Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What's the Difference?: Some Thoughts on Books and Audiobooks


I posed a question on Facebook the other day. It went something like this:

"Kind of bored with podcasts lately, so I've been listening to more audiobooks. Here's my question: Do you consider that you've read a book if you've only listened to it? It's such a different experience that I don't know. Thoughts?"

I got quite a few responses, with the majority coming down to say that, yes, of course you've read a book if you've listened to a book. Some people were very adamant on this point, and there was some good-natured debate with dissenters.

These results strike me as interesting for a few reasons.

One, it is clearly not true that reading a book and listening to an audiobook are the same thing. You've read a book when you've read a book. To say that you've read a book if you've listened to an audiobook would be like saying you've read Hamlet because you saw it performed onstage. Reading is an active experience where your own limitations as a reader effect the text in terms of pacing and comprehension. Every reader reads a book in a different way. When you listen to an audiobook, you're listening to someone else's interpretation of a text. It is a mediated experience in which other people shape your reception of the text.

Also, when you read, you're looking at words, closed in the experience of the book. When you listen to an audiobook, you're looking at something else. (I was listening to an audiobook of the Russell Banks novel CLOUDSPLITTER yesterday on the train to work. The woman across from me was putting on her makeup. She's now a part of my memory of the scene of John Brown and his sons easing their wagon down a steep mountain pass.) I listen to audiobooks while doing lots of things: driving, washing dishes, shopping. I cannot do those things when I'm reading because reading requires more of my attention and concentration.

Two, audiobooks are a unique art form, a postmodern hybrid of literature and radio.  Some audiobooks go so far as to use music cues and sound effects, and actors and producers decide where and when and how to put emphasis on words and phrases. A good actor can redeem a weak book as surely as a good actor can redeem a weak movie. Someone like audio all-star Edward Herrmann could make a phone book sound interesting. This is not the same as reading a book, where the writing is pretty much the whole show.  

Three, people want credit for having read a book. This was something I noticed in the responses. We're all a little defensive about audiobooks because we don't want anyone to suggest that we didn't really read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.

What is fascinating to me about this is that I didn't mean to imply that audiobooks are a lesser art form than literature, just different. I come to praise the audiobook, not to bury it. Listening to a group of words and reading a group of words are distinct experiences because they utilize different senses. I read CLOUDSPLITTER years ago when it was first published, and now I'm listening to it read by Pete Larkin. It's a different experience, more passive for sure but no less interesting. Larkin's performance shapes characterization in ways that my mind did not. There's no value judgment in noting that reading is harder than listening. Of course it is. Audiobooks interpret the text for you; they do some of the heavy lifting. Perhaps this helps account for our defensiveness about audiobooks. But I think it is more instructive to simply view a book and an audiobook as distinct pieces of art (as different as the text of a play and a production of a play), and we should think more about what audiobooks are and what they're doing. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Brief Words On Simenon


I've been commissioned to write a piece on the film adaptations of one of my favorite authors, Georges Simenon. This is exciting because it gives me a reason to go back to one of noir's deepest wells. The romans durs of Simenon are some of the richest works of the 20th century--tight, muscular stories that move rapidly and yet often tell stories of loneliness and sadness, isolation and despair.

The impetus for this piece on Simenon's film adaptions is the recent re-release of Julian Duvivier's PANIQUE, the 1946 movie version of Simenon's 1933 THE ENGAGEMENT OF MISTER HIRE.

While I've got Simenon on the brain, I thought I would link to a fun photo essay over on Crime Fiction Lover. "Maigret's Paris" is a look at the locations that inspired Simenon's most famous creation, the police commissioner Jules Maigret. Simenon's Paris is one of crime fiction's richest locations, like Chandler's Los Angeles or Doyle's London. Check out the photo essay, and see if it doesn't make you want to curl up with one of the good detective's adventures.

