Sunday, December 29, 2013

Preaching to the Damned: Flannery O'Connor's Universe of Sinners



I have a framed picture of Flannery O’Connor on my wall at home. It’s a nice black and white close-up shot of Flannery smiling and looking off to the right. She’s wearing what looks to be a black dress. She has on horned-rimmed glasses and her teeth are a little crooked. She looks not unlike a middle school math teacher, the one you didn’t like. If you know anything about O’Connor’s work then the picture is a little surprising, in much the same what the yearbook photo of that same math teacher was always a little jarring: who knew she ever smiled?

Despite their humor, one might not guess from O’Connor’s stories that she ever smiled. There’s a hard edge to the humor in an O’Connor story, and how could it not be sharp when her stories deal with an unceasing parade of freaks, psychopaths, cripples, fanatics and wholly unsympathetic mother figures? Understand that I don’t mean any of this as a criticism. That geek show quality is what you should be looking for when you curl up with an O’Connor story for the night. If you like her, you’ll keep coming back to the well. If you don’t like her, one drink will probably do you for life.

I first discovered O’Connor in a creative writing class (isn’t it odd how we talk about our "discovery" of writers, as if they’re continents to be searched out, stumbled onto and explored for their riches?). The class had been assigned to read some other story, but I got the page numbers confused and read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by mistake.
 
How can one explain lightening striking? To paraphrase Bob Dylan’s comment on his discovery of Elvis: I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and I knew I was never going to work a regular job again. I knew I wanted to be a writer. The discovery of certain writers sweeps away all the rational arguments against becoming a writer yourself. This was what O’Connor meant to me. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” dealt with the murder of a small family at the hands of a gang of thieves led by a religiously tormented philosopher/psychopath called the Misfit. I can’t say I understood O’Connor at the time, and, for that matter, I can’t say I understand her now. Greatness tends to inspire the desire to know and explain while robbing us of the ability. What matters, however, is not my understanding of the complex (and, sometimes, contrived) layers in O’Connor’s work. What matters is that O’Connor was the first writer I ever read whose vision of the world—religious, tormented, flawed—was skewed rather close to my own. It wasn’t the gun in the Misfit’s hand that made the story interesting for me, it was the thoughts in his head, the doubts about life and death and the haunting assertion that Jesus had achieved victory over both.

The irony, of course, is that O’Connor was a Catholic and her stories were suffused with her Catholicism. I was still a fundamentalist Southern Baptist when I discovered her, and yet it seemed to me that O’Connor was somewhat Baptist, even fundamentalist, in her worldview. She imagined a world in which an old woman can find grace as three bullets are fired into her scrawny chest. And what can I say but that this somehow appealed to me. I’m not advocating the shooting of old women, of course, not even for evangelical purposes. No, I think old women—and young women, and little girls, and males of all ages—should probably be left unshot, ungored and unbeaten, even by agents of God’s will. O’Connor would doubtless consider me weak. But what appealed to me in her work was not so much the violence unbelievers and backsliders had to endure, as much as it was the spiritual landscape they were made to transverse. In O’Connor’s world no one laughs off matters of faith for very long. Part of the virtue of her fiction is that she saw everyone as essentially corrupt. There are no paragons of virtue—no dewy eyed virgins or kind hearted old men from whom the wicked are forced to learn pious lessons. In O’Connor’s world, every man, woman and child is a sinner and the battle between the flesh and the spirit, between pride and grace, is never easy.

These reflections were inspired, at least in part, by the recent publication of A PRAYER JOURNAL, a collection of prayers and private religious reflections that O’Connor wrote between January 1946 and September 1947. She was only twenty years old when she began the journal, but in it her personality as a writer (acidic, pious, and fiercely intelligent) already seems fully formed. It’s an incredibly intimate look at her mind, a record of her most sacred meditations. We see her wrestling with her faith: “Dear Lord, please make me want you[…]There is a want but it is abstract and cold[…]” And we see her beseeching god for help: “Dear God, I am so discouraged about my work[...]Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing.” In the best sense, the book shows her to be the Flannery O’Connor one would expect.

It’s impossible to read her prayer journal without reflecting on her fiction. The universe she created was full to bursting with preachers, fanatics and unbelievers. Unbelievers had it the worst, of course. I think of poor atheistic Sheppard in “The Lame Shall Enter First.” He takes in a boy preacher/thief as a good deed and pays dearly for his act of kindness. Didn’t that poor bastard know he was in O’Connor land? Could he possibly hope to survive the story unscathed? Not only was he an atheist, but he was a humanist, and Flannery O’Connor—at least in the godlike role of creator of her fictional universe—would not abide an optimistic belief in the human being. On some level, we were all Enoch Emery to Flannery. Enoch, the hero of “Enoch and the Gorilla,” (if "hero" is not too ironic a term for the main character in an O’Connor story), is one of her finest creations, an idiot obsessed with a man in a gorilla suit outside a movie theater. The story works as a dark comedy, but O’Connor’s critique of the theory of evolution, her critique of the idea that humanity could possibly have improved, is scathing. It’s damn near scalding. The story is one of her masterpieces (and it works even better as a segment in her novel WISE BLOOD), but it really is ripe with a contempt for humanity.

