Archive for ‘TV’

May 24, 2011

More about Columbo-as-trickster

by Sara Gran
Columbo's warrant card and badge in the episod...

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Megan left a comment on my last post that blew my mind a little bit; Columbo as trickster. Especially because I’ve listened a few times now lately–and will probably listen a few times again–to this interview between writer/amateur anthropologist Erik Davis and astrologer/writer/activist Caroyln Casey. In the interview they talk a lot about how the trickster relates to power–how the trickster doesn’t try to generate her own power to force her way through a situation, instead she playfully offers herself as a conduit to power to be used for the good of all (or something like that–listen to the interview!). Carolyn offers as one example, the idea of “fighting” global warming. Fighting, she points out, is what got us into this mess. Instead, why not use the language of the compassionate trickster? She mentions a friend who was trying to convince an Evangelical group why clean energy was important: do you want to run your cars on this black gunk that comes from very close to Hell? Or do you want your life powered by the pure wind and sun from above? To me, that sounds much more likely to work than trying to bully your way through. After all, everyone who has an opinion has tried bullying other people into agreeing with them–how well has that worked for you? Another way we often try to bring people to what we understand as “truth” relies on rational argument. But of course, such arguments only work if we agree on our premises, which we often don’t. Using metaphor, language, and other unexpected ways into people’s psyches might be a far more effective way to open closed doors. I was just reminded of this by something I saw on Twitter–someone who’s twitter-name was something like @teabaggersuck lamented that as the Tea Party wanes in influence he was losing his identity. A healthier scheme might be to not define your identity as “against” something but instead as “pro” what you DO like: maybe @ilovetruth would be a more sustainable, effective, and trickster-like online identity. Who would argue with @ilovetruth? Who would be in better position to speak with a member of a political party they didn’t agree with; @yourpartyblows or @ilovetruth?

As I think I mentioned before, the figure of the trickster is very related to that of the court jester in mythology (who may or may not have ever existed, but is now a part our cultural landscape nonetheless): the jester, they say, was able to speak the truth under the auspices of “humor” in a way that would have gotten others killed. His powerlessness was exactly the source of his power. Another element of the trickster is that he doesn’t always give us what we want, but he tends to give us what we need. Which of course, is exactly what Columbo delivers to his murderers.

I would argue that in a TV show (or book or movie), each character is an aspect of a whole self. Maybe while each of us has a “murderer” (ie, a part of ourselves so enslaved to appearances and material comforts and societal approval that it will literally or metaphorically kill another piece of ourselves to maintain that appearance), each us also has a trickster-y “detective” who has the ability to make us aware of our murderous ways, to ferret out the truth of who we really are, to kick the murderer to the side and leave us with a clean state for displaying a better, more moral, more interesting self.

Megan pointed out another tricksterish aspect of Columbo–Peter Falk’s role as mediator between the world of art-house cinema (Cassavetes) and the world of “trashy” (I say that with love!) television. Not many people would be able to contain all of these qualities in one vessel. But you bet your ass Peter Falk can! And this adds, I think, to his role on TV as not just a detective, but the detective we seem to remember above so many others.

Anyway, I’m babbling a bit, but I thought it was a such neat idea! Megan, is this at all what you had in mind or did I (as I so often do!) destroy your lovely idea?!

May 23, 2011

Quincy & Columbo & the Cassandras of television: more influences on Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
Columbo, as he appeared in volume 7 of Case Closed

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The world of TV detectives is too huge and wonderful to cover in a blog post or two, or even a lifetime. So I’m going to focus on just a few here today. And while all police work is interesting, we are about to enter the most fascinating sphere of police work–the world of forensic medicine.

Oh, Quincy, the Cassandra of TV! And Columbo, his darker twin, sans houseboat. What Quincy and Columbo have in common is this: they always know the solution to the mystery, and no one ever believes them. Cassandra, of course, was a figure from greek mythology: Apollo granted her the gift of prophecy, but cursed her so no one would believe her (in another version of the myth snakes licked her ears clean so she could hear the truth)–just as, apparantly, Quincy and Columbo were cursed. Interestingly, though, these hexed states led to different trajectories–and, as all of us have a little Cassandra in them, interesting takes on how this archtypical human condition of knowing-but-ignored might play out.

