Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dryden Theatre: The Man From Laramie

Don't forget that THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is screening tonight at the Dryden Theatre. James Stewart! Anthony Mann! Noir Western? You decide!
This is the best of the series, and now's your chance to see it on the Big Screen!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Of Plot, Character and Cinnamon Rolls

One of my favorite blogs is "Type M for Murder," a group blog of mystery writers, mostly Candian, but all insightful. Recently, they have been ruminating over the age-old question of plot vs. character, what takes precedence, and have even added setting into the equation. But, with all due respect to all involved, I would like to politely disagree with these fine writers and answer the question in my own way. So...

Q: What is more important in a novel, Character or Plot?

A: Whatever is more interesting in that particular story.

Let's take a step back. This question doesn't even identify who is supposed to answer it. Are we talking to writers, now, or readers? I think Vicky Delany explained it best in her post on Setting. Vicky explains that when she is seeking out a book, setting plays a large part in whether she buys it or not. In the same way, this interest is reflected in her writing. But not everyone thinks this way. I know that setting plays a very small part in what I choose to read, but a much larger part in what I choose to write.

And other readers may have completely different priorities. A cop might like to specifically pick out police procedurals because he likes to check the authenticity of the writer's information. Another cop might seek out romance novels, because he deals with cop stuff every day and doesn't want to deal with it on his downtime as well. A third cop might pick up books because he has enjoyed the author's previous work.

The analogy I came up with in my head is this: What is most important in Cinnamon Rolls: the smell, the taste, or the texture? Surely one of these things draws you to eating a cinnamon roll, likely a combination of two or all of the factors. For instance, the smell might remind you of the soft, flaky texture of a roll. Or a hankerin' might come over you and the smell would seal the deal. And this limited scenario doesn't even take into account the ingredients, the literary equivalent of which might be vocabulary, or use of language, or a long, languid style.

My point is this: one of those factors might attract you to a project, but the project can't exist without the rest. Interesting characters with nothing to do is just as boring as constant action performed by cyphers. A cinnamon roll might taste good, but the experience won't be good if it smells burnt and the dough is stale. All of these factors have to come together in a particular way to be appealing to the eater, er, reader. And not all readers have the same tolerance level. Some may not want a cinnamon roll at all. Some may want a really big cookie. Or pretzel sticks.

I gotta stop hanging out at the mall.

So, in my opinion, there is no single important element in writing or reading a book. I may even pick different projects for different reasons. I love Lawrence Block's writing style. I'm attracted to Sean Chercover's Ray Dudgeon and Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs. I love Stephen King's twisty, unpredictable plots. The first book I wrote came from the setting, with the characters and plot shoe-horned in. Which is probably why I don't like it, now. But the book I (have been) writing now is more character-based, with the setting enhancing the character and the plot coming along. And I'm also thinking about doing something similar with the first novel.

Someday, I hope to put all the ingredients together for a tasty treat. But it's likely the recipe will never be the same.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Remember the Prime

There are very few books I've read more than once in my lifetime, but one of them is SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD, by Orson Scott Card. I got it from the Science Fiction Book Club in an omnibus with its predecessor, ENDER'S GAME. I still have that somewhere. The idea of a "Speaker for the Dead" is someone unconnected to the deceased that researches their life and speaks the truth of them to a gathered audience. This impartial cleric will be able to see the deceased for who they truly were, getting beyond the petty prosaic travails while they were alive and the sentimental yearning after their death. Thus, by hearing the truth about the deceased, their friends and family will truly be able to cope with their conflicted feelings and move on. This is a concept that fascinates me to this day, probably in ways I'm not ready to deal with yet. And I think it works well for people about whom not much is known. Celebrities don't have this luxury. Especially in an age of constant scrutiny and entertainment/gossip as news. We lost three major TV icons in the last week. But despite the memorials being planned and the TV specials being aired, they are three people that have most recently been in the public eye, even before their death, for the tragedies their lives had become. These are the truths the American public knows about them. But I am here asking you to look beyond their lives to their work. See them for who they were at their best. You might actually find something you like. Farrah Fawcett is probably best known as a pin-up girl. And secondarily as one Charlie's original Angels. But her peak as an actress probably came in the mid-'80s, with the TV movie THE BURNING BED and its loose cinematic companion piece EXTREMITIES. In BED, she is an abused housewife who takes revenge upon her husband in drastic ways. In EXTREMITIES, she is an attacked housewife who takes revenge upon her attempted rapist in drastic ways. You can Netflix both of them. Ed McMahon did a lot in his career in the spotlight. He was the host of STAR SEARCH for twelve years. He MCed the Jerry Lewis telethon every Labor Day weekend. Heck, I even rmemeber him with Dick Clark on TV'S BLOOPERS AND PRACTICAL JOKES every week. But I think everyone can agree that he is best-remembered for his stint on THE TONIGHT SHOW, where he was brilliant. Yes, Johnny was the front man, but it was the wonderful chemistry between the two that helped the show endure. Netflix any one of the TONIGHT SHOW DVDs. Yes, Michael Jackson was a music star the world over, and innovative and creative. But to people like me, who matured when MTV was nascent, he was a daily TV companion. And after having seen "Thriller" again recently, I know now that I never fully appreciated him at the time. This classic video (and I'll admit I saw it on the Big Screen, which has aggrandizing effects) shows what a charismatic performer Michael was at his prime. A good-looking, talented young man who was somehow able to convince one of Hollywood's most successful directors of the time (John Landis already had ANIMAL HOUSE, THE BLUES BROTHERS and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON under his belt) to make a 15-minute short film about high school date that turns into a zombie attack with state-of-the-art special effects to accompany a pop/dance track that features an in-song "rap" by Vincent Price. And yet he pulls it off. It's brilliant. We are completely drawn in by his enthusiasm and the driving beat under the song. When the music stops and the dancing takes over a capella, even the shuffling zombie choreography provides its own percussive melody. And the choreography! Taking the Hollywood-accepted movements of a zombie and using it as the platform for an entire sequence? Brilliant! Exclamation point! I suggest you Netflix either "The Number Ones" or "History, Vol. 2," both of which feature the "Thriller" video.

So, let us all speak for the dead, and be the ones that honor their gifts to us, instead of remembering their pain.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Crime Beat

At 3:34 p.m. June 1, a newly appointed general manager at a store in Culver-Ridge Plaza, 2255 E. Ridge Road, reported that $2,156.02 and two parakeets valued at a total of $280 were missing.

And hopefully this was a pet store...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dryden Theatre: The Far Country

Don't forget that THE FAR COUNTRY is screening tonight at the Dryden Theatre. James Stewart! Anthony Mann! Noir Western? You decide!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Congratulations Selznick School

I just want to send out a brief congratulations to the staff and graduating students of the 13th class of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation on another fine year.

Film archvist's motto: "To Preserve and Project."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Crime Beat

At 11:48 a.m. June 1, a $100 video camcorder, $100 digital camera and $25 camera bag were reported stolen from an unlocked car parked on Smugglers Lane.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dryden Theatre: The Naked Spur

Don't forget that THE NAKED SPUR is playing tonight at the Dryden Theatre! James Stewart! Anthony Mann! Noir Western? You decide!

Monday, June 15, 2009

What is Film Noir, Part 2

Point: Film noir is American.

All of the original ten films were American. Indeed, Borde and Chaumeton's definition of a "series" insists that the films be "nationally identifiable." There is no denying that films in the same vein and with a similar style were being produced in other countries, such as France and the U.K., within the "classic" time period, and Borde and Chaumeton recognize and identify some of the French films of interest from this era. But these films from other countries always have a national modifier to distinguish them from the American films universally recognized as film noir. Thus, Borde and Chaumeton talk about "French Film Noir" in a chapter separated from the rest of the book. And George Eastman House will run a series of "British Film Noir" in the Fall, distinguishing them from the "Essential Film Noir" series running in the Winter.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Rochester Film Noir

For those of you who live in the Rochester area and are interested in seeing film noir on the big screen, the July/August calendar for the Dryden Theatre was just released, and it's got some noir and noir-related highlights. But if you can't wait that long, there's some interesting shows in June as well:

Tuesdays in June are Mann/Stewart nights. The established noir director Anthony Mann (DESPERATE, RAW DEAL, T-MEN) moved on to making Westerns in the '50s, most notably a series of six with Jimmy Stewart. There is definitely some noir influence in these color/scope revenge westerns. THE NAKED SPUR (1953) is playing on June 16, THE FAR COUNTRY (1955) is playing on June 23 and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955) wraps up the series on June 30.

Noir director Fritz Lang (SCARLET STREET, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW) cast noir regular Robert Ryan (THE SET-UP, CROSSFIRE) alongside Marilyn Monroe in this story of a woman returning home to find that her brother disapproves of the way she's lived her life.

