Bedside reading

The great Thomas McGuane. Talking to David Abrams:
I haven't looked at Ninety-Two in the Shade since I wrote it. You know, when I was done with Ninety-Two in the Shade, I felt very complete. I had worked on it so intensely, I could recite the book. I've had no particular inclination to look at it again, however.
Interviewed in The Paris Review:
...I had been successful in creating for myself a sheltered situation in which to function in this very narrow way I felt I wanted to function, which was to be a literary person who was not bothered very much by the outside world. My twenties were entirely taken up with literature. Entirely. My nickname during that period was "the White Knight," which suggests a certain level of overkill in my judgment of those around me.

What sorts of things had led you to develop this white-knight image?

Fear of failure. I was afflicted with whatever it takes to get people fanatically devoted to what they're doing. I was a pain in the ass. But I desperately wanted to be a good writer. My friends seem to think that an hour and a half effort a day is all they need to bring to the altar to make things work for them. I couldn't do that. I thought that if you didn't work at least as hard as the guy who runs a gas station then you had no right to hope for achievement. You certainly had to work all day, everyday. I thought that was the deal. I still think that's the deal.
From the New Yorker:
Q: There's something almost cinematic about the way you capture most of a life in a series of very quick scenes from it. Were you thinking of movies when you wrote this?

A: I'm not a moviegoer. I grew up in a town without a cinema and never caught the habit, though I have worked in the movies. I stole this narrative strategy from Muhammad Ali: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." It works if you have to cover ground in limited space. One of the limitations of "dirty realism" is that you can't budge. If you're a genius like Raymond Carver or his precursor Harold Pinter such confinement is an advantage. But, for many of their successors, it's claustrophobic.
Mark Kamine discusses McGuane's work at Believer:
McGuane is one of the rare contemporary American writers whose characters always do things. They run businesses, put up fences, farm, ranch, guide, fish. They are not people on vacations or grants, they are not professors, critics, writers, or artists—or, when they are, they are artists becoming cattle ranchers, as in Keep the Change (1989). In this way issues of class and money arise naturally, between bosses and workers, and the sense of automatic and persistent injustice is apparent and recurrent. The disadvantaged are abundantly aware of this, even when they themselves are acting badly.
The Blue Hammer is one of the best books in the Lew Archer detective series by author Ross Macdonald AKA Kenneth Millar.



David Mamet interviewed in 1997 by John Lahr for The Paris Review:
Now, there's a certain amount of essential information, without which the play does not make sense...

And how do you fit that information in?

As obliquely as possible. You want to give the people information before they know it's been given to them.

So to you a character is...

It's action, as Aristotle said. That's all that it is – exactly what the person does. It's not what they "think," because we don't know what they think. It's not what they say. It's what they do, what they're physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person's character in life – not by what they say, but by what they do.

If you hadn't found the theater, what do you think you might have been?

I think it's very likely I would have been a criminal. It seems to me to be another profession that subsumes outsiders, or perhaps more to the point, accepts people with a not very well-formed ego and rewards the ability to improvise.


Noirs that aren't #2: Maîtresse (1975)

I first saw Barbet Schroeder's Maîtresse (1975) in 1983, at the Auckland International Film Festival. This weekend I got to see the fully-restored version on the big screen at the BFI, digitally projected. (It strobed). The graphic sexual scenes may have been eclipsed by what's freely available on the internet but the movie still carries a jolt. Just as striking is the documentary-style treatment of its contemporary locations: Austerlitz Station at dawn; an authentically bohemian apartment in the Marais; quiet restaurants and cafés; country roads without traffic. There's a grisly moment in a city slaughterhouse but the direction is so composed that it's sad rather than shocking.

With the passage of time Maîtresse has revealed itself as what the director intended it to be: a story of amour fou. Olivier (a very young Gerard Depardieu) has already met Ariane (Bulle Ogier) at her front door before he breaks into the downstairs apartment where she keeps her professional dungeon: he ignores her real self to invade her alter-ego. Once she has conceded her secret, Ariane retreats in stages. The dominatrix who starts out riding her clients later struggles to pin them down. As her relationship develops she is reduced to panic, interrupting her sessions and scrambling back up the steps. When Olivier supplants her pimp, she rejects him totally. The dungeon is dismantled and the Maîtresse disappears: her alter-ego is dead.