In Quincy”s case he is thwarted, as we all know, by the internal authority figures of the LAPD and the Coroner’s Office. People outside of his immediate circle (and, in fairness, those closest to him at the coroner’s office) understand that this is a wise man more than capable of solving the mystery at hand. But that Leiutenant/Father/Priest/Authority-Most-High just can’t se it! The Emporor with a new set of clothes, the King corrupted by power–what the fuck is this Lieutenant’s problem? Quincy is always right! Eight years and 148 episodes and the Lieutenant could not overcome his ego, his desire to cling to his version of the “truth,” like Hitler in his bunker, even as all evidence of that “truth” crumbled around him. He could not put the truth before being right. What a valuable lesson for us all.  No one had the nerve to speak the truth except Quincy. Despite the formulaic plots and the melodrama there was a purity to Quincy’s mission, a knight-in-shining-armor quality, a sense of a men with an impossible mission who, knowing the impossibility, went on nonetheless because this mission was the right thing to do. We can’t say that about many people.  There’s that crazy old woman who sits on the corner and protests the war. There’s that one guy holding a picket sign in front of the drugstore because they screw their employees and he got fired like five years ago and no one cares. The old hippie who lives in a bus in the woods because he didn’t want to pay taxes that would go to napalm Vietnam. Underneath the allure of the houseboat and the ladies and the jazzy casual slacks, that is Quincy–that despised voice of sanity so rare and pure that those around him judge him insane.

Columbo’s path, as we all know, was different. Quincy yelled and screamed and railed against authority (and I think we all know, like Chevy Chase in Foul Play, what Quincy was doing to get the smell of formaldehide out his nose once he retired to his houseboat). Columbo took a more sly and, dare I say, wiser approach. Although to be fair Columbo faced a different set of challenges–he had a reasonable degree of support within the LAPD, if I remember right (weren’t Quincy and Columbo in LA at the same time? Did they know each other?). Columbo always knew who did it. But everyone who he met–especially his own High Priests, the wealthy and powerful men of Los Angeles–thought he was an idiot. But of course, Columbo never yelled or screamed or faught authority head-on. Instead, he used people’s misperceptions to his advantage, dissembling, confusing, and creating a haze around his work. there was something witchy about Columbo and frankly, something very feminine–the way he handled authority was a stereotypically female way of dealing with strength. This is also a tool opressed minority groups have used to deflect attention away from their strength. Columbo walked into a room of rich and powerful men and, dismissed as a fool, overheard everything and let no clue slip his gaze. Like the court jester who’s lowly position enabled him to speak the truth without directly challenging the Emporer, Columbo used his lowly position to get closer to the ground, where the snakes would be more likely to clean his ears. Did anyone ever believe Columbo? It didn’t really matter. By the end of every episode he hard proof, proof even the Big Hollywood Producer couldn’t make dissapear. No one had to believe in Columbo.

Might I be so bold as to suggest that Quincy wanted to believed, while Columbo wanted the truth to be served? That Quincy, while clearly in service to the truth, was also in service, maybe just a little, of his ego? Those of you who were eager young anarchists in the eighties and nineties (some of us still are!) might remember a book called TAZ, or Temporary Autonomous Zone. Hakim Bey, the author, argued that challenging the structures of authority head-on was a waste of time. You have a revolution and then ten years later the “revolutionaries” are just as bad as the people they revolted against. Instead he suggested ignoring authority, and creating Temporary Autonomous Zones–places where one would be free to pursue the truth as one sees it without asking for permission or waiting for the answer. Might I be so bold as to suggest that this was exactly what Columbo did, and exactly what Quincy did not do? And I think, but can’t say for certain, that Columbo was happier.

