Mr. George A. Romero

Some years ago now, I wrote a rambling blog post that was titled “Closing the Loop On Romero.” I still have what I wrote but I’ll spare us the reposting of it. The gist of it was that when I was in the seventh grade, in my Advanced English class, we watched two films, a 1955 film titled “Les Diaboliques,” in which a wife and mistress plot to get rid of the abusive man they’ve been sharing at their digs at a French boarding school owned by the wife, and a 1968 film titled “Night of the Living Dead,” in which a group of people hole up in an abandoned house in order to escape the “living dead” rising up out of the cemetery, whom seem to be interested in dining on human flesh, which makes it sound sophomoric when it is, in fact, completely adult, and despite our seeming cultural desensitization to such horrors, if you engage your brain and think about what you’re watching, it remains a completely terrifying film.

These two films taught me to understand films as art. These two films began my fascination with films as art. It was one of those moments in life when the world changed for me, expanded, deepened, became more interesting.

Imagine the world if George Romero had never made the film, “Night of the Living Dead.” It is an art film. It has been selected for historical preservation by the Library of Congress. “Night of the Living Dead” has a lot to teach us about the ways in which people interact with one another. It isn’t the first so-called zombie film, it is, however, the zombie film that irrevocably changed our cultural landscape.

Rest in peace, Mr. Romero.

The Girl in Geiger’s Bookstore Didn’t Know That

When it comes to my favorite films, I like what I deem to be good films regardless of genre. That said, I can also appreciate a film as being a good film, without actually, or necessarily, liking the film myself. There are also films that I have enjoyed or liked that I don’t know could even arguably be classified as “good” films. But, I was thinking the other day about my favorite Noir and crime films, and such.

Let’s get the Bogarting done.

The Big Sleep, 1946
Howard Hawks directed, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, which I’ve read and enjoyed.
The running time on this one is just under two hours. It’s plot heavy, and it is good. Bogart portrays private eye Philip Marlowe in this one, hired by General Sternwood, to resolve the gambling debts of his younger daughter, the coy and coquettish Carmen Sternwood, played to perfection by Martha Vickers. Enter Lauren Bacall as the older daughter, Vivian Rutledge. Where Carmen is high, or drunk, and playing cutesy with everything, Vivian is sharp and savvy, and thinks that their father’s true motive in hiring Marlowe is to try to find the missing Sean Regan. This film is loaded with great lines and some of my favorite scenes in any film ever. Including a wonderful bit of business between Bogart and actress Dorothy Malone. Marlowe has just been at Geiger’s bookstore, asking questions, now he’s at the book store across the street…

That scene pains me, somewhat, as I know of a time or two when someone might have asked me something I should have known and I didn’t have the answer, but that’s not the point for this writing, the point is that in life, sometimes we forget things or our mind is “somewhere else,” but in Noir films, not having the answer when you should have the answer, that definitely means that something is rotten in Denmark.  A thoroughly enjoyable film, with the usual powder keg of chemistry going on between Bogart and Bacall, though really, every scene in this one is practically smoldering.

Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood. (Every time I see this scene, I think someone should smack her, I think that would be awfully cute.)

Dark Passage, 1947,
Delmer Daves directed this one, based on a book by David Goodis. This one is gimmicky, which is most of what makes this one worth the watch. Bogart is Vincent Parry, newly escaped from San Quentin, the open scenes are shot from his sight line so that we don’t see his face. Lauren Bacall is Irene Jansen, she followed Parry’s case and believes he is innocent. Enter Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched) as Madge, an acquaintance of Irene’s who won’t go away, and a woman who Vincent Parry once spurned, and you’ve got the makings of some good suspense. Exteriors were shot in and around San Francisco, also worth seeing.

Casablanca, 1942, Classified as a romantic drama, this is one is also ever bit a foray into the shadows of noir. An all-star cast, Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Raines, and Peter Lorre. Set in Casablanca during World War II, Rick, ( Bogart), is caught between a rock and a hard place when he encounters an old love who is wedded to a new problem. This film is beautiful. Directed by Michael Curtiz, and, apparently based on a play ( I’m learning some of this as I go) by Murray Bennet and Joan Allison titled, “Everybody Comes to Ricks”, it wasn’t expected to do much of anything out of the ordinary at the box office. It went on to win the Academy Award for best picture. I’m not much of an Ingrid Bergman fan, this film though, is a favorite.

