Thursday, February 28, 2013

Band of Brothers

The Beloved Spouse and I watched Band of Brothers last weekend, cramming all ten episodes into three days. This is not recommended, watching as many as four episodes in a sitting; way too intense.

What I liked best about my initial viewing twelve years ago was the casting. Aside from David Schwimmer, I’d heard of none of them at the time. (That’s right, I didn’t catch Ron Livingston in Office Space until later.) Now that we know who a lot of the actors are from subsequent work, it’s fun to call out what we’ve seen them in since. (“The DOJ lawyer in Justified!” “Southland!” “That’s the guy who killed Phil Leotardi in The Sopranos!”) The first time, when everyone was new, the deaths of the characters were more affecting, as the viewer thought of them as the person, not the actor. The cumulative effect of feeling characters’ deaths more than actors’, along with not knowing who might be next, helped keep the suspense level high without resorting to melodrama.

On the other hand, it’s a war movie that doesn’t glorify war; a certain amount of melodrama is unavoidable. How it’s handled makes all the difference. A key scene takes place when Easy Company is returned to England for replacements and training after the Normandy invasion. Donald Malarkey stops by to pick up his laundry, and the English women who’s working there calls him back on his way out to ask if he can also take Lieutenant Meehan’s. We know Meehan’s plane was presumed lost over the English Channel. Rather than show some maudlin flashback, or look inside Malarkey’s mind, we see him pay her for the laundry, to spare her feelings. This leads to Malarkey picking up the laundry for half a dozen dead mates. The scene doesn’t linger any longer than necessary; the point has been made.

I haven’t seen The Pacific, but I can’t imagine the battle scenes can be done any better. Each scene is able to present a panorama that allows the viewer to know where he is, no matter the point of view. The rare exceptions are those times when the characters don’t know themselves. (TBS asked during the “Bastogne” episode, “How do they know where their own foxholes are?” Watching the soldiers’ reactions during an artillery attack, it’s clear they don’t, not precisely, and several are killed or badly wounded running around looking for a hole.) I didn’t hold the relative authenticity of the violence and its results against The Longest Day yesterday, but this ability to set place was available in 1962, as was shown by the wide shots of the attack on the Ouistreham casino.

The manner of conveying expository information is also far more seamless in Band of Brothers. Some of this is helped by the broader canvas afforded by an eleven-hour production. We pick up Easy Company in training, where scenes between recruits affords opportunities to show what’s going on, not tell. The writers also trust the intelligence of their audience more. This is a telling point, as most of their audience was not around for the Normandy invasion, while almost everyone who saw The Longest Day could tell you where they were when they heard about it.

Something else that struck me near the end of Band of Brothers occurred during Episode 9, when Easy Company discovers a concentration camp and I realized almost everyone with personal experience of the Holocaust is gone. This makes it more imperative than ever for their eyewitness accounts to remain in circulation. Holocaust deniers are bad enough now; they will only become emboldened when no one is left to directly refute their lies.

Watching Band of Brothers and The Longest Day back-to-back was an enlightening experience for me as a writer, though I’d recommend anyone who wants to try it watch The Longest Day first. The juxtaposition of different styles of storytelling and point of view will open your eyes to some things we may take for granted now. If you’ve seen neither, you owe it to yourself to do so. You’ll learn a lot more than just about writing.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Longest Day

One of my proudest achievements as a father was introducing The Sole Heir to The Longest Day. It was Memorial Day weekend, 2003. She was twelve and I’d decided she needed to know a little more of what the holiday was about. She might like it, might not, but I thought it was important.

A year later was the sixtieth anniversary of the Normandy landings, and the American Film Institute Silver Theater showed The Longest Day on a big screen, one show only, Sunday afternoon, June 6. There were fewer than thirty people there. We were two of them; she’d asked me to take her. The ticket taker, an elderly gentleman of probably Korean War vintage, motioned me over when TSH went to the ladies’ room.

“This is a good thing you’re doing, bringing your daughter like this.”

“It’s better than you know, buddy,” I said. “She asked to come.”

HDNet movies is showing The Longest Day in February, so I watched it again. A bittersweet viewing, as I made the mistake of watching it a few days after The Beloved Spouse and I binge watched Band of brothers over the previous weekend. As powerful as it is, The Longest Day doesn’t hold up to a comparison.

Leave aside the special effects, bloodless violence, and sanitary language. Those are the state of what moviemakers could do, and get away with, in 1962, and aren’t the problem, anyway. What doesn’t hold up are the things that could have been done better and had been done better at the time.

The first hour is basically an exposition dump, characters talking to other characters about things both of them already know, or pretending to speak to another character when they’re really speaking to the audience to make damn sure we get it. I could almost understand it today, nearly seventy years after the event, but almost everyone who saw the movie when it came out would have been familiar with the circumstances. It had happened only eighteen years in the past, well within their personal experience. Several of the key characters worked on the filming. This was not ancient history. Even if it had been, it could have been handled in a less ham-handed fashion than to have John Wayne tell a junior officer, “I don't think I have to remind you that this war has been going on for almost 5 years. Over half of Europe has been overrun and occupied. We're comparative newcomers. England's gone through a blitz with a knife at her throat since 1940. I'm quite sure that they, too, are impatient and itching to go. Do I make myself clear?” followed by, “Three million men penned up on this island all over England in staging areas like this. We're on the threshold of the most crucial day of our times. Three million men out there, keyed up, just waiting for that big step-off. We aren't exactly alone.” Please.

The other issue should probably qualify as forgivable under the caveat two paragraphs above—sign of the times—but it’s still jarring to see the upbeat music and spirit at the end. Deaths are shown, but glossed over, forgotten as soon as the camera moves away. Yes, it’s only one day and time is of the essence, but the only sign anyone feels something for a dead comrade is when Robert Mitchum sees Jeffrey Hunter shot while trying to blow up a roadblock. Even then he moves directly on to encouraging the next man. He has to, it’s not a big deal, but at least Mitchum does it with a little melancholy. One can sense his eyes wanting to drift back in the direction of Hunter’s body.

Maybe I would not have noticed these things so much had we not seen Band of Brothers so recently. Next time we’ll examine the differences.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Meet Jim “Evil J.” Winter, creator of Cleveland Detective Nick Kepler

Jim Winter’s newest e-book, The Compleat Kepler, is a compilation of short PI stories he began writing around ten years ago.  It’s nice to see an author make available early work. First, it shows a degree of confidence, as a lot of writers (musicians, actors, politicians) like to walk away from their early accomplishments. It’s also nice to have these stories as reference points to see how the author has evolved and grown—or not—over time. My appreciation of the three most important early influences on me grew greatly after I read their earlier work. (Raymond Chandler’s Collected Stories, Ed McBain’s Learning to Kill, and Elmore Leonard’s The Complete Western Stories.)

The Compleat Kepler is an entertaining anthology, with a hero who finds himself in situations many fictional PIs have confronted, who devises other than expected ways to resolve them. Kepler is not an antihero; neither is he Chandler’s knight errant. The combination is intriguing, and should be enough to whet your appetite for more of Jim’s work. Road Rules made my Best Reads list for 2011; Northcoast Shakedown has been on my TBR list for too long; I need to get to it, as I know I’ll like it. How do I know? I’ve liked everything else Winter has done.

It’s my pleasure to give Jim Winter a little time to introduce himself personally to OBAAT readers.

Dana asked me, “What got you into crime fiction?” I suppose that goes to the heart of The Compleat Kepler, since all the stories served to flesh out the character of Nick Kepler. The earliest published story is “A Walk in the Rain.” The most recent is from 2009, “Love Don’t Mean a Thing.” There is another, a novella, in draft form that I’ll release in a later collection.

The first three stories in this collection were my introduction to crime fiction. I wrote “Race Card” some time in 1999, “Valentine’s Day” about a year later, and “A Walk in the Rain” in mid-2001. As you read them, you can tell I was learning. I’d written before this. What I’d written was science fiction with a fairly large cast. Many who read what I’d written expected that I would go professionally into SF.

But my SF roots are in film: Star Trek and Star Wars, Terminator and Independence Day. I didn’t want to just parrot what I’d seen on television and in the movies. I especially was disappointed with the Star Wars prequels. At the same time, I had this character of Nick Kepler around for several years. Occasionally, I would dust off an old manuscript and play around with him. By the time I decided to get serious about writing, I’d already burned out on SF.

But crime was different. Crime put people at their worst in the most dire circumstances. You don’t need a monster from the depths of the seas of Zanzibar 7. There are plenty of human monsters walking the Earth in your neighborhood today.

Also, one of my earliest influences was Robert B. Parker. Parker gets a lot of criticism leveled at him for his work from the mid-1980’s on, but those first eight or nine novels were a primer on style and plotting. Parker had a way of using minimal language for description, the way a he could find a key word describing a character and hanging it on that person until he or she had a name. From there, I went to The Maltese Falcon, and developed a deeper appreciation of the PI novel.

Even though I cut my teeth on SF, I wondered if I could handle crime fiction. Was this something I wanted a career at? Then, at the tail end of the nineties, someone brought to my attention Blue Murder, an electronic zine and press so pulpy you got splinters just typing in the URL. Blue Murder closed its doors not long after I discovered it, but there was more. There was Thrilling Detective. And there was Plots With Guns. And there was Judas. I saw these as an opportunity. So I began writing. And submitting. When I wrote “A Walk in the Rain” one rainy April night and submitted it later that week, I had no idea Neil Smith would jump on it.

That was almost twelve years ago. It’s been a helluva ride.

(Editor’s note: I agree completely with his assessment of Robert B. Parker. His early books are also on the TBR list, as a combination of pleasure and education.)

For your copies of Jim work cited here, follow the links:

The Compleat Kepler

Road Rules

Northcoast Shakedown

Monday, February 18, 2013

Perfect Hatred

Leighton Gage has carved a nice niche for himself with his Chief Inspector Mario Silva series of mysteries set in Brazil. Gage knows how to use Brazil’s exotic beauty to his benefit, deftly juxtaposing it with extremes of wealth and poverty and corruption at all levels. The public officials and politicians who aren’t corrupt are as venal as their peers anywhere else. Gage’s gift is an ability to expose and explore all Brazil has to offer to a writer of crime fiction, while allowing the love of his adopted country to live in every line.

The United States has no equivalent of the Brazilian Federal Police. Their jurisdiction is nation-wide, and supersedes local authority. This allows them to open investigations on their own initiative, and gives Gage carte blanche with his plots, as there is no crime in Brazil in which the federals may not take an interest.

His newest book, Perfect Hatred, allows Gage to take full advantage of the breadth of the Brazilian federal police, Silva’s skills, and the devotion his team has for each other. The book begins with a horrific terrorist bombing; the bomb in a baby carriage, its intent disguised by the bomber’s use of a real baby to cover the explosive. In a province hundreds of miles away, a popular political candidate is shot to death at a televised campaign appearance, on the eve of defeating the incumbent. Silva’s team is split between the two and he is tasked with focusing on the assassination when his instinct is to concentrate on the bombing, as there is reason to believe this was not an isolated incident.

As if Silva isn’t busy enough, a high-ranking criminal who is about to go away forever has sworn vengeance on the prosecutor and cop who put him there; the cop is Silva.

Laid out like that, the book sounds like a hare-brained modern thriller, where the stakes are continuously raised and bodies pile up. (“Now it’s personal.”) This would likely be the case in the hands of a lesser writer. Gage has bigger plans, and better chops. The situation teeters on the brink of becoming out of control; Silva never does. He may be frustrated, angry, and even scared, but he’s the right man at the right time. He has personal problems and ghosts that affect him, but he’s not the stereotypical tormented series protagonist. He’s a good man under intense pressure from multiple sides, and he handles the situation with grace and as much humanity as he can muster. Not perfect and not always on time to be a savior, he’s the glue that holds everything in Gage’s fictional universe together. If his squad is the Brazilian equivalent of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct (the analogy that comes most often to mind), Silva is Gage’s Steve Carella.

The writing is perfect for the story, as it always is. Gage is of the school where the writer’s goal is to be as unobtrusive as possible, where he scored highest marks. Nothing will jump out at a first time reader, though those who have several Silva stories under their belts will start to recognize subtle touches that are Gage’s own. He understands suspense is the building of tension and violence is the release of at least some of it. He also trusts his situation, characters, and talent not to beat you over the head with how bad things are. If you don’t feel it on your own, you’re reading the wrong books.