Maigret is a quiet creation, not as flashy as Marlowe or Holmes, perhaps, but no less endearing. For me, though, the real Simenon is found in the "psychological novels" like THE ENGAGEMENT OF MISTER HIRE, a book about a lonely scam artist who becomes the focus of a murder investigation. It's a tragedy, as so many of Simenon's books are, but it's also got humor (even farce) and moves like a locomotive.

That's all for now. I'm off to dive back in.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Religious Authority in the Age of Trump



I’ve written several novels now that deal with the varieties of American religious fundamentalism. I come by this preoccupation naturally. Born into a strict Southern Baptist family, I lived for a time on a religious campground run by relatives who saw themselves in the tradition of biblical prophets. In my early twenties, I spent a few years as a Pentecostal before I finally left the church for good. The one key insight I gained through this spiritual journey is that religion’s main selling point is authority. Life itself is hard and often unfair, and its chaos ends, for all of us, at the grave. We seek out an authority to guide us because life is so clearly out of our hands. This is why the world is full of people (professional as well as amateur) claiming to speak for god, claiming to own some small (or large) share of god’s authority on everything from life and death to sex and politics. To put it in stark capitalist terms: religion offers authority and it offers it cheap.

Of course, religious authorities have long sought to extend their influence into the political arena. This is as true in America as anywhere else, yet America has always been notable for its official skepticism of religious authority. “The separation of Church and State” is not a phrase in the Constitution; rather it is a unifying idea that runs through the document, from Article VI to the First Amendment. This separation, it should be noted, was as religious as it was pragmatic. While the framers — most of them believers in one stripe of Christianity or another — feared a government controlled by zealots, they also didn’t want to see their religion reduced to another pig at the public trough. In the political realm, they knew, religious authority is reduced to a commodity, just one of many commodities to be bartered or bought in the circles of influence.

Despite the best efforts of the founders, however, religious political power has always been a factor in American life. It was used to justify the genocide of the Native Americans and helped to condone the bondage of African slaves. It began to ebb in the late 19th century, the first victim of modernity, its authority usurped by science and art. Since marrying itself to the Republican party under Reagan, however, religious political power has been on the rise. Christianity hasn’t always made for the most natural bedfellows with supply side economics and the military industrial complex, but the marriage has been mutually beneficial.
     
What political value does this religious authority have in the age of Trump? If the recent executive actions taken by the president barring immigrants of seven Muslim nations from entering the United States (including the barring of Syrian refugees indefinitely) are any indication, then the answer appears to be that Christianity’s sad duty in the new order is to aid and comfort white nationalism. Religious authority gives sanction to a philosophy of "us vs. them", and so as walls go up and doors to entry are barred, American Christianity just becomes another guard at the gate. 

This is a tragic turn of events. For years, leaders of the religious right have been major power players in the Republican party. They haven’t always gotten their way, but their power has steadily increased since the 1980s. Nevertheless in 2016 their preferred candidate, Ted Cruz, was trounced in the Republican primaries by a thrice married casino owner with a history of sexual assault and business fraud. In the general election, this same candidate – a man who once bragged that he has never needed to ask for God’s forgiveness — won the votes of religious constituents overwhelmingly. In some ways, this is baffling. Trump’s swagger and his narcissism, to say nothing of his lecherousness and materialism, would seem to make him an anathema to anyone who claims to live by the teachings of Christ.

But, again, religion’s main political selling point is authority, and in an age of authoritarianism, religious authority must rush to catch up. Trump beat them at their own game. He promised to torture prisoners and target innocent civilians in war zones, explicit war crimes; he promised to build walls and bar refugees; he promised to abolish an absolute freedom of religion by banning Muslims from immigrating to America and by forcing all Muslim citizens to register with the government. He leapfrogged religious authoritarians not just by promising to act without the constraint of other, lesser, authorities — like the law, American tradition, and basic common decency—but by also promising to act without the constraint of the softer Christian virtues of humility, mercy, and charity. In short, he promised to act like a man who had never needed to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is for people who make mistakes. Forgiveness is for people who acknowledge a responsibility to others, an authority beyond themselves.

To be sure, there was some opposition to these neofascist proposals, and to Trump himself, from some on the religious right. There were tremors of pushback in the halls of Liberty University and throughout precincts of Mormon America. But it all came to very little in the end, and now that the religious right has largely capitulated to Trumpism in theory, we’re seeing how much resistance it will raise against Trumpism in practice. With Trump’s upsets in the primaries and the election, God-hucksters like Mike Huckabee, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell Jr. polished their brands by attaching themselves to him as publicly as possible. In VP Mike Pence — a stalwart of Christian politics, whose war on reproductive freedom and gay rights as governor of Indiana portends bad things — Trump has someone who can throw red meat to the religious right and speak its language. In all truth, though, it’s unclear how much work the president will have to do to keep the peddlers of religious influence satisfied. They’ve already proven they’re ready to accept the scraps from his table. And for his part, Trump seems to like the temples as long as they’re plated in gold and run by moneychangers.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Jedidiah Ayres on 2016 Crime Flicks


Jedidiah Ayres is a smart and witty guy and a hell of a good writer. (Check out his book PECKERWOOD to see what I mean.) He has a new blog post up recounting his favorite crime flicks, and, as usual, it's a list that mixes high end noir and straight-to-Redbox grime. Jed has hipped me to some stuff I missed last year, and it's likely he'll clue you into some fun obscurities, as well. Check it out.

Monday, January 16, 2017

FRIENDLY PERSUASION (1956)


In 1957, William Wyler's comedy-drama FRIENDLY PERSUASION won the Palm d'Or, one of those inexplicable lapses of judgement that help to demonstrate the true worthlessness of movie awards. (That it beat out Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL only helps to make this point starker still.) It's a film that I'm fascinated with in large part because of my undying love of its star, Gary Cooper, but the film itself is a muddled mess. It is of interest today to Cooper fans like myself, but in most other respects it has aged poorly. For its director, it is a long, long way from the triumph of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES in 1946.

Watching it again recently (because it was included in a new set of Cooper films I got for Christmas), I'm struck by the film's lack of a point-of-view. The film tells the story of the Birdwell family, a 1800s Indiana Quaker clan led by a stern-if-loving mother, Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) and a taciturn-if-mischievous father, Jess, played by Cooper. They have three children, the eldest of which is a son, Josh (Anthony Perkins) who longs to go fight in the Civil War. Eventually, the war comes to Indiana and the Birdwells have to decide what to do. 

I use the word "eventually" advisedly because FRIENDLY PERSUASION takes a long leisurely amble to get to its central conflict. The war doesn't come home to the Birdwells until the final thirty minutes of the film, which means that the better part of an hour and a half is spent focusing on things like the light comedy of Cooper's attempt to get to church faster than his neighbor and an uninvolving romance for the Birdwells' teenaged daughter. These scenes are meant to establish the Quaker idyll that will soon (or eventually) be shattered by the war.

Here's the problem, though: even in these scenes of gentle pastoral comedy, Wyler and his writer Michael Wilson (whose name was taken off the picture after he was blacklisted) struggle to figure out how to present the Birdwells. The problem, as one might expect, is religious. Wyler and Wilson just don't know what to do with Quakerism. For example, one subplot involves Jess buying an organ to play in the house despite Eliza's stern opposition, in keeping with the doctrine of their faith, to the instrument. After much to do, the Birdwells end up keeping the organ, and then have to hide it in the attic to keep it from the eyes of their church. At the end of the film, the organ's been moved downstairs. What are we to make of this? Are the Birdwells ready to tell the church that the doctrine is wrong? If so, why? The truth is that the filmmakers don't care about the religious implications. The whole subplot is one extended joke, a comedy that springs from the bemusement of the filmmakers. 

