Into darkness

In an excellent essay on NYMag.com Angelica Jade Bastién asks if the modern noir has "atrophied":
True Detective is the clearest example of the emptiest aspects of modern noir: vengeful, self-centered white men; casual racism; violence without grace or purpose; mistaking the cliché strong female character for something meaningful; lack of levity or humor; labyrinthine plotlines without verve.
Not sure if she's talking True Detective 1, 2 or both; haven't seen the latter, am a fan of the former. Bastién continues:
In the early 1940s, noir began as a movement born of a number of factors: the changing gender and racial landscape of America during and after World War II, the Expressionist influence of European-refugee filmmakers like Billy Wilder, and studio-system economics.
Missing from her list: the novels and short stories on which the movies were based. That's your problem right there: the source material. Look at Michael Winterbottom's version of The Killer Inside Me. Jim Thompson's novel was published in 1952: viewed from this side of the century it's fifty shades of go fuck yourself.

Contrary to any rosy academic spin one might apply now the so-called "classic" noir movies were typically violent, sexist, populated by gender and racial stereotypes, hacked by studios and curdled by portentous public service messages and disclaimers. But they were good because the stories were good, and they remain powerful because their subversive, disturbing messages ring true.

(I'm suspicious of art that tells you how things should be: far more interested in what tells you how things are -- and even better, how bad it can get. There is no rule in the manual that says art should be virtuous.)

If you want to set your tuner to classic film noir pick up a copy of Barry Gifford's The Devil Thumbs A Ride: a film diary by one of my favourite fiction authors.

If you want to see where film noir is going, check out Mr Robot. Show creator Sam Esmail talked to Engadget about his approach to the series:
... I really wanted to do a character piece about one specific character from this world. I wanted to be inside his head as intimately and as close as possible. Then the character of Elliot started to form. Taxi Driver hands down is probably one of the best character pieces in cinema, so of course that was an inspiration. The use of VO (voice over) and the sort of isolation, in terms of the filming and storytelling -- really you're just locked in with this guy.
And if you want the real thing? Go read a book.

(Pic: Jessica Alba in The Killer Inside Me (2010), dir. Michael Winterbottom.)


The devil has the best songs

James Sallis on Jean-Patrick Manchette:
There's much that's quintessentially French about Manchette: his political stance, the stylish hard surface of his prose, his adoption of a "low" or demotic art form to embody abstract ideas. Like any great illusionist, he directs our attention one way as the miraculous happens in another. He tells us a simple story. This occurred. That. But there's bone, there's gristle. Floors give way, and wind heaves its shoulder against the door. His stories of cornered individuals become an indictment of capitalism's excesses, its unchallenged power, its reliance on distraction and spectacle.


Artists in the studio

Maxime Schmitt on Kraftwerk's working method:
I was thinking, "Is there a good song coming out of this?" or "will the stuff that I heard be as good in three months?" There was this quest where I wanted to bring back something really strong. I remember I used to go to Düsseldorf and I would listen to the new material, saying "But there you are not doing Kraftwerk anymore, you are doing a sort of Queen!" And they would say, "After all, maybe it's not bad, maybe it can be a new direction." But in fact, they came back very fast to their style. When things went towards new directions, within six months it had become recognisably Kraftwerk again.
– Pascal Bussy, Kraftwerk: Man Machine and Music (SAF, 1993)


The best crime writers you've never heard of

There's a lot I like in the novels of French noir author Jean-Patrick Manchette and just as much that I admire. The translations can clunk but the energy sparks and the style references are to die for.

American crime writer James Sallis reviewed Manchette for The Boston Globe:
Much about Manchette seems quintessentially French: the stylish glistening surface of his prose, his objectivist method, his adoption of a "low" art form to embody abstract ideas. This goes far towards explaining why he remains virtually unknown and to this point untranslated in the U.S., while all about Europe, having salvaged the French crime novel from the bog of police procedurals and colorful tales of Pigalle lowlife into which it had sunk, he's a massive figure.
"The crime novel," he claimed, "is the great moral literature of our time" — shortly before he set about proving it.
Sallis is very good also. His mainstream "break" was Drive (2005) which was turned into a movie in 2011. Although the movie did well he tells Oliver Franklin-Wallis not a lot has changed since:
We get so many calls I won't answer the phone. My latest book The Killer Is Dying has had a lot of interest but so far nothing is happening. Certainly I feel more visible. But as a writer, my favourite are emails from readers saying "I loved the film and I immediately went out and bought the book, now I'm reading the four Lew Griffin novels" because it really is leading people to my other work.

CNN called Sallis "the best crime writer you've never heard of." Sallis's other nominations in that category:
J.M. Redmann writes lesbian mysteries which are absolutely wonderful. One of her best titles is The Intersection Of Law And Desire, which are two streets in New Orleans. S.J. Rozan is a great writer and so is Jean-Patrick Manchette, a French writer who nobody knows in the States. I also love George Pelecanos. There's so much exciting crime writing being done now. Something like Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn – what a hell of a novel – would never have been written fifty years ago.
Sallis, talking to Keith Rawson, describes his writing process:
Mostly it’s all on computer nowadays, though each page, each line, gets questioned, revised, rewritten, buffed, trimmed and fileted hundreds of times.
That's how you do it.


Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Between You & Me is an index of things editors dwell on so that readers don't have to: word gender, the dangling participle, commas, hyphenation. Author Mary Norris is a copy editor at the New Yorker. After an introduction that is easeful even by her employer's standards she introduces the magazine's dictionary of choice, Webster's, which she employs as a prelude to American English, and here the book comes alive ("The best thing ever written about hyphens is..."). Far from "a mean person who enjoys pointing put other people's errors" Norris is tickled pink by her subject. The book is nostalgic in places – New York, mostly ("... her desk facing a wall James Thurber had drawn on in pencil") but her outlook is modern ("I would never disable spell check. That would be hubris"). Grammatical examples are presented as witty mnemonics: it's fun, and you'll learn something.

-- Sunday Star Times, June 2015


So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Documentary maker Jon Ronson has assembled an excellent chronicle of individuals who have wreaked real-world damage via social media: Adria, who tweeted a developer's remark at a tech conference, which led to the developer being fired; Justine, who tweeted a joke before getting on a plane and found herself professionally destroyed by the time it landed. Ronson digs up details: the developer was rehired; Adria assailed. Justine, a PR worker, had been targeted by Gawker: "The fact that she was a PR chief made it delicious," said Gawker's Sam Biddle. Another "victim", Max Mosley, survived his public shaming by refusing to be cowed -- and hiring a QC. The meddling facts of each case undermine easy comparison and propel the author in circles. Ronson concludes that social media dehumanises us, but also that society was cruel all along. By book's end his outrage has dimmed, leaving only juicy anecdotes. It would make compelling TV -- his subjects were right to trust print.

-- Sunday Star Times, May 2015


Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon

Girl In A Band's opening chapter detailing Kim Gordon's breakup with Thurston Moore has been chewed over by an online audience that might not normally discuss a woman in terms of her relationship but the memoir in total is judicious and single-minded: a personal narrative of laterally-mobile ambition signposted with appearances by the fashionable and infamous. The author presents herself as a ‏60s art school child who jumped almost directly to the New York 80s gallery scene, bypassing disco and rock. As per the title she has much to say about gender but it's Gordon's adult quality that sets her apart from her morose peers: even while professing fears of inadequacy the narrative focus is intelligent and self-possessed. The chapters on her favourite Sonic Youth tracks make a fine 20 minutes on YouTube and her memories of New York are a paean to an urban culture now priced out of existence.
-- Sunday Star Times, 2015