This blog is changing format and moving to jjmacmillan.com, hope to see you there.
Watching I Wake Up Screaming got me in the mood to look for other noir films I missed during the time I was researching The Vengeance Season. It didn’t take long to come up with two that I’d never seen: Kiss of Death and Nightmare Alley.
What is it with the titles of these movies? No one woke up screaming in I Wake Up Screaming. No one was kissed to death in Kiss of Death. And nothing happened in an alley in Nightmare Alley. It’s a carnie movie, for God’s sake. There are no alleys, just sawdust and animal crap.
I’m beginning to think – and stay with me here as I go out on a limb — that they just picked titles at random to get people to come see the movie. This was back before Hollywood turned super honest and straight up noble, so it’s entirely possible.
What can I say about Kiss of Death? Well, the first thing I can say is that I didn’t finish watching it even though I was keen to compare it to the 1995 remake with Nicolas Cage and that ginger guy from that cop show who can’t speak until he dramatically removes his sunglasses. Oddly enough, that version was also unwatchable, but mostly because it sucked.
The reason I haven’t finished watching the 1947 version isn’t because it was bad but because Richard Widmark is in it and he portrays a character so vile it was simply too disturbing to listen to him talk. And he talks all the time. Remember Larry Drake playing the title character in Dr. Giggles? Widmark’s character is equally creepy-cum-annoying. I’ll get back to it eventually. Not because I want to, but because I’m a completist.
And it’s really disconcerting to remember that Widmark went on to become a leading man later on in his career. You’ll never watch Judgment at Nuremberg the same way again after seeing him in this movie.
On the other end of the spectrum, Nightmare Alley is excellent and bizarre. This must be the only time other than Todd Browning’s Freaks that the sideshow geek was dealt with in any direct way. The script even makes note of the fact that this bizarre act had been made illegal long before this movie was made.
But that’s not what is so mind-alteringly weird about this movie. It’s Tyrone Power’s character arc. This matinee idol goes from carnie roustabout to high society headliner to geek over the course of 110 minutes. It’s a truly distressing thing to behold — he even looks like a man strung out on “booze” (I’m pretty sure booze is standing in for heroine here. No alcoholic talks about limiting themselves to a one shot a day.) — and even more so because, unlike the heels in most noirs, he’s not actively evil.
Like most of us, the Great Stan is just to easily able to convince himself that his selfish actions are for the benefit of others. If it weren’t for Coleen Gray, he would have no conscience at all.
Oh, and Coleen Gray, one of the most beautiful — in the modern sense of that word, she doesn’t even look like an actress from that era — actresses from that day is in both of these movies. Damn, I just looked her up on IMDB and discovered she’s in The Killing, Red River, and Kansas City Confidential as well. She had quite the noir run going there for awhile.
I hear people — okay, older people — complain that they don’t make movies like this anymore but I think they really do. Kiss of Death was remade, as I mentioned above. Out of the Past, a classic, was remade as Against All Odds. Not a bad movie but nowhere near as strong as the original. The Killers was remade in 1964. It was good but nowhere as good as the… oh, here I am talking about “the original” again like it’s something untouchable that belongs in a reliquary.
So if you want a movie that was made like they used to make them, I would say Body Heat is your winner. It’s not a remake but it satisfies on every note of the Noir scale and it has a truly mind altering twist.
BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT!
We aren’t supposed to make them like we used to. Movies aren’t cars. Wait, that’s not even a good analogy. Movies aren’t bridges. Here’s a paraphrase from Patton Oswalt: For any creative endeavor to survive, it must change and grow.
That’s the answer, by the way, to the argument that Michael Bay is a great director because his movies make a lot of money. Making money is only a valid argument if you’re debating a banker. And the heck with those guys.
We shouldn’t make movies like we used to because film is an artform and it must change in order to thrive. White Heat becomes Bonnie & Clyde becomes The Godfather becomes Scarface becomes The Way of the Gun becomes Snatch and so on.
If you went back to 1949 and showed Snatch to Jimmy Cagney’s audience, well… no one would have stayed past the first act. Movies reflect the times in which they are created. That’s why there’s no point in remaking a movie like Nightmare Alley (which wasn’t even a box office success in its own time). Our time is better spent looking for new reflections in our own golden eye rather trying to reach back to past successes.
Okay, I’ll be honest. This whole post was about how pissed I am that Michael Bay tried to reboot the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. That property is very near and dear to me and I hope he gets an unusually aggressive form of testicular cancer.
One of the problems with reading about the addictions of your heroes is that you stand a very good chance of getting infected yourself. For instance, you might read a memoir by a guy who got a little too obsessed with consuming movies and come away with a whole list of movies you feel compelled to see.
My psychic burden from reading Silver Screen Fiend doesn’t appear to be too bad, at least at the outset, I don’t think. I’m reading Clark Ashton Smith, one of those authors I knew in my gut I should read but assumed would be dripping with that 19th century purple prose I find so taxing. That’s not too far off the mark, his prose is far more dense than what we think of as the modern style, but it’s actually kind of beautiful.
The first story was so lyrical — I’m listening to the audio book — that I thought it was a poem placed in the forward for purely thematic purposes.
I have to be honest about something here before we go any further. I’ve always been a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft — in theory. I love his stories and his ideas, but his writing has always been a little too wooden for my taste. That’s what I was expecting from Smith.
That’s not what I got. Instead, I find myself jotting down phrases and similes that are startling in their clarity.
Note: I do this because I live in constant terror I’m going to subconsciously plagiarise something I’ve read. So whenever I come up with a really good line, I check my notes to make sure I didn’t rip it off.
I also jot them down because I want to be able to enjoy them on their own merit. Here’s one I took note of from Oswalt’s book: He was someone who left a noxious fragment behind that led others to evil. That’s something that would fit perfectly into the novel I’m working on so having it on hand both urges me to do better, to reach a little further, and keeps me honest.
IP theft is not a joke. It’s poison to your career and it kills your legacy. Let’s face it, no one not currently trying to roofie a coed wants to be Dane Cook. And speaking of Dane Cook it’s probably time I explained what all the hubbub is about with that guy. Or maybe not. This post is going to be long even without a proper excoriation of the alleged joke thief. So let’s just push it to another day.
And now back to our regularly scheduled program…
The other tenebrous hook Oswalt’s book sunk into my pasty, willing flesh was a movie called I Wake Up Screaming. The title hints at something Karloff might have done during his heyday, one of the overlooked gems like The Devil Commands — which I just obsessively added to my Netflix queue and pushed to the top because now that I’ve thought of it, I have to see it again — but it’s actually a film noir starring Victor Mature who turns out to be a much better actor than I remember.
The problem: I went through a film noir addiction ten years ago when I settled down to write The Vengeance Season. The idea was that if I was going to get into that mindspace, I would need to truly submerge myself in the era and the zeitgeist and film noir seemed like the best sensory deprivation tank for the job.
I got around to seeing all the classics — The Killers, Criss Cross, Out of the Past (who knew that the 1984 movie I loved so much at the time, Against All Odds, was a remake of this classic noir that was even better? Not me until I finally saw it), Touch of Evil (which I don’t think really counts as a Noir), Night and the City, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity… okay, so the list is too long to enumerate here so let’s just take it as read that I watched all of them multiple times with and without the commentary track.
Except for I Wake Up Screaming which is one of the best. In and of itself, it’s a strange thing, but however off kilter it feels, it works just the same. It’s like two movie productions got together to make two different movies, one a romantic comedy with Betty Grable and the other a gritty murder mystery with Victor Mature. You wouldn’t think the result would be anything more than an odd mishmash but it actually comes out as a super hybrid that succeeds on both sides.
Plus, Laird Cregar. If you don’t know that name, go watch this movie now and then listen to the commentary. Nuff said.
But the existence of I Wake Up Screaming raises a terrible, almost unbearable question for an obsessive completist: If this one is out there and I didn’t know about it, what others have I missed?
