Tuesday, September 19, 2017
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.
Saturday, September 9, 2017
And here we have Suffering Saint Joan once more being led to the gallows. Joan Crawford spent most of her time in film noir enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In the thirties, she’d be a glamorous figure—a romantic icon on par (and often paired) with Gable. But by the late forties and early fifties when she made her transition into film noir, she was no longer anyone that the audience was supposed to want to emulate. She was there to suffer—either because of her own sins or because of fate itself. Either way, you knew things weren’t going to end well.
THE DAMNED DON’T CRY is an entry in the Tramp Sleeps Her Way To The Top subgenre of film noir. On paper, it might seem like this would be the most sexist of femme fatale offshoots. And, to be sure, there are sexist undertones to the whole affair. This movie tells the story of an unhappily married working-class woman named Ethel Whitehead. After she loses her child in an accident, Ethel leaves her husband and strikes out on her own. She gets a job modeling clothes at one of those places where a rich married man buys an outfit for the wife and tries to rent the model for himself. Ethel starts running through these guys, picking up dinner and some cash, until she can position herself to come into some real money. Eventually, this leads her into a relationship with some shady characters like George Castleman (David Brian) and Nick Prenta (Steve Cochran). Both of these guys have feelings for her, but she’s always working an angle. Soon enough, though, she underestimates one of them, and then pretty much everything goes to hell.
THE DAMNED DON’T CRY and films like it have a structure that is one part cliché and one part Production Code mandate. Throughout the classic period of noir, ambition was treated with a mixture of admiration and distain, and ambitious women got it especially rough. A movie like this has a simple message: a woman is not supposed to leave her husband, no matter what, and certainly not because she wants a better life. She will invariably find that no such life exists, that only heartache and pain await her in the end.
These hoary old clichés went back to the earliest days of film, and by 1950 the Production Code had long since turned them into law. The woman who would use sex to get what she wants from men is a woman who must be punished.
What makes THE DAMNED DON’T CRY interesting is the way it does due diligence to the mandate for moral comeuppance while at the same time placing us in the corner of the beleaguered protagonist. This film would make a good companion piece to the 1956 WICKED AS THEY COME starring Arlene Dahl in a similar role. Both movies situate their damned and wicked women in dire economic circumstances and then watch as they try to fight their way out with the only weapon they have: sex. There’s a subversive element to both movies. Though both have obligatory punishment at the end, there’s no doubt whose side we’re on. It’s strange, really, how these films work. By the end, they’ve become tragedies of a certain noir hue.
THE DAMNED DON’T CRY is powered by Crawford’s performance. Here was a movie star. She can play it halting and sweet—as in the early scenes with her young son. And she can play it mean and dirty. The movie gives her a lot of lines that crackle, as when she sets one hapless suitor straight on his world view:
I know how you feel. You're a nice guy. But the world isn't for nice guys. You've got to kick and punch and belt your way up because nobody's going to give you a lift. You've got to do it yourself, because nobody cares about us except ourselves.
Crawford sells these lines with the combined weight of twenty years of playing scrappy working girls. Of course, she herself had lived a similar life. When she says this, you’re hearing the weight of her own life behind the words. Crawford helped, uncredited, on the script by Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman, from the story by Gertrude Walker.
After this film there was more suffering to be done—in film noirs like SUDDEN FEAR or melodramas like AUTUMN LEAVES or Nicholas Ray’s gonzo western JOHNNY GUITAR—and beyond that lay the indignities of her late career horror movie roles. Here, though, you have her in something of her noir prime. We’re not supposed to like her, but we do. That was Suffering Saint Joan’s genius.
Monday, August 21, 2017
It’s easy to get in over your head when you’re only five foot two. Mickey Rooney found that out the hard way in the fifties. For much of the preceding decade he had been the chipper face of American optimism—the fast-talking little guy with the can do attitude. But Hollywood started to go dark around the time that Rooney’s star persona began to decline in public favor. Of course, the public would always like Mickey Rooney, but the postwar years coincided with the end of Rooney’s unnaturally long adolescence (only as he neared thirty years old did he age out of spunky teenager roles). He began taking on adult roles, and that meant occasional forays into Noir City. He made the excellent QUICKSAND in 1950, and then in 1954 he hit the jackpot with DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD.
In the film, Rooney plays Eddie Shannon, a mechanic and part-time race car driver. Without knowing it, Eddie’s caught the attention of a group of bank robbers led by Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy). Norris needs a wheel man for a job he’s planning, a job which will require a driver of great skill. He dispatches his sexy girlfriend Barbara (Diane Foster) to seduce the little guy and talk him into helping them pull the job. Eddie balks at first, but he’s simply too in love with Barbara. He joins the gang for the bank heist.
What happens next is interesting. We might expect the bank job to go badly, or for Norris and his gang to stiff Eddie on the money, but the film makes a rather unexpected detour. The money, oddly enough for a film noir, isn’t really the sticking point here. The fallout and the violence that follows it are really over matters of love.
In QUICKSAND, Rooney played another mechanic who meets the wrong woman and ends up suffering for it, but in that film, he’s still got some spring in his step. Here, though, we find him playing a very different kind of role. Eddie Shannon is an odd little guy. The film uses none of the usual tricks to disguise the actor’s height. Everyone in the film, including Foster, towers over him. But the film uses his diminutive stature as a physical representation of his essential character. Shannon is quiet, even around his buddies at work, and Rooney is surprisingly effective as an introvert. Eddie Shannon is a lonely man, and the gang picks him out because he’s a lonely man.
This makes his relationship with Barbara all the more tense. What ratchets up the emotional stakes, though, are Barbra’s conflicted feelings about her assignment. She seduces the sad little mechanic, but it’s a seduction of the heart. The two don’t even share a kiss. They talk, and she invites Shannon to dream big dreams for the first time in his life. He falls in love, not lust. We get the sense this job would be easier on her if it was only physical. Dianne Foster didn’t make much of an impact in films before being relegated to television and then retiring in the mid-sixties, but make no mistake about it: she was a hell of an actress. Her performance here is topnotch.
The entire film is topnotch. The bank robbery, for instance, gains tension by staying in the car with the getaway driver. And the mad dash that follows the robbery, as Shannon and the robbers race down a twisted back road in order to get to the highway before roadblocks can be set up, is a nail-biting blend of back projection and stunt driving. This kind of thing was often done badly in older films (indeed, the first shots of this movie are a pretty poor display of sloppy back projection), but Shannon’s race through the desert is a fine piece of action direction.
The film was directed by Richard Quine and written by Quine and his frequent collaborator Blake Edwards (James Benson Nablo). Both Quine and Edwards started out as actors, and both usually specialized in comedy. This might explain the wealth of snappy lines in DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD, as when Norris tells a drunk girl at a party, “Dear love, why don’t you go somewhere and pass out like a lady?” It doesn’t explain, though, the aura of heartbreak that hovers over the film. This is one of the saddest of noirs — the story of lonely man who’s taken for a sucker by a gang of sharks. Throughout, Quine directs with intelligence and restraint. The final scenes here, as Shannon confronts the woman he loves and finds out the awful truth about her and the handsome bank robber, are both exciting and tragic.
Richard Quine was himself a tragic case. A gifted director, his life was beset by misfortune. In 1945, his wife, actress Susan Peters, accidently shot and crippled herself in a hunting accident. As Peters fell into a deep depression, their marriage faltered and after they divorced in 1948, Peters got worse and in 1952 starved herself to death. Quine struggled to find his equilibrium. Working at Columbia he was confined mostly to comedies, though in 1954 he made both DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD and the excellent Fred McMurray/Kim Novak film PUSHOVER. During PUSHOVER, he had a brief but intense affair with Novak that ended with her leaving him at the altar. Quine eventually married actress Fran Jeffries, and directed a string of successful comedies, but he remained a fundamentally sad, troubled man. In 1989, he shot and killed himself in his home in Beverly Hills.
Rooney’s career continued its decline after this film, of course, and he never came close to reclaiming his box office mantle. Perhaps more importantly, he never really reclaimed his place in the culture. As the years have gone on, the Andy Hardy movies that made him an American symbol are more and more relics of the past. They have historical importance, of course, but I don’t get the sense that Mickey Rooney has had anything like the longevity of Shirley Temple or Judy Garland. A lot of kids still watch Temple. And every kid I know still loves the THE WIZARD OF OZ. Mickey Rooney, on the other hand, is just lucky that he got teamed so many times with Garland before she outgrew him.
All of which is to say that as Rooney’s big hits dim in the distance, there is more room to evaluate some of his later work. And his work in noir — particularly QUICKSAND and the 1951 musical noir THE STRIP — are very good. And one film, DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD — might be the best thing he ever did.
Note: DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD will be showing next week at Noir City Chicago.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
I was pleased to be a recent guest on the podcast NOIR TALK. Host Haggai Elitzur and I discussed my profiles of Tom Neal and Peggie Castle, my adventures on book tours in France, what it's like to attended Noir City Chicago, and much more. Check it out here.
Friday, August 4, 2017
The website Book Scrolling has placed my novel HELL ON CHURCH STREET on its list of the Best Noir Novels of all time. While I'm dubious of lists of the all time greatest anything, I am absolutely gratified to be be included on any list that includes the likes of Cain, Hughes, Simenon, and Thompson. So a big thanks to the folks at Book Scrolling.
It's a funny thing to have HOCS included on this list when the book is currently out of print. As some people may know, the last publisher of HOCS, 280 Steps, went out of business not long ago. I could have immediately placed the book elsewhere, but I want to shop it around. I'm slow about these things, and I'm going to finish the current novel I'm working on so I can sell them as a pair, making the process even slower. I'm satisfied in my own mind that this is the smart way to go about the process of placing HOCS in its next home.
So I said all of that to say that I'm especially grateful to Book Scrolling for reminding people of my little book. HELL ON CHURCH STREET changed my life. It gave me a career in writing, it took me to France, and it has introduced me to many wonderful people. So I want to right by it. I'm glad it's still out there in the world making a little noise.
Sunday, July 30, 2017
Charlie Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR is an amazing piece of art made all the more amazing by the fact that it doesn't really work. Of all of Chaplin's major films, it is the most disjointed, the one that least holds together as a unified production. Tellingly, after this film, he would struggle to find his footing in a world and an industry that kept changing.
And yet, paradoxically, few people would argue against the supposition that THE GREAT DICTATOR is one of Chaplin's most important works.
The film, of course, was Chaplin's courageous stand against Hitler and Nazism. Context is everything in appreciating the film today, so it is important to begin any discussion of THE GREAT DICTATOR by pointing out that when Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and financed the film, Hitler was at his zenith. America was officially neutral in the matter of the "war in Europe" and many Americans (more than we like to remember) supported Hitler's racist vision of the world, or, at the very least, thought that the Nazis should be of minimal concern to the US. When Chaplin released his film, then, he wasn't satirizing the biggest ghoul in our history books, the monster who has come to personify evil in the modern world. He was satirizing the Chancellor of Germany, a seemingly ridiculous little man, albeit a man whose ambitions were growing by the day and whose murderous rampage against the people of Europe had only just begun.
All of this makes THE GREAT DICTATOR a source of immense fascination today. Even more than most films, it is an historical document. It was never, ever, just a movie. This was the most famous movie star alive making a desperate plea to stop a rapidly unfolding tragedy.
Yet it is also, of course, just a movie. And as a movie, it is flawed. By this point, Chaplin had been directing movies for three decades and had done the bulk of his work in the teens and '20s. In the '30s, he had directed only two films: CITY LIGHTS (1931) and MODERN TIMES (1936). Now, those films are arguably his best works as a director, but by 1940 he was a long way from the time when he had dominated American film (or, really, world film). At his peak, he might well have been the biggest star that the movies ever produced, and he was as respected a director as any filmmaker alive, but he was also, in 1940, a middle-aged man who had become a star when movies themselves were just being formed, a director from a different era.
THE GREAT DICTATOR shows signs of his age. It is a curious mix of tones and styles, a fractured artistic statement. The comedy that we remember the film for is the broad satire of Hitler, with Chaplin playing "Adenoid Hynkel" as a preening buffoon spewing hate while he pours water down his pants. Much of the humor is big and simple, with the little dictator doing pratfalls or bumping his head. This tepid take on Hitler is, if you will forgive the comparison, somewhat akin to making fun of Donald Trump's hair. It has no bite, and it's not satirizing anything of consequence. At other times, however, the film's humor is darkly pointed, as in the scene where Nazi-like stormtroopers attempt to lynch a Jewish barber also played by Chaplin. Doing a lynching scene as slapstick is, to put it mildly, a tricky business. Yes, it's making fun of the hateful idiots with the rope, but the underlying reality of the scene is disturbing. Atrocities like this, as Chaplin well knew, were actually happening in countries across Europe and they had their analogue in the rampant racial violence in America.
All of this points to an uneasy balance of concerns for the filmmaker to juggle throughout THE GREAT DICTATOR. Chaplin, in his heart, was a vaudeville performer hustling for laughs (and, in a larger sense, for love). There's a scene where the little barber, in the midst of an anti-Semitic attack, gets bopped on the head and does a little wobbly shuffle up and down the sidewalk. This is the kind of gag that we've seen in Chaplin shorts, the enjoyment of which is based on our delight in the performer's fleet-footed dexterity. But that delight is impossible to reconcile with the actual setting of the action. It's as if Chaplin is stopping his dark satire of Nazism to say, "Aren't I still the cutest thing you ever saw?"
The most famous comic bit in the film is dictator's ballet with a bouncing inflated globe of the world. If some of the movie's slapstick is flatfooted (the sluggish opening scenes set in WWI seem to drag on), this scene showed that the old master was still able to create indelible images. There's something sweetly ridiculous in the mad little monster playing with the world, only to have it pop in his face when he gets too excited.
By the end, however, "sweetly ridiculous" isn't a tone Chaplin could bring himself to conclude with. Of course, the filmmaker didn't know the extent of Hitler's madness, nor could he have even conceived of the horrifying complicity of Hitler's people. But enough had transpired already that Chaplin chose to end his film by abandoning comedy altogether and giving the Jewish barber a lengthy speech of striking prescience and power.
He tells the Nuremberg-like rally:
"I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed."
This passionate speech, deadly serious and delivered with blistering intensity by the actor, has no organic reason to be in the same movie with goofy pratfalls and old "he doesn't realize he's hanging upside down" gags, but it is, of course, the most important part of the film. This isn't Chaplin making fun of Hitler's mustache or overblown rhetorical style. This is Chaplin calling out Hilter for being a violent hatemonger. This is Chaplin begging the world not to tear itself apart.
THE GREAT DICTATOR, then, is the kind of movie that never really coheres into a unified whole. It's a collection of disparate elements: sight gags, social comedy, drama, and political commentary. It's also a statement by an aging star-director who still had some spring in his step and saw that he had a responsibility to speak out against the rapidly growing influence of an ideology that was marching the world toward disaster. It's not a perfect movie, but it is, in all the ways that really matter, a great film.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
Noir City Chicago returns to the Music Box Theatre August 25th to August 31st. Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode will be on hand to introduce an eclectic group of films that will center around this year's theme of "The Big Knockover." I love caper films so I'm especially excited by this year's selections which include classics like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, as well as lesser known (but equally excellent) heist flicks like PLUNDER ROAD and DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD. The latter film, in my opinion, is one of the great underrated noirs. Maybe I'll run a piece on it before it shows.
Here's a link to the Noir City Chicago 2017 schedule.
Friday, July 7, 2017
Hey New York City,
I'll be at the Bryant Park Reading Room on Monday July 17th at 12:30 to discuss my book THE BLIND ALLEY. Author Scott Adlerberg, the host of the Reel Talks program , and I are going to talk all things noir, so if you can make it, I hope you'll come by and say hello.
Friday, June 30, 2017
This month The Gene Siskel Film Center, an adjunct of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been hosting a retrospective of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. It's been a thrilling line up of classics from the greatest director of French film noir: BOB LE FLAMBEUR, LE SAMOURAI, LE CERCLE ROUGE, LE DOULOS, UN FLIC, and more. (My only regret is that they didn't show the Simenon adaptation MAGNET OF DOOM.) I've been to most showings, and the highlight for me has been a film that was new to me, LEON MORIN, PRETRE (sometimes called LEON THE PRIEST). I will write about this movie soon, because it was something of a revelation to me. I love Melville's gangster films, but this intense and deeply human look at the relationship between a communist and a priest during World War II instantly became my favorite of his films. I want to see LEON again before I write about it, though. It demands my extended contemplation.
Last night at the retrospective, I had a strikingly unique experience because the Siskel showed a Melville rarity, WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER (QUAND TU LIRAS CETTE LETTRE). Before the show, the programmer came out to tell us that there is no existing print of the film with English subtitles. Instead, they showed the film in French while an interpreter used a computer program to seamlessly project subtitles onscreen. I have to say that this gave the showing an interesting twist. The interpreter got a well-deserved round of applause at the end.
Given the relative obscurity of WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER in English, I thought that I should make some notes on it for Melville fans who have not yet seen it.
The film tells the story of a postulate nun named Therese Voise (Juliette Greco) who is about to take her vows when she learns that her parents have been killed in a car accident. She leaves the convent to return home to care for her sister Denise (Irene Galter) and run the family bookstore and paper shop. At the same time, Denise meets a handsome boxer named Max Trivet (Philippe Lemarie). At first, Max appears to be a roguish charmer. When Denise isn't around, he hatches a scheme with a buddy, Biquet, who works as a bellboy at a fancy hotel, to angle for the attention (and money) of rich Mme. Faugeret. Then Max sneaks into Mme. Faugeret's room at night and seduces her--and I use the word "seduces" advisedly here because although Mme. Faugeret seems to retain her agency, their confrontation is disturbingly close to a sexual assault. After this, Mme. Faugeret sort of adopts Max as a pet, but his character only seems increasingly sinister.
The turning point in the film comes when Denise unexpectedly runs into Max at the hotel and he rapes her in Mme. Faugeret's room. Distraught, the young woman attempts suicide. After she has recovered enough to tell Therese what has the happened, the older sister forces Max at gunpoint to marry Denise.
Every viewer's take on the film will probably depend a lot on how they view Therese's actions following her sister's assault. Melville was a poet of moral ambiguity. The plot of WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER might make it sound like a melodrama (and, indeed, in some ways it is), but the director rarely overplays things (one exception to this is a scene where Therese's dress catches on fire, a scene that clobbers us with its metaphors). For the most part, the tone set in the opening scenes in the convent predominates, even when the guns, sex, and twists of fate start coming into play. Max is the wild id of the film--violent, greedy, narcissistic. When he confesses his love for the tightly wound Therese, it seems like just another scheme. Therese, on on the other hand, is the film's ego (the film's superego is probably the Catholic church), and she is the one whose actions we're most interested in. She despises Max for what he's done, so her decision to force him to marry Denise is shocking. Does she do it out of some archaic sense of propriety? Does she do it because, despite everything, her sister claims to love Max? Melville and Jacques Deval let these questions hang in the air.
The cast is excellent. Galter is winsome as Denise without making her too doe-eyed, and as Max, Lemarie gives a demonically charismatic performance that manages to veer between brutality and a weird kind of innocence. When he confesses his love for Therese, it almost seems plausible that he could mean it, that she has a mysterious pull on him. What makes this work is that Max stays Max. It's not as if his attraction to Therese somehow redeems him or makes him a good guy. It's just another facet of his character. Is the film a noir? It wasn't billed as such, but I think that even if you didn't know that Melville was the director, the noir ethos of the thing comes through in Max's character and the amorality of Lemarie's performance.
As Therese, Juliette Greco is masterfully controlled. Greco is best known as an iconic singer in France, a former lover of Miles Davis and drinking buddy of people like Orson Welles and Jean-Paul Sarte. In this film, however, she was 26 and just starting out in her career. What she carried with her into the film was the weight of WWII, during which she'd been put in jail by Nazis and lost her mother, a member of the French Resistance. Greco would become famous for her intensity, and, indeed, the defining attribute of her performance here is the feeling of passions contained. She can convey the sense of sublimated emotion without giving the impression of a lack of emotion. All the characters in this film are tortured by passions they can't really comprehend, but Greco hints at great depths and intelligence. The way she tells Max, "May God punish you for the rest of your life and forgive you at the hour of your death" perfectly captures the Catholic restraint that dominates even her rage. Later, after Max has physically attacked her with a rock, only to instantly repent of his violence, she rubs her aching shoulder with a look of fascinating ambiguity on her face. The curse of Max for her isn't some hothouse sexuality or the misplaced idea that she can redeem him. It's that, in his horrible way, he makes her feel alive.
WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER demands more viewings. Since it is such an obscurity, I can only hope that someone will bring it out on DVD or BluRay sometime soon. It's a haunting film.
Monday, June 26, 2017
I'm in the new summer issue of NOIR CITY with a couple of different articles. First up is a look at Bruce Springsteen's NEBRASKA, an album that was both inspired by neonoir (like Terrence Malick's BADLANDS) and which would itself go on to inspire neonoir (like Sean Penn's THE INDIAN RUNNER). The album itself is about as noir as any piece of music ever made.
Next up is a look at the different film versions of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's brilliant 1947 novel THE BLANK WALL. This masterpiece inspired two incredible adaptations, Max Ophuls's THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949) and the 2001 THE DEEP END, directed by David Siegel and Scott McGehee.
As always, there's a lot of great stuff in this issue, including the launch of a new regular feature called "The Dark Page" exploring contemporary crime fiction, written by a wordslinger who knows what the hell he's talking about, the great Eric Beetner.
Get your issue today by becoming a contributor to NOIR CITY.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
(above: Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood in WORKING GIRLS)
Tonight I got a chance to see the 1931 Dorothy Arzner rarity WORKING GIRLS courtesy of the Chicago Film Society. I went to see it, frankly, because I have been interested in seeing a Dorothy Arzner picture for a while. Arzner is famous today for being the only woman who was a major director in Hollywood's early days (her directing career lasted from the 20s into the early 40s), and also being the first out lesbian to command such a role. Her life and career have been chronicled in several books, notably DIRECTED BY DOROTHY ARZNER by Judith Mayne and BEHIND THE SCREEN: HOW GAYS AND LESBIANS SHAPED HOLLYWOOD 1910-1969 by William J. Mann. I've read quite a bit about her, but what none of the books could really to me is what kind of director she was. In other words, sure she's important, but how good was she?
I'm happy to report that WORKING GIRLS is hilarious. (The showing tonight was a rollicking success.) The film is a light comedy about two sisters, May and Dorothy Thorpe (Dorothy Hall and Judith Wood) who move from Indiana to New York to find jobs. They take residence in a hotel for women with a strict policy on gentlemen callers, but they soon get into a series of relationships with, among others, a rich playboy (Charles Rogers) and a professor (Paul Lukas).
The movie was written by Zoe Akins, from the play BLIND MICE by Vera Caspary (the author of LAURA) and Winifred Lenihan, and the dialog throughout is sharp and funny. May and June are classic opposites, with May being emotional and daffy while June is a world-weary wiseass, and most of the laughs in the picture come from their interplay. The biggest laugh in the movie comes when June tells May, "Aw, you're just jealous because I know how to tell a fella 'yes' and 'no' at the same time."
Azner's handling of her actors is smart and sensual. She lets both Hall and Wood have libidos, and she also lets each character have her own response to her sexuality. Hall's romance with the playboy played by Rogers has real sexual heat to it, while Wood's relationship with the professor played by Lukas is sweet without being sappy.
This central cast is surrounded by a lot of snappy female characters. Dorothy Stickney as Loretta, the nosey doorkeeper at the women's hotel, is part busybody and part trusted confident to the Thorpe sisters, while the other girls at the hotel pop out in vivid character parts that are cheeky in a pre-Code kind of way. For instance, there's a running gag about one girl who's always spending the night with her "aunt" in Jersey. "You oughta meet a man like my aunt," she tells her friends.
There is, however, a serious subtext to all this frivolity, as these young women are forced to navigate a world with strictly prescribed gender roles. The scenes involving sex, including a scene late in the film that nods toward an unplanned pregnancy, are handled deftly, with sensitivity and nuance. While Azner and her editor, Jane Loring, never skimp on laughs, they're up to more than just good times here, and a lot of scenes do double duty as romantic comedy and social drama. Likewise, an early scene in which the ladies of the hotel throw a gender-bending dance party is both goofy fun and also a fascinating moment in the history of queer cinema, a secret hiding in plain sight.
Given Arzner's place in the history of early cinema there is a danger of entombing her in her own importance. Let WORKING GIRLS be a corrective to that inclination. Arzner deserves to be studied and researched, yes, but she also deserves to be watched. This movie is hell of a lot of fun.
(above: Dorothy Arzner)
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
In the new issue of MYSTERY SCENE, I interview Film Noir Foundation founder and president Eddie Muller. We discuss his new show NOIR ALLEY on TCM, his work rescuing forgotten films, and the meaning of the word "classic."
On news stands now, check it out.
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Director Tsai Ming-liang's 1997 feature THE RIVER took a few years to find its way to American audiences, only appearing in New York in mid-2001. It's kicked around on muddy home video ever since, but tonight I got to see a vibrant 35mm print of the film courtesy of the Chicago Film Society.
The film tells the story of a young man named Hsiao-Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) who takes a quickie job on a film set, floating as a dead body in a filthy river for about a minute. Soon after that, he develops a mysterious pain in his neck. The pain gets progressively worse, until pain becomes the dominant force in his life.
We meet his parents. His father hangs out in bathhouses, seeking anonymous sex with young men. His mother is having an affair with a pornographer. They sleep in different rooms in their home. Tsai has an elliptical style that refuses to explain things to us. The isolation of these three people from one another is so complete that it takes us a while to link them to each other. I think it was nearly an hour into the film before I understood how the stories of these three people connected.
Many people read THE RIVER as an allegory about urban loneliness and isolation, or they read it as a political statement about environmental issues like pollution and public health. I don't disagree with these readings, and I think the film is smart enough and deep enough to support them.
For me, though, THE RIVER is about mostly about the body. We think of ourselves as distinct from our bodies when in fact we are not. (I say "my body" as if the implied "me" has some existence removed from the body which is thinking these words and typing them on a computer keyboard. I am nothing but a body.) THE RIVER is a film that unfolds with very little dialog. We are mostly watching bodies in motion, and those bodies, in one way or another are tending to their needs and desires. We see people eat, clean themselves, have sex, attempt to endure or alleviate pain. And we don't just see a bit of these things. These things are what the movie is about. (Tien Miao, as the father, gives a performance utterly devoid of self-consciousness: devouring bowels of food, pissing, masturbating. He surrenders his body to the director.)
When we meet Hsiao-Kang, he is young, healthy and handsome. He runs into a pretty girl he knows, and she's the one who takes him to the film set. After he's washed himself multiple times, complete with scrubbing his skin with a toothbrush, he and the girl have sex. Sex in this movie emerges suddenly, the body asserting itself without a connection to character or plot. The shocking sexual encounter that concludes the film has been read by some as a comment on character, and I suppose it must be, but I experienced it as a culmination of the film's emphasis on the body. Scene after scene has a physical manifestation. The characters debate no ideas, seem to have no thoughts. Life is reduced to the desires and needs of their bodies. The more Hsiao-Kang is consumed by pain, the less he seems connected to anything else. (It is fitting that his ailment is neck pain, which is as maddeningly indistinct as it is excruciatingly painful. If he was covered in sores, for instance, it would be grosser, but it would have less impact. This crippling pain in his neck seems to be inside of him. Which, indeed, it is.)
THE RIVER is the best film I've seen in a long time. It shows a director fully in command of his craft and fearless in the execution of his vision. Unsettling, terrifying, and even, at times, mordantly funny, it culminates in a perfectly ambiguous ending. It is a film to seek out.
Note: THE RIVER is something of a sequel to Tsai's first feature REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, which features Hsiao-Kang and his parents, though does not focus on them exclusively.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
I have to file a strong dissent on this one. While Nicholas Ray’s THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is pretty much universally loved by critics and scholars of film noir, it’s a movie which has always left me cold.
The film starts strongly, with a much admired helicopter shot of three escaped convicts hightailing cross-country with a kidnapped motorist. They ditch their hostage and his car once it blows a tire, and they take off on foot. There are two older men — seasoned cons — and a much younger man, a kid named Bowie. The kid has a bum foot, so the older fugitives leave him behind a road sign and tell him they’ll send help. Once night has fallen, help arrives in the form of a girl named Keechie — the tomboy niece of one of the convicts. When the boy meets the girl it’s pretty much love at first sight.
These opening scenes all work. Bowie is played by Farley Granger — film noir’s resident misunderstood youth — and the convicts are played by Howard da Silva and Jay C. Flippen. That’s a killer trio by anyone’s estimation and all three are excellent — especially da Silva as a blustering, one-eyed mass of insecurity named Chicamaw ‘One-Eye’ Mobley. One-Eye doesn’t much like that the papers use his nickname, which he resents. He likes it even less when they start referring to the kid as the leader of the gang.
If the movie had stayed with the conflicts between these three mismatched criminals, I probably would have enjoyed it. Alas, it doesn’t. Instead, it focuses on the romance between Bowie and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), and this is where it loses me. They fall for each other right away, have some discussions about their screwed-up childhoods — Bowie explaining how he wound up in jail for murder, Keechie expressing contempt for her degenerate drunk of a father — and then, in short order, they get married and take off for a honeymoon. Unfortunately for them, both the cops and Bowie’s convict buddies are hot on their trail.
Because the relationship between Granger and O’Donnell sits at the center of the story, how you feel about it determines how you feel about the film as a whole. THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is essentially a juvenile delinquent romance utilizing the film language and tragic fatalism of noir to help it tell its story. There’s nothing wrong with that combination on paper, but the young lovers — Keechie in particular — have been softened considerably from Edward Anderson’s source novel, THEIVES LIKE US. The resulting romance is the same old soppy Hollywood melodrama full of soft-focused, dewy-eyed close-ups and page after page of yearning speechifying. And I’ll be honest, I just find O’Donnell to be a lot to handle. She’s a regular fixture in noir, but she’s usually cast as a dollop of creamy innocence. Her work here isn’t as syrupy as her turn in SIDE STREET, but it’s pretty bad. More than almost any other actor I can think of O’Donnell embodies the female-virgin ideal that one finds in a lot of movies from the forties and fifties. One of the great virtues of noir, however, is that you don’t usually have to spend much time with this kind of emotionally-stunted woman-child. One of the reasons that noir has emerged as the most durable genre of the classic era is that it doesn’t worship at the altar of sexless virtue, and Cathy O’Donnell always seemed to have wandered in from Louis B. Meyer’s imagination.
(The notable exception to the argument above is her work for William Wyler on dramas like THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and DETECTIVE STORY, leading me to think that the fault rests with the writers and directors rather than O’Donnell herself.)
Stories of misunderstood youth were, of course, a specialty of Nicholas Ray. He directed KNOCK ON ANY DOOR in 1949 and then made the ultimate 50s teen rebellion flick, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in 1955. These films are interesting and important, but they’re also relics of their time in a way that Ray’s noirs of the same era (IN A LONELY PLACE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND) are not. His teen pictures are rendered campy by the movie conventions of their era, while the noir pictures still play for adults and still have an edge. The exception to this is THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (his debut film) which tries to have it both ways. There’s no denying that Ray broke ground in the area of onscreen youth angst with this material, and THEY LIVE BY NIGHT is certainly an antecedent for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE.
But, god, is it soppy.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Chicago is a great town for cinephiles, and one of the most rewarding resources available to the local movie geek is the Chicago Film Society. Programmed and projected by Julian Antos, Becca Hall, Rebecca Lyon, Kyle Westphal, and Cameron Worden, the CFS is dedicated to showing movies on film, often in rare or vintage prints. When I first moved to town they were still showing movies at the old Patio Theater, but they made the switch a year or so ago to the auditorium of Northeastern Illinois University. While I miss the musty charms of the Patio, the great hall at NEIU gives the proceedings a college film society aura that adds to the sense of fun. Of course, the venue wouldn't matter if the films weren't interesting, and the CFS schedule is always an excitingly eclectic blend of genre films (westerns, musicals, noirs), rarities and obscurities (silents, overlooked classics, exploitation flicks), foreign films, and the occasional notorious flop presented for reconsideration.
The Chicago Film Society has, for my money (and more specifically for my $5 per screening), the most distinctive personality of any movie appreciation collective in town. Staff members are current or former projectionists at Doc Films, Block Cinema, the Gene Siskel Film Center, and Music Box, which means that the CFS is what you get when a bunch of hardcore film junkies get together and decide that the city needs another weekly jolt of movie love. Hall and Westphal are the public faces of the CFS and their pre-show presentations of the films are good-humored, charmingly geeky, and deeply informed.
The CFS's new season schedule has just been released, and it's got me excited to spend some warm summer nights at the movies. Highlights include Robert Mitchum's 1958 hillbilly chase picture THUNDER ROAD, Masahiro Shinoda's 1964 man-out-of-prison yakuza flick PALE FLOWER, Andre de Toth's 1953 men-under-seige western LAST OF THE COMANCHES, and Claudia Weill's 1978 feminist comedy GIRLFRIENDS.
There's a lot more. Here's the complete schedule of events.
Saturday, April 8, 2017
I didn’t grow up in the forties or fifties, so I didn’t discover B-movies in their original form, as the second features stuck behind classier A-movies. Nor did I discover the world of film noir the way people did in the sixties and seventies, through the midnight movies on TV that transfixed the generation of noir geeks before me.
No, I was born in 1975, which means I came up in the eighties and nineties. Appropriately, then, I discovered noir in the distinct fashion of a Gen Xer: I found it at the video store. There’s more to this story, though, a personal twist.
I was brought up in a devout Southern Baptist house where certain movies were forbidden. It’s tempting to go for simplicity here and say that R-rated movies were forbidden, but that’s not exactly true. Only certain kinds of R-rated movies were forbidden. Anything with sex. Sex in movies was bad. Totally bad. Every time. No sex. (Even PG-rated sex scenes could change the climate in our family den. Once a bra slipped off, the air would get thin, and I would feel the sense of bodily danger you get when you know God’s wrath is about to fall.) Anything with a lot of cussing was also forbidden. You were allowed one F-word in a movie. Maybe two. After that, things got a little tense.
Violence was okay as long as it wasn’t overly gory. Dirty Harry laying waste to a bunch of punks? Cool. Slasher flicks (which, of course, might also run the risk of featuring nudity)? Not cool.
Dutiful son that I was, when I was sent to the video store to pick out a movie I tried to avoid all of the aforementioned pitfalls.
When I was home alone, however, I was a deceitful little sleaze. I would, on occasion, sneak out to the video store to pluck some forbidden fruit (fruit that I returned as soon as possible to avoid any late fees).
Enter AFTER DARK, MY SWEET. 1991. The poster for this film — and thus the cover for the video box — was a picture of Jason Patric and Rachel Ward engaged in sweaty physical congress. The title sounded like direct-to-video sleaze. I vaguely remembered Siskel and Ebert saying the movie was great, but greatness was not on my mind. The possibility of seeing Rachel Ward naked was on my mind.
I secreted the video into the house and watched it when no one was home.
I learned two things about AFTER DARK, MY SWEET that day.
1. You don’t really get to see Rachel Ward naked. I would love to act like that didn’t matter to me, but it did. I was disappointed. Simply as a consumer engaged in a capitalist enterprise, I felt I had not been well served. I had, after all, paid money for the expressed purpose of seeing Rachel Ward naked.
2. AFTER DARK, MY SWEET is a masterpiece. It’s the best film noir of the 1990s, and one of the best films, period, of that entire decade. As a human being experiencing a work of art, I was transfixed.
Jason Patric (whose sweaty ass you do get to see, natch) and Rachel Ward are both beyond great. Patric’s character Kevin “Collie” Collins, disgraced former boxer and psyche ward escapee, was sort of my first anti-hero, or, at least, he was the first anti-hero I ever saw where I was pretty sure that what I was seeing was a man scraping up some last vestige of his willpower to do something that no one would understand. He tries to save Ward’s boozy widow from a goofy kidnapping scheme cooked up by a degenerate ex-cop named Uncle Bud (played with exquisite seediness by Bruce Dern). By the end, Collie dies face down in the dirt, gut shot by the woman he loves, but it’s all okay because he did it all for her.
And Rachel Ward taught me things about women that, at 17 years old, I didn’t know I needed to learn. She was lovely and leggy, but what made her fascinating was a sadness, a deep-seated knowledge that most dreams don’t come true. The moment she starts talking in the film, mocking Patric’s fumbling attempts at polite conversation — mocking, really, the whole idea of polite conversation — you can’t take your eyes off her. You get why Patric wants to save her, and also why he thinks she can save him. She’s the only person he’s ever met who understands his loneliness. In a way — in a beautifully noir way — they do save each other.
The film wasn’t arty, but I was aware of the director, James Foley. I was aware that I was watching a movie with a vision. Was it his?
Maybe, though it’s probably more correct to say that Foley brilliantly realized Jim Thompson’s vision. Ah, yes, I also discovered Jim Thompson that day in my family den. Who was the guy who wrote this story that was the saddest, most romantic, most thrilling thing I’d ever seen? Revisiting the film many times over the years as my love of Thompson’s novels grew, I realized that the scenes with Patric and the creepy psychologist played by George Dickerson are the most spot-on interpretations of Jim Thompson’s work that have ever been put onscreen. People think that Thompson’s novels are about psychos, or about violence. No, they’re about the last slender thread of decorum stretching and stretching until it turns translucent and you can see right though it to the terrible truth that will be unleashed the moment it snaps. AFTER DARK, MY SWEET gets that. It gets that beautifully.
Saturday, April 1, 2017
Few films have influenced my own writing as much as Paul Schrader's 1979 thriller HARDCORE. It stars George C. Scott as Jake Van Dorn, a Grand Rapids businessman and faithful Calvinist, who, as the story begins, sends his only daughter, Kristen (Ilah Davis) off on a church youth trip to California. Van Dorn is a single father and he loves Kristen, but the film doesn't go out of its way to convince us of this fact. There are no big scenes between father and daughter in the first fifteen minutes of the film. This omission is important because of what happens next. Van Dorn gets a call from the the youth group in California telling him that Kristen has gone missing.