Oh, but I’m possibly making it sound as if I don’t like O’Connor, as if she’s some drag. She’s not. Few writers are as darkly funny, as quick to pop every imaginable pretension in the service of truth, and few writers are as interesting. As Harold Bloom once pointed out about her less than charitable view of the human race, you simply have to accept that O’Connor sees you as one of the damned, and then you can enjoy her. Another way to put this is that you can savor O’Connor’s talent for constantly pointing out the absurdity and hypocrisy of others as long as you’re aware that she wouldn’t cut you any slack, either.

What does it say about her that you have to make that bargain? The woman herself is lost to the fiction she created. O’Connor’s personality wasn’t nearly as large as her fiction. “There won’t be any biographies of me,” she once claimed “because lives spent between the house and the chicken yard don’t make for exciting copy.” She seems to retreat to the back of the room and stare at us over her glasses, muttering under her breath about hell and sin and God’s terrible grace. Despite the admirable biographical work that’s been published, what she was actually like remains cloaked in time, that great devourer of all but a few personalities.

What we have left are her stories, their perfect construction, their craftsmanlike prose (O’Connor wrote the cleanest sentences in the business), and their humor. And, every so often, their humanity. When you read something like “Good Country People” you can’t help but feel sorry for Hulga, the one-legged atheist. Her seduction by a Bible-selling nihilist named Manly Pointer is viewed by the author as a rightful comeuppance, but Hulga is a sad figure nevertheless.

The most striking element of the story for me is the scene where Hulga and Manly Pointer are in the barn. They’ve retreated there for a little good, old fashioned sinning. But when they kiss there’s a curious disconnect. There’s nothing erotic about it. In fact, I can’t think of a single erotic moment in any of O’Connor’s work. For that matter, I can’t think of a single moment of unfettered tenderness in O’Connor’s fiction. You read her work and it’s possible to ask yourself: did Flannery O’Connor ever kiss a boy? There’s nothing in “Good Country People” to indicate the author ever snuck out to the barn for some sweaty necking. In fact, there’s nothing in her work as a whole which would indicate O’Connor ever regarded physical interaction with anything other than suspicion. In A PRAYER JOURNAL, she writes disdainfully of sex and only a slightly less disdainfully of romance. “Man’s desire for God is bedded in his unconscious and seeks to satisfy itself in the physical possession of another human. This necessarily is a passing, fading attachment in its sensuous aspects since it is a poor substitute for what the unconscious is after.” For O’Connor, sex seemed nothing more than a temptation to be avoided. (The funniest lines in her prayer journal: “Today I have proved myself a glutton—for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.”) To judge by her fiction, her revulsion at  the natural world only grew stronger once she became ill with the lupus that would claim her life when she was thirty-nine.

When a reader engages with her fiction, one is in the company of an imagination shaped, at least in part, by religious fanaticism. That’s not a negative judgment. O’Connor possibly would not be as great a writer if not for that fanaticism. Her imagination is, after all, twisted. All I know of how she saw the world is how she wrote about it, and she wrote about it like it was a carnival of freaks.

It’s telling, perhaps, that her most overtly sexual story is a) called “The Temple of the Holy Ghost” and b) climaxes in a sad, scary scene with an intersex person used as a freak show hermaphrodite. Sex in her work always seems like a strange aberration, a disruption of the natural world rather than a part of it. Perhaps to the author it was. At one point in A PRAYER JOURNAL she records, “The desires of the flesh have been taken away from me. For how long I don’t know, but I hope forever. It is a great peace to be rid of them.” We can’t know how long her peaceful reprieve lasted, but for the remainder of her life her intellectual and emotional relationship to the desires of the flesh never seemed less than adversarial.

The publication of her prayer journal is a fascinating look inside the mind of a young writer who prayed, “I want to be the best artist it is possible for me to be, under God.” At the very least, this prayer was answered.  

As 2013 Draws To A Close...

Well, I've been away a few weeks visiting family and friends, but I'm back in Chicago and getting down to work on a number of projects.

All in all, I've had a pretty great year. SAINT HOMICIDE marks the third book I've had published in three years. I couldn't have planned that, but I'm thrilled that it worked out that way. 

I owe a sincere thanks to everyone who bought HELL ON CHURCH STREET, THE POSTHUMOUS MAN, and SAINT HOMICIDE. A writer's ulitmate goal (beyond paying the bills) is to be read by a reader who understands and appreciates the work. I've been incredibly fortunate in this regard. Many people have written to let me know that they liked one book or another, and it never ceases to thrill me. Thank you.



 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Helen Holmes and the First Female Action Heroes

I have a couple of new pieces out right now about the heroines of the silent movie serials of the 1910s. I'm excited to have them out, because these performers were an amazing group of women who created characters that deserved to be remembered.

In the new issue of MENTAL FLOSS you can find my profile of the fearless Helen Holmes. She wasn't the first or the biggest of the serial queens, but for my money she was the most radical. In the years before women got the vote, Helen produced an image of a strong working-class woman who could rise to any challenge. The issue is available on newsstands and better bookstores now. The article is called "The Girl At The Switch" and is located on page 32. 

Over at Tor.com you can find my overview of the silent serial queens. I talk about Holmes along with Helen Gibson, Ruth Roland, Mary Fuller, and Pearl White. You can find that here.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Noirlisted: Film Noir and The Hollywood Blacklist

above: THE PROWLER, written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Joesph Losey, both of whom would face the Blacklist

In the late forties and early fifties, film noir was more impacted by the Communist witch hunts in Hollywood than any other genre. I take a look at the reasons why, and take note of some lives affected (and, in some cases, ruined) by the Blacklist.

