Saturday, December 31, 2016

Dead Eyes by Stuart Woods

There’s a moment in the thirteenth chapter of Dead Eyes where it looks like the reader is in for the kind of tawdry fun that you get from watching a giallo horror film. The almost completely blind actress Chris Callaway is listening to some books on tape when suddenly the cassette player turns off and her stalker is sitting across from her:

The whisper began, low and sibilant: “Chrissychrissychrissychrissychrissy.” It grew louder, then stopped.

Chris raised her head and opened her eyes. “Who are you and what do you want?” was all she could think of to say.

“I want everyone to know you’re mine,” the voice whispered.

Then when Chris tries to stand up her stalker presses her back down and tattoos a rose on the back of her left hand. That is fantastically trashy and naturally it raised my hopes.

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.

Stuart Woods is a very popular writer, and Dead Eyes is written like a popular novel. This means that there’s not much in the way of characterization, but there is plenty of action, even if the action is completely implausible and in order to achieve that action the characters must behave in astonishingly stupid ways.

Chris Callaway is on the verge of major stardom thanks to getting the female lead in a mid-budget artistic western film. She’s also selling the house she shared with her ex-husband, building a new home on the beach in Malibu, and she has a fabulous and tough gay hairdresser friend to hang out with. The only real problem in her life is that she’s started getting notes dropped directly into her mail slot— her actual home address that no one knows anything about, other than a few catalogs but everyone used to get catalogs back in the mid-90s (Dead Eyes was first published in the innocent if less enlightened year of 1994). The notes, signed “Admirer,” begin as uncomfortable and quickly escalate to creepy. Then she starts getting roses, dozens and dozens of roses, sent to her home. Then ten pounds of chocolate. (At one point Admirer tells Chris that she doesn’t have to worry about staying in shape anymore because he’s going to take care of her.)

Following a read-through of the final draft of the script, the film’s director and star tell Chris that she’s so good they’re going to add in a new scene for her and bump her up in the billing. (Somehow I guess the director and star of the movie have the power to change the billing on a film when [hopefully!] all that was settled by the suits and set by contracts long before any rehearsals would start?) Now Chris is really on her way, so she takes her fabulous and tough gay hairdresser friend, Danny Devere, to walk through her unfinished Malibu home. While showing off to Danny on the second floor, Chris jumps up and down on some scaffolding (WAT?) and the scaffolding snaps and Chris plummets to the beach below, her body landing mostly on sand but her head striking some rocks, jarring that part of her brain responsible for sight, or something. There is a medical explanation given, but the point is that Chris is now mostly blind— she can see some light, but people appear mostly as blobs. (And by the way, did the movie studio put into her contract that she shouldn’t be showing off at any building sites? Presumably they knew she was building a new house; why wouldn’t they put in her contract that she couldn’t actually go onto that property while the film was being made?)

Anyway, she’s dropped from the movie and one day while she’s home she comes to believe that someone—Admirer!—is in her home with her. When the police come by to investigate she pretends to be sighted (she doesn’t want it getting out that she’s blind or that she’s being stalked because she’ll never work in this town again if people know) while talking to them. And the police are so unobservant that they can’t tell. I’m sure that was a sly commentary on the efficacy of the po-po. Now a handsome young Beverly Hills police detective, who represents the BHPD’s entire threat management unit, is on the case. His name is Jon Larsen, and he is, in his own words, “one of the more stupid police detectives in the western hemisphere.” (Chapter 61) Actually, he’s not giving himself enough credit—he is probably the stupidest police detective in the world.

But Chris immediately likes him, because he doesn’t call her by her first name on their first meeting. You see, according to Chris, being famous means that people feel “entitled” to you, and are always coming to up to Chris and calling her by her first name. But Larsen calls her “Miss Callaway,” until Chris tells him, “Please call me Chris; the whole world does.” (Chapter 7) Larsen calls her Chris and gives her incredibly stupid advice, such as when Admirer sits down at the seat across from her in the outdoor seating area of a Santa Monica restaurant and just watches her for a few seconds then moves in close and whispers directly into her ear “This is not a game.” Larsen tells her it’s not a threat, it’s just an expression of how strongly her stalker feels about her.

Then he takes her out for a Sunday fun day of private gun training at the end of Mulholland Drive (the '90s were so different!), all the while followed and watched by Admirer. Larsen sees him watching them through binoculars and shrugs it off. Then he gets a lead on someone who might know Admirer and drives Chris to Palm Springs and leaves her in the car alone while he goes in to talk to someone for about half an hour. Of course Admirer shows up. Then Larsen discovers that Chris’s home is being bugged but instead of removing the bug he decides to leave it so that they can selectively “leak” information they want Admirer to have. This important plot point is not only never mentioned again but, after this scene during which they’re careful to go out on the back patio to talk, they go right back to normal, discussing important information in Chris’s home as a matter of routine.

On the flimsiest evidence Larsen decides that one particular suspect has to be Admirer, then concentrates all his efforts on that person. He brings Chris to his house where they attempt to have sex before Admirer throws a large rock through the window, sending glass shards flying onto the bed and the floor. Then he takes Chris and Danny to a hotel for dieters near the beach. Here they do finally have sex, but they undress in the apartment’s living room, leaving both their guns out there while they frolic on the twin bed in the bedroom—and Admirer breaks in and leaves them a message in lipstick! Larsen decides to take Chris back to his house because, as he puts it, “I’ve begun to think he’ll find us anywhere, so what the hell?” (Chapter 52) Then Larsen finally thinks to check for tracking devices on their cars and of course finds them on his and hers and Danny’s—but he doesn’t tell Danny, letting him drive around with a tracker (this after Danny was nearly killed when Admirer punctured a hole in his previous vehicle’s hydraulic brake line).

Meanwhile, Larsen gets a call from the parents of a previous stalking victim that he allegedly helped. Their daughter, Helen, has disappeared. Upon hearing this news, to his credit, “Larsen felt a trickle of apprehension run down his bowels.” (Chapter 48) In another nice giallo-like touch, poor Helen ends up decapitated, her head left in a park but her body tied to a chair in Larsen’s home. Larsen feels bad but he absolves himself of any responsibility because Helen’s stalker had gone dormant or something—but given Larsen’s handling of Chris’s stalking the reader is probably not inclined to be so charitable.

For some reason Larsen is still in charge of everything, and allowed to come up with a cockamamie plan to bait Admirer—the person they think is Admirer—into attacking Chris at her new home. But neither Chris nor Danny (who rightfully calls Larsen a moron a couple of times in the book) think to check on the housing arrangements and beach access that are so integral to his plan. Chris invites Larsen to move into her new home with her, which means she’s contracted the form of Stockholm syndrome for stupidity (and she still can’t see him, so she can’t say she’s dazzled by this dummy’s good looks).

As I’ve said, there are occasional flashes of inspired tawdriness, but I’m afraid that Woods didn’t trust himself to go all the way with the nastiness. He could have had a sort of splatter version of Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark (the fact that I think this is a brilliant idea and want to write it myself gives you some idea why my own book sales are where they are but please buy The Misadventure of Dreama and the Rednecks by all means, hurry!) but instead he focused on—well, actually given Woods’s sales he focused on exactly what he needed to focus on. Dead Eyes is a book about a successful woman who overcomes physical, professional, and criminal obstacles, and finds love in the process. In other words, it’s a  work of popular fiction and it's sold tons and tons of copies, so what the hell?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Actually, Steve Martin's tribute to his friend Carrie Fisher was absolutely perfect

I never found the “Slave Leia” outfit arousing. This despite the fact I was about nine or so when that particular Star Wars movie was released, and I suppose that all heterosexual boys who liked SF were supposed to fantasize about it. I didn’t. This is mostly because I never found Carrie Fisher to be particularly attractive.

Just not really my type. Not only that, I never particularly liked the Star Wars movies as entertainments. To me, they were most effective as extended commercials for the toys, which I collected and, more importantly, played with.

I loved those toys. I can’t remember if there was a “Slave Leia” Kenner action figure. That I would have been interested in, probably.

