Thursday, April 30, 2015

Movies Since Last Time, April 2015

The Princess Bride (1987). A delightful film in every way. A fine cast (Cary Elwes, Robin Wright (her film debut), Mandy Patinkin (his best performance), Wallace Shawn, Peter Falk, Fred Savage, Andre the Giant (perfectly cast), Christopher Guest, and cameos from a wide range of comedic talents, led by Billy Crystal and Carol Kane), hamming things up just enough, which is harder to pull off than one might think. Rob Reiner’s unobtrusive direction allows William Goldman’s screenplay (adapted from his novel) to sing in all its silliness. I can’t imagine there has ever been a better screenwriter than Goldman, as his range is as impressive as the quality: Harper, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hot Rock, All the President’s Men, Marathon Man, A Bridge Too Far, Magic, Misery; thirty-one in all.

The Insider (1999). Michael Mann is a master stylist as a director, and is generally able to keep his glossy approach from overwhelming the film itself. The Insider is a prime example. Based on—and pretty faithful to—an article by Marie Brenner about how the tobacco cover-up was broken, the screenplay by Mann and Eric Roth does a good job of staying on the right side of melodrama, shooting more for outrage over the situation than sympathy for the protagonist. (Not that he doesn’t deserve it.) Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, and Christopher Plummer put on an acting clinic, and Pacino keeps things reined in for one of his better performances. (Plummer is eerie as Mike Wallace.) Worth watching—or re-watching—on its merits as a film, even more so as an exploration of how moneyed interested game the system.

Appaloosa (2008). Robert B. Parker turned to Westerns when the Spenser series started to run out of gas. (Not that he stopped writing Spensers.) Appaloosa was the first, and Ed Harris apparently fell in love with it, as he produced, directed, starred in, and co-wrote the screenplay. A solid Western of the male-bonding genre, as Harris’s Virgil Cole roams the West with Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen), hiring on as the law for towns that need it. No one wrote man-to-man laconic dialog better than Parker, and Harris wisely kept a great deal of it. The only weak point is the casting of Renee Zellweger as Allie French, the stray woman in town, who hooks up with Cole, unless someone more promising is available. (And breathing.) That character is the weak point of the book, and Zellweger does the part no favors. Diane Lane was originally cast, but dropped out in pre-production (per IMDB); I could have believed Cole doing uncharacteristic things for Diane Lane.

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2013). Something about this didn’t work for me. It’s hard to put my finger on. Liam Neeson was great, as always. No one does the tortured soul better than he. The filmmakers worked in Matt Scudder’s back story very well. Casting and acting were good throughout. The plot was compelling. Something about the premise never quite registered with me. Maybe it’s as simple as the core story revolving around killing women in gruesome manners yet again. We’re told how the bad guys come into the information they have that sets the plot in motion, but something about it never quite rang true for me. This is often a problem when adapting novels, where the author has time to lay things out; movies are more compressed. (Note: I have not read the book, so I don’t know if I’d have the same problem there.) It’s a situation where the whole is less than the sum of the parts. I liked it, but thought I’d like it more.

Monday, April 27, 2015


(This review is rated PMS for Possible Minor Spoilers.)

The Beloved Spouse and I watched the Amazon series Bosch over the past week, with mixed emotions and responses. Not mixed between us. We agree on pretty much everything. We have mixed feelings about the show.

First, full disclosure: I am not a huge fan of Michael Connelly’s writing. I like his books, and I like him personally. (Never met him, but everything I’ve seen and heard of him implies he’s a mensch.) No one tells better stories, or weaves two unrelated stories together better than he. His characters are solid, and Harry Bosch has become damn near an archetype, and deservedly so. It’s the writing itself that doesn’t move me, and that’s on me. My tastes run toward dialog in the style of Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins, and narration that’s terse yet stylish. (Think Ed McBain or James Ellroy, for two disparate examples.) Connelly strikes me as too down the middle, too rarely writing something I want to turn to The Beloved Spouse and say, “Listen to this.”

