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

12 August 2020

Pudd'nheads


 

Mark Twain's essay, 'Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses,' is one of the more definitive take-downs, rude, exacting, and murderously funny. Twain's subject was always America, the American narrative and the American imagination. Cooper, for all his faults, is clearly the first American novelist. An infelicitous writer he may be, but he's more or less trying to invent a New World literature, and in this sense, we wouldn't have Twain if Cooper hadn't ploughed the ground beforehand. Twain means what he says about Cooper's stylistic clunkers ("use the right word, not its second cousin"), and certainly there's a generational difference, Cooper an inflated literary monument who's fallen out of fashion, Twain the more spirited and energetic voice, but Twain's real quarrel seems to be with the tradition of Romantic literature itself. Cooper's themes are vigorous, but his execution is lazy, and generic conventions sand off the rough edges. Twain argues for a greater muscularity.  


Cooper's dates are 1789 to 1851. Sir Walter Scott's are 1771 to 1832. They're almost contemporaries. And you can see similarities, their discursiveness on the one hand, and too many easy outs on the other - what you might call the With-One-Gigantic-Leap school of hairbreadth escapes. (In all fairness, Scott is a much livelier and more inventive writer than Cooper; credit where credit is due.) I'm also bringing up Scott because Twain's got a score to settle with him, too. Twain wrote Life on the Mississippi some years after the fact, and although he has a soft spot for the river and its steamboat culture, he's not at all nostalgic for the slave economy of the prewar South, and he puts the blame for the elegiac folderol of the Lost Cause squarely on Walter Scott. Nor does he mean it as metaphor. Twain says expressly that the sentimental goop in Scott's romances - in particular Bonnie Prince Charlie and the failed Stuart uprising of 1745 - leads not only into the failed enterprise of Secession, but that it influences the historically revisionist nonsense that the slave states were some kind of agrarian Eden, unsullied by grasping capital and crude industrial instincts, a benevolent plantation economy, where the darkies of some mythic bygone age were happy to know their place.


Twain has no patience with this crap at all. Remember that he was born in Missouri twenty-five years before the Civil War, and was no stranger to slavery as a commonplace of everyday life. Twain seems to be the first American writer to integrate slavery (no pun intended) into the fabric of his fiction. I don't mean to scant Harriet Beecher Stowe, but Uncle Tom's Cabin is agitprop. It was enormously successful, at the time second in sales only to the Bible, but let's be honest, it's not seriously coherent, or anything like realistic. It rings every phony bell. If we take Twain's critical yardstick as a useful measure, Uncle Tom's Cabin is flabby, and Huckleberry Finn is muscular. Twain represents slavery as a constant in the social dynamic, it's simply there. Harriet Stowe preaches. Twain is more subversive. If slavery is the lie at the heart of America, the original sin, Twain disinherits our creation myth. This country wasn't founded on the altar of liberty, he tells us, it was established with a crime.


Huckleberry Finn is celebrated for its vivid invention: Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid, Moses and the Bullrushers, praying for fishhooks; Huck's escape from his father, his deceptions, disguises, and improvisations; the long, somnolent days adrift on the river; the abandoned boat, and the House of Death; the Grangerford feud, easily the single most terrifying episode of the book; the killing of Boggs, and the public shaming of the lynch mob; the horrifying vigilante violence that overtakes the Duke and the King; even its farcical ending, the over-elaborate plot to free Jim. What knits it all together, through its eventfulness and Quixotic structure, the shifting landscape of shore and water, is Huck's shifting internal landscape, his moral antagonisms. Jim is clearly human, Huck sees him as a person; but Jim is chattel, he belongs to somebody else. There's a moment when Jim talks about trying to rescue his wife and children from their new owner, and Huck is scandalized. Jim's talking about doing an injury to a man Huck doesn't even know - this is how Huck puts it to himself - stealing another man's property. The irony passes without being labored. Another example is that that Duke and the King can trade Jim off as a fugitive (he is, of course, having run away from Miss Watson), but it doesn't matter whether Jim is a particular fugitive, on a wanted poster. The fact that he's black, and on the loose, and nobody lays claim to him, is enough. He's guilty by virtue of who he is. Once they miss the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio at Cairo, the tip of Illinois, they're drifting into the Deep South. Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas. Jim's exposure is greater, his hope of rescue that much less. The comedy begins to sink, and the inevitable weight of despair settles on Huck's shoulders, a long-held, guilty secret.


For all that I recognize Huckleberry Finn as a great book - I agree with Hemingway, among others, that it is in fact the Great American Novel - Huckleberry Finn is not Twain's closing argument about slavery. That book would be Pudd'nhead Wilson, a novel Twain began as slapstick, or farce, but which descends into utter darkness, a bottomless sinkhole of cruelty and shame.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a murder mystery, and it turns on themes of doubling. The two Italian twins, who appear to be working a parapsychology con, and the two boys switched at birth, Tom Driscoll and Valet de Chambre. The resolution depends on fingerprinting, very much a novelty at the time of the action, the mid-1800's. (Twain was fascinated by technology. A picture shows him in Nikola Tesla's lab.) By his own report, Twain started out with a comic premise. but the social savagery crowded out social satire, and the unresolved tensions of race, privilege, and clan loyalties are redeemed in brute violence. 


The peculiar institution, a coinage of John C. Calhoun's, had by the 1880's become completely racialized, an American refinement. The practice of indentured servitude, common in colonial times, was by definition a term of indenture with a set expiration date or a buy-out price. But slavery was an inherited station; you were born into it, and would die as property. Your children, no less, were livestock. None of slavery's advocates made a secret of its racial foundation, and of course breeding was encouraged - slaves were a cash crop. The flip side of this, and generally accepted, was that slave women were used for sex by their white owners, and they got pregnant, and these children were born slaves, too. The high-yaller gal was appreciated for having her more African characteristics diluted.

By the time we get to Pudd'nhead Wilson - to clarify, Twain wrote the book in the 1890's, but the story takes place some fifty years earlier, before the Civil War - these racial norms are well established. Roxana, owned by the Driscolls, is one-sixteenth black, and nursemaid to Thomas Driscoll. Her boy Chambers has a white father (possibly Percy Driscoll, her master), and he's but one-thirty-second black, which still condemns him to slavery. He looks white; in fact, Chambers is almost indistinguishable from Tom, but born on the wrong side of the blanket. Roxy exchanges the babies. Her son grows up as heir to the Driscoll fortune, and Driscoll's son grows up in the slave quarters - that hint of the tarbrush is enough. Later in the story, when Roxy explains his clouded birth to her grown son, masquerading as Tom, and threatens to expose him, he eliminates the threat by selling his mother downriver to the Delta cotton fields. Nothing if not resourceful, Tom murders his uncle, and frames one of the visiting Italian twins for it. In the end, he's too clever by half, and the pretense unravels. The false Tom is himself sold on the auction block. The real Tom, raised as the slave Chambers, is restored to his family legacy, but he's neither fish nor fowl: he loses the one tribe he knows, the slave community, and can't assimilate as a white slave-holder. The well has been poisoned.  

Twain seems to suggest that the false Tom is corrupted by privilege,  although he doesn't quite come down on one side or the other, nature or nurture. In the story, race is destiny, but not in the sense that one boy has a sunny outlook because he's secretly white, and the other has a temperament tainted by residual blackness. Some of their character can only be hard-wired, some is learned behavior. Perhaps the slave Tom has a native innocence, or a talent for it, and Chambers, the spoiled child, enlarges into bullyhood. Twain is ambiguous on this score. He's unambiguous in saying that circumstance itself - the iron conventions, the conditions of life, the immobility - creates a fatal lack of choice. Tom and Chambers are bound to one another by blood debt; both of them are trapped.

The longer shadow cast by Pudd'nhead Wilson is historical, the dark bruise of our national grief, spreading underneath the skin. The most pernicious aspect of historical denial is selective memory, and the evasion of responsibility. Glamorizing the South in defeat, and pretending race wasn't at issue, allowed for lynch law and Jim Crow, disguised as state sovereignty. It may have been coded language, but it was unapologetic white supremacy.


Not addressing the buried past - the unburied past, as it happens - or underlying social frictions, stresses any political system. It's generally accepted that the unequal terms imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919 led to economic ruin and the rise of Hitler. Weimar was too weak to contain the tensions between the Red factions and the revanchist Right that played out across Europe. Much the same happened after the second war, the sentiment that the German Army was stabbed in the back again, even though this time they didn't have any Jews left to blame it on.

We see something familiar, then, in the grievance politics of our dislocated present. The vocabulary is different, to a degree, but the clamor, the intemperance, the hardening of the arteries, echoes the slave state sympathies of John C. Calhoun and his uncompromising belligerence. We seem ready to revisit the Lost Cause, not through the rosy lens of Gone with the Wind, but with a constipated whiner who got pushed off the swings. "George Porgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away."

The question is ownership. Who controls the narrative? If we surrender the narrative, somebody else tells the story. Twain's lesson is that we can recover it, but we have to trust an unreliable narrator, a device as old as Homer. So we listen to our hearts. The rest is noise.


22 July 2020

Charlotte Gray



My sister gave me Charlotte Gray, and I left it lying about for a while. I wasn't familiar with Sebastian Faulks, nor was I terrifically compelled by the jacket copy,  and when I did start reading it, I resisted. It seemed too domestic, it didn't appear to have much urgency, but then I fell into the rhythms of the story, and it caught me up. Charlotte Gray isn't a thriller, quite, although it has thriller elements, and it isn't a romance, either, although it's enormously romantic, in its own way. It's more of a meditation on those themes. Which doesn't mean Faulks is trying on literary costumes, or condescending to the genre; he's feeling his way into it, as if it were new to us.



The story is about a young Scots woman who's recruited to the Special Operations Executive during WWII and dropped into Occupied France to service a Resistance network. SOE did a lot of dodgy stuff in the war, some of it marginal, some of it extremely effective, and they had no problem using women for clandestine work. More than a few of their number were compromised, tortured, and then executed by the Germans.

As with an Alan Furst novel, or a le Carre, we learn about tradecraft, and the threat environment, and the strengths and flaws of character, but there's an interesting simplicity about Charlotte herself. As she inhabits her French cover story, she uses 'Dominique' as a counterpoint, one step removed, a frame of reference at right angles - not an alibi, but a different narrator, somebody else telling her own story. Charlotte is herself well aware of the ironies, but as a device, it allows her to hold the story up to the light and reexamine it. This isn't studied or self-conscious: the author isn't breaking in, it's the character who wonders what part she's playing. I found it compelling, and more than that, completely convincing. You might think, Jeez, c'mon, the SS and the Vichy milice are hot on your trail, you don't have time to second-guess your place in all this, but it makes Charlotte real.

There's an authenticity of feeling, throughout the book. I think what threw me, in the beginning, is that the story isn't told as a narative of event. The episodes are emotional, which just sounds unlikely, coming from a male writer. You're used to the idea that a guy is going to present building blocks, a structure, rising action. It took me by surprise to realize the story lay, not in what was happening, exactly, but in how people engaged with what was happening. Even a fatal hinge point, the moment where Charlotte and Julien realize they have to assassinate a collaborator, is necessary because of who they are, and its inevitability lies in their sympathy for one another.

Of course, the book is not entirely interior, and there's more than enough razzle-dazzle, as it develops, but I'm still struck by the method, the lack of the literal, even though the story is full of concrete, obdurate detail. There is, as it happens, a movie adaption. The novel came out in 1999, and the movie in 2001. I'm now curious to see it. Movies are nothing if not literal, in the sense that you see an object presented. I can't quite imagine how this reconnaissance of a story, this narrative of suggestion, would translate. Charlotte Gray isn't dreamlike, it's in fact very specific, but not specifically about the visible. It's specific about the heart.

08 July 2020

Widdershins



People have commented about what kind of entertainment is appropriate - if appropriate is even the word - for this odd time. Do we embrace it, Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, or Camus, or turn to escapism? Conventional wisdom has it that screwball was so popular during the Depression because it didn't reflect actual living conditions. On the other hand, during the polio epidemic, there was a brief vogue for the iron lung as a story element. Noir mirrors a specific postwar unease, which overlaps Cold War nuclear anxiety. Kiss Me Deadly or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Godzilla is the atomic metaphor writ large and reptilian.

I seem to be in retreat, myself, falling back on comfort food. Instead of post-apocalyptic, I set sail instead with Dorothy Sayers and her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

Now, right up front, let's admit some of these are pretty lightweight. Whose Body?, the debut, is contrived and gimmicky. Clouds of Witness is stronger, mostly because the stakes are higher. Unnatural Death seems labored, to me, and basically unconvincing - although it introduces the estimable Miss Climpson. I don't think Sayers (and Wimsey) really hit their stride until The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and I think also this is because Bellona is to some degree about the effects of the Great War on Wimsey and his generation.

Sayers wrote novels of manners; contrivance is less important than character. Wimsey is himself nowhere near the foppish dilettante he affects to present - this is a Scarlet Pimpernel device. (You can easily imagine Leslie Howard in the part, deceptively languid.) Wimsey was a major in the Rifles, and was invalided out. There's a scary moment in Whose Body? when he imagines hearing German sappers digging below, and Bunter has to talk him down and put him to bed. The relationship between Wimsey and Bunter is the spine of the stories.

The other thing we have to acknowledge, which for some readers could be a deal-breaker, is that the language of the period singes the present-day ear. You remember that the books started in the 1920's, so astonishingly, they're almost a hundred years old. This isn't to apologize for Sayers' vocabulary, or rather, the accuracy with which she reports the vocabulary of the British class structure. She doesn't necessarily share their prejudices, but you doubt she's inoculated against them. Then again, Wimsey seems to be playing a part, 'Lord Peter' a kind of self-parody, so how much of this is affectation? It's hard to distinguish between the narrative conventions and Sayers' personal feelings. She herself was apparently quite astonished when somebody suggested anti-Semitic tropes in her work.

The three strongest books are the late-runners, Murder Must Advertise, The Nine Tailors, and Gaudy Night. Murder Must Advertise because it's so effectively mannered - as a novel of manners ought - and because Sayers makes fun of her own successful career as an advertising copywriter. The Nine Tailors because the mystery is so elegant, the bell-ringing so exact, and the surrounding fen country so beautifully evoked. Gaudy Night is an outlier, granted, because it's of course Harriet's book, not Peter's, but the atmospherics are extraordinary, overheated and claustrophobic.

I also recommend The Documents in the Case, which is a standalone, without Wimsey, but the forensics reveal at the end is worth it all by itself.

The other thing about the language in the books, though, is how much it represents a world of the past. Not the late Victorian era of Holmes, but a time we think we can almost reach, from our own experience. Not that many degrees of separation. The period between the wars could be our parents, or theirs. You remember hearing an expression, as a kid, that made no sense whatsoever, because the context belonged to a previous generation. "Clean your plate," my grandmother might say, "think of those starving children in Belgium." Her reference is the First World War.

My personal favorite in the novels is widdershins, which means counter-clockwise, but Wimsey uses it in a particular way, "We do no harm in going widdershins, it's not a church." This puzzled me, until I unearthed a more sinister definition, invoking malign spirits. Originally, however, it seems simply to describe a cowlick or a case of bad hair. And there's the charm.  