To check out "Noirlisted" you can head over to Criminal Element. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Breaking Down BREAKING BAD

Starting this month, I'll be a regular contributor to Mystery Scene magazine. My first piece is a look back at BREAKING BAD. I try to situate it within the context of both the gangster film and the western. I also try to make the case that the show represents the best summation of American disgust during the financial upheavals over the course of the last decade.

The issue is now in better bookstores everywhere.

  

Monday, December 2, 2013

Top Reads of 2013

The great Andrew Nette over at Pulp Curry asked me to draw up a list of my best reads of 2013. No criteria--doesn't have to be crime, doesn't have to be new--just a simple list of my best reading experiences of 2013.

You can check at my list now at Pulp Curry.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

SAINT HOMICIDE is Coming Soon

Got the cover art for SAINT HOMICIDE, and I'm thrilled by it. They might make a little tweak or so (the ISBN number here is a dummy until the actual one gets assigned), but it's a thing of beauty. I've been pretty lucky with cover art, I have to say. My first two book covers were pulpy and fun. This one is clean and elegant--old fashioned in a different way. Love it.

SAINT HOMICIDE is a crisp 15,000 word novella released by the good folks at Crime Factory Publications, the second in their line of short Single Shots. The first book was Jedidiah Ayres's FIERCE BITCHES, so old Saint Homicide is in some fine company.

The book should be ready for order soon, so stay tuned.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Joel McCrea and COLORADO TERRITORY (1949)

When Raoul Walsh remade his 1940 gangster flick HIGH SIERRA almost twenty years later as the Western COLORADO TERRITORY, he improved on the story. Today, the Western isn't as well known as the gangster story. I suspect this has everything to do with the fact that the original movie starred Humphrey Bogart, while the remake starred Joel McCrea.

Today, Bogart is one of only a handful of golden age movie stars still remembered by the public at large. We like to talk about stars as immortal figures, but the truth is that we're only now entering the second century of filmmaking and most of us have already forgotten most of the last century's biggest stars. Don't believe me? Take a poll of the people under thirty and ask them if they know who Bette Davis was. Ask them if they can name a Gary Cooper movie. Go back further. How many have any clue who Pearl White was?

This isn't a lament. Nor is it a "what's wrong with these kids these days." Movie stardom is, relatively speaking, still a new phenomenon. Maybe this is just what happens to movie stars. Nobody really gets to live forever.

Just look at Joel McCrea. This guy was an enormous movie star. Westerns, comedies, dramas--he did it all. Today, outside a few movie geeks, he's been forgotten.

But he made some great stuff. Movie buffs probably know him best for SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (a direct inspiration for O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?) and the Peckinpah Western RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. He was an easy, likable screen presence. If he wasn't as distinctive a presence as someone like John Wayne, he was in many ways a more natural actor. Even among fabled Everymen like Cooper and Stewart and Fonda, McCrea was a laidback performer. Watching him today, it's almost a wonder that he was a star in the forties. That era was full of people who filled the screen. McCrea always seems lifesized. Always and at all times, he just sorta seems like a regular guy. My theory is that audiences liked him because he seemed so much like them. He was the Harry Truman of movie stars.

COLORADO TERRITORY is one of his best films. A fast-paced story about a bank robber named Wes McQueen (McCrea) who busts out of the joint and joins up with an outlaw gang for a big train robbery, the film improves on HIGH SIERRA in a couple of important ways. For one thing, the script by the Western vet John Twist and the versatile Edmund North sidesteps the maudlin subplot that marred the gangster picture. Whereas Bogart was committing his crimes to pay for the surgery (and win the love) of a sweet young girl with a clubfoot, McCrea is in love with the selfish Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone). And while in both films the outlaw eventually falls in love with an fellow outcast like himself (Ida Lupino in the earlier picture), in this film the leading lady, Virgina Mayo's mixed race Colorado, is more proactive. She's less of a sideline spectator. No one would hold up this film as a feminist classic, but both of these changes strengthen the female characters.

The film as a whole is a stronger affair than the earlier picture. The cinematography by Sidney Hickox has lovely noir shadings, and Walsh's direction is superb. HIGH SIERRA is a good picture, but I've always thought it was overlong and its conclusion felt a little drawn out. COLORADO TERRITORY, however, moves at a good clip throughout. It also features one of the best train robberies I've ever seen. (And I've seen a lot of trains get robbed.) Moreover, the climax that unfolds in an ancient cliffside Indian village makes for a strangely haunting end to a Western.

Track down COLORADO TERRITORY. It's not as well known as the earlier film, but it's the better picture.     

Friday, November 15, 2013

Noir At The Bar: St. Louis

I had a fantastic time reading at Noir At The Bar: Los Angeles, and I'm excited as all hell to be reading at N@TB: St. Louis with the likes of Jed Ayres, J. David Osborne and the great Scott Phillips. I've never met any of these degenerates in person and I can't wait.

If you're around St. Louis on the 7th, come around and hear some great crime fiction, shake some hands, buy some books, compare some facial hair, and have what promises to be a great time. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Jason Starr Interview

I've been a big of fan of Jason Starr for about a decade now. To my mind, he's one of the smartest, most compelling crime writers of the last quarter century. His books HARD FEELINGS and TWISTED CITY, in particular, have had a huge influence on me. (The day I found out that my publisher had talked Starr into reading my first novel and that he had liked it enough to blurb it for me...well, that was one of my best days as a writer.)

