Saturday, May 09, 2020

On Dangerous Ground: Thieves Highway (1949), They Live By Night (1948)

“Ontology! I’m just
   telling you a story
   about this projector, that’s all.”

                   Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, 
                   Book II

Thieves Highway (director, Jules Dassin, 
screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides, 1949)

Straight outta anywhere but here, the old man 
sharecropping a suburban kitchen, disfigured,
yet crooning now that it's over and everything 
once was might be again. Though not likely.
Yet all things virtuous, a future daughter-in-law 
too waspish to be true. And even a legless prole 
deserves to drink from that cup of trickle down 
drivel, his life sipped from neither wine nor 
oranges, but Big Valley apples juiced by way 
of Santa Rosa. Though suffering from a case 
of immigrant labour amidst vines of a war-
weary victory garden, his son has done his bet, 
so can flex those patriarchal muscles, rough-
riding the old man's battered truck to Frisco, 
where delicious hooker, with a seductive 
accent and dockside wherewithal, awaits him. 
Where lurks the dreaded middle-man, scamming 
neophytes, without just desserts or even brakes, 
compounding a profit margin out of cigar smoke 
and thin air. Clichés ripped to shreds, for patriotic 
naifs, squandered in world where peace is simply 
war by another means, warped by market forces 
and heavy traffic. Where carts upend all things 
criminal, every road is dead end or dangerous 
curve, every apple, perfectly rotten, upended, 
spilling fear onto the highway, in a pre-TV world 
already global in its take-what-you-can intensity.   

They Live By Night (director, Nicholas Ray, 
screenplay, Charles Schnee, 1948)

The inevitable, unlikely to be so black and 
white, or romanticBut at 16 cents gallon, 
you could drive all night, as far as the eye 
could blink, and then some, all the while 
espousing healthy disregard for more than 
you could shake J. Edgar's shrivelled stick at. 
Doing hard time in Hollywood, Anderson's 
soft-sell proletarianism was fair game, purchased 
by Quick Millions at Paramount for $500. Then
Blood Money, hedging the rights and script to 
RKO for ten grand. It was wartime, and the 
odious Breen detested stick-up man T-Dub's 
insistence that bankers, politicians, and police 
are just "thieves like us." A sense of honour 
amongst... they rarely deserve. As they tangoed 
amongst the tombstones, New Deal radio-man 
Nick Ray was said to have alchemy in his blood.  
Pacifying the enemy, retitling it, Little Red 
Wagon, then I’m a Stranger Here Myself, before 
enforcing his democratic instincts. And the 
soundtrack, collage of the era’s music and 
radio dramas, around which the film would 
revolve, reduced to snippets and an atmospheric 
love story, summed up in the caption: "This boy 
and this girl were never properly introduced to 
the world we live in." What world would that be? 
And who amongst us has...Not Anderson. 
Grafting, at $30 per week as Fort Worth 
journalist, requested money should the film be 
successful, was tersely rejected by Hugheswith 
only function and drift his future. Twenty-five 
years later, Altman restored the title, but neither 
the flaws nor the lyricism. Reaching into 
the past, so near the future, too soon, but so 
far away. Even if these days, regardless of the 
world, no one, near enough, would even bother.  

Saturday, March 21, 2020

From: From the Regional to the Universal- On Larry Brown's Tiny Love: The Complete Stories