Olivier rides into the countryside to find Airiane (Depardieu teetering on a scooter) and deliver one last message -- an envelope stuffed with money, marked "I Love You." He has become the anti-client: a man paying Ariane to play the role of who she really is. She temporarily abandons her "real" family to pursue him and they share control of the wheel -- again, something that one could do only in a sports car of the period. They lose control, in the manner of Godard's Weekend, but emerge from the wreckage bloodied but laughing.

So things end happily. Or do they? Ariane has surrendered her mystery and her independence to two men, and it's clear that she and Olivier won't be able to remain together. Her obsessiveness is as apparent as Dixon Steele's: she is In A Lonely Place. And Olivier's wilfulness has ruined everything: homeless and unloved, he is back to where he was at the beginning of the film. The screenplay's mis en scene presents the city as a symbol of the subconscious, money is the characters' only god and sex is an escape. The great theme of film noir is: you're fucked.


What I'm consuming

  • School of Seven Bells 'Secret Days' -- new single from the new EP Put Your Sad Down. They can be catchy to the point of twee but this one is just right: Suicide meets Trent Reznor.  In this 2012 interview Paul de Revere asked SVIIB's Alejandra Deheza about the band's emotional intensity:
    School of Seven Bells' music through your lyrics feels intensely spiritual, romantic, and devotional to me. Where do you pull that intensity from?

    I remember when I was first experimenting with writing, I would never notice that it was any more emotional than, say, something that I'd read or whatever. It wasn't until I would give people [my lyrics] to read, and they'd feel like they walked in on something and they'd be like, "Whoa. Girl, what are you going through?" I wouldn't even think twice about it. I never really noticed that it was more emotional than maybe usual.

    It's kind of hard to say where it comes from because it's just very natural to me. I feel like I've always been like that, for better or for worse. Writing lyrics and melodies is a really good way for me to keep balanced. I tend to feel things really intensely, and I feel like writing kind of evens it out.
  • Cat Power, '3,6,9' and 'Real Life' from the new album Sun. I find Chan Marshall talented but recessive: I never quite remember her until she comes on. I liked The Greatest, especially 'Lived in Bars.' From her 2006 Spin interview with Melissa Maerz:
    You've said you've been drinking since you were very young. What started it?

    People who drink habitually don't realize they're doing it, because it was part of their upbringing. Everybody from my immediate family to my grandparents to my great-grandparents -- there were always severe alcoholic and psychological problems. If your parents gave you fire to play with when you were two, you'd be standing in fire by the time you were an adult. [Before my most recent hospital stay] I was drinking from the time I woke up in the morning until the time I went to bed.

    You recently spent a week at the hospital. What made you decide to check yourself in?

    It wasn't for drinking -- this was for a reaction to drinking. This was the third time I've been in the hospital. I never really connected the dots. I never really thought, "When something bad happens, you go to the bar and turn off your emotions." I never realized that I'd gotten to the point of such depression. So that's why I can't drink anymore. I need to be able to face things.
  • Psychologist Judith Schlesinger has written a book that argues that the "tortured artist" is a myth:
    A persistent belief, fueled by media, is that creative people more often suffer bipolar disorder or other mental illness. In The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius, Judith Schlesinger builds a strong argument that there is "no compelling proof that creative people have more psychological problems than members of any other vocation group."

    A musician herself, as well as a psychologist, Schlesinger clearly wants to defend her artistic compatriots from what she views as unfair attacks.

    From her data, "it's just as easy – and much better documented – to view the creative process as healthy and life affirming," and "only one characteristic of personality and orientation to life and work is... present in ALL creative people: motivation." In fact, creative people are ...actually complicated, not crazy; they are disciplined and committed, happy to take on hard projects and work hard at them; and they are intensely focused, with a 'rage to master' their chosen domain."
  • Writer's block, ironically, remains an excellent plot device. This week I saw the 'extended American' cut of The Shining. The differences between that version and the shorter cut are detailed but significant. The screening was a digital 4K print and it strobed. The opening titles rose up jerkily and during the maze scenes there were visible artefacts at the edges of the frame. Do we realise what we've gotten into with digital projection? It's shit.


