Archive for March, 2011

March 30, 2011

french postcards

by Megan Abbott

I’m freshly back from the Quais du Polar, a crime fiction and film festival in Lyon, France. The entire time, glued to the side of my wonderful French editor, Marie-Caroline Aubert (a glorious redhead who was once the translator of no less than Donald Westlake), I felt too lucky by half.  Which I was.

Trust me: to say I felt more than a little like an imposter is not false modesty. In every room, I knew far less than everyone else. After all, the French know noir. I had to keep my game on for conversations well into the night about Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox’s complicated romance in Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the particular genius of Deadwood and why I must see the 1971 movie Vanishing Point. Much like a Frenchier, larger version of NoirCon.  (Thankfully, my knowledge of Rip Torn apparently did exceed everyone else’s.)

Perhaps the highlight of the visit for me–other than a new appreciation for what felt like 24-hour wine drinking–was a trip to the Institut Lumiere (English here), a museum, archive and theater dedicated to preserving and celebrating French filmmaking, with special focus on Auguste and Louis Lumière – inventors of the cinematography and among the very first filmmakers. As part of the Quais du Polar, they were screening films noirs and I introduced The Big Heat, Fritz Lang’s nasty 1953 movie starring Glenn Ford as an honest cop and Gloria Grahame as the “kept woman” of a vile gangster (memorably played by Lee Marvin).

I admit, while I always liked The Big Heat, it was never in my upper pantheon, though its female star, Gloria Grahame, is indisputably my favorite noir actress, occupying a powerful position in my imagination. No slithery Ava Gardner vixen, no ethereal beauty like Gene Tierney, she is more minx than siren, more pixie than femme fatale. And yet. And yet she is a crackling presence, a hot, messy, complicated one. There’s just no one like her.

Somehow, she seems to embody everything I love about the genre—its heady, sticky mix of desire and rage, sordidness and yearning, the aching sense that something went wrong somewhere and now there’s no saving us.

On the one hand, tucked in that pouty lip of hers, curled in that slippery, cooing voice lies all the genre’s fleshy pleasures.

On the other hand, in that haunting way her face can arrest itself, her body skittering into itself to protect itself, lies all the heartbreak of the genre. She carries them both: lust and loss, shallowness and depth.

So, in preparation, I rewatched the movie. And I’m so glad I did. It felt like a different movie than the one I’d remembered as a well-done but rancid bit of ’50s noir thuggery. I’d missed all its complexities, and much of its, well, beauty. [Potential spoilers ahead]

First, it’s a movie populated by interesting women—strong, even brittle, experienced yet perpetual victims. Victims of their own sense of inutility (their worth seems only to be defined by their smooth, shiny surface).

But victims most of all the peerless brutality of the men around them. And I’m not just talking about the “bad guys.” The hero, Glenn Ford’s, carelessness with his wife echoes of the more obviously cruelties of the thugs in the film—over and over again, fire destroys women in this movie, fires ignited by men.

As some critics have pointed out, The Big Heat upturns the classic noir paradigm of the femme fatale enticing men to their death. Here, driven by his complicated mix of knightly ideals and dangerous masculine bravado, Ford is the fatal man, responsible in part for the destruction of every woman in the film.

But I will admit, my largest pleasures in the film are not analytical ones. They’re visceral. When I first saw The Big Heat as a young girl, the thing in it that mattered most was the gleaming sight of Gloria Grahame in her mink.

The creamy pelted garment becomes a key motif in the film. Late in the story, Grahame tells a fellow fur-cloaked woman,  “We’re sisters under the mink.”

The mink coat signifies prestige, material success. But also a kind of animalism, and a kind of enslavement. The mink comes to mean everything, and risks swallowing Grahame whole.

Midway through the film, all the characters converge at a nightclub called The Retreat. It’s a pivotal moment, when Grahame makes a key choice, a brave one.

The Retreat, Gloria at right.

What strikes me most about the scene is the way Grahame, perched on a bar stool, wears her mink, casually draped off her lovely white shoulders. It seems to drip off her, skating across her pearly arms. She wears the mink not like a skin, but merely something she’s trying on, part-way, because she feels she should, but it just might slip off at any moment so she can reveal the real Grahame beneath.

