Sunday, November 30, 2014

Angels Live in Booze Bars


He was just a private inspector trying to find a booze to drink. What a day! His name was Dennis. First in the day he had been trying to catch a man having sex. First he go to the man’s work. No sex. Then he go to the man’s house. Guess what? No sex there either. Dennis had a client lady who said “Listen bub I don’t want to hugger mugger!” it was the 1940s.

She said “I want you to find that man having sex, and none of your funnybook stories!” Dennis ate a couple of toothpicks and said “Okay baby you got it. This is the city streets and they are MY city streets. I can find ANYBODY having sex on them.” He drank a booze.

She goes “Should you be drinking a booze when you are talking to a CLIENT?” She almost couldn’t believe anything.

“This is my office, sweetheart. I call the game here.” He ate a whole handful of toothpicks. “So what is his name?”

She said “Jeremy Robot. Here is a picture of what he looks like.”

Dennis looked at it. Jeremy Robot looked like an obituary on a Sunday morning that was otherwise nice. Who would want to hold HIS penis in their hand??

“He looks dumb,” said Dennis, not even caring. “Have you touched his penis?”

“Of course,” she goes. “He and I are daters.”

“Hm,” said Dennis. “What is your name?”

“My name is Gladys Shoes. Now will you take my case?”

Dennis lit a toothpick with a lighter and then used the toothpick to light his cigarette – that was the cool way. “You got it baby.”


That was all earlier today. But he couldn’t find Jeremy Robot doing anything like sex ANYWHERE in New York City. Dennis had gone to Carnegie Hall and the Empire State Building and the New Year’s Ball and CATS and the famous hot dog place, not the fake hot dog place, the real one that just closed, and he ate ALL the new York style pizza (with cheese) – still no sex.

His client would be so mad. He sat in his big car and decided he would go to a bar and have a booze and show the people there Jeremy Robot’s picture. He went into his favorite bar called New York City Is Great And Tough and he ordered a bunch of whiskey. The bartender was an ex prisoner who people called Prison Sam, The Ex-Prisoner. It was a nickname.

“Hi Dennis!” said Prison Sam.

“Hi Prison Sam!” said Dennis.

“How is business?”

“Oh you know,” said Prison Sam. “This is New York.”

“Boy howdy,” Dennis said in agreeance.

Prison Sam goes “I had this one fellow in here he was dressed like a statue of liberty!”

“Ha!” laughed Dennis. “Sometimes I wonder is it a FULL MOON?”

“I think that too!” said Prison Sam. “But it isn’t even a full moon!”

“What a town,” said Dennis.

“It is like a lady,” said Prison Sam.

“I agree,” said Dennis. He took out Jeremy Robot’s picture. “Do you know this guy?”

Prison Sam looked at it. “That guy looks like a dog and you like dogs but you don’t even want to pet it.”

“Have you seen him today?”

“Sure I have, sure I have. He was here earlier with a dame. Her name is Freda Spimt.”

“Wow," said Dennis. "Sexy name. Sexy name…sexy DAME?”

Prison Sam laughed for about fifteen minutes. “You know it, Dennis! She is one hot little tango. Hot like food spices if you understand what I mean.”

“I think I do,” said Dennis. "You mean that sometimes food is spicy, or ‘hot,’ and this dame is spicy as well, but in a sexy way.”

“Exactly,” said Prison Sam. “I mean that she is ‘hot’ in that sense.”

Dennis was intrigued. “Where are they now?”

Prison Sam shrugged. “Who knows? That lady has her hand in ALL the soups of THIS city. She could be ANYWHERE.”

Soup? City? What had Dennis gotten himself into???


The city was dark and cold as Dennis went outside into it. It was dark like you know how when you go to the closet at your friend's house and it's night and everyone is sleeping and you want to look at his coats so you don't turn on any lights because it is secret so it's dark outside of the closet already and then you open to get a load of those coats and it's even darker? That is how dark the city night was. Also Dennis's soul was pretty dark too because this broad Freda Spimt sounded like bad news. If what Prison Sam said was true, she sounded like a tarantula stuffed with poison: super dangerous. But Jeremy Robot was probably "giving his penis to her" so if he found Freda this case would bust wide open. Dennis ate a cigarette.

Dennis got in a cab and he told the driver "Hey Mac take me to my friend's house!" and the driver goes "Sure thing pal! Whatta city!"

Dennis agreed. The city was like a girl. Dennis loved it, it was so pretty. But tough as a gutshot zebra. Still he had to see his friend. They were at the house. The friend was Loony Toons Pete. He was a street informer who knew lots of things.

Pete opened the door.

"Hi Pete."

"Oh hi Dennis."

Their talk was like gutter nails dipped in bloody booze.

"Can I ask you a question?" Dennis snarled.

"Please do!" Peter spat.

"Do you know who Freda Spimt is?"

"That dame? Hoo-wee sister! That lady is someone you don't want to mess with even though she is so pretty you just want to hug her all the time!"

Dennis said "Prison Sam told me she has her face in all the things of the city."

"That is accurate," Pete sneered.

"Well I think she and my client are dating," Dennis said. Pete suddenly looked like a ghost walked in and started setting of fireworks. Like, being a ghost is enough but fireworks too!? Pete looked so scared! "Pete, what is it!?"

Pete was scared to talk but he said "If your client is dating her you need to drop this case like a handful of broken glass. You don't want to hold broken glass do you?"

"No I guess not. But tell me Pete, what is this broad's deal, huh!?"

Pete poured himself a giant booze and he drank it all like it was fruit punch or citrus punch or apple juice. Like it wasn't even booze, in other words.

"Dennis," he said "that lady is dangerous. She is bad. Let me tell you how bad. There are several parts to this thing I want to say."

Just then Pete's house exploded. Pete died, first of all. A big wood thing flew into his chest and he went "Blech!" and died.

Then Dennis was thrown outside by the explosion. He was in the street all bruised and whatnot. He was so bruised that it was like he'd fallen down and got hurt. But he couldn't just lay there. Pete was dead. Someone had to pay.


Dennis went to the hospital with his bruises but told the doctors “No thanks Frankenstein, this is one monster who after you put the bolts in my neck I’m like stand back Charlie because I’m going to find the damn jerk who put them there.”

The doctors had never seen such toughness. “Okay buddy we don’t want no trouble,” the main doctor said.

Then the doctor goes. “But don’t drink too many boozes or you might die of it.”

Dennis sneered and ate a toothpick.

“Nice try Dr. Frankenstein,” he said. “But this is a night of streets, and streets need an angel. And angels live in booze bars.”