The writer Mike Monson has a great interview with Starr up at his website. Check it out here.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Hard Luck Ladies of Noir: Linda Darnell

Linda Darnell had one of Hollywood's most famous faces, but she also had one of its saddest stories. I have a new piece about her life and cinematic legacy in a new piece over at Criminal Element.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

V FOR VENDETTA

I have an essay up at Tor about the 25th anniversary of the landmark graphic novel V FOR VENDETTA. You can read that here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

ALL IS LOST (2013)

In order to talk about ALL IS LOST, I have to talk about its ending. This isn't so much a "spoiler alert" as much as a heads up that the following is a discussion of the one aspect of the movie that is in doubt when you enter the theater. If you don't want to know what happens at the end of the film, go see the movie. Then come back here and let's talk about it.

Okay then. Let's talk about it.

What's great about this movie is that it has the strength of its convictions. The filmmakers (star Robert Redford, writer and director J.C. Chandor) set out with a startlingly pure idea for a motion picture: a man on a sinking boat tries to stay alive. They stay locked into this idea with admirable focus. In some respects, ALL IS LOST harkens back to both Hitchcock's idea of "pure cinema" and, even earlier, the era of silent filmmaking. Aside for a brief monologue at the top and some cries for help or curses in the middle, the film simply observes Redford's unnamed protagonist going about his labors. We don't know who he is or why he's on the ocean by himself. Indeed, aside from a general sense of his doggedness and calm in the face of danger, we know nothing about his personality. He is a man on a sinking boat who is trying to stay alive.

As I think back about the movie, I'm left wondering what to make of it. It's engaging to be sure--there's some kind of primal thrill to watching a human being labor to survive. It's a truly existential film. That's an overused word these days, but it applies here with stark precision.

Yet beyond that--beyond the experience of the thing in the moment--I'm unsure what ALL IS LOST is trying to say. In the absence of normal signifiers of meaning (plot, characters, dialog) we're left, it seems to me, with two things: the performance of Redford, and the arc of the story--i.e. the ending.

On the first point, this is where I have to admit that I've never been a Redford fan. That's not to say that I don't like him. That's not to say anything bad about him, in fact. I've just never developed that attachment to him that one develops for certain actors. This adversely affects my viewing of the movie. In such a stripped down film, the actor's symbolic weight (his meaning as a film object) takes on outsized proportions. I think I know, in the abstract, what Redford symbolizes in cinema--but he's just never really symbolized that to me.  If Harrison Ford had been on that sinking boat, for instance, I would doubtless have a different view of the film. I just can't read Redford. I don't read emotion into his reserve. He certainly gives a good performance here; it's simply not one that resonated with me, personally.

What that leaves is the ending of the film. Because you've seen it, you know that he is rescued at the last second. All, it turns out, is not lost. What does this mean? Is it a statement of faith? Of faith in what? God? Redford's character, notably, does not pray. Just at the level of realism, this seems odd to me. I'm going to hazard a guess that most people, faced with such perilous circumstances, might well cry out for help to whatever notion of god was at hand. Perhaps the character is an atheist. Fair enough, but if so we are talking about one seriously committed rationalist--one who, even at extremity's edge, does not cry out in any kind of fear, anger, or pleading. I suspect that's a small slice of humanity.

From a storytelling point of view, the argument against having Redford beseech some higher power might well be that his rescue could then be interpreted as a miracle. In the absence of a miracle, his rescue is either a) an ironic twist--so that doomed by chance, he is also saved by chance, b) an acknowledgement that even the most dedicated sad-ending-lovers among us do not want to see him struggle to survive for the better part of two hours only to die at the end, or c) a humanist statement of stunning banality.

We can dispense with option c) pretty quickly. Though the movie's promotional materials encourage us to "never give up" the movie itself makes no such argument. Redford does give up at the end. His salvation does not come from any triumph of the human spirit.

Option b) is simply true--at least it was for me. And I'm a guy who's dedicated his life to noir; I love me some downbeat endings. But at the moment in this film where it looked pretty certain that Redford would die and the credits would roll, I felt apprehension. I don't know how I would feel if he had died. I wanted to see him live. It's human nature. Deep down, we long to see human survival. The cosmic irony, of course, is that, in the end, we all die. A movie with a happy ending is just a movie that ends early.

This leaves us with option a), which seems to me, on reflection, to be the real meaning of the picture. Redford's survival at the end is deeply ironic--and I don't mean "ironic" in any sense to mean cheap or cheeky. I mean that the film is about a man's deliberate, desperate attempts to survive the randomness of the universe. Meaning is found in his striving. His survival at the end, like the accident that initiates this drama, is meaningless.
 
ALL IS LOST wasn't exactly the movie I thought I was going to see when I walked in theater, but as I think back on it, maybe that's a good thing. It lingers in the mind. It's kept me thinking now for hours. The more I reflect on it, the more I like it.

 

Monday, October 28, 2013

SAINT HOMICIDE


I'm excited to announce that this fall will see the release of my novella SAINT HOMICIDE from Crime Factory Publications.

More information to come!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Noir's Greatest Director

Classic noir had its share of great directors. Anyone's shortlist of the best of the best would probably include heavyweights like Jules Dassin, Robert Wise, Anthony Mann, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, and Richard Fleischer.