In a scene late in the film, when Gloria has risked her skin for the greater good and is taking charge, she wears the coat tightly bound, clasped at the neck. The fur has become hers now, and she wears it like a powerful armor

Gloria Grahame’s personal life was often chaotic and mostly unhappy. She brings those shadows to all her characters, and the yearning too. We see that here. It makes us yearn for her, on her behalf.

In the film’s most famous scene, Grahame’s shiny surface is ruined forever—but, when writing the introduction, I started to think about it instead as a purification, a baptism. After, she is transformed, born again. In a genre supposedly without heroes, she is a hero.

March 27, 2011

forgive us

by Sara Gran

Apologies for the light posting here this week. Rest assured Megan and I are doing VERY GLAMOROUS, IMPORTANT and FASCINATING  things with ourselves (and in Megan’s case, that’s actually true!), we miss you terribly, and we will return in a few days.

March 20, 2011

haven’t I given you everything

by Megan Abbott

It is with complicated feelings that I anticipate the upcoming HBO production of Mildred Pierce. (Of course, I don’t have HBO, so it will be an attenuated anticipation.) Supposedly, it’s a more faithful adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel than the 1945 film, impeccably cast with Joan Crawford at her best (both warmer and funnier than she’s ever remembered), Ann Blyth, sly and impudent and magnificent.

And I particularly love the superb Jack Carson, an actor so often stuck in the role of the wisecracking sidekick, parts he made memorable anyway, including with his famed doubletake. Here, he hits the perfect sweet spot of sleazy warmth, a combination for which I’ve always had a weakness. (Recently, I’ve had several conversations about Carson–about his immense capacity to teeter just slightly towards the rancid edge of true sordidness, and pathos. If only he’d had lived long enough to have a part like Gig Young in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Think of how dark he may have let himself get…)

As much as I love the original Mildred Pierce, however, I am not so enraptured with it that a remake seems verboten. My larger worry stems from my deep love of the book. (For a wonderful homage to the book, see Laura Lippman’s piece here, or in A Hell of A Woman.)

For those who know it, the book is an impossibly fascinating study of a woman’s rise in the restaurant business during the Depression. Cain, a master storyteller, tells a too rarely told tale, how a woman, under perilous circumstances (a ne’er do well husband, two daughters to support, about to slip from middle class to the dangerous nether-zone of underclass) makes herself into something quite powerful. And the pleasure it gives her, such as when she makes her first shy pitch to Wally, who will become her business partner:

They have steak places. And fish places. And I thought — well, down where I work practically every other order is for chicken, so it looks to me as though we ought to have plenty of customers. And then I wouldn’t have to fool around with those a la carte prices, or bookkeeping, or menus or leftovers, or anything like vegetables. Everybody gets a chicken-and-waffle dinner, or chicken and vegetables, if they want, but all at the same price. And then I’ll have pies to take out, and keep on getting all the wholesale pie business that I can, and — well, it looks like one would help the other. I mean, the pies would help the restaurant and the restaurant would help the pies.

As Cain does with the insurance business in Double Indemnity, Cain renders Mildred’s efforts with a reporter’s touch for fine detail, the ways Mildred has to maneuver property, handle wholesalers, manage her staff, all while making sure that meringue is two inches thick. The giddiness of Mildred’s pleasure when she sees her first showcase installed, brightly lit with reflectors gleaming on her pies. Her glorious pies. Which will be worth the expense, reflectors at seven cents a piece, wire at ten cents, sockets , screws and plugs for about a dollar. A couple bucks investment, “but it ought to sell pies.”

pies (wayne thiebaud/NY Times)

And it does. Moments like these, moments when Mildred’s restaurant door clangs with entering customers, when she realizes she can expand, her pride is lovingly rendered by Cain.

All this pleasure in the book without even getting to its dark center: the sordid weirdness of Mildred’s twisty relationship with her rotten daughter.

It’s a wonder of a novel, and filled with minute domestic details and the stuff of everyday living, including its everyday raptures, guilt and grief. But the HBO trailer, it worries me.

