because it’s the small town backdrop.  Maybe it’s because Nick has given up his martinis for apple cider and it seems to have turned him into Ozzie Nelson.  Whatever the cause, this is my least favorite.  While all the films offer some wonderful silliness, this one just seems contrived without redemption of a knowing wink.  If you had to cut one from this list, this would be it.  Otherwise, it’s worthwhile just to know you saw them all. 

Song Of The Thin Man — It’s nice the series didn’t end on a sour note. This one bounces back. New producers, directors and writers. Though the last couple of films were only based on “characters created by Dashiell Hammett,” this one finds the formula. The film also benefits from a great supporting cast that includes one of my favorites from the “B” picture cast of characters, Gloria Grahame, plus Keenan Wynn, Jane Meadows, and a very young Dean Stockwell as Nick and Nora’s son.  We are treated with ‘40s jazz, a floating casino and nightclub (Shades of Mr. Lucky), wet, foggy nights, and a telltale necklace.  One of the pleasures is to see the stylish couple thirteen years after the first film, still elegant, still funny.

If you are so inclined, think about a Thin Man Holiday Festival. Light-hearted, celebratory and certainly auld lang syne. Because it is a festival and especially because it is The Thin Man, martinis and champagne are nearly mandatory accompaniments. Chances are Nick and Nora will be drinking with you. Not to insult my hard drinking friends, but if you want something non-alcoholic, follow Nick’s lead, maybe Martinelli’s sparkling cider. A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street step aside.

Note: This is a repost, revised to be more timely.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Blatant Self Promotion — Short Mysteries For The Traveler, Stocking Stuffers

What’s more fun than murder for the holidays?  I’d be happy as hell if you bought any of my books as gifts.  Go here for the complete list.  However I can’t help but think with all the traveling going on this time of year on that short mysteries – mystery novellas – are great small gifts. They are the perfect length for that plane trip from New York to Iowa City.  In fact, these San Francisco stories are trips in themselves.

The Blue Dragon – A murder at the Blue Dragon, a small apartment building in San Francisco’s Chinatown, prompts the absentee owner to hire Chinese American Peter Strand to calm the anxious tenants. But Strand isn’t exactly what he appears to be. Neither are the tenants, who on the surface seem to be regular people going about their lives. Strand, a forensic accountant by trade, doesn’t intend to investigate the murder, but he soon realizes that this isn’t a gang-related killing, as the police believe. The murder was committed by one of the tenants. Finding out which one exposes the secrets of the Blue Dragon and brings Strand face-to-face with a few ghosts of his own. Trade paperback and e-book

Death In The Haight – When Michael Vanderveer goes missing, Private Investigator Noah Lang assumes it’s just another runaway escaping to the Haight, San Francisco’s home to the displaced… until the homicide cops pay him a visit. Fifteen-year-old Michael has been implicated in the murder of a prostitute, and the police don’t want Lang mucking up their investigation — especially Inspector Stern, who has strong opinions about Lang’s questionable past. But Lang becomes inextricably involved.  Michael is being ransomed. As everyone waits for the kidnappers to make their next move, Lang struggles with the moral implications of rescuing Michael, only to have to turn him in for murder; and with Stern, who’s increasingly volatile behavior may just put Lang’s life in grave danger as well. E-book.

Mascara: Death In The Tenderloin – From the very beginning, things just aren’t what they seem. On a late, lonely night, San Francisco private investigator Noah Lang’s eyes deceive him. He makes a mistake. But what should have been simply an embarrassing moment becomes a deadly walk on the wild side. Unfortunately for Lang, before this nightmare is over, he puts his life on the line a second time for a new client who may or may not have a missing husband, who might or might not live on a boat in Tiburon and who seems to have an odd way to settle the bill for services rendered. Available as a trade paperback and e-book

Also check out this recent article: