Bedside reading, 1975 #2

I am kind of looking forward to John Carter. "Kind of" because Disney dropped "of Mars" from the title, and the fanboys are grumbling. "Looking forward to" because I read the series when I was very young and liked them a lot. Clive James once said that good books are the ones we feel slightly guilty about reading -- an observation I come back to more and more.

What is striking about John Carter of Mars is how it practically minted a genre. Edgar Rice Burroughs' ideas have become storytelling standards, their components recycled to power Dune, Avatar, Star Wars and many more. Like Edgar Allan Poe or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his pulp fiction is a gift that keeps on giving.

I read Dune later. (As someone else may or may not have once said, the golden age of science fiction is twelve.) I had no time for any of the sequels -- Children of... and all that crap -- but Frank Herbert's original was strange and appealing. I read it at the beach one summer so the images mingle, pleasantly, with sands I saw every day. And I liked the David Lynch movie very much. After Lynch's Dune SF movies had a choice: they could do his version of what scifi looked like, or Ridley Scott's in Bladerunner. Critics and fans hated it, but lately it has been revisited. Writes Andrew Stimpson:
Dune's closest analogue is John Boorman's Excalibur. At the time of its 1981 release a US critic, while denigrating the film as a whole, noted that "the images have a crazy integrity". It was, in effect, a greatest hits collection of Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur: an artfully visualised series of key scenes and epic occurrences that lacked a uniting flow. The same could be said of Lynch's picture and its source novel.
Dune was in development for many years by insane person Alejandro Jodorowsky:
Salvador Dali was cast as the insane Emperor of the Universe, who lived on an artificial planet built from gold and had a robot doppelgänger (actually conceived as a way around the real Dalí's extortionate fiscal demands for appearing in person) to keep people guessing, fearfully, which one they were dealing with. He accepted the part with apparent glee, his only demand being that the Emperor's throne must be a toilet made from intersected dolphins, the tails forming the feet and the mouths to receive piss and shit separately.
Nowadays, of course, that would all be done in CGI.

Jodorowsky's mad-as-fuck version was never made -- all the artists, including writer Dan O'Bannon, ended up working on another little film called Alien -- but you want the flavour of what it would have been like -- and you know you do -- watch Santa Sangre or The Holy Mountain.

PS: Not-a-prequel Prometheus viral marketing starts here. (Milk and cookies keep you awake?)

PPS: The Hollywood Reporter says John Carter is not so bad.


I've paid my dues to make it

Walter Mosley on writing, interviewed by Charles L.P. Silet:
MysteryNet: Obviously you don't see much distinction between what we would describe as genre or crime fiction and straight fiction or literature.

Mosley: No, I don't see any difference in it. Of course, in the genre there are certain kinds of things that you have to do, but it's the same in a coming-of-age novel, somebody has to come of age. So you have to follow the conventions. Good fiction is in the sentence and in the character and in the heart of the writer. If the writer is committed to and in love with what he or she is doing, then that's good fiction.

MysteryNet: Who have you read both in crime fiction and in regular fiction that's had an influence on you?

Mosley: In crime fiction, I've read lots and lots of people. Charles Willeford, I just adore. Every one of his books is so deeply flawed plot-wise, but it matters nothing to me because he's such a wonderful writer. I was reading one of his books the other day about some old guy and his wife; he was seventy-two but looked older and she was sixty-three and looked older than him. It was so funny; just the way he wrote it. My God, this guy is fantastic! Hoke Mosley is a real guy. It's so right. I've read everybody -- Gregory MacDonald -- I've read all the Fletch books. I thought they were wonderful. Parker, of course. Vachss, who I adore, because I think that he is so deeply committed to what he believes in. I feel the heart coming through it, and I compare him to Dickens. Rex Stout. I've read almost everything Simenon ever wrote. The people I love for writing are the French: Malraux, Camus, Gide, for just the style of writing. It is almost the heart of fiction for me. Then the older guys like Proust, and tons of black poets: Gwendolyn Brooks, Derek Walcott, Amiri Baraka. It doesn't matter who writes it, no matter their sex or their race or what period of time they lived in.
Raymond Chandler, from Frank MacShane's The Life of Raymond Chandler (1986):
My theory was that readers just thought that they cared about nothing but the action; that really although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action. The thing they really cared about, and that I care about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description.


Our dried voices when we whisper together

So I finally got to see The Ides of March and Moneyball. Clooney is not as smart as he thinks he is and Brad Pitt is not as charismatic as he thinks he is. Which is no crime. Clooney is a good director: he knows when to hang back and he really lets the actors speak for themselves. His style reminds me very much of Robert Redford's in Quiz Show: he shuts up and lets the story get on with it, and the drama is character-driven. The weakness is in the script (three credited writers, based on a play) which turns on Ryan Gosling's moral character making an immoral choice. Why he does so isn't set up or explained. Basically the character acts out of character.

The Moneyball screenplay is credited to Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin: a sort of screenwriting supergroup. Liked it a lot, again because the director lets things hang a little, but Sorkin's dialogue tennis is best served fast and Pitt plays it slow. I don't think I've truly enjoyed Pitt in anything: like Alfred Molina, he is likeable, talented and nearly always miscast. He's tremendously physical -- in one scene, tossing a bat aside with the fluidity of a dancer -- but every role he takes involves doing annoying things with his mouth (sucking a spoon, chewing on a sandwich or, in this case, spitting gum into a coffee cup). But when he looks rundown or downcast or subdued, he ages ten years and becomes terrific. Edward James Olmos' line to the DOP was "don't make me look pretty." Pitt could use that.

Both films are about money and the lack of it. I enjoy this as a subject. It's becoming more current.

Neither are as good as The Ghost, which I finally got to see as well. Polanski knows how to build tension. He deploys clichés like a sail, adjusting them gradually. In The Ghost an exiled politician lives by the sea: one shot has his groundsman sweeping the sand off the steps only to have the approaching wind blow it back. At which point I decided: I fucking love this movie. The Ghost is as melodramatic as Ides of March; as esoteric as Moneyball, yet recognisable, spooky, obsessive, human. Square inside a genre, buckling down on character and above all witty. I guess this is what it was like watching Rosemary's Baby when it first came out.

I'm obsessed with 'drama', now. People walking in and out of rooms, talking. It's amazing how much you can do with that.



Patricia Highsmith interviewed by Gerald Peary in 1988:
She owns no copies of films made from her books, not even Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 version of her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950). "It seems to be entertaining after all these years," she acknowledges. "They keep playing it on American TV, ancient as it is. A few years ago, there were requests to me, 'Can we make this?' I said that I have no rights. Contact the Hitchcock estate, which won't release it for a remake."

Strangers on a Train was sold outright for $7,500, with ten per cent of that to Highsmith's agent. A meager recompense, some would say, but Highsmith disagrees. "That wasn't a bad price for a first book, and my agent upped it as much as possible. I was 27 and had nothing behind me. I was working like a fool to earn a living and pay for my apartment. I didn't hang around films. I don't know if I'd ever seen Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes."
Hitchcock purchased Strangers On A Train through an intermediary so Highsmith's agent wouldn't know who was bidding for it and ask for a larger advance. It's interesting that the author puts so much distance between herself and the director: critics and fans put them hand in glove.

NB: Nice sweater.


You hit me with a flower

One-star reviews such as:
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
"So many other good books... don't waste your time on this one. J.D. Salinger went into hiding because he was embarrassed."
...always remind me of the 'Review of Winslow Homer Show at LA County Museum' from Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes, pictured above. (I have a first edition -- Putnam, 1977 -- sitting in storage with the rest of my books.) In addition to his many other talents, Steve Martin may have predicted the internet.

Now, more seriously, Time's Lev Grossman has examined the phenomenon of "it sucks / it rocks" reader reviews in depth:
It's a basic but still weird fact about books that two people's experiences of the same book can be radically different but equally valid. On the face of it it doesn't seem possible. When we read a book and find that it sucks, that doesn't feel like a personal judgment on our part, it feels like an observed fact that everybody else who reads that book should acknowledge — and if they don't acknowledge it, that means that they suck. It goes against our instincts as a reader that two people can have opposite reactions to a book, and that both reactions can be true...
Grossman concludes:
I feel like there should be more talk about the criteria by which we make literary judgments. More and more books are being published every year, but we have less of an idea than ever (what with aesthetics being dead, or at least resting) how to filter and sort and organize and canonize them, or even whether we should.
The full article is here.


