Friday, December 04, 2020

On Dangerous Ground: This Gun For Hire (1942), Touch of Evil (1958)

This Gun For Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942)

A lone hitman, ever more. Though scarred,
Raven is at least kind to animals. As our
better angels before their wings were
clipped and the tabloids discredited
absence. A crippled remnant of an old-
school country song witnesses one of
his transgressions. Rise up, shorty, you 
have nothing to lose but your fedora. 
Window-licking alien visiting a diseased 
planet. Like the last purveyor of commodity 
fetishism, lost in an abstract chiraroscuro, 
whose oblique angles stain the walls. 
To watch is to be esconsed in an old Etonian
nightmare. Is this what war and modernity
have wrought? Rave on, you catalogue of
fear and looping, offered to the highest
bidder. Naturally, the pettiest of criminals 
will hand over marked bills, then report
them stolen. What a scam! Caught in a
drift of historical artifacts. She asks him,
why not do the decent thing and kill for 
peace? What a guy. What a fool am I. 
Better stick to that song, tweaked by a
Tinseltown leftist. Life imitating art 
or vice versa, like Standard Oil greasing
the gears of I.G. Farben. Wings clipped,
Raven's heart, dry, a leaf droning in the
wind. A wire beyond the last proletarian
chimney, where smoke will obscure
each and every object of desire.

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Tracking the time it takes to boil an egg, 
as chorography melts into crackerjack 
philosophy. Fortune-telling soon turns 
into a cottage industry wherein only fat 
cops and the shadow know. Deliciously 
spent, alienated labour, surplus capital, 
and a soupcon of false consciousness. 
The sum of which I sleep therefore 
I am. And so say more with less, then
less with less. Because stylisation will
betray the territory as well as the map.
It's the image, stupid! Everyone trying
not to be hookwinked. That he was some 
kind of man. As opposed to what? may
I ask. Ad absurdum made flesh, stored 
in some bumpkin's menagerie. All power 
to the echo chamber! Straddling borders 
superating north and south, here and there, 
law and order, motels and flea pits, Rocky
and Bullwinkle, Santa Monica and Venice. 
Charlton, not yet an NRA shill, mis-cast. 
Unlike,"Shakespearean loony" Weaver. 
Or sleazy Akim, strangled, a lamb's tongue 
stuck in his craw.  Marlene second only to 
Mercedes, ambiguous motorcycle madonna 
gypsy queen, threatening hubby's wife 
with a dubiously accented "mary jane." 
Hey, guapa, how about throwing a little 
smoke my way! Or am I already high? 
Enough to know Orson wanted Tijuana 
but settled for mongoose oil wells, trash-
filled canals and a cliché-trodden boardwalk. 
Boasting he could make shinola from shit. 
Not an uncommon tendency in that line 
of work. At least the rough cut was delivered 
on time, his future not yet used up, that is 
until the assholes demanded he re-edit and 
re-shootReleased as a B-movie, supporting 
Hedy's Female Animal. Poor Orson. Nearly 
300 pounds of topographical genius,
the padding and corruption oozing from
every pore. A sign of the times emblazoned 
on celluloid wings: now and forever, a lean 
on his body and a mortgage on his soul.    

Thursday, October 08, 2020

An Obscure Road to Hollywood: Scoundrels and Spitballers- Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s

From Dorothy B. Hughes's In a Lonely Place (1947) and Alfred Hayes's My Face For the World to See (1958) to F. Scott Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories and the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink (1991), it's become commonplace to portray Hollywood as detrimental to the lives and careers of writers who have worked there. According to Philippe Garnier's well-documented new book Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s (available exclusively from Black Pool Productions), that's a simplistic, overly romanticized representation, at least when it comes to those who toiled for the studios prior to and just after World War II. I tend to agree, though readers of my 2002 book Heartbreak & Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood - itself influenced by the French edition of Garnier's book, published in 1996 - might think otherwise. But, as the former L.A. correspondent for France's Libération and author of Goodis: A Life in Black and White (2013) implies, the experiences of writers in Hollywood are too varied to make any such generalization either accurate or wise. 

Given the economic conditions of the 1930s, it can’t even be said that writers fared all that badly by working there; indeed, in some cases, they saw their careers enhanced. Yes, they were exploited. Taking into account the economy, the culture of the era, and the studios for which they worked (corporate or cottage), it would be surprising if they hadn’t been. But even those working at the rock-bottom rate (around $150 per week) or on short contracts were, during the Depression, relatively well paid, leading lives at variance with most of their fellow citizens. The studios might have had a low opinion of writers, but then they had, as Garnier shows, a low opinion of all their underlings, save perhaps for their most profitable vedettes. So, naturally, they sought to keep their “schmucks with Underwoods” on the shortest leads possible. Clocking in and out might have been degrading for those hacking away in cubbyholes, but a Hollywood studio was, after all, a factory, albeit one where dreams were manufactured, to be eventually consumed by a viewing public in need of circuses as well as bread.

While Garnier concentrates on the years just before and after Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House with the promise of better times to come, some of the writers he discusses had careers that stretched far beyond the 1930s. It’s debatable whether the 1930s were, in fact, the most glittering of Hollywood golden ages; nevertheless, that decade was an opportune time for wheeler-dealers and chancers, storytellers the film establishment needed to script its newly talking movies and turn a profit for the industry. It was also a decade in which Hollywood film would solidify itself as an international art form and a prime export commodity. To emphasize the extent to which Hollywood films had already seeped into the public’s consciousness, Garnier prefaces the book with a quote from Daniel Fuchs, the formidable Williamsburg novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, saying that films are as indigenous as “our cars and skyscrapers or highways, and as irrefutable. Generations to come, looking back over the years, are bound to find that the best, most solid creative effort of our decades was spent in the movies, and it’s time someone came clean and said so.” While the first part of that quote is undeniable, the second part seems more applicable to industry types and film obsessives rather than the public at large. Film was certainly a mass preoccupation, and an effective opiate, but no more so than popular song in its various forms — though, admittedly, popular song, not to mention narrative writing, couldn’t help but reference Hollywood movies in one way or another.

(An Obscure Road to Hollywood appeared in the October 4th edition of the L.A. Review of Books. To read the remainder of the article, click here.)

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.