May 2, 2011

fierce sisters

by Megan Abbott

Generally, I bristle at the term “guilty pleasure.” There’s plenty in life to feel guilty about but if we respond to something, isn’t that a testament to its hidden richness, power or complexity? (Yes, I’m talking about this, or this).

But there is a pleasure I feel supremely guilty about, which is my abiding fascination with a particular Bravo show involving a particular group of alternately neurasthenic, neurotic or clinically hysterical women residing in New York City—or at least I’m told it’s New York City, though they  never seem to occupy physical spaces I have ever actually seen in person.

Truthfully, I feel more guilty about my guilt over watching this show than I do for watching the show itself.  But the truth of the matter is, self-justification or rationalization or not, I think the show (and less frequently its other variations) are stunningly telling about female power relations. And I think it’s true.

That is not to say I believe these women actually behave like any women I know (the conspicuous consumption and entitlement is the most frustrating, if invigorating, element of the show). This is, after all, more the tenor of Bette Davis/Joan Crawford femininityfemininity as nearly a kind of drag.  But, that said, there are shadows, skittering glimpses of things I do understand about the way many women are bred/forced/encouraged to show/conceal/wield power.

The show brings up painful reminders of the mercenary quality of sixth-grade-girl-cliques. But it also reveals, at times, even subtler ways that women of a certain age (this is, after all, the rare show where all the women are over 35) must protect themselves, must perform. Must wear the mask of femininity, even when the mask becomes a gorgon one.

So this is what I tell myself when I do watch. The larger question for me is why I feel a keen sense of shame even writing about this show I have yet to name. Because, after all, the pleasure I get is not incomparable to the guilt-free experience of savoring Margo Channing assert, “I’m still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut,” or watching Regan and Goneril circle each other, ready to pluck out eyes.

April 27, 2011

she couldn’t have, she must have

by Megan Abbott

Last August, I wrote a piece for the splendid Mulholland Books blog. The post was motivated by my response to Janet Malcolm’s  much-talked about New Yorker piece, “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” (May 3, 2010), which chronicled a crime that took place in my own neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens.

A local orthodontist was shot to death in a nearby playground in full view of his four-year-old daughter. Ultimately, his estranged doctor-wife was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiring with a cousin to kill her former husband, with whom she was engaged in a tumultuous custody battle.

The original Malcolm piece has now bloomed into a book and I can’t wait to read it because I find Malcolm a fascinating, frustrating writer (see In The Freud Archives and The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes).

And I’m captivated by the notion—central to her article—that she herself can’t fathom her own reaction to the case. Specifically, Malcolm knows the doctor is guilty of her husband’s murder and can’t quite reckon with her own intense sympathy (identification?) with her.

“She couldn’t have done it and she must have done it,” Malcolm writes.

I think this sentence speaks volumes to our fascination with true crime. A few weeks ago on this blog, we were discussing Fatal Vision, the story of Captain Jeffrey MacDonald, M.D., who was convicted in 1979 of the murder of his pregnant wife and his two daughters. In the comments section, I found myself embarrassed to admit my knowledge of MacDonald’s own defense claims, all these years later.

At age 13, I was so transfixed by both the book and the movie, by something in them, something in the story, that I became obsessed with the case, reading everything about it. I see now I was operating on two levels.  The story works, captivates because this Green Beret doctor, handsome and perfect with a perfect life, seemed to have exploded one night in an uncontrollable rage, committing unspeakable acts.  Those aspects tantalized me.

But somehow, at the very same time, I wanted MacDonald to be innocent, deeply. Not, I don’t think, because of some romantic, crusading notion of a man wrongly convicted but…but…but because perhaps I didn’t want to believe I could be so fascinated by a person (which is to say, really, a story) that is so ugly.

Without yet reading Malcolm’s book (but based on her article) I think this is different in tenor from her relationship to her murderer, with whom she seems to identify (what she calls her “sisterly bias”)  in ways I did not with Jeffrey MacDonald. But she seems just as swept up in the swell, drama, sorrow and heat of it all. The case speaks to her aesthetically and emotionally. And she goes deeper into her own response, permits herself that inward gaze. She is not afraid.