We both wanted to like Bosch. We’ve loved Titus Welliver since his mother fucked that monkey on Deadwood. The other casting is, by and large, excellent. The production values are first rate. The problem is, the TV show seems to overplay Connelly’s weaknesses and underplay his strengths. There are too many subplots that don’t go anywhere. Why bother telling us Harry’s boss is having a lesbian affair with another detective who works for her? There’s a workable subplot there, but they didn’t do anything with it.

The political aspects also seemed more like decals than infrastructure. Connelly’s books do not shyThe Wire did politics very well in a cop context. We ought to do that, too.” There are multiple problems with this, not the least of which are 1.) The Wire wasn’t really a cop show, and b.) The Wire invested the time and effort to do it very well. (Comparisons to The Wire may not be fair, but they can’t be helped when the most political cop is not only the Deputy Chief for Operations, but he’s played by Lance Reddick, whose character who was both made and unmade by politics in The Wire.)
away from the political aspects of police work, but the whole Deputy Ops vs. the DA running for mayor thing came off too much like, “

The plots weren’t up to Connelly’s usual standards, either. The serial killer thread served to hit all the usual serial killer angles, including—but not limited to—the young woman in distress and lots of seemingly disjointed plot development that could be rationalized as, “Well, he’s a serial killer. He’s nuts.” (Jason Gedrick was superb as said serial killer, which made this element much more watchable.)

The other main story, about solving a twenty-year-old murder, was better, but still had weaknesses. Everyone knew the reformed child molester was going to be innocent, and that he would kill himself. Bosch also had a bad case of House syndrome, where Harry had to be sure, yet wrong, half a dozen times before they actually got the right guy.

It may seem unfair to crush Bosch for some plotting issues when I just gave Justified a pass,  but Justified made up for its plotting weaknesses in so many other ways. It was a fun show to watch, engrossing on many levels. Bosch lacked that, so it had nothing to fall back on when the plot came up short.

The Bosch character is a prime example. In the books he’s driven and always in trouble, but he’s presented as someone who’s sincerely trying to the right thing as he sees it, confounded by bureaucracy or ineptitude. The bureaucracy and ineptitude are there in the TV show, too, but Harry is less the gallant warrior beset on all sides than an asshole. He’s a terrible father, and his motions toward concern don’t play when viewed against his actions. (Which are also too predictable. Everyone knows when he tells his daughter he’ll be back for Christmas, he won’t be, and that he’ll ditch her at some point when she comes to LA.) Even when other cops have the cold case killer under control, Harry has to be there for the finale. Yes, the medium demands that one, but more effort should have been made to set it up.

There are a lot of things to like about Bosch. Harry comes off as an asshole because of how he’s written, but through any failure in Welliver’s performance. The show just needs to pick its spots better, and play more to Connelly’s strengths. Amazon has already committed to a second season, so there’s hope.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


(Be forewarned: while there are no blatant spoilers, bits of the show’s ending may be inferred by reading this.)

Rarely, if ever, has an artistic enterprise been more a labor of love than Justified. David Simon had a similar level of commitment to The Wire, but as a soapbox. Justified was created and existed for the love of Elmore Leonard’s work—and for the man—from Graham Yost to everyone involved.

True, the story arcs didn’t always hold up to close scrutiny. Season Three was a mess. Season Four was great fun until it was over and you had time to catch your breath and wonder how Drew Thompson was able to pull all that shit off.

Doesn’t matter. Justified was never about the stories. It was all attitude. The characters’ attitudes, and Justified was homage to Elmore Leonard; of course it was all about the writing.
the show’s attitude toward them. Few shows have ever been so overtly about the writing, but the whole point of

This was never more evident than in how the writers and actors responded after Leonard’s death in 2013. Examples abound. Several came to mind immediately:

The brief, understated tribute to Leonard before the Season Five premiere. He would have approved. No histrionics, nary a word wasted. Everyone said their piece and got out of the way, just as he would have written it.

Later that season, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) was going on as only he could during an interrogation when Deputy Marshal Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts, perfectly deadpan) suggested that Boyd “leave out the parts we’d tend to skip.” A true Easter egg. Leonard aficionados caught it right away, a direct quote from his “Ten Rules of Writing.” The Beloved Spouse and I replayed the scene several times to catch every nuance.

