Archive for ‘guests’

April 14, 2011

On William Harrington: My Uncle the Thriller Author

by stonafitch

Author’s Note 10/22/18: To the relative who asked me to remove this inherently incomplete and admittedly harsh essay, a polite no. If I start unpublishing everything I write that offends someone, there won’t be anything left. I think my brilliant, contrarian uncle would be okay with that.

I’ve been thinking lately about a writer I can pretty much guarantee none of you have ever heard of – William Harrington. He wrote or ghostwrote twenty-five novels, including many of the Washington thrillers of presidential spawn Margaret Truman and Elliott Roosevelt, novelizations of the “Columbo” series, several Harold Robbins novels, and his own thrillers. In the New York Times, Anatoyle Broyard praised his clean writing and research.

Like a lot of dead writers, Bill Harrington is pretty much forgotten. But he was my uncle and the only writer I knew when I was growing up, so he holds a special place in my pantheon. His story proves that writers make terrible relatives and worse role models. You’ll see why soon enough.


I remember Uncle Bill as a demi-god of 1970s New York City, a manly man who flew his own plane into Teterboro for long lunches at La Grenouille with his agent and Terry Southern. Velvety suits with wide lapels, plates of duck a l’orange and flaming crepes for dessert. Plenty of Chablis all around. Bordeaux from the fine 1970 vintage. Nights with Peter Falk at the Playboy Club on East 59th.

I’m making most of this up, of course. But that’s probably the life he had in mind – like Hef, Harold Robbins, Burt Reynolds, and Esquire men.

The real Uncle Bill was often charming and occasionally mean but it was excusable because he was a writer, and so, insecure and deeply flawed. He looked like a pocket-sized Norman Mailer, without as much genius or popularity but with an extra dose of street smarts. Bill inspired a kind of fearful awe in our family because he was pretty much always half-drunk and prone to conversational bullying.

Bill took great delight in turning any family occasion into a debacle, which I appreciated, kind of:

Florida, 1968–Family vacation. We climb a tower at a scenic overlook. When everyone else is climbing down, Bill grabs me by the ankles and hangs my scrawny, seven-year-old ass, Pip-like, above the Everglades. When I scream and squirm like a psychotic shrimp, he tells me now you know what if feels like to be scared.

Cincinnati, 1974–Thanksgiving Dinner. Uncle Bill waves me forward from across the table. But instead of asking me to pass the sweet potatoes, he says Have you tasted your own sperm yet? He gives a wan smile as if a special treat awaits me. Then snorts into his Scotch.

Columbus, 1977–Some college bar. The place is empty and no one else in our family is drinking since it’s about noon. But Uncle Bill is marinating in Scotch. To shock us, he’s going on about homosexuality. He says he might suck a cock but definitely wouldn’t let someone fuck him up the ass. As if. By then he looked like Larry Flynt, with a big muff of smokebush hair waving over his gray eyes and a potbelly that begged for luggage wheels.

Each Christmas, like a pulp fiction Unibomber, Uncle Bill would sign his latest hardcover and mailed it to my straight-arrow father, who hid Bill’s books in the Siberian reaches of the knotty-pine bookshelves of our den. Unbeautiful and chunky, Bill’s books were hyper-commercial and smelled of cheap paper and ink, like gun catalogs. Mister Target. An English Lady (his hit). The Search for Elizabeth Brandt (not sure what that one’s about). Virus (a computer thriller before anyone owned a computer). Trial (an early legal thriller).

Left alone at home, I would pull over a chair and climb up to retrieve one of Uncle Bill’s reputedly dirty novels, seduced by their inky perfume. When I was about ten, I turned to a scene about a devious pervert who had gathered up a thin gay junkie and a busty young whore – and forced them to wear scuba suits while having sex for his amusement. Then, much to their surprise (and definitely to mine), the devious pervert plugged in a hidden cable connected to electrodes in the scuba suits and ffffssssstttt.

They were electrocuted via their smoke-spewing pudendum!

I closed the book. This was sex, which everyone seemed to want to do? Where was I going to find a scuba suit? And what about those devious perverts and their electric cables?

My worldview was twisted forever.

Lest you think he was just a garden-variety sick pup, Uncle Bill was a technology savant if not a literary giant. He was a successful attorney and avid pilot. He wrote provocative editorials and orchestrated media confrontations. He co-developed the pioneering LEXIS database, which evolved into an information service that lawyers rely on every day.

That said, he was also a very sick pup.

I had dinner with Bill spring of my senior year in college, hoping for advice for a young writer about to venture out into the marketplace. What I got instead was an evening-long, soul-killing rant about his huge book advances, celebrities he knew, and how bad most other writers (Harold Robbins!) were.

Harold Robbins and friends

After dinner, which included drinking most of the red wine in southern Connecticut, my ursine uncle padded off to his study to write. I could barely walk but Uncle Bill was writing, or appeared to be. My last memory of that night? His puffy face and glittering eyes lit green by the screen of his expensive PC, the first I had ever seen.

There goes a pro, I thought at the time, too young to recognize a drinker with a writing problem. After that, I lost touch with Uncle Bill on purpose, trying to avoid contagion from the palpable bitterness that pumped through him like central air.

Then in 2000, Uncle Bill walked out the front door of his Greenwich mini-mansion and blew his brains out with his fancy German pistol. “William G. Harrington, a mystery novelist with a long career as a collaborator with celebrity authors, died at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut,” the Times obit duly recorded. “The police said he apparently committed suicide, writing his own obituary before he died. His writing career spanned 37 years.” They didn’t run the obit he wrote, of course.

I have to assume that it wasn’t drinking that killed Uncle Bill, or divorce, or declining talent. It was corrosive disappointment. I see his sad but not necessarily tragic life as a cautionary tale for writers – of serious money earned and respect denied, talent accrued and squandered, very good deals followed by deals with the Devil, novels thick with cops and soldiers that led to a final tale of a Luger in his own pale, shaking hand.

