Here We Go Again…

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?




The Legacy of Black Mask

I heard something the other day that turned my head around full on Exorcist style: Dashiell Hammett said that he based the character of Nora Charles on his lover Lillian Hellman.  That’s like saying Betty Boop was based on Dorothy Parker.  Don’t get me wrong, one of my favorite movies is The Thin Man – that movie had a lot to do with getting me hooked on writing in the first palce – and I’ve always harbored a secret crush on Nora Charles but can you honestly imagine her saying, “Belief is a moral act for which the believer is to be held responsible.”

And this is the problem with genre fiction.  Very often a woman like Hellman, a successful playwright, author and aggressive left wing idealist, gets translated into an adorable dingbat like Nora Charles on her way to the page.  You certainly don’t have to scratch very deep in Chandler’s work to find the misogyny.  Just look at the difference between the book and the movie of The Big Sleep.

In the book, there is no love story between Marlowe and Vivien Rutledge.  She’s just another conniving, manipulative woman.  As a female in a Chandler novel, that’s about the best you can hope for.  Otherwise, if not mentally incompetent, you’re either a mannish ice queen or a ruthless killer.  I even winked at this in The Vengeance Season by having one character start out as the mannish ice queen and work her way through the other phases until she ends up a mental incompetent.

It sounds like I’m bagging on Chandler, but I’m really not. The first time I read The Big Sleep in college it was like lightning snapped through my synapses.  Every word on the page elevated what had been a pretty trashy genre to the level of literature.  It was amazing.  It was the first time I didn’t feel guilty for wanting to write genre fiction.  And that misogyny did not enter detective fiction through Chandler.  It was already well established by the time he came along and it continued on long after he died.

Watch Out of the Past or The Killers or especially Double Indemnity and you get right away why the French added the femme fatale as a critical ingredient in any film noir.  Carry that forward to one of the best faux noir ever made, Body Heat, and you find Matty Walker, the finest example of the vicious, self-serving woman so crucial to these stories.

How do you turn that around?  Frankly, I don’t know that you can remove that character from detective fiction entirely.  There is a portion of the genre’s archetypes that couldn’t function without her.  I had the same problem in The Vengeance Season and could never get rid of her completely.  In the end, I made sure the other two female leads were empowered females not looking to suck the life of the nearest man.  Maybe that’s all we need, some more fully developed characters to balance out the sometimes necessary ugly stereotypes.