Ironically (or not), one of the first books I read by Malcolm was The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), her book about the “immorality of journalists” as framed through the relationship between Jeffrey MacDonald and Joe McGinniss, the journalist who wrote Fatal Vision. Originally, MacDonald was working closely with McGinniss, hoping the book would exonerate him. But ultimately McGinniss came to believe in MacDonald’s guilt and hence Fatal Vision makes the case for MacDonald as a pathological narcissist, a sociopath, a man capable of butchering his family.

Malcom sees it differently. Though she offers no stated feeling of her own view on MacDonald’s guilt or innocence (it’s not her interest), she believe McGinniss slowly realized MacDonald was just plain boring. In the absence of character (not everyone is as lucky as Truman Capote, with the mesmerizing Perry Smith), McGinniss fashions one—one who is in fact a murderer.

And, as McGinniss sells out his subject, Malcolm eviscerates hers. Ultimately, we see, the writer is, as Joan Didion famously said, “always selling someone out.”

Of course, reading The Journalist and the Murderer, years after my fixation with MacDonald dissipated, I had all kinds of responses. Hustled by McGinniss, hustled again by Malcolm. Relieved in some part to know my holding-out-for-hope with regard to MacDonald’s innocence wasn’t perhaps as hapless as I’d come to believe.

And wondering the extent to which we ever really know anyone anyhow. Aren’t we always just reading into ourselves? Looking for ourselves?

There was something I wanted when I read Fatal Vision. And I read and read and read until I got it. (Though what was “it”?)

Maybe Malcolm, sitting in that courtroom, watching the accused woman, trying to penetrate the enigma of the case, was watching herself, was looking for something, a clue.  Asking, without asking, “Tell me: what is it about YOU that matters so much to me? Who are you, to me? What does this—this yearning and curiosity and fascination inside me—mean? What does it say about me?”

April 21, 2011

Steffie can’t do much of anything: teen prostitutes, great clothes, and boredom

by Sara Gran
The Facts of Life (TV series)

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In an earlier post I wrote about how, despite growing up in one of the book capitols of the universe, going to a fancy private school, and living with parents who may be the only people I know who own more books than me, few books, shows, or movies made quite such an impact on me as trashy stories of kids who moved to New York City and fell into trouble. And that trouble was usually prostitution, drugs, or both. But it was prostitution that was the biggest threat–you could go to rehab for drugs, but you could never wash off the stain of having sold yourself. Iris in Taxi DriverChristiane F. Angel. A dozen after-school-specials. Tootie’s encounter with a teen prostitute on The Facts of LIfe (thanks, google!). Dawn, Portrait of a Teenaged Runaway. Go Ask AliceMary Ellen Mark‘s haunting Streetwise. Thousands of made-for-tv movies, hundreds of paperbacks, a million low-budget exploitive/educational flicks. From 1976-84 (somewhat arbitrarily), teen hookers seemed to be taking over the world. Or at least New York City.

What was the late seventies/early eighties obsession with hookers, especially young ones, all about? Let me be clear here that I am in no way talking about the lives of real prostitutes (of course, most street prostitutes have short life spans and come from a history of physical and sexual abuse and poverty and few options, while a small minority of working girls choose prostitution willingly as their chosen career). I am instead talking about the mythologized prostitutes, especially children, who came to us through popular culture (and also not-so-popular culture). It wasn’t just trashy runaways in Times Square–look at Louis Malle‘s Pretty Baby, for example.

To paraphrase something Megan said the other day, what were the eighties trying to tell us with these stories? I just re-read Steffie Can’t Come Out To Play, one YA teen-hooker tale that has kept with me all these years. I read this book entirely too young, maybe ten or eleven. A Publisher’s Weekly blurb inside the cover gives you a hint about the teen-hooker obseesion of the era:

“Let’s hope it won’t be banned where so many cautionary tales are, right where they could do the most good–in small towns where girls of Steffie’s age [14!], hardly more than children, leave home in droves for reasons like hers and fall into the same sordid trap.”