Writing is a decathlon of disappointment, even for writers who do well at it. Talk to most writers and they’ll tell you about the major film interest that almost happened but didn’t, the deal with Knopf that went south, the novel that never found a publisher, the foreign rights that floundered. Writers collect disappointment like normal people collect lint.

When my father died a few years ago I took his stack of Uncle Bill’s novels to Goodwill in Montgomery, Ohio and dropped them off with the other debris from the basement. It took three or four trips from the Buick. I never even thought about keeping one of his books. They were bad voodoo, tainted by Bill’s Scotch-scented paw. If I had thought about it, I probably would have burned the books just in case. Their dense, heavily foxed pages would have made a nice blaze in the woodstove for an evening.

A jumble of thousands of books lines the walls of our house – writers I revere or not, books that serve as beacons of brilliance or warning lights, novels I don’t particularly like written by friends I do. When it comes to books, we’re non-denominational. So why didn’t I just put Bill’s up in the outer reaches like my father used to, as a top-shelf memorial to the other writer in the family?

Because they were reminders of something few writers (or people, generally) want to know: Most of our big plans for ourselves probably won’t happen.

Still life with bunnies

Even for Uncle Bill. Trolling through louche 1970s New York City, getting hired to write for big money, living in his Cos Cob mini-mansion with a fluffy dog named Easy (for easy lay; the dog was a slut and Bill sexualized everything) – it all never quite added up to what he had in mind. So he wound up dead. And not happy dead, surrounded by loved ones in a hospice or slipping off at 92 in his sleep. He died alone on his doorstep, brains on the lawn, Luger in his hand, as two-dimensional an ending as any he ever penned.

Writers create people out of words. So why shouldn’t we create expectations out of some version of talent, the occasional break, and bits of praise? The trajectory leads ever upward. Except when its doesn’t. How we deal with the inevitable disappointments seems to make all the difference between a writing life and a bitter end.

A couple of weeks ago I made some truly half-assed attempts to track down Uncle Bill’s agent, lawyer, and other remaining cohorts. But when I heard their tired voices on my voicemail I didn’t have the heart to call them back and dredge up what I’m certain would have been mixed memories of the late William Harrington, American novelist.

I could have called my aunt, who plays piano bars down in Florida, or my cousin in Arkansas. But we’ve been out of touch for years and pestering them about their dead husband/father didn’t seem like a particularly kind way to get reacquainted.

So I didn’t make the calls or do the legwork. I cared but not that much. I already know what I need to about Uncle Bill. And now so do you. Bill Harrington was a writer who fooled himself until he couldn’t anymore. He was a good father and a perverse uncle. He lived high and died low. He was incredibly smart and sharp. He wrote and published twenty-five books.

We should all be so lucky. Right?

For an intro to Stona, click here.

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April 14, 2011

hand on the button: meet Stona …

by Megan Abbott


Ladies and gents, we welcome Stona Fitch, novelist (his novels, including the dire and wondrous and appalling Senseless and the lush, seductive Give + Take) are not to be missed) and founder of the exciting venture, Concord Free Press, which publishes and distributes (for free!) original novels throughout the world, asking readers make a voluntary donation to a charity or person in need. (BTW, Concord Free Press most recently published Scott Phillips’ dynamite novel, RUT; get your copy while you can.)

These details do not begin to sum up Stona, who is also founder of Gaining Ground, a nonprofit farm, a former reporter and former member of the band Scruffy The Cat (for whom he played mandolin, accordion, organ and electric banjo).

I swear, all these things are true.

And yet, honestly, having known Stona about five years now, these details don’t begin to sum him up, or gather his talents. And it is only through knowing Stona that I once met Gore Vidal on the top of the Raleigh Hotel in South Beach. I was too nervous to say more than three words to Mr. Vidal (those three words may well have been: “It’s Gore Vidal”), but I am forever grateful to Stona, all the more so for the chance to read his books.

Upcoming and not-to-be-missed, we have  Stona’s reminiscence of his Writer Uncle, William Harrington.

1. What is your greatest fear?

Accidentally cutting off a finger. One of mine, that is.

2. What is your favorite way of spending time?

Walking around a new city all day and getting lost. Falling in with the locals, gaining their trust through charm and guile, stealing their stories, leaving them scratching their heads.

3. What is your most treasured possession?

My collection of Cuban landsnail shells, genus polymita, from the 1940s. Worthless but beautiful, like most of the things I pick up.

4. When and where were you happiest? Right now, of course. Never look back. Or ahead. And definitely don’t take a close look at your feet and think about birds.

5. What is your greatest indulgence?

Old wine.

6. Where would you like to live?

Edinburgh grafted to New York, with Cuba just off the coast of Brooklyn.

7. What is the quality you are most drawn to a person?

Someone who’s interested in everything, up to a point.

8. How would you like to die?

Accidentally crushed by my forty-seven great-grandchildren’s loving but super-clumsy embrace.

9. What is your secret superstition?

Like Pavlov’s typing dog, I listen to the same music over and over when I write.

10. What was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had?

I wake up screaming about once a week, just ask the neighbors. Usually it’s about water. I hate water.

11. What song do you most hear in your head?

“Afternoon Delight” shows up way too often, as does “Beat on the Brat” from the Ramones. “When I’m Small” from Phantogram surface when I’m driving. Late at night, Arvo Part chimes in. Mostly I just hear a high-pitched hum, sonic residue from standing in front of a stack of amplifiers for years.

12. What do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly?

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue.

13. What do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative?

Narco-yoga.

14. What’s something you never told anyone?

Before she left town forever, my mother said “Goodbye, Steve. Be good.” Don’t call me Steve. Don’t expect me to be good. Never say goodbye.

Follow Stona and Concord Free Press on Twitter.

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 4, 2011

Luscious Collisions: the third of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

In the previous two posts I’ve enumerated some of the principal characteristics of noir, and maintained that if we approach these films with an open mind and a supple methodology we can’t help but see how consistently and self-consciously noir demonstrates these characteristics.