But who a) did his best work in noir? b) made more great noirs than anyone? and c) put such a stamp on noir that his style is essentially a synonym for the genre itself?

Click here to read my essay on Robert Siodmak.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Upcoming Readings

I've got some readings coming up. If you can come out you'll get to hear me read from HELL ON CHURCH STREET and THE POSTHUMOUS MAN, and maybe a little from some upcoming work. I'll post more details as they become available, but here's what the schedule looks like right now:

Nov. 7th: Community and World Literary Series at Cal State San Marcos. In the Grand Salon, room 113, of the Gordon M. Clarke Field House. 7pm.

Nov. 10th: Noir At The Bar-L.A. At Mandrake, 2692 S. La Cienega Blvd. Los Angeles. I'll be reading alongside Josh Stallings, Paul D. Marks, and Stephen Blackmoore. 8-11pm.

Dec. 7th: Noir At The Bar-St. Louis. I'll be reading alongside Scott Phillips, Jedidiah Ayres, J. David Osborne, and William Boyle.

Jan. 7th: Wit Rabbit reading series. Quencher's Saloon, 2401 N. Western Ave, Chicago. 7pm.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Talking Writing and Movies with Mike Monson


The crime writer Mike Monson was nice enough to ask me to sit down for an interview for his "Mike Monson Annoys His Favorite Writers" series. 

Our talk was wide-ranging--from growing up in the religious environment of rural Arkansas, to the glory of Queen of Noir Lizabeth Scott (above), to how much an author should worry about making a character likable.

Check it out the interview here.

And click here to find out about Monson's books

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

HELL ON CHURCH STREET And THE POSTHUMOUS MAN Go International

I'm thrilled to announce that my novels HELL ON CHURCH STREET and THE POSTHUMOUS MAN are going to France.

French publisher Editions Gallmeister is translating both books for release in Europe sometime next year. I'll post more details going forward. For now, I'll just say that it's fun to contemplate that my Arkansas noirs will soon have their French doppelgangers--actual noir noir.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Jake Hinkson Reading at Cal State San Marcos

I'm excited to announce that I'll be doing readings from HELL ON CHURCH STREET and THE POSTHUMOUS MAN on November 7th at 7pm at Cal State San Marcos as a part of the Community and World Literary Series. If you're in that neck of the woods and you're wondering what I sound like when I really put the okra into my accent, then I'd love to meet you. I'll sign books and provide a vigorous handshake with every copy.

Here's a link to more details

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Girl They Loved To Kill: The Many Deaths Of Peggie Castle

NOIR CITY e-magazine has posted my essay "The Girl They Loved To Kill: The Many Deaths of Peggie Castle" over on the magazine page of the Film Noir Foundation website. Click on the link above and check it out. Then you can click here ("Me And Peggie Castle") to read my thoughts on writing the essay.

People ask me sometimes which of my pieces of writing is my favorite. Easy. This one.

I hope you enjoy it.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Mutiny On The Bounty

Why did the mutiny aboard a grimy little cutter on a mission to transport breadfruit plants become on of the most famous incidents in all of naval history? I toss around some possible answers to that question over at Criminal Element this week when I look at the history and myth-making surrounding the failed voyage of the HMS Bounty in 1789. I also try to evaluate the best and worst of the many literary and cinematic interpretations of those events.

Read my piece here.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978)

One of the best aspects of moving to Chicago a couple of weeks ago is that I now live about five minutes away from the glorious Patio Theater. A huge one-screen theater from the days when going to the movies was an event in-and-of-itself, the Patio now operates as a rep in conjunction with the Northwest Chicago Film Society. They show great films at $5 a pop. You can't beat that, folks.

Last night, the Patio showed Terrence Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN, and what a joy it was to reacquaint myself with this movie--or, really, since I'd never seen it projected on the big screen before, it's more correct to say that I saw the film for the first time.

Malick's follow up to his debut with BADLANDS is a deepening of his vision. Like his first film, DAYS OF HEAVEN is the story of fugitive lovers on the run. In this film, however, the Malick we would come to know from films like THE THIN RED LINE, TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER came into full flower. 

DAYS OF HEAVEN follows itinerant farm workers Bill and Abby (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams), lovers who pose as siblings and travel with Bill's young sister, Linda (Linda Manz). They wind up on a huge wheat farm in Texas owned by a quietly dying farmer played by Sam Shepard (who is known in the film only as The Farmer). When the rich man takes an interest in Abby, Bill sees an opportunity: Abby will marry the Farmer while Bill and Linda loaf around the farm and wait for the sickly man to die. This scheme goes as planned except for two things: Abby falls in love with the farmer, and the farmer doesn't die.

Like all of Malick's work, DAYS OF HEAVEN has a loose narrative structure that is put in place mostly to provide a framework for the poetry of its visuals. Malick is the rare filmmaker who is as assured working with his miniatures (extreme close-ups of bugs, plants, food) as he is with his vistas (the epic sweep of the wheat fields with the house on the hill looking as lonely as one of Hopper's landscape paintings).

