Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts

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.  

17 February 2020

When They Say It's Not About Politics...


My daughter gave me The Last Widow, Karin Slaughter's newest novel, for Christmas and I tore through it in about three days. Slaughter is one of my favorite writers, and the first half of the book felt like a freight train with no brakes careening down a steep hill. I turned pages quickly enough to leave a trail of smoke and risk uncountable paper cuts.

I seldom pay attention to online reviews, but when I finished this one, I looked on Amazon out of curiosity. Slaughter is one of several authors I read who gathers mixed reviews because she takes chances and doesn't adhere to the standard template. Sure enough, The Last Widow had 795 reviews, 63% five-star, and 9% one-star.

The one-star reviews often complained that Slaughter let her politics get in the way of the story. Well, a group of white nationalist kidnaps Sarah Linton, the female protagonist, as part of their deadly plot, and, given that premise, it's hard to be apolitical.

That's why I usually ignore online reviews.

In one way or another, MOST art is political because artists deal with important issues in life.

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King as a reaction to the contemporary debate about predestination. His play takes the issue head-on, and his opinion is clear. Euripides leaves no doubt what he thinks of war in The Trojan Women. Nice people don't throw the child of a vanquished rival off the battlements and turn the surviving women into sex slaves.



Shakespeare's 37 (or 40, or 50, depending on whose count you believe) plays constantly involve politics.
Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear discuss, among other issues, who succeeds to the throne. Measure For Measure asks tough questions about women, love, sex, and relationships, and offers no easy answers (The main "good guy" has a creepy voyeuristic streak, too).
All the histories involve kings and, usually, war. Even comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night discuss the roles of women in society, and the misuse of power, still timely as the Me Too Movement and Roe vs Wade are still crucial issues.

Jane Austen and Emily Bronte present the situation of women in the 1800s, unable to vote, own property, or inherit. Pride and Prejudice features Mr. Bennet with five daughters who will starve if he can't marry them off to husbands who will support them. Wuthering Heights is built around the British Law of Entails, a devious way to control who inherits property if no sons succeed.

In America, Twain looks at slavery through bitter eyes in Huckleberry Finn, one of the most banned books in our country's schools, along with To Kill A Mockingbird, which looks at the same issue from 80 years later...although we haven't advanced much. Uncle Tom's Cabin, far more racist than either of the others, was a blockbuster best-seller before the word existed.

Robert Penn Warren gives us All The King's Men, a fictionalized vision of Huey Long, the Louisiana Governor who used graft and kickbacks left and right...and used the money to build highways and hospitals. Alan Drury won the Pulitzer in 1960 with Advise And Consent (102 weeks on the NYT Bestseller list and later a film with Henry Fonda), and that's all about politics.

Other novels, off the top of my head: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (if you haven't read these, do so before the second of the three books appears next fall on HBO.)

I know almost nothing about painting, but even I can point to Picasso's Guernica.

Plays: Lee Blessing's A Walk In The Woods is about two arms negotiators meeting to talk during the Cold War. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible (maybe my least favorite play of all time), All My Sons, A View From the Bridge, and Death of a Salesman. Miller always looked at the shafting of the little guy by big business or bigger government. Lawrence and Lee's Inherit the Wind, which the Religious Reich should go see sometime.

Films: Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

The classic western High Noon asks if we deserve freedom and law if we won't fight to defend them.Many in that production were blacklisted because of their involvement, and I still don't understand why. What about The Grapes of Wrath? Steinbeck dodged a death threat after writing the novel, and the film, made on an 800K budget, still gives me chills when I listen to Henry Fonda deliver
Tom Joad's farewell speech in that flat monotone.

Beethoven first called Symphony #3 the "Bounaparte," but changed it to "Eroica" after Napoleon became Emperor.
Where would American folk music be without Woody Guthrie,Pete Seeger, and the Weavers?  Or their descendants, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Doors ("The Unknown Soldier") and Country Joe & The Fish (I Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag--remember "Gimme an 'F'?).

Politics should be separate from art. Yeah, right.

Maybe flavor should be separate from food, too.

This list barely unscrews the lid from the jar. What other works can you name?

20 November 2019

Bon appetit!


by Robert Lopresti

This is my last column before Thanksgiving so I thought I would offer something food-related.  It's simple enough.  Below you will find ten foods (or something foodish).  Your task is to recall the crime movies in which they play important roles.   Actually two of them are from crime TV shows, but they may be the easiest on the list.