Leonard made his bones writing Westerns, and never denied much of his crime fiction were updated Westerns. It was only right for Raylan  (Timothy Olyphant) and Boon (Jonathan Tucker) to square off in the middle of a lonely road to see who was faster.

In the pre-Justified Givens stories (Pronto, Riding the Rap, “Fire in the Hole”), Raylan wears what
Leonard referred to as a “businessman’s Stetson,” comparing it to the hats worn by the Dallas cops in pictures of the Lee Harvey Oswald shooting; he never cared for the hat Olyphant made famous in the show. Raylan’s hat suffers a bullet hole in the finale, so Raylan takes the hat of the man who shot him, who bought it to bust Raylan’s balls. It’s still a little bigger than Leonard’s idea, but it’s a lot closer.
No true Leonard fan avoided choking up in the final episode when Raylan, packing up his desk for the last time, picked up a well-used copy of George V. Higgins’s masterpiece The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Gutterson looks at the book and asks if Raylan bought it used, or if he read it a lot. Raylan says “If I said I read it ten times, it would be low,” and tosses it over. I have the edition of Eddie Coyle that Leonard wrote the introduction to. Here’s what he felt about it: “I finished the book in one sitting and felt as if I’d been set free. So this was how you do it.” (Knowing how the writers and crew felt about him, one has to wonder if the copy used was Leonard’s.)

Near the end of the finale, Raylan four years back in Miami, the deputy who tells him he has transport duty is named Greg Sutter, after Leonard’s long-time researcher.

The ultimate tribute to Leonard was in how all of the above were done without mawkishness. Yost always said he thought of Justified as a comedy. More than funny, the show was fun. It never took itself too seriously, though it also never gave its characters short shrift. The cast of rednecks—many of whom would qualify as white trash, not to put too fine a point on it—were always treated respectfully, even when they were on the short end of the humor. While Justified could be dark and unexpectedly violent—think of Mikey’s and Katherine’s confrontation in the penultimate episode—it always gave its characters their due, and a fair chance. Just as Dutch always did.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Twenty Questions with Joe Clifford

Joe Clifford was my 2014 Bouchercon revelation. Following up with his heavily autobiographical novel, Junkie Love, put the hook in me deep and earned him an instant spot in my reading rotation. His latest book, Lamentation, dropped last fall and showed so well he already has a contract for its successor.

Joe has the engaging and endearing quality of being able to talk about his strengths and weaknesses without exaggerating the former or making excuses for the latter. His blog, Candy and Cigarettes, has become a must read for me, for those qualities, and the quality of writing.

The timing worked out and I was lucky enough to catch Joe for Twenty Questions on his way to AWP; he was gracious enough to turn the interview around the same day. Let’s get to it.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Lamentation.
Joe Clifford: It’s a mystery, revolving around two brothers and a missing hard drive, which may or may not contain secrets involving a prominent, small-town family. I mean, that’s the elevator pitch.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
JC: Lamentation, interestingly enough, began as my thesis for grad school. I mean, sort of. The end result is so radically different from the inception that I’m not sure it’s even fair to call it the same book. The final version retained exactly one line from the original: “A talking chicken named Buck Buck.” The gist of the story I wanted to tell, though, remained the same: two brothers, one a drug addict, one the straight man. But that is such a loose definition. More a guideline than a plot point. Anyway, so back to your original question. They say that the first novel you write is your autobiography. Junkie Love is my autobiography. Lamentation is actually the fifth book I’ve written, but it retains many autobiographical elements. The town in the novel is called Ashton, which is fictional and set Northern New Hampshire, but the geography I use is based very much on my real hometown of Berlin, CT. And at its heart it is still the story of brothers and all the weight that comes with that label.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Lamentation, start to finish?
JC: Not counting the aborted grad school attempt? About six months. Once I learned how to write a novel, all my books take about the same amount of time: three to draft, one-and-a-half to sit on (as Stephen King tells us), and another month and a half to rewrite.

