Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Edgerley Gates. Show all posts

09 October 2019

Capt. Blood



Captain Blood, famously, made Errol Flynn a star. It was the first of nine features Flynn did with Olivia de Havilland, and one of twelve with director Michael Curtiz. Flynn and de Havilland got along fine - she admitted the chemistry and spiked the rumors of a romance - but after a six-year run, ten of the twelve pictures delivering big box office, Flynn and Curtiz cordially loathed each other.



My own opinion is that the pictures Flynn made with Raoul Walsh in the 1940's are better movies, by and large, the best example being Gentleman Jim, but if not for the Curtiz swashbucklers, Flynn wouldn't have made it to the A-list. Curtiz was an awful bastard, by most accounts, but he brought home the bacon. Casablanca won Best Picture, and six of his other movies got nominated. He directed Cagney and Joan Crawford to Oscars, out of ten nominations overall for his lead actors.

Andrew Sarris, whose critical opinions I generally admire, feels that Curtiz had no genuine personality, as a director, that he basically ground out sausage, and that Casablanca was a happy accident, a sort of rebuttal to to the auteur theory, where the exception proves the rule. I'd beg to differ. If you say the director is in his pictures, then okay, Curtiz made an awful lot of crap. On the plus side, along with Casablanca, we've got White Christmas and Yankee Doodle Dandy. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, the original Wax Museum. Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Angels with Dirty Faces. Eddie Robinson and Garfield in The Sea WolfMildred Pierce, Young Man with a Horn, We're No Angels, and The Breaking Point ain't too shabby, either.


Curtiz was Hungarian.  He spoke five languages - "all of them badly," his son later remarked. Born a Jew in Budapest, he changed his birth name from Kaminer to Kertesz when he was nineteen, working in an acting troupe that crossed Europe. Kertesz was more ethnically Hungarian, in the anti-Semitic climate of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. He began directing theater, and directed Hungary's first feature film, in 1912. He was also on the Hungarian national fencing team that year, in the Olympics. When the war came, he served in the army. He was wounded, and invalided out. He went back to the movies, and spent seven years learning the trade. He caught the attention of Warner Brothers in 1926, and by the time he went to Hollywood, he'd already made sixty-odd pictures.  He was 39 years old.

This story, familiar in some ways, is framed by larger political imperatives, Kati Marton puts it in context with her terrific book The Great Escape (2006), subtitled Nine Hungarians Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. The nine are Curtiz and Alexander Korda, Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz, and Arthur Koestler, for the arts, with Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neuman, for the sciences. I highly recommend it.



I'm belaboring the point, which is that where Andrew Sarris sees Curtiz spreading himself too thin, I see industry, ambition, restlessness and insecurity. Sarris regards him as sausage-maker - and in fact Warners maintained two individual film crews for Curtiz, one for the picture he was actively shooting, one for the picture he was prepping next - and I think it reveals an obsessive. There's for example the story that Curtiz grabbed for a notebook to write down a sudden idea, forgetting that he was driving at the time, and ran himself off the road.

I see Curtiz the refugee, the stranger, running in place to catch up, afraid something or someone is catching up with him. The upstart Jewish kid from Budapest, trying to break into pictures, and never quite gaining the confidence it won't all be snatched away. Curtiz in high dudgeon, with David Niven the target: "You think you know fuck everything and I know fuck nothing, but let me tell you, I know fuck all." This is not a guy who thinks he stands on rock, he's afraid he stands on sand. 



Sarris admits Curtiz has vigorous technique, but he doesn't believe Curtiz has a theme. I couldn't agree less. No, Curtiz isn't Walsh, he doesn't have the muscularity, and he for sure isn't Anthony Mann, another exile, who inhabits the true fury of separation, but what Curtiz brings to the game is an intimacy, set inside the bigger canvas, a larger scale. In his better pictures, Curtiz reveals himself to be trapped, isolated, estranged. Bogart, in Casablanca, says, "Nobody ever loved me that much."

25 September 2019

It Rained All Night the Day I Left


David Edgerley Gates


I've been thinking lately about the diminution, or devaluation, of language. Degradation, even, not too strong a word. The calculation being that it doesn't matter, that precision or accuracy is irrelevant, and we're just a bunch of persnickety snobs, who condescend to honest folk and treat them like knuckle-dragging hillbillies, that never had no book-larnin', and get things all twisted around with fancy words and high-falutin' airs.

I'm obviously thinking, too, that this is connected to our present culture of false or competing narratives - conspiracy theories, in effect. Bad money drives out good. The counterfeit devalues honest weight.


There was a time, not that long ago, when a guy like Albert Einstein inspired respect. ("How does it feel to be the smartest man in the world?" somebody asked him. "I don't know," he said. "You should ask Tesla.") An athlete or a war hero, sure, but Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, the NASA team that put us on the moon, an American novelist winning the Nobel. We admired their skill, and tenacity, and sheer will. We took pride in their intellect. All of a sudden, this is suspect, and we're not supposed to trust the weatherman. Not an exact science, admittedly, but more informed than reading the entrails of chickens.

Maybe this is an odd complaint from a writer of fictions, but to be convincing, fiction depends on exact detail. If you get one thing wrong, it casts doubt on all the rest. Not to mention Twain's enduring advice: use the right word, not its second cousin. 


So if you take this inexactness, and fold it in with false narrative, you get a kind of Stalinist double-talk. "Our brave soldiers are moving ever forward," or "Our fervent comrades of industry are exceeding all expectations," and pay no mind to the NKVD machine guns behind our brave soldiers, to shoot slackers, or the bazillion shoes made to fit left feet. Facts become transactional, in the sense that they're negotiated. We agree on a shared reality, the least common denominator. (Or is that the most?)

The question then becomes, what's lost, in the exchange? As language gets dulled, it conveys less. Misuse makes it less useful. Without precision, it's at the same time less resonant. It slips its moorings, cast adrift.


Now, in France - I know, this sounds like the opening line of a comedy routine, the same crowd that regards Jerry Lewis as an auteur - the French answer to an Academy, which guards against barbarisms, like social media or cell phone jargon imported from les Etats Unis. Good luck with that one. But it reminds me that my grandmother, all these many years back, wrote a letter to R.J. Reynolds, complaining about their advertising slogan, 'Winston Tastes Good, Like a Cigarette Should.' And she actually got a very courteous response. Apparently enough people were offended by the use of 'like,' instead of 'as,' that corporate assigned a team to answer the complaints. The answer, in effect, was that they were dumbing it down. This was advertising, not Freshman English. It simply sounded better to the naked ear. My grandmother was having none of it. A longtime educator, she wasn't in the least mollified. She was fluent in French, too, although to my knowledge she never saw a Jerry Lewis picture. 

English as a language, of course, develops through usage and accretion, much like English common law, established by precedent and convention, not by fiat. There is no ruling body, the Chicago Manual of Style notwithstanding, to lay down the law one way or the other, or settle the dispute over the Oxford comma. But it's disheartening, all the same, to see language disrespected - or more to the point, dismissed. I'm not that much of a grammar Nazi, although I do think spelling counts, and I'm overly fond of the semi-colon, but what distresses me is that the dismissiveness, the act of not caring, seems symptomatic of a larger contempt for expertise, for informed debate. Somebody, maybe from the CDC, commented about the anti-vaxxers, "Science is just another voice in the room." In other words, everybody gets equal time, no matter that common sense calls bullshit. 


I'm well aware that I could be accused of falling into a You-Kids-Get-Off -My-Lawn thing, and that what I'm saying is by definition elitist, but that's the whole damn point. When language loses coherence, when it loses exactness, it loses utility. You can't share an agreed-upon reality if you can't even describe it. Is this political? Of course it is. The politics of language is about ownership. If we surrender ownership, we lose the gift of speech itself.  

11 September 2019

The Disappeared


David Edgerley Gates


I wrote a story a couple of years back called "A Multitude of Sins," that got left out in the rain for a while, and eventually appeared in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock. But how the story worked its way from the back row to the front seats illustrates something about our writing habits, and squirreling away the odd detail.


"A Multitude of Sins" is about the serial unsolved murders of women in Ciudad Juarez, the so-called feminicidio, which has been going on for the past fifteen years or so, or perhaps more to the point, since the establishment of the maquiladoras along the border. If you don't know what I'm talking about, the maquiladoras are an enterprise culture, factories established on the Mexican side, by American corporate, what they produce exempt from duties and tariffs. The idea, not in itself a bad one, is to provide jobs and raise income levels. If you consider that girls form the countryside might previously have spent a few years in the whorehouses of Villa Acuna or Piedras Negras, this seems like a better deal, or at least disease-free. It might remind us of the New England mills, early in the 19th century, when they recruited young female labor from the local farms, and put them up in dorms, and sent them home afterwards with a nest egg. Assuming they didn't lose a finger or an eye to the heavy machinery.



The problem here, and you can see the punchline coming, is that the girls crowding in to work at the maquiladoras develop the characteristics of a herd of wildebeest, and the predators wait in the tall grass to pick off the weak, the newborns, the stragglers. Four thousand deaths, by some accounts. Hard to write it off as a statistical blip.


So, not focusing on this, just having it in the background, my peripheral vision, I run across a story about bones being dug up at a building site west of Albuquerque. Dead girls, it turned out, maybe a dozen of them. Best guess, a window of four years, they were buried out there. Dental records identify some of them as reported missing by their families. They were in the life - they were users, they were hookers. You can see where I'm going with this. They were picked off when they fell behind. 


But the murders stopped. This graveyard had a start time, and a cut-off. What happened? Maybe the guy was doing time. Maybe he died. Maybe, my reptile brain suggested, he left town. He went to more fertile ground, where dead girls weren't even being noticed. What put this in mind was a series of portraits, an exhibit by the artist Erin Currier. She did a show of imaginary pictures, this is who these women were, these dead women in Juarez. They had names, they had moms and dads, they had ambitions, they had audacity. They had their own interrupted memories.


I'm thinking, wait one. There's a way to use this. Not to trivialize it, but a way to tell a story. And so I did.

Erin Currier at Blue Rain Gallery, in Santa Fe. Opening on Friday, 09-13
Erin Currier's website
http://erincurrierfineart.com/


All images copyright Erin Currier 


28 August 2019

Red Dawn


David Edgerley Gates


Red Dawn was released 35 years ago this August. I think it's aged pretty well. The silly stuff is just as silly as it was back then, and the good parts still hold up.

If you don't know the premise, here it is: Russia invades the U.S. Proxy forces from Cuba and Nicaragua come boiling up the middle of the country, between the Rockies and the Mississippi, the Soviets reinforce across the Bering Strait and down into the Great Plains. Caught by surprise, small pockets of resistance spring up, and in a small Colorado town, a bunch of high school kids learn evasion and ambush techniques, and take the fight to the occupying troops. If it all sounds faintly ridiculous, it is.


The writer/director John Milius got raked over the coals for what was widely seen as a Red-baiting, loony Right fantasy, but in spite of the fact that Gen. Al Haig loved it, Red Dawn is deeper than it seems, at first blush. It's not really about Colorado teenagers at all. To me, it was obvious from the get-go that Milius was making a picture about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the kids were stand-ins for the mujahideen.


Aside from that, or in spite of it, or any and all of the above, I'm always drawn in by the sheer exhilaration of the movie-making. Once you swallow the set-up, the rest of it is inevitable, fated and austere. It's beautifully shot, by Ric Waite, the New Mexico locations framed in wide ratio. The score, Basil Poledouris. The rigorous structure, and the kinetic pacing, but at the same time a sense of natural rhythms, the movement of the seasons, the shape of silence. For an action picture, it's got its fair share of stillness and melancholy.  