Anyway, the Slave Leia outfit apparently made a big impression on a lot of boys my age. Who are men now. I know that it’s a popular look— I’ve been to enough conventions to see the cosplayers.

Does the fact that I never particularly cared for the Slave Leia outfit make a feminist? Or is my potential feminist status mitigated by the fact that I never found Carrie Fisher all that attractive anyway? If Lynda Carter had played Princess Leia, this might be a whole different post.

What if I said, “Carrie Fisher was physically unattractive, but she was a decent actress and writer?” Is that problematic?

The Slave Leia outfit has been perpetrated by a lot of women, many of them allegedly feminists. Olivia Munn and Amy Schumer, for instance.

Here we see Amy Schumer and Olivia Munn perpetuating the objectification of Princess Leia, a piece of Intellectual Property portrayed on screen by Carrie Fisher.

I say “allegedly” because the Slave Leia outfit is apparently horribly problematic and even triggering. A writer at New York Magazine was sent into PTSD conniptions by Steve Martin’s touching tribute to his friend Carrie Fisher, and a “think” piece ensued.

You’ll notice that Mr. Martin only says that he found Carrie Fisher— a real live human being that he actually personally knew— attractive. He didn’t mention the Slave Leia outfit at all. This writer simply jumped on the tweet and went to her own private little hell. (How they got through the entire piece without using the word “cisheteronormative” is beyond me.) Immediately after posting Mr. Martin’s tweet, the writer says this:

But that characterization of Leia — as a wet dream for prepubescent men — is something Fisher spoke out against her whole career. She addressed Leia’s role as a sex object in a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone. “Let’s not forget that these movies are basically boys’ fantasies,” she said. “So the other way they made her more female in this one was to have her take off her clothes.”

What’s that got to do with Mr. Martin’s own personal reflections on the death of his friend, who was a real live person? She wasn’t something to be objectified as nothing more than a feminist symbol, as the writer of this piece is attempting to make her.

Ms. Fisher was a funny, complicated human being with an extremely let’s say earthy sense of humor. As Penn Jillette said on an episode of his “Penn’s Sunday School” podcast (sorry I can't find the exact episode; I've listened to so many!), she collected horribly sexualized, vulgar, depraved, and pornographic portrayals of Princess Leia, and often forwarded them to her friends. What would the New York Mag writer have made of that?

In the final paragraph, the writer instructs the reader on the acceptable ways of remembering Ms. Fisher:

So remember Fisher for her immense talent, her outspoken feminism, and her moving commentary on mental health — not for the way she looked onscreen.

Why can’t people remember an actor for the way they looked onscreen? That’s how I remember Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Lon Chaney, John Wayne, etc. As for Ms. Fisher’s “outspoken feminism”— well, Mr. Jillette met Ms. Fisher at an awards ceremony for pornography. How would the New York Mag writer feel about this feminist icon validating pornography by appearing at such an event?

Remember Carrie Fisher the way you want to remember her, and don’t let any judgmental bullying hack tell you differently. Especially if you were her friend, as Steve Martin was.

Carrie Fisher was a lot more interesting than Princess Leia. But you should remember her however you want.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

You can't "spoil" great art. But some people are touchy about learning specific story details before experiencing a work of art on their own. With that in mind, this post features "mild spoilers."

Erle Stanley Gardner was a fascinating man. This brief biography at Thrilling Detective gives you a taste of his varied and very successful life. He wasn’t someone who wasted time. He went to Valparaiso University in Indiana but didn’t finish, and participated in illegal boxing matches before he started working for a law firm in Oxnard, then he passed the bar exam without having attended law school. To supplement his legal income he started writing for the pulps, becoming perhaps the most successful pulp writer of all time. He churned out hundreds of stories featuring dozens of characters.

From 1923 to 1932, Gardner wrote for multiple pulps and slicks. Then in 1933 he published The Case of the Velvet Claws, his first novel and his first work to feature his most famous creation, Perry Mason. The book is basically a novel-length pulp story of the “One damn thing after another” school of writing. To paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, there’s no plot to get in the way of the story. And thank God for that, because Claws has one hell of a story.

The lawyer Perry Mason receives a visit from Eva Griffin, whose affair with political candidate Harrison Burke is about to be exposed in a scandal sheet called Spicy Bits. She asks Mason to approach the editor, John Burke, with a payoff offer. Mason takes the case and over the course of his investigation he discovers that his client’s name is in fact Eva Belter, and her husband George is the owner of Spicy Bits. He’s looking for a good reason to divorce Eva without having to give her any of his estate. When George is killed, Eva is naturally the prime suspect. Eva claims to have overheard someone talking to George just before he was shot— and she claims the voice of the other man was none other than Mason’s.

Eva’s venality is clear from the beginning. Mason’s secretary Della Street calls her a “minx” at least twice. George’s nephew Carl Griffin calls her a “baby-faced bitch.” She lives up to the billing, putting several people in her orbit at risk to save her own skin. She finally tells the police that she heard Mason talking to her husband just before he was shot, which requires Mason to hide out in a hotel room under an assumed name, and eventually he has to trick Eva into confessing to the murder so that he can more effectively represent her.

As you can guess from this brief synopsis, this novel is full of twists and turns. It moves frantically, and there were times when I got the impression that even Gardner himself didn’t know where the story was going and wrote hard and fast to find out how it was going to end.

Gardner wasn’t an exacting prose stylist. This book was clearly written to entertain readers, not impress scholars. Throughout Claws, Gardner uses similar phrasing. On the first page alone we get the following: “There was about him an attitude…” “his face was like…” “he gave the impression…” and “the office held an atmosphere…” Later in chapter 1 the narrator says that “He (Perry Mason) shrugged his broad shoulders,” then a few paragraphs later the narrator says, “Perry Mason made a gesture with his shoulders.” (Beyond a shrug, I’m not sure how many different types of gestures one makes with their shoulders.)

There are indications that Gardner did little revising or editing of his work. Early in chapter 7, Eva Belter calls Mason, and we get these two paragraphs:

The voice of Eva Belter sounded swift and panic-stricken over the wire.

“Thank God I’ve got you! Get in your car and come at once! This is Eva Belter.”

Early in chapter 10, the narrator refers to detective Paul Drake as “Paul,” “Paul Drake,” and “Drake.” There’s not much stylistic consistency when it comes to names, but this happens within a few paragraphs on the same page!

This being Mason’s first appearance he’s not above doing a little shilling for himself, presumably to drum up some business and to help the reader get a better idea of his character. And it often comes across like an attorney’s commercial (by the way, I’d love to hear an audio version of this book by William Shatner). Early in the first chapter, he tells Eva Belter:

“I’m different. I get my business because I fight for it, and because I fight for my clients. Nobody ever called on me to organize a corporation, and I’ve never yet probated an estate. I haven’t drawn up over a dozen contracts in my life, and I wouldn’t know how to go about foreclosing a mortgage. People that come to me don’t come to me because they like the looks of y eyes, or the way my office is furnished, or because they’ve known me at a club. They come to me because they need me. They comet o me because they want to hire me for what I can do.”

She looked up at him then. “Just what is it that you do, Mr. Mason?” she asked.

He snapped out two words at her. “I fight!”

Later in the same chapter, he elaborates on this idea in conversation with Della:

“I’m a paid gladiator. I fight for my clients. Most clients aren’t square shooters. That’s why they’re clients. They’ve got themselves into trouble. It’s up to me to get them out. I have to shoot square with them. I can’t always expect them to shoot square with me.”

In chapter 17, Mason spells it out for Drake, and gives the reader a little reminder as well:

“I’m a lawyer. I take people who are in trouble, and I try to get them out of trouble. I’m not presenting the people’s side of the case, I’m only presenting the defendant’s side. The District Attorney represented the people, and he makes the strongest kind of a case he can. It’s my duty to make the strongest kind of a case I can on the other side, and then it’s up to the jury to decide. That’s the way we get justice. If the District Attorney would be fair, then I could be fair. But the District Attorney uses everything he can in order to get a conviction. I use everything I can in order to get an acquittal. It’s like two teams playing football. One of them tries to go in one direction just as hard as it can, and the other tries to go in the other direction as hard as it can.

