Posts tagged ‘movies’

March 30, 2011

french postcards

by Megan Abbott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Retreat, Gloria at right.

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

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

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

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

March 12, 2011

they knew men, and how

by Megan Abbott

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 4, 2011

dream (il)logic

by Megan Abbott

Now and again, I go through phases—frequently as a result of poor (yet legitimately pharmaceutical) choices—of bad dreams.

I am in the middle of such a phase (including an especially terrifying one involving angry squirrels). And it’s a real drag right now because I’m revisiting one of my favorite true crime books, the highly contested Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel. A retired LA cop, Hodel  devotes hundreds of pages to proving that his father, George Hodel, is not only the killer of Elizabeth Short, AKA “The Black Dahlia,” but possibly scores of other women in Los Angeles in the 1940s (and earlier, and later).

I have conversations with folks about this book at least every few weeks. It seems there are many of us who are haunted by its particular blend of truthiness, utter throw-the-book-across-the-room implausibility and the humming ring of real, and deeply haunting, truth.

Going back to bad dreams, though—well, this book gives me very bad dreams. It’s a disturbing, exotic and strange world George Hodel lived in—doctor, lothario, friend to surrealists, decadent. And Steve Hodel renders it well.  (Do read Craig McDonald‘s wonderful Toros and Torsos novel and the book Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder for more on this world.)

The point is, I cannot possibly read this book before I go to sleep.  Instead, I am watching Larry Sanders, or reading The Believer’s first-rate film issue (more on that in the days to come). But it reminds of conversations Sara and I have had about the possibility of “directing” our own dreams (and about lucid dreaming). Can one “will” bad dreams away—or more pointedly set the stage for good ones?

This is all a long (sleepless) way of saying, speaking of surrealism, I got a postcard in the mail from my dad:

The caption is “Gadget Dance, 1936,”  and it’s Depression-era timestamp is significant. But the main thing is, I smiled very widely when I got it, and have placed it above my computer.

This picture, like so many of those Busby Berkeley musical numbers from the 30s, are sometimes what we think of when we think of dreamscapes. So my goal tonight, is to dream my way into this.

Personally, I want to be the washing machine girl in the back, with the balloon bubbles. (Who can tell me what the girl behind the oven and next to the radio is supposed to be? Jack, I’m asking you!).

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 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.

January 4, 2011

bird on a wire

by Megan Abbott

On Christmas Eve, I saw Black Swan, which I thought was pretty extraordinary, and I’m still working it all through in my head. Stylistically, it’s sort of an unholy union of unholies: Roman Polanski, Dario Argento and the brightest work of Brian De Palma (Sisters, Carrie)–which may sound like a  nightmare to some, but for me is kind of the Big Dream.

I’ve heard some dismiss the movie as “over the top,” which is a criticism I’ve never really understood. If I didn’t seek out heightened realities in movies, I wouldn’t be going to many (and I love movies). Moreover, I think “over the top” or histrionic or all those criticisms are frequently code for something else–and might have to do with a certain discomfort in movies about women, about women’s bodies (in ways that aren’t situating them solely for ornamental display), about what used to be called “female hysteria” (or just “hysteria,” since the word itself derives from “womb”).

(It’s interesting to set it alongside director Darren Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler, in this regard–an explicitly kitchen-sink-realistic rendering of the male body facing self-imposed abuses for the sake of a different kind of performance.)

It’s an expressionistic movie, which is one of my favorite kinds. Before I saw it, my friend Reed told me that he thought many of the film’s naysayers were making the mistake of judging it as a film about dance or as some realistic depiction of the ballet life and finding it lacking. But the movie has no interest in realism, or objective realities. The world of the movie is the world of someone’s head, not someone’s life.

There’s so much to swim in in the movie:  split selves … driving, mutilating perfectionism … an arrested sexuality. But Black Swan is also, and perhaps mostly, a movie about an artist, and I think it might be kinda revelatory about that. In A.O. Scott’s piece in the Times, he refers to it–by way of praise–as an “overheated, wildly melodramatic rendering of an artist’s struggle.” How do I create this (e.g., this performance, this painting, this book)? I can only do so by becoming it. It’s a process of brutal self-annhilation and transformation. It requires, depending on how you look at it, utter self-erasure (“I’m no longer me, I am IT.”) or complete self-absorption (no movie in recently memory has so stunningly depicted the egotism of the artist–there is no world in the movie but in the dancer’s head. It’s the only thing that matters.).

And so it’s also about aesthetic risk. Natalie Portman’s emotionally fractured dancer pushes her body beyond physical limits to make it correlate with the beautiful chaos in her head. She feels herself as the “black swan” and wills herself to become it, to manifest it. The flesh resists but finally submits. And it is, as Scott writes, a kind of “liberation in self-destruction.” And the movie takes those same aesthetic risks, walking a tightrope between art and kitsch, between psychological complexity and camp. But if it didn’t risk the fall, it would lose all its incantational magic.

This is, admittedly, dark stuff. It makes us squirm under our skin. And makes us maybe even want to make fun of it, that nervous giggle we get when we see something very internal, secret, private laid bare out there. But Black Swan also warns us sneakily of the dangers of that, of repression, restriction, compulsion. You hold them down, they come back bigger, badder. The movie asks us to, even at great risk, release ourselves.

October 29, 2010

Cotton Comes to Harlem

by The Abbott Gran Medicine Show

Megan, I know you’re a Chester Himes fan–have you seen this Ossie Davis 1970 adaptation? It was a lot of fun!