Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Kill Cagliostro!


The erotic potential of most classic horror concepts have been exploited over and over again, in some cases almost at the same time the creatures behind those concepts were hit upon. Vampires, for example, what with all the sucking they do and things such as this, and ghosts, which can haunt you and see what you're up to all the time. Demons, too, who can possess you and force you into all sorts of ribaldry. Plus werewolves represent the uninhibited beast within us all. Etc. One that hasn't, though, is Frankenstein. This isn't to say that the story of Frankenstein and his monster has never been sexualized, because of course it has, but to my knowledge it hasn't happened that often. Possibly this is because a reanimated corpse (or a reanimated corpse comprised of a bunch of pieces of corpses stitched together, depending on whose doing it) doesn't turn the cranks of as many people as creatures that are less overtly sepulchral and decayed.

Leave it to Jess Franco, then, to think "What the hell, I'll give it a whirl." Hence The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, just released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber. And I have to say that in his approach to the above-described conundrum, Franco kind of cheats. The bonkers premise, which I'll try to sort of summarize, is first you got Dr. Frankenstein (Dennis Price) who has finally succeeded in bringing his monster (Fernando Bilbao) to life. Minutes after doing so, however, he and his assistant are brutally attacked by the evil Cagliostro (Howard Vernon), and an always nude, bloodthirsty, partially green-feathered pseudo bird-woman named, er, Melisa. Both the assistant and Dr. Frankenstein are killed, and the monster is stolen. Why? Cagliostro believes that by mating the monster with a beautiful naked woman (the specific identity of whom is TBD), he will create the beginnings of a master race. And he's probably right about that, because he he seems to know his stuff. In a race to stop him, Franco introduces, among others, a character, or character name, from Dracula, Dr. Seward (Alberto Dalbes), and the late doctor's daughter, Vera Frankenstein (Beatriz Savon). Plus, late or not, Seward figures out that Dr. Frankenstein can be brought back to life for a few minutes at a time and provide important information. Which helps.

So back to Franco cheating. None of the eroticism one might find in The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, and at the very least over the course of its brief 74 minutes there's no shortage of nudity, stems from anything related specifically to Frankenstein or his monster. The monster does copulate with a woman at one point, but Franco doesn't linger on that or show much curiosity about what that might be like for either party. The closest the film ever comes to paying off that title is in an admittedly crazy scene in which the monster, at the bidding of Cagliostro, viciously whips a nude man and nude woman tied together back-to-back, standing on a floor covered with spikes. How all of that strikes you depends entirely on you and I don't need to know about it, but even if you're left cold in that one sense, you would, I think, kinda hafta get into the sheer Franco-ness of it all. Bilbao, as the monster, appears to be absolutely apeshit, and plus his makeup job, and the overall monster design resembles some combination of Karloff's original and a robot. Instead of green, he's silver, for one thing, and that one choice is striking in a way that is both off-putting and really goofy.

All of this is to say that the title The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein is really just an umbrella, beneath which Franco is free to let loose. And he does. Vernon is always a welcome presence, but really the film hits its high marks through Bilbao and Libert, who takes to playing a naked blood-drinking bird-woman with real verve. Add to this a fair amount of imagery that seems to have been inspired by Corman's Poe films, especially The Masque of  the Red Death, and hey, if you're into Franco at all, you could do worse. You could also do better, but you could do worse.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Secret History of Movies #9

(The Master, 2012, d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
(Inherent Vice, 2014, d. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Great Last Lines In Literature: A Quiz

We all like to read. We love great books, and we love great language that makes our hearts soar and ponder the human condition. We love books with great points that are relatable. But the best thing about a great book is usually its ending. All the great classics have great endings. But can you remember them? Let's say, for instance, I were to give you a series of great endings to read. Could you name the novel just reading their endings? Well if you think you're such a big deal, let's put that to the test. Or should I say, to the quiz??? Below you'll find just such a collection of classic novel endings. Read them, and in the comments give me your answers. The first person to get them all right wins a bucket of grade-A shrimp!

Man
A)

"Do you know what I think, Nick Carraway?" she asked me.

"What's that, Daisy Buchanan?" I replied

"I think it's true what they say: the sun also rises!"

Then we started doing it.

B)

"Well, you're safe now, my lad!" boomed the captain. "That whale almost got you!"

"Yes, thank you, guv'nah! Arrr!" said I. "But you must tell me, just what is the name of that terrifying whale??"

"Why, matey, that was the famous Moby-Dick!"

I spit out my Coke. What a name for a whale! I was pretty surprised.

C)

"Upon further consideration, I'm glad I failed," said Atticus.

D)

And just like that I decided I wasn't going to burn any more books. I thought a fireman should put out fires, personally. I turned in my letter of resignation after lunch. Captain Beatty said "I'm sorry to see you go. You are very good at burning books. But listen, good luck, okay?" When I left I was pretty scared, though, because now I didn't have a job.

E)

By this point, all the pigs could talk. So could the cows and the horses and all the other animals on the farm. Sheepy Sheeplin noticed that they just kept fighting each other and the pigs, especially, were getting to be a bit much. He turned to Lamby Sheepbo and said "Can you fuckin' believe this?"

F)

"Why hello, madam, would you like to dance to the music of time with me?"

"Fuck off."

"No, you fuck off!"


G)

Joe Christmas ate the Southern chew-leaves in the heat of the heavy curtains. There was a violence of fury among the travelling men through the slats of the weedy yard-fence. Joe Christmas spat in a rage, his spit a whole hot universe. "Okay," he said to the old man who dripped sweat like a Civil War Bible, "just do me a favor -- leave my balls alone." The old man said "No chance."

H)

While his wife Molly masturbated, Leopold Bloom took a long hot shit.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Secret History of Movies #8

(Watership Down, 1976, d. Martin Rosen)
(Memories of Murder, 2003, d. Bong Joon-Ho

Thursday, July 16, 2015

What Can You Expect From a Woman Whose Mother Was Hanged?

This week, Olive Films takes a break from releasing idiosyncratic late-20th Century genre films in favor of releasing a pair of mid-20th Century genre films: Jack L. Copeland's Hell's Five Hours, and William Marshall and Errol Flynn's Adventures of Captain Fabian. Onward, can't you?


Hell's Five Hours (d. Jack L. Copeland) - This is one of the more curious super-low-budget noirs I've seen. The only feature made by writer/director/producer Jack L. Copeland, whose long life was otherwise spent as a war photographer and maker of short documentaries and training films, Hell's Five Hours begins with an ominous prologue about the then-new age of rockets, and warning about the dangers of rocket fuel, especially, it then become less a sermon than an imperfect but  intense crime drama about a man whose mind has snapped.

That man is named Nash, and he's played by Vic Morrow. Before the film begins, he's been fired from his job at the rocket-fuel plant by bully named Fife (Robert Foulk). He plans, then, to blow up the plant, something we're led to believe is a cinch to pull off. Along the way, he kidnaps Nancy Brand (Colleen Gray), the wife of plant manager Mike Brand (Stephen McNally). Mike's our hero, and with the cops he works to bring an end to this horror (which is sure to end, one way or another, within five hours, for plot reasons that seemed sensible enough to me, whether or not they actually are) as peacefully as possible.

Among the interesting things to be found in Hell's Five Hours is the near silent first scene (after the narrated prologue), which involves Nash putting his plan into motion, and is very sharply and coherently put together by Copeland. Also the fact that however much we may eventually be tempted to sympathize with Nash, he murders two innocent men before we even know his story. The film doesn't really let you forget that, either, nor does Nash especially regret what he's done, outside of understanding that those dead bodies mean there's no turning back for him. There's a brutality to all the killings -- and there are more than a few -- and the uniqueness of the setting (almost the whole 80 minutes takes place at the plant) combine to make the film seem somewhat imbalanced. I mean, mentally. As in, anything might happen. It's a night-time movie, and it feels like it.


Adventures of Captain Fabian (d. William Marshall) - I have to confess something, which is that Errol Flynn is a fairly large blind spot for me. I've seen The Adventures of Robin Hood, and I think I love it the appropriate amount, but it's actually possible that just recently I hadn't seen any of his other films. It's perhaps because of this ignorance that when I looked at the Olive Films Blu-ray of his 1951 film Adventures of Captain Fabian I was surprised to discover that in addition to starring in it, he also wrote it. I wondered if screenwriting had been a large part of his career, though I soon learned that no, it wasn't (of course he wrote that pretty famous memoir, and also a forgotten novel called Showdown). Apart from Adventures of Captain Fabian, Flynn only has two screenwriting credits: a short directed by Jack Cardiff, and for which Flynn is only credited with writing the outline, called The Story of William Tell, from 1953, and, from 1959, the same year he died at the age of 50, a film called Cuban Rebel Girls. That film, from what I've fathered, features Flynn playing himself as a war correspondent, during Castro's overthrow of Batistsa. It was made with Castro's support. At least his support, one might assume.

So anyway, the point is, as a write Flynn had a strange career. There's not much of that part of his creative life to pick through, and Adventures of Captain Fabian will for now have to stand, along with that memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways, as the most readily available and accessible. And it's fascinating! To begin with, that title...well, no. Here's the premise: set in pre-Civil War New Orleans, the film tells the story of Lea (Micheline Presle), a servant whose cruel mistress is engaged to marry a prosperous businessman (Vincent Price) with whom Lea is having an affair. The plot is fairly complicated, and it involves a murder which Lea did commit but which could reasonably be chalked up to self-defense, all of this in the middle of her "dealings," as it were, with Price's character, though she's sprung by Flynn's Captain Fabian, perhaps only because he wants to take down Price because of shady business dealings...anyway. I can't summarize it all here. But I think you get the idea.

All of which, the above I mean, is why Adventures of Captain Fabian is both so interesting and so much fun. To begin with, that title is misleading, and my guess is it was imposed on the project by a producer or investor or some such fucking guy. But it implies, doesn't it, some amount of swashbuckling, for which Flynn, in his heyday, which had passed by 1951, was best known, but this film has no swashing of buckles. To speed things along, I'll just say it: Adventures of Captain Fabian is a film noir. For one thing, while Price plays the one unambiguous villain, it's Lea, the femme fatale, who does terrible things but has her reasons, who drives all the evil and violence. Also, Flynn's Captain Fabian doesn't have "adventures." He has this one, in which he's duped. He's not a pirate, he's a businessman. He has a taste for revenge, sure, but don't we all? And while he has more resources than your typical film noir hero, he gets bounced around enough by people he shouldn't trust to qualify.

Why this film noir plot was stapled to a mid-19th century setting is something I don't know, though it could be that Flynn simply though it would be interesting to do it that way, and if so he wasn't wrong. As a result, though, it might seem, for a bit, that Adventures of Captain Fabian is "silly." But we're all adults here, and we know that melodrama is a stylistic choice, not a mistake. Inappropriate or poorly executed melodrama is known as "camp," and I fear that Adventures of Captain Fabian might be mistaken for camp by those who either misunderstand melodrama (and there's straight melodrama in this: a Theremin is used to indicate overwhelming anger, for example) or can't accept noir in a setting other than that which has been agreed upon. But that's what Adventures of Captain Fabian is. It's not a forgotten masterpiece, but it's a damn fun movie.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Stomp a Mudhole

Olive Films continues its tradition of predictably unpredictable DVD and Blu-ray releases this week with a pair of thrillers from the 1980s: Criminal Law and Street Smart. I saw them both, everybody! Read on!


Criminal Law (d. Martin Campbell) - In 1988, Gary Oldman made his Hollywood debut. Prior to doing so, he'd become impossible to ignore in a string of idiosyncratically raw UK films that made him: Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy, Stephen Frears' Prick Up Your Ears, and the lesser-known (I admit I haven't seen it) Nicolas Roeg film Track 29, written by Dennis Potter. It was time to take Hollywood by storm, obviously, and he did so with Criminal Law, a quintessentially '80s legal psycho-thriller of the "We're not so different, you and I" variety. Co-starring Kevin Bacon as the psycho, Oldman stars as a flashy defense attorney who gets defendant Bacon, the wealthy son of an obstetrician played by Elizabeth Shepherd, off a rape-and-murder charge by simply flouting the judge's rules and focusing his entire case on dismantling the credibility of a single eyewitness (by arguing, essentially, "Sometimes people are wrong, so she probably is too, in this specific instance). Why the judicial process is the one realm of employment nobody ever seems to want to get right on screen, or care if it's gotten wrong in their filmed entertainment. But anyway, Criminal Law is pretty egregious in this regard, early on.

And the film (whose director would enjoy well-deserved praise for his career highlight, Casino Royale, almost twenty years later), never really gets better as far as credibility goes, but it does have Oldman, flying off the rails almost every fifth minute as he's assaulted by the guilt that comes with the realization that the man he saved from prison was actually guilty, and has killed again. Oldman is a fine actor, but let us not pretend that, especially in his early years, he didn't have a tendency to untether his entire self from all reality. As an actor, I mean. What suited Sid and Nancy doesn't suit Criminal Law, but he seems to have believed it at least might. On the other hand, there's a moment in the film where his character stumbles upon a mutilated corpse at night in a rainy park, and instead of slowly backing away in mute horror, as most actors would stoically play it, Oldman -- and I am prepared to give him credit for this, rather than Campbell, without knowing which deserves it -- runs screaming. Even shrieking! It's a moment of full-on gonzo terror, which your hero's not supposed to feel. But Oldman does.

As an overall film, Criminal Law does get better as it goes along, despite a Jerry Goldsmith score that nakedly rips of the Peter Gabriel song "Rhythm of the Heat" and Tess Harper coming off faintly ridiculous as one of the detectives working the murders (along with Joe Don Baker, who should've had top honors here). The last clutch of thriller moments are well staged by Campbell, with the same sense of clarity that would be a signature of his masterpiece Casino Royale. It has a good last shot, too, though one marred by an audio-based decision the means nothing as far as I can tell, but it was the '80s, so somebody evidently decided the film wasn't stupid enough (they were wrong). As for Oldman, he seemed to realize something was off about all this, as the best-known of his subsequent retreat from Hollywood are the J. R. Ackerley adaptation We Think the World of You and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Then again, this takes us only to 1990, and then he's back in the US with State of Grace. Which is better than Criminal Law, and things settled down and got better after that.


Street Smart (d. Jerry Schatzberg) - One thing you can't say about Gary Oldman's career is that it has lacked variety. You could say that about Morgan Freeman, however, a very fine, versatile, naturalistic actor who began working in TV and films in his 20s but didn't truly get noticed until he was in his 50s. That moment came for him in the late 1980s, and I'd wager that more people, have seen just one of his films since 1987 than had seen everything he did prior to that combined (excluding The Electric Company, maybe). Anyway, that moment was Jerry Schatzberg's Street Smart in which Freeman plays a mean New York pimp named Fast Black. Early in the film, Fast Black deals with a violent john by beating him down. The man has a heart attack and dies. At the same time as this throws Fast Black's life into a legal turmoil, a journalist named Jonathan Fisher (Christopher Reeve) decides, under a serious deadline, to make up a story about the life of an also made up pimp. Which his editor (Andre Gregory, going too far in every direction) loves. Then the DA (Jay Patterson) handling Fast Black's prosecution, and Fast Black's own lawyer, read this desecration of journalistic ethics and both think Fisher's talking about Fast Black. So here things for Fisher start to go pear-shaped.

Reeve is very good here as one of my favorite types of character in crime fiction: the man who has lived a decent life (one assumes as much in this case anyway) only because the opportunity to live otherwise never presented itself. His subsequent contact with the world of pimps and hookers intoxicates him, and he not only cheats on his girlfriend (Mimi Rogers) with a prostitute (Kathy Baker), but he practically does so at a party in front of her. The central thing about Fisher is that he's a stupid, naive piece of shit. He's surprised when Fast Black, who he begins spending time with, treats his women violently, and also briefly thinks he can talk the pimp out of such behavior. He's soon disabused of this notion, at which point he decides to live and let live, because he's enjoying himself too much.

This is a pretty weird movie, in a lot of ways. Its moral sense and concept of justice that is appropriate in society is kind of a mess. Schatzberg and screenwriter David Freeman seem to want the audience to hate Jay Patterson's DA, even though he's right about absolutely everything, and never does anything unethical or immoral or cruel. It's just that he's trying to do things by the book and he seems pretty uptight. Fuck him, I guess! The film also wants to announce its own social significance, even though by doing so it comes off as hypocritical. At one point, a black female journalist asks Fisher why he chose to write a story that focused on the worst in black culture, and she accuses him of being racist. Then she disappears from a film that is doing the exact same thing, and even because that exact same thing even more, when Fast Black's violence ramps up, and Street Smart becomes more of a crime thriller.

But it's best when it's a crime thriller, and it's best when it focuses on Fast Black. Freeman is really great here. This was his breakthrough role, as I've said: just two years later, in 1989, he starred in Lean on Me, Driving Miss Daisy, and Glory. All in one year! And he's been delivering good or great performances ever since then, but of course he's been forced to be noble pretty much that whole time. He's so alive and immediate and frightening in Street Smart that you'd sort of assume that once people noticed what he could do, they'd want to see him play his full range. But apparently not.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Kind of Face You Shoot: With All My Heart I Hope For the Worst


Currently, Nic Pizzolatto is having his ass handed to him. By this I of course mean that both the professional and the amateur reviews of the second season of his much-discussed HBO crime show True Detective have thus far, two episodes in, been pretty withering. Then again, set against the critical and amateur reviews of season one of True Detective, which were rapturous to an almost bewildering degree (and I say this as someone who liked that season) almost any dip in enthusiasm would have to count as withering. But I'll tell you, I'm utterly unable to account, on logical or critical grounds, for the shift from adulation to sneering mockery which this show is now experiencing. Whose aunt did Pizzolatto throw off a cliff? Whatever problems season one had are, I'll admit, still there -- among these I myself would count a certain thoughtless adherence to formula, an over-fondness for reference, and possibly an inability to distinguish good poetry from bad -- but so are all the good things: strong lead and secondary performances, a wonderful air of grim mystery, menace, and suspense, a willingness (even a need) to take genre seriously (something Pizzolatto is being dinged for now, though, somehow, not then). And finally, my favorite thing about True Detective, a willingness to be straight-up weird, something that has made its way into the show, ironically, via something that has become one of the show's deficits, which is that fondness for nodding too hard at the works of others. This is a plus and a minus, in other words. When it works on the show, you get, in season one, the weird horror of Robert W. Chambers, H. P. Lovecraft, and, most intriguingly, Thomas Ligotti pulled into the mix of a homicide investigation. In season two, the strong James Ellroy influence that I also noticed in season one becomes foregrounded, as this year's storyline (and each season is a new self-contained story, with a new cast and new characters) and structure almost begs you to think about Ellroy's 1988 masterpiece The Big Nowhere. Recently, it also wants you to think about Georges Franju's film Judex, but never mind about that.

So what happened? Fucked if I know. I'm enjoying season two of True Detective as much as I enjoyed season one (in other words, a reasonable amount). As usual, the backlash can only be observed from a distance and wondered at. You can't assume anything about those engaging in the backlash -- or, rather, you can, and it's possible that I have, but you can't say, publicly, that there's any sort of dishonesty at work here because you just can't know. (And to be extra clear, I don't know, but I am baffled; also, if you never liked the show then obviously you're off the hook.) This is a relief because as it happens, while this post is about Nic Pizzolatto, it isn't about True Detective. In 2006, Pizzolatto published a book of short stories called Between Here and the Yellow Sea. It received praise from such writers as Adam Johnson, Ellen Gilchrist, Tom Franklin, and William Gay. (This, in and of itself, shouldn't necessarily mean anything to you, though I would argue that it's not something that should mean nothing to you, either.) In 2010 he published a novel, called Galveston. The reaction to that, which included a rave by celebrated crime writer Dennis Lehane in The New York Times Book Review, probably greased the wheels that led to True Detective happening at all. None of this, of course, means that True Detective is any good -- if you don't like it, you don't like it. But in the wake of that show's season two premiere, which might have to be regarded as disastrous, Pizzolatto has been accused of being phony, and a bad writer. And I'll admit that if a certain thing that many predict will happen in episode three of season two does in fact happen (we'll all find out in about six and a half hours), then I will have no choice but to call out Pizzolatto on some pretty egregious bullshit, storytelling-wise. Nevertheless, I've read selections from Between Here and the Yellow Sea as well as all of Galveston, and I'm telling you, Pizzolatto means what he writes. You can scoff at it and think his work "takes itself too seriously" (whatever in the world that means), but just because he takes the crime genre more seriously than you do, that doesn't somehow mean he's lying.


Of the three short stories I read from his collection, the one that comes closest to being a traditional crime story is the title story, "Between Here and the Yellow Sea." In it, a young man named Bobby Coressi remembers the day Amanda Duprene, the cheerleader he loved, unrequitedly, in high school hopped into a Chevy and took off forever, leaving behind her father, that same high school's football coach:

I was there the day she left. I mowed lawns back then, and on that Sunday I worked the yard next to Coach Duprene's house. A red Chevy Blazer parked in their driveway. Four boys I knew from school were in that truck. The back end sagged with boxes and bags, a surfboard. High school was over, and they were all moving to California. Coach Duprene watched from the porch and didn't wave as the truck rolled way.

Someone, we can now say, should have stopped that Chevy. It's no secret. She makes movies under the name Mandy LeRock. I've only seen one.

Some time later, Bobby and Coach Duprene join together for a road trip to California, with the vague notion of saving Amanda from the clutches of the porn world. You might envision some kind of bloody showdown with porn goons, revelations that Amanda has sunk beneath the level of mainstream pornography into something more shadowy and frighteningly transgressive, but no. There is a rather dark revelation, or rather a hint towards one, but otherwise Pizzolatto lets the story play out to a deliberately anticlimactic end. The conclusion that not everyone wants or even especially needs your help is not the kind one is usually asked to draw from a crime story.

Another story, called "The Guild of Thieves, Lost Women, and Sunrise Palms" is about a young guy named Hoyt who lives in an RV park with his dad. One day, his dad gives Hoyt two thousand dollars and says that he has to leave for a while, and that money will have to last Hoyt until he gets back. In the meantime, Hoyt hangs out with his friend CB, a war vet who now deals drugs with Hoyt's help, and whose RV is across from a palm reader. If this all seems a little too colorful, Pizzolatto's prose is always clean, letting whatever feels like it might be a bit much just exist, unadorned:

CB has told Hoyt that CB used to mean Charles Bailey but now it meant Coffin Boat. CB used to be enormous. He used to hold the state triple-A division record in the shot put. He has a composite plastic plate in his hip and a note that excuses him from metal detectors. He's always refused to tell Hoyt stories about Iraq. CB's skin is dark brown and hard like wood, and he has a thick face, a flat nose, black eyes. He is full Choctaw. Great pink scars engulf his left arm -- a gnarled arm seeded with shrapnel, always bent in a way that reminds Hoyt of the tiny, useless claw of a T-Rex. Hoyt met CB two years ago, pawning the first thing he ever stole, a neighbor's shiny .45 Magnum.

Again, as with "Between Here and the Yellow Sea," the elements of a crime story are laid out, but "The Guild of Thieves, Lost Women, and Sunrise Palms" doesn't even employ the kind of crime plot that "Between Here and the Yellow Sea" subverts -- Hoyt's story is instead completely aimless, as is Hoyt. The idea, one supposes, is to take crime out of the high-plotting we usually associate it with, such as you'd find in Chandler, or Ellroy, or, you know, True Detective, and put it back into the realm of bored, angry reality. Which Pizzolatto pulls off rather well, although he's not immune to letting the language of fiction mar the reality he's trying to construct. At one point, two cops are questioning Hoyt about his father, and during one tense moment of the interrogation Pizzolatto writes "One of the deputies idly examined a fingernail." Which, frankly, is pure movie horseshit, a shortcut to "jaded" or "heartless" that has been rolled out unimaginatively in countless films.