So now I’m quietly filling up my Netflix queue with titles off of Best Noir lists even though I have given up crime writing and no longer have a reason to see these movies. Except that they’re, you know, great.
Oh, look, here’s one with Bogart. In A Lonely Place. I’ll give that one a try. It sounds fun.
See you guys in… a… while, I guess? I’m going to be kind of busy for the foreseeable future.
Here’s another one with Bogart: They Drive By Night. Into the queue it goes.
How long could it possibly take to see every movie in the film noir category and jot down every quotable line in the script? Cool, here’s one from I Wake Up Screaming: I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.
Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Not to point out the obvious, but I have not come around here for a while, what with being taken by the fever dream of finishing the big fantasy novel. I imagine this is a thing unique to writing a novel. You get to the point where you can see the finish line and suddenly you just pick up the pace and start working on it to the exclusion of all else.
And then one day, covered in sweat and gore and your mind reeling with the terrible thing you’ve done, you stand back and realize it’s alive. ALIVE!
I had ideas for other blog posts during the time I was lost in the darkness. I would sometimes write them out completely in my head but I never actually typed them up. All writing for the last 90 days has been jealously dedicated to finishing the novel.
And now I’m done! God, it’s such an… awful, awkward feeling. Is this what it’s like for marathon runners? When they cross the finish line, heaving and vomiting, is their first thought, “But what am I going to do now?” Somehow, I doubt it.
I had the idea for this book as a kind of side thought on a long road trip. It wasn’t anything special, just the notion that I had always been a fan of Lovecraft but had never written anything in that universe. I tossed the idea around in my head for a while but nothing really came of it until that tornado nearly destroyed Moore, Oklahoma in 2010. And then an image for the opening scene of the novel popped into my forebrain and I’ve been obsessed with the idea ever since.
This book has been with me through seven drafts over the course of five years. During that time, I wrote a complete other novel that I couldn’t get anyone at any agency to read much less consider (just because it could be misread to be rabidly anti-Christian even though it’s not), and wrote a dozen short stories, some of which I really like, and published my four crime novels.
Both of my daughters moved away from home in that time, one to LA and one to OKC, and my beloved shorthaired pointer Charlie passed away, something that made me realize Louis CK is absolutely correct when he says the countdown to tragedy begins the moment you bring a pet home. And even though I resolved not bring home any more ticking timebombs of tragedy, three months later, Libby the Border Collie came to live with us.
This is why we need a border fence, sheeple.
I also got into an OCD loop with the audio books for 11-22-63 and Ready Player One, basically listening to them over and over until the arrival of the Southern Reach series helped me break out of the loop. The news isn’t all good on the OCD front. I’m now stuck in a loop listening to Patton Oswalt books and albums. This tendency to get stuck used to worry me but I’ve come to understand my OCD well enough over the years that I know to simply look for that next thing that will break me out of it.
And after all of that, I’m not truly, not actually, not completely done. Typing “The End” on that last page just started the four week countdown until I can start the polish draft. What can you do in four weeks? Write some short stories, I guess, but I’m so creatively drained it’s not like ideas are leaping out of my head.
The need to work on something every day remains with me and if I don’t obey that need, I feel the stinging, unhappy presence of incompleteness that all true obsessives know well. But now that the novel is finished, that feeling of disappointment is laced with the thinnest threads of relief. It’s not like the damned thing will un-write itself. Even if I get hit by a bus tomorrow (yeah, like I would be anywhere near a bus) the book has been written. I can check that one off the imaginary list.
Oh, speaking of damned things: If you’ve never read The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce, you should do that right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
And… while I’m at it. If you haven’t binge watched Mick Garris’s Showtime series The Masters of Horror you should do that, as well. Like any anthology series, the quality is hit and miss but when they strike gold — as in The Fair Haired Child, Cigarette Burns, Incident On and Off a Mountain Road and Jenifer (Also, Steven Weber’s commentary track for Jenifer is pure comedy gold) among others — they mine that sucker for all it’s worth.
