Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ewell Gnomee

Saturday July 30th kids, come on out to Meshuggah in University City for a St. Louis Noir release party N@B throwdown. One of our goup exercises in alienation will commence in honor of the book that bears our brand at 7pm with editor, host and emcee Scott Phillips plus contributors to the anthology reading from it - N@B alumn: Laura Benedict and S. L. Coney, 'bout damn timers John Lutz, LaVelle Wilkins-Chinn and Calvin Wilson. Plus me. I'll be in there somewhere and read from my story Have You Seen Me? You will know me by my exceedingly awkward manner.

Wednesday the 27th you will know me by my exceedingly starstruck eyes at the St. Louis County Library HQ where I'll be in attendance at Megan Abbott's tour stop for You Will Know Me, which is, shit, it's getting all the attentions from the fancy people. 'Bout damn time on that count too.

And on Wednesday, August 3rd The Hardboiled Wonderland Film Series continues at the Maplewood Library at 7pm with Neil Jordan's 1986 Mona Lisa starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson and Michael Caine. If you're tired of the brutal summer heat find solace and menace indoors with me. You will know me by my pale, face and dazed expression. Hey, free movie - and good fucking luck renting this one. If you've never seen it drop on by.

I'll be at another event in support of St. Louis Noir at the St. Louis County Library HQ on Tuesday, August 18. No idea what I'll read there as it will surely be a more cultured crowd than the N@B event. You will know me by my general unkempt uncouthitude.

Pretty much how you'll know me at Bouchercon in New Orleans come September too. That and my classy roommates Grant Jerkins and Jeremy Stabile - who've got some plans for Grant's suuuuper nasty and just, holy shit where does this guy get the balls to do that? book Abnormal Man. Seriously, I read that thing at the pool a couple weeks back and they had to clear everybody out and scrub the place down afterward. It is hideous and probably the best thing he's yet produced. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Graphic Violence

Recently read The Last of the Independents by Matt Fraction and Kieron Dwyer - very much in debt to Richard Stark's Parker and Don Siegel's Charley Varrick - and it scratched my itch for straight-up crime comics - and one-offs at that - that flares up now and again when I realize there'll be no more Scalped, who knows about Criminal and Stumptown and fuck it all, so long Darwyn Cooke's Parker books... I heard a rumor that Tom Hardy's got his hands in a 100 Bullets television adaptation, but who knows how long how when and how good that could be.

And shit, that Vertigo Crime series was pretty hit or miss, but if you got a stinker at least you could, briefly, count on more content on the way soon.

Well, somebody heard me crying and his name might be Charles Ardai. The publisher of Hard Case Crime has announced the Hard Case Crime Comics and the announced talent raises and then knits my eyebrows together.

Especially Peepland from Christa Faust, Gary Phillips and Andrea Camerini. Before George Pelecanos and David Simon drop The Deuce next year, this visit to the seedy seventies/eighties NYC underground of porn and punk ought to fucking rock. Digging everything about this combination of elements. Side note - you've already got your hands on Ed Kurtz's The Forty-Two, right? Just checking.

What else? How 'bout a prohibition-era gangland bit from motherfucking Walter Hill? Last time I watched Last Man Standing it finally clicked for me. Dunno why it took so long and as many visits to really dig that picture - it always looked amazing and had a terrific performance from Christopher Walken - but I finally saw it belonging to the same reality as The Warriors and Streets of Fire. Y'know, comic book reality. Made a big difference. So hey, color me down for Triggerman.

Also headed down the pike at Hard Case Crime Comics is a version of Max Allan Collins's Quarry. Will it follow the plot of the books or the television show or just be new stories featuring the character? Dunno, but considering the obsessive commitment he demonstrated to bending all things Road to Perdition to continuity, I suspect we're in for something similar. Curious, for sure. I've always liked the character and the possibilities of material based on him. Really looking forward to the Quarry show on Cinemax this fall too.

So for now I've got Brubaker and Ellis's The Fade Out and Duane Swierczynski's The Black Hood to keep up with. If you know something straight-up crime I should be keeping up with I'd appreciate a tip.

This little nod to the late St. Louisan Helen Simpson appeared in The Black Hood #11. She was the proprietor of Big Sleep Books here in town and nearly everybody who ever met her has a story ranging from the very pleasant to the very blunt (after I'd given her a copy of my first book to see if she'd be interested in carrying it at the store I checked in a couple weeks later and her entire review was "Oh, thumbs down" - which I ought to use as a blurb some time). Anthony Neil Smith has a better/worse story than mine.

If you remember where Big Sleep Books was located on Euclid ave. in the Central West End you can still get crime books in the same spot. Helen's business partner Ed King has re-opened the space as Pagan Wine Bar & Books. Go see Ed. I like Ed.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink

Watched Arthur Penn's Night Moves again the other, uh, night. It'd been a while since I'd first enjoyed it and wanted another go. I mentioned my intent to revisit it on social media and N@B-godfather, Peter Rozovsky (good ol' Fuck Peter Rozovsky himself) spake up to say it was not a film he enjoyed. He referenced a piece on his Detectives Beyond Borders blog about his experience watching it and it appears his chief complaint is one of the meta-text or the heavy-handedness of the film's nods (heavy-headedness?) to its predecessors and lineage - particularly when Gene Hackman's detective is interviewed by a potential new client and she asks him, on behalf of the audience, if his model of detective is anything like (Dashiell Hammett's) Sam Spade.

Of course the post also had the film's supporters speaking up - notably Scott Adlerberg who knows a thing or two about crime flicks and Andrew Nette who covered Night Moves on his Pulp Curry blog (and in honor of the late Michael Cimino had this recent re-visit of Year of the Dragon - which Nette points out owes a conscious debt to Roman Polanski's Chinatown).

But being a fan both of crime fiction and film of the mid and late twentieth century I've found particularly the private detective subgenre to be rife with metatextual nods to influences and ancestry, especially at times of cultural shifts and pivots.

Before Night Moves, Penn's Bonnie & Clyde had given the gangster picture the re-contexualization that New-Hollywood was giving to all popular genres (Penn's Little Big Man and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch were doing it to the western, Milos Foreman's Hair was almost a decade later, but the stage version along with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar were hardly The Greatest Generation's musicals), and Night Moves' nods to fare like The Maltese Falcon may be on the nose, but I'd say no more so than another flick I dig - Jack Smight's 1966 Harper (an adaptation of Ross MacDonald's The Moving Target) which places itself, rather audaciously, in the lineage of Raymond Chandler's/John Huston's The Big Sleep by going so far as to recreate the opening scene for a new time with the same actress (Lauren Bacall).

Or hell, one of my personal favorite detective novels - James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss is all loving-homage as well as re-purposing of the plot of Chandler's The Long Goodbye. Or what about the relationship between Vicki Hendricks' Miami Purity and James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice - is foreknowledge of the former necessary for appreciating the offspring?

No, but man, they make sweet music together.

New times, new politics, same old shit.

In fact I'd say that Mike Hodges' 1971 Get Carter (a film I know Rozovsky digs - and hey, both Detectives Beyond Borders and Pulp Curry have some swell pieces on Jack's Return Home author Ted Lewis and his final novel - the face-melting GBH - go check em out) begins the schtick that Hodges and Michael Caine continued in their next (and very-meta) film Pulp (1972) in which Caine plays a pulp novelist drawn into actual events that mirror the plots of some of his hacky creations. That credit sequence of Carter on the train reading Farewell My Lovely winks pretty hard without becoming parody and the film itself is more or less a detective picture in which the detective is anything but noble and all the elements of a typical revenge thriller are left out a beat too long - to spoil, to twist, to sour, to hurt.

