Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Miscellaneous: A Note From The Management

For reasons large and small, petty and profound, and far too numerous to mention, I would like to say the following:

Fuck February 2007. Fuck it right in the ear.

The shortest month of the year was too long for me by a damn sight, and I am counting the minutes – no, the seconds – nay, the nanoseconds until it comes to an end.

I never want to hear from this month again. Heather Rene Smith, Playboy’s Miss February 2007? You’re dead to me. I know it’s going to be rough on you. Deal with it. Any and all February 2007 Employees of the Month, from Kinko’s to Starbucks? If you see me, you’d better run.

It’s nothing personal. But I’ve got to take out my wrath on someone, because I can’t do what I want to do. Which is trap February 2007 in a dark alley, unleash years of training in Krav Maga, the ancient art of Sinanju, and some badass shit I made up myself, and kill it stone dead without mercy. I want February 2007 to look into my eyes and know that its moment of reckoning is at hand.

But I can’t do that, because February 2007 is only a month. And it’s almost over.

Meaning that March is coming. In like a lion, I hope, and let it go out like a lamb so long as it vanquishes my sworn enemy, the month of February 2007.

We’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming right after this.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Books: Hard Case Crime Report

Usually I don’t read two Hard Case titles in a row, but sometimes I just can’t help myself.

Lucky at Cards, by Lawrence Block (originally published as The Sex Shuffle by Sheldon Lord, 1964). It’s a Lawrence Block novel. What do you think I’m going to say about it?

A card sharp gets run out of Chicago without the resources to make it to New York. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, he’s tempted by the squarejohn life – but even more tempted by the wife of his new best friend. A standard set-up, to be sure, but Block deploys some ingenious plotting. The closing scene nails that “surprising but inevitable” feel that David Mamet cites as storytelling’s holy grail. The missus in particular loved it.

The Peddler, by Richard S. Prather (1952). Perhaps the darkest Hard Case reprint yet. A young hothead realizes there’s a fortune to be made in prostitution, so he works his way methodically up the rackets. Prather makes absolutely no concessions to likability with his main character, which only makes his odyssey more compelling. A brutal ending caps a potent piece of work.

Tributes to the late Richard Prather continue to appear. By now you’ve probably seen the terrific piece by Stephen Marlowe about his collaboration with Prather on the Shell Scott/Chet Drum novel Double in Trouble that appeared at Ed Gorman’s blog, but I’m linking to it anyway. And Lee Goldberg offers some cherce Shell Scott lines.

Miscellaneous: Miscellany

While getting a haircut, I asked the barbers what they would do if Britney Spears pounded on the salon’s front door and demanded to have her head shaved. What followed was a conversation on tonsorial ethics that would have held Socrates rapt.

So I’m watching Spiders on the Sci-Fi Channel, because it’s on. Prompting Rosemarie to ask, “How many movies do you think you’ve seen where someone says, ‘Do you know how to fly this thing?’” I don’t know the answer, but I consider that one of the finest questions I’ve ever heard.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Book: Bambi vs. Godzilla, by David Mamet (2007)

It should come as no surprise that yours truly is a David Mamet fanboy. Once when Rosemarie and I passed the carousel in New York’s Central Park, I reenacted from memory a scene in The Spanish Prisoner that had been filmed there. I called Spartan the best movie of 2004, an opinion I hold to this day. (It’s odd how many people I’m working with on film projects speak of Spartan with reverence. I should use that movie as a yardstick: like it and you’re in.)

Naturally, I’m interested in whatever Mamet has to say about, as the subtitle has it, “the nature, purpose, and practice of the movie business.” The book’s tone, a blend of arch academic lecture and Victorian novel, occasionally obscures Mamet’s point. I read the essay on the cop movie twice and I’m still not sure what he’s talking about.