“It’s sort of an obsession with me to do the best I can for a client. My clients are entitled to the best I can do for them. It’s not my job to determine whether or not they are guilty. That’s for the jury to determine.”

That passage largely illustrates Mason’s attitude as a lawyer and Gardner’s attitude as a writer. He’s interested in doing best by the reader, creating an entertaining and diverting story that will allow them to forget their regular lives and vicariously experience the thrill of seeing righteous justice meted out by an earnest, pedantic brawler who’s not afraid to bend the law and throw a few punches along the way.

This first Perry Mason appearance shows the lawyer to be more of a hardboiled detective than a lawyer. It’s easy to understand why readers would have clamored for more. You turn the pages so quickly that there’s no time to linger on any so-called narrative flaws. It’s a masterclass in unselfconscious storytelling for its own sake.

The book served as the inspiration for a 1963 episode of the TV series. It was adapted as a film in 1936, and was also adapted as a radio play.

Second cover pic source.
First cover pic source.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas with Barbara Stanwyck

It’s impossible to “spoil” great art. Everyone knows that Hamlet and Ophelia get married and have four children at the end of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but that doesn’t stop us from listening to the audio version over and over again. That said, this post contains very specific and detailed plot information about the two films discussed. If you don’t want to know what happens in them and you don’t want to educate yourself then quit reading right now!

Barbara Stanwyck, my celebrity exception, was one of the greatest film performers of the sound era. In movies like Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Baby Face, and The Mad Miss Manton, she showed her remarkable range. She could play anything from a beautiful femme fatale to a beautiful maneater to a beautiful conniver— and everything in between. On top of her incredible grace and skill as an actress, she was also stunningly beautiful. I’m not sure if I mentioned that already, but she had great natural beauty that was amplified by the intelligence and wit that were as important to her look as those amazing Edith Head gowns.

It so happens that two of Ms. Stanwyck’s best films also happen to be two of the best films of all time, and two of the best Christmas films of all time. One, Remember the Night, is a moving and very funny examination of the importance of honesty and sacrifice, and how your duty to others is reward in its own right. Then there’s Christmas in Connecticut, which is all about the importance of dishonesty, and venality rewarded.

In Remember the Night, Ms. Stanwyck portrays an unrepentant thief called Lee Leander who in the film’s opening moments casually walks out of a department store with an enormous jeweled bracelet for which she has not paid. She’s arrested and charged just before Christmas. Her ham-actor lawyer Francis O’Leary played by an inspired Willard Robertson concocts a bizarre and involved defense suggesting that Lee was hypnotized by the sparkling jewels in the bracelet, and walked out without realizing it. This defense suits the prosecutor John Sargent just fine, who gets a postponement until after Christmas because he’ll need a psychiatrist’s expert testimony in order to mount his prosecution. (It's hard to get a conviction against a woman in the best circumstances, and it's almost impossible at Christmas.)

This means that Lee will be held in jail over the Christmas holiday. Then John, in a fit of sentimental pique, decides to bail her out but the bail bondsman, Fat Mike, misinterprets John’s intentions, and brings Lee to his apartment. There Lee and John share a scene that goes from witty to emotional, with John offering to take Lee out for a Christmas dinner before he leaves for his hometown for Christmas break.

The fact that John Sargent is played by Fred MacMurray is like the lagniappe on the top of the cake frosting. He is charming, funny, tough and charismatic. Almost Ms. Stanwyck’s equal, which is important because let’s be real this isn’t exactly a realistic film, But it is authentic, which is even more important. (My life is “realistic” enough, why the heck would I want to watch a "realistic" movie?)

While dancing, Lee and John realize that they grew up within about fifty miles of one another in the great state of Indiana. While John returns home every year to visit his mother and aunt, Lee hasn’t been back home in years. Of course John offers to drive Lee to Indiana with him, drop her off then pick her up and bring her back to New York where he will PROSECUTE THE HECK OUT OF HER after the new year.

On the way to Indiana the two get stuck on a farm in the horrible state of Pennsylvania, where hardly anything good has ever happened except that fight between Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa. Through a misunderstanding they’re attacked by a rabid farmer who attempts to arrest them for stealing milk from one of his cows. They’re taken to the Justice of the Peace where they give fake names and are very nearly thrown in jail before Lee throws a lit match into the trash, starting a small but manageable conflagration, providing cover for their escape.

So at this point in the film we know that there’s going to be a connection—probably romantic—between Lee and John. They’re both charming and good looking, which means it would be an absolute crime if nothing happened between them. But we’re wondering: Will Lee’s venality corrupt John, or will John’s rugged morality “hypnotize” Lee?

At Lee’s mother’s home, John gets a glimpse of the crummy childhood that Lee must have had. Lee’s mother is, let’s call her imperious. As inhabited by Georgia Caine, she’s the nightmare of cold, loveless parental horror. Once again, John “rescues” Lee, and brings her to stay with him and his family.

And John’s family is basically the opposite of Lee’s. His mother, portrayed by Beulah Bondi, and his Aunt Emma, played by Elizabeth Patterson, dote on John, who returns their affection unconditionally. They make popcorn for the Christmas tree, gather round while Lee plays the piano and Willie, who is I suppose a sort of handyman who lives with Mrs. Sargent and Aunt Emma, sings “The End of a Perfect Day” (Willie is played by Sterling Holloway who I’ve always thought was an acquired taste but he’s perfect here), exchange gifts, and go to a barn dance. It’s a big vacation and it’s clear that Lee and John are ready to take their relationship to the next step, if you know what I mean and I think you do. But Mrs. Sargent goes to Lee and tells her how hard John’s worked to get where he is—when his father died the family had nothing and John had to start working from a young age, eventually working his way through law school. Lee tells Mrs. Sargent she wouldn’t jeopardize John’s life or career for anything and she decides not to go to John’s room for a “night cap” on New Year’s night.

On their way back they stop at Niagara Falls (they’re traveling through Canada to avoid the pestilential state of Pennsylvania, and who can blame them?) and John suggests she stay there because he doesn’t want to have to prosecute her when they get back. She tells him no. But they do share a kiss, with the promise of much more when they get back to New York.

But, alas, Lee has had a change of heart. John’s mother’s words are still ringing in her ears and despite the fact that John want to marry her right now and basically throw the case against her, she’s having none of it. John decides to throw the case anyway, tearing into her in court so that the jury will absolutely hate him and therefore acquit her. She realizes what he’s doing—compromising himself for her—so she realizes that now she has a chance to “rescue” him by confessing to stealing the bracelet. As the movie ends Lee is preparing to face whatever her sentence might be, so that she’ll be “all square,” and can be with John as his equal. So that they’ll be worthy of each other. But she has to accept responsibility for her past crimes before she can move forward into the promising future with John. It is a powerful, moving film with a great message of responsibility to those we love the most.

Then there’s Christmas in Connecticut.

In this film, Ms. Stanwyck portrays Elizabeth Lane, who writes a magazine column in which she writes about her life on her fabulous farm in Connecticut, her amazing husband, her delightful child and, of course, all the amazing food she cooks. But in fact, Elizabeth lives in a small New York apartment, is unmarried and childless, and she can’t cook, not even a little bit. Her friend Felix (the amazing S.Z. Sakall, who appeared with Ms. Stanwyck in Ball of Fire) provides her with recipes. Nevertheless her column is immensely popular, so much so that when she mentions in one that she’s looking for a rocking chair just like the one her grandmother used to have, thirty-eight readers have rocking chairs delivered to the office of the magazine where she works.

There’s something more than a little cruel about that— but it gets so much worse.