OBAAT: Where did Jay Porter come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
JC: I think every character—certainly every hero—contains bits of the author. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for everyone. All my heroes contain parts of me. But Jay is also very much based on my half-brother (also named Jay). I find it helps if I can picture someone as I write him/her. When I was writing the character, I’d envision my half brother, who’s a sweetheart of a guy, but someone who never can … quite … get … it … going. You know the type. Save $900, and the transmission goes. Jay is also a stand-in for the everyman chasing the illusion of the American Dream.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Lamentation set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
JC: Around 2010. Ballpark. As I mentioned, the setting, well, the fictional setting, is Northern New Hampshire, by the Canadian border, and it’s the dead of winter. I know there is an edict that talks about how authors should use setting. It might’ve been Elmore Leonard who said never describe the weather. And rules like that are good as general rules. You don’t want to be lazy. But in this story, I felt the weather very germane to what I was trying to do. I’ve lived in three distinct regions in my life: San Francisco, New England, South Florida. And in each case, the weather has played a huge part in my life. So I have always been drawn to that element, so to speak. Here, though, in Lamentation, setting is even more integral to the story I am trying to tell. Which is one of the reasons I couldn’t use my hometown in Connecticut, which is south and not quite as brutal in the winter. I needed that hard, cold, infertile landscape (of Northern New Hampshire) to mirror the scrounging and fruitless digging of these characters.  

OBAAT: How did Lamentation come to be published?
JC: Lamentation is my first effort with a house this big (Oceaview Publishing put it out. They’ve also picked up the sequel, December Boys). The short version is my agent sold it! The longer version is I had to first get that agent, the wonderful Elizabeth Kracht with Kimberley Cameron and Associates. Which was the harder of the two really, honestly. Agents are so inundated with requests for representation that you need to find unique—yet organic—ways to catch their attention. In this case, Liz declined (regretfully) to rep Junkie Love (a book she saw as too gritty for commercial appeal). When that book sold and started to do well, albeit on a smaller, cultish scale—and, more importantly, Liz saw (through Facebook, of all places!) how hard I work at promoting—I think I was on her radar and that she wanted to work with me. Which flipped the dynamic a bit. Which touches on another HUGE point: authors these days have to be willing to do their own marketing. I know a lot of writers who think their only job is to write the damn thing. Not true. Even the big houses expect you to do a lot of the legwork to help guarantee a book’s success.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JC: I always make the same joke, but I named one son Holden and the other Jack(son) Kerouac. That answers that.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JC: Brain damage from years of drug abuse? I don’t know. I think I bought into that romanticized notion of the author. The great man of letters. Which is bullshit, really. It’s work, like anything else. You want to get good at it, you have to dedicate your life to it. On the one hand I say if I had known how much work that was, and for how little pay off, I would’ve picked another career. But that’s bullshit, too. I, like other authors, entered this field because it’s who I am. Also, I was too old for rock and roll.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JC: I was a criminal, so that helped.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JC: Not having to wear pants to work.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)

JC: Man, this is going to sound cheesy as fuck. Especially from a crime writer, but, man, as I get older, my mother and the kind of woman she was stands out more and more. She died in 2004, about two years after I got off heroin. So she never got to see this, the successful parts, my sons. I try to be the man she always believed I could be. Sentiment aside—Rocky. No shit. Rocky Balboa, while a fictional creation, played a huge role. He is such an iconic character, represents such an indefatigable American ideal, and one that touches on what I, as a person, do well. In the end, my biggest skill is I can bang my head against a wall longer that you. It’s a useless superpower often times, but it has saved my ass more than once. (Kicking heroin comes to mind.) Others? Philip Marlowe, Holden Caulfield, and Batman.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JC: Ha! No. I don’t. Y’know, each book has been different. Junkie Love took about ten years to write, but that’s not a fair assessment. I didn’t know how to write a book when I started, so I had a lot of scenes. Lamentation, too, began before I had craft down. I owe a great deal to Lynne Barrett, my thesis advisor at Florida International University, who got it through my thick skull that two dudes sitting around a cafĂ© talking about girls isn’t a story; it’s self-indulgent, navel gazing, pap. But the quick answer is no, I don’t outline. I have for one novel (Skunk Train). Love the book. But in the end I think that outline added time, not saved it. Made the process feel too much like work. (Like most writers, I’m sure, I am lazy. Or rather, I don’t like to feel like I am working. I probably “work” sixty-plus hours a week. But it’s for me. On my terms. Big difference.)