But what comes through loud and clear is Mamet’s abiding respect for craft, for those who take “pride in working toward perfection through the accomplishment of small and specific tasks perfectly.” (He puts this belief into practice on his sets; on the State and Main commentary track, William H. Macy notes that during downtimes Mamet will ask for a round of applause for the contributions of ‘below-the-line’ personnel like production designers.) As such, Mamet doesn’t cotton to those producers and executives whose life’s work is apparently interfering with those who simply want to tell a story.

Those sections of the book are getting all the buzz, but it’s Mamet’s observations about storytelling that fascinate. Like his explication of the difference between gangster movies (“a film as written by a criminal, which is to say a sentimental, self-servicing, pleasant lie”) and film noir, which “depicts a cold, Darwinian, zero-sum world ... (a) film, if you will, written by a cop.” Or the three simple questions that will allow one to write a successful scene:

1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don’t get it?
3. Why now?

String enough successful scenes together and you may have a movie. Perhaps even a perfect film. Mamet defines them, saying that they “start with a simple premise and proceed logically, and inevitably, toward a conclusion both surprising and inevitable.” He even names a few – The Godfather, A Place in the Sun, Dodsworth, Galaxy Quest.

Hang on. You mean like me, David Mamet also thinks Galaxy Quest is a perfect film? Great minds really do think alike.

Mamet also offers an essay in which he suggests that Tony Curtis is a better film actor than Laurence Olivier. As it happens, I agree. But I mention it as an excuse to run a quote I have never forgotten. It’s from a March 2000 Reel.com interview Curtis did with Jeffrey Wells, now of Hollywood Elsewhere.

“Can I tell you a story? In 1948, when I was 23 or 24, when I first came out here I lived in a house on Fountain Avenue ... I rented a room there. And they had a swimming pool. I had an appointment and I got on a trolley car ... they were running right down the middle of the freeway back then.

“Then I got back, I jumped in the pool, I took a shower, got dressed and got into the car, and drove up here to meet you. That’s how quick these fifty-fucking-two years have gone ... quick as that.”

I hear you, Tony.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Movies: Five Year Plan

As if I didn’t already have enough problems with Entertainment Weekly, now they’ve stolen my idea.

I believe that the best measure of a movie is how it holds up over time. So every Academy Awards season I’m tempted to revisit the films that were – and weren’t – honored five years earlier, to see which titles have faded and which have aged well.

EW has finally put that notion into practice, the bastards, complete with poll. At this point, Jennifer Connelly (Best Supporting Actress, A Beautiful Mind) is the only winner to retain her crown. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring would sweep were the balloting held today.

Writer Jeff Labrecque cites several performances that, in retrospect, should have been nominated – Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums, Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. I still can’t believe that Billy Bob Thornton wasn’t recognized for his work in my favorite movie of that year, the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There.

My video collection contains several other films from 2001 that didn’t get much love from the Academy. Like Vanilla Sky. Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The Deep End. (No nod for Tilda Swinton? Come on!) Ghost World. And perhaps the most influential movie of 2001, Memento. I’ll bet you have overlooked favorites, too.

This exercise has taught me two valuable lessons. One, my taste is very odd. And two, the ultimate honor is to be considered for a nomination.

TV: Raquel!

Now that I’m getting 18 hours of streaming video per month with my Netflix subscription, I want to make the most of it. I’ve already watched all four hours of House of Cards. Today I struck the mother lode: Raquel Welch’s enthusiastically self-titled 1970 TV special. It features an interpretive ballet based on Barbarella, a rendition of ‘Age of Aquarius’ featuring a parade of astrological symbols atop a Mexican pyramid, and appearances by John Wayne, Bob Hope and Tom Jones. It is, in a word, awesome.

Next up, something a little more sedate: 1979’s Bobby Short at the Café Carlyle.

Music: The Killers, Sam’s Town

Music critics. (Italics intended to convey disgust.) Can’t stand them. With their overheated prose. Their hothouse controversies. Their dogged insistence on keeping the cool kid mentality of high school alive.

Here’s how much I hate music critics: I still remember this Onion piece from five years ago and count it among my favorites. OK, the people in the article technically aren’t music critics. But you know they aspire to be, and somehow that’s worse.

