Saturday, March 21, 2015

WOLF AT SEA AND WITHIN: JACK LONDON’S THE SEA WOLF





No doubt about it, Jack London’s The Sea Wolf (my Journey to the Classics for 2015) starts with a bang. Or a call it a sudden sinking.

One very foggy day, Humphrey van Weyden, a pale, soft, middle-age book-critic (no one I would know), is ferrying across San Francisco Bay when his conveyance crashes into another vessel and sinks, dumping van Weyden into the cold, briny waters of the bay where, snared by the famous current, he’s swept out to the perilous sea.

Then, seconds before he drowns, he’s rescued by another ship. His troubles have only begun: The ship in question is The Ghost, a seal-hunting vessel bound for the South Pacific, its captain one of literature’s most ruthless, dangerous characters, Wolf Larsen.

From here on, there’s muscular adventure aplenty from one of California’s (and America’s) most celebrated authors as Humphrey, who’s known hardly a day of hardship, finds his life in constant peril from dangers natural and human, and by them is transformed.

Some readers may face different challenges. All good books are about more than one thing. In addition to its adventure, The Sea Wolf is also a didactic novel. Ideas—and ideals--collide in the Hegelian sense: A synthesis (civilized van Weyden) crashes into an antithesis (the Nietzschean Larsen) to eventually form a synthesis (which you can determine for yourself). From here most of the drama springs, creating a seagoing debating society, all issues laid out like the seal carcasses they hunt. At times the two men start becoming the author’s mouthpieces and start to flatten into table-pounding, finger-shaking stick people.

Larsen, the proto-fascist, runs his ship like a tin-tub dictator, much crueler than even Melville’s Captain Ahab, who I think, better knew how to manipulate and cajole his men, even gaining their admiration and sympathy during The Pequod’s doomed voyage.

Larsen hasn’t a mote of compassion and wants none. He is all Will to Power. His contempt for his entire crew is total, implacable, seething. He revels in the mutual hatred, singling individual members out for torture, seeking to reduce and degrade every man among them, descending to cunning murder. The only human interest he shows is for his castaway, Von Weyden, to whom he reveals his high-browed literary interests in those long, often interesting, sometimes tedious platonic dialogues.

Van Weyden is seduced by Larsen, just as readers have been seduced by Dracula over the years—all that grand, confident, compelling power, that terrible focus. The trembling narrator describes this brutish opponent with quivering terms: “. . . the eyes . . . while strong in themselves, unusually strong, seemed to speak an immense vigour or virility of spirit that lay behind and beyond and out of sight.”

There’s a lot of that and it gets pretty purple.

The narrative turns even more breathy once the love interest gets pulled aboard in the person of Maud, who, it so happens, Humphrey knows as a kindred poet. The novel turns quite mushy from then on, showing its age like an old soggy sponge as the two birds gaze breathlessly into each other’s eyes and Humphrey’s ripe verbiage balloons further into an overripe rose:

“’Hush!” she said, and laid her fingers lightly on my lips. I could have kissed them, had I dared, even then, in my rage, the touch of them was so sweet, so very sweet.”

Even after they escape The Ghost and become shipwrecked together on a cold desert island, the characters maintain an absurdly dainty Victorian chastity (remarkable considering they’re both Bohemians; unremarkable considering that London was aiming for a broader, more middle-class feminine readership.) The novel huffs and heaves with rosy risible melodrama in these sections. It might surprise those more acquainted with London’s roustabout image.

Even so, a hundred-plus years on from The Sea Wolf’s 1904 debut, there’s still plenty of vigor and vinegar in its storm-tossed pages, even with its dated style. Its air of muscular adventure and vividly detailed action remain exciting. London portrays life on board one of the last wooden ships with salty exuberance and pinpoint exactitude, often conjuring throat-grabbing suspense. A chapter concerning van Weyden’s first encounter with a violent storm at sea makes for a ripping thrill. The deck tilts under the feet. Reason enough to sign on.



Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Burchfield at the Bijou: Cutting Remarks on BIRDMAN



 
The day before this year’s Oscar telecast, Mrs. B and I went to see Birdman, the 2014 Best Picture Winner, at the Piedmont Theater in Oakland.  

Take my word for it, Birdman will dazzle your eye and sparkle your mind: superbly acted, ingeniously written, directed, and photographed, with some of the most brilliant camerawork and motion picture editing I’ve seen in years. It’s funnier and smarter than most movies out there.  

Even so, Birdman left me emotionally untouched, my heartstrings firmly knotted (unlike The Grand Budapest Hotel, which left a tender, lasting glow). As a former actor myself, maybe my own experience--not always a pleasant one—with Birdman’s theatrical world left me unsympathetic, unlike the actors, writers and directors—many of them theater people--who make up a large chunk of the Oscar voters. They emotionally identified with the film and voted with their hearts. Good for them. 

Anyway I, as usual, ignored next evening’s Oscar telecast with my usual Hannibal Lecter sneer (wearily explained here), opting to watch instead the following real actual movie on TCM:

 

 
Later, I looked over the list of winners and noticed one choice that chipped a shallow dent in my brow: The Oscar for Best Editing went, not to the daring, dazzling, fluid Birdman, but to the more conventional-sounding Whiplash (this generation’s version of Lean On Me, this time set, I gather, in Nazi Tiger Mother Music School.) 

To be fair, I’ve not seen Whiplash but I bet it was a good movie, at least technically. Its editors didn’t assembling its footage with dull garden shears. Yet, I felt mildly surprised that it—and not the bold, sinuous, off-the-wall Birdman—took home that particular statue. 

No no no, I’m not bitter and indignant--just puzzled. It’s still Hollywood’s industry party and they can give Saving Christmas and Kirk Cameron allllll the gold doorstops they want and I swear not to carry on as though ISIL had just struck again and the polar caps had melted and washed our great cities away. 

When it comes to the top awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, etc.) the Oscars are definitely unreliable as indicators of true artistry. But when you go down a few landings to the technical awards (awarded to homely, gray-bearded mumblers in dull clothes), you might get a better idea of what Hollywood’s working people consider quality work. More than not, they’re right. 

I say this because the next time you watch a movie or TV show—of any kind—I gently urge you to consider the people who do the cutting and the weaving. Who take the innumerable pieces of raw footage and knit them together into something that not only makes entertaining sense, but sometimes makes Art.
 

THE ONCE UPON A TIME PART. . . . 

Some years ago, I was engaged with a friend in a debate over Apocalypse Now when he remarked that the film was “saved in the editing room.” The claim seems to imply that writer-director Francis Ford Coppola had made a completely bad movie that he had no idea what do with, unlike every other movie which arrives in the editing room full formed where the film editor—often thought of as a four-eyed chump equipped with nothing but scissors and glue—puts it together at the director’s (always an Auteur, the Author) precise exacting orders. 

Later, when I went into screenwriting, I started reading whole shelves of books about the movies, especially the ones about how they get made: The Making of This n’ That, that kind of thing (A wonderful movie by the way. Shame on you for having missed it! When it failed to win the Best Picture Oscar I SHOT MYSELF!) 

One of my favorite and most enlightening reads was When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins: A Film Editor’s Story by Ralph Rosenblum. Rosenblum was an accomplished and innovative film editor, famous for his work with Sidney Lumet and Woody Allen (whom I will stipulate as an actual “Auteur.”) 

It was while working in the editing room on Mr. Allen’s Take the Money and Run that Rosenblum turned to the Auteur and pointed at the exit door: “Young man, you have not shot enough of the right footage to make this scene work! You go out and bring me back the right footage, right now! Or no supper for you! (Last part, completely made up).  

And so out walked Woody (With, I imagine, shoulders bowed, head down, hands in his pocket: “Mr. Rosenblum yelled at me. Okay, I’ll go shoot his silly old footage!”). He later came back with the footage Mr. Rosenblum asked for. The result was a very good, very funny movie was even better and funnier.