And for all that it's about the kids, it's actually the grown-ups who put it in sharper relief. Powers Boothe, the American pilot who bails out over occupied territory. "Shoot straight for once, you Army pukes," has got to be one of the great exit lines. Bill Smith, the Spetsnaz colonel brought in to exterminate the Wolverines. "You need a hunter. I am a hunter." (Bill Smith speaking his own Russian, a bonus.) Ron O'Neal, the Cuban revolutionary who loses his faith. "I can't remember what it was to be warm. It seems a thousand years since I was a small boy in the sun."

Corny? You bet. Affecting? Absolutely.


Red Dawn wears its heart on its sleeve. Its innocence, or lack of guile, is suspect, even embarrassing. But it has an unnervingly specific authenticity. It respects the conventions, and yet - I can't quite put my finger on it. The picture is subversive. It's not about glory, that's for damn sure. It's about loss, although it might be about redemption, too, but it doesn't promise us much comfort.

*

Some years later, I wrote a spy story called The Bone Harvest, set in the early onset of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I have to wonder, the way we do, how much was I influenced by Red Dawn? Which might seem like a dumb question, but let's be honest, we pick up all kinds of stuff, attracted by its texture or reflection, like beach glass or bottle caps. Hemingway once said no decent writer ever copies, we steal.


If in fact I took something away from Red Dawn for my own book, I hope it was a certain naive muscularity, the notion that you can will something to happen. I don't mean this in the meta-sense of getting a book written, I mean that the story I wanted to tell was how raw determination could put boots on the ground. Stubbornness a virtue, not playing well with others. If that's the lesson, it's not just the story arc of Red Dawn, it pretty much defines John Milius' career, but you could have a worse role model.  



14 August 2019

The Breaking Point


David Edgerley Gates


I'd never seen The Breaking Point, although I'd heard things about it, but now there's an excellent DVD transfer available on Criterion. I'm here to tell you it's one hell of a movie, undeservedly neglected.


First, some background. The story goes that Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway are on a hunting trip. Hemingway's bitching that Hollywood can't make a decent picture out of any of the books he's sold them. Hawks says, They don't get the books. And you do? Hemingway asks him. Hawks shrugs. Sure, he says. I could take your worst book and make a terrific picture out of it. We imagine a very long pause here, and then Hemingway goes, Oh, yeah? And just which one is my worst book? Hawks doesn't miss a beat: To Have and Have Not. Okay, asshole, Hemingway says. You got the rights. Put up or shut up.

Hawks goes back to L.A. He calls in William Faulkner. Faulkner probably isn't that big a Hemingway fan in the first place. He tells Hawks the novel's unfilmable. You'd never get it past the Hays Office, for openers. C'mon, we gotta do something, Hawks says. They sit down with Jules Furthman, another longtime screenwriter, and hash out the back story, what happened beforehand. They make up so much, Hawks later says, that there was enough left over for a whole other picture.


You guessed it, The Breaking Point. Which is actually credited to Ranald MacDougall, who just for goobers and grins, also worked on Mildred Pierce; The World, the Flesh, and the Devil; and Dark of the Sun. No slouch, he.

The degrees of separation - or cross-pollination - are I think significant. To Have and Have Not (1944), Bogart and Hawks. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Bogart and John Huston. We Were Strangers (1949), Garfield and Huston. The Breaking Point in 1950. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who made some zingers, but never breaks into the top lists of auteurs. Maybe that's an oversight. The Breaking Point is certainly atypical of Curtiz. It actually has a lot more in common with Sierra Madre and Strangers than it does with Casablanca. You wouldn't think of Curtiz as a noir guy, but here he delivers in spades.


Then look at Garfield, in context. The Breaking Point was his next-to-last picture; he died after the next one. He himself thought The Breaking Point was his best and most transparent performance. You have to give a passing glance at his politics, which were resolutely Leftie. He wasn't blacklisted, but he was skating on thin ice. Maybe he died before the bastards could get to him. They would have loved to nail him, just because he was Julie Garfinkle from the Lower East Side. 

Garfield never did overtly political parts. Gentleman's Agreement, mmmh, maybe. Force of Evil? The movie itself is about moral choices, and Garfield's character makes the leap of faith in the end. But he isn't represented as Everyman. It's not a Marxist fable. The closest he comes is in We Were Strangers, and even there he keeps his distance. He seems mistrustful of absolutes. He's missing the zeal of the convert.


In this, The Breaking Point is completely consistent. In the most basic and classic sense, it's existential. The guy does what he does because of who he is; or put it the other way around, he demonstrates who he is because of what he does. Skip the philosophy.

Oh, and as if I had to tell you, you're never going to look at Patricia Neal the same way again.


The Breaking Point, moment to moment, is tighter than To Have and Have Not. It might even be a better picture. I think it is a better picture than We Were Strangers, and We Were Strangers, trust me, ain't no dog. I'd go so far as to say The Breaking Point rivals Treasure of the Sierra Madre. No, it doesn't have Bogart disintegrating like a sprung watch, but it's got a decent guy going over the edge, and you don't know if he's coming back.  Neither does he.

24 July 2019

Metropolis


David Edgerley Gates


Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis was released in 1927. Paranoid and hallucinatory, it's the first feature-length dystopian SF picture, but of course its spooky Teutonic future is at right angles to the spooky present of a doomed Weimar.


Philip Kerr's last Bernie Gunther novel, Metropolis, came out this year. It's set in 1928, and sure enough, Fritz Lang's chilly breath hovers over the story. (His wife, the screenwriter Thea von Harbou, steps into the book to pick Bernie's brain for cop shop detail - she's turning over some ideas in her head for a serial killer story.) Bernie remarks early on that for all its grime and despair, his home ground of Berlin mirrors both the human condition and the German national character, and you can say the same about a book or a movie, so is it true of this book or that movie?

