Monday, March 13, 2017

THE CROOKED WEB (1955) and the Death of Film Noir


THE CROOKED WEB is a good example of how classic noir was smothered to death by the oppressive conventionality of the 1950s. With a sharper script — with one major change in focus — it might have been something interesting.

The film stars Frank Lovejoy as Stan Fabian, the owner and operator of a Los Angles hamburger stand. He’s dating one of his pretty carhops, a chirpy blonde named Joanie (Mari Blanchard). As the film opens, Joanie introduces Stan to her ne’er-do-well brother Frank (Richard Denning). He’s a loudmouth who brags to his sister and Stan about a scheme he’s concocted to recover some gold in Germany. He offers to let Stan in on the deal, and Stan accepts. Later, after Stan drops off Joanie, she meets up with her “brother.” They embrace in a passionate kiss.

This great set-up is followed hard upon by the first big reveal of the plot. It turns out that Joanie and Frank are actually cops who are trying to nab Stan for a murder he committed during the war. They want to get him to Germany where he can be arrested by the German police.

This big switcheroo came as a real disappointment, I must admit. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, we don’t know anything about the subterfuge of Joanie and Frank. When they lock lips for that kiss, the movie seems to be off and running toward being something really interesting.

Instead, what we get is a thoroughly unadventurous crime story, with Joanie and Frank as our brave protagonists and Stan as our squinty-eyed bad guy. The plot meanders around once it gets them to Germany, with Stan eager to recover the loot and Joanie and Frank trying to edge him into the daylight so he can be caught by the cops. Our stalwart heroes, however, are a pretty lackluster crime-fighting duo. Just to crank up the suspense factor, the script has Stan discover them not once but twice in compromising positions. It does nothing to help the already languorous plot to have them keep getting caught doing the one thing that can blow their cover. What kind of idiot undercover agents make out on the job when they’re supposed to be posing as siblings?

Neither Denning nor Blanchard bring much to their underwritten roles, and the film makes a common mistake (common to films of the era, anyway) by stacking the deck constantly in their favor. They’re the good guys. That’s all there is to know about them. They don’t have any salient characteristics beyond being the good guys. Their tendency to smooch at ill-advised times goes unremarked upon and exists entirely as a plot device. They’re simply the bland stand-ins for law and order.

The only spark in the movie comes from Frank Lovejoy as Stan. An excellent actor better seen in THE SOUND OF FURY and THE HITCH-HIKER, here he’s a surly presence, nervous in his quiet, restrained way. The one interesting scene in the film comes at the end when he is taken into custody and discovers that Joanie has deceived him. In full view of the cops, he slaps her across the face. She cries and says, “I deserve it.” In a better film, this scene would be tied to a nice ambiguity—that while Joanie and Frank are the good guys, Stan is the one being betrayed (think Hitchcock’s Notorious). Here though, it’s just tacked on at the end and has the feel of a sexist cliché.

THE CROOKED WEB illustrates the mindset that had become predominant in crime films by the mid-fifties. Perhaps as a result of the Hollywood blacklist (and by ‘perhaps,’ I mean, ‘almost assuredly’), film noir had started to die a slow death. As a genre, it had always unfolded along the margins of the industry — in the B-units and at the smaller studios — but as the decade wore on it came under more scrutiny. Films that explored “deviant characters” or tied crime to social conditions were forbidden. There was more pressure to make films about heroes rather than anti-heroes. THE CROOKED WEB would be interesting if it was about Stan, but by 1955 it pretty much had to be about boring ass Joanie and Frank. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Why The Oscars Are Worse Than Useless

Above: Joanne Woodward admires her Oscar while husband Paul Newman regards his "Noscar" during his decades-long Oscar losing streak

MOONLIGHT might actually be my favorite movie from last year, which would make it the rare winner of the Oscar for Best Picture that lines up with my own taste. Having said that, and looking past the instantly legendary screw-up last night wherein Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were given the wrong envelope before taking the stage to hand out the award--I can't help but expressing my disgust at the whole Oscar thing.

Here's why the Oscars are worse than useless: Giving out competitive awards for art reduces art to a horse race. "The Oscars" is just the world's biggest reality game show, turning every film except one into a "loser." MOONLIGHT won, so LA LA LAND lost, but why in the name of all that is holy are these two films in a competition with each other in the first place? Was LA LA LAND the better film for the few minutes that its creators were on stage thanking their families and coworkers? Did it suddenly stop being the best picture released in 2016? Did MOONLIGHT suddenly become the best? No, because one director's love letter to the Hollywood musical and the other director's poignant exploration of race and sexuality were not trying to do the same thing. They are separate works of art, and though some people have tried to make them into proxies for larger cultural arguments the truth remains that the films themselves are self-contained works, both years in the making, and neither attempting to capture the current zeitgeist.

If MOONLIGHT won because Academy voters wanted to send some vague message about inclusiveness, then it really only proves the point that the Oscars are bullshit. MOONLIGHT is a great work of art. It didn't need a shiny gold man to be a great work of art. 


At this point, the most notable thing about the Oscars is how wrong they are. We could add up all the great films that didn't win the Oscar for Best Picture and we'd have almost all of the greatest movies ever made. Cary Grant never won a competitive Oscar, and neither did Judy Garland. Since they might be cinema's two greatest performers, does this make sense? After years of not winning, John Wayne and Paul Newman finally did win Oscars, but does anyone really regard TRUE GRIT and THE COLOR OF MONEY as their greatest performances? Do many people consider SCENT OF A WOMAN to even be a passably good movie, much less Pacino's best performance? Is TRAINING DAY really the keeper from all the leading performances that Denzel Washington has given?

The answer to all these questions is no, yet the Oscar myth creates a counter-narrative in which competing marketing campaigns decide which work of art had more merit, all for the benefit of a flashy television event, the real purpose of which, like the Super Bowl, is to sell soap and beer during the commercial breaks. The awards themselves have a longer history, with their roots stretching back to a promotional scheme cooked up by Louis B. Mayer, a scheme that first morphed into a status symbol (industry bragging rights in a one-industry town) before becoming modern television's biggest waste of time.

Like I said, though, the awards show is worse than useless, it's reductive. It diminishes, for the sake of money, artists and works of art. The movie business is already volatile enough mix of art and commerce (of "movie" and "business"). How about we just skip the show next year and go to the movies? 

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.