Thursday, May 31, 2012

Peter the Cable Guy

Today at Ransom Notes you can check out a conversation I had with Peter Farris whose debut novel Last Call For the Living is ten kinds of must-read nastiness.

I thought that Les Edgerton's Ransom Notes and HBW pieces earlier in the week regarding the lack of accuracy in prison and convict literature would make an interesting lead-in to my covering of Peter's book - as it deals a lot with prison culture (specifically The Aryan Brotherhood). And does so with an authority that's either well-earned or y'know nicely bluffed. I suspect the former. 'Specially, as there are plenny other areas of interest covered nicely.

In fact - here's what Pete had to say 'bout Les's HBW piece:

I really enjoyed Les' post about prison myths. Spotting one from LCFTL (convicts guarding their food), I figure I should defend myself on that one at least. A good friend of mine in law enforcement had observed that habit, at least by some residents of the Cobb County Detention Center here in Georgia. My cop buddy mentioned that the guarding/hovering behavior he'd noticed from time to time wasn't (in his opinion) because a prisoner was worried somebody would steal their food, but rather body language letting everyone know he's intent to mind his own business and expects you to do the same. It's interesting how the culture and slang varies drastically by region and particularly by state, too. Here's a little tidbit I put in the next novel. At CCDC prisoners refer to their little plastic booties/slippers as "Nikes." I just love that shit. 

If Les reads Last Call hopefully he doesn't have a field day looking for false notes. I was fortunate in some respects that my editor had worked with Pete Earley and Malcolm Braly, and also had visited more than a 100 prisons over the years. He had a lot of insight and stories about penitentiary life. 

Also in the Ransom Notes piece he makes a bold assertion that Jack London's The Star Rover is the granddaddy of prison lit. Here, for your completist self are some bonus bits to accompany the Ransom Notes interview.

And where did you study snake-handling?

I have no personal experience with it, but not an hour north from the county I was raised in you can still find small churches where I suspect snake handling is still practiced regularly. Certainly near the Tennessee line and out toward Alabama there are generations of families that worshipped that way and still do. 

I can remember being a kid in 4-H or Cub Scouts and reading one of the Foxfire books that had a chapter on snake handling and just being terrified. Curious, but terrified. That terror struck me again when years ago I thought to visit an address up in Kingston, Georgia where I learned there was a church. But I lost my nerve. It just felt wrong to sit in on a service, an obvious outsider and non-believer to those people, interested only in how he would stage a shoot-out in their place of worship... I'm not a religious or spiritual person, but there's something to be said for worshipping with such reckless abandon, such fervor, where you lose yourself completely in your faith. It might be peculiar and dangerous, but from what I've gathered most believers are searching for personal salvation. I can respect that. 

Not to sound cheesy, either, but I believe I've experienced a similar sensation from my time in bands, especially in the underground metal scene. When you're on stage before a room full of freaks and any sense of self you had just vanishes behind a wall of noise. I could imagine a serpent handler watching me scream and flail and probably remark: "Now that boy is struck by the spirit." 

How about the title? Is that a song reference I'm not getting?

Last Call for the Living was actually the title of a rare 7inch from an old hardcore band from Kansas City called Coalesce...who very much came up in the same scene as my own band Cable. I always thought (even before I got serious about fiction writing) that LCFTL would make a great title for a novel. It seemed to take on added significance once I finished the book, particularly in reference to Charlie and Lang.

There was a recurring motif of finding animals dead of natural causes in the wild. What was going on there?

I really don't know to be honest. Probably my subconscious at work, coupled with a practical concern when it came to characters roaming remote mountain woods. In north Georgia we've got everything from black bear, whitetail deer and coyotes to feral pigs. Chances are you get deep enough into the woods you're going to come across animal remains, shed antlers, bones, etc. If a reader is compelled to give that motif certain significance I'm all for it, and would welcome all interpretations.

Alright - here's my interpretation:

The instances of coming across dead animals in the wild surprise the tenderfoots in the book as well as those among the readership who lead relatively comfortable and insulated lives, I'd bet. Every living thing dies even if left to mind its own business is a fact that nobody but our characters like Hobe Hicklin seem to be aware of. Coupled with a title like Last Call for the Living (time's running out, kids) it all brings about a very Roy Batty Bladerunner vibe "I want more time, fucker... All these moments will be lost in time like..." But before everybody starts tearing up - Life may kill you, but only if your friends or enemies or family don't first - so stay hard - it's last call - belly the fuck up.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Inside Scoop: Les Edgerton's Prison Myths

"They've got a name for people like you, HI, 'recidivism'."
"Repeat offender."
"Not a very pretty name is it, HI?"
"No sir, that's one bonehead name, but that ain't me no more."
"You're not just telling us what we want to hear?"
"No sir. No way."
"'Cause we just want to hear the truth."
"Well then, I guess I am telling you what you want to hear."
"Boy, didn't we just tell you not to do that?"
"Yes sir."
"Okay then."

