Friday, May 26, 2017

The Heist Always Goes Wrong: In Space

I'm the perfect age to be a Star Wars nut and grew up as such. It loomed larger than any other pop-culture influence of my childhood, but good lord the three year wait betwixt episodes were fathomless voids and nature abhors a vacuum...

So I filled them with many tales sparked by the bits of the story and character so far revealed. Sure Star Wars had a strong fantasy element, but it was the swashbuckling space opera I responded to most. The open seas, the untamed wilderness, unruly scoundrels, badass bounty hunters and ruthless gangsters along with the plucky resistance bucking against the tyrannical super duper power.

Those characters neither part of the power structure nor tethered by conviction to a political movement or creed using the tools available and exploiting the rickety infrastructure to suit their needs - those are my folks and I follow wherever they lead - even outside the bounds of straight up crime fiction.

The frontier is the key element for my kind of criminal fare whether high-seas piracy, western expansion, the colonizing of outer space or the inner-space frontier of digital existence. The outlaw is a romantic figure sometimes just for his ability to recognize that frontier - where everyone else sees danger he sees opportunity (or mere survival as someone irrevocably outside the mainstream of society) - and as such they are eternal pioneers whose brave first hacks through the jungle become the super-highways of the future.

It''s why I dug the Han Solo pulp novels by Brian Daley that focused on his pre-resistance life as a smuggler and thief. The Star Wars universe of Han and Lando, Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt was my favorite place to visit. I'll have to look at N@B-star Matt Kindt's Rebel Heist to scratch that old familiar itch soon. And shit, I'd be waaaay more excited about a Guardians of the Galaxy that focused on Sylvester Stallone's ravager crew rather than met up with the Avengers.

Jimmy Vik, the aging roughneck at the center of Kieran Shea's Off Rock belongs to this tradition. Done his time being exploited by the man and ready to take action when he sees an opportunity to steal enough gold to set him up for the rest of his life. Of course if he's caught pilfering by his corporate overlords he'll be subject to an excruciating short life of prison and medical experimentation... so, stakes, yo.

If you, like me, dig Shea's Koko books, you'll recognize the corporatized futuristic outer space setting laced with sly satire disguised by sex jokes and ultraviolence, and you'll respond to that call of the frontier and desire to smash and grab.

I've written exactly one of these stories myself. Down, Down, Down, Burns, Burns, Burns is also about a deep space miner on leave at his local hive of scum and villainy and teaming up with a prostitute to rip off a gangster and pursue petty revenge. It first appeared at Beat To A Pulp and will be included in my reissued short story collection super soon from Broken River Books.

Can you dig it?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Man Out of Prison: Brian Lindenmuth on Boot Tracks

Brian Lindemuth is back with a Man Out of Prison recommendation I'm down for. Unlike, Brian, I have seen Tomorrow You're Gone, also unlike Brian I haven't read Boot Tracks, by Matthew F. Jones but I did read A Single Shot and loved that one, so it's on my list. After reading this piece, it's climbed closer to the top. Thanks, Brian.

When Jed was running this series of men out of prison stories the one that immediately to mind was Boot Tracks by Matthew F. Jones. This one has a classic set-up for the sub-genre. Rankin is released from prison, and has been tasked to complete a revenge killing for his jail lover Buddha, who is still inside. While out, he meets up with Florence, who believes that she can save him.

One mode of noir fiction has fucked up people, doing fucked up things to other fucked up people. Boot Tracks is of this type. Some types of noir, darker crime fiction, and fiction in general have characters that are superficially transgressive at best, and not so secretly aspirational. The author and the reader really loves the characters and kinda want to be them and writing and reading about them is one way to achieve that for a short time. The characters of Boot Tracks have been abused and are damaged. There's nothing cool about them. They are broken.

When I suggested that Nerd of Noir read this years ago he commented on the "glacial pace", and he isn't wrong. For a shorter novel, it reads longer, and you won't burn through the pages as you adjust to it's odd rhythms. Part of this is because Jones really slows everything down in an effort to put the reader in the right frame of mind for the climax. Boot Tracks is not a conventional crime novel, and maybe not a crime novel at all but it is a black novel in the Derek Raymond sense:

The black novel is mankind driven to madness in a bar or in the dark; it describes men and women whom circumstances have pushed too far, people whom existence has bent and deformed. It deals with the question of turning a small frightened battle with oneself into a much greater struggle — the universal human struggle against the general contract, whose terms are unfulfillable, and where defeat is certain.