So after that Dennis kept going to booze bars looking for the lady. That’s what it was like in cities. Death wore a dress in cities. Dennis went to six bars! By the fifth one he was so tired! But he still went to the sixth because his friend was DEAD! At the sixth bar he said "Where is Freda?" to the whole bar. Everyone there was a bum who ate street drugs...ate them by the bowlful.

"Ah get outta here you 'private inspector!'" screamed one of the "druggos." "We don' need none o' yore bad news!"

Another "druggo" shrieked "Yeah! Leave us be! We just want drugs all the time! That's all we ever even think about!"

Dennis felt sick!

"Listen you guys are seriously all messed up!" Dennis roared. "Now you tell me where Freda is or I will punch at least two of you!"

A bunch of the "druggos" made that "aw get out of here I'm not kidding" thing with their hands but one of them went "Freda? You mean the Angel of Death?"

Dennis couldn't believe his ears! "What did you call her??"

"The Angel of Death," said the "druggo." "You know it's just a nickname like Spike or Slappy. As in 'Spike, Slappy, the Angel of Death & myself are ordering pizza. Want some?'"

"Fair enough," said Dennis. "Where does she live?"

"Across the street in an apartment." Dennis punched his hand. "I knew it!"

Dennis threw the "druggo" a handful of peanuts because "druggos" could make anything into drugs. Then he went across the street to Freda's apartment house. He knocked on the door and an old lady answered.

"Are you Freda?" he asked.

"No" she said. "You are wearing a suit. I guess you must be the president of these United States! HAW HAW HAW!"

"Enough with the wisecracks, Auntie Jim!" snarled Dennis. "Tell me where she is!"

"She is on the upstairs floor you bastard."

Dennis threw some peanuts at her and went upstairs. There was a door and he knocked on it.

"Hold on!" said a voice.

It was a voice so beautiful it sounded like a very pretty bird that had just eaten the best soup of its life. Dennis was like "Oh man." The door was opened by a really good-looking woman. "Boy oh boy!" Dennis said. Freda smirked. She was wearing a sexual robe.

"Do you like what you see?" Freda asked.

"Lady what I see looks like it was made out of the finest goods!" said Dennis about her body.

"You are being fresh!" she cried but Dennis knew she liked his sweet words. They always did. "They" means "girls."

"Come on in why don't you" she goes.

"Okay" he went.

"Why are you here?" she asked. "Can I make you a booze?"

"Yeah" said Dennis. "A whiskey and apple juice with just a little brown sugar." That was called an Apple Pie and was the toughest drink.

Freda said "That is the kind of drink that truckers and construction men and soldiers and prisoners eat. Are you one of those kinds?"

"Maybe" said Dennis. "Or maybe I am just a big toughie." He was being dead serious. She looked him up and down like "Aw yeah."

"A toughie, is it?" she said handing him his drink. "That is how I like my men. As it happens."

So Dennis says "I like tough ladies. This is a real coincidence. Also I like your body. If I had to compare it to anything I would compare your body to okay let's say you have a bunch of candy canes. First you know the curved part of candy canes?"

"Yes I do" said Freda silkily.

"Okay you break off a bunch of those. I would break two of those down so they were little curves and I would pretend those were your hips. Then I would take two other curved parts and make those your boobs. I would connect the two halves of you with the straight candy cane parts. I would use more straight candy cane parts for your legs. Anyway" Dennis went on "the idea is, this would make a pretty curvy body."

"I think I understand" she said.

"Is your name Freda, by the way?" he asked suddenly, catching her off guard.


Dennis smirked. "That is interesting."



"Well I want sex with you."

Dennis was expecting this. He took off his whole pants. She took a gander at his wiener. She nodded and gave him the "a-ok" sign. Then she took off her clothes. He said "I love your boobies." Freda nodded thanks. Then they were kissing all over! Her skin was like electric curtains!

"Where do you want my penis?" asked Dennis experiencedly.

"I want it all over the place," she said.

He did all the things with his wiener perfectly. He did sex in exactly the right way. She was like "This is great."

"I'm glad you like it" said Dennis and then was done with sex just like you're supposed to. "Now you are under arrest for murder!"


“What do you mean ‘under arrest for murder’!” Freda bellowed. “Is this some sort of outrage??”

Dennis covered his wiener up with his pants. He waited while Freda put her boobs away and then her other parts. What a doll! But she was a doll of murder.

“That’s right, lady!” he said. “You killed my friend from earlier! You blew up his house like it was made of peanuts! And that don’t sit right with me. I am an errant knight of these streets.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about!” Freda cried, frightenedly eating a can of beans to calm her nerves. “I never blew up nobody!”

“Plus, also, on top of that,” said Dennis, “you and Jeremy Robot are touching each other’s naked bodies! And he is MARRIED!” Dennis couldn’t even look at her. “Now tell me,” he said while pouring himself a beer with wine in it, “where is Jeremy Robot?”

“But Dennis,” said Freda “Of course I roll around in blankets with Jeremy Robot! Don’t you understand that he is my HUSBAND??”

“That is so crazy,” said Dennis. “Gladys Shoes is his wife. She is my client. You are lying. Come on. Knock it off. That is enough lies.”

"I'm not though" said Freda. "Jeremy is home now being a gambling addict. Go and see!"

"Then why are you kissing ME!?" Dennis yelled.

"Well because Jeremy is lame and dumb. He's a jerk and mean. You seem nice and pretty good so I was like 'ok here we go.'"

"He is a jerk to you?" asked Dennis. "But how can I believe you?"

Freda opened her purse and took out $5. She said "I had $7 in here this morning. He stole $2 and gambled with it."

Dennis took his gun out of his pants. "That piece of garbage. I'll give his teeth something to chew!"

"A sandwich?"

"My gun! Or my fist, in the form of a punch!" Dennis punched the wall in disgusted rage. "Let's go."

Dennis and Freda drove to Freda's other apartment. (The first apartment was just one she had because of business things she did). It was a "flop apartment" in the part of the city they called "Garbagetown" or "Trashburg" or "Rotten Landing" or "No Thanks Terrace."

Freda explained "The reason my apartment is so stupid is because we are poor due to gambling. Jeremy's gambling!"

He thought how pretty Freda would look if she didn't have any clothes on in a nicer apartment. His blood began to fizz like hot booze.

"Let me handle this," Dennis roared. They went to the apartment door and she opened it but it was so bad that the door just fell over!

"Who is there!?" cried a man.