Really? 14-year-olds were leaving respectable small-town homes in droves to become Times Square hookers? I don’t think the statistics exactly bear that out.  I think there was a big dose of denial in this child-hooker hysteria–a denial of the reality that there were children who were indeed prostituting themselves, not because they felt like leaving their happy home on a whim, but because life had dealt them a very raw and unfair hand. There are now a lot of homeless children and teenagers in the Bay Area, where I live. Almost everyone I know denounces these kids as “fake,” whatever that means. It causes us pain when we see people in need and don’t help, so we make up elaborate stories to counteract that pain–those young homeless prostitutes have all kinds of options, they’re just spoiled brats!

But then, why the media obsession? Let’s look at  Steffie: Steffie is from Clairton, PA, apparantly the worst place in the world. “Clairton, Pennsylvania is a black-and-gray town. Even though most of the steel mills are closed now, you still can’t get rid of the black and gray.” Stephanie takes care of her parents, her pregnant sister, and her little brother, cooking, cleaning, and constantly wiping soot off the walls, with no end in sight. Who’d want to stay? I wouldn’t. She dreams, absurdly, of being a model, so she gets on a bus and goes to New York City. In NYC, she is almost immediately picked up by a pimp named Favor. Favor is insanely wealthy–three Cadillacs with custom-made hood ornaments, fur coats, giant apartment, gold jewelry, cash falling out of his pockets. Steffie and Favor have a whirlwind courtship (“I just kept shaking my head, imagining how lucky I was, running into this beautiful man so quickly, as soon as I got here!”) after which, you guessed it, there’s a price: “‘It’s not a free ride for you, baby,’ he said, shaking his head slowly. ‘You want a whole lot of nice things … you have to earn them. Everybody does…'”

We will set aside  how oddly reminiscent this line is of Debbie Allen’s famous bon mots from Fame, the TV show (“Fame costs, and right here is where you start paying–IN SWEAT.” And of course Cocoa in Fame, the movie, had her own teen-porn storyline.) So, Steffie becomes a prostitute. Which basically means a few yucky minutes a day and the best outfits EVER. Sex in this story, as in many teen hooker stories, is glossed over to the point of not existing. By the end of the book you get the impression that being a teen hooker is more about having the best clothes than about actually having sex. There’s usually a few sordid moments that highlight the young lady’s extreme desirability (the girl in question is almost always a top earner, not just any old hooker) and maybe one or two scenes of erotic and interesting kink, but rarely any actual sex (the “dirtiest” scene in Steffie involves the highly attractive and eroticized Favor watching her get dressed).

But listen to Steffie describe a shopping trip with Favor, a reward for her first trick (which she’s entirely forgotten, hazy as it was to begin with): “It was lovely and fun!…He bought me French jeans. They were skintight and looked wonderful. And he bought me a short skirt that looked like it was made of leopard skin and felt like it, too. And shorts the same material. And another skirt and another pair of jeans in a different color and a pair of high silver boots that came all the way up to my knees practically. They were the most fabulous things I’d ever seen. And they had high heels, too.”

Dipping back in, I’m struck that these books and media made being a teen hooker seem like basically the best life in the world. Lots of cash, attractive pimps, glamorous lifestyle, and all those clothes.  Hot pants and high heels, halter tops, miniskirts, spandex.  Can I still apply for this job? And is it possible what we thought was a sexual fixation was really a clothing fixation? Later, Steffie meets a hooker even younger than her in a jail cell and they compare boots. Even Christiane F., who was an actual child prostitute, devotes pages of her autobiography to her tight jeans, slit skirts, garter belts, and, of course, boots.

Another focal point of teen-prostitution stories seems to be the interactions among the girls themselves. Christiane F. devotes page after hypnotic page to gossiping about her cohorts. Angel, if I remember right, is on a mission to avenge the death of a friend. And Steffie’s downfall, ultimately, is not the grown men she has sex with, it’s the other hookers, who don’t like her. The teen hooker is in many of these scenarios in danger of being cut, scratched, pinched, or otherwise unkindly invaded by older prostitutes. I think there is something very telling in there about our relationships with our mothers, aunts, sisters and teachers–especially the way they can sometimes force entry into our very own bodies.