To make your life easier, they are arranged alphabetically by the title of the movie/show.  Answers are below. See you in December.  Don't overeat!

Elderberry wine.

Goldfish.

Cannoli.

A towel full of oranges.

Coffee brewed from yesterday's grounds and filter.

Leg of lamb.

Half a grapefruit.

Big Kahuna Burger.

Liver, fava beans, and a nice chianti.

Cherry pie and a damn fine cup of coffee.

SPOILERS BELOW!

Elderberry wine. Arsenic and Old Lace. 
Aunt Martha (Jean Adair): For a gallon of elderberry wine, I take one teaspoon full of arsenic, then add half a teaspoon full of strychnine, and then just a pinch of cyanide.
Mortimer (Cary Grant): Hmm. Should have quite a kick.

Goldfish. A Fish Called Wanda.
In order to get animal-lover Ken (Michael Palin) to talk, the maniacal Otto (Kevin Kline) eats his goldfish.  By the way, the goldfish in the scene were made of Jello.

Cannoli. The Godfather.
After a brutal murder in a car Clemenza (Richard Castellano) shows his priorities.  "Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli."  Fun fact: whenever oranges or even the color orange show up in a Godfather movie, it spells danger, and probably betrayal.  And speaking of that fruit...

A towel full of oranges. The Grifters.
Mobster Bobo Justus (great name), played by Pat Hingle,  is dissatisfied with the work of his  employee, Lilly (Anjelica Huston). He threatens to beat her with a towel full of oranges, even making her prepare the weapon.   The idea is that the beating leaves no telltale bruises.  (Oh, and speaking of the color orange... not related to food, but to filmmaking; the color red shows up only once in the movie, and it's there for a very specific purpose.)

 Coffee brewed from yesterday's grounds and filter.  Harper.
After William Goldman finished the screenplay, based on Ross Macdonald's novel The Moving Target, he was told to wrote a scene for the opening credits.  Resisting the usual private eye-meets-client opening, he started with a close-up of Paul Newman's famous blue eyes.  Then the P.I. tries to make coffee and finds he has nothing left but yesterday's stuff in the trash.  One writer notes: "This coffee moment follows the character through the entire the film, haunting him. Harper wears a suit and tie, but there are old coffee grounds in his shoes, his socks, his soul..."

Leg of lamb.  "Lamb to the Slaughter."
The wife of a police chief kills hubby with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasts it and serves dinner to the investigating officers.  A classic Road Dahl short story turned into a classic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It reminds me of Susan Glaspell's classic early feminist short story "A Jury of her Peers," since both turn on the inability of men to think from a woman's point of view.    Hitch was a well-known gourmet, of course, so I was amazed that I had to go to his TV show to find a memorable food scene.  There is even a website that points out food scenes from his movies, but I repeat my claim: no specific food gets a memorable scene.

Half a grapefruit.  Public Enemy.
Gangster Tom Powers gets irritated by his girlfriend during breakfast and smacks her in the face with half a grapefruit.  There is a ton of violence in the flick but this is the scene that became famous.  Supposedly Mae Clarke asked Jimmy Cagney to go easy on her.  He promised to do so, but once the camera was rolling...

Big Kahuna Burger.  Pulp Fiction.
Packaging for the (fictional) Big Kahuna Burger brand appears in several movies by Quentin Tarentino and his friend Robert Rodriguez, but it was in Pulp Fiction.that Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) endorsed the dish: "This is a tasty burger!"  The movie is actually obsessed with food, with characters discussing what the French call a Quarter Pounder (Royale with Cheese), visiting a 1950s-themed restaurant, robbing a diner, and getting shot over a pop tart...

Liver, fava beans, and a nice chianti. Silence of the Lambs.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter: "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."  I've always wondered how fava bean farmers felt about this odd advertisement.  Several webpages  suggest that novelist Thomas Harris gave Dr. Lecter a characteristically subtle and erudite joke.  It seems liver, beans, and wine are forbidden with certain kinds of anti-psychotic drugs. So the doc was explaining that he had been off his meds.