Perfect Hatred may well be the best of an excellent series that gets better book by book. It is not to be missed.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wayne Gretzky on Writing

Filmmaker Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma, Chasing Amy) doesn’t get a lot of run in the crime fiction community. This makes sense, since Smith doesn’t do crime fiction. His book, Tough Shit: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good, in addition to being hilarious and wildly inappropriate, shows a level of introspection and self-awareness not expected someone whose most famous written line (after “I’m not even supposed to be here”) may be, “Hey, try not to suck any dick on the way through the parking lot!”

The reason Smith’s book receives mention here is for the advice he gives writers. Well, everybody. It’s highly relevant for writers, and this is a writing blog. (When it’s a blog at all; I really have to get better about this.) So, now it’s writing advice.

First, the seminal bit: The way to happiness is to figure out what you most love to do and find a way to make money at it. By this measurement, Smith is a very happy man. I took his advice before I ever heard of Kevin Smith, but wasn’t able to pull it off, in large part because, when figuring out what it is you most love to do, it really really really helps if you have a talent for it. The principle is sound. It’s what everyone who dreams of making a living as a writer wants to do, or else they wouldn’t be writers. There are easier, and less tenuous, ways to make a living.

How Smith made it work for him is where Tip Number Two comes in. It’s from hockey great Wayne Gretzky. His father taught him from an early age the secret to playing hockey: Don’t go where the puck is. Go where it’s going to be.

This does not require psychic powers. It does require paying attention. (In Gretzy’s case it also involves indescribable amounts of talent.) Writers know this intuitively. You can’t wade through the discussion forum in Crimespace and not trip over people trying to figure out what will be The Next Big Thing™, and how they can get there first.

Here’s the problem: no one knows. Don’t expand the analogy too far. Gretzky’s not talking about where the puck is going to be in half an hour. He’s concerned about when the puck will next be in a place where he can get to it, and goes there. It’s good to be the first one there—especially if you’re not any bigger than Gretzky—and it’s an even bigger help to have freakish peripheral vision, and know what to do with it.

My point is, too many writers try to create success by outguessing public taste and coming up with The Next Big Thing™. It doesn’t work that way. J.K. Rowling didn’t figure to do something no one had done before—essentially create her own niche—and have it lead to unimaginable wealth. She had a series of stories about a fairly dorky kid who’s also a wizard, and this whole shadow world of wizards that intersects with ours without becoming encumbered by it. In retrospect, it was brilliant. At the time, she just hoped to get off the dole.

The trick is to know how quickly you can move, and to know which places you can’t get to in time. Gretzky wasn’t looking to invent a whole new game; he wanted to do the same things everyone else in hockey wanted to do—get the puck in the net—and he had his own unique way of doing it. You don’t have to create a whole new genre like Rowling did; doing what you do well, in your own unique way, through incremental movements, is the way almost all successes are made. (Think of how many times you’ve heard people who seem to burst upon the scene say, “It took me twenty years to become an overnight success.”)

What really set Gretzky apart, and will work in any field, was his willingness to make others better. He scored 894 regular-season goals in his career; Number Two is Gordie Howe, with 801. Think about that: Gretzky scored 10% more goals than the second greatest goal scorer in the history of the game. It’s as if Barry Bonds had hit 831 home runs. (One look at Gretzky should put to rest any thoughts of chemical enhancement.)

With all those goals, it’s in assists where Gretzky made his greatest mark, with 1,963; second is Ron Francis, with 1,249, That’s a 36% difference between Gretzky and the second greatest assist man in history. (Bonds would have had to hit 1,027 homers to surpass Aaron by a similar percentage. His head would have exploded by 900.)

Help other writers. That doesn’t mean to become a selfless mensch who places the promotion of others above his own aspirations. The two are not mutually exclusive; it’s not a zero-sum game. Small kindnesses you do your peers—a favorable write-up in your blog, posting a (sincerely) good review in Amazon or Goodreads, linking to their stuff in Facebook, whatever—builds up goodwill not just with the direct beneficiary, but with those you helped enlighten. You’ll have more fun, learn a lot, and may well be in a position to receive some of the same when your book comes out. Pay it forward. It’s good for the career and it’s good for the soul. Nourish and enjoy others whenever you can, and in so doing you’ll nourish and enjoy yourself more than you expected.

It’s the right, and smart, thing to do. It’s not like you’re going to get rich.