You know I'm no good

Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant is even better the second time around. The director's New Orleans is a back door to jungle hallucinations. Tribal peoples conjure spirits as Nicolas Cage's gun-wielding explorer Terence McDonagh slips into a world of dreams. The opening scene has officer McDonagh jumping in feet first; by the end he is literally over his head and swimming with the fishes. McDonagh is as lost as the white explorers in Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, but also as happy. Herzog remains unfazed by William M. Finkelstein's melodramatic screenplay, instead framing the story on a human scale. It's so great to see a movie that shuts up and gets on with being a movie: mid shots, naturalistic lighting, single-take performances and real fucking acting. Cage's performance is balanced by subtle turns from Tom Bower, Jennifer Coolidge and Eva Mendes, and challenged by quirky showboating from Val Kilmer, Brad Dourif and J.D. Evermore. In fact, thinking about it, Bad Lieutenant has a huge cast and they're all good: Herzog has told the story by using people. The consequences are tragi-comic and the result, for all its gravity, is a delight.


Just one last thing...

Columbo is on TV here at midday, which suits me very well. The new first draft is screaming along. I write in the mornings and never feel like reading at lunch, so Columbo is just about perfect. The show was always my favourite and I started to wonder why. A cynic would find a lot wrong with it. The scripts are shambling and front-heavy and the performances often feel improvised, the actors pedalling furiously like theater actors work-shopping a scene. But these are also the reasons why I find it so charming.

In a 1998 interview Peter Falk said of the character:
I think Columbo has become sucessfull thanks to his simplicity. He looks like everybody. Each televiewer can identify himself with him... He is the anti-Sherlock Holmes, even if they both solve the riddles with a lot of talent. Sherlock Holmes smokes a pipe with elegance, but Columbo prefers low-priced cigars.
The character was created by William Link and Richard Levinson, who talked about the folly of the show in their book Stay Tuned: An Inside Look at the Making of Prime Time Television:
According to Ellery Queen in his study of detective fiction, Queen's Quorum, Freeman posed himself the following question: "Would it be possible to write a detective story in which, from the outset, the reader was taken entirely into the author's confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection?"

We had no idea that it would become an eventual trap for us and for all of the other writers who would bang their heads against the wall of the inviolate Columbo format...

We made other decisions those first weeks, the most basic of which was that the series would not be what is known as a "cop show." We had no intention of dealing with the realities of actual police procedures. Instead, we wanted to pay our respects to the classic mystery fiction of our youth, the works of the Carrs, the Queens, and the Christies. We knew that no police officer on earth would be permitted to dress as shabbily as Columbo, or drive a car as desperately in need of burial, but in the interest of flavorful characterization, we deliberately chose not to be realistic...

We would create a mythical Los Angeles and populate it with affluent men and women living in the stately homes of the British mystery novel; our stories would be much closer in spirit to Dorothy L. Sayers than to Joseph Wambaugh. Besides, our rumpled cop would be much more amusing if he were always out of his element, playing his games of cat and mouse in the mansions and watering holes of the rich. We even decided never to show him at police headquarters or at home; it seemed to us much more effective if he drifted into our stories from limbo.

Our final decision was to keep the series nonviolent. There would be a murder, of course, but it would be sanitized and barely seen. Columbo would never carry a gun. He would never be involved in a shooting or a car chase (he'd be lucky, in fact, if his car even started when he turned the key), nor would he ever have a fight. The show would be the American equivalent of the English drawing room murder mystery, dependent almost entirely on dialogue and ingenuity to keep it afloat.

Because of these elements -- and constraints -- Columbo was a difficult show to write for. The format was reasonably new, and many of the writers we approached either didn't understand it or else understood all too well and felt it wasn't worth the effort. We arranged a screening of the second "Columbo" pilot, "Ransom for a Dead Man," for sixty-odd free-lance writers. Such screenings are common; they are a way of introducing writers to a new show. In theory they will whet the appetites of those assembled, who will then hurry home, explode with ideas, and contact the producer with requests for meetings. In our case, only two out of the sixty expressed any interest.
The interview is was excerpted in American Film magazine, March, 1981, and is reproduced in at this comprehensive Columbo fan site.