"It is Dennis the Private Inspector!" Dennis yelled. "I am coming in to talk to you!"

When they went in it was Jeremy Robot at a kitchen table eating cold water out of a bowl with a spoon and a cup of uncooked rice. He ate that because he was poor from gambling but he didn't even care! Did he think gambling would cook his rice? Geez, get real bub!

"Are you Jeremy Robot?" said Dennis.

"Yes!" shrieked the man.

"Give Freda back her $2!"

"Never!" squealed Jeremy and he pulled a knife.

"Jeremy what is going on out there?" yelled a lady.

"Who is that?" wondered Dennis. And then guess who came out of a room? Gladys Shoes!

"I've been had!" yelled Dennis. "Scammed all along! The whole time! I was just a punk, a nothing, a kid! But why?? Why!?"

Gladys smirked. "Because," she said, "you are so loyal, so honest, such a tarnished king of the streets that we knew it would be easy."

"That makes total sense to me," said Dennis. He saw their whole plot clear as a glass of some booze that he had drunk to wash down the pain and sorrow that he saw in his job every day, the mothers who dropped their kids into the lion pit at the circus or the fathers who told their kids "Here is your first cigar" but the cigar was a bomb or the old lady who needs help with her groceries but the Boy Scout is like "No thanks Jackson!" or the rich businessman who fires a guy for being paid too little or the wide-eyed teens who just want to see a nice movie but instead are hot-rodded down in the streets by a couple of bobbysoxers. It was because Dennis cared about these things that he was easy to scam. And they had scammed him. Scammed him but good.

"And now that you have been scammed," said Gladys "it is time for you to be shot. Shoot him Jeremy."

Jeremy put his knife away and took out a gun. He pulled the trigger and the gun coughed and puked out some bullets. Dennis got hit in the shoulder and it felt like a searing stitch that bit down and wouldn't let go. All the other bullets missed and hit Freda in her belly. She fell in a heap. Blood bubbled out of her like soda. Dennis took out his own gun and fired. His gun barked and spit out metal. Dennis used a .489 gun and the bullets were as big as cars. Jeremy grabbed his wounds, dying. Dennis emptied his gun on him.

Gladys smirked. "Just as I planned," she said. "All along I knew it would be you and me at the end. This worked out really well."

"But why?" cried Dennis.

Freda I mean Gladys said "Because when I saw you it was like 'uh oh, that's for me! Yowza!'"

"This is totally sick," said Dennis.

"Maybe so" said Gladys "but you ain't got not bullets left! Now kiss me! Kiss me while she dies!"

Dennis looked at Freda's dying body and shrugged. He went over and started kissing Gladys right on the lips.

"Oh yeah," said Gladys. "Exactly!" They were kissing and rubbing their hands on each others backs. It was total passion! But then there was a gunshot like a puking dog. Gladys who was now naked collapsed.

"Whu happen...?" she groaned.

"I shot you, you idiot," said Dennis.

She died. When he turned around, guess what? Freda was dead too.

"This has been a terrible day," said Dennis. He found a booze bottle in the apartment. He didn't even care what kind of a booze, he just mixed it with some milk and sipped away. Then he sat down in a room with bodies in it. He thought about crying. But in this city, who would listen?


Monday, November 24, 2014

God, Be Kind

At the beginning of John Ehle's novel The Land Breakers, a young married couple named Mooney and Imy Wright arrive in North Carolina in 1779 with the dream of building a home and possibly being the first members of a new settlement. After much struggle that brings them close to despair, they are able to buy a section of land in the mountains -- difficult terrain to farm, and to transport livestock from, but it's what they can buy. But not long after they've built their cabin, Imy becomes ill and dies. Before Mooney can bury her, another group of settlers arrive, led by aging patriarch Tinkler Harrison, arrive. His large family, some livestock, as well as slaves travel with him, and his dreams of starting a settlement are bigger than Mooney's and Imy's had ever been. They find Mooney digging her grave, and Tinkler orders family and slaves to help. Eventually, Imy is buried, and Mooney grieves:

There would be no more touching her, he knew, no more seeing her by the fire, no more holding her of a night or feeling the softness, then the tightening of her body; they would not plant together the torn rows of their own making. The dirt was closing over her now; the mountain had received them with noisy challenges and now had taken her. The mountain wanted the old way still, and he who changes what is ordered and old and set is a man who grasps the lion's jaws.

The Land Breaker was published in 1964, and for its 50th anniversary it has been reprinted by NYRB Classics. This is one of only a few times that the book has been reissued -- in 2009, poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje had recently read the Down Home Books edition when he wrote:

John Ehle, from North Carolina, is now 84, and is still shockingly unknown. It has taken a small press, Down Home Books, to begin republishing his work in the last two or three years. The Land Breakers is a great American novel, way beyond anything most New York literary icons have produced. And that is only one of several remarkable novels, though the one a reader new to Ehle should begin with.

So this is a forgotten book, though loved by those who know it, this also being a reasonably good summary of NYRB Classic's mission statement. But if I say that Ondaatje is slightly overstating it -- which New York literary icons are we talking about here, exactly? -- that doesn't mean I think he's wrong.

After Imy Wright's burial, the novel jumps ahead to 1780. The novel is structured around such time-jumps -- the novel is about 340 pages long and ends in 1784. At any rate, by 1780, Harrison's stretch of the settlement has spread. There is him, of course, and his new bride Belle, who is in fact his niece. Also building a home in the mountains is Harrison's sister Inez and her husband Ernest Plover, they being Belle's parents, their gaggle of children including sixteen-year-old daughter Mina, and Harrison's daughter Lorry. Still technically married, Lorry is nevertheless alone, her husband Lacey Pollard having disappeared, evidently abandoning her and their two sons, Fate and Verlin, some years before. In the process of creating this now mountain home, she will meet Mooney, and as his grief passes they will fall in love and settle down together.

More will come: a family of German immigrants, another young married couple led by a foolhardy husband, two men and their wives, all four of whom seem to revolve around the existence of a lazy outlaw. Also coming to the settlement, and never really leaving, are the beasts that were there first, the wolves and bears and snakes who attack the people rarely but are constantly going after livestock. Bears are chased as they carry pigs into the woods. It's a constant battle to protect the stock, to grow food, to make clothes, to efficiently move goods down the mountain. Ehle spends a lot of time on the details of these facts of life, but he somehow avoids making these passages feel like a dry recitation of facts he'd like you to know he knows. This stuff is, after all, the very lifeblood of the novel. It's about settlers, after all; not just settlers but settlers who are new to it, in a country that only came into existence a few years earlier. And besides that, for Ehle it's not just facts -- it's character:

[Lorry] carded the wool and spun it on the wheel, and she spun the flax. She could relax as she made cloth. She could sit there at the loom and listen to the boys talk and watch Mooney work on wood and leather. The shuttle murmured under her hand, and there was the steady thud of the batten striking the web, sounds which settled in nicely with the fire sounds. She would tramp the treadles, all without conscious thought, for she had done it in many winters before this one, had made cloth for her boys before this time, and cloth for a husband before this one. The flax was on the loom, dyed light tan from the black walnut bark, and she threw the shuttle, carrying yarn of undyed lamb's wool, through it, and the cloth inch by inch came from the loom night by night. It was a loosely woven cloth, but once she had put it in the dye pot and the dye had struck the lamb's wool, once the new wool soaked it up, it would shrink around the linen with a tight grip.

There's a certain Hemingway-esque "The river was there" feel to a lot of this, so your patience with The Land Breakers may depend on your patience with Hemingway. Then again maybe not, and I besides I like Hemingway, so you're on your own. Anyhow, it's not all looms and farming. There's a great deal of high drama of the kind that could be considered soap opera if Ehle was interested in, or unimaginative enough to rely on, clich├ęs. For example, the young woman Mina is attracted to Mooney before her cousin Lorry, and Mooney reciprocates before deciding Mina is too flighty, to much of a child. At one point, I believed Ehle would spin this out in a way that would milk Mina's youthful jealousy for all it was worth, but he doesn't do that. Mina is not a simplistic, childish time-bomb -- she is, in fact, not a time-bomb at all. Being turned away by Mooney is simply one of many things that happen to her, another hardship to be suffered on this mountain, one that is perhaps unique to her on this spot at this time only because of her age. She handles it no better or worse than millions of others. The whole novel is like that. The climax sets up an event you might have anticipated, but plays it out in a way that I, at least, would never have dreamed.

And it's this kind of refusal by Ehle to take an easy route, or to create an easy villain, that can make The Land Breakers such an exciting read. By eschewing the lazy signposts of suspense, he's written a novel that I found impossible to predict or outsmart. Even Tinkler Harrison, who is the least sympathetic character in the novel, is still no simple devil to be struck down, or conversely despised as his greed conquers all. Good and bad exist together, and the fact that morality was different in the 18th century is understood and not remarked upon. Ehle is depicting the lives and minds of early Americans without judgment.

The Land Breakers is the first of John Ehle's seven "Mountain Novels." Whether or not NYRB has plans to reprint any more of them I couldn't say, but on the basis of this one it's pretty clear that Ehle has been neglected for too long, and a full rediscovery is in order.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Here We Are, All Alone

When Holy Motors was released to quite a bit of fanfare and praise in 2012, it was writer-director Leos Carax's first feature film since 1999's Pola X. The film is an anthology of sorts, following an actor played by Carax stalwart Denis Lavant as he goes through his day playing a huge variety of roles, not in films or on stage, but in the lives of, well,'s a strange movie. Anyway, at the time I remember reading that the concepts behind each short section, each story, in Holy Motors had come from ideas for films that Carax had been unable to make for one reason or another. I've since gathered that this isn't precisely true -- the individual stories in Holy Motors do not each represent a specific failed project -- however Carax has said that the film was borne out of his inability to get a number of projects off the ground since Pola X. The point being that either way, Holy Motors, for all its apparent confidence and inventiveness, carries with it a certain amount of regret and melancholy. I'm not trying to speak for Carax, of course, but I imagine that those thirteen years must have been filled with frustration, a creative desperation. Of course, one of Carax's stated intentions in making Holy Motors was to put himself back in the international cinema discussion, and this he inarguably accomplished.

One of the byproducts of this success has been that Carax's previous four features are being rediscovered, and re-released on home video. Last week, Carlotta Films and Kino Lorber released on DVD and Blu-ray Carax's first two movies: Boy Meets Girl from 1984, and Mauvais Sang (aka Bad Blood, aka, for reasons unknown to me, The Night is Young) from 1986. Holy Motors was the first Carax film I ever saw, and until now going back to see how Carax got to that film wasn't always the easiest thing to do. So this is a good thing.

After watching Boy Meets Girl yesterday, to begin with, I was left wondering how its release coincided with the rise of American independent films in the 1980s, specifically the release of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. Jarmusch's second film is obviously one of the key inclines in that rise, but Boy Meets Girl, though it is plainly quite different, just feels like Stranger Than Paradise, looks like it -- if the two don't share the same sense of pace, they seem to share a rhythm, and certainly a looseness. Boy Meets Girl begins with a woman in her car, breaking up with her boyfriend, or husband, over the phone, and shortly thereafter asking a man what the date is. This man turns out to be Thomas, and soon he is approached, on the banks of the Seine where all of this has taken place so far, by his best friend Alex (Lavant), who gradually reveals that his girlfriend has been cheating on him, and that he knows she's been cheating on him with Thomas. Upon announcing this, Alex attacks Thomas, almost killing him. Later, back in his apartment, Alex will update the sort of biographical/geographical chart of his mostly minor criminal history that he writes and draws on his wall, with the words "First Attempted Murder," with that day's date and a mark indicating where in Paris this took place. This all strikes me as if not exactly the kind of thing Jarmusch would do, then the sort of thing he might see in a movie and then be inspired to make Mystery Train or something.

As it happens, Boy Meets Girl and Stranger Than Paradise both came out in 1984 -- if I had a better head for dates I suppose I would have known that. This doesn't change the fact that, however many rampant Godard comparisons may be made, Carax's early work seems entirely of a piece with that era in American independent cinema, with, of course, certain European particulars thrown in, an admittedly simplistic description, but one that could also apply to Jarmusch, now that I mention it. Boy Meets Girl is black and white, and very nocturnal. It's about romantic relationships and the end of them, as well as the beginning of them, although of course, and despite the film's title, it's never that general. Along with Alex, the film's other main character is Mireille (Mireille Perrier), a suicidal dancer who, like Alex, has recently suffered a breakup, and who Alex meets by chance at a fancy, satirically so (the sense of humor here is not unlike the fashion photography stuff in the Mr. Merde section of Holy Motors), party (their meeting is slightly more complicated and protracted than that, but let's keep it simple). Mireille is not suicidal in an "indie" way, which would mean she either didn't mean it or, if she did mean it, she, or Carax, romanticized these tendencies. So that's not it, but nor is Mireille a fully realistic portrait; Carax's style and imagination are too fantastical for that. But I'll tell you this: there are times in this film when Perrier, a striking woman under any circumstances, very strongly resembles Maria Falconetti. I'm hesitant to dub this a coincidence, even if it is.

