Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Film Pairings — The 1950s, When the U.S. Constitution Was Threatened By Fear And Ignorance…Hmmn

Even though most of us acknowledge that the U.S. Constitution is not just the law of the land but is also the foundation for our coveted freedom, problems arise because we disagree on how to interpret it. In 1950s America, the country’s right wing became hysterically frightened of the word, “communist,” because it described the political philosophy of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republic, an increasingly influential power that, like us, had nuclear capability and, like us, had an inclination to spread their philosophy.  We were told repeatedly by the media and many politicians to be frightened of the “commies” among us. No one explained our differences in any intelligent way, only that they would bomb us into oblivion and to be very, very frightened. Bomb shelters were built. Children were traumatized by the impending doom.

Here are two exceptional movies that help shed a little light on those troubled times as well as offer a little perspective on the politics and press as we approach the November elections.

Helen Mirren & Bryan Cranston In Trumbo
Trumbo — Many of us were aware that Hollywood writers who supported unions and joined groups espousing communist views were called up in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, where they were harassed and accused of traitorous behavior in a spectacle devised by the committee specifically for the scandal hungry press.  If those summoned didn't name names of others who might have been curious about the American Communist party, they were blacklisted by Hollywood studios frightened of growing public opinion reacting to the politics of fear. Some, like Trumbo, went to prison for refusing to cooperate in what was a questionable legal proceeding.  Families and careers were destroyed.  This “red” scare” went on until the blustery, badgering, self-aggrandizing anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy (who suggested that even Eisenhower was a commie) was exposed for the bully he was by Edward R. Murrow.  Bryan Cranston creates a fascinating character in this 2015 was film directed by Jay Roach and based on the book, Dalton Trumbo, by John McNamara.  Diane Lane, as Trumbo’s wife, Helen Mirren as vicious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and John Goodman, as a B-movie director are exceptional. While there is some criticism of the accuracy of all the situations presented in this bio pic, overall it is a fascinating reflection of the times, including members of the Senate abusing the First Amendment as well as exposing the wishy washy principles of many Hollywood producers.

Tom Hanks In Bridge Of Spies
Bridge of Spies — Much like Dalton Trumbo, attorney James B. Donovan, portrayed in an understated, yet nonetheless commanding performance by Tom Hanks. Donavan is a man who refuses to be pushed around and refuses to relinquish his principles even though he is paying a terrible personal cost.  Also like the movie Trumbo, Bridge of Spies recreates the mood of our country while it is battered by mammoth fear-mongering campaigns. We remain in the midst of the big red scare.  This too is a story based on real events: The trade of our spy, pilot Francis Gary Powers, shot down over the USSR, and Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy, in a subdued but also powerful performance by Mark Rylance. This too is a story that shows how scaring the public often threatens our resolve about living by the U.S. Constitution when it is inconvenient, when it seems at odds with our personal passion. Steven Spielberg directed. Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay.   Much credit has to go to the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski for his vision, particularly the scenes set in East Berlin.

It is important, especially now, to be alert when the media or the politicians try to convince us to be frightened of people whose lives are not the same as ours. Our lesson is to understand that to forfeit their rights is to forfeit our own.

To accompany tonight’s high-quality 1950s visit, we might just want a good cup of coffee.  However, to counter the sobering drama, a few sips of a good whiskey – on ice if it’s hot where you are — or some vodka in honor of the red scare might be in order.

Friday, May 27, 2016

RANT — Trump, Ever the School Yard Bully, Blinks, Backs Down

Every kid knows this deep in his or her heart:  The school bully taunts and teases, blusters and barks, and then blinks when someone takes the challenge.  Donald J. Trump, the flimflamming, fake billionaire challenged “poor” Bernie to a debate.  When Sanders said, “yes,” Trump said, “no.”
Despite what many Secretary Clinton supporters said – that Senator Sanders was falling into a trap that would hurt Hillary. The truth is Sanders would have taken the spoiled brat to the woodshed. Just by accepting Trump’s challenge the 74-year-old senator showed Trump to be no more than a buffoon in an orangutan suit.  My apologies to orangutans, who have considerably more dignity. However, Trump was smart to back out.

Let ‘s review:

Trump never served in the military, getting a Vietnam era deferment for a bone spur, yet he, like other chicken hawks (Dick Cheney for example), seems to like the idea of war. He did make an exception for prisoners of war, whom he called “losers.”

He says his immense success in business makes him qualified for our nation’s president and world leader. Yet after a series of failed businesses, bankruptcies and charges of fraud, he won’t release his income tax returns.  Why?  Did he pay even a penny in taxes?  Is he as wealthy as he claims?  The worst part of his claim as a successful entrepreneur is that he had it rough.  His father only gave him a couple of million dollars in seed money. That and his inheritance made him rich, and, as he says, only rich people can be great?  All the rest of us are losers.