So, I've the great honor of having a guest piece by the incomparable Les Edgerton both at Ransom Notes and right here at the HBW today. The short of it is, Les's a man who knows of what he speaks and thinks you ought to too. So, after much back and forth on what's wrong with the portrayal in books and movies of prisons, prisoners and prison life, I just asked him to write me a short list of books, films whatever that got it right. Instead, he sent me a list of the reasons he believes that the convict experience is almost never nailed in popfictions (and even nonfiction accounts). 

Later this week I'll be sharing a conversation I had with Peter Farris about his new novel Last Call For the Living and I think I've got some new titles to hit Les with. Stuff like - Pete Early's The Hot HouseThe Black Hand by Chris Blatchford, Fish by TJ ParsellInside: Life Behind Bars by Michael SantosIn the Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry AbottSoledad Brother by George Jackson and False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons by Malcom Braly.  

In the meantime, here's a list of prison myths that make Les howl...
This is where a lot of myths get their birth. Here’s just a few that came from shuck-jobs given reporters.

A. Short eyes will get abused or killed. 

Until reporters started this myth, it wasn’t true in the least. Most guys in the joint could care less if their cellmate abused kids. Many have routinely abused their own kids when they were on the bricks and under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But, some reporter started it when he or she interviewed an imate and this guy said: “Yeah, we hate short eyes. Most of us in here have kids and we think of our own kids when we encounter one of these guys. He’s dead meat.”Well, before this was reported—with the predictable reaction of the public—no one gave a fig. But, this “romanticized” prisoners, made ‘em come across as somewhat human, even noble. Also, there are more than one or two convicts just looking for an excuse to render another inmate room temperature, and this presented a good one. So, life imitated art and now it’s the reality in joints.

B. Cops are dead meat if they get sent up. 

Again, another bogus myth. There are plenty of cops in the joint and most were friends with criminals before they got caught and still are. Many have more friends than anyone else inside. It’s also one of those things where life imitates art, only not to as big an extent as the short eyes thing.

C. There are lots and lots of innocent people in the joint. 

That’s an outright laugh. Even if a person was truly innocent (which occasionally happens, although not nearly to the extent a lot of straights think it does), he would never claim that to fellow prisoners. He’d be perceived as weak and there’d be consequences. But, he will to a reporter, in a New York second. Why? That “hope” thing again. Hope that someone in power will do something to get him out provided he can come up with an convincing sob story. It’s a futile hope, most of the time, but what else does a guy doing life have? And, TV and other reporters keep the hope alive, as once in awhile they do get a guy released. What they don’t report is that most of those publicized events where a guy got cut loose, wasn’t because he was innocent, but that there was some kind of technical or legal problem with his trial or rights that gained his release. The guy was guilty as hell, but it’s reported with the slant that he got released because he was innocent and not because the prosecution handled the evidence wrong or neglected to Mirandize the dude. Check the stats on those released—you’ll find the vast majority weren’t because the guy was innocent but that the state messed up in their trial. The percentage of those released because of their innocence is rather small. Juries and judges really do get it right the vast majority of the time.

Those guys who do TV interviews hurry back to the cellblock afterwards and tell as many as they can that they were just doing a shuck.

D. Most inmates are weight-lifters or psychopaths. 

This is thanks to television “reporting” such as MSNBC’s series on prisons. If one were to believe these shows, just about everyone in the joint is pressing iron or going off in murderous rages against their fellow inmates. One of the baddest dudes I ever knew inside, was a sweet-looking kid of 16, one of the players in the Sylvia Likens case where this kid’s mother and sisters held Sylvia Likens prisoner in the basement and tortured and killed her one summer. The kid-forget his name—ended up as our receptionist in the barber school and every raghead in the joint thought they’d make him their punk. Until he jumped as high as he could to cut a 6’6” weightlifter’s neck. Kid looked like a skinny Ricky Nelson, and if you left him alone, he acted about as sweet and innocent. Just didn’t want his brown-eye messed with. Point is, he was more of a “killer” than any ten dudes with tatts of snakes on their faces or strutting around with pecs like Buicks. Nobody inside pays much attention to those guys or worries about them.

E. You can spot an ex-con in public by the way he crooks his arm around his plate in a restaurant to “guard” it. 

This is one of the funniest ones I’ve ever read in a novel! The author seems to think that in prison mess halls, if you don’t protect your lousy beans, someone is going to steal them. If this guy ever ate a real prison meal, he’d lose this misconception in a nanosecond. Who wants to steal that crap? This one is just plain ludicrous. I suspect this one came about from some ex-con shining on some nosy reporter and the guy took it seriously. I could almost see this one if it was in a northern prison where the inmates mostly haven’t ever tasted good food on the outside, but often it’s put out there as behavior from a southern ex-con and that makes no sense, since the southern ex-con has had food with actual flavor, so why on earth would he want to protect the food he has to eat in the joint?

Check out the rest of Les's piece at Ransom Notes.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Picture Books: James Ellroy

Totally absorbed by Oren Moverman's Rampart over the weekend. Easily the least plot-driven film ever made from source material created by James Ellroy and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm a hardcore Ellroy fan, and I love the spiraling, Byzantine structure of the conspiracy webs that his characters tend to find themselves entangled in, jacked off by and generally absorbed into and shit out of like so many human batteries, but I'd be hard pressed to recall the irresolution of any of his books to you. By their conclusion I'm usually snowblind with amphetamine spiked carnal appetites and buggered by desperately, blind spiritual spelunking thru the human horrorscape of my stand in - sleazy Dave Klein, big Pete Bondurant or brutal Fritz Brown. So, yeah, the situations are interesting, but I'm not particularly driven to dissect them, it's the characters I'm so invested in.

Likewise, Rampart is less concerned with the particulars of the clusterfuck "Date Rape" Dave Brown constructs for himself than with giving us what may well be the last slice of life portrait Dave's got to spare. Woody Harrelson's uncanny physical resemblance to the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction invites us to treat the material as a funhouse mirror self-portrait... which is of course a bullshit option. Ellroy's got a helluva track record of exploiting his darker impulses and obsessions for our entertainments and the more frank he feints at being, the more distorted and fictionalized the pieces become. The openness becomes just another mask the artist hides his true face behind.

Doesn't matter. It's riveting art.

The books are what his legacy will live and die by, but I believe that there's a large enough body of film work now to recognize the writer's (admittedly smudged) fingerprints.

Cop (1988) directed by James B. Harris script by James B. Harris from the novel Blood on the Moon by James Ellroy.

Was there ever an actor better suited to portray an Ellroy cop than James Woods? I dunno. I was awfully disappointed we didn't get the chance to see Nick Nolte give it a go in an adaptation of White Jazz, but I'd say Woods is the most natural selection we've actually seen to date. Believable asshole? Check. Believable tough guy? Check. Capably Charming? Yup. Believable and even sympathetic right-wing nut-job? Who else but Woods could do that so well? The novel Blood on the Moon was the first in Ellroy's Lloyd Hopkins series and while they contained many of what would become classic Ellroy tropes - gruesome slayings of women, fathers of daughters, corrupt-chemically-altered-pussy-hound-oedipally-obsessed-fascists-with-badges we hate to love - in retrospect, they were kid-gloves takes on themes more satisfactorily explored in The L.A. Quartet and Undworld U.S.A. Trilogy.

And perhaps that's why Cop still holds up as one of the better Ellroy-inspired films (it's comparably slight origin material). In the end it's just another slasher vs. cop flick, but it's got that sharper edge of the truly questionable and possibly psychotic cop protagonist as opposed to the simply maverick type that tend to populate this kind of populist fare going for it, plus the terrific Woods who elevates all material he touches.

Since I Don't Have You (1993) directed by Jonathan Kaplan, written by Steven Katz from the short story Since I Don't Have You by James Ellroy.

The criminally short-lived anthology Showtime series Fallen Angels featured stories by the likes of Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Evan Hunter, David Goodis, Bruno Fischer, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, Walter Mosley, Frank E. Smith, William Campbell and Cornell Woolrich adapted for the small screen by badass scribes like Scott Frank and directed by folks like Steven Soderbergh, John Dahl, Phil Joanou and even actors turned directors like the Toms Hanks and Cruise. Generally, it was kick ass shit and the fact that, other than a half-assed VHS release twenty years ago, it's disappeared from the public's grasp is just wrong.

The Ellroy story Since I Don't Have You features Leland "Buzz" Meeks narrating the tale of the time he came between his two masters Howard Hughes and Mickey Cohen whom he served simultaneously as bag-man, pimp and procurer of pornography, pills and poppy by-product. The story (available in the collection Hollywood Nocturnes) sticks out in the Ellroy canon for directly contradicting Meeks' story as told in The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential, but it hardly matters as it gets to the heart of his Los Angeles celebrity-gangster-vice cop vibe with something like three percent of the page count required to go through any entry in his L.A. Quartet.

As episodic television it's also a blast with Gary Busey as Meeks (and James Woods appearing again as Mickey Cohen this time) playing both sides against the middle to locate (what else) a missing woman that (of course) both men have fallen for. No bonus points for guessing what Meeks does.

L.A. Confidential (1997) directed by Curtis Hanson, written by Brian Helgeland, adapted from the novel L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy.

Who'da thunk that the director of Losin' It would be the guy to turn in the most elegant, mature, cynical and all around gorgeous take on Ellroy's material yet? The film is a high mark in the careers of Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger and James Cromwell as well as being the big time launch of faces like Russell Crowe's, Guy Pearce's and Simon Baker's. And when you've dropped names like Danny DeVito and David Strathairn into supporting spots, it can only help. But as visually appealing and well-acted and paced as the film is, I don't think it's possible to over-emphasise the brilliant job done by the script.