Iron, man

Back in my hometown, opposition to a Queens Wharf combover is growing. I've raved about this before but at the Fundy Post, Paul Litterick is sputtering about it better than anyone else:
To paraphrase Mike Lee, the Queen's Wharf has become the people's liability.

But what about the sheds, you demand? Well yes, what about them? They are spacious, dry, sound, weather-tight; in short, they are capable of hosting parties. They are iconic as well, and thus optimal for tourism purposes. So they will be knocked down and those merry pranksters from Jasmax will build a curved pavilion, because that would be so so post post modern and rugby fans love a bit of architecture.
An online petition calling for preservation of the sheds is at SOS Queens Wharf.

I had a sinking feeling as I signed the petition but I believe in it. I've always loved Auckland's harbour because it is a working harbour, not in spite of it. I love the tank farm and the iron fences and the smell of diesel and the recalcitrant ferries and, yes, the rusting iron sheds. I like these things because they're signs of real work. I like them because they are old and rusting. They're a history of the community every bit as much as a pa or a cemetery.

Pictured above, my great grandfather William (Bill) Collard (foreground) and my grandfather (in the engine cabin) in Auckland in 1933 and behind them, a shed. Not a combover in sight.


Ancestral in its own deficiency

Happiness! Just found The Associates' 'Gloomy Sunday' on iTunes, which made this Sunday less gloomy, and 'Skipping' which makes every day good. Also picked up some of the old electro I heard again in the Berlin clubs, which is on vinyl somewhere. John Foxx's Metamatic coming back - never woulda picked that; Ultravox's Ha! Ha! Ha!, and some Cabs. Bip bip bipbipbip... 36,000...

Feeling old yet? Try this.

MGMT now travelling on foot.


Cartoon dilemmas

Finally, the death of Joseph Campbell. Or the first signs that viewers might finally be tiring of scriptwriters doing a find and replace on The Hero's Journey. Writing in the Wall Street Journal Austin Grossman discusses the inherent faults of the superhero movie:
Much as I love the superhero genre, I almost never like films about superheroes. No matter how terrific they start out, the third act degenerates into two people diving away from a giant green explosion, and bloated speeches that make me feel sorry for a talented and honorable actor. It becomes clear that at some point the director or screenwriter or studio has lost their faith in the material, and started copying out of the Robert McKee/Joseph Campbell textbook.
I've written about the third act Big Face Off here and here.

That Grossman's article is in the Wall Street Journal shows how much money is in this genre. (Full article here.) It's going to get worse: Kenneth Branagh is making Thor and there's a Green Lantern trilogy FFS and... and... look, I've stopped caring.

The biggest problem with comic book movies is that they have to work as a series. Characters can't die, even when they fight using powers that can destroy anything, so conceptually the characters undermine themselves.

Worse, the Marvel universe is really a neighbourhood. The different characters bump into each other again and again, "fight" again and again, and never win. There's no story: only the promise of a story, the raising of tension. There's no resolution, no release.

I think that's why the hype preceding comic book movies is more enjoyable than the movies themselves. It's like the cover of the comic, which was always so much better than the contents, or those great two-page splashes that Jack Kirby drew of, say, foreshortened SHIELD agents crawling around a giant machine and so on. The rest of the story was all fretting over dilemmas that were never resolved.

Ridley Scott is directing two Alien prequels, which would be better news if they weren't going to be in 3D. 3D cameras don't work well shooting low light and 3D projection can't cope with fast edits. Quick: what are the two basic filmic elements of the Alien movies? You got it.

Because the Alien prequels will be prequels it won't spoil them to reveal they're about the "space jockey" - the dead pilot of the alien spaceship in which the Alien eggs are first discovered. The jockey figure was a static prop designed by H.R. Giger for effect not narrative so the idea of a movie about it is only slightly less exciting than the back story of the cat, Jonesy. Scott knows where to point a camera but the idea sounds like it's not going anywhere.

