Tuesday, April 4, 2017

April is the Cruelest Month

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
– T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"
The more I read genre fiction, the more I realize that I'm not so much drawn in by any genre per se as by certain styles and artistic visions. One writer will click while another leaves me frustrated with myself for not enjoying what so many others esteem so highly.

One thing I find myself drawn to is the attempt on an author's part to make their invented world out of whole cloth. I don't mean that I like vivid descriptions and attention to detail, though these are fine when called for. What I mean is, I don't much like works that rely heavily on genre conventions, that bank on the reader's familiarity with common settings and tropes rather than building up an independent vision. My eyes just glide right over stuff like that. It's not that conventions are bad. All writing has abbreviations and shortcuts. But not much of truth or beauty, of strangeness or wonder or epiphany, is going to be found in an insubstantial tissue of borrowed elements.

I was recently introduced to the works of M. John Harrison through Fletcher Vredenburg's Black Gate reviews of the Viriconium books. What he had to say made me eager to read them, and an insightful older post by Matthew David Surridge at the same site piqued my curiosity even more. Thus far I've completed The Pastel City (1971) and A Storm of Wings (1980).

Here are stories that make their world out of whole cloth.

They're dying earth tales, it is true, and as such have something of a heroic fantasy or sword-and-sorcery "feel" while remaining what many people would call science fiction. That's what I like about the genre; that, and its peculiar blend of hopelessness, ennui, and hilarity, which the Viriconium books certainly embody. They paint their own picture, however, and it's a picture that's vivid to the point of painfulness but almost aggressively lacking in nuts-and-bolts world-building. About which more in a moment.

China Miéville has called it an injustice that Harrison hasn't received a Nobel Prize. I'm not competent to comment on that, as I rarely read the work of Nobel laureates. I do have to admit that I enjoyed the earlier and less ambitious Pastel City more than A Storm of Wings. I suppose I just gravitate toward the concrete, and A Storm of Wings is rather nebulous, with a weirdly drifting narrative and long passages describing the characters' perceptions and motivations.* I don't object to a book's being elliptical, mind you, and The Pastel City is certainly that. But it also kept me turning the pages to see what the resolution was going to be, and it's hard to think of a fantasy novel that's had that effect on me recently.

I think Mr. Vredenburgh puts the differences between the novels very well:
Despite sharing a similar structure with its predecessor, A Storm of Wings, is a more potent book, filled with headier feats of prose and narrative gameplaying. While The Pastel City remains an excellent heroic fantasy tale, I'm now able to perceive it best as the template for Harrison to build on and spin off from mad, wild, meta-fictional constructs. In an interview, Harrison said: "A good ground rule for writing in any genre is: start with a form, then undermine its confidence in itself," he says. "Ask what it's afraid of, what it's trying to hide – then write that." Too much heroic fantasy relies on a lazy adherence to simple tropes – the hero, the obvious enemy, etc. In this book, he is clearly taking it to task for that, and while you may agree with that, or not, it's hard not to hear and engage with his argument.
Both books are rather beautiful and rather melancholy. They revolve around ineffective protagonists who don't rightly know what they're doing or why. The tone isn't jocular like the Cugel stories, but there's some humor to go with the sadness and horror of slow decay. The style is broad, full-bodied, and poetic, with a painter's sensitivity to color. There are echoes of Jack Vance and The Dying Earth, but I think the books owe the greater debt to "The Waste Land," itself formed (like the world of Viriconium) of the incomprehensible detritus of ruined civilizations.**
THE river's tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

In his first review, Mr. Vredenburgh links to two thought-provoking essays by Harrison: "What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium" and this essay on world-building.*** The latter begins with the following assertion, with which I wholeheartedly concur:
Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.
Amen to that! Harrison goes on to say a number of other things with which I sharply disagree, however, including this rather dumb statement:
The whole idea of worldbuilding is a bad idea about the world as much as it is a bad idea about fiction. It's a secularised, narcissised version of the fundamentalist Christian view that the world's a watch & God's the watchmaker.
Why is that dumb? (1) It employs the pejorative BS blanket term "fundamentalist Christian" and (2) it calls the watchmaker analogy a "fundamentalist Christian" view when it's actually more of an already-secularized Deist view. I mean, the history of the analogy is complicated, but I would hardly call people like Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton "fundamentalist Christians." Still, Harrison might have a point about watchmaking and world-building. Unfortunately, he goes on to this even dumber statement:
Worldbuilding is the province of people who, like Tolkien, actually resist the idea it's a game, and have installed their "secondary creation" concept as an aggressive defense of that position.
Tolkien resisted the idea that it's a game? In "On Fairy-Stories" he practically defines secondary creation as a game. Actually – and I suspect that this is the sticking point – it's defined as something of a divine game. Tolkien viewed fantasy much as his contemporary, the Catholic theologian Romano Guardini, viewed the liturgy of the mass, that is, as play. The self-deprecating yet gentle and hopeful tone of his essay's companion myth, "Leaf by Niggle," makes it pretty clear how he regarded his own world-building and its cosmic (in-)significance. His philosophy of fantasy bears little resemblance to the flattened caricature subjected to Harrison's procrustean bed.

Of course, it's arguable that Tolkien's "game," being in earnest rather than metafictional, isn't the kind of game Harrison likes to play. Still, I don't see how anyone could see Tolkien the author as some sort of demiurgic control freak. Is Middle Earth really such a closed system? If that's so, where do elements like Tom Bombadil fit in? Not even the characters of The Lord of the Rings are certain.
I don't think Tom needs philosophizing about, and is not improved by it. But many have found him an odd or indeed discordant ingredient. In historical fact I put him in because I had already "invented" him independently (he first appeared in the Oxford Magazine) and wanted an "adventure" on the way. But I kept him in, and as he was, because he represents certain things otherwise left out. [Tolkien, in a draft of a letter that wasn't sent ("it seemed to be taking myself too importantly"), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, pp. 187-196]
The same letter contains a number of other interesting admissions. E.g.,
The tale is after all in the ultimate analysis a tale, a piece of literature, intended to have literary effect, and not real history. Thus the device adopted, that of giving its setting an historical air or feeling, and (an illusion of ?) three dimensions, is successful, seems shown by the fact that several correspondents have treated it in the same way – according to their different points of interest or knowledge: i.e., as if it were a report of "real" times and places, which my ignorance or carelessness had misrepresented in places or failed to describe properly to others. Its economics, science, artefacts, religion, and philosophy are defective, or at least sketchy. [ibid.]
Is that very different from the things Harrison has said about his Viriconium books? Actually, Tolkien's impatience with certain kinds of fans is familiar to anyone who's read his correspondence. In Tolkien's view, there is a broad difference between secondary creation and the kind of commercial world-building represented by this handy-dandy SFWA tips sheet, two approaches that Harrison appears to conflate.

Curiously, however, I believe that the other essay, "What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium," gets it exactly right from beginning to end.
The commercial fantasy that has replaced [the great modern fantasies] is often based on a mistaken attempt to literalise someone else's metaphor, or realise someone else's rhetorical imagery. For instance, the moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, "Yes, but what did Sauron look like?"; or, "Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?"; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien's images. You have brought them under control. You have tamed, colonised and put your own cultural mark on them.  Literalisation is important to both writers and readers of commercial fantasy. The apparent depth of the great fantasy inscapes – their appearance of being a whole world – is exhilarating: but that very depth creates anxiety. The revisionist wants to learn to operate in the inscape: this relieves anxiety and reasserts a sense of control over "Tolkien's World."
With far greater concision and profundity than my skills allow, this says something I've been trying to get at since I started this blog, and perfectly expresses my attitude toward commercial fantasy. The provenance of the two essays isn't altogether clear to me, and I find it puzzling that Harrison, who wrote "What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium" first, later transferred his judgment of the sandbox-building revisionists and their readers to Tolkien himself.

But here let us take our leave of M. John Harrison for the time being. I shall continue to read his Viriconium stories because I think they're good and well worth the effort, and his provoking essays have provided some grist for the old blog-mill, for which I thank him.

# # #

* It has occurred to me that, whatever its artistic value, the use of postmodernist deconstruction in genre fiction is potentially a very clever commercial ploy. People nowadays have little patience for the less-than-consistent, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants serials of yesteryear. Well, if carefully cultivated, a postmodernist pose lets the genre writer get away with pretty much anything in the way of self-contradiction, and critics (genre critics) will laud his or her work to the skies and gush about how close it is to real literature. That reflects what I'm always saying, which is that fantasy, when it tries to stop being itself and hobnob with high society, just ends up appropriating a bunch of outdated fashions. There's something absurd about genre writing that festoons itself with the trappings of what the cool kids were doing decades ago and calls itself "literary." Not that I think The Pastel City or A Storm of Wings fall into that, exactly...

A little deconstruction is a fine thing in a genre story. It adds bite. But you see what I mean? It's as much a material element as any of the little tricks Lin Carter recommends in Imaginary Worlds. Readers tolerate it, or even enjoy it, so long as it's subordinated to the end of the story. Deconstruction as an end in itself is a pursuit for the literati. In genre fiction, it's just a narcissistic (!) betrayal of readers. It's also as pointless, derivative, and time-bound as Lin Carter's clumsiest pastiche.

** T. S. Eliot was famously inspired by Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance. His poems are referenced repeatedly by Apocalypse Now, and From Ritual to Romance – the very same edition I have on my bookshelf, as a matter of fact – is visible in Kurtz's dwelling at the end of the film. What I'm saying is, I could have worked all this into my last post, which also touched on The Valley of Gwangi, hollow earth theories, Pellucidar, Kong: Skull Island, "Heart of Darkness," colonialism, weird German conquistador movies, and various other things, but I didn't.

*** "What It Might Be Like to Live in Viriconium" was (so far as I can discover) written in 1996 and subsequently published in a fanzine. The other essay appears to have been copied from an archived version of a blog post. It's possible that they were both typed by dogs with keyboards. That's the Internet for you.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Heart of the Hollow Earth

I recently watched Apocalypse Now for the first time. It is undoubtedly the best and most beautiful film I've seen in some time. People generally regard it as the best Vietnam film. Though gritty and realistic in its details, and, to some extent, inspired by real events, it represents an almost mythical vision, floating from The Ride of the Valkyries to Dante's Inferno and man's primordial roots in the jungle.

What made me want to see it was a comparison someone made between it and my Tashyas story. Actually, as I've said, I was thinking about Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. As is well known, though, Francis Ford Coppola cited both of these as major influences on Apocalypse Now. As a matter of fact, it's fair to say that Apocalypse Now is nothing more than a film treatment of Heart of Darkness, translating the Company's involvement in equatorial Africa into that of the United States in Vietnam, each presented just as imbecilic, futile, and destructive as human endeavors tend to be.

I've started to regard Heart of Darkness as a kind of modern myth. It has two basic motifs: the dark journey inward, and the great man who goes native and betrays humanity. The moral is that civilization is a veneer over something very dark indeed. Like the plot of Red Harvest (which I regard as another modern myth), it seems to have become part of the dream-logic of our culture. Aguirre and Apocalypse Now have been mentioned; I'm reminded also of Ridley Scott's Alien (whose ship and shuttle are named from Conrad stories) and James Cameron's popcorn-selling sequel. And, as a very recent and not-quite-legitimate descendant, we have Kong: Skull Island, which I went to see at the $4.00 matinee last week.

It's pretty plain that the makers of Skull Island were wanting to evoke and/or perfectly willing to plunder the visuals and general atmosphere of Apocalypse Now. It opens at the close of the Vietnam war, and the first scenes are chock-full of in-your-face historical details that let you know exactly what era you're looking at, while the jungle scenes are overlaid with the predictable rock songs so that you don't forget that this is the Vietnam era despite the overwhelming chronological ambiguity. (Me, to my eight-year-old son: "They played a Creedence song in that movie I just saw. Can you guess which one?" Him, without a moment's thought: "'Run Through the Jungle'!")  It's one of those movies where the older, uglier, and/or more annoying actors tend to meet grisly fates, and the young, pretty, highly paid actors do not. There's one guy I knew was destined to get picked apart by pterodactyls or something from the first moment I saw him.

Well, so, kind of a stupid movie.* But, as you may know, I'm a sucker for movies about little people running from giant monsters, and this one is pretty awesome in that department.

One really cool aspect is the hint that all these weird creatures are coming out of gigantic caverns beneath the earth's surface, where MUTOs have apparently been thriving for millions of years. Skull Island is set in the same universe as that Godzilla movie that came out in 2014 (also stupid, but also quite enjoyable), and it seems likely that we're looking at appearances by Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidora in the near future. Bring on the MUTOs! All monsters attack! I'm giddy with excitement!

But back to the hollow earth thing. Since my earliest childhood, I've known deep down in my heart that the whole earth-is-just-melted-rock-until-you-get-to-China theory is false. I mean, no one has actually been down there, have they? It's much more likely that there are massive caverns inhabited by gigantic prehistoric creatures and forested with huge mushrooms. Otherwise, the planet would be mostly wasted space, and, if there's one thing we know about Nature, it's that she hates for things to go to waste.

So I was very interested to read some of the amazing hollow earth theories recounted by Ryan Harvey over at Black Gate in some of his Pellucidar posts. Clearly, I'm not alone in my deep-seated convictions. But the most interesting, I think, is the theory of Cyrus Teed, an amateur scientist who founded a religious sect (Koreshanity) in the belief that we are already living on the inside of the world. From his Cellular Cosmogony:
The sun is an invisible electromagnetic battery revolving in the universe's center on a 24-year cycle. Our visible sun is only a reflection, as is the moon, with the stars reflecting off seven mercurial discs that float in the sphere's center. Inside the earth there are three separate atmospheres: the first composed of oxygen and nitrogen and closest to the earth; the second, a hydrogen atmosphere above it; the third, an aboron atmosphere at the center. The earth's shell is one hundred miles thick and has seventeen layers. The outer seven are metallic with a gold rind on the outermost layer, the middle five are mineral and the five inward are geologic strata. Inside the shell there is life, outside a void.**
Teed established a commune in Florida in 1894, which finally fizzled out in the 1960s. The place is now a state historical site. Strangely enough, soon after reading Mr. Harvey's post, I met a professor who lives near the site and takes his students there on occasion. So when he started talking about this theory that we live on the inside of the earth, I actually knew what he was talking about and could respond intelligently. It's called social networking, people. "You see?" I told my wife. "Reading weird stuff on the Internet isn't just wasting time after all!"

But it's strange, isn't it, how many "alternative" scientific theories (hollow earth, Atlantis, spiritualism, etc.) of the turn of the century gave birth to subgenres of fantastic literature? One wonders what theories Burroughs was familiar with in creating Pellucidar. At any rate, he was apparently unfamiliar with the shell theorem, first proved by Isaac Newton, which states that, at any given point in a spherically symmetric distribution of mass, only the mass closer to the center than the point contributes to the gravitational force at that point; all other mass can be ignored because its gravity cancels itself out, so to speak. The upshot is that, inside a perfectly hollow spherical shell, there would be no gravity at all; if, as in Pellucidar, there were a massive sun-like body at the center of the hollow, everything would fall into that body and burn. Of course, there would be nothing to keep such a body in its place at the center.

Speaking of Pellucidar and stupid movies, I recently watched At the Earth's Core, an Amicus production starring Peter Cushing and Doug McClure, with my kids. ("Hi! I'm Doug McClure! You may remember me from such films as At the Earth's Core!") Not so great, but the kids loved it. We also recently watched The Valley of the Gwangi, a Ray Harryhausen film about cowboys trying to capture dinosaurs for their wild west show in Mexico. It has same basic plot as King Kong (another modern-myth candidate) and ends with an allosaurus stalking a cowboy, his girlfriend, and a boy named Lope through an empty cathedral, which is pretty awesome.

Kong-derived stories seem always to feature some kind of dark journey upriver to primordial beginnings, which we saw as a key element in the Heart of Darkness myth. And so we're brought back to the primordial beginnings of this post, that is, Apocalypse Now.