I also re-watched Get Carter this week and was struck this time by how much it reminded me of Robert Altman's same period exercise in repurposing the detective genre, the ever-divisive The Long Goodbye - particularly sequences like the introduction of Cyril and Glenda (John Osborne and Geraldine Moffat) - the way the separate conversations overlap without one receiving preferential treatment in the sound mix creating an uneasy tension and a dual-track suspense sequence with multiple layers of relational dynamics.

Just under twenty years ago New Hollywood was getting its own re-contexualization in the age of remakes. John Boorman's 1967 adaptation of Richard Stark's (Donald Westlake's) The Hunter, Point Blank became Brian Helgeland's Mel Gibson pic Payback - which itself was re-released years later (in the far-superior form Payback: Straight Up) and Stephen Kay's Sylvester Stallone vehicle (with a cameo from Caine) Get Carter.

Needless to say Stallone's Carter has some code to him, some moral center the audience can sit inside comfortably and thus enjoy the good old-fashioned ass-kicking action.

What that says about the film makers' artistic/commercial intent or the audience's perceived appetite vs. the actual reception/rejection it received is worth thinking on. Similarly, you could almost compare Payback and Payback: Straight Up's film makers'/audience's intent and reception with equal intrigue.

What is the "new" position? What tropes are they playing with? Are they subverting anything? Are they restoring the old or mere grossly cynical exercises in capitalism? In this age of re-appropriation and re-making, re-directing - the age of both J.J. Abrams and Noah Hawley - I'd argue that the mash-up, the remake, repurposing of original intellectual properties may be the representative art-form of the age, and as such makes up some of the best and worst creative works the period will be remembered for and juxtaposed against in the future.

So yeah, it's nothing new. It's more or less its own trope by now.

High profile projects like Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice David Fincher/Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, or Quentin Tarantino's, Shane Black's and the Coen Brothers' entire oeuvres rely heavily on it and smaller films like Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin, Aaron Katz's Cold Weather and Noah Buschel's The Missing Person have recently used our familiarity and basic literacy with the genre's tropes and understanding of the way it ought to go to pull off some nice tricks - subverting expectations without (entirely) parodying their origin - often directly stating them.

Of course how it succeeds is entirely personal. Poor old Peter Rozovsky is hyper-literate in the genre and one man's subtle innuendo, in-joke or subliminal suggestion is another man's bullhorn announcement. I get that. You wanna good laugh about it all? @CrimeFicTrope on Twitter is always good for a chuckle.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Narcocorrido: Narrative Music by Gordon Chaplin

The narcocorrido, the murder ballad and the average gangster rap joint are what I've expected to make up the majority of the Narrative Music series since its inception, and I'm pleased to have today's piece represent the corrido as apparently it's the first piece I've received. I know I wrote one way back for another site that no longer exists, but damn... kind of embarrassing to find nothing else here on the blog.

Anyhow, today's contribution is from Gordon Chaplin, most recently the author of Paraiso. If you dig what you read here please check out his work and visit his website.

by Gordon Chaplin

Not too long ago, a stripped out Boeing 727 full to the gunwales with uncut cocaine landed at a popular transshipment point near the little town of Todos Santos in southern Baja California, where I happened to be living at the time and where my new novel Paraiso is set. It was a dry lake bed in the desert that narcos had been flying small aircraft into for years, but this time they got ambitious. Too ambitious. The big 727 landed without mishap but was too heavy for the lakebed and soon  mired down and became trapped. After unloading the cocaine, the smugglers called their allies in the federal police force who dispatched heavy earthmoving equipment to the scene. The plane was half-buried out of sight when someone tipped off the local press and the incident became legend. I even used it in Paraiso.

It didn’t take long for a norteno band called Grupo Laberinto to write a narcocorrido about this and other smuggling incidents involving Boeing 727s, which turn out to be the workhorse of choice for Mexican narcos. With  three powerful  engines in the tail,  they can operate on much shorter runways than normal jets and carry a bigger payload. Grupo Labarinto’s narcocorrido is roguishly titled Caballos del Pantanal: Horses of the Marshlands. It assumes its listeners already know the smuggling connection and contents itself with sly  double entendres. In the pantanal around Tepic there are many good horses. They are covered and quite famous for where they come from,  smirks the first verse.