And it's odd, too, that Pizzolatto would choose to compound this sort of thing with his blatant references to other crime novels and films. In the other story I read, "1987, The Races," which is pretty much not a crime story at all, about a boy spending a day at the tracks with his kind, yet stupid and desperate, father, the boy, whose mind is all jumbled up with his parents' divorce, his loyalty to his dad, his dad's own frustrating behavior, that he feels great anger at a well-meaning woman at the tracks his father likes (and I'll add for the sake of context, has just given a lot of fruit to), and anyway, Pizzolatto writes:

[The boy] wanted to grab the sack of oranges and beat her with them, like he'd read about a man doing to a woman in a crime novel his father had.

The decision to so blatantly and awkwardly reference Jim Thompson's The Grifters is all the worse because "1987, The Races" is a good story -- it has immediacy and real heartbreak in it. Nothing is brought to the table by basically saying to the reader "We both like crime fiction so much that I'm not even going to name the book in question because you don't need me to." It would be far less irritating if Pizzolatto had chosen to pay homage to The Grifters by writing a story in which someone is beaten with a sack of oranges, with no mention that the idea came from a Jim Thompson novel. That is, in fact, the kind of reference Pizzolatto is messing around with in True Detective: the Ligotti, Chambers, and Lovecraft stuff in season one, and the James Ellroy stuff now in season two. At no point in season one did anybody say "Have you ever read Thomas Ligotti? Well let me tell you..." Whereas in "1987, The Races" he's essentially stopping his story to say "The Grifters by Jim Thompson." Although it was not mentioning Ligotti by name in season one that led some people to accuse Pizzolatto, rather absurdly I believe, of plagiarism, so maybe he shouldn't listen to me.


Anyway, the decision to clumsily insert genre references into his writing was not an impulse he was able to shake by the time he wrote Galveston, his novel from 2010. About midway through the book, the narrator, Roy Cady, is talking to another tenant of the motel where he, Rocky, a young prostitute, and her three-year-old sister Tiffany are staying. This other tenant, Tray, says to Roy:

"You know you remind me of, man?...Guy from the movies. What's that guy? He was in the movie about the cockfighter. And the other. Ole boy driving around with a head in the car."

Two words never uttered in the ensuing exchange are "Warren Oates," because we know, we don't need to be told. Although I do wonder about somebody who has seen both Cockfighter and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia yet can't remember Warren Oates' name. On the other hand, now we know that Roy Cady looks like Warren Oates.

So, I don't like that sort of thing, but otherwise I did like Galveston because Pizzolatto, when he's not simply scratching some pointless genre itch, is a good writer. In the novel, Roy Cady is muscle for a New Orleans gangster. As the novel opens, he's just learned that he's dying of lung cancer -- the x-ray showed in his chest "a blizzard of soap chips." When he hits the bar out of which much of Stan Pitko's, his gangster boss, business flows, Roy orders Johnnie Walker Blue, a $40 a shot Scotch that also recently turned up on True Detective, so that's another thing with Pizzolatto, apparently. Anyhow, Roy starts drinking Johnnie Walker Blue because why not? The gist of the rest of Galveston's set-up is that for a variety of reasons, both business and personal, Roy begins to think that the job he's being sent out to do will result in his murder, as ordered by Stan Pitko. He turns out to be right, but, lung cancer or no, Roy doesn't feel like going out like that, he fights back, kills his murderers, and ends up fleeing the house where it all went down with Raquel Arceneaux ("She pronounced it Arson, oh."), aka Rocky. They're now both on the run from the same people, and they find themselves heading to Texas. Galveston specifically, though there is a detour to pick up Rocky's kid sister, which shocks Roy, as does the gunshot coming from Rocky's family home that precedes her leaving with the three-year-old Tiffany. Did Rocky murder her father while she was in there? She claims she just scared him.