* At one point, a search party happens upon a letter that a guy who got eaten was writing to his family. They make a big deal about how they're going to see that his widow gets his things. It's a solemn moment, but I couldn't help but imagine how that would go: "Ma'am, I'm very sorry to inform you that your husband was killed in action. Well, no, actually it wasn't in Vietnam. No, he survived that. What happened was, we were sent on this special mission to a secret unexplored island inhabited by prehistoric monsters, where he was eaten by a giant lizard creature. I'm so sorry for your loss."

** Actually, I imagine that there's probably prehistoric creatures on the outside.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Deep in the "Heart of Tashyas"

My recentest story, "Heart of Tashyas," has gotten some positive reviews!

Going in reverse chronological order, let's begin with Fletcher Vredenburg of Stuff I Like fame, in a review over at Black Gate:
The landscape Ordoñez has painted is liminal — a place between cultures in conflict; between badlands and forested hills; between men and wild beasts; between the mundane and the magical. Carvajal, a man divided into parts himself, seems the perfect character to explore this region. While the lust for gold seems to be his driving force, his actions reveal a compassionate, empathetic side, making him not quite a hero, but at least a man of interesting nuance. 
And then there’s the action and adventure. Carvajal’s quest brings him up against were-coyotes, a dangerous wanderer with roots in the Old World, ancient mysteries, and a sinister being of great power. This is top-flight heroic fantasy with a strong sense of place and character. It’s also got a cool picture by Ordoñez.
Next, Tangent Online sums up the story as follows:
Francisco 'El Moreno' Lopez searches for gold no matter the cost in "Heart of the Tashyas" by Raphael Ordoñez. Set in Southwest North America, Lopez drives himself nearly to death performing deeds to impress the local natives enough to get information on any potential gold. Lopez is an excellent protagonist, full of character, action and personality. The characters of the Yacasole, Guerín, and Red Cloud all stand out. The Frenchman, Guerín, makes an excellent foil to Lopez and his madness is very nearly palpable. And the 'thing' at the end really punches the sense of wonder and adventure into a fantastic whole.
The name "Lopez," incidentally, was selected as the maiden name of my great-grandmother, who died (it is said) of a broken heart, and the name of my first cousin twice removed, Perry Lopez, whom I never met, but who starred in Chinatown, Kelly's Heroes, and "Shore Leave" (and numerous other things). The family story is that my great-grandfather, a railroad worker who liked to play the numbers, sent his nephew to California with his winnings. Whether that's true or not I have no idea. Anyway, "Carvajal" was chosen because I read about an eviller-than-usual conquistador named Carvajal, a.k.a., the Demon of the Andes, in a history book. I like to think that my own Carvajal aspires to that level of badness, though of course he doesn't quite reach it.

Finally, Charles Payseur of Quick Sip Reviews reflects on Carvajal's placelessness and the story's liminal genre placement:
This is a nicely drawn historical fantasy that does a great job of capturing the time period of early exploration into what would become North America, and follows Francisco Carvajal y Lopez on a quest for gold. The sole survivor of his expedition, Carvajal, called the Moreno, is an interesting character, first and most a survivor, not greedy exactly but drawn to gold for the status that it might buy, so that he might to rise above his mixed heritage and have a place for himself. Because as he is Carvajal has no real place, no real home. He's between these things, and as much as that keeps him alone and homeless, it also has taught him how to live tough and keep going. The world that he navigates is full of things that he doesn't quite understand but that he doesn't stop to argue. [...]
I also like how the story uses magic and how it goes from being a historical fantasy to being something…a little bit different, pulling on some different traditions to make this story more interesting and complex still. There's a darkness here but it's one that's really only a shadow of the real terror lurking at the edges of this world. The story is in some ways about maps and the danger of the unexplored places, because what lurks there could be anything at all. It's another story that moves at a fast pace and manages a number of scenes of violent action. It's thrilling and it's just the right amount of creepy and it's an excellent read.
I've also gotten some positive feedback from people who appreciated seeing an underrepresented milieu in a sword-and-sorcery story. Then again, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly has really been packing in the Precolumbian / Central American weirdness of late, so I'm actually a latecomer to the party. But my story is the first one set in Texas and featuring a Puerto Rican. (I think.)

