natural born losers: bust, slide, and the max

Musicians regularly get together and jam.  It’s not always serious.  Sometimes it’s just jazzing about, goofing off, making shit up while still searching for a note, a thread, a pathway to something viable.  Actors do the same thing through improvisation.  Comedians too.

Writers, however, are rarely thought of as improvisers in the same way.  The obvious difference is that writing is a solitary vocation and they’re usually not open to input from family, friends, and colleagues until well into revision stage.  To put it bluntly, most writers simply don’t play well with others.

Collaboration still occurs between writers though.  I’ve always wondered how those things work when two hot-shot novelists get together.  Do they sit in the same cramped room together bashing the keys?  Does one type while the other dictates, then they switch roles at the end of every chapter?

I figure what ever way crime writers Ken Bruen and Jason Starr managed the practicality of writing their Max & Angela trilogy, they sure as hell had a great time doing it.  All three Hard Case Crime mass market paperbacks–Bust, published in 2006; Slide, published in 2007; The Max, published in 2008–feel like two writers having a laugh.  It feels like a lark and I haven’t giggled so hard reading in a long time.  The humor, though, is dark.  This is caustic stuff, but always hilarious.

“Max was barely listening to the rabbi’s eulogy, but when he realized that everyone was breaking down in tears, he knew he had to show some reaction.”

Bust is the most traditionally noir of the three.  It introduces our two anti-heroes–schlubby middle-aged businessman Max Fisher and his busty unqualified assistant and mistress Angela Petrakos–and digs a hole deep for the both of them.  Neither one of them is smart, to put it nicely, and part of the diabolical fun of the novel is watching these two overconfident idiots get themselves into terrible situations and… get into worse situations.

Max wants to knock off his wife.  He hires a sketchy Irishman with mangled lips (they were cut with a broken bottle) named Popeye to do the deed.  Popeye claims to be a professional killer, that’s why Angela brought him to Max in the first place.  It should go off without a hitch, but hardly anything goes right and when Max’s wife is horribly murdered it sets off a chain of misfortune that would make the Coen brothers’ heads spin.

Novels like Bust, including the rest of the series, are essentially perverse reads.  The comedy arises from events that are truly terrible–beatings, murder, kidnapping, and a whole lot of other nasty business.  The worse it gets and the farther Max and Angela descend into the pit, the funnier it is.  Max is the worst offender of the two.  He’s arrogant, delusional, and sociopathic.  He’s one loathsome character, but he’s also funny because he’s completely clueless about how bad he really is.  And as we move through the subsequent books, Max gives into those negative characteristics even more.  Angela, a half-Irish-half-Greek American bombshell, is horrible in a whole different way.  She’s certainly amoral, dumb, and gold-digging.  But I think her worst trait is her horrible taste in men.  When it comes to hooking-up, the woman would bed a rock if she thought she could squeeze some gold out of it.

“Max’s big problem was, despite all he’d been through over the past few months, his ego was all there.  He might’ve looked like a cesspool on the outside, but inside, he was still the same happening, suave, debonair, hip Max Fisher he’d always been.”

Slide picks up a year after the events in Bust.  Max aka The M.A.X. is now a “big time” coke dealer living in a Manhattan penthouse apartment with his new mistress Felicia (a stripper Max pays to be with him) and his in-house sushi chef.  He’s living the American Dream, or so he believes.  Maybe he’s just watched Scarface too many times.  Angela has fled to Ireland, her ancestral homeland, in hopes of riding the Celtic Tiger to wealth and fame.  But the economic boom has flat-lined and she gets mixed up with an American culture-loving Irish serial killer named Slide, who originally intended to kidnap and murder Angela when she accosted him on a Dublin street.  He quickly feels that she’s a kindred spirit and Angela, as per her usual routine with bad men, gets stuck with another loser… albeit a very scary, fucked up one.

I missed not having Max and Angela interact like they did in the first novel, but I thoroughly appreciate that Bruen and Starr don’t repeat themselves.  No fun in that.  And while Bust was undoubtedly a comedic book, it still very much adhered to noir tropes in a straightforward manner.  Slide‘s plot is looser.  It feels like a free-for-all at times… not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It feels like two writers jamming.