Lang had a problematic relationship with the Nazis. He'd been raised Catholic, but his mother was originally Jewish. It was an obvious pressure point. And while we're on the subject, Thea, the wife, was a Nazi sympathizer from early days. Hitler and Goebbels were huge fans of Metropolis, as it happens. But after Lang made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in late 1932, and Hitler came to power in January, 1933, the Nazis banned Mabuse, which was pretty clearly aimed at Hitler. Goebbels, on the other hand, offered Lang a job as head of UFA, the biggest German movie studio. It was bait-and-switch. Lang was being invited inside the tent, but the price of admission was spelled out: he was selling his soul. Lang said he'd think about it, and beat feet for France. Thea stayed behind and divorced him. UFA went to Leni Riefenstahl.

The question is often raised in the Bernie books - in fact, it's the central spine of the stories - What would you do as the world disintegrated around you, as it lost all moral force, what choices would or could you make? Metropolis goes back to the beginning, chronologically. It takes place before March Violets, the first of the novels. But it looks forward. The foreshadowing is all there, On the other hand, Bernie doesn't comment on what he sees and does from a future perspective. This dramatic irony, which is used in a number of the books, isn't present here. Bernie is blessed with ignorance of the future, even though the choices keep lining up. The answer to the questions is, You compromise just a little every day, and it gets easier.

How can we know, how could we possibly predict whether we'd rise to the occasion, show grace under pressure, or simply cave? It seems, generally speaking, as if even the major life-changing decisions we make are essentially taking the path of least resistance. If you've followed Bernie's history, as I have, over the thirteen books leading up to Metropolis, you respect him not just for his survival skills, but for his generosity, and his self-respect, even if he sometimes loses confidence. Seeing him here, right as his life is about to take a walk off a cliff, is enormously affecting, because you know what's coming, and he doesn't. The future of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, as frightening as it is, can't begin to conjure up the waiting chaos, and the terror.


Metropolis, the novel, is a swan song. Phil Kerr died last year. This is one terrific run of books.

26 June 2019

The Art of Memory


David Edgerley Gates


My pal Keith McIntosh was thinking out loud the other day, that when you're in the library, or a brick-and-mortar bookstore, and you go looking for something, you often find something associated - or even unassociated - by accident. He's not the only one to remark on this, of course, but Keith was wondering why virtual shopping can't be organized in a similar way. Amazon will show you other stuff you've shopped for or searched out recently, or stuff their algorithm suggests based on your purchase history, but it's market-driven. What about serendipity? You could be looking up the Tudors in the European history section, and stumble on some little-known thing about the Mongols, two shelves over. Same goes for learning basic crochet techniques, or high-altitude baking. It is possible to use the Dewey decimal system, say, to replicate the physical feel of shelves in digital. Or a visual, an imaginary bookstore that somehow leaves room for the accidental. I'm sure someone's thought of it before, and the question is execution: How do you design for the random, or peripheral vision? Engineering logic is linear, it's designed to filter out, to recognize pattern limits, not intuit a whole greater than the sum of its parts.


As it happens, I was re-reading yet again the John Crowley novel Little, Big, first published in 1981 and just as heartbreaking the fourth or fifth time around. Actually, this is one of those books I read all or part of every couple of years, like Mary Renault's Last of the Wine or Len Deighton's Bomber. As if shrugging into a familiar garment, yes, but always finding some new astonishment. I might be reading for technique - how, exactly, did they pull off such-and-such an effect? - but I invariably wind up getting sucked into the story, and I'm not looking for tips and tricks, I'm steering into the next tight turn. The grace and felicity is all.

Crowley develops an elaborate conceit in his book, the Art of Memory. This is in fact a real thing, the study of mnemonics, going back at least to Pythagoras, and later refined by Giordano Bruno. (Crowley has a long fascination with Bruno.) More recently still, there's the Frances Yates book titled The Art of Memory. I'm giving a sort of potted version of this, but the way Crowley explains it, you build a memory house, and people it with artifacts or avatars. You might set aside a room for Youth, a faded rose or a broken mirror to represent a path not taken, but the objects don't require literal consistency, they don't have to be an actual objective representation, they need only conjure up some specific smell, a taste or a time, a character of something, a suggestion, if only a sketch or a gesture.


Now, supposing this house has many rooms, which you've added as needed, and some of those rooms left behind and the memory objects in them gathering dust - let's imagine we turn an unexpected corner and open a different door into that particular gallery, and see those memory objects back to front, a reversed perspective. Would we catch them unawares, surprised to see us, in a state of undress, so to speak? 

In other words, what's two shelves over? Memory tends to repeat. Once we start down a train of thought, if it's well-traveled, we stop at the same stations. It may not be a straight line, but we ricochet off the same surfaces. It's almost certainly a hard-wired function. Maybe it's a protective mechanism. It's an almost impossible habit to break. Not only can we not change our personal history, we can't change how we think about it, or escape.


I'm fascinated by the mechanics Crowley imagines, going into the house of memory by the back stairs, and finding a different way to the front. And as you pass by them, things not quite where they're supposed to be, or not how you thought you left them. The truth is, it's not that we pass this way but once, but that we pass this way again and again, and each time we tell ourselves the same story.

12 June 2019

Wire in the Blood


David Edgerley Gates



Wire in the Blood is a Brit TV show based on Val McDermid's series of books featuring forensic psychologist Tony Hill. The character's played by Robson Green, who might be familiar to some of you from Grantchester, and who was also in seasons 4 and 5 of Strike Back, which is where he first caught my attention. He's had a solid career going back to the late 1980's, light comedy and heavy drama, but I wouldn't wonder if doing Tony Hill isn't one of the highlights.

Criminal profiling, in the formal sense, goes back at least to the Whitechapel terror - Jack the Ripper is said to be the first object of analysis. David Morrell would give you an argument, and suggest Thomas de Quincey's essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," which examines the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, predating the Ripper by some 75 years. The 'science,' disputed by some scholars, has gotten a lot of traction over the last forty years or so. The FBI commissioned their Behavioral Science Unit in 1972. Thomas Harris published Red Dragon in 1981. Popular imagination does the rest.