It looks sumptuous in the way that Todd Haynes’s movies are sumptuous–ways I love (I know Far From Heaven is a divisive movie but for me–I love Douglas Sirk, I love Todd Haynes’s love of Sirk, I love the whole autumn plastic wonder of it.)

But this is not a book I associate with sumptuousness, or the ambery 1930s of so many period pieces. This is, after all, a novel that ends with the line, “Yes–let’s get stinko.” It’s a book about chicken grease and aprons and the gas bill and the delivery truck, all the things the ungrateful Veda detests about her mother’s world. And it’s a tale of mothers smacking daughters and the routine unforgivable betrayals within families that break and rebreak the spirit of everybody and turn them hard. It’s about fighting for every little thing and it never being enough. It’s the best part of domestic melodrama–and Cain, the hardboiled master, does melodrama superbly–no surprise if you think about it. (Crime novels and melodrama have so much in common, primal emotion stretched to its wire-tight limits, battering against social constraints, the law itself. Often exploding into violence.)

That said, I remain hopeful. In a recent interview, Todd Haynes said the most wonderful thing.  Asked about why he’s attracted to melodrama, often derided as “women’s pictures,” he said:

Stories about women in houses are the real stories of our lives.

March 19, 2011

Some Reservations

by Sara Gran
Waffles and Chicken from Roscoe's on Pico Boul...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve always both loved and hated Anthony Bourdain’s work–his books about food and travel and his TV show (I’ve heard good things about his crime novels, but I haven’t read them). Love: goes to interesting places, eats at places I would actually eat, talks to people who aren’t exclusively ex-pats, good writer, tells the truth as he perceives it (although we certainly differ in that perception more often than not), has wonderful writers like Nick Tosches, Jerry Stahl, and Daniel Woodrell on his show. Love less: the anti-vegetarian schtick (meat is a luxury for most people on the planet, not an everyday commodity!), the fact that he seems only vaguely aware that women, you know, also write books and do stuff, seems entirely unaware that people of African descent live in our nation (never heard of chicken & waffles before Jerry Stahl took him to LA’s Roscoe’s?!?! And has he EVER been to an African American neighborhood in the US?). Most of all on the “love less” list is the fact that, until fairly recently, Bourdain was pretty heavily promoting a kind of pre-packaged consumerist rebellion that I really do not like. If you like cigarettes and leather jackets and a nasty attitude and lots of steak, I don’t object to that–I wholeheartedly support everyone liking exactly what they like. But if you’re going to try to sell that stance off as somehow opposed to the status quo, I’m not buying it. Killing yourself, the planet, and other creatures so that mega-corporations can get even more of your money is not a rebellion! Neither is accepting an old and worn path of “revolution” that never seems to go anywhere except the same old boring circles of blame and slides right into the useless slot assigned such “rebels” by society. In my opinion, loving yourself, staying healthy, making your own choices about how to live, and most of all, realizing that you are a divinely empowered being is the only revolution that counts. But over the years Bourdain seems to have dropped some of the “rebellion” and appears to have been humbled by his travels, and I’ve come to like him more and more.

His new season of “No Reservations,” though, is so far like a deconstructed, depressed, melt-down of a travel show. So far he’s been to Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Haiti, some of the poorest countries in the world, where he’s eaten at refugee camps, closed restaurants, and terrible-looking roadside stands. In Nicaragua he visited a garbage dump where people live and, clearly devastated, was filmed getting drunk and depressed in a bar that night. At the garbage dump he kept saying things like “I don’t want to sound like Sally Struthers, but…” or “This isn’t Save the Children, but…,” as if he didn’t have words for compassion without cynicism. Later he examined–and found lacking–his own understanding of leftist politics. In Cambodia, he admitted (in so many words) that he’d gone with the entirely wrong approach on previous visits, and far from offering some kind of pithy summary at the end he confessed that no summary was possible: it was wrong to try to figure Cambodia out or distill it to its essence–the central cliché of travel television. It’s like he’s taken the idea of a travel show and inverted it into some kind of anti-show; a kind of statement on economics and power and television and, maybe most of all, on one man who seems (and I know TV lies) truly stunned by what he’s seen over the years–and perhaps wounded in the best possible way.