Cherry pie and a damn fine cup of coffee.  Twin Peaks.
During the summer of 1990 the TV-watching public went nuts for David Lynch's bizarre and highly stylized mystery series.  One memorable set was the Double R Diner where FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper would go for pie and, yes, a damn fine cup of coffee.  This could have been a throwaway line but Kyle Maclachlan really sold it, making it seem as if "damn" was the most extreme cuss word his character could imagine.

Did I miss any of your favorites?  Put them in the comments.

 

24 September 2019

Once Upon a Time In… Corriganville


by Paul D. Marks

Famous Corriganville rock in upper left of picture,
Silvertown Street, Corriganville
One of my favorite places to go as a kid was Corriganville. And knowing that Quentin Tarantino recreated the Spahn Ranch of Manson fame (or infamy) for Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood on what’s left of Corriganville brought back lots of memories. So I thought I’d talk a little about it today. (Next time I’ll talk about other locations he used in that flick.)

But Corriganville really does have a special place in my heart. It was a movie ranch out Simi Valley way, north of Los Angeles. Tons of B westerns and other movies were filmed there and at the nearby Iverson Ranch (more on that in another piece, too). But on the weekends it was opened up as an amusement park of sorts, sort of a pre-Universal Studios Tour studio tour—or movie ranch tour. My grandparents took me there several times and in those days it was quite an excursion to get out there, if not quite a covered wagon journey over Donner Pass. And the reason it’s special to me is that it’s the only place my grandparents took me that no one else ever took me. So that gives it a special significance.

Quentin Tarantino's Spahn Ranch set at Corriganville - photo by Cliff Ro berts
The ranch was owned by actor and stuntman Crash Corrigan, who could be found there on the weekends—he lived there. Some of the things filmed there included Sky King, Lassie, the Roy Rogers show, the Lone Ranger (for a time it was even known as Lone Ranger Ranch) and tons of mostly B, but some A movies. One of those A flicks was the John Ford/John Wayne/Henry Fonda Fort Apache movie. The fort at Corriganville was built for that movie and was used in many other things, including the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin TV series. I was a huge Rinty fan. So going there as a kid, getting to go to the fort and play around was a big thrill.

John Wayne (back row, third from left) and John Ford (se ated front row) on Fort Apache set
There’s a famous rock in the background—Corriganville Rock—that you can see in many of the TV shows and movies (see postcard pic at top). The western town street was called Silvertown, but the ranch also included a Mexican village, outlaw cabins, caves, Robin Hood Lake, a Corsican village and plenty of rugged scenery.

And what a kick it was to go there as a kid when it was still in use as a movie ranch. As one knows, one should always dress for the occasion and Corriganville was no exception. I would don my cowboy hat and bright red cowboy boots, my six shooters, maybe a vest or even chaps. And off we'd go—because in those days a kid could wear a fairly realistic-looking gun and holster to an amusement park and nobody would look or think twice about getting shot for real.

Girl and boy playing at Fort Apache, Corriganville
I remember the excitement of being on a “real” western street with real cowboys and Indians and staged shootouts. But one of my strongest memories is of going into the western street saloon, through those swinging saloon doors and finding that instead of a false front there was an actual restaurant or cafeteria. It was more of the modern variety but still fun. And in my mind I was a real cowboy in a real cowboy saloon and pity the poor fool who drew against me.


Being a fan of Rinty, Rusty and Lt. Rip Masters my favorite site on the ranch was Fort Apache. It was like being there in the old west. And it was a kick to see it in person to go along with my Marx Toys Rin Tin Tin Fort Apache playset and autographed photo of Jim Brown (Lt. Rip Masters) in cavalry uniform, posing with Rin Tin Tin himself.

Several fires at various times burned down most of the sets. Eventually, Bob Hope bought the property from Crash Corrigan. He changed the name to Hopetown and also built a housing development by that name on some of the property. Eventually, most of the ranch was sold off for development. But about 200 acres of the property, where most of the sets were, has been turned into a park.
Corriganville western town set remnants 
Some time during the late 1970s or early eighties, I saw a newspaper—you remember newspapers, don’t you?—announcement saying there was to be a chili cook-off at Corriganville, the old movie ranch. I was more than a little excited to relive some of those fond memories of yesteryear. So my cousin and I took our nephew and headed to the land of Crash Corrigan. And, like the smell of a Madeleine pastry in Proust's novel Remembrance of Things of Past (yeah, I know they changed the name), which brings on a lifetime of memories for the protagonist, just being at what used to be Corriganville, still called Hopetown at the time of the cook-off, brought on a flood of memories, even if most of the sets were gone with the wind. See the pix here of set remnants—and now even the remnants of the sets that were there then are gone.

