Friday, December 8, 2017

Against The Greatest Whatevers of All Time


We need to cycle the cliche "one of the greatest ___ of all time" out of our language. Of all time is a long time. It's a long ass time. It's forever. It is literally forever.

I am guilty of this myself. I'm just a sinner who's seen the light. For instance, in the past I have referred to the odd film as "one the greatest movies of all time" as if the movies themselves were ancient pillars of culture rather than an art form that came along at basically the same time as the toaster oven. (I've seen certain comic book flicks referred to as "one of the greatest superhero movies of all time" which makes the point even more strongly, since, historically speaking, the superhero movie is still teething.)

Like all cliches, the greatest whatever of all time cliche is just a dumbing down of language, an empty superlative in place of an actual opinion. This kind of inflation of language serves different functions. For one thing, it imbues the speaker with a sense of superiority. After all, if I declare some novel one of the greatest novels of all time, then I am claiming for myself the authority not just to declare a novel good or great, but to declare its virtues to be eternal.

This appeal to the eternal is revealing. Our language so often reveals us to ourselves. For instance, I've rarely seen the "all time" cliche bandied about in praise of the works of art that have an actual legitimate claim to antiquity. Homer's ODYSSEY has as good a claim to the mantle of "the greatest work of literature of all time" as anything (if we shrink the eternity implicit in the phrase "of all time" to mean the few thousand years of human life on earth), but we rarely see it referenced that way. Instead, the "greatest of all time" mantle is usually trotted out for rock bands and quarterbacks. And the relative newness of rock bands and football players is, I think, a key to the cliche's appeal. A lot of people love THE ODYSSEY but even its most fervent fans probably don't feel that the epic poem is evocative of their youth. The kind of people most likely to declare The Beatles the greatest band of all time are the kind of people most likely to feel an personal emotional connection to The Beatles. Ditto Joe Montana (or your quarterback of choice).

The inclination to declare something a part of the canon is an inclination to declare your own feelings part of the process by which we decide the canon. I love the Beatles, too. Will their music really hold the same beloved status in another thousand years? I doubt it. I really do. I suspect music, language, and culture will change so immeasurably that the Beatles will be a historical fragment of a bygone society. It's entirely likely that the feelings roused in me by a great Beatles song will no longer rouse feelings in people a thousand years from now. (The opposite is true. There's no reason to think ancient people would have liked the Beatles anymore than old people did in 1965.) Which is another way of saying that our feelings aren't eternal. It's more than possible that the things I've loved will fade in their impact over time.

Perhaps this is why the things that have lasted the longest (in both duration and impact) are the very works of art that claimed actual divine authorship. John Lennon once said that people tried to make a religion out of the Beatles, and he was right. People are still trying.

We say "nothing lasts forever" but we don't really believe it. We're constantly grasping after the eternal. And these things we declare eternal--books, songs, movies, sports figures--are fragments of an ever scattering past, fragments of our own dissipating lives.

Monday, November 13, 2017

NO TOMORROW Goes To France


My book NO TOMORROW makes its French debut next year. Here's the cover, which kicks ass and makes me really happy.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Orson Welles On The Air


Between the period that he became a groundbreaking theater director and the period when he became a groundbreaking film director, Orson Welles was a groundbreaking radio director. Actually, these periods all overlapped in the mad days of the 1930s when Welles seemed to be everywhere, doing just about everything. His film work has, of course, seized the attention of the most people, if for no other reason than it is the work that's been most readily available to the public. His theater works, as all theater works, live on mostly in reports and stories and legends. (God, I'm pining for someone to put out a new exhaustive exploration of his theater work spanning from the 30s to the 60s.) For those interested in his radio work, however, there is wonderful news from Indiana University.

The Lily Library in Bloomington, the guardian of the largest collection of Welles's papers and archival materials, has a magnificent new resource available to the public.

Orson Welles On The Air collects much of Welles's prolific radio work as a director, actor, political commentator, and master of ceremonies. Included are the series' FIRST PERSON SINGULAR, MERCURY THEATER ON THE AIR, CAMPBELL PLAYHOUSE, THE ORSON WELLES SHOW, HELLO AMERICANS, ORSON WELLES COMMENTARIES, and more. Much more. It's fascinating to see Welles alternate between his roles as an entertainer (mounting a thrilling version of "Dracula" or his famous panic-inducing take on "War of the Worlds") to his work as a social critic (including his five episode campaign on ORSON WELLES COMMENTARIES calling for an investigation into the 1945 beating and blinding of an African American serviceman named Issac Woodard in South Carolina). 

Welles is back on the air where he belongs. Go check it out.


Monday, October 16, 2017

Georges Simenon: The Father of European Noir


I'm really proud to be associated with the Film Noir Foundation and its journal NOIR CITY. Published and edited by FNF honcho and host of TCM's NOIR ALLEY Eddie Muller, it's one of the best movie journals around. The new issue is out and it's pretty damn great. There two pieces by Imogen Sara Smith, who's certainly my favorite writer on film working today. She's got a piece on Jean-Pierre Melville and another on the 1929 silent noir A STRONG MAN. Alan K. Rode writes about the great, if not widely known, screenwriter Frank Fenton. And there's a lot more.

Oh yeah, there's me. I have a couple pieces in this issue. One is a epic overview of the massive influence of Georges Simenon on European film noir. Adaptations of his novels started with Jean Renoir in the early days of sound and have extended to the present, so there's A LOT of territory to cover. It was a blast to write.