I have a strange feeling this will be his last season, so enjoy it while you can.

March 17, 2011

Contracts & Magic

by Sara Gran
Land sales contract. Sumerian clay tablet, ca....

Image via Wikipedia

I used to think contracts were boring. As soon as I got to a point in career where I had agents, lawyers, and accountants, I tossed it all in their laps and walked away.

Then, about nine months ago, two of my books went out of print. I thought I’d ask for the rights back and the publisher would give them. I had contracts! I thought contracts were magic, and I was right. But I was wrong about the kind of magic that contracts are. I thought contracts were a paper shield that would protect me from anyone who wanted to do me harm. When my publisher started arguing that the books were in print, because, see, you could buy them from this one website if you hit it at just the right time and asked nice, I thought all I had to do was wave my contract around. It would issue its white light of protection, the enemy would be vanquished, and I would ride away with my rights intact.

But that’s not the kind of magic contracts are. A contract is not an amulet of protection. A contract is a long, very detailed magic spell, cast by a coven of interested parties to create certain future events. A contract is created in exactly the same way as any other spell. First, you write down what you want. As Grant Morrison has famously said, that’s why it’s called spelling–the written word is believed by many to have magic powers of its own. In many mystical schools alphabets themselves –Sankskrit, runes, Hebrew–are believed to be extraordinarily powerful; for example in some understandings of Hebrew, the letters that compose the name of God are thought to be too powerful to say out loud or spell on paper; in Sanskrit, we use mantras, the repetitions of certain combinations of letters and words, to change reality (or, maybe more accurately, to ask the powers of the universe to change it for us). The next step in a spell is to  use some kind of ritual to make your words real. This is how you communicate to the universe that you want these words to be real (and of course, we don’t do this with our novels, because we don’t want them to become real!) You can burn what you’ve written, bury it, dip it honey, burn a candle over it, hand it over to a saint, or, in the case of contracts, sign it. Then you reap your rewards.

I was, to put it mildly, not happy with my publisher’s approach–all I have in life that’s worth anything financially are the rights to my books, my laptop, and a fifteen year old car. I’ve made many sacrifices for these rights and I don’t take them lightly. (Bookstores sell books. Writers sell rights.) So I read my contract. Then I read it again. And again and again and again. It took about 15 reads before I really understood it–I’d never read a contract quite that closely before, and this was a particularly complicated one. I didn’t have the protection I thought I did, but the more I read the contract, I found other ways of protecting myself–see, that’s the amazing thing about a contract, and why its magic is so complex.  It’s a ten-thousand word spell. The magic isn’t in the words as they stand alone in this particular type of spell–it’s in how the words can combine, both within and without of the contract.  So although I didn’t  have the protection I thought I did, by examining some different combinations of these magical and powerful letters, I found new ways to protect myself. They weren’t in violation of the clause I’d assumed–but there were enough other violations there that I had a pretty good leg to stand on. See, publishers don’t read contracts very closely either, and if you look close enough, they are almost always in violation of something–they don’t understand these magical, powerful spells any better than we do (or did, because you get it now, right?).  The publishers were thinking like I was thinking: we have contracts! Yeah, you did–but like me, you didn’t really know what they said.

In the end, my brilliant deductions didn’t matter for this particular case–my agent got them to reprint the books by sheer force of will, another form of magic (generally speaking, whoever doesn’t give up wins. Wish I knew that one twenty years ago!). But now I eagerly read each and every contract cover to cover. And I’ve actually started to enjoy it. I’ve realized that every single possible combination of meaning to be found in a contract not only can, but likely will, come into reality to some day. After all, you’ve virtually asked it to do so. So these are not boring legal documents that cover a bunch of whiny bullshit possibilities that will never happen. They are magical blueprints of the future you are inviting into your life. Every word in a contract you sign is a possible future for you–a turn of reality you are likely to inhabit if you choose this road. You are ceremonially announcing to the universe: Yes, let’s make this my future.  Choose every letter carefully.

(And by the way: DOPE is now back in print from Berkeley and COME CLOSER is coming back in April from Soho Press.)