This remake of the noir classic is the first film in our tribute to Jessica Lange, who will be honored in person on July 25. This neo-noir follows the original source novel by James M. Cain much closer than the original.

July 8 - NIAGARA
Color, so not noir, but considered by some to be, this is another Marilyn Monroe film about a honeymoon that turns to murder.

July 10 - KEY LARGO
Bogie and Bacall in one of their three shared noirs. Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor round out the extraordinary cast.

Not a noir, but it is the only film that sometimes noir director Alfred Hitchcock made in 3-D. And that's how it will be shown. Come see how a master does it.

You can find the entire Dryden Theatre schedule at dryden.eastmanhouse.org.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

In Lieu, Part 2

This side-by-side comparison just amps up the awesome.

Monday, June 8, 2009

In Lieu of Actual Content...

You know how sometimes you can take two things that you love, put them together, and it just doesn't come out very good?

This is NOT one of those times.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What is Noir?, Part 1

I was going to call this post "What is Not Noir?" before I realized it's the same thing. By explicating certain parts of my definition (see original post on definition here), I was actually re-affirming what fell outside the definition, and vice versa. But I realized that this was too much information for just one post, so I've decided to stretch it out over several, focusing on one point per post. I'm sure I can stretch it out over the long haul.

Point: Film Noir did not exist before 1941.

Actually, this is not even an explicit part of my definition, but something I felt compelled to address, as it is implicit, based upon my research. Borde and Chaumeton outline the beginnings of the film noir movement in France. In this instance, I refer to the critical movement, as this is where the concept originated. To briefly sum up, there was a large influx of dark American crime films to France in 1946, films that were previously not available in the France of World War II. Seen together, it became clear to these critics that a new series had been born.

The earliest of these films, in terms of American release date, is THE MALTESE FALCON (1941). This featured an early appearance of the iconic anti-hero that would become a staple of film noir, especially those featuring private detectives. It also featured a cadre of cruel supporting characters, venerating no life other than their own, and holding nothing above their own prosperity. There was also a realism to the violence, a marked contrast to the bombastic explosions and shootouts of the Gangster movies of the '30s. In FALCON, if you got shot, you died. Maybe not then, but soon.

But it did not feature many of the stylistic touches that would later become signatures of film noir: the low-key lighting, the oblique angles, the eroticism countering and feeding the violence. Yet the French critics saw it as part of the same series. And so, hoping to keep my definition in line with their best intentions, I include it here.

But is this where film noir started? It may be hard to defend, using the genre definition. But noir is a genre like no other. Consider this: A Western can be identified as a Western before a single shot goes in front of the camera. The same with a musical, a science fiction film, or a gangster film. But you cannot identify a noir until it is completed, so dependent is it upon style to create content. And it just so happens that style and subject matter collided in a way that produced an abundance of these films in the 1940s.

The reason the style was used so predominantly was mostly economic, and the reason the subject matter appeared so often was mostly societal, as explained in CROSSFIRE. But it takes both in order to create film noir. There are some who argue that there were examples of film noir prior to 1941. Michael F. Keaney's list starts in 1940. And Alain Silver's encyclopedic reference cites films as far back as the silent era, although only 11 before 1941. But even in 1941, where Silver cites six films noirs, it's difficult to classify them as such based on the definition being discussed. Besides THE MALTESE FALCON, there is HIGH SIERRA (as much as I love it, not noir), THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (strange, oneiric, erotic, but not noir), SUSPICION (by Hitchcock, who often flirts with noir), and CITY FOR CONQUEST and AMONG THE LIVING, which I have admittedly not seen.

Indeed, Borde and Chaumeton only qualify two films prior to 1944 in their original list of ten: FALCON and THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942). There are then three films from 1944, one from 1945, three from 1946 and one from 1947. And although their purpose was not to go back and find the earliest example of noir, their work certainly indicates a rise to prominence in the mid-40s.

Based on the previously established guidelines of noir and my own research, and combined with the important placement of noir in mid- and post-World War II, I feel comfortable stating that film noir started in 1941 with THE MALTESE FALCON, and ended with the disappearance of contemporary black-and-white filmmaking.

But I reserve the right to change my mind.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Crime Beat

Between 7 and 10:45 a.m. May 17, windows in six cars parked on the 2400 block of St. Paul Boulevard were reported broken; damage in each case was estimated at $200. Law books valued at $300 were stolen from one of the cars, and about $30 worth of CDs from another.

I'd like to think this is a deliberate act of irony on the part of some creative-minded smash-and-grab artist. It's certainly much more subtle than Herb's antics.