Back in April, I went to a college reunion for the Theater Dept. of Northern Arizona University. While I was there I took footage using a hacked CVS camera and have finally edited it into short film. Part One covers the tour we took with the dept. chair, Tim, who is retiring this summer. I had a wonderful time while I was there. Very glad I decided to attend the reunion. Even though I didn't graduate from NAU, my 2 years there were some of the best times of my life. I hope you find this short film enjoyable. I plan on completing six more parts over the next month or so.
I've had to interact with four separate giant behemoths in the last few months. Much like the hapless victim of a 50's sci-fi film I've faced the awful clutching claws of Ebay, the slippery tentacles of Adobe, and the misty arms of the USPS. But nothing prepared me for the horrifying face of hell that is Microsoft. Excuse the bad hyperbole, but I really felt like I was battling a monster. Remember Kafka's endless efforts to get inside the Castle? Now I know what he felt like.
I won't go into detail, but suffice to say I was bounced around for three days of phone calls and eventually found myself with a sympathetic person in a department I was sent to as a way of telling me to ..... off. Realizing there was no hope in getting what I wanted, after Microsoft sucked $140 out of my wallet, I grabbed the new issue of Maximum PC, a tech mag Lisa gave me as a present, and read one of the cover stories: "How to install Ubuntu Linux". I did and have been using it ever since. In fact, I'm typing this blog entry on a firefox version inside of Ubuntu Studio 7.04. Cost: Free.
Hmnn...Microsoft = annoyance, money, insult.....Ubuntu = free, easy and fun. Gee, which one would you choose?
I'd noticed that more and more people were using Linux (especially the Ubuntu flavor), so I did some Googling and came up with the just-released "Ubuntu Studio", which is a version of Ubuntu Linux that comes with lots of audio/video software pre-installed. I downloaded the image file, burned it to a CD and installed it on a new removable hard-drive I had laying around. About 15 minutes later the Ubuntu/Gnome desktop came up and I started in. Everything worked fine (Internet, Network, CD/DVD drive) except for sound and network printer. I fixed the sound in a couple days, but haven't been able to get the networked printer to work yet. No biggie, since most of the printing I want to do is easily transferred to a shared external hard-drive that Lisa and I use for back-ups. I print off of Lisa's computer which is hard-wired to mine.
I love Ubuntu Linux. Ok, I have to go back to Windows for some other stuff, but I much prefer Ubuntu. Why? It's fast, easy to understand, the software is free, there is enormously supportive community and it's getting better and better as an operating system. I spend most of my time in Ubuntu, but a couple times a week I have to switch over to Windows in order to get some things done like DV editing, games and some specific software I use all the time.
Ubuntu still needs work in order to seriously rival Microsoft Windows, but I think they are well on their way. If they can continue to make the interface simpler and build up quality software, I think in another 5 years a lot more people will be using this cool open source software. Plus, no calls to Microsoft customer service!
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February, 2007)
Sierra Leone is a small, West African country rich in minerals and diamonds. After many years of British rule, the country became an independent Republic in 1961. Since then, with all of the diamond wealth as a a prize, the country has been shaken by corruption and military coups. Bolstered by a nearby civil war in Liberia, rebels took over much of the east coast of a country where drugs and weapons were becoming increasingly prevalent. With the official government unable to contain the rebels, vicious and cruel fighting broke out all across the country with both sides committing widespread atrocities on the civilian population. This included the cruel practice of drugging young boys and recruiting them to fight in the civil war.
Ishmael Beah was a 12 year old boy whose family had been killed by rebel soldiers when he was captured by pro-government troops and conscripted into the army in 1993. Given an AK-47, rudimentary training and lots of drugs (cocaine, marijuana and something called “brown-brown”, a potent mixture of cocaine and gunpowder), Ismael became a killing machine for over two years. After being rescued by UNICEF workers in Freetown (the capitol of Sierra Leone), he and other young boys were rehabilitated over an 8 month period. After moving in with an uncle and his family, he began to lead a normal life. Chosen to participate in a UN program on child soldiers, he flew to New York City in 1996 (he was sixteen) where he met a woman who would eventually help him to repatriate to America.
Back in Freetown, his uncle died suddenly and the town was overcome by rebel forces who began to loot, rape and kill the population. Ishmael, fearing that he would encounter members of his old unit and be re-conscripted, began a harrowing journey out of Sierra Leone into neighboring Guinea where with the help of his sponsor in America he as able to leave Africa and begin a new life in New York.
After completing high school at the United Nations International School and then receiving an undergraduate degree at Oberlin college, Ismael has written a book about his experience of being a child soldier. It is a sad, horrific, poetic, but ultimately celebratory story that is as important a book as you will read this year.
“A Long Way Gone” is an incredible achievement. The fact that Ishmael was able to reflect on his shocking and horrific experiences and then form them into a coherent story is, to my knowledge, unique. Outside of Kosinski's, “The Painted Bird”, I know of no other account quite like it. But don't think that the book is entirely about the gruesome cruelty of child war, it isn't. Ishmael ,from the beginning of his youth, was interested in literature and story-telling. As a child he could recite from memory speeches from “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar”. Told in a simple, almost naïve style, “A Long Way Gone” is also about what it is to lose your humanity and then to regain it through the love of others. I can only imagine how difficult this book must have been to write. Who would want to relive the horrors of the past? But Ishmael's descriptions of nature and the world he lives in, even during his soldiering, are poetic. His love for food is evident in the many descriptions of meals in the book. His portraits of the people in the book, including those who had done him a great harm, are compassionate and memorable. And while the book is a way of reconciling his past, it is also a way of celebrating his family, friends and his country.
In interviews, Ishmael has stated that he wanted people to know that children can easily be conscripted into an army and that that considerable time had gone into thinking how this could be done by the authorities. His insistence that “everyone is capable of going beyond their own humanity” rings true and is, to my mind, a major theme in modern literature. What was hard, he said, was to regain your humanity after having lost it. While Ishmael doesn't hesitate to describe the horrors he participates in, the real heart of the book, for me, is his story of rehabilitation and eventual emigration to America. He describes one nurse in particular at the UNICEF camp that finds out the had a love of rap and reggae music. She buys him a Walkman cassette player and tapes and encourages him to sing along with Run DMC and Bob Marley songs, and to write out the lyrics. Her kindness and help allow him to find a way past his anger/guilt and obsessive dreams, so that he is able to become the young boy he once was.. Listening to him on film and watching some of the many interviews he has done at the books website, it's hard to imagine this was the young boy who took a knife to unarmed prisoners and slit their throats and then high-fived his fellow soldiers in celebration. It's also surprising that there is so little blame in the book. Despite being manipulated into becoming a killer, his portrait of his Shakespeare-reading lieutenant is one of the most sympathetic and affecting in a book that is filled with artful and moving characters.
What Ishmael Beah has done is remarkable in that he was able to survive what would have killed or driven most people mad; has been able to rehabilitate himself and educate himself to become an authentic human being, and he has been able to tell us the story of these experiences in such a way that is artistic and considered – he does what every artists strives to do; create art out of his/her life. That this life he describes could have killed him countless times, but didn't, is a testament to this intense, intelligent and driven young man. Although the publisher and a good deal of media related to this book depict Ishmael as a smiling young man, I can't help but wonder if his true face is one of quiet intensity. This is a young man who is much, much older than he looks.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux should be commended for publishing this book and for the efforts they have gone to promote this young, first time author. The book has an interesting green/white/red design that fits perfectly with the content and theme of the work. FSG has also created a fascinating website devoted to the book and it's young author. There is a good deal of media of Ishmael talking about his book and his life along with lots of information about Sierra Leone and the conflicts there. The site design is smartly tied in with the book design and is also very easy to get around.
Ishmael has been on a recent author tour and there are several sites on the net where you can find excellent interviews and video. He is a smart, well spoken and intense young man. Despite some awkward and ill-considered questions (“how many people did you kill?”) he is always poised and articulate. It's not hard to see that this amazing young man has gone through a hell that would have killed most of us, but has used that experience to make himself a better person, one who is becoming a great story-teller.
This book deserves it's extensive praise and I urge you to read it. You won't soon forget this story of violence, grief, friendship and redemption.