To recap some of the salient points from those posts (and build upon them), films noir often stage tribute shots to one another in ways that simultaneously reinforce the visual style and reflect upon it: these careful framings of frames generate narrative action and a de facto critical commentary upon that action.  Likewise, these films often stage the collapse and collusion of the narrative and the extra-narrative in ways that similarly constitute critical self-reading (what I’ve referred to as auto-exegesis).  We’ve discussed that tendency in terms of the death of Welles’s Quinlan in Touch of Evil (and, we might point out, the death of noir more generally: it’s not an accident that film starts with an explosion and then precedes to blow apart all our expectations about noir (nor is it any wonder, then, that most consider it the last noir of noir’s classic period)).  We could likewise point to the ways Sunset Blvd. turns itself, the movie business and Hollywood history inside out.  Examples of such self-reflexive moments abound in noir, and if we aren’t hip to them, we’ll find our own critical reflections have already been “plagiarized by anticipation” by the films themselves (for more on the term “self-reflexive”, see the comment thread to my first post below).

If that is the narratology of noir, its philosophy is something else.  While noir is consistently playful in the former arena, it is most often deadly serious in the later (though it can be comically serious, as in the case of the poodle breaks Johnny Clay’s will in The Killing, or the monkey funeral that fundamentally alters Joe Gillis’s lot in Sunset Blvd.).  In yesterday’s post I explored noir’s surprisingly consistent world view, maintaining that noir is a particular form of absurdist existentialism, wherein noir players come to understand both their own complicity in the crime (sometimes the bigger Crime, existence itself) and the absurdity of their action as part of their inability to remain inactive.

Now I’d like to briefly consider what all this allows noir to do. What comes of these postulates?  What are the resultants of such an equation?

If we understand noir only as a visual style, as so many have, we will see that it spread out quickly but thinly on the surface of other contemporary films styles—covering them with a superficial darkness.  Those noir-stained films have not, generally speaking, endured.  Yet those are the films scholars will point to if they’re interested in saying noir is just a style (not a genre, not something more).  Those are the films that have allowed some scholars, interested in seeing noir as a short-lived and easily containable mid-century phenomenon, to say just that.  And those are the trappings of style that made noir an easy target of parody in film and literature, from the forties onward.

But if we think about noir as a substantial and nuanced philosophical position, and a film style that has an uncommon ability to allow filmmakers to reflect upon their stories and the means they use to tell them (uncommon because such gestures are fundamentally a part of noir, and need not feel like an obtrusive aside), then we see that noir served as a narrative, technical, philosophical template for a wide variety of films, and continues to do so today.

Directors with an understanding of these more substantial characteristics of noir have been able to make substantially noir films out of material that by all appearances should have little to do with the noir universe: science fiction tales of human “replicants” in a high-tec future (Blade Runner); high school melodramas set in a contemporary Los Angeles where teenagers speak like 1930s gangsters (Brick); a case focused (if focused on anything at all) on a cheap rug purloined from an unemployed surfer Dude (The Big Lebowski).  When directors drill deep into noir’s philosophical foundations, and build upon them with appropriately self-conscious pilferings from noir’s visual library, the result is a series of truly luscious collisions.

Not surprisingly, we first see these more substantial neo-noir experiments in France—in the work of exiled American directors such as Jules Dassin (think Rififi), then in the New Wave.  This trend then boomerangs back to America, in even quirkier but no less noir experiments such as those I’ve highlighted above.  Clearly, such profoundly noir neo-noir experiments have erupted in other places and other genres, and I hope readers of this post will give their own thoughts on titles that should be added to this list (and why).  But it seems to me, in ways that I’m still trying to understand, that the history of noir—and certainly the history of understanding noir—is a Franco-American affair.

In this spirit of ongoing investigation, and in the interest of opening that investigation to a larger public, I would like to conclude by offering up one more of the insights into noir that Richard Edwards and I articulated in the course of our podcasts.  It is rudimentary by comparison to the others I’ve appended to my posts, but it is one that constituted an important early insight into some of the themes I’ve explored above (and continue to explore):

~ Luscious Collisions

Despite its reputation as an American film style, noir owes a great deal to German émigré directors: Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Otto Preminger came over to America with a European sensibility, and changed the way Hollywood told the hard-boiled stories.  In the making of Rififi, we get the reverse trajectory—a Hollywood filmmaker, Jules Dassin, working in France due to the Blacklist in the United States, bringing with him the American attitude, in order to make an American-style, hard-boiled film within the French film industry.  The result is a film full of luscious collisions.  –Richard Edwards

There’s no greater such collision than a scene in a nightclub when Viviane (Magali Noël), the club’s singer, performs a song that explains what “rififi” means.  As she’s singing, there’s a screen in the background onto which is projected an image of a cobblestone street, and behind the screen is a man in a suit with a hat and a cigarette in his mouth dancing an interpretive dance that acts out the action of the lyric of her song. It’s hard to imagine an American noir would ever contain a scene—and it’s a crucial scene to the film—with an interpretive dance that acts out a definition of a slang term that is the title of the film. A truly luscious collision, and the highly stylized vision of noir that will prove crucial to French crime directors such as Godard.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Breathless without a precedent like Jules Dassin’s Rififi. –Shannon Clute

March 3, 2011

“I made a mistake, once”: The second of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

The noir universe is often considered to be fatalistic, or more broadly nihilistic.  I believe it is more accurate to see that world as existentialist, for a simple reason that has vast implications: to be fatalistic is to accept one’s situation; to be existentialist is to recognize how one’s agency has created one’s situation.  It may sound like a razor-fine distinction, but the thinnest blades cut the deepest.

When we first feast our eyes on the abundant misery of noir’s drama, we see broken players, or players bending until they break.  For reasons I addressed in Tuesday’s post, we can’t help but revel in the particular pains of noir.  But over time that revelry would create a real hangover if there were no other nuances that kept us coming back.  Two of those I discussed already: noir’s overt self-consciousness and its deeply quirky, highly self-referential humor.