When I finished Rosenblum’s story, it came to me that movies weren’t just saved in the editing room. They were made there, more often than realized. Like cinematographers and set designers, film editors were crucial to a film’s form and quality in ways I’d never considered. They were an essential, vital moving part of moving pictures. They, too, became my heroes. 

I love editors. I often wish I were a director just so I could hear them tell me what they need and then I would go out and shoot it. 

Like most movie fans of my generation I was married to the Auteur Theory. Over the years, the theory and I have undergone a separation. All films, even a glory like Citizen Kane (Robert Wise, editor), are a group effort, a synergy of minds and talent, occasionally driven or herded by a singular brilliant individual (the “auteur”) but most often not. To take nothing away from Mr. Welles—who delivers absolute credit as the driving force in Kane Mr. Allen--the individual genius is a contingent phenomenon at best. Sometimes, even Welles was just the onset director in films like The Stranger. 

At one of those torture chambers known as the Writer’s Conference I attended while a screenwriter, I was treated to program featuring Thomas Stanford, the editor of Jeremiah Johnson, a gorgeous and very good western frontier film, starring Robert Redford, directed by Sidney Pollack (who later described the film as being “made in the editing room.”). Mr. Stanford showed us raw footage—the dailies--from a wolf attack scene. 

We watched as Robert Redford, one of the great stars of his era, awkwardly repeatedlt wrestled on cold wet snowy ground with some playful huskies. A couple times they threw stuffed wolves at the star from off camera and he would roll around hugging them, going “AARGH! AARGH!” He would pause and sit there, eyes blinking, sighing heavily (“Life was so much easier—and warmer--on Broadway . . . .”). It was like parents throwing teddy bears at their children on snowy Christmas mornings. No suspense at all. The atmospheric pressure in the auditorium swelled with suppressed giggles. 

But next, Mr. Stanford showed the final result, after hours of cutting, recutting, adding sound effects and more painstaking whittling until it was shrunk down to a thrilling, punchy sequence that lasted less than a minute, with each shot lasting only a few seconds at most. The stuffed wolf magically materialized into a real wolf. (Unfortunately, I’ve not found reliable footage to share.)

 

THE INVISIBLE ART 

Like prose editing, film editing most often works invisibly. Its effects ring deep in the mind. (Even Birdman’s seemingly one long single take is an illusion. I had fun trying to find where they made cuts.) Most of the time, editors are happy we don’t see their work. Sometimes, though, we can’t avoid it. That can be great (like in The Wild Bunch, Lou Lombardo editor), but it can also be bad, with the rise of MTV-style cutting. Sometimes the craft can be abused to the point of confusion; or to pump up excitement where there is none. 

The list of heroes who work this task is long and nowhere as celebrated as it should be: Margaret Booth (who was MGM’s supervising editor for decades); Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now and author of his own book); Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde); and Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull) are just a few.  

(Note the number of women: Some enterprising soul could a write a book: Women in Film Editing. I’d be happy to help you with it. Drop me a line. My scissors are sharp and sure!)

 

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

 

Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Thoughts on "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins


 
 
Sometimes, while wandering about in the evening, or in my travels on the road, I’ll briefly look through the lighted windows of the houses I go by. There’s no sinister intent on my part, but heir umber-lit interiors look warm and inviting and I briefly imagine that the lives lived within those homes are safer, warmer, cozier, happier than my bumpy, shaky existence. There, I think, somewhere inside, there lies security. There is love. You may do this yourself on your various journeys.

 

The Girl on the Train, an interesting offbeat new psychological suspense novel by Paula Hawkins, opens near this same point. Rachel, the main narrator, an Englishwoman in her thirties, is a daily London commuter whose train pauses at the same point every weekday morning, behind a row of cheerful, neatly built faux-Victorian duplexes. Restless, feckless and miserable, Rachel speculates on the lives of the dwellers. One house in particular draws her attention, in part because of the couple she sees lounging happily on its makeshift rear porch: “They are the perfect, golden couple.”

