THROWBACK (Curtis Hanson, R.I.P.)

I somehow missed ever seeing Wonder Boys or 8 Mile, both of which look as though they are right up my alley. And, despite some fine acting, I didn’t care for his inevitable Oscar winner, L.A. Confidential. There was no way to root out James Ellroy’s fundamental fasciscti stench (I’m not speculating, Ellroy owns it and thinks anyone who doesn’t agree with him is an idiot), without taking the juice out of the thing.

But Hanson made his reputation with a trio of superb modern thrillers–The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle–all made between 1987 and 1992, and all neo-Hitchcockian in the best sense. They had plenty of modern edge and even nastiness, but somehow avoided the nihilism that has bedeviled the genre since just about the time of the Master’s own demise. The Bedroom Window has been on my shelf for years and never wears out. I’ve been meaning to revisit the other two for a while and this will give me a spur to get on with it.

Perhaps even more than that, however, I value his thoughtful, civilized commentary in the documentary feature that accompanied the 50th Anniversary DVD edition of The Searchers. As Hanson himself noted, it was a measure of how far John Ford’s influence reached that it touched so deeply on a filmmaker who made films which, superficially, could not have been more different. I’ll be watching that tonight in his honor. One can only wonder if his streak of obvious decency kept his filmography smaller than it might have been, here in this paradise we’ve made.

Hope he’s found better tonight.

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SUMMER’S HERE…AND THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR TURNING MY BRAIN INTO A BLUNT OBJECT (Monthly Book Report: June, 2015)

Boy, the pulps are taking over. I may start eating broccoli again soon but, for now, it’s strictly cheeseburgers:

The Shot (Philip Kerr, 1999)

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Kerr is probably best known for his Bernie Gunther series, of which I read the first three some years back. Here, as there, he doesn’t expend a lot of effort on style. I gather he strictly rises and falls on the quality of his ideas.

The idea here is a good one. A shadow version of the Kennedy Assassination that holds its tension nicely until it takes one turn too many at the very end (or maybe just finally takes a wrong turn). As such things go, it’s a bit better than Don DeLillo’s crit-friendly Libra, though not nearly as good as James Ellroy’s fever dream American Tabloid, which is almost certainly the best novel ever written by a pud-pulling fascist.

A Deadly Shade of Gold (John D. MacDonald, 1965)

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Given the setup–an old friend is murdered over Aztec gold and McGee wants to help his woman find both the gold and the killer–I had hopes our hero would avoid the sex therapy.

He doesn’t, and, worse, his failure doesn’t ring true. But it’s a small complaint. This is the best and most ambitious of the series so far. It’s nearly twice the prescribed formula’s length and that length allows the formula to open up. Of course, we have the usual sharp socio-political insights, some of them even weighing in on the future, as first-rate pulp has to do in order to remain first rate. So we get McGee on the burgeoning Education Industry:

“It was a building to turn out the men who could house fabulous technicians with that contempt for every other field of human knowledge which only the truly ignorant can achieve. It was a place to train ants to invent insecticides.”

But here, that’s just the setup. The hero is swimming with the sharks soon enough and the real reward is a tangled-but-plausible plot that moves from Miami’s Cuban exile community to the high art antique world (where McGee, for once, actually trades sex for information, though he’s improbably decent enough to feel bad about it) to Mexico’s second tier resorts to a washed-out California paradise nobody in their right mind would ever want to live in, all without dropping a stitch. Somewhere in there, the ugly elements of our current predicament emerge, crouching, waiting to take form.

And, hey, because it’s John D. MacDonald, you can have fun, too. If that’s your thing.

Bright Orange for the Shroud (John D. MacDonald, 1965)

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The sub-plot is a fairly interesting twist. One of McGee’s sex-therapy successes, Chookie the dancer, provides similar therapy for a down-and-outer who comes limping back into their lives after he’s been taken for a ride by a gold-digger who turns out to be part of a larger, nastier shakedown. Not to give anything away, but Chookie and the down-and-outer end up getting married.

Not until they’ve outlasted one of MacDonald’s truly terrifying villains.

It was MacDonald who created the role Robert Mitchum defined in the original Cape Fear (a role that Mitchum strode through with the kind of easy menace such men actually possess in life and which thoroughly defeated Robert DeNiro when he gave it a go a generation later). He repeated a version of it in the kick-starter for the McGee series and it’s hard to believe he can take it any further than he does here with Boo Waxwell, who defines the middle-class fear of the hillbilly so well he jumps off the page and into the nervous system.