Consequently, I hate myself when I listen to music critics.

I ignored them two years ago when I bought Hot Fuss, the debut album by the Killers. Plenty of critics dismissed the band as a bunch of post-punk pretty boys. I played Hot Fuss over and over. Still do; I’m sure my neighbors are sick of it. There’s not a weak song on the album. Listening to those sweeping choruses conjures up that adolescent sense of drama, of driving late at night with your friends, your whole life sprawling ahead of you, your future yet to be written. I figure as long as those feelings can be sparked by a new piece of music and not some nostalgic favorite, you’re in good shape.

Most reviews of Sam’s Town contained the phrase “sophomore jinx.” I liked the first single, ‘When You Were Young.’ The follow-up, ‘Bones,’ not so much. I didn’t bother to pick up the album.

Once I got my Rhapsody subscription, I decided to give it a listen. Then I played it again. Then I downloaded it, and I’m sure my neighbors will grow to hate it as much as they do Hot Fuss. Particularly the song ‘Read My Mind,’ which again has me on the road in South Florida, intent on “breaking out of this two-star town.” Even ‘Bones’ works in the context of the entire album. So I’m back to ignoring the critics again. I was never a cool kid when I was in high school. I don’t see the point in trying to be one now.

For your viewing pleasure, here’s the video for ‘Read My Mind.’

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Movie: The Lives of Others (2006)

Extraordinary. There’s no other word for this movie, an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film. It hit me so hard that I wanted to take a long walk afterward and talk about it. Fortunately, Rosemarie felt the same way and it wasn’t raining.

In 1985 East Germany, a Stasi officer is ordered to monitor a playwright, “the only non-subversive writer who’s still read in the west,” as a favor to a cabinet minister with designs on the writer’s actress girlfriend. The more he learns about the couple’s relationship, the more the gray government man is drawn into their lives.

Screenwriting is often called a craft as opposed to an art, and once upon a time I bristled at that description. Now I embrace it. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in addition to possessing one of the world’s great names, is a master craftsman. His script is a marvel of engineering, with every detail serving more than one purpose in a way that’s both economical and expansive. The story culminates in an extended epilogue set after the collapse of the Berlin Wall that is low-key and utterly devastating. That final sentence ...

The Lives of Others provides an object lesson in the contributions of the wardrobe department; for much of the movie, the Stasi officer wears a coat so mesmerizingly ugly that it seems to represent all of the evils of Communism. And on that subject – politics, not hideous outerwear – there’s a certain stripe of far-left American that’s thick on the ground in this neck of the woods. The kind that gathers in fair-trade-only coffee shops to yammer about the industrial uses of hemp. (Screw the historical perspective. Just admit that you want to smoke pot. You know it, I know it, the American people know it.) I’ve heard these types say with withering condescension that there is no freedom of expression in this country. Let’s hear them spout that after seeing this movie, in which paying respect to a fallen friend not only requires daring acts of subterfuge, but ones that must be accomplished while dressed in unsightly jackets. Damn hippies.

Miscellaneous: Links

A pair of longish but interesting articles in New York magazine, courtesy of 2 Blowhards. First, Po Bronson on the right way to praise children. Then, Emily Nussbaum considers the generation gap spawned by the current need to document every aspect of one’s life online, no matter how personal or potentially embarrassing. Inspired by this latter piece, I will now admit that I appear in a series of artful nudes posted on the web. You can find them by searching for either my alias – an anagram of the name of one of the members of the 1974 Philadelphia Flyers – or the distinctive headgear I’m sporting in most of the photographs.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Richard S. Prather, R.I.P.

The creator of swingin’ private eye Shell Scott has died. The Scott books are a blast, a dizzying blend of hardboiled and uproarious. Plus they’re packed with sex that’s actually sexy. Richard Prather had a way with the risqué that will be sorely missed. I picked up a trove of these books on eBay and dole them out one at a time. Sometimes I get in a funk where the only cure is Shell Scott.

