8/30/10

Rod Serling interviews


C/- i09.com . He really did talk like that.

Bedside reading


A friend lent me a book, Writing With Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes, by Steven DeRosa. Hayes worked with the director on four movies - Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry and The Man Who Knew Too Much. After their working relationship ended - bitchily, on Hitchcock's part - Hayes went on to write the screenplay for, amongst other things, Peyton Place - without which we would never have had Twin Peaks. DeRosa's book had me on page 10 of the introduction:
The politics of the studio system and the widening acceptance of the auteur theory downplayed the significance of the screenwriter's contribution to the art of filmmaking. Frank Capra's most successful films were all scripted by Robert Riskin, yet few people are familiar with Riskin's name. Similarly, Ernst Lubitsch collaborated with Samson Raphaelson on nine films, and John Ford collaborated with Dudley Nichols on eleven. Again, these screenwriters never received the recognition enjoyed by the "auteurs" for whom they wrote. But the director who has been most often canonised as an auteur is Hitchcock.
The first part of DeRosa's book is about the creation of the screenplay for Rear Window, based on a short story by the remarkable Cornell Woolrich. The account maps out in detail how Hayes' treatment for the film - itself based on an earlier treatment by Joshua Logan - ilustrates the basic premise of Woolrich's story - a man who thinks he has witnessed a murder - by adding characters and elements that expose and develop the plot. For instance here's Hayes on the character of Jeff's nurse Stella:
I like a character like that to act as a Greek chorus, to tell us what might happen and to go for comic relief. Because you can't have unrestrained suspense all the time.
Before coming to film Hayes worked in radio, with over 1500 scripts to his credit and a reputation as 'the fastest writer in Hollywood.'
'I would say Hitch worked with me more on To Catch A Thief than he did on Rear Window certainly. But still, he realised that I worked better if I was uninterrupted and he didn't interrupt me too much... We just discussed in general terms story and character, and he let me go and write until I finished. We did have lunches together and I'd tell him what I was doing, and he was patient enough to wait for it.'
After the screenplay was finished Hayes and Hitchock broke it down into shots together. Hayes was also on set during filming. In 2002 Hayes was interviewed about the experience by Chris Wehner:
CW: In Rear Window there isn't your typical strong villain and the protagonist is bound to a wheelchair, so how difficult was it to maintain a level of tension and suspense?

JMH: Having non-typical characters was of no real hindrance to the establishment of tension and suspense. In reality, there was a lot to work with. With a non-typical villain, you had the built-in opportunity to engage the characters in a "It couldn't be him. Could it? He's just a regular fellow" form of banter, just as much as having the protagonist limited in his physical actions helped the suspense of, "How in the world is he going to defend himself, if need be?" Writers sometimes habitually overdo it in how their characters move, act, and depict themselves. Grand flourish in a villain works for Bond movies, I suppose, but, in the world you and I live in, true villains don't act as such. At least not on any level you or I may have experienced. There's a form of everyday villainy that is largely forgotten now in cinema. And that's what audiences can align best with-what it is they see and know in everyday life.
That interview is archived on a slow-loading page here.

Hot sauce





(Curse of the Crimson Altar, Fondue Cookery, Le Samouraï, Pellegrino - the builder's friend.)

8/28/10

The past is a grotesque animal

Srsly: interview with one of the best bands in the world. Courtesy of New York Magazine.

Also: drinking. But not on Tw*tter, hence the link.

They really are that good. In an age when nobody writes lyrics, Of Montreal are the bomb.

The Horse is dead

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is on now. Impossible to estimate how much I love a Western. I was raised on them by dint of the timeline: there was nothing else on. Five Card Stud was the first movie I ever left feeling depressed, and I wasn't even that old when I saw it. Since then that bad, sad-in-the-belly feeling has been my benchmark for all manner of art. If it's the Five Card Stud feeling then what I saw may not have been bad or good, but it moved me.

Westerns, like jazz and sci-fi, have become absorbed into the mainstream. I never enjoyed western novels, with the begrudging exception of Pete Dexter's Deadwood -- which is no relation to the TV series. But I refer to Westerns again and again, in Electric, in several short stories ('Running Hot & Cold' and 'Oilskin').