I don’t know how Bruen and Starr actually divided the work load, but you get the feeling that each one tried to set up the other one with improbable (and hilarious) plot complications and then said, “Now, try to get out of that one!”  It feels improvisatory to some degree.  If you go in looking for a ruthlessly plotted suspense tale, you may throw down the book in frustration.  It is suspenseful and quite the page-turner, but this is even more of a lark, and an outrageous one at that.  The transformation of Max into The M.A.X. is indeed a sight to behold.

“You got The M.A.X., you don’t need nothin’ else, dig?”

If The Max was a song, it would be turned to 11.  This is one hysterically over-the-top book and slightly better than the second one because it amps everything up to an even more ridiculous level.  This kind of far-fetched plotting is understandably not for everyone.  And The Max is really out there: The M.A.X. is now in prison, Attica, and reality is crashing down on him hard.  Angela is now in Greece, her other ancestral homeland (Ireland didn’t work out too well), and trying to live the high life with no money.  She gets involved with a suave grifting Englishman, Sebastian, who comes from money but doesn’t have any, and the two set off a domino effect of mayhem that will travel halfway ’round the world and end up intersecting with Max at Attica.  Toss in a desperate midlist crime writer who wants to write a biography of Max, plenty of crime genre/writing biz in-jokes, loads of politically incorrect humor, and you’ve got yourself another Hard Case winner.

All noir fiction straddles a line between humor and horror, tragedy and comedy.  If the existential odds are stacked up too high against our poor sap protagonist, a writer runs the risk of alienating their reader, pushing them too far.  There’s only so much trouble a character (and a reader) can take.  Maybe the size of one’s ego determines how far you can shove them closer to the void.  Max–who is oblivious in the first book but turns into a monstrous caricature by the second one and insanely destructive by the third–is unlike any fictional character I’ve ever run across.  At times he comes across like a sociopathic Elmer Fudd… a cartoon character with malicious intent who thinks he’s Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, or Al Pacino in DePalma’s Scarface remake.  The latter comes up a lot in Slide, since Max watches it all the time and tries to pattern his gangsta-lite persona on Pacino to become the de facto King of New York.

Or so he imagines.

If there’s one major theme running through these novels, it’s self-delusion… of characters not being able to see themselves clearly, of being unable to deal with reality truthfully.  For all of the gratuitous violence and extreme situations Bruen and Starr wallow in, they are completely insightful about this negative trait in us.  Everyone is capable of self-delusion.  I couldn’t help, however, seeing this as an exaggerated (because everything in these books is cranked up really high) examination of a specific strain of American self-delusion.  If the last ten years has taught us anything (you did learn this lesson, right?), it’s that American exceptionalism is a fantasy.  You can believe all you want that Americans are inherently different from everyone else in the world.  But that kind of destructive thinking only works so long and only within the borders of fortress America.  Go out into the world–and I’m not even talking the “exotic” Third World–and try acting like a know-it-all exceptional American.  Try it.  See how far it gets you on your crusade to win friends and influence people.

Max and Angela are American self-delusion personified.  Max adopts personas (badly) throughout the books–loving husband, good boss, ladies’ man, murderer, drug kingpin, gangsta, convict, genius.  He is incapable of being authentic, incapable of being what he truly is.  The frighteningly funny depth of his psychosis is brilliantly shown in how he reacts in the aftermath of his wife’s murder.  He eventually convinces himself that he didn’t hire Popeye and that he was the real victim of the whole affair, not his dead wife.  Max was the one suffering.

Angela’s delusions are more normal… for what it’s worth.  She’s dumb as hell, but she’s aggressive about living the good life.  Unfortunately, she’s not very good at attaining what she wants.  But damn if she doesn’t keep trying.  That’s what you call a real American can-do spirit!  Which is not a bad thing, mind you.  She’s a survivor, no doubt about it.

These are not sympathetic characters.  They don’t need to be.  The only thing that matters in fiction is that the characters are engaging.  Noir has always traded on that… not catering to good taste or offering up vanilla protagonists for fear of alienating readers/viewers.  The only moral or decent characters in this book–less than a handful–end up either dead or ineffectual… as it should be when we’re talking noir.

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the phantom empire #1

Photo © Scott Seymour. All rights reserved.