But back to Steffie. Steffie pisses off the other hookers for being younger and prettier (none of us have ever experienced THAT, right ladies?), a cop takes an interest in her and beats up her pimp Favor, and she’s thrown out of the stable with, tellingly, only the suitcase of awful clothes she brought with her from Pennsylvania: “Nothing else. None of my new jewelry, none of my new coats or jackets, nothing. The only new things I had were what I was wearing: jeans, a blouse, sandals. Even my pairs of boots weren’t there, Just my old clothes … my old Clairton clothes. My blue dress for Anita’s wedding … my old pumps…” (All these ellipses, by the way, are in the book.)  A cop points her toward a Convenant-House type place (minus the pedophiles, we hope) and the kind if frightful people there help her get home.

“There wasn’t any other place in the world for me to go. I really didn’t have any choice. But oh, I wanted to put it off. Just picturing actually being there … in my own house … made my stomach turn over.” Well, the thought of Steffie back in Clairton wiping soot off the walls kind of makes my stomach turn over too. Being a hooker didn’t work out for her, but don’t we have some better options? Couldn’t she, I don’t know, go to college? Learn a new skill? Go on an adventure?

And I think that might, ultimately, be the point. Life in the seventies and eighties was often grim.  Us girls didn’t have all the options we have  now. (And I’m not saying things were so great or even any better for boys–you had and have your own set of problems, but that’s for you to write about.) I can’t think of a single female writer we read in school other than Jane Austin and maybe a little Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I’ve written before about my obsession with Three’s Company, where the pretty women bordered on deaf-mute (and we’re not even going to talk about the horrifying specter of Mrs. Roper). Being pretty and smart was not on the program and niether of those options, frankly, was too appealing to being with. You could be the smart girl and spend you life buried in books and never have sex or you could be the pretty girl and be the deaf-mute object of desire, but at least you got to leave the house. The teen hookers in books and film were well-dressed and glamorous and tough and worldly and experienced and (Steffie aside) smart. They were no dummy like Chrissy or Farrah, and they weren’t boring like Janet or Sabrina. They wore bright colors. They had fun. They had sex. They knew things.

In the end, I think these mythologized child prostitutes were a spot our culture found to release the pressure of seventies grimness and limited choices and find something new–a new way of looking at girls, a new way of being in the world, and most of all, maybe, a new way of dressing–that is, a new way of describing ourselves, as women and girls, and showing ourselves to the world. I think our teen hooker obsession–mine personally and ours culturally–isn’t really about sex. I think it’s about clothes and how women treat each other and what we do with our lives  and how we make choices and the perilous times and good outfits that await us when we deviate from the plan and “run away from home.” We are often faced with a choice in life: safe, or interesting. I think our mythology of teen hookers is a mythology of choosing “interesting,” and I think the mythology tells us that we may not come out so clean and pure, but we can still come out of it wearing our favorite boots. And that’s pretty good, I think.

April 11, 2011

it could be you

by Megan Abbott


Recently, I wrote a piece for the Los Angles Times Magazine about what may be seen as the rise of the dark, complicated female protagonist in crime fiction (and film). Interviewing Gillian Flynn, whose novels Dark Places and Sharp Objects are prime examples, we began talking about made-for-TV movies from our youth. Wondering about the impact of these movies on writers around our age, Gillian noted in particular watching way too many “women-in-jeopardy stories: the woman who was stalked or attacked or abused.”

The influence of these movies is something Sara and I have discussed many times–especially powerful for us were the tales of teen hitchhikers and runaways and teen hitchhiker-runaways-turned-hookers (Sara, jump in here if I’m misremembering!). I also became pretty fixated on E!True Hollywood Story equivalent in the early 90s–especially the ones about porn stars (the best:  the truly sad tale of Savannah). In much the ways that Flowers in the Attic seems to have planted some dark seeds within our generation of women, these movies were somehow deeply resonant, perhaps in the way that True Confessions magazine may have been to a prior one.