Another thing that American independent films used to do, albeit more popularly about a decade later, was take certain genre tropes, preferably crime tropes, and add whimsy, or irony, or in any case some sort of self-consciousness, played for laughs or otherwise (eventually this impulse would be motivated by, or could be chalked up to, a misunderstanding of what Quentin Tarantino was doing). This wasn't new to films in general. Godard had laid the foundation with Breathless and Band of Outsiders, just to begin with. But however you look at this vein of independent genre filmmaking, when I'm watching Mauvais Sang, Carax's second film from 1986, the temptation is to think that the post-Godardian branch was kicked off here, by Carax. Leaving aside those things about which I am ignorant and which would defeat the argument, I actually don't think that's what is going on with Mauvais Sang. I think Mauvais Sang only feels like it's part of this self-conscious tradition because it's so unusual -- if you get too creative, people begin to wonder how much of it you really mean.

There is so much that is strange about Mauvais Sang. It is essentially a crime film, of particularly classic sort ("formulaic" some would say, but try applying that here) -- Michel Piccoli and Hans Meyer play, respectively, Marc and Hans, two aging criminals who owe a lot of money to The American Woman (Carroll Brooks), a powerful gangster Marc believes recently bumped off their partner Jean. Certain they're next unless they find a way to pay up, they concoct a plan to rob a pharmaceutical company. Needing someone younger and more physically skilled on their team, they rope into this scheme Jean's son Alex (Lavant). Alex didn't talk much with his father, but over the years had learned a lot of tricks of the trade, and had developed strong gifts as a magician and con artist, making him the kind of fast, young, nimble thief Marc and Hans need. While preparing for the robbery, Alex moves in with the older men, having first broken up with his deeply devoted girlfriend Lise (Julie Delpy). There he meets Marc's girlfriend Anna (Juliette Binoche), much younger than Marc but as seemingly in love with the old man as Lise was, and is, with Alex. Alex, you gather, is beginning to fall in love with Anna. Perhaps Anna is falling in love with him. Something along these lines is to be expected.

So there's that, but then there's also the reason they've decided to rob a pharmaceutical company, of all things, and what they plan on stealing, which isn't money. They plan on stealing a virus the company has managed to isolate, a deadly virus that is ravaging mostly young people, infecting them when they have sex with someone they do not love. The vial with the virus will be sold, and so on and so forth. This idea, this virus, seems at first glance to be a science fiction conceit, but of course there's no science in there -- it's pure magic, pure romanticism. Even so, you'd think the concept would place the setting of Mauvais Sang in the future, but again, no. Though again, like Boy Meets Girl it would be wrong, not to mention impossible, to view the film as a work of realism, there are no clues that I picked up on that would indicate the setting was anything other than France in 1986, or perhaps more accurately "France" in "1986." Of course, those quotation marks could set Mauvais Sang within the realm of science-fiction, so maybe that is what's up, in a way, but if so we've now found ourselves among the works of science fiction that belong to no tradition or subgenre, because they are personal and impulsive.

Mauvais Sang is an impossible film to summarize, even though as a crime story it goes along about how you'd expect. That element is part of a tradition, that of the young criminal prodigy discovering that the life he imagined is less romantic and more morally compromising than he'd believed (which is sort of the inverse of the "retired thief pulling one last job" concept, something this film also almost is). But much of the film, save the beginning section and the ending, which even includes car chases and gunfights, has little to do with those traditions. Almost the whole middle is taken up with Anna and Alex spending an evening talking -- this mirrors Alex and Mireille at the party in Boy Meets Girl more than a little -- and possibly, probably, falling in love, while also allowing Carax what I might call his bursts of digression, such as Alex dance-running down the street to David Bowie's "Modern Love," as well as a curious moment involving a baby, and a cameo by Mireille Perrier as the baby's mother, that seems to exist to highlight the childishness of Alex, though not in a way that mocks or insults or even criticizes him. The audience is also given the opportunity during this portion of the film to marvel at the gray-and-blood-red color design, red being life, and Anna, gray being almost everything else, good and bad, except Alex, who is neither, until...well, why spoil it?

Mauvais Sang is one of those films about which you might say "That was just the damnedest film." Its crazed romanticism might be a tad much at times, to some -- hell, to me -- but if you ever find another film like it, you let me know. That's not nothing, and the drive to create in ways that are this individualistic can lead to gaps of five, six, eight, thirteen years. This is a pity, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Good Friend Shot Dead By I Don't Know What

Lately it seems as though everybody's remembering that a person named Monte Hellman directed some movies that it would be in our best interest to actually watch. Outside of Criterion's release of his classic Two-Lane Blacktop in 2007 and the strongly positive reception of his intriguingly enigmatic 2010 thriller Road to Nowhere -- Hellman's first feature since his for-hire job on 1989's Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! -- the small but vital collection of films Hellman directed from 1959 (Beast from Haunted Cave, if you're wondering; I haven't seen it, maybe it's not "vital," but I'm not going to assume anything) through 1988 have not, until recently, been paid much attention. Or anyway, not enough attention. Then, earlier this year, Raro Video released on Blu-ray Hellman's "lost" film, the uncut version of his strange and wonderful 1988 island adventure Iguana (which I wrote about here). And now, just a few months later, Criterion is back in the Monte Hellman business with a two-film set of Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. Hellman directed these two Westerns in 1966, aided by producer, actor, and, in the case of Ride in the Whirlwind, writer Jack Nicholson. This was not the first time Hellman and Nicholson would work together -- in fact these Westerns would be the fourth and fifth films that Hellman and Nicholson collaborated on -- but apart from Hellman doing some producing work on Head, which Nicholson co-wrote, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind would mark the end, which, whatever the cause of the split, if that's even the word for it, is a damn shame. Nicholson's big breakout role in Easy Rider was still three years away, and compared to the Hellman Westerns that film is a piece of shit. Or compared to most other films, or just sitting there on its own.