It’s the dream of every cinephile, I think, to own a cinema.  If not to own their own cinema then, at least, they wish to be employed at a liberal-minded establishment that would allow them to program whatever they wished to screen.  It’s an idea I’ve often fantasized about.  It would be a single screen joint (a huge one, of course, because bigger really is better in this case), project real film (of course), and have excellent sound.  Beer and wine would be available, as well as coffee, tea, and a few soda pops.  Fresh buttered popcorn, black and red licorice, and a couple of chocolate bars would also be offered.  Vintage movie posters, lobby cards, and stills would decorate the walls of the foyer, and the place would definitely have an old fashioned neon marquee out front above the glass ticket booth.  The place would seat about 425 people.  Old trailers would be shown before every movie, a cartoon also (Looney Tunes, the Fleischer brothers’ Popeye the Sailor cartoons from the 1930s, and Tom and Jerry), and appropriate soundtrack music would play before each feature as people found their seats.  A different double-feature would appear every couple nights.  Friday and Saturday nights would have midnight movies.  Late mornings and afternoons on the weekends would show kid-friendly fare.  There would also be theme weeks periodically or showcases for a particular actor or director.  No genre would be excluded and discussion/arguments would be encouraged.  I wouldn’t care about profits.  Each double-feature would be $0.99 just like the old Broadway theater in Portland.  The old one.  The rundown one back in the 1980s where I once took a girlfriend on a first date to see Day of the Dead and where I witnessed, with another girlfriend, the subversive horrors of Lynch’s Blue Velvet while I was frying on multiple hits of acid.  Oh, the stamina of youth!

It would be what I imagine the afterlife to be like.

But the challenging thing about the place would be what to show.  I mean, it’s easy to come up with titles.  It’s the order of things I would be concerned about.  A good programmer would serve much like a dj or someone who makes mix discs.  It’s all about the perfect combo, the correct flow of things, and making sure it’s always entertaining.  Unless… you’re trying to fry their little brains or something.

So what would my first double-feature be?

I could go with my favorite films, but I’ll wait to do that later.  I could go with some childhood favorites, but I’ll pass for now.  I’m figuring that the premiere screenings would be in the evening… so no kid movies then.  How about something simple?  Yes, I’ll stick with two easy but pivotal and life-altering choices.  These were two of the earliest films I remember seeing and they, I believe, set me on a path of image intoxication.  I was forever doomed.  And though the love affair with movies has hit snags from time to time, careened down detours leading to nowhere, and occasionally offered only heartbreak (mostly in my teen years, I should emphasize)… it’s been a love affair well worth indulging in.  It’s not like I really have a choice in the matter.  I am forever doomed after all.

The first film screened would be the 1931 Universal horror film Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning.  The second feature would be James Whale’s 1931 film Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, also from Universal.  Like I said, nothing radically adventurous, but they each made significant impressions on me as a child.  In many ways they shaped my future love of the medium and set me on a path of loving horror movies in particular.  I first watched both films with my father when I was around four years old.  Back in the 1970s there used to be a Creature Features-type horror movie program on KATU in Portland, Oregon after the news ended on Saturday nights called Sinister Cinema, hosted by Victor Ives.

What could I possibly say about these films that haven’t been said before?  Well, nothing really.  They both contain two iconic monster movie performances, they’re both well-crafted and contain moments of exceptional poetry and beauty (as do many of the early Universal horror productions), but they’re not exactly created equally.  Dracula betrays its stage origins a bit too much for my taste, especially after the initial brilliant cinematic scenes with Renfield (Dwight Frye) journeying to Count Dracula’s Transylvania castle.  Even as a child it slightly bored me.  It doesn’t now, although I’m always a little disappointed at how talky much of the film is.  I guess in the end, I like the later Hammer version better.  However, it never seduced me like Browning’s creation did.  Dracula may not be perfect, but it ensnared me darkly with its images.  Anyway, like so many horror movies, it’s not about the entirety… it’s those individual moments of aesthetic beauty, poetry, and/or genuine terror that reward the patient viewer.

Unlike now, I wasn’t exactly a night owl at the age of four.  But I tried to keep up.  I only made it through the opening few scenes of Dracula… the best part actually.  I nodded off quickly after.  But the image that burned itself into my brain is the moment when I snapped awake to see Renfield laughing maniacally when the authorities discover him inside the hull of the ship carrying Count Dracula to the shores of England.  I think I passed out afterward from the fright.

Frankenstein is even better, although I don’t recall one specific moment that sent me over the edge.  The whole film cast a spell on me–the sets, lighting, music, the monster himself–and the first three Frankenstein films have been favorites of mine ever since.  Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the sequel, is even more effective in its fusion of dark humor, melodrama, visual poetry, and melancholy.  But I didn’t see that film until much later.  This is the one that left its mark on my imagination… and for that I’m thankful.

Back in 1991 or so when I was in my early 20s, Dracula and Frankenstein were both screened at a small theater in NE Portland.  I lived on the other side of the city, didn’t drive, though I made sure I got to the screening.  It was great to finally see both films on the big screen with an appreciative audience of youngsters and older people.  And though I’d seen each of them numerous times over the years via videocassette, each unruly monster seemed to flourish unleashed in the flickering dark before a packed house of eager viewers.  Lugosi and Karloff were reborn.  Resurrected for a whole new generation of monster kids… a reminder to older ones that these cinematic creations still mattered.

By the time I watched these films in the theater, I was already a veteran horror film watcher–from silent classics to Hammer horrors to cannibal holocausts to necromantik evil dead maniac butchers… I had the psychic eyeball scars to prove my cred.  And though these Universal horror films would never be able to compete with their modern day unholy brethren in terms of graphicness or intensity, they did excel when it came to lyricism, imagery, pathos, and wit.  So for nostalgic and artistic reasons, Lugosi and Karloff would open the show… hopefully luring a whole new generation into the phantom empire.*

Stay tuned for further screenings….

 

 

* The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century is a book by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.  It’s sort of an impressionistic, subjective, secret history of the medium–obsessive, fetishistic, and cosmic.  It’s a brilliant piece of writing and one of my favorite non-traditional books about cinema.  I would name my theater in its honor.

 

bettie page

bettiepage

I woke up this morning to hear of the death of iconic pin-up girl Bettie Page.  She’d suffered a heart attack a little over a week ago and so the news wasn’t a surprise but it’s still sad.  My first exposure to the lovely Bettie was through the late Dave Stevens‘ marvelous The Rocketeer comic book in the mid-1980s, where “Betty” (later named Jenny and played by Jennifer Connelly in the 1991 film of the same name) was idealized in pen and ink for a new generation of (mostly) young men who had never yet seen any of her original nudie, bondage, and cheesecake photos from the late 1940s and 1950s.  By the early 1990s, the Bettie Page revolution was in full swing and if you knew where to look, it wasn’t difficult to see her influence everywhere–books, movies, comic books, postcards, posters, porn.  And if it wasn’t the dirty, fun, girl next door Bettie herself, it was  some swishy hottie who wanted to look and be just like her.  Remember that hot retro chick who used to work the bar down at your favorite watering hole, the one with the bangs, the sneer, and the purr every time Johnny Cash came roaring over the juke?  That was Bettie.  Revved-up for a new generation.

The real Bettie, the one beyond the image, didn’t have the easiest life after she quit posing for fetish pictures in the late 1950s.  She became a Christian, spent some time in Portland, Oregon (I was told when I lived there), Florida, and then eventually moved back to Los Angeles.  There were plenty of mostly downs and you can read more about that here, but it seems that in her final years Bettie recouped some of the money that had been made off of her image throughout the decades.

She’ll live on–in books, movies, comic books, postcards, posters, and porn.  Legends only grow hotter with the passage of time.

charlie kaufman and hollywood’s merry band of pranksters, fabulists and dreamers: an excursion into the american new wave

My first book is out today in the UK! It will be published in the United States in September.

It’s a study of contemporary (mostly) American filmmakers Richard Linklater, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Spike Jonze, and Michel Gondry. There are a few other surprises inside, as well, such as a look at Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, PT Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, and Roman Coppola’s CQ.

My hope is that it will appeal to film lovers of all stripes, from those with a more scholarly bent to the pop-culture subgeniuses to the novices who don’t know their Godard from their Gondry.

The book is available from the usual suspects, including here.