THE USE OF THE TERM regional writer often has as much to do with class as with geography. Used and abused in equal measures, the term normally applies to those, usually from the American South but sometimes simply from outside metropolitan publishing areas, who, for one reason or another, have been neglected or who don’t fit comfortably in the predominant literary canon. The term has certainly been used to describe Larry Brown, whose stories and novels are set in and around Lafayette County, Mississippi, a terrain Brown shares with an inordinate number of writers past and present, from William Faulkner to Donna Tartt and Barry Hannah. Although such a description barely does Brown justice, it nevertheless remains a relatively anodyne category, along with dirty realist, Southern Gothic, or country or grit noir. After all, geography has little to do with literary quality, and there are only a limited number of categories one can deploy to sell and market books. 
That Brown worked for several years as a fireman in Oxford, Mississippi, while casually laboring at a variety of blue-collar jobs also seems to have played a part in promoting, if not explaining, Brown’s writing career. Needless to say, Brown didn’t suddenly appear as a full-fledged writer, but spent some eight years honing his writerly skills before he was able to sell his first story. All of this suggests that any attempt to categorize Brown simply as a regionalist is not only a kind of geographical ghettoization, but a dubious attitude regarding a working-class writer who subjected himself to the trials and tribulations of learning a skill that relies on one’s brain.
Yet Brown’s writing — honest, direct, and evocative of the region — was a breath of fresh air when his first collection of stories, Facing the Music, appeared in 1988, followed the next year by his first novel, Dirty Work. That he came to writing late, without any institution of higher learning to dictate to him the ideology of good writing, was to his advantage, allowing him to appraise his new vocation with the eyes of someone who knew something of the world and his particular part of it. He therefore ventured into a terra incognita of literary concerns not on a whim, but as an act of faith that would turn into a relentless endeavor, aided by an interest in a small band of outsider practitioners that included Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Bukowski, and Harry Crews. To the last, Brown would devote a chapter of his 2001 book of essays, Billy Ray’s Farm, as well as his novel Fay the following year, calling Crews “my uncle in all ways but blood.” But Brown, whose output would eventually include two volumes of stories, five novels, a memoir, and a book essays, was sui generis, able to dance around any pigeonhole or literary hero. That did not stop the inevitable comparisons to other regionalists, whether the literary (Faulkner, O’Connor, and Eudora Welty) or the low-down (early Jim Thompson, George Milburn, and James Ross, besides more contemporary equivalents, like Crews, Charles Portis, and Daniel Woodrell).
(You can find the remainder of the article at the L.A. Review of Books website.)

Saturday, February 15, 2020

On Dangerous Ground: Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Taxi Driver (1976)

Sweet Smell of Success (1957, director, Alexander MacKendrick; screenplay, Clifford Odets)

nostalgia of jazz, location shots, and barely
palatable venom. Like a commodified theme 
park, from 42nd to 57th Street, as American 
as twittering Confidence Man. Genuflecting 
to celebrity worship and scandal, with predatory 
behaviour, the sole constants in this warped 
world. Take it from press agent Sidney- pimp,
beleaguered schmoozer, blackmailer,  stooge, 
and liar- personals advertising corruption. 
Where it's invariably cocktail hour and every-
one bleeds forever. Yes, we know humans talk 
trash, faux pas run a mile, and humiliation is 
said to have built the snowmobile. And still 
unable to insert his clients into boss-man 
Hunsecker's column. But to flex his verbals 
on soiled movie stars and slimy politicians. 
Hey, isn't that meant to be Roy Cohn. Yeah,
but it's always safer to cite the peeper and all 
the ships at sea. Gloating over the film's low 
box office figures, as J. Edgar twangs in his 
back pocket. It's romanticised grit and gobs 
of ambition that count. Mackendrick admired 
Odets, though it would take four months to 
revise his screenplay. Waiting for Lefty can 
be an arduous time-warp. As for the shoot, 
it was “Play the situations, not the words. 
And play them fast.” With all that Broadway 
poesy- You’re cookie full of arsenic” and 
“The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.” 
It did Mackendrick no favours, while Odets 
went Wild In the Country. Oh, glorious hip-
shaking daddy, may you rest in Big Boy's 
eternal embrace. That grainy black and white 
suggesting the world might have ended circa 
Sidney and J.J., but unfortunately we've yet 
to notice. Too many ghosts,  so far to grovel, 
wrapped in enigmas of burning celluloid, 
stalking machines, as if we owned them. 

Taxi Driver (1976, director, Martin Scorsese; screenplay, Paul Shrader)

