Thursday, September 20, 2018

NO TOMORROW wins the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere

I'm thrilled and honored to share the good news that I won the big one, France's top award for mystery writing, the Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, for my novel NO TOMORROW.

Provided you can read French, you can read more about it here. They give out two awards, one for best French novel (which was won by Marion Brunet) and one for best foreign novel. I won for best foreign novel. You're welcome, America.

It's a remarkable honor, and one that I'm going to bask in for a while. If you need me, I'll be chugging a cheap Bordeaux and singing La Marseillaise. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


From 1989 to somewhere around 1993, I was obsessed with Mel Gibson. There are a lot of people who know me now who don't know this fact about me. But there is probably no one who knew me during those years who doesn't know this fact about me. I turned 14 in 1989, and I was 18 in 1993. The years in between were spent in intense study of all things Mel Gibson.

The obsession was due primarily to the Richard Donner-directed and Shane Black-scripted trash action classic LETHAL WEAPON. The movie was released in 1987 when I was far too young to see it. I had an older cousin who saw it, though, and he said it kicked ass. When I finally saw it, I suspected it was the greatest movie ever made. At the very least, I knew for certain that it was the greatest movie I'd ever seen.

Now I'm a 43-year-old cinephile. I've spent most of the last 25 years or so obsessed with different kinds of films and filmmakers. Film noir. Westerns. Musicals. Bogart. Welles. Bergman (both of them). Judy fucking Garland. I've probably seen, at least once, a majority of the movies that would be considered serious classics of the cinema. Many of those, I've seen more than once. A few I've seen over and over and over again.

But if I had to wager on the movie I've seen the most times, I would have to sheepishly admit it's probably LETHAL WEAPON. And, keep in mind, I've only seen it maybe once or twice in the last ten years. That means that by the mid-nineties I'd watched it, what? 50 times? 60? I watched it with the passion of youth. I watched it the way some kids in the 90s listened to Pearl Jam or Nirvana albums.

These reflections were triggered by seeing the movie for the first time in a very long time at a midnight showing at Chicago's Music Box Theater.  It was like running into a friend you haven't seen since high school.

LETHAL WEAPON is an 80s action movie. In some ways, it's the ultimate 80s action movie. DIE HARD is an infinitely better film, but it was pointing the way out of the 80s. DIE HARD had a high tech sheen to it that seemed to herald the breakthrough of something like T2: JUDGEMENT DAY. LETHAL WEAPON, on the other hand, was all about guns, tits, and mullets. LETHAL WEAPON was 80s trash and proud of it. 

This post isn't about how I watched this dated 80s action movie and realized it's trash. I think I always knew it was trash--albeit, highly efficient trash. And it's been years now since I caught up to the fact that film is casually homophobic, racist, and sexist. None of this is still surprising to me.

What is surprising is how bad Mel Gibson is in most of it. Because Mel's a good actor. His performance in BRAVEHEART is appropriately epic, while he's tightly restrained in THE ROAD WARRIOR. His HAMLET wasn't an embarrassment. His best performances are as the imperiled fathers in RANSOM, SIGNS, and THE BEAVER (a truly weird film, sure, but there's no denying that Mel taps into a deep well of self-loathing and depression in it). Mel can, when he puts his mind to it, act. Just not here. More on that in a second. 

In LETHAL WEAPON Mel plays LA cop Martin Riggs. He's suicidal because his wife has recently died, so--for reasons that make no sense whatsoever--he's transferred from narcotics to homicide. Which is sort of like getting a promotion, but never mind. He gets paired up with family man Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and they set out to solve a murder that almost immediately leads them to a gang of Vietnam-era mercenaries turned drug smugglers. Together Riggs and Murtaugh kill all these assholes and Riggs learns to live again.   

Mel doesn't so much give a performance here as much as he does a kind of macho-vogue. He's beautiful in this movie. This is prime Mel Gibson as a sex symbol, with a flared mullet sculpted by a stylist simply credited as "Ramsey". In his first shot in the movie, we find Mel naked in bed, waking up with a lit cigarette in his mouth and a loaded 9mm on the pillow beside him. He gets up and drags a beer out of the fridge. Despite being a depressive who guzzles booze for breakfast he's got about 8% body fat and a perfect ass. The camera regards him like a rock star. His hair is sculpted and so's that ass. Mel's not here to act. Mel's here to project beauty and danger. He's here to kill assholes, to run down the street barechested with a machine gun, to jump, to fight, and to kill even more assholes.