The other piece is a look at the film version of ALL THE KING'S MEN, the film about a blowhard populist politician who sweeps to power by inflaming his white rural base. Total fantasy stuff.   

You can learn about about the magazine and the Film Noir Foundation here.

Friday, October 13, 2017

THE BLANK WALL, THE RECKLESS MOMENT, and THE DEEP END

above: Joan Bennett in a publicity still for THE RECKLESS MOMENT

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's 1947 THE BLANK WALL might be the best classic noir novel that most noir fans have never read. It's a masterpiece of its kind, one the best examples of what some feminist critics call the "domestic noir," that subgenre of crime fiction and film that concerns itself with the secret world of the happy American housewife.

Holding's book was made into the brilliant 1949 Joan Bennett noir THE RECKLESS MOMENT, and was then adapted fifty years later into the excellent 2001 Tilda Swinton neo-noir THE DEEP END. Three very different works of high quality. That's an incredible feat. 

I wrote about the book and its cinematic legacy in a recent piece for the Book vs Film column for the magazine Noir City. Here's a link to the article. Check it out. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

OPEN SECRET (1948)


When director John Reinhardt returned from his military service after World War II, he began making films that were different in tone from the kind of movies he’d specialized in before the war. In his early days in Hollywood, Reinhardt had worked in the rather obscure world of foreign film production at big studios like Fox and Paramount, mostly making small Spanish-language comedies and musicals. During the war, Reinhardt had worked for the OSS under the command of John Ford. When he returned to movie making in 1947, however, Reinhardt began toiling in the world of low budget independent productions. His work from that time forward would be darker, suffused with a sense of paranoia, overhung by a deep pessimism.

His 1948 thriller OPEN SECRET is an underrated entry in the run of films dealing with anti-Semitism that were released after the war (and following the revelations of the Nuremberg Trials). Studio pictures like CROSSFIRE and GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT had already brought the subject into American movie theaters, but OPEN SECRET, in its low rent way, is a more honest handling of the topic.

The story follows newlyweds Paul and Nancy Lester (John Ireland and Jane Randolph) who have arrived in an unnamed town to visit Ed, Paul’s old Army buddy. When Ed goes missing, Paul and Nancy start poking around. Turns out Ed has some pretty unsavory connections to a gang of white supremacists who operate out of a nearby dive bar called The 19th Hole. Did Ed really fall for neo-Nazi claptrap? How does a local Jewish storeowner named Strauss (George Tyne) figure into this?

Like many of Reinhardt’s independent productions, OPEN SECRET has a quick running time (67 minutes), a notably small budget, and limited sets. Reinhardt uses the constraints to great effect, though, to create a mood of near constant oppression and claustrophobia. The very smallness of the film becomes a reflection of the smallness of the lives of the characters. Consider The 19th Hole. Strauss sarcastically calls it the “local country club.” What it actually is, though, is a dank, dimly lit box where a group of haggard-looking men sit around drinking and blaming the waste of their lives on “foreigners.” Beneath plumes of cigarette smoke they stare into shot glasses and grumble about their shrinking prospects.

If the film demonstrates the best qualities of Reinhardt’s work, it also bears some of his flaws as well. As is almost always the case, his female characters are weak and underdeveloped. Nancy Lester is a watery leading lady who is on hand mostly to wait around for her husband. The character actress Anne O’Neal lurks around corners as Ed’s landlady, but while her presence adds to the claustrophobia of the piece, there’s really nothing to her character besides her lurking. The one moment with a female character that rings true is an effective speech by Helena Dare as the abused wife of one of the gang members wherein she explains that he knocks her around to make himself feel big — tying his domestic abuse to the white male supremacy line his crew promulgates.

In a sense, of course, a film like OPEN SECRET was several years too late. Had this same film been released in 1940 it likely would have been so controversial it would have been the subject of Congressional hearings. After the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau, however, any statement against anti-Semitism and Nazism was rendered rather toothless. You don’t get many points for being right after the fact.

And yet, what makes OPEN SECRET an interesting film is the very fact that it follows the defeat of the Nazis but exists in a world where racism and bigotry are ongoing plagues. (In 2017, it must be said, the film feels uncomfortably relevant.) Among Reinhardt’s noirs, this is perhaps his darkest film — quite literally, since cinematographer George Robinson blankets the picture in shadows. The film begins on the street at night, and it ends the same way. In between those points there probably aren’t ten minutes of daylight in the whole picture. In John Reinhardt’s noirs, it’s always midnight in America.

Postscript: A quick word about George Tyne. In this film, he plays the plucky storeowner who helps Ireland bring down the gang. A few years after making this film, however, he was himself brought down by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was named as a Communist by actor Lee J. Cobb, and when he was called before Congress he refused to name names. He was cited for contempt of Congress and indicted by a federal grand jury in New York City. After being blacklisted he didn’t make another film for thirteen years.

NOTE: The film has recently been restored and preserved by UCLA and will be showing on Oct. 14th and 16th at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago as part of its UCLA Festival of Preservation 2017. 


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

OUT OF THE PAST at 70


Get thee to a newsstand to pick up the Fall issue of MYSTERY SCENE magazine, and check out my article on OUT OF THE PAST. The film is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, a good reason to explore how and why it has become perhaps the most beloved noir of them all.