By and large, these tales–at least the ones that seemed to have loomed large for many of us–speak to the price paid for transgression (disrespect for parents, selfishness, an inability to control their own impulses, or most of all poor taste in men) or, in the more old-fashioned strand, the inevitable price all women must pay, as their birthright (e.g., all women are at constant risk for being duped or hustled by bigamists, wifebeaters, pimps in disguise, married cads, embezzlers, con men–or all of the above).

But, gender issues, aside, one of the elements of these movies that stirred me so deeply was the powerful sense that violence and chaos can, or even will, unfurl in your own home. I was especially fixated on Fatal Vision, the superb 1984 miniseries about Jeffery MacDonald, the Green Beret captain and doctor accused of murdering his pregnant wife and two children, The Betty Broderick Story, which Gillian also cited, with Meredith Baxter Birney as the socialite accused of murdering her ex-husband and his new wife, Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as Diane Downs, accused of killing her children, and Adam, about the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder, which seemed to traumatize a whole generation of children and parents and I Know My First Name Is Steven, another true-crime kidnapping tale, this one from the viewpoint of the kidnapped boy as he grows up with his captor.

There are countless more, but they all presented the suburban, middle-class home as not as the bland domestic space of yore, but as a powder keg. That violence could arise anywhere, at any time. It could find you there. It could even originate there. It could rise up within your own parents. Even you.

March 19, 2011

Some Reservations

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

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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.

February 23, 2011

smoke it, drink it, spend it or love it

by Megan Abbott

I have been watching episodes of an old favorite, The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998), which is finally on DVD in toto (I believe past releases were limited episodes). A behind-the-seasons chronicle of a late-night show helmed by Gary Shandling, the show is precisely the acerbic, winning wonder I remembered. And most of all, for me, a chance to see one of my favorite actors in prime form: the mighty and troubled and brilliant Rip Torn.

Torn plays Artie, the show’s producer, in a performance that I find not just funny and winning but, as the show progresses, seems to take on Shakespearean levels of showbiz cunning, personal loyalty and unabashed sentiment.

It’s what led me to uncover what many believe to be Torn’s most bravura film performance: as a country-western singer in the spectacular Payday (1972), which is sort of like if you took Nashville‘s (1975) darkest storyline and dipped it in kerosene.  With a screenplay by novelist Don Carpenter, it merits its own post here–in fact, a post alone about a particularly enthralling backseat groupie-sex scene. It’s so sleazy and so vivid you almost want to avert your eyes at moments, even as you absolutely can’t.

Described by one critic as “brilliantly gonzo,” Torn was never an uncomplicated man and reading about him is like peering into dark glittering caverns of cultural and personal idiosyncracy. In a terrific 2008 New York Observer piece, writer Spencer Morgan describes having breakfast with Torn:

When I asked for Tabasco, Mr. Torn gave me a knowing look. Then he slipped a hand into a faded blue portage bag he carries everywhere and produced his own bottle. He sprinkled his plate, passed it over, our eyes met. In case you were wondering, the exact contents of that magic satchel remain unknown. Even to his wife.

The aura of coiled mystery surrounding Torn derives heavily from his offscreen life.  Torn was famously accused by Dennis Hopper of pulling a knife on him during an argument, leading to his firing from Easy Rider, to be replaced by Jack Nicholson. (Torn later sued Hopper over the claim, and Hopper recanted.).

Perhaps Torn’s most infamous off-screen moment was his famous fisticuffs with Norman Mailer on the set of Mailer’s Maidstone after what appears to have been some signficant frustration with Mailer’s direction (although discerning the real story here seems to means unraveling a seemingly endless tangle of masculine and artistic insults, aggressions and jealousies ).  The short version is, after trouble on the set, Torn comes after Mailer with a hammer, and Mailer eventually takes out a piece of Torn’s ear. (The longer version is on view here).