24 June 2020

Invisibles



Claude McKay apparently wrote his fifth novel,  Amiable with Big Teeth, in 1941, and nothing came of it until a Columbia grad student stumbled across the manuscript seventy years later, and got it published. McKay was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930's, if not so influential or well-known as Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. I'm no expert on the period or the people, or America's complicated relationship with race and history (much of which is clearly a history of willed ignorance), but McKay's book fascinates me because it's a social satire about black political engagement - and denial.

There were a lot of competing ideas in the 1930's, and two of the big ones at odds with each other in the Harlem of the time were Marcus Garvey's black nationalism and the siren song of Russian Communism. The actual issue in the novel is how the black community should respond to Italian aggression in Ethiopia: Mussolini's imperial ambition to dominate the Horn of Africa, and a stark demonstration of white European power deployed against a supposedly backward tribal culture, with attendant white barbarism, because their targets were African. This sideshow (not to the Ethiopians, whose estimated losses were three-quarters of a million people) took place on the periphery of a convulsive struggle in Europe between Left and Right, Stalin and his surrogates pitted against Hitler and his - although this vastly over-simplifies the internal divisions and quarrels over ideological purity the various factions tried to contain. The point here is that the same conversations are animating Harlem that fracture the body politic elsewhere.  

American politics have often been about grievance.  We want a place at the table, but when we get there, we put both feet in the trough. The immigrant experience follows a criminal model, the Irish and Tammany, the Italians using the Mafia to get political power, although this is generic. The first Vikings and English and Spaniards who landed in the New World were bent on piracy. The slave narrative, on the other hand, reverses the conventions.



History turns out to be malleable. We used to think it was hieroglyphic, etched in the stone, but like our personal history, you can walk into the house of memory by a different door, and suddenly see it turned around, from the back stairs, or the servants' quarters, so to speak.

It's not my purpose here to revisit or discredit the American origin myth, or redress old injuries. There are people far better equipped, for openers. I want to look at two things, though, one external, the other internal.

From the outside looking in, how do we understand the black presence in American popular culture? How in fact it's been appropriated, or sanitized, but certainly distorted. It's not simply that your experience isn't reflected, it's that your experience isn't represented at all. Okay, we can say the average American white experience of the 1930's isn't accurately represented by William Powell and Myrna Loy, but we wouldn't mind. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine Marcus Garvey seeing himself in Stepin Fetchit.

We might pause for a moment and examine the Stepin Fetchit oeuvre, which is more ambiguous than received wisdom suggests. He made a couple of pictures with Will Rogers, for instance, and in Steamboat Round the Bend particularly, they demonstrate a very sly and subversive relationship. Step was a millionaire, by the way, and got featured billing in his pictures. The problem for black audiences, then and now, is that Step's characterizations get taken as an actual representation of black character. For a white audience, Step is a reassuring stereotype, an unthreatening lazybones. It's not far from here to Amos'n'Andy.



The second thing that bothers me is how this distorted mirror image might be internalized, by a black audience. It can't be an exaggeration to say black people are a hell of a lot more aware of their circumstance than white people are. Black people don't need white people to recognize this, as if white recognition would verify the black experience, that the black experience only matters when white people take notice. If you've been left out of the national conversation, or nobody hears the bear shit in the woods, is there silence?

I know I'm well out of my depth, but I can't help but think about what happened after the war. The fury of the years between, the 1920's and 1930's, the economic collapse, the street marches, the rise of Fascism, the cleansing of the politically impure, the scapegoating of the Jews - and then the savagery of the war itself.

I grew up in the immediate postwar era, and it was about hope. Our parents were lucky enough to get home. It was the era of noir, as well, and nuclear anxiety. We were the war children, Van Morrison's wonderful line, "born 1945." How come that generation of black kids, born 1945, got excluded? Their dads fought in the war with our dads, they beat Hitler and the Japanese with all the rest of us.

This is sad. This is stupid. This is shameful. It's just too God damn dumb. We owe an enormous cultural debt to guys like Duke Ellington, or Ray Charles. We'd be diminished without Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. It's embarrassing that I even have to make a list, or worse, search for their names. Seriously. We're still talking about who we'll choose to include as Americans, and the invisible Americans have already chosen.  

10 June 2020

The Popular Delusion



Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds was first published in 1841, and hasn't been out of print since.  He begins with an account of the Tulip Mania in 1637 and the South Sea Bubble of 1720, which were investments inflated by speculators - get-rich-quick schemes fueled by hysteria. For example, the South Sea Bubble was essentially a futures contract: it was a grant of monopoly for trade, but the expected trade itself never materialized. Mackay's thesis is essentially that people can be persuaded of damn near anything, when they want to believe it. Like a honey drop, say, or a Ponzi scheme, but Mackay tales it further.

Let's admit the lure of easy money. But how to explain what Mackay calls the Love of the Marvelous? In other words, the embrace of the clearly nutty. Mackay counts among these the Crusades, witch trials, dueling, alchemy, fortune telling, and mesmerism, to name a few. "The cup of life is not bitter enough," he says, contemptuously.

What got me thinking about this was an essay in The Atlantic by Anne Applebaum called "History Will Judge the Complicit," which is about collaboration. Somebody else recently suggested we should say collaborations, in the plural, meaning that there are a lot of different ways of accommodating ourselves to betrayal. It often succeeds by taking very small steps, and resolves, in the end, with what Czeslaw Milosz characterizes as relief. Your anxiety has lifted, you have a sudden lightness of heart, you're no longer at war with yourself. Conforming rewards you.