As the movie opens, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) and Sinkewicz (Frank Jenks) have been lost at sea after their submarine was attacked. While in their life raft, Jefferson dreams of four course meals, but when they’re rescued, Jefferson’s stomach is so weak he can only eat milk with a raw egg in it. Sinkewicz is getting steak, so Jefferson asks him what his secret is, and Sinkewicz tells him to use the “magoo” on the nurse. In other words, he tells Jefferson to lay on the charm in order to get better meals. Jefferson does—going so far as to actually get ENGAGED TO HIS NURSE just so he can get chops, which end up making him sick anyway.

There’s something more than a little cruel about that, too. But it gets so much worse.

Jefferson loves Elizabeth Lane’s column, so the nurse writes to magazine publisher Alexander Yardley (the brilliant Sydney Greenstreet) suggesting that maybe Elizabeth and her husband could have Jefferson out to their farm in Connecticut. Being a sentimental cutthroat magazine publisher, Alexander thinks that’s a perfectly splendid idea. Now Elizabeth and her editor, Dudley, are sure that they’re going to be fired for perpetrating this massive fraud against Alexander Yardley and his readers (they’ve been publishing #FakeNews for years!)—and they ABSOLUTELY DESERVE TO BE FIRED THEY’RE LYING LIARS.

Like Remember the Night, Christmas in Connecticut has a meaningful piano scene. It also has a meaningful scene with a cow, and a meaningful small town dance scene. They're practically the same movie!

Meanwhile, dapper and erudite John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner), a successful architect, has been proposing to Elizabeth for years apparently. She keeps turning him down. But now she can’t think of any more good excuses to say no, so she says yes, much to Dudley’s and Felix’s chagrin. But it turns out that John has a farm in Connecticut— it’s the same farm that Elizabeth used for the inspiration for her dishonest fake news column. So they ask John if they can have Jefferson and Alexander out to his farm for Christmas. John says, portentously, that he knows he’ll regret it for the rest of his life, but he’ll do it. He even manages to get temporary custody of a baby that they can pass off as their own.

John is, in other words, a contemptible fool who allows himself to be mercilessly manipulated by all these lying liars. All because he’s helplessly in love with a woman who happens to look exactly like the breathtaking and irresistible Barbara Stanwyck for crying out loud. Despite John’s best efforts he never manages to marry Elizabeth. And she takes one look at Jefferson and it’s a wonder they don’t start going at it right away, right under John’s nose. All the dramatic tension in the film revolves around whether or not Elizabeth and her lying friends will get what they deserve, or what they want. For some reason, you want them to avoid what they deserve.

Elizabeth and her friends work hard to hide their lies from people who don’t deserve to be lied to. There’s even a bit where Alexander thinks that Elizabeth’s baby has been kidnapped because the baby’s real mother comes to pick him or her (I forget if it’s the male or female baby), and he calls the state police who search all through the night and he offers a reward for the baby’s return. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Jefferson have spent the night in jail for stealing a one-horse open sleigh and are oblivious to all the havoc going on—havoc caused by Elizabeth’s casual heartlessness.

I couldn’t tell you why I love this movie so much. In a way it's sort of a perverted classic. The message is horrible. Elizabeth gets Jefferson, and not only does she not get the firing she deserves, but Felix manipulates Alexander into actually giving her a raise for crying out loud. Jefferson gets Elizabeth. John gets… Well, he basically gets cucked, to use the modern terminology. Nevertheless, I tear up a little bit every time I see it. Maybe it’s because there’s part of me that wants to be rewarded for my weaknesses, too.

It’s a testament to her greatness that Barbara Stanwyck can make us feel happy for each of these very different characters, pull us into these very different worlds, and make us believe in these two very different messages. In my weaker moments I’m Elizabeth Lane, but I aspire to be Lee Leander.

For that, I'm deeply grateful to Barbara Stanwyck.

Want to know what I think is the WORST Christmas movie of all time? It's the execrable The Man Who Came to Dinner.

Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan picture source.
Remember the Night movie poster pic source.
Christmas in Connecticut movie poster pic source.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Room Upstairs by Mildred Davis

NOTE: Although it’s impossible to “spoil” a real work of art—we all know that Holden Caulfield marries Jane Gallagher and has four children and lives happily ever after at the end of The Catcher in the Rye yet we continue to read and re-read it—please be warned that this post contains very specific information about the plot and the ending of the book discussed.

The Room Upstairs by Mildred Davis is a hardboiled gothic novel* complete with an “idiot heroine in the attic” (actually it’s a room on the top floor of a mansion) covered in bandages after a horrifying car accident, and an undercover investigator with murky motives.

Gene Swendsen is dropped off on the road just around the bend from the Corwith estate by a mysterious man called Mart. Swendsen and Mart exchange a few mysterious words about “the job,” with Mart wishing Swendsen good luck and Swendsen promising to keep Mart posted. Then Swendsen continues to the estate, where he presents himself as the new chauffeur. The butler, Weymuller, introduces him to the estate’s other servants and the Corwiths themselves. They need a chauffeur for one month only—their previous chauffeur left suddenly and mysteriously and Mr. Corwith has some affairs to wind up before the whole family moves to Washington. The Corwith daughters are all troubled in their own ways. Hilda, the youngest, is an alcoholic. Dora, the oldest, is flighty and arrogant. And Kitten, the middle daughter, lives in a room upstairs from which she never emerges. She only entertains the occasional visitor. She’s the one with the bandages on her face. As Swendsen puts it in Chapter 15:

She must be quite a character. She sits there all alone in that room upstairs, doesn’t see people, doesn’t come out, and yet she dominates the whole house. She can be felt in every part of it, every person. You all seem worried when you think no one’s watching, and you all look over your shoulders when you walk through an unlit room. And it’s somehow connected with her.

In addition to the daughters, there’s Lewis, the Corwiths’ fourteen year old son. Then there’s Francis, Dora’s fiance (he’s a doctor), and Helen, a friend who’s had a string of affairs.

Swendsen drives the Corwiths around, to parties where we meet vacuous uppercrusters who speak in arch, pseudo-clever dialogue. (Despite his working-class pedigree, Swendsen is their equal in the banter department, and he even gets in a few zingers that cause Hilda to blush worse than Mander Manley.) These parties tend to end in emotional outbursts, recrimination, or with someone being hypnotized into attempting a murder (I’m not joking). He’s also got several newspaper clippings about the Corwiths, he maintains contact with Mart, and he manipulates the car’s speaker so that he can listen to the backseat discussion whether those in the backseat want him to or not.

Everyone is deeply troubled, as Swendsen observes. Swendsen attempts to trouble the family, in particular Hilda. He takes her out on a date and inadvertently drives onto the Batchfelder estate, where a search party appears to have been formed. One member of that party threatens Swendsen and Hilda, and Hilda vomits when she realizes where she is. And that is the highlight of the date.

All along Swendsen uncovers clues here and there, mainly through observing and spying. And he takes one of the servants, Patricia, who’s apparently very good looking but not very smart, on a date, where he pumps her for information. Finally he manages to uncover the truth— that Kitten is dead and Hilda has been wrapping her head in bandages and pretending to be Kitten, when certain people come over (she speaks in a sort of a rasp to disguise her voice). Swendsen accuses Hilda of killing Kitten and concocting the car accident that allegedly took Kitten’s life. Hilda confesses, claiming to have accidentally struck Kitten with one of the Corwiths' cars, but when she drove home she couldn't remember where exactly she'd left the body, only that it was somewhere on the Batchfelder estate.

Interspersed throughout the novel are italicized Arthur Schnitzler-esque stream of consciousness vignettes in which Davis uses a semantic trick to disguise the identity of “the patient” “in the room upstairs.” The vignettes seem to mainly take up space, until the second to last chapter, where Davis alternates the main action with this stream of consciousness stuff. It’s in the stream of consciousness that we learn that in fact the jealous Dora is the actual murderer, because Kitten got Dora’s toys, her clothes, her boys, etc. Dora brutally killed her and buried her body, unable or unwilling to tell anyone where, which was why the police found it. Dora, driven by guilt I suppose, leaps to her death.

