Thursday, October 30, 2008


The Criterion Collection has recently released two outstanding gangster films by Jean-Pierre Melville, Le Doulos (1963) and Le Deuxième Souffle (1966).

Le Doulos stars Jean-Paul Belmondo (below) as Silien, a gangster who may or may not be a police informer – a “hat”, or "doulos" in French argot. He may or may not have squealed on fellow gangster Maurice, played by Serge Reggiani. Betrayal and suspicion (along with trench coats, fedoras and Melvillian noir cool) abound.

In the second film, Le Deuxième Souffle, master criminal Gu Minda, played by Lino Ventura, breaks out of prison and joins a successful platinum heist organized by Paul Ricci. Afterwards, Police Inspector Blot (the cynical Paul Maurisse) tricks Gu into betraying his accomplices. Paul and Gu are taken in and tortured by the police. Gu breaks out. He sets out to clear his name and expose police corruption, which he does with surprising ease. Then he settles the score with Jo Ricci, Paul’s brother, who’s been shooting and threatening Gu’s accomplices since the start of the film and who, we are led to believe – although it’s not really clear - has turned on Jo as well. Mayhem ensues.

Both films are good but Le Doulos is the better of the two. It’s tighter and more engaging. Once the story begins it moves inexorably to its tragic end. Le Deuxième Souffle, as you can tell even from the summary above, is more cluttered; the story doesn’t flow naturally. Additionally, in Le Doulos we care about the characters. Reggiani, for instance, has the sad face of the two-time (no, make that three-time) loser. You just know anything he does will end in disaster. Despite all his toughness he seems to be very vulnerable, not least of all to his own stupidity – rather like Harvey Keitel in Resevoir Dogs (Tarantino, not surprisingly, is big Melville fan). One has no such reservations, though, about Lino Ventura in Le Deuxième Souffle. He is as hard and tough as the Hollywood film gangsters whom Melville adored. One senses that being roughed up by the police would scarcely faze him.

The shootouts in these films have an interesting rhythm. In traditional Hollywood gangster films the shooting occurs in the course of the dramatic action. Characters face off but will often be moving at the same time; and the shooting is spontaneous, like an emotional outburst. “I said get away from that door! you rotten, double-crossing..!!” BANG! BANG! BANG! Hunch and drop. But Melville’s shootouts are quite different. They are quiet and static. A character pulls a gun, everyone freezes and stasis reigns. Characters talk or even whisper, plot ends are tied together. Then a gun goes off and chaos erupts, leaving most of the characters dead on the floor. It’s almost as though Melville has taken the rhythm of the Hollywood western (the slow ritualized shootout in the center of town) and transferred it to the gangster film. That just about every film-maker follows Melville’s lead is a sign of his influence.

For instance, there's a great moment in the shootout that ends Le Deuxième Souffle. I could not, unfortunately, find a clip on-line so stills and description will have to do. In the picture below Gu, (the one with the guns) has cornered Jo and his henchmen. He shoots Jo (the guy closest to us). Then Antoine (in the white fedora in the back) drops down, pulls out a gun and shoots Gu in the hip. Gu falls to the ground but not before shooting Pascal (the guy at the back in the dark fedora).

Then the camera follows Antoine as he runs across the table to keep shooting the fallen Gu.

From Antoine's point of view the camera follows Gu as he rolls onto his back, raises both guns and fires them directly into the camera...

...sending Antoine (now seen from Gu's point of view) against the back wall, dead.

It's pure John Woo. ("Melville is my God" - John Woo)

With the rerelease of Melville’s films as well as the republication of the tough roman dur crime novels by the Belgian Georges Simenon, we Americans are finally getting a sense of how well the French have taken to the gangster genre, especially in its noir form. It's intriguing that the Americans and the French have developed a noir style of mystery whereas the British have not. They are still wedded to the traditional Agatha-Christie-style whodunit. I think the reason for this is class and the nature of crime. Criminals, after all, are very much like businessmen. They both like to accumulate money. They both take risks and will stake all they have on a single venture. They need to be cunning and energetic to succeed. They’re willing to lie and cheat and steal to accomplish their goals.  The psychological toll for people living in that kind of society can be pathological; they can wind up distrustful, scheming, violent, depressed, paranoid, suicidal, etc., in other words, the perfect noir hero. There is a natural sympathy between the criminal and the businessmen which noir reveals. Here, for instance, is a passage from Gil Brewer’s classic pulp novel The Vengeful Virgin (1958 - and recently reissued from HardCase Crime) in which the narrator, a TV repairman in Florida, ruminates on the prospects that even a small job (legitimate) can present:
You’ve got to whittle every stick you get your hands on, if you expect to be big. Your business has to be the biggest and the best, if you expect it to pay off. That’s how it was going to be with me…I was plenty in debt. But if you’re smart enough to find all the angles and ride them down, you won’t drown. In the beginning, you’ve got to scramble and you’ve got to ride those angles hard, every damned one of them. You don’t let any of them throw you, not even the measliest, because every buck adds up. Either that, or you make it big and fast some way, and quit cold. I had learned the hard way, misfiring across a lot of lousy years, that I would have to slug for it – slug everybody in sight.
Somehow, I can’t picture Lord Peter Wimsey or Hercule Poirot saying that. But I can imagine Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart saying it. And on the Gallic side of things, Melville’s characters may not say it but they live it - as, too, do the businessmen and criminals of Balzac and Zola and even the peasants of de Maupassant.

Americans have always loved their merchants and after the Civil War the industrial powers completely took over and haven’t let up since. In France the rising business class broke the power of the aristocracy in 1789 but not without massive bloodshed. However, in Britain the newly arrived entrepreneurial class didn’t guillotine the aristocracy; they married into them. Or they bought peerages. Or in some way accommodated themselves to the existing aristocracy, who were not destroyed as in France, but rather domesticated. The newly risen English businessman imagined that with enough money he could buy a country house, join the right clubs and maybe even get a seat in Parliament; they had the expectation (not entirely unfounded) that they could become little aristocrats themselves and leave the grubby and shameful world of the tradesman behind.

In the US and France such Trollopian illusions could never take ground. The businessmen run the show; and there’s no aristocratic refuge, no point at which you can let your guard down. Even if you make it to the top you still have to watch your back. There is no escape, as the trapped heros of noir will tell you. You always have to be ready to “slug everybody in sight.”

Monday, October 20, 2008

Unfinished Books

At some point every serious reader has to ponder the question “How much more of this awful book do I have to read?” Personally, I’ve never been able to figure out exactly when I can abandon a book with a good conscience. There are simply too many very long and very bad books for me to finish every one I start, and each hour trapped with a bad book is an hour not spent enjoying a good one. So a line has to be drawn somewhere. But where? After the first 50 pages? After the first 10% of the book? Or should I give it 25%. I don’t know. On some level I feel that I should finish every book I start regardless of whether I like it or not. After all, sometimes when I stick with a book I wind up enjoying it in the end. That’s especially true with novels. I was about 300 pages into Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady before I realized how brilliant it (and he (and, yes, she)) was. I had a similar experience with The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes. Only about two-thirds of the way through it did I begin to understand and appreciate what Fuentes was doing. This can also work to a book’s detriment, too. I just read Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and was liking it just fine until, in the last 10 pages, I came across a passage so inane, foolish, and flat-out wrong that I had no choice but to reject the previous 294 pages I’d read as pure, undiluted crapola. But these instances are the exceptions. Most of the times I can tell within the first 50 pages whether or not I’m going to like a book. Which books we don’t finish and why can tell us as much about the reading experience (and the reader) as knowing which ones they do finish. Here, then, are some of the recent books I have started and then abandoned – together with how much of them I read and my assessment of the likelihood that I will ever return to them.

The History of the Thirteen by Honoré de Balzac. Christ, what a slog. I’ve been reading a lot of Balzac this year. Maybe too much. This novel is actually composed of three short novellas, all of which tangentially touch on the dark and nefarious doings of a secret, powerful group called The Thirteen. I made it through “Ferragus”, the first one, without a problem, but it was in the second part, “The Duchesse of Langeais”, that I lost it. Suddenly it was page after page of Balzac’s theorizings on the decline of the French aristocracy or the psychology of women or the sacred mysteries of organ music or some other equally irrelevant topic of which he knows nothing. It was very annoying. Just shut up and tell your story, Balzac, or better yet, shut up, just shut up. Abandoned on page 218 out of 391. Chance of return: medium (well, it is Balzac).