The performances here are impressions rather than fully formed characters, an effect created by the elliptical editing. We come into scenes halfway through and leave before they've reached a traditional climax. The dialog drops in and out, as if we're overhearing private conversations. If Gere is too beautiful and mannered to be completely believable as Bill, Adams and Shepard are pitch perfect as Abby and The Farmer.  Likewise, the not-often-commented upon performance of Richard Wilke as the Farm Foreman. One of the great character actors, Wilke creates a grizzled man of integrity and passion in just a few short scenes.

And Linda Manz, about fourteen or so when the film was shot, is astounding as the young sister--it's impossible to tell if she's giving a great performance or simply operating as a filmed subject. Maybe there's no difference. Either way, Manz ties the whole film together. It's her flat, beaten voice that narrates the story, her reserved point of view that we inhabit. Like the rest of the movie, she seems more elemental that practiced.

 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Me and Peggie Castle

Dead women are dangerous. Those of us who write about them know this in our bones: falling in love with a dead woman is an invitation to madness.

I'm not sure when I fell in love with Peggie Castle. I first saw her films years ago, and it wasn't love at first sight. I mean, I always thought she was beautiful. And sexy. And fascinating. But my actual obsession with her started without me realizing.

One night I started doing research on her for an essay in the new issue of NOIR CITY. The next time I looked up, days had passed.

If you've never heard of Peggie Castle, don't feel bad. Most people haven't. Most film geeks haven't. Hell, most FILM NOIR geeks haven't. She was never famous. She was just another pretty and talented young woman who came to Hollywood with a lot of dreams that didn't come true. She had a brief career which she pursued with single-minded vigor but for some reason it just didn't...click. The ranks of noir goddesses are full of women with similar stories. There's no good reason that people like Martha Vickers and Helen Walker and Peggie Castle didn't become stars.They had everything stardom required except that last little bit of luck.

Of course, to be obsessed with one of these women is really to be entranced by the sheer ineffable nature of movies themselves. That's really, ultimately, what classic movie geekdom is all about, staring at silvery fragments of the past, looking for some kind of connection to ourselves, searching for that connection before we ourselves slip into the blackness.

      

Saturday, August 24, 2013

NOIR CITY: CHICAGO

In exactly one week from today, I'm moving to Chicago. My infinitely superior half and I are loading up our books and our cat and setting out. Excitement all around. Except for one thing...

Noir City Chicago is happening THIS week. Sponsored by my buddies at the Film Noir Foundation, it's another blockbuster program with masterpieces like TRY AND GET ME! (THE SOUND OF FURY), SUNSET BLVD., NIGHT AND THE CITY, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN and more. I would be there every day if I lived in Chicago--which I will in one week.

So do me a favor. If you live anywhere close, go check out NOIR CITY this week. Great movies, and the proceeds go to support the Film Noir Foundation and its mission to rescue and restore America's Noir heritage. Eat a tub of popcorn for me.

Here's the full schedule.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Laird Cregar in HANGOVER SQUARE

I have a new piece over at Criminal Element that looks at the tragic Laird Cregar. In the early forties, he was well on his way to becoming one of the great character actors when he died quite unexpectedly in an ill-fated attempt to turn himself into a leading man. I look at his life, death, and career by focusing on his last, best, role as a tormented composer in HANGOVER SQUARE.

Friday, August 9, 2013

CAGED (1950)

By and large, the Women In Prison flick is thought of today as a camp genre. Naked broads wrestling in the shower, vindictive lesbian guards abusing virginal newbies, and so forth--the cliches abound. What this obscures, though, is that some really fascinating work has been done in this genre over the years.

John Cromwell's 1950 CAGED is a good case in point. This isn't just the best WIP flick ever made, it's one of the finest film noirs produced in the classic era. It features smart direction, strikingly beautiful cinematography, snappy writing and a host of terrific performances. It is a masterpiece. Alan K. Rode made this point in the pages of Noir City a few years ago, and Oren Shai argued the point over at Bright Lights Film Journal.

And yet this brilliant film is available today only as part of a "camp classics" set. Don't let the packaging fool you. This is a great film.

For my full review check out my essay over at Criminal Element.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

My review of Season One of Jenji Kohan's new Netflix series ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is up at Criminal Element. Check it out here.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Interview at EVERY READ THING

This week, I stopped by Every Read Thing to talk about crime fiction, Ozark religion, my love of Margaret Millar, and much more. Click here to read the interview.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

COUNTDOWN CITY: THE LAST POLICEMAN BOOK II

Check out my review of Ben H. Winters's new novel COUNTDOWN CITY, the second book in his Last Policeman trilogy, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962)

In some ways John Ford's melancholy THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE represents the end of the era of the classic Western. You can read my new essay on the film over at Criminal Element.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pauline Kael on Jack Nicholson

A great new post over at The Stacks is made up of excerpts of Pauline Kael's observations about Jack Nicholson. It's fun to check in with some vintage Kael from time to time. Even when I disagree with her (i.e. her take on Gary Cooper, or her sloppy hatchet job on Orson Welles) it's always bracing to read her.

I like this post, in particular, because it's nice to be reminded of Nicholson in his prime--nice to be reminded that there was a time that he was young and wild and dangerous. Nicholson wasn't just great back in the day--he possessed the aura of something new and original.

Read Kael's piece over at The Stacks.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ellroy Talks

Here's a great interview (new to me via Jedidiah Ayres) with James Ellroy conducted by the Los Angeles Review Of Books. He talks about his ebook novella SHAKEDOWN, his approach to writing, and his current state of mind.