To these we must add a particular philosophical stance—one that is, once again, marked by profound self-awareness.  It is what distinguishes noir from westerns, war films, and straight domestic melodramas.  It is likely what made this dark body of films resonate so deeply with American viewers in the wartime and immediate post-war years.  Granted, it was easy for most to recognize they weren’t living the Technicolor suburban dream Hollywood was starting to feed them, and that alone might explain some of noir’s popularity .  But in the wake of two wars that scarred the world forever, everyone was feeling some measure of guilt.  Everyone felt complicit.  Noir let them suffer, and go on, in ways they felt they should.

A lot has been made of noir as a visual style—an outgrowth German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism, once immigrated.  These are compelling arguments that any fan of noir should explore.  Less has been made, by film scholars at least, of the equal contribution of American hard-boiled writing to the creation of noir.  That is a lacuna that must be filled, and one we have often addressed in our “Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir” podcasts.  The types of stories noir told, the idiom in which it told them, the characters that populated these stories—they were all distinctly American.  German Expressionism was just that until it ran smack into the pulpy world of mid-century America.

But in that collision was an alchemy that created a hitherto unknown essence, at once ethereal and very worldly (for more on the alchemical moment of collision, see the entry on The Killers at the bottom of this post).  I would maintain it is the very essence of noir.  It is noir’s philosophy, and it is surprisingly fleshed out, surprisingly nuanced.

For want of a better term, I have called it existentialist.  That’s a fairly descriptive term, as long as we understand what branch of existentialism we’re discussing.  In noir I don’t see Kierkegaard or Nietzsche or Heidegger.  I see something closer to Sartre and closest to Camus, and it’s probably no wonder French critics were the first to see coherence in this dark body of works coming out of Hollywood at the time, and to give it a name—film noir (a term they coined, we must remember, because of the well known imprint from Gallimard called Série Noire, which specialized in hard-boiled American fiction).

That brand of existentialism is unique for many reasons, but two seem particularly relevant to noir.  The first is Sartre’s explicit dictum “Existence precedes essence” (to paraphrase somewhat selectively and recklessly, nothing is anything before it takes action).  The second is the concept of the “absurde,” best articulated by Camus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus.  I like to think of Camus’s absurd as purposeful action in the face of meaninglessness, a recognition of the importance of one’s own agency in the act of ultimately changing nothing.

That, to me, is noir.  It is what keeps us from pitying noir heros who ultimately can’t change the world.  It’s what makes us love the scoundrels whose greatest virtue is to keep being scoundrels.  It is why femmes fatales don’t strike us as simply immoral, but as somehow determined and admirable in their recklessness.

I should say at this point that Richard Edwards and I, in our podcasts and in the book that those inspired (The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, forthcoming from UPNE in the fall, as Megan was kind enough to mention), have studiously avoided the question of what “is” and what “is not” noir.  This leads us down the path of debating style versus genre, of establishing a noir canon, and so on—well worn paths in the world of noir studies that at this point have little potential to reveal new information about noir, or help us achieve new understandings.  But because this is a blog, and blog musings are by definition rather personal, I’ll step away from my co-investigator for just a moment and offer this contentious musing.

He Walked by Night

To my mind, films that don’t evince the philosophical stance above don’t ultimately feel very noir.  These would include, above all, any films where a character set up to be a moral force within the film counterbalances or corrects the agency of a character set up to be flawed: films gris such as The Big Heat; noir-styled westerns such as Blood on the Moon or The Naked Spur; noir-styled war films such as The Third Man (which unabashedly “borrows” John Alton’s sewer scene from He Walked by Night for its own climax)—none of them are, to my mind, truly or fully films noirs.  They have all the trappings.  They may even have the proper measure of misery.  But something is amiss.

The Third Man

In the films that strike me as most fully noir, protagonists recognize their mistake.  That doesn’t mean they give up, or turn themselves in (in fact, they usually go down swinging).  But they come to understand both their own complicity in the crime (sometimes the bigger Crime, existence itself) and the absurdity of their action as part of their inability to remain inactive.   They know they will be punished, but damn it, it won’t be by something as inconsequential as another person representing order or good.  It may be Law itself, or Fate, or Desire—forces we can only understand in caps, even if they occasionally appear in an embodied form—but nothing as small as just a man or woman.

Here’s an example of what I mean, drawn from a podcast conversation Rich and I had in which we began to formulate some of the thoughts I’ve expressed above:

~ A Frenchman’s Question and The Swede’s American Answer

The Killers

Near the beginning of The Killers, Nick (Phil Brown) runs to tell The Swede (Burt Lancaster) two men are coming to kill him.  The Swede says there’s nothing he can do about it.  Nick asks, “Couldn’t you get out of town?”  The Swede answers, “No.  I’m through with all that running around.”  What we see at play in this exchange is the fundamental question of the post-war era—the question Camus poses in his 1940 essay The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” In the Hemingway story that is the source material for The Killers, the only physical detail we have of The Swede, besides him being an ex-heavyweight who’s too long for his bed, is that he has a mashed-up face.  In a film, of course, we can’t have a protagonist with a mashed up face, for he has to have leading man good looks.  But as The Swede is gunned down and lays dying in his bed, he reaches up with his right hand to grasp the bed frame, and what we see is a prominent scar on his hand.  This is a very different sort of scar, because it doesn’t indicate that he has taken a beating.  It would seem to indicate that he has given a beating, that he has gone down fighting; and yet, he doesn’t go down fighting.   The Killers examines the story behind the scar The Swede bears; it is the story of the reasons for his decision not to fight any longer. –Shannon Clute

Sisyphus

Sisyphus

The film’s action alternates between present moments in which insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) tries to discover what happened to Ole Andersen, aka The Swede, and moments in The Swede’s past.  The film underscores the centrality of the question of suicide by making it an early plot point, and Reardon begins to really get interested in The Swede’s story when he realizes that the beneficiary of The Swede’s life insurance policy is a person who prevented his earlier attempt at suicide years before.  So the central thrust of the film is an investigation into what propels Ole to continue, or to give up.  In the post-war years, this really is analogous to the Sisyphean question.  Why does the Greek myth of Sisyphus exist?  The fate of Sisyphus, which most philosophers read as a very negative existence, is that he is doomed for all eternity to roll the rock up the hill without ever completing his task; just before he can push the rock over the top, it comes bounding back down Camus, writing from an Existentialist perspective, has an interesting take on this myth, which I think Siodmak shares.  Rather than focusing on the moment when the rock rolls down the hill, both pay attention to the instant at which Sisyphus decides to go back down the hill to get started over again—or in The Swedes case, decides not to. –Richard Edwards