The Maltese Falcon, 1941, Based on the book by Dashiell Hammett, which I’ve read, this film was John Huston’s directorial debut. One of my favorite films of all time, this one is over the top Noir with a cast that is completely spot on nailing every line in every scene. Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Jerome Cowan, Ward Bond, Elisha Cook Jr, Lee Patrick, really wonderful casting across the board. Bogart is Sam Spade, of Spade and Archer, Mary Astor is Ruth Wonderly, or Brigid O’Shaunessy, a woman with a sob story, or several, to sift through before we find out what everyone is really after, the black bird, the dingus, The Maltese Falcon, rumored to be encrusted with jewels and worth a fortune.

Rear Window, 1954, This is an Alfred Hitchcock Technicolor masterpiece based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder”, by Cornell Woolrich. Photographer Jeff Jefferies, (Jimmy Stewart), has broken his leg and can’t leave his apartment which over looks a common courtyard and invites voyeuristic views into the apartments of his neighbors, one of which is Lars Thorwald, (Raymond Burr). Jeff and his girlfriend Lisa, (Grace Kelly), become enthralled with some of the goings on of his neighbors until their spying leads them to the conclusion that something has gone seriously wrong in one of the other apartments. Stylistically shot in fine Hitchcock fashion with some levity provided by Thelma Ritter as Stella, Jeff’s insurance company appointed nurse, I’ve watched this one many times and have never failed to be on the edge of my seat by the closing scenes.

L.A. Confidential, 1997, Directed by Curtis Hanson, based on the book of the same name by James Ellroy, set in 1953, I wish they made more films that look like this. A hard-boiled, old-style, neo-noir, crime story of organized crime and police corruption, it’s smarter than smart, but it also has great character arcs as each of the main characters undergoes a transformation to a change of perspective about whatever they though and however they’ve been doing things. There’s a depth to this one, and outstanding performances. One of my favorite scenes is at the beginning of the interaction between Lynn Bracken ( Kim Basinger), and Bud White ( Russell Crowe), when she pulls back the curtain on the silken facade of her life, and reveals her chintzy, private, bedroom, and lets him in. In addition to Basinger and Crowe, this film stars James Cromwell, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, Danny Devito, David Strathairn, and a stellar cast of supporting players.

The Replacement Killers, 1998, Director Antoine Fuqua, based on a screenplay by Ken Sanzel. John Woo contributed his directorial skills to the action scenes, and this film is generally considered to be an action film due to the number of shoot ’em up scenes, Starring Chow Yun Fat, Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker, and Kenneth Tsang, this is the story of a hit-man who decides not to carry out an assassination for a powerful crime boss, and the consequences of that decision. I think Mira Sorvino delivers one of her best performances as the tough as nails with tons of heart, Meg Coburn, who deals in forged documents and false identities. Danny Trejo is also in this one as one of the “replacement killers.”

Jackie Brown, 1997 Directed by Quentin Tarantino, adapted and written for the screen by Tarantino, from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel, Rum Punch. A stewardess, Jackie Brown, portrayed by Pam Grier, smuggles money from Mexico for Ordell Robbie, ( Samuel L, Jackson) and she gets caught. How she gets out of that mess is what the story is about. This one is about the performances. As Tarantino films go, I like this one far better than “Pulp Fiction”, I think it’s smarter, and a more interesting story. Robert Forster is fantastic as the unflappable bail bondsman, Max Cherry, Michael Keaton is spot on as the arrogant ATF agent, Ray Nicolette. Also starring Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda in supporting roles, this one has another killer Tarantino soundtrack as well.

Thief, 1981 Written and directed by Michael Mann, based on a novel written by real-life jewel thief, John Seybold, again, this one is about the performances. James Caan is Frank, a no-nonsense, career criminal, who, after falling for an equally disillusioned cashier named Jessie, (Tuesday Weld), decides that maybe he can have a family life too. Excellent performances by a supporting cast that includes James Belushi, Robert Prosky, and Willie Nelson.

Tequila Sunrise, 1988 Written and directed by Robert Towne. This film is classic 1980’s overly polished beautiful, in a way, like the polished noir films of the 40’s. Mel Gibson delivers an interestingly earnest performance as Dale McKussic, the drug dealer with the heart of gold who’s really trying to quit, and no one wants him to quit. He’s got a money-grubbing bitch of an ex-wife with whom he has a son, his oldest friend is a detective trying to bust him, his brother is an idiot who wants to play drug dealer too, he’s trying to untangle himself from his dealings with a Mexican drug-lord, and he’s fallen in love with a beautiful restaurant owner whom he fears would never want him and, though she is guileless, she is tougher than she looks. Not particularly hard-boiled, this is an entertaining film, with a big name cast, some great lines and gorgeous scenery.

