Saturday, June 30, 2018

Dreams From Bunker Hill: on Robin Robertson's The Long Take

THERE HAS BEEN, for some years now, a special relationship between writers of hardboiled noir fiction and poets. Noirists as diverse as Kenneth Fearing, Alfred Hayes, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Charles Willeford were also poets of some repute. Even Raymond Chandler, the master of off-the-wall hardboiled similes, published verses in The Westminster Gazette decades before his first crime story appeared in Black Mask. Presently, Stephen Dobyns, John Harvey, and Jim Nisbet move between the two types of writing with apparent ease. Perhaps not so accomplished were hardboiled efforts by poets Jack Spicer and Richard Hugo. Then there are those whose poetry contains noirish elements, from Weldon Kees, Charles Reznikoff, John Wieners, and Charles Bukowski, to Summer Brenner, Lynda Hull, Frank Stanford, and William Logan.
To make sense of the relationship, one need only recall the legendary French crime publisher Marcel Duhamel’s advice to Chester Himes in the late 1940s regarding the house rules for Duhamel’s Série Noire:
Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. No streams of consciousness at all. We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what — only what they’re doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don’t worry about it making sense.
All of which isn’t far removed from William Carlos Williams’s imagist declaration, “No ideas but in things,” or André Breton’s insistence that surrealism is based on “the fundamental crisis of the object.” Like modern lyric poetry, noir favors minimalism, a quality we see in Dashiell Hammett and, to an even higher degree, in Paul Cain. Their technique is cinematic in nature, fusing precise perceptions into suspenseful narratives, sharpening the reader’s focus on details, as does poetry.
Scottish poet Robin Robertson is the latest in this line of generic bedfellows. His contribution is a book-length narrative poem that examines the relationship between a specific historical period and film noir. On the inner jacket, his publisher describes The Long Take (2018) as “a noir narrative written with the intensity and power of poetry.” And indeed, although The Long Take is definitely a poem, I can’t think of anything quite like it. There is, of course, Kevin Young’s recent Black Maria (2005), and back in 1928 we had Joseph Moncure March’s The Set-Up and The Wild Party, adapted into films by Robert Wise and James Ivory respectively. But The Long Take, set mostly in and around Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill from 1946 to 1957, and subtitled “A Way to Lose More Slowly,” is considerably more modern, complex, political, and, though cinematic, probably less filmable than March’s narratives. It’s also more sustained and situated in the real world than Young’s excellent episodic endeavor. 
(The remainder of the review can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books

Friday, June 29, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Film Noir Poetry- Detour, Double Indemnity

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

                     Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book II

Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) 

Sleazy motel insinuations, 
a fatal encounter with a 
telephone, a solo pianist 
solo in Reno. We say, defeat 
is never more than a heart-
break away. We say, why 
congratulate someone for 
hitting the road once-too-often. 
We say, what does the term 
hand oneself in actually mean? 
We say, desert hitch-hiking is 
an arbiter of fate. Extended 
thumb, identity theft, arguably 
murder, blackmail, tempered 
by the inevitable droit de con-
ducteurWe say, Savage is 
as savage does: hard as a 
painted nail scraping zealot's 
cross, blond as putrifying water 
dribbling down an innocent 
man's throat. Or we might say, 
pick-up outside gas station 
will pave the future and placate 
the devil. Or, on Poverty Row, 
everything goes for as little as 
the imagination allows. Or may-
be, that's what existing outside 
the hash machine is about. Why 
post-Black Cat, Ulmer was never 
forgiven for scarpering to New 
York with the boss-man’s property. 
Big Apple tatters, Yiddish B-
features, returning, oy gevalt
never far from farblunget. We say, 
those were lean years, vestiges, 
proliferating, in dream-time, radical, 
and, in truth, cheaper by the dozen.