The script is perhaps the greatest adaptation achievement I know of - at once getting at the heart of the material while tossing out huuuuge chunks of the book's plot and inventing plot to better serve the medium (film as opposed to novel). Need I say more than Rollo Tomassi? I didn't think so. Helgeland was the go-to guy for crime novel to script adaptations for a good stretch and tho his track record is very uneven (he adapted both Michael Connelly's Blood Work and Dennis Lehane's Mystic River for Clint Eastwood and is responsible for turning Richard Stark's The Hunter into Payback and Payback: Straight Up - two very different films, please, if you haven't seen the latter, do), he's got a lot of goodwill left to burn through for L.A. Confidential.

While Cop benefitted in comparison coming from slighter material, L.A. Confidential, the novel, was a famous artistic turning point for the author. In ambition and scope and density it was previously unparalleled in his work, and to even attempt an exercise in reduction on a lauded beast like this one takes brass balls. To pull off a work of such quality is nearly unheard of. The film stuck to Ellroy's three-pronged protagonist structure, switching the drive between the politically ambitious Edmund Exley, thuggish Bud White and celebrity addicted "Hollywood" Jack Vincennes and worked equally well if treated as a story belonging to any one of them, weaving their distinct drives into conflict and cooperation in a tale of corruption and progress equal to Chinatown.

Brown's Requiem (1998) written and directed by Jason Freeland adapted from the novel Brown's Requiem by James Ellroy.

Ellroy's first novel Brown's Requiem featured alcoholic ex-cop turned repo-man/private detective Fritz Brown taking a tail job from a freak-show caddy that leads him into a swamp of brass knuckles, booze and incest. Another selection from the lower shelves of Ellroy's ouvre, but one that I'm personally a lot more fond of than the Lloyd Hopkins titles, Brown's Requiem still benefits from that relatively low-profile, though not nearly to the degree that Cop does. I'm predisposed to approve of Michael Rooker, but I wish he'd had more to work with here. The low budget (which didn't keep Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer from feeling authentic and relevant) is felt in every aspect from the script to the costumes, but still that nasty edge elevates the straight to DVD release from 'for completists only' to 'don't change the channel if it's on in your hotel' status.

Dark Blue (2002) directed by Ron Shelton, written by David Ayer based on an original screenplay by James Ellroy.

Dark Blue suffered critically and financially from being released theatrically on the heels of Joe Carnahan's similar and superior Narc, but the ultimate failure of this (still better than average) film is it's lack of follow-through with the initial spark that ignites it. Set in 1992 Los Angeles while the city holds its breath in anticipation of a verdict in the case against the four (three white, one hispanic) city cops video-taped beating (black) motorist Rodney King after a high speed pursuit, fore-knowledge of the resulting riots - in which dozens of people lost their lives after the officers were acquitted - infuses the story of selectively-bent cop Eldon Perry's first and final crisis of conscience with a ticking clock tension that's damn near audible. Kurt Russell plays Perry as a confused dinosaur with unfinished business who senses the world turning beneath him and the chapter closing on his days of law enforcement. Perry comes from a dynasty of gun-fighter cops and Russell's previous turn as Wyatt Earp even informs the audience's perception of him - we think we don't mind this guy shooting first.

The always compelling Russell is matched by Brendan Gleeson, Jonathan Banks and Lolita Davidovich, but tonally undercut by the broad antics of Dash Mihok, Kurupt and Scott Speedman's hairdo while Ving Rhames continually strikes a single note of dour righteousness 'til unfortunately and unintentionally the viewer wishes for greater autonomy and a big blind spot for Perry and his kind if the other option is this guy.

Competing sensibilities between an escapist action flick and a blistering drama appear here not for the last time on this list. A better film would have been pitiless in the doling out of consequences for all involved and been less interested in the typical thriller-aspects of the procedural that the plot walks down, but I'm happy to re-watch this one for Russell and that fantastic sub-audible concussion of reckoning coming. Also, as a set piece, the re-created riots are plenty frightening for atmosphere.

The Black Dahlia (2006) directed by Brian De Palma written by Josh Friedman adapted from the novel The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy.

The Black Dahlia marked a significant step forward for Ellroy's craft. At the time, it was his most personal work and his second stab at writing, in a parallel fashion, about the murder of his own mother (Clandestine features a very similar killing). The pairing of Ellroy's psycho-sexual obsessiveness and period pinache with De Palma's track record of kindred material sounded like a match made in Aphrodite's asshole, but yeah, no. Nope. David Fincher was supposedly sniffing 'round this project for a long time with an eye toward turning it into a realllllly long (five plus hour?) feature digging into the dark corners of Dahlia-lore as well as Ellroy's own dark places in an unflinching X or NC-17 rating and while I understand that peoples with monies to invest in film like to see it come back to them, in retrospect it seems petty and small not to have had the balls to follow through with that vision (Fincher moved on to Zodiac when it fell through). A cable mini-series (or shit, web-series now, why the hell not?) has long seemed the natural fit for Ellroy's rich and dense material, but perhaps feeling lightening could strike twice Dahlia was green-lit as a standard approximately two hour feature.