I want to try to read Heart of Darkness again during the break even though I find Conrad’s ESL writing style to be truly repellent, but I’ll probably spend the time watching old noir films and hanging out at Trailers From Hell — mostly to get ideas for new films to watch — because, more than anything, the fallow time after completing a novel is meant to be a period of rest for your imagination.
Wish me bon appetit!
Style is a funny thing. When you start out, you write like your current favorite author. I still remember with some embarrassment my Hemingway phase (I think all writers go through this) when I actually tried to follow his advice and start the day with a shot of whiskey Don’t do this, by the way. It was terrible advice. I also wrote lots of short sentences (“He went to the river. The river was there.”) and had lovers talk asynchronously as if they weren’t in the same conversation.
I was very fortunate to have a creative writing professor tell me very gently that it was perfectly normal to ape someone else’s style while you were finding your own but a bad thing to make a permanent habit.
It was good advice but I’ve always been a bit leery of his belief that style would come to you in time. I think it was always there, like a natural force pushing me toward writing the words I felt comfortable with. Maybe a better way to describe it is as an internal need to use my own words instead of someone else’s.
So when I started putting little homages to Kurt Vonnegut in my stories, they naturally worked their way out in rewrites when I used my own language. The same thing happened in my Heinlein phase and my Herbert phase and so on. I kept coming back to my own style because that was what felt right to me.
The problems that took me so long to overcome were subject matter and character development. I remember sitting at a traffic light in Leesburg, Virginia just fuming about my latest attempt at a novel. I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know what was wrong with it. I could read it and it sounded fine but there was something about that story that rang false like bad key on an otherwise perfectly tuned piano.
I wish I could explain how I came to the conclusion that my characters were cardboard cutouts but it literally struck from the blue. The light turned green and I suddenly couldn’t wait to get home and start another draft. I was mad for the work and wrote like I had a devil on my shoulder. Tellingly, the new draft came out twice as long as the first.
A few days into the process I got a call from an agent to whom I’d sent the earlier, skinnier version. She was enthusiastic but had some qualms. I cut her off by saying, “I know, it’s the characters. I’m working on it right now.” Three weeks later I sent her the new manuscript and she signed me right away, going on and on about how much the readers had liked it and how they were all going on about how it was going to be a big hit.
As for subject matter, that’s a much more humbling story but not a unique one. The first time I knew I wanted to be a writer was while watching the movie “20 Million Miles To Earth” on Saturday morning in fourth grade. As soon as the movie was over, I wrote my first ever short story, which, oddly enough, turned out to be a retelling of the movie.
I’ve spoken before about the wall of science fiction paperbacks we had in the house. No matter where we moved, and we moved a lot, I had access to a full library of science fiction from Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein to Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny and even some Harlan Ellison thrown in for good measure. Fifth through eighth grade I was never without a book.
I read constantly and always science fiction or fantasy or crime, but when it came time to write my first novel I was frankly ashamed of my obsession with genre fiction. That shame pushed me to write mainstream stories that weren’t very good, mostly because I wasn’t using my language. And then I flat couldn’t come up with anything to write about because my head was full of the God Emperor of Dune, not a troubled marriage in Scarsdale.
So I basically gave up on writing for a long time, a hiatus that ended when I decided to do what I loved and started writing science fiction, fantasy, and crime novels for fun and absolutely no profit. I did get an editor to offer me a contract with that first mainstream novel but I wasn’t happy with writing again until I went full genre.
Good writing comes from honesty. If you can’t even be honest with yourself about what you like to write, you’re in for some pain.
I’ve notice something about the short fiction I’m writing: Trying to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end that is populated by lots of well crafted characters in less than eight thousand words is a losing proposition. Once you get done cutting on the backside to meet the word count limits imposed by editorial policy, all you have left is the version of the story as it would be recounted by a hyperactive seventh grader.
“He goes into the thing and it’s all, like, boom! But he’s on the thing, the ship or whatever, and then POW! but the lasers miss and he’s, like, running, and then he gets away. Oh, and he bangs the hot blonde at the end.”
