Thursday, February 27, 2014

William S, Burroughs, Private Eye

The Dapper Daddy of the Beats.
Spat out wisecrackery prose like Raymond Chandler's Phillip Marlowe on a speed jag, all clipped and terse and hard as nails, but going further -- way way further -- in his imagery  than Mr. "Tarantula on a Slice of Angel Food Cake" ever dreamed of, using words Gentleman Phil would never utter.
Especially in front of a lady.
But the influence was there.
From the age of eight or so, when little Willie began writing his earliest fiction safe in the confines of stately Burroughs Manor, his little stories were all in the adventure and crime vein. And throughout his life he remained a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, keeping book by Hammett, Chandler et al in his library, sharing them with his Beat buddies like Kerouac and Ginsberg. He even worked detectives into his fiction. One of his most enduring characters, Clem Snide, who appeared in several of his books and stories including Naked Lunch (1959), The Soft Machine (1961) and perhaps most notably Cities of the Red Night (1981), was a private eye.
"The name is Clem Snide -- I'm a Private Ass Hole -- I will take on any job any identity any body -- I will do anything difficult dangerous or downright dirty for a price..."
But -- hold your horses -- Burroughs went beyond writing about gumshoes. He actually became one.
I kid you not.
Burroughs was born into a wealthy St. Louis family, and was given a generous allowance for most of his life. But he also worked a wide variety of jobs before he eventually turned to writing.
He was rejected for service during World War II, but before, during and after the war, he was a bartender, a reporter, an advertising copywriter, an exterminator and briefly -- get this -- a private detective.
In 1944 he applied for a job Merit Protection Services of Chicago (offices were at 612 North Michigan). He was hired to do security work for stores, verifying the honesty of employees, and was dispatched to work the Iowa and Ohio area with the rest of his team (two women and a male supervisor.) 
Their would try to catch suspicious cashiers stealing from the till, using the women on his team to pose as customers, and then swooping in verify the drawer tallied up. It wasn't exactly mean streets stuff -- he didn't carry a gun. He didn't become any more tarnished than he already was, nor was it's likely he was ever afraid.
The problem was that he soon grew bored with the work, He quit after three months.
But twenty years later he savaged his former co-workers in Nova Express (1964), where he dismissed his boss as a badge-carrying Fascist and his two female workers as "cunts."
A class act all the way, this father of the Beats.

Cities of the Night (1981; by William S. Burroughs)
Call Me Burroughs: A Life (2014; by Miles Barry)

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kreegah! Kevin Bundolo! (or "John Carter: The Post-Mortem")

True confessions. I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan of the Apes, just then re-released in paperback, was the gateway drug. But soon I was enthralled by all of Burroughs' universe, both the steady stream of reprints that started appearing everywhere (Ace and Ballantine must have kept the presses running 24/7 for a few years -- there seemed to be new Burroughs reprints every month), and DC Comics' masterful adaptations that started filling the spinner racks at local newstands, particularly Joe Kubert's raw, visceral version of the Ape Man. Weird words and place names soon began to pepper my vocabulary (Barsoom, kreegah, Pellucidar, tarmangani, Opar, etc.), as a steady stream of Burroughs pulp began to fill my pre-adolescent brain,competing for space with a swelling interest in girls. For a few years, my dreams were as much about Carson of Venus, the Mucker, John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, Korak and all the other manly men of adventure and derring-do as it was about Susan in History, Diane in English, or Pam in art. 

Of course, in the end, the girls won, but then they always do. And to tell the truth, a steady diet of Burroughs for a few years eventually wears thin, and that adolescent rush of fantasy quietly slipped into its cave.

But it emerged periodically, that heady mix of awe and discovery, of heroes and perfectly realized new worlds to discover, mostly unleashed by film: the first Star Wars, Bladerunner, the first Alien, the occasional Stephen King novel, Lord of the Rings, Justin Cronin's Passage. The whole sparkly vampire thing didn't do it, and I thought Avatar was lunkheaded and self-conscious, high-minded silliness and self-indulgent ego wrapped up in the Emperor's new 3D clothes.

Last year's JOHN CARTER from Disney brought me right back. It was a hoot. It might not have always been faithful to the text, but the magic was. It wasn't as awe-inspiring as A New Hope, perhaps, and I could have done without the cutie-pie dog beast (although from a marketing standpoint it makes sense -- after all, R2D2 was cute too), but there was enough rousing action, imaginative artistry and oh-my-god-is-that-cool! moments to keep both my the Girl Detective and I mesmerized -- with ot without 3D. 