Corriganville Fort Apache set location pad

 And then Amy and I went there after it had become a park and even more was gone, but some things remained, mostly the lake/river bed channel and some foundations of the old sets. Still, it was fun to be there and share the experience and reminiscences with her as she’d never been.

Me with Pepper and Audie at Corriganville Park
Since Tarantino is such a fan of Hollywood, I’m sure it was a kick for him to film there. And, corny as it may sound, although Corriganville is gone it will always be there in my mind, a place of fun, wonderful grandparents, and good memories. Who could ask for more? And what are some of your special childhood memories?

You can find out more about it here: www.corriganville.net .

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

07 July 2019

Murder Mystery – Spare Me


Thanks to a couple of friends, I’ve been indulging in one of John Floyd’s favorite passions– NetFlix. How could I resist a movie called Murder Mystery? How could I not document it for SleuthSayers?
Murder Mystery: Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler
Murder Mystery: Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler
The Premise

A marriage-worn New York couple finds their relationship  declining and disintegrating if not quite out. Thus starts the film on a squirmingly uncomfortable note. He’s an NYPD street cop who keeps failing the detective exam and lies about it to his wife. She’s a beautician who casually derides her husband. Then in a whiplash moment, he abruptly takes her on a long-promised trip to Europe.

Part of the ersatz humor comes from the stereotypical bumbling of uncouth Americans staggering around foreign countries. He’s the Cleveland jacket type, the working man who only dresses up for temple or church or mosque with his favorite colorful plaid or checked sports coat. Naturally they wear their Sunday best to Europe. Except those moments when Sandler chooses to wear sloppy clothes to dinner.

They bump into the fabulously wealthy set, whereupon death, destruction, and tired hilarity ensue. Solving the crime and saving their own asses bring them closer together, whereupon kissy-face romance re-ignites. More scripted hilarity ensues.

Emergency! Emergency! Kissing Coach to the set!

For a film rife with yachts, planes, trains, and automobiles, it’s awfully pedestrian. The real mystery is why a catatonic Adam Sandler murdered the movie. My least favorite SNL comic, he seemed to come into his own in movies, often silly, but he proved he could seriously act in Spanglish.

Unfortunately, he brought none of the warmth he’s capable of to Murder Mystery. His chemistry with his costar registered at the low end of the Kelvin scale. Dude, if you’re going to be kissing Jennifer Aniston, put some damn effort in it. Sheesh. Act like you might possibly maybe under the right circumstances kinda sorta enjoy it.

Wait. Back up a moment.

This movie is so sloppy, anyone with a passing familiarity of Europe’s cities and airports will quickly realize the movie is riddled with impossible geographic errors. Málaga is not in Italy; Milano is not in Monaco, and… How did they get to Montreal? In all these places, people drive on the right in left-hand-drive cars, same as North America. The embarrassing question enquiring minds want to know:
  • Were the filmmakers too stupid to notice?
  • Did they think Americans too stupid to notice?
The Abbott and Costello School of Motoring

Speaking of cars, we’re asked to leap a huge chasm of disbelief– that New Yorkers who’ve spent a lifetime not driving and have never seen a clutch or stick shift can suddenly pilot a Ferrari Testarossa left manual 7-speed gear shift at high speeds. R-i-i-i-i-ght, as Bill Cosby might intone.

Author’s Saturday shopping car, disbelief suspension

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…

That said, two jots of humor bear mention. Sandler’s character is a terrible pistol marksman but, channeling Goldfinger’s Oddjob, he unleashes his deadly accurate frisbee arm. Viewers brace for timid, tentative tee-hee.

The Tourist: Angelina Jolie
The Tourist: Angelina Jolie
The single funny moment in this one-hundred crawlingly long minute ‘comedy’ brings the chase scene to a close, a visual joke. Actual chuckles ensue.

The final scene brings us back to the nearly forgotten title in a faint nod to Agatha Christie. Promoters are talking about a sequel, Murder Mystery II. Is this final scene where it starts?

Start to finish, the movie plays like a Pink Panther episode on valium. If you want to see how an American on the run in Europe film should be made, visit The Tourist (2010). It combines a Hitchcock flair with a stunning Angelina Jolie who seems to grow more beautiful with the years.