No Rollo Tomassi this time. Instead we end up handing Fiona Shaw the thankless job of delivering the gun-wielding, 'here's how I did it and why' speech like the unenthusiastic third money shot in a tired-ass gang-bang. After that unforgivable sin, the list of comparably lesser transgressions include the Eraserhead-esque dinner scene that serves as an introduction to the Linscott family, changing Lee's death into a De Palma set piece and not making it Michael Caine in drag coming out of the shadows and never letting us feel anybody's obsession.

It's not without it's virtues either. It looks fantastic - so good, it might make an interesting silent film. Really, write a new script and post it over the visuals... (I'd love to do something similar with De Palma's Femme Fatale - re-dub the dialogue in Spanish or French and subtitle that fucker - it would be a more intriguing mess, I suspect). The shootout-discovery of the body sequence is classic De Palma, and I'm always in favor of casting Mia Kirshner. When I heard she was going to be Elizabeth Short I was very pleased. Really, why she's not a huge star is beyond me.

Street Kings (2008) directed by David Ayer written by James Ellroy, Kurt Wimmer and Jamie Moss

So all the stuff I said about Dark Blue could pretty much be said here. In the end the harsh portrait of a bad man trying to do a good job is undercut by more splashy action movie shit we've seen before. Say what you like about Keanu Reeves, I'm not hanging any blame on him for the short comings this time around. If the opening moments of Street Kings are any indication, age - gray up top, a few extra pounds around the middle - may eventually lend Reeves the extra umph his onscreen presence sometimes lacks. I'm not even sending Chris Evans any shit here, but fuckin Cedric The Entertainer does not belong in this picture. And John Corbett? Too many years as a dreamy, sensitive type are working against you, sir. Terry Crewes, Common and Jay Mohr don't step up to Forrest Whitaker's game though he's stuck in an unfortunately transparent role and Hugh Laurie just doesn't have anything to do (though somebody like Noel Gugliemi doesn't have to do anything to make a picture better - that guy is screen presence).

A big disappointment considering Ayer's obvious yen for Ellroy's vibe. Anybody who saw Training Day and Dark Blue back to back would be hard pressed to ignore the effect that working on Ellroy's script must have had on his own. Plus, Ayer's directorial debut Harsh Times showed showcased a knack for slipping some serious hard-edged emotional impact up under your flack jacket. Let's hope that his next writing/directing gig End of Watch delivers on the promise of his earlier work and we get our first unqualified masterpiece from Ayer. Check out the trailer here.
Rampart (2011) directed by Oren Moverman written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman

Moverman's take on Ellroy's material is to scale back the overly familiar thriller aspects, cop talk and social commentary in favor of presenting a character piece and bringing us into conflict with our own wishes while we watch a bad man on his way down. Date Rape Dave Brown has all the classic Ellroy tropes - fucked-up, but earnestly invested-in family life (his ex-wives, the excellent pairing of Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon, whom he has one daughter apiece from and still occasionally sleeps with, are sisters - making his daughters half sisters as well as first cousins - and live together), unapologetically, outspoken un-PC jive that seems less a reflection of any honest convictions than it is a tool he employs to put everyone on the defensive when dealing with him - he's a button pusher, relentlessly digging under your skin so that you won't get under his.

And that's the thing - he's terribly vulnerable. Those most adept at handling his bullshit, (his ex-wives, his children, Ned Beatty's fatherly underworld contact and Robin Wright's romantically conflicted attorney) are capable of rendering him into an exposed nerve of sputtering fear, insecurity and self-loathing.

When a video camera catches Brown employing a little too much enthusiasm in the execution of his duties he finds that he's up for the role of departmental scape-goat in the wake of the titular scandal that has just rocked the district, but Brown isn't about to go down meekly. As each of the plates he's somehow kept spinning for years begin to wobble and he jumps about frantically attentive to each in crisis mode his behavior and decision making devolve and disintegrate quickly.

There's a fantastic sequence near the end of the film depicting Brown pushing his appetites till he's literally sick. He trolls through an underground sex club, shovels copious amounts of food into the gaping void of his face with two greasy hands and washes it down with whiskey for its short stay on the inside before vomiting in an alley and stumbling along the sidewalk amongst other denizens of the night. Couple Harrelson's aforementioned physical similarity to Ellroy, (not to mention Moverman - wtf?) with Ellroy's descriptions of his own unstoppable bingeing episodes and you've got... I dunno exactly what you've got. It's searing, personal and bullshit too, but Rampart would make a great second half to a double feature with one of the more plot-driven thriller pieces made from Ellroy's words. Ice Cube also gets a shout here for the best performance from a rapper in an Ellroy-inspired work.