Trump's America is not Vichy France. But as Applebaum points out, the language of Trump's enablers echoes older historical excuses. We can use this to advance our agenda, is one. Or as George Will put it, scathingly: Gorsuch, seriously? We can protect the country from him. This is the "grown-ups in the room" argument. I'll personally profit from it. Okay, this makes a little more sense, and the last and most destructive. I get a hard-on being close to power.

Let's not forget raw fear. People surrendered to Hitler's terror, and Stalin's, because they were simply scared to death. Not only for themselves, but because the Nazis, or KGB, would kill your parents and your children, anybody who was infected with your heresy. Could we somehow recover some of our self-respect? This isn't Occupied France. Why is so much of it about denial, or delusion? We plainly have grievance, and genuine complaint, on both sides, the Need to Believe crazily important, and the Grassy Knoll the least of it.  

I remember an exhibition at the New York Public Library some years back, about Vichy collaboration, but about writers and intellectuals specifically. You've got somebody like Celine, your basic scumbag: he wasn't a Nazi sympathizer out of opportunity, he agreed with them; he was all in favor of exterminating the Jews. Then you've got Marguerite Duras, who worked with Vichy during the day, and passed information to the Resistance after hours. And many others in between. The myth de Gaulle tried to sell after the war was that all the French were heroes, to avoid recrimination, but Henri-George Clouzot's famous wartime movie Le Corbeau puts the lie to that. First the Nazis banned it, and then the French. The embarrassment was just too much.

I don't think the Trump years will prove such a gold mine of tension and treachery. I don't see a Casablanca being written about this era. I think a lot of us are just going to hang our heads in shame. But what put our heads in the noose? Trump is clearly an empty suit. I'm not going to rehearse his failures. The thing is, how can people invest in a blank slate? Sure, there are the nut jobs of QAnon, but I mean intelligent, articulate people on the Right, who have seen their principles found guilty by association.

The narrative has gotten lost. If this were a conspiracy story, we'd want the guy behind the curtain exposed, but the guy isn't Dracula, or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, or even the Wizard of Oz. He turns out to be Howdy Doody.

The delusion is that we ever took it seriously. The box office is terrible. Somebody greenlighted this show back in the era of Bonanza, when color TV was a novelty, and we stayed tuned for the commercials. Trump is the 1960's, and already a trivia question.

How we shape the narrative is up to us.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/07/trumps-collaborators/612250/

27 May 2020

Another Day in Paradise


I used to have a theory that the defining characteristic of a successful television series was the comfort factor. I don't think this is actually an original idea of mine, but likely somebody else's observation I've appropriated. If you take a show like Rockford, or Murder, She Wrote, or Magnum, it's a relationship, and you build on familiarity. It's about your engagement with Jim Garner, or Angela Lansbury, or Tom Selleck. Pause for a moment and consider that Columbo was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bing Crosby.

So if first we have character, then we have circumstance. To what degree is any given series situation? The term was coined to describe the half-hour comedies that came after Lucy, and Gleason's Honeymooners - even thought those shows were ensembles, and very much dependent on situation. In this case, though, we're talking situation drama, distinct from soaps. These are programming definitions, and not all that useful, except as shorthand.

Taking, again, Magnum for our template. Tom Selleck says the concept was a kind of James Bond party boy, beating women away with a stick, hot cars and vodka martinis, and Selleck was, No, been there, done that. How about beer and a Tigers cap, or the guy gets conked on the head a lot, he's even kinda slow on the uptake, from time to time? In other words, more like the rest of us. Then we begin to discard the other generic conventions. Higgins is an awful stiff, with only one note, the aggrieved and aging queen. John Hillerman clearly loses patience with this pretty early on. T.C. and Rick are there for what, protective coloration? This, too, goes by the boards. The dynamic of the show turns collaborative. It's character-driven.

Selwyn 
Catherine


Now, what if we turn this back to front? Suppose we take a situation that's character-driven, and keep changing the cast? This is Death in Paradise. It has some similarities to Murder, She Wrote, for one. It's not singularly gruesome, and mostly has a light touch. Nor does it break new ground. It's formulaic, and follows an established pattern. But consistency works in its favor. It's closing out the ninth season, and headed for ten.

Poole
Camille


The premise is a fish-out-of-water story. A cop from London, a detective inspector, is assigned to a somnolent Caribbean oasis. There's a lot of French heritage mixed in, but it's part of the British Commonwealth. (The show is an Anglo-French co-production, and actually shot on Guadeloupe and nearby islands.)

We have the expected culture clash, but the charms of the place turn out to be irresistible, and even the flintiest of hearts begins to soften. The other underlying commonplace is that our visiting fireman has the nearly magical ability to read the runes, and rescue clarity from the jaws of disorder.

Dwayne
Fidel


I know I'm not alone in thinking the first two season were the best, because of Ben Miller in the lead. He seems to have made a career of playing anal-retentive Limey twits or chilly Whitehall mandarins - for which see his iceberg performance in Primeval, opposite the indispensable Dougie Henshall. Cast out of rain-soaked England into the sudden sunshine of the New World, the guy never loosens his tie or undoes the top button of his collar. When he finally unbends enough to take off his shoes and socks and wade barefoot in the surf, it's as much of a character reveal as Dorothy Malone undoing her hair in The Big Sleep.

