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 sometimes cannot read. Lest one assumes
the role of screenwriter narrating 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 mid-
night, 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)

Friday, October 04, 2019

Cracks, Crevices and Small Revolutions: Sarah Jane by James Sallis

A new novel by James Sallis is always cause for celebration.  Sarah Jane is certainly no exception. His latest might be a slightly more subdued effort, but it's no less affecting than any of his past seventeen novels. But what struck me while reading Sarah Jane is the degree to which much of the action, essential or otherwise, takes place off the page. It's like a noir version of Chekhov or something one associates with some French new wave films. Perhaps this is true of past novels, but it's only now that I realised this particular technique. Whether deployed consciously or not, it's an effective technique, humanitarian and democratic in nature. Moreover, it allows the reader to call on his or her imagination, while respecting the motives and inner workings of the characters within the novel. Consequently, Sarah Jane,  a cop with a complicated past, spends her time reacting to events that happen around and away from her, not to mention those events from her past, whether instigated by her or by others. Of course, things happen in the novel, but Sarah Jane is more about she and others react to what happens to them. And that reaction manifests itself in the novel's dialogue and inner thoughts are sometimes tangential and at other times perfectly to the point.

Near the end of the novel, Sarah/Sallis writes: of an admired teacher "who said of words when they played well together: 'There is a small revolution going on in that sentence.'" I wondered while reading this if this Sallis hinting at his game plan. If so, why not?  Because that sentence might well describe what occurs in Sallis's own work, whether regarding his dialogue, description, or narrative drive. Sarah Jane then goes on to comment on how language in all its manifestations, might define the person. Including documents surrounding that person's life.  All of which is dependent on the person reading them. This goes not only for the investigator but for the reader. Likewise, each line of dialogue, image, inner thought, constitutes, in its own way,  a small revolution, one that builds on what has already been written, described or discussed. Documents- a birth certificate, a book, a memoir, an image- that constitute one's life can say everything or nothing, depending on how those documents are interpreted. 

This state of affairs might well be what I have always liked about Sallis's work, but have never realized before. That his work is as cumulative as it is defining. Of the characters in his novels as much as the culture in which those characters exist. and how they reflect the culture in which the reader and writer live. So of course each book builds on the last one, from The Long-Legged Fly to Cripple Creek, Drive/Driven, Wilnot and now Sarah Jane. Each book seems to want to add to that revolution. And before you know it you have a way of thinking and way of regarding the world that is, in its own quiet way, revolutionary.  What's important in Sarah Jane, as in his other novels, is not the plot- pointless to recount and and often difficult to remember- but what exists in the cracks and crevices of the book. Not just how the characters regard one another and themselves, but how they react and what they say to one another.  It's up to the reader to fill in the details, exemplified by Sarah Jane's  first sentence-  "My name is Pretty but I'm not." - and allow things to build from there, one revolution upon another, an on-going process that, through the written word, as well as the cycle of life, death and everything in between, never ends.

Monday, September 23, 2019

On Dangerous Ground: The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949), Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)

The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949)

Perhaps everyone desires something similar. Hiding
home-truths as much as falsehoods. Neither unseen
nor unseeing. A historical reference mainly lost on
the white world, never mind it's derivation. Crossing
a bridge connecting Balboa to another world. Behind
dark glasses. To a sleazy hotel, a gambler and mink-
toting blond, bass propped against the wall, just below
a boxing poster. An interloper, not even a femme fatale,
to confront the creep who's messing with her seventeen
year-old art student daughter. Casually exercising a
droit du seigneur bluntness: as in, how much you willing
to pay to make me go away. Tells the tearaway daughter
he's only into her for the money she can generate. She
lashes out. A reasonable reaction, likewise her desire 
to escape her island of surplus capital. He falls, hits his
head. It's not murder, but it's not bad, more a piece of
messy performance art, left to her mother to curate. So
how does the soft-spoken Irish black-mailer hear about
it? Or did I miss something? Inserting himself into her
life until she can produce the cash. Which requires the
approval of her husband, no more than a moan-and-groan
out-of-towner. “Quite the prisoner, aren’t you?" says
the blackmailer, himself barely in the loop, whether
amongst criminals or old-world revolutionaries. Yet
smart enough to know that on this beach of milk, honey,
and good housekeeping, appearances must be maintained.
She's called Lucia, but he prefers Lucy. It's not love but
it's not bad. Less about the danger of not having a man
around than what life is like in the dark, the past like
falling dust and and how easily things can fall apart.   

Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)

For the meek shall inherit clichés, scams and false
modesty. While, in the shop window, democracy is
once again placed on the auction block. As always,
it's about class, selling the dictatorship of taste and
art world pretentiousness to the masses. Easy targets,
if not for the human element, humdrum never more
than skin deep. Sunday painter, Christopher a sitting
duck gabbled by Kitty in her see-through raincoat,
and amuse-bouche approach: "You know those art
galleries on Fifth Avenue? I saw one little picture that
cost fifty-thousand dollars. They call it, uh, 'Seezan'."
Christopher, his invisible sign- "Another sucker born
of middle-class manners"- hanging from his neck,
"You can't put any price on masterpieces like that.
They're worth, well, whatever you can afford to pay
for them. " Kitty: "I bet I saw some of your pictures
there and didn't know it." Christopher: "Oh no. I, uh...
I don't sell my pictures." Kitty: "Well not in New York
you mean…I bet you get as much for your pictures in
France as those Frenchmen get right here in New York.
You're never appreciated in your own country." Less
a social comedy than an ice-pick to the heart. Whether
gallery fascism or a seller's market, the only guarantee
that everyone will get fucked in the process. A scam, somewhere between a stick-up and Say's Law in broad
daylight. His face, her body, wistful window reflections,
pain and punishment for the person he has become.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Manchette Quotes: from Nada (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

"Four in the morning. The proletariat was sleeping with one eye open in its suburbs; middle managers for their part were sleeping like dumb logs in their luxury co-ops overlooking the Seine. The late-night pizzerias in Saint-Germain-des-Prés were closing up and shooting out languid, ravishing transvestites. Daughters of the well-to-do, stupified by drink and hashish, were getting fucked in Paris's western outskirts and faking orgasms to mask their nausea. Bums were passing around venereal diseases under the bridges. La Coupole had closed, and intellectuals were parting company at the Raspail-Montparnasse intersection and promising to phone one another. At the printing houses the Linotypists were working away. Headlines concerning the killings of the morning before were being composed. Editorials had been delivered with headlines varying according to the opinion of the particular paper: WHY? or BLOOD or HOW FAR WILL IT GO? or VICIOUS CIRCLE or FOOLHARDY JOE BLOW VS. STORM TROOPERS IN PEAK FORM."


"'I made a mistake," he said abruptly. "Leftist terrorism and State terrorism, even if their motivations cannot be compared, are the two jaws of...'

He hesitated.

'...of the same mug's game,' he concluded, and went on right away: 'The regime defends itself, naturally, against terrorism. But the system does not defend itself against it. It encourages it and publicizes it. The desperado is a commodity, an exchange value, a model of behavior like a cop or a female saint. The State's dream is a horrific, triumphant finale to an absolutely general civil war to the death between cohorts of cops and mercenaries on the one hand and nihilists armed groups on the other. This vision is the trap laid for rebels, and I fell into it. And I won't be the last. And that pisses me off in the worst way.'"