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.

random moments in film criticism #3

I finally got my copy of When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, the first collection of Dave Kehr’s writing from his years as the head film critic at the Chicago Reader.  I couldn’t be happier, although I’m sure if someone told me that an intact print of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons had been discovered in a steamer trunk in Peru or that the latest Dario Argento movie was actually pretty good, that would make my day as well.  But there’s something about reading great criticism that’s… well, it opens the pores and scrubs out the cobwebs of the mind.  It sharpens you up to see and think in new ways, to engage with not only movies (or books or whatever) with a fresh insight, but to deal with the world outside of the frame in a renewed manner.  It’s not simply about finding out if the critic liked or disliked a movie.  It’s about understanding how the critic engaged with it and if you as a reader and watcher can engage with the work on your own terms.  A great critic doesn’t shut down the argument; they keep it evolving and widen participation.

I know how we physically engage with movies is drastically changing, as is the very definition of what a movie is nowadays, or at least it seems to be.  Film criticism has significantly changed with it.  Note that I don’t think it’s getting worse or better necessarily.  It’s just changed and evolved into something different.  As print movie journalism has dwarfed in recent years, quite alarmingly so, movie blogs catering to all persuasions have flourished as well, like weeds sprouting in the concrete fissures of an abandoned parking lot.  I think that aspects of the change, for instance the proliferation of well-informed and well-written blogs by amateurs and pros alike, is great.  What’s not so fantastic is the disintegration of intelligent movie criticism that is aimed at a large audience that was regularly found in magazines and newspapers in the 1970s or even in the 1980s, the decade when I first started reading film criticism.  It’s all niche-driven now, like most things.  As Kehr points out in his introduction, there is academic writing on one side and mainstream writing on the other and the two rarely if ever meet in the middle.  That’s a shame.  I’m not even going to touch upon the overflow of so-called fanboy blogs, which seem from afar to be nothing more than extensions of studio marketing divisions.  But plenty of movie reviewers on mainstream sites and in print publications also seem to be uncritical minions for p.r. departments.  The ability to talk to a wide audience about complex ideas intelligently though without obfuscating meaning with distracting jargon seems like a rare talent.

Which is why Kehr’s book is worth picking up and should make anyone happy who still cares about the cinematic medium and good writing.  Reading his 1978 review for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a film I know well, made me want to put down the book and immediately pop the Blu-ray on.  Almost, I say, because then that would have required me to stop reading… no way was I going to do that.  Kehr’s examination of how the film utilizes Old Testament myths for its own narrative purposes is far more enlightening, but the following passage nevertheless evokes clear, resonant images in my mind.

“Days of Heaven is a uniquely palpable film: the breath of the wind, the texture of the grain, light snow melting on a woman’s hair—we see, we hear, but somehow, we touch, too.  Nester Almendros’s prickly-sharp cinematography (the film was made in 70mm, but, unfortunately, is playing Chicago in only 35mm) finds its match in the crispness and subtlety of the Dolby sound.  Crickets sing, a windmill hums, and the image is opened up.  One of the most moving moments in the film occurs as the farmer (Sam Shepard) rolls a blade of wheat between his fingers, testing its ripeness.  The chaff crinkles off, and the farmer blows it away with a light, delicate breath.  In that second, the screen dissolves: not simply sound and image, the film becomes touch, taste, and smell.”

I guess I know what I’m re-watching later this evening.  After I finish the book, of course.

random moments in film criticism #2

“The pure horror movie would be that in which the forces of evil succeeded in taking over, the one they would themselves direct: pure, and therefore unrealizable.  Carmilla, the gorgeous undead girl (invented by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu) who infiltrated bourgeois households in Blood and Roses and The Vampire Lovers, was the advance agent for a New Order, but you would never get to see what sort of a world that would be.  There would never be The Last Man on Earth II, detailing what happened on virus-ridden Earth in the aftermath of Sidney Salkow’s unforgettably downbeat 1964 production, after there was no one left except vampires.  The inheritors, in such a scenario, would propose a ravenous alternative dispensation, in which the lords of chaos in their unrestrained domesticity could give themselves over to a voracity without end.”

The evocative passage above was by the writer/critic/editor Geoffrey O’Brien and taken from his superb, impressionistic analysis of movies and memory, The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, originally published in 1993.  It’s not a traditional critical examination at all, but it’s brilliantly written and contains many insights that keep me going back to it all these years later.  Reading the above paragraph immediately reminded me of the movie below.

The video clip is taken from the experimental movie Begotten, directed by E. Elias Merhige, from 1991.  It’s not really a horror movie, although it contains plenty of macabre imagery and feels unwholesome in that way only the best horror movies can exude.  It looks and feels as if it had been unearthed from ancient soil and screened as a sacrament to unnameable gods.  It feels like something they would screen for themselves for a night of entertainment, when their bellies were too bloated to continue their ritualistic sacrifices.

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.

ADDITION:

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.    

appearing at the decatur book festival september 5

I’ll be appearing at the AJC Decatur Book Festival this weekend, Sunday at 1:30 in the afternoon on the Emerging Authors stage.  This book festival is the largest independent book fest in the country, so you’re bound to find an author to your taste, a panel worth taking in, or maybe even “discover” a new writer you’ve previously never heard of.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.  Will talk a bit about my first book Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers and do a short signing afterward.

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…