Archive | June, 2011

Roberto Bolaño: Patron Saint of Outsiders

30 Jun

Remember the energy. Philip Roth wrote that about 1950s America. It applies to Chilean expatriate author Robert Bolaño as well. Bolaño exists like some elemental thing, strontium, wolfram. Or some fundamental force: gravity, hatred, tungsten. He was a pulverizing, galvanizing, polarizing dude. A blistering beam of light.

As an author, he was undiluted by distractions. He wrote like a demon. He’s that good and that important and over the last two years, I’ve read everything that’s been translated, including the newest Between Parenthesis, which came out last month. (He’s also the epitome of cool, and thus fair game for Simone when she gets a little older.) I’ve written this little guide for her, and for those interested in this great man of letters. First, a quick biography:

   

Roberto Bolano as a young man.

He left Chile at 16 to become a radical poet in Mexico. He was poor. He stole books. He delivered declarations. He smoked, drank, probably began using heroin. He joined infrarrealismo, a loosely affiliated group of poets. In 1973, he returned to Chile to fight for Salvador Allende’s government, but was imprisoned by Pinochet’s goons, slated to be tortured and probably killed. He got lucky; one of his interrogators was a high school acquaintance who saved his life. He moved to Spain. He worked odd jobs. He read and read and read. He ended up in Blanes, a small town north of Barcelona. He smoked, drank, fucked, read, and wrote. In the early ’90s, he was diagnosed with liver disease. The prospect of dying pushed his talents into new territory. He stopped writing poetry. He started writing novels. The shift worked. He won contests, got published, became famous, and produced thousands of pages of work.

He wrote good novels, great novels, and wretchedly terrible novels. This is good. People of talent and drive should not walk meekly through life. People of the book shouldn’t spend their lives on one masterpiece. Better half a dozen interesting failures alongside the inevitable one or two works of genius.

The patron saint of outsiders, screw-ups, addicts, poets, lovers and lost causes.

His body of work falls into three parts: autobiographical novels, literature of exile, and prose poems. The autobiographical novels are all narrated by or follow his fictional alter ego Arturo Belaño, which are: Nazi Literature in the Americas; Distant Star; The Savage Detectives; 2666. His other stories involve various types of madness, usually brought on by disassociation due to exile, or by the aftereffects of torture and other oppressive measures. These are By Night in Chile, Amulet, Monsieur Pain and The Skating Ring. The prose poem—and many of his short stories would fall into this category—would be Antwerp and By Night In Chile. He also published three story collections here in the U.S.: Last Evenings on Earth; The Return; and The Insufferable Gaucho.

It’s a sizeable and significant body of work, with more manuscripts forthcoming.

He was an astonishing reader: learned, opinionated, passionate, insightful, funny, sophisticated, at times cutting but quick with praise. He absorbed the various schools of literature from the various countries and regions and languages around the world from the dawn of man. He is a fantastic guide through various schools of writers, and the best mentor to South American fiction and poetry from the last century. He’s a poetic encyclopedia.

Bolaño, like Roth, breathed energy into the nooks and crannies of his life to create a semi-fictional canopy, where his life collides with his passions. Understanding this gives his best fiction purpose, direction.

Start with the stories: “Last Evenings on Earth”; “Mauricio ‘the Eye’ Silva”; “The Insufferable Gaucho”; “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura.” These will give you a taste. He’s part Borges, part Bukowski, part Vargas Llosa and part Ellroy, too. He’s an amalgamation of styles, punctuated by a deep sadness and bravery examining the worst of the world. Go ahead and throw in some Bataille; there’s plenty of gonzo sex and enigma, too.

Next read Nazi Literature in the Americas. It’s a fake history/almanac of fascist and Nazi authors in the Americas. Make sure you read the last 30 pages; they are unforgettable. Then move to Distant Star. It follows one of the fascist authors covered in Nazi Literature. It’s a superb meditation on evil, a great book, weird and compelling, a history of art and exile, and an excursion into Pinochet’s Chile. Then move to The Savage Detectives, his second best novel, the book that brought him international fame and a combination of genres and writing styles.

The first section follows a down and out poet in Mexico and his group of friends, all of whom fall into trouble with a local gangster. The second section is a series of first-person interviews, where various people explain how they know Arturo Belano and his best friend Ulysses Lima, running over the course of some two decades. The third section returns to the young poets in Mexico and how they survived. It’s a great, funny, sexy, scary, disturbing book. A rattle the mental cages exercise, a reminder of how open, serious, and ambitious a novel can be.

Finally, you should take up his magnum opus, 2666, the best novel of the 21st century so far, almost 900 pages of an epic meditation on crime. Describing the plot is useless, but I’ll try. The story follows a reclusive German author, four academics obsessed with him, and the horrid rape, mutilation and murder of over 300 women in Juarez. (Which is true; he spent years going through crime reports to capture the veracity of the crimes.) There are dozens and dozens of characters throughout the book, including detectives, reporters, prostitutes, thugs, and artists. It’s an immense, towering and highly readable work, but also challenging, formidable, labyrinthine and complex. In a word, it’s art.

Avoid Monsieur Pain. It’s terrible. Avoid The Skating Ring, too. Amulet is really only for hardcore fans. Antwerp and By Night in Chile are good, but for fans of Baudelaire and Rimbaud.

In 2003, just as his fame as a writer was in its ascendency, Roberto Bolaño’s body failed him. He was 50 years old.