By the time the reader get to the climax they know that Rankin ain't right, he has two names, gets confused about reality, often mixing up his traumatic memories with the present. It's a recipe for disaster. The reader know that things are going to go wrong (because they always do in this story right?), but they are unprepared for just how horribly wrong it goes. He breaks into the wrong house, has a psychological break from reality while inside, and the reality of his past superimposes itself on on the reality of his present. By the time he kills the man that he was supposed to, and an unexpected woman, he fully believes he is killing his mother and her abusive boyfriend. The quick way that this can be described is nothing compared to the step by step horror of it happening. Let me put the next line as its own paragraph so it will stick, in case anyone decides to give this book a try.

The climax is a full quarter of the book.

For a crime-ish fiction book is this formally inventive and daring. Again, this is no quick or light read. It's a horror show without the wham, the bam, or the thank you ma'am. It's brutal and in your face and yes, horrific.

Boot Tracks is a minor, imperfect, fucked up cult classic, that isn't for everyone, but is waiting for you, the basement noir crazy who likes something a little different.

Note: This book was adapted into a movie called Tomorrow You're Gone in 2012 starring Stephen Dorff, Wilem Dafoe, and Michelle Monaghan. The production was apparently troubled and it has a 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I have not seen it, though with that low of a rating
I will admit to being curious.

And a PS note and a couple of thoughts: We often think of men out of prison stories as being in the crime fiction realm, but they don't have to be. There's a book The Handbook of American Prayer by Lucius Shepard that is worth your time if you are interested in the overlapping section of an American Venn Diagram that includes, violence, consumerism, religion, media figures. A thought provoking and timely book by a man with a fierce imagination and a savage take on America.

Since we are reaching outside the box of a small sub-genre, how about a movie like The Proposition? Is it a stretch to qualify it? I don't think so.

Final thought. How about women out of prison stories?As I write this before bed I am drawing a blank, but I'd like to know which ones are out there and what the difference is with a women in the lead role. Thoughts?

Brian Lindenmuth is the publisher of Spinetingler Magazine and Snubnose Press. He writes about crime fiction and Western films.

****Jed's post-script - The Man Out of Prison series did include a few Woman Out of Prison stories (On the Bricks by Penni Jones, King Cole's American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Phillipe Claudel's I’ve Loved You So Long and John Sayles' Go For Sisters), but absolutely I'm interested in more. Send what you've got.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

They Died Hard With Their Cleats Up

During the last month while I was focused on man out of prison fare I haven't commented on a few news-worthy events. After the wham-bam announcements of Blasted Heath and 280 Steps closing up shop Simon & Schuster announced the shuttering of their boutique crime house Tyrus Books.

Well, damn. Somebody publish me some crimes.

One former Tyrus author who's doing okay? Reed Farrel Coleman. Yeah, not only is he continuing the Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone series, latest thing I heard - co-writing a prequel (novel) to the movie Heat with Michael Mann, himself. Mann has his own imprint at Harper Collins now and will be publishing a Don Winslow novel about Sam Giancana and Tony Accardo, so shit, sounds like great projects lined up there. Congratulations, Reed, that's... that's an honor. But what the fuck will the Heat prequel be about? A cop and a criminal who never cross paths?

Like the fella said about the next Die Hard movie being a prequel (or was it a prequel TV series?) - the prequel to Die Hard is just a failing marriage. Actually, the prequel to Die Hard starred Frank Sinatra and Lee Remick as the couple whose marriage is destined to fail and came out in 1968. The Detective directed by Gordon Douglas and based on the novel of the same name by Roderick Thorp features a cop named Joe Leland who returns in Thorp's 1979 book Nothing Lasts Forever, which was the basis for Die Hard.

You know which Michael Mann film related book I'm really interested in though? Frank Hohimer's The Home Invaders, inspiration for Mann's Thief.  This thing is hard to come by. Won't somebody out there bring it back in print? I not curious enough to spend $100 on a used copy. Check out this piece by Wallace Stroby where he lays the book and film side by side to compare.

A couple new crime-fiction podcasts out there to seek out. You'd do well to check N@B-DC host E.A. Aymar's rundown of them including Eric Beetner and S.W. Lauden's Writer Types, and the announced, but as yet to be delivered upon promise of Jay Stringer and Chantelle Aimée Osman's The Defectives. Also give an ear to Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste's Two Crime Writers and a Microphone.