This disconnect carries over to the main conflict of the film once it finally arrives. Perkins wants to go fight, though his reasons for wanting to fight and the way he relates to the conflict don't seem to have any practical foundation in the life the character would have lived up to that point. Likewise, his younger brother regards the war the way a kid who's seen a lot of TV westerns might regard the war. Neither of them seem to have grown up in Quaker house their whole lives.

FRIENDLY PERSUASION is an excellent example of what we mean when we say a film is dated. Though it purports to unfold in 1862, it feels always and in all ways like something created in 1956. It's reflexively pro-war despite the fact it takes place among lifelong pacifists. Perkins goes to war, his little brother is casually bloodthirsty, and Cooper rides off with a gun to save his son -- all against Eliza's wishes and reprimands. By the end of the film, in fact, the concept of pacifism seems like little more than Eliza's annoying pet project. Eventually, she rejects it herself when she beats a rebel soldier for trying to kill the family goose, a moment that is played for laughs. The staunchest pacifist portrayed in the picture is a member of their church who is presented as a self-righteous hypocrite who throws off the constraints of his faith as soon as the Confederates show up.

I've been interested in how religion is portrayed onscreen for a long time, and it's been on my mind even more of late. FRIENDLY PERSUASION is something of a companion piece to 1941's SERGEANT YORK, which also presented Cooper as pacifist during a time of war. YORK is pure war propaganda with even less real respect for the religious ideals of its characters than this film, but at least YORK goes about its task more or less directly. FRIENDLY PERSUASION, on the other hand, wants to have things both ways. It is a film of gentle contempt for its subject.

PS: A quick word about Coop. He's easily the best thing about the picture. While Perkins (in his first leading role in a movie) is too Method for his own good here, Cooper controls the screen with quiet authority. The film came at an odd time in his career when, despite the fact he was in his mid-fifties, he was still resistant to, you know, acting like it. He didn't want to play a father onscreen, and although McGuire was 15 years his junior, by this point he was used to playing with even younger leading ladies. (His next film was the romance LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON in which he played opposite Audrey Hepburn, who was 30 years his junior--younger than the actress who played his daughter in FRIENDLY PERSUASION.) He also didn't like that his character wasn't roused to action sooner, and roused to much more forceful action. Despite all of this, the film gives us an unmistakable hint at the kind of performance Cooper could have given in a good movie dealing with the same subject matter. He's not dated so much as he seems to have come from a previous era, which, indeed, he had. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Vagabond: Martin M. Goldsmith


The 1945 film noir DETOUR is a movie that seems to have been made out of grit and blood. It certainly wasn't made out of money. As the crown jewel of Hollywood's Poverty Row, DETOUR is best known today as the premiere work of slumming master Edgar G. Ulmer, the penurious auteur who has since become a hero to every filmmaker who every tried to make art on a budget.

With all due respect to Ulmer, though, we would do well to remember the man who wrote the screenplay (and original novel) of DETOUR, the fascinating firebrand Martin M. Goldsmith. A true eccentric who rejected the materialism of Tinseltown, Goldsmith was one of the key screenwriters of Poverty Row film noir in the 1940s and 1950s. He deserves as much credit as anyone for the masterpiece that is DETOUR, but his career, both in films and as a social activist, doesn't stop there.

I wrote about Goldsmith for the Summer 2016 issue of NOIR CITY. You can read a PDF of my article here. And go here to learn more about the Film Noir Foundation and how you can contribute to its effort to rescue and restore America's noir heritage.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Year at the Movies: 2016



I go to the movies a lot. I started this blog about eight years ago because I wanted to have a place to think out loud about the movies I was seeing--to reflect on the old and the new, on the good and the bad. I called it the Night Editor because I tend to write late and because I like the 1946 noir NIGHT EDITOR  directed by Henry Levin and starring Janis Carter (an overlooked minor gem, btw). A lot has happened for me in years since I started the blog. I've published several books, been to France twice on book tours, participated in several readings at Noir At The Bar functions, and relocated to Chicago. 