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
JC: This and that. I generally stagger. By that I mean, I get a bunch out, say, 50 pages. Then I go back and reread, tighten, get the voice in my head, then write another 50, and do the same thing.

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
JC: I do! Each book gets a soundtrack. This one was heavy on Springsteen. For the sequel, I steal the title, December Boys, from the Two Cow Garage song, “Jackson, Don’t Worry.”

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
JC: Twofold. Be consistent. And stay off the Internet. The brain is a muscle, man; it needs to be stretched. Even if you are writing/typing “I don’t know what to write” over and over, eventually something clicks. I don’t believe in writers’ block. Not that we all don’t get sopped up, from time to time…

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JC: Quit and get an MBA. If that doesn’t dissuade, don’t give up. This shit is a marathon, not a sprint. Just because that is a clichĂ© doesn’t make it any less true.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
JC: Plot and character are 1 and 1.2. The others don’t exist without it. Plot is the most important thing because that is what is fucking happening. Coming from an MFA program, I experienced a great deal of a resistance to plot. I mean, that’s the world of literary fiction. Like plot is a dirty word. Fortunately for me, I went to FIU, which, unlike most MFAs, embrace genre (which relies heavily on plot). As readers we like to be swept up by a great narrative. As writers, we tend to resist plot. Lynne used to say this is because writers are so internal; it’s our go-to position, our default. But you can’t have a best seller without plot. And I want a bestseller.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
JC: Catcher in the Rye. It’s a perfect book. Which is a little funny since the plot in that one is a little light. But stuff does happen. Holden’s trip home after getting kicked out of prep school is fraught with adventure and peril. Shit happens. It’s just that his voice is so strong, and what he represents as the disillusioned teen so compelling, that we sometimes overlook the storyline re: Pency and Jane and Maurice, etc.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JC: Fantasy football and weight lifting. (I’m a closet jock.)

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JC: The sequel to Lamentation, December Boys, which has already been sold to Oceanview, and is slated for 2016 release.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Gun Street Girl, by Adrian McKinty

It’s a paradox of the author-reader relationship that some writers can so often—and so well—please a reader as to create a higher bar for themselves. The reader will still buy everything the author produces, but his standards for enjoyment may be higher than for a less-appreciated writer. I confess to being like that with Dennis Lehane. Live By Night got reviews about as good as The Given Day, but, to me, the fact it was even a notch below was a disappointment.

Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series has entered that same rarified air. My expectations for Gun Street Girl, based on the previous Duffy books, were as high as for any book I’ve read in the past year. The difference is, there was not a jot of disappointment in Gun Street Girl; McKinty met even my inflated expectations.

The Duffy series has entered a realm where it is difficult to know which events are integrated historical facts, and which are purely fictional; he’s the Irish James Ellroy, with a less brutal style. Duffy isn’t a traditional here, nor is he bent the way so many of Ellroy’s characters are. He’s also not an anti-hero. He’s a man in a difficult, possibly untenable position: a Catholic cop in Protestant Northern Ireland during the peak of the Troubles. Scorned by many for being Catholic, he’s a member of what may be the most universally reviled organization in Northern Ireland: the Royal Ulster Constabulary. His fellow Catholics consider him a traitor because he’s a cop, and many of his peers on the police force—on whom he depends to have his back—distrust him because he’s Catholic. Now MI5 is recruiting him to work with informants, a prospect against even Sean recoils. He’s a cop, and cops depend on informants, but he’s also Irish, with a distaste for those who would inform on their peers as a violation of the Irish First Commandment: Whatever you say, say nothing.