[A long digression: We'll find out in LW2 that Victoria Lynn Riggs was actually murdered by drug dealers who covered it up by making it look like a car wreck. Of course. This will allow Riggs to kill some more to purge his pain. 80s action films always argue that the surest way through personal turmoil is the wholesale slaughter of assholes. Here's the thing, though, LETHAL WEAPON itself doesn't feel like it's supposed to be a franchise starter. It feels like Shane Black set out to make a movie, rather than part one of a series. This might explain the grittiness of the original film, like its subplot about a dead porn actress, or the weird sexual tension between Riggs and Murtaugh's 16 year old daughter. None of this would fly in a film today, especially a film that could potentially kick off a billion dollar franchise.] 

Here's the thing: on one level it's weird that a 14 year old religiously indoctrinated Arkansas kid like me became obsessed with this movie. LETHAL WEAPON is an LA movie. It's very LA, in fact. (And that aspect of it really pops on the big screen as the detectives go up into the Hollywood hills.)  It's an adult movie in the sense that it has a lot of adult material: nudity, profanity, violence, suicidal despair.

But every bit of it--even the despair--is pitched at the level of an eighth grader. LETHAL WEAPON is a big rock power ballad of a movie. It's got no depth, just emotional bombast. Riggs isn't just sad, he's suicidal, and he's not just suicidal, he's SUICIDAL, with bug eyes and flared nostrils to prove it. Mel Gibson's performance in this film is about as subtle as a kick to the jaw, but that's in keeping with the tone of the movie. You can't croon a rock power ballad, you have to belt it out. The scene where Riggs almost kills himself is probably the scene that made Mel Gibson a superstar. The rest of the movie's talk of suicide rings hollow and cheap (the showdown between Riggs and Murtaugh later on-- "Don't tempt me, man!" --is overdone and unconvincing), but this almost wordless scene is just Mel and a gun and all the emotion the actor can dredge up from his soul. It's the scene that made people think "That handsome son of a bitch can emote." Riggs kills 17 assholes in this movie and everyone of them is just catharsis, the releasing of the tension of the earlier suicide scene. That's the kind of thing my 14 year old self could hold on to.

The success of this movie launched three more sequels, and while it's interesting to see how the movie shifted into a series, it's also easy to see how the filmmakers lost touch with that series. LETHAL WEAPON 2 (1989) immediately starts to turn everything into a comedy. Shane Black wanted to kill Riggs off. The suits wouldn't let him. So Shane Black was out. No more talk of suicide and no more grit. It was time to start printing money. Consequently, LW2 is still hyper-violent but it doesn't linger on pain, and there are no torture sequences like the first film. It's bigger and broader, like a cartoon. (Indeed, the film starts with the Looney Tunes fanfare.) The body count goes over the top with glee, and there's longer and larger set pieces. (Riggs pulls down a house on stilts with his truck.) The heroes end up in each other's arms, laughing. The film also introduced Joe Pesci as comic relief in a movie already popping with jokes, and that was the end of LETHAL WEAPON. The tepid LW3 brought back Pesci for no good reason (and to diminishing returns), and in an R-rated movie it gave Mel a PG-love interest in Rene Russo. It made both the violence and the humor broader, which is to say that the film is neither exciting nor funny. It also tried, paradoxically, to get serious and deliver a hamfisted gun control message in between all the shootouts glorifying guns and all the jokes making light of police brutality. And LW4...well, shit, I don't really even remember it. Jet Li was the bad guy and he gets double-teamed by Riggs and Murtaugh, which always struck me as kind of a punk move on the part of the cops. Chris Rock, just emerging as the greatest stand up comic of his generation, is also in the movie to try to give someone, anyone, a reason to see it. It's all just...bad. And Riggs has short hair. What the hell's the point of a LETHAL WEAPON movie without a mullet?  

Since Donner directed all four movies and the principal cast returned for all four, the last movie ends with a group photo to underscore the family atmosphere on the set. Yet the films themselves reveal that, cut loose from Shane Black's trash-vision, Donner didn't really know what to do with LETHAL WEAPON. As the series went on it got more and more intellectually mangled. Donner tried to turn it into a kind of family comedy (the tits and ass and torture were out by LW3), while also trumpeting simplistic liberal "messages" (apartheid is bad, guns are bad, Chinese slave labor is bad). But those messages are stuffed clumsily into what is essentially the old DIRTY HARRY stroke-fantasy of good guy fascist cops gunning down dozens of people with righteous impunity because, after all, criminals are just a bunch of remorseless assholes.

I lost interest in all of this long before the final credits rolled on the last movie. The WEAPON sequels, to one degree or another, all feel superfluous. 

The original LETHAL WEAPON is different, at least for me. It's a relic of the 80s, which is to say that it's a relic of my own childhood. Why did I love it? Because in its dumb Joel Silver-produced way, it had a sense of loneliness and isolation. I certainly felt that in my teen years. It presented uncomfortable emotions I understood and it offered hyper-masculine remedies: Toughness. Rough humor. Male bonding. Violence.