Watching Zodiac and Brother over the last few days, I'm getting the idea that the crime film is about to make a comeback. Zodiac (David Fincher's gritty throwback to 70's crime films) is a remarkable portrait of an era that gets all of the details right. Feels like maybe Fincher was actually able to film the script the way it was originally written. Quick, intelligent editing, wonderful, nuanced acting and an original consistent style make this a superb contribution to the Crime Film. I was impressed that Fincher could adopt a more transparent directing style. Sure, he has his moments of indulgence (the letters from Zodiac start appearing on walls and in 3d as the detectives scramble), but he wisely keeps these moments to a minimum and just lets the story tell itself. The violence is graphic, but only when it needs to be. I was relieved to see a movie that does not glorify or emphasize the killer. So tired of the "Lecter" effect where so many killers are geniuses of evil. Every aspect of this film is excellent. Highly recommended.
Brother, on the other hand, is not as well shot and the script wanders a bit, but the wonderful acting of Sergei Bodrov Jr. and the images of St. Petersburg raise the film up several notches. It's a brutal crime film that tries to portray a new, dangerous Russia where an innocent can discover they have a talent at killing people. Shot in dirty, dark tones, no one in this film is attractive. Along with the environment, the people all look dirty and dishevelled. It's the kind of film that could only be made in Russia. Sergei Bodrov has just the right amount of innocence and cruelty. Some James Dean in his work, but cycled through Sergei's intelligent choices as an actor. Obsessed with his new CD player, he's always trying to find the newest music. His brother is a hit man with the mob in St. Petersberg, so when Sergei visits it presents problems. But Sergei is actually much better than his brother and soon he's the new top dog, but with a price on his head. So he heads out for the greener (think cash) pastures of Moscow. God, the people in this film are ugly. In fact, everything is ugly. I love it.
Sadly (and very strangely), Sergei Bodrov was killed a year later while working on a new film. Apparently, an avalanche from a huge glacier overran the set and killed him and 26 other members of the crew. An interesting career cut short.
On work mornings, Lisa and I have to open the back gate at the bookstore. The gate is part of a small parking area made of cyclone fencing. This morning we went out to open the gate and found that a pigeon had somehow wedged itself halfway under the fence and was stuck. It looked like it had flown in to the closed parking area and then saw some food near the trash bin and decided there was enough room under the fence to either cross under or squeeze through enough to get some food.
No telling how long it had been there. I guess it probably came early in the morning, so it must have been struggling for hours. Lisa and I both walked slowly up to the pigeon and tried to figure out how badly stuck it was. It had both wings out, but only one was closing. It was obviously in great distress and it's eyes kept opening and closing quickly. We both wanted to help, so Lisa got some towels and I asked a regular customer to keep an eye on the store for a few minutes (he raised his eyebrows at the request, but agreed).
I crossed around to the other side of the fence and squatted down next to the trapped bird. Lisa had a towel around one side of the bird and mentioned something about pigeons carrying disease. When I looked more closely, I could see that the pigeon's right wing was completely inside of one of the links in the fence. I remember shaking my head trying to figure out how this bird could have gotten himself (or herself) into such a predicament. I gently took the wing and tried to slowly move the wing out of the link, but it wouldn't work. I couldn't figure out how to extricate this bird. Finally, with Lisa holding on to the body, I lifted the bottom of the fence up a bit and saw that the wing could just slip out under the bottom link.
We got the pigeon free and Lisa carefully picked it up and set it down several feet away. Both of us expected the bird to just fly away, but it seemed to be having problems standing up. It flapped it's wings furiously, but couldn't seem to get any lift. When it started back towards the fence, Lisa picked it up and took it further away towards the back door of the bookstore. We both stood in the morning sun watching this bird go around in circles trying to fly. I noticed that the birds legs didn't seem to be working. And I wondered if perhaps it was partially paralyzed from being stuck and trying so hard to get free.
After a minute or so the bird stopped. And I could see in the birds eyes an even greater sense of panic and fear than before (or so it seemed, perhaps it was just my imagination). Lisa got a box and told me she was going to put it inside to see if it could recover.
I was thinking I had to get back to the store. And I think both of us were wondering what to do with this injured pigeon. I imagined that we could take it home and domesticate it even though it might be paralyzed. Then I remembered we had three cats and that bringing the bird home would be impossible.
I picked up the pigeon and felt it's heart beating wildly in my hand. Rubbing my fingers along the birds side, it seemed rough and damaged some how. I looked at the feet and there didn't seem to be any kind of movement in them, but I saw no blood. When Lisa opened the box, I put the bird inside and, once again, it made a furious effort to fly, but just ended up moving in circles inside the box. Lisa noticed there was some blood this time. I was worried about the birds future. "Can you take a pigeon to the vet", I thought. Lisa said she would go and get some water for the bird and went inside the store. I picked the bird up again and examined it carefully, but couldn't see where there was any blood. The bird seemed to quiet in my hands as I put it back in the box. That seemed odd to me that it would suddenly become so quite. I pulled over the flap of the box to keep the sun off of the bird and went inside to open the store.
Lisa had gone outside to give the pigeon some water, while I thanked the customer and opened the store. A few seconds later, Lisa was back and telling me that the bird was dead. She pulled a white plastic book bag out from under the counter and I went back out to look at the bird. I was amazed. "How could it have died?", I thought to myself. When I got outside and looked in the box, sure enough, the pigeon was stiff and it's eyes were wide open. It was clearly dead.
I was just.. I don't know...shocked for a moment. Lisa put the bird inside of the bag and put the bag back into the box. We both walked out to the trash bin and she put both inside. I remember her saying something like, "Sorry, little fellow. I guess you didn't make it". I walked away and found myself beginning become angry and tearful at the same time. I swung my arms out violently in the little parking lot there. Wanting to hit someone or something.
We both went back into the store and Lisa made me wash my hands after she washed hers. I was very depressed and wondered if this was an omen for the day to come.
We both speculated that maybe the pigeon died of injuries suffered in trying to extricate itself from the fence; maybe the bird injured itself by trying to fly too soon after being released; maybe the bird died of fear. We didn't know. But somehow, as ridiculous as it sounds, I felt a tragedy had just happened.
I watched myself inside most of the rest of the day even though it was busy and I spoke with and helped many people with books. I don't know how to describe it. It's kind of a part of me that's aside from everything else and is watching and thinking. I wondered how my thoughts and mood would change as the day progressed. At one point, late in the afternoon, we told Dan, the owner of the bookstore, about the bird and he listened and at the end of the story said, "Well, it's Darwin's law!". I think if he had said that earlier I would have slugged him, but at that point I had calmed down and saw it as the kind of thing Dan would say. He loves the idea of "culling the herd", as he calls it. I said nothing about my feelings.
When Lisa got home from work (I get off earlier than her), I told her I was still saddened over the death of the pigeon and she was sympathetic and supportive, although she did say that pigeons were often thought of as the "rats" of the sky. I understood what she meant, but it didn't seem that way to me.
Now, sitting here late in the evening writing all of this down, I feel a bit of a fool. It was a pigeon for pete's sake. But even as I say that, another part of me feels somehow that all of life is precious, even that of a poor, stupid pigeon who thought he could go under a fence to get some food. I wonder what kind of fences I've tried to go under as the stupid human that I am and if I got caught would anyone come to help me?
Honestly, I think it's a conditioned response in me to death. There's been a good deal of death in my family. My brother Terry died at 14 while playing baseball. I was six at the time. I don't think I ever got over his death. He used to keep pigeons and I remember going out to his pigeon roost and watching him work. Perhaps it's part of my brother dying again. I'm not sure. And then so many others in my family died over the years. Just recently a relative of Lisa's died suddenly. I liked him very much.