I grew up in the age of the counter western: El Topo, the Sergio Leone westerns (which we watched as the real thing and never considered ironic), John Wayne as the old guard -- gunfights as martial arts epic, a genre which my generation also understood. Prose was the stuff in between: the moody contemplation. I'm less certain now. But I still love the pics: the stretch of vistas, the changing climate, the rules.

8/24/10

Smoking

Hacking into the second draft. Small, global changes: when I'm finished this will really be draft 2.1. But sneakily I'm hoping it will be draft three and the second to last. This one's going like a forest fire.

A change from writing is as good as a rest which is why I can break off and write blog entries, sometimes. At least I could in the first stages when I was exploring ideas. Now the manuscript's structure has settled and I'm going deeper into it I find myself less easily distracted - I'm into the more focussed part of the process*. So I killed Twitter (still a media glory hole) and there may be fewer entries on this blog over the coming while. (Realistically, what is there to say about The Expendables?)

But just to say: there's a new Brian Eno album. Water is good for you. Space exploration is bringing us new and terrible ways to die, and John McEnroe is only becoming more cool as he gets older. Pictured: Barbara Steele. She really was like that.

* Process. Just runs like clockwork, it does.

8/22/10

The Unattributed X-Men

Lazy Sunday afternoon. Whacked. Wrote too many words this week. Will probably write too many next week as well but for now I'm at the crossroads.

After posting about Brian Clemens' talk at the special screening of 'A Touch Of Brimstone' it was ironic to see that very episode of The Avengers cited as a source for the new movie X-Men: First Class. As Harry Knowles noted in an interview with the movie's producer Bryan Singer:
With January Jones and Kevin Bacon playing Emma Frost and Sebastian Shaw - we will be getting the HELLFIRE CLUB. I commented that the HELLFIRE CLUB has always felt like something that it would be wrong to modernize, as it felt as though it were something specific to the swinging Hefner era of the 60s... and Bryan said that's exactly why they're making use of the HELLFIRE CLUB... the dress and the costumes associated with that glorious period of the X-MEN... belong in the 60s.
Because I don't read comics anymore I turned wide-eyed to the online version of everyone's nerdy older brother, Wikipedia, and asked it if that fictional "1960s" Hellfire Club was connected to one infiltrated by Steed and Emma (Peel). It is. So now Marvel comics writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne's tip o' the hat to Brian Clemens and The Avengers writer Philip Levene - themselves inspired by earlier facts and legends (here's a recent book on it) - has now become Marvel's intellectual property, and will make them lots of money.

At Clemens' talk he waved away Lara Croft and similar modern female action characters with the comment that they were all Emma Peel - all Avengers girls. That, in his mind, was that. He sounded almost weary about it.

The influence of the writers' original creations put me in mind of what Brian Eno said about The Velvet Underground in an interview with Mary Harron in 1976:
Punk (Mary Harron): You said once that music, or any other cultural form, wasn't a straight line of development, that the most interesting things were often the ones people didn't notice at the time...

Eno: I think there are a lot of things like that. Well, the Velvet Underground was an example. When they came out very very few people were interested in them, whatever they claim now... And for a certainty I knew that they were going to become one of the most interesting groups, y'know, and that there would be a time when it wouldn't be the Beatles up there and the all these other groups down there, it would be a question of attempting to assess the relative values of the Beatles and the Velvet Underground as equals. And this is just beginning to happen now.

I think that there are certain artists who speak to other artists more than a public, alright? So they go through two stages. They are received by other artists and then diffused, right? Now unfortunately there isn't a very efficient royalty system for dealing with this situation.
Copying, lifting, diffusing: it's how art works, and discovering those sources is part of it. The IMDB listing for X-Men: First Class credits six people with the screenplay, but not the strip artists, and not writer Philip Levene, born 1926.

