Archive for Fredric Brown

Pg. Seventeen, IV: The Final Chapter

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2022 by dcairns

I am now going to begin my story (said the old man), so please attend.

I picked up a few things I’d missed. The kid had a nickname, Obie. Probably from his middle name, since the initial was an O. Obadiah, possibly. Somehow, Obie Westphal sounded better than Henry Westphal. Maybe I’d use it that way after the lead; it would give the story an informal touch.

We were silent for a while and I knew that Obie, like me. was thinking of all the time spent in journalism schools and how little of it could be used when you worked on a Negro newspaper, and how rough it was — how damned nearly impossible — to get something on a daily paper.

In spite of the fact that my father had hidden $400 under the cash register, he was indicted for arson because of the $5,000 worth of insurance on his shop. He and my mother hired a Schrift relative recently out of law school to take the case. They were all convinced the charge was ridiculous. Why would an arsonist set such a small fire? All my father wanted was the $5,000 of stolen stock to be replaced. Because we didn’t have the money to raise the bail, he was taken to The Tombs. When I heard that word, I was convinced he was buried alive like my Zayda, so I was very surprised to see him alive at the trial.

The trial lasted one hundred and ninety days. Some hundred witnesses swore that the accused was Roger Charles Tichbourne–among them, four comrades-at-arms from the 6th Dragoons. Orton’s supporters steadfastly maintained that he was no impostor–had he been, they pointed out, he would surely have attempted to copy the juvenile portraits of his model. And besides, Lady Tichbourne had recognized and accepted him; clearly, in such matters, a mother does not err. All was going well, then–more or less–until an old sweetheart of Orton’s was called to testify. Not a muscle of Bogle’s face twitched at that perfidious maneuver by the “family”; he called for his black umbrella and his top hat and he went out into the decorous streets of London to seek a third inspiration. We shall never know whether he found it. Shortly before he came to Primrose Hill, he was struck by that terrible vehicle that had been pursuing him through all these years. Bogle saw it coming and managed to cry out, but he could not manage to save himself. He was thrown violently against the paving stones. The hack’s dizzying hooves cracked his skull open.

The countless tight squeezes you have been in during the course of your life, the desperate moments when you have felt an overpowering need to empty your bladder and no toilet is at hand, the times when you have found yourself stuck in traffic, for example, or sitting on a subway stalled between stations, and the pure agony of forcing yourself to hold it in. This is the universal dilemma that no one ever talks about, but everyone has been there at one time or another, everyone has lived through it, and while there is no other example of human suffering more comical than the bursting bladder, you tend not to laugh about these incidents until after you have relieved yourself–for what person over the age of three would want to wet his pants in public? That is why you will never forget these words, which were the last words spoken to one of your friends by his dying father: “Just remember, Charlie, he said, “never pass up an opportunity to piss.” And so the wisdom of the ages is handed down from one generation to the next.

All the spurious old father figures rush onstage.

Seven paragraphs from seven different page seventeens from seven different books, variously located.

Tales from the Arabian Nights, edited by Andrew Lang; The Deep End by Fredric Brown; One For New York by John A. Williams; Shelley: Also Known as Shirley, by Shelley Winters; The Improbable Impostor–Tom Castro, from A Universal History of Infamy, from Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges; Winter Journal by Paul Auster; The Place of Dead Roads by William Burroughs.

Page Seventeen IV: The Voyage Home

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2022 by dcairns

Incidents and fragments continued —

To gain some appreciation for Lovecraft’s sudden change in fortune, it is necessary to know that he was the only child in the great house on Angell Street, which, apart from the stabilizing authority of his grandfather and the occasional presence of his great uncle Edward Everett Philips (1864-1918), who got married when Lovecraft was just three years old, was a house of women. In addition to his son, Whipple had sired three daughters who lived to adulthood (a fourth died in childhood), and as yet, only Susie had found–and lost–a husband. The full weight of the smothering maternal attentions of his mother, his grandmother, and his two still-unwed aunts, to say nothing of the maids, descended around young Lovecraft like a storm of scented rose petals.

In the short term, Lovecraft’s upbringing fell to his mother, his aunts Lillian and Annie (now married to the journalist Edward F. Gamwell) and especially to his grandfather Whipple Phillips, a successful businessman who was involved in a number of different enterprises. These ranged from real estate speculation (he virtually established the small town of Greene, in western Rhode Island) to manufacturing to land development in the far west. It was he who had caused the large and lavishly furnished house at 454 Angell Street to be built on 1880-81, with space for five live-in servants. The house and grounds became a spacious area for the expansion of the boy’s imagination and intellect. The house was then at the very edge of the developed part of the city, making Lovecraft feel simultaneously a part of the urban and the rural milieu. Whipple, for his part, showed the boy objects from ancient Rome that he had brought back from his travels abroad, and he also told the boy extemporaneous weird tales, their imagery chiefly derived from the old Gothic novels.

The description Whipple had given of her had been biased. She wasn’t skinny. She was small, a couple of inches shorter than Lily, who came up to my nose, with smooth fair skin, brown hair and eyes, and hardly any lipstick on her wide full mouth. Her handshake was firm and friendly without overdoing it. Lily told me afterward that her brown woollen dress was probably Bergdorf, two hundred bucks. She didn’t want a cocktail.

“I was wondering,” she said, “where a curlew puts his long beak when he goes to sleep.”

He awoke suddenly and completely, wondering why he had let himself drop off when he hadn’t meant to, and quickly looked at the luminous dial of his wrist watch. It gleamed brightly in the otherwise utter darkness and told him that the time was only a few minutes after eleven o’clock. He relaxed; he’d taken only a very brief cat nap. He’d gone to bed here, on this silly sofa, less than half an hour ago. If his wife really was going to come to him, it was too early. She’d have to wait until she was positive that his damned sister was asleep, and sound asleep.

They floated in the darkness for hours, listening to the “frightful sounds” of “ghastly cries, shrieks, yells, and moans,” that “gradually died away to nothing.”

Seven passages from seven page seventeens from seven books lying around in various stages of read and unreadness, three of them featuring men called Whipple.

Doorways in the Sand by Roger Zelazny; The Dream World of H.P. Lovecraft: His Life, His Demons, His Universe by Donald Tyson; H.P. Lovecaft: A Short Biography by S.T. Joshi; A Right to Die by Rex Stout; The Well at World’s End by Neil M. Gunn; Nightmare in White, from Nightmares and Geezenstacks by Fredric Brown; the chapter on Saved from the Titanic from Lost Films: Important Movies That Disappeared by Frank Thompson.


Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2022 by dcairns

We liked Guillermo Del Toro’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY. I think it’s his best film in a while, though I admit I didn’t care for THE SHAPE Of WATER or CRIMSON PEAK much at all, and PACIFIC RIM just wasn’t my kind of thing. Honestly, I still think THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is his best.

This review will now discuss the endings, immediately, because they’re a key difference between versions:

We now have two good films of William Lindsay Gresham’s book, neither of which quite nails it, but both of which succeed in places and are good in their own right. I’m inclined to prefer the Edmund Goulding version, but I have to admit that Del Toro and Bradley Cooper nailed the ending, which Goulding and Tyrone Power weren’t allowed to do. Or, rather, they did it, but were forced to GO PAST IT so that their movie ends on a softened note. Still, if Ty Power isn’t going to turn into The Geek, he’s definitely going to turn into Ian Keith’s broken-down ex-mentalist, so it’s not THAT happy.

It makes sense to compare the movies by their casts. They have very different visual styles, of course, but oddly that seems less important to me. Goulding wasn’t a noir stylist, but his slightly more prosaic approach gave the horrors of the story a matter-of-fact quality. Though he includes more gore and slightly more sex, Del Toro’s design and camera aesthetic tend to dilute the sense of realism. Both approaches seem commendable, and probably my preferred angle would be… what if they made this in the seventies? And had actors who were willing to get period-appropriate haircuts? And could talk fast?

So, actors.

Tyrone Power versus Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle

Both actors are by rights too old: Stanton Carlisle is 21 at the start of the novel. If he ISN’T going to be young, where has he been? Who runs away to join the circus in his late thirties (Power) or mid-forties (Cooper)? Del Toro and Kim Morgan’s screenplay give Stan more of a past, but it’s a past living at home with his dad. Jules Furthman’s script for the ’47 version starts with Stan already employed at the carnival, neatly dodging the question, or almost. Fiona, who has read the novel for me (I’ll get around to it!) doubts if any very young stars could manage the part, and in fact right now there seems to me a shortage of really big stars under thirty.

What we’d be looking for in a young star is energy, I think. Cooper plays it dour, which is an example of the Del Toro film’s tendency to oversell its surface effects, ignoring the value of counterpoint. Power seems genuinely thriller by the power being a carny spieler gives him. Cooper’s Stan is running away from trauma, but what is he running TO? Where is the joy in his life?

Joan Blondell versus Toni Collette as Zeena the Seer.

An unenviable task, following La Blondell. Joan just bursts with warmth and love. Maternal but sexy. Collette is a fine actor, as we know, but seems flat here, maybe because the script is too anxious to push Zeena onto Stan’s dick without setting up a sympathetic character interest first.

Ian Keith versus David Strathairn as Pete Krumbein.

I love them both. Keith’s astonishing rendition of the words “Every boy has a dog,” is one of my favourite line readings of all time. But I think Strathairn has the edge. He’s almost too good for the movie: so right and alive, everyone he shares the screen with seems a touch unreal, underdeveloped. He doesn’t get to say Keith’s line, and the lines he gets instead don’t work as well. But if you’re wondering whether to see the movie, he would be the first reason I’d mention.

Mike Mazurki versus Ron Perlman as Bruno.