Ride in the Whirlwind is one of a handful of films Nicholson wrote in the beginning of his career, and one of the interesting things about it is that while he's certainly one of the film's two leads, Nicholson's plan was clearly not to give himself a big show-boating star-making role. This is interesting, of course, when you consider how outsized his career and persona would eventually become (I'm a fan, for the record). But if Ride in the Whirlwind belongs to any one person, it belongs to Cameron Mitchell, who plays Vern, friend and fellow cowhand of Wes (Nicholson) and Otis (Tom Filer). The three of them are, essentially, going from one place to another, looking, or hoping, for work, when they stop for the night at a cabin filled with men we know, and the three cowboys deduce, to be violent outlaws. Led by Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton), the outlaws wonder if the cowboys are in fact part of a posse -- in any event, Wes, Vern, and Otis make plans to get out of there first thing in the morning. However, before they can the actual posse -- vigilantes, which I think is crucial -- turns up, a gunfight erupts, Otis is killed, and soon Wes and Vern are on the run, the posse assuming that they're in with the outlaws.

If all of this went down not precisely in the middle of nowhere, it's near enough; Vern and Wes have to abandon their horses to scramble up rocks, trying to evade this posse who they know will hang them. Soon they've walked about as far as they can. Wes can barely carry on. It's Wes who begins to crack first -- not grandly, but wearily. It's always a surprise and a pleasure to see Nicholson in the early stages of his career, before a single persona was stapled to him by unimaginative studios. He was subtle and quiet once, or had those as part of a full arsenal, yet his presence was always enormous. But as the film moves forward, this presence steps aside -- not completely, and not with a flourish, but room is made for Cameron Mitchell, and actor known now as something of a joke because he did a lot of not-very-good TV work, and ended up in a clutch of films that were later fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. And it's not as though that shouldn't have been the fate of Space Mutiny, but it shouldn't have been the fate of Cameron Mitchell, who did plenty of terrific work in movies both good and bad. In Ride the Whirlwind, when Wes and Vern end up taking shelter at the house of a farmer (George Mitchell), his wife (Catherine Squire), and their daughter Abigail (Millie Perkins who is one of the few actors in both this film and The Shooting), Nicholson's Wes begins to gain some...not confidence, but maybe energy, while Vern starts to lose his. Perhaps this is because in his attempt to evade being hanged for crimes he didn't commit, in this farmhouse he finds himself driven to actual criminal acts -- he threatens women with a gun, takes their food, plans to steal their horses. He would never hurt them, and his threats don't go beyond brandishing his weapon, but it's not something he would have ever done before this. Mitchell plays Vern's breakdown as a kind of fog, a confusion. Indeed, if there's one question that could be used as a logline for both of these films, it's "Why Is This Happening?" It's not hard to see the mistakes that led Vern and Wes to this state, but it's nevertheless absurd. Vern can't quite take that absurdity. He can't shake it off and just keep plugging along. Rather than plug along, he will go through the motions. That's all his brain can manage.

Ride in the Whirlwind is a pretty terrific movie, introducing psychic desolation into a classic Western situation and expanding that desolation by degrees. However of this pair, the masterpiece is The Shooting, a Western that plonks the desolation down early and just lets it spread out. This film wasn't written by Nicholson, who will turn up about halfway through as a gunslinger named Billy Spear, but by Carole Eastman, using one of her pseudonyms, Adrien Joyce. Eastman would later write one of Nicholson's most famous early films, Five Easy Pieces, which has never been a favorite of mine, but which the greatness of The Shooting has made me eager to revisit. If the plot of Ride in the Whirlwind was stripped down, the plot of The Shooting is barren. Warren Oates, here beginning a relationship with Hellman that would prove exceedingly fruitful for both of them, plays Willet Gashade who, upon returning to his mining camp to find catastrophe. Of the three men he'd worked the mining camp with only one, the guileless Coley (Will Hutchins), remains. One, Leland Drum, is dead, shot by Coley knows not who (or what?), though the motive is possibly connected to what drove the third man away. That third man is Coigne, Gashade's brother, who in a trip to town evidently "rode down a man and a little person," possibly killing one or the other or both. Was this little person a child? Certain subsequent events can lead the viewer to make reasonable assumptions about this, but the fact is we don't know, and the decision to leave this unclear is a slightly bizarre one. As it happens, though, it's a decision that is entirely in keeping with what The Shooting actually is. In any case, Coigne has fled, sure that he will be hunted down. This leaves just a frightened Coley and a baffled Gashade. Soon they meet a woman (Millie Perkins), never named, who wants to hire them to escort her to a town called Kingsley. The fee offered is too much to turn down, and while Gashade takes the job, Coley in tow, he distrusts the woman. For one thing, he and Coley were alerted to her presence when they heard her shoot her horse. Upon later examination, Gashade realizes the horse was perfectly healthy. Again, as with the "little person" phrasing, it's possible to eventually make sense of this, but will the explanation satisfy? The Shooting will ultimately reveal itself to be a classical Western by way of Franz Kafka, so even if the answers you apply to the film are correct, what good will they finally do anyone?

It's at times like this that I wish I'd had the foresight to have already read every book I'd ever planned to read, because in 1997 Loren D. Estleman, a crime and Western writer whose books I've read and enjoyed, though not enough of them, published a novel called Billy Gashade. Now I'll grant you that 1997 is some years beyond 1966 and so neither Eastman nor Hellman could have been influenced by it, but in the author's note with which he precedes his novel, Estleman talks about the classic folk song "Jesse James," the one with the line "He laid poor Jesse in his grave." That song was written by Billy Gashade, but despite the seemingly deathless fame of it, Estleman writes, "Ironically, almost nothing is known of the man who wrote it." Anyway, so then you have Warren Oates in The Shooting playing a man named Willet Gashade, "Willet" being a name that could quite reasonably be diminutized to "Billy." Which means what, precisely, when you consider the fact that Willet Gashade is not portrayed as remotely musical, and that even if you wanted to draw parallels between Jesse James and Nicholson's Billy Spear, which you could only do in the most general sense, the story of The Shooting plays out in a way that kind of cuts in two what few threads you were still trying to connect between the two Gashades. But I'm unable to shake the idea that somehow Estleman's novel could provide some insight into something or other because The Shooting is so unusual and so artfully inexplicable that anything seems possible. This is not to say that the film is nonsensical or incoherent or even illogical -- its last big reveal seems just as strange but is in fact just as solvable as "little person" or the shooting of the healthy horse. But none of it feels solvable, perhaps because no amount of murder or violence is ever solvable, at least not all the way to its roots. But The Shooting is weirder than that. It's obviously nothing more than coincidental that the final, eerie stretch of the film now partly evokes, for me anyway, certain episodes of the original Star Trek television show, which began production in 1966, the year The Shooting was released. The similarities are in the environment; the white rocks and dust that might represent an alien planet on TV appear in The Shooting as what they are, a landscape on Earth, but one you will only ever find yourself traveling through if your life is about to end, or has ended, or if psychologically there's nothing left. In both cases, the alien planet and the end of everything on Earth that you know, things are about to become very unfamiliar.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Uncanny Skill

Above is an image from the 1932 Poverty Row murder mystery called The Death Kiss.  It's a black and white film, of course, however -- and no, your eyes are not deceiving you! -- some scenes contain bits of color tinting of the kind seen here. Fire, flashlight beams, smoke, the flash of a gunshot -- these are the sorts of things that director Edwin L. Marin hired artist Gustav Brock to highlight with color.  In this particular film, the choice seems a little arbitrary -- The Death Kiss is not otherwise a stylistically ambitious film -- but it's still effective, in the way William Castle's gimmicks and novelties could be.