The beginning of the end, the end of the 
beginning, or the end of the beginning 
of the end. This shit-storm of everyday 
violence, loose in Times Square. Nausea 
and Pickpocket, twisted into urban decay 
and post-gook trauma. Whether rural 
Protestant or urban Catholic, any alcohol-
fuelled writer with an obsession for guns 
and pornography might contemplate 
suicide. Or choose to take this darkness 
into darkness. And as for all that excessive 
narcissisism, like a signifying monkey high 
on exhaust fumes. Like that You looking 
at me? riff. Whether in mirror of convexed 
reality, or warped screen delusionit has 
become nothing more than grist for future 
clichés. Clearing the decks for some self-
contradictory angel of death, out to destroy 
father figures and pimps alike. Wrapped in 
an insomniac's post-Watergate theater of 
cruelty, this “seeping kind of virus,” under 
the sign of sweltering conditions, garbage 
strike, the stink and steam of a city that 
once was nation. Yes, in Weegee we trust, 
but all others must go down in the crash, 
rendering all those bald-faced images useless 
when faced with post-apocalypse haircut 
and hard-on for washing the scum from 
these wretched streets. But history suggests, 
fighting corruption is simply a precursor 
to regeneration and gentrification, and every 
urban crevice another corporate mutation
shrink is said to have tested thirteen-year-
old Jodie for emotional scarring. But what 
about viewers? Hinckley might be channeling 
everything Travis, but he's not the only psycho 
to shoot for Jodie. Just the firstin search of 
a body, hungry, for the many amongst so few.   

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949), Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949)

Knocked-out loaded, ingesting a tried and true drug of choice,
contracted to punch past his prime. Sparring with shadows on
the bleak side of capitalism, bopping until dropping, dancing
and countering until only the scars remain standing. Smoke and
cigar tissue blur multiple crimes, in the name of defending one-
self at all times. Stoker, pleading for one more payday. Though
anyone who's been down for the count has heard that one be-
fore but never quite like this, in real-time (again, as opposed to,
what? unreal time?). Accompanied by those rounds of bruised
neon. So you ask, how much is a poem worth? It depends.
In this case, RKO parted with $1000 for Joseph Moncure March’s
middleweight narrative. Though a black boxer just out of prison,
this is post-war Hollywood, so forget that popular front bullshit.
Just grab a mouthpiece and deracinate where necessary, what-
ever to butter the popcorn, titillate fancies and  secure a place
on the under-card. Stoker's manager, Tiny, furtively shtum, 
having taken a punt against his fighter. But, hey, isn't that
Weegee keeping time, Stoker giving as good as he gets, ducking
without diving, his lethals broken by Little Boy, the crime boss-
synonymous with the punch that kayoed Hiroshima four years
earlier- exploiting sporting flesh. Wise had to travel all the way
to Long Beach to sniff some working class sweat, a hustler giving
a blow-by-blow to a blind man. Wise wanted Blondell, but
Hughes was drooling for more glamour, so opted for the
unglamorous Trotter, her critique at ring level, “Don't you see,
Bill, you'll always be just one punch away.” A split decision,
their lives depending on it. Chasing a final round, the low
blows, clinches, jabs, hooks and everything we claim to be true.

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

Face down in the proverbial amniotic, the swimming pool seen
from below. Us ordinaries, reflections in a mirror, might also be
dead. Yet who writes often cannot read. Lest one assumes the
role of screenwriter who narrates from death to an era when
Hollywood, if not the world, was so innocently tacky. In Wilder
moments there will always be a wholesome sucker, and even a
European butler, some former director fallen from grace, have
broken his proscenium to graft for an ageing star he discovered
years before. Taking a murdered actor and actress whose butler,
no less, murdered that actor. On the one hand, it's all smoke
and venom; on the other, something approaching the human
condition. Necessarily on the run from a repo man, because
debt, in the end, is what makes the world go round. Mistaken
for an undertaker whose c.v. includes burying chimpanzees.
“The dream...desperately enfolded her," like art imitating
barely more than nothing, the past uncomfortably present.
Watching Queen Kelly, the chimp unwillingly chimes at
midnight, in "your standard monkey funeral shot." A willing
gigolo, partaking of Sennett-style diversions and old-school
poker games. Louis B. to Wilder: “You should be tarred and
feathered and run out of Hollywood!" Wilder: "Go fuck your-
self." File under occupational dissent, with a dash of alienated
labour and commodity fetishism thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Poem as an Incendiary Device: Our Death by Sean Bonney

The following was written just days before Sean's tragic death.

"The last song has run out we buried it and died. Now we are turning blue.
 I think we are in a hospital but it is really a bar. Lets call it the felon ward.
There is no hell there is only the law. Behind every border the law."