Swendsen is a jerk. He spends the entire novel acting like he has a chip on his shoulder—he’s arrogant, rude, cocky, and annoying. His unlikability is a problem, especially once the reader learns who he is and why he’s there. I kept thinking he must be, say, the son of someone who died because of the car crash that marred Kitten’s face. But, no—his background and motives are completely banal: He turns out to be a police detective investigating after Kitten’s body had been found. Foul play was suspected, so the police decided to orchestrate Swendsen’s chauffeur employment because Corwith is so wealthy and powerful and therefore so well protected that the police would never be able to get at the truth, without concocting such an elaborate ruse. I get it and I’m sympathetic—the rich have their own justice and law enforcement apparently have to be inventive to get at the truth. But it still felt anticlimactic. Worse, it leaves Corwith as just a jerk without a real driving motivation for his unpleasantness.

The final chapter is heavy on suspense, but it’s not generated by the narrative itself. It’s the suspense that comes from watching an artist destroy everything that’s good about what she’s built up with one bad decision. Will she…? Won’t she…? Then, she does! But not only does she do the thing that I as the reader was so desperate to see her not do, she commits to that mistake (if I disagree with it, it’s a mistake!) one thousand squillion percent. I mean, Davis lays it on so thick that I’m tempted to believe that it’s parody.

Yes, she rewards the arrogant jerk Swendsen with the sad, damaged, but still redeemable Hilda. That in itself is bad enough. But the language that Davis uses in explaining how they end up together is downright cruel to Hilda. When Swendsen returns to the Corwith estate (after exchanging a few unpleasantries with Weymuller), he has a brief conversation with the completely deflated Mrs. Corwith, who seems resigned to the fact that Swendsen has come for Hilda and he’s going to take her, no matter what. Then Hilda joins Swendsen and after he throws open the blinds (letting the sunshine in!), Hilda tells him about the pain she’s going through, then asks him to leave.

Swendsen’s having none of that. He gives her a lecture in which he absolves himself of any guilt or even responsibility for anything that’s happened. He tells her, “The trouble with you…is that you don’t cry.” Then he goes on:

”Listen to me. And this time try to get it straight. That little head of yours must be pretty twisted if you can blame all your troubles on me. I brought them to a climax. I had nothing to do with causing them. Your father was finished when Kitten died. And Dora would have committed suicide eventually, anyhow. And then your mother would have been in the same spot she’s in now. if you weren’t almost crazy with brooding and loneliness, you’d know I had nothing to do with it. I just happened along when everything was about to break and hurried up the process a little. I was only the guy who told you the score. Maybe that’s what hurt.”

If he does say so himself. He sounds vaguely like Obama giving a speech about how terrible things were when he was elected and how great things are now, despite all evidence to the contrary. If not for me, things would have been so much worse for you let me tell you and you ought to be grateful for all the great stuff I did for you and if you're too emotional to see just how great I was then that's your problem, baby

Swendsen then destroys the toy kitten that had been a gift to Kitten Corwith from one of her suitors, and had come to symbolize the missing Kitten. It’s pretty meaningful. Time to move on and cheer up! Turn that frown upside down! Quit living in the past!

Even after that, Hilda still resists Swendsen. For about a page or so. Then, she gives in. And this is where Davis really starts twisting the knife in poor Hilda’s back. Swendsen tells her, “You’ll come away with me today. You can stay at a hotel until we’re married.” Then:

”My eyes hurt,” she complained like a small child.

A couple of pages later, Davis gives us this: “Her eyes were trusting, almost like a puppy’s.” Then: “Clinging to Swendsen, she waited for him to take the lead.” When she gets into the car Swendsen/Davis compares Hilda to an “orphan,” and Swendsen belittles her:

”The fashionable Miss Corwith goes for a drive,” he chuckled. “I wonder what your friends would say if they could see that getup—and this car.”

She looked down at her dress, and then back at him uncertainly. She smiled a little too, not quite sure what the joke was, but trying to be pleasant.

At the look on her face, he threw his head back and shouted with laughter. She had never before seen him do anything more than smile sarcastically. The laugh seemed to please her and she smiled again.

Hilda is a child, an orphan, a puppy. Before she’d only known him to smile sarcastically; now, as she sits meekly in his car, he roars with laughter at the sight of her—her response is to smile at him, as if grateful for his mockery. AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER!

Now that Hilda has entirely submitted, Swendsen turns to her parents tells them that they’re leaving but will be in touch when they know where she’s staying. That’s followed by this bit of third-person omniscient narration:

It was hard to talk to these two people to whom he had given the last shove over the precipice. Hard to watch their eyes.

Which would tend to contradict Swendsen’s assertions from earlier in the final chapter that he just happened to come along at the right time—all the terrible stuff that happened was going to happen anyway and it's not his fault, not any of it.

Obviously, Swendsen didn’t kill Kitten. He didn’t push Dora off the ledge. He didn’t compel Hilda to take Kitten’s place for all those years. (And by the way—how deeply was Lewis involved? He was the doctor who supposedly treated "Kitten" after she was murdered, and he was in on the ruse that had Hilda bandaged and pretending to be Kitten. But did he not know that Dora was the real killer? After all, he was engaged to her, even if he did wisely call it off with Dora after she collapsed or fell on their wedding day. Actually this opens a whole new can of worms and forget I brought it up.) But he did, as part of a police conspiracy, infiltrate this family under false pretenses, act like a jerk, and drive Dora to suicide.

The set-up for The Room Upstairs is diverting, and I was curious as to where Davis was going with the story more than halfway in. And if the book had ended with Chapter 24, instead of continuing on that deadly Chapter 25, it would have been a real triumph. Unfortunately that “happy ending” feels tacked on, or insincere. Maybe it’s post-ironic; I don’t know. But it left me feeling unsatisfied.

The Pocket Book edition I read, published in 1950, has this to say about Mildred Davis:

Mildred Davis looks about seventeen and fragile as a snowflake. Actually, she’s old enough to have graduated from college and to be a wife and mother. The Room Upstairs has captured something of her own quality: delicate, yet completely matured.

There’s certainly something to that “delicate yet matured” bit—I just wish Davis had let the story mature just a little bit more before releasing it.

 Here's the author herself. "Delicate yet matured" indeed!

Mildred Davis photo source.

*ANOTHER NOTE: After spending about a minute and a half on Google I think that The Room Upstairs might be the only hardboiled gothic novel ever published. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar

About halfway through A Stranger in My Grave, it occurred to me that I was reading a Cornell Woolrich pastiche, written by an exceptionally talented writer. The dreamily purple writing style, the heavy psychological gimmickry, the reliance on coincidence and the importance of dreams… This is pure Woolrich. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did start to wonder to what extent Millar was conscious of the fact that she was re-writing Rendezvous in Black.

Was that incendiary? It’s been awhile since I read Rendezvous in Black, but it seems that there’s something awfully similar about the two books.

At her best, Millar was one of the top crime and mystery writers of the mid-20th century. Beast in View hasn’t aged all that well (I mean, the twist hasn't aged well; it's a bit hoary and you can see it coming from the first chapter) but it is a very well-written and compulsively readable book. Then there’s How Like an Angel, which has one of the absolute best twists in all of mystery fiction, that’s presented so well that it almost overshadows all of the other great qualities of the book.

From those two classics, however, there’s a bit of drop-off to Fire Will Freeze, a very fun Agatha Christie-esque trapped-in-a-snowstorm tale. Then The Listening Walls, with it’s relatively ho-hum twist.. and so on. For all her talents (and they were many and varied), Millar could get stuck in ruts. Maybe my opinion of her is colored by the order in which I’ve read her books. How Like an Angel was first, and it was like a revelation. Then Beast in View which was less a revelation but still fun. None of her other books have measured up to either of those.