Click here for the interview on YouTube.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

How FAT CITY got made

Screw Rocky. Forget the Raging Bull. Tell the Cinderella Man to go find his glass slipper. For my money the greatest boxing flick of the past forty years is John Huston's 1972 FAT CITY. It's an extraordinary piece of work--dark, brilliant, and haunting. 

In all fairness, unlike ROCKY or CINDERELLA MAN (or even, to a lesser extent, RAGING BULL) it's not really a sports flick. It's a drama about boxers, and for all the interest it shows in fisticuffs, it could be a drama about guys who work at a factory. That's because unlike most every other boxing movie ever made, it's not really that interested in the mythology of the sport itself. It's interested in the people.

In that way, the movie it most reminds me of is Peter Yates's THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. That movie was a crime film that was wholly lacking in crime film cliches. It took its characters at face value and regarded criminal activity as another facet of capitalism. FAT CITY does the same thing with boxing. Here is a movie about boxers that doesn't lead up to "the big fight." There's an important, and brutal, battle toward the end but it's not the mythic fight that other boxing movies have programmed us to expect. FAT CITY doesn't present boxing as the romantic rite of passage for a stalwart hero (even RAGING BULL, for all its grittiness, contextualizes the boxing ring in religiously redemptive terms). Instead this film dramatizes boxing as a job done by poor men who supplement their income by working with itinerant workers in the lettuce fields. Nobody in this film was, is, or is ever gonna be the champion of anything. The best a boxer can hope for is a win and a manager who doesn't steal the whole purse. 

The film is a masterpiece by one of the masters of cinema, and its cast is nothing short of remarkable. Stacy Keach--at the time an experienced stage actor but still a relative newcomer to movies--is astonishingly good. He seems to have wandered out of a Robert Wise B-movie from the fifties. Jeff Bridges is baby faced and innately sympathetic. And as Keach's alcoholic girlfriend, Susan Tyrrell gives as good a performance as any I've ever seen. And I've see a lot. There's a long scene in a bar between Keach and Tyrell here that is simply perfect. It should be plucked out and shown in film schools. This is how you write, shoot, and act a scene between two characters who are flirting and fighting and falling in (something like) love.

All of this is to point you toward a great article over at The Stacks called "How A Great Boxing Novel Got The Movie It Deserved." It's a fascinating look at how Leonard Gardner's novel  found its way to Huston, as well as how the director brought it to the screen. Check it out. Great stuff.

  

Sunday, June 30, 2013

TWO-GUN LADY (1955)

If the movie TWO-GUN LADY were as good as its poster I'd love it. Sadly, it's not even half as good as the poster.

The film was just another dashed off ten cent oater that came and went without anyone taking notice. It's mostly notable today because it stars Peggie (spelled with a Y here) Castle, Marie Windsor, and William Talman--all excellent film noir stars. Its notable qualities end there, however, because none of these charismatic and capable actors get to do much.

Castle is the lady of the title, a sharp-shooter whose trying to track down her father's killer. Windsor plays the harpy who's in her way, and Talman plays the lawman Castle eventually falls in love with.

When William Talman is your romantic leading man you're in trouble. Talman is most famous today for playing Perry Mason's hapless legal opponent, the DA Hamilton Burger, but he's better known to noir fans as the deranged pyscho of a half dozen fifties thrillers, most memorably in Ida Lupino's THE HITCH-HIKER. He was a fine actor and a striking screen presence, but watching him suck in his gut and try to play a love scene with beautiful Peggie Castle is just painful. (Maybe it was painful for him as well. He looks miserable.)

For me the biggest sin here is that the film is so flaccid and uninspired. Look at the that poster again. It promises a firecracker leading lady kicking ass and looking good doing it. Peggie Castle was a wonderful actress, but she's miscast as a woman of passion. She was a cool screen presence rather than a hot one. Of course, she could have been excellent a killer coldly seeking revenge, but the film doesn't even consider that possibility. Instead, what we get is one boring expository scene after another, with a poorly done action sequence thrown in occasionally.



     

Friday, June 28, 2013

Rave Review for THE POSTHUMOUS MAN





In the latest issue of Crime Factory, Eva Dolan gives THE POSTHUMOUS MAN a rave review.

A bit of what she has to say:

THE POSTHUMOUS MAN is a lesson in the art of the novella, with spare prose, striking set-pieces and big themes distilled down into a few perfectly conceived moments, it is the kind of book you will find yourself thinking about for days after you finish it.

To read the first chapter of the THE POSTHUMOUS MAN click here.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Some Thoughts On SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE In The Wake OF MAN OF STEEL


I saw MAN OF STEEL the other day, and I liked it. I didn't love it, as some people seem to. And I didn't hate it, as an equal amount of people seem to. It hit me right down the middle--I liked it more than GREEN LANTERN or THOR but not as much as CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER or THE DARK KNIGHT.

It did put me in the mind to rewatch Richard Donner's SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, a movie I loved as a child but haven't watched in a while. 

Here are some observations from my viewing last night [Note, I'm assuming readers will have seen both films]:

1. SUPERMAN was probably the last charming superhero movie. Despite the grandeur of the opening Krypton scenes and the big action set pieces later on, the spirit of the thing is gentle and fun. It takes its source material seriously (at times, too seriously--Exhibit A: Marlon Brando's plagiarism of John 3:16), but overall it's got a light touch. It is, in a word, charming.