The rest of the film follows Jake's attempt to find his daughter. He hires a sleazy detective named Mast (played by the 1970s' most important character actor, Peter Boyle), and within a few months the detective comes back with horrific news. He has found Kristen, on film in a cheap 16mm underground porn film. In perhaps the film's most famous scene, he leads Van Dorn to a porn theater and shows him the movie to make sure that the girl in the film is his daughter. Van Dorn watches the film like he's being tortured, which, indeed, he is. In tears, he demands that detective shut off the projector. It's her.
When Mast fails to find Kristen after this initial revelation, Van Dorn plunges into the squalid underworld of sex and vice himself.
He haunts porn stores and brothels and massage parlors. He's berated by hookers and beat up by bouncers. The cops are of no use to him. Finally, he decides to pass himself off as a fledgling film producer. He meets a millionaire porn king (Leonard Gaines) and hangs out on the set of a porno. Eventually he finds a prostitute named Nikki (Season Hubley) who says she can lead him to his daughter.
The heart of the film is the relationship that develops between the middle-aged Calvinist from the Midwest and the LA sex worker. What's interesting about these scenes is that the film doesn't swerve into the kind of cliches that we might expect. The two don't fall in love or into a sexual relationship, nor does Van Dorn set out to save Nikki. She's along for this ride for the money, and he's using her to find his daughter. There's a kind of weary respect that grows between them as they accidentally fall into debates about religion, sex, and morality.
At one point, Nikki asks him, "How important do you think sex is?"
"Not very," he says.
"Well," she says, "then we're just alike. You think it's so unimportant that you don't even do it. And I think it's so unimportant that I don't care who I do it with."
HARDCORE is a spiritual brother to TAXI DRIVER, which Schrader also wrote, and both films owe something to the screenwriter's obsession with John Ford's THE SEARCHERS. All three films are about repressed men seeking to rescue young women locked in sexual slavery. Of the three films, HARDCORE is the one that is most interested in what the young woman has to say. Unlike the other two films, when HARDCORE reaches the end of its journey, the young woman in question gets to speak for herself. When Van Dorn finally smashes his way through the underworld and finds his daughter, she unleashes a torrent of abuse on him. In a way that the other two films never considered, HARDCORE at least ponders the possibility that the girl might not want to return to the world of decent people and mainstream society.
This is probably a good place to say that HARDCORE is a flawed film. Schrader is an idiosyncratic filmmaker, which is his greatest attribute (this film could not have come from anyone else), but it's often clunky in its execution. Stalwarts like Boyle and Gaines are terrific, but a lot of the supporting performances are stiff and little awkward. Some scenes go on too long, making and remaking a point that we've already gotten -- even the famous scene in the porn theater, for instance, goes on to such an extent that you're wondering why the hell Van Dorn doesn't just get up and leave. Likewise, the violent ending is overdone, with Scott rolling over the denizens of the underworld like a bulldozer. Is there really no professional criminal in California who can stand up to this potbellied businessman from Michigan?
Yet for fans of the flawed-but-kind-of-brilliant, HARDCORE is a great film. As I said at the start, I think this movie influenced me more than most of the films I've seen. It is both overtly religious and wildly seedy. You can practically feel the filmmaker torn between these two worlds. The thing that most people remember about HARDCORE, of course, is the descent into the world of sex-for-hire, but the scenes of a close knit religious community at the start of the film have a special kind of power for me. Schrader knows this world, comes from it himself, and his feel for it is deep. The scenes of Christmas dinner--with an elderly relative bemoaning the secularism of the television's holiday programming while a couple of guys debating at the kitchen table cite Bible verses at each other--as well as the brief scenes of the church youth group striking off for a Christian youth conference, all of this feels exactly right to me. It's different from what I grew up with among the Baptists in Arkansas, but it is familiar in the truest sense of the word, in the sense that there's a family resemblance between strict Protestant churches.
Although Schrader wrote TAXI DRIVER, that film is filtered through Scorsese's tortured Catholicism and his obsession with sacrament and penance. HARDCORE, on the other hand, is Schrader through and through. It is about frosty Protestant repression surviving a deep dive into the steamy muck of a world without rules. In TAXI DRIVER, De Niro's Travis Bickle is a man tormented by his desire for sex, which he finds filthy and corrupt. Scott's Jake Van Dorn, on the other hand, is not tormented in this same way because he's not tempted in the same way. He's horrified by the flesh markets, and although he is weary and battered, he remains as resolute as a knight on a quest. Thus, in its weird mix of seriousness and salaciousness, HARDCORE is something truly special, a dirty movie about the triumph of repression.
Monday, March 13, 2017
THE CROOKED WEB is a good example of how classic noir was smothered to death by the oppressive conventionality of the 1950s. With a sharper script — with one major change in focus — it might have been something interesting.
The film stars Frank Lovejoy as Stan Fabian, the owner and operator of a Los Angles hamburger stand. He’s dating one of his pretty carhops, a chirpy blonde named Joanie (Mari Blanchard). As the film opens, Joanie introduces Stan to her ne’er-do-well brother Frank (Richard Denning). He’s a loudmouth who brags to his sister and Stan about a scheme he’s concocted to recover some gold in Germany. He offers to let Stan in on the deal, and Stan accepts. Later, after Stan drops off Joanie, she meets up with her “brother.” They embrace in a passionate kiss.
This great set-up is followed hard upon by the first big reveal of the plot. It turns out that Joanie and Frank are actually cops who are trying to nab Stan for a murder he committed during the war. They want to get him to Germany where he can be arrested by the German police.
This big switcheroo came as a real disappointment, I must admit. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, we don’t know anything about the subterfuge of Joanie and Frank. When they lock lips for that kiss, the movie seems to be off and running toward being something really interesting.
Instead, what we get is a thoroughly unadventurous crime story, with Joanie and Frank as our brave protagonists and Stan as our squinty-eyed bad guy. The plot meanders around once it gets them to Germany, with Stan eager to recover the loot and Joanie and Frank trying to edge him into the daylight so he can be caught by the cops. Our stalwart heroes, however, are a pretty lackluster crime-fighting duo. Just to crank up the suspense factor, the script has Stan discover them not once but twice in compromising positions. It does nothing to help the already languorous plot to have them keep getting caught doing the one thing that can blow their cover. What kind of idiot undercover agents make out on the job when they’re supposed to be posing as siblings?
Neither Denning nor Blanchard bring much to their underwritten roles, and the film makes a common mistake (common to films of the era, anyway) by stacking the deck constantly in their favor. They’re the good guys. That’s all there is to know about them. They don’t have any salient characteristics beyond being the good guys. Their tendency to smooch at ill-advised times goes unremarked upon and exists entirely as a plot device. They’re simply the bland stand-ins for law and order.
The only spark in the movie comes from Frank Lovejoy as Stan. An excellent actor better seen in THE SOUND OF FURY and THE HITCH-HIKER, here he’s a surly presence, nervous in his quiet, restrained way. The one interesting scene in the film comes at the end when he is taken into custody and discovers that Joanie has deceived him. In full view of the cops, he slaps her across the face. She cries and says, “I deserve it.” In a better film, this scene would be tied to a nice ambiguity—that while Joanie and Frank are the good guys, Stan is the one being betrayed (think Hitchcock’s Notorious). Here though, it’s just tacked on at the end and has the feel of a sexist cliché.
THE CROOKED WEB illustrates the mindset that had become predominant in crime films by the mid-fifties. Perhaps as a result of the Hollywood blacklist (and by ‘perhaps,’ I mean, ‘almost assuredly’), film noir had started to die a slow death. As a genre, it had always unfolded along the margins of the industry — in the B-units and at the smaller studios — but as the decade wore on it came under more scrutiny. Films that explored “deviant characters” or tied crime to social conditions were forbidden. There was more pressure to make films about heroes rather than anti-heroes. THE CROOKED WEB would be interesting if it was about Stan, but by 1955 it pretty much had to be about boring ass Joanie and Frank.
Monday, February 27, 2017
Above: Joanne Woodward admires her Oscar while husband Paul Newman regards his "Noscar" during his decades-long Oscar losing streak
Here's why the Oscars are worse than useless: Giving out competitive awards for art reduces art to a horse race. "The Oscars" is just the world's biggest reality game show, turning every film except one into a "loser." MOONLIGHT won, so LA LA LAND lost, but why in the name of all that is holy are these two films in a competition with each other in the first place? Was LA LA LAND the better film for the few minutes that its creators were on stage thanking their families and coworkers? Did it suddenly stop being the best picture released in 2016? Did MOONLIGHT suddenly become the best? No, because one director's love letter to the Hollywood musical and the other director's poignant exploration of race and sexuality were not trying to do the same thing. They are separate works of art, and though some people have tried to make them into proxies for larger cultural arguments the truth remains that the films themselves are self-contained works, both years in the making, and neither attempting to capture the current zeitgeist.
If MOONLIGHT won because Academy voters wanted to send some vague message about inclusiveness, then it really only proves the point that the Oscars are bullshit. MOONLIGHT is a great work of art. It didn't need a shiny gold man to be a great work of art.
At this point, the most notable thing about the Oscars is how wrong they are. We could add up all the great films that didn't win the Oscar for Best Picture and we'd have almost all of the greatest movies ever made. Cary Grant never won a competitive Oscar, and neither did Judy Garland. Since they might be cinema's two greatest performers, does this make sense? After years of not winning, John Wayne and Paul Newman finally did win Oscars, but does anyone really regard TRUE GRIT and THE COLOR OF MONEY as their greatest performances? Do many people consider SCENT OF A WOMAN to even be a passably good movie, much less Pacino's best performance? Is TRAINING DAY really the keeper from all the leading performances that Denzel Washington has given?
The answer to all these questions is no, yet the Oscar myth creates a counter-narrative in which competing marketing campaigns decide which work of art had more merit, all for the benefit of a flashy television event, the real purpose of which, like the Super Bowl, is to sell soap and beer during the commercial breaks. The awards themselves have a longer history, with their roots stretching back to a promotional scheme cooked up by Louis B. Mayer, a scheme that first morphed into a status symbol (industry bragging rights in a one-industry town) before becoming modern television's biggest waste of time.
Like I said, though, the awards show is worse than useless, it's reductive. It diminishes, for the sake of money, artists and works of art. The movie business is already volatile enough mix of art and commerce (of "movie" and "business"). How about we just skip the show next year and go to the movies?
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
I posed a question on Facebook the other day. It went something like this:
"Kind of bored with podcasts lately, so I've been listening to more audiobooks. Here's my question: Do you consider that you've read a book if you've only listened to it? It's such a different experience that I don't know. Thoughts?"
I got quite a few responses, with the majority coming down to say that, yes, of course you've read a book if you've listened to a book. Some people were very adamant on this point, and there was some good-natured debate with dissenters.
These results strike me as interesting for a few reasons.
One, it is clearly not true that reading a book and listening to an audiobook are the same thing. You've read a book when you've read a book. To say that you've read a book if you've listened to an audiobook would be like saying you've read Hamlet because you saw it performed onstage. Reading is an active experience where your own limitations as a reader effect the text in terms of pacing and comprehension. Every reader reads a book in a different way. When you listen to an audiobook, you're listening to someone else's interpretation of a text. It is a mediated experience in which other people shape your reception of the text.
Also, when you read, you're looking at words, closed in the experience of the book. When you listen to an audiobook, you're looking at something else. (I was listening to an audiobook of the Russell Banks novel CLOUDSPLITTER yesterday on the train to work. The woman across from me was putting on her makeup. She's now a part of my memory of the scene of John Brown and his sons easing their wagon down a steep mountain pass.) I listen to audiobooks while doing lots of things: driving, washing dishes, shopping. I cannot do those things when I'm reading because reading requires more of my attention and concentration.
Two, audiobooks are a unique art form, a postmodern hybrid of literature and radio. Some audiobooks go so far as to use music cues and sound effects, and actors and producers decide where and when and how to put emphasis on words and phrases. A good actor can redeem a weak book as surely as a good actor can redeem a weak movie. Someone like audio all-star Edward Herrmann could make a phone book sound interesting. This is not the same as reading a book, where the writing is pretty much the whole show.
Three, people want credit for having read a book. This was something I noticed in the responses. We're all a little defensive about audiobooks because we don't want anyone to suggest that we didn't really read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.
What is fascinating to me about this is that I didn't mean to imply that audiobooks are a lesser art form than literature, just different. I come to praise the audiobook, not to bury it. Listening to a group of words and reading a group of words are distinct experiences because they utilize different senses. I read CLOUDSPLITTER years ago when it was first published, and now I'm listening to it read by Pete Larkin. It's a different experience, more passive for sure but no less interesting. Larkin's performance shapes characterization in ways that my mind did not. There's no value judgment in noting that reading is harder than listening. Of course it is. Audiobooks interpret the text for you; they do some of the heavy lifting. Perhaps this helps account for our defensiveness about audiobooks. But I think it is more instructive to simply view a book and an audiobook as distinct pieces of art (as different as the text of a play and a production of a play), and we should think more about what audiobooks are and what they're doing.