Of course, as I got older I came to learn that these weren't exactly the best remedies to uncomfortable emotions. But when I watch LETHAL WEAPON I'm certainly not looking for moral instruction. I'm not even looking for entertainment anymore because when I watch it now, I can no longer simply see a trashy 80s action movie. Instead, I see the kid watching it and learning to love the movies, falling in love with their raw speed and fury. I see a kid awkwardly learning how to move, and not to move, through the world. I see, of all things, me.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

PICKUP (1951)

Hugo Haas was classic noir’s goofiest auteur. His films were melodramatic, overwrought, and often funny when they were trying—ostensibly anyway—to be dramatic. As a producer/director/writer, Haas created films around himself as an actor, and he usually created variations on the same story: sweet Hugo Haas meets a beautiful young blonde who sets out to kill him and take all his money. In film after film, he seemed to be doing his best to tell THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE from the point of view of Nick Papadakis.

Now, everything I just wrote has often been said as a way to dismiss Haas as a cut-rate hack. But this is where I disagree with critics like Arthur Lyons (who called Haas “one of the world’s worst writer-director-actors”). Haas is a goofy auteur, but he is an auteur nevertheless. His films have a personality, a point of view, and they have their charms.

Look at PICKUP, his first American film. It stars Haas as a railroad worker named Jan “Hunky” Horak. An amiable widower who lives alone at a secluded railway post, his life changes when he meets a sexy tart named Betty—and by ‘sexy tart’ I mean that everything about her from the first moment she appears onscreen screams ‘This woman is a sexy tart.’

Haas is not subtle, but, then again, subtly is only one among many potential virtues. Hunky and
Betty get married and descend into a marital hell that only gets hotter when a younger, hunkier (sorry, I couldn’t resist) guy shows up. PICKUP ain’t trying to be subtle. It wants to be simmering adultery yarn, part morality tale, part potboiler—and that’s pretty much what it is. PICKUP—like most of Haas’s films—has an almost classically burlesque quality to it. I think Haas takes his material seriously in the sense that he wants to put it across, but I don’t think for a second that he has any interest in what we would call “realism.” He isn’t doing a bad version of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. He’s doing a distinctly European caricature of the same kind of material—and I mean caricature here more in its 18th or 19th century sense of seriocomic grotesquery—and to understand this is to really enjoy Hugo Haas. More than most alleged auteurs, he actually was the controlling artistic influence on his films. There’s a certain Old World melancholy in his movies, like here when Betty asks if he got his American nickname because he’s Hungarian and he says, “No, I’m Czech, but to them it’s all the same.” There is real pathos in that line, and it comes straight from Hugo Haas.

But, god, he was goofy. PICKUP is the kind of movie that gets big laughs from audiences. As Betty, Haas cast the great Beverly Michaels. She chews the scenery from her first scene to her last. Our first view of her is a low-angle shot of her bouncing up and down on a Merry-Go-Round while a pack of men ogle her legs. This is sexuality-as-absurdity. You can’t not laugh.

There is, of course, a dark side to all of this. There’s an argument to be made that, goofy or not, this movie—like most Haas movies—has a misogynist heart. There are two women in this movie, Betty and her friend, Irma. Irma isn’t as big a floozy as Betty, but she’s cut from the same cloth and she’s only in the movie for a scene or two. After that, we’re left with Betty and Betty’s no damn good. Haas ends the movie on an ugly joke, with Hunky clutching a new puppy, saying “This is what I should have brought home in the first place.” With the bitch gone, in other words, now he has a good dog.

This hatred of the only real female character in the movie is ironic because, of course, as is so often the case, she’s the most interesting character in the film. PICKUP was the first starring role (after a scrappy supporting role in EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE) for its leading lady, and it would define the rest of her short career. Beverly Michaels had a mouth made for snarling, and she did a lot of it in her brief time onscreen. She made only a handful of feature films, and notched a couple of television credits, before she retired from acting in 1956, and in most of her movies she’s the meanest thing onscreen. After ’56, she married filmmaker Russell Rouse (who had directed her in 1953’s fantastic WICKED WOMAN) and then she more or less disappeared from public life. Even when she became a cult figure among noir geeks, she evinced little interest in stepping back into the spotlight before her death in 2007. That mystery woman quality, of course, has only added to her legend. Among film noir goddesses, she’s something special. Other goddesses are sadder (Lizabeth Scott), sexier (Audrey Totter), or meaner (Marie Windsor). No one, however, is tougher. You want to sum up Beverly Michaels’ noir ethos? She was a broad. A glorious, hilarious, tough-as-nails broad.

All hail the hard ass.

P.S. I wrote about Beverly Michaels and Russell Rouse for the e-mag NOIR CITY. You can buy that issue here.