In fact, as I've mentioned before, "Heart of Tashyas" is set in the town where I live, which happens to be one of the last places in America where you have to subscribe to a print newspaper to know what's going on (and, indeed, a man's life in these parts often depends on a mere scrap of information). My story uses a lot of old-timers' lore gleaned from its pages. I'm going to try to get them to do a story about my story; if I succeed, I'll post a copy of it here. If I don't succeed, I hope I'll at least get an interesting refusal. I'll post that, too.

Well, as always, I remain very thankful to anyone who takes the time to read and comment on my stuff, even if they don't like it. It's icing on the cake to connect with people who do like it. I have a few other Carvajal stories in the hopper, set here and there between the Red and the Rio Grande. I've been disgustingly busy lately (sigh), but I'm working on them, and on Ark of the Hexaemeron, and I'm sure they'll all eventually see the light of day!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Noir Reviews: The Blue Dahlia, April 1946

Thus far in our seamy traipse through the back alleys of film noir, we've viewed a screenplay co-written by Raymond Chandler and a film based on his novel Farewell My Lovely. Tonight (it's always night here) we consider our first film written by Chandler alone: an Alan Ladd / Veronica Lake vehicle called The Blue Dahlia.

This is the first Ladd-Lake noir I've noticed, incidentally, but it's not the first they made. It's preceded by This Gun For Hire (based on a Graham Greene novel) and The Glass Key (based on a Dashiell Hammett novel). I think the acting is best in This Gun For Hire. What makes The Blue Dahlia fascinating to me is the personalities involved in its making.

Ladd plays Johnny Morrison, a discharged naval officer returning home to find his wife dallying (well, more than dallying) with a shady nightclub owner played by Howard Da Silva. There's an extraordinarily tense and well-acted domestic scene, in which his inebriated wife reveals having killed their son in a drunk-driving accident. Things get ugly, he walks out, and she gets murdered. It's your standard whodunit, though it could have been so much more, about which more in a moment. I've never been much into mysteries; the mystery stories I like are compelling because of their action, whether or not I happen to know who the killer is. So I'm a bit tepid about The Blue Dahlia.

But it does contain some excellent noir sequences, mostly stemming from Johnny's descent into the social underworld after he becomes the prime suspect. (That's a theme we've been seeing a lot: the ever-present threat of slipping from an ordinary, respectable life into a world to which an entirely different logic pertains.) Other than his having served in the navy and married a tramp, we don't know much about Johnny Morrison, but apparently he's a tough guy. He gives a hotel owner who tries to blackmail him an efficient but thorough beat-down, and single-handedly takes out a few gangsters at a remote cabin.

I can see why some people find the Ladd/Lake pairing so compelling, but they're hardly at their top form here. Too well-known, I suppose. Veronica Lake's performance is particularly bland, and vastly inferior (to my mind, at least) to her work in This Gun For Hire. You're always reading about how short they both were and how this is the reason they appeared together so often; since I'm shorter than Ladd, and my wife is about Lake's height, I'm probably less amazed by this than other people, but I suppose it is usual to use tall people in movies.

Lake had a sad life, destroyed by alcohol and ending in destitution. Her last film, Flesh Feast, a low-budget horror picture shot in 1967, has a terse synopsis on Wikipedia: "While convincing everyone the flesh-eating maggots are for regeneration research, she simply wants to throw them in the resurrected Hitler's face, which she does." She died not long after of hepatitis and kidney failure.

Overall, the characters in The Blue Dahlia very well-drawn, as one would expect in a Chandler screenplay. The sneaky house dick, "Dad" (Will Wright), is particularly good, as is Johnny's war buddy, Buzz (William Bendix). Doris Dowling is excellent as Johnny's wife, Helen. Though not a large role, it's fairly subtle, as the script doesn't allow us to view her as a simple tramp, and Dowling performs it with considerable nuance. And the reaction of the maid upon finding Helen's corpse, when we expect her to scream but she just says something like "Oh, brother!", cracks me up.

The ending, unfortunately, is a bit forced, not to mention corny. But thereon hangs a tale. A legend, really.

[Spoiler alert!]