This is the key part of Camus’s argument.  The absurde allows us to recognize, in the words of Camus, that “Our solitary effort, our day to day revolt, gives proof of the only truth.  Which is defiance.”  And so it’s at the moment that Sisyphus turns and looks back down at the rock that has crashed to the plains below, and decides to take that first step back down to retrieve it, that he becomes greater than his fate.  With this action, Fate is to some degree undermined.  Ole Andersen finally gets to a point where he’s just too tired to take that step. –Shannon Clute

March 1, 2011

A poodle on the tarmac: The first of three reflections on noir

by Shannon Clute

The Killing (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Granted, there are the shadows: the men lurking beneath fedoras, their faces split by darkness like their psyches; the women flickering like a candle’s flame against a black world, all warm glow and deadly heat.  (You know them so well they feel almost like family; like sweet Uncle Charlie, you invite them in, and realize too late they’ve concocted a makeshift gas chamber in your garage and they’re trying to off your kids.)  But there are also thieves dressed like children dressing up like cowboys, putting a bullet through a gumball machine just to show they mean business.  And there are poodles on the tarmac.

Noir is a world of dark streets, but it is also a world of absurdity and humor. To speak of the one without the other is to see half the picture: it is to see the shadow beneath the fedora but not the light, to see the torch singer’s danger but not feel her warmth.  It is to assume noir is as dark as we seem to want it to be, rather than to see it as it is.

We are drawn to noir because we want to feel bad, and noir let’s us do that—beautifully.  Never was heartbreak so heartfelt.  Never was danger so charged.  But we return to noir because it makes us feel something more.  Maybe that something is a sense of optimism (that sort of hope that can only arise from the lowest muck).  Maybe it is an existential laugh, bitter but meaningful because it is born at the moment we have nothing left to hope for or to fear.

I remember when I started to see both sides of noir.  It was a sun-drenched spring day in Moraga, California, on the campus of Saint Mary’s College.  The Japanese cherry trees were in blossom.  The whitewashed walls of the chapel shone impossibly bright against the emerald green hillsides.   I would say we stood in the shadow of that imposing chapel, but I don’t recall there being any shadow that day.

I was chatting with my friend and colleague Richard Edwards, a professor of film and new media, about our shared love of noir.  We did the sort of sparring academics do before having real conversations (and academic conversation usually stops at sparring): we offered each other a series of platitudes about noir cinematography and lighting, about German Expressionism and French poetic realism, about Siodmak and Tourneur and Wilder, about Chandler and Cain.  Little by little, it became a real conversation, and before we knew it we were offering up thoughts on Peggy Cummins shooting the matches off John Dall’s head in Gun Crazy, on Humphrey Bogart rubbing his ear in The Big Sleep.  And why the hell (just what one has to wonder in the shadow of the chapel) hadn’t anyone found a way to talk about both in the same conversation and in a way that might matter—as fluidly as films noir themselves managed to do?

Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy

Well, that did it.  Soon Richard and I were brainstorming, researching, talking.  And as you can probably guess by the length of this preamble, we’ve never stopped talking.  The result is a series of 50 (so far) podcasts on film noir (the Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir series) and 28 conversations with authors of hard-boiled, mystery and suspense (the Behind the Black Mask: Mystery Writers Revealed podcasts).

These podcasts are our answer to the questions raised by that fateful conversation.  They are our attempt to create a new brand of noir studies that can account for the deadly serious and the wickedly humorous aspects of noir, that is fluid in its medium and methodology so it can swerve quickly when the poodle crosses the tarmac (as it does in Kubrick’s The Killing) and thereby end up in a new and unanticipated place.

The poodle on the tarmac (The Killing)

We have dubbed our critical medium the “serialized academic audiobook,” and believe that ours was the first academic film and literature analysis podcast.  But that matters about as much as what sort of car Uncle Charlie cranked up in the garage that day.  What matters is that it has helped us to see noir in a whole new light.

What we have come to appreciate is that noir hides nothing in the shadows.  In fact, it lays all the evidence out on the table, so plainly that it is easy to overlook—like Poe’s “Purloined Letter.”  As the career inspectors buzz all around it, peering in shadows, roughing up the gees and laying bare the dames, it still sits right before our eyes, unopened.

What is its secret?  What does that letter say?  Well, I’m not going to presume we’ve gotten that far in the investigation.  But what I can tell you is this.  Noir is trying to help us be better readers of noir, even if it doesn’t want to give up it’s ultimate secret (just as is true of Poe’s purloined letter, or Henry James’s figure in the carpet).

By keeping our eyes open to what we see in the films (rather than to what we want to see or expect to see), what we can’t help but see is that noir is an extremely self-conscious film style.  It stages tribute shots that constitute a critical commentary on—an “auto-exegesis” of—the film in which they appear (think of Emmerich’s descent of the staircase in The Asphalt Jungle vs. Mrs. Dietrichson’s in Double Indemnity), it stages visual and aural puns that demonstrate an awareness of how it is telling stories and at whose expense (think of the closing echo between the author and the protagonist at the end of Touch of Evil, or that same film’s multi-layered sign for viewers that hangs in the blind shopkeeper’s store: “If you are mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself”).

Noir constantly frames its own evidence and offers it up.  If we fail to weigh the evidence as we watch, or if we are so bound to one method(ology) for investigating that we fail to see that certain clues are offered up with a wink and a nod, then we’ll find we’ve found little (and will only discover too late that the joke’s on us).