All this is pretty rotten, but the horror of a Trump presidency is the notion hat he could disregard treaties, ignore international agreements, alienate our allies, round up 11 million people he doesn’t like and deport them and then demand religious tests for anyone visiting our country.

In addition to endorsements by Dick Cheney, Vladimir Putin ,Charles Manson, Ted Nugent, Gary Busey, he is a favorite of a number of white supremacists.  Trump’s inherited power, subsequent narcissism and intolerance of criticism are frighteningly similar to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

As far as Hillary is concerned, the scandal of Benghazi wasn’t Clinton’s action or inaction but of the investigation itself.  Millions of dollars were spent on this waste of time before the Republican who led the charge admitted there was no there there. It was the same sore-loser response the Republicans launched against Obama Similarly the so-called email scandal also played out a long time ago. Even so, the media, apparently still frightened of Trump’s temper tantrums, continues to act as if the email issue is newsworthy. It wasn’t then.  It isn’t now. 

I’ve made no secret of being a Sanders fan.  And I’m on record many times, long before this race, of seeing the Clintons as Republicans (back when Republicans had some sense). But I cannot imagine the circumstances in which Americans could even consider a shallow, thin-skinned, Kardashian clone for any responsible position in American government.  I’d prefer Bugs Bunny.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Film Pairings – Sweet And Not So Sweet Mysteries Of Life

The second film on tonight’s bill is not a crime film, which is what I usually cover here. However, there were certainly vitally important truths to uncover and society’s overall attitude toward transgender people was and is a crime.  The first film is more of a conventional crime film or at least a thriller. But it too has to do with broader themes  — discovering secrets we hide from ourselves, confronting uncomfortable truths and making bold decisions to get to them. Both films are timely in the sense that today’s headlines reflect an increasing awareness of identity, gender issues, politics and civil rights.
The Crying Game – Directed by Neil Jordan this 1992 film was an inspiration to me.   While I feel that The Crying Game is actually two films – in tone at least — they are two really good films.   One is essentially about the Irish Republican Army, a hostage and his guard, where we are engaged in race, politics and honor with life and death riding shotgun. The second is a story confronting, the idea a man of falling in love with someone that every inch of his being tells him cannot be possible. When can a promise be dismissed and not lose your honor? Can love be ignored when not only society but also everything you believed in forbids it? The film stars Stephen Rea, Miranda Richardson, Jaye Davidson and Forest Whitaker.

The Danish Girl —  It’s important to note that this isn’t a true story, but fiction based on one. That is, to say, true in spirit. It is also important to note that last year’s The Danish Girl is banned In several backward countries — Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Malaysia.

In addition to the exceptional performances by Eddie Redmayne, there is a standout performance by Alicia Vikander and another by Matthias Schoenaerts. Even so, much credit has to go to the director Tom Hooper and especially cinematographer Danny Cohen who makes Denmark breathtakingly beautiful.  The story is tender and tragic as a young, married man begins getting subtle clues that there is a deep feminine side to his nature.  His exploration of this, initially aided and abetted by his wife, goes well beyond what he is able to cope with in 1920s Copenhagen (we won’t mention mention the 2016 American South.) The barriers to acceptance ­— actually underplayed here — of the emerging but also inherent Lily are mercilessly fortified by horrendous medical treatment. This underscores what it means to be transgender in a bi-polar society.

To accompany a thought provoking evening, perhaps a glass of Pernod in honor of the French followed by a glass or two of hearty ale to honor the Irish is in order. For the rest of us and those who must drive, how about some rich, iced coffee to keep our minds stimulated, allowing them to keep pace with our hearts?

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Opinion — Bye, Bye Castle

I enjoyed the first season.  “Castle” had an interesting premise, at least for me.  A mystery writer who ends up involved in real cases. The writer and the cop were both enjoyable characters, each having a bearable lightness of being. I also enjoyed those moments when Castle played poker with real life writers — mixing realities.  But I was in for a surprise.  I went to what was a great mystery bookstore in San Mateo, just South of San Francisco.  I saw a stack of books written by the imaginary Richard Castle at the checkout counter.

I had two reactions.  I’m not sure which one dominated.  With a background in marketing and advertising, I was impressed with the whole idea of a fictional crime writer writing crime fiction. This was an ingenious and consistent publicity ploy with ties back to the poker games. It was also, as marketers will boast, “added value” to both products.  Part of me said, “why not?” I’d do it.

The second reaction was one of those stomach sinks. Selfishly I wondered how we (I flatter myself) midlist writers could compete with this strategy and the media giants who have the power to implement it.  Many of us are still trying to survive amidst the requirement that we must be best selling authors. One more nail in our coffins.

