Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Plate of Fudge, a Bowl of Chili and Thou . . .

Because he was scrubby and dirty they took him in . . .

And because he was so dirty,  they named him “Harry.”

This Christmas, act like a Christian.

Uh-uhhh, I didn’t say be a Christian, your kneecaps squashed on a cold hard floor, your hands steepled, eyes rolled in gooey piety. No prayers at all are always better than insincere ones.

I mean act with grace, openness, generosity, tolerance, forgiveness. Pull in your teeth and claws for once, just for awhile (yeah, I know it’s hard).  I have supped full of rage and here, a little self-denial is called for.

Christianity may not have been precisely first with the ideas mentioned above, but it was the first to synthesize them into a general philosophy in western civilization, a stance toward life, the world, society and the lonely individual that runs like subtle wine through so much that even most fundamentalist atheists pay inadvertent tribute to them (and bless Christopher Hitchens’ peppery serrated soul; I hope he’s enjoying a Nice Surprise about now.)

A digression: if you read the Four Gospels (especially the three "synoptic" gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke) you will find, among very very few rich and powerful people;  the vast majority of characters are grubby peasants, bent-backed farmers, battered whores, criminal low-lifes and drunken bums; and when rich folk are mentioned, it is not in complimentary fashion.

You will also learn that Jesus was neither sulfurous fire-spitting Pat Robertson nor a boring Nice White Guy from Minnesota who looks just like Willem Dafoe.

Not only that . . . they called him a BASTARD!

Now I’ve always loved Christmas, a stand offensive to anhedonics (who would be bummed out if I took the opposite tack anyway: “You’re just pandering to me, you phony.”).

But like many, I loathe the insulting heretical Über-Capitalist’s Holiday; a miserable, moneyed tyranny, supported by Fox News propaganda, where WalMart is the True Church; where even Ebenezer Scrooge looks heroically wise and monkish in his self-denial. All the color is a mere fig leaf for a desperate materialism. It’s Target we kneel and pray to.

If you really want to rebel against Christmas, to avoid both the trap of Wal-Mart and the barrenness of Scrooge (as these Christians do), try the following:

Be a cheapskate. Instead of buying that $200 Popeil potato masher, even if it is for the person you love most in the world (the damn thing will just break after they slice off their fingers anyway), instead buy your Someone their favorite food, drink or even a charming little what not; something that will bring more than temporary delight, that will carve deeper than an electric carving knife. A book would be nice.

Or, if they're a real friend, like this guy, you can send them a holiday card loaded with the most vile, spectacular and funniest insults your imagination can conjure. (Thirty years going and he still loves me for it.)

Another friend of ours from a certain somewhere tells us he and his family go dirt cheap on gifts; so cheap that the first question they ask on receipt is “How much did it cost?” Instead, they blow their budget on the best food and the best drink and bury their faces in the dining room table. I find this deeply appealing (and screw the Health Nazis; they’re nearly as bad as WalMart). There’s a companionship in sharing food and sparkling conversation that the complete DVD set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can never capture.

Another thing to do: If you happen to go outside (this is the Internet Age after all), store some of your cash in a convenient pocket. Then, if you run into a needy person, give some to them, with no conditions and no questions. Loyal readers of Bay Area columnist Jon Carroll know this as the “Untied Way.” He recommends $20 bills . . . but any amount will do. And throw in a smile.

That really could be you hovering over that gutter someday. It was once almost me.

Then stop by your favorite drinking establishment, coffeehouse, or tavern, and buy a round for one or everyone (difficult for me this year, as I’m on extremely limited alcohol intake, doctor’s orders.)

In other words, try and keep it simple, as simple as a Bethlehem manger of sweet legend, though maybe a little warmer.

Sometimes a plate of fudge, a bowl of chili and thou is all I need.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and see you all in the New 2012.

(re-edited 12/19/11)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Boys with Guns: Thoughts on The Sisters Brothers

A couple months ago, I was chatting with Bob, the proprietor of Walden Pond Books on Grand Avenue in Oakland (where you can pull a real paperback copy of Dragon’s Ark  from the New Mystery section of their fine shelves and mosey up to the register to buy it). Bob and I were chewing the fat about the merits of such vintage western authors as Luke Short when he pressed into my hands a copy of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, a new novel that he promised would be the best hired gunman novel I would ever read (and I’ve read quite a few).

The Sisters Brothers made the short-list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and is about as good as promised. It’s a violent, picaresque serio-comic tale of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two hired killers on what may be their last murderous ride.