The corrido is the traditional  ballad of northern Mexico. An accordion-based polka rhythm sets the tone and the form goes back to the Mexican revolution of 1910, celebrating  heroes like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Smugglers began to be celebrated in these ballads as early as 1930.

The new narcocorrido genre has a hip-hop outlaw appeal and is spreading like wildfire through Central America, along the US border, and in US cities with large Latin populations, like Los Angeles. A song called El Cabron (the Badass)  features the following uncompromising lyrics: Ever since I was a boy I had the fame of a badass, already hitting the parrot (cocaine) and blowing dope with all my heart. It’s because in my beloved Mexico everyone is a badass.

Authorities have tried unsuccessfully to ban narcocorridos, including a voluntary radio blackout in Baja California to prevent “people who break the laws of our country being made into heroes and examples.” The death toll among actual performers is also high, as the narcos themselves react homicidally to being singled out by name. Many of the ballads are incriminatingly true to fact. Between 2006 and 2008 alone over a dozen prominent balladeers were murdered, in some cases by torture and disfigurement.

But this only seems to make the genre more popular…and more violent. A recent offshoot of the form, known as movimiento alterado (altered movement, as in someone soaring on cocaine) features the following famous verse:

With an AK-47 and a bazooka on our heads
Cutting off all heads that cross our path
We’re bloodthirsty and crazy—We love to kill
Bullets fired and extortions carried out, just like the best of us
Always in a convoy of armored cars, wearing bullet-proof vests and ready to kill people.  

photo by George Bouret
Gordon Chaplin is the author of the novel Joyride and several works of nonfiction, including Dark Wind: A Survivor’s Tale of Love and Loss and Full Fathom Five: Ocean Warming and a Father’s Legacy. A former journalist for Newsweek, the Baltimore Sun, and the Washington Post, he has worked on sea conservation with the group Niparaja and since 2003 has been a research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.  His latest novel, Paraiso, is now available. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City and Hebron, New York.
To learn more, visit www.gordonchaplin.com
Like Gordon on Facebook: /GordonChaplinAuthor
Follow Gordon on Twitter: @gordon_chaplin

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Most Badass Photo of the Year so far...

Gary Phillips, Walter Moseley and John Singleton just hanging out.

That's all.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Picture Books: Gerald Petievich

Gerald Petievich is a former Secret Service agent and the author of several novels about Secret Service agents, three of which have been adapted as feature films. I showed the first in my Hardboiled Wonderland Film Series, and I've got real affection for another as well, but... here's where I confess my ignorance of the source material and admit I've not read the books. The Picture Books series is supposed to be a look at the adaptations of books by a single author, an examination of their treatment by the film industry and to see if you can get a hint of the original voice that inspired the collaborative efforts.

So here goes.

To Live & Die in L.A. (1985) - Adapted for the screen by Petievich and director William Friedkin. A full-on glossy hollywood treatment from an A-list director and featuring a cast to die for including John Turturro, Steve James, Dean Stockwell, Robert Downey, Jane Leeves and Gary Cole in small roles.

I've always thought of the film as Friedkin's west coast companion piece to The French Connection - both about obsessively driven and not terribly concerned about protocol or strict legality cops - men who seem to have gotten into law enforcement for exactly the kind of juice that being out on the hunt gives them, seeking out quarry who've risen to their level, but its initial reception put it clearly in conversation with its contemporary television counterpart, the show famously pitched with a two-word memo "MTV cops", Michael Mann's Miami Vice. That's a comparison worth making too as L.A.'s leading man William Peterson had made his screen debut in a blink and you'll miss it bartender role in Mann's Thief and the year after his first lead role in L.A., held the center of Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon - Manhunter, not to mention the heavily-relied-upon original soundtrack by current MTV heavy rotators Wang Chung to rival Vice's iconic use of Phil Collins's In the Air Tonight (edge goes to Miami Vice there - come to think of it, both Mann and Friedkin had used Tangerine Dream for original scores to Thief and Sorcerer respectively... hey David Lynch used Toto for Dune).