Murder Mystery 👎👎
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ ‘meh’

29 May 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Positive



When I was in college I took a course in film studies and one day the professor talked to us about bad movies and good movies.  Specifically he said that a good bad movie was better than a bad good movie.

If he defined his terms I don't recall but I think we can get the gist of it.  A bad movie is mere entertainment.  A good movie is about something besides the plot.  It has a message, a theme, a view of the world.  And my professor was saying that a good bad movie - one that "merely" tries to entertain and succeeds - is a better flick than one that tries to change your life and fails.

I realize that some of you are even now composing messages that argue with pretty much every word in the paragraph above.  That's fine.  But let's kick the idea around a bit.

One of the problems, of course, is that a well-done piece of "mere entertainment" is probably as carefully thought through and layered as the allegedly deeper "good" movie.  The first Star Wars movie, for example, is a great popcorn flick but George Lucas certainly knows his Joseph Campbell and the archetypal Hero's Journey is baked solidly into the film's DNA.  

Or take Psycho, which I imagine we would agree with the professor is a good or even great, bad movie.  Hitchcock himself described it as a fun movie, like a trip "through the haunted house at a fairground." But perhaps unlike  many of the thousands of slasher films that it inspired, there is a lot of meaning bubbling under the surface.

For example: next time you watch it, starting from the very first scene watch for references to parents, living or dead, who impose on and  distort the lives of their children.  You will find that this is mentioned several times before the Bates Motel looms up on the dark road.  Someone - Robert Bloch who wrote the novel, or Joseph Stefano who wrote the screenplay, or director Hitchcock - went to a lot of trouble to put these nuggets in.  Is it establishing a theme, as the creators of "good movies" might call it, or merely increasing suspense through foreshadowing?  Or is that a distinction without a difference?

Of course, you can argue that every movie has a message.  Jim Britell noted that "the message of most American movies is that only Batman or Clint Eastwood can go up against Mr. Big."  Not very empowering.  


In the world of fiction as opposed to film, the distinction is likely to be called genre fiction versus mainstream fiction (or even just "literature.")  Crime fiction, the reviewers will tell us, is just entertainment, with no deeper message.

Or is it?

Let's take Rex Stout's Gambit, which is a standard whodunit (with one exception that we will get to).  In the first scene private detective Nero Wolfe is burning a copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary in his fireplace.  His main objection is that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  That is, it tells you how words are being used, not how they should be used.  Then a client arrives and we move into a murder investigation and the dictionary is not mentioned again.

However...

All the characters we meet in the book have a strange relationship with the idea of knowledge.  Some insist vehemently on something they know, which turns out to be wrong. ("I know you!" snaps Inspector Cramer, completely misinterpreting Wolfe's motives.) The enchanting beauty of one character,  who is by no means stupid, is twice described as being related to her giving the impression of knowing nothing.  Others have important information but don't know how to use it.  The murderer misuses specialized knowledge to commit the crime.  

The unusual thing about the book is  that Nero Wolfe knows the identity of the murderer with almost a quarter of the novel left.  What he does in the last chapters, and what makes him the hero, is figure out how to use the knowledge he has acquired in order to defeat the bad guy.

In short, the entire novel is a polemic against that dictionary, pointing out that knowing something (like the meaning of a word) is not enough.  You have to know how to use what you know.

One more example.  Good Behavior is one of Donald E. Westlake's best comic crime novels.  In it, his hapless burglar, John Dortmunder, organizes a major robbery in a skyscraper  but his real purpose is to rescue a nun who is being held prisoner in the penthouse.

Or putting it another way: like any fairy tale knight, his quest is to rescue a maiden from a tower. "She'd have to let her hair down a hell of a distance, wouldn't she?" Dortmunder muses.

And once you notice that fact, images of chivalry pop up in the book with great regularity.  (The villain is a wealthy industrialist named Ritter... as in Knight-Ritter?)

Would we say Westlake is trying to do more than entertain, or that his thematic elements are simply one of the things that makes the book such fun?  And again, does it matter?

I'm going off on a tangent now.  On rare and wonderful occasions something I have written has received a review.  People will ask me whether it got a good review.  I usually respond (if it is true) that it received a positive review.  Which is not the same thing.