 

Rachel even makes up names and imagines a fairy tale love story for them. She can’t help herself. She can’t stop feverishly projecting her own desperate need for happiness onto them. Then, after she witnesses a curious incident on that very spot that cracks her cozy fantasy, she decides, at great risk, to take action to save the world she’s created in her mind.

 

Rachel is an unreliable first-person narrator and the peculiar character of her condition is woven with the mystery wending its way alongside the novel’s nicely turned serpentine plot. We also meet two other first-person narrators, two women with similar backgrounds: Megan, the woman on the back porch; and Anna, the Other Woman who stole Rachel’s ex-husband—and happiness--away. These women have their own delusions. How these three threads intertwine until they’re knotted together by murder is the core of the book.

 

Engaging as I found The Girl on the Train at first, though, the narrative flattens after a while. Paula Hawkins is a good writer in the sleek modern style. But, oddly, each of the three women tell their stories in the exact same voice: the same cadences, sentence structures and choice of words. The three seem interchangeable. Add to this their similar middle-class backgrounds and I found myself wandering between confusion and monotony. The novel became hard to stay with. The larger mystery for me was not who done what to whom and why (and the consequences), but why the author committed a seemingly obvious error and one that seems to have passed without challenge as the novel made its way into the world.

 

The only other answer may be that the choice was deliberately made. Hawkins may—and this is a guess--intend to knit all three female characters into one character, a portrait of middle-class women 21st Century Britain. But whether this approach works in this fictional context is a question I’d say comes up negative. The result is rather wan.

 

 

 

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

 

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Now Playing In Your Living Room: "Justified": A Killing Too Far




There’s this game I sometimes play while watching a movie or one of them new-fangled, premium cable TV series. It’s best with war films, cop movies, and murder mysteries. The game usually starts when, say in a war film, the Young Green Recruit (often played by a third-tier Warner Brothers stock actor) pulls out a photo of the Girl He Left Behind and sighs like a silver moon as he says “. . . and when I get home we’re gonna get married right away and have twenty-four kids and a white picket fence!”

In cop movies, it’s sometimes Robert Duvall--in Grizzled Old Veteran mode—gazing out over the mean streets: “They’re-a gonna retire m’ badge next week,” he drawls. “And then I’m-a gonna get liquored up and go koi fishin’ off m’ back porch.”
 
It is at these moments of clarity that I will raise my arm, point my finger at the screen and declare with Churchillian solemnity: “He is GOING TO DIE!
 
And die they do. (I’m batting near a thousand here, better than at the track.) The Green Recruit gets mowed down charging the Jap machine gun emplacement; Robert Duvall, peppered and perforated, crumples to the pavement, gasping, “Tell Mabel don’t forget to clean the pond . . . and don’t overfeed . . . the . . . koi . . . aaargh!”
 
My fine-tuned detector for this dime-store ironic foreshadowing hummed to life the other week while watching Justified, the popular FX series and one of the most purely entertaining cable series going.
 
To fill you in fast, Justified is a cop show set in a seriously Californian Harlan County, Kentucky. (You can almost see the mesquite bouncing by.) It’s an old-timey Dirty Harry western at its core; a tasty Elmore Leonard stew mostly flavored by the war of wills and attrition between insouciant quick-draw U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and absurdly eloquent, Nazi-racist drug kingpin Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Every season ends in a Grand Guignol eruption of torn limbs or bursting bellies. For me, it’s a sleek and welcome anachronism in the cable universe of tut-tutting frowny dramas. It’s cheerfully amoral, like a good spaghetti western, and, even to the eyes of this muddled liberal, the better for it.
 
It was in the first episode of Justified’s sixth (and rightfully last) season that foreboding showed its skull when Raylan’s old boss Art (Nick Searcy), crippled by gunfire in Season Five, warns Raylan, his itchy-fingered protégé, that someday a bad guy’s bullet may well find him. “Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way,” he drawls ominously. Raylan, of course, scoffs in that inimitable carefree Timothy Olyphant manner. Bullets not only can’t touch him, they stop and go around. No lowlife punk’s gonna shoot this tall glass of water off the fence.
 