I don't know why we are here on this planet. Why I was conceived or born or why I have made it to this place, but I do know that I hate to see even the smallest things die. Perhaps there's a bit of the Buddhist in me now that I am 51 and am approaching death myself. I was saddened to see this poor stupid bird die out in the parking lot on a clear, sunny morning. I wonder who will be watching me and thinking of me when my day comes and I die. I wonder.
current mood: pensive
Sunday, January 7th, 2007
Like all poets, David Lynch divides contemporary audiences with his insistence on creativity and his fearless use of abstraction in creating his films. His recent film, INLAND EMPIRE (the title was intended by Lynch to be capitalized), is a challenging, but ultimately rewarding work that requires the kind of free-form viewing that most American audiences refuse to do. Which is why you won't find INLAND EMPIRE on many of the year's best lists of films, although I consider it the best film of 2006. But our culture needs poetic filmmakers like Lynch. Cliche after cliche; sentiment after sentiment; stereotype after stereotype, film-goers are buried under a mount of banality that conditions us to reject the unusual and distrust the ambiguous. David Lynch asks us to "go for a little buggy ride with him" in his films. And he takes us to some pretty strange places because he uses his imagination freely without the constraints of genre or form. He collaborates with wonderful artists like Laura Dern, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nance. And they all say he is unique and "fun" to work with. This is because David Lynch wants to involve other people creatively with his work without "fear" (as he puts it in his book). And this combination of generosity with his collaborators and insistence on creativity make him highly influential to those (like me) who are inspired by his work and want to learn from him.
And so David Lynch has written a book, published in December, 2006 by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. His last book was "Images", published in 1994. This new book, "Catching the Big Fish", is a result of his continuing practice of transcendental meditation and his creation of a foundation to encourage young people to practice meditation in school to help them with the stress of growing up and give them a tool to cope with life. While David talks about TM in the book, he doesn't hit you over the head with it, or pitches any kind of sales talk. Smartly, he clearly states that TM is not a "religion", but a method to achieve personal freedom. He states he has used TM continuously since the 70's and it has aided and, at times, guided his creativity. He feels much calmer and able to cope with the difficulties of life and of his job as a filmmaker.
"Catching the Big Fish" is the closest thing we have to an autobiography of David Lynch. The phrase refers to meditation (or daydreaming) as a way of "fishing" for ideas in the big stream of consciousness he believes exists in all of us. If you want to catch little ideas you fish in shallow waters, if you want big ideas you have to go deeper. While the analogy might seem simplistic, it is remarkably apt, especially when David begins to relate the many ways his "fishing" expeditions have helped him in creating his films or coping with depression or disaster (remember "Dune", anyone?).
Broken up into 82 short chapters, each with their own chapter title, "Catching the Big Fish" is very much in the style of the modern writers like Barthes or Wittgenstein who chose to write in short, epigramatic style. The chapter title announces the topic and then David riffs on the theme for a short while and then stops. The movement of the book is light and quick, which lends itself to re-reading (which I intend to do). David's writing style is almost exactly like he speaks. Short, compact sentences that illustrate his ideas perfectly. While reading the book you feel as if David Lynch is talking to you on the front porch is a large rocker with a robin singing in an oak tree nearby.
"I went to a psychiatrist once. I was doing something that had become a pattern in my life and I thought, 'Well, I should go talk to a psychiatrist'. When I got into the room, I asked him, 'Do you think that this process could, in any way, damage my creativity?'. And he said, 'Well, David, I have to be honest; it could'. And I shook his hand and left"
Some of the stories in the book are ones that David has told for the last decade (they are still interesting in spite of their familiarity), but most of the book is original and unique. He discusses the casting process, his working methods, the development of some of his most famous films. And he openly addresses issues like why he chooses not to record director's commentary for any of his films ("...we've got to protect the film... Director's commentaries just open the door to changing people's take on the number one thing - the film")
"Most of filmmaking is common sense. If you stay on your toes and think about how to do a thing, it's right there"
There are no great personal revelations in "Catching the Big Fish". But through chapters titled "Light on Film", "Sleep", "Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit" and "Having a Set-up", you get the feeling David is trying to tell us some of what we want to know about him, but providing the answers couched in epigrams or short tales. In other words, this is a poets work of essay and autobiography and criticism and meditation; a unique creation unlike any other.
I highly recommend "Catching the Big Fish". It's a beautiful square-shaped Navy blue book with the photo of a splash of water across the page. Designed by Claire Vaccaro, it's as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside. Fascinating if you don't know much about David Lynch; essential if you do. "Catching the Big Fish" is an inspiring, important book even for an aging cynic like me.
I can't wait to read it again.
PS There's an audio book version read by Lynch himself that sounds great. I'd like to download it to my new Creative Zen V Plus player. Just think I can have Lynch talking inside my head while I walk around looking for inspiration.
Everyone's got an mp3 player. It's the Ipod generation. I even joined up this year and got myself a Creative Zen V player which I am digging very much. No wonder so much content is migrating to mobile media. The Zen is child's play to use and I've got at least 30 full albums of music on it already (only a 2g unit). BUT....
Give me LP's, Vinyl, Records, man! I'm the king of the 50 cent bin at the local "Atomic Records" record store. Listened to a Prestige recording of Don Byas, a wonderful tenor sax player, who recorded some classic songs while in Paris in the late 40's. Yeah, the record is a little scratchy, but with some cleaning it sounded just fine. "Blues at Noon", "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "St. Louis Blues" were fabulous. The recording is tight and focused. Very different from listening to a CD of the material. Not quite Dexter Gordon or Coleman Hawkins, but this cat had his chops down. Imagine walking in to a Paris nightclub after WWII and sitting down with a whiskey and a pack of Gitanes, wearing a new suit and then Don Byas starts playing "Laura". Mmmmm... Oh, man, ain't that sweet?
I'm very glad that the end of the year has come. December is not the kindest month to me due to bad dreams, old ghosts and too much stress. When I was a drinkin' man, I could get through it in a drunken haze, but now that I'm going it bone sober there ain't no safety net.
This year was a rough one.
I lost my nephew, Scott, this year. He was a good man who died of a brain hemorrhage while playing with his kids. God's plan at work again. Nice idea to take him from his children and wife in the prime of his life. What are they going to do now? Scott's death coupled with losing my sister in 2005 was painful. One of the prices you pay for growing old is that your friends and family start dying.
Then had to decide to end the life of my cat, Victor, back in March. One of the worst moments of my life had to be watching the vet (a good one) shoot that pink liquid into Vic's paw and then having poor Vic keel over in my arms like a stone. Open up the gates of hell and let me in there cause I never want to do that again. Poor Victor. Found out he most likely had a congenital urinary track deformation due to in-breeding at the pet store where I bought him. Fuckers.
Moved an entire bookstore this year. 100,000 plus books in never ending boxes for two weeks. Back breaking work that nearly killed me. Narrowly missed getting my toes crushed in the trucks lift-gate late one afternoon. The whole rest of my life would have been different if that had happened. Whatever God's were looking after me, I offer humble thanks.
On the bright side, the Machinima Festival in November was a surprise. Discovered that the community of machinima filmmakers is really strong, just not well organized. My friends Todd, Phil and Nathan are now a permanent part of my life. New York is wonderful (if you got money). This coming year should be a watershed.
Helped make three great films this year. "The Days After", "The Snow Witch" and "Edge of Remorse". Last year I promised myself I'd collaborate more and it sure paid off. I think "The Snow Witch" is my favorite because it is so simple and complete. The collaboration was natural and easy. Kheri from Britannica Dreams is a remarkable storyteller. She's up for a big job with a game company. I hope she gets it.
Some great films this year: "Dog Bite Dog" and genius Hong Kong film, "Inland Empire", another masterpiece from David Lynch, and "Monster House", a remarkable animated film and one of the best 3d films I've ever seen. Of these, "Inland Empire" will be the most lasting influence. I spent several months re-watching all of Lynch's work and reading every book I could get my hands on. I'm so glad America has a filmmaker like Lynch. We need poets of the cinema to wake us up and teach us that there still is something called ART and that you can create it by tapping into your own imagination. This is certainly a marked contrast from the pap that is fed to us by media conglomerates. Sure, there's room for entertaining fodder, but you don't have to make that your sole diet. My partner Lisa has written a good review at a site where she has been "throwing down" with another crazy name Mike Marano. http://www.chizine.com/throwdown.htm
"Dumbland" by David Lynch is another of his projects that has impressed me. An animated series created entirely by Lynch for his website davidlynch.com, it is a frightening portrait of the lower class. Imagine Stanly Kowalski reworked by Francis Bacon and you have some kind of idea of what Lynch is up to.
"Sister Carrie" by Dreiser, "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy and "Netherworld" by Lisa Morton, where my favorite books of the year. Each book was completely unique and written with such passion and skill that my life was altered while reading each one. "Netherworld" is still in manuscript form and Lisa is looking for an agent to represent the book. Wake up agents! This is the real deal here. And thank you Lisa for letting me read it. I could write volumes on all three books.