Apparently, Chandler originally had Buzz, a wounded veteran with a plate in his head, who suffers frequent blackouts and has a faulty short-term memory, as the killer. Buzz was supposed to have executed the wife under great stress and anger, and then blanked out completely, never putting his own thoughts together enough to discover that he is the culprit, though the fact becomes apparent to everyone around him. Unsurprisingly, the Navy didn't like this resolution, and Chandler was forced to change the ending. A massive bout of writer's block ensued. As studio pressure mounted, Chandler finally promised that he would complete the screenplay if he resumed drinking and was guaranteed six secretaries and two limousines standing by at all times. He finished the script in eight days, apparently more or less drunk the whole time. But what had been a daring psychological study had turned into a simple murder mystery.

All of which reminds me that I somehow skipped The Lost Weekend, in which Billy Wilder purports to explain Chandler to himself. It happens also to star Doris Dowling and Howard Da Silva. I'll have to go back to it right away.

* * *

I give The Blue Dahlia a grade of C for commonplace on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Not a bad noir film, but it could have been ever so much better.

Takeaway quote:

"How often do they change the fleas?"

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street ***

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Noir Reviews: Scarlet Street, December 1945

Continuing our guilt-sodden adventure through film noir, we arrive at Scarlet Street, the first of our entries directed by the great Fritz Lang.

Lang is, of course, one of the great directors of the German Expressionist period, whose work includes the historical fantasy Die Nibelung and the science fiction epic Metropolis (both silent) as well as the proto-noir M, starring a young Peter Lorre in the lead role of a child murderer. His American work includes several understated noirs that I think should be better known.

These include both Scarlet Street and its sister film, The Woman in the Window, which feature the same principal actors (Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea) and follow a somewhat similar plot. The Woman in the Window came out earlier, and is well worth watching, aside from one almost fatal flaw. If you've seen it you know what I mean. Maybe I'll come back to it later.

Incidentally, Scarlet Street is in the public domain: watch it here or here. As usual, I've taken this as an invitation to decorate my post with my favorite stills.

Based on the French novel La Chienne (I'll let you Google-translate that), which had been dramatized and turned into a film in the 1930s, Scarlet Street is, by parts, a sex farce, a satire on the art world, and a psychological thriller. More than anything, it is the cruel dissection of a shy, naive little clerk who becomes an adulterer and murderer and literally descends to hell.

Strangely, it's also full of intentional humor. I actually laugh out loud when I watch it. Some scenes might almost have come from a Frank Capra film. The cheap, chiseling duo played by Dan Duryea and Joan Bennett seem like they'd be more at home in a screwball comedy. And Edward G. Robinson's character could be one of the artistic eccentrics in You Can't Take It with You.

One scene in particular, which provides an unexpected twist toward the end, cracks me up every time I see it. Taken as a whole, it's hard to know what to make of Scarlet Street. It's like a Capra film gone off the rails, ending in perdition.

Chris Cross (Robinson) is a lowly cashier who just received his gold watch for long and dedicated service to his employer. We first see him at the foot of the table, viewing the back of his round head well before we see his face. All eyes are on the opposite end of the room, making him a dark counterweight to the center of attention. He, too, is focused on his host, but our own eyes are drawn to his negative presence. He already looks like a culprit.

The city into which he emerges is a lonely closed world. Maze-like sets with no visible exit make the viewer feel boxed in. Squalor and shabbiness seem ubiquitous. In one of the film's many strange, striking shots, Chris balances a jewelry sign on a broken umbrella as he waits with his friend for a bus. Nothing says noir like dark, rainy streets with neon signs.

Chris is a Sunday painter with no formal training, somewhat like Henri Rousseau, on whom I suspect his character is partly modeled. Like Rousseau, he plods through a workaday existence while pursuing his art when he can, however he can.

He paints in the bathroom because his domineering landlady-become-wife, whom he married late in life, is quite vocal in her contempt for his pastime. Indeed, it's her threat to destroy his work that drives him over the brink of moral compromise. There's a delightful scene in which Chris, after having listened to her shrilly berate him and order him to do the dishes (a task for which he dons a frilly apron), sits through the opening of "The Happy Household Hour" and a brassy soap commercial blasted from the radio downstairs.