March 16, 2011

run, hazel!

by Megan Abbott

Courtesy of past guest, Karolina Waclawiak, who posted the link on Facebook, don’t miss a wonderful tour of mysterious glass-plate mug shots from 1920s Australia, over on NPR.

NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice & Police Museum/Historic Houses Trust of NSW

Many secrets reside in each and every one.

March 15, 2011

the half-closed box

by Megan Abbott

vc andrews

sketch by v.c. andrews (via simon & schuster)

Recently, I did something I probably haven’t done since I first signed up for Facebook: I actually looked at my profile. I’m guessing it was about two years old and the list of books I’d cited as my favorites so surprised me. Not because I don’t love all those books still but many of them seemed so remote to me now.

It struck me how “favorite books” are frequently a snapshot of yourself at a particular moment. Oh, right, that was when all I wanted to read about were gangsters and heists gone wrong. Or, Oh, yes, it had to be obscure British crime novels from just before the war. Or, ah, only stories about the struggles for meaning in midwestern towns.

Just returning now from a bookstore, scouring the shelves searching for compulsive airplane reading for an upcoming trip, I thought about this all some more. How returning to past books we loved are like tunnels into old selves, or parts of our selves that may be neglected (sometimes rightly so) or dormant, that may be gone forever. And sometimes, by returning to these books, we can return to those selves.

For instance, when I first fled–catapulted?–myself from the Michigan suburbs to move to my dream town, New York City, all I wanted to read was tales of suburban malaise–Rick Moody’s Ice Storm, A.M. Homes, Revolutionary Road. Now, more than 15 years free from the grosgrained handcuffs of my hometown ‘burb, Grosse Pointe, I no longer feel such a burning need to burn down that particular house.

Grosse Pointe

(My new book, The End of Everything, is my first set in the suburbs–one much like Grosse Pointe–and writing it let me recapture some of the magic and longing that had been there all along, but I had missed, or forgotten.)

Walking the aisles, I wondered about the me, age 27, who tore through Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, all 15,000 pages of it, and was enraptured. Often, I pull that book off the shelf and want to dip back in but something in me worries I couldn’t find myself in it, like wandering through an abandoned house.

But maybe I could. Two years ago, Sara and I wrote a piece about V.C. Andrews for The Believer, and returning to her dark, epicly perverse world after so many years, I could find pieces of myself spring back into place in alarming and exciting ways.

enchanted-castleThen, a few days ago, I saw some writer mention Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle as a favorite book as a child. Now that I think of it, it’s like the gilt-edged, proper sister to Flowers in the Attic, V.C. Andrews’ gothic tale of a pair of brothers and sisters locked in the family attic. Here’s Gore Vidal on the book:

There are those who consider The Enchanted Castle Nesbit’s best book. J. B.Priestley has made a good case for it, and there is something strange about the book which sets it off from the bright world of the early stories. Four children encounter magic in the gardens of a great deserted house. The mood is midnight. Statues of dinosaurs come alive in the moonlight, the gods of Olympus hold a revel, Pan’s song is heard. Then things go inexplicably wrong. The children decide to give a play. Wanting an audience, they create a number of creatures out of old clothes, pillows, brooms, umbrellas. To their horror, as the curtain falls, there is a ghastly applause. The creatures have come alive… Thwarted, they turn ugly. Finally, they are locked in a back room … It is the sort of nightmare that might have occurred to a highstrung child, perhaps to Nesbit herself.

Truthfully, I didn’t even know I remembered the book until suddenly I did. Like opening an old box (a locked room) and finding a childhood toy that was once your whole world and it slipped entirely from you. It made me want to read it again, with an awful longing.

March 14, 2011

You Are Not A Stranger Here

by Sara Gran
Never Love a Stranger

Image via Wikipedia

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the places people fall when they aren’t able to fall into love–because they’re not capable of love, because they already love someone else, because the person they have feelings for isn’t lovable, because they can’t let themselves love who they do. There should be a name for this place, where people who in another life could love each other instead set their demons loose to wage war. This dark universe is where a lot of the second Claire DeWitt book, which I’m writing now, takes place. It’s a place we’ve all visited, and some of us have taken up permanent residence–and if that’s you, I urge you to reconsider and remember there are better neighborhoods and yes, they will let you in.  No one has to live there, although many seem to have forgotten where the door out is.