Some other great stuff during the year:
-Half Life 2: Episode One (brilliant continuation of the series. You must play this game)
-Juana Molina CD "Son" (listened to this and "Tres Cosas" a zillion times. Spooky and original. Her website at juanamolina.com is almost as good as the album. Some free downloads there)
-Ross MacDonald (re-read all of his detective novels right after reading the Tom Nolan biography. I can't tell you how great it was to read him again. Best American mystery writer period.)
-Creative Zen V Plus (finally sprung for a good mp3 player to upgrade from minidisc and, man, I was unprepared for how cool this player is. I can see why the ipod was such a hit)
-Hollywood "Day of the Dead" festival (incredible festival set in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Remarkable displays, remarkable people, music. I plan on spending a lot of time there next year. We were kicking ourselves for waiting to so late in the evening to go)
-Phil Rice and "Male Restroom Etiquette" (Wrote a profile of Phil this year for mprem.com and discovered Phil is an even more remarkable person/artist than I had realized. Hearing his personal story made me think about my own life. To come from being so troubled to having a family, many friends and creating works of art in machinima makes him my person of the year hands down.
-Zola, the pirate kitty (after we moved the bookstore this year we found we couldn't bring along the old cats since they hated traveling every day to the new location. Enter "Zola", an abused cat with one eye who came in through our good friend, Christa Faust. We fell in love with her and now she is the hit of the new store. When I am ready to check out, I just go and pet Zola. Instant stress relief.
I plan on doing three things; have more fun, listen to more music, and make more money. Of course, you can throw some sex in there, too. New personal website; finally getting work done on my adaptation of Macbeth; more experimental machinima work; live action film finishing up in October at the Day of the Dead festival. And writing fiction for the first time. I plan on writing mystery short stories to get my feet wet. Maybe I'll get lucky and sell one.
Money is the big issue this year though. I need to get back into acting where I can make some real money to put towards a house that Lisa and I want to buy together. I have never had much discipline with money. This year I intend on changing that.
I generally avoid commenting on religion or politics, but this week a convergence of conversations and events has got me thinking overtime about race. With the Micheal Richards rant a week or so ago and the the local LA fireman, Tennie Pierce, snafu about racism and the fire department, I've had several surprising conversations with friends about these particular events and whether they were racist or not. I say surprising because I could not have predicted their response to each of these events, which seemed obvious to me.
Let's look at the Michael Richards rant: by now pretty much everyone knows that Richards erupted into a tirade against (primarily) two black men who were at his stand up comedy routine at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles. Horrifying video hit the net immediately after his rant and the media has been in a frenzy about this event. On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be much question that Michael Richards, by using a terrible, racist pejorative, made himself into a angry bigot overnight. Common sense would tell you that his words and actions were wrong and offensive to African Americans. And yet not a week later after this story is all over the press, a friend reminds me that "the blacks called him a cracker". And then today, a very good friend tried to make the case that African Americans use the term (the n-word) all the time and that it's just a word why is there such a big fuss?
I suppose I'm a coward, but I just couldn't tell them both how stupid they both sounded and that perhaps there's a little hint of racism in their character. I guess these kinds of words end friendships. But, you know, I just can't help but wonder what they are thinking. I explained to my one friend that the n-word was appropriated by African Americans as a means to defy racism by removing the sting/judgment of the word. An African American calling a friend by the n-word is an understandable act of defiance, but Michael Richards (a privileged, white male) screaming out the n-word in a rage is full blown racism. What is my friend thinking here?
And my other friend is a nice guy, a caring father; why would he want to suggest that the Richards tirade was justified because the African Americans called him a "cracker"? His claim was something I could not find reported on in any of the accounts I've read, although I wouldn't be surprised. Was he secretly trying to defend Richards actions because they both are white? I can't come up with any other reason for his comment. Certainly being called a "cracker" (a slang term) is not justification for a wild, racist rant. Or does my friend think that the two African Americans "got what they deserved"?. What a horrifying thought.
And finally, my very good friend talked to me this morning about how he feels that the recent denial of a cash award by the city of Los Angeles to a black fire-fighter because of racial discrimination was just since, in his words, "racism is now being used like a bully by black people". He claims that the fireman, who was served dog food without being told by presumably white co-fire-fighters, is just using race to make some money since pictures of the man had surfaced that depict him engaging in acts of "hazing" with other fire-fighters.
This is a harder issue to understand because we don't have clear-cut visual evidence of racism like with Michael Richards and the case of opportunism can be made against all kinds of people, of many different races. At the time of our conversation, I didn't realize that a recent study commissioned by the city of Los Angeles indicated that 90% of African Americans on the LA Fire Dept. have had what they consider to be racial discrimination during their careers.
It seems to me that racism is very much alive in our modern era, it's just become more subtle and insidious. The idea that African Americans are somehow at fault for claiming racism too much is just wrong. I think too many of my white friends have racist feelings or attitudes that they don't even know they have. Perhaps this is a liberal curse: to believe you are free of racial stereotypes and yet secretly harbor racist attitudes that are disguised as rationalizations.
Spend a half and hour on the net googling "racism", "Michael Richards" and "LA Fireman Tennie Pierce" and you'll find some of the most astounding opinions and justifications. I frankly don't know what to think about seemingly normal Americans defending racist tirades and discrimination. Have we all lost our collective minds? What happened to our knowledge of American history? Certainly racism exists and should be stamped out and punished whenever and wherever it appears.
This whole subject troubles me. I was on the verge of asking an African American friend for his opinion, when I realized I already know his opinion. Racism is not dead simply because laws have been passed to prevent it. Racism is part of how one group of people overpowers and abuses another group of people for their own needs. And while I may seem judgmental with my friends, I've probably said similar things in my life without even knowing it. Racism was at the heart of my family growing up. I don't think I've escaped its curse, no matter how hard I try. The key, I believe, is to be aware of what you do and say. And to not be afraid to identify racism when it rears its ugly head.
For those of you who are considering an appetizer before the big sit-down meal, look no further. From the Good Housekeeping Appetizer Book comes this tasty treat of egg-chive dip, celery hearts, spiced pineapple pickups and hash mounds. Mmmnnn...you'll have your guests talking about this years dinner, no question.
And after everyone has glutted themselves on your food, kicked back from the table and are waiting in bloated silence for the opportune moment to rush to the bathroom, play this heart-warming video from our American Friend, William Burroughs:
"And thanks for decent church-going women, with their mean, pitched, bitter, eeeeevvvilll faces"
Brings back so many memories of Thanksgivings gone by....like Eagle brand pie. This pie was made by a decent church-going woman, my grandmother, Stella Grove, but she wasn't who Burroughs was talking about. The only person I've ever met who truly exemplified what compassion was all about. She made this heavenly pie for Thanksgiving every year. It was the only thing (aside from her smile when she placed a huge chunk of the pie on a plate in front of me) I looked forward to at Thanksgiving every year.
And for all you pie-baking fools out there, here is the recipe- Eagle Brand Pie
(Results may not resemble anything even remotely edible)
I was saddened to read of the death of Richard Gilman recently of lung cancer (he was 83). I'm not surprised that he had cancer as he was of the generation that found smoking to be almost a part of their thinking process. I don't think I ever saw him without a cigarette. As a drama student at Yale in the early eighties, Gilman introduced me to the wonders of World Cinema. The acting program didn't like their students to take classes outside of the approved curriculum, so I got a lot of flack for sitting in a class composed mostly of dramaturgs and producers. I didn't care because I had read his "Making of Modern Drama" and felt he was one of the best Theatre critics I had ever read. No chance of taking his criticism class though ("Why?", I asked. "You aren't a dramaturg. You're an actor" was the reply).
My Tuesday mornings were spent watching Keaton's "Seven Chances", Bergman's "Wild Strawberries", Riefenthal's "Triumph of the Will" and Bunuel's "Un Chien Andalou" along with many other brilliant and challenging films. After each screening, Richard would call for questions or comments, but no one really had much to say because we all wanted to listen to him lecture. And, God, how he could talk. Some of the films I had already seen, but after listening to Gilman's commentary I realized I had only seen the surface of the film. Biography, history, aesthetics, background on the making of each film, careful explication of selected scenes, style; all were covered in his own off-the-cuff style that were almost as compelling as the films themselves. These film sessions were one of the highlights of my time at Yale.