Wire in the Blood falls very much in hagiographic terrain. Tony Hill has an unsettling ability to put himself in a killer's shoes, but his insights aren't always appreciated by the more evidence-driven homicide dicks he works with. He'll make an intuitive leap; they'll be looking for a DNA match. In practice, it usually works out, and the bad guys meet their just desserts. In terms of narrative structure, it can be a little predictable, since Tony's so often proved right. This isn't, in the scheme of things, actually a weakness. It provides a two-track storyline, and even though you know Tony has his finger on the killer's internal mechanics, it's gonna be the cops who run the villain to earth.

There's a very definite something else going on with Tony Hill, though, and certainly in the way that Robson Green inhabits the character. Tony isn't socially adept. If he's not quite as bone-headed as, say, Doc Martin, he's obviously somewhere on the spectrum. This plays out as an interesting contradiction. Tony will walk his way through a crime scene, and try to experience it from the POV of both victim and killer. This kind of sympathetic vibration doesn't work for him, however, with what most of us think of as generic social interaction. He'll stop a conversation cold because he's had a sudden epiphany, he'll forget what he was saying, he'll walk out of a room. He doesn't realize his behavior is often careless or even hurtful. He doesn't mean it to be, of course, and he's embarrassed when he's caught out, but he's obsessive-compulsive. He's got tunnel vision. 


This is a curiously common characteristic in our ratiocinatory detectives - is that a word? Sherlock Holmes, for one. Emotion clouds the reasoning process. On the other hand, empathy is a necessary part of it. Tony Hill is deeply affected by what he does, but he has to keep his distance. It's a puzzle in and of itself, and Robson Green makes the guy fascinating to watch. Not endearing, mind, but isolated, apart. Too much in his own head.

I should add a cautionary note. Wire in the Blood isn't a cozy. The theme is damage, the pathologies are unsettling, the prey are children, or the weak, or the damned. It's not terribly reassuring. It makes for one hell of a compelling narrative, though.

08 May 2019

Orientation


David Edgerley Gates

Lucian K. Truscott has a terrific column in Salon magazine this week about GPS supplanting physical map-reading skills, and the possible negative consequences should satellite electronics go dark, specifically the issues in a combat environment.

https://www.salon.com/2019/05/04/using-gps-instead-of-maps-is-the-most-consequential-exchange-of-technologies-in-history/


I've always loved atlases, and learning the secrets of the gazeteer was life-changing. I had, later, an excellent National Geographic atlas that didn't use grid coordinates at all, but latitude and longitude - which is actually much more sensible - and it was terrain-based, showing geographical features instead of political boundaries. (Lucian talks about terrain-reading, too, and how shooting azimuths is an inefficient way of navigating your way out of the woods.)

Not that I don't surf Google Earth regularly, whether it's the back streets of Tbilisi or my childhood neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., and I love the kinetic thrill of it, but I still turn to two-dimensional maps on paper, views of subway systems, urban landscapes, desert hardpan, rumpled uplands. I like the big scale of the Michelins, for cityscapes, and the ONC/JNC, for wider terrain. This second a carry-over from the military, the Operational Navigational Chart scaled at 1:1,000,000, and the Jet Navigational Chart at 1:2,000,000, marked with radar overlaps and aviation hazards. Invaluable.

It's my settled habit to have a map pinned to the wall, or leaning on an easel, for whatever specific geography I'm writing about. I had the Euro Berlin opened up, some three feet square, 1:25,000, for Black Traffic, the Khyber Pass and environs for The Bone Harvest. Right now, for Absolute Zero, it's El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, and that stretch of southern Chihuahuan desert I've chosen to call The Dooms, a borderland that's entirely invention.

There's the old rule that you can break the rules if you know what they are. It's true of grammar, it's true of narrative conventions, it's true of dialogue, it's true of landscape. You just need to know it well enough. You want to inhabit it, you want it lived in, you want it familiar.

A map is only an approximation of the terrain, but it lays out physical relationships, distance and elevation, good roads and bad, watercourses and obstacles, the path of least resistance. The feel of the country, the smell of juniper and pinon, the heat, the texture, that's up to you. I find the map comforting, is what I think I mean. It's not the level of detail, it's the context. It's a perspective. I look at the map, I can walk the perimeter. It's not the place itself, it's a metaphor of place. A map is our point of departure.

I don't think it's any accident that when Robert Louis Stevenson started Treasure Island, the first thing he did was draw a map of the island itself, and his hand-drawn map is at the very front of the book.



24 April 2019

Notre Dame de Paris


David Edgerley Gates

I lived in Paris too short a while, but it's still vivid. It was a lucky time, for me, even if the ferment and fever of that unquiet age didn't give us much breathing room, the political furies, the war. That spring the French decided to shut their own country down, and late in the summer, the Warsaw Pact dropped a heavy hammer on Prague. The larger world intruded, and I certainly wasn't indifferent, but all the same, I was under a protective enchantment.

I know what Hemingway says. I think he works it too hard, but he's right. Paris is completely magical. We of course bring a great deal with us, all that excess baggage - the Lost Generation the least of it. Be that as it may, you can shed your skin there, you're not confined by previous incarnations. I imagine we all discover our own Paris. I know that isn't a terrifically original observation, but my Paris was my own discovery.

Paris at night is hugely different from Paris during the day, just as Paris in the rain is completely different from Paris in sunshine (think black-and-white as opposed to color, Rififi instead of Gene Kelly, the photographs of Brassai, the streetlights and dive bars). I used to take the Metro down to Notre Dame at two or three in the morning, it surely being the mark of a great capital - New York, Berlin, Paris - that the subways run all night. This is back when Les Halles were still in the middle of town, now it's Place Pompidou, and the wholesale markets are out in the sticks, Les Halles were two enormous metal buildings, like giant Quonset huts, with arched girders inside, forty or fifty feet high at the peak. One was for meats, poultry, fish, the other for produce, flowers, and fruit. The vendors had stalls, and there were cobbled alleys in between. Birds nested in the upper eaves, All the Paris restaurants shopped there. getting an early start. Close by were the bars for the working stiffs, in their blue coveralls, knocking back black coffee and an anisette. I took a lot of pictures, color transparencies but usually black-and-white, Tri-X at 400 ASA, which at the time was fastest film readily available.