Addendum: X2: X-Men United reviewed in 2003:

The screening of X2: X-Men United we saw last week was dimmer than it ought to have been. There wasn't much detail in the dark tones of the image and the white highlights were distinctly grey. Sitting in the back row of the Hoyts Village Force cinema, I mentally kept reaching for the remote so I could adjust the contrast.

It cost $18 each to book our "smart seats" over the phone and another $8 for the privilege of parking in our own city. That's a lot of money if you plan on making phone calls during the movie. Three-quarters of the way through the shiny, sexy, action-packed sequel - specifically, when Yuriko Oyama revealed her own adamantine claws, became Lady Deathstryke and started beating the crap out of Wolverine - the sweaty chap beside me yanked out his mobile and started texting. He was offended when I glanced over at his very bright cell phone screen because this is like private stuff, dude, but I figured it was an open venue and his calls were therefore in the public domain.

And there was no need to fidget. X2 is a pretty good movie. It's hardly Knife in the Water, but Wolverine's talons click and snap as if referencing Polanski's knife-tapping game, and the story is gallant and satisfying, and everyone's jumping around to telegraph significant moments and maintain your attention at maximum warp.

Nearly all the frames - even the close ups of the actors - have been digitally enhanced or constructed. The dominance of digital effects nowadays mean that sets and camera angles are dictated by computer nerds instead of production designers, lighting technicians and cinematographers, with the result that movies don't look like movies any more: they look like designer storyboards or games (or, like The Phantom Menace, children's Bible illustrations). This put me off cinema for a long time - it's the visual equivalent of eating too much sugar - but it suits something like X-Men. The effect of the digital cut and paste (the softened edges, the flattened backgrounds, the superreal focus) becomes the film's visual style. It looks like a comic book but it works. Either the director has got it right, or we as viewers have finally succumbed to the idea of every shot in a film being kinda funky.

X-2 is in the modern tradition of sequels that take a sidestep from the original in order to develop the characters and end on a dissatisfying "to be continued" note, in this case Jean Grey disappearing into yellow light to be reborn as Phoenix in the inevitable X-3. The direction is a little stiff: when Anna Paquin crash-lands a jet and slumps over the controls it's unclear whether the moment is intended to be impassioned or humorous. Hugh Jackman has a whale of a time as Wolverine, killing many people and often. Mystique gets to do a lot more in this one: hacking keyboards and faking it as nearly every other character. At one point she even appears as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, spiking a prison guard with iron to effect a terrific jail break. There's a great moment when she and Magneto (Ian McKellan) are sniggering in the back seat like the bad kids in class: mutants as ADD over-achievers, bored with their surroundings.

The people in front of us - three guys and a girl in their twenties - were laughing and whooping and cheering through the whole thing. I enjoyed their enjoyment, and it reminded me why I will always go and see franchise blockbusters. Even the trailer for The Hulk looked tiresomely impressive.

Why so many comic books have become important and entertaining to us would take more space and time to unpack than is available [here]. Maybe it's because po-faced adolescent tales take themselves seriously in an era when other genres are winking at their audience. It may also have something to do with women like Halle Berry and Famke Janssen wearing really very tight, shiny clothes. It's the style, as critic Max Kozloff said angrily of Pop art, of "gum-chewers, bobby-soxers and, worse, delinquents."

--- Muse Lounge, May 7, 2003

8/19/10

Early morning, later, other side of the world

My grandparents - I think somewhere on the East Coast. From an old glass plate negative. Grandad holding the bugle and Grandma with Joyce in her lap, who died, so this photo was taken before my mother was born. I think the boy is my uncle, Sandy, and the other woman is either my aunt Lottie or Kinner. The man on the right worked with Grandad on the railways - he's in at least one of the other photos. It looks like New Zealand but it looks like so long ago.