Credit and Blame by Charles Tilley. Tilley is an eminent American sociologist and this book examines the social processes by which blame and credit are apportioned out. Sure sounds interesting. And it was interesting up to a point. I liked Tilley’s observation that giving credit presupposes similar values between the credit-giver and the credited; whereas blame often involves differing moral views between the person being blamed and the one blaming; there’s a deeper, more cognitive dimension to blame. This brief book is well-written; it’s clear and jargon free. Tilley’s examples extended from the founding fathers to African witchcraft to Joan Crawford’s efforts to win the Oscar for Mildred Pierce. This book has a lot going for it. Why I couldn’t get into it, I don’t know. I think I might have stuck with this book if it was more difficult. When I picked it up I was looking for something tough and analytical and scientific and almost Germanic in its unappealing thoroughness. Tilley’s loose, essayistic approach was the opposite of what I was looking for. Abandoned on page 30 out of 190 pages. Chance of return: low.

The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller. What the hell? Why did I even buy this book? Abandoned by page 42 of 247. Chance of return: Zero.

In Hazard by Richard Hughes. Every now and then I try to read one of those sea-faring adventure novels but it never works out. This novel by Hughes (first published in 1938) is the latest casualty in that personal tradition; earlier ones include Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Typhoon as well as the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brien. The problem is always the same: I get bogged down looking up all the nautical terms (aft, port, stern, mizzen mast, winches, fore-deck, stretching-screw, mast-stay, etc.) and eventually I’m pawing through the dictionary for hours while my actual reading comes to a crawl. I hate that. It’s frustrating. I like novels – and especially adventure novels – to move briskly. Nonetheless, if you like that whole ship-in-a-storm genre, this book is for you. It’s the story (based on a true incident) of a British cargo ship which gets caught in what seems to be the worst hurricane ever (winds of 200+ mph) in the Caribbean during the 1920s. The characters are well-drawn and Hughes is masterful at building up suspense. The air of the book is ominous; we sense from the start that everything that can go wrong will. Hughes also adds some surreal touches to the story. For instance, Mr. Buxton, the ship’s Chief Officer, has a pet lemur named Thomas who has free run of the ship.

This little Thomas slept all day, and he was not very energetic even at night. But he had one prejudice. He liked the human eye, and he did not approve of it being shut, ever. If he came into Mr. Buxton’s cabin while his master was asleep he would jump carefully on to the edge of the bunk, and then with anxious and delicate movements of his long fingers he would lift the sleeping man’s eyelids till the ball was fully exposed. This he would do to other deck officers too, if he found them (to his distress) with their eyes shut at night upon any excuse whatever.
Abandoned on page 83 out of 239 pages. Chance of return: low.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Searchers 2.0

On Tuesday, film director Alex Cox came to Seattle for the local premiere of his latest film, Searchers 2.0, at the Grand Illusion Cinema. It is the tale of Mel and Fred, two middle-age bit actors in Los Angeles who both appeared together as children in a cheesy western written by legendary screenwriter Fritz Frobisher who so terrified and brutalized them on the set that each man swore revenge. When they learn that he will be appearing at a special screening of the film in Monument Valley (where John Ford shot The Searchers) their path is clear. They will travel there, find Fritz Frobisher, and kick his ass. Since neither man has a car, though, they rope in Mel’s daughter, Delilah, to drive them. And so off they go through the American Southwest in Alex Cox’s thoughtful, funny and engaging meditation on movies, revenge, forgiveness, cars, the Iraq war, John Wayne, Sergio Leone and other topics.

This movie is a lot of fun. The conversations among the three main characters are hilarious. (You can get a sample of them in the clip below.) Now, “charming” (as opposed to, say, “sardonic” or “anarchic”) is not a word I would normally use to describe the films of Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy, Walker) but in this case it fits, largely due to the chemistry among this three leads: Del Zamora as Mel, Ed Pansullo as Fred and Jaclyn Jonet as Delilah. Pansullo was especially good, capturing the eccentric and nerdy intensity of a devoted film fan (as in fanatic).