I have a soft spot for Alien because Dan O'Bannon's original script is one of the great acts of knuckle-down writing heroism. He wrote it in the wake of Alejandro Jodorowosky's Dune, for which O'Bannon was hired to do special effects. When Dune collapsed, O'Bannon was screwed:
I found myself back in L.A., flat broke, My car I’d given away. I had no apartment, all my belongings were in storage, and I ended up on Ronnie Shusett’s sofa, and it was there that I wrote Alien. I knew that I wanted some of the artists that I had met on Dune to work on Alien, and in particular Giger to design the thing.

So some of my experience with Dune went into Alien. But the main reason that I wrote Alien at that time was that I needed money, and the only way I could think of to make any money and get off of Ronnie’s sofa was by writing a spec script that the studios would like and buy.
In the official book about the making of the film O'Bannon recalls going in and waking up Shusett in the middle of the night to tell him excitedly about the movie's title ("it's a noun and an adjective!") and Shusett rolling over and going back to sleep.

I'm quoting the latter from memory. My copy of the book is in storage.


Scarlet Ribbons

I've nearly finished Andrew Wilson's biography of Patricia Highsmith. (It gets depressing towards the end as the drinking catches up.) I never write in the margins of a book - it distracts me when I find someone else has done it because my eye keeps flicking to that spot - but I do fold the corner of a page if there's a passage I want to note. Afterwards when I return to the folded corners it's difficult to remember what it was that I considered so important but these, I think, are some of them, from the Bloomsbury hardback edition:

'Pat Highsmith was a very interesting and handsome woman,' remembers Ruth [Bernhard]. 'She looked wild, her facial expression was very intense and I liked her an awful lot. She was very direct, she said what she believed - she was unforgettable.' [p.99]

Julian Green's novel Si jétais vous, or If I Were You, bears a remarkable similarity to The Talented Mr Ripley. [p.91]

'Privacy. An expensive thing in the modern world... Take yourself seriously. Set a routine. Once you are alone, relax and behave as you will... While you are writing a book, you must carry around your own stage full of characters with their emotional changes - you have no room for another stage.' [Highsmith on writing, p.206]

'In the early fifties, the lending library market in America disappeared almost overnight, where suspense and mysteries had received their support,' [Shartle] says. 'Publishers panicked and declined mysteries despite [the] efforts of agents and booksellers who always believed the market would again flourish. But only [Agatha] Christie and Mickey Spillane were selling and it was not until P.D.James that the broad market recovered. Highsmith suffered at that time, in the late fifties and sixties.'
[Highsmith's agent Patricia Shartle, pp.218-219]

'These little setbacks, amounting sometimes to thousands of dollars' worth of time wasted, writers must learn to take like Spartans. A brief curse, perhaps, then tighten the belt a notch and on to something new - of course with enthusiasm, courage and optimism, because without these three elements you cannot produce anything good.' [Highsmith on rejection, p.232]

...But she missed X in London, a feeling of wretchedness which threatened to unbalance her. She wrote in her diary, 'Such unhappiness and loneliness I felt today must be counteracted by work, or I shall go mad.' [p.246]

...Doubleday complained that '[The Tremor of Forgery] sounds too much like a suspense book... It is not a suspense, etc. book, and you know how categorized the Americans are.' [p. 281]

Highsmith's manuscript notebook for Strangers on a Train can be seen here.

Raven like a writing desk

Coffee and cigarettes

But people don't always tell you what
they're thinking ... They just see to it
you don't advance.

(Hannibal (2001), screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Thomas Harris)


Black dog

Hampstead Heath, Winter 2010


Blue sky thinking

Jet sighted over London, 11:21am. About this time last year I was on a rotten flight to London myself. It's been one day at a time since then.