Nevertheless, for all his amateurishness, self-effacement, and desperation, Chris is a true artist with the heart of a poet, dedicated to his vision of reality and his craft.
Sometimes [it takes] a day [paint a picture], sometimes a year. You can't tell. It has to grow...
     Feeling grows. You know, that's the important thing, feeling. You take me. No one ever taught me how to draw, so I just put a line around what I feel when I look at things...
     It's like falling in love I guess. You know, first you see someone, then it keeps growing, until you can't think of anyone else...
     The way I think of things, that's all art is. Every painting, if it's any good, is a love affair...
     There aren't many people you can talk to this way. So you keep it to yourself. You walk around with everything bottled up.
Kitty March (Bennett), a.k.a. "Lazylegs," an attractive but stupid and slovenly young woman who stands in for the prostitute of the original story, enters the picture when Chris "rescues" her from her boyfriend, Johnny Prince (Duryea), as the latter beats her for holding out on him.

Of course Chris misapprehends the whole situation. He comes to idolize Kitty and starts sending her schoolboy love letters. He naively translates the episode into paint, turning Johnny into a serpent of evil from which Kitty must be protected.

The picture is a glimpse into Chris's brain, a visualization of his jarringly childlike view of reality. He never guesses that Johnny and Kitty, thinking him a well-respected, affluent artist, have hatched a plot to string him along and soak him for cash.

Incidentally, Chris's paintings, which I find reminiscent of Rousseau and other self-taught artists, were executed by the artist John Decker, one of whose works plays a central role in the prison noir Brute Force. Most of them look like deliberate attempts at naive art or outsider art, with the exception of a beautiful and unsettling portrait of Joan Bennett. (Funny that both Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window revolve around portraits of Joan Bennett. I like this one much better.)

Looking at these paintings, we get the sense that Chris inhabits a very different world from the people around him. His work, however, is discovered by a highbrow art critic, and, because everyone thinks the beautiful Kitty is the artist, it's a sensation.

Because, obviously, no one would be interested in paintings produced by an ugly little cashier. Chris admits as much himself. But he's overjoyed by his "discovery," happy only to have his work appreciated and caring nothing for the fame.

Nevertheless, his many secret compromises, obviously never clearly thought out, are putting him in an impossible situation. As the strain increases so does his willingness to do anything to escape. Every so often we glimpse how close he is to the edge. Like the subtly acted scene in which he tries to "help" his accusatory wife off with her coat while cutting liver.

It comes as a shock to see how close he is to murdering someone. But no one around him is aware of his increasing desperation. Then the walls close in at last and his illusions are shattered, leaving him with only one way out. Here the film takes an abruptly dark and nasty turn.

Now, if you're a member of the "literally" police, you might have noted my use of that word up above, and thought, what, are there fires and devils with pitchforks? Well, it all depends on what you mean by hell.

To the scandal of the Hays Office, Chris escapes punishment by the legal system. He doesn't know it, but he's got the perfect fall guy lined up.

(Dan Duryea must be one of my favorite actors of this period. His portrayal of cheap crooks ranges from cool and sinister to shrill and brassy. I've never seen him in a role I didn't like, and he's delightfully slimy in this one.) At first, Chris seems utterly unfazed by Kitty's murder and Johnny's going to the chair. "When do they throw the switch?" he asks the newspapermen he meets on the train, shocking them with his callousness. But the ghosts begin to haunt him as we reach the film's dark, throbbing little heart.

When the film had problems getting past the Hays Office, Lang supposedly went to see the censor, Joseph Breen, and said, in effect, "Look, we're both Catholics. We know that Christopher Cross goes to hell. That's a much greater punishment than prison." What he was getting at was the belief, explicitly portrayed in the film, that every sin carries its own burden of punishment. Hell is not a location. Hell is, literally, a state. You can find that in the Catechism. At any rate, Lang appears to have won the argument.

Nevertheless, Scarlet Street was banned in New York, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. The city censor of Atlanta branded it as "licentious, profane, obscure and contrary to the good order of the community." Now that's my kind of movie.

* * *

I give Scarlet Street a grade of B for bueno on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Because I'm a horrible person, the stand-out scene for me is the flashing-sign hotel hell at the end of the film.

Takeaway quote:

"Paint me, Chris... They'll be masterpieces."


*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetour ***