Sunday, March 29, 2015

Celebrating Letters ( the kind that were written on paper)

I used to be a very good writer of letters and I probably still would be if it weren’t so easy to succumb to the ease and immediacy of emails.

Sean Usher oversees a blog called Letters of Note. He took letters from the blog and produced a beautiful book called Letters of Note: Eclectic Correspondence Deserving of A Wider Audience. Since my home is already bursting with books, I own the Kindle version of this. It’s in no way beautiful but it’s still a terrific collection.

Haven’t you always wanted Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for drop scones? You’ll find it in a letter to Dwight Eisenhower in which she remembers his visit to Balmoral Castle.

If you want to continue on the royal road there’s Mary, Queen of Scots’ letter to Henry III announcing her imminent execution (it happened 6 hours after she wrote the letter).

For the literary, there is the suicide note that Virginia Woolf leaves for her husband, Leonard. She can no longer read or write and is hearing voices again. She adds, “Everything has gone for me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could be happier than we have been.”

These letters are not all gloomy. Kurt Vonnegut writes about the firebombing of Dresden, but he survived it and went on to write Slaughterhouse-Five. Patrick Hitler, Adolf’s nephew, begs to be allowed to fight in the US military against his uncle. His letter was handed over to J. Edgar who did eventually agree that he could serve.

A 23 year old Eudora Welty begs The New Yorker for a job: “I read simply voraciously and can drum up an opinion afterwards… I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.”

My favorite letter (which went to many people) comes from Robert Pirosh who wants to become a screenwriter. He went on to get an Oscar for his screenplay of Battleground:

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I l like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words like Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty.

I like sullen, crabbed scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s sake-words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have few with you?

Robert Pirosh
385 Madison Avenue
Room 610
New York
Eldorado 5-6024

Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Body Heat

The characters in BODY HEAT (written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) are trapped in a brutal heat wave in a claustrophobically small Florida town. The residents remark that it seems like there was never a time when it was anything but hot. This kind of detachment from a more pleasant time, a detachment that grows so extreme that you forget there ever was a better time, mirrors the way in which the characters are presented in this (and pretty much all) noir movies. Things are so bad that it seems like they always were that way, and maybe they really were. Why go into the backstory of Ned Racine (William Hurt) and Mattie Walker (Kathleen Turner)? They are in a place where the past doesn’t matter anymore. They are thirsty for something with a raw and desperate intensity, and can’t remember a time when they weren’t.

Their thirst is so great that they will do anything to try to quench it, and anything to avoid the painful realization that there is nothing that will. Ned is a small time no-account lawyer who has the lack of morals that would seem to augur success, but he is not successful: laziness and incompetence hold him back. He thinks he hasn’t got hold of the brass ring because fate has not presented him with the chance to go for it, but the evidence for that is to the contrary. He comes to court unprepared, and seems more interested in bedding waitresses than advancing his career. He drinks too much, and the only thing close to a genuine friendship he has is with assistant DA Lowenstein (Ted Danson) who regularly bests him in court, but doesn’t have as much luck with the women. The one healthy thing he does is run, but he always promptly fires up a cigarette when finished.

Mattie Walker seems to be that brass ring. She is quite a serving of woman, a cut above the usual waitress-sized sexual meal Racine is used to having. She tells Racine, or rather gets him to drag it out of her, that her husband Edmund (Richard Crenna) is both despicable and rich. He actually is a pretty morally challenged guy (although he seems to kind of worship her), and Racine decides (surprise!) to be her knight in tarnished armor. Her damsel-in-distress routine and declarations of undying love for Racine would only fool a complete narcissist, but that is what Racine is.

Edmund Walker explains to Racine, in one of those oblique tough guy conversations where they may be talking about what they are talking about and they may be talking about something else, that to be successful you have to be willing to “do what it takes.” Crenna thinks he has Racine pegged as strictly small-time, a guy not willing to do the ugly, the abhorrent, the criminal, to get what he wants. He’s the kind of guy used to having people afraid of him. He’s also used to people wanting his wife, but he figures their fear will outweigh their desire every time. He is arrogant enough to not see that the intensity of Racine’s desire, his desperation, his obtuseness, maybe just the damn heat itself, may finally balance the scale on the other side.

Edmund also doesn’t count on his wife’s ability get men to do what she wants. She enlists Racine to do her dirty work for her, all the while protesting that they aren’t murderers, are they? Could they really be doing this? Maybe their love, their lust, the heat, is so great that the social contract can be violated just this once, sweetheart, because no one ever loved the way we do (lust).

There are plot twists galore in this movie, and they are really impressive, but what interested me most was its tone. There is not one really likeable character in this film, except maybe the minor character of the Police Chief, who goes after Racine even though they are friendly with one another. Lowenstein approaches likeability early on when he tries to warn Racine that Mattie is poison. Later though, he laughs when Racine tells him of Mattie’s 7 year old niece finding her performing fellatio on Racine, and of the child getting an intimate view of him in an aroused state. That soured me on Lowenstein, to say the least. And I think it was supposed to. No one in this film is even tolerable.

So Mattie does what any woman who wants to be caught by a man does (at least according to the Noir School of things): she runs. And she catches the man (Racine) who thinks he is pursuing her. And then submits to him only after he has smashed in a window and taken her in a way that borders on rape, but apparently is just foreplay for a certain class of people.
Mattie convinces Racine that she has never been in love before (and never had orgasms like that before) and he is willing to believe her. Interesting that a guy so cynical, so untrustworthy himself, is so easily taken in. But he is. He believes that she is as desperate for him as he is for her, and even believes her when she says she doesn’t want her husband’s money, but to simply be rid of him, to be with the man she really loves. I smiled when I thought of how it is the lawyer who is supposed to make money off the depravity of human nature, but here finds himself outmaneuvered by a smoky, smoking hot blond so many moves ahead of him he should have surrendered his King, sued for peace, or run for the hills (but, of course, there are no hills to run for in Florida).

Like I said, plot twists galore in this flick. I won’t tell you about any of them, in case you want to see it. The sex scenes were supposed to be pretty hot, especially for 1981, and I guess they were. But what got me was the way that the sex was portrayed as the kind of need that only grows more powerful each time it is satisfied. As if everything you desperately drag in the front door results in two things bolting out the back. Racine and Matty are noir losers, which is what real noir characters are. I won’t tell you if they end up with the money, or if one does and the other doesn’t, because I don’t want to ruin the enjoyment of an ingenious plot, but I will say that the way the movie is shot, the skill with which the bleakness of these characters is portrayed, makes it clear that no matter what they get, it will never be enough.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Box of Pictures

In the course of shifting pieces of furniture Harold and I uncovered a cardboard box that we haven't seen in some time marked "Photos." Marvelous things were inside, carefully sorted into different white catalog envelopes labeled "Trips," "Lambertville," "Harold," "Kate" and so forth. the "Kate" envelope held some very old pictures of my grandmother's: one of her father as a young man; one of my mother as a teenager around 1924 posing with Granny and her sister in front of an automobile, with an older man in the front passenger seat; one of Granny and Grandaddy on the steps of their house on St. Croix Street in Saint Stephen, their iconic picture.

I was instantly able to identify the women in the automobile picture. With my keen eye for aging or youthifying people's features, I can generally spot who's who in all these pictures even though I might have known them only as old people. Then there are the houses. Somewhere I have a picture of nearly every house I ever lived in, although not all of them were in the white envelope.

In the envelope I actually found a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Harney's house in Woodbury, where we rented the ground floor during the war. My Dad was an officer in the Navy. I was a seven-year-old delinquent going to school to nuns. How I hated those women. How they hated me. My mother thought that a Catholic school would give me a superior education. Little did she know that the nuns were telling all the kids I was going to Hell for being a Protestant, and I was studying how to be bad so it would be worth it. But that's a story for another day. I loved our landlords, the Harneys, who lived upstairs, especially Mrs. Harney. She had one son but no daughters, and so she used to make a fuss over my sister and me.

The Christmas presents! We opened hers on Christmas Eve. Although we played with them until they fell apart, they will live in my memory forever. The three-inch bride and groom dolls, the groom in a tiny top hat and tails, the bride in white silk, jointed—I can still hear their porcelain joints rattle—would be worth a fortune today. But as Harold says, it's an evil wizard who turns a toy into a collectible.

See the bit of ironwork on the very top of the roof? My friend Deb Snyder and I used to call it a Yawning. To this day I don't know the correct architectural term for Yawnings. It's too small for a widow's walk.

Here's a picture of an enchanted cottage where we spent part of one summer before my sister was born. It was on the water, a cruel rough beach where I cut my big toe on a rock. My mother sat on the lawn and picnicked with the other ladies while Aunt Kay found me a Band-Aid. How I wept.

After blowing up the picture of the car and having a good look at it I realized that I wasn't entirely sure who the third woman was. At first I thought it was Aunt Billie, but in the twenties I think she was fatter than that. It might be Ethel, the eldest. All the sisters looked something like each other. I thought, too, that the man in the car was my great-grandfather Hill, but I'm not sure of that anymore either. Here's what he looked like, holding my mother. He died in 1924.

Then I thought, maybe it's William Moore, my mother's other grandfather, posing in a car with his daughters and granddaughter. But I'm not sure he was still alive in the twenties. I can't find his death date, and there's nobody left to ask. In fact, no one living can identify the old man in the car. Still, perhaps someone in the internet community can tell me about the automobile.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Thursday, March 26, 2015

We believe it, even when we shouldn’t

Sheila York

Reading: The Art Forger, BA Shapiro
Watching (in the Blu-Ray): The Drop

My best friend Kathy and I agree on a lot. We’re on the same side of the left-right political spectrum. We like the same music, movies and mysteries. And the munchies to have while we're enjoying them.
We also agree that we love TV. We admit it publicly. Well, all right, I admitted it for her. At the end of the day, we both like to click on the DVR and watch what’s there, like opening up a surprise gift. We agree on many of our favorite shows, and we have been loyal to them for years. And years.      
Here we are at Rockefeller Center at Christmas.
Kathy and I also agree that she is way smarter than I am.
When the temperature is 10 below, she wears a hat!
TV (and movie) writers get away with a lot of implausibility, and this occasionally irks some mystery writers, “irks” meaning tweeting/Facebooking/emailing about it till people start to mute/defriend/direct-to-junk-folder them.
If we want plausibility, we know where to get it.
But when it comes to reality, we agree to cut TV more slack than we do novels. Kathy and I understand that TV shows have time constraints that novels don’t. And that, while novels can be riveting while remaining inside a character’s head, that won’t work in visual media. And that writers on many shows have to crank out scripts even faster than James Patterson does books.
We sigh, but we understand why TV suspects regularly agree to be grilled by detectives without a lawyer. Otherwise, nothing much would happen. Many more suspects would agree to eschew the lawyer in real life if real life detectives would agree to spill to the suspect important details of their case the way their TV counterparts do in interrogations. We also understand that TV lawyers have to ask questions in court they don’t already know the answers to, so that a bombshell can drop, or you wouldn’t have any drama. In real life, you wouldn’t have any clients.
Kathy and I also agree to gripe about some shows set in New York City, even when we are devoted to those shows. To be clear, we do not mind when characters round a corner in Midtown and are suddenly in Tribeca. We understand about location availability and what works better for the visuals. But if you're setting your show in New York, you at least by golly ought to make some effort to make it look like New York.
We agree that Castle is the biggest offender of our favorite shows. It’s the version of New York City created by someone with deliberate ignorance and disdain, who never set foot in the city and doesn’t want to bother. Castle's NYC streets are wide, the sidewalks sparsely populated (and with mostly young white people in California colors), the buildings are low rise with broad windows. There is no New York vibe. Once, they put a motel with a parking lot in Manhattan.  

In (mild) defense of their ubiquitous use of broad, well-lit alleys for finding bodies, we do still have a few alleys left in Manhattan, and it's much easier to put a crew in an alley than on the street. 

You'll note however that, even when a real NYC alley is clean, it's narrow and sort of dark. Manhattan has tall buildings, and therefore no golden California light.

It annoys us that the show doesn't want to look anything like New York, but felt that their premise — a writer gets to run with the cops — required New York for cred. 
Having said all that, Kathy and I agree that we will follow Nathan Fillion almost anywhere.
We agree that Elementary has got a bit better at portraying New York City. Of course, when in your very first episode, your writers put a paupers cemetery on Manhattan's Upper East Side, you’ve set a pretty low bar. 

We agree that Person of Interest does the best job of portraying New York among our favorite shows. In fact, they do a darned good job. As a bonus, we get to see Kathy’s apartment building in one of the regularly used establishing shots of Detective Fusco’s precinct house (which was once a real precinct house, but is now a recreation center).

White Collar earned serious points by having characters take daytime strolls down real Manhattan streets and for having affection for the city. 
We agree we will really miss Matt Bomer!
In fact, at least in its first two seasons, its villains couldn’t tear themselves away from the Big Apple. They’d have a 24-hour head start on the heroes, but would choose to stick around so they could be caught. We agree this show ought to still be on the air, and highly recommend it for bingeing.

Recently, however, Kathy and I disagreed.
Yes, disagreed. We were discussing our continued devotion to the two shows whose setups seriously tip the scales of believability. But we disagreed on which was the bigger tipper.
So, let me ask you.
Which is the more preposterous? Person of Interest or Castle?
Is it more unbelievable that there’s a clandestine network out there seeking world power by using every electronic device on the planet? Or that the NYPD would let a mystery writer help them solve murders?
I’m going for #2 there.
I’ve found police detectives to be quite helpful in providing research assistance and sharing their colorful stories. But not one of them — not one — has ever taken me up on my offers to review case files for them.
On the other hand, I once made the mistake of donating money online to a national political organization, and I’m convinced they will chase me for another donation and find me wherever I am for the rest of my life.

Copyright 2015 Sheila York

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Earl Staggs Loves His Two Perfect Jobs

Writer Friends…

It's impossible to say why we like one writer more than others. Or prefer one style of writing more than the rest.

Kinda like when we're drawn to one person in a crowd.

The big guy who sat beside me at an MWA Board meeting and told me about how he just had to put down his cat. Then became my friend for life.

The quiet woman in Lewis Frumkes' Writing Center at Marymount Manhattan, now, many years later, my first reader.

The generous winner of 32 Emmys and many top writing awards - one of the most generous souls on the planet!

I don't recall when or how I first noticed our guest for today - it may have been on a blog, or a mention by a kind friend. Or reading his novel about a former FBI profiler. Or his high-octane thriller about Tall Chambers.

When you read his simple but deep words here today, I think you'll fall under the spell of one of the nicest guys on our planet too.

Please welcome—again—Earl Staggs…

T. J. Straw

I’ve heard it said that if you’re doing something you enjoy, it’s not work. I’ll attest to that because I have two jobs I dearly love.

Bear with me a minute while I tell you how it came about.

I’ve worked since I was fifteen. That’s how old you had to be to get a work permit for an after-school job in Baltimore. My first job was in a men’s secondhand clothing store. My chores were simple: restack pants on the right tables and return jackets and suits to their racks after browsers finished with them, and sweep floors. The owner even paid me extra to meet his daughter after night school and walk her home through the tough neighborhood. I made enough to buy cigarettes, clothes with an employee’s discount and Clearasil for occasional acne breakouts.

Later, while still in high school, I had similar jobs in a five and ten, a women’s clothing store (where I did not buy any clothes), and an Army surplus store. That kept me busy and out of major trouble until I graduated and went in a new direction: office work.

I worked for a couple years in a building contractor’s office followed by a long stint in several departments of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. At the B&O, I crawled up the ladder to Office Manager and met a beautiful coworker named Carol.

Eventually, Carol and I married, and I left the confines of inside office work for outside sales, first in business forms, then insurance, along with jobs in a large bank and a national trade association. I even spent time as an independent business consultant.

During that time, Carol and I concentrated heavily on our most important job, which was raising two beautiful daughters and spoiling four beautiful grandchildren.

You may be wondering why I’m telling you all that boring personal history. Simple. I wanted to impress you with the fact that I’ve held a number of jobs. Some I liked and some I stayed with only because I needed a pay check.

And then it was time to retire. I thought it was time to take life easy. Maybe take up golf or gardening. Little did I know that, before long, I would have two new jobs, both of which I dearly loved. Besides that, I didn’t like golf or gardening.

I decided to try something I’d always wanted to do… well, ever since my high school English teacher said I had a natural talent for writing. I decided to try my hand at writing fiction.

I call writing a job because it involves hard work. Ask any writer.

To begin, I signed up for a writing class at the community college. The class happened to be about writing short mystery stories. It was a natural fit since mystery had always been my favorite genre for reading and for movies and TV shows. By the end of the class, I had written a short story called “The Missing Sniper” involving a psychic private eye and, of course, a murder. It took a while to get it published in a magazine. (Actually, it appeared in two magazines simultaneously, but how that happened is a whole ’nuther long story.)

The response to the story was so positive and encouraging, I wrote a mystery novel featuring the same protagonist and called it MEMORY OF A MURDER. Over the next few years, more of my short stories found publication as well as another novel titled JUSTIFIED ACTION, which I called a Mystery/Thriller. I also published a collection of my stories called, of all things, SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS.

I love my writing job. I love the part where I stare at a blank screen and accept the challenge of sprinkling a lot of words all over it in such a way that a good story is told. Someone once said it’s 10% writing and 90% rewriting. I believe that. Rewriting is taking what seemed like a good idea but turned into a hodge podge of words in need of rearrangement, replacement, and refinement. It can take hours, days or longer.

Finally, the right words are in the right place, the story works, and it was worth all the hard work. Validation that you’ve met the challenge comes when someone agrees to publish it. That’s the part I love best.

After that happens a few times, you can say you’re a writer. You may not say it aloud and you may not say it to anyone else. It may only be a silent feeling somewhere inside. But, for sure, you’re a writer, Once you reach that point, you will always be a writer because you can’t not write. The challenge is irresistible.

Earl the Writer
I was only a year into retirement and struggling to become a writer, however, when I realized something. Writing is a solitary, inside job. When I left inside jobs to be a salesman, I found I enjoyed being out and about in the big old world and spending time with other members of the human race. It also dawned on me that if you don’t have to get up in the morning, go somewhere and do something, you can get old. I didn’t want to get old. There was too much I still wanted to do.

So, I decided to get another job. I didn’t want a full-time job because that would cut into my writing time. I wanted something part-time, not hard or too demanding, but a job that got me out of the house and gave me access and interaction with other people. Maybe I could stand in the doorway of Walmart and say, “Welcome to Walmart. Do you want a cart?” That was one avenue I considered in my search.

Then, purely by chance, I came up with the perfect second job. I found in my yard a flier from the local school district. They were hiring school bus drivers. I’d never considered anything like that, but I was curious and called them. I went for an appointment and was hired the same day.

Driving a school bus would entail working a couple hours in the morning to get the kids to school and a couple in the afternoon to get them home again. In between, there would be about six hours of free time. Time I could spend writing. Perfect!

It took a while to get started. You have to study a manual about the size of the Dallas phone directory and take a test to get a Commercial Drivers License. Then you have to actually learn how to drive a bus. You have to get used to operating a vehicle as big as three cars with a dashboard having as many buttons and switches as a small airplane. You not only have to drive and use all those buttons and switches, but you have to keep an eye on fifty kids behind you. If they’re not sitting down or are making too much noise, you have to remind them they must remain seated while the bus is in motion and to use their inside voice. Five minutes later, you have to remind them again. Kids will be kids, you know.

In spite of that, once I started, I loved it. It helps that I like kids. Most of them.

My kids range from kindergarten to eighth grade and while spending time with them in the morning and again in the afternoon, I get to know them. Occasionally, some will misbehave. I even have fun with the discipline. Once I told them, “If you don’t behave, I’ll have to kill you. I don’t mind going back to jail. Some of my best friends are there.” They know I’m a kidder and they laughed, but they got the message. I enjoy seeing them every day and watching them grow. The kindergartners and first graders are the most lovable. I get plenty of smiles and hugs from them.

I also get to know their parents and teachers. Oddly enough, in conversation with them, the fact that I’m a writer always seems to pop out. Once a salesman, always a salesman, I suppose. Many of the teachers and parents have bought my books and frequently ask when the next one will come out.

Earl the Bus Driver
Now that you’ve read all the way to here, you know how I came to have my two jobs. You’re now invited to visit my website at where you can:

Read Chapter One of MEMORY OF A MURDER
Read Chapter One of JUSTIFIED ACTION
Read THE DAY I ALMOST BECAME A GREAT WRITER which some say is the funniest short story I’ve ever written
Read WHITE HATS AND HAPPY TRAILS about the day I spent with a boyhood idol, Roy Rogers.
and more.

I know some people with jobs they love, but I don’t know anyone with two of them. I think I’m a lucky guy to have two that go together like Holmes and Watson, Castle and Beckett, peanut butter and jelly.

What do you think?

© 2015 Earl Staggs

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Stranger

I ordered THE STRANGER (1946), directed by Orson Welles and starring Welles, Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young, from Netflix and it came in a sleeve that announced it was part of the “Film Noir Collection.” I would challenge the categorization of the film as “noir” on the basis of the simplicity of the moral struggle it portrays, and the too easy sense of justice it claims.

It is not as if Welles couldn’t do better. In TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), another film in which he both starred and directed, the moral status of all the characters is ambiguous at best. Here, though, Welles, as Franz Kindler, is almost cartoonish in his evil, the bête noir of Edward G Robinson’s Mr Wilson (and all good God Fearing patriotic types, I suppose). The rigidly upright Wilson rivals Dudley Do Right in his All American (or Canadian) goodness.

Welles portrays not only a Nazi, but the Nazi that masterminded the death camps. As such, Welles is indeed portraying an evil character—but he does so in an over the top, even campy, way. The arrogance of Kindler outstrips his intelligence, and he doesn’t come across as a real adversary for Wilson because of his blind self-assurance in his brilliance.

Mr Wilson (does he not have a first name, and such a bland last one, because he is representing all of virtuous American manhood?) is a war crimes investigator that chases Welles to Harper, Connecticut, where Kindler is in hiding as Charles Rankin, a teacher at a boy’s school named after the town. Wilson takes responsibility for releasing another Nazi so that he can follow that escapee to Kindler. The escapee flies unerringly home to his master, never thinking that he has been set up (more Nazi arrogance). Wilson acknowledges that this gambit is morally dicey, but in his towering indignation at what the Nazis have done, he proclaims “blast the repercussions, I will risk the bottom pits of hell” to get his man. We are made to believe that Rankin/Kindler somehow has the capacity to resurrect the entire Third Reich from his classroom in bucolic Connecticut, and will do so unless the avuncular, pipe- smoking Wilson can’t get his man.

Wilson’s monomania about catching Welles could be an occasion to explore how we become monsters in fighting monsters, but it is not. He brings Kindler to justice in ways that are completely cricket, Marquis of Queensbury, the good-guys-fight-fair-and-win-because-God-is-on-their-side kind of way. Wilson makes it seem like catching Kindler will somehow exonerate America for things like its sinful inaction about the Final Solution early in the war, fire-bombing Dresden, even for turning away boatloads of Jews looking for asylum before America joined the conflict.

In a strange twist Rankin, who marries Mary Longstreet (Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, gives an impassioned speech to Wilson at a dinner party wherein he proclaims that the Germans are waiting not for another Messiah but another Hitler (which is exactly what Kindler is doing), and that the Germans should be wiped from the face of the earth. He proclaims that all Germans would rather worship Warrior Gods than the Judeo-Christian one (obviously the one they worship in Harper, a Norman Rockwell town if there ever was one, an American town for Americans, that is if you are an American who fears God and is heterosexual and white) and responds with a resounding yes to Mary when she says that surely he is not suggesting a “Carthaginian Solution” to the problem. It’s a bold move, this, Rankin espousing a doctrine running completely counter to his own, but of course the evil must have an Achilles heel, a tragic flaw, and Rankin does. When he tells Wilson that Marx was a Jew and not a German, Wilson knows he has found his man.

And there is more heavy handed stereotyping, not from Kindler, but from Welles the director. Kindler/Rankin is obsessed with clocks, and works tirelessly on the clock in the tower of the town church. I guess that German need for precision and order will out every time. When he finally fixes it, there is a little track that circles the tower, with an armor-less knight or angel with a sword chasing a gargoyle or devil into eternity (representing Wilson and Kindler, America and the Nazis, us versus them, you fill in the easy blanks, the way any propaganda movie will for you).

I couldn’t help but think of all the resonances the word Stranger has when watching the movie, from the way we tell little kids about “stranger danger” to Billy Joel’s song wherein he warns about “the stranger in yourself.” Even INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS pivots on the idea that you might know your neighbors so poorly you don’t notice they are really from another galaxy. It’s a fear as old as time itself, the fear of the evil one in disguise, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the evil one in glorious raiment, while goodness is garbed in the humblest of costumes. Wilson could be the proverbial frog prince. But just because it is a primal fear doesn’t mean it should be portrayed in a trivial, juvenile way.

The most interesting twist on this stranger theme is the one whereby Longstreet marries Rankin only to find out that he is not the man she thought he was. And it is way more than the fact that he has bad table manners and leaves the cap off the toothpaste, or that he gives up the pretense of romance to drink beer and watch wrestling on TV. Indeed, he starts off by poisoning her dog, and works his way up from there. The Nazi Wilson releases finds Kindler, and the good old boss kills him to avoid discovery. When it becomes clear that he must tell Mary what he has done, he makes up the most outlandish tale, and she buys it. She doesn’t believe Wilson or even her dear old Dad when they tell her who she has married, and what he has done.

It is as if the loss of her innocence is really the culprit here, and if she had not let romance, a man, and sex into her life, if she had just stayed home with dear old Dad, none of this would have ever happened. She lies for Rankin, won’t face the horror of it all, won’t allow the unthinkable to come to consciousness any more than the German people will, in Rankin’s words, allow the truth or their horrible error to become conscious to themselves. Another ham-handed irony there, when Robinson says that Mary’s unconscious will eventually force the truth to the surface, like the body working a splinter out of the flesh, in that it was a Viennese Jew came up with a lot of this theorizing about the unconscious. Until Mary discovers Rankin plans even on killing her, she stands by her man.

One of the most implausible things about the movie is the romance between Young and Welles. She looks young enough to be his daughter, and he is a humorless, charmless and pretentious bore. And the whole town seems smitten with him, what with his school master’s English and patches on the sleeves of his jackets (although it is Robinson who smokes the intellectual’s pipe).

How could there be any doubt about the outcome? Rankin possesses the requisite grandiosity and arrogance to think he can hide in plain sight, but Wilson finds him out. Still, Wilson decides to let things play out, instead of merely killing the monster, until Welles tries to kill Mary in the clock tower. He fails, and tries to hide. Then, in the most over the top scene in the movie, Rankin/Kindler ends up impaled by the angel with the sword.

THE STRANGER was the only movie Wells was credited with directing that made a profit. Perhaps, in his attempt to be commercial, he felt simplistic moralizing sold better than complexity and contradiction. He was apparently right.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gene London's Hollywood Collection

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Philadelphia Convention Center to see the Flower Show. The theme this year was moving pictures, which made for kind of a strange flower show. On the walls were big screens showing movie clips. In the middle were the horticultural exhibits. At the far end were acres of booths selling things for gardens. Hard to relate the plants to the movies. I was still recovering from a slipped disk, and so was unable to carry anything very big home on the train, and so I passed up countless opportunities to pick up garden equipment and plant materials. In fact I went home empty-handed. Oh, who am I kidding? I don't have a yard.

But just outside of the flower show was an exhibit of Gene London's collection of movie costumes—some of them, that is. To show them all would probably require the whole convention center, because Gene London's collection is immense. (You recognize his name if you're over a certain age and grew up around Philadelphia. He used to be the host of a children's TV show.) To see these clothes was why I came, as well as to see Rosemary Harris's exhibit of flowers, which in my dazed and confused state I never did manage to locate.

Gene London's Hollywood Collection was easy to find. A big sign was posted outside. I paid my five dollars, went through the door into tinsel-land and realized I'd left my camera home. But I wasn't there to take pictures. I was there to gawk. I'll tell you what I saw, and show you other people's pictures. The Collection has a Facebook page with a lot of illustrations. How tiny those stars were! How slim their waists!

Most of the costumes were women's, and most were from films of the thirties, forties, and fifties, many of which I had seen. They were all displayed on simple white mannikins. In the center of the room was Marilyn Monroe's white dress from The Seven-Year Itch, positioned over a grate with a fan so that the skirt blew up. That outfit has become a cliché, even being cast in bronze or whatever as one of those hideous Seward Johnson sculptures. Other outfits were more interesting to me.

I got to see the red dress Audrey Hepburn wore in Funny Face after she had been transformed into a fashion model, a garment of exquisite simplicity. Her Paris wardrobe was designed at Miss Hepburn's insistence by Givenchy, to Edith Head's great displeasure. Let's face it, Edith Head may have been Hollywood's greatest designer in her day but she couldn't pull off real Paris fashions. Nevertheless it is Edith Head's name that appears in the movie credits.

The black satin strapless gown Rita Hayworth wiggled around in when she sang "Put the Blame on Mame" in Gilda was there. In the movie she did a strip-tease by taking off her long black gloves, and it was amazing that she didn't fall out of the dress. Jean Louis, the designer, must have glued it on her. Without Miss Hayworth in it the dress seemed lifeless. In fact, here she is, doing her thing:

Other dresses, elaborately shaped and decorated, made a satisfying spectacle all by themselves.

There were men's costumes as well, fancy historical fripperies and also a tweed suit worn by Fred Astaire, shown with a dress of Ginger Rogers. Then there was a simple rag that Charlton Heston wore in Planet of the Apes.

Not all the exhibits were from the movies. Some were gowns that the stars had worn to awards ceremonies. One was Grace Kelly's wedding gown. I can't imagine letting that go out of the family, but they did, and you can see it, the next time Gene London has a show. I can't wait. I'm going to put him on Google Alert to see when that might happen.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

One From the Heart

David's 75th Birthday

 I am writing this on the 17th of March 2015—my 74th birthday.  Good wishes are coming in from Facebook friends and others.

I received some actual cards; here they are on my mantel with a gift of roses.  The greetings are from four people who represent  215 years of friendship.

I have a date later to have dinner with my daughter, my son-in-law, and my four grandchildren.  I will take some pictures and post them here if I can once with this blog is published.

I told the plumbers who came to install a new radiator in my dining room today that it was a birthday present. They said they had never delivered a birthday gift before.

Some of today’s chance occurrences  gave my birthday a special significance, especially since the past year has not been without its challenges.

The words  “time” and “remember” kept coming up.

When I went down into the subway stop at 79th Street and Broadway after an appointment this morning, I saw something I had never seen there before.  Here is a little snippet.  (I kept it short because I know that Blogger won’t let me upload more than a few seconds of film.)

After that, the words of that song played over and over in my head all the way home.  They are so emblematic of my marriage with my David.   Here is the whole song, sung by the incomparable Tony Bennett at the age of 78—the age David is now:

On the way from the subway to my front door, I passed the flower shop on my block.  They put out blossoms for people going by and have a signboard with quotes that change every day.  Here is what it said when I walked by with those song lyrics in my head.

When I sat down at the keyboard to write this blog, I had a plan for what I thought I would write.  But my experiences up till that moment had been pretty powerful and those, in conjunction with what happened next, made me jettison my previous idea.

I always play music while I am working at the computer.  I have a peripheral drive with literally tens of thousands of songs on it.  I play them on shuffle, so I never know what is coming next.  The first one to come up today was “Time Heals Everything,” from the Broadway show Mack and Mabel, which debuted the year David and I were married—1974.   Here it is sung by Bernadette Peters:

I hope you don't find this too sentimental.  I am a sentimental person.  And today, a random series of events told me that this is what I had to say.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, March 16, 2015

The March 17th Blues

It’s Saturday and it’s raining but if I were back in the City, it wouldn’t matter; it’d roll off my back. But I’m in Albany, where I live now. Don’t say anything, like “How can you call that cesspool of corruption home??”, as a friend indelicately put it when I announced my plan to move. Come to think of it, Rose’s response when I first broached the subject: “What??? Where!!!” fell short of unalloyed joy. This depression I feel in my bones on March 17th is only for today. ‘Buck up, boyo,’ the Irish spirits whisper, ‘the Thruway is a two-way street.’

Modern Albany was practically invented by the Irish, after they’d ousted their Dutch Protestant ‘betters’ who’d held power since the Civil War. Dan O’Connell won at the polls in 1921 and his Democratic Machine ran the City forever after, today still. Dan came from the Irish South End where his father owned a Bar. He cannily persuaded Erastus Corning the Younger, a Brahmin scion, to throw in with him, and the rest was history. Corning was Mayor of Albany for 42 years till his death in 1983, but if you wanted a big enough favor, you visited Boss Dan O’Connell, hat-in-hand, at home, up until he died in 1977. These were the days of the Ward Men whom you met on the street or in a Bar on Election Day to receive $5 for your vote. An Irish version of The Godfather.