The new thing is coming along. I'm working on the first draft -- what I call the "See Spot Run" draft. The basics in the order you want, gaps and holes and errors included. The trick of the first draft is to accept your mistakes and forgive yourself. (Ha! I find it difficult even writing that sentence.)

Plane flights are boring and terrible now. I can't read on a plane and I hate viewing movies in the back of the seat in front of me. I always end up watching what passengers across the aisle are watching, staring over their shoulders at the screen. With the sound off.

Just me being difficult, really.

The last movie I really enjoyed on a plane was Mike Nichols' Closer. Based on the stage play, but way better; Jude Law pwned, Clive Owen yelling obscenities at Julia Roberts; Julia rocking the Gap look and fiddling with a very nice camera. Mainly I liked it for the yelling, and the way Julia's hands played on a Leica.


You will find a better place / in this twilight

Had dinner and drinks with our good pal CHAD TAYLOR last nigh... on Twitpic

Modern times

'Your book broke,' she said.

'I got sick of her carrying round that brick of paper so we loaded the PDF onto the Sony Reader,' he explained, cutting in.

'And the fucking Reader broke,' she continued. 'I was really enjoying it, too. I was up to chapter three.'

Of all the arguments for ebooks, onboard luggage has emerged as the most compelling. Except for that bit.

I dreamt that I was dreaming, I was wired to a clock


For he truly is the Kwisatz and so on

The planes aren't flying over London and the effect is remarkable. The birds are going crazy and the central city is eerily quiet. Normally at any given moment one can count at least three planes over London and hear them behind the clouds but without the canopy of noise the sky above the capital has reverted to uninterrupted blue and the "city" has been reduced to the quirky, layered village which so charms European tourists: all beer and Siouxsie T-shirts and answering back to authority figures. Also, nobody here knows how to barbecue. As I type this the locals are choking into distress level plumes of smoke.

On that transformational note, stories such as this make me happy:
Mr. Hoff... devoted himself to the development of the Groasis Waterboxx, which he says will grow food crops and trees even in the driest places on earth.

The Waterboxx is a round device made from polypropylene and about the size of car tire — 20 inches in diameter and 10 inches high. An opening at the center of the box provides a space for a plant or tree to germinate and grow.

The box is designed to capture both rainwater and condensation, which collects in the chamber underneath the cover, and prevents the water from evaporating. Mr. Hoff describes it as a “water battery.”

Mr. Hoff has recently concluded a three-year test of the Groasis Waterboxx in the Sahara desert in Morocco, an area that gets only a few inches of rainfall each year. Almost 90 percent of the trees planted using the Groasis Waterboxx survived after it was removed.

A test group of trees planted without the box, but watered once a week, produced the opposite result: only 10 percent survived.
The invention reminds me of the technology in Frank Herbert's Dune, the subject of an excellent article in the LA Times:
Herbert's story of young aristocrat Paul Atreides, along with maps, appendixes, glossary and epigrams ran to more than 500 pages. After almost two years, the book took off in 1967. The novel was a hinge between new and old, says Annalee Newitz, editor of science fiction blog io9.

" 'Dune' functions nicely as a transition between classic SF -- focused on space opera and astro-politics of the kind Isaac Asimov and other golden age authors wrote -- and the next generation," she says. "In the '60s, we saw a shift away from science fiction focused on space travel and space politics to anthropology. You aren't rushing between planets, you've landed on one and you talk about that one" -- including its biology and sociology.

Writers had imagined life on other planets and written of environmental catastrophe. But the scale of "Dune" was unprecedented, comparable, as Arthur C. Clarke said at the time, only to "The Lord of the Rings."

"The planet was something you could really feel," says Robinson, whose latest novel is "Galileo's Dream." "Herbert spent a lot of time outdoors -- you can see it in the writing, he's seen things you can only see if you've been there. It's physical and expansive."
The full article is available here.