A Stranger in My Grave begins with a very troubled, morose young woman called Daisy Harker. She smiles purely out of habit and sees herself as vulnerable and flighty. She’s suffering from a recurring nightmare in which she’s chasing her dog through a cemetery when she comes upon a grave with her name, the date of her birth (November 13, 1930) and her death (December 2, 1955). The date of her birth is correct, but the death date can’t be, since it was four years before. Daisy is determined to reconstruct that particular day of her life, to see if it has any significance for her. It must be important. At first she thinks it might have some connection to the date when she learned from a “specialist in Los Angeles” that she couldn’t have children, but that was “[f]our years ago, not five. And the trip to see the specialist must have taken place in the spring, not in December, because the hills had been green” (chapter 2).

She gets a call from Stan Fielding, her Lord Byron-quoting, hard-traveling, ne’er-do-well father, in San Felice up from Los Angeles. A conversation with a waitress led to a fight with the waitress’s husband, landing him in jail. He’s calling her to repay the bail bondsman/private detective who’s paid his fine, Stevens Pinata. She agrees, looking forward to seeing her father again for the first time in years. Unfortunately, Fielding is a cowardly bum and flees before Daisy’s arrival. She pays the fine, then hires Pinata to help her reconstruct December 2, 1955.

Pinata is apparently of Hispanic descent, although his heritage is a mystery even to himself. He was left abandoned in an orphanage, and the name Stevens Pinata was given to him by one of the Sisters. (“Pinata” because some of the children were playing with a piñata at the time she selected the name.) Pinata is ambivalent about his background, and this ambivalence permeates his attitudes toward other people. From chapter 7:

In his early years Pinata had been extremely conscious of the fact that he didn’t know his own racial original and couldn’t identify with any particular racial group. Now, in his maturity, this lack of group identification had the effect of making him tolerant of every race. He was able to think of men as his brothers because some of them might very well be his brothers, for all he knew. The name Pinata, which enabled him to mix freely with the Spanish-Americans and the Mexicans who made up a large part of the city, was not his.

Pinata believes that Daisy’s attempt to reconstruct The Day is part of a subconscious desire to to destroy her own life. Nevertheless, he eventually accedes to her wishes and they start tracking down what happened on that day in general and, more specific, what happened to her. Going through a newspaper’s archives they discover that that particular date was full of events, large and small. When she hears that a woman called Juanita Garcia was “given probation on charges of neglecting her five children by locking them in her apartment while she visited several west-side taverns” (chapter 7) something clicks in her mind. But that leads to frustration—why should she know any Juanita Garcia? Pinata thinks her defensiveness might be a mechanism to hide the truth from herself, he also recalls that Juanita was the name of the waitress that Fielding was speaking to right before the brawl that got him arrested.

Juanita the waitress is in some ways Daisy’s opposite: Daisy is barren, Juanita is prolific. Juanita is flighty, but she’s also loud and brusque and prone to violent outbursts. At one point in the book Fielding even says that Juanita reminds him of Daisy:

He wanted to help the girl because in a disturbing way she reminded him of Daisy. It was as if some perverse fate had singled them both out to be victims, Daisy and Juanita, who had never met and perhaps never would, although they had so much in common. He felt sorry for them. (Chapter 17)

Eventually, Pinata and Daisy uncover a complicated plot involving an illegitimate child, secret payments, perverse deception, infidelity, extreme pathological guilt, and murder. The story unwinds with Millar’s alternately beautiful, clever, and gimcrack prose. For instance, when Daisy tells her husband about her recurring nightmare, Millar gives us this third-person internal monologue:

It was not the dream that disturbed him, it was the reality it suggested: some day Daisy would die, and there would be a genuine tombstone in that very cemetery with her name on it. Oh God, Daisy, don't die. “You look very much alive to me,” he said, but the words, meant to be light and airy, came out like feathers turned to stone, and dropped heavily on the table. He picked them up and tried again. “In fact, you look pretty as a picture, to coin a phrase.”

That passage manages to be both gimmicky and insightful. There are a lot of such passages throughout the book. Here’s the opening of chapter 14:

Granada was a street of small frame houses built so closely together that they seemed to be leaning on each other for moral and physical and economic support against the pressures from the white side of town. The pomegranate trees, for which the street was named, were fruitless now, but at Christmas time the gaudy orange balls of fruit hung from the branches looking quite unreasonable, as if they had not grown there at all but had been strung up to decorate the street for the holiday season.

This is roughly the point in the book where the racial undertone becomes the theme of the book, integral to Millar’s twist. While Pinata is ambivalent about his racial identity, Millar suggests that it’s a major component of one's humanity—and that you can’t fight racial fate. It’s this aspect of the twist that elevates this particular book to the mid-tier of Millar mysteries (by which I mean it’s well above average and well worth reading), and I wonder what modern audiences would make of this ending. I have a feeling it would inspire a lot of think pieces.

A Stranger in My Grave is available for the kindle right now.

Here’s another take on the book at Pretty Sinister Books that’s also worth checking out.
Spanish book cover source.

Sleep With Strangers and Sleep With Slander by Dolores Hitchens

Sleep With Strangers introduces Jim Sader, a hardboiled or at least medium boiled Long Beach Private Investigator hired by Kay Wanderly to find her mother Felicia, who disappeared three nights before. Like many young women who hire private investigators, Kay is evasive in her answers and flighty and panicked in her attitude.

At the same time and completely coincidentally and unrelatedly, Sader’s partner, Dan Scarborough is hired to find Perry Ajoukian, who disappeared on the same night. Perry Ajoukian has a complicated, adversarial relationship with his oil shares-buying father, with whom he lives with his astonishingly beautiful wife (as Scarborough says, “I could describe her in detail, but you might think I wasn’t a gentleman.” (Chapter 2)).

As the story moves along, Sader learns that Kay has failed to disclose key information in a timely manner, including the fact that Felicia had a gun when she disappeared and is known to go on occasional “drunken rampages.” Sader also gets some let’s call them hunches that turn out to be profoundly significant to his investigation (i.e., an uncovered oil sump near a drilling field office located near the homes of the two missing people has a crucial clue and he investigates based on a feeling he has—as Scarborough puts it, “People never give God credit for anything anymore…” (Chapter 14)). Then there’s the fact that Sader’s investigation into Felicia’s disappearance connects neatly with Scarborough’s investigation into the disappearance of Perry Ajoukian. They discuss the coincidence of both of these people on the same night but they don’t really take the coincidence seriously—not even when Sader meets a suspect who mentions a Wanderly-Ajoukian connection.

There are lots of lovely touches throughout the book, like Sader’s internal monologue regarding the copy and the font used in his detective agency’s ads (“…[T]he wording, Sader thought, gave off an aura of secretive shrewdness.” (Chapter 14)). There are some amazing descriptions of Long Beach, “the town that had grown up from a village by the sea, a city with a hill in the middle of it, sprouting oil derricks like a forest of pins…” (Chapter 18). In Long Beach’s “amusement zone” called The Pike we learn about a game “!!GIVE THE PIGS A SLIDE!! 3 BALLS 25¢” As Sader describes it: “You hit the center of the target with a baseball and a pig comes out a runs to the slide and slides down it. The owner gives the pig a bite to eat, so he won’t mind coming down again next time. The sucker wins a plaster ash tray worth one tenth of a cent, plus a feeling of happiness over having given the pig a thrill…” (Chapter 4). Those pigs are kept in a room in the GIVE THE PIGS A SLIDE owner’s home. For zoning reasons he can’t keep them outside.

But the best part of the book is the mood that Hitchens sets. There is a palpable sense of melancholy and hopeless fear over everything. Sader had been “in Intelligence, in the Army. Cloak-and-dagger stuff.” He says he got into detective work because he though that “being a private detective would be more exciting, and less work,” but “[m]ostly it’s little frightened men who can’t pay their bills, or big defiant men who won’t support their families…” (Chapter 4). Sader’s age is never revealed, but he seems to be in his early forties, and he’s definitely feeling his age. Younger women regard him with casual disinterest. Throughout the book his younger business partner Scarborough repeatedly refers to Sader as “Papa,” and not in an affectionate way. Sader’s implicit fear of having irretrievably lost something he can never get back and recognition of his own mortality lead to his jumping to a very wrong conclusion and veering down (literally) the wrong road.