As before, the case Duffy must solve is formidable enough, but it serves mostly as a frame on which to hang a description of everyday existence during the Troubles, as Duffy must navigate a barren personal life along with the workaday accommodations required of a member of the RUC, such as never starting the car without checking for bombs. His work is unfulfilling on many levels, but it’s all he has. Duffy is not defeated—he still hopes for more—never really expects it. He has his own code, his own compromises and sacrifices he’s willing to make, understanding more as time goes on his true loyalty must be to those who have come to accept him and will protect him with the same vigor he extends for them.

I’ve read all four of the Duffy novels, in sequence. It’s hard to say which is my favorite. The Cold, Cold Ground had the greatest impact on me, through its introduction to such a foreign world, but that could well have been the case no matter where I began; they’re all that good. Starting from the beginning does allow one to see Duffy’s life and attitude evolve as events take their toll, but he’s a fascinating character no matter where you pick him up. So pick him up. You’ll be fascinated and educated all at once.

I have heard it said those who read fiction have a more highly developed sense of empathy for having viewed so many of life’s trials through the eyes of others. Never has this been truer than when viewing life as Sean Duffy sees it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

How Clean is Your Reader?

The Clean Reader controversy has played itself out—I’m behind the curve again, as usual—though it did get me to thinking about what the perceived need for that app, and the controversy surrounding it, means in the reader-writer relationship.

I have commented more than once on foul language in books; my opinion—for what it’s worth—is well-known. (Well, as well-known as I am, which isn’t saying much.) I work hard on the language in my books, so I felt compelled to send a note of my own to the Clean Reader folks:

I recently became aware of your app through Facebook, and, as an author, was curious. Investigation changed my outlook from “curious” to “appalled.”

Where did you acquire the ability—or the authority—to arbitrarily edit my work? Everything I write
goes through multiple drafts; I labor over, and consider, each word. Alternatives were considered for every “cocksucker” and “fuck” (in any of its forms) I used, just as every other word was assessed. When I chose to include what some would consider foul language, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive; that’s exactly what that character meant to say. To alter it is to alter the character, which is to alter the book in a fundamental way.

Those who may be offended by my choices in language have a clear, and better, choice than your app: don’t buy the book, and I am happy to advise them not to do so.

In my research, I came across the following comment from Clean Reader to author Joanne Harris:
“Many of the people who we’ve heard from that are using Clean Reader say they’re willing to miss out on a little bit of context in order to avoid reading some profanity. Ideally our app will open the door to more readers/customers to consume a more diverse selection of books.”

This ignores a salient aspect of oral and written communication: context is everything. Identical words said to a small child and an adult can be comforting, or insulting. To be more specific, there is the word “ass.” I would not be surprised to find Clean Reader changes that to “backside,” or something equally innocuous. How’s that going to play, when someone learns Samson killed a thousand men with the jawbone of a backside?

Author Chuck Wendig tried to play Devil’s advocate with this comment:
“You may say, ‘But I want to read your books, just without all that nasty business’."

Then you don't want to read my books. My books include all that nasty business. My books are often about that nasty business. You want to read your idea of what my books would be like if you could write them.

Clean Reader capitulated later that day. I take full credit.

Still, the controversy got me to thinking. I’m an argumentative and stubborn bastard by nature, but I genuinely do not want to offend anyone through my writing. That doesn’t mean I’m changing anything, but I’d be happy to let folks know they might not like what’s in there. For myself, I’d be willing to post ratings on my books to alert people. The Beloved Spouse and I came up with a system I like a lot:

Network Television: Relatively innocuous language. Sanitized sex and violence.
Basic Cable: Similar sex standards to network. More graphic violence. Language can be anything except “fuck,” in any form.
Subscription Cable: Anything goes.

The problem there in that most of my books would cover the spectrum: Network TV for sex (with a couple of exceptions), Basic Cable for violence, and Subscription Cable for language. What would work better—for me, at least—is something similar to what TV uses now. We’ve all heard and seen the disclaimers for Justified: This program is specifically designed to be viewed by adults and therefore may be unsuitable for children under 17; the screen displays “TV-MA,” with L, S, and V as needed to designate language, sex, and violence. (Editor’s Note: If you haven’t seen the Justified disclaimers, what the fuck’s wrong with you? That’s a great show.)