2. It owes a great deal of its charm to Christopher Reeve. He's beautiful here--part sly comedian, part stalwart hero. What's interesting, though, is the way Reeve occupies a delightful middle ground between those two poles most of the time. His Superman has a sense of humor, a wit that appreciates the absurdity of his situation--both in and out of his cape. Contrast this with, say, Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark and you'll see the difference. Downey's Stark has charisma--as an actor, Downey exudes charisma like a pheromone--which is what makes the Iron Man movies so much fun. But charisma is different than charm. Tony Stark is a playboy, a badass, a jester who stands aloof from the world and mocks its absurdities. Reeve's Clark Kent is a gentle spirit--he winks rather than sneers. One approach is not innately better than the other, but it is evidence that we live in a harder climate superhero-wise. I can't think of the last charming performance in a superhero role.

3. Henry Cavil is playing a different character than Reeve. His Clark Kent is more neurotic, harder around the edges, less of a boy scout. He's closer to Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne than Reeve's Clark Kent.

4. The Krypton in SUPERMAN is a really original idea for an alien planet. I don't know enough to say whether or not it adheres to the Krypton of the comic books pre-John Byrne (Byrne's 1980s run on Superman is really all I know of the books), but it doesn't look like anything else in the movies. The block-ice surface of the planet, the giant dome, the weird crystal technology--it all stays fresh. The Krypton in MAN OF STEEL, in contrast, looks a lot like a planet that would have been in one of the STAR WARS prequels.

5. The first ten minutes or so of MAN OF STEEL are, all on their own, pretty bad. A lot of exposition, a lot of derivative sets, and a lot of action that's standard action movie fisticuffs. And Michael Shannon screams a lot. In short, it's a lot.

6. SUPERMAN has Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter as Superman's adoptive parents. (Two film noir icons, btw.) Both are excellent and create, in just a couple of brief scenes, the sense of middle-American groundness that Clark takes with him the rest of the movie. Brando got paid a heap of cash to play Jor-El, but less of him is more. (The expanded director's cut of the film has way too much Brando. It starts to feel like he's popping up just to justify his huge payday rather than to serve any story purpose.) Glenn Ford, on the other hand, is in the movie for about five minutes and has more emotional impact.

7. In MAN OF STEEL, Kevin Costner pretty much does to Russell Crowe what Ford did to Brando. Then again, maybe I'm just more partial to Kansas farmers than Kryptonian scientists. That's a distinct possibility.

8. Margot Kidder gets criticized by certain folks because she's not hot enough to be Lois Lane. Which misses the point. She's spunky and quirky--like a girl reporter in a 30s newspaper movie. Another actress might have disappeared in that role. Kidder gives it a nice screwball twist. [Amy Adams in MAN OF STEEL is good in a more conventionally written role. She plays the role straight, and the filmmakers make the brilliantly simple choice to have Lois discover Clark is Supes before he even attempts the whole Clark Kent charade. Doing this deftly sidesteps one of the biggest obstacles in accepting their romance.)

9. Gene Hackman pretty much invented the way you play a super villain. Part funny, part scary. Everyone from Jack Nicholson to Tom Hiddleston owes him a debt. [Michael Shannon's Zod gets better as MAN OF STEEL goes on, mostly because he gets to stop and take the occasional breath. The opening scenes have him at full pitch--and Shannon hits a high pitch--but the actor is better when he ramps up to fury. He's the master of the slow burn that explodes in rage. I love Michael Shannon. He's one of my favorite actors and he does a good job with this role, but as a character Zod is pretty much a one dimensional would-be dictator. I hope that in the sequel we get a character with a little more nuance.]

10. The debate over MAN OF STEEL's ending is overblown. Yes, Superman isn't a killer, but he's a warrior and sometimes people die. Remember that Zod dies in SUPERMAN II as well. Though, just to be clear, in MAN OF STEEL I don't know why Superman didn't either sweep Zod's legs or throw up his hand to block Zod's heat vision. [Wow. I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.] For that matter, here's one last word on SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE: when Lois dies at the end and Superman turns back time to save her (never been sure exactly how he did that, by the way) wouldn't he also have turned back everything else? Wouldn't some of the people he saved in the previous scenes now perish? That ending never made any damn sense.      

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Robert Mitchum: The King Of Noir

All hail Robert Mitchum! With all due love and respect to Bogart, Ryan, Hayden, and McGraw there really can only be one King Of Noir--that sleepy-eyed devil with the I-Don't-Care attitude.

I argue my case for King Bob over at Criminal Element. In the first of two parts, I track his early years as a teenage drifter to his rise as a Hollywood leading man. In the second part, I follow his later years, his work in neo-noir, and the end of his life.

An observation that I didn't make in the essay but that I wanted to make here: one of the main reasons that Mitchum starred in so many good noirs is that he was the biggest star at RKO, which was the leading producer of noirs during the classic era of the genre (film historian Eddie Muller calls RKO "the house of noir"). While there, he was a personal favorite of RKO president Howard Hughes, who not only excused the actor after his potentially career-ending drug bust (had he been another studio he might well have been fired) but also cast him in some of his best noirs (WHERE DANGER LIVES and ANGEL FACE). Hughes singlehandedly destroyed RKO through bizarre mismanagement, but in at least in this one instance his obsessions paid off.

To read The King Of Noir: Part I click here.
To read The King of Noir: Part II click here.