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)
Innuendos amok. The politics bleed
Chandler, sharecropping the role of 
studio hack. His murder manual so
eloquently stated by Neff. How could 
I have known that murder sometimes 
smells like honeysuckle. A geographically 
scented post-mortem in which everything 
is sweet, corrupt, and empty. A bit like 
L.A. itselfBlame it on Wilder's secretary 
who went to the loo with that book. Or 
Cain settling for ten thousand less than 
what had been offered ten years earlier. 
Landing in Chandler's lap by default. 
Who thought the novel disgusting. Proust 
in greasy overalls. But what's not to like
in that description? His career having 
almost run its course, abandoned scruples 
all who exit here. Wilder always claimed 
there was bit of Hitler in Chandler. He
should know.Was it apocrypha, or a joke, 
Sarris's claim that Wilder, after arriving 
in Hollywood, wrote to his mother, still 
working in her Viennese cake shop: "Ma, 
I'm doing great here in America, but I've 
changed my name. I'm now called Thornton." 
Barely a decade later his mother, step-father
and grandfather would die in concentration 
camps. Barbara's blond wig? That was 
Wilder's idea, the perfect disguise, modern 
times, the first of many attempts to beat the 
system, with automobiles the perfect vehicle 
for so many conscience-ridden soliloquies    

Friday, June 22, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Film Noir Poetry- Dark Passage, Decoy.

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

                  Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book II

Dark Passage (Delmar Daves, 1946)

It's never easy, clocking the world, driving 
the back roads and waterfront. Yesterday's 
headlines now obsessive scrapbook fodder. 
Together they watch for cops, nosey citizens 
and night-time denizens. Bandages, undone, 
his face, that voice, going back to just prior. 
The fall, the money and six year sentence, 
their words falling like Fortian frogs through 
the fog. Then, what if, small bar in Mexico
Walking through the door, sunshine framing 
her to faded perfection. If only his paranoia 
would subside. But innocence is invariably 
tricky, proof "on the other side," hardly enough. 
Her inherited wealth, Count Basie and a Nob 
Hill apartment no more than coming attraction. 
The writer sitting at his desk, staring at blank 
page, disgusted with its whiteness, yearning for 
tough mamas and after-hours on the Avenue
Nmater that Philly is written across series 
of comic asides, shoddy sofas and cheap hotels. 
If not for second-rate pulpsters and their spit-
balling brethren, where would we be? Ping-
pong with Henry Miller. Insisting he was no 
Dashiell Hammett, this no Maltese Falcon. 
Instead: those paperbacks, that law suit, and 
camera-eye that tells only half the story.

Decoy (Jack Bernhard, 1946)

Doctor, dazed, rushes in, washes 
his hands, hears shots. Margot to 
Sergeant Portugal: it was love...
Then the gas chamber riff. What 
a ruse, what a whiff, scarpering 
with the money. Quick, get me a 
doctor, with a cyanide anecdote
about antidotes. In other words, 
resuscitation by proclamation. 
Kisses Margot, a fatale if there 
ever was one, and gets shot for his 
pains, their problem and her plan. 
"Do you think you could  fix that 
flat-tire for me while I discretely 
run you over, make that times two, 
before driving off with your heart 
in my hand?" On that impervious 
road to nowhere. What nerve, 
laughing at the doctor, gold 
digging 'till the cows come home. 
Then down shifting to the present. 
"Hey, Portugal, didn't we meet 
somewhere just this side of wrong?
But think: autonomy is just a word, 
so near yet so far. Her words eating
into him like acid rain, saying, 
"Try coming down to my level, for 
once." Less compromise than 
fatal kiss before laughing in his 
face. How can anyone not love this 
woman? Who derives such pleasure 
from the corruptions of empire.

Monday, June 11, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Chinatown, Criss Cross

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

                               Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book II

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

The way it was, or might have been, the sun
shining except when it doesn't. But, this time
it's personal. Her death, just around the corner. 
The politics, water by any means necessary. 
Blood flowing, through incest or municipal 
corruption. A revisionist perspective, California 
rich, but still nouveau, at least compared to 
assorted Eastern counterparts. Pro-bono 
private-eye, his nose, you know how it is, where 
it hasn’t been since the days of wine, roses, 
drought and manufactured consent. Sliced nicely 
for his troubles. His real boss deliberating on two 
years, statutory rape, not unlike Cross, riding
the white line between ethos and pathos, invariably 
as clear as night. Saying, most people never have 
to face the right time or place... About as close to 
the bone as the cutting room allows. Yes, Jake, it's
Anywhere, and always something to think about. 

Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949)

Not yet the meanest battle, Bunker 
Hill back then was the world, and 
Angel’s Flight a means of escape, 
from the war, or the road. Coincident 
aerial shots of what no longer exists: 
It's in the cards, fate, jinx or whatever.
Those headlights, and furtive parking 
lot embrace. Mirrored dance-hallers, 
clocking each other, knowing crime 
will soon be their song. Burt coos, 
it’ll be just you and me. Her smell, 
wafting double-entendres, deadlier 
than the double-cross, more insidious
than the criss cross. But remnants matter. 
If lucky or smart, they might even beat 
the odds. A lone survivor or future 
politician, not realising no one is 
hard enough to take it to the bank.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Ain't No Coffee Table Blues: The Original Blues by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff

Perhaps it's a sign of the times that there seems to be a market for flashy commodities that prove our worth to ourselves and others. Or perhaps it's just that there's an increasing number of old blues fogies out there with disposable income to spend on expensive books. Because these days it  volumes on early blues and jazz seem to have morphed into coffee table books. As if sending out the signal that this music is my drug of choice and I will spend any amount of money to feed my addiction. Unfortunately, too often it's the case that such books are little more than an attractive repackaging of older material, accompanied by photographs.

Though its eye-catching large format cover might suggest the latter, Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff's The Original Blues- The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville latest is anything but. Perhaps it is simply masquerading as such. Because The Original Blues is, in fact, an  scrupulously researched and invaluable book on a subject that has been relatively neglected over the years: namely, the transition of the music from segregated minstrelsy to vaudeville at the end of the 19th century and finally the emergence in the early part of the twentieth century of what we have come to refer to as the blues.

Seroff and Abbott's study ends in 1926, on the eve of the great crash. An interesting year in itself, less an indication of the state of the economy than the rise and centralisation of black involvement in the white vaudeville circuit. From here it would seem the music would no longer be the exclusive province of a black audience and circuit. Though the latter had produced in particular an assortment of  females blues singers, such as Ora Criswell and her protege Trixie Smith, who would perform and record unencumbered by the "blackface" tradition. Not that the centralisation of the music didn't have an economic basis. The  authors, in focusing on performers as well as accountants, bookers venues and critics, site 1921 as a key year, one in which the Theater Owners Booking Association in concert with the race record industry nationalised the black vaudeville circuit, pushing  blues artists, mainly female, to the fore, and, in doing so, created the possibility of a more racially diverse audience.

The Original Blues is a fascinating account,  the third in a trilogy of books about early black popular music that began with Abbott and Seroff's Out of Sight- The Rise of African-American Popular Music, 1889-1895 and Ragged But Right- Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. While it's not necessary to have read those books to enjoy The Original Blues, readers of this one will surely be tempted to delve into Seroff and Abbott's earlier work. Kudos should go not only to Seroff and Abbott but to the University of Mississippi Press for its presentation of what amounts to an important book when it comes to  the history of the music. Whether acquiring the book or obtaining it from the library, no serious fan of blues and early jazz will want to miss this one.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

On Dangerous Ground: Film Noir Poetry- The Big Combo, The Big Heat

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

            Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, Book II

The Big Combo (Joseph Lewis, 1955)

Parsing's never easy. What matters, 
Alton’s black & white. Not what
you's what you don't. 
Hard-edged, as ever. Arrived, 
Hollywood, 1937. painter,  
writing the book, literally. Not 
plot but images, not ideas but 
things, black and white as colours. 
In-between non-manichaean 
shades framing low-budget fatalism, 
so we might see in the dark.

The Big Heat  (Fritz Lang, 1953)

Shocking, only if suburbia can 
be paradise. Unexpected violence 
and post-war fissures. Leave it 
to those German emigrés to expose 
wounds, commodity fetishism and 
middle-class angst. At the heart 
the heat: innocent home-keeper, 
vulnerable, tarnished. Contrast 
with the hoodlum’s moll. Bought 
and sold, at the bidding of their 
crime-sponging superiors. Home 
can’t be where the heart is, 
blabbing about Freud and child-
rearing. Yawn. No wonder their 
world is blown apart, a case of 
guilt by conventionality. Coffee-
scarred Gloria in post-war hell, 
copped from Raw Deal five years
earlier, damaged goods but a ticket 
out of drudgery. Her wound glowing 
nuclear, waiting in the dark for 
daddy to arrive. Sleazy hotel, 
where the big heat clings, quiet 
street props to Hoodlums Inc., 
without whom we would be little 
more than rootless cosmopolitans.