Maybe no short story captures this place better than Adam Haslett’s The Beginnings of Grief, from his collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. And you are not a stranger here; everyone knows this place, this netherworld of not-love. I’ve had hours of discussion about the story with my friend filmmaker Mark Levine. We’re fascinated by a lot of the same themes–how people love/hate each other, how nothing is ever simple, how life is rarely what it seems and almost never what people tell you it should be. Now Mark is making a feature film based on The Beginnings of Grief. He’s got a kickstart going on to help get production started, and I hope you’ll check it out and, if you’re able, give him a hand to get it off the ground. And for the true Sara Gran fans, there’s some cool bonuses from me for donors, too.

March 12, 2011

they knew men, and how

by Megan Abbott

When I was, I’m guessing, about seven years old, I was entranced by 1930s movies, as viewed on Bill Kennedy at the Movies on WKBD-Channel 50 in Detroit (Kennedy merits his own post–a 1940s  Warner Brothers’ contract player, he was a true local gem and I owe him, and my  parents, all my movie love).

My first big movie star crushes were Jimmy Cagney and Jean Harlow, sparked by a mesmerized viewing of Public Enemy. My parents bought me a wonderful book, The Films of Jean Harlow (just looking at the cover now is like a madeleine), and I must have read and re-read every page countless times. She seemed the height of movie-star sophistication to me–the Platinum Blonde, white satin dresses always sliding off her shoulders, her sooty-black eyelashes and cherried mouth. Later, I would understand her star persona–less a glamour gal than a bombshell with a heart of gold (even when, before her persona was firmly in place, she played a bad girl, you never quite believed her).

The fact that she died so young, at age 26, and had such a hard life (many marriages, parasitic family members) made her story all the more compelling. I’m not sure what it was that so entranced me–my appreciation of her now, especially her immense comedic gifts, is an adult appreciation, a movie-lover’s appreciation.

But at age seven, eight, she represented something quite grand, sparkling, transcendent. I wonder too if her unique physicality was part of it–when not miscast, and when past the awkwardness of some of her earliest screen appearances, she had this completely natural way of moving, her lovely platinum body just seeming to slip from its clothes (she famously wore no undergarments). She seemed so comfortable in her own skin.  She was so vivid and vital and I loved her. I still do.

All month, Tuesdays on Turner Classic Movies are dedicated to her films and there are many rarely shown treasures (one, Three Wise Girls (1932), I DVR-ed last Tuesday but still, catching five minutes of it, I couldn’t stop watching. All its pre-Code majesty–Mae Clarke advising Jean on what undergarments to wear to attract a man, and how to walk in them–a moment which seems to appear in all pre-Code movies).

In honor, the famous rain barrel scene from Red Dust, with the incomparable Clark Gable, a close friend. After she died, he said, “She didn’t want to be famous. She wanted to be happy.”

March 9, 2011

he feels them, but he has to quell them

by Megan Abbott

Ian Fleming Talks to Raymond Chandler 1958 from 33hirtz on Vimeo.

I posted this delightful and fascinating conversation between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming on Facebook this morning and had so many fun interactions with folks I wanted to put it here too.

I’d never heard the exchange before it makes me love them both even more (Fleming such the adoring protegee, Chandler such the kind mentor). In it, Chandler speaks of beginning to write the eighth Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs, which had Marlowe marrying Linda Loring (the love interest from The Long Goodbye, if you don’t count Terry Lennox, which I do)  would go unfinished (later “finished” by Robert B. Parker). Chandler died the following year.

There are some real gems in here–Chandler asking Fleming why he always has to have a torture scene, and Fleming’s response; Chandler’s comment that he never felt any of his characters were villains.

But of special interest to me was Chandler’s utterly charming response when Fleming suggests, about 20 minutes in, that if the book isn’t going well, he could always kill off Linda.

“Kill her?” Chandler says. “Oh no, she’s too nice …. Much too nice to kill off.”

And the way he says it, with such warmth. Well. It’s wonderful.