But don't take my word for it! The film, which has long been in the public domain, has finally received a proper home video release by Kino Lorber. And judging by the wide variety of image and sound quality enjoyed by the film on this Blu-ray, Kino got there not a moment too soon. The Death Kiss hasn't received much care until now, but if you're put off by the audio/video problems you should probably understand and accept that this disc is as good as The Death Kiss is ever going to get. If you're still bothered, well, it's your loss. The Death Kiss is what some might call a "hoot," a brisk, light-hearted story about murder and low-budget filmmaking.

The film reunites three of the main actors from Tod Browning's Dracula, which had been such a big hit for Universal the year before.  Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing in Dracula) plays Tom Avery, the director of a film called The Death Kiss. At the beginning of this film, the real one, the one directed by Edwin L. Marin, Avery is shooting the scene that will give the film, his film, the fake one, its title: a woman plants a kiss on a man leaving his hotel -- he doesn't know her, she claims to have found him irresistible, but what she was really doing was marking him as the man the gangsters outside are supposed to kill. And they open fire and he dies. However, it turns out that when the fake gangsters fire their fake guns on the movie set, somebody shot the actor (Edmund Burns) for real, killing him. Was it an accident? One might assume, and certainly that's the best-case scenario, but when the police arrive, tended to by studio manager Joseph Steiner (Bela Lugosi; I can't remember who he played in Dracula), it soon becomes clear that it was murder, with a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing towards Marcia Lane (Adrienne Ames), the actress who delivered the "death kiss" in the scene they were shooting. However, contracted screenwriter Franklyn Drew (David Manners, who played Harker in etc.) is having none of that nonsense, he knows Marcia didn't do it, so with cartoon character/studio cop Gulliver (Vince Barnett) trailing along like a puppy, he sets out to find the real murderer. Drew is kind of a smug little prick, but don't let that hold you back.

It's often said about films that people like that are of a certain age "They don't make 'em like that anymore," even though they do make 'em like that anymore, it's just that the world being different now those films will be somewhat different from their ancestors as well.  However, there actually are movies the likes of which are not made anymore. The Death Kiss is one of them (Murder in the Zoo from 1933 would be another example, but there are many).  Can you imagine a studio film, or even an independent one, making a sincere -- which is in no way meant to suggest "humorless" -- inside-Hollywood film free of meta nonsense (well, almost free, The Death Kiss does have one wink in its arsenal, and it's sort of a clever one) about the on-set murder of an actor, which proceeds to then actually be a murder mystery? Though I'm trying to make the point that the movie they don't make 'em like anymore is very specifically The Death Kiss (or Murder in the Zoo, etc.), I'm now realizing that they may not even make murder mysteries anymore. They make films that have murders in them and sometimes you may not know until near the end who the murderer is, they are something other than -- "more than" it might be claimed, but not by me -- a straightforward murder mystery. The Death Kiss is. So save the genre! See The Death Kiss!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Capsule Reviews! The Return of Them!

It's been quite a while since I et cetera et cetera. Onward!

Werewolf Woman (d. Rino di Silvestro) - In 1971, the English poet Thomas Blackburn published his one and only novel, called The Feast of the Wolf, about a professor and writer whose failing marriage, alcoholism, and encounters with fringe, troubled members of society combine to either send him off the deep end or to invigorate a latent lycanthropy. Werewolf material is mixed with vampire lore and psychology, which is mixed with painful autobiography (the very personal elements of the novel are supposedly elucidated upon in Blackburn's subsequent memoir A Clip of Steel, which I have not read yet), and it all adds up to a very messy piece of fiction which Blackburn nevertheless pretty clearly had to cough up onto the page. Somewhat unaccountably, it's this novel I was most reminded of while watching Werewolf Woman, Rino di Silvestro's extremely sleazy, and I suspect not remotely personal, bit of horror exploitation from 1976, which was just released by Raro Video.

Though the plot is gussied up with lots of jibber jabber between a cop and a doctor about what really is going on here, the basics of Werewolf Woman are all that matter, and they are these: a young woman named Daniela (Annik Borel) was raped some years before the film begins, a trauma that has badly damaged her mental health. She's come to believe that a distant ancestor, who legend says was a werewolf, has passed on her curse to Daniela, and this, combined with the trauma, leads her to seduce and murder men (though she finds it within herself to murder a couple of women, too, one of whom, living in the same psychotic ward in which Daniela is confined at one point, attempts to sexually assault her as well). The film doesn't really play around too much with the question of whether or not she really is a werewolf, and is stronger for it. Its ambitions to be a more-or-less straightforward rape-revenge film are about all it can handle anyway.

Calling this a "straightforward" rape-revenge film is not to say that in the general way of things Werewolf Woman is in any way straightforward (it should also be remembered how bizarre rape-revenge movies, particularly of this era, tend to be). For one thing, Borel spends most of the film nude, and not just so she can be leered at by any potential attackers, or even to lure in potential victims -- at one point while two other characters are having sex, she's watching them while masturbating. Needless to say, this isn't film in a way to make the viewer think this is a disturbing act, but rather in a style that says "Hey fellows, get a load of this pretty lady!" This all despite the fact that she's a deeply troubled rape victim. So Ms. 45 this is not. Nor is it even Meir Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave, which for all its questionable aspects cannot be accused of being soft in its depiction of rape (Werewolf Woman predates both of those anyway; however, by the end it wouldn't mind if you picked up on a nod towards Straw Dogs, a film I'm pretty sure Werewolf Woman didn't understand). Pretty much every scene in Werewolf Woman that involves sex, and that's a lot of them, is intended to be erotic; it's just that, as would eventually become the standard for slasher movies, some of those scenes end with a fury of blood-letting. So this is not a reputable film, nor a very good one, but most standards. I do not "recommend" it. But I'll tell you, for an exploitation actress with only a handful of film credits, Annik Borel isn't phoning anything in. The ceiling for her talents may not have been that high, but then again, who knows? When it comes to playing Daniela's madness, and especially her violent frenzies, she doesn't hold back, and if ever this aggressively insincere movie actually means what it says, it's because Borel is saying it.