Searchers 2.0 is solid proof that the most important part of any movie is the writing and acting. In the Q & A after the screening Cox (who also wrote the screenplay) mentioned that he wanted to see how quickly and cheaply he could make it. It was shot on digital video in two weeks on a budget of about $200,000. And it’s far superior to most Hollywood movies. In fact, it’s far superior to most independent movies. It’s full of great touches that only talent – yes, that’s right, talent – can provide. For instance, when Fred starts talking about John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers (watch the clip) notice how the light increases on him. If that effect had been done too forcefully then Fred would be reduced to an object of ridicule; we would laugh at him rather than recognize both the awe in which he holds Wayne’s performance and the fact that, on some level, he is seeking the same redemption that he’s describing. The film also shows the makeshift memorials set up in these small Southwest towns to the local kids who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

My only disappointment with this movie was that it falls apart at the end. Cox’s films fall into two categories: the punk (Repo Man, Walker, Straight to Hell), which are exuberant, tongue-in-cheek, satirical, etc. and the realistic (Sid and Nancy – his masterpiece). This film begins as realistic – with whimsical elements hovering around the edges – but then goes into Cox’s anarchic punk mode which, while entertaining, I found ultimately something of a letdown. These characters are very engaging on a human level, you care about what happens to them. And while the resolution of the story makes sense dramatically, Cox abandons the human element at the tend and lards up the film with a tedious Sergio Leone parody.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Robots, Yes! Agit-Prop, No!

What’s not to like about Pop Surrealism? It’s fresh. It’s funny. It’s unpretentious. It’s composed of the visual language which surrounds us – comic books, cartoons, tattoos, advertising, etc. - yet it twists these images around in strange, haunting and sometimes frightening ways. It often shows more intelligence and technical skill (many of the artists are self-taught) than so-called mainstream art. And its appeal is immediate and visceral.

What I enjoy most about it is the supreme confidence of the artists. They really don’t care what you think of them. I get the impression that they paint only for themselves and their like-minded friends. Walk into any mainstream gallery and you are surrounded by paintings and sculptures which practically scream for the approval of the artist’s teachers or of her granting authorities or corporate purchasers or of the critics or of pseudo-intellectual hangers-on, etc. There is no sense of the playfulness that, one assumes, first made this person want to become an artist. But walk into a Pop Surrealism gallery and you see work which, in its playfulness and sense of fun, testifies to the artists’ whole-hearted commitment and engagement in their work. And there's something very invigorating in that.

Like all art, though, it can be done well or it can be done poorly; and a current exhibit at Roq la Rue has specimens of both. Brian Despain does it very well; Victor Castillo does not.

Castillo’s subject seems to be the hollowness of contemporary, mainly American, culture. His paintings feature children with cartoonish faces, empty eyes (to symbolize “blindness, insanity and dehumanization” we are told in the program notes) and bright red hot-dog-shaped noses (to symbolize “cannibalism” ?!). Malevolent grinning figures, often from pop culture – Goofy, Santa Claus (in “Lie to Me”, right), etc. – menace them. It is all very overwrought, full of bitterness and self-righteous sarcasm. Castillo is from Chile and so it is understandable, given the US’s murderous political meddling in that country, that he would find evil and nightmare in the symbols of American pop culture. But this political anger, however justified, cripples his art. In fact, I get the impression that Castillo really hates pop culture. It’s a lie, in his opinion, a grinning happy face which masks the jack-booted thug beneath. So why he has chosen to paint in the style of Pop Surrealism (which in his case should be called Agit-Prop Surrealism) is beyond me. The combination of his message and the style with which he chooses to express it will always prove unhappy.

Brian Despain, on the other hand, knows exactly what he’s doing. His small mini-show contains portraits of robots. These paintings are quite beautiful. Each robot is delicately rendered and the colors (mostly browns, yellows and silvers) are dark and lush. The robots even seem to have their own personalities. I especially liked "Ghosts" (below). The central figure leaves a strong impression of pride and even defiance. If he’s on, that is. The plug dangling from his left hand makes us unsure. Is he unplugged and dreaming of being automated like the wind-up robots circling his head or is he still on (after all, his eyes are lit up) but now free from his reliance on a power source? And if so, is that a good thing? And the background isn’t very reassuring, is it? Often Despain’s robots are standing in fields with dark clouds gathering behind them, creating a powerful feeling of foreboding and even melancholy. For some reason, robots are often depicted as figures of sadness. On many sci-fi novel covers they stare off wistfully and forlornly into the distance. I’m not sure why this is so. It is true that we depict them as soulless killers, too, but that ambivalence just makes our relationship to them more interesting. Clearly, we can’t stand the idea that a robot would be as uninteresting as most humans. We simply will not accept hum-drum robots. We can imagine them as time-traveling killing machines, but never as bores or dullards or snobs or that drip from the office who tells you endless stories about his latest trip to Thailand.