Peterson plays Richard Chance, an agent, stuffed into jeans three sizes too small that make him walk with a bow-legged swagger Mick Jagger would envy, who's just caught scent of that prey that will make him up his game. It's invigorating, it's what he lives (and is willing to die) for. Doesn't hurt of course that his target, a counterfeiter named Masters, just killed Chance's partner.

Doesn't hurt either that the film spends half its screen time following and developing Masters (played with macho androgyny by Willem Dafoe) rather than being a simple procedural. The hunt takes the rather on the nosedly named Chance from one risky move to another morally and mortally shaky proposition while Masters confidently prowls his jungle equally at home and ease putting out prison hits on potential informers, dispatching betrayers himself, out-muscling muscle twice his size and attending modern dance productions, gallery openings and steam baths. He's a thoroughly modern animal comfortable in any environment.

Along the way Chance will risk the life of his confidential informant Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), a woman he uses every way he can - he callously exploits every vulnerability she'll expose: her sexuality, her kid, her finances, her connections and rap sheet - if she doesn't put her reputation and life on the line for him he tells her he won't hesitate to violate her right back to prison. She and we believe him. She's the beating heart of the whole dismal affair and by the picture's end there's a strong possibility she's used him right back, but her ultimate position is what makes this thing clearly a noir rather than a hardboiled crime thriller.

Chance is also plenty ready to sacrifice his brand new partner Vukovich (John Pankow) along the way. The moment Vukovich lets on that he's got reservations about going off the reservation, Chance pounces all over perceived insecurities - pushing him relentlessly to push himself and his sense of right and wrong and acceptable risk and losses in pursuit of Masters. Chance seems to want to mold his new partner into his own image or infect him with the same adrenaline bug he's got.

The film suffers some from a hell of a lot of expositional dialogue delivered in cliches, but has a propulsive forward momentum that makes it easy to forgive and by the time "the good guys" are committing armed robbery themselves, in order to fund a sting operation the Secret Service won't pay for, the whole thing has hit critical mass and terminal velocity and it's a rush to watch the great clusterfuck unravel.

Worth noting too that it features a car chase second only to The French Connection in Friedkin's body of work (I'd throw the one in Jade in at number three and I might even cheat and call Sorcerer's entire second half a car chase).

Boiling Point (1993) - Script by Petievich and director James B. Harris and based on the novel Money Men, the first of four books featuring Treasury Agent Charlie Carr (one of which is titled To Die in Beverly Hills... no connection that I know of to To Live & Die in L.A.). Harris has a short but remarkable list of credits - as a director his previous effort was Cop, the first and one of the most successful adaptations of James Ellroy material (from the novel Blood on the Moon), and as a producer for Stanley Kubrick's collaborations with Jim Thompson. So... yeah, he's got a taste for the material.

Wesley Snipes plays the agent at the center of the action here, this time also determined to nab the guy who killed his partner. The supporting cast in this one is very respectable too - Dan Hedaya, James Tolkan, Valerie Perrine, Lolita Davidovich and Tony Lo Bianco all have chances to contribute, but I'd forgotten how engaging Snipes could be when he seemed like he gave a shit. He's tough without being a cartoon, world weary without feeling like a cliche and unexpectedly and genuinely vulnerable.

As good as he is though the movie really belongs to the bad guys. Dennis Hopper and Viggo Mortensen play career criminals partnering up just out of prison. Hopper's Red Diamond is a hustler with big plans and bigger debts to Lo Bianco's gangster. He's also mentor to Mortensen's younger, trusting and casually violent muscle. Hopper is all talking-with-hands, full of shit and honestly hurt when you don't believe him, while Mortensen is not too bright, but having fun. He's also loyal and ready to throw down any time his partner gives him the cue.