Gunshy, 1998 Directed by Jeff Celentano. William Peterson plays Jake Bridges, a writer coming off of a bad relationship looking to punish himself with alcohol and getting into trouble. Really though, Michael Wincott as small-time gangster Frankie McGregor, who is in love with Melissa, portrayed by Diane Lane, steals a lot of this movie, as his friendship with Jake develops, and they all try to get out of this story alive.

HEAT, 1995, Written and directed by Michael Mann. This film is completely over-cooked with way too much star-power in it, and, it’s a good one anyway, with one of the biggest shoot outs ever. Apparently the film was based on a true story.

To Live and Die in L.A., 1985, Directed by William Friedkin, based on a novel by a former U.S. Secret Service Agent, Gerald Petievich, and that sounds like an interesting read. This movie is another one that really looks like the 1980’s, though with less polish. The main characters in this film are kind of pretentious and having a pissing contest with each other. Rick Masters ( Willem Dafoe)  makes funny-money, he is a very successful counterfeiter. Chance is the Secret Service Agent who is out to get him. I had a heck of a crush on “Chance”, portrayed by William Peterson, for a while, and I think that it’s the heart of the character Ruth Lanier, portrayed by Darlanne Fluegel, whom Chance is having a relationship with and extorting information from, that saves the movie because it gives some humanity to these characters who are operating completely without boundaries or conscience. Ruth wants out of the situation, has some feeling for Chance, wants to be able to see her kid, and is continuously faced with the reality that Chance is just using her. Agent John Vukovich, played by John Pankow, also lends some of that reality to the story as he is completely freaked out by how totally out of control Chance is. I’ve even seen the version of this with the alternate ending for Chance and Vukovich. John Turturo has a supporting role as snitch, Carl Cody. This film has in it what I think is the best film car chase of all time. It also has one of the best all time soundtracks by Wang Chung.

Double Indemnity, 1944 Directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novella by James M. Cain ( The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce), it is considered by many to be the film that set the standard for film noir. Walter Neff ( Fred MacMurray) sells insurance. Phyliss Dietrichson ( Barbara Stanwyck), is a cold, scheming woman, who wants her husband dead. The rest, as they say, is film history.  Listen baby, listen…

No Country For Old Men, 2007 Written and directed by the Coen brothers, based on the Corman McCarthy novel of the same name and classified as a neo-western, neo-noir, film, I tend to think of it as “rural noir,” this film was a surprise when it hit the box office and opened the door for a new era of story telling in the main stream. Llewelyn Moss ( Josh Brolin)  happens upon the aftermath of a massacre after a drug deal gone bad. He leaves the scene with two million dollars, the kind of money that someone is going to come looking for. Enter Anton Chigurh ( Javier Bardam) as the “bad guy,” the kind of bad guy that is keeping his own code, Carson Wells ( Woody Harrelson) as the other bad guy, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell ( Tommy Lee Jones). This is one of those movies where the onscreen presence of Chigurh is such that you know how it’s going to end, but you keep watching anyway because it’s hard not to like Llewelyn Moss, or a man with two first names, Ed Tom, who is frustrated with the lack of common sense that he deals with on a daily basis in his general periphery.

The Usual Suspects, 1995 Directed by Bryan Singer, written by Christopher McQuarrie. An all-star ensemble cast in a complicated, convoluted, story of revenge. Who is Keyser Soze? And did Fenster always mumble? Seemingly coincidentally thrown together in a jail cell, a group of individual career criminals know that something isn’t adding up. They decide to pull a job together and are then approached by a Mr. Kobayashi, with an offer that none of them can really refuse. Worth watching for the casting, Gabriel Byrne didn’t want to do this film due to turmoil in his personal life at the time, it is, however, the intensity of his performance as Keaton, that anchors this movie.

In The Electric Mist, 2009 Directed by Bertrand Tavernier, adapted for the screen from a James Lee Burke novel, I watched this on the Netflix when it was briefly available for streaming. This one is Southern Noir. Detective Dave Robicheaux ( Tommy Lee Jones) is trying to solve a grisly murder while dealing with a film company that has set up camp in Iberia Parrish. He suspects Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni, ( John Goodman), a known criminal with ties to the mafia. He later gets information that perhaps it is another suspect. Meanwhile, a drunken actor has taken up residence in Robicheaux’s house while trying to dry out, and Robicheaux himself is drugged while at a party and has a strange experience where he meets a Civil War Soldier, played by Levon Helm, in the electric mist. Really good movie. I bet the book is worth reading as well.