Driving down your freeways

James Ellroy in the Paris Review:
You were away from Los Angeles for twenty-five years. Why'd you come back?

One reason: Cherchez la femme. I chased women to suburban New York, suburban Connecticut, Kansas City, Carmel, and San Francisco. But I ran out of places, and I ran out of women, so I ended up back here.

Did you miss the city?

While I was away, the Los Angeles of my past accreted in my mind, developing its own power. Early on in my career I believed that in order to write about LA, I had to stay out of it entirely. But when I moved back, I realized that LA then lives in my blood. LA now does not.
Full article is here.


The description of evil through art

East Coast intellectual Simon Grigg has written a great piece on the subject of MegaUpload:
Given that, really, [MegaUpload's] offences seem to be little different in scope to the rogue YouTube, as documented in that Viacom indictment, one wonders why the 'man' is so keen to stomp so visibly and brutally on the founder and face of the site.
Because people are killing music. But remember the days when music was killing America? In 1995 Bob Dole wanted to be the Republican nominee for President and his campaign was searching for ways to distinguish him. Writes Bob Woodward in The Choice (1996):
The plan, as [advisor William] Lacy had proposed in April, was to attack Hollywood directly on the grounds of sex and violence in movies and popular music. [Speechwriter] Mari Will... had spent some time drafting the anti-Hollywood speech... Dole needed to step up in a forceful and direct way if he was going to get and retain attention, particularly with conservative voters.
Dole was to give the speech in Los Angeles. Will had "injected some high voltage rhetoric into the speech" which Dole approved. Later he began to express reservations. Revisions were made and the language softened, but the Senator's doubts persisted. "Maybe it was generational, Dole figured, but he was very uncomfortable with the Hollywood value speech... He considered not giving it."

On the night of the speech Lacy went over it with the candidate word by word, "a diversionary tactic so that Dole wouldn't toss out the entire speech." Dole even wavered once he got up on the podium, improvising an introduction. But eventually he reverted to the words on the teleprompter:
A line has been crossed — not just of taste, but of human dignity and decency. It is crossed every time sexual violence is given a catchy tune. When teen suicide is set to an appealing beat. When Hollywood's dream factories turn out nightmares of depravity.

You know what I mean. I mean "Natural Born Killers." "True Romance." Films that revel in mindless violence and loveless sex. I'm talking about groups like Cannibal Corpse, Geto Boys and 2 Live Crew. About a culture business that makes money from "music" extolling the pleasures of raping, torturing and mutilating women; from "songs" about killing policemen and rejecting law...

Today Time Warner owns a company called Interscope Records which columnist John Leo called the "cultural equivalent of owning half the world's mustard gas factories." Ice-T of "Cop Killer" fame is one of Time Warner's "stars." I cannot bring myself to repeat the lyrics of some of the "music" Time Warner promotes. But our children do. There is a difference between the description of evil through art, and the marketing of evil through commerce.
The speech was a big hit -- "giant news. The impact was way beyond anything in Dole's entire political history."

Dole hadn't seen the movies he was talking about. Not sure if he'd heard the rap tracks either but "teen suicide set to an appealing beat" has the air of authenticity.


Love is the cure for every evil

It's been a good week for lawyers. The Pirate Bay founders were denied appeal. Kim Dotcom was denied bail. US authorities seized file-streaming domains ahead of the Superbowl.

Neil Young says piracy is the new radio. Twitter user @rupertmurdoch says it's stealing and wrong. EMI's Craig Davis calls it a service issue.

If all three share a common point it's that old guard has been scooped. Users want what they want, and now. Traditional distribution can't keep up. Much like a determined journalist who disguises herself as a maid to steal a story from a rival,  the audience has taken an alternative route.

Piracy is not just about theft: it's about who controls the sea lanes. Legislators and enforcers are trying to regain control and steer everyone back into safe water.

In the meantime a record label has used the internet to crowd-source publicity for a new artist and rack up #1 sales in 14 countries and counting. See what happens when we all work together?

(Pic: Judex)