Oh & btw

For critics of Shutter Island: are you mad? It's fantastic. From the first moment as the ship emerges from the white fog - white being the projected light of the movie screen - the director is signalling that the whole thing may or may not be a dream. (Titanic star DiCaprio, on the bow of a ship, saying he's scared of the water - is that not clear enough for you?) It's a formal exercise, like Scorsese's Cape Fear remake, or Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. It's brilliant.

But then again, Mulholland Drive made no sense either, right? You ingrates.

I'm getting too old for this.

Also from space: this just in

From New Scientist:
There is something strange in the cosmic neighbourhood. An unknown object in the nearby galaxy M82 has started sending out radio waves, and the emission does not look like anything seen anywhere in the universe before.

"We don't know what it is," says co-discoverer Tom Muxlow of Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics near Macclesfield, UK.

Random girls. In space

SHADO Moonbase Commander Lt. Gay Ellis (R) was my first pin up. I loved her when she was in black and white on a small TV on Friday nights, half an hour before the TVNZ Friday Night Horror if I recall. Only much later on reading the UFO annual did I discover that she and all the other Moonbase operatives' bobs were purple, which made her even more perfect. Much, much later I would learn that the actor who played her, Gabrielle Drake, was Nick Drake's sister. Purple wigged Moonbase girls and the guy who sang 'Pink Moon.' Just gets better and better.

One of the (too many) themes which The Church of John Coltrane concerned itself with were pin-ups, and the role of the fictional, random girl. In the novel Robert Marling discovers his father's obsession with a 1920s Shanghai lounge diva named Li Jin, while a nearby gallery hosts an exhibition by an artist named Xi Xi who paints the same woman over and over, a Hawaiian-themed pin up known only as Miss Manuki. Late in the novel Robert discusses the matter of pin ups and repeated images with a tagger named Ferguson:
'Graffiti in wartime.' [F said.]


'I was a World War II enthusiast, originally. I loved planes. I would attend veterans' reunions to interview pilots and crews about their wartime missions. I also collected photographs of their aircraft. The nose art began as a way of identifying the planes. But after a while I became interested in the art itself. Why did the pilots paint their planes with these images of cartoon hookers and pin-ups?'

'For luck, I guess.'

'On one level, yes. They're good luck charms. The women are there to protect the pilots - like the bow carvings of sailing ships. They're talismans, which is why they're so fertile - they're literally busting with life. It's a Madonna-and-whore thing: secular saints. But they also serve as something else: a sort of dream image. The pilots painted this dream girl on the nose of the plane and then took it up into the sky, pushing her through the clouds. They literally make her fly.'

'I never thought of that,' I said. 'But you're right. It's art, in a way.'

'Not that they knew it,' Ferguson said. 'These men weren't artists. They copied the nose girls from the magazines of the day. Hollywood posters which had themselves been air brushed and touched up. The same design – the same girl – would be passed around different air fields, and different men would copy it again and again. So the features would become more stylised. Like Chinese Whispers.'
Coltrane is published in French but not yet in English. C'mon, iTunes: c'mon...


The change it had to come / We knew it all along

Michael A. Stackpole has written about the end of the publishing industry in the Huffington Post. It's a great article, and exciting because he's put a date on it. Afghanistan and oil will last forever and the bets are off for polar ice but publishing, Stackpole proposes, has 24 months left:
Michael Shatzkin, a book industry consultant who is widely read and respected, weighed in with an interesting article about how soon the publishing crash could come. His analysis is fairly solid and he sees a "serious disruption" in book distribution as early as November, 2012.

His thinking runs thusly: once ebook sales hit 20-25% of book sales, print run numbers will fall to a point where the current consignment system for sales will break down. Under the current system, most books can be returned for credit, so for every book sold, two are printed. Those "returned" books have the covers torn off, and the guts discarded, so they cannot be put out into the market again. Ebook sales will create smaller print runs, driving up the unit cost, forcing higher prices which, in turn, will kill sales. Game over.
I don't know enough about business to do the maths on this but I visit a lot of bookstores, and my experience in recent years has been that the major chains offer more and more choice of things people don't want.