VHS, not Super-8, part 2: From Gettysburg to Vietnam

27 Jun

Since I was a child, I’ve had movies on the brain. My first efforts at home moviemaking have been detailed; my later successes have not.

In tenth grade, I took a cinema class. Ms. Moore was the teacher. She was serious, a bit dour, cynical and a touch subversive. We watched some good movies, including Gaslight and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (I also developed a crush on a certain brunette from the upper grades.) Halfway through the semester, we put ourselves into groups. I was in a group with Greg P. and Michael T. We had to adapt an existing work of literature into a movie. Greg and Mike—two funny guys, really—picked the Gettysburg Address over my objections. I was bewildered as to what type of movie we would make; they thought it would be hilarious.

I played Lincoln. We recruited all of our friends, shot on location in the woods behind Peyton Moseley’s house. The first half is an unknown assassination attempt on the president. Lincoln and his entourage are attacked while he takes a stroll in the woods. Why he would do this during a war isn’t explained. Robert played one of the guards, takes a shotgun blast to the chest. He held a glob of ketchup in his hand and smashed it into his shirt right in front of the camera. There was even some bloody spray. Others were shot, stabbed, had their necks broken. (And Peyton, in a moment of absolute absurdity, enacted a wrestling move and broke my nose on camera. True story.) Two people survived the vicious gunfight: President Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth.

The author, circa 1993, with some baby.

The second half is the Gettysburg Address, and then the assassination of Lincoln. I gave the address by Peyton’s pool. Peyton wore some of his mom’s clothes and went as Mary Todd. He scratched himself, yawned, sneezed and so on during the speech. The camera caught everything. It was classic.

The whole epic lasted all of six minutes.

The movie was aces. Only, it was a minute short. So Mike T. had the idea of adding post-movie interviews of people who had just seen the movie. It was a great idea, really funny, but Alec Finlay got us a B on the project because he mock-punched Mike.

The teacher said it was gratuitous violence. (I told you she was serious.)

After this, we all stopped making movies for a while. We had drinking, parties, sports, studies, girls, that goddamned computer class—high school stuff through and through.

A year later, Robert was in the same cinema class. His group—I think he was with Matt Lemon and Ward Haliday—decided to do some story set in Vietnam. We dressed to the nines; everyone had army fatigues and realistic firearms. We shot the movie twice. The first print was lost. The story was an ambush. The characters were pulled from the Vietnam War movies we’d seen: Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Every take, Robert would repeat, “God, it’s hotter than a whore in church,” and we’d all crack up and have to reshoot.

We shot the second in the shallow creek bed at the end of Spanish Trail. We had fireworks—illegal in Florida, so we had to drive to the Alabama border for them—for the gunfight. There wasn’t much of a story. I died, Robert died, everyone died. The drifting smoke hung in the wind. It was almost artful. Like a Herzog or Tarkovsky film. The police were called, but the cop was friendly, cracked a few jokes, and told us to high tail it off private property, which we did, as soon as we got the last shot.

At one point, yielding two machine guns, Robert ran right up to the camera and yelled, “Die you filthy fucking gooks!” His group decided to leave this in. They won their class competition, and the movie was shown, unedited, throughout the close-circuit televisions in the school. We winced. The powers that be were pissed, we were at a Catholic school, after all, but art won out and nothing came of it.

The author, circa 2011; the face of raw genius.

We made one more movie and a few mock previews—more about these in a future post—but the VHS era was over. Life got in the way.

Jeff grew up first, became a Navy SEAL, got married, had children and then entered the State Department. Robert let go of his dream of working in special effects and instead became a telephone/internet technician; he’s happy. I never let go of my dreams of being a writer—I cling to them with the feral ferocity of adolescence—but the dream of making movies has inevitably faded. I know it’ll never happen. We were on the wrong coast. We were too easily distracted. We didn’t have good enough equipment. We didn’t have vision. Jeff got his first girlfriend, and that was that.

Jeff’s parents have most of the movies; the others are lost forever, alive only in our memories.

The best movies by decade, part 3: The 1950s.

26 Jun

The war years dead-ended into the House hearings on Un-American Activities, the great schism of Hollywood. The impact of the hearings was profound, reverberating throughout the community (as well as the films Hollywood produced) for years. Postwar decadence set in, and the early seeds of discontent began to flower. Our cities were full of single men—it was the last era of bachelors—and with single men came late night pool halls, bars, gambling, prostitution, murder. And if the best films of the 1950s are still about crime, they also begin to deal with justice. The foreign film became a source of puzzlement to some, joy to others. The 1950s were a great time for musicals, westerns and crime pictures, but each genre was seeing its own end. Finally, the enormity of the atom bomb seeped into the popular consciousness; humanity was now capable, with the pressing of a few buttons, of destroying the world.

1. Seven Samurai—A film that encapsulates the entirety of human experience. A beleaguered village, beset by rampaging bandits, hire seven masterless samurai to protect them. The film starts slow, as the samurai are gathered together, but the last hour has the greatest battle scenes ever put to celluloid. Kurosawa utilizes his regulars, including Toshiro Mifume and Takashi Shimura. The film holds within it the spectrum of human existence: love, longing, fear, hatred, jealousy, rage, greed, lust and death. Kurosawa had an incredible career, with a few significant misfires, but his patience and mastery over the form are undeniable. If we’re lucky, the movie by which humanity will be measured.