Here're a few non-Ellroy related flicks that might as well have been.

Narc (2002) written and directed by Joe Carnahan.

How Ray Liotta didn't wind up with a best supporting actor nomination for his turn as Henry Oak, the most Ellroy-esque non-Ellroy cop ever on screen is beyond me. This is a towering performance without ever going over the top, he's got your attention without having to shout and hey, Jason Patric you gave your career best here too, but Liotta's presence fucking made this picture. He just kept layering the character till your loyalties were nice 'n mixed. Ever so slightly came undone in the sequence involving Busta Rhymes, but totally forgiven for the rest of the picture.

Brooklyn's Finest (2009) directed by Antoine Fuqua written by Michael C. Martin

Fuqua's Ayer-penned Training Day already got mentioned in this piece, but I think Brooklyn's Finest, though it takes the cop action out of L.A. is actually more Ellroy-esque. Consider the three cop structure - Don Cheadle's burning out undercover, Ethan Hawke's desperate family man willing to make a play for dirty street cash and Richard Gere's retiring coward don't share a lot of screen time, but converge with some damned tragic results. While the tone isn't as cynical as I tend to think of Ellroy's work as, it gets to that vulnerable, obscured heart on its sleeve and big romantic gestures Ellroy's characters are prone to.

The Shield (2002-2008) created by Shawn Ryan

Keep your Tony Soprano, your Al Swearengen, your Stringer Bell - there's never been a more complex and satisfactorily rendered television anti-hero, pro-antagonist than Michael Chiklis's Vic Mackey. For seven seasons he electrified, terrified and repulsed us. And we still wanted to see him win. The fifth season's fantastic showdown between Mackey and Forrest Whitaker's Kavanaugh was every bit as riveting and complex as Dark Blue and Street Kings never got. I'll be the first to grant that the first season is a little uneven. The characters and tone weren't all locked in yet, but holy hell, the show only improved from there, and the finale remains the single most emotionally satisfying - enraging, heart-breaking, thrilling, sick-making - capstones to a complex long-running show ever. The ambiguities of Rampart's conclusion are allowed to play out in all of their dramatic possibilities here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Insane Clown Posse

Caught  the frenetic over the big-top action of Alex de Iglesia's The Last Circus last week and I'm still mulling it over. No doubt it's as stylishly assured and technically flawless a picture I've seen in a fair bit, but the aggressiveness of the flair this pic has tends to distance me from the emotional content, (which in this case, I suspect is there, lurking beneath a mountain of grease paint, squibs and smoking bullet shells). So, yeah, no problem sitting through it and enjoying the flat-out freaky spectacle, but I'd like to take another pass at it and see if I can connect to the characters more. At it's heart, it's a classic story out of the golden age of film noir - a man falls in love with the tragic woman trapped in an abusive, if sexually exciting, marriage and her tormentor/husband is his tormentor/professional rival. Murderous thoughts give way to murderous actions with the inevitable consequences of altered character and a backfire that sends our 'hero' on a quick downward spiral.

De Iglesia's previous efforts include 800 Bullets and the adaptation of one of my very favorite Barry Gifford novellas Perdita Durango. The film (I've seen it called Perdita Durango as well as Dance With the Devil) holds the distinction of besting The Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men efforts to cast Javier Bardem as a bad man in a silly hairdo.

Of course, it also features Rosie Perez as the titular Durango, which was perhaps more accurate casting than Isabella Rossellini in the role, but Ms. Rossellini all Frida Kahlo'd out in David Lynch's Wild at Heart, holds a special place in my heart. No doubt, Lynch's take on Gifford's material is every bit of aggressively stylized as de Iglesia's, but there's a quicker emotional access to the characters in Lynch's execution for me. And I don't think it's just the repeated viewings I've given Wild at Heart - I think Lynch's hard pushing just knocked me off balance and terrified me more than de Iglesia's did. Still, I'd like to revisit The Last Circus and Dance With the Devil.

I hope it goes without saying that both of the aforementioned Gifford adaptations are no substitute for reading his books. I don't care how many times you've seen Wild at Heart, pick up the book and enjoy the mostly dialogue-driven story, (seriously, you thought The Friends of Eddie Coyle was dialogue-heavy, check this one out). Exorcise Nicolas Cage as Elvis Presley from your memory and let Sailor's voice come from the page. Now you don't have to go hunt down and pick up every hard to find volume of his Sailor & Lula stories as they've been collected in an omnibus. Get this shit, now. There are a handful of books and authors that I pick up when I feel creatively blocked and open to a random page to read for that igniting spark. Gifford's one of em.