It’s the Pacific Northwest in the 1850s. Our tale-teller is Eli Sisters, Charlie’s younger brother and the larger and deceptively less clever of the two. Brother Charlie is the trigger and hammer behind their bloody partnership, but is also more the trigger-happy, hard-drinking and ill-tempered. Brother Eli looks down on himself from his own saddle, as his brother and most everyone else does, but he’s clearly the more soulful, more aware sibling, both to the beautiful landscape they ride through, the sordid civilization nestled within its valleys and the truth behind their vile work: that he and Charlie are not much more than simple brute murderers.

As the story goes, Eli and Charlie ride out from Oregon City on a job for their remote and malevolent employer, known only as the Commodore. Their destination is Gold Rush San Francisco and their target one Herman Warm, the inventor of an unnamed invention the Commodore claims Mr. Warm stole from him.

And so the brothers saddle up on a long, strange, and twisted trail, involving a sick one-eyed horse that Eli cottons to; broken-down, dying prospectors; lost pioneers; gimlet-eyed whores; assorted thieves; and other pungent low-lifes and grubs that would spark a twinkle in the eyes of Sam Peckinpah, Larry McMurtry, and David Milch.

Along the way, the Sisters Brothers, possessed of dread reputation, leave swirls of crimson in their tracks. And yet, in perverse poignant fashion, they are revealed as innocents in their own way as they confront the truth behind their mission. Their colorful ride takes them through a vividly drawn Gold Rush San Francisco and out to the Gold Country in the Sierra Foothills to a kind of showdown both hair-raising and genuinely surprising. In the end, to loosely paraphrase Peckinpah, these bad bad men become the children they always were again.

Author Patrick deWitt writes his entertaining book in the argot of its day. It flows with the flowery elocutionary prose that everyone spoke and wrote back then, a mostly rural world where everyone learned to speak and write from the Bible and Shakespeare. Formal turns of phrases turn delightfully about, with only a few contractions in sight. He commendably takes the genre seriously, avoiding the trap of cold-hearted, post-modern superiority that would tempt lesser hands.

Next to horror fiction, the western novel may be the most dismissed and neglected of genres. Sad to say, the success of this book, as with McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, will likely send few readers back to Luke Short, Clifton Adams (whose 1962 novel Reckless Men I think another excellent hired killer yarn), or the westerns by National Book Award nominee Loren D. Estleman. Still, it’s heartening to see serious writers turn to the old structures of the genre novel and find new trails to wander and bright flowing seams of new gold.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Extra Bites and Other Draculas (Conclusion)



It happens to all actors, even the greats such as the De Niros and Streeps, Oliviers and Hoffmans. They’re cast in a role that doesn’t suit them, that’s beyond their skills, range, or type. Often the casting is not even their decision (Like all of us, they have bills to pay. Acting is a job after all.) As an actor in college, I sometimes found myself playing characters I couldn’t fit into at all, but I was the guy that was there, so I did my best and hoped everyone would forget.

Sometimes the actor makes wrong choices as to how to play the character. But mostly the actor, great as he may be, simply doesn’t belong there. (I visited this problem in a recent piece on Boardwalk Empire.)

In this case though, I’m speaking here of poor Gary Oldman as Dracula in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I say “poor,” because while Gary Oldman has done much to be proud of (and I’m looking forward to his turn as George Smiley in the upcoming remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), his casting as Dracula is about the most egregious and ineffective since, well, Lon Chaney, Jr’s.

Gary Oldman is an excellent performer, an earthy, urban actor, a kind of grown-up street urchin as he showed by excelling in films such as Sid and Nancy, State of Grace and Romeo Is Bleeding.

Sad to say though, he doesn’t have the fierce demonic charisma to play a driven and driving hellfire like Dracula; nor is he the exotic young-man type that Winona Ryder’s Mina Harker is yearning for in this romantic Brat Pack conception that seems steered toward the Gen X audience.

The opening scenes of this Dracula cake Oldman with a thick crust of make-up, turning into him a laughable Punchinello hand puppet, swirled by a preposterous silk red cape. He regresses to his youth when he invades England—maybe because he’s invigorated as he draws near to his lost love—but once out from under the makeup, he seems uncomfortable and ineffective in the role. He and Winona Ryder never lock together (even with that nifty “oceans of time” line).