Noirs that aren't #1: The Howling (1981)

Los Angeles news anchor Karen White (Dee Wallace) uses herself as bait to catch serial killer Eddie Quest (Robert Picardo), arranging to meet him in a downtown porno theater. When Eddie ambushes her the police fire on him but he escapes, leaving Karen traumatised and unable to recall what she has seen. Karen's therapist Dr Waggener (Patrick Macnee) recommends she submits to his treatment at a remote commune called "The Colony," but once Karen arrives, she begins to suspect that Waggener and his followers share a secret, and that Eddie is not far away.

Based on a 1977 novel by Gary Brandner, the shooting script was co-written by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante. Like An American Werewolf in London, the film is knowing but The Howling has an unseemly, adult quality. It's realistic in the way you don't want a horror to be. The tone is unsettling and the characters are disconsolate. Even the daytime scenes are bleak. When Karen discovers a woods cabin surrounded by ferns she deduces that it once belonged to Eddie, and enters its maze-like corridors in the time-honoured fashion. This is an old trick. Halloween did it in the dark and Alien did it in space but Dante does it in sunlight, and it makes things worse. We don't want Karen to go in there, we know that she will, and we know that we would, too, because it's a sunny day.

Likewise we would trust Patrick Macnee, because he was Steed in The Avengers. We know the Colony, like any cult, is all smiles on the surface. It's a horror movie, right? These are but the tropes. But the laughs are uneasy and the sex is sleazy from both the audience's and the characters' point of view. Elisabeth Brooks as the femme fatale is hard and grubby. The practical special effects, which were at a technical peak in 1981, are explicit and disgusting. When Dante can't film the monsters straight he switches to Dutch angles and silhouettes. He's trying to be funny. It's not.

I respect The Howling because it makes me queasy. Every character is bad and doomed; the atmosphere is horrible, the set up is hokey but the story draws you in. James Ellroy said "the great theme of noir is, you're fucked." For me The Howling's psychological themes, self-destructive protagonist and industrial daylight make it less of a horror and much more of a noir.


Let's be careful out there

Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost has prevailed in a legal argument over film rights. In 2008 film producers MVP Productions negotiated to purchase the rights to Frost's book The Match. A year later, says the The Hollywood Reporter, attorneys representing both parties had made statements in the affirmative:
On April 30, 2009, William Jacobson, the attorney representing MVP, proposed certain terms and stated, "Let me know if this is okay and we'll send paperwork..." Alan Wertheimer, representing Frost, responded, "done....thanks!"
Later, Frost decided he did not want MVP to make the film. ('Allegedly,' says THR, 'Frost felt MVP's execs were "dishonest" about their industry experience.') But in light of their discussions, the production company argued that a deal had been made. Now, after litigation, a California court has ruled that the author was in the right:
According to the latest ruling, it is undisputed that [Frost's attorney] didn't have actual authority to transfer the copyright.. but MVP argued there was a triable issue whether he had "ostensible authority," roughly meaning that appearances were made so as to lead others into believing the presence of a true authority.

But the appeals court says it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is actual authority, which only comes through a writing signed by the copyright owner. 
I think every writer has an interest in stories like this -- particularly that last sentence.

Hollywood writers are typically portrayed as victims but that's less often the case in real life. I recently attended a seminar by Brian Helgeland who roundly trashed the notion that studio executives and writers don't get along. 'Executives are very smart guys,' he said, respectfully. 'Even if they don't get story.'


Cut short

This week I wrote a 27-line piece about Kurt Cobain for Mythiq 27, an anthology of art and stories about 27 musicians who died aged 27. The book will be published in France in 2013, and will be accompanied by an exhibition.

I was also asked to write 150 words about the Frankfurt Book Fair for the New Zealand Book Council.

This was almost short enough to post on Twitter although I have mixed feelings about that. In an article in the New York Times Twitter's Adam Bain described a tweet as an "envelope:" a way of enclosing content and mailing it. I like that metaphor, if only because I have inherited from my grandparents the habit of using old envelopes as notepaper.

(Pic: Frank Micelotta / Getty Images)