Now playing

8/17/10

Sweded

It says a lot about a movie when the Nazis are incidental to the story. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo starts dark, then gets darker, then darker still before those guys turn up. After that, things take a turn for the worse. Lisbeth Salander is raped three times and fights back three times, is mugged once - trivially, almost, by way of character introduction. She is catatonic when questioned about her photographic memory yet nimble and commanding when the plot requires it. She would be the thinking man's Tank Girl if the men in the story could conceptualise but the men are Swedish and mostly just good at procedure, handling documentation as carefully as torture. When Elisabeth is raped the second time her attacker is prepared with not one but two sets of handcuffs. Does this mean he planned the act ahead of time, or that he'd done it before? Either scenario raises questions than are not answered. But this was early in the film, before it got darker, and Lisbeth fought back anyway - it was only a bump on the road towards even darker things.

As the investigative reporter (is there any other kind?) Mikael, Michael Nyqvist mostly types, in between getting beaten up. As Lisbeth Noomi Rapace is stone-faced; Nyqvist is cartoon-Swede gloomy. When he is finally startled awake by a grazing bullet his surprise is comical, like Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. By the time (spoiler alert) Lisbeth rescues him he's weak and unattractive. Even the chick in the basement of Silence of the Lambs fought back: Mikael is The Girl no modern film would allow. At the point when the movie requires him and Elisabeth to have sex he's as surprised as we are.

The film's central mystery is an unfolding flower of texts and digital artefacts that reveal a plot very like James Ellroy's novel The Black Dahlia. The violence is nothing that hasn't been depicted before, in particular in the print and screen version of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon (the Michael Mann version) but in the end it wasn't the characters' endless victimisation that disturbed me so much as the way they all bounced back reliably to exact revenge. What sort of person suffers without empathy or despair? Robots? Nazis? Cartoons? Every character in this movie ends up either dead or a villain, the heroes included.

8/13/10

It's just a shot away

Second draft finished. Bony and ugly but connected and rock solid, and I can start work on the next draft Monday morning. Listen for the screams.

I used to have this New Yorker cartoon pinned above my desk because it's funny, and it's true.

My friend from Los Angeles says the one thing from Californication that would never be true was Hank's taped-over Porsche headlight - the cops would pull you over straight away. I walk everywhere now anyway.

Also: drinking.

Normal service will be resumed, etc. Big ups.

8/11/10

Now playing (Hi rotate)

I was thinking about songs I can never play just once, especially when I'm walking round thinking. In no particular order:
  • Imagination - 'Just an Illusion' 12" The gift that goes on giving. First heard it in A Certain Bar age 17 and then went out and bought it. Locating the track you liked in those days was rarely that simple.
  • Nona Hendryx - 'Transformation' The rest of the album (Nona) is good too, but you have to play this track dozens of times before you can get past it. Bill Laswell produced.
  • The Beat - 'Save It Till Later' 12" Ultimate pick me up.
  • Cabaret Voltaire - 'Sensoria' 12" Hypnotic even before the backing vocals kick in.
  • Roisin Murphy - 'Parallel Lives' Really just Roisin's remake of 'Sensoria'.
  • Porno for Pyros - 'Pets' They only had one song.
  • Phoebe Snow - 'Every Night' Paul McCartney song, I think. Never heard his version. Never want to.
  • Serge Gainsbourg - 'Je t'aime moi non plus' Does anyone not like it?
  • Air - 'Ce Matin La' Modern Serge really.
  • PJ Harvey - 'We Float' Walked around LA listening to this over and over. Playing it now always takes me back.
  • Sukhwinder Singh - 'Chaiyya Chaiyya' Bollywood hit lifted by Spike Lee for the Inside Man soundtrack.
  • Zero 7 - 'Distractions' Sia's best lyrics.
  • Dima - 'Baby Mammoth' From the old Chillout Fourever compilation.
  • Fila Brazillia - 'July 23' From Black Market Gardening. Pound for pound this band gets played the most when I'm writing.
  • The Dandy Warhols - 'There is only this time' If you want to teach kids that drugs are bad, make them sit through The Dandy Warhols live - a mumbling, aimless shambles. The recorded experience of the band - a mumbling, aimless shambles - somehow forms the basis for arguments to the contrary.

8/10/10

Now playing (I Still Have A Thing For Julie)

I went through a period at art school when I discovered lounge music. I thought I was being arch when really I was just feeling very tired. A year later I sold all the records but I still have a thing for Julie London. Her arrangements are good and she stays within her range. Although she always sang about the blues she never appeared to suffer. If gazing idly into the middle distance has a sound, Julie is it.