I’m not promoting censorship—as my response to Clean Reader should clearly show—but I also don’t want to offend anyone unnecessarily. (I do it on purpose often enough.) I’d be willing to let people know in advance my book might be a risky proposition for them. My choice, mind you; I don’t want anyone telling me I have to. Along this line, I am seriously considering placing something like this on the back cover copy of the next self-published Nick Forte book: Be advised: This book contains strong language, and violence. (The next Forte has no sex worth mentioning, much to Forte’s chagrin.) I have also chosen to devote my fifteen minutes of Malice Domestic to (what I hope will be) an interactive discussion with readers on the topic.

What do you think?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Beth Kelly: Today's Movies Reflect a Modern Day Dystopia

It’s my pleasure once again to welcome Beth Kelly to write about movies. Last time she delved into Westerns; today’s topic is significantly less rustic.

Today's Movies Reflect a Modern Day Dystopia

In the last century, film has emerged as a dominant form of mass-produced art. Alongside this, humanity’s exponential technological growth has enabled the realization of science-fiction, not only as a future possibility but in some instances, as a reality. This development is equally applicable to an age-old concept closely tied with science-fiction: the dystopia. The advancement of the dystopia from the distant future to the tangible present is demonstrated in these four major films of the last century:

Metropolis (1927)

One of the first movies to depict fear of machines is in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where the working class slaves away in the city’s underbelly to support the aristocratic lifestyle of a slim minority. As an early work of dystopian film, the movie establishes a long precedence for the theme of the futuristic city as a source of awesome power, at the cost of nightmarish living conditions. Metropolis is a classic that set the standard for robot films today that depict technophobia in an age where technology is everywhere. Of course, in the modern day, our technology has completely advanced since the 1920’s, protecting us with home security and giving us jobs that are impossible to complete without computers. However, this isn’t to say that we are completely comfortable with technology, as evidenced in modern day films that portray our technophobia such as Chappie and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The Trial (1962)

Orson Welles’ The Trial centers on Josef K., a man accused of an unknown crime. His eventual execution is just as bewildering as the rest of the film. The audience is left without an explanation, only the implication that a regime has the capability to wake a man one morning and have him killed, all without letting slip the least bit of information as to why. Welles takes a descent into madness that’s bureaucratic in the film’s execution, with an all-pervasive sense of dread that taints the protagonist's surroundings, infecting the audience with his (justified) paranoia.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is dystopian by implication, rather than being so explicit as the films above. The artificial intelligence used on the Jupiter mission, Hal, is humanity’s pinnacle of technological creativity. He ultimately determines that the humans on this mission must die in order for him to complete the mission. The fact that humanity is objectively seen by the AI they created as disposable, even obstructive, does not bode well for the off-screen humans back on Earth. As a whole, the film thematically establishes the forward progression of human evolution, mysteriously linked to the appearance of the black monolith seen in each of the movie’s four acts. However, with great power comes casualties. The cost of this progress is highlighted by Hal’s betrayal and again by the last lingering shot of the film, where the film’s protagonist has been transformed into a gazing star-child, left on a higher plane of existence but now bereft of humanity.

Directed by Boris Sagal, The Omega Man finds the (seemingly) last man in the world, Robert Neville surviving in the ruins of Los Angeles, fighting off mutants caused by biological plague. Neville spends a lot of time on screen alone, making for long stretches of unbroken silence, one man contemplating his solitude, lending a reflective mood to the empty, dystopian world. As the source of cure to the plague, Neville is comparable to a biblical savior and because he is the enemy of the infected cult, the Family, the movie presents some Christian undertones.
Even after clarifying the dystopian themes of these films, are they still relevant today? After all, they are old. Could this line of thinking be out of date? Not at all. Recent cinema is full of examples that still point to a public fascination with imminent dystopia: from The Road to The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game to The Matrix, and everything in between, the dystopia is very much alive in film. The cinematic dystopia remains an intriguing subject, as it projects humanity’s hopes and fears for the future.