We don’t claim to have the answers.  But we would argue that we have to stay flexible in our approach to noir: we have to find a method that embraces the passion and encyclopedic knowledge of fan scholars without rejecting the insights that come from the close critical reading practices of academics.  And above all, we have to appreciate that noir has already laid the goods on the table.  If we don’t try and see the way it is framing stories about reading, then we’ll find we’re the saps in the story—outguessed and outgunned at every turn.

If you want to know what all this talk means in practical terms, we’d invite you to listen to our podcasts.  We also have a book coming out in the fall that gathers together some of the insights we’ve gleaned through podcasting.  It’s called the Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism.  Here’s an entry from that book that gives you a taste of what we see in noir:

Touch of Evil

Heston in Touch of Evil

~ The Slightest Separation

Touch of Evil can be seen as, above all, a meditation on filmmaking. The final sequence of “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) trying to record the conversation between Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) and corrupt Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), going through the muck and the oil rigs with a recording device, is ultimately a metaphor for filmmaking itself. On the set, these actors are being followed by filmmaking crews, and when Welles as Quinlan is standing on the bridge, and he hears the echo of the recording device, Welles the director is making a self-conscious pun on filmmaking. Welles knows the scene is actually double microphoned, because he is also recording the scene for us in the audience.  In the action and the mise en scène, he is exploiting these doublings and double entendres on every level in the final scenes of this film. –Richard Edwards

Ultimately the question is what options remain when a film becomes this self-reflexive? The self-conscious auteur of such a work has to write himself out of the picture in the end, for there is no where else to go.  The perfect moment of filmic punning, this double gesture both narrative and extra-narrative, is illustrated in the death of Quinlan. As Vargas follows them around, with a device to record their conversation, he gets closer and closer, until Quinlan hears a slightly delayed echo of his own voice from the device. In other words, the film stages the closing of the gap until there is just the slightest delay, the slightest separation in space and time, between Welles the director and Welles the actor, between the extra-narrative stuff of filmmaking and the narrative that is being constructed. At the moment these join, the auteur must die, and he right after he hears the slight echo of his own voice, Quinlan is killed. –Shannon Clute

March 1, 2011

last night’s spangles, yesterday’s pearls: meet Shannon…

by Megan Abbott

Shannon Clute (left) and Richard Edwards

I first met Shannon at Bouchercon, the crime fiction convention, a few years back and discovered Out of the Past, his brilliant podcast with Richard Edwards—the two a dream duo, with Shannon’s intense, fluid mastery of theory and Richard’s vast and enriching knowledge of studio history.

A decade out of graduate school, I so missed the kind of endless ruminative and riveting conversations you can get in about movies in that environment, and listening to these podcasts about some of my favorite films—well, it was better than grad school because there need be no pretense that we do not LOVE these movies. Listening to each of these lush, dark melodies was both intoxicating and invigorating. (and you will be forever convinced by their recasting of It’s a Wonderful Life as a film noir).

More recently, I was thrilled to learn that the project has led to an upcoming book, The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, to be published by UPNE/ Dartmouth College Press this fall.

In 2006, Shannon’s novel, the Chandler-esque The Mint Condition was selected as one of ten semi-finalists in the Court TV “Next Great Crime Writer” contest. More recently, Shannon began working for Turner Classic Movies and, on March 17, he will make his on-air hosting debut, about which Shannon will have more to say. TCM is damn lucky to have him, and so are we. He’ll be with us all week, folks!

1. what is your greatest fear?

Never accomplishing anything worth remembering; conversely, spending so much time worrying about never accomplishing anything worth remembering that I neglect my friends and family.

2. what is your favorite way of spending time?

Really?  Just one favorite?  How about three?  Camping with my wife and daughter; hiking in hilly regions anywhere in the world (but especially upstate New York, the Colorado Rockies, the central Apennines in Tuscany, or the Ardennes in Belgium); and, before I gave up the bad habit, smoking a nice pipe and reading a good book on the back porch (preferably a Peterson 341 system pipe with a little McClelland Tastemaster, and a hard-boiled treasure of the ‘30s or ‘40s).

3. what is your most treasured possession?

I am clearly not hardwired for these sorts of questions.  How about I narrow it to three again? First, a roughly 40-acre plot of desert in the mountains of southern Colorado that my brother and I bought with our father’s life insurance money after he passed away; second, a pocket watch presented to my great grandfather after he returned to Glasgow to repay all his creditors (they allowed him to head to America to try and make good, despite the fact he owed them big bucks: he got a shipment of bad rubber to his boot factory, and unwittingly supplied the British Boer War troops with defective boots, thus bankrupting him); a very modern flatware set in a teak box that my grandmother bought while living in New York City in the ’30s.

4. when and where were you happiest?

At the birth of my daughter. (Finally, one I can answer definitively…though there have been plenty of other highlights.)

5. what is your greatest indulgence?

Now that I’m a parent, my greatest indulgence is getting up ungodly early each morning to take about an hour and a half all to myself to write (which I’m doing this very moment)

6. where would you like to live?

Oh, now you’ve done it!  You’ve asked the question that I spend most of my waking hours thinking about (for it is so tied up with every one of these other questions: isn’t happiness a perfect place to live? Isn’t is just bound to be the next place you move?)  Mind you, this depends not only on the season, but the day, the particular quality of light, the ambient humidity, the most recent careers I’ve read about, how badly I’m needing to exercise that day, etc.  There have been several strong contenders in recent years: Burlington, Vermont; Liège, Belgium; Doolin, Ireland; Ithaca, New York; Crestone, Colorado; Rome, Italy; Chadron, Nebraska; etc.  Unfortunately, the most honest answer may be, “Wherever I’m not.”

7. what is the quality you are most drawn to a person?

Honesty.

8. how would you like to die?

Instantaneously.

9. what is your secret superstition?

I do everything in multiples or divisors of eight (was this questionnaire designed to reveal madness, or is it just me?)

10. what was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had?

Throughout my life I’ve had a nightmare that I’m working on an old fishing vessel—wind powered, riggings and all—when the boom swings around, knocks me on the back of the head and I go overboard.  My last vision is of the moonlight playing on the surface of the water far above, all around the shadow of the boat.  My best dream?  There have been too many great ones to name “the best.”  I guess I’m only consistent in my nightmares.