You want to know why people carry guns?

Because Travis McGee is a fine fantasy.

In my part of the world, Boo Waxwell’s always around somewhere.

Darker Than Amber (John D. MacDonald, 1966)

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This one’s notable mostly for the first serious involvement of Meyer (McGee’s Watson) in one of the cases. It works smoothly enough and there’s always the pleasure of the writer honing in on the faces-behind-the-faces who generate so much of the world’s misery (Meyer: “A corporate financial statement is the most nonspecific thing there is. If a man can’t read the lines between the lines between the lines, he might as well stuff his money into a hollow tree.”…there’s our long journey down the rat-hole in a nutshell).

But, after a promising beginning, the plot doesn’t amount to much. Putting McGee up against a bunch of second-raters isn’t likely to generate much tension. Granted, it’s always harder to sustain interest once a formula’s elements become too comfortably familiar, but I don’t think that’s the reason this was the first in the series that had me checking page numbers and looking at my watch.

Start finding out for sure, next month I guess.

Til then…

NOT THAT HE WOULD WANT MY SYMPATHY GOD LOVE HIM (Elmore Leonard, R.I.P.)

Honestly, I wasn’t a big fan of his crime writing.

Too much of the Cain/Thompson/Ellroy school in his approach I’m afraid.

I’ve never really been interested in the quandary of an amoral man walking through an amoral universe. And, if the writer starts pretending his amoral man isn’t really amoral–Leonard’s more usual approach–so much the worse.

So what he was best known for always left me a touch cold. I never completely warmed to it even though his prose was every bit as swift and effective as his legion of admirers profess and his source story for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown was evidently strong enough to impose narrative discipline even in the desolate space between that wunderkind’s ears (with a very good movie resulting for once).

However…

If there often seemed to be just a little more to Leonard than to Cain or Thompson (who really were pretty close to being nihilists and that “pretty close,” especially in Thompson’s case, may be kind) or to noise machines like Ellroy who came along afterwards, then it was probably attributable to his background in westerns, where he did some genuinely fine things.

Some of those fine things got made into even finer things when the movies got hold of them. I’d point particularly to Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma, the former one of the great westerns of the form’s golden age, the latter one of the greatest films ever made irrespective of era or genre. Even in such capable hands, it’s not likely either would have been quite as good without the cant-free strengths of their common source.

Once Leonard broke free of the moral constraints imposed by audience expectations in the last age of the pulp western’s cultural ascendance, however, he was basically on his own, bereft of even the most basic sorting devices. That’s a place no writer should ever be and he didn’t respond any better than anybody had a right to expect.

No, he didn’t turn into a genuine bomb-thrower. He wasn’t James Ellroy, forever calling for a police state and using his own novels as the evidence for how badly we need one. Nothing like that.

He just kind of drifted. You know, morally speaking. He got his ethics from his professionalism–the safe ground that isn’t safe at all.

The end result was that his prose got better and better…and covered less and less.

In his latter days, he was responsible, albeit indirectly, for Justified, which is one of those takes on southern white trash that makes it possible, for just a moment, for southern whites to get a small taste of what black people must feel when yet another Hollywood version of ghetto life springs forth.

In other words, he wasn’t entirely harmless just because he had emptied himself out.

I mention this because it was easy to be fooled. Appearances could be deceiving.

By the time he passed away today, he was, image-wise at least, a rather gentle curmudgeon, forever offering up writing tips to people who thought he was a stone cold genius. I give him enormous credit for never giving the appearance of believing the hype himself, or pretending to be anything but the solid, ethical pro he was. And I won’t worry too much about the rest. He wasn’t the sort of writer who can hurt us too much from the beyond. And if there’s anything that needs to be sorted out between him and the universe, then it’s nothing to do with me.

I will say that the chance he might have turned into a better version of Larry McMurtry (not saying the actual version is less than very good) will always be an intriguing one.

But that chance got lost along the way. It was gone a long time before “Dutch” went on to face whatever state of judgment or oblivion is really waiting.

So I’ll celebrate the best of what he did do, which was basically writing a thick volume of very good western stories and inspiring a raft of good-to-great movies.

Hombre, Out of Sight, Valdez is Coming, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma.

The Complete Western Stories.

That’s a worthy legacy for any writer. Especially for one who lost his way and kept being assured otherwise.

Usually by people I’ll always prefer to believe he was too smart to trust.