We have here a “tormented” Dracula for the Psychobabble Age: “My girlfriend got killed, so I decided to join the Forces of Darkness. Wahhh!” Call it Diary of a Whiny Vampire. Poor baby, if only someone gave him a hug. I would have felt perfectly safe doing it, too. This Dracula never struck fear in my fear-strung heart. He’s no Shreck or Lugosi creeping out of the darkness; no Lee hurling his shadow from the top of a staircase. He never wraps his arms around his evil. Dracula can be seen as pathetic, but sympathetic, a diminished object of pity?

Unlike Son of Dracula, much else is wrong with this movie. The official title alone—Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes a promise it fails to keep, for this adaptation, written by James V. Hart, changes the narrative enough so that adding Stoker’s name above the title constitutes false advertising. Or maybe an attempt to blame the author for what follows.

I recall an interview with director Francis Ford Coppola where he referred to Dracula as a book that not many people have read. OK. Then why put Stoker’s name above the title? Nothing wrong with making changes, but why fob it off as a purist’s Dracula? For one, the novel makes no mention of the historical Dracula’s lost love, and that’s just the beginning. It is not Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is its own movie. Only wish it were a better one.

My gripes don’t end there, because this is an over-stuffed, poorly cast and acted, slackly paced and edited movie. Having seen it twice, I admit it dazzles at times, like a Macy’s Christmas window, but it also feels like a tossed salad of visuals, some of them clever and beautiful (the eye-in-the-sky in the beginning; the conception of Dracula’s castle as an M.C. Escher world).

But when edited together this movie becomes a bloody mishmash of stops and starts, of quick dabs and broad slashes. The scenes with Renfield are so sketchy, they might as well have been cut (a tack some Dracula films have taken without detriment). Anthony Hopkins makes Van Helsing crazy fun, but, like Renfield, he seems to flash in and out of the movie, desperately trying to keep things busy.

I suppose this Dracula was meant to be a “dream film,” but I found it to be dream-like only in tiny bits (If a real dream film is what they wanted, they should have called in David Lynch). It never roils with suspense as does Horror of Dracula. It has no passion, no drive. It feels weighed down by its production in the same manner as such early 1960s thumpering epics as Cleopatra.


Yes, Coppola’s version did turn out to be popular. (Therefore, it must have been good! Right? I mean, look at Pirates of the Caribbean III! Right?) Enough so, that my own screen-take on this tale was greeted with graveyard silence when I finished it in the late 1990s. (Look for its publication next year.)

And so Dracula vanished into his crypt again for a time, emerging again in 2000 in a movie called Dracula 2000. Produced through the clever auspices of Wes Craven (whom I met once and who actually saw my script, but declined in gentlemanly but evasive fashion). It’s not a good movie, though it contains a neat twist on Dracula’s origins. Scottish actor Gerard Butler as the Count leaves no fang marks at all. As other versions have shown, casting a hunk with a thick Mittle-euro accent is not enough.

In 2006, the BBC released an interesting mostly non-supernatural version, featuring an actor named Marc Warren as the Count. Here, Warren, who reminds me of Gary Oldman, plays the Count as a low-life thug, which is interesting, but he’s not very effective or scary. More fascinating is the great David Suchet as Van Helsing and how the film weaves themes of decadence and disease into its narrative. You don’t miss Renfield either. It’s no classic, but it’s worth a look.

Since then, silence. Dracula sleeps again, waiting for a certain color of night to fall. I’d like to think my version will see moonlight, next, but I’m not counting on it.

I used to fantasize that my screenplay would be the “definitive” one, but that vain notion has turned to dust. It’s just another version, I hope better than most of the rest, as it brings up tones and themes I believe have not revealed before. There’s yet another side, another face to this grand myth.

I recall a critic saying some years back that a “definitive film version” of Dracula may not be possible. Some great stories are all but impervious to remakes or “retakes” (for example, classics like The Maltese Falcon and James Whale’s Frankenstein films). Dracula may be too fungible, too much of a palimpsest, to ever define that clearly, that precisely. He’s elusive like a dream and may never be perfectly captured in the bell jar of a movie.

He’s not the only one who’s the shapeshifter here. With each generation, our attitudes and view of him reshape and shift with the times. However time turns, a new face of Dracula will blaze from the darkness.

(Re-edited 12/5/11)

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark is available right NOW, published by Ambler House Publishing. It can be ordered in both paperback and e-book editions through your local independent bookstore, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Smashwords, Scrib'd and now at the Red Room bookstore. His original comic screenplay Whackers  is now available in Kindle, Nook, iPad and on Scrib'd, also from Ambler House. His screenplayThe Uglies, a crime saga, will be out exclusively as an e-book soon. Other material can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. Not enough for ya? He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.