Just as often I didn't take a camera at all. Another big difference, between documenting an event, self-consciously a witness, and simply absorbing it. I loved coming into the square below Notre Dame and looking up at it in the dark. I'd been during the day, and climbed it. At night, you felt something else altogether. The face wasn't lit, the rose window was in shadow, the stone was cold.

Time for a black coffee and a Ricard, un petit verre, standing at the zinc bar, scrubbing your hands together for warmth.


Here's a heartening thing. The bees on the roof outlasted the fire. Rooftop bee-keeping is big in Paris. Notre Dame, l'Opera, the d'Orsay, the Grand Palais. It's a small reward, but reassuring.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/19/bees-survive-notre-dame-fire

10 April 2019

The Border


David Edgerley Gates

Don Winslow's The Force made my top-ten list for 2017, and his new novel The Border is already on my 2019 list. If you're familiar with his work, you can guess why; if you're not, how come?

The Border is the third book in a trilogy about the Mexican drug wars that began with The Power of the Dog in 2005 and continued with The Cartel in 2015. These are decidedly unsentimental. This ain't the Mexico of mariachis and margaritas. This is a landscape of sangre y muerte, bitter enmities and brute force.



The thing here is that it's almost impossible to write about the drug war without getting political. We've long had an abusive relationship with Mexico, and American attitudes have been condescending from the start, going back to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo - which Mexico has always regarded as a humiliation. Mexico in American popular culture is caricature, Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa, Cinco de Mayo a sales pitch for Corona. But not to recognize our part in this dynamic isn't just turning our backs on history, it's dangerously delusional. The most basic fact of the drug business is that the U.S. represents an enormous market, and the supply chain is a growth industry. Secondly, we're talking big money, and the reach of the cartels is long. This leads to institutional corruption, to the degree that Mexico is close to being a failed state, although to imagine the problem is limited to the Mexican legal and political machinery is ridiculous. Thirdly, the War on Drugs itself is an established enterprise. We commit huge resources to it, and nobody wants to jeopardize that. We've created a toxic, symbiotic relationship.



Is any of this a surprise, or up for debate? I'd think it was Narcotics 101, but in some circles, apparently, the mechanics of Cause and Effect are disputed. For example, you can give billions in military aid to the government of Guatemala, say, for drug eradication. When that government uses the training and weapons to turn their military and police into engines of political repression, it's a little disingenuous of us to be shocked when thousands of refugees show up on our doorstep.

It's to Don Winslow's credit that he shows us the political dimensions to the story without taking sides, and shows us the personal cost, too. You can tell he's in a fury, but he's not writing a polemic. These are novels about choice and consequence, moral confusion, self-destruction, and even redemption. It's a story about internal conflict, and interdependence, Mexican and American.



Writing about what Jeff Parker has called The Iron River, the drugs and human traffic coming north, the money and guns moving south, it's hard not to tell a story that resonates. Jeff has done it, Don Winslow has done it, I've certainly tried. But none of us has any prescription.

This isn't the first time I've quoted Porfirio Diaz. "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

27 March 2019

"The Wild Bunch" at 50


David Edgerley Gates


The Wild Bunch was released in 1969, the year of the moon landing. I remember watching Neil Armstrong live on a small black-and-white TV, with rabbit ears, in a broken-down and nearly abandoned hotel in Silver City, Nevada. That was late July. By then, I'd already seen The Wild Bunch half a dozen times, and of course dragged other people along. Which suggests perhaps an odd sense of proportion.


In truth, The Wild Bunch has almost certainly had a deeper and longer-lasting effect on me than the moon landing. It's not an exaggeration to say the movie changed my life. I've remarked before that it was Lawrence of Arabia when I first realized for myself how conscious the movie-making process was, that the effects weren't accidental but calculated. And then, with Kurosawa and Frankenheimer, seeing how expressive the vocabulary could be. Later still, and after Peckinpah, I discovered how transformative guys like Ford and Ophuls were, but I needed that first galvanizing moment, that sudden spark of coherence.

Most of us can say, Oh, such-and-such was a watershed moment. We can also say that there were probably a few starts and stammers, so there was more ground preparation than we imagine. The apotheosis, the insight, the revelation, was waiting to happen all along. But not knowing the object of desire (or once found, how necessary it becomes), how do we recognize the steps in between, the foundation, the accumulated weight on the scales? In hindsight, it's easy enough. I remember specific jolts. The beak of the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Jimmy Stewart's fingers smearing the Frenchman's make-up in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Things that made you catch your breath, but on a visceral level, not something you were ready to appreciate as a device. The evocative image, in isolation.

You might call these moments proto-conscious, meaning we don't consciously process them. As we get more sophisticated - as our vocabulary widens, speaking in movie terms - we begin to see this stuff in context. For me, a good example would be Wayne, in The Searchers, shooting the dead Indian's eyes out. Or more exactly, the way he draws the gun, spinning it up and cocking it at the top of the arc, and then letting the gun's weight bring it down to point of aim. It's very economical, showing he's got such an easy familiarity with the gun, all muscle memory. The shock comes in realizing what he's actually done, when he shoots, not once, but twice. And he explains it, completely matter-of-fact, as common knowledge. The point here is that it tells you something about the character, without expressing it in literal terms. Cinema is nothing if not literal. We see what it is. But in this sense, the evocative sense, what we've seen is more than we've been shown. And we realize it. This is perspective. The image both recedes and expands, like memory.

The third stage, I'd suggest, is when we've become aware we're being manipulated, and we're enjoying the process. We take pleasure in it, because we're an active participant in a passive medium. It isn't that an increased technical fluency gets in the way of immersion (or suspension of disbelief), it heightens the experience. Orson Welles once called it 'looking behind the curtain.' Hitchcock, for one, can't contain his glee, when he both plays the trick, and shows his hand at the same time. It's to my mind, a compliment. Hitch takes us into his confidence.