Gilman also encouraged his students to write critically on the films. His was the only class I took that allowed me to express myself through writing. I took film criticism seriously for the first time while studying under Richard Gilman. I still remember an essay on Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc" that I wrote in the experimental style of Stan Brakhage. His "I approve" written in bold felt-tip pen was a real thrill for me considering his growing reputation as a pugnacious defender of the abstract in Theatre and Film.
Richard Gilman was also a considerate man. Whenever he saw a performance of of mine, he always took a moment to say something to me after the show. I suspect he didn't like many of the performances he saw at the Drama School since most of them were hurried affairs, but I think he wanted to show his support of his students work even when it wasn't their best. I admire him for his commitment to teaching.
"My assumptions in this book are that drama ought to matter to us as a source of consciousness, that great plays can be as revelatory of human existence as novels or poems, that such plays aren't discrete objects to which we 'go' but analogues of our lives which we encounter, and that an account of how some of them came into being in the modern period, against heavy obstacles and on unpromising ground, can be an instructive — I hope fascinating — chapter of imaginative history."
He taught at the Yale School of Drama from 1973 until his retirement in 1998. It's gratifying to know that a generation of Drama students will have been exposed to this genius of the Theatre. His "The Making of Modern Drama" is still the definitive work on the modern playwrights Buchner, Strindberg, Ibsen, Chekov, Brecht, Beckett, Pirandello and Peter Handke.
Excellent obituaries at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times give a full measure to this great man's life. And there is a nice interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" with Richard around the time his book, "Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir"; a book about his struggles with religion and sex. Listening to this interview is a good introduction to the rhythm of his thinking process. You can also see what a self-effacing man he was.
Richard Gilman taught me that art has at its center a mystery of craft and personal experience. He was a living testament to the notion that the life of ideas must also be shared with others. Here's to a teacher who made a difference in the life of this student.
Happy Halloween to everyone! Good things are happening to me as they do every Halloween. First, I've just published a long (probably too long) profile of the Machinima filmmaker, Phil Rice (aka Overman) at Machinima Premiere (and soon at Machinima.com). You can read the article here:
I got the idea for the profile while watching his excellent "Male Restroom Etiquette" Machinima film. I thought, "I'd like to know more about Phil...why doesn't someone do a profile of him and his work?". When I realized that I could write the profile myself, I contacted Phil and, surprisingly, he agreed and we set up a long interview via Skype to go over biographical details and to watch MRE together. I just loved stopping the film and asking him how he achieved certain effects. It's long been a fantasy of mine to sit down with a favorite filmmaker and just stop the film and ask about something you admire in the film. Thank you, Phil, for all of your help and support.
In typical generous style, Phil has made an interesting Blog post on the Profile which include expanded comments on how important the writings of Ayn Rand were to him. Frankly, I've always avoided her work since she testified at the HUAC show trials as a friendly witness. I've read many of her anti-communist quotes and these colored my reactions to her even though I sold her books day in and day out at the bookstore where I work. Phil's insights have given me the idea that maybe I should put this concern aside and look at her with fresh eyes.
Also, have just released a new Machinima film created by Michelle of Britannica Dreams productions called "The Snow Witch". Michelle asked me to do the sound design for the film. It is a lovely film and I'm am so proud to have been a part of it. I feel the sound work on "The Snow Witch" is my best to date. The difficulty of finding just the right level of effects in such a simple style was acute, but also very exciting and fun when I got it right. Phil Rice (there he is again!) working as Overman did most of the witch voice filtering and his work is excellent. How does he find the time?
I've also just been given some very very good news about another film, but unfortunately I can't give it out just yet. But you will see....he he! AND it's a good possibility that I will be reporting on the 2006 Machinima film festival for Renderosity.com , a major 3d graphics site, thanks to John Martin of Reallusion.com . Here's hoping that works out.
And, last but not least, I got lost in an old fashioned "Corn Maze" with my life partner, Lisa Morton. Damn! I have to work tonight until 10pm, but afterwards Lisa and I will heat up some cider and watch some of the old Universal Monster movies (The Mummy, probably). Ahh...this is the best time of year.
PS be sure to take a look at Lisa's book on Halloween. It's pretty interesting reading. Check it out here:
Some of you may know that I am a machinimator. Now, don't start letting your imagination run away with you. Machine-Cinema is the art of creating animated films inside of Video Games like World of Warcraft and Sims2. It started around 1998 with Quake demos (player matches shot inside of Quake) and have developed to the point where there is a major Festival in New York, prizes, competitions and multiple web sites devoted to machinima filmmaking.
I've been involved primarily as a sound designer for machinima films. If you are interested you can see two of my recent works here:
Next week I'll be heading off to New York city for the 2006 Machinima Film Festival headed by Paul Marino. They'll be an awards banquet; the event will be covered live in Second Life. They'll be a daily showing of dozens of interesting machinima films from around the world along with workshops and seminars. I'll be participating in an audio workshop along with Chris Burke (This Spartan Life) and Steve Horowitz (Super Size Me). But I think the most interesting aspect of the festival will be in the hundreds of side conversations between people who are meeting each other in person for the first time. Machinima needs a shot in the arm and this is just the kind of event where that could happen. I hope to bring some script and story ideas to pitch to machinima filmmakers I know might be interested. I also want to make new friends and discover more about the friends I already have.
And to give you and idea of the kind of people who are in the machinima community, I couldn't afford to go to the festival this year, but my friends there sent me the money to go. How cool is that? A huge THANK YOU goes out to my good friends for making my presence at the festival possible (You know who you are!)
Lisa Vollrath has a marvellous book related craft project at LisaVollrath.com where she takes an antinuqe encyclopedia and re-works it as a personal scrapbook. Ingenious project idea. Given the amount of old encyclopedias that are donated to our store and put out for free, it's a good project to look in to. You could also use the idea for other old books that can be transformed into personal journals, photo albums or your own short story. Neat.
Update: My apologies to Ms. Vollrath for misstating the author of the article. I've corrected the entry here. I have also adjusted the link to a list of her general book projects all of which are pretty neat. Seems she removed the Encyclopedia entry because someone re-posted the article and accompanying pictures without her permission. Hope she is able to get it back online soon.
Picked up a cheap copy of the original (1051) "The Thing From Another World" today at Fry's and the young girl at the checkout counter picked up my DVD and looked at it carefully before she said, "The Thing, huh? What's it about". I guess I'm just forgetting the fact that I'm 51 and she was about 19, but I was just speechless that anyone would not know about or have seen this movie. "Looks like a good Halloween movie", she said. After I recovered my ability to speak, I told her it was indeed a good film and proceeded to give a very short version of the plot. This boiled down to something like "Arctic scientists discover UFO crash landed and pull body frozen in ice back to their station. The body thaws out and it's a monster who starts killing people until they figure out how to kill it." She kept nodding with enthusiasm. "Oh..sounds good", she said. I remember going on about how the original is better than the remake because its funnier and better made, but that the remake was truer to the original story written John W. Campbell called "Who Goes There?", but I think I lost her halfway through my spiel. Still, I have a feeling she's going to search this movie out and watch it over Halloween.
You might laugh at me, but I'm still surprised that she'd never even heard of the film. What's happening to me?
Harlequin is still one of the most popular paperback publishers in the world. They maintain this dominance by creating "cross over" novels where they combine aspects of the romance with other genres. In the case of "Covert Cowboy" it's Danielle Steele meets Robert Ludlum, or "breath-taking romance suspense". Be sure to read the plot synopsis on the back page. I especially like "team up with one headstrong, pregnant woman to catch a criminal". And dig that shade of blue for the color theme!
An amazing animated film just crossed my path and I can't let it go by without sharing "FAST FILM":
This Austrian film was created by Virgil Widrich in 2003. I've seen a few of his films that I thought were fantastic, but "Fast Film" takes the cake. 65,000 hand-folded paper models shot with a digital camera with cut outs created in Adobe Premiere. There is an excellent website with more info (don't miss the downloadable storyboard in the "Press" section) and an interview here:
What I like about this film is that it is utterly mad jazz animation with no stops. The energy, the style and creativity all come together to make a unique anymation film. I say "anymation" because there is no one program that is used in the making of this film. It is a combination of several animation and editing programs. I've been working with friends on a site where we hope to do original anymation work. It's just gone up recently, so the pickins are slim, but we are working on it. Definitely watch Tom Jantol's "Toybox". I hope to work with him at some point in the future.