Humphrey
Florence



The third season introduced Kris Marshall, who hid his light under a bushel of socially awkward mannerisms, which never convinced me or won my heart. Both the way Humphrey was written and the way Marshall played him were enormously annoying. Here's the weird thing. I kept watching the show. Kris Marshall put me off but not enough to give up on the rest of them, Fidel and Dwayne and Camille. The concept held my attention, and the ensemble. And then another whammy. Putting up with Humphrey, and having lost Fidel at the end of Season Three, we then lose Camille, and Florence Cassell moves up a notch.

Ruby
J.P.



We finally unload Kris Marshall in Season Six, and Ardal Hanlon steps aboard. Big improvement. Except that Florence leaves. Two new constables have been slipped into the mix, Hooper and Ruby, but the real blow is at at the beginning of Season Eight, when Dwayne has disappeared, and without ceremony. By this point, the entire main cast has rolled over twice. The only stable support personnel are Don Warrington as the police commissioner and Elizabeth Bourgine as Catherine. Oh, and of course Harry the lizard, a still point in a turning world.


Jack
Madeleine



I just find it strange, quite honestly, that I've stuck with it. The locations are gorgeous, the hot colors, the laid back island vibe. There's familiarity, shrugging into a well-worn set of clothes, your expectation that it's all going to be set right. Terrific guest shots - James Cosmo, Adrian Dunbar, Denis Lawson, Clare Holman, Peter Davison.

Who wouldn't give up a week in the clammy UK and fly to the French West Indies? Maybe that's it, in the end.


I've got no explanation. I can only suggest that you pick up the DVD's at your library, or stream it on BritBox. You may well be as pleasantly surprised as I've been.

13 May 2020

The Tingler


Bringing in the wet dog, my pal Carole made a joke about Odorama – the provenance here being that she's a Baltimore girl, and Baltimore native son John Waters used a gimmick in his more-or-less mainstream debut, Polyester, that was a scratch'n'sniff card, smells keyed to scenes in the movie.



Lest you think this utterly without precedent, think again. John Waters, like Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, is very much a movie nut, and knows his history. Tarantino might champion Sergio Corbucci and a picture like The Great Silence, Scorsese is of course hugely influential in the preservation of significant landmark pictures, many of them marginalized or forgotten. It's no less serious of John Waters to find inspiration in the movies of a Russ Meyer or William Castle.



Russ Meyer was, famously, a schlockmeister. You could argue that Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is at least on some level a masterwork, but it's still trash. Terrific trash, maybe. On the other hand, Shock Corridor or The Naked Kiss it ain't. Meyer doesn't even come close. Sam Fuller made his share of exploitive B's, but he always had thorough discipline. Russ Meyer, let's be honest, was only in thrall to the great state of mammary.




William Castle is a different story. His career begins in the late 1930's, and lasts into the 1970's. A lot of it is pretty lame; some of it is eye-popping. He was on Welles' Lady from Shanghai. Twenty years later, he bought the rights to Rosemary's Baby, but Paramount wouldn't let him direct - they thought his track record with quick-and-dirty horror would hurt the word of mouth on an A-picture.



So, those horror movies. This is where Castle hit his stride. (He's actually contemporaneous with the glory days of Hammer gothic, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.) The first was Macabre, in 1958, and it was the first where Castle used medicine-show marketing. Along with your ticket, you got an insurance policy from Lloyd's of London: IF IT FRIGHTENS YOU TO DEATH - YOU'LL BE BURIED FREE OF CHARGE. The House on Haunted Hill, Vincent Price, where the theater went completely dark and the spooky soundtrack started before the picture did. And a plastic skeleton dangled over the audience (Castle pitched this as Emerge-O).  Then his second picture with Price, The Tingler. The Tingler had an even better device: a few of the seats in the theater were wired for a slight tingling effect, which signaled that the parasitic creature was creeping up your spine - and at which point the ushers were supposed to scream. You see the pattern, here. Even as late as Strait-Jacket, his Joan Crawford ax-murderer picture, he passed out party favor tie-ins, cardboard axes smeared with stage blood.



My personal favorite of Castle's movies is Let's Kill Uncle, which came out in 1966, and is apparently not really considered part of the canon. Maybe because Castle often used name Hollywood actors whose fires were no longer burning bright, like Crawford and Vincent Price, those pictures have a certain camp acidity, and they're not to be taken entirely seriously. Let's Kill Uncle, however, has the great Nigel Green, deliriously over-the-top, as the retired SAS commando major out to  murder his nephew for the kid's inheritance. And the shark in the swimming pool.



Castle himself never tried Smell-O-Vision (used but once, Scent of Mystery, 1959) or AromaRama (Behind the Great Wall, same year), so the mischievous sniff test of Odorama John Waters releases in Polyester is more of an homage, Castle-esque rather than a direct application of the Castle merchandising touch. It's satisfyingly retrograde.