Then, over the course of the next two episodes, Raylan lays plans for retirement to Florida where he’ll raise his adorable new baby daughter in the land of sunshine and oranges . . . .
 
Casual dismissal of warning about Dangers Ahead? Check!
 
Plan to retire? Check!
 
Plans to start new life with newborn daughter? Check!
 
Rise to feet, point at screen, voice cracking with doom:
 
“Raylan Givens is GOING TO DIE!”
 
As I sink back in my couch (and Missus B rolls her eyes), it occurs to me that I could be wrong—as I am, though rarely—about my premonition. Why I might be wrong lies in the nature of Justified itself—its purpose, tone and action-movie aesthetics.
 
Justified is not at all a serious dramatic show (though to judge from this article, it can be mistook for one). It is not Deadwood. It is not The Wire. Nor is it The Americans or any other cable/PBS dramas you care to name, genre or otherwise, that inspire mounds of heavy prose, including that monument to pompous nihilism, Boardwalk Empire.
 
Its tone is light, breezy, as smooth and carefree as a good fast car on a new-paved country road. This sleek form is inspired by Mr. Leonard’s work, of course. Its comedy seems grown from the comic relief in Sam Peckinpah’s films. Its insolence puts me in mind of For a Few Dollars More. The characters are comic-opera broad, the villains colorfully stupid and pathetic, like Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, “bastards everyone of them!” Occasionally, it captures the pathos of lowlifes hustling to survive.
 
But it’s not about “Life.” It’s not about real criminals. I’m almost sure it’s not about real-life in Harlan County, Kentucky.
 
In Justified’s universe, there’s no tormented drama of William Holden and Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch. What we often get is the Adventures of Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones. Shakespeare’s gravediggers happily rule the screen, like kids playing in a pile of mud. And thanks to colorful, clever writing, slick filmmaking and exuberant acting, Justified entertains in grand gory glory. But it doesn’t do anything especially new and hasn’t a really serious idea in its head, or a deep soul—the very definition of a “guilty pleasure” (whose definition I’ll argue later).
 
Justified is an unpretentious show. And so, killing off Raylan Givens, its hero, in the name of “serious drama,” “high cable ratings” (or so I can say “See! Told ya so!”) would be a pretentious move, a killing too far. It’d be too much a “Statement” from a show that doesn’t make much of any; that takes more pride in its loopy plotting, gory shootouts and bowls of chewy slang. It would be a reach for Seriousness that, by the tragic lights of other cable series, it has not earned.
 
To be blunt, if Raylan goes and gets hisself killed, I’ll be madder than a mule with a bee on its tongue. (And I’m still weepy over the too-soon passing of Dewey Crowe!)
 
But, some may protest, turning the other road may create its own problems. Raylan Givens is a right bastard. Behold as he cheekily beat and shoots people left, right, upside and down while cheerfully thumbing that handsome nose at the civil rights of everyone, including his old man’s! With police-community relations under particular strain right now, allowing Raylan drive merrily off into a Florida sunrise to live happily ever after might leave behind another kind of distaste.
 
May I suggest a compromise? (No? I will anyway.) Let’s say that Raylan takes that bullet after all. But not everyone who gets shot dies. Instead, this 21st-Century Harry Callahan gets knocked out of the law enforcement business for good to where he’ll be less a danger to the rest of the world. Namely, a wheelchair. One without a motor.
 
It’s a thought. The tall drink of water knocked down to a shot glass of cheap bourbon. At least he gets to hold his baby daughter, just in a wheelchair, that’s all. Take that, Raylan. Ya lived by the sword, pardner. Be thankful that bullet got no closer.
 
Cheer up, Raylan! Maybe you’ll find a new life as Son of Ironside. Call me crazy! Call me excited! But call me! My word processor’s hot and rarin’ to go!
 
 
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield
 
Photo by author
 
Thomas Burchfield’s latest novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up that will appear sometime this year, from Ambler House. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.