Over the last month, I have been asking myself why it's been such a struggle to write this Mickey Spillane essay. My friend, Christa, chastised me last night for my long silence. "Blogging is not rocket science", she said. She's right, of course. And so I offer my apology to those of you who have checked in only to find nothing new. Sloth has something to do with it, but I think it also has to do with the fact that Spillane will forever be tied up with the image I have of my father. And when I think about my father (he died decades ago) everything stops. Morbid introspection has always been a specialty of mine, so while I've been reading and researching Spillane, I've also been fighting old battles with my father. While this essay is about Mickey Spillane, it's also about my father.
My father was an asshole. He beat my mother, issued corporal punishment (with a belt) and terrified the entire family for the 18 miserable years I had to live with him. Before he created our horror family, he served in the Navy in WWII and developed a reading habit. Probably by reading the paperback Armed Service Editions of books supplied by the military. After the war he picked up the same sleazy paperbacks that everyone else did. He read voraciously and Mickey Spillane was his favorite author. He used to spend a long time in the bathroom where he'd read a Spillane novel and leave it on the top of the toilet. I remember sneaking looks at the covers of the books. They scared me.
Dear old Dad was a living monster to me and consequently I was fearful and fascinated with him at the same time. After my father's death and with years of reflection, I’ve come to understand that my reaction to the novels of Mickey Spillane comes from the fact that like all readers who create an image of the main character of a novel in their mind's eye, I imagined my father as Mike Hammer. When I read Spillane it’s my father, Frank Grove, who is running around beating people up, and shooting women in the guts.
"Spillane broke down the barriers, where sex and violence were concerned, and this pissed people off. Also, he was perceived as right-wing. The vigilante approach Hammer used turned the stomachs of many liberals... (Spillane) is number three, after Hammett and Chandler (in a list of the 10 most important detective novelists of the 20th century). Anyone who doesn't recognize Spillane's importance is an idiot. There are paperback originals because Gold Medal Books was created to fill the public's demand for Spillane-type fare. Disliking Spillane's writing is one thing -- ignoring history is another."
“Their (Mike and Mickey) appeal rested on their vigilante primitivism, their idiosyncratic form of law and order in which each man was assigned by himself, the role of judge, juror and executioner. They interpreted this as anti-Communism at it’s best, as the American Way, like apple pie and Mom.“
Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) developed his writing skills by writing for the comics of the thirties and forties. Some of his ideas about story and character came from this comic book view of the world he adopted. His bartender father and his military service seasoned his prejudices and influenced Mickey's decision to adopt a conservative view of the world. He enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor and ended up training pilots for the Air Force for two years. After the war, in 1946, he returned to write for comics like "Smarty Pants" and "Jackie the Slick Chick" which supported him and his new wife, Mary Ann. After saving enough money to buy a few acres of land outside of New York City, he decided to build a house but needed money to do it. So, he sat down and wrote I, the Jury" in about three weeks while living in a tent on the land he had purchased. Somehow it got published in hard back in 1947 (possibly because of favors owed to a friend of Mickey’s in the publishing business). The hardback didn’t sell all that well, but when the book was published in paperback by Signet the same year, he found his audience. In those days paperbacks were considered part of magazine distribution since they were sold in magazine shops, subway platforms and newsstands and not in bookstores. Mickey Spillane's "I, the Jury" became a huge bestseller to the everyday reader who would see the book displayed right next to the daily paper. "I, the Jury" sold over 2 million copies and Spillane became a huge force in the publishing world. The first five Spillane books alone sold a combined 15 million copies in paperback by 1952. These were astounding figures for the time. And even though he faced scathing reviews from the critics he didn't care because he was a hit with the public.
"Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar."
"If the public likes you, you're good."
"I don't care what they say about me, as long as they don't rip up my dollar bills."
"I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers".
It's not hard to see that Spillane liked to play his tough-guy Mike Hammer character in public as well as in his novels.
I read several of Mickey Spillane books as a teenager and found them amusing and anachronistic. But I really didn't read them very closely. They seemed to be pretty hokey to me at the time. Now, after struggling through "I, the Jury", I really don't understand why he was (and in a sense continues to be) so popular since his writing is so formulaic, so badly written and so filled with sadism, racism and homophobia (to name a few). How did this openly misogynistic, openly right-wing author become so hugely popular? And does success really make a writer's work good? Do we look at the writers work differently when he's successful than when he's not?
From "I, the Jury":
"Your body is huge your mind is the same"
"Oh, Mike can't you see that I love you?...."Yes, silly, I can see it. It must be sticking out all over me the same way"
"... A trial by law for a killer. A loophole in the phrasing that lets a killer crawl out. But in the end the people have their justice. They get it through guys like me once in a while. They crack down on society and I crack down on them. I shoot them like the mad dogs they are..."
"Her body was a hot flame; the tip of her tongue searched for mine. She quivered under my hands wherever I touched her. Now I knew why she hadn't married. One man could never satisfy her"
"There so much about you that could be nice if only your mind wasn't trained to hate so fiercely"
"We found John Hanson, all right. He lay at the foot of the bed with his head in a puddle of his own blood and brains...on the wall was more of his goo.."
"Right now I had to start thinking. Little things were beginning to show their heads".
"Never before had I felt like this, but then never before had I been in love"
Mickey Spillane's novel writing primarily consists in telling the same story over and over again in blunt, serviceable (and frequently bad) prose borrowed from tough guy writers of the thirties like John Carroll Daly. He writes from the first person point of view, which is a problematic choice for writers since it limits the author to only what the central character is seeing. All of the Mike Hammer stories are told from his point of view. He lives in a world of his own wish-fulfillment. Every character serves the needs and wants of Mike Hammer. There is no objective reality. And everything in this world is judged according to Mike Hammer's ideas of what is good and bad. Spillane writes this way because it enables him to write out his own hates, fears and prejudices, but through the mind of a self-righteous vigilante, Mike Hammer. Need a retarded man for Mike to befriend? Enter Bobo, slow thinking bee fanatic, created so that "tough guy" Mike can have a "soft" side. Need a cliched nymphomaniac Mike can tease and walk away from? Enter Mary, one of the Bellamy twins, who can't stop until she has sex with Mike on the beach, with his girlfriend waiting. The "characters" in a Mike Hammer are all foils created by Spillane to demonstrate how tough, how manly and how "right" his central character is. In fact, the novels are simple copies of previous mystery forms whose real purpose is for Spillane to stand on a soapbox and rant. Sentiment, melodrama and cliche are the tools he uses to support his ranting. And to the "easy reader" that was his target audience, they obviously worked. I like one critic who called Mike an "homme-fatale" as opposed to the noir "femme-fatale".
In all of Spillane's novels, men are either good or bad. Those men who challenge Mike get beaten or killed. Homosexuals, for whom Mike has a special contempt, get an off-hand treatment. At one point in "I, the Jury" Mike pours water on two gay men in order to stop their "May Queen" fight outside his window. Women come out the worst though. They are either servants, mothers or whores. Does Spillane seriously think the reader would not question the fact that he has a beautiful, smart Harvard psych (the antagonist of the novel) get into the heroin business with her clients because she was bored and needed the money? And why would this “smart” killer leave her gun out out a table in the living room after she has murdered someone? Because Spillane needs to give Mike Hammer an out when he shoots her at the end. He shoots her in self-defense because after stripping naked for him (described in fetishistic italicized detail), she was reaching for the gun behind him. One of the most openly misogynistic scenes in literary history. Apparently Mickey Spillane didn't care. His Apache dance with the public worked. The more he rubbed their noses in stupid bad taste and lurid sex, the more they loved it. To paraphrase Jeffrey in "Blue Velvet", "why are there people like Mike Hammer in the world?". Of course, he was talking about the psycho Frank Booth, but it's not much of stretch.
The entire world of a Mike Hammer novel serves to further Mike’s own inflated sense of himself as the only "real" man. Only a real man loves his friend enough to kill for him; only a real man can truly make homosexuals look as foolish and girlish as they are; only a real man has permission to beat people for information when they resist; only a real man can truly satisfy a nymphomaniac; only a real man can drink beer and smoke enough to work out the solution to his problems; only a real man can bully the police enough to get the information he wants; only a real man can outsmart even a Harvard educated female psychiatrist; only a real man can find it easy to shoot the woman he is in love with and is going to marry when he discovers she’s a killer. Yes, The whole book (and all his subsequent copies) are about what it means to be a real man, a Mike Hammer kind of man. And Spillane thinks this is just what our country needs to fight the evil in this world. And it's what my Dad believed in, too. He brought this fascist mentality into our family and made his wife and children live in terror of his judgments. Just like the characters in a Mickey Spillane novel.
Real men demand respect or they beat it out of you. No wonder I find his books so reprehensible. My father was the same kind of "real man". He was constantly demanding respect as if he didn't have much of it himself. Proving his "manliness" took up a good deal of his life. Mike operated in much the same way.
Those who enjoy Mickey Spillane's novels praise his writing by using words like "dark energy", "a page turner" and "forceful". Yes, there's undeniable force in Spillane's writing. You can't have a central character who hates with such intensity and not have a certain kind of "force". Of course, this force can also be stupid and phony (as I've pointed out). Seen as a parody of the hard-boiled novel, Spillane's writing is much more interesting because of the humor this point of view adds to his self-righteous cant. But Spillane wrote to be taken seriously which makes him all the more laughable. As to the "page turner" praise, doesn't being a page-turner require that you believe the events you are reading? If you don't believe in the characters or the events there is no urge to turn the pages. Re-reading "I, the Jury" was a stultifying experience. One that I won't soon repeat. I can see how his writing would impress those who paid no real attention to passages like these:
"To a man friendship is a much greater thing than it is to a woman...."
...the pocket of my jacket was ripped down the seam. When I saw that I wished I'd killed that bogie. In these days decent suits were too hard to get"
"A pack of queers who enjoyed exotic, sadistic sex. Nasty People."
"Before I'm done I may shoot up a lot of snotty punks like you, but you can bet that one of them will have been the one I was after, and as for the rest, tough luck"
"Her breasts were laughing things that were firmly in place..."
Spillane’s reputation has always been pretty clearly divided between those who put aside his poor writing and questionable morality, and those readers who find his work offensive and cruel, especially his obvious hatred and fear of women and gays. Still, one cannot question someone’s personal taste. If you like something, you like it and no amount of critical wordlashing is going to change that. But if you are a reader who pays attention and who might want a better written and more intelligent book that isn’t simply a psychotic power fantasy, then there are many excellent hard-boiled writers who were contemporary to Spillane that are much much more enjoyable. Writers like Peter Rabe, Lionel White, Jonathan Latimer and Ross MacDonald are just a few (leaving out the obvious Hammett, Cain and Chandler). I love Raymond Chandler’s quip when asked what he thought of Spillane's writing, he called Spillane a "Writing Gorilla”. I can't think of a better description.
So, again, what accounts for Spillane’s huge popularity? The accepted wisdom is that the American public in the late 40’s were hardened by years of war, and so stories of violence were very popular; in addition, the GI’s returning from WWII, many of whom had developed a reading habit from the Paperbacks that were given to them during the war. I think there is some truth to these assertions, but I wonder if it has more to do with the fact that readers the world over have always loved the vigilante character. The post war society of America was divided and upset. Women, who had made major contributions to the war effort and were a large part of the work force during the war, were now being forced to return to the traditional roles assigned to them and many weren’t willing to give up that freedom and power. There were problems with organized crime, youth delinquency and corruption in business. The dropping of the atomic bomb also gave people a sense that their safety was transitory since it was only a matter of time before other countries made their own bombs and used them against the US. And the paranoia of the time has been well-documented in the communist and liberal purges that destroyed peoples lives. All of these elements come together in the mind of an average reader who rides the subway to work and one day sees a particularly lurid cover on the newsstand. “I, the Jury” featured a very sleazy cover with hints of sex and violence; plus, it sold for 25c a far cry from the $4.95 cost of a new hardback. The style of the book is meant for just this kind of impulsive reader: no wonder the book sold like hotcakes. And since Spillane considered himself a “writer" and not an author, it was no trouble to continue to write the same plot and characters over an over again. Once sales reached into the stratosphere he could thumb his nose at critics who called him on his bad writing and malignant central character. Success always trumps the critics in America.
But, what about present day readers? His books certainly don’t have the kick that they did back in the forties where readers could thrill to be reading something “bad”. Modern opinion of Spillane has improved considerably. Although, I think some of this is due to the fact that commentators/readers confuse the great Robert Aldrich movie, "Kiss Me, Deadly" with Spillane’s actual novels. Aldrich and the excellent screenwriter, A.I. Bezzerides, a leftist black-listed author (and the blacklist was due partly to attitudes fostered by Mickey Spillane's writing) who hated Spillane’s book and set out to create an adaptation that critiqued the original.
Bezzerides on adapting "Kiss Me, Deadly":
"He gave me the MS book "kiss me deadly" and I said, this is lousy. Let me see what I can do". You give me a piece of junk, I can't write it. I have to write something else. So I went to work on it. I wrote it fast because I have contempt for it. I was automatic writing you get in to a kind of stream and you can't stop. I get into psychic isolation sometimes when I'm writing".
..I tell you Spillane didn't like what I did with his books. I ran into him at a restaurant and, boy, he didn't like me."
Bezzerides' adaptation of "Kiss Me, Deadly" turns the Spillane world on it’s head. No longer does the world serve Mike Hammer’s needs, but he’s presented as the angry asshole that he really is. In fact, where the novel ends with Mike shooting the female villain in the stomach, it’s the Hammer character who is shot in the stomach at the end of the film version. The film is such a stylish and smart put down of the novel that many viewers confuse the two and so Spillane’s reputation has actually been enhanced by this film when the purpose of the screenwriter was to kick it in the ass.
Critically, Spillane has been justly ignored. A single major work of criticism has been written on Spillane by mystery writer Max Allan Collins. I haven’t read this book (nor do I care to) but Collins has been instrumental in trying to restore Spillane’s reputation for the modern reader. The Mystery Writers of America awarded Spillane a Grand Master award in 1995, no doubt due to some heavy lobbying by Mr. Collins. Earlier, in 1983, Spillane received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Private Eye Writers of America. It's ironic that Joseph Hansen was a nominee that year for his novel "Gravedigger" which features gay detective David Brandstetter. I hope Joseph gave Mickey a nice big manly hug at the reception. 1997 saw the publication of an otherwise excellent mystery anthology called "Hard Boiled" published by the distinguished Oxford University Press and edited by Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian. It includes, not a short story by Spillane, but a screen test for his own audition as Mike Hammer. Essentially re-writing the last scene in "I, the Jury", Mike/Mickey shoots another pesky, treacherous woman in the guts and then flips his cigarette on her back! Pronzini in the introduction defends the inclusion of Spillane's "story" in the collection because of his "energy" and "importance". Too bad he also didn't consider "sadism", "bad taste" and "lack of imagination". Big mistake, Mr. Pronzini. At least choose an actual story that has some merit to it. Fortunately, Robert Polito, author of the superb biography of Jim Thompson, "Savage Art", did not make the same mistake when he edited the prestigious Library of America's "Crime Novels of the 1930's & 40's" series in 1997. Choosing good writing over "force" and "importance", he came up with a great list of books. The inclusion of William Lindsay Gresham's "Nightmare Alley" is a brilliant choice. Thank you, Mr. Polito.
Still, you can't completely ignore the achievement of Mickey Spillane (and I tried hard) since his success created the conditions that gave many other authors the opportunity to publish and make a living. Peter Rabe, Charles Williams, Bruno Fischer and many other "paperback original" authors owe Mickey Spillane a big debt. Something his defenders like to bring up constantly, since his actual writing is indefensible. In America, money makes you good at anything. At least in the eyes of the general public. And considering the amount of money Spillane made for himself and for others, Spillane is in a class by himself.
Frankly, I don’t think Spillane is going make the long haul as an author. The recent attempt to rehabilitate his reputation after his death has started to die down. His point of view (such as it is) has become part of popular culture to the point that when you read the original it really reads better as comic parody. Too many authors wrote better and took the time to say something about how people live and die, to spend much time reading Spillane's hate filled polemics. It's not surprising that it was Ross MacDonald and not Mickey Spillane who wrote the first mystery novel (The Underground Man) to be reviewed on the front cover of the NYT Book Review. Genre fiction like mystery has it hard enough without self-serving writers like Spillane pushing them further into the ghettos. And while there are claims that women enjoy Spillane’s fiction, I don’t buy it. Sure there are some women who read him with pleasure, but on average it doesn't happen. No, Spillane will forever remain “men’s fiction” and, if there is anything to his writing, his books will stay on the top shelf of the toilet in the men’s room where they belong.