Clearly, there are advances which work. Sound, and color. Widescreen, or Dolby digital. 3D is back, not a novelty this time, but here to stay. Smell is of course evocative. They say the most of all our senses. It's probably genetically hard-wired. Who argues? Maybe there's a way to do this. Easy enough to make a theater seat vibrate, after all, to rumble underneath you, or even tip left and right with the G-forces, so you're in the cockpit with Maverick. On the other hand, we'd probably need warning labels, like a product containing peanuts. You get to choose, 3D or flat, subtitles or dubbed, earthbound or zero gravity, scented or fragrance-free.

[In a cute piece of stunt casting John Waters actually got to play Castle in the miniseries Feud, about the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford surrounding Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In an Oklahoma publicity appearance for Strait-Jacket, Crawford "decapitates" Castle.]

22 April 2020

The Unreliable Narrative



Preface
My apologies. This is unavoidably political, in the larger sense, but not a polemic. It's about grief.

*

Something is happening in this country, with regard to the coronavirus. If it were fiction, we could call it multiple POV, a chorus of voices competing for our attention.

The unreliable narrator is a longtime convention, in mysteries particularly, a famous example being The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or more recently, Gone Girl. All the same, in fiction as (we hope) in life, our suspension of disbelief depends on accepting certain ground rules, and at the least an agreed-upon reality, a common yardstick.

So the question is, how do we engage, how do we maintain a sense of balance, or of structure, if the narrative keeps contradicting itself? In other words, how do we manage doubt? To return to the fictional model, mystery stories are inherently conservative, in that the crime, usually murder, violates the social contract, and resolution restores it. Even in noir, retribution is orthodox and rigid, a setting-right, with something almost Greek in its penalties, the appetites of the Furies satisfied. But if no weight is put on the scales, and no balance is required, nothing is restored. Order is relative, not absolute.

We have, in this strange political theater, not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable narrative, a story taken out of context. Exit, pursued by a bear. And this isn't simply one or the other, my way or the highway. It's a hall of mirrors, reflecting many alternatives.

In fiction, again, in fairy tales or fantasy, dystopian or post-Apocalyptic, mysteries, thrillers, cozies or Gothic or paranormal, the most outrageous or outlandish conceits can be convincing, if they're internally consistent. This is the most basic rule. You can bend time, or the laws of physics, you can disregard every convention except the one: that similar acts have similar consequences. 

We each and all, of course, believe we see reality. We might very well believe we see the only reality. This is certainly delusional, but it's comforting nonetheless. We have very little tolerance of ambiguity. Quite probably our belief systems are grounded in self-image, or our sense of self is reinforced by belief, two things integrated. I suspect we choose a reality out of necessity, and yours can conflict with mine, because they're mutually exclusive.

Darwin may sort this out for us, survival of the fittest being adaptive, not necessarily predatory. Then again, you might not believe in natural selection, you might prefer a different model, that we are Chosen. Either way, the rough numbers come out about the same.

The astonishing thing, to me, is that unlike a fiction, life is essentially messy, and has no shape or storyline, other than what we impose. To imagine that reality - as an absolute, not a construct - pays any attention to us is no more than vanity. And to pretend that we can pick and choose which reality we inhabit is foolhardy, although that seems to be the human experience, if history's any judge. More astonishing is the lesson fiction teaches us, in that we use stories to impose order, that narrative, or history, is necessary. Like sunlight, physically and psychologically.

All the crazier, then, that what we're seeing in our body politic, and the breakdown of our national conversation, is that chaos is self-inflicted. We've agreed to it.

*

Postscript
This, from The Atlantic, may be paywalled. I recommend it.
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/

08 April 2020

Prodigal Son



Here's a binge candidate I wasn't sure about, but after watching the pilot season, a couple of which I missed the first time around, I'm down with it. Miami Vice.

The show went on the air in 1984, but it didn't crack the Nielsen top thirty until the second season, which was arguably its most influential. After that, NBC began to screw around with its scheduling, and audience numbers fell off. The fifth-season finale drew 22 million viewers.

Watching it thirty-five years later is somewhat of a mixed bag. Certain aspects date badly. Not so much the fashions, as in the clothes, but the fashion of narrative tropes. (There is the matter of Marty Castillo - Edward James Olmos - wearing ties that are less than an inch wide, but that's very much in character.) More problematic is the predictability, that morally compromised good guys are unlikely to survive an episode, for example, or that any fleeting romantic interest is clearly doomed. And why are Trudy and Gina always going undercover as hookers, not even once in a while as, say, lawyers?  

On the other hand, once you re-acclimate to the rhythm and conventions of the series, you find yourself moving to some familiar dance steps. You forget that the color palette was a real departure, back then, the sun-bleached stuccoes and desaturated pastels during daylight, and the heavy, deep, silken darkness of night, streetlights a hot, retinal glare. The look is a character. That, and of course the soundtrack. A little Phil Collins goes a long way, but the use of music bridges as structural was transformative.

Granted, you're shooting as many as two dozen episodes a season, they're gonna be uneven. Some of them are, to be generous, no better than pot-boilers. And then, just when your patience is running low, they serve up an episode like "The Maze" (S1, Ep18), which demonstrates how strong the show can be, without its aggravations. The other thing this particular episode points up is that Philip Michael Thomas, who I always thought was the weakest link, is a lot better than you remember, or gave him credit for. "Evan" (S1, Ep22), also from the first season, has a showcase of a scene - as written and acted - between Tubbs and Crockett, that allows Don Johnson to take all the air out of the room with unexpected discipline: the guy's got serious chops.