While we're on the topic of stylized film adaptations, I'm heading to Chicago for the May 29 screening of Julian Grant's Fuckload of Scotch Tape which he found inspiration for in a couple short stories of mine. I've seen a rough cut of the film and can say that he's taken my material as a launching point for his own fever dream noirsical scored by Kevin Quain. I'm really looking forward to hanging with the cast and crew and being able to give Julian a big ol' kiss. And if you're in Minneapolis this week you can catch Paul von Stoetzel's short film Viscosity on Wednesday. You should. I feel so honored to have such talented film makers adapting my stuff.

Apparently CSI Miami was just cancelled, leaving room for something new and original on network TV! Buuuut, I'm not holding my breath. I'm predisposed to like projects featuring David Caruso, (First Blood, King of New York, Session 9, Mad Dog & Glory, Cold Around the Heart, Jade - even Hudson Hawk) but not even his presence could entice me to tune in for a single episode of that crime-solving monster hit. However this handy little montage helped me understand the whole show.

Last week at Ransom Notes I dropped a few thoughts on the muy excellent The Wowzer by Frank Wheeler Jr. and spun off into an appreciation of Casey Affleck's killer Ford roles - Lou in The Killer Inside Me and Robert in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, which then got me all hot for Andrew Dominik's Jesse James follow up, Killing Them Softly (adapted from George V. Higgins' Cogan's Trade). I've heard a lot of people recently refer to Jesse James as a flawed film, but I think theys off theys rockers. While I'll concede that it's a meandering, dreamy film, I'd say Terrence Malick's are too and you need to hit 'em in the right mood, but damn this one'll hit you back. And talk about your dream fucking casts - aside from Affleck and Brad Pitt, this flick gives you Sam Shephard, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Schneider, Mary Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, and even fuckin' Nick Cave (yup, now I'm thinking about Lawless again).

I'd love to be able to compare it to Ron Hansen's novel, but I'm afraid I haven't read it. I have read Hansen's Desperadoes though, and if his Jesse James is on par with that western, I'll love it when I get to it. You hear me Cortright McMeel?

You know what else that movie had going for it? One of the most brilliantly executed gun fights ever. You know the one I mean - between Renner, Schneider and Affleck. Holy crap, that was intense. Racking my brain now to come up with a few more in books or film that have hit me like that one. Hmmm... Sticking with westerns for the hell of it, I'd say the climactic battle and easily the highlight of Dwight Yoakam's curious South of Heaven, West of Hell, perhaps the big number in Ed Harris's Appaloosa and how about Slim Pickens getting his in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Non-westerns include just about the polar opposite, but equally real-feeling outside the bank shootout from Michael Mann's Heat, or how about anything from Dennis Tafoya's books Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park or the showstopping mayhem in a snake-handling Pentecostal service in Peter Farris's Last Call For the Living? I've been thrilled by plenty of well choreographed and edited shoot-outs, but these stand out to me as frightening put-you-inside-the-action pieces worthy of mention.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Hate Male

Hey Minnesota you wanna see Paul von Stoetzel's short film Viscosity based on my short story of the same name? Well, you can catch it for frees on the larger than average screen. Here's the PSI:

Our filthy short film VISCOSITY will be screening at IFPMN's Cinema Lounge Wed May 16th. The event is the 3rd weekend at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater. If you want to mock, ridicule or ask the questions you've pondered regarding this degenerate piece of work there will be a Q & A with director Paul von Stoetzel following the screening.

He said he's a bit anxious about answering questions about the film at the Q&A and even that the film, which screened earlier at Z-Fest and apparently inspired some 'feminist hate mail' which makes me more than a little bit happy. Finally, somebody cares enough about something I had a (cough) hand in to express their passion in printed words.

Also screening in May is Julian Grant's ambitious noir-sical Fuckload of Scotch Tape inspired by a couple stories of mine. It's a cast and crew screening in Chicago May 29 - but hey, it's a screening. FLOST'll be making the festival circuit this year and I'll announce any dates I hear on opportunities to catch it... like a virus. Know what else you might find catching? Kevin Quain's soundtrack. I'd love to see this one with an audience.

Over the weekend I got my nerd on and jumped at the chance to meet Jason Aaron who signed some Scalped for me at Star Clipper Comics on Free Comic Book Day. Then I read Peter Farris's Last Call For the Living yesterday and I'll be asking him a few questions about it soon for the bloggedy, but lemme just kill any suspense I've just introduced and whole-heartedly endorse the hell out of that shit. Nasty bit of bank robbing, snake handling, Aryan Brotherhood crossing, head stomping, foot smashing, cat killing, hostage fucking fiction. Go sell badass somewhere else, we're all stocked up here.