The second Jim Sader novel, Sleep With Slander, is almost as good. Sader is hired by a man called Hale Gibbings. Gibbings has received an anonymous note telling him that the child his daughter gave up for adoption five years before is being horribly mistreated by relatives of the family that originally adopted the child.

Sader takes an immediate dislike to Gibbings. In fairness, Gibbings was somewhat adversarial (“Makes you mad for someone to want to know if you’re any good?” (Chapter 1)), but his ire is basically instinctive. He takes the case, intending to act as an advocate for both the child and the woman who gave the child up for adoption. Sader discovers that the adoptive father died in a plane crash several years before, at which point the adoptive mother, Tina Champlain, seemed to undergo a complete lifestyle change, moving to Santa Monica and taking up with an entirely new social group. She died in an accident off Catalina island, while boating with her new boyfriend Brent and his father.

Over the course of the story Sader meets the calculating woman who facilitated the adoption, the cold relatives who feel no connection to a child that’s not a blood relative, the sad proprietor of Betty’s Baby Shop, and a father and son with serious abusive problems. He gathers seemingly conflicting eyewitness testimony, inscrutable photos, and untrustworthy letters. All the while, Sader continues to struggle with feelings of mortality. In the second chapter he thinks about “the erosion done his natural curiosity by time and by being in the detective business.” This is a brilliant and surprising bit of foreshadowing on Hitchens’ part. Sader doesn’t even learn the child’s name until the eighth chapter—and he doesn’t think to ask anyone. Gibbings calls Sader “a bungler" in the eleventh chapter. There is some evidence of that for sure, but Hitchens portrays Sader with a great deal of empathy, as a sad aging man trying his best to do the right thing despite his own failings and the horribleness that he’s encountered. I overlooked it to the point that it didn't even occur to me that Sader hadn't asked for the child's name until it was finally revealed.

Then, that ending. It’s a bit— Freudian. The book was published in 1960, and my suspicion is that this type of twist would have worked really well back then, or it would have at least felt fresh, and maybe even insightful. As it is, the resolution is by far the weakest element of the novel. For a mystery that’s very problematic. It’s more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit, which isn’t a bad thing obviously. But the mixture of earnest psychological insight and gimmicky psychology feels, actually now that I’m thinking about it, it feels almost post-ironic. Like Quentin Tarantino remaking Dario Argento with James Franco in the lead. So maybe it’s perfect for the current year.

Wow, speaking of Freudian, I just thought of James Franco as Jim Sader in an HBO series adapting these novels, one for each season. I'd subscribe.

As with Sleep with Strangers, there are a lot of really terrific Southern California touches. When Sader visits Tina Champlain’s last known address in Santa Monica he discovers that the place has been gutted and that a new freeway is is going through. “An area of a dozen blocks or so had been condemned, the houses and shops were in the process of being moved or demolished.” (Chapter Two). The description of the Wilmington home of Tina’s boyfriend, “a big old-fashioned frame place with a neglected yard” and a broken walk and an amateur boatyard with three unfinished boat hulls in the back is also really vivid. You can smell the paint and feel the boards creaking.

Bill Pronzini famously called Sleep With Slanderthe best traditional male private eye novel written by a woman.” I’m not sure I agree with that (I don't know when he made that assertion) but it is definitely worth your time. Aside from being terrific character-driven crime stories, both of these novels taken together provide a really fascinating time capsule of Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica. If you’re interested in what life was like there in the mid-50s, they’re especially recommended.

Dolores Hitchens is represented in the invaluable Library of America Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 50s two-volume set, with a book called Fool’s Gold. In addition, the Library of America is selling e-book versions of both Sleep With Strangers and Sleep With Slander.

Aside: My copies of these books were the Blue Murder paperback editions published in England in 1989. BOTH of the books features back cover blurbs that ruin important plot points so casually you’d think that the major twists they reveal happen in the first chapter. If you happen to get those editions, DON’T read the back covers until you’ve read the books.

Sleep With Strangers cover source.
Sleep With Slander cover source.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Max Landis and the three institutionalized film industry flaws

Max Landis is the talented screenwriter/director son of the talented director John Landis. He is "up to his knees," so to speak, in Hollywood. And even as he is successfully participating in the process of creating corporate studio product, he’s also willing to comment on that process. This makes him invaluable, even if you disagree with his commentary or dislike his product.

Recently he posted a video in which he names three institutionalized flaws in the corporate studio filmmaking process. Watch it here; it's worth watching!:

He’s absolutely right about all of this.

As for his first point, I can only offer hearsay evidence from friends and acquaintances in the film industry. I happen to think that this is the least important problem (hopefully the people in charge of making films understand that, for instance, jokes get less funny the more you hear them) and the problem that could be most easily fixed. But of course, Landis suggests that none of these problems can be fixed at all, because they’re institutionalized. So, despair.

His second point is even more interesting. I’ve written on this blog several times about the RottenTomatoBots, those critics and fans who believe that art can be quantified, and that any opinion that runs counter to a film’s aggregated critical score is at best suspect and at worst “contrarian.”

This leads to critical atrophy. Reviews that run counter to the “Tomatometer” are dismissed with snide comments “(“LOL this guy gave this movie a negative review when the tomatometer is at 90% so he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!”). No less a figure than Roger Ebert directly accused Armond White of being a “troll” for refusing to remain in line with consensus critic thinking.

The Tomatometer score becomes an important tool for fans or thinkpiece authors to browbeat others. When the Ghostbusters reboot came out earlier this year, the Tomatometer became an instrument of political battle. When its score settled around 72% (or whatever it was) that was used by politically motivated writers as evidence that the movie really was good, despite what the "haters" hoped.

This cannot be overstated: Art cannot be quantified. Art can be examined, appreciated, dissected, placed in larger context, enjoyed, hated, etc. But there is no way that anyone can say with complete metaphysical certitude that a certain film is good or is bad. Just because the general consensus is that “Citizen Kane” or “Vertigo” are the greatest movies of all time, that does not make that a fact. I can think of at least ten movies just off the top of my head that I like better than either of those movies— and I happen to really like both of those movies. By the same token, who’s to say that “Plan 9 From Outer Space” or “I Spit on Your Grave” are the worst? There are elements of those movies that a large number of people might agree are inept or distasteful. You might think they’re “bad.” But they are not, objectively, bad, in a "2+2=4" sort of way.

UPDATE 12/11/16: The Tomatometer issue is compounded by the role that “film critics” serve in the promotion of studio films. Critics actually agree to “embargoes” of their reviews in exchange for getting to see films at early screenings. The studio dictates the relationship to critics—who should be impartial—and manipulates that relationship in order to better serve their own corporate interests.

Landis’s third point is the most important, and I wish he’d gone into more detail on it, and examined it even more closely. The fact is that there is a huge, cavernous gulf between those creating corporate entertainment and those who are expected to consume it. The people in New York and Los Angeles seem to have little interest in understanding those who live and work in the rest of the country. This is disastrous.

I’ve already written about the Fake Satire of Stephen Colbert, who was so completely out of touch with the country outside of New York and California that when planning his election night special, he and his writers didn’t even bother to prepare for the possibility that Donald Trump would win the presidency by enough of a margin that they would know that night. How can artists create meaningful works that speak to average people— that engage people on an emotional level—if they have no understanding of how they’re actually living their lives?

The answer is that they can’t. They don’t even try. It’s why you see so many of what conservative cultural critics call “sucker punches”— the slipping of a liberal or Democrat agenda piece into an otherwise unrelated film or TV show.

Corporate media artisans are perfectly comfortable pushing a corporate agenda. The “Toy Story” movies are a perfect example of art that’s created to promote corporate control of our lives. But where is the film or TV show that honestly portrays working-class characters? Where are the centrist or even conservative characters who aren’t presented as venomous, angry bigots?  You often hear that studios want to make money, above pushing an agenda. I’m not so sure that’s true. In 2004 “The Passion of the Christ” became a huge, massively profitable hit. You’d think that it would inspire a deluge of “faith-based” movies from major studios. No, it didn’t. Because most corporate artisans do not share religious “faith,” and are contemptuous of those who do. Even worse—they lack the intellectual curiosity and the stamina to even research why it is that someone who is good and intelligent might also be a religious believer.