11. what song do you most hear in your head?

I always have music in my head, so this is tough.  Beethoven’s 9th and the Winter movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons are there a lot (along with the slow parts of Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C Major).  I’m always hearing the opening bars of Gillian Welch’s “Barroom Girls.” Also, “Samson” by Regina Spektor, “I Lost It” by Lucinda Williams, “The Liar in My Heart” by the Star Room Boys.  I should stop.  It’s getting loud in there.

12.  what do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly?

Chandler and Cain never fail to delight me. The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth and It’s a Wonderful Life usually do the trick too.  The soundtracks of sadness laced with hope (or at least defiance) would be The Star Room Boys, Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress, or Kelly Joe Phelps.

13. what do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative?

Sleep, exercise, or good food (in huge quantities).

14. what’s something you never told anyone?

Now that we’ve gotten this far, can you imagine me ever holding anything back?

Visit Shannon on Crimespace or go to Noircast site.

February 28, 2011

Trouble In Mind

by craigmmcdonald

The books of others rarely inspire my own writing.

Most often, I’m more moved by music.

Very rarely, a film gets me there. When that happens, it’s usually tied to a director and a body of work.

There’s this particular director, and a film he made deep in the heart of Morning in America, that’s been on my mind lately. That film (and its successor, The Moderns, about 1920s Paris), left fingerprints all over my own crime fiction.

The mid-to-late 1980s: A time of skinny ties and suits without socks; a burgeoning sense of deconstruction and post-modernism; meta-fiction looms in the wings. The work is the thing and thing knows exactly what it is. Knowing winks and self-referentialism are fast becoming hip.

Back then, most crime fiction wasn’t hip. You had your Ellroy; you had your James Crumley…and no deep bench behind those two scribes.

In 1985, director Alan Rudolph released, Trouble in Mind. I saw it the way most others probably did at the time — a blink-and-you-missed-it three-day run in some campus art house theatre. But I was captivated; made do in the years after with a discarded rental of Trouble on full-screen VHS.

Kris Kristofferson anchors the film as “Hawk,” an ex-cop just sprung from prison for the fatal shooting of a “Rain City” crime boss years back.

“Rain City” stands in as a vaguely fascist, pre-Starbucks Seattle, every bit as drenched in neon-kissed rain as you would hope. A place where WASPs threaten and scream at one another in disarming volleys of Korean from time to time; where policeman and soldiers roam the streets and parade around with weapons.

Hawk, whose hobby is building highly-detailed scale models of Rain City landmarks, quickly settles into former habits and old haunts, chiefly a café run by his old friend Wanda (played by Geneviève Bujold, a Rudolph stalwart).

Wanda’s Café is Rain City’s version of Rick’s Place. Wanda was once under the thumb of a local crime boss — the man Kris/Hawk ventilated with a single shot between the eyes in a room filled with witnesses.

Soon enough, Hawk is courting a luminously innocent Lori Singer, a new mother badly married to a scrambling, scuffling Keith Carradine.

Casting a shadow over the city is an über fey reinvention of The Maltese Falcon’s Caspar Gutman — the kind of part Sydney Greenstreet might have played in post-Code Hollywood. Rain City’s new crime lord is Hilly Blue, portrayed by the late-Divine in a rare turn in pants.

A new, 25th anniversary edition of Trouble In Mind has recently been released on DVD, and just in time according to its director, who rues the last print of the film was in a pretty sorry state. For the first time in a quarter century, initiates can explore a film that despite its rarity has achieved a brand of stubborn cult status.

It had been a few years since I’d revisited my grainy, cropped VHS version of Trouble. The DVD extends the frame and draws out details that videotape obscured. Things, overall, are brighter than I remember, and maybe not for the better, but there it is.

Nevertheless, Trouble in Mind, set to a moody Mark Isham score, still walks a tricky line between pastiche, noir and the loopy logic of dreams. The film’s misty, dark world anticipates the same flavor of twisty terrain David Lynch would explore a few years later, a kind of (kissing) city cousin to Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Rain City deftly and swiftly asserts its own reality and cultural mash-up: one where 1960s-era American cars proliferate; where skinny ties, fedoras, trench coats and sharkskin sport jackets are concomitantly in fashion.

Rudolph says in supplemental materials that Rain City was conceptualized “as a place where past and future meet, but not in the present.”

It is classic film noir’s stylistic flourishes, Rudolph has argued repeatedly, that gave vintage crime films a patina of hyper-reality. By the terms of that proposition, Trouble In Mind’s nth-degree attention to detail qualifies the film as a significant, if under-known, neo-noir.

I’m the first to admit Rudolph’s films can be an acquired taste that eludes many samplers — too stylized and self-aware to suit every palate.

Yet I think Trouble has reached beyond its initial art-house run to assert enduring influences on the works of others. Like Hawk, briefly depicted working out with a heavy bag, Trouble in Mind punches above its weight.

February 28, 2011

dark eyes glowin’: meet Craig….

by Megan Abbott

I met Craig McDonald after reading his terrific first novel, Head Games, which was nominated for Best First Novel Edgar Award (as well as the Anthony, Gumshoe and Crimespree Magazine awards). The first in his series, Head Games introduced us to McDonald’s recurring hero, pulp novelist and Hemingway pal Hector Lassiter, a true adventurer who cuts a swath across the mid twentieth century.

Since then, he has published two magnificent follow-ups, Toros and Torsos and Print the Legend. Just a few weeks ago, his latest, One True Sentence (the title, a nod to Papa), which brings us into the glimmering, orgastic world of 1920s Paris, hit bookstores.

Craig has also published two definitive collections of interviews with crime authors, Art in the Blood and Rogue Males. In fact, I’d read Craig long before I knew him, having come upon his remarkable interview with the notoriously tricky subject, Mr. James Ellroy. We’ve met many times since (and Craig interviewed me for Mystery News, a rare treat for me). I must say that no one is doing what Craig is doing, or doing it so well—his novels are sprawling tales that masterfully combine the “high” and “low” markers of mid-century America—from pulp novels to high modernism, from surrealism to film noir—showing how they are always-already inextricably linked.