But I've also seen a lot of movies. On the side of this blog I keep a running tally of how many movies I've seen at the theater. I don't know why I do this, except that going to the movies is the closest thing I have to a hobby.

This year I saw 85 movies at the theater. That's a lot, I know, (a movie about every four days), but the true measure of my cinephilic tendencies is that I don't feel like I saw enough. I still managed to miss so many interesting-looking new films and great old classics in rerelease.

I'm not someone who generally laments the state of film. Yes, schlock too often rules the box office. Yes, I worry about the reheated nature of our choices, where it seems that almost everything at the box office is a do-over of some pre-existing property. Yes, the culture is ever more infantilized. Yes, it is harder and harder to get movies made for adults.

And yet...

In some ways, things are better than we give them credit for being (and things in previous days were often worse than we give them credit for being). Here's a list of some good things about the current state of movies.

1. Hollywood has perfected the comic book movie and the sci-fi popcorn movie. A case in point: this year I saw DOCTOR STRANGE. Here's a movie that could only exist at this particular moment, the result of Marvel's mastery of the comic book movie. It has a great cast of capable actors slumming it in a labyrinth of good special effects and efficient storytelling, and the result was an entertaining afternoon at the movies. When they make the inevitable sequel, I'll check it out. Of course, I'm not saying that the Hollywood machine always gets it right. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR was fun but overstuffed while BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was stupid and sluggish, just to take two high profile examples. But overall I think Hollywood is doing this stuff as well as it can be done. The comic book movie is the modern equivalent of the old time spectacular. Will we look back and call DOCTOR STRANGE a masterpiece? Probably not, but I really do think it will hold up better than AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956) and that piece of shit won Best Picture...

2. Great stuff still gets made. This year I saw films as different as MOONLIGHT, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, HAIL CAESAR!, ARRIVAL, CERTAIN WOMEN, and FENCES. If I'd only seen these movies, I still would have been pretty happy at the breadth and accomplishment of the year. Different movies with different tones and intentions, but so much skill and heart.

3. The revival business is going strong. I have to start here by saying that "strong" is a relative term. I'm not trying to suggest that it's 1960s-film-society strong out there, but, when it comes to classic film, I had an incredible year at the movies. Just to name a few: I saw the triumphant restoration of Welles's masterpiece CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (twice), as well as Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL, the Coens' BLOOD SIMPLE and BARTON FINK, Ozu's LATE AUTUMN, Kurosawa's YOJIMBO, von Stroheim's GREED, and Hitchcock's VERTIGO. The movie event of the year for me was the release of Kieslowski's DEKALOG, the ten hours of which comprised my most exciting cinematic experience this year.

I should say a few words about disappointments. In the realm of blockbusters, I think the Star Trek and Bourne franchises are in trouble. STAR TREK BEYOND was more entertaining than its horrible trailer, but the series itself is adrift. And JASON BOURNE feels every bit like a movie that knows it has no reason to exist. On the art side, Terrence Malick was back with KNIGHT OF CUPS, the kind of meandering pose-striking mess someone might make to parody Terrence Malick.

Here's my top ten new releases of the year, in no particular order:

1. MOONLIGHT-A triumph from director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins, this coming of age tale might be the most perfectly achieved new film I saw this year, with vivid camerawork and brilliant acting. Unfolding in three chapters over several years, it creates and maintains an atmosphere of emotional intensity without ever seeming to reach too hard for effect. Devastating and beautiful.  
2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA-No film I saw this year haunted me as much as this one. Director/screenwriter Kenneth Longeran tells a quietly funny and finely observed story about the ways we live with grief. Casey Affleck is a slow burning flame in the lead role as an emotionally isolated janitor dealing with the death of his older brother, and as his ex-wife Michelle Williams proves once again that she's one of the best actors working. 
3. HAIL, CAESAR!-This movie divided a lot of people, even admirers of the Coen Brothers. All I can say is that it feels like a movie they made just for me, a whacked out comedy about the Hollywood studio system, with singing cowboys, dancing Communists, Jesus-obsessed studio fixers, and a goofball star of biblical epics played by George Clooney in his best comic turn in years.
4. FENCES-A world where Denzel Washington makes adaptations of August Wilson plays is a fine world, indeed. He and Viola Davis do a powerful duet here as a married couple confronting themselves, and each other, for the first time. With exceptional supporting work from Stephen Henderson and Jovan Adepo. There's talk of Washington producing more plays from Wilson's Century Cycle, which goes on the short list of things to be excited about. 
5. CERTAIN WOMEN-An anthology film from director/screenwriter Kelly Reichardt based on the stories of Maile Meloy tells three different tales set in Montana. The first two stories are interesting, but the third story, about the would-be romance between a shy ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) and a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart), is a delicate heartbreaker, among the finest things that Reichardt has done. 
6. ARRIVAL-This was the best sci-fi movie of the year. Sure ROGUE ONE was okay, but in a better world this deeply involving and strikingly achieved film from director Denis Villeneuve would be the one breaking records at the box office.
7. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL-Director/screenwriter Jeff Nichols makes such wonderfully quirky and specific films. This is his most daring to date, a religiously infused bit of sci-fi realism with yet another powerhouse performance from Michael Shannon.
8. WIENER-DOG-Director/screenwriter Todd Solondz is not usually my cup of cinematic tea, but this brutally funny pitch-black comedy hit me where I live. It's grim, unflinching, and hilarious.
9. LA LA LAND-From director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz, this musical comedy is a hell of a lot of fun. Some unfocused storytelling in the middle sections and some vocals-too-low-in-the-mix keep it from being completely successful, but it's carried along by good music and a stellar performance by Emma Stone.
10. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS-The final third of this twisty drama from director/screenwriter Tom Ford (adapting the novel TONY AND SUSAN by Austin Wright) has elements of a conventional (and lesser) thriller, but such is the power of this piece that I don't know what to make of them. I need to see this movie again to unravel the threads of reality and unreality that tie together its main storyline (an art dealer played by Amy Adams is shown a new novel written by her ex-husband) and the story of the novel in which a family man played by Jake Gyllenhaal (who also plays the author of the novel) seeks to avenge the murder of his wife and daughter with the help of a dying detective played by Michael Shannon (in his other great performance of the year).

Other good films I saw this year included the riveting documentary WEINER, the coolly unsettling THE LOBSTER, the effective Blake Lively-versus-Jaws thriller THE SHALLOWS, the fun GHOSTBUSTERS reboot, the happily trashy THE NICE GUYS, the well-acted rural noir HELL OR HIGH WATER and the quirky western IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE featuring a wonderful scene-stealing performance from John Travolta as the morally conflicted, and often laugh out loud funny, bad guy.

In addition to those already mentioned, some of the best revival movie experiences I had this year included seeing my beloved PAPER MOON (1973) on the big screen for the first time; discovering Stephanie Rothman's deeply subversive THE STUDENT NURSES (1970) and Peter Fonda's trippy THE HIRED HAND (1971); and revisiting Billy Wilder's hilarious ONE, TWO, THREE (1961), Bogart's final film THE HARDER THEY FALL (1957) and Scorsese's masterpiece TAXI DRIVER (1976). My best discovery at the revival movies was the Nicholas Ray rodeo drama THE LUSTY MEN (1952) which features the best Robert Mitchum performance that most people haven't seen.

All in all, it was a damn good year at the movies. The year ahead looks foreboding in many ways for our politics and our society. We need the movies more than ever, and here's hoping 2017 will find me (and you) in the dark, staring up at the big screen.