I don't think, though, that in 1969 all that many of us were quite ready for The Wild Bunch. Yes, we'd had Bonnie and Clyde, in '67, but without taking anything away from it, Bonnie and Clyde really had more of a European sensibility, an art-house feel, than an American one. (Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn had made Mickey One together, two years earlier, and that was very much French-influenced - Shoot the Piano Player - it could have played with subtitles.) Not that Penn was any stranger to violence, either: The Left-Handed Gun is startingly abrupt, and for 1958, no less. And in 1966, we saw Richard Brooks' The Professionals, Anglo mercenaries south of the border, tangled up in Mexico's revolution. John Sturges' Hour of the Gun came out the year after, a decidedly brutal and melancholy version of the Earp legend. The Wild Bunch didn't happen in a vacuum.

But it changed the landscape.

Even when the gunfight starts, outside the freight office, in the opening robbery sequence, you might not know what you're in for. By the time that scene is over, most audiences would be in shock. The obvious influence is Kurosawa, but it was a collaborative effort between Peckinpah, cinematographer Lucien Ballard, and editor Lou Lombardo. They shot with six simultaneous camera set-ups, running at different speeds, 24 frames per second, 30, 60, 90, and 120. Over-cranking generates slow-motion, and Ballard was using long lenses on some of the cameras, which foreshortens the depth of field. Lombardo's rough edit assembly ran twenty-one minutes. He and Peckinpah cut it down to five. Some of the inserts are no more than three or four frames apiece, which on-screen is nearly subliminal, almost too fast for the naked eye. The result is elastic, both in time and physical space. The aspect ratio, how much visual information the screen itself can manage, seems to yawn open and then contract, crowding the edges, optically swollen.

And yet, in the confusion, you don't lose track of the geography, the sight-lines, the physical relationships between the different elements, the composition. I think it's pretty amazing, because it's so easy to stumble into incoherence, particularly in action scenes. Peckinpah has an absolute genius for keeping the spatial dynamics all of a piece.

There's a story that Jay Cocks, the movie critic for TIME, took Marty Scorsese to an advance screening, and the two of them looked at each other afterwards in utter disbelief. They were astonished at what they'd just watched. This wasn't an uncommon reaction. There were also people who were horrified by the picture. Urban legend has it that audience members ran out of sneak previews and threw up. When it screened at Cannes, out of competition, the leading American critics who were there took turns blasting it. It was left to Roger Ebert, in the back of the room, and not a brand name at the time, to stand up and tell them he thought it was a masterpiece.

I'm with Roger, as if you hadn't already guessed. I saw the movie ten or a dozen times that first summer. Some time later, when I had a 16MM projector and an anamorphic lens, I rented the scope print from Twyman - this is back when film schools showed features on actual film, and Twyman was the default source. Then there were the many VHS tapes I stretched and wore out, and the Restored Director's Cut released on DVD.

Peckinpah goes in and out of fashion. Most people agree on Ride the High Country, but that Dundee is a dud. Cable Hogue is a sentimental favorite, and Junior Bonner. The Getaway is technically accomplished, expert and without substance. Straw Dogs will certainly get you into an argument. I know I'm very much in the minority, thinking Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a masterpiece, and likewise Alfredo Garcia. Killer Elite, a misfire, but the Chinatown shoot-out is a gas. Cross of Iron is I think very underrated. And we'll leave it at that.

What's the bottom line? I'm fond of the exchange in The Wild Bunch when they get to the river, and Angel looks across the Rio Grande.
  "Mexico lindo," he says.
  Lyle says, "I don't see nothing so lindo about it."
  "Just looks like more of Texas to me," Tector says.
  "Aah, you have no eyes," Angel tells them.

Damn your eyes, Sam. God damn your eyes.


Essential reading:
  Jim Kitses, Horizons West
  Paul Seydor, Peckinpah: The Western Films
  David Weddle, If They Move, Kill 'Em
  W.K. Stratton, The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in 
     Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film

13 March 2019

Firefly


David Edgerley Gates

I'm reading a thriller called Firefly, by a Brit named Henry Porter. It's a recent release, last year, and the guy's new to me, but he's got some serious chops. This is his sixth book. He comes recommended by people like Joseph Kanon and Lee Child, and they've picked a winner.


Firefly is about a Syrian refugee kid, on the run from ISIS thugs, who survives shipwreck and flounders ashore on the Aegean coast, and makes his own slow dangerous path across Greece and Macedonia, into the Balkans, trying to reach Germany and what he imagines is safe haven. The trip is of course complicated by all sorts of hazards, not least of which is a determined pursuit by agents of Al-munajil - machete, in Arabic - an Islamic State jihadi gearing up for a terror attack in western Europe.

The other thread of the narrative is that British SIS is in the hunt for the boy, too, along with other friendly security services, French, German, because he gives them their best shot at identifying and intercepting Al-munajil. He's a stalking horse.

Where this parts company with the usual is in the character of the covert contractor they send into the Balkans after the boy Naji. He's an ex-spook named Paul Samson, now working the private side. A former refugee himself, of Lebanese extraction, he's fluent in Arabic, and specializes in hostage rescue. He's not your generic soldier of fortune, weary and cynical, but a stubbornly principled guy who's determined to find Naji alive, and save him.

Which is a real departure. We've gotten used to deeply compromised heroes, with spy fiction in particular. Even in Fleming, where Bond is supposedly under discipline, he's still a stone killer, off the leash. Later iterations, in LeCarre and Deighton and Charles McCarry, have authority issues and attitude problems and nervous bowels, if they're not in fact morally suspect. It's refreshing to have a hero who does the honorable thing without a lot of fuss or fidget. In this, Paul Samson is a close cousin to French film-maker Casson in Alan Furst's The World at Night, or even more so, to Ben Webster and Ike Hammer in Chris Morgan Jones' The Jackal's Share and The Searcher.