This was in the 80s when vinyl records were officially on the way out and could be purchased for a couple of bucks - a good thing considering that different Julie London albums shared many of the same tracks, or tracks that were so similar that they might as well have been the same. Their value was in the craft of their artlessness, the conjuring of melancholia as reliably as a soap opera: up come the strings, big pause and (rolls eyes, stubs out cigarette, casts sidelong glance at ribbon microphone) ... Julie! But without the exclamation mark.

Because Julie London's songs all sounded the same and because they were nearly all about the blues there's one track of hers I can never, ever locate even in this age of the interwebs. It's called 'The Blues' or 'You've got the Blues' or 'Get ready for the Blues' or something. There's a line about 'the clouds look like they'll overspill... in fact, you know they will... get ready, get set for the blues.' If you recognise this, please tell me - it will make me unhappy. Not a staring into the abyss unhappiness: just gazing idly into the middle distance between drinks kind of unhappy, which is a necessary tool for writing.

I'm listening to Julie on my iPod. I am being driven slightly crazy by the lack of a stereo system and often find myself staring at speaker docks. Portable MP3 systems look like crap to me: I can't see how something so similar to a cheap transistor radio could produce hundreds of dollars' worth of sound. My suspicions have been confirmed by Eric Taub in the NYT, who writes about docking devices manufacturer SDI Technologies:
'We recreated the $19.99 drugstore alarm clock radio and turned it into a $100 product,' Mr Ashkenazi said.
Those blues, those everybody hates you blues: they're gonna get you if you don't watch out.

The photo booth on Schönhauser Allee, Berlin, 10.03.10

8/9/10

Whatever you is, be that*


After messing around for God knows how many years, making redundant political statements and another false start on what might have been a decent Roxy Music reunion, not to mention some truly shite collaborations and DJ remixes (we'll draw the curtain of charity across that last Groove Armada thing) I was happy to bury my BF fixation. But lo, bad video aside, this kicks it. Bryan Ferry's 'You Can Dance' samples 'True To Life' from Avalon (because great musicians always sample themselves) and shuffles along with a drunken gait that doesn't stretch the old fella. The video's lame - too many girls and the dancefloor is half-empty, but maybe that was the idea. Anyway. Did Not Make Me Sad. After the decade of fucking around since the under-appreciated Mamouna, that's saying something.

* Lightnin' Hopkins

8/6/10

If you don't mind, I'm gonna pass out

Pictured: Natascha McElhone takes time out from the (La) Tribune crossword in Ronin. The (IH) Tribune crossword has been about all that has been distracting me as of late. I'm working on the new thing and it's screaming along in the way that some drafts do. The trick is not to question it, so I'm not. Hence the lack of posting. Apologies again to the two - no, three people who read this.

I'm using notebooks less. After filling several Moleskins with invaluable material - I keep going back to them - I've defaulted to a very cheap Muji notebook (90p in London) - A5 30 leaf (60pp). I've done so much research for this new thing that I have what I need in my head: I'm making almost no notes at all. The manuscript is the notebook now.

Can't watch movies, either. Can barely read. Work in progress. Ronin was on the other night though - I still love that.

8/3/10

Don Draper as Superman

At least according to the rumours. Do we want that? I'm thinking no. Jon Hamm as Draper is the anti-hero, the cheat in a suit, the urbane failure. We want him on that wall, we need him on that wall, like a lazy detective who can't be bothered with the case. I haven't even quite come to terms with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner's decision to fast-forward the season's period settings, prematurely ageing and styling the cast. I want the characters to be stuck in same moment making the same mistakes over and over like a whiskey sour version of Last Year at Marienbad. The male cast are halfway there in their uniform suits and haircuts that make them look like astronauts. Bad choices, lies, more bad choices, Betty Draper as a bloodless icepick. What's not to like?

I've got more to write about this. But I just hit a good mark with the new ms and that's all that matters.