Mr. Prather lived to see his acclaimed novel The Peddler reissued by Hard Case Crime. I picked it up recently but haven’t read it yet. Rest assured I’ll get to it soon.

Steve Lewis has a fine tribute up at the Mystery*File blog. I will pay my respects to Mr. Prather the best way I know how, by rerunning the cover of his novel The Scrambled Yeggs, which accounts for half the traffic I get at this site.

Again, for the record: yes, Shell is spanking that woman.

Miscellaneous: Burning Questions

Why do people feel compelled to write corrections into library books? And why are those corrections always wrong?

TV: The Next Round of Lattes Is On Simon Cowell

Everyone involved with American Idol said the show’s Seattle auditions were the worst ever, yet five of this year’s 24 finalists are from here. On behalf of the city, I say: nyah.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Book: The Song Is You, by Megan Abbott (2007)

It’s a common Hollywood story. A beautiful woman, the belle of her hometown ball, goes to Los Angeles to make it as an actress and finds herself adrift. It’s Jean Spangler’s story. Then comes the twist: on October 7, 1949, she vanished, leaving behind a young daughter and a cryptic note found in her discarded purse. After an initial flurry of activity that compared Jean to the infamous Black Dahlia, interest faded. Spangler was never found. Her case remains open to this day.

But Megan Abbott hasn’t forgotten her. Jean’s disappearance is the basis of her second novel. (Abbott wrote about her interest in Spangler for the Rap Sheet.) The Song Is You is set in 1951, when on-the-rise publicist Gil ‘Hop’ Hopkins finds himself drawn back to that October night when he last saw Jean alive and kept a few details from the police.

Abbott’s low-key, intimate approach to Tinseltown noir makes quite a contrast to the epic scale of, say, James Ellroy, but it’s effective in its own way. And the ending is a doozy.

My favorite aspect of the book is the way Abbott deftly weaves in another real-life tale, that of actress Barbara Payton. Her story darkly parallels Jean Spangler’s, and is as noir as Hollywood gets.

Miscellaneous: My Valentine’s Day Gift To You

Saw this ad on CNN yesterday. Nothing says love like production values.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Miscellaneous: Heading For The Future

OK, this is bit unnerving.

I had read with sadness the obituaries of the late actor Ian Richardson. (Not enough of them mentioned his turn as the evil Mr. Book in Dark City, but never mind.) Much attention was rightly paid to Mr. Richardson’s personification of the scheming Tory politician Francis “F.U.” Urquhart in the three House of Cards series. I hadn’t seen the original show in some time, so I checked with Netflix to see if it was on DVD.

It was, along with another option: Watch Now.

I’d heard that Netflix was introducing a streaming video feature, but this was the first time that a title I’d looked up was instantly available. One brief installation interlude later and there was Ian Richardson in all his malevolent glory, only minutes after I’d thought of watching him.

Factor in the Rhapsody subscription I recently ordered that turns my PC into a jukebox – love that New Wave channel! – and I may never work again. This could be very, very bad.

Miscellaneous: She Said What?

The March 2007, thick-as-a-phone-book issue of InStyle magazine brings us this conversation overheard backstage at the American Music Awards.

Beyoncé: It’s so nice to see you! You look lovely.

Ashlee Simpson: Thank you!

They hug.

Ashlee Simpson: Hey, honey, how are you?

Beyoncé: I’m happy everything went well. Now I can relax and sit in the audience. Where’s Jessica?

Ashlee Simpson: She’s at home in her pajamas.

A STAGEHAND passes with a cart carrying a large set piece.

Stagehand: Ladies, you need to move!

Beyoncé: Oh, oh! Things are getting a bit chaotic back here now.

And ... that’s it.