When Borders folded in the UK I spent hours pushing through crowds in the Charing Cross branch and emerged with exactly one title. (A Murakami bio.) There was nothing else in the store I wanted that I didn't already have, and the majority (99 per cent) was manifest crap: ghostwritten titles by celebrities no-one outside of England would have heard of; franchise serials that had been churned out at two a year; generic machine-written doorstep-sized fantasy series of the World Quest variety; sporting titles thinner than a Sunday supplement; every other History masters' student's thesis packaged with a sexy / arch title (ditto for Science); bawdily captioned photo titles and joke compilations; I-Was-There travel bunf; and music titles on subjects that warranted little more than a Wikipedia page.

There were queues at the check out. Other people were buying more than me, but not a lot, and the stacks of books that remained on the shelves and in the bins - I wouldn't have put it out if it had caught fire.

Don't get me wrong - I like Borders. (Auckland's Queen Street store stocked more of my novels than Whitcoulls or Dymocks, but less than Unity Books.) My point is that before discussing the death of publishing one should ask for a specified diagnosis.

In the case of newspaper and magazine publishing, Gawker points out that Apple is now positioned as the new Gutenburg. (Their conclusion, in The Who's words: "Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.")

When I talk about "publishing" I'm thinking of "literature" but a visit to any bookstore shows what a tiny slice of the pie that is. The publishing industry has become as vast and sprawling as the music industry -- industry being the key term. It's about shipping as much stuff as possible: books as lumber. Publishers want to make money out of printed paper in the same way that Coca-Cola wants to make money from sugared water. That's not going to happen, and it's ludicrous that it ever reached a point where that seemed possible.

Stackpole goes on to posit:
Publishers, because of their sloth in contracting electronic book rights, own ebook rights to maybe the last fifteen years of their output. Authors can easily produce ebook versions of novels and shorter work which publishers' don't own. Authors will make far more on those ebooks through direct sales than publishers are offering. There is no incentive for authors to sell those rights to traditional publishers which means, in the fairly short term, publishers run out of material to sell. Their backlists will vanish as authors sell the books themselves.

If you will, the publishers' gold mine will have played out.
This part of the prediction is more interesting. Literature has always been cheap. Writers pay themselves to create it, and a lot of the time it goes on to make a profit long after they have died. It's these profits which have created the status of different publishing houses as well as their business. It's the over capitalisation of that business which has created the problem. Says Stackpole:
The second point which Mr. Shatzkin doesn't seem to appreciate fully, in my opinion, is the sheer ease with which authors can themselves create and market ebooks.
It's true. In less than two years, I'll probably be creating and selling my own ebooks via this blog and my author site, or via some similar online mechanism. The notion is empowering but more than a little melancholy. Writing is already a lonely business: when the publishing model changes, it will become even lonelier.


FW: This is funny

Sarah Silverman has a memoir out.
“The writer’s room is just so animalistic,” says Silverman. “It’s like there’s this safe haven with only six of us being animals, and I get joy from it. It’s absolute, total freedom.”

I mention to Silverman that, anecdotally, I find her fans to be mostly male. (That she’s a vocal pothead might be one reason; she proudly points out to me that her book’s release date, April 20, is Stoner Day.) She tells me that she has zero interest in a conversation that might turn into a Woman in a Man’s World discussion. “A lot of women comics got all upset by Christopher Hitchens’s [Vanity Fair, January 2007] article about why women aren’t funny. Or like when Jerry Lewis says women aren’t funny,” she says. “If you are truly offended by an 80-year-old man saying you’re not funny, then you’re probably not funny.”
Full interview at New York Magazine. The pic of Silverman-as-Winehouse (a dream, really) is courtesy of the Annie Leibowitz cover shoot for Vanity Fair.

LA Times columnist Randee Dawn [real name, and no, I don't know if she knows Lisa Zunshine] writes of the writers room:
They say that explaining a joke kills what's funny about it. But every day, television's top comic writers have to do exactly that. No, not kill their jokes -- but plan them out, break them down, go over them dozens of times and then fit them all into 21 minutes and 35 seconds of air time. Give or take.