Both terrific physiognomic spectacles. Perlman is the better actor by a country mile. Mazurki at forty exudes more physical menace than Perlman at seventy-two, and threat is what the character’s for. Del Toro also gives us Willem Dafoe (very welcome, as always) and Mark Povinelli, expanding the family circus, but not creating much sense of a wider community. Spreading the dialogue to a few bit players might have been helpful. (Povinelli’s The Major is a really mean character in the book, here he’s just truculent, which is the new cliché mode for small actors since Peter Dinklage burst forth in LIVING IN OBLIVION.)

Coleen Gray versus Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill)

Rooney Mara is hands-down the better actor. Gray is good enough for the role she’s given. The Del Toro omits the creepy incest backstory — child abuse is the origin story of both Gresham’s main characters. So, Mara has a character less interesting than she’s capable of playing, basically an ingenue role, but she’s able to tamp down her own interestingness without extinguishing it, and she’s really good.

George Beranger versus Paul Anderson & Jesse Buck (the Geek/s)

This comparison is basically a question of whether it’s better to keep the Geek offscreen, or present him for our edification. Goulding’s offscreen horror is super-effective. Gresham, by showing him, is able to humanize him more (I’m getting all this from Fiona). Gresham has him mouth the words “You son-of-a-bitch,” which humanizes him, and leads the reader away from the pit as he prepares to bite the head of a chicken, playing the scene on the marks’ reaction, which is a very intelligent and restrained way to do it. Del Toro’s explicitness here lets us think ourselves superior to the crowd who lap it up, while granting us the exact same experience, with added moral superiority.

In his glossary of carnival terms accompanying the story The Freak Show Murders, Fredric Brown describes the Geek in these words ~

A freak, usually a Negro, who eats glass, razor blades and almost anything else. Don’t ask me how they can do it, but there’s no gaff about it. A geek can chew up an old light bulb just as you’d eat an apple.

Del Toro’s movie answers Brown’s mystery: the geek is hooked on opium. Interesting that both the full-time geeks we see and the aspirant geek at the movie’s end are white. It’s a very white film. I spotted one Black carny and a Black hotel employee is the only character of colour with dialogue. All Gresham’s characters seem to be white. But the movie changes other things, it could have changed that. Maybe a black geek would be too uncomfortable. But maybe that discomfort would be salutary. Carnivals were places of casual racism. Brown tells us that the term for a dance act performed by Black carnival workers was “Jig show,” and that this was “an accepted term.”

There is a fashion or movement towards racially blind casting, putting actors of different races into roles they might, in real history, not have gotten to occupy. I think this is fine if your film isn’t about real history. If the reason for no non-whites in major roles is that this is a film concerned with actual social history, I would say Phooey, It Is Not. It is, however, a diverse film in having a small person, a hairy person, etc.

Where Ty Power targets essentially one rich old bereaved person with his spook act, the new film offers a few figures: we get Mary Steenburgen, who is the other person in this film besides Strathairn who totally transcends everything they’re asked to do — she should be in everything, and I’m sure she’s busy, but it is DECADES since I saw her in a movie. Welcome back. We get Peter MacNeil and Del Toro favourite Richard Jenkins. Jenkins is playing the character Taylor Holmes has in the ’47 film. He’s good, but his backstory seems underdeveloped or overdeveloped… there’s too much of it for its incompleteness to be a satisfying mystery. Something is just a bit off — maybe in shortening his long first cut (excellent interview at Trailers from Hell), Del Toro couldn’t arrive at quite the right balance. It’s not terrible, but it might be simpler and better if the film decided to make the character less nasty and less complex: his role in Stan’s story is basically that of victim, however unpleasant.

Also here we get his henchman, Holt McCallany from Mindhunter who is just fantastic. I don’t know if he reaches the sublime heights that Strathairn and Steenburgen hit, but he somehow seems to have just stepped into our time from the 1940s. As in his Fincher TV show he’s required to exhibit a lot of righteous anger and he does that so, so well. Another actor who should be in everything, and as he’s youngish and white and male I can’t work out why he isn’t.

Finally —

Helen Walker versus Cate Blanchett (Dr. Lilith Ritter)

Blanchett is very probably lots better than Walker, but not here. In the right roles with the right director, Walker was hard to beat — you really see it in CLUNY BROWN and NIGHTMARE ALLEY. What makes her an inspired choice is her little-girl moonface, which seems to offer innocence. She’s not on the nose, at least in terms of casting. I think Stan, at least this new movie’s Stan, would be suspicious of Blanchett. She’s sinister. Funny that she gets a line about “overselling” her pitch — she’s thrown at us so blatantly, she might as well have a blinking neon sign over her saying FEMME FATALE. It’s not that she’s bad or that this is a bad approach. It’s just more obvious, less elegant, less surprising, than it could be. A shame, in a film that’s frequently elegant and surprising, and with an actor who’s shown she can do almost anything.