Can a poem be an incendiary device?  There are those- poets and politically minded readers of poetry- who might answer in the affirmative. Though the thought that a poem can be so dangerous, that capable of blowing apart the culture, much less one's concept of the poem, seems, in an era of crypto-fascism, corporate greed and surplus offerings, to have currency only amongst those on the margins. After all, it's as dangerous to preach what you practise as it is to practise what you preach. And it so often results in a multitude of wounds, whether state or self inflicted. Perhaps it is as it has always been. One need only consider Rimbaud, or poetry written during the height of the black power movement. Given this era and conditions we've inherited or created, it shouldn't be surprising that there are still those who still carry that torch, pursuing a poetry whose language, imagery and content come together to reshape one's perception of the world, not on some superficial level, but  down deep where real change is possible.

Sean Bonney is one of those who, for some time, has been intent on embracing this fiery tradition. Accordingly, there are few whose poetry is as incendiary. This was the case with his previous volume, Letters Against the Firmament, and even more so in his recent collection Our Death. I can't think of many whose work demands that readers question to such an extent their relationship to poetry and the state of the culture in general. In Our Death Bonney takes the reader on a journey through the wreckage of present day neo-liberal, from Poundland to Deutschland, and does so from the perspective of those on the margins, as potential outsiders and resisters. Though the poems are as angry as they are dark, they also have a celebratory ring to them, if only because they insist that resistance is possible; likewise the construction of a language and form of attack that facilitates a way of defending oneself, linguistically as well as  literally. Which makes these poems very much of their time and yet out of time, part of a lineage that includes not only the likes of Rimbaud but Baraka, Artaud as well Pasolini,  ranters from William Prynne to Valerie Solanas, not leaving out one of Bonney's favourites, the Greek anarchist poet/actor/activist Katerina Gogou, whose poems are liberally translated or interpreted- perhaps there is little difference between the two in the area of this particular poetry- by Bonney in this collection. Or spoken directly to the late poet. Likewise, these  however angry and dark, manage to be exquisitely lyrical, while never failing to cut close to the bone.

The exemplary poet Keston Sutherland, himself practising a radical form of subterfuge, describes Bonney's poetry as one of hatred, but I would think the better term would be rage.  A rage garnered from being in the world, and seeing how it is organized. That has to be a hard road to travel. And partly explains the tone and condition of these poems, seemingly written late at night, fuelled by drugs and cigarettes, alcohol, composed after wandering across urban boulevards, back alleys and dank streets. Or after watching any number of unpunished crimes committed by cops, corporate sleaze bags and political con-men. All things that can easily make anyone pursue dark thoughts, drugs, alcohol or suicide. But there is also a strength in these poems that manages to turn the darkness inside-out.  Which makes them ideal artifacts for the barricades and front line, perfect for fending off the state, whether vocalized on the street, in run down cafes or airless basements.

Not that these are easy poems. They bear the mark of too many scars to make for facile, or even pleasant reading. Add to that Bonney's reluctance to incorporate the customary compromising gestures regarding his work or  politics, not when it comes to the powers that be. At the same time, Bonney purposely avoids the overtly populist, be it in terms of content or form. These are compact and linguistically dense poems, as intriguingly personal as they are intense, hitting the reader from a variety of angles. They are, indeed, rants of the highest order. "A rant is a haunt," writes Bonney, and indeed these poems read as though they are haunted by both the future and the past.  Inspirational and international in scope, historical in nature, embedded apologetically in the present, right in keeping with a geographical gregariousness one might expect from a Brit living in self-imposed exile in Berlin. If some of the poems make for hard reading, it's because they carry cut so deeply.  Sure,  it's hyperbole to call a poem an incendiary device, but, in Bonney's hands, it's an apt description. That being the case, no close reader can possibly escape these explosive poems unscathed.

RIP, Sean Bonney...

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

All the Crimes Fit to Print: Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide by Barry Forshaw

Readers of Crime Time and various broadsheets will already know that Barry Forshaw is pretty much the go-to person when it comes to all things fictionally criminal. Not to mention that he has long been a prime mover when it comes to promoting a range of crime fiction in the UK. His two volume Encyclopaedia of British Crime Fiction remains a landmark publication, indispensable to anyone interested in the history of the genre. Likewise his handful of other titles, their subjects ranging from Nordic Noir to Italian Cinema. With a keen editorial eye, his reviews are customarily pithy and invariably on the money. His latest contribution, Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide might be described as a condensed version of his Encyclopaedia, only cheaper and easier to negotiate. In fact, given its pocketable size and format, it is as comprehensive a reference book and guide to what is purchasable that one is likely to find. 