And when it comes to the mechanics of sitcom assembly, it's rarely a rote process. Each show has its own style, flair and tolerances. But if there's one thing virtually any sitcom just can't do without, it's the writers' room.
Full article at the LA times here.


Let's be Frank

London is in a roil of Malcolm McLaren reminiscing but as a true measure of the man may I suggest considering how many of the artists McLaren "managed" would be able afford cancer treatment in Switzerland? I'm picking a number between zero and none.

McLaren was the only phone interview I did where I hung up on the subject. After over an hour of his raving I had all I needed and a lot more that I didn't so I literally put the phone down on him in mid-sentence. It was at the time of Waltz Darling, which featured some stellar songs ('Something's Jumping in Your Shirt', 'Deep in Vogue' and the title track). In the same month I got to talk to Neneh Cherry and parrot McLaren's line that she had stolen from him. Which worked, because she jumped and gave me a better interview.

As that old skirt chaser Goethe said, folks, how short life must be if something so fragile can last a lifetime. It all seemed important at the time and if I go back to the music I remember why: Cherry's Raw Like Sushi still sparkles, and her duet with Youssou N'Dour on 'Seven Seconds' (from Man, I think) is one of my top 20 tracks eva. McLaren's 'Buffalo Girls' is fun but consider that the Beastie Boys have pulled the same or better tricks of wit and funk every other year since 1988. He was never that great, but now he's dead, he's perfect. The British press are trying to pull the same trick with Ian Drury and that's not working either. It's a great compliment to appraise someone as a small influence on the world, which McLaren was -- and that's more than many will be.

Obituaries piss me off because they're always too late (sic). I was more pleased to read Manohla Dargis's piece on Dennis Hopper while he is still alive: it's a great warts and all look at someone I will miss far, far more than McLaren. Hopper is dying and has had the grace to let it be known, and what I love about him (although he's far from loveable) is that he's dying in the same way he lived: pissed off and out of control, but at the same time way more in control than is necessary (he's placed a restraining order on his wife and is filing for divorce).

Hopper has been called one of Hollywood's few Republicans, which is saying something. He was a Ripley (not a good one), he made Easy Rider (with a lot of help, based on Terry Southern's great writing) and The Last Movie (which I saw when I was way too small and really, really loved), and he was Frank in Blue Velvet, which I still rate as the best movie ever, period. Hopper played the villain Frank Booth, and Lynch had the idea that the actor, as Frank, would inhale helium before reciting his lines to give him a squeaky, childlike voice. Hopper suggested it would be better if he simply acted as if he was inhaling something - an amyl nitrate like vapour - so Lynch went with that. Good move for the movie.

Like David Lynch, Hopper is an artist with a nailed-down sense of structure, going wide but always covering the basics. Both share a very 1950s sensibility. Hopper's police movie Colors was really only a very big version of Adam 12; The Last Movie is about as deconstructed as, say, a Pink Floyd album (by comparison Zabriskie Point or any given Godard blows it away) -- it sits very happily with Vanishing Point and Rebel Without A Cause. Hopper was 33 years old when he made Easy Rider: not a rebel but a pro.


Here we go again

It's a standing tradition that the day after I send off a manuscript, I start work on the next one.

I don't believe in writing 7/52/365. Stephen King does that and it shows. I'd be happy to if someone was paying me. When I was a child I thought being a writer would be like writing scripts for Star Trek every week: a producer would come in, give you a list of constraints and you'd write a story around it. This is a male thing, apparently: wanting to be helpful. I was never one for scratching it out a word at a time on scrolls of vellum. More green visor, two fingers punching an Olivetti kinda thing. Working class values, basically: writing as a trade.

(Some trade. There's a lovely David Lynch interview in which he talks about George Lucas asking him to direct Return of the Jedi in which Lynch says something like "I do what I love and he's doing what he loves, but what he loves makes about a billion dollars." Couldn't have put it better.)