The "critics" hated it. Well, not real critics, for the most part, who were mixed about it, but those bandwagon jumpers who think they're critics simply because they have a blog or Twitter account and an over-developed sense of snark. The same high-minded critics who drool regularly all over such sub-par but superbly hyped flicks as Sin City and The Avengers. No, John Carter wasn't perfect, but the vitriol unleashed against it -- even before it was released -- via Twitter and the blogosphere and in second rate "review" sites all over the web was spectacular. 

It was like a concerted effort to destroy the film. Bad press piled upon bad press. Almost every "review" I read rushed to mention how much it cost , how much it was losing and how poorly it did on its opening weekend. It was like a sports analyst describing a hockey game by reading only the final score.

I mean, really. "Taylor Kitsch is no Mark Hammil"? Is that the best you can do, kid?

In his new book, John Carter and The Gods of Hollywoods, film makmer Michael Sellers contends that yes, there was indeed a conspiracy to destroy this film, and most of the damage was done long before most of the Blogosphere Sheep got their bleats in. Not so subtly subtitled "The True Story of What Went Wrong With Disney's John Carter and Why Edgar Rice Burroughs Original Superhero Isn't Dead Yet," it's a sobering tale told by an insider of corporate stupidity, inept marketing, studio politics and petty rivals and jealousies, and an angry indictment of all that's wrong, not just about Disney, but Hollywood (and corporate America) itself. 

For those of you who defied the Snark Week Attacks and the Gods of Hollywood and saw the film anyway, and enjoyed it (or even if you didn't), this is still a fascinating and intriguing look at the inner workings (or non-workings) of Hollywood's Dream Factory. And for Burroughs' fans, it's worth it just to bear witness to the long, sad march to the screen of a much-beloved book written over a century ago. 

It will leave you wondering not why Hollywood makes so many God-awful movies but how they ever manage to make any good ones. 

A version of this post appeared originally on Books of Interest and Other Stuff...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

I'm Just Drawn This Way

Today marks the release of the Who Framed Roger Rabbit 25th Anniversary Special Edition in a spiffy Blu-Ray Combo Pack, loaded with the usual orgy of back-up features most of us will never watch. But the re-release of the movie?

That really excites me, for some reason.

And it's not just because it's an excuse to see Jessica Rabbit strut her stuff again. Hell, like most people, I don't even have a Blu-Ray player.

Although the notion of seeing Jessica in even higher resolution is certainly tempting.

But hey, Who Framed Roger Rabbit has a lot more going for it than just ome babe in a red sequinned dress. It was thoroughly entertaining film in oh so many ways. I loved it when it came out, and I still love it. And so do a lot of other people.

Back before almost every film was a SFX-driven cartoon, from high-faluting stuff like The Life of Pi to kiddle pulp like The Avengers and Transformers XXIII, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was something truly unique. It blended animation and live action in a spectacular, almost unheard of fashion, with effects that were actually special. And the film charmed almost everyone:  kids, parents, grandparents, classic cartoon buffs, fanboys and even private eye fans.

If you don't like this film, you're just a poopy pants.

Released in 1988, it starred Bob Hoskins as Eddie, your typical rough-around-the-edges Hollywood dick, and featured the voice of Charles Fleischer as Roger Rabbit. Also along for the ride was Christopher Lloyd, Kathleen Turner (as the afore-mentioned Jessica) and an animated cast of thousands, in a story about greed, corruption, lust, betrayal and dropping pianos on people's heads. It was like Chinatown on acid. It was a huge critical and commercial hit.

And rarely has a film so completely overshadowed its source material. While Gary Wolf's 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit had its moments, it was clunky, inconsistent and hard to envision, the audacious concept of a world populated by both humans and toons (who speak in word balloons) too slippery to really get a grip on.

But the film smashes right through those limitations by showing, not telling. Though Wolf's vision was certainly original and audacious, it took the big buck clout of the producers (Speilberg! Disney!) and the then state-of-the-art magic of Hollywood to make it all come true.

Director Robert Zemeckis managed to streamline Wolf's vision, getting rid of those annoying word balloons (too gimmicky and distracting by half) replacing them, in an inspired bit of big name clout, with the ultimate collection of classic cartoon characters from a slew of studios (including Disney, Warner Bros., MGM, Fleischer and Universal).