Like L.A. the movie spends equal time on the cops and the crooks which I love. Like former prosecuting attorney George V. Higgins, ex-secret serviceman Petievich seems to be drawing equally from his own experience and an apparent fascination with the criminal characters whose paths he crossed and the whole underworld economy they operate in. This time the film has a nice touch cutting scenes of all three leads talking separately to the women they love as a seamless conversation. The parallels between them don't stop there - Snipes and Hopper spend time with the same call girl (Davidovich) and both have something more than just a john relationship with her. Snipes and Hopper cross streams not only with the call girl, but also in the men's room of a hotel before either know their adversary by sight.

More than once they do - the film opens with Snipes, Hopper and Mortensen all at the same hamburger shack - Snipes getting grub for his stake out/sting operation, Hopper and Mortensen waiting on a phone call to lure them into said sting - illustrating the smallness of the world or more probably the draw of their elements toward each other - circling the same action, the same attractions, the same drain.

Unusually strong too are the beat scenes of the procedural. Jonathan Banks has a few scenes that he carries as a lawyer engaged in many extra legal operations (the parallel to Dean Stockwell in L.A.) while Tobin Bell is a particular stand out in his only scene (a convict Snipes is trying to turn snitch), Paul Gleason holds up his half of the film's best suspense sequence as Banks's bag man and Seymour Cassel lends so much class and gravity to the whole affair just by showing his face.

Not an action movie. Folks seeing Snipes aim a gun at them from the poster will be forgiven for feeling mislead. Snipes does get a single flying kick in when busting through a door, but that's the extent of the film's quick moving stuff. Even the shootouts are bang, bang and done. Which is nice. Unlike To Live & Die in L.A.'s frenetic extended action sequences this one just kind of stews in atmosphere and lets the plot simmer until it reaches its uh boiling point.

The Sentinel (2006) - Adapted from Petievich's novel of the same name by George Nolfi and directed by Clark Johnson. Michael Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland are Secret Service agents chasing down a lead that one of their own may be planning to kill the president. Sutherland heads up the investigation and if you've ever seen any Michael Douglas movie before you'll not be surprised to find out that he's surprised to find out the evidence is pointing to him - because he's Michael Douglas in a Michael Douglas movie and had y'know an affair with the first lady (Kim Basinger). Has any actor ever been so singularly branded as the guy whose dick gets him in trouble? 

Since it can't be settled by a conversation, Douglas has to evade Sutherland while foiling the real assassination plot. The Fugitive by way of No Way Out?

This one feels like it was financed as a safe bet. In fact the whole thing feels like an episode of a TV series you've never heard of, but feel completely familiar with anyway. Probably by design too. Johnson is such a reliable television director (dude did the pilot episodes and series finales of both The Shield and The Wire for fuck's sake), Sutherland was at the height of Bauer-power and Eva Longoria was hot on Desperate Housewives too. So why wasn't it a hit?

It just wasn't very good. It wasn't very bad either. It was competent and smooth and put together just fine, but it lacked any sense of suspense, urgency or, more importantly, personality.

Having not read the book, I don't know where to put the blame. Yes, this one is about personally compromised government agents doing agenty shit, but it isn't balanced by the other foot being in the criminal world. This one's more of a who-dunnit or a who's about to do it and once you've seen the rest of the cast list you'll get zero points from me for guessing.

Petievich collaborated with William Friedkin twice more on the made for television movies C.A.T. Squad (1986) and C.A.T. Squad: Python Wolf (aka C.A.T. Squad: Stalking Danger) (1988) about an anti-terrorism squad. Haven't seen those, but they look like a lot of fun from the posters.

They look like the kind of men's-adventure fare Brace Godfrey might have written.

And I'm good with that.