Hell or High Water, 2016 Directed by David MacKenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, this rural noir, is the story of brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard trying to save the family ranch by robbing banks. But not just any banks, they’re robbing branches of the bank that holds the note on the family’s property. Texas Rangers, portrayed by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, are trying to catch them. This one has it all, great story, good acting, unpredictable.

Out Of Sight, 1998 Directed by Stephen Soderberg, adapted by Scott Frank, from an Elmore Leonard novel, one that I’ve read, this is a stylish crime movie with some good romantic comedy thrown in. Escaped bank robber Jack Foley ( George Clooney), and U.S. Marshall, Karen Cisco, ( Jennifer Lopez) end up temporarily locked in the trunk of a car together where he proceeds to try to charm her and discovers that though on opposite sides of the law they may be, they have something in common. Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Dennis Farina, Michael Keaton appears as Ray Nicolette ( Jackie Brown.) Some great dialogue. Good movie. “You wanted to tussle.”

The Noir that I cut my teeth on was episodes of the old Perry Mason television series that I was watching and figuring out who dunnit when I was in grade school, and those are still some great stories. I was also a big fan of the true crime series “City Confidential.” I will sometimes still watch episodes of both of those shows. I teared up at the last episode of “Justified”, and thought that the British series, “Luther”, was outstanding. “Twin Peaks” was good, though it was slightly more surreal than I like my Noir. Documentaries that I though were pretty good, “Cocaine Cowboys”(2006), “The Seven Five” ( 2014), checking Netflix I see that there are a couple of other installments of “Cocaine Cowboys” to check out. Other notable favorites along these lines, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” both the film and the book are excellent, a film called “The Town” from 2010 that was adapted from a novel  by Chuck Hogan, called “Prince of Thieves”, by Ben Affleck,  “Devil in a Blue Dress” 1995, 1957’s “The Sweet Smell of Success”, 1987’s “Someone to Watch Over Me”, though I haven’t seen that one in years, and my movies to watch list got a lot longer in writing this. I can add that to all of the James Ellroy novels that I want to get back to reading.

Enjoy!

TS

 

What Happens When I Read

Catching up on that reading. Laird Barron’s “Occultation and Other Stories” is quite good. Should you find that you like scary stories, then I highly recommend this book of them. I like his prose, his use of vocabulary, and there’s a bit of a sense of humor, if not a little bit of a sense of the ridiculous, to some of the stories as well, as illustrated by the title story, “Occultation”, which will, none the less, scare you.

I was reading some of this last night before setting it aside to watch some television, as I’d been reading for hours and could no longer focus on the pages. I started watching a film, which I realized I would have to finish watching today, and then decided to begin watching a documentary series, produced by CNN, about the 1960’s, aptly titled, “The Sixties.” It is available on The Netflix instant. The first episode was quite good, if not enlightening. I know that I will finish the series and then, watch the one about “The Seventies,” even though I said that I was done with my study of the seventies, apparently, I am not. I very much enjoy learning things. I think that I got hooked on documentaries during those times when I’ve not been able to read. I tend toward cultural and historical type documentaries. I’ve read biographies and auto-biographies, memoirs, since I was a girl, along with the fiction. I think that as a writer, I’ve found some other creative types to be fascinating at times. How do they do it? Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz, or the courage and resilience of Frida Kahlo, or Katharine Hepburn wearing pants when women did not wear pants and doing exactly as she damn well pleased, or the struggles and immense talent of Nina Simone. I’ve read two biographies about Jack Kerouac. I watch travel shows sometimes too. The ways in which the artist/writer/musician, reporter, event, story, the way these things weave together in the world, creating history while we are present, is fascinating to me. I’ve been known to become enthralled with a subject. So, I started watching that documentary series. Then I picked up a magazine, after the first episode, because I’m behind on my magazine reading too.