The idea that Miami Vice was a game-changer is part of its mystique, and it was used to promote it at the time. Was it all that different? If you compare it to Hawaii Five-O or Mannix, or even Hill Street Blues, you'd have to say yes, because Miami Vice used a less linear narrative. It also moved the goalposts for Standards and Practices, for content, and what followed. It's hard to imagine Wiseguy getting past the network censors, if Miami Vice hadn't come first.

I don't want to stake too broad a claim. American commercial broadcast television has never been known for daring, and cable has changed the environment entirely. Not necessarily for the better. The primary instinct for the lowest common denominator, for audience share, is still dominant. But in a landscape that was often vapid and inauthentic, not to mention technically primitive (stuck following the restrictions of a three-camera set-up, like the soaps, establishing shot, close-up, reverse), the surface tension, the urgency, the angles and the edits, the information overload, gave the show an invigorating edge.

In retrospect, it's probably fair to say that we get the TV we deserve. There was in fact a Golden Age, with scripts by Rod Serling and Paddy Chayevsky, directors like John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, and a huge stable of actors. But let's be honest, plenty of that live drama was crap. There was at the time, though, a kind of free-for-all, an open market for programing. Locals were by and large network affiliates, and they had to provide a lot of their own content.  Then the marketing challenge changed, and the Big Three dominated, and predictability and stagnation set in. I'd guess it lasted from the late 1950's to the middle of the 1970's, but that's also when PBS got legs. As the market fragmented, with UHF and then cable, the audience became more directly engaged. When there was no selection, and only three choices, ratings depended on audience fatigue, or indifference. The yardstick for the broadcast was least offensive - you didn't have to like what you were watching, but you liked whatever else was on less. It made for homogenized material. As a sort of object lesson, a show like Miami Vice could be seen as emblematic. It came along when we needed it.



25 March 2020

Sleeping Murder



"Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle."
          - The Duchess of Malfi

My pal Carole back in Baltimore recommends the latest BBC adaption of Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse. A cursory search turns up the following, that the book it's based on was influenced to some degree by a contemporary of Christie's named Dennis Wheatley. He was a successful popular novelist at the time, his best-known book being The Devil Rides Out.

Wheatley, whom I've never read, wrote thrillers with a supernatural twist - Satanism, black magic, the paranormal - none of which he apparently put much credit by. He was a sometime acquaintance of Aleister Crowley, and published him at one point, but he doesn't seem to have taken him too seriously. The interesting thing, to me, is the idea of using supernatural themes, whether it's demonic possession or a ghost story, as a counterweight to the rational or the orderly.


This surfaces in Christie, in John Buchan, and in Conan Doyle, to pick major names. Holmes remarks more than once, phrasing it slightly differently, that once you eliminate the impossible, what's left, no matter how improbable, is what happened. The Hound of the Baskervilles generates a lot of its electricity by suggesting the otherworldly - is the dog a physical presence, a phantom, a psychological monster, the manifestation of some past buried evil: a curse, in other words? Kipling fools with it, Robert Louis Stevenson works similar earth, sowing dragon's teeth.


Conan Doyle caught a great deal of ridicule, later in life, for his embrace of spiritualism. Harry Houdini famously disabused him on any number of occasions, but Doyle's enthusiasm wasn't dented. It's an odd irony, we think, that this onetime student of Joseph Bell's (the model for Holmes), the careful exponent of logical argument and defining your terms, trusts a false premise and falls into further delusion. A reversal of the Holmes method, to allow a conclusion to affect your view of the evidence.


Agatha Christie was a master of psychological horror, before it was even recognized as such. Daphne du Maurier comes close, but by the time Rebecca came along, the genre was established. The effect that Christie manages, and almost without fail, is to make you doubt the convention of the narrative. In other words, she gives you the building blocks, using much the same method as Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh, but you begin to mistrust the design, that in fact the pieces can be assembled in quite the opposite order, or the story turned back to front. Her last published novel, Sleeping Murder, puts all three elements into play, the frisson of the paranormal, the psychological night sweats, and a narrative at right angles to itself.


The story turns on buried memory, and the tension between whether it's actual or imagined. When the weight of memory breaks through the firewall of post-traumatic stress, the "sleeping" murder comes out of hiding. The uncertainty lies in whether you think the heroine is haunted, perhaps literally, traumatized by some childhood nightmare, or just plain nuts. Any one of the three will serve. Christie is entirely at home with these Gothic fugues, and even the confident and resourceful presence of Jane Marple isn't in itself enough to shake your sense of dread. Christie of course contrives a deeply spooky reveal, and you want to go around the house afterwards turning all the lights on.


There's something enormously satisfying about this class of mystery, and the Brits seem to manage it better than anybody else. Christie, like Sayers or du Maurier, and P.D. James, for that matter, is writing novels of manners, often brittle and generally bad - the manners, not the novels. In some sense, they're comfort food, but the best of them leave you uneasy. The era between the wars, seen at a comfortable distance, seems not so far off or foolish. The ghosts are real enough.