worse things waiting: hard rain falling

Maybe it’s just me, but I think with each passing year it becomes more and more difficult to discover a new favorite book (it goes for movies as well).  You know, the kind of book that immediately gets under your skin and seeps into your DNA.  It happens, but not like it did when I was younger when my taste was still being shaped.  My taste is still changing, I guess, but not like it did when I was in my formative years.  I’m more confident in what I like now and certain in what I hate.  I know what I like and try to stay away from things I don’t in other words.  Life is short and there’s no time to waste exploring the movies of Larry the Cable Guy or the novels of Chuck Palahniuk.

But this blog post isn’t about what I hate.  It’s about what I love.  I’ve fallen in love with the late Don Carpenter.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  I’ve fallen in love with Carpenter’s first novel, Hard Rain Falling, originally published in 1966.  The book isn’t long (it runs only 308 pages), but it feels epic in its modest way.  It feels like a personal epic, charting the life of a petty criminal named Jack Levitt as he roams the pool halls of Portland, Oregon (my hometown) in the late 1940s to his time in San Francisco and prison in the 1950s to his post-prison years in Frisco where he marries a wealthy woman and tries to go straight.  That’s its basic plot.  The novel’s misfit characters, its seedy setting, and the cleanness of Carpenter’s otherwise muscular prose would make for the prime ingredients of a crime novel.  But as writer George Pelecanos points out in his fine introduction to the New York Review Books edition, this isn’t a crime novel although it partly deals with criminals and their milieu.

The real dramatic weight of the book, however, is about male bonding and the struggle of standing tall when the weight of the world aims to crush you.  It’s about existing at the bottom of it all.  It’s about realizing you’re fucked but that you still have to get on with it every goddamn day.  So you try to have a good time while the seconds tick down.  Because whether you’re a rich man or a poor man, a law-abiding citizen or a thief, a God-fearing man or a non-believer—you’re going to die.  Everything you once believed in, everything you ever accomplished, everything you ever dreamed of doing, won’t matter in the end.  That’s so obvious it’s simplistic and stupid of me to even focus on it, but every day most of us live our lives in denial of that simple fact.  It’s understandable why most of us don’t fixate on it every day.  We have jobs, families, loved ones, and obligations to focus on.  To contemplate too much on the impermanence of our lives would be morbid and selfish and unhealthy.

Carpenter paints a harsh world for his characters.  Hard Rain Falling deals with the same thematic elements that noir writers like Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and James M. Cain regularly dealt with.  Carpenter, though, isn’t interested in tying the narrative to melodrama, which was something noir writers routinely did.  I rather enjoy melodrama and there’s nothing wrong with a writer going for outsized emotion if it’s handled with commitment.  But that’s not this book.  This is a page-turner in its way, though it’s a character-driven one and plot is always incidental to the emotional momentum built up from what happens to Jack throughout the book.  At the heart of this story is, surprisingly enough, a love story between Jack and a black pool hustler named Billy Lancing.  The two first meet in Portland at a pool hall and there’s plenty of racial tension in those scenes.  They are not fast friends.  Years go by and both men go through their own significant struggles in life.  They both wind up at San Quentin Prison, become cell mates, and eventually lovers.  It’s powerful stuff… and emotional.  Their relationship, which peaks roughly halfway through the book, nevertheless underlies everything Jack does afterward when he’s back on the outside trying to keep his shit together in San Francisco.  The final act of the book almost feels far-fetched… melodramatic.  Jack the pauper and ex-con falls into the realm of the fast-living moneyed, and he scrambles to hang on when he becomes romantically involved with a quick-witted beautiful rich woman.  What started as a naturalistic post-World War II novel thoroughly in the hard-boiled tradition segues into a picaresque tale with a subtle absurdest edge as it cruises into the 1960s.

There’s no sentimentality here, no melodrama to distance us from the pain.  There’s nothing false to comfort us along the way.  There’s no bullshit. Carpenter isn’t Woolrich or Goodis or any of the other noir writers that when at their best turned being on the skids into dark poetry.  Carpenter eschews any pretense toward doomed romanticism, instead writing about his losers and bums and criminals with clear-eyed realism.  There’s a real tenderness running through the novel, however, particularly in the second half.  Underneath the book’s hard exterior, underneath the toughness of its prose, underneath its snarl, is an insight and sensitivity that haunted me long after I finished it.

It’s wise about the world.  It’s wise about people like us.  And I can already tell this one won’t be too far from my grasp no matter where I end up in the world.

That’s a damn good feeling to have.  Let’s hope that the NYRB will republish more of Carpenter’s work.  It’s too vital and honest to be forgotten.


flagpole and me

Just a quick update… I will be posting some substantial stuff very soon though.

I’m now reviewing movies for the fine Athens, Georgia publication Flagpole, a free newsweekly that’s just about damn everywhere in town.  I’m very happy to be a contributor to the paper and I hope to be writing for them for a long time.  For you out-of-towners, you can read the paper and my reviews online tooMy first review was for the documentary Senna, chronicling the life of famed Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who died in a crash in 1994.  I have no interest in automobiles and thought the movie was fantastic, so that should tell you something.  And this week I reviewed actress Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground.  Next week I’ll be looking at either Drive, The Future (Miranda July’s return to the screen), and/or Beats, Rhymes and Life, a documentary about the influential hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest.  I haven’t decided which one yet.