I used to think these candid celebrity moments were made up, like the letters in Penthouse magazine. (Twins. Riiight.) Or the cutesy items in the New York Times Metropolitan Diary. But the stagehand sold me. This diva-to-diva exchange actually occurred, and I for one am glad that InStyle has preserved it for the ages.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Miscellaneous: Shutterbug

Black has been my mood of late, and that’s not conducive to blogging. My own opinions bore me. The internet itself is pissing me off. My buddy closes, and all that comes out of my mouth is bile. Maybe I should watch Man of the Century again.

But I don’t want to trouble you folks with my woes. They’ll pass soon enough.

Instead, I strolled down to the Seattle Art Museum’s newly opened Olympic Sculpture Park and snapped a few photos. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Million Dollar Movie: Man of the Century (1999)

Not the old cinema showcase on WOR Channel 9 in New York City. Although that would be worth writing about. (Here’s the title sequence. Tell me that’s not the classiest intro you’ve ever seen. No wonder I fell for the movies and hard.)

No, this is the first in an occasional series on movies that make me feel like a million bucks whenever I watch them. Maybe not the greatest films ever made, but the ones that are guaranteed to chase away the blues.

We’d had an odd couple of days when I noticed that Man of the Century was on cable, so we watched it for the fourth time. Eighty minutes later, the clouds had lifted.

The movie doesn’t have a plot so much as a premise. Johnny Twennies (played by Gibson Frazier, who co-wrote the script with director Adam Abraham) lives in contemporary New York as if the 1920s never ended. His clothes, his language, and his deportment may be decades out of date, but not out of style.

This isn’t an affectation; Johnny’s a living anachronism, and the movie never offers an explanation. There are some bits that don’t make a lick of sense, and a story about a shadowy crime boss that goes nowhere.

And I don’t care. Man of the Century is in love with New York then and now. It’s got great blasts of silliness and is always ready to stop for a musical number. Frazier has a true knack for period dialogue, and some of his lines are now Chez K staples. (“If you keep riding me, you’re gonna have to pay the fare.” “Mother, when I’m in the swim, I wanna be with goldfish!”) And the ending is sheer bliss. The first time we saw it, Rosemarie actually wept tears of joy. That hadn’t happened since the ‘Be Our Guest’ number in Beauty & The Beast.

Ultimately, the movie says something profound: you can’t choose when you live, so you might as well choose how. All that and Bobby Short, too. You can’t go wrong.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Miscellaneous: Newsstand News

The upcoming Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair includes a portfolio of contemporary stars photographed film noir-style by Annie Liebovitz. All the big names are there: Naomi Watts, Forest Whitaker, Bruce Willis, Kate Winslet. And those are just the W’s.

It’s on sale later this week, but right now you can check out a video feature based on these gorgeous photos called Killers Kill, Dead Men Die, which comes complete with sorta-cheesy hardboiled voiceover.

As Bill Crider notes, I mentioned the video yesterday on the noir fiction list Rara Avis but didn’t get around to posting it here. Sometimes being lazy pays off. Thanks to Bill’s post I can now also link to the B-roll, which offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the photo shoot. And there’s no voiceover.

Elsewhere, the New York Post reports that Premiere magazine may be shuttered. If it happens, it should be considered a mercy killing.

When Premiere, uh, premiered, it was the, um, premier film rag in the U.S. Intelligent coverage of a broad range of movies. Once a month I’d hike up to the video store, buy a copy, and spend the rest of the day devouring it. For years I held on to the collectible lobby cards that used to come in each issue.

But over time Premiere became smaller, both physically and in terms of scope. I still have a subscription, but only because the magazine is so cheap; the latest renewal come-on I received in the mail offers three years for a mere twenty-two bucks. I’d already decided not to renew it. I flip through each issue in about ten minutes, mainly to read critic Glenn Kenny, and then toss it into the recycling bin. The sad truth is Premiere hasn’t mattered in ages. I’m not even going to lament that there’s no serious mass-market print magazine about cinema in the U.S., because there’s no need for one. Not with such in-depth writing on movies available online, much of it recapped on a regular basis through GreenCine Daily.