Curtains (d. Richard Ciupka) - Halloween being the time of year when you pick up a random horror film you've never seen before and say things like "What the fuck, I guess I'll watch this one," I recently checked out this Canadian slasher film from 1983. And I was struck by certain things. Where even to begin. I guess I'll begin with this one bit of meta nonsense I didn't realize until just recently, which is that the task of directing this film was credited to "Jonathan Stryker," though the work was actually done by Richard Ciupka. The choice to use this credit may have had something to do with the fact that Ciupka and producer Peter Simpson fought terribly during production, but whatever the case "Jonathan Stryker" is also the name of the egocentric, amoral film director played by John Vernon in Curtains. So you can see what they've done.

But snide remarks aside, Curtains is kind of an interesting thing. The story is, Stryker is making this movie called Audra, and it's just going to be the best movie, so a bunch of actresses are vying for the title role. One actress, the very famous and admired Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) was going to play the role, and even had herself committed to a mental hospital as research, was instead screwed over by Stryker, and after escaping the hospital (this is all somewhat contrived, I'll grant you) she crashes the weekend getaway/audition at Stryker's pad, where he will be auditioning/bedding a variety of women who desperately want to play Audra, including Lynne Griffin and Lesleh Donaldson. Maury Chaykin is in this briefly, too. It's extremely Canadian.

Anyway, so, some lunatic wearing a disturbing old lady mask starts killing people, but as was often the case in the early array of less locked-in slasher films, this one sort of takes its time about slashing anybody. As Lynne Griffin points out in the commentary track for the Blu-ray, these horror films were closer to being murder mysteries -- like giallo, but also less extreme -- than what slasher films would eventually become. I mean, this thing is practically a melodrama for much of its run time. Of course, the original Friday the 13th took a while before it started killing people, but once they started they carried forward in earnest. Curtains spaces it out with that melodrama of the women being psychologically abused by John Vernon. If it's not great, it's very interesting historically, and it is a pleasant watch as a mystery -- Curtains has more than one turn in its plot that genuinely surprised me. Plus it's slightly goofy, and the melodrama, which I keep bringing up so I should clarify, isn't exactly Douglas Sirk. But it's like the slasher film in utero. And of course, there were tons of these, but we only remember the super violent ones that took place near lakes and such. It's a shame.

Nightcrawler (d. Dan Gilroy) - This one has been sort of talked about. It has what one might refer to as, if one were so inclined, "buzz." Since the Toronto International Film Festival, to be specific, when it sort of sneaked up on everybody. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, brother of Tony Gilroy of Michael Clayton and the Bourne films fame, who serves here as a producer, Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, an unnerving, bug-eyed man who we first meet robbing a construction site. Eventually, he will seek employment in the world of "nightcrawlers" (I'm happy that Gilroy only gives the literal explanation of the film's title once, as far as I remember, but I sort of think even that's one time too many), by which I mean the underground world of freelance crime photojournalism. You get a police scanner, a video camera, and GPS, you tool around Los Angeles until something comes over the scanner and then you go, and hopefully you're the first one there, shooting the accident scene or crime scene, the fire, the victims, talking to bystanders, then selling the footage to the local news stations. Bloom is a sociopath, and he considers this the work he was always meant to do, so after some fumbling around he starts making sales to Nina, a local news producer (Rene Russo), he hires an assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed), and has soon blown right by seasoned professionals such as Joe Loder (Bill Paxton).

Nightcrawler's big show is Gyllenhaal's performance -- it's what people were talking about after the TIFF screening, it's mostly what people are talking about now, and it's the primary thing about the film that deserves to be talked about. He's pretty outstanding here, shedding enough weight to look somewhat insectile, his hair just long enough to be the wrong length, his smile just wide enough to be spooky. The character is almost always in control of whatever situation he happens to be in, and of himself, and it's that control that Gyllenhaal plays so beautifully because it's so often so inappropriate, which is to say that a person who enjoyed better mental health would, in these same circumstances, betray some uneasiness, some nervousness, some fear or empathy or pity. Gyllenhaal's Bloom never does, and his professional success stems directly from his lack of humanity. Which is what's great about Gyllenhaal's performance, and the big problem with the movie as a whole.

Messiness in a film is not something to be avoided at all costs -- it all depends on how messy and in what way the messiness shows itself. But Dan Gilroy pretty obviously wanted none of that, and his script is hammered straight and squared off to a degree that the resulting professionalism of the whole endeavor has a whiff of phoniness about it. Everything is so easily charted: Bloom is struggling. Bloom witnesses Joe Loder doing this job and decides to do it himself. At first he makes a fool of himself. Then he makes one big sale. Then he makes another big sale, though in gathering the footage he sells he crosses a line. But it's a big sale! Now the montage of success. Then a situation begins to arise that may require more lines to be crossed. WILL HE CROSS THOSE LINES. This is a dark and cynical film, so sure he will, but you know that anyway because the script has told you it would. Or anyway winked at you in a way that made everything perfectly clear. One character exists in this film only to be killed. How they will die and in what context may not be clear, but he or she nevertheless might as well have the knife sticking out of their back when they first show up on screen. In Nightcrawler, nothing is ever in doubt.

There has been some disagreement about whether Nightcrawler is or is not a satire. I agree with those who say that it is not. However, if Dan Gilroy had been successful in obliterating all messiness from his film then it would have been perfect, and since it is not perfect, Nightcrawler is ergo a messy film, and one of the ways in which it is messy is, first, the fact that it clearly wants you to think about Network, which was a satire, as well as Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, which is not. So I fully understand why some are calling Nightcrawler satirical, because it is my belief that some early version of the script was satire, and then Gilroy remembered how Dr. Strangelove was originally supposed to be a drama before Kubrick changed directions and turned it into a madcap satire. So he thought "Hey I'll do that with my movie, but in reverse." This is all speculation, but even if I'm wrong I think I've nailed the spirit of the thing, and anyway the result is that with all this mish-mash of influential films, some satire, some not, crowding in, a ghost of a satire is left behind, quite awkwardly. Satire is something you should probably commit to. Using it as a seasoning is possible, but brother, you'd better know what you're doing. And whatever you do, do not invite comparisons to Ace in the Hole, because you just can't win that game.