They're all here: Betty Boop, Woody Woodpecker, Droopy Dog, and all the rest. Imagine! Mickey and Bugs Bunny together in the same scene! Daffy Duck and Donald Duck quacking away indecipherably, playing a piano duet that rapidly escalates into an arms race. Droopy manning an elevator! A tired, over-the-hill Betty Boop serving up drinks. For anyone who grew up watching cartoons, it's pure heaven to see all these old favourites again. The impetus for the Cartoon Network started there.

And the original toons are just as good. Roger is one stuttering, sputtering, hyperactive, accident-prone bunny. His co-star in cartoons is pint-sized, diaper-wearing, foul-mouthed, cigar-chomping Baby Herman. And of course the anatomically over-correct Jessica Rabbit certainly raised a few, uh, eyebrows. She should be ridiculous, but she's possibly the sexiest woman ever to (almost) spill out of a dress. You know that cliche about legs up to here? Hers go further. Possibly as far as Cucamonga.

And boy, do they all these characters look good. As Leonard Maltin, a film critic who knows his toons, pointed out at the time, this is an "incredible blend of live-action and animation" that allows us to "believe that Roger and his cartoon colleagues actually exist."

I believed. Still do. And for a couple of hours maybe you will, too. Watch it with your kids.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

I Been Blurbed!

According to Simon Dardick, head honcho over at VĂ©hicule Press, the ad above'll be running as the back cover of the upcoming issue of Maisonneuve Magazine, the Montreal quarterly that covers arts, politics, ideas and "anything else eclectic and curious." He pulled the quote from my intro to the reprint of The Body on Mont-Royal by David Montrose. I'll have to get one of my kids to pick up a copy or two, since chances of Palmdale's only bookstore carrying it seem slight... (although, curiously, the premiere issue DID show up at the local B&N years ago...).

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Montréal Anglos: The Other White Meat

There's a great issue of Urbania out right now, focussing on Montreal's Anglos (aka "the world's best treated minority" aka "the conquerors" aka "les autres" aka "les blokes" aka "the dirty nasty saleslady at Eaton's department store who wouldn't speak French to my grandmother.").

There are plenty of great pieces online, and the print edition is supposedly even better, although for some reason they don't carry it at the Palmdale Barnes & Noble.

The articles are all over the place, alternately humourous, sympathetic, rude and angry (Oh, those comments!).

Could someone please read it to me?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Brasher Doubloon: No Small Change

Marlowe offers to help Merle with her "man" problems.
Long considered the redheaded stepchild of all the films to feature Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, The Brasher Doubloon (1947, 20th Century Fox) is usually dismissed as inconsequential. Usually from people who haven't seen it.

Not that you can blame most folks for jumping to that conclusion -- the movie's been notoriously hard to find, never officially released on VHS, as far as I know, and rarely shows up on television. Nor is the Chandler novel it's based on -- 1942's The High Window -- generally considered one of his best.

Most reviews, meanwhile, go back to when it was first released, and following as it did Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep and Edward Dymytryk's Murder, My Sweet, two certifiable classics, it was definitely found wanting. It didn't help that what few stills and publicity shots existed have seemed less than encouraging. Most feature George Montgomery (who?) as Marlowe, sporting a cheesy moustache and a shit-eating smirk -- or a look of bland consternation. In fact, if you're looking for big stars or name directors or acting fireworks, this isn't the film you're looking for. So it's safe to say there wasn't a huge demand -- except perhaps among Chandler obsessives -- for this obscure B-film to be released on DVD.

What home video versions have been released over the years have been of dubious legality and technical quality, if you could find them at all.

And yet, there it was under the tree yesterday, The Brasher Doubloon, all wrapped up with a nice bow on it. A complete surprise, I wasn't even aware it had finally been released as an officially sanctioned DVD -- a mere 65 years after its theatrical theatrical debut. Even better though, is that the film, while slight, is a pleasant surprise.

No, really. It's not bad at all. I'm fortunate, I guess, that Mrs. Thrilling (aka "Santa") is as big a Chandler geek as me. We sat down to watch it tonight, a Boxing Day treat.

And yes, Montgomery does have that annoying caterpillar on his upper lip, and his Marlowe is way too upbeat and perky (although he handles the action scenes well enough, and the disdain with which he tosses a downed goon's now empty gun at him is priceless). Nor will the thespian skills of Nancy Guild, as Merle Davis, the sexually repressed secretary to a bullying, Jabba the Hutt-like dowager, have anyone but the morbidly curious scrambling to find her other films.