A good review is one which  allows the reader to accurately  decide whether the book/story/movie is one they would enjoy.  That is not quite the same as a positive review.

Several decades ago I read a newspaper review of Douglas Adam's first novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  It was a negative review.  The critic basically said that this was a patheitic example of what passed for humor in science fiction.  To prove his point he included several examples of the alleged humor.

I read them and when I managed to stop laughing I said: "I need this book immediately!"  The review was not positive, but it was good - because it told me that 1) the critic had no sense of humor, and 2) Adams was brilliant.  

And that's all I have to say, which is good.  I'm positive.

03 April 2019

To Catch A Map Thief


Back in 2008 I wrote at Criminal Brief (here and here) about a massive theft that my library experienced.  I retired last year but I was invited to come back and talk about it in February.  The Map Collection had just moved to a new, more accessible, space in the Libraries and I was sort of a guinea pig, being the first speaker in the new space.  Everything worked out (and we will filled the area). The talk was videoed and you can see watch it by clicking here.



And here are the answers to the movie quotations quiz from last time.

POPCORN PROVERBS 4


Remember you're old. - Warren Lipka (Evan Peters) American Animals

You said to me this is a family secret, and you gave it up to me, boom just like that. You spill the secret family recipe today, maybe you spill a little something about me tomorrow, hm? -Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) Black Mass

-Aren't you worried?
-Would it help?  -James Donovan (Tom Hanks) / Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) Bridge of Spies

When they send for you, you go in alive, you come out dead, and it's your best friend that does it. -Lefty (Al Pacino) Donnie Brasco


-You can't give back what you've taken from me.
-OK, then... Plan B, why don't we just kill each other?  -Sean Archer (Nicholas Cage)/ Castor Troy (John Travolta)  Face/Off

-I didn't kill my wife!
-I don't care! -Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford / Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones The Fugitive

-In this family, we do not solve our problems by hitting people!
-No, in this family, we shoot them! - Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) / Jack Stall (Ashton Holmes) A History of Violence

The competitor is our friend and the customer is our enemy.  - Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) The Informant!




How did you ever rob a bank? When you robbed banks, did you forget where your car was then too? No wonder you went to jail. -Melanie (Brigit Finda) Jackie Brown

It takes more than a few firecrackers to kill Danny Greene!  - Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson ) Kill the Irishman

Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie. You could get a perfectly good dishwasher for that. -Bree Daniel (Jane Fonda) Klute

A man abandoned his family and wrote his son a story. He wouldn't be the first to cloak his cowardice in a flag of sacrifice. -Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) Mr. Holmes

You can add Sebastian's name to my list of playmates. - Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) Notorious


-There's a ninety-five pound Chinese man with a hundred sixty million dollars behind this door.
-Let's get him out.  - Danny (George Clooney) / Linus (Matt Damon) Ocean's Eleven

We should all be clowns, Milly. -Jim Wormold (Alec Guinness) Our Man in Havana

You get four guys all fighting over who's gonna be Mr. Black, but they don't know each other, so nobody wants to back down. No way. I pick. You're Mr. Pink. Be thankful you're not Mr. Yellow. -Joe (Lawrence Tierney) Reservoir Dogs


- I am a moral outcast.
-  Well, it's always nice to meet a writer.  -Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) / Barley Scott Blair (Sean Connery) The Russia House

Frank, let's face it. Who can trust a cop who don't take money? -Tom Keough (Jack Kehoe) Serpico


-Looks like trouble. -Looks like Christmas.  -Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) / Marv (Mickey Rourke) Sin City 2: A Dame to Die For


If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one. -Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) Spotlight



- I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.

- It's not true.  He didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.  - Nora Charles (Myrna Loy)/Nick Charles (William Powell)/  The Thin Man.


To protect the sheep you have to catch the wolves and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf.  -Alonzo (Denzel Washington) Training Day

-Not everyone loves us, Rex. -Save the punditry for someone whose paid to have an opinion.
-I'm cool with censorship, I know the American people love that.

-Angie Jones (Zoe Saldana) / Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver) Vantage Point


I do favors for people and in return, they give me gifts. So, what can I do for you? -Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) A Walk Among The Tombstones



-Man, I get so mad I want to fight the whole world.  You got any idea what that feels like?
-I do.  I decided to fight the feeling instead.  Cause I figured the world would win. - Chip (Martin Sensmeier) / Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) Wind River