Galveston is a much more traditional crime story than anything I read in Between Here and the Yellow Sea, although much of the novel, after that groundwork has been laid, involves the journey of Roy, Rocky, and Tiffany, as well as Roy's relationship with Rocky, which he can't bring himself to make sexual even though she seems almost too willing. This sort of gender mess is one of the things that raised folks' antennae even during the much ballyhooed first season of True Detective -- why all the hookers, why is sex such a huge factor in the makeup of the female characters? -- and it's almost as if this genre, which is a beloved and respected one by, I'll go out on a limb and say, many of the same people now down on the show, had never before contained any strong component regarding the power of female sexual wiles. But I almost feel like it kind of did? For a little while there? Speaking for myself, I liked the character of Rocky a lot, and though she's a bit of an archetype (you can use a less flattering word if you'd like) she's a well-drawn one. At one point, speaking about her to someone else, Roy says that Rocky "had a hard life," which you can see early on (the particulars are eventually made clear, though they're easy enough to predict); you can also see that this hard life has thrown her into an awful situation that she's trying to deal with. And she's about twenty years old. People tend to have abundant sympathy for such people in real life but denounce them as sexist cliches when someone writes about them in fiction.

Of course, Galveston is mostly about Roy, whose own life up to and including his cancer diagnosis hasn't been a barrel of monkeys. Early on, he lays out his family situation:

I was seven when John Cady got back from Korea, and less than two years later he'd fallen of a cooling tower at the refinery and broken his neck, drunk before noon. I called him dad but as I grew older several things made it pretty obvious he was not my father -- our looks, the timeline of my conception. He was always kind to me, though we didn't know each other long. Around a year after we buried him Mary-Anne dropped off a bridge. She preferred me to call her Mary-Anne instead of Mom, which she claimed aged a woman ten years. They said she jumped, but I don't believe the people she was with are to be trusted. Then the group home and the Beidles and the cotton fields.

And now I was dying and everything that had ever happened to me was starting to seem hazily important.

I'd say roughly about a third of the way into Galveston, the plot takes a surprising left turn. Though it comes somewhat early, I'm still somewhat loathe to spoil it here. Suffice it to say, it opens things up considerably, in terms of how we think about certain characters going forward, and how Pizzolatto then manages the suspense, and increases it, in this not terribly plot-heavy book (though the element of suspense, of various kinds, is inherent in the novel's very premise). It also heightens the dread, and the doom, which, given the turn in question...well, never mind. But it works a treat, as they say.

One of Pizzolatto's great gifts as a prose writer is his ability to sketch out an environment, and side characters, with such breezy authenticity that, in all honesty, highlights the hopelessness of that Warren Oates gambit. Speaking of which, Tray, the character with whom Roy has the Oates conversation, is a great piece of added menace, and that section of the book at the Texas motel is a wonderful bit of atmosphere. Pizzolatto is also able to write about poor white Texans without condescending to them, or portraying them as unlikable unless, of course, they happen to be unlikable. This is a distinction not many are able to draw. There are a variety of, for lack of a better term, "civilians" that Roy, Rocky, and Tiffany encounter in their travels, and Pizzolatto seems to understand intuitively how they talk, and how the good ones differ from the bad ones, and what is quickly, noticeably specific about each. Pizzolatto isn't one of the all-time great crime writers by any stretch of the imagination, but that sort of gift is not one to be dismissed. In any genre, but, you might could argue, in this genre especially.

Eventually, Galveston reaches a conclusion that will satisfy some but not others, but which is, fittingly, in tone and incident somewhere between the plotless endings to the stories (the three I've read, anyway; not much of a sampling) in Between Here and the Yellow Sea and the kind of stylized mayhem of True Detective. I liked it. I like his TV show, too, even though most people seem to have decided he's doing the wrong thing. If, however, as a result of this backlash, True Detective gets buried, I'll be okay with it (certainly more okay than Pizzolatto would be), because I assume that would lead him back to writing novels. I'd like to read his next one.

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