Also, sad to hear about the passings of:

Director Jonathan Demme - sure Silence of the Lambs was great, but my pick from his flicks is Something Wild - the Melanie Griffith/Jeff Daniels romantic/comedic roadtrip flick that turns suddenly nasty when Ray Liotta appears. His masterful control of rhythm and tone paired with the performances he got from his cast make it an all-time favorite.

Author William HjortsbergAlan Parker's film Angel Heart was a huge influence on me, but it wouldn't exist without Hjortsberg's source novel Falling Angel and jeez I've had his last book, Manana on my radar for too long.

Actor Michael Parks was an MVP for moviemakers right up to the end. Remember the first couple years of Tarantino speak being a thing? Everybody did it in a Steve Buscemi - Mr. Pink - voice, but then came From Dusk 'Til Dawn and Parks's opening scene with John Hawkes sloooowed it all down, he masticated rather than spit, he fucking owned that shit. He elevated all material he touched and he touched a lot of it. Fucking miss him already.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Man Out of Prison: Scott Adlerberg

I know more about movies than probably 95% of the population, but less about film than two-thirds of my friends. One of the greatest pleasures of trips to various crime cons and N@B events are the conversations with my favorite nerds who wear their brainy obsessions well, and nobody wears theirs nattier than Scott Adlerberg.

I reach out to Scott for guest spots because he's not publishing this shit anywhere else. If the dude had his own blog or regular column in a film rag I could go there for a fix, but I have to hit him up at the bar in Philly or New York or New Orleans or Raleigh or wherever the hell I'll see him next... or talk him into writing me a piece for HBW.

Yeah, it didn't make the deadline for Man Out of Prison month, but this was worth the wait.

Thanks, Scott - the floor is yours.

I’ve been reading and enjoying the Man out of Prison posts here and asked Jed for an opportunity to list some of my own. He said sure, go for it, and I started thinking. So many of these films have been made, but which ones are my favorites? I tried not to talk about movies already mentioned in this series, though once or twice I think I did include a film somebody else wrote about, mainly because I like the film too much not to discuss it.

So, here goes.

Dark Passage (1947): directed by Delmer Daves

A familiar classic adapted from the David Goodis novel, but still, to this day, one of the stranger man out of prison films. It’s also a prime example of the man gets plastic surgery tale. Humphrey Bogart, in San Quentin for killing his wife, busts out of the joint, and gets his face changed. He insists he's innocent of murder, and with the help of Lauren Bacall, who he’s just met, he sets about investigating who really killed his wife. He also needs to find out who, since his escape, killed a man he considered a friend. It’s a film that noirish, for sure, but it does have a happy ending.

Couple of things about the movie. At least half of it uses the subjective camera technique. During those scenes, we see everything through Bogart’s eyes. The plot drives this, so the technique doesn’t seem gratuitous, and director Daves is able to keep the camera moving enough in these scenes to keep everything lively. This is also a film, oddly, that French surrealist artists of the 1940s and 50s admired: the way the plot unfolds, with absurd twists and coincidences but like a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the protagonist, who can change his identity and entire being through surgery, is something that appealed to them.

For whatever reason, this is still the Bogart-Bacall film that gets the least attention. I’m not sure why. I for one think it’s better than Key Largo.

Pale Flower (1964):  directed by Masahiro Shinoda

A Japanese man out of prison film, Pale Flower is a black and white, widescreen beauty. A middle-aged yakuza named Muraki gets out of jail after serving a term of a few years and becomes involved with a seductive young woman, Saeko, who he discovers is a gambling addict. While he's an old-school gangster, stoical to the core, she's an impulsive thrill seeker. She's well-to-do and seems to be slumming it in the underworld. He falls for her, and it seems that the life force she possesses will be something that helps him rejuvenate himself and re-adapt to the outside world. Is this just the old story of a man achieving redemption through a woman's love? Not exactly. Saeko’s penchant for taking chances and seeking out danger actually is a full-throttled self-destructiveness, and Muraki realizes that if he stays with her, she will destroy them both. Still, can he go back to the empty life he had before he met her?

This film has an odd mood, at once swoony and detached. Most of the film takes place at night, on rainy streets or in gambling dens, and the shadow of doom seems to hang over everything. There’s a gangster subplot to go along with the twisted romance,  and Muraki finds himself in the middle of a mess, with life-defining choices to make. Considering how unbalanced people on the outside can be, maybe prison wasn’t so bad after all.