In my father's later years before he died of acute alcoholism (a fitting death), he lost interest in the novels of Mickey Spillane. He began reading Louis L'Amour westerns which he displayed proudly on three shelves in our living room. L'Amour was a much better writer than Spillane. Even while using cliche and stereotype, he managed to bring a real dignity and grace to his characters. A far cry from the macho posturing of Mickey Spillane. Those moments where my father read his L'amour western out on the porch of our ram-shackle summer house in Prescott, Arizona, were really the only moments I felt at peace with him. I wished he had read Louis L'Amour a lot earlier in his life. It's a pipe dream, but I wonder if things would have been different for me and my family.
"I've read at least five or six Spillane novels and man, if he was a big gun back in the days his work certainly hasn't aged well. How repetitive. How boring and misogynistic. Every woman just flings herself at Hammer's feet. It's more than ludicrous, it's so unappealing. Talk about unrealistic! He wrote one good novel I THE JURY and everything else was a shadow of that or, eventually, a parody. "
“Spillane’s novels have a curiously dreamlike atmosphere. Many things happen, but none seem particularly substantial: the sole reality is Hammer’s consciousness, which is compelled, apparently, by a continuous sense of thwarted rage”
There are those books that when you read them, the world changes. This is true. Somehow the world that the book presents changes your world view. Of course, Grisham or Ludlum ain't gonna do it. But Ernest Becker can. Who the hell is Ernest Becker? He wrote a book called "The Denial of Death" that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. The thing that this book did was to wrap my mind around the idea of "Culture". Somehow, I had never fully understood that everything around me, the buildings, the shops, the clothing, etc., is all a result of someones idea. We made all of it up out of our heads! For a 16 year old boy, it hit me like a thunderclap. Also, Becker reasons that much of this Culture has been created out of a fear of Death. Made sense to me, having lost my brother when I was 6. Where did he go? What do you mean "he died"? These were questions that no one could answer. I was basically ignored when I tried to find out what Death was.
I'm thinking about this book because I went with my partner, Lisa, to her Aunts grave over the weekend. She was buried in a large, beautiful cemetery in Rosemead, CA. We cleaned her headstone, clipped the grass around it and after lots of digging, finally found a flower cup we could place the summer flowers into. We took a picture with Lisa's digital camera to send to her sons. While Lisa was working around the grave, I wandered to some headstones nearby and noticed that most of them hadn't been cared for and were covered over with leaves, moss and pine thistles. One grave was that of a young man who fought in WWI and half of his headstone was covered with dried mud. Another grave was completely coverd with water and mud along with the tire marks of a cemetery maintenance truck. I got a sad, hollow feeling in my chest for all of these dead people and their forgotten relatives. Why aren't more graves cared for? Maybe Ernest Becker had it right and we are all afraid of anything that reminds us of Death. But I wasn't afraid during the hour I spent at the cemetery, on the contrary, I was thoughtful. I imagined what my death would be like. Who would come to my small plaque in the Mausoleum for those who have been cremated? I looked at these small plaques with their tiny cups next to them, some with baby's breath, and some just rusting away, and I wondered what it would be like to have an entire life deposited in a small metal box. I wasn't sad because this is the future we are all moving towards. You, me, the president, Anthony Wong, Gus Van Zandt, Pink Floyd, the slug I saw in the garden this morning, Victor, my cat, and everything that is alive now will one day be dead. Somehow it doesn't scare me, it makes me, well, feel kinda normal (and maybe a little angry)
What I'm saying is that we like to forget about Death because culture tells us it's terrible. Don't believe it. Death is inevitable and there is nothing you can do about it. We have a section in our bookstore called "Death", not "Death and Dying", but "Death". I like that because that's what the section is about: just Death and what it is and how it happens and what people do about it.
Next time you are in the Anthropology or Psychology section of your local bookstore look for Ernest Becker's "Denial of Death". It might change the way you look at the world as well.
I suppose I should explain the title of this journal. A "Journal of Plague Years", of course, is a famous novel by Daniel Defoe. I've appropriated his title since the image matches my sense of living in this country (the United States), during difficult and trying times. I believe we are living in the "plague years" and are under threat. Since this journal is devoted to the arts, I'll leave it to you to fill in what that threat might be. In addition to being a wonderful writer, Defoe was a gifted satirist. Satire is something I hope to bring to this journal along with a healthy dose of humor.
"Books, Films and Modern Living" is my journals subtitle. Allow me to expand on that a bit. Books are an obsession with me. Only recently have I been able to face stressful situations without a book in my hand/pocked/bag. Books have been my parents, my teachers and my imagination for years. I read obsessively, compulsively and with rapidity. That's not to say I don't consider what I read. Mr. Grisham can bite my ass before I'll come near one of his "dai-bin ge Sue". I usually spend time choosing just the right book. I will read reviews, ask friends, ask Lisa (more on Lisa in a minute) and "flirt" with the book for a while before I make my choice. There is so much mediocrity that I just don't have time to read something stupid (cough..cough..Dan..cough..Brown..coughcough). I could go on..(and will in later journal entries), but suffice to say I have a grand passion for books every since that day when I saw my first Ace double science fiction novel at the local paperback bookstore, Humphrey's books. I read the "Mad Metropolis" by British Scifi writer, Philip E. High and was hooked on Ace-doubles. I started a stack in my bedroom that eventually rose to about two feet before they started to fall over. Ahhh, great memories..but I digress.
I'll also be writing about Film. Second in line, just behind books, is the Cinema - Movies - the Flickers. I spent a good part of my childhood (the part that wasn't spent reading) down at the Glen Theater in Glendale, AZ where my sister Judith was an usher. I was able to stay all day and watch the shows over and over until she left at about 6pm. In those days (early 1960) you were treated to a several newsreels, Hollywood backstage bits, a cartoon and usually two features: the A and the B picture. Sometimes the films were both solid B pictures which were the ones I liked best. I think I must have seen "White Zombie" and "Fiend Without a Face" a dozen times. I also remember seeing my first images of the concentration camps as well. God knows why they would show those images to an audience composed mostly of children and teenagers. Thankfully, they were brief (but unforgettable). I continued to go to the movies for most of my adult life. I was very fortunate to have seen most of the great films of the seventies (Jaws, Godfather, etc) all on the big screen. Now, since DVD's are so great, I spend more time watching movies at home on the TV and on my computer. I've been trying to get back to the big screen but, sadly, most of the movies I see are so poorly done that I just don't enjoy watching them (cough..cough..War of the Worlds..cough). There actually came a point about 10 years ago where I just about gave up on popular cinema, but Lisa Morton came into my life (more on my personal Maggie Cheung later...) and introduced me to Hong Kong Cinema and my faith was restored. I'll be talking a lot about HK cinema in future entries. I also have a big interest in Noir cinema and in Exploitation cinema. Also Documentary films are one of my favorite genres. I'll be covering all of these types of films plus the scattered big Hollywood release when I find one of interest.
As far as the "Modern Living" part of this journal goes, I will be writing about the kinds of things that happen to a person living in a huge metropolitan city (Los Angeles). I won't be boring anyone with my complaints about eating at a particular restaurant or how hard it is to do this and that, but rather the odd and interesting things that occur. I mean interesting to me, of course. Like today, I was walking up to my favorite video store, Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee (http://www.ebsmvideo.com) and in the grassy median between the two lanes of traffic, a large branch from a very large tree had fallen exactly beneath where it had broken off of. The still strong branches were holding it up in such a way that it looked surreal. How the hell did this tree fall down? I stood and looked to see if it was rotten (it wasn't) or perhaps someone had cut it away (no cut marks). I just looked weird and out of place. I suppose that's a good description of what I plan on writing about: things that are "out of place" in the city; or, surreal city life. Something like that.
This is my beginning journal. I'll keep writing about what interests me. If you read this, I hope you will find it interesting, too. You can find more info about me personally at my website (http://www.rgrove.com).
As my grandfather used to say in his letters to me, "Nuff Said".