Elmore Leonard said at one of the mystery writer’s conventions that once a writer gets on The New York Times “Best Selling list, the author would have to write a lot of crap (I’m paraphrasing here) to get off it.  Yet, he or she keeps selling.

All right.  Life isn’t always fair.  Get over it.  Move on.

Well, the ax fell on “Castle.”  But it fell not because it wasn’t a good idea.  It ceased to be interesting. It outlived its premise.  I won’t forget my favorite comedy series.  When Niles Crane married Daphne on “Frasier,” half the premise for humor disappeared. The dynamics fell apart.  When Castle married the smart, beautiful and tough Kate Beckett, and he became the typically dumb husband, the show lost its edge.  Now, I’m not suggesting that marriage spoils everything, though I’d keep in mind, Nick never married Nora. At least they never acted as if they actually tied the knot.  What I’m suggesting is that the writers lost track of what was making the show entertaining in the first place. It even happened to “I Love Lucy.” The last few years were yawns.  It seems to me when the writers got tired of coming up with new plots for the small New York apartment, they took the show to Hollywood where guest appearances by William Holden and John Wayne were supposed to keep the momentum going.  The success of the show was never about stars, it was about people like us in silly situations and engaging the characters we grew to love.

There are two ways to deal with the problem of a series (TV shows or books) having run its course. One is to keep padding and patching with the hope that the series can ride on its past glory.  The other is to shut it down. The talented Stana Katic’s departure was a good thing, bringing a once promising show to a merciful end.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Blatant Self Promotion — It Was A Dark And Stormy Book

Good To The Last Kiss is a tougher, darker book than I ever intended to write. Before putting what I'd learned in my own words I read all I could on the subject of serial killers, listened to tapes of interviews with those who had committed such horrific crimes and read medical and psychological research.

The time I spent immersed in this kind of insanity was one of the most depressing periods of my life.  What struck me was not only the deep pain and suffering such crimes caused the victims, but the collateral damage as well. Without being dismissive of the crime, how could we come close to understanding why someone would engage in such nightmarish behavior?  Having questions like that is one reason people write — to discover, to try to understand. Seek and maybe you’ll find. I wrote the book quite some time ago.  I sent the manuscript to legendary editor Ruth Cavin who, at the time was with St. Martin’s Press.  She had published the first four of my Shanahan series books and an out-of-series book called Eclipse of the Heart.

Ruth wrote back a scathing rejection. In short, she found it offensive.  On one hand I understood.  Even the group of readers whom I had asked to read and comment on my drafts before submitting them to an editor fell quiet. Most had nothing to say other than pointing out a typo or an inconsistency. Quiet, in this case, was not a ringing endorsement. On the other hand, I believed I had written something other than a potboiler with a serial killer at the heart of the suspense. I attempted to write an atypical book about serial killers, investigating the subject in some depth and putting these thoughts in a work of fiction, where plot is important, but where thoughtful story and in-depth characters preside.

My publisher, and more importantly, my highly respected editor went thumbs down as had most of my very bright friends. This is where a writer faces a moment of truth. Are we writers just fooling ourselves in cases like these? Should we put the manuscripts way back on the shelf  (there are two sitting back there now) and move on, or do we persist?

I dodged the question. Instead I wrote a fifth Shanahan and sent it off to Ruth. We corresponded several times. She loved the book, but there was a hitch in the approval process.  In the end, after saying it was the best in the series, she (St. Martins) declined. I’m not sure the rejection was related to the serial killer book she hated. I think it was the bookselling environment that emerged at the time. Many of the midlist writers, a description I flatter myself with, were being tossed aside as they are again, now.

Meanwhile, the fifth Shanahan, Nickel-Plated Soul was a hit — not a best seller, but a hit nonetheless — with my new publisher. It was as light and as fun-filled as Good To The Last Kiss was dark and depressing. I wrote more in the Shanahan series for Severn House, but also sent a couple of manuscripts not in the series, one of them Good To The Last Kiss, which I still considered my best book. I guessed they would choose the other, the one I thought more mainstream.  They didn’t, and Good To The Last Kiss was suddenly printed, bound and ready to be delivered. Then I waited.  And waited. I had come to expect that The New York Times would ignore my books.  But Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist usually came through.

Nothing.  Deathly quiet. I asked my publisher, Severn House, why all the usual reviewers were silent.  The publisher said, “Perhaps they are being kind to you.”


After a while, Kirkus published a review.  Here is a snippet:

Tierney (Bullet Beach, 2011, etc.) 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 (starred)

Needless to say, though I’ll say it anyway, I cherish those words.

I bring all this up now because I noticed the e-book version is available at an extremely low price, and I never really give up on anything I believe in.