Anyway, I started work on the next one.


Bedside reading

Talked about her a little bit in my Prima Storia interview. Jane Robertson asked me if I was a fan and I blathered on about Highsmith's lesser known The Tremor of Forgery. Yeah, I'm a fan.

Tell me why everything turned around

Final edit gone, very early this morning. There's always a final edit. Namely the finished version with whatever errors you spotted now corrected. When I worked at Rip It Up the editor Murray Cammick would barely glance at the magazine on the day it arrived from the printer: if he read it closely, all he saw were the mistakes. After I started working there a lot of the mistakes were mine, which made me feel terrible until I started noticing the mistakes other people had made, including errors added to my copy. After that it became a war of attrition.

There's a golden rule in life: if you write something about typing errors, it will contain a typing error.

Last night I also had to write what Americans call coverage for the manuscript, or what the British call the blurb. This is more difficult than writing the novel itself because it requires taking a step back from the thing that has consumed you for, in this case, a very intense year, and summarising it in simple terms everyone can understand. Please note that the simple terms cannot include a word that might trigger a negative response. So, if noir is out of fashion at the moment (as is the case, apparently), then it's better not to use that term. Try not to have an attitude about this. Try to make things easy for yourself, just this once. Please step away slowly.

Since the iPad was launched there has been further discussion about (yawn) ebooks and whether or not printed books will disappear. I still write by hand (ink, notebooks, legal pads, Kirby-style chunks of plaster board torn from the ceiling) but so much of my writing and editing is performed on screen now, I wonder if ebooks might be already here as far as authors are concerned. Then again, it's no different from editing a film on a Moviola. But then again...

Likewise "the cloud." I have copies of the ms everywhere: on paper, on my weary Powerbook G4, flash drives, even a Micro SD. But the files least likely to be lost, stolen or incinerated are the ones I've emailed to my various Gmail and Yahoo accounts. I don't trust the idea of cloud computing but it's become part of my process without my even realising it.

It's cloudy today, so the Ms. Zunshine isn't out.



The human facility and stuff

Patricia Cohen has a piece in the NYT about evolutionary theory and reading. Expect to be really bored by the subject at a dinner table near you, and soon, although it's a step forward from being lectured about evolutionary theory and the market, or how Monet only painted that way because he had cataracts. Anyways, the Professor of English is fantastically called Lisa Zunshine:
Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.

Perhaps the human facility with three levels is related to the intrigues of sexual mating, Ms. Zunshine suggested. Do I think he is attracted to her or me? Whatever the root cause, Ms. Zunshine argues, people find the interaction of three minds compelling. “If I have some ideological agenda,” she said, “I would try to construct a narrative that involved a triangularization of minds, because that is something we find particularly satisfying.”
NB: Virginia Woolf is also challenging because she's a bit depressing. Still: Ms. Zunshine.


Treatment bound

So that's the Tokyo film treatment done, which makes it a good Easter. I still have work to do on it - some names and proofing - but then it can go off to the Lucky Bastard D*rector and then, whatever. 4000 words bashed out in the space of two days but I've been turning it over in my head for longer.

I wasn't able to write treatments in the past. If someone asked me to I'd literally stop dead, or get up and leave the room. I could never see a story in those terms: I had to start on the inside and work out. But now for some reason I can write them. Writing a treatment is like doing a crossword: filling in squares so everything has to fit. I don't think I could write a novel that way, though. You have to lose yourself in a novel. It's like painting a bedroom wall. If people don't like the colour, you say no worries -- I'll just paint over it.

Writing is like a metaphor, innit. Using an analogy to describe writing frustrates me as much as it does you but you can't use a system to explain itself. Trust me. You can't.

The days of the second treatment, the Stolichnaya, are numbered. I can't drink anymore. But fuck, I'm making the effort. It's London and I'm alone in a big house with Al Green and the NYT crossword. Aced the weekend version, stalled slightly on Easter Thursday until I realised the clues were back to front and then I was away.