Now that I think about it, that describes every Bond movie ever made.
This drove me crazy for a little bit because I was really chasing my tail trying to get these big stories cut down to magazine appropriate bite size pieces and then I found some flash fiction I had written about ten years ago and it basically set me free.
In just 830 words, this piece evoked a world of ruin, a post-apocalyptic wasteland bedraggled by a lack of faith populated by people who cannot die. I love all four pages of this story not for the plot or the characters but for the world it implies exists just outside its margins.
Short stories, especially in the fantasy and speculative fiction genres, are always going to be more about style than plot. And that’s kind of funny because novels in both of those genres are routinely criticized for being too oriented toward events and not enough toward relationships and personalities.
One of the greatest examples of this is the movie Vanishing Point. On the surface — and this movie is almost all surface — there’s a guy trying to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in less than 15 hours. And just based on that business, the movie is a massive success. But it’s also an anti-war anti-Nam movie. That’s the greater world it exists in.
And which movie is its most likely logical successor? Mad Max. Think about about the larger world implied in that movie. George Miller doesn’t bother to scroll paragraphs of back story across the screen to tell you why the world is as messed up as it is. Or does he? I actually can’t remember now but even if he did, it was probably the studio who made him do it. You could get by with the few hints.
One of the greatest “implied world” movies of all time is Blade Runner. If you read the Philip K. Dick story (which isn’t very good) you know that Earth has been depopulated because all the quality people have fled for the colonies. So the world is populated by just the 4F candidates who couldn’t pass the most minimal entrance exam. You would also understand, though I don’t think it’s ever stated straight out, that the reason everyone left was that the world had been ruined by pollution.
What with all the mass extinctions of even common animals — due to the aforementioned pollution — actual, biological pets have become rather rare. So rare that owning them is against the law. The fact that biological humans cannot legally own biological animals is the genesis of both the title of Dick’s story (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Deckard’s question about the owl in the movie.
“Is it real?” Deckard asks. On one level, you have to answer, “Of course, it’s not real.” Because everyone would go to jail if it were. But Rachel’s response also has to do with the definition of the word “real.”
They never get into it. A couple of wise old scientists don’t sit around a futuristic space table and discuss the impact of artificial humans on a dying planet. All of that is implied.
So my feeling is that I’ve done a good job if I’m able to tell a story in 8,000 words (or better yet 4,000 or 400) that implies a world that could only be described in 80,000 words. In other words, if I could write an entire novel to fill out the implications of a short story, I’ve done my job — as long as I’ve entertained the reader and expanded their internal universe a little bit in the process.
Just a quick check-in to say that I finished my first short story since deciding to devote the near future to that arcane art. Finished proofing it tonight and sent it to my first readers for feedback. This is the fastest I have ever turned around a story. Hopefully, it signals an end to my troubles with the form.
Part of the reason I’ve been so productive lately has to do with reading these biographies of great SF writers. I started with Heinlein, moved onto Vonnegut and am now reading Becoming Ray Bradbury. Something about the struggles even the greats go through (Heinlein living in an Airstream counting out pennies to buy food, Vonnegut’s entire life) reminds me that it’s not supposed to be easy.
But another thing that helps when you listen to writers talk about writing: You remember that your story is supposed to be about something. I’ve been hitting this particular steel drum a lot lately, but it’s almost as important as remembering to put on pants every day.
If someone asks you what your story is about and you respond by telling them the plot, you’ve missed something. Actually, you’ve missed the whole thing. This is why Michael Bay will always be a hack no matter how much money he makes and all the cool directors will laugh at him behind his back. His movies aren’t about anything.
Answering the question, “What’s it about?” has provided me with a lot of “What if” scenarios that all stand a good chance of becoming stories. Because good stories are about characters and their actions in extreme circumstances. For Heinlein, stories were about the way a man lives and dies. For Vonnegut, they were about the tragedy of the human condition. For Bradbury… I don’t know, I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet, but if I pull from memory, I would venture they were about the magic of real life.
Okay, that’s it for now. I’ve got writing to do.