Thursday, July 26, 2007
"Chili Palmer's a talker," Nick said. "That's what he does, he talks. You should've hit him in the mouth." -- From "Be Cool"
Everyone in Hollywood loves Elmore Leonard; at least that's what they all say. Ever since the critical and commercial success of Barry Sonnenfeld's 1995 adaptation of Leonard's bestseller "Get Shorty," and the critical success, at least, of two other Leonard films (1997's "Jackie Brown" and 1998's "Out of Sight"), actors, producers and directors have all been taking the stand. I love Dutch, they say, using the nickname his friends all use. Read all his books -- all 35 of them. And given the addictive quality of Leonard's tight, seamless prose and the page-turning pull of his crime stories (he wrote westerns early in his career), some of them may even be telling the truth.
Seldom mentioned is the fact that all but a handful of his books have been optioned for the screen and that most of those that have been adapted have been awful. Setting the tone, Warner Bros. made a movie of "The Big Bounce" (1970) based on the author's first crime novel and starring that beefcake of a bygone era, Ryan O'Neal. In a 1997 interview in Good Housekeeping, Leonard recalled going to see it in a theater at the time. "About 15 minutes or so into it, the woman sitting in front of me turned to her husband and said, 'This is the worst picture I ever saw.' And I agreed with her wholeheartedly and all three of us got up and left."
"Elmore has this ability to write books that seem like treatments for movies," producer Walter Mirisch ("The Magnificent Seven," "West Side Story") said of Leonard. "That's why he's so popular here." But until "Get Shorty," most film versions of Leonard's books were curiously free of the very characters that inhabit his stories, as if someone had dropped a neutron bomb on them, leaving only the trappings. Scott Frank -- who wrote the scripts for "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight" and is working on the film adaptation of "Be Cool," the sequel to "Get Shorty" -- thinks he knows what the problem is. "Oftentimes, with his books, people misunderstand where the gold lies," Frank told the Los Angeles Times. "And what they do is keep the plot and jettison all the textural things -- the characters, the dialogue -- all that goes. And the plot -- even he'll tell you it's insignificant. You have to start with those characters and that may mean reinventing some of the plot."
You want to reduce it to a sound bite ("It's the characters, stupid") or invoke some old Hitchcock business about the MacGuffin, but it's a little more complicated than that. Leonard's characters are mostly involved in crime or law enforcement, but there is very little that's black-and-white about them. The people on the side of the law (cops, judges, lawyers) are frequently dirty themselves while his criminals (those who aren't outright idiots, sociopaths or drug addicts) are often quite complicated. He has brought matters of conscience to genre fiction, putting questions of race on the front burner in his westerns, and has written more authentic female heroines in his crime books than any other contemporary male author I can think of, regardless of genre. And though dark currents run through Leonard's books, his touch is light, often comic, and the pop culture references are smarter than those made by most writers half his age.
The people in his books are always talking, it seems. "Are you coming on to me, Elaine?" Chili asks a movie producer pal of his in "Be Cool," to which she replies, "I'm making conversation."
"When did we ever have to do that? We can talk nonstop any time we want." And so it is for most of Leonard's characters: They tell jokes, they tell stories, they talk shit, often of a professional nature. "I sort of let my characters audition for me," he has said. "I listen to them and let them do all the talking." Though Leonard did a lot of reporting early on -- hanging out at a homicide squad room in Detroit for "City Primeval" (1980), for instance -- and now employs a full-time researcher, he does not repeat or mimic what people say. "The main thing with my dialogue is the rhythm of it -- the way people talk, not especially what they say." The magic of what he does, the part many writers wish they could mimic, is that he makes you care about the characters he creates before you even realize it. It is a talent born of character, yes, but also of work and frustration, of sobriety and loss. The love scenes in his books almost always work; they remind you what it's like to fall in love. And when bad things happen to good people, when characters you've come to grow fond of are killed, often before your very eyes, it seems shocking and unfair. Just like in real life.
"Isn't it terrible?" she said, slowly. "Isn't it terrible? You're just like you always were, the very same person, and suddenly that isn't good enough any more. Now, it's bad. You're no good, you're treated like you're no good, and there's nothing you can do to defend yourself. Nothing you can say or do. You were good -- you thought you were and you try to be -- and you never stop trying -- but now you're bad. And you're punished for it ... forever and forever."
-- The Criminal, 1953.
Born September 27, 1906, James Meyer Thompson grew up in Oklahoma to become one of the finest pulp novelists of The Cold War era. His life during the Depression and his up and down family history of working the wildcat oil fields of Texas seeped into Jim's dirt-under-the-nails writing as he created characters at displaying both brutality and empathy.
Thompson began his career as a more "traditional" writer, publishing his first two novels, Now and on Earth and Heed the Thunder as hardbacks. After these books failed to find wide audiences, Thompson found his voice in crime fiction, grinding out hellish tales for paperback mills such as Lion Books and Gold Medal. While on the surface indistinguishable from the rest of their kin, those who dropped a quarter on one of Thompson's novels were exposed to a vision of the world as seen through Thompson's eyes; much of it ugly, little of it good, where redemption goes for a premium and an unnerving honesty to oneself pervades.
Thompson's best known novel is The Killer Inside Me, the story of a doomed smalltown sheriff unable to control his bloodlust as circumstances force him to kill and kill again. Other notable books include Savage Night, The Getaway, and his often-overlooked novella masterpiece, The Criminal.
In the mid-fifties, Thompson began walking the long rough road to Hollywood. He worked with a young Stanley Kubrick on screenplays for two of the director's earliest films, The Killing (w/Sterling Hayden, from the novel Clean Break by Lionel White) and Paths of Glory (w/Kirk Douglas). What would seem a promising start never materialized, and Thompson's screen fortunes took a downward turn after that, and he spent the rest of his career writing unproduced screenplays and teleplays for low-rent television programs like Convoy and MacKenzie's Raiders.
Like jazz and Jerry Lewis, Thompson's writings found a life in France. Besides translating several of his novels, two films, Coup du Torchon (based on Pop. 1280) and Serie Noire (A Hell of a Woman), were made to much acclaim by French filmmakers.
A good number of Thompson's works have been put on screen by American filmmakers with varying degrees of success. These include The Getaway (twice, three times if you include the first half of the Rodriguez/Tarantino B-movie rave-up From Dusk 'til Dawn), The Grifters (nominated for four Oscars),and After Dark, My Sweet. The latest, This World, Then the Fireworks (w/ Billy Zane and Gina Gershon), was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997 to a positive audience.
Two biographies of Thompson have been published. The first, Sleep With the Devil, by Michael McCauley, was published in 1991. Savage Art: a Biography of Jim Thompson by Robert Polito, was published by Knopf in 1995. Polito's book won both the Edgar and National Book Critics Circle awards.
Thompson's stories are about grifters, losers, and psychopaths, some at the fringe of society, some in its heart. Their nihilistic world-view being best-served by first-person narratives revealing a frighteningly deep understanding of the warped mind. There are no good guys in Thompson's literature, most everyone is abusive, opportunistic, or simply biding time until able to be so.
Thompson died on April 7, 1977, and had his ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean. As he had predicted, Thompson did not live to enjoy his own success.
James Dean was little more than a boy when he died, killed at twenty-four on the highway near Paso Robles, California, on September 30, 1955, while on his way to a sports car meet. At the time of his death, Dean had completed three movies, East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant, only the first of which had been released.
Dean was already an actor of promise, and his death was front-page news. It was the Eisenhower-Ben Gurion era--a time of peace and prosperity-when young people were expected to respect their elders and obey the rules. But even during his short life, Dean was widely known as a nonconformist-a rebel who had taken Hollywood by storm and who did as he pleased.
For young people coming of age, Dean was someone they could easily identify with: an outsider, a loner--he was the antithesis of everything a well-behaved youth was supposed to be. His screen portrayals symbolized the rebelliousness of adolescence. In public he was often rude, even surly. A fan magazine quoted him as saying, "I wouldn't like me, if I had to be around me." He had been known to fight with directors and storm off the set. "Jimmy knew what young people were up against," an admirer once said. "He understood." Later, someone else referred to him as "the first student activist."
From the day of his death, it seemed that young people would not let Dean die. A special fan mail agency had to deal with the deluge of mail that poured into the studio. Many of the letters were addressed to the dead star.
A record, His Name Was Dean, put out on a small label, sold twenty-five thousand copies in a single week. Mattson's, a Hollywood clothing shop, received hundreds of orders for red jackets identical to the one Dean had worn in Rebel Without a Cause, and Griffith Park, where scenes from the movie were shot, became almost overnight a tourist attraction. Admirers lined up inside the Observatory, hoping to sit in the same seat Dean had used in the film. "It's like Valentino," a reporter told Henry Ginsberg, the coproducer of Giant, Dean's last movie, referring to the craze that had swept the nation after the Italian actor's death in the 1920s. Ginsberg disagreed, "It's bigger than Valentino."
Some fans refused to believe that Dean was really dead. Walter Winchell printed in his column the rumor that Dean was disfigured but still alive. Other stories insisted that it had been a hitchhiker and not Dean who had been killed and that the actor was in hiding while learning to operate his artificial limbs or that he had been placed in a sanitarium.
Hollywood, of course, had always been a commercial enterprise: Dean's popularity was not lost on the moguls who had built the industry. Jack Warner admitted: "That kid Dean...gave us a lot of trouble, but it was worth it. He was surrounded with stars in Giant, but we believe he was twenty-five percent responsible for the success of the picture." (Cecil Beaton, Cecil Beaton's Fair Lady, New York, Holt, 1964) Aided by studio press releases, fan magazines printed stories with titles like, You Can Make Jimmy Dean Live Forever and The Boy Who Refuses to Die.
Not everyone, however, was enthusiastic about Dean. Herbert Mitgang, of The New York Times, dismissed him as "an honor graduate of the black leather jacket and motorcycle school of acting and living it up." And director Elia Kazan, Dean's mentor, claimed: "Every boy goes through a period when he's seventeen or so when he hates his father, hates authority, can't live within the rules. . . It's a classic case. Dean just never got out of it."
Dean's recklessness and commitment to having lived his life to the fullest had its appeal as well. "All adolescents," wrote Martin Mayer in Esquire, "want to rope steers...and sculpt busts of famous novelists and drive a custom sports car and write poetry and be a great Hollywood star. Dean did it.... In a way, the kids feel he did it all for them." He was, moreover, the one hero who would never sell out. He would never have a chance to.
A few of Dean's close friends refused to take part in the hysteria--or cash in on the enterprise. Dennis Stock, a young photographer, remembers being invited to dinner by another photographer, Sanford Roth, after Dean's death. Roth had been the still photographer on Giant and had shot numerous poses of Jimmy both on and off the set. When Stock arrived, he assumed that he and the Roths would spend a quiet evening reminiscing about their gifted friend. But when he realized the Roths had invited a newspaper reporter who was doing a story on Dean, Stock got up and left. "It was a publicity setup," he recalled with disdain.
In a sense, however, Dean had almost invited the reaction that followed his death. "He was a boy with a wonderful sense of the theater," director George Stevens said. As a farmboy, in high school, Jimmy had been a show-off; in Hollywood, he cultivated his offbeat image with the press. After making East of Eden, Dean excused his obnoxious public behavior by telling an interviewer, "I can't divert into being a human being when I've been playing a hero, like Cal, who's essentially demonic." On another occasion, he explained: "A neurotic person has the necessity to express himself and my neuroticism manifests itself in the dramatic..." He was-cool; the perfect quote was always on his lips.
Humphrey Bogart, who also knew a thing or two about image making, once said: "Dean died at just the right time. He left behind a legend. If he had lived, he'd never have been able to live up to his publicity." (Richard Gehman, Bogart, New York, Gold Medal Books, 1965)
But Dean did not live and in death became transformed into a myth: Even today, visitors come from all over to visit his grave in Fairmount, Indiana, the small farming community where Dean grew up. In one recent year, there were over six thousand visitors, some from as far away as Argentina and Australia. Dean's handsome, brooding face adorns posters and T-shirts. A licensing company, run by lawyers, markets James Dean calendars, postcards, and ashtrays around the world.
Over the years, an impressive list of actors and performers have claimed to have been influenced by him: Bob Dylan, Al Pacino, Martin Sheen, Michael Parks, the late Jim Morrison, poet and lead singer for the Doors, who lived fast and died hard, just like one of his heroes, James Dean.
Dean's life has been the subject of novels, plays, even a song by the Beach Boys entitled, A Young Man Is Gone. But not every writer has been adoring. In 1993, George Will, the respected conservative columnist, blamed Dean and his film personality for the youthful unrest that convulsed the country in the 1960s. Will wrote: "In Rebel Dean played himself--a mumbling, arrested-development adolescent-to perfection. Feeling mightily sorry for himself as a victim (of insensitive parents), his character prefigured the whiny, alienated, nobody-understands-me pouting that the self-absorbed youth of the sixties considered a political stance."
But Dean was a many-sided figure; the sullen young man was only one facet of his personality. He was creative, intellectually curious, and ambitious, as well as manipulative and extremely selfish. Many actors who actually worked with him disliked him--and rued the experience. One actor who worked with Dean on TV recalled decades later that Jimmy had been vulgar, self-congratulatory, and rude. "His movements on stage were far removed from the carefully rehearsed planned positions," the actor, Vaughn Taylor, recalled. This created "havoc with the other actors' performances and for the director. The result was pandemonium for everyone except Mr. Dean and his sick ego." This comment is all too typical and an ironic epitaph for an actors' icon.
Moreover, not all of Dean's friends found him loyal. After Jimmy had achieved success, a struggling young photographer to whom Dean had reason to be grateful asked him to go halves on a used camera. Dean refused. "I can get all the new equipment I want," he said callously. Alas, this was not the only friend Jimmy left behind after his rapid rise to fame.
In the years since Dean's death, there has been much speculation about his rumored bisexuality. In fact, women were strongly attracted to him, and he engaged in numerous affairs. At one point, in New York, he was simultaneously having affairs with a wealthy debutante and a beautiful high school girl.
A few Dean friends continue to deny his homosexuality, despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. After reading a draft of this manuscript, actor Martin Landau refused to be interviewed, saying: "This guy was not gay." Dennis Hopper has made the same claim. Only one of Dean's homosexual relationships is dealt with in this book--and that in his early days in Hollywood and New York with a director named Rogers Brackett.
Brackett was a well-connected figure in Hollywood; the son of a Hollywood pioneer, he knew everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Henry Miller. He got Dean small parts in three Hollywood movies and later helped him land his first starring role on Broadway in See the Jaguar which was produced by Lem Ayers, a member of the smart gay circle that swirled around Brackett.
After Dean's death, Rogers regularly refused press interviews about him and turned down biographers' requests. His own attainments were considerable: a witty, cultivated man, he had directed stage plays and had written lyrics for a popular Alec Wilder song. Brackett had no desire to be regarded as an appendage to his famous protege.
Toward the end of his own life, however, when he was stricken with cancer, Rogers granted me the only interviews he ever gave on Dean. He was tired of the "half-truths" that had been published and wanted "to set the record straight." This book draws on those interviews and the letters he wrote me; many of the items are published here for the first time, since Rogers requested that they be withheld until after his death.
As we approach -- fortieth anniversary of Dean's death, however, neither his sexuality--nor the quirks in his personality-make much difference to his ever-growing legion of fans: Bikers and mall rats, poets and rockers revere him as much today as teenagers did a generation ago. To them, he is what he is: a rebel for all seasons.
Ultimately, it seems, as long as there are young people, so long as there are boundaries, Dean will live-and the legend will endure.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Each of John Franklin Bardin's three great Noir novels begins with a weird, whimsical and, at the same time, worrying situation. He then spends the next 200 pages explaining how the surreal is real, and that abnormal psychology is a normal state for most people. Along the way, his central characters doubt the reality of their circumstances, break away from their normal lives and see the world in a different light. In Bardin's books the insane are the most normal people you are likely to meet.
In the UK, he was admired by the likes of Kingsley Amis, Edmund Crispin, Roy Fuller and Julian Symons (the latter supplying an illuminating introduction in the 1976 collection of the three great works). Symons compared Bardin to Edgar Allan Poe (for the hallucinogenic nature of the stories) and Patricia Highsmith (for treating abnormal psychology as an everyday occurrence) and I cannot help but agree with him.
In The Deadly Percheron (Dodd, US, 1946), a pleasant young man, Jacob Blunt, walks into the office of psychiatrist Dr George Matthews and, after a short conversation, is relieved to find out he is mad. The reason? A little man is giving Jacob $10 a day to wear a flower in his hair. Another little man is paying him $10 a day to give away $20 in quarters. Yet another pays for him to whistle at Carnegie Hall during performances. Jacob fears that if it is all true, then leprechauns and fairies and elves and goblins really do exist. Dr Matthews decides to accompany Jacob and finds too much of his story to be true. Dr Matthews begins to doubt his own sanity and he knows that is not such a good thing for a psychiatrist. Then, he is knocked out, awakes maybe a year later, in hospital, finds he has a new identity, and must prove himself to be compos mentis. He becomes a different man to get out of hospital. As John Brown, looking like someone who has seen better days, he gets a job as a waiter and busboy. Then he is run down by a car and his face is horribly disfigured. It is as though his mind and body were being slowly chopped away to find out what he is really made of. And then things take a turn for the worst.
(If you look carefully at Neil Jordan's film Mona Lisa (1986), you will find references to Bardin. At one point, a large white Percheron appears outside a roadside café. Also, the mechanic, played by Robbie Coltrane, is reading the 1976 Omnibus edition of Bardin's work.)
Dr Matthews also turns up as a supporting character in Bardin's next book. The Last of Philip Banter (Dodd, US, 1947) has a great premise that could easily have been borrowed by Italo Calvino or Paul Auster. An advertising executive, Philip Banter, is under a lot of pressure at work, has a drink problem and a difficult wife. He arrives at work and finds a small pile of paper on his desk. The manuscript, supposedly written by him the next day tells, in retrospect, the events of that day. It gives his most innermost thoughts. As the day progresses, the events in the manuscript unfold in minute detail. The same thing happens the next day. And the day after that. The manuscript is frighteningly accurate and Philip Banter dreads going into the office to discover what new horrors await him. The novel follows Banter's mental disintegration.
Both these novels are suffused with a feeling of helplessness. For all of Dr Matthews' efforts, for all of his knowledge and intelligence and ingenuity, in the end he fails at every point to prevent the deaths occurring around him.
Written in six weeks, taken from an agent's office by Victor Gollancz and published without revision, Devil Take The Blue-Tail Fly (Gollancz, UK, 1948) is a white-heat, fever-dream of a novel that constantly keeps you on your toes. It begins with Ellen in her cell, in a mental institution. Today is the day, the day she is going home. She has to be careful. She has to watch what she says and does in front of everybody. They must think that she is normal. She knows that she is normal, but they do not. She must not do anything which makes them suspicious.
When she is released, Ellen returns to her husband Basil, and returns to reality. Only, something is not quite right. There is something askew with the world. Ellen is a musician. She plays a harpsichord. She is highly strung. There is her doctor, Dr Danzer, to whom she recounts her dreams.
This novel is about the pain of creation, and the joy of destruction. It is a dance, a dance of death. It soon becomes apparent who is Ellen's dancing partner - herself. Or rather, her other self.
It is a story told to a slow beat and its tense atmosphere is reminiscent of Roman Polanski's film Repulsion (1965).
Sunday, July 15, 2007
British and other European armies are knotted for fighting wars in brightly colored uniforms. Every American schoolboy knows how the bright scarlet tunics of the Red Coats made idea targets for the Minutemen of Concord and Lexington. But this was not how European wars were fought. There was no attempt at concealment. This practice continued through the Napoleonic Wars into the 19th century. As with many clothing terms, khaki emerged from India and the British Raj. Sir Harry Lumsden in 1846 commanded a British army unit in the Punjab. The uniform at the time included resplendent white trousers worn with red tunics. He began wearing pajama bottoms, primarily to find a more comfortable alternative to the regulaton trousers in the tropical Punjab heat. The pajamas were of a lighter material and less tightly fitted. To disguise them somewhat, he decided to color them with a dye that would blend in with the local terrain. He decided to use mazari, a native plant. As a result they were called khakis from the Hindu (Urdu) word for "dust". Lumsden soon realized that his new uniform has another advantage than just comfort. His new khaki uniform trousers pants were more suitable in battle than the very conspicuous white pants and red tunic. There were real advantages to being able to blend in with the terrine. The British Army introduced khaki uniforms to British colonial troops in India in 1848. It would be many years before khaki became standard issue in the British army. The British used khaki uniformed for the Kaffir War in South Africa during 1851. After the Sudan Wars and Afghan Campaign of 1878, the British Army adopted khaki in 1884 as the official uniform. Khaki-color dye was patented in 1884. After the British, several other countries adopted khaki for their armies. The American Army adopted khaki and it was used in the Spanish-American War during 1898.
Slacks for boys and young men in the 1950s and 60s were commonly called chinos in America. They were commonly worn in highschools at a time that jeans still were not permitted. The most popular chinos were khaki, but they came in other colors as well. Khaki was so common that the pants were also called khakis. There is a fascinating history behind khaki chinos. Khaki originated as the name of a color. Chino became the name of a fabric. Today the term khaki and chino are synonymous with a cotton casual pant, although chino is less commonly used today. They are not as popular with boys and teenagers as they once were.