Follow the Twitter accounts of many celebrities and you’ll see how they view those who disagree with progressive ideas. Again, the "Ghostbusters" reboot is instructive. When the trailer was released it met with a lot of criticism. Some of it was overtly sexist but most of it was a variation on “this isn’t funny” and “why do they keep doing remakes?”

Rather than address the legitimate criticism that was offered in earnest, those involved in the making of the film, and their friends, attacked them as sexists. This served the dual purpose of further alienating a major portion of the audience while absolving the corporate artisans involved in creating the film of any responsibility to understand what their audience was looking for.

The answer to “why do they keep doing remakes?” is, at least in part, because the corporate artisans creating films and TV shows today are so completely out of touch with popular taste that all they can do is strip-mine works of the past, looking for previously successful Intellectual Property to exploit. This is also why there are so many comics-based movies, and why studios are scrambling to create "shared universes."

I’m using the political/spiritual divide because it’s so pronounced right now. But it runs even deeper. Which is why you see so many movies and TV shows about writers or aspiring writers or producers or professionals living in New York or L.A. Ask your average corporate artisan to create a compelling story about the life of a working-class person and they'd be baffled.

UPDATE 12/11/16: Thinking about this overnight, and listening to Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast with Owen Gleiberman, the film critic who got weepy over “Toy Story 3” and actually bragged about it, it occurs to me that a big part of the problem is anxiety over the way in which entertainment in general, and films in particular, are consumed. As I’ve already discussed in analyzing the “Toy Story” films, technological changes have created serious challenges to the studios. Previously reliable revenue streams are suddenly losing profitability. There’s no doubt that worry over how that revenue will be replaced is having a detrimental effect on the executives and creators. In the form of resentment, for example.
It’s interesting and heartening that Max Landis, who was born into the entertainment industry, recognizes this fact. Hopefully something can be done about this, because as corporate artists become further removed from the rest of the world, their ability to create meaningful art that goes beyond in-group virtue signaling is going to become impaired. That’s ultimately a disaster for them, but it’s such a slow-moving disaster that by the time they have some incentive to change, it might be too late.

Meanwhile, I’ve written two books that cover these very topics. The Misadventure of Dreama and the Rednecks is a satirical Hollywood mystery about a redneck and a professional party girl who fall in love for perfectly legitimate reasons that have nothing to do with promotion of their respective brands. The book discusses the contempt that those within the entertainment industry have for the rest of America.

The Misadventure of the Busted Reboot is another satirical mystery novel that explores what happens when a beloved horror comedy franchise from the 1980s is she-booted with an all-female cast. Nobody at the studio can understand why anyone might object to this idea—other than sexism—which complicates the search for the person who is murdering female executives at the studio.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Bleeding Scissors / The Evil Days by Bruno Fischer

This beautiful Robert Maguire cover was an unused design for the original Bleeding Scissors paperback edition.

Stark House Press’s The Bleeding Scissors / The Evil Days double edition is an exciting and compulsively readable book, featuring two examples of fine pulp storytelling, suspense, and literate psychological insight.

According to Gary Lovisi’s introduction, The Evil Days was published in 1973, after a long hiatus from novel-writing. (The back cover blurb suggests that Fischer had writer’s block.) It reads very much like a valedictory— a great, insightful writer putting everything he’s got into one last statement. The story is divided up into days and is narrated by Caleb Dawson, an editor at a New York publishing house who takes the train to the city and then back to his Mount Birch home every weekday like clockwork. He has two sons, and an attractive wife with a “very kissable mouth” (Wednesday 3) named Sally. Over the course of one very, very bad week, their relationship is tested and their lives placed in serious danger thanks to a series of events that begins with Sally’s finding a leather pouch of jewels worth a substantial amount of money.

She explains that she found the pouch in the parking lot of the local shopping center. She believes that the pouch must have fallen out of the purse of a woman who got them out of a safety deposit box from the bank at the shopping center. They decide to hang on to them and wait and see if anyone reports them as lost, thinking that they might be able to get a reward.

Meanwhile, Caleb has decided to pass on a new volume of poetry pitched by Mount Birch poet Gordon Tripp. Caleb “can’s see any kind of market for the collected works of a third-rate poet.” (Thursday 3). The owner of Lakeview Press, Edward Martaine, intervenes on Tripp’s behalf, calling Caleb into his office to ask him to publish the volume, despite the fact that Caleb has already mailed the rejected manuscript back to Tripp. Over the course of this meeting Caleb also learns that Martaine’s wife is the one who lost the jewels that Sally found, and that Sally’s theory about someone getting them from a bank safety deposit box and dropping them in the parking lot while getting into her car is eerily, almost suspiciously correct.

When Caleb’s secretary isn’t able to reach Tripp, Caleb decides to visit Tripp’s home himself, to retrieve the manuscript and to explain that the rejection letter enclosed within the envelope was sent in error— the dream of freelance writers everywhere. Unfortunately when he arrives at Tripp’s home he finds that the reason that Tripp’s been inaccessible for two days is that he’s been brutally, horribly murdered.

Suddenly the sleeping little burg of Mount Birch has had two extremely exciting developments that seem completely unrelated.

As the Dawsons deal with the fallout of the discovery of the jewels and the murder of Gordon Tripp, the casual lies with which they’ve been living are exposed. There’s infidelity, a kidnapping, political intrigue and, in my favorite touch, an extremely annoying neighbor who keeps helping himself to Caleb’s lawnmower—among other things.

The Robert Maguire cover that was actually for the original edition is pretty good, too!

The first book in the volume, The Bleeding Scissors, was published in 1948, during a much more fruitful period in Fischer’s literary career. It’s a hardboiled mystery story that begins with Leo Aikin returning home through the ice and snow after a night of poker with his friends. Leo’s not very lucky at cards; in fact, he’s having ongoing monetary problems that stem from the spendthrifty ways of his wife and live-in sister-in-law, the locally famous “Runyon Girls.” (“[A] tradition in Jorberg; anything they did could be explained by a smile and a shrug” (Chapter 3). Finding the house empty he and his neighbor go out searching. When he comes back later he finds that some of his wife’s and sister-in-law’s clothes are gone.

Did they skip out on their own, or were they kidnapped? Who was the young man who was seen at their home a few days before their disappearance? What’s the significance of the bloody scissors that Leo’s wife Judith dreams about? And, what the hell kind of name is “Eat” (“short for Eaton?”)?

Leo’s investigation leads him from his Connecticut home town to New York City, where he meets a “genial detective” (Chapter 10) called Singleton. The two of them explore the seedy underbelly of New York’s theater scene, from “legitimate” theater to a burlesque house featuring a “refined stripper” and run by a “psychologist” (Chapter 16). The story moves along at a breakneck pace, and Fischer does a great job of combining mystery, crime, and psychological suspense.

The biographical blurb on the back of the Stark House Press edition says that Fischer was educated at a school “established by the American Socialist Party,” and mentions that he wrote for Labor Voice and Socialist Call, and ran for the New York state senate as a Socialist candidate. Reading these two books none of that is surprising; there’s a strong undercurrent of class resentment and anger. There are characters in each of the novels who, significantly and tragically, see others getting rich from nefarious actions and make their own attempts to “get theirs,” only to find that the world has conspired against them.

Both novels end in the middle of important scenes that are left unresolved. There’s a feeling of hopefulness in both, but in each case there's the potential for disaster. I suppose these endings could be sort of Rorschach tests— optimists and pessimists will have their own interpretations. Whatever your outlook on life, there’s an awful lot to like about both of these novels, and I’m pleased to see that there are several other Bruno Fischer books available in print and as ebooks. His work is definitely worth your time.

Bleeding Scissors Signet edition cover source.
Evil Days cover source.