2. Vertigo/Touch of Evil—Hitchcock’s most beautiful film is also his most disturbing. Murder, obsession, perversity and fear—Hitchcock’s favorite themes are on full display. Stewart is at his best playing a private eye with a fear of heights hired to follow the wife of a wealthy man. The wife (played by Kim Novak) seems to be possessed by a long dead woman. As Stewart watches her wind her way through her daily routines, he begins to fall in love. It’s too late for love, however, and soon Novak is dead. The second half of the film focuses on Stewart’s obsessive recreation of the woman he’s lost. (And bears resemblance to Hitchcock’s own preference for blond-haired actresses: Tipi Hedren, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, and so on.) His performance is astonishing, and by film’s end he’s transformed into a growling, wild-eyed creature. The fact that he knows he’s right does not change his destructive obsessions, it only validates his baser nature. Touch of Evil: Dirty deeds in shabby border towns, and further proof of Orson Welles’s eccentricity. Charlton Heston plays a Mexican cop, newly married to American Janet Leigh. When a car bomb goes off that almost kills them both, Heston is brought into the case run by corrupt fattie Hank Quinlan. Heston catches Quinlan planting evidence, and the two cops begin to scheme against the other. The camera swoops and dips and zips into ragged close ups. Dennis Weaver jitters his way through a very strange performance as a motel clerk, and Marlene Dietrich delivers an incredible performance as a stoic, defeated fortuneteller devoted to ruined men. Right at the end, one of my favorite lines: “He was a great detective, but a lousy cop.” The best B-movie ever made.

3. Wild Strawberries/The Seventh Seal—Ingmar Bergman explodes onto the international scene with two of his best films. Wild Strawberries has its roots in harsh, realistic theatre; I think of Ibsen and Strindberg. The story follows Borg, a cold-hearted professor, at the end of his career, traveling to receive end of career accolades.  Along the way he meets family, friends and strangers. The film follows the minor characters through emotional epiphanies, as well as Borg’s confrontation with a life he begins to believe has been meaningless. It sounds stuffy and boring, but it’s not. Instead it’s a puffed up version of a hard-lived life, and an astonishing meditation on regret. Seventh Seal is earthier, more fantastical, and fun to watch. Max Von Sydow plays a knight returning home from the crusades, where he meets death on a beach. It is his time, but he isn’t ready, so he challenges death to a game of chess. As they play, in barns, bars, churches and fields, the knight and his growing entourage travel across a surreal countryside. There’s a subplot involving circus performers that hasn’t dated well, but the bulk of the film is hypnotic, bewitching and essential. Bergman seems to have sprung out of a cinematic history of his own devising.

4. Some Like it Hot/Sabrina—The best of its kind, and a comedy that doesn’t seem to age. Two musicians, played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and hide out with an all-girls’ band. The drag jokes are fine, the double entendres hilarious. The movie is a compendium of memorial lines: “If I were a girl, and I am!” “I used to travel with a male orchestra, but it got too expensive.” And so on. Marvelous. Sabrina: The best romantic comedy of the decade, with a fantastic script. Two brothers, played by William Holden and Humphrey Bogart, vie for the romantic attentions of the daughter of the family chauffeur. The gawky daughter leaves to study cooking in Paris, and returns a swan (played by Audrey Hepburn). Think Mad Men with more jokes, and better acting. At turns scathing, delicate, slapstick and heartfelt, this is a great introduction into old films for non-movie fans.

5. Sweet Smell of Success/On the Waterfront—My favorite noir, my favorite performance by Burt Lancaster, and a surging study of ambition, greed, and moral decay. Tony Curtis plays Sidney Falco, an unscrupulous press agent who is being frozen out by the number one gossip columnist in New York, J.J. Hunsecker (based on Walter Winchell). Hunsecker gives Falco an ultimatum: break up his sister’s relationship with a local jazz guitarist or never get mentioned in his column again. Falco jokes, intimidates, pulls favors, lies and cheats and steals his way through a long weekend, at times conniving, sniveling, groveling and triumphant. Tony Curtis gives the performance of his career—along with his Cary Grant impression in Some Like it Hot. As an aside, it’s this movie that strange kid in Diner keeps quoting. Waterfront: Kazan’s best movie, and it’s because Budd Schulberg wrote the script. The story of dockworkers, unions, sibling betrayal and the stand-up priest is well known, as is Brando’s improvisational acting. He plays Terry Malloy, a busted out boxer with nothing meaningful in his life but his gangster brother and his pigeons. He’s soon an unwilling accessory to murder, and at the center of a battle between a corrupt union and the dockworkers who just want to work. Kazan loads up his arguments, but the movie is good, really good. Lee J. Cobb, one of my favorite actors, Rod Steiger, Eve Marie Saint and Karl Malden co-star.

6. Singin’ in the Rain—The best musical with the best songs and the best dancing. Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds star in this song and dance version about silent movie actors, and an entire industry, adapting to the new technology of synched sound. The fabulous Cyd Charisse taps and sashays her way through the silent dancing sequence in the middle of the film. Kelly co-directs with Stanley Donen. Sometimes a movie can be about beauty and fun and that’s just fine. Can be watched again and again.