Mona Lisa (1982): directed by Neil Jordan

Here’s another movie where a guy out of prison, Bob Hoskins, falls for a woman. But in this case the woman, Cathy Tyson, keeps her emotions somewhat hidden so that her agenda is difficult to read. Until the very end, that is, when the protective and hopeful hero gets an unpleasant shock in the sort of twist Neil Jordan loves to deliver.

I liked 
Mona Lisa a lot when I first saw it, a bit less so on a second viewing years later. It’s still a film worth seeing, though, because it has a beautifully modulated bittersweet mood and a terrific feel for both its seedy London underworld and the posh hotels where Tyson’s character, a high-class prostitute, meets her clients. It also has great acting, with Hoskins playing a yearning loser type as well as he played the dynamic Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday. Every emotion Hoskins feels, you feel also. Robbie Coltrane, pre-Cracker, is his friend trying to dispense sensible advice, and it’s a pleasure when Michael Caine, as likeable an actor who ever lived, forgoes charm and gives us vicious, which he does here as a crime boss. No man out of prison film I've seen is more about romantic illusion than this one.

The Horse’s Mouth (1958): directed by Ronald Neame

Alec Guinness is painter Gulley Jimson, who begins the film being released from jail after a one month sentence. He was locked up for continually harassing his patron (who’s Ernest Theisger – Dr. Praetorious in The Bride of Frankenstein) by telephone. The first day Jimson’s back on the streets, he resumes his pestering calls to his patron, and things get more unhinged from there, as Jimson proceeds to do whatever he can to secure money and find locations to paint.  If that means entering a couple’s apartment when he knows the couple will be on vacation for six weeks, he’ll take over that apartment, along with his helpers and bohemian friends, so that he can do a painting on a blank wall there. Never mind that he and his eccentric crew wreck the place. Never mind that on their return the couple fall through a hole now in the floor. Jimson got his painting done, no apologies necessary, and he can move on to what he needs to do next.

The Horse’s Mouth is not a crime film, though actually Gulley Jimson commits a bunch of small crimes – call them misdemeanors – in pursuit of his calling. He can’t be stopped. The film’s climax, when he enlists kids and acolytes to help him paint a gigantic mural on the wall of a church they know will soon be demolished, is hilarious, disturbing, and touching – like the entire film. Alec Guinness himself adapted Joyce Cary’s novel of the same name, and he creates an implacable character you can’t forget. I’ve seen The Horse’s Mouth countless times and recommend it to friends often.

Pretty Poison (1968): directed by Noel Black

Young man leaves a mental institution on parole, and said young man becomes enamored of a girl on the outside. Here we go again, with a familiar plot outline. And when the man is Anthony Perkins, disturbed, fidgety, perhaps delusional, we have to think, considering his most famous film role, that he will be the agent of destruction in this story, if destruction there will be. There is, there’s killing, but not because the parolee wanted things to happen that way.

Perkins brings feeling and sympathy to his role, and to hers, his co-star, Tuesday Weld, brings ice. As high school student Sue Ann Stepenek, she’s chilling. She’s a smiling seductive cheerleader whose ruthlessness is not initially apparent. Weld was always compelling in her roles, and in her long career, this has to rank among her best performances. She did not get along with the director during the filming and has said that she hated the film, but it’s one that holds up very well with time. It’s part neo-noir, part psychological thriller, part black comedy, part young lovers in trouble story, and it’s among the first films I can think of that explores the darkness beneath the surface of bland, pleasant suburban America. Watch Pretty Poison now and you see its influence on many filmmakers, including David Lynch, the Lynch of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.

 Buffalo 66 (1998): directed by Vincent Gallo

Is there any film except this one that has a scene where the prisoner, minutes after his release, is knocking on the prison gate to get back in because he has to take a pee and doesn’t want to do it outside? That’s Buffalo 66 in a nutshell – unpredictable, eccentric, funny, sad, and somehow very true to the absurdities of life. The stories about how director/writer/star Vincent Gallo clashed on the set with cinematographer Lance Acord, Anjelica Houston and most of all Christina Ricca are well known, but however contentious the production was, he finished up with a one of a kind film.

Gallo’s character, Billy Brown, is not quite like any other cinema guy who’s left prison. For one thing, romantic feelings don’t come easy to him. Though he kidnaps a woman (Ricci) and makes her pretend to be his wife, he does everything he can throughout the film to resist any affection she shows him. You might say he’s an anti-romantic, and it’s bracingly refreshing, not to mention comical, to see a character like this. By the end, when he does undergo a change, you feel that the progress he made in allowing himself to connect with another human being has been, as drama, totally earned.