With trepidation, I read an article by director William Friedkin, about a real exorcism that he witnessed and filmed. I’ve not ever seen the film “The Exorcist”, in its entirety, and I’ve no plans to. To each their own, you go right ahead. ( I’ve since watched it, I wrote a review if it that got deleted and I may or may not rewrite. It’s a disgusting movie, as in gross and grossly unappealing, however it manages to be frightening on some level in spite of itself.) I am not, however, at all unfamiliar with Friedkin’s work. I’ve long said that the car chase in “To Live and Die in L.A.” is, in my opinion, the best movie car chase of all time. We own copies of both “The French Connection”, a seventies classic, ( though in my opinion, kind of overrated), I am something of a Roy Scheider fan, and “To Live and Die in L.A.” ( The car chase in The Seven Ups is quite excellent as well, that was directed by Philip D’Antoni, who was the producer on Bullitt, directed by Peter Yates, and Friedkin’s The French Connection.) I’ve even seen the version of “To Live and Die in L.A.” with the alternate ending, where Chance and Vukovich survive and get sent to Alaska, which is really terrible. Vukovich going to see Ruth at the end of the original is far more fitting. I think the latest of his, Friedkin’s, that I watched was “Killer Joe”, which, frankly, I thought was awful, over acted, if not reaching, but, I admit that it may not have been the story itself and a matter of the casting. There are some actors who get to a point where no matter what part they’re playing, you only see them onscreen, the actor, they lose their ability to become the role and make you forget that you’re watching a movie. In other words: What was the character’s name? I don’t know, it was Gina Gershon. So, I think that putting Thomas Hayden Church, Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, and Emile Hersch, in the same movie, well, I don’t remember what any of the character’s names were. But I’m digressing, point was, I’m not unfamiliar with the work of Friedkin. This article in Vanity Fair, is kind of scary. It’s kind of scary because he takes this film of this real exorcism to various brain experts, mental and physical, and none of them are really willing to reassure him that ghosts don’t exist. So, whether this was written as an entertainment piece or not, it still gave me the heebie-geebies a bit. You can read it, here.

I also read, in the same issue of Vanity Fair, a wonderful interview of the singer, Adele. You may have heard of her. I like her attitude, her moxie, her grit. I think she’s refreshing. I also like that she is actually a singer, a talent, with a great big voice. She isn’t up there shaking her thing to get you to buy her records. She’s producing good work and kicking everyone’s ass because she’s that good. The interview addresses some of that. She’s only twenty-eight years old. My gawd. You know, sometimes you read things and you see some of the places where you screwed things up your own self. I tend to be in awe of great singers. I think it is that when I was younger, a child, the one talent that I would have wished for would have been to be able to really sing, and then to play the piano along with it, because that’s undeniable, when someone can sing. When you hear Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston, Carrie Underwood ( yes, this Carrie Underwood), or Adele, sing , you don’t say, “Oh, well, that girl can’t even sing.” My favorite song of hers, that I’ve heard, so far, is probably, “One and Only.” But, really, in terms of having a grip on doing things her way, because it’s her life, great big kudos to her for that. So, I think Adele, who talks about actually, literally, writing while drunk, something that I, recently sober for a few months now, thought was a quite nice, honest, moment, because if you drink and you write, that shit happens, she seems pretty amazing, and you can check that interview out here.

I’m also reading more of Dorothy Parker’s work, as well as reading about her. I want to get the biography on her, penned by Marion Meade, titled “What Fresh Hell is This?”, which was Parker’s frequent response whenever the doorbell rang in her apartment. What I’ve got is “The Portable Dorothy Parker” edited by Meade, who provides the introduction. Parker had no confidence in herself as a writer and considered the work a means to an end. She began as a writer at Vogue magazine and then Vanity Fair, both Conde Nast publications, before going on to work at The New Yorker, where her acid wit and satirical style of cutting to the quick of things, while often being quite subtle or droll, set the tone for their smart, observant, “casuals”, one that they try to maintain to this day. Parker was one of the co-writers of the original script of the film, “A Star is Born”, in 1937, which is about to undergo its fourth remake. I think it says something about a work when it holds up that well over that great a distance of time. It’s a classic tale, it is timeless, her star rises, his fades. Parker, however, who was making a staggering five thousand dollars a week at the height to the Great Depression, loathed Hollywood. The pretension was generally more than she could stomach, she said, “The only ism that Hollywood believes in, is plagiarism.” Which I found to be rather astutely funny as I’d just read, in another book, that George Romero straight-up admitted that he stole the idea for “Night of the Living Dead” from the story “I Am Legend” written by author Richard Matheson. I’ve long been a fan of Dorothy Parker, again, the attitude, the wit, the smarts, and couldn’t keep from picking this up, adding it to my reading stack, after being reminded of “A Star is Born”, while listening to a Streisand song the other day. Streisand was once asked how it was that she was able to hold a note for so long, her answer, “Because I want to.” So, this little round of reading has all worked itself together quite nicely for me.

I am, also, still editing “GRAIN”, the story collection. In the midst of that, I ran “The Slick Furies” through the wash another time, made a few more minor corrections, and I am still pleased with that book. It’s a pretty cool feeling to be reading your own work, editing it, and thinking, this is good. I’m really loving doing all this right now. It is a wonderful feeling to be feeling like I’m finding my groove with this writer life.

TS