We are so lucky to have a post from Craig today…but first he indulges us in our questionnaire (and we are delighted to have Rip Torn made a repeat performance, a la The Songwriter).

1. what is your greatest fear?

Helplessness.

2. what is your favorite way of spending time?

Creating.

3. what is your most treasured possession?

An early hardcover of the ltd. edition sent me of Head Games by Ben LeRoy and Alison Janssen. It was the first piece of my own published long-form fiction I got to hold.

4. when and where were you happiest?

To date, Scotland, October, 1996. We married there, then spent days tooling around the Highlands.

5. what is your greatest indulgence?

A first edition of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.

6. where would you like to live?

To my own surprise, I’m thinking more and more about Florida. I’m actually getting tired of Midwest seasons.

7. what is the quality you are most drawn to in a person?

Wit.

8. how would you like to die?

I’m honestly hoping for some escape clause. I can’t fathom a world without me in it. That’s not ego, but simple personal experience talking.

9. what is your secret superstition?

The number 13, and not necessarily tied to Fridays. I’ve sustained bitter losses on the 13th of various months.

10. what was the best dream and worst nightmare you ever had?

I had a dream in which my maternal grandfather, who set my reading tastes and fiction writing interests, said he loved my first-published novel that was dedicated to him. He died on Nov. 13, 1980. The book appeared fall of 2007. Worst nightmare? I had a too-vivid imagining of something terrible happening to one of my children. That actually fueled a plot point in Head Games.

11. what song do you most hear in your head?

That’s a heavy rotation, and usually tied to something I’m writing. But most stubbornly? Jim Croce’s “I Got A Name.”

12. what do you read/watch/listen to when you are feeling badly?

Read: I’ll usually crack open Eye of a Cricket, by James Sallis.

Watch: Alan Rudolph’s Songwriter. That film never fails to make me smile.

Listen: Something singer/songwriter-driven. Probably Tom Russell, or maybe Kris Kristofferson. Right now, I’m on Glen Campbell/“Galveston” kick. Who can explain these things?

13. what do you consider to be the greatest elixir/restorative?

A new view, a notebook and a pen…good music.

14. what’s something you never told anyone?

That’s the stuff that ends up in the books, and I’m not prepared to run a highlighter over it.

Follow Craig on his blog, or on Twitter.

February 24, 2011

Satan’s Day Care

by djtafoya

I’m just endlessly fascinated by the way pseudoscience, hysteria and fears about the breakdown of society and the loss of innocence periodically come together in a kind of perfect storm of insanity. Anyone remember crack babies? How about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon? Lately I’ve been reading about the Ritual Abuse Panic of the 1980’s and 90’s.

One day in 1983, a three-year-old named Matthew Johnson told his mother that Ray, a worker at the day care he attended, could fly.  He went on to say Ray had thrown another child to lions, that he chopped off a baby’s head and set it on fire, molested a goat, conducted rituals with elephants and witches, taken the children on trains and planes and made Matthew drink blood. Rather than being treated as a fanciful tale or a bizarre or even alarming fantasy, Matthew’s story became testimony at the longest, most expensive trial in California history.

The McMartin Preschool investigation and trial, which lasted from 1983 until 1990, is a fascinating exemplar of a whole class of so-called ‘ritual abuse’ cases of the 1980’s. All over the country, police, prosecutors and child-welfare advocates investigated, charged and convicted dozens of day care and preschool workers, teachers and parents of molesting hundreds of children. The abuse supposedly involved Satanic ceremonies by ‘sex rings,’  and the daily sexual and physical torture of children that went on for months or years, all without parents suspecting that their kids had become the sex slaves of Satan’s minions.

In 1983 the police, acting on the suspicion of a mentally-ill woman named Judy Johnson, panicked the entire town of Manhattan Beach with phone calls and letters suggesting that their kids might have been molested by the McMartins and their relatives and employees. The calls triggered an avalanche of accusations and prosecutions in which children were badgered, coerced, bribed and threatened into making false accusations against their caregivers, teachers and parents. That the ‘testimony’ was largely the sort of ridiculous fantasy characterized by Matthew’s tales of planes, trains, submarines and elephants was rarely an issue for the authorities, who urged doubters to ‘believe the children.’

A 1995 book by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker called Satan’s Silence gives an excellent survey of the panic, its victims and the precursors and likely causes of the episode, which found leftist feminists like Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin in league with reactionary Christians who believed Satan was trying to turn children away from God, citing evidence like the “’Wicca Letters,’ a document whose origin and content were remarkably like the rabidly anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and which purported a Satanic plot to corrupt America’s preschoolers.

The ritual abuse panic had it all –false memories, rumored suburban sex cults, anatomically-correct dolls, multiple personality disorder, even fraudulent ‘facilitated communication’ that allowed profoundly disabled people to join in the craziness. The parallels to Salem’s witch hunts of the 1600’s are almost too perfect, right down to the search for ‘Satan’s marks’ on the bodies of victims, echoed in the disturbing, scientifically-faulty examination of children’s genitalia for signs of abuse.

The fallout went on for years, with lives and careers ruined and falsely accused people languishing in prison for ten or fifteen years before the authorities finally freed most of them. Janet Reno, who participated in two ritual abuse cases as a Florida prosecutor, went on to order the attack on the Waco, Texas compound of David Koresh because she thought child abuse was going on inside.

I was reminded of all of this the other day after reading about the reconsideration of people sentenced to long prison terms based on medical testimony about ‘shaken baby syndrome,’ which may turn out to be false. I think the impulse to believe deeply in things that are sketchy, unlikely or even demonstrably untrue is deeply ingrained in our psyches, and that impulse comes out most strongly when we feel frightened, marginalized or under siege by forces beyond our control. I’m just an armchair psychologist, but I don’t think you have to look too far to find a lot of examples of people reaching farthest for the most ridiculous explanations when they feel wronged by dark forces.

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