Two things I know about St. Patrick’s Day in Albany: Go to the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall on Ontario Street for the corned-beef-and-cabbage, boiled potatoes, carrots and two kinds of Irish Soda bread; and skip the Parade. The Parade actually occurs on the Saturday before the 17th. How un-New York is that! I went to it once, and was appalled. The Albany cops couldn’t control the corners at the intersections along Washington Avenue (or didn’t know how). On Parade Day, The NYPD would post officers on foot and horse on both sides of Fifth Avenue from East 45th St. to 86th St., then down 86th to Second Avenue, the last stop. (Of course, the APD has 350 cops while we had 35,000.) There were
Pipe Bands in the Albany Parade, but their leaders did not look like Detective Finbar Devine. Truly, no other human ever did. Six-feet-five inches, broad-shouldered and bull-chested, perennial Drum Major of the NYPD’s Emerald Society Pipe and Drum Corps; in kilts and the high Black Bear Hat, he strode up Fifth Avenue, marking cadence for his men with swings of his shillelagh-sized baton, like Finn MacCool straight out of the mists of Irish Myth. Finbar has been gone from us a good while now, doing his thing in the celestial Precincts, I like to think.

In The Day, it was a mix of pride and wild joy I felt marching up Fifth in the first rank of a uniformed column as a Sergeant of Police. We were hundreds but the crowds lining the route were thousands. Past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Cardinal, Mayor, et al preening in the grandstands on its steps, we moved past smartly to the wail of the pipes. New York loved us That Day and told us loudly. At the end of the march, we’d hit all the Irish Bars along Second Avenue, from 86th to 22nd Sts. Still in uniform, the drinks were free as were the women. Our destination was Molly Malone’s Pub, around the corner from the Police Academy on East 20th St. You’d have to shout over the din to be heard, the pipers competing with the juke box blaring out Danny Boy and The Wild Colonial Boy. I was in my 30s then and pronounced it good.

The world moves on; me, too. I know Albany cannot have the number and magical élan of those New York Irish bars I knew so well, now long gone. The world is drearier for it.

© 2015 Robert Knightly

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Rejoice in the Ides of March

I met my husband on the Ides of March and in honor of the fateful day am reprising an earlier post about our marriage. Forget what you learned in history and Shakespeare classes.

The Ides of March can be a wonderful day.

Over the years writers have heard and read about the importance of reaching that phantom held fast in the minds of publishers, agents and booksellers: the average reader. You know the guy (I always think of the average reader as male though statistics suggest otherwise). He needs to be captured by the first sentence and must be propelled effortlessly through a compelling narrative. The writer must not linger too long over any detail as the average reader has many bids on his attention and needs to get on with it.

I never imagined that such a person existed. If such a person did exist, I thought, I certainly wouldn’t want to be in his company.

Reader, I married him.

An exchange about a book marked our first date.

“Have you read Julian Jaynes?” Bob asked

“Do you mean The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind?”

The rest is domestic history.

But our discovery of each other’s literary tastes was not all skittles and beer. Early in our marriage I presented Bob with a mystery I had enjoyed very much, Robert Goddard’s Into the Blue. A while later, I found Bob reading. I don’t remember what it was but it wasn’t the Goddard.

“You didn’t like it?”

“Two pages of introspection and not a thing happened.”

I felt a cold chill. Could I have married a man who didn’t like mysteries?

I continued to buy the books I liked (my library is vast) and I watched what Bob picked out. I discovered that my husband is a great re-reader and he goes over favorite passages in a way I do not.

His favorites?

Dick Francis. Bob likes the way every word seems to serve to drive the plot forward. I’m tempted to say something here about galloping to the end but am resisting. Above all Francis does not blather. Mr. Francis was also a great favorite of Robin Hathaway’s and Bob and Robin enjoyed discussing their favorites. (Robin’s was Nerve; Bob has not committed to a favorite.)

Georges Simenon. (the Maigret novels). Bob says that Maigret is smart about people and focuses attention on those whose lives have largely been failures. He eschews forensics and relies on conversation. I like the fact that Maigret’s job allows him to spend a lot of time dropping into bars and drinking Calvados. Simenon does not blather.

Carl Hiaasen. You get a good mystery and serious issues are raised, but you’re laughing so hard you may not notice. Hiaasen’s madcap plots tend to blend together for me, but Bob actually remembers in which novel a particular plot twist or bit of business occurred. Hiaasen does not blather.

Elizabeth Peters (the Amelia Peabody mysteries). Bob once worked as an archaeologist and he admires Peters’ knowledge of Egypt and archaeological practices. He also enjoys her humor. I used to come home from mystery conferences with books set in the ancient world and Bob would say, “You get me these things, but they don’t really grab me.” I’ve pointed out to Bob that Peters, while she does not blather, is a touch more discursive than his usual favorites.

“Well, everybody goes on about something; you just have to like what they go on about.”

As I type, Bob is reading The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell. This is most uncharacteristic as Bob is not much for Scandanavian brooding. “I do tolerate a lot in the Wallander novels that I wouldn’t normally put up with in other books,” he says.

So, what lessons should you draw from all of this?