Still, I miss those lobby cards.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Miscellaneous: Left Coast Crime Report

I can’t remember the last time I attended any sort of convention. Occasionally I tag along when Rosemarie goes to the annual NCURA wingding in Washington, D.C. Research administrators are animals. I still have a scar from the 2003 get-together, and remain banned from the Watergate Hotel thanks to what I’d categorize as a silly misunderstanding.

So I’m no expert, but I thought this year’s Left Coast Crime was smartly put together. A strong mix of guests and panels, an attentive hotel staff. Here’s a quick recap of my LCC.

Two bits of sage advice from toastmaster Gary Phillips: Always get your money, and never sell to a snitch.

A panel about politics in mystery seemed appropriate considering that one guest of honor was the late Dennis Lynds. I was surprised to hear the thriller described as a “right-wing genre.” Why? Because the characters are often allied with government or military agencies? What’s right-wing about a corporate conspiracy? Alas, time ran out before I could learn more. I blame the Trilateral Commission.

Thriller novelists weighed in on recent movies at another panel. Guest of honor Gayle Lynds is a fan of Casino Royale and was disappointed by the critical reaction to The Good Shepherd, while Mike Lawson praised Syriana and Munich. I was hoping someone would credit Eric Roth with writing both Shepherd and Munich. I guess that someone is me.

The most fun panel was on swearing. It was led by three of the Killer Year gang, with other members of the class there in force. All of them kept it reasonably clean.

Good times were had at Saturday’s discussion of noir featuring Megan Abbott, in which it was revealed that even practitioners of the form aren’t sure of its definition, and a surprisingly funny session about true crime chaired by David Corbett. It was also nice to put faces to names I knew from the web, like January magazine guru Jeff Pierce.

Having gotten my feet wet, though, I have to admit: I still don’t get the whole convention thing.

Let me stress that my reservations are no reflection on this particular conference. And I understand why authors go. It’s a chance to catch up with contemporaries and meet fans.

What I mean is I personally don’t get it. This is partly because I didn’t have the full convention experience. I wasn’t staying in the hotel, and thanks to other obligations I left early every day. But it’s mainly because I’m not much of a joiner. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.

I can’t simply wander up to writers and start talking. I don’t want to intrude. I already know what the end result is going to be – a brief chat about the weather or the Super Bowl, maybe a request for the name of a good local bar. And it’s not a social phobia; on the way home yesterday I stopped by the very bar I would have recommended and fell easily into conversation with total strangers. It’s just that as a reader, I don’t have any expectation of a relationship with an author beyond the words he or she placed on the page.

Again, that’s just me. I’m such a bad fan that I may be the first person in the history of these events to leave without a single signed book. Not one. Simply never occurred to me. This is every signing I’ve ever been to:

Me: Hi, love your books.

Famous Author: Thanks! What’s your name?

Me: (mumbling) Um, Vince.

Famous Author: Frank, you said?

Me: (beat) Yeah, that’ll work.

Eventually, I just stopped going. (That must kill J.A. Konrath. All his carefully laid plans actually working against the purchase of a book. I’ll shatter his illusions further. When a clerk starts a conversation with me about whatever title I’m holding, it almost guarantees I won’t buy it. Years of self-preservation instincts forged on the streets of New York kick in: “Why are you talking to me? Who sent you?”)

Don’t get me wrong – signed books mean a lot to me. I’ve got a whole shelf of them in my library. Perhaps my most prized possession is a copy of the seminal baseball book Ball Four personally inscribed to me by Jim Bouton after a profile of him I wrote ran in a business magazine. In some respects, that book set me on the path I’m on now.

But I want each of those books to have a story. And “I went to a place where the author was signing books and he signed this one for me” isn’t a story no matter how well I tell it.

I probably just went in to my first con experience unprepared. (Friday kicked off with a panel called “LCC 101,” but I missed it.) I’d love to hear from authors and fans about how they run the convention gauntlet. Feel free to leave pointers. I plan on getting to Bouchercon one of these years, and I want to do it right.