In the wake of Matt Kindt's Spinetingler Award win for his Noir at the Bar cover, I'll take this opportunity to spread the word about the next book. Yeah, 'cause we're such suckers for punishment, Scott Phillips and I will be publishing yet another volume of nasty short fiction from the annals of N@B, tentatively titled Nair at the Barrio (no, it's not). In the next couple weeks I'll be diving further into the submissions, but holy crap, brace yourself for Jane Bradley's harrowing piece about drugs, sex and violence and John Rector's gag reflex triggering story of the worst episode of Rachael Ray ever. Also, those of you who weren't there will find out where all the Aaron Michael Morales 'pube' jokes come from, Caleb J. Ross's tale of odd collectibles and marital discomfort will make you double check your sneer, while Nic Young and Jason Makansi offer up adultery from a couple different angles and Kevin Lynn Helmick's James M. Cain love-letter ought to have you good and ready for The Cocktail Waitress.

Finally, I'd like to address the rumor that I only own one shirt...

With Sara J. Henry, Scott Phillips and Frank Bill.

With Mr. Bill and Duane Swierczynski

Wearing it beneath the shirt coat next to Daniel Woodrell.

At the bar with Thomas Pluck, Cameron Ashley, Keith Rawson, John Kenyon and Frank Wheeler Jr. I like how Frank and I look like mirror images of bearded, plaid-shirt-wearing, fist-pumping gargoyles in this shot.

Uh, pretty much. One shirt. And it's just about worn out. Looking for a replacement.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Nethers Tingling

Over at Ransom Notes I got a bit into the differences between last weeks' Edgar award winners and the Spinetingler Award noms and how this year there was zero overlap. Then Spinetingler goes ahead and announces its winners today and showed some love for N@B folks. Thanks to everybody at Spinetingler and everybody who voted and most of all everybody who got themselves down to one of our  disreputable events. You rock.

The results: Best Cover winner - Matt Kindt for Noir at the Bar (Lawrence Block deserves a piece of this honor too - as well as congratulations on his own win for Best Novel: Legend with A Drop of the Hard Stuff). Hey, Kindt's brand new comic Mind Mgmt, hits stands later this month. Pick it up.

Best Short Story on the Web winner - David James Keaton for Either Way it Ends With a Shovel from Crime Factory, plus nominees Matthew C. Funk and Hilary Davidson

Best Novel: Legend - nominee Les Edgerton for The Bitch

Best Novel: Rising Star winner - Anthony Neil Smith for All the Young Warriors, plus John Rector for Already Gone

Thanks again.

Just started J.J. Connolly's Viva La Madness, the sequel to Layer Cake and it's got me kinda jazzed on Brit crime shits. I was a bit confused when I first saw there was another book coming that was a continuation of his nameless protagonist's story as those who've read Layer Cake (as I admit - I have not, but probably should) or seen Matthew Vaughn's film (which I have - a couple of times) will remember - there are very good reasons for thinking that his story is... um, over. It's not. He's trying to live it up in Barbados now. Failing, but trying. I admit further that when I read the synopsis it brought to mind that scene from The Three Amigos where Joe Montegna explains the failure of the most recent Amigo film Those Darn Amigos "Nobody went to see it because nobody cares about three wealthy Spanish land owners on a weekend in Manhattan. We strayed from the formula and paid the price." Well, I don't think Viva La Madness is gonna be Those Darn Amigos by a long shot. In fact, it's got me pretty good. I'm finding myself popping in flicks like The Long Good Friday, Get Carter, Sexy Beast, The Limey, Gangster No. 1, Mona Lisa, and even Down Terrace - a seriously subversive genre picture from Ben Wheatley. (Read more at Ransom Notes)Peter Dragovich wrote 'bout Wheatley's latest Kill List over at the Crime Factory blog and man oh man, I can't wait to see it. It's gonna fuck me up, I think.

Speaking of fucked up - man, when Dave Keaton recommends you take a moment to read a story that'll do that, you can trust his judgement. On his say so, I checked out John Everson's story Mouth from the Cheryl Mullenax edited anthology The Death Panel, and... heh, yeah, fucked up. So far, I've also read stories in that book from Keaton, Fred Venturini and Tom Piccirilli - based on those selections, it's a kick-ass horror/crime collection.

Saw the trailer for the new John Hillcoat movie Lawless with Shia the beef and Tom Hardy, and I gotta say it looks like nothing so much as Young Guns in prohibition. But that shouldn't be a slight. I hold a real special place in my heart for, hell, for both Young Guns pics, and I don't care who knows it. Lawless doesn't look to have anywhere near the weight of Hillcoat's previous films, but then those were written by a coupla blokes you may've heard of before: Nick Cave (The Proposition) and Cormac McCarthy (The Road), and wait... what's this? Cave wrote the screenplay for this one too (based on Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World)? Oh holy fuck, I'm in. Alright, I mean, you should never judge a film by its trailer anyhow, right? Hell, look at that cast - Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska. At the very least this one'll be a shit ton better than Richard Linklater's own Young Guns rob banks picture The Newton Boys, right?