7. The 400 Blows—Truffaut’s first and best film, the one he will be remembered by, and the one he never measured up to again.  Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s cinematic alter ego, endures the trials and tribulations of childhood. Doinel is sensitive, serious, and misunderstood, but he suffers from neglect. Adults don’t seem to see him unless he breaks their rules, and his episodes of petty crime offer the only joys in his isolated, lonely existence. The movie is warm and funny without being sentimental, which is very hard to do, and it inhabits the child’s point of view better than any film before or after.

8. Paths of Glory—The best movie about soldiers and generals and war. A French attack on a German trench goes wrong, and the French generals demand that three soldiers be tried for cowardice. Kirk Douglas plays their commanding officer who is also a lawyer, and tries to defend them. The trial is as absurd and futile as the war. Stanley Kubrick directs, and crime writer Jim Thompson wrote the screenplay (although there are conflicting reports of how much of his work remains in the final cut). The story goes that the movie couldn’t find backers, so Kirk Douglass put up the money himself. The movie is short and compact, beautiful to look at, but as powerful and moving as they come.

9. Riffifi/Night and the City—Jules Dassin’s best film, Riffifi is an unsentimental study of hard men. Dassin is my favorite director of black and white films, and in Riffifi has astonishing set pieces, including a 20-minute heist sequence that is all squeaks, huffs, coughs, and footsteps. There are many great French crime movies—many of them are on my lists—but I would argue that this is the finest. Night and the City has a strong focal point in Richard Widmark, a nasty, wolfish actor who always seems to be thinking aberrant thoughts. Here he plays a double-dealing wrestling promoter named Fabian, and the movie follows his self-sabotage over the course of a few days. His self-deception leads to the ruin of everything he touches. Dassin’s London is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

10. Anatomy of a Murderer— Along with the Verdict and Witness for the Prosecution, this is the best legal thriller ever made. A great cast—Jimmy Stewart, Ben Gazarra, Lee Remnick, George C. Stott—and a great director in Preminger make this a puzzling, challenging, even thrilling whodunit. Stewart reveals a sly, manipulative persona that was, looking back over his career, there from the start. The story is simple: Gazarra is accused of murdering a man who was sleeping with his wife. Stewart takes the case. Gazarra admits to the murder, sort of, but is a slippery client, elusive, shady, temperamental. Stewart must balance his client’s apparent guilt against his desire to beat the two hotshot prosecutors who take up the state’s case.

11. Sunset Boulevard/All About Eve—Sinister, perverse and wicked. Billy Wilder reinvents Gloria Swanson as an aging silent movie actress (she was) deranged by her years in and then out of the spotlight. William Holden had his hand in dozens of good films, and one of my all-time favorites in Network. Here he plays a down on his luck screenwriter will more self-pity and rationalization than talent. He falls into the clutches of an eccentric aging silent film star living in a desolate mansion out in the Hollywood hills. The background players are fascinating: Hedda Hopper, Cecille B. DeMille, and Eric Von Stroheim as Swanson’s butler. Wilder made a more cynical movie with Ace in the Hole—which has its merits—but here he balances the world-weariness with gothic macabre, and it goes down like a smooth martini cut with strychnine. Eve: Verbal gymnastics, wanton greed, and social climbers make this movie about an established actress being eclipsed by an ambition newcomer. Anne Baxter plays Eve, a wolf in sheep’s clothing who pretends innocence while worming her way into a group of powerful theatre people. Bette Davis plays Margo, an established actress who sees what Eve is doing, and is powerless to stop her. This dynamite film was supposedly based on real people, but it doesn’t matter; the film soars on enough wit and charm for a dozen movies.

12. Bob Le Flambeur/ Touchez pas au Grisbi—Jean Pierre Melville has been called the godfather of the French New Wave and it’s easy to see why. All of his movies are beautiful, and most of them are thrilling, but his later films have a chilly, almost mechanical, feel. Here he centers the story on a rakish gambler, with a gentle, raconteur’s voice over, and the result is a superb love letter to the French way of life. There’s some crime, sure, and plenty of gambling, but the movie rambles from one scene of beauty to the next. Touchez: A gangster movie with style, wit, charm, and plenty of bodies. Jean Gabin plays a retired tough guy who wants to take it easy, drink white wine, eat strong cheese, and listen to his theme music. But when Gabin is betrayed by his ex-girl, and his best friend is kidnapped, he enlists the help of some old still-with-it breakers and settles the score. The great thing about this film is the moments of relaxation, the intense pleasure in small things that even a killer can enjoy.

13. Rear Window/Strangers on a Train/ Stage Fright— My favorite Hitchcock movie. Jimmy Stewart plays a voyeur with a broken leg. His only pastime is looking out his back window at the people’s lives across the way. He sees newlyweds, a dance instructor, some spoiled kids, an annoying dog, and perhaps a murder. Stewart’s obsession with the murder interferes with his relationship with his fiancé, Grace Kelly, until she absorbs his obsessions as his own. The confinement of Stewart’s apartment is palpable, and his only outlet a necessity. Strangers on a Train is a great little murder movie with plenty of wit and more than a touch of madness. Two strangers, Guy and Bruno, meet on a train. They talk, and in talking, they each reveal a problematic person in their lives. Bruno’s proposal is simple: they switch murders. Guy thinks they are joking; Bruno is serious. The movie is slim and its thinness makes for a great movie. Raymond Chandler worked on the screenplay. Farley Granger (I’ve always liked his work) does a good job as the tennis pro, but Robert Walker as the effeminate Bruno is affected but fantastic: he’s sinister, weak, capable yet strangely docile. Stage Fright is a bizarre little English cheapie that works because of Hitchcock’s enormous bag of tricks. He uses them all here, misremembered flashbacks, various camera lenses and disturbing close-ups. This is more of a guilty pleasure, but it’s got Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman against the backbiting theatre culture of London.

14. Winchester 73/Rio Bravo/The Searchers—The first collaboration between Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart, and an intriguing take on the western. Before the war, Jimmy Stewart cut his teeth playing aw shucks nice guys. During the war he was a bomber pilot, and he returned a changed man. Violence, toughness, and pathology entered into his roles. Here he plays a haunted gunslinger tracking down the man who killed his father. The movie is low budget, and Stewart opted for a percentage of the profits instead of his usual fee; this, along with the anti-trust legislation against the studios, effectively killed the studio system. The factory style of moviemaking was over. There is some silliness here, but overall it’s thrilling. Rio Bravo: Howard Hawks slows it down, adds humor, atmosphere, a couple of great songs, a great supporting cast, and the Duke, John Wayne, striding through the moral filth with fists and guns. The movie does so many things right it’s hard to see how so many other movies get it all wrong. Co-stars Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, and Ricky Nelson. Ten years later Hawks Made El Dorado, basically a remake but almost as good. The Searchers: John Wayne was never better than he is here, in this John Ford directed revenge western about a racist soldier out to wipe the slate clean. Alongside a half-Indian relative, he’s searching for his brother’s kidnapped daughter, to save her from captivity, or kill her for throwing in with the enemy. For those who think John Wayne couldn’t act, take a look.

15. From Here to Eternity/No Time For Sergeants—The best film about the ennui facing men of war at rest. Montgomery Clift plays Pruitt, a champion boxer who refuses to fight. Burt Lancaster plays Warden, an officer who’s fallen in love with his commander’s wife. Frank Sinatra plays Maggio, a hard-drinking screw-up who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. Donna Reed plays Lorene, a call girl without a heart of gold. These characters and a half a dozen more fight, drink, cheat, and betray against the backdrop of Hawaii in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor. A large, epic Hollywood film that lives up to the hype. Sergeants: My dad says I don’t have enough comedies in my lists and he’s right. Here Andy Griffith plays a corn-fed kid drafted into the army, who ruins everything he touches and can out drink anyone. Myron McCormick plays the sergeant who tries to drive him out of the military. But every punishment he devises is a reward to Griffith, who hams it up but somehow still plays it just right. A very funny movie.

16. An American in Paris/Gigi—Hollywood found fertile ground in Paris, and it shows. Gene Kelly plays a down on his luck painter who is promoted by a wealthy woman who isn’t just interested in his art. He meanwhile meets and falls in love with a young Parisian ingénue (played by Leslie Caron). Oscar Levant is in the story, too, and he delivers his usual deadpan jokes and dazzling piano playing. The story is intriguing, and the final 19 minute montage of two dozen or so dance numbers is hurts and helps the film, as the stories sort of dissolve into beautiful wisps of cigarette smoke. Gigi: A movie with bad songs, no stars and a clichéd plot, and yet, it works. Leslie Caron is back, and much more convincing as Gigi, a young Parisian girl looking for love. She finds it in Gaston Lachaille, a chronically bored bachelor who pals around with the loveable letch Honore Lachaille (played by all-around performer, and Vichy collaborator Maurice Chevalier). The main appeal is the on-location shooting and the splendid interiors lit, designed and lovingly captured by Vincent Minnelli. I’m telling you, it’s good.

17. Shane/A Place in the Sun—George Stevens made three very good films: A Place in the Sun, Giant, and Shane, his leanest and purest film. Alan Ladd plays a wandering gunslinger who wants to lose himself in honest, decent work. He settles in with settlers/farmers on the edge of a dirt town. But in the West, trouble/violence/greed is always close. In this case, a local hard man and angry rancher wants the farmland, and brings in a gunman from Cheyenne (played by Jack Palance) to do get it. Ladd stands in his way. A meditation on the absurd costs of masculinity, pride, and violence. Those who think they know this movie should give it a second chance. Place: An unclassifiable movie that is beautiful, bold, disturbing, and rich. Montgomery Clift plays an outcast social climber who falls in love with the most beautiful girl in town, played by Elizabeth Taylor. But, he’s knocked up townie Shelly Winters, and she refuses to let him go. Will he murder Winters to get the life he’s always wanted? Entertaining madness.

18. The Asphalt Jungle/Kiss Me Deadly—A story of a bank robbery gone wrong, professional criminals who work together until they don’t, and then out come the guns and knives. John Huston directs this white-knuckle heist movie about the integrity of hoodlums and the immorality of the suits. A great cast: Sterling Hayden, James Whitmore, and a then-unknown actress named Marilyn Monroe. Huston adapted from the book by W.R. Burnett, who also wrote Little Caesar. The standard against which all other heist movies are compared. Grim, grim, grim. Kiss Me Deadly: Low brow meets high art in this, the granddaddy of them all, the weird, violent crime-soaked tale of an amoral detective in an insane world. Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, on the trail of a mysterious trunk that appears to be the focal point of the entirety of underworld and political attention and activity. There’s torture, fistfights, shootouts and the like, but through it all stands the enigma: what’s in the box? Here’s an old movie that watches like new, with its layers of irony, its stylized violence, its lack of empathy. It’s as if a psychopath wrote and directed a film with marionettes. When Hammer finally finds the trunk, with two words the movie shifts into surreal territory: “It’s . . . hot?”

19. Rebel without a Cause/In a lonely Place/Bitter Victory— Maybe the 1950s belong to Nicholas Ray after all. He made the best noir of the decade, the best war movie, and the best drama, all shot with arresting visuals that somehow told the whole story without words. Teens are taken seriously here; it’s the adults who are doped up, bottomed out, and ruined. Looking back, it’s Ray’s film and not Dean’s, who by the standards of other actors before and after was interesting and talented, but overcooked. Rebel made James Dean a star, and the racing scene by the cliffs eerily predicted his death. Godard: “Nicholas Ray is cinema.”  Lonely and Victory: Two great Nicholas Ray films, the first a study of loneliness, psychopathy and despair, the other an examination of war and divided loyalties. In a Lonely Place does more with Bogart’s broken face than the rest of his films put together. The despair, the anger, the rage, the features both slack and strangely rigid, a thousand years of human suffering and it’s all there on Bogie’s face. The plot is simple. Bogart plays a screenwriter accused of murder. He has a history of losing his temper, drinking too much, and when he begins a relationship with his neighbor, who slowly begins to doubt his innocence. A great little movie. Bitter Victory follows two British officers who hate each other forced to embark on a dangerous desert mission.

20. 12 Angry Men/Marty—A great film about men, juries, racism, justice. An absurdly talented cast, including Lee J. Cobb, Martin Balsam (my nominee for best character actor of all time), Jack Klugman, jack Warden and Ed Begley, among others, and director Sidney Lumet keeps the camera close and steady, scrutinizing those now lost, lonely faces. It’s a talkie for people who like action and suspense, a showcase for different acting styles (just watch Henry Fonda’s lanky laconicism with Lee J. Cobb’s bellowing bluster) Lumet, as always, makes making movies look easy. Marty: Paddy Chayefsky wrote the screenplays to three of my favorite movies: Network, The Hospital, and this, his gentlest and humane film. Ernest Borgnine plays a lonely, working class butcher looking for love while taking care of his mother. His life is simple, unadorned, and miserable. His friends and family all try to get him hitched up, but when he finally meets a girl he likes, those very people try to tear the fledgling relationship apart. Borgnine is perfect for the role, warm and vulnerable. A great movie about regular people.

21. Guys and Dolls/Oklahoma!/King Creole—Bold, bright, and brassy. Damon Runyon’s tale of a loveable gambler his incompetent minions is transferred to the big screen with great songs. Sinatra belts his way through the songs with gusto, while Marlon Brando does a fabulous job, despite being unable to sing or dance. Oklahoma!: The exclamation point says it all. A favorite from my childhood and still a great musical. Follows a group of cowboys and cowgirls as they romance, sing, dance, and lasso their way through the lush countryside. King Creole: Elvis Presley’s first and best film, directed by Michael Curtis and set in New Orleans. Elvis plays a teenager failing school, working at a nightclub and flirting with petty crime. He becomes a singer instead, but his new career path brings him into a higher breed of criminal, namely Walter Matthau, a local up and coming hood. A musical, a drama, a thriller, a little bit of everything, but it isn’t an over-seasoned stew. Elvis can move on screen, and he isn’t a half-bad actor. In some alternate universe, he could have been a star.

22. Blackboard Jungle/The Big Knife/Face in the Crowd—Glen Ford plays a new public school teacher besieged by hoodlums, bureaucratic bullshit, and apathy. Things sure haven’t changed. He stays the course, however, and soon he is making a difference, albeit a small one, with the hardcases in his class. Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow co-star. Big Knife: Clifford Odets is an acquired taste, but I love his work, his ragged edges, his sharp-shooting speeches. Here Jack Palance plays a compromised actor who has chased fame and money instead of quality and art. He is buffeted by the outsized personalities and needs of the people in his life. Just look at the cast: Ida Lupino, Rod Steiger, Jean Hagan, Shelly Winters. Face: Andy Griffith, unleashed. Patricia Neal plays a reporter who discovers a cornpone redneck smart enough to play his slapdash appeal to big shows, and then alarming political power. Griffith is fantastic as a hard-edged rambler who is both manipulator and manipulated. Kazan directs, and although the end is a bit much, the rest of the film is a shock, relevant and mean. Also, for what it’s worth, entertaining as hell.

Honorable Mention: The Big Heat; The Earrings of Madame De . . .; A Man Escaped; Night of the Hunter; The Lady-killers; Executive Suite; Giant; Ben Hur; The Naked Spur; Big Country; The Bridge on the River Kwai; The Wages of Fear.

A word from my wife: Bad genes, bad hair.

24 Jun

Simone has fantastic hair—soft, silky bronze-colored curls that shine almost iridescent in the light—wild and sweet. My grandmother is glad. She often commented in Simone’s hairless infancy that Simone wouldn’t be really pretty until she had hair because, “A woman’s hair is her crowning glory.”

This is unfortunate news for me.

I had fantastic hair once, too. My curls never shimmered, they were coal black, but they were soft and sweet around my tiny face. I don’t remember having that fantastic hair.

All I remember is what came after—the difficult hair—thick, coarse, unwieldy, frizzy, not curly, not straight, not even wavy, just difficult. The summer I was twenty, a twelve year old said to me, “I’ve never seen a white person with hair like yours.” I decided to take it as a compliment until his follow-up comment, “You look like a witch.”

Starting in elementary school, I was envious of the girls with the straight, shiny, effortless hair. In an unfortunate testament to my poor self-esteem, I still envy those shiny-haired girls, as my friend Sherina and I called them in college. As a kid, I cherished the moment of emerging from the pool or shower when my temporarily lank locks would hang straight down my back, sleek, straight, and shiny for a few blissful minutes, before they would spring and gnarl and frizz into inevitable disaster once again.

Lots of people have difficult hair, though, unfortunately for me, I didn’t meet many of them until I went to college. Difficult hair’s not so bad if you know how to manage it. When I was ten and my hair blossomed into full-fledged insanity, I did not know how to manage it. Neither did my mom. My mom did not have difficult hair. Nor did she ever, as multiple family members have helpfully informed me, have an awkward phase. (subtext: You did. We’re not sure that it’s over yet. Does it count as a phase if it lasts for more than 20 years?)

My mom knew nothing of products or fancy haircuts. My brother and I both got our haircut in the basement of the local mall. Without fail, I left in tears.

My solution for a few years was to tame my hair—through water, hairspray, preadolescent grit, a high scalp pain tolerance, and neon scrunchies—into the most ridiculous ponytails, high on my head, or, worse yet, off to one side, a hairdo my dad fondly remembers as “The Pump.”

As I entered adolescence and the early 90s, I gave up the high ponytail, by then irredeemably unfashionable, and abandoned myself to permanent mushroom head.

I blamed my parents for my hair. Not because they didn’t know how to deal with it—I didn’t even know there was such a thing as dealing with it—but because they had given me this hair, through bad luck and bad genes. I have a vivid memory of sweltering summer day, impossible conditions for my hair, standing in the mirror of the downstairs bathroom at my parents’ old house trying in vain to tamp down an untamable mass of hair with handfuls of water from the sink. I screamed at my Dad, yanking at my hair like a toddler in the throes of a tantrum (I must have been 11 or 12), “I hate my hair! I hate it! And I hate you!”

After a senior year high school yearbook photo where I appeared in a halo of frizz, I managed to figure out a few tricks—longer hair was less puffy, smelly pomade glopped my black locks into submission. I’ve even had several decent hair days over the past thirteen years, always carefully recorded for posterity. And, embarrassingly, I do cherish their memory.

I would have liked to have given my daughter the good hair genes I always wished I’d had. Somehow, though, I managed to marry a man who has more difficult hair than I do. (I suppose I thought I was making up for that with his tall genes, but it turns out that Simone got my short genes. Nature’s kind of a bitch.) This does not bode well for the fate of Simone’s hair. Unlike my mother, when Simone’s hair goes rogue, I will be prepared—armed with products, a real hair stylist, and lots of advice (which she will both ignore and resent if she takes after me).

Ben always says that looks don’t matter. Alas, they matter so much less when you look good.

VHS, not Super-8, part 1: Escape into the Cyborg Castle of Doom

20 Jun

(three failed filmmakers and a nun.)

I saw Super-8 on Saturday. The movie follows a group of kids trying to make a movie with a super-8 camera. In the process, they witness a train wreck where something otherworldly escapes. It was tolerable, pleasant and benign despite (or because of) its excessive retro gazing, neoliberal politics and nerdcore sensibility. As a film, it’s just okay. But as an exercise in nostalgia, it’s superb.

When I was in high school, I made movies, too, with my friends Jeff and Robert. This was in the early ’90s; VHS had eclipsed super-8 and that was fine. Jeff owned the camera, so we filmed at his house and he usually handled the cinematography. Robert played the hero or villain or both. I filled in the other roles. We didn’t have scripts. We all came up with ideas. With a cast of 2 and ½ we were limited. We were also lazy. We had rudimentary costumes. We didn’t attempt to build or modify sets. A swimming pool in a gladiator movie? No problem. The only music we used was Les Miserables.

Jeff was rational, realistic and often reluctant to participate. Robert was madness personified, willing to do anything. I was game so long as we didn’t do anything immoral and/or illegal. (Besides being raised Southern Baptist, I also had the moral privilege of attending a Catholic high school; see above photo.) In other words: Jeff was the ego, Robert the id and I was the superego. While Jeff and I often switched roles, Robert was always (and remains) the wild-eyed id.

Jeff edited on the camera. He would rewind the VHS tape and then try again. It was an exhausting way to make a movie. We would spend hours on a 2-minute movie, and many of the screw-ups and false starts would end up in the final cut.

Our first movie was Escape into the Cyborg Castle of Death. Robert played a missionary/hero/assassin looking for the heart of a doomed castle, which looked suspiciously like Jeff’s bedroom, hallways, den and living room. I played cloned cyborg replicants. There was no plot. I don’t remember any speaking lines, either. The whole point was for Robert to kill versions of me in as many ways as possible, on his way to an epic finish. Basically Gymkata, plus robots but minus the karate. I was beheaded, stabbed, broken into pieces. My eyes were gouged. In one scene I wore a helmet. At some point my testicles were punted out of my mouth. Jeff disallowed any fake blood, so we had to mime each and every atrocity.

Here are some of the other titles from our freshman year:

Party of Death

Cyborg Cowboy

Time Travel Movie

Conan the Christian (co-starring Chris Creary)

Die, Vamp (with Chris Butler)

There were others, but you get the idea. Unlike the young heroes of Super-8, we had no aliens, only serial killers and androids (and sometimes android serial killers). Party of Death is a Halloween rip-off. Time Travel Movie (Jeff disliked this too much to give it a name) is a one-scene Back to the Future without the jokes. But, spoken with all humility, Cyborg Cowboy is a masterpiece. I played a cowboy taken to the future by an evil scientist, experimented on (the laboratory was Jeff’s parents’ garage) and then abandoned to a cruel dystopia that bore an uncanny resemblance to Pensacola, FL circa 1991. We were going to make it a series, but then Jeff started dating girls and Robert and I fell headlong into after-school horror movie Toaster Strudel marathons.

Two years later, we returned to moviemaking with a bang. We decided, for a class, to adapt The Gettysburg Address. It would be a sensational retelling of the untold assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln. Read about the dramatic behind the scenes stories of this lost cinematic masterpiece in “VHS, not Super-8, part 2.”

Best short stories ever written, and when Simone can read them

18 Jun

Quick: think about the best short stories you’ve ever read.

I went to a teaching conference last year where a speaker named Alfred Tatum explained his method of using literature as therapy. What he does is this: he asks students—usually inner city males—to write down all of the important stories, novels, poems and movies that have shaped them. He would then teach a number of stories and novels that he felt spoke to the urban male’s experiences. And he claimed anyway that the males he taught came out of his class better writers and better people. This moved me, so I spent the rest of the lecture writing down every novel, short story, and non-fiction book that matters to me.

These are the stories I hope to share with Simone, although that’s probably a few months away. I’ve forgone the usual summary/response/reflection to let these stand alone, instead opting for the age when I think she’ll understand them. If you have any stories you think need to be added, drop me a line.

“Holy Quarrel” by Philip K. Dick (artificial intelligence gone awry; age 6)

“Faith of Our Fathers” by Philip K. Dick (amnesis and the discovery of awful reality of life, and perfect encapsulation of everything that makes PKD so great; age 7)

“In the Park” by Herbert Huncke (young boy loses innocence; age 50)

“The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway (Hemingway’s one shot at a crime story; age 10)

“A Good Man is Hard To Find” by Flannery O’Connor (Best short story ever; age 3)

“Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor (philosophy of nothingness; age 4)

“Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe (carnival in face of apocalypse; age 12)

“Two Fragments: Saturday and Sunday, March 199-“ by Ian McEwan (disturbing exploration of dystopian weirdness; age 13)

“The Universe in Miniature in Miniature” by Patrick Somerville (wacky tale of graduate students studying dada style nonsense; age 15)

“The King In Yellow” by Robert Chambers (early horror about a book that will drive you mad; age 16)

“The Immortal” by Jorge Luis Borges (Memory, time, identity loops, Borges; age 18)

“Last Evenings on Earth” by Roberto Bolaño (A boy sees the complexity of his father; age 2)

“Delicate Prey” by Paul Bowles (Ghastly revenge tale in the Sahara; age 30)

“Dragged Fighting From His Tomb” by Barry Hannah (Offbeat story of Civil War with my favorite line of all time: “Tell me the most exquisite truths you know”; age 15)

“Best New Horror” by Joe Hill (Story of a editor of horror anthologies who falls into the plot of a horror story; never quite shook it; age 45)

“Barn Burning” by William Faulkner (Studied it in college, never shook it, hard-nosed father seeks constant revenge; age 11)

The Devil’s Lonely Boy, part 5: Revelations

17 Jun

As I grew up I learned to put away childish things. After high school I stopped reading comic books. I stopped reading science fiction. I stopped believing in the Devil. Somewhere along the way I realized that much of what my mom taught me is wrong; that the universe with all its billions of planets and millions of stars cannot be so simple as she professes; that an all-loving God would never doom so many people to an eternity of suffering; that my father isn’t damned to spend his afterlife in hell; that in places the real Bible reads like a comic book. I have come to see my childhood for what it is: a mishmash of apocalyptic fundamentalism, backward superstition, and lots of love. I realized that Russia is just another country, that Bill Clinton isn’t a minion of the devil, and that Ronald Reagan isn’t the best man ever.

As an adult, God feels far away. He doesn’t seem to fit with the pattern of events. I still feel Him, sometimes, radiating goodness from some far corner of the universe. But usually I feel alone. Losing faith is like falling asleep in your lover’s arms and waking up alone, the lover having never existed. The prismatic nature of reality has ruined all the comforts of monochrome.

I certainly miss the Devil. There’s something strangely comforting about a reason for all the evil in the universe. As terrifying as Lucifer is, without him we are left with all the mundane unconnected terrors science can reconstruct. Sometimes I miss the Devil more than God. Because the Devil explained so much.

My mother still talks about the rapture. I now know to laugh inside. The world isn’t going to end, not with a bang and not with a whisper. It will slowly cool over time, millions and millions of years, as the universe burns itself out of its energy. Mankind will be long gone by then. The dark husk of the earth will simply rot to nothingness.

I’ve started reading comics again. I keep hoping that one day Superman or Spiderman or Doctor Strange will appear and explain the verities of existence, confirming my still-held belief that somewhere there’s still magic in the universe, that the nature of reality is fundamentally good, and that grand adventures await the grown-up versions of little boys who dared to believe in Jesus.