I’d love to see some of you over at the Flagpole web site leaving comments…  wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

random moments in film criticism #1

The Getaway is an utter bore.  A failure as drama, as film, as entertainment.  It is morally corrupt, artistically arid, conceptually outdated and in sum as thoroughly unredeemable a piece of shit as has been released this year, and the horror and wonder of it, is that it came from such massive talents.”

The above quote is from the always outspoken Harlan Ellison, writing in the January 19, 1973 edition of The Staff about Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 crime movie The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw.  The review is collected in the book Harlan Ellison’s Watching.  As good a quote as any to inaugurate this new blog feature.

Below is a scene from the movie, giving you a little taste of what Bloody Sam did best.  If you haven’t seen it before and plan to, you may want to back off.  Plot lines are resolved and not everyone makes it out alive.  Good scene.


I think you could argue that Ellison is the godfather of the kind of belligerent, smartypants writing that blankets the internet nowadays.  The sort of hostile over-the-top typing that is frequently mistaken for having an opinion.  The big difference is that Ellison could write and he was informed about his opinions.  He harangued the reader, but it came loaded with just as much brains as brawn.  Most of the time.    

there will be blood: into the void

Jeremy Richey over at Moon in the Gutter has been hosting a fabulous Paul Thomas Anderson blog-a-thon for over a week now.  He invited me to contribute and you can now read my short essay about Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  And after you do that, make sure to check out all of the thoughtful, splendid essays from the other contributors.

pt anderson blogathon @ moon in the gutter

My film blogging comrade over at Moon in the Gutter, Jeremy Richey, is hosting a P.T. Anderson blogathon September 13-19 and it will no doubt be an entertaining, exciting event.  I’m contributing an essay–not sure which film I’ll be focusing on yet–and I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with.  I wrote a short piece about Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love in my first book, a film that is (I feel) one of the best of the last decade and a rather damn fine romantic comedy at that, so there’s always the temptation to revisit it… maybe do some screengrabs or something.  But I’ve been dying to write about There Will Be Blood since I saw it in January 2008 the day before I left for Europe and then watched again in the Leitrim Cinemobile when I was living in Ireland.  Seriously, some enterprising cinephiles in the States need to bring cinema to the masses with trucks like these.  They’re great.  And they’re warm too, which was surprising since it’s always so damn cold in Ireland year round!  Also, the cool thing about the Leitrim Cinemobile was that it would screen international films and smaller indie fare from the States… not blockbusters.  This was out in the boondocks, mind you.  We didn’t live in the city.  And these were real 35mm prints, not DVDs or digital projections.  Real films, real patrons in seats, and loads of arguments afterward as you scurried down the pub for a few pints.  Make sure to check out the video below that gives you a glimpse of how cool the Leitrim Cinemobile is.  But I digress.

P.T. Anderson.  Blogathon.  Moon in the Gutter.  That has Awesome all over it.

directory of world cinema: american independent and sinescope

It’s been pretty busy around these parts and as the summer crawls forward… it’s only going to get busier as the Terry Gilliam book gets finished and a new book project gets started.  I’m not going to say anything publicly about the latter thingy… but it’s exciting and in time I can be more open about it.

First off, I noticed this evening that my comrade from across the pond, UK film academic/editor/writer John Berra, has been interviewed by Jeremy Richey over at his fabulous site Moon in the Gutter.  I was fortunate to have been able to contribute a number of reviews (and an essay on Yakuza cinema) to both of the books that Berra edited (when not teaching film studies at Sheffield Hellam University), Directory of World Cinema: Japan and Directory of World Cinema: American Independent (both published by Intellect).

The book on Japanese films is now available in the UK and will soon be available in the US.  The American Independent book can now be pre-ordered here.

I also want to mention a project that I’m very happy about.  I’m now a contributing editor and resident film critic at the online arts journal Sinescope.  The site just went up Sunday evening and… well, it’s just getting started.  Plenty of wonderful essays already up over there–including my own piece on Quentin Tarantino’s war epic Inglourious Basterds–and I also have a film-oriented blog (He Watched by Night) there too which will include DVD/Blu-ray, theatrical, and movie biz items.  And if you head over there you can read my reviews of the recent superb Criterion Collection releases Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy and Steve McQueen’s remarkable feature-film debut Hunger.

Whew!  Sorry for the self-promotion, but I really wanted to mention those nifty things.  We now return to regular programming…

boris karloff blogathon a-go-go!

The Boris Karloff blogathon is now loose upon the world. You can read more about the week-long event here and the first post here, which includes a message from Boris’ daughter Sara Karloff.

I’ll be contributing at least one post sometime this week, although I hope to get two done if time permits.  I do love me some Karloff.

Hope to hear from some of you here or on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever else.  And I’m looking forward to reading some of the more than 100 various bloggers who are joining in.