There isn’t an average reader no matter what publishers, agents and booksellers imagine. But don’t blather unless you’re very funny or Swedish.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Brighton Rock

The movie BRIGHTON ROCK (2010) is certainly a crime thriller, replete and complete in and of itself as such, with knife-fights, murder, double and triple crosses, and police corruption. And Graham Greene, who wrote the book it is based on, saw it as such, as a potboiler, as cheap entertainment, as pulp fiction for the very mass culture that he openly despises in the book. It manages to be more than that, though, even in this, the second movie version, by setting up some interesting contrasts between the religious and the secular but ethical life, about devotion both religious and romantic, about the haves and the have-nots, and about the ability, or lack thereof, of ever reaching self-awareness.

Brighton is a resort town on the Southeast Coast of England, a place where working and middle class yahoos and bozos go to dance at a pavilion under the stars while saccharine and syrupy love songs play into the salty night air; a place where you can stroll the boardwalk and eat cotton candy, or the eponymous Brighton Rock-Candy; where you can have your picture taken with your girl by a roving photographer with a shtick and a patter as big as his camera; where you can rent a little chair and sit on the rocky beach in the cool British weather and imagine you are on holiday in some Victorian novel, richer and more sophisticated than you ever will be. The movie gives us the Brighton of 1964, when British youths called mods and rockers clashed with the police (bogies) and each other in seaside resorts all along that Southeast Coast and where gangsters struggling to control the race track gambling in the benighted town kill each other with knives under the boardwalk, where the crass entertainment of the noon time world is counterpointed by the greed and, ultimately, the violence, that drives the whole tawdry enterprise.

Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) is at the center of this utterly dark thriller. He is not the kind of character who ever changes, this Pinkie, although there are times when you are fooled by your experience with other kinds of books and movies into thinking he will. He is the youngest member of his gang, and it seems like inflicting pain is both his vocation and avocation. While the other gang members get drunk and try to bed the decidedly meretricious girls around town, he pulls the wings off bugs and kills people. His preferred weapon is his trusty knife, but anything to hand will do, like the rock he uses to dispatch one rival gang member. That rival gang member had killed his boss, who may or may not have been a kind of father figure to Pinkie. The movie doesn’t really try to establish a motivation for Pinkie’s savagery, although you can find many candidates if you go looking—his extreme impoverishment, growing up a vicious underworld and so growing vicious, his desire to be a “man” in a world where being one means being ruthless, brutal and without remorse.

Pinkie doesn’t seem to believe in anything, but he does. He certainly has no connection, other than as parasite, to his fellow human beings, but he does have a relationship, however twisted, with God. He calls himself a “Roman” (Catholic) and tells his girlfriend (and then wife) Rose (Andrea Riseborough): “course there’s a hell, flame, damnation, torments.” She’s a Roman too, but while Pinkie’s version of Catholicism is about damnation (and somehow avoiding it through prayer, although he doesn’t ask Jesus to help him stop killing), hers is about God’s mercy and kindness, and she believes in God with the same blind fervor she believes in Pinkie, in spite of all the evidence Pinkie is a deranged psychopath who doesn’t love anyone, and even after she is forced to admit he is a murderer.

Pinkie marries her because he doesn’t want her to testify to what she has seen, which could get him sent over for murder, or at least help the police nail him for it. And still she believes in him. It is heartbreaking. They get married by a Justice of the Peace after Pinkie bribes her father to allow his under-aged daughter to wed him (they haggle over the price in a scene that left me wondering whether to laugh or cry). The bride struggles to keep up with Pinkie as they walk over, carrying her dowry in a cardboard suitcase, wearing a pillbox hat and lipstick. The ceremony is a horrible and comic and grotesque mockery of a romantic church marriage, the best man being a fellow thug, and the best woman a cleaning lady whom they pay to be one. It is at this juncture that Pinkie decides to worry over his mortal soul, not for the killings and the crass seduction of the innocent girl, but because they didn’t get wed in the church: “This is sin, mortal sin, it’ll be no good ever going to church again.” Pinkie’s version of redemption seems to consist of somehow following the very complex rules of a divine game—a game where you go to hell not for murder but for forgetting and eating meat on Friday, or by not getting in a good act of contrition before some rival gangster guns you down.

And so that is where the suspense comes from in this movie—will Rose wise up? Will Pinkie kill her? Will Pinkie change and learn to love Rose, who says to Pinkie over and over that he can trust her, and that without him she would die? It is easy to root for Pinkie to love Rose, and I think we are conditioned to, but he never really gives her, or us, any reason to think he will. He is largely silent, yes, and you can project whatever motives and feelings you want on a silent man, but the words and actions we do get from Pinkie are all vile. Shortly after the marriage, Rose insists he go into a little sound booth on the pier and make a recording for her. He does, and she can’t hear him say “I know you want me to say I love you, but I don’t. I hate you.” Pinkie, perhaps the most violent crayon in the box, is not the smartest, and he figures since they have no record player, he doesn’t have to worry about her ever hearing it.
There is also a kind of detective in this movie, Ida, played by Helen Mirren, who is Rose’s boss at a little café, and she tries to prove Pinkie’s guilt and save Rose from him. With the cops onto Pinkie, and with the rival gang, led by the evil Colleoni (Andy Serkis), who has gone legit and uptown and represents the kind of ostentatious wealth Pinkie covets, all looking to cut him to ribbons, you know that Pinkie doesn’t have much chance of coming out of all of this in one piece.

No plot spoilers here. See if the blowsy, irreligious, sensuous and forthrightly sexual Ida, who does what she does not to get into heaven, but because it is right, can save Rose. See if Pinkie, who aspired to take Colleoni’s place, can do it. And don’t be too quick to turn off the movie at the end, because there is an emotionally climactic scene that takes place after the climax of the action that has to be seen to be believed. It is melodrama of the highest order, but intelligent and entertaining just the same. Like Brighton Rock-Candy, it may not nourish, but it satisfies.

© 2015 Mike Welch