It’s an utterly hypnotic thing to watch, these two big bruisers going at each other, with Torn’s cooing words as he considers releasing Mailer from a headlock: “No, baby. No, baby. You know you trust me. You trust me. You trust me. You trust me. You trust me.”

After, Mailer accuses Torn of wanting to assassinate him, and Torn replies, in that scarily mesmerizing post Manson-hippie voice, “That’s your story, man … that’s what you’re pushing.”

Wow. Wow.

February 8, 2011

Eight Million Stories in the Naked City

by Sara Gran
weegee_phonebooth

Megan wrote a few posts about photographs had inspired her writing. They have for me, too–in particular, Weegee‘s photos were a big inspiration when I wrote Dope. Weegee was a photographer who took pictures mostly in New York City–his peak production was the thirties through the late fifties. He started off as a photojournalist, using a police scanner to get to crime scenes and the like to get the first pics, and then developed renown as a more general photographer.

The other night I saw NAKED CITY, the Jules Dassin movie, for probably the third time. Naked City is at least in part based on Weegee’s photos–many of the scenes are directly modeled on his photographs. Yet I’ve forgotten the relationship between the photographer and the film–if they optioned his book (also called Naked City) or just “borrowed” his ideas. Weegee’s name wasn’t in any the credits or even in the special features. But many scenes in the movie actually begin as reconstructions of his photos, even duplicating his lighting, which then come to life. If you know the photographs it’s kind of amazing. I’m guessing there’s some kind of legal monkey business at work here, though, because Weegee’s name seems to have been erased from the history of the film. Anyone know the story here?

And, of course, the later TV show was inspired by the film. This was on TV about 3 a.m. throughout most of my adolescence and I watched it almost nightly. That and Ben Casey. What a world I thought adults lived in!

I haven’t seen many Jules Dassin films, but the two I’ve seen–Night and the City and Naked City–are tops. By the way, all the consonants in his name are hard–DASS-in isn’t French, as I’d always assumed, but an American who moved to France and made some films there after got blacklisted. Combined with the name, everyone apparently jumps to same conclusion I did.

January 29, 2011

recurring images we may not need

by Sara Gran
Explosion

Image by kevindooley via Flickr

I was talking with some friends the other day about these recurring images I’ve noticed in movies over the past few years, and what they might mean. The strongest recurring image is the vomiting scene. I would say over 90% of movies made within the last, say, four years have at least one scene of a person vomiting, loudly. The sound seems to be a part of the phenomena. When did vomiting become so appealing? I used to work in this building where people would always fight about the garbage–who’s dumpster was who’s, what night which garbage went were, what went to the various garbage outlets. And my brilliant co-worker (Hi Carolyn! Are you out there?) said well, elimination is a very deep issue. So maybe that’s part of the vomiting issue. I also wonder if it has to do with “not swallowing” something. But what are we not swallowing? What is it that we just can’t stomach?

Another image, one that’s waning in movies but still going strong on tv, is this: someone sets a match, timer, or other gimmick to blow something up. Person walks away from incendiary device. Huge explosion follows. Our hero walks away, explosion in the background, without breaking stride or looking back. This one is a bit more obvious, and I think it’s even been poked fun at in a few parodies. But I still think it’s a fascinating image. Why the complete lack of response to the explosion? Why a refusal to even glance back? And these scenes are nearly always physical impossibilities–the hero is usually way too close to the explosion not to get burned, but he never does.

The last one is one I’ve seen in a lot trailers lately–I noticed it in trailers for the new harry potter movie, for example. This is a design element where, behind the titles or credits, there’s a kind of big roiling black smoky somethingness–a weather system or fire or smoke incident that involves big round black cloud-like things rolling around. It’s a very dark image. It’s a bit reminiscent of the giant clouds of dust created when the towers fell down, but in shades of black.

I wonder if these images have something to with the fact that we’ve been at war for like ten years? What do you think? I don’t have any strong opinions here, but I’m curious to hear what others think.

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