That is, given the economics of publishing, at least as suggested by the book’s evocative cover, depicting, on the one hand, a well-trodden pulp fiction trope and, on the other, a reminder of crime fiction’s past and how it has changed over the years- becoming more acceptable, literary, blatant, marketable and diverse. These days crime fiction is more profitable than ever. In fact, it’s been at least sixty years since the term pulp fiction could be used to describe even a portion of the genre. This is reflected in the market place itself where, in the intervening decades, the price of a typical paperback has gone from the 2’6 of those orange Penguin crime novels, to 30p for the green Penguins, up to the present when a typical crime paperback costs in excess of £15. To say nothing about the price original pulp paperback crime novels in decent condition. It’s definitely a seller’s market, with crime fiction on display in all parts of the world, and with every country having their own crime writers with their own particular spin on the genre. In his forward, Ian Rankin claims Forshaw’s book “covers crime fiction from every part of the world.”  Well, almost, but the book is undeniably, and perhaps understandably, UK/US-centric, with a nod  to Europe, particularly Scandi-Noir, not withstanding the token Chinese or Latin American writer thrown in for good measure. 

Which shouldn’t be surprising. Adding even more writers, from a greater range of countries to the mix would have only made Forshaw’s book all the bulkier and considerably less easy to negotiate. As for the chapters themselves, they are general enough to include just about any crime novel one can think of, regardless of place, but, at the same time, specific enough to highlight the genre’s touchstones: from the origins of the genre to its Golden Age; from Hardboiled/Pulp fiction to private eyes and cops; from professionals (lawyers, doctors, forensics) to amateur investigators; from  psychological narratives to psychopaths, criminal protagonists and organised crime; from crime and society to espionage; from domestic noir to cosy crime and blockbusters; and from comic crime to historical and foreign crime. Interspersed within which are boxed-in entries on selected topics and authors, from Agatha Christie and to Raymond Chandler, from radio crime fiction to film noir. Each section contains a plethora of books along with Forshaw’s precise and concise comments and synopsises. The book concludes with a series of appendixes, the first of which consists of the author’s favourite Scandinavian and political thrillers. That’s followed by two outside critics, J. Kingston Pierce and Craig Sisteron, who list the authors that, in their opinion, should have been included in Forshaw’s book. It’s not only a nice democratic gesture on the part of the author, but it’s also a fitting way to end what a book that is bound to be at least partly subjective.

Because anyone conversant with the genre will have their own list of omissions and perhaps quibbles with the text. For me, I would have liked Forshaw to have included the likes of Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jerome Charyn, Ross Thomas, K.C. Constantine, Dorothy B. Hughes, Paul Cain, Andrew Coburn, Leigh Brackett, Peter Temple, Bill James, James Curtis, Arthur La Bern, Robert Westerby, Cameron McCabe, Horace McCoy, Gil Brewer, Raoul Whitfield, Frederick Brown, Buzz  Bezzerides, Samuel Fuller, Joe Gores, Lionel White, Harry Whittington, Jim Nisbet, Scott Phillips, Kent Anderson, Stephen Greenleaf, John Franklin Bardin, Dolores Hitchens, Frederic Dard, Tonino Benacquista, Thierry Jonquet, Boris Vian/Vernon Sullivan,  Pieke Biermann,  Massimo Carlotto, Patricia Melo, Ricardo Piglia, Claudia Pineiro, Leonard Padua, Paco Ignacio Taino, and Santiago Gamboa. And, to make it truly international, what about those Tamil pulp writers published by Blaft, or the wonderful Nigerian railway station books, collected in Life Turns Man Up and Down, published by Pantheon? Come to think of it, why not a section on small presses which, free from the economic constraints of corporate publishing, are publishing some of today’s most interesting and edgy crime novels. Or a page on books that address the subject of crime fiction itself? But, then, all of this might have been outside Forshaw’s remit, much less his word count. Because, in the end, Crime Fiction- A Reader’s Guide is what it is, a useful and nearly comprehensive study that deserves a place in the library of all serious readers of crime fiction. 

(This article will also be appearing in Crime Time)