The Eel (1997): directed by Shohei Imamura

A man who’s been out fishing comes home early and finds his wife in bed with another man. He stabs her repeatedly with a knife as she stares up into his face.  When she’s dead, he covers her body with a sheet. Soaked with her blood, he rides his bicycle to the police station and turns himself in.

So begins The Eel, a late work from the great Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura. After that opening scene, the film picks up years later when the man, Yamashita, is let out of jail on parole and opens a barber shop with the intention of living his life quietly. He says he’s done with women and shows little inclination to mix with anyone while he goes about serving customers in his shop. His sole companion is the pet eel he’s brought with him from prison. He keeps it in a large tank and addresses most of his conversation to the eel while avoiding talk with people. As Yamashita puts it to the curious customers who ask him about it, “He listens to what I say.” It’s also true that the eel is his ideal companion because it doesn’t say stuff he might not want to hear.

Try as he does to stay detached from life, complications ensue, and Yamashita’s existence becomes entangled with a woman, Keiko, whose life he saves after she attempts suicide. Keiko is as damaged as he is and comes with her own family baggage. When she begins working in his shop, a number of figures start intruding on both, and The Eel becomes a study of two people wary of each other trying to make new lives for themselves even as outside forces make things difficult for them.

Remorse, guilt, sadness, fear, jealousy, punishment, dreams, nightmares, hope, the desire to persist and survive – The Eel shies away from nothing. Yet it moves with an easy flow and contains no melodrama. Though the film simmers with tension (after all, we’ve seen what Yamashita is capable of), Imamura maintains a light touch. He’s too wise and tough a filmmaker to do a standard and predictable story about redemption, but he draws you into the characters painful lives fully. Pain and bleakness, yes, but from all the difficulty, people might just be able to get past the barriers others create and that, very much, they’ve erected for themselves. Wounds don’t heal completely, but a modicum of happiness is possible.

I’ve Loved You So Long (2008): Phillipe Claudel

In France, in the mid-size city of Nancy, a former doctor named Juliette Fontaine leaves prison and moves in with her sister, her sister’s husband and father, and the married couple’s two young adopted daughters. Juliette is a woman not without a mordant wit but whose overall demeanor is grave. She’s cerebral and at times aloof; she carries herself with the air of someone who has no time for the inessential. We don’t know why she has such reserve, but our interest is piqued. What did Juliette do, we wonder?  Why did she go to jail?

A character study and family drama that revels in the details of the everyday, I’ve Loved You So Long functions as a mystery that gives up its secrets gradually. First we find out that whatever Juliette did, it was serious: she served a 15 year prison term. Then we learn that she committed murder. Next we find out the victim was her 6 year old son, and finally she reveals the motive behind the killing. To everyone in the film, her sister included, the reason behind her act comes as a revelation; during her trial, Juliette had sat in court refusing to say a word about why she killed her son.

Kristin Scott Thomas is Juliette, and her performance alone makes the film stand out. She plays a person who rarely lets down her guard, who clearly feels the weight of what she did yet does not feel the need to apologize for it. She’s hurting but not guilt-stricken. She wants no one’s contempt and no one’s pity. She strikes up two non-romantic relationships with men, one a probation officer, the other a colleague who works at the hospital where she gets a job, but she makes no effort to push these relationships beyond the platonic. In fact, the way this movie portrays these two friendships is impressive. We see adults on screen acting like adults who understand that life is difficult and complicated and not necessarily solved by seeking out love or jumping into bed. Sometimes talk and companionship are all a person wants or is capable of giving. And throughout, we see Juliette using her strength and intellect to try to continue on with life now that she’s rejoined society.

Superbly calibrated, I’ve Long You So Long is a film that sticks with you.

Scott Adlerberg is the author of Spiders and Flies, Jungle Horses, and Graveyard Love. Follow him on Twitter @ScottAdlerberg

Monday, May 1, 2017

Good For What Trails Ya

Message From the King - d: Fabrice Du Welz w: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell

Shot Caller - w/d: Ric Roman Waugh

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - w/d Martin McDonagh

Take Me - d: Pat Healy w: Mike Makowsky

Durant's Never Closes - d: Travis Mills w: Mabel Leo, Terry Earp, Travis Mills