But that Bambi-in-the-headlights look is just what the role calls for and Guild nails it. Adam over at OCD Viewer describes her as "a little like a softer-featured Margot Kidder," and he may have something there. Guild has a slightly unhinged vulnerability here that, combined with a watery sensuality, makes her a whole new -- and possibly even more dangerous -- type of femme fatale. No wonder Marlowe generously offers to help her overcome her intimacy issues.

But hey, this is a B-film, after all, and any limitations of dramatic range among the leads (or psychological plausibility in the script)  are more than covered by some truly great character bits and some shrewd casting. Among the best: Mrs. Murdock, the wealthy, overbearing, eccentric harpy of client, possibly airlifted from a Charles Dickens novel, and her foppish weasel of a son Lesley (portrayed by a very young, pre-Mork and Mindy Conrad Janis). Toss in a crew of tough-as-spit bulldog LA cops in need of distemper shots and a parade of grotesque thugs and you've got a show. My faves included the long tall drink of polluted water in the straw boater who confronts Marlowe early on and the twitchy blackmailer who can't quite bring himself to look Marlowe in the eye and instead rubs his finger back and forth on the desk. It makes for one of the best rogue's galleries of geeks and freaks this side of Huston's The Maltese Falcon.

And this is all in service of a clean, relatively straightforward screenplay by Dorothy Bennett (who?) that leans heavily on Chandler's penchant for wisecracks. She took some liberties, naturally, and some of it seems "borrowed" from other, better films, but it follows a more-or-less logical progression, and some strong, sure-handed direction by John Brahm (who?) brings it on home.

And, oh, those camera shots! Some of the location shots of 40s Los Angeles and environs -- from the opulently decadent Murdock mansion in Pasadena to the seedy apartment buildings of an already decaying Bunker's Hill -- are eye-popping. This is not some sterile, carefully reconstructed period piece with all the warmth of a LEGO brick -- this is the real deal.

Were this a better known film, some of those images would be almost downright iconic.

As it is, although the film is not in itself particularly noir (it's alternately too glib and too cheesy, and the too-cute-by-half ending would be more at home in a screwball romantic comedy), the oddball camera angles, stark lighting and freak show characterizations (not to mention some true ugliness that comes slithering out when the true villain is revealed) suggest what might have been.

Don't get me wrong. We're not talking any lost classic here -- it's just a good, solid B-flick -- but The Brasher Doubloon is far better and far more entertaining than I -- or possibly even you -- ever thought it would be. 

Take a chance.  You've got a movie here.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Kiss from Montreal

I'm currently reading River City by John Farrow (real name Trevor Ferguson).

It's a big pretentious messy historical fiction/crime novel about Montreal, the river city of the title, that has -- so far-- included Jacques Cartier, the Maurice Richard riots, Samuel de Champlain, stories of the "Open City," Pierre Elliot Trudeau, politics, the bold theft of a priceless artifact, Hurons, crazy priests, kidnapping, hockey, the Sun Life Building, corruption, Mohawks, French-Canadian nationalists, de Maisonneauve, murder, the founding of Montreal and even Farrow's own detective from two previous novels, Cinq-Mars, appearing as a young kid. It jumps all over the place, from the beginning of time to about 1955 (so far), and its universe is still expanding, even as other stories and characters and subplots play out and then disappear. Suffice it to say it's a heady trip.

And, as I said, it's big, pretentious and messy. It's a whopper -- it's close to 1000 pages, and it's bold and audacious. And I'm loving every minute of it. Which may be why I'm going on about a book I haven't even finished.

Oh, I'm sure there are those who will quibble (or be out right pissed off) with Farrow's interpretation of some sacred incident or beloved figure in our shared but fractious history (I know I squirmed a few times), but hey, we're Montrealers. That's what we do -- we argue and debate and discuss politics and history and hockey and art and life with heat and passion. Preferably over great food and drink.

I'm not even sure if anyone who hasn't truly loved Montreal will really "get" this book (it's not even available in the States -- my kids sent it to me for my birthday). But for anyone who's ever wandered too far from home, but still burns with memories of standing amidst the swirl of Ste. Catherine Street and breathing in the heady perfume of a city that's truly alive, walked into a taverne and held up two fingers to some waiter known simply as "Chief" or stood on the lookout on Mont Royal and gazed out with awe and affection upon the St. Lawrence and the River City and a forest of church steeples rising up from an endless sea of tenements toward heaven, this is like a French kiss from home, all unexpected passion and love and sloppiness; a warm, lingering kiss that hits you hard in all the right places.

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