Often, the pure of heart are villains. Nobody's more convinced of their rectitude than the holy. And if not villains, then victims, or pawns. Eager recruits. (See, for example, The Little Drummer Girl.) There's actually a lot to be said for a character who does the right thing for the right reasons. I've been thinking about this myself, with regard to the people in my own stories. I favor a little ambiguity, but the sometime inflexibility of a guy like the Rio Arriba sheriff Benny Salvador or the old Texas star-packer Doc Hundsacker isn't always out of place.


There's a lot of uncertainty in the world these days, along with mixed messages, not to mention outright wickedness, and there's plenty of it on display in Firefly. Which is why you find yourself rooting for Naji, and for Paul Samson. The refugee crisis (or immigrant crisis, if you prefer) is brutally real, in Europe as it is elsewhere, and we can take some small comfort in small victories. 

27 February 2019

Ian Rankin's IN A HOUSE OF LIES


David Edgerley Gates

I came to Rebus late, The Falls or Resurrection Men (with its evocative Burke and Hare title), and then went both backwards and forwards. Not my usual, I might add, which is when I find somebody I like, start at the beginning and read the books in chronological order. Nor did I gobble 'em all up in a binge, either, I was wise enough to realize I needed to pace myself.

Then, in 2009, Rankin gave us a change-up pitch, The Complaints, not a Rebus, but a book about Internal Affairs. If you think about it, there's a certain inevitability to it, and if we surmise that Rankin is playing the long game, a further inevitability that our old pal John Rebus would attract the attention of the minders. Malcolm Fox and Rebus collide in Standing in Another Man's Grave, and both of them show up in the next four books - along with Siobhan Clarke and (you knew it was coming) Big Ger Cafferty.

In a House of Lies is really more Rebus and Clarke's book, Fox in secondary. Big Ger has a dog in the fight, as he all too often does, but this time around he doesn't actually put his thumb on the scale. We know early on who the real slimebags are, and we get enormous satisfaction watching the noose tighten. In fact, the book's real tension comes from wondering if these rotters are going to escape the snare. Very often, Rankin's stories are about people wondering if they're doing the right thing, or wondering what the right thing is. In this case, there isn't a lot of second-guessing or hand-wringing. Necks are the only things getting wrung.

Writing about The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, a couple of years ago, I said their main concern was a collision of competing integrities. "Loyalties and betrayals, absent virtues, malign intentions, misspent human capital, leaky alibis, blood feuds and blood debts." In a House of Lies is unambiguous. Moral relativism doesn't get a lot of airplay. When it comes time to settle the score, play for keeps.


13 February 2019

The Unredeemed Captive


David Edgerley Gates

I picked up a used book at a second-hand store not long ago. Boys of the Border, written by Mary P. Wells Smith, a 1954 reprint of a story originally published in 1907. It caught my eye because of the dust jacket art (see illustration below, no explanation needed), and because the inside cover had a hand-drawn map of the Mohawk Trail, in western Massachusetts, during the French-and-Indian War, when these frontier settlements were no more than scattered farmsteads, with the occasional fortified log palisade. Mary Prudence Wells Smith was well-respected in her lifetime, the author of several successful YA series, Boys of the Border the third in her Old Deerfield story cycle. I'm embarrassed to say I'd never heard of her, despite having a common curiosity about the history of that neck of the woods.



Drums Along the Mohawk it ain't, but it's pretty rousing all the same, and in both the Deerfield series and the companion Young Puritans historicals, she gives a convincing picture of daily hardships, forbidding piety, and an abiding mistrust of the Other, dark-hearted and pagan, stealers of children and sleep, the marauding Indian who came out of the deepest wilderness to prey on the luckless and unwary. This hidden terror was in fact the great unmapped continent of North America itself, too enormous to be contained or even imagined. An undiscovered country, whence no traveler returns.

It was a Leap Year. February 29th, 1704. In the early morning, a raiding party of French, Abenaki, and Iroquois attacked the small town of Deerfield, on the Connecticut River. They burned and looted houses, killed forty-seven people, and took 109 captives. They marched them 300 miles north to Quebec.

89 of the captives survived, and over the next two years, 60 of them were ransomed back. Others chose to stay in Canada, most famously the Rev. John Williams' daughter Eunice, who married a Mohawk. Rev. Williams wrote a hugely successful book, The Redeemed Captive Returning to Zion, framing the story as instructive of God's providence. In a larger context, it becomes the primal American fiction.


(John Demos published The Unredeemed Captive in 1994, the title a play on Rev. Williams' own. Demos explains the captivity narrative as a racial and cultural paradigm, and not least as gender politics. It could be the Red Man, it could be the Yellow Peril, it could be Mandingo. The story turns on rescue from defilement. It's also clearly, and unapologetically, about the triumph of an enlightened tribe or race over a primitive and degraded one.)

Leaving aside Mark Twain's hysterically irreverent essay about him, it has to be admitted that James Fenimore Cooper is the first American novelist, in that he tells American stories, liberated from a European sensibility. Twain himself is a legatee and beneficiary of Cooper's. Huck Finn is completely American, but his literary forebear is Natty Bumppo. Cooper's romances have all of the generic conventions of the period, nor does he have much fluency or stagecraft, and yet he's engaging. What he brings to the table is conviction. He's got authority. Cooper knows the architectural foundation of his books is Manifest Destiny.

The captive narrative many of us are most familiar with is John Ford's 1956 movie The Searchers - and the novel by Alan Le May. The story is said to be based on the actual kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker by the Comanche. Nine when she was taken, she grew up Comanche, married, and had a family. Her eldest son, Quanah, became one of the last great war chiefs of the Comanche nation. She was recaptured by U.S. cavalry and Texas Rangers in a raid 24 years later, but never reintegrated into white culture. In truth, she wasn't in need of rescue.

The Searchers, for all its savagery, is about reconciliation, something both Eunice Williams and Cynthia Ann Parker stubbornly resisted. America, too, seems unreconciled, our vast interior a dark unknown, our captive imagination unredeemed, an unreliable narrative.